The Heaven of Animals: A Coin in the Mouth

Guest Post

By Jen Hinst-White

“I have this mystical-schmystical idea,” one of my writing teachers once said, “that stories exist outside of us somewhere, and it’s our job to get them down properly.”

He was a hard-nosed editor and a robust skeptic, and he confessed this notion five minutes before workshop’s end, as if not to give his own idea too much credence. I suspect, though, that most of us knew what he meant.

And if we can be mystical-schmystical for a moment and imagine this is so: Well, what does it mean to get a story down “properly”? Skillfully, yes; honestly, one hopes; but do we employ the storyteller’s guile, or the sage’s compassion, or the filleting knife of the satirist? What do we do with the stories we catch?

I recently happened on The Heaven of Animals, the debut short story collection by David James Poissant, and it brought this question to mind. In it, Poissant casts his storyteller’s net and catches sixteen kinds of suffering. Here, a grief to ring the bell of every reader’s memory: deaths of friendships, parents, children. In several stories, it’s a marriage that dies, or else hovers in death’s doorway, waiting to tumble in or out.

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Pleasure Milker

Guest post by Jen Hinst-White

The mind is always elsewhere, won’t stay put.

Whose merciful hands, then,

Could bind us to our longing?

—Katy Didden, “The Penitentes’ Morada”

In my early twenties I used to daydream of the perfect job to complement writing. The criteria were these:

It had to be part-time; I wanted hours leftover to write at my desk.

It need not be high-paying; I was a budgeter, lived simply.

And then this: It should require the use of my body—offer some light physical labor to complement the labors of the mind. Potter’s assistant, garden nursery worker, sign-maker. I imagined spending several hours in pleasant, undemanding tedium, savoring the useful work of my hands. Then I would go home, shower, and pour stories onto the page, as if from a bottomless pot of coffee that had been percolating while I worked.

When I think back on this daydreamed job, it’s not my own romantic notions that I rue, but my failure to try them. Instead I took the good jobs that came along: fulltime or nearly so, my hands not tending saplings or wedging clay but tapping keyboards.

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Chrysalis, Catacomb, Cloud Part 2

R. Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi (1617)

Guest Post
Jen Hinst-White

Continued from yesterday

 

Rob goes to bed; I go to my desk and light white candles. Someone I know makes a yearly Lenten project of holding a poetry contest, soliciting translations of psalms from friends. The timing is good; I need a quiet task. Which psalm, then?

Years ago I memorized Psalm 25, and it’s become my favorite ground to walk in the book of Psalms. It’s the one I return to, a beggar’s song of waiting and yearning and aloneness.

Plus—it’s got tricks built in. In Hebrew, this psalm is an acrostic, with the first letter of each line spelling out the Hebrew alphabet. Why the acrostic? Maybe for easy recall when you have no presence of mind. Ache and longing made manageable by mnemonics. [Read more...]

Chrysalis, Catacomb, Cloud Part 1

Macha Chmakoff, At the Foot of the Cross (1990)

Guest Post
Jen Hinst-White

How did I never notice before? An ultrasound room has all the markings of a ceremonial space—a theater of mystery. The lighting is dim. You enter via ritual: undress, sit in this chair, clothe yourself in paper. The monitor is mounted so high on the wall that your eyes naturally go upward, as they would to a comet or reddening eclipse. You wait. And then you see things invisible to the human eye.

Throw in an attractive virgin and some hallucinatory vapors, and you’ve got yourself a perfect Greek oracle. But my sonographer’s name is Alison, she is dressed in cheerful scrubs, and she seems sober enough.

“This is number two?” she says.

My husband Rob sits in the corner behind me, with Charlie, our three-year-old, on his lap. [Read more...]


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