Charles May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 1 – Genre and the Short Story

The difference between the many critics who doubt that a definition of the short story is possible and those few, like me, who argue for the validity and value of such a definition, revolves around two different concepts of generic definition… I do not need to argue for a definition that satisfies necessary conditions to distinguish the short story from the novel. I do argue, however, that if we develop an understanding of the generic characteristics of the short story, we will be able to read individual short stories with more appreciation and understanding.

~~Charles E. May, “I Am Your Brother”: Short Story Studies (2013)

What is a short story? Is it merely defined by length? Or is there some more underlying characteristic? Is there a type of tale best suited to this short form, as opposed to the novel? These are some of the questions Prof. May looks at in this essay, printed as Chapter 1 of his book. This is not a review of that book, by the way; I wouldn’t presume. I’m using it as a springboard for my own exploration, at a much simpler level, of the ideas and materials he incorporates.

As before, I’ll focus on a couple of source documents he uses in his argument. Neither of these are short stories – one is a philosophy treatise, one a book review – but that’s what this chapter holds; we’re looking at the genre of the short story, and, to some degree, the history of that genre (the history will be continued in the next chapter). Edit: I added in a short story on reconsideration of my overall purpose here.

May begins with Wittgenstein. In Philosophical Investigations, aphorisms 65 – 67, Wittgenstein argues for a description of language that uses, not a checklist of features every language use must have, but a group of characteristics generally shared:

(65) …Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all,—

but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all “language”… (66) And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall

similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. (67) I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”…

~~Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

I stumbled across Wittgenstein last Fall and Winter, running into him over and over again – in a philosophy class, obviously, but also in a math class and a poetry class (not to mention one very odd but compelling film). I was also in a Norwegian loop at the time, encountering references to Norway in several venues (including three works of fiction new to me, and one pre-existing one). Turned out Wittgenstein retreated to Norway at a particularly troubling time in his life. Networks, indeed.

I was also struck by the similarity of this “family relationship” classification to the medical diagnostic model. Not everyone with a cold has the whole menu of a sore throat, stuffy nose, cough, mild fever, fatigue, and body aches, but your doctor will diagnose a cold if you have three or four of those, and lack certain others (high fever or rash, for instance). For some reason, we expect literature to behave more rigidly than a rhinovirus. This is amusing, since there is no such thing as “the” cold virus – there are hundreds of them, and new ones crop up all the time, which is why some prefer your sinuses and some your trachea, and they will land in different places thus set up shop in the nose, eyes, or throat and spread from there. Isn’t this a great analogy for literature? I know I can enjoy stories in different ways for different things: beautiful writing (and that alone can define a multitude of beauties), a moving theme, a charming/hilarious/admirable character, a clever narrative or structural technique. They’re all stories. Why shouldn’t the definition of the perceived “story” – the symptoms – also be given some latitude in diagnosis?

At some point in what passes for my formal education, mediocre as it was, I came across a definition of “short story” that limited them to events occurring in a limited amount of time – hours, days, maybe weeks. By this definition, the number of words was irrelevant. I took that as The Definition, only to find it wasn’t (like I said, a mediocre education). In my periodic explorations of fiction writing (once a decade, I check to make sure I still can’t write fiction or play the guitar), the “short story” required of editors has word limits. That’s a rather superficial definition, however. So just what is a short story?

May looks at Poe’s consideration of the short story, through his 1842 review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales. I found a copy of Poe’s review online via Eldritch Press; it offers a comparison of the “tale”, and poetry, but demands both uphold the same primary standard: “unity of effect or impression.” While rhymed poetry is his #1 choice for “how the highest genius could be most advantageously employed for the best display of its own powers,” it seems that he feels prose, thanks to its lesser intensity, can sustain the all-important unity for a longer period, and that the tale – the short story – is the highest form of prose.

I find his writing advice to be remarkably similar to that offered even today, when the short story has had nearly two centuries to develop and evolve; new schools and structures seem to crop up in every generation, but this unity remains:

A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents–he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.

~~Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales: A Review” from Graham’s Magazine, May 1842

Many of us, thanks to our ninth-grade English teachers, associate Poe with horror, mystery, and the macabre, and thus dismiss him as a serious artist. He was, in fact, a diligent literary critic and analyst; none less than Jorge Luis Borges claimed him as a major influence, writing several “doubles” to Poe tales.

Poe’s expertise is borne out by the longevity, not only of his stories, but of his advice. One of Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules of Writing – rules often given as laws in high-level writing programs, by the way – is: “Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.” Steve Almond, a devotee of Vonnegut, relayed an anecdote in his itty-bitty book of half-writing-advice/half-flash This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey that echoes this:

Years ago, at a writers conference, I asked one of the teachers the sort of question that I now dread having to answer. “When I revise,” I said, “what am I supposed to cut?”

The teacher responded by quoting the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, which I suppose served me right. “Ask yourself, ‘What work does it do?'”

“What work does every sentence do?” I said.

“Every word,” she said.

Poe’s exhortation to unity, and the technical process through which that needs to be achieved, is upheld and passed along from Brecht (early 20th C) to Vonnegut (mid-late 20th C) to Almond (late 20th/early 21st C) to the unknown author writing her first lines today. And whereas in the public mind the short story has been of late eclipsed by the novel, abandoned to “new writers” as a kind of introductory offer, there are those – Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, for example – who still work exclusively, or nearly so, in this medium.

Poe’s essay looks at other differences between poem and tale. His concept of what is and is not poetry is, I think, what limits its scope in his view; I’m glad that the modernists and their successors have freed poetry from strictures of structure and allowed such things as blank verse and prose poetry to flower. I think the dividing line is much less apparent today, as our idea of “beauty” has shifted:

The writer of the prose tale, in short, may bring to his theme a vast variety of modes or inflections of thought and expression–(the ratiocinative, for example, the sarcastic, or the humorous) which are not only antagonistical to the nature of the poem, but absolutely forbidden by one of its most peculiar and indispensable adjuncts; we allude, of course, to rhythm. It may be added here, par parenthèse, that the author who aims at the purely beautiful in a prose tale is laboring at great disadvantage. For Beauty can be better treated in the poem. Not so with terror, or passion, or horror, or a multitude of such other points.

~~Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales: A Review” from Graham’s Magazine, May 1842

To continue my exploration into short story, I read one of the Twice-Told Tales Poe refers to in his review: “The Minister’s Black Veil” (also available online through Eldritch Press). I chose that particular story, first, because Prof. May also mentions it in his Introduction (though I didn’t mention it when I wrote about that chapter), and secondly, because of the distinctly snobbish attitude Poe brings to his comments:

“The Minister’s Black Veil” is a masterly composition of which the sole defect is that to the rabble its exquisite skill will be caviare. The obvious meaning of this article will be found to smother its insinuated one. The moral put into the mouth of the dying minister will be supposed to convey the true import of the narrative; and that a crime of dark dye (having reference to the “young lady”), has been committed, is a point which only minds congenial with that of the author will perceive.

~~Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales: A Review” from Graham’s Magazine, May 1842

Apparently Poe considers that Hawthorne’s mention of the funeral was sufficient cause for the reader to conclude that the reason for his veiling was an encounter with the young lady funeraled. As I read the story, I did indeed think it was odd that a young woman would die and no mention of the cause of her death would be made; I realize life was a bit more precarious in the early 19th century, but I’m not under the impression that the death of someone described as “young” would be regarded as routine, as if they were dropping like flies in the streets. I wondered if her death had significance that I lacked the historical/cultural background to understand. Now I wonder if suicide was the cause, and it was not mentioned out of propriety, and the very non-mention would have signalled that to a contemporary reader. In any case, to me it’s flimsy evidence.

I far prefer May’s reading of the story in the Introduction to this book, comparing it to the double-layered “parable” of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:

It is not a simple story from which a moral lesson can be drawn, but rather a verbal construct that presents basic Enigma, essential Mystery. The minister puts on the black veil that shuts him off from the rest of the world as a symbolic objectification of what he has realized to be implicitly true. It is the townspeople’s intuitive awareness of that reality that strikes fear into their hearts when they see the veil.

~~Charles E. May, “I Am Your Brother”: Short Story Studies (2013)

There is no mention of a specific sin that drove him to don the veil, though it may be inferred anyway. I had thought of it more as Original Sin, the minister being a minister and all. It is a core tenet of most Christian sects that “sin” is “separation from God,” and some see the terrors of Hell not as fire and brimstone, but as that separation made manifest and eternal, generating a suffering of the soul that is equated with fire and brimstone. A veil would do the trick on this mortal plane, as it physically separates the Minister in a rather trivial way, but goes on to separate him in a more fundamental, human sense, from his fiancée, from friendships and relationships – from the community at large. And yes, I can see May’s interpretation that, like the Mariner, the Minister is a walking reminder of the existential isolation we all experience.

The next chapter broadens the question of genre when it looks at the historical development of the Short Story. Be back soon.

Charles E. May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies (2013) – “Introduction”

The important distinction that must be made is between narratives that strive to make the realm of value seem temporal, and thus graspable by experience and reason, and narratives that strive to transform the temporal into the transcendent. What I wish to suggest in this book is that the novel is a form dominated primarily by the first impulse, whereas the short story, at its most successful, is dominated by the second.… There are therefore two basic modes of experience in prose fiction: the one, that involves the development and acceptance of the everyday world of phenomenal, sensate, and logical relations – a realm that the novel has always taken for its own – and the other, that involves single experiences that challenge reality as simply sensate and reasonable – a realm that has dominated the short story since its beginnings.

I discovered Charles May – Professor Emeritus at Cal State, short story specialist – several years ago through his blog in which he discussed some BASS and PEN/O’Henry stories; he was particularly helpful as I untangled Alice Munro’s “Corrie” and a few other of her stories. I don’t always see what he sees in particular short stories, but I’m always interested in what he has to say, so when he recently self-published I Am Your Brother, a collection of previously published essays on the short story form, I bought it right away. I’ll be going through it slowly, chapter by chapter, over the coming months, enjoying along the way some of the stories he uses to illustrate his points.

