The Vietnam War, love affairs, a few ERs, a catastrophic case of acne and its scars: trauma and its aftermath are the subject of this issue of Arcadia, guest-edited by Benjamin Reed. Perhaps because of the nature of trauma, the dramatic and the weird take up a greater-than-usual proportion of the issue, but quieter and more quotidian disruptions are given their places, too. Despite the fragmenting and wounding effects of trauma, the work in this issue is accessible and gripping, at times sad but never depressing.
Fantastic opening lines are the uniform feature of almost every piece of fiction and nonfiction. “When I was a little girl, doctors would call our house and cuss out my mother” (“Sensory Deprivation,” Jordan Rossen); “My son is laughing. He is about to have a part of his body amputated, but he’s laughing . . .” (“Wrapping Paper,” Catherine Campbell); “I hate it here. I hate Disneyland . . .” (“I Step Aside,” Tanya Chernov). The crispness and the immediate tension hit me fast and leave me no choice but to keep reading.
“Sensory Deprivation” tells of a twelve-year-old girl inadvertently hurting her baby sister and the subsequent rupture in the faith in her mother. The story moves quickly but has a heaviness to it, as if it were a container for the girl’s guilt and confusion, and it is packed with nuance and efficiency.
In “Wrapping Paper,” Campbell talks about the decision to have the floating thumb, which her toddler son was born with instead of a hand, amputated so that he could be fitted for a prosthetic. The story has a wonderful control of time: it skips back and forth between two days and two years, between medical appointments and her marriage, and never loses the reader at the other end of the thread. It is quite a feat.
“I Step Aside,” too, is told in short bursts, almost like the punches that the boyfriend in the story lands on the narrator before she leaves him. Like the authors of “Sensory Deprivation” and “Wrapping Paper,” Chernov sidesteps the easy temptation of melodrama or moral judgment and stays honest: “And I did miss him. It sickens me to say so. I missed him until I didn’t.”
“Getting Over It” by Hali Fuailelagi Sofala is listed as a poem, but it feels more like montage: five paragraphs all start with “When he hits me with his red SUV” and then list a reason for the contact. They are excuses; they are indictments, but they all display an empathy for the driver, the speaker herself, and the circumstances in which they find themselves. “It is because I am walking in his blind spot”; “it’s the loneliness of going home.” Even when she imagines that he hit her for more damnable reasons—“because women like me are always in the way”; “as a white man, he’s tired of having to change his track for people like me”—she speaks from his perspective and gives voice to his frustrations. The piece chooses to be interesting rather than preoccupied with proving a political point. It reminds me of why we love stories, and I am grateful for it.
A few poems examine the body from different perspectives or use the human body as a metaphor. John Liles looks up close in “Sutures,” as if leading the reader stitch by stitch: “An act of amending // by mutual pressures.” One can easily misread “amend” as “mend,” but “amend” and “mutual” pressures hint at more metaphorical wounds inflicted on or by another person. Lindsey Illich turns a house into a body:
Windows for eyes, a saltbox profile,
a house where we could work it out:
a theory of wainscotting,
the intricate psychology of parquet,
The captions for Aubrey Edwards’s photographs of a Vietnam veteran, Rock, are short monologues that read almost like poems. Under a photo of a scar of a bullet wound, Rock says,
One time that I got shot [in Vietnam], I was dead. They was about to unplug me off the machine, and a doctor came back up before they was fixing to put me in a body bag, pressed on my chest a couple times, and the machine went back, boop-boop-boop-boop, and so hey, there I was.
There you go: fine voices, no self-pity, stories that make you go whoa.