More MOOCing: Whitmania

Allen Crawford illustration from his forthcoming Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself

Allen Crawford illustration from the forthcoming Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself

I’m not sure why, but it seems early 2014 was Whitman season, with two almost-concurrent MOOCs focusing on the poet. I’d mention a certain Apple commercial that also started airing at about the same time – but that would upset certain academics I greatly respect.

The edX version was the second installment of their Poetry in America series (the first was “The Poetry of Early New England” late last Fall, which I quite enjoyed, as, to my surprise, I met a new friend in Anne Bradstreet, a sort of Bizarro precursor to Emily Dickinson).

Images of the entire first edition of Leaves of Grass from 1855 are available online from the Library of Congress Rare Books CollectionUnder the leadership of Dr. Elisa New, we looked at a variety of Whitman poems. I’m afraid I found the course less than satisfying, but I know a lot of people would disagree with that; I’m willing to admit I’ve got something of an attitude towards edX at this point and my opinion is not necessarily objective. It’s more than the clumsy communicative aspects of the platform. I’m beginning to suspect that the edX MOOCs, particularly those from Harvard and MIT, aren’t really MOOCs at all, but accessories to on-site courses; if other people want to drop in, that’s fine, but it’s not designed as stand-alone. This is probably the path all MOOCs will take sooner or later (I know several are already being used this way), so I suppose I’d better get used to it. I knew it was too good to last.

The poetry, of course, was lovely. I’d been earlier swept away, via ModPo, by “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” when I found a video of Ken Goldsmith’s White House reading of excerpts from Brooklyn Bridge-esque poems over time, from Whitman (who was pre-bridge, hence the ferry) to Hart Crane (“To Brooklyn Bridge”) to his own contemporary “Traffic”, so I was primed.

The first contact with each work in the form of the dreaded “annotation tool”, a notation device which worked better than it did in the earlier class but still had some bugs. It really took the fun out of the poems – highlighting all the instances of parallelism or anaphora wears thin after a while, especially when multiple literary devices crowd the page and make it a complete mess. The teaching on these devices – what they signified, why they might be used one place and not another – seemed quite limited; this was closer to rote work, and I eventually gave up on it.

The 1872 edition from the Library of Congress: a few things have changed….The large-group discussions seemed full of random opinions and impressions but lacked overall direction. I lost momentum between sessions because the material was released every two weeks instead of weekly; perhaps I should’ve countered that by imposing my own more evenly-spread schedule.

I found myself downright annoyed by an interview with Justice Elena Kagan. I’m a big fan of Supreme Court Justices with Ovaries, but I was amused and a bit dismayed when the first thing she said was something like, “I’m not sure why you want to talk to me, I don’t know much about poetry.” Turns out, they talked about the light glinting off the statue on the dome of the Capitol building, in connection with a quote Whitman didn’t write. I have a feeling this was part of the “We are Harvard, Look at the Important People We Can Talk To” approach, since it added little to my grasp of Whitman. I was delighted that Justice Kagan wasn’t pretending anything for anybody, though. Oddly, another Justice with Ovaries, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, was on the docket that week for the Yale course in Constitutional Law I happened to be taking at the same time; that conversation was included in the weekly “bonus material” and wasn’t purported to be about the specific course material at all (she spoke about her journey as a Latina from the Bronx to Princeton and Yale); I enjoyed it far more. But, as I said, I may have some attitude running here.

Cast dies used in the 1860 edition – Library of Congress collectionThe best thing about the class was a visit to a letterpress print shop “like the one Whitman worked at” (he did much of the typesetting and printing of his first edition of Leaves of Grass himself). There was some tie-in to the book – the shop where he worked did legal binding, so the first edition was printed on legal-sized sheets, something he reversed in later edition, for instance – and I’m a font geek, so I enjoyed it. I was also delighted to learn about the Poets House annual Bridgewalk, featuring an active reading of Whitman and other poets.

In the end, it’s a free class, and there is information there, so I’d have to recommend it with reservations. If they continue the series with an Emily course in the future, I might join in, but I doubt I’d bother with anything else. Not everyone clicks with every teacher or every course; I’m sure this was a terrific class for a lot of people, and to a large degree, it’s a matter of personal preference.

University of Iowa's OPEN platformI’m more unreservedly upbeat about the second Whitman course, this one from a new entrant in to the MOOC world: the University of Iowa, home of the premiere MFA program in the country for writers (so what if it was funded by the CIA in the 50s as a way to combat the Red Menace, nobody’s perfect). They offered “Every Atom” through their own private MOOC platform, OPEN. This six-week class focused specifically on “Song of Myself,” supported by the UI Whitman Web, a wonderful section-by-section recording and discussion of the poem.

Each week covered two groups of sections of the poem under various themes, from Structure and Main Characters (more craft-oriented topics) to Democracy and Science (strong themes running through the work). One of the most exciting moments came when I discovered a reading of “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer” I’d never considered before – it’s generally regarded as a repudiation of scientific analysis in favor of direct sensory experience, but the last lines can also be seen as the speaker using what he’s heard at the meeting to more fully appreciate the stars at which he now gazes. This tied in to “Song of Myself” which has strong pro-science declarations; Whitman was not highly educated in a formal sense, but he had an interest in just about everything from astronomy to phrenology (oops, well, like I’ve often said, nobody’s perfect).

One of the most interesting features of this course was the inclusion of an extensive well-organized archive of original documents relating to Whitman and this poem in the form of electronic images of notebooks, letters, photographs, etc. It’s quite a historic treasure trove, and added meaning to the text as we saw how Whitman changed his mind about phrases, words, and entire sections.

I suppose it’s hypocritical of me to say I didn’t use the message boards as much as I could have (mostly due to time constraints) but they were very active, with lots of mentor involvement. Each week featured a live webcast session to answer questions and further explore topics of high interest on the boards; while it wasn’t as alive and kicking as the ModPo webcasts, it was still quite enjoyable and informative.

Mostly, I think I just preferred the approach of studying the single work completely. We covered a lot of Whitman’s biography, as well as various thematic and technical elements, and I felt a better grasp of the elements by the end. I enthusiastically recommend the course, and I’m going to keep an eye on OPEN for other offerings.

Allen Crawford's rendition of Whitman Illuminated: Song of MyselfIn an interesting accident (or planned coincidence?) of timing: artist and illustrator Allen Crawford has been working on a hand-drawn edition of the original 1855 “Song of Myself” (Whitman revised quite a bit over the course of 40 years, and both MOOCs looked mostly at the last edition he himself edited) for over a year; that edition, featuring the header image above, will be available from Tin House Books in May. Crawford’s blog offers a look over time at the project, as well as illustrations from the work, including the one that graces this post. I know I’m going to order it; I’m not generally a big fan of “the beautiful book” (books are beautiful for their words), but this combines art and words in quite lovely ways, and it’s something I’d like to have.

Pushcart 2014: Deb Olin Unferth, “Likeable” from Noon, 2012

She could see she was becoming a thoroughly unlikable person.

I know what that feels like.

On the surface (you can read the whole thing, all 300+ words of it, online and find out for yourself), this is self-explanatory: It’s true we can get away with more at 20 than we can at 40. Some of that is for good reason: we’re supposed to learn something with experience, and behavior that’s received as “cute” when one is young (“I did the same thing when I was your age” and “Just wait ’til she gets a little older, she’ll change her tune”) has an expiration date. That was the primary impetus behind my decision to leave home at 18: I knew I wasn’t prepared for the world, I knew that living at home was not going to prepare me, and I wanted to get all my mistakes out of the way while they’d still be forgivable. That still numbers among the five best decisions I’ve ever made in my life (the five worst decisions are, however, a lot more interesting).

The other side is implied here as well. Maybe as we get older – get some mileage on us, so to speak – we have a tendency to tire of the bullshit, of the make-nice, and start to gain the confidence to value our own view of the world, as opposed to that of others. We stop taking advice and start giving it, answer more questions than we ask, insist more than we wonder. We start to feel like we’ve earned the right, through hard experience. Assertiveness, particularly when exercised by women, can be seen as unlikeability, and I think the line for women is drawn differently than it is for men. And of course one can move beyond assertiveness, first into judgmental dogmatism, then into aggression.

I’ve always wondered if those who proudly frame their unlikeability in terms of confidence, who describe rudeness as honesty, are just unable or unwilling to learn or use the social skills necessary to walk the line between obsequiosity and offense, to determine which is appropriate (as they both are in different circumstances). As someone whose social skills frequently falter, I can sympathize, but own up to it – don’t claim it’s an asset. The story is, after all, titled “Likeable” rather than “Unlikeable” – is that an assertion? A hope? A contrast – or an expectation?

But keep in mind: this is a fiction piece, not an essay. It’s a character speaking – what if the character is speaking, not as a representation of a person, but as an actual self-aware character? An unlikeable character who, by page 43, finds herself put away on a shelf in favor of more likeable characters?

Roxane Gay had a great article on Buzzfeed about “the importance of unlikeable female protagonists.” I see no reason why a fictional character, male or female, must be likeable; I don’t think in terms of likeability as much as I do of how interested I am in what the character is doing, and those are different things.

I think I’m reaching, because otherwise, in spite of my appreciation for Unferth, I would have little to say about this piece. It’s not that I don’t like it; it’s that I’m struggling to find anything unique about it, a reason it’s been selected. Does that make me unlikeable?

Pushcart 2014: Sarah Lindsay, “Origin” (Poetry) from Poetry Northwest, Spring/Summer 2012

The first cell felt no call to divide.
Fed on abundant salts and sun,
still thin, it simply spread,
rocking on water, clinging to stone,
a film of obliging strength.

At first I thought this was another “miracle of life” poem, and I suppose it is, but in a very different way. It holds up a mirror, then, just as we’re admiring our reflections, adjusts the angle to a less flattering, but more truthful, view. The complete poem is available online; I highly recommend reading it for yourself first (it’s short) as this will contain “spoilers” if there is such a thing as spoilers for poetry. I’ll come back to this later.

