While some critics and authors believe ambitious works of literature are reserved for younger writers, at the age of 76 Kelly Cherry has shattered this misperception. The author of more than 30 works of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and translation, Cherry’s catalogue has led her to selection as a former poet laureate of Virginia, and yet her best writing is still being produced.
Temporium: Before the Beginning to After the End, Cherry’s latest collection of stories published by Winston-Salem’s Press 53, pushes the envelope of what a story can be. Part fiction, part poetry, part memoir, the genre lines are twisted and entwined like roots on the page, yet the writings collected within don’t belong in a single realm.
Temporium contains 73 “fictions” — some stories, some character sketches, some prose poems — dialing in at 184 pages. But as a whole, the book functions more as a timeline of the writer’s notebook: thoughts and musings of life’s questions that have no answers, but which Cherry turns over in her hand like pieces of fruit, examining all sides.
The second story in the collection, “God: A Proglegomenon,” thrusts the reader into a metaphysical dilemma: “Start here: If God does not know time, he exists in a state of ignorance.” And by starting at such a peak of a philosophical mountain, Cherry sets the reader on a journey through time, memory, love, God and death. Though this might seem a daunting undertaking at first, Cherry’s masterful language and compelling storytelling give grace to the heady questions, and plenty of breathing room when emotions get too deep.
In “Liling” we are given a more straightforward approach to story. The title character, a beautiful girl who lives in the early years of the Ming Dynasty and a product of the ancient practice of foot-binding, wishes for something more than merely waiting for a man to come and marry her. When her younger brother learns to swim, she asks her father for permission to swim also. When her father refuses on account of the societal uproar it would cause, Liling replies: “I am female, Papa, and I have a need to swim.”
It is passages such as this where Cherry’s masterful writing raises questions, not so much to find the answers, but rather to release them into the ether and drift through the reader’s consciousness.
Again, in the story “Brother and Sister,” Cherry delves headfirst into the disturbing arena of memory and sexuality. The story examines a 12-year-old boy’s newfound fascination with his body and genitalia. When he enters his little sister’s room naked and seemingly innocuously showing himself off to her, the girl is troubled and scarred. After the parents admonish the boy, telling both children to simply forget that this ever happened, the incident buries itself in the far recesses of the girl’s mind. Such darkness enters into many of these stories, but beauty surfaces with Cherry’s ability to hold back from providing answers, and instead leads the reader to the edge, leaving them to face the questions alone.
While some of the stories read in a more formulaic style, others belong in an entirely different realm, such as several stories contained in an amazing six or even four words. Where the heavy, disturbing matters of “Brother and Sister” or “The Train” stick in your head long after you’ve finished reading, moments of humor are sprinkled in, breaking up more complex musings. One six-word story reads simply: “Dead husband taught wife to shoot.” And while the humor and simplicity appear on the surface, the deeper tones resonate just as fervently as in the longer writings.
Although Cherry’s prose is strikingly fluid, there are moments in Temporium where she cuts her own legs out from under her. One of these moments occurs in the story “Thomas Leigh,” where she brilliantly opens with: “Suppose slavery never existed in America.” Such supposition drives this story, following a working man through his life up to his death, all looking at what life might have been like for African Americans in that time. The story’s genius exists with that simple statement of “suppose,” and is enough to move any reader.
And yet, where the writing should simply end, the authorial voice clouds the story and becomes preachy to the point of didactic accusation, losing most of the ground the story had gained.
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Moments of over-writing appear in a handful of these stories and lead to moments of starkly overwrought introspection that tear the reader out of the story at hand. Such failings are perhaps unavoidable when dealing with matters of time and metaphysical questions. At several points in Temporium, the line between fiction and autobiography seem to blend. With many stories containing unnamed characters, the reader is led to the thought that these memories and scenes are in fact glimpses into the author’s own life. And while this might be a weak aspect of the craft in a lesser writer, Cherry holds the reins tight and commands that reader back to the language, back to the story with eloquent grace.
Temporium acts as a scattered collection of thoughts that, perhaps, any human being might have had; it reveals Cherry’s crystal-clear view of the world around her. Whether it be God’s creation of the universe, a broken heart or feelings of isolation and despair, they arrive in Temporium. Cherry examines questions of physics and science not from a perspective of the scientist, but rather from the view of the everyman, with skill and pillowed tones, as if whispering to the reader.
A book of this character and ambition seems reserved for a younger writer whose sensibilities have not been admonished by the world, and yet, Cherry has accomplished a great feat in literature: a perfect blend of fact and fiction, as seen by an unshaken observer.