Spring Quarterly – (Summer 2016 / 16.9)
Artist, Robert Bharda (Ward), originally from New York City, has lived in the Seattle area where for the last 35 years he has specialized in vintage photographica as a profession, everything from salt prints to poloroids. His illustrations/artwork have appeared in numerous U.S. and Canadian publications, including Naugatuck River Review and Conclave 8. His poetry, fiction and critical reviews have appeared The North American Review, Northwest Review, Shenandoah, Quarterly West, Fine Madness, Kansas Quarterly, Yellow Silk, Poets On, and many others including anthologies.
Why I Don’t Take Photographs
Because shadows that show
fissures on my mother’s face
would haunt my own forever,
and that maple, so sunset-crazed
it might catch fire, would fix its dying
in that bit of decay on the curled leaf.
And anyway, pictures fade. Those few left
gray in nightfall, like rain. Even my father’s eyes
are dim candles in the picture;
his tattoos have disappeared altogether.
In the darkroom, I can’t coax the scent
of soap mingling your voice in the wind-roar
off Cedar Key, or that last unanswered phone call
swallowed as my last coin dropped
into that empty hollow same as my throat’s.
We’ve lost the light.
Enough to see untouched broccoli on the child’s plate,
violets creeping the sidewalk. Tire marks, smearing
the driveway: the herringbone of your old coat.
All framed in good light on the walls of my mind.
But if I could
capture the only picture that matters:
the blue warmth of your shirt fusing salt sweat
from your neck, the pressure of your knee against mine,
the long angle of your jaw. Then yes. Yes.
Penny Dyer is the recipient of the 2007 Oberon Poetry Prize, and the 2006 Louisiana Literature Prize for Poetry. Articles and poems appear or are forthcoming in the Pulse, Poems Niederngasse, SouthLit, Arsenic Lobster, Dogwood, Narrative, Rosebud, and others.
Preparing for Disaster
I bought earthquake wax, like he’d told me. I bought canned corn and baked beans, a jumbo sack of kibble for the dogs. I bought water in three-gallon jugs I had to leave in of the trunk of my car. A few dried things you can add liquid to and eat. Then I phoned John Cuddy to come in and bracket the shelves. There’s no point in having the ornaments stuck to the shelf if the shelf is going to fall down.
The man who set me off about the earthquakes had come to stop the floods. I wanted him to level the high ground and dig a ditch around the house. It’s an El Niño year. Land this dry doesn’t know what to do with rain when it gets it, so it just runs and runs. It’s a stupid place to have a house, at the end of a dirt road and smack in a depression. If the water comes it’s coming straight through my front door. But it wasn’t my idea to retire out here. I let the contractor know I knew it was foolish. I asked him, who builds a house in a dip? He was the friendly type, wanted to sit on the sofa and chat after surveying the slope.
A soil engineer, I said. That’s an interesting job. He said you’d be surprised what you can do with dirt. For example his dogs live in a hole he dug in the ground. A reverse kennel, it’s called. Don’t they come in the house? I asked. They’re guard dogs, he said. They’re guarding the house. Then he took a long look around the living room and asked if I had ever seen a house after an earthquake.
It was telling all this to LoAnn after astrology – we both go to the Wednesday class – that I got the real scare. “I’ve got all these voices telling me about earthquakes,” she said. I asked her to be more specific. Were we being warned? Lo Ann gets peevish if you ask too many questions. Lo Ann is clairaudient, tuned in like a wonky receiver to sounds from the spirit world.
I keep hearing about earthquakes, she said. But I can’t tell if they’re yesterday’s earthquakes or today’s earthquakes or the earthquakes of tomorrow. It could just be an earthquake in a parallel universe. Her mouth flat-lined then and she wouldn’t say another word, I think she was put out by the whole thing. Lo Ann has a touch of the library about her, steel-colored hair cut straight at her chin, a pin on one side. I imagine she’d prefer quiet.
I spent the weekend sticking everything to the shelves with earthquake wax, even the books, which I will have to remember not to read. It will make it a trial for Terri to dust but what am I paying her for anyway? I tried to do my astrology homework – we’re studying the chart of the United States, which we can do because we know when it was born (4th July 1776) – but I lost heart. It’s no good trying to decipher the signs. For instance what looks like him coming out of his slump, losing weight and dressing better, can actually signify that he has met someone else. These things can be past or parallel or imminent. If you’re going to be ready, you have to be ready now.
Olivia Parkes is a British-American writer and painter based in Berlin. Her work has been published in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The New Haven Review, SAND Journal, Stand Magazine, and Bosque. She was named runner-up in the Bosque Fiction Prize in 2014.
