Ploughshares has published quality literature since it's founding in 1971 by DeWitt Henry and Peter O'Malley in the Plough and Stars, an Irish pub in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Best known for our award-winning Ploughshares literary journal, we also publish Ploughshares Solos, digital-first long stories and essays, and a lively literary blog.
Fleur Jaeggy’s fiction works, two short novels and two short story collections, are marked with a quiet violence and a very particular brand of detachment. Importantly, though her characters operate through various calibres of neurosis, they do not experience their melancholy or habitual pain as opposites to a preferred, more buoyant state. The world they occupy, then, unfolds at a slight removal from our own: it is a place where alienation, dysfunction, and disappointment are unquestioned, non-negotiable terms.
These terms, which dictate their inner lives and exterior relationships alike, endure even in light of tragedy and violence. In the titular final story of the collection Last Vanities, the elderly Verena Kuster witnesses her husband jump to his death from a window in their home. Later, she reflects, ‘To push one’s husband out of the window, using no more than words, persuasion, is a form of spirituality.’ Bereaved, it is not grief that takes hold of her but a devotional transformation: ‘She felt sure of the ways she held herself now, enjoyed a certain sensual pleasure… She had finally entered into her body.’
The reader quickly realizes that, much like in Jean Genet’s fiction, Jaeggy’s characters are out of joint with morality and its norms. Unfamiliar with empathy and compassion, their transgressions go unopposed by such counter ideals—indeed, as they’re entirely without recourse to an established set of values, the term ‘transgression’ doesn’t really apply. Similarly, though they experience the world from a position of ontological melancholy, it is a sadness unmarked by prior knowledge of glee or revelry. Detachment is the sole substance of their emotional lives, and so, they operate under an inversion of ideals again akin to Genet’s novels, wherein murder and theft become saintly, martyred acts. Their squamous sensibility is inherent; they are indifferent and cruel in the same way they are dark or fair, lissome or stout. If they are happy, they are ‘darkly happy… observing one’s own void.’
Markedly unlike Genet, however, is the recurrent depiction of flesh as a sterile conduit, as we see with the narrator of the novel SS Proleterka. An adolescent girl embarks on a cruise with her estranged father, the ship becoming the locus of what she intends to be a sexual awakening. However, long starved of emotional contact and inexperienced in compassion, she’s unable to identify their absence. Ultimately, the sex she has with the crew members doesn’t induce the empowered discovery of her erotic self; rather, it signals a failed attempt at agency: ‘Nikola shoves me violently into the cabin…. He is violent on the bunk too…. Nikola knew how to take my thoughts.’
Marked by a dysfunction indelible to her molecular makeup, these coarse terms of engagement are incapable of either demeaning or liberating her. She is not depicted as an aberrant deviant or a violated victim but simply as a person seeking a calibre of intimacy that, even if she were to attain it, she would be ill equipped to recognize or sustain. In “The Last of the Line” from the collection I Am the Brother of XX, we see a more extreme example in young Caspar, who is determined to ‘serve pain.’ He shows a wound on his temple to the game warden, who endeavors to protect Caspar from future harm, but the old man’s affection and concern are met with violent scorn:
‘You are preventing my brother from wounding me,’ Caspar said with rage. He lunged at the aging game warden… The old man fell and hit his head on the iron in the shape of a scythe used to scrape the soles of shoes.
Without the affective components necessary for apprehending tenderness, Caspar’s preternatural displacement endures. It is such relentless, matter-of-fact fatalism that makes reading Jaegyy’s prose feel like taking up a dare. Her characters unveil axioms that we, indoctrinated in ideals of sympathy and sanitized notions of selfhood, are too reactive or susceptible to acknowledge, let alone embrace. Shorn of reflection and clemency, their detachment makes way for a blunt freedom whose possibilities are both unnerving and tantalizing: ‘During the night the mother embraced her and called her by the name of one of her husbands, the one who wasn’t her father. The sheets were hot.’
Unschooled in taboo and so unafraid of what they might discover, they discover that memory is a phantom, intimacy a lie, and devotion a snare seeded with violence: ‘maybe,’ we read, ‘the cross itself will drive her to squeeze it till it bleeds like a pomegranate fruit.’ They demonstrate that morality, as a concept and a way of being, has been stretched too thin to serve everyone: these characters are those individuals just out of reach, continually untouched by such standards. In its place, they have fashioned a ‘pariahistic’ spirituality of anathema and dissidence, one which places them beyond benevolence, but also beyond reprehension:
If you want to know more about it then go ahead and become you yourself – her steady eyes are saying – become you yourself the victim.
When I’m on vacation, I try to read books set in the place I’m visiting or, if not set there exactly, at least evocative of the mood of the place. These often set the tone of my stay, the restaurants I choose or the ways I spend my time. It’s easy on vacation to change plans because of a book and pretend I never made them to begin with. I recently visited New York for the first time in nearly a decade and was spoiled for choice—I bought too many books set there and lived inside the world I was reading about, despite the fact that the real version of that world was right outside the window. I’d recently finished reading Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock and went to Café Sabarsky, a Viennese-style coffee house on the Upper East Side, on the book’s recommendation, and walked by the Chelsea Hotel after devouring Patti Smith’s Just Kids. It’s the most vivid part of any vacation, connecting me to people who have sent me a secret message and who know a place much better than I do as a visitor.
Two of the books I read before and during this recent trip to New York were Anne Roiphe’s Art and Madness, a memoir about a woman on the cusp of discovering that she wants to be a writer, and Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City, a memoir by an established writer who takes long walks—à la Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City—and, through them, finds material for her writing. At first glance, the two authors have little in common besides being born in 1935 and being Jewish women from New York—Anne Roiphe grew up on Park Avenue and Vivian Gornick in the Bronx. Roiphe’s memoir focuses on her relationships with New York literati and Gornick’s focuses on people she encounters in the streets of the city. Roiphe’s memoir is about her twenties, Gornick’s is about her sixties. And yet, both memoirs have the same main character: New York City, as it appears particularly to the authors. In the New Yorks of these books, isolation in an urban setting is a tired trope, one neither Roiphe nor Gornick finds to fit her experiences. That worldview—of finding camaraderie with strangers—too, shaped my trip.
Art and Madness reads like a who’s who of the largely male 1950s art set. Roiphe, before she was a writer, was surrounded by male writers—both in her own imagination and in her real life—whom she adored. She conceived of herself as no more than their muse, tamping down her own artistic ambitions and forgiving the misogyny of the likes of Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and plenty of other men who were able “to write the novel that by existing would justify the human endeavor, an endeavor so clearly in need of justification.”
