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Tag: metaphor

The Surrealist and Bodily Nature of Grief: Reading Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s The Art of Floating


Kristin Bair OKeeffe_The Art of Floating Even when you read regularly, it takes time to find something truly great; but every once in a while, there will be a book, a poem, a story, that truly turns you on your heel, holds you in place, and keeps you loving, recommending and discussing that piece for months. Though first described to me as “a great summer read” and “something good to take to the beach,” Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s The Art of Floating was precisely that piece I needed to improve my summer—and not just by giving me a book to read under an umbrella next to the waves.

Sia Dane’s personal story, at first glance, may appear to be a simple one: a woman well-defined and independent in her writing life and her marriage to her husband, Jack, and then grief-stricken and unable to write upon his disappearance one year before the opening of the novel. This, in and of itself, may suggest a straight-forward story of grief, whether or not beautifully-written. Even with the addition of a strange man on the beach, who Sia discovers early in the morning, would support this story-arch, perhaps with the inclusion of a romantic turn (which would fulfill that “take it to the beach” mantra). However, even if this is how Sia Dane’s story begins, it is hardly conclusive or summative, and we end in a very different place than we might have guessed.

What is so beautiful, haunting, and even bewildering, about this novel is the way in which Bair O’Keeffe can first introduce us to a story we think we know, and twist it into something symbolic, surreal and highly-bodily, which immediately removes The Art of Floating from the common “beach read” section and propels it to the realm of literary fiction—and presents it as a gorgeous example of literary fiction, at that.

When I was first introduced to this title, I did the unthinkable thing—something that I am very guilty of doing on a regular basis, despite my extreme dislike for spoilers: I read the back cover. And I knew, deep in my gut (perhaps in the same place where Sia finds her flopping fish), that this book was different. In the first line of the synopsis, it summarizes, “When her beloved husband, Jackson, disappeared without a trace, popular novelist Sia Dane stopped writing, closed down her house, stuffed her heart into a cage, and started floating.” I read that line over and over, gushing with excitement, at the sheer potential of the novel being refreshing and different. When the book arrived at my home, I wanted so badly to break the reading order of books I had “scheduled” before this one, but I held my ground, clenched my teeth, and waited until it was Bair O’Keeffe’s turn—and, boy, was it worth the wait.

It was more than I could have bargained for, expected, or dreamed of. The events detailed on the back cover do indeed happen, for real, within the context of this novel. This reality is created and made acceptable—made beautiful and strange and heart-felt—within the first several pages of the book, when Sia discovers the man on the beach (who she names “Toad”) and feels a literal wave of his sadness enter her body—as well as a large, flopping fish in her stomach, which she feels move whenever she feels empathy for another person. Obviously, this is outside the operational realm of our bodies and the abilities of them; but that, in the end, is what makes these surreal moves so beautiful and true, when we are given that image that is, at once, strange and capable of retelling those emotions that we otherwise feel are beyond the reach of description. In their surreal nature, they apply truth.

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s novel, The Art of Floating, is too entirely beautiful to reduce to “a great summer read” or “something good to take to the beach.” Though I did read this over the summer, and while the book did make an appearance at a water park, it was not read in that time or place out of simplicity or lack of expectation. Rather, reading that back cover pushed my expectations to a higher level, where I wanted strangeness and originality and literary-ness to thrive. And it did. This is one of the most gorgeous and emotionally-demanding novels that I have read in years, and it tackles the duality of the lost and found with renewed fervor and poignancy I haven’t seen in fiction—“women’s” or not—for quite some time. Not only does this novel require that you open yourself to a wide range of emotions, but it demands you to open your mind to the unusual physicality of these emotions, their shift in physics, even; and it even projects into you those emotions you’re seeing and feeling on the page—the frustration and need for patience with the Dogcatcher and the therapist, the split between being happy and appalled by Jilly, the love and pain felt for Jackson and Toad . . . and the possibilities, the range of emotions and reactions, continue.

When it really comes down to it, this is such a deep and well-thought-out examination of how we grieve and love and relate to one another. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect this much from one novel, to want a book to meet so many demands, effectively, between a pair of covers—but I feel it’s all been done here; and I know when I read it again, I’ll feel the same way . . . and the surprises will keep coming.


KRISTIN BAIR O’KEEFFE is the author of the novels The Art of Floating (Penguin/Berkley, April 2014) and Thirsty (Swallow Press, 2009). Her work has been published in numerous magazines and journals, including Poets & Writers Magazine, The Gettysburg Review, The Baltimore Review, The Christian Science Monitor,HYPERtext, and Bluestem. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and has been teaching writing for the past twenty years. In late 2010, after nearly five years in Shanghai, China, she repatriated to the United States and now lives north of Boston with her husband and daughter.




The Separation


There was a moment when I thought of you, and
I longed for water. Two black pitchers

laid on the ground in the shadow
of what must have been an old well.

Their two mouths were crusted
with the last snowfall’s ice.

Their mouths like two ovals
learning how to kiss

a forgotten earth. We became like those pitchers,
you and I—like dusty leaves, turning over

and under in brittle circles. We became
like the seasons, passing time. We waited

on vacant porches, shadowed backyards,
and counted neighboring porch lights:

some turned off, late in the evening; some flickering
like dying fireflies; some left to drown

in a new dawn, somewhere down
in the summer passage.




A Poem About Writing Better Poems


The next time you write about a man speaking
to an object, consider whether the object

should speak back. Particularly
if it is an animal.

Particularly if it is a red mongoose who
has just defeated two King cobras who learned how

to dovetail in the dark. Particularly if it is a woman:
try to portray me, she says, as if I were not

naked or in a painting or somehow filled
with red leaves.

You turn the page and continue to write, so
continue to write as if nothing has happened.

The sky overflows with intermingling clouds;
the apples in your kitchen begin to rot;

your cat’s food dish empties, and yet,
you do not care. You fill another page

as if it were only the world passing.
A painter says, try to include an object

that is otherwise out of place,
that is somehow…disembodied.

You write about a woman
without her clothes.

You write about an eye that washed up
somewhere in southern Florida, all blue.

From a swordfish, they say.
You write the disembodied object into her hands.

You can see the reflection
of her face in the surface,

looking off.




Your Hands, Like Discarded Feathers


That morning, you told me
you were terrified of poetry

as a child.

You told me stories
of vines, stories of the things

that continue to remain. I spent
the following days imaging

the dark circles

left in the woods
behind your house,

looking in.




They were like tall flowers, bruised
in the sunlight, darker from dawn to dusk,


I asked you many questions.
Still, the story returned: your hands,

like mounted birds,

your hands,

like leftover fields that

could never stop turning.




You pictured me
in a carnival-esque setting, circa 1946.

You never explained why, but
I could imagine: the gray tones,

the dust, the leftover pollen
from what could only have been





These are thoughts I left you with,
your mother and father,

their bodies spinning in orbit

like a cloud,

like nothing more than a disintegrating sunset,

the receding tide, reaching

for whatever comes next.

Writing about receding stars.






You turn in your sleep, and
it is at times like these when I wish

you could wake and listen: I am ill.

I know there are times when
you lie awake, hearing the sounds of

another’s bed, hearing the sounds

of children running in the streets
after dark. These are rudimentary:

the skin is leaving my body.

Organs, too, disintegrate like
ripened fruit, until I am returned

to where I began: the bone, the marrow,

until the marrow, too, has been drunk
by distant birds.

This is all I have left to give you.








Create for me
a river

made of stone
so that I may look nothing

like you.




One thousand moons.

Rutabagas at slumber.

Soft birds.

Each of these
have something in common:

They look nothing like you.




A girl runs
through an orchard

like a fish,

all white and scale.
The gown

like sea grove.

Midnight is inverted,
all red and cornflower.

They look nothing like you.

Different skies.






You and your wings
have left me

paralyzed—the ‘skeltered wings      hanging
like crows’ nests, indefinitely,

fusing together like salt and ice.

And she said: Please,
do not call me darling


The sky still carried some of the incense
left over from a lunar rain, craters full

of something other—

something that resembled
the smell of ash and snow,

the movement of your hands,

the sound of two trombones      locked
at two’o’clock in the afternoon.




My Love For What Resembles


Flutter and burn, you turn
almost sideways, glinting

like those who lay
un-described and silent.

Lackadaisical birds.

Tell me something other than
your two methods of circumference,

the legality of chloroform,

the two figures lost in the dark
on the other side of winter.

Tell me once I am lost in the middle
of what once resembled a river,

a path filled with the bones of fish and
desert and dead leaves.

And then, I look up to the sky
that is almost raining, that is almost nothing

without branches, the scorched blue,
the not-blue, in the distance.




Psychology & Wine

(I apologize in advance; this poem needs a lot of work.)

Psychology & Wine


At first, when she was nervous, the girl
peeled the skin from the back
of her heels—nibbled her lips,


until they were nothing but pulled
onions, the pale moons surrounded
by red clouds. Lunar landscapes.

Created in silence.


These were the things she did not leave
out in the open. Instead, for you,
there was a sort of scarecrow

mingling with the weeds

alongside the mailbox. Its size
more so related to a doll’s,
the eyes, the lips, all stitches


in too much sunlight, staring
as if telling you there was mail,
as if telling you there wasn’t mail,



Your final solution: the secrets of skin
in a painting. The stars, their age and paling
into duller shades.

Then: the skin of her arms, her neck,

captured on canvas,
trees and blankets, combined.
Her hair turned green, turned blue

with sunlight, the white of her skin
shining like alcohol,
the secrets:

more destitute when shown.


Early Signs Of—

It was on a night like this when
I stopped trying to find you.

Your body disappeared, and
I was left in a sea

of white linen
and feather-down—

the area around the bed
and the main hallway

like a thousand
corridors. Antelope filled these halls,

their eyes turning into many dark
stratospheres, and in these

I could not find you.
The sheets became something like

a tourniquet around my body,
staying warm for your return:

You, the dark hair, the white gown,
the two black, teary eyes:



This is the time, and this is the record of the time.

“This is your captain: We are going down. We are all going down…together.”
from Laurie Anderson’s “From the Air”


In the last few waking hours,
you watch the world through

unblinking eyes.

People become impenetrable
shadows, dark birds,

until everything turns black
on the outside.

There are no tears.

Instead, you remember
a building—draw back the curtain,

and there is a nest
of winter goslings.

You leave the barn door open
until it’s all a hurricane

of feathers and winter snow
inside. Underneath, it is yellow

and maroon and salt.
You wrap the young

in another winter blanket and
put the curtain back in place,

forgetting the old barn light—
flickering, threatening them

with impending


inspired by Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, on the conditions of Marburg and Ebola on the human immune system.

Find Laurie Anderson’s “From the Air” here.