They were not easy to count.
Hummingbirds. Today in the rain.
To the feeders hung under the eaves
they swooped bluffed zipped darted hovered.
Scientists do not know, candidly,
how by fanning their tails, they shift
the airflow around their tiny bodies.
The blur of wings is something
the physics of aerodynamics fails
to catch in its numbery net.
It’s the same way, every time.
I see my friend in the afterlife.
Against all calculations and prediction,
when some snow suspends the swoop
of the Mayfield Road bridge
as it dives above the chug-a-lug
of the Chagrin River, he walks away
fast in the alter light.
So irrelevant to everything.
He was a good friend, he couldn’t help dying.
Cancer is as cancer does.
Invited to visit the labyrinth
at “The Gathering Place for Healing,”
I can’t make myself go. Eleven syllables
roll off my friend’s tongue, a gust
of snow from a riverbank spruce bough
or a scad of hummingbirds on a summer deck.
It is always night when I hear him,
his figure, silhouetted over a void
where the bridge’s railings loop
a glimpse of wet black river going by.
Why doesn’t he fall in?
Everything falls in. I walk the dogs
when the sun comes out, stay in
at the window when it rains.
The dogs take over from the hummingbirds
the burdens of my attention.
From the snow on the river
I lift and hide him there, where children
won’t see my eyes, because
eleven hummingbirds in the air
at once is a chaotic system,
like a river is, or like a friend,
who, lost in the afterlife, turns into a flight of snow
then into secret currents
that drag their rivery tongues
under ice that makes the ice murmur.
Our mother was packing
her classroom things away the last time
one summer when her favorite Kindergarten
kids, pushing through a torn place
in a right-of-way fence, turned home,
stepping over the railroad tracks
toward the plaza-style housing project
at a sumac thicket where a
child’s body was found. Room One,
not Eleven. But there are all kinds
of afterlives. The dogs are not dogs
when they are hummingbirds,
spirits, dressed up in Kindergartners’ bodies.
They are Kindergarten children, murdered,
learning to stay in line. No talking!
They come back as flowers.
They pledge allegiance to flags.
They follow where the homeless men
walk slowly dying along that track
toward the west end of Rock Island,
where the Corps of Engineers
after the 1965 flood built a levy
of dynamited limestone to keep the river out,
from drowning everyone ever again.
The oldest teacher’s houses
were built in the later 1800s by steamboat captains,
all cupolas and river views,
Indians in a cloud of dust, pulling the horizon
behind them. Abraham Lincoln
passing through Rock Island
in the 18-teens with the Illinois militia
helped with that round of killing.
I suppose it depressed him. As much as the death
of his beloved Ann Rutledge is said to have.
As much as the second Battle of Bull Run.
The Corps of Engineers and all of their dynamite
couldn’t keep up with the cancer that pulled
my friend underwater, rolling him
over the bottom rocks about a mile,
letting him go. A child’s body.
Washed up under sumacs, their violet circles
under his eyes, hummingbirds in the purple clover
in his hair matted and muddy and
one shoe off.
Ted Lardner teaches writing at Cleveland State University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming from DIAGRAM, Cleaver, One, Arsenic Lobster, and Gone Lawn. His chapbooks include Passing By a Home Place (Leaping Mountain 1987), Tornado (Kent State U.P. 2008), and We Practice For It (Tupelo 2014).
There is a sharpness to her “fine,” an edge you’d ignore if you didn’t know her so well, but you do know her—she is your daughter, after all—and when you ask her again if she’s all right, she answers with a tight-lipped “fine,” and you know then she isn’t fine, she’s had a rough day of things at school, she’s angry at you, and she’ll let you know exactly how she’s not “fine” in her own way. You exhale, a breath that shudders through your skin.
Claustrophobia smolders in the car, and anger. Outside, snow piles loom dizzyingly white in the dusk of late afternoon. You drive carefully, checking twice before edging into intersections, the detritus from last week’s storm complicates everything, including your mood, which teeters on the verge of erupting into a crimson fury. But you tap it down, tap down the flames, and you stay silent until you hit the final block.
“How was your day?” you venture after several silent minutes. She returns with, “Please shut up with your stupid questions.” You try to hold back your exasperation but you can’t stop the sigh in time, and it ushers forth, a cry.
You pull into the garage. Her door slams. You sit there, engine idling, your body draped over the steering wheel. The surrender stretches your lower back and that bit of respite allows you to relax. Almost. But then worries bombard, the same ones that wake you at four most mornings: her friend troubles, her boyfriend woes, her hatred of all things adult. You wonder if she’s bipolar, or worse. You remind yourself she’s in the eighth grade; she’s moody as hell, just as you were at her age, just as all girls are in middle school.
