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Posts by Mary Ann Koruth

Craft of Writing: If Wallace Stevens could talk to Toll Brothers


Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock

by Wallace Stevens

The houses are haunted

By white night-gowns.

None are green,

Or purple with green rings,

Or green with yellow rings,

Or yellow with blue rings.

None of them are strange,

With socks of lace

And beaded ceintures.

People are not going

To dream of baboons and periwinkles.

Only, here and there, an old sailor,

Drunk and asleep in his boots,

Catches tigers

In red weather.

 When I landed in the United States, my aunt drove me home from the airport to her house, where I would stay for a few weeks before going on to graduate school. I remember the deafening silence during the drive. My aunt and I had plenty to say to each other, but throughout the drive I was aware of a silence that began outside the raised windows of her car and extended to the moving scrim of houses and buildings in the neighborhoods we passed as we drove to her home in an expensive Cincinnati suburb. To me, the silence was tremulous. It hung like a cobweb, threatening to shatter into the noise and chaos I was used to on the city streets of India, which were filled with honking and the sound of engines sputtering, the discrete sounds of transport vehicles fashioned out of the cabins of small trucks, extended to contain seats for anywhere between 3 to 10 passengers, of scooters, of motorbike riders revving and roaring, all against the irrepressible tinkle and chime of bicycle bells, clanking obstinately between their fuel-driven counterparts. Only, it didn’t. The silence remained unbroken. When we pulled into her curving cobble-stone driveway and I stepped out of the car, the silence grew louder, broken only by occasional bird-call. The quietness made me so uncomfortable, I could not sleep for nights. Is it this silence that dresses the American suburb, and haunts its houses, bathed in the bright light of bulbs, in the white night-gowns of Steven’s poem? Not comforting like the silence of the woods, or a quiet garden scene, but a silence borne from the lack of necessary disorder, a silence that is artificial and curated by the very laws and regulations that make American suburbia the haven of safety and predictability that is its unique selling point?

Stevens’ poem is a commentary against the anodyne life of the American suburb. The sameness of the homes, the white-lit unity of their little blocks and fences and lawns, the trundling mail-truck. None of them are strange, he says, but why would we be, the houses might say in reply. The people who live here are not going to dream of baboons and periwinkles. There is no place here for the artistic and the frenzied, or for the outlier. It is only the poet who wants to  experience life in its many colors. The poet is alone in craving the sight of purple houses with green rings. For company, he has the drunken sailor, who, having rejected social mores and himself been rejected by society, dreams of catching tigers in red weather. Modern, civilized society is blind to its own delirium. Everything that is colorful and human and alive is lost in this ghost-country of perfect homes and perfect order. “Give me chaos, give me truth, give me danger,” is the implicit cry of the poet, but he will not be granted it; to have access to it, he too has to live on the fringes of society, like the sailor asleep in a drunken stupor, still wearing his boots. The cost of freedom is too high to pay for those who buy into the humming dullness of ordinary living. The American suburb is part of this American mythology — it is a product of the nearly mythical reach of urban and suburban sprawl, and the industries that run behind these systems to make them look and work the way they do. The poet pleads for the mythical qualities of color and wildness, of animals and exotic accoutrements, as absurd as lace and beaded belts, to somehow make their appearance and redeem modern American living of its curse of uniformity and conformity.

By using whimsical and absurd imagery that is the complete opposite of everything that the poet actually sees, Stevens evokes the vigor that is absent from modern living with its trappings of comfort and respectability. How wonderful that we can never know what exactly a tiger in red weather is. But we can dream of it. Yet even that dream, of a tiger bounding and leaping, borne from some deep and unexplored desire, is the luxury of a homeless sailor. The people who live in the neatly painted homes set in rows upon a street, have lost even the ability to dream of what they might truly want and need.

– Mary Ann Koruth



A close read: “Mozart’s Final Hour”, a poem from the New Yorker.(Feb 26, 2018 issue)

My father is playing the B-Flat Sonata
Hidden under the rented baby grand
I press one pedal or another,
“damper,” “sustain”—

My father is playing the B-Flat Sonata,” begins this poem, Mozart’s Final Hour” by D.Nurkse, in a recent issue of the New Yorker. In this short, but redemptive poem about a child and his father, the narrator—ostensibly, the poet himself— takes on the great themes of filial love and mortality in the fraught, but primal bond between father and son. Without wasting any time, the scene is set. The child seated, “hidden under the rented baby grand” is not merely innocent, and trusting, but filled with awe of his father, the pianist. Why else does he hide? In the act of hiding, with its echoes of wonder and shyness, perhaps even fear, and in the father’s blindness to the child’s position under the piano, literally at his feet, the poet captures an age-old trope of the relationship between boys and their fathers: the child’s yearning to be seen and recognized, and the parent falling short. The awe-filled child, rendered so real, by the grown son, who looks back at that awe, and at that parent, with sadness.

