A Review of James and Jonathan Humphries’s Windham’s Rembrandt

Windhams Rembrandt Humphries

A Review of James and Jonathan Humphries’s Windham’s Rembrandt

By Ira Kelson Hatfield

Several years ago, I found myself working weekends as a tech in a local drug rehab center in the Midwest. I was nineteen years old and fresh out of a three-year stint working food service. As far as experience… well, I got in on account of my father knowing one of the therapists. I remember that first day of work, sitting in the cafeteria for about twenty minutes and filling out the necessary paperwork that would make me an actual employee. After that, I was tossed unceremoniously out on the floor, amongst the patients, with little more than a good luck.

Over the next year or so, I became privy to a world whose existence had previously eluded me, and, as far as I can tell, still eludes the vast majority of that part of our society known as supposedly normal. There was a language there amongst the patients. In fact, it went beyond a language. It was a culture—unique and held together by the knowledge that addiction has a set of claws. Claws that did little to differentiate between class, age, or race.

For those fortunate enough not to find themselves working in such a facility, Windham’s Rembrandt, a memoir shadow written by Johnathan Humphries about his father, offers a doorway into the heart of this secret subculture. The book starts out much the same way as my experience, with James Humphries being dropped into the Texas penal system as an art instructor with next to no direction.

Humphries describes his first penitentiary stint as “a bit medieval,” commenting on the experience of putting his identification in a bucket at the front gate to be hoisted up to the guard tower for verification. He details his environment in the sharp detail of an artist, drawing the reader into the steel and wooden world he inhabited. The world he enters is one of distrust and false calm, and we see his artist’s eyes expressly in his description of the first class he teaches at his second institution of employment, referred to ominously as only the Psychiatric Treatment Center: “Steel cables and wheel bearings sang in a hissing exhalation, which ended in the heavy metallic downbeat of numerous doors closing in concert.”

At the Center, Humphries sees boys who grew up down the street from him mixed in with the kind of hard and ruthless looking men he had perhaps more stereotypically expected to see in such a place. He learns to discard his definition of a convict. He discovers an entirely new culture with its own set of norms and rules. It’s a harsh culture, one built upon aggression, fear, and ignorance. In the midst of this primal subculture, he is given a key piece of advice from another teacher named Mary Oliphant, “Never turn your back on your students,” she warns. “What they can get into, they will get into… and then some!Oh, and always be prepared to give positive advice whenever asked.” These words frame the way Humphries approaches his students throughout the remainder of the book.

From the beginning, Humphries lets the reader in on his insecurities, asking himself if he will even be taken seriously. Often times he is not. He points out that while they make no trouble, many of his students only come to class in an effort to get out of working outside. This lack of respect is mirrored in the practical jokes he must deal with. A swastika-laden Mickey Mouse is painted during a busy class and hung in the hall to incite violence. A papier-mâché .38 pistol is stuck in the face of a visiting Texas education agent. A tarantula is snuck into the room and dangled over Humphries’s face. As he draws the reader into the complexities of his world, Humphries details his frustration, and, more importantly, the lessons he learns in dealing effectively with an otherwise ignored subset of society.

From his pioneering experiences at the Ferguson Unit with a population of mostly first-time offenders all the way through his harrowing time at the Psychiatric Treatment Center, Humphries reveals to us increasingly dangerous encounters until the story’s pinnacle, during which he meets a convict named Albert—a mute giant imprisoned for cutting a woman into small pieces, piling up those pieces, and covering them with sugar and flour. Humphries dictates these surreal experiences with the straightforward and brusque diction reflective of his years of military service.  During his first interactions with inmates, Humphries describes the similarity in prison staring contests to the unwritten marine code he was accustomed to, “Men are always sizing one another, and when a man cannot look you in the eye he is either hiding something, not talking you seriously or is just plain blind.”

The skepticism with which Humphries is repeatedly confronted reminds me of the first time I met an art therapist. For the first several months of her employment, I too was skeptical. One afternoon I observed a patient as he attempted to draw a picture of a wolf—a representation of his addiction—his whole body shaking from alcohol withdrawal. In my mind, this had no real purpose. Later, I saw one such man pin up the picture he had drawn to represent his own addiction and, with each complement, he began to gain the confidence he so desperately needed to keep going. It was at this point I finally realized my own lack of awareness about the healing benefits of art therapy and started to give credence to the field as a whole. In much the same way, a great deal of respect from his colleagues is gained when, with continued patience and perseverance, Humphries manages to coax two words from Albert—the first words anyone at the facility has ever heard him utter.

When Humphries is questioned by a staff member as to why he’s willing to speak so freely to a former contract killer with a history of violence, Humphries replies, “Well, he feels comfortable in my class. So if a student wants to express themselves to feel better, why not?” Humphries remembers the experience, writing, “Something about what the E&R [Education and Recreation] man said didn’t sit well with me. I knew the men in prison had all done some sort of wrong, but there is more to a man’s nature than his actions.” This sentence is perhaps the best indicator of Humphries’s outlook as he wades through a prison system brimming with unique, complicated stories, each connecting somehow to the others only to, in the end, reveal a greater overarching message of humanization.

A champion for the voiceless prison population of the 1970s, this memoir creates as close an image as can likely be had of Humphries’s time in the Windham prison system. Perhaps the most powerful element of this book, however, is the peculiar mix of empathy and militant seriousness concerning the prison system and those locked away inside of it. The authors successfully create real people in a real place—complex prisoners who are rendered neither as misunderstood victims nor as irredeemable villains. Each man is his own self, a new story with its own title. The way Humphries draws these characters echoes back to the advice he was given from his colleague early in the book: He does not trust the men he works with, but he encourages them every chance he gets.

 

James and Jonathan Humphries, Windham’s Rembrandt. CreateSpace, 2012: $14.99 (print)/$8.99 (digital).

***

Ira Kelson Hatfield is a creative writing major at the University of Southern Indiana.  His poetry appears in the Apeiron Review, and he is an avid collector of hobbies. 

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Ólafur Gunnarsson Interview

GUNNARSSON front cover 2013 Jan 03

 

Ólafur Gunnarsson Interview

 

(conducted by the New American Press staff)

 

  1. There’s evidence in recent years of a great deal of literary energy in Iceland. What’s your experience of reading and writing there? What’s it like being part of the Icelandic literary community? 

There is a joke that goes “every Icelander is a writer,” but there is some truth to it. When you reach a certain age there is something wrong with you if you don’t write your autobiography. My publisher’s office is clogged with stuff like that. The slush pile is chest high.

Icelanders have through the ages written an awful lot. We began almost a thousand years ago with the Sagas. Some of the original manuscripts have survived through the ages. They were copied and read and they kept the language alive. Icelandic is what is called Old Norse—wiping my glasses, I can still read the 800-year-old manuscripts. The most popular ones were of course copied most often—the Saga of Grettir the Strong exists in something like sixty manuscripts, while the Gauks saga was lost, so we must presume that it was not a piece of brilliant writing. And it’s interesting to note that whoever was copying often took it upon himself to edit, so establishing definitive texts is difficult.

There are one or two Icelandic writers of a very high caliber who most certainly would deserve to be known around the globe but the trouble is that their very greatness lies in the fact that they are so local, so Icelandic. It’s almost like they were destined to write only for their own countrymen. Their greatness is in fact almost untranslatable—but to a certain extent the same can be said for the Sagas.

There has been a great surge of creative writing in Iceland for the last 35 years or so. Government grants have enabled many to devote themselves to writing full-time. But there are many writers and only so many grants. A committee selects. So there is always a lot of dispute and bitterness. The urge for creative writing is almost a national mania. Every other priest or doctor has to add a novel or a short story collection to his or her achievements. I have never understood it. I have never felt the need to go out and operate on someone—remove his appendix, for example, or make an attempt at a bypass surgery. One other thing we have over here is the great stylist. Folks that seem to be able to live on the myth that they excel at a grandiose writing style without ever publishing anything. And then we have what I would call the “cocktail party novel.” It is a piece of safe writing, one that takes no risks.

The writing community in Iceland is like everywhere else. I would not be honest if I said it was a flowery field of harmony. It has envy and bitterness and people scowling at the fringe of parties. But great writing has a tendency to take care of itself. Melville comes to mind. The Icelandic poet Steinn Steinarr said, “Dear friends, let us not worry about literature. It will live on. We will die.” When all is said and done, writing is not a romantic undertaking and the one who sets out with such a notion will soon find out otherwise. Dostoevsky likened the writing of The Idiot to something worse than hard labor. Let’s take his word for it. He should know.

 

  1. Were there any particular books or authors that informed your writing of the stories in The Thaw?

I would mention Hemingway, Richard Wright, the Sagas, Joyce Carol Oates, and then of course there is Dostoevsky. Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast was a kind of writer’s bible for me when I was young. In the rainy gray world of Reykjavik in the 1960s, its value, comfort and support could not be overestimated. It got me through. Reading Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel was an overwhelming and liberating experience. That is when I, like many other writers before me, found out that my own town and surroundings could be a source for writing material. As for Oates, I have always found her a model writer and a very interesting one. The crazier she gets the better. My favorite of hers is Son of the Morning, a novel about a preacher and his sect and the awesome deceptive forces of evil.

But my master and greatest hero in literature has always been Dostoevsky. I entered his novels as if entering a dark palace the size of the mountain Eiger, and I’ve never left. I love his work, all of it. Even the mention of his name can bring tears to my eyes.

 

  1. To what degree are the stories in The Thaw autobiographical? Which experiences from your own life have informed their telling?

There is very little autobiography going on in the stories in The Thaw. When I was a boy, my brother-in-law built a summerhouse and hired two brothers and the older one was always scolding the younger and my brother-in-law said in a half whisper that he had heard rumors that the older one used to beat his brother’s wife. I probably would have been around twelve at the time and found the whole thing horrifying and never forgot it. Half a century before, my father had seen a drunk try to ride a horse across a lake in some stupid dispute or wager, drowning both himself and the horse. Somehow the memory of the brothers and the family story about the lake and the horse merged one day into “The Thaw” and I wrote it in one sitting on my birthday in 2009. I had a good feeling right at the start, so I did not come out of my study, although a few guests had arrived to celebrate. My lady friend peaked in through the doorway now and then, but the story was going too well for me to stop, and when I was through it was late and the guests had left. Even to this day, one or two of my relatives bear grudges towards me for putting on literary airs—but the story was going too well to let go and I was not sure I would be able to pick it up the next day. Writing is paid for with loneliness.

The other stories are written in a similar way—beginning in some part with something that I observed or heard or read. Except for “The Revelation.” That story is very close to being one-hundred percent straight autobiography, but not quite.

 

  1. Talk about the process of translation. As someone who writes fluently in English as well as Icelandic, how much do you collaborate with your translators? Which takes precedence–faithfulness to the original Icelandic or a smooth rendering into English? 

Despite the funding available for writers in Iceland, the popularity and success of short stories began to diminish in the 1980s with the rise of videos. I had written a few short stories over the years, but the sales of story collections were so poor that they discouraged me and more so my longtime publisher.

But one day I was gripped by a compelling question: Could I write a short story in a language other than Icelandic? The idea seemed so fresh and tempting to me that before I knew it I had writer “War Story.” And then “The Thaw,” “Gimme Shelter,” and “Revelation” quickly followed. It was a liberating experience. So I set about translating some other stories and asked my friend Steven Meyers to check the language and put together a collection and sent it out on the internet, and that’s how I got in touch with New American Press. When my Icelandic publisher learned that I had a US publisher was interested, I set about translating those stories I had written in English into Icelandic. As a result, the Icelandic and English versions differ slightly, but not in any substantial way. It’s perhaps an unusual process, but not unique I think. The last story I wrote in English was “Killer Whale,” about the sick girl and her father. I saw such a girl waiting in her cart all alone in a supermarket and I was moved by the sight of her and her plight and thought how her situation would affect me if I were her father, and so sat down and wrote the story in English. It has not been translated yet into Icelandic.

 

  1. Two of the qualities that most characterize your work are violence and surrealism. Where do those impulses come from? 

Style and story go hand-in-hand with me. There is no style until I find my subject matter and it has to be something that excites me, something extreme, characters living on the edge. Then the story comes of itself and I am not conscious of writing in any kind of style. So murder and violence move me.

I guess when you talk about surrealism you are referring to the novella “Gaga.” I was an avid reader of science-fiction when I wrote the story a long time ago. Around the same time, I had also been reading Don Quixote, and I thought, “Hey, the book for our times is an S.F. Don Quixote.” I wrote for a year in what seemed to me to be the style of Cervantes with a kind of Sancho Panza protagonist, but the more manuscript I accumulated the more it became clear to me how utterly worthless the material was. And then one morning something happened—the character woke up on Mars and in an instant changed into the demonic Astronaut with his visions and paranoid delusions. I had at long last found my own voice for the story. I had originally planned a very long novel of some 600 pages but this one would not stretch to that length. It’d be fun if another writer would take up the idea and write his or her version of it. I once met Margaret Atwood at a writer’s conference and suggested the stuff as subject matter because she was into science fiction at the time, and maybe still is. Perhaps she is hard at work on it now—who knows? Thomas Pynchon’s wife, the literary agent Melanie Jackson, was kind enough to accept a copy of The Thaw to share with her husband. A sci-fi Don Quixote by Thomas Pynchon would be really something.

 

 

  1. When discussing various literary trends in Iceland, you say that “One other thing we have over here is the great stylist. Folks that seem to be able to live on the myth that they excel at a grandiose writing style without ever publishing anything. And then we have what I would like to call the ‘cocktail party novel.’ It is a piece of safe writing which takes no risks.” Three of the stories in “The Thaw” feature artists in some way. There’s “The Man Who Wanted to be Vincent,” about a painter who can’t get out from under the influence of Vincent Van Gogh. And then there’s “The Beauty Contest,” in which a musician in his twilight years learns he was almost chosen to sing for Led Zeppelin. Finally, there’s “The Revelation,” in which a teenager operates as a roadie for a local band. These first two stories, at least, deal with failed artists. What’s your interest in the failed artist? Does it relate in any way to the literary trends you criticize above? 

No, not really. Okay, listen—one of my previous answers makes me sound like I harbor a grudge against someone. I do and I don’t—there are failed playwrights and writers in Iceland spitting venom through the radio, newspapers, and television. But if you happen to be born without talent, that is punishment enough. What did Hemingway say? The shock can kill a man. I have never written my “Movable Feast,” and for a very good reason. I simply could not bear it. I have known so many fine writers and artists who succumbed to defeat and bitterness through drink and their own destructive nature that such a book would be very difficult to write. What’s the point in telling the story of someone for whom you had love and the same person went to his grave penniless with the relatives desperately trying to get the store to take back his recently acquired computer which was to be paid for in installments and some payments already overdue?

But the most unbelievable case of a failed writer must be Melville. Think of Herman Melville, going to work at his dreary job as a customs officer, and not a soul, his mates at the office, nor the merchants he dealt with—nor he himself for that matter—knew that he might be one of the great writers of all time. The creator of Moby-Dick, in a limbo-like void for decades, and hardly anyone knew that he had created a novel the likes of which you would have to go to Russia to find. It is a strange and a disturbing thought.

A writer might look upon himself as a failure, but the reality could be totally the opposite. I was once at a panel meeting where an American author claimed the novel was dead. He said that no longer was anyone interested; everybody wanted to write for the movies; novels did not sell any more. The only light at end of the tunnel was that the leading actor in the movie based on his recently published book had been brilliant.

The real situation, though, was that the novel sold millions of copies. It was Sophie’s Choice. The author: William Styron. So I guess the question of the failed artist has a lot to do with how you look at it.

 

  1. For this last question, let’s talk about success. Which novels do you think of as most successful artistically, and how have their achievements shaped the way that you think about the art of fiction?

I am very old fashioned in this respect. Like Keith Richards, I still like bacon and eggs and my HP Sauce. Chuck Berry is my idol. My favorite novels were all written well before 1960. I cut the list down to ten, and it wasn’t easy:

1. The Idiot, Dosteovsky

2. The Possessed, Dostoevsky

3. And Quiet Flows the Don, Sholokhov

4. Look Homeward Angel, Thomas Wolfe

5. Moby-Dick, Melville

6. Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky

7. From Here To Eternity, James Jones

8. The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway

9. Don Ouixote, Cervantes

10. Alone in Berlin, Hans Fallada

I naturally had to cut out great books for such a short list, and it felt like I was betraying beloved relatives. All of the above have in various ways influenced me. I think Dostoevsky came closest to the core of existence in The Idiot. The Possessed is a dynamic masterwork I can go to again and again. Sholokhov´s clear writing in The Quiet Don is amazing. I still love Look Homeward just as much as when I read it forty years ago. Although Crime and Punishment is among the most powerful novels of all time, the only time I have been really inside a character and felt like I’d committed murder is when Prewitt cuts up Fatso in From Here to Eternity. Don Quixote was a wonderful book to read when I was young, and Fallada’s Alone in Berlin was a joy that I discovered just over a year ago.

