Nearly twenty years ago, newly arrived in Seattle, I needed help finding an apartment. Online listings were still a few years away, so I signed up for a service that collected and distributed rental information. I was paired with an agent, Jerry Lloyd, who gave me, whenever I stopped by the office, the latest pages of phone numbers for landlords and apartment managers. I would then drive back to Olympia, where I was living, and start making calls. It was all very analog.
I ended up finding a basement flat through a different contact, but I was still glad to have used the service. I liked talking with Jerry—who, it turned out, was an actor. I had a small job reviewing theater for Olympia’s daily newspaper, and I looked forward to seeing what Seattle’s theater scene would offer. The first play I saw that summer was Theatre Babylon’s spectacular version of Krapp’s Last Tape (as performed by Richard M. Nixon). Jerry starred as Nixon, as Krapp.
I reread Beckett’s one-act play a few weeks ago, and I thought again of the brilliance of the Krapp-Nixon pairing. The tapes! The delusions! It’s as if this late-1950s character study was written with the Watergate era in view. (And maybe it was. The play’s opening stage direction: “A late evening in the future.”) Beckett’s “wearish old man” eats bananas (despite the resulting constipation) and prepares to record a tape to commemorate his sixty-ninth birthday. But first he listens to himself at thirty-nine, when he was marking another birthday (and bidding farewell to love). The new tape, as the play’s title suggests, will likely be his last. (He rips it from its spool and throws it away, a page before the curtain.) The year has been almost devoid of pleasures. “Sat shivering in the park, drowned in dreams and burning to be gone. Not a soul.”
We’ve journeyed from an analog to a digital age. I just Googled Jerry Lloyd, who appears to now live in the Bay Area, where he acts and directs. Jerry, if you happen to read this, would you do me a great favor? Bring Krapp back to the stage—but instead of filtering him through Nixon, filter him through Trump. Because something has to be done. Because something has to get through.
I’ve been wrong about nearly every political prediction I’ve made in the past sixteen months, so maybe I’ll be wrong about this one, as well. But let me make it anyway: Trump’s presidency will be a national and global disaster. He’ll speak in a language designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. Of much less importance: His presidency will be a psycho-spiritual disaster for the man himself. I imagine him alone in his tower at 2 a.m., scrolling through tweets of yesteryear. It’s mostly humbug, and he knows it (“False ring there,” mutters Krapp)—but maybe he alights on something that felt, at the time of the tweeting, almost real. He reads it, and reads it again . . . and tries to think of something new to tweet, something that would put his present self into conversation with that earlier self, that self that hadn’t yet ruined everything. But he can’t. And the tweet goes untweeted. And he stares into the night.
From the Kenyon Review, New Series, Summer-Autumn 1996, Vol. XIX, No. 3/4
Remember, he said, Lot’s wife, which is
as to say, Look back, and at your peril,
on the rigors of the backward look.
in a bed and the one
shall be taken, the other left. Two daughters
and their father’s
seed. How is it in this second
world, the one where we start over, that
can’t get the story right? Who
cannot read shall not
Who comes down from the housetop
to gather his things for flight shall be
But where? said the twelve.
Wherever the body is, there,
said the one.
And there (but whose?) the chapter
ends, the body turned to salt again.
(Cuylerville, New York)
Three months before the mine caved in,
the miner’s wife
sent letters to the Post-Dispatch:
The underground ceilings, she wrote, have cracked;
at the salt supports that keep the chambers
stable. But ice was bad that winter and the pay
The midnight blasting barely
set our sleep on edge until, just shy
one night, the roar
beneath the village and its salted roads
we were done for. Two women
shall be grinding and the one
shall be taken,
the other left. And look at us now.
Sinkholes big as parking lots, the wells
beds that were once a Devonian sea
dissolving in the aquifer.
what they called it, the prophets of doom
and eco-disaster, when word
of the new-style
mining got out? They called it “pillar robbing,”
and (we’re all adept at hindsight now)
it right. Two men in a field: the one
shall be taken, the other . . . The other
to contemplate is fire and brimstone, honest to
God: hydrogen sulfide burning off for
months, you’ve never smelled the like of it.
The old law left some haggling room (If you
find there ten
who are righteous will you stay your hand?) and Lot
leaned hard on his angels.
escape to the mountain, he told them; Let
me escape to the city nearby, it is
one. But the woman Is it not
looked back a little one? Little enough.
strikes you as tempting fate?
“For Olaf,” on the flyleaf, “Merry Christmas,
and off to Guam, whose damps
wreaked all this havoc with the leather
Shipped out by way of Oakland, where
a blue-eyed sailor lately off the
encountered passes of a whole new sort. I doubt
he did much reading. On
edge, once night set in, they’d stare
through the tropical downpour at a makeshift
Carole Lombard take
us home. Perimeter fan club of native
and, just beyond the barbed-wire fence,
the groundling Japanese (“we caught
the chow line once”), who crept back
to the trees when the credits came on.
By the light
of a lab in New Mexican desert One
shall be, Admiral one shall be Nimitz,
take us home.
Will it be in our lifetime? they wanted
and who, but the most embarrassed
of masters, could blame them? Does he
the servant because he served?
Intractable meantime (neither
embarrassment makes us cruel.
For forty years, my father talked so much
talked loud in his whiskey, talked matter-of-
fact in his woods, and always with
satisfaction, you’d think he was sizing up acreage
and yield. I thought he’d be impatient with our
farewells. But he was simply ready.
Aaron Gilbreath’s collection of essays, Everything We Don’t Know, was recently published by Curbside Splendor.
Let’s be real: some people are difficult to work with. They don’t listen. They tell you what to do without explaining their logic. They can be unreasonable, reactionary, short-sighted and lazy, doing what’s best for them rather than what’s best for the job, and woe be you if you still don’t follow their directions. Most magazine editors aren’t like that. They’re saints. You write. The piece you submit is great but it could be even better, or it’s okay and could be great. Editors get you there.
Many of the published stories I’m most proud of resulted from collaborating with an editor. Meaning, the reason these stories turned out as well as they did is because an editor who I’d never met irl, only talked to over email or the phone, took the time to work with me to develop them. Not to sound like a hot shot, but I think my writing is pretty good, not brilliant or innovative or timeless, but above average and accessible. And yet, so many of the pieces I turn in are vastly improved by what editors do to them. Or, more accurately, the work editors and I do together. That’s the thing: writing for publication is a collaborative affair. Editors don’t just clean up your sentences and correct commas. They work on the whole story, doing what’s called developmental editing on the level of ideas, beyond paragraphs and phrases. They work on the big picture, shaping emergent themes, enlarging the story’s scope, strengthening support for factual claims and improving story structure, all while requesting the writer do more. That’s a tough job. Working both macro and micro requires skill and practice, excellent reading abilities, patience and lots of imagination. Knowledge of pop culture, history, current trends and human behavior also helps, as does an inborn love of narrative. Ultimately, developing a story requires assessing what the text has in it now, envisioning its future, and then suggesting the things that could bring that potential to life.
The best editors see potential: this piece could do this and this, not just this. They see what the writer is going for, and they help you get there. They don’t smother your vision with their vision. They don’t confuse collaboration with rewriting your sentences the way they would have written them had they created this draft. Instead, they suggest changes that preserve your voice, style and unique way of thinking, while also enlarging the piece, or shifting the focus to something more substantive or interesting. Thankfully, editors also do edit your sentences, because I mispell things and leave many typus. If you have a good relationship, they even send you assignments. But at their core, they help you do what you do better than you always can on your own.
Besides the need to be respectful and professional, the most important thing that writing for literary and commercial magazines has taught me has to do with openness. Stay open to new ideas. Stay open to different approaches. And open yourself up to editorial collaboration. If an editor is interested in publishing your piece after you revise it, be willing to reimagine your story according to the editor’s suggestions. Don’t get stuck on the current version as the only version or the best version. The finished version you turned in might not be as finished as you thought. Like the others before it, it’s a draft—a highly refined polished one, but still a draft. To me, most pieces are drafts, because you can always take them in different directions if you keep wrenching under the hood. As poet Paul Valéry said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” That’s as beautiful a thing as it is infuriating, because it means that no matter how many months you’ve worked on your piece, you’re still facing its potential rather than its present condition, opening rather than closing the box on a project you probably thought had nearly ended. That’s also the thrill: it’s still filled with potential. It’s malleable. Keep playing with it, this time, with someone else. You can’t improve a piece if you don’t loosen your grip on it. Open yourself to an editor’s suggestions. Try the promising ones and skip the ones you definitely disagree with. Or, try those too and see what happens. The thing to remember is that you can always go back to the original. A revision is like a haircut: if you don’t like it, your hair will grow back. (Well, yours will. I’m bald.) As long as you save each draft with a label, no change is permanent. Knowing that you always have the original frees you to experiment with huge structural revisions because if you don’t like the results, nothing was lost. But your new version will probably be much better than what you previously had. To get there, you have to be willing to move way out from where you started.
Naturally, many people outside of publishing misunderstand an editor’s job. This probably applies to most professions. I don’t fully understand what a securities analyst or CFO does; I’ve never worked with one. Even inside the writing world, misunderstandings abound. To me, the strangest is the way some literary writers demonize editors as the bad guys. Writing is difficult. Publishing is difficult. Teaching is difficult. Secure jobs and good money are scarce. What happens is that some writers scapegoat and blame others for their challenges. Editors are easy targets. As storytellers, prose writers can get used to having a villain. If can feel natural for the narrative of our own writing lives to include dramatic tension, something that we push against in our quest for publication, careers and success, and the resolution that comes from successfully defeating those antagonistic forces fits the narrative formula nicely. In this scenario, Capitalism destroys art. Commercial presses chose crap over substance. The American public doesn’t read enough, and too few people “get” your challenging, pioneering, poetic creations, including these close-minded editors. Editors can function as symbols, if only unconsciously, of the powers that be. You, the writer, are the truth-seeker, the beauty-maker, the lone wolf, inspired and misunderstood, working against the establishment and a cold, unappreciative world. Editors represent the face of that. As gatekeepers, they hold the keys to the literary kingdom and all the glittery things it offers, so some writers don’t like them. With great power comes great responsibility, and to them, editors don’t always wield their power with care and consideration. They don’t even recognize art when they see it! Such close-minded, fearful losers, these editors. To get read, these writers must first get their writing past the editor. Not only do they like having their work read by an audience, they get a thrill from beating the big guy, sinking the ball in the net. They feel like they’re getting one over on them. This idea of editors as the enemy of writing is obviously adolescent and crazy. Anyone who thinks that either has a chip on their shoulder, isn’t writing the sort of material a particular magazine publishes, or they’ve never worked with a good editor. In real life, editors are people who often love books and magazines and telling stories, and they’re out there trying to make a living just like you. You don’t get your writing past an editor. You improve your writing with an editor. Fortunately, the older I get, the less I encounter this kind of warped attitude.
Admittedly, calling anyone a saint sets us up for disappointment; maybe editors are more like doctors than holy figures, because both are life-saving, essential and fallible. Through the years I have occasionally been, shall we say, mistreated. (Sing it in Blues style: “I been done wrong.”) Some editors say one thing and mean another. Some mettle. They don’t respect your vision. They treat you like cheap expendable labor. They disappear for weeks only to email requesting a revision by tomorrow. They don’t care. Or worse, they do care but all their competing work demands don’t leave them the time to do what they want to do. Editors come in all stripes. The fact is, besides their concern first and foremost with their readership, many are constrained by the voice, page space, budgets and advertising at the commercial publications they work for and, like any overworked person, they can drop the ball. One guy at a big glossy magazine had me revise a short piece he liked, then told me he’d get me an edit of that new draft. Week after week, the edit never arrived. I’d follow up and he’d promise to send it soon. Six months later, at my urging, he passed me on to another editor who also assured me she’d get an edit that never arrived. Eventually my peg expired, so the piece was no longer timely enough to send to another magazine who might have wanted it. That steamed me, as did my own complicit, hopeful patience, and I told them so, in clear but firm words: you’re unprofessional and strung me along. Next time, have some respect and communicate directly. It would have saved me six months of wasted energy. She never wrote back. This was an exception.
Sometimes when magazine editors push you to rethink your piece, they push in the wrong direction. Once I worked with a editor on an essay and I had to stop the editing process. Initially, the editor wanted to focus the essay more on the theme of romantic love, an idea that I liked, so I revised accordingly. The new version was great. So was the next version and the next. Soon we had something solid. But the editor wasn’t done. They kept pushing me to revise to highlight a particular thread, and their suggestions would have pushed my essay into a completely sappy direction, jettisoning the material that anchored the story in my voice and my vision, and remaking it into this commercial magazine’s voice and some sort of lame Valentine’s Day card. I politely declined, outlining how our visions had diverged, and that I was happy with the current version, and that was as far as I was willing to reimagine it. Beyond that it became their piece, not mine. Thankfully, the editor said cool, no problem, and published what we had. No matter how much you open yourself to revision, the piece is ultimately still your piece. Experiment with their suggestions, but if you don’t like them, just stop. Say so politely, and explain your logic. It’s as simple as that. Mostly, editors are champions who do a vital job that deserves celebrating. My published work would not be what it is without them.
Another time an editor at a small lit mag—so, a busy MFA student—suggested I cut certain bits from my essay and focus on a particular theme that was in there but overshadowed by other competing themes. I liked her idea, so I went with it. The essay that resulted was much bigger in scope than the seemingly ambitious one I’d turned in, and it was so much better. Deeper. Stronger. More interesting and focused. I loved it, and I loved this editor for not only her vision, but her dedication to her unpaid job, the time she took to really look at the essay and talk about what was there, and her willingness to spend more time working with me on it. That’s the thing: we made it. I lived the material, I thought the story up, I wrote it over many months, but the editor saw what the story could be, and together we got it there. That’s a magical experience. Rarely does writing come so close to playing music in a band, but editorial relationships are where we solitary writers form a group, and the results are powerful. If you let them.
My short story, “The Necrophiliac’s Almanac,” which surrounds a closeted necrophile struggling to contain her desires, appears in the Nov/Dec 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review. As part of my larger collection focusing on the taboo, this story was no different from writing about cannibalism or virginity or zoophilia, at least in one important way: it required research.
And so that’s how I found myself sitting in front of my computer preparing to type “necrophilia” into a search engine. Aside from imagining future scenarios in which my browsing history would come back to haunt me, my biggest obstacle was the dearth of research about necrophilia. The topic is so taboo that even researchers won’t touch it. But as I sifted through articles of questionable repute, a few paltry studies, and a book titled Sex Crimes in History: Evolving Concepts of Sadism, Lust-Murder, and Necrophilia, I found an unlikely source that reinvigorated my efforts for not only this story, but my entire taboo collection: a mortician’s five-minute YouTube video.
Caitlin Doughty, death acceptance advocate, mortician, and founder of the Order of the Good Death, produces “Ask a Mortician,” a video series that is as quirky and irreverent as it is informative. In this particular video, she set out to address the question “How prevalent is necrophilia in the funeral industry?” but, in the process, got to the heart of what I’m striving to do with my story collection: shine some light on the taboo.
“I know that conversations on necrophilia are not for everyone,” Doughty acknowledges in the video, “even though they should be, because everyone benefits from rational, educational exposure to taboo topics.”
Rational, educational exposure to taboo topics? At last—a kindred spirit!
Doughty wastes no time dismantling the myth of the “creepy, lonely guy who works the night shift of the funeral home or morgue” and proceeds to drop some necrophilia facts that I confirmed later on my own, including: most necrophiles are men (but my character would be a woman—feminism!), the scant available research indicates that few necrophiles are driven by a specific sexual attraction to corpses (though I decided my fictional necrophile would be in this minority), and many necrophiles seek “an unrejecting, unresisting” partner (I’ll let the sex scene in my story speak for itself).
If you can stop watching “Ask a Mortician” after just one video, then you’re a stronger person than me. Go ahead, take a gander at what might have happened to the bodies of Titanic victims, how our cultural fear of death may have contributed to Trump’s win, how natural burials work, or the truth about so-called coffin births. It’s holiday viewing for the entire family!
Doughty’s videos led me to her book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, in which she explores her nascent years working in the death industry, death rituals and customs from around the world, and her own changing relationship to death. Of her formative years, Doughty writes:
I became “functionally morbid,” consumed with death, disease, and darkness yet capable of passing as a quasi-normal schoolgirl. In college I dropped the pretense … I was drawn to all aspects of mortality—the bodies, the rituals, the grief. Academic papers had provided a fix, but they weren’t enough. I wanted the harder stuff: real bodies, real death.
Doughty is fascinated by what most of us avoid at nearly all costs. In many ways, this mirrors my taboo writing. When someone asks why I’d spend several years researching and writing short stories about menstruation, mortuary cannibalism, or virginity auctions, I point out that while taboos supposedly represent the unspeakable parts of our world, they are also magnetic. We pretend they don’t exist even as we’re drawn to them.
“People are more interested in it than it actually happens,” Doughty says of necrophilia, “but it’s totally okay that you’re fascinated by it because it’s grade-A transgressive stuff, the most taboo thing we can culturally imagine.” (Excuse me while I mentally transform that last part of her quote into a blurb for my stories.)
My protagonist in “The Necrophiliac’s Almanac,” meanwhile, is well aware that others would consider her attraction to corpses an abomination. If she could change herself, she would:
If only she had a guidebook. Something with a bright yellow cover and hand-drawn illustrations and quotes from famous people, long dead. Something with a title like How to Live a Life of the Living. This manual would be divided into sections so she could more easily learn everything of the world. In those pages she would learn how to enjoy sex with a man or a woman; how to watch a funeral without desire; how to recoil from a corpse. Mostly, she’d learn to fear what everyone alive feared, which was dying, and to embrace what everyone did, which was living.
While most of us avoid the mere thought of our own mortality, my narrator is wired in just the opposite way: she is fascinated by death and longs to be closer to it. She works in a cemetery (because of course she does), where her favorite kind of customers are those who “don’t hide from death.” Her sexual proclivities aside, she embraces the waiting grave while the rest of us run as fast as we can in the opposite direction.
Doughty has built her career around addressing this cultural fear and avoidance of death. She writes in Smoke Gets In Your Eyes:
So masterfully do we hide death, you would almost believe we are the first generation of immortals. But we are not. We are all going to die and we know it . . . The fear of death is why we build cathedrals, have children, declare war, and watch cat videos online at three a.m. Death drives every creative and destructive impulse we have as human beings. The closer we come to understanding it, the closer we come to understanding ourselves.
That understanding can extend to taboos like necrophilia, too. As Doughty explains in her “Ask a Mortician” series, it’s simply not true that necrophilia is “the terrible secret that every mortician knows and that no one will speak publicly of.” Instead, perhaps necrophilia has gained urban-legend status in part because our refusal to confront death manifests in these kinds of illicit, gruesome rumors.
“It could also be,” Doughty concludes, “that we’re so afraid of death and so distant from dead bodies that we want to transform our fear into our desire to master it.”
that become a sieve
of history, straining the wild
from the willing. Missions and malls encroach your sun swathed
villitas where flowers battle and murals proliferate like thirsty brushfires.
