Pushcart XLI: Ye Chun, “The Luoyang Poem” (poem) from Lantern Puzzle

1.
 
Gray streets and dim staircases.
 
We slid down the banister:
 
often one of us,
in dream or in memory, fell.

I couldn’t find much about this poem, or the collection whence it comes, so I was worried. Turns out, I found a great deal in it, not in a “this is what the poem means” sort of way (and I wonder if any poem that can be summed up as such is a poem at all) but in a “oh, I see what happened here (I think)” way.

One of the approaches I use when I’m not sure what to do is comparison of the beginning and ending of a poem. That doesn’t always help, but here it was marvelous. Whereas the first stanza above gives a glimpse into a hazily remembered childhood and is painted in gray and dim, the last stanza shows a new direction:

7.
 
That winter, a boy
came riding beside me,
my big coat a dark corner.
 
We rode past the sweet potato vendor and his stove;
they stood in every winter
like a small lighthouse.
 
We rode past Chairman Mao
in front of the Mining Machine Factory
his marble arm waving at us.
 
Black flags of smoke blew above our heads.
 
We rode toward the huge
suddenly blooming setting sun.

The dimness is still there, but there is also the promise of blooming, a setting sun ending one phase of life, the speaker beginning another, of adolescence and youth in spite of what hangs over them. And I’m charmed by the imagery of the sweet potato vendor’s stove as a small lighthouse: a light so that the ship won’t founder on an unexpected shore.

Throughout the poem, I particularly noticed the transitions between the numbered sections. Section 1 above ends with an isolated “fell”, and section 2 starts with “I fell ill”, a completely different sense of the word. That double use prompted me to check for similar transitions, and I found them. Section 2 ends with smoke from the factories, and section 3 begins with the history of burning in this town, from the tragic to the trivial:

3.
 
New dynasty burned houses of the old.
Red Guards burned 55,884 rolls of sutras at the White Horse Temple.
Twenty factories burned the sky blind.
Families of the dead burned paper horses.
Crematoria burned the dead.
My father burned another fall’s leaves.
I burned my diary.

There’s such a layering of history in this stanza in particular, from the speaker’s lifetime back to old Dynasties. I found a few references to the practice of making a paper horse and carriage for a funeral, then burning them in an echo of ancient custom of burying items with the dead. I can’t find a historical reference to burning of Buddhist scripture at the White Horse Temple; 55,884 is such a specific number, I’d love to have more information.

Section 3 ends with a reference to burning ourselves, and the next one observes Luoyang’s cross made by a factory smokestack, a somewhat attenuated transition on the notion of sacrifice. Four ends with distance, and five begins with parents being sent to the city “to build a new nation”, presumably in the era of the Red Guards. Sacrifice underpins every parent’s life, some more than others. Section 5 ends with spit and 6 begins with a dry river. The transition from 6 to 7 is possibly all self-constructed: from peach flowers to a new friendship, a new adolescence, and the literal riding off into the sunset.

So I ended up with a memoir of a place since left, with time whistling around my ears throughout the poem. Quite lovely. I’m almost glad I couldn’t find any other analysis, because it gave me the freedom to create my own.

Pushcart XLI: Daniel Mason, “The Line Agent Pascal” from Zoetrope #19.4

Every morning, Hippolyte Pascal, Agent of the Line at Urupá, woke to the sun and the sound of parrots, rose from his hammock, dressed, set a battered kettle on the fire, and crossed his tiny station to check the signal.
At 0800, if the Line was in order, he would receive the first transmission from the Depot, followed shortly by the second from the agent at Várzea Nova, eighty–two kilometers into the interior, and the third, from Juá. Then he would reply, “Pascal, Urupá,” and the hour, and the others would answer in turn: Fernandes, fifty–eight kilometers forward at Itiraca, Bonplan at Macunarímbare, Wilson–Jones at Canaã, the Jesuit Perez at the Mines. The report would come next, minor variations on the previous morning: a band of Nambikwara sighted near Bonplan’s station, a rotted telegraph pole at Itiraca, a call for fresh provisions, a request for gunpowder. And then he would rise and pour himself his coffee and set about his day.

The story is set in the 19th century Brazilian jungle and features agents on the telegraph lines linking the mines to civilization. But that’s just the surface. I’m not sure if Mason intended it to be a metaphor for the social media age, but it is:

Because it was impossible to see beyond one or two paces into the forest that surrounded the station clearing, it mattered little whether civilization was one kilometer away or a thousand. What mattered was the Line. Sometimes he thought: It is as if they are next door, for when I speak, they listen, and they need only to call out for me to respond. There were few men, he told himself, in such immediate contact with other people. Other times he thought, with an exhilaration that was almost dizzying: I am the loneliest man in the world.

Tell me that isn’t about 21st century anomie, about being connected to the entire world 24/7 through a gadget in our pocket but being alone. The story conflates technology and nature, loneliness and connection. The connections formed over the telegraph line are as ephemeral, and as real, and as prone to interpretation and projection, as any internet crush:

… The act stayed with him for a very long time. Indeed, years later, alone in his hut, or walking out in the right-of-way, staring at the ever-encroaching forest, at the high-wire slung in great loops from the tall poles like beggar’s crutches, Agent Pascal found himself marveling at this realization that he could live in the thoughts of another person, a realization that appeared to him no less a miracle than if he had somehow been twinned.

It’s a wonderful thing, to know you live in the thoughts of another person.

In a recent post I commented that nothing really happened in a story, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. Nothing happens in this story either, but I love the way nothing happens, the sense of what it’s like for these people to be connected by a telegraph wire, to be in each others’ thoughts. It’s quite remarkable that the very climax of the story is, literally, nothing happens, when something was expected to happen; the implications of nothing happening at that moment create a moment of exquisite tension which leads to a moment of immense sorrow, then stoicism, resignation, and, maybe, a touch of horror. The horror is rather voluntary, I think;the reader may pick it up and run with it, or not, as she chooses.

Mason’s an interesting guy. He can’t decide if he wants to be a doctor or a writer, so he’s both: he’s published two novels and several short stories, including this one, and is an attending psychiatrist at Stanford; he’s taught both as a Stegner fellow in the Creative Writing department, and as medical school faculty with such anthro-medical courses as “Psychosis in Literature” and “Culture and Madness”. And now he’s connected me most effectively, through the story, with the line agent Pascal.

Pushcart XLI: Mathias Svalina, from “Thank You Terror” (poem) from The Volta

Samad Ghorbanzadeh: "Fictional Reality/Daily Dream" series

Samad Ghorbanzadeh: “Fictional Reality/Daily Dream” series

I was dead
but they kept killing me
by the seaside,
the Super Target,
on a plane,
in a beetle’s husk.
Complete poem available online at The Volta

Allow me to once again admit that I have no idea what I’m doing here. However, I was able to find some information that helped me at least understand the neighborhood we’re in with this poem: dreams and nightmares. Along the way, I became intrigued by the poet as well.

In a Harriet article, I found a video where Svalina explains his approach: “a dream logic.” Ah, that gave me a touchstone. A few years back I did some work on Ishiguro’s “The Village After Dark” and The Unconsoled, and discovered, thanks to an interview in The Paris Review, that the story was a warm-up in the use of the grammar of dreams for the novel. I’m not sure Svalina uses precisely the same approach, but it’s similar enough to serve as some kind of footing for reading this poem.

It’s more of a nightmare, really, the kind induced by constant reminders of terrorism in everyday life. Images shift without warning, and these shifts are accepted as they are in a dream state: personal death in the beauty of the seaside, or the banality of Target, or the more rational setting of a plane, to the surreal beetle’s husk to keep us from feeling too comfortable. The request of Artaud, poet and dramatist, creator of the theatre of cruelty, for sonnets. Flaying that brings joy. And the last stanza, a stabilizing summary, a reminder that the dream, the nightmare, takes us where it will, and while shaped by images and events from the world around you, it is your own mind that is the sculptor of the nightmare.

None of that nightmarishness is alleviated by knowing, thanks to a comment the poet made at a Brooklyn reading, that the title is following Alanis Morissette’s “Thank U”. Maybe he was being ironic.

For those who didn’t bother to check out the Harriet post linked above, it includes an explanation of Svalina’s Dream Delivery Service: for a subscription of about $60 a month, he will write and mail – or deliver, if you happen to live in a city he’s visiting – a dream; nightmares cost a little more. It’s his way of forcing himself to write at least half the day. While a bit flaky, he has a PhD in creative writing, teaches at various places and has published several books so he’s not a total crackpot. Just the right amount of crackpot, I’d say. Is his poetry any good? How would I know? I don’t even have a yardstick. I can only say I’m intrigued.

