Slaying Monsters in Fiction

coverThe artist, author, and illustrator Shaun Tan has several images of gigantic monstrous beasts in his work, but my favorite is in his picture book The Red Tree, where a little girl with red hair–the story’s protagonist–walks down the street while over her looms a dour grayskinned trout the size of an ocean liner, its mouth agape in what I always imagine to be an extended, engulfing, loathsome moan.  

The creature in the scene is a kind of weather, a ceiling on the world, inescapable and impressive in its vastness. By its mere presence, it changes the whole scale of the picture, dwarfs the apparent subject (and the viewer). It acts by being, a character and a setting in one, and it throws anyone who confronts it into sudden definition: do they flee? Fight? Or, like the pictured girl, are they brought under the creature’s influence, their moods and chemistries pulled, like the tides, by the gravity of a distant body, alien and unknowable perhaps, but impossible to ignore?  

We see ourselves in the big things of this world–look for faces in clouds and cliffsides, give our human-shaped gods chariots to carry the sun and tridents to style the waves. We picture the arms of great trees throwing apples or raised in a midnight dance. If a monster truly came, some of us would worship it. Others would identify with it to the point of psychic death. 

Monstrous beasts exert the same level of influence on the stories that contain them as they do on the fellow inhabitants of those stories and the settings where they occur. If Chekhov demands that the gun on the mantel be fired, then Melville demands that Moby Dick be catalogued, the whole of whaledom surveyed like a country being mapped. When a story’s monster isn’t captured in a net of verbiage, then that absence informs what remains, a shadow cast on the pages from above. No matter what, we will not allow a monstrous beast to roam through narrative unscathed. Symbolism will fly at it from all directions, yet the creature will refuse to collapse into a single explanation. It will acquire meanings, yet remain (somehow) stubbornly itself. When a monstrous beast appears in a story, then it becomes, at least in part, what that story is about. 

covercoverTwo recent novels contain, and are shaped by, monstrous beasts: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro and Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. Set in immediately post-Arthurian England and a dystopic future hellscape, respectively, they might not have much in common if they didn’t feature behemoths endowed with unearthly powers. But it is only those behemoths that make these novels possible at all. 

One might be fooled into thinking that The Buried Giant isn’t about a dragon. The novel, when it begins, is the story of a marriage. An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, love each other dearly, but tragedy haunts their past. Perhaps they once had a son and lost him? Their dearth of memory sends them on an ill-conceived quest to find their way to his village. The stakes are high, but limited in scope–personal, not global. 

That is, until we discover the dragon at the heart of all this. Instead of smashing huts and castles, the she-dragon Querig has seeped her way through every barricade, insidiously polluting the atmosphere inside of people’s heads. Querig’s special ability is to breathe a Mist of Forgetfulness, fogging minds of the characters, erasing the past–yet strangely, allowing the previously warring Briton and Saxon tribes to live alongside each other in peace. Late in the novel, we learn that Querig’s presence is inextricably tied to King Arthur’s legacy of peace. The dragon was deliberately enchanted by Merlin in order to perform her ordained task, so “the bones [of war would] lie sheltered under a pleasant green carpet… long enough for old wounds to heal forever and an eternal peace to hold.” So long as Querig has “breath left, she does her duty.” 

Is the Mist a curse or a blessing? It is a force, and to stop it requires the slaying of a god. 

Sir Gawain, Querig’s supposed challenger, has been living a lie for decades. Though he claims that he and his horse Horace “have bided their time,” “have laid careful plans to lure [Querig] out and…seek no assistance,” nothing could be further from the truth. Arthur himself appointed Gawain as Querig’s protector, and Gawain will die before he sees her slain. When a new challenger, this time a real one, arises in the form of the warrior Wistan, Wistan’s persistent doubts and suspicions about Arthur’s peaceful legacy bring the matter to light. 

Spoiler: this doesn’t end well for Gawain, or for Querig. But the violence that unfolds takes on the qualities of the creature at its center. In a virtuosic description, Ishiguro renders Querig “emaciated,” “worm-like,” and “dehydrating,” “the remnants of her wings…sagging folds of skin that a careless glance might have taken for dead leaves.” Querig is the forgotten thing at the center of the forgetting she herself generates: impotent, absent, hardly recognizable as a dragon. Beatrice wonders aloud, “Can this really be her, Axl? […] This poor creature no more than a fleshy thread?” There is nothing assertive or combative in Querig. The mechanism of her power is to just keep breathing. She is nothing but a lung: as fragile, as essential. So when death comes to this book, it is without catharsis. It is a mere stopping of that breath. 

