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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samad Ghorbanzadeh: "Fictional Reality/Daily Dream" series

Samad Ghorbanzadeh: “Fictional Reality/Daily Dream” series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete article available online at Oxford American

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With thanks to Vievee Francis

 

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

Complete poem available online at Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leonid Afremov: “Misty Café”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

poem

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

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

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

Red, on.

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

But we’re supposed to be talking poetry here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennie Jieun Lee:  Bust

Jennie Jieun Lee: Bust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Complete essay available online at Granta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete poem available online at Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we still don’t know his name.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pushcart XLI: Allison Benis White, from “Please, Bury Me in This” (poem) from Copper Nickel  #20

I am making a world I can think inside.
 
Cutting faces of paper and taping them on glass like thoughts.
 
Am I a monster, Clarice Inspector asked in The Hour of the Star, or is this what it means to be human?
 
To have a mind, I think as I cut another face.

I’ve checked the page again and again – yes, it’s definitely Inspector, not Lispector. Is that a typo or a twist of phrase? I’m going to assume it is what it’s supposed to be, fitting with the introspection of the poem as the speaker contemplates mortality on Día de Muertos. I misread another line – “tapping on the glass”, as if requesting attention or entry, instead of “taping them on glass “– so it would make sense. The line “To have a mind, I think…” also led me to expect a prerequisite action rather than a prepositional phrase. I have no idea if this is just my sloppy reading or if there’s some attempt to induce a kind of alternate construction. It’s an interesting question. I suppose I’ll never find out.

In an interview with Niki Johnson of Superstition Review, White tells us this is an excerpt from a book-length poem in the form of a series of letters concerning various aspects of death, “[s]o it seems like I’m working on avoiding titling poems forever.” I like that, even though it does aggravate my more obsessive tendencies.

The metaphysical mind exploration continues in this section of the anthology. Right now I’m in the middle of a mooc combining psychology, neuroscience, and religion; there’s some evidence that the pervasive belief in an afterlife is connected to our inability to conceive of being gone. That’s what poems like this are for. The sugar skull, the person, here today, then “I am you gone.”

Pushcart XLI: Angela Woodward, “New Technologies of Reading” from Conjunctions 10/20/15

William Blake: Plate 92, Jerusalem

William Blake: Plate 92, Jerusalem

One) 3-D Printing
 
Hard to say if the reading process is at all improved by this, but the figurines exude a degree of charm. These are produced not on a flat substrate but in three dimensions in successive layers: The ink is substrate and substance in one. The pieces with a religious purpose—eight million iterations of “God Is Good” extruded letter by letter and formed into a little stand-up Jesus—should remain tourist items. I was given a Santeria saint with her heart in her hands, which unfolds into a spell for binding love. From this incantation was designed and printed a splint made of the same biocompatible material that goes into sutures….
The process comes closest to fulfilling its promise in the wildlife series put out by Tasso. The text interlaces the natural history of the animal with its genetic code, or so says the accompanying booklet (with a scan of the reader’s wound, to determine how it might be fixed over time). Would there be blood beneath the fur? Would turning its pages wrench cartilage out of joint? Such a fantasy could be entertained at least.
 
Complete story available online at Web Conjunctions

So you read the title and think, Really? Someone’s just discovered ebooks and wants to complain about the decline of the paper variety? Or maybe it’s more of a neuro-semiotic approach, The Medium Changes Us as Well as The Message and we’re going to forget how to read. Maybe you, too, remember a college professor in literary theory announcing, back in the Reagan administration, that computer screens were responsible for the shrinking of the American attention span, ignoring the fact that pages have been around since antiquity.

But that wouldn’t even be close.

You keep reading and encounter the first section title, 3-D printing. What does that have to do with reading? Is someone printing books that way? If you know anything about 3-D printing, that strikes you as ridiculous, at least with current technology, but the first few sentences are fairly normal and describe the physical process accurately, and there’s something irresistibly highbrow about the phrase “ink is substrate and substance in one” so you trust the writer, the essay, a bit more (and you’re assuming it’s an essay because Pushcart includes “Fiction” in the byline for short stories and there is no such notation here).

But then everything goes to hell and you no longer know what’s going on. Who is Tasso? What, a heavy hitter slipped by you somewhere along the line, there’s another DeLillo or Calvino or Baker out there? Wait, genetic code? Oh, we’re in some other kind of thing now, where the book is the body and reading is a physical act upon a living being, in the case of Tasso, wildlife because who (other than Kafka’s Penal Colony Officer) would do that to people, and wouldn’t it be illegal? Talk about characters coming to life.

Oh good, another section, maybe things will settle down:

Two) Condensed Books
 
I’ve learned to avoid the pill versions. These are simply too strong. Often slow to take effect, suddenly the reader is drawn into an improbable romance involving a spy, a dermatology clinic, a girls’ camp by a lake. The smell of the old Reader’s Digest triple editions pervades the action, a clammy, mildewed dinginess at odds with the overall glitz. Note too that only the most staid of novels are available in this format, so that one feels violently ill and hallucinated while reinforcing gender roles long outgrown: his stubbly cheeks, the swish of her hair, the rewarded patience of the passive beauty. The last time, I woke up with my head throbbing, my mouth dry, carpet burns on my hips. I thought I could ingest a self-reflective arctic brooding, but it was all the most generic lust, him on top ruffling my bangs and calling me “baby.”
The charcoal versions I find fascinating, though also incomplete. I was ushered into one of the private rooms above Powells and given something the shape of a pencil box. The mechanism on the side ignites the contents. The reader controls the amount of fumes by opening or closing the lid. I let too much escape all at once. Before I had comprehended the complexity of the narrative, it had crumbled. I prodded the ashes and got only a few last puffs, goodbye, Sidney, I will carry your … it’s all so … refugee camp … two sisters … less able to … . built itself over the river, and was just as quickly razed by the … all confused in gray swirls of languid euphoria. The material once combusted can’t be revisited. This series makes use of mostly forgotten novels from the 1930s and ’40s….

