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.

Genetic MOOC

Course: Introduction to Genetics and Evolution
School: Duke via Coursera (free)
Instructor: Mohamed Noor
Introduction to Genetics and Evolution is a college-level class being offered simultaneously to new students at Duke University. The course gives interested people a very basic overview of some principles behind these very fundamental areas of biology. We often hear about new “genome sequences,” commercial kits that can tell you about your ancestry (including pre-human) from your DNA or disease predispositions, debates about the truth of evolution, why animals behave the way they do, and how people found “genetic evidence for natural selection.” This course provides the basic biology you need to understand all of these issues better, tries to clarify some misconceptions, and tries to prepare students for future, more advanced coursework in Biology.
…The genetics lectures are limited to basic transmission genetics, recombination, genetic mapping, and basic quantitative genetics….The evolution topics covered in the present course are largely confined to “microevolution”…

How good is this course, you wanna know? It’s so good, that although I had no particular interest in genetics or evolution, although I only signed up because some friends of mine from another course were enthusiastic about it, and I happened to have no classes running during the week it started, although I planned to drop it in W2 or W3 when other courses, courses I was definitely interested in, started – in spite of all that, it became the centerpiece of my MOOCing for the past eleven weeks, and by far my favorite course of the Winter session.

That’s what a great MOOC can do.

It starts with a great professor, in this case, Mohamed Noor. He’s the kind of guy who can use “bee-bop around” and “stochastic forces” in the same sentence and it sounds perfectly natural. He’s the kind of guy who seems so relaxed and personable, it’s hard to believe he’s a science professor at a prestigious university, while at the same time he evinces such command over a wide swathe of complex theory and practice, including the current state of research, that it’s hard to believe he’s bothering to talk to mere students. He’s the kind of guy who uses the three major releases of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” as an analogy for relative reproductive fitness, and pulls it off. He’s the kind of guy who lectures in t-shirts with a bobble-head Darwin and a painting of a drosophila (fruit fly, the geneticist’s go-to critter) on the whiteboard behind him, without giving the sense that he’s trying too hard (his faculty profile shows him in a suit and tie, and that’s the shot that looks forced to me). For a sample, here’s a pastiche of “catch phrases” from the course, brilliantly cobbled together by a student from the 2013 run of the course.

While the course was fun, it wasn’t easy. In the live Hangout just before the final exam, a student told Dr. Noor, “You really made us work, man.” Yep: the official estimate is 5 -6 hours, but it took me more like 10 – 12 hours (I’m slow). And I loved every minute. If you’re not up to investing that kind of work, there is another option: some of the lecture videos are labeled as “General”; they give an overview of the topics, but don’t go into details of calculation or the many variations possible. GenEv Light, as it were. OF course, there’s always the risk you’ll get sucked in…

Each week started with a set of lecture videos, but that was only the beginning. I’d take careful notes, felt like I understood everything, and then… a series of practice problems left me going, “Huh?” Working through the problems gave me a much better sense of what population genetics could show, or how epistasis works, beyond the definition. A variety of other supplementary materials (software, definitions, articles, etc.) was included, and collaboration was not only welcomed, it was planned for on the message boards with weekly “Most Confusing?” and “Practice Problems” threads organized by the CTAs.

Student discussion of graded problem sets was also encouraged in an entire subforum organized by the Staff TA. This may seem like it would make the problems a piece of cake, but most of them required interpretation and analysis of the material, not just regurgitation of facts or calculation via formulas, meaning often there was a kind of debate between Team Answer A and team Answer C with Team Answer E raising a few good points as well. These boards were closely monitored, not for “cheating” but for excessive confusion; though the need was rare, on occasion a question would be clarified – ju- u- u – ust a little tiny bit – and in a way that wouldn’t help unless you understood the issue thoroughly in the first place.

By the way – it’s not easy to design questions like that. It’s a lot simpler to pick a key sentence from the lecture, rephrase it, and frame it as sentence completion, but asking something like, “What type of selection might you imagine operates on running speed in cheetahs?” or “Earlier in the semester, we discussed overdominance and the example of sickle-cell anemia. If you were to look at such a case, what might you expect in terms of the McDonald-Kreitman test’s predictions?” (both actual practice questions) takes more effort. Answering them requires a lot more than a complete set of notes.

Another nice detail was the structure and pacing of the course. An optional introductory set of lectures dealt with the evolution vs religion question pretty thoroughly. The midterm was scheduled for a week when no new material was released, meaning time could be spent on review and preparation. But it showed in subtler ways as well: I found weeks 2 and 7 to be particularly difficult, and weeks 3 and 8 were particularly “fun”; week 8, by the way, included sexual selection, including some amusing behaviors of various species. Though we were cautioned against anthropomorphizing any of that, it was easy to draw a parallel between the “song” of the water mite and the kind of conversational cues that might facilitate or discourage a human couple’s romantic connection. With my penchant for similarities in opposites, I drew a connection between what Peter Struck called the “cute puppy syndrome” used by Virgil in The Aeneid to make Dido more naturally attracted to Aeneas, and the egg-carrying behavior of the male waterbug that tends to increase its mating possibilities. A fun week, after having torn my hair out over the molecular clock.

The discussion forums were as rich and valuable as the rest of the material. The CTAs were terrific (I knew some of them from other courses, primarily Origins), both in directing discussions of the material (“check the last two minutes of lecture 3; do you see how that relates to your question?”) and in offering auxiliary discussions (“DNA in the News” was a popular thread, as was “Humor,” of course). The course TA mostly operated behind the scenes, except for the Hangouts, but a course like this doesn’t just happen; the day-to-day technical running, the release of materials, link posting, etc., all takes attention and work, and he did a great job. Fellow students were helpful and encouraging as well. And, as in any course dealing with this material, occasionally discussions got heated; this was kept under control by CTAs and staff refocusing on the course material and forbidding anything approaching disrespect. Again, that takes a lot of work, both to monitor, and to ameliorate without getting heavy-handed.

Most of the “grade” for the course depended on a timed midterm and a timed final; discussion of these was firmly forbidden, so even if you could bluff your way through the problem sets, you were on your own for these – which used similar question structures as the problem sets, but tweaked the situations just a little.

Timed tests can be problematic for some, for technical reasons; this is the first time I’ve encountered the brilliant idea to break the timed tests up into two separate sessions. Students, particularly those from countries with less-than-dependable internet connectivity or, for that matter, electricity, sometimes find they end up with scores of 0 due to technical issues (or, simply from not following instructions and going over the time limit); this two-tests process assures that at least half the score can be salvaged. Problems still happen – but it’s a simple way to make them less likely, and to make non-academic technical issues, or simple user errors (clicking “Submit” by accident seems popular) less costly.

I was very worried about these timed exams. I tend to work very slowly; and, I get confused after relatively short periods and need a break. These were fair exams, though, modeled on the problem sets, but not copying them. I did a lot of review for both exams – re-watched the videos (at 1.5 speed, it was pretty funny), re-did the problem sets. To my surprise, I aced the midterm (I don’t know my “grade” on the final yet, though I doubt I did that well; I’ll admit, I didn’t put as much effort into it, so I didn’t deserve to do as well). I don’t usually brag about scores in these posts, since they don’t usually mean much, but this score meant something. That 100% required some degree of understanding. I earned it. The test was designed to make me earn it – and the course was designed to make me want to earn it.

That’s what a MOOC can be. That’s what a teacher can do.

Pushcart 2015: Rebecca Gayle Howell , “My Mother Told Us Not to Have Children” (Poetry) from Rattle, #42

Tom French: from the "Duality" series

Tom French: from the “Duality” series

She’d say, Never have a child you don’t want.
Then she’d say, Of course, I wanted you
once you were here. She’s not cruel. Just practical.
Like a kitchen knife. Still, the blade. And care.

The duality I’ve been noticing in this volume so far is at its most explicit here, embedded in some of our most emotional language. Tough love. Smother love. I love you to pieces. In this poem (available online as both text and audio, thank you, Rattle), we see both sides. A kitchen knife is an essential tool; it’s also a weapon. Just like mother love. The interplay of blade and care plays throughout the piece. A bath in dirty water, tenderness that feels like drowning. Drowning that feels like air: the freedom to say what something is.

The line breaks contribute to the duality with enjambments that could go either way, or change on continuation after the break: “Of course, I wanted you” sounds like the end of a sentence, but it isn’t; that clause offers comfort, the next takes it away. I’m befuddled, however, by the transition from brothers and sisters to crickets eating the back forty; is this a simile? Or a juxtaposition of two images? I’m not sure. Could it be either/or?

But I found something else that commanded most of my attention: “Instead, our estate was honesty…” I found my anger intensely triggered by that line. I’m damn sick of people who proudly boast, “At least I’m honest,” which seems to mean, “I don’t care about your feelings enough to do the work to deliver the truth in a way that won’t hurt you. My need to say whatever I think be it useful/appropriate or not, is more important than you and your petty feelings.” I think this kind of honesty is thinly-veiled aggression, not a virtue. Go away and don’t come back until you learn how to behave.

I’m not sure if it’s the poem, or me, or the combination of the two (sometimes we find something at the moment we need it; we call it coincidence), but it’s something that demands I listen.

Illusory MOOC

Course: Visual Perception and the Brain
School: Duke via Coursera (free)
Instructor: Dale Purves
The purpose of the course is to consider how what we see is generated by the visual system.

