I recently bought The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel, a writer I’ve somehow neglected to read until now. There are hundreds of stories to wade through so I outsourced the issue to Twitter and asked where to begin. Another writer suggested the Red Cavalry stories, a collection about the Red Army’s incursion into Poland and attempt to extend the Soviet border west. The first story, “Crossing the River Zbrucz,” has a description so breathtaking in its interweaving of beauty and violence that I kept reading it over and over. (An excerpt: “The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head, gentle light glimmers in the ravines among the clouds, the banners of the sunset are fluttering above our heads. The stench of yesterday’s blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill. The blackened Zbrucz roars and twists the foaming knots of its rapids. The bridges are destroyed, and we wade across the river…”)
Unfortunately, the story isn’t available online, but another from the same collection— with similarly startling juxtaposition—is, so that’s what I’ve included here. Then I went looking for a poem that blends the gorgeous and lush with the grotesque, and was really pleased to find one that, right out of the gate, references David Cronenberg, one of my favorite filmmakers, well-known for his probing examinations of bizarre physical transformations. (A while back I wrote an essay about his work.) Why rub our faces in it, the “stench of yesterday’s blood” or Jeff Goldblum’s entire lower jaw falling off in the nasty finale of The Fly? Why go to these gory and upsetting places? As James Ramsay thinks in To the Lighthouse, “nothing was simply one thing.”
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
How horrible it is, how horrible
that Cronenberg film where
with a fly inside his Material
Transformer: bits of the man emerging
gooey, many-eyed; bits of the fly
worrying that his agent’s screwed him–
I almost flinch to see the body later
that’s left its fly in the corner, I mean
the fly that’s left its body, recalling too
that medieval nightmare, Resurrection,
in which every soul must scurry
to rejoin the plush interiors of its flesh,
pushing through, marrying
because Heaven won’t take what’s only half:
one soul blurring forever
into another body.
If we can’t know the boundaries
in life, what will they be in death,
corrupted steadily on each side
by maggot, rain and superstition,
that depends on memory to survive?
People should keep their hands
for the remainder of the flight:
who needs another’s talent, good looks,
Darling, what I love in you I pray will
the hell away from me
Who is this lady?
Born and raised in Seattle, Paisley Rekdal is the author of six collections of poetry, a book-length essay, an essay collection, and a hybrid memoir and photo album, Intimate. She teaches at the University of Utah and was named Poet Laureate of Utah in 2017. In a review of her collection Animal Eye, Jonathan Farmer notes the way her work contains “plenty of bad news” but also pleasure. “In acknowledging the disappointing facts of our existence and singing her way into its amazement,” he writes, “she has created poetry that lives alongside the misery we sometimes witness—and sometimes cause.”
My First Goose
*Note: click on the links for historical context courtesy of The Short Story Project
Savitsky, the commander of the Sixth Division, rose when he saw me, and I was taken aback by the beauty of his gigantic body. He rose — his breeches purple, his crimson cap cocked to the side, his medals pinned to his chest — splitting the hut in two like a banner splitting the sky. He smelled of perfume and the nauseating coolness of soap. His long legs looked like two girls wedged to their shoulders in riding boots.
He smiled at me, smacked the table with his whip, and picked up the order which the chief of staff had just dictated. It was an order for Ivan Chesnokov to advance to Chugunov-Dobryvodka with the regiment he had been entrusted with, and, on encountering the enemy, to proceed immediately with its destruction.
” …the destruction of which,” Savitsky began writing, filling the whole sheet, “I hold the selfsame Chesnokov completely responsible for. Noncompliance will incur the severest punitive measures, in other words I will gun him down on the spot, a fact that I am sure that you, Comrade Chesnokov, will not doubt, as it’s been quite a while now that you have worked with me on the front….”
The commander of the Sixth Division signed the order with a flourish, threw it at the orderlies, and turned his gray eyes, dancing with merriment, toward me.
I handed him the document concerning my assignment to the divisional staff.
“See to the paperwork!” the division commander said. “See to the paperwork, and have this man sign up for all the amusements except for those of the frontal kind. 1 Can you read and write?”
“Yes, I can,” I answered, bristling with envy at the steel and bloom of his youth. “I graduated in law from the University of Petersburg.”
“So you’re one of those little powder puffs!” he yelled, laughing. “With spectacles on your nose! Ha, you lousy little fellow, you! They send you to us, no one even asks us if we want you here! Here you get hacked to pieces just for wearing glasses! So, you think you can live with us, huh?”
“Yes, I do,” I answered, and went to the village with the quartermaster to look for a place to stay.
The quartermaster carried my little suitcase on his shoulder. The village street lay before us, and the dying sun in the sky, round and yellow as a pumpkin, breathed its last rosy breath.
We came to a hut with garlands painted on it. The quartermaster stopped, and suddenly, smiling guiltily, said, “You see we have a thing about spectacles here, there ain’t nothing you can do! A man of high distinguishings they’ll chew up and spit out — but ruin a lady, yes, the most cleanest lady, and you’re the darling of the fighters!”
He hesitated for a moment, my suitcase still on his shoulder, came up very close to me, but suddenly lunged away in despair, rushing into the nearest courtyard. Cossacks were sitting there on bundles of hay, shaving each other.
“Fighters!” the quartermaster began, putting my suitcase on the ground. ”According to an order issued by Comrade Savitsky, you are required to accept this man to lodge among you. And no funny business, please, because this man has suffered on the fields of learning!”
The quartermaster flushed and marched off without looking back. I lifted my hand to my cap and saluted the Cossacks. A young fellow with long, flaxen hair and a wonderful Ryazan face walked up to my suitcase and threw it out into the street. Then he turned his backside toward me, and with uncommon dexterity began emitting shameless sounds.
“That was a zero-zero caliber!” an older Cossack yelled, laughing out loud. “Rapid-fire!”
The young man walked off, having exhausted the limited resources of his artistry. I went down on my hands and knees and gathered up the manuscripts and the old, tattered clothes that had fallen out of my suitcase. I took them and carried them to the other end of the yard. A large pot of boiling pork stood on some bricks in front of the hut. Smoke rose from it as distant smoke rises from the village hut of one’s childhood, mixing hunger with intense loneliness inside me. I covered my broken little suitcase with hay, turning it into a pillow, and lay down on the ground to read Lenin’s speech at the Second Congress of the Comintern, 2 which Pravda had printed. The sun fell on me through the jagged hills, the Cossacks kept stepping over my legs, the young fellow incessantly made fun of me, the beloved sentences struggled toward me over thorny paths, but could not reach me. I put away the newspaper and went to the mistress of the house, who was spinning yarn on the porch.
“Mistress,” I said, “I need some grub!”
The old woman raised the dripping whites of her half-blind eyes to me and lowered them again.
“Comrade,” she said, after a short silence. “All of this makes me want to hang myself!”
“Goddammit!” I muttered in frustration, shoving her back with my hand. “I’m in no mood to start debating with you!”
And, turning around, I saw someone’s saber lying nearby. A haughty goose was waddling through the yard, placidly grooming its feathers. I caught the goose and forced it to the ground, its head cracking beneath my boot, cracking and bleeding. Its white neck lay stretched out in the dung, and the wings folded down over the slaughtered bird.
“Goddammit!” I said, poking at the goose with the saber. “Roast it for me, mistress!”
The old woman, her blindness and her spectacles flashing, picked up the bird, wrapped it in her apron, and hauled it to the kitchen.
“Comrade,” she said after a short silence. “This makes me want to hang myself.” And she pulled the door shut behind her.
In the yard the Cossacks were already sitting around their pot. They sat motionless, straight-backed like heathen priests, not once having looked at the goose.
“This fellow’ll fit in here well enough,” one of them said, winked, and scooped up some cabbage soup with his spoon.
The Cossacks began eating with the restrained grace of muzhiks who respect one another. I cleaned the saber with sand, went out of the courtyard, and came back again, feeling anguished. The moon hung over the yard like a cheap earring.
“Hey, brother!” Surovkov, the oldest of the Cossacks, suddenly said to me. “Sit with us and have some of this till your goose is ready!”
He fished an extra spoon out of his boot and handed it to me. We slurped the cabbage soup and ate the pork.
“So, what are they writing in the newspaper?” the young fellow with the flaxen hair asked me, and moved aside to make room for me.
“In the newspaper, Lenin writes,” I said, picking up my Pravda, “Lenin writes that right now there is a shortage of everything.”
And in a loud voice, like a triumphant deaf man, I read Lenin’s speech to the Cossacks.
The evening wrapped me in the soothing dampness of her twilight sheets, the evening placed her motherly palms on my burning brow.
I read, and rejoiced, waiting for the effect, rejoicing in the mysterious curve of Lenin’s straight line.
“Truth tickles all and sundry in the nose,”3 Surovkov said when I had finished. “It isn’t all that easy to wheedle it out of the pile of rubbish, but Lenin picks it up right away, like a hen pecks up a grain of corn.”
That is what Surovkov, the squadron commander, said about Lenin, and then we went to sleep in the hayloft. Six of us slept there warming each other, our legs tangled, under the holes in the roof which let in the stars.
I dreamed and saw women in my dreams, and only my heart, crimson with murder, screeched and bled.
Who is this guy?
Babel, a Russian Jew, was born in Odessa in 1894. His Red Cavalry stories, inspired by his time as a reporter in the First Cavalry Army in 1920, became central to his literary legacy and are considered essential Russian literature. He wrote these stories concurrently with the Odessa Tales, about the city’s community of Jewish gangsters, and published many other stories and plays before his arrest and execution by Stalin’s secret police, on false charges of espionage. His final plea, Cynthia Ozick writes, in her preface to the Collected Stories, was “Let me finish my work.” She argues he deserves a place alongside Kafka in the twentieth-century literary canon: “Between them, they leave no nerve unshaken.”
Write a story or a poem that juxtaposes the beautiful and the grotesque (whatever those words mean to you.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org