Chris La Tray's “attention in these small moments, paired with his simple, honest, and heartfelt words, helps to remind us that the smallest moment is important.”

Mitigating the In Between
A review of Chris La Tray's One-Sentence Journal  

by Bryn Agnew

 

“A quiet cup or two of coffee in the morning
and an ice cold beer or two in the evening
go a long way toward mitigating
whatever may have happened in between.”

– Chris La Tray, One-Sentence Journal

 

            Reading Chris La Tray’s first book One-Sentence Journal (Riverfeet Press 2018), I’m struck by interlinking of a million tiny magics. Each poem and essay in La Tray’s book focus on what would appear to be microscopic and ordinary moments. Innocuous some would say. But not La Tray. His attention in these small moments, paired with his simple, honest, and heartfelt words, helps to remind us that the smallest moment is important. That chain-wrapped tires can sound like sleigh bells, that a glorious afternoon doesn’t require sunshine, or that living paycheck to paycheck makes every other Friday feel like Christmas.

            The majority of One-Sentence Journal is made up of short poems (yes, often just one sentence) grouped by season. These sections’ structure is very intuitive, each moment being captured and honored within its own space while also maintaining the context of that particular season. Whether it is the needling cold of windblown ice or Missoula covered in golden, autumn leaves, La Tray shies away from nothing, finding beauty, wisdom, and worth in everything.

            Between the sections of short poems, La Tray drops in essays and longer poems, giving the reader a deeper look into value of small things (or perhaps they aren’t small at all). The topics range from propane deliveries (“My Life in Propane”), drunken encounters (“Higgins and 3rd”), Lincoln, MT after the capture of Ted Kaczynski (“Lincoln After Ted”), to the struggle between a fish and snake (“Creekside Drama”). But perhaps the crown jewel of these longer bits is the final essay, “Notes on the Sacred Art of Dog Walking.” In this penultimate essay, La Tray writes about loss and how a dog gave him something he didn’t know he needed, about how doing something that many would consider ordinary or a chore can resuscitate the soul of a person.

            I think that it would be incredibly reductive to talk about One-Sentence Journal as if it was a book about just one thing. No book is just about a singular topic. La Tray knows this and writes about the not-so-little things that many of us choose to ignore. He writes about them with the utmost gratitude. He is grateful for the gifts the world gives us, gifts that help us to be better people and pay attention to all that is happening around us. It’s all important. His writing, this book, is something we should be grateful for, because like all the best books, it is a gift.

“Every time I get outdoors,
            (up in the hills
            along the river
            wherever)
I feel like the world just gives and gives
and I’m not doing a damn thing
to give anything back.”

– Chris La Tray, One-Sentence Journal


Chris La Tray, an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, is a writer and photographer who lives just outside Missoula, Montana. His work has appeared in various magazines, collections and anthologies. It has been suggested that, because of the nature of his work, Chris La Tray must smell like Yukon gold dust, spruce tips, and cedar waxwings. He hopes it's true.


Bryn Agnew is a MFA fiction candidate at the University of Montana and bookseller at Missoula's Fact & Fiction. He holds a BA and MA in creative writing from the University of North Texas. His stories and essays have appeared in Mid-American Review, The Nottingham Review, and North Texas Review.


In

A Driver Runs Through It? A review of Melissa Stephenson’s DRIVEN by Jacqueline Brennan.

 

My father and I talked about this moment several times later, and whatever our other feelings, we always felt it fitting that, when we saw him catch his last fish, we never saw the fish but only the artistry of the fisherman.

A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean

 

I think he liked my stories because they humanized him. I do this now, for myself, replaying that final day so that I might understand how he felt, how death opened him up, blowing a vent in his head to let all those shark dreams out.

Driven, Melissa Stephenson

 

 

Melissa Stephenson’s DRIVEN: A Driver Runs Through It?

by Jacqueline Brennan
 

“Grief is the cost of love. And loving someone is never a failure.” Author Melissa Stephenson said this and a number of things that resounded with the force of great elegiac storytelling in a Montana Public Radio interview about her then-forthcoming memoir. In the space of less than 30 minutes, Stephenson’s ruminations on grief, being an ambitious kid with “big feelings,” and calculated examination of a loved one’s suicide keyed me in that this was a person we can trust to take us on a ride through weighty material.

Though originally from Indiana, Stephenson’s adopted home of many years is Montana. I expected her debut book, a memoir called Driven, to be powerful, and very much in the vein of the profound, reflective writing the state consistently begets. I did not, however, expect it to be a reading experience on the magnitude of one of the most affecting tragic stories to come out of Montana, Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It.

Stephenson’s memoir hit bookstore shelves July 23, and I made the mistake of preordering it so I was able to read it at the earliest available opportunity. That resulted in me reading the bulk of the memoir on a plane to Montana during the first days of August, and weeping most of the way through. It was effectively a repeat of the experience I had reading Maclean’s seminal Montana story on a plane to my hometown when I was 19. I was then an undergraduate student in Virginia, and one of my writing instructors was indignant that I had never read the story despite being from Montana. He sent me off to my holiday break with his personal copy of what Annie Proulx, in a 2001 foreword, calls Maclean’s “little book.” The last sentence of Maclean’s story, “I am haunted by waters,” might be the closest anybody’s come to distilling the wistful sense that pervades the imagination of Montanans. I like to think that it’s an effect of the commanding landscape, and Maclean’s choice of fly fishing—an activity that requires mimicking the patterns of natural order—as his grounding story metaphor is in line with the idea.

Stephenson uses a decidedly different but equally compelling metaphor as a way into, then through, the story of her own brother’s death. Once over the raw emotion of her gorgeous story, I found myself touting the parallels between Stephenson’s memoir and Maclean’s novella to anybody who’d listen. In subsequent days, I came up with a more concise way to state the comparison: Driven is like A River Runs Through It, except it’s a sister’s POV on her brother’s death, and instead of fly fishing, the unifying metaphor is cars.

If you love the older of the two books, the newest is up your alley. And although the similitude rests in the broad strokes of the two stories, Stephenson’s voice and background are distinct. It makes the rare reading experience of a truly vulnerable story accessible through a narrator who is unflinching and compassionate, without ever feigning to be a hero on her “white-knuckled ride to heartbreak and back.” Nonetheless, some of the broad strokes I noticed are worth underscoring. The strength of how these shared touchstones—thematic and tactical—manifest in one story only flatters the other because they’re both stories of the highest quality.

Live wire, wayward brothers

I want to be exceedingly clear that to compare Stephenson and Maclean’s respective brothers is not to conflate them as a type, nor to collapse and relegate them to merely a single dimension of “troubled.” And if you read both, you’ll agree with me that at least the fallacy of uni-dimensionality is easy to avoid because, despite their many struggles, both Paul Maclean and Matthew Stephenson were, by their siblings’ accounts, preternaturally charismatic, complex, bright, and multi-talented.

Maclean’s story teems with eloquent wisdom on subjects mundane to grand, and one of the best morsels from the mundane end of the spectrum comes from his younger brother when he articulates a principle Montanans—whether they admit it or not—still live by today. Namely, a wanton distrust of Californians in our state. Norman tries to do his sweetheart a solid by taking her wayward brother fishing when he’s in from California to visit. But the younger Maclean objects to the proposition, saying, “I won’t fish with him. He comes from the West Coast and he fishes with worms.”

Paul Maclean was, in his brother’s fictional construction, an eternal charmer who always had more people in his corner than not, even at the remarkable pace he acquired nemeses from his penchant for gambling and heavy drinking. It comes as little surprise that Brad Pitt was tapped for the role of Paul Maclean while he was in his whippersnapper pretty-boy prime for Redford’s 1992 film adaptation (and again as Tristan Ludlow for Edward Zwick’s adaptation of Legends of the Fall shortly thereafter). And Stephenson’s brother Matthew calls to the mind’s eye a similar physiognomy and attitude with descriptions like:

Some gifts we are born with. Matthew took the mother lode in magnetism.

He loved convicts and sanitation workers the way I loved Flannery O’Connor and her peacocks.

The trick rested in making the true story of my brother believable.

That the trick for Stephenson rested in making her brother’s story believable is one of the great testaments to an achievement of her book that is at once reminiscent of Maclean’s story, while wholly remarkable and done on her own terms. Maclean struggled over many years to capture his family’s story, and ultimately found a way to do it with fiction. Stephenson white-knuckles it without the exemption from fact-checking. And her early acknowledgment of the challenge in making Matthew believable will strike anybody who’s ever tried to write vulnerable nonfiction. Writing such material only to get feedback that the motivations or events that transpire are unbelievable is a perennial frustration. Finding work-arounds to surmount that common challenge takes tremendous skill, and also a lot of drafts that miss wide before the story finally passes plausibility muster.

The paradox of elusiveness and intimacy

That Maclean found a different channel for his river (if you will) is not a dig on his story’s integrity (nor its sanctity, for that matter). In fact, the contrast in execution between Maclean’s story and Stephenson’s is related to a question that both authors wrestle with—that of creating, through words, a lucid and artful facsimile of our own lives and the people in them.

Stephenson has admitted in both the aforementioned public radio interview as well as in an August 2018 “Writing on the Air” interview in Austin, Texas, that she began telling stories about her brother long before he ultimately took his life in August 2000. Of the time Matthew was alive, she writes in Driven, “I think he liked my stories because they humanized him.” Her memoir, then, becomes a way of her taking emotional stock of why we tell these stories if they are no longer for the subject’s benefit. The notion has moving echoes with an exchange near the end of A River Runs Through It. It begins with Norman Maclean’s father speaking:

“After you have finished your true stories sometime, why don’t you make up a story and the people to go with it?

“Only then will you understand what happened and why.

“It is those we live with and love and we know who elude us.”

Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.

This intimate moment between two generations of Scots-Presbyterians is one of many that I’m tempted to read as sourced verbatim from a real conversation that Maclean had with his father. And I think what Stephenson and Maclean share most astutely is a willingness to observe and document as life becomes a story, even if it’s one they know they won’t be able to tell faithfully until many years down the road, or the river.

Subtext in the metaphor

Asked to explain her decision to use cars as a unifying metaphor Stephenson noted that though she grew up in what she’d consider a loving family, they didn’t “talk about the big things very well, like feelings, or a family history of suicide, or alcoholism, or mood disorders.” But, she said, “We could talk about cars.”

The lingo of cars even suffuses the pedestrian mantras Stephenson recalls her family using when her brother was plainly not doing well:

He’d returned to Indiana alive, and all we knew how to offer, without words, was that same old message, flat as a worn-out tire: It’ll all buff out.

Although we can never know if they were used as abundantly in actuality as they are in the story, I suspect the Maclean family leaned on the fishing metaphors as much as Stephenson’s family relied on their car metaphors. For his part, Maclean may have had to distend the metaphor as a measure of catharsis, or at least to fill in cracks to make his brother’s story tactile and believable. In both stories though, the mystique of the respective metaphors is that they’re ripe with subtext, as in Maclean’s last time fishing with his brother and father:

My father said, “There has to be a big one out there.”

I said, “A little one couldn’t live out there.”

My father said, “The big one wouldn’t let it.”

My father could tell by the width of Paul’s chest that he was going to let the next loop sail. It couldn’t get any wider. “I wanted to fish out there,” he said, “but I couldn’t cast that far.”

Maclean and Stephenson’s expert use of a metaphorical throughline shows how load-bearing the technique can be in tragedy. While in comic contexts, the technique takes the form of puns, the tragic function allows for controlled but abundant subtext.

Humor

In the spirit of ending on a high note, it bears to remark on the incredibly wry wit that makes for some of the most memorable passages in both these stories. It’s not heavy-handed. It’s not gratuitous. It imbues each of these heart-rending narratives with just the right levity at the right moments. And nailing that balance may take as much skill as it takes to capture the dimensionality and plausibility that I’ve already highlighted.

Maclean’s most satisfying dose of levity comes just past the halfway point, recalling an episode with a pair of folks asleep naked on a sandbar after some of your average afternoon outdoor love-making:

You have never really seen an ass until you have seen two sunburned asses on a sandbar in the middle of a river. Nearly all the rest of the body seems to have evaporated. The body is a large red ass about to blister, with hair on one end of it for a head and feet attached to the other end for legs.

Stephenson is as good at interpreting the comedy in the base as Maclean. Maybe even better. Her theater background serves her well when she sprinkles in some particularly well-timed comic relief after recounting all the cringe-worthy particulars of her cruise wedding. She and her new husband Josh suffer a moment of panic when they wake up the morning after to discover a “brown smear” on Josh’s side of the bed. I’m not skittish about spoilers in any context, but I want to leave that one alone to encourage readers to independently discover the source of the smear, and all the other well-placed and often unexpected comic moments before and after.

Drivers and rivers

I should say that Stephenson does make explicit mention of Maclean’s story in her memoir, and even cites it as one she read in a sequence that inspired her to attend undergrad in Missoula, the town that she has since returned to with her two children after stints elsewhere. She hasn’t remarked on the degree to which Maclean was or wasn’t on her mind while she was piecing together the writings that eventually coalesced to form her memoir. But an attuned reader could be forgiven for suspecting that Stephenson’s conscience does take some cues from the earlier narratives that attracted her to the town she now calls home.

I’ve been advised that ending an original piece of writing with an unoriginal thought is, for mysterious reasons, an abominable faux pas, a disgraceful way to sign off. But I’m not sure who’s enforcing this originality protocol, and I assume literate audiences grant exception to any such rule when the words come from Norman Maclean. Because Stephenson clearly felt called back to Missoula after some time away, I’d wager she’s discovered the validity of the ageless wisdom, many times over, that the world is “full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the farther one gets from Missoula, Montana.” As of August 2018, she’s still on the road making the reading and press rounds with her fabulous debut, and it’s only a matter of time before she discovers this fact anew. Let it be soon, so she can get back home and finish her next book. We need it like Stephenson needs her VW vans and Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks.


About Jacqueline Brennan

Jackie is a Southwest Montana native. She's currently based in Washington, DC, where she runs the digital media traps for a national nonprofit and is an MFA Creative Writing candidate at American University. She's an avid shooter of the proverbial breeze, and has suffered chronic peak withdrawals for as long as she's lived in the Mid-Atlantic.

Follow Jackie's tweets at @j_quellin_b

 

 

 Photo by  Chris La Tray

Photo by Chris La Tray


Melissa Stephenson earned her B.A. in English from The University of Montana and her M.F.A. in Fiction from Texas State University. Her writing has appeared in publications such asThe RumpusThe Washington PostBarrelhouseMuthaBlackbird, and Fourth Genre. She lives in Missoula, Montana with her two kids.

 

melissastephenson__2_.jpg

In

On the line between appropriation and allyship: A review of Rebecca Makkai's THE GREAT BELIEVERS by Becca Rose Hall

thegreatbelievers_graphic.png

"...we are responsible for what we create, and for how we write about what we write about, especially when we write about trauma and tragedy that is not our own."
 

* * *

It starts with a party. A funeral party. It is Chicago, 1985, and a young man named Nico has just died of AIDS. His homophobic parents exclude his partner and friends from the formal funeral, so they throw their own. Despite the Cuba Libres and cute boys, no one exactly feels like partying, least of all Nico’s sister Fiona and friend Yale. But still, it starts out so fun, despite the occasion. And then.

This is the world Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers drops us into as quickly and completely as if we also had stepped from a dark street into a hopping funeral party. The book alternates perspectives between Yale and Fiona: Yale in 1985 as AIDS sweeps through his circle and he works to secure an incredible art acquisition from 1920’s Paris, Fiona in 2015 as she heads to Paris to look for her estranged daughter, the wounds of her thirty-year-old losses still with her. This simultaneity of tragedy and survival lets the crisis and its aftermath unfold in tension, the crisis always in the present the way traumas are. Makkai manages information deftly so that the whole tragedy is a slow-moving train wreck you can see coming, know how to dodge, but that still hits you sideways. And it hits you hard. There is dread and grief, anger and disbelief, fatalism and magical thinking, and a fierce resiliency and love of life in this novel. The characters get in your mind and become imaginary friends. Reading their stories, I felt the magnitude of loss the arrival of AIDS brought in a way I, a straight white lady who was just learning to read when these men were dying, never had before.

