A New South: Diane Simmons on Valerie Nieman’s Blood Clay

Blood Clay, Valerie Nieman, Press 53

In her new novel, Blood Clay, set rural North, Carolina, Valerie Nieman is interested in the tangled social lines of the new South, the struggle of newcomers to belong, and of natives to keep their balance in changing times. Beneath the fascination with change runs a deep love for the changeless, the way the deep roots of a place can hold and comfort, despite the complications of both past and present.

Nieman’s heroine, Tracy Gaines, has left a failed marriage and bad weather up north, and journeyed down to the red dirt tobacco country of Saul County, North Carolina. Here she falls in love with a “slouchy” old farm house, “whiter in the moonlight than in the day, half hidden by the cedars that reached the second story porch.” The house, she believes, will, with a lot of hard work, allow her to earn belonging: “Resurrected board by board, the scraping and painting. . .would settle her in that place, make her a part of its history.” Her efforts at the house are overseen by a pack of feral cats; they will take her food but won’t come close. They—like Tracy herself—are not entirely sure she’ll make it.

While the house has all the charm of a Southern romance, Tracy’s job is another story, a tough haul, usually thankless, sometimes dangerous, in an “alternative” school for teenagers who are “behaviorally impaired,” “emotionally damaged,” or simply learning disabled with no place else to be sent. Also teaching at the school is Dave, an old-family, native of the place, who tried to leave Saul County for the big city of Baltimore. After a brutal encounter there, he has returned, a cripple in more ways than one: “I’m afraid I’ve turned into a racist,” he says, “as well as a coward.” Though born and raised here, he is, and in some ways is as much an outsider as Tracy.

She has also gotten acquainted with Artis, the divorced father of one of her troubled students, and a tobacco farmer whose land is adjacent to hers. But her neighbor’s wide smile is misleading. When Tracy invites him over to drink a glass of tea and inspect her work on the old house, his smile fades. “Oh honey. Let’s just stay neighbors,” he says before turning and walking off to his truck. “You got too much cat in you for a hound like me.”

Still new to the challenges of the house, the job, and local society, Tracy, driving alone on a dark country road, is witness to a terrible accident involving a child. In the days afterward, rumors and charges swirl. Some claim that the new teacher from up North caused the horrible accident. Some say she has sought to cast blame unfairly on Artis. At the very least, others say, she had not acted honorably, but stood by in shameful cowardice; a true person of the place would have taken action to save the child. This last view is one that Tracy is not sure but what she shares herself. The accident and its aftermath embroil her in a police inquest, and bring her head-to-head with both Artis and the child’s mother. Tracy is still “new,” but the accident tugs her painfully but deeply into the life of the hamlet.

Though the story is tautly suspenseful, it has its beauties too, especially in the close, sensual exploration of the old house and the woods surrounding it. In a “midden” pile that she finds in the wood, for example, Tracey excavates evidence of the past, an old belt buckle, a little stoneware bowl from the 1930s, an ancient jar of cobalt blue. As she digs in the heavy red clay, she is rewarded by the scent of the deep and on-going life of the place, the “yeasty smell of the opened ground,” as good as “bread baking in the kitchen.”


Diane Simmons’ short fiction collection, Little America, winner of the 2010 Ohio State University prize for fiction, will be published by the Ohio State University Press in June. Her short story, “Yukon River,” was a runner-up for the 2010 Missouri Review Editor’s Prize. Other short fiction has appeared in numerous journals such as Beloit Fiction Review, Blood Orange Review, and Northwest Review.

Atoms of Life: Grady Harp on Meg Pokrass’s Damn Sure Right

Damn Sure Right, Meg Pokrass, Press 53, 2011

Damn Sure Right is a collection of quickies that are better designed moments of fiction than most writers spend pages and pages developing. Each of this at times single page stories, at times 2-3 page stories find a fascinating little detail to explore, a snatch of a story told with carved sentences that create atmosphere not unlike those little snow scenes you shake and watch your own story develop until the mechanical snow settles at the bottom.

