Foreword: Take Heart
Plato banished poets and playwrights from his ideal Republic because he felt they dealt in irrationality and half-truths. Only philosophers, who deal in absolute truths, could occupy his Republic, thus safeguarding it from emotion and unreason. Likewise, lately, some have questioned the idea of literature as a source of helping develop human empathy since it requires half-truths and the condemnation of some characters to allow us to empathize with others. It demands that we live with degrees of uncertainty and delayed judgment. Critic Wayne Booth discussed this issue in The Rhetoric of Fiction, in effect saying, “So what” if we identify with Hamlet and condemn Claudius, or if Othello is not fair to Cassio or Lear to the Duke of Cornwall. In his best plays, Shakespeare hardly made pure heroes and villains of anyone.
Even in the face of political correctness and professional outrage, literary writers can’t be prohibited from centering our interest and sympathy for certain characters and restraining sympathy for others. They can even imbue sympathy in some antiheros, such as Heathcliff, despite the character’s bizarre and even cruel behavior. Literature must be able to witness malice among some and inherent destructiveness in certain situations. When reading As I Lay Dying for the first time, I didn’t feel revulsion toward any one character but a deep appreciation for the way an author can empathize with a family living in a place and circumstance so diminished that almost any choice its members make can be cruel, even to the point of absurdity.
Empathy in life or in literature is never about merely identifying with a character or set of circumstances but about sharing—in whatever style or method—their lives and the events that comprise them. Literature is replete with the paradoxes of real life. Some believe that the common denominator of postmodern literature, beginning sometime in the 1960s, is that it came from serious writers giving up on naïve empathy and on the easy logic or coherence in literature. In a chaotic world where the apocalypse is another world war or bullet or bomb away, why insist on order, even in the form of a literary work? There are no heroes or villains, only characters navigating a world that does not make sense. In Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, protagonist Yossarian hopes only to not go on the next bomb run, to not die, even in a righteous war. Call him paranoid, call him a coward, that’s fine with him. And to follow his experience in war closely, the writer cannot use artificial logic or neatness, even in the form of the novel.
The late May morning I drove east from Chapel Hill, I didn’t pay much mind to the tracts of yellowed corn and soy or the tobacco-curing sheds standing derelict. As I headed home, Ma beside me, my junior year and final exams behind me, all that filled my head was catching up on sleep and getting ready for my summer internship at the National Institutes of Health.
“Fred Jarvis had a heart attack over Easter,” Ma said. “Didn’t get the seed in. Probably a good thing, what with this drought.”
“I hope you made him pay the lease,” I said.
“Don’t be cold, Clayton. Poor man’s bedridden.”
“Jesus, Ma. He has kids to help. We can’t afford to take on his two-hundred-acre problems.”
She patted my thigh. “Don’t worry. I leased ten acres to a girl from up north. She’s farming daylilies.”
The space behind my eyes pinched. “Flowers? Now there’s a real moneymaker.”
Ma got quiet and scribbled in her sketchpad. I mumbled an apology. She coughed low in her throat, polite, like she was holding back.
“there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;”
—T. S. Eliot
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
I’m six, seated at the old pine table in the kitchen, but instead of finishing my cereal I’m transfixed, mesmerized by the face caught in the gleaming metal of the two-slice toaster. Morning light streams through the windows on either side, hitting the curve of the toaster’s edges so my cheeks look fat, blurry, but there in the middle that’s me; it’s true. I smile. Wrinkle my nose. Blink. Scrunch up my nose, my mouth, to make faces—happy, hopeful, sad—all of which annoy my younger sister.
“Mom, she’s looking at herself again,” she calls, so I stop, but then, after a few minutes, when I think no one is watching, I’m back at it.
Then seventeen, eighteen, gazing into the small make-up mirror on my vanity. Pretty? Plain? Ugly? Trace a dark outline along the arc where the eyelashes meet the lids. Rub in eye shadow. Twirl on mascara. Brush a bit of blush along the cheekbones. Smear gloss over the lips. Blot. Blink. Study the reflection again. My eyes too close together, though I’ve had a compliment or two about how, at the outer edges, they lift like a cat’s. But my teeth are too big, my nose really too small.
Catch a glimpse in a department-store mirror. In a window. In a rearview mirror. There I am. That’s me. That’s what I look like.
Until it’s not.
You Will Be Ready / Total Hysterectomy
There will be days in this medical experience
when you feel like you’re the only citizen
of Pluto, landed right in the cardioid curve
of its dry sea, as every spacecraft from Earth
skips you and passes, off to photograph
some other beauty object. Even the Voyager
ships, with their golden records, will ignore
your out-there underworld.
