Alive in a Way We Recognize as Life: Rebecca Pelky’s HORIZON OF THE DOG WOMAN

by Eric Morris-Pusey

It’s odd that we so often think of “nature poetry,” the kind of poetry that deals with the land, as distinct from poetry of the body. The human body, after all, is the bit of nature with which we’re most intimately familiar.

Rebecca Pelky’s debut, Horizon of the Dog Woman, breaks down this dichotomy: it is a collection of both nature poems and body poems, of poems that center the ways in which the body and the natural world reflect and shape one another. The land and the body share the same love and joy, bear the same scars.

This book often revels in natural beauty, its speakers drawing strength and succor from the natural world, but it also refuses to forget or obfuscate the awful history of the United States’ land, product of theft and genocide, and the ways in which that history ripples into the present. This history is not an abstraction that exists only in the past, but a physical and emotional presence in both land and body.

In “Eat the Weed, the Stinking Rose,” a description of the ways in which water transforms the land, “strok[ing] it to furrows” and allowing plants to flourish, soon gives way to more troubling sights: “the boxy spiral of a pit mine, in the scars / of what’s been found, the pressure that swells / under skins.” Even in these scars, these marks of abuse and misuse, there is life and beauty—but not without violence and exploitation. The poem ends with the resonant, contradictory image of a wild onion: “the bulb tender, sweet. Not so the shoot, / . . . its pepper was reckless, the toughness of fibers I chewed and chewed.”

These poems do not oversimplify. They do not stop at saying there is beauty despite history or the difficulty of life; rather, they show the world as it is: a tangled mess that is sometimes terrible, sometimes wonderful, and usually an uncomfortable mixture of both.

In “For Women Who Don’t Want Children,” Pelky’s speaker feels guilt at “distance / between myself and a vision of little hands / curled in the cup of my hips” but also points to the way we marvel at anything “single in nature.” The feelings are further complicated by an intense juxtaposition: is the speaker “one red wildflower in spring runoff” or “Spotted Elk dead in the snow”? These poems don’t provide any easy answers, any happily-ever-afters, and are far more honest for it.

The book engages with another sort of history, too: that of the academy, of definitions and categorizations, of the literary canon. The book opens with an extensive set of epigraphs that do a wonderful job of setting the collection’s tone without overshadowing the poems themselves: a set of dictionary definitions for the words “dog” and “horizon,” dealing academically and matter-of-factly with their connotations and denotations, is accompanied by an excerpt from anthropologist Jenny James’s “The Dog Tribe.” These epigraphs illustrate the same complexity we find throughout the book.

The first definition given for dog simply “denot[es] a person or thing (with varying degrees of contempt or admiration),” evoking everything from what’s up, dog? to working doggedly to she’s a dog to Joe Biden’s latest incomprehensible attack on a woman who asked him a question. The second hits more directly—“an unattractive woman or girl.” The third definition provides an astronomical context for dog, taking us to the stars, and the excerpt from James discusses the dog as a religious archetype associated with “maternal origin, the reconciliation of opposites, and the bond between humanity and nature.”

So many distinct and often self-contradictory or self-complicating meanings of the word dog provide the perfect doorway into this collection, a book in which Pelky constantly uses images and ideas to represent and evoke more than one thing—and the idea of “reconciliation of opposites” is one of this collection’s primary driving forces.

The book takes on the history of literature more directly, too, challenging the dominant (read: white and masculine) view of this history with poems like “Let’s Ask Leda about Consent” and “Bess, the Landlord’s Daughter, Talks Back.” These pieces further tie together the various threads that make up Horizon of the Dog Woman: The personal reflections and the meditations on history and the natural world are given further context within a literature that has too often been complicit in systems of power that erase women and indigenous people and wreak ecological havoc.

In writing about a wide array of subjects and the webs of connection among them, Pelky never ignores craft: these poems are not only precise in their language and imagery, but do wonderful things with sound as well, particularly alliteration and consonance: “I’ll grow like sorghum, on drought / and tempered shit, baked and honeyed / to the hummingbird god. I’ll spread” (“Flyblown”). Each of the poems has a natural flow, a fluidity of language, that makes it feel full and rewards re-reading and reading aloud. At the same time, they do not feel overwrought: these poems are both conversational and poetic, never sacrificing one for the other.

These various threads—of land and body, definition and history, craft and subject—come together as vibrant and vital, the collection mirroring the strata of a shoreline Pelky both describes and reimagines in “Fossils,” truly “alive in a way we recognize as life.” History and the present, the physical landscape and the inner one are collided and combined in a kaleidoscopic crush, each one shown in greater clarity because of the ways it is tied to the others.

Horizon of the Dog Woman is available now from Saint Julian Press. Rebecca Pelky will read at the collection’s AWP offsite launch at The Twig Book Shop in San Antonio on Wednesday, March 4th.

Eric Morris-Pusey’s poems have appeared in The Missouri Review, Noble-Gas Qtrly, and Driftwood Press, among other places. He holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works on the Nimrod Editorial Board. He lives across from a vacant lot in Columbia, Missouri, with his partner, poet Grace Gardiner.

Author photo from Saint Julian Press.

Review: A BRIEF FAMILY HISTORY OF DROWNING by Bryce Emley

by Britton Gildersleeve

Brief Family History Cover FINAL web

I wasn’t prepared for Bryce Emley’s book A Brief Family History of Drowning. When given a book to review for Nimrod, I assume it’s poetry. And Emley’s is. But . . .

Is it mixed genre? Is it prose poetry? Does the form really matter? Well, to this writer and reader, it does. Because nothing in this tightly crafted book is accidental. Form, for a poet, is the clothing you wear to a funeral vs. the pajamas you wear to bed. It’s what you the writer deem suitable—as in, a suit vs. flannel, or a dress vs. a bathing suit. Emley’s decision to dress his griefs in clothes sewn from memoir, prose, and poetry makes of them something new. We too certainly suffer deaths of parents, regrets, and self-imposed guilts, but Emley’s book reads like a fresh iteration of these familiar losses.

The opening poem—“Prayer for Salt”—initially seems to promise more traditional form than the book delivers. But the following poem—“Renderings (My Father as Icarus)”—blows that expectation out of the water. With its overview and analysis of Icarus as a poetic extended metaphor, and the image of “his [Icarus’s] past composing his body’s mythology,” “Renderings” resonates on so many levels: Insightful imaging, reading, and more.

Much of Emley’s work in Drowning relies on an unusual fusion of marine biology and poetics, as well as (I assume) Emley’s long residence in Florida, that state of ocean and sea. In “Slow Biology: (My Mother as Greenland Shark),” the long-lived sleeper shark occasions an inquisition into death, into life. And, apparently—although she is explicitly mentioned only in the title—becomes his mother. In such lines as “It is possible death could be treated by slowing its approach . . . [i]t is possible Greenland sharks could teach us a more careful way to die,” the poet gently pulls us back to the human life behind the story of the shark, Emley’s mother’s life.

The collection of poems is a collage of sorts: images of death (Emley’s mother), illness (his mother’s cancer, his father’s stroke), and how such states of being both imprison and free, layer over a brother’s imprisonment, Emley’s grief, and reflections on all of these. Within the framework of this collage—these multiple layers of his history—Emley further develops his naturalist poetics. “Parabiosis: (My Father as Anglerfish),” leaves us with the deeply unsettling image of his father as a male anglerfish: “Mating requires a sacrificial unity: the male bites into her side, digests her flesh, fuses himself to her. There is shared blood, a becoming body.” An image which, in turn, doubles back to the Greenland shark, “living an easy, inhuman indifference to the silence growing in her gut, growing so slowly . . . growing so slowly.”

At the heart of Emley’s collection is a lengthy piece, “Mother, Mother, Ocean.” The title is a line from a Jimmy Buffet song that takes on the sheen of sorrow in this context, which has Emley attempting to negotiate the irreconcilable tension(s) from his father’s disability and his mother’s death. “It rains the day your mother died. Someone says the two events are related. / It has rained every day since, continues through the internment.” Grief and rain, Emley notes, are both processes, and similar at that. Death too is a process, one related to water: “The monitor didn’t flat-line that morning like you would have expected. It continued pulsing in waves, in-time with some other rhythm, indifferent.” Like the tide responds to the moon, so Emley’s mother’s death responds like water, in waves.

Water—rain, the tears of grief and loss, the ocean, rivers—is a critical element in Emley’s book. Almost every page shimmers beneath a watery reflection. The title has warned us—here is, indeed, a family history of a kind of drowning. Most poignant, perhaps, is the next-to-last poem in the collection: “A List of Waters.” In it, Emley moves from his detailed descriptions of his mother’s death and his own responses, to his father, as he has done earlier in shorter snippets: “When I talk about men, I always mean my father . . . When I talk about fathers, I always mean river. Or the other way around, we know them the way we read the earth where water has been.” He asks, “Is it wrong to love a man for what he’s made? / If not love, know. If not love, rend. / If not love, river. / If not love.” And ends the dark and uneasy poem there, in a subtle flourish of ambivalence.

A Brief Family History of Drowning rewards multiple readings. Don’t be misled by the prose poem style—each line is as carefully mapped as those of sonnets or other more formal poems. White space serves to set off specific images, formatting overall works much as it does in a more tightly compressed poem. And there are, to steal a bit of watery metaphor, eddies and currents and deep pools of introspection. You won’t drown, but you will understand just how you might, trying to swim through Emley’s dark waters.

Bryce Emley, born and raised in Florida, has published poems, essays, and fiction in various national journals: The Atlantic, Boston Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Best American Experimental Writing, among others. He is the author of a forthcoming poetry chapbook, We Might Never Be This Beautiful Again (Seven Kitchens Press), and Smoke and Glass, a fiction chapbook (Folded Word, 2018). Emley is Poetry Editor of Raleigh Review and works at the University of New Mexico Press.

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in NimrodSpoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.

A Brief Family History of Drowning, by Bryce Emley. New York, NY: Sonder P, 2019.

 

 

Meet the Intern: Ethan Veenker

it's a me flipped

Tell us a little about yourself:

My name is Ethan Veenker, and I’m a second-semester senior at The University of Tulsa who’s not looking forward to graduating this May.

I’ve been reading and writing since I was young. My first try at fiction writing came about in the first few pages of an attempted fantasy novel, the name of which I won’t repeat here, but rest assured that it inspired a lifelong love for fiction and for writing in general. I guess you could call the shade of fiction I now attempt to emulate “literary fiction.” (There’s also an errant part of me who’s attempting to make it as a music journalist.)