Roiphe carts her own young daughter (referred to only as “the child”) through the memoir’s events without using the feminist vocabulary introduced a decade after this book ends,balancing home life with work. She was a young mother—already divorced six years after her Sarah Lawrence graduation, but her focus was decidedly on nurturing the careers of the men around her and trying to raise a child without knowing quite yet what she valued. “In the fall I go to George Plimpton’s,” she writes of the year 1963. “The night is long and the married woman with young children have left to go to bed so that they can rise with their children.” Roiphe knows that the men begin having interesting conversations in earnest later in the night, so she stays and makes literary small talk until she eventually, years later, discovers in herself the same drives and impulses to create and lays down the burden of listening to and cleaning up after the drunk geniuses of the Manhattan’s West End parties.
In a Paris Review interview, Vivian Gornick recalled a youth spent much less in service of the men of Roiphe’s acquaintance and much more devoted to creating her own literary canon. Mary McCarthy and Collete “were fonts of wisdom for us,” said Gornick. “The work of these writers was not on any syllabus of any course we ever took, but we looked upon them as our real mentors. I memorized whole passages of Mary McCarthy. It was from her especially that I thought I was learning how to be in the world, as a woman who expected to become a person.”
In her 2015 memoir, The Odd Woman and the City, she writes about this time since she “[became] a person,” about a decade or two before the book’s publication, as a writer in New York. Gornick uses her friendship with her friend Leonard as a frame for the memoir—her walks with him as well as their running jokes and observations about the people they pass on the city streets. But her closest friendship is with the city she lives in. “Most people are in New York because they need evidence — in large quantities — of human expressiveness,” she writes, “and they need it not now and then, but every day. That is what they need. Those who go off to the manageable cities can do without; those who come to New York cannot.” Some of the best stories—like one about an elderly man who insisted he paid his bus fare and the bus driver who would not continue on his route because he insisted the old man had not—are about strangers Gornick meets only once, who populate the bulk of her day by responding to each situation in ways that Gornick finds worthy of writing about.
The stakes of both these memoirs are the authors themselves, in their various states of becoming on the streets and in the parties of New York City. Perhaps what the city provides most of all is the chance to counterbalance the stimulation of an exterior world with the reflection of an interior one. Both women are, ultimately, solitary wanderers.
Once I’d hit all the major literary landmarks on my own trip to New York, what was left were the same solitary walks through the streets crowded with strangers, each of whom contained possibility and mystery to me, and I thought most often of Ropihe and Gornick as women chronicling their own ascents. By taking their own lives as serious material for meandering and anecdotal memoirs, they become real to their the people around them and see them as real. In a city in which so much of the day is spent in shared isolation, this seriousness makes their careful attention an artistic subject worthy of great literature.
This year marks fifteen years since the initial US invasion of Iraq in 2003. In Rachel Kushner’s and Lisa Halliday’s newest novels, the war lurks, ever present, in the background. Kushner’s The Mars Room takes place in a women’s prison in California in the early days of the war, which backdrops the lives of incarcerated women. Halliday’s Asymmetry follows the uneven relationship between a young editorial assistant and an older writer in the early days of the war, which punctuate their romance in early-aughts New York City and puts into question their roles as writers during wartime. Both Kushner and Halliday link the violence of imperialism to the lives of American subjects during the war in their novels, documenting the dissonances and resonances between the war abroad and life at home.
In Kushner’s long-awaited The Mars Room, Romy Hall is serving out two consecutive life sentences for killing her stalker, who followed her and her son from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Kushner draws in the Iraq War to illustrate how mass incarceration disrupts the mythos of American freedom for all. Romy argues self-defense, but all the court sees is “a young woman of dubious moral character—a stripper” who killed Kurt Kennedy, “an upstanding citizen, a veteran of the Vietnam War.” Kurt’s obsession with Romy begins in the Mars Room, the strip club where she works as “Vanessa”; he likes her because she is “one hundred percent girl.” He has a vision of femininity, and she—with her long legs, “grab-able” breasts, and short dresses—fulfills it perfectly. He follows her home from the club and sees her with a little boy who he is sure could not be her son: “It didn’t fit,” he says.
War, in America, is performed under the guise of benevolence. In Vietnam, where Kurt fought, and in Iraq, the war machine is portrayed as a protectorate of American freedom, which the United States is generously extending to innocent civilians abroad. It’s a lie, one whose logic Kushner rightly extends to mass incarceration and patriarchal violence. Prisons are justified as “correctional facilities,” a place for the rehabilitation of those deemed criminal, while the dominance of men over women has been rationalized as a product of women’s inherent weakness.
Romy makes a living identifying and performing the delusions men have about women. She knows what they like, which is also to know that they’re dangerous. Unfortunately, the things women know about men don’t protect them from their violence. This is especially true for Romy, who ends up in prison, separated from her son, with no way out. She was trapped outside by Kurt, and now inside as well. “There are American soldiers over in Iraq… protecting your freedom,” another prisoner tells Romy while they’re locked up in administrative segregation. “They can have my freedom,” she responds. “It sucks.” Mass incarceration punctures the argument of American war: whose freedom are the soldiers fighting for? Not Romy’s.
Kushner links together violence on a personal level to the state-sanctioned forms of war and incarceration. “There were stark acts of it: beating a person to death,” muses Gordon Hauser, the English teacher at Romy’s prison:
And there were more abstract forms, depriving people of jobs, safe housing, adequate schools. There were large scale acts of it, the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians in a single year, for a specious war of lies and bungling, a war that might have no end, but according to prosecutors, the real monsters were teenagers like Button Sanchez.
Button Sanchez, one of Gordon’s students who is incarcerated, is guilty—but the point is that she’s in prison while those behind the Iraq War are not. Certain forms of violence, like war, are celebrated and justified by the state, while the individual crimes of women like Button Sanchez and Romy are punished by that same system. In connecting the different levels of American violence, Kushner draws into question the sanctity of certain forms over others.
Where The Mars Room uncovers the resonances between the American war and life in America, Asymmetry is a book about its dissonances. Composed of three parts, Asymmetry begins with the unlikely romance between Alice, a young editorial assistant living in New York, and Ezra Blazer, an older, established writer, during the beginning of the Iraq War. Their relationship is playful and loving but framed by the imbalance of power between the two—Alice wants the successful writing career that Ezra has. She wants to write about “Other people. People more interesting than I am… Muslim hot dog sellers.”
