Paul Lisicky: Mask

(an excerpt from the memoir THE NARROW DOOR)

It’s just me and Denise in her room at the hospice.  Her family has just stepped out to the waiting room down the hall, and they’ve given me some minutes to be alone with her.  I look at her sleeping face, grab her big warm toe poking out from beneath the sheet: monkey feet, she called them.  It’s not even Denise’s face anymore: it’s impersonal, a mask.  So hard to believe she was literally on her feet, out at a restaurant twenty days ago.  Just yesterday, according to Nancy, her sister-in-law, she smiled when she heard I was coming.  She said, “Paul?” And her eyes opened wider, if my coming on short notice would be the most surprising thing of all.  Why would she think that, after all this time?  Denise.

But I have come too late.  She’s not even the person I know anymore.  She’s breathing of course, head turned turned to the left, but her eyes are closed for good now.  She’s moving–I can feel it in my cells.  As awkward as it is to admit it, a part of me is relieved that we don’t have to say those final things.  Too much pressure, and how could human language ever carry us to whatever is coming next–even if it’s a blankness, a null set?  Better to hold onto her toe.  Better to think of peace.  Better simply to wish her out and away.  Her mind and body are already wanting two different things, and the fight isn’t going to be pretty.

I tell her I’ve been rereading her work all week.  I tell her I’ve gone back to Good Deeds, her first novel, I tell her I’ve read her essays.  I tell her she’s beautiful writer.  I want every single word to matter, but my words don’t ring so true without other people in the room.  Three months ago, at my mother’s hospice bed, my brothers and my father started naming family memories, not even the contents of the stories, just the headlines.  The time the boat ran out of gas at Anchorage Point and Mr. Forte came by to save us.  The time we couldn’t find a place to stay in Tennessee, and we all came close to sleeping in the car.  “Just give me some peanut butter crackers and I’ll sleep in the car all night,” my mother cried, and we all made fun of that line for years, as if that were the funniest thing.  My mother’s eyelids started moving.  So many stories, the loosest threads keeping them together: a family’s life in time.  How could she not have been happy to be among us, the head of us?   But I can’t do that with Denise, maybe because that kind of ritual needs other people in it.  This feels lonely.  We know there’s a script, and even though we don’t want the script, we feel like the script is required of us.

I go back out to the waiting room and sit in the sofa with Denise’s family.   Lights are too bright for my eyes.  We look out at the view of Center City: the modernist PSFS building, the statue of William Penn, the blocky squat Liberty Center, which looks today the beginning of some downfall: the end of tradition, dignity, grace.  There’s a huge space between where we are and those buildings.  The sky goes grayer, as if it wants to storm.  We drink shitty coffee.  We look toward the program on the Food Channel with more absorption than the show deserves.  An elaborate yellow cake is being pulled from the oven, to be iced with chocolate frosting and jelly between the layers, and one of us says, I’m just gaining pounds looking at the thing, and everyone laughs gently, as they’re supposed to laugh, but we know that the laughing has nothing to do with cake, or even the joke.

Just before six, the nurse calls us down the hall.  Now we have a job to do; now we’re helping to write the old story: she died surrounded by family and friends.  The dozen of us move one by one through the doorway, and settle on our places around the bed.  Austen closest to her mother’s head, Denise’s mother opposite.  Her ex-husband nearby, me by her feet.  All the lights and lamps are off.  Flames shudder in votives.  Joni sings from her brother Joey’s laptop, the bare-bones demo of “Good Friends.” from one of the CDs I made for her many months back.  No one knows that Denise once called it our song when it first came out in 1985, and I like knowing that it’s coming on now, as if we’re passing a secret back and forth. That’s followed by “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which would really make her guffaw if she were writing this story.  Irreverent Denise.  No narratives of grace and comfort for her.  Her favorite writer of her final months?  A.M. Homes, where the parents smoke crack, and the children have sex with their dolls, and no one is rewarded for any good deed.

