In Memoriam: Aurelie Sheehan

* The following essay is reprinted from The Florida Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, 1997, in memory of its author, Aurelie Sheehan, who died earlier this year. The essay is followed by reminiscences from two of the magazine’s editors.


Aurelie Sheehan

The Orange-Fish Heart of the Avalanche


I had a date with loneliness. I’d honed loneliness in my New York studio apartment. I’d done it there in a kind of salty paroxysm of soup making and blue bathtub evenings and La Boheme and La Traviata listened to again and again until the tapes were worn thin and scratchy and my neighbors were considering aria-murder. I’d been lonely before—for instance, during the long shallow lake of my relationship with Sam. But in New York, after a splendid heartbreak, I felt alone with new ardor. I cut up carrots and peppers and onions, and I stirred a pot of black beans and dipped a spoon in and added salt and garlic and thyme. I filled the bath with water and bubble bath, and I lay in the scalding water with a screaming woman in the background. Die die die or I’m dying I’m dying I’m dying. I didn’t know Italian, but, sure, they were suffering. I thought about making love to a lion. I let my arms lift corpse-like to the water’s surface.


Besides sensuous disorders, I could buoy myself into the grace of selfhood with good conduct. Diligence in all things, in particular cleaning and eating and saving. The last time Our Friend had slept over, I hadn’t changed the pillowcase for a week—wafting maleness does something for the soul. But then I washed the sheets and just kicked into a really clean lifestyle. There’s a beauty that’s almost sexy about lining up the books on your bedstand so they all face the same direction, the small ones on top of the big ones, and so on. I ate cheaply: peanut butter and jelly or a plain bagel or a slice for lunch, penne with olive oil and broccoli for dinner. Self-inflicted virtue coursed through my veins. There’s an extravagance in spending twenty measly dollars on groceries for the week, and sending a check to your credit card company that hurts and hurts good, all through those long, pasta-eating weeks until the next little paycheck comes in to be spent instantly.


Was I having fun at the law firm where I worked as a secretary, or was I in misery? It was hard to tell—to wear pantyhose, as we know, is tight and encompassing, but was this containment coming to something? Day after day, week after week, counting numbers, budgeting, allocating. Knowing it’s wrong to think about having sex with your boss on his big desk when he is dictating. Knowing that. Knowing that the clauses pursuant to and heretofore can’t possibly mean anything prurient, can’t possibly be laden with ulterior meanings, posterior meanings. Knowing that the guy you’re having phone sex with is dumb, not your type when it really comes down to it, but it doesn’t really come down to it, not with him, anyway, only with your own hand in the privacy of your beautiful palace of East Village solitude, love nest for one.


I went to the opera a lot that winter—the unbudgeted item. I tiptoed up the red swirling staircase to the upper banks of the Metropolitan river of desire and consummation. I trailed my hand against the velvety red wall like a girl on her way to a baptism (a dunk in the waters of belonging) or a confession (a confession of love) or confirmation (confirmation of the passionate in a world of word-processing and subway tokens). I sat in my red seat and ate chocolate and watched and listened. The libretto was always satisfyingly melodramatic, and it seemed that often enough the women were dying of tuberculosis/a broken heart/insanity—and this seemed accurate to some great truth about the world. I always had the cheapest seats in the house, so I was basically in a tower, dizzy with vertigo, peering down at the action. There I was again—traipsing around in an evening gown. There was the scary witch mother in her black swirling cape, and there was the distant and square-shouldered father emperor. There was the prince I’d read about somewhere. There was the chance to prove, once and for all, your love, and there was the chance to make great sacrifices and, in the end, to be compensated, no, wait, to be murdered. Everything was over-the-top, but it made sense. The absurdity of the human condition—wasn’t that the point of the striped outfits and flailing and dwarves and backdrops? I put another square of chocolate on my tongue, and, at the end, I was wrung out and exhilarated.


Yes, solitude had its advantages. You could plunge headlong into tragedy. You could save money at Christmas. The set outcome of hard work, little sleep, and frugal budgeting could be the actual outcome of the week. I got up earlier and earlier, made happy by the work ethic of my novel, the stumble toward it, the dream of being a writer. Time became the thing I grabbed to my breast and clung to obsessively. After awhile, I had a boyfriend and he came over—but not until late, around ten, and he left at six in the morning, so basically we just had sleepovers, which was fine with me, since time was my real lover. I sat at my desk and wrote about France. Blanket over my knees, second cup of coffee brewing, sooty New York dawn brightening around me, it was as if I were in the other country.


There was a second novel idea lurking, and it had to do with snowy mountains and a lost woman. A Cold Place, I was going to call it, and maybe it was inevitable that I’d get what I wanted. I was offered a job that took me to the orange-fish heart of the avalanche mountain, and I took it.


The sky was blue and vast in Wyoming, and the birds sang in the trees but you couldn’t see them, and if you saw them, you had to wonder how long they were for the world because some people there shot them as pests—building nests and all that crap. In your driveway was a big snake. In your bed was a spider. It was all very intoxicating at first—time had spread out and become space too, so it was a double-lover thing, which was exciting, but also daunting. Who knew it would be too much, all this unallayed freedom and time to yourself? A sweet man with a sexy Led Zeppelin swing asked if he could live with you when you came back from your semester in France (a surprise invitation to a residency program), and you—in the kitchen of your trailer, pictures of your friends on the refrigerator, first time you’d ever taped up photographs, first time you’d needed that reminder—said to yourself two things at once: I “love” this man and he “loves” me—why not make it happen? Take a risk? Do something irresponsible for a change? And in a tinier voice: This time and space business is too big. Why not line up a bedmate for when I come back? Done.


