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Postcards From Pompeii

Tue, 08/22/2023 - 13:19
Bill Henderson
Judy D’Mello

“Pushcart Prize XLVII: Best of the Small Presses”
Bill Henderson, Editor
Pushcart Press, $35

This year's Pushcart Prize collection once again proves Emily Dickinson's definition of her art: "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." The image is a bit discomfiting, yet how else to allow the mind to expand but letting in some fresh air?

The anthology comprises 66 poems, short stories, essays, and genre-defying pieces drawn from small presses and literary magazines that don't tend to feature in more staid annuals like "Best American Short Stories." They were culled from some 10,000 submissions by Bill Henderson and his band of editors. All of this burbles up from a backyard shack in Springs belonging to Mr. Henderson, who founded the prize 47 years ago.

Winning a Pushcart Prize has become the sine qua non of literary recognition. Among the anointed this year is a writer I know, Stephen Fishbach, who in another life was a renowned reality TV contestant. I asked him how winning this prize compared to being picked for "Survivor."

"Being chosen for the Pushcart felt like all the wonderful parts of 'Survivor' — the same euphoria, the same disbelief that I had been chosen, the same profound sense of accomplishment," he replied. "Fortunately, the Pushcart required no starvation or backstabbing!"

But this collection serves a vital role beyond the literary coven. It is, as Mr. Henderson notes in his introduction, "a continuing global witness." He recalls that in the 1970s, Pushcart reprinted samizdat publications "to encourage our censored friends behind the Iron Curtain. Sadly, we see an emerging situation where samizdat may return and not just in Russia or China." 

Go to the 2023 anthology if you want to hear what's not being talked about in polite company; to read work that would likely be banned in Florida; to be transported; to watch the English language blown apart and reconfigured in thrilling ways, like some crazy Gaudi-designed cathedral built of Lego.

The iconoclastic is both the subject and the form of the Korean-born poet Sam Cha's sonnet "Motherfuckers Talking Shit About American Sonnets":

. . . But the sonnet doesn't 
Belong to you. There's nothing to own. Not a spit
Of land nor spitcurl of rivulet for your chickenwire,
    Your snares
Your chickenshit sneers
where's the rhyme scheme?
    Who cares.

I embarked on this year's over-500-page edition looking for themes into which I could shoehorn the unruly pieces, as is the wont of book reviewers. I could sympathize with the narrator of Elizabeth Robinson's poem "Confession," a woman who works at a shelter where she's overwhelmed by the desperate tales of residents:

All that I have is a raucous list of accounts
each vying for place, for acknowledgement. But together,

they lack a reliable surface I could polish
into meaning.

It was only when I gave up on the attempt to find a reliable surface (or even familiar ways of spacing lines) that I could savor each piece. However, since it would take at least half of this newspaper to review each of the anthology's offerings with the care it deserves, these are a few of the tonic notes:


Five years ago the undergraduates in my New School short-story workshop titled their group reading "Coming of Age in the Apocalypse." That was before the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, our earth combusting. That year, the fiction they wrote was almost all zombies and dystopia. In this year's Pushcart collection, there is little surreality. Reality seems to have caught up. No need to distort; just record.

The table of contents alone denotes our imperiled planet: "The Glacier," "Fire and Ice," "Fire," to name a few. Pompeii is referenced three times in this anthology, which is itself like the Pompeiian magma into which cross-sections of daily life were seared into immortality — but it's also the seismograph predicting the eruption and raising the alarm.

In Idra Novey's story "The Glacier," a family outing in the Andes reveals that the hot springs the holidaymakers visited 12 years ago have been obliterated by a mining company. One of the children, a young boy with bony knees, vomits incessantly, the only remaining hot spring.

In her essay "Fire and Ice," Debra Gwartney describes herself and her dying husband being driven from their Oregon home by a wildfire that burned for weeks, consuming 173,000 acres. In this graceful memorial, she ties the shifting state of the Arctic and the crucible of the wildfire to her husband's last days.

“Believe Women”

The ways in which the objectification of women excuses brutality is clarioned in the anthology's first sentence. Victoria Lancelotta's story "Ambivalence" begins: "On Wednesday mornings the father hoists someone else's daughter onto his naked lap. . . ."

The object of the lawyer-father's motel-room trysts — a young woman whose drug habit he bankrolls — "was made to be consumed without thought or guilt," he thinks. Yet his own privileged teenage daughter is having sex in a Volvo in the school parking lot with an equally abusive boyfriend.

In conversation with this story is Jen Silverman's "The Children Are Fragile," in which right and wrong is murkier. It's a female professor of playwrighting, Mars, who fails to display the requisite outrage when a student mentions claims of sexual harassment against an artistic director: 

" '. . . I would need to know about the accusations to know what I thought,' " the professor temporizes to her student, who retorts, " 'What about Believe Women?' "

"Mars sighed. 'I think it's a slogan, Sheil. I think that anything that becomes a slogan loses its actual use.' "

Of course because this is the Pushcart anthology, it's not as simple as an older generation's cluelessness. Later in the story it unfolds that Mars herself was raped at 18, but she has refused to "dwell on it." The story is about the fragility of a lack of fragility. By the end, Mars begins to have an inkling of the damage done by her own denial. 

