“Throwback Thursday” featuring Annie Dillard by Amanda Husak

Weasel of Memories 

In light of our Bicentennial Creative Writing and Literature Conference June 11-13, 2015, I’d like to introduce a piece from one of our very own contributors, Annie Dillard. Annie is best known for her narrative prose in fiction and nonfiction

Her pieceFive Sketchesexplores the notions of religion, behavior, and the perception of self. This piece is featured in the North American Review Vol. 260, No. 2, Summer, 1975. Dillard also published “At Home with Gastropods,” Vol. 263, No. 1, Spring, 1978. (Below is the original piece “Five Sketches” which was published in 1975.)

Dillard’s honest narrative and memoir won her the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) and An American Child (1984).

ottawadetDillard’s personal essay “Living Like Weasels” found its way into my nonfiction class this semester. This was the first time I had read any of her work. I was captivated by the way Dillard developed scene and held the reader’s attention with her simple language over her encounter with nothing other than a weasel. Her description of the way weasels slaughter their prey by “either splitting the jugular vein at the throat or crunching the brain at the base of the skull,” came alive. The weasel does not seem to release its grip.

I first encountered a real weasel when I was eleven. A family friend had given us four adult yellow and black ducks to accompany the other animals on my family’s farm.  We had only had them for a week when a midnight visitor squeezed its way into one of the holes of the old building the ducks were temporarily housed in. When my father awoke the next morning to check them, he found not a single survivor. My father warned me not to look. I snuck open the door anyway to find the chewed and bloody necks of four ducks.

However, Dillard’s essay is not just about weasels. It’s also about not letting go. About finding something to sink our teeth into. To gnaw on just for a bit. It’s about your deceased grandmother’s cubic zirconia ring or that coveted Boston Celtics jersey you can not seem to let go. It’s about attachment. It’s realizing your current life is partially married to the things of the past. As Dillard writes, life is about either living in necessity or in choice. We can’t help but become like the weasel—holding on to what we think will sustain us but only leaves us searching for more. Therefore, our whole lives become shaped upon what changes us and what we change ourselves. Are we more like the weasel or what the weasel latches onto? Do we cling to things, like I do to my grandmother’s ring? Are we okay with giving that jersey away to someone who claims to be an even bigger fan?

insideWhat parts of our past are we going to divorce and let go of? What parts are we going to marry and remarry again and again? If it were up to me, I’d divorce my thumb from that cubic zirconia ring. I’d get rid of the physical proof that seems to weigh me down. Instead I’d travel back in time and remarry that memory of my grandma showing me her jewelry collection. That is where the true beauty lies. So marry your memories. Remarry them again and again.

Annie Dillard’s writing appeared in the North American Review in 1975, the year she won the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction. In both “Five Sketches” and “Living Like Weasels,” she reveals much larger truths than what the reader finds explicitly on the page. I hope you, as future readers of Dillard’s insightful work, can appreciate the same.

Below is the original piece “Five Sketches” which was published in 1975, Vol. 260, number 2. 

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Amanda Husak is a volunteer for the North American Review and is earning her undergraduate in English Education at the University of Northern Iowa. Amanda’s work has been published in the 2014 issue of Timber Creek Collections.


Illustrations are by Anthony Tremmaglia. HE is an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly.


Coincedently, it is also Annie Dilliard‘s birthday today and we here at the North American Review would like to wish Annie a very, merry, Happy Birthday. Thank you again for your contribution and becoming apart of our editioral family.

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The Personal is Confessional by Metta Sáma

& so what.

This is personal. In 1993 and again in 1994 I was pregnant. By two different guys. One was my guy (’93) and one belonged to someone else (’94). Before I knew I was pregnant – pregnancy one and pregnancy two – my parents knew. My dad dreamt about fish and my mother looked into my face. By pregnancy two it didn’t affect me, that someone could dream my pregnancy into reality (not existence, just into the speakable & spoken word), that someone could look into my face and see a pregnancy. Pregnancy 1, however. . .

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A friend who had been pregnant and had a child said of her pregnancy that her body became a publicly consumable object. An object. For consumption. Of consumption. A free-to-consume body. Think of all of the times your own hands have reached towards a pregnant woman’s stomach. Without her permission. How many times your mouths opened to form the obvious pronouncement: you’re pregnant. How many times your eyes rested on a pregnant woman’s stomach and had thoughts travel from your brain to the woman’s body? How many of those pregnant women were strangers?

Pregnancy 1: my mother said to me: you need to go ahead and tell us. What could I tell them that I didn’t know? She said: your father has been waiting for you to tell him. She said: he thinks you’re trying to hide it. She said: your father’s been dreaming of fish again. And this is how I discovered my own pregnancy. My father dreamt of fish. My mother looked into my face. Who else could see it? Who else had seen it? How long did I have before the side-eying strangers would see it? Before the baby bump? That little bump that gives permission to say it, to see, it to touch it.

