ZYZZYVA EventsDecember 12, 2018
Winter Issue Celebration
Location: 6:30 p.m., Dog Eared Books, 900 Valencia St., San Francisco
Description: Featuring readings by Issue No. 114 contributors Meron Hadero, Bruce Snider, Kate Folk, and David Drury. Free.
ZYZZYVA e-mail updates
In this issue:
Tales of the Uncanny
“Shelter” by Kate Folk: the concrete vault in the basement of a rented house exerts a strange pull on the woman living above it.
“Take the Water Prisoner” by Shawn Vestal: when the sins (and pains) of the father are visited upon the son.
“The Canyon” by Jim Ruland: the struggle for sobriety leads Lindsay to a confrontation she couldn’t have imagined.
“The Lake and the Onion” by David Drury: “There once was a lake who fell in love with an onion. This is merely what we 100 percent know.”
Michael Ondaatje on character, plot, West Marin, and diaspora.
Fabián Martínez Siccardi on revisiting his family’s stoical estancia (“Patagonian Fox”) and Teresa H. Janssen on relief work and refugees (“Adrift at Sea”)
And More Fiction and Poetry:
Meron Hadero’s “The Street Sweep” (a young man’s future may be decided at a hotel gathering in Addis Ababa), Karl Taro Greenfeld’s “The Golden Age of Television” (the particular tyranny of the writers’ room), Jane Gillette’s “Ten Little Feet” (a less-than-innocent tradition at a tony school for boys), plus new work from Jessica Francis Kane and Olivia Clare.
Poems by Bruce Snider, Austen Leah Rosenfeld, Flower Conroy, Ryanaustin Dennis, Heather Altfeld, Allison Adair, Moriel Rothman-Zecher, and Heather Christle
Art: Featuring photographs from Kate Ballis’s “Infra Realism” series.
Raging wildfires have devastated both Northern and Southern California over the last several weeks. The situation has been impossible to ignore here in the Bay Area, as smoke from the fires has led to tremendously poor air quality. We feel for those more immediately impacted by the fires –– the numerous missing and displaced –– and have assembled a list of places seeking donations.
7×7 has compiled a list of local causes we can contribute to, including Disaster Relief funds and donation collections. The San Francisco SPCA has set up a fundraiser, specifically to provide care and treatment for animals affected by the fires. Eater SF offers a list of bars, restaurants, and breweries offering specials to benefit fire recovery. The Yuba-Sutter Habitat for Humanity has created a fund to help Camp Fire evacuees with essential needs.
Please feel free to share links to similar relief efforts in the Comments below.
Charles Harper Webb’s Sidebend World (78 pages; University of Pittsburgh Press) contains some genuinely lovely and worthwhile poems. At his best, Webb is funny and self-effacingly honest, delivering poems that are intimate and warm. Unfortunately, other poems in the book often border on careless—that is, they rely on weak associations or seem half-halfheartedly crafted. Worse, however, some poems contain stereotypical portrayals of others and humor that some will likely find offensive.
First, let’s consider the positive aspects of Sidebend World. My favorite poem in the book, “Turtle Hunt,” is one that I could return to time and time again. The rhymes are both obvious and hidden. And the poem is interspersed with formal meter in lines like:
But at the bayou—where dragonflies, metallic red
and blue, snap up mosquitoes over tea-stained
water full of tadpoles, crayfish, punkinseeds—
Teddy flops into a snarl of thorny weeds,
and being 5, runs home crying. Carol, afraid
to mess her dress, whines, “I’ve got to go,”
and scampers back to Barbie. I’m left alone . . .
It’s a lovely, thoughtful poem with universal appeal and a satisfying conclusion. This is the kind of work that stays with a reader.
“Nice People Aren’t So Bad,” another of Webb’s poems that I admire, contains some of the same formal elements as “Turtle Hunt.” The stanzas are tight and follow a fairly strict syllabic count, which, along with the subtle rhymes, carries the rhythm of the poem. More importantly, the poem feels intimate, focused, and genuine. The reader believes these are people the speaker knows and things that actually happened to him. Here are some lines that I think convey the essence of the poem:
In a four-man lifeboat, they’ll let a fifth
climb in and share their food: extremely
stupid, unless the fifth is you.
