Monday Text: Lewis Nordan’s “Owls”

“Owls” is the final chapter in Lewis Nordan’s novel, or novel-in-stories, Music of the SwampSugar Mecklin is riding with his drunken father in the middle-of-the-night:

Once when I was a small boy of ten or eleven I was traveling late at night with my father on a narrow country road. I had been counting the number of beers he drank that night, nine or ten of them, and I was anxious about his driving.

Neither of us had spoken for a long time. What was there to say?–the beers, the narrow road, the stubble fields, a bare bulb shining out in the darkness from a porch far back from the road, the yellow headlights? What was there to talk about? The car held the road on the curves, the heater was making its familiar sound. 

Then I saw the road sign, bright yellow and diamond-shaped, and on it I read the word SLOW. My father kept driving at the same speed and did not slow down, though I knew he had seen the sign. So I was bold. I said, “Did you see that sign?” (185)

Skipping ahead:

We drove on in the darkness for a minute. My father said, “The sign didn’t say SLOW.”

I said, “It didn’t? I thought it said SLOW.”

My father said, “It said OWLS.” (186).

Skipping ahead:

Then the sign came into view again, the back of the sign, of course. My father slowed the car and pulled over to the right and when he had come to a complete stop he checked over his shoulder for safety and made another U-turn so that we might face the sign again and read its message. The headlights made the sign huge and bright. 

My father had been right. The sign said OWLS.

We kept sitting there for a long time. The engine was running, there was a small vibration. 

Then my father turned off the engine. The early-spring night air was cool, but he rolled down the windows. 

I knew my father wanted me to be quiet. I’m not sure how I knew this. I knew he wanted us to listen. I scarcely breathed I was listening so hard. I did not move at all. 

Then I heard the owls overhead. I heard the soft centrifugal buffeting of their feathers on the night air. I heard a sound from their owl-throats so soft that I believed it was their breathing. In my mind I counted them and thought that they were many. The owls were circling and circling and circling in the air above us. 

I don’t know what I believed would happen. I think I believed I would feel the fingers of my father’s hand touch my arm, the sleeve of my shirt. I believed I would turn to him and for the first time in my life I would know what to say. I would tell him all my secrets. I believed my father would say, “I love you.” This is what it meant to sit in a car with your father in in the middle of the night and listen to a flock of owls while looking at a diamond-shaped sign that said OWLS. (186-187)

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Monday Text: Ron Rash’s “Night Hawks”

Ron Rash is a masterful short story writer–one of my favorites. Many people think of his novels first, but his short story collections are top notch and my favorite books of his. Burning Bright and, his most recent release, Nothing Gold Can Stay, are two of the best collections published in the 21st C.

I also take a selfish pride in my love for Rash’s work because I knew of him before he became nationally known. He read at East Carolina University in the late 90s, where I did my undergrad, and it was the first reading I’d ever attended. At that time he had a poetry collection–Eureka Mill–and a short story collection that’s now out-of-print, The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth, both published by small presses in South Carolina (Hub City, which has grown in recent years and now has a national reputation, and Bench Press, which I’m pretty sure is now defunct–copies of Rash’s first story collection are going for $600+ on Amazon!).

Anyway, I remember the value Rash placed on emotion. You’d be surprised how much contemporary fiction avoids emotion, as if our post-post-post-whatever-modern world is too cool and cynical to acknowledge that yes, our daily lives are still defined by basic emotional truths. Of course, this isn’t to say Rash’s work is sentimental. His work is usually quiet and introspective yet still surprising, dark, and Gothic. Flannery O’Connor famously said, and I paraphrase here, that the greatest writerly sins are sentimentality and pornography. Rash is neither sentimental nor “pornographic”/pulpish, and O’Connor’s point is that sentimentality exists on both ends of the spectrum–mushiness on one end, nihilistic pulp on the other. Rash is a writer who clearly writes within the Southern Gothic tradition of Flannery O’Connor, as well as Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, among many others.

