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Issue # 71/72
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Rafael Gamero, Editor
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Art: M.D. Trammell, "Floating Tower"
Willa Elizabeth Schmidt
They are strangers, though their blood runs through my veins.
Foreign and somber, they are somewhere else. Women in kerchiefs, dark wool, long skirts; men in knickered trousers, ribbed stockings hugging strong calves. Taut hair, blank foreheads, fleshless mouths. One holds a pipe; you almost smell the curling smoke. They are my grandparents, captured in snapshots.
Family is a line, a line that seeks continuance. When cut by the knife of departure, history is easily lost. A seedling sprouts alone, its sheltering shade removed and exchanged for America’s promise: the freedom to start anew.
I look at grandparents and here’s what I see: grandmas with birthday cake, Disneyland, stories. Grandpas with fishing spots, money for study, a place in the firm, if conditions are right. Treasured memories, once they are gone.
This is a different story, a tale of leaving and loss. A parcel of fragments and questions, and answers strewn to the winds.
Friedrich Wilhelm Schmidt was born in the northeastern hinterlands of the Prussian empire, a territory then known as Pommern, bordering on the Baltic Sea. Pomerania in English, today it’s Pomorze, a northwestern province of Poland. A land of potatoes and beets, green forests, abundant lakes—much like our own northern woodlands, though temperate enough for rye and barley, sprinkled with farmers’ fields.
Friedrich Wilhelm Schmidt, birthdate ca. 1875. The name evokes Prussian Kaisers; with Germany newly unified, national feeling was at a peak. Like his historic namesake, Frederick the Great, my father’s father was affectionately dubbed Fritz.
One of a crowd of siblings, he left the family farm as a young man and became a telegraph worker in Neustettin, the provincial capital. In October 1902 he went back to his village and married a woman from a neighboring farm. She was pregnant—hoch schwanger—with their first child; a son born later that month was baptized Willy Emil in the local church.
Forty years later, on the other side of the world, he would become my father.
In pre-war portraits Fritz Schmidt is compact and square-jawed, a sober Pomeranian burgher in heavy suits with vest and tie. Wife and children surround him, facing the camera like monuments of stone. An outdoor shot finds him at the edge of a ploughed field, pipe in hand, conversing with another man, possibly a relative. They wear tailored jackets with woolen pants cinched at the knee, long stockings, high-topped leather shoes. Hats too—Friedrich a banded fedora, his companion a cap with narrow brim. The impression is propriety, formality, inbred strength. Rigidity as well, eyes steady, much kept in check.
So much propriety. How to reconcile it with his delay in making an honest woman of Bertha, his chosen wife? A shotgun wedding? Perhaps not so uncommon even among the disciplined Prussians, but I find no explanation, only the evidence of cousins whose genealogical efforts agree: this was the date of the wedding; this was the date of the birth.
My father said little about him. Not from dislike, I think, but out of a need to break away from a life where order and security were chains. Exiting willingly, traversing land and sea on sparse funds with no guarantee of Wiedersehen indicates a desire for self over family, a readiness for goodbye.
Fritz Schmidt was not especially religious. Pomerania was solidly Lutheran, but aside from weddings and funerals Fritz visited Neustettin's Nikoleikirche three or four times a year at best, probably at his wife’s urging. He preferred home, family, his quiet hearth. A daughter-in-law found him good-natured, a kindly man. On a wooded island in the nearby Vilmsee, he built a hut for his children and their friends to use for campouts during school breaks. Photos show a cabin of weathered wood tucked among trees, the reedy lake bank, laughing youngsters enjoying carefree days.
For a good long while, history smiled on the man named for Prussian Kaisers. When the first war broke out, he was not yet middle-aged, his sons small. Was he called for a soldier? I don’t know. If so, he escaped unscathed. His job was steady, and with relatives in the country, food was available when city stores ran low. Children were growing, cousins visited back and forth. His eldest was studious, university material, but when he abandoned a bank position to seek adventure in the New World, Fritz swallowed his disappointment and let him go. In time he would send his youngest, musically gifted Waldemar, to study in Heidelberg.
The second war started strong, but soon turned ugly. Konrad dead in Poland , the conflict just two weeks old, then Waldemar, shortly before surrender. What did Fritz Schmidt think about Hitler? I assume that he, like many in the provinces, was apolitical, perhaps enthusiastic, until directly affected. When a man has lost two sons to a war that ended in shameful defeat, can he worship the man who sent them?
Two sons fallen, more heartbreak ahead. In January 1945 the Russian army broke into Pomerania, savage with revenge. Bedraggled, pale refugees, eyes dazed from what they’d seen, streamed through on farm wagons from the east. Get out, they warned, leave while you can. Rape, pillage, slaughter: it was payback time.
So they packed up and left, Friedrich Schmidt and those who remained: wife, daughter, a widowed daughter-in-law and her young boy. Neustettin, with its tree-lined paths, shining lakes and wooded shores grew dim, dimmer, vanishing in a fog of green grief as they hunkered down in a crowded corridor of one of the last trains going west. Pomerania was gone, lost forever for Friedrich Schmidt, eventually for them all.
An old age of wandering: harsh fate for a man who doted on work and home. Traipsing the land, begging for work—no more relatives in the country to share their wealth. Farmers in the west had seen too many refugees already; they protected their own. Their sons too were already dead or off in enemy prisons.
Why this now, he must have wondered, but Friedrich Schmidt was a practical man. On the Luneburg Heath, a farmer needing help with harvest offered food and a roof. At seventy-plus, Fritz was still robust. He knew farm chores; without petrol machinery was useless, but he could handle a team and dray, lift bales, chop wood. When he swung an axe perhaps he forgot his sons, Neustettin, the bungled mess of Germany and knew only his muscled arms, the home-sweet smell of mowed fields, sun on his sweat-slicked face. Work was a balm for thought.
When a bit of wood flew into his eye he felt the sting but kept on chopping. Later the eye turned red and his daughter forced him to a doctor, who probed and swabbed and pronounced it clean, keep it covered a day or two, take these pills. After two days he awoke in high fever, the eye redder and pulsing. He staggered out of bed, babbling nonsense: send a telegraph, the Ivans are in the streets and cows are running loose….
Friedrich Wilhelm Schmidt died in December 1946 in Bavendorf, on the Lüneburger Heide, of septicemia that had stolen his brain. We never met. When he died, I was five years old, growing up in Chicago. That is what I know of him, my German grandfather. More than I know of the other: at least he had a name.
In Nitzlin, a tiny Pomeranian village near the market town Schlawe, roads were unpaved. Flat land, potatoes, wheat and rye, a sandy plain sweeping down to the Baltic; this was the birthplace of my grandmother, the woman who would become Friedrich's wife. Fate, history—she would have called it God’s will—shifted her deathbed to Chicago, where we lived together not quite one year.
A slight woman with a long, musical name: Bertha Marie Friederike Strauß. Born a few years before her future husband, she was second eldest of six. Farm families were large. A face like an elegant bird, narrow, with brown eyes curving downward and a dark cape of hair, she seemed delicate, even in age never running to fat like her younger sister Martha, who married a local farmer. Yet Bertha mothered four, while Martha gave birth to none.
She must have missed her lively family when she married and moved to the city. Her husband was kind but satisfied with the everyday, stolid as the Bismarck monument looming out of the forest across Neustettin’s bordering lake. (Did they meet at a harvest festival, a country dance? Wasn’t it a scandal, her unmarried pregnancy far along enough for everyone to see?) When the child was due, Fritz brought her back to Nitzlin and the midwife was called to her mother's house.
Soon there were more, and as her children grew, she opened her door to their friends, fed them sausages, cakes piled with berries and cream. Her sons were cheerful and smart, different each but equally loved. Only her daughter gave reason to fret. Willful as a mule, face locked in a pout. Too ambitious. A woman must learn to cook and sew, to be a helpmeet free of complaint.