In Gina Chung's "Mantis," it's naturally the female praying mantis who's in charge: "She's never disappointed by the males she meets, because she never expects much from them. The sex is usually fine — adequate at best and unremarkable at worst. She enjoys . . . the crackling sound their heads make when she pincers her mouth around them."

Then she meets a new male, half her size, limping and bold. A love story told by a female praying mantis — you know how that's going to end. Except this is the Pushcart anthology. The mantis has been enlightened by her millipede therapist (before she eats him): "Perhaps not everything has to be consumed right away in order to be enjoyed, she thinks, proud of herself."

Anti-Social Media

The fun-house-mirror reflections created by social media is a theme running through many of the Pushcart pieces, including Mr. Fishbach's darkly comic story "To Sharks," which dramatizes the dangers of a sense of self constructed solely of public perception. 

The story opens with Kent Duvall "in the Memorabilia Room watching himself on the reality show 'Endure.' " He's been invited to yet another charity event in which fans pay to mingle with ex-contestants, though he refuses to forfeit his "appearance fee." His comeuppance arrives when he ironically fails to control the social media narrative. A fan in a Megadeth T-shirt photographs Kent and another former contestant in a compromising moment on the hotel-pool diving board. Kent demands that the fan delete the pictures:

Kent leans in close and holds up his ring finger with its scratched gold band. "I have a wife."

"I have a social media account," Megadeth counters.

New Vocabulary

Language is reclaimed in this anthology, partly through the forging of a new, harder vocabulary, and partly through an alertness to the new normal codified in words that might have seemed bizarre a few years ago. 

In Daniel Mason's story "The Toll," he notes one of the tolls of the pandemic: "the emptying of the language, the repetitions, the dwindling vocabulary. . . ."

Ringing throughout this story are terms that became quotidian in 2020: isolation orders, lockdowns, hazmat suits. Now these words are common parlance, but honest writing like this un-inures us. 

In the story "Unknown" by Bennett Sims, Do Not Disturb is given new disturbing meaning when a man's cellphone turns on him. His relationship crumbles under the eavesdropping enabled by recent technology like Find My tracking, though man's corrosive suspicion of a woman's affections goes back to at least Shakespeare. Imagine if Othello had hacked into Desdemona's no-doubt innocent texts — there would've been no play. 

The word screensaver is imbued with a new profundity in Robert Cording's poem by that title:

. . . this photograph
which I've turned into my screensaver
of my son, dead nearly three years,
has him suspended in mid-air.

The narrator gives thanks for the way this image of a boy joyfully jumping from an outcropping into Lake George provides "something like an afterlife" — more than a screen has been saved.

Other writers battle the pithing of words. Mary Ruefle begins her essay "Dear Friends": "I have had friends, and have them now, but never once did I believe that in my lifetime the word friend would have a new, different, other meaning." She goes on to quote the C.O.O. of Facebook's estimate that she has over 3,000 friends. The writer's response to this devaluing of the term is a series of portraits of her actual lifelong friendships.

Art From Wreckage

I realize that I might be making this anthology sound gloomy at best, macabre at worst. But here is joy! It's hard-won, extracted from the turmoil — especially by the poets, "those first responders of the soul," as Elizabeth Tallent calls them in her story "Poets." 

There's a sort of joy in Dorianne Laux's "The Thermopolium," inspired by the discovery of a snack stand in Pompeii: 

excavated people
of Pompeii frozen in time . . .
a mother bouncing a child
on her lap as if they'd decided
in their final moments to be
happy, to go into the afterlife
covered in ash, buried alive
by joy.

It's in Alice McDermott's story "Half Spent," in which a tense relationship between a dying elderly mother's offspring and her hired caregiver resolves in unexpected, literal harmony. 

It's even in Gail Godwin's reflection "The Desperate Place," which begins with the etymology of the word: [de- + sperare; de = reverse the action of + sperare = to hope]. What follows is a wrenching chronicle of the suicides of Godwin's father and brother. And yet it's also about the author's return to hope, demonstrating how "sperare" can be uncoupled from "de."

In Aleyna Rentz's story "The Land of Uz," a young high school English teacher can't bring herself to tell her class the nature of her chronic illness. "Maybe I ought to have related my disease back to our coursework. I could've told them my stomach, that leaky cauldron bubbling with acid, would make an ideal set piece for a production of 'Macbeth.' Mount a play inside my body, I would've said. Make this wreckage into art." 

For the best possible art created from wreckage, read this collection — and you can always replace the top of your head later.

Alexandra Shelley, who lives part time in Sag Harbor, is an independent book editor and professor of fiction writing at The New School.

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