As far as I know from Makkai’s author bio and from our slight acquaintance (she was the fellow in my workshop at Sewanee in 2011, and we’ve stayed in occasional touch through social media), Makkai is a straight woman, married with kids. If she has a personal connection to the AIDS crisis, or to the subculture she writes about, she doesn’t disclose it. Despite the vividness of the world Makkai creates, her outsiderness shows. For instance, the mid-eighties gay scene as Makkai describes it is just as I would have imagined it. I don’t know if that is because her portrayal is extremely accurate, or if it is because she is writing outside her own experience (as I am reading outside mine), and so the novel leans on generally shared stereotypes of what that life was like. In any case, I wasn’t surprised by anything in Makkai’s world, real as it felt. Nothing was weird. It was as if she worked so hard to get the characters right that they became predictable. They felt like real people, but just the real people I’d expect to show up to that particular party.

* * *

Reading The Great Believers also made me think about what it means to write stories outside our own experience, stories that we may care about but are not our own. It is extremely important for writers to write across lines of difference, to write characters of different races and genders and sexualities and classes and worldviews. For one thing, we’d have too many books about MFA students. Too many books set in New York. We would also have too many books that don’t have people of color in them, or don’t pass the literary equivalent of the Bechdel test, or don’t get inside the minds of Republicans. In other words, that don’t reflect the fullness of the world. If one of the superpowers of fiction is the creation of empathy, then writing about people other than ourselves is critical.

Writing is an act of imagination, and imagination doesn’t follow social codes. However, we are responsible for what we create, and for how we write about what we write about, especially when we write about trauma and tragedy that is not our own. It’s easy for that to become appropriation for the sake of plot drama, which is icky. It’s easy to become an authority without knowing how something felt to live. This is especially complicated when you write a story that belongs to a group of people who have struggled to be heard on their own terms, like the men in Makkai’s novel.

To be fair, Makkai is aware of this, and writes in her afterward about the subjective line between appropriation and allyship. And Fiona’s story, which is the story of the witness, the survivor, the ally, makes the book also about those things. Fiona carries the weight of surviving even more than the surviving HIV-positive men. Her grief has directed her entire life: her work, her own recklessness, her relationship with her daughter. One of the most interesting scenes in Fiona’s story is when she is reunited with a man she thought had died of AIDS, but who had managed to hang on until the “good drugs” came on and had made it through. How strange, says Makkai, that this man could have “a second life, a whole entire life, when Fiona had been living for the past thirty years in a deafening echo. She’d been tending the graveyard alone….” It’s a conversation that helps the book reach its end, and one that seems like instructions for healthy allyship as well. Yes, witness and imagine and empathize and grieve and offer a hand. But also live your own life. Don’t let others’ pain be your plot.

Making art out of pain is wise and human; making art out of other peoples’ pain is vampiristic. Makkai’s novel raises enough questions and makes me feel deeply enough that I believe she has honored her material. Others likely feel differently. There are great novels about American gay life during the peak of the AIDS epidemic that are written from the inside. (In the City of Shy Hunters by Tom Spanbauer comes to mind.) They should not be left out of the conversation.

In another way, this story does belong to our whole culture, because we are all survivors and witnesses, though most of us are crappy, inattentive ones. AIDS has brushed us all, at least in our fears; half my 1990’s sex-ed class was about AIDS: which bodily fluids and not toilet seats and through lambskin but not dental dams and even Magic Johnson and safer not safe because no guarantees and anyone anywhere maybe even me. No one I knew ever died of it. We need to hear and feel this story.

The extent to which people outside the gay community ignored the AIDS crisis then and forget about it now is wrong. Wrong like ignoring the trauma of war is wrong. Even my AIDS-obsessed sex-ed class didn’t spend time humanizing the devastation in the gay community as much as convincing us heterosexual kids we should be worried about ourselves. These are the things I thought about, some for the first time, when I read this book. Clearly, we need the empathetic entry points that fiction gives us. We need stories to come to life so we can feel them. The Great Believers does this and does it powerfully. But the question remains: does Makkai’s book add to an important conversation or hog the mic? Or both?

* * *

Becca Rose Hall lives, reads, and writes near Seattle with her husband and daughter. She is the director of Frog Hollow School, a children's writing program. Her novel, Salt for Salt, is currently out on submission and she is working on another novel. She studied writing at Stanford University and the University of Montana. Her work has appeared in Contrary Magazine, High Country News, Elsewhere Lit, Smokebox, The Bellingham Review, and elsewhere. Check it all out here, and follow her on twitter at @beccarosehall.


In

CUTBANK REVIEWS: Jackie Brennan & The Dogs of Callan Wink

The Top 5 Dogs of Callan Wink’s Stories

by Jacqueline Brennan

     “I’ve always liked dogs. That’s why I asked. I remember watching that one walk across the field in the snow. A beautiful animal.”
     “The day you get a dog is the day you sign up to bury it. It’s a package deal. No sense in getting too attached.”
     “You could say that about anything. Everything in your life—either you bury it or it buries you. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get attached.

                                         “In Hindsight”

Behold the Dalmatian in all its magnificent idiocy.
Photo from https://valentina-86.deviantart.com/art/crazy-255658657

Poet Chris Dombrowski described Callan Wink’s debut short story collection as “mongrel stories of the new West.” Asked to react to the description in a late 2017 interview, Wink said, “I think the stories are, you know, set in the new West, as it is. And I’m not sure I know what it is to be a mongrel as it applies to a fiction piece…but I like it.”

That’s the most that has been made of Dombrowski’s use of mongrel in reviewing Wink’s work. And I find that weird. Poets are notoriously choosy with their words, so when Dombrowski says mongrel, he means mongrel, dammit. Denotatively, a mongrel is “a dog of no definable type or breed.” Dombrowski uses the tag as a nod to Wink’s versatility, and as an implicit appeal to prospective readers to resist the urge to shelve his prose reductively. That is, it’s tempting to cast Wink as the newest white male writer of stories about other white males, set predominantly in the West. But, in addition to Dombrowski’s nod, he’s throwing us a wink—and it’s specifically directed at the many memorable dogs of the Michigander-gone-Montanan’s imagination.

I remember dogs in stories—much as I do in life—with inordinate clarity, and a lot of fine dogs have graced stories set in my home state of Montana. Two come to mind immediately. First, Bill Bell’s dog from Maclean’s USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky, and Steinbeck’s tall poodle, whose manners and quirks figure prominently into the texture of Travels With Charly. Though Steinbeck’s travelogue is not about Montana specifically, he devotes an entire chapter to describing his passage through the state in elevated, affectionate terms.

Wink’s collection takes its name from the first story, “Dog Run Moon.” By virtue of the title alone, I came in banking on some strong dog performances, and wasn’t disappointed. I am surprised, however, that no previous concerted discussion of Wink’s fiction has explicitly remarked on the dogs. That changes now, with this list of the five most memorable canines from Callan Wink’s fiction, ranked primarily on the basis of memorability, but also employing some personal taste and references for those that were too close to call without a second criterion. I’ll also emphasize that Callan Wink’s fictional animal kingdom is vast, and well worth a discerning reader’s independent exploration. But I’m just appraising the dogs. So here they are.

 

5. Charlie

He didn’t think his life lacked for much of anything, At least there were no holes that couldn’t be filled by getting a dog. Last spring, his old lab Charlie had gone to chase the big tennis ball in the sky. He thought enough time had passed now and maybe he’d go look at the shelter sometime soon.

“Sun Dance”

I admire few things more from a craft standpoint than when a writer incites emotion with something that’s absent from the space and time of a story. For dog people, the notion of an old lab going on to chase the big tennis ball in the sky rings true. It’s a small, sympathetic detail that readers can transpose onto their own experience as dog owners. The move is emotionally load-bearing. As evidence, although this dog only gets a passing mention, he stayed with me well past finishing Wink’s book.

 

4. Elton John

Her dogs sat and watched her work, two small brown mutts of indeterminate breed. They’d shown up together a few years back and decided they would stay. They were two neutered males and they seemed to be good friends, old traveling companions. She’d named them as a unit, not separately, because they were never apart. Elton John. That was their name.

“In Hindsight”

If Wink’s readers were asked to make their own version of this list, I’d bet most would give Elton John top honors. They were in contention for mine. Yes, they. Because Elton John are two dogs, indivisible, named in aggregate by Lauren, the main character of “In Hindsight.” To their credit, the unassuming Elton John do a lot. And by “a lot,” I mean that they make us laugh, as many of Wink’s animals do. To boot, shortly after finishing Wink’s book, part of the reason I couldn’t shut up about it is because I spent a few days with a real-life Elton John—two German Shorthaired Pointers who also move through the world as a unit. Only difference is that they in fact have unique names, Odin and Freya—which I assume are taken from Norse deities. As of Memorial Day weekend 2018, I’m technically extended kin to those dogs owing to my cousin’s marriage to their owner, a well-tattooed Bay Area construction worker originally from Southern Utah.

Part of the joy of reading about Elton John was that they immediately reminded me of the dogs David Foster Wallace had in real life, Jeeves and Drone. The ease with which Elton John enter Lauren’s life recalled the way Wallace described Drone entering his: “He just showed up once while [Jeeves and I] were jogging.”

That I don’t give Elton John the top spot can be chalked up to taste and timing, but it’s also worth mentioning that “In Hindsight” was many readers’ intro to Wink’s work. A few years before Wink’s debut book was published, The New Yorker launched their online novella series with the long story. My first exposure to Wink was actually not the novella, and that’s why I’m going to break form for the third slot.

 

3. Brothel ghost cats

“There was a cat,” she said. “Right in the living room. It jumped up on the couch. It looked at me and I went to go pet it but it jumped down and ran into the kitchen. I thought the front door must have blown open so I went to go close it but it wasn’t open at all. Then I went back into the kitchen to find the cat, but it wasn’t there. I’ve torn the damn place apart and there isn’t a cat anywhere.”

“Upside Down”

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Speaking in this passage is Julie, the romantic interest of the main character in “Upside Down,” which appeared in the 2016-17 issue of The Idaho Review. We eventually learn that, far from hallucinating, Julie (who is a little bananas, otherwise) is indeed seeing ghost cats. They haunt a structure that was a brothel in its salad days, which is about as Montana as it gets for story material.

I’m breaking at least two of my own rules to include these cats in the lineup. Besides being the only animals on this list not in Dog Run Moon, I’m decidedly not a cat person. I often choose to ignore cats for the same reasons a lot of folks refuse to refer to our sitting president by name, as if I might successfully ignore a popular domesticated animal out of reality. It hasn’t worked. But Wink’s cats are ghosts, so maybe all this time, I’ve only had an aversion to living cats and haven’t known it. In any case, “Upside Down” was my intro to Wink, and I was so signed on with the sheer imaginative merit of brothel ghost cats that I sought out more of his stuff. And now, as if in a Miltonic twist of felix culpa, the dead cats started a chain of events creating an occasion to remark on many great dogs. So perhaps there’s a benign purpose for cats after all.

