by Matthew Kirkpatrick
Ricochet Editions, March 2013
49 pages / $10 Buy from Ricochet Editions
In Matthew Kirkpatrick’s chapbook, The Exiles, we find ourselves instantly swept into something strange. A young boy’s mother asks him in a car ride home how sixth grade was. This means that he must have just finished sixth grade. He answers that he can’t remember. Lately he’s been feeling confused over the things around him, that happen to him, what he sees and the things he dream: “Things he remembered seemed unreal, and the things he forgot, like what had happened to him only hours before, disappeared from his memory as dreams upon waking.” At the same time, the neighbor girl routinely runs up and down and backwards on her front porch. We don’t know why yet, and so this makes us wonder if she is running backwards in reality, or if this is another confusion in the young boy’s vision. These two have something in common besides their oddities, and that is that they watch each other. In fact, each person we are introduced to in this world seems to watch someone else for one reason or another. The young boy James mainly watches in hopes of resolving his confusion over who really is real – his Dad at the dinner table, or Dad in the basement. The neighbor girl watches in reaction to those who watch her. Neither James, nor the neighbor girl seem to be aware that they are exiles under the watchful eye of their exiled world, but Dad in the basement is barely cognizant: “At times, he thinks that he exiled himself, and other times he thinks he was exiled; surely, he has done something.”
We begin with the young boy James, initially unnamed, his sister and mother going in the car through the rain. We end with the same boy (or is he really the same?), whose name we now know as James, with Sister and Mom (and possibly Dad?) going again in the car in the rain, only now the rain is warm because it is almost summer, whereas the opening scene is absent of season. We don’t know what season it is, but we do know that this trip in the car that opens the text is not the first of its kind: “There they go again in the car through the rain home.”
For the Exiles, things happen again and again; there is repetition and there is difference. Dad is different to James. There is Dad at dinner, who is new to James, and there is Dad in the basement. The neighbor girl repeats her porch run because her parents won’t allow her to run anywhere else. She longs for a different place to run, even just in the home patio. Her parents fear – primarily her father, who watches her when she sleeps – bad things will happen to her, or she will fuck a boy or huff glue. For the Exiles, the world is concentrated in contradiction, confusion, and suggestion. These traits merge, converge and overlap one another and yet this world follows its own logic, to which you find yourself fastened and trapped in recognition. And that is what is so unsettling, is that the confusion makes an unsettling kind of sense.
James is the only one named. The others are referred to as Dad, Mom, Sister, the neighbor girl who runs up and down and referred to with the pronoun “she.” Everyone is referred to in relation to someone else – particularly by their familial relationships. James sees two Dads, while Mom and Sister don’t. Mom says Dad in the basement is a figment, but James insists the figment is a memory that he wishes to hold onto.
Between dream and memory. Mom says dreams fade, so will Dad the figment in the basement. She says that memory also fades, and then asks James if he remembers things like his birth. When he says no, “she tells him not every important thing of his childhood need linger inside of him.” This is suggestive; if Dad is indeed a memory as James insists, will this “important thing” fade like most childhood memories?
James “remembers their father watching them, naked and shivering on the bed.” How old were they and why did he watch them while they shivered naked on the bed? We know that James just finished sixth grade, which means the story begins when he is a preteen. The narrative doesn’t say that he and Sister were sitting on the bed, just that they were naked and shivering on the bed. The reader (at least this one) can’t help but wonder what this implies. Maybe they really were just sitting on the bed naked and were shivering because they had just gone swimming, and here they “wait and shiver naked on the edge of the bed for Mom to clothe them again,” after getting a little wet from the rain. There is the “again” again. Swimming or getting rained on and shivering is followed regularly by stripping off their clothes and sitting naked on the bed. On that same page, we are told that James “would rather sit naked on the bed with his sister,” after Mom has dressed them, and that he “knows he is not allowed to touch his sister.” Why are we specifically told (or why must he be told) not to touch his sister? Could he have learned such a practice from someone, from Dad in the basement? Is this why part of Dad is in the basement? The primary tension between James and Mom is that James wants to visit the Dad he is sure is in the basement from the moaning sounds he hears, but Mom won’t have it. When Sister tattles on James that he has already gone down there, Mom punishes him by locking him in the closet. At this point, James sees Sister sneak down into the basement to see if Dad exists there. When he awakens in the closet, he “is afraid of what their dad has told her, what he has done to her, (emphasis mine).” Add to these uncomfortable suggestions, Mom still dresses James at an age when he should be dressing himself. Suggestion builds upon suggestion, further when we reach Chapter 02 with Dad in the Basement’s point of view: “Every day his memory of what he had been and of what he had done become cloaked by an ever thickening veil. At times, he thinks that he exiled himself, and other times he thinks he was exiled; surely, he has done something” (emphasis mine).” And that something cannot be good.
Other Elements of Significance:
This text is full of nots and nos: James is not allowed to touch his sister; James is never really sure whether or not what he just saw was a dream; when he asks Mom if he can play in the basement, she says no; Dad in the basement, she says, is not his real father; “The girl says no. Dad loves hot dessert, but mother corrects her. He loves cold, frozen pies, not hot.” “The boy says they have not seen Dad in years.” Perhaps you are an Exile when your actions are defined by what you are not to do.
Everyone in The Exiles, as I noted earlier, seems to be watching someone else. In counting some form of the word “watch” in Chapter 03 alone, I counted 23 times. The primary ‘watchers’ are: Dad watches James and Sister, James watches the neighbor girl, who is the most watched: watched by her Dad when she sleeps, by the boy from school, and by the strange little boy who lives next door and keeps several creatures in 10-gallon aquariums full of yellow water. Maybe you’re an Exile when you are constantly watched by some Other.
If this brief visit upon a world of Exiles reads as claustrophobic and doomed, the final chapter exudes a glimmer of hope through the warmth and brightness of summer: “Tomorrow they will go again in the car. It is almost summer, and though it rains in the morning, the sun shines through and warms it.” We began with a routine of the exiled world, and end with a routine. Only now, repetition makes for difference: The neighbor girl runs away from her extremely protective and obsessive parents – at least for a few days; Dad in the basement’s anger over his exile returns, but this time it moves him to action out of lethargy – he shakes the house in hopes it will release him, even if that means will will bring the house down on top of himself; James will keep wondering, but he will try harder to remember so “he can remember if anything changes” – to try to take hold of things so they won’t get lost in memory or confused as dream.
More can be said about what happens in the “middle” (if there even is one) in The Exiles, but over-summarizing won’t do this narrative justice. Hopefully, highlighting its significant traits has keyed up your curiosity to read the chapbook. Read it. I promise, you will be unsettled and moved to piece the oddities and mysteries together. You will be haunted. And you may be uneasily appeased.
Tina V. Cabrera earned her MFA in Fiction from San Diego State University in 2009. Excerpts from her novel, short fiction, and poetry have appeared in journals such as Quickly, Crack the Spine, Big Bridge Magazine, Vagabondage Press, San Diego Poetry Annual, Fiction International and Outrider Press. She is a first-year PhD student in English and Creative Writing at UNT (University of North Texas) with a focus on creative nonfiction.Visit her writerly blog at www.cannyuncanny.wordpress.