Cleaning Della Müller

by Mari Molen

Edward VanHeiden weeps into his hands.

I hear his rough body scrape against his side of the confession box as he speaks, lips thick with spit, his plethora of sins. They are the same as last week.

I am doing my best, I promise! I don’t want to look at Fräulein Stella, but she is temptation itself! And this morning she did it again! When we hopped off the cart at the field—and I was thinking pure thoughts, I swear—and her skirt caught the edge of the cart. She got so tangled in it, laughing and hooting and making a fuss for everyone to see. And then she looked right at me, and I smiled! I didn’t want to smile, but it happened so fast, like sneezing. I know my wife knows, and I promise I try! But we are always put in the same row to hoe, and I can’t stop. It’s only looking.

I recite without passion. The Lord has taught that betraying your wife in your mind is just as wicked as using your body. You have sinned. You have done wrong, my son.

I call him my son although he is several years older than myself.

—And then she ties her skirt around her waist, and I see her thighs. They are so smooth and tight, young—

I rap my fingers against my leg and roll my eyes.

God is with you, my son, I repeat. Just endure and persevere.

I let my thoughts wander to the body of Della Müller. It lies on the washing table behind the altar and behind the curtain, the corpse fractured and purple. The odor of her death seems to sully the entire chapel. The stench is either her or Edward, huddled on the other side of the confessional, refusing to mask his naked shame. He comes daily, shirking the last two hours of work to cry. His clothes are still stiff with sweat from the fields.

As he continues to describe Fräulein Stella in detail, I look through the square window of my side of the confession box. The orange sun peeks its face in the top of the stained glass window, saturating the sunken stones in blues and scarlets. The day is leaving me. I withhold a sigh.

You are forgiven. Go and sin no more.

The words sit dry on my sandpaper tongue. I pause for a breath, and Edward takes the opportunity to describe—again—Stella’s fair hair. I raise my eyebrows at no one. If I were assigned a church in Frankfurt, I wouldn’t have to deal with this.

Eventually I hear him stop to breathe, and I rush out a promise of forgiveness. This time, he hears me. He stutters and blubbers as I continue. Upon taking my last breath, he steps out from his side of the box. I plaster on a smile and emerge as well. His calloused fingers swallow mine in a handshake.

Bless you, Pfarrer, he says.

His palms are rough and unpleasant. I nod demurely, once. I watch as he glides past the pews, his limbs so weak and soft that it seems he will catch the air and drift away. But his large body stays on the ground. Edward smiles towards heaven as he wafts out the door.

He will be back tomorrow.

My back aches. I swallow once, twice, then rub my hands together. Cleaning a body is a chore. So I first sweep the pew seats, then wipe down the altar, then say the Lord’s Prayer. When I finish, I break form, blessing the village and the people and their sins and the crops and the houses and the foundations of the houses, and I pray we shall avoid another bout of the Black Death. Finally, when the sun is low in the sky and I can no longer justify a delay, I rise from my knees and reach for my basin of clouded Holy Water.

I hear a knock on the chapel doors. I blow air out my cheek.

Come in.

The heavy door opens before I finish speaking. A little girl grunts as she shoves with all her might. When she manufactures a crack big enough, she slips inside the chapel.

My heart drops to my feet. I swallow. The child is young, and—compared to other children—quite beautiful, with bronze curls and raspberry cheeks. I turn away from her.

Pfarrer Weber in Berlin warned me to avoid being alone with beautiful children. He told me there was a plague of lies, stories of old priests committing wicked acts. Naturally, none of these are true, he said. Such things do not happen, but prying eyes can spin stories of deceit, and we must be wary. Pfarrer Weber held my hands, his palms smooth from turning pages of the Holy Word, as he made me promise I would avoid the appearance of all evil—or even insinuated temptation. We are above such things, he said.

The child is staring. I scratch my forehead and look at the floor before her feet.

Hello, dear one. I cannot remember her name. Erica? Agatha? She is one of the Josts’ daughters. Families in the congregation produce children by following the same tried-and-true method as that of planting a good harvest of corn: sow as many seeds as possible, and expect only a few to survive until ripening.

Welcome to the Lord’s house.

Hi, Pfarrer. This one is still young enough that her sudden death would not be a shock or a tragedy. We buried a child around her age last week, and I briefly wonder how many wore this girl’s dress before she ended up with it. Her bare feet slap the floor as she walks down the aisle. Bathed in stained light, she looks my way. Pressing her hands together, bouncing them against her belly, she says, How’re you?

As well as I can ever be in the service of our Lord. Where are your parents?

Still in the fields. Mama likes to finish her rows before she makes supper.

I stand there, holding the bowl of Holy Water.

I see. How may the Lord serve you today?

Her inherited dress still reaches her feet. With time—and luck—she will live long enough to grow into it. The sounds of the fabric scraping against her thin body echoes through the chamber.

Is it true Oma Müller died today?

Indeed, I say. She has been freed from this mortal coil and has been returned to God.

Oh. Her gaze trails the empty pews. Can I see her?

I blink. What?

She stops and fingers a chipped armrest.

Oma Müller used to live in the house two away from my house. We’d run races in front of her door all the time. She was really mean. Awful Abigail, she’d call me.


Death is a part of the plan, Abigail. She is at peace with God.


I sway, waiting for her to leave. Her clear eyes meet mine.

So can I see her or not?

I look out the window. There is no one nearby. The villagers won’t return from the fields for an hour or so. I shrug, intrigued.

I suppose for a few minutes. Then you’d best be on your way before anyone comes.

She grins and frolics forward. I pull up the curtain to the backroom, brow furrowed. I check the window again, seeing no one. She enters. I follow.

The room is cluttered with used robes and dirty rags. The washing table lies in the middle, well worn and oft used. I am grateful that I wiped the table for the most obvious blood puddles before Abigail came in. Now Della Müller’s broken body is only glazed in an orange film, dried and splitting. Her neck is twisted to one side, jaw unhinged. One leg is backwards.

Abigail stares, mouth wide.

Hi Oma Müller.

I hide a smile. I give the appearance of ignoring her as I snatch up a bronze-stained rag and wet it. I wash the face.

How come you’re cleaning her?

The water trails down Oma Müller’s cheekbones and pools in her ears and open mouth.

I clean her to honor the creation of her body, I explain with care. According to the Bible, God made it. Now it is empty, and we reverence Him by cleaning His creations.

Oh. Well why are her eyes still open?

My tongue presses against my teeth.

Because she is empty. It doesn’t matter if her eyes are open because she’s not here. This is just her body.

Will she ever come back?

I wipe along the eyebrows.

She shall return to her body at the Resurrection. But the body is not her—only her soul is who she is. Her body was a shackle, an evil prison. And now she is free from the sin of it.

Oh. She doesn’t blink while she watches. I am awakened to my movements. I take extra time rubbing Della Müller’s hairy chin, striving to appear engaged in my work.

If she’s gonna get resurrected, maybe we should close her eyes then. She won’t want to wake up with her eyes open.

I say I’m not going to close the eyes.

Okay, I guess.

Abigail rocks on her toes, hands behind her back. She tilts her head. How’d she die?

I wipe around the nose and mouth, caked with years of sweat and dirt. Sunspots and worry lines underneath manifest themselves.

She fell out of a tree.

Huh. Abigail takes two steps forward. Her lips pull together like a period. Why was she in a tree?

My shoulders tighten. I don’t want to say that Della Müller came in a few days prior asking about the consequences of taking one’s life out of God’s hands and into their own. She asked how badly hellfire hurts and postulated whether—like a scorch mark from a match—someone could adapt to its perpetual throb. I informed Della Müller that we are expected to rise above our bodies and their base, violent impulses, regardless of our temporary circumstance. Della Müller didn’t shake my hand when she stepped out of the confession box, neglected making the sign of the cross, and went crying into the night.

I tell Abigail none of this. Instead I say, I don’t know. Sometimes adults do funny things.

But they don’t go in trees. They know they’re high.

I don’t respond. She watches my hands move up and down the body’s voiceless leather neck. Cold water drips off my fingers as I squeeze out my rag and start on the left arm.

Can I help?

I am not sure if you want to. This is harder than it looks.

It looks easy, though.

I raise an eyebrow and continue working. Abigail skips to a cluttered table and rifles through a sack of rags. She pulls out the grayest one she can find. Holding the rag by two corners, she inspects it on both sides in the dim light before returning. She drops it in the basin of water, letting it float atop for a minute. Then she presses in the center and drowns it. With a little hum, she wrings it once and hurries over to the end of the table.

Can I help do the feet?

I say nothing. She is grinning wide, loose hair bouncing as she lifts onto her toes. She starts rubbing the soft underbelly of the feet.

Then she says, Her feet are wrinkly. Like brown apples, only more wrinkly.

Shouldn’t you be going home?

