Issue 2 foreword: Satellites
Another issue of Guesthouse has arrived, and it's far out. Selecting submissions for this issue reminded me of one of the great capacities of art: to telescope from the atmospheric to the individual in an instant, as if sending transmissions to Earth from a faraway place. Each piece in Issue 2 takes on the role of satellite, witnessing the human world as if from beyond and reporting on its witnessing. Like the first color photograph of Earth taken in 1967 by NASA satellite ATS-3 (right), the work of these fourteen writers and artists challenges our most intimate paradigms, codes, and systems.
As such, each piece in Issue 2 is dedicated to perspective. Some toy with the productive tension fostered by juxtaposing process and product, like Neva Nobles-Alder's photography series, "Allusive Landscapes," images of micro-life captured on a macro-lens, the "small-scale landscapes [alluding] to much larger structures, phenomena, and plant life," and Kelsi Vanada's "3 Photos, 2014," which comprises images of her "grandparents’ former cattle ranch in South Dakota" she took on a pinhole camera she built "out of an Altoids mint tin [she] could carry in [her] pocket." Vanada's corresponding poems make similar gestures, especially in the way they bend the givens of syntax, meshing the private and public dictions of memory and family into new and unusual shapes: "A fruit to be explained: it is only in leaf growth that the photograph differs from the scene, leaves in her full hands now."
Others, like Mag Gabbert's two poems, "Toilet" and "Birthday Cake," telescope between the quotidian and the mythic, leaving her readers bobbing like buoys at the water line: ". . . the white eye / its gleam a hurricane / spun out / gaze blank and pitiless / the sea / thousands of tiny swimmers / straining / the fathom circling / the drain." Never before has puking into a toilet bowl been more strangely beautiful, more religious, as if that experience alone is what makes us human and what connects us. In Amorak Huey's poem, "A Primer," he questions liminality, narrative, and morality. "The end of a story," he writes, "is the shape of a hole in the fence / the story runs through / on its way to the end." The poem examines the hierarchies of cause and effect, as well as the cost of its own making—the dangers of manipulating the continuum of the comfortable world with art, for better and for worse.
Charles Wyatt's strange and mesmerizing story, "After At Swim-Two-Birds, by Terrance McDonough," is likewise committed to disrupting facades of normalcy. Like no other, this story co-opts allusion as an art form. Labyrinthine in scope and toeing the thin line between intoxicating and disorienting, "After At Swim-Two-Birds" calls attention to alienation, narrative, and authorship without ever distracting from its heart-source. G.C. Waldrep's pair of poems, "ANTIGONE IN BERN" and "BAROQUE EFFIGY," are also invested in weirding up the lingua franca. These poems enact clashes between the high and the vulgar, the theological and the worldly, life and the myth of life. In Waldrep's lines, "Doctors passing through the ward observe the golden cell with their packs of dull instruments." Each image encompasses both the fathomable and the unfathomable—situations and characters we recognize and those that we cannot.
Christine Scanlon is also interested in the grace and grotesquerie of biology, especially as it intersects with notions of soul. In her pair of poems, "BLEACHING EACH NEW DAY" and "DIARY OF A POEM," she stitches together moments of inner and outer conflict, body awareness, and fear of death as it effects both patient and caregiver. The poems have a gendered awareness, made even more explicit by an epigraph from an obscure Martha Tilton and Jimmi Dodd duet—a WWII-era plea to men and women to restore pre-war notions of gender and romantic love: "More feminine charms / In masculine arms." The epigraph situates Scanlon's work between the present and past, and as she draws connections between mind and body, dualities merge and singularities cleave: "I have heard the phrase 'of the same mind,' which I take to mean the stitching together of a costume, like a sloppy hand puppet."
Patrick Donnelly's poem, "ONE DAY ONE FLOWER," also explores connection and dissonance, specifically travel and the moment-by-moment, untranslatable encounters with otherness that come with it. This poem transports its readers to a bar in Kyoto, where two traveling men—a couple—encounter the proprietor. He mixes an artful cocktail: "Lifting with tongs / from some hidden place, a single parallelepiped of ice. Fog spilling off, shape adjusted with a little chisel." The travelers look on, agape, as one translates for the other. The poem's mystery is lavish, and by the end, the familiar and alien have intermixed, like ink into water, leaving no trace of their mixing. Gabe Montesanti's essay, "Orphans," is also immersed in the mystery of recognition. Montesanti recalls her grandfather's passing, when she inherited, or more or less found, his copy of The Complete Illustrated Kama Sutra. Using this moment as her launchpad, she investigates her grandfather's origins and his love life, as well as her own. Montesanti is a world-class humorist, but her essay remains a loyal steward of the tragedy of her grandfather's life, as well as of the dangers of openly reckoning with sexuality. "At the funeral," she writes, "I found three of my grandpa’s condoms. They expired in 1993 and were stuffed into a book called Rediscovering Catholicism."
