Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Mouthpiece to the Sacred

by Editor in Chief Mary Bast 
The idea of human memory as a folded or patchwork process is familiar to those who read and write braided essays . . . the "threads" combine thematically to form a more complete and pliable piece of nonfiction . . . in handfuls that don't abide by chronological time. Sarah Minor, "What Quilting and Embroidery Can Teach Us About Narrative Form, Literary Hub, 9/22/17.
The best memoir has a clear focus, theme, and takeaway -- something heartfelt, universal, and true. But if recollections are forced to be linear and sequential, there's a risk of oversimplifying the complicated tapestry of life. And this is true not only of nonfiction. Contemporary novels have also left the sequential story structure behind, some by alternating points in time, some by alternating chapters by different characters, the strands then formally braided or at least implied. One fine example is Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, a tapestry woven from five voices: Orleanna, Leah, Ruth May, Rachel, and Adah.

Writing about this technique in creative nonfiction, Brenda Miller suggests braiding isn't simply a mosaic with fragmented and juxtaposed pieces:
. . . it has more of a sense of weaving about it, of interruption and continuation, like the braiding of bread . . . What I'm hoping is that by the eating of this bread together we begin to respond to a hunger unsatisfied by everyday food, unvoiced in everyday language. We'll begin to formulate a few separate strands; we'll mull them over, roll them in our hands, and bring them together in a pattern that acts as a mouthpiece to the sacred. "A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay," pp. 14-24, Writing Creative Nonfiction, Carolyn Forché and Philip Gerard (Eds)
Its break from traditional sequencing is one of the many attractions of Emily Hipchen's memoir, Coming Apart Together: Fragments from an Adoption. Even her title evokes an image of parting and reweaving. Readers will admire her writerly brilliance and identify with her experience even if not an adoptive parent or adopted child. One needn't have had a wild and crazy childhood in Texas to fall in love with Mary Karr's The Liar's Club or been a poverty-stricken boy in Ireland to be fascinated by Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes.

The following excerpts from Hipchen's memoir show what Brenda Miller describes in "A Braided Heart" as ". . . separate parts intersecting, creating the illusion of wholeness, but with the oh-so-pleasurable texture of separation."

An early strand in the book is from the author's near present:
Fifteen days ago came the call . . . What I hear is a woman's voice. I immediately think "New York." I immediately think "foreign, unknown, stranger," and tune out all but anything that might be important. The timbre of the voice is deep, it has a girlishness to it though, an under-giggle of helium, so I think "young" . . ." Your father my husband and I would like to talk to you. Will you call us? . . . "We love you very much." There are beeps almost as meaningful as what she says, a hiss of tape. Who loves me? Who. I replay and replay, working the pieces together.
Soon we read a strand from her imagined infant self, only six months after her birth:
Six months ago I was born. Six months ago I was named Mary Beth Delany by the woman who labored thirty-six hours in darkness and daylight to have me and then let me go . . . She set her face into the winter light, moved her left leg, her right leg, and found that she was walking . . .  and from the arms of a nun I stretched out my sloppy fists and smiled toothlessly, grinned and grinned and grinned as I did for every stranger, since everyone was a stranger . . . and they took me into their family, and began calling me . . . Emily. Their daughter.
Then we're back to a near-present strand:
On one of the first days I have contact with Anna and Joe, my father explains about sports . . . He unwraps his arm and stretches it across the table as if the limb were my gift . . . And says, "These are pitchers' arms." And says, "These are your arms." They are, emphatically.
Another strand from the past, when the author was in elementary school:
In fourth grade was the Mendel project. Genetics. Monks and sweet peas. The project consisted of this: a worksheet on which each student was to record all the ways in which he or she resembled his or her parents . . . I told the truth: I was adopted . . . Thus verified, I was given something else to do. I sat all week alone . . . dreaming of my birth-mother coming to gather me . . . .
And a strand that holds both present and past:
I can remember being a child and dreaming my imagined mother alive . . . a better mother than mine, not so short-tempered, not so difficult to understand, not so other-than-me . . . But this is what I struggle with now, here, since it seems paradoxical, since it violates some substratum of feeling I can't yet excavate: for all the trouble I've had and caused, for all that it's taken me to get here, to be thirty-five years old, to be what I am, I can't wish the undoing of it, of any of it. To do so would unmake me.
A later strand frames an internal braiding of the author's own story with that of her newly discovered Aunt Elizabeth:
I am the daughter Anna's sister Elizabeth never had . . . I tell her, "It is difficult, you know, seeing my face walking around everywhere else. After all these years of not knowing . . . [Joe] says Aunt Beth ran away from her family when she was eighteen. . . [her story] becomes the companion piece to my own leaving, it has motives I comprehend . . . the powerful sense of having some control over one's own destiny. . . Our stories overlap and braid . . like mine, her father was violent and controlling. . .
As we near the end, Hipchen reflects on the various parts of her braid:
I wonder, as I sit writing this, this the story of one event's impact, how much of my understanding of what happens to me and to everyone else is really more just our seeing, through the dimness in which we sit, the shadowy outlines of things passing by rolled-up windows, too fast really to be more than blurs, too unfamiliar to be anything but what we imagine them to be? 
Bit by bit, she weaves all together, admitting that some of her braided work must be imagined:
. . . The woman who gave birth to me, the man who helped make me, and the five children they had after me became names and faces to me, exited my unconscious and became incarnate . . . The struggle is in telling a true story when there are so many different kinds of truth, so many different angles, voices, possibilities, nothing linear, nothing really straight and tellable . . . How impossible it all is . . . But you know that's the thing about telling a true story, I think. Usually, to tell it at all sensibly, actually say what's true, you have to line up the bits and pieces you can just about see distinctly and imagine the rest.
Finally, I could find no better mouthpiece to the sacred in this compelling memoir than Emily Hipchen's own words:
We are all children looking for our lost parents. Or lost parents, looking for our children.

