Pushcart XLII: Christian Wiman, “I Will Love You in the Summertime” (nonfiction) from American Scholar, Spring 2016

Teresa Chen: Ambivalence #6 - 2016

Teresa Chen: Ambivalence #6 – 2016

Twenty years ago, while watching some television report about depression and religion—I forget the relationship but apparently there was one—a friend who was entirely secular asked me with genuine curiosity and concern, “Why do they believe in something that doesn’t make them happy?” I was an ambivalent atheist at that point, beset with an inchoate loneliness and endless anxieties, contemptuous of Christianity but addicted to its aspirations and art. I was also chained fast to the rock of poetry, having my liver pecked out by the bird of a harrowing and apparently absurd ambition—and thus had some sense of what to say. One doesn’t follow God in hope of happiness but because one senses—miserable flimsy little word for that beak in your bowels—a truth that renders ordinary contentment irrelevant. There are some hungers that only an endless commitment to emptiness can feed, and the only true antidote to the plague of modern despair is an absolute, and perhaps even annihilating, awe. “I asked for wonders instead of happiness, Lord,” writes the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. “And you gave them to me.”

Complete story available online at The American Scholar

A few pieces back, I praised Jamie Quatro’s story “Belief” for its straightforward approach to life as a Christian, and its honesty about the mix of joy and struggle. This piece, written in a very different style, takes a similar look at what it means to have faith.

The title comes from a comment made by Wiman’s two-year-old daughter when, during a bedtime ritual, he asked if she loved him. He interprets her cryptic reply – “I will love you in the time where there is time for everything, which is now and always” – while recognizing that he is constructing meaning apart from her intent: “I think that sometimes life and language break each other open to change, that a rupture in one can be a rapture in the other, that sometimes there are, as it were, words underneath the words—even the very Word underneath the words….” That’s the essence of poetry, isn’t it, to use words to evoke meaning other than that contained in the words themselves.

There’s a section on the meaning of prayer, drawing out the aphorism “Prayer doesn’t change things; prayer changes people, and people change things” into a more sophisticated setting, prayer as less of a laundry list of needs and wants and more of a meditation to connect with the divine will. He draws from a number of poets and writers of various times and places to express, much as Quatro did, the complicated nature of faith for him, its combination of “lament and love”. That phrase stood out to me, since I encountered it at length in last fall’s mooc on classical Greek literature. It seems lament and love songs are intertwined, exchanged, and mirrored in many of the epics and plays. This fits with the very common experience of us all: we cry at weddings or when receiving great news, and bond over laughter and comradeship at funerals and wakes. Yet Wiman is certain of the centrality of faith for humanity, whether as individuals we have “addressed it consciously or not.”

As for myself, I have found faith not to be a comfort but a provocation to a life I never seem to live up to, an eruption of joy that evaporates the instant I recognize it as such, an agony of absence that assaults me like a psychic wound. As for my children, I would like them to be free of whatever particular kink there is in me that turns every spiritual impulse into anguish. Failing that, I would like them to be free to make of their anguish a means of peace, for themselves or others (or both), with art or action (or both). Failing that—and I suppose, ultimately, here in the ceaseless machinery of implacable matter, there is only failure—I would like them to be able to pray, keeping in mind the fact that, as St. Anthony of the Desert said, a true prayer is one that you do not understand.

I connect very strongly with the ambivalence in the piece, with the acknowledgment that faith brings with it a certain discomfort. Wiman, former editor of Poetry Magazine and presently faculty at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music, wrote about his return to faith following a medical diagnosis in 2012.


Pushcart XLII: Chase Twichell, “Sad Song” (poem) from Salmagundi, Spring/Summer 2016

It’s ridiculous, at my age,
to have to pull the car onto the shoulder
because Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash
are singing “Girl From the North Country,”
taking turns remembering not one girl,
but each of their girls, one and then the other,
a duet that forces tears from my eyes
so that I have to pull off the road and weep.

Complete story available online at Salmagundi

I was expecting something quite dark to be lurking behind this poem. Some of the language is quite violent – wound, split open, necklace of stones, and the setting in the cold winds of the North Country. Then I found the wonderful audio linked above, which combines the poem, excerpts from the Cash/Dylan duet (the song is a reworking of “Scarborough Fair”), and an interview with Twitchell, and discovered it is indeed about the loss of a first love, and the lifelong pain that can cause.

It’s a layering of pains. Not only is there the sense of being used and discarded, there’s the shame attached to losing one’s childhood, a secret shame for girls that has no real equivalent for boys. Then there’s the emotional embarrassment of having been duped, and the extra humiliation of feeling the pain years later. But as the poem beautifully describes, this first hurt is “the sluice through which all of childhood pours”, the introduction to the world as potentially cruel, to people as potentially hurtful, and to loss as something to be feared. We get more cautious as we grow older because we know how much things hurt.

The most striking image for me comes towards the end:

… she grows up
wearing a necklace of stones,
one for each girl not her,
though they all live together here
in the North Country, where the winds
hit heavy on the borderline.

I like the image of the necklace of stones weighing her down, but particularly that they all live together, these discarded lovelorn girls. There is potential power there, camaraderie, but instead, it has a sad feeling. And we’re back to the shame and embarrassment. You can’t draw comfort if you can’t speak of your pain. Remind you of anything?

Pushcart XLII: Bret Anthony Johnston, “Dixon” from VQR, Summer 2016

A star-smeared night, the usual briny and humid haze of the brush country in August, and Dixon was hauling twenty cases of stolen toys up from the Rio Grande valley. They were in the bed of his truck under a blue tarp. He took care to drive the speed limit and flash his blinker. If the border patrol at the Sarita checkpoint asked, he’d claim a delivery mix-up. If the guards were white, he’d blame it on Mexicans.
The toys had been slated for Dairy Queen kids’ meals, a promotion for a book series called Pegaterrestrials in which the characters were half alien and half winged horse, but that morning the office phone rang and a collectibles dealer had offered three grand for the lot. Dixon was forty-two and he’d managed the franchise outside Harlingen for four years. He knew he’d be fired, maybe arrested, too, but he also knew better than to give himself time to reconsider….

Complete story available online at VQR

Dixon isn’t a bad guy, not at all. He’s a father who’d turn himself into a Pegaterrestrial to save his daughter. His intentions are great; he just falls a little short in the execution. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride – or, as in this case, fly. And he’d get his fifteen-year-old into the drug rehab program she needs.

It’s a story that walks an interesting line between comedy and tragedy. An out-of-control teenager, a family on the brink of financial and legal disaster, against a guy named Cornbread who runs an outfit selling bootleg fast-food toys at flea markets. A wife and mother who focuses on what she can do for her husband and daughter: making “real food”, tuna fish, for dinner, instead of the ubiquitous free Blizzards that flow through the house like water. A guy in a humid, miserable landscape, who sees nothing but the light at the end of the tunnel, and is constitutionally unable to consider that it might be an oncoming train.

I’ve read somewhere that the motivation of all fiction is to show change, or the impossibility of change. Given the final lines, this story’s job is the latter. Somehow, that makes it sadder, funnier, and much more real.

But I think something else this story does is more important. If I read one summary of Dixon – he’s a Texan ready to blame everything on Mexicans; he’s a thief, and a toy thief at that; he gave his daughter a shotgun for her 12th birthday – I’d put him in a category, and not a nice category. This story takes him out of a category and turns him into a person. I can feel great compassion for him, maybe laugh at him a little, definitely frown on some of his decisions, but really feel for his dilemma, one many parents face: how do you save a child gone wrong? His views on Mexicans, on guns, on pretty much anything else, fade beside that. Seeing him as a person, even a flawed person, closes the gap between us, make it possible for us to connect, at least a little.

This is what fiction can do for all of us: remind us that the people we put in categories, the people we yell at on Twitter, are people, with fears, dreams, and foibles. They could be people we might like, if we met them in stories. And maybe the next time I hear of someone who gave a rifle to his 12 year old, instead of putting him in a category, I’ll remember Dixon, and see a person.

