What follows is a blow-by-blow account of the first issue of Gordon Lish’s legendary literary journal The Quarterly. Here I’ll examine stories by Amy Hempel, Tom Spanbauer, Matthew Levine, Chris Spain, Pamela Schirmeister, Yannick Murphy, J.S. Marcus, Darrell Spencer, Kaye Gibbons, Peter Christopher, Janet Kauffman, and Tom Rayfiel; a novella by Jane Smiley; poems by Paulette Jiles, Robert Gibb, John Allman, William Freedman, Jack Gilbert, Ansie Baird, Diane DeSanders, and Harvey Shapiro; and letters by Nancy Lemann, Pagan Kennedy, Harold Brodkey, James Laughlin, Amy Hempel, Patty Marx, Robert Jones, E.J. Cullen, and Dan Duffy; and drawings by Don Nace. I hope to eventually cover every single issue of this incredible journal.
Following a drawing by Don Nace entitled “A Mother’s Love”—a scratchy rendering of what appears to be a headless woman reaching toward a mostly naked, and feathered and caped, man—The Quarterly’s first issue opens with Amy Hempel’s now classic story “The Harvest.” You know, the one that opens with “The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.” This sentence, with its seeming forthrightness in the first clause challenged by the three adverbial qualifications in the second should signal us to the series of reversals that occur throughout this story, but it is so artfully constructed that its subtext remains submerged. There are so many disarming moves in this story, like the many ways the narrator admits to embellishing, exaggerating the story (“because nothing is ever quite as bad as it could be”), and camouflaging her motivations, that you’re prepared, conditioned to believe anything she says; and this is perhaps, along with the various subtexts, the story’s greatest strength. But then again, the way the story toys with its own artifice engages me on another level: it subverts expectations without slowing the momentum. For instance, early in the story, the narrator brings up “the word,” but then shrugs it off by saying, “But I won’t get around to that until a couple of paragraphs.” But no, surely it’s the story’s deadpan humor (the exchange between the lawyer and the narrator is painfully hilarious) is what makes this story so great. When you come to think of it though, it’s the bitingly honest asides that captivate:
The man of the week was already gone, the accident driving him back to his wife.
“Do you think looks are important?” I asked the man before he left.
“Not at first,” he said.
I also love how the story’s off-stage driving accident is embedded here in that second clause: “the accident driving him back to his wife.” An extraordinary reversal, when you think of it.
The story continues as ones of the “Letters to Q,” a series of fake letters to The Quarterly. I’ve never seen “The Harvest” divided in this way, and, as it fits the character’s various duplicities, it is another masterstroke, albeit an editorial one, I would guess.
Tom Spanbauer’s “Sea Animals” also features a hospitalized person, the narrator Tommy’s baby brother Russell, who’s described as a “cripple.” The descriptions of Russell’s infirmities are as vivid as they are heart wrenching:
She pried open his right hand and told me to put my finger in there. I didn’t want to do it because his palm looked like a terrible blossom to me, or like an egg that the rooster had got to.
Later, after Russell dies, Tommy pulls his dead brother’s covers off and sees his brother’s hands now “open, palms up, sunny-side.” The ways the brother’s death is foreshadowed are also carefully managed and nested.
In a forthcoming interview of mine with Brian Evenson, he mentions a game that he and his sister used to play to scare themselves. In “Sea Animals,” the narrator mentions a similar game:
I remember the Door of the Dead. It was a game that Barbara and I played, and the way you played it was you would go into a room, into the room Barbara and I had together, and we’d close the door and then you’d say that the closed door was the Door of the Dead, and then we’d get scared, or I should say that I would get scared, and then after saying, “The Door of the Dead, the Door of the Dead,” over and over again, we’d make scary sounds and then Barbara would open the door, and it was always the same thing, I always was the one who ended up yelling, no matter how many times I told myself I wouldn’t yell this time.
Spanbauer’s “Sea Animals,” like “The Harvest,” also disarms because of the narrator’s various admissions of lying. After saying that his brother Russell always cried and never slept, he admits: “that’s not the truth,” and, after claiming that he smoked, he says, “But it’s not the truth.” He also admits that he lied when he said to his mother that he knew what it meant to be dead.