The Sounds of Earth does not contain
the tin scrap music of the MRI machine,
or the ::thwick:: of the spring-retracting blood-
draw needle, and though The Sounds
of BRCA1 is imprinted with these noises,
you will also hear kinder human voices:
laughter as it fills the vinyl flooring
and technicians willing to talk about anything.
When it’s time, you will be ready
to release the loneliest parts of your body.
And afterward, you will wake up
on a new planet, on a cliff above
an unrelenting ocean, where all the creeks
fill with waterfalls and moss breaks
out in hungry piles on nurse logs.
You will run your fingers over the wet
green, the feather press-and-spring of it.
The Cadence of Waves
The Cadence of Waves
Leon showed up the day of the blackout in December of 1998, toward the end of some extreme El Niño weather we’d been having all year. It was actually snowing that day, big white flakes, like stars falling from the sky, that stuck to people’s hair and clothes but melted as soon as they settled on the sand of the beach and the street. He had come to apply for a maintenance job my father had posted in the San Francisco Chronicle. My father owned the Ocean Beach Motel, in San Francisco’s inner Sunset section, just two blocks from Ocean Beach. Not the most original name by any means, but he ran it well.
I was nineteen years old. My mother had been dead eight years. The maintenance job was dirty and thankless, and we could never keep it filled. My father interviewed Leon in the dim light and shadows of flashlights and candles. He looked at Leon over the top of his glasses each time he described a required duty. Leon listened attentively and nodded. The job didn’t pay much, but it included a room and free rent. It demanded work on the weekends and, during the summer tourist season, sometimes seven days a week. Leon took the job and started that day.
by Mason Kiser
On Mondays, we ruled the sea. Lightning lashed the whitecaps, and thunder shook the hull, and rain fell so slantwise that it ripped to shreds our sails. Despite it all, I stayed perched atop the mast. I could not cave to frailty or fear and so doom us to the depths.
On Tuesdays, we were pilots. Very fine ones. There was no craft we couldn’t commandeer or sky too turbulent to tread upon. My copilot and I learned the complexities of fighter-plane cockpits and perfected the timing of the burners in our hot-air-balloon baskets. I watched as great Saharan dunes and Nepalese peaks passed just beneath our wings.
On Wednesdays, he was made to attend church.
On Thursdays, I was the queen of a high castle. I did not hide in my throne room or waltz in the marble ballroom. On Thursdays, we fought. On Thursdays, great hordes from far kingdoms laid siege to our home. They scaled ladders and flew in on trebuchets, set on razing our mighty stone walls to the ground. My king and I fought side by side under flame and fear of death. He was hasty to violence and forwent diplomacy, but I admired his courage in those days.
One fateful Thursday, when a boulder launched from a trebuchet pinned me to a tower wall, he pried the boulder away with one hand, all the while fighting off our enemies with the other.
And the next Thursday, when he’d been struck down with countless arrows, I did the same for him.
Lionel still remembered a time when, walking around campus, his very presence commanded a certain respect. Even if students hadn’t taken his classes, they took notice of him, stood a little straighter when he nodded and passed by. Now they jostled him in the crowded stairwells, faces sandwiched between swollen headphones and sullen gazes sunk into cell phones. His wife said that with age she’d become invisible, and as Lionel made his way down the hallway, winded from the short walk across the quad in the cold, he conceded that perhaps this was now the case with him too. Time, its many indignities and betrayals, was weighing on his mind as he opened the door of the classroom where the monthly meeting of the humanities department was just beginning.
Large Hairless Mammals
Large Hairless Mammals
Daphne and Thiago move to Florida in the radiant swell of August, when she is still bleeding. The birth, four weeks ago, did not go well. She shoved the resident physician to the floor, and that wasn’t even the worst of it. Now the baby is here. Dough punched with eyes. She unbuckles him from the car seat and reassures herself: He’ll get cuter.
Tree of Life
Translated from the Slovenian by Brian Henry
I was born in a field of grain and snapped my fingers.
White chalk crossed the green blackboard.
Dew set me on the ground.
I played with pearls.
Pastures leaned against my ear and the fields.
The stars sizzled.
Under a bridge I carved an inscription: I can’t read.
Factories were being washed with salt water.
Cherries were my soldiers.
I threw gloves into the thorns.
We ate fish with a golden bread knife.
In the chandelier above the table not all the candles were lit.
Mama played the piano.
I climbed on my father’s shoulders.
I stepped on white mushrooms, watching clouds of dust.
Through the room’s window I touched the branches.
In the fall, the garden
folds in on itself—grand
stalk of kale on the ground
like a wilted chandelier,
still green tomatoes
that missed their chance
at red and tomatillo lanterns
scattered in the turned-up
soil. I can smell the earth
rolling over in her bedclothes.
I can see a crowd of brown flies
in the four o’clock light.
I find myself courting loss
as a counterweight
to the raucous good
fortune of being alive
and in possession
of the ones that I love.