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When l think of the monster Argus, I think of the man, the young man, the teenager, the adolescent, the child, the toddler, the infant, the fetus, Argus. How easily my eyes travel to the interior. The uterus that provided shelter for the fetus. All of the eyes forming inside of the body. The eyes outside of the body. The fetus’s eyes. The community’s eyes. The storm of eyes. The congress of eyes. The rumor of eyes. The gaggle of eyes. The murder of eyes. Mine. Theirs. His. Yours. What is it like to be the pregnant woman? The body of consumption. For consumption. The freeto-consume body. The woman who is hyper woman. The woman who is no longer woman. Who is object. Objectified. Pedestaled. Whose pedestal is burnt while she teeters on it. The pregnant woman who is made Mother before she becomes a mother. The pregnant woman who is judged, castigated, brandished, branded before she becomes a mother.

What is the story of Eve before Cain and Abel? The story of a fallen woman. What is the story of Eve before The Fall? The story of a rib. Who was Mary before her body was burdened with the body of Christ. No imagined being. Who was Mycene before the monster Argus was slain? No imagined being.

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What a tragedy. To bear the body of a child whose 100 eyes will be the death of him. Whose 100 eyes will watch her imagine her construct, her deconstruct, her reconstruct, her deconstruct. Whose 100 eyes will overshadow the woman who bore him. The woman who was no one until after the making of the monster. Life in reverse.

My eyes, your eyes, the community’s eyes, the fetus’s eyes, the writer’s eyes.

Here is a different title to this piece:  To Dream Mycene I Became Mycene.


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Metta Sáma is author of Nocturne Trio (YesYes Bøøks2012) and South of Here (New Issues Press 2005 (published under her legal name, Lydia Melvin)). Her poems, fiction, creative non-fiction, & book reviews have been published or forthcoming in Blackbird, bluestem,Bone Boquet, Drunken Boat, The Drunken Boat, entropy, Esque, hercricle, Jubilat, Kweli, The Owls, Pebble Lake Review, Pyrta, Reverie, Sententia, Transitions among others. le animal & other strange creatures will appear from Miel Books later this year. Sáma is Assistant Professor & Director of Creative Writing and Director of the Center for Women Writers at Salem College.


On Aging by Maceo J. Whitaker

basketball-dreams1-1024x731For the second straight night, I had a basketball dream. I was playing in the Final Four. In my dream, I scored a basket for the second straight game. Just one basket in each. A statistician might note my crisp 2.0 PPG average—not exactly Hall of Fame numbers.

Scoring in the Final Four is a delightful dream (especially when compared with my recurring zombie-gator apocalypse dream) but a decidedly modest one.

Some people achieve impressive feats in their dreams. My wife, for example, flies whenever she wants in her dreams. Why must my ceiling be one field goal per game?

Why couldn’t I hit a game-winning buzzer beater to spoil Kentucky’s undefeated season?

Why couldn’t I dunk over Jahlil Okafor?

In my younger days, I’d have been the tournament MVP; now, I’m happy to earn a spot in the box score.

I guess time humbles us even in our dreams.

On Sunday, I ran my first half-marathon. It was the “Fallen Comrades Run at the United States Military Academy. West Point. Featuring views of the Hudson River, the Hudson Highlands, and the historic campus, the scenery was beautiful. Each mile marker commemorated a fallen soldier.

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I finished, but my leg bothered me throughout the race. By the tenth mile, my balky knee failed me. Unable even to jog, I limped the final three miles. My early-morning euphoria had worn off completely.

When younger, I never had knee pain.

Aging sucks.

My poem in this issue of the North American Review features a woman named Althea. I don’t believe in breaking down my poems for others, but I’ll say that some people* found the poem sad. And perhaps it is.

The titular character’s best days are behind her, but she has lived a long life. This poem merely attempts to capture one late moment of it.

Our words all too often fall short of evoking true poignancy.

On Sunday, feeling sorry for myself, I hobbled to the twelfth mile marker. As I approached, I saw a woman cheering runners on, encouraging them before they embarked on their final mile. She stood next to the mile marker, which honored a young man who sacrificed his life for our country.

I realized she was the fallen soldier’s mother. Our eyes locked, we thanked each other, and my heart grew heavy. Needless to say, I felt foolish for bemoaning my knee’s misfortune.

Aging sucks, true, but aging is also a gift.

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Althea lived a long life, a life with an inevitable end. Yet, we must be content with the miracle that we experience moments at all, even when they involve frivolities such as running, writing poems, or making wide-open layups in dreams.

If you read “Althea,” feel free to listen to Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five play “Gut Bucket Blues”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MgxQQk1vadw

* It’s proper etiquette to force all of your friends and acquaintances to stop whatever they’re doing to read your published work immediately, right?

Recommended Poems by Maceo J. Whitaker

I love sharing poetry. In February, I wrote a guest post for Tahoma Literary Review with links to some of my favorite poems. Here are four more poems I’ve enjoyed recently:

“Dinosaurs in the Hood,” by Danez Smith

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/249154

Powerful, energetic, humorous—this will be one of your favorite poems.

“Dear 2Pac,” by Jonathan Moody

http://www.thecommononline.org/dear-2pac

A poem about Tupac’s lasting effect on how we live and imagine.

“In Two Seconds,” by Mark Doty

http://aprweb.org/poems/in-two-seconds

A moving tribute to Tamir Rice by the Whitman devotee.

“Fix,” by Alice Fulton

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/04/poetry-alice-fulton-fix/39669/

This poem was first published in The Atlantic in 2000. I love lines like “count cricket beats to tell the temp, count / my breaths from here to Zen.” Fulton’s new book, Barely Composed, is a wonderful read that I recommend highly.


Maceo North American Review (1)

Maceo J. Whitaker’s poems appear this spring in The Pinch, PANK, The Florida Review, The Paterson Literary Review, and Juked (online). Maceo’s poem “Althea” is featured in issue 300.2, Spring 2015

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United States Military Academy, West Pointe Image Link
Aging Image Link

NAR Flash Fiction Twitter Contest

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Early in the century, Ezra Pound got off a train in the underground metro station in Paris. He suddenly saw a beautiful face, and then another and another and another, a sight that moved him significantly. He tried to write about it, but could not find the words. On his way home, he was struck with not words, but what he describes as an equation “not in speech, but in little splotches of colour.” From there he wrote a quintessential Imagist text called “In a Station of the Metro” that simply reads, “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/ Petals on a wet, black bough.”

Years later, Ernest Hemingway sat in fine dining restaurant, hunched over a late lunch, surrounded by his friends, and bets the table ten dollars each that he can craft an entire story in six words. After the group threw in their money, Hemingway simply writes “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” on a napkin, shows it to everyone at the table, and collects the pot.

What both of these writers understood is the power of brevity and conciseness. Their ability to construct powerful stories or beautiful imagery in less than fifteen words speaks volumes to the command of their craft, and it is for this reason we are feeling particularly inspired by them on this dreary April afternoon. Starting today, we are hosting a Flash Fiction Contest on Twitter. What does this  mean? It means that we ask our Twitter followers to show off their writing skills by writing us a story in 140 characters or less and tweeting it with #NARFlash.  The contest will go on until Monday, May 4th, and winner will receive the most up to date copy of our magazine. We will be retweeting our favorites as the competition progresses, and from those favorites a winner will be chosen. Our Twitter handle is @NorthAmerReview

So put your thinking caps and your nicest writing jackets on, and start tweeting some flash fiction!

Prize Winning Literary Math (or 3rd place & $3.75 will buy you a moccha frappuccino) by Laurie Frankel

I’ve been sending out a lot lately—submitting my work like wet spaghetti flung hot onto a wall—seeing what sticks. Recently, I learned I was a contest finalist—whoot. First prize was publication in a top-notch lit mag, one thousand dollah-make-you-hollah, and the opportunity to read at a conference. Did the website detail 2nd- and 3rd-place prizes? Yes. Did I read them? No. I figured (wrongly) that if they were giving $1000 for the 1st place then, like every other contest I’d ever read about, 2nd- and poor-slob 3rd-place would simply receive a lesser amount . . . of money (not that I write for money. It’s so much more satisfying to write for journal copies—two of them).admissions

Yesterday I received an email. It read:

Subject: RE: [Name of Contest] Story Title

Dear Meredith,

Congratulations! Editor X selected your manuscript as 3rd place winner in the Y Competition! (names have been redacted because I’m classy that way.)

Have I shared my theory that exclamation points are for the sixth graders and those lacking a brain stem? Have I shared my second theory that addressing a congratulations email to the wrong person is beyond lame on the lame-o-meter? Because who the hell is Meredith?

Just so we’re clear, my name is not Meredith, my middle name is not Meredith. I don’t even like the name Meredith. If I have to be incorrectly addressed I’d much prefer to be called Gretchen or What’s Up Your Highness (which is what I taught Siri to call me).

My closest association to a Meredith is a tall, zitty, frizzy-haired babysitter I once had named, you guessed it, Meredith-Ann Fouty. Picture a giraffe with a skin condition sporting a ‘fro and you have Meredith-Ann. When Meredith-Ann was around me she would speak Gibberish with her friends—gibber gee, gibber gah—to throw me off the trail of juicy band-practice gossip. As far as fake languages go, Gibberish was a close competitor to Pig Latin but harder to understand. Meredith-Ann was smart like that.

johnfmalta_oculus_nytBut I digress.

