Too Late for the Summer of Love

The guy behind the wheel was really drunk, and getting drunker by the minute, which was probably the only reason he’d stopped to give me a ride in the first place.  Against his better judgment, he told me over and over again, hitchhikers always in his experience lowlifes and losers.  He leaned into the steering wheel, squinting through the windshield as he steered us unsteadily between honking onrushing traffic and the road’s meager shoulder on the right: the two feet of loose gravel that separated us from a long fatal fall straight into the Pacific Ocean.

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The New Louise

On the first morning her husband was away at a conference Upstate, Louise Lampert sat up in bed, strangely awake and aware. On summer mornings like this one, she generally rolled over and struggled back to sleep, finally rising, half in dread, by ten or eleven, but today the city beckoned, and the sun streamed optimistically across her peach area rug. Walking toward the bathroom, she noticed her feet: they were narrower than usual, and paler. No bunions or visible veins, and her toenails were the palest shell pink. Normally, when Louise bothered to paint her toenails, she picked bright scarlet to warm up the sallow undertones in her skin.

She had someone else’s polish on her feet.

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A bald eagle has claimed the same low-hanging branch fifteen feet from the cabin for three consecutive mornings. I’ve begun to think of it as my totem animal, though generally I don’t believe in that kind of thing. You’d imagine the nation’s emblem would have a majestic, full-throated cry, but that’s not the case. It’s definitely a high-pitched chirping. The eagle sits hunched, his body motionless for the better part of an hour, his head pivoting like a lawn sprinkler, tracing the paths of seagulls loitering on Long Pond. The gulls dunk their heads and slap their wings against the water’s surface; it sounds like applause. The eagle reminds me of a big, muscular chocolate Lab perched in a tree. His stillness and patience are unnerving.

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The Only Place the Blood Goes

It is the afternoon before Thanksgiving when my mom asks me to take my brother to the college. Corlyss’s usual aide, a large thick-accented woman who sits through class with my brother and his wheelchair and his service dog, has, like me, gone home for the holiday. Every aide in the world has gone home for the holiday; the agency cannot send another. We are in the kitchen, my mom and my brother and his dog and I. My mom is marinating the chicken. We used to have turkey like normal people, but my mom saw a scare special. Something about spine-weakening toxins. What are these toxins that have holed up in turkeys but not in chickens? No one can say. But our family cannot afford any further spine weakening.

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The Cure for What Ails You

The sex with Rob was candlelit and amiable, but for Yvette the coupling fell flat. She did not blame Rob. He perused her body earnestly, made love to her earlobes and elbows. He was not one of those guys who rushed through the proceedings. She recalled less nuanced encounters—the maulings she’d endured in her quest to get over Dixon—and she appreciated Rob’s genuine ardor. But she could muster little of it herself and at the first opportunity drifted off to sleep.

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A Shapeless Thief

My mother knows the earth’s surface is composed of tectonic plates, and that these plates move hundreds of miles with ease. They arrange and rearrange themselves, very quickly sometimes, creating natural phenomena when they shift. There is one place, the Shear, where the plates have fallen away, leaving a bare, scraped expanse extending for hundreds of miles. In another place, near Monterey, California, a plate dropping into the ocean has created a series of horizontal shelves at the continent’s underwater edge. On one of these, she says, a city thrives beneath the waves.

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Fast Living

In his book Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm points out that autonomy can be hollow when it is without a meaningful goal. Even when one does exercise free choice with a purpose in mind, there can be no guarantee of accomplishment. The barrenness of independence without intention is at least as apparent now as it was when Fromm’s book came out in 1941 in a world riven by the most destructive war in history.

The uncertainty of freedom runs through our literature from the late nineteenth century to the present. When Huck Finn decides to tear up his letter to Miss Watson that would deliver Jim back into slavery, he makes his famous pained decision, “‘All right, then, I’ll GO to hell.’” The irony of this moment is less that Huck accepts damnation for not sending his friend into slavery than that it has become one of the most cheerfully definitive moments in American fiction. True freedom of choice is not easy in a topsy-turvy moral environment, yet just maybe—somehow—we are better for it.

American realists like Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser took a hard look at morality in the excess and madness of materialism that dominated our nation at the beginning of the twentieth century. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby shows greed gone to an extreme in the 1920s, as his fast-living characters follow meaningless desires that are all lost in the end. The classics of American fiction include several Gatsbyesque characters, extreme antiheroes living in worlds tinged by dreams and delusions yet also questing for meaning. They include existential seekers like Captain Ahab of Moby Dick, Yossarian of Catch 22, Tyrone Slothrop of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, or the female seekers in the fantasy Western landscape of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Even novelist Annie Proulx’s gritty, hyper-real characters shade into mythical seekers as they pick through the confusion of change, immured in place and past.

