Tony Hoagland, Twenty Poems That Could Save America (Graywolf, 2014)

…[T]his book begins with a generalist essay on American poetic diction, and it ends with a broad exhortation for poetry’s relevance and vitality in our country’s school systems. In between, not so hidden among other appreciations and critiques, I find, to my own surprise, a recurring complaint about the lack of adulthood represented in much new American poetry. The presence of this theme surprises me because I am an ardent believer in poetical irreverence, spontaneity, informality, and subversion of decorum – qualities not usually associated with maturity.
Though it was not a conscious agenda in writing these essays, I nonetheless stand by my complaint. I believe that poetry has a role to play in contemporary American culture, and that it has lately retreated from that risk, that faith, and that opportunity. …The avant-garde continues to make its dubious claims of political credentials; the uber-theorists and technicians create their Rubik’s cubes of difficulty; and the charming but superficial disco-dance of Personality has crowded into the verbal foreground of many poems, displacing the enterprise of sustained thought, emotional intensity, ethical agency, and even subject matter itself.

Tony Hoagland, Preface

One of the poems I very much enjoyed in the last Pushcart was Hoagland’s “Into the Mystery”. I’m always looking for ways to improve my embarrassingly low poetry reading ability, so when I saw this collection of essays on contemporary poetry, I jumped at it.

Some of the essays review poetic techniques: diction, something he calls poetic housing, and composite poems. Others look at individual poets: Sharon Olds, Robert Bly. Others talk about specific categories of poetry: the New York School, spiritual poems. And the title essay, saved for last, bemoans the teaching of poetry and makes some suggestions for a core curriculum, and what life lessons that curriculum might teach.

Hoagland is critical of a great deal of contemporary poetry, seeing it as populist and fun but not really poetically significant. This made me feel a little less forlorn about my constant refrain of “I don’t know what to say about this” every year as I work through Pushcart. Maybe it isn’t entirely my incompetence; maybe the poems just don’t use what I’m able to recognize.

He takes some swipes at Big Guns, dismissing Steven’s “Emperor of Ice Cream”, though the poet finds redemption in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Hey, Paul Simon got pissed off whenever anyone requested “59th Street Bridge Song” (aka “Feeling Groovy”) and more people know Bobby McFerrin for “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” than any of the truly brilliant genre-spanning work he has done; an occasional trip to Goofytown doesn’t define one’s art.

He’s also rather negative about John Ashbery, who I just struggled with but still feel fondly towards, as he was a mainstay of ModPo:

What’s missing from [John Ashbery’s] Marivaudage and many other such textual experiments, are two related poetic values: emphasis and reciprocity. Without a discernible emphasis, without some hint of authorial allegiance assigned to some moments in the poem over others, we cannot begin the process of response. We need to be able to identify what and where the stakes are in a poem ; where the gravity, or weight, is located. …Without such a stake or declaration, regardless of style, the poem will lack substance.
Similarly, without a reciprocal relationship between a poem and a reader, that is, a relationship that deepens through responsiveness and rereading, one of the most basic reasons for poetry has been inexplicably abandoned. At that point, virtuosity, verbal facility, and intelligence are beside the point. If the poem does not need the reader, the reader does not need the poem.

My problem is, I can’t tell if what I determine is a lack of emphasis is my problem, or the poet’s. For example: in the “Poetic Housing” chapter, he talks at length about two poems by Jean Follet, and while I come away with greater appreciation for them after reading his remarks, I don’t think I would be able to apply anything new to future reading. His housing checklist…

What kind of poem is this?
How big is the whole?
Where is the center? What is the central element?
Am I reading for sound, sense, story, or image?
Is this image centrally significant?
What is the general perspective or tone?
What are the extraneous or secondary parts?

…tempts me greatly, but I’m not sure what the questions mean, or if I would be able to answer any of them in regard to any new poem. And that’s the issue, isn’t it; each poem needs to be approached on its own, and any greatness therein can take any number of forms. So many people – poets, mostly, I guess – seem to have this instinct for grasping what is significant in a poem; it’s usually fairly subjective, described by words like “powerful” or “nimble” or involves images that resonate or contrast, or uses languages in ways that “uplift” or “disorient”. I seem to have lost the rule book for what is powerful, uplifting, etc. At one point he rewrites one of Follet’s poems to make it a “lesser” poem, and I have no idea if I’d be able to tell which was which in a blind test.

The final essay proposes that poetry, the right poetry, teaches all sorts of useful things: “the ethical nature of choice…. respects solitude…. stimulates daring…. rehabilitates language…. rehearse the future.… aesthetics of broad application.” This essay appeared in the April 2013 online edition of Harper’s, but poetry was already being cast in the wastebin in favor of more marketable skills. There were periods of Chinese history during which applicants for government jobs had to display poetic proficiency, but that was a long time ago. His main point in this final piece is that the wrong poetry is being taught badly, mostly by teachers who are insecure about poetry themselves.