 

2. Montana Bob’s dog

Sid unhooked the chain from the dog’s collar, and when he turned to leave, the dog followed him to his truck, jumped in, and sat on the bench seat, leaning forward with his nose smudging the windshield.

“Dog Run Moon”

The dog in the title story of Wink’s debut collection, like the whole story itself, is a solid opener. And as somebody who has a deviant affection for silent era cinema, there’s a particular delight and humor to this story that comes from one character in particular. The human characters and this dog have a way reinforcing the tone and conventions of silent cinema that give this story, and its chase scenes in particular, a register somewhere in between slapstick and earnest desperation. Though Montana Bob’s dog has less personality than some of the animals recognized deeper in this list, I made a deliberate choice to rank these creatures in terms of memorability. Montana Bob’s dog has that going as a consequence of being, in a sense, a title character. But he’s also the rare dog in Wink’s collection that actually has a bearing on the central conflict between human characters in the story.

 

1. Rocks

Since retiring, she’d volunteered at the animal shelter three days a week. She’d adopted dogs, of course, one or two a year, and she currently had nine, mostly mutts except one purebred Dalmatian that showcased all of the magnificent idiocy inherent in its pedigree.

“In Hindsight”

animal-dalmatian-dog-36436.jpg

The she in this passage is our old friend Lauren, also the owner of the previously mentioned doggie duo Elton John. I can tell Rocks is a misunderstood star. However, it’s unclear whether the burden of misunderstanding resides with the character, the author, or both. Rocks might be the only technically non-mongrel dog in a story collection otherwise teeming with them. In addition to the emphasis on his “magnificent idiocy,” we’re later told that the dog was named “after the contents of its head.”

Rocks, I have to admit, was not my initial favorite for the top spot, but he did stick with me. He has the advantage of being the last named animal in order of appearance in Dog Run Moon. But if I’m being completely honest, Rocks really appeals to my fatal and time-honored attraction to idiots and antiheroes (in essence, people like me). The writing on the wall that sealed Rocks’ supremacy was something I saw while still appraising Wink’s dogs: A shop in Lone Pine, California that made much fanfare of the fact that they sold ROCKS with a neon light.  Lone Pine is a small town in the Owens Valley known best for its proximity to the Eastern Sierra Range and Mt. Whitney in particular. Having grown up in a Yellowstone gateway community myself, I sympathized with Lone Pine’s need to assert itself against a society that tends to relegate the town to means-to-an-end status: A mere base camp for folks climbing to the highest point in the contiguous United States the next day. I understood why Lone Pine would force an issue like ROCKS. In contrast, Wink’s Rocks has no insecurities about his magnificent idiocy. He’s an idiot with integrity, and I realized how much I admired that when I saw such desperation from a separate iteration of his name.

Critics have received Wink’s prose warmly, and judging by the folks who blurbed his first edition hardcover of Dog Run Moon, the guy is here to stay (maybe even heel). Wink suggested in this October 2017 interview that his forthcoming novel will reprise the character August from “Breatharians,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 2012 and is the fourth story in Dog Run Moon. The short story basis for the novel has no shortage of dogs and barn cats, so it’s likely we’ll have yet more animals from Wink’s mind palace to meet in short order. In the interim, I’ll miss meeting his dogs on the page. But perhaps it's enough for now that I can’t see a Dalmatian without thinking of Rocks, my cousin’s Pointers without thinking of Elton John, or even any useless cats now without knowing they may have a redeeming quality yet when they die.


 

About Jacqueline Brennan

Jackie is a Southwest Montana native. She's currently based in Washington, DC, where she runs the digital media traps for a national nonprofit and is an MFA Creative Writing candidate at American University. She's an avid shooter of the proverbial breeze, and has suffered chronic peak withdrawals for as long as she's lived in the Mid-Atlantic.

Follow Jackie's tweets at @j_quellin_b


In

CUTBANK REVIEWS: Shelley Marlow's TWO AUGUSTS IN A ROW IN A ROW

A Moth Can't Be Held Onto:
Vulnerability and Witchcraft in Shelley Marlow's Two Augusts In a Row In a Row

Review by Jenny Montgomery
 

I gingerly climb through the largest hole in the side of the shipwreck. An artist with a Belgian accent, wearing a kimono, graciously greets me with a deep bow and leads me to squat on a floating square for a cup of tea. I notice Shelley First, the avant-garde shaman songbird, perching nearby. Her hair, black with white streaks, snakes around her head, larger than her thin body, which vibrates when she speaks. I wave to her and say, ‘I’m ready for my singing lesson.’
 Shelley Marlow, Two Augusts In a Row In a Row, art edition (Troy, NY: Publication Studio, 2015) Cover image as tweeted by @marlow_shelley

Shelley Marlow, Two Augusts In a Row In a Row, art edition
(Troy, NY: Publication Studio, 2015)
Cover image as tweeted by @marlow_shelley

Philip/Philomena, the OCD drag king Jewish magician narrator of Two Augusts In a Row In a Row, is an unforgettable character who must summon many skills to survive a difficult year. Sporadically employed as a freelance transcriber of letters by Swann (a 1930s-movie star with whom an ancestral link is discovered), Phil careens vulnerably between love affairs, drag performances, plane, train and automobile journeys, art parties, synchronistic events, and run-ins with helpful, aggressive, or mystical figures. The plot simmers toward Phil’s grand romance with a Boston witch named Magi and the devastating catastrophes of 9/11 and his father’s death. Questions of love, grief, sanity, and how to sustain one’s power in a threatening world are thoroughly engaged in this mesmerizing story with several suspenseful threads.

