Soup For Eternity

A late spring frost followed by a heat wave suppressed most of my grandparents’ garden this summer. The weather stunted their otherwise abundant fruits, their berries and apricots and grapes. Some crops made it through, though, a steady supply of carrots, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and lots of squash.

The last few times I’ve visited, I’ve made them food with the same combination of ingredients: roasted squash and carrots in a tomato sauce, ratatouille in a cast iron, pizza with beet greens and thinly sliced yellow squash, and most recently tomato soup, which was probably the best meal I’ve made for my grandparents.

Soup becomes a daily meal for me in winter. Starting in November, I make a pot of soup every Sunday to last through the week: Lentil tomato, cream of mushroom, leek and potato. When there isn’t a readily obvious protein, I throw in beans or lentils, catered to my own vegetarian needs and wants.

M.F.K Fisher writes on the subject, “As a steady diet, plain water is inclined to make thin fare, and even saints, of which there are an unexpected number these days, will gladly agree that a few herbs and perhaps a carrot or two and maybe a bit of meager bone on feast days can mightily improve the somewhat monotonous flavor of the hot liquid. Soup, in other words, is good” (209).

Soup is intuitive. Soup is ubiquitous. I almost never use a recipe these days, instead relying on basic soup principles (start with onions and garlic in oil, evenly cut vegetables, simmer with broth, salt along the way) and different combinations of the ingredients I have, the nutrients I need, and the flavors of the season. Soup is necessary. Soup is forever.

Goodness aside, Fisher is right that soup connotes simplicity, even meagerness. During the Irish Famine, Irish farmers mockingly referred to famine relief measures as the Soup Kitchen Act (Preet). In western cuisine, soup is a side dish, essential only as a complement to other dishes. Frances Moore Lappé writes in Diet for a Small Planet that her soup recipes are based on ingredients she usually has on hand: “carrots, potatoes, canned tomatoes, and onions” (289). She even titles her soup chapter “A Meal in a Soup Pot.”

However good it might be, to live on soup alone is considered foolhardy martyrdom. Here, I think of the “bread ale soup” in the 1987 film Babette’s Feast. In the film, two sisters named Martine and Philippa keep the modest traditions of their father’s pious Protestant congregation alive on the Danish coast, whose typical meal is a brown viscous soup possibly based on Øllebrød, a Danish porridge of rye bread, dark beer, and honey.

Babette, a friend of a former suitor of one of the sisters, seeks refuge with them after fleeing political violence in France. She, like the audience, is unsettled by the blandness of the sisters’ food. As their new cook, she adds simple ingredients, an onion, sugar. The whole congregation comes to appreciate the small additions. When Babette receives an immense fortune from France, her decision to spend it on a feast for her hosts is an act of grace (for Protestants) or sacrifice (for Catholics).

Scene from Babette’s Feast

Culinary traditions are historically and culturally informed. Babette brings to the modest piety of small-town Protestants the traditions of upper-class Catholic French society, two unique styles that come to benefit from one another as the congregants’ modesty playfully competes with the cook’s exuberance. The film is not about a snobby French chef looking down on peasant food, nor is it about salt-of-the-earth farmers turning their noses up at pretentious gluttony, but about characters whose trajectories require them, simply, to try new things.

I think one of the reasons I enjoy cooking with and for my grandparents is that our cultural contexts for food are quite similar: We both learned to cook during financial crises that coincided with national obsessions over health and nutrition.

Nutritional science is a relatively recent field. The first isolation of a vitamin was only in 1926, and post-WWI crises sparked greater interest in food efficiency to combat scarcity. The 1933 Federal Emergency Relief Act, for example, included the distribution of household nutritional guides. One such pamphlet, Food Budgets for Nutrition and Production Programs, detailed nutritional estimates for a “liberal diet,” an “adequate diet,” and an emergency “restricted diet.” However, nutritional standards were still highly experimental at the time. As Ziegelman and Coe put it, “the scientific precision of federal food relief was illusory” (174).

Food pyramids and panics over nutrition shaped my childhood in an inverse way. In middle school, we were required to watch Supersize Me multiple times, were regularly shown “got milk?” corporate ads, and the standard 2,000 calories per day we were told we needed is actually a very rough estimation. Budgeting wasn’t our concern. Instead, as public schools installed soda machines, we were told to take personal responsibility for our own healthy decision-making.