The email went on to say:

Please contact Person at Person’s email for instructions on how to redeem your award. Blah, blah, blah.

All best,

Another Person, with an MFA who teaches poetry (I looked her up thinking this twit must be an intern but no, she’s just your inner-circle careless twit, weak on proofing skills. My sincerest apologies to all interns).

Redeem my prize? What’s there to redeem? Just show me the money, people. A bit confused I went to the website and learned, get this, there is no money for the poor slob who places 3rd, only a discount on the conference fee. I put this through my de-coder ring and got:

Meredith, for the 40+ hours of your life you spent writing/re-writing your 3rd-place “winning” story you effectively have “won” the honor of paying us! In other words, after writing for ten gazillion years, if you weren’t already clear on this fact, we’re here to let you know your hourly writing wage = minus$$$. And, oh, Congratulations!

Yours truly,

The Establishment


Author, short-story writer, and humorist, Laurie Frankel knows pain is the root of all comedy and is thrilled her life is so damn funny. Her books include I Wore a Thong for This?! and There’s a Pattern Here & It Ain’t Glen Plaid, about which Kirkus Reviews has this to say: “. . . laugh-out-loud funny . . . great practical suggestions . . . A quirky, earnest guide to regaining self-esteem for the modern woman.” Frankel’s literary work has appeared in ShenandoahThe Literary ReviewNorth American ReviewAlaska Quarterly Review, and The Pedestal Magazine. She is the winner of the 2014 Time and Place Prize in Brittany, France. Contact her at: LauriesLoveLogic.


The illustrations are by John F. Malta. He is a Kansas City based illustrator and educator. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and VICE.

Flashback Friday featuring Devi Laskar from issue 294.2

Necessity breeds invention!

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I was in an online poetry boot camp and had a few hours to come up with that Tuesday poem. Everything I had written that day stunk like raw fish baking on a dry dock. I overheard my children discussing their favorite movies at the time. My oldest said “Little Mermaid” and my middle said “Sleeping Beauty” and my youngest said “Snow White.” When I asked my youngest why, she said the wicked stepmother had the best laugh. And a poem was born.

“Cackle like a Wicked Stepmother” first appeared in issue 294.2, March-April 2009. Here is a flaskback of the poem as well as link to purchase your very own issue.

How to Cackle like a Wicked Stepmother

First you’ll need the accessories,
dazzling with mischief and ill-
intent: poisoned apples, floor-length
mirrors that talk back in iambic
rhyme; sinuous black evening
gowns, eye-shadow the color
of a bruise, lips too crimson to
be kissed, a castle with a working
dungeon; stone stairs always in need
of mopping, henchmen, preferably
hunchbacked, a charcoal forest whose
trees disappear into the abyss
of moonless nights, a thunderstorm
thick with jagged rain; oh, and a man
with a charmed life standing before
you, confessing his abiding
love for your sister, or best friend
since the second grade. The rest
is easy, look into the glass, bite
through to the core, delicious,
forbidden down to the guttural,
and feel the crows’ wings fluttering
in your belly finally rise.


photoselfie

DEVI S. LASKAR was born and raised in Chapel Hill, N.C. She holds a BA in journalism and English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an MA in South Asian Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and an MFA in writing from Columbia University. Ms. Laskar is a photographer and writer—and a former crime reporter in Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, North Carolina, and Illinois. Her poems have been published in the Atlanta Review, the Squaw Valley ReviewPratichi, the Tule Review, and the North American Review, where her poems were finalists for the James Hearst Prize in 2009 and 2011. 


CLAIRE STIGLIANI (b. 1983) is a drawer and painter known for her works inspired by paintings, photographs, magazines, posters, YouTube clips, literature, performance and plays. These works explore the act of watching and being watched and blur fiction with reality. Her recent shows include The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, The Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, (WI), The Dean Jensen Gallery, Milwaukee, (WI), RussellProjects, Richmond (VA), and the Jenkins Johnson Gallery (NY). She is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Art in Drawing, Painting, Printmaking and Photography in the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University.

History Several Millennia in the Making: Writing about the Boxing Day Tsunami by Amanda Morris

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The 2004 massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami in the Indian Ocean topped the charts as one of the deadliest natural disasters ever recorded. What grabbed my attention was not the heartbreaking aftermath, but the unbelievably long buildup to the event. As a science writer, I regularly meet with scientists and engineers who are doing fascinating work. Several years ago, I spoke with an Earth scientist who had measured the size of the earthquake that caused the tsunami. In order to help me better understand it, he showed me a computer simulation of events that occurred nearly 200 million years ago.

The events eased into motion when a sleeping supercontinent named Gondwana began to shake awake. After having been settled at the bottom of the Earth near Antarctica for millennia, its subcontinents started to pull against their sutures. A hot rock mantle plume pushed up against the Earth’s crust, its bulbous head piercing through the overlying rock. The intrusion formed a fissure between what is the current-day India landmass and the rest of Gondwana. The crack deepened into a canyon and then a gulf so wide that India pulled away and floated freely. The liberated landmass budged northward, 20 centimeters per year through the Tethys Ocean.

tsunami12_04Moving at glacial pace, the slow-floating zeppelin shoved everything out of its way during its travel before being halted by the Burma Plate in the northern hemisphere. With nowhere to go, the Indian Plate slid and settled beneath the Burma Plate. The dipping plate created a trench in the seabed, 25,344-feet deep. At the bottom of this trench, ancient fungus chomped on carbon in millions-of-years-old mud. Long, bony fish stood upright on their fins, waiting for movement in the abyss to scoop up prey. The Indian Plate pushed deeper everyday, creeping farther beneath the Burma plate, creeping at a rate of growing fingernails. It creeped like this for 50 million years. The continents crunched together, crinkling at the interface like rumpled tin foil. The bedrock raised up and the edges of the landmasses folded over onto themselves, growing into mountains. The peaks grew two inches per year, its tallest one becoming Mount Everest.

The tension of these two plates grinding together eventually became more friction and pressure than the Earth could handle. On December 29, 2004, over the course of several minutes, the Indian Plate slipped, charging beneath the overriding Burma Plate. The sea floor jolted upward by several meters, displacing 30 cubic kilometers of water to trigger the tsunami. It amazed me that an event, several millennia in the making, could suddenly rupture and forever change the Earth’s surface within a matter of minutes.

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When writing about the events that occurred directly after the earthquake, I wanted to convey the sensation that a lot of actions were happening at once. I chose to overwrite the text, in order to help give that feeling. After the tsunami hits land, I implemented off-rhymes and assonance to help pull the reader through the somewhat dense text. I wanted to make the sentences a little slippery, to pull the readers frictionlessly through the action, propelling them forward, hurtling toward the end result.

Through climate change, deforestation, draining rivers, reef destruction, and farming, humans are steadily altering the face of the planet and its atmosphere. But some alterations are rooted in a history deeper than humans. Some events were fated long before a word such as “fate” existed. Some events are unavoidable. The 2004 earthquake and tsunami were written into a destiny that we have been inescapably hurtling toward for millennia.


Amanda Morris is a science writer in Chicago. She received a master’s degree in creative writing from Northwestern University, where she previously served as managing editor of TriQuarterly. She also has a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Illinois. Her work can be found in TriQuarterly, CenterPiece magazine, Northwestern Engineering magazine, LiveScience, the website for the National Science Foundation, and elsewhere. She lives with her handsome husband Mark, who is also a writer, and their deliciously fat cat Oliver, who cannot write but wishes he could.

Pictures are linked to their online credentials.

IS RISK-TAKING ADVISABLE IN WRITNG POETRY? ALWAYS. by Robert Nazarene from issue 300.2

I am especially pleased to appear again in America’s oldest literary review. With respect to my poem, “A Day in the Life”, I want to express my view that poetry which does not take risks is of insignificant value. Having served as an editor and publisher for a decade, I came to believe a distinctive voice is the most prized attribute of any poet. Witness the likes of cummings, Berryman, Plath, Wier and Eliot–just to mention a few. No cookie cutter poems here.

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I feel that all too often poets tend to hold their work at some distance from themselves. And mindless abstraction in poetry is poetry’s greatest enemy. (You know who you are.) As human beings, it is my firm belief we are connected not so much by our strengths, but rather, by our woundedness. (Here my spell-checker tells me I may be guilty of yet another neologism.) I believe as well that there are only two purposes of poetry: to disturb and to console. And, on rare occasions, to achieve both. I am always impressed by the quality of work found in North American Review.

A Day in the Life

Last whenever I suffered a major stroke
it’s caused me to gain 15/1000ths
of a second on my 440-relay time
the druggist at Sam’s Club asked
if I had any questions? yes would it hurt
to give half to my dog for her high
blood pressure she loves anything
with speed in it in the checkout line
my ATM card was approved
for the amount of purchase that’s
a first and the receipt checker
at the door made me turn my jacket
pockets inside out something about
cans of chick peas disappearing
from the store and after 26 years
of continuous sobritety I got kicked
out of AA. they said they were
more after “fresh” meat and that
last whenever I got locked up
in the nuthouse faster than
you can say Jackie Robinson
and also people with bipolar
disorder aren’t worth a fast fucking
glance in the rearview mirror.


ROBERT NAZARENE founded MARGIE / THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF POETRY and INTUIT HOUSE POETRY SERIES where he was the recipient of a publishers’ National Book Critics Award in poetry.  His first book of poems is CHURCH (2006).  A second volume of poetry, Puzzle Factory, is new in 2015.  His work has appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Crazyhorse The Iowa Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, North American Review, The Oxford American, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, Salmagundi. Stand and elsewhere.  He was educated at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.

Thursday Throwback blog featuring Ted Kooser’s “The Corpse of an Old Woman” by Michael Jackson

Ted Kooser’s poem “The Corpse of an Old Woman” can be found in Vol. 251, No. 6 (Nov., 1966), p.14, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25116500.

THE CORPSE OF AN OLD WOMAN

It has been lying on a braided rug
with a teacup in its hand since yesterday
at supper-time, and the neighbor-ladies shrug
and say “She lets the lights burn night and day.”

Its cat sits in the window, watching birds,
and the phone rings now and then, mistakenly;
the mailman bangs the box-lid to be heard;
Someone may stop this afternoon for tea.

– Ted Kooser


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Some years ago, on a typically freezing Iowa February morning, I went out to start my car, in order that it could warm up a tad in the 20 below weather. Doing so at 6:00 a.m. in the morning was nothing unusual for me at that time as I started my cubical-based life by 6:30 am every morning. Returning to the car a few minutes later, not having paid heed to the icy conditions overnight, I slipped in my dress shoes and fell straight back. The only thing that saved me from a concussion was the back pack I had slung over my right shoulder which provided enough of a cushion between me and the unforgiving cement that I was able to avoid smashing my head. However, by that time in life, I had developed back problems and everything immediately went into what felt like a full body spasm, driven by the wreck that is my back. As I lay there, a morbid thought did more than just cross my mind: I was going to lay there in the pre-dawn darkness and freeze to death before anyone found me (I doubt I was wearing a jacket).

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This was more than just a random thought as I knew not one of my neighbors beyond saying hello occasionally if we happened to cross paths entering and exiting our apartments, and anyone I have a personal relationship with lives at least a hundred miles away. After laying on the ground for a minute trying to regain my senses, I realized the car was still running and I needed to get it turned off before I went back into the house. Unfortunately my ability to stand up was compromised by the back spasms, and I had to crawl from the sidewalk to the car and drag myself into the driver’s seat far enough to reach the ignition, shut it off, and pull out the keys. Somehow I managed to crawl, drag, walk myself into my apartment where I collapsed on the couch and lay in pain for the next four hours waiting for my back to shut the hell up.

The good news, at least partially, is that had I failed to show up for work, remained laying there in that parking lot, someone would have noticed my absence and eventually found me before the day was over. Whether or not I would have frozen to death by the time my neighbors started their day is doubtful, but still a powerful enough memory that I’m still holding onto it years later. What isn’t good news is that were I to fall in my apartment now, coffee mug in hand like Kooser’s corpse, I shudder to think how long I would lay there before I was found. I still don’t know any of my neighbors save one, and I only speak to him on a highly sporadic basis, and I no longer have a job to show up for at a strict, regulated, cubical-based time.

Because of this possible scenario, and the morbid thoughts it conjures up, I am immediately drawn to the use of the word “it” in Kooser’s poem. The corpse is not a person, a man, or a woman, but rather an “it,” a non-entity that serves only for gossip for the nosey, but not compassionate, neighbors. There “it” lies, burning those lights like “it’s” made of money. I wonder then if I am an “it,” a thing in a place, rooted to nothing. Will my neighbors complain about my lights burning? Doubtful. Would they notice a smell if I dropped dead and lay unclaimed for weeks? Maybe. What’s more absurd is that for a time period of about eight or nine months, I lived without a phone of any kind; no landline, or cell phone. 911 for me during that time would have consisted of pounding on the wall of my neighbor’s apartment, hoping to hell they called security to come scoop me off the floor, assuming of course I hadn’t had a heart attack and was incapable of dragging myself to the thin and poorly constructed wall.

4043384111_998bb069f9_zSuch thoughts also lead me into ruminations on death itself, outside of thoughts of my own demise. Having buried a few too many family members already, including my father, it’s odd to observe the grieving process we all have as individuals. Or the dying process for that matter. My father, for example, spent his last few weeks acting childish and immature. Though this is not particularly surprising if you knew him, it was still odd to watch his behavior through what was then my thirty-two years of experience with him. I vowed then, and still do, that should I know my time is coming, whenever it does, that I will maintain dignity until the end. But perhaps I am lying to myself, perhaps I will act even more ridiculous, decrying all the wrongs that have been done to me in the past, cursing God as my father did, defiant until the end. But who’s to say, who can tell the future?

