Pushcart XL: Joyce Carol Oates, “The Childhood of the Reader” (non-fiction) from Conjunctions, #63

At the roadside fruit and vegetable stand on Transit Road, in Millersport, New York, I would sit reading. Head lowered, scarcely aware of my surroundings, which is the consolation of reading.
… Quart baskets, bushel baskets of pears. How much did my parents charge for a bushel basket of pears? I have no idea; surely not much. Their prices had to be competitive with those of commercial vendors, if not lower. If you were a small-time farmer you could pitch your goods so low that you made virtually no profit and work for nothing. (All of the farms in our vicinity employed “child labor” – the farm owners children. Hours of such employment are not negotiable.) Yet I remember the sting of embarrassment when a potential customer, frowning over our pears, or strawberries, or tomatoes, deftly turning back the tight leaves of our sweet corn to examine the kernels, decided that our produce wasn’t priced low enough, or wasn’t good enough in some way, returned to her car, and drove off.
Sitting at a roadside, vulnerable as an exposed heart, you are liable to such rejections. As if, as a writer, you were obliged to sell your books in a night

Funny, I’ve heard writers describe book signings and readings in just that way. I suppose the commerce end of things is more private, but considering what writers go through in workshops, it’s still a study in vulnerability. Funny again: I have a hard time imagining JCO as vulnerable.

Her 2015 memoir The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age includes a form of this selection under a different title. In addition to the roadside stand opener with its whispers of loneliness and, yes, vulnerability, it includes the kinds of scenes you’d expect: a small child checking Plato out of the local library, a young woman discovering a previously unimagined world in college – in her case, the world of literary magazines, but I think, I hope, all college students discover previously unimagined worlds, since that’s what education is about – her job at the library, complete with her shock at a $1.00-an-hour paycheck shrunk to 70 cents. And then there are pointers to the JCO we will all know: she won the Mademoiselle fiction competition in college, the same spot won in other years by familiar names such as Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion.

But there’s also a bit of a surprise: the graduate school emphasis on reading and analysis, separated from aesthetic appreciation. And her frustration with the dearth of writing during that period.

Writers who are enrolled in graduate programs soon feel the frustration, the ignominy, the pain of being immersed in reading the work of others… When they are themselves unable to write or even to fantasize writing.

When I was doing online writer’s workshops (before I finally accepted that I am not a fiction writer, that in addition to lacking talent, imagination, and training, I’d rather read and write about my personal reactions to fiction than imagine layered characters and intricate narrative arcs to express “what I want to say” and just write what I want to say) I kept coming across blurbs claiming “Anyone can write stories, here’s all you need to do” with five, or seven, or twelve easy steps, more information available in this book for $15.95. Even great writers will claim it’s more about persistence than talent. But I do think there’s that calling, the inner drive to write stories, just as for journalists there’s an inner drive to record, for scientists to understand, for teachers to explain and develop. Anyone can be a writer – or a journalist, a scientist, a teacher – but to be a great anything, it has to start with the innate need to do the core of the job.

JCO’s been widely praised for her work in literary analysis, and some of her novels have become Lit101 standards. But for me, it’s when she writes stories – about Emily Dickinson, about Robert Frost, about mothers dealing with children, about children dealing with mothers, about women dealing with life – that she swims through the water she was born to breathe. Then again, I’m biased.

Pushcart XL: Afaa Michael Weaver, “Waste” (poem) from Poetry, #December 2014

Romare Bearden, "Untitled" (The Father Comes Home) c.1970

Romare Bearden, “Untitled” (The Father Comes Home) c.1970

       …I am a wish in the skies
spun out from celestial space to be poor,
to be covered with black skin, a felt
quilt of a map with only one way to China—
through pain as big as hogs squealing
at killing time on black farms in Alabama—
the noise of death, the shrill needle
that turns clouds over to rip the air
above the cities where people are young
and all that is given is never taken away.

~~ Complete poem available online at Poetry

By sheer coincidence of timing, I just finished the portion of a 10-part mooc on Chinese history introducing ancient Chinese philosophies, including Dao. Although there are many approaches, I was quite drawn to both Laozi (who is echoed in Whitman) and, especially, Zhuangzi who tells intriguing parables about butchers and butterflies (one of the marvelous supplementary lectures, by Michael Puett, is available online). I can’t say I come close to understanding this in any depth, but I don’t despair: Afaa Michael Weaver has been studying Dao for years, and he’s still figuring it out. One of the ways he figures it out is through his poetry.

This poem is found in his collection City of Eternal Spring, the third part of a trilogy outlining his journey from suffering to recovery. I confess, this poem is beyond me, but the echoes are so beautiful, I can’t help but listen. In a reading at Carthage College, he prefaces the poem (13:35 mark) with the remark, “When souls change genders”. I’m not sure how that fits, but it’s part of the intrigue.

Pushcart XL: Joanna Scott, “The Knowledge Gallery” from Conjunctions, #63

“You saved nothing?” I asked, unable to contain my disappointment. I’d been hoping that a woman of her advanced age would have a diary or two in a drawer, maybe index cards or even notes scrawled on the backs of those old envelopes used for Baronial Cards.
She idly tapped the tassel on the window blind to set it swinging. “My dear, multiply two by zero and it would be nothing. If, rather, you mean anything, then yes, the last of it went into recycling when I moved here.”

Let’s start here: two times zero isn’t nothing, it’s zero, and if you think zero is nothing, then 1 is the same as 1,000,000. But Eleanor Feal, the author being interviewed in the opening scene of our story, seems to understand the difference between nothing and not-anything, at least linguistically, as she calls NAP agent on her first sentence. Judging from the first sentence, and how it reads the second time around, I’m betting author Joanna Scott knows, too. So I wonder if something else is going on. But… what’s an NAP agent? I’m glad you asked.

If you’re confused, you’re gonna love this story, or maybe hate it. Sadly, it’s not available online. I can’t do it justice, not because I try to be spoiler-sensitive (there’s nothing to spoil; the story is in what happens after you read it, how you try to figure it out, not in any plot twist or character-expanding surprise), but because it’s all still churning around in my head and I’m not sure I’ll ever get it to sit still for analytical parsing. I don’t think it’s the kind of story that was written to sit still.

Let’s start with a thumbnail sketch: sometime between now and 2052, paper is outlawed for ecological reasons, and everything is uploaded to the Cloud. This works out great until, well, you know what’s gonna happen. It happens to our unnamed narrator:

I was twenty-five years old and confidence that all was going according to plan. I agreed with my peers that we were living in a golden age. Except for the endless skirmish in northern Nigeria, the world was at peace. Every question had an answer… Until the morning when I was typing the final sentences of chapter two of my dissertation on my laptop, writing the words –
What words? Maybe something close to these words I’m writing now, surely involving dependent clauses, nouns, and article, an adverb, whatever, I’ll never know because I can’t remember the specific words, only the experience of watching the loop of a b break away from its stem, an o dissolve, an a sink to the bottom of the screen and disappear, replaced by symbols:⊆Σфℜξω, and on and on in a blur where there had once been sentences.

The National Archive Project is formed (aha! So that’s what NAP is) to recover the lost materials, and our narrator’s specialty is the subject of her pre-crash dissertation: Avanti literature. She’s running into some difficulties with this: each author wants to talk about, not his or her own work, but about another author. So our agent’s list of authors grows longer – she’s spoken to 27 writers in the present of the story – yet she has not recovered anything other than a list of names. Notice: she has not recovered nothing.

It’s the details that make this a story about, first of all, storytelling, of course, but also, about nothing vs zero vs absence of what was, about days of future past and past future and what is the present anyway, all in a self-referential inward spiral that leaves me chasing after one element, then another, until I get back to where I started from the center. It’s great fun. And I don’t think I’ve caught the half of it.

The many details lead to a number of comments, which, as hard as I’ve tried to organize them, simply come at me in different ways every time I approach them. So I will just start, and hope a structure emerges. Or doesn’t, as the case may be.

I see some logical holes in the story (why destroy paper that’s already been made? but many of our laws are incongruous) but I suspect they are wormholes with meaning rather than oversights or writer’s choices for streamlining. Example: so much of the named technology remains the same (the Cloud, FaceTime, Macs). That’s a tricky point for future stories, because if you have to spend all your time explaining that Arcus (or whatever) is what used to be the Cloud, you’re going to clutter things up. In a novel, you can show a character using Arcus, and the clever reader (the only reader a clever writer expects) will at some point realize, “Oh, Arcus is the Cloud.” But this is a short story, and a rather short short story at that: twelve pages. It could be called a writer’s choice, a compromise in the interests of clarity, and a wise one. But… could it be something else? Could it contribute to the cyclical, spiral connection between past, present, and future, another theme of the story?

The crash scene is wonderful. If you’ve ever been in a communal computer room, you know how it goes: the gasps, the groans, the terror that sweeps the room. I used such a computer room when I finished up college in the mid-80s (hey, so it took me a while, shut up) and this scene perfectly captures those days, in November and May, when twenty of us simultaneously realized the 20-page term paper due in two days was stuck somewhere we couldn’t reach. I’ve heard stories of writers who lost entire novels to a bad hard drive. Getting writers to back up their work was, until the Cloud, like pitching colonoscopies: nobody does it until they have a scare, and sometimes, it’s too late.

Beyond the amusement and self-recognition, I’m intrigued by the text that appeared in place of English on the computer screen, pictured above. The story isn’t clear if those are the only characters, if they’re repeated, if they’re just the first characters and what follows is random scattering of other characters we don’t realize we have unless we really look. But it occurred to me, all of those characters have mathematical meaning. Take a look at the symbols easily available on Word: they include various languages and linguistic symbols, currency symbols, arrows, corners, musical notes. All of the characters shown here, however, are mathematical. Subset. Sigma (summation). Phi, the “golden ratio”. Fraktur-R, the real portion of a complex number. Xi, the perennially lost “x” algebra students are forever trying to find, among other meanings. Omega, the first transfinite ordinal, a countably infinite set (and thanks to MIT’s “Paradox and Infinity” mooc, I have a vague idea of what this means) – and, to those of us who just read and don’t math, the End. Is there some meaning to these characters?

I asked for a math consult (thank you, Purgy!) to see if these characters might form a pun, a rebus, or have some other meaning when viewed by someone knowledgeable about math, but nothing stood out to him, so it could be they’re just random symbols. Perhaps the mathematical sense of all of them is meant to echo computer code. Or perhaps it’s something neither of us has thought of (Purgy hasn’t read the story, and I’m a mathematical idiot). I can see some possibilities – something about infinite self-reference, spiraling inward deeper and deeper until it collapses on itself like a black hole and nothing can escape but black-body radiation, a nothingness that isn’t nothing at all, but an immensely dense something. [Addendum: I pulled out the last stop and emailed the author, who, in her kind response, assured me the characters were random and had no meaning. I’ll admit, I’m a bit disappointed – but those who don’t want to face the truth should not seek it]

Oh, yeah, by the way, black holes crop up in the story, too, in connection with a minor discussion our NAP agent has on crash day with a tech support geek who’s popping doughnut holes as she impatiently waits for him to solve her computer problem:

“I don’t really understand why they call them holes,” he said at last.
“If it were up to me, I’d call them centers.” I realized he was talking about the doughnut holes only when he offered the bowl to me, inviting me to take one. “I mean, the holes are what they leave behind, not what they are. It’s like saying their absence. Identifying them with the space they once filled.”
I wanted to say something insulting, but the rest of my day depended upon this techie’s ability to recover my files. I needed his know-how, as did the students who are lining up behind me.
“A whole is a hollow space in a solid body.” He tapped the escape button on the keyboard several times. FaceTime on his Mac rang. “Hang on, will you?” He said to his screen. “On the other hand, there are black holes, defined by such a strong gravitational pull that no matter can escape. They’re interesting, don’t you think?”

It’s not just two times zero, and “You saved nothing” versus “you didn’t save anything”. The story, a story about lost literature, is full of nothing that is the absence of anything that makes it something.

And then we have the Avanti writers.

Another consult, this time on language (thanks, Silvia!): The Italian word “Avanti” means “go forward” or, more colloquially, “get a move on”, but in the distant past, was used in the sense of “before”, probably acquiring the current sense from “going forward from x you find y, therefore x is before y”. I wonder if this is more of the shifting timescape. And, by the way, for contemporary Italians, Avanti conjures up a newspaper, which is also interesting: a news paper. Later in the text, a caretaker says to Eleanor Feals: “Andiamo” which, as any Italian opera buff knows, means “let’s go,” a similar exhortation that, however, includes both the speaker and the hearer. Avanti, to andiamo. You, to we.

In terms of its basic elements, Avantism was as diverse as literature itself. There were mysteries, tragedies, farces, fictional biographies, and biographical fictions. One novel used an encyclopedic structure, with chapters arranged alphabetically by subject. Another built its narrative out of a collage of quotes taken from other Avanti texts. Some authors concentrated on providing rich scenic details; others strove to give their characters an expansive interiority. All of the manuscripts were handwritten. Finished books were produced by expert letterpress printers on wove pearlescent paper, with painted cloth bindings.
What united the Avanti authors, besides the care they took with the printing of their books, was there dystopian imaginations. All the Avanti novels I read, plus those I knew of through hearsay, were set in an apocalyptic future, where civilization had deteriorated either into anarchy or tyranny.…
The Avantis prided themselves on scorning publicity. They had no websites, send no tweets, and were rarely photographed. Their work appeared only in hard copy. Once all publications became electronic, the Avantis refused to publish at all, sharing manuscripts only among themselves. The general public was indifferent. By the time I’d narrowed down the subject of my dissertation, few people had ever heard of the Avantis; fewer still had read any of their books.

These are the authors, then, who, when their work in the Cloud is lost, keep referring our NAP agent to other writers rather than discussing their own books. There’s something very odd about that. It’s not exactly a return to telling stories around the fire in the cave, it’s not exactly a game of telephone since there’s no message being passed along. I’m not sure what it is, but I’m sure it’s significant. A network of nothing, taking the place of that which is now absent. It’s something.

I’m something of a fan of temporary art: Phil Hansen’s tattooed bananas, Kurt Wenner’s sidewalk chalk anamorphics, Andres Amador’s sand pictures, Simon Beck’s snow art. There’s something about the evanescence that makes it feel all the more precious, something about loss that makes the having all the sweeter, something about the focus on the process that shames our focus on results. If we were immortal, we’d have scientists working on a way of achieving death.

I wonder if our obsession with capturing every moment on our always-present cameras blunts the present, makes us favor the past, artificially preserved past at that, rather than memory. Maybe that’s what Avanti is saying: Onward. Get a move on. And then, when our intrepid NAP agent (yes, I do love that acronym) shows up: “Let’s go.” Together.

We expect Pushcart stories to be very, very good. They’ve been chosen three times: once for publication, again for submission to the Editors, and a third time by those Editors. But “good” is such a bad description. Some are good in the “awww… that was really nice” sense. Some are good in the “wow, I can’t believe she did that, why didn’t I think of that” sense. And some, like this one, are good in the “I can’t stop thinking about this” sense. It’s possible, of course, that I’m overreading, or I’m captivated by something that is, to the more sophisticated reader, been-there-done-that. One of the reasons I have faith that this story has so much more to it than I can read is that it was nominated for its Pushcart by JCO; that could mean anything, but it doesn’t mean nothing. Another reason is that Scott won a Macarthur “genius” grant in 1992, so chances are she’s writing above my grade level.

I’ll be staring at those mathematical characters for a long time. Most, I’ve encountered already, albeit at a very elementary level. I will probably encounter them again. Maybe some day, the answer will leap out at me. Or maybe someone will see this, and from a greater breadth of understanding, suggest something that clicks. In any case, I believe there’s something wonderful here, something just beyond the reach of my fingertips. I just have to stretch a little more to grasp it.

Pushcart XL: Chana Bloch, “The Joins” (poetry) from Southern Review, Winter 2014

Paige Bradley: "Expansion"

Paige Bradley: “Expansion”

…what’s between us
is made of clay,

like any cup on the shelf.
It shatters easily. Repair
becomes the task.

We glue the wounded edges
with tentative fingers.
Scar tissue is visible history,

the cup more precious to us
we saved it.

~~ Poem available online in text and audio.

Many years ago, on a virtual mountain now lost amidst the electrons, I fell in love with the Japanese aesthetic concept of wabi: the flaw that perfects. Now, as it happens, my grasp of this idea was itself flawed – it’s more closely related to the idea of taking nature as is, not forcing nature into an artificial concept of beauty but letting blossoms rot and leaves fall, and it’s most often heard of in combination with its partner sabi, the acceptance of age with all its effects. Personally, I think my flawed understanding perfected the idea, but I suspect a few thousand years of Japanese philosophy might argue with that.

As it turns out, I was perhaps closer to the philosophy behind kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with golden joins. The artist does not try to hide the break, but instead makes it part of the aesthetic of the piece. It’s quite an honest approach to art, and an expansion of the concept of beauty to include history.

Bloch uses these ideas to approach a broken and repaired relationship in this poem. Interesting, how this is the second approach to broken cups included in this Pushcart. The first, Margaret Gibson’s “Broken Cup,” applied the metaphor to health, and saw the break as a weakness that imbued the cup with great value, as its handling now required extra care. Here, Bloch’s relationship metaphor also sees enhanced value in the broken piece, but feels it is for the opposite reason: the joined places are stronger than before the repair.

There’s no reason both can’t be absolutely true. And absolutely false. How each of us approaches the broken cup in our lives is up to us, and could easily vary depending on not just our attitude, but the circumstances of the break, and the nature of the cup itself. However, the point is made: a break can be successfully incorporated into history, can be embraced.

I use that word, “embraced”, under the influence of a video by nerdwriter, aka Evan Puschak: “Kintsugi: The Art of Embracing Damage”. He so beautifully sums up the concept, I feel like there’s nothing left to do, except to note that I can’t speak to the accuracy of his report, only to its meaningfulness, particularly in relation to Bloch’s poem.

Why is the poem written as it is? I can speculate. The opening line: “What’s between us” puts two one-syllables at either end, with a two-syllable between. Something bigger than us is between us. I find it interesting that, while the speaker is referring to the emotional bond that keeps people together in a relationship, as gravity keeps the earth and moon together, “what’s between us” could also be read as “something has come between us,” as a problem. Again, we have the choice of how to view what is between us: as a shared experience that lends depth and strength to our relationship, or as a problem.

After several rolling lines with varied rhythms, the speaker discounts the idea that the bond between them is flexible, like the thin sheet of skin that webs thumb to hand. No, she says, this thing between us “is made of clay.” The four syllables march across the page with an emphatic force. And again, it’s a question of what we make this: a wall between us, or a way to connect through the golden join.

Why is the poem written in three-line stanzas? I’m not sure if three has particular significance to Japanese art, but it tends to stand for completion in English language. A couple of years ago, I took part of a poetry workshop with Robert Haas through Iowa’s OPEN mooc platform. He had some ideas I found wonderful, among them:

      ― a single line poem is about identity
      = a two line poem is about relation
      ≡ a three line poem is about weaving together different things.
      ≣ a four line poem is how we organize the world

Now, he was talking about poems, not stanzas in poems. But I’ve come to see poems written in couplets as being about relationships between two subjects, and so I can easily see how a three line stanza could involve this weaving together, a join. It could also be about two people and the thing between them – which, again, could mean the relationship made stronger by a break, or could mean the problem itself. I also wonder about my vague recollection (which may be as flawed as my long-ago understanding of wabi) of rhetorical structure: two is the structure for opposition, three is the structure for stability, four is the structure for conformity.

