Sunday Review: Felt in the Jaw
a short story collection from Kristen N. Arnett
[ Split Lip Press / 2017 / 208 pp ]
One of my favourite stories from this collection, titled “Lebkuchen,” starts like this: there’s a woman called Anja Dieter whose “skin [glowed] like a fluorescent light blub and hands that felt like crumbled tissue paper.” Anja lives in a hot-summer suburban neighbourhood and is seen, for as far as the reader is concerned, only through the eyes of one of her neighbours, Nina Braithwaite. Nina either likes or dislikes or is simply taken by Anja’s very odd existence—which one of the three it’s not clear at first. All we know is: to Nina, Anja is a strange but unfocused notion of a person. A story more than a neighbour, a woman who, the people say, “never laugh[ed] or smil[ed],” who “never took visitors and […] never went on trips; no one had ever seen her operate a car.” Whose deceased mother, rumour had it, had been a “practicing Wiccan.”
Then Anja accidentally walks in on Nina and her neighbour, Bonnie Smithwick, mid-tryst, and everything changes. From this point on, the story reads as though the previously distant narrator is tumbling into Nina Braithwaite’s body. And by that I mean: from the moment Anja walks in on Nina and her lover, the narrative voice takes a sharp dive from the collective, removed voice of the neighbourhood, into Nina’s most interior life. We are thrown into her insecurities, the way she feels her body as she finds herself being seen by Anja Dieter (“[feeling] all her imperfections as if they were lit up by neon signs: the slight sag in her left breast, the shiny white scar across her torso from her C-section”). Anja, in turn, fails to recognise Nina’s existence—bodily or not—altogether. She continues on her strange surrealist ways, walking in and out of rooms, boiling chicken, answering questions curtly. She registers nothing much, let alone Nina’s secret affair, and this seems to burn something within Nina—a desire, a need for recognition.
And in tune with the rest of this beautifully strange dream of a story, what follows is the escalation of Nina’s obsession with Anja. More specifically: her sudden obsession with the bodily presence of Anja (her “doughiness,” her “cadaverousness”), and how that body of Anja might collide with her own. Without spoiling too much of the ending, the story culminates in a gorgeous passage on what it’s like to want to consume another person, and what that entails, that need be fulfilled by that which we consume. To then not find what we need in the physicality of another. The story is titled “Lebkuchen,” after the German treat, after—and this might be an overly excited guess on my part—the folk belief that the “leb” in “lebkuchen” stands for “leib”: body. Kuchen, of course, is the cake, and together they make what Anja becomes: a bodily loaf, a thing to consume, to become.
And in one way or another, each of Arnett’s stories follows this theme of the confused and the bodily to a different conclusion, each unnerving and thrilling and queer in their own way. One of the stories follows the feverish fallout of a mother bitten by a spider in the night. Another peeks into the life of a woman who secretly nurses a mysterious bulging in her abdomen. One describes with fantastic accuracy the inexplicable and sometimes violent trials children put each other to, and another takes the reader into a world where the main character’s world of language begins to fall apart, stops to make sense.
When I first started reading this collection, I had it by my bedside and had decided to read a story each night before sleeping. This I managed for about two nights, and then concluded there was no way I could sleep after falling into these little worlds of curious haptic truths that Arnett paints. The writing is crisp and can seamlessly blur vaguely relatable personal notions—like what skin or pain or a headache feels like—to clear and universal narratives such as love, and death, and loss. It’s unlike anything I’ve read this year, and it surprised and thrilled me to no end. I have never been quite so aware of my hands while reading, while holding a book, or of how all my little phantom pains that seem oddly tied to the spiking aches of the characters whose lives I get to step into.
Best read: with a glass of cold water, in private, in public, on a bench on a clear afternoon, while wide awake.
Visit Split Lip Press to purchase the book.
Reviewer / Yael van der Wouden
Five Things with Nicole Homer
1. The last thing that made you smile.
A spontaneous dance party with the wee ones over peanut butter crackers and sweet potatoes, loud and mostly defiant of the song’s rhythm.
