Pushcart 2015: Xuan Juliana Wang, “Days of Being Mild” from Ploughshares, #119

We are what the people called Bei Piao – a term coined to describe the twenty-somethings who drift aimlessly to the northern capital, a phenomenal tumble of new faces to Beijing. We are the generation who awoke to consciousness listening to rock and roll, and who fed ourselves milk, McDonalds, and box sets of Friends. We are not our parents, with their loveless marriages and party-assigned jobs, and we are out to prove it.
We come with uncertain dreams, but our goal is to burn whitehot, to prove that the Chinese, too, can be decadent and reckless. We are not good at math or saving money, but we are very good at being young. We are modern-day May Fourth-era superstars only now we have Macbooks. We’ve read Kerouac in translation. We are marginally employed and falling behind on our filial piety payments, but we are cool. Who was going to tell us otherwise?

I found the plot to be in the way of the story here. Once I got the plot out of the way, I loved this.

The plot concerns a jumble of roommates, some of whom make a marginal living shooting videos for rock bands whose main purpose seems to be to find fame by being banned. I started making my little charts, as I do when I get bogged down in too many details about too many complexly interacting people – but eventually, I decided it didn’t matter to me. I’m sure it mattered a great deal to Wang, I’m sure she constructed the plot with precision and finesse, and that every action has a reaction and it all fits together beautifully, but I get impatient with music-industry bluster (as I did with Goon Squad) and I’ve lived through too many generations of “we’ve just discovered what makes the world work and no one gets it but we’re still bored and aimless” to keep track – corporate culture, Beats, hippies, yippies, GenX, entrepreneurials, millenials, hipsters. Because of my weak grasp of Asian history even in my own lifetime, I’m not sure precisely how that maps on to China – May Fourth, Cultural Revolution, May 35, Bei Piao? But it seems any system, once it’s popular enough to become a system, is burdensome.

I found some references online which allude to a variety of contexts for this phrase Bei Piao. An American basketball player, relocated to Beijing after retirement from the NBA, refers to himself as such a floating migrant. The founder of the Miss Meusli cereal company refers to herself that way as well, having come to Beijing temporarily and somehow finding her dreams there. A Macleans article imparts aimlessness to the word rather than dream and drive. The University of Michigan’s International Institute applies the term to rural farmers who come to the city as construction workers, a late shift in population centers. So maybe, like hipsters and hippies and all the rest, Bei Piao are whatever you make of them. For Wang, I see a distinct Brooklyn view.

While the plot deals with doomed romances and the lengths some will go to for fame and fortune, the story running underneath concerns the first-person narrator. If he’s given a name, I missed it in the jumble of people coming and going and worrying and art-ing, but he doesn’t need one. I know who he is. He’s young, he’s having a great time, he’s lost, he’s trying to find his way, and Dad wants to send him to Louisiana to manage the family oil wells. He isn’t sure that’s the way he wants to find.

We also learned English. We realized how different it really was to speak Chinese. We didn’t used to have to say what we meant, because our old language allows for a certain amount of room to wiggle.
In Chinese we can ask, “What’s it like?” because it can refer to anything going on, anything on your mind. The answer could be as simple-sounding as the one-syllable “men” which means, you’re feeling stifled but lonely. The character drawn out is a heart trapped within a doorway. Fear is literally the feeling of whiteness. The word for “marriage” is the character of a woman and the character of fainting. How is English, that clumsy barking, ever going to compare?
But we did learn useful acronyms like DTF (Down To Fuck) and Holy Shit, and we also became really good at ordering coffee. We learned how to throw the word love around, say “LOL” and laugh without laughing.

That’s the story.

I tried to find this word “men” with a symbol of a heart trapped in a doorway. I didn’t do so well – while Indo-European words are relatively easy to research, Chinese offers special challenges, especially a word like “men” which in its English meaning is so ubiquitous as to mask what might be germane, and that’s without getting into delicate shades of meaning and context. But I did find a few Chinese dictionaries on googlebooks that might give a clue: one specifically lists one cites “stifling, lacking good ventilation; (of a person) full of ideas but not inclined to talk.” Another discusses a compound, meaning “sad, melancholy, a heart… before a shut up door”. I think I see the connection with what the narrator is saying, yes?

In the 60s, at the height of the nonconformist craze, there was a little quip going around that ended up incorporated into a couple of songs over the decades: “I want to be different, just like everybody else.” Nonconformism becomes its own prison, and hipsters return now to the styles of yesteryear to underline their nonconformity. So too are the lyrics of the song the band is working on in this story: “We have passion, but do not know why. What are we fighting for? Where’s our direction? Do you want to be an individual? Or a grain of sand.” A life of freedom can turn you into a grain of sand as well.

We learn that Americans are able to take certain things for granted, like that the world appreciated their individuality. That they were raised thinking they were special, loved, and that their parents wanted them to follow their dreams and be happy. It was endlessly amazing.

I wonder how many Americans would tell them, it isn’t quite that easy. In fact, I suppose that’s the point of the whole story, that what’s happening to this ragtag group in Beijing and what the narrator is feeling is the same thing experienced by thousands of disaffected twentysomethings crowding into unzoned Brooklyn lofts, and that’s the same thing that drew thousands to Haight-Ashbury in 1967. How many of those died young? How many made a difference? And how many ended up twenty years later in a suburban home with a picket fence, worrying about taxes and insurance and the best schools for their kids?

And I know this story works, because at the end, I wondered how American individualism would work out for our narrator – whose name I never knew.

Pushcart 2015: Tarfia Faizullah, “The Streetlamp Above Me Darkens” (Poetry) from New England Review, #34

Cover art from Faizullah's first collection, Seam, by Dilara Begum Jolly

Cover art from Faizullah’s first collection, Seam, by Dilara Begum Jolly

for this, I am grateful. This elegy
doesn’t want a handful of puffed rice
tossed with mustard oil and chopped chilies,
but wants to understand why a firefly
flickers off then on, wants another throatful
or three of whiskey. This elegy is trying
hard to understand how we all become
corpses, but I’m trying to understand

How to understand permanence, when there is no such thing?

In a wonderful conversation from Kenyon Review (made even more poignant because it is with Jake Adam York, who passed away just nine months later at age 40), Faizullah talks about the origin of the elegies she wrote for her sister: “When my sister first passed away, I silently spoke to her often. It was a way of conjuring her as much as it was a way to comfort myself.” Silent conversation eventually evolved into several elegies, like this one. She compares them to the layering of palimpsests, another wonderful image, and discusses the impossibility of testimony and conflicts of remembrance and guilt.

The poem (which is available online, thank you, New England Review) starts and ends with jhal muri, if I remember correctly from my culinary explorations; it’s a street-food snack of spicy puffed rice seasoned with chilis and mustard oil. This closing of the circle seems particularly appropriate to an elegy about permanence, as if it creates its own permanence – or at least the possibility of permanence inherent in a circle – to compensate for the lack of permanence of anything on earth. We do go on, somehow.

Whenever I see couplets, I now think of two people, and more often than not, that turns out to be the case. Here, we have sisters. Faizullah was born here in the US well after her family immigrated here, but the poem seems written from Bangladesh, where her sister died: “Across two oceans, there
is a world in which I thought I could live / without grief.” When you love someone, there is no place without grief; but there is also no place without love, even in the grief. The love shines through here.

As an elegy should, it turns from past to future: “How to look down into the abyss without / leaning forward?” The experience of grief must itself be a moving forward. I’d never thought of it that way before. It feels so much like the past, yet it is indeed motion.

The poem ends with a snippet of one of those mental conversations Faizullah might have had with her sister, a conversation that puts a point on it: in spite of our protests, the pain is something we crave, because human connection is necessarily linked to pain, and to blot out the pain is to blot out the connection.

Pushcart 2015: Rebecca Solnit, “Mysteries of Thoreau, Unsolved” (non-fiction) from Orion, May 2013

Orion photograph: “Air Your Dirty Laundry” by Chloe Beacon

There is one writer in all literature whose laundry arrangements have been excoriated again and again, and it is not Virginia Woolf, who almost certainly never did her own washing, or James Baldwin, or the rest of the global pantheon. The laundry of the poets remains a closed topic, from the tubercular John Keats (blood-spotted handkerchiefs) to Pablo Neruda (lots of rumpled sheets). Only Henry David Thoreau has been tried in the popular imagination and found wanting for his cleaning arrangements, though the true nature of those arrangements are not so clear.

I had a strong and complicated reaction to this essay (available online, thank you, Orion), and I’m not sure why. I let it sit a few days, thinking maybe I was in a bad mood or was under the emotional influence of some other event. But no, I still have a strong reaction to it. I’m still not sure why. But my purpose here is to record my reactions to what I read, though I sometimes, as now, do so with trepidation.

Solnit characterizes this piece as being “about categories, which I have found to be leaky vessels all my life.” It stems from a response on Facebook to a comment she made about the breadth of America – “nation of Thoreau and John Brown… slaveowners and slaves.” This fit in somehow to a counterargument to the notion that Americans don’t care about prisoners. I’m not sure what that was about, but while it’s true there are people who are working tirelessly on prison reform, we are still the nation with the highest incarceration rate; we are the nation that created Homan Square; and we are also the nation that fought for justice and eventually ordered reparations to its victims. America’s a complicated place.

What has this to do with Thoreau’s laundry? Apparently someone on Facebook replied to Solnit’s post so: “And the nation of Thoreau’s sister who came every week to take his dirty laundry.”

The sneering follow-up message I got from the person who claims that Thoreau was a man whose sister did his washing made me feel crummy for a day or so during an otherwise ebullient period of being around people that I love and who love me back. I composed various ripostes in my head. Having grown up with parents who believed deeply in the importance of being right and the merit of facts, I usually have to calm down and back up to realize that there is no such thing as winning an argument in this kind of situation, only escalating. Facebook’s verb “friend” is annoying, but its corollary, “unfriend,” is occasionally useful.
I decided against unfriending but for simply avoiding the person into whose unfriendly fire I’d strayed. The thing to do was to seek out more convivial company.

I would imagine there was more to the exchange than that, because that hardly seems to rise to the level of “sneering.” I think of Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu receiving threats of violence. I think of the tumblr Penn professor Anthea Butler kept of the racist messages she’s received to make clear what she deals with daily. And I worry: have I become so inured to online jousting that anything short of epithets and death threats seems friendly? I’m not immune to hurt feelings, after all; just yesterday I wondered if I was being trolled on a MOOC message board (rule of thumb: if I can’t tell, I’m not).

Why am I making such a big deal of this? Because the essay makes a big deal of it, before getting down to the heart of the matter:

None of us is pure, and purity is a dreary pursuit best left to Puritans.

I have absolutely no doubt that Thoreau was a good guy with a generous, compassionate heart; he was on the side of the angels in many important causes – pacifism, abolition. I have no doubt he had many flaws. I have no doubt the world is a better place because he was in it. And I have no doubt that his more quotidian requirements during his stay at Walden – meals, laundry – were supported by others. I see no contradiction there, no hypocrisy. Interesting people are complicated.

Emerson owned the land on which Thoreau built his cabin. If you’re going to escape from society, it’s helpful to have a friend with a place you can go. I see no hypocrisy in that, either. If Newton stood on the shoulders of giants, why shouldn’t the rest of us? In America, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, as well as the shoulders of slaveowners, of slaves, of native Americans and those who murdered them. Slaves built the White House, the modern world economy.

None of us is pure, so let’s stop making our heroes live up to that impossibility. It wasn’t Thoreau, after all, who said, “I built that.”

What did he say:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

~~ HD Thoreau, Walden

I see nothing there about doing one’s own laundry. I don’t even see anything about self-reliance; that was Emerson’s essay.