Pushcart XLII: Ethan Chatagnier, “Miracle Fruit” from New England Review #37.4

British Library: Cotton MS Nero C IV 'Winchester Psalter' f.3r

British Library: Cotton MS Nero C IV ‘Winchester Psalter’ f.3r

At seven pm, three quarters of the recessed lights in the main office space are programmed to turn off. What’s left is deemed bright enough for the custodial staff to do their work, but what I love, looking out at it through the interior window of my office, is that the glow of all the screensavers creates a faint aurora over the top of all the cubicle walls almost like that of a town at night hidden just beyond a ridge. I know it’s just a silly image, but it gives me the sort of comfort I imagine God would feel looking at a snow-dusted Swiss village and allowing himself to forget the rest of the troubled world for a while….
I like walking out to the deserted parking lot as well, no claustrophobia of cars, nobody yammering into a cell phone or blasting bad music, but tonight there is another car, a Camry with Avis stickers, and it’s parked right next to mine. Leaning against it is a slender, copper-haired woman wearing a fitted trench coat and kitten heels who is definitely not from Nebraska.
“Can I ask you about Aeon, Dr. Schuyler?” she asks.
“Mother Jones?”
“New York Times.”
Surprising. To someone like me, our Aeon acquisition is front page news, but most people would rather see pictures of a beheading or read a new brownie recipe. It’s good that someone is paying attention, I think. But it’s bad news when a New York Times reporter ambushes you in the dark of an empty parking lot rather than contacting the corporate media office. It means this is just the slight visible outgrowth of a story already being tracked, of documents already being compiled and pieces put together. It means you are not just the person who picked up the phone. You were chosen.

I kind of missed some of this story, so I went back and read it again. I still don’t quite get some of the logical connections, but I think I’m still distracted by the math. Math? What? I’ll get there, I promise (and it’s nowhere near as interesting as I’m trying to make it sound, which is an uphill battle anyway, trying to make math sound interesting). But first, the story.

It’s a near-future picture of an overpopulated world that can no longer produce enough calories to feed all the people. Dr. Schuyler is a plant geneticist for a Monsanto-like megacorp. Doc has a genuine awe for natural biodiversity and the long, slow processes that create and expand it; he tends a small garden of delights at home, and grows Synsepalum dulcificum, the “miracle fruit” that blocks sourness, on his office windowsill, a project that requires a homemade humidification system since office air is not the same as the plant’s native West African air. In the story, this berry is something of a well-kept secret, but I’ve seen both news stories and chef videos about it; seeds are available online.

Doc is quite conflicted about his role in the company. That conflict is what drives the story forward, particularly after he realizes that his company is acquiring the last of the big seed banks and plans to destroy everything once it’s been reviewed for profitable possibilities.

The memo isn’t hard to find….: a memo that says that the security risks of holding on to the bank outweigh its value as an asset; that says it would be more detrimental to the company [emphasis mine] if the bounty of these seeds escaped containment than if the smallpox virus did; that recommends incineration. Attached was a suggested schedule for the incinerations: Flowers, vines, and other non-fruiting plants first. Then non-orchard trees. Then fruit and nut trees. Them bulbs and vegetables. Last, grasses and grains.
First they came for the Socialists, et cetera, et cetera.

This is one of my major points of confusion. I’m not sure I understand the company’s fear of the seeds “escaping containment”, nor do I fully understand why that would be such a catastrophe to the firm. Maybe I’m dense. I’m assuming the company wants to monopolize effective foodstuffs, but it could be something else.

The good doctor is less confused about the journalist who keeps ambushing him in the parking lot. I love the metaphor for the initial situation, as she tries to get documents relating to the impending destruction for publication:

She’s out there, all right. Her attire has mutated from what you’d wear to a client meeting to what you’d wear on a date….
What I like is not her in her professional garb or her date clothes, not an inch more or an inch less of leg, not a certain amount of décolletage or the right heels. I like the process of it all, despite the constructions, despite the obvious ends fueling all these different means. What can I say? Who doesn’t want to feel like a lock being picked?

Their relationship intensifies as he tries to explain his love for biodiversity to her, but never gets sexual; it’s quite lovely to watch. She is, perhaps, the miracle fruit that blocks the bitterness of reality.

“There’s a great beauty in the amazing diversity of plant life. Not just in the jungles, but in a place like this. It was never just grass, despite what the movies show. And the plainsmen who grazed it to death were not immune to its beauty. They just had families to feed.”
“I sense a point emerging.”
“So one way of looking at it is that I have an overly generous definition of family.”

But the miracle fruit only lasts a short time.

His resolution of this conflict is the rising action of the story; his reaction to the fallout from that resolution creates the climax. It becomes a tragic version of Noah’s Ark, and again, I think I follow the motivation, but I’m not sure. I come back to the present, how nearly daily revelations of extreme corruption and greed at the highest levels, plus ongoing massive local and global injustices, seem to make less of a splash in the public consciousness than a new Netflix series or the Twitter outrage of the day. I think the good doctor in the story, as Noah stocking the ark in his basement, just decided that saving the world was a fool’s errand; and, in a dual role perhaps, as God overlooking the world so beautifully described in the first paragraph, decided that the world wasn’t worth saving, given the limited definition of family that prevails. I can’t say I, in the present, disagree with him.

Now, about the math…

Our population is growing at an exponential rate, and crop yields at a linear rate. Already we have 9 billion people on a planet that can only feed 8 billion. Despite all the seeming logistical impossibilities, ten-year projections have the population at 10 billion and food production at enough for 8.1 billion.

Those “logistical impossibilities” seem pretty serious to dismiss with a mere clause (how does population continue to grow when there is limited food supply?) but I’ll just add that to the points of confusion. I had an immediate reaction to the first sentence about the exponential and linear rates: Wow, I understand that! Five years after ProfG tried to get that into my head with bright color graphics and animations, I can read that sentence and “see” it, without sitting down and figuring it out! But then I started thinking (always a dangerous effort) and ran into trouble: could I create graphs that showed the relationship between the two rates? I certainly should; but could is another question.

I soon dissolved into tears, a not-uncommon reaction I have when confronting math in the wild. So I emailed my mooc buddy Purgy, who’s always been generous with his time when I have math issues. It was a little scary – English isn’t his native language, and we’re talking math, so I had to find my way through words like ansatz and affine – but it turned out I made an epically stupid but easy-to-fix mistake in the linear function (a mistake that could have been avoided had I sketched a graph first, but no-o-o-o-o, I thought I could skip that step), and was in the ballpark on the exponential give or take a couple of decimal points, so I managed to come up with my graph. I suspect any attentive ninth-grader could’ve done so in far less time with far less blood, toil, tears, and sweat, but at least I got there. Thanks, Purgy!

Despite what I see as logical flaws and inconsistencies in the story (and I’m well aware it may be my own logical facilities that are flawed), I enjoyed this for the relationship, and the characterization of the scientist. And the math, which may have tipped the needle for me – as inconsistent as that in itself may be.

Pushcart XLII: Solmaz Sharif, “Desired Appreciation” (poem) from Kenyon Review #38.1

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce: View from the Window at Le Gras

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce: View from the Window at Le Gras

Until now, now that I’ve reached my thirties:
All my Muse’s poetry has been harmless:
American and diplomatic: a learned helplessness
Is what psychologists call it: my docile, desired state.
I’ve been largely well-behaved and gracious.
I’ve learned the doctors learned of learned helplessness
By shocking dogs. Eventually we things give up.

Complete poem available online at Kenyon Review

This is another of those pieces that got a lot more interesting the more I understood about it. And it starts out pretty interesting at that: the speaker is an immigrant exhausted by the need to constantly reassure the native-born citizenry that she is grateful to be here, that everything is fine-fine, when she knows firsthand how not fine so much is.

The John Brown quote was my first hint that there was more than was obvious to me. Then I found Sharif’s extensive interview with Kaveh Akbar at Divedapper, examining the genesis of the poem. She’d read some of the documents of the torture techniques used by the US, hence the references to tube feeding and handcuffs and doctors on site, amidst the more cheerful face the country put on itself while this was happening. All of this comes to the speaker when she’s asked if she’s grateful to be here – much as Sharif is often asked.