You take your time going in. You gather bags and books and her prescription you picked up earlier. The stack of papers to read before rolling out of bed tomorrow morning.
In the garage you pause at the door, fumble for keys even though you know the door’s unlocked. You hear the scream, the rush of vitriol hurled at your husband who still refuses to see the mess she’s become, your once smart, pretty, polite daughter.
Another sound. Glass shatters. A heavy thud, a door slams.
Your breath heaves pale ghosts. Inside goes quiet. You turn back to the car. It surprises you how easily the key slides into the ignition.
Linda Wastila writes from Baltimore, where she professes, mothers, and gives a damn. Her Pushcart- and Best-of-the-Net nominated stories and poems have been published at Smokelong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Scissors and Spackle, MiCrow, The Sun, Blue Five Notebook, The Poet’s Market 2013, Hoot, Camroc Press Review, Every Day Fiction, and Nanoism, among others. She serves as Senior Fiction Editor at JMWW.
She Rose from the Weeds
you drove by the woman standing on the verge
the woman with the shoulders of a long distance swimmer
and you told yourself her story:
she’d slept in the wiregrass
she carries nothing in her hands
she’s slipped out of her life
she will take any lift offered
she doesn’t want your attention
after you drove by the woman standing on a verge
the woman with tangled blonde hair and a straight back
you told yourself your story:
you slept where you landed
you slipped out of your life
you stopped choosing
you were attended to, made safe,
you know what almost happened.
Nonnie Augustine’s debut collection of poems, One Day Tells its Tale to Another, was selected by Kirkus Review for its “Best of Indie 2013” list, and she won the Glass Woman Prize, 2014. Her poetry and flash have appeared in PANK, Amsterdam Quarterly, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Mojave River Journal, Camroc Press Review, and Tupelo Press. She blogs here.
In the woods behind her parents’ house, she asked to see my thing. We slipped into the bushes. She looked like a lab-coated scientist under the moonlight. From her pocket she drew a tiny torch.
Our First School playing field. Summer heat. Her salty breath on my neck, she rode me piggy-back. Springs of red curls fell onto my eyes as I hefted her across the finish line. For a moment our fingertips touched on the yellowing grass.
At the cinema she wore the shortest skirt and hung out with older boys. On the back row she buried her head in a boy’s lap. Midway through the film, she slumped down beside me. I want, she said, something sweet.
She died, that girl. And now I see her only in my dreams. An airless auditorium. House lights low. She turns to me, eyes wide, craving. Lean back, I say and slowly feed her buttered popcorn.
Digby Beaumont’s flash fiction has appeared in many fine publications, most recently Change Seven Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Camroc Press Review, Flash Frontier and Jellyfish Review. His fiction work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net Anthology. He has worked as a nonfiction author for many years, with numerous publications, and lives in Hove, England.
You put things in a box, things fallen from the sky. The box was painted with half moons and Florentine suns with a lid black as night. You meant to collect what was inside years later. You wrote yourself a note, kept it in your pocket. But years have gone by and you have moved from the house with the hidden wall. What was inside the box? Wings of dead birds scattered on a carpet of pine needles after a lightning storm, peach pits from an afternoon with your grandfather catching pollywogs down by the stream, starlight in a jar at the end of a long dark street. If only you remembered to go back, the girl who ate your heart would’ve fallen in love with you. You’d have children by now with white silk hair, eyes blue enough to melt snow.
But you cannot go back. You’ve never lived in that house. There is no box.
Lenny DellaRocca’s new chapbook The Sleep Talker was published by Night Ballet Press. He has new poems forthcoming in The Potomac: A Journal of Politics and Poetry, Albatross, and Subsync Press. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Chiron Review. DellaRocca’s poetry has appeared in literary magazines since 1980 including Fairy Tale Review, Poet Lore, Wisconsin Review, Maryland Poetry Review, Apalachee Quarterly, Slipstream, and Gulf Stream Magazine.
The Origin of the Map
They tell me St Brendan, when he was the only person to have sailed the Atlantic, carried a map as he arrived at his destination and passaged there safely by a combination of miracle and fine navigation in the first ocean-going vessel ever built.
Of course, Brendan had a name and they did not, and Brendan had a map, and they did not, and Brendan had a boat, and they were anonymous but knew the coastline, currents, local gyres, rocks and rough spots, the hidden reefs, all the best off-shore fishing grounds, and had sketched what they knew on parchment.