I’m not sure that we are stronger in the broken places that heal. If that’s the case, why don’t we break our children early and often, to make them the strongest they can be? Instead, we rely on the breaks of ordinary life – the death of a pet, the betrayal of a friend, a first love gone bad – to do the job for us. Maybe we think that’s enough. Maybe we know that some breaks do heal stronger, some remain broken, and some heal but hurt forever.

But sometimes, if we’re grown-up enough and have learned enough about relationship kintsugi, it’s possible to choose whether a break is a flaw, or art.

Pushcart XL: Lisa Lee, “Paradise Cove” from Ploughshares, Fall 2014

The beach house in Bodega Bay was supposed to be our escape, but it was just another place for us to be uncomfortable together. Every summer, we used to spend a couple weeks there. My father drove us in his coral car, a BMW sedan so glossy it was almost as if it wasn’t there; all you could see were the objects and colors reflecting off of it.… My father drove, my mother sat in front, and Kevin and I piled in the back. We fought over the dividing line that separated his half of the back seat from mine. After we spent some time jabbing our elbows into each other’s ribs, our mother would tell us to quiet down. She would point her finger at me and say, “Don’t talk back to your brother.” Men were always right, they always had the authority, and she imposed this on me, though living according to that rule was at the root of her unhappiness, even if she never knew it. That, and the tendency to compare herself to everyone else, her husband to other husbands, and her children to other children, in order to measure her own success.

The scenes are crystal-clear and deliver pithy truths about authority and rank within a family, the loneliness when one does not fit into her appointed place, how a child learns about racism in America from the other side of whiteness, how invested everyone is in keeping that a secret, and the marks all of that leaves. I just wish this were a short story instead of a novel excerpt.

I’ve railed about this before. It’s possible for a novel excerpt to work wonderfully. But the two forms are different, and somehow, even an excerpt from an exceptional novel – maybe especially an excerpt from an exceptional novel – just reads off as a story. I’m not about to second-guess Ploughshares, or Pushcart, but for me the rhythm was off. The ending, instead of leaving me with that wonderful “projecting into the future” feeling only left me wondering what I’d missed, or if pages had been left out. That was before I realized it was an excerpt; now I understand.

The portrait of the unhappy-in-its-own-way family in years past was, as I said, captivating, if too short to support the grown-up final trip to Bodega Bay with its shocking ending. I idly wonder if the use of that location brings to anyone else the sense of the original Angry Birds ripping Suzanne Pleshette to shreds and leaving her limp and bleeding on the front porch. It’s not an inappropriate allusion, as this family, and brother Kevin in particular, seems to be a nest of angry birds, contained for years by some force that in the final scene begins to fray.

He caved in like that, always giving up what he wanted, because our parents taught him that men should give up things and women should be given things. I remembered that later, the unfairness to both of us, how one person was given power and authority but forced to sacrifice personal desires, while the other person was made powerless but given the right to material things.

While Jane is a great character, I didn’t get enough of her to set the bait, and nowhere near enough to allow me to see past the abrupt ending. I’d love to know the mother better – and the father, who is only reflected in the family as the world is reflected off his coral BMW. I’m going to assume the novel starts from that ending, and covers the past more fully in flashbacks as it moves forward. Just from the few pages here, I’d heartily agree it’s ground worth exploring, as is the impact of those years on the present. And I have every reason, based on these glimmers here, to believe it will be far more satisfying as a novel.

Pushcart XL: Julia Story, “Picture of a River” (poetry) from Sixth Finch, Winter 2014

Christopher Marlowe? Portrait at Cambridge University

Christopher Marlowe? Portrait at Cambridge University

They could eat food but it made them decay. I read about it, then put the book down and slept for five hours. I dreamed the river took the dead in a type of passageway, on its way to somewhere else, or toward other people.

Angelina Jolie’s belly has popularized the Latin statement “quod me nutrit me destruit”, usually interpreted as “What nourishes me destroys me”. The sentiment goes back much further. Shakespeare used a similar sentiment in Sonnet 73 and in Pericles, Prince of Tyre. What may – or may not – be the only surviving portrait of Shakespeare’s contemporary (and, some believe, his true identity), Christopher Marlowe, includes the same quote; it may be a variation of the inscription on a statue of his literary hero, Ovid, usually translated as: “Here I lie, who played with tender loves, Naso the poet, killed by my own talent.”

They’re talking about ambitions and drives, including the artistic urge to create, rather than food (though I understand the quote has been used, or perhaps mis-used, by pro-anorexia groups), I leapt to those thoughts with the first line of Story’s prose poem. What is ingestion, digestion, nourishment, but destruction, and life itself requires death. Yet that conundrum is the definition of hell: to be destroyed by what is required for life. This is a bit of a digression, as it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the piece. It merely captivated me from the start.

Although the poem is one single paragraph, I can see four different visions of rivers: the book that starts us off, then the dream, then a memory from Sunday school, then a more prosaic river in a town: a river that does nothing. The rhythms of the sentences change between these rivers. We start off with that almost bouncy 1-2-3/1-2-3/1-2-3/and-stop first sentence, but the next section has a more rolling rhythm, like the small waves a river might have. The Sunday school portion describing the Rapture loses rhythm, but it’s picked up again when “the river, here in the book and in my head, moves part of me to another part of me.”

Then the line that echoes the first, rhythmically in style if not in meter: “There was a River in my town: it did nothing” which I can parse into iambic-ish pentameter that comes to a halt at just the right semantic place: on nothing. Even the river of the dead has a function.

I’m not sure if the initial vision is from the ancient Greeks, the Romans, from Dante, or from some later imagining of Styx. I’m not sure of anything here, except that there are opposites that are the same: life and death, nourishment and destruction, this part of me and that part of me, the loving God who rains down destruction on his creation.

Pushcart XL: Anthony Doerr, “Thing with Feathers That Perches in the Soul” (non-fiction) from Granta, #128

The O'Farrell cabin, Boise, Idaho

The O’Farrell cabin, Boise, Idaho

I am driving my twin sons home from flag football practice. It’s September, it hasn’t rained in two months and seemingly half of the state of Idaho is on fire. For a week the sky has been an upturned bowl the color of putty, the clouds indistinguishable from haze, enough smoke in the air that we tasted in our food, in our throats, in our sleep. But tonight, for some reason, as we pass St. Luke’s hospital, something in the sky gives way, and a breathtaking orange light cascades across the trees, the road, the windshield. We turned onto Fort Street, the road frosted with smoldering, feverish light, and just before the stoplight on Fifth, in a grassy lot, I notice, perhaps for the first time, a little house.
It’s a log cabin with the swayback roof and a low door, like a cottage for gnomes. A little brick chimney sticks out its shingles. Three enamel signs hang on the south side; a stone bench hunkers on the north.
It’s old. It’s tiny. It seems almost to tremble in this strange, volcanic light. I have passed this house, I’m guessing, three thousand times. I have jogged past it, biked past it, driven past it. Every election for the last twelve years I voted in the theater lobby three hundred yards from it.
And yet I’ve never really seen it before.

Anthony Doerr gets me every time. I start out thinking, well, this isn’t going to be anything I’m interested in, the history of Boise, Idaho. And I end up in tears, and I’ve made a new friend named John and his new wife Mary, and it doesn’t matter that they’ve been dead over a century; they are part of my life now, and I’ll think of them whenever I see an old cabin in some corner of a nothing town somewhere: someone was here. They had a story, and now their story is part of my story.

Doerr interweaves present with past with distant past as he remembers Boise before “eighteen Starbucks, all twenty-nine playgrounds, all ten thousand streetlights” and thinks about his own road to parenthood, the process of preparing a nursery for twins just as John had prepared his cabin for Mary, on her way from Colorado, back in the mid-19th century when Idaho was still a territory. He uses this concept of preparing a welcome as a connection: “When you prepare a welcome, you prepare yourself…. You say: Here. This might be humble, this might not be the place you know. This might not be everything you dreamed of. But it’s something you can call home.”

And he brings in storytelling – the theme I’ve sensed for several pieces now in this anthology, the theme dear to every writer and every reader – as a beautiful close to the story, a close that loops back to the opening:

What lasts? Is there anything you’ve made in your life that will still be here 150 years from now? Is there anything on your shelves that will be tagged and numbered and kept in a warehouse like this?
What does not last, if they are not retold, are the stories. Stories need to be resurrected, we’ve typified, reimagined; otherwise they get bundled with us into our graves: 100,000 of them going into the ground every hour.
Or maybe they float a while, suspended in the places we used to be, waiting, hidden in plain sight, until the day when the sky breaks and the lights come on and the right person is passing by.

Like I said, he gets me every time. He makes me want to tell someone’s story, quick, before it’s too late.

Algebraic smart-ALEKS MOOC

Course: College Algebra and Problem Solving
School/platform: Arizona State University/ALEKS/edX
Instructors: Adrian Sannier, Sue McClure

[Y]ou will learn to apply algebraic reasoning to solve problems effectively. You’ll develop skills in linear and quadratic functions, general polynomial functions, rational functions, and exponential and logarithmic functions. You will also study systems of linear equations. This course will emphasize problem-solving techniques, specifically by means of discussing concepts in each of these topics.

A lot of students were effusive with their praise of this course, raving about how much they learned. The staff, from the top echelons down, are highly enthusiastic about its efficacy. It comes with the option to receive ASU credit, so if that’s the goal, or if you’re reviewing algebra and want to know what you don’t know, it might work out great.

My experience was a bit different (but then, I’m kinda weird, especially around math). Remember, I have no background or training in education, I’m a mathematical idiot, and I’ve been focusing on algebra in many different venues for over a year now, so it’s possible this was just the wrong class for me (rule 1: every mooc works for someone, and doesn’t work for someone else). But I was disappointed. I keep hoping for an algebra mooc that helps me understand algebra, and all I keep finding are mastery-based skill drills. Fifty shades of Khan Academy.

On the plus side: the forums were crawling with staff. Most of the questions early on were logistical (“I can’t get into ALEKS… I can’t get this to work… where is the course?”) and they were answered very promptly, usually with pictures showing exactly which button to click. Staff support is a huge issue, particularly when the course is technologically complicated (involving an off-site element, a coaching system separate from the discussion boards, and electronic procedures for proctoring credit-bearing exams), and they really had it covered. I also loved their Twitter icon.