The entire poem is inspired by, and initially mimics, Ovid’s Ibis, written in the town of Tomis on the Black Sea during his long exile from Rome for reasons that remain unclear (in a further twist, the exile was officially revoked in… 2017). In the context of the poem, I have to wonder: did the residents of Tomis regularly demand his gratitude?

The poem is from Sharif’s debut collection, “Look”, a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award. The choice of cover image for the book intrigues me: it’s recognized as the oldest surviving photographic image, “View from the Window at Le Gras”, a heliograph by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, predating Daguerre by about 10 years. I’m not sure of the significance of this, but the resemblance of the image – a country estate – to the thick stone walls of a prison can’t be coincidence.

Pushcart XLII: Amit Majmudar, “Bully” (poem) from The Hopkins Review 9.1

David W. J. Lloyd: Shaddowmen Bully the Small

David W. J. Lloyd: Shaddowmen Bully the Small

First day fake friend
With the knuckle-
Crusher handshake
Making new kids
Buckle pleading
By the bus stop:

Complete story available online at The Hopkins Review

There’s something about the letter “f” that’s particularly vicious. Maybe it’s just me; maybe it’s the association with “fuck” and its euphemisms. Maybe it’s the bite, the upper-teeth-on-lower-lip, combined with the (potentially spitting) hiss. It gives this poem a particularly nasty opening, as if the bully isn’t nasty enough on his own.

But the poem is not simply a litany of abuses. Everything has two sides, and the kid who one day calls you “Shitskin” might pick you up and help you to the nurse’s office after he witnesses a beating. He may find some perverse comfort in his racist taunts, but he still has a small space of humanity inside. And then he’ll call you Shitskin the next day, maybe because he’s afraid of what would happen to him if that small space got too big.

And in the end, the bully himself has two sides, because we know that bullies learn to become bullies from someone. And we discover a small space of humanity in ourselves, that we can have compassion for a bully.

Majmudar, named Ohio’s first Poet Laureate in 2016, is, in the tradition of William Carlos Williams et al, a doctor, a diagnostic radiologist. I find it interesting and encouraging that several hospitals and medical schools publish literary journals. Bellevue Literary Review, first published in 2001, is well-known to Pushcart and BASS readers, and spawned a book division as well. The Hopkins Review, affiliated with Johns Hopkins, of course, is a newer participant in literature, entering the field in 2016. I’ve also discovered several other medical schools have literary journals. Most of these feature works that in some broad way reflect on health. This makes sense, as medicine has traditionally been seen, even in the modern age of rationalism, as a combination of art and science. From where I sit, it’s become far more about data management, but, like the vicious fricative f, maybe it’s just me.

Pushcart XLII: John R. Nelson, “Funny Bird Sex” (nonfiction) from Antioch Review 74.1

We humans like to think our species is unique.… Fire, underwear, irony, iPhones, art appreciation, AK-47s, judgment in the afterlife, life after offspring—all these set us apart, or so we believe. We’re the animal with a touchy self-pride, the animal that insists on locating itself in a separate, usually higher category. Man is the only animal that laughs at the sex lives of other animals.

One of the things I like about Pushcart is that they are not tied to the alphabetical-order tyranny of BASS; they can run a string of dark matter (exploitation, slavery, depravities, loss, the violence lurking beneath the surface of us all), scatter some hope and inspiration among it, then relieve the tension with sexual humor, all while still examining the subjective/objective aspects of writing and experience. Or maybe it’s just a fun piece about bird sex.

Just as I got to this essay, a video from a year ago came up in my twitter feed with the caption: “A year later, still #1.” Tell me you haven’t seen this scene played out at every bar, every wedding, every office party you’ve ever been to. Tell me you don’t know someone who reminds you of the (male) cockatoo on the right. Tell me you’ve never been the (female) cockatoo on the left. Or vice versa. This is Nelson’s point: “When we laugh at birds, we laugh at ourselves.”

In addition to reading examples of funny bird sex, Nelson tells us of funny human reactions to bird sex. It seems, in a trick of watching the watchers, birders who come upon bird sex in the wild invariably giggle. I would, I suppose. But one Althea Sherman, in 1925, had less of a sense of humor, objecting to profligate house wrens, flickers (“a weak-minded, inconsistent, frivolous creature that is called from duty by the notes of any stray male”), and a particular red-winged blackbird she named Brigham for his polygamy. Give ‘em a break, Ms. Sherman, it’s hard out there for a bird. I was going to comment on the tiny size of a bird brain, but it turns out birds have as many neurons in their forebrains as mammals.

But if we hold birds accountable for their sex lives, we need to recognize our similarities:

Males of many animal species are “dim in their sexual discernment,” says Robert Wright in The Moral Animal, and will try to breed with almost anything. Sure, it’s funny to us that a turkey will try to hump a stick with a fake head. But what about the millions of human males who masturbate to representations of women, including “women” who are literally cartoons?

If we looked at ourselves the way we looked at birds, we might be surprised. A fun essay. Entertaining. And informative. Isaac Bashevis Singer would be pleased.

Pushcart XLII: Ellen Bass, “Any Common Desolation” (poem) from Poem-a-Day, 11/18/16

can be enough to make you look up
at the yellowed leaves of the apple tree, the few
that survived the rains and frost, shot
with late afternoon sun. They glow a deep
orange-gold against a blue so sheer, a single bird
would rip it like silk. You may have to break
your heart, but it isn’t nothing
to know even one moment alive.

Complete story available online at Poetry; audio on Soundcloud

I almost treated this as a sweet, simple little poem, another of those “what is this doing here” moments I have so often, but a structural element made me look twice, and boy am I glad I did. Let me emphasize again that I have very little training in poetry, and am just flying by the seat of my pants here (hey, we all need our amusements), so don’t take any of this too seriously.

It’s a common thought, really, an oppositional binarism echoed from antiquity to today: We must know pain in order to know joy; we only understand dark because we know light. We appreciate the good things when we know disaster. This kind of thing always makes me wonder what we don’t understand now, because we have never seen its opposite (also a side effect of hanging around too many postmodernists).

The speaker starts with what most of us would consider the “down side” – the “any common desolation” of the title – before listing all the up-sides this down side incurs. She covers the entire sensorium, with elements of sight, sound, smell/taste, and touch. It’s interesting that there’s some violent language in the up-side stuff; leaves shot with sun, a sky a bird might rip. Then the down side is acknowledged again – a broken heart – and again, the good stuff involves words that could be associated with pain: tearing, grating, a cuff. The final pairing, of mud and wonder, likewise includes an ambiguous image of “a needle slipped into your vein” on the up side. The up and down sides, it seems, are not that clearly demarcated at all.

But what really interested me is that use of title as a first line, something I’ve noticed twice now in this volume. I still don’t know what it’s called, so I sent out some queries. Peter Stockwell, a professor of literary linguistics at Nottingham in England (and whose Cognitive Poetics mooc I was lucky to take a few years ago, which is how he ended up on my twitter feed) didn’t know of any canonical term, but suggested “title enjambment”; that cheered me, since I’d suggested a variety of enjambment when I saw this before.

I’m still not completely comfortable with that, though. Enjambment implies momentum, a sense of coming to the end of a line but being pushed across by the natural grammar of the sentence. That’s missing in these title enjambments, since a title is naturally a single line ending with a natural stop. The sense of enjambment isn’t recognized until the first line of the poem is read. This makes me wonder if retroactive enjambment might be appropriate.

The next suggestion came from Patrick Gillespie, a “carpenter & poet living ‘Up in Vermont’”, whose blog came to my attention via a Twitter shoutout from Emily Wilson, the Penn classicist whose recent Iliad translation has been creating a stir. Patrick said:

I’ve always just called them “Line Titles”, but I might be the only one?
Out of curiosity, I looked up Title in the Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms. They go on and on and on (ad nauseum) about Titles and how they *mean* things (to absurd lengths in my opinion) but in all that verbiage they somehow forget to notice the Line Title… That one slipped right passed them.
The poetic dictionary, by John Drury, actually has an entry. He called it, in a burst of descriptive genius: “Title as First Line”. He mentions that Marianne Moore was a pioneer of the “device”. “It resides outside the stanzaic structure”, he writes. And when you hear language like that, you know academics are salivating. What could it *mean*?

(We New Englanders have a sense of humor. We have to. After six months of winter, we don’t get Spring, we get a month of mud & flood season.)

I quite like “line titles”; simple, descriptive, and accurate. Since Academia shows little interest in naming this technique, and since no one pays any attention to me anyway, I hereby name the structure a line title, and declare the function to be retroactive enjambment: a sense of momentum not noticed until the next line – that is, the second line of the poem – is read.

This fits the content of the poem quite well. Any common desolation leaves us with the sense of some love gone, some joy ended. We stop, mourn. But if we can just go a little further – look at the leaves, smell the ginger, hear the oars, remember the moments of safety and love, feel our breath – we can realize it need not be an ending, but an inevitable transition; and there will be more love and joy ahead, because the world overflows with it.

Pushcart XLII: Joyce Carol Oates, “Undocumented Alien (Very Rough Draft Report, Project JRD)” from Conjunctions #67

Test subject #293199/Joseph Saidu Maada (undocumented alien, home country Nigeria, b. 1990, d. 2016).
Most immediate and long-lasting effect of the neurotransmitter microchip (NTM) inserted in the cerebral cortex of the human brain appears to be a radical destabilization of temporal and spatial functions of cognition….
In the last several months of Maada’s life, partly as a consequence (it is believed) of deteriorating vision, hearing, and cognitive functions, subject’s paranoia was heightened so that he became convinced that a team of black spies had been sent to abduct him and return him to Nigeria to be imprisoned and tortured in collusion with the CIA….
Simultaneously, and with no awareness of the contradictory nature of his assumptions, test subject Maada was made to believe that he was a “privileged alien agent” sent to Earth on a “secret stealth mission” from one of the orbiting moons of Jupiter….

JCO has a knack for twisting fiction into different shapes. An allegory built on the rebellion of a teenage mall rat? Sure. A master class in second person by way of mother-daughter tensions? No problem. An examination of subjectivity via an encounter between an aged poet and an up-and-coming writer? Done. An exploration of Emily Dickinson through that old standby SF trope, the android? Got it. And now she ties together elements from current events ranging from immigration to covert experimentation to suicide bombers to fraudulent universities, and styles it as a bureaucratic report starring disgruntled postdocs, a Floribunda rose bush, and the Jovian moon Ganymede.

I found this a very difficult story to read. Not in the sense of upsetting or infuriating; many of the events were horrific or deeply evil, but somehow it was distanced enough from reality by the presentation to keep the torture – and that’s what it amounts to, really – from feeling like I was reading about torture. I suspect that was one planned effect, and one subtheme, of the chosen format: a draft of a lab report consisting of “a compilation of lab notes with some expository and transitional material put together by a small team of postdocs”. The language of science claims to be objective, which means we never hear Joseph’s voice, only the observations and opinions of those who experimented on him. The pure outlandishness of the events further distanced it, removing it from real life; yet we live in a time when absurdity has become reality, as well as deep brain stimulation and smart prosthetics, so there really isn’t much in the story that is so far beyond reality. But it’s more comfortable to think of it as a John LeCarré thriller.

It was, nonetheless, difficult to read, in the sense of being hard to follow and just hard to read the next page. I actually gave up at one point, decided to skip it, something I very rarely do, but on about page 4 I really didn’t want to go through the next 19 pages. I came back to it after reading a few very brief comments about it in various online book reviews of Beautiful Days, the recently-published collection in which it appears. As with the distancing effect, I suspect the somewhat confusing “compilation of lab notes” structure was a deliberate choice, to manifest in the reader a sense of the temporal and spatial disorientation Joseph experienced.

The story, taken apart and put back together in chronological order, begins with Joseph enrolling in a university whose only purpose is to lure people from Africa and Asia with the promise of an engineering degree; when these people turn out to lack the requisite educational background and the instruction turns out to be substandard, they are unceremoniously kicked out of the program, losing their student visas in the process. The tuition, in Joseph’s case paid by a nonprofit, is not refunded, of course.

Joseph then disappears into the Nigerian-immigrant community of Edison, New Jersey, where he manages for a while until he is arrested for walking while black. His immigration status is discovered, and he is offered a choice: deportation, or participation in an experimental program. The experiments eventually include replacing his blood with a transparent substitute, implanting microchips to make him compliant, hear voices, and believe he is an alien from Ganymede, carrying an explosive device that will be detonated at some point; he “need do nothing but submit, and he would be blameless”. See what I mean about being distanced from real life?

For his participation, he would receive 150% of the salary he would otherwise have earned, because “PROJECT JRD has committed to ‘zero tolerance’ of exploitation of any of its subjects domestic or foreign” (the bureaucratic report format also highlights irony).

What could go wrong?

I kept wondering what the purpose was behind the program in general. In the 50s and 60s, the CIA experimented on unsuspecting Americans with LSD dosages given surreptitiously. The belief was that Russia was using LSD on Americans to brainwash them, so research was necessary to determine how it worked and how to combat it. Was this program a similar counterespionage thing, or something else? Something else, as it turns out.

In a sequence of surgeries, parts of the subject’s brain were excised and replaced with artificial devices – chips, stents. Such experimentation is crucial, for one day, and that day not far in the future, neurophysiologoical enhancements will be necessary to provide longevity to humankind, at least to world leaders and members of the ruling classes.

Something else.

Some fascinating psycho-neuro-philosophical questions are raised throughout. What would it be like to no longer understand sequence, to not know before or after or yesterday or tomorrow, to have no concept of now versus then? Can will be “hosed clean” from the brain? “Could one communicate with a region of the subject’s brain without involving the subject (‘consciousness’) at all? …. Could ‘consciousness’ be chased into a region of the brain, like a rat into a cage corner?” “Here, there. How do we distinguish?” Is this another distancing tactic? Anything but feeling the confusion and terror Joseph must have felt. Because, after all, this is just a story.

Pushcart XLII: Ben Stroud, “My Dear Master Liszt” from Oxford American, Fall 2016

Letitia Huckaby: “Lynnette” (2016)

I have become a slave owner. Yes, like you I believe in the freedom of all men—your Hungarians, the Poles, the Rumanians!—and in the role we artists must play—light-bringers, revealers of passion, sympathizers with the oppressed! But I have become a slave owner. It is a stain, a mark of rot. How many stains have I come to bear in these last weeks? They are countless.
I beg you, my dear Master Liszt, read this letter.

Complete story available online at Oxford American


Just as well-behaved women seldom make history, nice guys seldom make interesting protagonists or good fiction. It’s just the opposite, in fact: somehow the bad guy gets us on his side. This goes back centuries. I’m taking a mooc on Icelandic sagas, and have discovered 13th century readers of Grettis Saga wrote notes in the margins championing the lazy, vicious outlaw protagonist and cursing his eventual conqueror. For that matter, one of the original Western protagonists, Odysseus, was not a nice guy by many standards. But in fiction, as sometimes happens in life, a bad guy gradually worms his way into our hearts; we discover that, while he may act like a jerk, or even a criminal, he has moments of tenderness, or we discover some rationale for his antisocial behavior, or we admire his willingness to take the consequences; that helps us ease up on the judgment. In other stories, a basically good guy goes bad, and his initial goodness lets us stick with him.

In this story, I found I was completely sympathetic to Miszner from the opening. Who wouldn’t be? I was repulsed by most of his actions later on, but he recognized his disgusting behavior, so I was disappointed, but still with him as this is fiction and compassion is easier to come by than in real life. However, the last line of the story cut him off from my good graces entirely. On further reflection, I realized there are several ways of thinking about this story.

But let’s go back to the beginning. The story is in the form of a letter, obviously; does that make it an epistolary story? Epistolary novels are virtually always multiple documents, allowing for attitude change to occur in the gaps between letters. The changes here are traditionally narrated by someone who already knows the end when he sits down to write, so that changes things a bit. Still, the letter form is crucial, since it allows that last line, hearkening back to the opening. The narration throughout is therefore in the service of the ending.

