Swarm to Glory

Swarm to Glory

By Garnett Kilberg Cohen
Wiseblood Books, 2014, 212 pages

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Last fall, after posting “Women: please send me your fiction,”  I received a number of excellent books by women authors and their publishers. A dear friend and fellow writer who’d seen the post handed me Garnett Kilberg Cohen’s collection Swarm to Glory, and I am deeply grateful that she did. The book contains those rare kinds of stories that pulled me completely out of myself and into the lives of the characters—seemingly everyday lives in which, in the words of my friend, complexities and dangers lurk under the surface.

The stories in the collection are united by a concern with endings, which range from the deaths of loved ones to the withering of romantic relationships. In an interview with Newcity Lit, Cohen said, “In the face of such endings, my characters often must decide whether they will be ruled by these endings, or whether, in spite of the ephemeral nature of all things, they will ‘swarm to glory.’”

In the title story, the central character, Ellen, finds glory through nature—in this case, through a swarm of bees that has settled into a tree at the foster home where she has been living since her mother became seriously ill. Ellen is living a life of alienation, not only because she is apart from her mother but also because she is the only Jew in the foster home, which causes her to be disparaged by certain members of the community, especially by congregants of the Christian mega-church she’s now compelled to attend. When Ellen observes the cluster of bees, that sense of alienation lifts, and she reconnects to her mother, who “loved nature and educational activities.”

In the final scene, as a beekeeper sends the bees out of the tree in pursuit of their queen, Ellen transcends the limits of her surroundings, and even of mortality:

Ellen knew, at that very moment, that, indeed, a part of her mother was in the Queen Bee, every bee, every tree, every blade of grass, and her mother would be inside her too, forever guiding her to a better place.

Here, and in several other stories in the collection, Cohen elevates the everyday and renders it transformative.

One of my favorite stories in Swarm to Glory was “The Woman with the Longest Hair,” in which the main character, Susie, decides to cut her long and much admired hair after years of considering barber’s scissors a near-mortal enemy. The hair, Susie reflects,

ceased being an emblem of strength and independence, and became a weight. It wasn’t anything Susie could put her finger on—or was even aware of at all times—just a general uneasiness that prevented her from fully enjoying her hair’s magnificence. By the time she was thirty, her beautiful rippling locks swung beneath her knees; her devotion to her hair was equaled only by her apprehension about it.

Susie senses that her decision to go under the scissors (at the humorously named Curl Up and Dye Beauty Parlor) will have serious consequences, but they turn out to be far graver than she seems to have expected. A reporter who covers the event writes a smear job of a story about the haircut, griping that “not every woman in Butler County has heard the word feminism” and that Susie “has clung to the one thing that she believes makes her special,” forgoing college and other opportunities “so she would have the two hours she needs each day to maintain her hairstyle.” On top of this, Susie’s husband, perhaps the greatest admirer of her long hair, eventually decides to leave her.

With time, however, Susie’s instinct to shed the weight of her hair proves justified, and she’s freed to find a more rewarding—and less limited—life. The story has the ring of a fairytale to it, with all of an old-school fairytale’s darkness. But there is light in it, too, and hope (if not exactly glory), and readers may find themselves reflecting on longstanding, and seemingly mundane, weights in their own lives that might best be dispensed with.

Another remarkable story in the collection is “Bad News,” which won the Lawrence Foundation Prize from Michigan Quarterly Review in 2003. The form of “Bad News” perfectly suits its content, that of a phone conversation between a mother and her adult daughter (the narrator). The mother has called to tell her daughter of the tragic death of a former neighbor, making this just one more of countless instances in which she has delivered bad news—something she seems to regard as her “duty.” As the daughter observes,

Oddly, I am certain she takes no pleasure in the news itself, but just as certain that there is pleasure in the telling—a type of satisfaction that is neither malevolent nor indecorous.

The words exchanged between the mother and daughter are in italics, but the much richer and more detailed part of the story–the daughter’s musings about her mother’s drive to share bad news, about the tragic arc of the former neighbor’s life, and about the disappointments in the daughter’s own life—is in body type. In its structure and content the story gets at truths about the distances that can exist between ourselves and even those closest to us, about how much remains unsaid.

Discussing the story in an interview with Michigan Quarterly Review, Cohen said, “I read a line saying something about most conversations taking place primarily in the minds of those engaged in the conversation.  I thought the observation was astute, and I wanted to write something with a structure that played with this idea. I’ve had countless conversations where I haven’t said even a quarter of what I’ve thought—some of these unspoken musings are because the mind wanders and plays association games, but others are because as thoughtful, social beings, we are always editing ourselves, holding back items that we’re not brave enough to say, or might hurt the other person’s feelings or reveal too much about ourselves.”

In “Bad News,” and in many other stories in this moving, witty, and thought-provoking collection, Cohen takes us beneath the surfaces of things and makes us think.

Would My Pick be Your Pick?

If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
--The stories of Flannery O’Connor
--The stories of Eudora Welty
--Anything by Lorrie Moore
--Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout