ZYZZYVA EventsMarch 7, 2019
In Conversation with Carolyn Burke
Location: 7 p.m., City Lights Booksellers, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
Description: Burke discusses her newest book, "Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury" (Knopf), with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free. More info here: https://bit.ly/2GeUNlAMarch 28, 2019
ZYZZYVA at AWP
Location: 10:30 a.m., Portland Ballroom 253-254, Oregon Convention Center, Level 2
Description: "Behind the Curtain: The Editors Speak!" with Alison Wright, executive editor of VQR; Emily Nemens, editor of The Paris Review; Karissa Chen, editor-in-chief at Hyphen, and Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Moderated by Christian Kiefer. More info here: https://bit.ly/2HWVUIkMarch 30, 2019
ZYZZYVA at AWP
Location: 1:30 p.m., E143-144, Oregon Convention Center, Level 1
Description: "The Future of Criticism: A Conversation with Established and Emerging Critics" with Kate Tuttle, Ismail Muhammad, Jane Ciabattari, Hope Wabuke, and Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. More info here: https://bit.ly/2DYEyXz
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Lucia Berlin was an American short story writer, who developed a small, devoted following, but did not reach a mass audience during her lifetime. She rose to sudden literary fame eleven years after her death, in August 2015, with FSG’s publication of a volume of selected stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women. ZYZZYVA published a number of Berlin’s stories during the Eighties and Nineties, and her work can be found in Issues 1, 4, 18, and 31. Below is her story “Carpe Diem” in its entirety from ZYZZYVA Issue 1.
Most of the time I feel all right about getting old. Some things give me a pang, like skaters. How free they seem, long legs gliding, hair streaming back. Other things throw me into a panic, like BART doors. A long wait before the doors open, after the train comes to a stop. Not very long, but it’s too long. There’s no time.
And laundromats, but they were a problem even when I was young. Just too long, even the Speed Queens. Your entire life has time to flash before your eyes and you just sit there, a drowner. Of course if I had a car I could go to the hardware store or the post office and then come back and put things into the dryer.
The laundries with no attendants are even worse. Then it seems I’m always the only person there at all. But all the washers and dryers are going-everybody’s out at the hardware store.
So many laundromat attendants I have known, the hovering Charons, making change or that haven’t got any change. Now it’s fat Ophelia who pronounces No Sweat “No Thwet.” Her top plate broke on beef jerky. Her breasts are so huge she has to turn sideways and then kitty-corner to get through doors, like moving a kitchen table. When she comes down the aisle with a mop, every- body moves, and moves the baskets too. She’s a channel-hopper. Just when we’ve settled in to watch the Newly-Wed game, she’ll flick it to Ryan’s Hope.
Once, to be polite, I told her I got hot flashes too, so that’s what she associates me with- The Change. “How’s it goin with The Change?” she says, loud, instead of hello. Which makes it worse, sitting there, reflecting, aging. My sons have all grown now, so I’m down from five washers to one, but one washer takes just as long.
I moved last week, maybe for the 200th time. I took in all my sheets and curtains and towels, my cart piled high. The laundromat was very crowded; there weren’t any washers together. I put all my things into three machines, went to get change from Ophelia. I came back, put the money in, the soap in and started them up. Only I had started up three wrong washers. Three that had just finished this man’s clothes.
I was backed into the machines. Ophelia and the man loomed before me. I’m a tall woman, wear Big Mama panty-hose now, but they were both huge people. Ophelia had a pre-wash spray bottle in one hand. The man wore cut-offs, his massive thighs were matted with red hair. His thick beard wasn’t like hair at all but a red padded bumper. He wore a baseball hat with a gorilla on it. The hat wasn’t too small but his hair was.so bushy it shoved the hat high up on his head making him about seven feet tall. He was slapping a heavy fist into his other red palm. “God damn. I’ll be Goddamned!” Ophelia wasn’t really menacing; she was protecting me, ready to come between him and me, or him and the machines. She’s always saying there’s nothing at the laundry she can’t handle.
“Mister, you may’s well sit down and relax. No way to stop them machines once they’ve started. Watch a little TV, have a Pepsi.”
I put quarters in the right machines and started them. Then r remembered that I was broke, no more soap and those quarters had been for the dryer. I began to cry.
“What the fuck is SHE crying about? What you think this does to my Saturday, you dumb slob? Jesus Wept.”
I offered to put his clothes into the dryer for him, in case he wanted to go somewhere.