In the Introduction (which is available online via two posts on his blog) May delimits the short story and the novel: “As many artists have noted and short stories will testify, the source of story lies indeed in myth, folk tale, fairy tale, and thus in dreams–not in the concept of external reality that most often constitutes the novel.” Maybe this is why short stories appeal to me, given my fondness for the “weird” – unusual narrative techniques, structures, diction, characters, situations, reactions.

Another key concept May uses is that of the “I” versus “other”, which weaves through psychology, theology, philosophy, cognitive science, and, of course, literature. Last summer I spent a few months happily exploring this theme (“the only way to understand the other is to become the other”) in literature via The Fiction of Relationship , a MOOC taught by Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, which spanned novels – Beloved, Jane Eyre, Disgrace – as well as short-form (Borges, Kafka, Melville), so I’m not sure I’m ready to concede the “mythic” to the short story quite yet. Still, it’s a theme that resonates with me:

The human dilemma is that we are always caught between the demands of our deepest wish for unity and the demands of our social being for self-assertion – which is the battle between the sacred and the profane, between union and separation.… This tension constitute fiction’s chief resemblance to life, says CS Lewis… For Lewis, life and art reflect each other, for both embody the tension between our desire for a state and our despair of ever catching that state in our everyday net of time and events.

I’m intrigued by May’s exploration of this theme through, first, the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. During my misspent youth as a fundamentalist, I encountered several explanations for various parts of this tale: Cain’s “fruits on the ground” meant rotten fruit, it wasn’t a blood sacrifice, he didn’t offer enough. Just poking around the Internet, I see lots of similar explanations, including one that admits the appearance of unfairness, and incorporates it into the theme of the story. All of these, however, have a religious, rather than a literary, grounding. May sees it a bit differently, as I understand it: it’s almost as if God models free will by capriciously rejecting Cain’s offering, then Cain turns around and exercises his own free will by killing Abel, resulting in separation from his brother, and, later, from his people.

He also examines Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, one of my own favorites from the standard Western canon I’ve otherwise largely ignored. I spent some time listening to a splendid dramatic reading (Richard Burton, John Neville) while following along with the text. May’s reading: the Mariner’s act of killing the albatross is an expression of free will, one pole of the human dilemma mentioned above; the rest of the poem shows the consequences of this free will, this separation from the whole resulting in a loss of unity, in aloneness: “The voyage is not a punishment, but an objectification of the isolation and aloneness of all humankind. The poem bears dramatic witness to our deepest fears about our place in the world… a world in which in the midst of water we die of thirst; a world in which we bear the burden of our shame and guilt like an albatross around our neck.…”

May also references Robert Penn Warren’s essay on Coleridge, “A Poem of Pure Imagination.” I have to admit I don’t quite see the distinction, as May does, between Robert Penn Warren’s “One Life” assertion, and his own “Separation of Life” but they both go deeper into literary theory than I’m equipped to handle. What I love about Penn’s essay is his discussion of the Mariner’s motivation for shooting the albatross in the first place, a starting place for many an English Lit paper:

The fact that the act is unmotivated in any practical sense, that it appears merely perverse, has offended literalists and Aristotelians alike… The lack of motivation, the perversity, which flies in the face of the Aristotelian doctrine of hamartia, is exactly the significant thing about the Mariner’s act. The act symbolizes the Fall, and the Fall has two qualities important here: it is a condition of will, as Coleridge says, “out of time,” and it is the result of no single human motive.

It’s right there in the poem, with the placement of a comma: we are all, all alone. Whether you want to call it Original Sin – separation from God – or free will – separation from each other – and whether you see one as a creation, or consequence of the other, is up to you.

May also uses Andre Dubus’ “Dancing After Hours,” from the story collection of the same name, in this Introduction. It’s a story new to me, and though I didn’t see what he saw in it (that happens sometimes). I enjoyed it for the focus on time from the very start. “Dancing after Hours” is an evocative phrase itself, speaking of an evening that’s over but must continue. The story opens with Emily’s age – 40 – which, as unfair and ridiculous as it is, has a certain echo; a 40-year-old woman bartender is very different from a 40-year-old male bartender, or a 25-year-old female bartender (stop before you write that nasty comment: 40 was a long time ago for me). In the first paragraph: “….she went outside to see the sun before it set.…” And she does.

Where Prof. May and I didn’t connect on this one was in the central climax of the story, the actual dancing after hours, which I saw as clichéd and overwrought with a Hallmark Hall of Fame Epiphany of the Week: Let Love In Even If You Fear Getting Hurt. May sees in the dancing that occurs, this union that fulfills the yearning proposed of the psyche. I see it in terms of what might be called “flow,” the sense of time stopping when you’re fully immersed in a soul-deep venture, be it physical (like sports), creative (writing), or exploration (reading, listening to music). I can see how the possibilities intersect I can also see the wonderful writer’s touches that go into the story, from the details of the opening I’ve already mentioned, to how Emily observes in great detail a man in a wheelchair exiting his van, eating, talking. That kind of detail, taking it all in, noticing, isn’t just exposition; it’s part of her character to be so intrigued. But the “And they all rode off into the sunset having grown a bit and everything will be all right and tomorrow’s full of possibility” ending felt a bit too pat for me; I have a nasty urge to see a postscript in which Emily gets seasick on her fishing trip with Jeff, Kay and Rita find no chemistry and come to work the next day awkward and embarrassed, and Drew never returns to the bar. I still have some growing to do as a reader.

I’m looking forward to continuing this book, and to encountering more stories new to me along the way and learning more about how the short story works.

Joel Christian Gill: Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History (Fulcrum, 2014)

As an undergrad, I had researched some ideas for paintings based on lynching photographs. Now, I felt was the time to follow through. I listened to the song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, based on the poem by Abel Meeropol, and I decided to call my paintings “Strange Fruit Harvested: He Cut the Rope,” showing me with a noose around my neck, holding the frayed end. I was trying to say that I was in some ways freed from the fear that had plagued my father and grandfather. However, I also wanted to convey that because the rope was still there, we still had a ways to go.
What does this have to do with black history, you might ask?… I wanted to tell stories – sometimes great and sometimes tragic – of other people who were also able to “cut the rope.” So, I began to research and draw comics about obscure black history. I looked for stories of people who were not in mainstream history books. I wanted to tell stories that people had not heard.

I’ve just recently gotten over the major stick-up-my-butt about graphic novels thanks to Matt Madden’s One Story #182 selection, “Drawn Onward”, a wonderful piece that introduced me to the heretofore unknown (to me) grammar of comix. So when I saw a post on Brain Pickings for Gill’s collection of nine lesser-known black history biographies presented in comic-style, I had to check it out. I’m so glad I did.

In How To Be Black, one of Baratunde Thurston’s riffs starts with the notion that Black History Month recycles the same five or six historical biographies of African Americans, and that’s about the extent of it. That’s what I love about this book: these aren’t people anyone’s likely to know. They lived before television, certainly, but they also lived before anyone in the mainstream thought ordinary people, let alone ordinary black people, could possibly live lives worth celebrating. Yet their lives have been preserved and celebrated, and now, Gill recelebrates them with all the nuance and significance of a Great American Novel. Because this, though denied for centuries, this is the Great American Novel. Maybe not the one we expected. But it’s the one that shows us, all of us, for who we are. Heroes are everywhere, especially when mere survival requires a level of personal heroism most of us never approach.

My favorite of the biographies – if “favorite” is the right word; perhaps I should say, the one that struck the hardest, since it happened here in Maine – is “The Shame”, Gill’s casting of the story of Malaga Island, and the wholesale institutionalization, criminalization, and in some cases, sterilization of members a law-abiding, hard-working, but mixed-race community. For those who keep insisting slavery was a long time ago, the eviction of these people occurred in the 20th century; an official apology to the descendents was issued in 2010.

Gill’s own favorite is “Two Letters” featuring, as the only text, two letters written by escaped slave and Union army soldier Spottswood Rice. The first letter he wrote to his children, still enslaved, to assure them he would be back for them, and that, though their owner at the time claimed that would be stealing property, he believed God would give precedence to the relationship between father and child over that of child and slaveowner. The second letter was to the slaveowner, to inform her in no uncertain terms that he and an army of black men would be coming to get his children. Gill’s artistic interpretation uses a unique grammar of comix, one I’m delighted to learn about –speech bubbles devoid of words, with the intensifying colors signifying escalating anger and fear; images instead of words; and, of course, the use of the letters as the only text.

This is great work, and makes innovative and powerful use of the combinations of words and images. Gill’s website includes more information about the construction of the book (happily, Volume 2 is in the works). I again must apologize for my years of dissing this art form.

But, more importantly, the timing of this book reminds me we are living now – last weekend, this week, as we watched Americans line up to yell at and threaten frightened children, this past year, in which voting rights are being etched away day by day, these past two years in which teenagers can be shot with impunity as long as someone believes black skin is itself a danger – in a moment for which we will again be apologizing for a long, long time, if we don’t destroy ourselves first.

Mohsin Hamid: How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia (Riverhead, 2013)

Image from PBS Interview with Mohsin Hamid

Image from PBS Interview with Mohsin Hamid

Like all books, this self-help book is a co-creative project. When you watch a TV show or a movie, what you see looks like what it physically represents. A man looks like a man, a man with a large bicep looks like a man with a large bicep, and a man with a large bicep bearing the tattoo “Mama” looks like a man with a large bicep bearing the tattoo “Mama.”
But when you read a book, what you see are black squiggles on pulped wood or, increasingly, dark pixels on a pale screen. To transform these icons into characters and events, you must imagine. And when you imagine, you create. It’s in being read that a book becomes a book, and in each of a million different readings a book becomes one of a million different books, just as an egg becomes one of potentially a million different people when it’s approached by a hard-swimming and frisky school of sperm.

When this book showed up as the June selection for my library’s monthly reading group, I remembered I’d already read “The Third-Born”, an excerpt of the first chapters in The New Yorker (available online). While I appreciated several things about it, I wrote at the time: “Do I want to read more about this little boy, how he grows up to obsess about wealth? Not really; at least, not right now. But I’m very glad I read this story-chapter-essay. It was very interesting – and that’s sincere praise.” So given the opportunity to read it – and knowing it was a fairly short book – I figured I might as well go ahead and read the rest of it.

I had much the same reaction to the novel as I’d had to the excerpt: I appreciated many things about it, but it didn’t reach me.

I like unusual approaches, and framing a pretty standard rags-to-riches-to-fall life story as a self-help book is a clever idea; I liked that. I liked that there are no names in the book, yet we always know exactly who is who; people are identified by their relationship to the narrator. I liked that it dips into metafiction from time to time, talking about the purpose of writing a book and the process of reading. I liked that the narrator, and The Pretty Girl, are on similar trajectories, and end up in similar circumstances. In short, I liked the way the story was told. I just didn’t like the story all that much.

In some ways, I think that’s the nature of the beast. We have a narrator who seems to have intense emotions from all he says and does, but they remain deep inside him. For example, The Pretty Girl. She first appears in the self-help chapter about not falling in love if your objective is to become filthy rich. It’s pretty clear that he would’ve rather had her than wealth at that point; her departure, instead of being the regret of his life, becomes a lucky break. That’s the sound of a broken heart, trying to make the best of things.

Lots of interesting ideas came out during the group’s discussion. No names are used in the book, not a place name or a person’s name. The setting is left open: when I’d read the excerpt, which was titled differently, I’d thought of Northern Africa or the Middle East; most readers thought Pakistan or Afghanistan; one woman was surprised, as she’d vividly envisioned it in China. Another reader mentioned it’s not at all about getting filthy rich in Asia, bringing up the point: it’s about everything else, and maybe that’s a key to the narrator. In the closing chapters, he is finally united with his lifelong love, a woman on a similar trajectory – first up, then down – and only then perhaps is he filthy rich.

Another reader raised the question: could the son be the author, writing about his father? That idea appeals to me, though it’d be hard to see how the son would have access to the information about the early years. This leads to another observation: periodically, the narration shifts to reveal the inner thoughts of one character or another; are these actual thoughts, or are they the imaginings of the writer? In that case, is it possible this is penned by the son, who has imagined and pieced together his father’s early life from family stories he’s heard? This becomes a stronger possibility as I re-read the opening:

Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author…
None of the foregoing means self-help books are useless. On the contrary, they can be useful indeed. But it does mean that the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one. And slippery can be good. Slippery can be pleasurable. Slippery can provide access to what would chafe if entered dry.

The more I think about it, the more I see this book as written by someone not the narrator. It could be a son’s – not memorial, exactly, maybe imagining would be a better word – of his father. A way for him to come to know the man he never knew, the man who kept his feelings deep inside where they wouldn’t betray him. But I have a different idea.

The one place where the narrator’s feelings are explicit and extreme are in Chapter Seven, Prepare to Use Violence, when he fears gang reprisals; the terror was palpable to me as I read, as opposed to his love and even lust for the Pretty Girl; or, for that matter, his drive to become Filthy Rich. The son was not yet born at this time. But the narrator was married; his wife, at 20, was studying law, and per their agreement, she would postpone childbearing until her education was complete. I wonder if the wife, later ex-wife, wrote this. One of the most prominent features is the narrator’s distance from his wife; she just appears out of the blue, in this chapter on violence, in fact, and she’s a muted character throughout. I wonder if she’s writing his biography, and the fear is so exposed because it was her fear.

Interesting book. I’m glad my library book group selected it.

Pushcart 2014: The End

When I started this volume back in January, I guessed I’d finish by July by doing one piece from each genre (fiction, non-fiction, poetry) a week. I didn’t realize at the time that, first, there isn’t an even distribution between genres (a year and a half of math MOOC after math MOOC, and I still can’t count), and, second, I’d need to put the project on hiatus for six weeks while I MOOC’d myself silly (which, by the way, I’m doing again though to a lesser extent; I just can’t help myself).

Nevertheless, here it is the first week of July, and approximately 13 fictions, 17 CNFs, and 36 poems later, we’re done.

I was originally drawn to Pushcart by the fiction, but I was more impressed by the other genres this time, perhaps because it’s more unfamiliar territory; I learned what was possible. The non-fiction, for example. A comment on an art installation can be art, a personal essays on house painting or a car accident or sudden illness or other tragedy can swing wide and deep into the collective human experience, and the aftereffects of publishing a memoir or story collection or an op-ed can generate a new stream of thought for the writer which generates yet another new stream of thought for the reader, who in writing about it and generates a new…

It was with the poetry I grew the most.

As I’ve said, I’ve always been afraid of poetry; I don’t understand it, meaning I can’t get the right answer on a test or see what some poetry handbook says I should see. Then I took a MOOC that presented an interpretation, but also honored and celebrated other possibilities, that gave “open” the final say. Did I “get” every poem? Not even close. Did I discover more about what poetry can do, and how? Absolutely. I even bought a book of poems for the first time in decades (two books, actually, but Tin House’s Whitman, Illuminated was unrelated to Pushcart).

One of the unexpected delights of blogging short stories – blogging anything, really – has been finding the right art to go with each piece. An interesting exercise: what image do I see with this piece? I know nothing about art, so my choices may seem either simplistic or obscure. With a couple of poems, my search led to new background information that enriched the reading experience. I spend what might seem to be an inordinate amount of time on art; the benefit to me is worth the effort, though I doubt a reader would think so.

So what were my favorite selections from 2014?

I was less than amazed by the fiction this time around; I’m not sure if that’s about the material, or about me, and if the latter, if it’s good or bad; maybe I’ve just encountered enough really good short fiction that a good story doesn’t surprise me the way it used to. I did have three favorites, all pieces with an odd narrative style:

Robert Coover, “The Reader
Ayşe Papatya Bucak, “Iconography
Taymiya Zaman, “Thirst

In non-fiction, I’m hard-pressed to choose, because this is the category that stood out this year. Some pieces made me think; some made me laugh; some made me cry. If I had to pick a top three:

Andrew Zolot, “The Piece Need Not Be Built
Eric Fair, “Consequence
Tess Taylor, “The Waste Land App
Bill Cotter, “The Gentleman’s Library, a Nowaday Redux
Pam Houston, “Corn Maze

But wait, you say, isn’t that five? It is; deal with it. I would’ve liked to have included a couple others, in fact. I notice now that all of these deal with writing in some way. I’m not sure if I have a special affinity for reading about writing, or if writers have a special affinity for writing about writing.

I feel a little silly choosing favorite poems, since my grasp of poetry is still quite feeble, but I did cherish a few above and beyond:

Ocean Vuong, “Self-Portrait With Exit Wounds
Mary Ruefle, “ During a Break from Feeling
Eduardo C. Corral, “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes
Susan B. A. Sommers-Willett, “Tallahatchie

On a more somber note: I was blindsided – twice – by the grim discovery, after I’d read the works, that two of the authors included here were deceased, both tragically early in their lives. Both works involved deaths, as do many poems and stories.

A little bird (named Zin) told me the Zoetrope “BASS office” was turning to Pushcart, so I joined again, just to talk about these stories all over again. I’ll be interested to see if my read of any of the stories changes; it hasn’t been that long, but who knows. In any event, it’ll be fun to revisit them.

Onward…

Pushcart 2014: Jake Adam York, “Self-Portrait as Superman (Alternate Take)” (Poetry) from New England Review, Summer 2012

At twenty-four frames per second, sixty seconds is two hundred
             feet of film you’ll never see: Christopher Reeve
ready to become mild-mannered Clark Kent — sharp
 
                     trilby and blue chalk-pinstripe suit—
once they call Action, the Who-me smile fading
             to bit-lip circumspection, cover story and secret,
 
hand on the button-down’s placket, ready to pull
                     the buttons from their eyes, peel
the rough-hewn cotton from the ancient crest, the S
 
             that curves like a river between the mountains,
a snake curled inside a chest, invulnerable aorta
                     of Kal-El’s dense alien body, gone spectacular
 
in the air of his new home planet, to run, almost,
             out of his clothes and into the air, faster than
a speeding track star alone in the Kansas wheat,…

This poem is available online in text and audio. I urge you to read the complete properly typeset version rather than these excerpts (pay attention to the curving, curling line indents as you read the text above), and I urge you to listen, particularly to the audience, who supplies an enthusiasm rarely heard at poetry readings. I especially urge you to watch a video of a reading York gave in November 2012 which has nothing to do with this poem, but includes his explanation, at about the 4 minute mark, of a “long term life project”: to write a poem for each of 120 Civil Rights martyrs.

That project will remain unfinished.

A few days after the publication of this poem in December 2012, Jake Adam York died of a stroke at age 40.

I must let the poem, and the poet, stand on their own. I can’t bear to do more for the second Pushcart writer this year to leave too soon.

             He’ll smile again as he always does, boyish
and pure, the curl’s wag ready to swing free,
                     waiting for the call that lets him arc
 
across the sky, high over the heads of any tragic
             chorus, arms open to catch the screaming woman
who, it seems, is hardly ever there. He’ll ease
 
                     again, two hundred feet of acetate,
to the ground, where they’ll curl in their questions—
             Who are you? What was that?—in a darkness
 
where he can unbutton his shirt and graze
                     cramped fingers over skin
burned like a meteor in the rays of our yellow sun.

Pushcart 2014: Jude Nutter, “Love Like That” (Poetry) from The Briar Cliff Review, January 2012

Cannula, from the Latin, means little reed,
and how could you not be thinking of the hero, ricocheting
through the forest, tailed by the enemy, then breaking
cover to find himself at the frayed margins of a swamp
where the water parsley and the hemlock are fuming
into the slow fireworks of their umbels, where,
on the first try, he severs a perfect length of reed and submerges –
simply sinks beneath the convenient surface of the water –
to breathe, calmly, through its long, hollow body.
But your mother was drowning anyway, propped up
on a pale talus of pillows, the twin stems of the cannula
looped demurely behind her ears, and you know, now,
that such escapes are not possible…

When we think of poems about the death of loved ones, we expect scenes of grief, memories, and expressions of emotion such as loss, love, and sorrow. We don’t expect cannulas. But cannulas are the instrument here through which the poem (available online, thank you, Briar Cliff Review) breathes, just like the submerged hero. It’s the means by which the poem takes its first breath before moving on to the subject of dying, and, of course, grief, memories, and expressions of emotion. It’s an interesting beginning that connects to these emotions. Just as the speaker realizes that breathing through reeds isn’t possible, the poet understands that talking about what is to be talked about here cannot be done without powerful emotion. Yet, while we do soon arrive in the mother’s hospital room, perhaps choosing this beginning backs us away from the overwhelming sentimentalism to which such a poem might be prone.

Throughout the poem, I see many images of leave-taking, linked with somber feelings: the hospital’s garden includes “drapes of ivy from which a single robin kept flying / in red arcs of lament, breaking out from behind / the waxed latches of the leaves.” Then, a few lines later, we discover: “She had no use for that garden…” Of course not; she already has an intimate relationship with that arc of lament.

The natural world, and the intersection of humankind and nature, also echoes this bittersweet sense of leavetaking, the “It’s been lovely but I must be on my way now” that runs the universe:

And we don’t talk enough
about the moment when that light abandons the water
at evening and the sea, turning its back, becomes suddenly
secret and remote. And it’s like a door closing.
It’s like a heart shutting down. And too much has been said
about the boats casting off from the quay and leaving
the clutch of the harbor; all that tonnage –
blocks and shackles and nets – upheld and under power,
catching and riding the swells. But that’s what they do,
those boats leaving the harbor – they head west
toward the hour of such abandonment.

The poem, however, is not the relationship between the speaker and mother; in fact, the speaker’s feelings are muted throughout, expressed only through what s/he notices. This selection of attention speaks volumes, of course. The poem isn’t even about the mother, or death or loss (though it brushes up against all these) or any of a hundred other things we might’ve expected had not the cannula signaled from the beginning a departure from the ordinary. No, the poem is in the fulfillment of the title.

I’m interested in titles, how they work, how they’re chosen. My Flash Fiction Hero, Randall Brown, wrote a bit about the possibilities of titles (“…count five lines up from the bottom. There you’ll find the title. Every time”) as focusers of attention. I tend to be very fond of titles that serve as first lines of a poem (or prose, for that matter) as in my recent discovery, “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes”. I’ve seen other descriptions – to identify the subject in an ode, for example, so the reader knows the poem is addressed to a skylark (or a goldfish). A contemporary, if skeptical, view might see the title as click bait.

But here, the title strikes me as a destination, what journeys have always been about, from the Odyssey to the Orient Express to the Chattanooga Choo Choo. Read this poem, and you will get to Love Like That.

Pushcart 2014: Timothy Donnelly, “The Earth Itself” (Poetry) from Poetry Northwest, Spring/Summer 2012

Turris Babel

Turris Babel

To quantify the foolishness of the already long since failed
construction project, the famous German polymath
 
undertook to calculate the precise number of bricks
the Tower of Babel would have required had it ever been
 
finished. The figure he came up with ran an impressive
eighteen digits in length, climbing all the way up
 
to that rarely occupied hundred-quadrillionths place.
Looking at it now, between loads of laundry, the figure
 
calls to mind an American telephone number…

I’d never heard of Athanasius Kircher before reading this poem (it’s available online). He was indeed a famous German polymath of the 17th century, a Jesuit priest whose studies spanned the arts and sciences, from magnetism to Zen philosophy to acoustics to Egyptology to music to, yes, the physics of the Tower of Babel. But this piece is a poem, not an encyclopedia article.

I was struck by the rhythm as I read the poem out loud: no matter how I tried to read in lines, or sentences, I ended up reading in phrases, phrases of different meters strung together. The iambic tetrameter and kin stuck out the most – “To quantify the foolishness… undertook to calculate…The figure he came up with ran… I feel a little lost / through the hypnosis of those zeroes, but I still pick up / the phone and dial …” I felt a little lost by the hypnosis of that excerpt, but except for that last one, these are interrupted enough to keep it from becoming sing-songy. I wonder if that’s what’s happening here: a Tower of Babel of phrases, in different meters, laid in neat pairs of rows/lines.

Maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe it’s an intersection of the extraordinary and the mundane: the Tower of Babel, and the laundry. Physics, and a phone number. The World is Bound with Secret Knots (one of Kirchner’s studies of magnetism).

The last couplet, fulfilling the promise of the title, leads to an entirely new line of thought; it’s quite remarkable, though I may be the only person on earth who hasn’t heard this one before. No, I won’t quote it here; the poem’s out there; it’s short, it’s accessible. Go read it. And when you get to the last line, remember, I told you so.

Pushcart 2014: Bob Hicok, “Getting By” (Poetry) from Frequencies (Yes Yes Books), Jan 2013

I love the idea of climbing a ladder
carrying another ladder.

As whimsical as this poem starts out, there’s a sadness underneath the whimsy that I find touching. I find the progression similar to that of “Akhmatova”, but with a higher energy throughout; the poetic version of rapid-cycling bipolar mood swings, complete with the cause-and-effect element: light causes dark causes light

Buddhism, as I understand it (which isn’t very well) incorporates something called the Law of Opposites: “Let a man overcome anger by love; let him overcome hatred by kindness; let him overcome the greedy by liberality; the liar by truth.” In a similar way, the speaker of this poem is embracing that which is distressing, be it drought or rejection: he loved his wife for leaving him, and she came back; then he loves the drought: ” I love my thirst / for its willingness to kill me.”

We don’t find out if that quenches his thirst; throughout, desperation comes through:

…the people
in the city who look up
and want moonlight, even a quarter moon,
even the word moon on a string will do.

I’m not sure what happens here; is this a warning? This lowering of standards is what happens when you embrace that which hurts you, when you start settling for less and less? Or simply a recognition that here is where we are, where we have always been, all of us, unable to get enough love, or water, or moonlight?

Another poem that leaves me with more questions than answers. And that’s just the way I like it.

Pushcart 2014: Matthew Dickman, “Akhmatova” (Poetry) from The American Poetry Review, Jul/Aug 2012

Modigliani sketch of Anna Akhmatova (1911)

Modigliani sketch of Anna Akhmatova (1911)

That’s right! Now I remember. I was on the beach
looking at Haystack Rock,
putting my finger into the mouths of sea anemones,
their tentacles sweeping over my knuckles, I was whispering
the word brother
to one, and the word sister to the other
though maybe they were both. I wanted to be close
to another species.

I think of this as a poetic painting in alternating tones: bright, dark, bright, dark; it struck me powerfully, even in the places I don’t fully understand. I don’t have any idea how to talk about it without going through each line, each sentence, each idea, so it’s a good thing it’s available online (thank you, Poets & Writers) in both text and audio , read by the author – I was surprised to discover how young he sounded, then surprised again to find out he’s almost middle-aged. As I read, I imagined someone much older; as I listened, much younger. Alternating tones.

Bright: The opening image of the boy whispering “brother” and “sister” to the sea anemones; poking his fingers into their mouths, into the natural world. Charming, even to me, who tolerates rather than enjoys reading about children and nature.

Dark: “I had been reading about the dark windows / Akhmatova looked through / to see if her son had been let out of prison.” Akhmatova? Some ancient mythological figure, perhaps? (I make no secret that I’m not exactly widely-read) Close; Anna Akhmatova was a Russian poet whose life spanned from Nicholas II to Kruschev; her son, historian Lev Gumilev, spent most of Stalin’s reign in a Gulag, and she was none too appreciated post-revolution herself. What does this have to do with sea anemones, with a little boy putting his fingers into nature? I’m not really sure: Hey, reader, yes, these anemones are adorable, but wait, darkness is always just around the corner, a thought away. Who is it that’s in prison, who is it that’s looking through dark windows?

A moment in Light again – I so love the phrase “feeling like I had done a good job being myself” – before returning to Dark:


I heard my third-grade teacher
whisper into my ear
what’s wrong with you? You want to be stupid your whole life?

I get a lot of that, myself. A casual visitor to my apartment, seeing my awkward models of geometric shapes and badly-drawn diagrams of compass-straightedge constructions, asked if I have children, and refused to take no for an answer: “Do you teach, then? Take care of the neighbor’s kids?” Eventually I just changed the subject, rather than explain my recent fascination with Euclid. All the time, I get asked if I’m ever going to try writing again: “If you don’t want to write fiction, you could write essays.” Yes, I suppose I could, couldn’t I.

Recently, my Favorite Math Blogger (Humor Division), wrote a piece for The Atlantic about the gap in perspective between students and teachers: “A moment the teacher barely remembers might stick with the student for years.” We all carry voices, good and bad, light and dark: voices of people who remember what they said, of those who have forgotten, of those who at some point changed their minds, voices of people long turned to dust, voices of people we’ve long surpassed, or still strive to equal, in courage, morality, achievement. We may not get to choose which of those voices we hear, but we get to choose which we listen to.

The poem then returns to Akhmatova, in a section that, particularly when I listen to the reading, sounds like the rhythm of the sea. “No matter… No matter… will still…. will still… will still….”

I got a bit sidetracked during my research by turning up a Greenpeace action against the Russian ship Anna Akhmatova, with protestors defending nature by chaining themselves to the anchor line of the ship working on a deep-sea oil rig; as convenient as those references may be, it took place in summer 2012, far too late to be a reference for this poem (but I do love a good coincidence, not to mention digressions of any kind).

Back to the question of what Akhmatova has to do with a boy exploring nature: Is this “fingers into the natural world” a more general metaphor (well, duh, did I really think it was about anemones?) for a kind of personal liberation from artificial strictures? Anna Akhmatova’s son ran afoul of Soviet authorities due to, among other things, his theory of “passionarity” to explain the rise and fall of powers (I think; I’m not going to begin to figure it out here); talk about poking your finger into nature; does the speaker feel a kinship with the son, chained to his homeroom seat with Mother Nature looking on? Or (and/or) is the speaker looking at the boy (himself) as his son (younger self) as imprisoned, longing for his release from homeroom into the world of anemones? That moment is in the past; it can’t be changed, but neither must it be a permanent state: the boy can grow up and visit all the anemones he likes, it’s only the speaker’s mind that keeps him frozen in the past.

Come out of the dark and play in the light, the water’s fine. Sincerely, Anemone.

Pushcart 2014: David Hernandez, “All-American” (Poetry) from The Southern Review, Autumn 2012

Kumi Yamashita, "Origami, 2005" (modified)

Kumi Yamashita, “Origami, 2005″ (modified)

I’m this tiny, this statuesque, and everywhere
in between, and everywhere in between
bony and overweight, my shadow cannot hold
one shape in Omaha, in Tuscaloosa, in Aberdeen.
My skin is mocha brown, two shades darker
than taupe, your question is racist, nutmeg, beige,
I’m not offended by your question at all.
Penis or vagina? Yes and yes. Gay or straight?
Both boxes. Bi, not bi, who cares, stop
fixating on my sex life, Jesus never leveled
his eye to a bedroom’s keyhole.

Politicians have a fondness for categories; the fewer categories, and the more stereotyped, the better for figuring out what to say to capture votes. When their simplistic discourse filters down into the popular consciousness, we end up looking at people by one characteristic – age, race, sex, occupation – and ignoring the rest. Hernandez’ poem reminds us that there is no such thing as “The Latino”: that there are far more than fifty shades of brown.

Right from the first phrase, the poem sets out to confound expectations. When I hear “I’m this tiny,” I immediately expect to hear, “little thing,” a noun phrase of some kind; not another phrase contrasting tiny with statuesque. As someone who habitually sees at least twelve sides to any issue, I enjoyed this tour of the variety of people on this planet.

There’s a rolling rhythm to the poem, very conversational, with occasional accents of emphatic syllables (“I don’t hunt”) and a lovely chugalong at the end that meshes perfectly with semantic content (“gather the shopping carts into one long, rolling, clamorous and glittering backbone”) but for me the heart lies in the overall statement, and in the images that meld into each other:

                                                       ….Against
gun control, for cotton bullets, for constructing
a better fence along the border, let’s raise
concrete toward the sky, why does it need
all that space to begin with? For creating
holes in the fence, adding ladders, they’re not
here to steal work from us, no one dreams
of crab walking for hours across a lettuce field
so someone could order the Caesar salad.

Hernandez has recorded a reading of the poem on Soundcloud; there’s also a lovely video by motionpoems available on Youtube, for an appropriately diverse experience.

Pushcart 2014: François Villon, “Villon’s Epitaph (Ballade of the Hanged Men)” (Poetry) translated by Richard Wilbur, from Hudson Review, Autumn 2012

O brother men who after us remain,
Do not look coldly on the scene you view,
For if you pity wretchedness and pain,
God will the more incline to pity you.
You see us hang here, half a dozen who
Indulged the flesh in every liberty
Till it was pecked and rotted, as you see,
And these our bones to dust and ashes fall.
Let no one mock our sorry company,
But pray to God that He forgive us all.

I do some background research on all the pieces I blog; any reviews or blog comments I can find, information about the author. I usually find an interesting tidbit or two. This one was an absolute gold mine.

Translation fascinates me: given all that language contains, just how close can any translation come to the original? So much needs to be translated: semantic meaning, of course, but also nuance, associations, images, sound, rhythm. Given how hard it is to convey anything precisely within even a more-or-less homogeneous culture, how can even the essence, let alone the nuance, of a work be translated outside that culture? I got a small taste of this back in college when we looked at some of the issues with respect to Beowolf; it’s hard enough with prose, but given poetry’s additional elements of meter, rhyme, and form, how is it at all possible?

Translator Richard Wilbur has taken a highly formal piece from medieval France, and translated it to 21st century America. He’s preserved meter, syllable count, and a complicated rhyme scheme, while creating a moving poem with contemporary sociopolitical overtones that is nonetheless, as far as I can tell, true to the original. This is remarkable work. And it is available online (thank you, Hudson Review). If you prefer the original French, that’s online too (there’s supposed to be an acrostic of Villon’s name in the original somewhere – but I can’t find it in any language. If you see it, please let me know), with a literal (but far less poetically true) translation, and several French readings are available on video as well.

François Villon, the original poet, led a tumultuous life; born into poverty, he was rescued by a cleric whose name he adopted, and thus had access to education. But he couldn’t stay out of trouble. This poem was written while he awaited hanging, but he was exiled instead and disappeared from history.

The form is the Ballade Supreme, with a highly restrictive format: three ten-line stanzas, each ending with the refrain line, then a five-line “envoy” (new word, never heard that one before) at the end, for a total of 35 lines. Each line is ten syllables. The rhyme scheme allows only four rhymes throughout the entire poem: ABABB/CCDCD repeated for each ten-line verse, with CCDCD as the envoy. This severely limits word choices. It’s why I’m all the more amazed that Wilbur was able to pull it off, and still end up with a lovely poem.

The voice is first person plural – the “we” voice. I’m not sure if this is common in medieval poetry, or in current American poetry for that matter, but it’s one of my favorite artistic choices in contemporary prose, typically used to emphasize like-mindedness. This usage is a bit different; the speaker is a group of six hanged men, asking those who view them – the reader – to look on them with mercy, and I suspect it could be looked at as more of an “I” as a representative, rather than a true plural voice.

It’s quite grim in diction – rotting corpses, picked by birds, soaked in rain, dried and blackened by sun – “pitted like thimbles” – and each stanza ends with the plea, “But pray to God that He forgive us all.” That’s what I love – “that He forgive us all – not just the thieves, but those that hanged them, and those that scorn their remains. Of course, that’s a 21st century reading from someone who has a few feelings about being a citizen of one of the few countries that still kills people in the name of justice.

For a close look at the translation, let’s try a table of a few particularly interesting spots:

At this point I’m a bit biased, but it seems to me that, in addition to preserving the literal meaning and formal elements, Wilbur’s translation is also more beautiful. At first I was worried about “pitted like thimbles” – such a great image, and, I thought, perhaps generated from the sense of “as if it were sewed” in the literal translation. But it turns out, the French word for “thimble” is “dé à coudre” which is right there in the text. Whether the particular 15th century juxtaposition of “pecked”, “birds”, and “thimble” means one thing or the other, or whether, having already used the “pecked by birds” imagery in the first stanza, Villon, and then Wilbur, simply expanded and, ahem, embroidered that image, I can’t say… but I know which one strikes me more as a reader.

I’m curious, however, about the use of “forgive” rather than “absolve” – there’s little change in meter, yet Wilbur chose the former. Why? I don’t know, but here are some clues: “absolve” is from the Latin prefix-root combination ab-solve meaning “loosen from”; “forgive” is from the Old English forgiefan meaning “give, grant, allow” and, later, under the influence of other languages (including Latin) such as English has historically been prone, to mean “give up desire to punish”. It seems to me that “absolve” changes the condition of the miscreant; “forgive” changes the condition of the forgiver. Those are two different things. I’ve also discovered that there’s a difference in Catholic theology, but I’ve found differing interpretations of that difference. One is that the Church absolves, but only God forgives; the other is more or less the reverse of that. Being as unfamiliar with Catholicism as I am with French, I’ll have to pass on the issue of which is canonically accurate.

But going back to the first distinction, between the sinner being absolved but the merciful forgiving, I wonder if that’s why Wilbur chose the word he did. Villon wouldn’t have had access to the word “forgive,” of course; is Wilbur assuming it’s the word he would have used, if given a choice? Was Villon’s speaker in the poem, the congregation of hanged men, more interested in convincing onlookers to let go of their scorn, than in being set loose from the already-fulfilled consequences of the crimes?

Formal analysis, justice, the nature of forgiveness, translation theory – all that, and a lovely poem, too. Who could ask for more.

Pushcart 2014: Joanna Ruocco, “If the Man Took” from Noon, 2012

Jogan Hesse, "The Grateful Dead Philosophers: The Aristotle Perspective of Happiness"; digital collage

Jogan Hesse, “The Grateful Dead Philosophers: The Aristotle Perspective of Happiness”; digital collage

If the man took the teleological view, which he would, he would, of course, he would, he would attempt to use the sensations he derived from the penile motions in my vagina to produce orgasm, ejaculating in or near my vagina, thereby terminating the sex act as such.
I would use the convention of assent so that the man could get on with his nocturnal commitments, dog walking or sleeping or watching recorded sports footage, what have you.

Either Pushcart clustered its highly sexualized poetry together (except for Saeed Jones, who came earlier) – or I have sex on the brain. This one’s more sexually explicit, and more philosophically explicit as well. What is the purpose of sex? The poem rotates through several views.

With a little help from the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, casually known as “Plato,” to refresh my memory, teleology links function, design, and cause: starting back in Ancient Greece, Aristotle decided everything had four causes, the final cause being telos, or the ultimate purpose.

