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A World of TV Eyes: ‘The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe’ by D.G. Compton

MortenhoeFrom Google Glass to drone warfare and genetic modification, it’s fair to say that our contemporary world bears more than a passing resemblance to the science-fiction novels of yesteryear. Originally published in 1974, English writer D.G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, recently reprinted by New York Review Books Classics, is a vintage piece of speculative fiction that feels of the here and now, and startlingly so.

Mortenhoe opens on a society that could very well be our own in another fifteen years: a culture rife with economic disparity, where most diseases have been eradicated and the populace is sated by reality television programs that chronicle the lives of their subjects in unnerving detail. It’s an era when middle-class life resembles a “bland, painless, deathless advertiser’s dream.” Enter Katherine Mortenhoe, an average woman who finds herself unexpectedly stricken with a rare terminal illness. Her brain is literally shutting down from its inability to cope with the nonstop rush of sensory information that defines 21st century life.

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A Terrible Twist of Fate, the Birth of a Writer: ‘Will & I’ by Clay Byars

Will & I Clay Byars’ memoir, Will & I (192 pages; FSG Originals), could have opened on the car crash that changes Byars’ life at 20. It could have opened nine months after the crash when surgery that is supposed to fix the nerve damage in his shoulder results in a stroke that leaves him paralyzed and near death once more. It could have even opened on the stroke itself, the dizziness and life receding “to a dreamlike distance.” It could have opened on any one of the many dramatic circumstances punctuating Byars’ life, but instead it opens on a singing lesson.

After his stroke, Byars not only loses the ability to move but also the ability to speak. Gradually, he regains a limited mobility and a shaky, barely intelligible version of his old voice. With the help of his singing coach, Dewin, he learns to control it, or rather he learns how to trust sound waves to do their work. At the end of one of his first lessons, Byars feels his voice come in tune with the piano. “The sound,” he writes, “no longer had a ceiling.” The rest of the memoir follows the author slowly and painstakingly removing the ceilings fate keeps thrusting over him. And he does believe in fate, in a writerly way: “The notion of fate only appears when we consider ourselves as unified consciousnesses moving through time, but such an identity is merely a role—or at least that’s how I’ve come to see it.”

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A Profile of Kay Ryan by John Freeman: ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring/Summer

It’s 1 p.m. on a fall afternoon and sunlight has been clobbering San Francisco all day. Kay Ryan is on a roll. We’re seated outside the Presidio Social Club, oysters have just arrived, the spread excellent. I wonder aloud if the creatures might still be alive, which sets Ryan—surely the funniest serious poet since Philip Larkin—onto a new riff. “It’s ending right between my teeth, probably,” she says, biting down. “I mean, they open them up when they serve them to you.” She points at the plate. “Those could still be hoping, Maybe this is just a bad dream.”

We chuckle darkly at this, but, of course, it isn’t a bad dream. The temperature in San Francisco is pushing eighty, and it’s a reminder that the planet is getting hotter, sea levels are rising. Ryan is not the Rachael Carson of our time, but she has written a poem, “Help,” which hints at what days like this might be saying to us, if we can hear them. The poem asks what pitch of help is necessary, what do the stakes have to be, to  make us listen. It finishes: “It’s hard, / coming from a planet / where if we needed something / we had it.”

This is a classic Ryan landing: a line that forks into two meanings several times, never collapsing. Perhaps the planet, and not just us, is saying help, not us. Then, moments after you’ve read the poem, the past-tenseness of “had” makes itself felt and the poem transforms into a kind of pre-elegy. Things can get used, and we might just have consumed the greatest—the only resource—of value, ever: life itself. All of that in fifteen lines.

For Ryan, though, this is just the tip of a majestic iceberg. In hundreds of poems, stretching from the 1960s to this past year, when she released Erratic Facts, her first new collection in six years, she has created a body of work of intellectual rigor and joy unmatched in her time. Her neatly carpentered verse, with its disassembled rhyming couplets and floating rhetorical questions, are the poetry world’s neutron stars. You can read around and through them endlessly and they never lose their luminosity or virtue. The more you read them the greater their pull becomes.