The opening movement of Mozart’s B-Flat Sonata has a quietness and yearning to it; even when it launches into a glittering piece of virtuosity, a liminal melancholy hovers over it like a cloud. The poem reflects this floating, lingering quality. The child attempts to help his father realize the piece by pressing the pedals that extend the sounds, or muffle them, but in doing so, the emotive register of the music changes. The music becomes inaccessible — the father is unable to evoke the musical magic of Mozart’s work; it is as if the music is no more able to speak to him. He cannot capture its magic in his playing even though this is all he wants to do.

Mozart grows pompous, prissy,
or strangely tongue-tied.

Is the joke on Mozart, or on the father, trying to play the piece to his best ability? Note that the poet calls Mozart pompous and tongue-tied, as if the entire interaction between father and child whittles to a stale, unemotional performance. Rather than directly criticize the father, the poet addresses the quality of his playing. This is the child’s reading of his father, and his accusation: even the beauty of Mozart turns into something cold and distant in his father’s hands. If Mozart’s sonata is representative of beauty, including the beauty of love between father and child, then the pianist has failed in his rendition of both music and love.

There is also the sense of how the child manages to distort his father’s earnest efforts. The child is well-meaning, just as the father is dedicated. Yet the music they produce together —the child at the pedals, the father at the keys—falls short, too.

You can watch the shadows come—
the elm in the French window
impenetrable as a score.
Rain is a diminished chord.

The weather changes, day moves into night, as if mimicking the difficulty and unpredictability of the father’s efforts. It is no surprise that the shadows of evening, the inner darknesses of boy and man, appear in the windows. Even the elegant elm is an obstacle. It begins to rain. Nothing provides inspiration. 

I press those huge slippers
that smell of fart and wax,
gently, and my father
adjusts his timing delicately.

Now the child inches closer, ensconced in the dark womb created by his father’s presence and his piano-playing, so close and so real that the rest of the world, the intruding elm, the rain, all cease to exist. With tentative hands, he presses his father’s slippers. Larger than life as his father might seem, his slippers quickly remove any pretense of this. They smell of “fart and wax”, and yet, the child touches them. He does not touch his father though. It is enough just to touch the old, smelly slippers. The little concert continues at the piano, and momentarily, something of beauty is born.

Its late.

Perhaps it is, too late.

Mozart bloated with sepsis says:
Fetch me my quill. I have an idea
that will make me famous.

The pathos of the dying artist, wanting to create — even when there is no hope left. Bloated Mozart, whose intricate genius the father tries to grasp in his playing, died prematurely, his work on earth incomplete. The poet’s repeated references to Mozart as arrogant, as remote, and finally as a sick man on his deathbed, are at odds with how we are used to thinking about a man of incredible genius and fame. There is a shift in language, from the lyrical (rain is a diminished chord) to the brazen (fart and wax) and a shift in subject. A dying Mozart reappears.  And in this dying, we see the failure of the promise of fatherhood. The child is the audience, the father the performer who cannot impress—don’t talk about ideas and quills, says the poet.

Now the room is entirely dark.
My father is playing by heart.
That stupid grief—he memorized it.

This is where the poem comes to a head. All its force collects in this one line: “That stupid grief—he memorized it.”  The narrator, disgusted and disappointed, finally breaks out of the trance of childhood and identifies his father’s mistake. His voice is conversational and furious—he abandons formal language and bursts out. The father could not forget his sorrow. It made its way into the Mozart piece, and it made its way to the little boy, who sat beneath the piano, looking up, to his father, for reassurance, but was denied it. The paternal figurehead is incriminated.

Our love is like nightfall
or a trill: you can see through it
but not it.

These simple lines appear at the end of the poem, full of grace and wisdom. The son, despite his deep disappointment with his father, recognizes that there is love, no doubt. He knows his father loves him, but the affection is inexpressible. Like nightfall or a musical trill, the son senses its existence, but does not have the luxury of experiencing it. This is not enough, and this is the poet’s sorrow. The observation is a commentary on poetics too. How does one express the inexpressible? Their interaction on a rented piano, however tender the image, in the end, just did not cut it, did not make the mark. 

Delicate lyricism is offset by a fierce thesis.

Then time shall be no more.

This line, which comprises the entire second section of the poem, is a double allusion. James Joyce was paraphrasing the Bible in “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man,” when he wrote, “Time is, time was, time shall be no more”. The meaning is that we are out of time, that time has run out. The narrator is in the present, when time is no more, and there is opportunity only for recollection and synthesis, in poetry. One day soon (if not already), the poet says, his father will be no more. And then, so shall time—his chance for change, for making amends to his son—all of these, will be no more.

I don’t think its a coincidence that the shape of the poem on the page is lean, like a column or a narrow pillar, and its language so simple. Neither its form nor its content convey abundance or excess of emotion. Though the themes of art are universal, we look to art –to stories and novels and poetry and movies– to bring those themes home, to situate ourselves in these investigations into life’s emotional truths, because art is the apotheosis of individual, human experience.  Art does not rationalize. Pure art possesses and projects pure emotion, and when we hear  from the son in this poem, who remembers sitting at his father’s feet as a boy, at the piano, listening to the longing in Mozart’s music, while filled with a longing of his own, we understand fathers and sons everywhere.  In Mozart’s greatness and in his death, we see the figure of the father.  Yet both are only human, and both are tragic, their creations fragile, left to fend for themselves. Mozart’s sonata does not live and breathe in the pianist’s hand in the way he wishes it to. It is the same with the child he created. Like shadows, they touch without meeting, they inhabit the same spaces, but without speaking and celebrating their bond.  In the end, they are tied to each other by the the very gulf of sadness that divides them.

Mary Ann Koruth


What we write about when we write about writing. (A response to Yiyun Li).

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li.

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li.
Hardcover, 208 pages, Random House Inc. 2017

In “Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” Yiyun Li’s intelligent and deeply nuanced memoir on her life and her writing and the interminable connection between the two, she quotes from her novella, “Kindness”. The episode she describes is of a little girl who wants to buy chicks from a peddler. Because her father cannot afford them, two women in the market pay for them. She takes them home and cares for them, but they die, eventually. The girl steals eggs from her kitchen and cracks them open, washing out the yolks and whites. She then tries to return the dead chicks to the eggshells, trying to fit their tiny bodies into the halves, but finds that she is unsuccessful. The excerpt ends with the girl making this observation, “I have learned, since then, that life is like that, each day ending up like a chick refusing to be returned to the egg shell.”

Li’s assertion, throughout this book, is that she has abandoned her native tongue, Chinese, and adopted English as the language she writes in. In addition to giving up Chinese, but also, as a result of this choice, she has abandoned elements of her childhood in China, and would like to live in a world that is as unpopulated by memories of her life, growing up in China, as is possible. The book was written over a two-year period during which Li was hospitalized twice for suicidal depression.

Though the questions that Li raises, and the statements she makes, are about writing, they become questions about life and living. This is why her book is so unusual and so profound. In giving up a past, in renouncing it as completely and unambiguously as Li has chosen to renounce Chinese, surely her writing is informed and influenced by the vacuum created by that choice, as much as it would have been informed and enriched by embracing it. Li is the first to admit this — in life, as in writing, our selves are as much a result of what we choose to be as what we choose to not be. Like chicks refusing to return to the eggshells, we are what we give up. We can choose not to retrace our steps, but there is no erasing; the erasure of memory and the revisiting of it — aren’t these almost equally unreliable?

Why write autobiographically? Li asks this question pointedly. The word “I”, in English, is melodramatic, she writes. “In Chinese one can construct a sentence with an implied subject pronoun and skip that embarrassing I, or else replace it with we. Living is not an original business.” Li insists that she does not write autobiographically — because she does not, or did not, at the time of writing this book, have a “solid and explicable self”. She refers to a state of “unraveling” in between her hospitalizations. She writes to erase the self — but that is impossible, because nothing brings us closer to our truest selves than the practice of art.

I can often trace an autobiographical element to my stories. But that is not what I am interested in, for this piece. It is the sense of self that Li grapples with, and that she describes other patients in her hospital grappling with, a sense of self so flung into sadness that she wanted to erase it completely. I cannot pretend to understand the depth of Ms. Li’s despair, but I cannot be alone in having known despair and emptiness. I write to escape myself; writers like Li, are talented enough to do so successfully in their stories and novels. In my own poems and fiction, I fear vanity; how much of memory, of pain recalled, is mere indulgence? The “I” that Li suspects and would dispose of, raises a similar question for me. Do our individual selves matter enough to justify autobiographical writing? My answer is no, yet I cannot help returning to that elusive “I”. In any case, all writing is personal, so that trying to escape the “I” is a bit of a bluff. So much safer to publish journalism and criticism. Fiction and poetry are hard, but until I am certain of the validity—and quality–of what I create, a lot of my other writing will remain an escape.

