Publications
No Absence Like Water's Absence Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

artwork images 424158133 615452 maggie-taylor(Catamaran Literary Reader June 2013)

Sometimes in winter, if we're lucky, a brawling Pacific storm swoops down on Southern California. Its sudden fury—night winds, roof leaks, street-flooding—masks its belated arrival. Where's this much moisture been? Why so long getting here?

Every winter, I worry the rains won't fall. Another year added to the droughts of the aughts, no doubt. Confirming climate change, each decade ticks into the eon, coming and here, twice at once. At least that's how it felt during a walk I took one August day up a virtually dry mountain riverbed.

I begin in Idyllwild, above Palm Springs and below the San Jacinto Mountains. From a ridge southwest of town I hike down to Strawberry Creek, fast-trodding a mile's descent in ten minutes flat, down a path barely visible beneath blister-leaved poison oak, through scarlet-barked manzanita. My heart pulses in my blood-heavy hands.

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Stress Echo Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

3513174235 2a8a31be88(Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, June 27, 2013)

In San Diego, at the hospital, I, a three-heart-attack patient, lie down for my annual check-up, an echocardiogram, a two-stage procedure. My shirt’s off, my chest’s swabbed, the electrodes are attached. First, the echo technologist goops a wand with gel and rolls it across my chest, my heart at rest. She takes four ultrasound videos, close-ups of the four chambers. Next, I walk for twelve minutes on a speed-and-incline-raising treadmill. My heart pumps madly, I stride and push, grasp the bar, a sailboat rail in rough seas. I lie down, and she ultrasounds the organ again. (I’ve pushed my resting rate from 69 beats per minute to an agitated 151.) The moving images record what’s termed “wall-motion abnormality,” that is, my heart-attack-weakened muscle cannot respond with full vigor as it once did.

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Review: Cotton Tenants: Three Families by James Agee Print E-mail
Criticism

cotton tenants(Los Angeles Review of Books June 2, 2013)

Lives Nurtured in Disadvantage

If the contemporary reader of nonfiction knows anything about the universe of American literature — or just its prose galaxies — she knows that James Agee and Walker Evans’s 1941 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is our greatest nonfictional failure and the finest book-length lyric essay ever written. Five years in the making, Agee’s book was published by Houghton Mifflin (after Harper’s dumped it as unwieldy) to scorn, praise, and sales of 600 copies before it went out of print. (Agee didn’t endure well, either. He died in 1955 of a heart attack in a New York taxicab after three marriages, alcoholism, chain-smoking, a self-acknowledged crappy diet, and brilliant forays into nearly every form of writing he tackled. He was 45.)

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The Psychopaths Among Us: A Three-Act Essay Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

ben-thomas-1(AWP Talk, Boston, March 2013; First Published TriQuarterly May 31, 2013)

Time: Late August
Place: Hudson Valley Writers’ Center
Event: A weeklong workshop in “writing the memoir”
Players: Seven writers and me, the teacher

     Act I

A woman writer in her sixties is the last of seven students to share her work. Her title: “The Psychopaths Among Us: A Case Study.”

I present her writing here in the style she adopted, a very clipped textbook shorthand, articles dropped from nouns, and minimal development. I can’t imitate her reading voice, but its tone, hectoring and shrill, is somewhere between Donald Trump and The Nanny’s Fran Drescher.

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How I Want To Be in That Number Print E-mail
Articles

big chief costume(Oxford American May 20, 2013)

Friday: It's the Mud

Ah, New Orleans in early May. You might think 90 degrees, fly-trap stickiness, magnolias, and post-Mardi Gras contrition. You'd be half right. This year's 44th New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, at least the second of two weekends I attended, was so rain-sodden I almost cried. Some five hundred acts performed during the seven-day festival, and I figured I could get to twenty-five or thirty if I kept motoring. A night of downpour turned the fairgrounds' paths into cold mud, an all-day toe-squishing trudge: tire-tread sand, horse-track slick, grassy sludge, ankle-deep ooze, pig-sty slop. It was fifty degrees, and most of us half-dressed fans were wearing straw fedoras, cut-offs, and plastic-wrapped tennis shoes. We teetered through the mud at a woozy half-time to the music, balancing inebriation and chagrin.

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Review: How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields Print E-mail
Criticism

David Shields(The Rumpus March 3, 2013)

ReCollage

Two nights ago, I, a freelance writer, dreamt about an editor who paid me $500 in advance for a new piece, sight unseen, topic my choice. I was fresh out of ideas, so I asked him for one. Write, he said, about why the subject you examine resists your examining it. That verb, resists, filled my 7 a.m. waking. Right off, I knew this meant a tug-of-war between the recalcitrance in me and the recalcitrance in the subject.

Next day, the stork brought the baby in the form of Stephen Kessler’s film, Paul Williams: Still Alive. A wayward sort like me, Kessler spends the first third of the 87-minute movie searching for Williams (that little big man from the 1970s, sad troubadour, TV actor, mop-top blonde, orange-tint glasses), the second third finding the faded star still adored in a few world outposts and Kessler’s relishing the contact, and the final third feeling disenthralled with the 70-year-old, who’s gone beyond the silliness of “Hollywood Squares” and now mimics himself in one on-the-way-to (but-not-quite-there) Las Vegas venue.

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Writing While Ill: Pathography, Then & Now Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

VirginiaWoolf(Shenandoah March 1, 2013)

1 /

Virginia Woolf begins her 1926 essay, “On Being Ill,” with a doozy of a sentence:

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his ‘Rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth’ with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

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