Thus the objectives of the course are:
– To introduce you to some fascinating perceptual phenomenology
– To make you think about how this phenomenology can be explained
– To make you consider what possible explanations imply about brain function.

A course about the science behind optical illusions? What could be more fun?

By coincidence, we were in the Color unit on the day #TheDress went Twittercrazy (The Guardian‘s article used the same illustration chosen as the header of the course). Except… since this is one of those “release all the material on day 1 and take as you will” courses, I’d long completed that unit. Nevertheless, I joined in, commenting on the discussion board that Coursera was missing out on a marketing opportunity by not tweeting about the course while the hashtag was trending; they did, a bit later, but forgot the hashtag, and, unforgivably, misspelled the professor’s name. As I understand it, the whole issue was nonsense anyway: several different copies of the photo were circulating, and a lot of it had to do with color balancing in processing as well as lighting during the photography itself. But it was fun anyway.

Prof. Purves was emphatic during the first week of class, however: what we call optical illusions are not “illusions.” They are, in fact, the way our visual system has evolved to give us a perception of reality that is survival-based. We see optical illusions, the dress, and everything else, that way – even when we don’t realize it – because our visual pathways can’t handle anything beyond a photon stimulating a cell in the fovea, so at least three factors – illumination, reflectance, transmittance – are conflated and lost forever to our perception. It’s the genius of evolution that we’ve been able to “see” well enough to survive this long, so that we’re here to fight about whether the dress is white and gold or blue and black .

The things you come across in MOOCs. By the way, you can take a look at the prof’s website to see many of the concepts covered in this course – and then some. I, for instance, still don’t believe these two tables have the same dimensions, merely rotated 90°. A quick screen clip, some playing around with Word shapes, and… yeah, they really are.

The first week introduced the foundational concept of the course, the “inverse problem” – the difficulty of recreating reality from that conflation that gets transmitted as a single stimulus – then, after a couple of weeks on the structure of the primary visual system and various ways of conceptualizing our ability to see, repeatedly went back to that inverse problem as we looked at our perception of lightness and brightness, color, depth, geometry, and motion. They all came back to that inverse problem, and a similar way of getting around it as an adaptive trait. It’s an idea I came to wonder a great deal about – can we perceive anything the way it is?

A fascinating idea – lots of the ideas in this course were thought-provoking – yetI found it to be one of the drier courses I’ve taken, complicated by twisted syntax and some of the most “academic” discourse I’ve encountered in any MOOC. Take this description of the Bayes Theorem: “And it’s a statement of conditional probabilities, the left hand side of this equation being equivalent to the right and the left hand side of the equation expresses the probability of A given B, where A is in vision, an image or a stimulus, and B, would be the underlying state of the world. This is called the posterior probability, this left hand side of the equation. And it is given by the probability of B given A, that is what’s the probability of the state of the world given the image, were multiplied by the probability of, of the image in the first place, and that’s generally normalized by the probability of underlying states of the world.” I’m glad I’d run into this before in a more comprehensible form, or I would’ve wept.

Staff presence was limited to operational issues. In fact, a “warning” greeted us at the start of class – it wasn’t called a warning, but I’m not sure what else it could be called: “The TAs will also attempt to directly respond to some posts in order to facilitate discussion or address certain problems. Please be aware that the TAs are neither professional experts in computer science, biology or life science.” I suppose it’s just as well they didn’t actually attempt to facilitate discussion, although logistical issues were addressed – questions on written assignment requirements, problems with exam submissions, etc.

Some of us (including classmates from the concurrent Plato course – more good timing) used the message boards to bandy about more philosophical approaches to the material, dipping into epistemology. At one point, that disintegrated into a pissing match so I backed off. That happens sometimes. It happens more often when a course isn’t well-monitored. As I keep saying, every MOOC is different. Some MOOCs show ownership; others, don’t. It’s kind of a shame, because Dr. Purves obviously had great depth of knowledge about, and passion for, his field. Some of that came across, but it could’ve been a knock-your-socks off experience, and it wasn’t.

Grading was based on quizzes – they were timed, but generously so, and multiple attempts were permitted – and a final peer assessed paper that could be viewed as optional, depending on one’s goals; some students are quite fond of Certificates of Achievement, with or without Distinction, and as there was no Distinction here, and a Certificate could be earned by acing the quizzes, it was possible to skip the paper. However, I found it beneficial; I could pull my thoughts together in an organized way and put the Inverse Problem and the concept of survival-based perception into my own words and tell a story. I’ll also get to see other papers, which is a huge benefit of doing any Peer Assessment (only a tiny fraction of students show up on the message boards, and it’s always fun to see what others are thinking).

I signed up for this course because of the Philosophy and the Sciences course I took last Fall; it was a natural continuation of the science portion. It’s material worth learning, and I find the point of view fascinating (I’ve used it in other courses already), even if the packaging was a little disappointing.

Pushcart XXXIX: Michelle Seaton: “The Prospects” from One Story #180, 6/22/13

Via Deadspin

Via Deadspin

But for now the prospects still live at home, in football-fervent cities and towns, among the hollowed-out factories, the vacated office parks, under the care of their parents, the unemployed and the over-mortgaged, the downgraded part-timers, the patriotic, the doggedly informed, the God-fearing and peace-loving, the green-thinking and Internet-surfing, but most of all, the hopeful…. And in these homes, each prospect is still a boy who seems to ingest his body weight in food five or six times a day, whose use a pizza or roast chicken as an appetizer, a boy who can down a quart of milk while standing at the open refrigerator door, a child who cannot look both ways before crossing the road, who cannot be trusted with the car or the television remote because he has no impulse control, no sense that others also exist. Yet, this child seems tailor-made for the triple-XL world which he will inhabit, a world of super portions, mega-churches, and 56-inch plasma screens…

[post originally written summer 2013]
I’m not usually big on sports-recruiting stories: the exploitation, the lying, the haves having more while the broken bodies of ruined young men (and women; I read Little Girls in Pretty Boxes) pile up. I feel like if you’ve seen one “prospect” story, you’ve seen ‘em all. I suppose I’m a bit jaded about it all. It’s a system beloved by exploiters and exploitees alike, even by those chewed up and left by the wayside in many cases, so who am I to sputter.

That unanimity may be changing, though, and that’s why this story has a certain relevance: a former student athlete is suing the NCAA, and cutting players in on a piece of the pie is a minor cause célèbre for the Left (sandwiched between analyzing mass shootings, single shootings of unarmed teenagers, and voter suppression, not to mention the occasional Royal Baby vs Poor Baby comparison; I don’t think anyone at MSNBC has slept for the past six months).

Michelle Seaton, a former sports reporter, understands the ubiquity of the issue; in fact, she credits her selection of POV to that very ubiquity in her One Story Q&A: “A third-person plural narrator is in a position to emphasize how many of these conversations go on every season and how interchangeable they are.” But she wants to show me I am wrong, that there is another way to write about it. And she does a great job.

This piece (it’s closer to creative non-fiction than a short story) hangs out with the kids and their parents at first, as in the quote above. But it earns its keep when it then shifts its focus to the recruiters – not the guys raking in the big bucks, but the front-liners doing the hard work, just trying to survive on the fringes of a sport that’s left them unable to do much else – and suddenly becomes a narrative with a past, present, and grim future:

A recruiter in a small program is a man who stocks shelves and collects tip money for each delivered pizza and sells athletic shoes in a sporting goods store.… He is a man who once dreamed of greatness as a coach, but whose dreams have shrunk to one goal, that of a paid position at any program.
On rainy days these recruiters limp with little reminders of injuries…. Each man can narrate the whole scenario of his injury, can tell it with a smile that hides some other, more complicated feeling, that hides the vivid remembrance of lighting out on the grass, on the turf, gulping for air and try not to puke from the throbbing, the stinging, the skin tightening around the swelling, the others crowding around as the pain comes in waves, sharp and then tall and thin in a long, shrill shout when the trainer palpates the hot skin, squeezing the accumulating blood and marrow, crunching the dislocated bits of tendon or cartilage between thumb and forefinger, then waiting for the trainer to glance up at the sad and knowing expression, before giving a quick handshake that hurts everyone that this bone, this joint, this ligament, this tendon, this body, this tool so carefully tended will never again be what it was just a few minutes ago.

I have to admit this isn’t my favorite One Story offering (but there’s pretty stiff competition, since they’ve been hitting it out of the park lately; I’ve found the past six stories, going all the way back to February, extraordinary). Still, I can appreciate the structural composition, and I give Seaton a 10 for style: long sentences that peak at just the right moment. If I weren’t so tired of the institutionalization of sport next to the marginalization of teaching, health and child care (as per the map above, the highest paid state employee in 40 states is a university sports coach), I might be more enthusiastic about content.

[Addendum: This story made the Pushcart XXXIX volume; couldn’t have been a more timely appearance. And that infographic still depresses me – though I continue to be amused that Nevada’s highest-paid state employee is, not a football coach, but a plastic surgeon. For Conservatives wondering where our values have gone, I think this map shows that pretty clearly.]

Pushcart 2015: Philip Levine, “Albion” (Poetry) from Threepenny Review, #132

Map of the Lower Mississippi's evolving floodplains, from cartographer Harold Fisk's 1944 report, Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River.

Map of the Lower Mississippi’s evolving floodplains, from cartographer Harold Fisk’s 1944 report, Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River.

On narrow roads twisting
between the farms, if farms
these were and not fallow
fields set off by stone walls
too low to keep anything
in or out.