Abigail wraps her rag around an ankle. She twists it. They don’t mind I’m here. Mama doesn’t look for us anymore, except if we get in trouble. If I was in a tree like Oma Müller, I’d be in huge trouble. Maybe if Oma Müller had a mama like mine, she’d know not to be in the tree. Or if Opa Müller was still alive, he would’ve told her to get down.

I finish the arms. It feels improper, somehow, to undress the body in front of the girl. So I lift the neck of Della Müller’s dress and reach blindly, tapping the woman’s belly and breasts. I feel her ribs shift as I press down. Abigail watches, holding her rag with both hands. I redden in shame. I have never been embarrassed touching a body before.

Does she hurt?


I look at the floor and study the knots nestled in the floorboards—how they weave and move at my feet.

Abigail soaks her rag again. The water now drips a dirty brown.

I give up on Della Müller’s covered parts. I will finish when Abigail leaves. I pull out my rag and wash it. I start in on the upper legs. We continue in silence, both rubbing the filth from her body, a steady rhythm in each of our movements. The sounds of us brushing her flesh echo like calling birds.

My baby sister died last month.

I know, I say. I remember.

It’s because she was so little. She couldn’t run fast enough, but I’m big enough so that if death came for me, I’d run away.

Is that so? I smirk.

She nods, her blue eyes gleaming. With the corner of the rag, she pushes carefully between the toes, a little smile on her face. She hums a little tune. I mirror her, wiping in between Della Müller’s fingers. The webbing between whines red, as if they protest my harsh touch. As if it still feels.

Do you fear death, Abigail?

I watch her expression move up and down.

Mmmm . . . not really. I’m too fast. Death can’t catch me.

That doesn’t make sense.

It does if you pray about it.

Now it’s my turn to purse my lips.

That’s not how prayer works.

Oh. Sorry.

She wipes the curves of the ball of Della Müller’s foot, a sudden frown on her face. I correct myself.

I suppose prayer can work that way sometimes, in a spiritual sense. After all, when we pray our bodies are strengthened by the Lord. So spiritually we can outrun the Father of All Lies with enough determination and righteousness in pursuing the Pfarrer of Truth. Spiritually, we will all live, even if the bodies we inhabit fall.

My words reverberate in the chamber. I like the sound and taste of them. They savor like an oft-quoted hymn or a beloved idiom.


She isn’t listening anymore. She is fingering the rough patch of Old Lady Müller’s backwards foot. Dirt is engraved in her rock-hard heel.

You don’t have to get all the black bits.

But I can, she insisted.

She scrubs hard.

Sorry, Oma Müller, Abigail says as she digs in.

Sorry, she says. Sorry.

I am done, but Abigail is not. So I wipe down Della Müller’s mouth again, trying to force the jaw closed. I listen to the steady rhythm of Abigail’s apologies.

Sorry. Sorry. Oh, oops too hard. Sorry.

When Della Müller’s feet are buffed pink and soft, Abigail declares herself finished. Folding the rag on the table, she reaches for the twisted foot with both hands. Grunting and groaning, she struggles to flip the leg upright. After a minute, she drops her arms with a loud sigh. Then, wiping her brow, she carries her wet rag back to the basin. Placing it beside the dirty water, she nods once. I reach for a white shroud off the tall pile. It billows as I begin to drape it over her body.

Abigail screams. I jump back.


You can’t be done!

I’m not. I freeze, scared. Of course I’m not.

I watch her moon-wide eyes burn with tears. She edges around the table, her bare feet hitting the floor. She points, accusatory.

You haven’t brushed her hair. You can’t bury her like that!

I keep my arms hanging in the air, the shroud halfway on the corpse. Abigail glares back, defiant. I sigh and let the sheet collapse on Della Müller’s legs. I wipe my hands.

Fine. You can brush out her hair if you want.

Abigail smiles and starts in on it. I have no hairbrush, so she does it with her fingertips, scraping out tufts of curls from under Della Müller’s ears. Gritting my teeth, I step close and lift the head. Abigail pulls the rest of the hair out from behind the neck and continues.

The woman’s neck pulls and twists as the girl’s hands get lost in the tangles. She sings stories, silly stories, about frogs playing with Jesus and her pfarrer and brother down by the biggest stream by the village, and they play tag and catch frogs. She’s at it for so long that I feel that itching discomfort again of being alone with her. It must be dark now, and anyone could walk in on me watching her work.

So I say, I am going burn a candle for Oma Müller’s soul.

Uh-huh, she says, not looking up.

I peel back the curtain and move into the chapel. As predicted, the sun has fallen below the horizon and the room is cast in purple shadows. I light two candles on the altar, then reach below for a small, white one. I ordered a surplus of votive candles last year after the outbreak. I finger a match and strike it against my leg. It bursts into activity, sizzling to life. I carry its enthusiasm to the dull wick. It catches easily, erupting into an orange animal swaying above dead wax.

The flame on the matchstick burns fast. My fingers grow hot, and I wince at the impact. I flick it out. The ghost of it trails high and fills my mouth and nose. It smells of autumn and the fading of days. I breathe it in. I can taste its spirit on my tongue.

Placing the white candle in the center of the altar, I do not pray for Della Müller. Instead, I watch the second flame, the child of the match, move and dance on its pinnacle. At first, I think it is shackled to the black wick, the prisoner of its anchor. But, with time, I see the flame overcome the string, holding it like a child holding the hand of a parent. Part of me burns to touch it, to scorch myself and feel its sting for days, but I do not move. I only watch. The wick head glows a soft peach, and it raises its three-pronged arms towards heaven, speaking an elusive song of rapture.

I’m done now.

Abigail pulls the heavy curtain away and comes to join me at the altar. She is unimpressed with the flame.

I’m not really good at braids, but I did my best. I did two braids cause she used to feed those two rats on her porch. I know she did it, but she didn’t tell anybody because rats are gross. But I was sneaky.

Well, Abigail. I turn to her and smile. I still worry about us being caught through the window. Thank you for serving in the church today. The Lord will remember this sacrifice on Judgement Day.

Uh-huh. She bounces on her heels. Well I’m going home now.

She starts her way down the dark pews, bending left and right. Something catches in my throat, watching her dance and twirl in her homemade dress that is too big for her. She reaches the door.


She stops and faces me, chin jutted out. I stutter, searching for the appropriate words.

Why did you bother braiding Oma Müller’s hair?

Abigail tilts her head. Her hand rests on the knob. She then grins.

‘Cause her face is so fat. Fatty fat, like some rabbit or something, and she doesn’t look like a person unless she’s got her braids, don’t you agree?

I repeat that it doesn’t matter.

Abigail shrugs. She turns and yanks on the door handle. It doesn’t budge. She says something about Hell, a parroted curse from some loose-lipped farmer in town. I step forward and open it for her. The night outside is bitter. She smiles at me.

Thanks. Goodnight. Bye, Oma Müller!

The door closes. The sound of it rings throughout the chapel like a chant, doubling over itself in vain repetition. It fills the empty space, invigorating the nothingness.

I sway on my feet. My thin body moves on its own as I turn around. I face the golden cross behind and above the altar. The entire day I had forgotten its existence, as it hangs so high.

There is a marble corpse stuck to the cross, hanging low and broken. He is a horrid sight, drenched in black blood. A mournful expression creases His indented eyes. I meet His gaze as the three flames burn at His feet. His mouth gapes, as if He will either speak or groan. I open my mouth as well, and breathe in the quiet echoes of the last chant of the closing door. The sound enters me, whispering in an arrhythmic pulse. I suddenly feel naked.

Looking back to the floor, I shake off the feeling and retreat into the washing room. She still lies there, half covered. I don’t feel comfortable washing under the dress anymore, so I move to the front and grab the edges of the cloth. Then I see the braids.

They are horrendous, haphazard and crude, limply bloated and swinging off the table. I drop the cloth at her waist and, with unsure fingers, I unthread them. My hands tremble as I do so, and I redden as Della Müller’s face bounces when I pull. My hair is short, and hers is long. I haven’t experienced someone’s hair in a long time, and it is smoother than I remembered, like the silk of a bishop’s robe. A few stray strands catch the air like smoke.

After the braids are out, I pull my fingers through her hair again, from root to tip. Just once, for the feeling. Her hairs slip through like a river and flutter down. Before I know it, my fingers stand empty in the air.

I throw the sheet over the purple body and turn away. I shuffle the rags together and furrow my brow at no one. I feel like I have done something unpardonable in this back room; as if I’ve taken a knife to Della Müller’s body and carved her open, and now she won’t heal. I cannot rub the grease of her off my fingertips.


Edward is back, calling for me. He hasn’t endured two hours without sinning.

I move past the table in a rush and heave the dirty rags to the floor. I apologize to Della Müller—apologize in the same blind way I speak to misplaced table corners and strangers on city streets. Jesus looks down at me as I emerge, and I am scared to look up at His face. I know His face. Instead I focus on Edward.

