Quantcast

Rumpus Blog

Playing at the Edges of Form: Alexandria Hall’s Field Music

By

The pages of Alexandria Hall’s debut collection, Field Music, are liquid. The book itself is a fluid body—one brimming, seeping, pouring, spilling, and filling a reality built on the perception and impermanence of the senses. The poems in this book grasp what can be grasped of an atmospheric reality, and they depict language and desire as tactile states. “Nothing ever stays / where it ought,” Hall declares from the very beginning, writing the precedent for the experience further captured within these covers.

Though Hall is stubborn in an insistent desire for the body’s amorphic form as being one bound to perception, she plays with edges in a way that indicates the mere presence of a form—as one that can be filled or emptied. In “Filling Station,” she writes, “what a luxury to fill […] to brim, but never spill // and yet, to fill one thing / implies an emptying.” Fluidity is a very present theme throughout the book, most pervasively in the form of water, used as not only a way out of the body but also as a way into another: “I dropped out of my body in long clean streams / like water through a colander, easily and ordinarily.” But even water presents too constant a form, and so the poem concludes, “my body / inflated, got so big it filled the room, the whole house // even, like caulk, like cement, covering everything.”

Hall writes of the body as something to be transported out of, like a hermit crab whose shell is merely a temporary vessel. She explores this realm of vessels, the body only one of many, and finds the weak spots—the points of escape, the spaces most porous. “In the Nets” identifies with netting analogously, in a way that extends far beyond human form and territory, to a place that is physically uninhabitable for humans, where the use of a net becomes a desire:

On the coast I saw nets, and lacking
a good sense of boundaries, I saw
myself, made mostly of holes, myself
a boundary for the washed-through,
the held. Could this not be about capture?

(…)

I want to be full
with the way things move through me.
I want to be a mother again, porous, stretched
in place by floats and weights.

It is the spaces between, the pores and openings, both entrances and exits, that permeate the poems. They become spaces that concretize and contain our emotions and memory, ultimately filling in the points of escape. In the poem “Something Important Put Clumsily Away,” Hall tells an abortion story in which the speaker describes her body as “a cup tipped over,” further professing that she “can’t fit the holes back in. They keep leaking through the cracks.” Absence takes form here, with “cracks” and “holes” that are as tangible as the material they are separating. The voice of the poem is feral when acknowledging the lack of control over form: “I felt the part inside me that’s made of holes, that generates no heat.”

Hall’s poems writhe and ripple, quiver and swoon, as they take on material meaning, plagued with a desire that renders touch into something as effervescent and intangible as sound. While desire’s ultimatum typically takes the form of touch, Field Music pushes hunger to a place far beyond, into a formless and boundless experience—and so, we are given a pleasure that is omnipresent, one that the speaker of these poems yearns for in a way most intangible:

I didn’t want romantic. I wanted
him to suck my lips off my face,
spit them out, change shape, turn
ugly, wanted him to toss his head
back and never roll it up,
evaporating like a tired dandelion.

(…)

I wanted the night like a spider
to lift one arm after another
and climb into me while he washed
out into the long wet sky, which was blue.

Hall’s imagery feeds the senses beyond the taste of familiarity. In “At Dusk,” one of many poems that address the natural world, she writes: “The water enjoying its mouth, shameless / swilling the juices of its own warm body” while the “waves gradually hardening, turning // under like daylight, the air farther inland, // without noticing, loosens its grip on the salt.” Here, as everywhere in this collection, fluidity appears; the body is not the water, but the salt.

The lovers in this book take the speaker further into the sensual and through the boundaries of the amorphic. In “Dredge,” Hall writes, “I took a lover anyway and let him build up / in my river like a silt deposit. I had a taste for him // without the withdrawal.” Here, the inside is not as definite as the taste, which correlates with the mouth. The mouth that we are given over and over again—with hunger, pleasure, and insatiability—filled or unfilled.

“On Taste” orders a wash of visceral reactions that offers some of the most defined parameters of such desires, yet leaves the speaker still unfilled:

                       …When your hands first
found my vagueness, you traced over
and over the indefinite edges.

(…)

A desire that looks good on me,
that hugs the detailed curves of fantasy,
instead of this mess, this heaving blur.
Could this be pleasure?

Though there is a constant leaving of the physical body, this collection maintains its connection to the corporeal in the speaker’s shared sensual experiences. “On Touch” identifies her own desire with another’s: “It’s true / there may be others who’d be full / with me where you are wanting.” Thus, the speaker concludes that the true essence of pleasure and desire, following in Anne Carson’s theories of eros, is found in longing: “It is a pleasure / to be ugly, hungry, and scattered. / It is a pleasure to keep looking.”

The nature of desire intersects, too, with that of sound. Sound, perhaps the most immediate and reactionary of the senses, is also often the easiest to doubt, contest, or capture. Hall catches sound at the source of speech, furthering the theme of the mouth as the most eventful and vital opening in the body: “Poetry is unsafe. I commit this violence to shape it with words. If I say it wrong, it might be better. I apologize for all my gross ejaculations.” Speech has the power to reform the physical and transcend it. It not only tastes and craves, but communicates and pronounces:

As when learning a new language,
I feel the separateness of my body:
the mouth trying to form

the right shape to sound
the difference between Hölle
and Höhle—one hell, one

hole—the mouth itself
a pit, a void contorted

[…]

the tongue
quivering naked in the gorge.
I want you, a pang.

But the mouth, and its speech, would be lacking without the company of another hole—the ear, that companion sense of hearing. For  it is hearing that allows for communication to grow into interpretation and translation. Throughout Field Music, words are misinterpreted and spiraling into other words. In the titular “Field Music,” ancient is heard as ank-shint and eggshells and ankle-shins; Crimus ditch, idears, and crick come in as colloquialisms, but not without the context of how they sound to the speaker. A musician herself, Hall is well-versed in sonics and brings forth many forms of sound: “Nothing left of the smut tunnel, fetid fetish, put stowage, rot tottler, pith pantry. I’m doing my breast, fuck I’m doing breadth, no I’m doing my beast, stop you were the bees.”

The poem “Syrinx” brings in a central analogy for the rest of the book, combining body, metamorphoses, and the boundaries of sense. Using Ovid’s tale of Pan and Syrinx as a starting point, Hall awakens an intersection of touch and sound as the derivation of sensual law. In Ovid’s myth, to escape Pan’s pursuit of her, Syrinx begged the water nymphs to change her form to one in which she could evade Pan. When Pan tries to grasp Syrinx, he finds himself holding instead a handful of reeds, as Ovid writes: “and while he sighed, the reeds in his hands, stirred by his own breath, gave forth a similar, low-pitched complaint!” Syrinx’s new form is then tied together to form the panpipe, a wind instrument, so that Pan can, in the Ovid, “continue to converse with her.” Hall writes more bluntly, “Take and cut / my soft frame into parts, arrange / by size, bind by catgut.”

“Syrinx” begins with the line, “We don’t play songs here; we touch / them” and weaves together sound and the physical, referring both the myth as well as the speaker’s own desires. “Listen to the sounds / of a touched thing: a body, a panpipe.” Finding direct analogy, in myth, to the transcendence of the body into sound, able to be filled by wind only, reads like the thesis of this book. Throughout Field Music, Hall’s poems express the desire to transform oneself,

To be touched,
            ultimately, by a sickle—
            cuando remedio ya no haya—[when there is no remedy]
            and feel only the wind.

Why We Chose Erin Belieu’s Come-Hither Honeycomb for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club

By

It’s probably because this is the holiday season and the end of the semester and a “break” looms in the near distance that I’m feeling the effects of the current pandemic more than usual lately. The coffee shop parking lot behind my house is full more often than not, and the patrons inside—visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows—are generally mask-less, whether or not food and drink sits on the small, tall table beside their laptops or Bibles. I wonder if I’ll ever set foot in spaces like this again, even after we’ve mostly all been vaccinated and built a new normal for our lives.

That’s what’s in my head as I think about the poems in Erin Belieu’s new collection, Come-Hither Honeycomb. But before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of Come-Hither Honeycomb, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Erin Belieu, you’ll need to subscribe by December 15! (more…)

What We’re Reading in January!

By

We’re excited to share that our January Book Club selection is Randa Jarrar’s new memoir Love Is an Ex-Country, forthcoming from Catapult on February 2, but available to Rumpus Book Club members in just a few weeks!

As an American raised for a time in Egypt, and finding herself captivated by the story of a celebrated Egyptian belly dancer’s journey across the United States in the 1940s, Randa Jarrar sets off from her home in California to her parents’ in Connecticut. Coloring this road trip are journeys abroad and recollections of a life lived with daring. Reclaiming her autonomy after a life of survival—domestic assault as a child, and later, as a wife; threats and doxxing after her viral tweet about Barbara Bush—Jarrar offers a bold look at domestic violence, single motherhood, and sexuality through the lens of the punished-yet-triumphant body. (more…)

The Complex Disability Representation We Need: Rebekah Taussig’s Sitting Pretty

By

I often go into reading work by fellow disabled writers with hesitancy and high expectations, probably in part because of how few disability narratives I had access to growing up, and thus how much is riding on them. This is despite, of course, the fact that disabled individuals are humans who are allowed to show variety and make mistakes. Indeed, disability narratives have historically only shown incredibly limited perspectives of disability: disabled individuals are often either portrayed as the Super Crip who can overcome their disability, or the disabled character that acts as an object of pity. But disability is not a monolith, despite what many mainstream disability representations would have us believe—our lived experiences are so much richer and more diverse.

Reading Rebekah Taussig’s new book, Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body, did not necessarily teach me to let down my guard when first encountering a new piece written by a disabled author, because I’m not sure this is something that can be accomplished with a single text. The book certainly exceeded all of my expectations––Taussig demonstrates an awareness of her privilege as a white, cis-het woman, and complicates many of her ideas by pushing them one step beyond the obvious conclusion. What reading this book did teach me, however, is to rethink my own understanding of what this means––what expectations do we have of disabled writers and their work, even if we are a part of that community ourselves? The beauty of Sitting Pretty lies in its nuance, its messiness, its open transparency as the author makes sense of various life experiences as seen through the perspective of her disability, and the ways in which she navigates a world steeped in ableism.