Sir Gawain falls first. An aged knight, he asks permission to unsheathe his sword before the duel with Wistan commences, to avoid humiliation (Wistan graciously allows it). The clash is brief, and when Gawain succumbs, he “struggle[s] for a moment, like a man in his sleep trying to make himself more comfortable,” then finally seems “content.” Wistan may hate everything Querig stands for, but the killing blow he inflicts resembles her Mist, wiping away all pain and strife and replacing it with an unconsciousness that leaves the affected soothed and stilled. 

When Querig dies, it is anticlimax upon anticlimax; she puts up less of a fight than Gawain. Motionless but for her rhythmic breathing and the steady blinking of her eye–“hooded in the manner of a turtle’s”–she lies on the floor of her pit while Wistain walks up to her and with “a swift, low arc in passing,” effortlessly decapitates her. 

At the time of The Buried Giant’s publication, Ursula K. Le Guin responded to a comment Ishiguro made about the book (“Are they going to say this is fantasy?”) by writing, “It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, ‘Are they going to say I’m a tight-rope walker?’ ” Genre squabbling aside, Le Guin’s statement has lingered with me because of what it perhaps unintentionally captures about the peculiar nature of this book. Because, in a sense, Ishiguro does create a scenario like the one Le Guin proposes. He sets the stage for spectacle at dazzling heights, then presents us with players too ancient, too confused, to perform their chosen roles–to do anything but hand themselves over to merciless gravity and time. A man plummeting to his death, no longer certain about who he once was or how he’ll be remembered, is a man fallen victim to Querig…a man not unlike Querig herself.  

Just as Querig’s age and forgetfulness infuse the whole of The Buried Giant, the exact opposite qualities–youth, curiosity, hunger, and enthusiasm–underscore so much of Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. It’s no coincidence these are the very qualities possessed by the titular character.  

Borne begins life “dark purple and about the size of [a] fist…like a half-closed stranded sea anemone,” but under the tutelage of Rachel, a scavenging human who adopts him, this shapeshifting organism learns and grows rapidly. Like some strange hybrid of all that lives, he is eager to take nourishment of any kind – compost worms, pebbles, scraps of wood– into his gelatinous core. But he is unique among living beings in that nothing comes out of him: no waste, no emissions.  

This literally all-consuming tendency would be terrifying if he weren’t just so cute. The first time Borne does something violent, it is to eat a team of young home-invaders who have been torturing his mom. Using the voice of one of these ingested assailants, he says, “I am Borne. I talking talking talking.” He also tells Rachel not to be afraid.  

As he continues to get bigger, his hunger for multi-celled lifeforms shrinks in comparison to his hunger for knowledge, which gets played out in whimsical, absurdist dialogues with his ersatz parent. “Borne didn’t know what serious was,” Rachel observes. Even when he ultimately begins ingesting other humans, Borne explains that he tries “to only kill evil people,” but more importantly, he doesn’t concede Rachel’s version of events: “I killed them but they’re not dead…I don’t think they will ever die.”  

Borne is alien, unknowable, but the very limits of his knowability exclude the possibility of human guile. He operates like nature unspoiled, a pristine wilderness incarnate in the form of a creature: a walking, talking web of life in which much is gained but nothing is lost. The result is a novel that feels weirdly innocent–weirdly being the key word. Because there is true darkness in this book too, and it comes from the novel’s other monstrous beast: the flying bear Mord. 

Mord is a destructive flying bear the size of a zeppelin. Foul-breathed, encrusted with refuse, he is beyond reason: madness has overcome the “toxic waste dump of his mind.” This is his punishment and his curse; once “curious about so many things,” he compromised himself irrevocably by working for the Company, a menacing entity that churned out irresponsible biotech, leading inevitably to the ruined state of the novel’s world. Now he has proxies that look like him and obey the commands of his blinding, incoherent rage. He is corrupted, contaminated, and though pitiable, he cannot be saved. 

As a result, the book’s final showdown between Borne and Mord functions like a battle between nature and pollution, creation and destruction. “There comes a moment when you witness events so epic you don’t know how to place them in the cosmos,” Rachel comments, and she’s not overselling the drama. Towering over the burning city, the creatures clash, until, like the compost worms Borne himself once consumed, Borne at last engulfs Mord, swallowing the beast entire–and causing both of them to vanish spontaneously. 

