Reading Guide: Environment

Our Fragile Environment

Even as the world is becoming more aware of our impact on the environment, we often tend to downplay or even ignore the consequences of environmental degradation. When Hurricane Sandy devastated New York and shut down our hospitals, our inextricable link to the environment was suddenly spotlighted for us at the Bellevue Literary Review. Our editors readily agreed to this issue’s theme, “Our Fragile Environment,” recognizing the importance of creatively exploring both the immediate and insidious effects of issues such as global warming, natural disasters, pollution, diminishing resources, and more.

These stories, essays, and poems from the BLR offer a way to consider our relationship with the environment. Should we put a price on the environment? What does human nature tell us about environmental sustainability? What is our role during natural disasters? This study guide serves as a way to guide readers through thinking about our fragile environment through a literary lens.

Written by: Olivia Wetzel and Simone Leung


“Vertical Integration” by Stephen Truman Sugg

  1. How did being African-American affect the main character’s college experience?
  2. How else do racial and other prejudices manifest in the story, especially on the factory farms?
  3. Does the narrator seem to have any sympathy or empathy for the people that he worked with? Does he expect sympathy from others?
  4. Do you trust the narrator of the story? Why or why not?
  5. How does your opinion of the narrator change as the story continues? What specific moments do this?
  6. How does the narrator try to justify his actions?

“The Run” by Ben Goldfarb

  1. Despite the cost of living, why did Jake “come” to Alaska, and why did he “stay”?
  2. What kind of work does Jake do for Abe, and why does he enjoy doing it?
  3. The narrator says that “Salmon was not only the free calories that made subsistence possible.” What other roles do fish and fishing play for the community?
  4. How does the town suffer from the poor fishing season? Do you think the author is trying to say something about how a depleting environment affects our lives?
  5. What does Jake do with the salmon at the end of the story? Why do you think he does this? How does it affect his decision of whether to go to Anchorage with Jecilda or not?
  6. The salmon at the end of the story had “begun to decay.” What other images of decay are present in the story?

“A Big Empty” by Rhonda Browning White

  1. Why does Romie think her first pregnancy was a miscarriage? Do her loved ones agree or disagree with her?
  2. Why do Romie and Jasper move? How are their lives in North Carolina different from the ones they lived in West Virginia?
  3. What does Jasper have to do on the first day at the new site? How does he feel about it before he starts, and how does he feel afterwards?
  4. How does Jasper’s encounter with the rabbit and her babies mirror or foreshadow what happens to Romie at the end of the story?
  5. Mack seems to have a very different view on relationships than Jasper. How does Mack think a marriage should work? Does Jasper agree? Is his relationship with Romie the kind that Mack wants?
  6. The phrase “if we keep on killing the land, the land will have no choice but to kill us right back” is repeated multiple times throughout the story. What does this mean to Jasper? What do you think it means in our world today?

“Spotted Dog” by William Kelley Woolfit

  1. How do the children at the beginning of the story treat Kai?
  2. Why are people afraid of the spotted dog? What has it done to make the villagers fearful? Does Kai feel the same way as everybody else?
  3. Why and how do the villagers ostracize Kai? What does he do in order to get food?
  4. What kind of relationship does Kai have with Nasiche? How does she treat him differently than the other villagers do?
  5. Talk about the importance of night in the story: Kai is described as a “night man.” How does Kai feel about the night, and why might this be?
  6. Why does Kai steal the first hen, and how do his motives change?
  7. At the end of the story, how does Kai say he will return for Nasiche? What does this suggest about how he feels about her?

“From Utah to the Promised Land” by Mark Rigney

  1. Why does Ms. Hollis enjoy having Duke working on the ranch?
  2. What in Israel reminds David of home? How does Ms. Hollis feel about this?
  3. Discuss the significance of dust in the story: How does it affect the characters, both physically and mentally? What sort of significance might it have to the story as a whole? What does the main character say about it at the very end of the story?
  4. The narrator says that “A cattle ranch doesn’t survive on color.” What does she mean by this? What does she say that a cattle ranch does survive on?

“Due West” by Glenn Vanstrum

  1. Why did Dr. LeMonde stop giving his elderly patients the medical attention and prescriptions they would need to get better?
  2. What does he decide to do when he goes out surfing and why?
  3. Who and what does he remember while he lies on his surfboard in the middle of the ocean?
  4. Does the main character seem to be afraid of death? If so, why? If not, how does he feel about it?
  5. The narrator says that doctors like the main character “played a major role in the cancerous growth of humanity.” Do you think what the main character did in his practice was an attempt to escape this?
  6. Does he feel bad for what he did? How does he justify his actions? Do you empathize with him?

“The Magnificent Purr” by Keya Mitra

  1. Why was the main character upset that his grandmother was truthful to him about how his father died?
  2. What did Caroline hope would be the ultimate outcome of going on the retreat?
  3. How do Caroline’s views on religion change as her illness worsens?
  4. How does the narrator feel about going on the retreat with his wife? Does his opinion change as the story progresses?
  5. How does Caroline’s death affect the reputation of the retreat center?
  6. The narrator says that Caroline was his “last link to the divine.” What might he mean by this?

“The Unicycle” by Steven Swiryn

  1. How does Alfred react when he realizes that his wife, Francie, has spent the night in the guest bedroom? What does he initially do?
  2. Why is he so concerned about changing the sheets on the bed when he discovers that his daughter is coming to visit?
  3. How does the fact that the story is told in the present tense enhance the events of the narrative?
  4. How does the beginning of the story, when Alfred wakes up and doesn’t see his wife, mirror the end, when he again wakes up and she isn’t with him? How have things changed? How is his outlook different?
  5. The story concludes with Alfred remembering a conversation he had with his wife about a picture of a circus that they had. In the picture, a clown rides a unicycle on a wire. In the final sentence of the story, Alfred says that, “the wire just ends there, with nowhere to go.” How does this affect the story as a whole? What does it leave you thinking about?

“Attachments” by Yvette Benavides

  1. How does Santos’ grandmother react to the officers from the Department of Homeland Security coming? Why?
  2. Discuss the importance of cameras and photographs in the story. What do they represent?
  3. Near the beginning of the story, the narrator describes in great detail Abuelita’s religious practices, then says that “Abuelita watches the altar like it is a TV.” What might this mean? What does it say about the way that Abuelita prays or practices religion?
  4. Why does Abuelita get upset when Santos puts the picture of his mother on the altar? How does Santos react?
  5. Like “Beyond the Boundaries of Flesh,” this story addresses the theme of foreignness. In what ways is this theme’s presence similar and different to its presence in “Beyond the Boundaries of Flesh”?

“Beyond the Boundaries of Flesh” by Ginger Eager

  1. The image of an angel is related to the main character’s teenage daughter, Paisley, multiple times throughout the story. She is called an “Angel” by the locals when she is young, and, as a teenager, is said to have a “horrid taste in angels.” Discuss the significance of angels in the story.
  2. What are some similarities and differences in the relationship that the main character has with Claire and the relationship that she has with Paisley? In the relationship she has with Paisley and the relationship that Claire has with her daughter, Elsa?
  3. How does the main character deal with Paisley in the moment of crisis? What does Paisley do or say to change her mother’s approach to the situation?
  4. Mother-daughter relationships are an important presence in the story. What might the author be trying to say about them?
  5. Discuss the theme of foreignness in the story, and how it affects the narrative: The main character and her family as well as Claire and Elsa are foreigners in Thailand.


“All Our Relations” by Jeanine Pfeiffer

  1. Why does the author begin the story with the scene of the bobcat’s attack on her chickens?
  2. What are some of the major themes of the story? What is the main message the author is trying to convey?
  3. The narrator decides to feed the dead chicken to the bobcats as a sacrifice instead of roasting it for a meal. What is the significance of her choice?
  4. The narrator goes off on a tangent about the many interactions between humans and “non-human creatures.” What does this reveal about how she views their relationship?
  5. What is the narrator’s purpose behind giving two specific examples of how the ecosystem’s natural order is formed? Are the examples effective in supporting her view?
  6. At the end of the story, the author seems to come full circle. How and why does she do this?

“Oranges” by Erica Cavanagh

  1. What is the tone of the story? How does the author create it?
  2. Where does the story take place?
  3. What is going on when the story takes place? How does the story slowly begin to develop?
  4. Compare the narrator and Sejal. How and why are they so different?
  5. What does the woman giving birth symbolize?
  6. What does the author mean when she says, “We are alone in sensing what we really mean. We are alone in wondering about mattresses and what will be helpful, or what can be done, despairing when what could have been done needed to have happened long ago”?
  7. Why did the author become a midwife? What does this mean to her?
  8. Explain why the story is titled “Oranges”


“High on the Chain” by Hal Sirowitz

  1. What subject is the poem addressing overall?
  2. How does the image at the beginning of the poem, of a chewed piece of gum being left on the sidewalk for an animal to choke on, relate to the theme of forest and animal preservation?
  3. Does the way that the author uses a personal experience to discuss environmental issues make them easier to understand and more relatable?

“Research Dermatologist, Army Photographer” by Greg McBride

  1. What position does the speaker of the poem have and what is he doing? What do you think the speaker’s opinion is of what he does?
  2. What do you think the speaker means when he says that he “snapped” at the end of the poem? What might have caused it?
  3. How does Doc’s perception of the situation seem to differ from the speaker’s? Do you think Doc is as affected as the speaker is?

“Irrigation” by Martha Serpas

  1. What might the speaker be referring to when she talks about “the wound”?
  2. How does the speaker say we act differently from the river mentioned at the end of the poem? What do we do to the river?

“Every Good Thing” by JoLee G. Passerini

  1. How does the woman feel about her daughter’s illness? How does the speaker react?
  2. How is the speaker affected by what she heard? Who comforts her, and how does it make her feel?
  3. What role does color play in the poem? How does the speaker use it?

“Oriole Report” by Meg Kearney

  1. Who is the “they” in the poem?
  2. What kind of things do “they” take from the speaker’s mother? What significance do these items have?
  3. What does the mother take with her?

“The Audible World” by Nicholas Samaras

  1. What type of noise does the speaker say is taking over our world? What, instead, should we focus on, according to him?
  2. What does the speaker say that we “crave”?
  3. What do you think about what the author is trying to say? Do you think that our world is being invaded by unnaturalness, and that we need to adjust our focus?

“Thing” by Felicia Zamora

  1. How do the ideas of location and direction manifest in the poem?
  2. The speaker uses a lot of images related to the beach and the ocean. Find specific moments in which the speaker does this. Why might she have so many references to the ocean?

“A Discordance of Bees” by Candace Pearson

  1. How does the title relate to the poem itself?
  2. How does the poem represent the mind and thoughts of someone who is ill? Is this a way of looking at illness that you have thought of before?
  3. How is Part I different from Part II? Why might the author have separated the poem into sections?

“Inscripted” by Andrea Witzke Slot

  1. What exactly does the speaker feel is “inscripted” within her?
  2. What could be significant about the fact that the word “inscripted” is not in the dictionary? What do you think the writer might be trying to say about being able to understand and describe in words the concept of motherly love?

“Maria Looks at a Painting by Helen Frankenthaler (“Nature Abhors a Vacuum”) and Has Something to Say” by Catherine Prescott

  1. What might the last sentence of the poem imply about the temporality of art? Is this temporality a positive or a negative thing?
  2. The speaker says that “colors reflect the light they want to see.” What might she mean by this?
  3. What role does temperature and heat play in the poem?

“Upon Waking Maria Dreams” by Catherine Prescott

  1. Who is “the man who opened her”? What role does he play in the woman’s survival?
  2. How does the woman see the man? Is it a positive or negative image that she has of him?
  3. What is wrong with the woman? What is the “proverbial pea” or the “cluster of bad cells”? How does the speaker describe it?

“You Will Feel a Pinch” by Marylen Grigas

  1. How does the writer manage to relate grand natural disasters to more personal themes and experiences? What might be her intention in doing this?
  2. Who might the speaker be addressing? What is the speaker’s relationship to the addressee?

“Discharge” by Jacob L. Freedman

  1. Where do you think the speaker is, and why do you think he is writing this letter to his doctor?
  2. Do you think the speaker in this poem is being honest in everything that he is saying? Why or why not? Do you think that the speaker himself is convinced that he is being truthful?
  3. What does the speaker say he is “struggling” with, and how did the doctor help him?
  4. How might his family and friends have “hurt his inspiration”?

“Surrender, A Prayer for my Mother” by Lindsay Wilson

  1. Who is the “dark one”?
  2. Why do the events of the poem only take place at night? What might the author be trying to say about death?

“Florence Nightingale” by Jessica Greenbaum

  1. What role does the image of flowers play in the poem? What does the author use them in relation to?
  2. According to the poem, what improves the state of ill patients?
  3. In what kind of people, does she say, has she seen the “most acute suffering”?

“Boys” by Dennis James Sweeney

  1. Whose voice is speaking in the italics? Who is speaking in the regular print?
  2. What do you think happens at the very end of the poem? What might the speaker’s goal be in not telling us whether Mark’s father actually pulls the trigger or not?
  3. According to the poem, what is “real darkness”?

“Ashes, Ashes”by Joel W. Nelson

  1. The poem seems to be concerned with the concepts of decay and consumption. What images in particular help to strengthen these themes?
  2. Why does the man’s house turn to sand? What happens to the cow that he butchers? What do you think is the speaker’s stance on nature preservation?
  3. The speaker asks, “Of what use is a seed where a weed will not grow”? Do you think he is talking about factory farming? If so, what is he saying about it? If not, what do you think he means by this question?

“Mad Girl Song” by Kathryn A. Kopple

  1. Why do you think the title of the poem is “Mad Girl Song”?
  2. What does the speaker say lives under her pillow? How does it influence her?

“Three Center Two Electric Bond” by Matt W. Miller

  1. What does the speaker say about appearance versus personality? Which is more important, and why?
  2. The speaker talks about how the Sexiest Man Alive pulls his skin off and sells it at an auction. Do you think the author is trying to say something about human worth and celebrity? If so, what? Is this a positive or negative image?
  3. What happens to the speaker’s wife at the end of the poem?

“Advent” by Pat Daneman

  1. What kind of relationship does the speaker probably have with the other person in the poem?
  2. What does the speaker find comfortable about his situation? Does he seem to have any desire to change?
  3. What might the speaker mean when he says that “upstairs the bed is cold”?

“MRI” by Linda Pastan

  1. What does the likening of the narrator’s situation to that of an astronaut going into space say about how the narrator feels about the unknown?
  2. What might the speaker mean when she calls the silence of outer space a “storied” one?
  3. What would be typical emotions or feelings that astronauts might have just before going out into space? What kind of feelings does the speaker seem to be having?

“She Misses and Wishes We Could All Live Together” by Muriel Nelson

  1. How does the author use the ideas of separation and unity, both in relation to the spider and to the people blowing on the web?
  2. The author italicized a few of the phrases. Why might she have done this? Do they fit in with the rest of the poem or stand out?
  3. The speaker finishes the poem by saying, “We’re together. She misses. She’s two.” Who is the other person or people included in the “we”? Who is “she”?

“History” by Matt Morton

  1. How is the speaker’s brother affected by their mother’s behavior?
  2. What does the speaker mean when he says that his mom “hides behind wide-open eyes”?
  3. Why do you think the mother works so hard to preserve the history of the house? What might have happened that upset her?

“School of Practical Dissection” by Kenny Williams

  1. How does the priest see the heart differently than the anatomist?
  2. Who might the “we” in the poem be? Why do they “feel like boys playing hooky”?
  3. Talk about the theme of ownership in the poem. The speaker describes the heart as being “in the hands of” the priest and the anatomist. Additionally, the boys drink out of the landlord’s jug. How else does this theme manifest?

“How Humans Came to Loneliness” by Doug Ramspeck Daneman

  1. What might the author be implying when he says that rain falls “from the eyelid of the sky”?
  2. What does the speaker say about the way the people in the poem loved? What might they have loved? How?
  3. How does the lifestyle of the people in the poem differ from the way we live now? What might the author be trying to say about our current way of life?