Pushcart XLI: Emma Duffy-Comparone, “The Devil’s Triangle” from New England Review, 36.4

Her parents always said they’d dig their own graves if anything happened to their children, so when her sister Claire disappeared on a camping trip in the White Mountains, Elsie kept an eye on things. She brought them groceries. Made mushroom risottos and bean enchiladas and coconut lentil soups and made her father sit at the table until he ate three bites. Took her mother to cafés downtown to drink cappuccino and play honeymoon whist. Signed her father up for beach yoga and dragged him to the ocean at sunrise with bamboo mats. Researched imaginal psychotherapy and psychodynamic insight therapy and expressive therapy and brief solution focused therapy and called psychologists and psychiatrists and support groups and chauffeured her mother to initial consultations. “I don’t need some Wellesley cunt taking notes while I play in a sandbox,” her mother would say, sinking into Elsie’s Volkswagen, clenching her purse, and Elsie would drive home and call someone else.
It had been a year of that. Still they knew nothing, and Elsie lived in that nothing, roaming the endless corridors of it, the silence unspeakable and huge.

We all grieve in our own ways, and here we watch three members of this family carve their own paths. The grief is doubly painful because Claire disappeared without a trace. If burying a child is agony, what circle of hell is not knowing?

Mom fades from the story as the focus turns to sisters Elsie and Mika. They have the extra twist of the knife as well: they’re triplets. What do you call triplets with a missing member, fate undetermined? That very question comes up and further contrasts the paths the two remaining sisters are taking through pain.

The three were living together in a house before Claire’s disappearance. After, Mika sublet her room and headed for Florida to party until she couldn’t feel it any more. The story follows Elsie, the soul of responsibility, on her trip down there, but it’s really about their differences, interactions, and what we do to survive the unsurvivable. I found the story well-designed, with a guinea pig that manages to stay just this side of maudlin and a yacht party with a variety of meaningful interactions about moving on – from bad relationships, from dead relationships, from nowhere.

The party turns nasty, but maybe indicates a kind of hitting-bottom; if either can plant her feet on the ocean floor, she might be able to break the waves and breathe. But we’re left not knowing, the only way to end the story.

This is the second story I’ve seen from Duffy-Comparone; the first, “The Zen Thing” from One Story, and the first story in Pushcart 2015, was also an intricately-tangled family tale.

Pushcart XLI: Sea Sharp, “The Tallgrass Shuffles” (poem) from Storm Cellar 4.2

Cover art from Sharp's recent collection

Cover art from Sharp’s recent collection

last night the wind said
be careful girl the
moon be watching
said keep your fingers
out the mud keep your tongue
in your head said the moon
is watching you said she’ll pull
you apart like the tide
when your time comes girl
Complete poem available online from Storm Cellar

One of the many benefits I get from reading Pushcart is that I “meet” so many interesting writers through their work. So far, I’ve been most intrigued by poet/math tutor Dominica Phetterplace, by the late Steinbjørn B. Jacobsen from the Faroe Islands, and now by Sea Sharp, intersectional “refugee of Kansas” now living in England.

I had a strong sense of the oppression of this poem on first read. I thought of Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” with all the commandments and blame and implied terror of the world, the need to step very carefully even though you see others dance and dream and you can’t understand why you’re different. The moon imagery brought two things to mind: the moon is strongly associated with the feminine, and the moon sits up there in the sky above us all glowing white. I thought I had to choose. It wasn’t until I read Sharp’s website that I realized I didn’t, that the two conceits could coexist, and that’s the point.

However, it wasn’t until I read about her recently published poetry collection, The Swagger of Dorothy Gale & Other Filthy Ways to Strut that this poem came into focus for me. Now, I admit, I have no idea if this is one of the poems in the volume, but it has to be, it just must: Dorothy being chased down that Yellow Brick Road by a cautionary wind and a scolding, judging moon that has nothing to do with any wizard. Shuffling? Forget that; not this Dorothy Gale, no matter what the wind says.

Another great aspect of Pushcart is that I see some literary journals I otherwise wouldn’t. Storm Cellar calls itself “a literary journal of safety and danger” which, too, fits this poem. Focusing on, but not exclusive to, the Midwest, they look for “authors and artists who are under-represented in the Anglophone literary world. We want everybody to get weird and enlightened and learn and fall in love and have superpowers.” My wish list.


Course: Dinosaur Ecosystems

Length: 6 weeks
School/platform: Hong Kong University/edX
Instructors: Dr. Michael Pittman, Prof. Xu Xing

Using the Late Cretaceous fossil site of Erlian, China as an example, we bring you to the Gobi desert, as well as leading international museums and institutions to find out how we reconstruct dinosaur ecosystems.
This biology and life science course will focus on the knowledge we can gain from studying animals and plants. You will learn about a dinosaur’s biology including their appearance, classification and diet. We will take a close look at the mostly meat eating theropod dinosaurs, as well as the main plant eating dinosaurs, the sauropodomorphs and ornithischians. At the end of the course, you will learn how palaeontologists use fossil and modern evidence to reconstruct dinosaurs and their ecosystems.

I love the folks at HKU. I’m still studying ancient Chinese philosophy, and China in general, because of their Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought mooc; their Twitter account ranges from interesting to seriously amusing; and they really put a lot of work into their moocs. I mean, just the course logo required several revisions to make sure the dinosaur neck would “align with archaeological findings”. Staff did a great job covering the discussion forums, offering information and resources along the way.

Problem is… I just don’t care at all about dinosaurs.

I thought I’d give this course a try anyway. Given the teasers they were sending out, and my general affection for them, I thought maybe I’d change my mind. I didn’t, but that’s not their fault. The lectures were clear, beautifully illustrated (many of the drawings were by award-winning paleoartist Julius Csotonyi), and varied: some involved sifting through sands at the Gobi Desert, others hunting through back-room storage facilities of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and they even took a trip to Glen Rose, Texas to check out fossilized dinosaur tracks.

The instructors were impressive. While the course was running, instructor Prof. Pittman made some news himself for his research into laser-stimulated fluorescence on fossils to reveal more detailed information than ever available about soft-tissue distribution – news Chelsea Clinton noticed, by the way. And Prof. Xu had previously discovered a new species, Gigantoraptor, among collected fossils from Erlian. They were joined by several other scientists during the course, some in the field, others in classrooms, museums, and labs.

The first four weeks reminded me of the catalogs found in Whitman’s poetry. I love Whitman, but by the time he lists every resident or occupation or flower the mood is lost. Much of the time, the lectures felt like a list of features of various critters, and I didn’t have the background to understand how anything related to anything else. So while it’s great to know that ornithominids and Alectrosaurus have arctometatarsalian feet that help them run faster, I’m not sure how those guys relate to therapods or ornithischians.

In other words, I really needed to create an overal taxonomy, but when I went looking for one, I found lots of conflicting information so I never got there. (addendum: during the last days of the course, I noticed a poster with a taxonomic layout was stored in a section of the course I hadn’t visited; I don’t know if it was there all along, but it’s exactly what I was looking for). I also should have made a chart for all the critters, with information about size, earliest and latest fossils, eating habits, etc. etc., but I didn’t do that either. I didn’t put enough effort into making the course meaningful to me, and that’s my fault. I feel like I let down the graphic designers who put so much work into a scientifically accurate logo.

The weekly graded quizzes relied on information-retrieval questions, so even with my cursory effort and primitive understanding I managed to do quite well grade-wise. I would think creative questions would be a natural for a course like this, more along the lines of “It’s 180 million years ago, the treetops are shredded, who am I?” But that might be a lot to ask for an introductory-level course offered to people from all educational backgrounds.

As I write this post, I’m beginning to see that I did pick up more than I’d realized from the course, and greatly enjoyed many aspects of it (which is one reason I write these posts). HKU has a great overview of the course that’s more reliable than my mumblings. Those who really like dinosaurs and have some idea of who’s what would probably find it packed with detailed information that helps determine what life was like for these guys; the forums were full of praise at the end of the course. Oddly, my favorite lecture was about foraminifera, teeny tiny marine animals unrelated to dinosaurs. Go figure. I also greatly enjoyed the sections on bone histology in the last week. I’d have to say the last two weeks were my favorite part of the course, in fact; they were less of a catalog of this-dinosaur-has-this-kind-of-teeth-and-that-dinosaur-has-a-beak.

Of course, the idea of dinosaur beaks is pretty cool in itself. Fun fact: Tyrannosaurus Rex had feathers. Or, at least, feather-like structures covering its skin. Want to amaze your friends? Tell them birds are dinosaurs. Which, by the way, they are, but only a scientist will believe you. A friend of mine (Hi, Lisa) just made a joke about the dinosaur-noodle soup she had the other night, and one of the clever tweets the course made, sent during Chinese New Year festivities, was a video about the Year of the Dinosaur (which most people are calling the Year of the Rooster).

About once a decade, I check to see if I still can’t play the guitar (I could when I was 16, but I seem to have lost it shortly thereafter), and more often I try to do some kind of visual art to see if I’ve suddenly developed some artistic sense (I haven’t). It was worth a try to see if I could get interested in dinosaurs, and if anyone could lure me in, it would’ve been these guys. I guess it’s just not to be. Foraminifera, maybe…

Pushcart XLI: Cate Hennessey, “Beets” (nonfiction) from Fourth Genre 17.2

I have three seed catalogs on my kitchen table this morning, all of which arrived just after the new year. The furnace is having a hard time—3 degrees at 7 a.m.—and it’s trying mightily but not warming the rooms above 60 degrees. So here I sit, wrapped in sweaters and slippers and scarves, listening to the soft hiss of the gas burner as it heats the kettle. Dogs breathe sleep on their blankets. The sky is blue and cloudless outside, crackling bright, stark beautiful. Four months until anything can go in the soil. We gardeners are a hopeful lot.

Oh, the lure of seed catalogs: beautiful flowers, vegetables you want to eat right off the page. Who could resist? But so much doesn’t show up in those pictures: the dirt, the bugs, the weather that won’t cooperate, the animals searching for a meal, the seeds that never sprout, the sprouts that never bloom, the fruits that warp or bubble or shrivel. I tried it once. Literally, once. I grew some sweet peas, not for the produce but for the flowers, germinating the seeds on my windowsill then transplanting them to containers in the sun. Lovely and sweet-smelling, if sparse, they attracted bees from miles around. Then there were the three cherry tomatoes that made it into a single salad. I’m a city girl; I’ll stick to the supermarket.

But I understand the impulse. What is a seed but hope? This tiny, ordinary thing, stuck into the dirt beneath our feet, will somehow turn into something growing and alive, something to nourish body and/or soul. Forget the thing with feathers; the speck in your hand, that’s hope right there. But that isn’t all a seed needs: an element of luck is required, too, or your perfectly-timed planting can be derailed by a late frost or an early heat wave. Or something more catastrophic.

Hennessey creates a nice progression as she moves from beets and seeds to hope and its unavoidable partner, luck, from her diningroom table and her catalogs to her grandparents, who knew more about planting beets when they were children than she’ll ever know.

That most hobby gardeners need to learn how to store beets, that I need to learn how to store beets, kills me. Busia and her sisters and rural Poland would have known this by age 8, maybe earlier. Would they have had names for different varieties of beets? Or was only one kind of beets grown in sub-Carpathian Poland between the world wars? I don’t know; the people I want to ask are all dead.

So often, by the time we know the questions we need to ask, the people who know the answers are dead. But they leave something behind, of only the desire to find out.

Hennessey’s grandparents met in the camps, and survived. Here she pays a tribute to luck, but recognizes its limitations and honors those not so blessed:

If there is redemption from war, it is in them….
Of course that I am here at all is a direct consequence of the war that threw my grandparents together. But there were millions and millions for whom the family story ends only in death, given not even the strange and eternal gift of trauma. A future woman looking at the bird feeder becomes impossible. So I am back to lucky. The millions dead quite outweigh the scribbling, this moment at the table in which the snow lies still and the trees flutter with birds.

We then close the circle and go back to beets and seeds, the catalog and the kitchen, but it has a new feel to it now, an element that we’d not seen before. There’s a history there, and the seeds mean more, the purples and reds are more vibrant because we know how it came to be that the catalogs span the table. That’s what history does, especially the intimate history of families and individuals: it adds undertones to what would otherwise be ordinary.

And by the way, I’m craving roasted beets right now, tossed with a splash of orange juice and sprinkled with a little nutmeg and salt.

Pushcart XLI: Alex Dimitrov, “Cocaine” (poem) from The Adroit Journal #13

People disappear.
And go looking for a place to be looked at.
All the way down Wilshire and above us: like a sheet of indigo tile.
As we waited, our nicotine glowed in the distance like flies
to some heaven, some high road.
“Who sat on mountaintops in cars reading books aloud to the canyons?”
Like gods and at home being extras at best.

Complete poem available online at The Adroit Journal

I give up. Doesn’t happen often – I can usually find something to grab onto in any poem, essay, or story, even if I don’t really understand what’s going on – but here, I found myself at a complete loss after many readings, whispered, shouted, silent. Even after I found an interview with the poet in which he explicitly discusses the origins of the poem – two trips to LA, passing down the same block of Wilshire a year apart – I still don’t follow. I’m feeling pretty stupid right now, particularly since it was nominated by three poets in addition to the journal itself, so its meaning and excellence are clearly evident to those who know what to look for – and I’m missing it entirely. Guidance welcomed.

Pushcart XLI: Liz Ziemska, “The Mushroom Queen” from Tin House #63

For about an hour now she’s been thinking about the two races of man. One race is very, very slow; they crawl upon the earth like slugs, leaving silvery slime trails wherever they go. The other is very, very fast, about as fast as electrons, and when they pass by they leave a radiant residue, though you can never be sure if you’ve actually seen them, or if there’s a smudge on your glasses picking up the light in a funny way. The two races live side by side, completely unaware of each other, sucking on the same earth.
But on the night of the fool moon, a special moon that occurs once per decade—or every 9.3 years, to be exact—when the moonrise lag is equal to the moonset lag, causing great upheavals of the deep, cold waters of the Pacific Ocean, the slow race can sometimes catch up to the fast race.
All of this is just nonsense, of course. It’s the duration that’s the important part here. Nine-point-three years is a long time to be married.

Most of the philosophy moocs I’ve been taking over the last few years (including the one I just posted about) tackle issues related to “the hard problem of consciousness.” One of the foundational papers looking at the mind-body problem – are they the same? Is the mind physical, metaphysical, functional? – is Thomas Nagel’s “What is it Like to Be a Bat?” His conclusion: we can’t know.

That may be the case, but in this story a woman finds out what it’s like to be a fungus, while at the same time, a fungus finds out what it is to be human. And they relate their experiences quite convincingly.

The Mushroom Queen was tired of living underground. She can assume any form. Her skin is nicer than human skin, firm and white, and it has no pores, only spores, because mushrooms are self-propagating, which can get pretty lonely. So she deposed herself and came to the woman’s house from the east, traveling west along the shore of a wide green river, over the Appalachians, beneath the Great Lakes, flowing right across the vast midwestern plains. She was born over a century ago in the unkempt garden of a red-brick house that was once a home, then a nursery, then a nunnery, and is now again a home. That is where our woman arrives now, sucked across the country and extruded from the ground beneath a trellis of tangled vines that sprout purple flowers in the summer. They have switched places, the discontent of one calling to the desire of the other. Nature abhors a vacuum.

I did my usual googling around on the story, and discovered an interesting tweet by the author linking to a BBC article titled “Plants have a hidden internet.” And another find: slime molds have solved mazes, and traced subway and road systems. Consciousness is typically associated with attention and volition. Communicating needs and deciding pathways seem to require these things. So is this consciousness? Is it intelligence?

I’m pretty skeptical about such things. Consider: molecules called phospholipids come together to form cell membranes, not from any life force or desire, but simply because their polar heads and non-polar tails align as a circular bilayer due to electromagnetic attraction and repulsion. Consider also the “suicide” of infected/cancerous cells: they present indicators of their condition, thus marking themselves for destruction by cytotoxic T cells looking for those indicators. We might think, what noble cells, sacrificing themselves for the good of the organism! But the MHC receptors that perform this act of heroism evolved at some point on cells, and organisms with them had an evolutionary advantage over those without. It’s not always that easy to tell the difference between will and simply obeying the laws of physics.

Then again (I’ve always said every issue has at least five sides), theoretical physicist Max Tegman recently proposed that consciousness is a state of matter, similar to liquid or gas, called perceptronium. What is the origin of electromagnetic forces, gravity, and such? Could matter, at the sub-sub-atomic scale, have something akin to perception and preference?

I love a story that teaches me something, and even more if it lets me take a sidetour… But back to the story. The woman-as-fungus presents clear evidence of all the characteristics of consciousness even as she transforms into the mycelium beneath the surface of the world: information processing, a sense of wholeness, even a sense of embodiment.

In her newly dematerialized state, she is simultaneously nowhere and everywhere. But this is just an illusion, a temporary form of vertigo brought on by the sudden vastness of her being. In reality, she covers a little less than three square acres, one edge dangling in the cool green waters of the Hudson, the other pushed up against the crumbling blacktop of Route 9. A red-brick house squats on her chest like a poorly digested meal. There’s a maple tree growing out of her forehead, its flame-colored leaves the color of her panic.

The Mushroom Queen, her double now leading her old life as a human woman, has her own problems. She’d rather be eating the compost heap than the nice Brie her husband puts on the table (the rind is a distant cousin, after all). She finds it difficult to talk. Bathing in water makes her feel dirty, so she rolls around in the dirt to clean up afterwards. And there’s a growing sense of decay in the life she’s taken over, as the walls grow green slime and the dogs don’t get walked any more.

The dogs play a sort of Greek chorus in all this, acting out their own little dramas in different ways. Jill Schepmann of The Rumpus characterizes one of them perfectly as “the snarkiest little brown dog ever.” Even a little brown dog knows the dangers of desire – and yet can’t resist.

