Two Poems

Breakfast with My Spiritual Advisor at Sunny Side Café

His first job out of school was working

as a hospital chaplain at Mercy,

sat bedside with the dying


for a living, and he tells me what

it was like to wait for the joints

in their fingers to go loose like he


was letting the fish steal the hook to swim

back off into scripture with.

Out down the road


the early service releases and a ringing

tower sends off the congregation

with the old, irregular style bell


ringing that signifies to me an actual

human is somewhere down there tugging

one end of some rope that crashes


a lead tongue against the hollow insides

of cast iron. You hear that, I say,

pointing with a slice of bacon to the air,


and he says they’re an expression of joy

meant to help us forget our sadness

for a minute or so, and I say


it’s there though, pointing at my heart

with the bacon, the sadness, even

when we let ourselves forget it,


same as it’s always been,

the heartache and the thousand

natural shocks that flesh is heir to.


He says he prefers Blake

over Shakespeare any day of the week

when it comes to either sadness or joy,


To see a world in a grain of sand, he says

and a heaven in a wild flower.

When the ringing quits


I say I prefer Frank Stanford, which

is a damn lie, but I don’t tell him I actually

prefer my wife’s hair slinking down her back


though I do, or that I prefer sneaking out at night

for a cigar on the porch in early fall,

or that I’ll always prefer to bury the light


and put on the darkness like a pair of wool socks

with a hole in one of the big toes

over Milton or Jesus or Sappho.


There are houses so broken

they aren’t worth fixing, and sometimes

that’s exactly how I feel. Waterlog turned


to dryrot turned so useless you couldn’t

sink a nail. Sometimes my wife whispers

she loves me from the other room and all


I hear are bells. Other times, there’s only

a lonely wind passing through the storm door

whispering almost nothing at all.


Art Fair

I came to meander through open-air booths erected

in the name of self-taught metallurgical fiends

who curl lengths of iron into abstract lawn décor,


in the name of grade school art teachers

who scrawl feverish landscapes into the night,

in the name of potters who breathe and bellow fire


into backyard kilns, in the name of woodworkers

who turn burlwood into bowls for still-life prints.

I came here because there exist people with second lives


that last longer than the first, and because we all

eventually fall into the shapeless crowds who wander

these grassy lanes like ghosts who’ve fallen


into portraits tacked in museum galleries. If I fail

to bargain down a smear of moon oil on canvas, just watch

me move in on that bloodwood cutting board,


or that hand-twined chandelier, because there’s a price

in my head that’s incapable of change and all it takes

is a bit of small talk and to look someone in the eyes.


I once convinced a man at a roadside fireworks tent

to knock ten bucks off a 12-pack of Mississippi Gambler

mortar shells so I could paint the night with more color


than you can imagine, and he just sat back into his body

and his impossibly quiet lawn chair. Just sat back down

into a life defined by a carnival tent of powder and fuse.


Listen, I came here to feel a rougher art rush through

each one of my eye’s billion vessels, because color

and form, and because far from the Louvres


of the world artists still find ways to fashion

grief into the arcades of other people’s hearts.

Because somewhere near these tents meat smoke rises


from pork fat spit into embers, and because somewhere

there is a moveable stage upon which a bass player

slowly unlatches his case, and because soon enough


the lights of this art fair will begin to dim, and each

one of us will drift back to the silence of our homes

where we will each unearth from slumber the stud-finder


level, hammer and a single nail in order to hang

an image upon the dining room wall

where before there was nothing, until now.


Questions of Emotional Truth

The Grass Labyrinth: Stories, by Charlotte Holmes
BkMk Press (University of Missouri-Kansas City), 2016
160 pages, paper, $15.95


The Grass Labyrinth won the 2017 Independent Publisher Award (IPPY) gold medal for short stories and the 2017 gold medal for Indie Book of the Year in short stories from Foreword Reviews. You can hear Holmes read from the book here.



In “Coast,” the first story in this collection of nine interconnected narratives, Henry Tillman, a painter and children’s book illustrator, is staying with his wife, Lisa, somewhere on the coastline of South Carolina in a beachfront cottage that he inherited from a great aunt. We are privy to his thoughts as he ponders reading Rilke with a lover, painter Agnes Landowska; describes a spat with Lisa over making Thanksgiving dinner; and reflects on various liaisons, familial and otherwise. It’s significant that Henry narrates the first story: he is the cog around which many of the ensuing stories revolve.


