You know how strange it is to hear your own voice in a recording or echoing back at you on your cell phone? This past Tues some of my poems were featured on Aspen Public Radio. The host, Roger Adams, KAJX FM news director, and his guest, Kim Nuzzo, a terrific poet and a founder of the Aspen Poets Society, discussed the pieces. Don McIver and David Romvedt, writers I’m in awe of, were also featured. 

Not only was it pretty weird to hear my pre-recorded readings played back, it was quite an experience to listen to how these two poets/poetry fans discussed the sets from each writer. I realized I sometimes mumble, even when I’m trying not to. Not too badly or often, but there it is. My husband is right!

I saw there were some places where I needed to work on intonation and emphasis. That’s okay. I think it went well overall, and I got some insight that will help me grow as a poet and a performer. And Adams and Nuzzo saw elements in my work that I myself had not been aware of. Pretty cool!

The show is posted online, so you can listen to it at least until next week, when an anthology put out by the Aspen Poets Society and featuring local, regional, and national poets who have performed at our monthly gatherings will be highlighted. (That book is called A Democracy of Poets, and also includes work of mine.) Yay for National Poetry Month. Image

By the way, scroll down to my previous post to register to win one of two poetry books. Free shipping, even! This is part of a #BigPoetryGiveaway initiated by Kelli Russell Agodon. In addition to my own chapbook, Wild Thing in Our Known World, I selected Plume, by Kathleen Flenniken. I believe both books are accessible–even if you don’t normally read a lot of poetry. 

Cheers and thanks for listening. 



Image In honor of National Poetry Month, I’m following Kelli Russell Agodon’s lead in offering two free poetry books to someone who comments on this post (and is not a spammer). I’ll ship the books to you at my expense. All you have to do is comment. I’ll put your name in a hat at the end of April, and if you win I’ll post your name on my comment thread. (You might want to set to “follow comments” for this post.) At that point you can use the contact form to send me your address and off we go. I promise to choose names at random.

The deal is, poets usually offer one of their own books, and one book by someone else. Though if you are not a poet you are welcome to use your own blog to participate (the only rule is that you link back to Kelli’s blog), and offer two books of your choosing. So, on offer: One copy of my chapbook, Wild Thing in Our Known World: Image Excerpt:

In winter, Navarre comes over the fence,

Longboned and lean, low, too young for skulking,

They neutered him but still he leads the pack,

This wolf in dog’s clothing.

(From “Navarre,” first published in RHINO)

You can also browse previous posts right here on this blog for sample content of this chapbook or for other examples of my work.


Also, one copy of Kathleen Flenniken’s astonishing collection, Plume, which I mentioned in my Standout Reads 2012 post: Image Here’s a link to a sample poem, “Radiation!” I loved this book for its quiet, image-based protest, based on the author’s experience as both a member of a community organized around working at the Hanford nuclear power plant, and as a scientist later employed at that plant.


These books are offered as an effort to promote poets and poetry–I hope you’ll participate. Again, the books come to you free, with no shipping costs. What can it hurt?

If you’d like to give away a couple of books on your blog, check out the instruction’s on Kelli’s blog. Please be sure to link back to Kelli’s blog, and if you heard about the giveaway here first, please also link to this post as well.

Again, to enter, just leave a comment on this blog post.

Thanks and happy poetry month!


(Top photo credit: Kelli Russell Agodon)


Standout Reads 2013

This has been quite the year for literary releases, and I didn’t get to many books I’d hoped to read, let alone some of those that have been sitting on shelves, calling and calling, for ages. 2014 promises the same, though I think I will focus more on my “backstock.” So, as usual, this annotated list represents the most memorable of what I happened to read in 2013, but these books might not have been released in the last year.

No particular order.


