March 23, 2017
A Ball Gown as Snakeskin in Aimee Bender’s Call My Name
“A lucky catch for a poor soul with all the ingredients but no container” (7)
Throughout Aimee Bender’s collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, characters’ skin imagery evokes the subtext in her short stories. In The Rememberer a woman watches her boyfriend devolve from a flesh-covered human to a salamander. The old couple who become prophets in Dreaming in Polish are immediately aged and placed in relation to each other with the description of “their arm skin now wrinkled down to their wrists like kicked-down bedsheets” (147). In Call My Name, a woman wears two skins, her epidermis plus an anachronistic floor-length ball gown that she sheds as a snakeskin.
The protagonist in Call My Name, who paradoxically remains unnamed, wears a blood red, formal ball gown on the subway to attract men; in her head, she encourages the men “to come as you are” (9). She does not care about the clothing or appearance of the men she encounters. Instead, she wants “to be violated by insight” (9). While she insists that she desires the men’s internal selves, she listens to the sound of her own dress “slithering all over the orange plastic seat” (11).
Moreover, she fixates on the men’s response to her dress: “I saw him thinking about the heavy sound the satin would make piled on his floor, I saw him wondering” (13). A more typical expectation would be the man’s response to the body beneath the dress. When she follows one man, Powell, back to his apartment she immediately acquiesces to his desire to “cut that dress right off of” (15) her once he agrees to use scissors instead of a knife. Powell is shirtless and smoking and nonchalant. But her willingness to surrender her gown surprises him: “You can let go of that incredible dress as easy as that?” (15) The act of his cutting off of her dress feels “like he took a letter opener and gently opened me up” (16). He has done more than disrobe her; he has cut open an old part of her. The dress is more than clothing.
She is desperate to shed her dress so that they can have sex, so that she can be “crumpled by the entrance of another person inside my soul” (9), despite the fact that skin and fabric can wrinkle and souls cannot. Once Powell cuts the dress off of her, she is “naked in high heels. Which is maybe how I’ve wanted to be all day, those straps crisscrossing up my ankles like painted snakes” (16). Powell does not remove her shoes. Some measure of her serpentine self remains intact.
He loses all interest in her once she is naked. She recognizes the need to assume a different skin. She hopes to borrow Powell’s t-shirt to wear home, but realizes that she may have to “wrap the satin around me like a towel” (19) and wear the cut dress to a store where she will buy a new skin. She anticipates that the sales woman will “tell me her name and hang up my choices” (20). The sales woman’s name is more significant than her own.
She plans to select a “glorious brocade cream-colored gown” (20) and that this time she will “take a cab home” (20) rather than the subway. Instead of the more overtly sexual burgundy of her first gown, the woman’s new skin will be more pure, though not virginal. In the lighter colored dress, the woman will no longer actively seduce strangers on the subway. Bender’s protagonist is emblematic of a culture that will assume identities as they do clothes, certain that change will occur with the shedding of each new skin.
 Bender, Aimee. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. 1998.
March 1, 2017
Sethe’s Wrought Iron Brand: Symbolism in Beloved
“You can’t never go there. Never. Because even though it’s all over—over and done with—it’s going to always be there waiting for you…No matter what” (47)
Toni Morrison’s characters in Beloved relish the physical landscapes that surround them, whether they are living as freed slaves or while they work land belonging to a slave master. In the novel, Morrison draws an artful distinction between the natural world and a natural ordering of that world with the slave holders’ perpetuation of the artificial belief of one ethnicity’s superiority over another. The tree-shaped scar on Sethe’s back symbolizes the stain of slavery’s dehumanization and its insidious impact on generations of men, women and children.
When Sethe pictures the trees of her youth, she remembers “Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world” (13), and it shames her that the trees stand out in clear relief: “try as she might…the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that” (13). As Sethe’s story is told in retrospect, the reader understands that only through her lens as an adult have trees assumed such negative connotations. After being assaulted and whipped at the hands of the Sweet Home slave master’s replacement, Sethe’s back is riddled with scar tissue. As Sethe tells her lifelong friend, another former Sweet Home slave Paul D., “Schoolteacher made one open up my back, and when it closed it made a tree. It grows there still” (25).
As a result of her life as a slave woman and escapee, Sethe says she has “got a tree on my back and a haint in my house” (23). She understands that the scar on her back and the unsettled spirit haunting her home have the same cause. Sethe has not seen the scar on her back for herself. A young white woman who helped her birth her daughter Denver described the scar to her: “That’s what she said it looked like. A chokecherry tree. Trunk, branches and even leaves…Could have cherries now, for all I know” (24). The branches and leaves are Sethe’s children: one dead by her own hand to prevent a return to slavery, two sons who have fled and lone remaining daughter.
The night Paul D. becomes Sethe’s lover, “he rubbed his cheek on her back and learned that way her sorrow, the roots of it; its wide trunk and intricate branches” (26). The next morning as Paul examines Sethe’s back in daylight he realizes “the wrought-iron maze he had explored…was in fact a revolting clump of scars. Not a tree…because trees were inviting; things you could trust and be near” (30). Paul makes clear the distinction between natural and unnatural. A tree grows from earth and soil. One man forces another man to whip Sethe, a human being. Before Sethe flees Sweet Home, she hears the schoolteacher, who has replaced the dead slave master, instruct his students of Sethe: “I told you to put her human characteristics on the left; her animal on the right. And don’t forget to line them up” (223). Though the white owners of Sweet Home profess to run a gentler, “special kind of slavery” (163), they pay a man to teach his students that black women and men are more animal than human.
Sethe’s scar is as artificial as the slave brand she was instructed to use to recognize her mother. Sethe remembers the brand vividly, “right on her rib was a circle and a cross burnt right into the skin” (74). Her mother tells her “if something happens to me and you can’t tell me by my face, you can know me by this mark” (74). Desiring closeness with the mother she barely knows, as she spends all hours toiling in the fields, Sethe asks her mother to mark her skin too; she is too young to understand that it is a mark of ownership and that the only reason she could know her mother by the mark is because all of the rest of the slaves who shared it have died. Her mother refuses, but the schoolteacher and his pupils years later mark her as their property through the gashes they leave on her back.
Morrison closes the narrative with a refrain of “It was not a story to pass on” (316). Indeed, slavery and the human misery it inflicted was not just a story. It was a legacy forced upon Sethe and generations before and after her. The tree’s roots proved deep, strong and pervasive.
 Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Everyman’s Library. 2006.
February 23, 2017
Honey Gold, Life’s Fulfillment Deferred: The Use of Color in Wintering
“The blackberry blood of childbirth, richer than earth. Birth and poetry: the signs of her true womanhood smearing her thighs” (106)
In the novel Wintering, Kate Moses wields a poet’s palette with her use of color. Moses transforms the rich, multi-faceted color of honey gold and amber to represent a novelized Sylvia Plath’s perpetual search for contentment in her life and artistry. Moses contrasts honey with red, blue and black, each color playing significant roles in Plath’s life as she looks back during the dissolution of her marriage.
Plath separates her life as a mother into two phases, her married life with Ted Hughes at Court Green, a rural estate, and as a single mother living in a London apartment. She associates Court Green with the color red, despite its name and verdant landscape: “Court Green was the home they’d made with their own hands. Of course it was red; it was the interior of her heart” (7).
Though surrounded by a spectrum of wildflower color and greenery, blackness threatens Plath’s home and family, even while at Court Green. While working in a garden with “a border of ox-eye daisies and a tangled old rosebush fat with blowsy, cameo flowers” (50), Sylvia Plath anticipates the treachery Assia Wevill will perform by noting that “Assia’s long, loose, fine-textured hair is the rare spot of pure black in Sylvia’s garden; it absorbs what light there is” (51). Black is a color traditionally used to signify mourning and death. However, Moses transforms the color into a consumptive and murderous force.
Sylvia’s nightmares are black. The blackness of the telephone through which she discovers Ted’s infidelity reflects the darkness of his betrayal: “As her hand extends toward the black receiver, she sees Ted turn…and hesitate in the blue shadows” (79). As Sylvia prepares to demand a divorce, she realizes “She is ready to speak, the words clustering in the black hive of her mind” (264).
When she leaves Court Green with her children for London, Sylvia also abandons the color scheme of that home. She says “Blue was for London. She’d already bought the paint” (7). In Wintering, blue is the color of lonely, singular introspection. As Sylvia paints her apartment, she panics because “she can’t make out the difference between the white paint and the white wall underneath. White on white on white” (38). The forced remake of her life feels false, but of the paint she says “Her hair, her arms, and her uncontrollably shaking hands are freckled with it: drops she can’t rub off” (38).
The color gold serves as the natural counterpoint to destructive black. As Plath remembers the early years of her marriage, the months before she discovers Hughes’s affair, her memories assume a burnished effect and she understands “what made all that gold so bright was the blackness yawning behind it” (76). Sylvia takes comfort in the knowledge that “Her honey is waiting for her…shimmering in the dark of the cellar” (281).
Honey gold is happiness deferred, contentment realized only on the other side of pain. Plath seems to understand that she will not attain this happiness. She separates herself from a memory of Ted and their children playing on a beach, “the Atlantic sun edging her daughter, her son, and Ted in gold” (283). Though she wavers between introspective blue and frantic, fearful black, Sylvia takes heart in her belief of her family, that “they are still golden in the late light” (283). The black seeping around the edges of this picture is the knowledge that Sylvia will take her own life before ever stepping into that golden sunlight.
 Moses, Kate. Wintering. New York: Anchor Books.2003.
December 15, 2016
Dangerous Words: The Subtext of Censorship in The Seas
“I left the word ____ at home”(171)
In Samantha Hunt’s The Seas words have owners. Each character in the novel tries to manipulate words and language, to wield power over words and the letters that form them. Though the story is one of a young woman obsessed with the sea that took her father and changed the landscape of her life irrevocably, the sea and the abyss of its depths represent the dangers of everyone speaking their minds. The ocean is an unconstrained power. It represents freedom and death. The townspeople, particularly the unnamed protagonist and her family, construct rules for words, for what is said and not spoken. They define and organize. They censor and erase. The wild black depths beyond the ocean’s Abyssal Zone, the last light-permeable strata of water, is the protagonist’s only escape.
When the reader meets the protagonist’s grandfather, he accuses her of stealing a word as though language can belong to one person. As a typesetter, he could simply be searching for the imprints for the word he needs. But Hunt implies more. The narrator admits culpability: “I was thirsty. It was just floating there. And anyway, that word is mine” (8). The grandfather gropes for the word to define “a region of deep sea so dark that the creatures who dwell there have little or no pigment” (7). The narrator never speaks the word, nor does anyone else; and the definition is as amorphous as language, and water, itself. Throughout the novel, the narrator clings tight to this, her, word. She allows no one else to handle or print or classify it for her. As a result, the ocean waits for her. She keeps the Hadal Zone to herself. She readies herself for submission to the cold, silent depths. If the narrator’s grandfather and mother cannot own a word, they strive to categorize: “There are two rooms used as libraries for which my mother and grandfather keep two separate and opposing systems of organization in their heads—hers by subject, his by the way he feels about the author” (22). Books, and the words they contain, can be organized, compartmentalized, controlled.
Life in the small fishing village adheres to a shared understanding of what is said and what is not. Silence, both chosen and forced, is discussed repeatedly, if obliquely, throughout the novel. The narrator describes her mother as someone who “likes things to be quiet. It is what she is used to” (37). As the child of deaf parents living on an island comprised almost entirely of other deaf people, the narrator’s mother heard all of the sounds and acts her deaf counterparts did not realize they were making, including sexual and other secret noises. “Being responsible for so much listening made [the narrator’s mother] a very quiet person” (38). She knew too many secrets to speak. “She thought she wanted to be a writer,” (40) says the narrator of her mother. A writer can choose and shape words, decide what is to be erased and what will remain.
The narrator’s mother transforms from a writer desperate to assume the deafness of her friends to someone who “says things…that other people might not say.” (41) As she explains to the narrator, “I realized that the whole deaf/writer thing was just a place to hold the want I had…A man to climb up on top of me and a baby to come out.” (41) She changes her desires to fit the societal norm.
When the narrator writes to her friend Jude while he is in Iraq, she envisions a casual note being stricken through with censor marks (95). It is not safe to speak her truth, nor is it safe to write it. When Jude comes home he explains that while he was at war there was an “official list of things we weren’t supposed to say” (88). Jude tells her that he feels “like your name was on that list. Like you are off limits. Like if I say your name or if I touch you, I’d get court-martialed, found guilty and executed” (88).
In the seaside town Hunt creates, the narrator has two choices: stay silent or risk the imprisonment of societal exclusion. The narrator describes jail as a place where “control attempts to live…like a king” (162). She contemplates the French root word for prison: “prendre, pris to take” (162). Moreover, she dreams of a “hirundine” which is described as “like a swallow” (182). The narrator is suddenly freed from prison when she learns to swallow her words, silence her truth.