What business do I have posting about poetry, any poetry, let alone the work of a former US Poet Laureate? That my feeds were flooded with sorrows and tributes last February upon his death intimidates me further: Can I do him justice? No, I can’t, but I’ve admitted all along I have no idea what I’m doing. This is my classroom; this is how I’m learning. So I hope Mr. Levine will understand, and his many admirers will not take offense, should I get it wrong. But while my expertise and knowledge may be insufficient, I had some very strong impressions as I read this poem (available online, thank you, Threepenny Review).

The first was what seemed like multiple references to Robert Frost. A stone wall, birch trees, the word “undergrowth”. Granted, none of those things are so unusual. But the wall is “too low to keep anything in or out”; the undergrowth “separated us”; and the birch tree, paired with sycamores, calling to mind not a Frost poem, but a quotation from an included in one of his early collections: “Zaccheus he did climb the tree our lord to see”.

That was forty years ago
or more. We were still
young or young enough,
and new to the adventure,
so of course we kept going,…

All of these appear in the first half of the poem, which, by the way, is the second thing I noticed: what seems to me like a clear division into the first 30 lines, recounting a memory, and the second 30 lines, reconsidering that memory in light of greater experience gained since then. I’m probably overreaching, but I wonder if there’s a looking back at a poetic life itself, a muse – an escape, an elevated perspective, via birches and the sycamore – a lifelong companion.

I also notice some microrhythms and line breaks. It’s interesting I’ve been noticing these details so much this year; maybe I’m just stuck on the concrete, it’s a phase I’m going through as a result of too many poetry classes and not enough poetry. Pretty much any text can be seen in a pattern – I did quite a con job in college on the fig tree dream segment of The Bell Jar to get through an assignment on rhythm – and I don’t have the experience to tell the difference between coincidence, sophistry, and authentic nuance. Still, the phrase “stone walls” does have a spondaic meter that sounds like a stone wall, and adding “too low” to that just emphasizes it over four beats. I also like that the undergrowth that separated us is hyphenated via line break.

I can’t recall how long we
stood there nailed to the spot,
hand in hand, expectant,
as though anything
could tell us where we were.

Then there’s the multiple reading of those lines. “As though anything could tell us” has both a negative sense – a sarcastic, “sure, like anything could do that” sense – and a more positive sense: hold your breath, pay attention, because it could be anything, the slightest little detail, that could have meaning. I can’t help but assume the phrasing was chosen deliberately to show how easy it is to turn things around, to see ourselves as lost when we’re just waiting. And to mark the different perspectives: forty years ago, youth saw the expectant meaning; now age, burdened with the futility of many lost expectations, nevertheless admires and perhaps envies the naïveté it once possessed.

And again, that theme I wondered about with the first story: looking forward and back at the same time (we look forward in youth, back in old age, but can we do a bit more of both at all times?) and the human capacity to interpret reality in different ways, depending on one’s inclination. Can anything tell us where we are? Because right now (always, really, but now is where we are always most likely to get lost), I think we really need to know.

Pushcart 2015: Maribeth Fischer, “The Fiction Writer” (non-fiction) from Yale Review, #101

"The Storyteller" :  Zimbabwean art

“The Storyteller” : Zimbabwean art

Even now, I see her hands and forearms covered with ink – phone numbers, dates, reminders about meetings, words she wanted to remember. And once, sitting at the bar at Smitty McGee’s, she swung around on her stool, lifted the hem of her skirt and showed us her leg, covered to mid-thigh with writing: notes about the novel she was working on; a song lyric she’d heard while driving. Another time, over coffee in the morning, I saw words from the day before imprinted on the side of her face. I knew how she slept then, hands tucked under her cheek. I didn’t mention that the words were there and later, after she saw herself in the mirror, she said, “Why the hell didn’t you tell me? Geez, would you let me run around with my dress stuck in the back of my underwear too?”
       “It was hardly noticeable,” I laughed. The ink had been smudged, like faint bruises.
       I’m still not sure why I didn’t tell her she had writing on her face – it is the kind of thing you’d want your friend to let you know. It seems fitting that I didn’t, though, for this is how I’ll always remember her: words literally pushed into the pores of her skin.
       Writing a story on her body so that her body had a story.
       In the end, this was all she was – a story we would tell repeatedly. Each time, we would embellish it more, highlighting certain moments, habits, things she used to say or do.
       Like stripping an old car for salvageable parts: that’s what we would do to her life.
       It’s what she had done to ours.

Stories. A writer’s life revolves around stories, of course, but so do many aspects of our lives, as illustrated by many of the works I’ve already encountered in this volume: the woman who tells her son a story, and the son who lives the story she tells, in “The Mother”; the story a young writer-to-be, misplaced in military service, told himself about his adequacy in the face of absurdity, while the perpetrators of that absurdity told themselves it was a necessary security precaution, in “My White House Days”; the story the perpetually down-on-his-luck loser of “Say” told to get a song from the only person who mattered; the stories we tell to get through blackouts, lonely evenings, jobs that grate down our ethical sense, or to comfort us in a world that seems at odds with everything important to us. Stories that tell us what we want to hear, when we can’t hear it anywhere else. Stories let us make sense of the world.

Maribeth Fischer tells us a horror story in which the monster is a story.

She was bamboozled by a twinned pair of diabolical flim-flam artists: one, a new friend, and the other, her own tendency, the one we all have, to see what she wanted to see, to fulfill some subconscious need. When Natalie, a fellow writer came to town and showed interest in her, Fischer was swept away with the feeling of being noticed, of being chosen by someone who seemed greater than herself. She threw herself into the friendship, as she had in other relationships, urgently trying “to make myself indispensable; if I’m not , no one will need me. And if no one needs me, no one will want me.” It’s not as flattering as being selfless and compassionate, but, as examined in “Annie Radcliffe, You Are Loved”, it probably underlies a great deal of do-gooderness in the world. Fischer is astute enough, and honest enough (what admirable honesty!), to recognize it later as she writes this memoir.

But not at the time.

Natalie affected more than just Fischer. The heretofore lackluster writing group blossomed and expanded, developed energy and enthusiasm. She was, after all, a Success, having landed a lucrative two-book contract with Random House, which led to requests for an article series by The New Yorker, then a second article series. The town was so overwhelmed by their good fortune to have this amazing resource available to them, no one really noticed there wasn’t a single word in actual print…

Because for the nine months that Natalie was in our lives, she was a big-time author whose life was about to change in wonderful, dramatic ways. She was a wonderful teacher and Kent was in love with her and she was, as Randy Lee said, happy. And I was a woman who was fun and spontaneous. Fun. A word that had been gone from my life until Natalie brought it back to me…. The members of the writers’ guild began to see themselves as writers, began to believe that their stories mattered. And so they did. And I can’t help it: I find something beautiful in this capacity to believe so fervently in the stories we fabricate that we become what we dream.

If Fischer had written this as fiction, it would’ve been too unbelievable. How gullible are these people, we’d wonder. But I’ve been there.

There are people who not only can project the image of What They Are so strongly it overshadows the reality of what they are, but they know exactly who will be susceptible and who will not. I’ve had “friends” like this. They are Batmans who know when they see a Robin. These friendships can work, for a time. It’s only when Robin thinks maybe Batman should do something a little different in this case, or when Robin gets a little limelight, that Batman gets upset. As Fischer says in a turning point in her relationship with Natalie: “…I had unknowingly betrayed her, broken an unspoken pact.” Two things happen then: the relationship falls apart, which feels like catastrophe to Robin; but that’s followed by a gradual regaining of sight, the ability to see the story one has been acting out. Someone else’s story. Not a story of rescue and redemption, but a story of dominance, and, surprisingly, mutual need.

There’s an Armenian motto I came across several years ago, via a sculpture by John Ventimiglia featured in my local public library: “Three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for the listener, and one for the world.” That’s pretty astute writing advice right there: a story requires, not just a teller, but a listener, who has a pre-existing milieu of beliefs and needs into which the story falls; from there, it moves outward. Fischer tells us how that interaction might play out when the listener is herself a storyteller.

Stories, the only thing that allowed Scheherazade to survive for a thousand and one nights.
Stories, the only thing that allows anyone to survive loving someone she will one day lose.

Even though she eventually recognized how she’d been fooled – her friend Kent had been bilked out of a considerable sum, in fact – Fischer still felt a loss, the loss of the story, the belief. This is what turns the essay from a “This happened to me” story into a story that, as Roxane Gay tweeted a couple of years ago, “look[s] outward as much as it looks inward.” The writer, whose job it is to make the reader believe, is by nature a believer of the story that surprises, that takes unexpected twists and turns. The writer is vulnerable to the perils of belief, the price of her art.

Pushcart 2015: Louise Glück, “Approach of the Horizon” (Poetry) from Threepenny Review, #133

One morning I awoke unable to move my right arm.
I had, periodically, suffered from considerable
pain on that side, in my painting arm,
but in this instance there was no pain.
Indeed, there was no feeling.

As someone who frequently talks, and thinks, in metaphors, I love the images and wordplay that run through this poem (available online, thank you, Threepenny Review). Life as an airplane ride really perks up “please return your tray tables and seats to their original upright position,” doesn’t it?

That central metaphor is surrounded by other more unusual images. In particular, I was struck by the monitor that beeps and chirps with the heartbeat, something we’re all familiar with even if we’ve never been ill; either we’ve been at someone else’s bedside, or maybe we’ve just seen it in a movie. Then there’s the moment when the beep lengthens into a long tone – or, as in the poem, when the line that bounces with each beat of the heart becomes ” a straight line, / like a minus sign.” A new way of seeing flatlining: person, minus life. Or: life, minus one person.

My rather superficial observations were greatly deepened by a couple of other resources I stumbled across in my travels. One of them, from Boston Review, is Craig Morgan Teicher’s review of Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night – the collection in which this poem appears (and recent winner of the National Book Award). I wasn’t aware that the book was a portrait of a dying painter; that adds to the poem. Teicher also points out the opposites and reversals: the character is a painter rather than a poet (bringing to mind O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter” perhaps?) and male rather than female, and is based on a similar reversal of a character Glück used previously. All these inversions – do they mean something? Of course they do.

And here’s where PMF Johnson’s comments got me to recognize what was happening with the last stanza, the last word. If I may draw on another source (I need all the help I can get), a post by Ken Nichols of Great Writers Steal explained how James L. Dickey teaches the reader how to read his poem “Falling” so that by the time we get to the climactic moment, we know how the punctuation works. I think Glück is doing something like that here. By calling attention to double meanings of words like “left” – the left arm, or the arm that is left, that is, not paralyzed – as well as the many common uses of “departed”, we’ve been trained in what to look for, so we’re ready for the final lines:

I will be brief. This concludes,
as the stewardess says,
our short flight.
And all the persons one will never know
crowd into the aisle, and all are funneled
into the terminal.

The word “terminal”, of course, means ending, and is often used in relation to death; we’ve been primed to see the parallel meanings. But because of the airplane flight imagery throughout, there’s another sense: we finish our flight at a terminal, but we also go to the terminal to take a new flight, to travel somewhere else.

A long time ago, my father gave me a book of poetry for Christmas. It wasn’t a particularly “good” book – a typical anthology, thematically organized, a sort of “Poetry’s Greatest hits” but because I was 13 and had only read the few poems from English class, these seemed quite special. I still have the book (he wrote on the frontispiece, “From Dad, Christmas 1969″) and one of the entries was an unattributed poem sometimes referred to as “The Ship” or “On the Shore” or, since it’s of uncertain origin, by any of a dozen other titles. The speaker is at that moment when one shore loses sight of the ship – but the other shore just now sees it approaching. Glück’s work is far more subtle, of course, and includes many other nuances, but I was 13 again, and remembering this book from so long ago.

In the past few years, I’ve become very aware of my own mortality in a personal and imminent way. My family is long dead. As I read history, it’s a parade of rulers, artists, and often, ordinary people, who are now not of this earth. As celebrity after celebrity dies, watching tv becomes a recitation of “He’s dead now.” Even Spock eventually dies – but doesn’t necessarily end.

That’s the human adventure: is death an end, or a beginning? Can it be both? And again, we’re back to the “is it good or bad, light or dark, forward or back” sense I’ve been encountering as I’ve read this volume.

Pushcart 2015: Daniel Tovrov, “The News Cycle” from Zyzzyva, #99

Ruben Ubiera:  "Death Of Journalism" (2008)

Ruben Ubiera: “Death Of Journalism” (2008)

Doom comes in cycles here. Right now, everyone is preparing for the end. Resumes are being sent out wildly, clips are being saved, contacts are being pressed for leads; no one is actually working. The Global Financial Times, it seems, is about to fold. Jeremy Black, from the Politics desk, has been tape-recording editorial meetings and forwarding every e-mail from management to his personal account. He plans on writing a book about the company once the end finally does come. There certainly isn’t a shortage of material. In little more than two years, the GF Times has become a textbook example of how not to run a newspaper. Jeremy’s worried he’ll be sued, which is probably true, but I don’t think the parent company (whichever it is) has the resources for any sort of robust legal effort, even with its alleged cult money. Jeremy says I need a backup plan, too, before it’s too late. But I’m not worried. I’ve seen this before – the doom, that is. Everything will be fine. Anyway, I’m too focused on my Syrian Proxy War story. If this really is all coming to an end, that needs to go out ASAP. It’s an important piece, I sincerely believe, and it’s good. I did good journalism, despite all the obstacles that management put forth, and if the paper does come crumbling down, this piece could land me my next job. Even if it doesn’t come crumbling down, this piece could land me another job. And for that reason the story needs to go out before it’s either scooped or before the situation on the ground changes and renders it irrelevant.

Anyone remember Broadcast News? Holly Hunter as Jane Craig, a True Believer in the sacred covenant between Society and Journalism, watching the network news organization she belongs to turn away from investing in serious reporters in favor of Hairdos with great camera personality, from the mission of informing the public to the business of market shares? I haven’t seen the movie in years, but I can still picture her in that auditorium, the thinning audience bored until she shows a video about a 10,000-domino trick that pushed a US trade policy story off the evening lineup. The remnants of the audience cheers for the dominos. “I know, it’s fun,” says Jane. “I know it’s fun. I like fun. It’s just not news.” The last of the audience walks out.

And that was before the Internet.

The narrator of this story is no True Believer. Maybe she (more likely he, but why not live dangerously) once was, but now she’s trying to keep a paycheck, and that means pumping out the kinds of stories that draw massive hits. As she says: “It was hard to write about Syria while generating web traffic…”. To her credit, she’s still trying.

This is one of those stories that’s nearly impossible to read – the paragraphs are pages long, and the stretches about the details of the online news business – “GF Times spams Google, Google catches on and changes up. GF Times constricts while management punishes us – either with mandatory night and weekend shifts, new desk assignments, or hit quotas – Hoa breaks the new algorithm, hits go up again, and then back to the start” – are nearly as incomprehensible (and horrifying) as the details about atrocities in Syria. But guess what: modern life is nearly impossible to read (not to mention pretty horrifying). Just try to figure out who owns Newsweek, if you still remember that Newsweek used to be a solid information-and-analysis journal – and this story is a barely-disguised narration of its purchase by IBT, “an innovative digital media company.” As for the Middle East, the UK’s Financial Times found the perfect way to describe the nonsensical chaos – and that was before ISIS. Um, I mean, ISIL. Whatever.

It’s an impossible story. That’s why it’s perfect – and why it’s crucial.

This narrator shows us exactly the mess of pottage we’ve traded our birthright for. The Fourth Estate – the Free Press – is now about search engine optimization. It’s about finding out what we want to read, and telling us that. What we need to know to make decisions about our lives, our votes, our kids, our beliefs, is just… too hard. Too long to read.

Like the paragraphs in this story.

Jeremy, from the politics desk, has been able to survive the bad times by writing flattering, aggrandizing articles about Ron and me and Paul. To protect his reputation, Jeremy published them under a pseudonym, which no one bothers him about so long as he’s getting hits. The Pauls have a relatively small but cult-like following – to the cheese who (when not stockpiling guns in their doomsday bunkers, no doubt) read and share every article that mentions the libertarian congressman; if it’s favorable, it goes up on RonPaul.com. “Fred Romain,” has three pieces there now. I wonder if he’ll include in his book, because what Jeremy is doing sure as hell isn’t journalism. But one Ron Paul article takes an hour to write and on burdens Jeremy for the rest of the day so he can do something meaningful. During the last Great Google Downgrade, I got lucky twice. First, a lunatic in Belgium attacked a bus stop with a hand grenade, killing two and injuring six. The assailant also blew off his own arm, which lay photogenic lady next to a pommes frites cart. Normally, that’s not a big story, but the attacker had brown skin, so leading headlines with “terrorists?” In them generated a nice amount of traffic. The story was somewhat difficult to follow from New York, but because I was allowed to copy-and-paste the body of my original story and reposted with a new, slightly updated lede – examples: “a third man now is in critical condition after…” or “police are looking for a second suspect in Liege, Belgium, where…” – I was able to pump out stories faster than our competitors and siphon off some extra traffic that way. The man turned out to be a local, and not a terrorist. Just a guy who snapped. It turns out that brown people are actually quite common in Liege, the fact that became another article. The second lucky break was when a Christian pastor was hanged as an apostate in Iran. His name was Youcef Nadarkhani and he led the congregation of 30 from his basement church in Rasht. Iran’s religious police arrested Nadarkhani during the Christmas-night raid. Nine others were arrested but eventually released. The Gilan district court found Nadarkhani guilty of converting Muslim men over the age of 13, a crime under Ayatollah Khomeini’s founding fatwas. Despite international pressure, Tehran went ahead and sentenced him to death, drawing scorn from world leaders and 150,000 unique page views for me, a personal record that was rewarded with a twenty-five dollar gift card to Starbucks from the GF times. That’s what people want to read about. Muslims persecuting Christians. “They don’t want to read about Iranians training Syrian militia in a desert somewhere,” Jeff Polaski, our editor-in-chief, explained to me.

Impossible to read. Admit it, it’s nowhere near as fun as a dress that might be white and gold or blue and black. But there are a couple of key sentences in there – “which no one bothers him about so long as he’s getting hits” and “That’s what people want to read about. Muslims persecuting Christians” – that should scare us to death. Because that’s why we’re reading what we’re reading, and that’s why we see the world the way we do. We get our news from Buzzfeed and Jon Stewart. To be fair, Jon Stewart often hits the nail on the head (don’t miss the 3:25 mark). But he’s lasted 17 years because he surrounds it with goofiness to make it palatable.