  • Billy Lynn’s Long Half-time Walk, Ben Fountain. There were a fewBilly Lynn issues with Billy Lynn’s Walk, but as the year rolled on, I found my mind going back to it again and again. As a meditation on the relationship between America’s culture and America’s wars, this is the best I’ve seen.
  • Surveyor, G.W. Hawkes. I would love for the universe to explain how I missed this book when it came out in the Surveyor90s. Luckily I stumbled upon it in a used bookstore and from now on it will be the book-gift I give. Two bachelor friends, Korean War vets, heterosexual but who have lived together long enough to function as a married couple, face profound changes in their relationship and way of life. Wonderfully complicated by the mysterious landscape of the New Mexican desert, and the artistic and fairly crazy (but few) people who live there with them.
  • Pacazo, Roy Kesey. This guy Kesey is one of the more exciting writersPacazo I’ve found in a long time. Pacazo is set in Peru; the narrator is an American student of the Spanish Conquest, who has been long delayed in that country by his marriage to a Peruvian woman. His wife has been abducted and murdered. His mind, broken by grief and rage, holds, seemingly, all of known Peruvian and a lot of American history simultaneously, and the way that Kesey represents this on the page is something to behold. I bought the book for my ereader and then again for my shelf in hardback. It’s just something to hold onto.
  • The Virgins, Pamela Erens. Clean and complex. Tempting to compare toVirgins some kind of alcohol, but I’m not sure which, especially as you’re not in a stupor when it’s over, but stimulated. Anyway, Erens takes some risk in the way she structures this story, which is to say that she’ll make you think. She’ll also make you remember.
  • Dear Life, Alice Munro. Can’t have a list without Alice. Never disappoints.
  • Half as Happy, Gregory Spatz. I rarely include non-Alice Munro story collections in this list, because it’s hard to love all the stories in a collection. However, the stories here—and that was most of them—that I did love? I LOVED. I read this early in the year and still the characters and their situations are vivid to me. How are we happy, how do we know when we are and when we aren’t, and what should we settle for—these are some of the concerns of this book.
  • The News from Spain, Joan Wickersham. Another collection of stories, in this case thematically linked. Each story is given the same title, but that’s not what links them—some have said they are stories about betrayal and adultery, but I would disagree: these are tales of fidelity.

dear life    HalfAsHappy      Spain

  • The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, Adelle Waldman. I wasn’t going to read this. It sounded like one of those chick lit books that were trying not to be chick lit. However, it was well worth my time. Was it Freud who said “What do men want?” If you’re a woman who’s ever dated a guy and wondered what the fuck goes on in that head, or if you’re a single guy who has ever wondered what the fuck goes on in your head, here you go.
  • The City & the City, China Mieville. I like this far better than the otheCityr Mieville books I’ve read. Noir and twisty, lots of allegory, much to think about in terms of how we deny the realities in front of our faces, right in our neighborhoods, how we cage our histories, our hatreds, our loves.
  • Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner. Always meant to read this; now I have. The care and delicacy with which Stegner builds his worlds are always such a delight. What is it to live a life well?Person Be
  • How Should a Person Be? Sheila Heti. Praise God and Mary! A real novel of ideas, just like we used to have, populated by fucked-up artists. Just the kind of thing real novels used to be about.
  • The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud. The question Messud raised in the now-famous interview about whether literary characters need to be likable is worth pondering, as it seems there is an awful lot of whining these days from readers about how they “didn’t like the characters.” Howwoman upstairsever, this novel raises more questions than that. What does it take to make art? Must artists be ruthless to succeed? What should we expect of our friends? What kinds of things are fair trades in friendships, and are all relationships transactional? What are our obligations to our parents—not just in terms of caretaking but in terms of living the lives they were unable to live? In many ways, this book too addresses the question of how a person should be.
  • The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante. An Italian mother faces divorce and kind of goes nuts. Also, The Lost Daughter, Elena Ferrante. An Italian mother faces the empty nest and kind of goes nuts. I’ll be reading more of this woman.


  • Benediction, Kent Haruf. Every time I drive through the Pawnbenedictionee National Grasslands area of Colorado, which I bet is more often than a lot of people have driven through it, I get this sense of a novel stirring and pecking inside. To which I say, STOP THAT! I don’t have time for you. Luckily Haruf has it covered. It’s always a pleasure to return to Ault, CO, and live in Haruf’s version of it.
  • The Human Stain, Philip Roth. Aside from the first 20 pages or so, which were belabored and sometimes even clumsy, this book is a perfect work of art.


  • Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, Timothy Egan. Wonderful insightcurtis into what it’s like to have an artistic mission that’s both temporally urgent and hard to find financial and cultural support for. Also a great explication of what Curtis did to make a record of Native American culture as it was rapidly changing under white attack and later under unrelenting pressure from our dominant culture. His photographs were nearly lost. He also gathered the first non-white accounts of the Custer battle.
  • Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, David Lipsky. Part of what is sure to become a growing body of work around Wallace’s life and works. This is not  biograpLipskyhy—it’s more like primary material. Lipsky was sent to interview Wallace for Rolling Stone. These are (mostly, one assumes—the recorder was shut off sometimes at Wallace’s request, and I suppose Lipsky may have chosen to delete other sections) the raw tapes. I enjoyed the fly-on-the wall vantage, though there is a patina of sadness, given what the reader knows, and Wallace and Lipsky do not know, about what would come in later years.
  • The Psychopath Inside, James Fallon. Quite a slog, because of the author’s admittedly rotten personality, which gleams at you on every page. Recommended not so much for the insights on psychopathy (though the part about how to avoid psychopaths is good advice), as for his articulate explanations of how mental illnesses operate vis a vis brain development, what drugs work and why they work, the role of genetics in all this, and the role of epigenetics. Feel free to skim the rest. And don’t give this guy money; get it from the library.

bad mother

  • Bad Mother, Ayelet Waldman. Some of these essays were less successful than others, but I suspect how well they speak to you will depend on your own parenting and spousing experiences and philosophies. They will challenge or affirm them, and either reading experience is worthwhile.


  • Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds. Know anyone who’s ever gone throuStag's Leapgh a major breakup or a divorce? Great gift.
  • Hafiz, The Mystic Poets, tr. Gertrude Bell. An important influence for Robert Bly’s work, Hafiz’s ecstatic Sufi poetry offers a counterpoint to the view of Islam we in the West have unfortunately been tending toward. “Wine-drunk, love-drunk, we inherit paradise,/His mercy is for sinners.” I know: wine is supposed to be a symbol for “the drunken bliss of love”—ie, God’s grace. Hafiz drinks in this grace quite a lot, it seems.
  • Complete Poems, E. E. Cummings. I can see I knew very little oficarus E. E. Cummings.
  • Club Icarus, Matt W. Miller. Poems about how hard it is to stay cool with being inside skin.

Bonus: Literary Magazines

Because it rarely publishes or reviews women compared with the frequency with which it does the same for men, I took (at least) a year off from subscribing to The New Yorker and rambled about among less well-known journals. Here’s what popped.

  • Fiction: The Santa Monica Review. Usually I hand on or recycle literary journals when I’m done with them, even the big ones like Tin House. I’ll be finding room, God knows how, on my shelves for SMR, I have a feeling, because I’ll want to return to some of the stories in these pages.
  • Poetry: Cave Wall. In truth, I’ve been subscribing almost since the beginning, so it’s been a pleasure to see Rhett Iseman Trull evolve as an editor.
  • Personal essay and commentary: Still looking, though I did enjoy a lot of the work in n+1.

Your dogs every one of them

wonderful, the best, but this the one

who loved me.

                        Cinnamon chow chow,

one of those things: in for bunny food,

out with a puppy.


After five months in a cage,

he ducked, staggered beneath

the sky, tumbled on stairs.


One month later, little furball, he purged

a bear from our yard.

                         Inside, engrossed,

I’d no idea the bear was there.

A passing neighbor saw the pup

explode into chase, hauled in,

leaned on her car horn.


I couldn’t believe it!

she kept saying.

That little thing. That bear

half a ton at least!

                         Two years on,

that dog would tree a lion for me.


First night in my house,

he laid himself across my bedroom


                         I looked it up.

Chows are bred for this.

Guardians of temples, palaces,

they close apertures against

the seen and the unseen.


It was what I needed at that time,

right after my divorce,

bears thick as thieves in the yard,

my halls infested with demons.




Stephen (right), Dec 16, 1999-Dec 2, 2013. Thank you for your service.

Hummingbirds shouldn’t be in Colorado in the winter, but I suppose they’re somewhere at Christmastime. This poem has always felt like Christmas to me, maybe because I always place a feathered bird ornament at the top of our tree.