She begins in the natural world. From plate tectonics to genetics and species migration, fluid mechanics and gravitational vectors, her poems bring the elemental forces of the earth to bear—as metaphors and simply as themselves—on a series of ideas she has been obsessed with since she began to write. How do things work, and why aren’t we more in awe of how they do? Is life folly when evidence of temporality is all around us? Does it matter if we are tricked into believing our arrangements matter? What does greed mean in these contexts, and is this greed related to our capacity for consumption, to use things—and people—right up? And why aren’t we more struck by how destruction and creation sit so neatly together?

You read through Ryan’s work, and the whole animal world comes tumbling out like a bestiary she has unleashed down the gangplanks of her poetry. These creatures are not characters, not decoration; they bear with them all their spooky strangeness. Horses, birds, big cats, salamanders, zebra, goslings, herring, alligators (with their “three-foot-grin”), octopus, fox, osprey, crow, camel, bison, jellyfish, and more traipse through her short, skinny, perfectly made poems. Her poems can be funny, too, which is another way of saying they feint and throw you off their scent. They don’t toss melancholy over you like a blanket or a mist; their sadness sneaks up after the laughing ends. The effect is mesmerizing, even entertaining, but dark and strange. Ryan fell in love with poetry through Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne, and Emily Dickinson, and her work unfurls from these influences with the odd ghoulish bounce of early American scripture, but with the spatial arrangements and unfussy atheism of someone raised in the desert. Want proof everything ends? Just look around you.


In person, she downplays this steeliness of vision with unaffected good cheer. The paradox of Ryan, as a poet and a person, is how brightly she delivers her bad news, because maybe it’s not all that bad. As oysters are consumed, we move on to one of her favorite topics—how everything ends—and then something new begins. Does she still run? Ryan never ran a marathon but she’s spent a lot of time on the roads. Now, her back is shot, so she has had to stop. “I got to run for forty years, most people don’t get to run that long.” Swimming didn’t work for her; “I’m not a water person,” she says, sounding, again, like a stand-up comic, “I’m more of a sand person.” Now she’s back on her bike three times a week after having a bad accident with a car that left her with a broken pelvis, collarbone, and ribs. You wouldn’t know it from looking at her. She looks like a sun-blasted fifty, if that. Her eyes alive through her spectacles, her ears snatching puns out of thin air.

The effect is that in person Kay Ryan appears to be more awake and alive than is normal or, perhaps, is natural. I wonder to what degree this is the best defense against nothingness, something her poems look at, against the way it can, if contemplated too closely, engender a smug gloom. Perhaps there is warmth in endings—think of starlight and the like. In fact, there’s a Ryan poem about that, too: “Not proximity / but distance / burns us with love,” she writes in “Star Block.” What if you got right up close to nothingness, but did so with a huge amount of energy. Later, I take a short cut and suggest doom as a kind of theme of hers, and she gently deflects the question. “I am not pro-doom; everything is not on the slippery slope to doom. And on the next occasion the experiment may miraculously work! The eggs may quicken!”

I have a few theories as to why Ryan can maintain this seemingly improbable position of poise, and one of them has to do with how she experiences time, which makes it difficult to write a profile of her with any kind of intellectual integrity. Unlike most people, she doesn’t believe in narrative, at all. Not as a restorative tool, and certainly not in the scale of her life. “Do you know this guy Galen Strawson?” she asks, by way of explanation. “He’s a British philosopher. His idea is that most people are of the narrative persuasion. But there is a minority, an important minority, that is completely overlooked. And these people are constructed in a different way. They have an episodic way and aren’t really convinced by chronology. They see in another way.”

Pause for a moment to consider all the baggage from which this way of seeing liberates Ryan. Her poems don’t have to tell her story, don’t have to reveal anything. They don’t even have to sequence in quite the same tidy way so much poetry does today. For Ryan, it’s not that every moment has the same weight. Rather, she views existence as moments that can be followed by a better one, or a different, or even a worse one. “If these poems have any kind of independent life,” Ryan says, “it’s certainly not as little snapshots of me.” At lunch, as the sun reaches its zenith, this narrative-free capacity makes her exceptionally good company. She’s a kind of Zorro of small talk and big ideas. There’s a speedy, tense feeling to being with her.

She is, in many senses, the one who escaped, the one whose family left the Mojave and then who worked her way out of the San Joaquin Valley. (Even though she was living in the agricultural capital of the West, her family didn’t eat fresh vegetables, she points out while relishing our lunch.) Her father—“a big, tall Dane,” “an honest man and a hard worker”—ran a trucking company during World War II, and then, unsuccessfully, tried to grow peanuts in Riverside County. “As soon he got any money he always wanted to go into business for himself,” Ryan says. “And then when he did, it always failed.” Her mother, perhaps coincidentally, pointed her toward the practical. “I asked my mother when I was starting high school, I said, ‘What do you think I should do?’ and she said, ‘Well, I think you should take a secretarial course so that if your husband dies, you’ll have a way to support the children.’”

Instead, Ryan learned at an early age to depend on herself by first being herself. This was before it was clear to her that literature would be her vocation. She can remember, while eating on this sunny deck, the moment she discovered the need to protect that fundamental mote of a self, that something she had yet to externalize in her poetry, but which lays beneath her work as surely as bedrock rests under soil. “Maybe I was a freshman in high school. I remember lying on my bed, and I decided I was going to hypnotize myself. I was going to say something to myself so that I could never ever forget. It would go all the way into my bones. And I had to never forget because I was in danger of losing myself. What I repeated to myself was, ‘Be what you are.’ I think I repeated it to myself for hours.”

Ryan has since developed a way in the world, a radical self-reliance mixed with devotional fervor to seeing clearly how the world is, appreciating all of it. Ryan’s poetry pirouettes so neatly around ideas and vernacular turns of phrase, her way of communicating this, if you will, can hide in plain site, as, for example, in her poem “Least Action.” It’s a paean to paying attention to what is here, to just simply “tinkering with the fit/of what’s available.” She is a problem solver, a riddler, an arranger, and a thinking tinkerer. She’s a holy DIYer: the kind of woman who can keep a ’68 VW bus running into the 1980s and reroof her house (with the guidance of a Sunset book), but also use the vice of her mind to compress the world’s absurdities into poetry as slender and rivet-less as bullets.

Order your copy of Issue No. 106.


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Thwarted Pilgrimage: ‘White Sands’ by Geoff Dyer

White Sands There are a few different types of ignorance at work in Geoff Dyer’s new book, White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World, a collection of essays that combine travel writing and art criticism. One kind is artificial ignorance as an interpretative tool. Often, when he is ignoring information, sloughing off context on which another critic might lean all his weight, Dyer (or the genre-bending author’s narrator whom I will call Dyer) is at his sharpest. In “Space in Time,” the author travels to Quemado, New Mexico, to see Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, but he holds off telling us this information until the second half of the essay. In the meantime, he makes surprising observations about the experience of viewing the work, the most intriguing of which concern absence. The “abundance of poles and wind” creates “an implied absence of flags.” Another art pilgrim is walking around at twilight holding a champagne glass, which, “for most of that hour, had been empty.” As night falls, the viewers are “in the midst of what may once have been considered a variety of religious experience. Absence had given way to presence.” Even after he tells us what we are looking at, he continues constructing his analysis around a hypothetical lack of data, ignoring De Maria’s “obsessively minute inventory and visionary manifesto, ‘The Lighting Field: Some Facts, Notes, Data, Information, Statistics and Statements,’” in favor of a “subterfuge of inconceivable ignorance”: “So what if we visited the site years hence and had to try to figure out for ourselves what was happening here, what forces were at work with no art-historical context (minimalism, conceptualism, taking work out of the gallery into the expanded field, etc.)?” Not knowing exactly where we are can give us a much clearer idea of where we are.

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‘On the Road’ by Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch: ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring

The thing you’d think she would’ve been good at
was sitting still but Madame Tussaud
spent thirty-six years touring the country
in a horse-drawn cart packed with wax
effigies of the nearly-dead, the long-dead
and those whose heads were freshly off the block.
Hers was both travelling newspaper and a show
whose cast stayed motionless at all her gigs. Alone
but for her set of replicas jolting at every pothole,

she’d take each face between her hands
and kiss it sweet goodnight in Leicester, Sheffield,
Inverness, give talks on wax: the facts
(don’t model outside). For those who’d fallen
out of favor she’d chisel off their heads.
In Marylebone Road right now people are
standing in lines to pay to file past people standing in lines
who’ve been dead for years but made to look alive.
To make the dead appear living, the living dead

without quite meaning to, is a skill I cannot
yet take in and one that started life in death
masks where she’d reanimate the guillotined.
Before you go, did you know Madame herself
was shipwrecked once off the west of Ireland
and all her wax companions dived wide-eyed
to the seabed only to pop to the surface one
by one when the vessel rotted away and startle
the fish who’d thought this lot already dead?

