Olive Amdur

Writers on Writing: A. Kendra Greene

This interview is the fourth in a new series, Writers on Writing, which focuses on craft and process. The series is part of The Common’s 10th anniversary celebration.

Read Greene’s essay, “Upright Members in Good Standing.”

 

A. Kendra Greene began her museum career marrying text to the exhibition wall, painstakingly, character by character, each vinyl letter trembling at the point of a bonefolder. She became an essayist during a Fulbright fellowship in South Korea, finished her MFA at the University of Iowa as a Jacob K. Javits Fellow, and then convinced the Dallas Museum of Art they needed a writer-in-residence. She is a guest artist at the Nasher Sculpture Center and a Library Innovation Lab Fellow at Harvard University. Her first book,The Museum of Whales You Will Never See, will be published by Penguin Books.

 

Writers on Writing: A. Kendra Greene
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November 2020 Poetry Feature: David Lehman

We are happy to welcome DAVID LEHMAN back to our pages. 

 

The Complete History of the Boy

1.
The baby giggled in his crib.
His father walked in. “Why are you laughing?”
“Because,” the baby said, “we all have our joy.”
It was his first sentence.

When the baby had his own bed,
he said children are luckier than grownups
because they get to sleep in their own bed
while grownups have to share.

At four he was asked what he wanted
to be when he grew up. “Santa Claus,” he said.

That was Thanksgiving. By January he thought better of it.
“I never want to be a grown-up because
that would be the end of me.”

It was the age of the aphorism:
“Candles are statues that burn for the ceremony.”
“Saliva is the maid of your mouth.” (It cleanses it.)

Science explained everything,
the workings of windshield wipers, for example:
“The darkness causes the rain 
and comes from the rain, which goes up
to the sky and falls down again
on the windshield and the windows,
and you have to wipe the darkness off.”

2.
The boy was an early Buddhist
certain that his gerbil, Lovely Rainbow by name, 
would return to earth someday as a human being 
with his or her own gerbil to bring home from school.
He was five years old. “She fell asleep and then
her eyes stayed closed forever and she died.”

His father took him to the Johnson Museum
and stood him before “Mirage,” an abstract painting
by Hans Hofmann (1946). How did he like it?
“Awesome,” the boy said.

The boy said, “God is calling me.”
What?
“He wants me to go to heaven.
Then when I die I’ll come back here afterwards.”
Heaven was a house. No,
heaven was a cloud.

3.
The boy had a philosophical bent.
He spoke with icy calm.
“My wife is invisible,” he said. “My children are invisible.”

Then came the questions.

“Who named the first man Adam?
Who named the first woman Eve?
Did Adam have a mustache and a beard?
Did Eve have long hair like yours, Mama?

“Did God make Adam? How?
What was God doing in the sky
before he made Adam and Eve?

“How come Haman was wicked?
Who was more wicked, Haman or Hitler?
Who came first, Moses or Haman?
Who came first, Moses or Jonah?

“Does Haman rhyme with Satan?

“How did Jonah build his house in the whale’s belly?
Where did he find the wood?
How old was Adam when he died?

“How come wicked people are wicked?
If Ahab was wicked, how come he was king?

“Where did God get his power?
Did God create himself?
How?
Does God know what you dream?

“Are God’s eyes bigger than heaven?
Does God see everything?
Are his eyes the blue of the sky?

“Did Queen Esther have brown skin or white skin?
Do the sun and moon have a mother and father?

“You say God but God is a man so who is the sun’s mother?”

He spoke into the tape recorder. 
“This is the sound of a nickel,” he said. 
“This is the sound of a dime.”

4.
He was going to make a movie 
called What Is Better Than Home
in Cape Cod where on the fourth of July
he went to the Bourne fair so he was in
Bourne on the fourth of July.

In his opinion the ideal name for a restaurant was Toys.

His pets included Oh, Sweetheart, Marmie, Devil Cake, 
Hot Dog, Most Soulful, Chimes, Quacksmith, 
Yes, Mopo, and Mousson. 
His favorite was Sweetheart.