“Perch,” is collected in the chapbook Wild Thing in Our Known World, available on Amazon, or directly from Finishing Line Press. Who doesn’t want poetry for Christmas?




These hummingbirds:

buzzing like wasps

while I’m trying to read.

That rufous bullying

at the feeder. As if I need

a mafia gig on the patio.

But today a tiny green bird

paused atop the tall blue spruce.

Such a small bird, so high up.

What could it see?



(Photo Credit: Roger Adams)

Happy holidays!

Trust Your Instincts

Everyone tells you to. Survivng Survival

Not long ago my second husband I were out to dinner with several other couples, and someone mentioned that his hairstylist had hired a private eye to learn whether her husband was having an affair. The husband was.

“Waste of money,” said another person at the table. “She already knew.”

“Shoulda trusted her intuition,” my husband said.

“And how will that hold up in court?” I said.


“Get over it.” How often do we bite our tongues on that phrase? We understand, of course we do, that not everyone follows our own personal timetable for grief, for overcoming a personal, emotional, or physical catastrophe. Yet it’s hard not to feel impatient, perhaps especially when the person struggling to recover is ourselves.

The mystery of why some people seem to bounce back from a disaster while others suffer from PTSD has been attracting a lot of research lately. What is resilience, and can I get some of that? Do you have to be born with it? Is it really a good thing, or are those people just shallow? (A suspicion I’ve always had about optimistic people.)

In Surviving Survival, Laurence Gonzales surveys much of the current thinking about what goes into long-term recovery—after the first encounter with disaster, such as assault, combat, a shark attack, a bear attack, cancer, the loss of a child, has been overcome. You’ve technically survived, a topic Gonzales addressed in his previous book, Deep Survival, so now how do you actually get “over” it?


It turns out that much of why you got into trouble had to do with how well you were able to listen to your instincts. How well you recover may also be a function of your relationship to your intuition.

It may be that the real source of trauma lies in the gap between our gut-knowledge and our brains. Actually, gut-knowledge is in our brain, too, but deeper in our brain than the layer we usually call our mind.

Deep-brain knowledge, which comes from the earlier layers of evolution, the lizard and pre-human mammalian brains, is the real source of the sixth sense. That part of our brain is always gathering information, from the corners of our eyes, from smells we no longer remember, from sounds our ancestors recognized, from patterns in the leaves, from body language and facial expressions. It’s processing this data at speeds our conscious minds, tuned as they are to the slower pace of language, can’t possibly keep up with.

Rat-in-cage (1)Our rat-brains, our lizard brains, our bird brains always have our backs.

They are our intuition.

But tell that to the judge. If you’re a cop, tell that to the inquisition team if you shoot too soon at the kid you think has a gun. Gonzales recounts the case of an American platoon in Iraq that knew an Iraqi civilian meant them harm. But they couldn’t finger him. A search turned up no weapons. They couldn’t detain him. All they could do was watch as their unease built. They had no way to turn their knowledge into anything actionable.

Sure enough, he blew them up.

And what was the tip off? Probably some subtle cue in his face, his walk, that only their rat-brains could see. Nothing their more modern brains could articulate. Nothing beyond “This ain’t right.”

One woman in the book takes a ride home from a co-worker. He reaches into the back seat of his car, and she bolts. Why? She thinks he has an axe and wants to kill her. Why an axe? Why does this nice co-worker of hers want to kill her?

What’s wrong with you? he wants to know, when he catches up with her, empty-handed in the snow. She has to laugh at herself, she supposes. They continue working together. He seems perfectly nice. Eventually she marries him.

Thirty years later, he shot her.

Rats are smart.

In Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer relates that a couple of people turned around on the day of the big disaster on Everest. They stepped out of line and descended before the crisis hit. Something about the day didn’t feel right to them. The weather, the timing, their own strength or lack thereof. Rather than defer to the guides, as even an experienced climber like Krakauer did that day, they took responsibility for their situation and turned around.

Some of the women approached by serial killer Ted Bundy—probably more women than we know of—were creeped out by him. Although Bundy wore a cast and posed as a student needing help carrying his books to his car, and although he was handsome and charming, and although he himself had very good instincts for choosing certain women as prey, some just knew not to collaborate with his choice. One got as far as his car and suddenly dropped the books and ran. Left the “poor” guy standing there with his crutches, books scattered all over the ground.

