The Outlaw Life

running, reading, blogging, loving

[25] “The Artificial Heart”

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It’s a strange thing to see a man kill something he loves with a blank face, beating the life out of another being.

Of all the stories in Birds of a Lesser Paradise, this one is hands down my absolute favorite. It’s the only story that takes place in the future (or, at least, that clearly identifies itself as taking place in the future) and the only one that’s got a kind of creepy, semi-dystopian bend to it – which, of course, I ate up with a giant metaphorical spoon. It’s 2050 and our narrator’s father has dementia. He’s recently begun seeing a woman with Alzheimer’s, Susan, and he wants to take her fishing. Desperately. Only, the ocean is dead and there is no longer anything to fish.

That alone should be enough to tell you everything you need to know about this story, and why its heartbreaking and beautiful and you should buy this collection just to own this story. But on the off chance you need more, lets continue – once they arrive at the ocean, our narrator’s father manages to catch a fish, and what happens then is both so sad and so enigmatic that I was left ugly crying:

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even harder than I was when I read Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, which this story seems to have A LOT in common with. A LOT.  In fact, the more I think on it, the more I wonder if there aren’t so many connections that this is what Megan Mayhew-Bergman meant to do? Who knows, but my gut feeling tells me probably.

I don’t know what it was that I loved more in this story: the father and his slipping mind, the idea that 40 years in the future we’ll be ranting about Beyonce, his coming and going between pop culture lucidity and nostalgic past; our narrator’s lover, Link, who is one of those men capable of all things a little bit, a man who feels genuinely guilty about being human when looking at an ocean that is dead, an ocean where a school of fish are a rumored mythical sight; or our narrator herself, torn between wanting to keep her father in reality, to have him accept and admit that things are no longer as they once were, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad, and wanting to protect him emotionally, keep him calm and happy and living in the past.

That was rambly. I apologize. If you’re still with me, I just want to say that this is a story that matters because its a story about all of us, about all of our future. It’s not just about the way we’re hurting the environment (oh! another thing I love about this story is that it’s the only one in the book that features nature by highlighting a distinct lack of nature, and its a conceit that works brilliantly!), its about the questions of quality of life, of what importance memory plays, of how we look at those we love and make decisions on their behalf but with ourselves still in mind. Please go read this story. I beg you. And then, you know, cut your pop can holders.

Rating: OMFGZ!

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[24] “Every Vein a Tooth”

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But when I lay in bed at night I saw the deep absesses on the chests of the sheep, dragging themselves to food and water across a rock-strewn lawn. The scared eyes of the feral cats underneath the sofa. I felt the warm bodies of the retrievers next to me, the kind of limitless love other people dreamed of and I had – all to myself.

I think it’s a good sign when a story collection gets more powerful as it continues. I don’t know if Birds of a Lesser Paradise really follows, like, a linear pattern of improvement (there are some down bits in the middle, and one of my favorite stories comes at the beginning) but I do know that my top two favorite stories within this collection come towards the very end. This is one of them, the other one I’ll talk about in a few days (which will be my last individual story review before I go over my thoughts of the collection as a whole).

To get the basics out of the way, we have yet another unnamed narrator and her lover, Gray. Our narrator works with an animal rights and rescue organization, and her home is filled with broken and unwanted animals – one dog missing a leg, one with epilepsy, feral cats, a sick raccoon… Her lover, Gray, is a hunter who values and collects perfect and undamaged tree leaves. During the story, our narrator brings home two sheep taken from squalid conditions, and one of her dogs eats Gray’s leaf collection – Gray leaves, and our narrator must decided if she will go after Gray or continue to live the life she has – with her animals. An underlying storyline involves our narrator and her mother and her mother’s collection of Victorian Christmas villages, to which the narrator feels almost constantly compared.

