Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Melanie Madden on Craig Childs’ “Raven” and Barry Lopez’ “The Raven”

Some texts are more prescriptive than others. Two weeks ago I showed a class of freshmen a Mark Bittman TED talk on the threat that industrialized meat production poses, and today three of those students told me that since watching the video they’ve been eating less meat, or have stopped eating meat altogether. My reactions to texts are seldom so transformative, but after reading Barry Lopez’ “The Raven,” and Craig Childs’ chapter “Raven” from The Animal Dialogues, I got a pretty fierce itch to see a raven out in the world—out in the desert.

Lopez says, “If you want to know more about the raven: bury yourself in the desert so that you have a commanding view of the high basalt cliffs where he lives. Let only your eyes protrude. Do not blink—the movement will alert the raven to your continued presence.” A fine recommendation! I’m not sure I have the time to bury myself in the desert, and certainly not for the span of time that Lopez recommends (“Wait until a generation of ravens has passed away”); but I’ve got an afternoon to kill, a rickety Schwinn, and the Rio Vista Natural Resources Park, beside the Rillito River bike path, is a short ride away. I’ll just bike on down and, when I get there, sit still. Surely, then the ravenspotting will commence.

Of course I realize that a riverbottom isn’t exactly a high cliff with a commanding view, but there is precedent for the observation of ravens in this less likely location: the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum’s webpage on ravens includes an anecdote by naturalist Peggy Larson which begins, “The folklore of more than one group of native Americans includes stories about coyote and raven interactions. I witnessed such an encounter early one morning while walking the banks of the Rillito River near Tucson.” Only I missed that key word—near. The park and adjacent well-traveled bike path, on this overcast Sunday afternoon in January, may boast native flora and fauna, but its location is still urban. Joggers, cyclists, walkers, strollers; all of Tucson seemed to be out, enjoying their active lifestyles and using their outdoor voices. My stillness would go unnoticed amid all this motion and noise. I had no hope of seeing a raven.

“Ravenous” means “rapacious,” or “very eager or greedy for food, satisfaction, or gratification.”

There is something uncanny about ravens. This is not all Poe’s fault, though I think it’s fair that he take some of the blame for the way we associate this bird with the gothic, the supernatural, or the downright creepy in the popular imagination. Barry Lopez reaches back farther than Poe for his treatment of the raven; his depiction is mythic, certainly influenced by tribal lore. His essay is a fable, telling how once there were crows in the desert, but now only the silent, cautious ravens remain. After the crows’ gruesome demise, “Finally, there is this: one morning four ravens sat at the edge of the desert waiting for the sun to rise. They had been there all night and the dew was like beads of quicksilver on their wings. Their eyes were closed and they were as still as the cracks in the desert floor.

“The wind came off the snow-capped peaks to the north and ruffled their breath feathers. Their talons arched in the white earth and they smoothed their wings with sleek, dark bills. At first light their bodies swelled and their eyes flashed purple. When the dew dried on their wings they lifted from the desert floor and flew away in four directions. Crows would never have had the patience for this.”

This image, of the four ravens flying in four directions at dawn, haunts me. I think that I want to see a raven (“Can’t you just go to the zoo?” A friend asks, helpfully. No.) in its natural habitat as a kind of affirmation. If a raven looks at me, and says nothing, then I will know, and I will feel, that I belong in this desert, too.

Ravens are omnivorous and opportunistic.

Craig Childs is typically not so fantastic in his sketches of a lifetime’s worth of “Uncommon encounters in the wild,” which could hardly be called fabulist, but in his treatment of ravens, he moves in a different direction. He practically gets mystical talking about the raven, saying “I am always prepared for the impossible from ravens. Animals of omens and nevermores, they rule the desert, able to reach every crack and ledge while I am restricted to the ground as if wearing chains.” Childs then narrates an unsettling scene, explaining how, on a hike in Southern Utah, he follows a raven into a canyon and finds there a congregation of the birds who demonstrate loud, flapping agitation at his intrusion. Describing the encounter, he gives the ravens dialogue:

            “‘Listen to us!’ cried the ravens.

            “‘I don’t speak your language!’ I called out, exasperated.

            “Hearing my voice, the ravens became only more infuriated. I was disoriented, watching them dive around me, and I could barely stand. Flashes of sky showed through ragged wings. I stumbled and found myself on my knees in the sand.

            “‘Listen to us!’ they kept crying. ‘This is not your place!’”

Childs concludes his raven tale with the acknowledgment that “Anthropomorphism is generally frowned upon. It is said to be improper to see animals the same way we view ourselves.” But in his admiration for the ravens’ intelligence, their ingeniousness, he notes “It seems just as odd, though, to sequester ourselves in a cheerless vault of sentience, sole proprietors of smarts and charm . . . I do not want to be a lonely species set adrift from all the rest. I want the ravens that we saw to have been performing a ritual, animals of sensibility. I envision a righteous murder performed by birds living in a moral universe. I yearn for them to have societies, secret handshakes and knocks, associations and enterprises.”  

Ravens belong to a family of birds called corvids, which includes crows, magpies, and jays. These are considered to be the most intelligent of birds. They “employ more adaptations and innovations than any other bird,” Childs says, and he is not alone in his desire to believe that this intelligence could have a moral component. Blogger Dan Dreifort’s essay, “Corvus corax’ exemplarycognitive umbra vis-à-vis de Waal’s Pongidae ignoratio elenchi” examines the ways in which ravens’ demonstrated cognitive abilities suggest “their potential membership in the morals fraternity” (with a note that primatologist Frans de Waal declined to be interviewed for this piece; I can’t imagine why de Waal wouldn’t want to be associated with a blog called “the Dirty Rag”). Dreifort concludes that “Ravens use logic to assess and solve problems and they have a concept of past and future. They can mull over what they know and apply it to new situations. Ravens communicate relative concepts and emotions and share food. They recognize individuals across species and recognize and react to knowledge of others. . . . I cannot argue that ravens are more deserving of the moral agent tag than primates, but I’ve presented a wealth of recent evidence to suggest that a moral raven is not entirely impossible and certainly not significantly less likely than a moral chimp.” Is this why the raven is so uncanny? Do we see ourselves in their blue-black feathers, in their beady dark eyes?