We’re watching her face.  We’re waiting for something to happen.  It’s a little like waiting for a scary but holy movie to start, and it’s unbearable, this watching, this waiting.  No group of human beings could ever be in practice for such a thing.  And we probably realize this, in our own separate ways, at about the same time.  Along with the shock that we wish the movie would get to the heartbreaking part.  Frankly, it’s not so easy to be in a position where we can’t go out to pee, or reach for our phones or eat some of that disgusting cake we saw on the TV.   Ironically, this is time without boundaries.  Time without boundaries is a little like being–we’re in a boat, little rocking boat, a hundred miles out, no trees or shorelines in sight.  But we don’t want to hurry this on.  We want Denise to feel us in her bones, her blood.  That’s why we’re here.  A part of us is going with her, and we don’t know what to do.

A nurse asks if we need anything.  The nurses.  The calming presence of the nurses.  Their human neutrality, never too concerned, never not nearby.  I can’t imagine what it might be like to be them, to live inside of such intensity day after day.   Perhaps they walk through the everyday like clear glass houses.  Or else they shut all their doors and windows down once they’re off duty.  I don’t know how else they could buy food, pay bills, wait in line at the DMV, without thinking of the ways, all the ludicrous ways, we go about distracting ourselves from the fact that we’re dying.  But maybe they’re simply in better practice than we are.  Maybe it isn’t too hard to get where they are, and it feels damn good to live with that truth.  You get a jury duty summons on the day of your best friend’s graduation: so what.  You think of that beautiful writer down the hall, the one who made you laugh every time you edged a needle inside her vein, and you think, well, if she could do that.

We’re waiting.  I wonder if Denise is aware of our waiting.  It must be hard enough to die, to squeak from the coat of your body, without worrying about the people you’re leaving behind.  There is a story of a man out on Long Island, a former neighbor, who made his exit on his own terms.  He found a good woods, mashed down the weeds like a deer, then lay down and went to sleep on the ground.  Word had it he covered himself with leaves.   The story is passed around as neighborhood legend: the saddest story in the world.  Such a gentle man.  Meticulous gardener, good friend, frozen in snow for days on end, and this is how Creation watches out for him.  Yet it doesn’t sound that bad to me.  Would we want so many faces, even if they are benevolent faces, trained on us when it’s our time to go?  No, not me.

I hold onto her toe for a little while longer.  An hour goes by; then, two.  The thunderstorm outside the window has passed.  Then, one by one, we’ve decided we’ve had enough.  Some of us wander to the waiting room; some of us wander off toward the elevator, heads down, as if we’ve disappointed someone, though we don’t exactly know who that someone is.

The elevator is falling.  I’m remembering my friend.  It would make sense that someone so attached to her writing–with the allure of perfect shape–would want to mess things up a little at the end.


The titles of Paul Lisicky’s books reveal a writer concerned with the process of building and demolition—of the self.  Whether he’s writing fiction, memoir, poetry, or, more recently, blurring the lines between those genres, Lisicky explores the process and power of identity.  He and his characters struggle to create the narratives which help them define and understand their world, only to see the wrecking ball of chaos lay them bare.  Robert Olen Butler said of Lisicky, “(he is) one of the select writers who continues to teach me about the complexities of the human heart.”  Lisicky is the author of the novels Lawnboy (1999) and The Burning House (2011); the memoir, Famous Builder (2002); and the forthcoming collection of prose pieces, Unbuilt Projects; and the memoir, The Narrow Door.

His work has appeared in Tin House, Fence, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, Story Quarterly, and in many other anthologies and magazines. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he’s the recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Henfield Foundation, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was twice a fellow. Lisicky has taught in the writing programs at Cornell University, New York University, Rutgers-Newark, and Sarah Lawrence College. He is currently the New Voices Professor in the MFA Program at Rutgers-Camden.

Dorianne Laux: The Book of Men

Mine Own Phil Levine

after W.S. Merwin

What he told me, I will tell you
There was a war on
It seemed we had lived through
Too many to name, to number

There was no arrogance about him
No vanity, only the strong backs
Of his words pressed against
The tonnage of a page

His suggestion to me was that hard work
Was the order of each day
When I asked again, he said it again,
pointing it out twice

His Muse, if he had one, was a window
Filled with a brick wall, the left hand corner
Of his mind, a hand lined with grease
And sweat: literal things

Before I knew him, I was unknown
I drank deeply from his knowledge
A cup he gave me again and again
Filled with water, clear river water

He was never old, and never grew older
Though the days passed and the poems
Marched forth and they were his words
Only, no other words were needed

He advised me to wait, to hold true
To my vision, to speak in my own voice
To say the thing straight out
There was the whole day about him

The greatest thing, he said, was presence
To be yourself in your own time, to stand up
That poetry was precision, raw precision
Truth and compassion: genius

I had hardly begun. I asked, How did you begin
He said, I began in a tree, in Lucerne
In a machine shop, in an open field
Start anywhere

He said If you don’t write, it won’t
Get written. No tricks. No magic
About it. He gave me his gold pen
He said What’s mine is yours.

*   *   *


make out with him a bit, this
is what my friend would like to do
oh these too many dead summers later,
and as much as I want to stroll with her
into the poet’s hazy fancy
all I can see is O’Hara’s long gone lips
fallen free of the bone, those two damp slugs
slumbering beneath the grainy soil.
I can hear Frank’s dry voice
combing the air for song, but what I see
is his skeleton entombed in dust, wrapped
in his dapper suit, his razzle-dazzle sunglasses.
She sees him alive, ambling
down a sidewalk, all of New York
clambering into the sky behind him,
cuff links winking, his dear friends waving,
calling him by name like they do in the city:
800,000 people and you step outside for a smoke
and see someone you know.
That’s how it is with death.
Those you love come at you like lightening,
crackle for an instant—so kissable—
and then lips and all, they’re gone.

*   *   *


Heels of the shoes worn down, each
in its own way, sending signals to the spine.

The back of the knee as it folds and unfolds.
In winter the creases of American-made jeans:
blue denim ridged, worried-to-white thread.

And in summer, in spring, beneath the hems
of skirts, Bermudas, old bathing suit elastic,
the pleating and un-pleating of parchment skin.

And the dear, dear rears. Such variety! Such
choice in how to cover or reveal: belts looped high
or slung so low you can’t help but think of plumbers.

And the small of the back: dimpled or taut, spiny or not,
tattooed, butterflied, rosed, winged, whorled. Maybe
still pink from the needle and ink. And shoulders,

broad or rolled, poking through braids, dreads, frothy
waterfalls of uncut hair, exposed to rain, snow, white
stars of dandruff, unbrushed flecks on a blue-black coat.

And the spiral near the top of the back of the head—
peek of scalp, exquisite galaxy– as if the first breach
had swirled each filament away from that startled center.

Ah, but the best are the bald or neatly shorn, revealing
the flanged, sun-flared, flamboyant backs of ears: secret
as the undersides of leaves, the flipside of flower petals.

And oh, the oh my nape of the neck. The up-swept oh my
nape of the neck. I could walk behind anyone and fall in love.

Don’t stop. Don’t turn around.

*   *   *


What are the chances a raindrop
from last night’s storm caught
in the upturned cup of an autumn leaf
will fall from this tree I pass under
and land on the tip of my lit cigarette,
snuffing it out? What are the chances
my niece will hit bottom before Christmas,
a drop we all long for, and quit heroin?
What are the chances of being hit
by a bus, a truck, a hell-bound train
or inheriting the gene for cancer,
addiction? What good are statistics
on a morning like this? What good
is my niece to anyone but herself?
What are the chances any of you
are reading this poem?
Dear men,
whom I have not met,
when you meet her on the street
wearing the wounds that won’t heal
and she offers you the only thing
she has left, what are the chances
you’ll take pity on her fallen body?


Dorianne Laux’s most recent collections are The Book of Men and Facts about the Moon.
A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and winner of the Oregon Book Award and The Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry, Laux is also author of Awake, What We Carry, and Smoke from BOA Editions. She teaches poetry in the MFA Program at North Carolina State University and is founding faculty at Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA Program.

Chris Hannan, Louisiana Poet

Born and raised in New Orleans, Chris Hannan is a 2004 graduate of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts where he received a bachelor of arts in the Classics, and a 2008 graduate of the the Loyola University, New Orleans, College of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Loyola Law Review.  His poetry has appeared in the Magnolia Quarterly, The Classical Outlook, Towncreek Poetry, The Southern Poetry Anthology, and is forthcoming in The Texas Review and The Connecticut Review.  He was awarded First Prize in the 2004 Gulf Coast Writers’ Association’s annual Let’s Write contest for his poem “Pointing to the Brain,” and was the runner-up in the 2010 Faulkner-Wisdom Poetry Competition for his poem “Epithalamion.”   Most recently, Chris won the Grand Prize in the 2012 Tennessee Williams Festival Poetry Contest for his cycle of poems entitled “The Nephilim.”

Chris is currently an attorney in the New Orleans offices of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz.  He and his wife Emily live in Mid-City, New Orleans, with their son Jack William and two cats.

Chris was interviewed by Laura Richardson for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Laura Richardson: One of your poems, “Leadbelly,” that we published in this issue is a surprising mix of American song form and Greek mythology. What inspired this poem?

Chris Hannan: Growing up in New Orleans with music loving parents, I was constantly surrounded by the rich musical heritage of the city and the region. A part of this musical culture that always intrigued me, even as a child, was the immense mythology of Louisiana music, peopled by characters such as John Henry, Stag O’Lee, and countless others. These mythic personalities stuck with me throughout my youth and into my college days when I majored in the Classics. At some point, I realized that the music I had grown up with and still listened to was the mythology of America, or at least the Deep South. All the characters whose stories were told over and over again by Leadbelly, Professor Longhair, and a myriad of other local musicians were simply reincarnations of the archetypes sung of by Homer, Pindar, and Hesiod. With this realization of the motific importance of the familiar songs of my youth, I started working on a series of poems that connect the mythic characters of Louisiana’s musical heritage with the myths of ancient Greece.

The point of connecting the ancient myths with the modern is to emphasize that, while the characters have changed their faces and names, the underlying meaning of their stories is the same. Or, if not the same, still  relevant in new and potentially unexpected ways in our modern times.

In terms of form, the poems approximate the basic meters and rhyme schemes of the original songs on which they are based. This use of song forms is meant to mimic the ancient tradition, best exemplified in the odes of Pindar, of adhering to established forms while simultaneously reinterpreting well-known myths.

LR: How do you decide on your character pairings, for example, in this poem, Leadbelly and Tanatalus? What are some of your other pairings?

CH: I try to match the songs with myths that involve similar symbols, themes, or plot elements.  For example, the song “Midnight Special” (the basis for my poem “Leadbelly”) talks in the beginning about the monotony of prison food; this evoked for me the myth of Tantalus, who was condemned in Tartarus to eternal hunger and thirst – with food and water just beyond his reach – after he tricked the gods into eating the flesh of his own son.  As another example, my poem “Junco Partner” – after the Professor Longhair song about a sort of anti-hero drunkard – incorporates aspects of the myths of Dionysus, the god of wine.  Other pairings include the myth of Jason and Medea with the song “Frankie and Johnie,” the myth of Prometheus with the song “John Henry,” and the myth of Penelope and Odysses with the song “Little Liza Jane.”

LR: You recently won the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival 2012 poetry contest. Would you talk a little about that work?

CH: I was very humbled to be selected as the grand prize winner in the Tennessee Williams contest – in particular because of the nature of the poems that won.  The winning five-poem cycle is entitled “The Nephilim” and it tells the story of the gutting of my grandmother’s house in Chalmette, Louisiana (just south and east of New Orleans in St. Bernard Parish) after Hurricane Katrina, and our search for her wedding ring that she had left behind when she evacuated.  The best part of the whole experience was that my grandmother was able to attend the reading that I gave as part of the festival.  The poems are published in the current issue of Louisiana Cultural Vistas (the journal of the Louisiana endowment for the humanities), which is available in print and online at