Despite their achievements and successes, not one of these writers lived easy lives. I hardly need to go into details. Hemingway said it all when he remarked that a writer “is forged in injustice like a sword is forged in fire.” And that is the best success a writer can ever expect to have.

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SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: NO

no


from NO
By Ocean Vuong


TORSO OF AIR

Suppose you do change your life.
& the body is more than

a portion of night—sealed
with bruises. Suppose you woke

& found your shadow replaced
by a black wolf. The boy, beautiful

and gone. So you take the knife to the wall
instead. You carve & carve.

Until a coin of light appears
& you get to look in, for once,

on happiness. The eye
staring back from the other side—

waiting.



HOME WRECKER

And this is how we danced: with our mothers’
white dresses spilling from our feet, late August

turning our hands dark red. And this is how we loved:
a fifth of vodka and an afternoon in the attic, your fingers

sweeping though my hair—my hair a wildfire.
We covered our ears and your father’s tantrum turned

into heartbeats. When our lips touched the day closed
into a coffin. In the museum of the heart

there are two headless people building a burning house.
There was always the shotgun above the fireplace.

Always another hour to kill—only to beg some god
to give it back. If not the attic, the car. If not the car,

the dream. If not the boy, his clothes. If not alive,
put down the phone. Because the year is a distance

we’ve traveled in circles. Which is to say: this is how
we danced: alone in sleeping bodies. Which is to say:

This is how we loved: a knife on the tongue turning
into a tongue.



Today’s poems are from NO, published by Yes Yes Books, copyright © 2013 by Ocean Vuong. “Torso of Air” previously appeared in BODY Literature, and “Home Wrecker” previously appeared in Linebreak. These poems appear here today with permission from the poet.


NO: Anyone who has already sensed that “hope is a feathered thing that dies in the Lord’s mouth,” should get their hands on NO. Honest, intimate, and brimming with lyric intensity, these stunning poems come of age with a fifth of vodka and an afternoon in an attic, with a record stuck on please, with starlight on a falling bomb. Even as Vuong leads you through every pleasure a body deserves and all the ensuing grief, these poems restore you with hope, that godforsaken thing—alive, singing along to the radio, suddenly sufficient. —Traci Brimhall, Our Lady of the Ruins


Ocean Vuong is a recipient of a 2013 Pushcart Prize as well as fellowships from Kundiman, Poets House, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Poems appear in Poetry, The Nation, Beloit Poetry Journal, Passages North, Quarterly West, Denver Quarterly, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the 2012 Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. He lives in Queens, NY.


Editor’s Note: I’m just going to come right out and say this: Ocean Vuong is one of the best and most important poets writing in America today. I have not been so moved as I am by Vuong’s words since I first read Li-Young Lee. This poet has changed my life. He has renewed my belief in American poetry. That it can be emotional and heartbreaking. That is can be beautiful and full of hope. That modern American poetry can—and does—matter. In my humble opinion your poetry collection is simply not complete unless it houses both Vuong’s groundbreaking chapbook, Burnings, and his newest release from Yes Yes Books, NO.

NO is a surprisingly experimental collection, yet Vuong remains dedicated to the lyric and the narrative, guiding us through its formal twists and turns through emotive language and evocative imagery. Throughout its pages the poet intimately explores themes of love, sexuality, and belonging against a backdrop of devastating loss. It is a brilliant and beautiful collection, a true heartbreaking work of staggering genius. As the book’s publisher did when reading through the manuscript for the first time, when Ocean Vuong says NO to you, be prepared to say “Yes Yes!”


Want to see more from Ocean Vuong?
Buy NO from Yes Yes
The Poetry Foundation
Interview in The Well & Often Reader
Ben Lerner on mentoring Ocean Vuong, Brooklyn College

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SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: SPRING!

photo 3Spring’s first flowers spotted this week in New York’s Jefferson Market Garden.


WITH A BUNCH OF SPRING FLOWERS
By Kate Seymour Maclean

In the spring-time, out of the dew,
      From my garden, sweet friend, I gather,
      A garland of verses, or rather
A poem of blossoms for you.

There are pansies, purple and white,
      That hold in their velvet splendour,
      Sweet thoughts as fragrant and tender,
And rarer than poets can write.

The Iris her pennon unfurls,
      My unspoken message to carry,
      A flower-poem writ by a fairy,
And Buttercups rounder than pearls.

And Snowdrops starry and sweet,
      Turn toward thee their pale pure faces
      And Crocus, and Cowslips, and Daisies
The song of the spring-time repeat.

So merry and full of cheer,
      With the warble of birds overflowing,
      The wind through the fresh grass blowing
And the blackbirds whistle so dear.

These songs without words are true,
      All sung in the April weather–
      Music and blossoms together–
I gather and weave them for you.


(Today’s poem is in the public domain, belongs to the masses, and appears here today accordingly.)


Kate Seymour Maclean (1829-1916): Born in Fulton, New York, seemingly as “Chloe Ann Seymour” and educated at the Falley Seminary, Kate Seymour moved to Canada a few years after her 1857 marriage to Allan MacLean of Ingersoll, Ontario. She was well known as a poet in her day, producing three volumes of verse and publishing frequently in Canadian and American magazines. Her first book, The Coming of the Princess, And Other Poems (1881), is prefaced by Graeme Mercer Adam, then editor of the Canadian Monthly. Loyal to her adopted country, MacLean became a strong advocate of the “Canada First” movement. She died in Toronto at the age of 86. (Biography courtesy of The Simon Fraser University Library.)

Editor’s Note: If you are an avid reader of this series, you have faithfully read along as I lamented this year’s winter and dared Mother Nature to bring on the spring. This week, spring has finally arrived. The cherry blossoms are bursting in all their glory in Washington D.C., and here in New York City there is warm weather and sunshine, the first cherry blossoms have been spotted on the trees, and spring flowers can finally be seen lining the streets and blooming in the parks.

If you read this series, you know how we on the East Coast have suffered this long winter, and you know how anxiously your faithful Editor has awaited spring. Today I am happy to report that SPRING IS HERE, and in its honor I offer you “A flower-poem writ by a fairy,” “sung in the April weather,” “Music and blossoms together.” To celebrate spring’s arrival, here is a poem in the form of a bouquet, “gather[ed] and weave[d] … for you.”

Want to see more by Kate Seymour Maclean?
All Poetry
Public Domain Poetry

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A Review of Catherine Pierce’s The Girls of Peculiar 

Pierce Girls of Peculiar

A Review of Catherine Pierce’s The Girls of Peculiar

By Jennifer Dane Clements

Catherine Pierce’s second poetry collection, The Girls of Peculiar, resurrects the gangly and awkward ghosts of adolescence, in turns honoring and questioning those young spectres. Indeed, it is impossible to read The Girls of Peculiar and not consider one’s own unglamorous coming-of-age, from the sensation of “a globe welling up inside” to “that red ache that came from lying/to our mothers.”

For me, The Girls of Peculiar harkened back to the brick school buildings and blue carpeted halls where my own teenage years were spent. But Pierce’s words ring universal:

Last year you weighed more. This year you’re as tall
as you’ll get, and there’s a boy whose eyes are poisoned
marbles. You’ve photographed him again and again
but you can’t get the poison right. You’re sixteen.
You say this again and again but you can’t believe it.
(Fire Blight)

I went to a high school built by women, for women. There were the things we were told, that we were strong and intelligent and the leaders of tomorrow, and would not be stifled by gender inequity. We were taught by incredible women and introduced to women who defied the expectations of the world. We were bound to the women who had walked those carpeted halls before us, phantoms of girls past that we, like our predecessors, were destined to become.