Miszner is a young pianist who studied under Franz Liszt until he accidentally discovered the master considered him a mediocrity. That work leapt out at me from the text; Amadeus is one of my five all-time favorite movies, and mediocrity – the artist’s recognition of his own mediocrity – is crucial there, too. In fact, in many ways, Miszner reminds me of Salieri, though the Austrian achieved success in his mediocrity in one of the greatest musical cities in Europe rather than in Henderson, Texas.

I reached Henderson, Texas, the town I settled in, newly risen in those remote wilds, and the town from which these pages come.
Only in a place such as this, you said, might I be accepted as a genius—an ambassador of light!—a bearer of art, stirring passions in every breast! And, indeed, my dear Master Liszt, for fifteen years, in this far spot, it has been so.
Henderson has an academy, and for these fifteen years I have been its music teacher. To my students I proclaim emotion and the spirit as guiding stars, and for all the town I am a wonder, with my long hair, my twenty bright cravats, and my white gloves that, like you, I pull from my fingers and toss whenever I play. My townsmen consult me on the revolutions of ’48, the fashions of Europe, the duties of the heart.

Is this not genius? How we act and are perceived? It is not. Fifteen years, my dear Master Liszt. For fifteen years I have pretended to genius, only pretended. For this I have been punished. For this I have been made to pay.

I feel for this guy, who had so far to go before finding a pond small enough to make him look like a big fish. But I’m not convinced: he’s not talking about feeding his soul with music, but about feeding his ego with praise. The pursuit of the first, though foolish and damned to fail, is romantic and sad and beautiful; the second evinces a corrupted value system. And, more importantly, it is a choice.

Here is also where an alternative reading of the story comes into play. When, as a student, he asked Liszt what he should do if pianistic greatness is not within his grasp, the master suggests he go into his family’s business; lead a normal life, so to speak, and consider freedom from the demands of genius to be a gift. But Miszner is not satisfied with that answer, so he presses further, and Liszt suggests he travel the world to find a small pond. When does Miszner realize “you meant your words as a rebuke”? It wasn’t in the moment, or he wouldn’t have packed his bags that day and sailed in search of his small pond. Did he realize when he first shot the dead body of the hanging abolitionist? When he kept silent when the pregnant slave girl was gang raped? When her baby, now his property, died? Or only afterwards, when in his guilt and shame he realized the price of his pennyante fame?

I could have forgiven him even then. We all screw up, and to recognize one’s sin is to show a capacity for virtue. But redeemability requires one to accept responsibility and suffer the consequences, and here is where Miszner fails.

When I left your rooms in Baden-Baden fifteen years ago, I dreamed of transmuting my mediocrity into genius, of leading my fellow men as a noble artist, of living above the world like a heralding comet or star. Now I am stained with these guilts, these failings uncountable. Have you read on, my dear Master Liszt? I pray you have. It is why I write to you who taught me falsely, who sent me to this Texas. These stains, these guilts, these failings, they are mine. Yes, I own them. But you have a share, and my words—they have brought that share to you.

I’m still debating what words Miszner refers to. The advice to seek glory on a smaller stage? He knows that was his misunderstanding; does he blame Liszt for not being clearer? Or for mentioning the option at all? Or does he blame Liszt for recognizing his lack of genius, even though that lack was demonstrated to him in other cities, indeed recognized by himself, before he got to Henderson? Or is he just looking for any channel to release some of the guilt and shame, much as a beaten child sometimes turns into an abuser himself?

I became infuriated with that last sentence, with what I saw as cheap self-pity and the cowardly deflection of responsibility. But now I wonder if I was too harsh in my judgment. Then I read about Missy May and her doomed baby, and I wonder if there is any such thing as too harsh.

I continued to think about the responsibility a teacher, particularly a teacher of something so subjective as artistic practice, owes a student. I recalled a poem by Jeffrey Harrison, titled “Fork”, made into a top-notch video by some high school class:

You might even say your fork
made me a writer. Not you, your fork.
You are still the worst teacher I ever had.
You should have been fired but instead got tenure.
As for the fork, just yesterday my daughter
asked me why I keep a fork in my desk drawer,
and I realized I don’t need it any more.
It has served its purpose. Therefore
I am returning it to you with this letter.

The situation here is very different. Unlike Liszt, who was answering a question honestly, the teacher has major failings – the constant criticism and negativity, the use of students as a mirror, the flaunting of status – at least in the eyes of the student. Are those criticisms fair? Given that the student went on to become a successful writer, probably. What fascinates me about the poem, however, is not just the similar element of a teacher’s effect on a student of the arts, but whether or not the teacher was, in fact, detrimental. Without that teacher, there would have been no fork. Without that fork, would there have been a writer?

It takes a kind of genius to recognize and properly guide a student of the arts. I would guess that Liszt – the one in the story, anyway, though biographers tend to describe the real-life version as “complicated” and ‘contradictory” – lacked that genius. But I balk at the offloading of blame onto him. Yet it’s a story whose implications I’ll continue to think about, wondering who I’m blaming for my own failings.

Pushcart XLII: Jamie Quatro, “Belief” from Tin House #67

Makoto Fujimura: “Tree Grace”

Some mornings I wake up a Christian. On such mornings, upon waking, I feel a precognitive tug of joy in my body, a sense of delight I experienced regularly in childhood – my mind a blank page upon which someone is poised to write a message of bliss. On such mornings I know the tug of joy is a nudge from God, to remind me I am His child, I came to Earth trailing clouds of glory. How blessed, to feel divine approbation in my biological systems, unbidden. Today, out of gratitude, I will strive to please God with my actions.

If you’re anything like me, you’re tempted to skip out on the rest of the story. Forgive me, Christians reading here, but these days, people proudly announcing themselves as Christians tend to use their religion as a club with which to advocate endless mercy and compassion for those who look and believe like them while harshly punishing those who don’t. There are days when I have to remind myself that there are indeed many wonderful Christians who show generosity and charity of spirit. But not all days.

The second speed bump is that I’m not really big on traditional inspirational reading, either, so a story about a “tug of joy” makes me groan rather than sit up in anticipation. This is simply a matter of personal preference. I tend to be annoyed by people who have the world all figured out.

But neither of those apply to this story. It’s an honest look at the daily experience of one Christian woman, at the struggle she goes through to embody all those inspiring traits. Because even truly wonderful Christians who are full of charity, like this woman, flip out at cats that throw up on down comforters, carpool partners who are late, kids who whine about their math homework, husbands who can’t help much, and Jimmy Fallon’s occasional wrong note. So she ends her day envying the atheists of the world

None of them have to think about pleasing a divine being, no one is asking them to be grateful for anything… they are free to love, they loathe no one. Glorious. I fall asleep determined that tomorrow I will wake up an atheist.
Some mornings I wake up an atheist…. I feel only vacuity, the cold certainty that God is dead and everything I’ve ever felt of Him is the biological result of hormones, or a bright trigger spot in my brain, or psychology/wishful thinking, or what my parents told me. If I love anyone today, it will be the heroic effort of one tiny pointless accidental creature. There is no one watching, no one to please or displease. No mistakes or the need for forgiveness.
A lightness of spirit enters my being. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain….

I’m very fond of stories with non-linear structures: narratives in a mirror shape that end where they began, that spiral in or out, that form parallel tracks or condense then expand, in plot, point of view, or style. Here Quatro takes the former approach, turning it all around.

This is not only an interesting structure, but also brings home what I imagine to be her point (although it may be my point, foisted upon a helpless story): that the harder you try to be perfect, the more you will fail, but if you let it come naturally, you might find yourself capable of enormous wells of those beautiful Christian virtues like compassion and generosity. This brings to mind Confucius – yes, he lived centuries before Christ and had a completely different view of the universe – who said he spent his entire life training himself, through ritual, to do the right thing at the right time, and he finally got the hang of it at age 80 so he no longer had to think about it. This wu-wei, sometimes translated as “trying not to try”, has become popularized in a modified form known as flow. Maybe the woman in the story would think of it as “channeling God”.

Her day ends with an excellent plain-language description of Christian salvation. I was a Southern Baptist for most of my youth, and have read a lot of theology since then, but this gets to the heart of the matter without sounding vague or pretentious:

Before going to bed, it occurs to me that this all-encompassing compassion for humanity is what Christ taught and embodied…. The evil things they do cannot help but create a vast divide. But they should not have to bear the blame. It is not their fault. They have simply forgotten who they are. And as I am perfect in justice – all debts must be paid – I am also perfect in mercy, and therefore will become one of them and pay the cost in full. Breach the divide.

Every once in a while, someone will ask me why I spend so much time on this blog (“it’s so ten-years-ago” a friend recently reminded me). Among the many reasons: because sometimes I end up greatly enjoying a story I wouldn’t have bothered with if I weren’t committed to this.

A word about genre: I was again, as I sometimes am, confused about whether this was fiction or non-fiction. It reads like an essay, and Pushcart has it so listed, both by omitting the “Fiction” indicator and by the index. But Tin House, the original publisher, and Quatro’s own website, list it as fiction. I like that, and I’m going to go with authorial intent in this case. I want to speculate – and this is nothing but speculation on my part – that because the cat, and the homework, and Jimmy Fallon didn’t all happen on the same day, it is fiction, that to call it non-fiction would be that fast-and-loose thing I’ve ranted about before. Calling it fiction doesn’t diminish the reading experience one bit.

Pushcart XLII: Mark Jude Poirier, “Mentor” from Crazyhorse #89

Michael Cope: “Sciatica”

Michael Cope: “Sciatica”

When you meet him in 1980, he’s eleven years old with a dusting of freckles and a choppy haircut that looks as if his mother did it at the kitchen table. Ears to big for his head. Cute, though, with dimples and a shy smile. He has seven siblings, but he’s the only one of them here at Bellerive Country Day. You know he’s gay by the way he nervously averts his eyes whenever you look at him….You’re the assistant headmaster, in charge of admissions at this tiny little school in the corner of Baton Rouge. His father taught at MIT before he moved his family down here last spring. With all those kids, a few of them babies, they don’t have time for him. How could they? And they’re Catholics. What would they do with a gay son? Shame him to suicide, that’s what.

Because it’s used so rarely, second person can have powerful effects. I’ve mentioned many of them before: instructions, the “voice of God”, reader-character intimacy, a character distancing from himself. Here, there’s a fascinating use: a change in tone due not only to the revelation of various events in the story, but to the “you” shifting from one character to another.

We start out as above, feeling some appreciation for the teacher who recognizes a student who might have a hard time. The title has set us up to be sympathetic to the headmaster. The “you” at this point feels like the guy looking in the mirror, down the road, recollecting, and we’re on his side.

Then things start to get a little strange. First, it’s little things, like how he grabs the kid by the neck and treats him a bit harshly. It could be tough love, but it pretty quickly turns into something else when we realize the teacher has feelings beyond wanting to be a good teacher, to have a good influence on a kid who might get lost. He feels acute resentment when the kid chooses another teacher as his advisor in the next year; the pretense of tough love disappears. It’s just tough now. When he’s out of the boy’s life, we’re relieved, though still concerned because he’s in other boys’ lives.

The boy grows up, becomes a writer, and the teacher, now retired, writes a cruel review of his first book, then attends a local reading. It’s somewhere around here that the “you” begins to shift, that I sensed the teacher was no longer looking in the mirror, but the boy, now grown, was talking to him. The writer has a good career, a successful relationship, but a sciatic pain that torments him daily.

The “you” voice becomes fully accusatory in the final paragraph:

You were the only openly gay person in his life, and you made him think that gay men were creepy. And you taunted him and relished his discomfort. You pestered him. You pursued him. You grabbed his neck, and you knew he hated it but you kept doing it, and now it’s as though the pain traveled down his spine and manifested itself as a bulging disc at L5. As he pushes away any remaining empathy he might have felt towards you and trudges through all the sickening moments and interactions, clinging to the word “trauma” that his therapist uses to describe what you put him through, he says he wants more than anything to feel unmitigated rage, to wallow in it and make you fade, alongside his sciatica, into nothing.
But he can’t do it;….

I think part of the reason the transition succeeds so well is that the boy becomes a writer, an artist who can turn the voice as he does. As a reader, I was bitterly disappointed that the title turned into a cynical kind of irony; I can’t imagine how bitterly the boy felt when he realized someone who could have been a mentor, was instead a predator. And it’s not just the voicing that’s complex. It’s the kind of story we don’t want to hear, the kind of story homophobes thrive on. But secrecy isn’t the answer either. Secrecy is part of the problem.

It’s a complex issue, told in a complex manner. Emotionally searing. Worth studying, and remembering, from both angles.

Pushcart XLII: Sujata Shekar, “The Dreams of Kings” from Epoch 65.1

Art by Nitin Singh

Art by Nitin Singh

Our morning begins like every other, with the shrill of the clock, the hiss of the pressure cooker in the kitchen, the rattle of pipes signalling the release of water for the regulation hour. We brush, bathe, comb our hair, tie our shoelaces, all with an economy of motion born from the need to maneuver in single-roomed homes, to step over our children still sleeping on the floor. We fume before our deities of choice and remember to take our lunchboxes from our wives before leaving.
Some of us walk to the train station. Others take a bus or auto-rickshaw, or a share-cab if we can afford it. We sniff the muggy air, which by later June in Mumbai feels like snorting jelly…

Justice looks like different things to different people. Sure, we might all have a similar grand abstract notion that justice is about getting what you deserve (and mercy, not getting what you deserve, while grace is getting what you absolutely don’t deserve, goes a popular aphorism I was drawn to a few months ago) but in the flesh, in the moment, it’s a different matter. Say, in a courtroom, the judge, the defense, the prosecutor, and the defendant all might have different ideas of what a just outcome would be. And when a pickpocket is discovered on a hot, crowded commuter train in Mumbai, justice might look a lot like men gone wild.

I’m always alert for unusual narrative point of view, and first person plural is one of the most unusual: it indicates a group acting as one. In this case, the commuters form a collective subject. The story makes it clear that this is not the first time a pickpocketing has occurred; the business-ready gentlemen know where to look for the stolen cash (not just the wallet, but the seams of the clothing, down to his underwear, and the soles of his sandals). The also know, when the search comes up empty, that an accomplice has probably already spirited the booty off the train. So what’s left, what possible justice is there but to beat the guy to a pulp?

And if it starts to feel like fun after a while, well, it is what it is.

We take turns like our parents taught us.
… he tells us what to do with our mothers and our virginal sisters. He draws illogical cause-effect chains: you went to college, now work in big-big offices, fear God Allah Guru Christ, Christiwhatyouplease, how do you not know the meaning of mercy?

That oxymoronic turn-taking, the civilization of violence, like the legal rules of war, makes it both better and worse. Better, because it doesn’t turn into a free-for-all where innocent people get hurt. Worse, because it raises the possibility that there are no innocent people. No one speaks out against it, tries to stop it (underlined, or perhaps facilitated, by the first person plural POV), except the pickpocket, of course, and he introduces the relativity factor. I don’t know why he didn’t go to college or get what he imagines is a cushy job – what the men on the train probably recognize as a cushy job, even as they feel themselves pulverized by it every day. They can’t beat up the corporation, so they beat up the pickpocket.

Shekar hints at something else by ending the story where it began, with a big difference:

We will pull through the day with unaccustomed verve, contradict our bosses on a minor but suddenly critical point, treat ourselves to a mango-softee ice cream and dig our tongue into the bottoms of the cone like a child. We will ride the usual evening trains, and whistle as we walk to our homes. After dinner, we will fuck our wives with a vigor that will leave them sore and waddling. And once we have set our clocks to wake us the following morning, and the morning after tha, and the next, and the next, and the nextnextnext, as long as our destinies let us, we will slip into the dreams of kings.

Kings get their own vision of justice, no matter how cramped the train or how small their house. And again: if justice starts to feel like fun after a while, like a man fighting back at what is crushing him – albeit in the wrong direction – it is what it is.

Pushcart XLII: Reginald Dwayne Betts, “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving” (poem) from Poetry, April 2016

in the backseat of my car are my own sons,
still not yet Tamir’s age, already having heard
me warn them against playing with toy pistols,
though my rhetoric is always about what I don’t
like, not what I fear, because sometimes
I think of  Tamir Rice & shed tears, the weeping
all another insignificance, all another way to avoid
saying what should be said: the Second Amendment
is a ruthless one, the pomp & constitutional circumstance
that says my arms should be heavy with the weight
of a pistol when forced to confront death like
this: a child, a hidden toy gun, an officer that fires
before his heart beats twice.

Complete poem available online at Poetry Magazine

This is one of those poems that I’m not going to touch. I’m just going to let the excerpt sit there on its own power, with a link to the complete poem (please, go read it). Sometimes I don’t say much about a poem because I’m not sure what to make of it, and that feels like cheating, but sometimes, like now, I just don’t want to get in its way, and that feels just right.

Pushcart XLII: Allegra Hyde, “Future Consequences of Present Actions” from Gettysburg Review, Spring 2016

Art: Martha Kelly

Art: Martha Kelly

Charles Lane sits pinned by the gaze of a gray–eyed woman, her face shadowed by a plain white bonnet. He clears his throat. He is not a man of the flesh, he tells her, though he uses many more words—words that wander back to England, Greavesian ideology, his staunch belief in abstinence—before returning to the present moment: the little son beside him, back erect against a wooden chair, feet dangling above the polished floor. William Lane. His father’s greatest source of pride. His father’s greatest source of shame.
“It is with the utmost conviction,” says Charles Lane, addressing the whole assembly, “that I hold paternal love to have a deleterious effect on humanity’s pursuit of spiritual ascension.”

Complete story available online at Gettysburg Review

Utopia. We all know what it means; we all look for it, hope to find it throughout our lives, design our societies to approximate it. I recently took a couple of moocs where utopias came up – first, in the context of Thomas More’s novel, which first used the word, and second in regard to science fiction depictions of utopias and dystopias. I did some minor research at the time, and discovered it’s even more interesting than that perfect place we all imagine.

The word itself, coined by Thomas More for his 1516 book, is a pun explained in an appendix to the novel: when spelled outopia (from the Greek οὐ, ‘not,’ and τόπος, ‘place’), it means noplace. But when spelled eutopia (using the Greek εὖ as the prefix), it sounds the same but means good place. That’s a lot of mileage to get out of a single word.

The other thing that occurred to me, in connection with the science fiction mooc, is that maybe utopia and dystopia are different sides of the same coin. Charles Lane, our protagonist (or one of them, at any rate), has seen both sides.

Elder Geary shudders. He feels the sweet drowsiness of death encroaching but cannot yet justify succumbing. What would Mother Ann think, witnessing her teachings so desecrated? Elder Geary had once followed the woman on her holy tour through Massachusetts—he’d heard her sing without words, heal without touch—and her principles of common property had galvanized his thumping heart. All Shakers, rich or poor, pooled their possessions so that all might aspire toward godliness. And yet this man, this Charles Lane—for all his voluble admiration of their Shaker customs—saw himself as an exception?
“Hear me!” Elder Geary sits bolt upright.
The attending Brethren step back from his cot in surprise.
“We have an unbeliever among us.” Elder Geary lifts a shaking hand to point at Charles Lane.

The story is told in parallel style, alternating between Charles Lane’s story and his son’s. The son’s story is told in highly impersonalized style: “A boy must be amenable. He must concede. He must not look for his father.” Stripped of any humanity, he becomes only an example of the Shaker rule, his longings emphasized by prohibitions. It’s highly effective, and surprisingly readable.

I wonder if this would be considered historical fiction. There was indeed a Fruitlands community, founded by Charles Lane and Bronson Alcott, father to Louisa May, who was about 10 years old at the time. The detail of the Alcott children receiving special dispensations are not noted in the sources I casually browsed; it seems the community failed because of poor management, leading to an inability to support itself. Sophia Foord is also a historic figure, a teacher who was hired to tutor Louisa May, and who at some point developed a passionate crush on Thoreau, scaring the socks off him by proposing.

Lane’s life is notable enough to be recounted in several places, including a fascinating compilation of his and others’ journal entries by Clara Endicott Sears, a philanthropist who purchased the failed Fruitlands and later converted one of the buildings into a museum. His son William is mentioned in these sources, but there is no clear indication that his father left without him. For that matter, there is no mention of any ostracism following a dramatic deathbed scene with an Elder Geary (who appears to be a fictional character), though there is evidence of his reluctance to throw his money into the community pot, having just lost a bundle on Fruitlands.

“Perhaps,” says Mrs. Alcott, “you could make the love argument.” She glances at her husband, who has remained uncharacteristically quiet. Louisa May feels the grip on her shoulder tighten, the bruising press of her mother’s unwavering affection. “As I see it, you can either leave William and return to England or you can go before the Shakers and declare the preeminence of paternal affection. That blood trumps all other bonds.”
Charles Lane says nothing.

What this story does so effectively is show by not telling. The opening lines about his son being his greatest pride and shame – the evidence of earthly passions, after all – sets up a kind of ambivalence again seen when he resists divesting his financial goods to the Shaker community. He manages to spin the Fruitlands failure as someone else’s fault, a weakness of paternal attachment he denies – and yet, when Mrs. Alcott suggests “the love argument”, he says nothing. What is going on in his head? Is he thinking, I don’t believe in parental love and I’m not going to use it now? Or, I’m ashamed of my paternal love so I’m not going to show it now? Or, What’s love got to do with it, they have something that’s mine?

The title not only refers to a clear element of the story, but also to the story itself, where elements in the beginning – Lane’s haughty disregard for the paternal favoritism he witnessed at Fruitlands – comes back to bite him in the end. The last two lines of the story, however, show he is not the only one bitten:

A boy must have his evening chores complete before dark. He must never make a fire in a stove without supervision. There must be no wood piled near the stove nor the spit box set beneath the stove. The stove must always be shut tight before all leave the room. A boy must return to his sleeping quarters by nine. If a door is locked, a boy must not go on rattling and knocking. It is not meant to be opened.

It’s a quiet kind of heartbreak. The tone keeps sentiment tightly controlled, while still allowing it to seep in gradually. What’s saddest, maybe, is that this isn’t seen as that big a deal, when viewed through the lens of the time and place.

One person’s utopia is another’s dystopia.

Pushcart XLII: Safiya Sinclair, “Good Hair” (poem) from New England Review 37.2

Artist: April Harrison

Artist: April Harrison

Sister, there was nothing left for us.
Down here, this cast-off hour, we listened
but heard no voices in the shells. No beauty.
Our lives already tangled in the violence of our hair,
we learned to feel unwanted in the sea’s blue gaze,
knowing even the blond lichen was considered lovely.

Complete poem available online
at New England Review

Over the last few years, several poems and stories have come up dealing with the stigmatization of black hair in white-dominated society. I won’t repeat the issues I’ve mentioned, the school children harassed, the servicewomen required to conform, the general idea that the only hair worth having is long, flowy blondeness, even praised in the Yeats epigram that precedes the poem.

This poem has a somewhat different tone than the contemporary stories, however. In addition to lyrical language, the setting is in the family, where two sisters have not inherited their mother’s “good hair”. The mention of violence – and I love the metaphor of “the violence of our hair” – gives a grim tone to the poem. It’s very possible I’m missing an allusion somewhere: two drowned sisters? In any case, the imagery is haunting, melancholy, and ultimately angry (or maybe that’s my anger) at the efforts to artificially fix what is perceived, even by the speaker, as flawed.

Pushcart XLII: Mahreen Sohail, “Basic Training” from A Public Space #24

Maya Lea Portner, Reem Bassous: “Negotiating Dystopia”

Maya Lea Portner, Reem Bassous: “Negotiating Dystopia”

Two months ago, our mother was admitted to the Noor Hospital for People Who Need Organs and New Teeth. My sister and I had just finished donating blood and were in the parking lot of the hospital, both of us sitting in our car with the doors open, taking great gulping breaths of fresh air to restore our energy. Around us, paramedics leaped out of screaming ambulances and tried stretching soldiers back to life. A young man in a blue kameez and a red sash leaned over a stretcher, his cheeks like small hard tumors in his face. He gently admonished the soldier, This is selfish, guy, pull yourself together, while his friend stood next to him taking quick, worried puffs from a joint.

Complete story available online at A Public Space

The state of the world is such that I can’t tell what parts of this are based on grim realism and what parts are horrifically dystopic allegory. The second time through, I realized it wasn’t out of line to wonder if the mother was admitted to the hospital, not because she needed organs or teeth, but because she had them.

It’s an uncomfortable read, always walking a very thin line. The tone is tense and clipped, adding to the horror that a run-of-the-mill day holds for the sisters. I barely get a sense of anyone as an individual. The events are reported simply, the most grisly details matter-of-fact:

I should not have to string these scenes up in front of you like this to help you understand that the word loss has a weight that cannot be borne.

Even when I get some sense of why the sisters have been brought to this training camp, I don’t feel much, as if I’ve taken on the objectivity of the narrator, the detachment of the voice. This is the danger of seeing constant chaos and human degradation: we get used to it, see it as normal. Whether it’s well-heeled school kids being mowed down by their disaffected peers, or children drowning in the Mediterranean on a 50/50 chance of escaping hell alive, or unrestrained genocide (what the hell, murderous Buddhists?), our minds normalize it, because if it were wrong, surely someone in authority would be doing something about it, wouldn’t they?

Pushcart XLII: Keith Ratzlaff, “Poem Imposing Order” (poetry) from I-70 Review 2016

Pablo Romero:  One Hand Slam Dunk

Pablo Romero: One Hand Slam Dunk

The chestnut on the playground,
its pinkish flowers.
Three boys playing Hacky Sack.
And the fat guy with a basketball
imagines himself
lanky and light as a balloon –
which is a kind of perspective,
a way of being
able to dunk when you can’t,
which is the oldest kind
of story,
the lie we tell ourselves.

Metamorphosis. We change; our perspective changes; our stories change, our lives change. The poem changes. I tend to like poems and stories that change, where you’re reading and just as you think, Oh, that’s what this is, I’ve got it now, it becomes something else.

This poem changes in two ways that move in opposite directions: from looking at the tree then panning back to see the forest, on the one hand, and from looking out to looking inward, on the other. The transition – both subtle and sudden, another atypical pairing – hammers it home with great effectiveness. And again, as we have so often in Pushcart, there’s an artist, a writer, at the core.

Following the speaker’s gaze in the opening lines above, we start on the playground watching the fat guy with a basketball. Things move pretty quickly into a more metaphorical direction, even as we find more details of the scene. Then we get to a kind of high point, or maybe just a resting spot, one of those Oh, I see points:

And he shoots, imposing order
on the day. Each made shot
erases a scar,
some old humiliation –
which is a kind of forgiveness,
a way to tell
the story right the second time.

It’s a double-daydream: someone thinking of a guy playing basketball, rewriting his life, correcting all the mistakes. We’re given only broad outlines of those mistakes – an uncle with a mangled arm, betrayal, a day in Greece – so we can imagine our own versions from the mistakes of our own lives, making us one with both the imaginary basketball guy and the speaker in the poem. As the number of consecutive free throws climbs, so does the imagined glory, and life gets better and better by the power of a basketball swishing through net. So what if it’s only in the mind of the basketball guy in the mind of the speaker in the mind of the poet? It’s real enough to us. Who wouldn’t want to live over a few days, undo a few mistakes? But would our lives turn out differently? Would we be courted by NBA scouts for fame and riches instead of ending up a fat slob at whatever ordinary job? I’m not so sure.

Then the poem does that back-and-in-at-the-same-time move (like a basketball player doing a fakeout to a pivot?) and we move out to see the bigger picture: the speaker, maybe even the poet, and it’s suddenly not “Look at that guy over there” but an intense inward gaze:

the unfolding story where
I never go home.
And x means
there is no story,
no palimpsest,
just the world
retold, scraped clean.

We all have ways of imposing order on a chaos: the writer as god, saying “let there be light” in infinite ways, creating a universe that makes sense. And then, when that, too, gets messy – because our existence seems based on increasing entropy – there’s another blank page waiting.

Pushcart XLII: George Saunders, “Taut Rhythmic Surfaces” (nonfiction) from Southampton Review, Winter/Spring 2016

John F. Petro: “Myth & Moor” (1885)

John F. Petro: “Myth & Moor” (1885)

I didn’t know James Salter well at all, personally. I only spent part of one day with him….
But actually he had been a dear friend of mine for many years before that, and will continue to be a dear friend to me as long as I live through his prose. He did for me, and does for me, what any dear friend might do. He helps me sustain my sometimes faltering faith in an idea I base my life on: namely, that there is something sacred about working in prose; that purifying one’s prose style is a form of spiritual dedication; that working with language is a beautiful and noble way to spend one’s life. Every time I read his work I feel a kindred spirit there and am convinced all over again that the way we write a sentence can be everything: exploration, devotion, celebration. A person is never more himself than when he’s writing a sentence he’ll later stand by.

When I read tributes like this one (delivered by Saunders at a speech following Salter’s death in 2015) I’m acutely aware that I don’t have a “favorite author”, and I worry that there’s something wrong with me. I don’t even have a “favorite story” or “favorite novel”, or for that matter a favorite movie or song. Instead, I have a cluster of songs/movies/stories/songs that I love, often for very different reasons, and at various times one or the other is preeminent in my heart; but that’s because of the circumstances of the moment, where my head is at as we used to say, not because of the work itself.

Maybe that’s the difference between me, as a reader, and someone like Saunders who spends his days crafting that which I read. A workman knows fine workmanship. A baker can tell when someone properly proofed the dough, added the yeast at the right temperature, because the baker has thrown out so many failed loaves. A dancer can tell when another’s pointe is just a little off; a pianist knows when a passage isn’t as clear as it should be. A writer, someone who cares about sentences and phrases and syllables and how they fit together into paragraphs and works, knows writers.

What James did so magnificently is make the case for desire, reminding us of how good it feels, how essential it is for us, how wonderful, how unavoidable, an inevitable and happy result of simply being alive – while at the same time reminding us that it’s dangerous to desire. Or, maybe, dangerous to simply desire, to believe that the satisfaction of desire is sufficient for a human being.
We can’t live with desire and we can’t live without it, we say.
Correct, says the Salter story.

I don’t think Saunders is saying there’s one right way to form prose. I think he’s saying that there are many approaches, many styles, but each one has potential for excellence. A writer who hits excellence consistently, whatever her style, deserves notice.

I’ve never read Salter’s work, which maybe hampers my appreciation of Saunder’s comments. But it doesn’t hamper my appreciation of appreciation; there’s no more beautiful thing. Though I’m no Saunders, I hope, along the way, I’ve expressed appreciation for various works I’ve read, because we give what we have.

Pushcart XLII: Keith Woodruff, “Elegy” from Wigleaf 9-29-16

(R.W.W. June 4, 1998 — July 14, 1998)
Early morning. As he enters the chicken coop, the hens are quiet but for that low steady clucking. Calmly, the boy reaches into the first nest and gently takes the brown egg. He wants to get in and out without rousing the hens. Three eggs in his basket now. His chore each morning before school.

Complete story available online at Wigleaf

We all have those moments when our point of view changes forever. Sometimes it’s a major paradigm shift (when I discovered what menstruation was, I realized the women in my life, the world in general, had been keeping this huge secret from me, and I wondered what else I wasn’t being told), sometimes it’s narrowly focused but has a strong impact (I watched a friend of mine walk away with a boy I liked, and I realized she was right for him and I was not). It’s like a photograph that’s suddenly enhanced, or recolored, and you can’t imagine why you didn’t see some crucial detail before.

Every morning they do this dance. The rooster is just doing his job. The boy gets that but feels they should have an understanding by now. That the rooster should back off and stop making his shit job of gathering eggs harder than it has to be.

Woodruff catches that moment with this flash fiction about a boy gathering eggs. One minute, it’s a tedious chore like any chore; the next, he realizes what an egg is. Years later, in the climax implied rather than written, he has a heart-rending moment when he finally understands the rooster, that the rooster’s job was far more than he’d realized as a kid. The title and epigraph, so easily overlooked in stories, are crucial, and provide the cavernous space in which the emotion of the story echoes and resonates, the different chords building and augmenting each other as we fully realize what’s happened.