If All They Had Were Their Bodies
Burning River Press (2012)
Michelle Reale delivers a masterpiece in her latest chapbook, If All They Had Were Their Bodies. In each of these thirteen flash pieces, Reale steers clear of the outer subterfuge that obscures most of humanity and instead takes the reader by the hand and with her subtle yet smoldering undercurrent of language takes us to the core of these familial hells.
Reale is an exquisite original. It is in the details and those spaces in between that we are given the full scope of her characters and their sometimes bleak realities that they survive with grace and a sense of the world as they know it. They don’t expect, nor ask for more.
“They are concave and vulnerable, dressed in the colors of sickness.”
“The girl squinted in the sun and felt loneliness deep and wide.”
Everything becomes animate in Reale’s stories. There are no extraneous words. Every sentence germinates its own seed, tells its own story.
“I could feel something gathering speed.”
“They came out of so many doors and went God knows where. Some had smiles bright like lemon wedges. Most had none.”
“The house heaved and shrugged.”
Reale’s voice grips us with its insistent plea to follow her into the depths. Her writing is unsparing and visual. I feel as though I’m watching one of those old home movies that gives us a narrative through flickering montages while reading these powerful stories. She probes the psyche of each character in each of these unforgettable flash pieces. They have the power to change us as readers.
Get a copy as soon as you can. You will be thankful you did. I have all of Michelle Reale’s chapbooks that surround me for daily inspiration.
Michelle Reale interview with Meg Tuite
Can you see the glow, Michelle? I’m transported by your prose and so excited to be able to share a story from this collection and review the chapbook. You are what I call a warrior writer. One of the few writers who really digs deep, gets to the root and conveys so much in each story. As a reader, I find myself looking inward and discovering more about myself through these characters. I don’t think there’s a higher goal as a writer than that. Would you share some of your process as a writer with us?
In Some Cities, that first paragraph sets it all up for us. We get the colors, the sounds, the tension and inner fear of the narrator before it all unfolds. Do you work from a first sentence, get images or is it different with each piece you write?
Thanks for the kind words, Meg, I really appreciate them!
I actually work from images, I think, more than anything. Occasionally I will overhear a snippet of conversation without the needed context and proceed to “fill in the details!” Images and tiny gestures, though, like the furrowing of a brow, the way someone might touch another’s shoulder, the suppression of tears set my mind on fire. Images do the same, but nothing grand, whatsoever. I am all about the quotidian, the day-to-day, finding meaning in the ordinary. It is consistently overlooked and for the life of me, I don’t know why.
In Some Cities, I was moved to write about a place in my minds’ eye, a place, actually, that has been in my minds’ eye for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, this “place” both comforted and puzzled me. Every now and then, I will be somewhere that has the “aura” of that place and I get goose bumps. I tried to write about it. In fact, I am always trying to write about it.
There are these places we go back to in our work. And I love that you brought up the day-to-day, the family the memories that we carry. Where did you grow up and do you return to that place for many of your stories?
I grew up in a town 30 minutes from downtown Philadelphia. When I was growing up, it was largely Italian-American and African-American. My parish school and church was very Italian-American. My early stories are incredibly influenced by my old neighborhood and the house I grew up in. I loved it there, will love it forever. I recently moved back to my town, and am living in a house very similar to the one I grew up in, in a very similar neighborhood. The house I live in now is the second in which I have felt happiest. With this said, it would not be difficult for one to figure out that “place” is very important to me in so many ways. It influences everything about me. This translates into other utter peculiarities about me: even my “place at the table” -----not figuratively, LITERALLY, is very important to me! Every Sunday my siblings and our families have dinner at my parent’s house. It upsets me to the point of absurdity if anyone, for any reason, sits in a different place at the table.
My first chapbook , Natural Habitat (Burning River) was strongly influenced by my childhood home. In fact, in a strange effort of what writer’s will go through to get close to their subjects, for one whole year, I tried to find a way to actually “live” on my old street, for one week, while I polished old stories and wrote new ones. My best friend from childhood who lived just a house away from us (and in whose home I spent most of my time) mentioned it to the old, old neighbor whose house was attached to her. “Fine!,” she said! I’d be happy to oblige her!” We both thought it strange, because the woman was surly and kind of mean from way back. But I thought it was my chance, and she lived alone with two extra bedrooms. When I contacted her, she told me her life story (as if I didn’t already know) and asked me when the book about her would be published. Ugh. So close, but it didn’t happen. Then, that same friend’s mother passed away (a woman that influenced me, in many ways, while growing up) and my friend offered the house to me for a week, before they put it up for sale. Well, the house had not changed since 1976---in anyway whatsoever---I cannot put too fine a point on this. The memories it stirred up in me, on my old street ( a busy one with industry, trains, etc)was overwhelming---I simply was not prepared for the emotion I felt. And my old house, just two doors away, stood as though watching me. So I had access to my friend’s home for one week, did a lot of writing and then said goodbye to what tied me to that block. I’d made my peace with losing my childhood home so long ago.
But, to be back there now, in that town, is utter joy for me. I realized how long, in some way or another, I’d been trying to get back there. Nearly every story or prose poem that I write will have one detail embedded in the work. It is always something very significant to me.
