Author Archives: Abbie Lahmers
Indiana Review, Volume 39, Issue 1
Since I’m a Michigan girl in central Georgia, of course I’d want to review something that feels a bit like home. I was also drawn to the 2016 Half K Prize judge, Aimee Nezhukumatatil, whose name has been floating around my literary social circles a lot in the last few years. Nezhukumatatil’s work has granted her an NEA Fellowship and a Pushcart Prize, among other honors. While her list of accomplishments is intimidating, her poetry is not; she’s often acclaimed for the simplicity and accessibility of her poems.
This issue is bisected by the METALLIC GRIT Special Folio, glossy pages highlighting prose and fiction that defines what “grit” means to the editors. Here you can read a Half K Prize finalist, “Adoration of the J Girls,” by Rochelle Hunt; a poem by Oliver de la Paz titled “Autism Screening Questionnaire: Social Interaction Difficulties”; and “Understory” by Ethan Feuer, a mixed media piece with a guide to show readers points of connection between his numbered sections of poetic line.
Outside of the Metallic Grit Folio, I was intrigued by Neel N. Patel’s story “The Taj Mahal.” The story revolves around an unreliable first-person narrator named Sabrina, who has recently lost her parents and her job as an OB/GYN. After returning to her empty childhood home, Sabrina goes to an old friend’s Christmas party to reconnect. While going out to smoke a cigarette, the old friend’s boyfriend decides to smoke with her. In an alcohol-inspired decision, the unlikely pair go back to visit Sabrina’s childhood home. The story, full of unlikely turns, is soft and believable. It asked me to take notice of unresolved grief and how it embodies itself. While an incredibly funny story, it is also terribly human, inviting readers inside a world completely like and unlike our world.
Other noteworthy poets and writers in this journal include sam sax, whose debut poetry collection, Madness, was published by Penguin Random House in September. In his poem “Mass Hysteria” sax challenges how we see what we see. Each line speaks to a binary that dwells inside all of us: a binary where we are good or bad, where we run or we fight. sax takes many different worlds and weaves them together so we see both shame and beauty in ourselves; he plays with this binary and breaks the expectations of it all at once. Alongside are poems by Ash Goedker, whose work explores humanity, childhood, and Babe the Blue Ox.
Despite an eclectic array of subjects, this issue of Indiana Review is in conversation with itself—each story, memory, and poem informing the others and enriching the reading experience. In print since 1977, Indiana Review has been a sustaining force for great work in our ever-changing literary landscape. If you’d like to pick up a copy, you can find it here https://indianareview.org/the-magazine/. *
Reviewed by Danielle Johnson
The Arts & Letters staff was saddened by news of contributor Naira Kuzmich’s death two weeks ago. Naira’s short story, “Beginning Armenian,” from Issue 27 can be found here, and is also excerpted below.
Adjectives are steadfast; while the noun it’s describing may change in number, the adjective remains the same.
Illness in a family can either break or strengthen it and there was never a time that I thought we’d fall apart. My parents were, in their own ways, people of action. I kept them busy. Dad put in more hours to pay my bills, my mother worried. The summer I came home from school, after my failed dalliances in poetry and sex, I began my treatment.
Young women with breast cancer are treated aggressively. Doctors try to leave no chance for the human spirit to weaken, for it to play a part. They think that young patients aren’t as resilient, that they generally have not been tested. He recommended that I have my left breast removed. A mastectomy. The tumor clocked in at 1.96 centimeters, small enough to have a lumpectomy, a procedure that could’ve saved most of my breast tissue, but he didn’t want to risk it. Do you want to risk it, he asked. And what could I tell him—that a man had yet to touch that left breast with love, yet to stand quiet, in awe, of my body, at the foot of my bed? Of course not, I told him. Get rid of the whole thing.
Before the surgery, I told my father to buy a lot of plastic chairs, just in case, for all the mourners. Our apartment was too small and they’d have to remember me outside in the backyard, where I had first jumped rope without a bra. Months later, drunk and in the dark, I’d jump again, staring at the expanse where my left breast used to be, my vision blurring until I saw what I wanted. My mother had watched from the living room window.
The surgery went as planned, and as hoped. After a course of chemo, we can talk about reconstructive surgery, the doctor said. So I did that too, lost my hair at twenty, bought my first wig, then my second, wore chest expanders, got the implant. I was back in school two years later, finished with my treatment at twenty-two, college at twenty-four.
Looking back, I don’t want to say it was easy, but that it was merely easier than my mother thought it would be. It was easier than my mother’s long dying.
All that energy in our bodies, those magical neurons, the little synapses and nerves that shine and sparkle in recognition and memory, all of that is for the young, but for what? There wasn’t much I needed to remember.
The second person singular is used only among the common people.
It’s not easy to take care of someone who doesn’t know why she needs to be taken care of. At first, I only came home a weekend a month, sitting with my mother and telling her about my students, my new friends, describing the paintings I purchased in extraordinary detail. I called more often than I used to. I gave my father addresses for respectable homes that would take both of them in. He refused, as did my mother, in the beginning, when she still had choices, could still make them. She was only sixty when diagnosed. One time she left the house and came back seven hours later from God knows where. She certainly didn’t. I began coming home twice a month. My tickets were round-trips. I’d brush her graying hair—though she still had plenty of black—and I’d tell her about my cat, Lola, the time she vomited on my shoes, my favorite restaurant on Mission Street, the bum on the bus beside me who hollered, “You think your shit doesn’t smell like shit?” when I asked him to stop touching my knee. Another time, my mother knocked over a vase and walked over the glass, feet bleeding, to get to the ringing phone. It was me on the other end. More than once she attacked my father with whatever she could get her hands on—a pen, a spatula, tweezers—thinking him a stranger. I started coming home every weekend.
