January 23, 2020: “The Delicate Architecture of Our Galaxy” by Quintan Ana Wikswo

Good day to you, Story366!

In yesterday’s post, I spoke of how I had to strive for a better day today, using my time more wisely, i.e., not just napping and snacking away my precious time alone. I mostly did a good job, getting to my office and completing a thousand or so mini-Moon City Press tasks over the course of the afternoon. The Karen‘s birthday cake is gone now, so that’s no longer calling me from the fridge like the beautiful siren it was. I told my GA that I’d be in to get a task done by twelve-thirty; I walked in at twelve-fifty. I call that a victory.

Tonight I had the pleasure of attending a reading here on the MSU campus, one for a couple of colleagues, Lanette Cadle and Mara W. Cohen-Ioannides. Neither of them is officially on the creative writing faculty here at MSU, but each has published at least one creative book, so it was their time to shine. Lanette in particular is promoting a new poetry collection, The Tethered Ground, which is pretty excellent. Always nice to see people succeed, especially people you know and like.

For today’s post, I read from Quintan Ana Wikswo‘s collection, The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far, out in 2015 from Coffee House Press. I picked this book up some time last year because it looked interesting—it has photographs strewn throughout—and am glad to have gotten to it today.

The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far has photos strewn throughout—I just said that—and delving into the collection has revealed some pertinent information. Firstly, Wikswo is a visual artist and took all the photos herself. Next, the photos vary, many of them nature shots, though not all, with very few human subjects mixed in. Sometimes photos take up half a page, with text above or below, and sometimes, a photo takes up an entire page. Once in a while, between section breaks in the stories, a photo will take up an entire two-page spread. The photos are vivid and oblique at the same time, often double-exposed, inlaying one image over another. All of the photos were taken at historic war sites in the Baltic, in New York, and in California. Most interesting of all is that Wikswo used old, mostly broken cameras, eighty to a hundred years old, needing quite a bit of manipulating to take a single, producable image. No photo is doctored or enhanced by modern technology, either. In the end, the effect is stunning, the grainy, timeless photos beautiful, mired with color and context.

Whew! I’ve never described anything like this in Story366 before—this is the first book that includes photos. A whole different kind of description, visual art. I hope I’ve done a good job.

Anyway, between these photos, Wikswo of course includes short stories. Her stories, like her photos, are unconventional, told in poetic vignettes, bookended by the photos (or vice versa). The stories, composed of these prose poems, are often heavily metaphorical and surreal, sometimes reading like fairy tales, other times like fables or legends. There is loss, there is longing, and there is hope. The battle sites have inspired these stories, as have Wikswo’s own ancestors and history. The narratives aren’t exactly Freytag, but that’s just another element that makes this book what it is, truly original.

“The Delicate Architecture of Our Galaxy” really stands out from all the stories I read. Maybe because the images are consistently in line with the narration, one controlling metaphor carried throughout the story. The narrator’s mother lives inside a mason jar. And maybe it’s not so much a metaphor as a construct of magical realism (which is, of course, metaphorical by definition), as the mom actually lives inside a jar. This isn’t some 1960s Disney movie explanation, either, a tiny, shrunken woman kept inside a jar like a Lillaputian. Mom here isn’t in human form at all, instead a gelatinous jam, a substance instead of a woman. She’s in the jar to keep her from slipping between the cracks and disappearing. Our narrator unscrews the jar to let her mom breathe, though she has no idea if this is even necessary.

So, Mom is a jar of jelly. The story goes on to explain the history of mother and daughter (wait, is the narrator a woman or am I merely assuming this?), several of those prose poem/vignettes comprising the story’s text. After a few pages of introductory info, Wikswo cuts the story into four parts, each one describing the mom, in the jar, at each of the four equinoxes. For each equinox, Wikswo writes several prose poems—or perhaps microfictions—little anecdote about the mom, living as a mass in a jar. We get the story of where the jar came from (a boy once gave her pickled watermelon, which she emptied into a field), how she likes to swim with minnows, and how the narrator and mom liked to smuggle black licorice into movies. Holistically, we see a broad canvas, depicting the relationship between the two, sometimes very real—like the licorice story—or sometimes more surreal, like the narrator augering through the ice of a frozen pond to pour her mother inside. It’s a complex relationship (understatement understood and intentional). “The Delicate Architecture of Our Galaxy” illustrates what a person remembers, what’s held onto, the lengths we go to to save and cherish it forever.

The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far is, needless to say, unlike anything I’ve covered in this blog so far. The array of interesting approaches—from the photos to the form to the style to the war themes—make this the most unusual and ambitious collection of stories I’ve ever read. Credit to Quintan Ana Wikswo and her unique vision, as I truly enjoyed unpuzzling this wonderful book, enjoying all the ways it could stimulate my senses, teaching me new ways to tell a story.