Nice people don’t call the sky punch-
in-the-eye blue. They won’t so much as kiss
if either one is married to someone else,
though they may say, “I really like you,”
in a cherry-blossom shower, then rush
away . . .
Aside from the “cherry-blossom shower,” this poem is as grounded in reality as Marge Piercy’s “To be of use” and is told in as relatable a voice. Other standouts in Sidebend World include “Have I Got a Script for You” and “Nice Hat.”
Matthew Genitempo’s forthcoming book of photographs, Jasper (96 pages; Twin Palms Publishers; available for pre-orders now), explores a region of the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas where people live apart from the well-established norms of American life. Born and raised in the Houston area, now based in Marfa, Genitempo previously worked mostly in the Southwest; however, Jasper, his first book, represents a journey he made farther east while he was an MFA student at the Hartford Art School.
The black-and-white photographs in this book capture a series of solitary men and the remote homes they’ve made in a lush and hardbound pocket of the country. The images contain an ambiguity somewhere between loneliness and solitude, documentation and imagination, and in turn reflect the ways in which a book of poetry might weave gestural narratives based in elegy and evocative landscape. Inspired by the life and work of Arkansas poet and land surveyor Frank Stanford, Jasper transcends this reference to show how the past is lost and found—and lost again—in our contemporary moment.
I met Genitempo during a recent trip to Marfa, where we talked in the Lost Horse Saloon, the Hotel Saint George, and out in total darkness at a poet friend’s house in the Fort Davis Mountains. This interview was conducted over the phone six months later.
ZYZZYVA: I want to talk about the early days when you started pushing to escape the day-to-day and drove around a lot and took pictures by going places that might be unsafe.
Matthew Genitempo: I want to say that I understood that aspect of picture-making very early on. I remember seeing Stephen Shore’s work, William Eggleston’s work and Robert Frank’s work and a lot of pictures that were made while traveling. Not so much Eggleston, but Shore, Frank, and Robert Adams, too. I think I quickly understood that photography had opened up an unknown world for them, so maybe it could do that for me. I took a couple of photography classes in high school but I didn’t really take them seriously. I learned how to use the darkroom and everything, but I was playing in bands and playing sports, so I wasn’t very interested in photography at the time. I also wasn’t exposed to those artists I mentioned earlier.
Fast forward to college, I was studying graphic design and I took a photography course as an elective, and that’s when I was introduced to those artists. Immediately when I discovered that work, I started emulating them. They were my heroes. I started going to the seedier parts of town, downtown and the outskirts of town, bringing my camera along and making pictures. Then I started going to the smaller towns in that part of the state. I started seeing my peers making work where they were actually traveling, so I wanted to do that, too. I went out to west Texas and made pictures out here. It was a pretty natural progression. From there, my first big trip when I was out for more than a weekend came when I was working a graphic design job and I took some time off, and I went out to New Mexico for the week. It felt like I was on another planet. I felt so far away from everything I knew. I didn’t grow up traveling in the car too much. We didn’t travel very often, and when we did it was to visit my folks’ farm, or if we went on a family vacation we normally flew somewhere. So I felt like I missed out on a lot of that growing up. That was the first road experience that I had. The first one that had lived in my imagination.
In his newest book, John Woman (377 pages; Grove Atlantic), Walter Mosley reflects on truth versus perception as embodied in the life of a man who reinvents himself into the novel’s title character. Raised by a white mother with a habit of running away and a bedridden black father nearing death, Cornelius Jones experiences a childhood that is nothing if not difficult. As a boy he’s forced to pay his family’s bills by posing as his father (the first of more alter identities to come), assuming his job as a projectionist at a silent movie theatre. The pressure of covering up his identity leads to a fateful encounter with his boss one evening in the projection room, resulting in a crime that will dog Cornelius.
From this opening, the novel leaps in time to when Cornelius has become John Woman, a professor of history at the New University of the Southwest. His class is titled “Introduction to Deconstructionist Historical Devices,” a subject seemingly prompted by his father’s interests in the validity of history. In his lectures, Woman focuses on the reliability of history and how it ties into each student’s individual life.