The corpse of the old woman, it appears based on the teacup in her hand, died suddenly. Perhaps then this idea of sudden death is the one to hope for, should it be that one has the option. Or not, as she, or “it,” clearly lacks dignity after her death, left to rot on her living room floor, apparently missed by no one.

The problem with death, apart from death itself, is that it is such a difficult topic to discuss. Not as a concept necessarily, but as a more concrete and personal thing. Some people outright refuse to discuss the topic, perhaps out of fear that it will come true, perhaps out of immense sadness and a lost love one, you can never tell. They simply won’t discuss it. Others see the topic as morbid, judging those who would discuss it (I’m sure if you’ve read this far you’ve formed an opinion on my opinion of the subject).

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And yet death remains a fact of all of our lives, the one absolute inevitability that we all must face at some point or another. On occasion I like to fool myself and act as if I’ve come to terms with it, not as a concept, but as a reality. For example, with recent news of a purposely crashed commercial airplane, I tell myself that had I been on that flight, I would have had my brief moment of panic at the realization of what was occurring, before taking a deep breath and accepting the circumstances at hand. My last thoughts would be that this was okay, that I have already made my peace with death and the universe, that my dignity would remain intact, and that my acceptance would be absolute.

But here I am, writing about my fears of dying alone in my apartment, not to be found for weeks until I’ve rotted into a nuisance smell, something for the neighbors to complain about. Clearly I am not yet at peace with the reality, though I’ll still pretend to be with the concept. I’ll also assume that Kooser had similar thoughts, at least in some manner, before writing this poem, which is what led him to the concept of using “it” instead of “she” to describe the corpse. Maybe the fear is death, maybe not. Maybe, more likely, the fear is that once we die we no longer exist to the outside world, the one we try so hard, for so long, to get to understand us.


Michael Jackson is a graduate student of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He is also an intern here at NAR. Other work can be found at hobopancakes.com.

The first and third image are from wikimedia commons.
The second and final illustration are by NAR’s very own contributor Anthony Tremmaglia.


Illustrations by: Anthony Tremmaglia, an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly. Anthony is featured in issues 299.1, Winter 2014 & 299.4, Fall 2014 and his most recent work (featured above) in upcoming 300.2, Spring 2015. Find more of Anthony’s work at http://www.tremmaglia.ca/

At Home in the Pauses by Brian Fitch

I’ve been thinking lately about fiction and nonfiction, how they can merge and separate until one becomes the other.  Especially I’ve been thinking about the technique of pause in nonfiction, a liberal stepping outside, pausing the narrative, to pursue a possibly fictional what if this had happened?

NAR_testimony Clay Rodery

Fiction writing has as one of its compelling qualities the possibility of being real.  When the narrative is paused, fiction and nonfiction can become intermixed as a writer finds herself or himself stepping back from fiction to the real, to actual stories, the unembellished past.  When the edges of imagination become too thin to keep a writer aloft, s/he can just let go.  What really happened may provide a sort of reorientation.  When the writer’s imagination is recharged by the real, or at least the remembered real, another pause to follow a fictional path will present itself.

After enough years, these pauses can become quite lengthy and take on the appearance of actual story.  In other words, the pause may become the story and the return to the nonfiction frame may become the fiction.

Rust

Once the paused fiction has become the dominant narrative, the next step is another pause from the now functioning narrative to a newer fiction – a pause within a pause, within a pause and so forth.  If you live long enough, you may find yourself far from the original home with no maps back, even if you want them.  Another question might be who would want them, but that is for another discussion.  Making the attempt to find your way forward in these new narratives will keep you writing and attempting to answer the questions who am I? and/or how did I get here?  Whether or not you can answer these questions does not matter.  You are writing fiction, the pauses are infinite, and the converted narrative may very well be the superior one.


Brian Fitch lives in western Wisconsin with his wife the poet Jennifer Brantley and their cat Moxie.  His fiction or poetry has appeared in North American Review, Prairie Schooner, Sewanee Review, Helsinki Quarterly, Ars Interpres, Bark, and others. Brian appears in issue 296.3, Summer 2011 as well as the current issue 300.2 with his story “Nothing Is Always the Same”.


Illustrations by  Clay Rodery, an illustrator who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Clay’s illustrations have been featured in the North American Review issues 298.4, 299.1, 299.3 and the most recently is in issue 299.4, Fall 2014 and most recently 300.2, Spring 2015.

Between the Personal and Political: Writing the Stories of Gay Liberation by Bradford Tice

I am very grateful to North American Review for publishing the poem “I Heard They Were Queer for One Another,” featured in the spring issue of NAR, as it is part of a project that is very near and dear to my heart. In the introduction to Carolyn Forché’s landmark anthology Against Forgetting, Forché advocates for a space between the categories of the personal and political poem—a space that she calls “the social.”[1] I have always liked the implications of this. That between the personal and the political there is conversation, gossip, culture, socializing. A fertile ground for poetry indeed! That space Forché describes is where I wanted this poem to reside.