Yet, I understand the kick-back, and I think it does come down exactly to “You didn’t build that.” A person who has been raised with education, role models, societal acceptance, and the confidence that comes with that has advantages. It isn’t about money, or even about being educated or smart; it’s about being given slack to experiment. Then, it was about “That odd Thoreau boy’s off doing something in the woods, Henrietta, he’s always got to be different,” versus gathering a posse to chase him out of town. Today, it’s about a white open-carry advocate walking by a school with a gun on his hip, arguing with cops for ten minutes before walking away, while a 12-year-old playing with a bb-gun is shot dead after 2 seconds of assessment. It’s about getting the benefit of the doubt. It’s about who looks suspicious and who doesn’t. It’s about privilege – not in terms of money, or an easy life, as Franchesca Ramsey explains, but in terms of assumptions strangers automatically make about us.

Thoreau was arrested for not paying a tax he believed supported war and slavery. It seems his arrest was, by the way, illegal. Even privilege isn’t enough, sometimes. But he lived, and in the past few years, we’ve seen many who don’t fare as well. And, by the way, he spent one night in jail before an unidentified woman, possibly a cousin, paid the tax (I wonder if it was out of solidarity, or social embarrassment; in any case, Thoreau got out of jail on her dime).

But Thoreau didn’t claim he built anything; he just investigated the world and wrote down what he thought. Maybe it’s the heroism we thrust upon him, that makes him such a target for a take-down.

My favorite part of Solnit’s essay has nothing to do with Thoreau, or laundry, but concerns etymology:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, free has the same Indo-European root as the Sanskrit word priya, which means “beloved” or “dear.”… The scholars say that the word may hark back to an era when households consisted of the free people who were members of the extended family, and the unfree ones who were slaves and servants. Family members have more rights than slaves and servants, so even though “free” in the United States is often seen as meaning one who has no ties, it was once the other way around. Which is another way of saying that freedom has less to do with that Lynyrd Skynyrd sense of the word (in which we don’t care about prisoners were anyone else) and more to do with the idea of agency.

I love that the root of freedom is linked with family ties; it ties in nicely with a conversation I’m having right now with an old friend. And I’d love to have a sister who would do my laundry. But I have to wonder: what might Sis have accomplished, if she hadn’t been so focused on doing all that laundry? And, doesn’t she deserve a small recognition of her contribution to Thoreau’s accomplishment, as well?

Pushcart 2015: Mary Szybist, “Too Many Pigeons to Count and One Dove” (Poem) from her collection, Incarnadine (Graywolf Press 2013)

—3:21                                The startled ash tree
                                                        alive with them, wings facing
                             through silver-green leaves – jumping
—3:24                                from branch to branch
                             they rattle the leaves, or make the green leaves
                                           sound dry –

Thank goodness – a poem I can do something with! I was getting a little worried there. Of course, I might not understand it in the way Szybist intended, or in the way poetry-people understand it, but in my own fashion I see many interesting aspects. The text isn’t available online (unless you’re very determined and google a line, hint hint) but there is an author’s recording.

I find recordings in general, and this one in particular, to be less than ideal, however. That’s strange, since poems are meant to be read aloud. I do indeed read all these poems out loud, and I agree that something is lost if poetry is not heard – but poems are also visual if they are distributed in print, so I think something is also lost if the poem is not seen. Especially in this case.

The first thing a reader would notice, even perhaps before reading the words, is a set of numbers at the beginning of each stanza. “—3:21″ reads the first; the second, “—3:24″. I’ve done my best to reproduce the poem visually, but I’m not sure I got it right, not sure I could get it right, given my HTML limitations. But – is the dash to the left is an em-dash, or is it longer? And then: am I making too much out of a dash? I mercilessly ridiculed a Harvard MOOC for the professor’s agonizing overanalysis of the relative lengths of Emily Dickinson’s handwritten dashes, the possible meanings behind them, how they were translated into type. So what am I doing?

I’m not sure. But it’s fun, so I’m going to keep doing it.

The numbers are probably most easily recognized as time stamps: they initially increase in small increments, three minutes, two minutes, one minute, then the last third of the poem all takes place at 3:33. Imagine reading this poem in that time frame. Take a full three minutes to read the first stanza. Let the second stanza stretch over two minutes, and so forth, and then read the last seven stanzas quickly enough to all fit into the span of one minute. It’s a different poem.

If I can bring in a ludicrously incongruous pop culture reference (with all that modernist talk of refusing to distinguish between high culture and low culture, have I pushed it too far?), I thought of Data reading Doosodarian poetry with its embedded lacunae, pauses in which the reader was to reflect on the emptiness of the experience. Here, the poet conveys the sense of watching the birds over time – yet the first stanza, stretching over three minutes of time, includes some of the most active verbs of the poem: startled, alive, lacing, jumping. Take a look again at the first stanza: how would you read that stanza over three minutes’ time?

There’s also the sense of time speeding up, as the time intervals grow shorter and shorter. Does the time indicate something about the speaker’s thought pattern, leisurely at first, perhaps bored, that boredom measured by the frequency of looks at her watch, or, more contemporarily, her cell phone – perhaps waiting, hoping for an incoming call? – needing something to do, something more active. By the time the speaker says, “I am tired / of paying attention” we’re at the point where seven stanzas bear the same digits, 3:33. Is this an attention span thing, or confusion? Is it tied to the content – because, while the poem is ostensibly about watching birds flitting around trees, it’s of course about much more than that. Has the underlying content become too predominant to be overlain with birdwatching?

This was my biggest disappointment with the recording: not only are the timestamps not indicated (which at the very) but there was no difference in the reading of the poem. Far be it from me to tell a poet how to read her own work, but if you’re going to put time stamps on a poem, shouldn’t a reading reflect that?

But wait: what if it’s not hours:minutes but minutes:seconds? It’s only the tyranny of the clock that suggests the former; would not a stopwatch more commonly indicate the second? Imagine the poem read at that pace, all 19 stanzas in a span of 12 seconds. It’s a different poem: now it becomes a thought, and a quick one at that, jumping from one thing to another, bird-like.

And that’s only if the numbers are taken as time stamps, with the em-dashes as visual markers. What if the dashes are instead minus signs? Is the sequence running backwards? No, that’s ridiculous; but this dwelling-in-possibility stuff requires that I think about it, and just because I can’t see anything the numbers could be besides time stamps, doesn’t mean that’s what they must be.

The line indents seem to create a kind of fluttering. As the birds jump from branch to branch, tree to tree, so do my eyes jump from line to line and stanza to stanza, until I come to this:

—3:29                   Nothing stays long enough to know.
                              How long since we’ve been inside
                                                        anything together the way
—3:29                               these birds are inside
                             this tree together, shifting, making it into
                                                                  a shivering thing?

Now there’s a lacuna to reflect on. How long do we stay? How often do we give up before we know? And here’s where the speaker first connects birds in a tree to some relationship. The stanza begins with a complete sentence on a line. The grammar, the line, the meaning, stays long enough for us to know. This only happens three times in this poem, a complete sentence on a line, and two of them are sounds: a boat horn and a church bell. A warning and a summons? Why is a church bell sounding at 3:30 anyway, does that time have some religious significance on this day, does it routinely ring every half hour, is it a wedding or funeral? Is that what makes her miss, or not-miss, someone?

That connection continues, as she looks at birds again, so many bird antics that seem made for relational analogies – wings seem tangled but pull apart, far and near, not touching, seems caught, flapping violently, tilts down – while the poignant “I cannot find / a picture of you in my mind”, the only rhyme in the poem, so clear a rhyme it must be intentional, but why that rhyme, why there, in the middle of all this bird-fluttering observation? This is what lies at the core of the poem, while the speaker looks at the birds that keep flitting in the trees.

The word “dove” appears for the first time in the middle of the poem, when the speaker notes: “I cannot find the dove, / have not seen it for minutes.” For minutes – in this poem with time stamps. I wonder if this is a pun on “four minutes”, and, occurring in a stanza marked 3:32, hearkens back to the stanza at 3:28, in which “One just there on the low branch – / gone before I can breathe or / describe it” – is that the dove, undescribed? Is that the being inside the tree together making it shiver, gone so quickly, there wasn’t time to reflect?

And by the way – what’s the difference between pigeons and doves? I’m no ornithologist, but a quick google confirms what I’d always heard: they’re more or less the same. We think of doves as pure and white and peaceful, while we think of pigeons as dirty and ugly and annoying, but the distinction between them is nebulous. I can see a relationship analogy in that: we think of love as something glorious and soul-changing, but it’s also about forgiveness and tolerance and patience, and maybe staying long enough to know. Like pigeons and doves, the space between love and not-love can be indistinct.

When the speaker says:

                                                                       ….why do I miss you
—3:33                                           now, but not now,
                                          my old idea of you, the feeling for you I lost
                             and remade so many times until it was
—3:33                                something else, as strange as your touch
                             was familiar….

…she’s provided enough cues that I understand: the sense of flux, of flitting, of time being something other than what’s measured on a clock, of appearances and reality being different things.

Oh, and by the way, line breaks. The line breaks in general make the poem flittery fluttery, flying from branch to branch. Another one I like in particular is in the first two stanzas, quoted above: “– jumping / / from branch to branch”, the line break jumping just as the bird does. Nice. And, borrowing a point I learned from Ken Nichols at Great Writers Steal, this teaches us how to read the poem.

But there’s more to line breaks: meaning evolves as we jump from one branch to the next, from one word to the next. “Why do I miss you” is one thing. “Why do I miss you / now” is another: I shouldn’t still miss you, or why now and not before, or what is it about this moment, watching birds chase from one tree to the next, what’s the difference between those trees, those branches – how long it took the speaker to understand the birds were feeding, how long it takes us to understand someone is being nourished, nurtured, because it doesn’t look that way to us. The “Why do I miss you / now, but not now;” is yet a third thing: is it that in the seconds it has taken her to go from one thought to the other, from one branch to the other, the missing is gone?

I like a poem that interests me enough to raise questions. Are these important questions? The center of the poem seems to be the relationship the flitting birds bring to mind. Typography, church bells, line breaks, does any of it matter? Of course. If Szybist just wanted to say, “In a relationship, you have regrets and wonder what went wrong,” that would’ve been a tweet. This is a poem. Everything matters. How it matters, whether it matters enough, is for the reader to decide.

I think it does. Then again, I’m relieved to have a poem I can see something in, after a bit of a dry spell, so I may be overreaching. My favorite sport, overreaching. Incarnadine, a series of reimaginings of the Annunciation, was awarded the National Book Award for Poetry. I’m sure it deserves better (for one thing, I have no idea what this poem could have to do with the Annunciation – have I missed the point completely?); but it makes a nice place to practice.

Pushcart 2015: Rick Bass, “How She Remembers It” from The Idaho Review #13

They left Missoula with a good bit of sun yet in the sky—what would be dusk at any other time of year. The light was at their backs, and the rivers, rather than charging straight down from out of the mountains, now meandered through broader valleys, which were suspended in that summer light, a sun that seemed to show no inclination of moving. Lilly’s father had only begun to lose his memory, seemed more distracted than forgetful, then. He had been a drinker, too, once upon a time, though she did not know that in those days. It had been long ago, before she was even born. A hard drinker, one who had gone all the way to rock bottom, good years wasted, her mother would tell her later—but he was better now. Though recently those few memories he did still have—the reduced or compromised roster of them—were leaving. Even small things from the day before, or a week ago.

I found a lot packed into this story (available online, thank you, Idaho Review): the power, and limitations, of memory; the use of setting and perspective as story elements; free will; the fundamental meaning of empathy as it emerges in an adolescent.