“I wouldn’t let you near my clothes. Like stay away from my fuckin clothes, you dig?” There was no other place for him to sit except next to me. I wished he would go outside, but he just sat there, next to me. We looked at the machines. His big right leg vibrated like a spinning washer. Six little red lights glowed at us.
“You always fuck things up?” he asked.
“Look, I’m sorry. I was tired. I was in a hurry.” I giggled, nervously.
“Believe it or not, I am in a hurry. I drive a tow. 6 days a week. 12-hour days. Dig? This is it. My day off.”
“What were you in a hurry for?” I meant it nicely, but he thought I was being sarcastic.
“You stupid broad. If you were a dude I’d wash you. Put your empty head in the dryer and turn it to cook.”
“I said I was sorry.”
“Damn right you’re sorry. You’re one sorry excuse for a chick. I had you spotted for a loser before you did that to my clothes. I don’t believe it. She’s crying again. Jesus wept.”
Ophelia stood above him.
“Don’t you be botherin her, hear? I happen to know she’s going through a hard time.”
How did she know that? I was amazed … she knows everything, this giant black Sybil, this Sphinx. Oh, she means the Change.
“I’ll fold your clothes if you like,” I said to him.
“Hush, girl,” Ophelia said. “Point is, what’s the big deal? So what? In a hunnert years from now just who’s gonna care?”
“A hunnert years,” he whispered. “A hunnert years.” And I was thinking that too. A hundred years. Our machines were shimmying away, and all the little red spin-lights were on.
“At least yours are clean. I used up all my soap.”
”I’ll buy you some soap for crissake.”
“It’s too late. Thanks, anyway.”
“She didn’t ruin my day, she’s ruined my whole fuckin week. No soap.”
Ophelia came back, stooped down to whisper to me.
“I’ve been spottin some. Doctor says it don’t quit I’ll need a D and C. You been spottin?”
I shook my head.
“You will. Women’s troubles just go on and on. A whole lifetime of trouble. I’m bloated. You bloated?”
“Yeah, seems like I am bloated.”
“Her head’s bloated,” the man muttered. “Look, I’m going out to the car, get a beer. My head aches and I’m hot and I need a beer. I want you to promise not to go near my machines. Yours are 34,39,43. Got that?”
“Yeah. 32, 39, 42.” He didn’t think it was funny.
The clothes were in the final spin. I’d have to hang mine up to dry on the fence; when I got paid I’d come back with soap.
“Jackie Onassis changes her sheets every single day,” Ophelia said. “Now that’s sick, you ask me.”
“Sick,” I agreed.
I let the man put his clothes in a basket and go to the dryers before I took mine out. Some people were grinning but I ignored them. If I had paid any attention to the other people there, I might have abandoned my things and left. I filled my cart with soggy sheets and towels. It was almost too heavy to push and, wet, not everything fit. I slung the hot-pink curtains over my shoulder. Across the room the man started to say something, then looked away.
It took a long time to get home, even longer to hang everything, although I did find a rope. Fog was rolling in.
I poured some coffee and sat on the back steps. I was happy. I felt calm, unhurried. Next time I’m on BART, I won’t even think about getting off until the train stops. When it docs, I’ll hop up and rush down the aisle, will get out just in time.
Read more of Lucia Berlin’s work in ZYZZYVA by purchasing a Selected Back Issue and choosing Issues 1, 4, 18, or 31.
Alyson Hagy’s latest novel, Scribe (157 pages; Graywolf Press), opens in a fantastical country stricken by lethal fever and civil war. The economy operates on barter and trade, and many citizens have hardened their hearts to meet the struggles of this new world. This includes the unnamed, mystical protagonist, who is known for her great writing skills yet feared by many. She is the definition of a loner, her only company a group of stray dogs and the various nearby settlers whom she seldom engages with; that is, until a stranger who calls himself Hendricks enters her life.
He pays the main character a visit and humbly requests her skills be put to use in writing a letter––and delivering it for him. Initially, she refuses this unwanted task, but ultimately agrees (with some conditions, which Hendricks thankfully complies with).
In the process of performing this service, she finds herself challenged physically, mentally, and even spiritually. The memory of her sister’s tragic death arises in ways the protagonist can’t face on her own, and she begins to regret accepting the mission, leading her to anguish over whether she should renege on her promise to Hendricks.
In the end, she finds it too difficult to reject the task she agreed to complete. Hendricks has become a part of her personal life (on one occasion, she returns home and finds him in her house without permission), which is not to say she is delighted to suddenly have such an intimate friendship with a stranger. She continues to express a desire for distance between herself and the rest of the world, including Hendricks. Yet this unique man brings the protagonist to question her hardened attitude, not only toward him but toward her community at large.
This opening of the heart is especially powerful given the novel’s all-too-relevant themes of migration, authoritarianism, and the way our history shapes who we are today. In the letter, Hendricks writes, “I have been made fat from the labors of others, from the kindnesses and charities of those who meant me no harm. I have often meant harm. I am carved from the rock of it.” (The phrase “I have often meant harm” is especially striking, not only for its brevity but also for the contrast between it and the prior sentence about love.)
Scribe speaks to many of our contemporary issues, including the history of the land we in the United States inhabit. It provides a unique perspective on the times we live in and perhaps even offers some foresight into the future. Following the protagonist’s humble and selfless change of heart, Hagy suggests what our relationship to those around us should look like.
Daniel Neff’s poetry has appeared in Ninth Letter and Pittsburgh Poetry Review, among other publications. He is the winner of the Academy of American Poets Prize. His poem “Landscape with Doe Eating Where She Does Not Belong” is appears in ZYZZYVA No. 113. You can read the poem in its entirety below:
A garden is a landfill without the garbage. Garbage is consciousness
without the humans. If there are no humans and no consciousness, where
are we? The premise is flawed: gardens and landfills both have garbage,
but a difference in definition of terms. My garden is a landfill and yet
the only garbage is myself. (Let’s not talk about me, what about you
and your—and you eat your braised fallow round and juniper berries—
self?) This is not what happened. I am just a kaleidoscope. The world
is symmetry through stained glass. A doe stands on her head in the
shifting colors and runs away from you. The ones you killed and the
ones you loved.
You sit, wearing leather wingtips, and play the accordion. I place cayenne
pepper on the bib lettuce so the deer won’t eat it all. I weed the garden
and remove all the onions because nobody needs to cry. My knees
are different shades because I’m kneeling in the dirt. You say, dirt is
earth. And the Earth says, I am dirt. Which is correct? And which am
I crying into? Cutting onions is not the only way to shed tears. I hide
my face from you.
If a pane of a kaleidoscope’s stained glass is broken, who’s to say that I’m
not just looking into a mirror? At dinner, I cooked the fallow doe in a dry
sangiovese red wine for you. Speaking in slurred words, the wine told
me, I have to save your life, but I don’t like the air in here. Is a corkscrew
not a little like a guillotine? Of course not, you say. The guillotine cut
heads off, but it never pulled heads out. I burnt the parmesan asparagus.
The candlelight hurt my eyes. I had to put glasses on, but the colors
just kept spinning and condensing. You leaned over to kiss my mouth,
but I couldn’t see anything but the candle fire. It doesn’t mean you’ve
avoided anything. My lips still exist without your touch. That’s ridiculous.
Artifacts exist only with acknowledgement from the audience.
You called my garden a landfill. The fallow doe is silent and drinks
from the river. You want me to kill her. I am silent and cut asparagus
for dinner. In my basket I separate the radishes from the radicchio, but
basil is everywhere. Basil doesn’t grow in landfills, but it does flavor
venison. I wear it behind my ears. When I stand to look at the doe, I’m
not sure I’m not conscious. The doe says I am abstract and I am garbage.
You shot her. This is logical.
Emma Copley Eisenberg’s work has appeared in Granta, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Short Fiction, and other publications. Her first book, The Third Rainbow Girl, will be published by Hachette Books in 2020. Her short story “Mama” appears in ZYZZYVA No. 113. You can read an excerpt from the beginning of the story below:
My daughter’s new girlfriend is big. Big mouth, big breast, a tuft of hair so curly it looks permed. My daughter Beth has one girlfriend already, the pint-sized Tomboy who drops by every Easter and Christmas.
Mark my words, says Donna from black-belt class, looking over my shoulder at the picture on my phone as we change into our uniforms. This will end in clusterfuck. No one can have their cake and eat it, too.
There’s no cake eating, I say, they know all about each other, and everyone knows what they’ve signed up for. Very modern. Not so different from when you were going out with that postal worker while driving loops around the Baltimore harbor late at night with a student of philosophy, hmm?
Well, Donna says, folding her capris into the locker’s highest shelf.
On the mats, I’m paired with a ponytailed man who goes down easy with a swift kick to the rump. He looks at the ceiling. I look at him. For I also have questions. I am only human. Two girlfriends! What does one alone person do with so much love?
Beth calls while I am prepping dinner to say they will leave the city after work then drive east to us through Friday night traffic.
Can we go to Chincoteague? she says, the sounds of her hospital bleeding through the Baltimore end of the line. Cara really wants to see ponies, she says, and I need to make it up to her.
What “it”? I say, but she’s already off the line.
Despite having money now, Beth still lives in crappy rentals with roommates and without blinds and moves every year. She likes to create harsh conditions so she can be proud of having overcome them.
The dogs stand on the couch, white, fluffy twins, watching out the window for Beth’s boxy sedan.
A watched pot never boils, I tell them.
That’s not real, Mike says, ever the lawyer. It’s just a thing to say.
I reach for my practice sword on the kitchen island where I left it, wave it between Mike’s face and the television where men are sporting against a green background.
Careful, I say.
Cara beats Beth to the mudroom door and comes in first. She gives me a bear hug then rests her wide jeaned butt atop the washing machine. She wears a button-down shirt that looks too soft and rounded to be for business. If I didn’t know better, I would think: pajamas. Earrings that hang down but don’t match. I like her already.
Beth appears, loaded down with gear. Beth looks like an eight-year-old boy in a blazer, but more underslept. She rubs her eyes with the tips of her fingers. Her hair has gone gray above both ears, which gives her a distinguished look. She’s thirty and a doctor of lungs now. When she moves to hug me, the ring of keys on her pants make a clanking sound against the travel mug on her backpack. She hugs me a long time.
Mama, she says.
I’m parched! cries Cara, shooting Beth a look. I get it, the AC in Beth’s car is broken, has been broken. The Tomboy and I have long since given up nagging Beth to get it fixed. But in the context of this new girlfriend, everything seems possible again.
Oh for God’s sake, I say to Beth, I’m calling my guy, he can take care of it tomorrow.
And to my great surprise Beth just flops her shoulders. Okay, she says.
They have eaten sweet potato burritos already from Tupperware in the car, but they want to drink. Beth, Cara, and I sit at the round kitchen table drinking small amounts of whiskey from large plastic glasses. Mike sits in the living room with his back to us. The brown recliner’s springs crack every time he reaches for the can in the carpet.
I’ve always wanted to come to the Eastern Shore, Cara says to me. Ever since I was a little kid and I read that book about Misty, this pony who roams Chincoteague. She was wild and free and ate sea plants and took no shit. She could kill any of the other ponies no problem.
That’s like my Mama, Beth says, tipping her plastic cup in my direction.
Oh yeah? Cara takes her own face in her hands, elbows on the table, and wiggles her weight side to side in the wood chair, making it creak, like a soft bird in a nest, brooding. She is soft at the tops of her arms and in the middle where her shirt is tighter, where Beth and the Tomboy and I are hard. Her shirt is definitely a pajama top.
Yeah, Beth says. Mama’s a black belt now, can take down anyone in her class, even the men. If I were a strange man, I would certainly think twice about messing with her.
I have always wanted to fight, Cara says. I have always had the fight inside me but never has the outside world provided an opportunity for its expression.
Lucky you, Beth says.
Don’t listen to her, I say, she’s a bad example.
I used to get into fights, says Beth.
Understatement of the century I say. Then remembering, I add, Punchy cake, punchy cake, punch me in the face.
My guy friends in high school, Beth explains. We used to say that to each other. Then in college, I walked around campus at night just saying it, until someone did.
And then she’d call me and cry, I say.
I never cried, Beth says.
In Roberto Saviano’s latest book, The Piranhas: The Boy Bosses of Naples (368 pages; FSG; translated by Antony Shugaar), the author of Gommorah, which detailed the grip of the Commora over Naples, examines through fiction the young gangs—the “paranza”—of that city, focusing on one such group of teen boys and particularly on Nicolas Fiorillo, one of its members.
The novel immediately establishes its world of violence and irrational behavior with a disturbing scene of bullying after a boy makes the mistake of “liking” Nicolas’s girlfriend’s photos on social media. From there, things only get worse as Nicolas and his gang increasingly find that the world of organized crime is an ideal means for them to achieve their goals of making money and wielding power. They soon become involved with drugs and guns, and witness –– as well as partake in –– numerous murders.
One of the most striking elements of the story is the indifference the majority of the gang exhibits as they plunge deeper into dangerous situations. They may be youthful, nervous, and inexperienced, but these teens’s perseverance (and motivation) prevails over all else. As mentioned by Saviano in an interview with his U.S. publisher, the boys’ attitude, unfortunately, speaks to reality.
Saviano worked closely with the book’s English translators on how to get across many of the Neapolitan words and phrases used in The Piranhas. Some terminology was left deliberately untranslated to preserve the language and the raw nature of Saviano’s style, such as in this robbery scene:
“Muóvete, miett’ ‘e sorde, miett’ ‘e sorde,” Nicolas said roughly in dialect, telling him to hurry up and put the money in the plastic, bag that he tossed to him. He’d stolen it from his mother after, emptying out the doctor’s prescriptions she kept in it.
The implementation of the original Italian, especially in the scenes of violence, serves the story’s atmosphere, preserving as it does the Neapolitan culture in which the novel is set. (At times, though, the lines can read stilted.)
The Piranhas makes a vivid impression. Saviano creates a clear picture of children being led into the hands of violence and terror, leaving us with dread for the youth of Naples who can’t resist the temptations offered by organized crime.
Become a supporter of ZYZYVA at the Patron level today, and receive an amazing incentive gift as our thank you!
For a donation of $200 or more, not only will you get a complimentary subscription to ZYZZYVA, but thanks to our friends at Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, you’ll get copies of Lucia Berlin’s Evenings in Paradise: More Stories and Welcome Home: A Memoir with Selected Photography and Letter plus a Lucia Berlin tote.
You’ll also get a copy of Lydia Kiesling’s acclaimed novel, The Golden State (named one of the Best Books of 2018 by NPR, Bookforum, and Bustle), and A.G. Lombardo’s novel, Graffiti Palace (praised by David L. Ulin as “an audacious debut … Beautiful, hard-edged, challenging, and unexpected”).
We are now down to only two of these gift packages. Don’t delay!
Make your donation today.
(Enter the code LUCIA in the “Write a note” field as you make your donation.)
Order a Bundle by Tuesday, December 18, and have it delivered in plenty of time for your lucky recipient. We’ll start off the subscription with our newest issue, No. 114, featuring Tales of the Uncanny from Kate Folk, Jim Ruland, Shawn Vestal, and David Drury; a Q&A with Michael Ondaatje by Caille Millner, poetry by Bruce Snider, Austen Leah Rosenfeld, and Heather Christle, the art of Kate Ballis, and much more.
We rarely have the opportunity to observe a poet’s writing process, even though we may occasionally see earlier drafts that serve as evidence of it. But Craig Morgan Teicher gives us the next best thing: his new book examines poets’ creative processes over the courses of their careers.
Part guidebook for emerging poets and part homage to a wide range of major poets, Teicher’s We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress (164 pages; Graywolf) is one of the most enjoyable books about poetry I have encountered. His obvious love of poetry infuses the book with the “grace, certainty, power, and humility” he so admires in one of his literary heroines, Lucille Clifton. Additionally, because he surveys a diverse group of writers, providing relevant biographical background and anecdotes from their lives and his own, We Begin in Gladness is a book with wide appeal.
Given its focus on showing how poets progress, it’s unsurprising that the majority of poets featured in Teicher’s book are well known. However, he makes a significant distinction between these poets. On one hand, there are those rare writers who are considered major poets because they produced “very different poems over the course of their lives”—a skill, he notes, which is now a requirement for most modern poets. On the other hand, most major poets refined both their subjects—essentially writing the same poem across many years before finally getting it as right as possible—and their styles to the point where each of them inhabited a singular voice. And while Teicher does not completely disavow the popular notion, espoused by Paul Muldoon, that “Poets disimprove as they go on. It’s just a fact of life,” he is intent on examining the leaps, breakthroughs, and “steady progress” in the quality of work produced by major poets. To do so, he presents and scrutinizes excerpts from poems by Sylvia Plath, Brenda Hillman, John Ashbery, Lucille Clifton, D.A. Powell, W.S. Merwin, William Butler Yeats, Robert Hayden, Robert Lowell, Louise Glück, and others.
Teicher also offers a few examples of deterioration in the quality of some major poets’ works. For example, he introduces us to the relatively unknown Delmore Schwartz, a writer he characterizes as “the twentieth century’s most thwarted poet.” As with Teicher’s assessments of the weaknesses of other poets—Plath, Lowell, Ashbery, and Merwin—his brief overview of Schwartz’s work is as much a celebration of that writer’s triumphs as it is a cautionary tale. However, as Teicher shows in his analysis of how Susan Wheeler picked up where Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” left off, the great works of poets who plateau or “disimprove” may live on in new work that seems almost collaborative, albeit across gulfs of time and death. Indeed, Teicher asserts, “Sometimes, it’s only in the work of the newer poet that we can identify the achievements of the older ones.” Reading this book, I found myself experiencing Teicher’s epiphany, as it was only in reading his analysis of Yeats’ work that I noticed the influence of that poet on one of my literary heroes, Derek Walcott.
It is interesting to review a book that is in conversation with many other books and that reviews works by other writers. In that sense, Teicher’s work offers lessons for art critics, too. While I think it’s safe to say he admires much of the work of every poet in We Begin in Gladness, Teicher’s praise for their best poetry is tempered by his honest appraisals of their weaker efforts. So while Teicher celebrates the “stripped-down simplicity” and “soft-landing (epiphanic) leap” that characterizes Merwin’s best work, he finds much of the esteemed writer’s other poetry to be full of “self-importance.” The story of how Stanley Kunitz once told Louise Glück that a group of poems she had written and shared with him was “terrible”—an assessment that became a springboard for Glück’s dramatic improvement—is both a subtle commentary on critique and an encouraging anecdote for any poet who questions the quality of their own work.
We Begin in Gladness‘ secondary theme seems to be how nearly every poet grapples with the inadequacy of language. Nonetheless, Teicher notes, writers turn to poetry precisely for this reason. Poetry is, according to him, the best tool we have to convey that which is “genuine.” “When we hear and understand what can’t be said and heard,” he writes, “that’s when a ‘pure change’ happens,” And yet, “the unsayable is never quite said.”
Teicher shows us how the work of major poets, including Hayden and Yeats, has essentially been a struggle to say what they mean, getting closer and closer to this goal but eventually making peace with the impossibility of such an endeavor. In Yeats’ case, this finally led him to an understanding of what he loved in poetry, which, it turns out, was not that which he sought to capture—not reality—but the imagined worlds his quest produced or the poetry itself. This sentiment is echoed by Lowell, who wrote, “I want to make/something imagined, not recalled?” Teicher’s book is full of insights like these, and it’s a pleasure to see how the poets he features in it are in conversation with one another across time (generations, even) and space.
Though not necessarily a craft book, We Begin in Gladness does what all good craft books aim, but so often fail, to do—it makes the reader want to go and investigate the many works of poetry the author references and to learn more about their makers, much as (as Teicher asserts) “a real poem points to everything beyond it.”
To the young, music can be a religion. Destroy All Monsters (357 pages; FSG), the latest novel from Charlotte-based author Jeff Jackson, trades in the kind of punk fervor that inspires teenagers to thrash in mosh pits, raid merch booths, and obsessively listen to the same album. The power of what a few kids and some amped instruments can do is clearly a subject near to Jackson’s heart; not only does he perform in the self-described “weirdo pop band” Julian Calendar, but he’s allowed the vinyl single format to influence the design of the novel itself: Destroy All Monsters features an A-Side––which constitutes the novel proper––and a reverse B-Side, an alternate follow-up to the main story that follows some of the same characters in radically different incarnations. The novel contends frankly with both the difficulties of maintaining youthful passion for loud, distorted noise as one grows older and how the resentments and obligations of adulthood begin to accrue.
Destroy All Monsters centers on the music scene in a “conservative industrial city” called Arcadia. The prologue opens with a memorable performance by hometown heroes the Carmelite Rifles at a show attended by a motley assortment of locals:
“The strip-mall goths, the mod metalheads, the blue-collar ravers, the bathtub-shitting punks, the jaded aesthetes who consider themselves beyond category. Everyone in line has imagined a night that could crack open and transform their dreary realities.”
Also present at the show are two of the characters who will drive the rest of the novel: budding musician Florian and the forlorn but enigmatic Xenie. Not long after the Carmelite Rifles show, which ripples through the audience’s lives with the impact of an early Velvet Underground gig, a mysterious plague grips the entire country. All around the United States, club patrons are being transfixed by some unknown spell that causes them to gun down or otherwise attempt to murder the bands onstage:
“The noise duo at the loft party in the Pacific Northwest. The garage rockers at the tavern in the New England suburbs. The jam band at the auditorium on the edge of the Midwestern prairie. The blue grass revivalists at the coffeehouse in the Deep South. There was never any fanfare. The killers simply walked into the clubs, took out their weapons, and started firing.”
Although the killers’ motives remain largely ambiguous (most of them appear to be in a trance-like stupor as they go about their attack) the parallels to recent events are chilling. After terrorist attacks on music venues in Manchester and Paris in the last few years, it is all too easy to imagine the same violence occurring on this side of the Atlantic. The threat of danger feels heightened for the young people at the heart of Destroy All Monsters, to the point that the question of whether or not to perform a scheduled show becomes a matter of life and death for Arcadia’s local acts.