". . . Read this book if you want to understand and experience the tangled knot of love, anger, self-doubt, and courage at the heart of adoption memoirs. . . ." ~ Rebecca Hogan, Editor of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies and Professor of English and Women's Studies, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Bacopa Literary Review 2017: From the Editor

The intersection of arts and political activism are two fields defined by a shared focus of creating engagement that shifts boundaries, changes relationships and creates new paradigms... a space where valuable insight can be found through reflection and sharing.
~ Art and Politics, The Power of Creativity and Activism Across the Globe," Annette Blum, Huffington Post, THE BLOG, 03/21/2016.

We live in an age of environmental concerns, political dissent, divisiveness, war, discrimination, and suffering made personal by instant internet access. No wonder poets, writers, and artists seek meaning and provide inspiration through their creative efforts. Certainly our 2017 contributors have rendered art that will bring readers inside life's deepest truths.

Delving first into the deeper blues, whether reading of the unknown lost, the well-known, or those known only to our writers--fathers, mothers, siblings, children, friends--you'll wonder if your heart's response is more joy or sorrow or a mix of both. Omit the sparrow and the thought / of bird remains. . . So it is with loss, writes Sally Zakariya. (Click here and scroll down to "Up From the Tropics" to see "Theory of Omission," from which these lines are borrowed.)

Exploring life's unexpected bits of sweetness, we admire the wild bite of stars, hug a baby close against fears of an unknown future, heal addiction in our dreams, recall as children how we were good help even though we also peed in the family pool, remember vividly such characters as Stephanie Dickinson's Velma, whose voice was a laughing gull's.

We still believe in love, that feeling every time you dazzle in the shine of someone new, being touched as if our scars are beautiful, even when love is like a blade, when we fear we might drown, when we pay a fine, when we ponder ways to lose a guy/girl. And we hope, with Tamara Adelman, that being alone with a lover in nature will provide some reassurances.

Our contributors, at liberty to sink caution, bemoan news that's about what sells, lying to ourselves while others wake up to violent explosions. They grieve coming-out children who hear echoes of "abomination," challenge the message for young girls to be patient and pretty and sending boys to war who would rather be foraging for berries. Then a reprieve in "The Soloist" by Andrew Brown: What would divide us meets in her radiant throat.

These writers and poets are concerned about earth's well-being, the only home you ever knew. In a world that's ending, just once more, as though any generation could avoid its end by consuming the next, mothers carry their children through waist-high water, streets full of soda cans and road signs, trees uprooted like a jumble of giant pick-up sticks. Still, some believe this is only a test. We are lulled by the blue rush of the surf and we nail old shoes in trees for homeless birds to live in. If anyone felt desire, Clif Mason assures us, the wind would blow again.

The final section features work where buzzing of bumblebees is the soundtrack, their honey a sovereign remedy, a muffle-hush falling when mountains breathe mist. While driving in boiling turnpike traffic we see: Suddenly--sheep!  We feel with each bloom its thin green legs, see hummingbirds careen in plein air, watch the powdery glitter of snow. We believe, with Jim Johnston, that the seeds of courage are planted in darkness, and from there they must grow. . . if we do not want to call the darkness home.

May the artful reflections of contributors to Bacopa Literary Review 2017 bring you valuable insights in our tumultuous times.

Editor in Chief
Bacopa Literary Review

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Against the Storm: We Are Dazzled by Love

by Editor in Chief Mary Bast
The question of whether climate change "caused" any particular weather event is the wrong one; instead, we must probe how climate change alters extreme weather. Aside from the warming atmosphere, rising sea levels and surface ocean warming have likely contributed to the impact of both Irma and Harvey. Dann Mitchell, NERC Research Fellow at the University of Bristol's Cabot Institute.
Here in Gainesville, Florida, as we prepare for the impact of Irma, it's difficult to concentrate on anything. And yet it seems the perfect time to reiterate our theme of the intersection of art and activism, time to remember that art "mirrors the aesthetic standard of the day and also provides a window into the historic context of the time." A vital part of that context is the element of love, stories of human connection, of friendship, helping, and heroism amidst the storms.

I had hurt my back carrying bags of canned food in from the car and was dreading bringing in everything from the patio; at that moment there was a knock on the door and a member of our maintenance team brought in everything for me. One of my friends was shopping for plywood to board up the window in her 95-year-old mother's room when she noticed two young men who live near her; they returned with her and helped her board up the window. I read about a woman who needed a generator for her father's oxygen machine in case their power fails; the man who had just picked up the last generator gave her his, and she fell into his arms, weeping.

We at Bacopa Literary Review believe in love, we love Ellaraine Lockie's poem "In the Friendship Lab," featured in our 2017 issue, and we invite you to remember the power of love, "every time you dazzle in the shine of someone new . . .
If it overflows, be like the flower it waters
when you meet someone worth unfolding for . . ."