My husband and I flew to see my family early for a holiday we don’t even celebrate. As my mother would say, one should always be thankful and give thanks every day to those around us. I agree with this. It is dangerous to worship some battered, idealized version of history, its many untruths, its many smokescreens.
And although we flew home early, my husband and I spent part of the time working remotely. We are grateful we can do this because my parents cannot. My father, in fact, was originally working on Thanksgiving because he started a new job working at a chain auto parts store, and because chains compete, the store was open on Thanksgiving from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. When a coworker heard we were coming, he traded hours so my father could have that one day off, so we could be with my mother’s family, celebrating a holiday we don’t even celebrate, which just happened to fall on my uncle’s 68th birthday. I’m grateful for that coworker. Although none of us can always be in the present (I’m writing this now in a car while my husband talks border politics with my parents), even though my father will work Black Friday and most of the weekend—for taking that one day off—I’m grateful that we can be here, talking together, spacing out together, arguing, sharing an unintentional prayer in remembrance of my belated uncle, the patriarch of my mother’s family, his presence kept extant, grandparents too, the stories of many Mexicos and crossings, many Rio Grandes, although the map might say one river, one country.
I listen into their conversation, and suddenly I hear my father say to my mother and my husband: Elizabeth Bishop . . . she had a very tragic upbringing. She never saw her mom again. Sent off to a number of different relatives. . .
There follows an unintentional moment of silence for Elizabeth Bishop outside the city of Kingsville, which we are passing through, and I imagine the four points of a rectangle of my own childhood: San Manuel-Linn in the northwest, McAllen in the southwest, Raymondville in the northeast, and Harlingen in the southeast. And the many towns scattered around like stars in the sky: Edinburg, Mercedes, Weslaco, Brownsville, Matamoros, Los Fresnos, South Padre Island.
Elizabeth Bishop once said: “All my life I have lived and behaved very much like the sandpiper—just running down the edges of different countries and continents, ‘looking for something.'” My father once said that most of his family, very observant Jews, kicked him out of their lives not because he married my Mexican mother, but because they truly believed he went “wrong.” Because they never said her name. Because my mother was she, stranger.
I’m thinking of my father—who is non-native to these parts of South Texas and Mexican borderlands, my mother his original tie to these parts, her family he now considers his own blood—when I recite these towns like a litany in my head.
Why would you need money in heaven? I hear my husband say suddenly, and my parents laugh, the discussion continuing while I’ve been writing this, and we pass another town called Sarita, a rural community not exactly a ghost town, but a place without gas stations, stores, restaurants or bars. But there is a church in Sarita, where once we stopped so that my mother’s mother might pray, as she wanted to pray in every church regardless of domination—or was it in Ricardo, another “unincorporated community”—and the prayers were for her parents, especially my maternal great-grandfather who was very strict with my grandmother and never approved of my grandfather, and this is perhaps why, when my Jewish father came to ask for my mother’s hand, that my grandparents said yes, they welcomed him into a geography more complex than their familial ties, a geography of shifting, erratic borderlands, and how my father cried when my mother’s parents died, and he still says Kaddish for them, for her Catholic parents who would sit and listen to me recite my Hebrew lessons, nodding in agreement for a language they could not speak or read.
In-laws: a compound word my parents have never liked.
What it means to go wrong.
What it means to channel another.
* * *
Still dons his guayabera at church. Still scuttles
across rooms reliving the soccer matches of his youth
in Barranquilla. Still hears his mother declaring, “In this house we are ruled by only education and God.” Still sings his favorite cumbias as he waters the garden.
“Alzheimer’s Suite (for Sammy)”
Before we proceed, please read and listen to this first.
This past summer, my friend Vincent Toro held a reading at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in celebration of his debut collection Stereo. Island. Mosaic. Vincent is one of the most generous, open-hearted people I know. He walks the walk. He gives much of himself to the various communities in which he belongs. On the page, his work, as Ed Roberson has said, “moves forwards and backwards through itself, and collides in bursts of poetic beauty everywhere.”
Off the page, we enter an entirely different world. Believe me when I say if you ever have the chance to hear Vincent read in person, clear your schedule. He is one of the most powerful readers of our time. And I dislike using the word here: “reader.” Or “performer.” Vincent channels the music we might no longer hear, music we lose in the white noise of other responsibilities, routines, distractions. He does not read at you. You are with him. And this past summer, his reading was one of the most memorable ones I’ve ever been a part of, along with poets Grisel Y. Acosta, Marina Carreira, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Ellen Hagan, Kamilah Aisha Moon and Carlos Manuel Rivera. It was, as Vincent put it and other echoed, a gathering. Each poet shared a poem. I shared one about my father-in-law, and since none of us knew which poems Vincent would read from his book, it seemed serendipitous that one of his most haunting poems was also about his own father-in-law, “Alzheimer’s Suite (for Sammy),” which I’ve linked to above so that you might at least hear the audio.
In this particular poem, white space gradually replaces narrative in the poem. As the illness robs Sammy of his speech and memory, the poet also channeled on stage the struggle in which the speaker tries to hold onto his stories and histories, to the names of people and places, to his very person. The last section (5.) is all white space, a terrible clearing, a void in which Vincent filled with quaking resistance, embodying a speaker who refuses to give up, who fights the very white space entrapping him, but it’s off-the-page, in the performance, that on a warm Sunday afternoon inside the darkness of the cafe, that all were drawn into one of the most devastating conflicts the human mind can face. We were all on the edge of our seats, imploring the many dimensions that he’d become— as the poem’s speaker, as the poet’s real-life father-in-law, as Vincent himself— to fight for the words. We wanted to hear him speak, to tell us again how he’s “Still smitten with the scent of aguacate, the taste/ of butter pecan. Still hides for his grandchildren to seek him.”
But the words never come.
And yet the poet finds a way to honor the words lost by giving the shuddering silence time on the stage, by giving it just as much importance, just as much regard.
And so son by marriage becomes son by blood.
* * *
Once they declare themselves
Once they declare themselves
“Crab Canon for the Marooned”
On a nature show I watch with my parents and husband, a family of snowy owls nearly starve because of climate change. The chicks are barely a month old. The runt of the flock cannot fight for the few rodents that are caught for sustenance; its brothers and sisters take all. We and the documentary crew watch the runt starve as its mother tries to care for it, as its siblings bully it, refusing to share what scraps the father can find. The mother takes the runt protectively under her wing, and for a moment I’m certain of some parent-child bonds are infinite and unyielding.
Until, as the cameras reveal, the next morning comes.
And of course deep down I knew this was coming.
The next morning, the mother owl discovers the runt is dead. The family is starving, my father says to everybody and nobody in the room. We watch as the mother tears into the runt’s unmoving body, ripping its flesh into pieces, which she then divides up as meat among the existing chicks.
She can’t smell its scent anymore, my father says to us, to the sudden uncomfortable silence and white space that had formed among all of us, the four points of us, each a different point that creates a fragile rectangle of a churning new geography. My father is speaking to it as he is speaking to us when he says: She has to because the scent is gone. So she doesn’t know it anymore. Her own blood.
I say silently: This is not the story of Abraham and Isaac. This is not the story of our own country in which golden calves abound, and people aren’t burning books just yet, but are bowing down, minds made up, dialogue endangered.
I say without a word to the silence that follows the words of my father: Maybe as humans we should all go wrong.
Maybe to evolve is to go :: wrong.
Not to go around and around :: anymore.
To make extinct the language that makes others go extinct.
To make extinct the language that makes others go extinct.
What if we allowed ourselves to chance upon a stranger who is meant to be un-stranged?
What if, like the poet Vincent Toro, we channeled each other’s silences and blank spaces, even when one’s defenses are down as they are up, long before we take that first breath to speak?
What if this alone—this painful fumbling of an attempt— would be to make the most sublime of contact?
On Joyce Carol Oates’ Wild Nights! Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway and Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of the Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, & Martin Johnson Heade
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