Megan Elias, in an article titled “Summoning the Food Ghosts: Food History as Public History,” describes the disconnect between nutritionists’ emphasis on budgeting the healthiest ingredients and the recipes different American communities were used to. Nutritionists “saw canned tomatoes as a good source of vitamin C” and so they encouraged Americans to buy tomatoes instead of other vitamin C-rich foods. However, most American households “had no idea what to do with tomatoes aside from making tomato soup, which was one of the few tomato recipes to consistently appear in American cookbooks at the time,” most of which called for butter or milk, both in short supply (Elias 26). Nevertheless, Italian-American families fared well with this suggestion because Italian-American cuisine frequently used tomatoes in many recipes, making them “heroes to the relief agency.”

Elias’s point is that “expectations, tastes, and cultural biases do not disappear when the food does” (26). Food is historically informed and culturally interpreted, and therefore cannot be reduced only to its chemical components in a time of food scarcity. When I make soup, I have a bad habit of overvaluing nutritional efficiency. Like the Protestants in Babette’s Feast, I’m slowly attending to taste.

My grandmother tells me that her father’s garden in Kennewick was a lifesaver. This was and is true for many, many families. In a time of crisis, a modest plot of land to grow fruits and vegetables on produced enough to keep the family afloat. My family cooked with what grew best in the landscape, with what would keep well in winter or was easily canned for the pantry.

This fall, I experimented with what was available in their garden. I tested out different combinations of familiar ingredients in a time of relative scarcity, making use of small abundance. I don’t know what ingredients will be unavailable in coming years, as climate change worsens agriculture, but I do know that culinary adaptation will succeed only through a willingness, above all else, to try new things.


Elias, Megan. “Summoning the Food Ghosts: Food History as Public History.” The Public Historian Vol. 34 no. 2 (Spring 2012), pp. 13-29.

Fisher, MFK. The Art of Eating. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.

Lappé, Frances Moor. Diet for a Small Planet. Ballantine Books, 1982.

Preet, Edythe. “The History of Irish Soup.” Irish America Vol. 16 no. 6. January 31, 2001.

Ziegelman, Jane, Andrew Coe. A Square Meal. Harper Collins, 2016.

Scones for Friends

Orange pumpkin scones in a black cast iron skillet.

A few weekends ago, I drove from Spokane to Moscow to see some friends. On the seat next to me was a plate of peach scones, wrapped in foil, sliding from side to side as I curved through the yellow hills of the Palouse, vibrant miles and miles of wheat.

A sign on the last county before Idaho reads “Entering Whitman County, The Nation’s Leading Producer of Wheat.” Most of the wheat in the Palouse is soft white winter wheat, which produces flour with less moisture, making it useful for cakes, pastries, and crackers. On day three of baking school, cake flour was just one of fifteen flours I sifted my fingers through to identify by texture, color, and moisture content, all of us pre-chefs standings around tiny bread pans filled with cake flour, whole wheat, cracked wheat, soy flour, all powdering our fingertips. I’ve only used all-purpose flour for my scones.

This wasn’t the first or last time I baked scones for social purposes. For an English department event I thought was a potluck but was actually just some beers and chips among mostly tenured faculty outside the Humanities Building, I brought a platter of pumpkin scones. Having the excuse of a gift makes it less nerve-racking, these social interactions, and there’s something anachronistic about it, too.

It’s comforting, I think, because of how bad I usually am at building and maintaining friendships. When I leave a place, I leave it entirely, forgetting too soon how lonely my preferred state of aloneness can become. Scones give me purpose, something to absorb my anxiety like a sponge: I promise I care about you, and here’s a plate of fresh-baked evidence that I hope will speak for me so I can stay quiet.

Supposedly the first recorded reference to scones is from the Scottish bishop Gavin Douglas’s 1513 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid: “On grene herbis and sonkis gres./The flour sconnis war sett in, by and by” (88). The word scone possibly comes from the Scottish Sgonn, which Alexander MacBain’s 1896 Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language defines as “a block of wood, blockhead; sgonn-balaich, lump of a boy, ‘section'” (317). However, the aptly named Dictionary Containing English Words of Difficult Etymology (self-published by the Reverend Thomas Richard Brown in 1843) identifies sgonn as a Gaelic word meaning “a prater; and droll, an idle person: which seems to be synonymous with sgonn-bhalach, a scoundrel” (124).

All western baking traditions are products of modernity, though. The earliest references to scones appear just before the widespread use of ingredients we think of as essential for them. Sugar was one of the primary crops of the slave trade, which the British were in the process of expanding in the Caribbean in the seventeenth century; tea imported from China did not enter conventional British social life until the early eighteenth century; and baking soda wasn’t a household product until the nineteenth century. As Great Britain expanded its reach, afternoon tea time became a form of “participating in the continued success of the British Empire” (Fromer 538), a symbolic act of consuming the fruits of violent conquest abroad.

I don’t know what premodern scones were like, but their etymology (from lump, not scoundrel) could accurately describe many different kinds of bread. In 1999, a team of Oxford archaeologists working in Yarnton discovered what the BBC called the oldest bread in Britain: small burned blobs of 5,500-year-old crushed barley. Plenty of evidence suggests that in Neolithic Britain, “cereals were primarily cultivated on a fairly small scale,” such as “garden plots that would have shifted around with people” (Cummings & Harris 831), so unlike the static winter wheat fields of the Palouse.

I’m drawn to these ancient bits of toast because of their context. The Neolithic period was one of intense climatic change, of chaos and uncertainty. One important note: the barley chunks were also found with apple cores and hazelnut shells. Barley was probably difficult to grow in large quantities, so the first bread in Britain may have been ritualistic, a treat for a special occasion rather than a staple.

With limited resources, one type of probably rougher flour, no baking soda, and only honey as a sweetener, the barley lumps/scoundrels may have looked more the “oily cakes” that the protagonists make in Kelly Reichardt’s 2019 First Cow. Set in 1820 in the Oregon Territory, the characters Cookie and King-Lu begin making a kind of fried dough using milk stolen from the only cow in the region, owned by a British governor known by his title as the Chief Factor. When Factor finally tastes the cakes, he remarks without an ounce of self-awareness for what the cake implies that it “tastes of England.”

The film is ostensibly about friendship, but I think it’s also about the difficulty of an authentic friendship under capitalism. When the working class must sell their labor—their mind, body, time, and spirit—to the ruling class, it becomes easier to treat one another as mere resources, just as our bosses do. In First Cow, it’s unclear until the final scene how much King-Lu and Cookie’s friendship is transactional, a mere business deal.

A journalist obtained from A24 Reichardt’s recipe for the oily cakes, from co-writer Jonathan Raymond, which was developed “from historical recipes of the time.” Requiring “just an astonishing amount of lard” to cook the yeast, fat, egg, and all-purpose flour, the formula is more like rustic pancakes.

Like a conventional short story, the film coalesces around one character’s final decision to act or to not act: King-Lu could take the profits from the cake sales and abandon Cookie, or remain with him, as Factor hunts them down after discovering their thievery. The friendship portrayed is both sincere and realistically fraught, even doomed, by the social circumstances that originally shape it.

Every time I make scones, I either use a different recipe or a different flavor. This is the opposite of industrial baking for profit, which requires uniformity. I’m glad for the uneven, lumpy, rustic shape my scones often take. I like that no two batches are the same. The pumpkin scones were the best batch I’ve made in a while (an earlier attempt at pear scones were less successful). I shared half of the batch with some fellow humanities adjuncts over dinner after the department event, along with soup made from the produce of a theology professor’s garden.

I don’t know what I’ll bake for the next occasion to share a meal. Maybe I’ll experiment with barley flour. Lumpy scoundrel already sounds like a type of doughnut. Maybe I’ll bake them with hazelnut, local apples, and fresh milk.


Brown, Thomas Richard. A Dictionary Containing English Words of Difficult Etymology. 1843.

Cummings, Vicki, Oliver T.J. Harris. “The Continuity of Hunting and Gathering in the Neolithic and Beyond.” The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers. Ed. Vicki Cummings, Peter Jordan, & Marek Zvelebil. Oxford University Press, 2014, 825-837.

Douglas, Gavin. The poetical works of Gavin Douglas, Bishop of Dunkeld; with memoir, notes, and glossary. Edinburgh, 1874.

Fromer, E. Julia. “‘Deeply Indebted to the Plant’: Representations of English National Identity in Victorian Histories of Tea.” Victorian Literature and Culture Vol. 36 (2008) pg. 531-547.

Ratatouille for One

My new apartment is small. People tell me it’s too small and I shrug them off, but when I cook here, I realize how important kitchen space is to me. I stack three plastic bins of books (lacking the shelf space for all my fiction) as a makeshift island. I leave dishes next to my modem to dry on a mat.

Pile of uncooked tomatoes, yellow squash, carrot, garlic, and onion.

I moved to Spokane for several reasons: A fresh start, to teach part-time, to live in a state with (relatively) better healthcare, and to get professional training as a baker. I can write, read, and sleep well enough just about anywhere, but I didn’t realize how precious kitchen space can be.

When I get home with a bag of squash, tomatoes, and onions from my grandparents’ garden after visiting them in Montana, I squeeze myself between my door as it barges against a lamp and my fridge. Here, I feel like I’m in a scene from the 2007 Pixar film Ratatouille, in which Linguini brings Remy to his own similarly tiny Parisian apartment, where Remy takes in the view of the Eiffel Tower from the studio window. My new place doesn’t have an equivalent view, though, no apparent silver lining. I can only make do with what I bring to this place.

As I assemble my ingredients and begin heating oil in a small cast iron skillet for a lone vegetarian dinner, I think about the bright, colorful ratatouille that Remy makes in the film. The premise is much like an old fable: Remy the rat emerges from the sewers, befriends a garbage boy, and reinvigorates a restaurant and the soul of a pretentious critic, Anton Ego, with his cooking.

In the film, the character Colette calls ratatouille “a peasant dish” and Ego balks at it when presented with a plate of it before taking a bite. It’s telling that his first bite transports him to memories of his childhood eating a heaping bowl of stewed vegetables in the countryside, reminding him of what we can assume are the working-class roots he pushes away now as an arbiter of expense and prestige.

The twist is predicated on the dish’s obscurity. Mollie Katzen describes ratatouille as a “Mediterranean vegetable stew” in the original Moosewood Cookbook, to be served “on a bed of rice, or in a bowl” (Katzen 119). Rebecca Seal notes that in the nineteenth century, ratatouille was “a staple for the armed forces and prisoners.” Like other peasant dishes of nineteenth century Europe, it was probably similar to the gruel that Ebeneezer Scrooge sulkily eats in his miserable apartment, alone with his ghosts. Laure Murat makes much of the dish’s obscurity, observing that the Tresor de la langue francaise, a voluminous French dictionary, locates the origins of ratatouille in “a crossing between ‘tatouiller’ which means ‘to stir, to handle a lot; to spill in the mud’ and ‘ratouiller,’ ‘to make murky, to shake, to stir; to make dirty'” (Murat 144).

The dish is broad, flexible, open to interpretation. In fact, what Remy makes in the film is actually based on a culinary variation of ratatouille called confit biyaldi, which the pioneering health-conscious chef Michel Guérard invented in the 1970s during the Nouvelle cuisine movement, which revolutionized what is now an accepted standard in Western cuisine (and partly stolen from Japanese traditions) for culinary presentation, with an emphasis on a smaller quantity of food neatly organized at the center of the plate. What Ego eats—a small stack of carefully prepared vegetables and sauce—is the culmination of cultural changes in Europe that some scholars trace to the May 1968 protests that swept across France. After May ’68, Nouvelle cuisine began as “a bid to enhance the professional control of restaurants by chefs” by transforming cooks into “inventors rather than mere technicians” (Rao et al. 805).

Murat’s interpretation is that the murkiness of the dish is one of several ways that Remy is marked as an outsider generally, as queer specifically. For Murat, the movie “suggests that the culinary work of art implies the transformation of what the norm treats as discarded material. . . it is no coincidence that it is cooked by the ‘rejects’ of society” (Murat 144). The title of the movie could refer to the cast of characters themselves, who come together to form a better community through collaboration, to be inventors rather than rehashing the restaurant’s same old recipes.

This has its limits. The film is not kind to its one female protagonist, Colette, whose hard work in the industry Remy supplants at the last minute. Likewise, Linguini and Remy lose whatever intimate friendship they have when Linguini chooses to be with Colette, who is then expected to let her new lover’s former mentor (or friend or top or something) take the role of innovator, subjugating her again to the role of a technician. The film really only suggests radical shifts against hierarchy without fully arriving at them. It is Disney, after all.

Chefs like Guérard and Thomas Keller (of the French Laundry) popularized ratatouille for their generation, but for my generation, the 2007 film drew attention to the dish in the playful way it deserves. Ratatouille can be made from the detritus of castaway ingredients. Like other stews, it’s useful for getting rid of ingredients before they go bad. It’s a way of making the best of what’s available, easily adapted to new and changing circumstances. It’s a good dish to master in my tiny, viewless apartment. It’s a dish that, literally, anyone can cook, and ultimately, it’s a good dish for the Anthropocene, adaptable to whatever manages to grow in the garden after abnormal weather patterns, drought, smoke, and other effects of climate change. This is true of my grandparents’ garden, which has taken hit after climatic hit this year, and yet they still have plenty of squash.

My version of this dish uses ingredients available at most farmers markets in the Northwest, or from a variety of backyards if you have friends who are homeowners.

Dish of ratatouille with yellow squash and zucchini over tomato sauce.
  1. Assemble vegetables. Eggplant is traditional but I had yellow squash, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and zucchini.
  2. Add olive oil to a cast iron skillet (the size depends on who you’re cooking for). Chop the onion and mince garlic and add to the oil on medium heat with a pinch of salt and pepper, to brown.
  3. Add sliced red tomatoes and halved cherry tomatoes. Add basil, oregano, and a dash of red wine vinegar or a squeeze of fresh lemon.
  4. Stir occasionally for fifteen minutes. Slice veggies thinly, using a mandoline if available.
  5. Remove the skillet from the heat when the sauce is stewed down a bit. Arrange veggies in a stack on top of the tomato sauce, fitting in as many as possible. You can be fancy and make it a confit byaldi by packing in the slices vertically, or go for a rustic look with something more pile-shaped. You can make it vegan or top with grated cheese, before or after baking. You can garnish with parsley, or basil, or more cherry tomatoes. This recipe is open-minded. It’s up for whatever.
  6. Cover the pan with foil. Bake in the oven at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 25-30 minutes (use more time for a bigger pan).
  7. Serve with bread, or with wine, or on a bed of rice, or whatever you have available.
  8. If dining alone, watch a movie or listen to the radio while eating. If ghosts or rats arrive, listen carefully to what they have to say.

Katzen, Mollie. Moosewood Cookbook. Ten Speed Press, 1977.

Murat, Laure. “What’s Queer About Remy, Ratatouille, and French Cuisine?” What’s Queer About Europe? Productive Encounters and Re-Enchanting Paradigms, edited by Mireille Rosello & Sudeep Dasgupta, Fordham University Press, 2014, 136-147.

Rao, Hayagreeva, Philippe Monin & Rodolphe Durand. “Institutional Change in Toque Ville: Nouvelle Cuisine as an Identity Movement in French Gastronomy.” American Journal of Sociology Vol. 108 No. 4 (2003), 795-843.

Seal, Rebecca. “Deconstructing Ratatouille. National Geographic, May 10, 2019.

Where the Time Went

In the last year, I did not write a single blog posts. No updates, no quirky lists, no publication news, no under-researched history essays with unoriginal theses.

That’s not because I had nothing to write about. In 2020, I finished my MFA in creative writing and launched into the academic job market (though launch is hardly the right word for it). I started reading manuscripts for Split/Lip Press and co-edited a print issue of Fugue. I had a few essays published, and one was nominated for Best American Travel Writing.

Last year was rough. Beginning in January, I started applying for teaching jobs. In Spring, I shifted my last semester to online only and did my best to shelter in place. In Summer, I worked at one of Idaho’s state parks for the season. When Fall started, I was able to teach part-time online composition courses for a university and a community college, but as an adjunct, the work was not sustainable into the next semester. Now, in January, as I apply for another round of teaching jobs and brace myself for another season of rejections, it feels like I’m exactly where I was a year ago, except that now I have a degree and am no longer a student.

I spent the last year waiting for emails and phone calls that mostly never came. I spent my time waiting for things to get better, waiting for leaders to act, waiting for many of my fellow Idahoans to do their part, wear a mask at the grocery store, stop going to large indoor parties, stop treating other people’s health like a joke. 2021 will most definitely have more of the same.

But I also did a lot of hiking (safe and outdoors) and spent time with someone I love. I got better at making bean salads and had a few publications at the end of the year. Some writers tally up their submissions, rejections, and acceptances, but I’m just not that competitive. I think that’s why I don’t normally do New Year’s resolutions: I don’t want to turn my life into a series of measurements, quantifying their accomplishments and setbacks. I already check my email after dinner; I need to draw the line between work and life somewhere.

But this year, the idea of a list of concrete resolutions appeals to me because it has the potential to establish something different. I want the next chapter of my life to start, and right now I feel stuck in a second draft of the last one. I don’t believe a resolution will help me get to that next chapter, but maybe it could help give it shape.

So, this year, I resolve as much as possible to

  1. get a steady job doing something with my degree;
  2. publish a book;
  3. hike new places;
  4. become a better baker;
  5. cook more vegan meals;
  6. participate in more (safely distanced) community activism; and
  7. practice more humility.

Some of these resolutions are more pressing than others. An implicit resolution, too, is to blog more. This blog has become more a professional website and portfolio (though I have plenty of work to do to actually professionalize it), and I’m sure I’ll tinker with this site in coming months. Until then, please stay safe.

-jk

Book Review: Memorial, by Alice Oswald

 

 

Heroes of iliad by Tischbein

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, The Heroes of the Iliad, 1829

This semester, for a graduate poetry workshop, I was tasked with reviewing a poetry collection. I chose Memorial, by Alice Oswald, and have decided to post it here for all to see, and also because most journals aren’t interested in reviews of books not written in the last few years.


