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

Is love the start of a journey back?
If so, back where, & make it holy.
Saint Cerulean Warbler, blue blur,
heart on the lam, courses arterial branches,
combing up & down, embolic,
while inside I punch down & fold a floe
of dough to make it later rise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete essay available online at The Sun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~Complete poem available online at Summerset Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VQR art by Stephanie Shieldhouse

VQR art by Stephanie Shieldhouse

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

~ ~ Complete story available online from VQR

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pushcart XL: Scott Morgan, “The Autistic Son” (poetry) from Tar River, #53.2


He drew his name in black Sharpie, blocky
angular letters. On everything, his name.
He built Lego monsters in the doctor’s office,
swarmed his fingers over them like larvae
While we discussed therapies. Once in a while
he would look up at us, the doctor would write
That down, he would go back to his creation
and sometimes speak for it, a low monotone
Growl creasing his lips. The doctor wrote that down too….

We begin and end with his name, in black Sharpie, blocky, angular letters. In between, in the space of 40 or so lines, we see the struggles, the limits, the blood, the medications, the legalities. All encased between his name. Whatever else he may have or lack, he has a name, and in a poem that could become an overview of disability, we instead have a person.

The open couplets: why that form? The intense interrelation between parents and child? Why the closed first couplet? The child, always alone? The final line is singular: at some point this child will continue without his parents. That more than anything, from what I’ve heard from parents of children with any kind of permanent impairment, is most terrifying of all, not the violence, or the expense, or the stress, or the constant watchfulness, but the knowledge that some day, this child will be at the mercy of others who are not his parents. Maybe that’s the secret of the couplets, the relentless tick-tock.

It isn’t just the child who’s distant; the tone of the speaker is distant as well. The knife wound is related in the same tone as the Lego monsters or the doctor visit or the imagined courtroom process. I wonder when the parents cry, get angry, laugh. But I keep coming back to his name, beginning and end. A boundary of a spectrum: a name we are not privileged to know.

Pushcart XL: James Hannaham, “Artist’s Statement” (non-fiction) from Gigantic #6

As a black artist of color with an Irishman’s name, I feel it is necessary to let the viewer know that I am black. By using such a methodology, I may allow the reader to begin the process of dismissing my work for its highly specialized racial content, or conversely, the procedure reality of praising it excessively for its Negro-specific performativity with regards to the blactification of subject matter, and in the case of academic and/or funding institutions, commence the compartmentalization and commodification of my identity as well as the inherently intrinsic angry political nature of the work for the consumption of those sympathetic to, or pitying of, what they may or may not perceive to be my apparent st(rug)gle(s).

Pretty strange that, as someone who knows very little about art, I should find the art-related pieces in Pushcart so much to my liking. This one’s good. It’s great. If I’m reading it correctly. Because, well, it’s written in gibberish. But it’s great gibberish. I think.

The gibberish is, I’m pretty sure, satire on typical artspeak. Then sprinkled in are some pokes in the ribs, some winks, and a few high-falutin’ references to the likes of Sarte, Nietzsche, Clarinda Mac Low, and Aimé Cesairé, a couple of whom I’ve actually heard of. But this is not gibberish, and the references are not random. This means something. This is important. The entire piece could be rewritten (translated?) into everyday language, and would still be a powerful statement. But, like colorizing old Hitchcock films, that would alter the art and in fact weaken the statement.

I deeply wish the article were available online, because I am not qualified to dissect it; and in fact, dissecting it is exactly the wrong thing to do. So let me start elsewhere: James Hannaham has the coolest bio anywhere on the web. It begins: “James Hannaham would prefer that you not cut and paste this bio if you ever have to introduce him at a reading or a panel because it is pretty irreverent. It’s also kind of lazy of you to do that, though I know your life is busy and it would be easier to just half-ass it.…” then goes into his two books and his career as a journalist and artist, before closing with: “You will probably have cut that last bit out if you’re introducing him at a reading, because it’s sort of confusing for someone to be a novelist and a journalist and then suddenly seem to swerve into visual art , but it does make a certain kind of sense in the larger scheme of things (sorry about all the “s” in this sentence). ” Hey, I was confused back at “blactification,” you really don’t have to try this hard. In any case: I love this. This is the kind of bio (and article, for that matter) my buddy Jart would write, and I’m not saying that just because Jart is black (and, yes,he’s one of the few black people I know, but in my defense I hardly know any white people, either… I’m kind of a hermit), but because he has the same streak of irreverence and self-mockery that’s really a “who, me?” mockery of everything around him.

Where was I? Oh, right, the piece. Poets & Writers tells me it’s an actual Artist’s Statement from one of Hannaham’s word art exhibits, a kind of contributor’s note. The explanation of the art. While BASS includes a section of contributor notes, Pushcart does not, I suspect on the principle that “the art must speak for itself” (and yet, I do so love to read those notes in BASS, which tells you what sort of reader I am). If you’re going to write a statement, you might as well make it a Statement.

Insomuchas reader supposition trends towards the normative cloud, thus postulating the hypothesis of apparent pallidity which is then ascribed and projected onto the part of the originator, no linguistic challenge to this customary standard can possibly forthcomb from the substantial quality inherent to the materiality of the art object, being itself composed primarily of black figures (text) upon a background of whiteness. Ergo (or “nergo,” to reconfigure the turn in an anagrammatical pseudo-Nubianism), it becomes incumbent upon the expositor herself to telegraph the projected mahogany nature of his (in this case) epidermal externality.

I didn’t put this kind of thought into blog design when I made the background black and the text white; seriously, it’s just that it’s more restful on my eyes. But I’ve never been happier that I did it that way. Because the ubiquity of white paper and black ink truly does kind of hit me as a great metaphor , and it’s embarrassing I never thought of it that way before. Think about it: no one ever described Stephen King as a white author. But as an artist, Hannaham’s race is always in the mix, either as a plus or a minus. And in a classic self-reference, this becomes the reason his race is always in the mix.

So much came to mind as I read this. The fantastic SNL skit following Beyonce’s half-time performance (“Maybe the song isn’t for us…But usually everything is!”). The Twitter comment about “white roles like god”. Rand Paul whitesplaining at Howard University (which, I must say, was surpassed by John Kasich goysplaining the Old Testament to yeshiva students after asking what they were studying at yeshiva. That’s gotta go in the –splaining hall of fame.

