Susan Rukeyser’s new chapbook may be short in stature, a mere twenty pages, but there is nothing slim about the rich, emotionally resonant prose within. Whatever Feels Like Home reads like a songbook, each of the ten stories, melodic and masterful, ask that age-old query; What truly is home? With Rukeyser at the helm, the answer comes in fresh and alarming ways.
Here are tales of longing for belonging, of place and displacement, of family and estrangement. Each story is awash in wonder, regret, envy, and disappointments. Home is where the heart is? With Rukeyser’s sober and honest perspective, that’s not always the case.
This unusual collection showcases Rukeyser’s impressive range of narrative style. She’s as masterful in humorous first person as she is writing in a deeply mournful third. Some stories are no more than a paragraph long, lengthier ones barely brush past two pages. Still each story has heft.
Poetic lines are dropped in just the right places, always without pretense. At times I gasped at their potency and beauty. For example: “Everything shellacked with filmy silence” from “Stuck Shut,” a story about escape from disappointment and domestic claustrophobia. Or “Forgiving slacks were armor. Her smile, a shield,” from “Hers,” Mrs. Anderson’s brief but powerful story which sits in the very center of this marvelous book, across the page break from “His,” Mr. Anderson’s companion piece, as if on the opposite side of a bleak, marital divide.
There’s also a quiet humor threading its way throughout this book, even when a story is anything but funny. The first piece, “Yes, You Can Eat Your Goldfish,” starts with “Yes, you can eat your darling goldfish. He is most likely a form of ornamental carp, and he will taste as you expect: muddy and full of bones.” From there, Rukeyser leads us (in one brilliant page no less) from what appears to be a funny list of instructions but is ultimately a sobering tale about impossible romantic notions of love, of squashed expectations, and ultimate loss.
Really, every story in Whatever Feels Like Home is a winner. There’s the laugh out loud “FOR SALE: Galloping Horse (brass wall art)>>>Mint<<<,” where heavy wall art wreaks all sorts of violence and relational mayhem.
And then, the alarming “You Were the Girl Who,” chronicling gushing adoration in unrequited youthful friendship (you were the girl who made our town interesting), a cautionary tale which takes a surprising, devastating turn, setting the idea of the safety and comfort of ‘home’ completely awhirl.
Rukeyser writes in “Human/Nature”: “I want to be that rock, she thinks. I want to be yielded to … I want to be that rock, she thinks. I want to be pushed.” Read Whatever Feels Like Home. Yield to this book and guaranteed; you will be pushed along by the solid, sumptuous, powerful prose in this startling collection.
Whatever Feels Like Home, by Susan Rukeyser. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: above/ground (prose/naut imprint), November 2021. $5.00, paper.
Alice Kaltman is the author of the story collection Staggerwing, and the novels Wavehouse, The Tantalizing Tale of Grace Minnaugh, and most recently Dawg Towne. Her stories can be read in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Lost Balloon, The Pinch, Hobart, and Joyland, among many other cool places. Alice lives, writes, and surfs in Brooklyn and Montauk, NY.