JE: Last week I covered Shann Ray’s dynamite collection from Graywolf, American Masculine. My pal Jim Thompsen and I (different Jim Thompsen!) are at odds on this collection, because Jim keeps insisting that Ray’s stories are “more dreary cult of the sentence stuff” cooked up in MFA-land, lacking story chops. He’s wrong. There’s power and grace in these stories, and it runs deeper than the sentences. Ray is also a poet, so it’s little wonder that his sentences are highly crafted. And yes, he was an MFA guy. And no, the stories are not plot driven. But Jim’s missing something. There’s something very substantial moving beneath the surface of these sentences, a sort of emotional glacier slowly receding. There is an authenticity to the suffering in these stories, the kind of emotional sophistication that cannot be taught in a workshop. And it helps that masculinity in crisis is one of my favorite themes. Anyway, I’m starting to grandstand. Here is Shann Ray’s When We Fell in Love essay:
When We Fell In Love – Shann Ray
When you grow up in Montana, on the wide expanse of the high plains or the rugged backbone of the Rockies, you hear stories. Strange things occur in these stories, some desolate, some shiny as a new penny.
On a dirt road in the heart of the Beartooth Range in southern Montana I rounded a corner and came upon a massive golden eagle crouched like an enemy guard on the dead body of a whitetail doe. The bird looked at me with a raptor eye that glowed, meat slung from the beak, and talons gripping deer flesh and fur as if clutching a talisman.
Years later I was hunting whitetail with my father at the foot of the Crazies farther west near Big Timber. We’d seen a buck and two does on a small hill behind an old ranch house. My dad, though he could be hard as rock at times, took his beautiful patience with him that day and took me too as we walked toward that house, a grey-white box with dirt at the base, peeled paint on the outer walls, and a roof sloped with worn black shingles. We leaned our rifles against the house and knocked. An old woman greeted us and invited us in. We didn’t know her from Adam but she led us to a wood table where her husband, a thin and grizzled old-timer, sat in a kitchen floored with edge-eaten linoleum and set with a china hutch against one wall. Blue bottles lined the window sill. The whole space was brightly illumined from outside. The woman served us water, and big sweet cinnamon rolls. They tasted like sunlight in my mouth. We talked for two hours. The old man told of a t ime when he was out tending the cows and saw an eagle descend, snatch a baby calf in its talons and fly away, the thing bawling as it hung in the grip of that otherworldly creature. The eagle muscled its way to the horizon and disappeared.
His wife smiled to hear him tell it. He touched her arm. They had a genuine grace for each other, you felt it in their countenance.
What you see makes you, and unmakes you.
I saw my mother like something worn down to the bone. I saw my father alienated, alone. They burned each other to ash. Him drunk; the light of her eyes shrouded in darkness. Mad, shattered, depressed, divorced. They looked chewed on like something ugly… eaten as if caught in the wheels of an ominous harvest.
Then, after a long absence, they found their way back. They returned to each other, more tender than before.
They married each other again.
Have you ever crested a ridge before dawn and waited in the dark? Sometimes we behold mystery at the threshold of all things. My dad and mom got better, not worse. And they remain better, three decades later. Strangely, almost uncertainly at first, upon their grey ashes a slight wind blew and found embers that breathed and came alive, and because of that moment of grace, or fate, I got the chance to marry well. I married Jennifer, a true woman, a person of power and light, and because of her I fell in love with books. We have three daughters now, and we have to work like anyone else to stay visible to each other come hell or high water. Books are part of what keeps us alive. Recently we decided to read a poem a night from Mary Oliver’s books Why I Wake Early and Thirst, the books written before and after Oliver’s partner of thirty years, Molly Malone Cook, died. Those two books are like oxygen, or water, or good soil… they are that necessary.
When I met Jenn we agreed to read the ten major books that had most influenced our individual lives. I wasn’t much of a reader then, twenty-five years ago. In fact, when we exchanged our books she’d already read each of mine, while I had read none of hers. She, with her fresh horizons, broke my every resistance, and changed me in ways I needed to be changed: Candide, To Kill A Mockingbird, A Tale of Two Cities… after reading her books I never went back.
In the deep winter in Montana, if you clear a space and carefully place your pocket change on the tin roof of the cellar, and wait awhile, the sun will give you something you might not expect. Take off your gloves. Open your frozen hands. Let’s say it was a hundred bright pennies you drew forth into the dazzling light and set there on top of the tin. When they shine like stars pick up those coins and close them in your fists. The fire you hold in your hands-that’s what it feels like to hold a book, fierce, close, infinite… like a loved one.