FULL DISCLOSURE: I follow Rafe Posey on Twitter and we met, once, for too few moments, at a book conference in Washington, D.C. – it was but a brief encounter, yet long enough for a hug from which I am still feeling warm. Rafe sent me (I begged) a signed copy of “The Book of Broken Hymns”. Now, you know.
FULL DISCLOSURE PART II: My reading is about echoes; my favorite books inspire memories of feelings I have had, the a-ha moments of life, and so, my writing about books I have loved – such as “The Book of Broken Hymns” – is about the colors and echoes wakened in me while reading. Meaning: this is as much about me as it is about the book. If you would like to skip “about me” (and you would not be the first, nor would it upset me, dear) then scroll right on down to the bolded headline “I’M TALKING ABOUT BOOK OF BROKEN HYMNS NOW”.
I have always been a treasure hunter.
As far as literature is concerned, it began with Joan Didion.
I spent most of the summer between fourth and fifth grade in my aunt’s house; Libertytown. It was a sprawling, deteriorating place. We lived in only a very few of its rooms, the others held the detritus of generations of my family’s genetic predisposition toward hoarding which supplied fantastic fodder for me, a child who wanted most to escape reality.
Some magical days that summer, Shirley Lyles, the Liberty Elementary School librarian, would pick me up in her diesel Mercedes – my first ride in diesel, my first Mercedes, my first adult not a relative who chose me for company – and we’d spend the day doing the things librarians did in the summer with no one to bother them.
Mrs. Lyles had taken me under her wing when I’d arrived a fourth grade refugee from the recently closed St. Peter’s Catholic School. I was completely unprepared for the rough and tumble of public school, having lived in the protected atmosphere created by the School Sisters of Notre Dame who’d cosseted fatherless me in a near utopian atmosphere where the rare rule infraction or cruelty earned a sentence of sitting under the Peace Tree to contemplate your sin against God. In public school there was no Peace Tree and such was my naiveté this surprised me. I was targeted immediately for my mien, my walk, my voice, all of which exacerbated my sin of having mastered as third grader at St. Peter’s everything a sixth grader at Liberty Elementary would have learned and more. Mrs. Lyles – the single black-skinned person in Liberty Elementary – recognized me as fellow outsider. Since there was nothing for me to do in the classes I was in, I was often “excused” to help Mrs. Lyles in the library. She saved me. I decided, then and there, I would not only be a Broadway star, I’d be a librarian.
That summer, on days when I wasn’t at the school with Mrs. Lyles, I began my autodidactic librarian training by designating one of the rooms of Libertytown as “The Library”. I gathered all the many books and magazines spread throughout the house and determined to organize and catalogue them. I started with the periodicals which included Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, Life, Look, National Geographic, Harper’s, and most important, The Saturday Evening Post, in which I found the essays of Joan Didion.
I was changed. Here were collections of words, many of which I had to look up, which read like incantations to me. These weren’t essays, these were magic spells. Honestly, in retrospect, I am sure I had no clue what most of them were about, but there was something in the syntax, the rhythm, the way they radiated Didion’s soul that spoke to me, grabbed me – yes, ensorcelled me. And, even more miraculous to me, they’d been there all along, waiting for me to discover them.
Which is a six-hundred word blathering explanation of what I love about reading and words; these Holy Grail-ish, King Tut tomb discoveries of arrangements of words and communications of incantations of emotion and life-experience waiting to be found, these unearthed ensorcellments.
It was on Twitter I discovered Rafe Posey. He followed people I followed. Duchess Goldblatt clearly loved him. And he said funny, loving, insightful things that made me want to know him. To meet him. And I followed him. I hoped. I waited. I wanted. And then, he followed me. And then, I met him. And then, I hugged him (which was a near assault on my part, I confess). And then, he hugged me (he had little choice in the matter). And then, best of all, he sent me his book. Inscribed.
And, wow. Treasure. Precious marvels and a talent before which I reverently and humbly genuflect. King Tut’s tomb – bah – Rafe Posey’s The Book of Broken Hymns; a glorious find!
The collection opens with Dashaway, an elegy narrated in first person by the ghost who broke the hearts of two of its characters, one of whom is now, herself, dying. It explores betrayal, loyalty, different kinds of love and the lengths to which people will go for all of those things and it is filled with beautifully evocative sentences constructed of breath-taking heart-truths, those being things we have all felt but been unable to put into words about people in our lives; “Oh, Lily … Such virtue, and she wears it like a target.” And, “‘How could she do that to me.’…’I have wondered it for my whole adult life.‘” And, “We all turn and stare at Lily, who deserves better. Malcolm looks as if he has just remembered the lyrics to a song long forgotten, and wishes he had not.” In a few pages we come to love each of these flawed people and then, well, I won’t tell you the then except to say the ending left me feeling gobsmacked, slapped, torn.
