Monday, March 25, 2013

#74: Three Poems by Jeanie Thompson

~This poem was previously published in Southern Women’s Review (2010).

This Day        
 For Peter Fagan                                                                   

Into my hand the stars poured light
            and I knew you,
                                      or so I thought.
There was no way for you to know my world of darkness
            and silence, but you persisted with your
questions, probing my different mind.
                                                            The dog knew
            simply to press all of himself into my palm –
tongue, tail and paw were there even as I tried to touch       
            him lightly as cobwebs.
                                    But you shook language
            in my face and asked me to dance syntax
with you. I followed your lead, dark dancer,
            and if you could have seen what I knew
through this touch, we would have made one great mind!

The night I dressed, took my valise, and quietly
            moved down the stairs guided only by
knowledge of your presence in me, Alabama
            again was a place to fly from.
                                    Alone on my sister’s front porch,
without Teacher, the scent of tea olive lingering, your promise
            faded into morning’s traffic, a rumble from the street
signaling day. 
                        I turned back, letting loss, only loss,
guide me.  Not to be yours,
            Helen, not to be yours, this day.        


Monday, March 18, 2013

#73: "Household Tales" by Katherine L. Hester

~This story was originally published in slightly different form in The Yale Review
as “Märchen” (2001).

Household Tales
At last their father ordered ... a proclamation made that whoever could discover how his daughters wore out their shoes should choose one of them for his wife.

    “Twelve Dancing Princesses,” Andrew Lang Collection

            Beneath the purpling pulp of the sky, below a flagstoned patio strung with twisted lengths of crepe paper and colored bulbs, lies a covey of brown longneck bottles a Parks and Rec grounds team of two has been tossing down on the caliche ever since mid-afternoon, when their City-issued pick-up truck accidentally-on-purpose ran out of gasoline just in time for this, an impromptu happy hour.  
            Be still my heart, whispers one of the crew over the lip of his fourth raised Lone Star. His shirt indicates his name is Mason and he is sitting on a large chunk of limestone hidden in the cedar, staring up at the decorated dance floor.
In the waning light he might be some fair-headed throwback; in black-and-white he could be any of the out-of-work farm boys who seventy years ago built this picnic pavilion of rustic fireplace and hand-planed beam and wagon-wheel chandelier before their company of the Civilian Conservation Corps moved along to level a state highway stretching out between here and Ozona.
             Mason claims he cries at weddings, says he’s a romantic, sentiments maudlin enough to make the fellow-worker beside him to look over with suspicion, even though Mason is just gazing up at the patio. Even though he swears he’ll walk down the hill and toward the main road with the empty gas can from their pick-up’s bed as soon as the bride appears.
            The fellow-worker, who cares nothing about ceremony but has never minded an excuse to have a few warm beers on the clock, adds another cigarette to the butts littering the ground around their bit of limestone. As far as he’s concerned, tonight’s party could be anything, not necessarily a wedding. The patio above him and Mason might just be decorated for a quinceañera or a golden anniversary or a business social; it could just be the fading light that makes the crepe paper twining along the metal railing seem like such a virginal white flutter. The gap the two of them earlier mapped out on the patio when they split 150 folding chairs according to their work order’s instruction could just as easily be the aisle some more jaded bride will march down as she embarks on her third marriage, little need for formal romance by this time. He’s worked with Mason before, on other Fridays; has seen all the uses this picnic pavilion could possibly be put to. They’ve pried dozens of plastic champagne corks out of the graveled parking lot, have even fished up condoms, curled and ridged like fossils, from around the very rock where Mason, half-drunk now, has insisted upon sitting.
            The woman who arrived an hour ago to hang up the last of the pavilion’s white bell-shaped decorations doesn’t even know the two of them are down here. Mason sees this as a sign that they should stay. That, because their truck ran out of gas before they finished trimming back the cedar, they’re required to. Maybe all he is is a bystander well on his way to getting drunk, but just the same he’d rather see with his own two eyes exactly what kind of couple would pick such gaudy candles to centerpiece the folding tables inside the pavilion than go home.
            Above them, high heels clatter across the flagstones. There’s a hesitation. The mother of the bride, or someone, is leaning over each long table to light the votive candles. Mason stares upward, cigarette dangling from one hand.
            “Get back here, Anna-Marie,” a woman’s harried-sounding voice says above them. “Don’t you be slouching around like that in that beautiful dress.”
            A woman in a white dress who is clearly the bride ducks under the metal railing at the edge of the patio and picks her way down the rocky hillside, stopping halfway between the ledge and their stand of cedar. She holds her skirts up delicately, like a princess or a milkmaid, and even her shoes are white. They gleam like glass.
            Be still my heart, Mason whispers once more.
            On the hillside above them, the bride has begun to smoke a cigarette.
             Thought I recognized her name on that work order, Mason says. But then I kept telling myself: what would the odds be?
            The moon is swinging up and over the hills like a Ferris wheel. The bride crushes the cigarette beneath her satin shoe. She looks toward the cedar, then ducks back beneath the metal railing.
            She is lovely in her white dress, in the golden late-afternoon light, as brides are.