Youcef Nadarkhani is a real person, by the way, and he really was imprisoned for three years, released, re-imprisoned, re-released. Who am I talking about, you ask. See?

A quick google of “Daniel Tovrov” turned up some interesting tidbits. Like, he’s in the MFA program at Columbia (or was, I’m guessing, at the time this story was written). Like, this is his first published fiction. Like, it’s not his first published writing – he has plenty of journalism clips on his website, including several news stories on the Middle East for the International Business Times – the same IBT that bought Newsweek. Like I said, barely disguised.

I wish I could get everyone to read this story. But most people will glance at the paragraphs that go on for pages, they’ll see stuff about Syria and some technobabble, they’ll say, “It doesn’t look like something I’d enjoy.” You’re not supposed to enjoy it. You’re supposed to be scared shitless. Or enraged. But what we’re supposed to do about all this, I’m not sure. Resist clickbait? Yeah, like that’s gonna happen. And I’ll admit: I’ve descended into hopelessness. But I’m 60. I’m checking out soon. What about you – is this the world you want to live in, where what you think you know is never challenged by pesky complexity?

The final line I originally wrote for this post was: “Move over, Jonathan Swift and Joseph Heller, there’s a new master satirist in town.” Except this isn’t really satire. And if that doesn’t scare the hell out of you, well, it doesn’t matter, I’m sure tomorrow will bring another blue/black (or gold/white) dress to keep you entertained while someone else decides our lives – and decides who’ll write what to tell us how happy we should be about that.

Platonic MOOC

Course: Reason and Persuasion: Thinking Through Three Dialogues By Plato
School: National University of Singapore via Coursera (free)
Instructor: John Holbo
         Why ‘Reason and Persuasion’? The title is generic, and indicates that the course will be – if this is what you are looking for – a general, introduction to philosophy, as it tends to be taught at the university level. But the title also points to a specific problem: reason without persuasion is useless; persuasion without reason is dangerous. Plato worried about it. So will we.
         The course will be of interest to a wide variety of students. There are a variety of reasons why you might want to know at least a little about what Plato thought and wrote. I will do my best to teach in a way that accommodates as wide a range of likely interests in the subject as I can manage.

What a roller coaster! There were times when I thought, what the hell is going on here? There were times when I put “Awesome!” markers in my notes. I wanted to say, screw the tests, screw the paper; then I found out the tests were the most educational part of the course, and I had a blast writing the paper. That’s philosophy for ya. It’s why some people prefer to sweat out ordinary differential equations. But some of us like roller coasters (or maybe we just can’t figure out ODEs).

If you just want someone to give you a traditional interpretation of Plato, check SparkNotes. But if you’re willing to take the scenic route, and can tolerate a wild ride, I recommend this highly.

The first six weeks revolved around three Platonic dialogs, specifically the Euthyphro, the Meno, and Book I of The Republic: Socratic debate about the nature of justice and virtue. In weeks 7 and 8, the focus turned to contemporary moral philosophy and psychology, specifically the works of Jonathan Haidt and Joshua Green. The course comes with a textbook available for free on ISSUU or as a PDF (as well as on paper and, eventually, Kindle if you really want to spend money). Lots of illustrations (some of which appear here). There’s a story behind those illustrations:

The cartooning? It started as a teaching method, a way of bullet-pointing without words. Because, as I learned: if you give students a bullet point in words, they will think it is the answer. That would never do in Plato’s case. I hope the cartoons are true to Plato’s better nature as a comic puppeteer, and serve the intellectual function of setting up thematic echoes across the dialogues and my discussions, without presuming to tell you exactly what the echoes mean.
                                               ~~ reasonandpersuasion.com, “About the Book”
I may be the only person in the history of the world who learned to draw because of PowerPoint. That’s right. I teach the large intro philosophy lecture and I had to have some color in my lecture slides. And clipart just doesn’t cut it. So one thing led to another …
                                              ~~ johnholbo.com

The cartoons in the book, at least the PDF version, are black-and white. That’s ok, the slides used in class are in color. I like colors.

The eight modules, ostensibly one per week, were released in clumps so students could proceed at our own pace; it was possible to complete the entire 8 week course in 4 weeks or so. That seems to be popular in Coursera right now; I never saw it before, but am currently taking 3 courses that release all or most of the materials at the beginning. I have mixed feelings about that approach. There was a distinct benefit for me at this time: since I’m getting more and more seriously overcommitted to courses over the next few months, it let me compress this course and a couple of others so I would reduce the cumulative workload later. On the down side, yes, there’s always the option to take a module a week without accelerating, but since some people do and some don’t, it kind of breaks up the cohort, making the discussion boards less coherent. I wanted to discuss Agony Aunts before the class got that far, but by the time the class got there, I’d moved on to geometry and math, and wanted to talk about that, then later was all excited about rational dogs and emotional tails (except it’s the other way around, but I like it the way I think of it). Like I said, mixed feelings.

I got confused about the quizzes: they were “titled” rather than ordered, so the first four quizzes dealt with Euthyphro, covered in the first two lectures; the next four quizzes were about Meno, lectures 3 and 4. I got confused. I … well, ok, I assumed (yes, I know what that makes me) it was one quiz per week (I MUST start reading instructions!) so I wasn’t sure why I was still answering questions about Euthyphro when I was reading Meno. I don’t know what I was thinking, it’s not that hard: four quizzes per two-week module on each. Numbers. They’ll get me every time, even the little ones.

The content of the quizzes initially confused me, too. Here these lectures were goofy ramblings about masks and mantises and agony aunts (I’d never heard that term before, apparently it’s a whole thing) and, yeah, some Euthyphro, some virtue. I just went through Euthyphro in the Kierkegaard course, but I didn’t remember anything about mantises. Then the quizzes blindsided me with detailed logical analyses of individual passages, which was more what I’d expected but felt like the quizzes from another class got attached to these lectures by mistake.

It wasn’t until later that I made the amazing discovery that the answers to the quiz questions, and a detailed analysis of exactly why each answer was right or wrong, was provided from the start. If nothing else, this course will teach me to read instructions, I swear. But that changed the game, because the given analysis of the answers was fantastic. I didn’t even “cheat” though I suppose it’s not cheating if the answers are pre-supplied – hey, you get 100 chances on a multiple choice quiz with 4 or 5 options, and the incorrect answers marked, why cheat – but going through them afterwards was the perfect feedback. Sometimes I got one right for the wrong reason. Sometimes I had the right idea, but had the poles reversed (I have a lot of trouble with “pick the incorrect answer” in general, more of my we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-instructions obsession). But after I discovered the answers, the quizzes went from scary to an adventure. I didn’t improve at getting questions right as time went on, but I loved figuring out what I did wrong. I loved those quizzes. I wanted more quizzes.

I only half-participated in the forums. That’s about the most I can do in a “thought” class; I typically get intimidated by those who start throwing around thinkers and theories I’ve never heard of, and I’m scared of people who know everything (or at least post as if they do). Whereas in math I can throw myself on the mercy of the nerds and someone will come down to my level, that doesn’t work so well in philosophy or history or literature since I can’t even formulate a question like “I don’t understand where the 6.3 came from”. Most of my reactions to philosophy forum posts are along the lines of, “What the hell are you talking about?” Sometimes I found a quiet corner where some of us slow kids gathered and tried to figure things out, but either I’d say something stupid and slink away feeling all inadequate, or someone would come along to “help” us and it all turned into the message-board equivalent of the Charlie Brown teacher “WAH-Wah-wah.” So my participation, while fun and productive, was intermittent and encapsulated. Admission: I could’ve spent more time trying. I give great credit to John Holbo for keeping an active, if intermittent, presence on the board, and raising topics for discussion; that’s getting ever more rare in MOOCs, but I think it’s an important element, especially when there’s no other staff or CTAs. It’s nice to know someone cares enough about a course to keep an eye on things.

A peer assessment paper was included in the course, though the grading was structured so that it wasn’t strictly required for a Certificate of accomplishment or whatever the hell it’s called; it was necessary for the Distinction thing. Since I still don’t understand the value of a certificate (can you tell?) I wasn’t going to do it, but then I thought, hey, don’t be lazy, you finished the readings, lectures, and quizzes (I loved those quizzes!) and you have time before high tide hits, go for it. And dang, I had fun with it. I intentionally write these commentaries before grading, since peer assessment is always unpredictable and no matter how much I say it doesn’t matter, it kinda hurts to get slammed (it’s also embarrassing to be given an unearned high score, by the way) and I don’t want my impression of the course colored by hurt feelings. And I will get slammed: I ignored the rubric, the five-part paper thing (I did my time writing five-part academic papers; at my age, I’m in this to learn something or to have fun). The paper was an application of the course material, rather than a recitation of it, which I appreciated, so I went for it. It wasn’t a paper I’m particularly proud of, but it did provide a way for me to review some of the material, and it was a lot of fun to write. So though I rode it off the rails, I did wave out the window at the points of the course material as I passed, yelling, “Helloooooooo there!”

What surprised me most about the course was seeing myself in a mirror. I bow to no one in my love for digressions, regressions, multiple metaphors, and goofiness, but in the first few weeks of lectures, I was screaming “WOULD YOU GET TO THE POINT!” at my computer screen. Now I see why I drive people crazy. However, it got better as time went on – or maybe I just got used to it. I even came to enjoy it – and the last two weeks of lectures absolutely rocked. John Holbo can get more out of an elephant (or a mantis, or doggie caryatids – see, I did learn something) than anyone has a right to expect.