Order your copy of Issue No. 106 here.

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In the Spring/Summer Issue

Issue No. 106 offers for your enjoyment more of the country’s finest stories, poetry, essays, and visual art:

Ariel Dorfman’s “Amboise”: A long-time couple’s trip to France, in which perhaps only one of them will return from.

Soma Mei Sheng Frazier’s “Clutter”: A riot of memories and thoughts pulls a stroke victim through the past and the present.

Lou Mathew’s “Last Dance”: Can a widower find it in himself to grant his annoying neighbor (who makes a mean tamale) a beseeched courtesy?

Ashley Nelson Levy’s “Auntie”: A teen daughter makes room in more ways than one for her mother’s dying friend.

And introducing our newest feature: author interviews and profiles. We begin with John Freeman on poet Kay Ryan.

Plus, nonfiction from Rivka Galchen (on ronin, Keanu Reeves, and having a newborn) and Andrew D. Cohen (Hemingway on the way to dropping off the kids at school), and fiction from Dallas Woodburn, Gregory Spatz, Ron Carlson, and the late Alan Cheuse (“The Burden”: on a boy’s first acquaintance with hard liquor).

Also, work from artists Stephen Albair and Jonathon Keats, and poetry from Ruth Madievsky, Paul Wilner, David Hernandez, Jeff Ewing, Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch, and First Time in Print writer Etan Nechin.

You can get a copy of No. 106 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Spring/Summer issue.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Tom Bissell

Tom Bissell (whose story “Love Story, With Cocaine” appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 92) is the award-winning author of several books, including the story collection God Lives in St. Petersburg, the memoir The Father of All Things, the essay collection Magic Hours, and Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. His newest book is Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve (Pantheon). Kirkus (in a starred review) described Apostle as a “rich, contentious, and challenging book …  a deep dive into the heart of the New Testament, crossing continents and cross-referencing texts.”

ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon spoke with Bissell about his new book at Green Apple Books in the Park in San Francisco in mid-March.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: David L. Ulin & Gary Kamiya

David L. Ulin (whose work has appeared in ZYZZYVA Issues No. 100 and 104) is the author or editor of eight previous books, including The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time and the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he is the former book critic of the Los Angeles Times.

ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon, along with Gary Kamiya—executive editor of San Francisco Magazine and author of Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco—discussed Ulin’s latest book, Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles (University of California Press), at the Mechanics’s Institute in San Francisco in January. The conversation explored how we understand cities, what makes a place “authentic,” and the similarities between Los Angeles and San Francisco—two major cities in a state of flux.

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Lucia Berlin: The Art of Phantom Pain

Lucia Berlin (photo by Buddy Berlin)

Lucia Berlin (photo by Buddy Berlin)

I met Lucia Berlin in 1977, the year her first small book appeared, but it wasn’t till I published her collection Phantom Pain that we became great friends (Tombouctou Books, Bolinas, 1984).

Lucia was working at Alta Bates Hospital then, in Berkeley, at the switchboard and in the waiting rooms. Hospital work suited her. She was interested in extremities, in gossip, in contrary people with serious complaints, who also felt relieved to be alive. It was hard, low-paying work. She would have preferred to be writing, but she almost never said so. She did produce several new hospital stories (“Emergency Room Notebook”, “My Jockey,” “Private Branch Exchange,” “Temps Perdu,”) during this time. I imagine her composing them at night and on the weekends, and then stealing time at work to edit. We often spoke of stealing time, as though it were a necessary concomitant of creation. All but one of these pieces went into the new book of 15 stories and a play.

The title, Phantom Pain, refers to the haunting ache an amputee feels for a missing limb. The phrase neatly sums up Lucia’s work for me. Many of her best stories transform life’s fleetingness and loss into deeply felt—yet comedic—memories, more real than life, without coloration or emotional distortion. The haunting ache they deliver to the reader is tempered by tenderness and bemusement. Her style may appear to be offhand, an accretion of detail. It is anything but.

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‘Chumship’ by Kristopher Jansma: ZYZZYVA No. 105, Winter 2015

billboard_latestissue_cover_16winter_largeThe first thing he ever told me was that Clark wasn’t his real name. They’d stuck him with his father’s name, but the minute he turned eighteen he’d be changing it officially from “James.” In the meantime, he wanted everyone to call him Clark. He’d explained this to everyone in a short essay he read aloud on the first day of Adventures for Young Writers, our weeklong summer camp, held at the local community college. That summer I had already done Model Rocket Engineering, Soccer II, Ocean Exploration, and “I’ll See You in Court!” Adventures for Young Writers was my favorite; I took it every summer, and all year looked forward to the hours I’d spend counting sestina syllables, making up short stories, and banging away on the word processors at the typing lab.

Clark and his friend Sam were the only other boys in the group that year, and we sat together at lunch without any prior agreement. Sam was pudgy and short, with a bowl of straw-colored hair that was too long in the front. Clark was something else altogether. My height, with a cleft chin and a constant smirk. He wore khakis, a braided brown belt, penny loafers, and a pastel green polo shirt. Even when we weren’t writing, he gripped a black pen in one hand—a gesture of admiration, I’d later learn in another essay, for then-presidential-candidate Bob Dole. He and Sam were a year younger than me, about to enter the eighth grade a few towns over. We had no friends in common outside of camp, which wasn’t surprising; none of us had many friends to begin with.

When I joined them at the cafeteria table, they seemed to be playing some kind of game: casually eyeing a nearby table of older girls, sporty types, with ponytails and headbands.

“They’re Bulgarians,” Sam whispered.

How did he know? They were speaking English, I pointed out.

“They’re Bulgarian spies,” Clark answered. “Pay close attention.” Without staring, I tried, but could pinpoint nothing especially suspicious or Eastern European about them.

“You see it, right?” he asked.

I nodded.


Every day Clark typed up a short, one page humor piece, “Clark Talks Back,” with great care given to the choice of fonts, borders, and clip art available in Word Perfect. These were short observational pieces, somewhere between a Dave Barry column and a Letterman monologue.

There’s a sharp new look in Freehold County fashion these days, namely the Enormously Baggy Pants, which as we speak are sweeping the floors of the mall for free and getting caught in the revolving glass doors at the main entrance. At any time of day now you will be sure to find two or three clueless teenagers stuck inside, perplexed as to how this “totally whack” situation has occurred. While it is inconvenient for the rest of us to have to use the regular doors now, many find they enjoy getting the chance to play Boxer Short Bingo, by keeping track of the different colors of underwear hanging out of the backs of these pants, which can be seen as you pass by on your shopping trip. Try to find all seven colors in the rainbow!

Before the Bulgarian Spy incident, I’d never have expected Clark’s sense of humor to run in this direction. He was always so stiff, so polite to both the teachers and the other students. But on the page he was a whole other person.

“What’s up?” You surely know that this is a typical greeting these days in the halls of William McKinley Middle School, but what you may not know is that the question is meant sincerely. Most young people these days are unable to look in a skyward direction anymore, because they are so concerned about tripping over the hems of their long pants, or their unlaced high tops, and so are forced to ask each other constantly for information about anything going on above their exposed navels…

There were certain themes to which he’d often return. Girls wore too much makeup. The English language was generally imperiled. Rap music and Ren and Stimpy were racing to bring about the end of civilization. Newer, edgier superheroes like Spawn and Hellboy would never, in a million years, be better than Superman. I’d assumed these ideas must be trickling down from his parents, but when I began spending most of my Saturdays at his house, I discovered he had little in common with either of them. His much-hated father was a bristle-mustached ex-Marine, now a well-paid contractor for the DOD. I never heard him speak, not to me or to his son. His mother was an indulgent, lovely woman, always eager to drive us to the nearby mall. By the end of the summer, Clark and I were getting together nearly every weekend and speaking on the phone most weeknights. Together we wrote six episodes of a sitcom, featuring ourselves as middle-age men, bantering like Seinfeld and Costanza. He sent the pilot to ABC studios and was baffled when, a few weeks later, we received a form letter saying that they did not consider unsolicited material.