This issue contains its share of the delusions of fast living and the pursuit of meaning or purpose. In his essay “Too Late for the Summer of Love,” John Hales writes about his attempt, after graduating from high school, to become a rebel by hitchhiking from his home in Utah to San Francisco. “Who I wanted to be was the person who would have said, three years earlier, ‘Fuck it, it’s 1967, the Summer of Love,’” Hales writes; yet the young man discovers that he’s too uptight—or sensible—to embrace the bohemian idyll. In her essay “A Shapeless Thief,” Marin Sardy depicts her mother’s undiagnosed schizophrenia, which impels her to move from place to place, seeking peace of mind. The mother’s volatility and delusions might make her appear on the surface to be open and liberated, while in fact paranoia holds her in the grip of obsessions. “Our conversations are riddled with these inexplicable refusals—obstinate positions she won’t relinquish and won’t, or can’t, explain. They emerge from nowhere and stick like cement,” writes Sardy. The essay takes a deeply empathetic view while also showing how limiting and inhibiting mental illness can be.

Sharon Pomerantz’s “The New Louise” is a fable concerning a pear-shaped, overweight, middle-aged woman who wakes up one morning to discover that she has become a young, creamy-skinned slender blonde of fashion-model height. The transformation allows her to indulge in behavior that she never could in the past: expensive clothes, flirting and manipulation, along with an extramarital affair. When Louise finds out that there are others like her, transformed into flawless “new” versions, she also begins to learn that this new, easy, illusory perfection is replete with pitfalls.

Ben Hoffman’s “The Only Place the Blood Goes” is another story about the ironies of freedom, yet looked at from the other end of the spectrum. It is told by the older sister of a twenty-something-year-old man with a fatal degenerative disease that makes him wheelchair bound. His sister is congenitally promiscuous—addicted to her freedom but at this juncture trying to put a lid on the wild living. What she learns when she takes her brother to his college class followed by a party is that perhaps there are more important things in her immediate life than the newfound urge to reign in her behavior. Amanda Harris’s story “Isle Au Haut” is told by Ashley, who has come back to her mother’s home on an island off the coast of Maine after her husband was killed in 9/11. Of late, Ashley has been having affairs with two local men, a recklessness that she eventually realizes must be stopped. In “The Cure for What Ails You,” Carol Ghiglieri’s character Yvette attempts to cure her melancholy after a boyfriend dumps her by taking on a friend with benefits, as well as trying some mysterious Chinese “happy pills”—with mixed but oddly enlightening results.

The poems in this issue all concern the simple enigmas and difficulties of freedom—of finding it and making it meaningful. Andrew Grace’s poems, set on the American prairie, speak in the voice of Said Gun, an elderly Midwesterner with a criminal past. Thoroughly unrestrained by manners or conventional morality, he shares his visions and contemplation of the Midwest’s landscape in all of its ugliness, beauty and sublimity. Diane Seuss’ ekphrastic poems take us beyond the visual surface of the still life paintings they’re based upon, giving her characters—“the hungry, the unclothed, the wounded, the raped, the runaway, the rural,” as Seuss describes them, desires and hopes unfettered by reality. Valerie Nieman’s lyrics are from her novel-in-verse, The Leopard Lady Speaks. It tells the story of a biracial orphan born in Depression-era Appalachia and raised in servitude until she finds a life on the road with a carnival. The two speakers in the poems, the Leopard Lady and the Professor, ponder the autonomy—or lack of it—of disabled figures such as themselves, and how much control one has over life when one “was already stole.”

This issue’s Curio Cabinet offers up Ulysses illustrations from the founding father of British Pop Art, Richard Hamilton. In 1947, while doing National Service with the Royal Engineers, Hamilton became a Joyce fan after reading the Irishman’s iconic Modernist novel. He made preliminary sketches of key scenes and characters, ranging from two flirty barmaids to Bloom lying in the bathtub. Hamilton struggled on and off with this project for six decades. An exhibit finally opened in 2002 at the British Museum in celebration of the eightieth birthday of both the artist and the novel.

Kristine Somerville’s visual feature, “Enemy of Men: The Vamps, Ice Princesses and Flappers of the Silent Screen,” presents rare photographs from the George Eastman House and the Library of Congress of actresses Asta Nielsen, Theda Bara, Pola Negri, Brigitte Helm and Colleen Moore. Somerville looks at their careers for ways in which on-screen performances helped redefine social roles for women. While film was developing as an art, the New Woman was carving out intellectual attainments and economic independence as well as sexual equality with men. This disruption in gender roles found expression in cinema in the form of the vamp, ice princess and flapper—fast-living personae that these actresses perfected and then rejected in pursuit of more diverse, challenging characters. Still, these images of dangerous femininity offered up enduring cinematic archetypes of the uninhibited femme fatale.

Speer Morgan




Poetry Feature: Diane Seuss

Featuring the poems:

  • Still-Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl (after Rembrandt)
  • Still Life after Antonio de Pereda’s The Knight’s Dream
  • Still Life after Juan Sánchez Cotán’s Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber
  • Still Life after Pieter Claesz’s Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball
  • The Last Still Life, after Peter Paul Rubens’ The Head of Medusa

Poetry Feature: Andrew Grace

Featuring the poems:

  • The Collected Poems of Said Gun
  • Said Gun’s Chores
  • Said Gun Considers His Landscape
  • Said Gun Considers the Shrike
  • Said Gun on His Deathbed

Poetry Feature: Valerie Nieman

Featuring six poems from The Leopard Lady Speaks: A Novel in Verse:

  • How I Was a Jig
  • Blue Baby: The Professor Tells His Scar
  • The Professor Lists Her Begats
  • The Ballyhoo
  • The Leopard Lady Tells Her Spots
  • I Could Take as Omens