Jude cannot say her name. The narrator cannot tell her mother that she is a mermaid without exasperating her or even causing her mother to question her sanity. It is the ocean that holds truth, like “a sheet of white paper roiling with the blue that had been written there” (10). Only the ocean is vast and powerful enough to accept her truth. To hand it over, she must risk drowning.
 Hunt, Samantha. The Seas. San Francisco: MacAdam/Cage. 2004.
November 7, 2016
Ruth Pulls the Strings: Metaphor in Never Let Me Go
“Those of us who’d grown close to her, we each played our part in preserving the fantasy and making it last for as long as possible” (52)
For Kathy and Tommy, two clones raised as British boarding school students, identity is predicated upon their relationship with another clone, Ruth, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro uses metaphor to expose Ruth’s role as puppet master throughout her lifetime friendship with Kathy and Tommy in order to demonstrate what Kathy, the unreliable narrator of the piece, fails to recognize.
Years after graduating from Hailsham, the boarding facility that housed and educated the clones from their infancy through adolescence, where she met Ruth and Tommy, Kathy encounters a clown walking down the street. She says, “I could see the man’s fist, where all the balloon strings converged, and I could see that he had them securely twisted together and in a tight grip” (213). Following behind the clown, Kathy sees “the balloons…bumping and grinning down at me” (213). Despite the man’s secure hold on the balloons, Kathy is haunted by the idea of their being separated because “there’d be no real sense in which those balloons belonged with each other anymore” (213). Without Ruth, the puppeteer and architect of friendship, Kathy does not understand who she is. She only knows herself in relation to Ruth.
Ruth plays a central role in Kathy’s earliest memories, and dominates her life from childhood through adulthood. Kathy remembers Ruth’s power over her peers dating back to when they were around four years old: “I knew Ruth only very slightly at that point. But she must already have made some impression on me, because…[I was]…absolutely dreading the idea of her turning her gaze on me” (46). At four years old, Kathy understood Ruth’s anger to be a fearsome thing.
Kathy could not, or would not, initiate a relationship with Ruth that could develop into a friendship; Ruth chose her friends. Kathy recalls “I was in the midst of playing with two or three others” when Ruth decided to befriend her, “but it was clear Ruth was addressing only me” (46). From their first shared play experience, make believe horseback riding, Ruth exerts control over their relationship. The girls played for some time, “But then for no reason I could see, Ruth brought it all to an end, claiming I was deliberately tiring out her horses, and that I’d have to put each of them back in its stable” (47). From this instance through all the years they know each other, Kathy does not question Ruth’s absolute authority.
Like the ordering of their childish selves, Ruth controls Tommy and Kathy in all areas of their lives. Though Kathy and Tommy demonstrated authentic care for each other from their earliest years and Ruth tormented and ridiculed Tommy, it is Ruth who becomes Tommy’s girlfriend. Even when they split up, Ruth asks Kathy to win Tommy back for her. Though she is in love with Tommy, Kathy tells him Ruth’s “the best, you’ll be fine so long as you’re with her…So don’t blow it” (110).
Ruth’s influence is as insidious as it is absolute. As Kathy remembers “It was the way she did this, rather than her words, that suddenly made me see things her way” (148). Ruth has no need to verbalize her demands for Kathy and Tommy to fulfill them. When Ruth begins her organ donations, she obtains Kathy as a care giver. On her deathbed Ruth instructs Kathy to then become Tommy’s care giver, as she had given them her blessing to finally explore their feelings for one another. However, such an imbalanced relationship as that of patient to care giver largely prohibits a viable chance at romance. Furthermore, Ruth insists that they seek a deferral from further donations based on a concocted childhood story. When Tommy and Kathy’s hopes of a life other than that for which they were designed are heightened and then quashed, Ruth, even posthumously, cements them in the roles she outlined for them in childhood. Nonetheless, like the clown, Ruth’s efforts, to the reader if not to Kathy and Tommy, are laughable and senseless. She will still have to donate vital organ after vital organ no matter what fix she applies to another’s life.
When Tommy releases Kathy as both his caregiver and lover, she says that “What had really stung…was…the way he’d divided me off yet again, not just from all the other donors, but from him and Ruth” (281). Tommy tells Kathy of Ruth, the woman who ceaselessly manipulated them both, that “She wanted the best for us at the end. She really wanted the best for us” (284). Ruth dies with all of their lives still knotted together in her withering fist.
 Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go. New York: Vintage Books. 2005.