“Bath” and “Death is Boring”

Poetry by Jacob Oet

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“Bath” and “Death is Boring”

by Jacob Oet 

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Oet’s poems come from his chapbook, With Porcupine, which won the 2015 Arcadia Poetry Chapbook Contest.

Bath

A porcupine and I take a bath.
He says, snout sticking out
of the foam bubbles like a pinecone
half buried in snow, that I
should look for a boy without a mother,
and write poems to him
about the trace of a mother’s hand
on the wind-swept hair,
about the strength of a mother’s voice
like a bullet through glass.
“Yes,” said the porcupine.
“Write about the speed of a mother’s voice,
that sweeps clean through the window
without breaking it.”
And I ran the porcupine like soap
up my legs and my shoulders,
and the skin was weeping.
From the water stemmed a flower,
from the drain, whose years-later ring
would still have the red stain.

Death is Boring

“It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy… Let’s go exploring!”
            —Bill Watterson

The porcupine and I walk out
during the funeral. A ghost tags behind,
but disappears when we cross
the street. Years pass, we become
traveling magicians. We astound
with feats of clairvoyance:

“Calvin hurries his mom back
to the white cot, lips stained from her
drink at the water fountain,”
intones the porcupine. And I add:
“She shivers and burps. Calvin wraps
his tiger fur coat on her. He leaves.”

We pull clean diapers out of our hats.
We walk backwards. I tell every child:
“Look at the dark changing clouds
that you are.” And when we are
alone, the porcupine sings
walk one way, and never come back.

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Fiction Review: Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler

A Review by Katrina Prow

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Fiction Review: Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler

by Katrina Prow

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Sweetbitter

by Stephanie Danler

Knopf ($15.00)

Stephanie Danler is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the New School. Sweetbitter is her debut novel.

Stephanie Danler’s story is the stuff of great myths. I read about her luck one night during a time when, if I couldn’t sleep, I would Google: restaurant fiction, waitress novels, books about serving. The headline read: Waitress Is One of Many New Writers With Big Book Deals. An article in the New York Times. And her photo, which normally wouldn’t garner too much talk, yet the editor was smart to feature a large image before the type, so midnight readers could see her eyes—crystal blue—perfect hair, coy smile. Most writers are unremarkable. I had a feeling Danler made great tips. I clicked, Preorder.

I read that Times article over and over while waiting for the book to ship. Peter Gethers, senior vice president and editor-at-large for Penguin Random House, was a regular at an upscale restaurant in New York, where Danler, an MFA grad with a novel manuscript, was waiting and writing. The story is almost too saccharine to enjoy. Still, I was eager to read Sweetbitter. Writing restaurants, it seems, is sub-genre solely distinguished for chef memoirs, but the waitstaff, a lower echelon in restaurant hierarchy, rarely receive a point of view. Aside from Merritt Tierce’s 2014 novel Love Me Back and scenes of secondary characters serving our protagonists food and drink, the front of the house is tragically offstage in contemporary writing.

I devoured this book—fast—in a matter of four sleeps. It’s good, really good: Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter is something delicious. It’s like that saying, The proof is in the pudding, only this time, instead of pudding we’re tasting crème brulee.

As an experienced server, I’m most invested in this first section of the book, titled Summer for the season our narrator Tess moves to New York City and starts working at an upscale restaurant in Union Square, a story not unlike the author’s. Tess is hired because she is a fifty-one percenter, which is restaurant speak for having personality, nerve. The other forty-nine percent is mechanics: “You know, just memorize the table numbers and the positions, stack plates up along your arm, know all the menu items and their ingredients… Know how to show up on time.” Danler is meticulous with the forty-nine percent, and readers learn about folding linens, wine varietals, steps of service, all the details of training down to hiding barmops and buying expensive nonslip work shoes before she’s awarded her stripes—a uniform. Tess screws up more than once as a backwaiter, whose duties include running food, bussing tables, making espresso, polishing glassware, and opening wine. It’s all too familiar and uncomfortable to read episodes of restaurant stress, but Danler makes it new by restructuring the scenes of chaos into centered paragraphs of stream-of-consciousness poems:

Table 43 is industry—Per Se?
If one more bitch cuts me off to ask for Chardonnay—
If one more person asks for steak sauce—
What the fuck?
Carson is in again—without the wife,
That’s twice this week.