Can a story contain all that? When I see so much in a story – too much, maybe? When I hear Martin Luther King and Dante in the same story, I have to wonder if I’m looking too hard, seeing what’s on my mind instead of what’s on the page. But… is that a bad thing?

Start with a fiction standard: Setting. Here, our protagonists – a father and twelve-year-old daughter Lilly – cross over The Divide into Paradise Valley on their way to Yellowstone, a valley that includes, in addition to the beauty one would expect, some distinctly non-paradisical features. A tacky neon sign from the 50s. A woman on her way down. A man already down. Lilly takes it all in; she doesn’t turn away. And she doesn’t sneer. She feels gratitude. In the lingo of this moment, she recognizes her privilege. If that sounds too determinedly au courant, think of it this way: she experiences empathy instead of superiority. It’s something we could all feel more of these days. All days, for that matter.

Memory is so pronounced a theme, it’s nearly a character in the story. It’s a story told in retrospect, so the very story itself is a memory. But it’s also the story of memory. The pair stop for a carnival, only to find it’s closing down; Lilly’s able to conjure up an imagined Ferris wheel ride to make up for the missed experience. Can imagination substitute for memory? Her father is watching his memory slip away, possibly aware of this at the time of the story (I’m not clear on that point), but eager to recapture what he can while there’s still memory left to do so.

Their route includes the lodge where he and his wife stayed years ago:

A garish 1950s-style faux-neon sign, hugely oversized and illuminated by rows of individual brightly painted lightbulbs, had been welded to an immense steel post to hold its colossal weight, the kind of sign one might see outside a lounge advertising itself as the Thunderbird or the Wagon Wheel, but would generally not expect to encounter back in a quiet grove of trees far off the beaten track in south-central Montana.
It pleased her father to see that the sign was still there, by the rushing little creek, and he got out and took a picture of it to show her mother, though he said that to appreciate it fully, one needed to see it at night.

“Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars…” Only when your memories are leaving you, do you treasure them – even the one of the awful eyesore smack in the middle of the grandeur of Paradise Valley. This man who spent some occasion there with his wife remembers the sign with more apparent appreciation than he shows the mountains, the forests, the river. But now memory won’t do to preserve this – so he takes a picture.

It must’ve been tempting for Bass to dwell on the father’s memory in light of his decline; but Bass instead focuses on Lilly. It’s an unexpected choice, to look at the memories she stores rather than those Dad loses. I’m absolutely sure it’s the right choice.

While Dad captures his memory on film, Lilly notices the marquee advertising a concert, and has a stab of compassion for the singer who will be performing in the middle of nowhere. Her ability to reach across boundaries of self into the needs of others is quite unusual for a 12-year-old, perhaps unbelievably so. Granted, the story is being told in retrospect, but is that the sort of thing your average 12-year-old would even notice? She hasn’t had the kind of hurt that sometimes limits how far outside our own skin we can see, that turns wonder to ennui or cynicism. Maybe that in itself is unrealistically unusual – or maybe we’ve just come to accept it as normal, to inculcate the notion of compassion as dangerous weakness, far earlier than the brink of adolescence. If so, shame on us.

Lilly sees all the juxtapositions of beauty and ugliness as they travel: the lovely songbird outside a house where the poverty and despair hang in the air like smoke; the storm and the clearing. She doesn’t avoid any of it. She accepts it all as reality, non-judgmentally. Maybe that’s because she’s twelve, and she’s only travelling through.

One of these interactions predominates: Lilly first sees the woman in the Cadillac feeding an ice cream cone to her chihuahua. Later, they see her car broken down on the side of the road. For me, it was the most powerful scene in the story, the true crossing of the Divide:

She thought she understood why her father hesitated—why he was annoyed, even, that on such a perfect morning, there was this complication to their day, this unwelcome challenge or summons to Samaritanhood—but she was surprised by the anger she felt there in the car.
He actually drove on past the woman, not really deliberating—she and her father both knew he was going to stop and turn around, and go back—but instead allowing himself, she thinks now, the brief luxury of believing he could keep going. Of believing he was free to keep on going.
The woman watched him pass but made no gesture, no outreach or call for help other than to make a sour face briefly as she confirmed once again that she understood how the world was…

I’m reading the Purgatorio section of Dante’s <emCommedia at the moment, a continuation on my own of the reading I started last Fall through the Georgetown University MOOC, so I'm primed to mentions of free will. This one struck me: how important it was to Dad to make sure he, and perhaps Lilly and the woman in the car as well, knew he had the free will to drive by. It was an option. Maybe it was the default. He needed to make clear – to himself, if not to Lilly – that he consciously chose, that he was capable of choosing compassion. Lilly gets it. She's a little impatient at first, but she gets it.

We make choices every day. How far will our compassion extend today? Is this woman good enough to waste compassion on? How many times have you heard, "I'll save my compassion for [someone deserving]." :Why do we insist that compassion is a limited resource? Just in the past few days I've been reading Cantos XIV and XV, which, among other things, discuss the human obsession with things that can't be shared, versus love that reflects back and forth among sharers and thus multiply – "for like a mirror each returns it to the other." I'd like to believe we can have compassion for everyone, and not only will it not run out, but we will find it multiplies.

What would it be like, to be him—the man in the stained T-shirt, porch-staggered and blinking groggily at the bright sunlight? It was only her own victory of being loved deeply that allowed her the luxury of such indulgent imaginings, such frightful considerations of slumber, detachment, escape.
It was only her own victory of being loved deeply that allowed her the luxury of such indulgent imaginings, such frightful considerations of slumber, detachment, escape.

I’d like to live up to Lilly’s level of compassion.

Memory is clearly a theme of the story; the rest is probably my overreaching. And memory is a marvellous thing. Lilly is recalling this story, a story about memory, and look what she remembers: yes, initially, it’s about pretty scenery, but most of her memories are far more personal. The Ferris wheel ride that didn’t happen. Some people less lucky than she is. The scenery is lovely – and is captured in a photograph or, now, is available via Google. But what about the things that change us? Can they only live in our synapses? And what happens when those connections fail? What is left behind, is what they changed us into, how we went forward from that time, how we entered into the memories of others: the human organism as a network of memories.

How do you want to be remembered?

I was skeptical when I started this story. It seemed like it would be your typical “Aww, how sweet” road story about a father and daughter bonding, or maybe failing to bond, in a natural setting that would underline each mood shift. Instead, it went much deeper. Most of that is certainly coincidence, my own state of mind at the time. I’m pretty sure Lilly’s father wasn’t thinking of Dante when he turned around and pulled over to help, nor was Rick Bass when he wrote this story. And neither would I have been but for the coincidence of time and my tendency to become obsessed with whatever project I’m working on. But reading is a journey, and this was the road I found. Not the worst road to travel.

Pushcart 2015: Lyn Hejinian, “The Unfollowing” (Poetry) from Lana Turner, #6

Jackson Pollock, "Mural" (1943)

Jackson Pollock, “Mural” (1943)


Afloat in a glass-bottom boat, I see into the sea—a miniscule emerald memento
That the strongest social bonds are forged by language doesn’t nullify
           the power that dancing around the puppet effigies of the men
           in power has
On the solemn face of the glinting belly is a button baby
You have to know how to roll on the horizon
Followers follow, possibles possibulate, coruscations consider, blood

An allegory is a depiction of something that can’t be depicted

I confess: I gave up on this one. Fortunately, it’s available online (thank you, Lana Turner Journal) so my ineptitude doesn’t need to dissuade anyone else.

Language poets gave me a lot of trouble in ModPo, including Hejinian, whose “My Life” was included in the curriculum (an excerpt, at least). It’s a poetic biography of sorts, and she’s added to it a few times as the years went by. I love that idea; she writes about “The Rejection of Closure” in an essay available online.

(One way to tell I’m lost is that I start throwing a lot of resources around, hoping no one will notice I’m not really saying anything except, “Oh, here’s this thing that’s maybe relevant… or maybe not.”)

One of the problems I have with Language poets is the non-linearity of text. I can recognize the sounds that lead one to another in the opening lines quoted above, and I love the wordplay, but I have no idea how to understand it as a whole. Is it even meant to be understood as a whole?

So, instead of unfollowing, I have simply failed to follow. But with best wishes, and a trail of bread crumbs for the more intrepid.

Pushcart 2015: Reginald Dwayne Betts, “Elegy with a City in it” (Poetry) from Kenyon Review, #35.2

There are men awed
by blood, lost in the black
of all that is awful:
think crack and aluminum. Odd
what time steals,
or steals time: black robes, awful
nights when men offed in streets awed
us. Dead bodies sold news; real
hustlers bled. The Post a reel
for Rayful: black death, awe,
chocolate city read
as accumulation: the red
of all those bodies. Red
sometimes a dark and awful
omen the best couldn’t read.

Sometimes a poem stops me short. Sometimes it’s too much. How can I talk about the wordplay: homonyms “red” and “read”, “reel” and “real”, “awe” and “awful”, the symbolic and literal meanings of “black”, the repetition, the rhythms of the lines, the interplay of violence and news, with the poem on the news, in pictures, in words, embodied as I read. It’s about a different city and a different aspect of injustice, but the words, the music of rage and despair and powerlessness and injustice are the same, have been the same for four hundred years.

I considered posting an excerpt, with a link (it’s available online temporarily at Poetry Daily), with a comment about letting the poem stand on its own. But that didn’t feel right. It felt like refusing to face reality. It felt like shirking responsibility, avoiding consequences. And there’s been entirely too much of that. I’m proud of the young woman who’s decided to take account for one life. I’m not so naïve as to think this is change; power finds ways to reassert itself, and the pushback will be immense. But it’s hope.

           …. Chocolate city red
under the scrutiny. Asphalt red.
When we heard about Black,
there was this silence, awful
silence, like death was odd,
and still when I sing this awful
tale, there is more than a dead black
man in the center; there is a city still
as all the bodies that make ’86 real—
a city still, and awful, still and stark red.

I just don’t have the wisdom to add much. So yes, I’ll let the poem stand on its own wisdom, on Betts’ wisdom, on Betts’ hope. Read his poem. Read his story. Black lives matter, every one.

Pushcart 2015: Michael Kardos, “Animals” from Crazyhorse, #83

It’s nearly lunchtime and the woman on the phone is getting snippy, so I intentionally flub a word. “I know this must be fistering for you.”
“I beg your pardon?” she says.
“Fistering. Fisterating?”
“Do you mean ‘frustrating’?”
“Yes—I mean that. I use the wrong word sometimes,” I tell her, just as I’ve been taught to say. My confession will cause her temper to subside.
“But your English is really quite good,” she says.
“Thank you,” I tell her. “You are kind.”
“It’s the truth, Raj. Have you ever been to America?” She calls me Raj because she believes it’s my name. Because I told her it is.
“No, Josephine,” I tell her. That’s her name— Josephine Sanders. “Though one of my cousin attends U.C.L.A. He likes America very much.”
I know nothing about this woman other than her name, phone number, and computer model, but I sense she isn’t a bad person. Certainly, her frustration is warranted. The CD-ROM drive on her new computer shouldn’t already be failing.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the process of reading: the collaboration of writer and reader to produce meaning, aesthetic effect. Is the responsibility all on the writer? Does not the reader need to bring something as well? Do some authors, some works, expect a little more? Do some readers, some reads, fall short? When a story doesn’t work, is it due to empathic failure on at least one side – the failure of the writer to give the reader sufficient understanding of the conflict, or the inability of the reader to identify (or identify with) that conflict – that the story does not elicit an emotional response, or elicits a response that is not aesthetically satisfying?