Martin Porter is a writer born in Jersey CI, now based in New Zealand. His writing has appeared in journals and collections in the USA, Europe and New Zealand. Martin was the winner of the Northland (NZ) Libraries 2012 and 2014 Flash Fiction Competitions. His flash fiction ‘Splinters’ received a Pushcart Prize nomination in 2013.
To the east, tornadoes drop and then reenter cloud
as the black wall rolls back before the shining sunset,
trailing its jagged fringes of rain
so that it looks like one side of the earth is in shadow,
but where we stand is the middle of light and dark.
And the light that is left is bruised yellow-blue,
and the flag hangs though minutes before it had fought
as if it would tear from its cables and fly to another country.
The blue flax near the house, or the stems that are left,
closed its flowers early, pelted by stones of ice
that fell like cold stars, and believing it was already night.
The flowers won’t have time to open again before night falls.
The way they nod, closed, at the remaining day,
as if acknowledging that they have given it up
and had no choice in it, today another in the list of
the things that don’t hear goodbyes.
The last part of the day blazes, having borne away the weather.
The horses graze in the west on wet buffalo grass,
their heads down, dripping bodies outlined in light.
Chera Hammons graduated from Goddard College. Her work has appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Rattle, Tupelo Quarterly, and Valparaiso Poetry Review, among others. Her chapbook Amaranthine Hour received the 2012 Jacar Press Chapbook Award. Her book Recycled Explosions is forthcoming from Ink Brush Press. She is a member of the editorial board of One. She lives in Amarillo, TX.
I told kids at camp I had flown in the plane of my best friend’s father. I said the wings were silver and dolphins had jumped from the foam. I had not seen the plane of my best friend’s father. Her brother lifted weights without a shirt. We would walk along a highway lined with beach clubs and clam shacks that was almost deserted in winter, and I would look at the pink, dangerous sky that seemed to be holding its breath and tell my best friend the ways in which my life was better than hers. Her skin was golden and covered with tiny hairs that glistened in the chilly sun. She did not say: If your life is better, why do you live at my house?
Laurie Stone’s next book, My Life as an Animal, Stories, will be published this October by Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. She has a story in the current issue of Fence.
St. John’s Wort
to heal depression.
The garden alive with the yellow flower,
bundles turned upside down
drying in the windows come fall.
I make strong teas with it, strain
it into my bathwater, mix it
into potpourri and sachets,
weave it into wreathes,
embroider it onto the edge
of my pillowslip for luck.
If only it would work.
Epstein Barr sickness
leaves me in a gloom
the moments I’m awake.
Flowering at summer solstice,
I reach for its ancient remedies
on the day of light,
the day of healing.
Anderson O’Brien lives in Columbia, SC. She has published poems in The Kentucky Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and Iodine Poetry Review.
And the lights, they dancing, skittering on the black and white tiles, whispering through her in her mother’s voice from years ago, from when she was a child.
She glances up at the lighted balustrade, the stairs still in darkness, and greets the morning after a sleepless night. Four, he got four of them to her bed last night, her ‘husband.’ Four of them with paws for hands, dirt under the nails they shoved into her, their breath soured with cocaine, with ecstasy. He paid her mother a good price he said, and put her in this mansion. Now she must earn it out.
In her heart, the lightness of being empty. Her heart a frothy island of sludge after they drained it over the last few years, the months of pummeling despite her swollen stomach, and in the last few weeks she spent staying awake, being mashed to pulp when she should have been nursing. Her heart a dry thing now, hardening each night, with the sharpness, hardness, lightness of flint.
She takes the first step up the curved stairs, to where her girl lay asleep, tired after a night of hungry wails. He had shushed the baby last night: they don’t come to listen to keening puppies, he said. She tried to go up each time she got a break, but each time another came in through the door. No time to reach the attic.
She has all the time now, to look down at the dizzy-making tiles, their pattern of black and white diamonds whorling now, in her light-headed walk up the stairs. The pain in her thighs and her butt is a living thing, pushing, inwards, inwards. She croons to it, soon, soon, she sings, soon to sleep, soon.
The light warms her face. She would carry her girl, her daughter, her firstborn, her lastborn, to the top of the stairs. She would climb over the balustrade, the babe in her arms, give the floor a splash of colour, a bit of red to break the diamond patterns of black and white.
A hum rises in her throat, echoes against the stone of her heart. A lullaby. She walks up each step, drawing ever closer, and the lights they dance about her, skittering on her face, her hair. She says, I’m coming for you my darling, and the lights, look, the lights, now they dancing.
Damyanti Biswas’s short fiction has been commended at the Bath Flash Fiction Award and her novel-in-progress was long-listed for the Mslexia Novel Competition and Bath Novel Award. Her stories have appeared at Bluestem, Griffith Review, Lunch Ticket, among others, and anthologies in the USA, Malaysia and Singapore. More at her blog, where she hosts stories, interviews, and more.
Martin Willitts, Jr
When rain considers the inner and
outer parts of the silence it makes
as well as the singularity of the moment
all judgment of beauty is from such hunger
it is inevitable to sustain contemplation
it is brushstrokes inside a heart
each distinctive breath or particles of light
or rain droplets on folds of flower petals
or cast-aside watering can or dog nosing a tree
ink dripping on a page
moments of clarity
two worlds never joining
slow rain on the underside of a branch
before releasing from stillness
into soft noises of recovery
fifteen different silences
world washed and scrubbed
birds sampling a puddle
plucking the music of new life
Martin Willitts Jr has nine full-length collections including recently, Irises, the Lightning Conductor For Van Gogh’s Illness (Aldrich Press, 2014) and God Is Not Amused with What You Are Doing in Her Name (Aldrich Press, 2015). His forthcoming poetry collections include How to Be Silent (FutureCycle Press, 2016) and Dylan Thomas and the Writer’s Shed (FutureCycle Press, 2017).
The Chemist’s House
My father’s alone in the empty house, although he died long ago, years before my mother. Hollow-eyed, he’s listless without the family around him, without a job to do now the pharmacy’s closed. In the daytime, I forget about him and his inability to cook anything apart from crisps and treacle toffee. At night, I’m back there again, sleeping with a flea-ridden pet chicken. In the morning, the garden is a wide savannah where mammoths roam. One threatens the chicken, then disappears.
“They’re only Disney cartoons,” my brother says. “The stuff of fairytales. They pop up on the neighbour’s lawn too. No damage done.”
The next evening, refugees cram my old bedroom, one leaning against the airing cupboard wearing rough clothes that scratch and redden his skin. I give him my father’s soft old shirts and leave him to sleep but the others party throughout the night and rifle through my private photographs, sniggering at those naked ones of me swimming in the rhynes.
My grandfather visits, asks if I still have the utility wardrobe that used to be in his bedroom when he was alive. When we find it in the attic, thick with dust, he rummages inside and takes out a pair of tiny diamanté shoes. They fit perfectly, as if I’m still his princess.
All the doors in the house give way at the slightest push although my father still locks and bolts them before he goes to bed. At teatime, my mother wears a low-backed evening gown and opera gloves and chats to her cousin, as if nothing matters and nobody is dead.
In the final dream, we’re outside and the garden is filled with banks of red roses. We wander through the blooms – my mother, father, grandfather, brothers and me, drunk on the heady scent. In the middle rose bed, where the cats are buried, a tree as tall as a redwood soars to the sky. When I climb to the top, I can see the whole town spread out in its 1960s clothes. Farmers drive sheep to market down quiet streets. Their wives gossip by the pharmacy door and admire my mother’s window display, the life-like baby doll in the bonnet and cardigan – pale pink, knitted in four-ply – the new Cow and Gate baby formula for women with no time to breast-feed, pureed peas in jars, a few dummies. At the butcher’s opposite, customers queue for their Sunday joints. Outside the bakery, two farming brothers, rich as Croesus, with blobs of cream on their noses, gobble stolen pastries.
Far below me, my father looks small in his white pharmacist’s coat. On a break from the dispensary, he climbs the steps to the outside lavatory where he’ll smoke that killer pipe. My mother pegs out washing and looks around for me to help. Three tame pigeons feed from my grandfather’s hand. On the crazy paving, my brothers play cricket, while the dog rushes after the ball and the clock tower outside tolls midday with long, shuddering strokes.
I wonder if I’ll ever climb down and join them.
Jude Higgins has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University UK and her flash fictions have been published in National Flash Fiction Day Anthologies UK 2015 and 2016, Fish Prize Anthology 2014, Halo and Severine magazines, Flash Frontier, New Flash Fiction Review, Visual Verse, and Inktears. She runs Bath Flash Fiction Award. @judehwriter Blog: judehiggins.com
Love Song Written on the Last Night of Summer
I don’t know why the stars look so flimsy tonight.
Maybe it’s that summer
is packing her bags for Antarctica,
leaving only a litter of blown-out roses,
her discarded costume jewelry,
while my fingers still dog paddle
the lake of your hair.