Beyond all of that, I drum. I had an electronic drumkit in my dorm room for my first two years at TU and, due to this, was never on good terms with my neighbors.

What made you interested in working with Nimrod?

I’ve submitted to and been rejected by dozens of literary journals at this point, so the opportunity to work for one isn’t something I’d pass up. I love short fiction. I love literature in general, and Nimrod is one of the journals out there that’s publishing writers new and experienced, bit by bit establishing what will one day be literary history. There’s something exciting about reading one’s contemporaries without the hindsight of scholarly introductions and forewords and afterwords and classic editions, critical editions, et cetera. I’m not reading what I’ve been told is good; I’m getting to see for myself what’s good. That’s honestly thrilling.

What’s your major/what are you thinking about majoring in? Why are/were you drawn to that major?

I came to TU in 2016 as an English major and that went well for a couple of years. I then added on a creative writing major, and it’s still going all right. I chose these majors against the advice and wishes of nearly everyone from high school (save for the English teachers—thanks, Ms. Baker, Mrs. Charlson, and Mrs. Miller!), and while it remains to be seen if I ultimately made a wise choice, I’ve been happy with it. As I’ve said, reading and writing are pretty much my prime passions. I don’t think I would have enjoyed studying anything else.

Who are a few of your favorite authors?

3. Franz Kafka. I honestly haven’t read as much of him as I should have, but the bits I have read have been delectable. I took German for the first two years here, so getting to read his work in its original language was exciting. Reading The Metamorphosis was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had.
2. Jorge Luis Borges. One of the few writers who can make me enjoy not understanding his work.
1. George Saunders. Crazy, hilarious satire and other things. Saunders boasts a fictional range that few other contemporary writers draw near, in my opinion. His short fiction and his novel—it’s not often an easy read (bad things happen to decent people), but the way it’s written is just endlessly surprising and engaging. I’ve loved his work since coming across it in my first English class at TU. What luck.

What are you most looking forward to learning or experiencing with Nimrod this semester?

I’m after diamonds in the rough. I’ve already read a few submissions for Nimrod and there’ve been plenty of good ones, but I’m really itching to see the great ones fall in my lap.

Imagine

by Rilla Askew

Life moves fast. Novel writing moves slow. Historical novel writing even more so—terrapin pace. At least this is so for me. I’ll spend years, decades, long tedious days and hours in studied concentration, poring over history books, archives, obscure articles, how-to resources: how were personal letters written, folded, delivered in Tudor England? How did one travel from downtown Tulsa to Greenwood in 1921? How do men drill for oil? Ride the rails? Make a gun? You have to know so much more than can ever go into the book, and you don’t know what you need to know until you write it. There are other ways to make historical fiction, I’m sure, but I don’t know them. I only know this one. The process is slow, methodical, exceedingly inefficient.

And yet the pace suits me. I have a tortoise-not-hare temperament, a lento reading tempo, a need for immersion—some residual Baptist instinct, maybe. Full immersion. Studying texts. It’s the pace at which I read for pleasure, a few pages at a time, going back over passages, savoring language. It’s how I write books: going back over and over the language, tweaking, rearranging, pulling out, putting in. I sometimes wish for a jackrabbit temperament, an ability to dash forward and write one of Anne Lamott’s famous shitty first drafts. I just can’t. If the language doesn’t work, if I’m unsure of the history, I can’t move forward. Oh, I put in placeholders sometimes, for language or history, but I can’t leave them there long, else they’ll become part of the book. And then later I’m sorry.

I came to writing historical fiction not because I was so taken with history but because I wanted to understand the contemporary world I lived in. That world—Brooklyn, 1989, a world of landline phones and dot matrix printers and Betamax VCRs—is history now. But the human grief and joy and brutality that lived there then lives in us now and always. This was the year of the Central Park Jogger and the killing of Yusef Hawkins, a black youth surrounded by a gang of white boys in Bensonhurst; it was the year Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing debuted. It was also the year I learned about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. I wanted to write about that.

But the massacre didn’t explode from nothing; it came of what went before, and before, and before. To understand 1921, I had to go back before 1921. As my favorite historical novelist, Hilary Mantel, says: “Beneath every history, there is another history.”

To write about early twentieth century Oklahoma, I had to go back to Indian Territory in the late nineteenth. I had to learn (because I didn’t know it) the story of how my people migrated to the Territory—and what they brought with them. I asked questions of living elders, read histories, traced elliptically through hearsay and conversation and handed-down narratives the outlines of how my family came by covered wagon into I.T. from Kentucky in 1887. That tracing and imagining became my first novel, The Mercy Seat. Writing it, studying my way into the earliest days of Oklahoma’s story, trying to know what happened, and why, and above all how, I learned what has been for me the hardest lesson: that you can never know all you want to know. All you yearn to know.

In that book, a young girl finds a tin box holding her dead mother’s belongings; she tries to decipher her mother’s life through reading the items: a lock of hair, a cheap snuffbox, a charred torn-out page of scripture, a child’s pair of eyeglasses. But she comes to see that

. . . she could not know her mother’s life, not lived nor told nor unfolding in the strength of imagination nor in dream or vision. Her mother’s life was locked away from her, eternal, as she was locked away from all others, as we each are locked away from one another in the pores of finite mind and skin . . .

This is the metaphor, for me, for writing historical fiction. We’ll never know the truths of their lives, those precious or mediocre or loathsome ones who came before us; they’re locked away from us as the dead are locked away from the living, but we keep poring through the tin box anyway, reading artifacts, piecing mismatched parts together, creating the narrative from imperfect words. When we begin, we learn everything we can learn, and then we learn, by writing, how much more we need to know. Then comes another hard lesson: we have to leave out so many of these fascinating facts we’ve learned, because they impede the narrative or make the story read like hey-look-at-all-my-fabulous-research.

So, we become meticulous, devoted, openminded, openhearted, humble enough to hide our hand, we hope. Still we see we’ll never know all we need to know.

But if we love this work, this reading and writing of historical fiction (and I don’t call my work historical fiction anyway, I call it “literary fiction set in the historical past,” which is a phrase that’s never going to fly with any publishing publicity person, ever), then we’re willing to work and work and work, even knowing we’ll have to submerge a good portion of what we learn, even knowing that, no matter how hard we try, we’ll still get things wrong.

In her wonderful essay “Why I Became a Historical Novelist,” Hilary Mantel says that she’ll make up a man’s inner torments but not, for instance, the color of his drawing room wallpaper. “ . . . someone, somewhere, might know the pattern and color,” she says, “and if I kept on pursuing it, I might find out.”

I share Mantel’s essay with students in my historical fiction writing class. I tell them: we’re writing to the one who knows the wallpaper.

Or anyway, I am.

It takes courage in all cases to be a writer, and a particular kind of courage to write outside one’s own lived experience, to try to create for readers the lived experiences of others in an era in which we have never lived, in a place where we’ve never lived—because, even if we have lived in our story’s location, inside our own period’s overlay, even if we travel (as we must do) to our story’s landscapes and cities, or study with intricate attention the paintings and photographs of the age, we can never experience the precise quality of light on the southern plains in 1837, or the ambient sounds on a Kansas City street in 1902, or the stench of burning flesh in 1546 in London, or on the streets of Tulsa in 1921.

For that, we must imagine.

So then we’re doing what all novelists of all genres and in all ages do: imagining our way into the lives of others, burrowing into their psyches, walking in their skins, finding our way, through imagery and language and sensory detail, into their world, and inviting readers inside with us. That’s the art of it, this great imagining, this welding of histories and artifacts and qualities of light to the human heart in all its joy and grief and suffering. Historical novelists aren’t writing to the past but to our own time. Each age has its obsessions, surely, but the fundamentals of the human story don’t change. We’re looking to create who we are now by imagining who we were before—who, indeed, we always have been.

Rilla Askew is the author of novels about westward migration in the late 1800s (The Mercy Seat), the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 (Fire in Beulah), and the homeless and dispossessed during the Great Depression (Harpsong). She’s currently at work on a novel about the Protestant martyr Anne Askew, who was burned at the stake in London in 1546. Rilla’s essays have appeared in Nimrod, AGNI, Tin House, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at the University of Oklahoma.

Voices of Native American Women: An Appreciation

by John Coward

“I have only one golden rule: I try to read as widely as possible, so rather than staying in the same mental comfort zone year after year, I like to travel across disciplines and genres and cultures.”
—Novelist Elif Shafak, New York Times Book Review, December 26, 2019

I decided to take Shafak’s advice even before I read the passage above. My idea, hatched some months ago, was simple: to learn more about the lives of others by reading about people very different from me. That notion led me to consider the books of indigenous writers, including Native women, writers who have long been overlooked in the literary landscape.

Native women have made their voices heard, enriching mainstream culture with their storytelling abilities and their original perspectives. One of the most prominent of these voices is poet and performer Joy Harjo, a Tulsa native of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation who was recently named U.S. Poet Laureate, the first indigenous person to hold that honor. Beginning in the 1970s, Harjo has published numerous volumes of poetry (She Had Some Horses, In Mad Love and War), as well as a one-woman play (Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light), and has recorded several albums (she plays the saxophone and flute).

In 2012, Harjo also published a memoir called Crazy Brave. It’s a unique memoir in many ways, filled with poems, dreams, and visions. It is also unusual because Harjo builds her memoir around the four cardinal directions, starting with East: “East is the direction of beginnings. It is sunrise.” Harjo moves North next: “North is the direction where difficult teachers live. . . . It is the direction marked by the full moon showing the way through. It is prophecy.”Then there’s West: “West is the direction of endings. It is the doorway to the ancestors, the direction of tests.”Harjo’s concluding section is South: “South is the direction of release. . . . It is the tails of two snakes making a spiral, looping over and over, and eternal transformation.”

Within these sections, Harjo tells the story of her childhood in Oklahoma, a time of struggle and family troubles but also of simple joys and her budding imagination. She recalls, for example, playing with bees in a patch of clover when her mother visited with a neighbor. Harjo transformed the bees in her imagination:

They became people in my stories. I set them down on the ground as I imagined a house and the rooms of a house and the stories going on in the house. I moved them as I talked a story for them. One was the father, one the mother. The others were children, aunts, uncles, and grandchildren.

Less happily, Harjo recalls her complicated relationship with her father, who she loved and who loved her, but who later abandoned her and her mother. Then there was her stepfather, an angry man who took out his frustrations—sometimes violently—on her.

There’s much more in Crazy Brave, ample evidence of Harjo’s spiritual and literary gifts. There’s also much in her memoir to educate a reader like me, a white male whose middle-class background in Mississippi and Tennessee is pretty different from Harjo’s. Yet those differences are a compelling reason to read Crazy Brave. Harjo’s life and experiences are unlike my own in myriad ways, but people like me—a person who has benefitted from white privilege all his life—need to hear her voice and consider her perspectives and experiences. The American conversation, which has long been dominated by white males, living and dead, suffers when it ignores such voices at Harjo’s and those of other Native women.

The voices of Native women fill the gaps in the literary imagination, telling stories the rest of us need to hear. More than that, these voices also give us a reason to read. Poems and stories by Native women give us new ways to experience and appreciate the world. They enlarge our own understandings of the human heart and the human condition.

This is a journey worth taking. Joy Harjo’s Crazy Brave was my first step; other books by Native women will follow. On my list: Heart Berries, a memoir by Terese Maria Mailhot, a member of the Seabird Island Band in the Pacific Northwest, and Bad Indians, a tribal memoir by Deborah A. Miranda, a member of the Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation in California.

If you’ve never heard of these writers or their work, that’s precisely the reason to find their books and read them.

John Coward is professor emeritus of media studies at The University of Tulsa and a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board. His most recent book is Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press, published in 2016 by the University of Illinois Press.

 

What a Year of Happy Hour Writing Has Taught Me

by Andrea Avey

If a writer is simply someone who writes, then I guess I am a writer. You probably are too. I would like to be a “real” one sometime, but for now I’ll settle for being an unreal one. But how do you transition from unreality to actuality?

Since early last summer, a good friend and I have been meeting on Monday evenings at various places downtown (usually in pursuit of half-price bottles of wine) to write, share our work, and struggle together. I’m not certain how this began, but it’s been almost a year of setting aside a few hours a week to write and review work, and I’ve learned some things, which I’ll share below. Yes, there is much better advice out there from bona fide writers, but here’s some from me. You can decide how real it is.

  1. Don’t qualify what you create.

My friend and I share one particular trait (so, too, do most writers, I think): we are critical, acutely aware of our own weaknesses, the vulnerable spots in our work. Often, we’ve found that we unload a list of disclaimers before sharing a piece. When we’re feeling insecure or judgmental about a piece, we’ve begun to say, simply, “Get a load of this.” It helps.

  1. Do the work. Practice.

The antidote to inaction is action. Thinking and dreaming, imagining and pining. These are my predators, and I am their prey. I get so trapped by these states of being—wishing I could make something of myself, hoping someone would publish my work, longing to live in a cocoon composed only of books and pens and pages and words—that I tend never to take steps toward making them a reality. The way to stop doing this is to do the opposite. The more you practice, the more you produce. Sometimes what I write isn’t very good. But sometimes there’s a great line or two, or something that feels really special, and it never would’ve existed if I hadn’t acted.

  1. Examine your motives.

When we show up on Monday nights, it’s important for me to remember that I am there in service of my friend’s writing and of mine. The writing is not in service of me. The meeting is not a ruse by which we posture for accolades or praise (we’re only getting them from each other, after all). It is not an excuse to fish for compliments or build up an army of darlings and let them live forever, benign but unimpressive. When I feel myself bristling, I have to ask: What is the purpose here? Is the purpose to get better and draw closer to the life you feel you must live, or is the purpose to have your ego stroked, your feelings spared, and your work left intact, not one comma critiqued? It absolutely must be the former.

  1. Honor the effort.

Every week, I write something new. It may not be great, but it’s there. I choose to be soft with myself and find pride in the sacrifice I made to show up, have a drink (a real hardship), put my pen to paper, and show someone else what I made. I’ve got to remove expectations from myself and my work. The writing calls the shots anyway. It is my duty to sit down, with discipline, and explore what I’m keeping inside that needs to be let out. It must be freed in whatever form it wants to take (the wine helps with this). Polish can come later when there’s time, but raw material is just that: raw.

So, right now, I suppose you could say that my work and I are in the revision process. I’m no longer a first attempt. I’m definitely not in final-draft form, but I think I’m solidly in the middle stages—somewhere between the second and third draft, caught on a comma somewhere, waiting for the right person to say, “You’re ready.”

Maybe that person is me.

Andrea Avey, a native Tulsan, was an English teacher for five years and now works in the private sector. She devours literature and writes as often as she can.

Every Poem Is a Poem About Loss: A Realization of Grief

by Colin Pope

In 2010 my ex, Jennie, killed herself, and I responded by writing about that loss. It wasn’t until I seriously undertook the writing of grief poetry that I realized all poems were grief poems. To be honest, when I began writing about Jennie’s suicide I didn’t have any firm plan to turn it into a book. I think this is how most people begin to cope with grief; they lash out, scribbling or drawing or, in some cases, burning and shattering their realities. That my grieving took the shape of a book was almost accidental. Similarly, the understanding that every poem contains the emotional, physical, or psychological tenor of grief came via dumb luck.