That is one damn cool story, Michelle! I admire your strong tie to the past and the fact that you had the chance to live in your old neighborhood again in a house just two doors down from where you grew up to finish that collection. Amazing! Did you have any special formulas that you used to put this sublime collection together?
I really wish I could say that I did, but I didn’t. When I wrote the stories in If All They Had Were Their Bodies, I really tried not to over- think the process. I tend to be pretty lax that way. It’s just me. I know how some writers will split hairs over every detail wanting a collection to be “perfect” (ugh, such an unattainable goal) but, for me, I just feel like---it’s fiction, you know? Fiction! I’m not saving anyone’s life here. I’d rather spend more time writing, then laying all the pieces out like a jigsaw puzzle on the rug to see which story should be first, last or whatever. I prefer a process that is much more organic. Maybe I will get better at this, but really, I’m not concerned. I just want to write stories. Write poems. If I have a bunch together, maybe it’s cool to have them in a collection. Lately, though, I have been writing prose poems with a theme---it is utter joy for me.
I’m really happy to hear that you’re working on a collection of prose poems. I’ve been working that angle myself and love the rhythm that comes out of these pieces. Do you find that the music of the language is important in your work? I do feel an underlying beat to your work and I can see the love you have for the words you choose. Any thoughts on this?
I definitely think there is a rhythm in prose pieces---and if there isn’t, perhaps there should be. I try really hard to achieve that. I am moving away from writing all short/flash fiction to being more and more interested in the poetry and prose poems. I am finding myself less and less interested in ---or maybe I should say I am experiencing less patience with, the traditional narrative form. I am not interested in too much description and I just don’t dig dialogue at all, except for a few lines that are essential. What I like about a poem, prose or otherwise, is that the entire piece can throb and resonate. It moves like one body. I don’t necessarily feel that way about short stories----at least the way I write them. Still, I have a very long way to go before I am anywhere near satisfied with my prose poems. But that doesn’t mean I won’t send them out into the world! I am prepared to take that leap.
And from all the memorable work that has come out of you, I pray you do send them out into the world. I have to tell you I am so psyched when I see a Michelle Reale story out there. I do agree with you on the dialogue. I am a deep lover of those details that move around the characters. That is why I love your work so much. It is not about the outer person and the bullshit put out there. It is the inner dialogue, the unsaid, the real stuff bubbling under the surface that has always interested me. Who are the writers you are reading right now and those that have influenced your fluid movement?
Right now there are three writers in our community whose work I am really focused on : Carol Guess whose prose poems are like nothing I have ever read before: inventive and resonant in ways I can only hope to be some day, Heather Fowler for writing what fairly sings and soars and Kim Chinquee, whose writing, sans frills, is as lucid as it gets. My assessment of the talents of these wonderful writers sounds fairly simplistic , but all of them have an ineffable quality that I really, really hate to diminish by describing it too much. Much better to read their fine works out there!
I completely agree with you on these choices. All incredible writers! What projects are you working on at this time? I know you let us in on your assemblage of a themed collection. Anything else you see happening in the horizons?
Ah, a few things! I am writing a monologue on my Italian-American upbringing, tentatively titled “Not Calabrese/Sicilian Enough,” as well as my prose poems. My research into social justice, immigration and migration in the Sicilian context also moves forward as I prepare for another trip to the island this year. The blog that I maintain is really important to me as it is my “conversation” with the world and myself in order to understand and process my experiences and research into this issue. More and more I arrive at a place where I feel that my writing should be connected to something larger or, at the very least, I should be connected to something larger---and if there is writing that goes along with that, all the better!
I can’t wait to read all of your works-in-progress when they appear! I knew you were going back and forth to Sicily, but didn’t know you were working on projects out there. Very, very exciting! I’m very much looking forward to those! So now, I’m going to use a Michelle Reale prompt on Michelle to end an interview I never want to end.
Use these words in a micro-flash piece for us: camouflage, buoyant, stealth, soporific
Some of my favorites here.
Thanks, Meg! Here is my offering to your fantastic words. I actually am ashamed to say that I had to look up soporific! Well, hope you like this:
“Franelyn is buoyant as she propels her body down the concrete steps onto the pavement. What is feminine is buried deep beneath her Old Navy camouflage, as she keeps what is best, she thinks, deep inside of her. He is waiting, she knows this, and slows her stride now. Now she is walking slower, almost creeping. There is a little girl with a bunny hat holding the hand of someone who should not be her mother, watching her, as if to say, “save me.” Everyone is watching her now. Franelyn on a mission demands attention. At the threshold of his apartment, she braces herself. She knows he is in there. She knows what he needs. He is seated at the coarse grained table, head down. She fists a handful of his hair, and tugs with an upward thrust. She knows he won’t resist. He is soporific in the way a newborn is after a luxurious feed. His eyes roll and he smiles like a drunken sailor. Franelyn is sweating in her clothes. No longer stealth. She joins him at the table. Feels something almost rise inside of her, before it slips down inside. His eyes flutter in lazy recognition. A gift is a gift. She’ll save it for another day.”
Thank you so much, Michelle, for your in-depth answers to these questions. Loved spending some time with you. You are the bomb!