France is always across the ocean, I wrote, on the Mediterranean. I was writing lovelorn letters to the Led Zeppelin character back home. I realized that I was never happy anywhere, and that was kind of amusing, or poetic anyway. Wasn’t it ironic that I was in France but what I longed for now—after a year of wishing I were in France—was to be back in LZ’s arms? In Cassis, I smiled heartily at the poste and patisserie as I made hash out of the simplest sentences, gesturing and jerry-building my thoughts to fit my vocabulary—then I retreated back to my apartment overlooking the sea. I wrote diligently, and in that was a kind of English-language call and response: someone—the semblance of someone—was listening. But, in general, I took loneliness to new heights altogether. This was a kind of suicidal loneliness—oh, no, not real suicide, just kidding, but a kind of Woolfian, blood in the ocean, razor in the bathtub, glass-of-wine alone-at-midnight-by-the-French-window thing. It was me and Remembrance of Things Past—solid companions for the blue nights. Topping things off atmospherically, I reread the first two books, adding a kind of timelessness to the timelessness of time.


I moved from place to place: by the window, at the desk, on the couch, on the bed—clearly my days had not just order, but activity. The loneliness, which had a keening, drowning lull, a call from Cerces, abated with the blast of sun against the sailboats in the bay, against my body, and the crisp enveloping waves of the sea, and the lemon tarts and olives and bread and coffee. But the nights. I borrowed a radio from an old, lonely man I’d met at the café, and my rooms rung with French pop, even that a relief from the extraordinary silence and the waves—beat, beat, beat—against my solitary vocabulary, my turned-in-on-itself language. Writing LZ had appeal, but it was also wretched, an intricate theater of the imagination, romantic but unreal. The here-and-now was trotting my body from station to station during the course of the everlasting days. And the here-and-now pastries, I can’t forget them, the lemon tarts by the lighthouse and the seagulls and the waves.


I returned to Wyoming and my new home with my new boyfriend who really I hardly knew at all. Risk? Did it matter? There I was, and because we actually had very little to say, I found myself spiraling back into the kind of aloneness I had known could happen in relationships, and which I didn’t want to happen again.


We went to the Busy Bee luncheonette for breakfast, just like I had when I first came to Wyoming and it had been fun then, local color. Now we were the local color, and Lonnie, queen of the flipped burger, didn’t take to my long-haired, earring-wearing, Doc Marten-shuffling boyfriend, and the greasy spoon experience lost its appeal. Our neighbor had a big garden, and she trapped cats and brought them to the pound if they so much as strolled by her pepper plants. The Chamber of Commerce had a coyote hunt with fox as tie-breakers and t-shirts for all the good folks who participated. I brooded and brooded, then wrote a letter to the editor—always a sure sign of feeling pathetic. At the copy shop, the Hallmark Catholic said, So, you’re a writer, half-handing me the copies she’d made of my poems about abortion, sex with women, etc.


Aloneness took on societal proportions that maybe kept me together with LZ that winter. I drove my blue 1977 Grand Safari station wagon eighteen miles to work, listened to the scratchy country music radio station, looked out at the ravishing snow hills and black cows in a line, at the blue sky that went on forever, waited for my favorite tree to appear on the horizon, and looked for deer and bald eagles and found them. And there, on the highway, the ranchers and I waved at each other—four fingers up from the steering wheel, no smile—and I felt like one of them, like I belonged.


Maybe it’s always true that you take your inner state and throw it at your surroundings. In any case, everywhere I looked, cows were being trooped off to the one-good-steel-rod-in-the-forehead house; raccoons and fox and deer and elk were being shot as vermin or predators or trophies or meals. Bumper stickers read Clinton Sucks and No Wolves and Wyoming Native and An Unborn Fetus Is God’s Child more than they read I Brake for Animals or I Brake for Hallucinations or Women Against Nuclear Power. In the 1994 state primary for U.S. Senator, the county reported 192 local Democratic votes and 2,128 Republican votes. Whenever LZ and I walked in the forest, we heard gunfire.


As per usual with displaced New Yorkers on the range, I wrote about my surroundings. I’d gone to Butte, Montana—city of desolation, a mining camp gone sour—and the destruction of the land was visceral there. The story that I’d begun in New York, as a kind of Audrey-Hepburn-meets-John-Wayne comedy of manners, intensified into a crystallization of all I’d found alienating about this new atmosphere. Then spring came. On my way to work, I saw black calves, stumbling in their first sleek morning, and lambs scattered like dropped sweaters on the newly green fields. It was warm enough to take to the skeet range. I couldn’t help thinking about the beginnings of things, the other side of the pact, and to forgive the land, the ranchers, and the whole nine yards of it for the death part of the equation. I broke up with my boyfriend, ready to take on Wyoming alone, now, after a stall of almost two years.


I moved to a geodesic dome house a mile from my office; it was on company land. I took an airplane ride because I was scared of small planes, and when we whirred and shook over my house, the scant shadow of our survival passed kite-like over an amazing amount of nothingness. My house and my neighbor’s house were the only buildings for miles, and the creek bed our lots clung to zigzagged like a fractured artery. It was appalling to see how little water was around—how little of anything. When I walked down the road, I only knew the nothingness I could see, not what was over the next hill. Nothing becomes something when you walk over it, when you see how long it takes to go from here to there, boot marks in the mud.


My new house was airy: high ceilings, corporate furniture, no boyfriend. I walked around like a guest. At first, happiness clung to me in a way that was almost indiscreet. I luxuriated in the space that had once seemed too much entirely. I spread my manuscript on the floor like a hopscotch game. I looked out the window at the flat-topped hill and the two horses in silhouette, at the deer like camouflaged puzzle-pieces on the tawny field, and the magpie in his tuxedo on the wire. No one else, but the sky could save me here.


