First, a tiny bit of self-promotion: I have a short story in the new issue of the Massachusetts Review. It’s in print only, but if you’re dying to read it and can’t order a copy of the issue, let me know and we’ll figure something out.
Today’s perhaps-on-the-nose theme is the changing of seasons from summer to fall. The poem, by Rilke, has been translated many times; I chose my favorite, but you can see the variations here, along with the original German. The translations are not wildly different from one another, but they do reveal how slight changes in word choice, rhythm, and line breaks accumulate and create distinct moods. Every decision, down to punctuation marks, matters.
The excerpt from the story I’m including here has its own lessons. It’s one of the most engaging flashbacks I can remember reading. (I often caution beginning writing students about the use of flashback, because I find that sometimes they rely on them too heavily to explain the present, or end up creating a past narrative more interesting than the primary one, or the flashback is bracketed by awkward transitions.) It’s also a shining example of what Karen Russell describes in her essay on Engineering Impossible Architectures, which is about how to make extraordinary things happen in a short story while keeping it grounded in a world that is still recognizable.
I’m being a little teacherly today, but it is back-to-school season (such as it is this year.)
Autumn Landscape with Four Trees, Vincent van Gogh, 1885
Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.
Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.
Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell
Who is this guy?
It fees a bit goofy to write a capsule biography of someone so canonical. The Poetry Foundation has a thorough look at Rilke’s biography, artistic preoccupations, and influence. I also like this recent interview with Rilke scholar Ulrich Baer, who talks about why the poet is so often referenced in contemporary film. On translating Rilke, he says, “I strive to capture the exceptional vividness of his language where even the most striking metaphors appear quite organic rather than scholarly, formal, or ‘poetic.’ This means relying on contemporary English rather than aiming to create the patina of Olde English, which Rilke, himself a gifted translator from many languages, would have considered stilted and absurd.”
The Devil Swims Across the Anacostia River (Excerpt)
A car going up Good Hope Road tooted its horn at her, but she did not hear it. Her mother said all Anacostia seemed to know her. After several minutes she closed her eyes and took herself down Good Hope, across the bridge and out through Washington, through Maryland until she was on the August beach fourteen years ago, the Atlantic Ocean only a few yards away and the heat waves shimmering all along the dull blue horizon, one seagull conversing with another. She was wearing her cousin's bathing suit and sitting on the beach with her feet dug into the sand, snuggled close to her paternal grandmother, who was in her after-church, all-day Sunday dress. And on the other side of the grandmother were Laverne's brothers, boys of eight and five years. Laverne's father and mother had gone to a refreshment stand near the parking lot to buy snacks. The beach was full of colored people.
What her grandmother had heard before she was compelled to stand up, Laverne never knew, but once her grandmother did stand up, the voice was clear for all the Negroes along the beach to hear. Only her grandmother, after putting on her shoes, moved toward the water and the voice. And, as if there were a silent command, those Negroes who had been swimming came out of the water and looked at the horizon, from where the voice was coming. There was a kind of roar that seemed to ascend from the ocean, and another roar that seemed to descend from the sky, and there at eye level, the roars became words. The voice, emphatically clear and distinct, was not female and it was not male.
Laverne's grandmother hesitated, stopping a yard or more from the water, and the voice, without rebuke, asked the grandmother, "Did you come all this way to lose your faith, to drop down into the bottom of the sea? Ahead of you is this water and behind you he's coming? Did you lose your faith?"'
"No," her grandmother said. "No. I stand on my two feet." Before she set off again she turned around and from her pocketbook pulled out three ten dollar bills. She gave one to each of her grandchildren, which was unusual for a woman who had never given them more than fifty cents at any one time, lest they be corrupted. Laverne's youngest brother, a boy of easy giggles, looked suspiciously at the ten-dollar bill; he was still at an age where he did not trust paper money. It could tear; it could burn; it could fly away with the wind. But he folded the bill as small as he could and tucked it into the pocket of his swimming trunks. Laverne's grandmother set off again and the youngest brother said, "Granny, you gon ruin your pretty shoes in all that water."
Their grandmother looked down, somewhat worried, as if deciding between her $I2.95 Hahn's shoes and the command of the voice of the universe. "We have waited since the first day," the voice said with the greatest patience. "Have you not waited with us?" Their grandmother turned and looked at the boy, dark-skinned, bony, painfully perfect. He waved though they were but a few yards apart. After several moments, she took a step and was standing where water met dry sand. She stopped, her brown patent leather pocketbook hanging from her left arm. Then, in a few more steps, she was standing a foot above the bottom of the sea. She continued walking, one uncertain step after another. All the Negroes along the beach were quiet, so that the loudest sound when the voice was silent was the ocean hitting the beach and then retreating.
By now, Laverne's mother and father were back, followed by a lifeguard who was looking about as if there was something that would make more sense than an old woman walking on water. Laverne's father watched until his mother was about five yards out on the water, and then he said, "Mama."
Haltingly, Laverne's grandmother turned around for the first and only time. "Ain't I always told you it might come to this?" she told her son. "I've done nothin that I couldn't clean up by the next day. And it was hard, but now I wanna go and complain to somebody about it. Then shut up for good." Then she said to Laverne's mother, "Cheryl, you try to splain it to him. Just to let him know. I got somethin I have to do right now." Laverne's father moved toward the ocean. He was crying but did not speak. He was joined by his wife and she was followed by the lifeguard. The children had not moved since their grandmother handed them the money.
The grandmother set off again. With each step, all the Negroes on the beach could see that she was gaining confidence. Still, the lifeguard, when the grandmother was more than twenty yards out into the sea, shouted to her with complete sincerity: "Ma'am, you all right out there? You need some help?" He was eighteen.
Not stopping, the grandmother raised her right arm and wiggled her fingers that she was fine. For all the purpose and certainty of her step, she could have been walking down Seventh Street on her way to St. Aloysius Catholic Church. There was nothing on the ocean and the horizon except the old woman, not a boat, not a buoy, and even the seagulls had disappeared from the air. When the grandmother was but a foot tall on the sea, her son sat down on the beach and refused to look anymore. When the grandmother was an inch or so, Laverne walked to the ocean's edge and raised a hand to shade her eyes, and her youngest brother came up beside her and put his hand in hers. The other brother took a place beside his father. Then, in the time it took to sigh, the grandmother was gone completely.
There was no more of that day for anyone, even though the sun was way up in the sky, and little by little the Negroes collected what they had brought to the beach and went back to their cars and buses. Now and again a stranger would come up to Laverne or a member of her family. The strangers did not speak but simply touched a shoulder or hand in sympathy, in understanding. Laverne felt no sadness and she slowly began to fear that she had not loved her grandmother as much as the old woman had always said she loved her. The family's eyes stayed focused on the horizon where the grandmother had disappeared, and Laverne and her family remained on the beach until well after the sun was down, accompanied only by the lifeguard, who had caught a chill but who felt it was his duty to stay with them.
—Edward P. Jones (Read the rest here; you can use a library card or school ID to log in)
Who is this guy?
Edward P. Jones was born and raised in Washington, D.C., where many of his short stories take place. His work was the subject of a recent essay by A.O. Scott, the second of a series on writers who “show us who we are”—us being Americans. Scott notes Jones’ grounding of the fantastic in the everyday of D.C.: “The cumulative effect of this kind of knowledge, this abundance of verifiable local information, is to endow the stories with a distinctive credibility. “ Jones has written two story collections and a novel, The Known World, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Today he teaches creative writing at George Washington University. Here’s an interesting thing Jones said about simplicity in writing, in an interview with the Paris Review: “Isaac Bashevis Singer said, ‘There’s no great art in confusing the reader.’ That’s one of the laws you live by. Make it plain. Make it plain all the way through. Starting from ‘Once upon a time.’ The emotions are indeed there, but you need not express them with neon lights.”
Let’s attempt to master the flashback. I think it works so well in the Jones example because it manages to be a complete and fascinating story without overtaking the larger narrative (which is, after all, about the Devil hounding a woman who’s trying to do her grocery shopping and who turns out to have a burning secret of her own.) Taking this as inspiration, write a poem or story in which flashback is necessary and compelling but does not outweigh the larger narrative.
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