Guest Post, Nicole Rollender: Thoughts on the Mother Voice

It’s disconcerting – one morning, coming downstairs to brew my coffee, I hear a higher-pitched female voice crooning, “Come on, baby, roll over. Roll over! You can do it, baby.”

Nicole Rollender bio pictureFrost still on the window, my husband’s playing home movies from when our first child was born eight years ago. The mommy voice making me cringe is mine: There’s my tiny daughter, belly-down, face scrunched up, struggling to overturn herself onto her back.

When she finally does it, her exposed umbilical hernia wiggling, my voice hits an even higher note as I say, “You did it! Baby, you did it!”

Why does this bother me so much, my vulnerability loud in my mother voice? Perhaps because my chosen persona is tough: dark, wild-haired, lots of silver rings and chains, black-studded motorcycle jacket, ripped jeans – a woman with swagger.

Yet, part of that swagger is in my mind: In real life, I’m carrying a blond toddler boy moving like a Tasmanian devil in one arm, and holding my elfin daughter’s tiny hand in the other as she tries to skip away.

My bent back, carrying the weight of two bodies borne from mine.

/

My first writing mentor, a prominent woman poet – she also never married or had children – studied with Anne Sexton, one of my muses. Mothering wasn’t enough to keep Sexton rooted here. Or did it uproot her?

During workshop, my mentor shared an anecdote about persistence: In her graduate school class, she was one of eight, and the only woman. Yet, she was the only student who became a poet of note, simply because, according to her, she persisted in her writing and submitting.

In graduate school (before marriage, before children), I fell into a pesky trap, thinking a woman poet must dedicate her life to art: living austerely, writing rather than eating, living alone rather than choosing a partner, not having children. Primarily: persisting in her art.

Yet, our lives go the way they go. I met a man and married him, and we had two children. I was still a writer, yet a writer with two small humans, constant, dependent. My breasts heavy with milk, stomach still loose from childbirth, always, always exhausted.

In an article on VIDA, “Report from the Field: To Go to Sea: Making a Place in a Male Literary Landscape,” Rachel Richardson writes about hearing confusing writing advice from a male writing program director while she was pregnant:

They had invited a prominent woman poet as the visiting writer of the semester; she wore rainbow knee socks and read juicy poems full of the body, childbirth, and children… During her visit, we all celebrated her work. But a few weeks afterward, my program director told me, “You’re a good poet. You wrote a good book. You’ll be fine as long as you don’t start writing mommy poems.”

I had no idea how to file this conflicting input. … hadn’t he invited this prominent writer, whom he now seemed to be dismissing as a cautionary tale? And what on earth was a Mommy Poem? Is a poet who is a mother not supposed to admit to that fact in verse? Does a child appearing in a poem diminish it? If the speaker’s body is a vessel, does her brain stop being interesting?

Is that really how it is, if your mother voice takes over a poem, the work is diminished? If your body is a creatrix for another body, that body swells into your art, depleting you? If you’re a mother who writes as a mother, you’re no longer a writer?

/

I published one of my first poems in Alaska Quarterly Review right after I finished graduate school, and then my first chapbook came out in 2007. Then I didn’t really publish anything until 2012. During those five years, I had my first child and I was writing, but not actively focused on submitting. My daughter and son were born four years apart – I had two difficult pregnancies; both were born early (my son nine weeks, my daughter three) and each spent weeks in the NICU. Those experiences catalyzed my writing, which contained a rawer love, grief, vulnerability and a frantic desire to create art, since time had become scarce.

A poem, “Necessary Work,” that I wrote about my daughter’s time in the NICU, when I was overcome with worry, won Ruminate Magazine’s Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize in 2012, and was selected by Li-Young Lee, a poet I admire so much. That moment pushed my belief that mother/children poems do have a place in the literary world, and that’s good for me because so many of my poems now touch on the concerns of motherhood: how the mother-body fails a baby during pregnancy, the mother love and the mother guilt (I’m not doing enough, I want to run away), the immense and crippling love we feel for our children:

Your life starts with one word, sing, a prayer candle set
floating in my womb, yes, one word, then another. Hear this: Jug. Rice.

Tears on stone. Broken-necked lily. Hold on. Winged baby. Sing. While you’re
in the hospital, my kitchen is cursed: My hands are afraid to break apart

this bloody meat, to mingle my fingers with warm sinew and tendon,
to pat spice and salt into flesh. My grandmother set a place for the dead,

if her soft-footed brother might drop from heaven into the night kitchen,
looking for bread or sweet milk, the way the living look for love.

In “Baby Poetics,” published in The American Poetry Review, Joy Katz touches on one of the difficulties of writing the mother/child poem, which is that we as writers and readers both must find the baby or child trope “wondrous”:

People are expected to have certain feelings about children. A baby activates a set of cultural expectations that operates, in a poem, like subliminal advertising. For instance, babies are supposed to be wondrous. The fact that many people find them so, and that I am expected (by my mother, if not many others) to find them so, pressures the poem. The expectation is out there, daring me to find the baby other than wondrous. A baby in a poem always threatens to make me feel one of the things the world expects me to feel—if not wonder, then love, awe, tenderness. That pressure means the possibility of sentimentality is strong, no matter what the poem is actually doing.

It’s that expectation of sappy sentimentality that actually doesn’t permeate the work of mother-writers I admire so much: Traci Brimhall, Juliana Baggott, Maggie Smith, Jenn Givhan and Molly Sutton Kiefer, just to name a few. What does is the reality of life with children, how love and grief expand, about how our conception of time alters, speeds up, slows down.