5.
The boy was mad at his mother who didn’t hang up
the phone right away when he fell and hurt his head.
He was indignant. “Hurts are more important than inventions.”

He dreamed his father died. “Mama told me in the car.”
When he woke up he climbed into bed with his father, happy.

He wanted to discuss the floor plan of the house:
“Is my room over the dining room?”

He wanted to know which was more important,
the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building.
The former is a symbol of liberty, the latter a symbol
of industry, his mother explained. That clinched things
for the boy. He unhesitatingly chose liberty.

“Which is more important, religion or God?”
He was still five years old.

They found a special school for him.
He took classes in Magical Thinking and excelled
in the making of weird predictions and dire threats
that scared you even though you knew 
they wouldn’t come true.
He also learned how to walk and talk in his sleep.

Two years later he saw Hans Hofmann’s “Mirage”
only this time on the cover of a book 
with his father’s name on it. 
“Awesome,” the boy said.
The world was still a dance not a duel, with invisible swords.
And at the museum the Hofmann hadn’t changed a bit.

Joy in the house, laughter in the halls, the boy in pajamas:
There were still a few good boyhood years left.

 

David Lehman‘s recent books are One Hundred Autobiographies: A Memoir (Cornell University Press, 2019) and Playlist: A Poem (Pittsburgh).

 

November 2020 Poetry Feature: David Lehman
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On Halloween

By VASYL LOZYNSKY

Translated by the author and JESSICA ZYCHOWICZ

Hudson, NY

I feel greedy, I have a frog in my throat because of this
expensive beer. I start to ask around, like a detective,
and immediately get some info
from the writer sitting at our table nearby,
whom I got to know just now. 
The house of Ashbery has likely mahogany doors facing
the square, probably where city hall is.  
I don’t even think about visiting without letting 
someone know first. I stop and read a few poems in a bookshop.
You won’t repeat the jokes, I say,
you’ll go around to all the apartments on Halloween 
with pumpkins, like I used to do
in my childhood, but then the main thing was trick or treat, 
not to force someone for an interview or a photograph.

On Halloween
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Brief Exchanges

By SUSANA MOREIRA MARQUES

Translated by JULIA SANCHES

1.
It begins with her saying I’ve never told anyone and ends with me saying Neither have I. And in between, a single sentence on how the love we feel for a child is not necessarily immediate, on how we need time to get to know and fall in love with another being, even though they were once inside us. We talk over the phone; this may never have happened face-to-face, or as we looked one another in the eye.

Brief Exchanges
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A Fourteen-Hour Lesson in Theosophy

IMAGINING THE LAST HOURS OF CLARICE LISPECTOR

By EDGAR GARBELOTTO

“I write and that way rid myself of me and then at last I can rest.”

—Clarice Lispector, A Breath of Life

 

1:05 a.m.: The rain starts. I arrive; so close to her I can breathe the rain mixed with the sour smell of her scalp.

1:13 a.m.: Fighting against the slowdown of the pills, C sits in front of the dressing table and hates what she sees: an ancient face with new furrows, an aged reflection of whom she thought she still was, a worsened version of herself. She can’t leave the house tomorrow as she is now: swollen face, short eyelashes, brittle hair stuck to her scalp. Grey spots mark her pale forehead like stains on the face of a full moon—a reminder of the fire in the apartment that almost extinguished her years before.

A Fourteen-Hour Lesson in Theosophy
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Review: Some Go Home by Odie Lindsey

Book by ODIE LINDSEY

Review by JULIA LICHTBLAU

Reading the three-page first chapter of Some Go Home, Odie Lindsey’s first novel and second book of fiction, I had the “hell, yeah” feeling I usually get after hearing a killer guitar solo. 