Marlow’s style is appealing and beautiful, propelling the reader forward with its mix of sophistication and Zen-like neologism. Syntax lifts off the rails in exhilarating ways, prepositions stand in for one another, and rich, leisurely descriptions succeed in creating a fully realized world saturated with the far-out colors, sounds, and textures of Phil’s urban and inner landscapes. (Marlow received an Acker Award for Excellence in Avant-Garde Writing in 2017.)

Witchcraft, visionary experience, dream intervention, and the need for spells of self-protection appear regularly throughout this book, as if one could not possibly navigate such an unpredictable world without heeding them. Phil summons power to triumph against gender misunderstanding, parental incomprehension, unwanted come-ons, and rude behavior on the subway. Witches populate the wider world: Phil’s two cousins are introduced early and swoop in again at the end: “Betsy is a leader of a whole region of witches in the north, while Susun has a coven of lesbian rabbi witches south of here. They have faith.” A witch named Freesia appears in a dream and is later located on the Internet.

I was left wanting to know more about Magi’s well-paying freelance gig in Italy, serving as a witch consultant to a mysterious group of architects (“I will help clear the energy from old hotels, participate in a think tank in Ravello, and work on top secret investigative work.”)

Marlow’s novel may be a cousin to those modernist works which fold the occult and magic into disenchanted, denatured, urban, industrial settings. Poets such as Yeats, Eliot, HD, Robert Duncan, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and James Merrill challenged the disbelief of the secular / psychological age. For some, the world could be re-enchanted wholly—for others, only partly. Skepticism, irony, and defensive joking regarding the occult all thread through Merrill’s Ouija-channeled long poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, which also questions authorship (Merrill ostensibly takes a side seat to the entities which speak through the Ouija pointer). In "Mirabell: Books of Number,"[1] Helen Vendler excuses such eccentricity as primarily a sly language experiment, but Merrill remained a believer in important ways.[2] Contemporary writers who identify themselves as #bruja on Twitter are also brought to mind by Two Augusts, as well as the Voodoo practitioners of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo and the subjects of Darius James’ documentary, The United States of Hoodoo.

Readings from Two Augusts In a Row In a Row’s release party at the Bureau of General Services Queer Division in the West Village

How does humor operate in Marlow’s work? It is not there to subvert the magical, but to bring it down to earth.[3] “I get lost for hours reading my magic books with their diagrams and magic symbols and numbers. I sit in my comfy chair under the standing lamp dropping pale yellow light on my pages and hands, only getting up to use the bathroom or make a spicy taco with beans and cheddar cheese.”  Repartee right out of a Mel Brooks film ensues in the Italy section: “‘Did you say you were looking for Australia?’ Magi calmly says, ‘No. La strega.’ The British woman says, ‘Las Vegas?’ I say, ‘Witches in Naples?’ She thinks we are daft and walks away.”

Marlow deftly and comically reveals the frailer side of Phil’s radically sensitive nature: classic neurosis. You may never encounter so many instances of hand-sanitization or manic house cleaning in a work of fiction. Phil is wary of physical contact with strangers and, at times, intimates: “A moth can’t be held onto, because the wings’ iridescent powder sticks to your skin, and the contact speeds the creature’s end. I am like that too, because I am afraid that any contact will speed up my demise.”  This makes the novel’s erotic passages even more complex and colors the ultimate question: in a time of extreme vulnerability and grief, should Phil open to Magi’s apparently steadfast love, or retreat into sanitized solitude?

Printed by Publication Studio and bound in rich, oyster pink stock, this art edition of Two Augusts is a luminous beauty. The hand-letterpress cover is embossed in the style of the old Olympia Press’ “Traveller’s Companion” series, which it references. (From Paris, Olympia brought out erotica and avant-garde literary fiction, which could not be published without threat of legal action in the English-speaking world, and is remembered for printing scandalous works like Lolita, Naked Lunch, The Story of O, and Candy by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg.)

Publication Studio presents work they feel has been effectively “censored” by the market, and has spared no expense or attention to detail in this edition, which contains twenty-four of Marlow’s spontaneous and intimate ink-on-rice-paper drawings, watercolors, and tempera and oil paintings are interspersed throughout. Compact yet hefty, it sits emphatically in the hand.

* * *

[1] Helen Vendler, "'Mirabell: Books of Number," Part of Nature, Part of Us: Modern American Poets, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 220-221.
[2] Timothy Materer, Modernist Alchemy: Poetry and the Occult, Ithaca: Cornell. 1995.
[3] This is evident as well in Marlow’s riveting St. Petersburg Review piece on her encounters with Tuvan shamans, “Notes in Kyzyl,” which can be accessed here


About the Author:
Jenny (Seymore) Montgomery has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Barrow Street, Tar River, CALYX, Unsplendid, the New York Times, and the Cairo Times. Her poetry installations have been shown at galleries in Montana and Washington. She resides in Missoula, Montana where she owns a distillery with her husband. Her poem, “The Privative Alpha,” was a finalist for the 2017 Kay Murphy Prize for Poetry, judged by Myung Mi Kim. Her poem “Proofed” was runner-up for the 2017 Brittany Noakes Award judged by Sandra Beasley. Find Jenny online at jenny-montgomery.com, and tweeting @jennymtgomery.

Shelley Marlow can be followed at Twitter: @marlow_shelley, on Facebook: TwoAugustsInaRowInaRow, and on Instagram: www.instagram.com/shelleymarlow/


In

CUTBANK REVIEWS: Lauren Levin’s THE BRAID

It’s the really satisfying second of the opening credits
When the neon flashes in
And you know you’re in good hands.