A poem that does this so well, and that I return to often, is Smith’s “At your age I wore a darkness”, in which she considers depression, what she’s handing down to her daughter and her daughter’s life after she’s gone, framed against her daughter asking what’s beyond the sky:

 

What can I give you
to carry there? These shadows
of leaves—the lace in solace?
This soft, hand-me-down
darkness? What can I give you
that will be of use in your next life,
the one you will live without me?

 

Similarly, in a poem I published in Tinderbox Poetry Journal called “Somewhere, Another Woman Tells Her Husband Why She Doesn’t Want a Child,”  I write what I’m willing to do for my children after learning that a local girl has been brutally beaten and her body thrown in a dumpster:

 

They play (faces red in leaves)

happily beyond my shadow,
not knowing who watches
from the woods.

I’ll never know
their last moment

with me, as if the parting
of our bodies
in the delivery room wasn’t
already our most

binding pain.
I listen as my daughter prays
the Hail Mary, blessed are you

—in the hollow where I don’t
speak, I ask to take their place.

Someone must be given.

/

The mother voice can be keening and sweet, but it’s also hard-edged, ferocious, a storm growing at the edge of a field and then bursting overhead.

Guest Post, Once Upon a Time, Recall

Laura Esther Wolfson

“All of my stories are true, but this one really happened.”

Anonymous

 

Laura Ester Wolfson bio pictureI’ve been spending a fair amount of time in the dementia ward of late. To get to where I’m going, I pass through the large common room, where some two dozen men and women sit at long tables, all alone, every single one of them, many slumped over, foreheads nearly grazing the formica. The sight makes me marvel at humans’ capacity to curve inward, forming thereby something infinite.

High up on the wall, images flicker. Something mid-century is playing on mute, starring a woman with broad shoulders and marcelled hair who is bantering, apparently, with some square-jawed man of few words. They’re in a dim, cramped office, playing at being reporters, probably, or maybe he’s a hard-boiled private investigator and she’s his glamorous, distraught client. They wave their cigarettes around. It is a scene—smoking indoors, for heaven’s sake—that is now the purest fiction.

In the room, a man points at me and says, “Hey, look, a muchacha!”

“A girl!” he then explains, though no one is paying attention. (I’m past 50, but if a man likes muchachas, he will see them everywhere.)

In the corner, a woman, her head crowned with white braids, calls out over and over, “Pomogeetye!” which is Russian for “Help!”

My knowledge of languages, which got me hired as a translator at a large international organization, is useful in this place, too. Each time I hear the woman with the braided crown—which is often, because she’s always calling out, every single time I come here, her powers of speech worn down to this nub of a single word that succinctly expresses all she has left to say—I think that I should go over and address her in her language, which I also speak, briefly breaking her isolation, or joining her in it. I see no sign that there is anyone else on the ward, resident, staff or visitor, who could do that.

 

I think now of a character in Un roman russe by Emmanuel Carrère. (In the English edition, three words have been added at the beginning of the title for some reason, expanding it to My Life is a Russian Novel.) The story is a true one, so the character is a person as well as a character, but the French are nonchalant about the non/fiction distinction, and so in France, Carrère is a novelist.

I don’t have the book at hand, and it’s been a while, so I’ll just recount it as I recall it. Feel free to fact-check, should the urge strike.

As World War II is coming to a close, a Hungarian prisoner of war washes up in a remote Soviet town. Because he speaks a language that no one in the vicinity can identify, let alone understand, and the townspeople conclude, not unreasonably, that he’s speaking gibberish, it follows that he ends up in an insane asylum. Where he remains for about half a century.

And maybe he actually is a touch insane, because during all of those decades surrounded by the Russian language, completely immersed, he learns not one single word, not one single expression—not ‘hello,’ not ‘thank you’ and not even ‘fuck your mother.’

I mention ‘fuck your mother’ because it’s nearly as frequent—in Russian, I mean—as ‘hello’ and ‘thank you,’ especially in god-forsaken provincial towns soaked in vodka and despair. You will say that this cannot be true, that no Chekhov character ever says “fuck your mother,” no matter how much despair is swirling about, but the reason for this omission should be blindingly clear: Chekhov wrote fiction.

At last the error somehow emerges, and our Magyar protagonist, no longer a prisoner of war, but of something else, is returned to what remains of his family, in Buda, or Pest, or perhaps further afield. Fanfare greets the prodigal son. Through an interpreter, an official Russian delegation that has traveled to Hungary to attend the welcome-home event proffers apologies for the lost decades.

The mayor gives a speech—in Hungarian, of course, which everyone there understands, not counting the Russians. It’s remarkable what a change of scene will do; restored to his native surroundings, the man is no longer a lunatic.

 

But if reading good books is supposed to make you a bigger, better person, then in my case it has failed; in the dementia ward, I do not cast off my disguise as a monolingual person—I do not step forward to speak Russian. If I were to approach the pomogeetye lady and address a few Russian words to her, she would surely cling to me and make impossible demands—I’ve experienced this with Russians who are not in dementia wards—taking me away from my mother, who I have come to see.

 

Next, I pick my way through the jetsam piled up near the far end of the hall: a bed frame, a scale with a platform for weighing the wheelchair-bound, a stack of walkers, a few chairs, and I see now that there is a wheelchair stranded amidst the debris, and in it, a woman, who must have miscalculated the width of passage she needed to get through.

With some words intended to soothe, I pry her loose, turn her chair around and set her on another path I think should satisfy her equally well.

“Bastard!” she howls after me.

But I’m leaving the hallway now, and entering my mother’s room. Velcro screeches as I pull away the cloth barrier stretched across the doorframe. Placed there by the staff, the barrier has a big red stop sign on it, to deter those residents who have a tendency to wander.