The farmer doesn’t even look at me as he slips into the booth. I enter the other side and sit, rubbing the corners of my eyes.

Bless me, Pfarrer, for I have sinned.

Edward begins his rote complaints. They muffle and catch in the thick curtain between us. He continues along in his same, tired way. All about Stella and the sin of her. We cannot see each other, so Edward VanHeiden does not notice a few minutes in when I bend in at the shoulder blades, hunch into my arms, cover my flushed ears, and bite back a sob. I endeavour to do so without betraying myself, but the sound still rises like a smoking tendril, hot between my lips, an animal breaking free.

He stops suddenly and says, Pfarrer?

I am listening. I return to my erect position and wipe my face with full palms. The heat of my shame whines in my innards. I am still here, Brother VanHeiden. Please continue your confession.



Currently a senior in the English program at BYU, Mari Molen originally hails from Fountain Valley, California. She enjoys working in the library archives as a research assistant. In her freetime, Mari likes reading, cooking Japanese food, making dragon noises, psychoanalyzing strangers online, and speaking in the third person. Mari is not an android giraffe from Brooklyn, and asks politely for the parties involved in circulating those rumors to stop.

After the Accident

by Leah Fretwell

Jane was lying on her back, her legs and one of her hands severed from her body, her head crooked on an open neck. There were voices hovering above her and sirens rushing towards her, and a boy with a black-and-white-striped t-shirt crying for his mother somewhere beyond her left ear. The sky flickered in and out of focus. There were no stars; she wished there were stars. One of her eyes must have melted out of its socket; the other must have been blinded by the sudden light. Everything glowed. For a moment she thought, Finally, heaven, but she knew she was not dead yet, because she could still feel blood moving from her body and flooding the pavement. It was staining the white dress she’d purchased earlier that day. All day she’d regretted spending so much money on it, but she did not regret it now. She was annoyed with herself for ruining it so quickly, that was all.

I am in shock, she thought. I must be. The last time she’d been injured at all was years ago when she was ten (eleven? She couldn’t quite remember), and her mother still made her wear white tights to church and would not let her shave her legs. Thick black hair poked through the fabric. Even the priest stared, distracted from the psalms, and the girls in Sunday school were unforgiving. Still, her mother wouldn’t budge. “You’re a child,” she insisted, “not a cheap whore.” But her mother spent her days smoking menthols and making bets on boxing matches and never noticed what Jane was doing. One day, bored and tired of being laughed at, Jane locked herself in the bathroom and took her grandfather’s straight razor, a long blade tucked between his shaving cream and a bar of unused soap. She worked at her legs slowly, one foot planted in the tub, one foot resting on the bath mat. On the left leg she accidentally nicked herself, a short red mark on her skin, and then she could not stop herself from extending the line, blood blooming across the white tile floor. She wrapped her leg in a towel and limped out of the bathroom to show her mother. Her mother screamed, red-faced, the cigarette between her fingers dropping to the floor, and she cursed her womb for bearing such a child and told Jane she was going to hell.

Was she going to hell? She didn’t know. She cut people off in traffic. She cheated at Yahtzee. Sometimes she stole Post-It notes from work. She’d borrowed Sex and the City season five from a friend and never returned it. Once she’d left a stick of gum as a tip. She didn’t think she’d really mind going to hell. Besides the heat and the company, how bad could it be, really? She hadn’t prayed since she was fifteen. She wondered briefly if she should pray now but decided against it. If God hadn’t minded her ignoring him all these years, he wouldn’t mind now. If he had, one prayer wouldn’t change his mind. After all, she’d done some shitty things. Lied to her parents. Showed up drunk to her sister’s bridal shower. Laughed at her grandmother’s open casket. Her aunties had decided to dress the body in a yellow muumuu with pink bows at the sleeves. Who does that? And—Jane’s forehead creased—who would dress her for her funeral? She decided to shoot off a short prayer, despite her earlier resolve. Please God, she prayed, Please God let it not be my mother.

Lights were flashing, a disorienting blue and red blur in her dimming right eye. Men and women in dark blue and yellow crowded the pavement and made loud, angry noises. She could not feel her body anymore, she did not know if she still had a body, and she did not mind the sensation. Someone covered her with a blanket and everything was dark. The paramedic working over her saw her chest push the blanket in and away, in and away. A small circle of spit stained the fabric around her mouth, fresh and wet. He pulled the sheet off of her face and tried to get her to speak.

Jane looked up.

It was a young guy, or at least she thought it was. He was a stroke of gold and blue and gray. He was solicitous in a way that irritated her, patting her shoulder lightly, asking if she was in pain. He touched her remaining hand.

“Ma’am,” he said, “Ma’am, everything will be alright. I’m right here with you.”

He was earnest and concerned. He brushed her hair from her forehead. “Can you speak to me? What’s your name?”

Jane opened her mouth and breathed out her last word.


The man paused, his hand still on her shoulder. “W—what?”

Jane rolled her good eye and let go.



Leah Fretwell is an MFA candidate in creative writing.

Quake Lake

by Dominic Shaw

Where do houses go when they die?

“Offering” by Loone


On August 17th, 1959, the Montana sky likely shone bright.  The moon was full and large over the rugged landscape.  The moonbeams would have been brilliant, unmarred and unhindered by light pollution or smog; the campsites inside Yellowstone National Park, as well as those that surround the park, were packed.  

The season was past its peak, but reports describe the campgrounds and cabin-filled neighborhoods of the Madison River Canyon as full of life, full of families, full of slumbering people from across the country who had come to brave the August cold and see the great landscapes of the West.  

Just like the annual snowmelt causes Hebgen Lake to swell and expand, so too did the summer months cause hordes of visitors to pool into every valley and riverbed in the Madison River area.  As with every year, the tourists were expected.  But August 17th couldn’t have been expected; it was a snap shot of the true character of southwest Montana, a reminder of the raging behemoth just a few miles under the soil, a super volcano as temperamental and dangerous as humanity’s most destructive forces.  But these pressures are easy to forget when they lurk so many miles beneath the soil.  The visitors must have forgotten them, or perhaps the swelling heat beneath the Earth’s crust was unknown to them, a surprise as sudden as the twinkling in a woman’s eye and just as debilitating.  

But this night served as a reminder.

Mountains fell and rocks roared as they rolled into campgrounds.  The earth shook as landslides pushed the once crisp canyon air at speeds of one hundred miles per hour.  In this tight space the air whipped hard, hard enough to rip tent spikes out of the ground and throw some of the poor campers off their feet.  The noise of the gusts and the crumbling earth was deafening.

Fault lines collided and scraped, one against the other in the most ancient form of dance.  The Hebgen lakebed, which had sat calmly for years on the Madison, dropped—sending a torrent of water across the artificial dam.  The water tore pieces of cement off the structure as it roared over.  Cabins, too, were pulled up and away from their foundations by the waves. But the flood’s own destroying angel passed over some edifices and left them for a later destruction; some cabins were left behind, some tents submerged, and some roads never driven on again.

Rocks, dirt, and debris had imploded from the mountainsides a few miles down the valley from Hebgen dam, re-plugging the waters that had jumped up and over the first barrier.  This landslide may have saved the communities below, but it trapped those Madison homes and it trapped twenty-eight people’s weary bones.  The new, nature-made dam birthed a new lake that swallowed those relics of life and leisure.

It took days for the rescue workers to count the casualties; it took days for the report on the severity of the earthquake to come in: a 7.5 on the Richter scale, earth-shattering.  Still, it would be another couple of months before the Forest Service could track the scarp lines and understand how drastically this moment changed the environment, creating small hillocks and little ravines, ripping the roots of trees from their mother earth.  In all these years since, after all the miles walked to measure the fault lines and the progress of new vegetation growth, we still might not understand those effects.

Maybe it’s that determination to understand the damages and their cause that led to a visitor’s center being built on the edge of this newly-created Quake Lake.  But more likely, it was our morbid fascination with watching things fall apart.  Maybe we want to stand on the edge of destruction.  That explanation comes a lot closer to explaining why people who are driving through the area will often stop to view the skeletons of old cabins buried in the lake, to see the dreams that the flood couldn’t sweep away, only bury.


Everyone I’ve ever loved is full of ghosts.  Every time they leave they make another one.

“Offering” by Loone


Nearly 57 years later, she and I stood on the shores of Quake lake.  It was cold dark water, too dark to see the old structures left behind, but not dark enough to hide the memory of those twenty-eight souls left beneath the waves.  We rehearsed the stories and tried to spook each other with the violence that lay just beyond the shores.  She and I didn’t sleep in that valley; we had learned from the mistakes of those who came before.  Instead, we drove back to Utah, back home.  We drove back to safety—or the closest thing to it.

Leaving the valley, however, didn’t leave our night untouched by the quick finger of fate.  Our two warm bodies weren’t huddled under thick blankets next to wood fires in a cold Montana cabin; instead, we curled up like the Pompeii lovers across a couch and ottoman combination in a house on the edge of a cul-de-sac in Murray, Utah.  The cold mountain wind didn’t whip over our thick fabric tent; instead, we swam in cool basement air.  We didn’t face the elements, but lazily indulged in each other’s natures.

We pressed our bodies together tight, too tight, like tectonic plates building pressure as denim and skin rubbed together.  Friction.  Heat.  It kept building as we touched each other’s bodies. Tighter. Hotter.

Until the tension broke.  The words that would change our landscape came pouring out.

Rolling over, onto me, and straddling my abdomen, she said, “Maybe we should get married the winter after I get back.”  My body trembled beneath hers. She leaned down and kissed me on the lips before the aftershock struck.  

My side of the fault line pushed back.  “Do you promise?” I asked.

She did with her smile. I just laughed.

It took rescue workers a few days to count casualties in Montana; it took me and her roughly the same amount of time.  After three days she boarded a plane and moved to Portugal for longer than I knew how to deal with; it was then that we were able to at least measure the distance.  5,113 miles put a number on the damages—it became the length of the scarp lines placed between us, splitting our communication over time zones and continents.  Still, a few months had to pass before we really knew what to make of our situation.  Months of talking long-distance, months of letters helped us to survey our own new territory that was searing uncertainty hidden miles beneath a crusted-over promise—uncertainty that came boiling up with nights spent hiding stomachaches beneath the sheets, waiting for sleep to come, and days spent replaying our fading memories.  

It’s hard to keep a promise across continental lines; December never came.  I don’t know if I understand what that means, but I keep asking myself.  I keep wondering as if looking at the crevice that now divides mine and her lives will offer me some kind of peace.  



Dominic Shaw is an undergraduate, studying English at Brigham Young University.  He will graduate in April of 2018.  This is his second essay to be featured in Inscape.  The use of place and nature in his essay relates closely to his career interests; he will begin a J.D. program with an emphasis in environmental law in fall 2018.

Tessa Meyer Santiago Interview

INSCAPE: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?


TESSA MEYER SANTIAGO: I don’t know that I was interested in writing until I got to Brigham Young University and took Bruce Jorgenson’s 312 class as a freshman. He gave us a personal essay and told us to copy its style. That essay is the first thing I remember writing. So my first publication was in Insight back in 1986, inspired by Jorgenson’s class.


I: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?


S: I read weekly and recently read a piece by Kate Gibbons. I can’t remember the exact names of the other books I’m reading. There is one by Doyle, he writes Irish comedies and he is brilliant. I am reading a novel about a chef in an English kitchen. The best book that I’ve read in a long time is a mythic about a Wyoming cowboy.


I: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?


S: The challenging thing is to not get carried away by emotion. You can start with something, an image for example, and explore around it, embroider it, make it bigger, larger and fancier, and think, “Oh, this is the most wonderful thing.” When you really look at it, though, it’s not authentic anymore. It’s got frosting and sprinkles, and, because I write personal essays, it’s not what it needs to be. That’s my challenge: to not go where the emotion is.

Phillip Lopate Interview

Phillip Lopate was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1943, and received a BA from Columbia in 1964, and a doctorate from the Union Graduate School in 1979. Some of his most recent publications are Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell: the Craft of Literary Nonfiction. After working with children for twelve years as a writer in the schools, he taught creative writing at multiple schools and now the director of the nonfiction graduate program at Columbia University, where he also teaches writing.


INSCAPE: In your chapter “To Show and To Tell” in The Art of the Personal Essay, you talk about making yourself into a character. You also suggest having distance from yourself and to be both self-amused and self-curious. How can a learning writer come to achieve those things?


PHILLIP LOPATE: Well, you can keep a diary for one thing. And every time you get into a situation where you’re making the same mistake over and over again, you can take a step back and ask, “What’s going on here?” You could listen very carefully to people who criticize your character. But I think that the main way you can do it is by reading a lot and seeing how other writers do it and how they achieve some sense of irony and perspective toward themselves. I mean, you can go into psychotherapy. There are lots of ways to do it, but it is a lifelong discipline, how to see yourself somewhat dispassionately and not too defensively.


I: The other notion that I’ve picked up from reading some of the interviews you’ve done, as well as some of the introductions to your collections, is the idea of being friends with yourself in your writing. Is that similar to the process of being able to make yourself into a character?


L: Well, they’re all related. I do think that sometimes people get caught in a spiral of self-disgust or self-dislike, and perhaps their standards of perfection are too high; they just don’t understand that we’re all flawed or broken creatures. Initially, it’s important not to be too boastful or too cocky, but you do want to be able to not be too hard on yourself. That is so important. For me, I try to write well, and then I reach a point where I say, “Well this is good enough.” I’m not going to lie on the couch and beat my head against it because I’ve used the same word twice in two pages. I think it’s important to accept a certain amount of imperfection, and that’s one way of being friends with yourself.


I: Yes. That sounds like being a good writer, in some ways, is kind of like being sane, or mentally healthy.


L: Yes, very much so. Before you can be a good writer, you have to be a bad writer. You have to be willing to fall on you face, and you have to be willing to try things that don’t work out, and eventually you discover that you have certain ways of expressing yourself that seem to be working out. Sometimes writers, especially learning writers, get impatient with the things they do well, and they want to just try something different, and that’s understandable, but I do think that it’s important to pay very close attention to when you actually are writing well and try to bring that forward into your new innovations.


I: How can you tell when things are going well in your writing?


L: Usually other people respond well to your writing, but you yourself know. For instance, if you’re rewriting a piece over and over again, and there’s a certain passage that makes you chuckle, or that amuses you, or that moves you, or that you simply feel good about, you can build on that.


I: And that kind of becomes part of your relationship with yourself.


L: Exactly. In writing workshops, sometimes people get into the, “Give it to me, sock it to me, I can take criticism,” but they also have to be willing to listen to praise, what they’re good at, because that’s very important to build on.


I: You mentioned that you can tell when things are going well by how other people are responding to your writing. In the introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, you talk about the relationship between the writer, or the self that’s in the piece of writing, and the reader. At one point, you describe it as a contract, so what is that relationship like when things are going well?


L: There’s a real give and take—there’s dynamism. It’s not just a question of getting the reader to like you. Sometimes you can get the reader to question you or dislike you, and the writing is just as good. What you really want to do is to keep the reader stimulated. And one of the ways you do that is by internalizing the reader, so that you’re not just writing, but there’s a reader inside of you who’s saying, “Yes, okay, get on with it,” or, “You made that point already.” So when you begin to internalize the reader, then you can tweak the reader sometimes, or show that you’re aware that the reader is out there, and that becomes another kind of friendship. I do think that the personal essay is a very conversational form, so there’s more explicit contact between the writer and reader.


I: Shifting gears a little bit, I wanted to talk about some of the things that you wrote about being with students. There are these moments of closeness that you describe with certain students, like with the photograph poem. What do these moments and relationships do for the student?


L: Well, these moments and relationships, as with any instance of love or caring, are enriching. I do think that a lot of teaching occurs between the lines, or as an undercurrent, and it’s a feeling undercurrent, and it’s a sense of protectiveness and being understood. The student feels understood. I know for me, when I was growing up, there would occasionally be encounters with strangers who didn’t talk down to me as a child, but seemed to take me seriously as an individual, and they contributed to a sense of wholeness. Whenever you encounter somebody who pays you that respect, who takes you seriously, it really helps to crystalize your own sense of self. To put it simply, love, concern, engagement, or interest are some of the ways that you teach. And that can happen in the classroom, or it can happen one-on-one, and it’s as important for the teacher as it is for the student to get that kind of emotional current going.


I: What does that relationship or those moments do for the teacher?


L: There’s a sweetness to those relationships. I think because there has been such an emphasis recently on child abuse and sexual abuse, there’s a reluctance to acknowledge that there is a kind of erotic current that occurs between teacher and student, and the important thing is that it shouldn’t be acted upon literally, but it’s still there. It’s a current of feeling, and it keeps the teacher alive. The teacher’s not just communicating subject matter. And this was sort of recognized by the ancient Greeks. The connection between pedagogy and love was a strong one.


I: I’ve been reading a little bit about what you write about teaching, and your love for it, and I wondered if that was part of it.


L: Yes, I do really love to teach, and it has to do with the relationship with the students. As I get older, it’s important to stay in touch with the young minds too.


I: I have one last question that will tie back into what we were talking about at the beginning. It seems like there might be some connection between the relationship between teacher and student and learning writers’ relationships with their selves. What do you think that connection might be?


L: I think that when you’re learning to write, you split yourself off into several different selves or identities, and I think one of the first pieces of consciousness that you get as a writer is realizing that you have a divided self, that there may be a sense of wholeness in terms of your core, but that you know the closer you get to it, you realize that you are divided, and you start to get those different parts of yourself to talk to each other. One of the ways to overcome rigidity or self-righteousness is to recognize that you yourself are split, and whenever you advocate a position, you must listen to the other side of you that’s saying, “Yes, but . . . ” or, “There’s another way of looking at this.”   Part of it has to do with thinking against yourself. If you can think against yourself, you can not only overcome your own rigidity, but you can empathize more with other people.