As for the algebra instruction, that was outsourced to ALEKS, a Khan-like proprietary learning system now owned by McGraw-Hill (Bias alert: Just typing that makes me nervous). The first step was an evaluation test of 80 questions (I could be misremembering the number; it took me several sessions over a couple of days). Then the Pie shows up, and from there, it’s a matter of “learning” and “mastering” the 419 topics. For each topic, a problem would pop up; in most cases, a link to some off-site video demonstrating how the problem should be done (often a Khan Academy video, in fact) and/or a page of explanation, would be available if needed.

My evaluation results gave me credit for 75% of the skills, though I still had to do some reviews or knowledge checks or something; I didn’t bother to master the system’s lingo, I just logged in and did whatever it handed me. Took about 50 hours all together, but that’s log-in time, so that includes time spent looking for more information on, say, the graph of a quadratic-over-linear rational function, a few minutes to check Twitter here, a round of Weboggle there… Oh, yeah, like you work 100% of the time when you’re at your computer.

The system was loaded with something they probably think of as encouraging messages: Great Job, Student! Exceptional work, Student! Presumably, one’s name is supposed to be substituted in for “student” but the interface wasn’t ready for that. I thought it was a brilliantly ironic metaphor for the entire “personalized” experience. Call me a curmudgeon, but it seemed like overkill to be so praised for so little. I also received frequent assurance that I only had 7 skills to go – or maybe it was 12. Turns out, one of the counters updates immediately, and the other doesn’t. More irony.

Given the title of the course, and the description emphasizing problem-solving, I’d hoped that would be part of the deal. But in this case, problem-solving seemed to mean: “Here’s a problem in solving a multi-step equation involving natural logarithms. Solve it.” After I’d “mastered” all 419 topics, the adorable @math_goat tweeted out an actual problem-solving problem (fresh from the pages of mathisfun.com) – and I had no idea what to do with it. Three years of math moocs, over a year focusing on algebra, I zipped through this course in a week without breaking a sweat, so why am I still so fucking stupid?!?  At any rate, I wish I’d taken the course that teaches how to do that problem, rather than the one that teaches 419 ways of looking at a polynomial. I’d still be stupid, but I’d have more fun in the meantime.

ASU added on a coaching system, separate from the edX discussion forums. At first, I thought this was a fantastic idea, and eventually it might be (this is the first run of the course, and they do seem interested in making improvements, as you’ll see…). I received prompt and helpful responses to questions, but when I tried to request further info, I discovered there was no way to reply to a coaching message. I asked about this on the forums, and was told the coaching system “is not meant to be for conversational purposes…. is set to simply be for a question and a response.” Conversational purposes? It isn’t like I was chit chatting about Beyonce. I was assured I could copy material into a new question and add an inquiry, but why complicate communication when this is supposed to be the star of this personalized system?

In one case, I’d asked my coach (the coaches don’t have names; could these be more bots?) a very specific question: “Here are the steps I took; I have the correct procedure now, and the right answer, but why was my first procedure incorrect?” I got a lovely reply showing me how to do the problem, complete with a video working it out for me, but no clue as to what was wrong with the incorrect method. And since conversation was discouraged… well, my buddy Purgy was generous enough to answer questions via email, so I found out what I was doing wrong, which involved a fairly important misinterpretation on my part about what it means to “do this to both sides of the equation” so it’s a good thing I’m motivated to go beyond getting the correct answer, even if that’s all the course requires.

And what of the discussion forums? Early on, I asked a question about one of the problems and was told to use the coaching system. That’s fair; you don’t want to be revealing answers to everyone. It meant that the discussion forums were almost entirely about logistical questions. No one wanted to talk math… except for one amazing student who asked some very detailed, in-depth questions about various topics, going way beyond the course material. That was a lot of fun for a while, but eventually he went over my head (or under my feet, really, since he was going deeper and deeper into “but how do you know a^{1/2} = a^{3/6}?” Aside from this one student, there was almost no discussion about math. I started a thread titled “I’m lonely” and tried to get some interest going by posting Numberphile videos, math blog posts, and the like, but no one was interested.

On a more positive note, I (and about 30 others) received an email from the course instructor Dr. Adrian Sannier, Chief Technology Officer of ASU. We were among the first to pass some milestone of completion, so he asked our opinion of the course. So I… gave him my opinion. Opinions. Lots of them, flanked by disclaimers (I don’t know anything about teaching, and I’m not their target demographic). I’m not sure he was ready for all my opinions, but he was quite gracious and responded with detailed comments. Neither of us convinced the other of anything, but it was nice that someone cared enough to ask. They seem to be genuinely making an effort. I’m not sure I’m crazy about what it is they’re making an effort to do, but I can still appreciate effort.

Once I realized this wasn’t the course I’d hoped it would be, I finished up as quickly as possible and went back to emailing Purgy my questions. I keep hoping to find an algebra mooc that’s as engaging as the calculus and mathematical thinking courses I’ve taken (the details of which can be found elsewhere on this blog under the “MOOC” category or “math” tag), or at least as productive and interesting as AOPS or as enlightening and adorable as Mike Lawler’s work with his preteens.

The more I think about it, the more this course strikes me as the other side of the coin from the UT-Austin Discovery Precalc I took last year. That was all concept, no nuts-and-bolts, with hands-off staff. This was all nuts-and-bolts, no concept, and loaded with staff.  Maybe someday someone will put the two together; it’d be awesome.

Maybe I’m shopping for a lawnmower in a shoe store: maybe algebra is exactly what these moocs make it to be: a group of skills, like melting butter and separating eggs, and while I can beat an egg for all it’s worth, I just don’t have the chops for cake-baking class. Or, to stop switching metaphors, the shoe store only carries Manolos in 6AAA and I can’t wear anything but Easy Spirit in 8WW. I’m not sure what else to try other than whatever’s out there. And what’s out there is lawnmowers. And Purgy, bless his heart.

Pushcart XL: Andrea Hollander, “First Snow” (poem) from Spillway, #22

My friend said the first snow always felt
immaculate – she couldn’t wait to play in it.

But she didn’t grow up near a highway where
any accumulation turned gray before your eyes.

And she didn’t have a father like mine, a man raised
by his mother’s images of the worst catastrophes.

The first snow of the season has always seemed particularly special to me; I’ve always attributed it to a number of personally relevant events. My family moved from Connecticut to Florida when I was eight, and no cheery talk about the beach could relieve my longing for snow forts and sledding (which were merely the more tangible representatives of the real issue, my loss of best friends, the third move in four years, and my mother’s illness and, six months into Florida, her death, a subject which was never mentioned again after the funeral). But maybe for everyone in northern climes, the first snow is a moment that brings us to the reality of winter, forces a moment of reflection that, unlike birthdays or New Year’s, occurs randomly yet dependably annually.

The speaker in Hollander’s poem has a personal connection to the first snow, very different from mine but just as intense. She sees it as a metaphor of her upbringing, the sense that under every couple of fluffy white inches there may be a steel wolf trap waiting to snap shut on her vulnerable ankle, or just a leaf that could cause her sole to slip. Kids will run barefoot across an open field until they step on a broken bottle and need stitches. They’ll ride their bikes in traffic without helmets until a friend dies. We learn the dictates of our parents, yes, but we also learn from experience, which is why age brings caution.

Since I’m not a parent, I’ve never had to deal with figuring out just how to warn children about the dangers that lurk. Today’s dangers seem particularly alarming – faces on milk cartons, stranger danger, if you see something say something. But we had our dangers in my youth as well: duck and cover, Conelrad, Vietnam. The generation before me had civil defense wardens and blackout curtains, and before that, bread lines and bank failures. What’s the golden mean, the path between foolhardy optimism and terrified pessimism?

The speaker moves from childhood to the recent past by the end of the poem, because no matter what the lessons of childhood, love has a logic and a vision all its own. If you believe every line every clown throws at you, you’re a fool, but eventually loneliness outweighs caution and you have to trust someone, sometime. Often it works out. Often, it doesn’t. Often it seems to work out until it doesn’t (all those couplets, ending in a single line).

It’s possible to find an accumulation of syllables in this poem; just look at the first line for instance:
My friend – two–beat phrase
said the first snow – four-beat phrase
always felt immaculate – seven beat phrase
– she couldn’t wait to play in it. – eight beat phrase

But of course, that requires arranging it in that way (which may be foolhardy) and not as My friend – said – the first – snow – always – felt – immaculate, 2-1-2-1-2-1-2-2, which might be a more accurate (if cautious) metrical analysis.

Which do we choose? Which do we teach, and which scold? And does it matter, since we all think we know better than our parents, anyway?

Pushcart XL: Katie Coyle, “Fear Itself” from One Story, #192

On a trip with their U.S. History class to a presidential wax museum in a nearby city, three girls make up a game they call Categories, the rules of which are perfectly simple. First, one girl suggests a type of person or thing—Beatle Wife, Pride and Prejudice Sister, Greek Goddess, Mode of Fortune Telling. Second, each girl tries to identify one another within said category. That’s it. That’s the extent of the game. As they play, one girl feels like crying and another feels like screaming and another wants to stop playing Categories altogether, because no one wants to be the Yoko Ono, and no one wants to be the Mary Bennett. But they never officially quit. They are sixteen. They’ve been best friends since grade school. They are Kara (The Mean One), Ruthie (The Funny One), and Olive (The Smart One). All three are mean and funny and smart, but Kara is probably the most of each.

I’ve always had trouble understanding the term “frenemies” which is odd, since I’ve had quite a few though I didn’t realize it until later. It seems to be particularly descriptive of teenage girls, but it’s been hanging around government and corporate offices, around human civilization, for millenia and thus comprises a significant subset of literary tropes from Shakespeare to Austen to the latest YA novel. In the same way twisted love is more interesting than true love, or unhappy families make better drama than happy ones, devious underpinnings make stories of friendship far more intriguing. It’s possible that’s even why people have frenemies to begin with.

