Pushcart XLII: Teresa Dzieglewicz, “Stranger, Thank You for Giving Me This Body” (poem) from Rhino, 2016

Art by Élie Nysquisot

Art by Élie Nysquisot

                                    to break
on Lakeshore Drive. For the eyes I turn
                  to the radio as the lady
in the red SUV slams
                  on her brakes. Thank you for bringing me
into this world,
                  where my Pontiac crumples
like crepe paper, where the airbag’s white fist
            pummels my chest and burnt talcum erupts
                        like confetti, stains my clothes
with the scent of singed hair.

Complete story available online at Rhino

We’ve all heard that, in a moment when one expects to die, our lives will flash before us. The speaker in this poem has a slightly different vision: a thank-you note to the unknown woman who bore her, then gave her up for adoption.

Like the prior poem, two related but separate threads are overlaid and seen together, like seeing two translucent panels together, each contributing something to make an impression that is neither. Here, it’s stark life-and-death imagery, the gratitude overlaying pain.

I found this poem to be a great example of the use of structure to reinforce meaning. The jagged line indents perhaps bring to mind the shattered glass and ruptured steel of the car around our speaker (and let me admit that I haven’t precisely reproduced the poem’s format; but since an online version is available, I merely approximated the indents). I’m not sure if there’s a technical term for using the title of a poem as a first line without repeating it in the poem proper – a special form of enjambment, maybe? – but it seems to give a sense of a muddled beginning, something a little different but easily comprehended, similar to how an adopted child might view her own beginning.

The poem reads like a grateful prayer, a recognition of something that may not always be acknowledged. I wonder if the title is worded as it is – “thank you for giving me” – to bring to mind forgiveness, perhaps in both directions: the child and mother forgive each other for whatever wrongs they may have perceived in the past: the child forgives the mother’s abandonment, the mother forgives the child’s anger. Whatever rancor may have been, it is gone now: the essence of forgiveness.

By tracing the negatives –

But I mean, I’ve learned no name
      for how we’ve never sat across a table,
            fingers greasy with fries,
                  how it wasn’t you who read to me each night,
                              taught me to make pizzelles and Sunday gravy,
rushed to the emergency room.
                  But still, somehow, I know you
by the beautiful facts
                  of my fingers, my cracked sternum, the skin of my chest
            purpling with fireworks of blood.

– the positive is acknowledged: even though the beginning confuses us for a moment, it began something beautiful. May we all have such gratitude in our final thoughts – and a little before wouldn’t hurt, either.


Pushcart XLII: Carolyn Forché, “The Boatman” (poem) from Poetry, October 2016

We were thirty-one souls all, he said, on the gray-sick of sea
in a cold rubber boat, rising and falling in our filth.
By morning this didn’t matter, no land was in sight,
all were soaked to the bone, living and dead.
We could still float, we said, from war to war.
What lay behind us but ruins of stone piled on ruins of stone?
City called “mother of the poor” surrounded by fields
of cotton and millet, city of jewelers and cloak-makers,
with the oldest church in Christendom and the Sword of Allah.
If anyone remains there now, he assures, they would be utterly alone.

Complete poem available online at Poetry

Poets can be inspired by all sorts of things: a heroic moment from history, a graceful Grecian urn, daffodils, a mouse, a louse, a nightingale. Or a cab ride through New York courtesy of a Syrian refugee who tells his story. Forché tells us in the audio reading that accompanies the online version of this poem.

Since I’ve just taken several history moocs that looked at the Levant and at medieval Islam, I was interested in the geographical references of the poem. The city of Homs, familiar to us from the news, is the “mother of the poor”, so called in modern times because the cost of living was low. The Sword of Allah refers to Khalid ibn al-Walid, a compatriot to Mohammed and military hero in the early decades of the Islamic Empire; his mausoleum in Homs is bordered by a mosque named in his honor. The “oldest church in Christendom” is more problematic; as far as I can tell, the oldest known church building is a house church in Dura-Europas, not Homs; Syria was part of the Byzantine empire early on, and thus was an early site of several forms of Christianity, so perhaps “church” is being used in the congregational, rather than architectural, sense.

In any case, places and names are merely background; the heart of the poem is clearly deeper.

A brief discussion by Poetry Magazine editors Lindsay Garbutt and Don Share in their October 2016 podcast helped to align the poem for me. The two journeys – one a flight from war to an uncertain destination, a flight that is possibly more deadly than what is left behind but still offers possibility; the other, a simple transit – are overlaid in the poem, resulting in a kind of melding of one small facet of the experience: the putting of one’s safety in the hands of another for the duration of the trip. We get to hear a lot about refugees through newscasts, commentary, and debate, but this is an attempt to let us hear more directly, albeit filtered though the poet’s ear, heart, and mind, from one man who managed to arrive safely, and now spends his day ferrying others, bringing them safely to their destination.

Leave, yes, we obey the leaflets, but go where?
To the sea to be eaten, to the shores of Europe to be caged?
To camp misery and camp remain here. I ask you then, where?
You tell me you are a poet. If so, our destination is the same.
I find myself now the boatman, driving a taxi at the end of the world.
I will see that you arrive safely, my friend, I will get you there.

The connection between cab driver and passenger, between refugee and harbor, is beautiful and devastating. Any one of those people we see on the news could become our shepherds; and, believe it or not (and I fear it becomes more believable every day now), we could find ourselves on troubled waters, looking for a safe place to come ashore. We are not just our brothers’ keepers: we are our brothers, every one.

Pushcart XLII: Stephen Hess, “Act” from Noon, 2016

Art by Anne Rosenvald

Art by Anne Rosenvald

Last spring, I declared to several of my friends that I intended to videotape myself performing a variety of basic, yet highly artificial acts. At the time, I had settled on three specific scenarios; reading the entirety of Thomas Berhnard’s novel Yes aloud, attempting to erase every spot of snow cover on a stretch of sidewalk with my footprints after a winter storm, and walking through city streets to the point of injury, yet continuing on until the pain became unbearable….At the time, I was feeling melodramatic and depressed, and was also filled with such intense anxiety that I could not speak or write clearly, so I felt that recording myself would allow me to articulate a statement that would have otherwise escaped me, and for reasons I cannot explain.

At least two or three times during each Pushcart read, I come across a piece that is so far beyond me, I can’t even begin to comprehend it. This piece is a case in point. At least two complicating factors cloud the field: genre, and a discovery I made while doing research to find a way in.

It’s a short piece, about four pages. Most of it is navel-gazing about intent and failure of execution, none of which yields any real insight or conclusion; a list of other projects never done, and a self-addressed letter, closes the piece.

The point is that I wanted to document something but I didn’t, but I did the things I proposed to do anyway, so I can’t say whether I lost or gained something….

That phrase, “The point is that I wanted to document something and I didn’t” appears twice, and in such a short piece, that must be significant.

About genre: There’s no narrative structure, no protagonist, no rising action – climax – falling action. Yet it’s listed as fiction. Pushcart has been known to be a bit sloppy about categorizations. Here, it makes a difference that seems significant to me, because more than anything else it reminds me of Andrew Zolot’s “The Piece Need Not Be Built”, a nonfiction piece from Pushcart 2014, an art commentary that made a huge impression on me. I keep thinking this is a natural offshoot of that: a performance artist’s commentary on, not his work, but the absence of it.

But for some reason it makes a big difference to me if this is an essay written for that purpose, or if it’s fiction about an artist writing such an essay. I wonder if there is a big difference, or if it’s just part of me trying to categorize everything, if the fiction is so out-of-the-box I can’t handle it so I want to put it in another box.

The other complicating factor is an article I uncovered while wandering around the interwebs looking for something I could use as a way in. This itself was complicated by the prominence of Brookings Institute Fellow Stephen Hess, who is, I’m pretty sure, not the same as the Stephen Hess who wrote this piece, but the Stephen Hess I’m trying to find – using the usual tricks like “fiction” or “writer” or “author” doesn’t help since the Brookings Stephen Hess is also a writer – is something of a phantom. I finally came across a piece in Unsaid by Hess, in very much the same style as this piece, with a heading “RIP Stephen Hess 1980-2015”; if this is factual and not some artistic manipulation, the author died at the heartbreakingly young age of 35. But being enmeshed in the Andy Kaufmanesque world of what-is-art-and-what-is-life (a realm Unsaid and Noon and, it seems, Hess himself, generally inhabit) I wasn’t sure what to think. I finally ran into a post by Elizabeth Ellen, who nominated the piece to Pushcart, that confirmed Hess did indeed pass away in 2015.

And this opens up another puzzle: was he ill? Did he know he would die soon, and this piece foreshadows that, is the kind of legacy an artist leaves to document intent when the act is not documented? Or was it unexpected, and this is all coincidence? Am I being ghoulish even thinking about such things, on this day after 17 people, including several teenagers who were doing nothing more risky than attending school, were murdered because the values of this country are now greed and violence?

I do not wish to offend; but I am confused and more than a little heartbroken. Maybe at some future point we will all regain our senses (too late for me, I fear, but I hope for the sake of your children and grandchildren) and I will see clearly.

Pushcart XLII: Valerie Sayers, “Tidal Wave” from Image #90

In the early days of integration, when only white girls tried out for cheerleader, our elections were a cross between small-town participatory democracy, Soviet-style anointment of the chosen, and the Miss America Pageant. We sat rapt in the bleachers while the candidates cartwheeled in front of the whole school, flashing their white panties. Then we trooped back to homeroom to cast our votes.
We were chatterers, smarty-pants, A-track girls who raised our hands on one beat and never let the boys get a word in edgewise. We would never be cheerleaders, but we knew what it took: a cheerleader didn’t need to be pretty, though most of ours were pretty, as a matter of fact, and a cheerleader didn’t need to be athletic, though some of ours weren’t too shabby in the handstand department. A cheerleader only needed to exude unshakable self-confidence and, maybe as a corollary, to beam bubbly friendliness and make it look like it wasn’t fake—we knew all about fake friendliness. We were growing up in South Carolina, for God’s sake.
All our stories are unresolved high school stories.

