Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Even in Paradise/You Have to Pay Attention": Review of "House Under the Moon"


This review originally appeared in 15 Bytes Magazine in December. "House Under the Moon" was a finalist for the 2013 15 Bytes Book Awards in poetry. I liked this book partly because I've met Michael personally in Logan where he and his family live, and partly because he's a practitioner of Buddhist meditation, something I've been dabbling in for a couple of years. "Dabbling" is perhaps the wrong word for it. It's become a discipline for me, this Zen thing, and one that I would recommend. My introduction to meditation was through the writings of Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh whose mindfulness work seems to have penetrated the West to reach many. like me, who have never had an entree into Eastern thought and spirituality. Not sure when I can call myself a "Buddhist," if ever, but I have to say that of late mindfulness/meditation has been transformative for me. And this book of poems sort of helped me understand that, calling yourself this or that, Buddhist or not, is the least important thing to worry about.




In his 2012 collection House Under the Moon, it’s clear that poet Michael Sowder has suffered for his art, as spiritual seekers do. The first section (“Homecoming”) starts with a kind of post mortem of the life previous—another marriage, a father whose marginalia in a book sends the mind reeling in memory and loss, perhaps old systems of thinking, feeling and believing. The direction is linear, forward in direction, away from something and home to a new hearth that in the second half (titled “Housekeeping”) becomes eastern, circular and curiously joyful.


This book circles back on itself, devouring its own tail, elevating the reader through language and image, literary/mythological/religious references and the personal to arrive at a proposed existence in which “only dancing/will make sense,/breathing Her breath,/His, until you find yourself/looking out the irises/of every stranger’s eyes.”

Sowder’s work here is also intensely domestic, many of his poems about raising, as a mature man, two young sons who, are, variously, talismans, mirrors to the poet’s internal landscape, and the embodiment of both God and the universe. In “December, Hiking with Aidan, Eight Months Old,” fathering is a practice

…but not much
noble silence. Instead, I attend to
fist-clenched panics and moon-mouthed
emergencies.

And in “Hiking at Oselong, Tebetan Buddhist Monastery of Andalucia,” again with his son, he is quick to exult, “It’s like we’re in the Home of the Immortals./The Pure Land of the Bodhisattvas!” but then doesn’t hesitate to tell us, after he trips and the two of them somersault down into a critical heap, that “Even in paradise,/you have to pay attention.” And yet even crumpled together in what could have been a disaster, this fright makes electric life and the world: “True north everywhere.”

The squalls and temper tantrums, the doubts and the dangers of keeping house—keeping life—resolve again and again to the poet’s corrective to let go, to breathe, to…dance. And it’s both exhilarating and, occasionally, a little too self-centered. But in the end, this is if far from a celeb’s “how-I-am-glorious-me” tome. For one thing the language is always fresh—even revelatory– even if the references to rishis of the Veda, Simone Weil and esoteric books on eastern religion start to pile up.

The form and tempo of these poems vary from a vertical, mostly one-word line shape poem (“Into darkness”) to the arresting “Note to Self” whose lists accelerate in the head like the voice of a slam poet:
Only when you take the job of janitor, your name
Scrawled in an unknown tongue above the door
Of a room in Her temple of the dawn
Will you ever redeem your forfeit life.

Together the poems often articulate recurring themes–that the poet (and presumably to whom he speaks) must arrive at “…the country/where what is inside me/can be born inside You…” and “…to learn/to break a fall by letting go/of what you want.” And yet these themes, all tributaries to becoming one with God and the universe, thread through varied contexts: means of suicide (“Checking Out”), re-birth and love (“Ever Since,” “When I First Pulled Onto the Highway of Love”), marital conflict (“When You leave my house”), even a prayer (“Aidan Looks at the Moon”).
And, at the book’s end, looking backwards, the effects have been sublimity, delight. It has been a recounting of how we somehow emerge from old life that has been painful and dark, confusing and self-destructive. The trouble that the poet has experienced, including, at one point, a kind of perverse penance he alludes to in an earlier life passage, seems to burnish him, propel him forward, bleed new life and new light.

In the 7-part “Delicate,” one of the more memorable poems of a categorically memorable book, the verse moves from macro to micro and back, beginning at the speaker’s son’s blue eyes above the mustache from mother’s milk, to the “just weightless architecture” of the vaulted night sky to a wife and mother lying injured on the side of the road to the brutal wildness of orphaned fawns “crying in ferns by the trail./Spotted, tiny, crying out./To us?/To the world?” to the emergency medical technician with a blanket to the next morning with boys “drink[ing] milk and honey from sippy cups” to…well, to all of it, converging as it only can in good poetry:

Our boys’ voices, the warmth
of our bodies, a house finch’s song, Jennifer
opening the door, her beauty,
fragility, all held lightly, none of it
ours, cared for, vanishing.

#


House Under the Moon
by Michael Sowder
Truman State University Press
(2012) 85 pages
Photo by Niki Baldwin
Photo by Niki Baldwin

Michael Sowder is a poet, writer, and professor at Utah State University in Logan where he lives at the foot of the Bear River Mountains with his wife, writer Jennifer Sinor, and their boys, Aidan and Kellen. His first book of poetry, The Empty Boat, won the 2004 T.S. Eliot Award and his chapbook, A Calendar of Crows, won the New Michigan Press Award. His nonfiction, which explores themes of wilderness, poetrics , and spirituality, appears in Shambhala Sun, The Wasatch Journal, and several essay collections.

Raised in an Irish Catholic family, Michael Sowder was trained as a meditation teacher in a tantric yoga tradition in the 1970s and subsequently practiced meditation in Buddhist and Christian mystical traditions. He is the founder of the Amrita Sangha for Integral Spirituality, an organization that explores and teaches the practices of the world’s contemplative traditions.

Barbara K. Richardson’s Tributary, Winner of the 15 Bytes Book Award, 2013


5280-TRIB-cover-shot
In the fall of 2013 the winners of the first annual 15 Bytes Book Awards were announced. As the literary editor of this online arts magazine, I had the privilege of working with other magazine staff and the editor, Shawn Rossiter, to determine all the particulars of launching a new statewide program of this type. In part, the 15 Bytes Book Awards was in response to the fact that the Utah Book Award went on hiatus. (Whether it returns is still in question.) But, being an art magazine for adults, we decided to limit the categories to literary fiction, poetry and art books. This seemed enough for the first year. At the moment we are engaged in the second iteration of what we hope we become an annual affair perhaps someday expanding its categories to include narrative nonfiction.

The winner of last year's fiction award was Barbara Richardson's Tributary, a novel set in the 19th Century. I had the privilege of writing the review/citation for this extraordinary book which, coincidentally, falls within my own long-term interest in Mormon letters. I found this book not only worthy of a 15 Bytes book award, but also worthy of note for those within the admittedly small but rather obsessed cadre of "Mo-lit" enthusiasts--a group to which I often feel ambivalent toward, even though my own forays into writing suffer (or benefit) from my seeing Mormonly. (With apologies to Emily Dickinson's phrase to describe her own poetry as "seeing New Englandly.")

I fear still, and perhaps always will, as I express below in the review, that Mormon literature, such as it was, is and might in the near future become, will fail to find an audience. One thing is certain: no one is in charge of this train--not the institutional church, not its dissidents, apostates and true believers either within our without the academy, and not its rank-and-file. There are broader, indiscriminate and enigmatic forces blowing through the attempts of not only Mormon writers but every writer right now...not only technological but social forces (both of which continue to profoundly inform each other).

In the end, serious writers of every stripe can only do what serious writers have always done and what they've always been called to do: write and write well. Perhaps writing well is like loving well. It is its own reward. 

*

Review of Barbara K. Richardson's Tributary

Remarkable as Barbara K. Richardson’s novel Tributary is, it is most remarkable, perhaps, because it seems to be one of the first literary works in memory that positions the history of the Great Basin in the broader context of its time. Set in the years following the arrival of the Mormons to Utah, this sprawling tale told in the first person dignifies the region, if rarely the “saints” who people it, with the weight of its narrative. Here the territory is not just a placeholder in the story of the west—or in modern parlance, a “flyover state.” Its heroine, plucky Clair Martin—the woman with the red stain of a birthmark on her left check—is its product, and its curse, its orphan and its lay prophetess. Clair is a proto-feminist—not entirely likable—and, lucky for the reader, stained with much more than just the splotch on her face.