Everything about Clark said that he did not want to be fourteen, but forty-five. He loved The Beatles (pre-Revolver only) and believed Nintendo rotted your brain. He intended someday to become either the President of the United States or the host of The Tonight Show. One night as we talked on the phone while watching Letterman, he grew quiet. “I just realized we’re going to live to see that man die. I don’t know if I can take that.” I’d never met anyone like him before.


Clark had an imaginary girlfriend named Caroline. He’d confided this to me just a few days after our friendship began.

“Look,” he said, “It’s a fact. If you’ve never dated anyone before, girls think you’re a loser, so they won’t go out with you. So what are you supposed to do?”

This felt accurate, given my experiences thus far with Miranda, a girl at school that I adored, but who only spoke to me when she and her boyfriend, Junior, were broken up. This happened two or three times a month, but my intermittent heartbreak-counseling didn’t seem to be getting me any closer to earning the boyfriend spot myself.

“Tell her you’re dating someone else,” Clark advised. “She’ll be all over you.”

He opened a WordPerfect document where, in a cornflower-blue font, he had collected every detail pertaining to his imaginary true love. He and Caroline had met the summer before, in Maine, where her family had a summer house on Frenchman’s Bay and where he’d been visiting family friends one weekend. He’d seen her from some distance—across a rocky shoreline—a vision with curly blond hair, pink shorts, and matching jellies. Later he’d seen her again at the Mount Desert Ice Cream shop. A big scoop of her rocky road had fallen onto the sidewalk. He’d marched over and bought her a new cone. The next day they had played chess on her beach blanket (which had the New Kids on the Block on it). She had a cold and her nose was red. She wiped it with Kleenex Ultra-Soft Tissues. Her younger sister, Patty, was a brat. Her parents, Wilfred and Alice, co-owned a nearby lumber mill. He knew their ages, descriptions, Alice’s maiden name, etc. Caroline wanted to be an AIDS researcher in either Phoenix or Toronto. She used a Wild Basil & Lime-scented hand cream. They’d had their first kiss at sunset on July 17 the previous summer and it had lasted four minutes and nineteen seconds. All that was just page one of nineteen, and he updated the file each time he mentioned a new detail so that he’d never be tripped up in a lie. Clark carried around several letters “she” had written, in case anyone seemed doubtful.

Working off of Clark’s template, I spent hours writing up my own girlfriend, basically Miranda but nicer, only I never showed it to anyone besides him or pretended she was real. While I felt Clark’s plan was ingenious, I knew it would never work for me. I was a terrible liar. I blushed, stammered, stared at the ceiling. Time and time again I saw him con people with a perfectly straight face. We’d spend an entire afternoon at the food court just watching girls walking by, debating their cuteness with the precision and discernment of antique dealers. Then when his mother came to pick us up, he’d tell her we’d seen a movie. On the spot he’d make up a whole film. Once, I remember, we’d seen White Bread, starring Kevin Costner as a single dad named “Pete Bread,” and something happened involving his son’s science fair experiment and he’d become transparent.

There’s a word in one of my older dictionaries, which isn’t in my newer ones. “Chumship: the condition or relation of a chum or chums.” Coined in the early 1830s, its usage peaked in the 1920s and then declined until it was revived by psychologists in the ’80s, who considered it to be an important stage in early adolescent development. That first friend with whom one could frankly discuss adult matters without embarrassment. It was to Clark that I divulged my daydream of swimming with Miranda in a pool filled with hot fudge (but not, obviously, that hot). To me, Clark confided about a time he’d seen a pornographic movie called Carnal Encounters 2 late one night at a friend’s house, and how this guy had started jerking off right in front of him, and how Clark had walked back home in the dark and never spoken to the boy again. We borrowed a pair of binoculars from his father’s closet and used them to gaze across his yard toward the house of a girl named Zoe, very popular in his grade. She was just his type: dressing modestly, beautiful with no need for makeup, and the top student in their English class. She wanted to become a lawyer and work for Amnesty International. We studied her yearbook photo each weekend, and the curve of Zoe’s brown bobbed hair sometimes forced Clark to have to lie down on the floor until his heartache passed. We wrote her into our sitcom, as Clark’s future wife. They had three kids. He knew all their names, and ages, and so forth.