I: So maybe the teacher’s relationship with the student might aid in increasing that awareness.


L: Yes. The teachers may say that they like all the students equally, but that’s not true at all. There are the students who immediately click with them, and then there are these students who exhibit all kind of resistances, and that becomes an interesting challenge, how to get past some of these resistances. The resistances that exist in the teaching experience, in the pedagogy experience, are not that dissimilar from the resistances that the writer encounters on the page. As soon as I am assigned to write something, I am sometimes aware of resistances: “I don’t want to write this. Is this something that’s coming from me, or is it coming from the outside? Do I really have a connection to this?” In order for me to get on with the job, I have to start to analyze these resistances.


I: Excellent. Your insights are enlightening, and I appreciate the interview.

Ron Carlson Interview

INSCAPE: Not every great writer is a great teacher, but you have a reputation for being one of the best teachers of writing craft. In the introduction to A Kind of Flying you wrote that “the university is where writers disappear,” but that doesn’t seem to have been the case for you. How have you managed to balance being a serious writer and a serious teacher?

RON CARLSON: Well, I said that and meant it as a warning to myself and to my friends because you start to get comfortable in a community and then pretty soon you lose your grip. It’s really about paying attention, and as a teacher I began to see that certain things that I was doing made a difference. I was trying to figure out what kinds of things would have helped me when I was cutting my teeth. I began to focus on those and that’s when I began a sort-of diagnostic approach to fiction, fiction exercises, scene, and elements of craft; it all got my attention. It continued and even now as I’m sure that I’ll retire in the next year or two or three, I’m still kind-of captivated. It still has my attention.

There’s another feature, and that is I’m really proud to be a teacher. It’s not what I do second. It’s as real as anything I do. It’s certainly as real as my writing. I think that notion has been really instrumental in keeping me well in both worlds. Of course I love to write, of course I love to have this body of work behind me, but I feel the same way about my teaching.

I: What of writing can be taught?

C: Well, craft and the elements of craft can be taught by model and by explanation. The idea of how sentences might build a scene, point of view, and the elements of character that might be effective. And there’s never a single answer. There are always lots of things going on. But the things that can’t be taught are attention that a writer would bring, all of her spirit and attention to the moment of writing so that sentences are fresh and real. You can’t teach empathy, which is not talked about very much in writing classes, the idea of really understanding and occupying your characters. You can’t teach a vision, the world view that comes with the writer. It’s just part of the fabric that comes with her or his persona or character. And you can’t teach what a writer chooses to write about. It’s terribly important that a writer choose something that matters to her or him. The old story was, “Money can’t buy you happiness, but you can buy the big boat and go right up next to where the people are happy.” That’s the same with writing. I can’t teach you how to write, but I can take you right up next to where it’s done. Then, with your efforts, with empathy, attention, vision, and what you choose to write about, you can make the leap.

There’s a spirit in the best writing that’s inimitable. You can’t fake it and you can’t borrow it. Everybody knows that, and that isn’t what we’re trying to do with writing programs. We’re trying to make better readers and better citizens and a lot of times writing helps us to discover and clarify what we’re thinking.

I: What does this “inimitable” writing look like?

C: That’s a huge question. It’s a little bit like, “What is art?” Well, there’s a certain density, there’s a certain number of threads per inch. It’s not dilute and it’s not overwrought. Solid work that has a kind of reach that understands. The characters are knowing without being elliptical and there’s an understanding between the manuscript and the reader about the condition of the character. That’s created by what’s included and what’s left out and it’s that ineffable balance of good fiction that I call “reach.” But it’s not the best, simple, confident manuscript because there’s a lot of really impeccable and well-made prose. But this is a prose that has a deeper look, a perspicacity and insight into the condition of the character. That’s the best I can say it. I read hundreds of stories looking for these things and they emerge.

I:  After your reading today you mentioned that writing students tend to be “language rich but story poor.” What did you mean?

C: Well, they’re afraid of their stories, their confidence, and their ability to handle material, and also they won’t give people occupations. The thing I say most to undergraduates is, “Into what life has this moment come?” Their stories are very much like a character who was born in the minutes before the event, and that’s not as valuable or as resonate as knowing how this moment might matter to this person because of where she’s been for two weeks or for ten years. That little bit of exposition on page two or three can really determine the value of the current moment. When we have these zero lives, these generic boys and girls, you know the story is in high trouble.

I: What other struggles do think beginning writers have?

C: They start writing about mediated experience, about things they’ve seen in movies. It would be so much better for them to write about going into the cafeteria with a Band-Aid on their nose than to write about a car chase. A person writing about the Band-Aid will have to invent it, I mean there aren’t that many scenes where we see what it’s like to be a girl with a Band-Aid on her nose. I try to get them closer, to choose venues for their fiction closer to home. Then there’s those age old questions of language, of hearing language that’s not been really thought about, a phrase like, “They made their way to the cabin,” or, “He exchanged glances with Doreen.” It’s a mild peccadillo, but we want to start sharpening that, get a little bit more muscle in.

I: What kind of a reader do you teach your writing students to be?

C: Steady. A writer needs to be steadily reading and in a range of work. It’s fun to find a writer you’ve admired, read all of her, read all of her friends, read all the other related work, and then see what else you can find out. I did that when I first encountered Scott Fitzgerald as an undergraduate, and I just went left and right through all his people. Then I eventually ended up with Cheever and Updike, and these are all American men, but they led me back to the women, through Grace Paley and Flannery O’Conner, young Ann Beattie. But there’s another feature of reading that is overlooked. We think as a writer you’re just reading to read because this is the world, you’re not really reading for instrumentation. You don’t read a story to find out how to make things left-handed or make the wind cold, but you end up finding those things out. They’re inadvertent, they gather, there’s a compendium of information that comes from reading steadily. You can’t really reduce it. It becomes part of a writer’s character and a writer’s toolbox, and all that information will be brought to the next story.

I: In Ron Carlson Writes a Story, you mention your teacher Edward Abbey and his credo: “If you want to read a good story, you’re going to have to write it yourself.” Does this “I-can’t-wait-to-finish-this-so-I can-read-it” mentality still sustain you as a writer?

C: Yeah. There’s a curiosity about what we’re making. I think, “Oh my god I thought this was going to be oblong, it’s actually square and inverted.” It’s just a curiosity, it’s not really pride. I’ve had people mistake it saying, “Well you’re proud of this or that,” and the truth is that eventually you can be, but there’s a distance. That’s not the initial thing as you’re going through. Usually you read it and think, “I’m not even sure if this will sit straight. I’m not even sure if the tires have got air in them.” It’s ineffable how you have more in your head than you know and it’s one of the great joys of writing, being able to look around in that closet, in your cranium, and find that thing that you didn’t know you had or that thing you thought you had lost. In the second thirty minutes of writing you should always look to have something creep up that you didn’t know, that you could not have told anybody on a bet that morning that you’d be writing.

I: Was there a story that surprised you the most?

C: The story that was shocking, that actually gave me chills when I wrote the last sentence, was the baseball story, “Zanduce at Second.” From the beginning I followed that story wherever it went, and when I finished that last sentence I sat there sort of sizzling. There are some places in that story that are as good as anything I’ll write. “Zanduce at Second.” Bang.

I: Do you ever write with your readers in mind?

C: Well, you don’t know your readers. I think that I work alone and that I’m my own reader. If I want to read the story then I think my readers will too. While I’m writing I also never think about who I’m going to send the work to, and it seems like when I finish a story and it’s ready for my writers’ group, or an editor, or an agent, I’m constantly apologizing for my work. I’ll say, “Dear John, here’s another story I wrote. I don’t know what you’re going to do with it because it has a this in it and a that in it.” So, I don’t know what to say about that question of the reader. I really caution my writing students to write as well as they can for themselves, but certainly there are times when you’re getting ready to take a story out of your room and you change the language in it, change some references, sometimes you change some names. But that’s simply for public consumption, safety reasons. I changed some of the language in my first book because my mother was going to read it and I’m glad I did. You can’t have your mother in the room while you’re writing, but in the end, there goes the book and you wrote it at full speed, grab it and change it! That’s just the way it is.

I: How have your concerns as a writer changed over the years?

