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Exploring the art of prose

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Dash by Sarah Fawn Montgomery


“An essay about the few moments a mother has for herself requires brevity,” Sarah Fawn Montgomery writes in the author’s note to her lyric flash essay, “Dash.” A flexible and capacious genre, the best flash nonfiction is both very small and very large, bordering on territories claimed by narrative and poetry. Evoking mood, setting, character, and the barest hint of backstory and plot, Montgomery employs a dazzling array of poetic devices: striking imagery (visual, aural, olfactory, gustatory), a profusion of similes, musical language, alliteration, internal rhymes, unusual word choices, and repetition. (“I rely on repetition,” Montgomery explains in her author’s note, “to establish cadence and content.”) In an interview for Splonk, the flash writer and teacher Kathy Fish remarked, “Flash’s appeal for me is how closely it can resemble prose poetry. How well it lends itself to experimentation and innovation. The challenge of telling an emotionally powerful story in a small space.” Within the small space of her back yard, and the small window of time she finds for herself at dusk, the mother in “Dash” throws pebbles in the air and watches bats dash through the sky, making poetry of her family’s tragic history.  —CRAFT

 


 

At dusk the light goes diffuse, like slow motion, like simple. The backyard trees are velvet; cirrus swift brushstrokes make the sky seem safe. The railroad rattling through the front yard slows too, whistle filtered through the gloaming until it sounds like a dream.

My mother escapes the confines of the house this time each day to circle the yard alone. She is careful to avoid the toys that litter the yard—a broken bicycle, a shattered sand pail, a naked doll whose eyes are scratched carefully to blank. Lately, she spies homemade pipes.

She steps slow in this strange landscape she calls home, where her children throw punches instead of baseballs, where she sleeps with her door locked.

She walks barefoot to feel the reassurance of earth, the reminder she is solid.

Now and then she gathers rocks for each life loan defaulted, another bill unpaid, another child’s arrest, disappointment piled high on the table where the good meat should glisten. Most of her many children are gone, motherhood a lifetime of small miracles and abandonments. She cups pebbles the size of pennies in her calloused hands, palms them like worry stones.

It is painful to look down for too long—broken toys like the breaking bodies of her children, the grass long dead with the California drought—so she keeps her eyes to the skies.

She grew up looking down—walking on stars, Hollywood lit up eternal on the hill. Learned walking over others was the way. Now she is stooped like the mark of a question she forgot to ask, spends her evenings filling her pockets just to empty them all over again.

At dusk she walks with her head held up, hair falling back to reveal the lines around her lips, the ways she is marked by a lifetime of shutting her mouth.

She breathes in the evening cooling down the summer heat, and the scent of the lilacs, that strong sweetness at the back of the throat. The blooms return each spring no matter how the family has changed, her children smoking, snorting whatever they can find.

She can hear the television inside turned up to full volume for her husband, the news blaring the latest disaster, earthquake, tornado, rising tides, the state on fire. She can hear her children fighting inside, the ones who haven’t left yet echoing the violence of the ones already gone, the sound of a fist against a wall, the dark constellations they leave in the wake of their frustrations.

The stars are just appearing, bright pinpricks in the sky. They look like sugar scattered across a table, sweetness overhead when down here she mostly tongues tears.

She feeds herself instead on the ritual—harvesting rock where nothing grows, California dry as a scab plucked from a wound. Her body, too, a constellation of scars.

She lives for the moment where day shifts to night, that imperceptible in-between. She has always lived on the ground and among the stars all at once. She is always waiting for leaving’s arrival.

Bats are only visible in this in-between, so she escapes her life each night to watch time separate in their flight. She creates something living from what is dead, pretends pebbles are insects as she tosses them upward for the creatures that emerge to feast each evening.

Arcing stones in the dark, she watches what seems as if it should live on land take to the sky. Bats dash, compelled by the chance for flesh, to suck blood from a stone.

 


SARAH FAWN MONTGOMERY is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press, 2018) and three poetry chapbooks. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery.

 

Featured image by Kelly Sikkem courtesy of Unsplash

 

Author’s Note

An essay about the few moments a mother has for herself requires brevity. As such, this piece about my mother’s short solitude each day is just over 500 words, focused on conveying her exhaustion after raising many children and her overwhelming grief about their addiction in just a few lines.

Much like poetry, flash requires the writer to choose details that quickly convey image and mood. To illustrate my mother’s psychological landscape, I focus on her fascination with bats, the creatures she seeks out during her solitude, those that are similarly spiraling and misunderstood, inhabiting land and sky, never fully claiming either. I also focus on the barren California landscape, as well as the decaying house with its litter of broken toys and breaking bodies. I want to share the loneliness she feels in her home, where her role is to nurture despite enduring brutality, as well as the difficulty of being a mother, where the work is often unseen and unacknowledged. To facilitate this, the essay fluctuates between external and internal landscapes, juxtaposing her lived reality with her emotional one.

The contradiction of motherhood—that it is “a lifetime of small miracles and abandonment”—structures the piece. I want to showcase the hope and hopelessness that comes from being a mother, as she helps children world-build while simultaneously having her own reality undone. Juxtaposing the beauty of the evening sky at dusk, the reassurance of the ground beneath her feet, and the lilacs that return each spring with the broken toys, California drought, mouth wrinkled from a lifetime of keeping it shut, I reveal the fraught role of motherhood. Even the setting itself embodies this contradiction—a moment of peace in the gloaming, sunset a soft comfort, though the act of throwing pebbles in the air to summon the bats is an illusion, a false peace.

Finally, I rely on repetition to establish cadence and content, creating rhythm to pull readers through the essay while also conveying my mother’s repeated disappointments in life, whether financial or emotional, as she parents many children over many years, watching as they each inevitably turn to addiction and violence despite how she tries to break the cycle.

 


SARAH FAWN MONTGOMERY is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press, 2018) and three poetry chapbooks. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery.