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Belief is its own kind of truth, Maybe by Lori Jakiela (Atticus Books, 2015)

Belief is its own kind of truth, Maybe by Lori Jakiela (Atticus Books, 2015)

This engaging, multifaceted creative nonfiction memoir is exquisitely written and effortlessly draws the reader into a series of philosophical issues. Ostensibly the narrative concerns the narrator’s quest for her biological mother and medical history through the Catholic Charities following the death of her adopted mother. However, it soon develops a series of narrative threads moving back and forward in time, which concern nature versus nurture, motherhood, authenticity and mapping a life. What emerges through short, stabbing paragraphs of gritty, self-deprecating and emotionally charged versions of being raised by foster parents is the trail of how that narrator was formed and became the woman who writes.

The story of the search for her birth mother highlights Jakiela’s extensive narrative gifts. She is sharp, insightful, adept at the use of detail to show the wider social-economic or family context, brutally honest and concerned with using language to uncover deeper layers of meaning. Her use of language with its movement from staccato jazz to the darkly funny is reminiscent of Geoff Dyer in The Colour of Memory and Paris Trance. However, Jakiela offers another layer than Dyer in that she is concerned with probing the archaeology of words. This takes two forms. One is a concern with naming and names, and the other is a fascination with adding words to develop vocabulary and selfhood. Both concerns are shown in the narrator’s exploration of her daughter’s first word, ‘abre’ meaning open and her son’s first word, ‘duck’, which she views as ‘blood things’. There is also a sense that words carry possible transcendence through the uncovering of older meaning. Like Dyer, Jakiela wears her learning lightly and is a joy to read.

Years ago, I saw a palm reader in a basement storefront in New York. She held my wrists, turned my palms up, both hands. “This,” she said, tracing a finger down the lines of my left hand, “is what you were born with. ”Then she traced a finger on my right palm. “And this,” she said, “is the map you make yourself.”
The she asked for $50. She took MasterCard and Visa, not Discover.

Blood is a strong motif running through the memoir. There is a moving scene in her in-laws’ kitchen when the narrator has received a series of abusive messages from a woman purporting to be her birth sister following her efforts to contact her mother. This is cleverly juxtaposed through the décor of pears reminding her of Odysseus’s use of pears, his homelessness, her old classics Professor’s urging her to read the original, and cutting her palm when trying to slice a bagel in two. “Cut away from yourself,” my mother always said. She inspects the ragged cut between the heart and life lines, and the blood ‘coming up in spots, flecks.’ The scene builds up through a series of emotions. ‘Anger comes after grief and fear, a logical thing, but I can’t sort this. I want the truth and I want the lie I was born with. I want connection and I want to get as far away as possible.’

Underlying the narrative are some interesting premises, such as the desire to write to discover what one does not know, and the boundaries and limitations of one’s own life story. Jakiela is a knowing and explorative writer seeking to expand and grow. An adopted person’s story, she writes, ‘is someone else’s secret.’ Indeed this leads her to write an imagined and seemingly authentic account of her birth mother’s situation at the time of her birth. Her birth mother subsequently refuses to acknowledge and communicate with her daughter. Here lies the agony, the persistent unease, and joy of this well filtered narrative. From the darkness of a crippling past, Jakiela finds light.

Her quest for connection ultimately stems from her own selfhood, family and relationships, and an ability to draw from literature and upon the life experiences of other writers and poets, such as Anne Sexton, Gerald Locklin, whom her son is named after, and Lucille Clifton. Beneath that is a quest for the roots of words and an understanding of the role of translation.

My birth mother’s name is such an ordinary one, as ordinary as podium, as plant, as pen. “Do you ever wonder about that?” Lucille Clifton wanted to know, how something plain could have so much power. But in Grimm’s fairy tale, Rumplestiltskin demands the queen learn his name or lose her child. Ancient people believed to know someone’s name was to know that person’s essence. To change a name meant to change destiny. The name I was born with means work and strain. The name I was born with was a wolf.
Lori is a laurel tree. Lori is a celebration.
A name can be a transformation or a cage, both.

Lori Jakiela is a most accomplished writer. You will not be disappointed by the range and scope of this provocative memoir.

David Caddy 16th April 2015

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Rebecca Schumejda’s Waiting At The Dead End Diner

Rebecca Schumejda’s Waiting At The Dead End Diner

New York literary tourists now have a new place to locate and visit following the perceptive exploration of the elaborate world of the Dead End Diner by Rebecca Schumejda in her great page-turner of a poetry book, Waiting At The Dead End Diner (Bottom Dog Press, 2014).  The woman narrator explains that this Diner was named possibly because ‘once inside / you reach a point where / movement and progress is impossible’ and you become trapped in a black hole.

 

Schumejda’s narrator allows the reader wide access to the world and the language of the Diner where chefs, busboys, waiters and waitresses work double and triple shifts to make financial ends meet and serve their counter congregation. The waitresses range from women committed to working all their life at the Diner to College educated newbies that either sink or swim in the fast food industry.

 

To the Lifer waitress The Dead End Diner, open 24 hours a day, is not the last resort, it is an art form with calculated movements, simple gestures and a huge heart. This 200 page book leaves an overwhelming sense of the Diner as home and a supportive community of multiethnic workers attempting to earn as money as possible from seemingly dead end employment. Schumejda has produced a collection of such narrative force and characterization that she deserves to be compared to Raymond Carver and Lori Jakiela. Like them, Schumejda unravels a complicated world of local and immigrant labour, social stratification, gender, race, love and religious difference, is acutely aware of the importance of small details and, at times, very funny.

 

While marrying ketchup

with Jolene, she tells me

about her sex life,

including how she loves when

her boyfriend, who works at

the bowling alley, brings home

rental shoes for her to sniff

while he fucks her up the ass.

She pulls a crusty ring of ketchup

from the rim of a bottle,

slides it on her fat pinky finger

and asks, Do you think this is why

     they call it marrying ketchup?

 

Schumejda’s Long Island narrator emerges from waitressing a much stronger woman than when entered, having encountered more than life’s vagaries, friendship and hope, within this tough community, moves to Alaska to leave behind ‘the geography of fate’, and finally returns for a degree of independence, a ‘landscape of regulars’ and ‘the friendly banter between family’.

 

American working class female labour has rarely been given such social insight as these poems offer. Working lives are laid bare and the minutiae of that work given significance. By the second half of the book the poems concern sequential events and roll out a serial narrative of hourly and daily life at the Diner during an autumnal and early winter season. The narrative flows naturally, gracefully, and creates a wide picture of street hard characters, with little time to question apart from on the nightshift, finding solidarity and connection through adversity.  Schumejda handles the serial form with panache, finding and developing memorable lines from conversations, some of which are used to preface each section.

 

During a lull, while vacuuming the carpets

in this empty diner, I cringe thinking

about what Jolene told me earlier tonight:

I went bowling right after the free clinic

     sucked the misfortune from my womb

     and actually beat my record with a 210.

 

This collection is eminently enjoyable, acutely perceptive, and deserves to be widely read.

 

 

David Caddy 10th February 2014

 

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