Monday, March 11, 2013

#72: "Liturgy" by Cynthia Atkins

~This poem previously appeared in Pearl (2001).


Because the trees grew
into paper for words to write
down what there are no words for.
Because it wants to size you up
and then compels you to confess.
Because it likes to breathe up
against you on the couch,
but will never commit to meals
or absolutes. Because it has no
understanding and no excuse,
and it dares the understudy
not to show up. Because you need
to get out of the weather, where
too many secrets are revealed
in the rain. Because it knows
you need to explain, even when
your hands are clean.
Because it told you
to spit out your gum 
when a taxicab is running. 
So many years have proven
that each death leads to song. 
Because it knows the flowers
will be of no use—the words will dream
up the phlox.  Because it will always
want and want to name what can’t be named.
Because it knows you say one thing
and mean another.   It knows you know better.
It is the greed inside your prayer.


Sunday, March 3, 2013

#71: "Mrs. Turpin Reads the Stars" by Margot Livesey

~This essay originally appeared in Cincinnati Review (2007).

"As if they were our own handiwork, we place a high value on our characters." 
                                                      Epicurus, "Vatican Sayings," 3rd. cent. B.C.

            As a reader I have no trouble identifying vivid characters.  I recognise them the moment they appear on the page.  Oh, here she comes, I say, as Becky Sharpe hurls a book from the carriage window or Miss Havisham, in her bridal gear, commands Pip and Estella to play cards.  Becky and Miss Havisham don't stay on the page; they walk right out of it, along with many other great literary creations, to keep me company.  Memorable characters are not necessarily the sine qua non of memorable fiction, but they are a significant part of it and an enormous part of all fiction, memorable or not.  The ordinary reader, E.M. Forster's passenger on the Clapham omnibus, in so far as he or she survives these days, still persists in flying in the face of current literary theory and discussing characters in novels and stories as if they were real people.  Writers tend to do the same.  In a letter to a friend Pushkin wrote of one of his characters, "My Stella has run off and got married.  I never would have thought it of her." 
            So it seems decidedly odd to be deficient in such a major aspect of fiction - like a golfer who can't putt, or a drummer with no sense of rhythm - but such, I have to confess, is my situation.  I am character handicapped.  Re-reading my early drafts, I discover that I write as if I had worked first as an optician, then as a hairdresser, two admirable professions of which I have only the most superficial experience.  I introduce almost every character in terms of eyes, (colour, shape, glasses/no glasses) and hair, (colour, length, texture).  Of course the range is fairly small, brown or blue, dark or fair, with far too many redheads for comfort (except in my most Celtic stories.)  These characters, lacking nearly all necessities of life, not surprisingly remain adamantly one dimensional.  They're barely on the page, so how can they leave it?
             The livelier characters that do emerge from my later drafts have largely been the result not, alas, of inspiration but of craft and, of course, some measure of that writerly good luck we always need.  But here’s the odd thing.  Teaching in graduate programs and exchanging work with other writers, I’ve come to realise that I am far from alone in my difficulties.  Some authors do have an instinctive feel for character but many, if not most, have to work to people their fictions.  This essay grows out of my efforts to understand why the process of creating characters in fiction often seems so elusive and what we can do to make it less so.  To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor’s famous remark about story, everyone knows what a character is, until they sit down to create one.