A group of ravens is called an unkindness.

On that cloudy Sunday afternoon, after wandering the banks of the Rillito River among the active Tucsonans and scanning the skies for the better part of an hour, I parked myself on a bench beneath a ramada at Rio Vista. The concrete bench is enclosed on two sides with high, sheer walls, and I tucked myself into this corner, tried to imagine myself in a canyon, my back pressed to a high basalt cliff, only my eyes protruding. I tilted my head up and enjoyed the novelty of the winter sky in Southern Arizona, certain that this grey, gothic afternoon would naturally produce a visit from an otherworldly bird. Bare mesquite branches stretched black fingers in my field of vision, and I waited, quietly. Loud children came to play in the ramada and regarded me with curiosity. I saw no raven. Eventually, I tired of waiting and left in disappointment.

Ravens are awesome. Nevertheless, I will be cheering for the 49ers in the Super Bowl.

Melanie Madden is an MFA student at the University of Arizona.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Cory Aaland on Julio Cortázar's HOW TO CLIMB A STAIRCASE

Julio Cortázar’s “INSTRUCTIONS ON HOW TO CLIMB A STAIRCASE” operates like this: it closely reads into the act of climbing a staircase, magnifying the moment with meticulous description, and in doing so it isolates each step required to walk up a flight of stairs. This does a few things: first, it forces the reader to wonder how a person could ever climb stairs given the complexity of the event (even though it seems, in everyday life, to be easy, or perhaps not even worthy of consciousness: beyond easy). The second thing it does is remove any kind of pre-conceived notion that the reader might have about the event, from the event, so as to see the event as it really is. For Cortázar, in this essay, the mundane masks the truth: the reader accepts the ease in which he walks up and down stairs, and through description, through a close reading the event, Cortázar wishes to understand what it’s actually like to climb those steps—but he also has another goal: to show the reader how amazing it is that he can even do it in the first place. This creates humor, obviously, because we are not accustomed to people thinking hard about walking up steps, but we get the sense that this humor is not intended or forced: it’s a simple product of questioning the foundations of the things we consider most steadfast and true. Through description and really through description alone (which I think is wonderful: I don’t think I’ve read an essay where description works harder than this one), this essay questions the very reality (and by reality, I mean reality as conceived through ourselves—our conception of it) of our everyday lives. While this essay may appear to be merely “instructing” us, it is also questioning our ability to see anything clearly—to understand our ability to perceive the actions we perform every day, to understand the things that we consider to be most us. The givenness of the event limits our ability to see it clearly, or perhaps, at all.

A common notion today is that if one strips a subject down to its component parts that the subject will lose any kind of meaning that was once attributed to it, that it will cease to be beautiful or “special.” If we, for example, think of a human being as a mass of atoms, as a strictly scientific being, in other words: as a mere product of matter and chance, the notions of love and family and the seriousness of being human become merely symptoms of a scientific accident, or worse, they become self perpetuated illusions that perhaps never existed at all. That’s what I like about this essay. Instead of losing meaning through the isolation, description, and evaluation of component parts, “INSTRUCTIONS ON HOW TO CLIMB A STAIRCASE” produces the opposite effect: through isolation of the mundane it creates meaning, allowing us to wonder and be amazed at the complexity of ourselves.

Cory Aaland is a MFA student at the University of Arizona

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Amorak Huey on Davy Rothbart's My Heart Is an Idiot

In a recent Grantland piece musing on what makes sports entertaining, Chuck Klosterman rails against a certain television commercial in which a high school football player does a flip over an opposing tackler; the gymnastic feat is captured on video; said video goes viral; and in the end the player is apparently being recruited by a major college program. Klosterman calls the commercial “glib and insidious,” and then adds:

And here's what's really stupid: I wouldn't hate it if it happened in reality. If a real kid got a scholarship to Oklahoma because of this kind of scenario, I would be charmed. Anytime a real athlete's individual performance outshines the unsophisticated concept of winning or losing, I inevitably love it. His or her motives are almost an afterthought. I only find it troubling when the scenario is fake. Fiction is always more real to me.

Fiction is always more real to me. I think I know what Klosterman means here. I don’t think it’s exactly “more real,” but something about how fiction can be manipulated to seem real – and it is in that manipulation that fiction finds its meaning. The author controls (more or less) all the moving parts in fiction, so that in the end the point being made/the world being evoked/the moral of the story is essentially what the author wants it to be. So if a work of fiction is sentimental, we see this as a character flaw on the part of the author – who has chosen the sentimentality. Whatever cell phone company made the commercial (I could look it up but don’t care enough) chose implausibility and easy feel-good-ness. The commercial’s narrative is compelling because it’s implausible, or at least the conceit of the commercial is that we’re supposed to think it’s implausible: the story of an unlikely triumph.

Yet the implausible is meaningful only if it is also real. If I tell you I saw a zebra walking down the sidewalk in the snow in my Michigan neighborhood this morning, it would be a dumb little lie that you won’t believe (or care about). But if I actually saw that zebra in East Grand Rapids, and if you believe me when I tell you about it, then the story becomes something worth telling. Like Klosterman says: actual kid wins actual scholarship because of actual viral video? Cool story. But ad-agency-created fake kid wins fake scholarship? Yadda manipulative blah blah boringcakes.