This story is available online (thank you, Crazyhorse) so beware of spoilers ahead: as always, I urge anyone reading here to read the story before proceeding. I am not a literary critic or reviewer; I only report my own experience with what I read, and I wouldn’t want to prematurely contaminate another’s experience. And I’d enjoy hearing the experience others have had with this story.

As I read it for the first time, I noticed the “morphing” quality so many good stories seem to have. With the first paragraph I thought, “Oh, I see, it’s a story about a boy in India who connects with an American via a technical support call and it changes one of their lives in some way.” That frame didn’t last long, of course; tiny, well-placed clues kept undermining it, until I realized something else was going on. A few pages in, it suddenly became a story about an elaborate corporate con, though not the one I expected. Then it became two strangers-in-the-night, a lost dog, an underachiever, a confessional, and I got lost in too many subplots.

Whereas in “Blue” I saw it as metaphor, and thus I could roll with the objectively odd events that transpired, here the coincidences seemed trite and forced (a veterinary school dropout finds a sick lost puppy? Oh please) and I didn’t understand any of the whys: Why does the woman confess? Why does she turn a technical support call into phone sex? (I maybe figured that one out, actually: it was a desperate attempt to be recognized as human) Why does Raj/Charlie shut down when his efforts to help fail? And most of all, why on earth did Kardos write that end scene? There’s inevitable surprise, and there’s ridiculously overblown.

This is a failure of empathy, I thought; the author has failed to uphold his end of the bargain.

Half of that evaluation was accurate.

I’m still not sure whose fault it was. It might have been the dog’s. Just because they’re animals doesn’t mean they’re blameless. But I do know this: There are certain people in the world who have a knack for keeping the peace. And those people have a responsibility. I’m one of those people. I’ve always been one of those people.

I found the story online in PDF form; to make quoting easier (and typos in quoted text less likely), I copy/pasted it to my notes. As happens sometimes with PDFs, that didn’t go terribly well. All “fi” and “fl” combinations resolved to added spaces, which is easy to fix with a global replace. All paragraphing was lost, which is… not. Even though it’s a somewhat longish story, I decided to go through and restore one paragraph break at a time using the book text as a guide. Happily, this would do for a second read as well; I hadn’t been looking forward to that.

Something funny happened while I was finding paragraph breaks: I found the story. Hey, whatever works. And, as rooted in the mundane details of ordinary life as it is, the story is definitely metaphor.

It’s metaphor of how we don’t really care about each other, and what that leads to. It’s metaphor of exploitation: a business exploits those desperate for work, turning them into sub-exploiters who cooperate in the mission: to cheat those desperate for help, at which point those targets exploit whatever means they have to get what they need, and, when that fails, to lash out. Metaphor of a certain lack of persistence: we give up so easily, sometimes we give up on dreams, sometimes on rescue, sometimes on ourselves. We give up on empathy, because it’s too damn hard. That’s the kind of people we are, some of us. I was reminded again of Aesop’s Fable about the Scorpion and the Frog. It’s our nature.

But at one point I turn around and see that more and more people have gathered where we stood—new hires, upper management, the girl from the mailroom—and they’re all waiting their turn to hug my dog, who doesn’t squirm or protest at all as she’s passed around from person to person. She lets herself be folded into each set of arms, remaining completely calm, either because she’s sick or because of the cold or the strange surroundings, or, more likely, because that’s the kind of animal she is.

I do still think the ending is overblown and a bit trite. And the puppy, yeah, that’s a little much on the other end. And maybe that’s the clue: it’s metaphor. If we can all get our collective heads out of our collective asses – and let’s face it, some of us have had our heads up our asses so long, we’ve hung pictures on the walls and called it home – maybe we wouldn’t need helicopters and lost puppies. Maybe there won’t be so much empathic failure. But maybe that’s our nature.

There’s some nice rhythm in here, as well. Phone conversations that play musically. A sudden switch to passive voice that underlines the shift to empathic failure. And, oh, yes: there was empathic failure. The story is about empathic failure.

Funny, how a half-assed rereading turned this into an experience. That’s why I blog stories. Sometimes I have to be forced to overcome my nature.

Pushcart 2015: Susan Stewart, “Pine” (Poetry) from Paris Review, #207

"Ogham Tree Grove"  by Yuri Leitch

“Ogham Tree Grove” by Yuri Leitch

a homely word:
a plosive, a long cry, a quiet stop, a silent letter
           like a storm and the end of a storm,
the kind brewing
           at the top of a pine,
                       (torn hair, bowed spirits, and,
                               later, straightened shoulders)
who’s who of the stirred and stirred up:
          musicians, revolutionaries, pines.

I never realized “pine” had so many possibilities. If you’d like, read the poem online (thank you, Paris Review), and walk through the pines with me:

My first thought was that a phonetic dissection of the word “pine” was an odd way to start. In linguistics, “p” is indeed an unvoiced plosive consonant. “Aye”, yes, a long cry, aye, cry, changing shape along the way. Since my first connection with the word “pine” on reading this was “pine box” – that is, coffin – a long cry would be an appropriate association. But we don’t run into a pine box until later; there’s much more interesting stuff before then. Where was I – yes, the cry. Then, “a quiet stop”; now, the IPA charts I originally learned from had “n” as a nasal, but then I’ve also read about it as an alveolar fricative; and yes, there are those who define it as a stop. Susan Stewart’s a Princeton professor who won a MacArthur “Genius Grant”; I’m not going to argue with her if she wants to call it a stop. And the silent letter; who doesn’t read that and hear “the rest is silence” ?

But wait: we don’t really start with that at all, do we. We start with “a homely word.” “Homely” on face value means “ugly”, but it has meanings shading towards “simple” or “rustic” as well. Pine is an undistinguished wood. I happen to be very fond of it, as it’s hardy, plentiful, thus cheap, and can be very beautiful, or very plain. What I like most about it is that its knots, its flaws, are what make individual boards interesting and unique. It is, however, very soft, unless treated. I’m wondering if there’s some metaphor here, and for what. For people? For poetry? For life?

Or is pine just pine? In Pine-Sol and in pine: “…one means of knowing the real thing is the fake you find in school.” And we have humor, wordplay: “The air had a nip: pine / was traveling in the opposite direction.” Is this a turn signal? Have we have now begun the descent portion of our flight? I don’t think so; it’s way too early, isn’t it? School has just let out… does it start that early, the travelling in the other direction?

Now out of school, I learned a lot from this poem. I didn’t know the White Pine, aka Japanese Pine, often used for bonsai, grows its needles in telltale groups of five. But that’s just the beginning of what I learned:

An alphabet made of trees.
In the clearing vanished hunters
        left their arrowheads
        and deep cuts in the boulder wall:
                 petroglyphs, repeating triangles.

There is an alphabet made of trees, shown in the header art above: Ogham, where the pine tree is the ailm, something like an “a”: a single horizontal line. This alphabet is found in texts, and is carved on stones in Ireland. And of course, there is an online transliterator, though I have no idea who created it, or how accurate it is.

I also immediately thought of John Ashbery’s “Some Trees”, that poem I discovered through ModPo that creates a sense of interconnectedness even on a passing mention. So much interconnectedness, yet I struggle to find the overall structure of this poem.

The final stanza:

No undergrowth, though, in a pine forest.
Unlike the noisy wash
of dry deciduous leaves,
the needles blanket the earth
pliant beneath a bare foot,
a walk through the pines.
Silence in the forest comes from books.

If you’ve ever walked in a pine forest, you know the spongy feel referenced here. I remember being terrorized by that feeling when I was younger, fearing the ground would absorb me at some point, frozen in place until I had to be carried out. And that last sentence leaves me breathless – an appropriate response, I think.

I see so much in those closing lines: “pliant” is so similar to “plant”; the indent on “floating” gives the word itself a floating sense; is the walk in the pines, and thus the poem, perhaps a life, now come to an end? Is the walk through the pines the reading of a poem on paper? Is there some strangeness to reading it via illuminated pixels instead? Or is it just about pines? I wish I could interpret intelligently.

But maybe interpretation is the wrong approach to this poem, to any poem. Maybe a poem is more than a balance sheet of symbols and sounds; maybe it’s the wind on which we fly, and there’s no need to quantify or characterize. I’m having this very argument, about another poem, with someone right now; the way always presents itself, doesn’t it; it’s up to us to see it, and, if possible, take it. And, by the way, if I see something different in this poem tomorrow, or next year, or in ten years, is it not inherent in poetry that it grow with me, adapt itself to every “me” that reads it, however separated in time and thought they might be?

So what is the poem as a whole, how does it flow, how does it mean? I see the words, but does it make a sentence, a paragraph, a unified idea with a beginning, middle, end? Is it a lifespan: birth in a word, the individuation of sounds and letters, gathering meaning as it goes along, learning to communicate and have useful function, culminating in a pine box, ending in silence of discarded needles, while the tree itself goes on to make more needles? Is the linguistic beginning a layout of the poem: stanzas in turn plosive, cry, stop – the rest is silence –

Or is it just a meditation on the word “pine” and the images it brings the poet?

I’ll admit, I’ve lost the forest for the trees here. But you’ll have to admit, too: they’re pretty awesome trees.

Pushcart 2015: Edward Hoagland, “Hippies and Beats” (non-fiction) from New Letters, #80.1

Being a little younger than the Beat generation writers (although my first book was published in the same year, 1956, as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems) and yet older than the mainstream Hippie movement later on, I observed both the certain skeptical affinity.

I was uncertain through much of this essay. A reminiscence? I don’t sense much affection, or even much connection to the people and things that went before. There’s some compare/contrast, but it’s a short essay, just over four pages, so how informational can it be? For such an august literary personage with such an interesting past (he literally ran off to join the circus as a kid, served in the army, graduated from Harvard, travelled the world writing about peoples and places; how many people can claim those disparate things?) this seems an odd approach.

The two movements – the Beats of the 50s and the Hippies of the 60s – sometimes get conflated by virtue of the shared flouting of convention, but Hoagland points out some fundamental differences: how women are viewed (“The Beats were patriarchal, for the most part”) and the anti-intellectual intellectualism (“The Beats didn’t read very much that wasn’t Buddhist or Beat, but they weren’t anti-literate, like many Hippies, who seemed to regard reading as an Establishment activity”).

And, by the way – did any of it make a difference? How’s the Establishment doing today? Does anyone get the sense that protest itself has been co-opted? Then again, maybe it always has been that way – per deliciously telling phrases like “mainstream Hippie movement”.

But towards the end, music plays in the language, and my heart was indeed captured:

Freedom and ambivalence were what the Hippies sought. The winters were character-building and they learned carpentry, chainsawing, latrine-digging if they stuck around, while their main stoner drug edged toward being decriminalized. But that was less romantic than hitting the road and spilling the beans in compulsive cadences, banging around, depending on the kindness of strangers. My rocking-chair friend and my girlfriend both also died too young, perhaps from a shared distrust of doctors, or from smoking fungicide marijuana. Ginsberg intoned famously at the beginning of “Howl” that “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed…” Dubious, but certainly people he loved.

From the rhythm of that third sentence – a rhythm of rocking chairs and cadences – to the aching nostalgia of the last: Is anything as glorious, as significant, in the retelling as in the experience?

Pushcart 2015: Afaa Michael Weaver, “Visit #1″ (Poetry) from Ploughshares, #38.4

Your grandfather and I walk alike,
each of us counting the brittle spaces
in getting older. At the desk I explain
I want to see my son, and I see you
are now digits on a sheet….

A poem reveals itself many ways, sometimes recreating itself as it does so. With each sentence, these words move us to a different place, and we come to see, in some faint sense, what the speaker is feeling.