Then things began to tilt. Gradually the world slid off kilter, then more, and more and more. Her firstborn gave up his bookkeeping job at the Pommernbank and took off for America, the end of the world. The place for a young man! his friend Otto wrote. Otto Piper, the rebel, the adventurer… Come over, he urged, we'll rake in dollars shingling roofs, buy a jalopy, see the Wild West. Winnetou country, Old Shatterhand: all the boys so crazy about Karl May and those Indian tales… Had they no thought for a mother’s heart?
That was the first betrayal. Then Lisbeth—stubborn as always—up and married the Bavarian. Gemütlich, she found him. Beer hall gemütlich, Bertha thought, no friend of hard work. And then, and then… If Bertha Marie Friederike Schmidt had known what was coming next, she would have banked her tears.
Hitler's war, the war of retaliation. Had she asked for it? No matter. It ended her lifer, though she lived on. Lived on, through Konrad's early death, through the last-minute telegram about Waldemar, through fleeing like hunted animals with only what they could carry. Through hunger, the humiliation of begging from strangers, through a sick-making journey across an ocean to a place she cared nothing about. Her husband lost to misfortune, her daughter now in charge.
This was her punishment, Bertha might have thought, for loving her sons more. God had left her with Lisbeth: alone, helpless, and sick. The first stroke was a warning, the doctor said; another would be worse.
Nothing mattered. Not even her remaining son, widowed too, meeting them at the Chicago station with a little girl trying to smile. A little girl in spectacles, like Lisbeth. Foreign sounds, strange people all around. A world away from Pommern, and no road back. No home even at home: no sons, no light, no life.
Small and frail, my grandmother sat in a chair, staring out at our quiet street. Her hair, still dark, was pulled back in a thin bun. During the night I could hear her weak but persistent cry, "Lisbeth! Lisbeth!" until my aunt came and brought the bed pan. On Easter Sunday in 1953, my father took my hand. "Come, wish Grandma Happy Easter. Say 'Happy Easter, Oma' and give her a kiss.” I obeyed, my lips brushing the papery cheek as she peered from her bed, murmuring something in German that my father translated. “A big girl, Oma says. A fine girl."
A few months afterward she suffered a second stroke and died in the night. It was August 13, the date on which eight years later the German Democratic Republic—Communist East Germany—would initiate construction of the infamous Berlin Wall to keep its citizens from fleeing to the West. By further coincidence, also the date on which my father, nineteen years in the future, would suffer a fatal heart attack while swimming in a northern Wisconsin lake.
In a cemetery in Chicago, a world away from Pomorze, a lifetime away from Nitzlin and Neustettin, Bertha Marie Friederike Schmidt, my paternal grandmother, found final rest from her sorrows.
Grandparents. Everyone has four, but I only know of three. I knew I had a grandmother in Austria, and I needed to meet her. No longer a shy ten-year-old, with this grandmother I could talk. I was a college student; I’d learned her language. My mother had left Austria in 1928 and never gone back. She never mentioned her mother, only her half-sister Leopoldine—Poldi—and the grandmother she called Grossmam, two people she could love. When Poldi sent word of Grossmam's death sometime in the late 1940s my mother wept while I, small and unacquainted with grief, looked on, confused.
Austria held mysteries.
She didn’t like her mother, my father explained. After my mother’s death he told me what he knew, things she had never talked about. Hate might have been a truer word. When her mother married Anton Kanzler and produced two more daughters, her firstborn—the mistake—was left with Grossmam. Cast out, unwanted, but not by him, the new husband. Kanzler was a decent man, my mother believed. It was her mother.
I perused the photographs Poldi had sent. Who was she, this hated Anna Kanzler? In a black-and-white snapshot a blurred figure stands against a grassy hill, an older, heavier version of my mother. She wears a long white dress, her gray hair pinned up under a straw hat. A scrawl on the reverse reads "Ybbs, 1939." Ybbs, my mother's home, the town where Grossmam raised her. A sleepy Danube burg with an imposing psychiatric hospital and since 1959, a huge dam upstream bridging the river which in that area has dangerous currents and is prone to flood.
By 1956 Anna Kanzler was a widow. Now photographs showed a straight-backed crone in head scarf and thick glasses, standing with Poldi, Poldi's husband, and Minna, the third daughter. Poldi, with thick white hair and full face, resembles my mother, while Minna has Kanzler’s slim bones. They stand in a lush garden, Minna clutching a small black dog.
I didn't hate Anna Kanzler. I wanted to know her, to find my mother in her. In later pictures she appeared increasingly frail. I needed to see her before she died.
I went to Vienna, where we met at the apartment of a cousin. My grandmother was a warm, dry twig in my hug. "Fanny's daughter," she repeated over and over, tears rolling down her creviced cheeks. I remember little of our conversation that day, but some weeks later, after she’d returned to her simple room in the country, Poldi and I went for a visit and I got to know her better.
She suffered from the tribulations of age and diabetes. Poldi, a trained nurse, helped her with getting dressed, bathing, moving around. We stayed overnight, sleeping on old couches. In the evening after supper, we drank wine and played cards for pennies, or Groschen. Anna Kanzler's mind was sharp as her body was fragile; she loved to gamble and took pleasure in her wins.
She wept again when we left. Austrians are more generous with their tears than the stoic Germans, if my relatives are any example. "I won't see you again," she said. I wept too. The tears were seductive, the ever present wine doing its part.
A year later a black-edged envelope arrived at my Wisconsin address, a death notice sent by Minna's daughter Helene. Anna Kanzler, maiden name Grőss, 87 years old. Poldi told me she’d worked at the mental hospital and been a fervent Social Democrat. A surprise, since the other relatives were staunchly conservative. Her maiden name, Grőss, was the same as my mother’s.
This would be the place then, to talk about the missing grandparent, my Austrian grandfather. Was his name Grőss? Was he even Austrian? No one talked about him, and I didn’t ask. Even among relatives, even knowing their language, it seemed out of place. How could I question my ancient grandmother about who had made her pregnant, in her wild or naïve young days? These were people for whom order and propriety were forbidding values, for all their welcome and tears. Relatives, yes, but in the end, strangers.
I talked with my cousin; she was younger. “Fanny was different,” Helene told me, but she’d been a baby when my mother left for America and didn’t remember her. "I always heard that. Artistic, studious, not like the others. It must have been an educated man, not some bumpkin." Had she worked in Vienna, in some wealthy household where a husband or spoiled son took advantage? Nothing was definite, all was speculation. Concealment, perhaps; the truth not for knowing.
Anna Grőss was happy to become Anna Kanzler, to marry and have “legitimate,” children, proper. Isn't that what is meant by the word, still today, and back then even more? A comfort for Anna, who wanted respectability—but so unkind for “illegitimate” Fanny, who gave her own father-gone firstborn, a boy named Bernhard once again left to Grossmam to raise, the stubborn surname Grőss before taking off for a new life in Chicago and her own respectability. But that is another story.
Is anyone blameless here? Missing parents, exiled children. Lost family pictures.
What have they left me, these four strangers? Friedrich Schmidt's freckled skin, reddish hair reluctant to gray. Bertha's slim frame and down-curving eyes, not her fertility. From Anna Grőss/Kanzler—I’m not sure. A fullness about the face perhaps, the stubbed nose she passed on to my mother. A weakness in the bones, documented by aunts and cousins. From my mystery grandfather, the total unknown? Anything. Anything at all. Even Ancestry has provided no real help.
A gulf yawns, a severing of generations. A granddaughter, I ponder photographs. I fashion their lives with the little I know.
Stacie M. Kiner. Finishing Line Press: Georgetown, KY., 2021.
In Stacie M. Kiner’s Inventory lost loves and loved-ones circle in a whirl of remembering. These moments are the painful ones most of us would like to forget, but Kiner reveals how these are life’s key moments we must never let go.
Though the sense of longing is powerful here for past loves, the immediacy of unforgettable intimate moments strikes with passion, a fever of pleasure, an enveloping of all senses. The allusions can be direct, as in “God and Morphine”: “Sex became difficult. / All I could do / was float on the bed / dazed . . . drawing crazy hearts / on her cheek”; or in “The Only Faith”: “It was easy after that, / turning you into an altar-- / believing sex / was the only faith.” Kiner also excels at subtly capturing moving and erotic detail. This particularly comes to light in “The Only Faith”: “scotch and ice / sliding down my arm, / melting between / your clinched teeth” but also in “All the Ways to Want Things” as the poem’s narrator reflects on a past lover: “Our world . . . / unbuttons itself. . . . // . . . a sun-warmed Key lime / sliced in half / its juice on your tongue. / Your husband gone. . . .”
Another sense of loss that soulfully permeates many poems captures the relationship between the poet’s narrator and father. This is especially true in “Parachute,” where the aging figure is shown slipping deeper into diminishment, perhaps dementia, a deflating of his existence (“he stopped getting / what he wanted / then stopped caring / then stopped noticing”) and even more powerfully in “Winding the Watch,” as the poem observes “Covering mirrors / in the gradual / dismantling / of his brain.”
This poem, as do many, highlight Kiner’s striking ability to create a dialogue of inquiries between the poet and the reader, an ocean of questions that seem more like assertions that cut directly to the core. The line “Isn’t this what happens, / resuscitating time, / wanting to wind / a watch / that doesn’t wind?” captures so much of what’s at the heart of “Winding the Watch,” the reversal of roles between parent and child as years pass, the complicated sense of guilt that overwhelms as one sees the inevitably of losing a parent.
In “The Way Love Sometimes” the short lines accent so much of our hours lost, of time’s passing: “I wonder / how much / can rivers swallow, / how much / of my life / do I have / to remember— / the half that is gone / or the half I think / remains?” Consistently Kiner uses short lines to create a soft staccato punch that hammers a drumbeat, accenting the passage of days, the birth of loss, the recall of forgetting.
This theme also resonates in the book’s title poem as the narrator asks, “Now that your envelope / of silence / will never be opened, / what did it take / to not become / tomorrow?” Thoughts linger on a box of ashes, ashes spread in gardens, kept in backpacks, and linger longer in memories, such as the “third home” with “wheelchairs aligned like planets.”
This dialogue of inquiries also appears in the form of celebration (tinged with subtle melancholy). In “Venetian Pool” we are asked to consider “Of what else / are we made / but / steam streaming / off trees . . . // the bicycle / rusting / in the rain?” And in “Continuous” the narrator wonders “As everything moves / against forgetting, / will the river / keep count . . . remembering the body. . . ?” Moreover, “Noche Buena Miami, FL. 2010” reveals both contemplation and humor: “Wasn’t that the night / someone left the cake out / in the rain?”
Rain and water are often central metaphors here, liquid slowly making its way through structures one drop at a time. Kiner’s lines reveal worlds held in “buckets of water / that fill on the floor,” “bowls of sadness / . . . filling / with rain,” and “a cracked slate roof / in a home with bowls / filling. . . .” The emotions, like the water, seep through and hint at an emotional and intellectual landscape that soaks through us, that both invigorates and uncovers.
All poems in Inventory resonate powerfully; Kiner’s voices are soft but necessary voices that will make all readers grapple with the unanswered questions that carry us through our lives.
Particularly Dangerous Situation
by Patti White, Arc Pair Press, Tacoma, WA, 2020.
The start of this Alabama odyssey, a novella, is told in a melodic and cyclical way. Yet its content is both and neither. The story is specific and general, told by eight tattered, deranged people. The reader relies on what these characters have or may not have seen because of a barrage of enormous, surreal, and terrifying tornados and storms.