The very first paragraph bothered me, I’ll admit, for the most ridiculous of reasons: I happen to hate the “the woman/the man/the boy” construction. There’s nothing wrong with the usage; it’s useful for stories where names won’t be used, and here, with the duality of The Woman and The Mushroom Queen, it’s particularly appropriate, but we all have our little tics. It sent me into hypercritical mode, mentally rewriting “There’s a small brown dog nestled…” to “A small brown dog nestles…”, thanks to another tic around the “there was” construction (trauma from a long-ago writing class … deep breath… but that’s no excuse). Pretty arrogant of me, considering this story was already edited by the author, then again by Tin House, before being selected for not one but two prestigious prize collections (it can also be found in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017). The fool moon made up for it, and from there I was quite happy, not thinking about such nonsense again.

The narration switches modes as needed. In general it’s close 3rd person, flitting between various POV characters as they tell their own sides of the story. But it zooms out briefly to omniscient to bring up the real-world science, and then again at the very end to … well, I’ll leave that for the readers to discover. I consider the end a bit ambiguous, with two general ways it could go, but I choose to believe in the nestling of the small brown dog.

I notice this story was nominated by the original publisherTin House, of course, and by Ayşe Papatya Bucak, whose “Iconography” from the 2014 Pushcart I loved. I can see a similarity, not in the stories, but in the willingness to go beyond the literal, and to write serious stories with just a little twinkle in the eye.

Questioning Reality MOOC

Course: Question Reality! Science, philosophy, and the search for meaning
Length: 6 weeks, 2-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Dartmouth/edX
Instructors: Marcelo Gleiser

How much can we know of the physical world? Can we know everything? Or are there fundamental limits to how much we can explain? If there are limits, to what extent can we explain the nature of physical reality? RealityX investigates the limits of knowledge and what we can and cannot know of the world and ourselves.
We will trace the evolution of ideas about the nature of reality in philosophy and the natural sciences through the ages. Starting with the philosophers of Ancient Greece and ending with cutting edge theories about the universe, quantum physics, and the nature of consciousness.

Current events have a lot of us questioning reality these days. Different type of questions, though. The main questions in this course are outlined above: how do we know things, and how much is it possible for us to ever know? The course combines philosophical and scientific explorations, and proceeds chronologically from the pre-Socratics to the Renaissance to Einstein to the present day. Prof. Gleiser is a theoretical physicist specializing in particle cosmology, and the course roughly follows his book The Island of Knowledge, written for the general science reader.

I’ve taken three or four of these science/philosophy courses, and each time I get a little more comfortable. This one is pretty introductory, and it hits all the “ooooh, cool” spots (How would we know if we’re brains in vats? Why should we care about Schrodinger’s cats?) without requiring reading anything beyond Gleisner’s NPR blog articles. I have to say I found his explanation of electron orbits to be the most helpful one I’ve encountered, though it’s possible I’m just now at the point where I’m ready to start understanding things like what standing waves have to do with quantum theory.

Each week started with a great feature: an ungraded What Do You Know pretest, full of questions that range from factual (T/F: Violet light has more energy than red light) to conceptual opinion (Agree/disagree: Mathematics is something we invent; Reality only exists in our minds). These questions are repeated at the end of the week, offering concrete evidence that something was, indeed, learned, even if only a better definition of “reality”. Material also included a video lecture and several interviews with other philosophers and scientists on the topics covered. A few graded multiple-choice questions were scattered through the material, along with several short written assignments in the form of posts, journal entries, and short self-graded essays. A Reddit AMA with Prof. Gleiser finished off the week.

The discussion forums were active and I got into some excellent discussions along the way. I also enjoyed a project from the first week: understanding a pendulum’s motion. Now, I took the easy route and used the available online pendulum simulator, because I’m a klutz, but it was an interesting way to play around with the topic of observation and experiment.

I found myself often confused by the logistics of the course, so I just plugged away at whatever looked interesting, be it posting on a discussion or self-grading an essay or answering questions (though I never did find the Learning Journal). I say that a lot, don’t I. In this case, the multiple evaluation options were complicated by a bilingual approach: the course was offered in Portuguese as well as English, with all written material in both languages so everything appeared twice. I wholeheartedly support broadening the appeal to include more people worldwide, and I would rather deal with my befuddlement than restrict the audience. It’s a tough problem, and I applaud them for taking it on. I got used to the double-entries after just a few weeks; if more courses took this approach, we’d all get used to it, and it’s a small price to pay for inclusion of those who would otherwise be unable to participate.

One of the great discoveries for me in the course was another book, mentioned in Week 3: Steven Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern . I’ve only gone through 80 pages, but it’s wonderful: Poggio, Medieval Book-Raider, goes among the monks to rediscover Lucretius and atomism as Europe turned towards renaissance. Manuscripts, history, philosophy, science, the classics, all packaged in a wonderfully told story: who could ask for more.

Pushcart XLI: David Tomas Martinez, “Consider Oedipus’ Father” (poem) from Poetry, June 2015

It could have been a car door
                leaving that bruise,
as any mom knows,
almost anything could take an eye out,
and almost anybody could get their tongue
                frozen to a pole,
which is kind of funny
                to the point of tears
                plus a knee slap or two
that an eye can be made blue, pink
by a baby’s fist, it fits
perfectly in the socket. It’s happened to me.
                Get it?

Complete poem available online at Poetry

A brutal poem, but in vocabulary, it’s also a very subtle poem, as subtle as the excuses the abused tell for their injuries. Lots of words of injury in innocuous contexts: tears, slap, sock-et, and hands, lots of hands.

My favorite line is almost comic: “For me, a woman’s tears / are IKEA instructions / on the European side.” I’m not sure what’s so hard to figue out, but I guess I’m the wrong one to ask.

I found myself uncomfortable as I read, at least until it gets into more analytical territory:

I’m sure for Laius, Oedipus’s father, it was the same.
                Think of him sleeping
after having held a crying Jocasta
because they had fought for hours
because she was stronger.
                Who knew better the anger of young Jocasta?
Knew that when the oracle, or the police,
                come, they are taking someone with them.
I’m sure Laius looked at the crib
                and thought better you
than me, kid

I’m not sure I understand the reference to Jocasta’s strength. Though she had nothing to do with Laius’ sins that brought on his curse, I always thought of her as a full participant in the abandonment of the baby Oedipus. I’ll give her mixed feelings, that she might be devastated as she pierced his ankles. I do love that sense of Laius trying to weasel his way out of another scrape. Excuses. Always excuses. The man gets the title; the woman gets the blame, the woman and her tears, her strength, damn her.

I had a hard time getting a grip on this one. That doesn’t mean it didn’t hit squarely on point, just that I’m not able to come up with much, or am not willing to publicly come up with much. It might be one of those things you get or you don’t.

Pushcart XLI: Doug Crandell, “Winter Wheat” (non-fiction) from The Sun #469

That fall my brothers and I would be sowing the fields on our own for the first time. Dad was working extra shifts at the ceiling-tile factory with the threat of layoffs ever present. One night he sat us down and said, “Wheat’ll be yours to get in the ground. Work together.” That was it. Derrick was eighteen, Darren was almost fourteen, and I was ten and proud to be included. “Questions?” Dad said. He was so spare with words that every one he did speak seemed significant. He looked at us, his eyes like round black stones. I envied the manly hair on his arms.

Complete story available online at The Sun

Doug Crandell seems like someone I’d like to know. The internet tells me his day job with the University of Georgia involves working with employers to reduce barriers to employment for the disabled. He’s also found the time to write five books with some of the most compelling titles I’ve seen, things like The Flawless Skin of Ugly People and Hairdos of the Mildly Depressed. Of his memoir The All-American Industrial Motel, Publishers Weekly says: “Throughout, Crandell struggles with the idea of what makes a man: is it working with your hands? Can a real man make a living off words? And, perhaps most importantly, how do men comfort one another in times of grief?”

Those are the same questions that permeate this essay, which I presume is also a memoir of one season when Crandell was ten years old. A stranger came to town: a man with a different way of being a man. A man who looked a little like a hippie or something, with his long hair and his beard. A man who held his baby because, well, it was his baby, why shouldn’t he hold it? A man who hugged and sang and played music while working – hard work, farm work planting winter wheat, 80 acres of it – and made work fun. A man who treated three young neighbors like friends and paid kindness for kindness. A man who left a space when he was no longer there.

I had the bad luck to read this while wasting a spare quarter hour in a coffee shop, and even though the story went exactly where I knew it was going to go from the bottom of the first page, I was glad I had extra napkins to wipe away the tears. Is it a sappy story, yes. Is it a new story, no. But it’s well-told, and there is a twist of sorts: the boys’ father is the centerpiece. He holds his first reactions of uncertainty and disapproval in abeyance, but, in the end, one honorable man recognizes another, and three boys learn that honor comes in different shapes and sizes.

In his Introduction, Bill Henderson named Wendell Berry as his muse for this year’s volume. This piece fits perfectly with that intent.

Pushcart XLI: Martin Espada, “The Beating Heart of the Wristwatch” (poem) from Purple Passion Press

My father worked as a mechanic in the Air Force,
the engines of planes howling in his ears all day.
One morning the wristwatch his father gave him was gone.
The next day, he saw another soldier wearing the watch.

Complete poem available online at The Progressive

In the age of cell phones and digital watches, have we lost the sense of time tick-tocking away? Maybe that’s overly romanticized, but I think there’s something about those regular clicks that subconsciously reminds us of time slipping away, maybe for the good, maybe for the bad. I wasn’t quite expecting the turn this poem gave to the ticking of a wristwatch, however: as a son’s reminder of his father’s heart, a perpetual keepsake that survives the loss of a parent.

The poem features at least three father-son pairs: the speaker’s father and his father; the speaker and his father; and the watch thief and his son. Quite possibly, the watch thief’s father is implied there as well. I wasn’t aware of the watch as a masculine symbol of one’s father, but why not. It could be, as well, that the symbolism is unique to the speaker, and he’s merely projecting it onto others, assuming they feel as he does.

When he died, I stole my father’s wristwatch.
I listened to the beating heart of the watch.
The heart of the watch kept beating long after
my father’s heart stopped beating. Somewhere,
the son of the man who stole my father’s wristwatch
in the Air Force holds the watch to his ear and listens
to the heart of the watch beating. He keeps the watch
in a sacred place where no one else will hear it.

The second stanza starts in what I consider a very confusing way: if the father’s watch was stolen years before, is this a replacement watch? Why would he have to steal it, and from whom? There must be a reason the poet chose to write it this way, so I tried to see it in different ways: maybe we’ve changed speakers, it’s the son of the watch thief – but no, he’s referenced later in the stanza. Maybe I’m just getting tangled up in minutiae. But it stopped me, and it’s an odd place to stop.

The repetition of phrases – “the beating heart of the watch. The heart of the watch kept beating…” does have a rhythmic presence. I also felt the last line of the poem – ” We listen for the heartbeat and hear the howling” – had a lot of rhythmic howling in the repeated “h” sounds, linking back to the howling of the jet engines and the howling night the father got drunk in the first stanza.

I find it kind of surprising, given the subject, that the poem doesn’t have a more obvious rhythmic structure. Maybe it does, and I just don’t have the ear to pick it up; maybe it’s meant as contrast.

I’m a big fan of the digital world, from the computer I’m typing this on right now, to, yes, the cheap no-wind watches that helps us catch the trains on time. I’m not sure if such things even last the decades needed to become associated with one wrist. If they do, I’m sure a son would treasure it passed down from his father. But he won’t know its beating heart. Does that matter?

Pushcart XLI: Vladislava Kolosova, “Taxidermy” from Ploughshares, Summer 2015

Inside, a stuffed lynx stood on its hind legs, holding the Russian flag. I followed the music somewhere from inside the house, the furry white carpet drowning the sound of my heels. A stuffed Labrador. A stuffed gazelle. Eva and Husband were in one of the living rooms on the first floor, arguing. I stayed in the hall, pretending to admire the minimalist art in ornate, gilded frames. A giant slab of marble leaned on the wall. Engraved on it, Husband was standing with his legs apart, wearing a suit and looking all business. He wore a heavy gold chain instead of a tie, and a massive watch. Both were worked in gold. Whoever made it even took the effort to engrave “Rolex” in tiny, tiny letters. In the background: the black gelding and Eva in a short, tight dress. The thing must’ve weighed half a ton.

Russian student works her way through college via the oldest profession. I was a little disoriented at first, took me a while to figure out Russia since all hooker stories are basically alike. The jokes serve the function of distancing: “I couldn’t really imagine how people coordinated 12 limbs and three genitals…..It’s basically like twister.” It’s hard to break through the “commoner wiser than noble fools” trope, let alone the “hooker you like more than the john” trope.There’s a flashback that I could’ve done without, because the imagery in the present of the story is pretty compelling. I wonder if this would be better as a flash, in fact. But it’s got humor and pathos and we understand the characters as much as anyone can understand people like these in a place like that.

Symbolism of death permeates the story, maybe a little too much. The ending reminds me a little of Karen Russell’s “The Prospectors” from BASS 2016, except those dead people were both innocent victims of an accident, and physically dead.

Those marble slabs started to appear at graveyards a couple of years ago. They were multiple times as tall as any tombstone before, engraved with life-size men, often armed. Long golden epitaphs, short lifespans.

Life isn’t easy in the Russian Mafia. You get rich, and often you get dead, so you have your tombstone ready to go. Live fast, leave a good-looking, and rich, corpse. And yes, these tombstones are real. These are living, breathing dead, more dead than the stuffed wildlife, patting themselves on the back. Maybe their options really are that limited, but there’s at least one hooker who isn’t having it. I can see why the current American administration, people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, is in bed with them. Too bad they don’t have the sense of the hooker.

Pushcart XLI: Adrian Matejka, “The Antique Blacks” (poetry) from Copper Nickel #2

– For Sun Ra, Richard Pryor, Guion S. Bluford & the 13 other black astronauts who made it to outer space


In Richard Pryor’s origin myth of black
size, the two most magnanimous black men
in the world are peeing off the 30th Street Bridge
into the White River’s busted up water. & above,
Constellations in the sky’s pat afro seem
as indiscriminant as linked in hair & more mundane
lights move lowly on the horizon the way cop
lights always move when black people think
about congregating outside of church. One
brother stairs towards Saturn & says, Man,
this water is cold. The other looks in the same
direction & says, Yeah, & it’s deep, too.
They are as the upward inflection of it –
                the honeyed smile of space
                front & center in our heads –
                Voyager winking
                like a gold incisor
                on its way out
                                of this solar system.

Last week, just days before reading this poem for the first time, I found this clue in a NYT Sunday crossword puzzle: “Old bandleader with an Egyptian-inspired name”. I didn’t know, so only came up with “Sun Ra” incidentally as other clues filled in 18-across. I looked it up to be sure, and discovered the jazz and electronic music artist Sun Ra, leader of Arkestra (I had to say it out loud before I got it, but I’m dense). Although Sun Ra is no longer on this astral plane, the Arkestra performed on NPR’s Tiny Little Desk Concerts as recently as 2014.

So I was thrilled to come across his name again in this poem, this time linked to Richard Pryor, Guion S. Bluford, the first African-American astronaut in space, the thirteen who came after him – and a teenager in Indianapolis.

And again I will admit I’m overmatched and refer to a more educated source for a more professional reading, this time Rebecca Schwarz of The Review Review. She cites the ease with which the poem moves through different forms, similar to the ease with which Matejka moves from Richard Prior comedy to poetic imagery of space travel to his own youth in Indianapolis to Sun Ra in a poetic version of jazz improv.

This movement also characterizes Matejka’s early life: “My mother told me I lived in Germany and in 10 states before the age of 7. That’s healthy, I’m sure”, he says in an interview with Emily Bonner of Barely South Review.

One of Schwarz’ observations strikes me as the essence of writing, all writing: the poem has an intimate feel when the subject is the vastness of space or the progress of history, and feels universal when it returns to the most personal moments. This reminds me also of Roxane Gay’s comment from a few years ago: that an essay must “look outward as much as it looks inward.” This poem does both at the same time, reversing mood and subject, turning the personal universal and the universal personal:

The moon was still out the Tuesday morning I got my first
real curl & Guion S. Bluford became the first black man
into outer space. August 30, 1983. I styled my wet frond
like Purple Rain Prince: left side tucked behind my ear, right
side getting activator in the same eye I would have used
to telescope the Challenger as it eclipsed Kennedy Space Center
at midnight in the habit of every brother I have ever met
trying to get away from something without a quotient. Math,
astrophysics – it doesn’t matter. It all equals escape. All
those funny words related to spaceflight, too – velocity,
trajectory, stamina

Maybe that’s why I loved the poem without being able to pin it down (though I always swoon at any mention of the Voyager Music from Earth recording sent to space almost 40 years ago; I still remember the excerpts included on the Cosmos record). I felt right there with Matejka making his Prince curl; I understand the dream of escape. Like Schwartz, I felt the joy in the poem, a poem that includes sobering images but always, always, looks up, like the cap of Richard Prior’s characters or the tip of the space shuttle on the launchpad – or a young man in Indianapolis who loves words.

I’ll offer one additional observation: the poem begins and ends in couplets, a form I associate with a pair-bond of some kind. Here, I’d say it’s the poet talking to the reader, and I think it might be what creates that sense of intimacy. “I’m going to tell you something,” says the poem. All we have to do is listen.

I’m not sure how to read the title. Antique Black is sometimes used as a home furnishings designation, but it’s more of a descriptive than prescriptive phrase and can mean anything from a rubbed black finish to plain old black paint with the name fancied up. The notion of a rubbed finish is interesting in this context: friction, applied by hand, polishes the stain unevenly, leaving a slightly mottled matte finish that’s hard to machine-replicate. I suppose Sun Ra, Bluford and Prior are now an older generation, pointing upward for Matejka’s generation, and even more, his students at Indiana University where he teaches.

Forthcoming this month is Map to the Stars, Matejka’s collection examining “the tensions between race, geography, and poverty in America during the Reagan Era.” I’m pretty sure, from the description (I can’t find a TOC) this poem is included.

Science & Cooking MOOC: What a difference 3 years and 80+ moocs make

Course: Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science (part 1)
Length: 6 weeks, 5-7 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructors: Michael Brenner, Pia Sörensen

This course was originally developed as a way to teach science to non-science majors at Harvard University…. As a way to do this we’re now going to use food as a way to explain the underlying scientific principles that are all around us when we interact with food, or we eat, or go to a restaurant and so on.
We’re going to do this not only in the context of recipes that you cook in your very own kitchen, you’re also going to be watching amazing dishes being created by world-famous chefs, and you’re going to learn to understand the underlying scientific principles. And sometimes they work, but not always, but we’ll understand both when they work, and when they don’t work, from the scientific principles behind them. And as a way to cap all of this off we will then send you into your kitchen where you will do your own experiments; you’ll take measurements and make observations, and you will then get to eat your lab.

Three years ago, this course was impossible for me. The math scared me, the science was bewildering, and I had no idea what I was doing, mooc-wise. My specific goal for taking it again was to see if I’d made any progress at all. I’m relieved to report: I have! It was a lot easier this time around. Whew!

I should say that I suspect the course has been pared down from the version I took back then. I don’t remember it as being two parts, I remember it as being longer, and I remember it as having a lot more complicated material, so it’s possible the part that was so difficult just wasn’t included in this run. In that case, I’ll have to see what happens when Part 2 rolls around.

Grading is based on three components: weekly homework (they’re quizzes, no matter what they’re called), weekly labs, and a final project. I only did the homework. This was partly because that’s all I was interested in for my comparison, and partly because I didn’t want to make extra purchases. Nothing serious, mostly routine things most people have in their homes, like sugar and eggs, but there were a few things I don’t have, like a kitchen scale and a reliable thermometer. I did some of the labs the first time around, and they’re quite useful for anyone practicing for future lab science courses, as they require record keeping and hypothesizing. And they’re fun, or what most people would see as more fun than calculating moles and temperature diffusion. Because of the grade structuring, it’s possible to completely skip the traditional problem-solving homework and just do the practical aspects, and still pass the course.

I found the first week – moles, pH, a touch of stoichiometry – to be the most difficult. The equations for heat diffusion and transfer were extremely simplified, so were pretty much plug-ins. Phase transitions, which gave me so much trouble last time, turned out to be quite easy, mostly because of the work I’d done in Mike Brown’s Solar System mooc. Each unit had conceptual questions, usually as ungraded “practice” problems; these were understandable either from cooking experience, or from a bit of reason based on the lectures.

Ungraded review materials offer extra practice in math and the very basic levels of science: density, concentrations and so on. Last time, I found these oppressive and this time they were a snap (though they are still very casual about rounding and significant figures). Personally, I’d rather use my own stash of materials collected from Youtubers over the past several years, and Khan Academy is great for isolated subjects, but it’s all there for anyone who wants it. There’s also a section of advanced materials more in line with traditional science courses – mostly readings, with ungraded problems –for those who want to better understand the equations (and it’s possible some of the earlier material has been moved there), so there’s a broad range of appeal for students from various mathematical and scientific comfort levels.

And of course there’s the fun stuff: watching serious professional chefs do their thing. Ferran Adria talks spherification. Joan Roca evaporates lemon peel into a cloud; Dave Arnold demonstrates how a degree or two can change the texture of an egg; Joann Chang spins sugar for croquembouche; Enri Rovira makes his famous chocolate eggs. Most of this material is available on Youtube in one form or another; every once in a while I pull up a tape and watch something amazing (and I see Top Chef‘s Voltaggio brothers are now in the mix).

Add to that two of the most likeable professors I’ve encountered on mooc videos (be aware they have nothing to do with the course at this point; after so many iterations, it’s run by TAs). There’s a reason this has been running over and over as long as it has: it’s fun!

Pushcart XLI: Monte Reel, “Naming Happiness” (non-fiction) from Orion #34.101

Almost every day during the fall that I turned forty, I walked to a park in Buenos Aires where a C-shaped pond cradled a large flower garden.… On weekdays I visited the park alone, but on Saturday mornings I brought my three-year-old daughter, Sofia. She liked my company because I carried stale bread to feed the coscoroba swans and white-winged coots. I liked her company because she didn’t mock me when I stared at birds and trees and tried to match them with pictures in field guides. I probably should have sagged with shame: I was fast becoming a cliché, the Lover of Nature, one of those guys with the boots and the new field glasses who’d lost the ability to mask his low-grade OCD. But Sofia didn’t judge. Maybe watching someone struggle to attach the correct names to common objects seemed perfectly natural to her, since she spent a lot of her time doing pretty much the same thing.
She stared at the stripe of sunlight that sparkled atop the wind-stirred ripples in the middle of the pond.
“What is that called?” she asked. She must have watched me pin down the name of the leaf. Maybe she wanted to play the same game.
I tracked her squinting gaze. “You mean that stripe on the water?” I asked. “The sparkles?”
“What is that called?”
“Not sure,” I said, to casually. “I think it’s just called sparkles.”
She sighed, theatrically. “No it’s not.” She’d recognized the lazy disregard in my answer, and I recognized her frustration: it was the maddening sense that the world is speaking a language we haven’t fully learned, and no one else seems to realize that this is a serious problem.

One of the many concept I swam around in during the Chinese philosophy moocs I took last year was the differing attitudes toward language and naming. The Confucians, particularly the later Mohists after the Linguistic Turn of the mid-Warring States period, put great stock in names, in precise language, in the concept of “rectifying names” to form the basis of “bian“, distinctions, arguing. The Mencians, and later the Daoists to an extreme degree, were less enthusiastic about language (and eschewed bian entirely) since it represented a social construct and therefore wasn’t natural. The problem they always ran into was how to teach and represent Daoism without language, and that’s where a lot of the fun comes in.

Reel seems to combine both viewpoints: he wants to name the world, but using poetic rather than factual or scientific understanding of his nature guidebooks. The complementary bookend closing the essay reveals his discovery of the term “The Road to Happiness” to describe the glimmering stripe of light over water, found in an English translation of a 1950s Russian physics paper. ” The act of pinning a precise label on that phenomenon filled me with something I’ll call ecstasy.”

There’s a definite beauty to the phrase “The Road to Happiness”, and I’m not about to stand between anyone and his ecstasy. But it doesn’t bring me ecstasy, and I wonder if this naming he seeks is purely subjective, almost solipsistic. When I hear the phrase, I think of someone walking out on that road and sinking beneath the surface of the water, which brings to mind something other than happiness. However, I do appreciate that some phrases grab us in ways we don’t understand. It’s a more personal, spiritual take on the Confucian/Mohist “rectifying names”.

Mine was an age of specialization that actively discouraged the kind of intellectual leapfrogging that drove naturalists like Thoreau to try to unite science and spirit, to reconcile the romantic and the empirical. I always feared overstepping my bounds.… Attempting a generalized grasp of natural phenomena, without dedicating oneself to a tightly focused area of study, betrayed a pitiful naïveté.… This logic had formed an alliance with the fear that hid somewhere in my hindbrain: knowing too much might kill whatever magic remained in the world.

I always get nervous when a writer invokes Thoreau. Nature essays are not my thing. I’ve read some great ones, thanks to Pushcart, but I’m one of those glass-half-empty people when it comes to the wonders of the natural world: Yes, sunsets are beautiful, there’s nothing like snow-capped mountains or a murmuration of starlings, but please, let me enjoy them from an air-conditioned or heated room and for god’s sake those are spiders and here come the bees what are you crazy?

Reel tells a story from his childhood: he collected “Indian beads” and created stories about the people who had made and traded them. Research revealed the objects to be the fossilized remains of creatures known in Linnaean classification as Delocrinus missouriensis, and in common parlance as “sea lilies”. They aren’t lilies at all; they are ocean-dwelling animals related to starfish, and related species are abundant today in Monterrey Bay. In 1989, the fossilized remains from eons past were named the state fossil of Missouri due to their plentiful presence in the state.

This raises the question: how did so many sea creatures end up in Missouri? And the answer is found in earth science: 150 million years ago, when dinosaurs were still plodding around, the Great Plains were part of a large sea. Reel found this information disappointing; I find it exhilarating. I celebrate the imagination of a child, but I also celebrate the amazing processes by which the world exists in the form we see it today. And don’t get me started on what happens when we ignore reality and live in fantasy.

I thought of Whitman’s poem “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”, which has the speaker leaving a scholarly lecture on stars to stand under the still night sky and look up. In another poem, Whitman acknowledged his enormous respect for science (“Hurrah for positive science! long live exact demonstration!… Gentlemen, to you the first honors always!”) before presenting his own orientation: ” Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling,/I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling.” I think Reel is making a similar point, that science can take him so far, but it is not his dwelling. By the way, one of the University of Iowa professors who runs their Whitman Web mentioned a reading of Whitman’s poem I’d never heard before: given the references to time, he wasn’t escaping science, he was bringing it outside with him, checking out the light that had travelled years to get here. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, though I’m not sure it fits with the science of the time.

I had a strong reaction to another section of the essay:

The Germans, I would learn, had come up with the precise word for what I was doing. Beziehungswahn is the mania for seeing meaningful connections linking almost everything, including oneself, to almost everything else. It’s a clinical term. A form of madness.

German often has wonderful words for concepts that take entire sentences to express in English, so I was delighted to find another. Except… a bit of research tells me that Beziehungswahn is a clinical term captured in the English diagnostic phase “ideas of reference”. This is not some universal oneness better ascribed to Buddhism – or, again, Whitman (“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you…. I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,/If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles”). It is instead the psychotic delusion that the waitress at the coffee shop is talking to her customers about you, or the color of that man’s tie is a message meant only for me. It’s “everyone’s laughing at me” on steroids, and it’s exquisitely painful and disabling, not soul-expanding at all. But I may be misreading Reel’s intent, and I may be misinterpreting the use of the word.

