Foreword | January 06, 2012

It doesn’t take a genius to point out how weird life can be or, to put it more clearly, how proximate the zones of the normal and the strange can be at almost any moment in our lives. The strange is just an instant or a membrane away, as this issue’s authors point out.

In the fiction, the propinquity of the weird shows in contradictions and mysteries within the characters themselves. For example, in Mia Alvar’s “The Miracle Worker,” a Filipino worker’s wife in Bahrain, Sally, runs up against the delusions of her employer. Sally is hired to educate and rehabilitate a severely retarded and disabled girl. The girl’s extremely rich mother is so used to buying solutions with her wealth that she can’t conceive of her generous salary and lavish gifts as not working to solve all of the child’s problems, a delusion powerful enough that it causes Sally herself to undergo an odd set of changes. Luke Mogelson’s “The Caretaker” describes Tom Phillip, a hired hand on a farm, who is admirable and courageous and at the same time something more ominous. The story’s mystery resides in his paradoxical character and in the grisly death of the man who hired him. The farmer’s widow keeps Tom employed, assigning him the job of dealing with bear poachers on her property. Tom at first seems to approach them too uncertainly, but soon his darker side makes itself known.

“Wildflowers of the Western Chaparral” by Christa Fraser concerns a retired teacher and illustrator of wildflowers, Mr. Lohnert, a single man whose wife left him years ago. He befriends two children of a neighbor, a promising former student who dropped out of school early and resents Lohnert because she ignored his encouragement. When the two children go missing, he is the primary suspect because of the seeming oddness of his being a single man who is nice to children. As events unfold, we wonder whether we are discovering the strange psyche of a madman or innocence victimized by anger and stereotype.

In “Race,” Kent Nelson’s protagonist, Hakim, is a divorced, middle-aged glassblower in Colorado. His teenage daughter lives at a distance with her mother.  He wishes for more connection with her yet knows that being a father is something he’ll never be very good at. He lives with a temporary housemate and employs another young woman in his glassworks, hovering on the brink of forming more substantial connections with either or both of them. Hakim is a runner, and the weirdness in the tale emerges after his physical “death” during a race. Rescuers happen by and give him lifesaving CPR, and he is eventually revived, yet with an altered perspective, haunted by the strangeness of his experience and the scary proximity of death and life.

The nonfiction in this issue includes Beth Cranwell Aplin’s “Strange Comfort,” which narrates the author’s struggle with her young daughter’s chronic illness. During an acupuncture session, Aplin has a series of peculiar experiences that lead her to a psychic healer, Amma. Following their meeting, she experiences a change in perspective that leaves her better able to deal with the practical challenges of a sick daughter. Thomas Swick’s “My Days with the Antimafia” describes his trip to Sicily to research the antimafia organization Addiopizzo. Swick learns how the criminal can become so fully established that to fight it is not only dangerous but nearly impossible. Yet somehow a grass-roots movement emerges that is trying to battle Mafia control in Sicily. The oddity here is that an organization like the Mafia can so completely dominate and terrorize a culture.

This issue’s interview is with British writer of weird fiction, China Miéville. Miéville takes on the idea of genre fiction as being utterly distinct from literary fiction. He argues that while speculative fiction can be in some ways less rigorous than realistic fiction, it can also be more far-reaching in its ideas. Jason Koo’s review essay takes as its subject contemporary poets who are “weird” because it’s simply how their minds work. He explains, “The weirdness of poets like Dorothea Lasky, Arda Collins and Jason Bredle consists of a hyper-interiority that provides access to the ‘bliss’ of more authentic being, an uncanny perceptual awareness of the self in the world. This awareness is what separates their poems from nonsense poems or those whose weirdness arises out of an unconscious, irrational space.”

Poets in this issue include Richie Hofmann, whose work has the uncanny ability to make the natural world strange again. His luminal seashores are charged with desire, a bodiless embodiment “. . . sliding through mire,/forever pulling water, sediment, wasted things to the mouth.”  His pulsing lines marry tidal and emotional rhythms in an urge “to be re-made.” In our excerpts from Thomas Heise’s “Moth; or how I came to be with you again,” a solitary narrator dislocates us between worlds, “without a map.” Powered by loss and made additionally strange by their form, his sentences elaborate like a “seam in Barthes’ stocking,” a kind of porous echo-chamber or cable feed, containing memories, metropolises, fjords and ephemera, by turns frenetic and austere.

Monica Ferrel’s poems are strangely populated with a private planet, a fetus preserved in a jar and a newlywed couple’s already “eroding island.” Each reminds us that finally “there is a rim, an end to everything.” Like the weird sisters themselves, they withhold from us “some key thing,” some stopped expression, “[a] door through which possibility/never walked.”

Kristine Somerville’s feature on Sarah Bernhardt gives us a look into the life of the world’s first superstar. There is surprisingly little known about the facts of her early life (Robert Gottlieb’s recent biography of Bernhardt is packed with questions and uncertainty). Certain things are well documented, however, including the fact that Bernhardt rose from being the daughter and niece of courtesans. She somehow managed to become a great actress, despite early and repeated critical failures at three separate theaters in Paris. Her early career was a textbook example of will and tenacity in the face of adversity and outright rejection. Bernhardt’s vulnerability and charm were finally noticed when she played the secondary role of Cordelia in King Lear, from which point she rose, with sheer energy and force of effort, to become the greatest actress in the world. Somerville’s feature includes a variety of publicity shots, artwork, and private photos from the Harry Ransom Center collection.

Speer Morgan

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