Forming Connections: Reflecting on Suzanne Rivecca’s “Homeostasis”

Like the narrator in Suzanne Rivecca’s short story “Homeostasis,” I have always been fascinated by organ donation. Reader, I hope this does not come across as crass or strange. I do not mean that I have fantasized about cutting organs out of bodies (in fact, the unit in my middle school biology class where we had to dissect dead worms and fish made me sick). When I say that I am fascinated by organ donation, I mean that I think it is incredible that we can cut parts of ourselves out and give them to other people, that someday my heart or my liver or my kidney or my lungs could be living inside someone else’s body. I am an organ donor, after all. There is a bright red heart in the corner of my driver’s license to prove it. What I find so interesting about organ donation, I think, is the connection it forms between bodies. “Homeostasis” is a story about many things, but at its core, the narrative revolves around formed and failed connections.

“Homeostasis” was published in Artful Dodge 46/47 as part of the AWP Writing Awards, a program that selects the best poetry and fiction from undergraduate and graduate writing programs. The story follows Andrew, a widowed father who struggles to connect with his teenage daughter and keep his job working in a scientific research lab, where he experiments on toads. His fascination with kidneys and organ transplants stems from his research in the lab and is also a touchstone in his complex relationship with his daughter, Samantha. Throughout the course of the story, Samantha is repeatedly getting in trouble at school, and Andrew finds himself unable to connect with and understand her. Samantha is in love with the past, repeatedly wearing her father’s old clothing, crying over pictures of her mother, and writing scathing columns in the school newspaper about her generation’s taste in music. What I found most touching and interesting about this story was the focus on the characters’ relationships with each other.

Through simple, first person prose, Rivecca drew me into Andrew’s private world of research, anguish, and love. One scene in particular that stood out to me was when Andrew discovers blood in the toilet and panics, thinking that his daughter is severely ill when she is simply menstruating. He finds the whole event quite troubling: “All that evening it disturbed me, how the shedding of so much blood was a routine thing for my daughter, and what kind of thickness did she have to grow around her, what kind of tough elephant rind and callousness, to accept with perfect casualness a bowl brimming with red blood?” Not only do I love the image and the alliteration of “a bowl brimming with red blood,” but I think this scene in particular highlights the heart of the narrative: Andrew’s desperate confusion about his daughter’s identity and his desire to understand her.

Our relationships that we have with our parents can be complicated, and “Homeostasis” captures that confusion and complexity well. The connections that we form with other people, whether they be the physical transfer of organs or the emotional bond of paternal love, are what drive our lives in new and interesting directions. “Homeostasis” was a heart-wrenching, fascinating piece that made me consider a very important fact—that the connections we form with others define our lives.

—Megan Murphy, Assistant Editor

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Let Your Ribs Dance: Reflecting on “Their Dance” by William Virgil Davis

A few summers ago, I remember thinking a great deal about the seasons. The weather that year in Ohio had been particularly fickle, with cold temperatures well into late April and cool summer months. However, I have found that no matter what the weather has been like in the past, there is something wonderfully freeing about the warmer months that are yet to come this year. In spring and summer, I feel like I can breathe again. A poem called “Their Dance” by William Virgil Davis, which appears in Artful Dodge 26/27, speaks to this idea of renewal.

In the poem, Davis describes people who are literally stripped down to the bone, their “skin peeling off like old wallpaper.” The “old wallpaper” line reminds me of rebirth, stepping out of something cold and crackling and uncomfortable into a new beginning. Davis goes further with the image, describing how the bones “lift themselves to dance.” The image of ribs dancing reminds me to celebrate life, that in spring and summer, when the cold finally ends, I’ll feel like my chest can fully expand. Even nature seems to dance more often in the warmer months: flowers blowing in the breeze, trees gaining their leaves, water sparkling in the sun. People seem to dance more often too, diving into the water, spinning to live music on city street sidewalks. The final two lines of the poem capture the restless movement of spring well: “they never want to lie down again.” Summer nights have stripped me down to that primal feeling. Sometimes, standing in an empty street, alone against the darkness, I suddenly become hyper-aware of my own breathing. My breath and my pounding heart become my sole focus. It is an invigorating, empowering feeling.

The next time you are overwhelmed, I would encourage you to focus on the “dance” that Davis is describing in this poem—focus on the rise and fall of your ribs as you breathe. Hopefully, you’ll find that you “never want to lie down again.”

 

— Megan Murphy, Assistant Editor

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The Right to Write: Reflecting on “Kit Carson and the Long Walk”

Something that I have always struggled with as a writer is what our editor-in-chief, Daniel Bourne, calls “the right to write.” As a writer, what are my responsibilities? As a white woman living in America today, do I have the right to write stories featuring people of color? Do I have the right to tell stories dealing with oppression that I have not experienced? How should I address questions of complex history and write about people who I can never interview? Are there limits to the stories I can tell? Do I have a moral obligation to not write about certain topics? A collection of work found in Artful Dodge 52/53 confronts these questions head-on.

“Kit Carson and the Long Walk” is a collection of poems by Lavonne J. Adams that explore the life of Kit Carson through his accomplishments, his failures, and his interactions with the Navajo Tribe. What struck me most about her collection was how Adams carefully handled the sensitive subject of “the right to write.” She conducted extensive research on Carson and the topics on which she was writing, fictionalizing certain characters to make points about history. Ultimately, these poems paint a complex portrait of history, displaying both the love that this man had for his children and the bloody consequences of his treatment of the Navajo people, the “decimation” of their land. History is never simple, and in her poems, Adams clearly chooses each word with care, determined to provide multiple perspectives on the complicated figure of Kit Carson. From her poems celebrating the culture of the Navajo people (“Artifact: Arrow”) to the works that condemn the violence of Carson and neighboring Native American Tribes (“(Invisible) Relics: Spirits of Stolen Children”) to “Reckoning,” the final poem in the sequence, which explores Carson’s death, Adams portrays her subject matter with raw honesty and emotion. She says in her introduction, “…since I bear no Navajo blood, a certain amount of authorial distance for these poems seemed both necessary and respectful…I’m keenly aware that the Navajo story is filtered by my vision, recast through my own artistic sensibilities. Yet we are all pulled forward by the ghosts that haunt our lives. I am a poet, not a historian.”

Adams confronts the question of her “right to write” beautifully here by acknowledging that these are not strictly her stories to tell but explaining that she wanted to come to understand them through poetry. She quotes Natasha Sajé, who wrote that “…poetry itself is an exercise in othering, in trying to understand something or someone foreign from oneself.” In these poems, Adams is trying to understand Kit Carson and the Navajo people, and she does so through the power of her poems, which are taut with emotion and compel the reader to think more deeply about the history behind her words.

I still struggle with the question of the “right to write,” but I think Lavonne Adams’ collection of work is an excellent example of how one can tell a story that they find interesting and important while still acknowledging their own position of power as an outsider and an author. Ultimately, we read and we write to better understand the world. As long as we research and write carefully, as Adams has done here, I do not think we should hesitate in sharing stories that matter to us.

 

—Megan Murphy, Assistant Editor

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The Legacy of The Dodge: Reflecting on Artful Dodge Vol 2. No. 1

The Artful Dodge is nearly 40 years old. For those of you who may not know, Artful Dodge was founded by our editor-in-chief, Daniel Bourne, in 1979 and has been publishing issues ever since. As someone who has only been working on the Dodge for a few years, that legacy astounds me. This magazine, filled with the work of emerging and well-known writers alike, has been publishing national and international poetry, fiction, art, and translation for longer than I have existed on this Earth. That is incredible.

Two summers ago, I stumbled upon some of our oldest back issues of the Dodge and decided to read them. I started with Artful Dodge Vol. 2 No. 1, which was released in the Dodge’s second year. As much as I enjoyed the stories and the artwork featured within the magazine (I highly recommend reading “Crystal” by Mary Anne Caine), I found myself increasingly having to pause and marvel at what I held in my hands. The copy I read was still in great shape, though the pages had yellowed a bit with age. As an assistant editor, I know the great amount of work it takes to produce copies of the Dodge for our readers now; I cannot imagine how much time and effort went into creating and crafting the magazine in its early days. I feel so lucky to have the privilege and opportunity to work on such an established literary magazine. Do any of our blog readers remember Artful Dodge in its early days? Let me know in the comments!

 

—Megan Murphy, Assistant Editor

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Checking Time

According to the internet, people spend about 30 minutes a day searching for lost things. Add that up over time, and you’ll end up spending three and a half hours a week, one week a year, and a little over one year of your life muttering with confusion and rifling through drawers. Knowing that these actions will interfere with the nine years of my life I’m going spend on the internet, I was perplexed upon finding a check that had been lost for eight years among the peripheral clutter of envelopes and papers slowly taking over the Artful Dodge office. How many hours in someone’s life were spent searching for this check? Of course, the blame cannot be placed entirely upon the Dodge. The check was supposed to travel from Texas to Ohio, but it was mistakenly addressed to Nimrod Journal in Oklahoma, where it would wait patiently for six years. Someone probably opened the envelope, pulled out the check, and saw that it was addressed to a different literary magazine. “How interesting,” they said. “I think I will do something about this later.” Then, since people spend about four years of their life procrastinating, “later” turned out to be “much later.” Whatever circumstances led to the loss of the check, it was eventually found and sent to the Dodge with the note:

This check came up in our office at Nimrod—we thought maybe it had accompanied a contest entry, but we didn’t see any entries by any of your editors… Let me know if there was something else intended for this. Thanks! 😊

It seems that whatever happened at Nimrod also happened here. The check arrived in all its glory, and in return, it was flattened with rejections and withdrawals for two more years. Now, this piece of paper has lived long past its six-month expiration date; it will never be redeemed. It’s likely that it will be sent back to Texas and sacrificed to a shredder, whose glittering teeth will tear it into ribbons. If recycled, it could become another check, and another, and another, until it has been lost and found too many times to count, until hours spent searching become days and days become weeks. Always, the clock is ticking.

—Holly Engel, Assistant Editor

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Extinction: Reflecting on “The Golden Toad” by Karen Sandstrom

While flipping through a copy of Artful Dodge 44/45, the title of this piece immediately jumped out at me. Golden toads, I thought, I know those animals. My junior year of high school, I spent ten days at a scientific research base near Monteverde, Costa Rica, in a place called “The Children’s Eternal Rainforest.” Travelling with my classmates and teacher, going on daily hikes, and conducting my own soil analysis certainly created a rewarding experience. Since my return, I have always felt a special connection to the place. So when I saw the title of Karen Sandstrom’s prose piece, I was invested immediately.

The piece depicts a young couple whose marriage is tested when the narrator finds out that her husband is in love with his business partner, a man named Mel. She reads about the plight of the golden toad in a magazine and accompanies her husband on his business trip to Costa Rica. Her obsession with the golden toad and her frustration and fury at her husband drive the plot of the narrative towards the wife’s ultimate realization that not only is her marriage destroyed, but so is the habitat of the golden toad.

I found myself identifying strongly with the narrator throughout this piece, specifically with her feelings about the golden toad. In fact, her thoughts are eerily similar to mine when I found out that the golden toad was extinct. “Not all change is bad. Not all death is tragic. I couldn’t care less about the extinction of the dodos. It happened so long ago, anyway,” she says. “The toads are another matter.” I can vividly recall sitting in my classroom in high school, staring at my teacher as she told us that the golden toad was going to vanish off this earth during our lifetime, if it wasn’t already gone. The extinction of animals had always seemed like a distant concept to me. I knew that the dodo bird had vanished, and obviously the dinosaurs died off millions of years ago. Those were the two creatures my mind conjured up when I thought of the word extinction. I could not comprehend that the adorable yellow toad on the screen in front of me was suddenly going to vanish. How could that possibly happen?

“The Golden Toad” is a compelling narrative that addresses not only questions of loyalty and love in a marriage, but our complex and toxic relationship with our natural environment. At the story’s close, the narrator is determined to save the golden toad. She describes how she is going to dig a pond and create a habitat for them where they will be safe and protected. As someone who has walked through the “familiar and terribly foreign” landscape of the Costa Rican rainforest, I empathize with her overwhelming desire to rescue these creatures from extinction. After all, the golden toad was a physical surety that the world was in balance and that “the future was assured.” Their death is another poignant reminder of the destructive power that humans can wield on this planet.

 

—Megan Murphy, Assistant Editor

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The Art of Living Backwards

Dreams, wishful thinking, and regrets plague us constantly, keeping us from ever fully living in the present. I know that I would like to be little again, dancing in the aisle at baseball games and playing The Price is Right with my stuffed animals. I wish I could take back the time I gave up playing piano for months so I could run cross country, that I could re-say goodbyes with the words I thought up afterwards.  In Artful Dodge 52/53, Michael Lee says the same with the first line of his short narrative, “Teacher Zhang and Teacher Hua.”  “I wish,” he begins, “that I could tell the story of Teacher Zhang and Teacher Hua backwards,” which he then proceeds to do, rewinding the tape of their lives with words.

The story proceeds from the “end,” where the narrator and Teacher Zhang stand in Teacher Zhang’s “hovel,” but slowly things begin to change.  Teacher Hua, who died from cancer, comes back to life, “taking her first breath.”  Some things are gained and others lost, old loves are never met and forgotten, cats shrink into kittens.  Lee does a wonderful job presenting the teachers’ lives, unraveling the thread of time like a Christmas present.  What I find the most interesting about this piece is that it does not end at the “beginning,” but thousands of years before, a reminder that we truly begin years before our births.  Still, all things are a cycle, whether backwards or forwards.  We do not exist, we exist, and then we do not exist again.  Birth to death, death to birth, we are always looking back.

 

—Holly Engel, Assistant Editor

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