Taussig, who uses her Instagram (@sitting_pretty) as a platform to craft “mini memoirs,” writes in a tone that is both eloquent and casual, illustrating her own lived experiences interwoven with ideas from Disability Studies (and other fields of theory). “During my time in graduate school, it struck me that a lot of revelatory content rethinking disability is also profoundly inaccessible to people outside the high walls of academia,” Taussig told me in an interview. “I really wanted the ideas that had changed everything for me to connect with readers with any kind of educational background.” Taussig accomplishes this as she writes about the moment she begins to realize her body is “undesirable” within mainstream ideals, an old marriage to a childhood sweetheart she rushed into because she felt she needed someone to take care of her, and her arduous search to find an accessible house within her financial reach.

Sitting Pretty opens with an essay that stems from a question Taussig’s brother asks her: “What is your writing about? What do you hope it will bring to the world?” It’s a question that causes Taussig to prepare for “benevolent misunderstanding” from her brother—a thread that runs through the vast majority of her interactions with able-bodied individuals. At first, she reaches for the word shame to describe that which she explores through her writing: “This is the shame that attaches so easily to a body that doesn’t fit, the shame that buds, blossoms, and consumes when you believe that your existence is a burden, a blemish on the well-oiled machine of Society.” During my own journey towards understanding and making sense of my disabled body, I’ve grown accustomed to using the term internalized ableism to describe the ways in which I have unconsciously adopted society’s ableism as a lens through which to view myself. But this term, as nifty as it can be for explaining how a system of oppression works internally, does not illustrate the depths of which this internalized oppression can reach. Shame, on the other hand? Shame lets us inhabit the seed from which internalized ableism grows.

Taussig finally tells her brother, “When you grow up in a world that doesn’t see you or welcome you or represent you, you believe the world isn’t for you. It’s for all the other people.” Her essay collection, then, both illustrates the insidiousness of growing up in a world like this one, while offering a new set of authentic, beautifully wrought stories that tell other disabled individuals we are welcome.

One reason these stories are so compelling is that Taussig’s explorations of the ways her own ordinary, resilient, disabled body interacts with a largely able-bodied world are complex, evading neatly tied conclusions and categories. In one of my favorite essays, “Feminist Pool Party,” Taussig grapples with the conflicting emotions surrounding a memory of being catcalled: as a woman, she is horrified; but as a disabled woman who is a part of a community historically thought of as childlike and asexual, she finds herself reveling in the moment. This is certainly no less impacted by her moving through adolescence as someone who believed she was undesirable, a process, along with the constant onslaught of society’s ableism, that caused her to become disconnected from herself and her body. In this essay, we can see Taussig struggling with the messiness of this truth and being transparent about this messiness. It is this sort of transparency that allows for the complexity and nuance so needed in disability narratives.

“Feminist Pool Party” goes on to explore the ways in which disability has been largely left out from discussions of feminism, and how so many feminist discussions (on the wage gap, on reproductive rights, on the problem with seeing “women” as a homogenous group) are not anywhere near complete without discussing the intersection of disability. Of course, this is not a new conversation—disability being overlooked in feminist discussions and spaces—nor is it an issue solely facing disabled individuals: mainstream feminism is often called “white feminism” for a reason. Near the end of the essay, Taussig recalls a panel she attended featuring young women who were notably successful in their fields. When someone in the audience asks the panel about managing work-life balance, each panelist answers in a way that promotes powering through and eschewing rest for more work, more upward climb. “Really? Is that it?” Taussig writes, ­“Let’s just giggle about the impossibility of having both a career and a body with limits?”

We learn, in other essays, that working full-time as a high school teacher has caused immeasurable strain on her body and wellbeing, and that as a young girl she watched her father follow an impossibly rigid work schedule, one that she had trouble integrating into ideas of her future. Like the ­­­­discussion of white feminism’s exclusiveness, the notion of work under capitalism being unsustainable and detrimental to people’s bodies, minds, and spirits is not new. Disability theorists, queer theorists, and critical race theorists have been kicking this idea around for decades. What Taussig does, then, is ground these ideas in reality through her own lived experiences.

There’s a moment near the end of Sitting Pretty in which Taussig is struck by a vision of disabled kids growing up in our world, a world without directions, a world in which they have no “road map” to follow. Sitting Pretty is not a road map—it does not spell out signposts to follow, instructions on how to do this or be that. At the same time, however, this book is a road map, in that it shows moments of resonance, moments where I, a fellow disabled writer, could see myself reflected in the words on the page. Taussig has created her own road map, while being aware that her road map shows only one of many diverging and converging paths. For this, and for the many roads being carved out ahead of us by other disabled writers like Keah Brown and Alice Wong, I am incredibly thankful.

This Week in Essays

By

At Guernica, Simona Blat sets out to see if anything could possibly be good luck in 2020, the year of the rat.

For The Point magazine, Agnes Callard reflects on how creating special rules for geniuses is a means to both honor and isolate such individuals.

Here at The Rumpus, Lisa Bubert writes on the struggles of one rural hospital and the community it serves.

(more…)

Words of Revolution; Words of Solace: Supporting Philly Writers

By

On December 5, Blue Stoop, a home for Philly writers, will celebrate its third year with Words of Revolution; Words of Solace, a fully captioned innovative video program produced by award-winning cinematographer Aly Spengler and featuring readings from ten of the most exciting voices writing in and around Philadelphia today: Brittney Cooper, Myriam Gurba, Anne Ishii, Airea D. Matthews, Trapeta Mayson, Kiley Reid, Nikil Saval, Eric Smith, Amber Sparks, and Elissa Washuta. More than just another Zoom event, featured writers will perform words written by their heroes relevant to the ideas of revolution and of solace. Event proceeds go directly to Blue Stoop’s financial aid fund for Philly writers of limited means, and to paying teachers and staff a living wage.

To help kick off the celebration, we’re excited to share an exclusive conversation with Emma Copley Eisenberg, author of New York Times notable book The Third Rainbow Girl. (more…)

Next Letter for Kids: Camryn Garrett

By

Our next Letter for Kids comes from author Camryn Garrett! Camryn writes to us all about her first pen pal—so this letter is all about letters!

To make sure this awesome letter reaches your favorite young reader, subscribe by December 10! For more information on Letters for Kids, click here. Letters for Kids is now on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest, so visit us there, too. And remember, Letters for Kids helps us keep The Rumpus running—so, your children can correspond with their favorite writers and you’ll support the website in one fell swoop. (more…)

This Week in Indie Bookstores

By

A popup bookstore in Virginia plans to give away free books through December.

BuzzFeed shares a gift guide for book lovers who want to support independent booksellers—and if you’re really looking for something special, check out the Rumpus store!

Meanwhile, these bookstores offer book subscriptions, which is literally the gift that keeps on giving. (And, consider our Book Club and Poetry Book Club subscriptions, too!)

(more…)

Spotlight: The Rumpus Review of John Stanley’s Little Lulu

By

For the longest time, John Stanley’s Little Lulu was one of the best kept secrets in comics. Like Carl Barks’s Donald Duck, Lulu was considered significantly better than the reams of dull comic books based on licensed properties being printed throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

By the 1970s, the secret was out. The snot-nosed kids who read comics on their parent’s front porch were now fully grown adults, congregating at massive comic book conventions to discuss their favorite creators. It was then that Stanley emerged as one of the preeminent comic writers of the post-war era.

Although Stanley helmed a number of well-known characters over his career (Nancy and Raggedy Ann, among others), and created a bevy of his own, most of his fans agree that it is in his work on Lulu that his unique sensibilities shine brightest.

This work has recently been collected in two volumes from Drawn & Quarterly. These two thick books (the first in a planned series), titled Working Girl and Fuzzithingus Poopi, collect Stanley’s earliest work on the title.

Working Girl predominantly features stories drawn by Stanley himself, while Fuzzithingus Poopi picks up when artist Irving Tripp largely took over drawing duties. Stanley famously didn’t care for Tripp’s pencil work, calling it lifeless, but it’s unlikely that casual readers will notice much of a difference.

While I prefer the artwork in the first volume, I don’t think Stanley’s criticism is fair. Tripp’s simple but solid line work perfectly underscores the dry humor of Stanley’s writing. Sure, as with other comics, people in Lulu get bopped on the head and take plenty of pratfalls, but we’re always left with the impression that these are flesh-and-blood children rather than elastic cartoons characters. In a Stanley comic, you’re more likely to get big laughs from a simple reaction shot than you are from a slip on a banana peel.

Both the author and artist are able to achieve this effect because of the great character writing in Lulu. It reads like a television sitcom in which the children have unique, identifiable personalities.

Lulu, of course, is good-natured, creative, and strong-willed. Her confidence and determination have recently led her to be considered an early feminist icon of comics—a notion that is highlighted further by the series’ abominable co-star, Tubby. Any way you look at him, Tubby is a pretty awful little boy. He’s inconsiderate, sexist, and not particularly bright, but he has an ego so large that he never seems to notice these truths about himself. He’s kind of a prototypical version of Cartman from South Park. His primary purpose—apart from providing a foil for Lulu—is to encapsulate what’s wrong with the “boys will be boys” view of masculinity.

The “no girls allowed” sign that adorns the male characters’ clubhouse might look innocuous when it’s plastered onto a cheap wooden shed, but it’s considerably more troubling when we consider that it extends to the schoolyard, the workplace, and yes, even to the White House.

Make no mistake, though; it’s the boys’ prejudices being parodied here. They always lose out, and not because Lulu is an exceptional girl (she’s not; in fact, most of her victories are more accidental than they are purposeful). Instead, they are proven wrong just by being, well, incorrect.

For example, in a battle-of-the-sexes story typical of the series, the boys are preparing for the local boxcar race and are appalled to learn that Lulu intends on racing. Obviously, a girl cannot build a decent boxcar, let alone race one. The boys dismiss the possibility of her winning. But, of course, despite losing her vision early in the race (it’s a long story), she still manages to beat the boys. Annoyed, the boys accuse her of having her father build her boxcar for her. It is then revealed that it wasn’t her father that built the car—it was her mother.

What I find refreshing about this kind of story—and there are many more like it to be found in these volumes—is that it doesn’t fall prey to the “exceptionalism” trope found in books and movies like Hidden Figures, Mulan, or even Uncle Tom’s Cabin, if you want to go back that far. These narratives of exceptionalism seem to suggest that to find one’s place among the “elite”—the boys, the rich, white people—one has to earn her place by being considerably faster, smarter, better. As fun and heartwarming as it might be to watch these characters fly in the face of oppression, that isn’t what equality looks like. Equality means that everybody must be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of whether or not they have any preternatural ability.