Complete story available online at Image

A sense of place: that’s a buzzphrase used a lot in discussions of fiction. The place doesn’t mean just physical or geographic location, but encompasses time and culture as well. The American South seems to come up most frequently in discussions of place. Flannery Connor spent her career building on the sense of place that was her South. It’s no surprise that Sayers herself heavily influenced by Connor; it’s only slightly surprising that the English teacher in this story, Mr. Thigsby, is partly based on Sayer’s own English teacher from her years at Beaufort High School, novelist and Southern fiction specialist Pat Conroy.

Mr. Thigsby said we were ignorant little yahoos, the way we slathered on baby oil and roasted ourselves at the beach, when for centuries poets had known the most beautiful skin was alabaster. Look at Botticelli’s Venus, look at Vonda Freeman, for goodness sake.
So we all did. We twisted in our seats toward the back of the room, where Vonda’s face had turned one of those fiery shades that is certainly not alabaster. She wore an expression we had never seen on each other’s faces, a combination of pain and shame and sweetness, and she stared down at her desk so assiduously that Mr. Thigsby said: Vonda, sugar, I most certainly did not mean to put you on the spot, but now you have perfectly illustrated feminine grace.
Later, we all agreed that when she finally allowed herself to look up that day with her slow-breaking smile, her eyes darted toward Margaret Washington and Marcus Toomer, who stared out the window as assiduously as Vonda had stared down at her desk while the white folk discussed the perfect shade of pale.

Many of us who grew up in the 60s and early 70s know this place, or something like it; not necessarily the South, but a place that was part of the Moral Majority, disapproving of hippies and integration and antiwar protests. Many of us knew the hero-worship of cheerleaders. And most of us are aware that poor kids tend to be isolated, though sometimes they have enough charm, beauty, smarts, or talent to become stars. And sometimes, they use the setbacks along the way as some kind of platform from which to push off and rise to extraordinary heights. As Vonda does.

It’s a story of regret, told by one of the crowd of students whose white middle-class lives are fully planned out for them. While we spend a long time in the past, the story is a recollection from much later. Facebook plays an interesting role, as both a marker of character, and an indicator of the group ethos of the students who haven’t really changed much from high school. The story has a pronounced sense of regret, as they see how Vonda has cut her own path, and it seems much more interesting than the Atlanta suburbs, high school reunions, and serial marriages. The narrator – who speaks in “we” but somehow remains separate – seems to have felt regret even in the past, but wasn’t equipped to do anything about it. Her regret in the present is even more pronounced.

What if we’d done things differently in high school? We all wonder that. If we’d stopped worrying about seeming “cool” (or whatever the current slang might be; doesn’t matter, it’ll be something else two years from now), if we hadn’t been so careful to not be shocking (or, maybe, if we hadn’t been so determined to be shocking, since it works that way, too), if we’d ignored all the advice and gone with our gut. We might have turned into Vonda. And, admiring the NPR story about her, the narrator knows what she might have passed up.

Arab-Islamic History mooc

Course: Arab-Islamic History: From Tribes to Empires
Length: 9 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: IsraelX/edX
Instructor: Miri Shefer-Mossensohn
You and I are about to embark on a journey through 1,000 years of history. This is a pre-modern case of global history, spanning three continents and the lives of millions. We’ll visit some of the sites where historical events occurred. We’ll learn about regimes; we’ll learn about people– men, women, children, who walked the streets of the Middle East. We’ll be accompanied by some of the best scholars of the pre-modern Middle East– colleagues from Tel Aviv University and from other institutions here in Israel, the US, and the UK. You’ll have ample opportunities to enter the historian’s lab and have hands-on experience in playing the historical detective yourself by reading excerpts from historical works and looking at paintings, artifacts, and buildings. These will allow us to piece together a picture of the past– the stories of individuals, their lifestyles, their common perceptions, their customs, and allow us, eventually, to explain the profound changes in political organization, in social interaction, and in religious affiliation.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve taken several courses touching briefly on the history of various pieces of the medieval Muslim empire. This one was a lot more focused and a bit more extensive, and I finally feel like I’m beginning to get it. I still have trouble keeping all the threads straight, since a lot was going on in a lot of places – the Arabian peninsula, the Levant, Iran, central Asia, north Africa, Iberia – among a lot of people – Arabs, Samanids, Buyhids, Fatimids, Andalusians, Seljuks, Berbers, Mamluks, Sassanids, Persians, Mongols – and much of it overlaps as groups assimilate, migrate, conquer, or get conquered. But I feel like I’ve made a solid start, and since I created a Cerego set for the course, I’ll be reminded of all of it from time to time and will retain at least the basics of who, what, when, where, why.

The course begins with five weeks of history, starting from Mohammed and moving to the entry of the Ottomans. Yes, there were leaders and battles and invasions, but there were also little family dramas that played out in political reality, along with dramas of how that political power was legitimized and exercised across an empire consisting of many different groups, and the ways in which the empire maintained unity. Then we looked at cultural aspects: how people lived, religious details, the Translation Project, and the flourishing of arts and sciences in the Middle East, while keeping in mind the interplay between history and culture.

Each week featured a variety of learning media: Video lectures, of course, but also written documents, punctuated by beautiful manuscript illustrations (and available as PDFs for those, like me, who want to copy everything so we can refer to it forever), and interviews with a variety of academic specialists. All of these were followed by brief, ungraded knowledge checks which are useful for highlighting central points. A graded quiz finished off each week.

I was impressed by the final exam, which was weighted at 60% of the final grade. Most of it was information retrieval, but the context of the questions made it a bit more of a challenge than just a rephrase of the material, and several questions required combining individual facts. I even discovered two errors in my Cerego cards thanks to the final – which makes me worry: how many more errors lurk unfound?

A unique feature of the course was the ungraded Historian’s Lab. Each week, a source document (in translation) or artifact was provided, along with some questions relating to the week’s topic for forum discussion. I was a bit lost here, and very intimidated by the evident expertise, so I didn’t add anything but gained some insight from comments of other students, sometimes confirming and often expanding my initial impressions. It’s a handy way to provide an extra challenge in the course, since most moocs have students at every level from absolute novices to accomplished scholars.

I of course was drawn to the manuscripts and descriptions of the different scripts used over the centuries, though this was a very small part of the course. I smiled throughout at the pseudo-animation of various manuscript illustrations, sometimes a collage of separate images, with slight movements and sound effects running over the lecture. Because I follow several medievalists on Twitter, I sometimes see images from Arabic, Persian, or Turkish manuscripts; a week ago Emily Steiner (@PiersAtPenn) tweeted images from the Book of Kings, which we just covered this week. Combine that with Peter Adamson (@HistPhilosophy, of HoPWaG fame) being in a non-Western philosophy phase at the moment and retweeting a photo of a contemporary statue of Avicenna from Dushanbe, Tajikistan, just yesterday, and I’m really glad I took this course. In fact, I’m ready for more!

Pushcart XLII: Laura Kasischke, “Praying Mantis in My Husband’s Salad” (poem) from Lake Effect #20

Once, he found one
among the lettuce leaves and
cabbage shreds a former
girlfriend had
arranged on a plate for him. If
it was still alive, I can’t
remember what my husband said that
he and the girlfriend did with it.

Words pass over me so easily sometimes. I was all set to file this under “goofy love poems”. It is, but it’s also well-structured and crafted with purpose: to see different perspectives, to carry emotional impact.

What’s the one thing anyone remembers about a praying mantis? The female has a tendency to eat the males after – or sometimes during – mating. “Yet this behavior seems not to deter males from reproduction”, National Geographic notes drily (or maybe the dryness is inferred by me). Seat that in a poem written by a wife about her husband’s ex-girlfriend, and you’ve got a little soap opera in a poem.

… He’s never, my
husband, been
a salad-eater. Was he then?

Are we still talking about salad?

There’s a wonderful balance of humor and venom, much as the mantis maintains a prayer-like posture before killing; “And their martian faces, of course, with / such innocent expressions. / But all-knowing. / And all business.” And again: are we still talking about salad?

What really grabs me comes up next: “My tiny, triangular head, swiveling / From side to side….” In reviews for Kasischke’s 2017 collection Where Now in which this poem appears, I see phrases like “notices then subverts the so-called ‘normal’”, tug-of-war, and shape-shifting. And here’s a downright shift of speaker, right into the mantis’ triangular head.

Then we shift into the future, while never leaving the recollection of the past; because that’s where the present is, always.

… the meal she’d made for him, and which
They were about to share, beginning
With that salad, and
Also ending there.

Yeah, this is clearly about way more than salad. And I imagine the speaker, forevermore on the alert for the possibility that another praying mantis – or some other predator – might turn up in her husband’s salad some day.

Pushcart XLII: Christopher Kempf, “Michaux State Forest, New Year’s” (poem) from Gettysburg Review, Summer 2016

The approach of the Angel Raphael: Original mezzotint, 1825-1826.

The approach of the Angel Raphael: Original mezzotint, 1825-1826.