Lest I be accused of whitesplaining this piece: I’ve said many times, I have no idea what I’m doing here, I just read stuff and write about my reaction to it. And I’m certainly not artsplaining or writersplaining. So I’ll just say this piece entertained and instructed me (tip of the hat to Isaac Bashevis Singer there). And amused me, in an oblique way: since it’s not available online, and since it was short, I decided to dictate it, using Dragon, so I could pick at it at my leisure, highlighting here, bolding there, block copying quotes. I find reading aloud is often useful, since I often notice things I would have missed on silent reading.

Dragon choked on it.

“Linguistic stratagem” was no problem. It handled “socioeconomic stratum” with ease. But “telegraphication”? “Communitizing”? “Fleshtified”? The suffixication that is the stock in trade of pretense turned into word salad. It was delicious. I’ve seen familiar texts, like the Pledge of Allegience and words to Christmas carols, turned into nonsense this way, but this bloviation to language direction was a little different.

Don’t be dismayed by the verbal thicket. Hannaham lays out his purpose pretty explicitly, if not clearly:

In the tertiary reconfiguration above, yet another eventuality becomes emergent, not that of discourse, nor of bibliophilic culpability, but, based on the secondary alabastration in the praxis of the textuality, a contingency of narrational racification, insomuch as the personage in question, by applied verb-tense reflexivity and alphabetical augmentation, becomes emancipated from the circumstance of the oppressed to the locus of the gaze itself, insofar as we posit, in this repositioning, a juxtaposition that negligeés any sense of authorial absolutism, as Bourdieu might not put it.

Exactly. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Seriously, I couldn’t.

Pushcart XL: Michael Marberry, “Love Poem” (poetry) from Thrush, March 2014

Darling dumbfucked Darling grumpers Darling
goddess of regret and every graywinged whoring
after longwronged Darling Darling now newer
now improved a sad song played in chords of D
minor oft burgled Darling Darling even oftener
endangered or objectified Darling in the artstuffs

~ ~ Complete poem available online at Thrush.

I have no idea what makes anything a poem. Some poems seem like they might work as prose, so why are they poems? I might think of something as a poem, but if someone just got up and said those words, would I recognize it as a poem or would I think it was a terrific paragraph? I’ve never claimed to know anything about poetry, remember.

But when it comes to this poem, sure, I’ll call it a poem, because it does seem to play with language, repeating words and sounds. I also think it’s a poem because it’s part of a trio of poems that seem to have some unifying theme, different voices, and that grouping makes a kind of literary sense to me. But this individual poem: here’s where we enter into the WTF portion of our program: I have no idea what’s going on here.

Maybe it’s some sound thing, and I’m tone deaf. Maybe it’s an homage to some school I’ve never heard of (it isn’t like I’ve heard of that many). Maybe it’s a Gertrude Stein thing (I often fight with my mooc buddy Richard about what is a poem and what isn’t, and about Stein, because I simply will not sit still for another run-through of Tender Buttons though I adore some of her other work, and he’s really into that at the moment). But this just seems like random phrases, with some off-color words to make it interesting.

Whatever it is, it’s not my thing – it’s nails grating on a blackboard, if anyone remembers what a blackboard is – and I really have little to say about it, other than I’ve always hated the endearment “Darling” because it’s one of those stiff wooden words out of those 40s-to-60s movies where no one was anything like a real person. Even with the dropped –g, it’s more of a signal than an actual word with meaning. Maybe that’s the point.

But at least it gave me the opportunity to use some fascinatingly strange art that came up when I googled the poet and poem title. It has as much connection to the poem as anything else, I’d say.

Pushcart XL: Jordan Kisner, “Jesus Raves” (non-fiction) from N+1, #18

The Wash-Out: Site of the pop-up church run by Liberty Church in summer 2013

The Wash-Out: Site of the pop-up church run by Liberty Church in summer 2013

It was Facebook that delivered me to Liberty Church. A friend from college posted a video that caught my eye; it looked like a trailer for a Sundance short or a promotional video for a well-funded line of men’s accessories. I clicked, and was met with sweeping shots of the New York City skyline and two beautiful faces: Paul and Andi Andrew. They could be J. Crew models, but they are pastors, and the video was the story of their church, of how they left ministry positions at one of the most powerful megachurches in the world, Hillsong Sydney, and moved to New York, where they knew no one, because God asked them to.
I closed the video and wrote my friend an email. “Tell me about your church?” He responded immediately, because he is a good friend, and invited me to come check out Liberty for myself, because he is a good evangelical.

One of the best things about Pushcart is the variety; not just the variety of fiction mixed with poetry and non-fiction, but variety within those genres. The non-fiction, for example, ranges from memoir to essay to thought piece to the undefinable. And included in that is some real journalism, first-person investigations of things as diverse as an interstate rest stop, a gathering of Juggalos, and this piece on the Liberty Church of NYC, which in summer 2013, included in its ministry visits to Montauk dance clubs to invite partiers to worship at a “pop-up church” housed at the Wash Out Bar the next morning.

I find it interesting that my religious biography is very similar to Jordan Kisner, but with very different results: we both were ardent evangelicals for about five years in late childhood / early adolescence (she from age 9 to 14, me from 11 to 16). That’s where the similarity ends. She seems to have shed those years like a skin and moved on, whereas I still struggle with the trauma. Maybe her more gentle separation – she simply lost interest – is why her article, while factual and (at least as far as I can tell, since I can’t know what’s omitted) objective, is quite positive.

She explains that, as she was preparing to travel to Montauk, a number of happy coincidences fell into place: a house became available, as did a car for transportation, and a cop didn’t stop her for speeding. Then she reports on the church service itself, led by Pastor Green:

Imagine the way God loves you, he told us. You are completely and totally known. He sees the depths of your heart…
Right then, something happened that I wasn’t expecting, which is that I remembered what it feels like to be a Christian, or what it felt like for me. There’s a membrane between imagining God’s love as a thought experiment and experiencing it as absolute reality, and if you slip across it the entire known universe breaks open and then reorders itself to be more whole and beautiful than you thought was possible. I had forgotten. It’s a tragedy you can’t truly explain what this feels like, the safety and wonder and rest and joy and shattering humility and crazy peace, because when you feel it all you want is for everyone else to feel it too. It’s like you’ve been let in on the most magnificent secret and all you want is to bring everyone else along, because if everyone knew the secret it could solve every problem in the world. This is what Christians call, in a terrific understatement, “the Good News.” This is also called grace. Sitting in that converted bar, I got maybe seven seconds of a vivid memory of grace, and the echo alone was enough to remember why people who do wild things to spread it: they’re filled up with a love so great it demands to be given away.

First-person, experiential journalism. I understand that point of view. My experience has been very different. But it’s not my article.

“If you look at Jesus’s life, he did missional Christianity,” Jessi said. “He went where people were broken. It’s so cheesy, but what would Jesus do? I really do feel that Jesus would, like, be hanging out with the homeless in Union Square.” She inclined her chin toward me and smiled a little lopsidedly. “I think Jesus would be hanging out in the clubs.”
The Liberty kids spent most of Saturday on the beach, listening to the new One Republic album and getting tan. When I arrived, it was like I’d stumbled across a group of extras from 90210: Jessi, voluptuous and tan in her bikini; Jessi’s friends Gracie and Monica, bleached blondes with curled and lacquered eyelashes; Leah, with her waist-length hair…

Where’d the homeless from Union Square go?

I freely admit my own bias: an instinctive suspicion of both “cool, hip” religion and anything that smacks of 90210 and voluptuous blondes in bikinis. Yes, I have such a negative attitude towards organized religion, which makes my take on this article suspect. Yet I know some strongly religious people, and I admire them. What’s interesting is that I only found out they’re religious by accident, and we’ve never discussed belief at all. It’s just that they are people who embody grace in the sense I understand it: the bestowing of unearned kindness with no strings, just because that’s what they’re here for. It’s like they’re wearing a delicious perfume, one you can’t quite identify, and at some point you just have to ask what it is. And that, to me, is evangelism.


I’ve been kind of messed up about moocs lately. I feel like Goldilocks: this one’s too hard, this one’s too easy. Once in a while, I find one that’s ju-u-u-ust right, but my zone of just right has narrowed and I’ve dropped more courses in the first week or two than I’ve completed. Part of that is internal to me (I have some minor chaos going on in my life right now, and I don’t handle chaos, even minor chaos, well). Part of it is that moocs are, indeed, changing, just like Facebook and Twitter changed when money became more important than “Hey, let’s put on a play in the barn and see how it goes.” I miss the Golden Days. Which were, um, like two years ago.

But: like eating bok choy, how do you know you don’t like it if you don’t try it (and, after decades of picking slimy green stuff out of my Americanized Chinese food, I didn’t realize how wonderful bok choy actually was until I was in my 50s). And of course I may hear about other tasty tidbits not on this list along the way.

At the moment, I’m in the middle of four courses that weren’t on my previous list; that’s how it’s been going lately. I’ll discuss the ones I complete when I’m done. I’m in week 8 of a 16-week edX course on The Einstein Revolution, which is a combination of physics, history, philosophy, and art; it’s often terrific, often terrifying. I’m also taking, as a “recreational mooc”, a series of courses on various world religions as seen through their scriptures. I’m refusing to take, but am still enrolled in, another edX course on poetry, this time the Modernist era. And just for fun, I’m taking a gut course. Literally. Anatomy of the GI tract. Ok, so it isn’t as glamorous as the brain, but the brain’s still gotta get fed.

So here’s my Spring/early Summer preliminary list of what I’ll be starting in the next few months. As mentioned above, I will probably drop many of these, and will end up taking others not on this list, so it’s more of a draft of intent. I keep hoping that documenting these intents will increase the chances that I’ll be able to work through the chaos, but right now, chaos has the upper hand. But still, what is there but to try:


IMAGE | ABILITY – Visualizing the Unimaginable
Start April 19, 2016
6 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Delft University of Technology, edX

Official blurb:

Students and professionals in science, design and technology have to develop and communicate concepts that are often difficult to comprehend for the public, their peers and even themselves. [This course] will help you enhance your communication and interpersonal skills and provide insight, tips and tricks to make such complex and seemingly unimaginable concepts and ideas imaginable.

I have a lot of unimaginable concepts. I’m not sure making them imaginable is a necessary, worthy, or prudent goal, but I’m curious as to what they’re talking about. However, since I’m not a student or professional in science, design, or technology, I expect this will turn out to be completely out of my wheelhouse. We’ll see.


Shakespeare on the Page and in Performance: Young Love and
Tragic Love
Two course series
Starts April 27, 2016
3-4 weeks, 4-5 hrs/wk each course
School/platform: Wellesley/edX

Official blurb:

Explore Shakespeare’s plays of young love, Romeo & Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to learn what makes them so compelling and magical.
Explore Shakespeare’s mature plays of tragic love, Othello and King Lear, and learn what makes them so powerful and enduring.

My local library just hosted the First Folio tour for a month, so it’s been a high-Shakespeare season around here. I’m primed. Yet I’ve had trouble with Shakespeare moocs in the past; they all seem to assume more background than I have. Maybe third time’s the charm.


First Nights: Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and the Birth of Opera
Start April 28, 2016
3 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX

Official blurb:

In this music course, you will learn the basics of operatic form and analysis, the genres and styles used, and the circumstances of this opera’s first performance and subsequent history. Learners in this course need not have any prior musical experience.

Third of five. I’m less familiar with Orfeo than I was with The Messiah or the Beethoven, but I did encounter it in the Dartmouth opera course last year, and I’m a big fan of these First Nights courses so I’m looking forward to it.


China: Civilization and Empire
5 course series
Starts May 1, 2016
5 weeks, 3 hrs/wk for each course
School/platform: Harvard/edX

Official blurb:

China: Civilization and Empire explores the development of this great civilization from the Neolithic to the last dynasty. We see the formation of political structures and social practices that have lasted into the present; we learn to appreciate artistic and literary traditions of sophistication and refinement; we inquire into its philosophical and religious legacies and their significance for our own lives; and we trace the creation of the largest economy in world history.

This is actually the first of two series (series are very popular in moocdom these days); the second covers the modern era, but I figured I’d start at the beginning. I know remarkably little about Chinese history, so I hope to learn quite a bit.