Needless to say, Megan’s language in this story is absolutely stunning. What makes this story my favorite, even though it shares so many common thematic qualities with the other stories, is that Megan has managed to capture, with her language, the same feeling that comes over me when I catch my dog’s eyes right before I leave the house – confusion and hurt, but stemming from love and loyalty. And then, because Megan is a master, three pages later she evokes the same sense of joy I feel when I come home to see my dog’s tale wagging – and the larger feeling of knowing that there is some being out there that loves me with an almost nonsensical loyalty. This idea gets echoed twofold in the foil of itself (man that’s a confusing sentence – let me explain): all of the love we see our narrator given is the same kind of judgement she feels from her mother’s village sets, these porcelain fake smiles and gingerbread tackiness; it’s as if her animals and her mother’s memories pull on our narrator in opposite directions, and when she can’t make up her mind, Gray just can’t wait.

This story definitely had the most ambiguous ending thus far, as it seems like our narrator is content with the decision she makes, her last moments seem to be one of regret for giving away the things we love – I wonder if the ambiguity isn’t part of the point, that maybe it means that we, as humans, can love equally but oppositely, and that sometimes we give up what we love to gain what we love more.

Rating: OMFGZ!

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[22] “Yesterday’s Whales”

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Mothers, I believe, intoxicate us. We idolize them and take them for granted. We hate them and blame them and exalt them more thoroughly than anyone else in our lives. We sift through the evidence of their love, reassure ourselves of their affection and its biological genesis. We can steal and lie and leave and the will love us.

This story is, so far, my hands-down favorite story in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Not only is the premise ironically hilarious, but, in case you haven’t noticed by now, I’m a little bit of a sucker for mother-daughter relationship stories! The story here goes a bit outside the normal parameters of this kind of story, though, and I think that’s where Megan gives it its power.

Lauren and Malachi spend their days protesting childbirth, families, and anything the feel has to do with the people they call “breeders”. Malachi believes that humans are doomed to make themselves extinct, to populate to the point of wiping themselves out and allowing the planet to retake feral rule. He spends his nights, along with Lauren, recruiting people to his club of like-minded thinkers, trying to raise support for a movement of people who pledge to no longer bring any life in to what they view as a dying world. Until Lauren gets pregnant.

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Then, of course, both Laura and Malachi have to figure out what they’re going to do. Which really means that Laura has to figure it out, because Malachi pretty much loads up on the “but what about our public image – I CAN’T DO MY WORK WITH A PREGNANT WIFE” train, and from then on out Laura is left alone to decide what she wants to do. She takes a break to her grandma’s mountain cabin, reflects on her childhood, mother, grandmother, and future. The animal tie here? A year before our story starts, Laura’s mother tells her two facts about whales:

1.) today’s whales sing lower songs, and no one knows why, and

2.) when a whale calf is born, the mother whale will push her baby above the water in order to breathe

You can imagine, given Malachi’s beliefs and Lauren’s struggles, what kind of influence facts like that may have on the fate of the story. But you have to read it to hear it expressed so artfully, with the lines between human and animal, mother and daughter, parents and breeders, brought in to a whole new and illuminating light.

One of the reasons I felt so drawn to this story is because of just how amazingly the characterization is done. Not only is it easy to see how Lauren has gotten swept up in a belief system she’s not actually sure if she believes, but I also know SO MANY boys who meet basically the exact same description given of  Malachi:

He was a vegetarian epicure who snuck bites of bacon out of salads…he always knew what he wanted – upscale Thai, an IPA, the Sunday New York Times, a bookstore without a children’s section.

I mean, maybe its fact that I’m somewhat recently out of a college town, or the fact that many of my friends are still in said college town, but I KNOW THIS GUY and he’s SO ANNOYING in real life but on the paper it’s worse in a kind of delicious way… I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. Because I hated Malachi and wanted to punch his stupid face in, but at the same time he stuck to his philosophical guns and I have to give him props for that.

cwRating: OMFGZ!

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[20] “The Cow that Milked Herself”

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A breast pump is an awful lot like a vacuum milking cup, my husband said, untangling the gifted contraption. He held the suction cups to his chest.

Soon, she will be the cow that milked herself, he said.

So, as if the stories in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s first collection Birds of a Lesser Paradise weren’t enough to make me swoon, one of the first pictures of her that popped up was her with a goat. A GOAT. Maybe this means nothing to, like, all of you, but as a feckless-dreamer-future-farmgirl, this floppy-hatted picture of Megan made me girl crush. Hard.

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To be honest, I’m a little ashamed to have put that GIF in a post dedicated to Megan Mayhew Bergman, because she seems like too classy a lady for that – but clearly it’s still there, so lets move on shall we? “The Cow that Milked Herself” is the second story of the collection and, like the rest of the stories, depends deeply on human-animal relationships to talk about just so many things. In this story, our narrator is pregnant and she and her boyfriend (husband?) Wood, a veterinarian studying frozen jaguar sperm, are basically just preparing for the arrival of the baby. Wood is, like, creepily clinical, and many times throughout the story our narrator and her child are referred to in very animalistic terms (her birth is compared to the kidding of goats, her breastfeeding to the milking of cows, the cries of her baby likened to the wails of a hungry cat) and, by doing so, Megan likens so much of how we operate as humans to our original animal ancestors.

Because this story isn’t really about pregnancy. Or about a vet. Or about any of the things that the plot really talks about. It’s about fear and trepidation and hope and all those things that pregnancy really brings to the forefront. And it’s about feeling the kind of cold calculation that passes through your body when you hear Wood talk about childbirth in such clinical terms and you realize that, while he’s not wrong, it still sounds so off to make it sound so…National Geographic. That’s quite possibly the most striking thing at the heart of Megan’s stories (others will, of course, be talked about soon): while none of them speak false, there is something strikingly, disturbingly true about just how animalistic we humans are at our core.

This story is only, like, ten pages long. But as I’m learning more and more with the short stories I read, the length or page number doesn’t really matter. The joy of the short story comes when the story is able to distinguish itself in however many pages it takes up. And Megan’s stories do that. Very, very well. I first heard about this story from three of my favorite podcasters over at Literary Disco, and it made their top reads of 2012 list, which I wholeheartedly endorse. And I’m not even fully done with the collection yet.

Tell me again about jaguar reproduction, I said.
The baby gestates for a little over ninety days, Wood said. If her cubs are taken from her in the wild, the mother will chase them down for hours, roaring continuously.

I would do that too, I said. I promise.

Rating: OMFGZ!

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February Short Story: “In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”

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The story had made her hungry, she said—so I took the elevator down six floors to the cafeteria, and brought back all the ice cream she wanted. We lay side by side, adjustable beds cranked up for optimal TV-viewing, littering the sheets with Good Humor wrappers, picking toasted almonds out of the gauze. We were Lucy and Ethel, Mary and Rhoda in extremis. The blinds were closed to keep light off the screen.

For those of you who missed in January, Ann Kingman from Books on the Nightstand has declared 2013 the Year of the Short Story, which is crazy amazing. Part of that involves her focusing on one short story every month. For January, the story was “Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu; February brings us a truly, truly wrecking tale about female friendship “In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hemple.

The story follows two female best friends as they spend time together in the hospital. One of the friends is dying from some kind of long-term illness (cancer isn’t ever specified, unless I missed it, but it’s clearly something along those lines). The one who is well walks to the beach, reflects on memories of earthquakes and long flights with her friend, and when she tells her friend she has to leave, her sick friend expends the rest of her energy trying to chase after her. The story rips out your heart and jumps up and down on it and the minute I started to think about what it would be like to have myself and my best friend in this same position – lets just say I had an empty house to do all my ugly crying!

I think one of my favorite things about this story is just how beautiful the language is to describe so much sorrow. And it’s not just the sorrow over death – it’s the sorrow over lost memory and the pain that comes with survivors guilt mixed the the sheer boredom of spending day after day doing the same thing in a confined hospital watching someone you love die. It’s a position I’ve not had to be in, but that we all must inevitably share. The story isn’t long, but in it we get so much of the love between these two un-named women! I’m still not sure what significance there is to the fact that the cemetery is the same one Al Jolson is buried in, other than perhaps the fact that her sharing her final resting place with such a famous entertainer – an uplifting soul who still seems to be pushed to the sidelines of history, to the category of miscellaneous trivia – I’d never heard of him before my trip to wikipedia.