The woman I freed from the debris is still cursing as I step inside.

 

I used to own a tattered paperback by Elie Wiesel called Legends of Our Time. Held together with a rubber band, it continually shed small scraps. The book had come to me in that state, I don’t remember how. When it became too dilapidated to keep, I relegated it to recycling, saving a single page from the introduction, a page that I sensed I would someday need.

On that page, which I keep attached to the refrigerator with a magnet, Wiesel refers to an old rabbi he’d known in the little Romanian town where they both lived, a town that was wiped off the map during World War II. Decades after the war, Wiesel, a New Yorker now, calls on the rabbi, who is ensconced in Tel Aviv. Nearly as old as time, and a man of God to boot, he is of course served up as some kind of sage.

Wiesel tells the old man that he’s become a writer.

“Is that all?” says the rabbi in reproachful disbelief.

Wiesel adds that he writes stories, true ones.

The rebbe asks, “About people you knew?”

Yes, about people he might have known.

“About things that happened?”

Yes, about things that happened or could have happened.

“But they did not?” presses the rebbe.

No, says Wiesel, not all of them did. In fact, some were invented from almost the beginning to almost the end.

“That means you’re writing lies!” says the rebbe.

Things aren’t so simple, says Wiesel. Some events do take place but are not true; others are true—although they never occurred.

 

She’s in palliative care, which is like hospice for people who aren’t dying yet. ‘Palliative care’ means they don’t make her do anything she doesn’t want to, so she gets to spend most of her time in her room, in bed, instead of at one of the formica tables by the TV, and when she’s not up to the ordeal of being put into clothes, she passes the day in a hospital gown.

She can no longer walk, or even stand. She has to be lifted into bed from the wheelchair and back again, and she sleeps almost all the time. She regularly forgets what a fork is for and that food is meant to be swallowed.

On her nightstand are a few books I brought in when she landed here, months ago: a volume of Thackeray, pages uncut, from the matched set she kept on top of her wardrobe, a spy novel about the French Resistance and a book on modern dance, with a chapter about a choreographer, largely forgotten now, who was her teacher and friend.  She doesn’t dip into the books at all.

The drawer of the nightstand is crammed with chocolate—bags, boxes and bars. The chocolates get unwrapped and popped into her mouth by whoever happens to be at her bedside at any given time.

The large window frames a stunning view of the Hudson and, on the other side, the Palisades, but she’s largely unaware. She has some vision left, but she never turns to the window—she’s always been averse to the sunlight—and she’s probably lost some ability to process shapes and colors into recognizable objects and landscapes.

In fact, when I put my face close to hers, smack in the middle of what ought to be her field of vision, I’m never sure she knows it’s me. It’s my voice she responds to, and my name.

“Hello, Ma! It’s Laura.”

Her face softens. A smile dawns.

“Hi there, baby girl,” she says to me.

 

Wiesel wrote something we call fiction, and he called it true. I write things that I remember, have seen or lived—I think. I’m not making it up, but I cannot swear that it all happened.

From opposite sides of the divide, Wiesel and I agree: stories live according to their own logic. They are ungovernable and uncategorizable, like schools of fish that sometimes unwittingly straddle international borders as they swim about, swishing their tails to and fro—to whom do they belong, those tranquil creatures of the sea? Turgid international treaties have been negotiated in the attempt to pin this down. Stories are also this way: blithely unaware, as they navigate the depths, of transgressing the boundaries that humans draw.

I am not a reporter, and I am not a chronicler, and I am not beholden to the facts, which are merely raw materials in a random heap. I am beholden to story, which is sculpted, intentional. I fashion aesthetic objects from found materials, not reports that say: here is what happened. In fact, the nature of what I write may depend on not being fact-checked. It may depend, to an extent, on the vagaries of memory, on misremembrance. The refractions of memory are part of the story.

While I do not think that my life story holds exceptional interest, I am more drawn to the lived than to the made up; more drawn to observing and shaping than to imagining and concocting; and more drawn to speaking in an authentic first person voice than in an imagined third that I myself don’t really believe.

On the one hand, an opera production with ruffled costumes, powdered wigs, abundant avoirdupois, scrims sliding on tracks at the flip of a switch, smoke machines, choruses, a corps de ballet, a pit orchestra and a plot that involves interlocking love triangles, multiple suicide pacts, cross-dressing, pilfered letters, goblets of poison and a masquerade ball followed by a duel at midnight. On the other hand, a lone chanteuse in a small circle of light surrounded by a larger circle of darkness, confiding ballads of heartbreak to a rapt room.

Oh, those made-up characters with lines of dialogue distributed among them and placed in their mouths, like coins under the tongues of dead Greeks, to pay their passage to the far shore; the creaking scenery and mechanisms of plot; the godlike omniscient third, godlike, alas, only within the confines of a single, small story—I just cannot work with these materials any more. As the world skids further and further off into the unbelievable, they are less and less convincing.

 

She never, ever talked about her life before motherhood. When I was a child, my attempts to find out about her past were efficiently shut down. I knew her as morose yet playful, and slashingly witty, so that on her lips, bile often blurred into hilarity, so long as it was not discharged in my direction. And then sometimes she was more slashing than witty (‘gasbag’ her preferred epithet for the longwinded professors who dominated my parents’ dinner parties).

