Guest Post, Ramona Reeves: Seeing Buffalo

The buffalo blocked the two-lane road. Barely six-years-old, I had no notion of the rarity of this intimate sighting. In the distance a herd of the mythic beasts gathered in clumps across the Oklahoma reservation to eat pale, ankle-high prairie grass. The car’s engine hyperventilated in a get, get, get rhythm. The open sky and expansive plains mocked us. My mother sheepishly honked the horn once or twice, but the buffalo (technically a bison) held its ground. It may have been five or fifteen minutes until she finally surrendered and cut off the engine.

The next time I saw roaming buffalo was more than four decades later in Caprock Canyon, a remote state park in Texas. The buffalo ran toward a lake for their morning drink in early July as we circled the park both searching for them and surveying the available hiking trails. Again, a regal beast blocked the road. Behind the lake, brown lumpy hills of short grass and Mesquite transformed into orange-red cliffs dotted with green. The buffalo came and went as they pleased, and soon I realized we were the ones in the way. But it wasn’t until that moment that I recalled the first encounter in the avocado-green Oldsmobile accompanied by my mom, my grandmother, and the friend we were visiting.

I’m no expert on the brain, but I wonder about such trigger points and the workings of memory. I especially wonder about them in connection to writing, how on the best days the words flow and unexpected links appear, as though risen from the dead. Such memories do seem to move like ghosts across my mind, the actor in those memories both me and not me. Specific details often elude, but the feeling and some truth of what happened remains.

I’ve read that our brains experience a recalled moment the same as if it is happening in real time. That the brain can accomplish this feat hints at the illusory nature of time and the connectedness and layering of experience. Amazing, yes, but the downside of the brain’s indiscretion is not without trepidation; there’s plenty most of us don’t want to relive, but for writers maybe there’s an upside. During the process of telling a story, we are given the opportunity to make more sense of derailed experiences, the ones that both wounded and defined us. Maybe writing allows us to grapple with those experiences in more satisfying ways, even if the result remains the same.

After I began writing this, I went to New Mexico for a weekend. While there, a dear colleague, who is part of indigenous culture, gave me and several others a buffalo tooth. She knew nothing about the large animals recently populating my memory when she told us the buffalo is a sacred animal, majestic and symbolic of gratitude, abundance, and blessing. Recalling the buffalo at Caprock Canyon and the one that blocked the road when I was young, I can understand why our indigenous neighbors ascribe greatness and meaning to the brown-bearded giant, an animal capable of running 35 miles per hour and surviving harsh winters. An animal capable of surviving near-decimation in the nineteenth century and reclaiming its place in the world.

It’s strange how a new event can call past memories through a different doorway where a new light catches the hidden layers, revealing what we didn’t know at the time and assigning deeper meaning to what we do know. Much understanding seems to pivot on these moments of illumination. I didn’t know until my grandmother died, for example, that she wrote the occasional essay or poem, which deepened my understanding of those moments when she encouraged me to write.

In his book Narrative Design Madison Smartt Bell discusses modular design. Bell says, “What modular design can do is liberate the writer from linear logic, those chains of cause and effect, strings of dominoes always falling forward.” He goes on to say that modular design has less to do with motion and more to do with shapeliness. And he mentions that “modular design allows the writer to throw off the burden of chronology, as much as possible.”

Although Bell is referring to structure in fiction, it seems to me these observations might just as easily apply to nonfiction. Perhaps this is something many nonfiction writers know, but as someone who’s written mostly fiction, I was struck by an idea: Modular design, with its ability to move more freely, to be shuffled and reorganized, may come closest to mimicking memory, which is anything but chronological.

That a structure might exist to corral memory is appealing, though I’m hesitant to completely let go of its wildness. Lately, memory seems to me its own bearded beast, both majestic and mysterious in its ability to run alongside our lives when we are not paying attention, and to help us see and make connections when we are.

Guest Blog Post, Mary Carroll-Hackett: Why Whitman Mattered That Day

Mary Carroll-HackettI was gonna write about making stories in second grade with my spelling words. I was gonna write about how my mama, who grew up abjectly poor and who didn’t go to college herself until she was forty-seven, understood so well that she gave me Walt Whitman when I was nine–A child said What is the grass?-– and the collected William Carlos Williams when I was twelve. I was gonna write about loving Wittgenstein, that space between the name and the thing he explores, that space I think we inhabit as artists. The power of story, poetry as prayer, how teaching reminds me every day of how miraculous the language we use to live in this life–I had written 500 words.

 

Then Boston blew up.

And West, Texas.

I quit watching the news years ago, but I stalked Facebook, texting people I know and love in the Boston area. I heard snippets of the working-class drawls of people on the streets in Texas. And I cried.

One sweet-faced freshman at the small liberal arts college where I teach in Virginia, shifted from foot to foot in my office, saying he had family in Boston, asking if he could keep his phone on vibrate.

Whitman: Song of MyselfOther freshmen–wide-eyed and curious and scared–in my American Lit class the next morning, discussed Whitman’s Song of Myself–”What is removed drops horribly in a pail”–as a manhunt locked my Boston friends in their homes, keeping their children home from school, away from windows and doors.

Shelter in place.

My students asked me Why and I didn’t have an answer. I said, “He’s your age, the one they’re chasing. Can you tell me why?”

They didn’t have an answer either.

What we did have was pain, fear, the shared understanding of how vulnerable we all are. We talked about that vulnerability, and they revealed to me that they, these children who were only six years old when planes hit the Trade Towers, feel that vulnerable, that defenseless, all the time.

One, a girl, generally giggly, who reminds me of a sparrow, bit her bottom lip and, said, “We know how much there is to lose.”

Yes, they do.

They were first-graders, carrying lunchboxes and crayons and Pokemon trading cards, when our military went into Afghanistan They barely remember when we haven’t been at war in the Middle East.