The trouble with listening to danger-sign instincts is that you almost never get validation for it, and often you are ridiculed. Survival is not its own reward, because very often you do not know what you survived. If you turn around on Everest and everyone else makes it to the top, you are a wimp. If that platoon in Iraq had detained the suspicious guy and never found the bomb, they would not know what they averted. If you run from Ted Bundy and he is never apprehended, you may castigate yourself as a bitch for not helping that guy in a cast. If you leave the husband you suspect is deceiving you without ever catching him in the act, you will always wonder.


Some years ago I was riding my bike up Lefthand Canyon, where I lived near Boulder. I was riding alone, as was often the case, and has been since. I’m not a fearful person. Although this canyon is popular with cyclists, there weren’t any around at that time, and there wasn’t much traffic either. A white pickup truck went by with three guys in the cab. It slowed down. They whistled. I normally like it when guys whistle. As I age I appreciate it even more.

But. Something creeped me out.

I didn’t freak, though. At that time, I was overworked and hadn’t been exercising enough. I was a bit overweight, maybe 4OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA0 pounds. Whistles or not, I didn’t think I was much in the way of bait, and I told myself so. Objectively. Rationally. No reason to get creeped out.

Pretty soon the truck returned. It slowed again.

Then it came back up. And slowed way down as it passed me.

I walk and run in the woods a lot, where there are mountain lions. This little thought poked into my head: sometimes even a lion knows when to run and hide.

It was all downhill to my house, and if I rode like hell I could hit 40 mph. They still needed to turn around again. I thought I could probably beat those guys to my house.

So I jerked the bike around and sprinted.

I’ll never know if I was imagining the threat. A lot of prettier women than me ride that canyon. Rationally it seemed unlikely anyone would single me out.

When I got home, my husband seemed amused. He didn’t outright make fun of me, but let’s just say he didn’t go stand at the end of the driveway with the shotgun.

To reiterate: there’s no sure reward for trusting your instincts. You will never know with your mind’s eye.

On the other hand, if I hadn’t run, I might be dead.

That’s what my inner rat thinks. It’s never been creeped like that since.

In one of the stories in his fantastic new collection, Gregory Spatz creates aHalfAsHappy woman who misses a key indicator that her husband is not compatible with her. He is a good lover. They have fun. They have similar interests. She wants to be reasonable. They pride themselves on being mature and on growing beyond the primitive notion of “falling” in love. There are so many green lights, and there is what she wants to believe, not about him but about herself, about the kind of person she is, about how she goes about choosing a man. But, from the beginning, he just didn’t smell quite right to her. She tries to ignore that. Pain ensues.

The nose knows.

A couple of years ago a friend learned that her longtime partner had been cheating on her. She’d been uneasy. But she’d dismissed it. He didn’t seem the type. If she had mentioned her misgivings to me, I wouldn’t have been helpful at all. I would have said, Oh, I don’t think he would ever do that. Even though I usually am the first to tell other people, especially other women, to trust their instincts. Because he really did seem like the last guy on earth who would do that sort of thing.

Gonzales calls our tendency to overrule the rat brain the “tyranny of reason.” We trust what we can objectively justify to some impartial other. I would have felt a lot better about my decision in the canyon if my husband (the same one who said the private-eye-hiring hairstylist should have trusted her instincts) had only told me, “I’m really glad you did that and I’m sure you were right. ” But I did learn something that day, regardless of whether anyone validated my decision to turn my bike around. This is what the deer know: there is power in flight.

Perhaps it helps, though, to realize that the sixth sense is not, after all, extrasensory, but sort of undersensory. These are our underlying senses; they’ve been part of us all along. Our survival is their concern.


To understand how ignoring our instincts may hurt recovery, it may help to look at what contributes to PTSD. One of the pioneers of trauma psychology, Peter Levine, showed how important it was to move the body in order to process trauma. Animals that rely on flight and freezing as primary defense mechanisms—rabbits, deer, mice—will invariably tremble after the threat has passed.