Reel is a well-established journalist and author of The Last of the Tribe: The Epic Quest to Save a Lone Man in the Amazon.

Pushcart XLI: Emily Skillings, “Basement Delivery” (poem) from Jubilat #28

Having lived so long without one, we forgot
what a basement felt like—how it seemed
to the carrier(s), to the inhabitant(s),
the structure(s), that there was an underneathness
to all that daily interaction and exchange—
i.e. an empty teacup hovering just above a pool.

Complete poem available online at Jubilat

Welcome to another round of “Karen doesn’t have a clue about how poetry works (but that doesn’t stop her from blogging about it)”.

Let’s start with the teacup above a pool. To me, a teacup is a strong symbol of social propriety and decorum, linked to the Queen, delicate sandwiches, formal luncheons intended primarily to show off new hats. A teacup is fragile, merely a swirl of porcelain in space, as opposed to a coffee cup which is solid and practical. I’m not saying that’s what a teacup actually is, just what it brings to mind. Then there’s the pool below, with its unknown depths and shifting surface, a place where one could dive in or drown, who knows which.

Then there’s the basement. All houses have foundations, but a basement is something else, a hollow in a foundation, where old junk or dormant ideas are stored, a place that can become another room someday when the time is right or just stay a spidery place for laundry machines and boxes of the past.

My family moved from New England to South Florida when I was a kid; we lost our basement along the way. A house with a basement feels different, at least the houses I’ve been in. The floors echo. And there’s always something else, something unseen, beneath. In metaphorical terms, this could be viewed as positive or negative – it’s great to have a sense of where one came from, to have space for future memories, but doesn’t memory also limit our expectations? And did I mention spiders? And sump pumps? – but it seems to me the poem treats it as positive, keeping a vibrant, energetic tone throughout.

I get the general idea of being without a basement as being without that extra, out-of-sight-out-of-mind storage, and the installation of a basement as expansion of the capacity for memory, for depth of experience. The installation itself is whimsical and fun: of course, basements aren’t installed in this way (I know nothing about construction, but I suspect it’s not possible to install a basement under an existing house). Ten women arrive to install it. Why women? Because women tend to keep family memories more than men? Why ten? The number required for a minyan? A sufficient generational span to warrant a basement of the past?

Alternate take, based on a true story: When I was a mere lass of 19 or so, I made some self-deprecatory remark and a friend answered, “You know what bothers me about you? Your abasement.” I spent a couple of beats trying to figure out why I was a basement before it clicked. I don’t think that’s anywhere in the text of the poem, but every reader brings a different past – a different basement, if you will – to a read, and that’s mine for this one. I tried reading the poem in that light, in fact. A poem about installing abasement would be a very different poem, wouldn’t it? Darkness, underneath the pink (I’m still haunted by “The Spring Forecast” from a few weeks ago) and the we and the freed collection? Is this a poem about the erosion of confidence that comes, for so many girls, at puberty? Is the substory that comes at first blush of waking sexuality a sense of shame, of a new context in every social exchange? And again I’ve fallen into some super-subjective abyss. Give me a minute to climb out…

Then I have formal questions. Why three sets of six lines plus a couplet, enjambed with the last sestet? Does trochaic pentameter (if that’s what it is; I have some congenital inability to accurately parse meters, especially when they are just a bit irregular, as they are here and in most modern poetry) add some level of meaning? What function does this serve? Must it serve a function, whether aesthetic or symbolic? And semantic questions: Why the (s)s in the first stanza? To me it adds to the whimsy, maybe just because it looks like smiles, but is there a deeper, more poetically valid reason? And that last line: while keeping the importance of time forefront (it was again again), the whimsicality of the poem stretches to another level, almost to wordplay with “Leave no stone already.” There’s a confusion of past and present, but why end on that switch? To confound the past’s role, now strengthened by the basement, in expectations of the future?

This is why I get so frustrated with poetry: significance of any element varies from poem to poem. I’m going to stick with what grabs me – the teacup and the basement and the pink and the ten strong women and foundational memory, background, context (oh, but I do so love the abasement angle, it followed me home, I promise to feed it every day, can I keep it, please, please?) – until I learn a better way to read.

In her On Poetry podcast episode, Skillings (a Columbia teaching fellow and MFA candidate) mentions she’s only been paid for two poems. “No one goes into poetry for money anyway,” says host Gabriela Garcia. Same could be said for all that’s important and irreplaceable. Her first full-length collection, a compilation of her work over the last four years (including this poem) will be released this Fall.

Another Medieval Manuscript MOOC

14th C manuscript, Royal Library of the Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial, Madrid, Spain

14th C manuscript, Royal Library of the Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial, Madrid, Spain

Course: Deciphering Secrets: The Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Europe
Length: 7 weeks
School/platform: University of Colorado and Universidad Complutense Madrid; Coursera
Instructors: Dr. Roger Louis Martínez-Dávila, Dr. Ana B. Sanchez-Prieto

Perhaps no other relic of the European Middle Ages captures our imagination more than illuminated medieval manuscripts, or those documents decorated with images and colored pigments. Serving as windows unto a lost world of kings, ladies, faith, war, and culture, they communicate complex visual and textual narratives of Europe’s collective cultural heritage and patrimony. In this fashion, illuminated manuscripts are dynamic messages from our communal past that are still relevant today in fields like graphic design and typography.
In this seven-week course, students will explore the material creation, content, and historical context of illuminated medieval European manuscripts. Students will acquire an introductory knowledge of their distinguishing characteristics, their cataloguing and periodization (when they were created), the methods utilized to produce them, and their historical context and value.

A couple of years ago, I took Stanford’s manuscript course, “Digging Deeper,” as a recreational mooc: no notes, just watched the videos and poked at the assignments. I still got something out of it, and hoped I’d get the chance to do more someday. Guess what: Someday came.

I had a few complaints about this course, but about halfway through, the fun overtook the complaints and I ended up having a great time. There was nothing recreational about my approach this time around: I went all in, doing everything there was to do (plus some additional explorations), which meant twice as much as was required for a certificate I had no use for, let alone for the audit course.

If that sounds confusing – well, yes, it is, and that’s one of my complaints. The basic path through the course is confusing, with multiple options. I think they’re trying to be accommodating to different interests and needs, which is admirable, but to me, the course didn’t always feel integrated. Once I stopped reading instructions and just did stuff, I was a lot happier.

The first six of the seven weeks had both history and manuscript studies sections. Each week of the history section included a brief introductory video and four to seven readings. The weeks proceeded chronologically, if very briefly, from the fall of the Roman empire to the Spanish Reconquest before giving a nod to paleography – except… well, we never looked at actual writing, just translated content, so maybe I’m misunderstanding the use of the term. Then came the Global Middle Ages project, a cross-disciplinary, multiuniversity exploration of various aspects of medieval life. They’re extremely proud of this, and I feel bad because I missed the point; it just seems like a website to me. A website with a lot of interesting sections, but why it’s such a big deal, and what game-developers had to do with Virtual Plascenia, went by me. Still, it was interesting to discover that DNA evidence indicates a Native American woman must’ve travelled to Iceland sometime around the year 1000 CE, and her descendents still live there.

The Manuscript Studies portion made a lot more sense to me. Each week included about an hour of video lecture divided into sections, and progressed along a more familiar functional path: writing substrates, inks, page layout and preparation, scripts and hands, decoration, bindings. Both sections offered weekly quizzes, but only one was required. The presentation was a little flat, but that happens sometimes. I’ll never understand how people who so obviously love their field and very much want to share it with as many others as possible stick to a “stand in front of a camera and read a lecture” approach, which so often sucks the oxygen out of the room. Plenty of optional further written resources were provided. Some are available online, and I checked one of the recommended books out from my local library.

The Manuscript section included two options for peer-assessed projects that ran the length of the course, and again, only one was required. I did both, because how am I supposed to know before I do it what will be more beneficial? As it turns out, both of the peer-assessed projects were extremely beneficial, though in very different ways; I’m very glad I did them both.

The first option was a “pinboard” project: for every week, find five examples (photos, usually) of the concepts discussed in the lectures. For example, in Week 2, the idea was to find and present examples of such things as various writing substrates and tools of manufacture, parchment defects/repairs, contrasts between the two sides of parchment, and the like. Every week, five more pins would be added, along with five pins pertaining to prior weeks’ topics. I started out thinking this was kind of dumb, but by the end of the course, I’d collected some more general articles that covered wider topic ranges, and discovered some wonderful manuscript lore and resources. If you’re curious, my board is here, but it’s the process, not the result, that was productive.

The other project option was to make a reasonable approximation of a medieval manuscript, within practical limits of budget, material availability, time, and skill. In other words, we weren’t expected to skin a cow to make parchment, nor were we expected to create beauty (a lot of my classmates did so anyway) but only to demonstrate that we understood the procedures and knew the difference between authentic techniques and our shortcuts. Again, I was quite cynical at first, since we started by staining one side of our writing support with coffee to simulate the difference between the flesh and hair side of parchment (the Middle Ages were not for the squeamish) but I ended up putting a lot of thought and work into making quires, designing page layout and prepping, writing, illustrating, and binding my manuscript. It’s pretty much refrigerator art, but it’s MY refrigerator art, and dammit, I’m proud of myself for having managed to get it done at all. In fact… I’ve started working on a second one. I know how to avoid a few pitfalls now, so I hope it will look better.