The US edition of Alice Oswald’s 2011 poetry collection Memorial is subtitled “a version of Homer’s Iliad,” but the word “version” fails to capture the scope of Oswald’s epic. The original British subtitle uses the word “Excavation,” which is closer to the truth but still misses a key element. Instead, deployment more accurately describes how the Iliad features in the book, as a point of reference rather than a point of content. In this sense, like the dozens of similes repeated in pairs throughout the book, Memorial is like the Iliad, rather than a renewal of the Iliad itself.

Despite foregrounding the names of the 200 dead who come to populate Memorial, one of the most poignant moments is about namelessness, when the speaker declares “Somebody’s husband somebody’s daughter’s husband/Stood there stunned by fear/Like a pillar like a stunted tree” (Oswald 45). The sudden namelessness here is jarring in context, suggesting a more universal specificity: the dead are neither no-body nor some-one, but a mix of the two, a some-body, neither specifically named nor generally embodiable.

This is why the repetition of similes between characters’ biographies is so crucial for the lives of the commemorated. In one example, the character Asius “couldn’t stop/Having ridden those shining horses/Over the Selleis and the Simois/And all the stony way from Arisbe to Troy/Like when winnowers bang their shovels down” (44-45). To have a life, to have lived a life, is to have a referent elsewhere, or as Judith Butler puts it, “when attachment takes place, it does so in relation to persons and institutional conditions that may well be violent, impoverishing, and inadequate” (Butler 45). In Oswald’s world, death is rendered meaningful because it can be located through simile, because the dead live on in that to which they are compared, in a cycle of life, death, and comparison to something still left in the waking world.

One consequence of the book’s persistent lack of punctuation is that the story never stops with one or another character’s death, at least not syntactically. The only endings and beginnings come with line breaks and stanza breaks, which designate lives and scenes. The repetition of stanzas, one after another, and always as a simile suggests a constant recycling of grief.

This repetition also universalizes the act of trying to articulate grief, always repeated, always stuttered, always made necessary again by yet another death. No matter how gorgeously one describes death—“Like smoke leaving the earth” (51), or “Like the shine of a sea swell” (42), “Like suddenly it thunders” (16), “Like restless wolves never run out of hunger” (78), “Like when a lion comes back to a forest’s secret rooms” (67), no comparison seems apt enough to fully grasp its totality.

Oswald drags the reader into the awful challenge of her own book: When all 200 men are given equally beautiful similes through which we come to understand their lives and deaths, they start to flatten and blend, and despite the consistent resonance and talent of her craft, Oswald cannot keep the deaths of her characters entirely unique. They converge and become indistinguishable.

Finally, this fatal flaw implicates the reader’s inability to grieve for the dead, as all 200 characters becomes, in the last analysis, mostly forgettable when the act of grief overshadows those for whom we grieve. We can’t remember the 200 dead in Memorial. How, then, are we supposed to mourn for the dead of our own wars, let alone our own daily violent conflicts that now play out in our schools and shopping malls? How many poems can we write to keep up with the dead? Oswald is vicious and unforgiving in forcing us to confront the fact that we simply cannot; that despite our best efforts, tragedy is outrunning poetry.

-jk


Butler, Judith. Precarious Life. Verso, 2006.

Oswald, Alice. Memorial. W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.

Notes from Flagstaff

burn 2

“As for me, I am a watercolor./I wash off.” -Anne Sexton, “For My Lover, Returning to his Wife


It should be monsoon season in Flagstaff but the air is bone-dry and the only thing in the sky that isn’t hazy blue is a plume of wildfire smoke. I sit in a tea house while “Back in the USSR” plays on the radio, sipping oolong and watching passerby walk up Aspen Avenue in downtown Flagstaff. It’s just like the old days, or just like how I remember the old days, but something is different. I’m just like the passerby now. I can no longer be a smug local people-watching the tourists.

My childhood in northern Arizona was defined by two local features: The inevitability of wildfires and the possibility of leaving for outer space. In 1884, a fire destroyed Old Town, leaving only the part of the city closest to the tracks. Ten years later, Percival Lowell founded an observatory on a hill above the city to look for life on Mars, though his research would later lead to the discovery of Pluto. Flagstaff is a city of dreamers, artists, mystics, and scientists. I landed squarely in one of these quadrants, or all of them.

I left Flagstaff four years ago. It’s not as if this city is completely different. Instead, Flagstaff to me has entered the uncanny valley. It’s familiar enough that I recognize it for what it’s supposed to be, but enough of it has changed that it just doesn’t feel right. I am also a different person. We meet one another, the city and I, halfway at our respective crossroads, doing double takes.

Still, I have connections. In a tiny house in a semi-familiar neighborhood, I help fold veggies into egg roll dough with four Flagstaff friends, two married couples, both of whose weddings I missed because I was traveling or had already skipped town. We sit outside under strings of lights in the now seasonably warm evening air and catch up.

I used to live with one friend here in a house on Talkington Street near the ski resort. I’m glad how familiar this scene still is, how easy it is to cook with friends after so long apart. Later, we chat about people we remember from high school, wherever they’ve ended up. Sammie shows me an art project. Cari is going to seminary in New England in a few weeks. Ryan is preparing another album after a month-long tour.

This is the Flagstaff I have always known, catering to the ambitious and the adamant. Following the emergence of art, mysticism, and dreams, though, there is always some form of commercialization, and Flagstaff is not immune from the power of Capital to market nostalgia.

It’s fitting that the first settler structure here was a saloon, before the loggers and miners moved in. Gun violence was commonplace. In one apocryphal account, there was a saloon murder every week between 1882 and ’83. Were it not for the scientists who took an interest in the region, John Wesley Powell and Percival Lowell, Flagstaff would have likely become one more ghost town or company town, its residents finally driven out when logging and mining came to a standstill. Instead, Flagstaff became a tourist town and a college town. And, at a certain point, the college experience is sold to high school graduates using the same advertising techniques that tourist traps use. Come for the mountain view, stay for the nostalgia.

Except, most people who can afford to stay in Flagstaff are long-time residents. And expensive student housing structures have popped up across from the tracks, and parking is now regulated with warnings and tickets, and there’s a fire close to my old neighborhood. The last few days I’m here, my phone is constantly buzzing with evacuation alerts and flash flood warnings from late rainstorms. I am used to waiting for evacuation notices. This is something they don’t advertise in the college brochures, to be ready to go at a moment’s notice, to have a bag packed at the door. And I heed the warning. I am ready to leave.

-jk

Notes from the Four Corners

Desert 6.JPG“I cannot hate them, the tourists, because I am one.” -Nabil Kashyap, The Obvious Earth

They say that when you first encounter the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, it can be disappointing for two reasons. First, it is situated in a relatively small room that is always packed with visitors, so many that you have to shove to reach the painting, and second, even if you make it to the Mona Lisa, the painting itself is small and unsurprising. You already know what the Mona Lisa looks like. You can buy a poster of it in the gift shop. Instead, it’s the art in the hallway outside the Mona Lisa room, the unfamous work you’ve never seen before, that leaves an impression. The Four Corners Monument is similar.

Two days before the country celebrates its independence, I drive through the desert to Colorado, and make a stop at the Four Corners, between Navajo and Ute Mountain land. I drive slowly over the dirt road, following cars and followed by campers. I find a parking space and step out of the air conditioning into the heat. It is exceptionally hot, barely a cloud in the sky. I’m used to this. I’ve almost missed the heat, living in northern Idaho for so long.

Desert 7

The Four Corners Monument is a square of shaded stands around the circular marker itself, directly where the four state borders meet at 90 degree angles, distinguishing jurisdictions and electoral districts from one another. When I enter the square, I’m confused about which state I’m in, but it becomes clear when I see the four stone markers around the circle indicating each respective state, like cardinal directions. There is a long line of people in front of the circle, each tourist standing in summer wear and waiting to stand in the circle to have their picture taken straddling as many US states as one can.

I don’t get in line because it’s hot and I’m on my way to meet a friend I haven’t seen since I visited Albuquerque in winter, and I impulsively don’t want to be a tourist. I grew up in a tourist town, as a local. It’s a habit I can’t shake off, wanting to distinguish myself from them. I’m not any different from the tourists, though, not here. I walk the square of shops in the shade, passing people eating fry bread from paper plates, passing locals selling jewelry, knives, Kokopelli decorations.

In Portland this spring, I saw Nabil Kashyap give a talk about the colonial nature of travel writing, the fraught history of the travelogue. Historically, the genre frames the traveler as a hero and the place visited as a backdrop for the hero’s self-discovery, transforming locals into objects, props. Kashyap’s own collection of travelogues wrestles with this history. In his panel, he advocated for a more ethical form of travel writing that “decenters the visitor” and emphasizes the place, the people, without claiming ownership over the stories that are intrinsic to the place and people. This time last year, a lot of people noted that Anthony Bourdain was an exemplar of this kind of travelogue, taking the role of a reporter, letting people tell their stories on their own terms.

Desert 2At the edge of the square, there is a sign telling visitors not to spread ashes of the deceased here because the scattering of human remains on this land goes against Navajo custom. I wonder how many tourists scattered their dead relatives at the Four Corners before the locals had to put up the sign. Despite the signs, tourists still come to the Four Corners and spread cremated relatives on this special dot on a map. I think about how weird it is to celebrate the alignment of state borders here in the Southwest. 150 years ago, this was Brigham Young’s Mormon territory called Deseret. 160 years ago, this was Mexico. 250 years ago, this was Spain. 450 years ago, this was Pueblo land. Statehood was only granted to Arizona in 1912. The land may appear static, but its cartographic meaning is always changing.

Instead of standing on the corners, I wander out to the trailhead up the hill from the square, but only a little ways. I’m not equipped for a hike in the desert at noon. I look out at the windswept emptiness of one state or another, this stateless terrain. I’m the only one who walks this way, and I’m glad to be out of the crowd. Later, I use the bathroom. I buy some fry bread. I take some photos. I leave with my fingers sticky with powdered sugar, wishing I could hike around this place in cooler weather, see what else it has to offer.

-jk

 

Short Story Published in Bodega

DublinAmong some great prose and poetry in the July issue of Bodega, I have a single unit of flash fiction, “All Good Things.” This monthly journal puts out consistent, constant writing, and I’m grateful to have a space in it.

This story is one more piece of historical fiction, set in Dublin. Strangely, like most of the fiction I’ve had published, it has mysteriously never been in a creative writing workshop.

-jk

On Revisiting a Daybook I Gave Up On

Garden.jpgHere’s what happened: on September 1, 2018, I started a daybook. My goal was to write a few paragraphs every single day, usually a detailed description of something I observed or did. The goal was to think in the present tense, to not compare moments, but simply describe what happened.

I made it two months and six days, stopping short at Election Day, adding a few posts in November and December. By January, I cut my losses. Life got weird. I was involved with some political activism and needed to grade mid-term and term papers for my composition classes, and holiday travel coupled with other writing goals pushed the daybook out of my routine. What I have as a result is a detailed sketch of life in Moscow, Idaho, during the autumn of 2018. An artifact from which I can mine for inspiration.

I wrote a total of seventy posts. Most of them were redundant, but some choice scenes emerged. Here is one scene: one evening in October, I stopped to pet a dog named Tuna outside the one good bar in town, the Garden, and a woman ran out to let Tuna lick her face. Tuna’s human apologized for the dog’s bad breath, but the woman said, “It’s okay,  I just had a shot of gin so I can’t smell anything,” before jogging off in the direction of the police station.

I spent a lot of time in the daybook reflecting on the Muscovites I see everywhere. There is a man with a beard and a panama hat. There are the Neo-Confederate church members downtown. There are the activists I trucked with, a retired state senator I ate donuts with every Saturday morning in October.

This last year, I’ve started to view my writing in the long tradition of creative nonfiction stemming from journalism: the dispatch, the report, the place study, the travelogue. I wonder how many notes essayists record that never make it to print, the observations that get cut. The simplest description of creative nonfiction I can think of is this: to describe what happened.

In mining my daybook from last fall, I have now collected material for three essays by categorizing and cutting. I wrote a lot about food, a lot about politics, a lot about anxiety, plenty about the sheer weirdness of this town in the Idaho panhandle. I described, in the most boring details possible, what happened between September 1 and November 6, not just my experience, but the lay of the land writ large, the season, the changes and my acclimation to the changes.

After the experience, I cannot recommend the practice of keeping a daybook strongly enough to other writers. It is tedious and boring in the moment, but so is exercise and meditation and learning to play music. A daybook for a writer is like scales for a musician. It is foundational, elemental, the bedrock of storytelling and keen observation. Maybe I’m becoming more of a reporter like Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe. Maybe I’m just doing what poets and novelists do to build image and character. In any case, my writing style has come out better for the exercise, simply a paragraph at the end of a long day, a scene, a drink, a ritual like prayer.

-jk

Essay Published in Blue Earth Review

ZionI’m pleased to announce that my flash essay “After Zion” is the featured online nonfiction for the next print issue of Blue Earth Review. It is what the title suggests: Dawdling after a long hike through Zion National Park. You should also check out the featured fiction and poetry for this issue while you’re there.

This short essay, along with one recently published in Dark Mountain, is one in a long string of environmentally-focused flash essays I read back in September as part of an Idaho MFA tradition, the yearly symposium: Each second-year student reads a selection of their work in a low-stakes setting, usually a faculty member’s house, and responds to questions and comments about their work to prepare them for their third-year thesis defense. Two-thirds of the flash essays I read at my symposium have found homes in print or online. Does that mean that I will only successfully defend two-thirds of my thesis next year?

-jk