River Teeth Print Journal

Editor’s Notes 22.1

Fall 2020

By Dan Lehman

Sitting here at my desk on April 22, 2020, writing these words, the world as I’ve known it has changed. Startlingly. Like many, I am locked down, masked, wary, guarding my six-foot radius. Outside, I’m still active, but alone. I swerve from the path when others approach, always watching, always calculating, always distanced. Yes, I notice clearer and cleaner air when I run or ride, and the city streets are very nearly empty except for my bicycle, but I’m desperately missing that cold, mid-ride beer with friends at my elbow on a brewery patio. Missing a hell of a lot more, actually. Missing touch, missing family, missing the sheer joy of devil-may-care.

So I sit here on April 22 knowing these words most likely will not reach readers until late fall, when River Teeth 22.1 appears. I wonder. What will the world be like then? Or make that now—right at this moment—when you read these words? Will the shocks and shutdowns of the spring of 2020 be mostly a memory, some troubling dream from which we awaken? Or will contagion sweep unabated, ushering a soul darkness and earth cataclysm about which we have been repeatedly warned and usually ignore?

I wonder.

Were this a novel instead of a novel coronavirus, I could write that wonder into my own ending. Imagine six months hence and work it out on the page. Make it work with vision and craft. Fiction allows that liberty, that destiny, though of course it carries its own internal logic and responsibilities. But it’s there. You can dream a fictional ending if you have the talent to make it true—build its story as surprising and inevitable. Nonfiction not so much. We now seem tied as characters in a story whose ending we cannot yet know. Or perhaps you the reader, yes you right there, reading this page right now, may decipher a story line I cannot know today.

This middleness, this muddledness, challenges all of us: the essayist, the literary journalist, even the memoirist reflecting here and now. One can see it and feel it. Reading the many submissions to River Teeth over the past few months, as I have done, unspools a narrative thread from the first four months of the plague year 2020. First nothing really, then a hint, then brief specks of timely reference. By late February and into March a gathering theme. Contagion. Fear. Distancing. By mid-April, almost half of the pieces sent our way directly or tangentially touch this startling, viral change all around us. After all, we writers tend to write about what matters, and this matters very, very much. One can’t really ignore it. Yet how do we bridge the gap between the words we write today and the words to be read in these pages six months hence, or a year hence, or even recalled and cherished across decades? As with these notes, directness risks datedness.

Brenda Miller, whose “Pain Song” appears in this volume, speaks to this dilemma. In the second edition of Tell It Slant, Miller and her collaborator Suzanne Paola explore the poetic line from Emily Dickinson that lent their book its title: “Tell all the Truth, but tell it Slant.”

“We think she meant that truth takes on many guises: the truth of art can be very different from the truth of day-to-day life. Her poems and letters, after all, reveal her deft observation of the outer world, but it is ‘slanted’ through the poet’s distinctive vision.” The authors suggest that the enduring goal of any creative nonfiction writer is “a strong voice and a singular vision.” Finally, “If you succeed, you and the reader will find yourself in a close, if not intimate, relationship that demands honesty and a willingness to risk a kind of exposure you may never venture in face-to-face encounters.”

Close. Intimate. Risk. Exposure.

Loaded words these are in this plague year, yet a light for our path: right here, right now. We don’t dodge the pandemic in the pages before you, but reckon its slant through a painful time. “If Pain wore a ring,” Miller writes here, “it might have been a rhinestone, sharp-faceted, false glitter of diamond intensity.” Here you’ll find essays about truth and miracles, about solitude on the high plains, about the drain of loss on the human heart, about family separations, about visions of growing old in a double-wide amid baby bottles filled with Mountain Dew, about stacked jars of crystalized honey and deep freezes of feedlot beef packed against the last days, about a bee’s survival in conflagration, about more room, more air, more light, about how absence yet feels like sharp satisfaction, about the blackness all around us, about a path blossoming with tiny white dancers.

“I am working also on hope,” writes Susan Jackson Rodgers in her essay in this volume. “I am working on peace—my own, not the world’s; the world is, it seems, doomed.”

So as I sit right here in my office, right now on April 22, I offer a final paraphrase of William Faulkner that seems as true as I type it as it will be when you read it and was when he wrote it. “Humans must teach ourselves that the basest of all things is to be afraid,” Faulkner said, “and, teaching ourselves that, forget it forever, leaving no room in our workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things, to help us endure by lifting our hearts.”



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