A curated literary guide

Week #29 / 17th – 23rd July, 2017

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Sunday Review: What Belongs to You

a novel from Garth Greenwell

[ Picador / 2009 / 208 pp ]

The unnamed narrator observes a girl with her father. She challenges herself to lean closer and closer to the river; she doesn’t know that she can’t fall in, since her father’s arm is wrapped around her. She reaches too far out and scares herself, throws herself back to her father’s body, embracing it, knowing that he is safe, and that by being with him—a part of him—she is safe, too. “Only then did she laugh, with her father’s body folded around her […] so certain it seemed of a home among the things of the world. They embraced for a long time […] an intimacy confident of absolute possession.”

What belongs to you? What is belonging? “You belong to me”, love can be cute like that. The word is uncomfortable—to belong is to possess, to be possessed is to surrender one’s agency. Or, to belong is a state where subject and subject merge into a kind of Platonic being—“to be one” with another person, another cliché. To belong is to fit.

Belonging is what Garth Greenwell explores throughout his masterpiece of a novel. It is a negotiation with the foreign Other, Mitko, who understands love as a series of transactions—but what starts as a sexual transaction unfolds into something deeper, fraught, unsatisfying as economic, social, ideological and linguistic gulfs separate the men, frustrate their attempts to understand each other. Mitko will always be ungraspable; he becomes an obsession. Belonging is also the narrator’s reckoning with his self, his past: his incredibly traumatic rejection by his family and best friend, the agony of vindicating his existence, reclaiming the freedom to just be.

The novel is also an exercise in psychogeography: the ways in which belonging—if it is indeed possible to belong to a person, to a place - changes the way one moves and reads one’s environment. In homophobic Sofia, love and desire exist and thrive in limited, constraining spaces, which in turn magnify their erotic pulse, threatening to burst. There’s a brilliant moment at the start of the novel when Mitko—whose animated, excessive self reminds me of William Beckwith and Walt Whitman—is cruising in the National Palace of Culture’s public toilets. “Even as I descended the stairs I heard his voice, which like the rest of him was too large for those subterranean rooms, spilling out of them as if to climb back into the bright afternoon”. These treasured refuges—toilets, chatrooms, hotel rooms—are not enough, however. Mitko—underground hustler, nightwalker—suffocates: he associates homosexuality with depravity, feels like he is damned on earth and by God. Homophobia is killing Bulgaria’s youth.

Greenwell will wreck you in the best way: exquisite creation of character, from the unnamed narrator to the child on the train. They are triumphs, cinematic—you can see them move, their body language so perfectly described you would think he was transcribing scenes in high style from flawless memory. You see the influences in his prose—Hollinghurst, Thomas Bernhard, W.G. Sebald, Baldwin—and how he’s inscribed himself into their legacy.

Visit Picador to purchase the book.

Reviewer / Alexandra d’Abbadie

Five Things with Danniel Schoonebeek

1. The last thing that made you smile.

Benjamin Booker has a new record out called Witness. Emily Skillings’s debut book of poems, Fort Not, comes out this Fall from the Song Cave. Phil Jackson got fired from the New York Knicks and Paul George got traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the same week.

2. A secret.

Dr. Joseph Popp—the Harvard-educated man who is often credited with creating ransomware in the era before the advent of the world wide web, and who was later detained and arrested for scribbling Doctor Popp has been poisoned on a stranger’s suitcase in an Amsterdam airport and deemed unfit for trial by the judge who heard his case—is also the founder of a butterfly and bird sanctuary that I frequented in the town where I grew up as a kid, a secret I just found out today.

3. The last thing you wrote.

“Before I left Brooklyn I was suspicious when Jay told me that unemployment was the best year of his life. I’ve committed petit larceny with Jay more times than I can remember, we’ve stolen books together, we’ve stolen keys and shopping carts full of alcohol, we’ve stolen food and snuck into shows and snuck out of windows. Gotta eat to live, gotta steal to eat. These lyrics from ‘One Jump Ahead,’ the lead-off song from 1992’s Aladdin, are tattooed across Jay’s thighs. And when you break the law that many times with a person, you start to trust them with your freedom, especially when they’re the only person who can tell you how to keep from getting pinched.

‘Never file a claim from your computer,’ Jay said, ‘that’s the holy writ. Always use the phone.’ The New York State Department of Labor caught him by clocking his IP address when he filed for weekly unemployment from Canada, where he was vacationing at the time using money he’d saved expressly through filing for unemployment. They fined him, took away his benefits, a man with a chalky voice scolded him on the phone.

Wednesday meant it was the day I needed to claim unemployment benefits via telephone, using the 607 New York State area coded associated with my cell, because this meant my number would show up as NYS on their caller ID, as opposed to an IP address clocked somewhere around the foothills of Alabama, and this also meant the Department of Labor couldn’t track my location, and nobody sitting inside a cramped government office would have to mark an X next to my name, note the date on which I fled town, and send it up to the chain to their superior for processing.”

4. Favourite city.

I’d have a hard time saying I have one. I do love that first month whenever I move to a new city, even my least favorite ones, when I find myself adrift in unfamiliar territory. I don’t know where to buy green onions or coffee, I don’t know anyone’s name or how long the traffic lights take or when the mail gets delivered. I’ll open up the map on my phone and drag my finger around looking for a swimming hole or a watering hole or a slight patch of green. Inevitably I end up discovering a plant nursery or a gallery or an abandoned fishing village when I turn the wrong corner or strap on the running shoes and take off in some direction I haven’t tried before. That feeling in itself I might call a favorite city.

5. What you’d place in a time capsule.

When I was in grade school my teachers gathered together all the students in my class, about 70 of us in total, and told us we were going to each place a single item into a time capsule that would be buried far, far beneath the earth and dug back up in 20 years when we were all coming back home for our first high school reunion. Into the time capsule went locks of horse hair, lucky teeth, basketball cards, disposable cameras, newspaper clippings, dog tags, smelling salts, candy necklaces, bouncy balls, magic markers, cake recipes, letters to future selves, you name it. I contributed a drawing of myself sliding down a fireman’s pole on my way to rescue a family from a burning building because at the time I wanted to be a fireman. The school in question received a large zoning grant a few years later and bulldozed the land into which the time capsule had been buried, the high school reunion never happened, and we never heard a word about the capsule again.

Danniel Schoonebeek is the author of American Barricade (YesYes Books, 2014) and Trébuchet, a 2015 National Poetry Series selection (University of Georgia Press, 2016). A recipient of a 2015 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from Poetry Foundation, recent work appears in Poetry, The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.

Love Song

a poem from jessie knoles

we can see orion
in the south, the days are
getting longer

As a struggling writer who drinks on occasion, nothing speaks to me more than “i wanted to write a poem / but then i got drunk”. This new poem by jessie knoles, with its simple title of ‘Love Song’, is a sideways smile, a vague fragrance you can’t quite name. Factoids about constellations, burnt asparagus, and the cardinal directions of places in the Americas enhance the one moment of unreality—“it’s been one month since / my last funeral”. Despite mentions of dying and loss, knoles shows us a love that forgets, burns our dinners and doesn’t shower on the regular, but nonetheless a kind of love that I want to learn more about.

Visit The Boiler to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen

To the Next Girl Who Dates W

a short story from Jane Dickenson​

I did not go looking for a story about heartache. I did not go looking for a story about love. About as black-hearted as they come, I’m rarely enticed by narratives focused on romantic relationships, yet here I am recommending Jane Dickenson’s ‘To the Next Girl Who Dates W.’ With her sharp, cookie-fortune-short first sentence, “You will most likely meet him somewhere charming,” Dickenson charmed me into reading and enjoying what I usually dislike the most. Purely from a plot perspective, not much happens that we haven’t all lived through or heard before: man and woman meet, a bit of romantic pas de deux, the connection fizzes out—but Dickenson’s unconventional second-person narrator sidesteps treacle, just as the occasionally unconventional grammar gives the story a grit and liveliness that offsets any too-sweetness. Don’t get me wrong: the story isn’t somber; in fact, by masterfully pulling a thread about a Halloween prop through the entire piece, Dickenson does what every great story should do—it made me feel.

Visit Slush Pile Magazine to read the story.

Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby

For all the masks formed:

a poem from Ashley Harris

white boy
with blonde hair and blue eyes
fits all sizes,

The latest issue of Cartridge Lit is full of wonderful video game related work. Many of the poems from this issue were stellar, but this particular poem by Ashley Harris stood out to me. ‘For all the masks formed:’, an examination of race through one of the gameplay mechanics of Majora’s Mask, struck me as particularly insightful. There are many parallels to be made with the perception of race through the structure and set-up of games. Not only does Harris tackle cultural appropriation and assimilation cleverly, but she also shines a spotlight on notions of the default, or the neutral. Who takes on these spaces, who gets to inhabit those neutral spaces? Whose face is the first you see upon waking, upon pressing start?

The history of race
Is a history of masks, a history
Of those forced to
wear them, and those who do it

The use of a mask allows Link to gain abilities attributed to characteristics of these types of characters or creatures, and Link, as the default, is able to slip seamlessly from one to the other. In reality, symbolic objects and behaviours are worn like masks, made into novelties and commodities. Harris points the gaze towards the consequences of these thefts, these borrowed masks. Every mask at a cost, at a body lost to the system that tried to do away with it, but kept the parts it wanted for itself. Who decides that the player should win at any cost, by any means? Who decides the hero? Who builds the worlds in which identity is a commodity to be tried on if it suits you, made a product for your consumption?

I’ve watched people try on bodies so long
I mistook skin as clothing,

Visit Cartridge Lit to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong

An Essay about Being a Non Male Non Female Person in the Literary World Written in the Form of a Dream

a lyric essay from Moss Angel

Moss Angel’s Sara or the Existence of Fire is the book of poetry I lend out most often. It’s so vital and resonant, and it’s one of the most important inspirations for my own work. Angel’s prose poems are often surreal narratives that open up the known world to expose its inner magic. Angel’s piece at VIDA continues in this form. VIDA is running a series “about the unique experiences in the literary world outside of the binary.” Angel, who is agender, titled their piece ‘An Essay about Being a Non Male Non Female Person in the Literary World Written in the Form of a Dream.’

Written in the attention-holding second person singular, the essay-dream looks at communities and how they open themselves up (or close themselves off) to new members. Angel reshapes such things as respectability politics and social privilege into a narrative of many-armed people standing in line waiting for food. You have to have the right type of arm, fashioned in the right place, in order to line up at a given table.

The “you” in the poem isn’t allowed in any of the food lines. They end up cutting off their arms and dancing/bleeding to their death. The parable-quality of the dream-essay is upfront. The literary world, very much a white cishetero institution, is a difficult sea to navigate for those outside the gender binary. Privilege and tokenism run rampant; journals perform their progressiveness by running “themed issues” every so often; work by non-binary writers is rarely reviewed in the mainstream (or even off the mainstream).

I hope you sit with this dream-essay, and think about how, even in purportedly progressive spaces, marginalization continues and thrives. And I hope you pick up a copy of Sara or the Existence of Fire—if not, I’d be happy to lend it to you.

Visit VIDA to read the lyric essay.

Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein

Once More to See You

music from Mitski

I always tell my friends that if Mitski had come up as a rockstar during my high school days, I would have avoided SO much heartache. Definitely an exaggeration, but there weren’t many women (let alone of color) in the genre that I could relate to this closely. ‘Once More to See You’ often makes me feel sixteen again because it captures a sense of longing that consumed me then. Even idly doodling in a notebook and planning my next big move, I’d still have someone secretly in the back of my mind.

We open with Mitski’s sigh and the words, “in the rearview mirror, / I saw the setting sun on your neck / and felt the taste of you / bubble up inside me.” I love how this line establishes distance: the you is close enough to be watched, but too far to really be touched or felt. The mirror gaze is pretty inconspicuous, but staring at the neck already implies intimacy: it could be the site of hickeys given later on or breath could snake down it as secrets were passed between the couple. It’s a bodysite that tends to go unnoticed, but here even the streaming sunlight reaches the you more than the speaker can. Because of this, the speaker’s longing to be the warmth spread across the you is almost palpable. It’s a touch so light that we could miss it. This mirrors Mitski’s voice feels only a few touches above a murmur, leading me to feel that I’m more eavesdropping than anything.

The gaze continues, but it’s moved beyond the speaker now: “But with everybody watching us, / our every move, / we do have reputations.” What undue pressure in having to worry about what an audience will think on top of untangling feelings for someone, but it comes up all too often. There are many iterations of ourselves in the world, yet we bow to one in any given moment, and it’s usually the one that will keep us safest in whatever company we find ourselves. If being with your partner in private allows you to be your Freest Self™, it’s hard to come out of that space and resume a standoffish front in public. Navigating just how much you let slip can be the worst kind of tightrope.

We end on some of my favorite lyrics ever: “If you would let me give you pinky promise kisses / then I wouldn't have to scream your name / atop of every roof in the city of my heart.” Pinky-promise-kisses feel so sweet that I almost have a toothache. The intention of loving someone is made physical, and also implies many little moments of pleasure between them. Though there are many roofs in this heart-city, how much space they have or what they overlook matters little. Their height is interesting insofar as it would change the sound of the name, and I’m listening for the permutations of that scream. I’m waiting for all the shapes it could make.

Visit YouTube to watch the video.

Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse