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Wednesday

Flash Focus: Cycle of Living in “Some Cool Heaven”

In Ran­dall Brown’s A Pock­et Guide to Flash Fic­tion, author Quinn Dal­ton dis­cuss­es how to make a scene. Accord­ing to Dal­ton, suc­cess­ful scenes in flash fic­tion are “units of sig­nif­i­cant action that pro­vide new infor­ma­tion and advance a sto­ry” (212). In flash fic­tions such as Emma Smith-Stevens’ “Some Cool Heav­en” from Smoke­long Quar­ter­ly, a sin­gle scene can con­vey a whole novel’s worth of mean­ing. “Some Cool Heav­en” explores the cycli­cal pat­tern of life and death through the expe­ri­ence of a mother’s com­ing-to-terms with a fatal ill­ness. The for­mat of the sto­ry itself is cycli­cal, a for­mat that lends itself to the mes­sage of the flash and speaks to Smith-Stevens’ mas­ter­ful craft.

Smith-Stevens brings the read­er direct­ly into the plot of the sto­ry in the first sen­tence: “I learned I was sick again on a Wednes­day.” This knowl­edge does not come as a shock and is not pre­sent­ed in a dra­mat­ic way: in fact, it is quite under­whelm­ing, imply­ing that it is sim­ply anoth­er day of her life. Ran­dall Brown dis­cuss­es the idea of trag­ic urgency in his book, that “with­in the trag­ic exists two pow­er­ful com­pet­ing desires, a Dionysian need to raze the world and uncov­er its meaninglessness–and the oppos­ing Apol­lon­ian wish to recon­struct the world and dis­cov­er its deep mean­ing and pur­pose” (201). At the begin­ning of “Some Cool Heav­en,” the read­er sees the Dionysian aspect of the trag­ic: The use of word “again” in the first sen­tence intro­duces an entire back­sto­ry we as read­ers must assume; we fill in the blanks, rec­og­niz­ing that this is not the first time she has received such news, nor is she expe­ri­enc­ing grief for the first time. This “again” allows the nar­ra­tor to explore a dif­fer­ent aspect of her impend­ing sick­ness. Rather than show­ing us how she deals with her own grief and fear, we see how it affects her rela­tion­ship with her son. Through­out, there is an under­cur­rent of hope­less­ness, a sense of impend­ing loss.

Despite this fore­bod­ing, the nar­ra­tor resolves to give her son mem­o­ries “that would stick” well after she is gone, to pro­vide him with a place he can go to remem­ber her, and to take pic­tures that would be a phys­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of her mem­o­ry. Brown writes, “Tragedy reminds us that we are doomed no mat­ter what and that our human­i­ty depends upon our abil­i­ty to face that fact, to act in spite of it, to embrace uncer­tain­ty at the same time we must refuse to set­tle for it […] The accep­tance of that strug­gle we must all make frees us from our fat­ed suf­fer­ing, makes it our own rather than some­thing imposed upon us” (204–205). The nar­ra­tor real­izes “the fair came every August, and my death wouldn’t stop that”; she rec­og­nizes that her son’s life will go on after she dies, and she has to accept that, even though she fears an exis­tence where she can­not be part of his life. The sim­ple fact that her son wants to go on a ride with­out her, sym­bol­i­cal­ly grow­ing up with­out her, makes her more ill than the thought of her can­cer.

It is not until lat­er in the sto­ry that the read­er sees the Apol­lon­ian aspect of the tragic–the wish to recon­struct the world and find mean­ing with­in it. The ponies that the chil­dren ride are har­nessed in such a way that “bird­s­eye would have revealed a Celtic cross.” Accord­ing to the Lama Foun­da­tion, “the mod­ern Irish Catholic inter­pre­ta­tion of the Celtic Cross is that the cir­cle rep­re­sents eter­ni­ty, the infi­nite nature of God’s love as exem­pli­fied by the sac­ri­fice of God on the cross. The cir­cle can also be viewed as a halo, ema­nat­ing from the heart of Christ.” The set-up of the pony ride has a three­fold mean­ing: It sym­bol­izes eter­ni­ty since the ponies can­not escape their posi­tions, and they are stuck going around the cir­cle; sim­i­lar­ly, the cycle of birth, life, and death is eter­nal and inevitable. Last­ly, like the fact that the fair comes every August and the ponies will keep mov­ing in that cir­cle, life will con­tin­ue on despite the narrator’s death.

Apply­ing the imagery of the Celtic cross to the last para­graph, in which the nar­ra­tor describes the cir­cle and the ponies as “part of a great machine, the inner work­ing of which were a mir­a­cle of tech­no­log­i­cal effi­cien­cy,” it seems the nar­ra­tor comes to under­stand her mor­tal­i­ty. Life, as mun­dane as days at the fair can be, is part of some­thing greater, a machine with cogs that mirac­u­lous­ly work togeth­er to con­tin­ue for­ev­er. Here­in lies the aspect of the Apol­lon­ian trag­ic. Opti­misti­cal­ly, one could inter­pret human life as “wind­ing up towards some cool heav­en,” as does the nar­ra­tor. Or real­is­ti­cal­ly, life is just a mirac­u­lous machine, the inner work­ings of which we can nev­er know. Either way, the nar­ra­tor begins to view the cycli­cal nature of eter­ni­ty with mean­ing in the con­text of her life. She finds a way to recon­struct the world and take com­fort that her son will con­tin­ue with­out her. The pic­tures she takes “would be a cir­cle to travel–to say, this was it, this was it, that was a day,” rather than arti­fi­cial replace­ments for mem­o­ries. The set­ting intro­duced in the begin­ning of the sto­ry, where the read­er learns of the narrator’s ill­ness and her inten­tion to immor­tal­ize the day through the lens of her cam­era, fol­lows the story’s cycli­cal pat­tern to the end, when she decides to live in the present rather than dwell on the past and wor­ry about the future.

Works Cit­ed

Brown, Ran­dall. A Pock­et Guide to Flash Fic­tion. Wyn­newood: Mat­ter, 2012. Print.

“The His­to­ry and Sym­bol­ism of the Celtic Cross.” Lama Foun­da­tion. Lama
Foun­da­tion, n.d. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.

Smith-Stevens, Emma. “Some Cool Heav­en.” Smoke­long Quar­terly. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.

Rohrbach Headshot.jpgJen­nifer Rohrbach is an Eng­lish and Cre­ative Writ­ing stu­dent at Widen­er Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the Man­ag­ing Edi­tor for News for the Blue & Gold and is an edi­tor for The Blue Route and Widen­er Ink lit­er­ary jour­nals. She prefers to write fic­tion and is bet­ter at ana­lyz­ing poet­ry than writ­ing it.

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