Into and Through the Ellipses

by Marjorie Sandor

Dear Reader,

The poet Theodore Roethke once wrote, “I teach myself by going where I have to go.” A variation might be that each new poem, story, or essay has its own secret dynamic, just waiting for the writer to recognize it. Or at least it feels that way when a jumbled fragment of language at last releases a clue to its potential form. It can be a long wait, and in the meantime the project can seem quixotic and wrongheaded. Yet something won’t let you give it up. This was my experience in writing “A Letter of Complaint to Pushkin,” which appeared in AGNI 85. It’s a short story whose particular “quixotics” included a first-person narration by a bored Russian dandy in early 19th century St. Petersburg—a character named Eugene Onegin, a fictional creation long-since made famous by the Great Poet of Russia, Alexander Pushkin.

A misbegotten project, God knows, and one I never thought would make sense to another person, let alone see print.  But somehow it happened—and I’m still surprised by what I learned along the way.

I want to say something about the “spark” of the story—as it is, itself, a little ass-backwards. In June of 2013 I had an assignment from Opera News and a very tight deadline: produce 1,700 words on the relationship of Pushkin’s 1830 verse novel, Eugene Onegin, to Tchaikovsky’s opera, composed three decades later. It was a daunting task for someone only dimly acquainted with either artist, and the sheer number of university library shelves devoted to each of them made me want to hide under a rock.

In the end, I found a way forward and made the deadline. But more crucially, I fell in love with the witty, wise-cracking narrator of Pushkin’s novel, a man who both adores his foppish pal Eugene, and mocks him mercilessly. The novel ends with the narrator leaving Eugene “for long, forever,” kneeling in an agony of unrequited love in the empty boudoir of his beloved. A set of ellipses follows…and that’s it for poor Onegin.

This narrator, with his wit and complex personality, was my favorite thing about the novel, yet he figures not at all in the opera, nor does the marvelous wit and satirical thread in the novel. I confess I was deeply disappointed.

But life goes on…a month or so after I finished writing the article, I still felt this peculiar, aching dissatisfaction, as if I had more to say. Stranger still, the “voice” in my head didn’t sound like my own. It sounded more formal, and more edgy, too: irked, bitter, prone to the rant. Why it came so easily to me I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over time, it’s that for me, that’s the sign of a story beginning to come to life. A voice with a distinct rhythm, and a certain drive—even if it goes around in circles and doesn’t have a character yet, let alone a situation. I typed a few pages in that voice, and set it aside. Not long after, I happened to be reading Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer. In the chapter on “Narration,” she explains how, as she embarked on her first novel, she tricked herself into finding the narrative voice and point of view. Rather than focusing on the question of “who is telling the story,” she says, we should really be asking “Who is listening? One what occasion is the story being told, and why?”

I gave that some thought, and considered that the “voice of Onegin himself,” pissed off at a whole future of readers who might not know him, is even more pissed off at the creator who stranded him in that damned boudoir for the rest of time.

Why not have him directly address Pushkin? Would that give the voice something to focus on?

Yet this decision created yet another problem: expositional contrivance of the worst kind. You’ve winced at this, I’m sure. Characters in dramas who go on long extended restatings of things their listener must already know?

Plus, Onegin was ranting away inside that lady’s sitting room. He didn’t have anything to DO or anywhere to go. What a bore. I broke up with him and walked away just like Pushkin, leaving him in his prison of chintz.

And there he remained, a sleeping-beauty in the form of a bored fop, until one day, I had another deadline—this time, a public reading. I gave myself a challenge: contain this thing in the number of pages specified for the public reading, and finish it, no matter what.

The pressure made me suddenly practical. “What’s missing here?” I asked myself. Every rant is spoken from a certain place and time, right? What if my ranter also had a destination? Where would poor Eugene want to go, if only he could be sprung, Houdini-like, from his prison? I decided he would go to the deathbed of his creator. Why? I didn’t know yet. I just knew where. And how the hell was I going to get him out of there?

I went back to the original novel and looked harder. Then I did more research, this time digging deeper into Pushkin’s biography, and was struck anew by the irony of his death—brought on by a fatal stomach wound sustained in a duel—a finale that eerily mimicked a key event in the novel itself.

Then I wrote an editor’s note, a frame I hoped would give my non-Pushkin-familiar readers the basics they’d need to read my own story.

But I still had the problem of the “physical universe” of Onegin’s situation: there were no windows or doors described in the final scene of the novel. Then I asked myself, “Well, what do you have?” I stared at the page.

At that set of ellipses.

And saw them differently now—not so much a form of punctuation as a form of transportation for my Eugene. Why couldn’t Onegin put his feet into them, and one-two-three, be out of there? Now the story was alive, and Onegin full of hope, and he could go on his mission, a desired fueled journey to see his dying—or already dead—master. This was the first of several surprises that seemed to come not from me, but from the story’s own physical constraints, and my character’s desire to get to his creator’s deathbed in time to say goodbye.

One last question: isn’t it risky to write in the voice of such a famous, already existing literary character? Probably, yes. But he didn’t feel that remote to me. I’ll confess that I let him say a couple of really wildly anachronistic things for the sake of a laugh, and these darlings I had to kill—they read like little vandalisms, break-ins to the story’s universe.

But the most surprising thing of all happened after the story was finished, and I was behind a podium, reading it aloud. Very suddenly, in the midst of reading, I recognized the voice of a dear, cranky, avuncular bachelor pal of my father’s, now long dead. When I was a child, Maurice Rudens was forever standing in my mother’s kitchen with a glass of Scotch, holding forth on music, literature, art, and my father’s imperfections. We all suspected he was in love with our mother. But the bottom line is this: Maury’s passion for literature and his ranty voice were in my bloodstream from early childhood. It was his voice, his bitterness, his yearning for the lover he couldn’t have, that made me feel I “knew” Pushkin’s Onegin so intimately.

There’s one more thing, something I never let myself see or say till right now. Onegin’s voice didn’t just belong to Maurice Rudens. It was my voice too, or one strand of it: my own secret yearning found its way in, under the voice of the cranky voice of complaint that is the story’s dominant mode. Writing into and through the ellipses, freeing Onegin from his bonds but keeping him close, became, at once, an elegy for my own lost Onegin. “A Letter of Complaint to Pushkin,” it turns out, isn’t a letter of complaint at all, but a love letter to literature, and to you, its passionate readers.

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color sandor author photoMarjorie Sandor is the author of four books of short fiction and creative nonfiction, including the linked story collection Portrait of my Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime, winner of the 2004 National Jewish Book Award. Her stories and essays have appeared in such journals as AGNI, The Georgia Review, The Harvard Review, and Opera News, and have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize. She edited the international short-story anthology, The Uncanny Reader, in 2015. She lives in Corvallis, Oregon, and teaches in the MFA Program at Oregon State University. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

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Revisitations: Two Questions with Dilruba Ahmed

AGNI: You use repetition to great effect in your poem “Choke” (AGNI 85). How do you know what bears repeating in your work, and how does the repeated word or phrase change (for you, hopefully for a reader) as you bring it back again? In other words, what do you expect repetition to do?

Ahmed: First, thanks for your kind words about my poem, David! My poem “Choke” is sort of a retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk” in two voices: an unidentified interviewer, and a rural Indian farmer. I can’t say I really know what bears repeating in my poems, but in this case, the voice of the interviewer seemed loud and insistent as I wrote, as though the urge to repeat the questions arose from the interviewer’s dissatisfaction with the initial response. So maybe the interviewer’s repetition stems from a desire to both clarify and undermine the farmer’s replies. At the same time, by giving the farmer a chance to reply more than once to the same question, I think I hoped to create a sense of accumulation, with a larger story emerging bit by bit from snippets. I also hoped to convey a kind of layering and revision that would compel the reader to question both the interviewer and the respondent, with the farmer at times responding to the inquiry with a kind of counter-inquiry. In addition to repeating some of the interviewer’s questions and part of the farmer’s replies, I tried playing around with the repetition of the word “choke.” I was interested in thinking about the various connotations and uses of the word, both the physical act of choking or being choked, as well as the more abstract uses of the term in “choke off” or “chokehold.”

AGNI: One of the things that stands out in your poem “The Feast”(also AGNI 85) is your use of camerawork; you use description to move the reader’s attention from the speaker’s father to the food, from the food to the river, and then on to the children, and so on. How conscious were you of this camerawork in the writing process? How did you know what needed attention, and when?

I wrote “The Feast” about a year and a half after my father died of multiple myeloma. I was visiting a new river park with my kids, the kind of picnic spot my parents visited frequently when I was a child. For a long moment, I felt as though I had somehow stepped outside of time as we conceptualize it, as though the past and present had collapsed. While I did not actually “see” him, I felt my father’s presence very deeply in that park. I suddenly became hyper-aware of all of the seemingly concrete, physical details of the setting: the grass, the trees, the moss, the water. But all the while, I was aware of something else happening. The experience was strange but somehow comforting, as though I’d been given a chance to revisit a familiar dream that was meant to represent real life. So I think that, as I wrote the poem, I was compelled to convey the sensory details of the land and water, perhaps as a counterweight to the strange alteration of time that I had felt.

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Photo credit: Mike Drzal

Dilruba Ahmed’s debut book, Dhaka Dust (Graywolf Press, 2011), won the Bakeless Prize. Her poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, American Poetry Review, New England Review, and Poetry. New work is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Copper Nickel, 32 Poems, Ploughshares, and Aquifer. Her poems have been anthologized in Literature: The Human Experience (Bedford/St. Martin’s), Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas), and elsewhere. Ahmed is the recipient of The Florida Review’s Editors’ Award, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Prize, and a Katharine Bakeless Nason Fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Fear, Love, or Both: A Question with Megan Harlan

AGNI: Your essay “Spider Season” (AGNI 85) brings so many wide-ranging things together, all connected to the central element of spiders: danger, superstition, beauty, home, cultural differences, childhood, and parenthood. How did you know, in writing, which connections you wanted to include, and which (if any) you would ultimately decide to exclude?

Harlan: “Spider Season” began when I noticed, one Fall day, just how many spiders were living on my front porch, because I refused to sweep them away, despite my longstanding arachnophobia. Spiders, as I say in the essay, comprise my one true phobia, yet you’d never guess it to see me near a spider now. How had this happened? Had I actually matured out of my fear? Not exactly: I’d instead developed a deep, if admittedly silly superstition surrounding them. My second awareness: This superstition had cropped up when I became a parent—which also coincided with my settling into the first real home in my life. I’d moved around almost constantly growing up, and “home” had always been a tricky, mysterious subject for me. Yet now I had one—and it was often crawling with spiders.

I started reading about spiders, and the more I learned and remembered about them, the more moved I was by their architectural prowess, their relentless and complex home-building. And that led me to consider my own relationship with the family home, with the psychological resonances of architecture. Though I wasn’t sure where I was headed, I wanted to write the essay as a patterning of ideas, memories, and emotions about spiders, using the simple structure of eight sections to both connote my subject and give me the freedom to wander within it.

It’s very true that—at the risk of confusing creatures and metaphors—this was magpie sort of writing: I kept noticing shiny things off in the distance and bringing them back to the nest. I filled the essay with all the spidery associations that occurred to me—whether pulled from mythologies, religions, the natural world, or aesthetics. And there were so many spider-related incidents involving childhood—my own and my son’s.

But each element had to pass what I’ll call the fear/love test: Did it matter enough to me to strike fear, inspire love, or—best of all—both? This was a very helpful measure in culling my material. I jettisoned almost immediately, for example, the time a spider dropped into my eyelashes while I was watching a movie at a theater: While an icky, startling, and somewhat comical experience (at least, I’m imagining, from the other movie-goers’ perspectives), it didn’t touch on much else.

This measure no doubt explains why family became a central subject in the piece. Parenthood can trip off spontaneous memories of our own childhoods, revealing a funny, everyday metaphysics, the time travel involved in our experience of raising children, as former children ourselves. I often find myself thinking, “When I was his age…”—while also trying to spare my son too many of these musings. But these ideas can be so rich to explore, and nowhere better—at least for me—than in the essay. It’s a form elastic enough to depict and structure associative thinking, the intuitions that give shape to our ideas.

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Megan Harlan photoMegan Harlan grew up on four continents and now lives in Berkeley, CA. She is the author of Mapmaking (BkMk Press/New Letters), winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. Her nonfiction and poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Crazyhorse, The New York Times, Hotel Amerika, TriQuarterly, Catamaran, The Common, American Poetry Review, and Poetry Daily, among other publications. She holds an MFA from New York University’s Creative Writing Program and works as a writer and editor. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Trying to Make Sense of an Absence: A Question with Evanthia Bromiley

AGNI: Your story “If the City Falls” (AGNI 85) focuses on characters who are experiencing the same thing—a bombing—while keeping them apart for most of the story. It’s such a striking choice. I think the choice serves the story well, but why did you choose to isolate the characters from one another?

Bromiley: I think it has something to do with the inefficacy of language in times of trauma.

During World War II, my grandmother was interned at a work camp in Germany. Whatever happened in those years—and I know very little about her, can only surmise—drove her crazy. After the war, she had my mother, but she couldn’t care for her; she abandoned her. My mother and her brothers were split up and given to relatives to raise. That’s something my mother has never been able to forgive.

I never met my grandmother, but I remember the day she died; we heard over the phone. I must have been ten, about the same age she left my mom. The phones still had those long, loopy cords, and my mom kept wrapping that cord around her wrist. My grandmother was asking her to come, please come, to her bedside. And my mom couldn’t. She said no; she didn’t say much else. Afterwards my grandmother died, and the day went on as usual. Judaism, traditionally, is matrilineal: every child of a Jewish mother is considered a Jew. Yet in my family, there’s this rift in the maternal line.

So I think something of this absence made its way into the center of “If The City Falls”—invention in place of fact, feeling in place of memory. Your question makes me wonder if rifts like these open in the absence of words. We need words to express these things, with each other, I think. A lost story is dangerous. That’s why so many people tried, at all costs, to preserve testimony. Emanuel Ringelblum, for example, buried sheaves of archives in milk cans, beneath the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto—he knew these events were unprecedented; they must be preserved. It’s possible that if my mother knew my grandmother’s story, she could have forgiven her. It’s also entirely possible she wouldn’t have—but she would have had the chance to try, a choice. Instead we have this impenetrable silence: no one speaks of it. So when people say the Holocaust and the events leading up to it has been written, or can’t be, well, I think that’s not quite true. It’s this strange, human paradox: Words cannot rectify the evil truth of what happened. What might also be true is we have to try, anyway, to find words, to make sense of an absence. That paradox isolates my characters, and is what I’m trying to explore in “If the City Falls.” The characters try to reach each other through the ruin, and even though they’re very close… there’s the inefficacy of words to face up to something like that.

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Evanthia Bromiley Evanthia Bromiley lives, writes and teaches in Durango, Colorado. She is the recipient of a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, a Lisel Mueller scholarship, and the 2017 emerging fiction fellow at Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop. Currently she attends Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. “If the City Falls” is her first published story. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Repetition as Conjuring, as Litany, as Prayer

by Cecilia Llompart

(1)

The inimitable Annie Finch said, “Repetition is a physical force, not a mental one…” I doubt my ability to put it more concretely, but I’ll add that I definitely find repetition to be the most powerful physical force in a poem. The one which grounds us to the earth whenever the imagery and other forces at play would have us lingering in the clouds. It can make a poem more tactile, more responsive to the touch. It’s important for a poem to exist out in the world, rather than just in our heads. Important for it to have legs to stand on, as well as the wings on which it will rise. Perhaps a repeated word acts like a series of weights holding the rest of the bright canvas down.

(2)

The truth is, we learn nothing if not for repetition. The human brain is hardwired to respond to it above all else. A soldier’s drills rewire the instinct, train them to run towards the battle rather than—as sense would have it—away from. An actor’s rehearsals sync up every step with every word, so that the show can—as they say—go on despite the most rattling disturbances. A musician’s recitals introduce them to muscle memory, the only reliable way of remembering, the idea that we can count on our fingers and hands and sinews and bones even when the mind—as it so often does—fails us. From infomercials to meditation to rituals to sermons. . . Repetition—be it tedious, or soothing—has been used to teach us things, to sell us things, and to help us remember them in a real way.

(3)

I navigate my poems by instinct rather than by intention. I guess you could say I follow my ear. Every so often, while working out a line, I’ll find myself ending or beginning the following line with the same little flourish. I don’t set out to do it, and I don’t always see it coming. When it happens I tilt my head as if to say: I’m listening. At this point, the poem is trying to tell me something. I’m no longer holding the reins. I’m holding a metal detector and I’ve stumbled upon a mine. And the repetition will feel refreshing if it connects the writing to some deeper truth that exists—that reaches—beyond the work.

(4)

In the case of my bat poems (in AGNI issue 85), I closed my eyes while writing them and, instead of envisioning an existence for the animal in which everything was dark, a world in which it had no alternative but to swim through the absence of light, or to dodge the many shadows of things, I saw instead a world in which everything was a distinct shade of blue. As such, the word “blue” is referring to an ultimately different color each time it appears in the bat’s catalogue of sights (some of which are, obviously, also sounds). I hope the reader can see that—that a color can be more than a color, can be a variation unto itself.

Call it a disability, like blindness, or a disorder, like synesthesia, if you like. But the fact that a being uses its senses in a way we don’t understand doesn’t make that creature’s way of interacting with the world inferior to ours. I suppose that’s what I was trying to express in the other poem, with the string of “I see you.” Call it echolocation. Call it dreaming, or delusions of grandeur. The bat makes a point of seeing, of its ability to see, whether or not we share a definition of seeing, whether or not we underestimate the small prophet. This animal is a visionary, it sees beyond seeing, it knows that what is essential is invisible to the eye, that sight itself can be blinding, can distract us from hidden truths.

I can’t say whether the repetitions will achieve all of this.

But I’m content if the poems stay with you longer than a poem usually does.

(5)

I don’t remember when I first learned the word litany, but I do remember how beautiful I thought it sounded, and I remember how right it seemed that a thing like the use of repetition in poetry should have its very own word to reference it. The exact definition of litany involves other words meaning “supplication” and “prayer.” The word please comes to mind, as a word that comes to us when all other words have left us, when we are feeling hollowed out. A word that leaves us humbled even as it escapes our lips. Please. Perhaps repetition itself serves to humble. Perhaps it serves to bargain. But I think it can also serve to empower. To give us courage in a moment of fright to brave the flight.

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Author PhotoCecilia Llompart was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Florida. Her first collection, The Wingless, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in the spring of 2014. Her poetry and prose have been published in numerous anthologies and journals. She is the recipient of two awards from the Academy of American Poets, a fellowship from The Dickinson House, was a finalist for The Field Office agency’s 2016 Postcard Prize in poetry, as well as a finalist for the 2016 Tomaž Šalamun Prize given by Verse journal, and lastly a winner in Neat Streets Miami “Growing Green Bus Stop” Haiku Contest. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Release Party: AGNI 85 is here!

The 85th issue of AGNI is ready, and we’re celebrating—join us!

When: Monday, April 24, 2017, at 7:00 p.m.

Where: Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave, Boston (Green Line B, Pleasant St.)

We’re celebrating with readings by:

  • Wen Stephenson: Climate change activist and former editor at The Atlantic.
  • Kim Adrian: Author of the memoir The 27th Letter of the Alphabet.
  • Noah Warren: Winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets.
  • Courtney Sender: Winner of fiction prizes from Mississippi Review, Boulevard, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Glimmer Train.

Plus there’ll be a performance of words-to-music by singer-songwriter Brian King of What Time Is It, Mr. Fox? Our release party follows.

Like all our release parties, this will be free and open to the public. For more info, contact AGNI Senior Editor William Pierce at agni@bu.edu or (617) 353-7135 or visit AGNI Online. And if all this talk about AGNI issues has got you excited, check out our subscriptions page!

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