We generally forget about grief during our reading and writing of poetry. I think we forget this out of necessity, since constantly reminding oneself of the specter of loss can grow a little taxing on the nerves. We compartmentalize when we come to lyric or narrative poetry. But all poetry deals in some type of loss, and it’s good to remember this, if only to keep lucid what poetry means to us.

One thing I recall is how more than one of my poetry teachers explained that “most poets spend their entire lives trying to write a single poem.” It’s a fairly common poetry saying, and it’s terribly sad. Every poet has a blind spot in their comprehension of the universe, and they are chasing single, perfect, unachievable poems to offer them lasting, glittering insight into themselves. This blind spot could be a gap between the semiotic capabilities of language and emotion, or simply an inner conflict that will never find resolution; the poet will write about this topic or conflict or theme over and over, even after they know it’s unsolvable. Think about Robert Frost’s obsession with choice and fate, or Wallace Stevens’s burrowing into the workings of the imagination, or Sylvia Plath’s emotional mythologization of the pastoral and domestic. Poetic obsessions like these stem from a longing for meaning, especially at the points where it continually slips from the poet’s grasp. This is grief: a perpetual loss that will never find closure.

In terms of poetics, even the usage of lineation addresses grief. Poets and critics seem perpetually to ask, “How do we define the line?” I know I was called to address this question in many a class. The most common response is that a line of free verse is measured in breath; line breaks are pauses in either thought or speech. There’s a “visual breath” that occurs in poems; it’s how poets lineate their ideas to catch in readers’ minds. So, if breath is implicit in lineation, then the poem is a figure of exhalation. A poem’s reading literally occurs while the body is emptying itself of life force. One poet I know is fond of citing the physiological occurrences within the body in relation to breath: when we inhale, the blood fills with oxygen, the muscle tissue heals, and the bones grow denser, and when we exhale, we do the opposite. Poetry occurs on the dying breath. Each line uttered or written is a line that shortens life while searching for life’s meaning.

Through a lyric poem’s attempt at permanence (it’s written in ink, after all), I find myself reminded of the impermanence that exists in my life. The poet’s cataloguing of their thoughts and feelings is a figuration that serves to affirm intellectual existence; I am here, at this moment, alive. This is also where poetry differs from fiction and other forms of prose. Rather than a narrative that adheres to something like Freytag’s pyramid, concluding with characters experiencing a denouement, poems point their writers and readers to the psyche, to the place where meaning attaches to mortality rather than resolution. (Take even William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” for instance; the realization that “so much depends” upon this wheelbarrow is a sad one when one thinks about making meaning of a life. Or why care about the utility of the object at all if not for its greater, impermanent meaning within that life?) This is not to say that prose writers are immune. I’ve heard a number of fiction writers allude to the idea that writing “lasts forever”; implicit, then, is that writers do not.

This type of thinking used to make me sad. It’s too existential in some ways, too forlorn and depressive. Why write or read poems at all, then? First, let’s not neglect the other half of grief, which is love. Writing about Jennie’s death allowed me to love her—to tell her I loved her and I missed her—in many ways I didn’t while I was alive. In the same way, when I write about more “normal” things now, I’m telling myself I love this moment or this perception, and there’s a lot of earnest virtue in this. But another reason to read and write poems rests inside that old Platonic saw about “the unexamined life.” I suspect—without any real proof, mind you—that poets are the types of people who feel most comfortable examining themselves on paper, tallying up inner thoughts and realizations to discover if their lives are “worth living.”

Both the reading and the writing of such thoughts provides what Socrates himself claimed to be the only important pursuit in life: wisdom. If the knowledge of our own mortality is the initial loss that separates children from adults, then the lifelong grieving for this loss—the certainty that we will, someday, end—must be the catalyst for poetic obsessions. I find this inspiring. It’s easier to write with purpose when I accept the irrevocability of this loss. Grief is inherent in a mortal world; joy, surprise, and humor are not, and each can make welcome additions to a poem.

If you find this circular reasoning confusing, you’re not alone. I still struggle, poetically, with how death lives in the breath and permanence means impermanence and everything is its opposite, and I feel like a pretend mystic when I talk to people about why all poems are grief poems.

But then, sometimes, it helps to clarify if I look at the whole philosophical mess in reverse. Imagine a world where nobody ever died. Imagine yourself in that world. And then ask yourself: what reason would anyone have to write a poem?

Colin Pope is a Ph.D. candidate at Oklahoma State University. His poems, essays, and criticism have appeared in or are forthcoming from such journals as Slate, Rattle, West Branch, The Millions, Best New Poets, and others. Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral was a finalist for the Press 53 Award and was released in 2019 from Tolsun Books.