While these Tubby and Lulu/battle-of-the-sexes stories serve as the bedrock of the series, it’s not the only recurring feature. The books are also filled with a number of comics in which Lulu concocts improvised stories for the neighborhood’s young pest, Alvin, who frequently demands them of her.

These tall tales might feature doppelgängers of Lulu, Alvin, Tubby, and other characters in the comic but they are not bound to the continuity of the series—or even to the confines of its reality. These wonderful, absurdist tales often feel like they would be better suited to a Little Golden Book than a ten-cent comic.

Another unique feature of Little Lulu was the “Lulu’s Diary” section. These are pages filled mostly with text (a postal requirement at the time of publication in order for comics to be considered “magazines,” and therefore eligible for subscription). But, unlike the uninspired text pages tucked in the back of Little Lulu’s contemporaries, Stanley saw these features as an opportunity to get inside of his title character’s head, and to write from her perspective. The majority of these stories could’ve made for great comics themselves, but instead we get them entirely from Lulu’s perspective, rife with misspellings, grammatical mistakes, and run-on sentences. Additionally, Stanley fills the borders of these pages with illustrations said to be drawn by Lulu herself. These misshapen, impressionistic drawings complete the effect and provide context for the stories.

These hardcover volumes by Drawn & Quarterly are not the first reprints of this material. But, to my eye, they are the best. Each book features a celebrity introduction, approximately two hundred and fifty pages of comics, a collection of covers, and an essay by comics historian Frank Young. Each book mimics the format of the comics themselves, reprinting a classic drawing with a new border design reminiscent of the series’ original covers. The elegant design throughout each volume elevates the material while also remaining true to its roots.

This is especially evident in the decision to reproduce high-quality scans of the original printed material, in all of its sloppy, three-color glory (though I’m suspicious of a couple of the Tubby pantomime cartoons in the second volume—those look digitally colored to me). I don’t mind it, though it might prove to be a slight barrier for young kids who’ve never had their fingers darkened by cheap newsprint. Drawn & Quarterly could have easily hired a colorist to modernize the look (Fantagraphics did an excellent job of this with Peanuts), but I imagine their core audience of comic-book purists might have balked.

The choice of celebrity introductions for the volumes released thus far have been remarkably astute, framing the series as a work that celebrates gender equality. The first features an essay from Canadian author Margaret Atwood, and the second has a blurb from poet Eileen Myles. Both writers discuss growing up with Lulu, and seeing their own childhoods reflected back at them in her character.

John Stanley went on to do a number of other great titles during and after his stint on Lulu, but most agree that the series is probably his masterpiece. He left the comic industry over a royalty dispute in the 1960s, and subsequent interviews paint a picture of a man who had little interest in, or respect for, the medium.

Still, he managed to produce one of the greatest oeuvres of any writer in the field, and some of his best work can be found in the pages of these two volumes. Stanley himself could not have asked for a better presentation. (Although, by most accounts, he probably still wouldn’t care all that much.)

***

Images provided courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly.

Next Letter in the Mail: Reema Zaman

By

Our next Letter in the Mail comes from award-winning writer, speaker, actress, and author Reema Zaman! Reema sends us an intimate letter about the power of reinvention and resilience.

To make sure Reema’s beautiful, love-filled letter finds its way to your mailbox, subscribe to Letters in the Mail by December 10! And remember, Letters in the Mail helps us keep The Rumpus running—so, you can correspond with your favorite writers and support the website in one fell swoop. (more…)

Notable Online: 11/29–12/5

By

Monday 11/30: Tauno Biltsted, Anca L. Szilágyi, and Kris Waldherr discuss Politics of Then and Now in Historical Fiction. Greenlight Bookstore via Zoom, 7:30 p.m. EST, free.

Matvei Yankelevich, John High, Uljana Wolf, Mihret Kebede, May Huang, Sarah Booker, and Elisa Wouk Almino celebrate Circumference. McNally Jackson via Zoom, 5 p.m. EST, free.

Tuesday 12/1: Nandi Comer and makalani bandele join the Further Notice reading series. Zoom, 10 p.m. EST, free.

(more…)

A Holiday in Hell: Lauren Tivey’s Moroccan Holiday

By

“The villagers think I’m a witch. Of course, they’re not wrong.”
– from “Cerberus”

If you’re going to Hell, bring a good guide. A guide who can sneak you in, past Cerberus, of course, but—more importantly—one who can sneak you back out. Virgil was excellent. He took Dante through Hell: they saw the sights, and they both came out unscathed. Orpheus wasn’t so successful. He went to the underworld to free his love, Eurydice, and he would have gotten her out, but he ignored Hades’s command—“Do not look back!”—and he looked back just before they exited. Orpheus made it out, but, alas, Eurydice was forced to remain.

In Moroccan Holiday—a poetic series following a married couple that won the 2019 Poetry Box Chapbook Prize—Lauren Tivey takes a turn as guide into Hell. The hell she brings us to, ironically, is in exotic Morocco, a paradise transformed into a hell by the anguish the speaker endures as her husband’s alcoholism bashes her between despair and hope, revulsion and desire. The key to her suffering (the serpent knows our weakness) is hope. Even up to the end of the journey, she—the “wife of the many woes”—will not give up hope: hope for her husband, for her marriage, for her happiness. She is an excellent guide. She brings us safely through Hell and out the other side—but she herself does not escape.

Our journey begins auspiciously with “Memorial,” a prose poem in which Tivey describes the boat passage the speaker (an American) and her husband (a Scot) take from Gibraltar to Tangier:

              Us that day on the boat, bright-eyed and eager and gliding across the
iridescent bay where the two continents arch to a kiss, rainbow spumes
dashing off the prow, and the delight of leaping dolphins, and the
liquescent sunlight a balm of all ills.

Here we see the speaker’s hope leaping from the page, just as the dolphins leap from the water. Tivey’s words are iridescent and liquescent. Tangier, approached from the sea, beckons her: “the gulls cried their / approval, and on the distant hill the bougainvillea drowsily nodded yes, yes, / welcome.” As the poem continues, however, we see these invitations as siren-calls, and we learn that the couple is not crossing over to paradise, but rather “crossing toward catastrophe.”

In the very next poem, “Arriving Tangier,” we see the setting for this catastrophe. The poem opens with a scene that might have sprung from a Bosch painting:

The one-legged man is begging in the road.
Nearby, a boy is punching his horse in the snout,
dutifully, with neither wrath nor glee. And
the insane woman, with her feet wrapped

in bandages, skin lesions oozing, is swathed
in a blood-red Moroccan flag which barely
covers her behind, is muttering, is following us
down a dark street, is a nightmare…

This is the corporeal hell that mirrors the psychological hell the speaker endures as she confronts her husband’s addiction and their dissolving marriage.

While the couple is in Hell, Tivey’s speaker is our guide, but she is also seeking her husband, striving to bring him back from the alcoholism that has taken over his life. “His mind,” she says in “He Would Have Cared,” is “now hidden away in a lapis / lazuli tomb, frozen in time, like some Egyptian king.” But such a rescue is not possible. The speaker knows it. She realizes it a dozen times during her journey, but still she hopes. “I don’t want him to die, / am not going to abandon him.” This last quote comes from the poem “The Other Woman,” in which the speaker also admits, “Yet there’s a part of me / that would easily put a rabid dog down.” Likewise, as she slips through the markets of Morocco in “Call to Prayer,” and is able to think, for a moment, of “something like [her] own happiness,” she makes another confession: “There are times I imagine him dead, or / inexplicably vanished, a life my own.”

Again and again our guide will be on the verge of giving up on her husband and on their marriage. In one of the most memorable poems in the collection, “The Math of It,” Tivey’s speaker asks the question that everyone, at some time, has thought of:

                      …Tell me that—
how much pain to endure
in the name of love? Show me
an algebraic formula, calculations,
a litmus test, a pie chart, or
a spreadsheet of points logged + / –
and yes, even a Venn diagram
will do. Can it be measured
in empty bottles? A laundry list
of injuries and embarrassments?

We find in “The Math of It” the turmoil that has engulfed the speaker, that has led her to ask this primal question: when do you give up on someone? She does, more or less, answer her own question in the end, when she states that “surely, someone / must’ve figured this out by now.” We know no one has. Math does not figure in this question. Tivey’s speaker might be our guide, but there is no guide for her.

Like the “The Math of It,” “All the Soft Things” also stays with the reader. In this poem, the husband and wife find a sick cat. They pray for its life—”Please, / just this one thing.” And they do more than pray: they feed it and wash it and nurse it. The cat, like their marriage, is damaged, perhaps too far gone. And yet, they try to save it. “We cannot save everything, we know, / but we must try. We must always try.” Such hope—even in the face of hopelessness—continues to fuel their journey.

Toward the end of Moroccan Holiday, we find “Himself,” the longest poem, at four pages, in the collection. This poem is an extended dramatic monologue in which the husband—the alcoholic—gives his apologia in Scottish brogue. The husband explains why he became an alcoholic, recalling the trauma he endured as a child when he discovered his mother dead, lying on the floor: “I was jes a boy, and I caint ever / ferget me ma’s dead eyes.” This traumatic event, however, does not fully explain his alcoholism; genetics, he insists, also played a part: “Tae blooud in me… aye, it’s taken my / sister, my brother, my da, these genetics / nae friend tae anyone.”

“Himself” recalls the tales the damned told Dante in his trip to the underworld. Written in Scottish brogue, “Himself” somehow suggests the other-language-ness of The Inferno (Italian or some dusty old translation, perhaps). The narrator—Himself—like the damned who Dante encountered, speaks without guile. Like them, Himself is stuck in Hell eternally, and so has no need to conceal information or even appeal to his audience’s sympathies: he speaks honestly and candidly. So, when Himself describes the source of his alcoholism as “tae beast in me / an tae hoonger too strong,” we accept the proposition as true—that alcoholism, like a demon, has taken possession of him.