A person going into shock will shake. EMTs often mistakenly sedate the victim, which Levine says they should not do unless this is necessary to prevent further injury, particularly to the spine. We shake when we come out of anesthesia also, and this is both a response to the drugs and to being restrained during a traumatic procedure.

LevineLevine says people who have gone into freeze mode under attack are more likely to have PTSD than those who went into fight mode. A woman who is raped and who fights back will likely have a better recovery than someone who does not fight, even if the first woman’s injuries are far more severe. To repeat. Level of trauma is less significant than whether a person was able to move or respond, in terms of how resilient they will be down the road.

If this is true, then it may follow that whether a person is able to listen to his or her instincts could play a role in how significant their PTSD may turn out to be. I’m just thinking here. Guilt seems to play a role. Levine says people who freeze up and watch others get hurt suffer more than those who are able to do something—anything, even if they are ultimately ineffective. This is borne out in Erin Finley’s Fields of Combat.

Perhaps standing helplessly, as those Gonzales describes had to in Iraq when their instinctive alarm systems were going off, is harmful to resilience. I wonder if it’s similar to being physically restrained. Perhaps you feel as guilty toward your rat-brain as you do toward a fallen comrade. You feel you’ve let your intuition down.

It’s a catch-22. You don’t know how to explain to someone why you need to turn around on a mountain on a clear day (because your rat-brain senses an avalanche, or smells a predator) and your companions, perhaps lacking either as refined a rat as yours or as exceptional a connection to theirs, will look at you like you’re an idiot. Perhaps they’ll think you’re unstable, a bit hysterical. If you turn around and escape triggering the avalanche or encountering the bear, you will never prove you were right. Instead, your dead-on accuracy may reinforce the perception of your unreliability in the minds of your companions.

On the other hand, if you do know, in that deep-knowing way, and if you don’t act, and the snowfield runs, or the bear attacks, then what? Your friends, out of the loop to begin with, will probably recover a whole lot faster than you will. You, on the other hand will probably feel guilty forever. Because you knew, and you should have done something. You may also be more wired to sense danger now. A sound in a movie theater may trigger your avalanche alarm.

Don’t we beat ourselves up when we should have known better? We did know, sometimes, didn’t we? That we should have quit when we sensed that boss was gunning for us? That the thing we majored in, or the career we chose to please someone, or that first guy we married was wrong… And when did we know? Probably fairly early. Often we make a pact with our selves never to do that again. And so we tiptoe around, peering into faces. Is this guy anything like that one? How will I know? That other job seemed okay at first. How can I trust life again?

I think this is why some people have a harder time getting over things that seem to observers as though they shouldn’t be so traumatic, like a divorce, or a job loss, than other “survivors” do. Like that platoon in Iraq, they couldn’t translate their intuition into something actionable because it didn’t seem reasonable. There was no good reason. The guy was really nice. The job paid really well. The boss always spoke pleasantly to us. We were interested in that major. What else were we going to do?

All along the rat-brain was there, concerned with psychic survival as much as with physical survival, squeaking away, saying this is no way to live. And really, it wasn’t necessarily that we weren’t listening. We just didn’t know how to talk to those around us about it, so we wouldn’t sound crazy.

“I’m sorry Mom, I don’t know why I just ran away and left that poor guy with the cast standing there stranded. I guess you just didn’t raise me right.”

And the longer you stay in the wrong marriage, or with the evil boss, the longer you freeze while the guy with the bomb walks toward you, the longer you go on hiking with the husband who can’t smell the bear and who won’t listen to you, who can, the more reckoning you’ll have to do with the rat, later. It’s as if you tied up your rat and let Ted Bundy hack away at it, in slow motion.

When all it was trying to do was save your life.


Birdies indoor2

I’ve been talking about combat trauma and murder and rape and adultery and poor life decisions as if they were all in the same category, and in a way I think they are. I think the rat starts squeaking whenever it’s uneasy, whenever it sees harm coming, whether it’s a blow to the body or the psyche. It knows when a spouse is toxic for you on any level, and it knows when you’re trying to sabotage yourself.

Maybe some rats get over-vigilant, over-traumatized, themselves. Maybe some, too long in the dark, despair.

Maybe I should have divided this into several smaller posts.

Oh well. Then I probably wouldn’t have got around to them.