It leaves open the question: where did the second cell come from? I see a whole novel in that: a second cell – our ancestor, unrelated to the first – became the predator that eliminated the first cell. And that’s our DNA, not the gentle living-for-the-joy-of-being of the first, now disappeared cell. Then again, the second cell consumed the first cell, so perhaps it, too, is part of us all.

I’ve been concerned for a long time about the overemphasis on “growth” as a metric of success. For example, the economy must grow in order to be considered healthy. A population in decline is considered troubled. At some level, the system is closed, so it’s a zero-sum game: growth in one parameter necessarily means a decline in another, but some parameters are more highly valued. By the way, someone tell me when the Era of the Job Creator is over, so the Job Doers can get enough respect to come out and play again instead of being treated like drains on the corporate coffers. But I’m getting way beyond my level of comprehension; it’s just a suspicion that the people doing the measuring are measuring what benefits them, not what matters in the long run. The second cell will always consume the first cell, and so far, it doesn’t seem to be mellowed by that consumption process.

Then again, if that first cell had just continued to sit and bask in the protoatmosphere – if another cell hadn’t woke up one day and decided, wow, I bet if I eat that guy over there, I’ll get stronger – we wouldn’t be here to contemplate anything. And consider this: the above image looks plenty aggressive, but it’s the body’s natural immune system attacking a cancer cell.

About that spoiler thing: I’m undecided as yet about whether the last line is a “trick ending” or not. It certainly changes the poem, and gives it that “whoa!” moment, without which it’d just be nice words. But I wonder if it isn’t maybe such a good cheap trick as to get a pass; a twist that earns its keep. Then again, I’m a fan of cheap tricks, especially tricks that so effectively change the polarity.

Pushcart 2014: Andre Dubus III, “Writing and Publishing a Memoir: What the Hell Have I Done?” from Riverteeth, Fall 2012

1992 Globe file photo of Father and Son Authors by Michele McDonald

1992 Globe file photo of Father and Son Authors by Michele McDonald

Like many published writers, I give a lot of talks. Sometimes to crowds, sometimes to small groups. Sometimes I’m nervous beforehand, other times I’m not. Tonight, I was nervous. Over five hundred eighteen-year-olds had just read all about my youth, and now I was expected to say something important to these young people…. And then it became clear what was happening; they weren’t clapping for the middle-aged author of a book they’d been required to read; they were clapping for the boy and violent young man I’d been; they were clapping for the kid who’d grown into the man walking up to the stage to greet them; they were clapping not for Andre, the writer, but for Andre, the main character in a story called Townie. I may as well have been Jake Barnes or Harry Potter or Captain Queeg. As I waited to be introduced, I stood there feeling as if I lied to them in some way, that I had somehow misrepresented myself. But had I? Yes. And no. Not at all.

The theme of “what is truth” keeps coming up in this volume, doesn’t it. I’m relieved that this time, I agree with the author’s approach, so I don’t have to rant the way I did over “Corn Maze.”

Dubus covers a great deal of ground in this essay, and I found it all to be fascinating. He wrote his memoir, Townie, “by accident” (it evolved from a more circumscribed essay) and we see the kinds of internal conflicts he dealt with as he was writing the book, as well as the external conflicts – and harmonies – he encountered after publication. When you write about your life, chances are someone from your life will read it; they may or may not agree with your view of things. And you’re going to be aware of that as you write, as you decide what to include and what to leave out, how to phrase things; where to soften the blow, where to highlight the emotion.

Dubus found himself hampered by just that concern early on. His editor noticed a certain restriction to the book: “She told me that whatever I was leaving out, it was all part of my story, too, and that if I couldn’t write completely honestly, then this shouldn’t be a published book.…” Yet he was concerned about the effect on people who would, necessarily, be included in the more complete story. Dubus is a successful fiction writer (House of Sand and Fog, for instance), but, as he notes, fictional characters don’t show up at book signings and don’t write letters to the editor complaining about how they were portrayed. Fictional characters aren’t real-life siblings who’ve grown up since they were kids and now lead respectable lives that might not be improved by public revelation of the mistakes of their youth.

He turned to another writer and was offered this counsel: “Am I trying to settle any scores with this book? If the answer was yes, he wouldn’t write it. Or he might write it, but he wouldn’t publish it. If the answer was no, then he’d go ahead and write it.”

So he did. Then came publication.

The present-day mayor of Dubus’ home town publicly insisted that his city was never the miserable, depressed, dangerous area depicted in the book. I love how Dubus recounts his feelings on hearing that:

If this were a novel, his words wouldn’t have bothered me at all, but this was a memoir, and when that word is printed beneath the title of the book, the contract between its writer and the reader is this:
Dear Reader,
Everything you read in this book happened, at least to the best of my memory, which like everyone else’s is seen through a deeply subjective emotional lens. Still, I have tried to be loyal to the facts as I remember them, which isn’t always the truth, but it is my truth.

See, I’m really not the hard-ass judgmental jerk I may have seemed in my tirade about “Corn Maze” earlier. I understand that memories shift, we all have our lenses. But we should, nonetheless, try, and Dubus convinces me that he did. He convinced the mayor, as well, who admitted he hadn’t read the book but only a review, and was reacting to seeing his town referred to in a negative way; much of his life experience was limited to a more stable area of town, as well. He and Dubus had an exchange I find simultaneously sad and hilarious:

“In fact, when I was a young lawyer, my first clients were drug dealers from near where you live.”
“Thank you.”

Drug dealers to the rescue of a writer’s reputation.

Some of the reaction was more personal. The town referred to it as “The Book”; it was their story, too. Childhood friends appear at readings; one even signed books, with the fictitious name used in the memoir, when Dubus was delayed by travel.

Not everyone appreciated his portrayal, such as the bully who inadvertently reinforced the memoir’s portrait of himself. Then there was the football hero, who just didn’t see the town the same way Dubus did: “We both lived in the same depressed town, but for him it was a playground. For me, it was just one more manifestation of the home I lived in – unsafe, unclean, wild, gray, and unhappy.” That’s truth – truth about people, about perception, about towns with a “bad” neighborhood. The truth about the town depends to some degree on who’s truth it is.

The heart of this essay, however, is in the reaction of those closest to Dubus: his siblings and mother. It’s touching, both in their reaction, and in Dubus’ reaction to their reaction. Regardless of the harshness of the glare he shines on his childhood (and I haven’t read the memoir, so I’m only going by what he says about it, and how he records the reactions of others), there’s a gentleness here, perhaps even some healing.

I haven’t read much memoir. For the celebrity version,I find it odd that someone’s daily life is considered interesting just because they’ve achieved success in some field. Yet I understand the impulse to better know someone who’s admired. I see more clearly why people are interested in reading about obstacles overcome, about bad fortune reversed, but I have concerns about how that shapes our perceptions. I think someone who succeeds in spite of early disasters – whether personal trauma or socioeconomic imprisonment in bad neighborhoods and schools – is extraordinary. We shouldn’t disparage those who languish after a bad start, however; if extraordinary were a requirement for a decent life, few would achieve it.

Though I haven’t read much memoir, I understand very well the desire to write one, to say, “This is who I am, and who I was. This is my life; this is me.” This blog is my memoir. It didn’t start out that way. I’d intended to just write, then to do some short fiction dissection in the interests of learning more about writing. But others do that so much better than I do – Ken Nichols at Great Writers Steal, Trevor and Betsy and the whole gang at The Mookse and the Gripes, for instance – so I started “reacting” instead. The one unique thing we all have to offer, is ourselves. I’ve scattered little pieces of myself in various posts over the past year or two; yes, they’re hard to find – there’s no tag or category – so I’m hidden – in plain sight. Quite deliberately, I might add. I prefer my intimacy to be of the non-instant variety.

This is my story. I did not make it up. Nor did I put in any moments that did not happen in my life, but still, there’s the vaguely shameful feeling that I’ve cast in stone something that should stay fluid, our ever-evolving and changing memories of who we and the people we love really are. And walking up to the podium of that stage of that college in upstate New York, the cavernous hall filled with applauding young people, I wanted to tell them that I was glad I had written my story, that I was grateful to them from reading it, but please don’t confuse me with that Andre in the book; he’s a character, and I’m real. That was then, and this is now.
But then they stopped clapping and the hall grew quiet. I could hear the rain on the roof and against the windows and I could see so many of their faces – expectant, slightly wounded, hungry for something helpful, many masking this hunger, and I felt the younger Andre, the only one they knew, descend into my legs and arms and chest and face. Then we were both stepping toward the microphone, and together, we began to speak.

It’s an essay bracketed within this particular talk at this particular college to these particular students, but it lives outside that bracket, not in a successful best-selling author, but in a boy from the rough side of town. You may know such a boy, or girl, today. Let’s think of them in the same way we think of the kids in those success stories, shall we, because it might just turn out that way. And even if it doesn’t, they’re deserving of kindness, too.

Pushcart 2014: David Hornibrook, “The Ultrasound” (Poetry) from Dunes Review, June 2012

Luís Calçada: Binary Black Hole (illustration)

Luís Calçada: Binary Black Hole (illustration)

A landscape contorts before them, a universe
                expands, contracts, I can’t tell which.

Turbulence within a cloud of space dust
                causes a knot to form, the dust around it

collapsing. My eyes cannot escape
                the motion the monitor reveals,

or is it
                just the wand

brooding over the face of the water.
                The hot core at the heart of a collapsing cloud

will one day become a star.
                After a while everyone leaves us alone.

Several days later one of the women
                returns. Her gaze attends

to the space around us. She asks
                for us to step out into the hallway.

We don’t know how to get there.

I read this poem right after reading Jessica Wilbanks’ essay “Father of Disorder” in which she uses thermodynamic principles to examine the emotional landscape of her family. Here again we have the illumination of emotion via science: a couple’s reaction to an ultrasound in pregnancy, via the ultrasound image itself, compared to the image of a black hole, in a nice melding of imagistic layers.

The poem starts out in a doctor’s waiting room with him and his wife, and some musings about black holes before moving to the lines quoted above.

I’ve never been pregnant, never wanted to be pregnant, never even been in a close relationship with someone who was pregnant, so I’m a bit out of my element, in an experiential sense, here. That’s the time to ask questions: is he talking about an impending miscarriage or birth defect? Is this an unwanted pregnancy, and the decisions that await them are overwhelming? Or is the speaker just that shocked at the idea of impending fatherhood and all the miracle-of-life stuff (forgive my cynicism, my new neighbors have a super-screamer of a baby and I’m a little tired of the miracle of life these days. How do parents manage at all without losing their minds?).

I get the sense the woman in the poem is considerably pregnant, rather than awaiting her first ultrasound, from the waiting room scene:

                                        .…my wife
                is tired,

doesn’t want to read magazines,
                shifts in her seat…

That seems like someone who’s physically uncomfortable, perhaps from mid-to-late-term pregnancy, rather than someone excited, or even unhappy, about the possibility of being pregnant. And if she is upset about the idea, no explanation for that is given, which would be an odd choice. I think this places the timeline in later pregnancy.

The line “brooding over the water” brought me to the creation story in Genesis. What is commonly translated as “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” in the second verse, just before “Let there be light,” can perhaps be more literally translated as “…the Spirit of God brooded over the waters.” The generation of the universe, the generation of life. The wand brooding over the pregnant belly – another nice play of words, “wand”, wind, spirit, breath of God – taking it back? Or creating a sense of wonder? Yet the father-to-be describes black holes as “holes so deep that nothing, even light, can escape.” This does not sound like a happy reaction.

Some of my ModPo compatriots have had more experience with pregnancy than I; yet they had questions as well:

I wonder whether the mother has to remain in the hospital for a few days to see what will happen. It does sound as if there is a big gulf between the two of them and the staff. The man, the writer, sounds completely at sea with the situation, whatever it actually is. I am guessing the mother is far more educated about pregnancy and the various technical terms, while the father has no idea of the possibilities and the words to describe them.
The phrase ‘We don’t know how to get there’ is the most ominous of the lines you have shared.

I have to say, I’m probably coming at this from a much different and likely a much more personal place than I would be normally. Our eldest daughter is what we casually refer to as “ten months pregnant”…
I went back and read this excerpt again and honestly cannot tell from this whether the woman has delivered, miscarried, or is about to do either…I guess I better try and get hold of the whole poem before I make any more determinations.

One of the limitations we’re facing in discussing these poems is that, when text or reading isn’t available, others must rely on excerpts I have selected. I have on occasion flagrantly violated copyright law myself, but I’m not going to involve the ModPo message boards in anything that could do damage to the learning community that’s been created there. We manage in spite of limitations.

I went back and read the poem after a break of a few days to confirm it was about pregnancy at all; there are other reasons for ultrasounds, and if I’ve learned nothing else from the two Mathematical Thinking MOOCs I’m currently taking, not to mention from reading all the possible interpretations of poetry I’m encountering, it’s to consider all possibilities. But the imagery is clear, and early in the poem, the speakers wonders what it’s like to “enshrine a life.” Could it be, then, that at the outset, there is ambivalence about a pregnancy, but when it comes down to it, they find out which way their hearts are really set?

So we’re left with a bit of a mystery, around a poem that itself deals with the ultimate mystery. I wonder if that’s a coincidence.

Pushcart 2014: Jack Livings, “Donate!” from A Public Space, Summer 2012

Barbara Schaller: "Peach Blossoms"

Barbara Schaller: “Peach Blossoms”

He’d grown up in a farming village, his only possessions two blue Mao jackets, one stuffed with cotton for the winter, the other without cotton for warmer months, and a family of wooden frogs that fit into the palm of his hand. In 1980, a migrant worker program brought him to Beijing, where he bored holes in door hinges and small gauge gears at the state-run metal-stamp factory. Twenty years later, he had become co-owner of the factory. He was worth twenty million yuan, but most of his neighbors assumed he was a schoolteacher with patrilineal claim to his hutong house. This aggravated his wife to no end.… She had given up trying to explain to him that to be rich was glorious and there was no shame in having means. Even total strangers felt a sense of relief and pride in the presence of success.

“Only Nixon could go to China.” No, it’s not just a line from Star Trek; when Nixon met with Mao Zedong and other officials in 1972, it was considered historic, and only an American President with his record of vehement opposition to Communism could undertake such a trip, especially during the war with Vietnam, and not be labeled a sympathizer. Vietnam is now a hot tourist destination, China is the PayDay Lender to the world, and at this moment in American history, perhaps only a story set in China could get away with painting successful capitalism as a burdensome duty upon a sympathetic victim.

Yang comes home from his factory for lunch; he’s standing under the peach tree outside his house and wondering what to do about his daughter, who has not swept the yard as he’d asked, when earthquake hits:

The branches above him shivered and dropped petals and twigs on his head. Must be something big up there, he thought.…suddenly the tree shook off its remaining petals and he found himself staring directly into the sun. He felt unsteady on his feet, as if, in the middle of choppy seas, he’d decided to stand up in his rowboat for a better view. He threw his arm around the tree’s rough trunk, just in time to catch himself from toppling over backward. His stomach churned.

This disorientation never seems to leave him as the story goes on. On television, he sees the carnage (remember? over 80,000 died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, including thousands of children caught in collapsed schools) and decides to donate blood.

It seems donating blood in China isn’t as simple as it is here. Oh, the procedure itself is simple, but a bribe must be offered along the way. From this story, it would seem the entire country runs on bribes; I’ve seen episodes of Law & Order that made New York seem the same way. But Yang has some personal history that makes him more respectful, though resentful, of the bribe way of life, and he knows how to live within it:

They lived near the Forbidden City in an ancient hutong neighborhood. Most of their neighbors were Chinese Yuppies whose boredom with the practical elements of Communism, like work groups and neighborhood committees, was a source of wonder to Yang. He’d grown up in the countryside in the late sixties and early seventies, and as a child he’d pulled yams next to intellectuals sent down for reeducation. He respected the party’s ability to whip citizens into a storm that could flatten everything in its path. These days, when a yuppie butted heads with the neighborhood committee over a plan to install a bathroom in his three-hundred-year-old home, he bribed a cadre in the municipal government who directed the committee to issue a variance.

There’s a lot of that language-of-destruction (whipped, flattened), running through the piece, as though the the earthquake is the physical manifestation of something more metaphysical.

The story traces Yang’s frustrating journey through corruption as he attempts to help his countrymen, yet finds himself shut out and punished at every turn. He forgets to get a certificate for the blood donation, so must donate again, to make it official. The money he gives his daughter for her school collection goes unrecorded. His business had in the past sent large amounts of money for relief projects, but now he finds himself the victim of public censure because his current donations are not flowing past the right people, all of whom will take their cut; he wants to donate directly to the Red Cross, and that won’t do, not at all, because the guy above him has a guy above him who has a guy above him and they all need to pay tribute as some portion of the money finds its way to those who need it.

All of this makes Yang an extremely sympathetic one-percenter, even when he descends into the same rhetoric that is so unseemly when it comes from Mitt Romney or the Walton family:

Yang had to find the right balance: a donation large enough to calm the men, but not so large as to make it look like he had money to burn. The men complained endlessly about their wages and suspected that untold riches were piling up in vaults beneath the factory, money withheld from them expressly to scuttle their chances for advancement in the world. What if he fired them all on the spot, sold the factory to the highest bidder, and settled into a quiet life of mah-jongg and cold beer? And why was it his duty to compensate the men for their donations? It was the damned ingratitude that got him. How dare they hold his feet to the fire.
…Then he heard the applause. The men’s faces, turned up to him like a band of starving children he’d fed from his own kitchen. Some were waving their hardhats. Amazing, he thought. But by tomorrow they’ll have found a reason to turn against me.

I have the sense that some of the characters are representative of cultural groups: bureaucrats, the next generation, the fading older generation, workers. I’ve read before that’s common in contemporary Chinese literature, which is an area I’ve explored in only the most surface way. This is not, of course, Chinese literature. Jack Livings, an author new to me, is a New York journalist, but his short stories, at least the ones I’ve found, are all set in contemporary China. I assume that’s his journalistic beat; if not, don’t tell me, because I learned more about China than I have from all the news articles and documentaries. That’s the magic of fiction, you know: you can watch the earthquake on TV, you can read about China’s strange blend of communism and capitalism, but it’s all over-there-happening-to-those-people until you walk a nice guy through his struggle to do the right thing.

The story begins and ends with peach blossoms – a symbol of vitality – and Yang’s daughter. In the opening scene, she’s neglected her chores, but by the end, she’s obeyed:

Little Li had finally swept up the petals, but he felt no sense of pride in her obedience. He dabbed at his eyes with his sleeve and lowered himself onto a bench across from the denuded peach tree….He thought that if he had an ax, he would chop it down, but he didn’t, so he sat, folding and unfolding the garbage ticket and trying to recall what it had been like to be poor.

Of course, poverty is the ultimate equal opportunity experience, but that’s the concept the one-percenters, even Chinese one-percenters, seem to forget.

Pushcart 2014: Andrew Zolot, “The Piece Need Not Be Built” from American Circus, January 2012

Is it in poetry that salvation lies? Is it language that will beat back the tides of relativistic pseudoart and reclaim the mystery of artistic shamanhood, the weaver of dreams, and the savior of men’s souls?… Were one to avoid looking at any of the art in the museum and simply read the descriptive literature – which this particular placard laughably implies would be equivalent experiences – he would sense the decay of the art in the decay of the language used to describe it. Nobody would call the vast majority of the works on the contemporary and modern floors of the Museum of Modern Art beautiful. The language used to describe art has been sterilized in the last hundred years to reference “space” and “acts” and “processes.”

From these opening lines, you might get the feeling that Zolot doesn’t much like conceptual art. But to the contrary: in the space of 1000 words (available online), an essay in which it’s unclear where irony ends and sincerity begins, in which he simultaneously ridicules and proves an idea, he’s created a damned fine piece of conceptual art – with words.