She was a rigorous housekeeper, upholder of etiquette and reader of Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Nabokov, Mrs. Gaskell and both Trollopes, especially Frances. She never wore makeup, only lipstick (and that on rare occasions), but she was the Imelda Marcos of sweaters. An aficionado of the afternoon nap, upon rising she would quaff a tumbler of something grapey sloshed from a jug, then tap dance nimbly about the kitchen in little canvas shoes, a shirtwaist and a striped butcher’s apron—she had studied under Martha Graham, that I had gleaned, and she was a mean dancer, no matter the style—accompanied by the drone of Huntley and Brinkley and the sizzle of onions on the stove, crooning a ditty of her own invention—“Twinkletoes,” she called it.

Of her previous life I knew only the barest outlines. Now, though, she lives more in that past, gets lost in it, stuck amidst the clutter at the far end of the hall.

She often asks now about people long dead. Where is my mother? she demands. Why can’t I talk to her? she wants to know, her voice trembling slightly.

I remind her that my maternal grandmother—who we always thought she didn’t particularly care for, so why is she calling for her now?—departed this world in 1970.

“Of course!” She slaps her forehead. “I get mixed up about who’s alive and who’s dead.”

Then, “And what about my sisters? Are they alive?”

Dead, I tell her sadly.

“They died in a car accident, didn’t they?”

They died in bed, ten years apart.

She hesitates. But her need to know is greater than her embarrassment.

“And … what year is it now?”

As I get her unstuck and set her on another path, I see that barriers have fallen; I wander into rooms previously closed to me. I ask questions. It is my first opportunity to do so. Also, my last.

 

On this particular day, we’re talking about my Aunt Bea and her boyfriend Ed, who were an item in high school, during the Great Depression. (Bea was the oldest of the three sisters, my mother the youngest by many years, and, for a long, long time now, the only one still alive.)

“He was called Ed, but his real name was Isidore,” recalls my mother.  “I mean, you can give your child a Jewish name, but does it have to be that Jewish?”

She chuckles.

“The whole family loved Ed; he charmed us all. And, oh! He and his brothers were so handsome, they could all have gone straight to Hollywood.”

“Why did Aunt Bea break up with him?”

She looks at me in astonishment. This all happened decades before I was born, but it’s clear what she’s thinking: you mean you don’t know?

“Oh, she dumped him when she met Paul.” That would be my Uncle Paul, whom Aunt Bea later married.

“And then she went back and forth between them for a while. Whenever she was on the outs with Paul, she’d take up with Ed again, and then she’d go back to Paul. She used poor Ed terribly. Oh, the sweet young men who got mixed up with my sister Bea!”

Mirth bursts out of her again.

“Ed eventually married Viola, who was the director of a puppet theater.”

I’m trying to memorize every word, but she’s going very fast. I can’t retain it all.

“And then, years later, after Ed and Viola split, Ed got pally with Esther…”

Esther was the middle sister, glamorous yet earthy, a divorcée when that was still a pretty louche thing to be. Her I do remember—this was long, long ago—waving a cigarette around: outdoors, indoors, in bed, at all hours, in the shower, her back to the spray as she reached around the curtain to where an ashtray teetered on the edge of the sink.

“Ed used to drop by and visit Esther sometimes, in her apartment. Remember that view of Lake Michigan from the balcony?”

I do remember, very well. I used to strap on my roller skates, tighten them with the key, skate to the end of the block, then let the wind off the lake push me back up the street to where the liveried doorman stood, smiling benevolently.

But I’m trying not to breathe or make a sound. Keep going, Ma, I think. Just keep going.

“And one day, Ed and Esther fell into bed!”

My mother, talking about sex?  About someone she was close to, having sex? Talking about it in a light-hearted tone? What is happening in the world?

“Afterward,” she presses forward, and it occurs to me that she’s racing to entrust the story to me before she loses it forever, “Ed came stumbling out of the bedroom, tucking in his shirttails and exclaiming,  ‘I fell in love with the wrong sister!’”

I can see Ed, whom I never actually met, gorgeous in a fortyish way. So clearly do I see Ed, in fact, that at first I think my mother must have been sitting right there in Esther’s living room when he emerged from the bedroom, bowled over by midlife sexual revelation. Otherwise, how could she tell it so vividly?

Eventually, I will realize that no, she’s simply repeating the story as she heard it from Esther. Esther would never have seduced her older sister’s old boyfriend, or anyone else, with her younger sister, or anyone else, sitting in the next room. Of course not. But she wasn’t above bragging about taking a man to bed and making his toes curl with delight, especially if said man was her big sister’s old flame and the audience for her story was her baby sister, who was by then, I’m guessing, a grown-up, married lady.

 

I rush home to broadcast the tale of Ed and Esther. Family and close friends are delighted. My father claims a vague memory of it, but no one else in the family has ever heard the story.

To think that this might have been lost. As so much is.

 

Once upon a time, before Oprah, recall, nobody got all worked up about the whole fact/fiction distinction—except maybe ancient, very literal-minded rabbis.

Take Marcel Proust, a novelist who named his first-person narrator Marcel and based the eponymous Swann on an actual art connoisseur and collector, the scion of a Jewish merchant dynasty with branches in Paris, Vienna and Odessa.

Or novelist Thomas Wolfe, largely forgotten now, except as a character in a movie starring a fearsomely miscast Nicole Kidman as his zaftig, dark-haired mistress. Wolfe changed all the names, but still he couldn’t go home again, because the folks back home were personally acquainted with and recognized the characters who peopled his books, each and every one: the alcoholic doctor; the grasping woman speculating in real estate; her semi-estranged husband the semi-crazed stonecutter, also alcoholic; the stonecutter’s stone angel; the idlers at the soda fountain; the part-time prostitutes of Niggertown, as the wrong side of the tracks was then known.