We run the kókúku trail (translation—
snow owl, in late-American) alone
this morning, its strict, midwinter alders
dark against the snowfall, its flocks of crows
shrieking as we pass. & as for the river—
there is a river. & as for those vast
accumulations of gasses—& as,
too, for the Fords & Hyundais, & the flows
of copper from Chile to Santa Cruz
& the migrant workers of Sri Lanka
scaling their towers in Dubai—that will,
some evening, rear up & expunge us,
yes, we can almost imagine ourselves
last here, our species’ sole surviving pair
of scavengers ventured forth for water
& shelter, as surely it will be, we
accept now, those new years the planet—poor
rock—is at last absolved of us.

Complete poem available online at Gettysburg Review

Paradise Lost is one of those literary works I’m afraid to read; I keep hoping I’ll come across a mooc or some heavily annotated guide at some point, and will finally tackle it as I did Dante a few years ago. But too late for this poem, which draws heavily on it; I think if I had more than a vague outline of the content, I’d be much better prepared. Oh well, the poem will still be there some day in the future when I finally get around to it. In the meantime, I can do the best I can with the poem, which shouts its message so clearly it almost compensates for my lacks.

It’s an eco-poem, but has so many reverberations – with the tragedy of 18th century Native American culture, with the short-sightedness of American capitalism, with industrial greed as the antidote to poverty, with Milton and Shakespeare – it’s far more than that. While I can’t really nail it down into a precise outline of interwoven themes and images, I wonder if maybe that’s missing the point, that poetry doesn’t have to be science, but can just leave a trace of some ineffable sensation lingering that sticks with us.

From the highest location for miles,
Milton says, he is shown, Adam, the wide
& lavishly manifold history
that will follow him. & it is glorious,
partly. How the banners ripple cleanly
from their turrets. With what refinéd grace
the courtesans attend their farandoles
& coronations. Paintings. Waltzes. Also,
however, in the teeming congeries
of men & animals, influenza
racing like a terror. Diphtheria
lifting its lurid flag, & back of this,
Milton describes, the emergent money
systems of sixteenth-century Europe
carried forth in the rolling cannon smoke
of capital.

This section draws from Book XI of Paradise Lost: after the first people are cast out from Eden, the angel Michael shows Adam the history that will unfold, the history he has created by his sin: his older son killing the younger, greed and hatred, hypocrisy, sacrificial altars, all humanity’s foolish and wayward doings up to the Flood, so Adam has an idea of just what he has unleashed. Kempf sets this against the French intrusion into North America in quest of furs, colonies, wealth, and the Indians’ view of the destruction caused by these endeavors. What follows is a reference to the massacre at the Enoch Brown schoolhouse in what today is Pennsylvania, a particularly grisly Native attack on children, teachers, and a pregnant woman that inflamed tensions. The speaker acknowledges the white settler’s point of view through the eyes of Andre Michaux, botanist, explorer, and namesake of the state park in which the poem is composed; but he sets that against the point of view of the Lenape Indians:

He would have, Michaux, heard
often of their savagery. He would have
called it that, & been properly appalled
when four Lenape entered a schoolhouse
here, winter 1764, & peeled
their blades across the skulls of the children
as they practiced their numbers. He would have
wept probably, though for the Lenape
it seemed simply the extravagant end
of a whole history of sicknesses
& ruin.

There is, of course, no pardon for murdering children (though we as a nation have decided it’s more important for NRA funds to flow freely than it is to reasonably license and control guns, even following the murder of twenty children in Newtown, CT). The speaker manages to give voice to both sides, not glossing over the horrendous violence, but looking back to see what it was in reaction to. And, by the way, violence beget more violence, as the settlers instituted “scalping bounties” to encourage murder of Indians.

And speaking of violence begetting violence:

When finally the earth—or
“this goodly frame, a spot,” Milton says—starves
us from its forests & riversides, it
will not be merciful. It will finish
us slowly. We know this.

Here I again call upon context: having just been immersed in a Shakespeare mooc for several weeks, I flashed on Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man” speech, written about 60 years earlier, which also uses the term “this goodly frame”. Is this a deliberate allusion? Or is it just a phrase common at the time, thus prone to being used by two poets? For that matter, did Kempf deliberately include an ambiguous phrase – and one which, in either context, is comfortable in this context – or was that, too, a happy accident?

I was able to find a footnote referencing a pertinent article on the cross-reference between Milton and Shakespeare by Concordia professor Judith Scherer Herz titled “Paradise Lost VIII: Adam, Hamlet and the Anxiety of Narrative” and am attempting to get my hands on the article (from 1988, but my local library has pulled off bigger miracles). In the meantime, I’m left to my own devices to see a connection with the poem.

[Addendum: Aha, a PDF of the 1988 article from the journal English Studies in Canada arrived, free of charge, compliments of my library, the UMass/Aherst library, and the Interlibrary Loan program. Public libraries are awesome!
I learned several things things from Dr. Scherer:
First, and perhaps most important: the use of the phrase is not an accident. “The linking phrase functions in Milton’s text as both allusion and echo. Milton is far too conscious a poet to let in another unwittingly, especially Shakespeare”, says Scherer.
Now, about Book VIII, she makes several points that relate to Kempf’s poem:
1. The poet is delaying The Fall with this mini-narrative; Kempf is doing something like the reverse, rolling back time to our Fall itself.
2. Adam is not gazing in wonder at the stars, but challenging Raphael about what seems to him, unaware of what is about to happen, about the seemingly unnecessary complexity of the natural world; this leads to doubt; I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lanape Indians felt similar doubts about the French settlers in their midst.
3. Adam is “a speaker whose relation to his materials is complicated both by his participation in his own narrative and by his essential ignorance of its final shape”. This seems pretty modernist to me, which is surprising; but I may be misinterpreting Scherer here. In any case, the speaker in Kempf’s poem is likewise an observer, and a participant, as are all of us in contemporary society.
The passage that seems most relevant: “Adam both derives from and is Hamlet’s original. Hamlet is what Adam will sound like after the goodly frame has shrunk to the sterile promontory.” And so we have Kempf’s speaker, what Michaux will sound like, if he were here, seeing the goodly frame polluted and stripped bare to make it yield every possible nickel. And we stand beside him and see our sin played out. ]

If I’m interpreting Milton correctly, the pre-Fall Adam is marvelling at the splendor of the universe and asking the angel Raphael how it works. Hamlet’s approach is distinctly different: he recognizes the marvels of the universe, but mourns them as he is unable to appreciate them in his state of mind; the earth has become “a sterile promontory.” This seems more pertinent to the speaker’s frame of mind, yet Kempf chose to stick with Milton; is he assuming the connection will be made?

In any event, both uses of the phrase deal with beauty, and loss of that beauty; Adam before, and Hamlet after that loss. Maybe it’s about point-of-view: the Lanape, and Michaux, would have seen the glory of the earth without knowing the Fall was coming, a la Milton; today, we imagine it, a la Hamlet.

Our speaker returns to Milton, to the pre-Fall tour of the universe, and we again see him in awe. But another element is woven in, some acknowledgment of what the Lanape Indians might have felt.

How for Adam the vast
globes rolling in their sky lanes, & comets
& stars & “space incomprehensible”
between the moon & Sirius exist
merely—oh, & here he is particularly
brilliant, listen—to “officiate light”
round this meager atom, the world. & round
its lemon trees & robins. Round his wife’s
hair in its evening coruscations. Her hand
in his hand. & the lush & ample breast
of the new world laid before them. For that,
he thinks, my God, what wouldn’t we butcher?

Just breathe a moment, and let that last line sink in.

One of the features of this poem that I found annoying was the use of ampersands instead of the word “and”. The symbols are used, particularly in the beginning of the poem, to begin sentences. I don’t see a clear pattern. I did a “paragraphed” version of the poem, to see if .& was an indication of a new thought, or what might be considered a stanza, but I don’t think so. I wonder if it’s another of those typographical signals, little tics to keep us on our toes, to pay attention when shortcuts are taken. And maybe there’s a sense of continuity, everything both blended together – the Lanape, Michaux’s park, the earth, we of the 21st century – and separated.

I’ve been delaying publication of this post to see if the article on “this goodly space” would come in; not yet. If it shows up, I’ll do an Addendum. But having read ahead, I can now say that I’ve been greatly surprised by three poems in this volume, poems that grew on me, revealing more and more as I read through them and read them again and thought about them. Slow reading has its rewards.

Pushcart XLII: Ada Limón, “The Leash” (poetry) from Poem-a-Day

Image from Rachel Visser's animation of the poem

Image from Rachel Visser’s animation of the poem

After the birthing of bombs of forks and fear,
the frantic automatic weapons unleashed,
the spray of bullets into a crowd holding hands,
that brute sky opening in a slate metal maw
that swallows only the unsayable in each of us, what’s
left? Even the hidden nowhere river is poisoned
orange and acidic by a coal mine.

Complete poem available online at Poets.org

Context – the time, place, mental state, the overall gestalt in which a piece is read – has been a frequent theme for me as I’ve been reading this volume. Given that years, decades, centuries may pass between when a piece is written, and when it’s read, and the infinite different postures of the human mind and heart, it’s kind of a miracle we can connect to written work at all. This poem was published over two years ago – who knows when it was written – but I feel like it was written today just for me. I probably would’ve felt that way yesterday, too. And most of the yesterdays – oh, hell, all of them – from the past year-plus.

I’m so captivated by content I haven’t even worked on the rhythm or sound qualities (though the opening lines have a particularly frictional and explosive alliteration well suited to the content). I looked at it as more of an essay, opening with the state of things-as-they-are, the anger and despair so many of us have been feeling for so long, we forget it isn’t normal. Nods to, what, drone attacks, school shootings, rampant pollution written off as the cost of modernity (including the electricity with which I write these words, nudging me with an elbow of guilt right in the complicity), it’s too much, too much, and she knows we fear, that we “want to lick the creek bottom dry to suck the deadly water up into our own lungs” because this can’t be survivable.

But, of course, it is survivable.

Reader, I want to
say, Don’t die. Even when silvery fish after fish
comes back belly up, and the country plummets
into a crepitating crater of hatred, isn’t there still
something singing?

And suddenly I’m comforted, as if a quilt is tucked around me, or someone is holding my hand. I’m reminded of the music of the spheres, all the things that are still good and beautiful in the world. It’s very personal; I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a poem address the reader as Reader, though I’m sure they exist (it isn’t like I read much poetry outside of Pushcart), as sometimes fiction or essays will in various forms (Gentle Reader, Dear Reader). It’s like the poet – not the speaker, somehow, though they need to be kept distinct in theory, at least – is right here in the room with me.

Then she admits “I don’t know”. This is even more comforting, to be around someone who doesn’t have everything figured out, but who has faith that we’ll get through even this.

The leash metaphor comes into play via her dog, who loves to chase pickup trucks, running after them, “she’s sure, without a doubt, that the loud roaring things will love her back”. And the speaker (yes, here I feel a difference, probably just because I’m less a miserably sick child and more of Reader, having been healed by just those few words) keeps her dog safe because she knows the trucks may not love her dog back, so she pulls on the leash. Anger and despair, the dog; faith, the leash. Don’t ever let go of the leash.

Perhaps, we are always hurtling our body towards
the thing that will obliterate us, begging for love
from the speeding passage of time, and so maybe
like the dog obedient at my heels, we can walk together
peacefully, at least until the next truck comes.

So we move from the terrifying, frantic opening, via a turn of direct address, to a calm, thoughtful ending. Both speaker and dog are still here, enjoying the walk, but there is no denial or delusion: the leash is ready for the next time it is needed.

Would this poem have meant as much to me in another time? It was published in January, 2016, so it could it be completely unrelated to the context in which I see it. Like the poet, I have to admit: I don’t know. But at this time, literally this afternoon, in the context of today, it was what I needed. It was my leash, keeping me from spiraling down.

In preparation for this post, I did quite a bit of listening to her read other poems via youtube recordings of various poetry readings, and I remember “How to Triumph Like A Girl” from Pushcart 2015. I think Limón would be a favorite poet of mine, if I could focus on poetry enough to have a favorite: her works aren’t so obscure as to make me feel stupid, yet have a quality I hear as beauty, and even though I’m not trained enough to parse it, it pulls me in.

Pushcart XLII: Blair Hurley, “The Home for Buddhist Widows” from West Branch #81

Before light has come and the little birds whose names we don’t know are fluttering and darting out of the eaves of the temple, one of the monks is hitting the ancient cast-iron bell.

It is traditional in many Asian countries to withdraw from the world for a time after the loss of the husband, to rest, to recover from one’s grief through contemplation. Indian women might join an ashram. Here in Japan, medieval noblewomen would visit a monastery to live as nuns, to purify and replenish themselves. Now the notion has fallen out of fashion; there are few Buddhist nuns in Japan anymore. But word has spread among the Americans…. In Akron, in São Paolo, a pamphlet is pushed across the table by a friend. Or late-night browsing on the internet for “how do widows” and letting Google autofill: “how do widows cope, how do widows recover” leads us to a Buddhist website.

It seems you can go to the other side of the globe to heal your broken heart, but you’ll still find yourself in the never-ending hell of life with other people: the monks who look down on you (maybe because you’re a foreigner, maybe because you’re a tourist); the overachiever (she’s always three koans ahead of everyone else), the rebellious one (why do we have to sweep every day, why can’t we tend the sand garden once in a while?).

I went looking for websites advertising Buddhist retreats for widows, but found nothing other than a few “retreats” in the US claiming to be based on Zen Buddhism (I know someone who went to such a retreat for a couple of weeks); nothing specific to widows. Am I ridiculously cynical, or does this sound like a marketing ploy? In any event, it’s a quiet, soft story about recovery from great loss, somewhat along the same lines as Diane Cook’s story “Moving On” from BASS 2015 though without the dystopian element. The questions raised tend to center on identity outside of marriage, on the problem of breaking patterns that no longer make sense when it’s not clear what patterns do make sense now.

For our protagonist, the question is more about relationships in general:

I go to the window; it’s like my dream, the one where I see my husband off on a trip, and he wants me to run out and kiss him goodbye, watching him leave, and I don’t know why I won’t bend, why I can’t make the cold center of myself soften.

We see her progress by the end of the story, in a touching scene that has amusing possibilities. I think that’s how the story keeps from being overly sentimental: it keeps veering towards comedy, but humor of a tiny chuckle rather than a loud guffaw.

Pushcart XLII: Brian Morton, “Tolstoy and God” (nonfiction) from Agni #84

Saul Bellow had been my favorite living writer for almost twenty years, but I ’d never even thought about trying to meet him. I was so much in awe of him, he seemed so firmly fixed in literary history, that I’m not sure it ever occurred to me that you could meet him. It would be like trying to get together with Milton or Wordsworth or Blake.
But now it looked like I was going to meet him after all.

Complete story available online at Agni

A couple of months ago, when every day brought news of another big name in entertainment accused of some kind of sexual assault or harassment, someone on my Twitter feed said: “I’m at the point when if I see a celebrity’s name trending, I think, ‘Oh please, let him be dead.'” We’ve all engaged in the game of “can you separate the art from the actions of the artist” from time to time – TS Eliot’s antisemitism is a standard in any English class – but it’s a little different somehow when the artist is a contemporary. And it’s a lot different when you get invited to a party and see up close and personal what an ass he is.

This was a wonderful, readable little memoir that hoists Bellow on his own petard pretty handily. Morton gives us enough specifics to understand his appreciation for the writer:

And I didn’t know of any other living fiction writer who thought as persistently as Bellow did about the life of the spirit. I’d once read the transcript of a conversation he’d had with some writing students: one of them had asked a question about literary technique, and he’d answered that technique was unimportant; what was important for a writer was to find and follow the promptings of one’s soul. You could feel, all through his work, that he was a writer who had followed the promptings of his soul. In another place he’d written that “The name of the game is give all,” and the line had stayed with me for years. You can love a writer’s work without loving everything about it, and you can love a writer’s work without loving the writer. Nothing Bellow could do or say at this party would make me love his work any less.

… and enough background on himself and his wife (and her sparkly silver dress) to make the upcoming party suspenseful; we know he’s going to be caught between kowtowing to Greatness and “follow[ing] the promptings of one’s soul.” That in itself brings back the whole art vs artist thing: if the promptings of an artist’s soul are vile outside the art, mustn’t the art itself be the product of similar character flaws? Or is the artistic part of the soul isolated from whatever it is that guides our human relationships?

Bellow is frequently described as “complicated”, a word that usually means unpleasant (for men; unpleasant women get called other things). He was, by the way, a Dreamer: when he was nine years old, his family moved to Chicago from Canada where they’d emigrated illegally from Russia, where they were in some peril. He had no idea he wasn’t a US citizen until he tried to enlist in the Army, at which point he became naturalized. I have to wonder what would happen to him today, what’s happening right now to the future great writers, scientists, scholars, leaders who are being held hostage by a Congress that cares about money and power rather than people.

To be very clear, the assholery in the story has nothing whatsoever to do with sexual misconduct. I’m going to leave the specifics – of the title, the party, and the header image – for the reader to discover, since the piece is available online and it’s a fun read. The conflict is not so charming, but is all around us: how much comfort, status, privilege will you give up to honor your values?

Pushcart XLII: Reginald McKnight, “Float” from Georgia Review, Spring 2016

Walk into my room and come to find one of my Jordan Air Max 360s floating about five foot off the ground. Soon as I see it, my heart kinda go pie-yow! and my neck get hot. Then I smile at my foolish, foolish dumb-ass ass, and I say to myself my brother Ricky had done strung it up from the ceiling. I grab the thing, but it don’t budge. It’s like it’s glued up there in the air, and much as I tug and pull on it, that bad boy ain’t coming down. It ain’t hanging from nothing I can see, just up there where it don’t belong. Feel my neck start to warm up again, and my hands tremble a little. I tug, a couple more times, then give up. Turn back to my door like I’m fenda go ask somebody to come have a look, but I don’t know who in this house gonna explain this.

Complete story available online at Georgia Review

So what would you do if you were a high school kid who came home to find a shoe floating in your room, and nobody else would say anything about it but pretty much acted like it belonged there all along?

Dontrell has a kind of clueless helplessness that emanates as adorability. His father leans an elbow on the shoe while scolding him for leaving a wrench outside; his mother just skips right over it when he asks her; his brother Ricky uses it as a towel rack. What’s a kid to do? ‘Trey’s befuddlement, his frustration, is almost another character in the story. It’s as compelling as any who-done-it, this who’s-gonna-speak story.

Our view of his character deepens when he does something that’s pretty smart, solution-oriented, and logical: he goes to the library and looks for other people having this problem. On the internet he finds lots of people with lots of crazy-ass problems, and learns “a whole lotta people cain’t spell no better than me. Grown people. White people. Motherfuckers from England”, but nothing pertinent to floating shoes. He wonders if he’s crazy. Because that’s what the world does: it puts you in bizarre situations then tells you you’re crazy for noticing they’re bizarre. Anybody know how that feels?

He’s finally relieved, to some degree, when his sister admits she sees the shoes, after he gives her “one of them Muslim school looks: one part God, three parts hitman”, which makes Muslim school sound very much like the Catholic schools I’ve heard about all my life. “You know I cain’t say nothing about it, right?” she tells him. Yeah, he knows. She’s already got a bruise on her neck where Mom smacked her for not closing the window. He closes with an anthem celebrating the point of view he will not cede.

I felt this story. I don’t have much to say about it beyond recommending it as an example of how to connect readers with characters, how to create an emotional experience out of a fairly simple event. I suspect there’s more to the story than I’m getting, and maybe someday I’ll understand what that is. But for now – elephants in the room, gaslighting, naked emperors, this is fine – I got plenty.

Pushcart XLII: Tom Bissell, “Creative Types” from Paris Review #219

The night before their appointment, they sent Haley one final e-mail in which they reaffirmed the when and where and tastefully restated their excitement. But Reuben managed to smuggle in a request: Would Haley mind wearing “normal clothes”? He was about to hit send when Brenna, proofreading over his shoulder, announced that his use of “normal” was, in this context, “problematic.”
“Problematic,” he said. Their son had been asleep for an hour.
Bren, looking at the laptop’s screen, only nodded.
Reuben poised his e-mail-sending finger above the enter key like a scientist about to launch something toward Pluto. “Bren, come on. I’m sending it.”

What are they setting up? We soon find out they’re enjoying some kind of Hollywood success, so it could be anything – A new nanny? A housekeeper, private chef, massage therapist? Nope, it’s a hooker – excuse me, escort – who’s joining them for an evening of fun and games to put the spark back in their marriage. Creative types, my ass.

Maybe it’s the context in which I’m reading – the #MeToo and #TimesUp era – or maybe I’m just in a bad mood, or maybe – and this is probably most likely – it’s the point of the story, but I found it to be annoying. It’s a long paean to the fragile male ego, and the temperamental male phallus, which goes on strike over the least little thing, especially a wife whose career (in reality TV, oh lord) is going well while the penis-owner’s writing career has stalled.

“Oh!” Bren said, as though Haley were a dirty-pawed puppy about to jump in her lap. “Okay! Hello!” While they embraced, Bren held her wine glass – a festive red orb of Malbec – up above her and Haley’s heads, which somehow made Reuben think of mistletoe. His hands had been respectfully stationary on Haley’s body, but Bren’s free hand moved familiarly up and down Haley’s back. That was one great social cultural advantage of women’s hands, wasn’t it. They could go where they wanted to go. They had free rein.

Just another guy complaining about his limited freedom. I am not in the mood for this, given the 152 women who just came forward in court to describe what the freedom-loving Olympic team doctor did to them over a span of years from the time they were barely pubescent while Olympic officials bought their silence. But Reuben soon has more pressing problems: “His boner had indeed been killed by Haley’s CLA$$Y LADY tattoo.” Because nothing is more important than a man’s hard-on. I told you, I’m not in the mood for this.

Haley, the ready-for-anything escort, takes it all in stride and tells them a sad story about her tattoo and a dead friend, and for some reason I didn’t buy any of it. I can’t even give her points for creativity, since it’s the story you’d expect, a tough home life, limited options, a drug overdose.

Stylistically, I did quite like the imagery in the final paragraph. The two women, having had a great time while hubby stood forlornly by, start talking kids, and again he and his flaccid penis are left out.

They said other things while Reuben watched one of Bren’s scented candles burn down to the wick. Almost there. Wait for it. And there it was, the flame surging with a final valiant attempt at ignition. Then it went out. Then it waved its farewell banner of smoke.

That’s a nice snapshot of a marriage ending. I encountered Bissell once before several years ago in BASS, and admired the story, particularly the opening. Maybe another reason the story bugs me is that the three fiction pieces so far in this volume were exceptional, imaginative in very different ways; this, by comparison, felt like just another story. It’s not lost on me how harsh that sounds; that will be something I take up in my own little post-game. So please forgive me if I’m missing something important, but I’m moving on, because there’s greatness coming in the next pages.

Shakespeare Matters MOOC

Course: Shakespeare Matters

Length: 5 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of Adelaide
Instructor: Dr. Lucy Potter et al

In this introductory course, you will learn how Shakespeare uses emotion in his plays, how his characters experience and manipulate emotions, and how the emotional resonance of the plays makes them powerfully relevant to the modern world.
As you follow and engage with the emotional journeys of characters in tragedy, comedy, tragicomedy, and history; you will discover patterns of plot, action, and speech that will help you appreciate, understand, and discuss Shakespeare’s plays.
Each week of the course will focus on a different emotion. You’ll cover the range of emotions found in Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, The Winter’s Tale, and King Henry V.
This course includes interactive activities, and interviews with a range of people engaged creatively and professionally with Shakespeare’s plays. You’ll be encouraged to interpret Shakespeare in your own way – to find ‘your Shakespeare.’

Short version: As I read the description above, I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed working it, and by how much I learned. Five plays in five weeks sounds crazy, but it turns out it can be done quite nicely, and this course shows how.

I knew it was a one-play-a-week course, and, at 2-3 hours a week, I figured things would be pretty sparse. While it wasn’t as detailed as the Wellesley courses from last year, which went page-by-page through four plays, it turns out the close focus on two speeches per play served as a very nice platform for covering a wide range of poetic and dramatic devices. I’m also historically somewhat suspicious of phrases like “find your own meaning” as it typically indicates there’s no content, but there was plenty of content here; yet there was ample room for bringing in personal associations and impressions. I participated more in the forums than I have in any course for quite some time, and found that quite rewarding, as there was both staff and student interaction.

The basic plot of each play was outlined at the beginning of the week; reading or watching each play was not required (or even encouraged beyond the obvious value). Because the focus was on emotion, other faculty was drawn in, including Matt Dry of the Psychology department who explained the physical, cognitive, and behavioral interactions of emotions, and Brid Phillips from the Center of Excellence for the History of Emotions who studies the emotional context in older literature, including Shakepeare. But literary structure was on the menu as well. The course compared various forms of speech in the plays (prose, blank verse, poetry) and how each differed in style as well as detail.

The material included a variety of forms: lectures, interviews, and readings. Graded assignments were equally diverse: brief quizzes, discussion questions for the Forums, and a final self-graded Assignment inviting a personal interpretation of one of the speeches. I generally dislike what I refer to as forced-posting; counting discussion forum posts as graded items on questions with narrow focus. Here, for some reason, it worked very well for me. I think that’s partly because I found myself responding to the questions posed without even trying; they were questions I wanted to answer (in most cases; I did skip a few). It might also be because the response from staff was very prompt and encouraging, and other students also interacted, all of which made me feel like I’d made a contribution. It helped that I’d studied the first few plays in other courses so was more comfortable with the material, but maybe it was just my mood at the time. In any case, I greatly enjoyed that aspect of the course.

My favorite week was The Winter’s Tale, a play I haven’t encountered before; the themes of repentance and forgiveness always work for me. I was also greatly surprised at how much I enjoyed the week devoted to Henry V; I’ve always avoided the history plays, but they managed to find a couple of speeches that might turn out to be ways in for me. And it helps that it’s one of the plays featured in a Star Trek: TNG episode. Throughout the course, I should say, I was the “bearer of low culture”, bringing in television, songs, and movies. It’s a role I greatly enjoyed, and no one seemed to mind – but then, in a course where the lead instructor shows off her Shakespeare Rubber Duckie (to quack, or not to quack) and Lady Hamlet Guest Soap (out, damned spot) how could they mind?.

I highly recommend it for those who haven’t read much Shakespeare or haven’t really found it that enjoyable; the narrow focus on specific scenes and emotions, rather than an onslaught of information about every aspect of the plays, might be the way in for you. And for those who’ve been around the plays a bit more, you might find some interesting tidbits as well; if nothing else, you have a chance to strut your stuff.

Pushcart XLII: Brian Doyle, “Memorial Day” (non-fiction) from The Sun, June 2016

Art by Stan Fellows

Art by Stan Fellows

We are at a parade. It is Memorial Day. I am sitting on the curb in front of the church with my brother, reserving our family’s spot…. Our dad will not walk in the parade wearing his uniform. He declines politely every year when he is asked. He says he no longer has his uniform. He says he does not know where it went, although we think he does know where it went. He says he wore it only because the job had to be done, and now that the war is over, there is no reason to have a uniform. He says uniforms are dangerous statements, if you think about it. He says uniforms can easily confer false authority, and encourage hollow bravado, and augment unfortunate inclinations, and exacerbate violent predilections. This is how he talks.

Complete story available online at The Sun

A snapshot out of the past, perhaps the 50s, with Dad a WWII vet. It’s a short essay, nicely written in a style appropriate for a child’s-eye filter. Kids hear things they don’t quite yet understand. But they observe. It’s a good premise for an essay, a way to comment without commenting, an observation that’s really a commentary, that lets the reader observe and draw her own conclusions from those observations.

And what the kid sees here is, he sees Dad being reserved about his own service. He sees him only applauding when the firefighters go by. I’m not sure I get the subtext any better than the kid does; maybe it’s because the veterans are now out of harm’s way but the firefighters still have to show up at the next three-alarmer? Or maybe he remembers some darkness from the war. We all think of WWII as the “good war”, played by the rule book (doesn’t it strike anyone else as strange that there are rules for war?). But we also know that maybe that wasn’t precisely the case.

This is my second encounter with an essay by Brian Doyle. The first, “The Hawk” from Pushcart 2013, was similar: short, observational, emotional in an understated, indirect way. It’s a style that works quite well for him.

Viral MOOC

Course: Viruses & How to Beat Them: Cells, Immunity, Vaccines
Length: 8 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: IsraelX/edX
Instructor: Jonathan Gershoni

Have you ever wondered what viruses actually are?
Have you been curious about the ways they invade our bodies, attack our cells and make us sick? Come and learn what viruses are made of and understand the mechanisms of how they hijack and take over our cells.
There is no need for a background in science – just bring your curious mind!

Short version: Well-done introductory course beginning with a broad overview of biology basics, then focusing on pathogens and the immune system, particularly as it interacts with viruses. Great visuals, interesting but plain-language interviews with some serious heavy-hitters (like Nobel laureates David Baltimore and Bruce Beutler, and Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of the HIV virus), and a friendly style make this particularly accessible and, yes, fun.

This is another of those courses that just popped into my inbox out of the blue a few days before it opened. I was debating whether I wanted to re-start MIT’s 728 series on DNA, so I thought this might help make up my mind (it did: I just don’t want to work as hard as 728 demands, right now). It served as a nice refresher of the basics, from chemistry to cell bio to DNA to immunology, ending with a rational look at vaccines (spoiler alert: scientists are for them). It wasn’t quite as virus-specific as I’d expected, but, first, as an introductory course, some preliminary material was necessary, and second, seating the virology in a network of other concepts makes sense.

Each week included lecture videos with ungraded “test yourself” questions, and a lab demonstration or interview on a pertinent topic. A summary lecture, complete with concept map (which I greatly appreciated) finished off the week’s material. A live Q&A session, inviting student questions through the forum and participation through a software portal, took place around week 4. Since participation required downloading something, I didn’t attend, and no video has yet been released for us slowpokes so I have no idea how it was, but the question thread was booming so I’m hopeful.

Graded material included weekly quizzes, a midterm, and a final, with the final heavily weighted. At first I thought of the questions as standard information retrieval, but there are definite shades of meaning in there that require some interpretation and extrapolation. Every once in a while, a congratulatory GIF would pop up when a question was answered correctly; this generally scared the bejesus out of me, showing once again that I really need to calm down.

This is the 3rd of 4 courses I’ve taken in the past couple of months from IsraelX, a group of several schools; that’s kind of a brilliant idea, I’m surprised other countries haven’t done this. I’ve enjoyed each of the courses I’ve taken, and found them very helpful to understanding the various fields (which range from design theory to bio to religion to history). Although most of the rest of their 11 courses on the schedule are outside my areas of interest, I’m hopeful I’ll be learning more from them soon.

Pushcart XLII: Steve Stern, “The Plate-Spinner” from Agni #83

There used to be thirty-six. You should have seen them in their glory days, what a spectacle! Silhouetted in amber spotlights on a muggy august evening, the saints were truly the carnival’s main attraction. No spring chickens even then, they were still remarkably spry, their stamina inexhaustible as they galloped night and day, each on his own spinning plate the size of a barrel lid, their beards and earlocks flying, the tails of their caftans streaming, horizontally behind them. …
In those days I hardly even knew their names, the saints, or “stylites” as Old Man Rothstein called them, nor did I set much store by the pitch he’d worked up for their act:
Ladies and gents, please to observe the Lamed Vovniks – which is Hebrew for Thirty-Sixers, count ‘em – holy men from the legendary city of Sfat. See how they got to keep steppin’ lively on them magic plates or else the good Lord’ll remove His grace from the world. In other words, my fellow mishpookies, if they ever stop their centrifugatin’ or them plates cease their gyroscopic whirliggigery, it’s all she wrote for the rest of us…”
…it was an article of faith that the luck of the carnival somehow depended on the rabbis treading those whirling zinc discs.

Some things in this story are real; some are not real. And some are sort of real. It’s great fun to figure out which is which. But then, I have a strange idea of what fun is. This sort-of-apocalyptic, sort-of-fantasy story based on Hassidic beliefs and practices was definitely fun.

For example, I spent a fair amount of time re-reading the description of the saints, or stylites, or rabbis (they’re called all three as the story progresses) before concluding they are not real, at least, not in the world as we know it. In the world of the story, they’re very real, a bunch of old guys running around in circles 24/7 on top of spinning plates, with various ways of coping with sleep and more, um, private needs. They seem to be a combination of the old plate-spinning acts from goofy talent shows, and the 5th Century Christian ascetics of the early Byzantine empire, known as Stylites, who sat up in tall, narrow towers for years to show their devotion to God.

The Lamed Vovniks are in the category of Sort of Real. As the story tells us, the phrase does literally mean “The Thirty-Six” but the significance is much greater than that: in Hassidic lore, branching from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, there are thirty-six righteous people (usually men, but occasionally a woman is included) around at all times for whose sake God will not destroy the world. I suspect 36 has a particular meaning in Hassidic numerology, but my casual research can’t find consistent references to what it would be.

How the Lamed Vovniks got turned into a carnival act – and that it remains unexplained – is part of the weirdness of the story, and part of its appeal.

This is my second encounter with Steve Stern. The first time was back in 2012, when I hated his story “The Ballad of Mushie Momzer” because it was relentlessly depressing, beating down the hapless protagonist with no mercy. I acknowledged I was probably missing important references to Jewish folk stories, since that’s Stern’s specialty. This time, I was a bit better prepared, not just by general knowledge but by (sing it with me, you know this line) the coincidence of having taken a couple of moocs recently that added to my understanding of Judaism: one, a mooc on Talmud, and one on Kabbalah that just concluded. And this story is loaded with references to Kabbalah and Hassidism, half of which I probably overlooked. I loved it.

Two warnings: Self-indulgence alert. I’m going to go through it in great detail, mostly just to exercise my own understanding of the references. And, spoiler alert, since such an approach requires telling a great deal of the story. That’s ok, the voice is so strong, and since there are so many great details I’ll leave out, it’s really worth reading even if you know generally what’s going to happen. And, as I said, I have probably missed a great many things, and may have made some mistakes (corrections welcomed).

Our narrator is Corliss, who ran away from the orphanage where he grew up and joined the carnival at a young age. The inciting event of the story is the die-off of 26 of the saints, leaving ten. This seems to be sufficient, they feel, since ten is a minyan (the minimum necessary for Jewish worship), but the world begins to fall apart: computers crash, the world economy collapses, and it’s basically societal chaos. The carnival finally falls apart, but Corliss stays with the saints, tending the poles to keep them spinning.

It’s an arduous undertaking, since there’s no money, and all he has for barter are carnival prizes. A group of street kids – the urchins, he calls them – hang out and start helping to keep the rabbis spinning so Corliss can get food and sleep a little. “I couldn’t quite grasp that current events had taken such a toll on the Cavalcade of Fun. I’d always believed we were proof against the intrusions of history.” Yeah, we all believe the leopard won’t eat our faces, until he does. At another point he says, “It amazed me that, while civilization had ground to a halt, nature persisted and even flourished, as if it had been liberated at last.” Doesn’t amaze me at all. Liberation is mentioned three times in the story in various ways, making it something of a floating theme.

Corliss asks the saints why they spin; they don’t remember, though they have some thoughts about going forwards so you don’t go back, and a riff about sexual union with the divine that’s straight from the Kabbalah. Yes, the projection of the divine has male and female parts and they like to get together. Unfortunately, there are also evil equivalences of these parts – Samael and Lilith – and when they into things, the world feels pain. I’m not making this up, I swear, though the details are a bit beyond my level.

One of the rabbis tells him he isn’t worried about death. “I been dead already before. In heaven they told me, Come back again when they’re finished, your good deeds.” This, too, is Kabbalistic, the notion of a sinner being reincarnated to atone for past misdeeds. I am SO glad I took that mooc. But the saints aren’t getting any younger, and they start taking the Sabbath off, sitting in place on their plates (I think; I have a terrible time visualizing any of this, it’s so bizarre).

Then the girl with the plums shows up. I’m not sure if plums have any special significance in Hassidic culture, but her name is Lily and her dog’s name is Beelzebub and the significance of that isn’t too obscure. She’s helpful for a while, but then she distracts him in the usual way girls distract boys, and guess what:

At first you might have taken their banged-up plates for the shields of fallen warriors, but this was no battlefield, The papery corpses in their sable garments looked more like cast-off chrysalises than human beings. Maybe by abandoning their bodies I’d set free their souls. It would have been nice to think so, but in their absence – broken bodies notwithstanding – I’d never felt so alone.

Lily has taken off, and Corliss is left with cleaning up the remains of the crashed rabbis. He does something odd: he loads their corpses on a makeshift raft, sets it afire, and pushes it out into the flooded river. This isn’t Jewish at all; it’s Vedic, carried forward into Hindu culture. I’m not sure why this is in the story, but I’m thinking there’s an interesting explanation for something so out of place.

Then he goes back to clean up the plates and poles, and notices one pole still has the plate mounted, though at a precarious angle. The urchins show up, and form a pyramid (hmmm) to open a path to the plate, but that damn dog Beelzebub beats him to it.

Beelzebub, starting to trot in place, accelerated our spinning. Clumsily, until I found my footing, I attempted – having no choice – to follow his lead.
We gathered momentum, the dog and I, charging ahead while the temp raged and a different order of weather was taking shape in the river – you could glimpse the waters of heaven pouring down into the waters of Earth…. I was running to beat the devil now, wondering, as I did, if the spinning had prompted the deluge or vice versa. Had the saints been saving the world from disaster or propelling it toward its destruction?

There’s an interesting little detail in there: he starts out following the dog, and ends up being chased by it, which of course is what happens when you’re both running in circles. But I suspect it’s bigger than that, more of a metaphor for the kind of reversal that happens when we pursue evil: we end up pursued.

The storm intensifies, and Corliss gives us his last report:

What I do know for sure, however, I can’t let on; because if I told you all I could see from the lofty perch, before the approaching waterspout lifted me and the Bub up into its black funnel, you would rip your garments to the navel in grief for having lost that wisdom.

There’s a reversal in that, too: the telling would imply loss of wisdom. I’m not sure what this means, but it seems important, and I wonder if it might have something to do with the death of the rabbis causing a kind of uncreating, a reversal, of the universe.

Since the story isn’t available online, I was hoping to find a video of Stern reading it, but instead I found one of him as the invited guest at a temple service. He was surprised at the invitation, and admitted, “I’m gloomy guy. I’m just no damn fun.” Unlike Mushie Momzer, I found it quite fun to read. Maybe I just felt more grounded in the details. In any case, it’s an imaginative, intelligent story, well told.

Pushcart XLII: Francisco Cantú, “Bajadas” (non-fiction) from Ploughshares, Winter 2015/16

Look, my mother said, I spent most of my adult life working for the government as a park ranger, so don’t take this the wrong way —but don’t you think it’s below you, earning a degree just to become a border cop? Look, I said, I spent four years away from home, studying this place through facts, policy, and history. I’m tired of reading. I want to exist outside, to know the reality of this border, day in and day out. Are you crazy? she said. You grew up with me, living in deserts and national parks. We’ve never been far from the border. Sure, I said, but I don’t truly understand the landscape, I don’t know how to handle myself in the face of ugliness or danger.

Francisco Cantú, Fulbright fellow, grandson of a Mexican-American immigrant and son of a park ranger, spent four years as a border agent because he wanted to truly understand the landscape. Then he earned an MFA in nonfiction so he could write about it in a series of essays, collected for his soon-to-be published book, The Line Becomes a River (Penguin House, February 2018).

In this essay, we see the first year of his career patrolling the border in the form of diary entries. It’s just as uncomfortable to read as you expect it to be. And it’s just as important as you expect it to be, because for many of us, perhaps most of us, we, too, have witnessed the border at a distance. We read news stories about vans stuffed with dead passengers who paid everything they had for a chance; we read political bombast about rapists and drug dealers; we hear the other side, about desperate people fleeing gangs and drug wars and poverty so extreme we can’t really imagine it.

But what is it that border agents actually do? I realized as I read this essay, I had no idea, beyond the vague idea that they find people crossing the border illegally and arrest them. I would imagine there are tv shows and movies that show such things, but I’ve never watched them; unlike Cantú, I’m comfortably ensconced in the world of words, not the world of desert and scrub brush and mountain lions and people flat out of choices.

There are days when I feel I am becoming good at what I do. And then I wonder, what does it mean to be good at this? I wonder sometimes how I might explain certain things, the sense in what we do when they run from us, scattering into the brush, leaving behind their water jugs and their backpacks, how to explain what we do when we discover their lay-up spots. Of course, what you do depends on who you’re with, what kind of border agent you want to become, but it’s true that we slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, that we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze, and Christ, it sounds terrible, and maybe it is, but the idea is that when they come out from their hiding places, when they return to find their stockpiles ransacked and stripped, they’ll realize their situation, that they’re fucked, that it’s hopeless to continue on, and they’ll save themselves right then and there, they’ll struggle toward the nearest highway or dirt road to flag down some passing agent or head for the nearest parched village to knock on someone’s door, someone who will give them food and water and call us to take them in—that’s the idea, the sense in it all.

The observations aren’t sensationalized or sentimental, but they often have compassion – for both the agents, and the people they pursue – at their core. I have to wonder if Cantú is thinking, If my grandmother hadn’t come here years ago there but for the grace of God go I. There but for the grace of God go all of us. Law enforcement and humanity do not have to be mutually exclusive.

They do, however, wear on the soul when they coexist.

Last night I dreamed I was grinding my teeth out, spitting the crumbled pieces into my palms and holding them in my cupped hands, searching for someone to show them to, someone who could see what was happening.

I expect we’ll be hearing a lot about this book in a few weeks when it’s released. I expect some of the discussion will make some of us angry for various reasons. The book might make people uncomfortable. That’s what art is supposed to do.

Pushcart XLII: Natasha Trethewey, “Imperatives for Carrying On in the Aftermath” (poetry) from Poem-a-Day

"Dancer" by Marvin Posey

“Dancer” by Marvin Posey

Do not hang your head or clench your fists
when even your friend, after hearing the story,
says: My mother would never put up with that.

Complete poem available online at Poets.org

We’re often reluctant to sit still for another person’s pain, and will do what is necessary to not let it touch us too deeply beyond a polite sympathetic murmur. This is particularly true when the victim’s behavior seems to contribute to the tragedy a friend now deals with. “What was she wearing?” “Did he eat right and exercise?” “Did she try antidepressants and therapy?” Because, of course, rape/cancer/suicide doesn’t happen to people who do everything right, and while our compassion is boundless, we often act like it must be carefully rationed for only the most deserving. And of course, nothing like this could ever happen to us, because we are smarter than that.

Here, the speaker offers bitter advice in the wake of reactions she’s received when revealing her mother was murdered by her husband. It basically boils down to: If someone doesn’t get it, don’t bother trying to explain.

to ignore subtext. Imagine a thought-
cloud above your head, dark and heavy
with the words you cannot say; let silence
rain down….

The specific examples cover a wide swathe of dismissals. One of the most enraging, in the context of a poem, is the professor who tells the poet to write about something else. Or maybe the most enraging is the juror who thinks couples should “work it out.”

The final stanzas convey the reality of the speaker’s world:

….one does not bury the mother’s body
in the ground but in the chest, or—like you—
you carry her corpse on your back.

I believe the speaker will put the corpse down when she is ready. If that isn’t soon enough for the rest of the world, too bad. She has learned to cope with that, as well.

Intro to Kabbalah MOOC

Course: Introduction to Kabbalah
Length: 5 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk
School/platform: IsraelX/edX
Instructor: Boaz Huss, Yoed Kadary

This course will introduce you to the major ideas and practices of the Kabbalah from an academic point of view.
The course will examine basic Kabbalistic themes such as the theory of the Sefirot, ecstatic and prophetic Kabbalistic techniques, reincarnation, demonology, and practical Kabbalah. It will introduce major Kabbalistic works and movements, including the Sefer ha-Zohar, Lurianic Kabbalah, Hasidism, and the contemporary revival of popular Kabbalah….
The aim of this course is to introduce students with no background in Kabbalah or Jewish thought to the major ideas and practices of the Kabbalah in their historical and cultural settings. The ideas are presented in an accessible manner without jeopardizing the course’s academic rigor.

I skipped my usual preview-of-coming-attractions post this quarter, partly because a lot of classes seem to pop up all of a sudden without a long lead time. Like this one: I found out about it via an edX email days before the course started. It was a subject that interested me, so sure, I’ll play.

I’ve been aware of Kabbalah for decades, both from its mention in popular books and movies to reading a bit more about it in general-readership books on Judaism, like The Jewish Book of Why, but I never knew any of the details, or why some Jews studied it and others didn’t. Then the Beautiful People (aka Madonna) started doing Kabbalah and felt kind of pissed off, that it was being turned into something more like Scientology than something a yeshiva bocher might want to learn when he finished the Talmud. Turns out there are different kinds of Kabbalah, and some have little or nothing to do with Judaism – or religion, or philosophy – at all.

The first few weeks of the course covered the basic components of Kabbalah: the structure of the divine, how the Sefirot came into being, and how all the parts of the divine structure interacted with other parts and with humanity. This was kept academic, as promised; there were mentions of specific practices that could be involved, but they were only general descriptions. Then we moved into a more historical survey of the different schools of Kabbalah that sprang up in the late medieval period, the Renaissance, and in the modern period, as well as contemporary approaches to Kabbalah which move away from contemplation of the nature of the divine into more of a focus on self-help.

The basic theology of it all is fascinating, as was the history of the development of different Kabbalistic practices under different leaders in different times. A fair amount of the terminology was in Hebrew (in Roman orthography; no, we didn’t have to learn to read Hebrew, that would’ve been insane). It took some time and some effort, but now terms like Sefirot, Zohar, zimzum, and En-Sof kind of roll right off my tongue. Cerego was again very helpful.

Each week included a set of lecture videos, each one followed by a short quiz, and a Reading exercise in which a passage studied in the lecture was presented with multiple choice questions. A truly comprehensive final exam finished out the course, another reason I was glad I’d used Cerego, as I was still getting relevant material daily. The first six lessons were released two per week, which was a pretty brisk pace, but the remainder over Christmas holidays released once per week which was a lot more relaxed.

I greatly enjoyed the course, and would recommend it to anyone interested in learning something about the underpinnings of Kabbalah, rather than a specific practice; even at the basic levels, it’s a fascinating subject. As a neophyte I found it well-designed for beginners, with enough repetition and visual reinforcement to help with learning the necessary terms and concepts.

Pushcart XLII: Anthony Wallace, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” from Southern Review 52:3

Reverse of a silver tetradrachma featuring the Owl of Athena; ca. 480–420 BC

Reverse of a silver tetradrachma featuring the Owl of Athena; ca. 480–420 BC

A well-dressed couple entered the lobby of the Hötel Saint-Dominique, the young woman first, pushing an expensive-looking pram, the muscles in her slender arms and legs taut with purpose. When they came to the hostess’s desk just outside the bar, the young woman recited their family name and the time of the reservation. She looked at her wristwatch to show that they were exactly on time. The hostess smiled and then the young woman added, “A corner table, private but with a view of the dining room. I don’t want to wake her.”

My reach is going to far exceed my grasp (R>G) on this one. I kept encountering Easter eggs – you know, those little surprise asides that stand out if you’re in on the joke, and otherwise pass unnoticed. Considering the ones I found, I’m thinking there must be dozens more that I just wasn’t equipped to see. I’d love to know about them. Or I can just keep taking moocs on philosophy and literature and art and see what happens.

And yes, there will be spoilers. But it’s ok, it’s the sort of story that isn’t in the reading, but in the finding, and the connecting, and I haven’t exhausted those avenues.