When tragedy ultimately does strike (“The band is heading for the [song] bridge when the first shot is fired”), Florian and Xenie are left to figure out how to privately mourn the loss of a close friend when seemingly everyone in town is doing so in a very public, outsized way. The spat of murders across the country also force Xenie to reckon with the fact that so much of the music playing at local venues and taking up space on her hard drive is, in a word, mediocre. “I used to have a huge music collection,” Xenie relates. “I was obsessed and even saved my concert stubs in a red cardboard box. Sometimes I’d open the box, and just touching the tickets was enough to give me a rush…These days I crave silence.”
Her statement is a lament for an age that has come to be defined by noise, much of it meaningless. Xenie and others in Arcadia’s music scene must grapple with the difficulty of conveying authentic expression in a world drowned out by sound. As Florian contemplates after the last show he’ll ever play: “It’s too easy to transform a moment of truth into a cheap performance.”
Destroy All Monsters understands the impetus to pick up a guitar and strum a power chord, perhaps out of the misguided notion that the result could lead to some change in the world. And the novel understands the disheartening fact that the country is full of numerous small towns like Arcadia, with its dive bars, shuttered factories, and hobo camps, each of them with their would-be punk rockers like Florian. Amid the story’s nationwide epidemic, Jackson’s characters display crucial growth: what ultimately comes to matter––more than selling out concert halls or recording a promising demo––is remaining true to the memory and last wishes of their friends after they’re gone. “Not everything has to be a performance,” Xenie concludes. “Some things should stay pure.”
Jackson, whose prose registers as punchy and acerbic, leading the reader through multiple act breaks and perspective changes with ease, is sincere in his depiction of provincial youth yearning for an escape. In the 21st century, rock ’n roll might not mean as much as it once did, but Jackson has written a fitting tribute to its lingering spirit.
In An Untouched House (115 pages; Archipelago), Willem Frederik Hermans presents a lucid, exhilarating account of a Dutch partisan in the waning months of World War II. Hermans, a premier and prolific author in the Netherlands, penned the novella in 1951, but only now has it received an English translation courtesy of David Colmer.
The story opens during the final moments of the World War II, with the theme of isolation permeating the narrative. Herman writes, “I didn’t look back. There was nobody in front of me…. I looked back at the others. No one was close enough to ask for water.” A sense of confusion abounds as our nameless narrator finds himself unable to communicate with his fellow soldiers: “Within our band of partisans, made up of Bulgarians, Czechs, Hungarians and Romanians, there wasn’t a single person I could understand.”
His battalion enters a spa town, where he comes across an abandoned luxurious house, replete with amenities, but bereft of human life. This is his escape from conflict, where he can “pretend like the war never existed.” He makes himself at home, takes a bath, and falls asleep, only to be awoken by Nazis ringing the doorbell in search of lodging. The interloper manages to convince them that he is the owner of the house with deft, casual dishonesty.
The next morning he wakes convinced of the lie he imparted on his German visitors: “I the son of the house woke up the next morning to general quiet thinking: I have always lived here. This is my home.”
There is an eerie vacuity to the descriptions of the narrator’s surroundings: “Then I would walk up and down, touching objects without investigating them. On medicine bottles and compacts, on handkerchiefs, and on the edge of the sheets were names I didn’t try to pronounce.”
Throughout the book, the protagonist refuses to allocate names to the other characters, and instead only gives them titles: the colonel, the Spaniard, the Germans. They are not individuals in his eyes; their identities are wrapped up entirely in their countries of origin or military ranking.
Although he is the protagonist, our narrator proves passive and the action of the plot is acted upon him. He makes few decisions. His choice to inhabit the house is the end result of aimless wandering rather than an active search. He soon discovers there is no escape. The architecture of the story reaches its apex as the whirlpool of action spins toward this previously unattended and innocuous building.
The narrator describes the increasingly disturbing events with a detached, passionless voice:
“I could clearly see the dead woman. I sat down next to her on the bed and felt her face with my fingertips. It was now cold. I stuck my hand under her coat, under her skirt, and laid it on her thigh. Cold, a thing, water and proteins, something chemists have studied, nothing more.”
The narrator possesses only the silhouette of morality, attached to nothing, a vagabond of land and virtue. In the end, his actions prove nearly as cruel as the Nazis themselves. The vastness of World War II becomes a microcosm within this singular building. The house thus feels like not a home, but a mere frame, lacking any moral edifice.