Because Borne is a child, the story that contains him takes on childlike qualities. It’s simple, brightly colored, a fable that could be performed brilliantly with stop-motion toys or puppets. I say that not as criticism but as high praise. Iconic, but also breathtakingly, astoundingly, bizarrely new, Borne is a rare book that delivers the surprise of true wonder that’s at the heart of seeing the world with fresh eyes. In fact, it’s no coincidence that one vaguely human feature the shapeshifting Borne decides to adopt is a ring of eyes, which encircle his body like a belt–“blue, black, brown, green pupils, and some were animal eyes, but he could see through all of them.” Though the Mad Hatter claims that “I see what I eat” isn’t the same as “I eat what I see,” the two kinds of voraciousness–abstract curiosity and physical hunger – feed on each other in Borne until he at last outgrows the story he’s in. 

By conjuring monstrous beasts in the pages their novels, Ishiguro and VanderMeer endow their stories with vast scope. Each creature also gives its story’s world an aesthetic center around which other elements can orbit. Though the two novels couldn’t be more different, they’re united in this… and also in the humility that comes with placing the lives of human characters in perspective against larger forces. Like the little girl in The Red Tree, these novels’ human characters walk in the shadow of the incomprehensible–as do we all.

Image: Wikimedia

The post Slaying Monsters in Fiction appeared first on The Millions.


Poem of the Day: An Irish Airman foresees his Death

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

William Butler Yeats

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Vernacular Economics: How Building Codes & Taxes Shape Regional Architecture [ARTICLE]

Ever noticed how the bricks on newer British buildings are bigger, or stopped to appreciate hand-stenciled wallpaper, or enjoyed a sip from a fancy hollow-stemmed glass? If so, you may well be admiring a product of regulation and taxes as much aesthetic tastes. From basic materials to entire architectural styles, building codes and taxation strategies have had huge historical impacts on the built world as we know it. Take the capital of France, for instance.

Boulevard Haussmann in Paris from Second French Empire by Thierry Bézecourt (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Pictures of Paris tend to show off key architectural features of the city, like the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Notre-Dame Cathedral or, in the case of more everyday buildings: mansard roofs. Punctured by dormer windows, these steeply sloped roofs are an iconic part of the local vernacular. And their ubiquity is not just driven by aesthetics, but also a history of height limitations in the City of Light.

Sectional diagram by Billbeee (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1783, Paris implemented a 20-meter (roughly 65 feet) restriction on structures, with a crucial caveat: the limit was based on measuring up to the cornice line, leaving out the roof zone above.

Naturally, land owners seeking to optimize their habitable space responded by building up mansard roofs. Later window-based taxes offset some of the financial incentive behind this design strategy, but in 1902, an expansion of the law allowed up to four additional floors to be built using the roof-related loophole, helping to re-expand its utility. Similar restrictions in other places helped the mansard style spread beyond Paris as well.

Right: Four-story mansard roof in New York City by Ad Meskens (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A 1916 zoning resolution in New York City, for instance, called for setbacks on tall buildings. Mansard roofs represented an ideal design choice, practical but also associated with Parisian culture.

Skinny Homes & Bricked-Up Windows

Tall, narrow and deep Dutch canal houses in Amsterdam

Dutch canal houses are another classic example of how rules and regulations can shape structures. Taxed on their canal frontage rather than height or depth, these buildings grew in tall and thin. In turn, this typology evolved narrower staircases, necessitating exterior hoist systems to move furniture and goods into and out of upper floors.

Bricked-up windows on Chapel Lane at Junction Square by David Wright (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Meanwhile, across Europe — including England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France — a history of “window taxes” also reshaped the built environment, albeit in less aesthetically pleasing ways. Mainly, these levies resulted in owners bricking up windows to avoid the tax.

Bricked- and boarded-up windows by Whilesteps and Kim Traynor (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Window taxes date back as far as 1696, introduced by English King William III as an alternative to income taxes for the wealthy. Houses in England were taxed by unit at a flat rate, then an additional rate if they had over 10 windows (then more again if they went over 20 or 30). And though they were repealed in most places well over a century ago, the legacy of bricked-up windows remains on many old structures.

Taxing Interiors: Fact & Fiction

These kinds of external factors can shape the interiors of structures, too. As far back as the 9th century (and possibly earlier), “hearth taxes” were used by the Byzantine Empire as a proxy for family units, levied based on the number of fireplaces in a municipality. However, later versions of this tax were known to cause some unintended consequences. For instance, a baker in the 1600s broke through his back wall to use the neighbor’s chimney and avoid a hearth tax. A resulting fire destroyed 20 homes and killed four people.

But there are also interior design stories that seem to be more fiction than fact. Historians generally believe the idea of Colonial-era “closet taxes,” supposedly driving New Englanders toward armoires, is a myth.

A typical industrial mezzanine floor in the UK by Robert Plant (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Others are a mix of reality and lore. In some municipalities, for instance, mezzanine levels (smaller floors between main floors) have historically been exempt from floor-based taxes, leading to homes and industrial spaces with mezzanines. But the role of this exemption is likely overemphasized, since mezzanines serve spatial functions too.

By a similar token, some believe that steel reinforcement bars poking up above roofs in Greece (a phenomenon also spotted in Mexico and other places as well) are a tax-avoidance strategy, since they result in an unfinished home (the rebar implying more yet to be built). In reality, these are mainly a planning measure, allowing owners to align and overlap reinforcement between current and potential future floors. But there is a tax reduction of 60% for truly unfinished homes in Greece (when a structure is empty and has, at most, temporary power).

Taxing Materials: Brick by Brick

No excise glass (1763) by Reptonix (CC BY 3.0)

The list of true examples is long, with even small-seeming taxes shaping the fundamental building blocks of structures as well as materials used in everyday decor. Great Britain is rich with such tax-impacted design history.

In 1712, a tax was introduced on patterned, printed and painted wallpaper, for instance, leading people to buy plain paper and stencil designs on it (thus avoiding the tax).

A few decades later the imposition of a weight-based glass tax led to the production of smaller as well as more hollow-stemmed glassware (often referred to as “excise glasses”).

Pre-1784 bricks in the house on the right versus newer bricks on the left by JRPG (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Introduced in 1784, a per-thousand-brick tax led to the creation of larger bricks (eventually held in check by new legislation about how big a single brick could be). To this day, historians can use brick size to help date the construction of different buildings around Britain.

Most of these historic taxes have since been revised or repealed, but their impact remains visible in historical artifacts and enduring architecture. And in some cases, they have led to decorative styles and structural approaches that have outlived their original mandate.

Special thanks to Julia Galef’s twitter thread on how payment by word and/or line shaped the style of historical authors like Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas, which provided inspiration for this article.


How Can I Explain Personal Pain?: On Tatiana Ryckman’s I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do)

1. Virginia Woolf, reviewing the work of George Moore, said, “The only criticism worth having at present is that which is spoken, not written—spoken over wineglasses and coffeecups late at night, flashed out on the spur of the moment by people passing who have not time to finish their sentences, let alone consider the dues of the editors or the feelings of friends.” Reviewing the work of E.M. Forster, she said, “There are many reasons which should prevent one from criticizing the work of contemporaries. Besides the obvious uneasiness—the fear of hurt feelings—there is too the difficulty of being just.”

2. Tatiana Ryckman is my friend, and she recently had her publisher send me her new novel I Don’t Think of You (Except When I Do), released September 7, 2017. Kevin Sampsell, head of her publisher Future Tense Books, scribbled a note at the top of the press release that accompanied it: “Hi John—I hope you enjoy Tatiana’s book and can help us spread the word.” I tightened up on reading his message, which seemed twofold: 1) Enjoy the book, but also 2) promote the book so we sell the copies we’ve made and Tatiana can continue to write books. In other words, don’t let this gift be in vain.

3. In his manifesto The Gift, Lewis Hyde expounds on what he calls the “gift economy,” a quasi-anti-capitalist notion of community dependent on the notion that some commodities—works of art, religious artifacts, or anything that is made and given not for profit but for the pleasure of giving—are intended not to be gathered to oneself but to be circulated, within oneself and in the larger culture. In differentiating between work and labor, he says, “When I speak of labor…I intend to refer to something dictated by the course of life rather than by society, something that is often urgent but that nevertheless has its own interior rhythm, something more bound up with feeling, more interior, than work.” I’ve done the work of reviewing plenty of books, and I’m reticent to subject my friend’s labor to it. In fact I’ve sat on her book for a month now, fearful of commingling the labor of reading with the work of reviewing.