Decades ago, I knew a woman who was from the same town as Wolfe. When Look Homeward, Angel came out, she told me, her parents penciled in the real names in the margins of their copy. Then someone borrowed the book and didn’t return it, so you can add that to the list of things that never made it home again.

Anyone who knows me (and many who do not) can identify my writing as sculpted from the unadulterated raw stuff of my biography, but the end product is actually more like that game Three Truths and a Lie: most of it’s true, I mean, ‘true’ as in ‘happened’ (pace Wiesel), but there’s some other stuff that creeps in, and after a while, I’m not always sure which is which.

I don’t quite know how that other stuff gets in, because it occurs in the white heat of creation, and little of what goes on in there survives in conscious memory. I start describing, in great detail, something I don’t remember all that well, and I go on, and on, losing track of time, growing short of breath—I get whipped up, the scene becomes overlaid with more and more detail that surges up from god knows where, and this is some of the best writing that I do.

That said, the section above, about the dementia ward, contains not a grain of the invented. It’s all real. Oh, except that the muchacha incident and the woman getting caught in the debris in her wheelchair did not in fact happen on the same day—I combined them, for maximum narrative density. Does that minor change make it fiction? Or is it still nonfiction, but a kind of unethical nonfiction?

It’s a mosaic; it’s a medley; it’s a mash-up.

 

I don’t worry too much. It’s writing; it’s a story, not reportage; not news, fake or otherwise.  It’s mine; I wrote it; call it what you like, as long as reading it lifts you, however briefly, above the quotidian—or plunges you into it more deeply.

(Filmmaker Chantal Ackerman, who made both documentaries and feature films and believed that each genre contains elements of the other, said, “Once you frame the shot, it’s fiction.” This from a documentary about her work.)

The part about the pomogeetye lady is real, though, because that happens every single time. It happened on the muchacha day, and it happened on the wheelchair-getting-stuck day, and it happens on every other day as well. But lots of other things happened on all of those days, some that I cut or omitted, and many that simply washed through the memory sieve, floated downstream into increasingly murky waters and came gently to rest in the silt.

 

The following week, my mission is to find out more.

“Mom, remember that story you told me about Ed? In Esther’s apartment?”

“Ed who?”

I remind her about Isidore, known as Ed; his movie-star handsome brothers; Viola and the puppet theatre; Esther; the view of the lake; Ed stumbling out of the bedroom tucking in his shirt.

She looks at me blankly.

There’s a pause. Then, she stretches luxuriously as after a long nap and says, “I really must pull myself together one of these days and get over to the library.”  It’s six months since she was last off the ward, one halcyon October afternoon when she allowed me to wheel her down to the river’s edge.

Why the library, why now?

I wait.

“I need to lay my hands on a copy of Tales from Shakespeare, by Charles Lamb,” she says.

“How come?”

“I’ve been trying and trying,” she says with a weary air, “to remember the story lines of Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Can you tell me what happens in those plays?”

I regard her blankly.

Romeo and Juliet I could recount, maybe. Hamlet, in a pinch. But there would definitely be some gaps.

 

Contributor Update: BJ Hollars

Hello, readers! We are happy to announce that B.J. Hollars, a contributor featured in the Fiction Section of our 6th issue, has written a new book available here, titled Flock Together. A chapter preview is available here and provides a sobering glance at the ivory-billed woodpecker, now gone due to deforestation. The book follows a journey to investigate many of America’s now extinct bird population. Flock Together cover art

From Hollars’ website:

After stumbling upon a book of photographs depicting extinct animals, B.J. Hollars became fascinated by the creatures that are no longer with us; specifically, extinct North American birds. How, he wondered, could we preserve so beautifully on film what we’ve failed to preserve in life? And so begins his yearlong journey to find out, one that leads him from bogs to art museums, from archives to Christmas Counts, until he at last comes as close to extinct birds as he ever will during a behind-the-scenes visit at the Chicago Field Museum. Heartbroken by the birds we’ve lost, Hollars takes refuge in those that remain. Armed with binoculars, a field guide, and knowledgeable friends, he begins his transition from budding birder to environmentally conscious citizen, a first step on a longer journey toward understanding the true tragedy of a bird’s song silenced forever.

Told with charm and wit, Flock Together is a remarkable memoir that shows how “knowing” the natural world—even just a small part—illuminates what it means to be a global citizen and how only by embracing our ecological responsibilities do we ever become fully human. A moving elegy to birds we’ve lost, Hollars’s exploration of what we can learn from extinct species will resonate in the minds of readers long beyond the final page.

Guest Post, Dinah Lenney: This and That

When I remember, I add to my collection, a running list of souvenirs from my daily walks. For instance, among yesterday’s finds down at Echo Park Lake:

A model posing in diaphanous turquoise
A pair of lovers: exceptionally tall, exceptionally short
A man with a guitar
A man with a flute
A man doing sun salutations
A girl with scarlet dreads
Three Muskovy ducks
A bunch of mallards
Lilies, voluptuous, a field of them, waving and blushing
And the other kind, too, purple pinwheels on the water
One heron
Two egrets
Coots and baby coots
Turtles and baby turtles
A boy on a bike
A runner with green shoes
A cat on a leash
An all-white pigeon

HeronA running list, as I say, and the day’s adds not so remarkable, really— though I can never get enough of the great egret; and she was closer than usual, too; I saw the breeze ruffling her feathers, and the orange of her beak.

Then, too, there was that pigeon— the white one, very rare—I tried to take a picture with my phone, but up jogged the joker in green shoes, and she was gone.

The point is, though, I keep on collecting. But why? What to do with all these bits and pieces? Must I do something with them? Must I know what I’m doing?

Once upon a time (but this is true), over 80 years ago, there was a man named Raymond Isidore, a Frenchman (you can google the guy), who lived with his wife in Chartres (home of the famous cathedral), roughly an hour by train from Paris; a straight shot from the Gare de Montparnasse, which—on a Saturday this past July— was a ten minute walk from our rented one-bedroom on Rue St. Jacques. A miracle, it seemed, to be standing in front of the Cathedral at Chartres in less than two hours. Actually, a miracle that we caught the train at all, distracted as we were that morning by the scene out the window over the kitchen sink, where our pigeon was more visible than usual. Our pigeon, I say, because the day we moved in, we watched her build her nest twig by twig; since then—for three weeks and a day—we’d been waiting. More accurately, she’d been waiting: such a patient bird, so devoted, so watchful, always there, almost hidden in the fork of that tall, skinny tree, like so:

pigeonEvery morning we wondered, would it happen today? Tomorrow? Would the eggs hatch before we ourselves had to fly away home? We’d noticed: our bird had been sitting higher and higher on the nest—but for how long had that been true, we wondered? And did it mean she’d produced more eggs? Wouldn’t she have laid them all at once? Reluctantly, we tied our laces, pocketed wallets, tickets, keys. We had that train to catch—we were meeting friends for lunch in Chartres.

Once there and outside the tiny station—two tracks only—we found our way up the hill to the Cathedral (“You won’t be able to miss it,” said our friend, and she was right, there it was, kissing the clouds), where we marveled at the spires, the buttresses, the saints, the angels—and all of it erected something like 900 years ago. Nine hundred years—almost a millennium. How, I kept asking? How did they hoist these enormous stones one on top of the other? How long did it take? (Decades.) At what point did they build the staircase, 300 steps: not all at once, surely, but when and how? Before? After? On their way up? At lunch (a salade composée; I wish I had a picture) I forgot about my questions. After lunch, with plenty of time to spare before catching the train back to the city, our friends drove us to Raymond Isidore’s house, La Maison Picassiette, two kilometers east.

Isidore, born and raised in Chartres, was a molder: by profession he made parts, from molds (this seems important to note ), before, due to health considerations, he became a sweep at the local cemetery. In 1929, he bought a small plot of land on which he built a little house for himself and his wife. Nine years later, so goes the story, he was out for a walk one afternoon when he found some bits of broken pottery—and he picked them up. I’ve done that, haven’t you? Long before I started my running list, I saved things: pebbles, pinecones, shells. They’re all over the house, in saucers and boxes and tins; on night tables and tucked in the corners of shelves and drawers. We even bought a glass lamp, the kind you can fill, in which we arranged a random assortment of stones and driftwood and marbles. Also a couple of pool balls and a postcard or two and a pair of old spectacles—artless and arty, but definitely not art, no—not adding up to much and not meant to. Raymond Isidore, though: did he have any idea that first afternoon? If so, how did he know where to start? Or was he somewhere in the middle when he realized what he was up to? And then—if that’s how it was —how did he manage to stay the course as if it weren’t a course at all?

mosaic ovenBut I haven’t explained: Over the next 30 years (he died in 1964), Raymond Isidore tiled every surface of his house: not just the front stoop and the garden path—but the walls, inside and out; also the lamps, the bedframe, the counters—the stove! The sewing machine! (His wife’s)—the tables and chairs and doors, all of them part of this enormous mosaic: a portrait here, a landscape there; animals and people and places, some familiar—the Mona Lisa, Chartres Cathedral itself, and the Tour Eiffel—others of his own invention entirely; whales, giraffes, monkeys, birds, flowers, elephants, clowns, moons, stars, meadows, oceans: a series, a serial, a collection of linked stories—which turn out to be the story of a life! Raymond Isidore’s life, created day by day out of disparate fragments of glass, china, crockery, all colors, kinds, textures; now dark, now light, now serious, now whimsical, not only in content but also in craft: here and there you can find a spout from a teapot, or a handle from a jug winking from a beam or a sill.

Did Isidore, aka Picassiette—from the words “piquer,” to steal, and “assiette,” a plate (though the connection to Picasso is not unintentional)—have art in mind? Or was he just compelled to…to… To what? To recycle? To give purpose to his days? To leave something behind? To make things add up somehow?

So it must have been for the builders of the Cathedral at Chartres. Apples and oranges, maybe: in that case there was no master architect, no overall vision in anybody’s head. But the construction of the church was accomplished by teams of master craftsmen. And as far as they knew it was a work-in-progress: no one of them could have been there from beginning to end—which maybe tells us something similar about the relationship between work and art, and why and for whom; though what it tells us I’m not exactly sure.

Meanwhile, what am I to do with my lists? How to mold them? How to spring them from their molds? (See, I knew it was important: the fact of his having been a molder—) What does one image—one souvenir—have to do with another? I haven’t a clue: I’m looking for clues—that’s what I’m doing on my daily walks, isn’t it?

Back to our Saturday field trip. We returned to the city on the late side and warmed up some leftovers (this and that all over again) in a pan on the stove: full up as we were with the day, and dinner, by the time we remembered our pigeon it was too dark to get a good look. The next morning, though, there she was, high up on her nest (that perfect composition of sticks and leaves: how did she know where to begin and when it was finished?)—nothing had changed, we thought, nothing doing. But then, as we were getting on with the day, we heard an unfamiliar sound—not her throaty gargle, but an actual cheep. We rushed to the window: she’d left! And there they were, two of them, fuzzy and gray, open-beaked, insisting. Judging from the size of the squabs, and the sound, and how savvy they were when she flew in again with breakfast , they’d hatched some days before. Although nobody was worse for our having missed the main event—if that’s what it was.

Guest Post, Faye Rapoport DesPres: The Lost Words

I haven’t written a “creative” word in a month. That might be an odd way to start a blog post about writing, but it’s the truth—and wherever there is truth, there is a puzzle for a writer to examine.

I can point to several reasons why I haven’t been writing, of course. Aren’t there always reasons? First, I just returned from a two-week trip to Alaska, so I was away for two weeks of the month in question. Second, every moment of the two weeks before the trip felt busy with preparations and tinged with anxiety—after all, my husband and I would be traveling on four flights, a train, a bus, two small boats, and a medium-sized cruise ship.

A third reason goes like this: feeling relieved at the opportunity to disconnect from the Internet, I left behind my laptop, which would have been difficult to tote on and off planes and from one place to another on the ground or at sea. I did pack a small, handmade notebook from a Tanzanian craft shop that employs people who live with physical challenges. I thought the notebook’s history would motivate me to write, but its pages remained blank throughout the trip.

All of these reasons sound good when I write them down, but the truth is I can’t explain the lack of writing. I have never before traveled to such an inspiring place without writing a single word while I was there. Each day I thought about writing (and I did dictate journal entries into my iPhone), but day after day I avoided that little notebook and wondered, in the back of my mind, why I was doing it.

Seal on Rock

Photo: Faye Rapoport DesPres

What I was doing was taking photographs. My camera, I’d always known, was coming with me to Alaska regardless of how awkward it would be to carry it. From the moment our plane landed in an Anchorage flooded with daylight at 11 o’clock at night, I snapped photo after photo after photo. I captured images of snow-covered mountains, of rivers carrying glacial silt through scenic valleys, of seagulls chasing the spouts of humpback whales, and of seals resting on ice caps recently calved from retreating glaciers. I took photos of a wolf tailing a grizzly bear across a mountainside, of a herd of caribou on a hilltop, of 20,310-foot-tall Denali on a rare sunny day. And the bald eagles! I had only seen four in the wild before this trip, but in Alaska, the sky and the trees and even the rooftops seemed filled with them, and I couldn’t stop clicking at their magnificence.

A number of writers I admire also take photographs. As I captured image after image in Alaska, I wondered about this impulse. Why was I obsessed with my camera, while the little notebook languished, unopened, in my suitcase?

Eagle with Wings Open

Photo: Faye Rapoport DesPres

Somewhere between Anchorage and Denali and Seward and Skagway and Hoonah and Ketchikan, it occurred to me that my goal with a camera is pretty much the same as my goal with a pen. I’m trying to capture the world around me in all its beauty, its glory, its sadness, and its grit so that I can save and relive the moments, and then share them with others. Like any writer or photographer or artist in any media, I can’t recreate the world as it actually exists. I can only interpret it through the filter that is—for better or worse—me. A bald eagle exists in all its magnificence in and of itself. All I can do is try to capture its essence and the wonder I feel when I see it. Then I can show it to others with an unspoken question: “Do you see what I see?” I want someone else to see it, too, so I can share the experience—and also so I’m not alone in that wonder.

With creative writing (whether it’s fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, or dramatic writing) the process, I think, is much the same. The writer observes something or feels something or experiences an event, and then captures, frames, interprets, recreates, or re-imagines it based on a personal understanding and sensibility. Through this process, the story is infused with the meaning the writer attaches to it. Finding the right sharpness or clarity or beauty in the delivery is what requires click after click after click of the pen or keyboard.

Of course, there is one central difference between photography and writing. Photographs are visual images made up of (or at least based on) shapes and colors and light that exist outside the photographer, out there in the world at the moment when the shutter is snapped. How the photographer perceives those images and frames and interprets them with a camera is, of course, the art. Written texts, on the other hand, are born of observations of the outside world that become stories when they merge with the ideas, memories, and imagination in the mind of the writer. The texts won’t exist unless the writer makes use of that complicated, beautiful, difficult, and (for me) often dreaded tool: words.

Words. There are so many words! And writers have to choose just the right ones every time! And the choice of which words to use makes all the difference.

South Sawyer Glacier

Photo: Faye Rapoport DesPres

Sometimes, for me, the words just don’t come. While I was in the great, vast, wild state of Alaska, they eluded me completely. The wilderness was so stunning that words failed me. One definition of the word “stunning,” by the way, is to be “able or likely to make a person senseless or confused.” That is what Alaska did to me. It stunned me. It left me senseless and confused…wordless. But, I have to say, happily, ecstatically so.

Now I am home. Now, as a writer, my job is to make sense of what struck me senseless. The weeks, months, and maybe even years of translation and interpretation through the imperfect filter that is me must begin.

But why? Why not leave Alaska to be remembered through the hundreds of photographs I came home with, the eagles and the glaciers, the mountains and the waterfalls, the seals and the wolf and the whales? I certainly love the photos, and if I were a better photographer, photos would rightfully be enough.

But for better or worse, I’m a writer. And ever since I was a little girl, all I wanted was to find the right words.

Guest Post, Douglas Light: Shadows

The man ran late. He hailed a cab. The cab was packed with milk jugs of laundry detergent pre-mixed with water. There was a lot of talk between the man and cab driver. Nothing happened.

Understand, this was a short story.

Understand, this was the first short story I ever wrote, some 25 years ago. I spent a hundred-plus hours in a dim loft on Occidental Street in Seattle crafting the six page story that was—at least in my mind—pure, brilliant literature.

What it really was was awful. Pointless. Embarrassing.

If my present-self had been around then, I would have destroyed my then-self’s typewriter. “Stop,” I would have said. “Trust me, please. Just stop.”

 

***

Summit in ColoradoJuly 2016. Colorado.

Two miles in, my girlfriend Micah and I saw the summit. The guidebook claimed the Mount Belford hike, a 14,150 feet trundle to the summit, was 3.1 miles long. We were close, twenty more minutes of hiking, at most. “We can make it,” I said.

Two hours later we discovered the summit we’d struggled toward was a false summit, the real one a solid half mile farther.

But we’d committed. We were here. Now. We were going to make it.

And we did. After nearly four hours of hiking and climbing, we reached the peak.

At the base, in the dirt parking lot with toxic Port-A-Potties, the day had been brilliant. 76 degrees. A pleasant breeze.

Up top, the temperature bottomed to 43 degrees and the winds whipped so brutally that we had to crouch then crawl the final hundred yards.

Five pictures on the phone. Proof.

Rain clouds wedged their way onto the once blue skies.

We made the descent, believing we’d conquered the mountain.

The first fall left me bloody and laughing.

The third found me on my back like a broken turtle, my plastic water bottle cracked and draining and the mountain air crowded with my curses.

Rain hit, lashing and full.

I hobbled the remaining way, miserable.

In the parking lot, the rain stopped. The sky brightened.

I took my boots off. My socks were red with blood. My right knee had taken on the hue of a eggplant. “I can drive,” Micah said.

I refused, for no good reason.

Driving the once-dirt-now-mud road toward the highway, we saw three men sunning themselves on rocks, shirts off and smoking with a bottle of Dickel whiskey on the ground.

Pointing to the three, Micah said, “There’s a lesson there.”

 

***

The writing group met in Brooklyn. I was the only male. “This is a meet-and-greet, a trial to see if you’d be a good fit,” the woman hosting the session said.

I brought a bottle of wine—rather, I bought a bottle of wine. I dropped it in the subway station, staining the pages we were to review that night.

Snacks, soda, and cupcakes. The critiquing was a combative free-for-all, with arguments erupting and people being cut off mid-sentence. I managed two comments over the course of the hour, both which were dismissed.

“I’m not sure you’re a good fit,” the host said, seeing me out. “You don’t seem to understand how to make thoughtful comments.”

 

***

Micah and I sat at a small table at Sunny’s bar in Redhook, Brooklyn, drinking scotch and debating the cultural significance of the new World Trade Center with Steve Buscemi while Norah Jones played. The place was packed, though there were no more than forty.

Pausing mid-song, Norah said, “Look everyone, it’s Mick Foley,” and then invited the former pro-wrestler on stage, where he played a woodblock in time to the tune.

“Where else but New York City,” Micah said of our evening as we rode home to Harlem.

The next day, Micah got pulled over by the police and ticketed. $425 for turning right on a red.

On her bicycle.

Where else but New York City.

 

***

When my first novel came out, I organized a reading for myself and three others at Bluestockings Bookstore on the Lower East Side. I sent out invites, contacted the media. Time Out New York featured the event both in print and online, calling the three authors reading with me “literature’s new, important voices.”

My name was missing from the announcement.

I sold four books at the reading, left ten more with the bookstore on consignment. “Stop back by in a few weeks and we’ll cut you a check for tonight’s sales and whatever else we sell,” the manager said.

When I returned three weeks later, all my books were gone.

I was thrilled, positive I’d sold them all.

“What’s your name again?” the manager asked. I wasn’t in their system. My book wasn’t in the system. “I can’t pay you for what we didn’t sell,” the manager said, adding, “Are you sure you left them here?”

 

***

September leaked into October. The weather grew cold. I was squatting on a boat in the Puget Sound, Seattle, Washington, sneaking aboard at night. I’d rifled the cabinets for crackers and canned oysters, polished off the bottle of cheap port.

This was 1994. My situation was temporary, I was sure. I was going to be famous. Soon. I’d published my own chapbook of poetry, had handed it out to the people who mattered, the Seattle artists and writers who were on the path to make it big.

Through them, I’d make it.

Twenty-two years later, Wikipedia has no mention of the Seattle artists and writers I once knew. Barnes & Nobles doesn’t carry their books.

 

***

In graduate school, the Brazilian boy who wore prescription sunglasses to the nighttime writing workshop said of my story, “You cannot start a sentence with the word ‘And.’”

“But what about the piece?” the teacher said.  “Overall, what do you think?”

The boy lifted a shoulder, a half shrug. “It’s a draft,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

The next day, I mailed the story off to a magazine. It got published. It received an O. Henry Prize.

 

***

After three months of sleeping on the streets, I called my folks. Collect.

“What do you want to do?” my father said. “You need to decide on something to do and then we can help.”

I needed money, needed a place.

The pay phone was sticky and a fight between a man on the street and a woman in an apartment above had erupted. Beer bottles flew down from her window.

“I can do anything,” I said, watching the explosion of glass in the street.

“But you’re doing nothing,” my father said. “So how am I supposed to help?”

The next day, I moved into the homeless shelter.

 

***

The man ran late. He hailed a cab. The cab was packed with milk jugs of laundry detergent pre-mixed with water. There was a lot of talk between the man and cab driver. Nothing happened.

But no.

Thinking about it, I wouldn’t tell my younger-self, “Stop. Trust me, please. Just stop.”

And I wouldn’t destroy the typewriter.

I’d destroy the story.

And I’d say, “If you want to do this, then do it right.”

I’d say, “Move into the shadows. Get lost. Be scared. Find that place where the light stops being light for you. And then sit down. Just sit and wait. Trust me. It’ll happen. As long as you just wait.”