We never cooled
with twilight. We were busy prowling
by the river; sending our lit eyes into tree hollows,
beneath parked cars.
(The Delinquent Girls)

And there were the things we knew that we didn’t have to say, that perhaps our parents and teachers didn’t wish to acknowledge. Some of us had eating disorders, or inflicted self-harm, or saw shrinks for diagnoses we didn’t have to secure medications we didn’t need. We identified as adults in ways that ranged from noble to naive. We had sex with older men. We pulled all-nighters on school grounds with the strange and forbidden blessing of our teachers. We hung out in rough parts of town, oblivious to how our uniforms marked us as young and entitled and unattainable in ways we couldn’t know. We wielded our small rations of power in a dozen micro-rebellions a day, then tucked in our shirttails and learned algebra.

We were all flavors of adolescent girl kept in one place, and nothing has quite captured that dynamic as accurately as The Girls of Peculiar.

But I’m so tired of the small steps–
the pentatonic scale, the frequent flyer
hoarding, the one exquisite sentence
in a forest of exquisite sentences.
There is a globe welling up inside of me.
Mountain ranges ridging my skin,
oceans filling my mouth. If I stay still
long enough, I could become my own world.
(Because I’ll Never Swim in Every Ocean)

Poems like “Dear Self I Might Have Been,” “Before the Reunion (Her Lament),” and “Postcards from her Alternate Lives,” look backward, from a vantage point informed by several decades. Resisting the nostalgic, they instead acknowledge the difficulties of youth, moving into the “long highway days of your twenties” and beyond. Each of these poems serves as a postscript to old yearbooks, answering the question of what we’ll become: One girl writes speeches for the First Lady. One girl married the bus driver. One works for the CIA. One remains a virgin at 30.

For some of us, the school-age moments feel lifetimes old; for some of us, as close as this morning’s latte. But The Girls of Peculiar has nothing to do with wanting to return to those days–its poems are elegies, truthful monuments to the myths, the expectations, and the anxieties we carried in youth.

This is every house on your block
lit from within, each bedroom window
shining with safety and you outside
in the icing dusk, knowing nothing
will ever warm you….
The Future? This is The Future
If you were here, you’d know that.
(The Girls We Were)

Twelve years past high school, I am tempted to wrap a copy of The Girls of Peculiar and send it to my school’s newly appointed headmaster, the first woman to oversee the school in decades. Pierce’s collection seems the briefest and most comprehensive reminder of how burgeoning adulthood feels to “the delinquent girls,” and “the quiet girls,” and “the drama girls,” and then all of them together–a manual of understanding and a call to empathy.

Let these strangenesses be like the impossible lizard’s
tail: gone forever, because how could it be otherwise,

and then reappearing, iridescent and blood-warmed,
because how could it be otherwise?
(For This You Have No Reason)

And what could be more vital to someone newly charged with overseeing all of those girls, and all of the peculiars in which they–for the moment–reside.

 

Catherine Pierce, The Girls of Peculiar. Saturnalia Books, 2012: $14.00.

***

Jennifer Dane Clements received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language & Art. A writer of prose and plays, she has been published in WordRiot, Nerve, and Psychopomp and has had plays produced by Capital Repertory Theatre (Albany, NY), Creative Cauldron (Falls Church, VA), and elsewhere. Clements currently works at a theatre-service organization and serves as a prose editor for ink&coda. More at jennifer-dane-clements.com.

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The house

laaa 582The house

By Hannah Phinney

They took the house away from us. I was an inkling there. I dragged my doo on the floor there. I sprouted opinions there, grew awkward and greasy-faced there, went back there after mutating into a psych-majoring, bourbon-swilling, semi-autonomous being. My dad’s two hands and my mom’s two hands built up that house – hands and minds soaked in youth, rigged with hope. Minds scalloped even, perhaps, with bits of love. Soon after the beginning: an unvarying downward trajectory. As if characters and plot all plucked from those austere, canonical novels we had to read in high school English. Dad forking hay bales of bad decisions onto the field of his life. Trying, once or twice, to talk money, to muddle the mirage. Mom a child with ears finger-plugged, a child self-sequestered in her room, skipping dinner.

So they took the house away from us. They came and they said, This house doesn’t belong to you anymore. Yes, you built it. You raised three kids in it, you had your dogs and your horses and your land and your happy times, but that doesn’t matter now. Shitty things happen, we’re sorry. But you’re adults and we’re adults. We have our jobs to do. Here’s your thirty days.

