Pushcart XLIII: Olabajo Dada, “The Bar Beach Show” from Southampton Review #11:2

Every other Sunday, the army hosted a sold-out show at the Bar Beach. They ran flashy advertisements in the Daily Times a couple of days prior to the event, promising “a show like never before” while occasionally announcing a hike in the gate fee because of the surge in gas prices, or to offset the cost of new swings and slides they installed on the beach for “energetic Nigerian tots.” On the day of the show, while children played soccer and flew kites around lovers moseying along the shoreline, who patronized hawkers peddling snacks, and swimmers rose and fell with the waves, soldiers set up barrels right next to a bamboo stage where invited musical guests entertained the crowd just before the show’s most popular attraction. Then, with much ceremony and to deafening cheers and jeers, the soldiers paraded newly condemned criminals and tied them up to the barrels. And while they wailed and pleaded and ceaselessly declared their innocence, the soldiers yanked out their assault rifles and mowed down the convicts like inanimate paper targets. Their bodies, which were thrown far out into the water according to a new decree, sometimes returned to the beach after a day or two, always naked and often missing several succulent appendages.

Complete story available online at Southampton Review

Bar Beach, Nigeria was indeed the scene of numerous public executions by firing squad, back in the 70s and 80s. It was also, bizarrely, the name given to a TV musical variety show. Youtube had nothing on 80s Nigeria.

It’s a very difficult story to read: emotionally, because it’s horrific and tragic, and cognitively, because it’s just literally hard to read. Parts are written in dialect, and it takes a while to get used to. Dialect under any circumstances is difficult; a quick google finds plenty of tips for writers, but the fact is, for readers it takes patience. I found myself wondering during this story if this is tied in to how people feel about “outsiders”, how white America sees brown people with their accents and unfamiliar names and words and foods and customs we don’t know, and just resists them, not because they’re intrinsically bad, because it’s hard to learn something new. All the pejorative labelling and fear follows from insecurity. Maybe this is another way fiction can help in times of transition – if we could just get past that initial “I don’t recognize this so it must be bad.”

But the dialect issues are fairly minor; it’s the narrative prose itself that’s often hard to decipher. Jake Weber does a great analysis of specific problems. I ended up taking what I call the “Piers Plowman approach” (after my current project, the #piersplowmanreadinggroup): I skimmed until I got to the end, found the ultimate purpose of it all, and then went back to fill in the gaps. And again, I wonder if it’s all just unfamiliarity – with the style, the author, the history.

Akanji is a coffin maker who’s hooked up with the military bad-guys running the Bar Beach show. Together, they bilk the families of the executed prisoners. Akanji is a reluctant participant, but he’s desperate to raise money to get what he believes is life-saving surgery for his wife; the bad-guys are just plain old greedy.

This was the part of the job that Akanji hated. Did Okoro ever care about how these people would be able to afford their loved ones’ funerals after he’d milked them dry to release their bodies and forced them to buy a coffin? Okoro glanced his way and nodded, and Akanji handed him the papers.
“Look,” he said to the women. “I can’t change that price because I’ve factored in the price for the coffin. And that’s even at a 20 percent discount. But I will throw in a favour.”
The women dabbed their faces and looked up at him.
“I’ll tell my soldiers not to shoot them in the head or face. That way you can have an open casket for the wake. Then they can have a proper burial and rest in peace, and nobody feels cheated, not so?” He handed the papers to them. “Pick out any design you like and Akanji will make it for you. Don’t forget to give him your husbands’ measurements. He knows his work very well, so recommend him to your friends.”

We find out at the end that Akanji is being played as well, but he remains unaware. Borrowing from the prior story “Midwinter”, we have a guy who doesn’t yet realize he’s on a hamster wheel, one that’s about to come to a very nasty halt.

I kept thinking of the internet meme that started a few years ago: ‘“I never thought leopards would eat MY face,” sobs woman who voted for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party.’ It’s the updated version of “You lay down with dogs, you get up with fleas.”’ But let’s not forget: leopards eating faces is a tragedy, even when someone seems to sign up for it.

Pushcart XLIII: D. Nurkse, “Midwinter” from Ploughshares #131

Ghost Rider Hamster (Marvel)

Ghost Rider Hamster (Marvel)

Could you love God in a world without death? Teacher asked.
And we children shouted, a bristling forest of raised yearning arms. Yes! No! Depends!
We didn’t know the answer, or even the question, just wanted to be admired for alacrity, vehemence prompted by authority. Some of us took the opportunity to punch our neighbors, or, in our excitement, ourselves.
Yet we felt sorry for her. There were lines like a ledger stave ruled in her forehead, and the wan scuff mark a key might leave on the edge of a lock at the corner of her chapped lips. This morning one of the buttons on her gray blouse was open. How could that happen? No one had buttons like Teacher – huge sofa-buttons, the holes hidden by a scrim of fabric.
Come to think of it, one of her earrings was missing its Neiman Marcus pearl: just a dangling wire clasp.

D. Nurkse (aka Dennis Nurkse) is primarily a poet, which may explain why I was drawn to the language, first in the descriptions and details – a ledger stave, sofa buttons, a bedraggled earring – and then, by the geometry, including the almost symmetrical appearance of the word “authority” near the beginning and end of the piece. For what is God but the ultimate authority, and what is a teacher, to children, if not that same authority? Right down to children as authority to their pets: a hierarchy from God to amoeba.

The very short story/poem – not a prose-poem, exactly, but a story infused with poetic sensibility – takes place in what is presumably a classroom at a religious school, most likely Catholic, where the love of God is a given and all that’s left is to discuss the peripheral details. In a further show of symmetry, a paragraph right smack in the middle of the piece (this is my perversity: I talk about math in poetry classes, and I talk about poetry in math classes) sets the time as the winter of 1950-1951, when the momentum of the Korean war was going back-and-forth almost monthly. For those of us whose only experience of this particular war, long overshadowed by its bigger cousins WWII and Vietnam, was the TV series M*A*S*H, we see it from a child’s-eye view.

Teacher is herself a brave soldier, calling on the less enthusiastic and outspoken class members to recite, encouraging them, too, to consider the answer. And no one really has any idea, because what does third or fourth or fifth grade have to do with loving God, death or no death? But they’ll do everything they can to give the right answer, because that’s what authority is all about.

Then the hamster comes along and blows it all to hell:

Yet Teacher listened, leaning forward, with the attention of a patient when the doctor speaks. In the hush you could hear the constant ping of heat-pipes, teachers in higher classrooms, droning with a heart-stopping authority, and the squeak of the hamster’s wheel
Oil it! We said under our breath. Who knows why it never happened – Who skipped a day on the task chart, who was distracted, why that small trapped creature is still advancing, there in the darkest month, in the cage of a circular journey.

This is the essence of faith: to keep moving, even when the sun is shrinking every day. But what about that squeaking wheel? There’s a tendency to think of it as complaint – as in “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” – but here, it’s more of a signal of neglect.

And that’s where I see the story/poem coalescing: maybe God got a little shopworn himself back in the Days of the Prophets. He provided the hamster, and the cage, and the wheel, and then it became our responsibility to keep things oiled. If we’ve neglected to keep our part in the bargain, well, you can’t be surprised by the squeaking. And the hamster just keeps running in circles.

Can a hamster have a theology? Does it think of the squeak as evidence of God’s nonexistence, of his creative but ultimately impersonal nature, of the natural consequences of original hamster sin? Until we can speak Hamster, we have no idea what the hamster thinks of his squeaky wheel. And yet – and here’s where Jake Weber’s post on this story/poem shines as he dissects theodicy – we’re convinced our pets love us, as we love God. And we’re all just running around in the wheel, while maybe God’s losing his buttons and has tolerated the squeaking for so long, he doesn’t even hear it any more.

Pushcart XLIII: Mary Jo Bang, “Like Someone Asleep in a Cinema” (poem) from Vallum #14:2

Like someone asleep in a cinema who wakes to lean over into your space
and mock your open-eyed wonder. That’s how it was then, the eye
movements of others tracking my every reaction on the stage that ends
by design sans everything. When everything is over the shape of the moon
will still feign a bathtub boat in the underworld, at rest on its side. I’ll be
the flower I’ve always been, held by a woman wearing a hat, half-veil,
half-opened lips, the whites of her eyes matching the moon as the sun
reflects off its surface.

Complete poem available online at Vallum

We have now reached the “I have no idea” portion of our program, where I founder and grasp at straws to come up with something.

My first thought was, the speaker is a stripper, turning the male gaze back on itself. This was primarily based on the stage setting, the sans everything ending, references later to soap and cleanliness. But I’m not really convinced by that. Maybe it’s more of a nested metaphor for the reality of a life, which indeed necessarily ends sans everything. Then we’d have more of a retrospective view, of being scolded for one’s utterings, of everything being over, of time the “hissing is”. That doesn’t feel satisfying either. But I’m afraid I don’t have anything else that works better.

The first lines bring to mind the opening essay of this volume, with its plea to abandon ironic distance for genuine feeling, as again we see someone mocked for “wide-eyed wonder”.

Language meaning mutates in parts of the poem, particularly the word “lie” in the second half.

I so wanted to be stone but never achieved it. Wanted to lie to get
what I wanted, without wondering, What will happen if I lie?
…The clock no longer flips one to two,
time is a hissing is. Lying is now in fashion. Lie down with me, people say,
when they hold someone back from the edge of that insane remembering.

I wonder which lying the speaker sees as in fashion. I know what kind of lying is, in fact, in fashion now, but the poem may have other ideas.

Pushcart XLIII: Claire Vaye Watkins, “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness” from Granta #139

I spent the morning on myspace looking at pictures of my dead ex-boyfriend. The phrase my dead ex-boyfriend is syntactically ambiguous you can’t tell from it whether this boyfriend and I were together when he died. We were not. We’d been broken up for about two years. We were together for three then apart for two then he died. He died in a car crash that’s how he died.
His name was Jesse but in the years between our breakup and his death he went by Jesse Ray meaning his new friends and his new girlfriend called him Jesse Ray. I never called him Jesse Ray. No one from our old group ever called him that. We all grew up together don’t talk about him much now maybe because we don’t know what to call him.

Complete story available online at Granta

I’m not sure if this is fiction or memoir. Vulture refers to it as autofiction, a kind of blurring of the two genres; if you google the term, you’ll find it’s been around since the 70s but is resurging thanks to Knausgaard. I don’t quite get the distinction between autofiction and the “thinly disguised autobiography” which has been around much longer, or, for that matter, the Roman à clef. Given my annoyance with embroidering the truth and still calling it nonfiction, I’m fine with the “based on a true story” approach. But Granta calls it fiction; here in Pushcart, it’s ambiguous, since it’s listed in the Index as fiction, but the notation is missing in the text itself.

Why does it matter to me? I’m not sure, other than I don’t do well with uncertainty. Would I read it differently one way or the other? Not really. Maybe the problem is one of displacement: I can’t really get a handle on it, and I’m focusing on genre as a reason. But enough navel-gazing.

The story is about the narrator’s relationship with the chaotic Jesse, who has “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness” – the name of a punk-rock band, by the way; the header image above is from one of their videos – tattooed across his collarbones. “I don’t like sweet boys. I liked filthy weirdos who scared me a little and I still do”, she tells us, as we hear about their time tog’ether, he returned from college, she about to depart. “There is no story – he was there and then he was gone.” She found out about his death from her sister, who found out about it on Myspace.

Oddly, it’s Myspace that feels to me the center of gravity in this piece. Odd, because it’s such a vibrant portrait of a guy who lived on the edge, full of enticing details about sex and self-destruction and, yes, life. And odd because I never had a Myspace page; I only briefly used Facebook, back before it became a marketing tool, so why should I be interested? Maybe because Watkins puts it front and center in her opening: “The uncooperative cadence of the phrase my myspace perfectly encapsulates the awkwardness of the early oughts when our story begins.” I don’t think it’s by accident that she changes the more typical “aughts”, meaning the first decade of a century, to “oughts” in a story about a guy who didn’t do oughts.

The narrator – be it a fictional stand-in for Watkins, or a totally fictional character – effectively expresses this intense connection, a connection that breaking up and moving on did not lessen. Is this the product of an intense relationship? Or is it more a reaction to the circumstances, the first loss of a peer? Or maybe it’s displacement, a kind of aggregate mourning connected to the death of her mother, who died while she was at school, and her husband’s former girlfriend, who died in Bolivia doing field work, all the dead bodies unseen, leaving an open wound.

Toward the end, the narration changes and the writer addresses Jess; at this point, the language sometimes becomes chaotic, with run-on sentences and just thoughts pouring out.

Jesse, I wish you were here. America is violent and queer as fuck. The snowbanks are rising and every morning I drive over a frozen river past a mosque an elementary school this week sent a letter threatening a great time for patriotic Americans. I pass a kid who looks like you walks like you did I pass a sculpture by Maya Lin called Wave Field which is like a bunch of waves made of grass covered in snow so like a bunch of bumpy snow. Pretty cool. I drive to a strip mall and smoke weed in my SUV and do rich bitch yoga with these fierce old dykes and Indian grandmas and public ivy sorority alumni and other basic traitorous cunts and for $20 each we all come out an hour later looking like we just got fucked all of them my sisters.

In my quick tour of the internet looking for comments on this story, I see that those who mention it, whether they encountered it in Granta (it was in the Best Young American Novelists of 2017 issue, so it got a pretty wide spread) or elsewhere, were extremely impressed. I feel old.

Pushcart XLIII: Victor LaValle, “Spectral Evidence” from Ploughshares #43:2

“They think I’m a fraud.”
“They think I’m a fraud.”
I like to repeat this to myself in the mirror before I go out and do my job. It might seem weird to say something cruel right before I perform, but I thrive on self-doubt. If I go out there feeling too confident, then I don’t work as hard. It’s easy to get lazy in this trade but I take the job seriously. For instance, the word psychic does not appear anywhere in the window of my storefront. I never say it to my visitors. I call what I do “communication.”

Homer’s Odyssey, written several hundred years before the Golden Age we associate with classical Athens, gives us a glimpse into the beliefs about the Underworld at that time: although a few were selected for particular punishment or honor, most departed souls went to a grey place of little activity or interest, just a bunch of shades milling around. Then again, some people don’t have to wait for the afterlife to experience this kind of meaninglessness.

Our narrator is a middle-aged psychic, or, as she prefers it, communicator with the dead, in New York City. She views her job as performance, which gives us the impression she doesn’t take it seriously. But as we get to know her better, we realize she now takes it very seriously: her own daughter Sonia committed suicide a year ago, and regularly calls to her across the divide with a single sentence: “It’s too dark in here.”

When a group of teenaged girls shows up at her shop, she’s a bit surprised, since most of her clients are far older. They ask silly questions. But it turns out Abby lost her mom six years earlier, and has a serious question: “Is there something… after all this?”, the question people have been asking since there were people. Our psychic isn’t really prepared for heavy-duty stuff like this; she’s all about the scarf and the delayed entrance and putting on a show, but she manages a little reassurance as Abby and her friends leave.

When, a week later, her father shows up, the psychic first thinks he’s trying to get her arrested for fraud. Turns out he, too, has something a lot more serious on his mind: Abby killed herself, and he’s trying to figure out why.

The parallels between the grieving parents are striking. They both fixate on a trinket left behind, some sentimental object that seems to symbolize the love that failed. For our psychic, it’s a broken wristwatch, the hands now lost (“time didn’t stop, it shattered”). For Dad, it’s a tiny keychain flashlight (“there’s a bit of fog on the inside of the protective glass, where the bulb is”). Both were gifts from parent to child. Both embody elements missing from the afterlife: time, and, if we believe Sonia’s voice, light.

My work changed after Sonia died. There is an afterlife and it’s worse than the world we live in. That’s what I know. I don’t understand why I kept the news to myself.
“It’s too dark in here.”
The kettle whistles in the other room but I can still hear my daughter. I suppose that will never stop. I make my tea, then I sit at the table and wait for visitors. From now on whoever comes to see me is going to hear the truth.

The turn of the story comes from the psychic’s recognition of the responsibility, rather than the entertainment value, of her occupation. Did her reassurance encourage Abby to join her mother? If she says the wrong thing, will Dad also die? Suddenly she’s no longer an entertainer; she’s got people’s lives in her hands. Now her scarf becomes another object that embodies emotion as she throws it in the trash.

In his post on the story, Jake Weber has a somewhat different view of the sentence the psychic keeps hearing, and of her plan to let people “hear the truth”.

But let’s change perspective on the story a bit. When I read a story where a dream, or a ghost, or a premonition, or any kind of supernatural force, I consider that it isn’t supernatural at all; all those things are generated by our neurons in our heads, or, in the case of fiction, the heads of the characters. They may be hallucinations, imaginings, subconscious perceptions of buried emotions, things of that nature. On both levels, it’s a story about the role of grief, but by making the voice calling “It’s too dark in here” part of the psychic’s natural mind, rather than something heard, it becomes something else. The afterlife becomes the life after for the survivors, and it is indeed different. The life after is indeed darker, a worse place, a place of self-recrimination and guilt and the constant “Why?”

And, since we’re dealing with fiction, we can step back a little further: it’s the mind of the writer, after all, who generated all of this.

I wonder if the Greek concept of the grey underworld of shades developed from the grey and aimless mourning of the bereaved in the wake of the death of loved ones, captured by tellers of tales and singers of mythical stories. Or perhaps from the grievings of the bards themselves.

Pushcart XLIII: Dana Roeser, “My Hobby Needed a Hobby” (poem) from Seneca Review #47:2

your hobby your art needs a hobby that feels completely free and doesn’t
have anything to do with the buying and selling attaching your
      worth to some
chips or tokens markers or whatever so you’ve got to get a new free thing

I’m beginning to understand – understand in a real way, not just in an “I read it in a book” sort of way – that when a poet uses a particular style, grammar, or voice, it’s not because she woke up that morning and thought, “Hey, I’ll write something that doesn’t use punctuation and has weird enjambments.” It’s not because he feels like if no one can decipher the poem, just on a grammatical level, everyone will assume it’s deep and insightful and mysterious. It’s because the form contributes to the meaning of the poem. Good poets, at least.

(See what I did there? Yes, I could rewrite it, putting references next to each other, in a way that would get an A in composition class, but to do it this way more closely resembles the poem, which has phrases that go on and on and then resolve after you’ve forgotten the antecedent. I’m not trying to be an artist, I’m just trying to understand)

We start out with the familiar thing about pets needing companions, children needing siblings, and comparing that to an artist now producing for a living who needs a new hobby, now that the art is a job and there’s pressure and bills to pay and judging eyes all around. The speaker found a horse: she’s not serious about horse shows or riding, she’s 63 years old and is just concentrating on staying on the damn horse (yeah). That leads to an interesting consideration:

Berto walks peacefully to the gate with me he acts sometimes
      like I’m his buddy
which makes me shine all over never mind the transactional aspect
      the treats and
carrots I’m loaded down with most of the time ban the word

So the exact nature of the relationship is a bit unclear: is it really free? Are carrots, instead of dollars and book sales, coin of the realm in this kingdom? Is every relationship transactional in some way? Is the obedience of the creation – to the laws of physics, or aesthetics, or simply to being – the coin of the realm for the creator?

I’ve often said that money ruins everything. The more money is allowed into politics, the worse our leadership becomes (just compare those who ran for/held office before Citizens United, and now). Moocs were magical in that experimental, let’s see what we can do period before they started thinking in terms of who would be paying for the product and tailored the courses accordingly. As soon as Twitter starts talking about increasing investment I get knots in my stomach because I know I’m going to lose that, too. And raise your hand if you can think of an actor whose work went downhill once they hit it big. Tales of lottery winner tragedies about, and psychologists insist that, once you get above a solid middle-class income, more money doesn’t bring more happiness.

But we’re not done yet. The speaker takes us further along, into relationships with fantasy lovers. Are they like pets? And what about guardian angels? Wait, angels? Yes, angels.

….the priest tonight said we each
      have an angel
this is really the first I’d heard of it and I started picturing my crush
bathed in light oops no my angel I mean my real one though I don’t
it he she is my pet but more like I’m its I’m surrendered as
      somebody’s distraction
from their day job their support poodle crossing buddy safe space
      spice cake.

It’s the first line of that last stanza where it all came together for me, but it wasn’t easy. I found the whole poem very hard to read, so I had to mark it up into phrases, figuring out which word went with which phrase. The last stanza turned into:

Though I don’t think
it/he/she is my pet [horse, crush, angel]
but more like,
I’m its [pet],
I’m surrendered [handed over to] as somebody’s distraction from their day job,
their support poodle,
[their] crossing buddy,
[their] safe space,
[their] spice cake.

“I’m its” turned into the pivot on which the whole thing rocked, the ambiguity of the language reflecting the ambiguity of the relationship. One of the reasons a pet or support animal works well for a lot of troubled people is because they become better advocates for the animal than they can be for themselves, and, secondarily, it is by means of an animal that they make connections, if brief and superficial, with other people, beginning to learn patterns that can, with guidance and some luck, become deeper and more significant. By supporting the support animal, one supports oneself. By the way, it’s almost a cliché now that no one owns a cat, the cat always owns you.

I think the poem is written in couplets. I say “I think” not because I can’t count to two, but because the only copy I have is in Pushcart, and it appears that the line breaks leading to small indents are due to margin restrictions rather than poetic intent. Do the couplets also emphasize a relationship between person and hobby, supporter and supportee, vocation and avocation, economic survival and the nourishment of the soul?

And again, I’m reminded why I blog: I would have just turned the page on this one, had I not committed to saying something about each piece in Pushcart. Should I have to work so hard to find meaning? First of all, who says it’s hard work; one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, maybe I should have seen it all along. Second, I enjoy puzzling things out a little. And third, the Ikea effect: don’t we appreciate more what we put effort into?

I’m still struck by the image of the writer who, when writing becomes a job, has to turn elsewhere to find creative release since now one’s writing is a product that must appeal to customers. I’ve always said the up side of obscurity is that I can write anything I want and, if the literary world dismisses me as not being worth reading, no one’s going to ridicule my missteps either. Like the 63-year-old woman in the poem, I get my joy just from staying on the horse.

Pushcart XLIII: Jessica Burstein, “All Politics” from Raritan #37:1

D.A.S.T. Arteam: "Desert Breath", 1997

D.A.S.T. Arteam: “Desert Breath”, 1997

For Professor James Franco

Bob Dylan paid off all my credit cards. Bob Dylan finished revising my book. Bob Dylan gave me a foot massage….
Near as I can figure it, J. M Coetzee must have given him my number. I was at Oxford earlier this year, for a fellowship they award to professors from West Texas teaching in the Pacific Northwest, or as we call it now, the Upper Left Coast. I was really happy to get the fellowship and, I don’t deny it, surprised. I had proposed a series of talks on quote installation art, mostly earthworks. I’m really very interested in dirt. It turns out that dirt is big, big like you wouldn’t believe.

Considering how much I worship academic credentials and admire those able to attain them, it’s odd that I so enjoy spoofs of the Academie that expose the egotisms, ambitions, and absurdities of the system and those who buy into the less noble aspects. This summer’s read of The Grasshopper King for instance, or Taymiya Zaman’s “Thirst” from Pushcart 2014.

The dedication to James Franco gives a good idea of what’s to come. I remember a lot of resentment from those who earned MFAs the old-fashioned way when he breezed through an undergrad degree, a couple of MFAs, and a PhD within the space of a few years, then landed up with teaching jobs on both coasts and published a couple of books (which didn’t get terrible reviews, by the way). Is he really, really smart, or just rich and famous enough to bullshit his way through? I have no idea, but I’m guessing Red DeMur, our narrator bearing the nickname bestowed on her by the Oxford gym set, has her opinion.

Red spends a year at Oxford where how you work out at the gym or who you sit next to at High Table is more important than any research. An article will only get you so far, but a phone call from Coetzee is real currency. That’s the same thing they peddle at the Ivy Leagues, I’ve been told: it’s not about actual education, but about connections that will come in handy when you’re down to your last million. The more cynical view is that the exclusivity, the legacy admissions, are crucial because this is where the leader class is forged. Then again, it’s pretty much the same thing in any field: networking has become an art form. Iit’s not what you know, it’s who you know; there’s a reason clichés become clichés.

This story was too far outside my understanding to really land, though. It’s not that I don’t believe it – I do – but I was too busy following what was happening to really enjoy the ride. I was also distracted by my read of the title, which was more about “all politics is local” than about “it’s all politics.” I did appreciate the High Table scene, comparable to any society dinner anywhere, and I love the line “You don’t want to plateau. Plateauing is death.” She’s talking about the gym, but it extends to the rest of it, because once Bob Dylan’s given you a footrub, where do you go from there? And I very much enjoyed speculating that someone taking advantage of the momentary fad of dirt art might be a gossip connoisseur.

Jake Weber’s post starts from his own narrow escape from The Academie. I guess I have the naiveté to see fraud and corruption in institutions – whether they be academic, governmental, or ecclesiastical – and still see far more examples of earnest people trying to better the world through their individual efforts in those institutions.

But I still appreciate a good shot at the pretentiousness of The Academie. As with the prior “Barbie Chang” poem, we have a writer who is, herself, an academic, writing about academia. And who could be more qualified for the task?

Pushcart XLIII: John Landretti, “A Fish in the Tree” (non-fiction) from Orion #36:2

I often imagine my walks as two circles of concurrent experiences. One circle is external and sensuous – footfalls and bird song, rain – the physical journey: the other circle is internal and imaginal – ponderings and conjunctures, dreamscapes – the figurative journey. Now and then these two experiential circles overlap, forming a mandorla. in their slender overlay I occasionally encounter an infusion of both worlds: the imaginal strikingly present in common things.

On a routine morning walk through a park near his home, Landretti noticed something unusual: a stick in a tree. Not a branch, but a log that obviously came from somewhere else. He spent the rest of his walk wondering how the branch had come to rest in the ash tree’s branches, then realized it intrigued him because it looked like a fish. A coelacanth, to be precise: a fish thought to have gone extinct 66 million years ago until live specimens were discovered in 1938 swimming in the waters off Africa. That experience led to this essay about the human capacity for perception.

My experiences reading nature writing has always been uneven, but perception is a different matter. As it happens, I’ve taken several moocs dealing with our capacity to view the world and how our retinas, cochleas, and other sensory organs convert input signals into comprehension, such as this excerpt from a lecture by Dartmouth neuroscientist Peter Tse:

Scientists largely agree that there is no redness out there in reality. Redness is a construction of our perceptual systems that exists in our conscious experience, but is not a property of reality-in-itself. What is presumably real are pigments in the surfaces of the flower-in-itself, and the pigments we experience as red. But redness and those pigments seem to exist in two different domains, one in consciousness and the other in the world-in-itself, regardless of how it is being experienced or even whether it is being experienced.

Landretti also discusses the phenomenon known as pareidolia, our predeliction for seeing patterns in randomness, be it mythical characters in arrangements of stars or a Man in the Moon (or a rabbit, a more common interpretation in China), enlisting the help of a Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown sees a duck and Linus sees a scene of St. Phillip’s martyrdom.

All of this takes place in the discussion of the intersection between the physical and the metaphysical, emblemized by the mandorla. I’d never encountered the term before, and initially wondered if it was a variation on mandala; but despite a vague similarity – they are both artistic expressions of religious concepts, one from Buddhism and one from Christianity, one word descending from Sanskrit for circle and the other from the Italian word for almond – on casual research I can find no etymological or semantic connection.

The mandorla is the intersection of two circles; Venn diagrams come to mind, but these circles are representative of heaven and earth, typically encasing images of Jesus or Mary as liminal figures. In Landretti’s case, he sees these more as intersections of imaginal and physical, reality and perception. The essay celebrates this blending of fact and fancy with references to a host of examples and analogues in addition to Charlie Brown, from Nabokov to Emily Dickinson.

This was obviously a profound experience for Landretti, and he relates it with thoughtful appreciation for the mysticism. Me, I prefer the neuroscience route, but there’s room for both.

Pushcart XLIII: Victoria Chang, “Barbie Chang Wants to Be Someone” (poem) from Copper Canyon Press

Barbie Chang wants to be someone
                  special to no longer
have wet hair to no longer be spectral
                  to be a spectacle Barbie
Chang wants to befriend the Academy
                  which is the Circle

Complete poem available online at Alexandria Quarterly

Circles are perhaps the most natural shapes, which may be why so many pre-historic and early historic settlements and civilizations incorporated them into their lives: huts set in circles, beads shaped as circles, dwellings with circular footprints. By forming a circle, a group can define and defend a space, protect what is theirs from what might intrude. And only by breaking the circle, at least temporarily, can a new member be admitted.

So I’m intrigued by the use of circle imagery here connected with the Academy, the Academy Barbie Chang so wants to join if they would just turn from looking inward to looking outward. If they would just break the circle for a moment and let her in. But of course, Barbie can put on a business suit, a lab coat, or a Navy uniform, and still all anyone’s going to think of is her boobs.

Barbie Chang wants to forgive
                  the Academy for its
cattiness wants to hate the Academy
                  and its Circle and their

It’s one of the delicious ironies that, unlike Barbie Chang, Victoria Chang is, in fact, a board member of the National Book Critics Circle, a twist Michael Odom brings up in his interview with her.

It’s a poem that makes good use of absent punctuation and irregular enjambments to create a kind of suspense with each phrase, each word: will the meaning change when I read the next word? The first line feels complete ending with someone, particularly given the title, but then that special gets added on, with a to that sets up a question, special to whom?, only to find the question moot when the reader finally parses the words and finds a missing comma or semicolon or something that starts a new thought. It’s disorienting, and notifies the reader in the first stanza not to jump to conclusions, to consider more than what has already been read before declaring a grammar.

There’s also wordplay throughout: special/spectral/spectacle, the emphatic rhyming spondee eat meat that comes across like the bang-bang of a drum or double shot, the tongue-twister awards for words.

But it’s the imagery that wins me over in the end, as the poem becomes more and more narrative:

…each year she buys climbing
                  shoes to go up the tree
she tries but can’t climb and sells them
                  on Craigslist she gets a
new pair each year on her wish list but
                  can’t get past the first five

And then the final knockout punch, the image of Barbie Chang, fallen onto the ground, trampled under the feet of others, discovering “aspirations of worth/everywhere”, even in the crushed bugs whose bodies in defeat form an iris, which is, in humans at least… a circle.

The poem, from Chang’s 2017 collection Barbie Chang, is not poet Chang’s first work with circles. In 2005 she published a collection titled Circle which acts in response to Emerson’s essay “Circles,” and “adopts the shape as a trope for gender, family, and history.” Then there’s 2013’s The Boss; I’m intrigued by the thematic discipline of her collections.

Only once have I been so bewitched by a poet on the basis of what appears in Pushcart; I might love a poem I read here, but seldom want to read more. I find myself wanting to read more of the poet Chang – and if Barbie Chang comes along, so much the better.

Pushcart XLIII: Poe Ballantine, “Secrets Deep in Tiger Forests” from the Sun #495

Next door, in a run-down daiquiri-pink house with bedsheets instead of curtains on the windows, lived Whitey Carr, who loved to pound me every Sunday with his tiny fists. My mother said I had to feel sorry for Whitey because he’d lost his mom, and his brother, Raja, had come back crazy from the war. Whitey was thirteen, a year older than I was, and my mother said his younger sister, Queenie, was already a tart. A tart sounded good to me. They sold them from outdoor stands in Balboa Park at the Old Globe Theatre, where my mother and father took me to see Shakespeare plays. Lemon tarts were the best.

Complete story available online at Sun Magazine

Growing up is hard work. There’s all this stuff that doesn’t quite make sense, and no one will explain it to you. In the 60s, this was especially pronounced, as social convention still insisted on ignoring, or, if absolutely necessary, euphemizing nasty realities, while every day reality broke into the lives of ordinary people more and more: neighbors who are dying or pregnant or crazy and the Vietnam war playing every night on the 6pm TV news. And still, no one wants to explain anything to their kids. Or maybe they can’t explain some things.

We have a twelve-year-old narrator, trying to understand the chaos around him. His parents might think they’re protecting him, but more likely, they don’t understand it either, and they don’t really want to discuss it in any case. If you don’t talk about something, maybe it isn’t there at all.

Raja had gone away to war a serious boy in a uniform, but when he came back, he was no longer Raja. He was more like a luminous bird who tipped his head this way and that and stared down at you with his inscrutable dark eyes while he crowed and clapped his hands and tried to communicate with noises that sounded very much like the jumbled chorus of alien voices in my head.
It was fun to talk to Raja. I could tell by his wide and sunny soul that he would never hurt me. He would insist that you take anything he might have in his hand, including money. And whatever you said — whether you made a joke or were completely in earnest — he would laugh as if it were the wittiest thing ever.
Raja was the only happy-all-the-time person I’d ever seen. Clowns were not to be trusted. Comedians often described pain. Newscasters and scientists smoked cigarettes and shook their heads gravely as they foretold the end. Raja made me feel so good I thought he had learned some secret deep in the tiger-haunted forests on the other side of the world. I was always disappointed when one of his brothers or sisters would come to coax him back into the house.

I grew up in this era, so I know exactly how it feels, to have parents who insist the world works one way but to see evidence every day that it works another day. For those of you who think this twelve-year-old must be stupid, I promise you, he’s not. Twelve was different in the 60s. We didn’t have the internet.

I again have to recommend Jake Weber’s analysis of this story. He categorizes war stories as having different “performative functions”, and voices his concerns about the contemporary focus on PTSD. As a veteran, Jake has insight into this that I lack.

The domestic devastation in the aftermath of military service in Vietnam is a big part of the story: parents mourning children who won’t be back, and mourning those who came back forever changed. But I think there’s a broader picture here as well: PTSD wasn’t something anyone talked about in the 60s. The acronym didn’t exist. It was one more thing, like teenage pregnancies and a parent’s leukemia, that just got hidden lest someone find it upsetting. Because it might mean Authority wasn’t so damned smart, after all. And, tragically, veteran were often demonized, rather than the decision-makers. I think we learned something from that period. I think it’s good we did. But I think we still send people to war for reasons having nothing to do with security, reasons articulated by emotional slogans rather than by clear, convincing reasons.

Still, in so many ways we’re all like our twelve-year-old narrator, trying to fit incongruent pieces together so the world makes sense to us. And we’re never sure we’ve got it right.

Pushcart XLIII: Sarah Resnick, “Kylie Wears Balmain” from n+1 #29

THE SUMMER PASSES in an ordinary way. Maria applies sunscreen on vacation in Montenegro. Nikki collects trash on a beach in Santa Monica. Megan ditches Brian to go it alone, she’s always been so independent. Sandra scores a superhot and supernormal boyfriend. Selena wears a vintage cotton scarf; Taylor wears a cotton crop top. Whitney uses an electronic kiosk at Best Buy. Kylie celebrates her birthday — she’s 18! — in a $9,000 Nicolas Jebran minidress. Kevin stretches his quadriceps before taking off on a run. Hope marries Robert at Villa Cimbrone in Ravello, Italy, as their 8-month-old son floats by on a cloud (thanks, Cirque du Soleil). Miranda replies to Blake on Twitter! ….
Elsewhere, a woman is asked to leave her apartment. The landlords are expecting a baby. She relocates.
THE WOMAN’S NEW APARTMENT is dark, dank: a basement with seven-and-three-quarter-foot ceilings. She decides she cannot stay for long. She unpacks only what she needs, leaves the rest in boxes, lives amid a maze of cardboard. She nurses a chronic cough. She reads the first thirty-seven pages of My Brilliant Friend and then she doesn’t read anything at all.

Complete story available online at n+1

We see them lining the checkout lanes of supermarkets, papering the walls of newspaper kiosks on busy streets, twittering across our screens: People, Entertainment Weekly, Us Weekly, magazines about celebrities, their clothes, their travels, their loves, their break-ups. Some of us feel smugly superior when we ignore them; some of us guiltily sneak one in between our Utne Reader and Time, and some of us stare enviously and unironically at what American culture hath wrought. This story takes a different point of view: What’s it like to work as a fact-checker in one of these places? The answer may surprise you!

The central character is a fact-checker referred to as The Woman, a construction I particularly dislike, but it serves a purpose here, as it deprives her of a name. Some of her coworkers are identified by initial, some only by their jobs.The celebrities are instantly recognizable by first names only (even I can figure out about a quarter of them). But it’s only the top echelon – the owner, and the editor in chief – who get full names, and at that, only as the magazine fails. Names are identities, and we now have a clear hierarchy of who’s who. The story is an allegory of the American economy, an economy that pays ball players and movie stars millions, that pays the guy who moves money from one account into another and calls it profit makes ten to a hundred times what a teacher makes. The context is art vs entertainment, but it’s still about what we as a society value.

The Woman’s friends sneer at her job as fact-checker at a gossip magazine – “But there aren’t any facts”, they say – yet we’re shown a job that does indeed involve intricate detail in a variety of contexts. Ages, dates, spellings of names, prices, time spans; it’s surprisingly involved. And it’s taken seriously. The Woman fears she may lose her job over an incorrect age, until it’s shown that it’s the publicist’s own website that’s incorrect.

The magazine provides dinner for employees, items on the order of “Braised Beef, Charred Chicken, Golden Beets with Quinoa and Orange” rather than catering by McDonald’s. And just when we’re ready to burst into a tirade about the absurdity of consumerism and the tragedy of our twisted values, we find out something else: most of the fact-checkers are writers, artists, litmag editors, dancers, and, incongruously, a low-level politician. Some have written and published works while supporting themselves verifying the dates Chloe was at a particular spa, or the cost of the jewelry worn by Jennifer (any Jennifer, take your pick) at the Oscars. Is our value system, twisted as it might be, valuable as a support system for artists?

So that when she looks at a picture of Kim, she reads: Family-oriented businesswoman, hypersexualized (but not vulgar!), with a domestic streak and an agreeable air. When she looks at a picture of Angelina, she sees: Compassionate global citizen, a cosmopolitan humanitarian and philanthropreneur. When she looks at a picture of Bethenny, she reads: Brassy, joke-cracking, down-to-earth hustler who worked her way up from the bottom. When she looks at a picture of Taylor, she sees: Wholesome emblem of girl power projecting indie cool and mainstream cool.
They are the faces of women who flaunt the legacies of feminism and at the same time pronounce its irrelevance. They are the faces of women whom America can understand.

This is it, then, isn’t it. Art is frivolity; People is business. Hiding one inside the other is a survival tactic. Jake Weber, a writer who has a day job that isn’t writing (though, as a translator, he’s quite a few rungs up from Us Weekly fact-checker), has some interesting insights into this story from a slightly different vantage point.

The Woman does not appear to be one of the artists. She tried to read Ferrante and gave up; she has a vague thought about “trying to write” (who doesn’t) but we hear nothing further. And by the way, this is one of three jobs she’s holding down, which really drains any energy for writing or anything else. She just wants to move to a better apartment.

The magazine starts to fall apart, as celebrities start handling their own gossip sheets on Instagram and Twitter, and some old corporate debts come due. This decline is marvelously shown by the change in dinner menu: suddenly it’s pizza a couple of times a week, and then, boxes of protein bars left over from the sports division’s photo shoot. The crowning touch is a mass email with a subject line “Farewell” as corporate America discards the people who do the work, and runs off to find better places to grow money.

A paragraph towards the end of the story drives home the twin poles of art and entertainment: the celebrities are still doing the same things, while the fact-checkers have published books, been accepted into Harvard, and lost elections. Everyone’s basically in the same place. Whether there’s a difference between photographed on the Aegean with the latest hunk of beefcake, and releasing one’s third poetry chapbook, is something the reader gets to decide.

The use of poetic and nonfiction techniques made this story successful for me. The narration has more in common with reportage than fiction; the recurring motifs of celebrity activities from the magazine, and the meals that decline in quality as the financial status of the magazine declines, feel poetic. The point of view resists polemic, but presents a case anyway: we have relegated art, as well as the well-being of most of America, to trickle-down fantasy.

Over the past several months, I’ve repeated the sentence “This was strange reading at this point in time” over and over. The federal shutdown [addendum: just ended], layoffs, the Amazon and Foxconn tax breaks, the end of Glimmer Train and the print edition of Tin House all played in the background as I read this story. But let’s face it, it’s a strange time. Does art matter? Sure: how else are we going to remember that it is a strange time, that the New Normal is Not Normal. And maybe, instead of subscribing to People, we’ll subscribe to a litmag, because maybe the editor or a featured writer, who get little or no pay, has to work as a fact-checker to pay the rent.

Pushcart XLIII: Michael Collier, “The Storm” (poem) from Kenyon Review #39.5

The afternoon the Air Florida jet crashed in the Potomac
I was working in the basement apartment on 10th Street.
The blizzard had been accompanied by lightning and thunder,
big booms and flashes, as if there were a storm within a storm.
We lived close enough to National to hear planes land
and take off, intermittent muffled rumblings I’d learned
to ignore, although at first I tracked them tensely
like a passenger strapped in his seat silently urging the plane up.
Back then, I was afraid of so many things, I dealt with fear
by acting brave and impervious, cultivating as well
an ironic bonhomie that covered up the effort.
Everything was an effort, so I made effortlessness my goal.

This is one of those poems that makes me wonder why it’s a poem. It’s a long poem – ten pages, and not much white space so I’d guess as an essay it would be about eight pages – that starts with stanzas of random length and no discernible meter. Why is it not an essay? Obviously, it’s a poem, but why does it need to be a poem? I think maybe the simplistic answer is, because the writer is a poet, but that isn’t satisfying to me. I feel like the young Will in Passus 1 of Piers Plowman (My Favorite Medievalist is leading a #ReadingPiersPlowman workshop on Twitter for the next several months), asking Holy Church over and over, how is he supposed to know what goodness is, how can he know how to be saved? Except I ask, What does the form of poetry add to this, why does this content need to be a poem, rather than an essay?

That said, it’s a nice piece, a kind of scrapbook of various memories and ideas from the life of the speaker, a Washington DC resident from childhood. He starts with a portrait of the run-down neighborhood in which he lived in 1982, some neighbors including a woman whose apartment was burgled. Then he moves on to the plane crash, and, later, to his father’s death at age 96. All along, he relates these events to his own psychology:

Twenty years later, the sister
of one of the crash victims said, “There’s a tenacity
the dead have on the living that no living person has on you.”

This weaving of the different threads is quite effective. It reminds me a bit of Chae’s essay, how the past is always with us, always building upon itself using bricks from the present.

Art plays a part as well: John Berryman’s ekphrastic poem “Winter Landscape” following Bruegel’s “Hunters in the Snow”, a piece I have some familiarity with as it was mentioned in another story several years ago. But we keep coming back to scenes from his life, and the motif of “problems of living”. Living is, after all, a problem to be solved, and some are more, some less, adept at tackling it.

Then he brings in another note: a troubled school mate who needed psychiatric care, and eventually killed himself.

What might it mean
That during the semester O’Laughlin began to contemplate his demise,
I was writing an art history paper on Dadaist suicide.

And Dada suicide was an act of such
nonchalance and indifference that I mistook it for courage.

I think of it
As one among many solutions to the problem of living,
Different than the others all of which involve staying alive.

The dead do indeed stay with us, whether they be positive or negative influences in our lives, their lives heroic or tragic. And all along, I remember the little boy who covered up his fear with ironic bonhomie – another way of handling the problem of living.

The poem is part of Collier’s recent collection My Bishop and Other Poems; the title poem takes as its subject a boy abused by the local bishop. More problems of living.

Pushcart XLIII: Jung Hae Chae, “The Great Meal” (non-fiction) from Agni #86

When the bell rang at noon at Five Ocean Trading, it was time. The swishing of scissors, the clicking of dies, cutting of a thousand berets and beanies and bowlers and fedoras, the up-and-down cross-ankle pedalling of a sea of sewing machines, even the chattering of the AM-radio man or woman in the background – time to rise to something holy.
Or to lunch.

It’s an often-heard truism that food brings us together, crosses boundaries otherwise impenetrable and lets us share in the human activity we associate with warm companionship. Chae’s essay takes a slightly different approach: food as a vehicle for memory.

It’s how she remembers the people at the factory where she worked. Ms. Cho and the good rice that was so important for the meal; a manager who brought brightly colored and highly spiced rice or fish cakes; Mr. Lee, a former double-agent who brings a bowl with a flying phoenix; and Jane, Chae’s contemporary with whom she dreams of what they’ll do as soon as they have enough money.

But I read a lot of divisions. The Koreans and the Chinese. The “men-children and the woman-mothers.” The Mexican workers, who “were not welcome at the table”, who took the jobs Koreans didn’t want (does that sound familiar?), who are “used. They were used to being used.” Even Chae separates herself from the people with whom she shares lunch: “Ashamed of having to wear a dual identity of sorts: at once an aspiring human with a lofty, though as yet unknown, purpose, a comrade-in-arms with the Wretched of the Earth as my coworkers seemed to me then; and a thud of a human spiraling out of control.” I know that feeling well, the feeling of being all about good intentions with little to back it up.

Chae remembers her own childhood in South Korea, a time, sans refrigerator, that required some finesse and long-forgotten – or, for most of us, never-learned – techniques for keeping food safe and wholesome. It was a time she was separated from her mother, living with her grandmother. After she and her mother were reunited, she watched as cancer took her mom’s voice and then her life:

The upside of being given something of a notice of impending death is that one can prepare for it. Ostensibly, your life does “flash before your eyes” when the end is near. Time collapses. You stop caring about what other people fill their buckets with. You start using the good crystal bowl you’ve been saving for special guests and start wearing the gold watch. You settle old feuds and stop to talk to neighbors and pet their dogs. The mundane fills with meaning. You appreciate the simple ingredients of life: water, wind, colors, flowers, children. My mother did strange things like that.

I have a feeling the food-as-connection idea is comforting but not really true. Haven’t we all run afoul of another family’s idea of Thanksgiving, or what constitutes a good picnic or barbecue? In recent decades, a kind of separation-by-food has evolved as well: the vegetarians over there, the gluten-frees over here, the allergies bringing their own, and then we have those who can do a two-hour lecture on the sociopolitical implications of whatever you put on your table. Food as connection works when people are starving, or when the group is homogenous. Otherwise, food as memory works a lot better.

But then, Chae turns the food-as-memory idea on its head in a paragraph that ties a somewhat scattershot essay together beautifully:

It was forgetting that was at the heart of drinking, forgiving at the heart of communal eating. We seem able to forgive anything or anyone – even the nation’s traitor, or the lover who had made her wait in the maid’s wings, or the mother-daughter who passed on without bidding proper goodbye. We pass on – when we share our foods and each earnestly, noisily, more so by morsel, with our good tongues. That is when the food is good for the body: it washes us of our debris, tears us down, build us up once again to face the insufferable.

Maybe this is how food brings us together: its comfort makes forgiveness more possible.

Pushcart XLIII: Justin St. Germain, “Murder Tourism in Middle America” (nonfiction) from Tin House, Fall 2017

A week earlier, Bonnie—my copilot and de facto girlfriend—had asked if I wanted to drive with her to Minnesota…. Google Maps suggested a route that ran fifty miles from Holcomb. I said yes, as long as we could make a detour. She agreed to accompany me to a murder scene much more readily than I’d expected. Bonnie was up for anything, a trait that had attracted me to her, and that now made me keep her at arm’s length, unable to imagine a relationship.
Going to Holcomb was a pilgrimage of sorts. I’d been writing a book about my mother’s murder for the last five years, and to write about murder is to live in the long shadow of In Cold Blood. Capote’s seminal book had become an obsession of mine. I’d wanted to write a response, a counterargument, a true murder story that made a gesture his didn’t: to present the victim as a person, not a narrative prop, and to treat their death itself as tragic, not as an occasion for a larger tragedy. A printed copy of the manuscript sat on the passenger’s floorboard of our car; the final edits were due in a week, and I’d been reading it out loud to Bonnie on the trip, listening for false notes. It was scheduled for release in a year—from Random House, Capote’s publisher—and, save for my editor and agent and a few friends who’d read an early draft, Bonnie was its first audience.
Somehow the contents of Capote’s book, and what I’d read about the writing of it, failed to warn me how drastically plans can change on trips to Kansas.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This Faulkner line has been on my mind a lot lately, and maybe it was on Justin St. Germain’s mind, too, as he drove into Holcomb. His mother’s murder was still very much alive for him – of course, it would be, even had it not been riding with him in the car in the form of the manuscript about the event – but the 1959 murder of the Clutter family, the subject of Capote’s In Cold Blood was also in the car with him.

This memoir is an account of his visit to Holcomb, where the Clutters are still remembered in diverse ways. One of the more chilling echoes of the past is the house itself, home to a suicide by the owner after the murders, then sold at auction for $1 to a family unable to resell it; they now have to deal with trespassers, murder tourists less polite and respectful of private property than St. Germain. The Tyson Foods slaughterhouse later built outside town lends another bizarre touch.

From the beginning, Capote conceived of the book as a tragedy: hence the silos rising like Greek temples from the plains, the minor Holcombites who act as chorus, its classical story arc and emphasis on fate. Hickock is the second actor, the cops and justice system the antagonists, the Clutters vehicles for the hero’s hamartia. The hero is Perry Smith.

I haven’t read In Cold Blood. I saw the 2005 movie Capote, but only vaguely recall it for the mesmerizing portrait of the writer tortured between two poles of love and exploitation. But St. Germain’s particular take-away, as he wrote about his mother’s murder, was the emphasis on the killers and the rather superficial gloss of the victims, a gloss that has been challenged by those who knew them. Capote had his motivation; St. Germain’s was, of course, very different. But he recognizes the challenge involved: while true-crime books are always popular, “nobody wants to read about a victim”, he says; it causes anxiety, whereas reading about killers gives a vicarious thrill of a kind of power otherwise never experienced. I’m not so sure; isn’t it possible readers want to know what makes the killer different from them, assure themselves that evil is something that lives in other people?

It’s something of a creepy coincidence that St. Germain’s girlfriend, who unwittingly instigated the trip and then accompanied him, was named Bonnie, as was the murdered Mrs. Clutter. Bonnie forms a secondary focus in the essay:

Some rare moments feel significant even as they happen: you see the future stretch ahead, flat and forbidding, like a highway across the plains. Capote had one in Garden City, on the courthouse steps. Smith had one on the Clutters’ lawn before he killed them. I had one leaving the cemetery, watching the wheat bend in the wind just like Capote writes and realizing that whatever was happening between Bonnie and me was beyond our control. That night, in the last hotel room left in Salina, we threw our bags down and fucked like we were about to die, and in the aftermath I told her nobody had ever wanted her as much as I did, and she took that to mean I always would, although I didn’t mean that at all. We made it to Minnesota the next day. Two years later, we did that drive again, to start a new life there, and six months later Bonnie passed through Kansas while leaving me, and six months after that I drove through yet again, in a panic, with a ring in my pocket. Capote got one thing right: there are only two kinds of endings, death and the ones we invent.

A little googling tells me that, at least as of 2017, the couple is still together. In 2013, St. Germain’s book about his mother’s murder – by her husband, rather than in a random spree killing by a stranger – was published. And Holcomb, Kansas still sits on the plains, in past-present tense.

Pushcart XLIII: Kristin Chang, “Yilan” (poem) from The Shade Journal: Seed

<img src="https://sloopie72.files.wordpress.com/2019/01/yilan.jpg" alt="Angie Wang: cover art for Past Lives, Future Bodies” title=”See more by artist Angie Wang at her website” width=”338″ height=”221″ class=”size-full wp-image-22823″ /> Angie Wang: cover art for Past Lives, Future Bodies
In Taiwan the rain spits on my skin.
         I lose the way to my grandmother’s
house, eat a papaya by the side of the road,
         papaya in Taiyu meaning wood
melon. My grandmother’s house is wood
         & always wet, as if absence
holds water. As if drowning
         itself. My stomach oversweetens
on fruit, wears a belt of rot.

Complete poem available online at Shade Journal

Taiwan is one of those complicated places: originally settled thousands of years ago by seafaring islanders, who were pushed out of the way by subsequent arrivals (sound familiar?), an island that’s been a blend of religions and languages, and an unwilling pawn in power plays for centuries and today is a potential keg of dynamite as it finds itself the reluctant tentpole of the One China policy. Into this comes Kirsten Chang, an American-born descendent who initially rejected, then embraced, the culture of her mother.

The poem is from her recently published collection Past Lives, Future Bodies and, as she explains in her Queen Mob’s Teahouse interview, draws on “the rhythms and migrations of stories, but also about the grief between the women in my family, those severances and losses that are birthed from movement”.

That movement may be why the poem is formatted in three-line stanzas, indented in a way that, even in the absence of rhyme or consistent meter, suggests a similarity to terza rima’s walking quality. The content as well has a kind of semantic and linguistic momentum: the papaya leads to wood melon leads to wood house leads to wetness and water.

There’s a kind of looseness in the identity of the speaker. Chang is quite young – her Twitter profile gives her age as 20 – so it can’t be her mother mentioned in the stanzas about the Japanese coming during the war. This may be where ideas of reincarnation and transmission across cultural connection comes in.

The speaker watches a typhoon from her Taipei hotel, and muses on the words that connect Taiwan and typhoon, her family’s past, and the history that has flowed through her to bring her to this spot:

In Chinese,
         typhoon is tai feng, sharing a word
with tai wan. A nation named
         after its greatest disaster. My body
named for what it bears, what
         it bares: this nation,
where nothing is still
         waiting to be saved
& the dead are still

Those last lines emphasize the motion by almost denying it: the enjambment momentarily changes the meaning of “still” twice, from being still – lacking motion – to still as in even now, a perpetuation. And the last step, the dying, is the big one, almost a leap.

Pushcart XLIII: Myron Taube, “Lupinski” from New Letters #83:2/3

“Your wife told the nurse she doesn’t want any heroic measures.”
Heroic Measures. I remember those words from when we first took Miriam to the hospital, some nurse give us papers to sign: if you’re dying, do you want Heroic Measures? To tell the truth, I don’t know what they mean when they say Heroic Measures. To me, Heroic Measures is when Superman jumps in front of the girl and the bullet bounces off his chest and he saves the girl’s life. But I know what “if you’re dying” means.

Sol Epstein’s a little confused. Who can blame him: his wife’s seriously ill in the hospital, and the doctor’s asking him if he wants the priest to come now, which is pretty weird considering he and his wife are Jewish. Turns out the doctor thought Sol was Mr. Lupinski visiting his wife next door. Sol’s relieved there’s been a mistake. But it’s not enough of a mistake to matter, as it turns out.

It’s a very sweet, sad story, told with a distinct Jewish American flavor I haven’t seen in a long time, that ends up exactly where you think it’s going to end up, though it takes a route through the neighborhoods of confusion (with a stop for some meat loaf and a recipe I might just try myself, it sounds so good, even though I don’t like meat loaf very much). Because when you’re losing your wife of 64 years, confusion might just be the easiest way to go. Sixty-four years. That right there is a Heroic Measure.

And as always, Jake Weber’s done a terrific job of discussing the story in his blog post, focusing on when background information collides with the “Each Story Must Stand On Its Own” ethos of contemporary literary theory. I’ve always been more of a Gestalt reader; to me, context, including the circumstances under which a story was written, is part of the story’s genesis, just as my life experience, including the tearful goodbyes I’ve said, is part of my reading. It’s interesting to see how Jake balances the two in this case, since the story is very close to memoir.

Critical thinking mooc

Course: Critical Thinking: Fundamentals of Good Reasoning
Length: 9 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: IsraelX/edX
Instructor: Jonathan Berg

This course is an introduction to critical thinking—thinking about arguments, about reasons that might be given in support of a conclusion. The objective of the course is to improve the student’s ability in the basic skills of critical thinking….
Of course, we all know, to some extent or another, how to think critically—how to think about reasons for or against some claim. The course is built on the assumption that learning more about what exactly is involved in thinking about reasons leads us to do it better. Thus, in each topic covered, our natural logical instincts serve as a starting point, from which we develop a rigorous, theoretical understanding, which then boosts our critical thinking skills.

I’ve taken, what, four or five introductory logic courses now; each one is a little different. Some are more comprehensive, some focus on different things. This one kept things at the simplest level and featured lots of very clear explanations and examples, plus three different modes of grading. As a first course in logic, I think it might work quite well. And then, it included my favorite: truth trees! Some of the other topics included Venn and Euler diagrams, types of deductive argument structures and fallacies, and inductive arguments. Most of the emphasis is on recognizing these elements in actual, if simple, arguments.

Each week consisted of two or three individual lessons, generally about 10 – 15 minutes of video each. Graded material came in three flavors:

  • A short set of questions with unlimited attempts at each question followed each video (25%);
  • Three overall quizzes, one every three weeks (and I found these surprisingly difficult, since I frequently misinterpreted statements), with one attempt per question (these are timed, but the two-hour time limit was more than ample)(45%);
  • Three submission exercises in finding an argument “in the wild” pertaining to the covered topics were required (30%). This wasn’t really peer-assessed, since full credit was given merely for submission and evaluation of other students’ work, with student evaluations not factored into the grade. The hardest part was finding an argument that could be fairly easily broken down into premises and conclusions; except for the last week, where I’d seen something on Twitter that immediately screamed “Argument by analogy with faulty property inference”.

Since two of these elements can be aced with minimal effort, a passing grade is almost a given.

The last week was devoted to production of an argument, with steps for design. The structure was useful, but there’s no way to practice. This is the Achilles’ heel of many humanities moocs: once they gave up on real peer-assessment, there’s really no way to create an assignment for this. The discussion forums would be an option, but, somewhat surprisingly, there was little activity, beyond the initial meet-and-greet, even though the instructor provided feedback for questions.

I thought it was a very good, if very basic, introductory course. The Duke reasoning course on Coursera gets into some of the more complicated and hard-to-parse examples so might make a good follow-up. Microsoft’s logic and computational thinking course covers much the same ground, then gets a bit more into scientific applications. I still miss the now-disappeared Australian course, my personal favorite logic course which included wonderful topic areas I’ve never seen anywhere else: language, mathematics, and computational logic. The Stanford course on Coursera is tailored to computer science; better minds than mine have hated it as much as I did. But for anyone looking for a place to start, this introductory mooc would fit the bill. And trust me: the more you go over it, the easier it gets.

Pushcart XLIII: J. M. Holmes, “What’s Wrong with You? What’s Wrong with Me?” from Paris Review #221

Toyin Odutola, "Uncertain, yet Reserved," 2012

Toyin Odutola, “Uncertain, yet Reserved,” 2012

“How many white women you been with?”
The room was filled with good smoke and we drifted off behind it.
“What’s your number?” Dub looked at Rye real serious like he was asking about his mom’s health.
I leaned forward from the couch and took the burning nub of joint from his outstretched hand. We called him Dub because his name was Lazarus Livingston—Double L. His parents named him to be a football star. He could play once upon a time, but not like Rye.
Rolls, who was too high, chimed in: “Stop it, bruh, that shit’s not important.”
“Of course it is. I’m finna touch every continent,” Dub said.
“White’s not a continent,” Rolls said.
“You know what I mean.”

I’ve never claimed these posts are “reviews”; their only my reactions to a given story, book, poem or course. I have no training in writing actual reviews. I assume there are certain guidelines: some things that should be included and some things that should be left out, a predominance of objective rather than subjective reactions, criteria that should be considered. That’s fine, but it’s not what I do. I read a story, and react to it.

In this case, my reaction was: I have no idea what this story was about.

That isn’t quite true. I knew it was about a group of young black guys talking about sleeping with white women, and one of the men had a disturbing experience he didn’t want to reveal. But a story is a lot more than plot points, and in this case the essence, the nuance, was lost on me. I wasn’t all that sure exactly what it was that was so upsetting to him about the encounter, though it clearly had to do with race, and his reactions.

Jake Weber to the rescue. His post about the story laid out the four guys, the differences between them, the basic action, and a great analysis of what was on Rye’s mind. He even brought in something I hadn’t grasped at all, the reaction of the narrator to Rye’s disclosure.

I also found Holmes’ Paris Review interview very helpful. He sums up the heart of the story:

With this story, what’s more important to me than pointing out that black people are fetishized—though all of that is in the background or the foreground, or however you want to put it—is the question of how someone maintains a genuine, truthful, intimate relationship with someone else if they’re afraid that that’s in the back of their mind, the back of their throat, you know? Can someone maintain that relationship?

It was one of those cases where I liked reading about the story far more than I liked reading the story. That happens to me sometimes. I guess it’s a sign of my lack of literary gravitas. Once I understood what it was really about, I liked this story a lot. Or, at least, I liked reading about it. I think a lot of us wonder if the person in our bed has some motivation that has nothing to do with our charm or attractiveness, but social attitudes towards race raise the stakes, and complicate the resolution, infinitely more.

This is the opening story from Holmes’ debut collection, How Are You Going to Save Yourself, published last summer. The linked stories follow the four young men we meet here.

One of the benefits of reading stories on the edge of my understanding is the expansion of my grasp. Maybe next time, I’ll be able to enjoy reading the story as much as reading about it.

Pushcart XLIII: Mary Ruefle, “Singular Dream” (poem) from Poetry, January 2017

I was born in Speckled Eggs Garden.
I will die on Broken Egg Farm.
I’m hopping between them now,
I consider everything
to be friendly
and nothing dubbed.
I am a chick with legs
and yellow hair.

Complete poem available online at Poetry

What am I supposed to do with a poem about a chicken? Seriously, Henderson, you have me immersed in guns and death and then spring chickens on me?

Thing is, I have a stubborn fondness for Mary Ruefle, born of my 2014 Pushcart encounter with her poem “During a Break in Feeling”, tackled with the help of some Modpo friends, and her erasure poetry. So I had at least some understanding of what she might be up to here.

Her words might change meaning retroactively; or, non-words or obscure words might suggest more common meanings through close spellings. What does it mean, “to be friendly / with nothing dubbed”? Dubbing is a film technique to translate a film from one language to another; it’s also a process of naming and entitling, as with dubbing a knight, with an old and obscure meaning of “to dress or adorn”. A “chick with legs and yellow hair” could describe a teenager walking by, rather than a literal chicken, giving a slang and somewhat casual sense.

Oh Lord Almighty, creator of
all things beautiful and sick,
who prefers another life on top of this,
who are you to judge?
When Adam and Eve vanished
solemnly into the dark,
shrouding themselves in the forest,
I was timid and nibbling and
stayed behind, betrayed only
by the plucking of my beak
upon the ground you so graciously
provided (thanks).

That’s a good point; it was only the humans that were kicked out of Paradise. Orthodoxy does not consider that animals have free will to obey God or not; this might seem reasonable until you’ve tried to get a cat to eat the special food you bought for her. In any case, it’s a nice little scene.

I spent a fair amount of time looking for some interpretation of “noth” (hampered by the ubiquity of Chris Noth), but in the end decided nothing was a good an inference as anything. As for “margent”, that applies to the flowery borders, the margins if you will, of a document, giving yet another sense of the chick being outside the margins, but still under the care of the Lord of the Margent, and who’s to say it’s worse off, or not as valuable, as we humans are.

In the end I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing here – this Pushcart isn’t going so well for me so far – but I still have a fondness for Ruefle, whether I understand her or not.

Pushcart XLIII: Robert Hass, “Dancing” (poem) from American Poetry Review 46:06

Daniel Baxter: Sketch of Vigil Honoring Victims of Gun Violence

Daniel Baxter: Sketch of Vigil Honoring Victims of Gun Violence

The radio clicks on—it’s poor swollen America,
Up already and busy selling the exhausting obligation
Of happiness while intermittently debating whether or not
A man who kills fifty people in five minutes
With an automatic weapon he has bought for the purpose
Is mentally ill. Or a terrorist. Or if terrorists
Are mentally ill. Because if killing large numbers of people
With sophisticated weapons is a sign of sickness—
You might want to begin with fire, our early ancestors
Drawn to the warmth of it—

Complete poem available online at American Poetry Review

In December 2017, Beacon Press published Bullets into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence, an anthology of poems – including this one by a former US Poet Laureate – and citizen responses touching on the subject of guns in America.

The poem takes a sweeping historical view of our fascination with guns, starting with the first time someone in prehistory discovered “some sands that, / Tossed into the fire, burned blue or flared green”, to the myth of Prometheus, to Rome and medieval Europe and the Age of Exploration – “How did guns come to North America?” – and the Civil War and all the wars since then, right up to June 2016 when:

They were dancing in Orlando, in a club. Spring night.
Gay Pride. The relation of the total casualties to the history
Of the weapon that sent exploded metal into their bodies—
30 rounds a minute, or 40, is a beautifully made instrument,
And in America you can buy it anywhere—and into the history
Of the shaming culture that produced the idea of Gay Pride—
They were mostly young men, they were dancing in a club,
A spring night. The radio clicks on. Green fire. Blue fire.
The immense flocks of terrified birds still rising
In wave after wave above the waters in the dream time.
Crying out sharply. As the French ship breasted the vast interior
Of the new land. America. A radio clicks on. The Arabs,
A commentator is saying, require a heavy hand. Dancing.

It’s a longish poem, three pages of free verse in uniform lines (one of those poems that makes me wonder why it’s a poem instead of prose), that maintains a momentum by repetition of tropes like the sands thrown into the fire, the blue and green sparks, looking back at the beginning while moving to the present. There’s a video of Hass doing an informal reading of the poem in the office of a Miami Dade professor; he repeats the line “they threw powder in the fire” at the end although that isn’t included in the APR published version. It’s this simple act, this fascination with the sparks unleashed by burning certain minerals, that connects us with those imagined paleolithic wonderers, traces the fires of Prometheus, whose liver was eaten every day by birds but grew back each night to allow another day of torment. There are days in contemporary America when it doesn’t seem like punishment enough.

As I read this poem, I realized how tired I am of the tributes and memorials – or rather, tired of the need for them – and how I wish some day they will be part of history instead of everyday life.