I had a convertible in the parking lot. Once out of that room, I would drive it too fast down the Coast highway through the crab-smelling air. A stop in Malibu for sangria. The music in the place would be sexy and loud. They’d serve papaya and shrimp and watermelon ice. After dinner I would shimmer with lust, buzz with heat, life, and stay up all night.

PLEASE read the story and let me know what you think. If you’ll notice, this post is almost shockingly sparse of any kind of snark or sarcasm (and/or funny and inappropraite GIFs) and it’s because I want you to take me seriously when I say that you need to take the 20 minutes of your life that it will take you to read the story in order to bring Amy Hemple’s beautiful world into yours, for however briefly. Ann did, yet again, a wonderful job selecting for the month and I can’t wait to see what kind of discussion unfolds over on the comment section!

Rating: OMFGZ!

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[18] “Diving Belles”

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“Diving Belles” is the title story of a collection written by Lucy Wood, and it’s a collection I’m sure you’ll see make it’s way on to this blog at least one more time! Lucy Wood has basically created these slightly dark, slightly creepy adult fairy tales, that exist in worlds that are what they are, and that make no explanations or apologies for the rules they abide by. YOU NEED TO READ THIS BOOK. SERIOUSLY.

The tale follows our narrator as she begins the process of going underwater in a diving bell (see the word play there? eh?! Did you catch that?) to look for her husband who, 40 years ago, was taken under the waves by mermaids. . The beauty of the world that Wood creates, however, means that this isn’t the strange part – this getting kidnapped by mermaids bit. Apparently this is quite a common thing, and there are some men in the town who have been kidnapped and returned multiple times. In fact, the part of the story that is so odd is that the narrator hasn’t gone looking for him in the last 40 years. The reasons why she’s waited, and how she felt to come home and see her husband gone, the floor wet and smelling of sea brine, are what compose the bulk of the story, as we flash back in time from the diving bell to the disappearance.

hipster arielHow can you talk about mermaids without talking about Hipster Ariel?

Wood just creates this punch-you-in-the-gut adult fairy tales that so blur the lines between this world and the ‘other’ that it’s hard to see where the line was to begin with, or even if there was a line. The world Wood creates under the water is one of the most hauntingly beautiful but lonely locations I’ve read in quite some time. The ending of the story left me sad, and when our narrator leaves the water, she leaves the reader with more questions than answers – questions about love, age, time, loneliness, awareness, and about a million other things that I didn’t think I’d be questioning when I started reading the story. The ending also left me wanting for more about the side of the story that Wood didn’t tell us – what about the other men in this village, and their wives, and how they handle this situation? What would her husband have been like if he’d been with her this whole time? What were these human-stealing mermaids like? It’s not that I was left feeling unsatisfied – in fact, I think that Wood creates a story and pulls us as readers in to it with the questions she creates, as much with the things she doesn’t say as much as the ones she does.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, this story begins and ends at the ocean, that ultimate symbol of something bigger than we are, of being pulled away, of something magical and mysterious – all of which could basically also be a metaphor for Lucy Wood. Basically.

Rating: OMFGZ!

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[17] “A Fable for the Living”

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What a BEAUTIFUL story, and in only seven pages!

The general plot outline of “A Fable for the Living” by Kevin Brockmeier (who’s BOMB ASS picture can be seen above – I WANT THAT TYPEWRITER! also that wooded hollow) is one of a world where, after the dead die, it is possible to communicate with them through letters that are absorbed into the ground. A recent widow writes letters to her husband for a year until she wonders – is he even really there? So she asks him, and when she gets an answer back, the entire world around her changes. The idea of writing to the dead, complete with functional delivery system, is not only endearing – it’s wonderfully hopeful!

There is something so creepy about the idea of letting the Earth just swallow you into itself (when the widow decides to join her husband in the land beneath the soil, she delivers herself as she would a letter – settling herself into a fissure in the ground until she is just kind of…absorbed), but I can’t say I wouldn’t necessarily let myself be taken if it meant being back with all those people I really love in life. I REALLY wish we’d gotten to hear more about the land of the dead beneath the Earth, but what we got of our world was so sweetly rendered. I will say that, looking back over the reading of this story, the whole thing seems to exist under a kind of grey haze, a feeling of fond detachment that made me picture the whole thing in my mind as if it were being done in some kind of charcoal sketch – black, white, fuzzy around the edges.

However, I think this is a story worth returning to later because of the way that Brockmeier was able to create and write the kind of meaningful details of love and relationships that I find myself trying to write in my own stories. Only when I do it, it doesn’t work – it seems cliche and corny. So I need to figure out if he’s really doing something different (which I imagine he is, in which the question then becomes WHAT, DAMN IT!) or if I just have a problem looking objectively at my own writing – which is probably also true. I think that this if one of the most fun results so far in my short-story reading journey: the ability to seem some truly great masters working out issues in their writing that I have in my own (it seems to be easier to see this in short fiction rather than novels, for some reason).

One thing is for sure, though – I need to look into more of Brockmeier’s stories in the future!

Rating: OMFGZ

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[14] Tiny Beautiful Things

The following post is lifted straight from my reading journal, which isn’t something I regularly do, but thought was appropriate in this case.

Tiny Beautiful Things

Writing is hard for every last one of us – straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

I finished Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed moments ago and basically couldn’t wait to write the journal entry on how much I adored this book. I can think of no better way to round out the years of this commonplace book than talking about the BEAUTIFUL words of Cheryl Strayed as Dear Sugar (Dear Sugar was an anonymous advice column published on therumpus.net, and was kept anonymous until 2012 when Cheryl came clean as the voice behind the advice).

So much of what Cheryl has to say on life and love and death and our capacities to change our own lives was truly spot-on and the kind of beautifully rendered wisdom I wish I had. And the kind I may just get tattooed on my body one day. The phrases and images she uses to describe everything from the birth of her children to the sexual abuse she experienced as a child are not only gut-punching, they’re real enough to exist in something similar you’ve gone through. I think that, if there is any book I will need to read aver the eventual passing of my mother, it will be this one. Side note – this, I already know, will be the darkest day of my entire life, and thus is also one of my biggest fears. But the way Cheryl put words to her pain – as well as leaving the all-so-vital space between the words – makes me know that one day I’m going to need to read them again. And maybe again after that – a hundred different times AT a hundred different times, because I feel like each new time there will be something else to get out of her words, some new mirror to look back at myself through.

It was mercy. That’s that the fuck it was. The fuck was mine. And the fuck is yours, too. The question ‘WTF’ does not ‘apply to everything, every day’. If it does, you’re a lazy coward. Ask better questions, sweet pea. The fuck is your life. Answer it.

Cheryl Strayed has basically given me a giant literary boner, and I’m excited to finish her nonfiction Wild and start her novel. If I had one overarching squabble over the whole thing, it would be that, reading all the columns in one (or three) sittings made some of the letters run together, and made me skim through a few of the letters in the middle that didn’t stand out quite as much. But really, it was all so beautiful that this flaw was basically of my own creation because I just DID NOT want to put the book down. I may have to buy a zillion more copies of this book so that any time sometime I know is having a family/love/work/kid/death/life problem I can hand it to them and say “here, sweet pea. This’ll help. Promise.”

Rating: OMFGZ!

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January Short Story: “Paper Menagerie”

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I laughed, startled, and stroked its back with an index finger. The paper tiger vibrated under my finger, purring. ‘Zhe jiao zhèzhi,’ Mom said. This is called origami. I didn’t know this at the time, but Mom’s kind was special. She breathed into them so that they shared her breath, and thus moved with her life. This was her magic.

If you guys will recall, one of my goals for reading in 2013 is to read more short fiction – I’m beginning to write more and more short fiction, and I love the beauty that tends to hide in so many short treasures, so I’m looking forward to exploring more than just the short stories I read in high school. I also want to read more globally. So, imagine my UTTER DELIGHT when Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness over at Books on the Nightstand decided to declare 2013 their year of the short story as well! Part of their short story project involves featuring a different short story every month, and the story for January is “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu (which, my lucky dears, can also read online here, which I of course recommend you go do IMMEDIATELY!)

“The Paper Menagerie” was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 2011 and is the first work of any length to have ever won all three major science fiction awards – the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award. It’s a novel about imagination and friendship, about American culture and Chinese culture, about the way kids relate to their parents and the way that, as we age, our current self relates to all our former selves. I will admit, the first time I read through the story I didn’t really pick up on the science fiction/fantasy aspects of this story (bonus, for those of you who might find the genre titles a little off-putting) and it read to me much more like Marquez, or any of the other Latin-American magical realists. But I’m not sure that it’s easy to draw the line between when ‘magical realism’ ends and ‘fantasy’ starts, and furthermore, I don’t think it’s the fantasy parts of this story that give it the take-away. I think it’s the very-much-so real and human parts that pulled me back to this story for multiple readings.

Every once in a while I would see her at the kitchen table studying the plain side of a sheet of wrapping paper. Later, a new paper animal would appear on my nightstand and try to cuddle up with me. I caught them, squeezed them until the air went out of them, and then stuffed them away in the box in the attic.

Which of us, at one time or another, hasn’t thought that our parent’s didn’t understand us, and if only the could or would see things our way, then they would finally ‘get it’ and things will be better. I find this dynamic so much more pronounced in cross-cultural or multi-generational immigrant stories, and I think that the pull of that here in Ken’s story really just pops off the page. By the time we get to the end of the story, we, along with the narrator, see what true magic Mom possessed, and what kind of story it take to bring a Chinese woman to a Connecticut suburb. The story plays really well the concept of language, and whether or not the language you can speak with your lips is a vital or as necessary as the one you speak with your heart. I walked away from the first reading of the story feeling profoundly sad, but profoundly grateful that I feel I understand my parents, and they understand me, pretty damn well. Still, I had to wonder – what don’t I know about them, and what may I not know for a very long time?

Rating: OMFGZ!

PS: Wanting more Ken Liu (I know I was after I finished!)? Try “The Illusionist”, “Memories of my Mother”, or “The Box that Eats Memories”

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[10] “Funeral Blues”

524417Written by W.H. Auden, “Funeral Blues” is one of my absolute favorites by the poet.

He was my North, my South, my East and West/ My working week and my Sunday rest/ My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;/ I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

This sad and demonstrative poem originally contained far more political pomp-and-circumstance, leading it to be read far more as a kind of mourning for the death of a state official. However, with the edits present in the version of the poem linked above (the predominantly published version after 1936), it reads far more romantically, and has some definite homosexual underpinnings, although this feeling may just originate from the fact that Auden was a male and this poem speaks of a male subject as the love object.

The first stanza is basically composed of prime directives, orders of things to be halted after the death of the “He” (“stop all the clocks”; “silence the pianos”). These kind of mundane details  convey a kind of practical sorrow, of the immediacy of pain that refuses to be delayed or ignored. After that, however, we move into requests that are the complete and direct opposite of practical requests. The poem and poet reach for a level of sorrow that stretches to the far expanses of the universe (“the stars are not wanted now; put out every one,/ pack up the moon and dismantle the sun”). The reason I love this poem, however, is because the narrator of the poem invites commands others to join him in his pain. It’s consuming him, as well as the reader, and it’s hard to walk away and shake that sadness from your mind, not without time separate from it.

Rating: OMFGZ!

It’s a powerful poem, and any fans of the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral will most likely recognize the following scene. It’s a really heartfelt reading of the poem by a homosexual character speaking at the funeral of his lover. It’ll make you do one of these:

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