I also really enjoyed the dispassionate, almost perfunctory set-ups for reminiscences, each followed by colons, like: “These were my chores [colon],” “I do remember six things [colon],” and “What happened next are these things [colon].” And there’s a tidy echo in the end where, like the story’s beginning, the narrator enters a room and thinks it smells like both his brother and his mother.
There are some lovely reflections in Matthew Levine’s “Noises from Astonishing Satisfaction,” albeit from a racist narrator who repeatedly refers to his neighbor as a “Jap”:
My wife could pull anything out of a piano. She played from the hips from what I could see, but she said that was not all. She tried to tell me how there was as much in the pulling away as there was in the going in, maybe more, though the feelings were different. My wife had a belief in the spirit that I could not fathom. I imagined that it maybe gave you something to sleep with.
To get at sleep, I replayed my greatest victories, my worst defeats. I went all the way with them. I heard little patterings and I knew the mice were running and then I felt a pattering on my shoulder. It was my wife, her fingers playing in sleep. I tried to calm myself so I could feel what it was that she was playing, but my pulse was rough and unsteady and somehow I filled all of the quiet rests with my frenzied beating.
Like the previous two stories, the narrator here also admits to telling lies. He lies to his wife about mice sleeping on the bed. He lies to her when traps of his own invention kill mice. And in the next story, “Playing Iwo Jima,” by Chris Spain, we find a man who says, “Sarah waiting in the turn row is the only part of this that is for sure a lie.” The prefatory remarks are also well done here: “I will put it together the way I put it together for myself,” as are the detached asides: “The sun has gone where it goes to.”
Perhaps Lish’s choice to directly follow Spain’s story with one where a character says, “I did not like Spain. It would be my fate not to like Spain,” is meant to be a joke, but if it is, it’s an unfunny one. I prefer the way the gulls retreating here in Pamela Schirmeister’s “Squirrels” echoes the retreating hearts in Spain’s story. Schirmeister’s story offers a widower who is driven nearly crazy by squirrels living in his attic. Evidence? Becoming increasingly annoyed by the squirrels, his “first impulse was to burn the house down and collect the insurance.” However, using his “cunning, [his] proper assessment of the situation, and a knowledge of squirrels,” he ends up locking the critters in the attic so that they would simply starve to death. And in spite of being a man without “appalling self-knowledge,” he is capable of some beautiful reflections like the following:
I like the image of the house standing, long empty and overgrown with beach vegetation, with one shutter flapping when the wind is full. Better still, I like the image of the solitary chimney, chiseled against a bright November sky, supported only by the remnants of the brick foundation.
Yannick Murphy’s “The Slit,” carefully balances a child’s humorous glosses on language quirks (the comment on how people had switched from saying Uranus to Uranus is a nice echo of Hempel’s vahz and vase remark) with gallows humor about mourners. This balancing act includes the child’s own quirky way of dealing with the death. He also sees the deceased in a dream:
Lately, I have been dreaming that she is standing over me in my bed. When I wake up, I do not let myself open my eyes. I think, Maybe now that the dress is very, very small for her, she is a doll wearing a dress. Then sometimes I think that when I wake up that I can smell her, or that I smell dirt, but then the wind comes through my window and I can’t smell the smell.
In “It’s Freezing Here in Milwaukee,” there’s another narrator suffering from pain, this time because the metatarsal arches of both of his feet are “falling.” There are many liars in The Quarterly’s first issue and here we find one who “lied about everything: her age, her salary, where she went to college;” and later the narrator, to escape an uncomfortable situation, lies about having to leave for work. The story kind of meanders along without really getting anywhere, which may be the point, but it does lead to this strong final paragraph (although I would prefer for the hackneyed opening to have been changed, maybe excised altogether, since what follows makes the initial cliché retroactively redundant):
In a way, nothing turns out to be what you think it is. Sometimes the yard looks empty—it doesn’t even look familiar. But if I rushed outside, I could feel those pear leaves like wet sticks between my toes, and know exactly where I was. And I could look up to my bedroom window, just able to make a corner of the room, the place I’m looking at right now.