2. A secret.
3. The last thing you wrote.
Notes in the margin of a poem about memory. I think a line from it is going to become an epigraph to a poem I’m struggling with that explores memory and its loss. I’m fascinated by the idea that identity might just be an accumulation of memory because what if we forget? What if through trauma or time or exhaustion we lose a memory that is pivotal to who we are?
4. Favourite city.
Depends on the day. Lately it’s been New York. I’ve been feeding off of the energy, nonstop movement, and tacos.
5. What you’d place in a time capsule.
My phone, if I could freeze it with all the apps and pictures and headlines in place. Not because it paints a pretty picture of me or of us as people, but because our phones are the most accurate version of ourselves. The curated pictures, the candid ones. The search history. The favorite sites. The articles bookmarked to read for later. The saved podcasts. The playlists. My current level on Candy Crush is such a laughably sad truth about how many lines I’ve stood in and waiting rooms I’ve waited in. The people I care about live in my phone and on the internet so there’s snapshots of us saving each other on a daily basis through memes and hashtags and just plain good advice and harsh truths. And if it’s dug up in the future, it’ll be so adorably quaint and old-fashioned in comparison to what the future has wrought.
Nicole Homer is a full-time faculty member at Mercer County Community College in NJ, with an MFA from Rutgers-Newark. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Muzzle, The Offing, Winter Tangerine, Rattle, The Collagist and elsewhere. A fellow at The Watering Hole and Callaloo, Nicole serves as Editor and regular contributor at BlackNerdProblems, writing critique of media and pop culture, and as faculty at the Pink Door Writing Retreat for Women and Gender Non-conforming Writers of Color. Her first full-length collection of poems, Pecking Order, was published in spring of 2017 by Write Bloody Press.
a poem from Anna Kelley
“ He sketched me
as Joan of Arc & I laid down”
What is communication but the building of bridges and burning them? Can a word ever truly die, even if it’s not actually spoken? Consider this question when reading ‘Dead Languages’. The poem’s setting is over a Scrabble game—a distracted, tense game in which the “board between [them]” emphasizes the speaker’s troubled attachment to “him”.
There’s a tug and pull in this piece that’s reflected in the indented couplets of every other stanza, how the flow of sentences like “He played in pronouns. / I spelled lozenge. I spelled nox” gives you an exact picture of their struggle. Really, the crux of this poem lies in this telling moment:
“ I laid down
every beautiful thing to exist
in words. He said, I see.
Even if we say the exact same mundane words like “cat” or “home” to each another every day, we never fully understand it. Someone else’s “cat” word is different than yours or mine. Is power and conflict inexplicably tied to our words? I don’t know. In the end, our languages “[fight] to win…like / animals at their bits”.
Visit Split Lip Magazine to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen
a poem from Ingrid Calderon
Sometimes when I find a piece for the Wilds, I have a hard time putting into words why I like it, and want you to read it, too. I feel strongly about the narratives I choose, but because I approach writing as a cognitive and linguistic minded reader, I can be unseated by powerful poems, like Ingrid Calderon’s ‘mama,’ which just sucker punched me with feelings. As a writer, I appreciate the precision of her stanzas and her powerful imagery, but as a woman of color and daughter I want to share a raw and honest response—trying to capture how I feel about this poem. I wanted to clench my fists until my blood thrummed in my veins. I wanted to drink dark chocolate and eat fresh-plucked greens until I felt overfull. I wanted to hold my mother’s hand. I wanted to listen for all the birds of the morning. I wanted to share it with you and hope you feel the power of her poem, too.
Visit Bad Pony to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby
Hypochondria, Least Powerful of the Greek Gods, pts ii & iv
a poem from Emily Paige Wilson
Hypochondria once had lunch duty with Hades and he told her, “That’s some thorough grief you have.” She was pleased.
Today I have for you a poem in a brand new literary journal that’s just recently debuted with a bang, called Cotton Xenomorph. Emily Paige Wilson's poem is an exploration into a character as part myth and god, part portrait and human. There are too many wonderfully crafted images to really select only a few, but I’ve tried. Here, we envision worry into being, the way Greek mythology makes enigmas of things that were only notions before. Here we build a body around an idea and watch it breathe itself to life.