The war hangs over Alice and Ezra like a fog. They watch Bush’s televised announcement of the invasion the night before Ezra’s birthday: “‘This man is so stupid,’ said Alice, shaking her head. ‘This is going to kill me,’ said Ezra, forking the tart.” Alice’s youthful earnestness and Ezra’s lukewarm disregard are reflective of their relationship–Alice still wants so much more out life, while Ezra is near his close. But it’s also a bizarre scene, and now a familiar one, of Americans in leisure, while the president declares war on TV. Halliday furrows into the gap between the war abroad and life at home, in the hopes that mapping its vicious absurdities will provide clemency.
The novel’s second section follows Amar, an Iraqi-American man who is detained by UK immigration while on his way to visit his brother in Kurdistan. There are similarities between the two narratives, but they are slightly askew. Amar also watches the war on TV. Halliday writes dialogue with a clear-eyed mastery, and where Ezra and Alice’s banter moved with a speed and familiarity unique to lovers, conversation between Amar and an immigration agent is formally similar, but the subject is entirely different. This dissonance is purposefully jarring. Halliday’s project is to explore the “asymmetry” between the lives of Americans and Iraqis, between young women and older men, between the subjects of imperialism and the victims of war, and also between writers and the stories they tell.
The inclusion of Amar’s story in Asymmetry also reads like a corrective to the marginalization of Iraqi voices and points towards the novel’s implicit burden of guilt over the war. The trick of Asymmetry—that Amar’s story is the novel that Alice had always hoped to write—is revealed in its third section, which takes the form of a Desert Island Discs interview with Ezra. After playing his favorite Debussy, he makes an oblique reference to Alice, “a young friend of mine [who’s] written a rather surprising little novel.” Ezra’s remark is Halliday’s meta-commentary on Asymmetry’s layered narratives: “It’s a novel that on its surface would seem to have nothing to do with the author, but in fact is a kind of veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her provenance, her privilege, her naiveté.” This is the significance of Amar’s narrative and the presence of the Iraq war—they are mechanisms for Alice and Halliday’s desire to push past their “privilege.”
When reading Asymmetry, I thought often of Ilya Kaminsky’s damning poem, “We Lived Happily During the War,” which links the comfort of American lives to the ugly costs of imperialism:
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.
Can you be forgiven for living happily during the war? Asymmetry traces the ugly work of the war as an attempt at forgiveness, while The Mars Room shows that absolution isn’t possible—the war touches everything.
Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-Cree Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer from Peguis First Nation (Treaty 1 territory). You might be wondering what, exactly, that means. As part of the introduction to a recent interview with Whitehead at CBC Radio, the host writes: “When you look for a clear definition of the term ‘two-spirit’ you’ll quickly find that there isn’t one”:
Two-spirit, in the simplest sense, is an Indigenous person who is a member of the LGBTQ community.
But Whitehead said his sexual identity is a ‘braiding of two worlds’—his queerness and his culture. The word Indigiqueer is his way of making a space, land, and ceremony for that identity.
‘I go by both two-spirit and Indigiqueer. One to pay homage to where I come from, from Winnipeg, being kind of the birthplace of two-spirit in 1990. But I also think of Indigiqueer as the forward moving momentum for two-spiritness,’ he said.
One could refer to Whitehead as a poet, fiction writer, and critic, and yet, Whitehead’s work also exists without such easily defined boundaries, blending elements of critical commentary and performance in his debut poetry collection, full-metal indigiqueer (which was published last fall to multiple printings by Talonboks), with the lyric performance and cultural commentary in his second book, the novel Jonny Appleseed, published last month by Arsenal Pulp Press. In a review of full-metal indigiqueer in Plenitude Magazine, Gwen Benaway refers to the book as “a cyberpunk dystopian vision of modern queer Indigenous life.” Benaway writes that “full-metal indigiqueer is one of the most distinctive and original collections of Indigenous poetry ever published. It blends Indigenous futurism with colonial hangovers in dense text that scrolls across the page as if spit out by an old dot matrix printer possessed by an NDN ghost. The strongest feature of Whitehead’s work is how his writing blends genres, poetic influences, Cree and English language, and queer embodiments into a strange poetic cyborg.” A coming-of-age novel that could as easily been targeted to a Young Adult audience, Jonny Appleseed is a sex-positive book that includes tenderness and trauma, as well as references to Queer as Folk and sex columnist Dan Savage. Whitehead is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary (Treaty 7 territory) where he focuses on Indigenous Literatures and Cultures in the Department of English. He is the 2016 winner of the Aboriginal Arts and Stories Challenge, which awarded him a Governor General’s History Award.
Whitehead’s ongoing engagement with reclaiming language is reminiscent of the work of the late Vancouver writer Roy Kiyooka, who composed the bulk of his work in, as he wrote, “inglish,” refusing to allow his Japanese self to be overwritten by Colonial European whiteness. Using charged language in a deliberate way, Whitehead’s linguisitic twists are playful, direct, and, on occasion, confrontational. Even in our brief exchange, he writes “NDN” for “Indian” and “wînipêk” for Winnipeg, shifting language to speak very much on his terms. A few months ago, we had the opportunity to talk about his work in weaving together language, theory, politics, history, culture and sexuality.
rob mclennan: You wrote recently that your ongoing work focuses on “Indigenous reclamations, and to be more specific, Indigiqueer reclamations.” How did you get here, and what brought you to articulate your reclamations through poetry?
Joshua Whitehead: What is poetry from an NDN perspective? Poetry, for me, has always been the most political of the modes of writing; it’s so attached to refusal, resistance, and resurgence in the canons and in our current Indigenous literary moment—I think here of Billy-Ray Belcourt, Gwen Benaway, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Layli Long Soldier, Tommy Pico, Jordan Abel. Poetry, for me, has no limitations, no edges: it’s a mutant, it’s a cyborg, it’s a warsong.
I like poetry because it lets me build worlds from words in digital/cyber spaces: here I’m a time-traveller, here I’m burning in the pyroclasm with John Connor, here I’m Duessa that archmage-imago. Poetry sharpens language into an arrowhead, weaponizes syntax, grammar becomes a gloved-blade, stories become a haunted house. I think I needed that—I needed to empower myself because the world disempowers me at every turn and every angle. So I love the transformative elements of poetry. Sometimes I feel like poetry gifts me renewed vision, a passage into the Fourth World; sometimes I feel like the NDN “A Square” from that novel, Flatland, living in a multi-dimensional space where a penny is a circle, is a sphere, is a globe, is a world, is a universe. Poetry lets me shift perspectives, you think there exists only one world? Well, I’ll give you galaxy in a sentence, I’ll show you survivance in a handful of words.
Poetry is a queer quill, poetry is a limp-wristed slap, poetry is a femme fatale; I like that about poetry, I craft mirrors for myself, for Indigiqueerness, NDN vanity is a viral vein, see how big “I” am?
I find myself asking the world too often: what is 2S/Indigiqueerness? What does it look like, who were we as people, who are we as people? People want to tell me that 2S folx were revered, medicine people, shamanic, mystical, highly respected. I always have to ask them, “were?” So that too I am reclaiming: myself. Taking my body out of the “was” and placing it into the “is.” When I write, I picture the child in me feeling sullen, confused, desperate for that answer. All I can give is story, which is to say a blueprint for constructing the “I.”
I say: sharpen the fang of a poem and let it wreck havoc on their hi/story, drain the life of canonicity—I found myself a jingle dress at the bottom of that well. Language is the body and I brand my NDNness with my poems.
RM:Your first full-length poetry collection, full-metal indigiqueer, moves at a pretty high speed, incorporating references and materials from a great many sources, both literary and pop culture. What was it that you felt blending those outside elements allows in your work that wouldn’t be possible otherwise?
JW: The fractured dimensions of poetry make space for a lot of creativity, revision, crafts a fun-house of the imaginative. My novel, Jonny Appleseed, takes on a lot of pop culture too but not to the same calibre that full-metal indigiqueer does. I believe it’s my training in Cultural Studies, which I did as my MA, that forces me to look at the world askew. I think of things like “taste,” or capital “L” literature, or “low brow culture” as important as anything canonized, if not more. If writing is a reflection of the times, I wonder whose reflection is being shown and whose isn’t and in what distorted forms those images appear?
I also think it’s my understanding of Indigenous epistemologies—as [Thomas] King once orated, everything is story: land, beadwork, braided sweetgrass, brushstrokes, skin—that lets me see myself in the weirdest of homes. I think of full-metal indigiqueer as if it were VR (virtual reality). You’re strapped onto the back of this viral trickster and you travel at near light speed across nations, countries, languages, genres, centuries. You’re bombarded with images, some hurtful, some prideful, and for a brief amount of time I think you get to experience the livelihood of a 2S Indigiqueer femmeboy. I don’t know if you’d get that same type of experience, feel that embodied affect, with anything other than poetry. Maybe that [Philip] Sidney had one thing right, the point of poetry is to move—mine is just moving blockages out of the way and transporting a peoplehood into the future.
RM: There is such a performative element to full-metal indigiqueer, to the point that I could see a stage or film adaptation occurring, akin to Michael Turner’s Hard Core Logo, for example. How conscious were you of performance during the composition process? Was this even a factor?
JW: I think this is where poetry and I diverge, or, at least, poetry in the sense of its Western aesthetics and its sonics. I am so blessed to emerge from wînipêk—our literary and art scene is vast and coagulated in our downtown. I spent a lot of time learning from spoken word artists, musicians, poets, and rappers while I was here. I attended many an open-mic (including helping run one at the University of Winnipeg) as well as poetic hubs such as Speaking Crow. That, and coming from an ancestry of oral storytelling, I really honed in on how I wanted my stories to sound versus how they look on the page. I didn’t want to speak with that typical “poet voice,” I couldn’t afford to be timid or meek, I needed the voice to boom and move, needed to organize. Sure, my page is frenzied, chaotic, experimental, and littered with digital poetics, but it’s the sound I think that’s more important: the performance, the orality. I can’t say I write with that intention in mind but perhaps it’s more that my inner rhythms organize themselves in meters, refrains, and anaphora. Someone recently told me that I sound like a drum when I perform—that, I think, is the aesthetics of my storytelling, one imbued with an ethic, an accountability, sound like a round dance by which I really mean sound like a social healing song. Indigenous otâcimowak serve up some lovely maskihkiy.
RM:Through your poetry, fiction and essays, do you see yourself, at the core, as a storyteller?
JW: I do. I like how the word calls me home, to a specific region, to a specific peoplehood, and to a tradition that arcs back into time. It’s easy enough, I think, to romanticize and excavate meaning from Indigenous epistemologies. A dear friend once told me that when you step onto a piece of land on Turtle Island you are enveloping yourself into the past, present, and future: there are stories written on the land, petroglyphs that point to waterways and hunting grounds, droplets of fluids that (be)foretell trauma but also triumphs, and the land storytalks through seasons, migrations, through renewal and disintegration. So when I say I am an otâcimow, a storyteller, I wrap myself in those hi/stories, with the land, into an atom that intersects time, a lemniscate that looks too much like a Métis optic, a post-contact methodology. I think that’s what differentiates Indigenous literature from CanLit, that acknowledgement that isn’t emptied of semiotics but is brimming with accountability. It’s a decolonial tactic for me, one that removes me from the nation-state and summons me back into my sovereignty.
Eli “Berg” Koenigsberg is not in a good way. He has a brain injury from a concussion, he’s addicted to opioids, and he’s breaking into homes to steal the drugs he needs. Berg is a passive twenty-seven-year-old, not really sure how the past brought him to the present, but he knows enough to get himself out of San Francisco and to move up to Talinas, a fictional town in Northern California. When The Boatbuilder, a debut novel by Daniel Gumbiner, begins, Berg is house-sitting and beginning to get to know people in this community. Over the course of the novel, which takes place over the following year, he will become part of this place, as he moves from one job to the next, one home to the next, always conscious of his addiction and his pain, wanting to escape both but struggling to do so, as the two are intricately joined.
The reader goes on this winding journey with Berg. At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to tag along. The lost, drug-addicted 20-something is, sadly, a bit familiar. But I found myself drawn into Berg’s story, wanting to learn more about him and this community in which he finds himself, willing to follow all the twists and turns. Gumbiner writes beautifully, and he creates a unique world here. There’s something so gentle about Berg, in his awareness of the world and the people around him. He cares. He has a sense of humor. He wants to turn his life around.
The novel gains momentum when Berg falls in with Alejandro, a master boatbuilder who’s old enough to be Berg’s grandfather. Berg knows, almost immediately, that this is the place for him:
It was like being in some kind of cathedral. Tall ceilings and tall windows and boats hanging from the rafters, strung up by thick cords of rope, listing gently in the air. Everything shot through with columns of cold morning light, smelling of straw and saltwater and fresh sawdust.