At first, it’s a poem about generations. It remains that throughout, but the implication of the passing of generations is different as we read on: the desk? Digits on a sheet? At first I thought, a hospital. Because that’s what I understand. But if I better understood the world from other points of view, I might have caught on earlier: a father and grandfather are visiting the son in jail.

Each line reveals another aspect of the experience, as the father recalls trips to school, and compares them to this visit. In last year’s Pushcart, I encountered Weaver for the first time through his poem “Blues in Five/Four, The Violence in Chicago”. It, too, had this sense of looking back from the present. But that was more of something lost, whereas here, it’s more of something continued. But this visit is also seen as different.

                   … It is the Detention Center,
not school, not the principal, but men
with violence as hope. My father
and I have come to see you, and we
so much want you to outlive us.
To bury you would pull us down
into the spiked pit of grief that kills.

And yet this is the reality so many must face. It becomes an issue of social justice for many of us, but for this father, and this grandfather, it’s something much more personal, much more painful. “I pray for you. It is my only secret,” says the speaker. I wonder: why a secret? From whom? From the son, who would scorn such sentiment?

Although the poem is not available online, Weaver includes a brief author’s note in the issue of Ploughshares in which this appears. It may be as important as the poem itself. Our children – how can we do this to them? How can we allow it?

Pushcart 2015: Russell Banks, “Blue” from The Barcelona Review, #82

Art by sqbr (modified)

Art by sqbr (modified)

Ventana steps off the number 33 bus at 103rd Street and North-west Seventh Avenue in Miami Shores. It’s almost 6:00 P.M., and at this time of year the city stays hot and sticky thick till the sun finally sets at 8:00. She walks quickly back along Seventh, nervous about carrying so much cash, thirty-five one-hundred-dollar bills. She doesn’t want to pay for the car with a check and then have to wait till the check clears before she can drive it home—no way a used-car dealer who doesn’t know her personally will accept a check from a black woman and let her take the goods home before the check clears. She wants the car now, today, so she can drive to work at Aventura tomorrow and for the first time park in the employees’ lot and on Sunday after church drive her own damn car, drive her own damn car, to the beach at Virginia Key with Gloria and the grandkids.

Since this story is available online (thank you, Barcelona Review ) I’m not going to worry about spoilers; this makes it easier to talk about. However, I urge any reader here who hasn’t yet read the story to do so before proceeding. Like any horror story, the effect is in cumulative construction and the intensification of suspense, and is always best enjoyed first-hand and unspoiled.

Horror story? Some, including the author, might be surprised to hear it described that way. But that’s how I was thinking of it, from the first paragraph. I suppose “suspense” might be another word. “A metaphoric description of daily life for a significant portion of the American population” would work, too. I was a nervous wreck, reading it.

What is she going on about now, you wonder.

Ventana is a decent, reasonable woman moving into middle age, her kids grown, her husband now an ex. She’s been saving $100 a month for nearly 10 years, and has decided on this day to buy a car with the $3500. And I knew, as soon as I read the first paragraph, that something awful was going to happen to this woman. Because why create such a likeable, sympathetic character, and put her in such a banal situation, if not to put her through hell – my favorite writing advice from Steve Almond.

The suspense as I read was in what kind of disaster Ventana would encounter. A random mugging on her way to the car dealership? The more sophisticated robbery of hucksterism by a couple of greedy salespeople who know a pigeon when they see one and have the plucking down to a science? The snarling guard dog she’s locked in the lot with? The random teenager ambling by in the night? The absurd callousness of the fire department rescue squad? The news crew in full vulture mode? The life-or-death roulette every black person plays in every encounter with the police?

A horror story of everyday life.

It’s quieter than usual out there in the world beyond the fence. Traffic is light, and no one is on the street—she can see Seventh Avenue all the way north to the bus stop at 103rd and in the opposite direction down to Ninety-fifth Street, where her pink shotgun bungalow is located three doors off Seventh, the windows dark, no one home. The narrow wooden garage she emptied out a week ago and where she planned to shelter her car tonight is shut and still emptied out, unused, waiting. Along Seventh the streetlights suddenly flare to life. The number 33 bus, nearly empty, rumbles past. A police cruiser speeds by in the opposite direction, lights flashing like the Fourth of July.

The story is included in Banks’ 2014 collection, A Permanent Member of the Family. In a generally positive review of that book for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Malcolm Forbes criticizes this one story as “so pock-marked with plot holes the reader is forced to suspend disbelief to make it work.” If you look at it as your typical realism, that’s a fair point – Would even the most stereotypically bloodsucking leech of a car salesperson forget a customer is on the lot and lock up for the night? Is the Miami-Dade public service sector really so incompetent as to tell a 911 caller a rescue isn’t a rescue, but a break-in, and the local police precinct should be called instead? Is any news crew really so worried about makeup and lighting and camera angles as to walk away from a woman trapped behind a spiked fence with a snarling guard dog because the story just isn’t interesting enough? For that matter, is a 47-year-old woman going to climb on top of a Ford Escape (in this case, not so much of an escape) to evade attack, and go to sleep, when she has a cell phone in her purse?

That cell phone brings in an interesting line of inquiry: why doesn’t she call someone? Is the fear of looking ridiculous so strong, as to be life-threatening? Has human trust eroded to the point where we can’t depend on others in emergencies? Is it vanity, foolishness – or fear of the connection, the indebtedness, the possibility of refusal? I know times when I’ve asked for help, and times when I’ve paid for services I could ill afford because I was too afraid to ask for help. But if my life were in danger? Why did Banks include the cell phone in the story? What element of character was he revealing? Was he giving us a way to blame the victim? Is this yet another catastrophe Ventana faces – being blamed for her own doom?

I don’t see plot holes at all, because I don’t see the story as realism. I’d rather see the entire story as a metaphor for the kinds of dangers someone like Ventana – a middle-aged black woman with no particular status or power, but a strong sense of pride and decency – faces every day of her life. If the random thieves don’t get you, the greed just might. If the cops don’t shoot you, there’s still the guard dog. Life as suspense, moving through one peril at a time. And sure, there’s a cell phone in her purse, but that means exposing herself in a position of weakness, and seeing that weakness in the other’s eyes with every meeting from then on. And there’s the usual places to call for help, but help never comes, because a black woman in mortal danger just doesn’t play as well on the 11 o’clock news as a cat stuck in a tree. And it’s all her own fault, anyway.

Now, if I read it that way, I see the point of view of the story as: in the end, it’s nature that’s gonna get us. But not nature in its natural state: Nature, refashioned into a form needed by human possessiveness, to fit a need created by human failings. Maybe that’s what we feel gripping our leg, right now.

I don’t think this requires suspension of disbelief at all. I think it may be the most realistic story I’ve read in a long time. And that is pretty horrifying.

Pushcart XXXIX / BASS 2014: Molly McNett, “La Pulchra Nota” from Image #78

15th century illustration from Bartholomew Anglicus, 'On the Properties of Things'

15th c. illustration of a leper rattle from Bartholomew Anglicus,’On the Properties of Things’

My name is John Fuller. I am nine and twenty years of age, born in the year of our Lord 1370, the son of the learned musician and the youngest of twelve children – though the Lord in his wisdom was pleased to take five brothers and two sisters back to the fold. After a grave accident, I no longer possess the use of my hands. Any inaccuracies in this document are not the fault of the scribe, who enjoys a high reputation, but of my own mind. My pain is not inconsiderable. However, I will continue frankly, in as orderly a fashion as I am able, so that these words may accompany my confession to the honorable Vicar of Saint Stephen’s.
My story begins as God knitted me in the womb.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time over the past few months immersed in medieval theology courtesy of Dante Alighieri. Maybe it’s because I can put myself in the story in all three key roles. Maybe it’s because there’s so much crammed in these fourteen pages – sorrow, love, joy, longing, heartbreak, loneliness, alienation, sacrifice, guilt, stoicism bordering on learned helplessness, a harsh and compassionless justice. Whatever the reason: I absolutely loved this story.

Because all the elements of the story fit so well together, it’s impossible to discuss in detail without spoilers; the first paragraph itself is a kind of spoiler, in fact. I haven’t found it online, so I’ll just make some general observations and encourage everyone to find a copy of BASS 2014 (or back issue #78 of Image, a literary journal with a “commitment to artistic excellence and religious truth… poised to make a lasting impact on the future of our national culture”) to see for yourself how McNett weaves together a music teacher, his wife, his student, and the often inscrutable Will of God.

I also admire the process she went through to get here. In an interview with Dan Klefstad of NPR affiliate WNIJ, she explains how she went from a story that felt too “Glee” to the 14th century via research on the history of vocal instruction. That writer’s decision to move the story from a contemporary choir to the 14th century was genius, and allowed so much else to be brought in: socially moderated rules of conduct which, although passé today, are based on aspects of human relationships, emotions, and desires that have not changed in six hundred years, and the overwhelming pressure of religion.

To get the setting and diction right, she read several period texts:

One was a diary written by a man who had a large family; within a month they all died except him.
“I don’t know if it was to the Plague or what happened,” McNett says. “But with every death he gave thanks to God or `Divine Providence’ and so forth. There was no bitterness and almost no sorrow, just complete acceptance.” McNett says she’s not a religious person, but was deeply moved by these accounts. “So I wanted to include at least one person in the story who had that faith.”

~~Molly McNett

John Fuller has more faith on his worst day than most of us do all our lives. Except for one bad moment; yet as for many of us, it’s one bad moment on which everything turns. And it’s the skill of the story that makes me wonder if all that faith is really such a good idea: doesn’t it prevent change? Doesn’t it leave him mired in the past, in rage buried underneath every “Praise be”?

Ken Nichols at Great Writers Steal (one of my favorite craft-oriented writer’s blogs) points out how carefully the story is focused. I’ve always found historical fiction to be problematic, but as Ken points out, “McNett doesn’t focus too closely on the clothing, language, food, science or customs of her specific time and place. Instead, she keeps our attention on what we share with John Fuller, Katherine and Olivia.” He’s absolutely right: what’s important about the setting is the belief system and the emotional lives of the characters, not what anyone’s wearing. The story does a great job of drawing us into those elements.

And those elements are why the story must be set in the 14th century; a contemporary setting wouldn’t make sense. John wouldn’t accept his wife’s vow of celibacy, and/or he’d hop right into bed with his student; in either case, the story would have to be very different. It’d be the story I’ve read a hundred times. This one’s a lot more interesting. Though the mechanisms are less familiar, the story is generated by fundamental motivations I understand. It’s a kind of defamiliarization.

Some stories are highly visual; this one is highly aural. John remembers two sounds from his childhood, one ugly and one beautiful: the leper’s rattle, and the song of the nightingale, his first encounter with what Jerome of Moravia called “la pulchra nota,” the beautiful note. When his wife labors with their children, she makes such a racket the midwife resorts to stuffing her ears with cotton. And there is another encounter with la pulchra nota, as one of his singing students, and a sweet young thing at that, achieves the perfect note:

I would like to end my story at this moment. I would like to linger here at the very crux of joy, where the note, and these words, were as one to me.
But I cannot. I then understood something about music that I had not learned from my father, or Jerome of Moravia, or Isidore of Seville. La pulchra nota the is the moment of beauty absolute, but what follows – a pause, however small – is the realization of its passing. Perhaps no perfection is without this silent realization.

After ecstasy, there’s nowhere to go but down (remember that next time a blushing bride declares her wedding day “the happiest day of my life” – because she might just be, cursedly, right) so it’s no surprise when Olivia’s voice sounds less sweet on future notes.

Steve Almond gives writing advice along the lines of “it’s your job as a writer to put your characters through hell” and McNett certainly does give John a full range of emotional experiences: contentment, grief, sexual frustration, desire, joy, disappointment, rage, guilt, and finally, a kind of passive acceptance that seems saintly – or insane. Perhaps a touch of both. Each twist felt very authentic to me; it wasn’t something written to create a plot, but a pitch-perfect (sorry) recording of an emotional life.

