Winner, 2009 Serena McDonald Kennedy Award

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Polyglot, Stories from the West's Wet Edge

Wendy Marcus

"I believe both fools and hermits collect stories. They even might write about sacred pilgrimages, be those paths happy or tortured, clear or half-remembered. Story weavers in each generation gather and preserve words and phrases for reuse or for return to a great, unseeable Repository. It would be unbearable to think otherwise…"

Reviewed 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 Eyesight." 

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," 

is her slick reply. 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 talent, 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 stepped in 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.

In Lady-In-Waiting, 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.

Read a story from this collection in Fertile Source

 David Woodruff is a fiction writer and poet, who writes 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.

David's other Short Reviews: Ursula Le Guin  and Brian Attebery (eds) "The Norton Book of Science Fiction"

Gardner Dozois (ed) "Galileo's Children"

Allison Amend "Things that Pass for Love"

The Inkermen "Green and Unpleasant Land"


Publisher: Beth Am Press

Publication Date: 2009

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Awards: winner, 2009 Serena McDonald Kennedy Award

Author bio: Wendy Marcus was a reporter for the Seattle Times, 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, a literary journal.

Read an interview with Wendy Marcus

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What other reviewers thought:

Midwest Book Review