One Pearl

By James Davis May

John Weir! Remember when you used to call yourself
the sodomite at my window? Houston
was so odd. Every mile the same pattern.
A strip mall with a strip club, a school,
then a mansion next to a tire factory—
all repeating themselves like the background
of some Saturday morning cartoon chase.
Before I left, it seemed I was always searching
for someone else’s lost dog, nearly falling
on the sidewalk’s confusion of acorns.
And Atlanta? No sodomites like you here.
Today the azaleas’ birthday-cake pink
materialized suddenly as cards
shooting out from a magician’s palm. Wait.
Is that clear? Just understand they’re beautiful,
that I’m tired of clarity, of condescending
marble statues, of being tired of being tired.
Tonight’s guest speaker quoted a mime
who reportedly said, “One pearl is better
than a whole necklace of potatoes.”
A woman nodded, a man made a sound
that sounded like polite pleasure.
And in the cocktail party that follows
all those pretty words, here I am
on the porch, my left ear faintly lit
and half in New York. Because I dept dropping
cracker crumbs into my wine. Because
someone else asked me if I was Fiction
or Poetry. I’d ask how you are, but I know
you hate yourself and want to die.
I too have stolen much, and in the great circle
of folding chairs crushing the oriental rug,
I’ve retold the stories and jokes of others,
as if my own, usurping the obligatory laughter.
I don’t know how one gets away with beauty
or grace or, I worry, how to admire art
without wanting to have made it myself.

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On “In Time Which Made a Monkey of Us All” by Grace Paley

By Michael Griffith

Given the ever-shrinking gap between today and the grave and the ever-growing library of Books I Might Love (Should I Ever Get to Them), I’ve come to see the utility, even necessity, of making bold snap judgements and sticking to them. But over decades of reading one is forced now and again to reassess, and sometimes to repent a rashness.

About most changes of mind it’s mind it’s possible to flatter oneself. One’s unexpected passion for Middlemarch years later needn’t be a goad to recall how stupid or loony one was in school; no, no, here is a newfound maturity of which to be proud. One’s crabby willingness to like a few of Raymond Carver’s canonical stories isn’t a fig leaf for small-mindedness doggedly clung to even after you realized you were wrong; instead it’s proof that you are beyond the hotheaded dissings and envies of youth, and are now willing to grant old Ray, safely dead, a junior membership in the Pantheon, where he can at least be counted on to put Henry Jame’s knickers in a twist.

Yes, most softenings or hardenings of judgement can be managed in ways that keep self-loathing at by. But then there’s my failure to recognize the greatness of Grace Praley, a lapse for which I can find neither excuse nor explanation. For twenty years, I just plain BLEW it.

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On “I Used to Live Here Once” by Jean Rhys

By Sylvia Watanabe

This brief narrative, perhaps no more than four hundred words in length, is
most often read as a ghost story. In it we follow the unnamed protagonist on
a journey of return to what may or may not have been her former home. With
her crossing of the river (a traditional symbol of transition) in the opening
scene, we enter a mirror world in which familiar places and things have been
made strange: the road widened but oddly unkempt trees and shelters van-
ished, the old house “added to and painted white.” The sky itself is described
as mirror-like, with a “glassy look that she didn’t remember.”

From the story’s onset, we see the dissociation in the central character,
which is a hallmark of every good ghost story, established through the un-
grounding of a memory and of what can be reliably known. Through the au-
thor’s strategic choice of the past progressive, the protagonist appears in the me-
dias res, as if out of nowhere, “standing by the river looking at the stepping
stones and remembering each one.” She is simply there; we do not know where
she has come from or how long she has been traveling. Here, and throughout
the following narrative, the specificity of detail, “the round unsteady stone,
the pointed one . . .” is deceptive. Rhys leads us to believe that the vivid detail
of memory is somehow telling us about this world, when in fact, it is telling
us more—through implication—about absences, about what the world is not.
Though “She” (the central character) is “remembering,” she has no history, no
place of origin, no name, no age. When she finally arrives at what we might
carelessly assume to be her former home, Rhys does not say that she ever lived
inside that house. Other clues are provided that she may have lived in the
ajoupa—a kind of rough wooden shelter about among the trees.

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On Rereading Donald Barthelme

By Peter Ho Davies

Worse even than the books and writers we should have read but haven’t, are the ones we have read, but haven’t got.

Take Lydia Davis.

Admired by friends, colleagues, students and critics that I admire, I reread her periodically with a feeling of amusement and befuddlement. (The Emperor has no clothes! Or – wait – is it my eyes, the light? My hang-ups?) And yet reread her I do, partly because of the high opinion of those others, partly because of my anxieties about my own judgement, and partly because every so often some writer I didn’t get before will suddenly speak to me with visionary freshness.

Take Donald Barthelme.

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On Orlando by Virginia Woolf

By Karen Brennan

When I first read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – about thirty-five years ago – I did not like it at all. In those days, I had been reading Woolf passionately. Like most Woolf devotees, I loved the idiosyncrasies of her voice, the brave way she took on the modernism du jour – her thinking, her sensibility, her scenes, her sentences. I’d become smitten with To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway and my all-time favorite (still!), Between the Acts; I’d read and reread A Room of One’s Own, and a chunk of her nonfiction (notably, her memoir Moments of Being and parts of A Writer’s Diary).

What entranced me about Woolf was her ability, even in nonfiction to create scenes as sensual containers for emotion – a kind of alchemical magic, as I saw it – scenes which, moreover, approximated real life much more wittingly than the usual fare of literary realism. I loved the feeling of inhabiting her characters/narrators, which was always complicated by Woolf’s own understanding of isolation and her yearning for connection.

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On “The Widow’s Children” by Paula Fox

By Charles Baxter

This needling and unpleasant little book can easily upset readers who are expecting to find nice characters and inspiring behavior. The novel’s settings—a hotel room, a restaurant, a back office—are claustrophobic, and its dramatis personae show themselves to be weak or contemptible when they are not being viperish. Indeed, The Widow’s Children fits snugly in the tradition of the Viper Novel, with a centrally placed witty monster who makes mincemeat of everyone around her. In this respect, it resembles Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, a book that is much more fun to read. In short, there’d be no particular reason for reading The Widow’s Children if it weren’t a masterpiece of psychology. It is a great short novel, under-appreciated in the way that books about cruelty tend to be. The first time I read it, I couldn’t stand it—or, rather, I couldn’t bear it, which is not quite the same thing. Now I can.

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