I had a good time, once I relaxed and let it be what it was. I learned some thing about Plato, and I learned some additional things about System 1 and System 2 (which I’d encountered before, though I forgot until I read the Haidt paper) and I saw some additional ways contemporary thinkers are framing morality, like the Tragedy of the Commons – hey, I see that on the news every day. Great course. And – I do like colors.

Pushcart 2015: LaToya Watkins, “The Mother” from Ruminate, #29

"The Geneaology of Jesus – A Countdown to Christmas" by Jessica Lynette

“The Geneaology of Jesus – A Countdown to Christmas” by Jessica Lynette

The Visits done died down a little bit now. Some still come. The rustlers like this one sitting in front of me. They still ask bout Hawk. Bout how he came to call hisself the Messiah. Bout who his daddy is, but I ain’t got nothing for them.
I look out the window I keep my chair pulled up next to. Ain’t no sun, just cold and still. Banjo lift his head up when he see my eyes on him but it don’t take him long to let it fall back on his paws. He done got his rope a little tangled up. Can’t move too much with it like that, but he can breathe and lay down. He alright. I’ll go out and work out the knot when I can – when this gal leave.
It’s cold out there, but I ain’t too worried bout Banjo. He got natural insulation. I’m the one cold and I’m on the inside – supposed to be on the inside cause I’m a person. I ain’t got no insulation though.

Character; setting; diction: three of the mainstays of fiction. And this story – a story about storytelling – is a master class on all.

First, diction. Diction, in good fiction, informs and is informed by character. Watkins has chosen a first-person narrator, and for this character, that means a story written in dialect. It’s not easy to write in dialect. I don’t even like using the word “dialect” since it hints that there’s a standard of normal and everything else is other, but it’s a word useful in linguistics, without any hint of valuation, to describe a subset of spoken language characteristic of a particular group, a twist on language that is understandable to those outside the dialect group, but has its own rules and quirks. Dialects quickly become stigmatized (even academia or medspeak, dialects used by the highly-educated; linguistics doesn’t discriminate, that’s what amateurs are for).

I often have trouble reading stories written in dialect because they tend to include lots of apostrophes. Those apostrophes indicate absence; missing letters. More normality indicators. One of the reasons I like the way Watkins has written this story is that she’s left out the apostrophes. Yes, “about” is “bout”, but that’s different from “’bout”, I think. Visually, it’s cleaner, easier to read. Symbolically, I prefer it too: it doesn’t scream, “Something is missing here!” The word is just spelled differently, because that’s how it’s used in the dialect. She also avoids apostrophizing –ing’s by just including the –ing. Few of us speak in written English; all the little things, “gonna” and “wanna” and “yeah” show up, even when we write “going to” so why not just write it, and let people read it as they hear it, which is probably with the elided “g” anyway. We get the idea; we know how Ms. Hawkins – oh, hell, call her momma, that’s who she is, not Ms. anything – speaks. Her word choice, her sentence structure, aside from pronunciation – number, tense, vocabulary – provides the information we need to hear her as she speaks. Poking our eyes out with hundreds of apostrophes isn’t necessary. Bravo.

Setting and character are also interwoven:

I pretend in my mind I was raised here and not on 34th. Just pretend I been on the East side all along. On the East side where good-time whoring didn’t never catch, even if being strung out on drugs did. Where snow come to cover up the dirt in places where grass don’t never grow, like icing covering up chocolate cake or brownies or anything dark and sweet. The East side. Where you be happy poor and don’t try to pretend you can whore your way out. I just pretend in my mind I was brought up poor and wasn’t never no whore.

Again, we know exactly what the East side is, though I wasn’t sure what it was the East side of. It doesn’t matter. And don’t kid yourself, we all try to whore our way out. We’ll meet a few young ladies in this story who aren’t whores in the sexual sense, but they sure are trying to whore their way out (or in, perhaps): they’re reporters. As momma says, “… I know her kind. She want her story. She’ll cry to get it.”

That moves us into the story of the story. The unveiling is multi-layered and wonderful, a little at a time, so I’m not going to play spoiler.

The story gets into several issues, but storytelling itself is central. The stories we tell ourselves. The stories we tell others. Stories passed on, misunderstood (deliberately or not), abused. Stories retold for the wrong reasons, and the right reasons. Stories that doom us, and stories that save us. Stories that save others. Momma is a goddess of stories, and she’s got one that never seemed to matter to anyone until her son, some kind of self-proclaimed Messiah, died in a cult mass-suicide. But she’ll only give her story to someone who needs – and deserves – it.

I think bout my last conversation with Hawk. He talked bout earthly fathers and his heavenly one. “Well, you know in one them books, Matthew, I think, when everybody get to begetting somebody else?” She nod her head. “Well, Hawk told me that ain’t had nothing to do with Jesus momma. That’s all bout Joseph. The step-daddy.”
“That’s right. The genealogy in that book is Joseph’s,” she say, nodding her head. She interested in what I got to say now.
“Well, if the Jesus, the one you and half the world think was the Messiah, and his disciples ain’t care nothing about who was and wasn’t his real daddy, why we always trying prove DNA and mess today?”

Some stories are more important than others. And some stories are more important in how they’re told, and why. Momma is absolutely correct: with all the fuss in Matthew (and Luke) about the Virgin Birth, when push comes to shove, Matthew gives Joseph’s genealogy as Jesus’, until it comes to the last line, when all the begatting turns into “and Joseph was the husband of Mary.” Biblical scholars explain there’s a reason Matthew did this: he was writing for a Jewish audience, and this type of genealogy, linking Jesus to the patriarch Abraham, was important in fulfilling scriptural promise. Mary’s lineage just won’t do for that (Luke uses it in his gospel, though he too includes Joseph). Biblical scholarship is complicated.

The stories we tell, how we tell them, to whom. And why.

Pushcart selected this story from Ruminate Magazine, a journal ” created in April 2006 by a group of fellow writers, artists, and believers who wanted a space for the thoughtful expressions of those who are nudged forward, backward, and sideways by faith in God” and featuring ” short stories, poetry, creative nonfiction, and visual art that resonate with the complexity and truth of the Christian faith”. Some stories are complicated.

In an interview for the UT/Dallas newspaper, Watkins, a doctoral student and instructor, explained her motivation for telling this story: “I wanted to explore the black, matriarchal experience in West Texas since it’s a place that never saw slavery firsthand. It was a place with imported segregation; that separation wasn’t forced, but understood.”

The stories we tell. They matter.

Pushcart 2015: Ellen Bryant Voigt, “Geese” (Poetry) from Granta, #124

there is no cure for temperament it’s how
we recognize ourselves but sometimes within it
a narrowing imprisons or is opened such as when my mother
in her last illness snarled and spat and how this lifted my dour father
into a patient tenderness thereby astounding everyone
but mostly it hardens who we always were

Maybe the most obvious thing about this poem is the best place to start: the lack of punctuation, of capitals, of any notational signal as to where a sentence starts or stops, whether blocks of meaning are separated by brief pauses of commas, longer pauses of semicolons, are parts of lists, are asides within em-dashes, or end with the full stop of a period.

Whereas I, or any reader, really, would be able to notice this, Katy Diddon, in her Kenyon Review piece on Voigt’s book from which this poem comes, relates the technique to mortality through Voigt’s role as an elegist: “I believe that her choice to write without punctuation in this volume changes the argument with mortality; in particular, she puts conclusions into flux, which alters each poem’s trajectory, and therefore transforms the elegy on almost every level.”

Since I, as poetically naïve as I am, was unfamiliar with Voigt and thus had no idea she was known as an elegist, and wasn’t even aware this poem was an elegy (though it does deal with her mother’s death), I’ll have to take Diddon’s word for it. Makes sense: the period as finality, the eschewal of periods and other guiding marks a move towards fluidity, continuation. It makes great sense – if I recall correctly (and verification confirms the basics), the poetic form of elegy moves from mourning a loss to bringing the essence of what was good about the lost one into the present, and projecting that good into the future: sorrow, then hope and strength as a legacy of the beloved.

Voigt herself gives a slightly different take on this punctuation choice in her Granta:

I shouldn’t discount having my sixty-fifth birthday, which causes its own sort of impatience. After several years of idling – either silence, or more-of-the-same – I began a new poem that had a great deal of repetition, a great deal of descriptive excess, and multiple, very fast tonal shifts; somewhere around draft #25, it occurred to me those shifts could happen more easily if I removed the syntactical markers – i.e., the conventional punctuation that helps ‘chunk’ the functional parts of an English sentence. This required me to think more carefully about how those markers might be implied rather than notated, and in turn freed the line to be the sole manager of pace and pause, moments of rest. And I found that very exciting – enough so to make a commitment to the protocol and its possibilities. So there is no punctuation at all in the new book.

I’ve tried to keep that in mind when examining the poem (as opposed to just reading it), looking for ways the rhythm affects pace and even meaning.

In reading the poem out loud, I found some interesting progressions and patterns. The first stanza, quoted above, starts out in perfect iambic pentameter: “There is no cure for temperament it’s how” but that line begs to be continued of course, into the next line which also starts in perfect iambs: “we recognize ourselves but sometimes within it” – oh, a little shuffling at the end there, though it could still be considered pentameter if shift from iamb to anapest, but then it all goes to hell in the center of the stanza, and the next two lines are jumble of everything, until we get to the final line of the stanza and revert back to (nearly) perfect iambic pentameter: “But mostly it hardens who we always were.” Mostly. She could’ve written that to be perfectly regular, but she didn’t; she only wrote in mostly perfect meter. Language rhythm and syntax working together.