Pushcart XLI: Chris Offutt, “Trash Food” (nonfiction) from Oxford American #88

OA Art: "Fruit Loops Landscape,” by Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman

OA Art: “Fruit Loops Landscape,” by Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman

During lunch John T. asked me to give a presentation at the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium over which he presided every fall.
I reminded him that I lacked the necessary qualifications. At the time I’d only published a few humorous essays that dealt with food. Other writers were more knowledgeable and wrote with a historical context, from a scholarly perspective. All I did was write personal essays inspired by old community cookbooks I found in secondhand stores. Strictly speaking, my food writing wasn’t technically about food.
John T. said that didn’t matter. He wanted me to explore “trash food,” because, as he put it, “you write about class.”
I sat without speaking, my food getting cold on my plate. Three thoughts ran through my mind fast as flipping an egg. First, I couldn’t see the connection between social class and garbage. Second, I didn’t like having my thirty-year career reduced to a single subject matter. Third, I’d never heard of anything called “trash food.”

Complete article available online at Oxford American

I’d never heard of trash food, either. Junk food, sure. Then there’s dumpster diving, but I didn’t think “trash” was being used that literally. I was further confused when John Edge (the John T. of the story) of the Southern Foodways Alliance gave possum and mullet as examples of trash food. I have an older edition of The Joy of Cooking that includes entries for possum, squirrel, porcupine, raccoon, and a host of other things I wouldn’t consider dinner, complete with skinning and dressing procedures, but I assumed that went along with hunting or something. I’m pretty nonadventurous, culinarily speaking: you’d have to force me to eat sweetbreads (not to mention avocado toast, so please, don’t mention it around me). But still, I didn’t associate it with class.

However, Offutt did, and he wrote up his reaction to Edge’s request and presented it at the SFA’s Fall Symposium. Turns out Offutt grew up in Appalachia, and has found himself subjected to some stereotypes.

I write about my friends, my family, and my experiences, but never with a socio-political agenda such as class. My goal was always art first, combined with an attempt at rigorous self-examination. Facing John T., I found myself in a professional and social pickle, not unusual for a country boy who’s clawed his way out of the hills of eastern Kentucky, one of the steepest social climbs in America. I’ve never mastered the high-born art of concealing my emotions. My feelings are always readily apparent.

He gives some examples of foods he might consider trash food: Cheetos, pork rinds, Vienna sausages, Jell-O with marshmallows, fried baloney, corndogs, RC cola, Slim Jims, Fritos, Twinkies, and cottage cheese with jelly. Now I’m really confused: half the homes in America have some of those foods, and many suburban 60s households served marshmallowed gelatin and Vienna sausages at casual afternoon functions. I didn’t know you could fry baloney, but it makes sense, and corndogs are a summer fair staple.

I’ve watched a lot of culinary competitions, from Bocuse d’Or to America’s Worst Cook. I still remember when Top Chef’s Hung Huynn, classically trained in French technique and holding a résumé listing Per Se and Guy Savoy, was scolded for not making Asian dishes. A Latina on Next Food Network Star was told to change her “culinary point of view” (the shtick required of all FN shows) from European brunch to TexMex. Food snobbery abounds, and abides in everyday life as well: are those veggies organic? How did that chicken spend its days (yes, the Portlandia episode)? Is there meat/gluten/sugar in this? And yet, blue-box macaroni binds together several generations across class lines.

But food aside, stereotypes are stereotypes, and it’s hard to have to keep fighting them, so I’m not surprised Offutt bristled a bit at the assignment. I’m not sure what Southern Foodways Alliance expected from him, but I’m hoping this turned into a learning experience all around.

Pushcart XLI: Tarfia Faizullah, “100 Bells” (poem) from Poetry, January 2015

Artwork by Caitlin Abbott, from original photo by Naib Uddin Ahmed

Artwork by Caitlin Abbott, from original photo by Naib Uddin Ahmed

With thanks to Vievee Francis

 

My sister died. He raped me. They beat me. I fell
to the floor. I didn’t. I knew children,
their smallness. Her corpse. My fingernails.
The softness of my belly, how it could
double over. It was puckered, like children,
ugly when they cry. My sister died
and was revived. Her brain burst
into blood. Father was driving. He fell
asleep. They beat me. I didn’t flinch. I did.

Complete poem available online at Poetry

First, let me point any reader to Faizullah’s post titled “Against Explanation” on the Poetry website Harriet. I’m tempted to just stop here, with an excerpt in which she explains why she can not, will not, explain the poem, except to give a context: she wrote it after reading Vievee Francis’s poem “Say It, Say It Any Way You Can”.

Almost every time I read “100 Bells” in front of an audience, someone asks me to explain it. I’m baffled, because, to me, it’s one of my most transparent poems. I’ve been asked if it’s The Truth. I don’t think that’s what I’m being asked, though. It’s really something else: Did you make it up? Did it happen to you?
…. “I’m saying it,” says the speaker in Vievee’s poem. What’s so masterful about this phrase is how it deflects from the question “Did this happen to you?”

I read this poem three ways; I don’t know if any of them are true (whatever that means), but they feel very real to me, and they coexist at this point, though they were separate at first. I know a lot of very educated people put a lot of stock in the poem standing on its own, but I found meaning expanding with each new piece of ancillary information, and finding meaning is what I’m doing here.

My first reading focused on the Birangona, the Brave Women of War in Bangladesh who, during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan, were kidnapped, raped, and tortured. After were ignored, lived in shame and silence, until playwright Leesa Gazi spoke with a group of the women and created a play to tell their story and honor the courage it took for them to survive.

Now, I didn’t pick this out of thin air; I was alerted to it via the contributor note that goes with the published version of the poem. Faizulla’s 2014 poetry collection, Seam, featured interviews with the Birangona. I saw this poem as a composite of the experiences of those women, a layering of voice on voice, story on story, a hundred bells speaking through poetry.

Then I found a very different way of reading, through a blog that seems to be a series of school assignments (and again I wish the internet had been around when I was in 9th grade). This reader saw it as a narrative of personal experience. This makes a different kind of sense to me: the repetitions and contradictions reflect the confusion and denial experienced during and after a traumatic event. Again, the layering, but this time, the voices are from one person. The sister and Texas were more dominant in this reading; I was already slightly familiar with Faizullah’s work from having read another of her poems in the Pushcart two years ago, also appearing in Seam as one of a series of elegies written for her sister.

Then I came across the Harriet post. I’d noticed, of course, that there was a dedication line, but I hadn’t known the significance. And now I wonder if it’s a sort of retelling of Francis’ poem, with a different subject.

I wrote the first draft of “100 Bells” after reading Vievee’s poem. I needed to write the breath I didn’t know I had been holding until after I was done reading it, after I was done writing mine.

What a great use of breath, – anima, from the Greek άνεμος the force of life, the medium of the voice as a bridge between two poets and now between them and the readers of this poem. And now the three readings, each involving multiple voices, layer together in one burst of communication. When I read the poem, I don’t “hear” it as written, but as voices talking over each other, all trying to be heard.

I slithered. Glass beneath my feet. I
locked the door. I did not
die. I shaved my head. Until the horns
I knew were there were visible.
Until the doorknob went silent.

It’s awkward that I should run into a poetic discussion of truth after railing about truthiness in nonfiction. But poetry is not nonfiction. It is the artist’s conception of truth. I have no need to ask, Did it happen to you? It happened to someone, and thus it happened to all of us.

Pushcart XLI: Elizabeth Tallent, “Narrator” from Threepenny Review, Winter 2015

All I had to go on were the narrators of his books, rueful first-person failers at romance whose perceptiveness was the great pleasure of reading him, but I felt betrayed. Savagely I compared the ungenerosity I witnessed with the radiance I’d hoped for. How could the voices in his novels applied in the brain of that withholder? The women had not trespassed in approaching, the party was meant for such encounters.… From his work I had pieced together scraps I believed were really him. At some point I had forsaken disinterested absorption and begun reading to construct him I could love.… He had never meant to tell me who he was.

When Aristotle literally wrote the book on classical drama, he used the word hamartia to describe the tragic flaw in the protagonist’s otherwise honorable character. This flaw becomes the weak spot through which events lead to a tragic end. I wonder if there’s a corresponding romantic flaw for contemporary fiction. So much of it is about romantic relationships doomed by some quirk of personality in one of the participants: while harmless in most areas of life, in the context of a romantic relationship this flaw – lack of trust, or poor judgment about who is trustworthy, neediness, a refusal to show vulnerability – turns destructive. If so, I’d say the romantic flaw for the unnamed narrator of this story might be a tendency to see what she wants to see. In keeping with the title: she likes to narrate reality so that it meets her needs, or at least her desires.

Besides fitting the bill as a story about romantic tragedy, it’s also a story about writing. I’ve read that editors shy away from such settings, but I tend to like them. Maybe it’s like second person stories: because editors don’t want to feature too many, they tend to reject all but the best, so what gets to me is cream of the crop. This isn’t just a story about writers, though it is that, and it isn’t just a story about what the work of writing is, though it is that, too. It uses the process of writing, of narration, to allow a character’s self-reflection. She may have little insight as a person living life, but as a writer, she knows how to observe a character. Unfortunately, sometimes her observations are colored by what she wants to see.

