Posts Tagged ‘literature’

The woman who attached herself to food with a string

August 10, 2011

Part I

It made no sense to spend the night driving from Ouarzazate to Agadir, considering that we would have to go through the Tichka pass with which neither of us were familiar. Besides, Paul wanted to take pictures and I wanted one last glimpse of the desert before reaching the coast. But another night at the Ksar Ighnda was not an option, and so we packed our bags and found an older room at a riad about two miles from the center of town.

We had no set schedule. We were itinerants addicted to the unfamiliar. And as such, we had to impose customs on ourselves within the confines of our peripatetic lifestyle. Where once our children and the daily grind of work and home dictated the entire structure of our New Jersey existence, now we were living gratis. We had returned to innocence, like free-floating kids without a lick of responsibility. On this particular night, like every other, Paul took his thé à la menthe at the café or lobby alone, while I stayed back in the room to read or nap or simply linger on my own mindlessly, doing nothing, save stare at the architecture and decor of the four walls surrounding me. At 10ish, I would join him for dinner at whatever restaurant the hotel offered. But the longer I lingered in our tiny room, the more apparent it became that the Hotel Nord offered little more than a bed, a broken air conditioner, and two open windows that looked out over the N-9 in Tabounte, a noisy suburb. I was restless. And so, despite needing the order of my alone time, I decided to join Paul early.

When I arrived, he was talking with an American, a man about our age, with grayish sandy hair and a peculiar, vapid smile–the kind you might see on a glassy-eyed, cultish Jim Jones, or Claude Vorilhon. He was dressed inappropriately for tea, and too wealthy looking for a budget hotel. He was in the midst of going on and on about the company he owned, Southern Bio Technologies, LLC., which improved bean and other crop production technologies in Central and Southern Africa. I didn’t have the patience to find out what he was doing in Morocco, let alone Tabounte, so I assumed he was here on business and like us, couldn’t find a better hotel on such short notice. I remained on the periphery of the conversation. Paul was such a good listener and so, it wasn’t uncharacteristic of him to get stuck chatting with someone he had literally nothing in common with. He was a small town, county attorney—think Atticus in To Kill A Mockingbird—kindhearted and fair like Atticus too, who despite making a good living for himself and his family, had never voiced an interest in bean farming, that I know of. And yet, to his credit, he genuinely found something interesting in everyone.

But, I was burnt out on listening, or for that matter, talking. It seemed to me that most tourists were not used to the isolation of travel and so when they’d meet up with someone who spoke their language, they would incessantly ramble on about nothing— superficial, braggy stuff—where they’d been, what they owned, how they managed, “knock on wood,” to stay afloat during the economic downturn, how many kids they had in what Universities, where they were going next. If we’d mention our trip to the south of Spain, they too had been there, plus the Canaries, plus Portugal. If we mentioned we had four kids between us, two of whom were at State Universities, they had five: two in Harvard, one in Princeton, another at MIT. It got to the point where I simply didn’t care to meet or talk to anyone anymore as a method of self-preserverance. Where once a stranger was a lifeline, now he was a source of encumbrance.

Instead of socializing, I kept my head buried in a book. While in Morocco I felt as though I had no choice but to read everything by Paul Bowles, and the Spanish author Juan Goytisolo. Presently I was reading Makbara, by the latter. A chapter entitled, The Cemetery—but still catching tidbits of the American’s pontifications.

“SBT disseminates technologies to and educates thousands of bean farmers all across Africa for the purpose of transforming their subsistence farms into local, national and potentially international-selling cash crops…”

I was bored with him, until, “One of my favorite charities that SBT is involved in at the moment is assisting the little guy in his endeavor to forge a relationship with the big guy.”

“For what purpose?” I asked, placing my book on the bar. “What would the little guy want or even need from the big guy?” I already didn’t like his arrogant tone.

“So that they can buy more seeds, more readily, so as to handle the increasing demands of their crop.” He smiled.

“So basically you help make it impossible for local farmers to feed their families because suddenly they can’t afford the cost of their own crop?”

“No, my dear,” his odd smile remaining, “We are improving lives.”