And yes, there is a clear break, rhythmically and semantically, as well as visually, between the two stanzas, if the remaining group of lines can appropriately be called a stanza.

if you’ve been let’s say a glass-half-empty kind of girl
you wake to the chorus of geese overhead
forlorn for something has softened their nasal voices
their ugly aggression on the ground they’re worse than chickens
but flying one leader falling back another moving up to pierce the wind
no one in charge or every one in charge in flight each limited goose
adjusts its part in the cluster just under the clouds
do they mean together to duplicate the cloud

And yes, again, we start off with a mostly iambic line again (hexameter this time) and at first it tracks just fine, even without punctuation, but then we’re caught up in the center which gets a little peculiar, rhythmically and even semantically – I gave up trying to “punctuate” it, are the geese forlorn for something, or are they forlorn – because something has softened their nasal voices, and what is the thing with chickens, is that an aside, I’ve put it in em-dashes but I’m something of an em-dash addict. In any case, the poem at that point is describing how a flock of geese moves, one goose leads, then another, “no one in charge or everyone in charge” and yet they all get where they’re going together, just as the poem seems to break up but still gets to the end, where the last five lines again settle down and speak of forcing blooms in winter.

So we have a wife and mother dying, and the normally-dour father finds his gentleness is accentuated by the scene. What about the daughter, the speaker? Is she a glass-half-empty kind of girl, arriving at the conclusion that in geese or families, “there is no end to hierarchy”; or is she a take-charge girl who forces blooms by “a premature and structured dark”? Can she be both? Undecided? Something else: an observer, recorder, an elegist? Is the premature dark a bad thing… can it be a good thing?

It’s a lovely poem to play with. In the end, we have some choice in how we react to our surroundings, whether a death or a flock of geese or winter. The degree of choice we have depends perhaps on something within us, as does the choice we make, and how we view the aftermath. We can let darkness defeat us – or we can use it to help us bloom.

Another Earthy MOOC (short version)

Course: Our Earth: Its Climate, History, and Processes

School: University of Manchester (UK) via Coursera (free)
Instructor: Prof. David M. Schultz, Dr Rochelle Taylor
This course focuses on a basic science understanding that demonstrates how the processes on Earth (including biological processes) lead to natural climate changes that have shaped the planet and the path of evolution. Students are challenged to think of the Earth as an integrated system made up of water, air, ice, land, and life.

I was inspired to take several science courses following last fall’s Origins. This was one of them.

It covered much of the same ground, in some cases filling in some gaps, and occasionally venturing into different areas. It’s a short course, only four weeks of content, so of course the breadth and depth are a bit abbreviated, but it’s a very nice place to start if you’re not looking for a long-term commitment. I particularly enjoyed the sequences on the earth’s magnetic field (one of those things I’ve always been a little fuzzy about – especially the thing with the poles reversing), and about earthquakes. I was also glad to find more information about the geology I’d learned about in Origins. By the way, I found a terrific documentary in my travels, one that made the whole “but where did the continents come from in the first place” issue a little clearer to me. Somehow, earth science courses like to talk about plate tectonics and Pangaea a lot, but then they talk about the incredibly old formations and fossils in Australia or Canada separately and somehow it gets lost (to me, at least) that Australia and Canada weren’t then where they are now.

In addition to video lectures and weekly quizzes (more of the crazy-making “we won’t tell you which 2 questions you got wrong, but you can try twice more if you like” – I didn’t play this time), each week featured a Google Earth tour of various sites of interest. An additional application, Build Your Own Earth, was also featured to show the interaction of atmosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, and hydrosphere. Though BYOE was a major reason I took the course, I found these applications more frustrating than instructive, though I suspect those who more appreciate high-tech gadgetry – and have the time to play with things and figure out how to get the most out of them – will be more enthusiastic. As for me, well, I appreciate the effort that went into preparing the materials. I would’ve rather seen clearly labeled photos, but that’s me; others in the course were very happy with these supplements.

It’s a fine course for anyone looking to dip a toe in the water of earth science – and if you have a better feel for simulation software, and/or more time to play with it, I suspect you’ll have a great time.

Pushcart 2015: Thomas E. Kennedy, “My White House Days” (non-fiction) from New Letters , V79#3-4

I used to be able to tell about this straight out. Not that I was proud of it, but neither was I ashamed. Years ago, I had what used to be referred to as a nervous breakdown. I tried to kill myself. When I broke down, I decided it was because of secrets, and I didn’t want anymore secrets. Then I began to heal and didn’t want to talk about the breakdown any longer, tended to gloss over that period of my biography.
At the time, late summer-early fall of 1963, I worked in the White House – in the executive office building, now referred to as the old EOB, which housed inter alia the office of the Vice President. JFK was president. I worked as a stenographer for the White House Communications Agency – WHCA, responsible for the president’s travel. You might think you see where this is going – 1963, responsible for the president’s travel – but it’s probably not what you think.

Now, I didn’t write 30 books, as Kennedy has, nor did I go to writing school and I certainly don’t teach it (as Kennedy does), but it seems to me, if you’re going to write an essay about My Years in the White House, and your name is Kennedy, your first sentence should be “No, not one of those Kennedys” instead of tucking that information into the middle of the piece. I guess that’s why I’m not a writer. And I suppose, if he’s written 30 books and won numerous awards (this is his second Pushcart), I should’ve recognized the name. Maybe that’s my problem, but it’s just the beginning of how jerked-around I felt by this piece.

But none of that is the point. Or maybe it is the point, since Kennedy gets pretty jerked around himself, by the military in the name of National Security. The absurdity of all that, and its effect on a perfectly normal, bright and promising boy whose only failing was earnestness, is the point.

A product of Queens, NY parochial school and a less-than-idyllic home life, he joined the military in 1963 hoping for an assignment in France, where he could learn more about the literature and language he had already come to love. When offered a position at the White House, however, he saw it as a privilege to serve the President, so France would have to wait.

What he didn’t count on was the security interview:

His questions seemed ordinary enough that I don’t remember them – until he asked:
“Have you ever engaged in normal sexual relations with a woman?”
Suddenly I was back in confession with the priest. But I had what I thought was the right answer – that is, the answer they wanted…
With mild indignation, I said, “No!
The major looked up at me from his pad and asked, with slight incredulity, “No?
The trap had snapped shut. I had exposed myself to the suspicion that I was a rat who smelled strange bread in women. There was no going back. I blushed. “No.”
His eyes were on me, then dropped to his pad, where I imagined his printing in all caps the word RISK. “Have you ever had abnormal sexual relations with a woman?”

And it goes downhill from there, culminating in Kennedy’s “nervous breakdown”. Thankfully, he recovered, though it took some time – about 50 years, in fact – to come to terms with it.

To those born in the Digital Age, or even the Age of Aquarius, it may seem implausible that a 19-year-old male would assume that chastity was a virtue, or, for that matter, not a subject of shame. To those of us who grew up in the same era, perhaps around Fundamentalists rather than Catholics, and perhaps had our own troubles that assured our chastity was not at risk, and also specialized in giving authority figures the answers they wanted, let me assure you it isn’t that outlandish. I had my “nervous breakdown” – my first two, in fact – before I realized, courtesy of the psychiatric profession, that chastity was a symptom, though of what, I was never sure.

So I have some appreciation for what Kennedy went through. That he went through it at the hands of the government, in the name of some bizarrely intertwined combination of morality and national security, is tragic.

Just recently I saw the film The Imitation Game, and by coincidence a rerun of the older Fat Man and Little Boy. Both of these were set in the WWII era. Both involved men older and with more experience in the world than the 19-year-old Kennedy, but were nonetheless ground up by military authority, here or in the UK, in the name of national security. How we treat our heroes! Worse, how we treat our kids, on their way to becoming heroes, should they make the mistake of entering the military in a state of earnest innocence.

Pushcart 2015: D. A. Powell, “Calling All Gods” (Poetry) from KenyonReview, Vol.XXXV #2

"Abandoned Boat House" by Carrie O'Brien Sibley (modified)

“Abandoned Boat House” by Carrie O’Brien Sibley (modified)

Because I stand with my great unknowing yap and pray for speech.
Because I would open my body like a rasping bellows and have you fill it.
I do not know your name.

I first thought this was, per the title and the pervasive religious imagery, a one-sided conversation with a divinity who maintains a distance. The combination of religion and sex was irresistible; I gathered some sources on the uses of sexual imagery in religious texts and liturgy from the Judeo-Christian bible to Vajrayana Buddhism. I had a lot of fun.

But I read the poem again and wondered: is the poem instead about the night, about darkness? Or are they the same thing, for this speaker, a would-be worshiper of the night? In either case, the longing is unrequited, the unloved lover craving intimacy but receiving only the bare mechanics. It’s horribly sad, full of desperate longing, intensified by the title.

The final verse seems to indicate, finally, a fulfillment of the longing, and a line I love though I don’t fully understand its import: “Abandoned boathouse hallelujah.” I get the feeling this is all not about religion, or the night, but sex pure and simple, phrased in mystical terms. In any case, that boathouse – I’m intrigued. What is it that happened there? And if I can’t understand a poem, being intrigued is the next best thing. Maybe even the better thing.