That fall, I lit the woodstove and sat on the couch and wondered what it meant to have this moment alone, reading by firelight in a quiet house on a crisp night in November. What does experience mean if it is unshared; does it matter, does it exist at all? Aloneness resonated in the house in a way I’d never felt before. It was a little like death, but I tried not to think about it like that. I lay on the couch and looked out the picture window and listened to Lucia di Lammermoor. Clouds moved across the black sky, trailing toward, then over, then away from the half-moon. The universe was moving around me; I was in the arms of the night. There was no anxiety in the opera then, only the beauty of the voice.


While my boyfriend and I had kept a scoffer’s distance from the coyote/cowboy debate, the battle got closer. My neighbor shot cats, “but not ones with collars.” (Could anyone see Fluffy’s blue and white flea collar?) The man who owned my house and all the land around me shot birds by the dozens—he shot the red-winged blackbirds that graced barbed wire fences along the highway, he shot flickers that flew at you out of the grass and gave ventriloquist calls to keep you away from their young, he shot anything that hooted or squawked or tweeted at the wrong hour of the day, he shot birds because he could. He shot foxes and cats and skunks and prairie dogs, and once in a while, he went to exotic locations to shoot doves, pheasants, or whatever winged creature was indigenous by the hundreds. Once he shot his girlfriend’s cat off her porch—but that was a long time ago. His ethic regarding killing was clear—what do you expect from an oil baron? I sat in my house, his house, and wondered: But what am I doing here? Whose side am I on?


I tried a little killing. I stalked pheasants and shot one. I had antelope haunches in my freezer. I watched my cat bring in mice, chew their heads off, then go to town on the rest of them, leaving the livers and intestines in pungent piles. I changed a little: I was no longer against hunting wholesale. It seemed honest to kill what you ate instead of buying it wrapped in plastic at Safeway. If you hunted an animal, saw it alive, and killed it, you’d become aware of what it meant to be a carnivore. I realized that the allegiance some ranchers had to their animals wasn’t all about money—it was also an in-the-trenches experience with birth, illness, survival. Things weren’t black and white anymore. Even solitude, which I’d associated with soup and opera and frugality in New York, became less absolute. It wasn’t great; it wasn’t horrible. A fractured image came together, and I loosened my hold.


In a barn on the edge of the cattle field, across the way from a hill tipped with red rock, sat an old letterpress. On Sunday afternoons or in the whistling dark, I taught myself how to set type. There was nothing better than holding the metal frame in my hand and picking out an a or a t or an l from the drawer, then placing it next to the other letters in an upside-down row in my palm. When I finished a line, I started another, and when the lead pieces weighed heavy in my hand, I smoothed the stanza into a tray, wrapped it with string, and started the next one. I dotted the steel rollers of the press with rubber ink, and the black blotches stuck to the rollers and made a sucking sound when I rolled and rolled and rolled them around. The poem was in the tray, squeezed tight by wooden blocks and shims. Then the rollers swept over the poem. On a white page, the image of words. I touched the letters with my fingers; language merged with the physical world. Everything took hours, and I didn’t know I was alone.

Jocelyn Bartkevicius

Notes on first reading “The Orange-Fish Heart of the Avalanche” 


It was the slush pile days, over-the-transom days, mailbox filled with envelopes packed with manuscripts (some smelling distinctly of cigarettes across the miles), SASEs with exotic stamps, and hope. I was the nonfiction editor at The Florida Review, back before my stint as editor.


We read through the stacks in coffee shops, dim offices, hallways, airports, and bus stops.

I remember the fear that so much reading would dim my senses, like getting tagged with too many cologne samples at the department store. The first one is distinct. The second one a little less so. Then they all blur together.


That was the minor anxiety of reading those stacks of manuscripts. Maybe my judgment would cloud over. Maybe I’d overlook something good.


The first line of the essay was heart-stopping: “I had a date with loneliness.” Even though I didn’t recognize it as a line from a pop hit of the early 1960s. The repetition in the first paragraph engaging, the relentlessness of loneliness enacted.


Everything was too good to overlook. So my second anxiety kicked in. Could this beautiful and original voice be sustained?


Page after page, the answer was yes. Beauty from despair. Insight from loneliness. A soaring worldview from isolation. The surprising turns of phrases continuing to surprise me.


Hilarious images: Opera as “a screaming woman in the background.” Virtue that is “self-inflicted.” New York City’s Metropolitan Opera as “the Metropolitan river of desire and despair.”


Heart-breaking images: “Time was my real lover.” Loneliness with a “keening, drowning lull.” The possibility that “you take your inner state and throw it at your surroundings.”


Terrifying realizations delivered—somehow—with a kind of acrobatic self-deprecating humor: “This was a kind of suicidal loneliness—oh, no, not real suicide, just kidding, but a kind of Woolfian, blood in the ocean, razor in the bathtub, glass-of-wine-alone-at-midnight-by-the-French-window thing.”


There is also action. Trips and boyfriends and relocation. Jobs and life in rural Wyoming.


Then, after some months in the new place, there’s a turn. The self-proclaimed New Yorker shakes off some of the focus on her despair and her self-described “displaced New Yorker” approach to Wyoming, something shifts in this narrator. Something small at first, but deep and compelling.


Every word in this vivid essay dazzles. No amount of cologne sampling or reading could dull a single sentence.


It’s one of the most original and heartbreaking and joyous essays I’ve ever published. And that I’ve ever read. Congratulations to The Florida Review for making it available once again.