Tyler Barton's brief fiction, "Resident Angel of the Assisted Living Writers' Workshop," also addresses generational gaps and bridges. Despite its miniature size, the piece manages to house a cast of fleshed-out characters—participants in a writing workshop at a retirement home. "Arriving late in royal blue," the piece begins, "Flo apologizes: 'I was in the tub.' Helen: 'Lucky you, clean on Friday.'" The comedic tension in the story develops between the workshop leader—a writing student—and the participants, who bear no airs of academia. Their off-topic banter, which is sharp, personal, and perceptive, becomes downright literary, and the stories of their lives—especially as they quietly reckon with their end-of-life circumstances—outshine the conceit of the workshop that brought them together.
James Fujinami's Moore's poem, "upon closer examination, it is not a scarf," begins at the end, too, but his voyeur sits at a farther distance from annihilation. He watches a video loop of a man throwing "his eleven-month-old girl off the roof / over & over & / over again." It's a disturbing image, made worse by its repeating, and Moore dares to complicate it even further. He plays it again, this time in reverse so that the child defies gravity, returning to her father's arms again and again. By turning the act of expulsion into an act of receiving, the viewer is indulging both reality and fantasy. I am reminded of the last fifteen pages of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, in which consecutive renderings of a man falling from the World Trade Center are presented in reverse, flip-book style, as if the man is falling up. (Below; The original photograph, evocative of Richard Draw's famous image, "The Falling Man," was taken by Lyle Owerk and adapted into illustrations by Alison Wright.) The beginning becomes the end, the end becomes the beginning, and the reader is caught in the crosshairs.
Danger is also immediately present in Jon Cone's pair of poems, "Decorations for a Mood Nocturne" and "Blood," and specifically the latter, which reckons with a strange, quotidian gasp of bloodlust that interrupts the everyday. Looking into a pawn shop window, he says, "I am struck / dumb by knives / in their morgue / -like brilliance. / All I want is good / blade, an edge." Cone's poem captures a moment of disembodiment, of anxiety, of suddenly imagining oneself into a different life and consciousness. There is a certain escape that comes with irrationality. A kind of thrill that comes with the vertigo of standing at a precipice and looking down. Both poems manage to capture the dark and fleeting attraction that is often inherent in violence, but "Blood" barely manages to resist it.
Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet's poem, "Boys with swords," draws similarly blunt conclusions about the nature of violence. Watching boys sparring with toy swords in the woods nearby, she says, "It feels good / to hold a blade, I know. / Somehow cleaner / once you let it go." A child with a toy weapon, however innocently they brandish it, establishes a strange throughway between the child and adult worlds. Stonestreet witnesses this scenario with an eye toward culture and history, specifically the ways in which boys are pushed, stereotyped, judged, and burdened by gendered expectations. This poem is especially timely, given the national conversations around gendered violence and gun control, but the poem is never tempted by didacticism. Instead, it keeps its cards close to the chest and its gaze fixed on two young men playing make-believe in the crisp autumn air.
Gender is also at stake in Sue D. Burton's poems. In her first piece, a woman who has been sawn in half, as if by a magician, runs from her captor but finds herself doubling back on her own path, unable to move on. "The same stump blocking my way again," she laments, "I know it like a sister." Her second poem, "On the Journey to Redeem the Long-necked Swan, You Must Carry a Stool for Your Weariness," is as delightful as its title implies, but it, too, comes with dire consequences. Much like her sawn-women poem, her swan-woman poem addresses female exhaustion, particularly the unseen, unpaid mind-work that accompanies the body work. She suggests that this burden, which must be carried on the shoulders, is a stool "made of iron, a monstrous thing." Like in Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, in which the rock upstages Prometheus as the play's protagonist, in Burton's poem, the stool is heavier than its curier's transgressions. "If you bend / over backwards," she advises, "you can rest on the stool without unstrapping it," and such is life for those forced by circumstance to carry on.
With that, I leave you to your carrying on. My hope is that issue 2 of Guesthouse provides you with a unique snapshot of human vulnerability and perseverance. It reminds me to set down my stool and look up, to keep "making signals though the glass," as Updike once suggested. Despite the great alone. Despite the odds against us.
Jane Huffman, Editor-in-Chief