Anne Germanacos - In a form all its own, navigating aphorism, journal, poetry, and novel, Germanacos sounds out the profound territory of eros and grief, and their often unexplored interdependence



  Tribute Front Cover

Anne Germanacos, Tribute. Rescue Press, 2014.

excerpt
excerpt from TRIBUTE in the Kenyon Review online
www.annegermanacos.com/

In her masterful second book, Anne Germanacos gets right down to the elemental: the single line. TRIBUTE is a work of prose—novel, essay, experiment in narrative? —created from distinct lines, a work of continual shape-shift and exhilarating motion. TRIBUTE chronicles the daily life of a woman whose mother is dying and who begins to see a psychoanalyst, a woman who lives among lovers, sisters, and children, across continents and their conflicts (New York, San Francisco, Crete, Cyprus, Israel/Palestine). The book that results offers us both her story—forcefully sensual, vibrantly lived—and, through its bold form, her complex relationship to story. Germanacos's restless relationship to form is born of that most essential restlessness: desire. In TRIBUTE she documents desire's manifold incarnations, the body's and the mind's; she pays beautiful tribute to the force of desire and to those who have been bold enough to try to comprehend it—gentle echoes remind us of H.D. and her Freud. In the tradition of Clarice Lispector, David Markson, and Marguerite Duras, TRIBUTE takes us deep into the borderlands where fiction and nonfiction meet. The first book in Rescue Press's new series of innovative prose, this is a work of profound ambition and rare urgency.

"In a form all its own, navigating aphorism, journal, poetry, and novel, Anne Germanacos sounds out the profound territory of eros and grief, and their often unexplored interdependence. The beauty and agony of a mother's slow death, a daughter's striving body and perambulating mind: the sprawl of TRIBUTE contains both, and admirably explores stations of rage, stasis, melancholy, observation, and desire."—Maggie Nelson

"Anne Germanacos's moving TRIBUTE is at once arrestingly precise, deeply mysterious, and wholly unexpected. Every sentence is written with the acuity and emotional complexity of a poem, and in the charged spaces in between these sentences, the inexpressible reposes—beyond grief, beyond love, there for the reader to recognize and absorb in a visceral, transformative way."—Dawn Raffel

"Anne Germanacos's TRIBUTE is like nothing I have ever read before. A novel in poetic form, prose poetry, or her own invented style, this is an amazing, original and captivating read."—Louis Breger

"What can language do to resolve grief, to forge or release intimacy? In TRIBUTE, Anne Germanacos responds to these mysteries by scouring and saving lit moments, phrases, and scraps... TRIBUTE is a passionate erasure back to bone... It could take years to read this book, or an afternoon—either would be right—depending on your capacity for the flash-wisdom of aphorism and the pace at which you take your shots of insight."—Lia Pupura

"A kaleidoscope that can well hold a reader securely while containing a soul."—Robert Wallerstein

"A master of silence and the subtle pass, Germanacos builds her absorbing and seductive narratives from a thousand fragments. Her paradoxes—intimate, edgy, and luminous—tease us through a maze of reflections on mothers and daughters, Freud, sex and desire, and politics."—Askold Melnyczuk

"Anne Germanacos writes with wit and passion: she is a modern metaphysical poet. Her one-line fragments, discrete and connected, probe the desires and terrors of her embodied existence. Her words move us inward to our own most vital and painful zones."—Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg

Like any novel, or essay, or poem, San Francisco author Anne Germanacos' new book, Tribute, comes at you one line at a time. Part of what distinguishes Germanacos' lines is the space she leaves between them, every one of them, rendering her prose in a sort of literary pointillism. Maybe it's a mirror for our age of abundant Tweetage and attention shortage, in which, to borrow from the author herself, "If you can't make something decent out of interruptions, you're doomed." Maybe it's a bold reduction to primordial linguistic economy. In any case, and this is the other part, Germanacos gathers her gems into a great and luminous mosaic. A novel, an essay, a poem, even, in its way, a memoir, Tribute is a big book about grief and love and how to live, scaled to exacting smallness. As such, it's a wonderfully conscientious answer to the three-word existential question Germanacos poses early on: "Is writing cheating?"-