The Grass Labyrinth is about relationships, how they form and unfold, twist and intertwine, sometimes fall apart and sometimes hold fast. Holmes takes the lives of a few related individuals and shows how various forces—art, love and death—affect how they treat each other. This book is also about the creative act—in the various forms of writing poems, painting portraits, photographing boulders—and its ramifications.


At one point in the opening story, Henry wishes Agnes were with him. “Maybe what I want is just to watch her take in the details of a place I know so well,” he thinks, “see them filter into her consciousness, and come back changed, infused with her own quirky vision.” As we read further into The Grass Labyrinth, this statement becomes relevant to the author’s vision. In some ways Holmes is describing her own narrative MO, a succession of appraisals of places and people—a fine filtering leading to revelations not so much quirky as compelling.


Lisa is the speaker in the second story, “Songs Without Words.” She fills out the details of a reference Henry made in the first story to the abortion she had early in their relationship, the memory spurred by a recent miscarriage that makes her feel cursed. Friends try to comfort her; she, in turn, pictures “a heaven populated entirely by children, floating in static like that of the TV screen when the stations go off the air.” She envisions her own lost children in that limbo, “each one as long as a cocktail shrimp.”


Holmes mixes engaging descriptions of settings with equally persuasive dialogue. Her stories are clearly planned, but they develop without one’s noticing the armature, even when the author pulls a flashback to fill in some bit of information. In this way, each piece in the book works on its own, yet plot and thematic strands woven through the stories serve as a kind of inter-generational DNA.


The story “Taken,” the longest in the collection, exhibits convincing authenticity in its rendering of the dynamics and intrigue at a retreat called the Colony somewhere in the woods of Pennsylvania. A 34-year-old poet, Rika Pratt (Agnes’s daughter), becomes involved with a painter, twenty-seven-year-old Ben Tillman (Henry’s son). Both have significant others—she, Ethan, a bookstore owner; he, Mattie, a photographer—which doesn’t stop them from testing the liaison waters.


The story deftly switches back and forth between the two of them as they size up each other. It’s a sometimes-tense tango that culminates in Ben’s studio where he unveils his work from the residency. Rika finds his realism disappointing and says so: “She’s long regarded photorealism as—to use her mother’s term—just dick-wagging. See what I can do?” Ben bridles at her critique. “Emotional truth?” he asks her, “What’s that?” It’s a question the author asks in one form or another throughout the book.


In “Erratics,” Holmes switches stylistic gears, building the story from a series of thirty-three short pieces, each with a numbered title: “Erratic #112,” “Erratic #35,” “Erratic #7,” etc. The format is inspired by a series of photographs that Mattie has taken of glacial erratics. These rocks left in random places by the glaciers serve as emblems for her and Ben’s fragmented lives, marked by miscommunication and stressful recollections. “You didn’t even know what an erratic was until I told you,” Ben tells Mattie at one point, adding, “And for a long time, you kept calling them eccentrics.” It’s one of a number of moments of appealing meanness.


The title story and its coda, “Provenance,” give the collection a strong one-two closing—not a climax or a tying-up of loose ends exactly, but rather an opening to new possibilities. Invited by Kerry, his father’s widow, to sort through his papers, Ben visits his childhood home, on Thanksgiving, to find his young stepmother planning to transform the front yard. Ben thinks The Shining, but the spiral design Kerry has in mind is a vehicle for meditation. It turns out to be an environment an outsider artist might have assembled, wonderfully peculiar.


Finding fault in what is an altogether rewarding read comes down to nitpicks. A few similes seem a stretch, such as likening a child’s round and clear syllabic calls of “co, co, co” to “crystal beads flung across a tabletop.” An occasional cliché wrinkles the prose: at one point, Agnes says, “Destiny is simply an excuse invented to explain bad choices and missed opportunities,” a fitting thought for the occasion, but one that rings a bit bromidic.


Returning to the opening epigraph from poet Charles Wright after finishing the book, one is struck by the aptness of his lines: “We live in two landscapes, as Augustine might have said, / One that’s eternal and divine, / and one that’s just the back yard.” Charlotte Holmes is a master of both kinds of landscapes and the men and women who inhabit them. She is a painter of place and passion. The Grass Labyrinth is an exceptional collection.