The next story is called Nest, and I was struck by its emotional connection to Dashaway, in that, here too we are dealing with a first person narrator who is witnessing the deterioration of another, this time an aging parent. Listen;
I had never met a man who took up so much air, although lately the odd waverings of time and place, the ways he suddenly didn’t know what he had always known, seemed to be eating away at his envelope of space. Lately, I suppose, he had seemed smaller. And I, who had tried so hard to get out of his shadow, was now drawn back in, unable to pull away and let him get old, as if the shadow were shrinking into some kind of cosmic drain and taking me with it. My brothers, happy enough to bring their kids to the pale grey cedar shingles of the house and the boat, were a wary as I of making any kind of plan for our father, but something was going to have to happen.
Anyone who’s experienced the graying and slow depletion of a mother or father will identify with this, and too, its narrator’s discovery and admission of the loss, the fearful repulsion at first witnessing of the degeneration and then, the slow, incremental, necessary acceptance of the new roles, the careful reversing of the nurturing process that occurs. Heartbreak two.
Third in the collection is The Only Living Boy in New York, another first person voice, a voice that in ten short pages speaks a near-poetic contraction of a life, a transition from female to male, but, more, the truth of how little to do with biology has identity at all. Listen to these lines:
… I’m not good with people. It’s possible that when I came home from the chest surgery, and for the month and a half after that, when I was still moving stiffly and couldn’t lift my arms all the way, they thought I’d had breast cancer. Eventually the shape of my face changed, and I grew a beard, and then I started shaving. I should have told them, but it’s been five years. They’ve probably caught on by now.
That passage works on so many levels, not the least of which is the metaphor of the character’s solitary experience of change – the surgery – and its more implied than described after-effects. Too, our narrator allows those watching from outside to assume causes, lets them watch the transformation without explanation, never quite knowing what they think, never quite engaging with those daily seen, in the world. It speaks of loneliness and courage and regret. It is devastating.
And when describing another character, one once longed for but now lost to the past, this: “He was tall and dark-haired, a suburban cowboy with a swagger and a history of failing at suicide.” We know this cowboy, this Cal – like our narrator – dates women and, too, barks (as in, like a dog), but with that sentence, the dichotomy of cowboy swagger with suicidalism, and not just suicidalism but the added detail of failed suicidalism, there is more character development than is managed in some full-length novels.
Again, the last few paragraphs of this story go to a totally unexpected place, a Posey-specialty, an “I didn’t see this coming” plot-turn that – while unexpected – never elides into unbelievable. Actions are supported by character development, emotions grounded in the truth of the stories, but truths that were implied, hinted, lived, rather than thrown up in flashing-light “guess what’s coming” obviousness. Posey displays a subtlety of technique and a deep understanding of the dichotomous way in which huge life events happen quietly, often un-noticed until after the fact, the momentous and significantly meaningful milestones invisible except in retrospect.
Snap’s Boys is a war story about two brothers and a dog and a letter home to mother and I cried.
Then there is my favorite piece of the collection, Horse Sale at the Jesus Saves Cafe. The juxtaposition of connection and isolation and the exploration of the sort of detachment that results in talking to ghosts are explored in this tale of longing and lust and the search for home. Listen:
. . . He had thought that once he’d shed as much as he could of the girl he’d been that everything would be solved, that he would finally be happy. But transition was not a fairy tale, just an endless series of plateauing changes, and it turned out that while he was much less miserable, he still had no place he belonged.
Again, Posey constructs a paragraph in which the universal ache, the desire to belong, to know who one is and find home, a place to be, to breathe, to settle into one’s own truth, is described. You will be unsurprised by now to hear, on reaching this final paragraph, I cried.
This Little Size of Dying manages the remarkable feat of finding reasons to continue living, learning, and entertaining the possibility of love in the face of inevitable loss.
And, last, Faun Tells All, with its lighter-hearted, confessional tone ties a bow around the collection, acting almost as an after-the-fact introduction to the strata of this unique society of consciousness, this chorus of voices with whom we’ve walked through these stories of transformation, discovery, love, loss, lust, limitation and the layers of life through which we dig and to which we add – shoveling on our assumptions and fears and foibles and follies – making our way through this emotional archeology of being at which Rafe Posey is master of describing, embodying, gifting to us.
Like I said, two thousand or so words ago, I have always been a treasure hunter, and in the work (and person) of Rafe Posey, I have found another great store of riches to be appreciated and re-visited, time and again, each re-reading revealing new abundances of insight and light.
Read this book.