The conclusion to “Standing Deadwood” by Thomas M. Atkinson from issue 294.3-4

“STANDING DEADWOOD” originally appeared in issue 294.3-4, May-Aug 2009. The first half of Thomas M. Atkinson’s short story “Standing Deadwood” was featured yesterday June 6, 2015.


After work, I stopped by on the way home to visit Gwen’s mother Jeri, who lives in a little stick-built house under a two hundred year old standing dead oak just waiting for the right gust of wind. Once Amber found a perfect arrowhead in the broken knot of a windfall branch, grown over and over again each spring, rising higher and higher. Jeri owns Miss Jerolee’s Trims ‘n Tans and most people call her Miss Jerolee whether she’s working or not. She was nursing a cup of coffee at her dinette and she looked like she’d been painted with the powder off of those cheese curls Amber likes so much. Last year she fell asleep with a chemical whitening tray clamped between her teeth, and for months and months, until her cigarettes could stake another claim, it was like she had a light bulb turned on in her mouth every time she smiled.

I said, “Is your tanning bed giving you trouble?”

She held out an orange arm and said, “’Bronze Goddess.’ You spray it on. It’s
what the stars wear to the Golden Globes.”

I said, “And I thought there was something wrong with our TV”

She said, “I got it off the eBay.”

I said, “You talk to her today?”

She licked her thumb and worried a spot on her arm. She said, “Honey, she don’t
call me no more. Not unless she needs cash.”

I said, “You give her any?”

She said, “Not since she broke in the shop. And I didn’t mean to then.”
She lit up a menthol and rubbed the filter end against her teeth until it squeaked.

I said, “I drug her home again last night.”


I’d tracked her out east of town, to a trailer home back a gravel road so washed out that my shingle hatchet kept sliding up underneath the pedals and back again. An old woman on oxygen was asleep on the couch and a lady was selling loose gemstones on the Shopping Channel. Gwen was in the back bedroom in the dark, laid out side by side on the floor with a high school boy like they were dead. They were both dressed and his hand, slim and soft, was on top of hers as light as a feather. She’d sighed and whispered, “Tell me again.” Then I stepped between them and put my boot through the Sheetrock above his head. I stomped all the furniture to match sticks and didn’t stop until Gwen got in the way of the vanity, crawling for the light of the open door. The boy balled up in one corner covering his head with his hands, and I pissed three beers down his back before I drug her out to the truck.

Jeri said, “Smoking that makes her crazy, Honey. It’s poison.”

I said, “I tore up a trailer. Pissed on some kid.”

She shook her head and blew smoke out of her nose.
I said, “Wasn’t his fault.”

And she said, “No, but not yours neither. She’s my flesh and blood, but God help
me, you’ve served your time.”

I said, “But she’s my baby.”

She said, “She’s my baby once too. You got another baby to worry about.”

At the door, I said, “Jeri, when are you going to let me fell this tree?”
She said, “If you cut it down now, how’ll the insurance buy me a new house?”

I looked up and said, “That’s not much of a plan, Jeri. You might just get
squashed like a bug.”

She said, “Next time your sister brings her down, come by the shop and Kim’ll do
her free.” Kim is the Korean girl who works for Jeri, and she paints tiny unicorns on Amber’s nails that look like they’re running from one to the next.

I stopped by Wendy’s and picked up a Frosty milkshake because that’s about the only thing Gwen can keep down anymore. There was a doe in the yard when I got home, and we stared at each other until I turned off the engine and she bolted through the pines. Gwen was still sleeping and the whole room smelled of rotting teeth. I untapped the oven mitts from her hands and rubbed at the adhesive caught in the fine hairs of her wrists. When she stretched you could see my boot laces in the big bruise coming up on her ribs. She smiled at me like a sleepy child, like she used to, like the last two years were a dream she’d already forgotten, and said, “Baby, be careful at work today.”

I said, “I will. You want some Frosty?”

She rolled on to her side and said, “No, I’m just going to catnap until Amber gets up for school.”

Sometimes she forgets. I said, “Give her this.” I kissed her palm and wrapped her fingers tight around it and now she’s fast asleep. It’s what I used to do.


I go out for a breath of air and set the Frosty down just outside the back door. Three beers from now I’ll be too drunk to drive to Akron, too drunk to run without thinking about where I might be running, too drunk to find my pistol hidden up in the rafters of the tool shed. But I won’t be too drunk to sit in the dark and watch him lick ice cream off his little black hands. And with any luck, I won’t be too drunk to throw my hatchet through the screen door, at the night full of starlight gathered in the green behind his eyes.