The second paragraph of Darrell Spencer’s “Pots of Impatiens” has one of the best shorter descriptions of late term pregnancy: “My ribs ache, and my breasts itch. Approaching muffin-hood is what mother used to say. I am eight months into it. My baby, they tell me, is sliding toward home.” But I should have known by the first sentence, “The sun made by the window sits on me,” that I was in for a treat, for precision and wit, for language that was edgy and spritely. For instance, there’s something “froggy” about the pregnant woman’s style. Some dead flowers are described as hanging “like flying saucers with dreadlocked hairdos.” Cindi Lauper sings “in a Betty Boop voice of perpetual woe.” The woman’s baby “will arrive like incoming fire.” The twist here is that two “habitual aborters will adopt her baby. She’s also a “daughter of the moon,” and considers fucking the husband, or the wife, to ease the various tensions of their arrangement. Once again, there is, as in previous stories, i.e., “Squirrels and “Playing Iwo Jima,” a number of retreats here. The woman, going against the agreement made with the adoptive parents, decides to visit them. They’re upset at first but then “[e]veryone sort of retreated and acted like they’d come to see me.” Then the pregnant woman writes a series of notes to the fetus:
Your father is not your father. He did not make you.
Your father is a redheaded bandit who drinks like a fish.
The story comes full circle with the pregnant woman sitting in the window again, this time with “one of those moons they call a strawberry moon” sitting on her.
Kaye Gibbons’s “The Proof,” joins “The Slit” as a story told from a child’s perspective. Children often see things with a peculiar, heightened clarity and Gibbons captures that glistening purity well. The girl in the story is shown a series of Rorschach blotches, or what the girl calls “pictures of flat bats,” and the therapist concludes that the girl’s afraid. While the girl disagrees and states that at that moment she was simply nervous, she also admits:
Oh, but I do remember when I was scared. Everything was so wrong, like somebody had knocked something loose and my family was shaking itself to death. Some wild ride broke, and the one in charge strolled off and let us spin and shake and fly off the rail. And they both died tired of the wild crazy spinning. Now you tell me if that is not a fine style to die in. She sick and he drunk with the moving. They finally gave in to the motion and let the wind take them from here to there.
“The Proof” kind of reminded me of a Flannery O’Connor story, all that hot-and-bothered summer swelter and menace creeping underneath everything.
Peter Christopher’s “The Careerist” is a strange story filled with “chicken-sexers,” “peepers,” and “cow-manicurists;” with characters named Desperado, Billy “The Gimp” Boillit, and Sweet Miss Stringbean. The narrator wears egg-white booties, an egg-white jumpsuit, and an egg-white shower cap. Billy gets drunk and “marihoochied.” Everybody ends up “manicuring cow hooves with wood chisels and mallets,” and, as the narrator relates, “that is plenty to think about, whether you want to or not.”
Following this is another oddity, namely, Janet Kauffman’s “Anton’s Album.” It’s a story divided into numbered sections detailing the contents of a photo album. It’s a puzzle that once put together (as much as any reader can) ends up in ruins anyway. Speaking of Anton, the narrator relates: “His idea was, it was the same with human beings as with God: after you saw the ruin, that’s all there was. The rest did not matter.”
“Another Night in Tunisia,” by Tom Rayfiel, begins:
Ennui, having once again planted its sweaty buttocks on my face, drove me to Great Lengths, the local hippified gin mill run by a purple-haired diva named Stella Artois. Stella, who was handy with a chain saw, had done most of the decorating herself, but because of my degree in literature asked if I would glue some six hundred editions of Shakespeare bought wholesale from a failing grade school. This I agreed to do for unlimited credit at the bar; a coffin actually, propped on sawhorses. The rest of the place was similarly done up, hi-tech objets trouvés et colés vying with wall-sized drip/splash paintings that looked like late Pollock, just after his accident.