Toward the end of “Himself,” we find why the wife has not abandoned her husband. She clings to him, and—though he is lost—she will not leave his side:

                                                I used tae be good,
a tight scot, ya, but a good man wit decent
morals, but tae war in me’s changin’ me—an
tae woife, she will nae go, and I luv her fer’t.

Love keeps her by him, and hope ensures she will stay. “I tell her—roon, lass, / save yerself, a’fore i’m tae death of ye.” That is the last line of “Himself,” but, as we come to learn, the wife will not heed this warning.

In less skillful hands, Moroccan Holiday might have come off as a morose tale, but Tivey is a dazzling and mesmerizing poet. Even when distraught, Tivey’s speaker is able to give us glimpses of the Moroccan paradise that surrounds her, and—as an able guide—describe it with exquisite detail and an innate, organic musicality. Consider “Hunger,” for example, which begins with a description of date groves, and with the sensuous (and sensual) eating of a date:

In the date groves of Skoura, laden sprays
of ripe fruit; pendulous, bountiful. And then,
the glazed lozenge upon the tongue, soft
and erotic spurt under the teeth, syrup
sun-warmed, heady as honey, sweet as sex.

This passage contains organic and slant rhymes—such as “then” and “lozenge”; “spurt” and “syrup”; “heady” and “honey”—and several instances of alliteration and sibilance (“syrup / sun-warmed… sweet as sex,” for example). These rhymes and chimes are suggestive, not insistent, and—along with the rhythms of the passage (especially the last three lines)—they create a melody that is seductive and even erotic.

Musical lines, like those from “Hunger,” appear in many parts of Moroccan Holiday. Likewise, evocative details can be found in almost every poem. In “Night of Decree,” my favorite poem in the collection, such details abound. The poem describes a marketplace at night:

Full moon pulsing over the spice souk’s clamor,
where robed women thread in and out of stalls, amid
colorful cones, umber-hued rows, and flavorful peaks,
bartering prices for cumin, ginger root, and saffron.

This market, in Tivey’s hands, becomes both real and other-worldly. Under the moon—the “crafty old mother”— spells and roots are purchased by “witch-wives.” They wander through “perfumed rooms of candlelight,” where “hoopoe nails or hyena skulls” can be purchased, along with “a sealant of black wax, / to thwart the appetites of beaters, cheaters, and drunks.” Tivey describes a furtive sanctuary for women, a place where they, working together and employing supernatural aid, are able to defend themselves against their repressive and domineering husbands. While the women of the marketplace craft spells, Tivey crafts poetry: she transforms the details of the world into words, creating a second world, which is her sole refuge.

Tivey is a fearless poet, and it is the candid and contradictory thoughts and images she offers us in Moroccan Holiday that make the book engrossing and unforgettable. It is her work’s honesty and intimacy, as much as its imagery and musicality, that make the reader want to walk beside her on this dark and lustrous journey. In the last poem, “The Journey Back,” the speaker addresses us directly: we are to be let out of Hell, we find, but she will remain. She has lost hope in the purpose of her journey (saving her husband, saving her marriage), and yet she will stay. In the beautiful and forlorn last lines of the book, she admits her despair, and she asks our indulgence so that she might at least fantasize about returning from her hopeless predicament:

                                                                                    Our love
this night will be deliberate, luxurious, under the flutter
of white gauze drapes, our bodies recalling one another’s
touch, tracing map lines back to the source of something
that once was. It will be like this, and I suspect you will
indulge me here, as you know just how much has been lost.

This Week in Essays

By

As small businesses succumb to the pandemic, Francesca Mari observes the fate of her father’s electronics shop for The Atlantic.

“My experience of mental illness has been one of a sine wave. It undulates. It never goes away.” For Catapult, Jami Nakamura Lin writes on being bipolar, releasing rage, and living with the undulations.

Here at The Rumpus, Angie Chatman tries to make home grow on foreign soil.

(more…)

Desire Makes Storytellers of Us All: Anthropica by David Hollander

By

I’ve only encountered a handful of long postmodern novels that I’ve found coherent and genuinely fun to read. Usually it’s one or the other—the book pursues the execution of a concept with dogged joylessness, or else it gets happily lost in its author’s profusion of inspiration and thought. Over the years, I’ve found myself agreeing more and more with Martin Amis’s verdict on the super-novel in The Information: “Joyce was the best yet at genius novels, and even he was a drag about half the time.” (Though I’d make exceptions for books by William Gaddis, Cormac McCarthy, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gabriel García Márquez, Roberto Bolaño, and a few others.) As exhilarating as the long postmodern novel can be, the experience is decidedly not for everyone, and it seems that such books fall further out of fashion as the years pass, information culture grows more bewilderingly complex, and the profit motives of trade publishers become increasingly focused. Imagine my pleasure and surprise, then, when I found that David Hollander has written a great big postmodern novel that supplies no shortage of intellectual challenge, delivers page after page of consistently ecstatic prose, and culminates in a dizzying display of conceptual acrobatics.

It’s not easy to describe a novel like Anthropica. Spread across a prologue and seventy-three chapters, this remarkably energetic work connects more than twenty-one perspectives, a number of them first-person narrators, and multiple plotlines to tell an apocalypse story unlike any you’ve read (a comic one, for starters—what a relief). Formally, the novel is fractal: plotlines appear distinct at first, only to become increasingly integrated and nested as the book progresses, such that it become impossible to say which plot or story encompasses the others. The overall effect is a unity that is complete, impressively coherent, and infinitely circular. As if that weren’t enough, the novel’s organizational scheme begins to come into view at the same time a kind of fascinating vocal breakdown creeps in, making some narrators echo others, and in the end the most life-affirming and misanthropic voices take on similarities that will leave the reader compellingly unsettled.

Anthropica begins with the aforementioned prologue, attributed to a writer named Joyful Noise, who claims to be the novel’s author. Subsequent chapters introduce a professor of creative writing vying with Joyful Noise for tenure, an Ultimate Frisbee prodigy who has fallen in love with a teammate’s mother, a group of giant robots playing a game similar to chess, and a scientist who has discovered the bizarre secret of what keeps the universe ticking. The characters in these chapters are all the heroes of their own stories—and there are more stories and protagonists to emerge—but Hollander skillfully weaves them together to construct an epic novel about a plot to exterminate the human race. This epic is metafictional, playing with fictional authors and perspectives in a way that recalls both Vladimir Nabokov’s understanding of literature as art and Roland Barthes’s foundational essay on interpretation, “The Death of the Author.”

As I’ve said above, this novel is surprisingly reader-friendly. Hollander accomplishes this in part by orienting the many narrative arcs around the clearly articulated idea at the heart of his work, the concept of Anthropica, which the character Joyful Noise explains this way: “[T]he entire universe is merely the product of human desire and that everything—including all the vast temporal acreage of so-called pre-human history—is only here because we want it to be.” This idea supplies both pivotal plot material and defines the novel’s fascination with the world-generating power of human desire and language. We humans are, as Deleuze and Guattari had it, desiring machines that produce all manner of desires that are only intelligible to us through the machinations of language. That is, desire makes storytellers of us all, and the story of the world is necessarily a story of stories that are deeply and dynamically interrelated—a truth Hollander plays with by allowing different characters to claim authorship of this book.

There are a number of approaches one might take to making sense of this literary artwork. It’s tempting to treat the text as a series of Wittgensteinian language games, as an exploration of the ways in which discursive systems construct little worlds—think of how a game of chess, with its rules and terms and pieces and board, creates its own linguistic universe distinct from the narrative of the hunger distracting the player concentrating on his next move—and as a heroic attempt to integrate them into a whole. Yet given the present-day publication of this book, which so ably conjures the best postmodern literary spirit of the late 1980s and 90s, I’m more inclined to invoke Wallace Stevens’s essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” in which Stevens observes that “[i]t is one of the peculiarities of the imagination that it is always at the end of an era.” Stevens’s essay is concerned foremost with how the language arts are constantly reshaped by what he calls “the pressure of reality,” by which he means the force exerted on an artist by all of the up-to-date stories about what the world is and what is happening in it. It is Stevens’s pressure of reality that makes, for example, stories about Bigfoot the stuff of reactionary nostalgia and kitsch. In the case of Hollander’s novel, I wonder whether the current state of thinking about “reality” in quantum physics makes it impossible to say what the story is—because there are an infinite number of them, swallowed up and swallowing one another, in an ourobotic, fractal whole. What a fitting end to the postmodern literary experiment. Or are we just getting warmed up?

It is appropriate that the novel makes use of different genres and styles. What’s most impressive about the genre mashup is the ease with which Hollander shifts from science fiction to realism to pseudo-journalism to satire and comic storytelling to Joycean stream-of-consciousness. Not only does Hollander find room in his capacious voice for all of these different textures and tones, he does so without compromising their various emotional registers. This is a novel in which the strikingly dissonant passages can coexist without contradicting one another.

Consider, for example, this restaurateur’s account (included in a newspaper article about the latest culinary craze in the restaurants of San Antonio, Texas: vulture) of how she developed her eatery’s new signature dish:

“What we do there,” says Patty, “is we take the meat and we mix with some top quality ground beef and seasonings and then we bake the whole mixture inside of these plastic clamshells that I found online.”

Thanks to Hollander’s mastery of narratorial styles, the satirical effect above is preserved despite his use of the high-caliber pathos employed in the following passage, in which an Alaskan firefighter surrenders himself to a conflagration he knows he cannot outrun:

…he did not flee but only dropped his shovel in the dirt and kneeled in the loam and began praying for his little girl Wendy, now five years old, praying for her to live a good and happy life, he closed his eyes and felt the hair on his forearms singe and he did not know it but he was repeating the words, Jesus Christ have mercy on her soul, he thought of the little girl’s smile and the way she sort of glowed with white light, emanating her own private energy signature, he prayed that she would be spared pain and that wherever he was now going the energy signature would be there, too, he wanted the part of himself that was her to go on forever, he wanted it with an intensity that could drive turbines…

Reading Anthropica, I found myself thinking a lot about style and voice, the ways in which the latter inhabits the former, and how freely and blissfully Hollander’s own energy signature or intelligence moves from style to style and mode to mode. The influence of late twentieth-century postmodernism is heavy here—I detect touches of David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, George Saunders, and Donald Antrim—but there is a drive to connect with the reader with unquestionable clarity that demonstrates beyond a doubt that Hollander has tamed these rhetorics in his drive to make a gesture toward why we tell stories, what meaning itself is, and the mixture of futility, stubbornness, beauty, and love it takes to make a dream—especially a potentially insane dream, like the one of becoming an author in the twenty-first century United States—come true. In the grip of such a mastery of narratorial language and technique, it is easy to let go and enjoy the ride.

And what a ride it is, ranging widely in time and space, from a farm in mid-twentieth century Poland to the caverns under an apocalyptic Manhattan to a post-Earthly future in which a machine known as Your Eminence interrogates the preserved heads of not-exactly-dead humans. Maybe the Savior the world has awaited is a randy young Ultimate Frisbee virtuoso; maybe he is the one who will help bring all this human madness to a merciful end. Then again, maybe not. There were times, reading this book, that I stopped to ask myself, Who’s really telling this story? Each time, I found the same reassuring answer: it’s still the author, both dead and alive after all these years, telling the story that burns in its beating, battered, hankering heart.

This Week in Indie Bookstores

By

Starting to shop for the holidays? Don’t forget the books!

And, celebrate indie bookstores on Small Business Saturday.

Netflix teen romance Dash & Lily arrived just in time to make NYC’s the Strand famous all over again.

(more…)

Notable Online: 11/22–11/28

By

Sunday 11/22: Robert P. Jones presents White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. A Capella Books via Zoom, 3 p.m. EST, free.

Gabriel Kruis, Dorothea Lasky, Adjua Gargi Nzinga Greaves, Benjamin Krusling, Macgregor Card, and Tidal Channel celebrate Acid Virga. Powerhouse Arena via Zoom, 7:30 p.m. EST, free.

Monday 11/23: Andrea Scrima presents Writing the Virus: Work from StatORec Magazine with Cheryl Pearl Sucher. McNally Jackson via Zoom, 7 p.m. EST, free.

(more…)

Documenting Existence: Deed by Justin Wymer

By

Winner of the 2018 Elixir Press Antivenom Poetry Award and a master class on cadence, syntax, and high Romantic lyric poetry, Justin Wymer’s debut collection Deed is marvelous.

To begin, the collection’s title, Deed, is a word conflicted and duplicitous in its meaning: “An action that is performed intentionally or consciously,” and also containing within its scope, “a legal document acknowledging ownership or one’s legal rights.” Right from the onset, this collection sets the stage for a landscape of doublespeak. Examining the failure of language, ownership, and personal sovereignty, the poems in this book paint Wymer’s need to grasp onto something that can’t be taken away.

The word deed takes on even more weight in the context of Wymer’s native West Virginia, where the vast majority of the land is owned by absentee landowners, primarily for the use of resource extraction. These resources have helped to build the museums, colleges, infrastructure, and economies of its neighboring states, leaving the region’s landscape gutted and economically devastated. This neocolonial relationship has birthed another kind of resource extraction, forcing most of the brightest and most able-bodied to move elsewhere. In the absence of these people, another kind of gutting has happened.

 

I find myself coming back to the poem “Methods of Belonging.” I believe the heart of this collection is found in these lines: “Myths—those on which / the keenest beauty / blinds itself, and family / enters into / small-town rain / I should have exited / the flesh but / the woods didn’t / answer.” There is a sense that the speaker does not want to see themselves in the beauty of the place he was raised, knowing that the beauty that exists here is temporary and prone to being erased.

Paying homage to Richard Siken’s “Scheherazade,” the title poem leans on the repetition of tell me—to drive the point that Wymer wants an entity or muse that understands his existence, to confirm what he feels and sees, and to reassure him that he is not alone. It is the natural landscape, taking on the role of a reluctant mirror to the speaker of these poems, confirming this shared existence.

Wymer is grappling with survival, with the cost of the duplicity of identity. He writes: “The privileged hide when they can. You / can always see family in the eyes of young men at truck stops.” There seems to be an underlying question being navigated in these poems: Is it more difficult to be Appalachian outside of Appalachia, or to be queer in Appalachia? And at what cost is it, that I must sacrifice one of these selves to exist? 

 

Wymer’s body and ideas are a currency akin to his mountains and timber: beautiful, temporary, made useless unless repurposed outside of the state. The tradeoff is then when existing outside of West Virginia, the presumed safety and self-worth granted is only allowed if he chooses to live through someone’s repurposed idea of himself.

In so many instances, one gets the sense that no matter where the speaker of these poems goes, his language, his tongue, what his eyes have seen, betray him and unravel the costume he tries to build. And then, when returning home, changed, he’s unable to see himself in his home because what’s left are merely the forces he’s worked so desperately to escape.

These poems seesaw between the music and meter of Romantic lyricism and the transcendental epiphany through the natural. One gets the sense that with Wymer’s knowledge of how temporary people, towns, forests, and mountains are, that it is his intention to document existence.

Utilizing the first person, Wymer writes of trauma and addiction, of Appalachia’s relationship to person, industry, and land. He writes of his brother and his hometown. Because these poems are born of Wymer’s own experiences, they feel more generous than others whose work on Appalachia has leaned on caricatures stemming from Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty campaign.

In the southern part of the state, some regions still do not have access to the internet or cell service. Here, roads were paved for resource extraction to neighboring states, not foremost as a route to get between towns. Thus, information has a unique way of traveling from towns and hollers, which can be precarious, gossipy, and sometimes lends itself to folklore. And yet, people in the region are hyperaware of each other. Wymer’s epistolary poems to E parrot this in the best ways.

Shining through a collection that can be restrained and heady, these gorgeous poems have Plath-like qualities to them. Which is not to say merely confessional but, more, exact in their knowing and movements. For example: “In certain extinguishing hours of the day I feel aggressively lovely—washed / in skin colored light strained through the curtain” or “Three thin friends were given spells to cast and I thought / again of you” and “Before this story began, some misshapen mannequin was /pulled into the opening of the curtain, left cataloging the way dawn/shines on the frivolous things that move beside me some / moments in the day.”

This suite is reminiscent of Josh Bell’s poems to Ramona, from the collection No Planet Strikes. They work as a kind of negative capability, pulling back from the high Romantic lyric moments, grounding the book in a more personal and intimate sphere, allowing the space for the tender, quiet, and subtle to bloom. The pacing of these poems throughout the collection allows for enough of an arc to sink your teeth into. Wymer’s poems to E appear to me his most confident. It is here that he directly says what he wants and shares his intentions and fears. We get a sense that he is no longer just the speaker but also part of the tapestry.

Whatever distance the poet has tried to create, to keep the reader and speaker at arm’s length, these poems work to unravel, flooding the collection with specificity, immediacy, and a different level of intimacy that I believe nourishes and gives context to the rest of the collection.

 

As I read through Deed, I was drawn to a quote by Silas House, an Appalachian writer, which I’ll paraphrase: I’m wary of Appalachian writing where place exists as either exclusively good or exclusively bad. Historically there has been a propensity for writing that dwells on Appalachia, using Appalachia itself as a character. Often this is packaged in tropes, either tragic hero marred by unavoidable fatalism, lacking accountability, or as the child to patronize, too inept to get itself out of whatever cycle of poverty or shame it finds itself. Wymer steers clear of both of these snares. Instead, he chooses to mirror himself to Appalachia, interrogating the complexity and temporary existence of beauty, as well as the active erasure of beauty.

While Wymer’s high lyric and high syntax are set against familiar Appalachian backdrops, including mountaintop removal, addiction, the woods as a venue for the spiritual, cleansing, and danger, and while he can probably name every flower and animal in Appalachia, what makes this work different from others is how he writes of beauty and epiphany as not a source leading to answers instead as a source leading toward more interrogation. Wymer is not getting what he needs to survive from the transcendental. Just as he knows all of the flora and fauna by name, he knows as well the names of the forces endangering them. Sometimes it’s an industry, other times a person he went to high school with.

As we read on, hypnotized by Wymer’s language, coaxed into becoming the landscape of these poems yourself, we get the sense that we are the next thing to be named. We come to realize that we are the wild, dangerous, thing, whose eyes are glowing through the trees, peering out at the poet.

The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project: Jeff Tweedy

By

Jeff Tweedy is the founding member and leader of the Grammy Award winning American rock band Wilco, and before that the cofounder of the alt‐country band Uncle Tupelo. Over the course of his prolific career, Tweedy has released twenty albums, and published three books, including the best-selling 2018 memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc. The book is a candid, insightful look back at his life in and beyond music, and a window into his creative process.

Tweedy’s best-selling follow-up, How to Write One Song, picks up that thread, offering readers practical advice about the craft of songwriting, and his thoughts on the value and joy that come with making creativity a part of our everyday lives. Tweedy wrote the book during shelter in place as he was also writing the songs for his third solo album, Love Is the King, which he recorded with his sons Spencer and Sammy. The album was released digitally last month, with vinyl and CD formats set for release in mid-January. (more…)

This Week in Essays

By

Rachel Sherman weathers a pandemic and a divorce at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

For Outside, Luna Soley spends a memorable summer on a lobster boat in Maine.

Here at The Rumpus, Janice P. Nimura considers the sartorial influence of her father.

(more…)

What Society Allows Us to Be: Megha Majumdar’s A Burning

By

What does it mean to be free? Free to pursue dreams, free to say anything, or even simply free to live every day without fear? Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, flares with these questions, illuminating a harsh world of politics, power, and the heavy weight of a corrupt society on those less privileged.

Set in Kolkata, A Burning follows three characters: Jivan, a young Muslim woman scapegoated as a terrorist; PT Sir, her former teacher and, as the novel progresses, a newly minted politician; and Lovely, an aspiring actress and transgender woman or hijra (a term which, in India, refers to eunuchs, intersex people, and transgender people). Peppered with asides that also allow us to peek into the lives of minor characters, the threads holding these characters together are flimsy and feeble at first but eventually significant.

The novel begins with Jivan washing smoke out of her hair and sharing a video of a firebomb attack on a train on Facebook. Having witnessed the attack herself as she was on her way to deliver schoolbooks to Lovely, Jivan runs home and finds Facebook frantic with hashtags, pleas for donations, and footage of the burning train. After watching video after video, Jivan types: “If the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean… that the government is also a terrorist?” It is, she admits to herself in the moment, “a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write.”