Thomas M. Atkinson is an author and playwright. His new novel, Tiki Man, was named one of four finalists in the 2014 Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest. His new collection of linked stories, Standing Deadwood, which includes “Standing Deadwood,” has been selected as a finalist in the 2014 Spokane Prize for Fiction (Willow Springs Editions) and the 2014 St. Lawrence Book Award for Fiction (Black Lawrence Press). “Ruint Horse” was just named 1st Runner-up for the 2014 Chris O’Malley Prize for Fiction at The Madison Review and will appear in the Spring 2015 issue. His short story, “Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills,” published in The Sun magazine, was twice nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize, and is taught in English 11 & 12 AP courses in San Diego, California. “Ruint Horse” and “Red, White & Blue,” were finalists for Tampa Review’s 2013 and 2014 Danahy Fiction Prize. His short play, Dancing Turtle, was one of six winners of the 2013 38th Annual Samuel French Off Off Broadway Festival, and appears in an anthology of the same name. He has won numerous awards for both fiction and drama, including five Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards. His short fiction has appeared in The Sun, The Madison Review, The North American Review, The Indiana Review, Tampa Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Moon, City Beat, Clifton, and Electron Press Magazine. A new print edition of his first novel, Strobe Life, is now available. He and his wife live in Ohio and have two sons.

Throwback Thursday featuring Andrea Potos from issue 289.2


Andrea Potos’s poem, “Each Self” won the James Hearst Poetry Prize in 2004. Her poem is featured in issue 289.2, Spring 2004.

Notes from the author: As my daughter is now on the verge of leaving for college far away from home, I reflect again on what she inspired in me when I wrote this poem years ago:  all the invisible, infinitesimal, yet totally inescapable changes that propel us forward, willingly or not,  into new lives.


Each Self

My six-year-old daughter stares into the purpling
copper sky and names it dusk, a just-learned word
she is happy to declare, comparing it to evening
and afternoon. We talk of how the Earth turns away
from the sun each night,
a motion so encompassing,
our bodies cannot know it.
I don’t tell her how the child
part of me still disbelieves it – that this globe
actually spins while we breathe, while my daughter
changes invisibly before my eyes,

her infant body submerged inside her
with her toddler waddle and her four-year-old skip,
each swallowed within the other
like the nesting dolls she keeps
on her new desk, each self
perfectly preserved, forsaken
for the one that must come after.

Andrea Potos is the author of six poetry collections, including An Ink Like Early Twilight  (Salmon Poetry, 2015), We Lit the Lamps Ourselves (Salmon Poetry, 2012), and Yaya’s Cloth  (Iris Press, 2007).  She has twice been the recipient of an Outstanding Achievement Award in Poetry from the Wisconsin Library Association, and her works appear widely in print and online.  She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her daughter (on the verge of leaving), her husband, and her cockapoo Penny.

Top illustration link
Bottom illustration link

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?


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.

download (4)

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.

On a Secret Language of Women as Fragrance, or Postscript to “A Short Autobiography of Perfume” by Karen An-hwei Lee

If I could sprout wings and fly anywhere in the world, where would I go?


Maybe to an overseas parfumerie where I’d try new fragrances all day long, or fly back in time to the earliest history of perfume ~ a narcotic blue lotus ancient Egyptians would hold right to their noses, for instance, or unadulterated rose petals distilled in copper florentines only centuries away from modern laboratories of ethers and esters, and oils such as horseradish, olive, and sesame mixed with a resinous fixative, as described in Jean-Pierre Brun’s “The Production of Perfumes in Antiquity” in The American Journal of Archaeology. “A Short Autobiography of Perfume,” appearing in the Spring 2015 issue of The North American Review, arose from these inklings.

Concurrently, I was teaching Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses in a lyric essay workshop where I invited students to write a short exercise inspired by the olfactory sense.  Here is an excerpt, quoted from Chapter 1 (“The Body of Memory”) of Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, one of our required texts:  “Which smells in your life are gone for you now?  Which ones would you give anything to smell again?  Have you ever been ‘ambushed’ by a smell you didn’t expect?”

Laden with vials of perfume, subsequently, I’d fly to a village in the Jiangyong county of Hunan province where Chinese women, for centuries, lovingly hand-stitched books as gifts to their daughters.  Sisters and grandmothers, what is the aroma of your memories? Would you teach me a few words of your language?  This special language, nüshu  女書, not only existed in written form; as an oral literary tradition, it was sung aloud by memory, too.  In exchange for showing me books of nüshu 女書, I’d share the essence of this language in the form of perfume.


Sadly, the last surviving writer of nüshu  女書, Yang Huangyi, passed away in 2004.  According to Henry Chu of the Los Angeles Times, “At a time in China when most females were illiterate and considered the property of men, these women turned objects of domestic life into avenues of escape and found solace among ‘sworn sisters’ with whom they communicated in their own language.”  As a tribute to nüshu  女書, here is my sister-poem to “A Short Autobiography of Perfume.”

              On a Secret Language of Women as Fragrance

If I could, I would bottle nüshu as perfume.
What is the aroma of a secret language written only by women?
How would gynocentric proverbs translate to our daughters
via memory as fragrance or vice versa?
Without vessels, where would we pour
our grievances against the patriarchal order?
On the broom-swept dirt in the village?  Dust raised by bicycles?
The threshold of a school we could not cross as girls?
If our language enfleuraged as perfume –  no other linguistic traces
aflame  – we could revive the chemistries of aroma
without translation, wafting the base notes of female experience
at a draught.

Mexican women create their own paper from scratch using boiled ash, lye, and peeled bark. Brazilian chapbooks or foletos are sold on a string outdoors in folk-art markets.  I love hand-stitched books.  In Massachusetts, where I spent most of my girlhood, I read about Emily Dickinson’s fascicles and loved her poetry.  Nüshu  女書 is unique in Chinese, however, not only in its matrilineal transmission via handwritten journals, but the type of cursive script Hunan women invented.  To share their wisdom in a language transmitted only to daughters, the Hunan village women hand-bound their cloth journals and wrote nüshu女書 inside the pages.  In other words, without access to formal education, the women developed their own culture of literacy.

Japanese professor of socio-linguistics, Orie Endo of Bunkyo University, hosts a digital archive of research on nüshu 女書. Not purely derivative of tetragraphs, not quite pictographical nor alphabetical, nüshu  女書 (nü = 女=woman or women; shu = 書=writing or script) was written by ink brush with a thinner, finer hand than the robust strokes of classical calligraphy.  Incidentally, the eponymous poem of Kimiko Hahn’s electrifying collection, Mosquito and Ant (W. W. Norton 2000), refers to the culture of nüshu 女書The fine script was originally compared to the legs of a mosquito or ant, a dismissive observation initially made by patriarchal contemporaries.


When I lived in Berkeley during the late Nineties, I’d visit a shop displaying (for sale) reams and rolls of handmade paper from all over the world.  Once, I used long sheets of handmade paper ~ turquoise, gold, crimson ~ for a giant accordion chapbook as a part of a family literacy program. The chapbook, like a tall child, stood on the floor to the height of my arms.   What if all this paper suspended from the ceiling, layer upon layer of color as self-revelation ~ gave voice (i.e. wings) to the memories of women who made them? 

After I moved south of the Bay Area to a coastal mesa in southern California, I would make recycled paper.  The year-round sunshine in Orange County is good for shredding old paper, re-soaking it in glue and hot water, then drying the mess with zoysia grass, one-winged samaras, and bougainvillea.  In my little art closet, scraps of silk-screened washi mulberry and dyed rice paper sang forth in a range of vivid hues: cerulean, ochre, scarlet, midnight, dove-gray, fuchsia, saffron, or ultramarine.  If saffron were a woman, how would she hum in a language of windborne pollen: a diasporic fragrance of this late season?

Summer, summer, summer, I imagine.
Xiatien in Mandarin, the women echo.
. . .
Fragrance of ellipsis in honor of nüshu 女書.

Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo 2012), Ardor (Tupelo 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande 2004), winner of the Norma Farber First Book Award.  Lee also wrote two chapbooks, God’s One Hundred Promises (Swan Scythe 2002) and What the Sea Earns for a Living (Quaci Press 2014). Her book of literary criticism, Anglophone Literatures in the Asian Diaspora: Literary Transnationalism and Translingual Migrations (Cambria, 2013), was selected for the Cambria Sinophone World Series. She earned an M.F.A. from Brown University and Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, she serves as Full Professor of English and Chair at a liberal arts college in greater Los Angeles, where she is also a novice harpist. Lee is a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Top and bottom illustration by Claire Stigliani, 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), Russell/Projects, 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.

“Professor Tolkien’s Rebel Readings of Beowulf” by Ted Morrissey

390px-Beowulf_-_A_Translation_and_Commentary (1)

In my review (issue 300.2) of J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of the Old English poem Beowulf, I allude to the Oxford professor’s radical interpretations of certain sections of the poem; however, space limitations in the print magazine didn’t allow me to elaborate on those interpretations, so I spoke with NAR editors about using their blog to further discuss Tolkien’s rebel readings.

The word rebel is not used merely for dramatic effect. Scholarship devoted to Beowulf has been a thriving subculture in the academic world for more than 150 years. Opinions are often held passionately, and challenges to those opinions can be contentiously and even bitterly met. Tolkien held the post of Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University from 1925 to 1959. It was an esteemed professorship, of course, and brought with it respect, but also a host of jealous rivals. Tolkien seems to have been keenly aware of his colleagues who were ready to pounce on anything he might have to say about English literature.

Christopher Tolkien, who prepared his father’s translation for its very posthumous publication, quotes from a letter that the professor wrote to his publisher in 1965 regarding his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:  “[I]t cannot be doubted,” said Tolkien, “that the book will be read by students, and by academic folk of ‘English Departments’. Some of the latter have their pistols loose in their holsters.”  Tolkien went on to say that he had “made important discoveries with regard to certain words, and some passages”.


It is important to note that Sir Gawain was composed in Middle English—not Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon—and therefore was not in Tolkien’s primary field of expertise. We can imagine the profundity of the discoveries he made in his study of Beowulf, his pet project, and also the pressure he must have felt from the itchy-fingered academic pistoleers who were watching his every scholarly move. This factor combined with what Christopher Tolkien describes as his father’s determination “to make a translation as close as he could to the exact meaning in detail of the Old English poem” (8) accounts for the work never fully reaching completion in the professor’s mind. Though a draft was finished in 1926, Tolkien continued to refine his translation, tinkering and annotating, for at least the next twenty years.

Besides the professor’s expertise and his obsession to render a perfect literal translation of Beowulf, another reason to pay particular attention to his reading is that he occupies a very special place in the history of the poem. It was his now-legendary address to the British Academy in 1934 (published two years later as “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”) that altered the way scholars viewed the poem. In essence, interest in the poem had been primarily as a historic and linguistic artifact, but Tolkien made the case that Beowulf was a beautifully rendered piece of art by a single poet who was at the top of his game when he brought it to its final form, represented in the lone surviving manuscript dating from about the year 1000.

Indeed, Beowulf scholarship tends to be thought of as either B.T. or A.T., Before Tolkien or After Tolkien. Thumbing through A Beowulf Handbook, edited by Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles, one finds scholar after scholar referring to Tolkien’s 1934 address in terms like “major achievement,” “renowned,” “a revolution,” “famous,” “rhetorically powerful call,” and even “manifesto.”

I want to speak in particular to two of Tolkien’s rebel readings. As I noted in my review, the translation itself takes up just over 100 of the book’s nearly 450 pages. Tolkien’s lectures, or commentaries, on the poem—though only a small excerpt, according to his son—constitute the lion’s share of the book.

Several pages of commentary are devoted to explaining the professor’s first rebellious passage, which comes early in the poem (lines 166-69 in the original). After the monster Grendel has begun his murderous assaults on King Hrothgar’s hall, Heorot, the Danes try to save themselves by abandoning Heorot at night. In the conventional rendering of the poem, we are told that Grendel often visits the empty hall but is prevented by God from approaching the king’s throne. In Michael Swanton’s well-respected prose translation of Beowulf, he writes, “On dark nights he [Grendel] dwelt in the treasure-decked hall, Heorot. Because of Providence he could not approach the precious throne, the source of gifts; nor did he feel his love.” In his end notes Swanton emphasizes that the passage is especially challenging.

Tolkien read the passage very differently. Because the poem was composed by a Christian poet who was telling a tale of pre-Christian people (a juxtaposition that is made clear at several points in the poem), the professor believed that it was Hrothgar who was not allowed to approach “the precious Throne of grace” (17), with Throne being a metaphor for the Christian God’s love. In other words, Hrothgar wasn’t able to seek solace in God’s love in his people’s time of need because he had the misfortune of living before Christianity made its way to his part of the world. Tolkien writes in full, “Heorot’s hall bright with gems in the dark night he [Grendel] dwelt. (Never might he [Hrothgar] approach the precious Throne of grace in the presence of God, nor did he know His will). That was great torment to the Scyldings’ lord [Hrothgar], anguish of heart” (17-18).


In his commentary, Tolkien calls lines 168-69 “perhaps the most difficult [couplet] in Beowulf” (181), and not because they are corrupted due to physical damage or faulty emendation, but because one must bring to bear on them an extensive knowledge of Old English (including the work of Cynewulf, another Anglo-Saxon poet) combined with a firm grasp of their historical context in order to make accurate sense of the Beowulf poet’s meaning.

The other rebel reading that I want to discuss is especially important to me because it substantiates my own unconventional reading of one of the poem’s final images. In the summer of 2012, I was working on my monograph, The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters, and translating passages in an effort to support my trauma-theory analysis of the poem. I was interested in the female mourner at Beowulf’s funeral who appears in lines 3150-55a, just thirty lines from the end. The typical translations of the passage describe her as a woman or, frequently, an old woman who is devastated at the loss of her king and the thought of the coming attacks by the Swedes and others.

Swanton, for example, writes that she is “a Geatish woman, sorrowful, her hair bound up.” Seamus Heaney, in his award-winning and bestselling verse translation, writes, “A Geat woman too sang out in grief; / with hair bound up . . .” In Burton Raffel’s widely read and often anthologized version, he refers to her as “[a] gnarled old woman, hair wound / Tight and gray on her head.” R. M. Liuzza, in one of my favorite translations, calls her simply “the Geatish woman, / with hair bound up,” and in a footnote explains how uncertain the description is and why many translators opt for her being a woman of “advanced age.”

Indeed, when I looked closely at the original Old English I discovered just how open to interpretation the mourning woman’s age is. The Anglo-Saxon word used by the Beowulf poet, meowle, could be “young woman” and even “virgin.” It seemed to me that a young, inexperienced woman (from a modern perspective, an adolescent girl) would be even more terrified by what was taking place than an adult or, perhaps especially, an aged woman. After much deliberation I decided to go against tradition and translate the passage as “Likewise, a sorrowful Geatish woman, young and virginal, her tresses bound, sang out painfully and repeatedly of the coming days of anxious mourning and acute dread, of the legion bringing horrifying slaughter, of humiliation and captivity.”

My translation went unchallenged when the book came out in 2013 and was reviewed by eminent Beowulf scholars, including Robert E. Bjork and James W. Earl. Nevertheless, I was surprised and pleased when I read Tolkien’s translation in May of 2014 and came to the passage “There too a lamentable lay many a Geatish maiden with braided tresses for Beowulf made, singing in sorrow, oft repeating that days of evil she sorely feared, many a slaying cruel and terror armed, ruin and thraldom’s bond” (104-5). So Tolkien, too, saw her as young and virginal.

Unfortunately, Professor Tolkien doesn’t speak to this reading in his commentaries, but in Christopher Tolkien’s “Notes on the Text of the Translation” he explains that his father originally went with “his lady aged” for the female mourner but changed his mind in what became the final version of the translation’s manuscript with no direct explanation for his revision. Christopher infers that his father had been tempted to force a reading onto the passage that he was attracted to for other than philological reasons (128-30).

My hope is that Tolkien’s lectures will be published in their entirety as they would be an invaluable resource to scholars and serious students of not only Beowulf but Old English literature as a whole.

Ted Morrissey is the author of The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters, winner of the D. Simon Evans Prize for distinguished scholarship, as well as the novels Men of Winter and An Untimely Frost, and, most recently, the novella Weeping with an Ancient God. Visit at

Images: Wikimedia Commons & Photobucket[term]=tolkein&filters[primary]=images&sort=1&o=34

Why We Need Description by Wes Ward

Most of us have two eyes. And with those two eyes we see things that others see. But
because my eyes are different from yours and hers and his, nothing we see can ever be seen the
same way.


To make matters worse, when we try to communicate what we see, the reality we try to capture is never accurate. It can’t be. It’s impossible to see something and communicate exactly what we see because the words we use to describe an image are just, well, words. Take the human hand for example. I can describe a hand by using words like smooth, soft, stubby-fingered, calloused, etc., but those words are merely labels—intangible labels—that we try to apply to something in the physical world.

So there you are, trying to describe an object or a scene or a feeling with words that have
no physical existence in a physical world. You’re bound to fail. And if that’s not foggy enough,
in walks someone else to try to do the same thing, describe that object or scene or feeling. But
wait. Your eyes are different and, therefore, you will see things differently. Your impossible
mission just got worse.


The secret to descriptive writing is that there is no secret. You can only hope to capture a
fraction of the reality you experience. We do that with sensory details, describing the physical
world (sometimes figuratively), while relying on dominant impressions, those invisible vibes
we get from a particular experience. We want the reader to see what we see, taste what we taste,
hear what we hear, etc. So we rely on the words we’ve learned throughout life to convey those
sensory details: His boots crunched through the snow is a lot different than He walked through the
snow. In the former, I see “boots” and I hear “crunching”—two details that second sentence
lacks. Again, this helps the reader get a better idea of what you see and what you are trying to
make him or her see. Consider this sentence about eating: We inhaled our cereal, knowing we would be late for school once again. The figurative “inhaled” (unless the cereal was actually breathed in) expresses the speed at which the cereal was eaten, but it doesn’t descriptively paint the picture, like this: We shoveled the cereal into our mouths and, without swallowing, inhaled the next bite with a continuous spoon-to-bowl-to-mouth motion. Only the sense of sight is used here, but at least a clearer picture is provided with the description of the physical action in the second sentence.

Journey by Moonlight

Be careful. It’s possible to describe too much. Your reader doesn’t need to see, hear, or
touch everything you do. The doorknob to your apartment doesn’t need to be described as a
smooth, brass knob, cold to the touch. Just open the door, please. And The way the wheels of the car slipped across the loose gravel isn’t necessary either, unless a description of that scene is absolutely significant to the purpose of your writing (a car crash, perhaps). Once, a student of mine wrote a personal essay about visiting his mom in the hospital after she was diagnosed with cancer. In the essay, he filled an entire paragraph about the floral design on a box of tissues in the hospital room. Because he couldn’t bear to look at his mom, he focused on the looping green vines and the curling tips of the white flowers—a typical decorative box of tissues but a significant object in this particular setting.

The bottom line is to make connections. As a writer, you want to connect to your reader. After all, it’s the primary purpose of writing: I have something to say and I want you to hear it. The more carefully and meaningfully we communicate with our words, the better connection we
make. We’ll never be able to know exactly what someone else sees and how he or she sees it. (Is
that dress on the Internet white and gold or blue and black?) But thanks to descriptive writing,
we can make valid attempts to communicate and connect with our readers, even if we fail to
depict, with words, the reality our senses perceive.


Wes Ward earned his MA in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. His poetry has appeared in The North American Review, Sewanee Theological Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Philadelphia Stories and other publications. He was a finalist for the Bridport Prize in the UK. Wes teaches high school English and lives with his wife and two children in Pennsylvania. Wes appeared in issue 297.4, Fall 2012.

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.

Write What You Know by Neil Mathison


My essay “Ice” (NAR Winter 2012) testifies to the old writers’ seminar saw “Write what you know.” The essay is about Puget Sound and the ice-age glaciers that formed Puget Sound, and since Puget Sound is where I grew up and where I still live, it’s a place I know better than any other. The essay is also about my Grandmother Catherine and her religious faith and her belief that Biblical miracles had natural explanations, or at the very least were attempts by those who witnessed them to explain what they saw. I knew my grandmother well, or at least as well as you can over a gulf of two generations, and I still admire her enlightened Methodism and her strong faith and how well it served her from her horse-and-carriage girlhood to her moon-shot maturity.  But the essay is also about what we don’t know and how we are driven to find answers to things, whether by religion or philosophy or our stories or our sciences, especially the greatest mystery of all: why things are the way they are. Natural science, especially geology, and what it tells us about our world and our place in it, is one of my go-to writing topics, although I’m neither a priest nor a philosopher nor a geologist and there’s much about the geology of Puget Sound and the physics of ice that I didn’t know until I began to write “Ice.” I owe much to John McPhee’s Annals of a Former World and much to Mountain Press’s Roadside Geology series and much to the University of Washington’s Burke Museum and much to Wikipedia. I remind myself that John McPhee was no geologist either and nobody has written more eloquently about geological science than he. What lesson should we writers take from this? Perhaps the old literary saw should be modified: “Write what you know as a way to write about what you want to know more.”

During the last eight months, Neil’s essay “Memory and Helix: What Comes to Us from the Past,” appeared in the anthology Man in the Moon: Essays on Father and Fatherhood, another, “My Redwoods,” appeared in California Prose Directory 2014: New Writing from the Golden State, and his short story, “The Cannery,” won the 2013 Fiction Attic Press Short Story Contest and appeared in the collection Modern Shorts: 18 Short Stories from the Fiction Attic Press. In addition, during this time, three more essays have been published: “Rafting off the Grid,” about a raft trip down the Grand Canyon, in Rappahannock Review, “Catastrophic Columbia,” about the dramatic geology of Washington State’s Columbia Plateau in Poplorish, and “Beaches,” about Washington State’s three ocean coasts in Eunoia Review. Neil’s short story “Waterslide” appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of the Valparaiso Review.

The illustration above is done by Anthony Tremmaglia. He is an illustrator, artist, and educator based in Ottawa. Inspired by the complexities of the everyday human experience, Tremmaglia combines texture, drawing, and photographs in multi-layered works that underscore the paradox of our conflicting desires to both assimilate and break free. Tremmaglia was born in 1976 and graduated from the Advanced Illustration program at Toronto’s Sheridan College.

For the Love of Bucket Lists By Jessica Morey-Collins

In Nicholas Sparks’s A Walk to Remember, a virginal Jamie Sullivan has only a few years left to live. After much cantanker and conflicting interest, bad boy Landon falls in love with her, and she—after a time—reciprocates. Over the remainder of the narrative, the purity and power of her love calls forth his ambition and retunes his moral compass. The role of ambition in their love is explored through the conceit of Jamie’s bucket list.

Hummingbird - vlad

Much of their courtship centers around this bucket list. In the film adaptation, Landon (played by mega-hunk Shane West) makes Jamie (played by a pale and angelic Mandy Moore) feel special by applying a temporary tattoo of a butterfly to her shoulder, so she can check off “get a tattoo” from her list. (Although—not really Landon, ugh.)

The characters make it through the obstacle course of their circumstances and personal differences and find love. They cross the nuptial finish line, thereby crossing off Jamie’s #1 bucket list item: to marry in the church where her mother and father wed. They spend a brief hiatus in bliss, then (spoiler alert!) Jamie dies, leaving Landon bound for medical school and sad, though he has experienced “more love than most people know in a lifetime.”

Continue reading

Thursday Throwback featuring Susan Terris with “Before Cortéz” from issue 295.2

Susan’s poem “Before Cortéz” was a finalist in the James Hearst Poetry Prize in 2010.