David James Poissant
Remembering Aurelie Sheehan 

I was a student at the University of Arizona in 2005 when Aurelie Sheehan entered my life. She was my first graduate workshop leader, and she remains one of the best writing teachers I’ve ever known.


A single observation of hers made me the writer I am today. I was trying, at age twenty-six, to be a dark, gritty Southern writer. I distrusted earnestness, and my greatest fear was the label sentimental. I wrote vicious characters, and Aurelie quickly called me out on this (privately, after class). “You’re not a vicious guy,” she said. “You don’t have to lean so hard on cruelty.” I was writing against my own grain, exploring characters I didn’t understand. I told her I was afraid of sounding sentimental. “Then don’t be sentimental,” she said. “Risk sentimentality.” Different writers will interpret that advice different ways, but my mantra, in writing and in life, became just that: Risk sentimentality. It’s the first lesson I now teach my graduate students, and it’s a lesson they tend to hold dear when they leave the classroom.


Aurelie visited my class once, via Skype. My students had read the story collection Jewelry Box, and it was the class favorite of the semester. She was as kind and patient and generous with my students as she’d been with me, all those years before.


Sometimes, when we talk about teachers of writing, we forget that they are writers too. Aurelie was a tremendous teacher and mentor, but she was also a world-class writer. I’ve read her four story collections, and one of her two novels. They are beautiful lampposts lighting my way whenever I need examples of elegant craft and a gorgeous prose style. Knowing there may be no more books is heartbreaking. Knowing there is another novel, plus a Ploughshares Solos novella, brings me peace. I have at least two good reads on deck for dark days. I imagine that reading them will feel like hearing from an old friend.


I loved Aurelie the teacher and Aurelie the writer, but I’ll miss Aurelie the friend most. She was maybe the wisest person I’ve ever met, and she could make me laugh like no one else. The last time we talked, she spoke of a novel she’d written, or was writing, one set on a cruise ship, which remains a book I’d love to read. Short of that, it’s my great joy to bring you this uncollected essay from the archives, one written by a young writer just coming into her powers. The ending destroys me, but I love the portrait Aurelie leaves us with. Here is a person comforted by words. Here is a study in not being lonely while being alone.


At the risk of sounding sentimental, I’ll end with this: Aurelie is gone far too soon. The world is a worse place without her in it, but the world is a better place because of her words. I miss her terribly.


Jocelyn Bartkevicius studied literary fiction and nonfiction writing at The University of Iowa, nonfiction writing at the Bennington Writing Seminars, and completed a doctoral dissertation on the essays of Virginia Woolf. Her stories and essays have appeared in anthologies and such journals as The Iowa ReviewThe Missouri ReviewThe Bellingham ReviewFourth GenreThe Hudson ReviewGulf Coast, and TriQuarterly Online. She has won several teaching awards, and her essays have been awarded prizes from several literary journals. She is the former editor of The Florida Review. She teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Central Florida.


David James Poissant is the author of the novel Lake Life, a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection, and the story collection The Heaven of Animals, a winner of the GLCA New Writers Award and a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize. His stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, One Story, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and in anthologies including New Stories from the South, Best New American Voices, and Best American Experimental Writing. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Central Florida and serves as Editor of The Florida Review.


Julie Marie Wade

From the Jeopardy! category SPOILER ALERTS

First, the light & how to describe it—part Manila envelope, part Ticonderoga pencil. Casserole golden at times, then orange as a giant brick of cheese, then brown as tater tots crammed into cargo pant pockets. Idaho may make you squint & squirm, crave some nachos, drink raw eggs from a glass. Yes, the chickens have large talons. It’s an underdog state fit for an underdog story. Note the tetherball sun & the boondoggle clouds. Note the iconic llama cameo. (There’s a small chance our cat is called Tina because of this film.) Second, the plot & how to recount it—Uncle Rico never did throw a football over them mountains, never did strike it rich selling knock-off Tupperware or breast-enhancing supplements. But Pedro shaved his head & became class president. Kip & LaFawnduh fell in love online, then boarded a Greyhound bus together. And our eponymous protagonist, unlikely hero of the Gemstone State, won a talent show dancing to Jamiroquai’s “Canned Heat.” Preston seems a sparse, dry place, far from the grid, nary the site of a tourist’s pilgrimage. Dust coats bicycle tires & Rollerblades, hovers above the highways like an unholy halo. It would be nice if you could pull me into town. Third, the supporting cast & how we remember them—Grandma breaks her coccyx on a dune buggy ride; Starla blushes at a Bust Must testimonial; Rex dubs himself sensei of his own dojo while clad in Hammer pants fashioned from an American flag. Critics called it a “quirky charmer,” a “one-hit wonder,” a “weird-ass fairy tale.” They’re not wrong. If you got it, odds are you drew some ligers in your notebooks, too, took some Glamour shots in your basement once upon a time. Now just imagine you’re weightless, in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by tiny seahorses. If you loved it, you’re probably more Deb than Summer Wheatley to this day. More enterprising than prize-winning perhaps, but with a certain staying power, the paradox of which is the way it helps you leave. (Even then, Deb was earning money for college with her home-woven handicrafts.) What amazes me is how we all know a Summer Wheatley, don’t we? Mine was Marissa Sheldon, was Kendra Kostrich, was Julie Winder—who still lives in my town & works at the bowling alley. The other two are unfindable on Facebook. They were cheerleaders way back when, with ESPRIT sweatshirts slipping off their slender shoulders & Keds tennis shoes forever bright-white as the day they bought them. They washed their hair with exotic products like Pantene & VO5 clarifying shampoo. Somehow they always chewed gum the teachers never confiscated, ate Funyuns & SweeTarts by the carton but never gained weight. These were the girls who had it easy or made it look easy—it’s hard to know which. They never seemed to sweat or stink or spill on their clothes, let alone bleed. Whatever they said became Gospel. Whatever they did set the newest trend. But they don’t make many movies about the goodfits, do they? Summer Wheatley isn’t a film in my Netflix queue. I wonder about her, though, like I wonder about Marissa & Kendra & Julie, who shared my name but not my story. Is Summer snickering at her boss from behind her Steno-thin cubicle walls, sending NSFW memes at work, cyberbullying on the Moms of Preston message board? Or maybe she’s flirting with customers at Big J’s Burgers, some of whom remember her when, one of whom offered to pay for Botox if she’d spend one night with him. “What do you think this is—Indecent Proposal?” But then she did it because Trisha, her still-BFF, said she should. Both of them are tired of the old joke: “Is it I-da-ho or you-da-ho?” Tired of guys who stop by for some curly fries & to reminisce about the Happy Hand Jobs Club. “I swear that’s what it was called,” Don smirks, like he’s been smirking all his life. Maybe Summer married him right after high school. Maybe they have a tribe of towheaded children by now. Or maybe they’re divorced but still fight daily over the phone. Can’t stop running into each other in their one exit ramp town. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that you can make a piñata of whomever you like. Better, perhaps—a piñata of whatever you want. Don’t ask the principal for permission. Just go outside, close your eyes & strike with all your might.

“What is Napoleon Dynamite?


Interview with Mark Powell, Author of Hurricane Season

Hurricane Season is a noir thriller about fighting and addiction, prison and drugs; but more than that, it is a love story set in the carnage of an America wrecked by inequality.


Hurricane Season was published by Shotgun Honey Books in October 2023. To purchase Hurricane Season, and support Orlando local bookstore Zeppelin Books, click here.


Below is an interview with Mark Powell, author of Hurricane Season, and Blake Sanz, a fiction writer teaching in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida.





SANZ: At the heart of this novel is Shy, a young Florida woman who emerges out of poverty and obscurity to become a UFC fighter, and who attains some fleeting level of greatness in mixed martial arts. This passage, early in the book, struck me:


Professional fighting is a world of misogyny and expensive t-shirts, of collapsed sinus cavities and unhappy boys. But it is also a world of the occasional genius, someone who seems to have sprung from the skin of a Grecian Urn, nervous system as hair-triggered as a peregrine. That was Shy.


What interested you about writing this world and such a fascinating character from within it? What was involved in becoming well-versed enough in that world to feel confident in depicting it as you do?


POWELL: Fighting is something that has fascinated me (and that I have dabbled in) all of my adult life. There are many activities (for lack of a better word) that are both brutal and beautiful, and thus representative of the complexity of being alive in this world. But I don’t know of any that make that paradox so starkly alive and immediate. I wanted to sit with that, particularly since–at least as I see it–the job of fiction isn’t to smooth over moral complexities but to dig into them. I also wanted to sit with the idea that there are far more brutal aspects of the world around us. Perhaps, though, they aren’t quite as visible. Which, I think, speaks to a willful blindness on our part.


SANZ: As a newcomer to Florida, I found myself taken by the deftness with which you depict so many areas of this state in so many detailed and interesting ways. From ramshackle houses on the Saint John’s River to the workout scene in Miami, from political fundraisers at wealthy politicians’ homes to the drug-addled regions of rural central Florida, and from rare books shops in Winter Park to small-town churches, the state itself works on your characters in profound ways. What do you see as the connection between the places these characters inhabit and the changes those characters undergo?


POWELL: I spent eight years in Florida, and I think there’s a way in which those of us not born there see and experience the state a bit more intensely than native Floridians. People sometimes talk about Florida as this strange otherworldly place–and I get that. But, in truth, Florida is simply an intensification of the greater United States. Different cultures, different geographies, ridiculous wealth abutting shameful poverty—it’s all on full display. My sense is that living in such a place has a similar effect on us humans. Florida may be the geographical equivalent of what the theologian Karl Rahner called “limit states”: moments, and places, as the case may be, where human behavior moves toward extremes. It’s also possible I’m imagining all of that and just spent my time there drunk on all that sunlight and chlorophyll.


SANZ: The narrator of Hurricane Season spends many pages invisible to us, focusing largely on giving us the story of other main players: Shy the fighter and Thomas Clayton the drug-addicted doctor, in particular. Eventually, though, the narrator tells us the story of how he came across these and other characters—through teaching writing in a prison—and also describes various versions of this story that he considered telling. How did you land on this writer character, Jess, as the point-of-view character, and what did you feel he afforded the narrative that other points of view might not have?


POWELL: I didn’t want to tell the story like this. It felt cleaner to simply tell it in alternating third person points of view, and I had plenty of readers who told me as much. But the more I’ve written, the more I’ve gotten interested not just in the stories we tell but why we tell the stories we tell. Why do some stories or moments or experiences linger in our minds while others don’t? The story the narrator tells shouldn’t hold such power over him, yet it does, and he needs to find out why. If, as Joan Didion wrote, we tell ourselves stories in order to live, it seems equally relevant to examine which stories we tell ourselves. That was my hope with the narrator.


SANZ: Various characters have moments of solitude and quiet that seem elevated, somehow important to them and to our sense of their otherwise chaotic lives. I’m thinking, for example, about Doc’s routines in prison, which include reading philosophy and contemplating Kafka’s mandates to quietness, and also about the narrator’s romanticizing of his time in Thomas Merton’s monastery in Kentucky. Could you describe the importance of making space for quiet moments in a novel filled with intense moments of big action and dire consequences?