Propaganda and Ideology in everyday life
Start May 16, 2016
5 weeks, 3 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of Nottingham/Futurelearn

Official blurb:

We will explore how and why words come to mean such different things, across time and space. We will look at how we come to be political, and how political ideology and propaganda pick up on the words, images and symbols we use to express our own convictions and sentiments.

It’s been a while since I took a Futurelearn course. The class on corpus linguistics remains one of the best moocs I’ve ever taken, particularly in terms of how it handled the different levels of expertise coming in, but everything I’ve taken since then has been quite non-academic and just seemed like a mild documentary rather than a course. This is an interesting topic, particularly given the times, so I though it might be a good time to check in.


Cell Biology: Mitochondria
Starts May 25, 2016
4 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX

Official blurb:

This course is designed to explore the fundamentals of cell biology. The overarching goal is for learners to understand, from a human-centered perspective, that cells are evolving ensembles of macromolecules that in turn form complex communities in tissues, organs, and multicellular organisms. We will focus, in particular, on the mitochondrion, the organelle that powers the cell.

After neuroscience, this should be easy. Famous last words. Depends on how into the biochemistry we get, but it’s listed as an introductory course.


Question Everything: Scientific Thinking in Real Life
Starts July 12, 2016
8 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of Queensland/edX

Official blurb:

This science course will advance your knowledge as we unpack some important scientific thinking skills using real-world examples. By completing this course, you will be better prepared to continue studying math and science at the high school level and beyond.

It seems strange to take a course to prepare me for high school, but it’s not like I’m comfortable with math and science at any level. I keep thinking I might have missed something along the way, so why not. This is the school that had the Glossary Fairy for philosophy class; not sure if the same level of kitsch will apply.

Pushcart XL: Morgan Parker, “Welcome to the Jungle” (poem) from Prelude, #1

I asked her where she wanna be when she 25 / She turned around and looked at me and she said ‘alive’” — Kanye West, “Welcome to the Jungle”
With champagne I try expired white ones
I mean pills I mean men
I think I’m going crazy sometimes really
you think I’m joking I’m never joking
All Men Have Been Created Equally
To Shiver At The Thought Of Me
is something I used to think but forgot
or got drunk tried smoking something new

~ ~ Complete poem available online at Prelude

Last October, Morgan Parker instagrammed “Here’s the pushcart list and somehow I’m on it with a poem about jungle fever and loneliness and how the line at whole foods is basically purgatory”. Thank god: that at least gives me a start.

See, I’m out of my element here. I’m always at a disadvantage with poetry (with anything, really) but I don’t know the difference between rap and hip-hop, and I’m only familiar with about five different works that (I think) fit into either category (and I’m crazy about all of them, but I don’t get out much so my repertoire stagnates). The official word is that Parker’s poetry is reminiscent of Frank O’Hara and the New York School, set to a modern beat. I struggled with O’Hara’s work in Modpo, feeling fascinated but held away by my own lack of understanding, and that’s pretty much how I feel again. Images come at me when I read this poem, but I don’t know what to do with them or where they go or how to feel about them. Is it necessary to know? Or is not knowing the point? So you should really follow the link above to read the poem for yourself. In any case, read on here at your own risk – and help out if you can.

First impression: Woman’s pissed. Oh wait – is she having fun with this? Is this a flashback, or a satire? Can I choose my own adventure? How’m I doing so far? Better than she is. Or maybe not.

Yes, the purgatory of Whole Foods does come into it (as a further handicap, I’ve been in Whole Foods maybe three times in my life; I don’t understand a grocery store that doesn’t sell diet Coke). But that seems pretty far away from the life the speaker lives in her head. Who lives in two heads, one in the Whole Foods present, one in the gritty past.

the question is where the fuck
is the sun the answer is tip-toe
into the park at midnight pretend
it’s green like home

Whole Foods isn’t the sort of place where it’s easy to pretend. It sure tries to be, but it’s a forced kind of pretend, because it’s just another hustler on another street corner where organic dreams meet cold hard cash.

It’s that “in her head” that clued me in. That’s the jungle. A pride of memories hiding in the dark, waiting to pounce. A swarm of thoughts which can be unintentionally provoked by a single step, sound, smell. Emotions perched in every tree.

Because I felt stuck on the poem, I was stuck on art. I really wanted to find “all the boys I know // holding my arms down taking off / my bracelets with their white hands” but I couldn’t find a way to explain that to Google in a way that didn’t return jewelry ads (which might have as much meaning as O’Hara’s sardines). Two images from Parker’s website struck me: a gorgeous writer photo, and the cover of her latest collection Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night. The portrait is joyous; the cover, terrifying. Interesting, since I can’t decide if the poem is laughing or crying.

In the end, I went with joyous, because there’s more than enough terrifying in the world.

Pushcart XL: Laleh Khadivi, “Wanderlust” from The Sun, #462

russian blurred header

We are Inna, Yulia, Victoria, Yana, Snezhana, Tamara, Olesya, Nadesha, or Lena. We come from Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Kursk, Barnaul, Kharkov, Odessa, Yekaterinburg, Stavropol, or Novosibirsk. Our hobbies are running, skating, biking and/or sailing, aerobics, dance and/or kickboxing, stretching and/or chess. We were born under the signs of Aquarius, Pisces, Virgo, Capricorn, Gemini, Cancer, Sagittarius, Scorpio, Taurus, Libra, Aries, or Leo. Some of us are 1.6 meters tall; some of us are 1.8 meters tall. We believe in God, or we are Orthodox, or we are spiritual, or it is not important. Our English is preliminary (need a translator) or conversational or excellent or fluent….
And, yes, we swear we are the women we claim to be, just as we were all once girls. At six, seven, eight years old we watched television all day to see a wall in Berlin — a cold, gray city not unlike our own cold, gray city — tumble and tumble and tumble again. When we asked our mothers what was happening, they shook their heads and tried to explain it to us in terms we could understand: Tsk. Just an old bear, like any old bear in the forest, darling — shot a hundred times over a hundred years and just now feeling the pain of the bullets.
But what will happen to the poor bear, Mama? Who will take care of her?
we asked, worried as girls of six, seven, eight will worry for the animals in children’s books.
We will see, our mothers answered. We will see.

~ ~ Story available online at The Sun Magazine

The traditional use of first-person plural is to tell the story of a community, though that community may include a good deal of diversity. Khadivi’s story focuses on the diversity, which emphasizes the underlying similarity: this is the story of Russian women taking to the mail, and later, to the internet, to find a better life, somewhere, with someone somehow. These are not desperately poor or persecuted women; they could find Russian husbands and live Russian lives, but they are willing to step into nothingness on the chance that it will be better than what they see around them. The motivation reminds me of every kid who’s hopped on a bus to The City (any city, anywhere). Including me.

I was, of course, struck by the similarity to Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic which I read about four years ago. In that case, it was Japanese women in the early 19th century, arranging marriages to Japanese men who had already immigrated to the US. The situations are somewhat different, but similar enough that a comparison is unavoidable, particularly given the similar styles.

Khadivi starts with Russian women who were children during the breakup of the Soviet Union, who grew up with a sense of the ground crumbling beneath their feet. The mechanism for their escape came about a decade later, as they were approaching majority, with the arrival of the internet:

Some of us sat alone in front of the computer and swore we would tell no one what we were about to find out. And every last one of us was disappointed. The men were old, some older than our fathers. They were bald or had unforgivable hair. Their bodies were fat and misshapen or thin and without form. If they were British, they had bad teeth, and if they were American, they wore the white grin of the wolf in the fairy tale of Little Red Cap.
Those were the ones who sent pictures of their faces. Most of the messages came to us with a single photograph of just a section of a man, usually from the belly button to the knees, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting, always naked. We turned away from the computer. Where is his face? we muttered in disbelief. Later in our lives it would become a joke: Where is his face! Ha, ha.

It’s so easy to sit in judgment of these women. After all, the pictures that appear on these sites make it clear what they’re selling. We hear about the photographers who make suggestions tailored to each woman: this one should perhaps show a little more skin, this one a little less, but over time it’s become clear: no rich man ordering a woman online is looking for shared interests and compatible life goals. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that he will give his bride whatever goals he wants her to have, and she has little choice but to accept.

It’s so easy to sit in judgment. But no, I will not.

At fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six we are locked to this foreign soil, crying into strange rivers and swimming in enormous seas and dreaming in a language we did not speak as girls. If you had asked us at five, six, seven, What is your life going to be like? not one of us would have said, I will drive a Honda. I will be a pharmacist. I will go by an American version of my name. No. All of us would have responded as Russian girls of that time did: I will live in a cottage in the woods. I will make friends with the bears. I will go to space with the cosmonauts. I will be happy and strong.

This is lovely writing, poetic and evocative. It’s writing that leaves me no room for judgment of these women, but instead opens the door to compassion, understanding, surely, and even admiration. Each one thinks she will be one of the success stories. She will find actual love, a new life and new family that will make up for what she left behind. She will take the risk, the leap of faith. Is she foolish? Shallow? Perhaps. But I don’t think I have half her courage.

Pushcart XL: Margaret Gibson, “Broken Cup” (poetry) from LSU Press

Rivera: "El Vendedor De Alcatraces"

Rivera: “El Vendedor De Alcatraces”

I’ve forgotten how it broke, the great cause
or the petty cause that cracked the handle
into two pieces and left me without
a cup for morning coffee. In the cabinet
there were others of white porcelain,
with steeply elegant lines, cups that matched
their saucers. But my cup was Mexican,
squat, and as round as Rivera’s peasant
bent before the wall of callas
he carried on his back, his burden of blossoms.
Hand-painted, my cup was carnival
purple and yellow, flowers that honored earth,
birth, death, geometry, symmetry, riot
good sex, good coffee, the sun rising hot.
I banished it, broken, to my desk and used it
for paperclips. Now I’ve rescued it, fit
and glued the pieces back together.
Still I’m afraid to lift it, even to wash it by hand
in hot water — it is that fragile.

~ ~ Margaret Gibson reads the entire poem on Soundcloud

The first stanza introduces us to the cup, its handle broken and glued back together. We might think this is a simple lost-love poem, until we read the rest, the part that tells us why we are reading a poem about a cup. It sings with sorrow, acceptance, and love, the kind of love that has nothing to do with days in June or red roses, but rather with sticking it through to the bitter end, and finding it not bitter at all.

We as a species seem to have an affinity for the symbolic token, whether a cup, a piece of paper, any object that contains the memories of a relationship. And though that token break, the memories need not; that happens by other, more tragic means.

Even so, it is possible,
I want to tell them, to love what is broken.
Possible, urgent, and necessary.

This is the title poem from a collection in which Gibson describes her experience as her husband’s Alzheimer’s progresses. Memory features prominently, of course, as she remembers the details of the cup’s history and her marriage. Then we move to the present, and with the kind of courage we can only hope to have, she looks into the future – and to memories she will have in the future – and finds it good. It’s just as heartbreaking, and as beautiful, as it sounds.

Ancient Philosophy MOOCs

Course: Ancient Philosophy: Plato & His Predecessors
and Ancient Philosophy: Aristotle and His Successors

School/Platform: Penn/Coursera
Instructors: Susan Sauvé Meyer

We begin with the Presocratic natural philosophers who were active in Ionia in the 6th century BCE and are also credited with being the first scientists. Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximines made bold proposals about the ultimate constituents of reality, while Heraclitus insisted that there is an underlying order to the changing world. Parmenides of Elea formulated a powerful objection to all these proposals, while later Greek theorists (such as Anaxagoras and the atomist Democritus) attempted to answer that objection. In fifth-century Athens, Socrates insisted on the importance of the fundamental ethical question—“How shall I live?”—and his pupil, Plato, and Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, developed elaborate philosophical systems to explain the nature of reality, knowledge, and human happiness.

If you’re looking for a very straightforward introductory philosophy course, this two-course series might fit the bill. It’s a quick sampler of ancient Greek thought from Thales through the Stoics. Most of the focus is on Plato and Aristotle, since most of their material has survived over the centuries while the sometimes prolific works of other ancients comes down to us only in pieces, reports, and refutations. Since either Plato or Aristotle could fill a year’s curriculum, the material is a light gloss over some of the main features: a few dialogues, a selection from The Republic, the Four Causes, a little Logic.

It’s one of those “I’m going to read a textbook and you will answer multiple-choice questions to show you’ve paid attention” courses, with a series of lecture videos, each including one or two “are you paying attention” questions in mid-stream which repeats the sentence just said in questions form, a quiz at the end of each section (multiple attempts are permitted; there’s really no excuse for a score less than 100%, even if you don’t watch the lectures at all) and a peer-assessed essay, with a choice of prompts, at the end of each of the two separate courses. One of the prompts was quite interesting: rewrite Euthyphro (or maybe it was the Meno, I don’t remember) so that it comes out differently. I’ve always felt that Socrates gets away with murder in these dialogs, that anyone truly engaged in the conversation would not so willingly be led to the gallows of his argument. But I took the easier route and wrote a “summarize the material” essay, so shame on me.

To spice things up (well, as much as you can spice things up when you’re talking about Plato etc.) I supplemented the course with podcasts from History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, a very cool and ever-expanding site that does indeed attempt to cover philosophy without… well, you know. I also found a couple of the Yale OCW videos from their Political Philosophy course to be valuable vis-à-vis The Republic. Since the Coursera class has no academic rigor to it at all, these resources might be more useful to anyone intending to actually study philosophy, as opposed to collecting “certificates” (which seems to be the business Coursera is in now). But I found the lectures quite pleasant (I love this stuff), and as an introduction it serves the purpose – but Sophie’s World does it so much better.

Pushcart XL: John Challis, “Advertising” (poetry) from Butcher’s Dog, #4

Baby's first butcher shop, c. 1850

Baby’s first butcher shop, c. 1850

All night they have been touching meat,
thrusting trolleys stuffed with cheek,
shoulder, ear and leg, and now the day’s
come back to life they’re closing
Smithfield market; sewing up the partly
butchered, washing off the blood.

~~ available online at Butcher’s Dog

In his interview with the litmag, Challis explained time, and the continuity of sales through decades and even centuries – the Smithfield area to which he refers (in England, not Virginia) has been a market center since medieval times – was his primary motivation in writing this poem. He has a nice symmetry going on: the butchers work by night, he works by day, and they’re both covered in blood at the end of a shift; as the butchers strip their coveralls, the ad exec buttons up for a meeting, his suit serving the same purpose as the work clothes. Advertising is merely the most recent layer of commercial archeology.

The poem’s focus shifts as the speaker first looks out over the market, then contemplates his own role, then brings them together: “The past lowers like a theatre set.”

I’m a little uncertain about who, in the ad office, is doing the butchering, and who is being butchered. I think the adman is carving up images (the language conveys a great deal of sexuality, as well as violence and coercion: thrusting, stuffed, shoulders, cheeks, legs) to sell to the clients, who will sell whatever it is they sell to the consumer who believes the right car will restore his manhood, or the right shoe will land Mr. Right. But just as the butchers are not untouched by their process, so the adman is bloodied at the end of his day.

By fortuitous coincidence, I happened across a child’s play set, a sort of dollhouse version of a butcher shop, from the 1850’s, pictured above; it seems to mesh perfectly with the poem. There’s even blood on the floor. Seems both quaint and gruesome, somehow. We’ve come a long way since then, separated ourselves from the process by which steaks and hamburgers magically appear in plastic wrap in the supermarket. But someone still wields a knife at some point. And I do love a nice juicy cheeseburger.

Pushcart XL: Wendell Berry, “The Branch Way of Doing” from Threepenny Review, #139

For a further wonder, Danny and Lyda seem to have understood from the start that they would have to make a life together that would be determinedly marginal to the modern world and its economy….
Marginality, conscious and deliberate, principled marginality, as Andy eventually realized, was an economic practice, informed by something like a moral code, and ultimately something like religion. No Branch of Danny’s line ever spoke directly of morality or religion, but their practice, surely for complex reasons, was coherent enough that their ways were known in the Port William neighborhood and beyond by the name of Branch. “That’s a Branch way of doing,” people would say. Or by way of accusation: “You trying to be some kind of Branch?”

~~ Story available online at Threepenny Review

Berry has been writing stories about Andy Catlett, something of an alter ego, for more than 50 years. His Port William is as real a place as any you’ll find on a map. Every time I read one of these stories, I find an Aesopian flavor to it: each story has a moral. For some reason, this annoys me greatly, even though I tend to agree with the morals encapsulated therein.

In this case, the moral is marginality. Not the kind of marginality so many face unwillingly, but a more voluntary kind. A dropping out of, or a refusal to join in the first place, the rat race, to not buy into success that feeds on and produces consumerism. In the case of the Branch family, that voluntary marginality includes a set of nine unspoken tenets, like “Be happy with what you’ve got. Don’t be always looking for something better” and “Unless you absolutely have got to do it, don’t buy anything new.”

I’ve often said I hate money. That isn’t accurate, of course, at least not to the extent the Branches take it. I’m not going to go hunt my dinner, and don’t get between me and my internet service, and I do buy new things more than used. I’m perfectly happy wearing boring, cheap clothes until they fall apart, and I can’t think of anything more distasteful than the current atmosphere in which the purpose of the population is to buy stuff so other people can buy stuff, or the “grow or die” principle that seems to be running rampant in business now.

Of the source and the reasons for this Branch fastidiousness, Andy is still unsure. For himself, he has finally understood that, however it may be loved for itself, money is only symbolic, only the means of purchasing something that is not money. To live almost entirely, or entirely, by purchase, as many modern people do, is to equate the worth of every actual thing with its price. The symbol thus comes to limit and control the thing it symbolizes, and like a rust or canker finally consumes it. And so buying and selling for money is not simply a matter of numbers and accounting, but is a dark and fearful mystery.

So I understand the Branches. I agree with a lot of their tenets, and I think a lot of us would be happier if we embraced more of them. I understand knowing who you are and accepting the limits that brings. I just wish Berry weren’t so damn smug about it, particularly when he must’ve wanted something better than tobacco farming or he wouldn’t have gone to Stanford’s creative writing program. Yes, that’s a snotty interpretation on my part, and it’s likely it’s rooted in something other than the text, but the fact is, I never read an Andy Catlett story without feeling scolded by fictional people who have been idealized beyond all credibility.

However, I do think it’s an excellent idea to give rural literature a solid place in the American collection. So, even though it isn’t really my style in tone or content, I’ll appreciate Berry’s work for that.

