Literary: Artist Profile
All Life Is Love
A profile of Melanie Rae Thon
“Our only hope of finding grace was to tell our stories to each other,” writes Melanie Rae Thon in an essay titled “You Can’t Avoid Trouble: First, Body.” Both the line and the essay’s title are apt descriptions of Thon, who has been crafting graceful and haunting stories rife with bodily and spiritual harm for over three decades.
My introduction to Melanie Rae Thon’s work came at the 2001 Lake Effect Writers Conference, an annual, daylong event for high school students. Thon had recently been hired by the University of Utah and the conference was one of her first events following the move. I am always curious to see what work authors choose to share in this room of 500 or so teenagers. Thon chose the “Xmas, Jamaica Plain” section of “Nobody’s Daughters,” a short story from her 1997 collection first, body that follows two homeless teens in Boston who break into a home in a wealthy part of the city looking for food, warmth, painkillers, and a glimpse into a lifestyle they understand is unattainable. It is uncompromising in its descriptions of the violence, sex work, addiction, homophobia, and loneliness these cast-off kids face daily. It is a gorgeous, wrenching story and one that had a typically restless crowd captivated. That reading has stuck with me for a decade and half, in part for its beauty, but more so for its generosity, its acknowledgement that teens, regardless of who or where they are, can not only understand and appreciate the gravity of these issues, but may be facing them themselves.
Thirteen years later, Thon returned to the conference. In that time, she published five more books and became a versatile mainstay in Utah’s literary scene and a beloved professor in both the creative writing and environmental humanities programs at the U. During her second visit, she read a section of a new work dealing with The Liquidators—the hundreds of Russian, Ukranian, and Belarusian men who were sent to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, men knowingly sacrificed by the Soviet government to try and stem a disaster created through their own neglect. Like “Nobody’s Daughters,” the story turns its eye to violence, violence perpetrated on humans, animals, and on the land. It focuses on those authorities choose to forget—impoverished, conscripted men whose bodies will waste, will be stolen, will be buried in concrete coffins, and whose families have no recourse. It is a bleak, unsettling work about an episode largely unknown to the students sitting in the room. But in a state with a legacy of environmental degradation as long as Utah’s, her reading was again an act of generosity, an admission that the young, especially the young, must be mindful of systemic violence and work to remedy it.
What both groups of students above discovered is something that readers nationally have known since Thon’s first book, Meteors in August, was released in 1990—her work is a relentless, multigenre study (four novels, four collections of short stories, and two volumes of prose poetry) of corporeal existence that is as breathtaking in its scope as it is in its intimacy. Thon is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Whiting Writer’s Award, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Gina Berriault Award, the Utah Book Award, and a residency from the Lannan Foundation. In addition, her work has been anthologized in the O. Henry Prize Stories, twice in Best American Stories, and three times in the Pushcart Prize Anthologies. Her books have been translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Croatian, Finnish, Japanese, Arabic, and Farsi.
It is no accident that the word generosity appears twice above. It is always the first word that comes to mind in regards to Thon—generosity of heart, generosity of vision. The attentiveness of Thon’s work is its strongest characteristic though it is not surprising considering she holds authors such as Thich Nhat Hanh and philosopher David Abram as some of her strongest influences. It is in her work’s quietest moments that this attention threatens (or perhaps promises) to overwhelm. In Silence & Song, a honeybee leaving the hive at dawn becomes:
…time blossomed into light, the infinite possibilities of perception. One hundred million years of thought, and even now the evolution of love continues.
Likewise, in The Voice of the River, Theo Hayes has just watched his grandson disappear through a hole in an icy river. Time stops and goes wild with motion around him simultaneously as he considers his options:
Our strange sister!
Who but God can fathom: two compound eyes, each with sixty-nine hundred lenses, four filigree wings beating two hundred thirty times per second:
The river roars under ice, churns dark in the hole Kai opened. Black limbs fracture brittle morning light, and he knows this is a sign: the boy will live, or the boy will vanish. The snow begins to glow, revealing every shattered crystal. The complexity of a honeybee’s eye or a single ice crystal, the hundreds of dead that sustain the owl over his lifetime, these are the details that serve to simultaneously enlarge and, yes, crystallize the emotion of the characters who observe them, but also to put their suffering in perspective, to frame it ecologically. They do not minimize the human pain or love felt in such moments but instead amplify them, acknowledging how little time we have in this world and how impossible the task of understanding it.
He calls once more, and this time the wakened owl hisses back in fury. What does he care for human sorrow? These woods are full of bones. When he takes flight, the dead rise up in his spectacular body.
However, it is human empathy and love that stand out above all else in Thon’s work. Her exploration of persona, regardless of gender, race, class, and a multitude of other characteristics illustrate this again and again. In a recent essay title “All Life Is Love: Silence & Song,” Thon writes:
Writing helps me stay on the path, in the labyrinth that leads back to love. As I learn to love strange and miraculous beings in my fiction, as I imagine the secret lives and intimate grief of people who harm and who are wounded by others, as I celebrate the astonishing perceptions of bats, the generosity of bees and saguaros, the hearts of hummingbirds beating fifty times a second as they hover above ocotillo, I fall in love again and again – I remember, I remind myself it is my responsibility and my joy to bring this sense of rapturous curiosity and imaginative compassion into every moment, every encounter of my life.
Violence in its many forms is ever-present in her work, but love is given equally to all her characters, be they the victims of violence or its perpetrators. Nowhere is this more evident than in The 7th Man, a book-length prose poem about prison guard Valen Arnoux and the 131 executions in which he has played a part. It is a catalog of both his fear and his empathy. Of the work, Thon says, “Through the heart and mind and body of Valen Arnoux, I sat with the condemned in the hours before their executions. I knew them as human beings like myself. I sang and prayed with them. I walked them down the hall, strapped them to the gurney…I felt the suffering of victims, the grief of families. ”
Thon is originally from Montana, and its small towns, mountains, plains, and reservations surface repeatedly in her work, often as an active, if at times unforgiving, character. Weather and geographical isolation take large tolls on characters and allow them to foster secrets that threaten to unravel them and others. Urban areas, including Boston and Seattle, pose hazards that, though they are more human, are no less dangerous. Thon is equally at home in either setting because her eye for detail so perfectly oscillates between the micro and macro that complexity exists independently of human endeavors and because she is fascinated with community at all levels, and it is ultimately community that forms the backbone of so many of her stories:
Yes, this understanding of community, the multitude of ways humans & nonhumans are bound to one another across all space and time, absolutely interdependent, inextricable, part of one body, is at the heart of my vision. This is true at the cosmic and cellular level…In The Heart of Understanding, Hahn speaks of the cloud being (and everything else that ever was or is or ever will be) in the piece of paper. It’s beautifully, simply, transcendently eloquent!...Every one and every thing is bound to Kai in The Voice of the River. But this intimacy is also redemptive, healing. In many of the urban stories, people seek a feeling of filial communion. When Nadine and Emile break into a house in Jamaica Plain (“Nobody’s Daughters”) they imagine the house not only as their own, but as their body! The family, the gifts, the food, the clothes—everything is theirs for the night…For me, there is another kind of poignancy in stories of this kind, a devastating cascade of loss that coexists with absolute compassion for the ones who become our beloved family.
Both The Voice of the River and Silence & Song, represent something of an ecological turn for Thon. Community, if we look beyond its human connotations, is synonymous with ecology. In both texts, human/animal interactions act as crucial moments in the narratives. As a title, The Voice of the River suggests both the coming together around the disappearance of Kai and Talia, but also gives credence to the notion of the river as actor as well. Likewise, the interweaving narratives of Silence & Song, be they in the Sonoran Desert or the Zone of Alienation around Chernobyl, are full of reminders of how systems break down when one actor or another steps outside their role.
Difficulties arise at points where different communities come into contact, and Thon has repeatedly shown a willingness to abandon more concrete settings for borderlands, both literal and figurative. White towns on the edges of Native American reservations, homeless camps beneath interstates, the human and natural cruelty of the U.S./Mexican border, even “invasive” “problem bears” making do in an ever more anthropocentric world—all of these become sites of intensive exploration, of love and suffering on an individual and communal level. However, there is no border that is more in flux and more central to Thon’s work than that of the interior/exterior of the human body. The fragility of that border is always at the forefront, whether it take the form of a physical assault or an aging parent. Thon once served as a research consultant for a gerontology program and I asked if this is where the interest began. “We were doing a project investigating older people’s recovery after release from the hospital in order to gain a deeper understanding of the differences between those with family support and those without it…But my awareness of the dissipation of the human body and the dispersal of the human mind began long, long before this. It is so much a part of my experience I can’t even recall a time when it did not permeate my conscious / subconscious / unconscious perceptions … from my first major illness, to my brother’s deterioration and near death at age 11 (a mysterious affliction, never diagnosed, never treated), to my grandmother’s profound dementia and my aunt’s early onset Alzheimer’s—from the ghost of my grandfather who died of heart disease at age 44, to the ghost of my father’s cousin forever drowned, forever trapped under the dock, forever in the lake every time I entered the water…”
In addition to the ongoing experiments with persona and the limits of the body that populate her work, Thon’s writing has turned to experiments with time and form in recent years. In The 7th Man and her latest book, The Good Samaritan Speaks, poetry becomes the dominant mode, providing a new form to a writer whose work has always been lyrical. In The Voice of the River, the narrative is polyphonic, providing glimpses of a single day from many of those searching for Kai. These are interspersed with second person “Love Songs” and “Lullabies,” presumably from Kai to those looking for him. Silence & Song is similarly playful, interweaving several conventional first-person narratives that move through a multidecade span of time with short bursts of poetry and monologues from long-dead Chernobyl Liquidators. All four titles indicate an author increasingly in love with her craft and at play with its possibilities. Though her characters may be grounded by the limits of the body, their perceptions are limited only by their willingness to look, to be attentive. This all harkens back to Hahn’s transcendent cloud being mentioned earlier. As Thon puts it, “this goes back to the larger cosmic, cellular, cloud in the paper perception – everything is one, all is good, all holy.”
Literary: Book Review
Rituals and Routines
Nancy Takacs’ Blue Patina
I have long been acquainted with Nancy Takacs’ poetry through her beautiful chapbooks. Thus, it was a pleasure to read so many of her poems in her latest collection, Blue Patina, published by Blue Begonia Press. In these poems, I continue to see how deeply the natural world is embedded in her language. The first poem “The Voices” acts as a “proem” or preliminary commentary to what we will encounter: myriad observations that contain an undertone of wonder found only by those who have wandered far enough to the edge of a Utah forest or into the center of a foxglove blossom to see what others can’t or won’t notice. In this poem, the speaker embodies two voices—one of the bee-blossom and one of a bicycle. There is a third voice—a night voice—that exists in its own realm (and shows up at length in a section titled “The Worrier”). But the bee-blossom voice and the bicycle voice invite the speaker (and the reader) to be open to whatever experience is encountered. The former is internal and “hums in the wrist” while the latter is external and becomes “the gold words of motion.” This blending of senses is exemplary of the linguistic mélange that occurs in other poems. As contrasting patterns emerge—of light and dark, heaviness vs.weightlessness, internal and external landscapes—the poems transform what is routine in nature to a ritual in the human world.
Blue Patina is divided into four sections. The first, also titled “The Voices,” captures an earlier generation’s style of absentee parenting when the orbits of children and adults rarely crossed paths. Summer nights in New Jersey of playing games with friends, riding bicycles, and discovering both a love and the power of words create childhood routines that are contrasted against the adult rituals of fathers spending time at the bar and mothers losing themselves to favorite television shows or attending church. There are several lines that indicate a restlessness and anticipation for something beyond the implied security of these routines. In “Night Game: School” Takacs writes, “We were finally off our gold or silver/Schwinns that had winged us through/humidity and heat…/Now we needed dark/to defy anyone to call us in.” In “Summer School” the speaker contrasts the adult rituals with one of her own: “My mother’s watching an old movie,/my father’s at the tavern/nursing a beer over a game,/my aunts are upstairs ironing/white blouses for tomorrow’s teaching, typing./I put the lined paper on the table, take out the pencils/I’ve filed to needlepoints, and place/their gold bodies as paperweights.” The pencils are described both accurately and metaphorically. This careful and transformative attention to what initially seems ordinary is another technique used throughout these poems and turns a routine action into ritual.
Four poems in this section explore a family dynamic that belies the suburban security of childhood routine. Takacs dates certain aspects of this time when she addresses a brother: “No one knew back then/what you and I know now: personality disorders, AA.” In these poems, Takacs does a masterful job of contrasting images of lightness vs. heaviness—sometimes within a single line such as when the father returns from a night of drinking: “…my father’s heavy steps/ sparkle on our skin. At the back door he calls me—Apple, I fell. I’m bloody. Come clean me up.” The daughter carries the weight of the father’s alcoholism; even her nickname, Apple, implies that the father is relying on her sweetness, her stability, to carry him through.
These poems are followed by “Rhinestone Pin.” Curiously placed, it is the only one in this section set in Utah. However, it sets the groundwork for patterns in later poems—now an adult, the speaker wanders near an irrigation canal in the desert and remembers an artifact, a rhinestone that takes her back to that past. The adult routines of her childhood repeat themselves in her mind, but this time they exist in the midst of a physical beauty that provides an emotional intimacy the parents could not offer. The desire to coincide one’s existence with the natural rhythms of the earth continues to create a spatial and temporal topography throughout the book—what is routine in nature becomes ritual beneath the speaker’s observant eye.
In two of the remaining sections, “Utah Map” and “Still,” the poems provide a sense of place—namely the rural area of Price. The vastness of the landscape as described in the poem “Utah Map” is contrasted against specific landmarks such as “an American flag/ time and wind ate except/ for a few withered stars” drilled into Balance Rock by “a woman from the town of Elmo” or an Anasazi granary near Escalante. One of the most intriguing sections is “The Worrier,” an amazing sequence of poems that reads as a series of questions and answers. The syntax in these poems is looser than in other sections and they read unpredictably, as if any answer will work for the questions. The surprising answers create some wonderful juxtaposition of lines, some of which correspond to each other as musical phrases: “What gardening things will you talk about? The coolness has kept the lobelia so blue this year./I’ve made two new winding paths with lake stones./The humming birds are swarming the bee balm.”
The central poem of this section, “The Body,” reads like a lovely aria. The questions span from asking about what is inside the sky, to the moon, stars, and Venus, to finally the lake. The answers curve away from the questions to create unique spaces such as in the following: “What is inside Venus?/ A hatred of enamel./The touch of minnows/at my ankle./What is inside your silence?/ An alcove of jackrabbits/A jeep door slamming/The flat landscape of a lip.” The answers are lyrical and strange as if the questions are pebbles thrown in a pond to stir not responses but ripples of linguistic rhythms. This is a different voice than the conversational one that writes “Tammy wears her juniper-berry necklaces/she sells at the checkout, spins around/with coffee, and roars her Joplin voice to On the Road Again and Willie’s ease.” But not so different from the voice in these lines about a foxglove “The blossom/freckles inside its bells,/skims the butterfly that grazes/the doorframes, rouses/one green humming bird.”
I realized as I read this book that I was entering into the mind of one who sees and hears many things and by doing so creates a ritual out of pocketing aspen leaves, driving a jeep through juniper, or of talking with townspeople at the local grocery store. The ritual involves community even when the speaker is solitary. In the final section of the book “Still,” the interrogatory voice of the Worrier is replaced by a contemplative yet exploratory voice. Here the meditative bee-blossom voice and the wandering bicycle voice from the first poem coincide in a balance between the human and natural world as is seen in first lines of “Lotus”: “I still want the day to swim/with blue bunting, my fence to cloud with hawkweed,/the greening field under it to rise/so the gate will not open.” This terrific poem continues as a mantra of desire but finally settles on one botanical word that describes best this multiplicity of sight and voices existing throughout the book—rhizome. The poem ends with the following lines: “I want…/to feel how the needles/of hemlock dissolve in a pond,/and know under the surface/how long the trail of rhizome/can be, for one blossom.” These last lines reveal Takacs’ own hidden poetics—a nod to the invisible, extensive roots that yield a poem or even a single word on the page. Yet, despite the hint of a complex source, the emergence of a linguistic landscape seems effortless. Thus, the gift of these poems: sight on the ground or in the sky–patient, observant, sensory, precise, and always, always exploring.
Artists of Utah New
New reading series engages local writers
15 Bytes is collaborating with the Salt Lake Arts Council to create the new FINCH LANE GALLERY READINGS SERIES. The quarterly series pairs emerging local writers, like those who have placed in the statewide annual Utah Original Writing Competition (UOWC) and other select contests, with established authors. "We've long needed a mechanism to get award-winning manuscripts of fiction, poetry and narrative nonfiction closer toward deserved publication," says 15 Bytes Literary Editor and author David Pace. "This is not an awards ceremony. It's a reading where the public will get a glimpse of the remarkable literary content these winners and place holders have created."
As former Literary Arts Manager at the Division of Arts & Museums, which funds and manages the UOWC, Pace wanted to see writers advance beyond being recognized for an unpublished manuscript by an esteemed judge from outside the state. "While I was at the Division we were able to broker a deal at the University of Utah Press to take first option of the nonfiction book category winner," he says proudly. "Finch Lane is just another step in the professional development of Utah's emerging writers."
The first of at least three readings during this inaugural year is slated for April 28th at 7 pm and will feature last year's first place UOWC winner in novel Eric Robertson, paired in conversation with Melanie Rae Thon, followed by a Q&A with the audience and a reception.
Robertson's The Salted Earth was praised by the competition judge Ernst Hebert from Dartmouth College as managing "to work on head and heart" to create something "[e]xtremely satisfying for the reader interested in fate, the human condition, and the beauty and power of words." A professor of Creative Writing and Environmental Humanities programs at the University of Utah, Thon is a celebrated author of short fiction and novels, most recently last year's Silence & Song.