Like a chorus, these poems give voice to a crazed cacophony of teamwork, which shifts into the restaurant’s omnipresence as character. Danler uses this technique to manipulate time, “all of service condensed, as if [Tess] only worked one night stretched out over the months.” These sections are bound to puzzle a reader not versed in restaurant culture, but there’s authenticity in the writer who uses unapologetic jargon, who orders, “Pick up!”

Summer ends when Tess is invited for a “shift drink” after one busy night. Her coworkers start in their own restaurant, finishing open bottles of wine and playing bar for each other while doing side work. They head to the local watering hole for last call, and then afterhours, and then more. Wide-eyed Tess asks, “Do you do this every night?”

Experienced readers already know the answer as Autumn begins, and Tess forms inevitable friendships with her coworkers, alcohol, cocaine. In the inherent debauchery, though, there’s a second narrative building: one about a beautifully cold bartender named Jake and the lead server Simone. Tess is obsessed with both of these characters, likely because they’ve reached an untouchable status in the restaurant, and while I understand both relationships, Tess’s awe with Simone is more complicated, and therefore, more rewarding. Simone is “Wine-Woman, a tree of knowledge, regulars demand to sit in her section,” the kind of woman who says, “Your self-awareness is lacking” as a means of backwaiter training. Simone works a server even when she is not clocked in, feeding Tess fancy wine, loaning her books about grapes, teaching her jazz, oysters, chanterelles—an exotic teacher to Tess’s student. However, the façade of Simone eventually unravels, and she, too, like Tess’s other coworkers, becomes painfully human—sad, even. Because readers and Tess receive the realization of Simone’s truth at once, it’s barbed and shocking and wonderful. Danler’s descriptions of Simone are spot-on, envious. Their fallout is unexpected and heartbreaking.

The third section of the novel, Winter, focuses on the evolution of Tess’s sexual relationship with Jake, which is predictable, only because Tess is so young (read: naïve) and Jake is a total fuckboy (read: bartender, tattoos, manbun). I won’t spend much time here because I have dated a Jake at every job, and so have you. The appeal is irresistible and obvious. Some of us read to learn, but there’s an exquisite delight in recognizing, Me too.

Perhaps the most resounding part of this novel, outside of restaurant specifics, is the writing of New York City as character, accurate with street names and businesses and real-life locations—the novel’s centrifugal force. Danler writes that Tess is “born” as she drives across the George Washington Bridge, and while I don’t relate to New York personally, I understand the buzz of living somewhere new for the first time. With all the obstacles at the restaurant, the love triangle between Jake and Simone, Tess’s only confidant becomes the city, and soon everything foreign transforms into the familiar like a kind of magic. After a sharp scene of too many drinks and not enough Jake, Danler writes:

The city was radiant and I felt untouchable. I experienced the boundlessness that ships cut from their moorings must feel. I experienced again that feeling of having money, paying the tolls, of being allowed to enter the race. Yes, I felt the freedom again, even if I couldn’t quite recapture the hope. I could have walked all night. All the times I’d been denied entrance, all the times I’d asked permission—but it was my city too.

In the end, Sweetbitter isn’t about New York specifically, or the restaurant, or even the love story. Tess ultimately settles into the most important thing: ownership of herself. And so we no longer have a novel about how to work, how to wait tables, the forty-nine percent, but rather, the fifty-one, “the tricky stuff,” put simply—how to be.

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Poetry Review: Hemming Flames, by Patricia Colleen Murphy

A Review by Dante Di Stefano

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Poetry Review: Hemming Flames,

by Patricia Colleen Murphy

by Dante Di Stefano 

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Hemming Flames

by Patricia Colleen Murphy

Utah State UP ($19.95)

Patricia Colleen Murphy founded Superstition Review at Arizona State University, where she teaches creative writing and magazine production. Her writing has appeared in many literary journals, including The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, and American Poetry Review, and most recently in Black Warrior Review, North American Review, Smartish Pace, Burnside Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, Hobart, decomP, Midway Journal, Armchair/Shotgun, and Natural Bridge. She lives in Phoenix, AZ.

Inventing a New Language for Fire

Patricia Colleen Murphy’s debut collection, Hemming Flames, dazzles and sears as it charts the wracked history of a family plagued by mental illness and addiction. With great nuance and empathy, Murphy resurrects the suicidal mother who lit herself on fire, the alcoholic father cursing and breaking dinner plates, the agoraphobic brother with an eating disorder that leads to crippling obesity, the crushing gravity of the family home, which is a frigate, a bridge for sale, a poker game, a firefly, a time warp, a time machine, a trap, a big sick lung. In lesser hands, the confessional mode that Murphy employs might come off as solipsistic and exploitative, but the poems in Hemming Flames alchemically transmute the base material of personal trauma; Patricia Colleen Murphy transforms the stuff of autobiography into the earned communion of poetry.

For Murphy, the earned communion of poetry thresholds itself between effusion and restraint. In her poem, “Good Morning, Mediocrity,” Murphy says: “…I’m stuck between the one who keeps it all/ and the one who gives it all away.” This is the dwelling place for poetry: the space between dispersal and recollection, the impulse that both gathers and discards. The poem, “Memory as Diary,” further articulates these competing impulses to affirm and to destroy. The poem reads, in full:

Because the body is illiterate, lacks
language any more complex than thirst;
and because the body came from another
body whose ultimate goal was to wean it;
and because the body saw a body burst
into flames on the bow of a boat;
and because the body watched its dog cross
the uncrossable street about to be stopped by
the unstoppable car; and because the body
went from soft & pink to rough & brown;
and because the body feels a stabbing, a
tingling, a dull ache, a numbness, a heat;
and because the body would tell you this
if it could, would say it hurts or I miss you.

“Memory as Diary” enacts the recursive strategies of the entire book, as the speaker seeks to find words for the throb that comes from being in a world where separation and loss are writ indelibly and indecipherably on our very bodies. In poem after poem, Patricia Colleen Murphy gives voice to a stabbing, a tingling, a dull ache, a numbness, a heat. She invents a new language for fire and this new language allows her to express anger and pain, desire and despair, regret and a wry hopefulness, despite it all. Her forte is not just the white space of her mother’s lunatic years, it is the restorative utterance of a daughter and a sister who has healed the torn cartilage and rebuilt the charred remains of her lost childhood. Hemming Flames is not merely a necessary book for anyone who has experienced mental illness and addiction in their family, it is a necessary book for anyone who cares about poetry.

To hear Murphy’s poetry and an in-depth interview, check out Audio Interview: Poet Patricia Colleen Murphy.

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Audio Interview: Poet Patricia Colleen Murphy

An Interview by Dante Di Stefano

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Audio Interview: Patricia Colleen Murphy

by Dante Di Stefano

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Readers of Arcadia might remember Patricia Colleen Murphy’s poem, “Songs in Kiswahili,” from Issue 9.1. In honor of her debut collection, Hemming Flames, the staff at Arcadia would like you to enjoy this audio version of Patricia’s poem and an in depth interview with the author herself as she discusses family, travel, mental illness, the confessional mode, and contemporary poetics. Enjoy and pick up a copy of Hemming Flames today!

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Check out Di Stefano’s review of Hemming Flames here.

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