The communion begins with 'Beneath the Undergarden'
Autumn in Arizona inspires fall cleaning—as the heat dials back, save for direct sun in the early afternoon, and the sky deepens to a darker blue, and as the Sonoran Desert stashes away the monsoon magic for a different flavor, I feel an extraordinary need to clarify.
Instead of unpacking from a work trip to Detroit and shoving my suitcase back into storage, I was digging through an old box of computer parts and nested wires that’s been living in our office closet since we moved into this house nearly two years ago.
I had already sorted through fraying headphones and ancient graphics cards and business cards from two jobs ago, thrown away a few armfuls, and repopulated my desk with a few forgotten trinkets, when I found this note from Aurelie Sheehan, a professor I worked with at the University of Arizona when I was getting my MFA.
Joel, your writing helps us see what we have become blind to. I’ve not seen better proof that writing is not selfish or insular, but a communion of the highest order.
Aside from this being such a kind, thoughtful compliment, it’s migrated back to me at such a perfect time—a moment of transition and doubt, as I both change course and wait, somewhat patiently, for the email(s) that will change everything. I’ve put the novel project—THE STAR CASSETTE—away for now, as I wait to hear back on the small barrages of query emails I’ve been sending out, and have returned my focus to shorter work and projects.
One of which is a series of communions between people and the animals around them.
One of my deepest fascinations is borrowed from fairy tales—the ease with which they communicate. Not by mouth, not making human sounds, like the Disney-ified version of these ancient stories, but from a deeper source. Telepathy. A feeling. A look in the eye and knowing. A language we once shared with the animals around us and have since lost in our struggle to bring obedience to the world.
I wrestled with this inability to answer our animal friends through my last novel attempt, WHAT STILLS NEVER SURVIVES, in which a veterinarian, navigating a world where animals are changed and killed through an apocalyptic event, wishes she could understand where the animals around her hurt. Whether they wish the hurt were gone. Whether they want to be fixed. Every time I include an animal protagonist in a story of mine, like “The Boomslang Coup”, I’m actively exploring that borderline.
The entrance to a deep and dark woods, where, upon passing through, where we might commune with the animals once again.
I have some exciting news from this border: My prose poem, “Beneath the Undergarden” is now live in issue 14 of Tiny Molecules. I’m always excited and worried in equal measure when a new piece of mine passes the transom between my computer and the world at large, but this one is unique: the first in what I hope will be a long series of communions.
A few are on their way later this year, like “Meal Prep”, “Feeding the Oscars”, and “The Reception”, with others still searching for their homes.
This project feels like the coda to the endling stories I wrote back in 2014-2015. Anyone remember those? Here are a few favorites from the depths of the internet.
- “Apatosaurus” — Atticus Review
- “Whisperingbird” & “Hellhound” & “Astral Glider” — New South
And my absolute favorite, "Crepuscular Bear," which I’ll republish here in full, since Caketrain will never return from its hiatus, it seems:
The crepuscular bear mother waits in her den and when the sun falls without her crepuscular husband’s return she knows he has been felled by the rawboned man with the beard going silver. The children are playing on a rabbit skin rug. She steps outside for a moment and looks out over the crepuscular landscape. Standing there hindlimb-tall she feels like the whole crepuscular population of stars is staring down at her. She knows her body is a prize. She imagines the violence being levied against her husband and she promises the wind she will make the right sacrifices for her crepuscular young ones. Inside, the babes are still learning to talk, their tongues flat and wide like the salmon that have disappeared. Their eyes are pinched and nightblack but always growing lighter.
As the sun sets its crepuscular remnants graze the edges of her fur. She becomes adorned in columns of light, wears them like crepuscular jewelry. Her children—one two three four five—step outside and form a semicircle behind her and mumble her praises. They hold the light in their paws and praise their crepuscular heritage, their crepuscular parentage. She says to them, Babes, here is what we are, and then, one by one, she feeds them a piece of crepuscular—hard and honey-colored and blue-sweet. They hold it on their tongues and laugh. From a distance, she feels the man watching, aiming, then opens her crepuscular mouth and ushers her children inside. He will not get them. They will all be together. She swallows and their twenty little crepuscular paws tickle her throat on their way down well past midnight.
The endlings were all about finales. Closing curtains. They were me sounding a small alarm over the cavalier way we treat the world around us—climate change, the Anthropocene, the sixth and ongoing mass extinction—through an often cavalier approach. Talking animals doing strange things on the horizons of their deaths. Talking animals thrashing about before they’re burned up. Talking animals knowing the horror that is to come.
The communions are about beginnings: apologies and hopes and the first steps of long journeys. I hope they provide some light for the readers they’ll someday reach beyond that finicky border between us and everything else.