And so the comic romp continues in this “parched provincial town,” or “menopausal backwater,” with a building across the street blowing up, boys gawking at “operatic breasts,” a Claes Oldenburg electric dildo, a contortionist who nailed himself to a traffic light. And then there are the “neo-greasist headbreakers” and an artist with self-inflicted stigmata, who, for his next project, plans to live inside a Xerox machine. There are cheap jokes like, “‘Druids? They got a lot of Gaul, coming this far south.’” And the narrator ends up in a delicatessen where his
eyes avoided the ultraviolet bug trap to light first on headcheese, a nauseating mosaic of hosed-out viscera suspended in slime-shiny gelatin; then on a craggy, scorched hunk of pastrami, its slicing edge iridescent in the sun like a diamond facet…”
Rayfiel’s story, dripping with such baroque flair, is meant, I think, as a kind of send-up of James Joyce’s late work, and the last line, a repetition of part of the story’s first, is, perhaps, a kind of confirmation. It may even be a kind of bringing to life of the wild imagery of Jon Hendricks’s lyrics to Dizzie Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia.”
I’m tempted to do a full-length examination of Jane Smiley’s novella “The Age of Grief,” complete with speculations on whether this was, in fact—before meeting Lish’s scissor or knife, before huge chunks of paper pulp fell to the, respectively, cutting-room or killing floor—a door-stopper. It is a slim thing. But by slim I don’t mean slim-pickings, for Smiley’s novella, like the best novellas, concentrates, distills a vast amount of exploration, excavation into compressed but, paradoxically, somehow still breathing and pulsating prose.
“The Age of Grief” is the story of two dentists, their deteriorating marriage, and how everything slowly breaks and falls apart, and how the pieces are precariously and almost literally after blood, sweat, and tears, put back together. Dave, the husband is reflective, capable of layered thoughts, thoughts where grief suffuses almost every circumstance, like, for instance, here:
Teeth outlast everything. Death is nothing to a tooth. Hundreds of years in acidic soil just keeps a tooth clean. A fire that burns away hair and flesh and even bone leaves teeth dazzling like daisies in the ashes. Life is what destroys teeth. Undiluted apple juice in a baby bottle, sourballs, the pH balance of drinking water, tetracycline, sand in your bread if you were in the Roman army, biting seal-gut thread if you were an Eskimo woman, playing the trumpet, pulling your own teeth with a pliers. In their hearts, most dentists are certain that their patients can’t be trusted with their teeth, but you can’t grieve for every tooth, every mouth. You can’t even grieve for the worst of them; you can only send the patient home with as many of the teeth he came in with as possible.
Dave, like many of the characters in this first issue of The Quarterly, are concerned about language, its terrain, its limits:
Sometimes she made gestures of ironical acceptance, shrugs of her little baby shoulders. Sometimes she sighed, as if she didn’t quite understand how things work but was willing to talk about it. Are these limitations of our gestures? Or does the language itself carry the burden of mystery, so that any speaker must express it?
The writing here is reminiscent of Anne Michaels, of Michael Ondaajte. Aware of the risk that I’m simply listing great sentences (there are many) without explication of it, I’ll offer another choice passage:
I am thirty-five years old, and it seems to me that I have arrived at the age of grief. Others arrive there sooner. Almost no one arrives much later. I don’t think it is the years themselves, or the disintegration of the body. Most of our bodies are better taken care of and better-looking than ever. What it is, is what we know, now that in spite of ourselves we have stopped to think about it. It is not only that we know that love ends, children are stolen, parents die feeling that their lives have been meaningless. It is not only that, by this time, a lot of the acquaintances and friends have died and all the others are getting ready to sooner or later. It is more that the barriers between the circumstances of oneself and of the rest of the world have broken down, after all—after all that schooling, all that care. Lord, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me. But when you are thirty-three, or thirty-five, the cup must come around, cannot pass from you, and it is the same cup of pain that every mortal drinks from.
Like Hempel’s “The Harvest,” there’s a car joke here:
At stoplights, my glances in the rearview mirror gave me a view of her unyielding head.
And the pervasive doubts of what one feels and experiences:
It seemed to me that I had never loved anything—object, or feeling, or person—the way I loved her right now. Love is in the body as well as in the mind, a rush of blood to the surface, maybe, and infinitesimal yearning stretch of the nerve endings. I looked at her without seeing her, blinded by the loveliness of her nose, the grace of her forehead, the curl of her upper lip and the roundness of the lower. I will never see her, hard as I try to look past love. My eyes will always cast a light over her, and I will always think that this love, mine for her, is a dear thing. But it is as common as sand, as common as flesh.