And it’s not like it is in the movies. There are no happy endings, because there’s no real story, because you forget to ask for one. Because you forget, too, sitting there in front of your disappearing mother, that you’re not talking just to fill the silence. You forget that you should be listening, trying to piece together everything she says, every delusion and nonsense memory. Every strange thing, you should’ve written down, you should’ve recorded every scary laugh. You should’ve tried to keep her talking even as she started crying when she lost her train of thought. You should’ve asked more questions. But sitting there in front of your disappearing mother, you were thinking this is the hardest thing I have ever done and you were thinking, dear God, haven’t I been through enough?
The only one who believed in you was your mother. The doctor was right to take your breast.
The colon is not a colon, but a period. It is two fistfuls of dirt, one on top of the other. It is not a permission to speak or to sing.
If there is a God, then we deserve to be in sorrow only three times in our lives: at birth, at the weddings of our children, and then the minute before our passing. While I was undergoing treatment, my mother was trying to make deals with the devil. Ten years off mine for every extra year you give her. A wrinkle around my eyes for every month you keep her alive. My breast for her breast. Mind for her body.
My mother died a million deaths.
I want to say that I died right there along with her, but that would be a lie. Soot as we say in Armenian, like dirt, absolute shit. I’m back in LA, alive and well. I’m standing in front of a classroom, teaching middle-aged women how to read and write in a language they already know. My students claim to be from the village, all twenty-eight of them. Yes, Professor Chopuryan, we speak Hayeren, but mother and father never taught us how to spell our names or read letters. Cows to milk, floors to wash, wet clothes to hang, lots to do, so much. And I want to believe them, every single one. Nazik Chatinyan with her outlandish highlights and purple eyebrows, imitation Gucci blouses. Anahit Hagopyan, beautiful and quiet, graying hair and a purse-full of tissues and pictures. Gayane Poghosyan, mother of four, chipped nails and cheap mascara. Perhaps they are all from the village, maybe not the same one, but did I not pass many while in Armenia?
I listen to these women’s stories and nod in the right places. I smile and sympathize and take them for their word. I look at their faces and tell them, Go on, I’m listening.
Tell me everything. Soots or truths.
Talk. Say anything, anything at all. *
Kicking off the first interview in our new series, Ampersand, in which we ask former contributors about their writing lives, we spoke with Elisabeth Murawski earlier this week about juggling work and writing, amongst other things. A long time contributor, Murawski’s poems have appeared in Issue 27 and Issue 31, and we are excited to publish new poems from her in an upcoming issue.
A&L: What sort of thing did you write about when you first started writing?
Elisabeth Murawski: One of my first poems, written in college, dealt with rebellion and injustice. A forgettable line (which I haven’t forgotten!): “Convention, I defy you!” Another was based on one of my mother’s stories about someone who liked to set fires. The final line, verbatim from my mother, was “he grows pines.” The rest of the story hadn’t prepared me for that conclusion, but it made for a fine ending, quirky and blunt. Later, there were love poems when I met the man I married. And spiritual sonnets. I wrote fairly accessible stuff at first, but then I discovered Neruda and Vallejo and began to tap into the unconscious and dreams. I wanted that richness of language and imagery, but the results sometimes verged on the opaque and obscure. Eventually I balanced that tendency when I discovered the T’ang dynasty poets. Such clarity and simplicity! And then there was Plath. I resonated to those clipped, edgy lines. I saw her as a sort of oracle telling me you can do this, too.
A&L: What is the toughest bad writing habit that you have had to break, or do you advocate for embracing bad habits?
EM: For years I earned a living writing government training materials, which emphasize plain language and a logical “how to” style. The goal is to help the trainee learn a job; careful and clear explanation is prized. No place for ambiguity, for intuitive leaps. Still, years into retirement, I may find myself slipping into that flat, declarative mode. I’m not sure why it happens; maybe my brain defaults to a blow by blow approach when I’m tired or stressed. Maybe I’m afraid of being called obscure and inaccessible. In my efforts to be understood, I can and do get wordy, include too much, forgetting to give the poem space, the reader space to think and absorb. This even though I realize what is not said can be as important as what is. I admit that in my efforts to “make it better,” I may tinker too much and lose a poem’s magic. One of the ways I’ve handled this tendency is to let the draft sit a while. A few weeks away from what I thought to be complete can be illuminating.
A&L: Do you enjoy reading you work aloud? Centuries ago, poems, and stories were most often sung, not read. How’s your singing voice?
EM: I do enjoy reading my poems aloud. Not only at readings but while I’m working on them in the draft stage. In a way it’s writing for the ear, the equivalent of printing out the poem for the eye—I’ll often see that something isn’t working when I can hold the printed page in my hand. Reading aloud helps me catch the awkward places, the dead spaces, the clunky language not always evident on the page or screen. Hearing the words and their juxtaposition, I ask myself is there music, does it flow? Often I may associate to some other, better, image or word that improves the poem’s cumulative, overall effect. In workshops I’ve stressed to students the importance of this reading-aloud exercise. When I’m lazy, and don’t practice what I preach, I may end up with a poem that needs to be hospitalized. *