An interesting side-note about the title: in the Pushcart TOC (at least the paperback edition I have) the poem is listed as “Calling All Odds”. That strikes me as a wonderfully amusing typo. What is a god, if not odd? And what is a god, if not one who defies the human odds?

Pushcart 2015: Joe Wilkins, “Say” from The Sun, #448

Let’s say we have a man and a woman.
Let’s say they’re riding in some old Chevy pickup, windows down, prairie earth wheeling past. Let’s call it Nebraska. No harm to say some old Chevy. No harm to say Nebraska.
Though, to be honest, judging by the cheatgrass spiking the ditches, those four cow skulls nailed down a fence post’s crooked length, and the great bluescape of sky, it might be Wyoming, or Montana, or a Dakota — any of those dun-colored, too-wide-open, go-crazy-you’re-so-lonesome places in the middle of America.

Given my fondness for nontraditional narrative styles, it’s a given I’d love this story (available online, thank you Utne Reader). Not that the narrative is all that non-traditional: it’s very old-fashioned in fact, in the tradition of folk tales and songs: “Now I’m going to tell you a story.” But in this story, the narrator, who in a folk tale might only supply a conduit, is central. The story’s about him.

Oh, on the surface it’s about two people fresh out of luck, heading nowhere on a bleak road. But it’s about the narrator, I’m sure of it. He’s let her down again, and he’s making up this story, willing her to sing. It won’t do for him to be the one to sing; that would just mean he’s making light of his failings. No, it has to come from her. She has to sing.

As I read these stories, I keep looking for a uniting theme, or groups of themelets, in this volume. I started out with a sense of looking back and forward; now I have a distinct sense of “is it good or bad? You choose.” And guess what: this story is about every one of us, at one point or another. How we choose. We can keep seething, we can call it quits – or we can sing.

He’s willing her to sing. The protagonist – and the narrator.

What’s the difference between “say” and “tell”? They come from different roots; interestingly, “tell” has a calculative quality (hey, I never knew that). But I think there’s a more important distinction. We could talk about transitivity and direct vs indirect objects, but here’s the gist: saying can be a solo action, but telling implies an intended tellee, a recipient. To say is to express; to tell is to communicate – or, more accurately, and importantly to the story, to attempt to communicate, since there’s never any guarantee the tellee will listen, or, even then, hear. For more linguistic fun, what’s the difference between “Say” and “I’m saying”? Again, there’s the difference in tense, but here, in the story, the switch between “say” and “tell”, between “Say” “I tell you” and “I’m saying” and I’m telling you”, isn’t about grammar; it’s all about intensification. And boy, does this story intensify.

One of the additional ways it intensifies is by going from “Let’s say” to “I’m telling you.” The first is collaborative, casual, hypothetical – it’s a pipe dream. The second is insistent, authoritative, authorial – desperate; I hear a strong chord of “please!” around the edges, and the reader can’t help but cheer for these two hard-luck cases who have a chance to turn it around.

By the way (and this has nothing to do with the story, it doesn’t fit in this post, but it’s so cool I can’t leave it unsaid): Wilkins was a math teacher. I should’ve known. For half a century, I ran away from math as hard as I could, but for the past few years I’ve been tripping over astonishingly cool math people on a regular basis. All I had to do was sing.

But let’s say — and it could happen, I promise you — she opens her mouth and begins to sing: Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet? Say, down the next dry hill, he can’t help but offer up: Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, / And nothing ain’t worth nothing, but it’s free. Yes, let’s say that, despite it all, they begin to sing. It’s not so hard to imagine, is it? Not so hard to see them barreling down the road, the sun-washed wind in their faces, these getting-by tunes on their lips? Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels, / And a good saloon in every single town.

I love a story that comes with its own sound track – Dylan, Kristofferson, Parsons. But the sound track here is more than just mood music; it’s a conversation in itself, between two people who can’t say, so the songs say for them, ask and answer, offer and accept: a conversation about screwing up, hurting, losing, regret, apology, and the possibility that love can survive all that. The songs say. The songs tell the story. All we have to do is listen.

I’m telling you they sing. Listen. Hear their cracked voices whirl and ring.

The last paragraph, the last line, three sentences – it’s a poem. Wilkins is, after all, a poet as well as a prose writer. It’s all in the rhythm. Meter isn’t my strength, but these lines convince me. Start with “I’m telling you they sing”: three sing-song iambs, and you’re all set up for the fourth da-DUM you just know it’s coming, but: LISTEN. Technically it’s probably a trochee but I hear it as a spondee, almost as – oh, forgive me, Mr. Wilkins, I’m a fool from the TV generation, but it’s the Law & Order “DUN-DUN”. It stops you in your tracks: This is Important. This Means Something (yes, I’m insanely mixing references, but that’s what our psyches are, a big box of mixed references). And the rhythm of the next sentence shifts into trochee: “Hear their cracked voices whirl and sing”, with the perfect little crack in the regularity coming on the word “cracked” (unless you pronounce it in two syllables, but that would be a little too Elizabethan for this story).

I love that last line. It’s the whole story, right there.

Pushcart 2015: Kara Candito, “Monologue During a Blackout” (Poetry) from Jubilat, #24

         What about zebra?—suppose
you had to come back as a zebra,
      knowing you’d spend your life
            trampling the savannah with the desperation
      of an Open During Construction sign?

I had to laugh at the first stanza – that simile is so out-of-left-field, yet so perfect. I was a little relieved to read, in Candito’s Rumpus Poetry Club conversation with Brian Spears, that a laugh, or at least a smile, was the hoped-for effect. Just in time for things to turn achingly sad in the second stanza (the poem is available online at VerseDaily). Humor/ache, black/white.

Then I tremendously enjoyed the discontinuous thought: “…anything can happen. Often // it doesn’t. The rain stops.” Is that good or bad? Black or white? Depends. In a blackout (or in a dentist’s waiting room, where I first encountered this poem, is that good or bad?) it might seem like a comfort. On graduation day, a wedding night, the first day on a new job, it might seem like a downer. Then again, wouldn’t a blackout be fun if the energy not coming through the wires were transformed to his finger tracing her chin… Is a blackout good or bad? Openness.

I’m so taken with individual lines and images – listening to Bach through headphones as “seismic privacy of tiny, angry / gods beating your middle ear” – that I barely realize I have no grasp of the overall poem. I wondered if I’d have an easier time if I knew more about the collection from which it comes, so I did a little more hunting: Spectator, “an homage to anyone who’s been displaced or redefined by bureaucratic systems of power.” Interesting. It’s so intimate. Maybe that’s how you fight bureaucracy: create your own intimate space wherever you are.

I can’t speak to the technique (just for fun, I rearranged all the lines, putting those indented at the same level together, but that was pretty goofy, even for me), but there’s an interview for that, as well, with Justin Bigos on 32Poems; unfortunately, it goes way over my head, but that doesn’t mean I don’t aspire.

Pushcart 2015: Mary Hood, “Breaking It” (Non-fiction) from The Georgia Review, Spring 2013

From boredom, a way to keep me alert on a daily walk on a path I have traveled for years, I set quests. This day I noted things blue. Nothing man-made. I saw at first nothing that qualified. Blue is my hardest color.

And after this walk, blue’s gonna be even harder.

There’s a stylistic flair to this short essay, clearly emphasizing the “creative” part of “creative non-fiction”. Perhaps “meditation” would fit as a descriptive. Each paragraph is broken up by white space, giving the impression of individual thoughts, related but also self-contained. The language is beautiful, varying from straightforward narration to deeper considerations of what is being narrated.

Quest as a game taken seriously strips irrelevancy just as a real pilgrimage does – nothing I cherish and winnow with my eyes is mine, nothing I claim with conqueror’s glance is real estate; I was just passing time on the surface, with a little shallow seeking for what would get me through.

Hood’s quest on this day ends up distinctly un-shallow.

Since it’s such a short essay focused on a couple of images, it would be spoiler-ish to reveal those images beyond saying it’s the juxtaposition of a stand of pines destroyed by beetles, and a bird caught on a fence of hog wire. These events allow for consideration of larger issues: the human effect on nature, sure, but also the difference between spotlighting a single victim and presenting statistics in numbers too large to understand, a difference long understood by charity marketers who know we will be moved to respond with a check to the story of one starving child more readily than to hearing the huge numbers of children who have already died. Towerkill is something we hear about on the news (or I guess most people do; I’d never heard of it), but one bluebird is a different story. And, perhaps the all-inclusive theme of legality vs ethicality.

I didn’t realize until after I’d read the essay a few times that each sentence matters, each image, each thought, builds up to the final paragraphs, to an overall thought-cloud that encompasses blue, eleven, quests, insects and pines, birds and fences, and related to all these – people, and what we do, what we can do, what we could do. It’s kind of overwhelming, really. I’m amazed at how much is in there, how, on a frame of evocative language and imagery, a wealth of interrelated musings have been somehow compressed and streamlined into four pages. To do the essay justice, I would have to quote it all. I think that’s good writing.

And as I read these essays, I say over and over, “I don’t particularly like nature writing, but…” Maybe what I don’t like are routine essays, the beautiful but routine “seascapes” (and, all too often, cute animal portraits) of the written word.

I still remember, 30 years later, an entire 90-minute linguistics class examining the word “broken” and its close relatives. “The window broke” is absurd; windows don’t just break, they are broken, but this word has a way of removing action from consequence, and leaving intent questionable. Beetles don’t intend to break trees; we don’t intend to break birds. Does that reduce the loss?