A Penumbral Postlude to “Growth Unencumbered”

by guest contributor Patrick Kiley

[For this third episode in the ongoing review/response sequence composed by collaborators and friends, Patrick Kiley takes the time to swim through the emotional and environmental nuances of “Growth Unencumbered,” a short story I wrote while a guest of writer Carl Skoggard and artist Joseph Holtzman at their country home in Valatie, New York. For two weeks in November 2019, I stayed in a refurbished farmhouse on the edge of their property, spending most mornings in the expansive studio addition working on new drafts while periodically looking out the east windows to observe, as the dark slowly eased into dawn, the crepuscular activities of a family of cranky ducks who claimed the nearby pond as their home. (In actual fact, I would never have met Carl and Joe if not for Patrick, who—through his press PS Hudson/Pilot Editions—has published several books by both Carl and me: in a sense, “Growth Unencumbered” very much owes its existence to the ever-reaching connective tissue expanding outward from the kinda-gross-but-ultimately-loving heart of Patrick Kiley.) It was an incredibly important two weeks for me, as an artist and as a human. Partly inspired by S. B. Walker’s Walden series of documentary photographs, “Growth Unencumbered”—originally printed in Issue 4 of the Irish journal The Channel in the spring of 2021—is the first published piece from the body of work I composed while in Valatie. Without the confluence of all these thingsthe house, the landscape, the photographs, the friendshipsI never would have written this story. There’d have been no story to write. — DWM]

Two people go on a walk in some woods to a place that’s special to them. Previously, one of them suffered a wound to his arm which necessitated amputation. Negligence played a role in this accident and left room for shame to creep in. The amputee loves the woman he’s walking with. At the very least, it seems like today things will be okay. But a small, dark revelation bubbles up from the calm of the hampered narrator’s wincing self-reflection. It’s a moment of brutal honesty that, depending on the reader, may provoke a sense of justified revulsion or an irresistible pang of empathy. This is one possible reading of “Growth Unencumbered.”

Reading a story by Douglas W. Milliken is itself like taking a walk—along a shaky ledge above a beautiful coastline. For one thing, you’re often outside in his fiction, and the environment is always sharply drawn. But it’s no postcard. There’s a sense of menace just underfoot. The ground could—and will—give at any moment, but you need to keep walking if you want to see something you haven’t seen before. This is just to say, you never really “settle in” to one of Milliken’s stories—you only ride its edge.

Milliken’s signatures are all over “Growth Unencumbered” almost like olfactory traces: a skunk’s thiol sprayed across a cold boulder last night with a blush of spring violets blown over it this morning. Let me try to bring that home. Mildly rueful self-effacing wisdom and bare honesty that’s so vulnerable it’s almost funny: “I always knew I’d live long enough to see my body fall apart, but still, I never thought I’d see the parts actually shed like leaves from an autumn tree.”

Bitter as almond skin, but who wouldn’t want a nibble?

I’ll admit it: I’m a friend of Doug’s. And when I read his work, even a relatively-short short story like “Growth Unencumbered,” the language in my mind starts sounding like the words on his page. Raw sense saturates common sense. A little sympathetic nimbus grows up and out of my atlas. Every writer casts some kind of shadow with the way they write, and Doug’s sits with me like an alter ego even after I stop reading. This obscure figure starts to direct my attention to little things outside like dead wood and creeping vines, and to the inevitable little battles they’re suffering through in unseen pockets of spacetime. Mice who think they’re people, weeds that have accepted their lot. He also has me look up little known technical names for flora, for tools, for ailments, and for parts of anatomy that don’t stand out as much in their everyday idiom. Milliken’s language is always generous, mixing the profane with the precision-guided. So, for example, the names of human anatomy—humerus, condyle (“an articular prominence of a bone”) are rendered right alongside the imagined parlance of trees: “Wow! Yeah! I’m a tree! Woo-hoo!”. 

If I sit back and enjoy the company, I feel like I’m swimming through the story’s as-yet uncomposed penumbral postlude. 

Speaking of shadows, does the title itself send a little shiver down your spine, too? No one wants to hear about a growth. What’s this about an encumbrance undone? The words, for me, signal cancer, an uncontrollable proliferation. Milliken’s titles never give too much away and always leave a wide valence for interpretation. I think he wouldn’t be unhappy to know his words gave me pause. Why shouldn’t they?

Another signature of Milliken’s work is the revelation of the past in small details offered well into his stories, like stubbing your toe on a fossilized bone along the ledge you took to be uninhabited. Part way through “Growth Unencumbered,” after easing into the landscape where the story’s main action happens, we’re hit with a tiny declarative paragraph that pierces the veil of a pristine here and now: “That friend’s gone now. So’s his uncle’s house. So’s the magnificent Leonberger. Should anyone be surprised by that?” This is a small, startling crumble in the metaphorical ledge. As the reader proceeds from this moment, more infill from the past gradually pours into the present that we took to be an untouchable immanence, sufficient in itself, all there is. But it’s not. Every body has a phantom limb. As we accompany the characters along their trail we move transcendentally and sometimes painfully through the mystery of their lives, and ours.

Leaves beneath ice after the first snow in Valatie, NY. Photograph by Douglas W. Milliken.

Patrick Kiley is a publisher, writer, father, and make-believe-wooden-dead-guy perpetually haunting the capital region of New York’s Hudson River.