Through the story, I was pulling for John, and that’s part of the writer’s job, too (“give the reader someone to care about”). But I was always aware: John’s wife has her own story as well, as does his student. It’s easy to create a hero among villains – that’s soap opera – but to blend together three characters with elements of each – three flawed noble souls who can’t quite get outside themselves to see another’s needs – is where a real story happens.

[Post originally written in Fall 2014 as part of the BASS 2014 read]

I see this story was also selected for a Pushcart 2015 Prize. I couldn’t agree more.

A Tale of Two Chem MOOCs

Course: Chemistry
School: University of Kentucky via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Dr. Allison Soult, Dr. Kim Woodrum
Allison Soult and Kim Woodrum bring their experience to the course covering atomic structure, periodic trends, compounds, reactions, stoichiometry, and thermochemistry. Instruction consists of concepts, calculations, and video demonstrations of the principles being discussed. Practice problems and end of unit assessments will help students gauge their understanding of the material.
Course: Introduction to Chemistry: Reactions and Ratios
School: Duke University via Coursera (free)
Instructor: Prof. Dorian A. Canelas
Topics include introductions to atoms, molecules, ions, the periodic table, stoichiometry, and chemical reactions. The pattern of the use of ratios in chemical problem solving will be emphasized….Each week the course will contain a series of short video lectures with interactive questions embedded in the lectures. Students will have opportunities to practice each week via exercises at two levels of depth: one set of foundational problems directly related to lecture videos and another set of problems requiring more synthesis of ideas and application of pre-existing algebra skills.

Why did I take two chemistry courses more or less consecutively? I really, really wanted to learn some chemistry.

Actually, it was a fluke of scheduling. And, by the way, I was scared to death of both of them, thanks to being traumatized by chemistry in high school. My recollection was that chemistry is a lot of algebra, and no matter how much math I’ve been doing, it’s still a struggle. I’d heard Duke’s course was hard, but really good, and very conceptual, so I hoped the Kentucky course, which ran first, would give me enough of an introduction to at least make a dent in the “real” course.

Thing didn’t quite turn out that way.

The Kentucky course relied heavily on calculations and extensive practice. Each week included a set of ungraded homework, with answers immediately available. The weekly tests were more or less standard “take it over and over until you get them all right” but doing the work was a sure way to get the material down. The first unit was particularly brutal for algebraphobes, covering everything from quantum energy states to orbitals and electron configurations. I finally got over my fear of scientific notation by just buckling down and figuring a way to understand it (if the coefficient gets larger, the exponent has to get smaller) instead of trying to remember left and right and when to count zeroes and when to count places. Yes, I really am that stupid about math. Chemistry? I shouldn’t have been allowed out of sixth grade.

I found the initial materials were well-presented and explained clearly; the middle section seemed a lot less clear, but that could’ve been merely my reaction. The lectures were fairly dry; a couple of demonstrations were included, for “interest” I suppose, but I didn’t find them particularly illuminating. I do wish more of a conceptual overview had been included, but in terms of learning specific calculations, it worked well, and I probably needed that more than anything else.

There were, of course, drawbacks to the skill-drill approach. First, the practice problems, while great for learning the material, had a significant number of errors throughout the course, particularly towards the middle and end. A couple of more advanced students helped verify the correct answers, but, Second, there was no staff, and, even worse, no CTAs to help out (as it happens, one of those helpful advanced students turned up as a CTA in the Duke course, but he had no official status here). I find the number of errors kind of inexcusable, since this is not the first run of the course; lack of response showed a distinct lack of interest on the part of the university – and on the part of Coursera, for that matter. But I suppose they figure, it’s better than nothing, and since I did learn quite a few calculative procedures and techniques, I suppose it is. It’s just that I’m very protective of MOOCs, and when a course opens itself up to criticism by this kind of carelessness (literally, care-lessness), it’s hard to advocate for their value against legitimate criticism.

The material was released all at once, with a suggested schedule. Because I wanted to finish before the Duke course started, I sped it up a little; I didn’t really complete the last unit, and I didn’t take the final exam. Because of the way the course was graded, it’s possible I “passed” anyway, which seems rather silly to me.

The Duke course was a lot more, well, I don’t know what it was. A lot of my classmates kept writing posts about what a wonderful course it was, but I found it garbled, disorganized, and unpleasant. If I hadn’t already taken the Kentucky course, I would’ve had no idea what was going on; in fact, during the week we covered material new to me, I was lost, combing YouTube looking for explanations, since the ones given in the lectures made little sense to me. On the plus side, I conquered my fear of significant digits, thanks to a couple of very patient and helpful CTAs.

The course followed the exact same framework as Duke’s Genetics & Evolution, which I adored; that goes to show you, it isn’t the template, it’s how you embody it. No one else seemed to have any problems, however, so maybe it’s me. I did see significant effort go into providing more of a context for the material covered, but I didn’t get a lot out of that; it seemed random and not particularly interesting. Then again, I’m not trying to be a chemist. But I wasn’t trying to be a geneticist, either, and that course had me glued to my seat.

A weekly test and final exam made up most of the basic evaluation materials, with an option to take “advanced problem sets” and write a peer-assessed paper. The advanced problem sets followed a pattern I recognize from looking over the shoulder of a lot of creative math teachers: questions about the problem. Do you understand the words? What values and equations do you need? Sketch your approach to the problem in words. Can you change the values to create a problem that uses different values? Is the new problem easier or harder? This sort of thing no doubt works wonderfully in a classroom, but here, I’m pretty sure any answer was accepted, and obviously there could be no feedback in a machine-graded system; because these were graded, we couldn’t discuss them. So while I can appreciate the concept behind that kind of question structure, I wonder if there’s a better way to implement this kind of feature – such as in homework which can be discussed.

The peer-assessed paper seemed to me a total waste of time, since I didn’t know enough chemistry to write about a chemical problem, but it didn’t seem to matter, since a grade was not part of the peer assessment; mere submission gave full credit. The most educational part of the process would’ve been reading the best papers (which were posted on the discussion boards as they were assessed). I confess, I didn’t bother, and that’s on me.

All in all, I far preferred the Kentucky course, though I found the lack of concern over errors, and the lack of CTA support, to be something of a problem. Of course, with Coursera moving inexorably to self-paced courses, this is the way of the future. At least I feel like I came away with some skills. I’m not sure what I came away from the Duke course with. I might even take the Kentucky course again; no way I’m taking the second of the Duke courses.

I’ve frequently said that no MOOC works for everyone, and that every course I’ve loved, someone else has hated, and vice versa. Some combination of the best parts of these – the increased detail, clarity, practice of Kentucky with the context and CTAs of Duke – would, of course, be ideal. But unlikely. In the meantime, it’s a matter of personal preference.

Pushcart 2015: Hillary Gravendyk, “Your Ghost” (Poetry) from Sugar House Review, #9

Glatzmaier-Roberts model of magnetic field reversal

Glatzmaier-Roberts model of magnetic field reversal

Parted from the scene of old disasters
a magnet pulling one memory in two directions

Sometimes I get stuck when reading Pushcart. I can sense power in a work, but I don’t know what it “means” or how to talk about it. Sometimes I’m just intimidated by a famous name. And sometimes I feel as though I’m treading on sacred ground, and I’m unsure of the appropriate attitude. This is most pronounced when, as in this case, I read the work of a recently deceased poet.

Here is again where I wish I better understood how to “really” read poetry. But all I can do is record my own observations and reactions, and hope that I accumulate some wisdom from the overall experience.

The first thing I noticed with this poem was how the punctuation isn’t visible, but is still there via line breaks. I see very little enjambment (if any) in this poem; each line is a clause unto itself. The ghost of punctuation, unseen, still directs the reading of the poem.

The sense of point-of-view is explicit in the poem, right from the beginning – a magnet pulled in two directions. What a great image: north and south; yet north and south attract each other, so the two poles also unite (I don’t think actual magnets work that way; I have a few physics courses to take before I can understand just how inappropriate that interpretation may be). I wonder if the lines of the couplets are the two directions: hand/mind, puddle/stone; we/you; the braiding of hair “into a soft basket”, a wonderfully intimate image, coupled with holding “nature’s charms at arms length”. And why is the apostrophe missing in “arms”? Not possessive, but plural?

The phrase that jumps off the page at me is “every angled enmity” both because of the initial vowels, and because of the tongue-twisting nature of it. And then, the brow leads to slope leads to axis leads to lines: from concrete body to abstract figures, through serial associations that circle back to a lined brow. The magnet: two poles at opposite ends that pull together.

I know these roads by heart and all the ways back in
An arrow strung up like a party favor points the way

There’s no capitalization for quite some time, either, other than the first word, and “I”. So when I came to a capital, it seemed like it must be a very significant placement, perhaps a section break – but it occurs in the second line of a couplet, then is followed by three repetitions of “I want”. How does that work? In a poem about a lost loved one, does a capital signal a “break” in the couple, as well as the couplet? It comes after finding “all the ways back in”, a phrase that I use quite a bit. The magnet again: the opposite fields leap from the poles, but find their way back to each other.

To read this particular poem, knowing that the poet passed away not long ago at the age of 35: sacred territory. Poem about memory, ghost, magnet, as memory, ghost, magnet pulling in two directions – the sorrow of loss and the joy of art – then finding its way back to unity. Here is where I wish I knew how to really read poetry.

Pushcart 2015: Inara Verzemnieks, “The Last Days of the Baldock” (non-fiction) from Tin House, #57

Given the chance, the more sentimental among them would probably return in summer. Summer was when it seemed as if all the residents of the Baldock threw open the doors of their homes to the bronchial, hawking churnings of the passing semis and wheeled coolers out to the picnic tables that had not yet surrendered to rot. There they would sit, cans clutched in cracked hands, as their dogs whipped smaller and smaller circles around the trunks of the Douglas firs to which they were chained. In those moments, it was possible for them to imagine that they had merely stopped there briefly on a long road trip, that they were no different from the men and women with sunglasses perched on the tops of their heads who trooped in and out of the nearby restrooms, mussed and squinting.

We think we know people, based on very little information about them. Say “librarian”, “football player”, “mother”, “homeless”, and you fill in a lot of blanks to come up with a general idea of what this person is like – quiet or outgoing, smart or stupid, pleasant or scary. Good or bad. Worth knowing, or not.

We think we know people. But we don’t.

Journalist Inara Verzemnieks stumbled upon a community of people who were clinging to the last rung of society’s ladder, trying desperately not to slip further – because they know, as we all do, how hard it is to climb back up even one rung, let alone the whole stretch. It’s a community that was about to be involuntarily dispersed. Perhaps that was the best thing for it; perhaps not. But what struck me was how it challenged every assumption we might make about the people who bear the labels we stick on them, and how uncertain it left me as to right and wrong, good and bad, should and shouldn’t.

The community was that of a group of people who lived at the Baldock rest stop on an Oregon interstate. Homeless, you might say. Or, you might not.

The access they gave me didn’t seem to depend on my being a reporter… Instead, I suspect, they were judging me by a more subtle rubric, reading me for clues that would help them gauge my capacity to understand.

Verzemnieks discovers the Baldock in the course of researching a story of a meal-delivery service. She discovers people like Joleen, who’d lived in a van with her boyfriend for three years on top of some intermittent stays when the weather was too cold for a campground. Joleen’s kids visit her at the Baldock on Mother’s Day. She meets The Mayor, who served as a sort of intake worker: “I don’t have money, booze, or cigarettes to give you, and don’t give me any shit. But I always have food to share. Ain’t no one out here gonna starve.”

We meet Ray (Joleen calls him “Dad” as they’ve forged a particularly strong supportive bond), who feeds his dog Sweetpea and gasses up his old motor home with his Social Security check. He may have lived at the Baldock for twelve, thirteen, seventeen years, no one’s sure. And people like Jack, the newbie, caught first in the housing market collapse, then in trucking industry cutbacks.

It’s easy to sit in judgment on the homeless. Why don’t they get a job? Why don’t they make better decisions? It’s harder to look close, and realize each story is unique. Yes, mental illness and general foolishness come into play, but so does bad luck. And don’t forget: it’s not as easy as you think to get back into society, once you’ve fallen out of it. Yes, some people do it. Then again, some people are Yo-Yo Ma and Einstein and Gandhi. Some people are indeed talented, and that includes a talent for navigating modern life. And some people are not so talented at that particular skill, or perhaps they just lack a support structure – family, friends with extra rooms and generosity. That doesn’t mean they aren’t people.

“You know what I love most about Thanksgiving?” Jack said. “Football. It’s been months since I’ve actually seen a game on TV, not just listen to it on the radio.” Everyone nodded and they talked about how luxurious it would be to sit on a sofa again, stupid with turkey, tasked with no other concerns than whether to flick between the college or pro games. It struck them all as the height of decadence, of insanely good fortune.

The Last Days started with a maintenance worker informing the residents the rest stop would now be the responsibility of the Oregon Travel Experience. The handwriting was on the wall:

Others, like members of any neighborhood group upon hearing rumors of possible planning changes, turned to the public computer at the community center for reconnaissance.…And though none of what they could find was written in what one would call plain, unadorned speech, one phrase in particular, about helping the rest stops achieve their “full economic development potential,” seems to them to translate as having something to do with money – be that making money or saving it. Either way, it was not a concept that they suspected would live comfortably alongside homelessness. Intuition told him that much.

Their intuition is straight-on: “the Baldock Restoration Project” was underway. Notice, it was the rest area, not the people, being restored. A solar energy installation was planned. The State of Oregon has published an official report citing the US Department of Transportation’s “environmental justice Order 5610.2″ and outlining the planning and execution of the relocation of the Baldockians.

To their credit, they didn’t just send in State Troopers; they did make efforts to understand the community, to meet different needs with different solutions. Yet I wonder why, if they were to select one image of one Baldock resident, they chose the one they did.

It’s hard to find fault with a solar energy project; it’s not easy to be against finding stable living situations for people living in their cars. If I’d just read the Oregon report, I might think they’d done a good thing. But now, having met these people on a more intimate level, I’m not sure. The local news story actually offends me with its high-and-mighty, “Ain’t it Awful” hysterics.

This is what point-of-view can do. And it occurs to me, maybe the “forward/back” “good/bad” theme I’ve been so determined to force on everything, is really a matter of point of view. The Oregon report, while including details of the Baldockians’ varied stories and attempting to take a sociological view, to evince concern and “environmental justice”, is clearly from the observer’s side. Verzemnieks tells the story from the residents’ side. She doesn’t skim over the ugly stuff, but she presents these people as people first. It’s a lot easier to feel compassion for people, when you see them as people, as one of us, instead of one of them.

“Some people would say they wouldn’t be caught dead living like this, in this nasty old RV,” [Ray] said. “But you know what, I consider myself so fortunate to have this. Because when you’ve had nothing – and I’ve been there – living like a no good dirty bum, low as you can go, in the streets, and people won’t even look you in the face, like you’re an animal or something and you don’t have shit, you’re thankful for whatever you can get. Let me tell you, I’ve never been so thankful.”
He jabbed his face with his fists, trying to hide the tears.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I lose this. I can’t live like that again.”
No one spoke.

The piece ends with an intense emotional punch as we see that even success has its price.

Oregon seems to feel it solved the problem. Verzemnieks doesn’t seem so sure. I wonder if there is a solution. I wonder about Joleen, and Jack. I wonder about Ray and Sweetpea. I wonder.

I’m-Running-Out-Of-Titles-For-Earth-Science MOOC

Course: Planet Earth… And You!
School: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Dr. Stephen Marshak, Dr. Eileen Herrstrom
Earthquakes, volcanoes, mountain building, ice ages, landslides, floods, life evolution, plate motions—all of these phenomena have interacted over the vast expanses of deep time to sculpt the dynamic planet that we live on today. Planet Earth presents an overview of several aspects of our home, from a geological perspective. We begin with earthquakes—what they are, what causes them, what effects they have, and what we can do about them. We will emphasize that plate tectonics—the grand unifying theory of geology—explains how the map of our planet’s surface has changed radically over geologic time, and why present-day geologic activity—including a variety of devastating natural disasters such as earthquakes—occur where they do. We consider volcanoes, types of eruptions, and typical rocks found there. Finally, we will delve into the processes that produce the energy and mineral resources that modern society depends on, to help understand the context of the environment and sustainability challenges that we will face in the future.

It was the best of MOOCs, it was the worst of MOOCs…

First, the good news: the lectures were superb. Information was well-organized and presented clearly, with plenty of visuals in a variety of formats: hand-drawn sketches, photographs, professionally printed diagrams. Not to mention visual aids: I finally understand the many kinds of earthquake waves, thanks to … a slinky! Other pictorials were included, but it was the slinky that showed me how a wave could travel both parallel to, and perpendicular to, a slip.

Dr. Marshak’s lecture style was a pleasant surprise; I found it extremely effective. He speaks very calmly and quietly, like he’s talking to one person instead of a class or even a camera. I don’t put a lot of importance on style, since substance is so much more important, but considering how many times I rewind and replay videos, it’s always nice when listening is a pleasure. Another interesting touch was his inclusion of emotionally intense information at the end of the earthquake and volcano lectures. In the case of the former, I was nearly in tears as he described the extent of the damage done by the Japanese earthquake of 2011; likewise, I was deeply moved by his explanation of the casts of Pompeii. These segments weren’t just about earth science; they were about people affected by the scientific processes we’d been learning about, connecting us in a more human way to what we’d studied. It was a great way to finish off the material for those weeks.

Likewise, Dr. Herrstrom’s explanation of the science needed for the first two labs was clear and complete. She made a nice summary of the more expansive lectures, focusing on the information necessary to execute tasks.

I also applaud the effort to create a multi-modal learning experience. The lectures and the weekly quizzes were only the beginning of the coursework: each week we had a lab, an assignment, and a discussion topic, with two peer reviews of those discussion topics during the five-week span. People learn in different ways, and this course tried to provide multiple avenues. The execution left a lot to be desired, but the theory was excellent.

The CTAs (students chosen for their ability to deal with other students patiently and helpfully, who usually have some background in the subject) were wonderful. When things went south (and they did), they – all volunteers, not paid staff – were caught in the middle, yet they maintained a superhuman level of grace under pressure. At one point I said they deserved combat pay. At the very least, they deserve medals.

And it’s a good thing they were there, because actual staff – people employed by the University, people connected with producing the course, presumably people who had some interest in how the course was received – were few and far between. In fact, other than one staff person identified only as Univ. of Illinois Support #6 who showed up quoting legalese (a whole other kettle of fish, I’m not gonna go there), the course was without staff. This is the vision for the future, I realize, and there are courses where this works, particularly when good CTAs are involved. But here, where so many problems cropped up, it was as if this were an orphan class, and whomever was responsible for it – someone at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, presumably – just didn’t give a damn.

The main problem was in the labs.

The first lab – using seismographs to locate an earthquake – was pretty good, if slightly miscalibrated. The visuals of the seismographs and graphs were much too small to allow detailed measurements necessary to obtain the kind of precision the answers required. I spent a lot of time on the lectures, so I didn’t get to the labs until fairly late in the week by which time the autograder had been “adjusted”. How adjusted, I don’t know – and I still don’t know if I really did the measurements correctly, or if anything was accepted as a valid answer at that point.

The labs went downhill from there. If the point was for us to learn to use Google Earth, well, I still don’t really know how, I just know how to click on this folder and watch the world go by. I’ll admit, I have an attitude towards Google Earth. But, unlike the first lab, where the purpose seemed clear and I understood the connection to the lecture, the rest of them seemed like busywork culminating in looking at things I wasn’t able to interpret or understand. How many valleys are in this view? I don’t know – which of that stuff is a valley? Are there several towns, or many nearby towns, in the ashfall zone of Vesuvius? Tell me what “nearby” means, and the cutoff between “several” and “many”, and I’ll tell you. In the plate tectonics lab – a topic in which I’m very interested, by the way – I gave up on Google Earth and just looked for map images of the pertinent plate boundaries.

In one case, a student documented 14 problems with a single lab, including one question that seemed to include all wrong multiple-choice answers. Either that, or I was measuring the wrong thing, or measuring the wrong way, since the answer I selected was marked as correct. I’m not sure what I was supposed to learn from that.

I had it better than some, however; there were lots of people who couldn’t get Google Earth to load at all. A couple of us posted still shots to fill the void in Week 4, but I think most people just gave up.

The “assignments” seemed to be low-level quizzes in disguise; I’m not sure why they were separated out. I don’t even remember them, in fact, other than I had to enter my hometown latitude and longitude every week. I suppose I should take the 20 points and be merrily on my way, but I wonder if these were supposed to be something else, and it just never happened.

The one assignment I loved – an extra credit assignment – was mineral identification. That module was off-site, part of Black Hawk College’s website rather than Illinois or Coursera. But it was fun. I like rocks.

The discussion assignments weren’t my particular cup of tea, but there’s plenty of room for disagreement on that; some students seemed to like them. We’d have to write a letter advocating for or against a town’s earthquake preparedness expenditures, a mine, or convince residents to evacuate before a potential volcanic eruption. A great deal of information could get packed into things like that – but we were limited to 150 – 200 words. Later, staff backpedaled and claimed that was a “suggestion” but since that “suggestion” was on the grading rubric, it felt more like a requirement. Again, there was some kind of disconnect between what was intended and the material itself. Follow that with a “grading rubric” 20 options for one type of post and 12 for another… and it was overcomplicated to the point of absurdity. Again, a good concept, run into the ground by poor execution.

But sometimes, adversity creates opportunity. I again fell in with this loose consort of ironic MOOCers who made the five weeks delightful with the creation of a “Whine Corner.” As in Origins, it wasn’t so much about complaining as it was about camaraderie and horseplay. It’s a flexible little sub-community, already moved on in ever-changing form to other courses, where new students add their humor.

I can’t help but wonder what went wrong with this course, leaving it like cloven into good and bad like Calvino’s Viscount. It’s a shame, because this could’ve been terrific; if they fix the problems, it still can be. And I do finally understand earthquake waves.

Pushcart 2015: Kathleen Ossip, “Elegies” (Poetry) from Poetry Magazine, December 2013

de Kooning: "Elegy", 1939

de Kooning: “Elegy”, 1939

All song is formal, and you
Maybe felt this and decided
You’d be formal too. (The eyeliner, the beehive: formal.)
When a desire to escape becomes formal,
It’s dangerous….

The formal definition of “elegy” fits right in to this theme I insist on imposing upon the works in this volume: looking forward, looking back, either /or: the first half of a classic elegy expresses loss, the second half, hope as what was great about the lost one is incorporated into the lives of the living. I’m not sure these elegies fit that exact description. I’m not sure they need to; they do other things.

These five elegies (available online, thank you, Poetry Magazine) come from Ossip’s most recent poetry collection, The Do-Over which is, she said in a Bookslut interview before the book was completed, centered on her own loss of a family member dear to her.