Paul interjected, “my wife loves a good conspiracy.” The American laughed and invited us to his place for drinks, just across the N-9,

“I’d like you to meet my wife,” he said, looking at me in particular. “I think you’d both get along quite well.”

I assumed he meant he had a house. It’d been a while since I’d been in one and so I looked at Paul, he looked at me, and we agreed. I grabbed my book and a sweater and the three of us  headed away from the safety of hotel life into the dark, unfamiliar street.


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Tremolo

January 25, 2011

Listening to the hallowed thump of my father’s fingers on the wood, the tiny squeak of the tuning pegs pulling tension on the strings, my two brothers and I gazed like giddy, perfect Buddhas into the hollow bodies of our parents’ Martin guitars from our spot on the floor at their feet.

And we watched their fingers strum and pick—the steel and the nylon—as they fumbled with their capos, and belted out the pages, one soprano, one alto, of torn sheet music with their throats.

John Denver, Jerry Jeff, Emmy Lou, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Tom Paxton, Kris Kristofferson, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band…

These folky jam sessions where my father sang into my mothers eyes and struggled to reach those higher notes never lasted all that long. The moments before someone was first to put down his or her guitar, to grab a cigarette, sounded best. The last notes hung sweetly like a tremolo, something mysterious and dark hovering overhead, a lumpy fog of calamitous death.

And it held us in place, for fear the slightest of our movements be the cause of this end. Except our voices, which rose above each plucked string along the fret, and danced, and knew we had no choice but to let go.

I want my name back

June 25, 2010

I can share. Especially when it comes to my last name. In high school I sat next to a girl named Kristie Shields and though we had nothing in common (She was a hood, I was a punk. She had crackly, over-dyed reddish hair and crooked teeth; I had poofy 80’s hair; I’d just gotten my braces off ), I still thought it was kind of fun that we had identical last names. Same with Brooke Shields. She was a big star when I was a kid and it was a regular omission of mine to admit we were not related. In fact, my cousin played a similar trick on me of the variety that I’d play on others. He said he sat next to Brooke Shields while taking the entrance exam to Princeton as they were the same age, going into college the same year. Y’know, we sat alphabetically? I believed him. And to this day, I still don’t know if it really happened.

Really, reality, sharing last names: I had the privilege to meet David Shields, author of Reality Hunger, at Thursday’s Writers Conference. L picked him up at the train station and he slept the whole way over, and so our hopes seemed dashed that he’d make a decent presentation of himself during his creative non-fiction workshop. Since this conference started, we students huddle expectantly at the door of the classroom, amazingly high on hopes of being dazzled, blown away, awed, stupefied. We want our money’s worth. We want to be changed, altered, refined, refashioned. We want what the Buddhists want—we want to be in the presence of someone’s supernatural insight that might lead us to a Noble Truth. And when you have one bad experience like we did with Apple, [possibly more about this in a second draft] you start doubting the powers that be. You start doubting the possibility that you have enough money to buy something like that. That maybe, your needs are too wide and too vast to put a price tag on, and that you’re probably not going to get thrown that glimpse of nirvana.

But it does come. It appears in one-liners that we scrawl like maniacs into our notebooks, that read badly after the fact, because in the moment, in the context, it makes perfect sense. “Monotony can be insightful” (Stephen Dunn); “What could be sadder than a clown without a context” (Stephen Dunn); “The essay is….untrammeled access to a person’s conscience” (David Shields); “An essay is not always an exercise in ego…The self has to jump the tracks out of the self…and become bigger than the self. Complacent, self-assured people don’t make good essayist” (David Shields); “The job of an essayist is to have doubt” (David Shields); “You strike me as someone who has a compost heap” (Alexis Apfelbaum).

In the lobby of the library, when L brought him in she introduced him as David Shields, and I said, not so clumsily, but I could have done better, Yes, yes, I’ve been coming across your work all month: Tin House, Creative Non-Fiction, blah, blah, blah. And of course, I mentioned his name and mine. My name is also Shields, I said, almost with a wink like, you and me, we have a connection (I didn’t say that last bit, I thought it). But he turned, sleepily, possibly still trying to wake up from his nap from 30th Street Station, and said, “That’s not my name.”