Though his insight is renowned and admired by students and teachers alike, Woman is nonetheless admonished by many in the same community, creating no end of trouble for him, trouble made even more pointed by the specter of what happened in that projection room years ago.
As the narrative often returns to Woman’s scholarly lectures and conversations, one particular observation could serve as the core concern of the entire novel:
History is only, is always little more than an innuendo, a suggestion that we decide to believe or not … We shall fail because history is that unsteady ground I spoke of. It is not a rigid truth but an ever-changing reality. If it were an ironclad actuality then we would be able to learn from it. But all we can do is learn about its edges, insinuations, and negative spaces.
This understanding seems to be of comfort to Woman as he undergoes great tribulations near the end of the novel. That “ever-changing reality” of history is directly reflected in his identity, profession, relationships—his life in its entirety. Through the character of John Woman, Mosley demonstrates that truth is nothing more than the perception of itself, which can be terrifying or, oddly enough, consoling.
In the end, the dramatic irony of John Woman leads us to question what we really know to be true, perhaps even bringing us to sympathize with the so-called “criminals” we have been told to vilify by society.
The first image we encounter in America, We Call Your Name: Poetry of Resistance and Resilience (203 pages; Sixteen Rivers Press) is that of Lady Liberty in the midst of a grey fog; it’s unclear as to whether she is receding or emerging.
The editors have stated that the impetus for this anthology was a desire to help unify the country after the 2016 Presidential Election. The Trump Administration symbolizes the oppression that these poets are resisting; the collection acknowledges that the election woke up many people who had grown politically complacent.
For this anthology, Sixteen Rivers Press, a shared work-collective of Northern California poets, gathered material from writers of numerous backgrounds and eras. To produce a democratic work that responds to the “cultural, moral, and political rifts that now divide our country,” they sought “poems of resistance and resilience, witness and vision, that embody what it means to be a citizen in a time when our democracy is threatened.”
From Virgil and Dante and Shakespeare to Pablo Neruda, Po Chu-I, and Thursday’s just posted “Poem-a-Day,” the vast array of voices is inspiring. Many of these poems touch on themes of land, belonging, and truth, yet the spirit of resistance imbues every selection , no matter the era—although it is disheartening that we are still asking the same questions without finding any lasting answers. America, We Call Your Name reminds us that the conviction of resistance is timeless and inevitable.
Frank Bidart’s poem “Mourning where we thought we were” arrives early in the collection:
therefore, thank you Lord/
Whose Bounty Proceeds by Paradox,/
For showing us we have failed to change.
This despondent sentiment lingers through many of the poems. In “Money,” Jane Mead asks, How did the earth come to belong to humans?
But it wasn’t possible –by then the water didn’t belong to the salmon anymore, by then
The water didn’t belong the river.
The water didn’t belong to the water.
Like the layers of a geological formation, the questions these poems ask exist in sedimentary sympathy. Centuries before our current moment, Dante also wrote in the spirit of resistance. The anthology features an excerpt of Dante’s Paradiso – from the moment in the epic trilogy when he faces exile from Heaven.
You shall leave behind all you most dearly love/
and that shall be the arrow first loosed from the exile’s bow.
These words are already poignant within the diegetic context of the poem, but they bear even more emotional weight with the knowledge the author himself was condemned to exile. Dante knew the pain of losing one’s home in the wake of oppressive regimes. He also wrote the Commedia in Italian: the vulgar language, the language of the people.
Dean Rader writes, “[Poems] are the instruments of the people, not the palace.” Each poem is a voice raised against the hegemonic castle of oppressive societal structures, joining together in a symphony of resilience. From ancient to contemporary voices, the poet’s essence remains constant: we ask questions. To the extant power systems, we ask why. Art does not acquiesce – it rebels.
Emma Lazarus composes a vision of the Statue of Liberty. She writes:
A mighty woman whose flame/
is imprisoned lightning, and her name/
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand/
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command/
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame
America, We Call Your Name invites us to think for ourselves: do we view the future as the Statue of Liberty emerging from her cage of fog, or is she disappearing into the shroud? The existence of the anthology itself – a collaboration of passionate humans – may compel us to see Lady Liberty coming out of the fog, continuing in her resistance even in the midst of seemingly inescapable despair. Without hope, there is little to hold on to. As we struggle in search of the strength to carry on, the work of great poets like those in this anthology might serve as a beacon guiding our way.
