The Irish Quarter: A Celebration of the Irish Short Story
March 11 to ?
Valerie Sirrs on Lick the Lizard by Geraldine Mills
A native of Galway, Ireland Geraldine is a poet and short story writer with four collections of poetry and two of short fiction. Arlen House has published her short fiction collections, Lick of the Lizard (2005) and The Weight of Feathers(2007) which are available internationally from Syracuse University Press and taught at the University of Connecticut and Eastern Connecticut State University. Her poetry collections include Unearthing your Own(2001) and Toil the Dark Harvest (2004) which were published by Bradshaw Books, Cork. An Urgency of Stars,published by Arlen House, 2010 was awarded a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship. Arlen House was also the publisher of The Other Side of Longing, a collaboration with U.S. poet Lisa C.Taylor which was the Gerson Reading choice for the University of Connecticut April 2010
The Weight of Feathers by Geraldine Mills is a collection of twelve short stories. I have never had the pleasure of being in Ireland but if I do I know Galway for sure has more than its share of great writers. Posting on collections of short stories by the same author presents a challenge, to me at least, as when you read through the collection you tend to quickly look for commonality in the stories rather than looking at the works one at a time. My approach on a collection is to post on a number of the stories individually and indulge in an overview at the conclusion of my post. I think this shows respect for the artist and if I were pondering buying or investing my time in a collection of short stories this is what I would want in a post.
The opening story in the collection, "Death Match" is a strange kind of loveless love story that also focuses on the loneliness of a man far from his home and off a woman who we never really understand. It is ultimately a sad story at its core. There are only two important characters in the story, Slavo who is I think from Eastern Europe. He is working at a hotel in Dublin or London as a doorman. He sees this as a very good job. It is a big step up from his first job as an immigrant. He meets the other main character in the story, a woman named Lourdes, as she is swimming wearing only her panties in the fountain in front of his hotel. She calls him over to dry her off and he is, of course, interested in what she intends, he has not been with a woman since he left home, but he is afraid if someone from the hotel management sees him with her he will be fired. To telescope a bit without out spoiling the really interesting plot, she goes home with him to his place and spends what seem to be a number of days with him. They have a very passionate affair. Salvo is happy over this and he thinks he is in love but he is also very confused as women where he comes from do act like this. These things rarely last too long and this does not. The ending is really well done. We never really get to understand the woman and maybe she does not understand herself. "Death Match" is a first rate story which I greatly enjoyed reading.
"The Weight of Feathers"
I think it is logical to assume that the title story in a collection of short stories is perhaps the work in which the author has the greatest pride. Either that or it is a marketing decision and the story with the most interesting sounding title is picked. "The Weight of Feathers" is a kind of ordinary man's retelling of the Icarus stories. (The story made me think of Gabriel Marquez's "The Angel that Fell from the Sky").
There are kind of two very interesting interelated plot lines in this marvelous story. One is about a middle aged seeming woman working a farm in a rough area. Her aged mother lives with her and they are in long term conflict over the mother's insistence that living on the farm is a bad idea. In a way, the farm, though this may seem odd as farm is a very earth based experience, is her attempt to rise above the banalities of earth bound life. I really liked the opening lines of this story. "A man fell out of the sky and into my garden. I found the slump of the body by the pomegranate tree when I went out for water the terraces. The evenisng burned itself into the mountain. There were feathers all around him, some stuck to his arms, some to his legs, a golden syrup of wax melted on his face." The account of how he and his son, who died as he attempted to fly toward the sun, is really a marvelous blend of magic realism and ordinary reality. There is a lot more in this story and I hope you can one day read it.
"Waiting for the Fall"
"Waiting for the Fall" is a very interesting story about an old man growing older, memory, grown children, loneliness, the lasting scars of war and the way things and their passing become a metaphor for the winding down of life. There is for sure more than one kind of fall in this powerful story. As the story opens we hear the sounds of birds flying away from a tree being cut down by a chain saw. Robert cannot nap or watch TV because the noise is too overpowering. Robert, a widower, notices the tree surgeon is a woman and he thinks to himself that if is wife were still here she would soon be friends with the woman and know how she came to be a tree surgeon. We also learn about Robert's children. One of them, his daughter, checks on him regularly and he knows she has lost confidence in his ability to take care of himself. His son does not contact him very often. Robert often drifts back to his experience in the war, in France. He was a fighter pilot. It is something he cannot really share with anyone and the fact that it was the central experience of his life lets us see deeply into the core of his loneliness. A very very good story. Mills does a wonderful job of letting us look in as Robert drifts in and out of his war thoughts which have haunted him for decades.
"This Is From the Woman Who Does"
Fact of life for me, I do not like people who do not like cats and this story is about a woman working as a maid who abuses her employer's cat when she is not around. OK I understand her resentment that her employers care much more for their cat than they do her. This is not at all a fault with the story, of course. The opening like really is attention grabbing. "Herman looks at me with a bad eye, mean and calculating, as if to say 'I'll make her work for her money today'". As she leaves Mrs P showers Herman with kisses and tells the maid "Warm some milk for precious". As soon as Mrs P is out of sight, the maid locks Herman out of the house and laughs to herself as she hears him cry to be let back in as she knows he is has not has his breakfast. OK good story, gets well into the mind of the maid. Sort of a servants revenge story.
"Withheld" is an interesting story about the relationship of two grown sisters, Magda and Mariam. Mariam is there at the train station with Dan, her spouse, to pick up Magda who called Mariam and told her she wants to stay with her for a while, without offering an explanation. They are both alarmed to see how much weight Magda has lost and how haggrard she looks. I have noticed in reading Irish short stories a use of expressions like "himself" to refer to a man who either is or thinks he is important, it is used in the prior story to refer to the lady of the house and the cat". Here we have the very strong sentence "the rain whipped into the station and sperm droplets of itself swam slant-ways across the carriage besides where they stood". The question then becomes why refer to rain as "sperm droplets". I think it is a way to see how the lives of the women are so dominated by the sexual feelings of men for them. As the story opens we learn that Magda is there because Alan has left her. The story lets us see a lot about the minds and characters of the sisters in just a few pages.
Decades ago I took a class in Neo-Platonism. At last it has finally proved useful in allowing me to better understand, I hope, this totally great story about an Greek Neo-Platonist living in ancient Egypt. The narrator of the story is Hypatia a late 4th century AD female Neoplatonist and mathematician. She was of Greek descent and lived in Alexandria Egypt. Her father was the last librarian at Alexandria. The other character of import in the story is a man, Synesius, also a Greek NeoPlatonist who traveled from Greece to become a disciple of Hypathia. Mills, of course and wonderfully so, makes her own use of the known facts (there is a lot of possibility that what we think are historical facts were sort of created stories in the late middle ages anyway) and turns this into a version of an ancient even in the 4th century myth. We see the hatred and fear that Hypathia generates., The world was not, even though the popular historical press on women in 4th century Egypt says they were treated with more respect than in most other places for centuries to come, read for a woman smarter than the rulers of the country and the fictional Hypathia dies a horrible death. The real one is said to have been killed by a Christian mobs in the streets of Alexandria who were horrified by her views, which of course they had no clue of understanding. This is a really brilliant story and a genius of a subject. It would be the basis for a great historical novel and movie.
"Cut is the first short story I have read that deals with the reaction of a post operative transgender man to seeing his daughters for the first time in years. When he decided to undergo the operations that would turn him, in part, into a woman, what he feels he is, he and his wiife decided they should seperate and that it would be better for their two daughters if he did not see them a fnymore. The father almost feels like a stalker as he shadows his two beautiful daughters. This story does a great job of getting into the mind of the male central character.
There are five more stories in the collection, each a pleasure to read and very distinct from the other stories.
The Weight of Feathers is an outstanding collection of short stories. I do not like generalizing about short collections that much but the stories in this collection are sort of about the walls between people, the lack of understanding that comes from an inability to see beyond surface and sometimes deeper than surface differences. The stories are very different from each other. The people in the stories are very well realized. Mills kind of throws us into their lives and we have to do some work to figure out what is going on which only makes the experience of reading them ultimately that much more powerful.
Interview for Reading Life
Questions on the Weight of Feathers
In two of your stories "The Weight of Feathers" and "Butcher Bird" you have modified stories from antiquity. In "Weight of Feathers" the Icarus figure is not heroic but a very ordinary man. Why did you decide to modify the story as you did and is it also meant to be an echo of "The Angel that Fell From the Sky" by Gabriel Marquez. "In Butcher Bird", a wonderful use of old history and myth, you significantly alter accepted history and turn this into a story that portrays 4th century Christians in a negative way. How much of history should be read into this
story? Is it a suggest of the fall of civilization with the murder of a female mathematician and neo-Platonist?