In this section she elegizes a series of public figures: Amy Winehouse, Steve Jobs, Troy Davis, Lucian Freud, and Donna Summer. That’s a wide variety of death there; just the names generate a series of feelings ranging from pity over a life lost too soon to anger over injustice to admiration of talent or accomplishment to a sort of embarrassed nostalgia (come on, you loved disco and you know it). Maybe we feel all those things at once, and much more, with the death of anyone close to us.

The clock is obdurate,
Random, and definite.
Obdurate the calendar.
You thump on the cot: another signature.
Did it didn’t do it would do it again.
And if a deferred dream dies? Please sign the petition.

In most, there’s an italicized word or phrase: “Understood by music”; “deferred”; “All”. Do these relate to the elegized, to the elegist, to the society that saw the passing of these figures? Words are also repeated, and unexpected words: “Obdurate” and “signature” in Troy Davis’ elegy. Who was it that was obdurate? Davis was, as he maintained his innocence even as sat in the execution chamber. So was the State, who didn’t care about conflicting eyewitness stories and possible coercions. Signatures on petitions to stay the execution were more numerous but less powerful than the signatures that authorized the State to kill him. The italicized “deferred” in this poem breaks my heart; so much is deferred in Davis’ life/death story, not the least of which is our own humanity when we – and it is we, since we allow it – push the plunger on the fatal syringe.

I also see a lot of wordplay in these pieces: “Effects worth undertaking” in Lucien Freud wouldn’t have the same connotation if not in an elegy; “Vengeance is mind says the body” fits Steve Jobs perfectly, as does the repetition of “silver” in multiple forms throughout. Does “silver” have some innate connection to him? Does “silverish” bring to mind imitation, or “silverfish” – book-destroying bugs (bugs!). I’m not sure if it’s seemly to feel such delight as I felt in these elegies, but I admire the thought that went into them, each word, each phrase.

But let’s not leave out the most obvious, wordplay of all: each poem is an acrostic with the subject’s name as the spine word. For some reason, that feels like overkill to me, though I do love a crostic (to which my own obsession with mesostics will attest), and the use of restriction seems both appropriate, and counterappropriate, to an elegy. Death is the ultimate stricture on all of us – or maybe life is. Perhaps death is also the most freeing moment of human existence. Looking back, or looking forward? Is looking the operative word?

There is a sort of elegiac turn in the poems, though not necessarily from grief to hope. It’s more a turn from the departed, to the bereaved. Ossip’s Bookslut interview, done before the book was completed, shows this is a possibility, as she talks with Joseph Harrington about who’s voice dominates an elegy:

Ossip:…the peril of writing an elegy is that you’re going to insert yourself into it and make it not about the other person but about your own grief…. — your grief is part of the story, too. So that’s maybe an honest way — or another honest way — of approaching an elegy, because you know your own grief in a way that you can never know another person….
Harrington: I think that’s true about elegy; it’s about surviving the other person.
Ossip: And it’s about the voice of the bereaved.

All of these high-profile deaths occurred between July 2011 and May 2012; the collection was published this year, but apparently was completed in 2013. I wonder if that was the period during which Ossip was dealing with the death of someone dear to her, or if they were chosen in retrospect. That feels significant to me as well. Inward, outward; forward, back; which way was she looking? Which way do we look as we read them?

Pushcart 2015: Ada Limón, “How to Triumph Like a Girl” (Poetry) from Gulf Coast, #27.

I like the lady horses best,
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.
I like their lady horse swagger,
after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!

Look what we do to girls. We paint them with their horses, but only if they’re wearing frilly dresses and a happy smile and carrying a soft, feminine rose.

We might even put a girl on a racehorse, but only if her hair is long and flowing and the horse is dancing and everything is beautiful and graceful and gentle.

I didn’t realize this until I went looking for images of a strong woman with a horse. Go see for yourself: the woman wears a flowy dress (or if she’s a cartoon or game figure, a metal bikini), or wears jeans – action clothes – but merely stands, actionless, next to a horse. We fear the power of girls. And when we grow up, we fear the power of women.

Ada Limón ain’t having none of that.

She starts, perhaps, with a sonnet form, that most romantic, genteel of structures. But not a sonnet (it’s available online, thank you Gulf Coast) – her form has 18 lines, two breaks, three sections. She turns the form into what she needs it to be – and that is the definition of power.

“Ears up, girl” – a slight sexual connotation, perhaps, but I hear “Chin up” in this day when women are stripped of rights worldwide, in a day when the US seems determined to force women back into kitchens and bedrooms (except for poor women, of course, who are forced into low-wage jobs because how else can Wall Street and Washington survive except on the backs of uneducated single mothers).

What do ears do? They listen. They allow girls to listen to their racehorse heart.

The same power that turned a sonnet into a paean to female strength can turn little girls, who long ago were transformed from curious engines of creativity into insecure waifs waiting for permission, back again into what they was meant to be, whether that be a quiet poet with flowing hair, or an Olympic medalist. Put her in touch with her racehorse heart, and a girl will find the form that suits her.

Don’t you want to believe it?

I do. But it gets harder all the time.

Pushcart 2015: Frederic Tuten, “The Tower” from Conjunctions, #60

The Library in Michel de Montaigne's Tower

The Library in Michel de Montaigne’s Tower

Sometimes his urine was cloudy. Sometimes gritty with what he called “gravel.” Sometimes his piss flowed bloody and frightening. No matter how disturbing, Montaigne recorded his condition in his travel journal as coolly as he did the daily weather. He was always in various degrees of pain, and he noted that too, but dispassionately, like a scientist in a white lab coat.
Even before he suffered from kidney stones and the burning pain that came with them, Montaigne had long thought about death, and not only his own. He had thought about how to meet it and if doing so gracefully would change the encounter. His closest friend, the man he had loved more than anyone in the world, was to love more than anyone in the world, had died with calm dignity. In his last minutes, in his last words, his dear friends did not begrudge life or beg for more time or express regrets over what was left undone or make apologies to those he might have or had offended or injured. Montaigne thought that when death approached, he would neither wave him away nor welcome him, but say to death’s shadow on the wall, “Finally, no more pain.”
I put my book aside when she walked in.
“I’m leaving you,” she said. She had a red handbag on her arm.

I don’t know enough about Michel de Montaigne, or about Blaise Pascal, for that matter, to do full justice to this story. In fact, one of the ways I can tell how much I like this story, even though I don’t fully understand the nuances, is that it interests me greatly in finding out more about these two philosophers. However, for the moment, I will have to approach this at my current level. As it happens, it works there, too.

The observation of the red handbag, made after hearing his wife is leaving him, tells us a great deal about the narrator. But maybe too much: I can’t decide if he is someone so afraid of the prospect of losing his wife – in the context of Montaigne’s loss of his best friend – that he escapes to a kind of detached observation, or if he truly is the detached thinker, observer, analyst, who does not bother to immerse himself in the everyday experience to feel anything about her departure. Or, for that matter, if she’s a flake who pulls this every other week. Maybe it’s what she routinely says when she goes out for an afternoon.

The conversation that continues after the above opening doesn’t shed any light on the matter:

“For how long?”
“And what about Pascal, will you take him?”
“He’s always favored you.” I was very glad. I could see Pascal sitting in the dining-room doorway, pretending not to listen.
“Yes, that’s true.”
“Don’t you care to know why I’m leaving?” she asked, petulantly, I thought.
“I suppose you’ll tell me.”
“I will, but maybe another time.” She stared at me as if wondering who I was. Then she started to speak but was interrupted by a car-horn blast. I’ve looked out the window and saw a taxi with the man behind the wheel.
“May I help you with your bags?” I asked.
“I’ll send for them later, if you don’t mind.”
“Who will you send?”
“The person who comes.” She stared at me another moment and then left.

Now, this is clearly a literary conversation. It’s much too sly and studied to be the sort of thing people actually say to each other; it couldn’t be used in a movie script unless it was a high-concept piece. But I still loved it. Realism is great, but it’s also nice to sometimes read a more stylized discourse, one that is more of a fencing match than an exchange of information.

Montaigne went to his Tower for ten years to study and write, after his best friend died. Our narrator goes to his study, after his wife leaves.

It welcomed me as never before. My desk with its teetering piles of books and loose sheets of notes and a printer and computer at the Chinese lamp, little pots full of outdated stamps and rubber bands, and instant-coffee jar crammed with red pencils, green paperclips heaped in a chipped, blue teacup, a stapler, an old rotary phone, framed prints of Goya’s Puppet and Poussin’s Echo and Narcissus, Cézanne’s Bathers, and van Gogh’s Wheat Field in Rain greeted and accepted me without any conditions. I could sit at my desk all day and night and never again be presented with the obligation to clear or clean an inch of the disorder. Now, if I wished, I could even sweep away every single thing on the desk and leave it there and hungry. Or I could chop up and burn the desk in the fireplace. I would wait for a cold night. There was plenty of time now to make decisions.

I love this passage; I think we all know that feeling of returning “home” whether it be a family, a house, or a room. Our narrator expresses far more emotion, even sexuality – entering the room that welcomed him, feeling greeted and accepted – than when he’s talking about his wife. Again, I can’t decide if he really is this locked out from feeling, or if he is stanching the flow of blood from an inner wound, if he truly hates his wife (there are hints that she is awful, but I didn’t see enough of her to be sure; and perhaps she has her reasons for being awful at this point) – or if he know his wife will return shortly.

Which brings me back to the overarching question: what is up with this guy?

To answer that fully, I think I would need to study Montaigne a lot more. An hour of looking through the Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which never fails, no matter what the article or how familiar I think I am with the topic, to go over my head by the third sentence) isn’t nearly enough. But apparently Montaigne had some contradictions going on as well: he believed in immersing oneself in everyday experience to learn, yet isolated himself, etching Latin and Greek quotes on the beams of his tower library, including the one shown here: “I am human; nothing human is strange to me.” I wonder if the irony is as applicable to Montaigne as it is to our narrator, who appears to be more attuned to his study, and his cat, Pascal, better than his wife.

Pascal – the cat – also serves as a point of introspection. He disappears, presumably run out of a window. There’s a connection between Pascal the cat and the philosopher Pascal’s observation, “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it,” since at the very end of the story, our narrator says, “You should have stayed home.” It’s not clear to whom he’s speaking, his wife, or the cat – or himself, longing for the study, or even Montaigne, who should’ve never entered the tower – or perhaps never should have left, since that was his intellectual and spiritual home. Which is the abyss, in the story – real life, or his study?

In my research, such as it is, on Montaigne, I discovered a book review in The Guardian, written by Colin Burrow, Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher by Anne Hartle, that seemed particularly appropriate to this story:

Consciousness for tower people is being partly a body, partly a pen, partly a voice, partly a half-memory of someone else’s voice, partly the thing that enables you to realise that you are all those things at once (although this bit of consciousness doesn’t always function very well and needs a lot of encouragement), and partly a set of uneasy attitudes, ranging from shame to self-satisfaction, towards what in yourself is received and what seems immediate. Thinking is done not by starting from the beginning, but by thinking onwards and backwards and hoping that some clarification will emerge.
~~Colin Burrow

I see a lot of the narrator in that. He has no idea what he’s doing, but he keeps doing it. Does he hope to figure it out some day? Does he care? Or is he so self-satisfied, he needs no confirmation from anyone other than himself?

I wonder if I’m just dense, or if this is how the story is written, to leave so much open, to have us watch this man and wonder about him. Forward/back, good/bad, partly this/partly that. Maybe all at once. Intriguing.

This is the second Tuten story I’ve read thanks to Pushcart; the first was more focused on art (particularly Cézanne’s Bathers, which also appears here in the study) but was likewise over my head, yet had the same mysterious, inescapable appeal.