A lot of the themes (if that is what label we can use to dot the i and cross the t as fast as Pokrass can) involve little encounters – ‘Brain Chemistry’ floats a scene between two girls whose attractions can be quickly altered by Jim Beam before the truths come out; ‘Freaky Forty’ tersely defines a man who bakes, stands naked on his head for yoga exercises, and uses Botox; ‘Foreign Accent Syndrome’ revisits two girls after a year’s absence; ‘Scraps’ gives in a few words an indescribably touching mother/daughter relationship. ‘Thirty-Nine’ throws at us the thoughts of a woman who seems to be taking up with an old flame – one who hasn’t lived up to expectations. ‘Irina’s Hair Shop’ is the crux for a newlywed couple, the wife obsessed with health foods, the husband gets a haircut and complains his hair is falling out due to his wife’s tofu lasagna: the strange little Russian stylist gets that last word.

Or Pokrass can make a story out of a ‘To Do List’:

1. Wake adolescent daughter with softest mom voice, tell her it’s time to get up and ready for school. She hates to be late, even 10 seconds, because she hates to be noticed.

2. Cereal and orange juice are ready, you say.

3. Cut puzzle pieces of parboiled meat for sick cat, microwave low, re-animate, sprinkle cat vitamins, serve on cat tree,

4. Measure out dog food, mix with pumpkin and green beans or dog diet.

5. Use kitty voice. Isolate other cat in bathroom with stars of kibble.

6. Prepare for drive to school by finding keys and sunglasses in purse despite the stain remover stick, planet stickers, half-eaten food bar, lavender hand sanitizer. Hiding like thieves, keys often play this game forever.

7. Talk to dog about losing things all the time.  He is the most well-adjusted creature in the house. Offer volume discount for this service itemized as “dog love” (note to self – always talk to dog).

8. Calm the surly adolescent who used to be your adoring child.

9. Put on function face, lip color, deflate hair with water – forgive it.

It just goes on and on. Pokrass is not only a genius for finding little atoms of life to poke but she does it with such dexterity that every now and then the reader has to look up form this terrific little book and simply say ‘Wow!’ More please.

Only Connect: Angela Lam on Tara Masih’s Where the Dog Star Never Glows

Where the Dog Star Never Glows, Tara L. Masih, Press 53, 2010

Tara L. Masih, an accomplished flash fiction writer whose work has garnered honors from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and nominations for the Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Web, debuts with Where the Dog Star Never Glows, a collection of short stories that includes both poetic distillations and exotic locals that focus on the intimacy or the lack of intimacy in the characters’ lives.

In “The Guide, the Tourist, and the Animal Doctor,” Therese supplements her income as a tour guide in the East Caribbean through selling coconut pops to support her family after her husband abandons her for another woman. One of Therese’s clients asks for help for a tourist friend with an injured cat. Therese promises to offer assistance. She visits Irvin, the animal doctor, who loves Therese although he suspects “she might never believe that there was no one else but her that Irvin wanted, that she would always search the shadows for betrayal.” Irvin agrees to help the tourist, but his motives originate from his love for Therese although he has very little hope of breaking through Therese’s resistance. Masih’s skillful use of metaphor, imagery, and language enriches the narrative. Masih’s ability to always write from the depths of her character allows complete immersion in the experience of the tale. For example, when Masih describes Irvin’s struggle to connect more meaningfully with Therese, she writes, “Irvin always tried to lift their casual relationship to another level in the way he would lift the dead weight of an unconscious animal.”
Masih continues to explore the theme of intimacy in the story, “Ghost Dance.” Brandy, a divorced man, moves to a mining town that has been restored to a tourist attraction in Montana hoping to start over and rebuild his life. Brandy is closed off out of fear and the need for protection, although “what he was really scared of was himself.” Others in town pull him back into their world for a while, but Brandy always remains separate, especially once he starts hearing a ghost. The “silk against silk” sound he hears is the ghost of a school teacher who lies on a bed sobbing. Brandy reaches out to comfort her, but she disappears. The ephemeral connection between man and ghost parallels the transitory connection all humans experience. The intimacy between the ghost and Brandy is “as close as two different centuries could get without destroying the other’s illusion.” Masih knows the mystery of love relies as much on what is imagined about the beloved as what is real.

In “Say Bridgette, Please,” a young woman fails to connect with a man through sex. Mourning the death of her father and the boredom of summer, Bridgette seduces a man through her need to belong, to transcend her experience of living “right side up in an upside-down world.” But sex fails to deliver the sense of belonging she craves. The man’s scent lingers on her skin, and she plucks “a few flowers from the vine near her head to lay them on her chest to cover the scent.” The healing power of nature restores her sense of self, and she is able to write her name in the packed earth, both claiming her sense of belonging to the world and differentiating herself as an individual of value.
Some of the stories continue with the theme of connecting through nature. In “Suspended,” a woman survives an automobile accident with the help of a tree “who loves her too much to drop her.” When the woman is finally rescued a week later, “she still cries in grief when they (the rescuers) have to chainsaw through a heavy limb to release her.” The woman’s relationship with the tree reflects the biblical notion of the greatest love of all, which is to lay down one’s life for a friend. The tree allows itself to be sacrificed for the woman’s sake.
Other stories feature the hope for continual human connection, such as in “Huldi,” a story describing a young bride’s marriage preparations in India. The transformation from single to married, moving from one family to the creation of another through the loving bonds of sensual connection is best summed up by the narrator who “closes her eyes, imagines that Mama’s hands are his (her future husband’s).” In “Delight,” a disfigured young woman working in a candy shop in Puerto Rico discovers the tenderness of unconditional love in a visiting surfer who promises to come back for her.

All in all, Masih triumphs in her ability to convey the failure and success of the human longing for connectedness and individuality through her rich, poetic stories. Each story drips with striking images such as “evening’s August melon light,” “windows glazed with the fog of her breath,” “sesame seeds…like schools of white reef fish,” and “raining liquid sunshine.” Metaphors such as the machete in “The Guide, the Tourist, and the Animal Doctor” tie the story together and deliver a deeper meaning. Although the exotic locations from the Caribbean to India satisfy a level of voyeuristic curiosity, they more importantly unify the themes of longing, loneliness, and connection that affect all humans, regardless of their culture. I highly recommend picking up a copy of Where the Dog Star Never Glows by Tara L. Masih. The book is slim enough to devour in a weekend, although the stories, so textured and layered, are best savored one story at a time with long spaces in between to breathe and feel and dream.

In Brief: Russell Bittner on In an Uncharted Country by Clifford Garstang

In an Uncharted Country, Clifford Garstang, Press 53, 2009

Good poetry is a many-layered thing.  A good poem invites several visits in order for its reader to discover additional layers—or meanings—with each new reading.  Not so, generally speaking, with prose, no matter how good.

Clifford Garstang’s collection of related stories, In an Uncharted Country, is an exception to that general rule.  I know.  I read this collection once in order to review it for Amazon, then re-read it following Daniel Casey’s invitation to re-review it for Gently Read Literature.  I’m glad I did.  It was only upon my second reading that I discovered the layers I’d missed the first time around.  (In self-defense, I should mention that my first reading was relegated, due to my immediate circumstances, to the subway—a place of much noise and many distractions.  In order to give the work the benefit of my undivided attention, I restricted my second reading to quiet time at home.)

In an Uncharted Country deals with ordinary folks in ordinary circumstances doing sometimes extraordinary things.  Sam Shepard allegedly once remarked “It ain’t the story, son; it’s how you tell it.”  I think that remark applies quite aptly to Cliff’s collection.

Many of these stories deal with familiar themes.  Two of the best—at least in my opinion—“Saving Melissa” and “Heading for Home,” are variations on a pair of themes many writers have taken refuge in.  No matter.  Cliff does them the best kind of justice.  One of the most poignant points in the plot of “Saving Melissa” may or may not be directly derivative of a device first used (so far as I know) by Evelyn Waugh in his short story “Bella Fleace Gave a Party.”  It doesn’t matter.  Cliff dusted off the device, gave it a new twist and subsequently created just as memorable a moment.

