Publications

Louise Erdrich’s Literary Children (Ploughshares)

My essay, “Louise Erdrich’s Literary Children” is now available on the Ploughshares blog here. Here is a little of what I discussed of my favorite novelist’s approach to children in her novels, especially The Round House and LaRose:

Erdrich’s most recent triptych of novels—The Plague of Doves (2008), The Round House (2012), and LaRose (2016)—all feature children more prominently than adults. In each case, children are confronted with a many-layered moral question that their experiences over the course of the novel will help them to process. Notably, adults do not offer clear moral guidance. They do not have all the answers, and sometimes their answers are even harmful because they lack awareness of the context surrounding the child’s concern.

The Round House, narrated in first person by teenaged protagonist Joe Coutts, asks urgently, “How should a son handle the violent rape of his mother?” From the first sentence onward, this question is implicit in every interaction, even before Joe knows his mother has been raped.

…Erdrich demonstrates her maturity as a writer by choosing not to rush through this cataclysmic event in the life of a family. She appreciates fully how a single event can trigger feelings that move both spatially (from person to person and place to place) and temporally (within the same person or place over time, even over generations). Continue reading…

As a writer and editor, I am continuously in awe of Erdrich’s ability to sustain moral complexity through the experiences of children without exploiting them or using them as passive carriers of adult ideals.

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Publications

Christian & Buddhist Worldviews

My Q&A response on the Progressive Christianity website this month was a really tough question: Buddhists tend to think of God as a manifestation of creation; Christians think of God as separate from creation. Do you understand that distinction?

Buddhist and Christian concepts of creation span a full spectrum of beliefs, with some Buddhists even perhaps aligning more closely with some Christians than their fellow Buddhists, and vice versa. So what’s the best way to answer this? I opted to share two examples of a Buddhist and Christian mindset from famous novelists Yukio Mishima and Victor Hugo. Here’s an excerpt of my response, which you can read for free here. (Just scroll down past the locked Matthew Fox article.)

[In Mishima’s Spring Snow,] Honda envisions “God” is the inevitable forces of all reality, churning one impermanent feature into another, obliterating free will wherever it tries to assert itself as separate. It’s really important to understand that this is not a bad conclusion in Honda’s eyes even though he fights it emotionally. Actually, it perfectly foreshadows how his friend’s beautiful life will unfold again and again in each reincarnation across the series.

By comparison all the great drama and angst of Victor Hugo’s much beloved character Jean Valjean in Les Misérables depends very much on a vision of reality and God that accommodates free will. … Unlike Honda, Valjean’s whole existence rests precisely in what choice he makes for himself—to be the best or worst of men. It creates an expectation of judgment by a neutral force, outside the ordinary forces of reality: implicitly, God as represented by the good bishop.

What is clear to me when I read Mishima and Hugo as two compelling examples of Buddhist and Christian worldviews, is that we don’t get a “free pass” on difficult questions by picking one versus the other. Both require a form of rebirth and reckoning with ourselves and the world. It is a rich dialogue, to say the least.

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Apocryphal Monologues, Publications

“Autopsy of a Stillbirth” (Progressing Spirit)

I am grateful today to be sharing a poem from my growing Nag Hammadi collection in the Progressing Spirit newsletter (subscriber access only). Here is an excerpt from the poem, which juxtaposes some of the difficult experiences and questions around miscarriage with verses from the apocryphal Gospel of Truth:

You loved her.
The book of her life cannot be read with the naked eye.
Her holy Word, a folded wing, rustles between the atria.

This broken filament you place inside
your lover’s cavernous ventricle.
Together, you are defibrillating the dark matter.

Is she the voice of God?
You already know. Still, you trace her
through microscopes and hadron colliders,
listening for a wingbeat,
the First and the Last.

This poem, along with two other poems I drafted this week during a workshop at The Cabin literary center in Boise, have now raised the total pieces in this collection (tentatively titled Apocryphal Monologues) to nearly 20. However, I’m hoping to compose at least 5 to 10 more pieces before finding a publisher to give it a home.

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Japan Novel Research, Publications

“Drying Tatami” & “Failed Adoption” (Sweet Tree Review)

This month has been a busy month of poetry publications! Sweet Tree Review has published two of my poems, a concise prose poem called “Drying Tatami,” and also “Failed Adoption,” which is based on how I experienced our family’s failed adoption of two children in the 1990s. (This experience left such a strong impression, in fact, that my twin sister and I went on as adults to adopt — thankfully without the same heartbreaking result.)

What’s coming: In August I am anticipating several essay publications and at least one poem. I’m also hard at work on drafting a new novel set in mid-19th century rural Japan during the peak of Buddhist persecution. I expect to be working on this novel for the next year or so, but I’ll be sharing some of my research on the blog. There were moments during the 19th century when it appeared Buddhism might be scrubbed from Japanese identity. Sometimes I’m amazed at how it not only survived but even experienced a bit of a renaissance during this fascinating moment in Japan, when the country was opening up to the outside world for the first time in hundreds of years (or, more accurately, when Japan was becoming something that could even be called a modern “country”).

Drying Tatami

You lay out the rice straw on the suspension bridge to bind it. Every three
years, replace the wisteria. When the bridge sways, sag vine—slice…

Continue reading

Failed Adoption

It was snowing in Chicago when the plane landed,
must have been the time taken for the father
to walk two toddlers across a terminal

the same hour bitter-cold in Idaho,
and a pack of dogs in the sheepfold

It was intestines ballooning over wool, it was red on black gums
It was the ewe bleating against the cinderblock wall while the dogs tore while the mother stood for the tender thing
when she made for the door and for the propped gun…

Continue reading

Thank you, as always, for reading my work! You can read the full Summer 2017 issue of Sweet Tree Review here. I especially enjoyed the luminescent “Loss of Mass” by Steven Pan: Scientists once believed they / could weigh the human soul. / In the beginning, you were a / flush of frenzy and copper. / Now, time has decolorized / your fever.

Photo credit: “Iya Valley Vine Bridge,” © Karl Baron.

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Publications

“Moscow” (Plath Poetry Project)

I am delighted to say that my poem “Moscow,” after Sylvia Plath’s “Berck-Plage,” is now available in the Plath Poetry Project’s June Retrospective.

Telescopic bulge, distended by water—
the waterpark slide has an unfocused blue glow.

Spigot for lollipop-yellow kids on plastic donuts,
one shot after another, film rippling under wrinkled feet.

Flash-flash the sky flares then flattens to slate.
A boy wipes his hand over it and starts again.

How do they find the courage to plunge and plunge?
I sweep chlorinated beads from my shoulder and swim doggedly…

Read the whole poem

About the Plath Poetry Project

Between April 1962 and February 1963, the final months of her life, Sylvia Plath separated from an adulterous Ted Hughes and moved with their young children to London. She experienced England’s coldest winter in 100 years, cared in isolation for her frequently sick children, and faced the underwhelming reception of her now-celebrated novel The Bell Jar. During that time she wrote 67 poems, including many that are widely regarded as her finest work. The record of this productivity, anthologized in sequence and with date-stamps in her Collected Works, shows the fluxing process of one of the greatest poetic minds of the 20th century.

The Plath Poetry Project was begun to encourage writers to engage with Plath’s work and follow her writing schedule between April 1962 and February 1963. Every day that she wrote a poem, the editors of the Plath Poetry Project post that poem and share prompts and encouragement. It is a great project for thinking about one’s own writing process.

(If you enjoy writing poetry personally or professionally, it’s not too late to get involved. You can subscribe for reminders and writing prompts, and to receive the monthly retrospective.)

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Publications, Sustainability & Farming

“Dirge for Pronghorns Poisoned in the Harsh Winter” (Cirque)

My poem, “Dirge for Pronghorns Poisoned in the Harsh Winter,” has been published by Cirque Journal in Volume 8,2. Cirque is an Alaska-based journal that publishes writing and artwork from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Here’s an excerpt and link to the full poem.

Like the grave prows of Norsemen cutting the sea to Valhalla, like the prows black and curled and caught in the wind, caught out-flung and glazed and held aloft by the freezing rain, fifty strong the black-browed pronghorns set out across the white hills, fifty strong the far-runners crossed the unbroken swells and pitched through snow as through sea froth left to freeze where it spilled—and bedded on an ice dam… Continue reading (p. 77)

This poem is based on an actual incident: fifty pronghorns died in Payette, Idaho, after consuming Japanese yew last winter. It was heartbreaking, and I felt I should find some way to honor the deaths of these beautiful animals. Thank you, as always, for reading my work.

Image: Pronghorn antelope at Gibson Lake in southern Oregon, not far from the borders of California and Nevada, seen in May of 2017. © LeeAnn McDonald, BLM

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Publications

Chernobyl, Icon & Memory

My essay “Iconography of a Disaster: Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl” was published today on the Ploughshares blog. 

Narratives about catastrophic events tend to compress over time. Episodes come to be presented in a certain order, leading to a standard meaning that becomes iconic. Yet the iconic version of the story is not the factual version of the story. It is not an objective reality but a symbol, a form of shorthand, or, as the dictionary has it, “an object of uncritical devotion.” Continue reading

I hope you’ll read it. I’ve become curious about icons and memory, that is, how we come to cling to certain images that anchor our understanding of events. In the essay I look at how Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich explores this idea through interviews with survivors and resettlers of Chernobyl after the nuclear reactor meltdown. 

What are your icons? How did they become your interpretive key for understanding the past? 

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