Feature image: Martin Johnson Heade. York Harbor, Coast of Maine, 1877. The Art Institute of Chicago.
In January, Nancy burst out laughing during the Shapiro funeral. She started laughing during a eulogy, though the eulogy itself was not funny. It was about deer hunting. The man giving it was stocky, red-cheeked, and blond, his buzz cut so close that from a distance, he looked bald. He spoke directly into the lectern, as if it had asked him to recall his father’s life. From her spot at the back of the chapel, all Nancy could see was the top of his head.
Her coworker, Lenny Faberman, sat across the aisle from her. Out of the corner of her eye, Nancy could see him fidgeting with his cufflinks. Last week, Lenny had caught Nancy crying while she embalmed an old woman. He’d stood in the basement doorway for a full minute, then said, “Did you know her?”
Nancy sniffed and wiped her eyes on her upper arm. She shook her head.
Feature image: Odilon Redon. Still Life with Flowers, 1905. The Art Institute of Chicago.
On my way to the conference in Traverse City I drive by the toy lake where my family came for summer getaways from steamy St. Louis.
The tiny cottages on the shore are still there. There is the white sand where I played with my sisters and learned how to swim from a teenaged lifeguard whose beauty put my child’s mind in confusion.
My mother sat at a card table with her friends, smoking and playing gin rummy. Weekends, my father flew up from the mystery of his job and his life without us. My father dead now, my mother dead, along with the friends she played cards with.
Feature image: Paul Sérusier. The Beach of Les Grands Sables at Le Pouldu, 1890. The Art Institute of Chicago.
Now we’re on this tourist island and I am going to rent a golf cart.
That would be a good way, a very good way, to start a novel. But this is not a novel, it’s my life. It must be written down so that later, when I’m old, barely able to walk around whatever fearful place I finally end up in, I’ll look in my journal
and there will be my writing, my own hand, bolder and darker than the trembling scrawl age has dealt me. I will stand at the window looking at the new kinds of cars—mostly Chinese, I’m guessing— zooming past in a world I no longer get on any level.
Feature image: Odilon Redon. The Beacon, 1883, reworked c. 1893. The Art Institute of Chicago.
So this young couple, overweight and seriously tattooed, comes into the café, and each of them is actually wearing a baby in one of those tummy-papoose things, and they have two enormous dogs designed to kill elk and wolves, not sit under the table at a coffee shop, and as I watch them smile at their babies which are now screaming bloody murder while the great slobbering mastiffs begin earnestly licking their own privates, something terrible happens to me: it’s like The Manchurian Candidate, when Lawrence Harvey suddenly realizes the reason he’s been acting so strangely is because he’s been brainwashed by Soviet agents:
It is claim’d that these little Pamphlettes which have passed from me formerly have got me some little Credit and Esteem amongst all of the Female Sex who delight in or be desirous of good Accomplishments. But there being so much time elaps’d since the last came forth methinks I hear some of you say “I wish dear Mr. Wooley would present some new Instruction.” To say the truth, I have been importun’d by divers of my Friends and Acquaintance to do so. To which end being very desirous still to serve you, I offer this Fuchsprellen, which I assure you worthy for the very precious things you will find there.
Feature image: Charles Émile Jacque. Seated Boy, n.d. The Art Institute of Chicago.
If I call my son by my daughter’s name or vice versa; or if I call one of them by the dog’s name, or the other way around— all of which I have been known to do— it’s funny, and only means I’m spaced out.
But when, while talking on my cell phone, I walked past my new African-American colleague and distractedly said hi, using the name of another black colleague, it was stupendously unfunny. It felt like I’d been punched
Feature image: Johann Christian Reinhart. Lying Goat, from Die Zweite Thierfolge, 1800. The Art Institute of Chicago.
Dr. Frank Shire had never been down to Athlone before, hadn’t been back to Ireland to see the Kennelly brothers in the decade since he’d finished his fellowship at the University College of Animal Surgery, had seen them just the one time when they’d visited New York. The only American at the Fisherman’s Rest, the only American in all of Athlone for all he knew at that time of year, November, in the wet cold, driven straight to their father’s fisherman’s hotel by the Kennellys before he’d even had a chance to eat breakfast after the all-night flight to Shannon from JFK.
Feature image: Claude Lorrain. View of Delphi with a Procession, 1673. The Art Institute of Chicago.
The snow had been with us for awhile and was dingy and not well lit. But the sun promised to come out. The light fog lifting against the skinny tree trunks and the grounded limbs they’d lost and the thick, half-detached vines would lift off, dissolved, by the end of our walk. We’d taken the footbridge across the creek and followed the bend away from traffic and toward the west ridge. We’d gone a mile in, to where usually I begin to listen to our progress in the twigs and gravel of the path, and past this, and past my own periodic reminders to the dog to the short, uncomplicated songs of winter birds. And there, near the spill of rocks in the creek where the fog was still passing through branches and a little farther and to the right where a stretch of tall grasses received a wide gift of sunlight and several cows, the air that stood still between the trees and shimmered over the grasses filled with sound— a big voice moving through a hundred thousand habitats— and it said, “Attention in this area. The following is a regular monthly test of the Outdoor Warning System . . .” It spoke from the west first, sounding closer than it could be. And it spoke from the southeast next. “This is a test,” it said, “only a . . . “This is a test . . . ” it began again from somewhere else. The dog returned to me, cowering. I’d wondered before without much curiosity, where were those speakers housed, were they towered, did they revolve? Ordinarily heard in the yard while I stood pinning laundry to the line, the broadcast soon plunged and sank into the noise of passing cars and blown and rolling garbage cans and faded like the little ringing that emanates from construction sites. But here, it seemed full minutes long before my breath was back again in my chest, and my dog’s breath, steady and rough, was back in hers, when the voice had left the air between the trees, as had the fog. At last a bird sounded from a twig. At last a squirrel came down and sent the dog. And then, made up of other sounds I could not have singled out, a normalcy rolled in. Infinitesimal bits is all it was —quick beaks breaking up the peat, the slow collision of a leaf landing, scooting half an inch along a big flat rock, a splat of excrement in white, a flinch, a flap, a flick. But as it came it felt to be a counter-vigilance. Or like the sound of consciousness. The is.
