NYC transit: an endless game
of barrel of monkeys, commuters spilling
out onto breeze-less subway platforms,
off the stairs onto cigaretted streets.
Once, again, repeat until
the next stop is mine, and I jostle
all elbows and umbrella bags for a spot
on the precipice. As though the mass
is whole, the train doors unstick
and out we tumble, never fluidly
thanks to the ear-phoned pole hugger
so caught up with Jay-Z that he doesn’t notice
the station light, or the doors wide, or each monkey
battling to step off and do the same again
at the top of bottlenecked stairs.
Underground is a sequeled New York,
a second set of rules and etiquette
that begin with a descent and
end with city stank but open air.
A little boy – about five years old at first glance – appeared on the outskirts of the field of wildflowers beside the railroad tracks on a hazy Sunday morning. He crossed the wooden slabs and metal rail on the balls of his feet slowly and achingly, avoiding prolonged contact with the uneven gravel. At the other side, he approached the field cautiously, reaching out a sooty hand to tug out a handful of the tall grass.
The dirty blond hair at the back of his head stood straight up and his overalls hung loose on him, the cuffs dragging on the ground, even when they were rolled twice. When he walked, he didn’t bother to hold the pants, causing the cotton up to his knees to grow dark with a mix of dirt and soot. He didn’t wear shoes. His feet were practically black with only the skin between his toes anywhere near his true skin tone. He limped on his left foot because of a large burn spanning the length of the arch of his foot to his heel.
He sat on the small gravel slope beside the tracks and cleared a small place in front of him. Working meticulously, he arranged the fistful of tall grass stalks and wildflowers in a pile. Every so often, he crawled back to the field and plucked more, trying not to pull out any with thorns or sticky leaves. As he worked to pad the pile, he stuck his tongue between his lips and chewed on it softly. He stopped when the inch deep pile was a rectangle big enough for him to curl up on, his cheek leaning against the back of his hand on the ground.
His thumb moved subconsciously toward his mouth as he closed his eyes. He yawned loud and long and slid the tip of his thumb between his lips, his teeth scraping against the dirt that was like a second layer of skin around his nail. He swirled his tongue around his finger and sucked off some of the grime. He jerked his thumb away quickly, as if he’d been hit, when he realized what he was doing.
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In undergrad, we had two writing professors, one for poetry and one for fiction. Since at the time poetry intimidated the heck out of me (more on that in a future post, I’m sure), my college writing career was “managed” by one professor. This professor happened to be a really big fan of John Gardner, who has written several books on writing. I didn’t care much for Gardner then (though it struck me this morning that it might be past time that I re-read his books on writing and see how I feel now, years later), but one quote of his that stuck with me regardless is this one:
The writer who cannot distinguish truth from a peanut-butter sandwich can never write good fiction.
– John Gardner, The Art of Fiction
Is it really that easy to mix up truth and a peanut-butter sandwich? Of course not. But that’s not the point. The point is that if a writer doesn’t know the truth, doesn’t know truth, and doesn’t use truth spread out (like peanut-butter!) all over her work, then the writer simply can’t write good fiction. Truth must be present in fiction.
But, you argue, fiction isn’t the truth! Fiction never happened! That’s why it’s called fiction and not non-fiction. It’s not reality. It isn’t a memoir or a biography or a historical account of things that actually transpired. Why are you bringing up truth at all? Fiction does not equal truth.
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She cooks with salt
harvested from the Dead Sea
by slaves’ calloused, brittle hands,
raining it over beef and lamb,
fingers cold as they press
each grain into sinuous muscle.
Year after year she seasons with
salt alone — sprinkled on meat,
on bread, on parsley, on each edible,
on every plate. Salt tastes in
her family’s communal meals,
to friends visiting, to strangers
entertained. As though salt fills
her own pores, cracking her
knuckles under the sting of
well water, she wrinkles and bends,
her own tears as dense as seawater.
Salt is part of her.