In 1986, a fire at the Los Angeles Central Library raged so fiercely, firefighters noted the strong potential for a flashover –– when a fire spreads rapidly across a gap due to extreme heat. “Flashover” is similar to the effect one experiences reading Susan Orlean’s The Library Book (336 pages; Simon & Schuster). It’s difficult to pull away from the story when her incisive research skills and masterful writing work in symbiosis: The Library Book is not just a sweeping narrative recounting the 1986 Los Angeles Central Library fire, but also an in-depth look at the personal, civic, and global impact a library can have.
Although Harry Peak has long been suspected as the arsonist behind the fire, the precise cause of the blaze remains a mystery to this day. Peak was originally from Santa Fe Springs, but moved to Los Angeles –– as most aspiring actors do –– after a stint in the Army at age eighteen. He never made it to the silver screen, but he did appear on the local news in 1987 when he was arrested on suspicion of arson. He was described by many as a compulsive liar, which is partially why Peak was never indicted. No one could ascertain if Peak was even at the library when the fire started because he continually fabricated and then contradicted one alibi after the other.
In addition to her investigation into Harry Peak, Orlean examines history to add context to why someone would want to burn down a library in the first place: “libraries are usually burned because they contain ideas one finds problematic,” she notes. She harkens back to the Spanish Inquisition, wherein Spaniards created a community gathering around the act of burning books they deemed heretic, such as the Torah. With some trepidation, Orlean even burned a book herself in order to truly immerse herself in her research.
Orlean describes the personal significance of the library institution: for her, the library is a reminder of the trips she took with her mother, to whom she credits for instilling her love of literature. She saw that same parent-child bond mirrored in the present when she brought her son to the library because he –– to Orlean’s surprise –– wanted to interview a librarian for a school assignment. She calls books our cultural DNA, “a code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know.” A library is one of the safest and most open places in a community, and to burn it down would be tantamount to terrorism. For the Senegalese people, Orlean notes, saying “his or her library has burned” is a polite way to address someone’s passing; she shares a cerebral yet heartwarming contemplation of the term:
Our minds and souls contain volumes made of our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it —with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited— it takes a life of its own.
Reading The Library Book is not unlike combing through the stacks of your local branch: it exposes many truths, and offers answers as well as questions. While the fire at the Los Angeles Central Library may be long forgotten –– even when it occurred, it was soon eclipsed in the headlines by the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl the same week –– Orlean’s genuine ardor for this peculiar and overlooked story is adroitly conveyed by her prose—the fuel igniting this literary page-turner.
San Francisco’s most cherished holiday –– that’s right, Halloween –– is nearly upon us. That means it’s colder and darker outside before you know it, so what better excuse to curl up in bed with a (frightfully) good book? In keeping with the spirit of the season, we’ve assembled a list of recommended reads that might just help you keep warm, that is, if they don’t chill you to the bone.
Laura Cogan, Editor: The dehumanizing violence of American racism and white power is the horror at the heart of Hari Kunzru’s novel, White Tears. I read it earlier this year, as a part of the Tournament of Books (where I offered commentary in the opening round), and though there were aspects that I wish had been developed more, the novel has stayed with me. It can be fascinating when the genre of horror is used incisively (either in film or narrative) to address social concerns. In this regard, Kunzru’s book is timely and memorable—both for its visceral evocation of the way we are haunted, whether we can perceive it and admit it or not, by slavery, and for its treatment of contemporary racism.
As I noted earlier this year, White Tears drives home a serious point about the present-day legacies of our shameful past by making use of the propulsive conventions of the horror genre. But the novel is especially impressive for its layered critique of white exploitation of black Americans in many guises over generations. Issues of ownership, possession, and obsession come up in several forms throughout the book—and interwoven with this motif is a suggested critique of capitalism itself.
