February 26, 2014 | by Sharon Mesmer
In the summer of 2011, I spent every afternoon Google-mapping the Chicago neighborhood where I grew up. I pulled the shades down, turned the air conditioner up, and typed the intersections that define Back of the Yards—named for its proximity to the Union Stockyards—into the search box. I was in the early stage of a nervous breakdown, obsessively attempting to revivify the past, the only place where, I believed, continuity existed. Fifty-First and Loomis was my embarkation point: the intersection where our family doctor’s office was located. An unfilled prescription, from 1965, that I’d found in my deceased mother’s jewelry box provided the office’s address. My mother and I had had a contentious relationship, but that summer I fantasized about opening her grave and throwing her skeletal arms around me—“I thought even the bones would do,” to quote Plath. I used the objects from the jewelry box (grocery lists, a Revlon “Moondrops” powder compact, old Sears charge cards, blue crystal rosaries, a Coty lipstick) to reconstruct her existence, and finding that prescription was like finding the key to a long-locked door.
Going to the doctor had been a kind of family outing—every three months, to get my grandmother’s diabetes checked—and I wasn’t sure if I had dreamed those odd excursions to that tiny office. My mother would go downstairs to get my grandmother dressed: clean hairnet; heavy girdle and thick support pantyhose; rhinestone brooch; nice dress instead of a stained shift; black orthopedic shoes instead of house slippers; and dentures, from the glass on the bathroom sink. Then she’d run upstairs to get my sister and me ready, dabbing Chantilly perfume on our wrists. Read More »
December 19, 2013 | by Stephen Sparks
For several years during childhood, my younger brother and I shared a room. When silence eventually fell after we’d been put to bed, I often began to worry. If I couldn’t hear his breathing, if he didn’t shift in his sleep or answer my urgent whispers (“Hey … hey … ” “What?” “ … Nothing”), I willed myself motionless, listening for signs of life. If I still couldn’t hear anything, I got up, tiptoed across the room, and leaned over him. He was never not breathing. Yet I continued these fretful nocturnal journeys throughout our childhood.
As we grew older, my concern became more practical. I wondered how I would react if I found his breath had stopped, what course of action I would take, and whether I would be able to even move from the spot where I’d be helplessly rooted to the floor. I was haunted by his possible death—an absence I could not understand as a child—and by my inability to conjure a suitable reaction.
I do not fear my own death as actively as I worry about being left to cope with the death of someone I love. And while I have lost loved ones, I’ve managed, because those deaths made sense, to hover at the edges of grief. From there, I watched others muck through it, station to station. (Inevitably, I imagine each of the stages of grief less as a pilgrimage than as suburban park trail, where Denial is a set of monkey bars, Anger a stepping post, etc. Mourning, to me, is a compulsory obstacle course.) From the safety of the path, so to speak, I found myself rationalizing away what felt like an improper response to loss with the argument that we all manifest grief differently. In my case, I insisted, it was by maintaining my distance. As a consequence, I have avoided mourners. I’ve skipped out on funerals. In shameful moments, I’ve forsaken those in need. Never because I didn’t care, I insist, but because I am too weak.
And so I didn’t want to read Bough Down, Karen Green’s memoir of loss and mourning. Despite myself, I brought the book home and put it on the shelf, where I intended it to remain, a vellum-shrouded apotropaic object, its presence enough to ward off misfortune. Read More »
November 15, 2013 | by Adam Thirlwell
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was born in Kiev to a Polish-speaking family on February 11, 1887. At university, he studied law. In 1912, age twenty-five, he traveled through Europe, visiting Paris, Heidelberg, and Milan—for the young Krzhizhanovsky was the pure apprentice intellectual. After the First World War, and the 1917 Russian Revolution, he returned to Kiev, where he taught at the Musical Institute and the Theatrical Conservatory. In 1922, age thirty-five, he left Kiev for Moscow, where he lived for the rest of his life. In Moscow, Krzhizhanovsky wrote articles and gave lectures, in particular at Alexander Tairov’s Drama Studio. He also worked as a consultant to Tairov’s Chamber Theater. Meanwhile, he wrote novellas and stories, which were never published—either due to economic problems (bankrupt publishers) or political problems (Soviet censors). Twenty years passed in this way until, in 1941, with Krzhizhanovsky now fifty-four, a collection of stories was finally scheduled for publication—but then the Second World War intervened, preventing even that collection from appearing. In May 1950 he suffered a stroke and lost the use of speech. He died at the end of the year. (His works—almost all of them unpublished—were stored by his lifelong companion, Anna Bovshek, in her apartment: in her clothes chest, under some brocade.)
Almost no one knew that Krzhizhanovsky was writing fiction, since the state never allowed its publication. They knew him in other guises—as a lecturer on theater, or essayist, or occasional playwright. In 1939, Krzhizhanovsky, despite his restricted publication history, was nevertheless elected to the Writers’ Union—which meant that posthumously he was eligible for the process of “immortalization.” In 1953, Stalin died, and three years later Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” to the Twentieth Party Congress instituted a revisionist anti-Stalinist thaw. In 1957—the same year as Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago—a commission was set up to examine Krzhizhanovsky’s literary legacy. It lasted two years and was then disbanded, having drafted a publishing plan that was never implemented. Then, in 1976, Vadim Perelmuter, a poet, literary historian, and essayist, discovered Krzhizhanovsky’s archive. He had to wait until 1989 and the full thaw of perestroika before he could publish one of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories. Between 2001 and 2008, Perelmuter finally edited a handsome five-volume edition of Krzhizhanovsky’s works. Read More »
August 27, 2013 | by Casey N. Cep
My father’s father was a carpenter. I never met my grandfather, but I know from photographs and stories that in addition to farming, keeping dairy cows, and working on a cannery line, he earned money by carpentry. I also know from the sawhorses that my father inherited from his father.
The wooden trestles stood ever-vigilant in our garage, ready to serve whenever their nail-bitten, blade-gauged bodies were needed. The sawhorses were two of a few inherited things that reminded me of the grandfather I never met: a pear tree that still stands but no longer grows heavy with fruit in early autumn; a concrete trough he made that my sister, used for her horse’s drinking water; a pitchfork on which the handle had been replaced many times, and that we used for moving straw, hay, manure, or leaves, depending on the season.
Our inheritance felt large, but it was the sawhorses that I most admired, especially when my father put them to use constructing bookshelves for my bedroom. My father was no stranger to construction; he built the log cabin in which I was raised. He inherited not only tools but also skills from his father, so he was able to cut, stain, and install the wide bookshelves on my bedroom walls in no time. The shelves were required to house my growing library, acquired book by book in a thrilling sequence of gifts, purchases, and trades.
The day those bookshelves were installed was both an end and a beginning. It was the beginning of my treating books like objects and the end of my venerating them as relics. The order of the library, the logic of the archive, the structure of the bookstore all faded that day; suddenly, my books were mine to play with and I could do with them as I pleased. I could arrange them by height or by color. I could divide them with whatever objects I wanted: the painted deer skull I had been given as a dream catcher, the glow-in-the-dark vampire mask I had bought on a family vacation, the ornate carousel music boxes I had collected. Read More »
August 8, 2013 | by Pamela Erens
George Eliot’s Middlemarch has been my favorite novel ever since one summer nearly thirty years ago, when I read it on the recommendation of a Victorian literature–obsessed college friend. I’ve read it twice since then, which might not seem like a lot for a favorite book, but it is nine hundred pages long, and its richness holds me for many years at a time.
I love Middlemarch, published in 1872, for many reasons. I love Eliot’s gently intrusive narrator, her aphoristic habit of mind, her asides on medical research and philanthropy and manners. She can be extremely funny at times, a fact often overlooked by impatient readers. But Eliot’s wonderful narrator appears in her other great books as well—Daniel Deronda and Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner—so why is Middlemarch my best beloved?
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that this particular novel, more even than Eliot’s others, is all about people trying to be good—out of religious belief or a desire to improve the lot of the common man or the love of a woman or in expiation of past badness. The attempt is portrayed as difficult, almost killing at times, and many of the characters fail at it spectacularly. The novel is set against the backdrop of political do-gooding: the great British reforms of the late 1820s and early 1830s, which greatly expanded the number of Englishmen (not women, of course) who could vote. It was a time when the concept of the good itself was beginning to have a more democratic and less aristocratic connotation.
At the center of the many story lines in Middlemarch (marriages, deaths, legacies, falls from grace) is Dorothea Brooke, a nineteen-year-old orphan with a decent inheritance who has dreams of doing some great work in the world. At first she wants to improve the cottages of the tenant farmers who work on her uncle’s estate. Her plans are not met with much enthusiasm; those around her are the sort who think things are fine just the way they are. Courted by a local landowner who is considered a very good catch, she instead decides to marry a much older scholar whom she imagines to be some sort of genius. She will be his helpmeet; she’ll learn Greek and Latin so that she can help him guide his magnum opus into the world. Unfortunately her new husband, Casaubon, turns out to be a dry and humorless pedant who over time crushes Dorothea’s every impulse toward joy and intimacy. She, knowing she is bound to him legally, and feeling bound to him morally, fights against her resentment and loneliness, and although she no longer believes in his talent or his project, gives over her days to providing the lowly secretarial aid he demands. Read More »
July 30, 2013 | by Lisa Darms
A few years ago, I started a collection at NYU’s Fales Library & Special Collections to document the feminist Riot Grrrl movement in its formative and most active years, from 1989 to 1997. Originally a reaction against the failures of punk to extend its DIY model of empowerment to women, Riot Grrrl encouraged young women to form their own bands, self-publish personal stories and revolutionary agendas in zines, and carve out safe spaces in a violent, misogynist culture. Riot Grrrl was not a centralized movement, and many of the donors to the collection never called themselves “riot grrrls.” I never did, even though I went to the shows, read the zines, and identified as a punk and a feminist. Looking back, I see Riot Grrrl as descriptive of a moment as much as a movement: one that many young people now seem to want to study, learn from, and revivify. This summer, the Feminist Press published The Riot Grrrl Collection, my book of almost 350 pages of selections from the collection. Below are a few of my favorites.
This flyer, a pre–Riot Grrrl “manifesto” that was later repurposed for the minizine Riot Grrrl, is the first image in the book. Kathleen told me she made it in 1989, when she was volunteering at Safeplace, Olympia’s long-lived domestic-violence shelter and advocacy organization. Designed so that it could be folded up into a small rectangle with the word trust on top, this flyer was both a secret invitation and a public announcement, much like Riot Grrrl itself. Read More »