4. Fuck that. This review is a labor of love and gratitude, and a hopefully honest reckoning of how Ryckman’s thin book changed me, and might change the world. Whether it’s a “good” book, worth a disinterested reader’s time, I’m not in a position to say. I can say that it’s an honest rendering of the self-abnegating love one gives to another person before one reconciles oneself with the pain and loss of dignity such love entails. I was going to also add that it’s a love given to an undeserving object, but Ryckman has let me know that it’s not about the person I thought it was about, and our mutual friend Caitlyn gently reminded me recently to treat the book as a work of fiction.

5. So, about that. It’s a work that can probably be called many things—epistolary novel, prose poetry—but I want to call it a collection of micro-essays (or perhaps microfictions in the Borgesian sense) simply because that is what I understand it to be. Almost no section is more than a page, some are under twenty words long, they’re arranged by number to the first decimal point from 0.0 to 10.0, and all are written to a now-former lover. I can’t claim to understand exactly why she goes with the decimaled numerology, except perhaps to trace some order into the drama and trauma of a late-twentysomething breakup, or perhaps to trace the narrator’s selves in their sequential versions. The project was inspired—if that’s the right word—by a rudimentary drawing which she includes on the last page of the book of two mice fucking and one of them saying, “This feels so right,” which feels to me like a very Tatiana Ryckman thing to do.

6. In fact, the choice of illustration is, for me at least, the most Tatiana Ryckman thing about the book. Reading it, I had a continual sense of not knowing a friend as well as I thought I did. We went to grad school together, and had many late-night conversations that people have in grad school. One time I told her I couldn’t remember if I got the scar on my right middle finger from getting it stuck on a merry-go-round ramp in the third grade or from my adoptive father trying to cut it off when I was ten. She responded by biting my nose. She wrote many pieces then, in her mid-twenties, that were pure fiction in an uncontrolled voice that made her the life of any reading or party. Even as someone who has never had that type of relationship with her, I can say that sex is a large part of her experience and her aesthetic. There’s plenty of sex in this book, to be sure. But it no longer seems, well, fun. Perhaps that’s why I’m so stunned at the voice from which she writes in this essayistic novel: needy, dependent, alone.

7. The cassette tape holds a special place in Ryckman’s personal mythology. I only bring this up because she quotes in section 7.1 a B-side from the Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut album that I listened to obsessively on cassette tape in the early Nineties. The song, “Gimme the Car,” is sung in the voice of perhaps the worst type of male, a sex-obsessed late adolescent begging his father to lend him the car so he can date rape a girl he’s obsessed with. The voice only works because, as in any good fiction, frontman Gordon Gano injects the boy with a pathos, both through the lyrics and an especially creepy repeating riff and bassline, so that the words “How can I explain personal pain?” are a sort of mantra, an ode even, he repeats for any lingering humanity that remains within him. Ryckman’s narrator in I Don’t Think of You is not even close to the depravity of Gano’s car boy, but they both speak from a position of humanity lost in the attempt to navigate a sexual relationship mostly devoid of pleasure.

8. She refers in a number of the book’s micros to an experiment our friend Caitlyn conducted while living in Guanajuato, Mexico with her husband. Despite (or perhaps due to) a complete lack of experience as a visual artist, she decided to learn to paint by painting the same gate outside their villa every day for one month. Miller wrote about the experiment for Hunger Mountain in 2016, and Ryckman mentions in 5.0, 5.9, and 7.3-4 trying a similar experiment by drawing the robe of a man who used to live at the house where she stayed for two summers while in the throes of her obsession. Alas, she finds herself incapable of the repeated recreation of an object without injecting it with her obsession, and like Miller she gives up. In casual conversation Miller advised her, “I mean, it’s an endeavor that was doomed to fail. No one is ever going to capture life as it was. We all decided to try something impossible.”