Part of the horror evoked here has to do with being disenfranchised. Which is a condition, if we pause to really dwell on it, as essentially horrifying as any. As one of Kunzru’s characters observes: “When you are powerless, your belief or disbelief is irrelevant. No one gives a damn about what you believe. But if some reality believes in you, then you must live it. You can’t say no thank you. You can’t say I don’t want this. If horror believes in you, there’s nothing to be done.”
Peyton Harvey, Intern: After seeing the live production of X in London, I immediately purchased a ticket to see it again the following week. From the mind of Alistair McDowall comes a play that is exhilarating, mind-bending, and heartfelt. It’s the kind of story that you’ll want to revisit and absorb every detail that you may have missed. The stage production is magical, but the deftly crafted script is able to stand alone and conjures extremely visceral images in the mind of the reader.
X, its the title befitting its enigmatic plot, serves as a measure of humanity and relationships through the lens of time. The play fuses elements of sci-fi, horror, and thriller; however, at its core it is a exploration of the human condition. We begin on a research station on Pluto with four astronauts: Gilda, Clark, Ray, and Cole. But soon the play’s timeline, like the minds of its characters, grows warped. The start of the play actually falls somewhere near the middle of the chronological narrative. The author presents clues to indicate where we are in the story: a watch only worn in certain scenes, the letter x written, apparently in blood, on the window.
The characters struggle to maintain their sanity as their memories begin to fade and merge together. In Act II, the in-house meteorologist Cole realizes that the station’s main clock and other means of keeping time have stopped working. As a result, none of the characters can tell how long they’ve been away from Earth, or even how many hours they’ve been awake.
Over time –– whatever that word means to them now –– they becomes increasingly less sure of who they are. McDowall adds an eerie levity to the plot as two characters play the game Guess Who, a game with definite questions and answers. Do I have blonde hair? Yes. Am I wearing a hat? No. Before long, the players lose their grip on their identities. Without any reference point to time back on Earth, they become more unstable.
While there are horrifying images of bloody letters sprawled on walls and the ghostly sound of a young girl’s voice, what proves most frightening is the slow realization that there is no escape from the characters’ increasing disconnect from reality.
X delves into the fragility of the human psyche. In one instance, Ray explains that he maintains his sanity by playing recordings of bird sounds: “I try to hold onto birds in particular.” Gilda, near breaking point, replies, “Hold onto X, X in particular.” The theme of holding on appears throughout the play. We are asked: who are we if we do not possess our own thoughts and memories? What do you hold onto when you are losing your very self?
M.M. Silva, Intern: The Alchemaster’s Apprentice by Walter Moers is one of my all-time favorites for many reasons. It takes its readers on a spooky adventure through a disease-ridden village called Zamonia ruled by an “alchemaster” named Goolion. It has the ability to either place you on the rough carpet of your fifth grade classroom, reading the coolest story of your youth or actually bring you into the story itself as the conflicted main character Echo. Echo is an ownerless “crat,” essentially a cat that can speak any language with a slightly different internal anatomy than other cats. This ends up putting Echo in a scary situation, as Goolion needs the fat of a crat for his own evil purposes.
It may sound like the the kind of imaginative fiction you’d read during childhood, but Moers’ novel is a perfect pick for Halloween and might add a little spice to your book list.
Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: “I think that what we all want is facts,” says Luke early on in Shirley Jackson’s classic 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. “Something we can understand and put together.” Yet in Hill House, as in all great horror tales, “the facts” are exceedingly difficult to come by and increasingly irrelevant in the face of the world’s terror. As the story opens, Shirley Jackson introduces four characters to the imposing and architecturally irregular world of Hill House as a means to investigate just how precarious our notions of logic, self, and sanity can be. Following in the tradition of writers as venerable as Poe and Lovecraft, Jackson understood that the most terrible terrain fiction can navigate is not a fog-ridden graveyard or castle crypt, but the human mind. Her prose is so effective at capturing the anxiety-ridden interiority of her main character, Eleanor Vance, that it’s easy to imagine the strange noises and disturbances of Hill House as merely the product of mental illness. Many readers have noted Eleanor’s similarities to Jackson herself: both suffered under the thrall of a domineering mother and felt increasingly stifled by domestic life.