Not your name? Forgive me for thinking that. But it’s on all your books.

[Insert here story of my name, then go on to discuss fiction and my relationship to it; ramble on about PBQ and “Reality Fiction” and my nearly 20-year belief that the I—the first person is the vehicle for all stories told. Eventually get back to DS and why Shields isn’t his name].

The story is so much more than this awkward moment of me feeling a little irked that someone would take my name and use it– on his books, no less– when clearly he has his own. He’s damn right to suggest that we are hungry for reality when so much of the world and the people in it are phony. Not to say that he… Well, the story isn’t about the vehicle so much as the message. It tells how I go from incensed to exultant in the span of a couple hours.

And it tells that his class presentation, after all, was replete with all the tingly insights and truths I had hoped for. It tells of the moment when I was changed too; when he addressed the audience during his reading, and quoted Kafka’s belief that fiction “should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us” and then INVALIDATED it by reminding us that there is far too much fiction in the world today and what we desperately seek is REALITY. The story goes on to say how my eyes welled up (that’s what happens when you believe in someone’s argument and have a connection to someone, in spite of their name). And a little moment of Cha-ching pleasantly fell upon me. I got my money’s worth. I had my religious experience. And I decided, then and there, I was switching to non-fiction.

But I’ve run out of time and can’t tell that story right now. I’ll have to log back in to tell it. But Shakespeare was right. “What’s in a name?” I’ll get over David Shields’ appropriation of Shields, but I’ve joined his movement. I’m a fan. Reality Hunger is one of the best books of 2010. I might even be inspired to change my name.

Reality Fiction

June 15, 2010


SO, last night was a night alone–completely alone–no kids, no boyfriend, no friends, no nothing. And quite honestly, I enjoyed the heck out of it. People who can’t be alone shock and amaze me. And it’s not that I make very good use of my “me time”: Dr. Phil and Intervention marathons are sadly as wild as I get.

But I did read last night; that’s a big plus.

There are several things I’m reading- Ron Rash’s Serena, Mat Johnson’s Hunting in Harlem, and then several lit mags: Creative NonFiction,  Glimmer Train, and Tin House, the latter of which was the only thing that interested me last night as it had a great interview with David Shields who believes in “tell don’t show” when it comes to fiction.

Interesting! If you know anything about fiction writing, as students we are told the opposite, that “show don’t tell” is the first rule of writing and so, our fiction ends up looking like this:

Carey studied the frozen dinners. He’d had turkey and dressing for the last four days, so salisbury steak would be good for a change. But did he want the Big Man’s or the regular?

A scent teased his nose. Not the overwhelming smell of fish and frostbite, but a fresh smell, like the smell of skin just out of the shower. He glanced sideways and saw the most perfect arm he’d ever seen in his life. Long, slender, graceful, full of sinewy muscle and smooth skin. His eyes followed the arm to the shoulder and then the head. Her head. A head covered with long blond hair and containing a face that made his heart stop.

“Hi,” she said, her voice rich and melodious.

Carey’s mouth didn’t work. He tried to return her greeting, but only a grunt came out. He tried to smile politely, but his face erupted with a grin as large and toothy and goofy as a cartoon character’s . . . (taken from: Inspiration for Writers)

The above, of course, is a bad example, and yet, it illustrates nicely what most of our fiction looks like. Shields is saying that “fiction” hasn’t caught up with our contemporary culture which is a blend of reality and fiction and that most literature is egoless because it “shows” action, rather than tells of what the mind is thinking, what the emotions are feeling. The subconscious, he argues, is what is most desired and what can be exposed in literature and yet no one is doing it.

I’m sure I’m bastardizing his philosophy, but what I find greatly fascinating is that when I worked with PBQ I kept pushing for what I called “Reality FIction.” KVM thought I was nuts. But my point was to expose a reality in fiction that no one seemingly wanted to read. Bad literature. But the reality was, as far as submissions to the magazine went, there was more bad stuff than good. And if we were to portray “reality” this is how we would do it. Not only that, but i wanted to publish the cover letters. Marion got me. KVM didn’t. Nice to know another “Shields” gets me.