C: We evolve as writers. I think we come out of the chutes looking to writer flavorful rites of passage stories. Without even knowing it, you’re writing what you know. You never have to look far. I began to write stories using what I knew and moving toward what I didn’t. In this way a vacation in Martha’s Vineyard evolved and an incident with my brother evolved. Those were the first two or three stories I wrote in college. After I left college to teach prep school, I began writing a novel about my college days. It was a love letter from a graduate’s world, Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Then I wrote a plot novel called Truants—I’m giving it a B+ (I was a young guy). Then I was going to write a novel called A Thousand People Later, just a great title, and I wrote seven or eight chapters of that novel before my children arrived. When my children arrived, I didn’t care if the two people in that novel got together or not, I had kids! And I couldn’t not write about those kids. All of a sudden, I went into the house of my heart, and there were other rooms in there that I didn’t even know about. So I started writing about that. My ability didn’t change as a writer, but suddenly my concerns got real and very close at hand. My prose improved just because my subject dragged me deeper. These rooms are my concerns. Then I wrote about relationships, marriage, then other people’s situations, contemporary American life. I’ve written a lot of stories lately about what it’s like to be a man living alone, what’s rueful about that and what’s glorious, the light and shadow of such a world. This last year, I got out from under a book I really didn’t want to be writing and I wrote a western, and now I’m writing a detective novel, which really has my attention. It’s fun to bring some of the understanding and skills I’ve developed to this conventional plot novel. I’m also playing with notes on a play; I would like to write a play. I have friends who are involved with the theater so there’s a way to have the thing read, which would be delightful. I’ve not started it yet, but I’ve got the world of the story. In the meantime what I’m going to do is finish this detective novel—hopefully this year—and then write a story or two. The idea of not having any obligations is really delightful for me.

I: You mentioned publishing Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald right out of graduate school. What was it like getting so much attention so young?

C: You know, I never thought of it. When I think of it now, I think, “Holy hell! I was twenty-nine when I published that!” But I didn’t think of it then, and I’m glad I didn’t. I’ve had this and that successes, and none of it has turned my head. I still love what I do. I wouldn’t have traded it. It makes me smile, it makes me happy, and it makes a few other people I know happy. It’s odd because I know some important writers who act important and I don’t want any of that. I’ve had some fancy stuff happen in some fancy places, but I would just like to get another dog and make a road trip. That’s where I am.

I: You mentioned in an interview that Five Skies and The Signal were written as straight narratives partially as a reaction to what you called “the great thickets of irony in which so much of American discourse is now struggling.” Are there other tics or trends in contemporary fiction that worry you? Any you’re optimistic about?

C: Well, I think the story that stands up, where something happens, something that we can read, a story that is written in strong and intelligent prose, that is something that will never go away. There it is. I’m optimistic about the story. There’s a lot of irony today as I’ve said. There’s a certain kind of fanciful, speculative edge. It seems like every story you read is about some guy that can’t afford a swing set, but his neighbor bought a really nice swing set, and the story has to have some kind of terror, fantasy, or subsurface, postmodern glint at the “other”. I’m not sure of that. That’s really fun and anything goes, but it can be oddly mute. That’s what I’m seeing. It’s hard.

I: Some critics have called you “the master of the rare happy ending,” but you seem wary of the idea of a “happy ending.” I think Michael Cunningham was perhaps more to the point when he said that you have an uncanny ability to chronicle human kind’s “quirky, unreliable potential for grace.” What kind of role does grace play in your stories?

C: In a way, I think you’re asking me if I’m optimist. Well, I like to improve the quantity of kindness is the world without being caught at it. That’s my goal. I think that even in the stories in which my characters get a little drubbed, get a little defeated, there’s a sense that they’re okay, that they’ll be redeemed. I don’t think that’s coming from any particular dogmatic view on my part; it’s the way I live in the world. It’s a little bit like what I was talking about before, about visions not being teachable. I don’t know if I got it from my folks, which I expect. I don’t know if I got it from my experiences, which I also expect. But I believe in the best.  I think all of us, even those of us who end up short of what we were going for, are still better for our struggles. That’s the way I feel. That’s as close as I can say it.

C. Dylan Bassett Interview

C. Dylan Bassett is a teaching fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is the author of two collections of poems, The Unpainted Shore (Spark Wheel, 2015) and The Invention of Monsters / Plays for the Theater (Plays Inverse, 2015), and six additional chapbooks. His recent poems are published or forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Columbia Poetry Review, DIAGRAM, Gulf Coast, H_NGM_N, Ninth Letter, Pleiades, Salt Hill, West Branch, and elsewhere.

INSCAPE: You seem to have a Wallace Stevens renaissance going on. What is it about him? And what is it about him recently?

C. DYLAN BASSETT: Wallace Stevens and I agree with each other. So for Wallace Stevens, God is dead, right? For a lot of people at this time, God is dead. So then, Wallace Stevens is now interested in this question: if God is dead, then what replaces him? In other words, if religion is outdated in the contemporary world, how do we replace it? And his answer, in part, is poetry. Another part of the answer is the imagination. The imagination is a dialectical genesis. So what is real is what we imagine to be real. In that way, he is breaking down the distinctions between the world and the consciousness which perceives it. You might call it poetic epistemology, which is to say his poems are concerned with the relationship between the mind and the world, or thoughts and things, and how much of our perception is based on anticipation. Do we see things a certain way because we expect to see them that way, and what if we tried to imagine them another way? Then would we see them another way? He and I agree with each other in that what is real is what is imagined to be real, and also that poetry becomes a kind of surrogate religion. But poetry functions as a devotional practice, which in turn creates community and allows us to see each other as human beings and not abstract entities. I think that’s enough to say.

I: So if, like Wallace Stevens, we believe what is real is what we imagine to be real, is poetry the highest order or function of imagining real things?

B: For Wallace Stevens, yes. Poetry is a way of meshing the exterior and the interior worlds—breaking down the cultural binaries between real/imaginary, object/subject, self/other, one/many, body/mind, emotion/thought, etc. So then, the epigraph, “the unpainted shore accepts the world as anything but sculpture,” is to say that the world is not permanent, and is therefore in need of constant reimagining—that’s what I mean by dialectical genesis.

I: Right. Where sculpture in that line is a sense of finality or structure that we reject. So did your collection come into being as a result of this new idea or this new order, this new way of looking at things, or is it more a culmination of your work and representative of it that way?

B: It’s more of the latter of those two things, I think. I wasn’t thinking of poetic epistemology when I was writing that book. Not overtly, anyway. I had it in the back of my mind. But I was mostly trying to enact the way in which spaces—mental, literal, physical, bodily, emotional, psychological, metaphorical—change in the aftermath of loss. So I was thinking of the relationship between the body or the mind and the exterior world, yes. That’s the primary concern of the book, I think. Maybe I’m wrong about that. As an elegy, it is concerned with the departed, but even before that it’s concerned with the relationship between the body and the space that the body occupies. The body-slash-mind.

I: One of the things we talked about was body as enclosure, and this idea of both captive but a whole space at the same time. So how does this idea relate to the collection at large?

B: I think the book oscillates between being an enclosure and a grandiose fission of the stars or something. The self is rooted in the world because of other selves and then when those other selves are gone, the self must reimagine its ontological position. The oscillation between enclosed, small, particular domestic spaces and broader landscapes or the cosmos, is  the motion of a mind doing the work of finding its place, in an external reality independent of self. Does that answer your question?

I: Definitely. My follow-up to that would be this: what’s the prevailing effect of these poems, and what is it examining? To use Poe, what’s the unifying effect here? He’d say everything has one unifying effect. What we just talked about with Wallace Stevens and loss and grief and where people go and where we go when people leave feels like a huge part of what this collection’s exploring. What’s your take on that? Specifically in terms of grief and losing people in these permanent ways, like death, or semi-permanent ways, like a dissolved relationship?

B: Oh! So you’re asking whether it’s different to lose someone to death, as opposed to a failed relationship. On one hand the book is undoubtedly about the death of a father, no way around it. On the other hand the book—like I mentioned before—is about loss generally. When I first started writing poems I was thinking of the father as not just a literal father but also as a God figure. The book happens to take as its subject matter the death of a father. But it’s also about the loss of religion in one’s own life, or the absence of God. I hope that is applicable to all forms of loss or abandonment.

I: So let’s talk about the prose form for a minute. First talk about why you used it, and its place in your works, its place in the collection.

B: I have a simple answer: when I was writing those poems I was afraid of line breaks. It still surprises me that poets have the audacity to break lines. I think it’s rarely done well. When I tried to lineate my prose poems in the book they just didn’t work as well. Also, the prose form has a more clinical, formal, reserved quality, wouldn’t you say? The verse, by contrast, is more conventionally lyrical. It takes an almost journalistic form. Also, in the final elegy when the text vacillates between prose and verse, I wanted to enact the movement of the mind between introspection and attempted objectivity. The prose is a little more introspective, a little more subjective.

I: So if I were to map it, the lyric sections are more like the interior mind at work, like trying to name things or rename things or situations. And then as we move to the prose portions, it’s about this place and the body being outside itself, sometimes at many levels outside itself, and trying to move through space that way. I wonder, though—if there is no tension because of enjambment, where does the tension come from? The image? The strength of the image?

