Issue No. 118
I first read Dolan Morgan’s work in late 2010. He’d submitted a story for the first print issue of the journal I run, apt, and it was a crowning jewel on our inaugural annual. The story was funny and touching, surreal and sad—qualities I would come to recognize as trademarks of his work. Not long after the issue hit the shelves, I was asked in an interview: among my contemporaries, whose work did I like to read? I named Morgan, and described his writing as charming satire aimed right for my heart.
A couple years later, when I first read the manuscript for his collection, That’s When the Knives Come Down, I was again struck by Morgan’s charm, but I realized my assessment of him as a satirist was rather limiting. Satire requires a target, and while his targets range from capitalism to sex (which is to say, targets worthy indeed), Morgan renders them with a disarming affection. His approach, specifically the evidence of his fondness for his subject matter, allows him to surpass the role of satirist, and to more fully occupy the role of benevolent absurdist.
That combination of benevolence and absurdism brings me to “Nueé Ardente,” a story about a man waylaid while traveling by train to see his errant sister. As the delay persists, he becomes more interested in the unfamiliar landscape and his fellow passengers than continuing his journey. In the resultant purgatory, the protagonist comes to recognize that he will age even as his fantasies remain young, to accept that the only way to hold himself responsible for his actions is to leave himself no other choice, and to realize that he both resents and resembles his sister. But despite every drawback, we retain hope. Morgan has depicted disorder and disarray humanely, as characters we need not fear encountering.
That’s When the Knives Come Down just came out. I’m so proud to have had a hand in its publication, not just because it’s funny and touching and surreal and sad—though it is all of those things—but because it goes beyond buzz words. As grand and irrational and crazed as the stories are, Morgan’s collection, and “Nueé Ardente” in particular, reveal the ways people retain their humanity, in all its selfish and haunting glory.
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by Dolan Morgan
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On the train ride north, I see an explosion in the distance. Black smoke rises into the afternoon sky, and I watch it out the window as the train speeds through tiny, blue-collar towns. The tower of smoke is like a building, a distant skyscraper that curves without care. The mountains beneath it seem almost uninhabited, covered in a thick rug of frosted pines. What’s happening over there, I wonder. A forest fire? An industrial accident? A dormant volcano that has suddenly awoken? The landscape is unfazed. Still, I imagine all the mountains bursting open like bottles of cheap champagne—pop, pop, pop—covering the northern New York countryside with molten rock, washing over small towns with magma and steam, trailing smoke across the Eastern seaboard. The whole area will come to a stop once the 60 mph pyroclastic wave rolls down the hillsides and into town, I think. Like Pompeii, everyone will be halted in their tracks—and no matter what they were doing, be it humiliating or heroic or mundane, it will all be frozen here in the upstate territories like an enormous carbon photograph stretching the length of the Catskills. Soon it might become a sort of solemn tourist attraction like that of the World Trade Center or Pearl Harbor. People will come to witness tragedy firsthand, to see everything as it was “that terrible day.” After a while, the shock and sadness of it all will most likely wear off, as if tragedy were just a perfume or cologne or bug spray you applied at the right moment, and people will come unabashed to look at all the privacies left behind and unguarded. No one will pay attention to its enormity, of course, or at least only pay it lip service, but everyone will string along their families to be voyeurs of the dead, standing their children in front of copulating corpses and taking photographs to be hung on the wall at home. At any given time, I realize, I probably would rather not have a volcanic plume rush over me and immortalize whatever it was I was doing at the moment. There are very few points in my life that I would choose to showcase as a tourist attraction, simply because most of the time I look like an idiot. Right now, for example: I’m slumped against the train window, my cheek stretched against the glass like putty. I probably resemble a puffer fish as it’s prepared by a chef to be eaten: confused and asphyxiated.
Yet I’m breathing and fairly cognizant. In an hour, the train will pull into Binghamton, where my sister will meet me at the station. She’ll be driving some beater that needs a screw driver shoved in the ignition to get it started, rust about to eat through the axles, and one window made of plastic garbage bags duct-taped gingerly to the frame. We’ll zip along dirt roads for an hour until we reach her trailer on the top of a hill where we will eat hot dogs with her children, surrounded by jars of everything from pickled cabbage to pickled nuts. It’s been years since I’ve seen her, but I know what to expect. And the years passed aren’t because of a falling out or any kind of drama at all; simply, we’ve been busy—or I have—or just as much, we’ve never been close enough to warrant the expensive commute between NYC and the Canadian border. She’s much older than me, a decade at least, and I sometimes have trouble seeing myself in her. She has said to our mother that we are oil and water, nothing alike and not worth comparing. It might be all we agree on, in fact. Really, everything else is so foreign to me, just as I imagine my life must be to her. The city, the noise, the fast pace—it’s nothing like what she has sought and found. And how she came to living out here in the backwoods of America, in the middle of nowhere? I can’t understand it. What does she find out here all alone? Maybe the cold: the area is known for its harsh winters—sometimes more than eight to ten feet of snowfall—which, unbelievably, leaves people even more removed than they already are from each other. I suppose, though, if you come for the isolation, then the winter snowdrifts aren’t all bad. Luckily for me, it’s November and that isn’t winter in my book. The train speeds onward, now curving around a lake and giving me a better view of the smoke. It appears that there might be another cloud rising, but I can’t tell if it’s just another part of the first. I haven’t heard any other explosions, but we are a great deal farther off by now as well.
The sound of the train rushing along the steel tracks is suddenly audible as a woman whom I had seen earlier boarding the train drags her bags through my car and into the next. I recognize her as someone I may have known or been associated with, if only slightly, maybe an old college classmate or subway rider. I know her, I think. Still, she is familiar, just as much, as the type of girl that exists as a ghost in my head, the woman who seems like some perfect ideal—but whose parts are strewn across the bodies of millions of women, some limbs and smiles here, some eyes or clothes over here, and attitudes and laughs over there. The platform woman’s snarly, sharp-toothed smile is a smile taken straight from the ghost’s blueprint. Her eyes and legs seem familiar too, as if they were somewhere inside me once, like a type of blood? No, that isn’t right, I think, but more as if I had already held them, looked into them. Dumbly, I am reminded of the women I’ve slept with, the women I’ve loved, rarely the same, as the train slows, pulling into another station along the way.
This right here is what you need to read immediately. IMMEDIATELY.
Breakfast around the world
breakfast is the only meal that matters
The most hypnotic and compelling post this morning is breakfast.
[Gifset: Laverne Cox speaks at the GLAAD media awards, she says,
"Each and every one of us has the capacity to be an oppressor. I want to encourage each and every one of us to interrogate how we might be an oppressor, and how we might be able to become liberators for ourselves and each other."]
"Oh each poet’s a beautiful human girl who must die."
Alice Notley (via whatmountains)
Tomorrow I launch my very first chapbook Conversation with the Stone Wife, a sampling of a book I’ve worked very hard on for years and years to make pristine and strong. It’s cooked. So much of this and Swan Feast is about fostering identities with voluptuous stone in lieu of people for comfort. I had problems for a long time with my body. I have problems with my body. Each book I write I want to feel like an excavation of body. I don’t know how helpful any of it is. They’ve announced a 72-hour ceasefire in Gaza, probably to clean away all the dead children so they can start all over again.
I wrote a long, 4,000+ word essay about exercise and body dysmorphia, and I sent it somewhere. I’ve never sent a personal essay anywhere. This has nothing to do with the personal so much as the interpretation of the personal. I’m not sure what a personal narrative is supposed to do, beyond merge pathos with pathos. People want to make sure they contain Ebola to Africa, where disease doesn’t matter, where people and their deaths don’t matter.
Conversation with the Stone Wife is in no way a personal account of my dysmorphia. It’s too caked in artifice. It is in no way creating an intersection between the Venus of Willendorf and timelessness, and in fact, refutes the claim that art is timeless. Art is fleshy and will die. There is no reason to believe anything humans create will last. There is no reason to hope this to be true. Conversation with the Stone Wife is more about the failure of eras and the failure of bodies to pronounce these eras. Our bodies are a liquid promise and we fuck them and fuck them and smear our shit and piss and die with our jaws open to bready nothing. I am so fucking sick of the news inuring me to the images of so many brown bodies splayed out with hanging jaws.
People roll their eyes when they hear me say my body is disgusting and I am disgusting for having a body. I fawn over bodies that are waifish and tiny because they are almost gone, and my curiosity to be in that state of disappearance becomes entirely religious. My relationship with the Venus figurines is quite simple: We are each locked into the torture that bodily size is bodily purpose. She just happens to be lucky enough to be stone. O gargoyle, why wasn’t I too made of stone? sighs Quasimodo. The NYTimes, in writing of the cease-fire, shows two images of mourning Israelis and then, as almost a factual afterthought, offers these numbers which show that 1,410 Palestinians have been killed—to Israel’s 64.
It did occur to me today that if I didn’t write poetry I would have killed myself a long time ago. I’m not sure it’s helpful to anyone, including myself, that I didn’t. But I need poems. I need them like I need the world to disappear for a long time. My chapbook launch is tomorrow and while I will never be happy nor ever choose to be happy because ugh god, I feel okay. I feel loved. It’s a bad feeling to have when focused on war and ethnic cleansing. I’m sorry the world is the world. I can only think of what these elements mean together, and it’s an offensive, helpless kind of math.
Being alive feels like subscribing to all of the atrocities and I don’t want to have to subscribe to all of the atrocities and I guess that is why happiness is a completely false construction for our quotidian safety but there is no safety and certainly no happiness. I never want to forget how horribly locked in we are to this big atrocious everything. I never want to even consider how horrible it must be like to be happy about living.
My 10-year high school reunion is in November and a class photo was posted on the FB page. I was the Goth Girl in the class. To my right is Gaelen, my unsmiling BFF. Boys threw rocks and bottles at my face from their cars while belching FREEEAK from the windows. Now I write poems about killing men. I made a goth bridal headdress last night for my chapbook performance tomorrow. I am probably not going to my HS reunion. You should come to my chapbook launch for CONVERSATION WITH THE STONE WIFE at MellowPages.