Of the many questions this Western epic raises in the course of its scene-shifting from Brigham City to the Mississippi Delta and back to the Utah/Idaho border is, what happened to those 19th Century Mormons who left their tribe?

Not since Frank C. Robertson’s gritty biography of a homesteading family titled A Ram in the Thicket has the story of this lost generation of the American West been visited so grippingly. Clair is fiercely independent, not willing to marry, though willing to love, not only her beloved Tierre— the nine-year-old black orphan from Louisiana who ends up returning to the high mountain desert with Clair—but a scheming sheepherder whom she beds. Clair is the first to say that she holds a grudge against the Mormons who raised her, trammeled her spirit, attempted to marry her off as a plural wife, and, finally,  looked the other way when one of them tried to rape her. And yet still she resonates, as humans tend to do, with the civilizing force of her youth even as she relentlessly critiques it, resists it and stubbornly makes it somehow her own.

Only “the continuous body of earth,” the landscape seems to give Clair sustained solace from psychic injuries that alternately torture and beguile her, that and the authenticity and spirituality of the Bannock and Shoshone, equally “marked” in her view as is Tierre (who eventually marries a Shoshone)—equally set apart with the “mark of Cain,” as is she.

The “white and delightsome” race of the righteous, a Book of Mormon phrase that has only recently been excised from scripture by apologists, sticks in her craw throughout this lyrical outing. And yet as with those who will follow her—outsiders of every stripe from what can seem like a hermetically-sealed and ideologically-driven community—Clair forms her family from those who, like her, have been “marked.” And the character of that nascent family, first in New Orleans but especially later near the River Raft Mountains in what is now Box Elder County, is a character yet to be fully formed and fully validated. (Might there be a sequel?)

Still, as with another Western spiritualist and mystic lover of the land—Terry Tempest Williams—Clair is too smart and too resilient to dismiss out-of-hand the clay from which she has been formed. Despite this novel’s ending with Clair’s initiation into Native ritual, I don’t believe Clair (or Richardson) is capitulating to the self-righteous rose water wash some insist—mostly Anglos—on splashing Native American culture. Nor is there a capitulation to bald pantheism. These don’t seem to be the answers to Clair’s dilemma based in longing for both independence and community. The beauty and rigor of Tributary stem from a tension, what author Levi Peterson referred to as “a fierce, grieving thing,” that rises uniquely in the people Clair can’t quite claim as her own any longer (if she ever could), but to whom she can never look away.

One of several books published by the new Torrey House Press, Tributary seems to have been largely overlooked by critics and the public since its publication last year. (The exception being, of course, that it was a finalist for the Willa Literary Award, named in honor of Willa Cather.) Is there a market for this stunning novel with the admittedly antique—sometimes arch–diction, 20-plus years in the making?

Perhaps not. Why?

For the devout the book isn’t certain enough in its moral (read: Mormon) purpose.

For the modern-day LDS apostate, it doesn’t burn the beast far enough to the ground.

For the “Latter-day Sometimes Saint” (to quote a poem by Carolyn Campbell), it’s offensive because it’s not a critique borne out of his or her own idiosyncratic complaints.

And for the outside observer living here in the gumbo of this self-described “peculiar people” with their lively but checkered history…will they also ignore Tributary under the old pretense that it is artistically inferior or worse, provincial? Bigotry not only knows no skin color; it knows no religion. And that, dear reader, is the cultural conundrum quite specific to where we live.

Perhaps only Clair Martin, the magisterial outsider/insider with the stained left cheek, could narrate a penetrating expose of just that. She’s already done a pretty brilliant job of getting the lay of this enigmatic land that is as much about an idea and its proliferating but largely reactionary counter-ideas as it is about rock and juniper, alkaline flats and big sky.
————————-
Tributary by Barbara K. Richardson
Torrey House Press (September 2012)
352 pages
$15.95

About the Author
Barbara Richardson’s debut novel, Guest House, launched the first literary Truck Stop Tour in the nation and was a fiction finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award in 2010. In Tributary, she claims the land of her Mormon ancestors who settled the northern Salt Lake Valley. Richardson earned an MFA in poetry from Eastern Washington University. Barbara is also an avid environmentalist. She now writes and designs landscapes in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies. Visit the author’s website: www.barbarakrichardson.com

