The Art of the Sentence: Amy Hempell

Jaimie Quatro

“And when the men kissed the women good night, and their weekend whiskers scratched the women’s cheeks, the women did not think shave, they thought: stay.” – Amy Hempel, “Weekend”

Everyone talks about how difficult it is to pull off a “happy” story, or a story in which “nothing happens.” Hempel does both in “Weekend,” and succeeds because she allows a single word in the final sentence – shave – to suggest that sometimes things aren’t so bucolic.  Sometimes the women are, in fact, annoyed by the stubble. But not this weekend. Hempel’s brilliance, here, is in letting that subtle but necessary nuance come in at the very end, so that the joy of the weekend, and the story itself, comes to rest on its potential opposite.

And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words:  Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.” —Amy Hempel, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried”

My throat closes every time I read this last line. Of course it conveys the absolute despair and impotence of loss; but there’s something devastating, here, in the mother chimp’s unnatural ability to communicate her grief using sign language. She isn’t just fluent in the language of grief; she is fluent “now” in the language, speaks with an “animal grace.” Her ability to sign is the result of an experiment conducted on her by humans; and did we do her any favors? Does her ability to (now) express her pain in words intensify that pain? Does language precede, and therefore create, to an extent, emotion? Not only does this sentence land with a thud, coming as it does after the death of the narrator’s best friend, but it resonates with all the essential questions about what it means to be human, to feel love and loss, desire and despair.

Jamie Quatro’s first story collection is forthcoming in 2013 from Grove/Atlantic. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Tin House, Ploughshares, AGNI, McSweeney’s, Oxford American, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and was the Georges and Anne Borchardt Scholar at the 2011 Sewanee Writers’ Conference.  She holds graduate degrees from the College of William and Mary and the Bennington College Writing Seminars, and lives with her husband and children in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.