In fact, the irrational juxtaposition of images fits the definition of surrealism. There are excruciating noises, too, and disparate body parts flying through the sky and things human that haven’t been seen, heard, smelled, felt or tasted yet.
The first voice before the storm, Weatherman, announces that “Buildings will disappear. Water will be contaminated. The social order will collapse.”
Carleen Hicks, the next narrator says, “the power went and I could smell the electric sizzle in the walls. And oh the howling.” And when the wind arrives “boards ripping and popping and then the barbeque grill hit the siding...maybe some bones breaking...” Next, “the rain was coming through the ceiling.”
“The roads all sideways and the lines blurred,” reports the next character, Colonel Stanton, who deployed crews for rescue and recovery. “When we drove to Mississippi, we ended up in Louisiana. The trucks went on through like Mississippi wasn’t there...Mississippi is gone...I don’t have any words for what happened there.”
A Mexicano who worked the fields, narrator Juan Reyes, shows an intensely focused, binocular view. When he comes out of the carniceria, “it” was “a poblano swollen and charred...the sky all the wrong colors. It made me sick and I fell on my knees in the parking lot.”
Juan Reyes expresses real and trauma-induced visions: “Across the street the paint store exploded and the power lines snapped and whipped and sparked and everything was coming apart. I crawled through rattlesnakes. The traffic signals dropped like vultures...”
Everett Davis, who considers himself a mathematical and scientific mind has visions of the animal life after the storms are over. “Ambient light from fires on the horizon. And things gleaming in the bushes. Shining eyes. Feral cats or coyotes slinking along...a possum hissing near the dumpster.”
Vesuvia Morris, a sixth narrator, is concerned with the insects, and offers the sense of touch to the novella. “I waited out the second storm in a Japanese restaurant that was abandoned and open to the wind. The sushi station in back was loud with flies and yellow jackets so I sat near the door.” She “wrapped up in a tablecloth” and she felt “chilled. Like seaweed in the ocean. Like shaved ice and dead fish and sticky rice.”
Lila Jane Smith, trapped in a dental chair when the storms begin, and left to watch everything fall and crash around her, is haunting, as she tells her story: “I am a flying monkey screeching through the clouds. I hear bells clang like a metal drum breaking my ears...sometimes things hit me and I look at my skin for bruises but what I see is shine.”
Tallulah Ballou, late in the story, walks towards a broken library. She comes down a hill “into a chaos of insulation and roofing tiles. Crushed cars in the parking lot... I got lost in Faulkner’s woods, a path forked the wrong way, and oh the mosquitoes and gnats of that magnolia afternoon.” In a commentary, she says, “every plot is subordinate to weather, to summer heat and rain, to the way our bodies respond in the face of barometric pressure.
Earlier in the story, Tallulah Ballou sums up this post-apocalyptic odyssey with uncanny musing: “I am living in a postmodern novel and all the disasters we simulated have come true and still we are not prepared.”
--Mary Jane Ryals
Here on Rue Morgue Avenue
Cynie Cory. Hysterical Books Press: Tallahassee, FL, 2018.
The poet Cynie Cory springs word-songs like hot hail from the sky in Here on Rue Morgue Avenue, a collection of almost-sonnets, almost cantos, that grab language by the gills, that fling stanzas skyward into a fiery stratosphere.
Often the fire in the sky is a pre-apocalypse or post-apocalypse marker for the setting or “atmosphere” of each poem that screams just above the ground like a nuclear missile. Cory gives a nod to Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro in the book’s acknowledgements, more than likely because this collection similarly explores a postapocalyptic landscape, except Cory’s is of the heart, mind, and soul. Two poems here actually tap Johnson’s novel directly: “Fiskadoro Revisited” and “Fiskadoro Last Seen.” In the former, the images and mind are exploding with “. . . the whole accordion, the plot / of dirt at my feet. According to noon, / there’s no more room. . . . / The lover is a robber, aborted / perfume. What day is it the stars collide?” In the latter poem, the explosions continue: “What see? What me? Impose the last drought, / thermonuclear assault. Winter climbs / over us, snaps shut the lake.”
Throughout the collection, these images of a charred landscape create their own strange momentum, snagging the reader into the strong, dark magic of her poetry. In “Turn and Face the Strange” “There’s a war in you. . . . / We’re all in chains. It’s cruel the way you tune / the range of your vermilion rage. . . . / Gunned / into a bunker that’s home, another // country you moan. . . .” The playful rhyme of “home” and “moan” here gives a wonderful contrast to the poem’s somber images, and this game of rhyme glows at the end of each poem. Every piece closes with a rhyming or slant-rhyme couplet: “. . . redundant, stunned, / anonymous, promiseless—ill-tongued”; “Hurry, courage is the stage / of the mind without a verse iced in blades”; “Dislodge the bilious spleen. / The mind is an after-lock of being.”
In “Reactor Tractor” the images and language sing together with true, raw power. The reader follows this tractor’s furrows into the burning, bright light: “I want the roof, no sky louder than dogs. / I can’t say what caused it, an atomic / split. God’s silhouette disappeared now lost.” And we are left with this: “Without vision winter’s in place. / The invasion by the United States.”
Cynie Cory has yet again graced us with a vibrant, provocative, and dynamic collection.
Avenue of Champions
Clay Blancett. Hysterical Books Press: Tallahassee, FL, 2017.
In Clay Blancett’s first novel Avenue of Champions the reader is taken on a fascinating odyssey through, not Homer’s Mediterranean Sea, but the streets and back alleys of Richmond, Virginia.
Our vessel is not Odyssey’s Homeric galley but one of the many stake body grapple trucks in Richmond’s fleet of municipal solid waste collection vehicles. The book’s narrator doesn’t spear cyclopes but instead stabs at tall piles of garbage with his pitchfork. Blancett gives us a true insider’s glimpse into this strange and striking world, exotic in its own weird way.
The novel’s first-person protagonist is a stranger here too. A home construction carpenter before the Great Recession hit, he desperately needs a job to maintain custody of his two children; his ex-wife would like him permanently out of the picture. However, he gets hired as a temp for the city’s waste management crew and bravely faces this culture and characters, allowing him to eke out a living and enjoy weekends with his young son and daughter.
His love for his kids shines powerfully in the narrative. In the chapter titled “River” he takes his kids on a little adventure to a nearby wooded waterway where the three of them enjoy a picnic lunch. Blancett’s ability to write vividly about the natural world mightily shows through here:
“About halfway up a fallen tree trunk it sat, blue and fierce and big as a cat: a perching Kingfisher. . . . It eyeballed us, electric blue Mohawk flaring. . . . We got inside twenty-five yards when he issued his machine gun call again and took off. . . . Finally in a shocking blue burst, he went straight up between the tree limbs and disappeared into the sky.”
In great contrast to this landscape Blancett, of course, also immerses us completely into the world of garbage, its smells, textures, sights, and sounds. With his crewmates on any given truck, he wrestles with piles of refuse as bravely as any Greek soldier in the Illiad fought on a battlefield:
“The sun cut long knives of shadow and light sideways through the vaulting trees on either side of the opening. . . . We’d stopped by a pile of treated fencing which had obviously not come from the house it was behind. . . . I spotted couches, mattresses, televisions; various piles. Karl had mounted the seat above the cab, cigar smoke billowing above his ball cap like a halo and swung the boom around; he dropped it open on top of the pile and crushed it like a sleeve of saltines in a child’s fist. Shards of green salt-treated pine and shattered spruce flew everywhere. The claw rose up in the air and into the back.”
Avenue of Champions may have what some readers might call a “memoir-shape” instead of a class tension-driven plotline; nevertheless, the details here about life behind the scenes for these rugged and feisty sanitation workers create a page-turning momentum that becomes more and more fascinating chapter after chapter. Clay Blancett has made a strong debut with this gritty novel; readers will be pleased to ride along beside him in Richmond’s ragged but steady garbage trucks.