Pushcart XL: Marianne Boruch, “Mudfest” (Poetry) from American Poetry Review, #43.6

Some kid in the class,
a boy usually. Do we have to, Sister?
And the nun once: no. She turned and slowly no, you don’t
have to do anything
but die
A room’s hush
is a kind of levitation. So the end of a rope frays. So mortality
presses its big thumb into clay early, 6th grade,
St. Eugene’s School, mid-century.
It’s a mudfest, ever after. Free, yay! is what some heard
howbeit the gasp
primal, a descending, an unthinkable click.

Most of us have experienced moments when the world shifts in its orbit, when gravity no longer feels inevitable, when everything looks or sounds or just feels different. It’s usually by accident, and it usually forces upon us some awareness we’ve never before considered – or one we’ve been, consciously or not, avoiding. The same event might not have the same effect on everyone, however. For instance, my mother was sick for most of my remembered childhood, so I don’t really know when I realized she could die. My “oh” moments involved much smaller, absurdly smaller realizations: household dispensers with triple spools for waxed paper, plastic wrap, and tin foil were not issued to everyone at the same time houses were issued (yes, I was an extraordinarily naïve kid, stupid, some might say); the knowledge that all females above a certain age had monthly periods struck me as a huge secret that had been kept from me, and I wondered what other secrets were as yet undiscovered; seeing an attractive friend with an attractive boy I liked pretty much made me realize my crush was in fact an embarrassment, and I should go find someone more suitable. Trivia, really, though the fear of some massive secret everyone but me knows stays with me still.

This poem shares a similar moment in which a boy realizes that his own death is inevitable. Now, that information was probably available to him in scattered particles, but it took the nun’s bald statement to connect the synapses and bring it into focus: you will die. Some day, he might see this as a comfort, but at 12, it’s quite a shock.

But that’s a story; why is this a poem?

That’s a question I ask myself with every poem. If there’s no particular formal structure, no meter or rhyme or repetition, what makes it a poem? It’s a question I still can’t answer. When I read the poem aloud, I have to admit, it does “sound” poetic, but much prose sounds poetic to me. If I were hearing it instead of reading it, or if it were in paragraph form, would I still hear poetry?

Boruch has included a number of interesting elements, in any case. The nun’s motives aren’t clear; is she just tired of the company line (so to speak) or is she being cruel because she’s tired of hearing “Do I have to?” every time she assigns homework? This leads to one of the most beautiful passages of the poem:

Too old, too mean, too tired, too smart, maybe shocked
at her own relish, her bite coming hard.
I’m just saying there are
charms on the bracelet from hell.

I think the world has been relishing too much hell’s charms lately, but it’s still a lovely way of phrasing it. She, too, doesn’t have to.

Some of the boy’s classmates didn’t absorb this lesson; maybe they weren’t quick enough, maybe they weren’t listening, or they only heard a familiar phrase and never gave it much thought, or maybe they reflexively blocked out any contemplation. Some of the kids heard only the beginning: you don’t have to do anything, and took that as permission or a release from all obligations. I wasn’t sure what a mudfest was, to be honest. Turns out it’s exactly what it sounds like: sort of a beach party, except instead of sand and surf there’s mud (and apparently, trucks, lots of trucks). Where a beach party has an upscale feel to it, a mudfest is for the rest of us. If I squint, I can also see playing in mud, covered with wet dirt, as a kind of foreshadowing to burial.

I’m mesmerized by the last lines of the poem, as the boy walks home, feeling “pushed for a time off the anthill”:

As for the other ants, we had our work.
It gleamed like truth is said to, in the dark before us–
grains of edible filth or just
sand and splintered glass. To carry.
Carry it down.

What pushed him off the anthill? His knowledge? The consequences of his violation in asking, “Do we have to?” Is this a kind of Tree of Knowledge, not of good and evil but the results of that violation, the first “you don’t have to” from the serpent? The ants are building an anthill, carrying sand from inside to outside, building a hole in the ground for a nest. A hole in the ground. Whether it’s a mudfest, or an anthill, whether we party away to stay oblivious, or work, all our fun, our work, our achievements, our leisure, our mercies and cruelties, are all in the service of ashes to ashes, dust to dust, earth to earth, and we’ll all end up in the ground.

The repetition in that last line is the poetry, I think. It’s almost a song. In my head I hear: “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight a long time”.

That’s a lot for a sixth grader to take in. I wonder what happened to him. I wonder if he continued to be set apart from his classmates, or if he forgot his violation, the nun’s violation, and joined the mudfest.

Pushcart XL: Dubravka Ugresic, “The Age of Skin” (non-fiction) from Salmagundi, #177

In Slavic languages one doesn’t have two words for the two types of skin that one has in English (skin, leather), German (haut, leder), Dutch (huid, leer), Spanish (piel, cuero), or Italian (pelle, cuoio). Slavs use the same word for the skin that covers one’s body and the leather from which shoes are made. Perhaps this absent difference is a question of civilization-or perhaps even explains the poor man’s fascination with real leather?

As I started reading this piece, I was confused, then annoyed. I don’t understand; what is the topic? The first section started off ranting about the voracity of the publishing industry; the second, quoted above, shifted into a linguistic consideration of “skin”. And I disagreed with the flatness of the statement that English has one word for skin and another for leather; we also have calfskin, lambskin, and snakeskin, among others, for leathers, sharkskin for fabric, skins for apps, scalp for the skin of the head… But I do understand how the distinction is made. Leather is processed skin, as beef is butchered cow meat (somehow lamb and chicken remain the animals they are carved from). I don’t know that it’s a question of civilization as much as of squeamishness and denial. I was in my 40s before I realized the contradiction of a vegan wearing leather shoes. But all this is picking at details; back to the article.

I remained confused throughout, as it skipped around from one skin-related topic to another. Lenin, and mummification. Obesity as fleshy excess. Organ theft. Popular culture that romanticizes Hannibal Lecter and Dracula. Tattoos. Skin art.

Peter van der Helm, the owner of an Amsterdam tattoo parlor, has figured out a way to monetize the skin of the dead. Around thirty of van der Helm’s clients have bequeathed their inked skin to his company “Walls and Skin.” In the hope that their skin may one day adorn an art collector’s walls, each client has even paid a few hundred euro to be involved in the project. When they die a pathologist will remove the skin bearing a designated tattoo, before sending it on to a laboratory for processing. “Everyone spends their lives in search of immortality and this is a simple way to get a piece of it,” said van der Helm.

By the time I finished the article – which is relatively short, by the way, and has been translated from the original Croatian – I despaired of writing about it. What could I say, it was a jumbled and random collection of observations about skin? And, by the way, that completely ignores the elephant in the room, the color of skin. Is that because I am so blindingly Americocentric, and in Ugresic’s native Yugoslavia (she now lives in Amsterdam) people found different, though just as ridiculous, reasons to hate each other?

But in one of those bizarre twists of human psychology, while I was doing other things and relegated Pushcart and blog posts to the inactive memory locations of my brain, it started to make sense. It happens that way, sometimes: understanding requires background percolation. Somehow connections formed, and I started to see: our human integument, what covers us as a single species, what unites us and holds us together, is beginning to fray. Everything in the essay is merely a sign, a symptom.

Many postcommunist transitional societies have turned their citizens into zombies. As Dutch king Willem-Alexander put it, in the twenty-first century we await the “society of participation.” “Self-management” is probably what linguistically inventive followers of contemporary trends would say. Both “participation” and “self-management” are euphemisms for a message that is as sharp as a scalpel: today, the individual has been reduced to his or her bare skin.

Yes, we live in the age of skin. Our age-the corpse to which we are pressed – isn’t in the greatest shape. The corpse’s skin grows darker, new purple blotches surfacing, the cranium, from which the brain has been extracted, has shattered and taken the skin with it, threatening dark pigment spreading everywhere, the nails turned completely blue. We exhaust ourselves, there is never enough balsam, we cover the dead spots with liquid foundation, and our bodies too. There’s an odor spreading everywhere, seeping into our clothes, our hair, our lungs, there’s nothing that will get it out.

From preserving tattoos after death, to skin care regimens that cost more than the allotted food stamp budget for a family, to covering ourselves in other species’ skins (not to mention SUVs and Hummers on the road), we are feeling threatened. From the novels that insist we must kill another to survive, to rich people paying the poor for their organs, to fat-hatred (there’s a heartbreaking snapshot of one train rider complaining that another rider is fat and assuming, erroneously of course, that’s a sign of wealth), we devalue each other. For some reason, we can’t see that one creates the other.

The Golden Rule was not a Christian invention; for one thing, it was taken from the Hebrew scriptures, and for another, virtually every religion has some version of “love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s one of those things that’s really hard to put into practice, however, especially when we’re scared and feel as though our very skin is threatened. But it’s perhaps our best bet at protection. And, in another bizarre twist of human psychology, we seem unable to learn that.

Granted, I may have missed the entire point; I’m no expert here. I just react to what I read. Frankly, Ugresic’s essay, read at a time when hate seems to be conquering everything in its path, depressed me thoroughly. Maybe I’m just looking for some glimmer of light, in a very dark room.

Pushcart XL: Kurt Brown, “Snapshot” (poetry) from Tiger Bark Press

Photo by Eugene de Salignac (1914)

Photo by Eugene de Salignac (1914)

Ten men on a postcard             clinging to the cables
of Brooklyn Bridge             they look             one can’t help it
like insects glued to the struts of some unspeakable web

I found so much in this poem, both breadth and depth, language and emotion; so I thought, this must be what good poetry does, brings it all together like this. Then again, I’m a poetic neophyte, not a scholar, so I may have missed the most fundamental point. Does it matter? Can I love a poem for all the wrong reasons?

I’m assuming the image referred to in the poem is Eugene de Salignac’s 1914 photo of painters on the Brooklyn Bridge, shown above. I think of the photo as part of the poem, so I’ll start there: these men are painters, so why are they wearing suits? Is that typical for workers of the time (other photos show other painters also in suits), or did they dress up in their Sunday best for a posed photograph? Were they nervous, hanging on the cables like that? What did they tell their families that night?

Of course, all of those painters would be dead now. Kurt Brown is dead now, as well, adding another layer to the poem. Did he know, at the time he wrote this single line, italicized set off from the couplets, repeated twice in this poem:

what matters is that we have been here at all

So this hovers over any reading of the poem. But there is still the poem itself. I’m on a subject/object kick these days, so forgive me if I’m extending that into an area in which it has no business (and one in which I am no expert, but only an interested inquirer), but it seems to me the subject shifts constantly: from the painters, to the bridge, to the water below, to the readers’ contemplation of self through the metaphor of flies stuck on flypaper, the image of people from the past who are no longer, and what matters is that we have been here at all, finally leaving us at the end with:

so they say           but what does the wind say
after the men are gone           blowing through those empty cables

Shifting subjectivity: to the wind and the cables, and the very gone-ness of the men. It takes a minute to read the lines, to get the connection straight around the insert. Does the wind say anything? Does it remember, or does it just blow anew each day, each minute, through the empty cables that remain?

The visual of the text plays with subjectivity as well. I see again the first stanza, phrases separated by gaps, the lines of poetry like the cables of the bridge, the gaps perhaps the spaces where the men, now gone, are. What is not there is central to the poem. And again, given Brown’s death – still in the thick of an illustrious career, yet at about 70, neither much too young nor anywhere near old enough to die – becomes the subject. Absence as presence.

By the way: if you tilt your head to the left as you look at the photo, you might notice the men are arranged in the general shape of a question mark. I wonder if that was by accident…

In addition to the italicization of the line mentioned above, a phrase in the first stanza, quoted above, is so marked. How does it read? “They look             one can’t help it / Like insects….” Is the “one” who can’t help it, is this “one” the general reader, “one” as the indefinite subject, this impersonal voice – that is, as we look, we can’t help but think of – or is one of the painters the pronoun referent – one of the painters, who can’t help but look – but, look at what? At the gap between him and the ground? At the camera, and thus the viewer? Can both be subjects at the same time? Does this ambiguity connect us, the readers as subjects, with the painters as subject, through the lens of de Salignac’s camera, and the lens of Brown’s poem?

Focus keeps shifting in the poem, as the focus of de Salignac’s camera shifted over his career, from bridges to trains to buildings to the people who work on them, work in them, use them, live in them. In the poem there’s a shift from these painters, this specific scene, to the more metaphorical sense of us all hanging on cables over an abyss (one can’t help but think of it), to the abyss itself, and then, unintentionally, perhaps, just because of circumstances, back to the poet. The subject, all-encompassing.

Empty cables. Absence as presence.