Poetry Book Review: Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise


[This review was first posted in 15 Bytes Magazine October 2013]

In poet Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s debut collection But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise (Red Hen Press, 2012), the diction is daring, the voice muscular. In “Why I Want To Be A Tow Truck Driver,” she writes,

See the snowclouds
thrusting over the range
like a cough,
a hard-packed fist? This is how
I come. Free of disguise.
Because life is hard but also crisp and literary…

In “Circles in the Sky” the throat is “my throat zone/ of avoidance buffaloing the sky above…” and crossing one of the Dakotas by automobile becomes a cosmic trip “the way cross/country/has always/been/lugnnutted/ to a wheel carto-/graphic”.

It’s rare to read poetry that is this experiential, visceral and somehow transcendent at the same time. In three sections Bertram runs her electric fingers as if over the braille of American life  as varied as wildlife (coyotes, elk), the natural sciences (inter-galactic formulas, weather patterns—in both a glass globe as well as “the model solar system, [in which] planets suspend & twirl/as if from a spider’s whirl.”), as varied as “blankets sewn/with thinning economic plans and called them/shawls…” as well as the body, including in one of the more memorable poems, the laboratory heart sans blood:

[…]
Bisect the heart.
Hold each half in hand as a common coconut.
Bang it together.
Rhythm of your own choosing.

These are poems that have an urgency and lust for language, poems that feel like they’re vibrating at high speed over rumble strips on the side of the highway—poems about to go off-road. Some of them actually do, regrettably, heady innovation turned to gimmick and mimicry. (Her “Hinterland Ham Radio Signals” comes to mind.) But this is a prodigious talent to sit up and take notice of and over-reaching of this forgivable kind is inevitable.

Not only is Bertram’s language here fresh, nuanced, full of hard light but the content is expansive. Titles of the poems give you a hint of that landscape, literal as in “Giclee Self-Portrait With Mount Rushmore” to the figurative as in “Rex Mundi, or, Watching My Father Paint What He Knows of the Horizon.” References to and “glosses” on the work of other poets and writers as well as to the singer-songwriter Josh Ritter abound.

But always the images return to the concrete, blood-engorged and, at times, to the realm of social (in)justice “a car full of boys yells/nigger piglet at the girl walking home/from the late shift at taco bell….” And yet even in this poem, titled “Moon Illusion Ecologue” the harsh racism, violence–even the portentous presence of cops “in the unlit corner//of a parking lot”–the poem has a pastoral loveliness to it that belies its content: “…everything we see goldens//before we die—a perfect picture: someone’s mother,/someone’s daughter, a ruddy moon/tacked above a building necked with vines….”

Bertram is full of contradictions and confessions in But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise. The effect it has on the reader is to crane the neck for the next gem underscored as it is by the poet’s uncanny ability simultaneously to expand galactic-ally while collapsing in on neurons, the American prairie, the four chambers of an antiseptic heart.
A storm indeed.

*
Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise (selected by Claudia Rankine as winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award) is a finalist for the 2013 15 Bytes Book Award in Poetry. An Assistant Editor at Quarterly West, and a Vice-Presidential Fellow at the University of Utah, Bertram has had work appear in Black Warrior Review, Callaloo, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, Narrative magazine, Subtropics, and other journals. This is her first book.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Dawn & Mary by Brian Doyle



Last month at the Orem [Utah] Public Library, author Brian Doyle gave a reading as part of the Utah Humanities Book Festival. Below is a short essay he handed out to everyone in the audience and asked that we post on this day commemorating the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Connecticut. This reflection by a memorable and gifted author is how he thinks we should remember, one year later, what happened. I think he might be right. 


DAWN and  MARY

Early one morning several teachers and staffers at a grade school are in a meeting. The meeting goes for about five minutes when the teachers and the staffers hear a chilling sound in the hallway. We heard pop pop pop, said one of the staffers later.

Most of the teachers and the staffers dove under the table. That is the reasonable thing to do and that is what they were trained to do and that is what they did. 