But that isn’t Kara’s reason. She simply has no where else to go.

She is sick to death of her only two friends. She used to have more; they used to be a group of six or seven. But when high school started, the other girls drifted away to drink beers in the basements of thick-necked football players, to give blowjobs in the back of mini-vans. They didn’t invite Kara or Ruthie or Olive to join and the remaining three never figured out how to invite themselves. Now they’re stuck with one another.

The style could be thought of as somewhere in the dark humor or Gothic range. I’m always at a disadvantage with dark humor; I found the narration stiff and distant, at times overshadowing the interactions of the girls, which was my primary interest. As a stylistic choice, it ties the story in with old horror stories. The horror-story elements that form the plot structure, both the wax FDR and the school rehearsals of The Crucible, clearly connected supernatural horror and the more prosaic horror of adolescence. I kept wondering why teenage girls don’t want to be Yoko Ono. I mean, when I was a teenager, there was a good reason, but haven’t we moved on since then?

The emotional readings of the girls was very successful. Who can’t understand what it is to tear someone down to feel good, to be jealous of the first one to find romance (if that’s what it is). Sociologists and psychologists will tell you a triad is the most unstable of groups, constantly trying to break down to an in-group dyad and an out-group monad. But in losing the outgroup member, the frenemies would also lose their primary means of building themselves up. It’s very tricky business, fragile-ego management.

Then there’s the idea of coming to the rescue that shows up twice: once as a flashback, and then again in the climax, which involves a blowtorch and reenactment of a scene from The Crucible. In each case, one has to wonder if the cure is worse than the disease – or if maybe the defense of the other is really a defense of self, which entails defense of the frenemy relationship. After all, if you don’t have an out-group to kick around, how can you make yourself feel better?

Although the story isn’t available online, you can find Hannah Tinti’s Q&A with Coyle, as well as her own comments on the piece, at the One Story site.

Gutsy MOOC

Course: Anatomy of the Abdomen and Pelvis
School/platform: Leiden University (Netherlands)/Coursera
You will explore the 3D anatomy of the organs from a basic level, providing thorough anatomical understanding, to its advanced application in surgical procedures. This course will challenge you to discover and help you to understand the anatomy of the abdomen and pelvis in all its aspects, ranging from its embryological underpinnings, via digital microscopy to gross topography and its clinical applications.

One of the particular benefits of MOOCs is the ability to take courses from universities all over the world. I’ve taken courses at two Netherlands universities now, and I have to say, Dutch professors are awesome. That, and my enthusiasm for the subject material, might’ve had something to do with how much I enjoyed this course. It wasn’t the slickest MOOC I’ve taken, in terms of production values, but I’ll trade slick for heart and content any time, and this was loaded with both. And with guts.

I was a little uncertain at first, since we started at the “first comes the esophagus then the stomach” level. I shouldn’t have worried. The material often was presented in what I’ve come to think of as a spiral manner: the first pass includes the most general information, then successive passes go into more and more detail, meaning repetition and connection that helps everything stick. So while the abdominal muscles were mentioned in the first week, it wasn’t until Week 5 that we really dove into the details of origin, insertion, and action. Every week mentioned aspects of embryological development, tissue histology, and clinical practice, so that by the final, I was able to distinguish between a stained slide of the duodenum vs ileum, determine which embryonic features turned into which adult structures and which just melted away with growth, and could consider the path of referred pain to various sites.

The course was set up in six weeks (there is a seventh week, but it’s only to include a final exam) and, because of the new structure of the Coursera platform (sigh), all the material is released at once. The only requirement to pass the course was to score at least 80% on each weekly unit exam, and on the final. But there was a lot more than that available.

The material for each weekly unit included numerous videos: some were lectures, some cadaver and live dissections (these came with trigger warnings for the squeamish, who probably aren’t going to be taking abdominal anatomy anyway), a few were animations, stained slide presentations, and laparoscopic videos. Readings were also featured, sometimes reiterating the lecture material, sometimes supplementing it. There were numerous ungraded practice quizzes as well as “e-tivity” (extra points for that term, though I can’t decide if I love it or hate it) posting prompts such as: Find a couple of sources with information about (the allantois/tubal pregnancy/aortic aneurysms) and write a paragraph or two addressing specific questions. Though these weren’t graded, looking for information through reputable sources (NIH, peer-reviewed publications) and just looking through the answers of other students was extremely helpful; we all seemed to focus on different aspects. Because so many students seemed more well-prepared than I, after a while I got intimidated and stopped submitting my clumsy answers, but the rest of the process was still quite valuable.

Some weeks used a subset the University’s CASK system (online Clinical Anatomical Skills). This included a lot of elements, some of which I found more helpful than others. I was completely unable to figure out the “view a cross-section of the body by any two planes” feature, similar to the Sylvius 4 system from Duke’s Neuroscience. I think more detailed instructions – perhaps a mini-tutorial – might have helped, but no one else complained, so I’ll take the hit for technical mediocrity and impatience. I also found the histology section to be confusing, but I wasn’t sure what I was looking for; again, a more structured approach might have been beneficial, though I might have just flubbed through that as well. I did find the Q-and-A for some sections, like embryology, to be extremely helpful, though inguinal anatomy remained a mystery to me until I found some videos on Youtube. Which, by the way, was encouraged all along; several collections were recommended. There’s a great deal of basic medical education on Youtube, and I mean the real thing, not somebody’s high school biology project.

One of the standout moments of the course came in Week 4. Let me tell you, peritoneal development is complicated business. From about 6 to 11 weeks, an embryo’s intestines are kicked out of the body because there just isn’t enough room, and they twist and rotate in an astonishing peritoneal ballet to fit back in and get everything in the right place, all the while other things are moving around. Every time I take one of these courses, I say again I can’t believe everything works, since it requires so many things to happen just so. But the thing here was the demonstration: a few years ago Dr. Gobée (one of many instructors involved in the course) constructed a giant working model of all this for his medical students, with the stomach and liver that rotate the way they do, and an aorta and vena cava and pancreas and, especially, intestines that extend and twist and retract the way they do, and everything with a plastic peritoneum draped over it, just so we could see exactly what happens and why the peritoneum ends up where it does. It was a great model, and highly instructive. Here we are with dozens of animations of gut rotation on Youtube, and sophisticated imaging technology via CASK, but this model drew more positive comments on the discussion forums than anything else in the course. If you build it, they will come – even if it isn’t the slickest technology.

My personal funny bone was tickled by the head on the anatomical diagram shown here. Most of these diagrams were headless, since we’re more interested in the muscles and organs than the face (or the unflayed exposed parts, which I’ve censored so this blog won’t get flagged for x-rated pictures; I have enough trouble with some of the passages I quote in my literary posts), but in this case it was kind of hilarious to have some Zoolander looking back, as if to say, “Well, whaddya think?” I still don’t know if that diagram was photoshopped or if some print material includes it. Some of the module titles also made me smile. “Knowing your peritoneal relationships” isn’t networking advice, and “The Gems of the Pelvis” turned out to be the female reproductive organs.

This was the first time I’d encountered the kind of pre-testing I’ve encountered in math classes: questions on material that hasn’t been taught yet. I’m still not sure if the motivation was to encourage us to find information on our own – construct our own learning, as the phrase goes in math ed – or to prime us so that when we encountered the material, it was something we’d already thought about, as was used to very good effect in a recent calculus course (which I still haven’t talked about, I’ll get there, I promise, I’m still recovering). I was caught off guard at first, but once I realized I could look things up, I started having a lot of fun. And constructing my own learning. See, it works. However, I do think the course relied a little too much on the “go out and find some material on this” approach.

The graded exams – one per week, plus the final – were challenging in that, unlike the practice exams where the incorrect questions were marked as wrong with perhaps a hint as to the error, no feedback at all was given, only a score. Unlimited attempts were permitted, but only after 30 minutes had elapsed since the last attempt. With no indication of which question I’d gotten wrong, I only had so much patience for fumbling around trying to find it after I hit the pass mark. I should say, however, that the questions were great: a few of them were straightforward information retrieval questions, but most of them required putting together multiple kinds of information, like knowing not only what nerve system runs close to the aorta, but what the effects of damage would be. Then there was the one that required knowing 1) how the stomach absorbs medications and into what vessel; 2) where that vessel goes, and 3) picking it out on a CT slice. I wish I knew if I’d answered that one correctly, because it was Gem of Put-it-all-together Questions.

Of course, you have to really want to know this stuff, either because you need to know it for future coursework or career, or because you just like medical stuff, which is my thing. And you have to be a little patient with a course that doesn’t fit into the cookie-cutter mold. But I’m happy to see oddball MOOCs, I’m thrilled to see teachers who put some thought into how to teach, and I greatly enjoyed this course.

Pushcart XL: Thomas Sayers Ellis, “Vernacular Owl” (poem) from Poetry, July/August 2014

Amiri Baraka: photo by Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Amiri Baraka: photo by Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

                                        for Amiri Baraka
  Old Ark,
how funky it was, all those animals, two of every kind,
and all that waste, the human shit somebody had to clean up.
Somebody, some love you hugged before fear,
the fear of an in-sani-nation, the No Blues, ruined your bowels.
Go devil.
Public programs
Dems a Repub
of Dumpster Molesters,
the Runs.
God evil.
Somebody had to clean that shit up.

~~ Complete poem available online at Poetry;
audio also available (minute 9)

Lots of MFA theses gonna be written about this one. Me, I know when I’m over my head, so the best I can do is mention the obvious, step back and let the poem take the spotlight of wiser thoughts than mine.

What greater tribute can a poet give but a poem. As the predominant image for his tribute to Amiri Baraka, Ellis chose to riff on “Somebody Blew Up America,” which may be Baraka’s most controversial work, leading to, among other things, the end of his tenure as Poet Laureate of New Jersey. The title of Ellis’ tribute echoes the “who” of Baraka’s poem, along with the image of the owl as wise and all-seeing.

The poem uses Noah’s Ark as its conceit, but takes us to the overlooked but far more practical aspects of the well-known story with the repeated line, “Somebody had to clean that shit up”. Brings a different image to the Ark, doesn’t it? Much as bringing facts about America brings a different image to patriotism, like the first time you realize “manifest destiny” was code for “we’re gonna take what we want and kill anyone who gets in the way”. If we’re going to benefit from the dark side of history – and many of us do, every day – the least we can do is acknowledge it in the present.

The poem’s a kaleidoscope of images, and I’m nowhere near familiar enough either with Baraka’s work nor with poetics in general to parse it. This is something like a highbrow “American Pie” (the song, not the movie, for god’s sake), a game I never played well. But, boy, a lot of degree candidates are going to get a lot of mileage out of it. Just count the references – to pop culture, to politics, to the military, to social and poetic theory, to sound and fury – in one brief section:

              Flushed, too, every time the Yew Norker
or one of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s traitorous X Jedi Clampett hillbillies
fresh prince’d us…
                               The real religion,
                               our “individual expressiveness”
                                 wasn’t dehuman-u-factured
                               by a Greek HAARP
                                       in a Roman uni-dot-gov-versity.
                               Where we Away
                               our Steel, “flood”
                                 means “flow.”
                               Where we Tenure
                               our Ammo, “podium”
                                 means “drum.”

As indicated in the Poetry background material, Ellis has put a lot of thought into the performance of poetry for a long time: “A perform–a–form occurs when the idea body and the performance body, frustrated by their own segregated aesthetic boundaries, seek to crossroads with one another.” Hence the saxophone intertwined with the reading (if you didn’t listen, oh, please do, beginning at about the 9-minute mark – it’s quite a different experience from reading the text, and includes some solid commentary from Don Share and Lindsey Garbutt). He’s recorded collaborations of other Baraka works with saxophonist James Brandon Lewis. And notice that Baraka’s reading of his original poem also includes a saxophonist.

I’ve always wondered why so many poets read their works in that monotone drone: it’s so standard, there must be a theoretical basis for it (unless poets are by nature just terrible readers?), perhaps to focus on the words rather than the spoken interpretation, to allow the hearer to apply her own interpretation? But the drone is an interpretation, and when I hear it, I find it often diminishes what I’d thought I’d heard in the poem in the first place. Ellis, like Baraka, has multiple outlets for his art – he’s a photographer as well as poet and teacher – and if you don’t think teaching is a performing art, you’ve never seen a real teacher in action – so perhaps that’s why he’s able to allow poetry to expand beyond words on a page.

Don Share, editor of Poetry (which is, arguably, America’s most august poetry journal) reveals in a Divedapper interview with Kaveh Akbar the negative reaction publishing such work can generate:

As some might have seen, the august TLS in the UK went crazy over my publishing Thomas Sayers Ellis’s poem, “Vernacular Owl,” erroneously calling Ellis “half-literate,” and characterizing the magazine as the bastard offspring of Ray Johnson and Amiri Baraka. But Harriet got hate mail after publishing T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” – like a note from the critic Louis Untermeyer who said that the effect of the poem was that of the “Muse in a psychopathic ward.” You can say “Make It New” all you want to, but some things stay the same.

That’s the push-pull, isn’t it: make it new, but don’t scare the horses. Lots of people scaring the horses these days, since politely asking the horses to clean up their own shit wasn’t working.

                                Now a daze,
                                the devil
                                the best historian we got.

In the audio podcast, Share mentions the ending word as looking backwards, in resignation, and forwards, as where do we go from here. I love that. When I read the poem, I thought it sounded like exhaustion, as if the speaker just realized, hey, I’ve said everything I have to say, now it’s up to you to do something with what you’ve heard, and when I heard Share’s comment, it seemed to fit what I was fumbling around with. “Here it is. It’s yours now. Well?” Who’s gonna clean up this shit?

The question of “whose story is it” was a big issue for me in the story I read just prior to this, “The Weave” by Charles Johnson. I wonder if this is the theme running through Pushcart here, or if it’s just that it’s on my mind so I see it everywhere these days. History is all storytelling, and the storyteller has great power to shape belief which has great power to shape the future, because (just check Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”) what people think happened is often more important than what did happen. Every American history course begins in Europe with people who became Americans, because to begin in what is now America with the original Americans would be a different story with different heroes and villains. Elections are won and lost on how well the candidate tells the story. “Who lives who dies who tells your story“. “The danger of the single story“.

And the devil has his story, too. Who wrote this story: Ellis, Baraka, America, me, you? Who?

Pushcart XL: Charles Johnson, “The Weave” from Iowa Review, #44.2


Ieesha is nervous and trying not to sneeze when she steps at four in the morning to the front door of Sassy Hair Salon and Beauty Supplies in the Central District. After all, it was a sneeze that got her fired from this salon two days ago. She has a sore throat and red eyes, but that’s all you can see because the ski mask covers the rest of her face. As she twists the key in the lock, her eyes are darting in every direction, up and down the empty street, because she and I have never done anything like this before.

Let’s start with some interesting writer’s choices. First, the observer-narrator. Ieesha’s boyfriend doesn’t even get a name, but he’s our filter. Why the distance? Is it because Iessha’s narration would be too raw? Is an observer necessary to screen out the roiling emotion and provide a more organized narration of events? Or is he taking the story, and (given the ending), making it his? To take another tack: (given the ending), is he making it their story? It’s a question I’m always asking when I read: whose story is it? In this case, I’m not really sure, but given the title and the ending, the third option is pretty tempting.

The plot is more or less about the theft of hair extensions from the salon Ieesha was fired from a few days before, when an unexpected sneeze caused a slip of the curling iron that burned a councilwoman’s ear. If it seems ridiculous to be fired for such a mishap, well, that’s a good reason for Ieesha’s anger. The burglary itself is kind of fun, just enough detail (like evading motion detectors) to make it a real part of the story. A different story would’ve played it for laughs and left it at that, with perhaps a pithy comment or two, but this isn’t a story about burglary; it’s about much more.

Every day, the customers at Sassy Hair Salon and the wigs lovingly check each other out for some time, and then after long and careful deliberation, the wigs always by the women. Unstated, but permeating every particle in that exchange of desire, is a profound, historical pain, a hurt based on the lie that the hair one was unlucky enough to be born with can never in this culture be good enough, is never beautiful as it is, and must be scorched by scalp-scalding chemicals into temporary straightness, because if that torment is not endured often from the tender age of four months old, how can one ever satisfy the unquenchable thirst to be desired or worthy of love?

Perhaps because it’s extruded living tissue created by our bodies, people take hair very seriously. Many religions have hair requirements both for religious functionaries and for worshipers, and this will come into play shortly. The generation gap in the 60s focused on hair length as often as it did on politics or Vietnam. A TV series can be cancelled because of a haircut (anyone remember Felicity?). But all that pales next to the furor over black hair in America, both inter- and intraracially.

And lest you think this is all a little silly: the US military had different standards of hairstyles for black women than they have for black men or white women, and those standards include wigs, braids, chemical straighteners, and weaves, but not natural hair – until outcry forced them to change the restrictions. Immediately after winning the extremely competitive Olympic Gold Medal in All-Around Gymnastics in 2008, victorious teenage athlete Gabby Douglas was twittercised for… you guessed it, her hair. The University of Pennsylvania held a symposium on the politics of black hair. Girls are occasionally threatened with expulsion from private schools for having natural hair. And, by the way, the phrase “good hair” itself, a term dating back to slavery, speaks volumes. It’s not about fashion; it’s about survival.

Johnson discusses the genesis of this story in an interview in the Iowa Review. His initial impetus was beauty, but his preexisting interest in the socioeconomics of black hair soon took over. He watched the Chris Rock documentary Good Hair, and a news story about a hair salon break-in provided some plot scaffolding. But he built the story from his own experience and convictions, and it goes way past a comedic caper.

And that’s where the title comes in: while there are bags of hair in the story, there is no weave. I think the weave is between Ieesha and the donors of the hair, whose story is also told:

The bags, she says, come from the Buddhist temple near New Delhi, where young women shave their heads in an ancient ceremony of sacrifice called Pabbajja. They give up their hair to renounce all vanity, and this letting go of things cosmetic and the chimera called ego is the first step as nuns on the pastor realizing that the essence of everything is emptiness…. They didn’t care what happened to their hair after the ceremony. Didn’t know it would be sewn, stitched, and stapled onto the scalps of other people.… From India, where these women cultivated outward life of simplicity and an inward life free from illusion, the merchants transported the discarded, did hair halfway around the planet, where, ironically, it was cannibalized as commerce in a nine-billion-dollar hair-extension industry devoted precisely to keeping women forever enslaved to the eyes of others.

Interesting that, although this tonsuring is seen as a way of freeing oneself, it is still a requirement imposed from without. Wouldn’t true freedom lie in letting the women do whatever they want with their hair? But the way it’s written it serves more as a commonality between women separated by a globe, and that’s pretty nice too.

I do wish Johnson hadn’t hammered his point home so directly through his narrator, but it’s great imagery and irony, so I can’t complain much. And that’s what an observer narrator is there for, to observe and comment, while Ieesha, is wrapped up in the action, experience and her own thoughts. The final scene has that effect I so enjoy, that “projecting into the future” quality as characters take on lives of their own beyond the page. I’m not sure what will happen to these people, but I’m sure they’ve understood something on a level much deeper than their follicles; I think the reader will, too.

Einsteinian MOOC

Course: The Einstein Revolution
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructors: Peter Galison, Ion Mihailescu

Participants in the course will follow seventeen lessons, each of which will present a mix of science (no prerequisites!) and the broader, relevant cultural surround. Some weeks will examine the physics concepts, while others will see excerpts of films or discuss modernist poetry that took off from relativity. Or we might be looking at the philosophical roots and philosophical consequences of Einstein’s works. At other times we will be fully engaged with historical and political questions: the building, dropping, and proliferation of nuclear weapons, for example.

Philosophy +history+ low-level science + art + biography = what could be better? I haven’t been this happy since I found that vid about Dante’s model of Paradise using four-dimensional geometry.

Galison is a Professor of History of Science and Physics (and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1997). The course is largely based on his book, Einstein’s Clocks and Poincare’s Maps, which just happen to be topics of the first few weeks.

But while there’s a lot of science, it doesn’t stop there. Yes, there’s Brownian motion and the photoelectric effect, but there’s also realism vs positivism and the Vienna Circle. The equivalence principle and Minkowski’s geometric interpretation of relativity take up considerable time, but so does the art of Hannah Hoch, along with Prof. Hillary Chute’s heartbreaking interview about Japanese manga relating to Hiroshima. You’ll meet Boltzmann, Mach, Bohr, Schrodinger and Heisenberg, but also Blau and Meitner, and you’ll find out why those last two names are not familiar – and why they should be.

I have to admit to being less than happy early on. In fact, the first couple of weeks were pretty brutal, math and science-wise. It’s not that anything was that complex; certainly no calculus or serious computation. I just found it draining, and there were details that made no sense to me (and still don’t). But then there was a stretch of history and philosophy, and some art, and I felt a lot better. The longer the course went on, the happier I was to have pushed through the rough start. Another drawback: there was no staff. Sadly, that’s not unusual, particularly since this was the second run of the course. Automoocs: push a button and they start. The cohort was quite lively nevertheless, and we managed.

Grading was structured so that it was possible to “pass” even if an area was mostly ignored. Between physics assignments, peer-assessed essays, and forum posts, there was plenty of opportunity to collect enough points even if, say, you wanted to skip a couple of essays (as the lowest two would be dropped anyway) or did poorly on some science (where the lowest two scores were dropped as well).

Scores, however, aren’t really the purpose in a course like this, at least not for me. From my point of view, it’s just a great way to see how art, philosophy, and science can interact, and to watch a fascinating era in human history develop over a half-century. It’s more of an exploration, meant perhaps to broaden rather than deepen one’s view. I found the approach to be unique and quite enjoyable, an inviting hook into further study.

Pushcart XL: Lisa Russ Spaar, “Temple Gaudete” (poem) from Image, #81

Is love the start of a journey back?
If so, back where, & make it holy.

Saint Cerulean Warbler, blue blur,
heart on the lam, courses arterial branches,

combing up & down, embolic,
while inside I punch down & fold a floe

of dough to make it later rise.

Sometimes the transition between pieces grabs my attention. Unlike BASS, where each story is set in alphabetical order by author’s last name, these pieces are arranged. I always wonder how that’s done. Sometimes themes develop and blend into each other, mutating over the course of the work. Sometimes I don’t see any connection. And sometimes, the connection between two works seems to say something. We just had an essay titled for a bird and a mixed-up pair of saints, which had nothing to do with birds, perhaps something to do with figuring out who’s a saint and who’s not, and a lot to do with the peripatetic wanderings of two friends. Here we have the quite deliberate, instinctual wandering of the cerulean warbler, who spends its summers in places like Ohio and Indiana and its winters in Ecuador and Colombia, blended with a hymn of joy and the overtones of Advent.

A gaudete is a Christmas carol aimed specifically at the third Sunday in Advent. Taking a pattern from Lent, the third Sunday allows worshipers to change gears from reflection and penitence to joy; in Latin, “Gaudete” means “Rejoice”. The purple candles and vestments are replaced with pink, or, more specifically, rose, adding the symbolism of Mary; as the poem says, “There is gash,/ then balm.” We repent to find joy. As amateur (and not-so-amateur) theologians have noted for centuries, the gash is necessary for the balm to have meaning; otherwise it’s just sticky smelly goo.

The poem dramatically physicalizes gash and balm, existence itself, by the dough punched down before rising, and also in the image of the “embolic” bird in the “arterial branches” of the tree. This rather terrifying image of a heart attack waiting to happen equates the bird with executioner. “There is gash, / then balm.” When I was introduced to Christian doctrine as a tween, I wondered why people wanted to stay alive so badly, if heaven was all that great. Now there are other questions: “Admit we love the abyss, / our mouths sipping it in one another.” I’ll admit it, sure. But why do we love it? Why do we do such damage to ourselves? Is it because it’s the path to the balm?

I’m on uncertain ground when it comes to the theological interpretations, of course. But Image has a unique mission statement among literary magazines:

Image was founded in 1989 to demonstrate the continued vitality and diversity of contemporary art and literature that engage with the religious traditions of Western culture…. We believe that the great art that has emerged from these faith traditions is dramatic, not didactic—incarnational, not abstract. And so our focus has been on works of imagination that embody a spiritual struggle…. In our pages the larger questions of existence intersect with what the poet Albert Goldbarth calls the “greasy doorknobs and salty tearducts” of our everyday lives.

And the punching down with the rise, the abyss with the cerulean warbler, just trying to stock up before the long flight south.

Pushcart XL: Poe Ballantine, “Father Junípero Admonishes a Bird” (non-fiction) from The Sun, #460

I met Dabber Jansen in 1979 on a trip to Arcata, California, to see my ex-girlfriend, who was his girlfriend at the time. He was at work driving a truck for Eureka Fisheries when I arrived, and …. turned out to be a self-styled radical intellectual, like me. Dabber was thirty. I was twenty-three. He and I stayed up long after my ex had gone to bed, drank all the liquor in the house, and discussed Planck’s constant,The Marriage of Figaro, and the influence of Joseph Campbell on the work of John Steinbeck. Fattened on the milk of the beatnik revolution and disenchanted with science, law, organized religion, journalism, politics, and the military, we both viewed Art as the last noble pursuit. About four that morning, Dabber dragged out his manual Royal typewriter and inserted a piece of paper into the roller, and, along with a few pickled poems, a friendship was born.

Complete essay available online at The Sun.

For reasons I don’t quite understand, I never fell for the romance of the offbeat intellectual anti-hero – the Jack Kerouacs and Hunter S. Thompsons. It all just seems very self-indulgent to me. Maybe my attitude is a combination of envy of those who understand everything so easily, coupled with a terror of finding myself on the street with nothing. How do people live, even in the short term, going from nothing to nothing, taking what comes, getting by on what’s to be had?

Ballantine and his friend Dabber show different routes through the seeming aimlessness through the lens of male friendship. That friendship hits a few bumps in the road, particularly on a trip to Mexico, but they patch things up later and find themselves reminiscing while their children play.

The title comes from an amusing scene: the mistaking of St. Francis for Junípero Serra. While one is universally acclaimed for his benevolence, humility and grace, to the point where admonishing a bird would be viewed as completely out of character, the other has a more complicated history.

The last paragraph seems to be Ballantine’s repudiation of the artistic life, or at least a reluctance to pass it on to the next generation; I’m not sure I quite buy into it. I have to believe there are many artists who have not been miserable and self destructive, and who’s to say those who are would be any happier if they were truck drivers or computer engineers? Yet I remember Salieri’s words from the film Amadeus : “If [God] didn’t want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent?” Lack of talent doesn’t seem to be the issue for either of these friends, but for one of them, it just isn’t enough.

Then again, the scene at the end smacks of happy domesticity. Come to think of it, even St. Francis went through a bad-boy phase. Maybe Dabber’s path was the right one for him, after all.

Pushcart XL: Sue Ellen Thompson, “My Father’s Laundry” (poem) from Summerset Review, Winter 2015

When my mother died, my father discovered
he could not fold a fitted sheet. Patiently,
I showed him the appropriate technique,
but in the months, then years, that followed,
I would find the bottom sheets he’d laundered
spread out on the guest room bed,

~~Complete poem available online at Summerset Review

What lovely rhythms in this poem. The first five lines flow gracefully in more or less pentameter, but then that sixth line comes in like the stop sign it is in single syllables that pound out a four-beat bar. It calls to mind the first part of the second line, in fact, which is also a bit more staccato, emphatic. Pay attention, those lines say to me as I read it aloud. I emphasize them without intending to.

I also like the enjambment of the second stanza, in two separate places. Because it’s such a short poem, I can’t copy it all, but there’s a link above where you can see what I mean. Those two socks, disappearing into one as two lines disappear into one. And the last two lines, the heart of the poem tucked away as the unfolded sheets tuck away his grief. The title brings to mind “dirty laundry” but this laundry is clean and pure as love.

I love this idea of incompetence as a message, and in this case, a sweet and poignant one. I’ve heard that women have used incompetence for centuries as ways of attracting men (I wouldn’t know; the men I always wanted to attract were far more interested in exceptional ability, perhaps because of the myth). When I first left home, I sent my checkbook to my father for balancing (yes, we used to balance checkbooks back in the olden days) not because I couldn’t do it – I hated doing it, but I was perfectly capable of it – but to let him know, in terms he could understand, that I was fine. And in this poem, incompetence likewise maintains a connection, perhaps the only connection possible. It also delivers reassurance: I’m not alone.

The poem is from Thompson’s 2014 collection They, a portrait of a three-generational family all dealing with changes and the feelings that erupt in the wake of the unfamiliar.

I’m very happy to see Summerset Review get some Pushcart love. I have a slight passing acquaintance with editor Joe Levens (to the extent that I know his name, though I doubt he knows mine) from my Zoetrope days; he even contributed to a Zin post on second person. And a couple of pieces from the magazine appear on my Online Fiction Sampler page.

Pushcart XL: George Singleton, “Four-Way Stop” from Georgia Review, Summer 2014

Nikolai Ge: "Christ and the Thief" (1893)

Nikolai Ge: “Christ and the Thief” (1893)

G. R. prided himself on both historical and traditional figures. He felt as if he knew quite a bit about pop culture, too, at least in movies and music. This was Halloween at his and Tina’s front door, out from normal suburban neighborhoods. He’d already pointed at masks and said that man, iron Man, Superman, Spiderman,… He’d correctly identified Reagan, Bush, Napoleon, and Rush Limbaugh. Ballerina, pro wrestlers…. G. R. waved at parents waiting on the roadside in cars, gave a thumbs up, said how he liked the way their little Lady Gaga’s looked, their Mileys, their MacBook Airs and cans of Red Bull. “God damn how many miniature Snickers we got left? We got any of those Reese’s cups?” G. R. said to his wife. “I don’t remember Halloween being like this the last few years. The churches must quit having parties. I thought parents got scared off by razor blades and white powder.”

I often sense stories as physical shapes: lines, spirals, arcs, triangles pointing either up or down. This story read very much like an onion, if you can think of an onion as something to read: lots of layers, and every layer gets teased away to reveal another one. I think it’s the first time I’ve had clear three-dimensional impression of a story. It’s not that other stories don’t reveal more as they go, but here, the layers just peel off, and nothing is what it was a sentence or two ago.

You gotta love a guy who wishes for the old days of “razor blades and white powder” scaring off trick-or-treaters; and you’ve gotta love his wife, who wanted him to wear “a bloody bandage on your head like some kind of Civil War amputee” for the same purpose. But there’s more to these people than we see at first glance.

Every year there’s a tsk-tsk feature about parents who dress their kids as Madonna (last year it was “Pretty Woman” before the rich john, because who wouldn’t want to be the after-Gere version). Has Halloween changed, or has it always been like this? I thought it went gay back in the 70s, but it seems more mainstream than ever. It’s sort of a trial run for Christmas: home decorating, food, parties.

I, however, seem to be missing the Halloween gene. I only recall two costumes, a bumblebee an an angel (and the bumblebee I only remember because I had a photo until fairly recently when I had the sense to throw it away). I haven’t had a trick-or-treater at my door in decades (though that doesn’t stop me from buying a bag of candy, “just in case”).

Singleton brings on some goofy humor with his trick-or-treat:

G. R.… looked out the door and said, “Jesus! Jesus! Two Jesuses! Are y’all with each other?” Two young men limped up the walkway, both burdened with crosses fashioned from four-by-four lengths of pressure-treated pine normally used for flower-bed edging.
G. R. Yelled out, “Jesus and Jesus! Y’all are the first biblical characters we’ve had tonight. Good job boys!” He focused on the teenagers, but handed over a couple small Butterfingers and Milky Ways to a young hobo and Snow White who elbowed in. They didn’t say “Trick-Or-Treat” or “Thank you,” but he didn’t mind. To the two Jesuses, he said, “Man, that has to be tough,” for they had to hold their arms out to the side, with plastic orange pumpkins strapped to their wrists, which were strapped to the wood. “We’re not Jesus,” the kid on the left said. “I’m Impenitent Thief.”
“Penitent thief. Sorry,” said the other kid.

Singleton has a rep as a Southern writer with a sense of humor. From a brief tour of his works, I see a lot of common elements: religion, a kind of gritty charm to the characters, and even four-way stop signs. I don’t think of those as native to the South (I encounter several in my daily travels), but for what ever reason, they seem to show up in his stories. Maybe it’s not because they’re a regional tic, but rather an interesting symbol. Four-way stops make no sense and create a mess, yet lots of cities (like Des Moines, Iowa, for example seem to have requests from citizens for such signage, and have to explain it isn’t always a good idea. It seems civil engineering has worked out conditions when a four-way stop would be helpful, and the only one I agree with is: to serve as a stop-gap until a traffic signal can be installed. But I’m not a civil engineer.

I haven’t said much about the story because to read it is to discover it yourself. Some stories are like that. Every “oh, so he isn’t…” or “Ah, now I see what that’s about…” is like a crochet stitch in an elaborate afghan, working together to create the whole. The arrangement of the layers, and the way in which each one is peeled back, is the art. It’s quite short – about seven pages – but I went through at least three sharp turns.

There’s a thread of theology running through the layers. It starts with the Biblical trick-or-treaters and develops with the so-called Halloween Miracle. I can’t quite parse it, but I’m going to work on that, because I’m intrigued from the start by the confusion between penitence and impenitence. The penitent thief, unnamed in the four canonical Gospels, has many names in other sources. The most common is St. Dismas, which is unrelated to “dismal” (from the Latin, “bad days”) but rather comes from the Greek word for sunset (δύση ήλιου, literally, “west sunlight”), often used as a metaphor for death. Which again shows that, just because a story begins with some goofy riff on Halloween, and just because a character seems to be something of a tightwad ass, if you look more closely, you’ll find first impressions don’t always mean much.

Pushcart XL: Dorothea Lasky, “Porn” (poetry) from Paris Review, #208

I watch porn
Cause I’ll never be in love
Except with you dear reader
Who thinks I surrender
But who’s to say this stanza is not porn

There’s a tumblr out there called Bookshelf Porn: photos of grand libraries where whispers echo, tiny dusty bookstores that start the allergic sniffling, bookcases of insanely clever or astoundingly banal design, people reading books in cars, on skis, upside down… lots of books. A few of the images have a sexuality to them, but mostly it’s about a love of books, provoking the viewer to say, “Oh, I want to go there.” Cooking fans routinely refer to “food porn”, those images that make your mouth water, images you can smell, that make you ready to eat the page or screen. Maybe that’s the fundamental definition of porn: it makes you want.

As uncomfortable as I am with the notion of the poet “surrendering” to the reader – I can’t think of anything I’d want less from a poet, or a lover, for that matter – I’m intrigued by the idea of poetry as porn. And though just about everything can be referred to as “[domain] porn”, I’ve never seen an article on “poetry porn”.

What would poetry-as-porn be like? Stimulating, intriguing, tantalizing. Lasky discusses it in an LA Times interview, in what she calls a “demonic” element of poetry, the desire to know a reader and turn itself into what the reader wants as a lure:

That’s what I’ve always wanted poems to do. I want them to be attractive and entertaining and seemingly simple, using language and imagery that people can easily understand. But once you’re in the poem you’re trapped. It locks the door and tells you what it wants to say. I don’t think the persona in “Porn” wants to hurt the reader — it just knows that porn is something that will make everyone listen, and even if they’re disgusted by it, they’re still fascinated by the scene. So it’s a way to seduce the reader into an intimate place.

To me, porn is about surface pleasure rather than deep gratification. It’s second-best. If that’s what any particular reader wants from poetry – or if that’s what I want at certain times or from certain poems – sure, poem porn might work. But I think of all the “invitational” poetry I’ve read. “Let us go then, you and I…” “I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.” “Loafe with me on the grass…” Poetry, writing, and for that matter drama, music, art, explanation, persuasion, nearly any creative activity, needs to be a communication. It might be pleasurable. Or it might be discordant, disturbing, confusing. But it has to affect you somewhere other than the pleasure center of your brain. It has to nourish, not just stimulate the appetite.

I do like the notion of the seductiveness of poetry, its ability (in some cases) to command attention and keep us riveted to the page; the ability of a title to attract; and above all, the pleasure of reading just-right words. And if those words change you, make you more of who you were meant to be, alleviate the intrinsic loneliness of the soul encased forever in its body, to me that’s more than porn.

Pushcart XL: Richard Bausch, “Map-Reading” from Virginia Quarterly Review, #90.3

VQR art by Stephanie Shieldhouse

VQR art by Stephanie Shieldhouse

They were to meet at the Empire Hotel lounge on West 63rd Street and Broadway, across from Lincoln Center. She told Benton she would be wearing a blue woolen hat shaped like a ball and a lighter blue top coat. “They have a great wine list,” she said. Then, through a small nervous laugh: “I’ll be early, and get us a table away from the piano.” A pause, and then the laugh again. “Believe me, it’s good to be away from the piano.” She sounded good over the telephone. A soft rich alto voice, full grown. She was now twenty-two. Benton was fifty-one. A half-sister he had never had a conversation with in his life. Kate. Katie.

~ ~ Complete story available online from VQR

Neither toxins nor sunlight can get through a wall. When we cut ourselves off – even as a necessary step of self-preservation – we also might cut ourselves off from sources of support. And when we run away, we forsake more than that which we seek to escape.

Benton’s a 50-ish high school teacher who’s somewhat emotionally distanced himself from his family of origin, particularly his father. His parents were long ago divorced and remarried; sister Alice, who seems somewhere between devout and around the bend, judgmentally disapproves of both the divorce and Benton’s gayness. But she arranges for Benton to meet, for only the second time in his life, his half-sister, Katie when she’s in town. What Alice knows about Katie is anybody’s guess, but Benton’s in for a big surprise.

He’d kept that image for a time. The little sister’s uplifted hand in the window of the car. The very heart of possibility. And as the years went by he thought of her now and then, imagining her growing into a teenager, growing up in that house with Benton Sr., with his judgments and his temper, and Della, who had seemed so fragile and worried. But he could never see Katie as anything but that little girl. Alice’s children, two little boys and a girl, were not much older than she. How strange to think that the little girl straining to put her hands in the water of the fountain in the lobby of the Peabody was another sister. And grown now.

A prominent image in the story concerns the Peabody ducks. They’re a real thing, I’ve discovered (maybe I’m the only one who’s never heard of them before). The Peabody Hotel in Memphis has a fountain in the lobby where, during the day, five ducks swim merrily; every afternoon, with great fanfare, they’re escorted from fountain to elevator to their overnight accommodations somewhere in the hotel, only to return the next morning.

I’m thinking the connection between story and ducks is the notion of Katie looking for someone to follow, someone to lead her, and finding no one there. And yes, there’s the element of training, routine, and public show, followed by whatever goes on after the elevator doors close, though I don’t get the sense that either Katie or Benton is performing for anyone. In any event, it’s a nice element, rich with texture.

For me, however, the story lived in Benton’s explicit sense of regret, as he realizes the ramifications of the door he closed behind him. The foundation for this is carefully laid from the first paragraph, with that tiny glimpse of affectionate tenderness in his repetition of his half-sister’s name, the progression from formal to familiar: he wants to get it right. Here’s hoping he gets it right going forward.