A Rosetta Stone for Directors

The personal: I came out of the closet in high school, so I feel intimately the desire of individuals to carve out a space that is private, separate from politics and the media’s glare. I’m also aware that the act of carving out such a space can be a political gesture. That’s perhaps why I became so fascinated with the story of the Stonewall Riots of 1969. It wasn’t until I was a junior in college that I learned about the Stonewall, the efforts of Gay Liberation, and I remember being shocked at the time that I had lived as long as I had having never caught a whiff of any of these narratives or histories. It wasn’t even in a classroom or book that I learned about them, at least not at first, but rather through word of mouth, interactions with older gay men in the community who knew a thing or two about gay history. At the time (the late 1990s) it seemed that gay and lesbian history was an idea that was still trying to take shape. The commotion made by this silence (and silence can indeed make a lot of noise) propelled me into this project. I wanted to make sense of these stories, and perhaps more importantly, I wanted to make sense of what they meant to me. How was I a part of this history? How much of my life did I owe to these men and women?

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The political: So a word on the Stonewall. The Gay Liberation movement is said by many to have started on a hot summer night in 1969 in New York City’s Greenwich Village when a group of street kids with few options and nowhere else to go chose to resist police harassment of known homosexual establishments. The poem “I Heard They Were Queer for One Another” is a piece included in my most recent poetry collection What the Night Numbered (Trio House Press, 2015), wherein the myth of Cupid and Psyche—their epic account of love discovered, lost, and eventually reunited—is re-envisioned and threaded with the accounts of the Stonewall Riots. The voices that speak within these poems are those of the oppressed and unnamed, those who live between the traditional categories of sex, gender, and sexuality in a time when the only names given to such individuals were slurs. Many are the voices of street kids and queer youths, hustlers, panhandlers, and survivors who have come to New York in search of both the city’s great anonymity and the promise of a space, however meager, to meet and love one another. The spirit of these youths are vocalized in the character of Psyche, the name given to a transgendered runaway from Nebraska who comes to the urban streets at the age of thirteen with only the clothes on her back, a fist full of faux jewelry, and a desire for a new kind of love.

The poem featured in this issue of North American is set at the moment when the crowd and commotion outside the Stonewall Inn became a riot. On June 28, police raided the bar. The riot trucks idled outside waiting to be loaded with the patrons, all of whom would be arrested, their names published in the paper, which meant jobs would be lost, marriages would implode, and lives would be ruined. This was nothing new. Raids were a part of life during this era in gay culture, but for whatever reason, on this night the patrons, many of them those street kids mentioned above, had decided enough was enough. The poetic speaker in the poem is a kind of collective voice—the voice of those street kids gossiping about what happened, speculating, but the poem watches the police. Once the riot started, the police were forced inside the Stonewall, barricaded inside. There was only one exit, and they were ordered by their superior to wait for help to come.

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The social: I wanted this poem to tie the experiences of those officers to the lives of those rioters beating on the doors of the Stonewall. I wanted to show a point of connectedness in the midst of chaos, the one side reflecting the other. Brutality is always easier when we deny our commonalities, and so I chose to make everyone present bound and intimate, even as it all came apart. As this brotherhood of officers stands together facing their fears of what might await them on the other side of that door, they effectively mirror the fears of the Stonewall’s patrons who often faced daily homophobia and potential police harassment. Effectively, in that moment the police are queered. They are made strange, or perhaps more accurately, they are brought into the strange—that liminal and uncertain space at the margins. They feel their power slipping away, and they are oppressed. I would like to think that for a moment the two groups psychically approached one another, perhaps recognized themselves in each other’s faces, and I’d also like to think that it was indeed the queerest thing.

[1] Carolyn Forché, introduction to Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993), 31.


Bradford Tice is the author of two books of poetry: Rare Earth (New Rivers Press, 2013), which was named the winner of the 2011 Many Voices Project and a 2014 Debut-litzer finalist, and What the Night Numbered (Trio House Press, 2015), winner of the 2014 Trio Award. His poetry and fiction have appeared in such periodicals as The Atlantic Monthly, North American Review, The American Scholar, Alaska Quarterly Review, Mississippi Review, Epoch, as well as in Best American Short Stories 2008. His poetry was also selected as the winner of Prairie Schooner’s 2009 Edward Stanley Award. He currently teaches at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln.


Illustrations by  Clay Rodery, an illustrator who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Clay’s illustrations have been featured in the North American Review issues 298.4, 299.1, 299.3 and the most recently is in issue 299.4, Fall 2014 and most recently 300.2, Spring 2015.