On this last threadbare night of the season,
every inch of air churning with cicadas,
the sun didn’t set – it plummeted,
shattering like a pitcher of sangria
dropped on a concrete patio.
“I don’t see us lasting past Christmas,” you announce,
your voice a canoe gently breaking apart
as it glides me to the brink of the waterfall.
Tomorrow the leaves will start
choreographing their death dance.
Make love to me like an avalanche of embers
hurtling into a blizzard.
Pamela Miller has published four collections of poetry, most recently Miss Unthinkable (Mayapple Press, 2013). Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Olentangy Review, RHINO, Circe’s Lament: An Anthology of Wild Women, Poetry Super Highway, After Hours, OVS, Caravel and many other magazines and anthologies.
Quarter Notes: Essays, Reviews, Interviews
Review: Margaret Rozga on Ruth Goring’s Soap is Political
Poetry for Crucial Questions, Deeply Experienced Answers:
Ruth Goring’s Soap is Political
Soap is Political by Ruth Goring
Glass Lyre Press, 2015
If a good title does half the job of selling a book, then Ruth Goring’s Soap Is Political has a jumpstart on the road to success. Friends, even strangers, who saw me, book in hand, inevitably repeated the title as a question, “Soap is political?” I smiled, nodded. Yes, I said to them, but I did not say how. Yes, I said, but I meant yes, that’s precisely the question Goring explores.
Give in to the urge the title provokes. Pick up the book. Find out how Goring answers the question. This review will not be a spoiler. I will only say that the answer is connected to drug trafficking politics.
I will also say that I, too, puzzled at first. Was this title a playful take on the mantra of second wave feminism—the personal is political? I will also say that these poems go far beyond predictable cliché. They go deeply into the poet’s experience in Columbia where she finds beauty and struggle, deeply into the resources of language and poetry so that as Martha Collins writes in her blurb on the back cover, “this compelling book beautifully balances the difficulty of writing about violent political conflict with a joyful appreciation of the life and culture it chronicles.”
Goring identifies her poems as her way of joining with the questions Colombian peasants ask. In the introductory epistolary prose poem “Why,” a letter to Colombia where she lived as a child and again as an adult, she says, “For you, these poems. I’m asking with you.”
Much is political in these poems, but they are not abstract. They are sometimes tactile, as in “Braids” which begins with descriptions of women braiding hair, each in her own style: “Deft comb and fingers part Anita’s hair / in swift rows, then weave head-snug cadenitas.” The braiding then becomes a metaphor for the people’s close relation to the land, and the imagery turns olfactory and visual: “Cook fire smoke braids river mist, our breath, / our jokes and proclamations.”
The relationship between humans, other creatures, and the natural world is always rendered in terms of ordinary, sometimes humorous, experiences. In “Ecosystem: Chocó, 2003,” for example, the speaker is kept awake by the sounds of mice and frogs. Then
…the floor beams just
beneath me heave—then come grunts
and snuffles: a wayfaring
sow has scratched
her back to satisfaction.
Many of these accessible poems are narrative, presenting anecdotes from Goring’s experiences in Columbia. Most of these are tersely matter of fact, tinged with irony. For example “Incursion” tells the story of an encounter between “a gringa tourist,” presumably Goring, and the commander of soldiers in the “United Self-Defense” who badgers her to agree that the soldiers “are here to protect civilians.” She thinks of the eleven year old killed by the United Self-Defense. She answers “’Sí,’ by which / both of us realize I mean No.”
So capable of finding the apt metaphor for the rhythm of daily life, Goring sometimes takes a more direct approach to describe how poor people are sold out. The president Goring describes in “Presidential Qualities” “privatizes with panache—water, / power, telephone company, / universities to the highest bidder.” And if those lines, with their alliteration, dress up the reality of global empire, the concluding series of questions and answers, strip the reality naked:
What is a constitution?
Only a rag of history on which
a president’s nose might be blown.
What is justice? A mat
For wiping el presidente’s feet.
In the poetic journey of this book from question to answers, there is much well-crafted language along the way. Compound words in the powerful old English tradition are a particular strength:
• the path crazy-switches through rock-stubbed foothills
• I chased words / like fishes down page-rivers”
• In a back seat sister-squabble”
• Mercedes / with her si senora mop [Though there is no hyphen in this example, it
shares a similar construction.]
Occasionally Goring indulges in anthropomorphism: “The sky sobs its hot joy;” (25); “Stones lie bewildered” (87).
But that’s minor compared to the book’s strengths. Buy it. Or ask your library to get it for you.