Addendum: As I was deleting my notes for this post, I realized I’d left out something important regarding “poetry teaches the ethical nature of choice” – not something important about poetry, but about the highly romanticized vision Hoagland seems to have of our legislative process. As an illustration of this particular poetic effect, he asks his reader to imagine a Congressional committee meeting in which legislators are discussing a bill that involves short-term results or long-term gain. One lawmaker quotes “Travelling Through the Dark” by William Stafford; the committee discusses the two points of view, and a couple of minds are changed on what to do with the bill. First, any representative/Senator who discusses poetry in a committee meeting would be shamed mercilessly for all time. Second, maybe he thought it was different in 2013 when he wrote this piece – I don’t think so, not at all – but it’s my impression that legislators decide their positions on bills depending on a) reactions of campaign donors, and b) effects on re-election polls; every other brain cell is devoted to crafting an explanation in the face of pretty much any objection how that position is right. Bless Hoagland for his naivete. But it’s the kind of “application of Poetry” that further distances the art from any real purpose.

In my mooc travels among mathematicians (will I ever learn integral calculus, differential equations, or continuous probability? I doubt it) I’ve heard many stories about how awful it is to announce oneself as a math teacher and immediately get a response of, “I HATED math!” Hey, try telling people you’re a poet, or teacher of poetry. I’m guessing at least as many people hate poetry as math, and just like in algebra class, the problem isn’t necessarily the subject but the approach to teaching it. The objective in many English classes is to get the answer right on a test, not to feel anything or see anything new in a poem. And for that matter, history is another subject ruined by high school; we come out of it with names and dates (if we’re lucky) and have no idea how things came to pass. I wonder if our present predicament combines all three deficiencies.

Hoagland died last year, so there will be no more poems from him; yet his words can still speak to us. I enjoyed this collection, even though I’m dubious I can apply it; I want to get a used copy for my next trip through Pushcart. I don’t know that it will help, but at least it might give me some encouragement.

I picked a very bad time to read this volume. I’d already packed my books for my move, so I went through the list of library books I’d marked, and picked this rather randomly. I should’ve picked one of the easy-reading fictions, because my concentration has been horrible, and time has been an issue. I’m still not back to reading-weight, let alone writing-weight, but it’s time to start working out.

Kwame Onwuachi with Joshua David Stein, Notes from a Young Black Chef (Knopf, 2019)

Gumbo, in its essential form, arrived shortly after 1720, carried in the taste and muscle memories of enslaved West African people. The word gumbo comes from the Gold Coast Twi term ki ngombo which means “okra” (itself an Igbo word, the language of my grandfather and my father )…..
Like stolen labor, this stew became part of a southern culture whose origins rest on the corrupt scaffolding of slavery. Nothing about what it has become undoes this fact, though the dish never stopped growing and evolving. When Germans arrived in Louisiana, they introduced spicy andouille sausage. When the Spanish took over in the late 18th century, they threw in their famous jamón and added a salty meatiness to the stew. And after the Spanish government brought fishermen over from the Canary Islands in the late 1700s shrimp and crab pulled from the Gulf of Mexico were added, and seafood gumbo, my favorite, became common too.

When I put this book on my list, I had no idea Onwuachi had been a contestant on Top Chef. I stopped watching a long time ago, but still have a lot of residual fondness for the show. I simply wanted to read another chef book, and getting a black perspective appealed to me.

Onwuachi’s life sort of mimics the gumbo he makes. Instead of various cultures coming to him, he’s been born in them, gone to them, and searched them out. He started out in Queens, NYC, was sent to live with his grandfather in Nigeria “to learn respect” when he was eleven, became a gang member in his teens, dealt drugs in college until he got kicked out, and moved to Louisiana with his mother when he decided to pull himself together. He didn’t cook much in his youth, unlike many chefs; his mom ran a catering business so he was around food, but his forays into restaurants were short-term and unsatisfying.

Until he went to work on a ship cleaning up the Gulf oil spill. This guy’s life is a metaphor.

Onboard ship, he developed the kind of appreciation of flavor, technique, and innovation that would serve him well as a chef. But he knew he needed more training, so he talked himself into a spot at the Culinary Institute of America and moved heaven and earth to figure out how to pay for it. That included his first catering company, put together with duct tape and sheer nerve over a thin but resilient layer of confidence. Along the way he got a prized externship at Per Se, and later, a gig at Eleven Madison Park, two of the swankiest restaurants in a city that eats swanky restaurants for breakfast.

As he graduated from the CIA (the foodie one, no spies), the hierarchy at EMP changed, and he decided to leave. The tirade his boss hit him with on his way out is memorable:

“Think of your ancestors!” he exploded. “Think of Carême and Escoffier. Fuck, think of Chang and Keller,“ he said, reeling off the list of famous chefs who had shaped the fine dining world. There was a great irony in Flint echoing what my grandfather had said about my ancestors when I was living with him in Nigeria: “Your ancestors will never leave you. They are part of who you are.“ Here was Flint, a guy who I knew thought black chefs had no place atop the kitchen hierarchy, telling me to think of my ancestors, as if my ancestors were his ancestors too. But no, my ancestors aren’t Carême and Escoffier or Keller or even Daniel Humm or David Chang. My ancestors are the ones I thanked after granddad killed [the rooster] Red, back in the dusty courtyard of Ibusa. My ancestors are those who, like Aunti Mi, ground cassava flour for hours, soaked stockfish, and hit kola trees until the nuts fell down. My ancestors are steeped in the curries and jerk of Jamaica and found in the stews and rouxs, gumbos and jambalayas of Louisiana. It wasn’t something I’d ever expect Flint to understand, but it was something I couldn’t deny any longer.

