Setting Inward

by Rachel Stein

Editor's choice spring 2018

Guest Editor Rachel Stein, left, with Editor's Choice authors Meg Winnecour, prose; and Janet Shaw, poetry

I’m a professor of literature and now a creative writing student in the Great Smokies Program, learning to craft stories instead of analyzing their significance. I understand setting as a means of staging a piece by using particular details to place us in time and space, but I still sometimes forget how external setting may also be crafted to reveal inner life. As Guest Editor for this issue, I’ve chosen two remarkable pieces that use setting in this way. Janet Shaw’s poem “Inside the Bear” and Meg Winnecour’s memoir essay “Infestation” begin with sensory external descriptions that not only ground us, but also point the way toward complex internal states of heart and mind.

Shaw’s “Inside the Bear” begins with an evocative description of camping in a blizzard that she compares to “a great white bear making its bed” on top of the tent. The simile of the bear-like storm leaves the speaker in a “world swallowed by white” with snow so deep and wind so strong that when she and her companion try to venture out, they give up and retreat back to the tent. They lie back down, “pressed together with our dogs” and “sleep piled in drifts over us.” In this last line of the first stanza, the writer sets inward as the piles of snow atop the tent now become a drift of sleep.

The next stanza carries us deeper inward as the figurative snow bear metamorphoses into a dream bear that the speaker will violently enter: “I dream I kill the she-bear.” In exquisitely harsh details, the poem describes the gruesome process of breaking into the bear’s body: “slit her from gut to throat,/peel back fur, then flesh, crack open/the bone-stave shelter stinking of blood and bowel/and crawl inside.” We wallow in the dense alliterative consonants of the sharp, short words that emphasize the brutal actions of opening the bear’s body and entering it.

Then in the final three lines, the poem again turns further inward, likening the dream process of entering the bear to grief entering a heart: “the way grief/creeps into the hot carcass of the heart/and waits out its long season.” These economical lines coalesce the literal and figurative imagery of the entire poem into this metaphor of grief stowing away in the heart, hibernating, waiting for the long winter season of mourning to pass. With beautiful, surprising imaginative movement, Shaw’s “Inside the Bear” begins with a winter storm setting, then carries us through dream imagery into a final, wonderfully apt description of grief.

Meg Winnecour’s memoir essay, “Infestation,” uses household details as a means of recognizing dementia in two generations of her family. The piece opens with the narrator describing childhood visits to her grandmother’s apartment. Her first sentence introduces smells: “cigarettes, cookies, and cockroaches.” The young girl simply accepts the odors and takes for granted other oddities, such as the kitchenette stocked with only two foods: “two liter bottles of Wink soda” and “packages of Nutter Butters.” The girl has no understanding that these details reveal her grandmother’s dementia. The child simply enjoys her visits. “In my grandmother’s apartment, I felt made of light.”

But as the grandmother’s condition worsens, she moves in with the narrator’s family, bringing hordes of roaches hidden in her furniture. The colony multiplies. “Pull open a drawer and the blackness, congealed, would bleed into the recesses of the cabinets.” “Tiny, little innocuous-seeming bugs…Their tininess, when multiplied exponentially, became galactic.” The narrator, now a young adult, recognizes the infestation of cockroaches and the smell of their excrement as sign of her grandmother’s dementia. She says: “We got rid of the roaches, but my fear of infestation lives on. I’m bothered not so much by the bugs but by the path they mark.” Winnecour has crafted the setting detail of roach infestation to signify a confused mind no longer in control of housekeeping or other aspects of daily life.

When the adult narrator returns to her childhood home after a long absence she now recognizes the disordered signs of dementia in her mother’s lack of housekeeping. She says: “those first moments in the home of someone who has begun to lose her mind are eerie enough to raise the hair on your arms.” Her mother once kept an immaculate house while tending and feeding eight children, but now the narrator notices startling changes. She inhales the smell of cockroach excrement and realizes the oriental rug “felt waxy underfoot, as if coated with grease.” The kitchen overflows with junk foods and nearly raw lemon bars her mother attempted to bake. The narrator notices odd sounds: her mother obsessively rubbing surfaces, faucets dripping, “a quavering hum.” All of these sense details worry the narrator. She tries to reassure herself that her mother’s faculties may still be intact as she watches her read a book, until she notices that the book is upside down. These cumulative details force the daughter to recognize the disintegration of her mother’s mind.

Toward the end of the essay, the narrator wonders if she too will inherit dementia. She worries about forgetfulness. When her cat gets fleas, the narrator addresses this infestation, determined not to let the fleas get the better of her household, because infestation has become equated with dementia for her. She vacuums obsessively, even though her husband and daughter don’t believe the house still has fleas. And she wonders if this insistent cleaning, this fear of infestation, is a sign of her mental health or a sign that she, too, is now losing her mind?

Shaw’s and Winnecour’s moving pieces remind readers that carefully observed and interpreted setting can be a craft tool for capturing inner states difficult to describe.

Rachel Stein is a professor of English and of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Siena College. She is the author of Shifting the Ground: American Women Writers’ Revisions of Nature, Gender and Race and the editor of two essay collections on environmental justice, gender, and sexuality. She has read several of her memoir essays on National Public Radio’s “Fifty-One Percent.”