But two of the staffers jumped, or leapt, or lunged out of their chairs, and ran toward the bullets. Jumped or leapt or lunged--which word you use depends on which news account of that morning you read. But the words all point in the same direction--toward the bullets.

One of the staffers was the principal. Her name was Dawn. She had two daughters. her husband had proposed to her five times before she said yes and finally she said yes and they had been married for ten years. They had a cabin on a lake. She liked to get down on her knees to work with the littlest kids in her school. 

The other staff was named Mary. She had two daughters. She was a crazy football fan. She had been married for thirty years. They had a cabin on a lake. She loved to go to the theater. She was going to retire in one year. She liked to get down on her knees to work in her garden. 

The principal told the teachers and the staffers to lock the door behind her and the other staffer and the teachers and the staffers did that. Then Dawn and Mary ran out into the hall. 

You and I have been in that hallway. You and I spent years in that hallway. It's friendly and echoing and when someone opens the doors at the end of the hallway a wind comes and flutters through all the kids' paintings and posters on the tile walls. Some of the tiles are clay self-portraits by kindergarten kids. Their sculptures were baked in a kiln and glued to the walls and every year there are more portraits, and pretty soon every tile on these walls will have a kid's face, and won't that be cool? 

The two women jumped, or leapt, or lunged, toward the bullets. Every fiber in their bodies, bodies descended from millions of years of bodies leaping away from danger, must have wanted to dive under the table. That's what you are supposd to do. That's what you are trained to do. that's how you live another day. That's how you stay alive to paint with the littlest kids and work in the garden and hug your daughters and drive off laughing to your cabin on the lake. 

But they leapt for the door, and the principal said lock the door after us, and they lunged right at the boy with the rifle. 

The next time someone says the word hero to you, you say this: There once were two women. One was named Dawn and the other was named Mary. They both had two daughters. They both loved to kneel down to care for small holy beings. They leapt out of their chairs and they ran right at the boy with the rifle, and if we ever forget their names, if we ever forget the wind in that hallway, if we ever forget what they did, if we ever forget how there is something in us beyond sense and reason that snarls at death and runs roaring at it to defend children, if we ever forget that all children are our children, then we are fools who allowed memory to be murdered too, and what good are we then? What good are we then?

#

Thank you, Brian Doyle.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Taking Care of Your Genetic Material: Review of MOTHERLUNGE




 ***
[This review originally appeared in the Sept. 2013 issue of 15 Bytes, Utah's Online Arts Magazine]

The phrase “taking care of your genetic material” first appears in Kirsten Scott’s smart debut novel Motherlunge through a father talking warningly to his son as the son begins to date seriously. But in the gynecological world of this novel where the female body is relentlessly inscribed with the bio-/medical terminology of a textbook, the “material” is a baby, the possibility of a baby and all that that means to the modern woman, in particular to the twenty-six-year-old narrator Thea.

Motherlunge is a full-frontal assault on every dappled, dimpled and doily-enhanced image we’ve had of both women and mothers. Think Sandy or Orem, Utah—scrubbed clean with culturally-defined markers of motherhood, riven with Victorian charms that are neither really Victorian or charming. Then think the opposite. That is Scott’s literary world. That the story is also hysterically funny even as it makes you squirm, is a tribute to the writing—an exquisite mix of the scalpel scraping along the physical curves of the female form and the cumulative, and ultimately sublime effects of pushing out another human onto a steel table:  scrape and plop.

Thea is the second daughter in a family of four from Montana. Mother Dorothy could never quite manage being a mom, taking to her bed soon after the birth of both her girls. Early on she’s headed towards psychiatric care. Husband Walter is helpless on the scene, eventually booted out to his own place next to the local library where he works and finds refuge. So far American Gothic all around, it would seem. Then there are the girls. First Pavia, seemingly confident, definitely likable and also driven. After marrying, she’s moved six or seven states away to a “big city” that sounds a lot like Boston where, upon getting pregnant, she immediately separates from her husband Jack. This is where Thea comes in. She makes the trip east, settles into the town house with her sister and the now half-orbiting, very confused brother-in-law and a Great Dane pup the size of the original Honda to await the arrival of Xavier or “X” as he is often referred to in the book.

This is telling. Is “X” for Xavier or for some unknown variable in an equation whose sum is simply “catalyst”?

The story is Thea’s. The voice alternating between short chapters—sort of expanded epigraphs, really of present-day, older Thea—and the other, casing the narrative arc exploding from the catalyst babe. If Pavia is typical oldest child, Thea is definitely typical youngest:  undisciplined, promiscuous, one who takes pot shots at everyone, archly clarifying her antecedents and wryly adding in the text “(italics mine).”

Thea has a running commentary on everything and everyone: Jack, whom she might sleep with; her sometimes photographer boyfriend; the “big city”; long-distance trucking couples; her hometown of Supernal, Montana…you name it. Even her uterus, bafflingly empty considering that she lies all the time about being on birth control, gets called out. And this is where much of the humor and irony plays out in Motherlunge. Even though she’s a smartass, you can’t help but find Thea compelling in her fragrant (and flagrant) observations that seem to characterize and carry along the whole of her tribe—suburban, white, western. She is a product of coming of age in the ‘90s when the entire country was just entering its late-stage narcissism, captivated as it was by a semen-stained blue dress in the Oval Office. Clearly her sister Pavia is bee-lining for something more respectable than a dysfunctional family in a small, Big Sky town out west. She’s vaguely aware of some kind of desire, but without ever any clear object that she might locate by going east.

“As I’ve mentioned,” says Thea early in the book, “my sister had always had the calmness characteristic of certain beautiful people. This population is characterized by the unfurrowed brow, the unhurried gait, the modulated and pleasant tone of voice. As a group, they probably sleep well. They are not nail biters; they do not pick their scabs. Their shirts maintain all original buttons. They make excellent corporate trainers, supermodels, and (I’m thinking) ambassadors and ambassadors’ wives. As sisters, they are reliable if inscrutable.”

Thea, on the other hand, is self-described as being pretty much the opposite if not simply a reaction to what her sister is—unable to say the right thing to her unraveling sister with the new baby and the estranged husband “co-parent,” as Pavia refers to him:

“Why couldn’t I be a comfort?” Thea asks. “Why did I always feel like something tipped over, poured out? I was like the cardboard canister held by the unsuspecting Morton Salt girl; my contents stung the ground in a granular line behind me.”

And yet our heroine has a strange strength to her that Scott deftly threads throughout the story and which rings true throughout. Yes, Thea, who articulates life as a kind of mold-infested petri dish, or the viscera at an autopsy—clinically delineated—somehow manages to figure out what she really wants. As with Pavia, she’s terrified that the DNA of mom will re-emerge as it seems to be doing for Pavia in Boston in her own lunge toward motherhood. But more to the point, she’s terrified that to get to know her is to discover that she is ultimately unlovable.

When Pavia pulls a Dorothy near the end of the book, Thea has her catharsis, a kind of ecstatic connection to not only her nephew, who is left to her care, but herself. “Only later,” she says, “did I realize what I did want, namely, to be that baby myself. I was jealous of X. I was jealous of his fat satisfaction, his trust, the way he gazed—unblinkingly, full of tolerance—at the blurred ovoids of his parents’ faces above him. And even if I did love X, he certainly didn’t need me to. And so for the most part, I didn’t show it.”

A mother is there for her child, but only through the “disfiguring crust of motherhood.” This is what every mother, including the expecting Thea at book’s end, must eventually know cannot be avoided.

What does Thea want as she lunges toward the vortex that will claim her and probably not redeem her in the end, or at least not as she imagines redemption should look like? Motherlunge is Thea’s irreverent love story, as it were, for her unborn child.  And what she does want has something to do with “the weird joy of overwhelming responsibility” underscored—or “backlit,” as she says—by sadness. And that is the fulcrum upon which Scott’s brilliant and ultimately deeply satisfying treatment of motherhood rests. In the end the book is a gestation, culminating in the birth of a new world, a new heroine but without the cloying Hallmark-styling of mothers we routinely gaze upon when we should have, perhaps, been rooted in the smell of it, the terrifying biology and material of it.     

Friday, March 15, 2013

"SECURING THE FUTURE OF OUR OBLIVION": A Review of THE ORDINARY TRUTH, by Jana Richman




As with this country of ours at large, there is at play, in Jana Richman’s new novel The Ordinary Truth (Torrey House Press, 2012), the national see-saw of delusions vs. reality, collective doctrines vs. the sweet, inevitable flux of life’s authentic rhythms.  In central Nevada—the driest state in the union, where this contemporary western takes place—authentic, inevitable life is rooted in the land and made possible by that rarest of west desert commodities:  water.
 
Here’s a little tutorial for all of you water-rich east coasters.  It’s given early in the book by Kate, the middle-aged Deputy Water Resource Manager:  “You can mess with the rancher’s daughter and get away with it.  You might even be able to mess with the rancher’s wife and still come out okay.  But you mess with the rancher’s water, you can’t expect to just waltz into town one day, unarmed and unprotected.  That you’re damn sure not going to get away with.”

Here Kate is talking to her young, live-in boyfriend, a pony-tailed, tantric sex-practicing urbanite who is wondering why she’s so estranged from her rancher family 400-plus miles north of where they live, and work, in Las Vegas high rises.  Like the tiny but life-sucking island of Manhattan supported by its outlying boroughs, Vegas is a water-sucking desert island supported by drainage of deep carbonate aquifers that the sparsely-populated ranching communities up north rely on for survival.
And Kate is the point person in the Nevada Water Authority’s actual proposal to spend $2 Billion burying a 300-mile water pipe to drain 200,000 acre feet of water a year from six basins and send it back to the hoards walking The Strip. So she isn’t going to be “waltzing” into her home town of Omer Springs if she can help it.  Meanwhile, as she compartmentalizes her rural heritage from her work, the cognitive dissonance is starting to fray her around the edges.  There seems to be something more dangerous to Kate in Spring Valley than the machinations of a water grab that for the denizens of Vegas will, as she says, “secure the future of their oblivion.” (p. 315)

In one word, the danger is her irascible, 70-something-year-old mother Nell.  Told through alternating first-person accounts, including Kate’s, The Ordinary Truth is, at 368 pages, a big, grappling work of intense rural family dramas, the receding life of western ranching, the threat of unsustainable urban sprawl and, literally, a smoking gun.  It’s got everything you might imagine should be in a western—big sweaty men and strong women who talk in vernacular; horses and a dog named Jasper distinguished by their personified temperaments; tightly sprung barbed wire fences; ranch hands who drift in one day and stay 20 years; long drives over hill and vale to get to the public school and the occasional trip into Ely for a steak dinner at The Nevada.

But Richman, whose second book and first novel The Last Cowgirl was set in nearby Utah and also explored both the clash of the cowboy myth with the suburban/urban climes  (where most westerners now have gathered) as well as the way technologies shape (and threaten) the land, among other things, has written more than a genre novel here.  After all, this is Nevada, where not only live the improbable cities of Vegas and Reno but where bumping along in a truck cab, spewing dust for hundreds of miles along the placarded “loneliest highway in America” is de rigeur, but where atomic bombs are tested and brothels are happily regulated by the state.

In fact, it’s in one of these brothels, outside the state’s capital where Kate’s college-aged daughter Cassie is holed up.  She’s the catalyst of this tale, having convinced both her grandma Nell and her mother Kate, locked in a 36-year feud, that she’s living with the other for the summer.  Unlike her best friend from college who got them both summer jobs at the Wild Filly Stables, Cassie has found her niche away from the back rooms at a computer designing the website.  But like her mother, she is haunted by Spring Valley.  “They’re all the people I love in the world,” she explains.   “I feel like I walked into the last scene of the last act of a play.  I’m not expecting I can turn this into a happy ending, but….I have to try anyway.”  Ever since Nell’s husband (and Kate’s father) Henry Jorgensen died in a mysterious hunting accident, mother and daughter have moved further apart.  Like the missing father in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Henry presence is all too felt in the cast of characters that includes Nell’s twin brother Nate, his wife Ona and most of the town of Omer Springs.  Nothing has been okay since Henry died, with mother and daughter competing for his love in absentia rather than being drawn together by their mutual calamity.