Anyway, I think I’ll try letting my rat loose now. See what its favorite food is. See what life looks like if we we can learn to work together. See if, as the rat heals, maybe some of my bitterness over the things I haven’t been able to get over will ease.

I might get to know the lizard after this, start talking to the bird.

I read a story last week that made me cry. It was about loneliness. It was experimental fiction. It was fabulist. It was on the edge of its form. It had energy and momentum that in addition to binding me to the deepest sadness at the heart of a life lived without any love, made me buzz and hum with joy, the kind of joy you feel in the middle of a piece of sublime music, even if, in fact, no one on this planet loves you or knows your name.

There’s a spine-tingling sensation, a feeling of deep recognition, when you come across someone or something of significance. When you met your husband or your wife, say, or when you encountered a certain dog in the pound, found a ring of power, or were stopped dead in front of a painting in a museum. You just knew.

I suppose this is another way of saying “I know what I like.”

Adrenaline runs along a different channel, up through the belly to the heart and lungs, crowding the throat, and then squirting into the amygdala. I’m talking about something cleaner, something that goes up the spine, touching all the same chakras, but charging them in another, grander way.

In yoga, Kundalini is a snake that sleeps at the base of your sel_greco_cristo_carregando_cruzpine. It’s kind of a sexual energy, but it can be seen as the energy of creativity. When she awakens, swirling up your backbone to the top of your skull, she hits you with a straight, pure buzz: the uncut stuff. I seem to get it stronger with art that has a wilder feel. Say, the Denver Art Museum building. El Greco, when I came upon him amid all the pale fleshy women and Jesus Christ poseurs painted by his contemporaries in the Renaissance-stuffed museums of Italy. Sometimes a Great Notion, at least at the time in my life when I read it.

I wArt Museumant to like experimental fiction better than I usually do end up liking it. You’d think if I can respond to a building like the Denver Art Museum, get all fired up by it, return to it again and again for more hits, I’d want something like that in my reading, something broken and angular, and yet somehow more whole, something that knocks down the idea of a skyline and renews it, something that could barge into a dry desert city and function like an ark, a blossom, a spaceship, a shipwreck, and… um, a building. All while giving me that energy charge. That is, operating on me bodily, not just intellectually.

I think the difference is that you do encounter most contemporary art with your body. Fiction has to start with the brain, so the energy initiates from on high, always. It has to hit really hard for it to drop into the heart and other emotional centers. Most experimental fiction doesn’t do that. It’s concerned with irony. It’s concerned with allusion. It’s concerned with making statements about Our. Dissociated. Condition. How is the reader to care about characters who cannot care?

So let me tell you about this holy fucking god whoa shit story that will stir up that snake in your tailbone and shoot it up your spine to your head where it will bite your brain right out of your skull. If you let it. It might even make you cry.

It’s called “The Princess of All Princessess,” by Alice Stern. It came out this year in The Santa Monica Review, which is edited by Andrew Tonkovich, a writer who also manages to write stuff that is both weird and emotionally connected. I first read Stern’s piece in manuscript last July, at the annual summer workshop organized by the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. And I said holy mother of god whoa shit. I turned a page and said more things along those lines and turned more pages and the energy just kept building and building and building until I was just one humming lady and it’s too bad my husband wasn’t there.

There’s probably some mantra you’re supposed to chant besides holy fucking god whoa shit.

Got to workshop the next day and some of the other members were struggling. Most could appreciate the beauty, the accomplishment. But wait, what, really? some of them were saying.

This kind of piece—it’s a shape-shifter, you know? It morphs as it goes, it changes its terms, and it moves around in time. It creates its own time. You just have to go with it. You have to meet the story on its own terms. It’s like skiing, or climbing. You bring something to the piece, your own skill as a reader/athlete. But the story is its own thing, which you have to negotiate with those skills. It’s not an entertainment, it’s a sport. And yet, as with the best sports, your emotions are deeply engaged.

Here’s Stern at work on the problem of loneliness/alienation, often treated so coldly by the dissociative fiction school:

…[M]y friends and I were playing in Central Park on a chilly winter afternoon. Only they weren’t really my friends. I had to pretend they were. I was eight. It took a lot of courage to pretend they were my friends when they weren’t. Everything was gray and brown. The cold, snow-laden air was gray, and the rocks we clambered on were gray, and the brown was the dead grass and the dirt beneath, and also our coats. We all wore camel hair coats. Even I did, but it didn’t make me their friend.”

