Interviewed by Michelle Neuffer
Your story begins with Rhonda watching her neighbors through the window, and the rest of it sort of mimics that experience for the reader—we get glimpses into Rhonda’s art, her job, her marriage, the neighbors’ house. These glimpses hint at longer stories that feel like they remain just out of frame. Can you talk a little about how you find your way into a story, how to find the right beginning?Continue reading
Interviewed by Michael Sirois
Your poem “Neighbor,” confronts the great American suburb. A kind of success or resistance emerges from the speaker’s inability to adapt to this lifestyle, yet you also convey a sense of this speaker wanting to be a part of this suburban world, even if only a small part. Can you speak to this tension within the poem? Was there a balance beam you walked on during its composition in order to avoid being overly cynical?Continue reading
Interviewed by Dan Shurley
You’ve said that what people don’t say can be more interesting than what they do say, and that there is power in silence. How did you square this insight with the expectation that a memoir give us the “soul laid bare”?Continue reading
In December 1961, George Trabing
shot Winifred Jean Whittaker
and left her body beside the Trinity River
in one of the long twin shadows
of the I-10 overpass.
In August 1988, George Trabing
took me out on Trinity Bay
in his twenty-five-foot sloop
and taught me how to sail.
Past the bridge he cut the engine
and I felt us lock suddenly into the wind
Trabing was in a “narcotics-fueled frenzy”
when he murdered Whittaker
while searching for more drugs
“on the Negro side of town”; when he
attempted to assault a fourteen-year-old girl,
then returned her home;
when he burglarized a house in wealthy
River Oaks for $7. In the subsequent trial,
which lasted three months,
the prosecutor sought the death penalty
but did not succeed.
The Trinity River enters Trinity Bay
by way of the Anahuac Channel,
which was cut through the marsh-pocked delta
by the Army Corps of Engineers
and on the map looks like a straw
thrust into the bay’s broad bladder.
Those afternoons George took me sailing,
I don’t think we ever went over
to the northeast side of the bay.
He drank cans of beer from a plastic cooler;
I drank 7-Up. He taught me to tie knots
and watch the mainsail for luffing.
were a favor to my father, who still had to work
while I was visiting from Ohio.
George—who’d become a professor
after fifteen years in prison—
had his summers off.
Trabing was finally arrested
in the lobby of the Auditorium Hotel,
which, I’m shocked to discover,
became the Lancaster—and where,
on September 10, 2001, I had drinks
after seeing Salman Rushdie read.
The event was picketed
by Muslim fundamentalists; police barricades
maintained a channel through the crowd.
I don’t remember what Rushdie read
or anything he said. I remember
passing through that compacted organ of anger
and into the vastness of the theater,
bright red and lit with sophistication.
The protesters remained outside,
and Rushdie was the only person
facing their direction as he spoke—
and, of course,
it was September 10, 2001.
The family of Winifred Jean Whittaker
must despise George Trabing—
who is surely both abstract
and the very most powerful expression
of real. They would be right to say
it was a racist travesty of justice
he became a professor
and remained for the rest of his life
in Houston—their town—walking free
with his title and the prestige it carried.
They must find it horrifc
he could spend twenty years running
a master’s program for prisoners,
that he had the means and time
to own a boat and teach a boy to sail.
My god, why did my father
let George Trabing take me out
alone on his boat?
To show friendship, to offer trust?
As a teenager, my father
had wanted to be a priest,
though by 1988 he’d long since become
an unshakable atheist. I know George
was his good friend, and no doubt
my dad thought I would enjoy sailing.
Beyond that, it was a religious decision—
an atavism, a proof of faith—
I’m pretty sure.
Dare I say?—
Of the men I spent time with as a child,
George was among the kindest
and most generous—and he offered me
a respectfulness I didn’t, at twelve, deserve.
I sometimes flip through the Royce’s
Sailing Illustrated he gave me,
and I recall his insistence
that a sloop rolled by the wind
would quickly right itself. Surely
he told me that only to allay my fear
when the boat heeled hard and I yelped,
thinking we were going over.
He is to me both an abstraction
and a very powerful expression
of real. Which is why I’m still here
in the library this late in the afternoon,
retrieving articles from 1961-2
on “George Trabing.”