Of course, Jackson herself professed to critics that she did, indeed, believe in ghosts –– and she writes The Haunting of Hill House with the conviction of a believer. “Fear is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns,” claims the measured and quite rational Doctor Montague, who has summoned these three strangers to Hill House. “We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.” But how to hold onto logic, how to fight fear at a scene like the one Jackson describes during Eleanor and Theodora’s nocturnal stroll of the Hill House grounds: “On either side of them the trees, silent, relinquished the dark color they had held, paled, grew transparent and stood white and ghastly against the black sky. The grass was colorless, the path wide and black; there was nothing else.” It’s difficult to imagine a better treat during the October season than to savor such a passage as Halloween draws near. But the pleasures of Jackson’s novel run deep –– indeed, it’s actually quite hilarious at parts, particularly once Dr. Montague’s brash wife enters the scene –– and there’s no need to shelve the book after the 31st. The Haunting’s closing chapters make it quite clear that, for Eleanor, the greatest horror might not be found in the slanted halls of Hill House, but in being forced to confront the overwhelming loneliness of her life as she prepares to depart. It’s this observation from Jackson that ensures the novel registers as insightful and even profound.
Bjorn Svendsen, Intern: Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort, released in 1989, is an epic 800-page horror novel which twists the traditional vampire mythos by featuring human monsters. Its title comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem about spiritual despair, but the novel is about “mind vampires”— human beings with the psychic talent to control others with only a glance. These mind vampires sustain themselves with the emotional energy of others while forcing them to do their bidding like human puppets. Simmons writes in the introduction: “Absolute power does more than corrupt us absolutely, it gives us the blood-power taste of total control. Such control is more addicting than heroin. It is the addiction of mind vampirism.”
Carrion Comfort opens with a prologue. The protagonist, Saul Laski, is a Jewish man imprisoned in Chelmno extermination camp. There he encounters one of the novel’s perversely evil antagonists, an SS Colonel named Wilhelm von Borchert. Laski is forced into a game of human chess, where the people standing in for pieces are slaughtered when taken off the board. Laski survives the encounter and the war, and by the early eighties, has become a studied psychiatrist with a deep understanding of human violence. He has never forgotten his torture at the hands of a mind vampire, and devotes himself to understanding their rare and terrible talent, and ultimately, to destroying them. While Carrion Comfort is primarily a horror novel about facing adversity, it also balances elements of science fiction and the spy thriller. The novel features multiple characters, and the majority of the narrative is presented in third person. The first person is sparingly used for chapters featuring one of the novel’s main antagonists, exposing the workings of a psychopathic mind to chilling effect.
Carrion Comfort is a powerful meditation on corruption, violence, and the human will, and it is no surprise that it won the Bram Stoker Award the year of its publication. Stephen King has called Carrion Comfort, “One of the three greatest horror novels of the twentieth century.” Need I say more?
My goal was to wake with nothing
in my head –– it’s nice to begin a day
having already achieved. Sunlight
on the dead grass of the ski slope.
A lone runner works his way up
the fire road, a dull throb in my ankle
where it twisted on the edge of getting
younger, of celebrating my luck
in still being able to run. Ralph, my friend,
has been trying to convince me for years
that the life of an adult is boring
but I’ve never aspired to the life
of an adult. My wife holds up a diaper,
“A pound of pee.” There’s joy in that.
In another city, strangers excavate
our old lives to make room for our
new ones. Why we don’t say we’re lucky
and leave it at that, I don’t know. “You know,”
I say, “there’s enough water in Lake Tahoe
to fill a canal fifty feet wide and two hundred
feet deep from San Francisco to Los Angeles.”
A full sentence that startles me but I’m
still not ready to say something big,
something about grace and the rhythms
of a body moving from half state to awake
and someone on the stereo is already
asking if this life would be easier
if I had someone else to blame. Outside,
a shriek and giggle –– the girls
we listened to last night
smoke their first cigarette, cough
in the high of transgression, run
through the grass to cheer
camp. My ankle throb synchs
with the sprinklers. I do a Jesus
stretch and my daughter clears
her sore throat like a prop plane.
Noah Blaustein has had published poems in ZYZZYVA, the Massachusetts Review, the Harvard Review, Barrow Street, Poetry Daily, The Fish Anthology (selected by Billy Collins), Orion, Pleiades, and many other journals. Noah’s first book, Flirt, was selected by Kevin Prufer for University of New Mexico’s Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series edited by Hilda Ras. The anthology he edited, Motion: American Sports Poems, was an editor’s pick of National Public Radio and The Boston Globe as well as a Librarian’s Pick of the New York Public Library.
Ghost Guessed (156 pages; Mesæstándar) is an exquisite meditation on grief, loss, and family ties in a world increasingly given over to technology. A combination of prose and photography, the work takes a unique approach to creative nonfiction by telling a highly personal story through the blended voice of co-authors Paul Kwiatkowski and Tom Griggs. The book opens in the spring of 2014 as our unnamed narrator finds himself traveling to Malaysia with his wife just three weeks after Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 vanished over the South China Sea. The plane’s mysterious disappearance triggers the narrator’s memories of his cousin, Andrew Lindberg, who similarly vanished in 2009 while flying a single-engine plane near the town of Staples, Minnesota. It’s worth noting that Lindberg is Tom Griggs’ real life cousin, and Ghost Guest features a host of what appears to be authentic family photographs. The ambiguity as to which author can be attributed for the story lends to the spectral quality of the work and blurs the line between truth and non-truth. “The boundaries of reality became fluid,” the narrator states, “and while we knew they would reset, we didn’t know what form they would take.”
These twin disappearances create dual timelines in the book––one in which the narrator recalls his malaise following the financial crash of 2008-09 and the discovery of his cousin’s downed plane in the White Earth Indian Reservation, and the other chronicling his trip to Malaysia as he becomes increasingly unmoored by memories of the past. Threading these moments together is the omnipresence of technology in our lives, as well as the far-reaching absence the death of a loved one can create. “Today it is no longer a question of whether there are images of an event,” the narrator muses, “but a question of what to show from all we have and how to show it to the largest possible audience.”
When we can spend all day scrolling through “an aggregation of social media posts and crime-scene pics, ISIS propaganda and high-end real estate listings, surveillance stills and police bodycam footage,” one might expect we’d find it easier to parse truth from the world around us. Instead, we find “mountain digital archives that hem us in,” and we are left to ponder the same questions the writer does when he reluctantly takes a job photographing foreclosed houses in the Midwest during the financial crisis: “How do you make meaningful work amidst endless images? How do you make shapes from the sea?”
In Ghost Guessed, the ominousness of the Information Age––with its “Predator drones making civilians fear clear blue skies, and the shifting satellite and radar grids recording our lives as they unfolded,” as well as what seems to be the increased occurrence of aviation accidents during the last decade––is set in contrast with the bonds of family. Home photographs from before and after Andrew Lindberg’s death capture stray moments of intimacy among kin, as well as the visible sense of loss seen upon the faces of bereaved relatives. The book’s sparse prose underscores this state with its quiet, humane details, as when the narrator reflects on a mundane occurrence during the search for Andrew’s downed plane: “I remember pulling a sandwich from a cooler and immediately feeling the banality of the moment, the lack of reverence of everyday events amid catastrophe.”
Most of the photographs in Ghost Guessed possess the texture of analog media, a clear reminder of how previous generations used to document their lives on film, compared to the increasing digitization of this era, our memories now reduced to Facebook feeds, Instagram photos, and the ambiguity of “The Cloud.” The narrator observes, “A triangle emerged: camera, society, and sky bound in a system of infinite visible relationships, increasing the probability of finding a pattern we could grasp.” But what happens when no such pattern emerges? Ghost Guessed is frank about the harsh truths of middle age, of finding yourself no more grounded or certain than when you were young. “…I wondered if I’d ever live up to my own expectations,” the narrator reflects, “I could start over and still never get past the beginning.”
It’s fitting then that Ghost Guessed ends exactly as it starts: in uncertainty as murky and grey as the roiling clouds that adorn its back cover. In tracing the lingering hold of technology on us, from disasters in the skies to social media feeds, and the devastating losses that can impact a family for years, Paul Kwiatkowski and Tom Griggs have crafted the rare multimedia work that one can declare profound.