A few nights later, she is forced to the police station in the middle of the night. Terrified, she looks out of the police van as boys speed by, whooping as they leave a nightclub. They aren’t afraid, Jivan realizes, because their fathers know the right people. Her family does not; they have neither wealth nor connections. “How would I get out of this?” she wonders. She won’t, of course.

The police, the court, and the media decide she is responsible for the attack, and she is forced to sign a confession and ends up in jail. Thus begins Jivan’s new life—the one she lives as a consequence of using her voice to say a dangerous thing. She is always waiting: for her lawyer to come, for her mother to visit, for a journalist whom she hopes can tell the world she is innocent. She waits as nothing changes, working in the kitchen, wondering if Sonali Khan, a famous film producer, will join the prison as she faces punishment for shooting an endangered rhino. Sonali Khan is eventually sentenced to house arrest, and Jivan laments the difference between rich and poor, the different rules that apply even when it comes to prison. She places all of her faith in Lovely as her trial approaches, believing she will convince the court that Jivan’s packages on the day of the attack contained books, not bombs.

PT Sir, Jivan’s old physical education teacher, testifies at her trial, too. He worried she didn’t have enough to eat, he tells the court, and tried to encourage her, thinking that she might be an athlete one day. Jivan wants to thank him when he says these words, wants to right the childish arrogance that stopped her from doing so at the time. But there is little to thank him for, she realizes, when he says he hasn’t seen her for a few years, not since she stopped coming to school after receiving poor test results. “Maybe she got involved with criminal elements after leaving school. It happens,” he concludes, and Jivan’s heart sinks. PT Sir gets to tell the story here, and what he sees is a poor girl, a girl who vanished after school exams and didn’t thank him for his help. A girl who could, therefore, quite possibly end up getting involved with terrorists.

For PT Sir, these words are not new. He has been taken under the wing of Bimala Pal, a politician and chief minister of the state by the end of the novel. Bimala Pal leads him to courtrooms with increasing frequency as Jivan waits in jail for her trial, persuading him to testify against a plethora of people she says are guilty. She needs him to act as witness because a lack of evidence means these criminals would be let back out onto the streets. He believes her, says the words she wants, and takes the money she offers.

But he also wonders “if the guard is paid by the party, too. For that matter, how about the courtroom clerks, and the judges, and the lawyers? Not one of them has ever said: ‘This man is really something! Everywhere there is a robbery, a domestic problem, a fight between neighbors, this man happens to be walking by! Is he Batman or what?’” Shockingly close to a realization that motives relating to power and politics might dictate the functioning of the justice system, he only exclaims in wonder at everybody around him, unable or perhaps unwilling to reach that conclusion.

He decides, though, that the ends justify the means. Even if Bimala Pal’s political party is paying the guards, the courtroom clerks, the judges, and the lawyers, it doesn’t matter as long as the right outcome is achieved. When it isn’t—when PT Sir sees a riot break out and a family slaughtered—Bimala Pal tells him it isn’t his fault. He dislikes that, but he reaches for the relief it allows him, needing it. He shrugs on the protective psychological armor she offers, deciding he must salvage himself because that is all he can do.

This mindset allows PT Sir to believe he is always doing the right thing as he steps further and further into the quagmire of politics and power, unable to extricate himself. Thanks to his political connections, he gets the pipes at his school fixed much more quickly than anyone thought possible. He is able to pay for a tandoor oven casually and in cash, thrilled to be this kind of man with this kind of money. His wife is thrilled, too. She is a constant background presence who is, at first, skeptical about Bimala Pal, and then, later, happy to reap the benefits of her husband’s arrangement.

PT Sir is careful to note, though, that “nobody can say that PT Sir is not an ethical man.” After all, he turns down an all-expenses-paid trip to Singapore from a private university, deciding it is too large a gift. This line-drawing allows him to believe that he is indeed some sort of goodhearted Batman and makes him a nuanced, layered character rather than a one-dimensional villain, though a deeper reach into his mind might have offered an even more complex portrait of a man suffering from severe cognitive dissonance. A clearer image of his wife, too, might’ve afforded the novel a more layered depiction of the power of political persuasion and the way in which it might insidiously change a person. As it is, though, Majumdar leaves the reader to simultaneously despise and pity PT Sir, filling in only some of the gaps in his marriage and allowing the reader to guess at how long PT Sir will be able to go on lying to himself so convincingly.

Lovely, on the other hand, tells the court clearly that Jivan was carrying a package of books on the day of the burning, not explosives. The talented thespian lets her voice carry, lets the courtroom laugh at her incorrect English: “Jivan was teaching me English. I was not knowing English and in fact I am still not knowing English… I was learning it all so that I was being able to audition better.” She says she is an actress, and the court laughs at her again. The judge simply says: “we have the word of a hijra, an individual who begs on the streets for money…” These few words tell the court what to believe. Economic class and social standing plait together and decide both Lovely’s and Jivan’s worth easily—a difficult reality, but one Majumdar illuminates several times as a sadly plausible one.

Later, people call Lovely a terrorist sympathizer. Is this your fight to fight? they ask her. What they really mean, and what causes Lovely to eventually wash her hands of Jivan’s case, is: do you want to be an outsider or become the blockbuster heroine you have worked your whole life for? Lovely has wanted nothing more for as long as she can remember. She religiously attends acting lessons, spends what little money she has on a demo video, and believes everything she is doing is part of the journey, worth it for the day that she becomes a star like Shah Rukh Khan or Priyanka Chopra, whose pictures look over her as she sleeps. Like PT Sir, she chooses herself, because how else will she survive?

These are the questions that saturate every page—questions of choices and ethics, of outcomes and processes. Lovely tries to claw her way toward a life that affords her protection and purpose, taking English lessons from Jivan, hoping the language of progress will help her land the coveted movie roles that will catapult her to fame. Yet Lovely’s English doesn’t improve, and Majumdar writes the sections from her point of view in broken English until the novel’s end. Still, she finds herself on a film set, taking on the role of a lifetime. After so many acting classes in a little living room and being laughed at by so many, a video of Lovely goes viral, and she becomes a success. Majumdar’s commitment to incorrect syntax feels like a rebellion—the idea that sometimes those without the “correct” words or identity can overcome society’s expectations and preconceived notions. Ironically, social media propels Lovely with the same force it punishes Jivan.

Lovely distances herself from her truthful testimony, first by herself after considering her options, then with an interviewer who asks her about her past, and then, finally, with Sonali Khan on the day of a big audition. Discomfort floods her face when Sonali Khan voices her concern about Jivan and bad publicity. Her cheeks burning, Lovely looks at the floor and says, “She was my neighbor, but I am understanding now that maybe I was never really knowing who she was.” The pain undulating beneath these words is what makes Majumdar such a masterful storyteller—she manages to reveal the flaws in society as well as in people and binds them together, making it impossible to separate the personal from the political.

“We all used to be something else,” Majumdar writes, and by the last few pages of the book, it is astounding to remember who these characters were at the beginning of the novel. They become players or pawns in the larger game of politics and desire, slowly transforming into what society decides they are allowed to be. In this way, the novel is inherently insular despite the three different worlds we are privy to. Even as PT Sir ascends to a position of great importance, his office is a tiny, windowless room, a parallel to Jivan’s prison cell which offers no daylight. Lovely’s success, though phenomenal, comes with a murky ethical price tag. This darkness pervades from the first sentence, when Jivan’s mother tells her, simply and seriously, “You smell like smoke.” From these words, a darkness billows and, in the end, we are left with a smoking pyre and the bitter taste of injustice.

Ultimately, Majumdar’s debut is a piercing series of questions concerning the life we are born into and the situations beyond our control. A haunting portrait of a country and city steeped in nationalism, A Burning splits open society and presents it, three ways, for our consideration.

Rumpus Poetry Reviews, Reimagined

By

Committed as ever to guiding the literary conversation towards a greater inclusivity of aesthetic, subject, and context, The Rumpus is pleased to announce Leena Soman Navani and Noah Baldino as the new Poetry Book Reviews Editors.

We hope to welcome a more robust and inclusive roster of reviewers, and to further clarify the section’s purpose while building on the efforts of previous editors to champion work by both emerging and established poets.

Stewardship to the literary community means stewardship to the entire community; while we’re interested in reviews from the big and small presses and in covering highly anticipated collections from any range of writers, we’re also eager to publish reviews for chapbooks and works from micropresses. We’re excited, too, to consider reviews that challenge or experiment with the traditional book-review form, that welcome the “I” and a reader’s personal relationship to a text, and that engage with the form beyond our own imaginations. (more…)

This Week in Indie Bookstores

By

Bookstores are warning customers to shop early due to potential book shortages.

Check out this enormous outdoor bookstore located 90 minutes north of LA.

The Philadelphia adult bookstore where Trump’s hopes of a second term went to die has seen a rise in business.

(more…)

Notable Online: 11/15–11/21

By

Sunday 11/15: Ben Tanzer and Lori Hettler discuss Upstate. Instagram Live, 4 p.m. EST, free.

Monday 11/16: Emily Nemens and Charles Yu discuss their new novels, The Cactus League and Interior Chinatown. Moderated by Jon Raymond. Online via Portland Book Festival, 3:30 p.m. PST, free.

Ron Nyren presents The Book of Lost Light. The Booksmith and The Bindery via Go Passage, 8:30 p.m. EST, free.

(more…)

Next Letter for Kids: Demetria Brodsky

By

Our next Letter for Kids comes from author Demetra Brodsky! Demetra writes to us about her childhood pets, and how she first became a storyteller.

To make sure this awesome letter reaches your favorite young reader, subscribe by November 25! For more information on Letters for Kids, click here. Letters for Kids is now on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest, so visit us there, too. And remember, Letters for Kids helps us keep The Rumpus running—so, your children can correspond with their favorite writers and you’ll support the website in one fell swoop. (more…)

Still Wouldst Thou Sing: Nightingale by Paisley Rekdal

By

“Her story too was one of abduction and metamorphosis.”
– Roberto Calasso, from The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony

So much classical mythology can be mapped out as an ever-forking family tree of rape and change, assault and transformation. The enduring power of mythological figures lies in their ability to echo, to repeat with variation, to pass a tragic baton down generations. In The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, a book whose project of mapping out a history of the myths of antiquity can be seen as a modern-day counterpart to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, classicist Roberto Calasso explains that from a primeval sexual assault, that of Io, “history itself was born: the abduction of Helen, the Trojan War, and before that, the Argonauts’ expedition and the abduction of Medea—all are links in the same chain.” It’s not too difficult to feel, in 2020, that selfsame chain of linkages.

