by David Woodruff
The stories in Polyglot,
linked by the advice of a gay gypsy columnist, show an intensity of
emotion and a tolerance of differing perspective in the increasingly
diverse region of the Northwest. Not only does it include sprinklings
from several languages and ethnicities, it also shows the interaction
of traditional and contemporary, the old and the new, as reflected in
lifestyles once considered outcast. In the hands of a less skillful
author, these stories would have a tendency to sameness or to
moralizing. But Wendy Marcus doesn’t disappoint. Each story
is well-crafted and gives a new meaning to the melting pot of diverse
people and personalities who inhabit the Northwest.
In the first piece, Shutterbug,
an old man is meditating on a bumblebee that has crawled into a rose to
die. "Why such interest in a dead bug?" we are asked. The answer comes
from the old man, Mario. "No, not just a bug - once a beautiful,
productive life, however brief. He wanted to pay his last respects."
Later, we learn that Mario
can’t stop thinking about his war buddies, some who died
during the invasion of Normandy. Mario then remembers the
rabbi in France, shoveling dirt onto a fallen hero's coffin. The rabbi
is told that what he is doing is "the holiest mitzvah in Judaism." He
is helping a person who will never be able to tell him thank you.
There is also a contrast
between the traditional values of the aging Mario and his daughter, a
lesbian, who has presented Mario with a granddaughter, Dani, without a
husband or father. The granddaughter, Dani is taking photographs of him
to display at a school exhibit. At the school exhibit, he hates anyone
seeing him as puny or pathetic. After all, he had once been an air
force captain. Or as Marcus tells us, "There he was, Old Man with
Memories, pensive in the late afternoon sun, or in another one, Failing
After Dani tells him to
follow her out to the yard, she's discovers where the bees have hidden
their nest. Mario proclaims: "We're like
every goddam thing that crawls on the earth or flies in the
sky--struggling. None of us intends to go." The line from the
bumblebees to Mario is complete as well as an assertion on the
goodliness of all earthly things.
The title story, Polyglot,
begins with a pregnant teacher describing her classroom full of various
ethnicities: Mexican, Russian, Jewish, Ethiopian students. The teacher
herself can speak several languages, and in a flashback it's revealed
that she fell in love with a penniless graduate student from Classics.
Her baby is born premature, then later while she attends preschool, a
teacher informs the parents that the child is deaf. The parents must
learn sign, and in so doing, become true polyglots.
The story, Triage,
won the 2007 Short Fiction Award of
the Pacific Northwest Writers Association
and is my favorite. It concerns a Seattle school district's instrument
repairman named, Tibor, who is 62 years.old. In his shop, he takes on a
student, Chia, whose grandfather was in a concentration camp. We learn
that a beautiful
viola needing some slight repair comes into Tibor's hands.
It's donated by a family. Chia lets her partner practice on
the viola - Nurit - who speaks the same language as Tibor. Tibor is
immediately attracted to Nurit. After Tibor repairs the
instrument, and makes some disapproving remarks about lesbianism, Chia
says to him:
"Judaism says God is infinite, so
there must be infinite
ways to approach God.!
"How do you know so much," Tibor asks.
"I'm majoring in Feminist Jewish Instrument Repair Studies,"
Later, the girls leave to go
back to their school. Tibor finds the viola is missing and realizes
that Chia has stolen it so she and her partner can have it. He writes
an entry in the repair log book, "Beyond repair, salvaged for parts."
He will not give them away. In the last story, Gypsy Fool,
written in a Dear Abby style, (just to show the linkage going on in
this collection), the missing viola is mentioned.
To show a diversity in
perspectives to an even greater extent, the story, Slubs,
concerns two men, Clay and Barry who design costumes for drag queen
shows as well as Seattle high school musicals. Clay discovers a new
Eve Larson. Clay and Barry design for drag queen shows, Seattle-area
high school musicals. Clay also helps to discover or develop new
talent, like Eve Larson.
"Clay got a better look when Eve
front of the audition committee. Thirty pounds lighter, she would have
been statuesque; seventy punds lighter, a runaway model. She had the
profile of a Roman noblewoman, the insecurities of a circus fat lady.
He wondered how she squeezed in and out of high school desks. By his
own senior year in high school, he'd no longer fit in a desk. He sat in
a chair at a long table, his stomach pouring over his belt. Two chins,
three butts. In Eve, Clay recognized his awkward teenaged self."
We find out later, that
Eve’s mother, Jolene had a black lover. Eve is biracial.
an expectant mother learns to accept the limitations of her adopted
autistic son. As a whole, these stories,
emphasize the humanity across generations and ethnicities. And
although, the themes are similar throughout the stories, the writing
never becomes bogged down, or heavy or boring. This collection is a
fine treasure to read.
Woodruff is a fiction writer and poet, who
under the pen name of Kyle Hemmings. His work has appeared in Noo
Journal, Juked, Mud Luscious, Arsenic Lobster, Mad Hatter’s
Review, Vestal Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and others.
2009 Serena McDonald Kennedy Award
Marcus was a reporter for the Seattle
Vancouver, Columbian and University of Washington Daily. She co-founded
with Rabbi James Mirel, the Northwest’s first Klezmer band - the
beloved Mazeltones - in 1983. After a successful run of 16 years, the
band spawned many Klezmer ensembles and Marcus went on to build the
music program at Temple Beth Am in Seattle’s North End, where she
serves as Music Director and editor of Drash: Northwest Mosaic,
with Wendy Marcus
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