The story begins with our unnamed narrator, a fledgling writer attending a workshop, finding herself swept off her feet and out of her marriage by an accomplished author whose work she’s admired. She first sees him at a party welcoming the workshop participants. Two women are speaking to him, but he is silent to them, which she sees as deliberate withholding; later, we find out this impression was wrong, but the point is that she was drawn to him anyway. Once in his life, she finds the withholding she’d thought she’d seen in the first place.

… the only book in this house full of his books that belonged to me, and when he admitted to not liking Eliot much I was relieved to have a book which by not mattering to him could talk privately and confidentially to what was left of me as a writer, the little that was left after I was, as I believed I wanted to be, stripped down to bare life, to skin and heart beat and sex, never enough sex, impatient sex, adoring sex, fear of boredom sex. The immense sanity of Middlemarch made it a safe haven for the little insanity of the stolen photograph.

I’m tempted to think of this as her tit-for-tat revenge for his withholding, but it’s narrated as survival, keeping something about herself private. I can’t imagine a writer who doesn’t have any books of her own, her existence pared down to nothing other than the subject whose job it is to observe the object.

A single moment finally snaps her out of it. It’s a lovely scene, the two of them tossing a football around, unaware of the lightning that is about to strike, a bolt created by a single word.

One bright evening as I cocked my arm back he cried Throw it, piggy! Shocked into grace I sent a real beauty his way, and with long-legged strides he covered the grass and leapt, the show-offy catch tendered as apology before I could call down the field What?, but I was standing there understanding: piggy was the thing he called me to himself, that had slipped out.

We’ve all had a moment like that (at least, I have), when we suddenly realized someone else didn’t see us the way we thought he did. Reality shifts; we realize we’re in the wrong story. It’s worse than a slap. A slap allows anger in response; all the epithet allows from her is shame, not the least of which is because she permitted this all along. We then see her, weak and sick, sitting on the floor begging her love for a bowl of rice: bland, soft, comforting. But she will get no rice.

After she leaves, he writes another book, and she sees herself in the pages. Is it really her? It’s amazing how we embroider reality with our own thoughts and needs: winged horses in the stars, Jesus on a tortilla, someone we love creating art out of the memory of us. She recovers from the affair, and her life becomes successful: she finds the academic post she always wanted, publishes her work, and finds a more fulfilling romantic relationship.

Until she quite unexpectedly sees the author in a bookstore one day.

This coda is marvelous. She makes her way back to her husband and his friend, who are discussing a man who didn’t want to have surgery for fear he would be left impotent. It was not himself he was worried about, the patient insisted, but his wife. The three present their own narrations of this: the guys don’t believe him; I immediately thought it was pretty arrogant, in the same way some men are convinced they can convert any lesbian with their prowess; but our narrator has an interesting take:

“You idiots, he adored her,” I said. “That’s what he was telling David. Not,’ My God, this woman, it’s unimaginable that I’ll never make love to her again.’ But ‘How can she bear the loss.'”
Josh took off his tie, rolled it up, tucked it in his jacket pocket, and then handed his glasses forward to me, saying, “Can you take custody?” I cradled them as cautiously as if they were his eyes. Once he was asleep, David said, “That was him, wasn’t it?”
I told him what happened. “After I’d gone he must have stood there thinking, but I know her, I know her from somewhere. Then he gets it – who I am, and that I walked away without a word. Which has to have hurt.”
“It’s generally that way when you save your own skin – somebody gets hurt.”

Somebody certainly does. Why not narrate it so that it’s somebody else?

When I mention reading as one of my favorite activities, I’m always asked, “Who’s your favorite writer?” I seem to be alone in that I don’t really have one. I have some tendencies, but I can’t seem to find the writer whose every word I adore. For example, this is the third Tallent story I’ve read, all of them in prize anthologies. One I didn’t care for at all, one I liked, and this one I liked most of all. I prefer to like individual works rather than writers or genres. I sometimes say I prefer “weird” fiction to romantic realism (I did just say that, in fact, one or two stories ago) but a story like this one works great for me. I do wish I could find a favorite author, though. It would give me an easy answer to the common question, and fit in better with others’ narration of who I am.

Pushcart XLI: David Kirby, “More Than This” (poem) from Rattle #50

When you tell me that a woman is visiting the grave
of her college friend and she’s trying not to get irritated
at the man in the red truck who keeps walking back and forth
and dropping tools as he listens to a pro football
game on the truck radio, which is much too loud, I start
to feel as though I know where this story is going,
so I say Stop, you’re going to make me cry.
 
Complete poem available online at Rattle

Yes, it’s going exactly where you know it’s going, and yes, it made me cry, but does that have to automatically be a bad way to use forty-five lines?

In his Contributor Note at Rattle, Kirby said “A lot of my poems are braids I make of found materials; my contribution is to figure out what the different parts have in common and then unite them tonally.” I’m surprised he’d only heard the cowboy story through his barber; I’ve seen it all over the place, sometimes with just a dog, sometimes with just a horse, once with a kid and a frog.

The threads he braids together are about ways of connecting in grief, and the comfort it might bring. I don’t have much to say about this one, it’s pretty much laid out in front of the reader on a plate. And, of course, there’s an even chance I missed something that drives it further: the title, for instance. It makes an interesting follow-up to “Voltaire Night” with the idea that we’re all grieving, and we can either be alone with it or not, but sharing might make us feel better.

Pushcart XLI: Deb Olin Unferth, “Voltaire Night” from Paris Review

Leonid Afremov: “Misty Café”

I didn’t usually go for drinks with my students. I knew teachers who did, and I found it unprofessional and revolting, though that would not have stopped me. Neither would have the fact that I had sworn to quit drinking. But the school had put in place a policy, which applied even to the dubious adult ed. I’d had to sign a statement. Still, an end-of-term drink seemed like a nice idea.
We walked four blocks through the freezing cold to an upscale, unpopular joint in the nighttime-deadtime downtown. We sat in giant, stuffed chairs in a dark room, empty of anyone but us and the bartender. They all looked over at me, waiting. At last I said, “Has anyone read Candide?”
“Yes, yes,” they murmured. “Voltaire. Of course.” As I said, this was an educated crowd. They’d read it in college, they said. Or they’d read it when they were twelve and had found it confusing. Or they’d liked it and had read his other works since and found them less fun.
“Let’s play a game,” I said. “Let’s each tell the story of the worst thing that’s happened to us.”

Many writers, reviewers, and teachers talk a great deal about narrative drive. I’ve seen it described, in terms of craft, as one sentence introducing the next by raising a question, one paragraph as call and the next as both response and call, one action completing A yet starting B, a cascade effect through the entire text. As manifested in the reader, it’s often a sense of urgency, a desperate need to read the next sentence, to find out what happens, a “getting lost” in the work. Carefully constructed plot, good characterization, technical elements like structure, syntax, language, are all in the service of creating urgency. “It’s beautiful writing” isn’t narrative drive, though you might memorize entire passages. Narrative drive is more like: “I couldn’t put it down.”

This story has narrative drive on three levels: the story of the narrator, the story-within-the-story of the adult ed writing class over time, and the story-within-the-story-within-the story, a real-life adventure told by one of the students at a social event ending the term. It’s awash in urgency, yet each time it flips between them, the urgency of the paragraph before me overtook the lingering “But wait, what about…” from the paragraph before. I’d call that great writing, great structure, in the service of creating urgency.

The narrator is a successful writer and professor, recalling a time in her career when she taught an adult education course. She was struggling with the end of a romantic relationship, so suggested Voltaire Night: a light-hearted contest, after Chapter 19 in Candide, where participants tell of the worst thing that’s happened to them recently, and the worst worst wins. This becomes a regular event over several terms, with returning students looking forward to it and new students eager to join in. And of course, the last story is a doozie.

There was the Voltaire night that Max accidentally smashed several glasses onto the floor and Stuart threw up on the sidewalk. There was the Voltaire night I somehow found myself separated from them all at two in the morning, smoking pot with strangers at a faraway club. How had I gotten there?
There were other things going on with me. Voltaire night was just a handful of nights out of that year, but the other nights weren’t so very different.
I had to change. In many ways I had to change.

From time to time, the narrator will switch gears and return to the present to include something she’s recognized since about that time, or just to expand upon her feelings at the time. It’s how we learn more about her. It’s also an interesting way to keep the three timelines active at once, as opposed to an envelope technique where all the insight comes at the beginning and the end. It could get confusing. And as I’ve said, for me it had the paradoxical effect of heightening the urgency, since I found it easy to switch timelines. It was frustrating for a second – to be speeding along that final story, breathless, eager to find out what this twist meant, only to find myself back in the present – but somehow it worked for me. I can imagine it might not work for every reader.

So is this quality of narrative drive universal? It’s taught as if it is, but might I find something compelling that someone else finds boring? Some people prefer romance novels, other like spy thrillers, and I love any story where I learn something, but I’m typically bored with stories focusing on the emotional ravages of love’s failures. Yet this one, which begins with that foundation, captivated me. Is there a story that captivates everyone? In other words, is narrative drive a function of content, of form, or both, and in any case, is it intrinsic to the process of reading, or is it a matter of preference?