The Milky Way
I talk to my mother for the first time since her death. She is listening. I am listening. That makes a change. I tell her I am writing a novel about a mother and daughter. There is a long silence. How are you, mother of mine, wherever you are? I hope there are owls close by. You always loved owls. Do you know that a few days after your death, when I was browsing in a department store on Oxford Street, I saw a pair of owl earrings with green glass eyes. I was suddenly flooded with inexplicable happiness. I’ll buy these earrings for my mother.
I carried them to the counter to pay, but as the shop assistant took them from my hand, I realized you were dead.
Oh No No No No
When I uttered these words out loud, I sounded mad and tragic, as if I was from some other century altogether. I walked away, leaving the little jeweled owl in her hands. At that moment, I came too close to understanding the way Hamlet speaks Shakespeare’s most sorrowful words. I mean, not just the actual words, but how he might sound when he says them.
They do not sound pretty, that’s for sure. I couldn’t get out of that shop fast enough.
Oh No No No No
Sorrow does not have a century.
I began to wonder for the first time how it was that Shakespeare’s pen had moved the lips of Hamlet to open and close and open again to speak the struggling words that so accurately described the way my mind could not accept your death. And then I read that he wrote Hamlet in the year his father died. The line that means the most to me in the entire play is Hamlet’s reply when asked what it is he is reading.
Words, words, words.
I think he is trying to say that he is inconsolable.
Words can cover up everything that matters.
I don’t see ghosts but I can hear you listening.
The war is over for you.
Here’s some news from the living. I have been visited by birds all this year, in one way or another. Some of them are real and some of them are less real.
But your owls are true. I have stopped thinking about why I am obsessed with birds, but it might be something to do with death and renewal. In the autumn, I made a new garden in the bathroom. The tall cactus had been on its way out for a long time, then it shriveled and turned brown. I stood in the bath and heaved it off the shelf. I kept the smaller silver cactus but this time I potted jasmine and lilies and ferns. Do you know that jasmine, like orange blossom, has a scent that is otherworldly but it can sometimes smell like drains? The fern hangs over the bath; the lilies make their adjustments to the light. The small silver cactus with its arms pointing toward the ceiling looks like it is praying for rain.
And so am I. Every day is hard.
And I love the rain.
Thank you for teaching me how to swim and how to row a boat. Thank you for the typing jobs that put food in the fridge. As for myself, I have things to do in the world and have to get on with them and be more ruthless than you were.
From hydro-fracked waters and sold-off land.
From fist print in plaster walls, skinned hand
and scraped knee. From flame-lit palms
on burning barrels and blown-out tires, copper
wire and strung-up doe. From spark plugs
and driveshafts and wooden dollies.
From trash fires blown to life:
came my sun-driven body from the trailer
parks to fields to factories. Came my body
risen like brushfire in ragweed.
Where the hazed breath of steer burned off
the yards, and all my teeth loosened. I woke
in the pale flame of myself at the edge
of the slaughterhouses. My body built into its furnace.
I have seen you bend the pear branch for clipping,
your wife press eggshell
into the rose bed, and have been envious
of the white grid of lattice that stands against
your porch steps, how the golden arch of pollen
falls through the cedars
and clings to your windows.
For you have shown me the lacquered deck,
pressure-treated lumber, the shellac, and tin
ceiling, how the PVC skeleton of plumbing sleeps
below the lawn, and I’d like to be like you,
but this suburb has found me jobless
again, pacing inside a sprinkler system
with my head to clear, when I cannot
so much as clear freezer burn off asparagus,
or cover cabbages in tattered blankets without feeling
weepy. I’m trying to be the clean, corporate type,
with an IPA sweating in my palm
at a brewery I love. I’m trying to understand the turn
of a razor along the stubble of my jawline—
for there is tenderness, I’ve found, in the dead rat
in the dustbin. The nest of bees still wet
with poison. Neighbor, I am full of doubt:
will the cat ever cease to stare long enough
at the sparrows to chase the fly crawling toward the sun
on the glass? How will the koi pond learn
to cover its face in ice
if the ground I’ve built around it is salt?
I have spent the night walking the neighborhood
picturing my face on a white cat,
and then an owl with its head turned backwards
in the sun. I have become what I detest:
the oak leaves choking on the pool filter,
the lawn mower turned to smoke in the yard—
the hard yellow bill of the robin knocking inside the engine.