Alejandro serves as Berg’s mentor, teaching him the basics of boatbuilding but also providing him with an example of a way to be. The novel certainly has the hallmarks of a monomyth, with many of the expected totems of the hero’s journey: the mentor (Alejandro), a series of obstacles (including Berg himself), and the journey from one world to another and back again (Berg’s struggle to overcome his addiction).
The novel moves along at a quick pace, almost always staying in the present moment. There are occasional flashbacks for Berg—to the concussion, a reference or two to his parents, to his life in San Francisco—but, mostly, this is a novel that moves forward in time. Gumbiner makes this forward momentum work, in part, by using short chapters that are almost always complete; there’s an arc in each chapter that feels whole. Things are rarely left in a state of flux, with few cliffhangers—except for a literal one, when a car is sent over a cliff—waiting for the next chapter to fill in the missing pieces.
And then, late in the novel, after Berg hits rock bottom, the chapters almost completely disintegrate. Several of those chapters are only several sentences long. As Berg puts himself back together, the final chapter returns to a usual length. That’s a lovely narrative move—to have the form so beautifully echo the content—and it’s a wonderful and surprising moment for the reader as well. Just as Berg is drawn into the boatbuilding world by learning the intricate tasks of building a boat, it makes sense that the novel would be carefully constructed as well.
Likewise, much of the novel is interested in exploring the act of creation and, by extension, the world of storytelling. The philosophical advice that Berg gets from Alejandro is about life, but it’s also about the act and process of making art. At one point, Berg tells his girlfriend: “I’ll know how something should be done, but I can’t necessarily do it. My understanding always outstrips my skills.” He’s talking about boatbuilding, but he could be talking about any creative process. Later, he learns a specific technique, and he realizes: “It required a meticulous focus, but it rewarded you for that focus. There was nothing more satisfying than making a slight alteration and watching that alteration ripple through the rest of the design, relieving it of its imperfections.” He learns about process but he also learns about people: character after character tells Berg stories that help him to understand who they are, and who Berg is as well.
There are times here when the details can overwhelm the plot and when I couldn’t quite understand how certain scenes or events contribute to the overall story. A minor-league baseball team plays a part. Dialogue can go on a bit long. Alejandro teaches a class about celestial navigation. And yet, there are moments when Gumbiner’s willingness to allow his characters free rein permits the novel to open up into unexpected truths. Berg’s girlfriend tells a long story about her childhood that, in the moment, seems superfluous. But echoes of that story return later in the novel, and it starts to feel as though part of Gumbiner’s intent here is to show how lives are made up of the quotidian, that a life—just like a novel—is an accumulation of moments.
The novel begins with an E.B. White quote to his wife: “I have had an entirely new feeling about life ever since making an ax handle…” This idea of returning to the basics is reminiscent of several religious philosophies, including the Shakers, whose motto begins, “hands to work.” A thread of spirituality runs through this novel from Berg’s rabbi grandfather to the way in which Berg seems to gain strength from his belief in this community. And communities like this exist. Almost twenty years ago, my sister-in-law decided to move to a similar place in Northern California. She is still there, and she has found, I think, exactly what she longed for: a group of like-minded individuals who love and support each other. A family. This, by the end, is what Berg finds as well.
Cass dropped her phone into her bag, crossed her arms, and turned her attention to the feckless junior loitering in the office doorway.
The previous day, Jon Kearns had emailed for an extra day to turn in his assignment, swore that he was out of town and couldn’t get a ride back until the next day. In a moment of weakness, Cass–knowing instinctively that he would blow it–had given it to him, exactly twenty-four hours of grace, and now he had blown it. That he had fulfilled her expectation gave Cass a feeling of considerable satisfaction, and the satisfaction, in turn, made her feel terrible.
“Okay, Jon. What is it? You know that the extended deadline for turning in your project is past and that my office hours are over.” She checked the clock. “As of sixteen minutes ago.”
Jon withdrew his head slightly and smiled at her. Cass widened her eyes at him.
“Ahh,” Jon said. “Well…” He slipped forward and sat down in the blue velvet armchair in one very quick movement, as if she might not notice.
“Gosh, have a seat,” Cass said.
Jon stood up. “Sorry.”
This bothered Cass more than his sitting down in the first place. He wasn’t fucking sorry! “No, fine, sit.” He sat back down. “You’re really not going to take it sixteen minutes late?”
“I’m really not,” said Cass, who really wasn’t. “I’m absolutely not,” she repeated.
A sandy-colored beard dotted Jon Kearns’s scalded-looking cheeks. He was outfitted in a t-shirt for intramural Frisbee and cargo shorts with tattered pockets. He bore a faint, unprepossessing resemblance to Henry VIII in Holbein the Younger’s portrait. He was one of the overzealous ones; when he raised his hand in class, he literally bounced in his seat. For the most recent assignment, “Inside Out,” which asked the class to represent themselves as they thought other people saw them, Jon had painted himself as a leering R. Crumb-style country maniac–wrinkles, bug eyes, overalls, jigging on a peg leg–on the surface of a mirror. It was unoriginal, but Cass graded it a B+.
“I was clear about this in the syllabus. Deadlines are final. And I still gave you an extension, which I never should have done.” He stroked the arm of the chair. “Hey. This is a super comfortable chair. Where did you find it? Crazy fabric.”
The armchair had been in the office when Cass moved in, brown and chewed, carcass-like. Because she was a lonely masochist, she’d reupholstered it herself. The material she’d used had been harvested from a set of thrift store drapes. It was tacky, but it had esteem. She wasn’t getting into any of that with the likes of Jon Kearns, though. Her job was teaching. His job was doing the work. Intro to Art Theory was like an island that sat in the path of a major current; every castaway on campus eventually drifted up on to its beach, and rotted there. The entitlement made her want to squeeze people’s faces–people like Jon Kearns–squeeze them until their eyeballs quivered. She couldn’t believe she’d given him an extension in the first place; this was exactly why she didn’t give them. If you let someone take advantage of you, they would.
Owen King is the author of the novel Double Feature and co-author of the novel Sleeping Beauties. His short fiction has appeared in publications such as One Story, Prairie Schooner, and Subtropics. He lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.