I had several possibilities in mind for the end of the each level of story. As it happens, two out of three turned out a bit different from any of my expectations in delightful ways. And yes, while I smiled all the way through the story – seriously, a rectal thermometer implanted for twelve weeks? – I teared up during the last couple of paragraphs. But of course I cry over all kinds of things.

Pushcart labels its fiction with the title, and doesn’t label poetry or nonfiction, so without a fiction label, I’d assumed this was a memoir. It’s a story about a writer and writing teacher, after all. However, on doing further checking, I see it’s in the Paris Review as fiction, and it’s in Unferth’s latest short fiction collection, Wait Till You See Me Dance (Graywolf Press, March 2017).

Now, that brings up two side issues. For one: There’s no hard and fast line for what does and doesn’t sound real, but the story the student tells was way over the top. Not only would a medical study as described require a residential stay, but the cascading difficulties stretched credibility. But while I was in the universe of the story, everything was real. That’s really good storytelling. It’s also an interesting quirk of human psychology which might bear some reflection at the current moment.

I’m not sure I have the details right. I want to be clear about that. I’m not sure if it was fifteen thousand or ten or eleven, or if she was five months along or four. I’m pretty sure it was twelve weeks. What one hears at Voltaire night, stays at Voltaire night, and it is only now that I am violating this contract.

The other issue is one I’ve brought up before, the issue of how true does non-fiction have to be. I’ve ranted before – over Pam Houston’s “Corn Maze” most emphatically – about nonfiction that takes liberties with what really happened, padding truth with more interesting details to make a better story, and the defense that “nobody knows what really happened anyway, what difference does it make”. So here, where the narrator is relating the story after the fact, she admits she doesn’t remember the details – how many dollars, how many weeks. That’s how you handle the uncertainty of memory. It fit into the story so smoothly, so readably, so perfectly believably that it reinforced my reading of memoir. If fiction can turn itself into nonfiction with a disclaimer, nonfiction has no excuse to avoid similar techniques. Then again, I’m more sensitive than ever about lies masquerading as truth these days.

This was a story I couldn’t put down. I wish I could tell a clever anecdote about missing an important appointment or some such thing, because it felt that way. But that would be truthiness, not truth, and this post is nonfiction.

Pushcart XLI: Jane Springer, “Walk” (poem) from Southern Review, Autumn 2015

The kill was accidental the coyotes did not want the meat the meat
didn’t want to be downed that day the rain charged the air
with negative ions we all felt great & walked, garnet crystals flanked
the washed-up creek wind-rush, you know that feeling
of no surveillance?

The speaker of the poem abstractly narrates some kind of leisurely venture into the countryside, and the encounter with… something dead. It’s only referred to as meat, life transformed into death to sustain life in a dramatization of the food chain. We never know exactly what the dead thing is, though there is mention of “cadmium vine down to chartreuse feather”. Is there a chartreuse bird in the wild?

The lack of punctuation in the first few lines, sentences overlapping, images all running together – the story of the coyote, the story of its prey – present nature without the separation into what is beautiful and what is not. The masterpieces of creation blend into the realities: everyone has to eat, including the coyote. But at the same time, another running together is presented, that of different ways to look at the little scene, differing interpretations, maybe different levels. Yes, there’s the predator and prey, but that idea is undermined by the insistence that the meat was not the point of this kill. Throughout the poem, there’s conflicting information about just what is going on: we don’t know what the dead thing was because it’s gone, and if so, doesn’t that mean the coyote took it for food? Or is it so mangled, it’s simply unidentifiable? I hope that wasn’t too graphic. But it’s a graphic poem, and it pulls no punches. And by the way, how does a coyote accidentally kill something?

Punctuation helps to guide our read midway through that first stanza.

It’s not as though the coyotes buttoned up their coyote suits that
morning plotting to leave a being childless. Whether fowl
or furred the mothers left their hymnals in their caves that day
the same as us—it’s not unusual, in fall, to come across
vermillion grasses in the rough part of the field path, but maybe
that’s why the coyotes fled the scene so fast: an eerie fear
the meat belonged to family, but which one?

So much is packed into this stanza: absolution for the coyote; the surprise of violence that is possible at every moment for all of us, human and animal; and that heartbreaking line about family. How do we divide families anyway? All life is related, it’s just a matter of how closely or distantly; we place a boundary at some point, and declare what’s inside is our family and what’s outside is not. Human history – and the very present – is full of violence over who belongs to which family. Even in conquest, does the coyote feel guilt? Or is the fear one of retribution? One is moral, one is practical, but does it matter to the prey? And are we still talking about coyotes, amidst all this language about suits, plotting, childlessness, hymnals, and family, or have we moved to a different level?

We see multiple references to the hunt, and the question, “you know that feeling of no surveillance?” turns up twice. The first time, it’s in reference to the speaker being far away from human support structures – 911, specifically cited – so there’s a touch of risk in the lack of surveillance. The second mention is in a very different context, and implies a more carefree attitude, a heedlessness of risk: “Having had no recent predators, the coyotes must have felt free walking the beat.” By this point I was almost sure that the poem was not, at heart, a nature poem; that nature was the canvas and the paint but the painting had a much broader implication. But I may be overreading.

Again, as with David Hernandez’ poem from last week, I noticed the colors, all described with vivid adjectives that, interestingly, are also nouns: garnet crystals, citron husk, tannic heart, vermillion grasses, cadmium vine, chartreuse feathers. I have no idea if this means anything, but it stood out enough to be noticed. I also see a connection with Robert Wrigley’s “Elk” from earlier in this volume: the use of brutal nature to illustrate humanity.

one might believe
each droplet held an icicle or spectacle for bearing witness
to what pack in nature lay our meat to waste. Rain accents cadmium
vine strung down to chartreuse feather—no lens does justice.
That’s why we took the walk, while shivering, & saw this meat
arrested, fresh, & glittering as if to plead a silent testament:
Aren’t you my kin? Whoever once walked aimless
 
in these woods now walks awake with me in death.

It’s one of those moments when I feel like trying to capture what I feel in words would distort it, maybe erase it; explanation, analysis would not do justice. The poem, a silent testament, stands: who is my brother? And families I never knew I had walk with me in death every day.

Architectural MOOC

Course: The Architectural Imagination
Length: 10 weeks, 3-5 hours/week
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructors: K. Michael Hays et al
Quote:

Architecture is not just about the need for shelter or the need for a functional building. In some ways, it’s just what exceeds necessity that is architecture. And it’s the opening onto that excess that makes architecture fundamentally a human endeavor….
Architecture is one of the most complexly negotiated cultural practices there is. And a single instant involves all of the aesthetic, technological, economic, political issues of social production itself. And indeed, in some ways, architecture, as we’ll see, helps articulate history itself. These are all big claims. And we’ll need big ideas to address these claims. And we’ll also need very specific, concrete examples of architectural projects and events from history. Welcome to The Architectural Imagination, an online introduction to the history and theory of architecture.

Every so often, maybe once a decade, I look at a book on architecture to see if I still don’t get it. To me, architecture is about making sure the building doesn’t fall down, but I kept running into either technical explanations of perspective or grand statements about the historical impact of the arch that I can read but not understand. The above excerpt from the introductory lecture – architecture as “what exceeds necessity” – makes more sense than anything I’ve encountered so far. That isn’t to say I was able to go much further with it, but I got a sense of what is meant by the word, anyway, and why my prior conceptualization didn’t work.

I greatly enjoyed the breadth of scope presented: yes, there was some technical work on perspective (and it turned out to be completely understandable and very interesting in relation to some ideas about subject and object), and some of the more artistic concepts eluded me, but there was also history and philosophy and literature. It was quite marvelous.

I ended up taking it as a recreational mooc, partly because I was overloaded with other courses, and partly because, somewhere around Week 5, I just sort of lost the thread of what was happening. I did get back into the groove in the last three weeks, first through utopian cities, and then was greatly moved by the final week’s stunning examination of Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The course was worth it for that lecture alone: the refusal of forgive and forget, the depth of the wound, the erasure of names, comparisons with the Prague and Mount of Olives burial sites. Another mooc that made me cry.

The course was divided into three modules of three to four weeks each: Form & History, The Technology Effect, and Representation & Context. A different major work was the focus for each week – Italian villas, the Pompidou Center in Paris, German factories, even Utopian city designs that were never built – with additional works brought in as supported the material. Although Dr. Hays did most of the lectures, several other instructors appeared for individual weeks.

The material was based on beautifully produced weekly lectures of about 30 to 40 minutes, broken up into five or six segments, with a substantial reading selection available via pdf for about half of the weeks. Exercises were varied: some required drawing, some were multiple-choice or identification questions about the lecture or reading, some were self-graded short essay questions ranging from outlining the presented material to applying concepts to a new project.

I didn’t really use the forums. It seemed to me there were a lot of more advanced students and I was intimidated and didn’t want to clutter things up, plus they were oddly formatted (I wish mooc designers would realize that pinning more than two or three threads is self-defeating). One comment went unnoticed, perhaps because of the forum setup, perhaps because it was too naïve for the rest of the class. This didn’t help with the intimidation factor, but that’s my problem.

I was quite proud of a couple of the written answers I gave. One asked for an analysis of perspective as seen in a medieval cathedral. The other: analyze the Behrens turbine factory according to Semper’s theoretic structure. I was surprised by my response to this. While the building itself seemed to me like any other factory, I had a great time creating a little story based on conceptual images for hearth, container, framework, and wrap. I also had rather a fun time with the Barcelona Pavilion; I’m sure I missed the mark entirely, but since I come from a land of narratives, I again came up with a story of the posts pushing themselves up from the ground and being restrained from overreaching. I was a bit shocked to be reminded of this in the last week with the Berlin monument: again, a sense of reaching up from the ground, but a far more somber, and important, sense and purpose.

However, I must admit most of my answers were mediocre at best. In the first week of the course, we were to give a sort of pre-course descriptive comparison of two buildings, paying attention to various general aspects: the relationship to the ground, the openings from inside to outside, that sort of thing. I wrote extensively about a very white building on a very green lawn, pegging it as some kind of high-tech research lab for genetic engineering or microcircuitry; it turned out, I discovered later, to be a world-famous house by Corbusier designed to provide a “democratic space” under the private space, and to allow great freedom of movement and vision. Could’ve fooled me. Did fool me.

Part of my problem is that I seem to be lacking any visual artistic sensibility. One building was described as having panes of glass “tilted slightly away from the base, tilted inward toward the building”; this gives “visual weight to the column” and “puts the glass plane on display as a plane.” At least, they tell me it does. Am I supposed to be able to sense that when I look at the pictures? Is this something that requires development, by looking at lots of buildings? If so, if it’s an acquired taste, doesn’t that make it artificial, something learned rather than a natural property, something about the physical structure that triggers brain activity in a certain way that means “weight”, in somewhat the same way that we know which end of an object is closer based on size differentials?

Yes, I really am this clueless, and it’s why I’m frustrated by every art-related course I take. I keep trying, though, and I’m grateful for courses like this one that let me see what is possible, even if I can’t join in.

Pushcart XLI: Erin McGraw, “Priest” from Image #87

When Father Tom comes to a party, people look embarrassed, even the ones who invited him. At wedding and funeral receptions, he sits at the table with the great-aunts. He is the necessary conduit, but he frightens people who hear “priest” and imagine no house, no family, no sex. “You must have started so young!” a parishioner recently said to him. “I’m always surprised when young men….”
She faltered, and Father Tom was moved to pity. “Me, too,” he said.
He didn’t start especially young. He went to college, got a job as a loan officer, and tried to understand the misery that swept over him every morning when he cinched up his tie. He had a girlfriend and met his car payments. There was no reason for him to find himself standing in his apartment garage with a rope and instructions he’d downloaded for tying a noose.
“I’m glad you didn’t follow through,” said the priest Tom talked to later, because a priest was cheaper than a therapist.
“Bad at knots,” Tom said.
Complete story available online at Image

Subtitle: Tom stumbles into a career as a priest. Is this the way it usually happens? I’ve seen vocational tests that suggest a set of choices based on your particular personality, and “clergy” usually fits in with teaching and social work as a helping-oriented job, but isn’t it supposed to be something more? Or am I hopelessly idealistic? Can you tell I’ve never had a deep conversation with anyone in the clergy?

Priests can make incredibly rich fictional characters. All that baggage, all those stereotypes, expectations, sacrifices. A priest is made of delayed gratification, enabled by faith and organizational structure. What happens when the faith erodes? When structure tarnishes, turns out to be constructed out of smoke and mirrors? How does the human remain subordinate to the priest?

This is the second McGraw story I’ve read. The other, also encountered through Pushcart, was “Punchline” and also featured a confused, disaffected priest. I see I felt like I’d missed something along the way. This story seems more like a character sketch than a story, so again I feel like I’ve missed something, something that was important enough to be repeated, and I’m a little confused myself.

MedChem MOOC

Course: Medicinal Chemistry: The Molecular Basis of Drug Discovery
Length: 7 weeks
School/platform: Davidson/edX
Instructors: Erland Stevens
Quote:

This medicinal chemistry course explores how chemists modify a molecule’s structure to design a safe and effective drug.
This course opens with a brief history of drug discovery and introduces the modern drug approval process. Then, we will transition to learning about receptors and enzymes, the body’s molecules most often targeted by drugs. We will also discuss the topics of pharmacokinetics (drug adsorption, elimination, and half-life) and metabolism. The course closes with units on how potential drug molecules are identified and subsequently optimized into safe and effective drugs.

Short version: nicely-done course, with lots of small, well-conceived extras.

I’ve realized for some time that a better understanding of chemistry, particularly organic chemistry, would help a lot with the biology courses I’ve been taking. Alas, I haven’t found an intro-level organic chemistry mooc, but I thought I might get some helpful exposure though this course, even though I’m more interested in how drugs affect biology than in optimizing drugs via lab analysis of their properties. I saw “some experience” with organic chem was recommended, so I spent a week trying to get a sense of the basics on Youtube (Leah Fisch’s vids, aka Leah4Sci.com, were particularly helpful). I also found a Cerego set on functional groups (Cerego’s great for pure memorization and for keeping ideas from getting all dusty between moocs), but wasn’t optimistic about my chances of completing the course. Turns out I did fine, though I suspect my final score greatly exaggerates my overall comprehension. I did get some good exposure to heretofore unknown aspects of chemistry, which was the point. And it was interesting to see the process of drug development.

Each week included six or eight subtopics, each with a combination of video lectures, readings, and a few graded exercises, as well as an ungraded “virtual lab” offering practice in the concepts via computer modelling. Expert interviews closed the week: everything from a patent attorney (Fun Things to Do With a Chemistry Degree if you Don’t Want to Work in a Lab) and drug company CEO – both Davidson alumni – to research scientists specializing in the technical areas featured during the week . Three exams were spaced throughout the course, covering material from two or three weeks each.

I had some concerns early on that, because the course was created “in partnership” with a pharmaceutical company, that there would be some emphasis on the business side of drug development: defending pricing, cutting regulation, that sort of thing. No need to worry: although there was some mention of those factors in Week 1 in the overview of the drug development process, I never felt like an agenda was being pushed (and I’m pretty sensitive, to the point of paranoia, to agendas, especially now).

The second and third weeks were math-heavy, with Excel playing a central role. I’ve always avoided Excel as much as possible, but it was time to bite the bullet. Fortunately, there was plenty of explanation and great forum support. I had a very bad moment when I saw the phrase “area under the curve” – oh god, please don’t make me integrate – but it turned out to be simplified by another formula. Derivation of the formula was part of the material, but I was not in a position to really incorporate it. And that’s part of the reason I feel my comprehension wasn’t equal to my final grade. But I survived, if less nobly than was possible, and lived to fight another day in the sections on chemical bonds and reactions.

Discussion forums were active and helpful, with very prompt responses by Dr. Stevens himself. I’ve become very fond of many of the TAs and grad students who’ve handled discussion boards in various courses over the years, but there’s still something special, maybe because it’s becoming very rare, about the instructor covering the boards. I felt welcomed and supported in spite of my lack of technical background.

Another small extra with great impact: each lecture included a summary; not a transcript, which is available too, but a brief recap complete with clear diagrams. While hand-drawn diagrams are great during a lecture so you can see exactly what goes with what description, when it comes to putting something in my notes, a laser-printed typeset diagram beats a screen clip of a blackboard sketch every time. So the best of both worlds was provided.

Another greatly appreciated timesaver was the FAQ appended to each section. This was a combination of minor corrections to videos, more detailed instructions on various processes, and an accumulated knowledge contributed by forum discussion in previous sessions. I found the answer to many questions here, not to mention interesting extensions or applications of concepts introduced. I’ve never seen this before. If there’s a Best Practices for Moocs handbooks around, someone should add this one; it creates something like a culture for the course, across time.

Each of the brief introductory videos to each week was shot at a different location on the Davidson campus, with some link to the topic of the week: the dining hall kitchen for metabolism, a sports arena for competition. The PR for Davidson College probably doesn’t hurt, either. This is my second Davidson mooc, by the way (the first was in Digital Humanities, way on the other side of the aisle), and both have been very good.

Various databases and software packages, most online (the one that was download-only was in an optional Virtual Lab), came into play, including The Drug Bank, Molinspiration, and the Protein Data Bank. I’ve used similar packages, maybe the same ones through an interface, in my biology courses. Molinspiration particularly amused me: if you draw too many bonds on a given atom, it eventually asks: “Are you trying to draw a hedgehog?”

I picked up a great new vocabulary term. In addition to in vivo and in vitro (“in the organism” and “in the lab”), we now have in silico, “in computer simulation”. I don’t know why this strikes me so hilariously, but it does. It’s perfect!

A pre-test and post-test bracketed the course. Neither were graded beyond a single “extra credit” point for completion. The pre-test instructions emphasized that we weren’t expected to get the questions right; it wasn’t a prerequisite test, but merely a way to establish a starting benchmark. Good thing, since I had no idea what any of the questions were asking. The post-test came after a long, hard seven weeks, and while I was feeling overwhelmed by other courses besides. I made a half-hearted attempt at the first 10 of 15 before I decided I didn’t need the extra point that badly; I was feeling pretty discouraged about my retention of the material at that point.

I commented to that effect on the forums. Dr. Stevens replied with an explanation of how he used those scores, what he looked for in terms of a class “growth” average, and the formula used to calculate it. I was then more motivated to put some work into the last five questions. I regretted my slapdash approach to the first ten, in fact (see what a little pep talk can do? Yes, I’m an attention whore, but seriously, a little nudge works wonders), so I gave the final five a more serious shot. Given the equation, I figured if I got ¼ of the pretest correct merely by probability of multiple choice selection, all I needed to do was get seven of the post test correct to meet his hoped-for growth level. I’ll never know, since the scores aren’t revealed. I hope, at the very least, I didn’t drag down the group average too much. The course deserved better than that.

This was a great experience, even though my primary interest was more around the edges of the course focus. For those specifically interested in the drug development process, I’m thinking it’d be a great place to start.

Pushcart XLI: David Hernandez, “We Would Never Sleep” (poem) from The Sun #475

poem

We the people, we the one
times 320 million, I’m rounding up, there are really
too many grass blades to count,
wheat plants to tally, just see
the whole field swaying from here to that shy
blue mountain. Swaying
as in rocking, but also the other
definition of the verb: we sway, we influence,
we impress. Unless we’re asleep,
unless the field’s asleep, more a postcard
than a real field, portrait of the people
unmoved.
Complete poem available online at The Sun

Colors. That was the first thing I noticed: grass blades, wheat plants, blue mountain. Like an altered version of “America the Beautiful” with its amber waves of grain, purple mountains, and fruited plain, combining nicely with the notion of America as a population of 320 million blades of grass that make up a huge, beautiful lawn, too many to count, though of course we can and do count them, every ten years in fact. I let myself get distracted by wondering about the difference between RGB and CMYK color mixing systems, and through that realized red was missing. I noticed the influence and the sleep, those are electric words right now, featuring in the political realm as they do, right next to all that American imagery – am I the only one who felt it? – and recalling the title. So I read on.

You know that shooting last week?
I will admit the number dead
was too low to startle me
if you admit you felt the same,
and the person standing by you
agrees, and the person beside that person.
It has to be double digits,
don’t you think?

Red, on.

I wasn’t sure what shooting the poem referred to, so many of them, almost daily, headlines like, in April 2015, Phoenix, AZ: five family members killed “after an apparent dispute over the family business burst into gunfire”, or Douglas County, GA: “Five dead, including gunman” or September in Minnesota: “Five dead in apparent murder-suicide.” Those probably don’t count, though, because they’re family matters, and even though that’s a big part of the problem, it isn’t like a terrorist or a crazy person, something that could actually happen to you, because I’m sure everyone in those families knew they’d die at the hand of their own one day and we know we won’t. So maybe the poem refers to the Chattanooga shootings which has its own Wikipedia entry.

But we’re supposed to be talking poetry here.

I find the progression of the poem to be effective in delivering an emotional kick. It’s true, we don’t pay much attention to “little” incidents any more. Two, three dead, we shrug and move on. Once you’ve read about twenty children plus six of their teachers murdered within minutes, you need more than two or three bodies to make an impression.

The poem spends a little time in that place, but then proposes a solution…

I’m thinking every gun
should come with a microphone,
each street with loudspeakers
to broadcast their banging.
We would never sleep, the field
always awake, acres of swaying
up to that shy blue mountain…

… and comes back to join up the circle, and recapitulate the American landscape, the 320 million blades of grass – minus a few here and there – and all of us sleeping, and just what will it take to wake us up?

Hernandez is known, it seems, as a humor poet, which surprised the hell out of me. I’ve encountered him once before via Pushcart 2014 and his poem “All-American”. I called it “conversational”, something I feel in this poem as well. Both are from his 2016 collection Dear, Sincerely which is indeed full of humor (“We Real Nerds”, an ode to university parking department FAQs, a letter from the sun) punctuated with poems, like this one, that stop your heart, and make you glad you’ve still got a heart that breaks.

Pushcart XLI: Lisa Taddeo, “Forty-Two” from New England Review #36.1

Jennie Jieun Lee:  Bust

Jennie Jieun Lee: Bust

Joan had to look beautiful.
Tonight there was a wedding in goddamned Brooklyn, farm-to-table animals talking about steel cut oatmeal as though they invented the steel that cut it. In New York the things you hate are the things you do.
She worked out at least two hours a day. On Mondays and Tuesdays, which are the kindest days for older single women, she worked out as many as four. At six in the morning she ran to her barre class in leg warmers and black Lululemons size four. The class was a bunch of women squatting on a powder blue rug. You know the type, until you become one.
Complete story available online at NER

A study in interiority: one of those stories where nothing happens, but people think a lot. The author uses the thoughts, fears, attitudes to build a kind of relational structure between the vertices of their separate points of view. The head-hopping from Joan to Matt to Molly is done with flair: Joan’s thinking about Matt and then we’re in Matt’s head, that kind of tag-you’re-it technique. Cleverness and poignancy abound throughout the story.

Yet I found it hard to feel any kind of connection to any of the characters, and find I have little interest in what’s in these people’s heads. Matt wants to get laid. The women want to get loved via getting laid. I’m so glad I don’t live in New York. I’m so glad I’m beyond the age for this sort of thing – though I suppose Joan will still be at it when she’s collecting Social Security. I wish it made her happy, but it seems to make her miserable.

I think this is one of those stories where the fact that you have no idea who a person is when you finish reading it is the point. Twelve pages about Joan – a few were about Matt and Molly, but mostly Joan – and all I know about her is that at 42, she’s trying to be good enough for younger men. “Not animalistically young like twenty-two” as she puts it, more like in the ballpark of thirty. But older women don’t get to have younger men, as a rule, and she spends her time and energy railing against that, and trying to make it happen anyway.

I like the way the three characters show different phases of Joan’s mindset: Matt, who knows he the object and seems a bit bemused but is perfectly happy to take advantage of it since he’s in control; and Molly, who has won the brass ring and doesn’t have to worry about finding a man for a while. At least until, when she reaches 42, she becomes the starter wife to some current twelve-year-old who will be twenty-four just in time for Matt’s midlife crisis.

Every story takes you somewhere, even when you’re looking at 27 and 42 in the rearview mirror from far away. Here’s where this one takes me: I wonder what Joan would be without her obsession. I wonder what’s hiding in there. I also wonder what would happen if she and Molly exchanged their points of view. Would it change their outlook at all? I know I wish I’d known then what I know now. But I feel that way about 55, about 50, about 45, and, if I live long enough, I’ll probably feel that way about 62. Time is change.

Religion + cogscience + psych + soc + anthro + digital humanities = MOOC


Course: The Science of Religion
Length: 6 weeks
School/platform: UBC/edX
Instructors: Edward Slingerland, Azim Shariff
Quote:
What is religion? Are we wired to believe? Does science have the answers?…Drawing on new scientific advances, this religion course examines foundational questions about the nature of religious belief and practice.
Topics to be covered will include traditional and contemporary theories of religion, with a special emphasis on cultural evolutionary models.

I’ve always felt one of the factors religion had going for it was its ubiquity in human history and, for that matter, prehistory. This course helped me understand why that might be the case – and a lot of other things besides.

Because I’d already taken the Chinese Thought moocs with Dr. Slingerland, I expected this to include a lot of cognitive and psychological science; I wasn’t disappointed. I discovered a technique of breaking down religion into cognitive units, of tracing religion through history and language, and of studying religious texts, new and old, through the digital humanities technique I’ve previously seen described as corpus linguistics. I even got the verdict on remote prayer (spoiler alert: contrary to that episode of The West Wing, it’s not scientifically verifiable). The material only grazed the surface of most of these questions, but there’s only so much you can do in six weeks and they went for breadth rather than depth. I found it fascinating.

The course setup was standard mooc: a set of lectures, a couple of ungraded “knowledge checks” after each, and a weekly graded multiple-choice information retrieval quiz that comprised the final grade. Each instructor did a week or two as a unit, switching a couple of times during the course. Along with numerous guest experts they look at religion (all religion, from Brazilian simpatias to Polynesian sects to the ancient Chinese to those more common to most of us) from a variety of angles. Do we have some cognitive structure that makes religion as natural as language, and if so, is it intentional, or a side effect, so to speak, of another structure with a more practical evolutionary value? What cognitive elements do religions have in common? What are the psychological benefits to religion? How does religion affect communities? Can we study religious development by examining religious texts of the past? Can we design models to predict religious development? What about atheism, how does that fit in? What is most likely to happen to religion in the future?

Each week featured several optional extended interviews with the guest experts, as well as publicly-available videos featuring Baba Brinkman and Jordan Peterson relating to the topics at hand. A final improv video discussing popular topics and hot debates from the message boards ended each week, and if you still hadn’t had enough, every lecture segment ended with a long list of references for further reading. And to my delight, as in the Chinese Thought course, a weekly “blooper reel” brought the funny. Neither of the instructors comes across as pedantic or stuffy – quite the contrary – but it’s still nice to know even seriously smart people screw up. Sometimes repeatedly. And they manage to maintain a sense of humor about it.

I encountered a couple of things I’d never seen before in a mooc. First, while some introductory material was available immediately, the course content could only be accessed after acknowledging the discussion forum rules. The rules were standard (no threatening, no ridiculing) and are included somewhere in every mooc, but the prominence was interesting, and probably a good idea given the subject matter. The forums were very active and interesting, well-covered by staff, and I didn’t notice any problems at all; I’ve seen hotter tempers in math moocs.

Another new (to me) twist, one which disappointed me, was the inclusion of a fairly common “live hangout” session – but only for Verified, that is, paying, students. More and more, edX courses are finding ways to tuck course material behind paywalls. It wasn’t lack of access to the material that bothered me – I rarely participate in hangouts, though I like to watch them, but here there was more than enough material to keep me very busy – as much as the harbinger of things to come. I have no idea what kind of incentives or restrictions are part of the package these days for course presenters, but I’m guessing it’s persuasive.

Bottom line: I found the course well worth the time invested, and made several connections to other areas of interest that invite further follow-up.

Pushcart XLI: James Kimbrell, “Pluto’s Gate: Mississippi” (poem) from Cincinnati Review

                        For Private First Class, C. Liegh McInnis
 
I appear to be a full-on rich guy
wheeling into Oxford
down the Cedar-lined drive across from William Faulkner’s
determined to shield myself (my fancy wristwatch
                                             my roadster
                                             both used both fast as hell) from the
                                             shame
I once knew in this my state

Pluto’s Gate was, in the ancient world, the entrance to the Underworld. Proto-travelblogger Strabo, writing in the time just before BCE would turn to CE, wrote: “This space is full of a vapor so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground. Any animal that passes inside meets instant death.” Located in the Phrygian city of Hierapolis (today’s Turkey), only eunuchs devoted to the fertility goddess Cybele could tolerate its fumes. The site was unearthed by archeologists in 2013, but lots of people, including poet James Kimbrell, were more than familiar with it long before then.

Kimbrell gives us a tour of the present and past of his home state through the poem. It’s not a narrative as much as it is an evoked memoir. He grew up poor, but the speaker acknowledges the pain of that poverty alongside the recognition that “no one swerved to hit us” the way they swerved to hit the black people on their way to the voter registration sites in 1964. Even in poverty, there is white privilege.

…and we all cry out stumbling in that wilderness
if we had soup we could have soup and crackers
if we had crackers. but of course
we don’t because love comes on like a weight
and a claw and a sucker punch
and in the case of Mississippi
gateway to this our under-country
history is the dish that leaves us skinny

The poem has an off-and-on two-column structure, reminding me of a dialogue. Between whom? Past and present? The speaker, and Mississippi? The poet and PFC C. Leigh McInnis, to whom the poem is dedicated, a friend and fellow poet Kimbrell originally met back when they both served in the Air National Guard? Speaker and reader? The sparse use of punctuation, mostly in quotes, gives some freedom to reading as some words and phrases align one way with a bit of a psychic overhang in another.

The language is rich with allusions blending into each other, most of which I’m probably not even picking up on but I’ll give it a shot:

backwoods Medusa with a kudzu Afro
whose green gaze
sprouts branches from the fluted
columns of Beauvoir
                      O hold my hand brother before we return
peckers in the dirt of our poke-salad geography
redeemed as empty Faygo bottles
in the burned-down shed
in the bamboo patch
behind Bilbo’s poolhall.

The mention of Medusa brings us back to the ancient world, her snake-hair now an Afro of kudzu, the Vine that Ate the South, and bringing in the dual fascination and fear the white world has with black women, often shown in attitudes towards black hair. The columns of Beauvoir, post-bellum estate of Jefferson Davis in Biloxi, brings us back to the South, and pokeweed weaves in the kind of poverty that has people eating weeds. I was a bit surprised to find there may be a guy in Mississippi named Bilbo who happens to have a pool table in his garage, per a Flickr photo, but mostly it brings the obvious to mind, the hobbit pilgrim.

In spite of my fumbling with symbols and references, I greatly enjoyed this poem. The tone has a strong effect on me: a kind of thrumming of different pulses on some subharmonic frequency that’s sad and beautiful and hopeful, all at the same time. The past never leaves us, but matters most in how it affects actions in the present and future, and that is, to a large degree, our choice.

Pushcart XLI: Kalpana Narayanan, “Dr. J” (nonfiction) from Granta #130

My father has his own language for everything. A friend of a friend is a FOF. A suitcase is a rolly-polly. When I finished my MFA, I was a NINJA: No Income, No Job, No Assets. The tree in his and my mother’s front yard, he points out to me as we walk, is called M-Squared, because it’s either a maple or a magnolia, he’s not sure which. Growing up in the South, I used to see this bumper sticker everywhere: ‘I can do all things through Jesus Christ who Strengthens Me.’ One day in high school, I went out to my dad’s car and saw that he had made his own bumper sticker. It said: ‘I can do all things through Lord Venkateswara who Strengthens Me.’ My dad moved to Atlanta twenty-nine years ago with one suitcase, and began to name the new things he saw, and press himself into this life, and a world sprang up around him.

 

Complete essay available online at Granta

There are those who make their home where they are, in spite of ties to distant lands; and there are those who go looking for home, sometimes for years. We see both sides here.

In spite of Narayanan’s restlessness throughout, her admiration of her father shines through. It’s a good essay to read now. It’s also painful, with the gunshots of the Kansas City murder still ringing in my head. I kept thinking: it could’ve been this man. I think that’s the gift an essay like this brings us: it introduces us to someone in a close, personal way, so he’s not a stranger any more, and maybe that proliferates just a bit and changes a few attitudes. Not enough, not nearly enough. But some.

I went looking for header art for this post, as I always do. Granta features the writer’s photograph of her father; I often use the art that accompanied a piece in publication, when it exists, as an acknowledgment, but that image felt too personal somehow; I didn’t want to intrude. So I googled “Home”. All I got were images of houses, lovely clean modern suburban American houses sitting on large green lawns. Although that no doubt matches Narayanan’s home experience, it felt too parochial, just as the snapshot felt too personal and home feels like home when you find it. One thing I’m sure of: home is not a building.

India is still his home. It’s where his mother is. It’s where, the day after he cremated his father’s body, he and his two brothers drove out to the Ganges, dumped in their father’s ashes and then took a dip together in cold, holy water. My dad says that as a child, his father would wade into the Kaveri River, carrying my dad on his shoulders, and that day it was my dad’s turn to carry his father’s remains into the water. It’s ‘Bol Radha Bol’, a song about two rivers, people, merging, that he knows all the words to, and that he croons at night.
But it’s Atlanta where he’s commissioner of the NBA: the Noontime Basketball Association, a group of Georgia Tech faculty and staff that play at lunchtime, and Atlanta where he goes by Dr J, a name his friend gave him in the eighties, in the era of Julius Erving’s slam dunk.

Every once in a while, the thought comes to me: “I want to go home.” I’m not sure where that home is. My family lived in Connecticut for a couple of years when I was about 8 years old, and when we moved to Florida, I always looked back to Weston as home. I was in Florida for ten years. But I left as soon as I could, and headed for New England. For Home, away from home. I’ve never lived in Connecticut (I did get married there) but I’ll always feel more drawn to bricks and four seasons and a nearby sea and other states an hour away than to any other settings.

But home? Home should be something more. Maybe this is homelessness, similar to Narayanan’s, but without the constant searching; a kind of settling into homelessness as home.

Three visions of home. Maybe there are as many visions as there are us.

Pushcart XLI: Jamila Woods, “Daddy Dozens” (poem) from Poetry, April 2015

My Daddy’s forehead is so big, we don’t need a dining room
table. My Daddy’s forehead so big, his hat size is equator. So
big, it’s a five-head. Tyra Banks burst into tears when she seen
my Daddy’s forehead. My Daddy’s forehead got its own area code.

Complete poem available online at Poetry

What a fun beginning: I did, in fact, laugh out loud, right there in the coffee shop where I read this, at the line about Tyra Banks. Guilty pleasures confession: I spent more time than I care to admit watching ANTM for a while there. But, like ANTM and everything else under the sun, the poem changes, and while the tone remains this loudmouth bratty teen dragging stock mocks down the page, a lot of truth gets mixed in along the way. We start to understand more about her Daddy, and by the end, we understand some of the loneliness the blustery humor can’t hide any more.