Margaret Rozga’s most recent book of poetry is Justice Freedom Herbs (Word Tech Press 2015). Her new manuscript Pestiferous Questions focuses on Jessie Benton Frémont (1824-1902), who actively campaigned in 1856 for her husband John Charles Frémont, the first Republican candidate for President who ran on an anti-slavery platform.
Ruth Goring’s first poetry collection, Yellow Doors, was published by WordFarm (2004); her poems have also appeared in CALYX, Pilgrimage, Comstock Review, RHINO, Naugatuck River Review, Zona de carga / Loading Zone, and elsewhere. Having grown up in Colombia, she has provided accompaniment and advocacy to peace communities in that country, and currently she serves on the board of Colombia Vive Chicago. She works in the books division of the University of Chicago Press and teaches advanced manuscript editing in the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies.
Essay: Bill Yarrow
THE UBIQUITY OF ALLEGORY
Allegory: The Shy Genre
Allegory is indirection. It’s writing about one thing under the guise of writing about something else. It’s a literary work (novels, story, poem, play, even essay) in which people, places or events stand for ideas. It’s an artistic work (painting, picture, drawing, building, film…) in which shape, line, color, form, figures, objects, or design stand for ideas. In short, it’s any kind of work or production in which ideas are presented indirectly.
Any kind of writing in disguise (fable, parable, homage, parody, pastiche, abecedarium, roman à clef…) is indebted to allegory.
Allegory is as old as literature. Every myth is a version of an allegory. Greek plays (take the Oresteia or The Bacchae as examples) are all allegorical.
Allegory flourished in the Middle Ages, which means it affected the Renaissance, the 18th century, the 19th century, and modern times.
But let me be clearer.
When Blake writes “The Garden of Love,” his poem seems to be about a garden, but it’s really about love. When Shelley says, I fall upon the thorns of life; I bleed,” he means living causes suffering. He doesn’t care about scratches from brambles.
The A of B Metaphor
This form of metaphor in which the first term is concrete (garden/thorns) and the second term is abstract (love/life) is the essential form of all allegory.1 In the absence of another name for this linguistic formation, I call this the A of B metaphor, but I am alone in doing so.
Occasionally this form of metaphor refers to one specific thing. Crane’s phrase “The red badge of courage” refers to blood. Blood is “the red badge” of courage. Courageous people are willing to shed their blood. Blood (or spilled blood) is the emblem of their courage. Thus Crane’s book is really about the blood of courage, which Henry Fleming, Crane’s protagonist, literally and figuratively attains.
The A of B metaphor can be found everywhere all throughout history.
• from Bunyan’s “Slough2 of Despond” to Dr. King’s “the quicksand of racial injustice”
• from Spenser’s “Bower of Bliss” to President Kennedy’s phrase “casting off the
chains of poverty”
• from Shakespeare’s “the womb of time” to Conrad’s “heart of darkness”
• from Emerson’s “we lie in the lap of immense intelligence” to Sinclair’s appeal to
help those “caught beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of Greed.”
Of the Allegorist’s Party without Knowing It
If you name your novel Envy as Yuri Olesha did, or Jealousy as Robbe-Grillet did or Ada or Ardor as Nabokov did, or Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion as Jane Austen did, you’re an allegorist.
If you set part of your novel in Dotheboys3 Hall as Dickens did in Nicholas Nickleby or in the Great Ohio Desert4 as David Foster Wallace did in The Broom of the System, you’re an allegorist.
Do not pretend Llareggub is a real place in Wales. It’s Dylan Thomas’s allegorical middle finger: “llareggub” backwards is “bugger all.”5
Do you really believe Penistone6 Crags in Wuthering Heights is not allegorical?
The Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby is not very distant from the Valley of Humiliation in Pilgrim’s Progress.
If you name your characters Pliable or Talkative or Faithful or Hopeful or Ignorance, not to mention Christian (Pilgrim’s Progress), or Faith (“Young Goodman Brown”) or Urizen7 (“The Book of Urizen”) or Pangloss (Candide), or Benny Profane, Rachel Owlglass, or Herbert Stencil (V), or Tyrone Slothrop (Gravity’s Rainbow), or Rick Vigorous or Candy Mandible (The Broom of the System), or Stephen Dedalus (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), or Christopher Newman8 (The American) or Murdstone9 (David Copperfield) or Mr. Merdle10 (Little Dorritt) or Lord Verisopht11 (Nicholas Nickleby) or Mr. M’Choakumchild (Hard Times), or Christy Mahon12 (The Playboy of the Western World) or Mr. Allworthy (Tom Jones), or Mr. Gall, Mr. Treacle, and Mr. Cranium (Headlong Hall), or Miss Celinda Toobad, Reverend Mr. Larynx, The Honorable Mr. Listless, or The Honorable Mister Lackwit (Nightmare Abbey), or Mr. Chainmail or Susannah Touchandgo13 (Crotchet Castle), or Roger Chillingworth (The Scarlet Letter), or Lady Circumference (Decline and Fall) or Miles Malpractice (Vile Bodies) or Joe Christmas, Joanna Burden. or Gail Hightower (Light in August) or Hazel Motes (Wise Blood) or Gossamer Beynon or Polly Garter (Under Milk Wood), you, if not yourself a card-carrying allegorist, align yourself with that tradition.