There is a certain type of writing which asks us to engage with it so that the reader must become an active participant. The reader gives over and becomes writer as well. Call it a kind of collaborative reading, or call it, as Roland Barthes did, a writerly text. Tribute by Anne Germanacos is the kind of book that asks the reader to play along—seduces the reader is a not inappropriate way of saying it—the kind of book that doesn’t let the reader forget that she is reading.
As Hillary Plum tells us in her foreword to the book, in Tribute, “Germanacos gets right down to the elemental—the single line, fragment of scene or story or thought,” and the result is a book that feels atomized, immediate, a book experienced in the moment, without the sense-making we tend to put to our lives through narrative, which after all can be a kind of dulling, a blurring, as much as anything else. One is put in mind of Virginia Woolf’s description in “Modern Fiction”: “The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms.” And yet, for all that Tribute does to strip away narrative, the seduction of narrative is always present. As Plum tells us, the book, written in fragments as it is, creates a “desire for and struggle against narrative.” The story contained in Tribute is fairly simple: a woman tends to her dying mother, sees an analyst, misses her husband, travels, takes lovers. But the book’s complexity springs out of the very “simplicity” of the story, for it is not what happens in the book that is important, but how the narrator puts the words down, how the narrator experiences and (re)inscribes her life that is at the center of this book.
And that simplicity itself is deceptive. So much of what happens in the book happens between the lines. Does the narrator take lovers? Or is it only one lover? Or are those lovers imagined? Does the narrator have an affair with her analyst, or is that merely transference? I think I know the answers to these questions, but the book leaves much open to interpretation; like any writerly text, certain readings are more likely than others, but the book works on a kind of openness, and welcomes possibility such that whatever reading is come to is ultimately going to be singular and subjective. The narrator, along with everyone else in the novel—with the exception of a few authors and famous persons, like Arafrat—goes unnamed. She is surrounded by her husband, her analyst, her mother, her children, (and her reader, who is always there, addressed, present and absent at once) and as a result of their not being named, these characters tend to slip around beneath their pronouns. Mother becomes lover becomes sister becomes analyst. Husband becomes son becomes lover. “She said: You’re always watching the clock,” goes one of the fragments that makes up Tribute. In context, this could be the narrator describing something her analyst has said, or something that her mother has said as the narrator sits at her deathbed, or something she imagines her mother saying, her subconscious giving words to a desire she is shamed by. Of course, it is (I think) supposed to be all of these at once, and it is through such textual ambiguities that Tribute courts its reader and enlists her as collaborator.
Court, seduce, I use these words deliberately because at its heart Tribute is a book about desire. Sexual desire, to be sure. The narrator searches, in writing, for the words to depict that desire, to depict the experience of desire expressed, to depict climax. (And in some ways the fragment seems appropriate in this regard, at least as Germanacos writes them, overflowing, intense, they are structured like spasms.) Often she can only get at those descriptions through metaphor, through simile, but those metaphors are stunning when they come:
eyes like hands? (mine reach, hers hold)
But there are other kinds of desire here too. A desire to know—to know herself, to know others, to know the gradations of love—to share experience. To express.
Central to Tribute is the impending death of the narrator’s mother, which dominates the book’s third section, “Kaddish.” Here is where the book grapples most vigorously and most interestingly with what I think, above all else, beyond desire, and beyond questions of the text, and beyond politics, is Tribute’s controlling idea: the multiplicity of human experience, the contradictory and sometimes adversarial nature of our many desires. Just because her mother is dying, and just because that makes her sad, that does not mean that the narrator is not also a sexual being. Separated from her husband while she and her sister tend to their mother, she can’t help but long sometimes to be somewhere else:
In order to be able to take my husband’s cock in my mouth, my mother will first have to die.
This is not the kind of daughter I am, it’s just the way it goes.
This section, the whole book in fact, is full of such dichotomies. Sexual desire amid mourning. Laughter in the face of death. Beauty in decay. Of her dying mother, the narrator tells us:
Saw her naked body, where I had my start. There’s nothing ugly about her, even now. Her body is perfect, perfectly cared for, skin hardly wrinkled.
Tribute is one of those books whose beauty, as apparent as it is in the initial read, is truly realized on the second. After I’d finished, when I went back and reread the first few lines, I saw contained in them so much of the book would be about:
Thanksgiving got a little raucous. Afterwards, I went around picking up the pieces—but physical, not psychological.
It is, of course, appropriate to open a novel called Tribute on Thanks(/)giving. And Thanksgiving is a time/place that the book will return to in the closing pages. Thanksgiving, like any holiday, is both a setting off—everything after begins from this point—and a return—another holiday, one that feels in so many ways like the one before it, and the one before that, and so on. And the book tends to operate in this way as well. Each new fragment is both a setting off, an embarking on something new, and at the same time a return, from whitespace, to the narrative, such as that is, and to the themes developed throughout. The physical/psychological divide mentioned here, is one of those contradictions, one of those dualities that the book will ultimately set out to dissolve. Or dissolve may not be the right word for it, for dissolve feels to final. Better to say find a coexistence, even one that is often uneasy. It is that uneasiness I think, which also signals a kind of awareness, that is in so many ways the book’s point. -

THE FOREWORD to Anne Germanacos’s determinedly modernist novel/prose poem/shoring of fragments TRIBUTE by editor Hilary Plum reminds one of T. S. Eliot’s introduction to Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood: in both cases the idea is that the reader needs some preparation, warning, or grounding before encountering such a strange and unique work of literature. Eliot saw in Barnes’s novel a prose that was relentlessly and vigorously alive, a novel so good that only readers of poetry could truly appreciate its significance. TRIBUTE demands a similar poetic aptitude from its reader, its prose broken into short sections, at most a few sentences, or as little as a short line, separated one from the next by a single dot (•).
The form, Plum tells us, is defined by continuous shape-shifting, by “exhilarating motion.” Germanacos’s is a “restless relationship to form […] born of that most essential restlessness: desire.” Yet it is just as easy to praise this book from the opposite direction. Its form is, in fact, wonderfully constant, slow, thoughtful, spacious, and completely at ease. The experience of reading this book is not a dizzying whirlwind of transcendent movement but a calming recurrence of immanent presence. The form, in short, is tribute paid between writer and reader: a gentle and forgiving prose that invites one to pore over a single page, or take in the entire book in a sitting.
In terms of plot, there is not a whole lot. The dramatic tension of this work is perhaps best expressed in the line, “In order to be able to take my husband’s cock in my mouth my mother will first have to die.” Death and desire are the two major themes in TRIBUTE, and they are constantly enmeshed. Yet it is hard also not to read this line as a tongue- (or cock-) in-cheek riff on Freud’s theories of mourning and melancholia. TRIBUTE opens with an epigraph from H.D.’s Tribute to Freud, and the libidinous pater of psychoanalysis haunts the unfolding text. Germanacos’s psychoanalytic forays are complex, and one thinks of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s discussion of the infant’s loss of the mother’s breast — in this first experience of loss, they argue, the child compensates by filling the void left by the nipple with words and self-expression, ultimately leading to an affirmation of identity. Or Julia Kristeva, who provides a more violent take on the loss of the mother, arguing that matricide is indeed a cultural rite of passage. Women in particular must steel themselves to both kill and replace their mothers, Kristeva claims, but once again, Germanacos is both serious and playful, at one point calling her mother’s ass “a little flat.” In this process, the work of art is a girl’s best friend, translating loss into a form that surpasses the reality of lived experience.
Such psychoanalytic readings of TRIBUTE are endlessly suggestive, yet one gets the sense that Germanacos knows all of this already (her analyst is the first to call after her mother’s passing), and they serve more as background than focus. Psychoanalysis might indeed have all the neat answers that explain why x object comes to replace y object, but such theories could not seem more trivial when faced with the bold rendering of loss found in TRIBUTE. The climactic section, “KADDISH,” in particular is a masterful combination of terror, humor, triviality, and profound feeling. The Mourner’s Kaddish is not simply a process that one completes before returning to reality (as in Freud’s mourning) but a prayer that is repeated and returned to throughout the mourner’s lifetime. “You think grief will take you away from yourself,” Germanacos writes, “but it just gives you more. That’s the scary part, how much you there may actually be.” This repetition and recurrence marks not melancholia but the movement of text in TRIBUTE, a point that is reinforced literally by the visual dot (•) carefully separating the lines of text, forcing the reader to pause, to halt the eye’s relentless saccades before, inevitably, moving on. Tribute, in this sense, is no longer a nominal payment made to secure peace, but an active and ongoing offering that Germanacos’s writing continually renews.
Of the other themes dealt with in TRIBUTE, perhaps the least satisfying is the section on “POLITICS,” where travelogue meets rough geopolitical speculations. Jerusalem gets treated in minute details of cuisine and fragrance, while Palestine is referred to as “camels and Arab villages.” Later the conflict is spliced through meditations on similarity and difference. Sage 15-year-olds discover that “we’re almost the same,” while hopeful adults say, “Let’s not call it peace, let’s call it normal.” Through these debates Germanacos waltzes, thinking about sex, wearing black pearl earrings and Lanvin shoes. The political realm, in short, seems to reveal some limitations of the highly personal form pursued in TRIBUTE. One can’t help thinking about the famous critiques of modernist stream of consciousness: a form that elevates the individual bourgeois intellectual while reducing others to an unthinking crowd. A more poignant reflection comes through Germanacos’s engagement with the Arabic language itself, where the word “minute” (the same in Arabic and Hebrew) becomes a healing mantra as her mother agonizes in the final throes of death.
Where Germanacos leaves the modernists behind — or perhaps approaches that best loved of them, James Joyce — is in the way she thoroughly humanizes herself. Indeed, some of the best moments of TRIBUTE come in frank discussions of bodily needs, moments of selfishness, and personal failings. For all of its avant-gardeconceits, TRIBUTE is grounded by the thoroughly banal everydayness of life, aimless trips to Trader Joe’s and all. As such its guiding reference may be less “Imagisme”and more Twitter feed, an endless refreshing of moments that add up to make a life. The book is a beautiful reminder that there is no perfect behavior in the face of loss, political struggle, or intimate relationships, and Germanacos records the rough edges of life faithfully and with a levity that is ultimately the saving grace of this lovely book. (“A sow’s clitoris is inside her vagina. Lucky Girl!”) She even ribs her own writing style throughout, mocking her own pretensions and writerly persona, “I may someday have to go back to writing something more conventional but until I do, I won’t.” One hopes that wherever her writing takes her next, she will maintain the sensitivity to image, sound, and feeling that makes TRIBUTE so delightfully alive with the power to heal, salve, and offer peace to the reader. - Andrew Kalaidjian 

 In the Time of the Girls, by Anne Germanacos

Anne Germanacos, In the Time of the Girls. BOA Editions, 2010.

Born in San Francisco, Anne Germanacos has lived between Greece and San Francisco for thirty years. Her stories are just as strange and tragic as the Greek myths they riff on. Using a spare, image-laden prose style, Germanacos focuses on discrete, telling moments to create fast-paced stories that pack a powerful punch. This is not your standard short story collection—it is an innovative work of literary prose as brilliant, concise, and potent as a bolt of lightning from the hand of Zeus.

“This innovative debut from Anne Germanacos uses discrete, telling moments to create gripping stories that are richly pleasurably to read. heavily informed by her life in Greece, these stories are often just as strange and tragic as the myths they riff on...In the Time of Girls is not your standard short story collection- it is an innovative work of literary prose as brilliantly concise and potent as a bolt of lightning from the hand of Zeus.”- Consortium Library Express

Germanacos's debut is made up of brief fictional moments that straddle the line between prose and poetry and culminate in a vigorous but altogether elusive narrative. The stories constructed from these moments (some less than 10 words long) reflect on family, parenting, teaching, marriage, sexuality, and modern dilemmas, all loosely framed in the ancient context of Greek history and mythology. Character names often come from myths, and detached prose compels the reader to imagine the connections that string these people together. Germanacos's Odysseus plays backgammon with an Iranian rug seller while on vacation; Themistocles drives a dirty VW bug with a peahen riding shotgun. The beauty of this unconventional collection is in its details: each moment offers a glimpse at a larger story while giving the reader intimate, wry, and acute details about the narrator or her surrounding characters. This makes for a light and lively reading experience as each moment spins into the next without reaching a cohesive whole; Germanacos's vision doesn't extend quite that far.- Publishers Weekly

"The seductive, sly, smart fictions in Anne Germanacos’s debut display a remarkable range. These astute stories investigate matters personal and public, religious and political, physical and psychological—all in a language that’s forthright and clear, yet wonderfully allusive as well. Germanacos’s tales tackle big questions about the making, keeping, and risking of love. Ultimately, they interrogate selfhood: can it stand up to the questioning? We need this kind of rigor and playfulness—and candor."--Martha Cooley

"Anne Germanacos takes us into a rich mythic and poetic world and crafts an astonishing array of characters in a dreamscape that ignites imagination and vision and compels us to see far beyond the ordinary and the mundane into an extraordinary range of human emotion. She is a gifted storyteller whose inventiveness with both language and form will transport and amaze."--Michael Krasny

“In In the Time of the Girls, Anne Germanacos has hammered the solid of expected form to disclose the fine fracture lines that map how it really is—between men and women, women and women, myths and memories…The echoing narratives convey a rich, mysterious flow of possibility, and a sense of ancient energies pushing up into the ongoing present.“--Sven Birkerts

Germanacos’ inquisitive eye scans the landscape from rural Greece to urban San Francisco. Her haunting, compressed narratives are as elegant and detailed as Persian miniatures. The gods live in these rich tales, and so do 21st century wives and husbands, sons and daughters, priests and artists.
--Louise Steinman

"Anne Germanacos’ literary form defies traditional classification—bridging prose and poetry—it must be experienced. Each piece is a small gem. Her cavalcade of human beings—their emotions, their worlds—is arresting, haunting, memorable."--Howard Gardner


Sixteenth-century Catalonians used to say, “May no new thing arise.” People wished each other, with this farewell, a peaceful existence, a stasis that denotes happy absence of the pain caused by change. Change takes energy, moves us into frightening places. In Anne Germanacos’s debut collection of stories, In the Time of the Girls, the author writes of the kind of change we do not want or expect—real, transformative occurrences that have the power of bodily metamorphoses—and the pain and ecstasy that inevitably result.
The title story speaks to both literal and figurative metamorphosis; its prose reflects the fierce maternal desire and joy the narrator (perhaps a teacher who loves her students or an older presence in the lives of a group of giddy teenagers) feels for “the girls.” However, the narrator is also speaking out of the loneliness and loss she feels at the end of her association with them—“I’m not sure what I think or know anymore, now, in the days of the departed girls. You could even call it the death of the time of the girls.” As the reader moves through this story—a series of isolated sentences and short paragraphs, sometimes very loosely connected—the unusually poetical structure creates the sense that it is the whole group of girls, all their small actions combined, that has the narrator enthralled:
Abstract
Girls. The kind of things girls do. The kinds of girls on this earth. The things they wear, and what they eat (or don’t eat). What they think sex will be (and what it ends up being, for girls, still not women). What girls do to boys. Girls riding horses. Girls cutting their hair or keeping it long, getting gum stuck in it, high up near the scalp. Wearing boots, sandals, flip-flops (mostly flip-flops). Barefoot girls stepping on glass, pulling glass from an instep, watching the blood drip onto dry dirt. Smiling. Unhorrified. Or, horrified, screaming.
The girls’ names are iconic, though it’s clear from the references that these girls are modern, not goddesses in the classical sense:
Artemis’ elaborate dreams, her money, her jewelry, her clothes (blue sunglasses) . . .
Demeter’s hair in ponytails, her funny teeth . . .
Athena’s rage to make words say things she doesn’t yet know . . .
The junk food Hera buys for them.
Artemis’ soy milk.
Demeter’s vegetarianism . . .
Athena’s worry that she’ll become like her Italian grandmother whose bra has made grooves in her shoulders from being weighed down with breasts.
As we move through the short images, separated on the page like the lines of an epic poem, we get a sense of the narrator’s love of the action, the movement that these characters create together as they struggle toward womanhood: “The way they pushed all the boundaries, wanting to be part of the same thing. Wanting, in essence, to be not many but one.” The narrator finds beauty in the characters’ desire to be other, in their forward motion toward change; the reader feels her elation at being caught up in this swirling mass of oneness that the characters make as they grow, shedding their girlishness and trying out the roles of adulthood with the fearless power of those who have never felt the pain of real change—or perhaps those for whom change is a constant state:
Girls eating buttered toast.
Girls making boys jealous.
Girls singing.
Girls without siblings. Girls with too many brothers.
Adopted girls. (Aborted girls? Pinpricks of being floating out to sea?)
Overmedicated girls.
Unreadable girls.
Insinuating girls.
The luck of boys.
The insult of girls.
Fatherless girls.
Girls with hovering mothers.
Girls with clothes strewn everywhere.
Naked girls.
Tattooed girls.
Hairy girls.
Squeaky clean girls.
Girls feeding boas.
Girls birthing babies.
Giving blow jobs.
Girls crying out in pleasure.
Girls listening to other girls, in neighboring beds.
Whispering girls. Girls running like the wind. Cantering horsey girls!
Here we see the lovely side of change—the kind that does contain pain but is full of the hope of the future. This opening story serves as a summoning of the Muse, a way to depict one detail of the larger subject Germanacos will treat: the phenomenon of constant gain and loss, of growth, decline, and regeneration. Germanacos’s unique prose/poetic format serves to draw the reader into a medium where the poetry of the single line or image is juxtaposed again and again with other, quite separate images, so the sum of the whole creates a message much greater than its individual parts.
In another story, “Until We Go to Sleep,” a much quieter, more hopeless kind of metamorphosis takes place—a depiction of what we lose as we age and prepare for death. The narrator’s parents suffer from dementia, facing the imminent departure, not only of life, but also of memory and language:
Cells
Don’t pretend you didn’t know: cells can’t go on living forever.
People fall apart, sometimes in front of your eyes.
Here, Germanacos uses the characters’ loss of language to explore the nature of words, and how they are inextricably linked with thought:
Orpheus and Eurydice
 . . . how does one say things without words when the sense of a word’s departure is stronger than one’s possession of it?
Like Orpheus looking back at Eurydice, the word falls apart.
Germanacos herself displays the imagination necessary to put oneself into the difficulties of another’s suffering as her narrator is drawn into the very language of the elderly characters:
Inside
Sometimes, weird sentences run through my brain, as if he’s speaking to me, from inside my head, and his logic has replaced mine.
For instance:
Because the garden was almost too wet.
His dinner the other night, and then.
Germanacos’s gift here is like that of a great actor—she not only gets the lines right, but she also adopts the mannerisms of the people she depicts, down to their lapses and strange omissions.
The author uses another device to admirable effect in this story and elsewhere: a quiet shift toward action in the middle of what initially seems to be just a slow, rhythmic series of images. At first, Germanacos’s technique of stringing together small portions of prose merely gives the impression that she is describing a large picture, focusing on one, then another aspect of the larger work:
Lost Street
They called to say: “We’ve lost the street where we parked the car.”
They called to say: “We’ve lost the street where we parked the car.”
The end is always just around the corner, but sometimes it seems as if the street between here and there is long and if you walk slowly enough it may go on forever.
Cracks
Toward the end of every meal, when the rest of us are sitting with our hands in our laps, my mother says: “I’m sorry I’m taking so long.”
When did she become such a slow eater?
          Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.
And then, without a great deal of drama, Germanacos adds action, and the list becomes a narrative:
Graves
Eyeing the dark soil in the yard, prepared for new plantings, she said: “I can see you’ve got our graves ready.”
Them
The only real them there is.
Preparation
You make them grow old, jump them across huge expanses of time, trying to prepare. Just when you’ve finally accepted the fact, they appear jaunty, high-spirited; you’re ashamed.
With this small insertion, Germanacos transforms mere poetic imagery into the complexity of story. This determination to ignore the separation of the two links her work to the classics, making a metamorphosis of the writing itself, as well as of the characters within it.
In another story titled “Boundaries,” Germanacos uses this same trick to push what starts out as a rich vignette into the forward motion of narrative and, ultimately, depicts a profound life change in her main character. Elizabeth, who is about to lose her son Jonah as he goes off to college, becomes increasingly involved in the lives of the homeless people in her neighborhood:
Public Shower
The homeless people shower on the sidewalk, using the green-and-black hoses hooked up to the houses. Sometimes, by mistake, they leave their free-sample bottles of Prell on Elizabeth’s steps. Her son Jonah grabs a bottle, brings it inside. She makes him take it out again, leave it where he found it. “It’s not yours,” she says.
She sees him wondering if his mother’s all right in her mind. In a few months, he’ll be leaving. Is he worried about himself, or about her?
Elizabeth is filling the space that her son will leave, transferring the caring that she does for him to the homeless, whom she gets to know better and better throughout the story. She leaves Jonah’s outgrown shoes on the steps for the homeless to pick up; she notices that she has the same shoes as a homeless woman; she invites the homeless people to a neighborhood barbecue. In the final scene of the story, there is a garage sale:
Apparently, the husband and wife weren’t looking for anything in particular. It was just a good day for them to be out with the baby . . .
They said afterwards that the mother of the baby thought the baby’s father was holding her; the father was certain he’d handed the baby to her mother . . .
The homeless people were down at the shelter, biting into croissants and tarts.
While the neighborhood searched along the sidewalks and in alleyways, upstairs and inside houses, the baby was eating almond paste pressed to her lips on fat childish fingers.
With this small detail, Germanacos leaves the reader with a sense of surprise and the understanding that important developments can occur without a great deal of fanfare.
Elizabeth becomes more and more interested in the lives of the homeless people she encounters, perhaps subconsciously pushing Jonah out of the center of her life’s stage. On the day that Jonah is set to leave for college, Elizabeth runs into the homeless woman whose shoes match hers:
Elizabeth walks close, stands near. Each woman’s feet, clad in 803s, are a mirror of the other’s. Sadness makes her bold. “Are those really all the clothes you own?’’
“These are what I got today—but I’m always adding, subtracting.”
Elizabeth wants desperately to tell her there’s going to be an extra room in her house, but just thinking it brings tears. Leaning forward on the bench, the clown woman takes her hand, looks at the lines, and offers her a whole new life.
With this final shift Germanacos illustrates the power that very small actions can have, both in prose and in our lives.
Germanacos’s characters go through their changes very quietly, bearing their pain very carefully as they move through the small places they occupy in the world. Sometimes, with a force as desperate as it is silent, they seek to release themselves from the pain just a little, affording themselves some respite from their discomfort. “Twenty-nine Stones for You to Hold” concerns a small farming town in Greece. Here the characters, both human and animal, know that they cannot avoid transformation.
The Patient Goat
Have you ever seen a goat take a running start in order to get up a steep incline? It was a full-sized goat, a she. When I came around the bend, I saw the two other goats, one large and one a kid go up fast, without a hitch. They stood on a ledge of rock, not exactly waiting. She tried to follow them but couldn’t go beyond a certain point. It wasn’t a great distance, only ten feet or so, but the incline stopped her. She went downhill backwards.
The second time, she took a running start. I watched her strain at the same point as she had before but this time she made it.
In these observations, each again with its own short title within the story, it is understood, in a way that perhaps animals do better than people, that pain is a means to an end, a necessary process:
Spring
Yesterday the man brought the new piglet. He parked his truck in the driveway and, seeing me through the doorway of our house, called out: “Do you have a piece of cloth I could use? The pig shat and I can’t grab hold because it’s slippery.”
I went outside and pointed to an empty animal food sack. “Will that do?” “Yes,” he said, and wiped his hand on it then clamped his hand over the piglet’s curly tail, grabbed a pink, sensitive-looking ear and hoisted it over the side of the truck. He carried it that way for two hundred yards. I kept thinking the pig would slip from his grip but it didn’t.
The piglet went directly to the much larger sow. She didn’t flinch or run away but stood still, knee-deep in slops. The sun was warmer than it’d been in months. The little pig nuzzled her tail and each of her trotters, and eventually her snout. They ate side by side, slurping. Later, we found them lying together as the sun went down, the piglets snuggled into her belly, her head against his.
The story called “Sundering Twins” perhaps best illustrates this devotion to the power that can come from growth, no matter how difficult. An overweight teenage girl and a skinny, bespectacled boy exchange very awkward fumblings in a closet, under a small but transformative skylight. The girl compares herself unfavorably to her sister, “the other twin, the one with hair she can sit on, jutting bones, and clear skin,” who somehow during conception “absorbed more of the energy, the goodness, the stuff—whatever it was—when the sperm did its job and the cells began dividing.” She likes to tell people “they were originally Siamese. Then they cut us apart, at the head, right here . . . And here, she’d say, pulling down her sock and pointing to a place rubbed raw by the wrong shoes.”
Under the skylight in her closet, the girl and boy perform their little acts, once again without a great deal of fuss, just enough motion to relieve their discomfort, and then it’s over:
She says: Is this how you do it?
He is un-resistant, worm to bone. The stuff in her hand wiped off on the red corduroy bag filled with ticket stubs and empty lipstick cases.
She is sodden, heavier than ever with the knowledge that he’s capable of giving in a way that merely leaves stuff on her hand.
Next time she’ll try her mouth.
For a few moments, one feels the emptiness of the encounter. Something should have changed, but there is nothing; boy and girl still seem alone, unmoved by their efforts to move on from family and childhood, truly severed. But then there is an unlikely discovery:
He looks at her, to his left, as they walk south on the east side of the street. He lets her take the inside part of the sidewalk because someone once told him to. The sun in his eyes makes him smile at it or at her, they’re holding cold drinks on a cold day, the sun shining down onto sparkling ice.
“Careful,” he tells her, grabbing her jacket and arm underneath. “ Don’t slip,” he says, suddenly sure of himself and the thing that went between them. The people on the street go around them, now that they’re touching . . . they’re both amazed at how little it takes.
And, just like that, a tiny but powerful push transforms what we thought was a poetic rendering of the static moment—a movement scarcely noticed, that utterly changes something from what it was just a few lines before. We are left with the sense that pain, as the catalyst for struggle, can sometimes create an astonishingly beautiful thing, one that changes us for good and surprises us with the force of the joy it brings. With In the Time of the Girls, Germanacos uses her gift of depicting the pain and joy of metamorphosis with equal precision, demonstrating the distortions and beauty of each, so that the reader feels both the weight and the value of change. - MICHAUX DEMPSTER









Comments