No, not settling down. Ramping up, in fact. I’ve inhaled a few books, but only figuratively. Hey, embodied cognition is pretty much a neuroscientific fact, can embodied literature be far behind? Or is it here already, waw it here in the 19th century when Blake wrote, “They became what they beheld…”

Despite the craziness, there is a logic here, and a progression. Whereas 3-D printing – “printing” connects it semantically to printed books – only presented work and was accompanied by description, as we go along the material being read, through whatever medium, becomes more and more intrusive, until by the third section – Salves and Drones – we’re scraping the salve of stories off our skin and never quite getting it all and experiencing the torture that’s been committed in our names (if we are US citizens, though all countries have horror in their history).

And it’s all ironic, considering Bill Henderson’s longstanding mistrust of “new technology”, i.e., digital literature. The story is, by the way, available on the web-only version of Conjunctions.

I’m probably less sophisticated than the average Pushcart reader, so I was thoroughly confused for some time. Is this fiction or non-fiction? What label do I put on it? The editors seem to have classified it as non-fiction as I’ve noted above, and I’m perfectly happy to call it transgenre, but I suspect fiction is closer to the truth. Does it matter? Not at all. I went from confusion and frustration to respect and ultimately enjoyment. I went looking for the writer, wanting to know more (who is this?) and found her conversation with Jacob Singer at a literary blog called zoran rosko vacuum player:

No matter what the piece of writing, it’s created out of words. Writers are only working with words. That’s all we have. We don’t have ideas. We don’t have images. We don’t have scenes. We don’t have characters. The illusion of all those things can be crafted out of words, but those other things—the ides, the images—are by-products of language. Words in themselves have sounds and sense, and they shift and change in relation to the other words around them, both in their sound schemes and how they’re yoked grammatically….I’m not aiming to make a movie with my words. That’s just one approach.

~ Angela Woodward

I’m sure if Woodward could have sent us the pills, smoke, salve and drones, so we could experience literary invasion, she would have. But that just wasn’t practical.

Pushcart XLI: Elizabeth Scanlon, “The Brain Is Not the United States” (poem) from Boston Review, April 2015

The brain is not the United States, the brain is the ocean,
Dr. Yquem said, referring to its activity as opposed to its structure,
the brain is not the United States whose borders are mapped
and whose expansion is inhibited by bodies of water —
 
The brain is the ocean who is vast
and incorporates every chemical dumped into it,
whose depths we do not know, whose darkness we fear
in the most primordial way,
who stymies knowing up from down when one sinks fast into its long pull.

Complete poem available online at Boston Review

Ah, how cool, a poem that triggers a soundtrack (earworm alert) picked up in one of my moocs on how the brain perceives spatial location. For the second time in as many weeks, a Pushcart piece has fit right in with several of the brain/mind moocs I’ve taken over the past few years. Scanlon, it appears, is no stranger to these issues: another of her poems, “Stroop”, accurately characterizes the Stroop test; “will over sensation” is as good a way as any to phrase System 2 and System 1. So she knows the territory, probably better than I do.

But I felt I needed to sweep that aside and read the poem on its face. But it wasn’t possible, because we all bring everything we’ve ever learned, felt, experienced to everything we read, just as we bring our entire lives to every next moment.

With the Dr. Yquem reference, I tried to fit this into some grim tale of someone with some physical or mental brain disease, but it’s just too playful a poem, and I discovered Yquem is a French winery, which fits nicely with the chemicals dumping into the brain. I do love the distinction between structure and function; that’s straight from a couple of brain/mind moocs, in fact.

Wordplay abounds, but it’s subtle, maybe not even there and I’m inventing it. Dr. Yquem, for instance: is that really to evoke wine, or am I making that up, and it refers to an actual person? But who, if not a physician – a neuroscience professor? When the speaker gives the French word for brainle cerveau – I’m reminded that the Spanish word for head is cabeza and for beer is cerveza and now she’s got me doing it. Like Dan Reeder’s song above, it’s irresistibly catchy.

Despite all that, the language hints at something much darker than random babbling over afternoon wine, a darkness that shows up again and again in words and phrases – darkness, “its long pull”, medication, salvo and artillery and “a slow gun”, “a warning”. But as a whole, the poem is so much fun, using subject as in math to leapfrog to subject as in subordinate of royalty, the Pledge of Allegiance, taxes.

Then the last stanza:

The brain is not the United States, it is the ocean
and we are everywhere on its shores,
never knowing it entirely.

And I change my mind again, feeling a kind of desolation in that last line. Is this a woman touring France getting a little tipsy in the afternoon and letting her mind wander, getting to know previously unexplored or little-used corridors, watching how it works as it leaps from one association to another? Or is it a woman using wine to drown out her terror at some catastrophe: an illness, a failed marriage, a lost job? Just general anxiety? I don’t know.

In these dark days I tend towards play, much as the speaker does. I hope she has better luck than I do.

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.