Black Lawrence Press
November 25, 2019

Welcome back, Laura McCullough!

This month we are celebrating the titles that we’ve acquired in the past six months. These manuscripts came to us through our open reading periods. Today we bring you Laura McCullough, author of the poetry collection Dumb Beautiful Beast, which will be published in 2021. This will be Laura’s third title with Black Lawrence Press.

Have a manuscript you think we’d like? During our November Open Reading Period we are looking for poetry (chapbooks and full-length collections), short fiction (again, both chapbooks and full-length collections), novels, novellas, nonfiction (CNF, biography, cultural studies) and translations from German. Also, our Big Moose Prize for the novel is currently open to early bird submissions.

The Author

Laura McCullough’s most recent poetry collection is Dumb Beautiful Beast. BLP has also published her books Rigger Death & Hoist Another, Jersey Mercy, and Speech Acts. Billy Collins selected her book Wild Night Dress in the Miller Williams Poetry Series for University of Arkansas Press, and her book Panic won the Kinereth Genseler Award with Alice James Books. She edited two anthologies of essays on poetry, A Sense of Regard: Essays on Poetry and Race, Georgia University Press, and The Room and the World: Essays on the Poet Stephen Dunn, Syracuse University Press.  She teaches writing at Brookdale Community College and is on the faculty at Sierria Nevada College’s Low residency Masters in Writing program.  She lives on the Jersey Shore.

About Dumb Beautiful Beast

From the midnight streets of iconic Asbury Park, NJ to the concrete edges of suburban community pools, from hospital emergency rooms to the ocean wrack line, McCullough explores the wreckage of fallen kingdom– the economy, marriage, gender binaries, class–and asks what ways our hearts get broken and rebuilt, what boundaries there are between people, what mercy, what forgiveness. Questioning the shadows in women’s relationships, the residue of betrayals, political and personal,  the power of eros, and the ways men can claim beauty and at what price, these poems speak of the way juniper berries give way to becoming gin, small deaths give birth to new life, one universe sidles up next to another, galaxies sharing light, and the way two people put their foreheads together and across that barrier of bone and blood, imagine their way into empathy.

On Writing Dumb Beautiful Beast

I wrote this book on the heels of losing my mother and my marriage in the same week, which led to a heart attack, the kind they say is due to a broken heart.  It was happening at the time our economic collapse was sending friends of mine into bankruptcy and the country’s moral core was being extorted, lies and truth were being conflated, and narrative was being used as a weapon for harm, the opposite of what art should be for. These poems were also written during a time where we began to insist that silence was unacceptable and that oppression on the collective scale as well as in personal lives could not continue.  But what is justice? If right-doing and empathy are not really negotiable, yet we hurt each other all of the time, how can we use our suffering to, not calcify into anger and fear, but open to the possibility of paradox, use our pain to burn off performed aspects of self, and grow. They say if your heart never breaks, you spiritually starve.   What happens when your heart breaks? Your marriage breaks? Your country breaks? Your entire world view?

I had a choice, perhaps many. I wrote poems about love and women, about marriage, about science and sex, about universes and oceans, about slugs climbing a Buddha statue to nestle on its head as a cap to keep out the rain, about a cis-man in Club Taboo in Asbury Park crossing borders to find his own beauty, about my mother, about the relationship between pain and joy, vulnerability and strength. I wrote about questioning the self and, ultimately, about making the only music we can: what is inside the kingdom of the heart.

Excerpts

JUNIPER
 
Once I heard a story of a woman
who carried snails under her breasts,
smuggling them to the Pure Land,
as if there were such a place,
as if any place were not.  It was not the year
of the Great Flu—1918—an epidemic
my mother had been curious about,
before she died, not quite a century late, 
her lungs also drowned.

I am drinking gin alone by a window
splashed with mud. Its transmuted berries
in my throat, belly, bloodstream
spread like the strings of the super-cluster—
Laniakea, Hawaiian for ‘immense heaven.’
Some galaxies, the scientists say, flow
toward the mystery ‘super attractor,’
while in another space, a juniper bush
is giving itself up to become a part of someone.
 
I have heard that snails heave their hushed bodies
up the Buddha, becoming a cap of protection,
for they know they can do so little alone.
 
I’m glad my mother is not alive
to hear a man insist on a wall around America.
One great war was ending when that flu ignited,
killing more then the war had. It was a year
of peace & death no one expected.
Another great war already fermenting.
 
Through the splattered window, I see
only the silhouettes of birds: blue jays,
swallows. That half the people want
a wall saddens me. Our immense heaven,
 
the scientists say, sidles up against another:
two minds or foreheads resting
touching, yet impenetrable, so much
bone & blood keeping us apart. 

***
 
WOMEN & OTHER HOSTAGES

 
Everyone seemed stuck or silenced that summer,                nobody’s 
T-shirt with the right slogan, the news shifting                   so fast, you 
couldn't keep up with the latest outrage, & one person’s outrage 

 
was another’s fact, & did you know                                    any couples 
who weren’t fighting or divorcing, or confused                  over the kids, 
the economy, the government? Vulnerable was a word I heard 

 
in the grocery store as well as on the beach.                        Wild was 
a word I heard used as a positive & a negative.                   I agreed 
with everyone. When Bernard said there is no such thing 

 
as morality out of context, I had to forgive him                  because 
I knew he’d be the last to leave the party,                           would cry 
in my driveway, was sorry for all the pain he’d caused 

 
people he loved, didn’t know how it                                   had happened, 
but that it wasn’t his fault; he was hostage                         to the gender 
constructs of his time. Many of us wished for a way to talk 

 
about these things. Most everyone had some                       private grief; 
me, too couldn’t sustain its slogan power                              because everyone 
had a version if you were willing to listen. A lot of men 

 
got taken down. A lot of women felt ashamed                   for liking men. 
Did any of us know what was happening?                          Whenever possible 
I told people they were beautiful—in their bodies, their cages 

 
of mind, under their habits of behavior—even in the         licks of fear 
behind their corneas, something fluttering, a                       grace, maybe mercy, 
morally unambiguous. Bernard, I said, I love you out of context, 

 
& if I say now that I almost meant it,                                 meaning I want 
to be just a bit ironic, know instead that I am lying:           I did mean it. 
I really did. Even if someone else might think that’s wrong 

 
of me. Some days I think all I am capable of is                    putting my hand 
on someone’s chest or shoulder, feeling the ridge of            rib bone or clavicle 
against my palm, steadying myself there & giving a fee 

 
to the ferryman’s heart inside, wondering if we all              are trying 
to escape from the shore of ourselves to                             whatever waits 
on the other side, feeling we have to help each other, 

 
but knowing nothing, not even the forces                           to which I 
was pledged as hostage before I was born                           & still act out
like the dumb beautiful beast I am occasionally thrilled to be.

***

Marriage
(motel)

 
Inland, just west of Atlantic City, 

old motels stand hunched as if ashamed, 

the people inside propping them up. 

 
No one told me about the architecture 

of sorrow, how expensive it is to build, 

how long it takes to tear down. 

 
East as far as you can go here in New Jersey

is the ocean in which swimming 

& drowning sometimes look the same. 

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