An Indian colleague of mine was surprised when I told her during her farewell party in the office, that two years ago, she had asked me, as I walked through the lobby, to show her to her interview, and though neither of us knew it at the time, her future boss. She did not recall our interaction.

“Am I that forgettable?” I laughed, which was silly, because she was thinking of her job prospects in an empty lobby on a blue, cloudy day. Anyone else, in my place, would have done the same for her. Yet when I took my son to the doctor last week, he told me he remembered me from a year ago, when I visited him with my daughter. I was surprised that he would, because I was, at the time, thinking only of her. I don’t recall saying anything that would make him remember me, but he did. Our ideas about ourselves are consistent only in our own eyes. Writing, unlike life, has the advantage of hindsight, which makes for more predictable results. You might be able to identify a writer by her voice or her oeuvre, but the truth of who she really is can be impossible to lay a finger on. And so, the writer, in search of a self, keeps writing, and her readers pick up the thread wherever she leaves it, in her books.

I have not yet completed Li’s book, partly because I want to linger and bathe in her many aphorisms, her entangled thoughts, which defy and provoke each other, reminding me that uncertainty is a state worth having.

What I take away from it, as far as my own writing is concerned is this: if I could speak with as much assurance as I write, how much more memorable I would be to the people I meet. But the page is more patient than a person, though what I write, I write for people. Perhaps I am simply too careful in relationships, even casual conversations — the fear of causing damage or hurt by saying what I think, or bringing into question my own immaturity, the fear of revealing weakness, seals my lips and distorts what I would naturally say. Writing, both fiction and non-fiction, is a lifelong exploration of the gap between truth and what I think is the truth — between absolutes and relatives, between the objective and the subjective, between negative space and positive space. I seem to have assumed that the truth (of life, of art) is unknowable — distant from my own experience of it. This is a form of posturing, but it is also true. A digression from things is often only a path of return. I can only speak for myself, and so, I write.

– Mary Ann Koruth

Review of “Night of the Fiestas” By Kristin Valdez Quade

In “Night of the Fiestas” (W.W.Norton, 2015), Kristin Valdez Quade explores the complicated question of class and race in contemporary America — a double-sided coin of fascination and, often, disdain. Her characters might be separated from each other by socio-economic chasms, but their lives touch in intimate ways. The socialite is set against the striver, the climber against the arrived, the ambitious against the complacent, employer against employee, the well-adjusted against the malcontent. The sparks set off by these interactions awaken Valdez’s characters to their demons and disappointments, leaving them stunned and humbled by the consequences their own actions unleash. In several of the stories in this collection, we see the artlessness of the protagonists and how their blundering, all-too-human over reaching comes back to haunt them.

In “Cannute Commands the Tides”, Margaret, an older woman, dissatisfied with the mediocrity of her artistic achievement, becomes enamored with her cleaning woman, Carmen. Her dreams of  emancipating and understanding Carmen end in violence and shock when the latter’s no-good adult son shows up at her home with a gun. Margaret becomes an escapee from her own mansion, a disappointed Cannute watching from the driveway, as Carmen tends to her abusive, criminal son, “the two of them as destructive and unstoppable as any force of nature”.

In “Jubilee”, Andrea, is to all concerned, the ultimate achiever. She is the daughter of working-class New Mexican parents. Her father owns a taco cart and has worked, all his life, in some capacity or the other in the fruit orchards and home of the wealthy, landowning Lowells. Andrea is admitted into Stanford on merit, and in her cohort is Parker Lowell, the daughter of her father’s employer. Every interaction between the two girls – including Andrea’s recollections of her childhood with Parker — is shrouded by the narrative of Andrea’s life, a narrative constructed by herself and skewed from having grown up in the shadow of the successful Lowells. In the face of Parker Lowell’s innate sense of ease, her beauty, her ‘whiteness’, and the many gifts of privilege she enjoys without question, Andrea is and will always be no more than a striver and an outsider. Andrea’s alienation is intensified from her notion that however hard she works and despite the professional success she knows will come to her, she was born to none of it. In this very keen revelation, Quade questions the truth of what is at heart a uniquely American theme — that of democracy and self-determination, of inventing one’s destiny in a society founded on the fruit of individual effort, free, as its immigrant beginnings would suggest, from the class and caste structures of the old country. Yet in Andrea’s struggle with class and race, Quade identifies our near-universal hankering to share a seat with the blue-bloods, and our instinct that it is more elegant or desirable, somehow, to be born into privilege than to earn it.

