I recently proposed to my girlfriend, and so I spent much of the past few years thinking about engagement rings. In Western culture, at least, the ring has taken on such symbolic significance that we casually and almost exclusively refer to a part of the human body in relation to its function as ring carrier—the one true purpose of the digitus quartus. Spend enough time shopping for engagement rings and one might come to believe that every aspect of a person’s being exists only to honor the extra-human perfection that is the ring. But spend some time in The Paris Review archive and one might find that the ring is as multifaceted as any radiant cut diamond, as subject to human frailty as the promises, ideals, and bonds it has come to symbolize, and as individual as the hand on which it rests.
In issue no. 225, Cristina Rivera Garza’s “Simple Pleasure. Pure Pleasure.” (expertly translated from the Spanish by Sarah Booker) is a story built around the desire for a particular ring:
She walked around the decapitated body and paused to look at the dead man’s left hand. There, around his ring finger, right above the edge of a large pool of blood, was the jade ring. Two entwined, green serpents. An extremely delicate thing. The Detective shot her hand out toward the object but stopped short of touching it. There was something about the ring, something between the ring and the world, that blocked her contact. It was then that she looked at her own hand, immobile and large, suspended in the dawn air.
Stephanie Danler also employs serpentine imagery in “The Unravelers,” which appeared on the Daily in 2015:
Sometime between Edward Church with his doomed oil ship and her reign as resident tart of the old-folks home, Adelaide took all of the diamonds from her wedding and engagement rings and turned them into a new ring. A snake.
“It’s a phallic symbol,” my aunt said to me. The ring had been hers, the eldest girl of her generation.
“It sounds cursed,” I said. I was eighteen.
“Of course.” She dropped it into my hand. “The curse isn’t the marriages. It’s Adelaide’s sex drive.”
From sex drives to “Instruments of Seduction,” Norman Rush’s short story for issue no. 93:
She was ringless. She had put on and then taken off her scarab ring. Tonight she wanted the feeling that bare hands and bare feet would give. She would ease off her sandals at the right moment. She knew she was giving up a proven piece of business—idly taking off her ring when the occasion reached a certain centigrade. Men saw it subliminally as taking off a wedding ring and as the first act of undressing.
In “Poetry Rx: And You Want to Be Liked,” Kaveh Akbar summons the image of the ring for a bit of relationship advice from Eduardo C. Corral’s poem “To Robert Hayden”:
It’s one of those magical pieces where silence feels like the poet’s true medium, language is just the negative space around it. You have been forced to build a new life out of such negative space, and it sounds like you’ve done so admirably: your happy friends are evidence of as much. But now, miracle of miracles, someone is in love with you again!
inscribed—toward a pile
But the ring
dropped in the small
of your back
where it rattled
& rattled like a coin
in a beggar’s
The narrator of Allan Gurganus’s clever and tender story “A Body Tends to Shine” struggles to recover her wedding ring after her baby swallows it, from issue no. 95:
Tell me: How do you usually get your valuable rings out of your Baby’s sweet gullet?
I don’t plan to make you ill with the crudest details of my ring-search. Let’s just say: Motherhood! Let’s say I borrowed many old newspapers from the neighbors. These unmarried people hoarded papers for just such family emergencies. But, not having no families, they lent their bounty to us instead. Seemed our house stirred up troubles enough to keep a radio soap show in daily episodes forever. Times, it felt like I had more problems than Dick Tracy. I asked neighbors not to tell the ring news to our well-meaning pharmacist, the human P.A. system. Folks agreed but grilled me.
And the plight of the missing wedding ring also plagues the eponymous hero of Robert Pack’s poem “Clayfeld Renews His Vow,” from issue no. 99:
Clayfeld attempted to recall
the pattern etched so clearly on his ring:
the hieroglyphs suggestive
of departing birds above a stream whose flow showed
only as an undulating line.
Twelve birds—for each month of the year—
that’s more, he thought, than he
remembered being there. And yet how many rings
could have designs like that?
The extended image of a wedding ring breaks up a list of short answers to the title question in Nina MacLaughlin’s “What Color Is the Sky?,” from the Daily:
Garnet. Lavender. Turmeric. Charcoal. Periwinkle. Dirt road. Yarrow. Powder. Bruise. Rice. Absinthe. Piss. Shadow. Mussel shell. Ash. Blood clot. Clementine. Pistachio. Mauve. Faun. Inner thigh. Midnight. Cantaloupe. Underblanket. Honey. Olive. Orgasm. Peppermint. Raisin. Sapphire like the wedding ring my mother wore, a thin band of tiny flat sapphires so dark it looked black, but off her finger, where always it is now, marriage done, held up in the light, deep dark blue. Heather. Smoke. Yolk. Bone.
Similarly, a ring works as an anchor point for “They Called Her the Witch” by Fernanda Melchor, translated with all its beautiful momentum by Sophie Hughes, from issue no. 231:
… they told the Witch that she had until the next day to pack her bags and leave town, that she was mad if she thought they’d let a slut like her get her hands on their father’s assets: the land, the house, that house that, even after all those years, was still unfinished, as lavish and warped as Don Manolo’s dreams, with its elaborate staircase and banisters decked in plaster cherubs, its high ceilings where the bats made their roosts, and, hidden somewhere, or so the story went, the money, a shedload of gold coins that Don Manolo had inherited from his father and never banked, not forgetting the diamond, the diamond ring that no one had ever seen, not even the sons, but that was said to hold a stone so big it looked fake, a bona fide heirloom that had belonged to Don Manolo’s grandmother, a certain Señora Chucita Villagarbosa de los Monteros de Conde, and that by both legal and divine right belonged to the boys’ mother, Don Manolo’s real wife, his legitimate wife in the eyes of God and man alike, not to that slut, that conniving, homicidal upstart the Witch …
For Frederick Seidel, the ring serves as both an indictment and an invitation to the divine in his poem “Now,” published on the Daily in 2017:
I’m trumpeting the most dazzling imitation
Diamond ring you’ll ever see,
Set by the expat genius jeweler JAR in Paris,
Whom nothing ostentatious can embarrass,
To celebrate the catastrophe of America, the American catastrophe.
The only possession of mine
God will want to grab
Is on my pinkie
When I’m laid out naked on the slab,
And here comes God—who’s of course a she—
Who removes the ring,
And slides my corpse
Into her big hot thing.
To close, Hollis Summers tells a whole story with just these few ring-centric lines from “Mister Joseph Botts,” way back in issue no. 8:
The bandaged ring was replaced by a silver basketball, a fraternity pin, and then another ring, diamond this time.
Then no ring shone. Suddenly no ring shone.
Christopher Notarnicola’s work was featured in The Best American Essays 2017 and has been published in American Short Fiction, Bellevue Literary Review, Consequence Magazine, Image, North American Review, The Southampton Review, and elsewhere. Find him in Pompano Beach, Florida, and at christophernotarnicola.com.
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