They were in middle school when the economy tanked. They’ve seen their parents lose jobs; they’ve packed up their picture books and soccer gear to move out of their childhood homes as a result of job loss or foreclosure. Some of them have learned what it means to be hungry, to be without heat or healthcare, what it means to make do. And to do without.

I, like lots of other people, have lived or still live in these kinds of truths, but for these kids, this is new.

Many of the kids I teach are from northern Virginia, growing up in the shadow of DC, in those belt-lines of power, in a culture accustomed to not only financial security, but to the security of government work. They are, for the most part, sheltered by their DOD and corporate parents, more so than the kids I taught at a large state school before this. Sending them to our mostly residential university in rural Virginia is, for a lot of them, a continuation of their parents’ desire to protect them.

I’m not judging any of this. It is what it is. But much of the work I do with them, coming from my own poor and rural background, is simply helping them understand, through writing, through literature, that not everyone lives the way they do, in this country, or elsewhere.

students

I teach as a writer. It’s how I live in the world, and I simply don’t know how to be anything else. I work at a teaching institution; everyone teaches General Education classes, and I love teaching those brand-new-just-out-of-high-school freshmen more than I can say.   Even when one of them asks, every semester—

I’m a Bio-PoliSci-Business-Anything-but-English major. What does this class have to do with me?

I tell them, as best I know how, what literature, all art, means to me, and why I think it matters to them.

For me, it is only in literature, in art, that we hear and can intimately know the individual human voice. I tell them that, to my mind, the literature we read belongs much more to them than it does to us, the writers who create it. We, I believe, are reflectors, and in fifty years, the literature created by their peers will reveal their time, their dreams, their fears and values, the hopes they hold close to their hearts. .

Without apology for the tears this discussion always brings, or for what I know many of my own peers will dismiss as sentimental, I tell these young people, that for me the function of all art is to allow us to look across the room at another human being, at each other, and say You are not alone.

We felt alone that day.

As Boston’s police force sought a broken young man their age, and as the death and injury toll rose outside the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, and as the media bombarded the airwaves with conflicting and frightening partial stories, one of my students quietly said, “You know, at first I was kinda pissed at having to read a fifty page poem.” He leaned back, arm thrown over the back of the desk, sprawled in the seat like a young strong animal. Then he smiled. “But, yeah, I really like this Whitman guy.”

I asked, as I do at the beginning of any reading discussion, “So…what struck you? What didn’t you like? What part stayed with you?”

He gave us a page number and we turned to the part he selected, reading it, gratefully, together.

“The city sleeps and the country sleeps,
The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time,
The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband
sleeps by his wife;
And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of myself….”

Guest Blog Post, William J. Cobb: On the Road, Writing in My Head

So I’m currently on a mini-book tour of Texas, although I don’t know if “mini” ever applies to much in Texas, since this wee ramble over the interstate prairie includes 3,000-plus miles of driving in 12 days. That’s a lot of hours of sitting behind the steering wheel, staring at the road, driving on mental autopilot, working on my next novel—in my head. As a young writer, just starting out, I used to write every day religiously, believing that constant work is the key to success, which it is. But now I value more the thinking-time: If I know what I want to say, I can usually find the time to sit down and say it. The “constant work” is complex, and involves more than writing that next scene of, say, a 35-year-old woman holding a teenage boy hostage, whom she caught tom-peeping her, and whom she shot. But now she has to dress his wounds, feed and care for him, and decide how to return him to his father, who scares her, who she thinks is abusing the boy. To add to that complexity, I’m currently promoting my novel The Bird Saviors, just out this summer, and have a deadline of November 1 for the final draft of a new book of short stories, which already has a publisher. All that is fine and dandy, but what I really want to do is write the new one, tentatively titled The Lost Person. (That may change. The title, I mean. I tend to come up with a dozen/20 titles before throwing up my hands in despair and choosing Contestant Number One, or whatever sounds good that day. My first title was The Donkey Woman. Then I thought: Hmmm. That may give the wrong impression. And the first words you see on a book shouldn’t give a wrong impression, right?)

When I don’t have the time to sit down and write, it seems I’m often driving. I drive and think, What should happen next? This woman is nicknamed The Tooth Fairy by the boy, because she looks like what he imagines the Tooth Fairy would, if the TF were real. She works at a bar/restaurant, and she hates drinkers and eaters. She constantly sees the big bellies and pink faces of Good Time Charlies, and she’s developed a decidedly sour view of mankind. Should the boy’s father be one of her customers? (Probably.) Should he make a pass at her? (Hmmm. Probably not. But maybe.) What about the boy’s mother? What happens if the father thinks someone else has abducted his son, and is certain he knows the identity of his abductor, but he’s wrong? What would he do? (I suspect this part will end very, very badly.)

What I see on the road often ends up in my fiction: In an early scene of The Bird Saviors, an ornithologist picks up a dead hawk’s body on the roadside (did that). On a recent trip I snapped this photo of what appears to be a unicorn, but what I guess to be a rather unusual white donkey. I’m betting that beast makes a cameo appearance in The Lost Person, or whatever it ends up being called—The Donkey Princess, maybe. Because wherever there’s a unicorn, a princess has to be waiting in the wings.

Wild in the Plaza of Memory: Pam Uschuk

Wild in the Plaza of Memory by Pamela Uschuk

We are very excited to announce the publication of Pamela Uschuk’s fifth poetry collection, WILD IN THE PLAZA OF MEMORY, by Wings Press, San Antonio, Texas.

The book is available from Amazon as well as online from the publisher at www.wingspress.com

It is a paperback, but it is also available as an eBook, iBook and on Kindle.

You can read Pam’s poems in Issue 7 of Superstition Review.