Guest Review: Mark Athitakis on A Kind of Dream, stories by Kelly Cherry (University of Wisconsin Press)

One of Kelly Cherry’s most quoted and anthologized works is a poem called “Alzheimer’s,” published in her 1997 collection, Death and Transfiguration. It’s a snapshot of one moment in a man’s decline: A “crazy old man” arrives at a door holding a suitcase ...

… swinging from his hand,

That contains shaving cream, a piggy bank,

A book he sometimes pretends to read,

His clothes. On the brick wall beside him

Roses and columbine slug it out for space, claw the mortar.

That “mortar” is fitting; there’s a concreteness to Cherry’s imagery that downplays the emotional threshing the disease can provoke in favor of the specificity of how it manifests itself. Cherry has firm command of the precise and peculiar detail that reveals a wound with a brushstroke. So a mood of fatedness pervades the poem --- here is a man at the door, back home, and we who care for him have to let him in. Later, Cherry calls dwelling on anything besides that moment wasteful:

There is no time for that now. No time for music,

The peculiar screeching of strings, the luxurious

Fiddling with emotion.

Other things have become more urgent.

CherryCover.jpgThe same themes that emerge in this short poem -- fatedness, family, the necessity of focusing on life as it is being lived -- pervade her fine new story collection, A Kind of Dream. The linked stories comprise a family saga, but one that avoids and even satirizes the clichés of the form. The book’s prologue delivers a pocket history of its central family across a century, but curiously, in the form of a lexicon. A forebear couple, Art and Eleanor, is introduced as a “compound subj.”; one of their children is cross-referenced as “see also giving; caring; panic attacks; would rather be heard than seen.” Behold the specimens, Cherry seems to say.

Similarly, in a two-page vignette titled “On the Care and Handling of Infants and Small Children,” Cherry sends up the cooing prescriptive tone that infects new-parent literature: “There are no secondhand babies; they are always new,” she writes. “Their skin is as new as tomorrow. Their eyes are so new that they shine like a new car. Their tiny hands open and close like clams. Their noses are small and cool, like seashells.”

This doesn’t mean that Cherry treats family dismissively, but such pieces reflect her determination to scrub off the sentiment that often clings to the subject. The stories in A Kind of Dream describe a host of characters, but focus on three in particular: Babette, or BB, who had a child as a teenager and gave it to her aunt Nina, a writer. The child’s name is Octavia, or Tavy, who is raising a child of her own while BB, now a successful film actor, wants to reconnect with Tavy after suffering a miscarriage. Meanwhile, Nina learns she has pancreatic cancer, and by the closing pages succumbs to it.

In the story “Shooting Star,” BB ponders how many of her experiences, particularly as a mother, were out of her hands: “When the baby died, BB felt she was being paid back for giving her first daughter away. It was God, perhaps, or more likely just the universe. Karma. BB did not believe she mattered enough in the great scheme for God to single her out and punish her, and yet she had committed a wrong and punishment was just.” She muses on this while filming a movie in Ulan Bator, and her wallowing in memory prompts her to try to pursue an affair and perhaps have a baby to recapture the past. The effort ends disastrously; the only thing sadder than our past errors is our thinking that we can revisit the past to rewrite them.

If dwelling on the past is a ridiculous act, so is avoiding the present. In “The Only News That Matters,” Conrad, a friend of Nina’s husband, attempts to detox from the media, overwhelmed by the early 21st century’s parade of miseries and injustices. But he’s tossed out the baby with the bathwater, ignoring not just front-page news but Nina’s terminal diagnosis. His wife takes him to task:

“Conrad, she’s a neighbor! This is important news. You should have told me. I should have been to see her by now.”

“News? This is not news.

“It’s the only news that matters,” she says. “The only news.”

Cherry.jpgNina, more than anyone else in the book, has found the necessary poise to respond to these everyday calamities, which is all the more remarkable considering her decline. “That’s what those emotions or traits were --predators,” she thinks. “Opportunistic diseases. She was dying, but it was better than dying from anger or bitterness or meanness.” It gives nothing away to say that Nina doesn’t survive a disease as rapidly destructive as pancreatic cancer, and the penultimate story, “Palmer’s Method of Penmanship,” is a beautifully turned study of Nina’s husband, Palmer, as he reconsiders her final days. The story’s final line captures Palmer as he is finished writing her eulogy: “By five p.m. his head felt as though someone had buried a hatchet in it.” The double meaning of the line neatly summarizes Cherry’s flinty yet compassionate tone -- we need to put the past aside, bury the hatchet, recognizing that memory is pain.

This is Cherry’s third book about Nina and her circle, following 1990s My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers and 1999’s The Society of Friends. As the final book, its tone is final, fated -- the overall feeling is of closing accounts. But it is not mournful in the way such books can be. What Cherry highlights is endurance, that the story of Nina’s family story is just one of many stories, and that the stories will go on. As Tavy thinks toward the end: “It’s odd how families repeat themselves, isn’t it?”

[Published May 1, 2014. 174 pages, $26.95 hardcover]

Mark Athitakis is a Phoenix-based reviewer whose writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Barnes & Noble Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other publications.