In the final story, “Red Peony,” In an Uncharted Country brings Cliff’s long list of characters together to celebrate a July 4th barbeque.  I trust his readers will feel every bit as celebratory by the time they get this far.  Cliff’s characters—most without a roadmap or even a compass—travel by many different roads to get to this celebration.  Luckily for his readers, Cliff keeps us firmly on course from start to finish.

Purchase In an Uncharted Country

The Mythic, The Individual and The Personal: Scott Owens on Linda Annas Ferguson’s Dirt Sandwich

Dirt Sandwich, Linda Annas Ferguson, Press 53

For poets, every word is a first word, still full of the power and freshness of creation as they struggle without the tools of logic or reason to “put it right.” In her poem “Breech Birth,” Linda Annas Ferguson captures that sense of urgent discovery in the lines, “I had a hard time getting the beginning right, /…no measure / for what is true…/ an abrupt breath rushing / into me…filling / my body with a sudden urge to cry.” She repeats the sentiment in “The First Word,” a poem about Adam’s love of words:

He strained to fill his tongue with every thought,
unable to identify the pleasure, raw
with newness and power, mouth parting–
their genesis and tone feeling true.

Such is the reverie of Ferguson’s fifth collection of poetry, Dirt Sandwich, newly out from Press 53. In one poem after another in this collection, Ferguson embraces (a frequently repeated word in these poems) the power of words as a means of embracing life. In “Genesis,” we hear again of the vitality of language for Adam:

Words lived in his bones,
touched his tongue, still wild,
a slow burning freedom
inside every sound.

How he longed for more words
to love, thought they could save
him from the wet falling sky,
from red flaming sunsets,
from all that hadn’t come yet.

Whether it is Adam speaking or a woman reflecting on her own audacity in the act of embracing language and all its potential as a child, the theme of language as a tool of exploration and knowledge is the same, as in these lines from “Innocence:”

When I was three, I could write
my name, scrawled it on doors,
walls, furniture, floors.

When Mama took my crayons,
I fingered it in the cold sweat
of windowpanes, paused to dot
the “I,” an eyehole to the moon.


I can hear my mother’s “Don’t–

touch,” as I poked
at splintering fissures of frost
on the other side of the window–

and all that enchanted me
about the broken.

As these last lines suggest, the poet’s love of the world is not limited to all that we normally think of as good. Rather, she has a more even-handed curiosity about and appreciation of all experience, all that life has to offer, all that living uncovers. Seamlessly, the next poem, “Topless Dancer,” begins her stubborn exploration of the forbidden and the tragic:

She embraces her own body,
cups a glitter-laden breast,
a golden moon. Dance
is the way she speaks,
embodies what she can’t say.

Such juxtaposition of the mythic, the individual and the personal from one poem to the next, or even within the same poem, is characteristic of the collection and illustrates the correctness of Jung’s concept of archetypes and the reason Confessionalism still works in poetry. This practice of relating the individual to the mythic, the personal to the universal as a means of deepening one’s experience of life, granting greater meaning to the seemingly insignificant details of our days, and revealing the still-relevant humanity behind the sometimes all-too-distant stories that represent us as a species is again made clear in “Rainbows Are Real:”

Once I saw a rainbow while flying,
looking down from the sky, not an arc,
but a complete circle, the plane’s silhouette
in the center. Pilots call it a “glory.”

I wonder if this was the way one first appeared
to God, His magnified shadow hovering
over muddy land and multitudes of dead bodies.

And so it continues throughout the book, each poem teaching us to reach deeper into the joys, the sorrows, and the mere details of life to find meaning, to understand that pressed between birth and death is the stuff of life “alive with dying” (“The Origin of Entropy”), the stuff of our very own dirt sandwich and to remember, in the words of poet Galway Kinnell ,that there is “still time, / for one who can groan / to sing, / for one who can sing to be healed.” It is a story everyone knows but few pause to contemplate. Thank you, Linda Annas Ferguson, for helping us be aware that we live.