He will be speaking and reading at Rutgers for the summer writers conference. I can’t wait!

Oacoma

September 20, 2009

Upland Sorrow by StateSealKeeper

You are listening to Weird by Clem Snide, driving through Indianapolis. The sun keeps playing tricks on you and the landscape changes like a slow twirling kaleidoscope, reconfiguring the horizon with sparkly newness the farther west you drive. Indiana sinks behind you, back into itself- into its own drabness, and you’re glad to be rid of all 275 miles. You think about how everything forward comes from nothing. The Chicago beltway; the strip malls of Madison, Wisconsin; Winona, Blue Earth, Luverne.

You are driving and driving, through Minnesota, then into South Dakota, a few bumps, but mostly flat land, miles of green field. Just like when you and Angel took this same road. Out of the blue, right here,  the landscape changes. You hit this drop off I-90 and the earth falls away like nothing- it’s right around Oacoma—and you’re left, undone, every time, holding onto the steering wheel for dear life, blown away by the unexpected sweep of a view that’s right there in front of you. You can’t miss it. And so you make your way down and pitch toward the bottom of the hill, and there it is. The river you’ve been waiting for. The spot where you recognize just how much you’ve missed.

You get out of the car and you’re standing at the edge. And you’re looking for god on the hills. In the clouds. Not really ready. Hoping something out there will save you. That this is the spot where you’re going to let it go. Because all you’ve got are these weird, bulbous pea green yellow bluffs and hills that make no sense.  Even the air out by Oacoma is different. And you remember being at this same spot, that’s why you’re here, but not with such exactitude, because you weren’t paying attention the last time. You don’t remember the river being here seven years ago and you certainly don’t remember the bridge. You flew by it and never noticed.

Yes, you flew by it and never noticed because you were listening to the radio and that’s when Angel must have said, “Look, Mom, a river,” and so you did, but not really. And you just said, yes, yes, yes, baby. I see. But you didn’t see anything. You were listening to some song a hundred times, thinking about wanting to smoke cigarettes again and if you would get laid in LA once you got there and other meaningless thoughts that drivers driving long distances think when they’re alone.

But you weren’t alone.

Your son had memorized that spot and even when it was gone, he remembered it and told you about it many times, long after it was gone. He would shout it at you, “Mom! Are you listening?” Yes, yes, yes, baby. I’m listening. But you weren’t listening.  You were wrapped up in following your dream to be a poet, you were pinning postcards to your cork board, you were busy chatting online to Paolo from Argentina. You were waiting for Angel to take his nap.

A few days ago you weren’t driving at all. You were sitting. You were standing too. And pacing. You were in the waiting room of Virtua Hospital, waiting to be told if your son would live or die. You were there, but not really there. And you said fuck about a million times into the wide open gray space because you thought you knew the answer. And when the doctors pushed through the double-doors you even thought you knew what they were going to say. They were going to say I’m sorry, Mrs. Monroe, there was nothing we could do. And so you braced yourself, helpless. And you waited. And you asked only one question, of no one in particular, or maybe god: Do I get a second chance? As if confronting god with your mistakes would help you win some points. But there you rested for a while, arms wrapped around yourself, caught between the empty space of questions and answers.

You took Angel out west to celebrate your new life. You were finally free. You left your son’s daddy.  And there was this inner-calling to finally know space and distance and movement. And you didn’t want to stop. The farther you went the safer you became inside. Safe from ugly, bad, miserable, lazy, painful muck. You were safe from nights of hiding under bed covers, only to be forced awake. You were safe from burning up with hate each time he slapped a bill, a plate, a child’s toy on top of the counter and said, “Here, you deal with this.” You were safe from the man you wish you never knew and so was your son and so you kept moving. “We’re like Lewis and Clark,” you said, and you tried to sell him on the adventure. You packed up the car with suitcases and plastic bags of gummy worms and gameboys and music, and you drove. And you sang and got cranky and you made a million pee stops, and sometimes you both slept in the same bed because the hotel only had a King. But you loved the warmth of each others’ skin after twelve hours buckled safely into a seat.

When you finally hit Moab, it was then Angel said, “I want to go home.”

And he was right. You’d gone too far. The landscape was like a soul, pulling you in, once you reached the canyons. The deeper you went, the less you knew of yourself.  And that’s what you wanted. You wanted to not know and you thought the desert would do it. Near Moab, the land gives you this second chance. You see these hills and valleys of empty, orange rocks. You see negative space in the blue sky, and in the horizon you see Windows and Towers and the Devil’s Garden. And you can’t help but feel the tug and lure of something you don’t really understand.

But you promised Angel you’d turn around, and so you did. And you said goodbye to the promise of California and red rocks and getting laid and being reborn and all that crap. And you kind of  found yourself too. But you didn’t realize it then. And besides, you did it in an ordinary, unremarkable way, the way most mothers do—in their daily sacrifices to their child, in the mundane, in the hours spent making lunches, cleaning clothes, tying shoes. This going West thing that you thought would change you– didn’t. And so you and Angel went back to New Jersey and back to the man you wish you never knew.

But a few days ago you weren’t making any sacrifices like you did back then—or at least you didn’t think you were. You were pacing and worn and praying while an officer told you that your son had been in a car accident. His seventeen-year-old lungs had been crushed by the dashboard, doing the best they could, expanding and contracting surreptitiously under the cracked ribs of his strong, youthful chest. You had your flash: you yelled at him that morning to take out the trash. But it was more than that. He wouldn’t get off the computer. You were angry about that too. At times, you had to dig deep into his character to find something you loved, and you hated yourself for that. You wanted to remember the parts of him that you loved when he was little. The little guy who craved the open road or playing with legos or smiling up at you while you wiped jelly off his face. Just hours before you had had it with him, actually.  Fucking teenagers, you said.  And regretfully, you told him so. You didn’t normally do that. But you were fed up. And sometimes, it happens. You forget the boy when you start to see the man. You told him, I’m sick of this shit. What about me? Are you going to be twenty and still expect me to clean up after you? Look at your room? It’s disgusting. Clean it, for Christ’s sake. And he kind of laughed at you under his breath. His usual. You saw him do it, and by this point, you knew to pick your battles. You should have picked your battle. But, instead, you turned to him and said the only thing a mother can say to a son she thinks will have a lifetime to forgive her: it’s your fault I’m still here, you said.

And that was your mistake.

You saw his mannish posture wilt. His face lost its playfulness. You fumbled under his gaze the same way you did with his father. You hated that feeling. It made you feel less of a person. It made you doubt yourself.  So, you tried to dissipate the wave of emotions that would have ensued, the only way you knew how.

You sent him to the store for bread.

But, when the doctors came in, pushing their way through the double-doors, you were  staring the truth right between the eyes and you thought  you were right. But hoping against all hope that you were wrong because you’ve never loved anything more than that boy. You thought they’d say, I’m sorry, Mrs. Monroe, there was nothing we could do. Becasue it would have been a punishment. And by all accounts, you should have been punished.  The world works that way. In the movies at least. The kid runs out the door after a fight with his mom and gets killed, and she lives with the guilt the rest of her life.

Isn’t that the way of life?

But you were wrong. He would make it.  And as the doctors lead you to his bedside,  you wrap the boy in your arms.   You think, foolishly, that everything will be OK. But  he’s no longer a boy. It’s a man, not a boy who will force a lifetime of amending upon you.

So, you’re standing at this river in Oacoma, South Dakota. The Lakota name for the “space between.” Just you and your thoughts and you remember the day you took your son out here.  You’re looking over a bluff with a seventy-foot drop. The source, the sink. Yes, yes, yes, you see it now—the railroad bridge, throwing shadows over the big Missouri, pulling at you, gratuitously, to see it for the first time. Like the only route off a battlefield that’s burning to the ground. It speaks and says, here’s your ticket forward. And it’s at that moment you ask a question. This time you ask it of God. Am I forgiven? But there’s a quiet in the west Easterners do not know. There’s an expanse of land so wide, questions go unanswered. Besides, you know the answer. You know that the only god out there who’s listening is the one who can’t save you from yourself.