9. The one quirk of the essay as a form with which I struggle most is its presumed narcissism. The form almost requires its writers to talk to themselves for an audience. This becomes especially fraught when relating personal pain. I think of Sampsell’s own 2012 essay “‘I’m Jumping Off the Bridge’,” where he talks down a man who comes into the bookstore where Sampsell works and says he’s going to kill himself, then spends the ensuing months talking himself down from the same fate as his own life spirals downward. I could almost feel his spirit—or at least his editorial hand—in Ryckman’s voice. The poet Ralph Angel once told a woman he was advising at the graduate school Ryckman and I attended to “get naked on the page”; she responded by dipping her breasts in paint, pressing them against paper, and submitting them with a statement of intention. One can’t be sure, but I don’t think that was what he was requesting. To get naked on the page—to confront our pain and confusion and mold them into language—requires a blatant disregard of our impulse toward emotional self-preservation. If we press our most private parts onto the page, it’s not paint that records and preserves us. It’s blood.

10. This may be what I see as the closest thing to redemption Ryckman offers in a cycle that could fairly be judged as relentlessly disheartened: The acknowledgement of the narrator’s dependence on people besides the object of her affection is the first punctum of the narcissistic persona she hones throughout I Don’t Think of You. One of my favorite paragraphs late in the book relates an opening of perspective that feels like curtains being flung open on a warm April day: “And on the other side of town, when my grandfather said goodbye to a woman who could no longer remember herself, the last person left from his real life, I was surprised that I did not reassign their sadness to you or their separation to us. How lonely, I thought instead, to be the last thing left no one remembers.”

11. She’s been experimenting with voice for some time now. This shift was prompted, I think, less by moving from her twenties to her thirties than by her shift from writing primarily fiction to writing quite a few nonfiction pieces, something I find many of my primarily fiction-writing friends getting shoehorned into. In some ways, she represents to me the inverse of our societal understanding of fiction and nonfiction: her fictional voice is singular and instantly recognizable to anyone who’s read more than one or two of her fictions; her nonfiction voices, on the other hand, are myriad and sometimes contradictory. To give just the most recent example, her recent piece for The Tulsa Voice, wherein she recounts interviews with Oklahoma Republicans in search of a more broad understanding of the word “resistance,” is measured to such an extent that I can’t even see her in the piece (which is, suppose, the whole point of journalistic integrity), and I can see her, alone with the pixels, pouring every ounce of the self she withholds from The Tulsa Voice into this little book.

12. Virginia Woolf’s assessment of George Moore is that he would have made a better memoirist than a novelist—his skill at conversation, the singularity of his voice in a crowd, was his greatest strength. Perhaps antiquity has proven this assessment correct; perhaps I’m simply being egocentric because I’d never heard of Moore before reading Woolf’s review of his work. Or perhaps a third option is the most viable—that Moore was one of many, perhaps most, writers whose work missed its audience by at least one epoch. Today his novels might be read as Woolf seems to read them, as the rendering of one person’s conversational voice translated into written language. This is how I read I Don’t Think of You. Unlike Woolf, a reader doesn’t necessarily come to a book like this one needing to read it as either fiction or non-fiction. Not knowing whether a written experience was a lived experience for the author makes the work somehow both more expansive and more opaque to read.

13. I’m trying to choose my words judiciously in relating details of Ryckman’s personal life. She has, after all, read my early drafts, ones from which I’ve cut details that make narrative nonfiction compelling for the precise reason I decided to cut them: They’re secrets, and secrets are bonds. Perhaps the greatest lie writers get away with is pretending we’re making our audience proxy to our secrets rather than giving them carefully molded simulacra, wrought through many, many attempts to observe ourselves, a gate, a failed relationship, a lasting friendship, and make them into language. To be long-term friends with fellow writers, to me at least, is to make a conscious act of the continual transformations and self-renewals we all go through. Our selves—whether we choose to call them fictions or not—when written assume a perhaps-false sense of permanence through the simple act of recording them and the not-simple-at-all act of editing, revising, perfecting, and publishing them. The gift, then, is this discrete object representing that self in words and pixels and pages—a self existing outside of time, in conjunction with the simple, fluid little selves that live within friendships and sex and shared space.


