A Poem A Story A Prompt, Issue 15

Kids

I’ll keep it short and sweet. What I see in common in these two pieces today is the sense of awe that comes from having children (and it’s important that the feeling of “awe” includes fear.) For the poet, a child is “a missile into the coming generations,” an act of creation but also one of violence. For the protagonist of the story, the fear comes from her certainty that calamity will befall her infant—unless she makes a seriously questionable bargain for its safety. (Happy Mother’s Day!)

Untitled photograph by Elliott Erwitt (1953) Read about the woman in the photo here.

Poem

A Child Is Something Else Again

A child is something else again. Wakes up
in the afternoon and in an instant he's full of words,
in an instant he's humming, in an instant warm,
instant light, instant darkness.

A child is Job. They've already placed their bets on him
but he doesn't know it. He scratches his body
for pleasure. Nothing hurts yet.
They're training him to be a polite Job,
to say "Thank you" when the Lord has given,
to say "You're welcome" when the Lord has taken away.

A child is vengeance.
A child is a missile into the coming generations.
I launched him: I'm still trembling.

A child is something else again: on a rainy spring day
glimpsing the Garden of Eden through the fence,
kissing him in his sleep,
hearing footsteps in the wet pine needles.
A child delivers you from death.
Child, Garden, Rain, Fate.

—Yehuda Amichai (translated by Chana Bloch)

Who is this guy?

Born in Germany in 1924, Yehuda Amichai immigrated with his family to Palestine in 1936. He fought with the British Army in World War Two and later served in several wars with the Israeli defense forces. His horror at these conflicts is a theme of his poetry, which he began reading and writing as a soldier. He told the Paris Review, “real poems deal with a human response to reality, and politics is part of reality, history in the making… Even if a poet writes about sitting in a glass house drinking tea, it reflects politics.” His work has been deemed “accessible” and is widely translated, though translator Robert Alter argues that in the original Hebrew, Amichai’s poems are, in fact, quite complex. He died in 2000.

Story

Orange World (Excerpt)

“Orange World,” the New Parents Educator says, “is where most of us live.”

She shows a slide: a smiling baby with a magenta birthmark hooping her eye. No—a burn mark. The slides jump back in time, to the irreversible error. Here is the sleepy father, holding a teapot.

Orange World is a nest of tangled electrical cords and open drawers filled with steak knives. It’s a baby’s fat hand hovering over the blushing coils of a toaster oven. It’s a crib purchased used.

“We all make certain compromises, of course. We do things we know to be unsafe. You take a shower with your baby, and suddenly—”

The Educator knocks her fist on the table, to mimic the gavel rap of an infant’s skull on marble. Her voice lowers to a whisper, to relate the final crime: “You fall asleep together on the sofa. Only one of you wakes up.”

“Don’t fall asleep,” Rae dutifully takes down. “Orange World.”

They have already covered Green World, a fantasy realm of soft corners and infinite attention. “I want to acknowledge that Green World is the ideal, but Orange World is where most of us live,” the Educator repeats.

Next, they watch a parental horror movie in photo stills, titled “Red World.” The Educator, in her bright Australian accent, encourages them to imagine babies falling down stairwells and elevator chutes. Speared by metal and flung from passenger seats. Drowning in toilet bowls and choking on grapes.

Rae has never made it this far into a pregnancy before. Hers is a geriatric pregnancy. Her husband finds this language hilarious. “Like Sarah in the Bible.”

Everybody gets a swaddle and a baby doll. The head comes off of Rae’s. While she is jamming the head back on, the swaddle floats to the ground. Picking the swaddle up, she steps on it.

Sneaker bacteria: Orange World. Decapitation: Red World.

“Your head is on backward, love.”

The Educator watches as Rae wrenches it around.

“You should go to the New Moms Group,” the Educator suggests. “It’s a great resource for first-time mothers. Veteran moms show you the ropes.”

Rae smiles and thanks her. In this crowded room of cheerful, expectant people, there is no space to say, “I don’t know if there will be a baby.”

On the first night that the devil appeared to her, her husband was on a trip to New York to woo new clients. “Woo,” what a dumb verb. “Woo!” she screamed, dropping to all fours on the stairs. The pain expanded to fill the empty house. When the pain threatened to take off the roof, she pulled on a wool shirt and stumbled into the moonlit street, a hand spread against her belly. “Help me,” Rae begged. The neighboring houses stared down at her like blank-faced jurors. She limped across the road. Strange light brimmed in the gutter that ran along the sidewalk. Its source was unclear. As she advanced, the light changed color, developing a reddish tint. It was a very short step through this mist into the gutter. Wading through ankle-deep water, Rae cried out. Pain folded her knees below her. A taut and fiery string ran from her pelvis to her throat, and it felt as though some secret hand kept plucking at it. This is how the devil woos you, before you know it is the devil. A bodiless, luminous voice rose out of the storm drain.

“Yes,” she heard herself promise. “Anything.”

—Karen Russell (Read the rest here)

Who is this lady?

Born in 1981, Karen Russell’s work is often set in Florida, where she grew up; her first novel, Swamplandia! is about a family of alligator wrestlers in the Everglades. Her short stories are wide-ranging and genre-defying, blending elements of speculative fiction, historical fiction, and horror. Orange World is her most recent story collection. She told Publisher’s Weekly, “With short stories it feels possible to hop across time zones and zip into new skins; also to take risks that I think would prove unsustainable for the length of a novel.”

Prompt

I’m stealing another exercise from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction because I think it suits today’s poem and story so well: Write an honest and sensitive description (or sketch) of (a) one of your parents, (b) a mythological beast, and (c) a ghost.


Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to info@alannaschubach.com