She’s pulled out two teeth because she felt a filling split, pain spilling into her nerves like brides into soft gowns. Hypochondria must be so gentle now when she bites down and only smiles as wide as her pride will permit.
A mixed blend of myth-making and abstract creation, the figure of Hypochondria becomes dually human and symbolic. The way our own fears devise ever-shifting ways to enact themselves, she is as much the fear itself as its victim. This uncertainty in the division of character reflects the tendency of mythology to blur the lines between the real and the embellished. How these stories come to be, how sometimes through the cracks of the illusion you can see spots of the truth, of ourselves.
Hypochondria can only watch scary movies if she knows the ending first—who lives, who dies, how long it takes the monster to forgive himself.
Visit Cotton Xenomorph to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong
poems from Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick & Michael Schmeltzer
I googled “anthology of bird poems” and was unsurprised to see several titles from the get go. Birds have to be one of the more ubiquitous animals in poetry, and the fact that there are anthologies of bird poems isn’t surprising in the slightest. They are incredible creatures, fragile and airborne and free and fleeting. They create a space big enough for ‘Caged Bird’ by Maya Angelou and ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ by Wallace Stevens.
The reason I googled “anthology of bird poems” is because I was floored by two bird poems in the most recent issue of Glass: A Journal of Poetry. ‘The Brain Like an Orchestra That Can Play Many Tunes’ by Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick and ‘The Falling’ by Michael Schmeltzer both center birds. They do so for different reasons and effect, but the end results are equally emotive and resonant.
Hardwick’s poem reads almost like a lyric essay, episodic and prose-like, and places hair and feathers on a parallel track with self-harm and discovery.
“There’s fire under my skin — A young bird
imprints on the sun, stars to orient. I used him
as a landmark. The problem with pain is that it’s
necessary as a point of reference. What was North
back then was a clustered fist.”
Schemtlzer’s poem is more compact, each line and line break deliberate but not overwrought. He somehow brings birds, children, mourning, and torture into one poem and it is devastating.
“I keep trying to tell you
about the way the birds now trill
outside my windows
but my sorrow chirps
urgent as hungry chicks.
you hear the birds anyway.
Tell me you’ll arrive
falling from your mouth.”
Visit here and here to read the poems.
Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein
visual art from Ben Young
I can’t be the only one who gets emotional when encountering tinted glass. Sunlight drifting through stained glass windows & dyeing a body with swatches of color, a car’s blackened glass that offers the safety to be tousled, the smooth but matte seaglass that’s found underfoot… all of these moments deposit me right back into my body, into consciousness. When I encountered these stunning glass sculptures evoking the sea through manipulated blue glasses, I became similarly arrested.
‘The Diver’ gives us a suspended vision: they’re both breaking in and coming out, both solidly there in bronze and ghostly glass. I’m fascinated by how the body seems to slim when pushed into the blue, the water seemingly lapping their figure away. The squared-in space also calls to mind a tank, and it’s in this that I realize how humanly designated spaces are grasps at comfort & control that don’t save us from the variable of pain or accident. Going into a space believing that we know all its capabilities is sometimes the fastest recipe for failure, and yet leaving that nagging sense that something could go wrong also disturbs. I feel this tension in the body of the diver, one half flowing towards the unknown & one kept without.
My eye was also drawn to ‘Longing’ where two figures are on opposing rocks with a deluge of water locked between them. If dry, the divide could be bridged one long rock slide down and then a climb-up, but the water makes this impossible. You must address the sea spanning between, maybe just by seeing it. I enjoy how the waves in the rock are almost exact on each side but not quite, one breaking a bit more than the other, one person a bit harder to approach. Only one sea (or one relationship) can be caught here, but the asymmetrical spill feels apt; a emotion can be carried differently.
But I’m still drawn most to the tints: the turquoises, royals, mints that render the concrete icy, sharp, and even delicate when under them. These hard-appearing materials combine to sometimes create such soft, winding drops. The unexpected lightness that appears continues to hook me—a blue dropping multiple shades across a piece or the dark broken by white tops—because even the endlessly cohesive water finds a way to shift.
Visit Ben Young’s gallery on his website.
Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse