Issue Thirty-Four - Summer 2019

Literary Language, Interpretation and Practice

By Stephanie Barbé Hammer

As our editors prepare to launch the latest issue of SHARK REEF, perhaps you are doing what I am doing. I’m reading the Mueller Report. Perhaps like me, you are trying to imagine what Robert Mueller and his team were thinking as they pored through thousands of documents, emails and text messages and as they engaged in countless interviews with individuals who ranged from clueless to highly incompetent. And like me, maybe you too are guessing what names and addresses, what actions and deliberations, lurk behind the black blocks marked HARM TO INVESTIGATION and GRAND JURY.

If only we could see those names! Assemble the whole messy puzzle into a coherent picture!

Stories and poems aren’t reports, of course; but that’s not to say they aren’t analytical and complicated. Poems and stories delve into what lies beneath the everyday work that language usually does. Literature, I like to think, gestures towards truths, not falsehoods (although this is not always true), even (and especially?) when it is fictional.

How can this be? Well, here’s how.

Poems and stories aim to engage readers in a game of meaning-making, an interactive back and forth with the texts, where we folx assemble meaning and coherence. Or if we can’t do that, we have a better sense of why we can’t make coherence; we leave the poem or narrative in question with a better sense of what we don’t understand.

And arguably, that too is a moment of understanding.

Word art accustoms us to complicated thinking, to analysis and interpretation. To speculation and questioning. To disagreement and towards discussion. In other words, reading literary language is good practice for thinking about how words work and how meaning gets created. In more other words, it’s good practice for reading documents like the Mueller Report, which are actually straightforward in comparison to literary writing.

This is not to say that word art tells us what to think. Nope. Word art playfully obliges us to jump in and question, and then to extrapolate, imagine, and contemplate in ways that are subtler and more complex than what we generally encounter in our mundane, if troubled world.

We are invited and then enjoined to ask, wonder, and ponder.

So it is with the beautiful short story by poet/activist/novelist Ryka Aoki, whom we are proud to publish in this issue. In “A Different Way Home,” an unusual girl makes unusual connections with that which is concealed at the heart of her everyday urban surroundings. Other writers in our issue follow suit, giving us different perspectives and suggesting nuanced truths about what people mean to each other, what we notice, and how we all communicate. In Jane Vincent Taylor’s prose poem, re-seeing nature through the lens of an avant-garde painter empowers a vision at once personal and religious. Eric Heyne uses fishing, sex and ice to get us thinking about our relationships with death, desire, and the cold. Srilatha Rajagopal’s protagonist tells her daughter an ancient tale, as she prepares to drastically reshape her own story. The stories we tell shape us and our descendants. They may even give us a dangerous new life.

But what poems and stories really do is help us to perceive anew. As Aoki suggests, seeing differently leads to connecting differently, and this new insight/outlook leads to both transformation and communion in the senses of both communicating and joining together.

“Art is communion,” Albert Camus once wrote, and indeed Aoki’s story leans out of its frame towards readers, waving us into a deeper mode of thought and feeling.

Pay attention, the writers are all saying in this issue. Pay attention and notice.

We can notice places and people who are far from us, or we can retread the same old spaces with new curiosity and perspicacity. I’ll share that Paige Dempsey’s lyric essay reminds me personally to be alert to the places where I often go. Thanks to her, I can re-cross Deception Pass Bridge with a new sense of connection to it and other bridges. I see my usual trajectory differently.

And speaking of seeing differently, how about SHARK REEF’s new look? I hope you enjoy our website’s new updated appearance.

May we all seek bridges between each other and between ideas, ideals, and understandings.

And if you haven’t yet done so, take a look at the Mueller Report. It’s actually easy reading.

Copyright 2019 Hammer