“Night Hawks,” which originally appeared in Grist and appears in Nothing Gold Can Stayis such a story. Without spoiling, I’ll say the story features a maimed protagonist, Ginny, who has a rather large scar on her face from an accident that occurs within the plot. She’s a teacher and has to leave her job at the local high school, one she was having trouble with before the accident occurred. She’s always been isolated and misunderstood, an introvert and hermit, and the scar only makes matters worse. Did I not tell you Rash does the Southern Gothic thing?

The story’s title comes from her job as a graveyard shift DJ on a local AM radio show. It’s the perfect job for her because she can connect with people from afar, without the shame of her disfigurement. Like many radio DJs, she creates a moniker, and it’s perfect: the Night Hawk. She’s an immediate success and connects with people–lonely people who need a voice to fall asleep to at night, for instance–yet, throughout the story, she’s still alone herself and severely depressed; her depression is a debilitating, chronic variety, fraught with anxiety and hints of paranoia. This isn’t a simplistic story where the damaged protagonist “finds herself” through her new job, more than one where the new job is the only thing keeping her alive. 

I’m posting the story’s ending, which I don’t think will ruin the story for you. It’s quite beautiful. And, if you haven’t purchased Nothing Gold Can Stay, I highly recommend it. Also, check out Silas House’s wonderful interview with Rash on House’s show, Hillbilly Solid. Not only is the interview great, but so is the music, and much of it fits the mood of Rash’s work. Here’s the story’s ending:

At the radio station she would unlock the door, and soon enough Buddy Harper would end his broadcast and leave. She would say, This is the Night Hawk, and play “After Midnight.” Ginny would speak to people in bedrooms, to clerks drenched in the fluorescent light of convenience stores, to millworkers driving back roads home after graveyard shifts. She would speak to the drunk and sober, the godly and the godless. All the while high above where she sat, the station’s red beacon would pulse like a heart, as if giving bearings to all those in the dark adrift and alone. (225)

Monday Text: Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”

This week’s Monday Text is Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” one of my favorite poems. I love the interplay between pleasure and grief, luxuriousness and impoverishment, and the ultimate transience of it all:

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Monday Text: Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha

Every line in Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha is a polished gem. Asali Solomon agrees. Whenever I need to lube my style-gears, I open my dogeared and annotated-to-death copy of Maud Martha to a random page to find gold. Then I copy the gold to feel the magic in my fingers:

spring landscape: detail

The school looked solid. Brownish-red brick, dirty cream stone trim. Massive chimney, candid, serious. The sky was gray, but the sun was making little silver promises somewhere up there, hinting. A wind blew. What sort of June day was this? It was more like the last days of November. It was more than rather bleak; still, there were these little promises, just under cover; whether they would fulfill themselves was anybody’s guess. 

Up the street, mixed in the wind, blew the children, and turned the corner onto the brownish-red brick school court. It was wonderful. Bits of pink, of blue, white, yellow, green, purple, brown, black, carried by jerky little stems of brown or yellow or brown-black, blew by the unhandsome gray and decay of the double-apartment buildings, past the little plots of dirt and scanty grass that held up their narrow brave banners: please keep off the grass–newly seeded. There were lives in the buildings. Past the tiny lives the children blew. Cramp, inhibition, choke–they did not trouble themselves about these. They spoke shrilly of ways to fix curls and pompadours, of ‘nasty’ boys and ‘sharp’ boys, of Joe Louis, of ice cream, of bicycles, of baseball, of teachers, of examinations, of Duke Ellington, of Bette Davis. They spoke of–or at least Maud Martha spoke–of the sweet potato pie that would be served at home. (4-5)

Monday Text: Mark Richard’s “The Birds for Christmas”

Mark Richard’s “The Birds for Christmas” is this week’s Monday Text. Richard is the author of two story collections, The Ice at the Bottom of the World and Charity, a novel, Fishboy, and a memoir, House of Prayer #2.

“The Birds for Christmas” appears in Charity and is set at a state charity hospital; the story is loosely based on Richard’s adolescent experiences in Richmond’s Crippled Children’s Hospital, which he covers in House of Prayer #2 (the connections are obvious to anyone who has read both books and followed Richard’s career closely).

