Issue Twenty-One - Winter 2013

Words Taking on the World

By Jeremiah O’Hagan
Co-editor for prose

We sat and smoked in the 2 a.m. December cold. It was windy and clear at the edge of Gasworks Park, and across Lake Union’s chop, Seattle blazed, a constellation of lights and lives arranged into a cityscape. High cloud cover glowed silky silver-yellow, the city’s reflection smeared across the sky.

I was buoyant. I’d been to a show with my friends, it was my first time at Gasworks and I’d just finished two big reading projects: A stack of prose submissions for this journal and, less than a dozen hours ago, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

It is 1939 in the book. Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay are teenagers, cousins and Jews. Sammy lives in a New York City apartment with his mom and Joe slips out of Prague just ahead of the Germans to live in the U.S. with relatives he’s never met. Their first night together, “longing for cigarettes and for all the things that this longing, in its perfect frustration, seemed to embody,” Joe splits open seven butts, empties the last shreds of tobacco into a creased Zig Zag wrapper and hand-rolls them a smoke (11). He and Sammy lift the bedroom window, wriggle their upper bodies through side by side, and pass it back and forth.

Over the next 15 years that Chabon’s epic spans, Kavalier and Clay become comic book artists. From frustration and powerlessness, they fashion superheroes. For Joe, “It was the expression of a yearning that a few magic words and an artful hand might produce something—one poor, dumb, powerful thing—exempt from the inevitable failures of the greater Creation. It was the voicing of a vain wish, when you got down to it, to escape” (582).

The moment at Gasworks Park seemed fitting after Kavalier & Clay, right down to the cigarettes and gaping at the city, like we were somehow inside the novel and it wasn’t Seattle and maybe it wasn’t even New York, it was some ache in all of us, burning across the water in pinpoints of individual hopes and dreams and failures. It reminded me of reading Joan Didion for the first time, knowing I should have done so years earlier but happy I hadn’t, because that exact day seemed perfect. The first essay I read was “Goodbye to All That.” It made sense of my past at the same time it pointed a way forward. It made me nostalgic, heartsick all at once for those things already irretrievably lost and everything not yet experienced or even dreamed.

The next day, I finger-tapped something to that effect into my iPhone and texted it to my friend. He wrote back about “experiences, often promoted by vistas, that make us feel simultaneously diminished and expanded.”

The desk in my apartment is hardly a vista, but as I read each SHARK REEF submission, that feeling is what I looked for. To be diminished and expanded. And I was longing to escape.

André Aciman, in a recent Paris Review piece, wrote, “Art is how we quarrel with time.”

It is how we deal with loss. With nostalgia. With change. It’s an attempt to preserve a past for a future in a present that’s ever slipping away. Our best efforts are always exactly that: best efforts. And they always come from previous failures. How can we not, then, when confronted with good art, be at once saddened and jubilant?

Reading one of the 12 submissions that editor Lorna Reese and I eventually selected — there are six pieces of fiction and six of nonfiction with varying degrees of poetic license — I stopped to text another friend. “Just ran across this description,” I typed. “’Wisps of ground fog oozed up through the Rhine valley like we were getting ready for a production of Macbeth.’ I don’t want this piece to end.”

It is a story of escape, but also of returning. Other pieces, like Angelique Stevens’ “Exposure,” bear witness to the writer’s own experiences of juxtaposition, entropy, enlightenment, transformation. In “Luggage Check,” Brandon McNulty sketches the character and rascality that exist in tandem in each of us.

Some pieces confront, slantwise, the disassembly and reassembly that necessarily takes place when we try to make sense of the world. Nancy Penrose constructs this gorgeously and cloaks it in a monkey: “A male took flight … Like a spring relaxing, he landed his leap in a tree across the water and planted his buttocks on a branch … Undisturbed. At rest. His body reassembled into a whole.”

In other pieces, authors look for meaning in an island evening party, in the 1960s, in chance meetings at bars and the way they tempt and test and resolve us, and, as always, in death. Is that not the ultimate disassembly, and memorializing the ultimate attempt at putting someone back together?

There are ten poems here as well, selected by poets Tom Aslin and Gary Thompson. All these things hold true of poetry. “The truth of poetry,” Philip Levine said, “is not the truth of history.” It’s a truth condensed, made essential or blown up. It’s an escape from the limits of everyday language to a place where words speak at the same time they cry and dance and harmonize. It’s about “How we longed / to fly in our youth, catch / a pinch of the rainbow to / ride it by its tail.” About making sense of being the last survivor of a Native American tribe, about how we “learn wind’s power in the story of her sails.” In poems’ smallness lies great power.

In the end, we are not far from superheroes again, are we? Ordinary, unassuming words taking on the world. The inventions of average people, manufactured in moments of hope and spunk and spite, to combat greater failures, injustices and misunderstandings. This is why we must create. A wild leap for perfection and beauty, knowing already that we won’t make it. Quite. This time.