John Proctor has written memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them. His essay “The Question of Influence” was a Notable selection in The Best American Essays 2015, and his essay “The A-Rod of Ballhawking” was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart. He teaches academic writing, media studies, and communication theory at Manhattanville College, and runs a weekly writing workshop for inmates at Rikers Island. You can find him online at Source:

Poem of the Day: She Walks in Beauty

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

Lord Byron (George Gordon)

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Poem of the Day: ABC for Refugees

Cherub-bee-dee how does a man
who doesn’t read English well know that cherub-bee-dum
those aren’t really words-bee-dee.
But birds.
Cherub-bee-dum, he stumbles, reading to me
by the sliding glass door cherub-bee-dee, through which I watch
my brother play in the dum-dum-yard.
Cherub-bee-dee, cherub-bee-dum, like how my father says
Fine then! Leave! My mother shouts, Stupid! Dumb!
We live in a small bee-dee-nest too, one hallway to bee-dum-slam doors.
Birds? What are birds?
Thanks to my father, reading with me, I have more feathers.
T-H-E. First word he ever taught me to pluck … 
It is a word used all the time. Cherub-cherub-bee-dum!
The mail. The mailbox. The school bus. The the.
He asks me to read the mail. Not birds, mail.
If you don’t read this, you will turn into birds.
And I read it to him the best I can.
The end. A feather. Two feathers. The. The end.
Mother, mother. Repeat after me.
Cherub-bee-dee, cherub-bee-dum!
We read together before bedtime.
Source: Poetry December 2017

Monica Sok

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Poem of the Day: Self-portrait

I lived between my heart and my head,
like a married couple who can’t get along.
I lived between my left arm, which is swift
and sinister, and my right, which is righteous.
I lived between a laugh and a scowl,
and voted against myself, a two-party system.
My left leg dawdled or danced along,
my right cleaved to the straight and narrow.
My left shoulder was like a stripper on vacation,
my right stood upright as a Roman soldier.
Let’s just say that my left side was the organ
donor and leave my private parts alone,
but as for my eyes, which are two shades
of brown, well, Dionysus, meet Apollo.
Look at Eve raising her left eyebrow
while Adam puts his right foot down.
No one expected it to survive,
but divorce seemed out of the question.
I suppose my left hand and my right hand
will be clasped over my chest in the coffin 
and I’ll be reconciled at last,
I’ll be whole again.
Edward Hirsch, "Self Portrait" from The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems (1975-2010). Copyright © 2010 by Edward Hirsch. Reprinted by permission of Edward Hirsch, Inc.

Source: The Living Fire(Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)

Edward Hirsch

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The Slash: 20-Foot Clearing Stretches 5,525 Miles Across World’s Longest Border [ARTICLE]

Camp Widjiwagan counselors have been known to tell young campers (including this author) certain tall tales as they ventured up through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota. Crossing into Canada, for instance, they would say that if you squint hard, you can see a “border chain” hanging in the lake below. Some kids laughed it off — others were convinced they could spot it. This mythical divider was an inside joke, but the actual border is more marked than many realize.

From Arctic Village, Alaska to Houlton, Maine, the border between Canada and the United States is the longest in the world. Much of the surrounding landscape is relatively wild and untouched. But extending out ten feet from the line on either side along much of its length is what’s known as “the Slash.”

Slash with border marker by Paul Pehrson (CC BY 2.0)

Stripped of trees, this slice runs through national forests and over mountains. It is too long and remote to be continuously cut down, but every few years (longer on the Western sections, where growth is slower) workers freshly deforest the greenery that grows back.

It might seem unnecessary, but there is a reason for this intervention: a person on either side wandering close to the border can see it and recognize they’re approaching the line. So each year, American taxpayers pay around half a cent each to the International Boundary Commission (IBC) to help periodically maintain this dividing void.

The work is split between countries. Per Julia Shipley, “U.S. and Canadian divisions of the IBC both have their own staff, equipment and budget. The two groups meet once a year to divvy up their work.” Crews of five to ten people are sent out to various locations. To the east, many of the crews stay in motels — in the west, they camp out.

Border markers along the Slash at Glacier National Park by Cohen.Canda (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“It all started in the 1800s, when the US-Canada border line was set at the 49th parallel,” writes Lew Blank. “The Slash was cut and over 8,000 original border markers were laid down, most of which are still standing along The Slash to this day.” But without GPS systems, the markers strayed by hundreds of feet in many places. Other mapping errors led to the creation of things like the Northwest Angle.

“Seeing the Slash can be as simple as going to Google Maps,” explains Blank, “zooming towards the US-Canada border, and switching to satellite view. Those looking for a more up close view can travel to Newport, Vermont and hop aboard Northern Star Cruises, which will take you right alongside the Slash. Another way to see the slash is in Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, on the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail to Canada, or the Long Trail in Vermont.”

The Slash also seems like a unique opportunity to travel from coast to coast — an intrepid hiker and paddler could perhaps portage and kayak through otherwise overgrown sections, forever following the thin line.