Occasionally the “of” or “of the” is missing.
• Hill Difficulty = The Hill of Difficulty
• Doubting Castle = The Castle of Doubt
• Castle Perilous = The Castle of Peril
Occasionally the terms are reversed.
• Heartbreak Hotel = The Hotel of Heartbreak
• The Romance of the Rose = The Rose of Romance
The longer the work, the easier it is to forget the true subject. In The Romance of the Rose, keep your eye on romance.
Some works are intentionally allegorical
• Pilgrim’s Progress
• The Faerie Queen
• Gulliver’s Travels
• The Chronicles of Narnia
• Animal Farm
• The Butter Battle Book
Some works, intentional or not, are read allegorically:
• The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
• The Wizard of Oz
• The Lord of the Rings
• The Crucible
• Why Are We in Vietnam?
Allegory vs. Symbolism
There’s a lot of confusion between allegory and symbolism. That’s because modern sensibilities like symbolism (it’s excitingly complex!) but despise allegory (it’s boringly reductive!). In reality, there’s no difference.
Symbolism is vestigial allegory. Or, if you prefer, allegory that is undeveloped, underdeveloped, or not fully developed.
The symbolic dimension of any work is essentially what’s left of or what’s predictive of its original allegorical intent.
The Modern World’s Interest in Classical Allegory
The modern world is NOT interested in the allegory of classical allegory. It is interested in classical allegorical works for any other reason. It wants to read classical allegory in any other way except as allegory. Thus Bunyan, to take only one example, becomes, in his presentation of dialogue, a master realist, is reread as a genius of colloquial prose.
Realism’s Slide toward Allegory
It seems that the medieval habit of reading things allegorically is so deeply ingrained in us we cannot escape it. We read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the Mississippi becomes a symbol/emblem/image of freedom. We read Cervantes and by the end of the novel Don Quixote stands for idealism and Sancho Panza stands for practicality. The works of Gogol, Balzac, Tolstoy, Dickens, Flaubert, George Eliot, Hardy, Trollope, Henry James, Zola, Turgenev, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton,14 even Robbe-Grillet–after our initial enthusiasm for their realism or naturalism—all begin to be read and understood allegorically.
Thus there is a meeting in the middle. Allegory moves toward realism. Realism slides toward allegory. Every work, with or without its author’s consent, partakes (albeit unequally15) of both.
But what is realism other than specificity? What is allegory other than generality? The marriage of the particular and the universal is the hallmark of the best poetry. And all great art.
There are five writers who worked both sides of the coin (that is realism and allegory) simultaneously. I think that accounts for their enduring popularity. I consider these writers the great poets of prose: Gustave Flaubert, Knut Hamsun, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, and Jorge Luis Borges.
1. If both terms are concrete, the phrase is not a metaphor, e.g. The Cricket on the Hearth or Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.
2. pronounced sloo
3. = do the boys
4. = G.O.D.
5. Similarly “Erewhon” and “nowhere” i.e. “utopia.”
6. = penis stone
7. = your reason
8. = new man
9. = merde/shit + stone
10. = merde/shit
11. = very soft
12. = Christ Man
13. = touch and go
14. The scene of the breaking of Zeena’s “pickle dish” in Ethan Frome is as allegorical (psychologically in Wharton’s novel) as any of the scenes in the House of the Interpreter in Pilgrim’s Progress.
15.See James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice.
Bill Yarrow, non-fiction editor for Blue Fifth Review, is the author of Blasphemer (Lit Fest Press 2015), Pointed Sentences (BlazeVOX 2012) and four chapbooks. His poems have appeared in many print and online magazines including Poetry International, RHINO, Contrary, DIAGRAM, FRiGG, THRUSH, Gargoyle, and PANK. He is a Professor of English at Joliet Junior College where he teaches creative writing, Shakespeare, and film.
Comment on Summer Quarterly, August 2016.