At the jubilee celebration that the story takes its name from, Andrea’s interactions with Parker are alternately awkward, manipulative and finally, damaging. One of her earliest memories is of Mr.Lowell yelling at her when he catches her plucking blueberries in the orchard. No doubt, it is a memory altered by Andrea’s resentment of the Lowells. At the end of the story, a chastened Andrea recalls that Mr.Lowell had not yelled at her, and instead had affectionately requested her to stop, and sent her away with a Coke. Having wounded both herself and Parker, Andrea returns to the orchard and plucks blueberries frantically. It is ironic and yet, not surprising at all, that the single activity that helps her escape her shame is the work of her parents and of her people – fruit picking. She returns to the work whose stain she has dreamed of erasing all of her life. Valdez Quade’s empathy and talent come through in the wisdom of this sentence that reveals Andrea’s need to obliterate her past and her actions, and if it were possible, her culpability.

“She picked and she picked, until she forgot that there were other people around, and as the leaves rustled and the light scattered around her, she forgot herself too.”


— Mary Ann Koruth

Craft of writing: No Bells, No Whistles—The Power of Simple Language

Twilight (by Henri Cole, from his collection, “Blackbird and Wolf”)

There’s a black bear
in the apple tree
and he won’t come down.
I can hear him panting,
like an athlete.
I can smell the stink
of his body.

Come down, black bear.
Can you hear me?

The mind is the most interesting thing to me;
like the sudden death of the sun,
it seems implausible that darkness will swallow it
or that anything is lost forever there,
like a black bear in a fruit tree,
gulping up sour apples
with dry sucking sounds,

or like us at the pier, somber and tired,
making food from sunlight,
you saying a word, me saying a word, trying hard,
Though things were disintegrating.
Still, I wanted you,
your lips on my neck,
your postmodern sexuality.
Forlorn and anonymous:
I didn’t want to be that. I could hear
the great barking monsters of the lower waters
calling me forward.

You see, my mind takes me far,
but my heart dreams of return.

Black bear,
with pale-pink tongue
at the center of his face,
Is turning his head,
Like the face of Christ from life.
Shaking the apple boughs,
he is stronger than I am
and seems so free of passion—
no fear, no pain, no tenderness. I want to be that.

Come down, black bear.
I want to learn the faith of the indifferent.

I have read this poem over and over again, loving it each time. I return to it like I do to many poems, because it provides an affirmation of my own feelings, my own condition at some point or the other. Like all good art, it mirrors pain rather than seeking to resolve it; it captures rather than critiques; it does not pretend to understand passion. It simply evokes the narrator’s exhaustion and sadness.

“I want to learn the faith of the indifferent”.

Peace eludes the narrator; even indifference will do in its place, he says. The line is ironic but also gives the poem its pathos–is there a greater tragedy than to want to be indifferent to life?

Less is more, they say, and this poem uses that adage to great success. Its language is simple, and its delivery, direct. It possesses the same qualities that Mathew Arnold praised about Homeric style: “…that he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and, finally, that he is eminently noble…”
When I read “Twilight”, these words came to mind—simple, direct, rapid. The black bear in an apple tree is a simple metaphor for the mind: dark, unknowable and unpredictable, cradled in branches that bear fruit, so full of color and life.

“I can smell the stink of his body”.

Cole does not mask the stink of the bear in more sophisticated language. The plainness of his language is intentional—and the intentionality is enforced in the rhythm and meter of the line, with the emphasis on the words, “smell”, and “stink”. Read it aloud to yourself, and see.

Go further down the poem and you see that there is no pedantry, no flourishes, no poetic effects. If there is any conceit, it is only in the words “your postmodern sexuality”: how is sexuality postmodern? Everywhere else in the poem, our trust and attention are won over by simple pleas, and clear statements.

…Come down, black bear
Can you hear me?

You see, my mind takes me far,
But my heart dreams of return…

And then, the most enthralling lines:

Black bear,
With pale-pink tongue
At the center of his face,
Is turning his head,
Like the face of Christ from life.

Five lines that connote the contrasting states of suffering and satiety—the bear, sated from eating, turns away blindly, letting its tongue hang out, oblivious to the inner life of the narrator, in a gesture similar to the way that Christ on the cross turned away his own head, but with his eyes wide open, acutely aware of suffering.

The power of the poem lies in its quiet confidence: short sentences, unassuming language, and the single, consistent image of the bear. The image of Christ is universal and accurate, throwing open the poem, and inviting us into the utter despair of the narrator. It appears, completely unexpected, at the very end, shaking up the reader, before it closes in an echo of our own discomfort:

Shaking the apple boughs,
he is stronger than I am
and seems so free of passion—
no fear, no pain, no tenderness. I want to be that.

Come down, black bear.
I want to learn the faith of the indifferent.

Craft of Writing: Interiors and Interiorities

One of the things that has always daunted me in writing is the description of ordinary spaces, and how to use them effectively without being bogged down by unnecessary detail. A love story on a deserted island with coconut palms and roaring seas (excuse the cliché) would be a thrill to describe, but those aren’t the scenarios in which daily life plays out. An office cubicle, a playground, a dining table where a child eats her cereal on a school morning, the restaurant at the heart of a small mid-western town—the sort with the clapboard exterior, the rows of tables with faux-wood veneer borders, the cushioned chairs, the perky waitress, the laminated menu. Ordinary as these are, they can become dramatic spaces in the hands of a careful writer. Elizabeth Strout juxtaposes the mundane locations of Crosby, Maine, the small town where her stories unfold, with the restless interiorities of her characters. In “Olive Kitteridge”, her Pulitzer prize winning collection of short stories, Strout describes the nondescript interiors—of the restaurants, churches, hospitals and neighborhoods that American readers are all too familiar with and which sometimes suffer from a heightened sameness, by introducing particulars of a location into the scattered thoughts of a character, so that a single image evokes a known world. We have all read stories where the mood of a place underlines the mood of the characters occupying it—either by echoing it, or opposing it. Strout does this particularly well. She embroiders epiphanies, doubts and musings—the revelatory aspects of character—with the most mundane details of routine and locale.

Patty Howe poured coffee unto two white mugs, placed them on the counter, said quietly, “You’re welcome,” and moved back to arrange corn muffins that had just been passed through the opening from the kitchen. She had seen the man sitting in the car—he’d been there well over an hour—but people did that sometimes, drove out of town just to gaze at the water. Still, there was something about him that was troubling her. “They’re perfect,” she said to the cook, because the tops of muffins were crispy at the edges, yellow as rising suns. The fact that their newly baked scent did not touch off a queasiness in her, as they had two times in the past year, made her sad…

The screen door opened, banged shut. Through the large window, Patty saw that the man in the car still sat looking at the water, and as Patty poured coffee for an elderly couple that had seated themselves slowly into a booth, as she asked how they were this nice morning, she suddenly knew who the man was, and something passed over her, like a shadow crossing in front of the sun. “There you go,” she said to the couple, and didn’t glance out the window again.

(From the short story “Incoming Tide”, in the collection, Olive Kitteridge.)

These paragraphs introduce us to the character and her setting—a breakfast joint in Crosby, Maine. Where an average writer might waste words creating the sense of space that Patty occupies internally (in her mind), and externally (at her job as a waitress), Strout captures her in the act of pouring coffee into two white mugs. We, the readers. know white mugs and coffee, and corn muffins. With three simple and ubiquitous images, we know where she is, and what she might be employed as. We return now, nudged gently by Strout, to Patty’s mind. The man in the car is unknown to her, and to us, so what is there to do, but have her make a comment to the cook, about the beauty of the muffins—yellow as rising suns—a nod to the time of day (morning), and the goodness of the food, and the woman, Patty, who is handling it. She is sad, which makes her sympathetic, and this heightens the dramatic tension of her being troubled by the man in the car.

The scene consists of a screen door, a large window and a booth—three objects that signify again, the kind of restaurant. It serves breakfast, and is not upscale. And just as she greets her customers, the realization dawns. She recognizes the man and it is not a happy recognition. In two paragraphs, Strout not only delves into the character’s mind, but makes her eminently human (she is kind, she is sad about something, she is frightened from having recognized the man). Most importantly though, she drives the story forward by piquing our curiosity and our concern. Who is this man, and what is he to Patty Howe?

All it took was some deft and brilliant interweaving of a state of mind with telling details of space and gestures, for a new character, Patty Howe, to unfold and shine through.

– Mary Ann Koruth