 

 

The 2019 Francine Ringold Awards Results

The editors of Nimrod International Journal are delighted to announce the winners, finalists, and semi-finalists of the 2019 Francine Ringold Awards for New Writers:

POETRY FIRST PRIZE:
Sarah Ebba Hansen, VA, “Moss Hollow” and other poems

POETRY FINALISTS:
Joanna Currey, TN, “Somerset Olde Creek Pool & Rec. Center” and other poems
Tara Mesalik MacMahon, WA, “In the Old Neighborhood” and other poems
Cindy Juyoung Ok, IA, “Pale Music” and other poems

POETRY SEMI-FINALISTS:
Morgan Hamill, MA, “slept nine cold months” and other poems
Tara Mesalik MacMahon, WA, “Upon Her Backing-Out of Backing-Back-In to the Dating Pool” and other poems
Jake Orbison, NY, “Fountains” and other poems
Angela Sucich, WA, “They Ask Me If I Speak Spanish” and other poems
Katelyn Wilkinson, NV, “Wild Caught” and other poems

FICTION FIRST PRIZE:
Alison Ho, CT, “Ars Poetica”

FICTION FINALIST:
Gauraa Shekhar, NY, “Other Significant Others: A Glossary”

FICTION SEMI-FINALISTS:
Cyd Clemmons, VA, “Second Person”
Angie Kang, CA, “For Four Hands”
Lauren Loftis, MA, “Highway 12”
Hayley Swinson, NC, “The Big Questions”
Virginia Wood, TX, “It Whitened and Stretched into Vastnesses”

Congratulations to all these wonderful writers! Thank you so much to everyone who submitted.

Our 2020 Francine Ringold Awards opens May 1st, 2020, and you can submit your works of creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. More information is available on our website: https://artsandsciences.utulsa.edu/nimrod/francine-ringold-awards/.

Healing Through Second Intention: Britton Gildersleeve on Colin Pope’s WHY I DIDN’T GO TO YOUR FUNERAL

Poet Colin Pope’s collection Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral details the kind of ragged, jagged wound that’s impossible to repair neatly. Physicians say injuries like these must heal naturally, without stitches, from the base outward to the skin: a wound to heal by “secondary intention.”[1] This wound, in Pope’s case, is the loss of an ex to suicide. The healing here is much like the gauze used to pack such a wound: messy and painfully ugly in its own right.

But still, somehow, horrifically beautiful. And necessary.

I’m warning you, however, not to read this collection when your own grief is fresh. Pope describes “The Excess Stages of Grief,” in which “you start sweating at midnight/and don’t stop until after sunrise” and the trauma around “Viewing the Body Before Cremation,” when “[t]he strings in the backs of my legs/had gone slack, my joints disconnected/like an unstrung marionette.” No, these are probably not the best opportunities to catch your breath in the throes of articulate suffering.

Perhaps read it when, after years of grief, you can conjugate the tenses of hang and hanged and hung, as Pope does, sandwiching that parsing between scintillating flights into Greek and Latin, and words brilliant with lexical baggage: vaticination, boscage. Pope ranges between ancient Greek history and Paleolithic bone fragments and astronomy and old Alexandria, in one poem alone (“How to Tell If a Moon Is Waxing or Waning,” one of my favorites in the collection). Your own grief will find comfort in Pope’s darkly gorgeous landscape, where “the ragged corpse of goodbye/is waiting for us to find it.”

The poems travel from Buddhist ashram to Louisiana, from a discursion on nature (“Whatever Nature Means”) to an envy-generating (for this writer) send-up of the inadequacies of language. Here are the lines of a poet in his glory days, with internal rhymes to pleasantly surprise you and line breaks that gently, effortlessly cloak each word.

The collection is also an eloquent critique of poetry’s inadequacies. “Variations on Trouble” reminds us that all of it “is language’s fault,/or the fault of everyone who ever taught anyone/to use it inaccurately, or knowing that it is/inaccurate, using it anyway,” that “tragedy [ . . . ] is also/irony”; that “crisis [ . . . ] is also disaster [ . . . ] is calamity, woe/distress.” Each stack of blocks of words illuminates another polyhedral face of grief.

Then, just in time, a poem like “Extract” intervenes, quiet in its sorrow, playing with fragrances (as if they were not conjuring a ghost). As if Je Reviens didn’t mean I come again. . . .

Here’s my recommendation: you need this book if you have ever lost someone. You need it because someday you will, and it will be waiting for you. But read it carefully, as you would dose a bitter but life-saving elixir, sip by sip. Remember that healing by second intention is difficult. But if Pope’s book is any indication, it’s possible.

Colin Pope, a Nimrod editorial board member, is a Ph.D. candidate at Oklahoma State University. His poems, essays, and criticism have appeared in or are forthcoming from such journals as Slate, Rattle, West Branch, The Millions, Best New Poets, and others. Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral was a finalist for the Press 53 Award and was released in 2019 from Tolsun Books.

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in NimrodSpoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.

[1] Second Intention Healing, according to RNCentral : “A wound that is extensive and involves considerable tissue loss, and in which the edges cannot be brought together heals in this manner. This is how pressure ulcers heal. Secondary intention healing differs from primary intention healing in three ways: 1) The repair time is longer. 2) The scarring is greater. 3) The chances of infection are far greater.”

(https://www.rncentral.com/blog/2012/wound-healing-a-process-almost-all-rns-encounter/)

Image from https://www.spdbooks.org/Products/9781948800228/why-i-didnt-go-to-your-funeral.aspx

Saudade, Season, Space: Chrissy Kolaya’s OTHER POSSIBLE LIVES

by Eric Morris-Pusey

About halfway through reading Chrissy Kolaya’s second poetry collection, Other Possible Lives, I found myself grasping for a word I couldn’t quite remember. It was one of those so-called “untranslatable” words, a concept from another language that doesn’t have an exact English equivalent, like the German sehnsucht or Japanese mono no aware—except that it wasn’t either of those.

I was loath to set the book down, but I felt I had to find the word in order to get across a certain feeling in this review. If only I’d turned the page before turning to Google: all along, the word was waiting in Kolaya’s next poem, “The Most Beautiful Word in the World.”

Saudade: Portuguese for a type
of longing

“The Most Beautiful Word in the World” is built around a variety of these untranslatable words, and a few that have been more fully adopted into English (saboteurconcertina). But saudade, that particular type of longing, akin to nostalgia but somehow both deeper and wider than that, is not just an intrinsic part of this poem: it’s the essence of Other Possible Lives.

The poems in this book vary widely in subject, but almost all of them—and certainly all of them taken together—create a feeling of saudade for the eponymous other possible lives, the alternate paths that any of us could have taken. It’s nostalgia, but not always for an actual past: rather, it’s for different presents that could have resulted from a slightly changed past.

In “Again,” the past, the present, and a possible future are all intermixed and juxtaposed with a deft control of tense, a blending of possibility and reality:

Your plane
rises safely into the buoyant air
and my bed
is empty
when I return home
without you.

Maybe next year
we will have a small house
and a dog we are trying to train
not to leave us

This appreciation of and longing for alternate possibility is not always simple: Kolaya’s speakers don’t only imagine better possible lives, but the difficulty and pain that arises no matter one’s circumstances or choices—and the moments of hope and beauty present even in the midst of that.

One way in which Kolaya creates and maintains moods of saudade is with images of seasonal change. The poem “Camellias” is a perfect example: the central image of three of the poem’s four sections is of camellias folding in on themselves to survive a frost, being wrapped in blankets by a neighbor, finally reopening: “then open, / then open again, / infinite rose.”

The seasonal images are tied into human events and the human psyche as in the poems of Ellen Bryant Voigt and Jorie Graham. The third section of “Camellias” refers to the neighbor’s son’s suicide. This puts the final image of the flowers blooming in a more violent light, but it also allows for beauty to arise from the mother’s resilience and the son’s memory—it’s not just that terror and beauty are juxtaposed, but that they necessarily blend with each other.

Along with the use of seasonal diction and imagery to present us with Kolaya’s view of the natural world and ideas on the passage and cyclical nature of time, the setting deeply informs the poems and serves as a reflection of speakers’ and characters’ inner worlds as well as the reality of their outer one.

In “The House Sitters,” the sequence that originally appeared in last year’s Awards issue of Nimrod and now opens Other Possible Lives, the central character is looking after someone else’s home with a romantic partner. The feeling of disconnection from and curiosity about the house mirrors a disconnection from the man she’s with, but Kolaya goes beyond just that, imparting a feeling of transience to all the relationships and states of being in the poem: “the second husband [of the homeowner] is dying of cancer”; “[the man] says something about the temperature that means he might love her, at least for the evening”; “hers is a dream life, borrowed.”

Kolaya’s eye for detail and skill at creating and maintaining a mood are on full display in “The House Sitters,” which wonderfully sets the tone for the rest of the book. Even the dogs are a bit desperate and unfulfilled:

One morning they watch a deer creep out of its hiding place, the lab bounding off, the wolfhound galumphing after her in his strange sideways canter, a misguided belief he might catch something so quick.

That “misguided belief,” and the degree to which belief might be misguided, are central to the book as well. Though the poems are nearly always present in a physical space, Kolaya’s speakers also live in imagined worlds (or possible worlds) and we’re often not explicitly told which is the “real” one. The book’s fifth and final section is fittingly titled “Alternate Endings,” and flights of fancy that might also be prescience, like the earlier selection from “Again,” are common throughout the book.

This creates the same kind of complicated duality that the juxtaposition of the suicide and the flowers do in “Camellias,” but on a larger scale: though this book is often concerned with regret and disappointment in the world and its people, there is also a fierce hope and a willingness to imagine something better—and this is further complicated by the fact that the imagination itself is human, and therefore flawed.

One of the collection’s most fascinating examples of this is the poem “Safe Conduct,” which relates, in second person, the story of a “sweet-faced girl” who buys a baseball bat at a secondhand sporting goods shop and carries it around town: “a tremendous bargain— / bright red paint / on old chipped wood.” It imbues her with a sense of power both transcendent and terrible:

The ladies in the dress shop
you stop into
can’t help but stare, imagining
you wielding the bat, fleeing
with armloads of sundresses.

Walking home,
a friend heading toward you on the street,
you hide it behind your back. She
will be delighted, you think. Red paint

bright as fresh blood.

The complexity of its themes, beauty of its images and metaphors, and clarity of its language—along with an often subtle sense of humor—make Other Possible Lives a delightful read. Kolaya creates a world in which, as she ends the last poem “The Right Track,”

It was about to happen.

Everything
was about to happen.

chrissy-kolaya-300x300

Chrissy Kolaya  http://chrissykolaya.com

Other Possible Lives was released October 21, 2019, by Broadstone Books.

 

 

 

 

 

Eric Morris-Pusey’s poems have appeared in The Missouri Review, Noble-Gas Qtrly, and Driftwood Press, among other places. He holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works on the Nimrod Editorial Board. He lives across from a vacant lot in Columbia, Missouri, with his partner, poet Grace Gardiner.