She consults her wise Princess of all Princesses, who tells her she need only sleep:

That’s exactly what the doctor said. He was very young, a resident, probably. His job was to do the new arrivals… I said, mewing piteously, ‘May I ask you a question?’….

‘I’ve never been in a place like this before,’ I began, which was a lie. All places are like this place. It doesn’t matter where you go, it can be a sleep-away camp, boarding school, a farm where you go to pick beans, college, even a nunnery. Even if you escape to a nunnery, there are always the insiders, the established and secure, and the outsiders, the newly arrived and scared.

I was newly arrived and scared. ‘I don’t know what to do,’ I said. ‘How should I behave?’ I saw it as a dilemma. If on the one hand I disciplined myself and behaved well I might get out of here sooner. But on the other such behavior might confuse an accurate diagnosis. I imagined I might need to go around throwing things, breaking dishes (which is what got me here), so they could diagnose me.

‘Should I try to control myself,’ I asked, sobbing a bit on the word ‘control.’ ‘Or should I just let myself go?’….

He looked confused. ‘I wouldn’t try…to do anything. Just get some sleep.’

I felt snubbed; my question had been such a reasonable one, and I wasn’t understood.”

Is that not exactly it? What are we to do? Should we keep quiet or be ourselves? If the former, things are more likely to go better for us, but if the latter we will of course become known, which is both what we long for and what is likely to cause difficulties for us. All places are like this place, even the farm where you go to pick beans (and note the phrasing; Stern is a violinist). And the irony: that even becoming known, getting the accurate diagnosis, is a form of collusion. Joining a nunnery would, sadly, be an escape, but not from the dilemma.

Is that not exactly it?

With Stern’s story, I find myself unable to feel the same distance I feel with tales told about similar conundrums by writers who are more interested in the irony than they are in the emotional truth. Newly arrived and scared. It took a lot of courage to pretend. Her question is such a reasonable one.

Stern’s story is full of powerful images. A suicidal sister with whom the narrator argues in a sibling-ish way about whether life is worth living—Is! Is not!—until her sister’s side of the seesaw grows heavier and she “wins.” A woman purporting to sell muffins, who stabs you again and again in the heart, because nothing, and nobody, ever changes, and yet you cannot keep from asking to see what’s in the muffin basket. The king-sized bed in which the narrator sleeps (or doesn’t) as an old woman, keeping to one side only.

A familiar, dread place, that bed.

This is a story that cares. If you’re uncomfortable with feeling, you’ll hate it. If you also dislike weirdness, even though life is pretty weird, you’ll hate it twice. But if you know that strangeness can be a good way to describe the real, and that taking the heart out of the matter doesn’t make something more true, this story is for you. I promise you it’s not sappy.

I’m so glad our workshop leader that day at Squaw Valley, the acclaimed writer Gregory Spatz, no coward when it comes to the emotional lives of humans in his own work, mentioned this story to Andrew Tonkovich. And I’m so glad the story is as good as I remembered it, if not better. The Santa Monica Review has an old-fashioned website, and it’s not very convenient to order a copy of the Spring 2013 issue with Stern’s story. You actually have to mail a check. But I really wish you would.

And sometimes that’s cool, when you think about it, to do that human thing, write a check with a pen, and put it in the mail, and have something concrete come back to you. Sit down on your porch while it’s still summer and read this beautiful story. Have a gin and tonic. (I typed gun and tonic at first. Long live America! Not sure which to thank more for the story I’m certain is there, autocorrect or the 2nd Amendment—and see? How weird things are?) You wouldn’t be wasting your time with the rest of the journal, either.

In “The Princess of All Princesses,” when Stern’s narrator travels somewhere, she arrives in the middle of the night. Everyone has gone to bed. “Where are all my friends?” she asks. “When will I see them?”

“They’re asleep,” is the answer she invariably gets, or imagines she would get. “You’ll see them in the morning.”

And so we can hope. One day the world will wake. 


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