Summer of trees

September 11, 2009

This bizarre thing was written in response to a writing project we had to do in Lauren Grodstein’s Fiction class. It’s a sestina and if you know anything about sestinas, they’re pretty difficult to do. If you don’t know anything about them, here is a little definition below. I’m not sure I did it exactly right, but whatev. It’s done. Feedback is appreciated.

A sestina (also, sextina, sestine, or sextain) is a highly structured poem consisting of six six-line stanzas followed by a tercet (called its envoy or tornada), for a total of thirty-nine lines. The same set of six words ends the lines of each of the six-line stanzas, but in a different order each time; if we number the first stanza’s lines 123456, then the words ending the second stanza’s lines appear in the order 615243, then 364125, then 532614, then 451362, and finally 246531. This organization is referred to asretrogradatio cruciata (“retrograde cross”). These six words then appear in the tercet as well, with the tercet’s first line usually containing 1 and 2, its second 3 and 4, and its third 5 and 6 (but other versions exist, described below). English sestinas are usually written in quadratic hexameter or another decasyllabic meter. -taken from Wikipedia

I.

All my summers are filled with trees.

Here in Philadelphia.

But through broken glass and black mosaics and ragged, cold metal…

From a ground floor window, of a basement, hot and wet with humidity and stagnation he still knocks on the wall.

He knocks hard, repetitively, like the monotonous hammering of ceramic rubble from when I was a kid.

He knocks persistently, to let me know it’s time to see that dark place once again and set aside my dreaming.

II.

I run to lock the door but he has a key, and so I put to rest the dreams I’m dreaming.

Through the window stretches a limb from an Elm tree.

And I reach through the bars and out into the open and I climb the branches like an eternal kid.

I bend my knees and stretch my arms high and twist my spine up and around each branch in the beautiful, clean, city sky of Philadelphia.

And there I rest and wait, perched with closed eyes, leaning on the outer wall.

I rest through it all—the darkness, (he is right) and the sharp pain of coarse rope, fist and metal.

III.

He takes my wrists and twists them up with rope, he pulls my hair into his fist and lifts my dress, and soon I feel the click of metal.

I am untouched; dreaming

I try to tell myself, there was no knock on the wall—

No; these walls are soft and padded with real windows and a real view of trees.

I can see clear across the tops of sycamores, elms, maples, oaks; every tree in all of Philadelphia…

Gathered at the pretty feet of this here kid.

IV.

Oh, but when I was a kid.

I lived in a house of a sculptor and an artist who worked with mosaic tiles and metal.

It was right off Broad Street in Philadelphia.

I spent most of my days in a concrete yard, dreaming.

And looking up into a sky filled with the soft leaves of a hundred trees.

The only things that kept me safe, in those days, from my father, were my mother’s screams and a wall.

V.

My room was in the far corner of the basement next to my father’s workshop; he and I separated only by this wall.

And when he had too much to drink he’d knock and scream, hey, kid!

And breeze in with his artist’s tools, like wind through the trees—

Almost invisible; except for wood and glass and scraps of twisted metal

He had fashioned these things into daggers and pointed toys that he had thought up in one of his many dreams.

And he would visit me during hot summer nights, just like all the tourists visited Philadelphia.

VI.

The basement was cool in summer; summers were hot in Philadelphia.

And he would lock the door and push me against the wall.

And in the very beginning, I did not move or think or dream.

Heck, I was just a kid.

And when he’d jab me with the object, whatever it was, always cold like metal

I only stared out my window and imagined trees.

VII.

And then, one night my mother screamed, she’s just a kid!

And searched the floor of my father’s shop for her own piece of metal.

And as I lie slumped in a corner, too late, still staring at the trees

Newly dreaming of climbing high and safe into the trees—

My mother ran across his heart and head a jagged piece of metal

And scratched out both his eyes and said, this is for the kid.