As much as I like this, I wonder if I like the article, or the idea of calling the MoMA coat check stand an exhibit (something the Dutch have already done, by the way, as you can see from the photo above), the idea of seeing art in something distinctly non-artistic. I “see” the art, very clearly, without actually seeing it but by reading about it, particularly in the “implied circularity” (it’s the first and last thing seen) and the “reversal of the implied characters of the seasons” (rich in winter, hollow in summer), but mostly, in the human ability to assign meaning to anything. We look at the stars and see stories of heroic warriors, ancient enmities and alliances; we’ve created God, the old man with the white beard, in our image; and for pete’s sake, there’s a twitter account (one I follow and dearly love) devoted to Faces In Things. Meaning – Art – created daily.

And, as much as I like this, I find it difficult to write about; my comments seem to be more scattered than usual. Thank you for bearing with me. The essay connects to a number of things for me, but all of them rather tenuously. For example: do words about art matter at all? Can words about art, make the art matter? If the artist creates the words as part of the piece, but what about those little descriptive cards? I’m very fond of the Contributor Notes found in BASS and PEN collections; unlike the Pushcart contributor notes, they contain comments from the authors, usually on the origin of the work, though they may lapse into explanation. But I acknowledge, they are not part of the work, and I’m always rather sad when (as happens on occasion) I like the contributor note better than I like the story.

One of the poems we read in ModPo was Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not A Painter”; it subtly compares visual and poetic art. Instructor Al Filreis had this summary:

“This is a poem about a painting that behaves like a poem, and a poem that behaves like a painting. This is a poem that shows how you can have a meta-painting in a poem, and a meta-poem in a poem, and it’s also a poem about how only a poem can be a meta-meta poem by having a meta-painting in it and a meta-poem in it. A painting can go to the first meta-level, but a poem can compare two meta processes and leave them both there and never erase one or the other.”

~~Dr. Filreis, ModPo 2013

That sounds like gobbledygook when isolated, but in the context of the class and the poem and the discussion, and delivered with Al’s usual down-to-earth style, it made perfect sense (I told you, I’m having trouble writing about this, just read on, ok?). I’m not sure I agree that painting is more limited in its levels-of-meta – I suspect visual art is just as capable as verbal art of this kind of multi-levelled meaning – but until I know enough about art and can point to something and say, “Here, this does it,” I’ll have to merely doubt. Given my vague and not-even-elementary connection to art, that could take a while.

I do believe that words about art can create art. Without this essay, a coat check is just a coat check; with this essay, it’s a world of meaning; I’ll pay far closer attention to the next coat check I encounter.

Zolot then turns it all on its head with his closing paragraph:

Unlike the rest of the pieces and installations at the MoMA, Coat Check is shrouded in silence: there are no placards, no discussions about its merits, no docent on hand to wax on the Board’s intentions or artistic inspirations. It is in this understatement that Coat Check comes out as the real winner at the museum. In this era where art is described by words that mean nothing, better to shut up and simply be something.

Except that… I just said, without this essay, a coat check is just a coat check, so these words… wait…

See why I’m having trouble talking about this? It’s, literally, too amazing for words. Either that, or I’m overcomplicating everything again. Let’s go back to basics: the power of words to transform our perception of a physical thing from practical necessity to art.

Just the other day, in yet another poetry MOOC “(Every Atom“, offered by the University of Iowa) I discovered that Whitman’s inspiration for his lovely “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry at the age of 12 while using the boat in the course of his law messenger duties: “And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose…. Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt…” Poetry lovers gather at the site today, annually, to read his poem. Maybe it was those trips that turned him into a poet; the words transformed a humble ferry into art.

What in your life could be transformed into art by words?

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Pushcart 2014: Natalie Diaz, “Cranes, Mafiosos and a Polaroid Camera” (Poetry) from Spillway, June 2012

Photo by Interaction Design majors, University of Washington

Photo by Interaction Design majors, University of Washington


Just tell me what to do. You know what to do, he pleaded.
I should know how to help my brother by now. He and I have had this
exact conversation before – if I love him, if I really love him,

why haven’t I learned to reassemble a Polaroid camera?
Instead, I told him about the sandbill cranes, the way they dance –
moving into and giving way to one another, bowing down,

cresting and collapsing their wings, necks and shoulders silver
curls of smoky rhythm – but he didn’t believe me. My brother believes
the mafia placed a transmitter deep within his Polaroid camera

but he can’t believe in dancing cranes….

Though the text of this poem isn’t available online, I did find a video of the poet reading (starting at the 3:55 mark). In the minutes before she gets to this poem, we hear a few important details, such as 1) she’s been obsessed with “the Jesus side wound and the variations of it” and 2) her brother is a meth addict and she’s been dealing with her feelings about it through poetry. While I was reading the poem, I understood her brother had some kind of disturbance, but I wasn’t sure what it was until I heard her remarks. Somehow, that makes it sadder – this was not inevitable – and more hopeful – the possibility for change exists. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death last week hit me hard; I hope change comes in time for this man.

The poem is narrative, with a repetitive rhythm to it: short connected phrases rolling into each other. I’m kind of stuck on the “couplets” as relationship thing from a few poems back, and I wonder if the three lines indicate the third person in this relationship, the drugs. But that’s probably a stretch. Because of the “Jesus wound” comment, I wonder if she had in mind instead a trinity.

I was from the start interested in the persona, the “I” of the poem. With fiction, I always find it an interesting exercise to keep a meta-reader eye on my vision of a first-person narrator (which usually starts off as a blank slate) and how it changes through the reading as clues add up: oh it’s a woman; oh, he’s someone named Jack and is 48 years old; oh, she likes to garden. At different points, what does the narrator look like, who does she resemble in my mind? Sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s someone I know in a similar role or a character from a movie or even another story, sometimes, particularly with gender, it’s based on my impression of the writer. This leads to some interesting discoveries; it’s something I should document more. But I tend to read poetry more like non-fiction than fiction, to assume the “I” of a poem is the poet herself. Here, Diaz clearly takes ownership of the narrator with her prefatory comments, but is that a given? The poem is presented in this anthology in isolation, with no other information – no surrounding poems, no introduction or preface or even liner notes – and it could be a fictional persona; are we “supposed” to assume the “I” is the poet, is that rule of poetry reading? If not, why do we assume she is the narrator, until proved otherwise? Is that a wise assumption to make? How would a poet write a first-person narrative poem that was clearly not self-referential?

Sarah from ModPo drew my attention to the interaction between siblings:

She seems exhausted from the endless stress of their lives with her addicted brother, who is also under endless stress and hopelessness.
I wonder why she spoke about the cranes to him? To show him a part of nature? To allow for a miraculous healing moment to occur, even though it has not happened before? To demonstrate that there can be a little delay before attending to his question? To show that she has a tiny hope that he can connect with something which she can bring to their conversation, rather than stay locked in his own desperate world of need which he is bringing to her?

I’ve read that psychologists have to be on guard lest they enter the delusional systems of their patients, but instead show them a way out. I hear an anguished voice calling for help, and a calming voice, like a parent assuring a child there’s nothing to fear from the thunder. It’s interesting that the speaker of the poem seems to feel guilt that she hasn’t entered his world, she hasn’t come up with a practical solution to reassembling the camera, but I think she can’t, and doesn’t want to, enter his world; so she instead invites him into hers. He is the one who must choose, however.

The whole camera metaphor is pretty astonishing; not just the I’ve-taken-it-apart-help-me-put-it-back-together, the brokenness, fixit-ness, her vision of him in other cameras she sees, but the camera itself: I Am A Camera, observing, recording, but not affecting. Then there are the cranes. What does a crane, the machine, do: it builds, it lifts up, it carries. I’m not sure the camera is her brother and the crane is her, I think they’re both her, in her life she’s the machine crane lifting him as well as creating, and the dancing crane making poetry; but with him she’s also a camera, a poet observing and recording. I think if I were to shoot this as a film, I’d shoot it from the point of view of one of the cranes.

This may combine Sarah’s comment with my interest in POV: I wondered if the other character mentioned, the “she” at the retreat with the camera, is another writer, or if it’s Diaz, seeing herself at something of a distance. She takes the camera apart in her mind, looks at the mirrors. She sees the situation, analyzes it, watches herself, considers her options, then puts it back together. The aperture and wound: what is the difference? Is it in how we view them? How they’re created? How much they hurt, bleed? The camera’s aperture lets in light; can that be the function of a wound? Does her brother’s wound let in any light? Does hers?

Pushcart 2014: Jessica Wilbanks, “Father of Disorder” from Ruminate #24

Richard Bizley, "Thermodynamics"

Richard Bizley, “Thermodynamics”

When my brothers and I were growing up, all whole series of rented farmhouses rocked on the axes of my father’s moods. …
… During these episodes my mother would look on from the four-paned window in the parlor. She was slower to forget my father’s fits, and so she’d simmered there for a long while as my brothers and I gathered around my father again, tipsy with joy, passing him tools and laughing uproariously when he attempted a joke. My mother was no longer young, and she had stopped trusting my father a long time ago. She had also made it through high school chemistry; she knew that when a hot pan cools, its heat doesn’t just disappear. The law of entropy prevails. That heat has to go somewhere, and even then my mother suspected the air hadn’t just taken it up and blown it away from us.

Wilbanks’ father was given to temper tantrums, and her family was negatively affected by them. Wilbanks builds this into an essay by using entropy as a metaphor.

Anger does feel “hot” doesn’t it… but so does passion. For that matter, simple anxiety creates a great deal of energy and motion, and that’s heat, too. We’ve also got “an icy glare” to indicate disapproval, as well as “cold anger.” Depression can feel hot and stuffy, swamp-like (I’m reminded of Plath’s Esther Greenwood, “stewing in my own sour air” under the bell jar of depression), chillingly cold, or just numb and dead. Applying subjective assessments has its risks. But this is the system Wilbanks chose, and as long as she is consistent within it, I’ll go along.

I’m not an expert on thermodynamics (if you need a simple refresher, there’s always
Physics4Kids), but I’ve always enjoyed general-readership science. I’m not sure I’m going to take her description of the process of entropy as gospel; I’ve heard many, many different descriptions, including those in two recent MOOCs on the science of cooking. Heat transfer is complicated stuff, qualitatively and quantitatively; different materials accept and store heat differently, and are structurally and chemically affected by heat differently, which is why you can melt and refreeze an ice cube over and over, but you can’t unfry an egg.

I also admit to skepticism when I see a non-scientist use complicated scientific details for thematic purposes, developed over years of realizing a great-sounding metaphor might not withstand scrutiny of the underlying principles. And, by the way, I’ve used (and probably misused) entropy as a trope; it made a wonderful fulcrum for a story, whether or not I actually understand it fully, simply because no one outside of the lab really understands it fully anyway. Again, the question of “what is truth” shows up in this anthology of disparate works.

For the purposes of this essay, however, Wilbanks will tell you what you need to know:

It’s true none of us have owned homes, produced masterpieces, birthed children, or found love – instead we live paycheck-to-paycheck in second-rate cities, waiting tables, teaching other people’s children, mowing lawns, and installing concrete countertops in other people’s kitchens.… From our limited positions, it’s hard to trace these faraway stories to our various disorders, but my mother appears far above our heads and finds gossamer threads there.

Where is the boundary between “As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined” and “for what I am yesterday, is past; what I am today, is my responsibility”? That’s something I, too, wrestle with daily. We’re all affected by our pasts, yet some overcome horrible abuse and deprivation and go on to create beauty and joy and brilliance; some of us with far less in our pasts can’t seem to move beyond it. What makes the difference? Laziness, low character, lack of moral fiber? Or is it the substance we’re made of, born with? Can that substance be changed – can albumin be made to act like water, to solidify and liquefy without permanent change?

My father believes we have little choice in the matter of our own fate, and that conviction seems to be a great relief to him.

I’m sure it was. The question is: was he wrong?

If I seem to be off on a tangent here, it’s because I’m not sure what to do with this essay. I like the premise; I always like the juxtaposition of different fields of study – in this case, family psychology and physics – in the creation of a metaphor. The technique works. I’m just not sure this is the best setting.

Pushcart 2014: Molly Patterson, “Don’t Let Them Catch You” from The Iowa Review, Winter 2012

My sister is supposed to pick me up, but she never does what she’s supposed to because she’s fourteen. She doesn’t care about anyone except her new boyfriend, who was three years older and wears gel in his hair like the Russians. He smells like cigarettes and Cheetos and squints when he looks at me. He doesn’t ever say anything, except to Brandy. When he talks to her, he puts his hand on her neck and moves his lips close to her ear.
“Kaitlyn,” Brandy told me the first time her boyfriend came over, “if you tell mom that Chaz was here, I swear to God I will break every bone in your right hand.”
She chose that one because I’m left-handed and she wouldn’t want to have to help me do things like writing and eating. But that would make it so I couldn’t play the piano anymore. Brandy hates that I’m so good at the piano. When Uncle Mike left for the Army, he got Mrs. Duncan to start giving me lessons. He didn’t get anything at all for her.

It’s sad to say this is well-trod ground; if I were to call it a “my first molestation” story, it might be seen as callous, but that classification carries with it the recognition that, first, the event is common enough to have an entire genre spring up around it, and, second, a “first” molestation is usually followed by more.

We see the world through the eyes of a child narrator; Patterson does a good job of capturing the blend of misconception, exaggeration, and assumption that is the child mind. Most of what we need to know about Kaitlin is in that paragraph above. These are kids left to their own devices, not due to any parental frivolity but simply the realities of life. Mom’s working, trying to keep a roof over their heads (she’s absent from the entire story; we find out she’s not exactly sure how old Kaitlin is, exactly, seven, eight, something like that). Uncle Mike (who may or may not be a genuine uncle; I’m not sure if kids still call Mom’s boyfriend “Uncle” like they used to) is at the mercy of US Defense policy and may also have limited options for keeping himself solvent, though it’s also possible he’s got other, darker reasons for absenting himself from the scene; Brandy isn’t saying.

Awareness of The Kidnapper permeates Kaitlin’s inner life, but she only has a seven-year-old’s comprehension of the news reports and sensationalized speculation (I’m looking at you, Nancy Grace) swirling around the girl who disappeared a few days ago. Every car she sees might contain the kidnapper. But the mailman’s a stranger, too. “There are other people besides kidnappers have to watch out for.” She has no idea how true this is until the end of the story.

To me, this was a story about blame; in fact, I struggled to work the phrase “birth of a blame magnet” into these comments (there it is!). I suspect a lot of readers will want to blame the mother for not keeping a better eye on her kids, but what are her options? This is our milieu: for those not blessed with certain abilities and/or a degree of luck, it’s a world that tramples you under then blames you for being in the way.

A house key (an eerie pun on piano keys?) becomes the central prop in a drama of blame: why isn’t the key where it’s supposed to be? Who forgot to put it back after it was last used? Why doesn’t Kaitlin have her own key? It’s so easy to scapegoat the person who’s developed the fewest defenses, and, at seven, Kaitlin hasn’t had time to build up those defenses. By the time she hits eight, she will. In the meantime, she dreams of having Stockholm Syndrome, which gives you some idea of what her reality is like.

But if the kidnapper catches me, I won’t have a choice. Help only in the back of his car, and will drive a long way to his house on top of the waterfall, somewhere in Italy or maybe Japan. He’ll have gel in his hair, and he’ll smoke cigarettes and tell me how I will never get away, not ever. He’ll tell me that he chose me out of everyone because he knows I am the most talented piano player in the world and he wants someone to play music for him for the rest of his life.
But when I play, he’ll become sad. He’ll howl and beat his head with his fists and cry. It’s too beautiful! he’ll weep. You’re too wonderful to keep alone in a house on top of the waterfall! And then he’ll know that he has to set me free.
But maybe I won’t go back home when he lets me go.

Pushcart 2014: Saeed Jones, “Last Call” (Poetry) from Muzzle Magazine, Spring 2012

Night presses the gunmetal O of its open mouth
against my own & I can’t help how I answer.

I’m slightly familiar with Jones’ essays (he writes about LGBT issues for Buzzfeed, everything from gossip to insightful commentary), but I’ve never read his poetry. This is very sexual stuff (and it’s pure coincidence it’s posted on Valentine’s day; it was the next poem in order, and I’ve been posting one every Friday so far). It sounds sexual when Jones reads it; his reading, as well as the text of the poem, is available online at Muzzle Magazine. In particular, “… all that water. / Oh, marauder” stands out in the audio; it pays to hear poems read out loud, as they were written to be.

I thought of what I learned last week about couplets, and wondered if the couplets here are similarly used, this time to indicate a sexual pairing.

With the first line I thought, oh, no, more suicide! But the imagery is also highly erotic; so often do sex and death meet. Just yesterday a Tweet from Jesse Sheidlower pointed to yet another etymological linking early use of the “f-word” to “to strike”. And he should know reliable sources, since he literally wrote the book on that particular word. Yes, sex does involve contact, even strong contact, and the line between pain and pleasure, fear and excitement, is blurry at best. But… well, maybe I’m just too old to get it.

I also wondered if it could be about falling asleep; I then was immediately embarrassed at having had such a thought, since it seemed hopelessly prudish. I was relieved when Dennis not only didn’t outright laugh at that idea, but developed it further, into a dance of aggression and submission:

I see how you mean about it being about sleep. I’d read it as about that (and as about death) if “Night” and “He” were taken as one and the same. But if “Night” were merely a prelude to “He,” a charged atmosphere of anticipation, or externalized desire, then a sexual reading takes the upper hand (without, I think, dispelling sleep, death, or other forms of defeat or surrender as possible “co-readings”).

I’ve been following the shifts from dominant to subordinate (or, aggressor/victim, seducer/target?).

In the first stanzas, the persona is pressed upon by the night, but this shifts in the third stanza, where the “I” pulls back the “He” that pulls away. In the fourth stanza, the “I” is again overwhelmed, this time by “hunger” and “want” and shifts entirely to the passive “I am the man who waits.” (This line recalls Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: “The lover’s fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits.”)

It’s passive from this point on: “I let the lake/ grab my ankles” until “Make me drink.” Unless we choose to stress the imperative tone in “Make me drink.” Formulations such as “Enslave me” are really curious, because if the aggressor responds positively, then he/she is acqiescing, thus being dominated. If the aggressor responds negatively, then he/she is rejecting the functions of the dominant position.

“I’m on my way.” Well, that could translate to “I’m coming,” but I wonder if there’s more to it than that.

One of the themes that kept cropping up in ModPo was the tendency of modern poetry to be open: that is, to have multiple interpretations, by design. Many 17th century English madrigals (and poets) used “to die” as a synonym for detumescence. Eros and thanatos, sex and violence: together in poetry.

Zadie Smith: “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” from TNY, 2/10/14

Aert van der Neer: "Moonlit Landscape with Bridge" (c. 1650)

Aert van der Neer: “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” (c. 1650)

Within the hour, efficient young Ari would drive the Minister to the airport, and from there—all being well—he would leave to join his wife and children in Paris. The car would not be a minute out of the driveway, he knew, before the household staff fell on these boxes like wild beasts upon carrion. The Minister of the Interior rubbed the trouser leg of the gray between his fingers. He was at least fortunate that the most significant painting in the house happened also to be the smallest: a van der Neer miniature, which, in its mix of light and water, reminded him oddly of his own ancestral village. It fit easily into his suit bag, wrapped in a pillowcase. Everything else one must resign oneself to losing: pictures, clothes, statues, the piano—even the books.
“So it goes,” the philosophical Minister said out loud, surprising himself—it was a sentence from a previous existence. “So it goes.” Without furniture, without curtains, his voice rose unimpeded to the ceiling, as in a church.

As I read this story (available online), one margin note predominated: “Bullshit.” That isn’t an indictment of the story; it’s character analysis. Then again, the main character is a politician, so what else would you expect?

Smith’s last TNY story “Meet the President” was set in near-future Scotland under siege of rain and regime; this one is also a blend of weather and revolution. Coincidentally, as I read, I was receiving tweets from the UK about floods in Oxfordshire, just a few weeks after similar comments about similar storms. I’m not sure if the UK is unusually stormy this winter (as it has been here), or if it’s just coincidence, but combined with the setting of her last story it set the story for me somewhere in the UK. I had the sense the two stories were connected, perhaps initial parts of a novel-in-stories-in-progress, but Smith’s Page-Turner interview doesn’t indicate any such thing. In fact, it specifies that the country in this story is unnamed; she says it was written shortly after the typhoon in the Philippines last November (isn’t that a remarkably short turnaround?): “I think I always have the same thought when I read about disaster zones. Who are the people on those early flights out?”

And for the second time in three weeks, a TNY story makes heavy use of a painting as a symbol, in this case, “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” by Aert van der Neer. I wonder if that timing was planned, or a coincidence. Vonnegut also features in the story from the very top (“So it goes”) though it enraged me that this character could use Vonnegut for his own purposes: Vonnegut is supposed to be for the rest of us. But as Smith’s interview reminds us, sometimes the bad guys read good books, too.

As our Minister of the Interior attempts to get out of the drowning country, we discover just how little he thinks of the people – his housekeeper, his driver – who were put on this earth to serve him. Yet, this is a man who has better angels in his nature and occasionally indulges them: he has a humane instinct to stop and unload his trunkful of water for a group of bedraggled citizens clamoring along the road. His driver, alarmed at the prospect, turns out to be right: it’s this instinct, that leads to catastrophe. Not of the physical variety, though there is plenty of threat. No, this catastrophe is more like the Ghost of Christmas Past, made flesh.

So it goes. Together the Minister of the Interior and the thoughtful boy who would later give him that title had read a thrilling book by an American with a German name—Vonnegut! A tale of war. It had so electrified them at the time, and yet, forty years later, the Minister found that he retained only one sentence of it and could not even retrieve its title. But he remembered two young men bent over one battered paperback, under a tree in the cleared center of a village. Books had been important back then—they were always quoting from them. Long-haired boys, big ideas. These days, all the Prime Minister read was his bank statements. Yet, in essence, he was the same good and simple man, in the Minister’s view—naïve, almost, doglike in his loyalties and his hatreds. If you were on the right side of the Prime Minister, you stayed there. So, at least, it had been for the Minister. Whatever he had needed had always been granted, up to and including this evening’s flight. He had been lucky, always.

To a consummate politician capable of navigating the path he has, this too is manageable. Even as he’s recognizing his own failure as a human being, the bullshit never stops. I’m reminded of… well, never mind, insert your own favorite political scandal here. If you wait long enough, chances are, no matter how bad the offense, you’ll see a comeback. That’s the up side of cutting yourself off from your past. The down side: you may one day unexpectedly end up in a car on a flooded road, face to face with it.

Pushcart 2014: Ayşe Papatya Bucak, “Iconography” from The Iowa Review, Fall 2012

Soon there will be a girl who will not eat. Someone call her the Turkish Girl; others, the Starving Girl.
Like most, I will read about her, see her decline and rise on the news. I, like many, will find her beautiful, though I won’t know why.
It will happen, simply, like this:
One day she wakes feeling full, and so she skips breakfast, then lunch, then dinner, and she wakes the next day so hungry she still doesn’t eat, the pain so exquisite that it feels true. It feels exactly like her.
But that truth is little known.

Follow the narrator! That’s what drove me on as I read, the story turning, mutating into something else, a written kaleidoscope twisted by section breaks and shifting frames. That’s what I loved most of all, in a story I loved thoroughly: the question of “who is the narrator” that led me through. I think I know, now, or at least I have an opinion I’m willing to defend; but I think the story makes it clear that, whatever it is I know, or think I know, you may know (or think you know) something different. And we will all be right.

It starts out as the story of an eating disorder, but it soon moves on to show us how public opinion is formed and influenced and shifted; I was reminded of the murmurations displayed in “Thirst” a few stories ago. I think the title reinforces this: we turn people, real people, into publicly recognized icons of this or that issue, forgetting that people are complicated and very few issues of any importance can be summed up in 140 characters.

But like a wheeling flock of starlings, the story itself shifted into a different swoop: for a while I thought it was a humanist, or maybe even anti-consumerist, metaphor:

Most of the time, she is in a state between fantasizing and dreaming. Newspaper headlines float in front of her, captioning a future in which hundreds, then thousands of students join her fast, followed by the elderly, then the overworked, the immigrants, the stay-at-home parents, their toddlers, the teachers, the small-business owners, the used book sellers, the hedge fund brokers, the CEOs, residents of the West, of the self, of the East, until finally no one is eating. It is a hunger strike so large that everything changes, and for at least a year, ours is a world in which everyone helps each other, and the worst things that happen are the kinds of arguments you have when you are tired but that can be solved when you’re arrested again.
It is not a future she invents; she believes it is the future come to her. And maybe it is.

Then it’s a story about human narcissism, of other people and how they react to her: the students who use her in service of their cause, the University president who sees how this is reflecting on him and his school (“For just a moment the president of the American university wants to call her a stupid bitch, even though he is not the kind of person to think, let alone say, such a thing. Look what this is doing to me, he thinks”). And through each of these turns, the story comes back to The Starving Girl, reminding us that no matter what we may see in someone’s story, we must remember there is a someone there. And she is starving.

The narrative shifts are a course in themselves; I’m hoping Ken Nichols will encounter this story in the future and do one of his terrific Great Writers Steal posts; I’d love to see an analysis of the narratology by someone who actually knows what he’s talking about. In the meantime, I’m left to my own devices.

We get the narrator right off the top, in the opening paragraph quoted above – notice how she (there is no gender identification for the narrator; I use “she” only because I must use something, so why not) reads about The Starving Girl (whose name we never know). The narrator is very cagily written; she never says who she is (or, more accurately, who she’s implying she is keeps shifting). She disappears from time to time, only to re-emerge, as if to remind us, just as we are reminded that just as there is a girl at the center of the Starving Girl, there is a narrator at the center of this Story.

The narrator knows a great deal about the Starving Girl:

Never does the Starving Girl think of herself as anything but hungry. It is the others who give her act drama and meaning, which, in the end, she is happy to accept.

This is not some distant newspaper reader following along; we know that from the narrative closeness to the subject. At least, in that passage. In other passages, the narrator reads differently; the narrator becomes an omniscient explainer, relaying events the Starving Girl has no way of knowing in the time of the story: her parents’ trip from Turkey, and, even more intricately, the family drama that erupts with the distant cousin of the assistant manager in charge of their family business while they are away. An omniscient narrator, then?

At some points, the narrator becomes intrusively didactic, directly addressing the reader:

And how would you describe hunger? We live as if we know what we want, as if we are capable of deciphering the signals our bodies send out, but what if we are wrong? I may say hunger feels like illness, but how can I know how it feels to her? Or what if hunger is an illness that eating covers but doesn’t cure? Could eating be one more drug that masks the disease?

She always returns to narrating a story as she relays the rumored and possible outcomes of the Starving Girl’s saga, in a revolving role. She is among the group of “journalists, celebrities and intellectuals” who gather around the girl to determine what should be done; she is a fellow patient in an eating disorders clinic where the Starving Girl ends up in another scenario, giving almost (but not quite) a first-person-plural feel to the selection; she is the driver who takes her and her parents from the hospital.

The narrator is by and large an observer, reporting what she sees or feels or thinks, participating minimally, if at all, in the drama of the Starving Girl. I love observer narrators. They have so much more freedom to speculate than participants, and a clearer vision, since they are less emotionally invested in the interpretation. Or are they? This is a story about people to get highly invested in the Starving Girl’s personal situation, for their own reasons.

Who is the narrator?

At this moment (and this may change; fluid narrative technique requires fluid reading) I think it’s the Starving Girl herself. I think the detachment she experiences is a need to be less emotionally invested in her own situation. It’s a technique I was once taught for dealing with strong emotion that might lead to words or actions I could end up regretting: don’t get angry, take notes; don’t react, describe. I wonder if the Starving Girl was taught this technique, too. I wonder if it’s more like dissociation, a symptom of many psychiatric disturbances including eating disorders.

In a prior post, the notion of awe – the study of awe, in fact – featured into poetic discussion, and I listed a few times when I’d experienced awe; I used certain stories as an example. I felt that awe again while reading this one that unfolded and morphed and recreated itself, pulling me in deeper and deeper. It’s not a long story, and I think that’s a good idea; much longer, and it could lose its unity and implode of its own complexity.

Even I, as closely as I read this, nearly forgot to wonder about the Starving Girl. Is she all right now? She is a fictional character, of course. But she is, through this story, very real.

Pushcart 2014: Paul Zimmer, “Reliquaries” (non-fiction) from Georgia Review, Winter 2012


reliquary \ ‘re-le-, kwer-e\ n. [Fr reliquaire, from ML reliquaiurium, from reliquia relic + Larium-ary – more at relic]: a casket, shrine, or container for keeping or exhibiting relics (remains, leavings, of a deceased person)

- Webster’s Third New International Unabridged


In 2005 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York brought together a magnificent exhibit called Prague: The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437…. The arrival of the exhibit catalog was a significant recent moment in my life. It is a beautifully produced collection of remarkable paintings, illustrated books, alphabet designs, tombstones, sculptures, and sacred objects of all sorts… but I was most struck by its emphasis on reliquaries.

I seem to be relatively immune to the reverence many people display towards dead bodies. I’ve said several times that when I go, it’s fine to toss me in the nearest dumpster; apparently that isn’t allowed, but it reflects my attitude. I felt the need to explain this to my veterinarian recently when she asked what arrangements I wanted made for my cat; I didn’t want her to think I was being callous, but the fact is, once death occurs, I’m just not that interested in what remains, be it me, or my Lucy (though I did keep a puffball of fur blowing around the kitchen floor for several days, like a substitute pet, before I swept it up).

Zimmer unites several vignettes with the theme of our treatment of remains, from historical artifacts created to hold the mummified finger of an apostle, to a box in his Catholic church holding what looked like splinters but, he was assured, were fragments of the shinbone of John the Baptist, to a jar containing the body of his first childhood pet, a turtle, to a more contemporary stone, engraved by his sculptor daughter, marking the back yard resting place of his dog of 17 years.

As it happens, I have some experience with religious reliquaries. For a little over a year I sang with the Portland First Parish Unitarian Church choir; ensconced in the wall near the choir loft is a small urn containing the ashes of Hermann Kotzschmar, organist for 47 years in the 19th century. I thought it was a little creepy, but they’re very proud of it, and it’s considered history (like the cannonball from the Revolutionary War that’s part of the grand chandelier in the sanctuary, also creepy, or at least incongruous). It was even mentioned – mentioned, hey, the explanation thereof got a 30-second track of its own – on the second album of the Longfellow Chorus, home-based in the same church building (I sang with them, too, but earlier). Merrill Auditorium has the Kotzschmar Organ, but First Parish Church has his ashes.

The individual pieces of this mini-collection are charming, held together by that desire to show respect for the dead. I’m all for respecting the dead, but I do think respecting the living takes precedence; if respecting the dead is one way to do that, I shall comply. But, really, you needn’t go to any trouble when the time comes; the nearest dumpster will do fine.

Pushcart 2014: Matt Rasmussen, “After Suicide” [Phone] from Water-Stone Review #15, 2012

But together we decide
which way the dream goes

like spilled water on a table
we carry across the room.

When Rasmussen was 16, his 19-year-old brother committed suicide. His book, Black Aperture (a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, and winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets), is his reaction, and contains this poem; a significant excerpt from the beginning and ending is available online via Arthur McMaster’s review of the book.

I’ve encountered Rasmussen’s work before; I used his poem “Chekhov’s Gun” in conjunction with comments about a story where a threat in the air never materialized, and I didn’t feel cheated at all; it was all about the tension, the idea that the gun might go off. The poem makes the point that, in order for the Chekhov’s Gun principle to work, the audience has to believe it might not go off. Which, oddly, the very aphorism has made unlikely for the modern reader. I was unaware of the specific context at the time I encountered that poem; it resonates even more, now. This is a poet who knows how to break your heart, very, very quietly.

The above-referenced review by Arthur McMaster notes that nearly all the poems are in couplets, and interprets that as a conversation between the two brothers: “My interpretation is that these lines, these pairings, are indeed the two brothers. Complete, but no longer complete. Matt’s brother’s suicide has become not only the theme but the architect of the volume. ” Of course! Now it seems obvious, but that’s exactly the kind of thing I overlook.

Emotionally, it packs a wallop, because even without the element of suicide, the notion of planting a phone at the foot of a grave is loaded with significance. If I can dip into pop culture again (as I so often do…), cut to a Twilight Zone episode, “Night Call” and an elderly widow receiving phone calls from her dead husband, later traced to a downed wire lying across his grave; it was horrific, since in her fear and misunderstanding she told what she thought was a prank caller to go away. This urge to communicate with those we’ve lost, as interpreted by writers, is powerful stuff.

I was puzzled by the phrase “no one is calling so / I put it to my ear.” No one is calling so? Why so? Wouldn’t “but” be the logical choice? That has to mean something. Maybe to reach through one-way – to go his 50% to encourage the brother to hold up his half, to call? My Modpo friends had some ideas:

You got me thinking about that line-cut, Karen, thanks! Why so? One possibility is that the enjambment gives that “so” the quality of an adverb. Such as: I love you so. I hate it so. No one is calling so.
Not only is there an absence, there is an absence of intensity, perhaps of warmth.

Of course! Look what happens when the ellipsed “much” is added: “No one is calling so much…” The absence becomes so powerful, it is in itself a presence.

The voice as dial tone carries this absence-as-presence through. What is a dial tone? It signals a connection: go ahead, complete your call. The speaker longs to hear this dial tone, to hear his brother say: I’m here, listening. But no; there’s only the “dark breathing of the dirt.”

There is a certainty in the writing. A planted-ness, definite-ness and stillness. I feel as if I am standing back letting his voice take the space.

Plantedness: like a phone at the foot of a grave, sprouting a black cucumber of a receiver. Receiving nothing.

Several of the other poems in the collection deal with inanimate objects intimately connected with his brother’s death (and if you don’t think machines can evoke emotional responses, you haven’t heard the Chinese Lunar Rover’s farewell message). I was particularly devastated by the last line of “Outgoing”: “I’m sorry we are not here, I began.” I’m sorry, too.

The dead of winter (how casually we use that phrase; “it” isn’t dead, just sleeping) may not be the best time for me to be dealing with all these literary suicides so intimately; it’s felt like a constant stream over the past few weeks. Then again, maybe it’s the best possible time for me to see the aftermath, to see all that pain transformed into all this beauty.

Pushcart 2014: Lorrie Moore, “Wings” from Paris Review, Spring 2012

Art by Timo Grubing

Art by Timo Grubing

Now, as she often did when contemplating wrong turns, she sometimes thought back to when it was she first laid eyes on Dench, that Friday long ago when he had approached her at an afternoon sound check in some downtown or other, his undulating tresses not product-free, a demeanor of arrangement and premeditation that gussied up something more chaotic. Although it was winter, he wore mirrored sunglasses and a thin leather jacket with the collar turned up: 150% jerk.
… Would it be impossible not to love him? Would not wisdom intervene?

I’ve never heard of a rat king (“Rattenkönig“) before. It’s pretty disgusting to contemplate: a mass of several rats entwined by tails “glued” together by dirt, blood, excrement. Apparently it’s been a real thing since 1564, and several examples are preserved in museums. Especially in Germany, for some reason.

Sometimes people get twined together, too. Sometimes one manages to disentwine. Sometimes it’s a bloody path; sometimes it just feels that way.

KC’s been entwined with Dench for a while now. Her “band” was never much of a band, and it’s unclear just how they come up with money to survive but maybe it’s best not to know. Dench has a new idea: let KC befriend the old geezer she passes when she gets his coffee (you don’t want to know how she gets coffee from Starbucks) and he’ll put her in his will. Dench certainly thinks ahead. Doesn’t he?

And of course it kind of goes that way… but not exactly. It’s from the “not exactly” that Moore shines.

I loved a lot about this story, starting with the name “KC” that transforms into Casey. As it happens, my initials are KC, and I went by that nickname at one point in my life; I suppose everyone with those initials does. Maybe that intensified the connection with the fictional KC, plus the fact that she’s entwined with a jerk. And a few other things about her.

Tears, she had once been told, were designed to eliminate toxins, and they poured down her face and slimed her neck and gathered in the recesses of her collarbones, and she had to be careful never to lie back and let them get into her ears, which might cause the toxins to return and start over. Of course, the rumor of toxins turned out not to be true. Tears were quite pure. And so the reason for them, it seemed to her later, when she thought about it, was to identify the weak, so that the world could assure its strong future by beating the weak to death.

I cry easily. It doesn’t matter to me, but it makes other people very uncomfortable. I try to convince them: you don’t have to comfort me, or cheer me up, or make it stop; it’s a simple physical reaction I can’t seem to control, like blushing or yawning; just ignore it. But I’ve learned the hard way that no one wants to talk with a crier; they only want the crying to stop. KC has now explained why: they’re fighting a primal instinct to beat me to death.

Her relationship with the old man, Milt (look up “milt” in a dictionary; the meaning is, shall we say, seminal) includes his free library, a stash of books placed in a little birdhouse-like shelter outside where anyone can take one or leave one. I’ve seen those around before; our public library maintains a few in the metro bus hub and a couple of coffee shops. KC would like to donate her own books, but she can’t:

“… They all have the most embarrassing underlinings. In ink.” Plus exclamation points that ran down the page like a fence by Christo. Perhaps it was genetic. She had once found an old copy of The House of Mirth that belonged to her mother. The word whoa appeared on every other page.

I recently got into an us-vs-them discussion with some ModPo book lovers, begun by photo-poet Erica Baum’s work Dog Ear, that was as sharply divided as any contemporary political discussion: is marring a book with folds or ink a sign of disrespect, or a sign of love and use? I’m strongly on the side of the latter, but I have to admit I’d be reluctant to lend books because they contain notes far more embarrassing than “whoa”. It’s also self-revealing: recently I had the opportunity to re-read a story in an anthology I’d marked up back in the 70s, and I was shocked at some of the notes I’d left back then.

Yes, it’s a love-gone-bad story, a domestic-relations story, a stranger-changed-my-outlook story, an epiphany-leads-to-change story. So where does the rat king come in?

At just the time KC becomes aware of the old man who gradually becomes a mirror to her life, she also becomes aware of a foul smell in the house she and Dench rent. It’s Dench who discovers the source: “The rot of a bad conscience”:

…[S]he saw at first nothing but dust and boxes. Then her eyes fell on it: a pile of furry flesh with the intertwined tails of rats. They were a single creature like a wreath, and flies buzzed around them (and excrement bound them at the center) while their bodies were arrayed like spokes. Only one of them still had a head that moved and it opened its mouth noiselessly.
“It’s a rat king,” said Dench. “They were born lilke that, with their tails attached, and could never get away.”

As it happens, Dench is wrong about that last point (rat kings are made, not born) but even this fits since his comments continue to reveal other things he’s wrong about (like the necessity of burning down the house), leading KC to yet another moment of truth: “She studied Dench’s face as if – once again – she had no idea who he was.” This is not a one-time out-of-the-blue epiphany; KC is undergoing a process something like the reverse of the entwining of the rat’s tails. A process takes time.

Yes, it could be a cheap sensationalist ploy, your standard climatic moment, except the story earns it, first of all, and secondly, KC has an even more climactic moment later on with Milt. The denouement is almost out of a fairy tale; if I wanted to complain about a cheap ploy, that’d be my pick. Yet it fits.

She never saw the sick children themselves – except at night, when they were ghosts in white nightgowns and would stand on the stairwell landings and recite their names and wave – as she roamed the house, thinking of them as “her children” and then not thinking of them at all, as she sleeplessly straightened up, but she would hear of their lives.

I only realized once I started working on this post that I have no idea what the title refers to. But that’s ok; there’s plenty in the story to keep me busy. Maybe that’s why I overlooked the wings.

I underlined a lot in this story. Lines about Milt’s house; “Two front doors! Life was hard enough – having to make that kind of decision every day could wear a person out” reminded me of the Chekhov line, “Any idiot can face a crisis, it’s the day-to-day living that wears you out,” a sentiment I have pinned to my bulletin board, and on the pitifully understocked and neglected “Quotes” page of this blog. And I underlined (or bracketed) a lot of KC’s astute observations about her life with Dench:

With Dench she knew, in an unspoken way, that she was the one who was supposed to get them where ever it was they were going. She was supposed to be the GPS lady who, when you stop for gas, said, “Get back on the highway.” She tried to be that voice with Dench: stubborn, unflappable, keeping to the map and not setting what she knew the GPS lady really wanted to say, which was not “Recalculating” but “What in fucking hell are you thinking?”

Problem is, KC got a little lost herself, until a man with two front doors showed her a better map. Everyone needs a GPS lady sometimes.

Pushcart 2014: Steve Adams, “Touch” (non-fiction) from The Pinch, Spring 2012

When you receive bodywork what most people won’t tell you and what you may not tell yourself is that the experience is personal. How could it be otherwise? Fears and issues are often found in injuries, and some injuries are more personal than others.… As with the very good dance partner, you can travel to a place neither if you would arrive at alone. And you will think of them years later, wonder at what transpired between you.
Injuries break boundaries. They reshape us, emotionally and physically. Sometimes they create doorways and humble us to the point where we can step through.
This is a love story.

Steve Adams woke up one morning with a funky testicle. Now, I don’t happen to have testicles, but I’m quite aware of how protective men are of them and I’ve been known to freak out over the funkiness of body parts far less meaningful, so I can sympathize.

And when the denizens of the AMA shrugged and reminded him to get a flu shot and keep his cholesterol under 200 (they’ve been taught to the tests their whole lives), he turned to alternative means. That’s a trip I’ve taken. An acupuncturist very well may have saved my life, without laying a hand (or a needle) on me, just by looking at me and talking to me and ignoring the receptionist at my doctor’s office (who insisted it would have to wait until 4pm) and calling an ambulance to take me to the emergency room. I think that’s what happened, I was delirious at the time. Had I walked out of the office, I have no idea what might’ve happened.

So I know that road that Steve travelled. That’s where he met Jonah.

I think it was at that moment he considered what a great distance a straight boy from Grand Prairie, Texas, might travel to come to a point where he could lie beneath him and trust him implicitly with his body. What happened on that mat, as well as my feelings for him, were hardly casual.

For eight years, Steve visited Jonah periodically for shiatsu massage. Initially, he tells us about the effects of the sessions. I’ve heard about this mind-body connection from others – how touching a certain spot in a certain way can release an emotional torrent – but I’ve never experienced it. Perhaps because I’ve got plenty of emotional torrent going on at any given moment anyway; repression is a skill I’ve never learned, though I sometimes get confused and have to play Name That Feeling. Steve convinced me, as others have, that it’s possible.

He traces the path of the bond between him, the straight boy from Texas and the gay masseuse, over the course of eight years. Jonah spent part of each year living in Germany with his partner, and Steve would use other practitioners as needed, but they kept working together to keep Steve whole.

And as Ernest Hemingway said, “Every true story ends in death.”

They say it’s only when someone dies you fully know who they are. Death is the final page of the final chapter, and like a finished novel its total shape only comes into view at that moment. There were certain things I knew about Jonah.… What I did not know was who he was to others.

We go with Steve to Jonah’s funeral, and find out who he was to others. Steve knew Jonah was a clown – a professional clown; he performed in hospitals for sick children – but Steve never really saw that side of him. I met a professional clown once; a relatively famous one (appeared in a feature film) was a client of an insurance agency where I worked. I suppose a clown keeps work for work time like we all do. But clowns, like everyone else, mourn when one of their own passes, and at the funeral, Steve came to know who Jonah was to others by how they mourned him.

I was doing pretty well with this essay, tear-wise, until I got to one particular line near the end of the piece: as Steve introduces himself after the (as unconventional as you might expect; red clown noses were provided, the way yarmulkes are handed out at a Jewish wedding) service, he has the urge to say:

“…you don’t know me but I loved him too.”

Donald Antrim: “The Emerald Light in the Air” from TNY, 2/4/14

In less than a year, he’d lost his mother, his father, and, as he’d once and sometimes still felt Julia to be, the love of his life; and, during this year, or, he should say, during its suicidal aftermath, he’d twice admitted himself to the psychiatric ward at the University Hospital in Charlottesville…. and now, another year later, he was on his way to the dump to throw out the drawings and paintings that Julia had made in the months when she was sneaking off to sleep with the man she finally left him to marry, along with the comic-book collection—it wasn’t a collection so much as a big box stuffed with comics—that he’d kept since he was a boy. He had long ago forgotten his old comics; and then, a few days before, he’d come across them on a dusty shelf at the back of the garage, while looking for a carton of ammo.

Is it suicide season or something? In the past month I’ve encountered four pieces with suicide as a central plot or theme. This one (available online) came too late in the procession for me to care.

In the present of the story, Billy, though he was very close to the edge at one point (“He’d got all but there. He’d had the Browning loaded. He’d had it ready and at hand, a few times”) is more or less on his way to recovery. The story is literally about getting out of the woods, for pete’s sake; it’s is not a will-he-or-won’t-he story.

Thing is, I’m not sure what kind of a story it is. That’s usually a good thing, when a story resists classification, when it leads me in one direction then surprises me with that unexpected-yet-inevitable turn. But not always. Here, we have the inevitable metaphor of his discombobulated car trip and his life, the decision of who gets the pills, and the return to the thrum of daily life and the promise of what is to come, complete with braised rabbit; is there a more fecund symbol? It’s a powerful metaphor, but in spite of his Page Turner interview about skirting fantasy, it seemed routine and clichéd. Maybe it’s a New York fantasy, to drive into a creek bed and find onesself in a cabin in the woods? Instead of creating a sense of unreality, it just left me clutching my favorite part: the discussion of Tiepolo’s painting.

She’d talked to him, as they stood together at the Accademia, gazing at “The Rape of Europa,” about the singular cloud hovering over Europa, its complete non-relation to the more natural-seeming clouds that dominate the painting as a whole, the delicate, pale clouds on the horizon, the spire of darker cloud rising up behind the rocks. “Everything is off in Tiepolo,” she’d said. “Spatial relations don’t cohere. It isn’t simply that people fly with angels through the air. What world are we looking at? The paintings at all points lead the eye toward infinity.”

I suppose that’s what the story is trying to do: lead the eye toward infinity. From suicide to death to life to the future, to possibility. I like that description of the cloud being different from the other clouds; it’s hard to explain Depression, capital-d Depression, to people who immediately think, “Well gee, people get depressed sometimes, but I don’t see how it’s a disease.” Yeah, we know about you and your snapping out of it. Some clouds are different.

In his Page-Turner interview, Antrim insists the story is “not meant to be anything but a trip, an experience, a pleasure.” Often, when a writer says something like that, I find enormous meaning in the details of the trip, and feel it’s been much, much more than transportation from first word to last. But not always.

I seem to be alone in my meh on this one. I’m unusually up-to-date with my TNY reading so only a couple of the good folks at The Mookse and the Gripes have posted comments, but they loved this story. I defer to their wisdom. I may be simply worn out from dealing with literary suicide and depression, and thus closed off to entering into the communion that’s necessary. Or it’s simply not my cup of tea.

Robert Coover: “The Frog Prince” from TNY 1/27/13

TNY Art by Melinda Beck

TNY Art by Melinda Beck

At first, it was great. Sure. It always is. She cuddled the frog, wishing for more, and — presto! A handsome prince who doted on her. It meant the end of her marriage, of course, but her ex was something of a toad himself, who had a nasty habit of talking with his mouth full and a tongue good for nothing but licking stamps.

At first I thought: This is the kind of story that couldn’t get published in the East Podunk Online Quarterly Frogblog if it didn’t have Coover’s name on it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, you understand; I think restating the obvious in an interesting, highly entertaining way is underrated. The obvious in this case is that love, sexual obsession, is an addictive drug, and, like any addictive drug, will lead you to self-destruct as you pursue it. Anyone heretofore unaware of this hasn’t been paying attention to his or her own behavior (or perhaps to his or her own genitals).

But then I considered the twist:

…[B]ut she understood now, as she should have understood then, that he had been not an enchanted prince turned into a frog but a frog turned into a prince, and all he’d wanted was to be a frog again.

Initially, the woman in the story is the addict, willing to put up with all the disadvantages of her drug of choice. Depending on your addiction, you know what those are: financial cost, physical risk, personal degradation to degrees previously considered unthinkable. This single sentence recasts the relationship, the narrative itself, in a somewhat different mold: the frog in captivity, a golden cage. This is the story he will tell his frog buddies back in the pond, the account of his exile, escape, return. This becomes his story; the woman is reduced to an observer in the narrative, or perhaps, if we wish to give her more politically correct power, a captor.

Every relationship requires the parties meet somewhere outside themselves. Some relationships involve only small mutual corrections to allow for enough intersection to satisfy; others, less healthy ones perhaps, force one partner to leap into a new universe, and depend on the relationship to make up for what is left behind. Sometimes a frog just wants to be a frog. And, by the way, there’s no such thing as an enchanted prince, but if you’re lucky, you can find that out before you destroy your life trying to make one out of the next frog you meet.

In the end, it’s still a story no one would publish without Coover’s name attached to it. Me, I’m a Coover fan; I cut him a lot of slack, and I’m willing to work for his stories.