All of which is to say, of course, that nonfiction matters: as a form, as a label, as an idea and an ideal. Obviously. (I doubt you’re reading anything on a site called Essay Daily if you think nonfiction doesn’t matter.) It matters, in part, because of the way it shapes the reading experience. Expectations are shaped when you call a story true, when you claim a space within nonfiction for your writing. Davy Rothbart’s My Heart Is an Idiot claims that space in no uncertain terms, announcing its genre on the cover with the word “ESSAYS” tattooed on a bicep under the title.
These are not exactly essays in the Montaigne sense, musing on some particular topic or other: “On the Idiocy of the Human Heart” or whatever. Nor are these the essays of first-year composition with a thesis sentence and a point to make. They are not organized with argument and evidence. They are not heavy on reflection or philosophical musing. They feel more like stories than essays: yarns, and ripping good ones. Tales told well, full of plot and personality, humor and high jinx. But they also are and must be essays: if they weren’t nonfiction, they wouldn’t work.

Consider “How I Got These Boots,” a short piece in which Rothbart recounts how he acquired the boots of a hitchhiker he once gave a ride to the Grand Canyon. Rothbart was at a particularly low point, emotionally, and it turned out the man he picked up was fulfilling a longtime quest to see the Grand Canyon: “I felt lucky that I was about to witness someone realize their lifelong dream. My own dreams seemed hazier and more impossible.” But the trip turns out a success, both for Rothbart’s passenger, who ends up with a job at the canyon, and for Rothbart himself. The essay ends:
A year later, when I left Chicago and drove to New Mexico to follow my dreams of being a writer, I was wearing those boots with the red laces. On my dashboard was the picture of John Molloy at the edge of the canyon, fists raised against the sky.

If this piece were a work of fiction, it would be sentimental hokum. But as nonfiction, it’s sweet  and even a little inspiring. The same adjectives apply to the book in general. The world Rothbart describes is a warm place – people have problems, and sometimes do harm to each other, but by and large we’re all doing the best we can most of the time. There’s a tenderness in how Rothbart sees humanity that would be tricky to pull off in fiction without being saccharine.

Part of this brand of storytelling is exaggeration. And the stories Rothbart tells do have that tall tale feel at times. In “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Pee on the Wall,” he gets really mad at an unscrupulous scam artist who’s ripping off hopeful writers. So Rothbart starts sending the guy bottles of urine. As you do, right? Too weird to be true, or so weird it must be true? Look, any binary definitions of fiction and nonfiction are sure to break down. Lines will blur, walls crumble, art will exist in the overlapping cross-hatched areas of the Venn diagram. Memory is flawed. Perception is idiosyncratic by definition. Every area is gray. Fiction draws its strength from being believable; nonfiction gains power from being unbelievable. Unbelievable yet believed.

I met Rothbart a few months ago when he visited the school where I teach. He’s funny, charming, smart, cool – really cool. The kind of cool guy who wears a cool hat, and cool clothes, and knows other cool people, and after five minutes in his presence, I was pretty convinced of the truth of the essays in My Heart Is an Idiot. The dead body in the swimming pool? The bus rider who claims to be 120 years old? The guy who pretends to be a girl named Nicole so he can have phone sex with random men in a Motel 6? I believe all of it.

Rothbart is also editor of Found Magazine, which publishes reader-submitted notes and letters and other odds and ends found in random places. There’s surprising power in these bits of ephemera – what we learn about humanity from the fragments of language we leave behind. And again, the power comes from knowing that these found items are real. How easy would it be to make up an abandoned love letter that makes its sender look silly? When he is asked how he knows that no one is doing just that, inventing things to submit, Rothbart says, in essence, that he trusts people not to do that and that he thinks the payoff is too small for anyone to bother. Why would anyone need to make this shit up when there’s so much real shit out there? On the one hand, this attitude seems perhaps a little naïve, given how often people lie and often for little to no payoff; on the other hand, it makes perfect sense – and it certainly matches the approach to life Rothbart brings to My Heart Is an Idiot. There’s a bit of eager puppy dog about Rothbart as he presents himself in these essays –  throwing himself open and expecting that everyone else is doing the same thing.  Predictably, this gets him into trouble, and certainly the book earns its title. Quite often, his heart really is an idiot. The rest of him, too. I mentioned that he mailed his piss to an enemy, didn’t I? But there’s also real wisdom here, street smarts woven throughout the narratives – an intelligence about how things work. The last essay in the collection is called “Ain’t That America,” after the John Cougar Mellencamp lyric. Of that song, Rothbart writes:

This, from what I knew of it, was one of those songs, like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” that had been written as a eulogy for the dying American Dream but had been so widely misinterpreted as an anthem of patriotism and working-class pride that its original intent had been usurped in the popular imagination. And, actually, when you really thought about it, the artists were wrong and the popular imagination was right, for how could you listen to Mellencamp sing the chorus and not feel stirred by a love for America, whatever its shortcomings might be?

This is an apt description of how a reader ends up feeling about Rothbart himself and about the particular version of America he inhabits and the motley crew of characters he encounters: stirred by a genuine affection, regardless of the shortcomings. In the end, there’s more heart here than idiot.

One other thing that you learn when you meet Rothbart in person is that he remembers names with remarkable accuracy. At the Q&A session after a reading, he’ll refer to previous questioners by name, or call on someone for a second question. At an evening appearance, he gives a shoutout to audience members who previously attended the afternoon event. Asked how he does it, he offers a simple answer: “I pay attention when people tell me.” Most people, he explains, ask your name and then only half-listen to the answer. Having noticed this, he resolved to listen fully. It makes perfect sense. It explains his essays, too: he’s paying attention. He lives life with his eyes open, he absorbs what happens around him – and so when he tells it back to us, it’s real. It’s believable. It’s nonfiction.


Amorak Huey spent more than a decade as an editor and reporter at newspapers in Florida, Kentucky, and Michigan. Now he teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry 2012, The Southern Review, Subtropics, The Cincinnati Review, Carolina Quarterly and other journals. Follow him on Twitter: @amorak

Heather Hamilton on Shrimp, Radiolab, Facebook, and Welfare Moms

“If you live in a country that provides comprehensive social programs (read: everywhere but here) I have to explain the connotation of that word “welfare”. It is said like the lowest and most disgusting thing ever. People here say “she’s on welfare” they way they’d say “she kills baby seals”.”—Paige Lucas-Stannard (from an essay called I’m a Welfare Mom published on

I didn’t understand what it meant to receive government assistance when I was a child, and by the time I did, we were off of it, or nearly. I was thankful my family was being helped in less public ways—free school lunches, court ordered and garnished child support. My mother was and is a fighter and is curiously fascinated by the Praying Mantis, which seemed important as I listened to a Radiolab show called Colors on my treadmill.
About the time President Obama was reelected, a girl I knew from junior high school posted a Facebook status that likened government welfare programs to the National Park Service and welfare recipients to wild animals. The meme had a title, which was something like “A Lesson in Irony: Please Don’t Feed the Animals.” Her point, and that of the meme’s— which I saw replicated over and over on social media—was that the US government is fostering a dependence (as do campers who feed animals) on handouts, leading to animals that will not care for themselves. It was the only time I’ve engaged in a fight waged via the Internet. It ended with my promise to eat granola and watch Jon Stewart from the backseat of my rainbow stickered car.
The eye of the Mantis shrimp is such that he is able to see an object with three different parts of the same sphere. Instead of two cones (a dog) or three (a human), the Mantis shrimp has sixteen color-receiving portals, the most complicated visual system of any animal by a factor of two. His rainbow does not then follow ours, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violent—it consists of colors we cannot imagine.
When I heard this on on Radiolab, I memorized it and used the information to write a bad poem. I liked the sounds of the hired choir as they speculated in song about the shrimp’s rainbow: super duper ultra violet, very ultra violet, ultra ultra violet, violet, and so on. What a luxury, I thought.
There was a time when I believed in God and a woman called me an angel of him, that is, you are an angel of God. I was sixteen and charitable, I took pride in that, the very idea of being charitable. Part of the school-hosted community canned food drive, my faculty driver and I brought in box after box of canned spam and oranges, a Christmas tree, a turkey. A bag of dog food, some books. I’d never seen anyone cry like that, weeping so openly amidst the smell of an old apartment, an apartment I knew to be, well,  poor.
Stowed away in hovels and holes, the Mantis shrimp does not leave home, save to feed or relocate, and 20 or so times to breed—as dictated by the tides and thus the ability to perceive the phases of the moon. After, depending on the species (which range from finger to forearm in size) the eggs are either kept within the burrow or carried around under the mother’s tail until the time of hatching. Often, these couples are monogamous. They are good mothers, these shrimp, and they are making good homes.
Now I am 27 and it has been eleven years since I was an angel, ten since I stopped believing in God, and I wonder what became of that woman and her family. I wondered so much that, over Christmas, my boyfriend and I volunteered to drive high school students from the school I attended to the lists of homes they’d collected and for whom they’d prepared boxes of food. Macee and Mandy sat in the back of the Buick I was driving and comment on the awesomeness of the shocks. They sung when Justin Bieber came on the radio, and laughed at the mildly inappropriate jokes my boyfriend and I made. It’s been so long. It seems good to be young. None of the addresses were on Fourth Street.
Our first house was a few blocks away from the school, and the girls giggled nervously as they approached the door. There were two families living there, four parents, more children then I could count. On the stairs there was a boy who was maybe sixteen. The girls whispered, he is in my English class.
            Mantis shrimp are named for their weapon, a sort of arm similar to that of the Praying Mantis insect, and are found in multiple oceans, in many homes. These shrimp are grouped into two categories—spearers and slashers, so named for the way they attack their prey. Though beautiful, the shrimp are largely considered violent predators. In Cantonese cuisine, they are the pissing shrimp, squirting streams of water when lifted. These shrimp are survivors though, and fighters, capable of breaking the glass of an aquarium in a single strike.
All of this to say, and simply, too simply, what I should have said then, Dear Michelle, please remember —if we are to compare humans to animals let it be the Mantis shrimp,, in our shared ability to fight and overcome. And to other animals--the ability to demonstrate compassion, to express empathy toward others, and Michelle, it is never who you think, and the colors are still beautiful and, well, maybe you aren't, but I’m happy to help a Mantis shrimp—
And I’m happy to be one too.

Heather Hamilton is currently a nonfiction candidate in the MFA program at the University of Arizona, where she serves as Co-Editor-In-Chief of the Sonora Review.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Kendra Mullison on Brenda Peterson's "Growing Up Game" ... and Rabbits.