Acts of Abandonment: Lauren Levin’s The Braid

by Poppy Samuels

Lauren Levin the Braid.jpg

In Lauren Levin’s The Braid, I know I’m in good hands. So I feel comfortable asking all the strange questions great poetry brings: Where am I? Where is Susan Sontag? How many bridges into the now escape? Where is the poet’s grandmother, a true shepherdess of grace? And where is the ricocheting voice of Alejandra? In this radiant collection, I count nine epic poetries consumed with relentless travel across bridges of all kinds: imaginative, emotional, spiritual, physical, intellectual, intuitive. Bridges that connect and displace, “like a footbridge between myself” the poet writes. A ravenous intellect roams Levin’s constructed landscapes of where her “body stops and the world begins,” computing all the possibilities flashing behind the poet’s thinking gaze. Bridges built from the texturized language close to Thought, pinpricked in sweaty rashes across an innsomatic body, a mapping of cascading orders strung with lights and rattling shells amplifying overheard conversations. A body anxious to receive visitors but sometimes without the proper response in hand. A hand that measures time with her own maternal body, signaling this haunting reflection: “Braiding is a social art / to own a body’s time….” The body as a living repository of failed political landscapes, but the braid never a network of complimentary connections.

The Braid bravely considers how to walk the interconnected spaces that link the poet to motherhood, art, politics, health, love, and language. Its rhythmic lines step long, step short, but always with an honesty articulating rashes of anger, the waves of unharnessed anxiety at what the world brings before her. The double life we live as lute players and punkers (reckless lovers & mothers) walking fields, hunting for echoes, knowing some of us will be stopped on the bridge by a police cruiser for no reason. The question at the heart of this heartbreaking book might read as: Abandon all?

(The mask unceremoniously lifted off the speaker’s face reveals Lauren Levin.) The poet’s daughter, Alejandra, a talking bridge—her speech pulling the poet into confrontation with her own reverie. The poet’s partner, Tony, an accomplice bridge. Their twinned experiences and perceptions pull them into the twilight of an uncanny knowing. Friends and acquaintances litter the book, repositories of an earlier, imagined travel. “The friendship I knew pasted with living bandages” but the decision to move forward. The poet’s parents—foundational, elemental—reconfigure a new order around their poet-daughter, shoring up the physical moments of an impending motherhood.

Levin’s style paradoxically slows down the onrush of sensory details (the endless cataloguing) just enough so that the salty tears and storytelling can be drunk sweetbitterly. And everywhere the pain, the heartache and anguish of being a woman. What’s noticeable is how frequent the body’s interruptions are (the blood, snot, mucus, sweat, breast milk, shit) but how little they affect the rhythm of a breathtakingly fierce emotive cognition. All braided, all intertwined. The writer and critic, James Pate points to this element found in contemporary American poetry, one that exists with its “unapologetic corporeality and grotesque vitalism” which Levin uses to her advantage. The body’s chemicals spiral out, pumped into the outlying, displaced factories of feeling. “What I’m looking for is a way to join with the world,” the poet writes. I wish more people had the conviction to join with this monstrous world. The poet “staring at the hot sun” who visions what if, what if, what if?  


About the Author:
Poppy Samuels is a critic who lives in Los Angeles.


In

CUTBANK REVIEWS: LENA, by Cassie Pruyn

From Body to Body:
Mapping Grief in Cassie Pruyn’s Lena

by Molly Gray

What happened?
If I knew I’d tell you.
Lena died.
What happened?
Lena Cover.jpg

Cassie Pruyn’s poetic debut, Lena, is a probing elegy for a former lover. It pays tribute to the eponymous Lena, to her salt, her air, her New England damp; it explores the absence that binds and thrives, even in the wake of Lena’s death. Lena leaves us to wonder what lasts in loss. Pruyn’s poems are tender and tangible; they go the distance from then to now, from one body of water to another body to another body of water.

Pruyn’s attention to Lena is exquisite and stark—in one moment, she uncurls for us “like a pinkish fist”—in another, her cancer: “black— / —bloom.” And in another, her liver: “a fattening gnarl.” Pruyn invites us to “take comfort in this over-growth,” this explosion of cells, fungi, and grief. She examines the spaces she leaves and the places she goes, all of which inevitably echo Lena: in “New Orleans,” for example, “In a whorl of revving dampish breath / I catch wind of her impending death.” Without closure or reconciliation, this ode—to young love, to mistakes, to sex and danger and patience—is also an interrogation. How do we forgive the mother “with a mermaid’s name,” who makes an enemy out of queer love? How do we grieve without an opportunity for closure? Intimate, mournful, a little witchy, but never trite—Pruyn’s poems linger long after you’ve finished this collection.


About Cassie Pruyn:
A former contributor to CutBank (three of her poems are featured in our 2016 “All Accounts and Mixture: A Celebration of LGBTQ Writers and Artists”), Cassie Pruyn is Advanced Seminar Professor and Head of the Creative Writing Center at Bard Early College in New Orleans and author of Bayou St. John: A Brief History, which will be released on November 27th, 2017. Lena is the winner of the 2017 Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry from Texas Tech University Press. It’s available for purchase here and here. You can learn more about Pruyn and her work at cassiepruyn.com. 

About Molly Gray:
Molly is a first-year candidate for an MFA in poetry at the University of Montana, where she is also an instructor of writing. She reads and reviews recently published collections of poetry and prose as the Reviews Editor of CutBank literary magazine. She lives in Missoula, Montana, and is acclimating to the cold. 



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