I love this story because it was the story that gave me permission to be weird and funny when writing about traumatic experience. Like many young creative writers who come up through the workshop system, I’d convinced myself that the ideal “serious” story was a kind of place-less and straight laced realism (not all realism is the same, by the way) where characters talked like Weather Channel anchors. But here was a writer like me, who wanted to write realism about social outcasts and misfits! Here was a writer who’d spent time in a state hospital who understood the intimate connections between tragedy and comedy and how both inform the grotesque. Here was a writer not ashamed to write dialect, who’d spent much of his life in the same area of the South (VA and NC).

Read “The Birds for Christmas,” then listen to this wonderful interview Richard conducted with Bookworm’s Michael Silverblatt in the late 90s upon Charity’s release. Also, check out an older blog post of mine on House of Prayer #2, and another one that discusses Richard’s interest in sound and how pleasurably discordant language can convey horror and tragedy.

Monday Text: Clare Shaw’s “Poem About Dee Dee”

Every Monday, I will update my website with a story, poem, or excerpt that sticks to my ribs. Clare Shaw’s “Poem about Dee Dee” is the first entry in the series. Shaw is an English poet.

“Poem About Dee Dee” (from, Stay Awake, 2006, Bloodaxe Books) has always held a special place in my heart for its frank depiction of life on a public psychiatric hospital ward. Nothing fancy or flashy here–just brutal honesty. Here’s an audio version of Shaw reading the poem.

Poem about Dee Dee

by Clare Shaw

I

Dee Dee is out on the hospital roof.
From here, Liverpool is a story
she can read from beginning to end.

If you’ve never driven too fast
into a bend in the road,
felt the slow slide of your stomach

into a corner of itself;
if you’ve never leaned back
at the top of a rock,

felt the knot of the rope
like a waking snake
squirm loose in your hand;

if you’ve never walked home to a lover,
your tongue like a blade in your throat
to tell her it’s over;

if you’ve never known
the milk-white explosion
of a moment that could last forever;
then you have no idea how she felt.

II

Just one short sprint of thirty feet
to the low grey wall
and the city laid out like a map of itself.

Close your eyes
and its Sports Day.
You can smell the new-cut field.

There’s a crowd of everyone, bright
as if they’d been dipped in the river.
Everyone there you’d want to be there

and the sound of the cheer
is your big day out; it’s the prom
and the beer; the kiss under the Tower;

it’s a Midnight Mass of drunken song
and you’re pounding the pitch
to the finishing line

to be first to the faces waiting there;
the waiting arms,
the waiting air.

III

Two guards and three nurses
bring her down.

It’s evening, lock-up
and you’re drinking your tea
watching the hours
drain in the grey outside.

You see the streaks of concrete
on her face
and you remember the weight
of a grown man balled

through the fist
of his knees in your back.
You remember the taste,
like molten rust.

You remember your arms
pushed to the back of your neck;
how your shoulders were a flame
that scorched your chest

until all it could hold
was a necklace of tiny, red gasps.

You remember when
all that you were
was a scream
that no one could hear.

IV

The day room is a late-night
fish tank of sound
and yellow shadow.
The hum, bang, clatter of the ward.

Dormitories simmer with sleep.
I am wide-eyed with two weeks awake.
Her eyes
are methadone-heavy.

We watch TV in the small hours,
eating Frosties dry from the box.
We know all the tunes to Ceefax,
baiting the glaze-eyed agency staff

with high-risk jokes.
How about a day out?
It’s been three months since I crossed a road
and I’m beginning to lose the knack.

Dee Dee and me are having a laugh
dreaming plans for O.T.
rock climbing schemes
for the deeply depressed.

A barebacked parachute jump.
A Blackpool trip. Imagine
riding the Big One
with your seatbelt undone.

Dee Dee laughs.
Feels the wind in her hair,
the world spinning its pages
beneath her.

God, we laughed
in there
you could die laughing.