Dear T,
    In light of your latest letter, I thought it likely that we might have misunderstood each other.  Not just about the prickly pear jelly I sent you for Christmas, which I fully intended for you to serve with scones and hot tea, but about a certain creature which is--quite literally--much closer to your heart.  You deserve an explanation, and I won’t hold back--
    Here follows my entire history with rabbits.  
    When I was twenty-two, I decided to plant a kitchen garden.  You remember; you put in a raised bed around the same time, and blamed the wretched crop on Alabama’s unpredictable weather.  Several states away, I dug up a patch of front yard, right up against the house, about six feet by four.  A small garden, but an ambitious enterprise by my own less-than-modest expectations.  I put in asparagus, bok choi, carrots, ten or twelve different herbs, and mustard.  I prayed over that garden more often than I prayed for good health, weeded its neat rows daily, and tracked in mud every time the weather turned stormy.  Despite flooding, despite hail, and despite my scorched-earth methods of aphid control--in short, despite everything--the garden greened.  The basil shot up three feet when I wasn't looking, and the mustard, six.
    Then came the rabbits, and overnight my garden reverted to its original mud-patch state.  Only the mustard was spared, probably because it was six feet off the ground and pungent.  Where I grew up, sort of--or rather where I spent a few years while growing, in Australia--rabbits are an introduced species.  As with many other plant and animal species in that great southern land--dingoes, cane toads, kudzu, cats--the rabbit has made itself right at home.  Rabbiting has entered the Australian lexicon, and none of its many meanings carry positive connotations: to talk at length about nothing of importance, to run for cover out of cowardice, to be rather too quick about the sex act.  
    Tellingly, rabbit has become a dirty word because the animal has become a symbol of fertility and superfluity, even as American markets sell the Easter Bunny as a symbol of purity, innocence, and profit.  Australians remain unimpressed; instead of white rabbits, stores carry chocolate bilbies during Holy Week.  Given the animal’s history in Australia, I can see why.  Who would support the presence of a feral European mammal when one can buy an edible effigy to an endangered native marsupial instead?  A biologist could tell you in thirty words or fewer just how damaging introduced species have been to Australia’s fragile landscape.
    I cannot help but admire the beautiful little walking stomachs that decimated my carrots and herbs but left my mustard alone.  The rabbit is nature at its most flexible, its most accommodating.  If there is enough greenery to be had, or even some less-palatable tree bark, a single female can produce more than eight hundred children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in a single season.  In Australia, where the winters are milder, they can breed year round.  Thomas Austin released twenty-four rabbits onto his Winchelsea estate in 1859; less than a decade later, a single shooting season might take in over two million rabbits without a noticeable effect on the population.  The rabbit colonization of Australia was, according to some accounts, the fastest spread of any mammalian species ever recorded.  The rabbit colonization of my garden took less than a week, from my first rabbit sighting in the neighborhood to the last asparagus shoot.  By the time the month was out, my housemates and I had catalogued at least two families with four or five kits each, one of which took up residence in our dryer vent when the outdoor filter broke off.  
    More disturbingly, there were the resident escapees.  One grey, one pitch black and evil.  The wild cottontails were buff-colored and compact bundles of fur, with kits only about six inches long, but Patch and Demon cleared the grass at around two feet high, and they haunted houses.  There's nothing quite like stepping out of the house into the white fog of an Ozark morning to find myself confronted by a monstrous black rabbit on the doorstep, or to turn the corner at dusk and find a behemoth benignly devouring my bok choi.  Even you, dear sister, were never as terrifying to me as these rabbits, at six in the morning.
    I might perhaps have treated our resident rabbit population with the same courtesy as I did the aphids, had not one of my housemates struck down my proposal to snare a brace or two for dinner one night.  Banned from shedding the blood of innocent kits, I purchased a PETA-approved humane trap, designed for relocation.  I tried all of the usual tricks--carrots, spinach, peanut butter--but found my trap empty every morning with the food gone.  Some of the kits took to tormenting me by playing with the trap.  I'd find them perched on top, or nosing around the exterior, with all the snide slyness of my own childhood years.  And of course, they were too fast to catch.
    Unable to catch or kill the rabbits, I took to whining about them.  "Baby Bunnies" became code in my house for anything that drove me to distraction.  Perhaps you were too caught up in excitement at getting pregnant to pick up on the new addition to my expletive dictionary.  My housemates and I removed the trap from the garden and placed it just outside the dining room window, so that we could watch for rabbits as we ate and studied at the table.  The rabbits followed the trap around the yard, or seemed to, but never allowed themselves to be caught.
    One day, while I was at work, you texted me to request I sketch you a rabbit.  At the time, I was in the habit of drawing on post-it notes while my accounting reports compiled and scanning them onto my blog.  The simplicity of the medium appealed to me, and the limitations.  Why not add a rabbit to the collection?  Out came the pen and the post-it note, and up went the image onto my blog.
    The next day, you sent me a photograph--that was it, just a photograph--of your collarbone.  And there he was, most hateful of creatures, the rabbit, inked into your skin forever.   You had snatched my sketch out of the ether and tethered it to your body.  Later, you told me that you had miscarried, and that you had called your child-to-be Baby Bunny.  And just like that, I knew the battle was over, and I had lost.  It didn't matter, really, that you’d gotten another tattoo, or even that the newest crop of grey hairs on our mother's head had been cultivated by my own pen.  I could not go on complaining about demon rabbits of the night, or joking about the various ways to dress a rabbit carcass--because the rabbit was no longer just a rabbit, but something else entirely.  Someone else.  One body for another body, one baby for another, memorialized and mapped in your skin.  
    So I began to watch the kits, at all hours and seasons, hanging around my humane trap like men around a barbecue grill.  I might as well have supplied the beer, just to complete the picture.  Just to perfect the torture instrument.  I still tried to keep them away from the basil and the cabbages, with wire and mesh and a dubious purchase from the hardware store that advertised itself as real coyote urine, but I no longer threw open the windows and hissed at them, or chased them with the lawn mower.  One afternoon, while plotting out the best way to poison gophers in the back yard, I found a dead kit by the dryer vent.  Six inches of freshly dead, mottled brown fur, and a spot of blood on the shoulder.  One leg was thrown wide, the soft underbelly exposed.  I went inside for a plastic bag, a shroud.  
    There’s a passage in Brenda Peterson’s “Growing Up Game,” a graceful grappling with a family tradition of hunting that first appeared in Greywolf Annual Three, that has stuck with me for years:

My father and Buddy Earl shot a big doe and she lay with me in the back of the tarp-draped station wagon all the way home.  It was not the smell I minded, it was the glazed great, dark eyes and the way that head flopped around crazily on what I knew was once a graceful neck.  I found myself petting this doe, murmuring all those graces we’d been taught long ago as children.  Thank you for the sacrifice, thank you for letting us be like you so we can grow up strong as game.  But there was an uneasiness in me that night as I bounced along in the back of the car with the deer.
A rabbit is not a deer; that much is self-evident.  Their masses are different, and they occupy different spaces in both the world and Western thought.  Likewise, Peterson’s qualms and mine are rather different: she falls into “horror and awe and kinship” at the act of predation; I do so as an undertaker for a corpse I cannot claim.  But the uneasiness--that is the same, even if I didn’t have to while away the hours in the back of a station wagon with the dear departed.  “Growing Up Game” has become an analogue for my own loss.  You lost a baby, the greater bereavement, and I lost my right to complain.
    The kit’s broken body went out with the trash on a Tuesday, and that's the morning I came to know rabbits as something more than abstract clusters of fur and bone, or reproductive machines and statistically devastating successes.  The dead baby bunny wasn’t exactly a stand-in for Baby Bunny, if you catch my drift, but it was more than a two-inch sketch on a post-it note, or a footnote in a natural history journal.
    I'm years gone from being twenty-two now, but you still have that tattoo, and I still have the original post-it note.  I kept Baby Bunny around, once I knew what he meant to you, and he's tucked inside the cover of my sketch book.  I will probably always hate rabbits, but I cannot help but love them, too--despite all those pernicious bodily perfections that allow them to wreak such havoc in places like Winchelsea and my kitchen garden.  It's a creature that kicked me, however briefly and however unconsciously, out of my self-absorption.  As with Peterson and her doe, the dead kit and your tattoo gave me “full knowledge of what I do, what I become” in the presence of death.  The rabbit is a creature that gets under my skin, and into yours.
    Much love, and some bitterness,
    - KMM


Kendra Mullison is a nonfiction candidate in the MFA program at the University of Arizona, where she spends most of her time surprising no one.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Adam Kullberg on Nicole Walker’s “Where the Wild Things Are”

           One night a few years ago, my then-roommate’s puppy, Lucy, slunk into the darkness just beyond the security lights of our back porch. It was cold out that night, the moon hidden behind the clouds. My roommate and I were smoking on the porch, watching each puff spread out over the branches of a banana-leafed tree above our heads.
            This is how we spent most nights that fall, and the dog did this often, this disappearing act, so we didn’t call her back. Even when we heard the rustling of leaves, that stop-go…stop-go… of her paws, that insistent sniffing—telltale signs of something being hunted—even then, we didn’t call her back.
            Why would we? To us Lucy was just a slobbering, excitable, clever puppy who was always happy to see a new face. She spent most of her time curled up on the couch or in our laps. And she had never actually caught anything before. It was the chase, we imagined, that kept things interesting.
            And then, there it was: the muffled pursuit; the high-pitched squeal; the bones snapping, a quick poppopoppop; and the dense silence that followed.
            My roommate and I looked wild-eyed to each other—we thought something must have attacked her, hurt her—and we ran across the yard in time to meet Lucy emerging back into the security light. Her jaws bloody. Her feet matted with dirt. Her long, slender body tense as a branch against the wind. And her tail wagging.

            This memory came back to me after recently re-reading Nicole Walker’s essay, “Where the Wild Things Are”—forthcoming in her collection, Quench Your Thirst With Salt, winner of the 2011 Creative Nonfiction Book Award from Zone 3 Press. I thought of that night not only because parts of the essay focus on wolves and a wolf-like dog named “Cleo” (Lucy was an Alaskan Malamute, one step away from full wolf), but also because Walker deals with the primal instincts, the baser desires, the darker fantasies that reside within all of us. Even sometimes shape us.
            For Lucy, it was the predator’s desire to hunt, to kill—evident the next morning, when we followed her back to the spot beside the fence where she had chased the squirrel down, broken its neck. Until it happened, I would never have believed Lucy could ever kill another living creature. But there it was, splayed out in the backyard. My irrefutable evidence.
            For Nicole Walker in “Where the Wild Things Are,” the evidence is not so readily apparent. Spurred by the discovery that her first child will be a daughter, Walker goes on a quest to peel her fears—specifically, a) “the threat of nature becoming completely obliterated and all things wild, especially predators, made extinct;” and b) “some ‘pervert’ molesting my daughter”—open like an onion, layer by layer.
            In the opening section, she says:

Whether or not having kids means you have to make some hard and fast rules or whether or not dams need to be built, you must first determine what the baseline for normal is, what kind of soil you’re working with. When you’re formed of muddled soils yourself, it’s hard to begin to distinguish. But you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. You must first have a threshold before you can charge trespass. You have to know what’s real ground and not just a fantasy of packed sand. It’s up to you to investigate the strata.

            Walker’s “strata” is a collage of titled, linked sections that form the overall structure of her essay. In doing so, she is also able to embody a mosaic of different identities– female/male, child/adult, animal/human, mother/daughter, predator/prey—throughout the sections, switching deftly between real and imagined perspectives in order to expose the peripheral boundaries of her individual fears and desires: their roots, their perpetrators, their limitations. Mixing in factual, anecdotal, and research-based evidence, often within scenes, Walker manages to adeptly navigate the essay’s winding tapestry while always returning back to the source—herself and her own fears—which she uses as a concrete foundation for her broader philosophical inquiries at the ends of certain sections.
            For example, her first major revelation occurs at the end of section two, “Formations,” where she explains that our fears in the Western world have transformed, in this age of comfort, into fears not of nature as a force—starvation, drowning, exposure, predators, and so on—but of the nature/s within ourselves and within others. We now fear not what the world does to us, but what we are capable of doing to it, and to each other.

As we sit inside the comfort of our homes, in the warmth of our blankets and the crispness of our sheets, we lie in bed fearing not nature, but nature perverted. And the more that nature is twisted to suit our desire, the more perverted our natures become.

            Mind you, Walker is not preaching here, and she is not afraid to acknowledge the shortcomings in her own nature, admitting, “In the mix of acting and being acted upon, it’s impossible to even distinguish what is natural and what is a perversion of that nature,” and, “Maybe everything is normal to some degree.”
            This self-awareness and up-front honesty is particularly valuable to the reader, establishing early-on that there would be no obvious, easy answers; rather, we are put in the position of a voyeur, sometimes uncomfortably so, watching Walker as she grapples with the duality of fear and hope that comes with bringing a daughter into a world in which “perverted” natures seem to drive endless cycles of abuse, fear, and predation—even, in some ways, within Walker herself:

I don’t mean to brand my baby a victim. She’s not. She’s strong. But unlike Erik who can believe he can, I don’t believe I’ll be able to protect her, to watch out for her every step of the way. At some point, she’ll be on her own. I will give her the tools I can and then wish her luck when the man in the van pulls up alongside her as she rides her bike. Or, more likely, when the boy next-door comes over to help her fix that bike. Alone. In the garage. Or her cousin wants to play truth or dare. Or her brother wants to move his room downstairs, next to hers. Or the man across the street asks her to come help him find his kitten. How do I teach her to draw the line when talking to strangers when I don’t know where to draw it myself?
Walker continues her struggle to draw this line for herself and the reader for a few more pages. And it is only after she discovers her neighbor across the street is included on a sexual predator website–when her fears literally return home—when Walker decides that, perhaps, these dark desires, fantasies, and fears are simply inescapable, part of our human nature. Perhaps there is no neat solution, no line between good and evil, no separating dark and light.
            “We can’t protect our children from everything, maybe anything,” Walker admits in the second half of the essay. “Being particularly vigilant, erecting every foreseeable barrier against one kind of danger just allows other kinds of danger to swamp right in.”
            But what of this “other kind” of danger? Walker reveals this final, more immediate danger is the constant dualities we each establish for ourselves and others—us & them; good & evil; bad & good; fantasy & reality; wolf & sheep; predator & prey; wild & tame; etc.—which shape the way we view the meanings behind our actions, the world around us, and the actions of others. She explains that when we consider one part of our internal or external nature “wild” and another “tame,” one necessary and the other unnecessary, we communicate an imbalance within the self, preventing us from ever feeling complete, safe, as our natural selves:

But change is natural. Nature, both human and wild, responds to change with equilibrium. The change that happens to what you do to nature is what happens to the nature in you. The more we try to keep the wild outside, the more the wild seems to creep, in fiercer and in divided form, inside.

As the essay closes, Walker seeks to, instead of clarify, blur these arbitrary lines that have been set between prey and predator, victim and villain, good and bad. After entering the minds of two imaginary characters in a graphic rape scene, and after considering the plight of both the lamb and the wolf side-by-side, she does what others (myself included) often cannot in writing: acknowledges her inability to judge or lay blame, saying “There are natures out of our control. Even inside our own.”

            When I first picked up “Where the Wild Things Are,” I imagined it would be about controlling fear through breathing exercises. Nice, warm affirmations to live by. Something like that. But now, of course, I know that Walker has a braver goal in mind for herself and her readers: accepting the fact that we will always live with certain fears, certain desires. They are, and have always been, necessary for our survival. And we can either ignore these fears and desires completely, allowing them to grow within us—or we can face the truth of ourselves, put an ultrasound to our inner lives and see what murky beginnings lie inside of each of us. August Wilson said it best: “Confront the dark parts of yourself. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.”


Adam E. Kullberg is currently a nonfiction candidate in the MFA program at the University of Arizona, where he serves as a nonfiction editor at Sonora Review.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Joe Bonomo on Luc Sante's "My Lost City"

Writer, teacher, and archivist of ephemera, Luc Sante is an underappreciated original. He’s perhaps best known for his debut book Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (1991). His autobiographical Factory of Facts (1998) is just as strong. “I wrote it because I wanted to make an accounting of where I came from, and it's relentlessly specific,” Sante said about Factory of Facts. “But my alibi was that it was about the experience of immigration and displacement, an experience more widely shared today than in my actual childhood.”
    Relentless specificity ignites Sante’s best writing, especially his essays about New York. “My Lost City” was published in the November 6, 2003 issue of The New York Review Of Books, and is the opening essay in Sante’s Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990-2005 (2007). In it, Sante writes with lucidity, historical accuracy, and native curiosity about the urban recklessness and pleasures of his years living in Manhattan in the 1970s and early 1980s. Sante never falls for—in fact, he actively resists—the temptation to romanticize squalor; the squalor around him in the Lower East Side was all too restrictive. The occasion of the piece was a kind of reassessment of a city, the history of which Sante recognized, and then prized, nearly by accident, a city he’s come to know best after leaving it.
    Like Manhattan itself, “My Lost City” sounds many notes. Loss permeates the essay, in the form of limited creature comforts suffered by the penniless Sante in the hazardous 1970s, and in the sense of the city itself vanishing to gentrification and a soaring real estate market. Wonder inhabits the essay, as the Belgian-born Sante explores on street corners, front-stoop “estate sales,” and in flea markets the deep-rooted treasures and stories of the city below Fourteenth Street. A note of regret is struck, too: Sante admits that, young and struggling, he collected historical “junk” less for its value than for its practicality, less for what it might’ve said about the past then for what it said about his desperate present.
    He was being—perhaps forgivingly—short-sighted. He admits, “In our arrogance we were barely conscious of the much deeper past that lay all around. We didn’t ask ourselves why the name carved above the door of the public library on Second Avenue was in German, or why busts of nineteenth-century composers could be seen on a second-story lintel on Fourth Street. Our neighborhood was so chockablock with ruins we didn’t question the existence of vast bulks of shuttered theaters, or wonder when they had been new. Our apartments were furnished exclusively through scavenging, but we didn’t find it notable that nearly all our living rooms featured sewing-machine tables with cast-iron bases.”
    This growing awareness of the epochs behind him inspires Sante to explore further and to research (and to ultimately write Low Life). He came to a grim understanding that urban renewal is a kind of necessary evil; as the city progresses, as the next privileged, youthful generation moves into the city and names it for itself, as Sante did, there’s a inevitable farewell to the past. “I remembered Baudelaire’s warning that the city changes faster than the human heart,” Sante writes. “I thought of my grandfather saying that progress was a zero-sum game in which every improvement carried with it an equivalent loss, and decided that the reverse was also true.”
    The past is often razed, and replaced. Sante loves the crumbling tenements and seedy store fronts of his past the way anyone smitten with place loves its myriad shapes and dimensions. And Sante acknowledges that much of the urban unpleasantness he lived through, the meager living that was both dire and fortifying, is better civically expunged rather than clung to out of romantic misdeed. But when those buildings disappear, what’s left but a re-imagining of them?