B: The tension comes from the brevity, the parataxis, the associative leaps, the irregularities in grammar and syntax, the disruptions to the protocols of semantic coherence, the unsettling of readerly expectations in prose…I could go on, but you get the idea.

I: So what do you say to detractors of prose poetry if they find those conventions inaccessible, like the lack of semantic cohesion or loose narrative? Because this is a major complaint of anyone who’s reading prose poems now. I really would love to hear you speak to that, because there’s folks who say that’s all surrealism is—just something to hide behind. so how would you respond to the detractors of prose poetry who attack it as “word salad,” random images, and hiding behind surrealism as a shield for the craft?

B: Wow, I have so much to say about this I don’t even know where to start. First of all, “word salad” is ridiculous. There is no such thing. The term is lazy. It’s a word people use when they’re confused and frustrated with a text, because they believe the text should have some kind of consumability—that they text should have an exchange value, that it should give them something tangible, in a capitalistic sense.

Also, you’re really asking me two questions here: 1) What do I say to the detractors of prose poetry? and 2) How would I defend surrealism?—because, of course, the prose poem isn’t inherently surreal, and surreal poetry isn’t necessarily prose. So, okay, here goes. The prose poem—and any hybrid text for that matter—is necessarily engaged with identity crisis. The mode is such that the speaker inhabits an in-between space. The prose poem therefore resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material and turn it into a product; it resists reduction and commodification. It disrupts readerly demands and expectations and form, as it advocates for an essence over identity, becoming over being, fluidity over fixity. In other words, what do we expect from prose? What do we expect from poetry? In rejecting easy genre classification it subsumes genre—it is everything and yet nothing. Poem and prose, narrative and anti-narrative, organic and artificial, approachable and wholly unrecognizable all at the same time. Reliant upon literary tradition even as it rejects traditionalism. We find it in the middle of evolution and therefore unevolved.

Regarding surrealism, I’ll say this: it’s not random. Even “automatic writing,” which was a popular practice of early surrealist writers, is not really automatic. In fact, it’s painstakingly calculated. Surrealism is not representative. In other words, it’s not trying to depict or represent a physical location or tangible reality, the way realism does. Instead, it enacts and emotional state of being, so that the reader experiences that state—both mentally and physiologically.

There are two kinds of surrealism: capital S surrealism and lower-case s surrealism. Surrealism with a capital S is of course for Breton and Dali. Let me give you an example. I could say to you, “I pulled a chicken’s foot from behind the moon,” and that’s surreal, and that lacks an emotional quality. It’s just very surreal, and you don’t totally know what to do with it. It has a nice texture about it, but it doesn’t convey an emotion to you, whereas there’s a really great James Tate poem where he opens the poem by saying, “Dear Reader / I’m trying to pry open your coffin with a snowflake.” And you get that line. Emotionally, you understand what he’s saying. It’s surreal, it’s kind of cartoonish, but it’s also a little devastating. Or there’s this great line from Neruda where he says, “I cast my sad nets over your oceanic eyes,” It’s incredible and it’s surreal but it’s also emotionally accessible to you. So you understand what he’s saying even if it’s an image that you can’t actually imagine in your head. I tend to employ the lowercase surrealism. Do I think of myself as a surrealist? No, not at all. Am I upset if someone calls me one? No, I don’t care.

Finally, I would tell these “detractors” that poetry is not meant to be gotten, and it is not something to be possessed—it is a being possessed! It seizes us and immerses us in the present moment. A poem is to be understood intuitively. You don’t understand a poem in the same way that you understand a mathematical equation or an empirically derived, scientific hypothesis or theory.

I: Or even the way you’d understand a straightforward plot in a fiction piece.

B: Right. I’ll use the analogy I use with my students: you don’t “get” the Sistine Chapel. When you walk in and you look up at the ceiling, you don’t think, “What does it mean?” You don’t question its semantics. You just experience it, and it’s purely emotional. The same could be said about the statue of David. You turn the corner—and you see the statue! And you think, WOW! It seizes you! you don’t analyze its curves. you don’t ask why he’s standing in the position he is. You just feel it, and then, maybe, later on you’ll ask question of form, history, and medium. You could say similar things about music. I think poetry should be experienced in the same way. I mean, it’s not prose and it’s not philosophy in a can. It’s art. It’s not artifact. It’s not documentation. It’s not craft. It’s art. So if you don’t get it, that’s because you’re trying to understand it with the wrong brain.

I: I also feel that these poems are among the most accessible poems you’ve ever written. So let me ask you this: how do you workshop your kinds of poems? Because it’s also harder for folks to find endpoints in a prose poem like they can do in a lineated poem.

B: Closure is an illusion. The demand for a tidy, well-packaged, or memorable ending is archaic—and it disagrees with lived experience. Inevitably you’d have to talk about the prose form because no one should write prose poetry without good reason—although the same could be said of any form. I wrote in prose because I wanted both to perform an identity crisis and to create an in-between space—something neither this nor that. The consciousness of the book is neither wholly before nor totally after tragedy. It’s au milieu—right in the middle of loss, which is an in-between space. I couldn’t write an essay, which seems very much after the fact. I couldn’t write straight poetry either because I wanted something never fully grounded in a single vantage point. I tried to resist the urge to monumentalize experience. So, what would I say to people who want to find an end point? I don’t know. I’d probably ignore them.

I: Okay. So, we’ll wrap up here. Talk to me for just a minute about your success, about coming from BYU as an undergrad writing poems to publishing a book and being at Iowa. What was that like? What’s changed, in your poetry and in your mind?

B: I’ll tell you: poetry has become a way of life for me. Poetry has to be a way of life, if you want to be a poet, I mean. It can’t be a hobby. It can’t be something you do when you feel like it. It has to be something that you’re constantly doing. You have to cultivate a mind on which no detail is lost, so in that sense you’re always writing. Even right now I’m noticing that door slightly ajar and I’m thinking of Emily Dickinson. And these objects over here on the shelf, all very sad and very upright. So what I’m saying is, you have to train your mind so that it’s always paying attention to details, objects, people. In that regard, everything you read, everything you hear and overhear is material for writing. And then you just have to force yourself to write. If you’re not putting yourself in front of the computer every day then you’re losing time. You’re not gonna write something good everyday but you at least have to give yourself the chance to write something good. Even my last year at BYU I was very much aware of this: I woke up at five a.m. every morning to write. Because I knew I just wasn’t going to have time in the day with classes and soccer and everything else. So I wrote in the mornings.

I hate to think of poetry as a purely intellectual endeavor. Instead it’s an invitation to be more attentive in the world and to be more present and to be kinder and more compassionate. It’s really who you are, I think. you have to eat it for breakfast, and breathe it, and dream about it. And when you have five minutes of nothing to do, then you should be reading or writing down a line or something. That’s really how I live, which is kind of exhausting. In addition, I read eclectically, and a lot. I read philosophy, theory, religious texts, even science books.

I: Last thing. The flies in your book. Fly here, fly there. “A fly loosely banging into a—”

B: Yeah, I remember that one. Are there other flies? Oh, the fly in the sugar. So what do you wanna know about that? Was I thinking of Emily Dickinson? I was. I am always thinking about Dickinson. She might be the smartest poet of all time. I was also thinking of Michael Dickman who has a book called Flies. Flies are scary, and they’re also kind of grotesque. And there’s something about a consciousness that is willing to observe a fly and not attend to it. Not try to shoo it away or clean it up in the case of a dead fly. Someone who’s willing to note the fly but not do anything about it.

I: And what’s interesting about that is it’s like a parenthesis and there’s a lot of parenthetical moments in this collection.

B: There are. The whole book works as a giant parenthetical statement. That’s how I thought of it, honestly. I wanted to put the title in parentheses, actually, but they wouldn’t let me do it. I wanted to put it in parentheses because I was trying to make an enclosure. I actually wanted to call the book Enclosures but a book came out from Ahsahta Press this last year called Enclosures. So I decided against it.

I: I love The Unpainted Shore.

B: Yeah, The Unpainted Shore works nice. Thank you, Wallace Stevens.


Ashley mae Christensen

The days and nights were so hot and so humid our second summer together. I loved you, even then. There was a big town thermometer in the front lawn of a cinderblock home, ten blocks from our rented house. It spindled like a skinny soldier, just taller than the tin roof of the humble house. The thermometer preceded what little technology the country enjoyed; it stuck there, its metal stand pushed into the hard, black soil, the weeds growing up around it. Rambunctious boys vandalized sides of buildings, abandoned cars, and park benches, but they never touched the thermometer. They must have recognized that the crudely painted, tin device was a sacred reminder to us all that what we were living was difficult, and therefore significant.

The red line of the thermometer rose and fell each day. The older, knobby gentleman who lived in the home moved the metal strip up and down through the afternoon as he took note of the temperature. He was the most important man in the city between the months of November and April. The higher the temperature, the more the neighborhood reveled. “Worst summer in twenty years, do you know that this part of the country gets hottest of all?” “I once was hospitalized in heat like this—stayed three hours on an I.V. I’m likely to end up back there if this keeps up, you know?”

No matter that the man in charge of keeping the thermometer had no accurate way of anything exact; Uruguayans lean toward the dramatic. So you and I wrote letters home telling of record temperatures.

Our misery grew simultaneously with our joy. Or perhaps they both simply made us feel alive, and thus have always been the same thing. It took me a while to catch on, but I learned it was easy to engage conversation about the crippling heat and humidity, the best way to make life-long friends in a new place. So I did talk. I spoke fluent Spanish with an American accent, but was always well received when I exclaimed, “¡Qué horrible! ¡Qué calor más brave!” Everywhere I went I made a sport of lively complaining.

You and I even began to complain to one another in our kitchen, not because we needed to say it, but because even married people will do anything to feel a little closer, to share one more experience. We walked each morning before school to the fruit stand and each day I noticed that my stomach touched the inside of my dress less and less. I wasn’t wasting away, but I was losing weight. Maybe it was adjusting to a foreign country, maybe it was standing day after day at the front of a classroom full of illiterate adults who were not convinced that this would get them a job, maybe it was learning to be in love that made me skinnier. One year later, my stomach would grow the other direction.

Salto, our town, was known for its variety of oranges: navel oranges, red oranges, oval oranges, ruby oranges. They were all I wanted to eat. Oranges and the popsicles frozen in little baggies, homemade and sold from the front door of every other house for a peso.

We ate oranges for breakfast while sitting on our beds, the sun low, just above the line of the tall grass in the backyard. There was one spindly lemon tree standing in the corner near the dilapidated fence. The tree was shorter than it should have been, more brittle, too few leaves, perhaps a symbol of the country in which it was born.

Near the top, in a place where one could reach up above one’s head and stand on tiptoes, a small lemon was slowly ballooning outward into the world, taking up a little more space every day, aware of its taking and needing a place in a world where not everyone had even a plate of rice to eat for dinner.

We were also aware of the lemon, though we didn’t begrudge it for its selfish need for material, air, and space for growing. Rather, we pointed to it, from its very conception bud, to its flowering childhood, and now, into the thick-skinned green oval hanging shyly from a firm stem from the top branches of a small brown tree. In the coming month, in spite of, or perhaps thanks to the heat, the skin would yellow, pull tighter, thinner and more porous.

One evening, before dusk, we walked to the edge of the yard and because you were just a bit taller than me, you reached up and plucked the lemon down, turning it in your hands, letting the roundness fill in the deep C of your palm. We looked close and rubbed the smooth skin against our cheeks; you rubbed it against mine and said, “the only lemon of the year, la primera limón del ano, quizás la única.” We could look deep into the shadow moons of the lemon’s skin and perhaps it would speak to us of its history.

We might see a scene two hundred years ago: ships full of sailors and explorers and men longing for faraway wives, ships rolling across the sea from the eastern shores of this country. Did the men on those ships ache for home? The lemon—not this lemon, but its ancestors—were on that ship then. The fruit, a rich source of vitamin C, was known to ward off the dreaded paleness, open sores, and depression that came with scurvy, and from being thousands of miles from home. Perhaps their wives sent them with lemons, in hopes that they might return to them, safe and in love.

Later that week, you made me tea from the lemon when I was sick and throwing up. Looking at the lemon, we pondered what it means to be home, what it means to be so close to one another and still ever treading into the unfamiliar.

One round window on the lemon’s yellowed skin might show us its particular origin, might tell the two of us how a scraggly, dying lemon tree came to live in the backyard corner of our house in this poor neighborhood. It might show us the stray cats fighting and forcing love all night under its branches, the noises so awful. I woke up and threw a cup of water through the metal bars and out the open window once, in hopes of ending any injustice. Then I lay back down and turned over to you, your skin rounded like baked clay in the white moonlight. Were you thinking of names for our children then?

A Swimmer

Zac Cianflone

He knew that the guys on TV were hacks, amateurs.  Sure they were fast, but they practiced a mongrel method. They treated the water like a mere medium between two walls, a barrier between a goal and a stopwatch.  He swam at the local Y, but there too the hacks congregated, forever fighting against the water and babbling like idiots in the cramped sauna. He avoided the sauna. He showed up to the pool in the early morning, around 5:30 when the place opened. The air was murky with chlorine and sometimes the surface of the water was smooth—the hacks still tucked away in bed, he chuckled to himself.  Usually though, he wasn’t alone, an ambitious kid here or there getting in extra pool time, etc, and they were even talking about starting up some kind of early morning water aerobics class. One day he would retire and dig out a single lane in his backyard, he thought as he lowered himself down. He swam now.

At times the tiny bubbles delighted him, cascading off his thumbs like an endless stream of carbonation from the bottom of a glass.  But they alternately dismayed him to no end:  to cut the water was an art, a bubble an imperfection.

In the end, two ambitions tormented him.


One: to disappear into the water, to cut the liquid clean with the plane of his outstretched fingers—to be swallowed into the wakeless mass.

Two: to totally give into the imperfection of bubbles, to be dissolved whole and destroyed by the mad water like a tablet of Alka-Seltzer.

The Face of Gertrude Stein

by Tyler Moore

I first read Gertrude Stein when I was sixteen years old.

She was one of the Modernists, a group of writers who sought to revolutionize the functions of grammar and prose, and a bunch of whom all moved to Paris and ended up knowing each other. My American Literature class and I studied their capstones: Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I was mind-blown. These masterworks taught me that good literature can enchant and entertain in the same way that good movies do.

Then we read Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. And I did not like it. I thought it was a dumb book and that Stein must have just been a historical accident, who only got studied because she had powerful friends. I quickly dismissed her as just another of the “crazy modernist lesbians.” (I am sorry to say that in high school I was not very nice.)

But Gertrude Stein kept coming back. The more I learned about Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Pound, the more her influence on them kept getting emphasized. She read their books and helped edit them. She probably edited The Sun Also Rises! Hemingway asked her to be his son’s godmother!

So when my professor assigned Tender Buttons for last week’s reading, I figured I might enjoy it this time around. But I was taken straight back to junior year when I got to this paragraph:

Book was there, it was there. Book was there. Stop it, stop it, it was a cleaner, a wet cleaner and it was not where it was wet, it was not high, it was directly placed back, not back again, back it was returned, it was needless, it put a bank, a bank when, a bank care.

(That paragraph is even more fun if you read it out loud.) Was I missing something? Did anyone else find this paragraph to be absolutely bananas? Were there people out there who would pay money for this kind of stuff? And even if there were, why are we studying it? Literature like this, though it often has critical and influential value, is simply not what I enjoy reading. I gravitate towards works of connection–ones where you feel like you’re there with the author, having a conversation. Rather than that sense of synchronization, Tender Buttons gives me the feeling I’m being largely ignored.

Next to Tender Buttons, though, in our anthology, was a small biography of Stein, and a picture, taken by Man Ray in 1922. In it, Gertrude Stein sits on the right, next to a portrait painted by Pablo Picasso. Of herself.

A lot of cool things converge in the picture. First, the obvious joke: Gertrude Stein is in a picture with herself. Because the image on the left is a painting, it seems like it should just be part of the backdrop of the photograph. But Stein is her own background, and Ray has positioned them to sit facing each other, as though they have just stopped a conversation with themselves in order to look at the camera.

Then there’s the comment on the artistic moment. Picasso experimented with cubism and surrealism, which attempted to paint the heart of the thing, not necessarily how it appeared visually. His vision of Stein has an unnaturally geometric, oval head, and her eyes are two different sizes. Her face is lean and young, while Stein’s is full and weathered. But regardless of those differences, the resemblance between both Gertrudes is spot-on. The painted work sustains all of Stein’s dignity: her tightly-kept hair, her round, inviting back, and her soft, quiet hands. When people complained to Picasso that Stein did not look like her portrait, he responded, “She will.”

Still, though, something about the photograph is inexplicable. How did Stein feel when she got to see her own portrait? What thoughts ran through her head while Ray took this picture? She got to see herself as the Modernists saw her, and that floors me with jealousy. What would I have looked like to a Cubist? How would Picasso have painted me? What would Hemingway have thought of my notes?

You can picture them all standing there, behind the lens of the camera— Fitzgerald and Pound and Matisse and Hemingway and all of them—watching and smiling. The face of the painted Stein is curious and sly, like she knows the joke that’s going on but doesn’t want to talk about it. But the real Stein has a face of gravity. She knows the joke too, and she knows how important her group is. She knows what Hemingway’s next book is going to be about, and she knows the world of World War I. She knows that her book is crazy. She knows the artist’s burden, to create good art in the shadow of her predecessors. She knows what Hawthorne and Emerson and Rachmaninoff and Cervantes and Caravaggio and Shakespeare and Chaucer and Moses all knew. She knows Picasso. She knows what’s next.