Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Quintan Ana Wikswo’

The Heart, Drawn & Quartered

Wikswo Curving Scar

Everything I had, I destroyed. Yet while I was alive I called myself a healer. We are all monsters, and I most among us. When we think we do the most good we commit the gravest arrogances. —Maw

Quintan Ana Wikswo’s first novel—A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be (Stalking Horse Press)—is a deeply ambitious book full of wild, unforgettable images, maximalist writing, and page after page of literary pyrotechnics. If I say that it’s a scathing, dystopian view of America, a diatribe against male privilege, and a send-up of the hypocritical sanctimony of the church—all of which it is—you might get the wrong impression. For this is a book full of passion and compassion, with tender, beautiful, and sensuous writing that urges the reader to pause, re-read, and admire (or puzzle out) the lush sentences and the risks that Wikswo takes—risks that pay off most of the time. Her writing is a confident blend of fable, Gospel, and imagination that links to the gritty, fabulous tradition of Southern Gothic.

Set in a Southern city ominously called Lynchburg, the novel tells the story of Maw and her twin daughters Whitey and Sweet Marie. Much to her regret and disgust, Maw briefly fell for a white ladies’ man known as Lafayette, who is fancifully described as “a man who lived in a dog’s house, a man with four legs, who barked at raccoons and gnawed bones.” But after the twins are born, Lafayette wants no part of parenthood and flees farther south to live with the Gulf Girls in their brothel. Men don’t come off very well in A Long Curving Scar. The male gender’s unquenchable thirst for control without responsibility, for unending sexual conquest, and for violence is thoroughly cataloged here.

In order to survive as a single parent, Maw converts her home, which is located “far beyond the edges of the map of what should be,” into a hospice.

She decided to open a home for the elderly, the veteran, the sick and the discarded. The unwanted. The unbelonged. Their warm needy dying bodies coming in and never going out except in death. Every room in the unwanted mansion with a bed. Each bed with a body. Each body crying out for her, each body seeing her as a saint, an angel, a minister of relief—

…Maw taught her twins how to pull out their own ribs for use as splints and back braces. She invited them closer—into the surgeries and doomed birthings, diagnoses at dawn, to bear exhausted candles at unanticipated wakes.They saw how they should thread crosses of absolution through the closures of a shroud. Never to avert their eyes from those of the misshapen and dehumanized, the cast off and secret people, tucked into invisibilities of all sorts by families of all kinds.

A Long Curving Scar is also an extremely bawdy novel. Maw teaches her twins “a wanton compassion: to weave a long plait of yes.” In other words, she wants them to be survivors in a world dominated by men. Grown up, Whitey ministers sexually to the men of Lynchburg, just as she ministers to the dying in the hospice. Wikswo loves archaic words—especially when it comes to sex—partly from an obvious love of language and partly as a way to place her story outside of time.

And rare is the man in Lunchburg who does not think of Whitey and then of his love-stalk, his love dart, his lily, his lark. His bowsprit, his broomstick, hid bird dog, his bark. His sternpost, his short arm, his spigot, his spark.

Of her acorn,her apple, her all’s-well, her ache.

Her copper, his clovermeat.

Her coupler, her cake. Her pudding, her plug-tail, her pinter, her pant.

His gardener, his grinder, his gimcrack, his gap.

Her cuntache, his todger, her tonguer, his tash.

Meanwhile, during a trip to New York City, Sweet Marie has a brief, torrid fling with a woman called the Jazz Girl, which leads to a miraculous pregnancy.

She had known for some time, suspected, that something tiny and good was growing inside her, a low note…those words rolled around in her head like a lozenge. A tiny note. A low note, baby. Part fist, a musician’s hand wedged up inside her, filling her, making her swell. A knowledge baby. A wake-up-now-and-get-it-on baby.

Ω

The novel is divided into four sections, each named after the two atria and two ventricles of the heart. There is also a brief fantasy prologue in which Maw and her twins discover that all of the men of Lynchburg except Lafayette are dead, each carefully wrapped in tobacco leaves and hung up to dry from the rafters of a barn. But, alas, that dream was fake news.

Wikswo is a brutal and relentless mythologizer, dissolving the everyday and spinning it into something grandiose, preposterous, and yet stunningly apt. This is a story that is all about the telling. The book has the Baroque feeling of horror vacui, of plastering the known world with words. And yet no amount of words seems to erase the pain, the shame, the guilt, the grief, and anger that the three women share as a result of their relationship and kinship with Lafayette, their own version of original sin.

The grief in the house was not articulated, but it was ancient, it was larger and longer and bigger than the women, it went back to ripped apart continents, to the center of the earth, it fed on magma of loss, its lava the only trace of injustice in the void, every inch a measurement of grief, felt in the morning upon rising or in the evening as the light changed from thick to thin and part of them, unconscious, wondered, each to herself, unspoken and incoherent, did the world contain this pain for all people? Is it just us?

A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be is a lush parable that ends in murder and suicide. But it’s not clear that even Wikswo thinks these sacrifices will be enough to cleanse the American heart.

Once upon a time there was a big white house on the hill, an evil house, some folks say, though nobody really knows for sure where it went except to say that not all the people who lived in or near that old white house ever came out alive. African slaves. Our family. The patients when it once was a hospital.

Ω

Like her earlier book of short stories, The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far (she does like titles, doesn’t she?), A Long Curving Scar is filled with dozens of Wikswo’s own photographs. As an activist artist with deeply held principles (which she writes about in an afterword), she uses “repurposed” cameras and outdated film, which combine to create color photographs that have light leaks splaying at the edges, an imprecise focus, and ghostly double exposures when the film fails to advance properly. These images are meant to suggest memory and, placed as sequences that separate the book’s many chapters, they are also, perhaps, meant to serve as a respite to Wikswo’s intense prose. But after a while, I found the images began to pale against the onslaught of the text. In part, that seems due to the fact that the images as they appear in A Long Curving Scar might have been printed in colors that are too muted. If you take a look at an excellent interview with Wikswo about this book and her other work over at Volume 1: Brooklyn , you can see several of the book’s photographs which are reproduced with much richer color saturation. Check out the interview and read this book. Buckle up!

The Hope of Floating

Wikswo Dedication-001Dedication page for The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us this Far.

I whisper my equations to her; they are orderly and balanced.

She knows this, and replies with the chemical formulas for salt, for devotion, for intimate confession.

The stories and photographs in Quintan Ana Wikswo’s The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us this Far (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2015) strike a balance of power that is exceedingly rare in books that combine fiction with photography. This has something to do with the fact that text and images each occupy a more or less equal amount of page space. But more important is the fact that Wikswo is equally deft with words and photographs. The densely-layered, impressionistic, and yet coherent images in her book seem to have been created with specific stories in mind and yet they can all stand on their own as complex, intriguing images. At the end of the book she briefly comments on her methodology as a photographer who uses salvaged government cameras.

Everything in the photographs is achieved in camera, through old fashioned mechanical and optical and chemical means – the colors, textures, shapes, and multiple layers in the photographs are all created using only the unique aberrations of the cameras’ optics and the chemistry of the film. The negatives are scanned and printed without digital manipulation. When working with an 80- or 100–year-old camera filled with rust, dirt, cracks, and battlefield detritus, each responds uniquely to the film, light, and lenses – most of their calibrations aren’t standardized. It takes a tremendous amount of time to build a sufficient working relationship with each camera to produce even one image. This level of obsession is a good way to learn to watch how the world glows.

Wikswo Hope

Wikswo, in other words, is a photographic traditionalist of sorts, struggling to make images with ancient, bulky cameras and old-fashioned film. And her prose, which initially feels jarring, experimental, and even “cinematic” (according to the blurb by Rikki Ducornet), also turns out to have traditional roots in Homer, fable, fairytale, and folklore. Her stories are, as she writes, “dislocated from the familiar continuum of time and space.” The gender of the narrator is rarely revealed and, for the most part, characters have no names; only the gods are named.  Her prose is sparse, incantatory, and deliberately antiquated.There are no dates, almost no sign of modern technology (although a great interest in science). When technology is mentioned it tends to be of the steam-punk variety.

The key postal facilities are replete with arcanery that calls itself equipment: cancellation machines whose pulleys are fabricated from human hair; slits and holes and slices in conveyor belts whose apparatus itself is suspended across a crevasse, at who bottom spelunkers claim to have found parcels containing scientific specimen trays of species long since extinct.

At the core of every story is nature, not the pristine landscapes of an Ansel Adams but a nature that is murky, gooey, slippery, stormy, malign, and, above all else, erotic. It’s the nature of gods and mythical beings (like the women in “The Anguillidae Eater” who each give birth to a single egg every night and the men who dutifully bear their women’s eggs out to sea daily and throw them overboard in tribute to some life force); it is not a nature that is kind to mere human beings.

Going back and forth between the photographs and the text, one sees that the two are complementary in their moody colors, refracted light, ghostly images, disjointed layers, and tangled meanings. The photographs don’t illustrate the text, they serve as the visual equivalent of the text.

The finest story is “My Nebulae, My Antilles,” in which a woman from the Baltic region (where many of Brooklyn-based Wikswo’s stories occur) takes a trip to the Antilles and begins to write letters to be read by upon her return home. When she begins to read them (after long postal delays), she can scarcely recognize the woman who wrote them, and yet there is an overtly erotic attraction between her two halves. The story opens with this paragraph:

Let’s say she lies all day on a beach in the Antilles, and I embroider her until she becomes my buttonhole: a silken stitch of needle and thread of seaweed. I slip through her skin of sand and cashmere, as though a pearl fastened tight against the rise of her flesh.

And it ends with this paragraph:

She is a buttonhole, and I am the button. There is nothing else.

For Wikswo, the anachronistic exchange of letters written on paper can be a form of eroticism.

I suspect letters are now so uncommon that anyone encountering them cannot resist the compulsion to touch. It begins with turning the paper over, feeling the paradoxical oily crispness of its skin.

The translucency.

The temptation that enough handling can provoke a sentient response in the envelope – as though the proper caress will cause the glue to soften and yield, the flap to curl up slightly at the edges, and then with a gasp, the sheet of writing paper within will begin to simply swell out of the opening.

All of it happening with a fluid muscularity.

Quintan Ana Wikswo / delicate architecture of our galaxy / the h

There are moments when The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us this Far seems like an exercise in retrograde experimentalism, a twenty-first century New Age attempt to wipe all of modern technology off the face of the earth. But what wins out in the end is Wikswo’s desire to reintroduce the reader to an intense level of natural vitality that can feel lacking in modern life. It’s not so much an attempt to erase the modern but to restore something ancient and eternal to its rightful place.

There are excellent long interview with Wikswo over at Creative Capital’s The Lab and Literary Hub.