In the poem, Ruocco sees sex through different lenses. For the man, the telos, the purpose of sex, is ejaculation. The woman’s purpose is to get the job done and send the man on to other things, hence her encouragement, if necessary (“because of some blockage, or because he was nervous or because he took a pill, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor or a nonselective serotonin reuptake inhibitor”, the evil little flaw in the Prozac panacea – you’re finally undepressed enough to be interested in sex again, only to discover orgasm is impossible) and her acceptance of responsibility for the man’s failure. We never seem to be able to leave Eve far behind.

The fertilization of the egg, and the resultant person, seems an afterthought to all this, of course. But that would be, according to Aristotle, the true teleological view (the man in the poem is a bit short-sighted, seeing only an intermediate cause): the purpose of sex is to reproduce. Come to think of it, that’s both the evolutionary and the fundamentalist view as well (strange bedfellows there). Mr. Darwin, come back, tell us how we can re-evolve our procreative urges in an era when the last thing we need around here is more people.

I’m fascinated by the title, which reveals nothing about the poem other than a man taking. Taking what? Sounds aggressive, doesn’t it? Then we come to the next phrase – “the teleological view” – which switches gears, dials down the aggressiveness to an academic level. But the aggression is always there, isn’t it, in the very act of sex itself.

Every being is born unconsenting. The being is made by violation.

Can’t argue with that. This is why the white-haired man in the sky makes more sense than Mother Nature: mammalian sex was obviously designed by a man. Unless you reverse the cause and effect, and decide that God was created by men – that’s small “m” men – to conform to the underlying physical reality of the male penetration of the female; thus God became a misogynist.

Interesting poem.

Pushcart 2014: Bill Cotter, “The Gentleman’s Library, a Nowaday Redux” (Non-Fiction) from The Believer, June 2012

Image shamelessly pilfered from the Fine Flu's video introducing their literary journal… why not go see them to say thank you?

Image shamelessly pilfered from the Fine Flu’s video introducing their literary journal… why not go see them to say thank you?

In late 2008 I was offered a position for which I later realized I was not qualified. Since I needed a job, and since no background or credit check was required, and since it paid nineteen dollars an hour and was as close to a dream job as I could imagine, I took it. The task: compile a list of the 1,500 most important works of literature, catalog them, buy them, and install them in my new employer’s private library, a tastefully converted attic space lined with empty, dedicated shelves in an old Austin house not far from the University of Texas. JB, my employer, a man of some means, explained that he wished to retire early from medicine, a job of some means, and have immediately at hand all the literature that matters. The Victorians would have classified this a gentleman’s library…

I adored this essay, as of course I would, starting as it does with a duo of pre-starts: a subtitle, followed by an abstract (both of which are available online in the substantial excerpt provided by The Believer). After that tone-establishing prelude, it settles down to a more standard narrative, albeit with tongue firmly retained in cheek throughout. And it’s about books. What could be better?

Cotter starts by defining the boundaries of literature: “fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, and orature. In other words, everything.” Except for a few prohibited categories: no musical theatre, journalism, single letters, or technical papers, etc., but of course he then includes works in these very categories, works that still reek of “literature” and are indisputably important:

“…Le code civil des Français, for example, is a code of very civilized civil law so elegantly and economically composed that the entire text of the first edition formed a volume about the size of a hardcover of Gone With The Wind….Also excepted: Einstein’s letters to Roosevelt, the charter of the nuclear arms race.
Sojourner Truth’s “Aint I A Woman?” – word for word the most powerful antislavery speech ever delivered; Emile Zola’s J’accuse…!….Andrew Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s last theorem, a 106-page solution to the most famous unsolved problem in mathematics, at least up until 1995. Evidently only two or three people understand it. (it is unknown whether Wiles is one of them.)….

He gives us his twelve criteria for “important” (including such benchmarks as longevity, generation of controversy, baptism of a new genre, or a seminal place in a social, political, or religious movement) and his research sources, which range from Wikipedia to Bloom’s The Western Canon (funny, that seemed so controversial back then, but how narrow-minded can it be if it lists S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, a book I adored as a 1960s teenager, unaware it would become a generational touchstone?).

Some of the technical details of both gathering these books (how would one include a book which, though available online, insists that the only permissible reproduction is in a handwritten copy, to be buried with the copyist on his death, under penalty of the author’s damning curse?), and cataloging them:

In addition to walls lined with books awaiting his retirement, part of JB’s vision for his library was an accompanying sortable database in which each work would be catalogued, described, summarized, reviewed, and appended with numerous tags. If, say, JB was in the mood for seventeenth-century Ethiopic philosophy, the ideal database would respond to a search for those three tags by returning 1667’s Hatata, by Yacob Zera, north Africa’s greatest ethicist.

What Cotter first estimated would take him a couple of weeks, became a plan for a year-long project, and stretched to two still in the planning phases; it still seems to be an ongoing mission, in fact.

I think this could be classified as a “What Would You Do” piece: How would you select works for such a library? But it’s also a technical piece, and, in itself, a mini-catalog (in addition to the works named in the piece – and there are far more than I’ve included here – Cotter has an appendix, helpfully available online at The Believer). And a wonderful read.

Pushcart knocked it out of the park when they chose nonfiction; I’m surprised that it’s been my favorite part of this read. This is the last NF in this year’s volume (I ran out of fiction a while ago, but there’s still a bit of poetry to go) and I’ll miss it. But there’s always next year – and I could go back to all the years I missed.

Pushcart 2014: Marcus Wicker, “Interrupting Aubade Ending In Epiphany” (Poetry) from Southern Indiana Review, spring 2012

Picasso: "L'Aubade" (1942)

Picasso: “L’Aubade” (1942)

This poem is aware of its mistakes
and doesn’t care. This poem wants to be a poem
 
so bad, it’ll show you a young smitten pair
poised in an S on a down bed. The man inhales
 
the woman’s sweet hair and whole fields
of honeysuckle and jasmine bloom inside him.
 
He inhabits a breath like an anodyne and I think
I could call this poem an aubade if it detailed
 
new breath departing his mouth. I think I could
get away with that. Because who knows what
 
that even means? Maybe I mean that’s safer
than saying its straight
 
like, This is about the woman I’ll marry.

In his introduction to this poem at Cave Canem reading (about the 59:10 mark), Wicker spoke of how, as an editor of a literary journal, he saw poems come in cycles. “This is from the season of aubades….An aubade is a morning song written for lovers departing; all the aubades I was reading at the time were these overly detailed, sort of dainty poems. I decided I’d write my own and make fun of it, but then something happened.” Something happened all right: he tripped over a truth.

I love self-referential literature, so this, with the poem and poet wondering about themselves, trying to get away with something, sneak one by us, was right up my alley. What’s really interesting, though, is that the morning farewell, the epiphany, is not during this romantic scene, but (if I’m reading correctly) the next morning when he’s writing the poem ; the breath he is in the midst of when he realizes what he saw is not the soothing one of the night before, or the new breath (which, as he says, who knows what it means, but it sounds like the sort of vaguely romantic thing that would be in an aubade) but just an ordinary breath. Maybe we have our epiphanies in romantic fog, but until the fog clears we don’t realize they were indeed epiphanies.

Time for a digression. I love digressions.

I’ve recently been blogging my way through Euclid’s The Elements, a 2300-year old textbook of basic geometry. It’s a lot more interesting than it sounds. For instance, one of the nuggets I stumbled across was a discussion of the use of several forms of the Greek word “ἐπιφάνεια”, the root of our present-day “epiphany”, to mean “surface”, either of a two-dimensional plane figure like a square or a circle, or of a three-dimensional object like a cube or cylinder. It is, says Sir Thomas L. Heath in his noted translation and commentary of the work, “the feature of a body which is apparent to the eye”.

I’ve usually thought of an epiphany as something that was hidden before a particular moment. Perhaps it would be closer to its meaning to think of it as something that’s brought to the surface – or, perhaps, something that was there all along, but we weren’t looking in the right place. When Wicker writes his clever mock-aubade of the moment from the night before, he somehow sees what was apparent, all along, right there on the surface, and in this interruption, he discovers a genuine aubade.

Pushcart 2014: Beckian Fritz Goldberg, “My Neighbor’s Body” (Poetry) from Field, Spring 2012

Eunice Yunurupa Porter, "Camel Cull", 2012

Eunice Yunurupa Porter, “Camel Cull”, 2012

What can I do tonight about the wild camels in Australia
whose herds the government will thin by aerial gunning?
The truth is all I do these days is watch the neighbor’s hedge
of brooding oleanders sway, heavy with dark red blossom.
They are twelve feet high on his side of the arroyo
and hide his house. I don’t know who lives there
but I know he has a truck and listens to the country station.
I can’t help what I know and what I don’t know
helps me.

What a wonderful poem! The text is not online, but I did find a video of Goldberg reading at Arizona State, where Goldberg teaches; she reads this poem at about the 6:30 mark. Her only prefatory remark is to underline that the poem reflects an actual time when she thought of her un-met neighbor.

It reminds me of John Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual” in that it starts out with one humdrum thing, then meanders off into lively fantasy. An analysis of that poem at Poetry Archive cites traits of “indeterminacy, a refusal of finality and closure and a rejection of traditional forms of linear narrative” and “circular movement”; I see that here as well. Whereas Ashbery starts and ends with his need to write an instruction manual, here it is wild camels in Australia shot from helicopters in an effort to reduce the population. That sounds like a rather niche concern (do the camels care about their method of execution? Or is it our sensibilities that are disturbed? How is it possible to kill 8,000 camels in a desert? What is the damage they do, unchecked, to other wildlife?) but it could be anything. Imagine yourself, on your back porch at night, having decided you can’t straighten out the chaos in the Middle East or reverse the effects of poverty and bigotry, or start small: you can’t convince your boss a project should be done a certain way, or get a poem to flow from your pen; so you take a drag off your cigarette and look at the flowers and wonder about the unknown person who lives on the other side of that hedge…

I stand out on the patio and smoke when I have
       work to do.
The blooms light their deep pink auras. All spring
my neighbor rattles things behind his house, throws
things on top of other things. It echoes. I haven’t done
a good day’s work since that day in class when I required
every poem henceforth to have in it a jacamar & hereby
have followed policy. It’s the least I can do.

