Singularly Human, Collectively Whole

I own a signed first edition of Raymond Carver’s story collection, Where I’m Calling From. It’s one of my prized possessions. It brings together so much of what I love about literature: masterful writing that captures the human condition and illustrates American culture via the detailed and varied lives of everyday people.

For my money, the adapted screenplay and 1993 film, Short Cuts, is one of the great accomplishments of cinema history. Director Robert Altman interweaves the lives of twenty-two principal characters from nine Raymond Carver stories (plus one poem). Altman pulls it off with such gusto you would think that Carver intended for all of his Pacific Northwest characters to materialize and convene haphazardly in Southern California. It is a full-on display of mosaic, multi-protagonist narrative, and a definitive study in dramatic license.

This wasn’t the first time that Altman crafted a tale where the role of chance was central to the plot’s development and disparate lives were connected by happenstance. In his 1975 film, Nashville, Altman told the intersecting stories of various people connected to the music business over the course of a few hectic days. This type of storytelling convention, of course, has a long history, from early stage productions to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables to popular movies, such as Memento and Magnolia.

All of this talk of synthesizing mediums and blending forms and structures leads me to the concept of this week’s issue of Atticus Review. “Filtered Light” is a series of nine individual essays and one poem that exhibits the trials and tribulations of unrelated writers. On the surface each piece holds very little in common with the other except for an undeniable quality. There is nothing “on the surface” about any of them.

They each embody what it’s like to be on the pulse of modern life.

They each breathe in toxins that sometimes make this world feel uninhabitable.

Their hurt and exasperation are palpable.

Their desperation is jolting.

The rawness of their conflicted emotions—and good intentions—is deep.

None of these writings is connected, per se, yet you should experience all of them sequentially and then as a whole. They are the fragmented bones and matter of the American dream, conceived and digested by an assembly of wordsmiths whose integrity and narrative sensibilities make each of them—and us, by association—as close as next of kin.

This is an experiential thread of creative nonfiction and poetry. There is nothing tangential about it. It should leave every reader feeling a little less lonely in a seemingly random (and intricately designed) universe.

Stephen J. Lyons (“Boots”) reflects on the hand-to-mouth, novel experience of living on his own as a 17-year-old fry cook in a boarding house in southwestern Colorado in 1974.

Derek Rose (“The Divide”) describes the outside forces that prevent friendships and create a winner/loser mentality between high school students living on the right and wrong side of the Hudson River.

Kelly Scarff (“John’s Print Shop”), a 27-year-old student pursuing her second university degree, discusses the fringe “benefits” (NOT) of working off the books as a graphic designer on the outskirts of Pittsburgh.

Neil Connelly (“Just In Case”) lays out the anxiety of having your brain scanned for a tumor and waiting for the results on an otherwise ordinary day.

Jeff Burt (“Catching Light”) presents a lyrical resuscitation of poetic proportions: “Every day I sit in the spot where I died, in the living room, near where the dog scratches her back on the side of the couch like a bull rubs against a fence.”

Kathleen S. Burgess (“Restoring Virginity“) fashions a blessing “to explode,/ then disappear” as her poetic creation “relives the fear, the shame/ of slavery in salt-tears that/ blotch her niqab like raindrops/ fallen from a great height.”

Keah Brown (“233 Jackson”) contends with the death of her dear grandmother and a close cousin. “While death and absence work together like a well-oiled machine, anger is the brains of the operation. The truth is this: there will be an anger that bubbles so deep inside of you that it becomes a part of you.”

Claire Polders (“Fraying”) rebels against the conventions of new sweaters and an American husband’s instinct to please his Dutch mother-in-law.

Whitney Hayes (“Divorce By Numbers”) breaks down the meaning of life and the apparent inevitability of divorce in simple math terms. “There are nine circles in Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy. According to Milton in Paradise Lost, it took Satan nine days to fall from Heaven into Hell. On earth, I’ve found this fall to occur far more rapidly. Here, a fall from grace takes no time at all.”

Stephen J. Lyons (“What The Tallest Man Taught Me”) returns with a life lesson not learned from an eight-foot-three-inch native of Turkey, who “appears to float above the rest of us more normally proportioned humans.”

Photo by Steve Jurvetson

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