Note: I am publishing this review of Moon Creek Road by Elana Dykewomon here as I remember Elana and her beautiful work on the first anniversary of her death on 8/7/22
What Love Is
Moon Creek Road: collected stories by Elana Dykewomon (Spinsters Ink Books, Denver, Colorado: 2003. 229 pages). This review appeared in the Journal of Lesbian Studies, 2005
The stories in Moon Creek Road are full of light, deft strokes of language as apparently casual and irrevocably thrilling as the way some brilliant young women's arms might brush against each other as one teaches the other to play the piano. Panoramic ambitions are common here, most often appearing as memories whose grip on the present is unclear, made lush with the pleasures of women enjoying each other's seriousness and recounted with a delicious mix of wryness and devotion. The depth and resonance of this work rests on two things: Dykewomon's subversive explorations of the nature of love, and her willingness to unobtrusively press against a moment until it yields all of its terror and delight.
One of the stories is actually called "What Love Is." It is told in a confident and reflective second person that wanders with controlled nonchalance from descriptions of swimming in a public pool to drives through the redwoods towards a distant lover to the power relationships among employees in the sign printing office of a ritzy department store. Here is the swimming pool, seen by the narrator at age fifty:
You look at the way women's cheeks turn red in the sunlight, the way the old women in the public pool shield themselves from the sun while young ones splash in whatever covers their nipples and pubic bones. You notice two young Chinese American girls – they look like girls to you, but maybe they're twenty – who introduced themselves at the beginning of the week, now coming hand in hand, splashing through the slow lane with kick boards and flippers, talking. One of them shows off long sleek black hair, the other's is cropped, dyed orange. In the pool shower, you offer soap to the old woman who wears a straw hat and leotards under her bathing suit. All this is love – the quotidian love you get used to in yourself, the kind that makes life tolerable.
Steady love for people, things, sights, tastes, thoughts and experiences that are commonly available becomes a force strong enough to make each harrowing situation throughout the book open into a sense of revelation. In "What Love Is," memories of the long-distance, nonmongamous love affair is all solitary wit – "Americans choose trees the same way they choose prom queens—by their awesome measurements." – and meditative ecstasy in the scenery along the road. It is the way power and identity play out in a work relationship between the white, Jewish narrator and an African American, Buddhist-by-way-of-Baptist woman she supervises that is lingered over with delicate attention, the narrator ardent to tell the story of their tensions and gifts to each other truly and well. That Dykewomon pulls this off is a testament to the honesty and seductiveness of her language, and to long habits of pushing the boundaries of fiction to see how much it can hold.
Love's scope is wide here, never limited to the sexual -- although sex is often not completely ruled out, either. Dykewomon has an assured touch with the erotic and with delineating the pleasures of long-established love:
Their desire is a map with half the roads obscured by the creases that come from folding it so many times and carrying it in a back pocket. Each successful navigation is a fresh delight.
At the end of "An Escaped Mental Patient," in a passage full of elegant restraint and tenderness, Becky, fourteen years old and on an unauthorized joy ride from a halfway house throughout most of the story, reflects on her current life as "an ordinary forty-seven-year-old lesbian":
She longs for her lover, and her longing is easily satisfied. She can interrupt her work and they'll have lunch for an hour. She can choose an unusual route and watch the houses waver in the heat and then come into focus—each particular house, each separate life, a whole city, where she lives, an escaped mental patient, with only her little part of the common life.
The passage, and the story, ends: "By now, no one would know to look for her," which raises the possibility of a persistent ghost of a worry that someone might, but devotion to the idea and practice of lunch, of an interesting drive, and of honoring each particular house amidst the common life is by far the stronger force. What is ordinary is also hot and deep.
Dykewomon dedicates Moon Creek Road to the "lesbian & women's press movement," where cultivating the habits of difficult writing and pressing words to paper were (and are) intended to "remake the world." She has participated in those movements on many levels, including as editor of the journal Sinister Wisdom from 1987 to 1995, and as author of the novels Riverfinger Women (published in 1974 by the short-lived but dazzling Daughters Inc., Press), Beyond The Pale (the winner of the 1998 Lambda Literary and Ferro-Grumley awards, to be reissued by Raincoast Books in Fall 2003), and the stunning collection of poetry, Nothing Will Be As Sweet As The Taste.
Dykewomon's narrators and protagonists, who read as variations on one strong voice, are both lyrical and experienced past the point of illusion on the subject of big dreams. In "Faust," teenaged girls are attracted to each other "because they were both girls who thought of themselves as artists, who held the word 'genius' like chocolate under their tongues until it melted, and they recognized each other in their sweetened prides." In "Antelope," a shimmering, expansive exploration of a lesbian relationship ultimately revealed to be abusive, the narrator describes an image of fingers with a spark of blue light arcing between them, but can't be sure if this is a memory of something that happened between the hands of her lover and herself.
Or else it never happened, and they each had read about it and thought if anyone could perform this feat, it had to be them, representatives of the greatest emotional intelligences ever to grace the planet, lesbians.
The hubris of the young is observed with gentle precision, and time drives past itself again and again as a mature voice revisits old haunts and themes: "Who wouldn't want an answer that places the blame squarely outside of the way you behaved? Some things can't be resolved, not by living long enough, not by art."
Still, there are many consolations: views from a Ferris wheel, frogs leaping in the rain, flesh lapping into flesh, thoughtful discussion. There are stories to be told, and stories only to be suggested, which (to borrow an image from one of the stories) float over the narrative like the shadow of an overturned canoe seen from underwater. There is community and family, overlapping or not. In "My Grandmother Play," – which is, in fact, the script of a play – the central character says:
…did you ever study one-celled organisms, how they have these tiny hairs that they use to propel themselves or have sex? It's like that—we have all these fine invisible threads coming out of us, and they attach to the web of the people we belong with. This is not a new idea.
In the late sixties, the celebrated poet and essayist Muriel Rukeyser published "The Conjugation of the Paramecium," a poem which uses one-celled organisms as a metaphor for a profound sexual exchange which "has nothing/ to do /with propagating." Dykewomon honors her literary lineage by extending this metaphor to give us all threadlike cilia which become webs attaching us to everyone we love (the specific reference here is to the love between a woman and her grandmother).
All of this is done with beauty, with rain making "a curtain, a haze, a buzz, a fluttering, a mist…" Long drives deliver the driver to places where thought and scenery merge, and time lapses into red streaks of old memories that speed back into life. Time collapses in several stories, most explicitly in "Rider," which is structured as a simple evening drive, but yields up insight and mystery. No matter how time flickers and burns, this driver, this writer, has specific allegiances:
She hates thinking about the stock market, it's worse than pinball, nothing like as honest as sex or anger, the angry dreams she's been having because—this morning it came to her, waking up—she's bound up with angry women in an angry time, her work is about sticking her fingers into their fine miseries, the desire that tormented and distorted their lives, all that cleaving, splitting asunder, trying to draw closer. Better to think about them, the rhythm of their speech, the things they hoped, the colors of their ambitions, translucent, opaque.
What is most compelling here is not the acknowledgment of anger, but the fluent, subtle, poetic explorations of time, risk, and love.
It would be great to have a cigarette, to ride all night up and down the coast listening to the radio and her CDs, smoking, burning up the night, forgetting which year this was—no, knowing which year all the years were at once, flying them in the air like her friend the juggler gets flaring torches up, the years licking at each other's flames while she plays chicken with frogs.