Woods has done poetry slams, musical albums (including a collaboration with Chance the Rapper). Considering how aural that is – and poetry itself is, of course, a spoken art, though it’s not always presented or perceived that way – I’m surprised how much the layout of this poem on the page contributed to its meaning. At first I wasn’t sure it was a poem; maybe the lines are sentences, just breaking at the margins like all paragraphs. But no, I don’t think so. The words are so dense on the page, not in a heavy or cumbersome way, but in a busy, fast-talking sort of way. The blank lines between stanzas give the reader a moment to readjust, the speaker a bit of time to weigh the options of going on or not. And that last line, isolated and alone, makes a perfect ending, visual, aural, and semantic aspects all focused as an underscore.

Mao MOOC

Course: Mao to Now: On Chinese Marxism
Length: 6 weeks
School/platform: University of Newcastly (AU)/edX
Instructor: Roland Boer
Quote:

Rather than praising or condemning, the course focuses on building a deeper understanding of this history through two interwoven elements.
The first structures the course in terms of some ‘red tourism’ to the sites important to the communist revolution in the first half of the twentieth century.
Much of the course footage was filmed on location in China, including Shaoshan, Ruijin, Yan’an and important locations in Beijing, such as Tiananmen and the Nationalities Museum (minzuyuan).
The second element of the course will take those experiences and use them to help answer some fundamental questions:
    • Is China socialist or capitalist today, or is it perhaps both at one and the same time?
    • Is there such a thing as Chinese socialist democracy, and, if so, what is it?
    • Does China have its own theory of human rights, drawn from the long Chinese tradition and Marxism?
    • If the Chinese state is a form that has not been seen before, then what is it?

I really liked the structure of this course: each week after the first covered a location important to Mao’s life, from his birthplace to the location of the first Chinese soviet to the end of the Long March to the mausoleum at Beijing. Lectures are shot at various locations in those cities, in one of the most on-site moocs I’ve taken.

However, I’m left with the feeling that this was a very one-sided picture. In fact, if the Chinese government produced a mooc on Mao, I’m guessing it would look a lot like this, and given the extended access for filming lectures, I have to wonder if there was any outside influence on content. For example, I’m not sure how it’s possible to discuss Mao’s influence on China without mentioning the Cultural Revolution. But then, I’m the first to admit I know virtually nothing about modern China. Some scenes had me wondering if there was a subtext: for example, the video scenes of National Day celebrations in Tianamen Square, while discussing the enormous crowds gathering from the early hours and the respectful and celebratory atmosphere, all featured generous phalanxes of soldiers and police. I looked through some images of typical Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, DC, but I wouldn’t draw any conclusions based on such a casual experiment.

Grading took a variety of forms: most of the points came from multiple choice midterm and final exams, but peer instruction quizzes contributed significantly as well: single questions with four options for an answer. After entering a short explanation of one’s choice, the reasoning other students used for each answer was displayed before final submission of an answer. Additionally, participation in class polls earned a small number of points. I found it interesting to have so much exposure to what others were thinking, and it’s always nice to have different forms of evaluation. On the forums, I ran into a Chinese student I’d met in an earlier ancient Chinese philosophy course. Hang around moocs enough, and you start to recognize a lot of names.

Prof. Boer refers to himself as a Christian Communist; he teaches both in Australia and in China. Overall, I’d call the course a biography, with elements of political theory, history, and philosophy. In spite of, or perhaps because of the strong point of view differing from the one I’ve been exposed to in the US, I enjoyed the material, particularly the more philosophical mentions of how Chinese Marxism blended in both Confucius and the Dao and evolved over time to form its own flavor of socialism. But I still think far too much was skimmed over, even for a basic overview course.

Pushcart XLI: T.C. Boyle, “The Five Pound Burrito” from Kenyon Review #37.6

He lived in a world of grease, and no matter how often he bathed, which was once a day, rigorously—and no shower but a drawn bath—he smelled of carnitas, machaca, and the chopped white onion and soapy cilantro he folded each morning into his pico de gallo. The grease itself was worked up under his nails and into the folds of his skin, folds that hung looser and penetrated deeper now that he was no longer young….
And so it began: first, then the lunch rush, furious work in the hot, cramped kitchen, and all he could see was people’s mouths opening and closing and the great wads of beans and rice and marinated pork, chicken, and beef swelling their throats.

Stories, at least those using traditional narrative form, tend to start in the middle, the in media res technique hammered home by Creative Writing 101. Personally, I think it’s a tossup as to whether readers prefer it, or whether it’s simply that editors prefer it because they can more quickly decide whether or not to move on to the next of the thousand stories in the slush pile. Too gimmicky an opening line is cringe-inducing, but one that arouses curiosity about just what’s going on is the golden ticket.

This story starts not with events, but with an atmosphere, a characterization/setting so palpable you might have an impulse to wipe off your hands or dab at your mouth with a napkin. Nothing special is happening – at least, not for two pages, unless you count the waitress being late – but we know this guy by the time we’ve gone through those two pages. He’s tired. He’s depressed. He’s discouraged. He speaks with “a voice that was dying in his throat a little more each day as he groped toward old age.”

We really want something to happen for this guy. And, of course, it does.

When he saw the face in the tortilla that provided the foundation for the burrito he was just then constructing, he ignored it. It was nobody’s face, eyes, nose, cheek bones, brow, and it meant nothing except that he was exhausted, already exhausted, and he still had six and a half hours to go. And sure, he’d seen faces before – Mohammed, Buddha, Sandy Koufax once, but Jesus? Never. The woman over on Broadway had seen Jesus, exactly as he was in the shroud of Turin, only the shroud in this case was made of unleavened flour, lard, and water. He could have used Jesus himself, because that woman got rich and the lines for her place went around the whole city block. If only he had Jesus, he could hire somebody more competent – and dependable – than Sepideh and sit back and take a load off. That was what he was thinking as he smeared refritos over the face of the tortilla and piled up rice and meat and guacamole and crema, cheese, shredded lettuce, pico de gallo, the works – and why not? – for yet another pair of footballers who were sitting there at the back table like statues come to life. Call it whimsy, or maybe revenge, but he mounted the ingredients up till the burrito was as big as a stuffed pillowcase. Let them complain about this one.
That was when he had his moment of inspiration, divine or otherwise. He would weigh it. Actually weigh it, and that would be his ammunition and his pride, too, the biggest burrito in town. If he didn’t have Jesus, at least he would have that.

It’s a paragraph that’s a lot of fun to read, but the elements also seem carefully chosen to me. The face in the tortilla doesn’t impress him. Is that because he’s a fact-based guy with little use for faith, or because all the romance and imagination and inspiration and hope have drained out of him down the grease trap? Any element of the supernatural is converted to practical benefits reaped by the woman over on Broadway. He just goes about his job, a little pissed off, and makes a super-huge burrito… in revenge? Sure, he’s sick of burritos – having seen them through his eyes for a few minutes, I’m pretty disgusted by them myself – but I doubt the college footballer who ordered it would think a five-pound burrito was a bad thing. And then inspiration finally arrives in the form of a marketing plan rather than the face of Jesus.

And we still don’t know his name.

Then the story gives us some white space, and restarts on a completely different note:

We each live our days in accumulation of milliseconds, seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years, and life is a half we must follow, invariably, until the end. Is there change, or hope of it? Yes, but change is wearing and bad for the nerves and almost always for the worse. So it was with Sal, the American-born son of Mexican immigrants who opened Salvador’s Café with a loan from his uncle James when he was still in his twenties, and now, nearly forty years later, saw his business take off like a rocket on the fuel of the five-Pound burrito.

This reads so much like a typical opening paragraph, I have to wonder if it was originally written that way. Maybe it was moved, maybe the prelude was added; in any case, I think it was a great move. I know so much more about Sal from smelling the onions, and now I’m curious about how he ended up where he is, so this doesn’t seem like exposition at all but fine touches on an almost-finished portrait. As well, something about this reminds me of a novel with a short introductory vignette followed by grounding material. I’ve often read longish stories that felt like novel excerpts, but it’s unusual to read a shortish story that feels like a novel – not a story that needs to be fleshed out as a novel, but as a complete work, just reduced in size. Even the language is expansive and full, rather than streamlined or minimal.

And if it seems like these large quotes, such a detailed discussion of the first four pages of a nine-page story would be a spoiler, trust me, it isn’t. If the first half was packed, the second half is more so: a five-pound burrito in a bite-sized form.

I don’t know much about the technical aspects of magical realism other than it pervades much of late 20th century Latin American literature. The most important thing I gather from poking around is that it involves something extraordinary among the plebian. That fits. There’s nothing more plebian than Sal. And as for the extraordinary… I’ll leave that for the reader to discover.

I could imagine any of several shapes for the second half of the story, and sure enough, it followed one of them with a few surprises along the way. Again, the elements seem carefully chosen, tailored to fit. I know I’ve been somewhat harsh on TC Boyle’s stories in the past, and I have to wonder if I should take another look at some of them, because not only was this one great fun to read, it was also effectively executed.

But it’s going to be a long time before I eat another burrito.