The basic plot is a little strange, but not complicated. A couple with a baby carriage come in to an elegant restaurant for dinner; the waiter notices the carriage contains not a baby, but a doll; the husband appears to overhear him telling this to a coworker; the couple leaves, with the mother tearing the doll apart as they go, scattering its limbs in the restaurant. The restaurant crew comments.

This in itself raises some questions beyond, who brings a baby to an elegant restaurant? She’s fairly disappointed with how dinner goes – minor details keep annoying her – but there’s no real explanation for her storming out. At one point she’s rocking and almost-nursing the doll; then she’s tearing it apart. What happened? Is it possible they didn’t know it was a doll until the husband overheard the waiter’s remarks, he told the wife, and she was enraged at being fooled? Or at being found out?

However, all of this needs to be considered in the larger context. The story bears the name of a Walter Benjamin essay on art, a reference I probably would have missed had I not just completed the Design Theory mooc just mentioned in my previous post. Given that the doll is a mechanical reproduction of a baby, this can’t be a casual coincidence.

As I said, I’m reaching a bit beyond my grasp here (R>G#1), but as I understand it, Benjamin’s essay sees a difference between art, and the reproduction of art (and what is a baby if not a work of art, and what is a doll if not a reproduction of a baby), in that the aura of the original, the contact with the artist, is lost in the reproduction, reversing the concentration that contact with art brings into the distraction that immersion in reproductions bring:

Distraction and concentration form an antithesis, which may be formulated as follows. A person who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it; he enters into the work, just as, according to legend, a Chinese painter entered his completed painting while beholding it. By contrast, the distracted masses absorb the work of art into themselves. Their waves lap around it; they encompass it with their tide.

~~ Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

If that feels like a stretch, don’t forget the essay and the story share the title, and by the way, the story specifically mentions Benjamin through the thoughts of the waiter:

The waiter had recognized the professor, had a few months before attended one of his lectures on the theory and practice of translation, a field in which he was an eminent authority—the man who some people said was the next Walter Benjamin in that he frequently discussed literary translation not in terms of what it got right but, more importantly, what it got wrong: the misreading or misinterpretation that led, strangely, to greater fidelity to living art and the possibilities for interpretation that implies.

This talk of misinterpretation, of fidelity to living art, seems to me to be somehow relevant to the events of the plot, but I can’t pin it down.

Benjamin’s essay is very concerned with film as a medium. And by the way, there’s at least one film reference in the story: “The couple sat together in silence, picking over their second course. The waiter arrived with a bottle of Chablis, that green-eyed goddess, uncorked the bottle in front of them….” In Marathon Man, there’s a similar scene at Lutèce, with the line “The great Chablis of the world are almost always green-eyed” just before Dustin Hoffman’s brother, an undercover spy, reveals Elsa’s suspected Nazi past to Hoffman (whose character is, guess what, a historian). No, I didn’t have this off the top of my head, but the “green-eyed” reference was so confusing – was it a typo, should have been grey-eyed? – I did some googling (R>G#2) and found the line.

At the risk of wearing out this trope (or is it just obsessive pursuit?) let me connect Benjamin and film and Nazis a little more closely (R>G#3) via the last paragraph of his essay:

Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own alienation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art.

~~ Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

As far as the aestheticizing of politics, calling Leni Riefenstahl (his essay was published in 1936, three years after her first propaganda film), the marches, the rallies, and oh god, Wallace couldn’t have predicted that I’d be reading this in a time when we have a reality-TV star as President, while half of America is reading the juicy political tell-all released at midnight the other night to a buying frenzy usually associated with Harry Potter or teenage vampire novels. As for communism politicizing art: isn’t all art inherently political, whether it strives to be or not?

Benjamin was, by the way, part of the Frankfurt School, philosophical descendents of Hegel and Kant, a bunch of early 20th Century Marxists (including My Favorite Marxists Horkheimer and Adorno) hanging around in Germany when Jewish Marxists could still hang around in Germany and breathe at the same time; he tried to escape in 1940, got as far as France, and killed himself when it became apparent he would not make it into Spain.

But wait, there’s more: throughout, the mother is several times referenced in ways that bring to mind the Homeric depiction of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom:

….it was her eyes that one was irresistibly drawn to with their finely reticulated gray irises and luminous, overlarge pupils….

These musings occupied the waiter while he waited to go back into the dining room, to wheel in the dessert cart, to offer the gray-eyed goddess what was in his power to offer her. The gray-eyed goddess, ‘the trim-coifed goddess—

That’s the clearest reference to Athena this side of the 8th century BCE, especially the phrasing of that last sentence, the double-descriptor so common in Homeric poetry intended for oral recitation. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was buddy to both Achilles and Odysseus in their respective epics. But what does Athena have to do with any of this?

Consider another excerpt from the story:

The hostess, who had an MFA in screenwriting and who’d written two screenplays she was unable to sell, was just such a cynical product of the service industry. To her way of thinking, there were only two kinds of people in the world: those who’d had their screenplays optioned, and those who hadn’t…. For her, the important distinction was that the optioned got to live in the historical moment, and hence live real lives, while those not optioned were consigned to live at the end of history, like orphans stranded at the end of a dirt road. The hostess had remained in the second group far longer than she’d expected, and she was in the process of adjusting herself to that fact.

That also tweaked my antennae (R>G#4) due to the “Architectural Imagination” mooc
from last spring, which used some theory from Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics. Let me paraphrase and conflate some notes from the mooc lectures by Prof. Hayes: In the symbolic period, WeltGeist (world spirit) is outside the object (typified by Architecture of mud, stone, wood) looking in, and the object is pointing to it; In the classical period (typified by Greek and Roman sculpture), the WeltGeist shows forth from within the object; In the romantic period (post-Roman, typified by music and art), the WeltGeist has almost left the object. At the end of the Romantic period, the WeltGeist escapes the physical, and moves into thought (philosophy, theology) and no longer needs Art. Which may be why nobody likes modern art or music. But as this is a historical process, it can only be observed when it’s over, when it’s too late.

And it just so happens, Hegel (with whom I wrestled mightily this past summer in yet another mooc, “The Great War and Modern Philosophy”) had some ideas about Athena, though he used her Roman name Minerva:

Philosophy always arrives too late. As the thought of the world, it only makes its appearance after actuality has finished its process of development and is over. …Only in the maturation of actuality does the ideal appear to confront the real. Then the ideal reconstructs this world for itself in the form of an intellectual realm, comprehending in its substance. When philosophy paints its grey on grey then the form of life has grown old, and this grey on grey is not capable of rejuvenating it, merely of understanding it. The owl of Minerva only begins its flight when the twilight falls.

~~ G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1820), “Preface”

Nothing is as it seems. The baby in the pram is actually a doll. The hostess is actually a screenwriter (this is Paris, not Hollywood, where everyone’s a screenwriter). The waiter’s a philosopher. The restaurant seems empty except for the couple. The most un-Athena-like character in history is framed as Athena. What’s going on? Is it some kind of deconstruction of reality, a jumbling of images?

The narration is what some writers call head-hopping – third person through various characters as the story progresses – so it seems there’s a disembodied narrator – the WeltGeist, Philosophy, Art freed from material form? – floating outside of it all. Maybe that’s a working theory (R>G#5): the narrator/WeltGeist follows the progression outlined by Hegel, moving from outside looking in (the initial entry into the restaurant), to inside looking out (in the mother’s head), to being freed (the doll-dismemberment) to ending with philosophy and thought via the hostess and waiter. That doesn’t quite track, but it’s the best I can do.

[Addendum 1/14/18: I’ve been thinking about this story for the past week, and I have a new working theory: The key is in how the waiter, representing Art as it matures into Philosophy and absorbs the partaker, and the hostess, representing the reproduced Art that distracts the partaker, react differently to the scenario they’ve just witnessed. He is “forever changed by his encounter”, though he isn’t sure exactly how, like Paul on the road to Damascus; she sees the event as a screenplay, to be reproduced as a movie.

Addendum 2/4/18: One of my neighbors is an accomplished artist (and a big reader); I attended a local exhibition of his work, and discovered he has a fondness for Walter Benjamin so I immediately foisted this story on him and asked if he had any relevant points to add that might give me a bit more insight. And of course, he did:

The one thing that first stands out in your commentary to consider is that Benjamin is not necessarily identifying what translation gets “wrong”, but what sometimes must be changed because there are times when the original “meaning” of words or phrases cannot be fully conveyed from the translated language to the new language of the translation. He sees this as a positive influence on the original.

~~ Gregg Harper

After I finished hanging my head in shame over my automatic judgmental instinct, I wondered if this makes the piece more like a tracing of the historical evolution of art: the original, the escape into philosophy, and the translation into screenplay, without any implication that one is more “authentic” than another. This is something else that was brought up in the History of Architecture course: much Greek and Roman statuary was originally painted in bright colors, but we’re used to seeing it in white marble. If it’s being presented as authentic, shouldn’t the paint be added to the restorations? And what about cleaning art, does that make them more authentic, or less? The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi embraces time’s changes, but in the West, we want to keep everything shiny and new.

Another thing is that Athena/Minerva is also a goddess of art, craft and war; which is interesting in view of your reading about politicizing art. Aside from domestic needs, craft developed around making implements of war – and art to commemorate the mythologies as well as the warriors whose achievement bring wealth and status to the victor society.

~~ Gregg Harper

This makes it easier to incorporate Athena into the piece; I should have remembered that the Greek deities often had multiple functions. I’m very grateful for these additional notes.]

I still wish some philosophy professor would do a mooc, a lecture, a podcast, a Medium article, whatever, on this story; if I could find so many Easter eggs, imagine what someone who actually knows what they’re talking about could do with it.