Enter Nightingale, Paisley Rekdal’s sixth collection of poetry, a book that recasts mythological figures from The Metamorphoses for the #MeToo era. As with her previous collection, Imaginary Vessels, Rekdal remains interested in acts of embodiment, the perennial power of speaking through vacated vessels, breathing life into personae. But instead of writing persona poems in Nightingale, Rekdal almost always approaches her mythological figures in the third person, leveraging that distance to create character studies in which the bridge from trauma to transformation is rendered with shattering objectivity.

Rekdal deftly updates a half dozen or so of Ovid’s myths, casting off any pretense of antiquity, and plunging these figures straight into our times: “Tiresias” is about a mother undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer whose daughter has transitioned and become her son; “Io” is about the sexual frustrations of a lesbian pastry chef who has become a quadriplegic after being hit by a car on her bike; “Pasiphae” is about a woman whose grief over her husband’s death manifests as an obsessive relationship with the dead man’s dog. The connections between these modern characters and their mythological equivalents are subtle, sometimes tenuous, but always present. In Ovid, Io is constantly stung by a gadfly; in Rekdal’s retelling, the allusion is quietly echoed in the “constant pain, a dim prickling” that afflicts the paralyzed legs of the pastry chef.

While Rekdal often reworks Ovid in the third person, there are two pivotal sequences in which she circumscribes herself, and her body, within mythology’s twin traditions of assault and transformation. The titular bird of Rekdal’s book is based on the story of Philomela, a woman who had her tongue cut off after she was raped by her brother-in-law—a woman literally rendered speechless by her trauma. In the myth, Philomela communicates the secret of the rape to her sister by weaving a tapestry that depicts the attack. In Rekdal’s “Philomela,” a woman who was raped in college (and has never told anyone about the rape) inherits from her grandmother a Singer sewing machine. The poem ends with the woman packing up the machine and putting it in the bedroom closet, beside “some books, old clothes, and college papers, / where she told herself it could wait”—where the assault remains silenced, a secret.

Rekdal follows this poem up with a literary-minded lyric essay titled, “Nightingale: A Gloss,” in which she meditates on her own sexual assault in the woods near Loch Ness in Scotland. The essay operates as a stunning counterpoint to the book’s nuanced character studies. A beautifully variegated and expertly woven tapestry, this gloss pores over “the dark seam of The Metamorphoses,” the patriarchal tradition of rape and literature’s quiet complicity in that tradition. It’s crucial to know that Philomela—after being raped, after weaving her tapestry and exacting revenge on her assaulter—is transformed into the book’s defining symbol, a nightingale, a vessel to escape her brother-in-law who has likewise been changed into a hoopoe, the two fixed in eternal flight and pursuit. Reckoning with Keats’s great oneiric bird and his dictum about “heard melodies,” Rekdal tells us,

the nightingale hovers between trauma and memory, its song meant to bring one into concert with the other, to integrate event into narrative, to bring pain out of the body and into language. But the song isn’t heard, it’s longed for.

For Rekdal, Philomela, and many women who’ve been assaulted, the song is longed for because “female nightingales do not sing. Only the males sing.” This distinction between who gets to speak, and who does not, seems to encapsulate Rekdal’s argument about the ways that the literary tradition has contributed to rape culture. Victimized characters endure a traumatic experience of private silence, while male authors command the communal expression of unchecked “desire.” Rekdal’s gloss, a paragon of the lyric essay form, is the most vulnerable and breathtakingly intelligent section in the book.

While other reviewers have done excellent work in more comprehensively unraveling the various threads of Rekdal’s gloss, too little has been said about the book’s second-most daring and formally masterful extended meditation, “Gokstadt/Ganymede.” The tale of Ganymede, like the tales of Io, Europa, and Philomela, is also one of rape and metamorphosis. More or less a minor character in mythology, a footnote in Ovid’s telling of Orpheus and Eurydice, Ganymede was a beautiful Trojan shepherd—so beautiful that Zeus, in the form of an eagle, abducted him, and carried him off to Olympus, where the boy became the cup-bearer of the gods. If you strip the luster off this myth, Ganymede is essentially a sex slave (and a bartender). In his recent collection, The Tradition, Jericho Brown also writes of Ganymede: “When we look at myth / This way, nobody bothers saying / Rape.” Like anyone doomed to be touched by a god, Ganymede’s transformation is indelible: he becomes immortal, eventually tossed into the sky as the constellation Aquarius, Zeus’s tip for good service. Rekdal invokes Ganymede as a mythological equivalent for a former lover who has recently died of cancer. This lover was raped as a boy by his cousin.

Gokstadt/Ganymede” is series of fifteen sonnets/quatorzains, written in memoriam of “X, 1969-2016.” The Gokstadt of the title is an eighth-century Viking ship (yet another vessel) that the speaker and former lover both visited, though separately, in Oslo, Norway. Rekdal opens the sequence: “In this obituary your wife, now widow, / posts, I find a photo of you running a hand / along Gokstadt’s blackened bow.” This opening poem is the most formally strict of the series, with a clear rhyme scheme, and a recognizable volta after the ninth line, as the poem hones in on the details of the photograph: “I study your face as you peer at a joist: / one plank jutting just out of concert, forever / a flaw.” The flaw in the ship’s hull is symbolic of a flaw in X, his rape, a ripped wound “never to be smoothed back together.” Rekdal’s use of a smooth, received form here plays against the poem’s concern for flaws, joists jutting out of place—a clever, tactile irony.

The rest of the poems in the sequence are not so formally conventional. While many employ rhyme, these quatorzains seek to expand and subvert the sonnet’s tidy quarters. In doing so, Rekdal charts a topography of sexual trauma: the constituent relations of her own assault, X’s rape, Ganymede’s abduction, and Gokstadt’s centuries-dead commander-king. As in “Nightingale: A Gloss,” Rekdal here is concerned with how language frames, or fails to frame, our traumas:

You never told. Vowels dissolved inside the walls
of other vowels: a labyrinth of sound
from which a boy would have to spool
out thread to escape. Pain’s underground
of sense: shadowy maze where all language
is inadequate. What would you have said?

Like Philomela, X’s assault goes unspoken, and because it is only through language that we “might control how violence is experienced,” the trauma goes unchanged, locked up and hidden like the minotaur. Rekdal is hyperaware of her privilege as a poet to give her own violation a voice, in contrast to X, who gave his none. Inculpating herself, she writes,

As if a life could be defined by wound, sorrow
impelled only by desire—
                                            I lay claim
to your private history, and by doing so chain
you once more to silence.

But Rekdal is never in danger of appropriating X’s pain because their pain is mutual, communion, “the place / our bodies might meet.” The whole series swells with a hard-earned pathos that manages to free us from the limitations of language.

Because mythology always links sex with violence, even when consensual (the Greek word for “seduce” is the same as “destroy”), Rekdal finds in these elegies the book’s most redeeming source of Eros. In one poem, Rekdal recounts the time she and X were working on their car, and the propped-up hood gave way and came crashing down on X’s shoulder. As with many of these poems, Rekdal uses the sonnet form as a vehicle for intense perception, for zooming in, looking at an image closely, whether it be a photograph, a ship, or a bruise— “livid, a chalk- / yellow fringed with green like the rind / on a peach’s blooming pink.” The vivid description here leads to something even more palpable, something we can feel in our mouths:

                                    …Then that meaty
purple, rich as plums: a damson stain wine-
dark and velvet I put my mouth to, to taste
your skin’s heat, your blood so close as to come
up throbbing through my tongue.

It’s so smart for Rekdal to end the poem on the muscle that gives us both taste and speech, pleasure and the ability to express it. Elsewhere, Rekdal speaks of her desire to translate their bodies on the page into something more—to give their human vessels some chance at agential metamorphosis. When Rekdal writes of X’s body, she must do so in metaphor: “Your rock-rose, pale flames / burning beneath my palm, you the tree / bursting into flower, you the bird / finally taking wing.” Rekdal’s rendering of the lover’s phallus here—first a flower, then a fire, then a tree, and finally a bird—is a fused montage of transformational images, mimicking the ways that sex can make two bodies seem like one: “we grafted ourselves into one / another: my slow blush ripening between us as / something in us both, finally, opened.” The memory of the erotic flowering between speaker and X is perhaps the book’s most intimate moment.

There is only one poem in “Gokstadt/Ganymede” that actually speaks of the abducted Trojan boy, “the missing child / whose pain goes unremarked.” Offering a similar sentiment to Brown’s “When we look at myth / This way, nobody bothers saying / Rape,” Rekdal begins her Ganymede poem: “In myths, we call it love.” Once again, language (“we call it”) is closely allied with the ways we frame (or obfuscate) assault. Rekdal goes on, “Call it desire / to soften the god who finds a boy, leads him / far from home, claps a cup in his hand, and demands / Bend to my will, child, you’ll be adored—”. Because the language of mythology often “softens” appalling acts, Ganymede isn’t abducted by Zeus, but chosen. Rekdal implies that “desire” is more manageable because it renders a god “merely animal,” and more cynically, “a man / barely culpable.” Nightingale is a book that seeks to reverse this process, to remind us that rape is no gilded myth, that there is nothing to glamorize the narrative of a god “snatching a boy out of his life, / then making that boy serve him, forever.”