Although An Untouched House is brief, it is worth pacing oneself and absorbing its remarkable density. Hermans is the architect of a masterful story –– concise but expansive in vision.
Reading A.E. Stallings’ new book of poetry, Like (137 pages; FSG), my first impression was a furious delight at the way she invigorates the old forms and makes them sing. No one else I know can breathe such life into rhyme, can elevate the mundane to the mythic, the prosaic to the transcendent. The diction is often deliciously at odds with the form—contemporary slang set off against the myth of Pandora, for example:
He’d said she was a punishment from Zeus,
And that virginity made for a sour dowry
Depreciating as soon as you drove it off the lot.
The unexpectedness of the phrasing is part of what makes these poems so lively. They overflow with Stallings’ wit, her love of words and wordplay, and her immersion in Greek literature. These inform and transform the everyday from how to clean a cast iron pan (“Cast Irony”), to scissors, to a lost Lego brick, to insects, gardening.
“Bedbugs in Marriage Bed” is a perfect example. On the surface, this clever sonnet is a deft and amusing explication of an infestation of pest, but underneath, the uncertainties of marriage itself come into question:
Maybe it’s best to burn the whole thing down,
The framework with its secret joineries.
Every morning, check the sheets for blood
As though for tiny lost virginities,
Or murder itself distilled into a drop.
It might take lighter fluid to make it stop:
Maybe it’s best to just give up and move.
Every morning, check the seem of seams.
Nothing for weeks, for months, but still you frown:
You still wake up at half-past dawn each day
When darkness blanches and the stars go grey.
Who knows what eggs are laid deep in your dreams
Hatching like doubts. They’re gone, but not for good:
They are the negatives you cannot prove.
This book is rich with form: villanelles, sonnets, syllabics, terza rima, and no one could accuse Stallings of writing without an ear for meter, assonance, and rhyme, even when the form isn’t standard. But what makes Like so thoroughly appealing is the mix of the contemporary into the form. A few examples:
The washing machine door broke. We hand washed for a week.
Left in the tub to soak the angers began to reek.
And sometimes when we spoke you said we shouldn’t speak.
* * *
Dyeing the Easter eggs the children talk
Of dying, Resurrection’s in the air
Like a whiff of vinegar. These eggs won’t hatch,
My daughter says, since they are cooked and dead,
A hard-boiled batch.
* * *
The hours drained as women rearrange
The furniture in search of small lost change.
* * *
And all choice, multiple,
The quiz that gives no quarter,
And Time the other implement
That sharpens and grows shorter.
There are several themes that run through this book: myth, The Odyssey, the tedium of life with small children (where “minutes are not lost…but spent”), and the crisis of immigration across the Mediterranean, set against a comfortable family life on those same beaches. (Stallings lives most of the year in Greece with her husband and children). Of all the poems in the book, those dealing with the horror of dead immigrant children seem the least successful to me. Even with her impressive tools, it’s hard to get beyond mere reportage. Of those, my favorite is “Empathy,” a sort of hymn to gratitude that ends:
Empathy isn’t generous,
It’s selfish. It’s not being nice,
To say I would pay any price
Not to be those who’d die to be us.
One of the most beguiling sequences in the book is “Lost and Found,” a 36-part poem that circles around the hunt for a small lost toy, taking us from daily tedium through a Dante-like encounter with the muses, and features Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses. The quest moves between the everyday and the epic, ending in a sort of ars poetica:
I saw the aorist moment as it went—
The light on my children’s hair, my face in the glass
Neither old nor young; but bare, intelligent.
I was a sieve—I felt the moment pass
Right through me, currency as it was spent,
That bright, loose change, like falling leaves, that mass
Of decadent gold leaf, now turning brown—
I could not keep it; I could write it down.
There are several poems that take their inspiration directly from The Odyssey, and one long poem called Cyprian Variations that I am not scholarly enough to comment on. But even without knowing the source, it’s easy to enjoy many lovely moments, such as, “Even the coffin maker is induced/To dread the mass produced,” or St. George’s dragon “Brandishing its wings/Like an endangered bird,/Scarlet and irrelevant and feathered.”
There are many treasures in Like, “Sunset, Wings,” “Swallows,” “Parmenion,” and the previously mentioned “Ajar” and “Bedbugs…” among them. Though not every poem is successful, even those that don’t work as well are apt to have a ravishing phrase or two. It’s invigorating to read a poet who can make form new, unique, and alive.
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