Sante is a master of social critique masked as personal writing. On New York City’s cultural otherness: “Aside from the matter of actual violence, drugs, and squalor, there was the fact that in the 1970s New York City was not a part of the United States at all. It was an offshore interzone with no shopping malls, few major chains, very few born-again Christians who had not been sent there on a mission, no golf courses, no subdivisions.”
    Or this remarkable passage, on the corrosive lure of slumming: “Dealers knew that white middle-class junkies thrived on squalor, that it was a component of their masochism,”
and that their masochism, with an admixture of bourgeois guilt, was what had drawn them to the neighborhood. The dealers proved this thesis daily, at least to themselves, by requiring their customers to stand for an hour in pouring rain before allowing them inside, for example, and then shifting them up five flights with interstitial waits on the landings, and then possibly, whimsically, refusing to sell to them once they finally arrived in front of the slotted door. Of course, a junkie becomes a masochist by virtue of his habit, and any of those people would have done much worse to obtain a fix, but the dealers were correct to a degree. Some did indeed come to the neighborhood to revel in squalor, and junkiedom was part of the package, as surfing would be if they had moved to Hawaii instead. They were down with the romance of it, had read the books and gazed upon the pop stars. Junkiehood could happen to anyone, for a complex of reasons that included availability, boredom, anxiety, depression, and self-loathing, but many were tourists of scag, and if they wiped out as a consequence it was the inevitable effect of a natural law, like gravity. They had been culled.
Culled. What a great word choice there: the second, less frequently used definition of “the reduction of a population of wild animal by selective slaughter.” Classic Sante: the human and the animal rendered indistinguishable through thoughtful, anthropological observation, grim humor, and precise language.
    “My Lost City” hums with details. Sante’s descriptions of low-rent living in the Lower East Side are lively with spiky reminders of how chancy the area, and the era, once was: bonfires rage blocks from his apartment nightly, lit by arsonists hired by landlords to collect insurance on abandoned buildings; a gust of wind sucks out an entire ill-sealed windowpane in his apartment; men pay to sleep on examination tables in medical offices (Sante acknowledges that that last detail might be apocryphal). The melancholy in the essay emerges out of the lingering haze of those long-gone details, deepening and made complex in a telling passage where Sante describes observing the movie Ragtime being filmed in his neighborhood in early 1980. All the production crew had to do, he marvels, is remove boards from busted-up windows, paint on names in gold paint, stack some turn-of-the-century items behind the glass and, voila, the past made present again. “When I walked down that street at night, with all the trappings up but the crew absent,” Sante remembers, “I felt like a ghost. The tenements were aspects of the natural landscape, like caves or rock ledges, across which all of us—inhabitants, landlords, dope dealers, beat cops, tourists—flitted for a few seasons, like the pigeons and the cockroaches and the rats, barely registering as individuals in the ceaseless churning of generations.”

While I was re-reading and considering “My Lost City,” I happened upon Alfred Kazin’s gorgeous memoir A Walker In The City, first published in 1951. Kazin’s ecstatic reminiscences of growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, though a half century older than Sante’s, share with Sante’s a bittersweet tone and the rapture of novelistic, sensual detail. Kazin, too, catalogs a litany of urban memories only to see them ultimately slip through his fingers, lost to time, renewal, and personal widening perspective. Walking toward Highland Park one day in the early 1930s, Kazin experienced a leap of clarity:
I had made a discovery; I had stumbled on a connection between myself and the shape and color of time in the streets of New York. Though I knew that brownstones were old-fashioned and had read scornful references to them in novels, it was just the thick, solid way in which they gripped to themselves some texture of the city’s past that now fascinated me…. I had made a discovery: walking could take me back into the America of the nineteenth century.
But for the glow of the lyricism, this passage might’ve been written by Sante (who’s generally more circumspect with his gushing). Every generation, it seems, mourns the beauty of its surroundings, no matter how shabby or troubled, certain already of its vanishing to the next generation, which will continue the process of loss and discovery. Meanwhile, while recognizing with a twinge of pain our own, minor losses, we come closer to understanding the grand sweep of history and our small but essential place in it.
    “My Lost City” is Luc Sante’s sobering tribute to a city he barely knew. “I don’t live there anymore,” he writes near the end of the essay, “and I have trouble going there and walking around because the streets are too haunted by the ghosts of my own history. I wasn’t born in New York, and I may never live there again, and just thinking about it makes me melancholy, but I was changed forever by it, and my imagination is manacled to it, and I wear its mark the way you wear a scar. Whatever happens, whether I like it or not, New York City is fated always to remain my home.


Joe Bonomo’s This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began (essays) will be published by Orphan Press in March. His books include AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, Installations (National Poetry Series), Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, and Conversations With Greil Marcus (editor). He teaches at Northern Illinois University, and appears online at No Such Thing As Was.