Colleen, a traumatized veteran of the Iraq war, freshly “classified as pregnant” by the Memphis VA hospital and deeply ambivalent, decides to climb on her roof to clear off tornado-blown branches. She will smoke, get stung by a yellowjacket, slip and fall on what turns out to be a nest of crushed baby squirrels, stomp the lone, doomed squirrel survivor, and finish clearing the roof, all while her mind fights the preposterous novelty of motherhood. 

The opening chapter’s funny-sad-tough portrait of no-kind-of lady morphs into an evocation of place—and the problem with this particular place, Pitchlynn, Mississippi:

She shut her eyes and listened to the tamped thump of hip-hop in the distance, and knew that just across the county road a group of boys communed around an old car with a new stereo… Black or White boys, or maybe both, cutting up and ditching school, doing the same thing their fathers had done, beneath the same scab of sun, a different soundtrack on the radio. So went the narrative in rural north Mississippi. For them, for her, for everyone, forever.  

Pitchlynn is Colleen’s hometown, a place she left as a veteran and returned to, emotionally scarred from sexual assault, a past that gets its full due in the short story “Colleen,” from Lindsey’s collection, We Come to Our Senses. For readers like myself, whose mental map of the South is non-granular, the Mississippi state line is about fifteen miles south of Memphis.  

In Some Go Home, Lindsey, a Southerner and veteran, tackles the South and PTSD, two themes of We Come to Our Senses, in which race wasn’t a major focus. But here the South or Southern-ness encompasses White supremacy and PTSD harkens back to slavery. The novel is a complex orchestration of three non-chronological narratives told from multiple points of view. They don’t converge on a singular plot resolution. But they do sum up Pitchlynn. One rich family hanging onto most of the cards. Blacks and whites barely interacting, except via the prison system. Family ties that are, if anything, terrifying. 

Colleen’s narrative takes us through pregnancy and birth; detours back to her return from Iraq; self-medication; recovery; a raucous stint as a local beauty queen—the Strawberry Maiden; and the dogged, funny courtship of Derby, Colleen’s husband. Colleen’s antics and debates with herself over gender roles—though she’d never use such a fancy-ass professor term for headbutting—make her the most endearing character of the novel and the one I voted most likely to beat the past at its nasty game of holding a person down till they give up.

More witness than actor in the novel—and his life—Derby connects Colleen’s narrative to the other two. He wants to be a good husband and father to his twins, which is more ambitious than it sounds, given his heritage. His estranged father, Hare, an embittered veteran and sharecropper, is being re-tried for the murder of Gabe, a Black man, in 1964. Hare had earlier escaped conviction thanks to a hung jury and a passive prosecutor. 

Zig-zagging through time, the Gabe/Hare story takes us from Gabe’s grandfather, who bought his land after Reconstruction, to Gabe’s refusal to follow his wife and daughter north out of devotion to the land. We see the town gentry enlist Hare in a plot to take Gabe’s land for a country club with instructions to “do whatever it takes”; we see the run-up to the new trial through Doc, Gabe’s son-in-law and Hare’s prison guard, a role that torments Doc, as he tries to reconcile his function and his wife’s craving for justice for her father. Doc’s wife, too, suffers from PTSD. 

Although Hare claims to the end that he wasn’t the murderer, there’s no shortage of motive. 

Hare’s reward is his own land. 

After the first trial, Hare devoted himself to harassing Black neighbors and spurring drunk White men to a racist frenzy in front of a cinder block wall he and supporters constructed behind his house, making his backyard into a meeting ground, which he called a “Platz,” inspired by Nazi monuments he saw during his wartime service in Germany. This scene was Derby’s childhood. 

The Gabe/Hare saga is the most complex and fraught thread, by virtue of its dissection of racial brutality. It’s also the most beautifully written. In prose that reminded me of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, Lindsey deploys the nuances of dialect—poor white, rich white, poor black—to reveal the depravity of rich whites and the desperation of poor ones. Here’s Mr. Wallis, the town’s big man, needling Hare with the skill of a practiced torturer: 

“How’s that feel, Harold? Your dear wife, Syl, is still dressed in feed sack, like her mama would’ve worn? You boy startin’ the county school, instead of bein’ up to the new Christian academy with his own kind? My Susan George is in class there.” 

He moves on to flattery, before dangling the bait: “I’m suggesting you be awarded a bit more stake, for a bit more work. For instance, the ability to obtain some of your own land?”

Land is security, food, honor, pride. Gabe, a Black man, has all of that. Worse, Hare knows that his wife admires the man. 

Hare speaks in a humble, somewhat schooled way to his social betters. At home, he sounds like this: “They say, and I do. Then I say, and you do. Ain’t no way around it, lest you want to move again… Cause they ain’t but a handful of farms still left to work on shares.”

In a surreal side plot, Sonny, Hare’s son with Sylvia—aka Syl, his then-wife—flies down in a small plane from Chicago hoping to exculpate his father, but he crashes and slowly dies, hallucinating about his childhood. Sonny never talks, but we are privy to his memories, which reveal that in her desperation to leave Hare, Sylvia asked Gabe to drive her and Sonny to the train to Chicago, knowing her departure would give Hare a pretext to kill Gabe. 

The third thread centers on Derby’s boss, JP, who has moved with his infant daughter from Chicago to take over his late wife’s property, a mansion featuring a colossal magnolia with which the town hopes to brand itself as a destination. The mansion was moved from the old Wallis farm to make way for the country club after Gabe’s land was taken. JP’s provocative renovation plans pit him against his wife’s aunt Susan George Wallis—daughter of the odious Mr. Wallis—who drove her niece to suicidal depression by blaming her for the accidental death of her cousin. Susan has set herself up as the preserver of the town’s Southern charm. She is domineering, petty, short on self-knowledge, long on self-pity, and unable to empathize with her late niece or JP. JP’s need for retribution against Susan for her cruelty to his wife eventually drives him and Derby, who is committed to staying in the town, apart.                  

Some Go Home is a deep and complex book. The fractured structure makes it easy to miss clues. On first reading, the narratives seemed too condensed to me. I felt as if I were trying to piece together each character’s truth from incomplete impressions. But on re-reading, the missing pieces often turned up in unexpected places. A rich reward for an inattentive first reading, perhaps. 

Lindsey is in the scrum with the major Southern writers—from Faulkner on—seeking to understand the region’s pathologies and strengths. At the same time, this book feels very much of the moment in its frank depiction of poor whites (Hare is a proto-Trumpist, if there ever was one), as well as its treatment of woman veterans. Lindsey doesn’t paste a happy ending on any of his characters’ lives. But he does grant them moments of grace. Colleen, incurably restless soldier/mother, finds a way to leave without abandonment, and Derby, living “different, only in the exact same place, rehabbing family,” finds a non-toxic way of being Southern.

The book’s title is borrowed from a song by Jerry Jeff Walker, in which a singer who “can’t go home” observes, pities, and envies other people on a train who are going home. That train’s just movin’ on down the line/Leavin’ people who ever did fall behind/And I wanna begin somewhere/But for me there’s nothing true out there/So I go down the line.”

Pitchlynn is full of people like the ones in Walker’s song, falling behind, beginning again, doubting everything they do. Some leave, and some, like Colleen, make it home, for a while, anyway. 

 

Julia Lichtblau’s essays, criticism, and fiction have appeared in American Fiction, The American Scholar, Commonweal, The Common, Blackbird, Narrative, The Florida Review, and elsewhere. She was book review editor of The Common for seven years, taught writing about business and the economy at Drew University, and was a reporter and editor in New York and Paris for BusinessWeek and Dow Jones. She has an MFA in Fiction from Bennington College.

Review: Some Go Home by Odie Lindsey
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Dive

By JENNIFER PERRINE

Central Pennsylvania

Every Friday and Saturday night, 
and sometimes Thursdays, too, we would drive 
the highway out from the college town, 

past farmland, turn down that road that led
deep into the forest. In the dark, 
we parked and followed the unlit path,

Dive
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