Questions from My Daughters
I. Why Do We Need Sadness?
--Alli, age 14
I think of Son Thomas, bluesman, grave digging understudy
of a one-armed gravedigger. He’d drive down from Leland
and play for us on Fridays when not sculpting human skulls
with river bank clay, sticking in loose teeth from a deep jar
he kept on a shelf, shaping a new look for sadness. Sadness
builds the juke joint. Joy cuts the rug. At the Lebanese
rib-joint in Clarksdale at the crossroads, joy and sadness feast
on the same pecan-smoked pork, then wait by the ditch
for a dude to roll down the window of his Cadillac at midnight,
pedaling glory. But nobody waits for sadness, let alone
with a weirdly tuned guitar and a black cat bone stitched inside
their coat pocket. Why do we need sadness? We don’t.
Like weather, sadness just is. Like weather, sadness is what
we’re working with, the mojo, the adios, the unforeseen
logos, the tightrope anti-dope for a snake-bit Mississippi.
II. Is It Scientifically Proven That Dinosaurs Said “Roar”?
-- Sofia, age 13
Not unlike the river that separates
Vicksburg, Mississippi from Delta,
Louisiana, home of Daiquiri Stop,
there’s a swift gap between Hollywood
and reality, and yet another between
what’s perceived and what exists
beyond our limits, and this further
jeopardized by the many-layered
obfuscations of dust. My guess: Giganotosaurus,
ole Claw, ole Three-Finger, coo’d
like a ten-ton pigeon, a throaty
welling up from early earth, notes
of root and cave river. A sub-woofed
ululation so righteous it made the horizon
twitch the way a cow’s back
shakes off horseflies. Or maybe its cry
was in proportion to its brain, the kind
of refined frequency that steers
bats to mosquitos, turns a lost
hound home. Like Chagall’s violin,
like chickens and rain in Patterson,
New Jersey, so much depends on
distance, how you bridge it, how you climb
into an ancient skin, sniff around
creek banks and tree tops with a snout
three feet long, scanning valleys
through eyes the width of footballs.
How round the day in its pre-fossil
mist and leafiness, free of drink
machines and Teen Vogue. Where
to go with each star a pilot, each
corner a cornerstone? Sure as rain,
sure as the ache for dinner
and friends and home, you have to
find your register, the sound
you make, your call, your song.
III. Why Don’t We Just Talk about Politics?
--Darbi, age 11
Not the question to ask over family reunion dumplings,
though she means to steer talk away from the Baptist
vs. Episcopal Church. Not wanting to juju the potluck,
I keep my mouth shut. To my right, my uncle,
a Vietnam Vet. To my left, our cousin, raised in England,
gay and proud. O family navigations! O tender steps!
O black and white children singing happy birthday
to the same Diabetic grandmother! Here’s to taking
none of it for granted, neither u-brown’m rolls
nor turnip greens, not the Lebanese mailman
nor the judge talking hunting dogs with his nephew,
a cannabis farming statistician. We’re all here
at the Ag Center, our way forward lit by the match-tips
of history, safest on smooth, on common ground.
So no, we don’t talk politics. Unless it’s one-on-one.
Unless it’s election year. Unless there’s beer involved.
Unless it’s a bad idea. Unless one leaves a clutch
of campaign signs and bumper stickers in a washtub
by the front door that another, tower of messy
plates in hand, mistakes for a shallow garbage can.
Simon Anton Diego Baena
My uncle just wanted to listen to the thrushes singing in his trees every morning. He always dreamed of being a fisherman. He used to sit by the dock watching boats return at dusk crates filled with the day’s catch. When he came home after the war, his eyes were blistered by shrapnel. On some nights, he imagined himself as a painter, a poet; he opened the windows: then sobbed till dawn. He told me, "The objects in the light remain incomprehensible." Seeing his face turned gloomy hearing the cawing of crows, bringing thunder overhead.