Imagine, then, the earth-shattering excitement one day when he told me over the phone that he’d heard a rumor that Zoe liked him.

“Who said?” I asked. We each had the same Seinfeld rerun on in the background. Usually the rule was no conversation until the commercial break, but this was an emergency.

“Zoe’s best friend Kristen. She was talking to Nikki.”

The three of them were allegedly inseparable.

“But here’s the problem,” Clark said with concern. “This is all according to Sam.”

Sam refused to accept that he and Clark weren’t friends anymore. Clark still called him sometimes because Sam still believed anything he said, and at times like this it was helpful having a henchman at school. Still, he’d often tell me about various-size whoppers that Sam had swallowed. He was always convincing him to do or say embarrassing things.

For hours we debated ways of verifying Sam’s intel. Could Clark buy a red Mead notebook like the one Zoe used, and swap them during Art class, so he could look to see if she had written his name inside anywhere? Or could he sneak into a stall in the girl’s bathroom just before the third period break, when Zoe, Kristen, and Nikki were known to congregate there? Ultimately, I can’t remember what we settled on, only that Sam was employed as some sort of fall guy and that we did get the confirmation we’d been looking for—only it didn’t matter, because Clark’s plan soon turned out to have one unanticipated wrinkle.

In our zeal we had forgotten one thing.


Read the rest of “Chumship.” Get ZYZZYVA No. 105!

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The Poison of a Long Imprisonment: Liu Xia’s ‘Empty Chairs’

9781555977252Loneliness is palpable among the stark emotions of Beijing artist and poet Liu Xia’s Empty Chairs: Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 118 pages), The collection, translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern, spans from 1983 to 2013, and shudders under the weight of political and psychological violence: the 1989 Tiananmen massacre; the multiple (and current) imprisonments of Liu Xia’s husband, poet and activist Liu Xiaobo; the eleven-year sentence of her younger brother, Liu Hui. At the center of these circumstances sits Liu Xia, who has been living under strict house arrest since her husband received the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the state’s vast stronghold over the lives depicted in her poems, Liu Xia’s writing occupies a uniquely bitter, interior space—an investigation into madness and its characters rather than into political players. Empty Chairs is a book about the objects that remain when companionship is stripped away, about the fight to keep a body relevant when faced with “無”—without; lack.

Empty Chairs moves through three decades of poetry chronologically, with the month and year noted after each last stanza. The chronology allows us to experience Liu Xia’s obsessions in an ever-present past. In “Poison” she writes, “Van Gogh’s ear sends me an urgent message / that the earth is about to collapse…the weather forecast on TV / and Kafka’s crazy eyes.” We follow her repeated yearnings for “the bird” that always escapes her; there are skeletons, the dead eyes of children, and anthropomorphic dolls. These allusions and images confuse our sense of the real as we watch them focus into almost tangible characters within the walls of Liu Xia’s home. They become her company, offering her quietude in their humor, crudeness, and believability. “You have a strange pet,” she writes in “Transformed Creature,” “…When you’re alone, / it will lie in your lap, / preoccupied.” But the images often become nauseating in their darkness when we realize the picture of madness the objects describe.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Dean Rader

Dean Rader (whose poetry has been published in ZYZZYVA Issues No. 93 , 98 & 101) is the author of several books, including the poetry collections Works & Days (winner of the 2010 T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize), Landscape Portrait Figure Form, which was named by the Barnes & Noble Review as one of the Best Poetry Books of 2013, and the forthcoming Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, to be published in 2016 by Copper Canyon Press.

ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon talked to Rader about what makes for a “successful” poem, how his work has come to be shaped, the attraction of sports (particularly basketball and the Golden State Warriors), and his path toward becoming a professor.

To hear Dean Rader read two of his poems, one of which written for the occasion of ZYZZYVA’s 30th Anniversary fundraising party earlier this year, click on “Continued Reading” below.

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