Though each individual poem of the “Gokstadt/Ganymede” sequence stands on its own, they are better seen as fragmented blocks, a wreckage of planks Rekdal is trying to piece back together, just as the ruins of a ship must be painstakingly reassembled if we are to see the whole structure. Near the end of the series, Rekdal asks, “What will make these unearthed / fragments whole?” Of course, the question is rhetorical, for the poet has (re)constructed something solid from these disparate shards, a sturdy vessel of language that gives  the whole story of assault and change in each skewed joist. In the sequence’s final poem, she envisions a future in which any glorified stories of rape will crumble, “their violence erased / by our disuse of such symbols, deadened / by the fact these words no longer represent us.” If there is any optimism in this erasure of violent symbols, it’s quickly dashed by the poem’s closing lines, in which Rekdal foresees herself as another forgotten vessel, a “fragment from some mute, irredeemable past: / another mouth sewn closed against a tide of earth.” The sequence ends with the poet in a future repose of silence, lips sealed. And yet, we might find some  consolation in the hope that these poems will endure, enter the canon of myth, and never cease to sing

Reading through Nightingale, one is struck by Rekdal’s marriage of the past with the present, her fusion of more old-school modes with contemporary, forward-thinking poetics. Figures from antiquity—those masks of learned, privileged poets—are rendered utterly contemporary, down to earth. Myth is not ornament here, but a means of understanding how ancient practices of disempowerment, subjugation, and rape, have traveled across time (and pages) to our modern moment. With its predilection for narrative and essayistic techniques, Nightingale runs counter to the grain of much contemporary poetry. Rekdal rewards patient reading, trusting the reader to go back and crack open Ovid for a full view of the book’s rich, tapestry-like allusiveness. In one of the most triumphant passages from the book, found in “Driving to Santa Fe,” Rekdal says, “Once, I was afraid / of being changed. Now that is finished.” The reader might take this as a mantra, a map to take us back into the mythological past, to see how far we’ve come from those ancient tales of rapacious gods, and to see how disturbingly familiar they remain.

The Rumpus Mini-interview Project: Andrea Bartz

By

The best kinds of thrillers strike a delicate balance: They’re lightning-paced and deliciously twisty of course, but they also have something to say. That’s why I so enjoyed Andrea Bartz’s The Herd, a deftly constructed mystery that’s so much more than a page-turner. At its heart, The Herd is an ambitious novel about the complex dynamics of an elite all-female coworking space—empowering yet cutthroat, open yet exclusive.

The workspace known as the Herd (emphasis on the H-E-R) feels chic and aspirational, a feminist utopia—and it’s upended when Eleanor, its enigmatic founder, disappears the night of a major announcement. (more…)

Next Letter in the Mail: Luna Adler

By

Our next Letter in the Mail comes from writer and illustrator Luna Adler! Luna sends us a beautifully illustrated, full-color letter about what she thinks about late at night when she can’t sleep.

To make sure Luna’s awesome letter finds its way to your mailbox, subscribe to Letters in the Mail by November 25! And remember, Letters in the Mail helps us keep The Rumpus running—so, you can correspond with your favorite writers and support the website in one fell swoop. (more…)

Identity Politics and the English Language: Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times

By

In Naoise Dolan’s debut novel, Exciting Times, twenty-two-year-old Irish expat Ava gets a job at a TEFL school in Hong Kong, where she is encouraged to correct children who use common features of Hong Kong English—like adding “lah” for emphasis (“no lah”) the way that Irish people add “sure.” In reality, she’s been hired to teach British English, something that she’s no more qualified to do than a local English speaker—except that she’s white, and works at an institution that “only hired white people but made sure not to put that in writing.” It was here that I began to grow suspicious—in a book filled with such terse and intelligent writing, I feared this type of off-the-cuff virtue signaling would characterize the entirety of Dolan’s novel.

Indeed, the book is populated by similar quips meant to signal the protagonist’s own self-awareness. In an effort to capture millennial ennui, Dolan frequently takes a disaffected tone, holding her protagonist, and her leftist politics, at a distance. These performative one-liners notwithstanding, Dolan is at her best when she chooses to closely engage with questions of language, and the ways one’s linguistic identity is transformed when living as an expatriate. For example: what makes one variety of English correct or incorrect? There’s no precise answer, but one’s response reveals multitudes about one’s own relationship to class, race, and empire.

The novel probes these questions through the lens of Ava’s romantic relationships: in Hong Kong, Ava’s loneliness draws her to stolid Julian, a British Eton- and Oxford-educated banker, and they establish an intimate but undefined relationship. Ava keeps Julian company and moves into the spare bedroom of his expensive apartment; all the while, she silently wonders about his feelings toward her. The imbalance of power in their relationship is not only interpersonal: he asks whether her accent is “posh” where she comes from, and balks when she says she has never been to London, despite having never traveled to Dublin himself. After they have sex, Ava tells him about Ireland post-2008, when she shared a room with her brother so as to rent out the second bedroom. It’s not that her family is especially poor, she reminds him. These were largely average circumstances for many Irish citizens during the recession, certainly in part because of the actions of banks like his own.

In pursuing a relationship with Julian, Ava also becomes a reluctant participant in the social life of his friends, a group of cantankerous British expatriates. Despite the authority she is granted as a white native English speaker in the classroom, among these class-obsessed Brits, she remains subject to hibernophobic derision. At a party one evening, she overhears them drunkenly imitating an Irish accent: “Beggin’ yer pardon for any offense, […] but you can tell she grew up in a small house.” Their comments soon turn sexual, and Julian fails to speak up on her behalf.

Against the backdrop of Brexit and the 2017 Hong Kong elections, Ava reflects on the enduring influence of the British upon English language use internationally. She recalls, for example, that her parents continue to pronounce “what” as “hwot,” which had been permissible during the time of Churchill but is considered “hokey” under Cameron. She goes on:

“Tings” was incorrect, you needed to breathe and say “things,” but if you breathed for “what” then that was quaint. If the Irish didn’t aspirate and the English did then they were right, but if we did and the English didn’t then they were still right. The English taught us English to teach us they were right.

Who “owns” the English language? The answer, as Ava observes, is relative: wealth and history grant authority to the British over the Irish, but white privilege favors the Irish over Hongkongers. French, however, is up for grabs: in one memorable scene, Ava visits a French tea room with Victoria, a Celine-bag-toting St. Andrews alumna with eyes for Julian. Victoria orders “thé au citron,” her mild mispronunciation presenting a predicament for Ava:

I could order it, too, and say it properly. I wouldn’t if she’d really butchered it, since that would be crass—but a slight difference would prickle her without letting her feel cathartically wronged. Alternatively, I could ask for lemon tea and make her feel gaudy for having used French in the first place. I would read out the English, then meet her eye: my niveau de français is between me and God.

Ultimately, Ava chooses to order lemon tea, pauses in anticipation of the waiter’s confusion, and then clarifies: “—sorry, the thé au citron.” There are many moments, startling in their specificity, where Dolan intelligently taps into the particularities of millennial social etiquette. On more than one Taco Tuesday I’ve wondered: will everyone hate me for correctly pronouncing “carnitas”? Snarky exchanges like this one offer a wonderful, and necessary, respite from the neutral tone Ava often assumes.

Ava’s reflections on linguistic power are further complicated by the emergence of Edith, a Hong Kong-born and Cambridge-educated lawyer and Ava’s second love interest. When Julian tells Ava he is being sent on business to London, Ava stays in his apartment and continues using his credit card. During his months-long absence, Ava and Edith’s relationship flourishes: they attend Chekhov performances and trendy cafes, reflect on their mutual reluctance to come out to their families, and evaluate Britain’s misguided attempts to age with grace. Many people in Hong Kong, Edith explains, possess “a misplaced nostalgia for the British Empire because at least it [is]n’t China.” Hong Kong, the two observe, is a place where Britain’s attempt to rebrand has worked, where their image has become one of “flaccid tea-loving Hugh Grantish butterfingery.” Dolan is careful, however, not to veer into a simplistic reading of Hong Kong and Ireland’s parallel, but not shared, histories. In one scene, Ava tells Edith she doesn’t wish to engage in “colonial-oppression Olympics.” “That’s wise,” Edith responds, “because white people generally lose.”

It is difficult to remark on Dolan’s debut without noting the comparisons she has received to Sally Rooney. The book’s jacket copy mentions Rooney no fewer than three times, in part because an excerpt was originally published by The Stinging Fly, the Irish literary magazine for which Rooney served as editor in 2018. Publishers often make wildly inaccurate comparisons between Rooney and emerging women authors, and I am reluctant to entertain those comparisons on principle. But the works of Dolan and Rooney do share this: protagonists whose failure to live up to their political ideals operate as an expression of depth and self-awareness. Rooney has received criticism for writing novels that pose questions of class and power at the same time that they remain true to (mostly) heteronormative literary conventions. In this regard, Dolan is a bit more adventurous, leading her characters toward an ambiguous ending that sheds the cynicism of the rest of the novel.

Yet do Ava’s pithy, political one-liners ever inspire action? Rarely. In reference to the works of Dolan and Rooney, the New Yorker’s Katy Waldman writes that “these books, so reluctant to engage with change, agency, and suffering, turn instead to awareness, which they frame as atonement.” The contradiction between Ava’s Marxist leanings and her aspirational attraction to Julian and Edith, who are upper-class, educated, and professionally successful, is excused only by the protagonist’s acknowledgement that these are features inherently at odds with each other. This isn’t to suggest that the books we read must always be morally and politically upright, nor that the characters we encounter must behave in ways that align with the values they’ve expressed. But Dolan’s work could benefit from a commitment to more intentionally exploring the ideological conflicts that make millennial relationships so messy and complex. Frequently, for example, I wished that Dolan would interrogate the question of Ava’s racial privilege, especially relative to Edith, with the same depth that she applies to the study of language; meanwhile, I never quite understood Julian and Ava’s relationship, which delivers only as a plot device, and rarely yields to the feelings of longing or heartbreak that would make the novel’s contradictions, including the ideological ones, feel human rather than contrived.

Dolan’s greatest strength is her ability to capture the loneliness and perplexity of living as an expatriate. Reading Exciting Times, I frequently experienced flashes of my own recent stint teaching English in Europe, a period where I often observed my own understanding of my ethnic and linguistic identity thrown into question. Despite the differences in our backgrounds—Ava a white Irishwoman and myself an Asian American Latina—I frequently saw my own story teaching English abroad replicated on the page. Certainly, to be a native English speaker is to hold outsize and undeserved power: in the instances where my race made me more vulnerable to public scrutiny in Europe, my status as an American and a native English speaker protected me. I found it difficult to articulate this conflict to others; Dolan has come very close, capturing the strange mix of power and marginalization that accompanies such endeavors. Her debut provides a promising, if imperfect, update on the expat novel and quietly reminds us of everything this genre can be.

This Week in Indie Bookstores

By

Check out how this Atlanta bookstore is dealing with COVID-19.

Vroman’s Bookstore in Los Angeles celebrates 126 years of business.

Black-owned bookstores are concerned about whether the sales boost they experienced this year will last.

(more…)