And in the end:
It seems to me that marriage is a small container, after all, barely large enough to hold some children. Two inner lives, two lifelong meditations of whatever complexity, burst out of it and out of it, cracking it, deforming it. Or maybe it is not a thing at all, nothing, something not present. I don’t know, but I can’t help thinking about it.
Or, to rework a lyric from Lennon and McCartney, “And in the end, the love you break is equal to the love you make.”
The story takes a number of familiar twists and turns while also taking a number of provocative detours including the narrator’s over-identification with one of his patients, who, in a sense, inhabits him from time to time, helps him through his travails. And so begins his dissolution.
After Jane Smiley’s novella is another drawing by Don Nace. In this one, a blobby being walks with its hands pressed against its genitals saying, “I plan to clasp my thighs at the last moment,” while an apparition soars above it saying, “I wish I had not come this far.”
And so now I’ll take a look the poems. Paulette Jiles’s suite “The James Poems” is a largely unexceptional collection of fragmentary glimpses of the infamous Frank and Jesse James, who are described as “small consolation prizes out of the goldfields.” It is during their jaunts in the U.S. Civil War that they learn:
Only saints and killers know first hand
The red fragility of the human body,
The low gear-ratio of the human mind.
Perhaps the poems’ greatest fault is that they are really prose fragmented, fairly arbitrarily, into line breaks. Take for instance, these lines:
Jesse is hard to see
he is sixteen , he knows already to stay very
aim for the middle
he operates like an empty space, he shifts.
Around him are atmospheres while in the
more heroics; a cover story.
But, surely, this is better:
Jesse is hard to see. He survives. He is sixteen. He knows already to stay quiet and aim for the middle he operates like an empty space—he shifts, Around him are atmospheres, while, in the foreground, more heroics—a cover story.
I removed the empty adjective “very” as it hardly modifies how quiet it was for the young outlaw. Ultimately, when you start to piece together the lines in these poems, you notice all kinds of weaknesses like awkward phrases, uninteresting angularities, and clichés. Towards the middle of the suite, the narrative is placed into paragraphs, and, while the problems still jar, at least it reads as it should, that is, as a fairly tepid recounting of lives on the run.
With Linda Gregg, however, the poetry section truly begins. She casts her eye on victims of the Belsen concentration camps, likens their disposed corpses to El Greco’s “thin nudes…aspiring to heaven in Christian ecstasy,” and, creepily, “how beautiful these bodies are in their ruin.” The person here lifts a marble sculpture that was “worn away by eight thousand seasons.” She reflects on how “what is known inside is known without words,” even while she counteracts this awareness by writing it down.
Robert Gibb’s untitled poem is especially delightful:
To life, by a friend’s father
Who listed the same old address
No matter where he happened
To be living. Unlike me
He knew he’d move back in time
To become part of the light
Angling across the floorboards,
The flowers which turned to amber
In the honey of his walls
While I would have added a comma following “me” in the fourth line and have removed all the capitalization of each line’s beginning, I like the way the poem’s content folds, collapses into itself. Death permeates Gibb’s poems: “Death is the place we start from / Out of each hard loss and delivery?”
John Allman has the eyes of a forensics specialist:
It was the soft feel of his baby skin,
the gradual, darkening fuzz of his body’s assumptions,
the way he pulled at his fur, combing it with his teeth,
the tips of his white hairs like slivers of moon-fire
flickering in the space between his golden eyes.
William Freedman’s pieces also should be composed into the paragraphs they yearn to be. Ditto Jack Gilbert, although his poems’ longer lines approximate margin-to-margin lines. For Ansie Baird, the heart is “a kind of pulsing red barrier, / a bloody barbed-wire fence.” Diane Desanders is obvious and “could-be-funny” in “The Lover”:
The way I feel about you I wouldn’t care
if you were male or female.
Harvey Shapiro’s “Cynthia” is marred by the same thing afflicting much of the “poems” in this issue of The Quarterly.
After the last “poem” you find another of Don Nace’s phantoms wanting “to feel the wind on [his] balls.” By the time I came to “Letter’s to Q” I wanted to feel the wind winding it’s way through the prose as it did in the stories.
I love lists and Nancy Lemann’s travelogue letter to Q is gushing with them:
This sweltering, besotted town with its ruined Beaux Arts mansions, grandiose architecture of West in remote outpost of Third World, lost in old Egypt on the Nile in Africa. Streets of dirt lined by eucalyptus trees toward main square, a circle of date palms and sweet olive bounded by wrought-iron rail, Coptic spires and Islamic minarets in distance. Green shutters, Corinthian columns, and balustrades on balconies of besotted villas. Galleries, tile floors, bentwood chairs. Majestic hotel. Everything besotted with worst squalor I have ever seen.
Pagan Kennedy’s letter pokes fun of omniscient fiction:
I think I’m qualified to say what Jenny thinks; I know her pretty well. I know Dave well, too. If you know a person well, that person lives a life inside your mind sometimes far more epic than that person’s own life. Inside my mind, there is a Jenny and a Dave, and inside my mind, they think.
Harold Brodkey’s satirical letter castigates self-aggrandizing writers, who, like the Harold Brodkey writing this letter, inflate themselves when talking about their work: “What I do is more seriously revolutionary than I have been willing to admit publicly until now.” Although it does frequently offer provocative asides on narratology that hold in abeyance the final decision whether this is a send-up, a self-deprecating letter, or not:
If we are clear-headed for a moment we can see that there is no way for us to “know” the artist except in his art: everything else is guesswork about him, and it’s not all that clear who he is in his art either. The autonomy and control through his autonomy of a piece of work that an artist does, does not exist in life for the man or woman the artist is away from his or her work. And even at his own work, a man is not necessarily the artist who seems to have been there when the work appears to be good. That is because the artist comes and goes, edits and pauses, and perhaps rarely, very rarely, fully exists. He exists in flights and spurts and by accumulation.
James Laughlin’s mini-play that attempts to roast works from Greek Antiquity, Charles Bernstein, language poetry, and structuralism is not funny. Oh well.
And so we come back to Amy Hempel who writes: “About the piece of fiction I have with you in this issue—I just wanted to say that I leave out a lot when I tell the truth,” and then Hempel goes on to list a number of those distortions.
Patty Marx’s letter grapples with various misunderstandings, like her father who “maintains there is no difference between pointillism and connect-the-dots.”
Robert Jones wants to know if Squeaky Fromme “had found a power in surrender that made the self elemental and weightless, and so able to strike more dangerously and with no apparent fuss.” What follows, among other things is a brief reflection on words and language:
Nothing you could think of doing or that could happen to you was without a name. There was a name for everything. The world became at once larger than ever imagined and more claustrophobic. It was impossible to get past the words. It made the urge to do something that would send the rest of them scrambling for a sentence to define it at least understandable.
This feels like a prologue to the following letter by E.J. Cullen. Here’s one representative sparkling passage:
There, feelbe down the sloping through soft earth hollow. Old years have gained this sleep and wish them well. Across the road, George Washington rest brown gravy on his grits, got the troops grazled and sturdy for battle, foggled down flagons of warm rum groggles and banged with his pointing finger on a woodgrain tooth thinking of a wrinkle for muscooting the canons and manueling his arms. History, man. All what we be.
I wonder why this Joycean reverie was left as the penultimate letter, when it is certainly one of the strongest. On the other hand, Dan Duffy’s letter—a fairly uninteresting anecdote—follows and very much deserves its place.
“I’m just going to sit here and watch everybody die,” is what the harried figure says in Don Nace’s final drawing as a panoply of ghosts hover above-head.
In conclusion, The Quarterly’s first issue is brimming with beautiful sentences, parallels that run, and echoes that reverberate throughout the stories. I’m thoroughly perplexed by Lish’s poetry choices. I wonder how much of these pieces were altered by him and what was his exact criterion for selecting them. Most were fairly uninteresting. And, save Hempel’s and Cullen’s, the “Letters to Q” was mainly a wash.
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.