And they began to take the house away. Its adobe walls began to belong to others. Walls bleeding desert colors and marital antipathy. Hemorrhaging malamute death – mom’s crazy bedroom scrawls (“They are near…who they love…”). My childhood memories draining (eviction notices like leeches and walls like sick skin). Its terra-cotta floor tiles, dented and sunk by decades of ripened discord, turning anonymous. Its succulent-bedecked patio, its front yard cacti, its sprawling acreage…being absorbed by the faceless and nameless.

They took it away. But first we had to pack up all our stuff. Boxes of very old vitamins, shop tools, unopened DVDs. Conglomerates of ancient computers and Christmas junk. Grandma’s silverware. Humidifiers. House plants. Five closets’ worth of clothing. Ten rooms’ worth of furniture. One-gazillion framed photos. We dumped it in storage, we carried it with us. The house stayed there.

I look out now from between the bars of my irrevocable adulthood. I have no choice but to be strong and in control – no choice but to distain those mistakes. But there are nightmares that persist, that curl me into fetal shapes. The house haunts my dreams. The house, and how they took it from us.

***

Hannah Phinney recently received her M.A. in linguistics from San Francisco State University. She is currently slinging booze and writing flash fiction while deciding whether to spend another decade in school. Her semi-surrealistic/sci-fi/“disturbia” prose and poetry can be found at: http://kingzoko.wordpress.com/.

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SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: ONLY RIDE

OnlyRide-Front

from ONLY RIDE
By Megan Volpert:


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Today’s poems are from Only Ride, published by Sibling Rivalry Press, copyright © 2014 by Megan Volpert. “You are suspended” was first published in This assignment is so gay, edited by Megan Volpert and published by Sibling Rivalry Press. These poems appear here today with permission from the poet.


Only Ride: If Denis Johnson had written Tuesdays with Morrie, it’d feel like Megan Volpert’s book of prose poems. Clawing its way out through this minimalist checklist of suburban malaise is an emphatically optimistic approach to growing up. These tiny essays carefully detail how to avoid becoming one’s parents, how to manage a body addled by disease, and how to keep having the best possible time in life. After all: this is the only ride there is, and we can only ride it. Volpert’s is a story of Springsteenian proportions, a gentleman’s guide to rebellion complete with iron horses and the church of rock & roll.

Megan Volpert is the author of five books on communication and popular culture, most notably about Andy Warhol. She has been teaching high school English in Atlanta for the better part of a decade, and is currently serving as her school’s Teacher of the Year. She edited the American Library Association-honored anthology This assignment is so gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching, which is currently a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Predictably, www.meganvolpert.com is her website.

Editor’s Note: Megan Volpert’s Only Ride is a no-holds-barred journey through personal history, with sage wisdom bursting from its rough-and-tumble seams. The book is less Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and more Get a Grip and Ride Like it’s Your Only Ride. This is a book about how to live life. Suck it up and move past the childhood issues that scarred you. Don’t just cope with illness, thrive in the face of it. Live life full throttle no matter what it throws at you, because life is short and living demands fierce courage.

Throughout her journey Volpert takes personal and political stands, inspiring her readers to do the same. Sometimes you’ve just gotta smash things, because “a deep frustration that hurls pottery against the concrete floor… is not the thing to bottle up in shame.” Sometimes a teacher has a responsibility to teach more than just standard curriculum. As “the only openly queer faculty member in [a] public Southern high school,” Volpert is “fully equipped to teach both English & tolerance,” and she’ll write a student up for failing the latter.

Brimming with humor and hubris and wicked wit, the greatest gift of this book is the life lessons it relays. Stand up for what you believe in. Move past life’s bullshit and face adversity with a battle cry. Let go of the small stuff. “Many things annoy me,” Volpert confides, “but I seldom get really angry because now I just feel so lucky to be alive.” And we all should, the implication echoes. In a world where “[d]eath knocks twice: once for introductions & once to take you away,” why waste your precious life letting things get your goat? Having faced death, the poet gave her goat away; she has no goat to give. And we would all be well served to follow her example. “After all: this is the only ride there is, and we can only ride it.”

Want to see more from Megan Volpert?
Official Website
This assignment is so gay
Sibling Rivalry Press
FRONTIER PSYCHIATRIST

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