We learn later that ordinary truth, not the insipid lionizing found in an obituary, must come out, and the novel for the most part successfully navigates the various voices from which we learn, piecemeal, what went wrong in Omer Springs. Even the hazy romanticism that Henry inhabits in everyone’s head is brought into question, although not as much as I would have liked.  Additionally, Richman occasionally overreaches, stating the obvious as when one of her characters points out the terrain of an entire family history mapped out in a facial scar.  Yet, in the end she admirably wrangles with a story that elevates itself into a kind classic Greek tragedy but with spurs.
 
And as in the best dramas, she is sure-footed in sympathizing with how families complicate if not destroy themselves, and how natural resources are used like pawns (to wit:  the notion of carbon cap and trade).  While this is Nell’s story, it is her daughter Kate who best articulates the fault lines that threaten Nell’s world, as well as those in the glimmering city 400 miles south.  What about the ranchers’ “pastoral entitlement,” to quote Katie?   “You talk about the people of Las Vegas as if they chose between two options—owning a large ranch or making fifteen dollars an hour dealing cards at a casino—and deliberately decided on the life of so-called glitter and greed….There are three hundred million people in the United States alone.  You don’t think some of those three hundred million yearn for a few thousand acres of land and the water to go with it, along win the damn near free use of several hundred thousand acres of public land?” (pp. 313-14)    Meanwhile, at the foot of the Snake Mountains where Nell has lived her life, alkali patches continue to expand into the green grass, starving from the subterranean pillaging of the land’s life source.

The water wars are really just the back drop to this domestic drama.  And yet like water, Richman’s prose slowly erodes the desert basins of the Jorgensens’ world to reveal the beating heart of a family in the throes of literally and figuratively seismic change and arrested by secrets that have too long lay buried.  It’s a tribute to the author that she is able here to lovingly portray the stark Western landscape without sentimentalizing it.  Even Cormac McCarthy’s tautology of the earth can seem at times so galactic that it swoons, while Richman’s west desert never strays further than Kate’s aunt Ona stepping outside her home under the giant blue vault of the western sky, and wiping her hands on her apron.  “The sight of her performing that small movement touches me,” says Katie.  “Pure simplicity and beauty.  Nothing wasted, nothing nonsensical. In Vegas, we’ve lost sight of our singular insignificance, our infinitesimal blip of time and matter in the universe.  In Vegas, we are the center of our worlds.  Out here, the geography does not allow it.  One moves across the land without reverence or conceit, a small piece of the whole.” (p. 241)

Richman mirrors this macro view with the internal dynamics of the Jorgensen clan which are not without their satisfying resolutions in the end, however painful.  Whether in Vegas, in Manhattan or on the coasts of Japan following the earthquake and tsunami two years ago this week, a reader can resonate with Richman’s trenchant view of an arrogant world that refuses to acknowledge the costs of trying to live outside of its natural landscape, continually driving disastrously, it would seem, towards its collective delusions. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

We Are All Implicated

Newtown, CT (Dec. 14, 2012)

After the Newtown Massacre eight days ago, I am reminded of why I started this blog.  We are all implicated in this tragedy because we all live in the same, little house together.

Here is what I posit: Everything implicates all of us. All Americans are implicated by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 even if we were not the hijackers of the planes that rammed the Pentagon, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center or the empty field in Pennsylvania. We are implicated by how well our children do in life...and how badly they do. We are implicated by the current economic, political and social climate of our nation and world.

Being implicated isn't the same thing as being at fault for something, but it does suggest that we play a role in what happens--often an intimate role in our own unique way. We are all responsible for the world we live in.

Here is what I also posit: one of the first things, if not the first thing, that we should all be doing conversationally and in our minds is to ask, "How does this incident or this situation implicate me?" and "How do I contribute to it?" Only in our attempts to answer these questions can we then proceed with determining who else is implicated by the incidents and situations that seem to us by turns harmful and positive. And only then can we begin to express definitive opinions which lead to a call to action, to the formulation of policy.

The challenge is this: to implicate ourselves in the incidents and situations we find ourselves in while still having a bias for action, to help effect positive change. This blog is designed to describe the Little House that we all dance in, and to carry on the conversation--in the best sense of that word--about how we can live in the house gracefully and humanely.

This week I have grieved for the loss of life in Newtown, CT.