I began reading William Trevor in The New Yorker, in the early 1990’s. Looking back on some of those stories—“A Day,” “After Rain,” “The Piano Tuner’s Wives”—I realize that I remember the stories in fragments. Images have stayed with me. The food that Mrs. Lethwes leaves in her kitchen in “A Day”: “On the mottled workshop in the kitchen the meat is where Mrs. Lethwes left it, the fat partly cut away, the knife still separating it from one of the chops.” The “enormous silvery bird with bits of colored glass” on the table in “The Piano Tuner’s Wives.” The pensione’s crowded dining room in “After Rain” where “solitary diners are fitted in around the walls.”
Characters are also vivid, both their physical presence and their tendencies. Mrs. Lethwes as she weeds her garden, worrying that “the little heart-leafed things she’s cleaning from among the delphiniums are not the germination of seeds that Mr. Yatt has sown, a misfortune that occurred last year with his Welsh poppies.” In “After Rain,” Harriett is “angular and thin, her dark hair cut short, her long face strikingly like the sharply chiseled faces of Modigliani, a month ago she passed out of her twenties.” But the plots, for me, are never clear when I begin to reread. I can’t quite remember how the story is going to twist and turn, how we will get from the start to the end, how Trevor will accomplish his classic reversal ending.
This makes rereading his work a pleasure because the narrative arc is often a little fuzzy. It’s a bit like visiting with old friends, people that you knew once, but that you don’t really know how their lives have passed. Oh, Emily, I remember with a flash, when I begin to reread “Sitting with the Dead.” Her husband’s just died, and somebody’s come to visit. I remember how I feel about her even if I can’t remember the intricacies of the plot. Trevor’s characters stay with me because they’re so fully realized. He said, “Each character is somebody that I know very well—as well as I know myself.” Rereading a Trevor story becomes somewhat like driving through a town that has familiar signposts—there’s that tailor’s shop, there’s the movie theater, there’s the gas station—but one where you can’t quite find your way from here to there.
While some of this lost memory is undoubtedly due to the passing of time and my aging brain, much of it, I think, is due to the way that Trevor writes and constructs his short stories. In 1989, Trevor was interviewed by The Paris Review, and in that interview he provided his classic definition of a short story:
If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness. Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time. The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art.
Trevor began his working life as a sculptor and then moved to the world of advertising. While there, he began writing and publishing his fiction. While he usually insisted that the worlds of visual art and writing were separate, there is no doubt in this definition that these two worlds collided for him in a meaningful way. I tend to think of each of his stories as a piece of art as well: a small sculpture, one that has been carved and chiseled, allowing the important bits to stand in relief. Or a tiny impressionist painting, where your heart is as engaged as your brain.
As I’ve read through a number of Trevor’s stories over the past few months—old favorites as well as stories that were new to me—I’ve noted a few characteristics that appear in much of his short fiction. It is these attributes, I think, which allow him to produce these “explosions of truth” that stay with us, much in the way that we remember our own pasts.
Trevor almost always describes a character early in the story, using only a sentence or two, but getting at the essence of the character in a way that feels intimate and true. The descriptions are highly visual, often focusing on the face, but always gesturing towards characterization. In “The Hill Bachelors,” the son returning to his family home is described as follows: “He was a dark-haired young man of twenty-nine, slightly made, pink cheeks and a certain chubbiness about his features giving him a genial, easygoing air.” In “The Dressmaker’s Child,” a woman who comes to haunt the protagonist is “small and wiry with dark inquisitive eyes and a twist in her features that make them less appealing than they might have been.”
And even though he’s often writing about similar types of people, each character is fully realized and separate from the character in the story before and the one that follows. As each story progresses, of course, we become more intimate with the characters, every thought and action expanding our sense of who the character is. But by providing us with a discrete image early on, Trevor fixes the character in our visual memory.
One of the ways in which Trevor teaches us more about each character—characters who are often lonely and alone—is to allow the character’s thoughts to move into their imagination, as they see their life unfurl in a way that it never does in the narrative. Often, this friction between the imagined and the real is at the heart of the story. But where the mind takes us tells us so much about the character, as they create their own narratives. They imagine, they wonder, they think. In “An Evening Out,” things are not going as planned for Jeffrey, out on a date, of sorts, with a woman:
He thought of picking up a glass and throwing it at the upside-down bottles behind the bar, someone’s leftover slice of lemon flying through the air, glass splintering into the ashtrays and the ice-bucket, all that extra for them to clean up afterwards. He thought of walking away without another word, leaving the woman to make her peace with the pair behind the bar.
Of course, Jeffrey doesn’t do either of these things. He stays. But our insight into where his mind is, as he considers the actions that he longs to take, tells us of his frustrations. And the distance between what he wants to do and what he does shows us who he is.
The characters also move easily and quickly to the past in their thoughts, where there is often a secret or a source of pain. For me, this is the classic Trevor move, one that so few other authors are able to do as well. In “August Saturday,” a woman, at a dinner party in a tennis club, is confronted by a man from her past: “That August Saturday in 1972 he’d come to the tennis club on his bicycle, in whites he had borrowed at the house where he was staying, a racquet tied with string to the crossbar.” She dips in and out of her memories of him, always referring to “that Saturday,” until we learn the full story of what happened then and how it’s come to bear on the present. These segues work so seamlessly because they operate just as our memories do: picking up on images and places, fixed things that bring up the past. “It was in the foyer of the Rembrandt Cinema that he said he didn’t think their love affair was working,” Harriet remembers in “After Rain.” We always remember where we were, after all, when our lives take their sudden and important turns.
Trevor’s narrators became more omniscient over time. While there are some first first-person narrators in his earlier works, his later stories often feature narrators who move into different points of view with ease. This allows Trevor to provide us with both the visual snapshots, early in the story, and the deep interiority, taking us into the imaginative world, and moving from the present moment into the past and back again. One senses the always-wise Trevor becoming even wiser as he aged. For me, “A Day,” published when he was 65sixty-five, shows Trevor at the height of his powers. “The Piano Tuner’s Wives,” published two years later, tells the story of a blind man whose wife shows him the world. Trevor explains these story worlds to us in much the same manner.
Trevor’s final collection, Last Stories, was released posthumously this week. In these ten stories, he continues to construct his fiction as mentioned here, although the stories feel a little looser, slightly less controlled. They’re more fragmentary in nature, white space breaking up the narrative, an increased emphasis, perhaps, on “what it leaves out.” The past—always a pressure—seems in these final stories to take up a bit more space. The gaze is rarely forward but always harking back.
