In his award-winning story “Astronaut House,” Justin Chrestman deftly manipulates a letter-writing form to narrate action over several time periods. The narrator, Astronaut, is writing to Lewis, a friend of Astronaut’s recently-deceased Uncle Kermit. Although he is a young boy, Astronaut carries a blunt, oftentimes lyric voice to describe painful and heartbreaking events. In the first paragraph, he describes his uncle’s death:
He’d been sick for about six months. Waking up from bad dreams in cold sweat. He said he was happy about all the weight he’d lost and I tried to believe him. His tongue swelled up and turned white from fungus. Last Thursday morning he fell from the steps of his trailer and they say it was the blow against his head that knocked him out. His lungs became two great lakes and he drowned.The strength of this story stems from the narrator’s focus on surrounding events, such as hitchhiking with strangers, rather than Uncle Kermit’s death. Astronaut’s narration follows natural thoughts, moving forward despite lingering sadness.
At first glance, I thought “Chapati” by Brooke Sahni was a short essay or flash fiction because of its four paragraphs. After I read, checked the table of contents, and read again, I saw how Sahni visually plays with readers’ expectations for poetry and genre. She weaves together the images of a grandmother making Indian flatbread with attention to words that echo the sounds of the kitchen: “I was always upstairs asleep and too young to remember the white thunder of the dough hitting the counter, or the smell of turmeric, garlic, ginger, and clove, turmeric, garlic, ginger, and clove, casting their love spells throughout the house.” Sahni repeats these sounds and images throughout the poem, invoking the deep yearning of the speaker. She reveals:
Sometimes I revive stories of her locked deep inside the pools of memory, but from such distance, they arrive simple, loving, and brief. I want more than these shadowy reflections. I want the wild fragrances of turmeric, garlic, ginger, and clove to carry me through their dizzy trails to her.Judy Catterton stays away from the drama of a courtroom in her essay “When Will It Stop Raining?” and focuses on the emotional impact of a death penalty sentence upon her client, the victim’s family, and herself. Much of this reflection centers around Catterton encountering the victim’s wife and sister in the restroom during the sentencing. Throughout the essay, Catterton relays the small, human details of the events, such as, “The prosecutor may have told me, or maybe I read it in the newspaper, that Mrs. A vowed she would not date again until my client was executed.” She then offers her own questions, “It was now six years since her husband’s death and I couldn’t help but wonder if she had kept that promise. I suppose the death of my client had somehow become a precondition to the resumption of her life. Maybe she was seeking the comfort of that elusive feeling known as closure.” The most effective technique Catterton employs is research, particularly when discussing emotions, because it reveals the depth to which she had gone to understand herself:
What was I felt in that bathroom? Why, even now, so many years later, can I still remember feeling stung by Mrs. A’s words? Did I feel guilt? Or the shame I am sure they meant me to feel? Was it simple embarrassment or discomfort, the unease of not knowing how best to handle an unexpected situation? Had I felt merely embarrassed or uncomfortable, I think I would have easily shrugged that off. Nor do I think I would remember it so clearly today. So I am left with a choice between guilt and shame.In trying to distinguish shame from guilt, some psychologists have opined that while guilt is entirely internal, shame relates to how we perceive others see us. In ancient Greek myths, such as The Iliad, the word used for “shame” is the same word used for “ugly.”
Alligator Juniper is a magazine full of new and seasoned writers, with many strong contemporary pieces to recommend.