Julie Hanson is the author of The Audible and the Evident (Ohio University Press, February 2020), winner of the Hollis Summers Poetry Prize, and Unbeknownst (University of Iowa Press, 2011), winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize and finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. She received fellowships from the NEA and Vermont Studio Center and has poems recently or forthcoming in Under a Warm Green Linden, failbetter, Plume, Bat City Review, The Literary Review, and Copper Nickel.
Feature image: Jean François Millet. Sleeping Peasant, c. 1865. The Art Institute of Chicago.
is like knowing exactly what you are saying to me, but nodding, yes, what else? anyway, as though, I have never heard what you are saying before.
I have to purify from my appearance appraisal and purpose, my face distilled to stillness. I have to guess when to genuinely tremble, never having seen myself in sleep, moving aimlessly beneath awareness— I wager one hand from the sheets, toward nothing. How does one believably breathe?
Feature image: Sir John Everett Millais. Study for the Head of the Rescuing Lover in Escape of the Heretic, 1857. The Art Institute of Chicago.
It’s any two strangers’ conversation. The proportions of the tall one’s face make him look like an Owen. The other one, easily a Paul. Owen makes a face, a gesture— his forced half-smile squints one eye, as he barely shrugs in a way that falsely means tentative, in a way that pejoratively leans and says, I’ll give you that much, a gesture which says entirely, You know, it’s like this. Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s something to think about. The maybe I’m wrong suggested by some softening of his eyes that kept him from a face that said, nice try or dubious— something he had to lose.
I catch my eye just beginning to imitate the gesture, try it out, here in this coffee shop. Maybe I’ll start wearing this look after saying things like, Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s the city rock ‘n’ roll was built on. Or after anything ending in most people don’t know that.
Feature image: Adriaen van de Velde. Pastoral Landscape with Ruins, 1664. The Art Institute of Chicago.
I saw Antonioni’s The Passenger in September or October 1976, at the beginning of my freshman year at Columbia. It was the first “art house film” I ever saw, well before I’d heard that term. I was from Cincinnati, where apparently they didn’t have such things. I had just turned nineteen, or was about to. I was taking a writing class with Kenneth Koch, discovering Frank O’Hara and Rimbaud, and doing everything I could to peel or dissolve the suburban Midwestern scales from my eyes. In that pursuit, this movie was as important as the LSD I would drop for the first time a few weeks later. Not that it was hallucinatory—just the opposite, in fact . . . though in both cases, perhaps, it was “the visuals” that I liked best.
Feature image: John Clerk of Eldin. Sheriff Hall, n.d. The Art Institute of Chicago.
I saw No Country for Old Men (Academy Award winner, 2008) ten times on the big screen at close to twenty bucks a pop (including popcorn by the bushel and cola by the quart). If that ain’t obsession, to paraphrase Tommy Lee Jones’s oracular Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, it’ll do till the obsession gits here.
When the movie left the theaters I bought the DVD and raised my madness to a new level by slipping the disk into my stereo and listening to it. Cormac McCarthy’s dialogue, as adapted to the screen by the Coen brothers, has an understated lyricism and humor, thrillingly true to the laconic rhythms of the southwest (I lived in Oklahoma for a few years and I know my laconic rhythms). In fact, the soundtrack is one of the film’s most striking features, which is odd, given that there is no music whatsoever. Just the pitch-perfect dialogue and the silence of the plains, where the smallest sounds—the squeaking of a hinge, the unscrewing of a light bulb—acquire an ominous eloquence.
Feature image: Circle of Giuseppe Cesari, called Il Cavalier d’Arpino. Angel Playing a Flute, 1580. The Art Institute of Chicago.
Beautiful slim girls dressed in gauzy white, hands touching, dancing around an invisible Maypole. High voices singing. The girls themselves are not to blame for their performance of perfect white womanhood; but what a handy excuse for all kinds of racist bullshit.
Cut to a man in the audience, watching. He has been gifted with every gene there is for male beauty, but by this point in Long Night’s Journey Into Day (2001) his expressionless face looks nothing short of criminally stupid. He is one of the Boer policemen who murdered four anti-apartheid activists in the rural town of Cradock, South Africa. Then he poured gasoline on their bodies and burned them. We have come to know two of the dead men’s wives pretty well. They are thoughtful, intelligent, sober and articulate; their suffering is unmistakable and intense.
Long Night’s Journey Into Day is a documentary about the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa. As an early inter-title explains, those who committed crimes under apartheid (mostly white) wanted amnesty when it ended. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established as a compromise, offering the perpetrators amnesty in exchange for the truth. Shockingly, eighty percent of those requesting amnesty were black. Where were the whites? Eric Taylor, the handsome Boer policeman, can at least be commended for cooperating with the process. But the wives of the “Cradock 4” opposed his request, and their lawyer caught him in a meaningful lie, so in his case amnesty was denied.