Thoughts from the author: “I’m always interested in the plight of women past and present and in women’s potential for power. I have an inordinate admiration for women who find a way to use this power to change their lives. Yes, I admire the  women who do not simply Ophelia-like cave in and choose servitude or death.”

jperkinsamaricangirlweb (1)

Before Cortéz

Bitch they call me. Whore. Yet in the blink of
a puma, I—Malintzin—was changed from
Aztec princess to Mayan slave. But still beautiful,
I think, as I scrub other women’s linens on
the bank of a slime-green river. Testing, I smile.
My reflection meets my eyes, smiles back.
With a chapped left hand, I rake
through my hair. My double uses her right.
I have no rights any more. Angry, I
spit in the face of the washerwoman who
looks like me. A feral cat, she bares her teeth.
But my lips are still pursed. Puta! she cries,
La Chinganda! Curds of water stir as the circle
of phlegm grows wider, thins and vanishes.
The other Malintzin, wet clothing molding
the arcs of her body, rises from the river,
moves slowly, sinuously. She makes no ripples.
Her dress sheds no water. Eyes dark with
menace, she advances until I see myself
reflected in her pupils. Run if you can, she
whispers hoarsely. But, rooted there, I breathe
out and in. When I exhale again, the other
Malintzin steps up close, grabs hold of me,
presses her mouth firmly against mine. Inhale,
she murmurs, shape-shifting into
a plumed conquistador. As bidden, I breathe in
and so begin to vanish….

Susan Terris’s most recent book is Ghost of Yesterday: New & Selected Poems (Marsh Hawk Press). She is the author of 6 books of poetry, 15 chapbooks, and 3 artist’s books.  Journal publications include The Southern Review, Denver Quarterly, The JournalNorth American Review, and Ploughshares. A poem of hers from Field appeared in Pushcart Prize XXXI. Susan’s piece, “Before Cortez,” appears in issue 295.2 of NAR. She’s editor of Spillway Magazine. Her book Memos will be published by Omnidawn in 2015.

Illustration by Justin PerkinsJustin graduated from College for Creative Studies. A freelance illustrator and designer, he teaches art in Detriot. Justin’s first illustration for North American Review appeared in issue 298.4, Fall 2013.

Notes on “Frankie at Fort Lewis” by Jo Ann Heydron from issue 300.1

In “Frankie at Fort Lewis,” I tried to imagine what would happen if the political differences between members of an extended family rather like my own were put to the test.  If a family emergency arose like the one in this story—a battlefield wound that threatens to be fatal—would we show up for each other? If we did, would we reach inside ourselves for patience and fellow feeling or take the opportunity to air some of the judgments and resentments that we drag along behind us?  Both, I decided. Definitely both. So I tried to make room for both in the interchanges between Frankie and Amy, the twenty-something cousins in this story.

blog image for Heydron

For me writing this story (maybe writing every story) was an exercise in remembering how particular a mix each of us is of traits and opinions, generosity and self-protection. Soldiers wear uniforms to identify themselves as members of a group, and Frankie arrives at Fort Lewis believing that this self-designation is all encompassing. She regards Amy’s injured husband, Stephen, as “indistinguishable” from Amy’s father and brothers, who are also in the military, until she remembers how Stephen joked with her at his wedding about her multiply pierced ears, until she notices that Stephen’s baby boy has inherited his wide mouth, until Amy tells her that Stephen was troubled by what happened at Abu Ghraib. She sees Amy and her mother, Frankie’s Aunt Liz, as equally committed to the life of military wife until she understands that Amy is trying as hard to separate from her mother as Frankie is from her own.

I’m interested in the space between remembering that all of us are alike in feeling pain, fear, and love, and noticing we are all very different, too. Making assumptions about others is a dangerous business, whether they are members of our families or perfect strangers. I’m exploring that space in this story, probably ineptly, but I’m a slow learner, as the members of my family would no doubt testify.

jo ann heydron

Jo Ann Heydron’s father retired from the Air Force as a master sergeant, and she spent many happy childhood hours at the PX, the pool, the bowling alley, and the movie theater of McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, California. Both her sister and brother served in the Army, but Jo Ann has frittered away her time reading books and raising children. She holds a B.A. and M.A. in English from what were once stellar and inexpensive public universities in California (see how her political opinions creep in) and an MFA from Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.  Her stories have appeared in Puerto del Sol, Pilgrimage, So to Speak, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a novel and a memoir. Jo Ann is featured in issue 300.1, Winter 2015.

Illustration: Jess Fink  is an illustrator and graphic novelist. She is the author of We Can Fix It, a Time Travel Memoir and Chester 5000 xyv (Top Shelf). Her work can also be found online at Fink is featured in issue 300.1, Winter 2015.

The Story as Essay: Or, What I’ve Accidentally Learned by Teaching Comp by David Ebenbach

About ten years ago I wanted to write an article about how writers, who often teach composition courses, are the last people on Earth who should be teaching composition courses. I had good arguments: First of all, it’s hard for writers to understand and communicate with people who so dislike writing that they only take a writing class when it’s required, and, second, we don’t spend as much time thinking about grammar as administrators might like. Above all, I thought, people who write stories and poems don’t necessarily have all that much to say about the very particular kind of stuff that gets written in these classes—argumentative essays, mainly—because those essays are so far removed from what we do.


Well, nobody wanted my article; magazine editors didn’t see the same problems that I did. They told me that writers get a lot, in fact, out of teaching composition courses. Naturally, this made me feel sulky and misunderstood.

Ten years later, I can say they were right.

Of course, there are the obvious benefits—the pleasures of learning how to articulate what we know about writing, of being pushed to think in new ways, and of kindling real interest in writing among students who aren’t expecting to like it. In general, I have found teaching to be good for the mind and for the soul, and comp means encountering students and ideas that I wouldn’t encounter otherwise. But there’s also been an effect I never would have expected: teaching the argumentative essay has changed the way I write short stories.

I mean, I should have seen it coming. I’m constantly telling my students how their papers need to be like short stories, how those papers need to have (like a good short story) precise detail, a compelling voice, obstacles, and suspense. So I already knew that short fiction could teach us about how to write essays. Why should it surprise me that the connection goes both ways? If an essay can have plot (will the author turn out to be convincing, or not?), why can’t a short story have arguments?

Indeed it can; in fact, without even intending to, I have found myself writing some stories that actually resemble the argumentative essay.

The signs are subtle in my story, “Our Mothers Left Us,” which doesn’t offer an argument, exactly, but which, like the essay, uses each paragraph to make a separate point. In a typical short story, individual beats/scenes are broken into a number of different paragraphs, including lines of dialogue and actions and so on. In “Our Mothers Left Us,” on the other hand, I move chronologically from one thing to the next, and each time there’s a new beat in the narrative, it gets its own single paragraph. In one paragraph, the mothers disappear; in the next the kids search for them; in the next the fathers become involved; et cetera. The story accumulates in clear, distinct steps, which is an ideal (for essays) that I harp on in class.


My story, “We’ll Finish When We’re Done,” operates in a similar way. In this case there’s dialogue, and lots of paragraph breaks in this one continuous scene—but the story, about a surprisingly enthusiastic barber, builds (just the way I teach my students to do it) point by point. First he gives the customer a trim, and then a more drastic cut, and then a military buzz, and then he shaves him bald. Step by step, the cut gets closer—believe it or not, it gets closer than bald—just the way an essay gets closer and closer to the vindication of its thesis.

And then there are the stories I’ve written that don’t just resemble the form of arguments but instead actually become arguments. In “The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy,” the speaker—a collective voice—tries to explain why the group didn’t invite this one guy to the orgy they just had. In a sense it’s a backward argument, because the speaker rejects (rather than advancing) one argument after the next—specifically, it isn’t that the guy is prudish, or bad in bed, or unattractive, or a bad guy. In fact, he’s great in all those respects. And so the story is resisting the final impulse to become an essay; it’s trying to fail to explain what happened, by trying not to embrace a thesis. And yet, I have to admit: by the end of the story, an explanation—a thesis—creeps in anyway. I won’t include the spoiler here, but suffice it to say that the power of the argumentative essay is inexorable.

What I never expected was that this power would come to shape my fiction-writing. And yet I’ve already written a handful of argument stories—not just these but others, like “Nobody Else Gets to Be Crazy When You’re Being Crazy” and “Counterfactual”—and I assume that there will be more of them. These stories will have their place. It’s good, in fact, for a writer to try on new forms—the short-short, the letter, the recipe, the instruction manual, and (why not?) the argument.

At the same time, I do worry a little: if I spend more and more time thinking about students’ composition papers, will more and more of my stories end up neat and orderly and driving to a point? Will I stop developing characters and plots in complicated and uneven ways—in organic ways—and instead only move things forward in discrete, distinct units?


Which brings me to the point of this essay. Because there’s another thing I’m always telling my students: if you can become conscious of your writing habits, good and bad, then you will have some power over them. In other words, it’s one thing to try on a form, to use it as a tool when you need it, and it’s another thing to have it sneak up on you and use you. That’s why you need to pay attention to your writing. And I’m hoping that this little bit of attention-giving (i.e., the attention I’m giving it by writing about it right here) will help me turn this form into a choice instead of an inevitability.

These days, I wouldn’t claim that teaching composition is such a bad gig for a writer. In fact, I like it a lot. But maybe it’s time to start teaching something else. Math? Genetics? Business? Music composition? After all, I could be writing stories and poems in the form of quadratic equations, DNA sequences, earnings reports, or arias. What you learn by teaching forms—any and all forms—is that there is an orgy of possibilities out there, and that you are definitely invited.

2014 Hairston 08David Ebenbach is the author of two books of short stories—Into the Wilderness (Washington Writers’ Publishing House) and Between Camelots (University of Pittsburgh Press)—plus a chapbook of poetry called Autogeography (Finishing Line Press), and a non-fiction guide to creativity called The Artist’s Torah (Cascade Books). His first full-length collection of poetry, We Were the People Who Moved, won the Patricia Bibby Award, and will be published by Tebot Bach in 2015. With a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Ebenbach teaches Creative Writing at Georgetown University. David is featured in issue 297.2, Spring 2012. Find out more at

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, most recently in issue 299.4, Fall 2014.