Is this the frustration of the blocked poet? To what does “the least I can do” attach, to adhering to her own dictates (which she discovers are impossible) or is she still thinking about camels; honoring them here is the least she can do? In any event, this is a speaker who’s deeply connected to natural things, to camels, to oleander blooms, to jacamars (a type of bird). But there’s the neighbor, as well, unknown. Whoever he is, be he 76 and cranky or 22 and stupid, she creates him as a sort of imaginary friend, and builds up a knowledge of him.

But we’re not done with the camels yet, either; she rides the thought of them back to her past trip to Egypt:

…The hotel that summer was filled
with engineers working on the underground, work that stalled
each time they hit a buried wall or well of ancient kingdom,
and late afternoons they’d drink with Madam Ariana, the manager,
a Coptic Christian and a true believer
that ketchup was the cause of cancer and that opera
refined the soul. Tonight the moon holds its high white note over
the desert slopes. Here we are. What can we do
about camels in Australia stunned in the warm sheen of
their own blood?

I dictated this poem rather than typed it, and Dragon changed “warm sheen” to “war machine.” Is that merely a fluke? A coincidence? Or did Goldberg, the aerial rifles fixed in her mind, know exactly what sound she wanted to surreptitiously convey there? I’m also quite fond of the idea of running into walls of an ancient kingdom while digging a subway tunnel; here in New England, it’s Indian burial grounds, though I believe those go back centuries rather than millenia. I also love how “a true believer”sets up something profound, only to twist into ketchup, the scourge of those who eat food better not tasted. And the moon rising above: “Here we are.” Take your best shot, Selene; as the teacher feels bound to live by her own instructions, perhaps we should also be bound to live by the principles we set out for those below us on the food chain. Or, for that matter, the principles we set out for our enemies, whom we also shoot from the skies en masse.

But what about that neighbor, the imaginary friend? Again we return to him:

My neighbor is home, and if he knew he was
on my mind tonight he’d call the police. For all I know he’s a
       cowboy
and would kick me to crap. For all I know he is
the police. For all I know he is lonely and would weep.
Beware of the neighbor. Beware the one who imagines you
in some form other than your own, filled with other desire, empty
of other emptiness. Beware of the one who does not.
You are the gentle camel. You are the rufous-tailed jacamar.
Your blossoms hanging open in the dark, riding the black
wave of oleander. And I am kissing my neighbor’s full mouth,
tracing
the moon above his left nipple. I am lying against his body,
reaching down and cupping them, gently, in my hand, for didn’t we
come helpless into the world, my love, but we came anyway.

I love the consideration of how the neighbor would feel if he knew he was an imaginary friend (perhaps of only this one moment’s duration, or perhaps a routine now), one with whom she’s moved into a masturbatory fantasy now; that last line, is there an element of rape there? Would he object? Would he be turned on? Reverse the genders; how many women would feel comfortable knowing their male neighbor, without any visual contact at all, had created this scene? Is it acceptable – possible, even – because she hasn’t seen the neighbor? Once she sees him, will she never think of him again, reality crowding out fantasy? Is she curious to meet him? Will she ever be able to comfortably attend a summer or Christmas house party with him and his family – his wife, children, mother – or would she rather have him as an imaginary friend for this short time?

It will soon be time to get back to work, be it the instruction manual, the poem, or the camels. In the meantime, this little break, on the back porch, surrounded by the scent of oleander.

Pushcart 2014: Paisley Rekdal, “W. C. Fields Takes a Walk” (Poetry) from Willow Springs, Winter 2012

That’s my name plate,
calling card: fat man, drunkard, turnip-
face: rage’s endless, hectoring joke.
Fans pretend they can’t believe it, insist
it’s all a game: they call me Santa
in the gossip pages, they call me Naughty
Chickadee. But it’s the lion they like,
roaring and bleeding, their timid fists
rapping at my cage. Fame
means accepting you can be only one story.

I have no particular interest in W.C. Fields, but I find myself fascinated by the speaker of this poem (available online). It’s not easy to feel sympathy towards the successful, the rich and famous; they have what everyone, admit it or not, wants. But of course they too pay a price, sometimes a dear one.

The poem starts off with Fields’ rambling about his reality vs his image, a common enough theme among the famous, who hire an army of agents, managers, publicity flacks, stylists, and even social circles and recreational destinations to cultivate an image while insisting on their own ordinariness. The basis of comedy is the suffering of others; here the veil is lifted and we see what’s behind Fields’ bitter humor.

The Fields speaking the poem takes us back to his mother:

          …While at home
she never knew what to be, wringing her hands
by the kitchen stove, too sensitive, she said,
to the sad slow beat of my heels
drumming on the carpet. She said
she wanted life to be something realer
for herself. Me, I can walk a mile with a nail in my boot
and a smile on my face. I can walk
until the metal drills into my sole.

That’s a lovely rhythmic punch to “the sad slow beat of my heels,” and a nice use of the homophone pairs “metal/mettle” and “sole/soul.”

He moves on to other events in his life, while singing the Pagliacci song; laugh, clown, laugh. A lovely little thematic parenthesis: “You want funny, break a bone / and sing through it” at the start, ending with losing a tooth in boxer Jack Dempsey’s locker room: “I stuck my tongue through that bloody place / and sang The Marseillaise.”

That seems to be the crux of whatever disease this is: he craves the fame and fortune more than he hates what is necessary to earn it, and wants credit for that choice. That’s what keeps me on this side of sympathy: try making a living the way most people do, bagging groceries or waiting tables or selling insurance or tallying accounts. Try inhabiting the world of the father we read about in “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes”; that father was also called names, and had his loneliness, so that his son could grow up to be a poet. Most people live with their tongues in their bloody places, for a lot less pay.

Pushcart 2014: Eduardo C. Corral, “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes” (Poetry) from Poetry, April 2012

In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes
 
 

in a Tex-Mex restaurant. His co-workers,
unable to utter his name, renamed him Jalapeño.
 
If I ask for a goldfish, he spits a glob of phlegm
into a jar of water. The silver letters
 
on his black belt spell Sangrón . Once, borracho ,
at dinner, he said: Jesus wasn’t a snowman.
 
Arriba Durango. Arriba Orizaba. Packed
into a car trunk, he was smuggled into the States.
 
Frijolero. Greaser. In Tucson he branded
cattle. He slept in a stable. The horse blankets
 
oddly fragrant: wood smoke, lilac. He’s an illegal.
I’m an Illegal-American. …

The full poem is available online via Poetry Magazine, but treat yourself: listen to Corral read it at the Strand Bookstore, if for nothing else, for his commentary on language: “I do code switching in my work… If language is one way of viewing the world, I refuse to privilege one way of viewing the world over another.”

This creates a challenge, of course, for those of us who aren’t familiar with Spanish. And the Spanish in the poem isn’t of the Junot Diaz variety, where you can just assume the Dominican slang has a sexual or racial connotation and keep reading; this is stuff that seems important, at least to me as a reader who lacks code-switching ability.

For example, it seems like the speaker is talking to someone he refers to twice as “borracho” – which translates to “drunkard.” For me, this raises the question, who is this borracho he’s talking to? Is this a word you’d use with an acquaintance at a weekend cookout while you’re knocking back a few beers, comparing your life with your father’s? At a wake, or some more informal ceremonial leave-taking gathering, with fellow mourners? Or with some guy at a bar when you’re drowning your sorrows and some busboy loaded with a tray of dirty dishes passes by, or a song on the radio reminds you of your dad? Or is it more the sort of word you’d use with a compatriot in a drunk tank as you commiserate your mutual conditions and pass the time until morning? Of course, these questions have nothing to do with the word being in Spanish, but it makes an interesting companion query to the process of reader orientation: in the poem, who is speaking, about what, and why?

And that’s all before we get to, About what is the who speaking? About his father, of course (and I’ve made the assumption the speaker is male; more on this in a bit), but is he speaking with affection, respect, hostility, sadness, love? All of the above? He starts off recounting some of the stereotyping his father endured, but then moves to the goldfish story: does the son recall this with appreciation, that Dad had nothing but his own phlegm to give and gave it freely (and, for that matter, was Dad sick? Do many fathers find themselves possessed of sufficient phlegm to hawk up a goldfish at will?), or with disappointment that Dad devalued his need with a scornful act?

But the Spanish truly comes in on other questions: the repeated refrain, “Arriba Durango. Arriba Orizaba.” “Arriba” is one of those words that can be translated in many ways: “Above”, “up,” “viva” (as in, “Viva Durango!”), or, less frequently it seems, “Arrive”. Is the speaker saying this refrain, or hearing it? Is he travelling, by bus or train, through Mexico, perhaps on a personal family mission of some kind, sitting next to a borracho to whom he’s telling his story as he hears stops called out? Is he hearing cheers for these cities, sports teams, displaced residents remembering them and the family still there? Is it a way of saying, “North of Mexico”, something like, “We’re not in Kansas any more”?

Clothing is central to the poem. It’s bracketed by the speaker borrowing Dad’s clothes at the beginning, then wearing his shirt through the desert at the end: the son literally taking up the mantle of his father.

Dad’s favorite belt buckle: “an águila perched on a nopal.” This is the coat of arms on the Mexican flag, symbolizing the Aztec legend of the gods telling them to build their city, now Mexico City, where they found an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its mouth; the Mexican-Europeans interpreted it as the triumph of good over evil. Code-switching, indeed. But think of yet another eagle prominent on a coat of arms: the American eagle. Now perch him on a cactus with bitter thorns: the epithets sprinkled through the poem, and the killer lines, “Bugs Bunny wants to deport him. César Chávez// wants to deport him.”

