Foreword | January 21, 2016
Foreword: Behind the Curtain
One of the exemplary roles of art is to seek the truth—or some reasonable version of it—in the multiplex of illusions that surrounds humans. It can be sought in ways that are realistic, absurd and every way in between. Two of the most famous literary characters who go astray in their efforts to find out what’s really happening are Othello and Hamlet. “Of a free and open nature,” Othello is naïve enough that he can “as tenderly be led by th’ nose/ As asses are” by Iago. Young Prince Hamlet is so vividly aware of the mendacity in his world that he becomes an eloquent metaphysical seeker but scarcely able to act. Most of the other characters at the Castle of Elsinore are just as lost in its haze of dissemblance, making Hamlet’s father’s ghost, though vengeful and obsessed, one of the clearest voices there. Melville’s Moby Dick is another epic tragedy of deception and of human beings becoming enrolled in an insane, destructive quest—in this case the crew members of “the rushing Pequod” bending to the will of the megalomaniacal and bitter Captain Ahab and “plunging into that blackness of darkness” to eradicate the imagined evil that he projects onto the blank screen of the white whale’s forehead.
In this issue’s story “An Alcoholic’s Guide to Peru and Chile,” Rick Bass’s unemployed logger tries desperately to evade the results of bad luck and bad choices. Recently injured and unable to find a job, with a wife who’s left him, he decides to have one last good experience with his two nearly grown daughters by taking them on a trip to South America. With a logger’s bravado, he has always managed before but now is brought to a crisis that he will have to face if he’s going to survive. “A Visit” by Kevin Wilson tells the story of Missy, a working mother who’s about to reach a moment of reckoning as definitive as Bass’s logger’s. She lives in Atlanta but makes a visit to her hometown of Slidell, Louisiana, where her mother’s house has been broken into and her mother assaulted and robbed. The trip becomes a catalyst for Missy to admit and acknowledge the limitations of her life, as well as her own self-delusions. She goes from a less than idyllic dalliance with the unlikeliest of men to fantasizing about how to escape from her own choices.
Faith Shearin’s “Transformations” is an evocative look at the ways children learn about their parents and at how homes and the people who have lived in them are mythologized. The parents of two daughters are forever restless about where they live and have developed the habit of looking at real estate. The daughters observe the mother, and both share in her curiosity, especially about one house that is the source of a local myth. Shearin wonders about the origin of such myths, and in this case whether they might partly arise from the things that children sense but don’t fully understand about their own parents. Fred Leebron’s “The Youth of North America” is also about youth and age, this time from the point of view of an older man who for many years has been the leader of workshops abroad. This trip is to Barcelona, a city he knows quite well. His experience distances him from the younger people in the group, and one night he goes out drinking with two of them, only to discover the fallacy in his illusion of control and seasoned invulnerability.
“The Salted Leg” by Gary Lee Miller is a tale about a young Union soldier, Joshua Clantz, who fought in the Army of the Potomac with his friend and comrade Private Orland MacDonald. They “battled and blundered through the whole gory spectacle, killing and cowering, chawing woody chunks of biscuit and rotten beef, burying bloated heaps of the dead and marching awake and asleep. “ They are taunted by the older men in the regiment, which only serves to unite them in a pact: “if one died in battle, the other would carry a last letter home to the dead man’s loved ones.” Orland is shot and, in his dying wish, asks his friend to carry his leg back to his fiancée at her parents’ home in Vermont. What follows is an extravagant and also oddly realistic romance of a war-weary man who leaves a world of extremity and sudden death to face the trivial deceptions, prejudices, and vanity of civilian life.
The poems in this issue by Jeffrey Bean speak of the myriad worldly things that a little child sees—rail tracks, maples blazing in October, the first rain of November. By pointing at and naming them, the father-poet discovers with renewed wonderment the inexhaustible details of the world along with his child. Sandra Gilbert’s poems look at paintings that depict culinary scenes—Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Steen’s Girl Eating Oysters, Grandma Moses’ Thanksgiving Scene, and Rivera’s Tortilla Maker—and see what’s not readily visible on the surface. Through her gaze, eating becomes far more than a neutral activity of everyday living; it’s also a setting where intricate human relationships are played out. David Lee’s two narrative poems are funny and replete with the craziness of real life. In “Globe Mallow,” a place of wild flowers that strike many as extraordinarily beautiful is quite lost on a man who is more interested in dollars. In “Etymology/Diction,” a small town librarian lets a self-deceiving politician know her view of him by means of a rather harsh etymology lesson.
John Nelson’s essay “I Saw What I Saw: Witnesses to Birds and Crimes” describes from firsthand experience the tendency of birders, including himself, to misreport and misidentify birds even though they’ve observed them, taken notes on field markings and compared them with known information about birds’ habitats and behaviors. Nelson tells engaging stories of bird misidentifications, some intentional but most not, drawing an analogy between birders’ unreliability and that of witness testimony in criminal trials. Eyewitness testimony was the gold standard in evidence until the advent of DNA evidence—which in recent years has famously overturned convictions based on supposedly solid witnesses. Whether with bird identity or criminal witness, our preconceptions and imaginations can prevent us from accurately seeing. Dawn Davies’ pensively comic essay “King of the World” is also partly about birds—as well as pet hamsters and rats and other small creatures—which her family’s Cairn terrier Rocky manages to kill over his long and natural lifetime. Despite the elaborate safety systems set up to protect these little creatures, Rocky is so proficient at killing them that he sometimes seems to possess magic powers.
The subject of Kristine Somerville’s visual feature is a tribute to the New York photographer Weegee. Born in Austrian Galicia (now Ukraine), immigrant Arthur Fellig wanted to get as far from his humble beginnings as he could. He succeeded through the creation of a working persona, Weegee, a tough, street-scene photographer. With his porkpie hat and ever-present cigar he took tabloid crime and human-interest photos. During much of his career, Weegee hardly thought of himself as an artist but increasingly became one, as he caught his fellow New Yorkers in intimate, unguarded moments. This issue’s Curio Cabinet, “Jean Cocteau: Master of Disguise,” offers up rare pastel drawings from an artist who spent much of his early career working to cover his shyness by becoming a public extrovert and one of the most graceful and charming talkers in France. Much about Cocteau’s art was in fact an act of concealment. He would become both “the most unknown and the most famous poet,” with an immensely varied oeuvre that included novels, essays, ballets, plays, films and drawings. Despite his acclaim in several different media—including film, with his classic Beauty and the Beast—Cocteau was a private loner whose fame is as much tied to the legend of the man as to any single achievement from his over-60-year career.
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