Some of my favorite discoveries:

I added to my “casual educational” material. I’ve been following the Bodleian Rare Books twitter feed from Oxford since the Stanford mooc, but they don’t really tweet pretty pictures as much as they used to. Just before taking this course, I somehow discovered Penn medievalist Emily Steiner (@PiersatPenn) and her feed just delights me every day: lovely images, often with clever captions (sometimes relating to current events). Through the course itself, I’ve discovered Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel), book historian at Leiden University (I took an anatomy mooc from them last year); he also runs several blogs, all of which provided lots of detailed information for my Pinboard project. And just in the last week, I stumbled across Damien Kempf (@DamienKempf ), medievalist from Liverpool University and another great tweeter. I’ve been trying to include more art, poetry, beauty, and joy in my twitter feed, and less political news; while that isn’t the point of the course, the more exposure I have to pertinent materials, the better. I’ve even begun to recognize some manuscripts – the Lindsfarne Gospels, the Black Hours.

Through the History material, I fell in love with The Cantigas de Santa Maria, a series of poems with musical notation celebrating Mary. Not only is the idea that these songs can be interpreted and performed from 13th century notation, but there’s one fascinating story about a guy who just wants to find a safe place to put his ring while he plays baseball, and ends up engaged to Mary so has to leave his wedding bed for a monastery. And yes, the illustration of the ball game is quite recognizable as American baseball, though nobody’s sure of the medieval rules and many depictions seem to include two balls in the air at the same time.

Through the pinboard project, I found a rather drab-looking page that turned out to be fascinating: it’s an oath sworn by a woman, a midwife, that she will return the book or die. And I thought my library was uptight about interlibrary loans. Beyond the humor, this gives a little window on medieval life: there were libraries, women borrowed books (this one is a poetic bestiary), and, for that matter, women could read. I thought only monks and church people could read at that point. And by the way, other pages in Der naturen bloeme (The Flower of Nature) include floating illustrations that are lovely and often whimsical – like the elephant carried upside down on the trunks of two of his friends.

It seems some parchment was sometimes was damaged in the curing-stretching-drying process, as it was repeatedly scraped to remove hair and flesh (not for the squeamish, this manuscript stuff). Modern repairs could be quite lovely, but sometimes the original scribes took matters into their own hands an incorporated holes into the writing of the books (images from Erik Kwakkel’s tumblr and one of his several blogs.

In spite of the few drawbacks, this course was very much worthwhile, and I’m glad I signed up. I’m going to miss it! To fill the void, I’m taking one of the sequels, in fact: Deciphering Secrets: Unlocking the Manuscripts of Medieval Burgos (oddly, it’s on edX instead of Coursera), which, as I understand it, focuses on history via manuscripts and includes more of what I thought paleography was: the reading and transcription of manuscripts for interpretation. So it’s an extension of the History portion, rather than the Manuscripts, but who knows, great stuff lurks everywhere.

Pushcart XLI: Jane Lancellotti, “If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Write a One-Star Review” (non-fiction) from Narrative, Winter 2015

Charles Joseph Travies de Villiers: "La Critique" (c. 1830)

Charles Joseph Travies de Villiers: “La Critique” (c. 1830)

“The highest Criticism,” Oscar Wilde wrote in his famous essay “The Critic as Artist,” “is more creative than creation.” What he meant, of course, is that the riches of the imagination are as crucial in judging art as they are in creating it. Notice how the godlike capital C for Criticism is working here. How it makes you wish that Wilde himself could show up next to the reviewer’s desktop and cover the whole darn keyboard with his paisley cravat to prevent the cynic from posting that he would rather scoop out an eye with a rusty spoon than read Great Expectations.
Through the ages, there have been major thinkers, such as Matthew Arnold, whose fluency and insight elevated the ways in which we talk about art. Only now, instead of Arnold of Great Britain, we have Arnie from Massapequa, who misguidedly equates Jane Eyre with “another of those cheesey love novels written by Danielle Steel.”

Complete essay available online at Narrative

When a newly-published friend found himself squeamish about facing Amazon comments, Lancellotti read the online reviews for him, and discovered the universe of haters. They’ve always been there, and not just since the Internet. They’re the Monday-morning quarterbacks of the creative arts, the people who sneer, “My five-year-old draws better than that” at the museum, who want books and movies about good guys and bad guys, not ambiguity and symbolism and structural amplification of effect. They’ve just become more visible in the past ten years. I used to follow “Least Helpful”, a compendium of less-than-insightful negative reviews. They mostly do movies now, but their Classics Revisited section makes the point of this essay. Or you could just ask the next teenager you see what he or she thought of The Scarlet Letter. I happen to think the way literature is taught in most schools has something to do with it, but that’s just a hunch.

But so what? Maybe I’m speaking as a non-writer who doesn’t have to deal with the issue, but there are plenty of serious literary reviewers out there (like the NYT and Washington Post, both of which gave the friend’s book positive reviews, not to mention dozens of literary websites and journals), and chances are, readers who are considering buying a serious book take those reviews more seriously than what’s on Amazon. Isn’t there room for everyone? BuzBo and ChaCha have a right to their opinions, too, and as long as they’re not writing for Kirkus Reviews, why shouldn’t they express those opinions? I doubt Jane Austen is losing sales because of them.

Who are these people? Are they online versions of the bully who kicks over bicycles? Or the kid who gets his bicycle kicked over? Or are they, more likely, past-hopeful writers whose thwarted ambitions propelled a spite-filled review of Philip Roth?

The more important issue is: why do we get so nasty? Lancellotti wonders if internet reviewers would be as harsh to the author if they met face to face. I doubt it; consider road rage, where cars offer some kind of protection. Maybe there’s a clue here as to the nasty turn political discourse has taken. Maybe we’re all just getting meaner, because we spend hours a day in consequence-free jousting on media like Twitter where the snarkiest comment wins. Nastiness inflation, if you will. I have to wonder if it goes back to the first “My kid beat up your honor student” bumper stickers.

Another issue the essay mentions is the function of criticism, of the book review. The word “critic” comes from the Greek word meaning “judge”. That implies a set of at least partly objective standards to which a work should be compared, rather than a tongue-lashing. But the word has a definite negative connotation, so much that we soften it as “constructive criticism”. And criticism goes much deeper than book reviews; it’s often an analysis of an entire approach to literature, and a description or proposal of guidelines for that approach. But that isn’t the kind of criticism that’s happening on Amazon, nor should it be.

If I may, ahem, criticize – I don’t think this essay adds much to the ongoing discussion of  why anonymous internet reviews are so negative, and it brings even less to a clearer understanding of the genre of criticism. At first I thought we were getting a more personal view from the writer’s angle, but that’s dispensed with quickly in the opening and closing paragraphs in favor of what might be called “ain’t it awful”: the conflict between popular taste and artistic vision. It is, however, an essay about art: the impact of art, various views of art; and that seems to be the focus, so far at least, of this year’s Pushcart. Personally, I preferred how Dominica Phetteplace explored the issue – or, for that matter, Vi Hart’s video essay. But that’s only my opinion, as a reader, based on my personal taste – not as a professional literary critic. I’ll leave that to the people who are trained. People like the editors of Narrative Magazine and the Pushcart series. And I’ll try to learn from what they see.

Pushcart XLI: Stephen Dunn, “The Revolt of the Turtles” (poetry) from Southern Review 51.3

Sculpture by Isaac Cordal: “electoral campaign” from the exhibit "Follow the Leaders"

Sculpture by Isaac Cordal: “electoral campaign” from the exhibit “Follow the Leaders”

On gray forgetful mornings like this
sea turtles would gather in the shallow waters
of the Gulf to discuss issues of self-presentation
and related concerns like, If there were a God
would he have a hard shell and a retractable head,
and whether speed on land
was of any importance to a good swimmer.

You can almost hear them, can’t you, these turtles debating questions much like our own “How can God be a trinity” or “Is philosophy of any use to anyone anymore” or “If you do what you love, will the money really follow”. But these turtles have some serious business on their minds as well, such as running a world where kids keep flipping them over on their backs.

It’s an amusing poem, but dark at the same time. We can’t help but see ourselves in the turtles, but also feel superior to them because we see their mistakes. It’s so easy to see what’s wrong from the outside. It’s why we’re all experts on how other people should live their lives, while our own lives are in tatters. Lecturing us wouldn’t do any good, so Dunn holds up a mirror made of turtles.

One of the turtles has an idea as he considers “ways in which power could bring about /fairness and decency” :

And when he finished speaking
in the now-memorable and ever-deepening
waters of the Gulf, all the sea turtles
began to chant, Only fairness, only decency.

Poor turtles. We all know that historically, fairness and decency don’t stand much of a chance against fear-mongering, greed, and deceit. We’re in a real-time laboratory right now to see if they stand any chance at all. I waver daily, sometimes hourly, between hope and despair.

I didn’t realize the full significance of the ever-deepening waters mentioned in that last stanza until I discovered the Summer 2015 issue of Southern Review was a 10-year retrospective on Katrina. I imagined the turtles holding their meeting a day or two before the storm. That’s when I knew I had to include the sculpture popularly called “Politicians Discuss Global Warming” as header art. Poor turtles.

The Immune System Gone Wild MOOC

Course: Fundamentals of Immunology: Death by Friendly Fire
Length: 5 weeks
School/platform: Rice/edX
Instructors: Alma Moon Novotny
In this biology and life sciences course, we’ll flip the basic question of, “How does the immune system protect you?” to, “How can your immune system endanger you?”
First, we will look at basic mechanisms that determine whether the immune system is roused to action or instructed to stand down, including the roles of inflammasomes and T regulatory cells and the results of mutation to genes and their importance in producing regulatory proteins. Then, we will apply these insights to explain the etiology and treatment of autoimmune diseases and look at a variety of misdirected immune attacks, including allergies, attacks on red blood cells and cellular responses that can produce damage ranging from rashes to autoimmune cellular destruction. Finally we will discuss the protection of transplants from an immune system that views them as foreign invaders instead of necessary replacements.

Short version: Good course, covering a lot of ground (with some unique flair) in a very short time. It’s the third in an Immunology series from Rice. I’d missed the first two, so I spent a couple of weeks getting up to speed on the basics. I had most of the essential vocabulary and some understanding of what was going on – innate vs. acquired, MHCs, opsonisation, even some understanding of the complement cascade leading to MAC attack though I didn’t get to the point of memorizing the pathways – but still ended up scrambling for a lot of detail I seem to have overlooked. On the plus side, I’ve done enough medical reading to be perfectly comfortable with the overall physiological mechanisms of myasthenia gravis and lupus etc., so until we got to which cytokines or antibodies or receptors were involved, I could relax for a while. I passed with room to spare, but I wouldn’t say I’m secure in the subject. It’s more like I understand the general outline of what’s involved, and I now have the background to nail down the details more firmly. But for a free 4-week course, that’s plenty.

The four content weeks covered tolerance (how our immune systems learn to tell the difference between what’s dangerous and what’s not), autoimmune disease, hypersensitivities, and transplant issues. Each week included practice questions and a weekly exam, and some weeks had review exams of prior material (a terrific idea; I wish more courses did this). Week 5 was for self-review and the final exam.

The lectures included clever drawings of various immune system cells coded with their distinguishing characteristics: what receptors they carry, what they upregulate, downregulate, or bind to, what features they’re armed with. Other illustrations provided good support to the lectures as well, though I went hunting for some of my own personal favorites on antibody structure and MHC genetics. We all have our favorite diagrams. If I’d taken the first two courses before this one (like you’re supposed to), I might’ve not needed the extra visuals.

All exams were multiple choice; the weekly exams allowed three chances to answer. I’m usually pretty dismissive of that kind of thing, but the questions were very well-designed: some information retrieval things (they called them “factoids”) but lots of “thinking” questions that required analysis or synthesis of information in light of the concepts presented. Sometimes the question structure itself was a little weird, but it’s all about being able to manipulate the material. The final exam was also multiple choice, but allowed only one try, and counted for 50% of the grade, so guessing doesn’t work as an overall strategy (not that I’ve ever understood why anyone would bother to fake his way through a mooc, but it happens). I loved that the 40-question final was broken down in to 8 parts of 5 questions each. Not only is it less likely to trigger panic (oh my god, look at all these questions, how will I ever do them all?!?), but it forces kind of mini-reviews along the way.

The forums were active and staff, including Prof. Novotny, were available to answer questions that went a bit beyond the material (like, Hey, do animals also have a sex differential in autoimmune disease frequency? Yes, yes they do, in fact. That seems significant to me for some reason). There were a few minor first-run glitches: edX opened more of the system than they were supposed to in the Week 0 period, intended only for review of the outlines from the previous two courses (which, as someone who didn’t take the earlier courses, I found helpful, but nowhere near sufficient as preparation for this segment, by the way). They did an admirable job keeping up with unexpected but eager hordes of students flooding the forums before staff was in place. A few answer-coding problems cropped up throughout the course in ungraded sections. But overall, the execution was great. They really put a lot of thought into the images used, and I found it helpful in remembering what roles individual cells played in the immune process.

I was quite pleased with this course. It’s a nice balance of detailed molecular interactions and general clinical features, done with creativity and humor. I also have become a big fan of im-profthe immune system. I’ve had these vague notions of B cells and T cells, but I’m always amazed, whenever I take a biology course, that anything ever works – do you know how many millions of things have to happen for you to just go on living? – and the interactions of all the moving parts are fascinating. I’m eager to take the first two courses when they roll around again (and possibly retake this one, since I’ll be much better prepared). I understand there’s also a fourth part coming, The Immune System Fights Back. That sounds like fun.

Pushcart XLI: Rebecca Makkai, “The George Spelvin Players” from Pleiades 35.2

Barnes Harlow was actually Jason something, but no one dreamed of calling him that. He was Barnes Harlow when he was robbed of the Daytime Emmy, he was Barnes Harlow all twelve years he played Dalton Shaw, Esq., and he was Barnes Harlow when, in that guise, he married Silvia Romero Caldwell Blake, poisoned his mother-in-law, opened a restaurant, burned down that restaurant, was drugged by Michaela, and saved the Whitney family from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Soledad shared these details with the core company, who sprawled exhausted on the stage. In the five minutes since Barnes had left the theater, Soledad had relayed the basic history of the fictional Appleburg, Ohio, and told them what Barnes Harlow looked like with his shirt off. “Not greasy-smooth,” she said. “Just, you know, TV-star smooth.” She swore her grandmother had tapes of the show, stacks of VHS cassettes in her basement.
“On a more professional level,” Tim said, “what did we think? Star-struck aside?”
Beth vowed to speak last. Last week in the green room, Phyllis had accused her of treating every conversation like a race.

Complete story available online at Pleides

“There are only two plots: A stranger rides into town, and a man goes on a journey” is one of the many writers’ aphorisms taken as gospel (QI credits this one, not to Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, but to a metamorphosis of an exercise from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction). In this story, the stranger is Barnes Harlow, former soap opera star come to a ragtag Missouri theater company. But I got sidetracked by something else.

In 2011, Makkai published a novel titled The Borrower, about a children’s librarian who either kidnaps or is kidnapped by Ian, one of her 10-year-old patrons, leading to a road trip (the other side of the stranger comes to town) that reverses with a single phrase: “They lost.” I read that book in 2012, and I still remember sobbing over my cheeseburger at the local pub where I was reading. I’ve been thinking of those words for weeks, maybe because I saw Makkai’s name in the table of contents, or maybe because I never forgot that moment, and I try to remember that, even though Ian returned home, the trip was not a failure but ended with a kind of slow-motion salvation. That librarian (and possibly Ian) is in this story. It’s not her story, but as a secondary character she allows for additional perspective.

I even see a structural comparison between novel and story: the story turns, reverses itself, on a single sentence. I know how that feels; does everyone? To have one phrase, one utterance, change the context, the mood, the background assumptions, the momentum of a gathering or a road trip or a theater company’s mission, a call to reality? It works so many ways in this story, with so many characters, it’s as if it explodes. Or maybe implodes.

There was a term Beth had learned in a sociology class, though she couldn’t remember it now, for a society where people had more than one connection to each other. In a big city, a guy would be your mailman and nothing else. But in a small town, he might be your mailman and your cousin and your neighbor, and his wife is your boss. She wondered what her sociology professor would make of the George Spelvin Players—who not only lived and worked together, but whose constantly shifting fictional relationships were also vivid, if not real. Beth had been Tim’s mother, his wife, his sister, his therapist. He had killed her in six different plays…. She wondered if what they were trying to do with Barnes, through this obsessive examination, was to weave him into their complex fabric. They refused to let him be simply a colleague. They wanted to envelop him: talent, legitimacy and all.

Beth has an additional relationship to Barnes once they sleep together, and it’s into this theater-world confusion about what is real and what is fictional that Barnes, cornered about his petty theft of multiple trivial items from everyone in the company, says the words that implodes it all: “You’re not real. I made you up.” And then, worse: “Did I make up that sex, or did I make up all the sex ever?”

Exit Barnes. As Soledad says, “Beth broke the soap star.” But exit the company as well; they disintegrate during the town performance of A Christmas Carol they’d been rehearsing (with Barnes hastily replaced). They all start quoting lines from random plays. And the librarian holds on to her Starbucks cup and smiles through it all (who wouldn’t; it seems hilarious to me), while a 10-year-old boy plays along. I don’t think the 10-year-old is Ian, but I’m happy that he could be.

By the way, the use of the name “George Spelvin” by an actor who doesn’t want to be associated with a terrible play, or a terrible theater troupe, is true. I hadn’t known that, though I was aware that “Alan Smithee” was sometimes used by film directors who didn’t want their name on a movie once the studio execs cut it for reasons having nothing to do with art. I wasn’t aware there was a similar tradition, probably an earlier one, in theater.

I’m thinking back over the works in this volume so far, and art seems to be a frequent theme. It might even be hidden in less obviously art-related works, like the poem “Elk” or the hornet article. I’ll have to keep that in mind as I read on.