It is wonderful to have all his stories available to us, to read and reread, to remember images and moments and characters almost as if they are memories from our own lives. In “An Idyll in Winter,” from the final collection, a young girl falls in love with her tutor who comes to stay for the summer. “It made her sad that the summer had to end. He said it never would, because remembering wouldn’t let it.”
Before social media helped readers discover poetry, the world seemed smaller. In the early 90s, when I was a preteen starting to figure out that not all great poets were dead, I had little to go on. Growing up in a low-income exurb, I found that my local library wasn’t much help, and the mall bookstores weren’t great either, at least not if I wanted someone more recent than Robert Frost or Sylvia Plath. But one thing that chain bookstores could reliably be counted on to carry was the Best American Poetry (BAP) Series, launched in 1988 by New York poet and editor David Lehman, and edited by a different guest poet every year. It’s still barreling along, thirty years later.
At some point, not too many years ago, I had to sell my collection of BAP volumes when I was broke and needed milk and bread and gas. But the first volume I ever bought, at the B. Dalton bookstore I later worked at—rest in peace—was Best American Poetry 1993, guest edited by Louise Glück, and it was the one I couldn’t force myself to give up when I sold all the others. In some ways, it remains my favorite anthology of poetry, and it remains my favorite of the BAPs in the series’s long history.
In her introduction to the volume, Glück writes about the idea of voice. She draws a distinction between the voice in speech, speaking to another, and the voice in a poem, which is speaking to an other which “may not yet exist.” She goes on, “The poem means to create that person, first in the poet, then in the reader.” As a thirteen-year-old girl new to contemporary poetry, I was perhaps not the person any of the poets in that volume perhaps might imagine at the end of this transaction, but there was no more willing subject. The poems created their relationship with me line by striking line.
Take the opening to Tess Gallagher’s poem “The Kiss”: “A man was given one kiss, one / mouth, one tongue, one early dawn, one boat / on the sea.” What is about these lines that continue to run through my head, twenty-five years after I first read them? Their repetition, surely, and the strangeness of the idea that a man could be given just one kiss to use in the same way he might use a boat and a dawn light to row it in. But the strangeness deepens as the poem goes forward; the man confronts another kiss in a different boat rowing from the opposite direction:
It’s just a kiss, he thought,
I’ll use it up. The kiss had the same thing
on its mind—“I’ll use up this man.’”
But when two kisses kiss, it’s like tigers
answering questions about infinity with their teeth.
These lines bring me back to something else in Glück’s introduction. “In the reader,” she says, “an idea is being attacked, and the attack exhilarates.” An idea that the reader had held unexamined is exploded by true poetry, Glück argues, and “the actively felt rushes to displace the passively unexamined, unsettling everything that has been built on that ground.” For me, as a young reader, these were ideas about poetry itself—what it could do, what it could mean. The idea that poems could be difficult was not new; the idea that a poem could be understood viscerally, by the ear and the gut, and still somehow allude a neat conclusion in the intellect. Gallagher’s poem taught me that; the book as a whole still does.
Although the anthology is not strong on presenting writers of color—and where the blame lies for that is probably less likely to be with Glück and more likely with the publishers of the magazines Glück was drawing work from—it does feature a number of queer writers. Most notably, for me, was the poet Tim Dlugos, whose work was appearing posthumously in the book. Because one of the standard features of each anthology is a short blurb in the back from the poet explaining something about the poem, I learned that Dlugos had died of AIDS in 1990. Although as a young teen, I was aware of queer artists working within the milieu of the AIDS epidemic—Keith Haring, Freddie Mercury—Dlugos was the first gay poet I read (excepting Whitman, whom I never understood in this context until much later). Most strikingly, Dlugos’s poem was about joy, a subject that I had never considered a particularly poetic one before. And to write about joy while dying was another one of those unexamined impossibilities of mine that came crashing down, reading “Healing the World From Battery Park.” As the speaker looks out across the water, he considers Manhattan and America, its betrayals, its harms and oppressions against the marginalized, and he imagines healing both those strangers and all the loved ones in his life. Toward the end of the poem, he says:
There’s a quantity
of tenderness I feel sometimes
that drops into my chest precipitous
and golden as the sun into Fort Lee.
From his chest, he breathes, imagines his breath joining the molecular wind. “Bless me father,” he says. “I’m living in the light.”
Since 1993, poetry’s gotten richer, deeper, weirder, to my delight and to the benefit of all its readers, and the newest volumes of BAP look toward the future of poetry in a way that the 1993 volume, with its preponderance of established white poets, doesn’t always. But it also isn’t mere nostalgia, either, that leads me to open the book again and again, to find poems I know nearly by heart now by writers I first found there—Robert Kelly, Lucia Perillo, Jane Kenyon. If they still do this, for readers coming to, or returning to poetry, then I hope the series continues for another thirty years.
In middle age we inevitably take stock of our lives, the choices from long ago and the circumstances of today. The thoughts come unbidden, when we are doing the most ordinary of things. For a moment, even the humdrum turns incandescent. If we have joined our lives to others, their choices and circumstances are part of our reflection, too, for they are part of us.
Near the end of The Ensemble, Aja Gabel’s debut novel, the musicians who comprise a string quartet engage in just that sort of reflection. Having bound themselves together in order to forge a career in the competitive world of classical music, they reflect on lives lived, individually and in concert. Fragments of memory float to the surface as they go about their days of practice and performance. At the same time, they contemplate the future, now that competitive and younger ensembles, repetitive motion injuries, and the needs of spouses and children necessitate midlife course corrections.
The four players meet in graduate school when Jana, first violinist, pushes them to form the quartet. Her ambition is evident in the “quiet, sharp, and precisely timed breath in an upbeat before the first note, on the pressure of her attack on that first note, on the space she left between the first and second notes, on the degree and length and resonance of the vibrato she applied to the violin neck.” Cellist Daniel is awkward, “grown into his instrument, his shoulders rounded, looking in toward the cello, even when there wasn’t one there.” Henry, on viola, is “a bright, boundless light on campus, younger than everyone else, taller than everyone else, a better musician than everyone else, and eager to play anywhere and everywhere.” Brit grounds the group on second violin, with a “note here, and this one, this joyful countermelody, her second violin harmony, the collective intangible, the audible agreement.”
They know ensemble life is risky. Their skills as solo performers will wither. The most prestigious prizes may go to someone else. They will be wedded to the group, perhaps more thoroughly than to a spouse. Though they can’t know this at the outset, over a span of nearly twenty years they will move from California to New York and back to California, fall in love, marry and divorce, have children and flirt with solo careers.
All have backstories. Brit was orphaned at a young age. Jana’s mother is an alcoholic. Daniel’s mother is religious and his father drinks. Henry’s family is loving and supportive. When sickness or death befalls one of the families, as it eventually does, the entire ensemble is affected, so tightly are they bound to one another. After thousands of hours together, each is attuned to the raised eyebrow, cocked elbow and bent waist of the others.
Part of the challenge of living so attuned to others is living apart, and much of the plot concerns the tugs between the two. Jana understands how the gulf has widened when she plays an ensemble piece, solo, at her mother’s funeral. “It made no sense without the other parts. Alone, the chords weren’t thickened and textured, and though the first violins led the charge for most of the melody, the piece didn’t quite have the richness of tragedy that it did when the seconds came in, when the violas were purposefully dissonant, when the celli climbed up to thumb position.” The ensemble, designed to serve her ambition, has changed her.
Music is central to the life of the quartet and also to Gabel who tells the story in lush, expansive prose. Her words swell to fill the page with descriptions of memory, emotion, and music. She studied violin for years and her experience is evident as she spools out the plot, repeats motifs and varies the story’s tempo and dynamics. Music dictates the structure of the book, too, which is arranged in four parts, like a concerto, with a short coda at the end. Within each part, the characters take turns leading the action, as though taking over sections of melody. All this may sound contrived, but it does not come across that way: the story flows as fluidly as if composed by Debussy.
Near the end of the book, the ensemble is on stage for what is probably their last performance together, a fact they do not yet know. A collective thought settles upon them. “They were playing now, like they always had. It wasn’t easy. It never had been. It was something like a miracle, all this music, each note a discovery you’ve already made, but it was also maybe the most ordinary thing in the world, to assemble and compose and perform—night after night—a life.” In this shared midlife moment, the ordinary has become transcendent.
It’s spring again, and after months spent in the enclosed spaces (apartment, car, overheated university buildings) and tedious chores of winter (de-icing the car, keeping warm) I find myself outside again, drawn to sweeping statements about the vastness of landscapes, both urban and rural. In spring, the little town where I live feels suddenly expansive, with its flowering trees and wide flat roads. I’m thinking these days about how to convey expansiveness in writing without slipping into generality, nostalgia, sentimentality. For models, I turned to two collections of essays: Czeslaw Milosz’s Visions from San Francisco Bay and Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Both Milosz and Solnit are concerned with conveying vastness, exuberance, and the pleasure of seemingly endless vistas. Both have an ambitious eye that observes landscapes in their full complexity, and doesn’t shy away from conveying the romantic allure of, say, a small desert town, or a rowdy parade down Market Street in San Francisco. Both Solnit and Milosz transform picturesque vistas into fully alive places on the page. Their methods are instructive not only for writing about place, but as tools for toggling between any set of Big Questions and the particulars of moving as a body through streets.
Solnit’s essays on walking alternate between personal experience and historical narrative. In one of Wanderlust’s later chapters, titled “The Solitary Stroller and the City” Solnit begins with an image of encountering San Francisco anew after a long absence. The early sentences of the chapter are crackling with energy and color: “I walked everywhere in the balmy days and nights of May, amazed at how many possibilities could be crammed within the radius of those walks.” She doesn’t shy away from big pronouncements about the pleasures of walking in San Francisco, and the sentences are breathless, dense with meditations on the nature of cities in general:
Cities have always offered anonymity, variety, and conjunction, qualities best basked in by walking: one does not have to go into the bakery or the fortune teller’s, only to know that one might. A city always contains more than any inhabitant can know, and a great city always makes the unknown and the possible spurs to the imagination.
Solnit goes on to make distinctions between urban and rural walking, and then launches into a history of streets and cities that spans London to New York, and weaves in voices from Wordsworth to Woolf. She matches the vastness of personal experience—the “jumble of possibilities” that make up San Francisco—with a different vastness, that of other cities and other walkers in a variety of historical moments. This combination of historical and personal expansiveness makes itself felt in the language of the essay: for example, Solnit classifies “urban walking” as something that can easily turn into “promenading, shopping, rioting, protesting, skulking, loitering.” The essay begins with a delight in the intricacies and possibilities of a city: and then it moves this delight onto different planes (historical and literary), maintaining the energy of the general as it touches down on different particulars.
In Visions from San Francisco Bay, Milosz’s essays begin from even broader premises than Solnit’s. With titles like “Religion and Space” and “Migrations” the essays unabashedly devote themselves to Big Questions. On occasion, they get lost in generalities or vagueness—and some, like “A Short Digression on Woman as a Representative of Nature,” veer towards the self-indulgent or outdated. Still, many of Milosz’s concerns in the book remain enticing: he’s interested in expanses, and the interplay between the “cocoons” we create for ourselves (physically, intellectually, emotionally) within the vastness of the American continent.
In “Facing too Large an Expanse,” Milosz, like Solnit, revels briefly in the pleasures of the vistas and landscapes in which he finds himself. He describes Mt. Tamalpais, across the bridge from San Francisco, “where the border of ocean and land, shattered into promontories, looks like the first day of creation, I stand stripped and destitute.” Milosz avoids reducing the power of vastness by refusing to make an argument out of the wordlessness he feels in the face of vast landscapes. He acknowledges, instead, an intense subjectivity that by necessity overshadows our perception of the natural world:
To itself neither beautiful nor ugly, nature no doubt is only a screen where people’s inner hells and heavens are projected. But the majestic expanse of the Pacific seacoast has imperceptibly worked its way into my dreams, remaking me, stripping me down, and perhaps thereby liberating me.
In this passage, Milosz acknowledges the folly of using nature as self-reflective even as he admits its powerful effect on him. The essay concludes with the speaker musing on a central conundrum of writing. Milosz writes of the dual impulse to avoid “that chaos which dispenses with valuation” and the knowledge that in order to make lasting work, the writer must “clash with what awaits me close at hand” —that is, the “mountains and the ocean […] those many moments when I have gazed upon boundless immensities.”
Perhaps what’s most helpful about both Solnit and Milosz’s work is the authors’ willingness to engage with a world beyond the self, to see introspection and isolation as an essentially limited route to creativity. As Solnit writes: “In small doses melancholy, alienation, and introspection are among life’s most refined pleasures.” What seems key to me here, especially after emerging from the suffocating indoor spaces of winter, is Solnit’s insistence on “small doses.” Even a failed attempt to engage with the world beyond the “cocoon” is a valuable act.
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