One of the more rewarding aspects of writing a story is the way it leads the writer into it. Much of my writing is done by grabbing an hour here and there, quite often when I am sitting in my car in car parks, waiting for some appointment or other. On one occasion I was giving myself an exercise on what might fall from the sky and after the usual, rain or snow or clouds the opening line for this story was given to me: A man fell out of the sky and into my garden. The character came almost fully formed. I could visualise very clearly the location, the house, the garden and the narrator who is racked by loneliness. It wrote itself.
The theme has already been covered in other genres. Breughel’s painting of Icarus becomes the ekphrastic material for Auden’s Museé de Beaux Art and is echoed in the songs of Greg Greenway. Though it may resonate with Gabriel Marquez, that was not my intention nor had I read Marquez’s story until after my own was published. It proves that there are really very few themes/stories under the sun, only ways of writing them.
I consider this story to be one of mythical realism, a legend grounded in the every day. It is very much about isolation and I like to leave it a little vague as to whether the narrator experienced it or just imagined it as a result of her loneliness, hidden away on her own in the mountains, with no one to talk to.
The story about Hypatia has a much more historical provenance. When a book fell off a library shelf and opened on the page of the life of this extraordinary woman I knew I wanted to read more about her. I researched the story and Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska( Harvard University Press,2002) was the source that gave me most insight into her world. It was her exploration of the correspondence with Sinesius of Cyrene that I used to dramatise the last days of this brilliant mathematician. Dzielska records the different ways in which she was killed but I set the story on the eve of Hypatia’s death and do not say exactly how it happens. What was the driving force for me was not the historical context but an exploration of how fear drives people to do unspeakable things. It is simply a story about a woman whose power threatens those around her and she has to be silenced.
Are you a poet who also writes short stories or the reverse? Does one form matter more than another to you?
I started out as a short story writer. It is the genre that I am most drawn to. I search out the story behind everything. Poetry came along when a theme that didn’t fit into a short story still wanted to be voiced. My poetry in general is very much informed by my personal history and it is a way of making sense of it and also a method of recording the past. Short story allows me a much greater stretch of the imagination and does not command me to be loyal to a theme in the way my own narrative demands. Loss, isolation and a sense of place are intrinsic to both genres but the short story is the greater challenge and the one that pushes the boundaries in all sorts of directions. The confines of poetry support my short story in terms of structure and adhering to a tight form. The story has to have all its components clicking into place in the same way that a poem must. At the moment there are no areas of my own history needing to be revisited, there are no poems waiting in the wings, but there are lots of ideas for stories so that is the trail I am on.
Who are some of your favourite deceased Irish short story writers?
There are lots of the great masters who have influenced me over the years: Joyce, of course. I am just after rereading Dubliners as part of the One City One Book project that celebrated the writer in
for the month of April. I keep going
back to The Dead as a perfect work.
Maeve Brennan was a masterly writer in the genre and Mary Lavin who is also
being celebrated at this time. John McGahern was my lodestar and served as my
guide when I started writing first. His death is still relatively recent and I
forget that he is no longer with us but he has been and continues to be an
influence on my work. My first
introduction to the Irish short story was at school where we were exposed to
many of the others big names such as Frank O’Connor, Seán Ó Faoláin, Bryan Mc
Mahon, Michael Mc Laverty. They were my
first port of call before I discovered the more expansive world of the American
short story, for example, that has a breadth of place and experience that goes
beyond that of the Irish. Dublin
Your stories are in part about loneliness. "Death Match" is about a man far from home, "Waiting for the Fall” is about an old widow who never really got used to being without his wife, his memories he cannot share with his daughters, at his core a story about loneliness. Is there something about the Irish experience and history (I am asking this as total outsider) that makes so many of the stories about isolation and loneliness?
I wouldn’t have thought that isolation and loneliness are exclusively aspects of the Irish psyche but maybe they are. It’s all that rain and the black clouds constantly being blown onto our heads that has us in such a state. If I lived in the south of
I probably would have become
an olive grower and not a writer. Living here in Spain it’s the page and the
cupeen of tea that gets us up in the morning. Ireland
Seriously though, the human condition is one of the themes that I find myself exploring again and again. We write out of our own loneliness in an attempt to make some sense of it. We clothe our characters in it, give them time on the page to come to terms with it (or not) and in that way we hope it connects us, thus bringing us closer to our human counterparts.
My great thanks to Geraldine for her very thoughtful and interesting answers. I also thank Valerie Sirr for her wonderful guest post.
You can learn more about Mills and her work from her very interesting blog. There are good articles on poetry, short stories and art on her webpage and I read all of her posts.