On Susan Rukeyser’s ‘Whatever Feels Like Home’

Susan Rukeyser has a lot to say about Home, and through craft to be admired and enjoyed, she gets the job done in twenty pages, in ten flash pieces in a chapbook released by above/ground press called Whatever Feels Like Home.

The minimal cover sets the tone. The white background, the unmoored couch, turned slightly at an angle, floating and groundless. There’s something in the middle back cushion, maybe a patch. There’s a tear in the front. This couch is a suggestion of how much weight the Whatever in Whatever Feels Like Home carries. Whatever can be a liability, the doubt of Home that could be found in a couch like this. Whatever can also be an asset, the realization when you do get your butt on that couch, you lie back, and you rest your head, and no matter where it finds it, that ground can be Home too. Whatever indeed.

Home carries similar magic. In these stories, it can be an elusive concept. An unfulfilled promise so uniquely captured in the lead story, ‘Yes, You Can Eat Your Goldfish’. The magic here takes us into the point of view of the fish. It’s not just the fact about the difference a goldfish’s life will take in a house, in a small bowl, versus where his life would naturally go, how larger he would grow. Those are facts. Here, the magic is existential disappointment, proven only through the point of view of the fish. It has to be the fish. The fish has to tell the truth.

Houses are constructed, of course, but Home is not a static construct. In ‘From an Elk’s Eye’, the narrators husband comes home from work and tells her he just can’t do it anymore.

“A false sense”, Hank said. “Family is an illusion. A shared idea that falls apart when questioned.”

The narrator never disputes Hank’s argument. She relates the sequence of events. Time and distance impact the definition of Home. Home requires reflection. Here the narrator finds grace, peace, and experiences Home through an act of reflection. It is both a deconstruction and a construction, both an asset and a liability. She lives addition through subtraction at its best.

“Now I know you can feel a man beside you every day, inside you every night, and still not know him very well. You only know what illusions he has not questioned yet, and what he whispers in the dark, whatever he knows will feel like home to you.”

Home has long been central to story. Odysseus trying to get home. Dorothy trying to get home. There’s no place like it. Home Sweet Home. Huck Finn trying to leave home. Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.

Feels is another keyword of the title. It suggests Home is subjective. Whatever feels like home may be home, but maybe not. Maybe it’s just a feeling, this whatever, this dream, this for better or worse.

In ‘Stuck Shut’, it’s something to be perfumed.

“I spray Sage n’ Citrus air freshener, a perfumed rain to bring down the dust. The hardwood in the hall goes sticky. The scent covers the staleness, but it can’t disguise the disappointment, stuffed into these rooms so long it’s soaked through the carpet and curtains, paint and plaster, to the rotten studs holding this place up. Everything’s shellacked with filmy silence.”

Damn. That’s so alive. That’s the narrator in a Sisyphean struggle, continually trying to overcome the stench of home, failing to cover up disappointment, opposed to getting the stone back up the hill.

In ‘You Were the Girl Who’, Home takes on a Stephen King dimension and swallows the life of an old classmate who had escaped home for life in bigger places only to come back for a wedding and be swallowed by a sink hole. Here, Home becomes a literal vehicle of death. Home is something for the character to reflect and contrast. To question outcome and memory.

“That night after Sandy’s wedding you were at your parents’ house, in your old basement bedroom, alone. You were the girl who moved away just like she said she would and found an interesting life and became more beautiful. I was in my apartment over Murphy’s Tavern, far from the woods, wondering if you’d ever been my best friend, or did I make that up?”

As I look back on these stories, as I hold this beautiful little chapbook, amused by the power of Little and just how large a small set of words can be, I’m reminded of a familiar phrase we often evoke around publications such as, “I’m happy this work found a home with above/ground press.” And I am happy. I’m happy it found a home on my bookshelves, whatever that feels like.

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