Editor's Notes 23.2

By Mark Neely

April 9, 2022

Editor's Notes 23.2

Writing these words, a few days before Thanksgiving and a week shy of my fiftieth birthday, I find myself wondering what the world will look like by the time they appear in print. It will be late winter by then, or early spring, a whole season having dissolved into the past. Maybe you picked up a copy at the AWP conference in Philadelphia and you’re flipping through these opening pages on the weary plane ride home. Of course it’s entirely possible that AWP will be forced—by local ordinance, or “abundance of caution,” or plain common sense—to cancel. So maybe you’re stuck at home again, chained to your laptop, reading this on the River Teeth website. I used to contemplate what life might look like in five, ten, twenty years. Now I don’t dare think more than a few months ahead. The COVID-19 pandemic, currently in its third (fourth?) spike here in the U.S., has driven home an idea so simple it seems silly to even write it down. Despite all our planning, praying, and hard work, despite our diligent attempts to control the future, shape it to our liking, the only certainty is uncertainty.
   In some ways it’s good, not thinking too far ahead, living moment to moment. As much as I would like to fast-forward to the end (or at least the decline) of a disease that has caused so much grief and pain, I remember that in the coming year my daughter will head off to college, and my son will be a sophomore, soon to follow. I am trying to hold onto this time with my children, to feel the contours, the heft, of each day, before it slips away. I don’t know what the world will look like as we come out of winter, but I’m guessing some things will be better, some worse. Most days will be forgettable, but a handful will shine like diamonds in our memories—brilliant, cruel, beautiful.
   So how do we live in these uncertainties? How do we hold on to time even as we are rushed downstream through its bends and rapids? One answer is literature, particularly the kind of nonfiction we publish here at River Teeth—writing that strives to tell the truth but understands how that truth is always obscured by the limitations of language and memory. We begin the issue with Steven Harvey’s “The Circus Train,” a profound consideration of this very question. The essay is partly an examination of the late Judith Kitchen’s “mesmerizingly beautiful” book, also titled The Circus Train, and partly a recounting of Harvey’s own path through what his generation would come to call “creative nonfiction.” In it, he tells how he came to regret the youthful arrogance that prevented him from developing a close relationship with Kitchen until later in life and recognizes how his hubris was a cage he needed to break free from if he were going to take on the most important questions of his craft.
   I have been thinking a lot about cages since I first read Constance Adler’s “Wonder Woman,” which recounts how the author was forced by her callous, sadistic father to wear a painful contraption called a Milwaukee brace. Recalling those difficult days, Adler writes, “I came to think of it as a cage I carried around with me all the time.” Even many years later, she still feels the brace’s weight, the pressure of her father’s cruelty, and the physical and emotional scars they left behind. But she comes to see the beauty of those scars, “the shocks that make her body a glorious map.” Suzanne Finney’s “Learn to Fly” also tells the story of a woman’s struggle to escape the control of an abusive man, one who rages, punches holes in the drywall, blames his temper on the metal plate in his head. To do this, she first has to conquer, or at least control, her fear, just as she has to learn to take the controls of an airplane without the guiding presence of her instructor—a similarly controlling man. N.D. Brown’s essay, “Parallax,” considers the ways in which we are beholden to parents and figures of authority, even when they are at odds with our best interests, or even our survival. Remembering his brother’s baptism, where a stern Orthodox priest seems to take pleasure in the baby’s suffering, Brown thinks, “Those arms that held my brother’s small body in place must have felt unimaginably strong and terrible and indifferent.”
   Literature has always been a tool for confronting grief and suffering. We can’t always make sense of our traumas, exactly, but sometimes their power is diminished by the act of sharing them with others, of molding them into something beautiful. The way violence can shatter the most ordinary moments of our lives is the subject of Mary Milstead’s harrowing essay, “Tenderness,” which describes her mother’s abduction as a teenager by two armed men. “In that one instant,” Milstead writes, “the future my mother had been expecting to live vanished. All those versions of herself that might’ve been, gone.” Whereas Milstead considers how one tragic event can dramatically change our future selves, Ira Sukrungruang writes about past versions of himself, trying to reconcile the “cocksure certainty” of his younger days with the father he is trying to become. In “Truth and Lies,” Sukrungruang talks about how fatherhood has mellowed him, allowed him to suppress some of his youthful antagonism. But sometimes that angry young man wells up again, despite his best intentions. “I feel him,” he writes, “his anger at the world, his displeasure. I feel him every time I watch the news, every time I read an article about unjust violence, about horrible humans doing horrible things.”
   Earlier, I asked how we live, survive, even thrive, despite all of life’s fear and uncertainty. My answer then was literature, but after reading Sukrungruang and Milstead, I can see that it just as easily could have been love. So many of the essays here are about how love shapes us, heals us, complicates us, carries with it the twin cargo of joy and grief. We have essays here about mothers and daughters, fathers and grandfathers, lovers and friends. In Jefferson Slagle’s “A Father’s Guide to the Pulitzer Gallery,” which will have you googling the photographs he describes, the author quotes Eddie Adams who said, “If it makes you laugh, if it makes you cry, if it rips your heart out, it’s a good picture.”
   The same could be said of a good essay, of course, but I would add that the best writing also provides moments of intense recognition, as in this passage from Sophie Ezzell’s delightfully titled, “While You Are Walking With a Boy You Find a Duck”:

The mallard’s head is green, but it carries the richness and shine of blood. The color anoints his head like holy oil. His feathers vary in color—white, brown, black—but there are patches beneath his wings that shimmer like gasoline in puddles of rain . . .

Reading this glorious description, I was overcome by a feeling that doesn’t come along too often after nearly fifty spins around the sun: the feeling of seeing a thing, really seeing it, for the first time. It is a kind of magic, this seeing, conjuring up a thing so vivid from a few characters etched into a page. There are many such moments in these pages, such as Alexandra Teague’s account of climbing through a window of her childhood home after a devastating fire, finding “a space the size and location of our living room, but unrecognizable as the surface of a detonated moon.” Or Kathryn Winograd’s heartbreaking memory of sitting in a parking lot outside her dying mother’s hospice room, prevented from entering by COVID-19 protocols. Or the scene where a young Andre Dubus III attempts to control a lurching rototiller while his tough-as-nails grandfather looks on:

It was like wrestling with some kind of heartless machine whose clattering engine was the ageless sound of men driving nails and hauling steel and pouring concrete and punching each other in the face, something that happened to me regularly back home by one of the many boys in many neighborhoods who saw the same weak boy that Pappy did.

   Here in these pages, I hope you find your own moments of recognition and joy, freedom and empathy, magic and consolation. And I hope whatever future we find ourselves in, we will still have literature and love to buoy us in our moments of need.
   Stay safe and thank you for reading.


Photograph by Jill Christman

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