Now that I think about it: does the speaker of the poem even know what the belt buckle represents? He doesn’t say, “his favorite belt buckle is from the Mexican flag”, just a straight description. Is this part of the code-switching, another nuance lost to the casual reader? I would have missed it, after all, would’ve missed the additional implications, had I not gone looking for art…

Why does Dad wear a belt with silver letters spelling “Sangrón”? This seems to translate to “arrogant, stuck-up”; that doesn’t sound like the father I’m reading about here. Then Urban Dictionary (which often includes very individualized interpretations of little relevance to general usage) also lists a meaning of “overbearing and effeminate… excessive softness, delicacy and self-indulgence”. That doesn’t sound like the father I’m reading about here, either. This is the risk of using online translators.

It’s a risk of any communicative effort; no one can ever know all a speaker knows, all a speaker means. It’s a risk intrinsic to the poetic experience in particular; no reader/hearer knows a poet’s every reference or picks up the nuance of every word choice. It’s an increased risk with code switching, a risk Corral, and the speaker in the poem, understand: “The snake hisses. The snake is torn.” It’s a risk, in this case, with great payback, a risk that’s enabled me to get a dozen poems out of this one thing: a son loves his father. And love is always, always, complicated.

Pushcart 2014: Rachel Rose, “Ways to Begin a Poem” (Poetry) from Song & Spectacle 

"Just before the pregnant pause gives birth" by Marlowe Wakeman

“Just before the pregnant pause gives birth” by Marlowe Wakeman

1.
Begin at the source. Open the book of thyself,
contentious one, thy book in four chapters, four scrolls.
Rise on your own yeast. Spill your villanelles’
hot vowels. You will not go
blind. Though imagine what you might see
if you did.

I love this poem (and you can, too – it’s available online if you flip to Pg. 7) though I can barely see it, hiding behind a leafy bush or flitting between shadows; it’s way beyond my grasp at this point. Still, I love the smell of it, and I know that if I could only “get” what’s going on, I’d love it more. This is why I keep reading – so some day I’ll be able to expound upon something like this and do it justice. Though who knows, maybe I’d find the lathing behind it, if there is any, disappointing, like when I mishear the lyrics of a song then find out I prefer my version. But for now, I’ll just have to make some observations.

It’s in eight numbered sections, with the last two blurring into each other; most sections include a form, but the form isn’t realized in the poem itself. I kept trying to force it, especially with the second section:

2.
Begin with a friend (a writer) playing a board game
at a party. Question: something found in a desk
that starts with J. His answer: Jizm. Haiku the difference
between men and women. Stray red leaf.

Fact is, pretty much any text can be forced into a haiku pattern of syllables; that doesn’t make it haiku. A more precise description from Poets.org: “Often focusing on images from nature, haiku emphasizes simplicity, intensity, and directness of expression….Haiku was traditionally written in the present tense and focused on associations between images. There was a pause at the end of the first or second line, and a ‘season word,’ orkigo, specified the time of year….the philosophy of haiku has been preserved: the focus on a brief moment in time; a use of provocative, colorful images; an ability to be read in one breath; and a sense of sudden enlightenment and illumination.” The second sentence might qualify, in a stretch. But what nails it is the “stray red leaf” at the end – such a haiku image (complete with season imagery), even if it’s not in the traditional form.

But that’s just sophistry, a parlor game. After all, section 4 doesn’t show any hint of terza rima. What we have throughout, as in “The Lit Cloud”, are images of fertility and conception connected with the writing of poetry. And word play, of course – spilling hot vowels?

Each section seems to be a different scenario, a different poet beginning a different poem. But Sections 5 and 6 may be the same poet, starting once then starting over. I love what’s done in those sections with “pantoum com-munion”, not just insisting on the hyphenation (a broken communion? Or just a difficult one?) followed by “pantoum come inside my body.…” That repetition, and the repetition of several phrases, makes sense in terms of the pantoum form, just as the haiku kinda sorta made sense in section 2: maybe there is some element of a terza rima in section 4, and I’m just not picking up on it..

I love how section 7, a medieval ballad, melds into section 8, a contemporary scene, full of flowers and scents and beginning again, one more time, to write a poem.

I only wish I could read this as intended; I’ll bet it’s magnificent to see all that I’ve overlooked.

Pushcart 2014: Tess Taylor, “The Waste Land App” (non-fiction) from Threepenny Review, Summer 2012

It is a nostalgic poem, so let me start with my own memory of it. Seventeen or so years ago, I came to The Waste Land in the way I then came to most poems—high on caffeine, late at night, crouched on the floor of Moe’s on Telegraph Avenue, coming to books by finding Berkeley jetsam…..
I have a distinct memory of that self and that book, and when, seventeen years later, a publication I quite like asked me to review the new iPad app of The Waste Land, it was this memory I had to contend with.

I love the physical feel of books: the soft velvet finish of the matte cover finish that’s become so popular lately, the wonderful new-ink smell that turns into the persistent old-paper smell over time, toying with furry deckled edges. Reading my old, worn copies of certain books – say, The Bell Jar or Heinlein’s The Past Through Tomorrow to use two very disparate examples – is a remembrance of things past; with the first, I see the dogears and smudges left from 1971, as well as notes and underlines from a paper I wrote in the mid-80s (I kept that paper for more than 20 years, because it included an enthusiastic comment of approval from a professor I admired); with the second, the pages now falling out, I remember Ray Lodato, who showed me through classic science fiction (and my first broken heart, but we won’t go into that now). I don’t replace these books because the experience of reading a new copy wouldn’t be the same.

So I understand what Taylor means when she talks about sitting on the floor of an old used bookstore, discovering Eliot. I’ve sat on the floor of more than one old used bookstore myself (though, in recent years, I’ve decided there’s a reason God made chairs).

I loved reading this essay (available online), what it had to say, the form of it – the software review as poetic commentary. The title alone evokes worlds. I can see why it was included in Pushcart, both because it’s intelligent and delightful reading, and because it’s another poke-in-the-eye at technology (Bill Henderson is no fan of online literature) – but a thoughtful and qualified poke-in-the-eye: Taylor came to “grudgingly” appreciate Eliot-by-app, even though it didn’t live up to her nostalgic memory. But what ever does?

Taylor recounts the almost stereotypical initial slog through technology: “My first impression of receiving the poem was of being on hold…. How often these days one has to call customer support: we have traded in laying down our lives in coffee spoons for calls to iTunes.” What terrific juxtaposition, but also, what a metaphor: getting to the poem takes effort, and can be a frustrating experience, particularly ironic in a medium whose selling point is immediate access.

When she finally gets to the app itself, her description of the experience is equally evocative:

According to interviews about the app, its publishers, Faber and Touch Press, designed it to put the poem front and center. It felt sort-of center: the app opens to a menu of eight kinds of interactive experience, of which just reading the poem is only the first…. But before I could see T. S. Eliot’s poem, I saw, once again, my own face hovering in the screen. I was in my own way, yet again. “Can you turn off the lights?” I called to my husband, who was reading the newspaper beside me. “I cannot see the poem.”

To see your face on the words you read: bug, or feature? Doesn’t turning out the lights to see, echo what poetry does, as it steers away from literal meaning and narrative into metaphor, imagery, allusion? As Taylor’s view of the app becomes more positive, does that not add a layer of meaning of its own? What about her qualification of that positivity – the grudging part of her appreciation, appropriately attached to this work by a poet often considered brilliant, racist, and misogynistic? Is this gimmickry, or participatory, gestalt, immersion poetics?

I love the metafeel of the essay, which Taylor indicates came about by necessity: “I couldn’t figure out a way, exactly, to review it as an object or text except to have recourse to a description of my own ambivalence exploring it.” I’m not sure there’s a better way to “review” anything. In fact, it’s what I do here in this blog all the time, except I avoid using the term “review” because it seems to imply I know what I’m doing, when I clearly don’t. I just describe my reaction to what I read – as Taylor did. Maybe the notions of “review” and “criticism” or “analysis” have become too conflated recently, now that everyone with a computer puts up reviews of everything. It may take an expert to dissect a literary piece, to show how the parts fit together and where they don’t; but the experience of reading is open to all, and one person’s experience is going to differ from another; every experience is valid.

Consider: might those who’ve grown up with tablets and phones and apps and gadgets have sense memories and nostalgias which, though different, are just as powerful? Meeting a compatible mind, finding inspiration, growth, understanding, camaraderie through another’s art, is a profound experience, whether that experience be through words on paper or screen, or through images, sounds, or other sensations.

One of my seriously tattered books is Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (yes, I love Miss Manners, for her humor and the internally consistent system of fairness and equality she tried, and sometimes failed, to incorporate into her books) by Judith Martin, first published in the early 80s. She explains the superiority of letters over greeting cards thus: “Nobody ever… traced a typed ‘I love you’ with a trembling finger.” I suspect many during WWII traced a telegraphed “I love you” over and over; I wonder if, now that more of us are accustomed to screens and printers, if it’s true now. Even I, who treasures my glass pen and buys papers by the piece, have been known to trace a name on a computer monitor… ok, yes, that’s just sick at my age, but the point is: if some kid finds the same absorption and wonder in Eliot on the multimedia, multitasking iPad he’s perfectly comfortable with, I’m not going to tell her it was better in my day.

This essay got me to think about (stop there: is there any better recommendation for an essay, than that it gets you to think about something?) the experience of reading, and all that goes into it. If someone wants to think of reading as one thing and one thing only, that’s fine. But maybe the power of reading is that it can be more than one experience, even for one person. To my father, “papercovers” were dimestore romances; he never accepted that genuine books by real authors appeared in paperback, even after I showed him my copies of Shakespeare, Austin, Orwell. In hindsight, that was probably a mistake, since he also knew that nothing he hadn’t read was worth reading.

The medium is the message, but maybe whatever medium you are accustomed to, like whatever language you grow up learning, is just as valid as the next. Even if there is something special, to me, about matte-finish covers and the new-ink smell.