POWELL: So much of the book is physical—fighting, training to fight, Doc’s addiction, Doc’s violence—I wanted some balance to such. I didn’t want the book to be a thriller or crime novel that was all gas from the first sentence; rather, I wanted something that balanced the idea of an inner and outer life. And, of course, something that considered the notion that our distinction between the two may be no more than a false cultural inheritance.


SANZ: The novel depicts various forms of drug addiction in a contemporary setting. What are the challenges of representing lives altered by drug use on the page, and to what extent were you aware of writing toward or away from preexisting notions a reader might have about the various cultures of drug use and distribution that the novel portrays?


POWELL: Any book about opioid abuse is in danger of great cliché. But so too is any love story. Or any prison story. Or any whatever else. I hope I’ve taken situations we generally encounter in the abstract—statistics about overdoses or incarceration or what have you—and made those particular. I didn’t want to write a book that put forth the notion that “this is what drug abuse looks like” so much as I wanted to say “this is what drug abuse looks like in this particular place, to this particular person, in this particular moment.” I hope that specificity, that granularity of detail, humanizes the characters since it’s harder to condemn people, harder to damn them when you know them.


SANZ: Hurricane Season feels literary and reads like a thriller. Did you consider the notion of genre as you wrote this book? Do you hope the book will be read as coming out of any particular literary tradition?


POWELL: I certainly wanted a noir feel, but, more than that, my hope was to write a book that moved quickly plot-wise without sacrificing too much character or intellectual depth. My models for this are the great short novels of Joan Didion. Didion is rightly lauded as a writer of nonfiction, but I’ve always felt she was grossly underestimated as a novelist. She wrote serious meditations on politics and power but somehow packaged them as political thrillers. The writers I find myself returning to do the same: Robert Stone and Denis Johnson. Dana Spiotta and Francisco Goldman. I once heard the great Bob Shacochis say he wrote thrillers for people “paying attention.” I aspire to the same.


SANZ: You invoke Don DeLillo with your epigraph: “If you think the name of the weapon is beautiful, are you implicated in the crime?” How is this book in conversation with that question?


POWELL: When you write about suffering, when you write about people who have been exploited by large structural systems as well as by each other, you like to think you are writing against such, that you are part of a sort of resistance standing for basic human dignity and against faceless, soulless, aggregated power. But I think one has to be mindful that in exposing suffering or exploitation that you aren’t also participating in it, that you aren’t wallowing or glorifying. This is another way in which fighting lays bare the truth of the world, the way it can be both beautiful and abhorrent at the same time. There are times I’ve watched fights and thought, as Joyce Carol Oates put it about the third Ali-Frazier fight, that I was watching the analogue to King Lear. There are other times I’ve watched fights and thought, as Shy thinks late in the book, I was watching two poor kids trying not to die. An honest book about fighting, an honest book about anything, I suppose, has to be willing to sit with the moral paradoxes that exist around and within us. Which means acknowledging that we are all deeply implicated in suffering.


SANZ: In how you pace action, you often toggle between scenic detail and a quickening of action via summary, all while keeping us bonded with the consciousness of the characters whose actions you describe. I’m thinking particularly of this paragraph:


Her mother died on the tenth of May and was buried two days later across town in the great retaining pond that was Memorial Gardens. Shy stayed alone in the house for several days but this was not a good thing. She let her phone die, got distracted and left the refrigerator door open, the lights on, and the food she never ate forgotten and dissolving on the shelves.


Here, we pass over a death and a funeral with style and grace, but we also get a scenic sense of Shy’s emotions in the week thereafter. This fluidity, this ability to dip in and out of days and into moments is a hallmark of how the book moves. Can you speak to your instincts for when to zoom in on action and when to zoom out, and how and when one versus the other (or both) seems like the right way to tell part of the story?


POWELL: I think a lot about how time compresses into realized precise moments and how it expands and slips by us, both in fiction and life. My usual sense is that if you want a reader to simply know something, you tell it as economically as possible. But if you want the reader to feel it, you have to slow time and show it in a scene. When to do which, though, is a tricky matter. No one is better at this than Alice Munro, and I’ve tried to read her in such a way that I absorb some of her technique. It hasn’t worked, by the way. But I do think that the more I’ve read her, the better intuitive sense I’ve developed of when to move quickly and when to linger.


SANZ: What did you think this book would be about when you started it, and how much did your idea of the book change over the time it took to complete? What core ideas carried through the drafts to the final version, and what new ideas emerged?


POWELL: Hurricane Season began as two distinct books. I had written a short story for Hunger Mountain about Shy, and I felt like there was more to say. At the same time, I was still haunted (I guess haunted is the word) by the years I’d spent teaching at Lawtey Correctional in North Florida. I thought maybe that was a different book. Then interesting parallels, interesting connections between the two stories, kept popping up (or maybe I kept imagining them). I was sensing some thread between the idea of addiction (and pain management) and fighting (actively seeking pain). Whether I was hoping or imagining these, I don’t know. But without fully realizing it, I began to merge the two stories. And the deeper I got, the more I felt like one complimented the other so that only together would each be fully realized. That was the idea at least. But as Denis Johnson put it, writing a novel is like trying to cross a large ocean in a small boat. Success is making it across, even if you don’t make landfall where you intended.


Mark Powell is the author of seven novels, including Lioness, Small Treasons–a SIBA Okra Pick, and a Southern Living Best Book of the Year–and Hurricane Season. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Breadloaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and twice from the Fulbright Foundation to Slovakia and Romania. In 2009, he received the Chaffin Award for contributions to Appalachian literature. He has written about Southern culture and music for the Oxford American, the war in Ukraine for The Daily Beast, and his dog for Garden & Gun. He holds degrees from the Citadel, the University of South Carolina, and Yale Divinity School, and directs the creative writing program at Appalachian State University.


Will Musgrove

The Star Buyer

The cop told me it was a Hollywood myth that you only get one phone call after being arrested. He said I could call anyone I wanted, even a lawyer. But I only needed one call. I called my son and asked him to put my granddaughter on the line. He did, and I told her to go outside and look at the stars.


A few weeks ago, I bought a bunch of stars at fifty bucks a pop. After reading a few science articles on space travel and Dyson spheres, I calculated how many greats were needed until humanity left planet Earth behind. I’ll never be rich, not on a bus driver’s wage, but my great-great-great-great-grandchildren could be.


The stars showed up yesterday in the mail. Well, their locations showed up, written on filigreed certificates. You get to name the stars you buy, so I named them not after people I know, but after people I want to know, my future grandchildren. I read each name aloud and placed the certificates in a Folgers coffee can. With the can in one hand and a shovel in the other, I walked outside to bury the stars in my backyard as a sort of celestial inheritance.


My next-door neighbor, Frank, raised his head over our shared fence and asked if I was digging for treasure. I shook my head and told him I was burying it, told him about my not-so-quick get-rich scheme. In a few hundred years, what would be the difference?


“Oh, Bridget and I saw the same infomercial,” he said, pointing at the ground, a gesture I took as stay there.


Frank disappeared into his house, which looked exactly like mine, like everyone else’s on the block, and returned carrying a picture frame. He turned the frame, revealing a star named after his grandson, George.


“His birthday is coming up, and we wanted to get him something special,” Frank said.


His star’s location seemed familiar, so I opened the coffee can, and, sure enough, Frank’s star matched one of mine. Frank scratched his chin like, How do you have my grandson’s star?


I went in and dialed the infomercial number. A man answered, and I explained the situation.


“Stars are really big,” the man said. “Can’t you share?”


I imagined my future relatives traveling light years in stasis only to wake to a flashing sign reading: Welcome to George, the Brightest Star in the Universe. I said no, I couldn’t share. I said I wanted my money returned, and the man hung up. When I called back, no one answered.


Online, I looked up the address of the star-selling company and scribbled it on a Post-it note. I got in my car and drove. I wanted a refund, or else a different star. I imagined the man on the phone searching star maps for a replacement, imagined him describing the light each star gave off. I wanted to make it right. I wanted my future grandchildren to point at their stars and say, “Boy, my great-great-great-great-grandfather sure was a savvy guy to make such a smart investment.” I wanted them to look at their stars and think of me.


Driving down the highway, I considered light, how it takes millions of years for the light of a star to reach us, how, by the time it does, the star might not be alive, how the light might be nothing more than a memory. Red and blue stars pulsed behind me, and I thought about light, about going so fast I stretched for millions and millions of years.


I imagined my future relatives basking in my light, saying to one another, “Can’t you share? Can’t you share?” And me, by then no more than a bundle of particles and photons, replying, “No need. Don’t you see all this light? Look at all these stars I bought you, and for only fifty bucks a pop.”


“Pull over,” came the voice over a speaker.


In my rearview, I counted half a dozen cop cars. My speedometer read 110 miles an hour. Not quite the speed of light. A line of yellow barrels protected the median. Swerving, I bumped one, then grazed the side of a police car, and, boom, I went supernova, exploding into a burst of glittery stardust.


Guns drawn, the cops approached my car and ordered me out of my vehicle. I did as they said, and they cuffed me before bringing me here. Now, I sit beneath humming florescent bulbs, telling my granddaughter to look up, look up, to never stop looking, to remember that, one day, the light of those stars will light her children’s children’s children’s children’s way.


Julia Johnson

At the Delachaise

You tell me your husband is really a leopard.
I tell you that you've had too much wine.
You insist that he has all of the qualities and attributes and characteristics
and the coloring of a leopard. And that he loves you for your beauty.
I ask why you didn't know this when you first met him
and you insist you did and I ask why you would marry a leopard.
You say that you knew no one would want to meet him but that you
had to marry him. I tell you I can't wait to meet him
and I promise I really do.
I really do want to meet him.
We share a tall cone of fries in white paper.
At the end of the night, we take off our masks and step onto the sidewalk,
and kiss each other in the air instead of touching.

Review: All Bird: Brandi George’s The Nameless

Review of The Nameless, by Brandi George. 
Kernpunkt Press, August 2023, 199 pages, $18.00
Review by James Brock.

The late Dean Young famously instructs poets, “We are making birds not birdcages,” in The Art of Recklessness, expressing a gravity-defying Warner Brothers Cartoons ethos and New York School surrealism. Young committed to those ideas since his days as a graduate student (and one year as a nursing student) at Indiana University, some forty years ago. His ideas about recklessness broaden the scope of poetry, embracing creative processes that are truly disruptive, chaotic, comedic, and thrilling. (Anne Carson, Thylias Moss, and Denise Duhamel were busy with their own poetic larcenies those days as well.)


Meanwhile, there lived a punk-goth farm girl, haling from Ovid, Michigan, with living visitations from faery tale creatures and Old Testament demons; a Lady Gaga little monster who survived exorcisms and sexual abuse and suicide; a love-wrecked and love-worn lovechild of Walt Whitman and Thumbelina; and, eventually, a professor and Ashtanga practitioner. She would write unlikely long books of poetry, improbably to have them published. And that poet, Brandi George, has now gifted us with an incredibly demanding, rewarding, pleasurable, harrowing, and funny book of poetry, The Nameless. It is a monumental book that is all bird.


Part bildungsroman, part memoir, part enfevered vision, part nature study of fungi, and so, so much more, The Nameless is also the work of a serious, careful versifier, one whose mastery of iambic meter is as light and feathery as hydrae. It is also a book that runs some 200 pages, a visionary accomplishment published by Kernpunkt Press—a press that must be praised for its faith in the most unlikely.


Structurally, The Nameless operates ostensibly as a memoir, divided into two sections, and subdivided into short, individual chapters. And while one is to distrust the autobiographical in poetry as being merely factual, clearly the effort here by George is to construct a poetic record of her life. The speaker in her book is self-identified as “We”—and while that first appears to be a nod toward a gender-neutral self-naming, the “we” who speaks is a dissembling of voices, polyphonic, amorphous, and morphing. This expansive idea of self, certainly Whitman-like, finds its operative metaphor in the mushroom, in fungi. Yes, inside the pleats of the cap of a mushroom are ungendered spores, where 10,000 individuals can fit on a pinhead, and a single fungus constitutes the largest organism on earth, covering an expanse of over four square miles.


George’s “We” constitutes a self that is wracked with auditory and visual hallucinations, an identity we might consider as post-structurally fractured or profoundly schizophrenic, but one that becomes a representation of the poet, a being who is something of a receiver, without the usual filters, who hears the language of air and death in everything and who must then sing.


The book begins with death, where We, as a child, is the victim of sexual molestation—her parents instruct her to forget it—and, from that moment, death’s spores enter We’s body:


                          so now when we
completely forget      it Happened

the Thing forms      a fairy ring
inside our body     Now Death

lives inside us

Invariably, then, Death attends, embodies, and accompanies We through the book—a fact of her life that she has long been taught to ignore and deny. And, of course, in Ovid, death is everywhere, within and without, but with the promise of change and metamorphosis. For We, this means enduring an exorcism at her parents’ behest, the parents convinced their adolescent daughter is possessed by demons. They burn her poems. The irony, it seems, is that We is indeed possessed, but by Death in all its recombinant manifestations.


The book chapters are often prefaced by George’s brilliantly fractured tales of Thumbelina dying a new death with each iteration. We clearly identifies with Thumbelina—the strangest of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales—whose queer desires and chaotic imaginings are continually corrected by her elders. George’s Thumbelina is “genderless, many-faced, guiltless, green, and as mysterious as twilight,” a runaway spirit who meets death recklessly, fully, casually, and intentionally.


And in this large book, there are abundant touchstones for We beyond Thumbelina: Kurt Cobain, tarot cards, success and the po-biz, and even animal husbandry. This is a poet’s memoir, after all, a testimony of the empathetic spirit, and here, with death living inside her, We’s empathy is almost debilitating. She feels too much (and this seems to be her chief sin, at least by her family’s reckoning). For instance, We recounts her work at a dairy farm, where her job is to separate the male calves from the female calves, after which the baby bulls will be sold for veal:


back in the barn we try to console the new calf
name him     Bocephus    after Hank    but without his mother

                                            he’s petrified
trembling    we hold him to our chest like a child

           his grief is so deep we can feel it    glacial    nothing will ever
absolve us of this


As much as We disassociates herself from her family, from middle-America banality, and from the grind of capitalism, she is inescapably complicit. Where others in her family and community routinely deny responsibility, she feels it keenly—it is the death in her. The poet’s task, it seems, is to receive everything, to name it, to own it.


Even so, much of the book is doomful, doleful love poetry, a tribute to We’s beloved Annette, an equally wild spirit (and later to We’s husband Michael, who co-authors several poems in the book). Here, the poetry is tender:


In the backyard we practice
flipping our hair
She-Ra mermaid rock star
it’s our thing hair      then eyes then

will we ever be beautiful?

          our longing for beauty is
crush of petals down our shirt
     leaves under our feet
dandelion heads on the sidewalk
                       sunburn like a hand


So, amid all the chaos, the disorientation of hallucinations, and the broken wheel that is the self, George’s reckless poetry continually finds its purchase in these fleeting moments. This unguarded work seems the very product of Muriel Rukeyser’s question: “What would happen if one woman told the truth of her life?” The world that Brandi George has split open contains all the invisible names of death, all the fecund beauty we long for, and a billion seeds that will germinate from the dead.


Announcing Our 2023 Nominations for the Best of the Net Anthology

Aquifer: The Florida Review Online is thrilled to announce the nominations for the 2023 Best of the Net Anthology! The Best of the Net is an anthology created by Sundress Publications that accepts pieces first published online in the categories of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and art. To read more about the Best of the Net anthology, check out their webpage.

Aquifer receives many wonderful pieces each year, and we are so excited to showcase our 2023 nominations. Best of luck to the nominees! 

Poetry Nominations:
“Nurture” by Jacques J. Rancourt
“Cool Side of the Pillow” by Cynthia Atkins
“Blues for King Kong” by Sihle Ntuli
“Content” by Allan Peterson
“Christmas Eve“ by Chelsea Dingman
“Witness Statement” by Kyle McCord
Fiction Nominations:
“Junior Steaks” by Anney Bolgiano
“75 Simple Steps to Positive, Growing Change” by Andreas Trolf
Nonfiction Nominations:
“Mythogenesis” by Suzanne Manizza Rosak
“What Comes in the Night” by Ariél Martinez
Visual Art Nominations:
“Heirloom” by Catherine-Esther Cowie
“The Queen of All the Dirt” by Catherine Esther-Cowie


“Modern Ancestors” by Anne McGrath

Anne McGrath’s “Modern Ancestors,” is a series of pieces constructed from mixed materials. See more of Anne’s work on Instagram @TheAnneMcGrath.