From there, he developed his catering company, competed in Top Chef, then opened – and quickly closed – his first restaurant in DC. And he was 27 years old. Time to write a book, and figure out the next step.

One of his anecdotes concerns a TV producer, unnamed, who tells him “America isn’t ready for a black chef who makes this kind of food…. Fine dining: veloute. What the world wants to see is a black chef making black food, you know. Fried chicken and cornbread and collards.” I’m not sure about America, but to this TV viewer, this is definitely the attitude of competitive-reality TV producers. I’ve watched (not recently; things may have changed) a host of different shows, and time and again I’ve seen a LatinX and Asian chefs told to abandon ideas of French brunch or farm-to-table and their CIA training and go with what fits with their last name. And here Onwuachi is making what is authentic to him – a fascinating fusion of New York, East Texas/Louisiana, Jamaica, and West Africa – but it doesn’t match with the producer’s idea of what kind of food black people make. This is a theme from the start of the book: “I am an African American chef, so if I cook my food, isn’t every menu I create African American by default?”

The book opens with a wonderful chapter capturing his thoughts while catering the dinner honoring the architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He’s aware of every detail happening on the fifth floor as the food is prepared and served, but he’s also aware of the exhibits below, and how his story adds to that larger story. Then we back up and go through the uneven childhood, the growing pains, the twists and turns that got him to the fifth floor, directing a crew that a few months later would staff his restaurant.

That the restaurant failed is not glossed over at all; it’s dissected in detail. I remember reading something in some book somewhere that it’s a workout rule to “never end on failure”, but the book seems to end on failure with the closing of Shaw Bijou. Yet it left me with the sense that Onwuachi viewed it as a low point on which he could plant his feet and take another leap of faith. That attitude seems to be reaping rewards: he’s the chef for a hot DC hotel restaurant, and just won the 2019 James Beard Rising Star award. Seems to fit in my math prof’s theme of “You learn more from your mistakes than your successes.”

Like gumbo, Kwame Onwuachi has picked up a lot from various influences, and has adapted to a wide variety of settings and expectations. Because he’s so young – he’ll be 30 in the fall – it’s a gestation story, a first installment on what promises to be a life that continues to absorb and react and grow. Or, who knows, maybe he’ll settle down, having sowed his wild oats, and run the same restaurant for the next 40 years. We’ll have to watch what happens.

Jo Walton, Lent (Tor, 2019)

What keeps some things the same, while others change? If history is a tide sweeping down a river, and individuals are leaves being swept along on top of the current, what makes Isabella come back and the emperor stay at home? How much can be changed? Can all of it?

A bit of preliminary housekeeping: in order to write about my experience with this book, I need to include spoilers. Most professional review include some indication of what the book is about (or else how would we know whether we want to read it?), but I will go beyond what they reveal. So be forewarned: SPOILER ALERT.

Most of the aforementioned reviews will tell you it’s Dante-meets-Groundhog-Day, as Cory Doctorow put it in his LATimes review (I would add Milton to the mix). Girolamo Savonarola, the 15th century Florentine monk who is today famous for his Bonfire of the Vanities, lives his life, dies, goes to hell, and does it all over again, trying each time to find a way to stop the cycle. That’s a decent summary, and I impulsively decided to read it (it’s an addition to my summer reading list in the Religion category) since it includes several special interests of mine. Historical fiction meets religion via fantasy, you might call it. Or, “A historical fantasy set in Florence and Hell between 1492 and 1498, pretty much,” as Walton says in her introduction for Tor Books; “The first time through it’s pretty close to what really historically happened, give or take a few demons and the holy grail.” But the heart of the book is much deeper than this playfulness might indicate.

The Groundhog Day repetition is accomplished by structuring the book in Parts, alternating between Florence and Hell; each chapter within Parts One, Three, and Seven, the Florence parts, begins with a consecutive line from the Lord’s Prayer. The even Parts Two, Four, and Six, taking place in Hell, have only one short chapter each. The final Part Seven is a bit different, as it telescopes many, many iterations, and brings things to a conclusion, a single sentence that is climax and denouement. Given there are only two possible outcomes – the iterations continue indefinitely, or they terminate – there is a definitive resolution, yet many questions are left hanging.

Let me again say how much I enjoy a book that teaches me something, and I learned a great deal about the history of Renaissance Florence, her art, and theology from this read; I even created a very small Cerego set so I’d remember some of it. I actually studied a bit before I even started reading by finding a couple of academic lectures on Youtube about Florence and Savonarola (fortunately, I’d already taken a couple of moocs on Dante and Milton). Since the first 168 pages were historically accurate (excepting, as Walton mentions, demons and the Grail, and a few private conversations and a few characters who exist beyond the historical record), it was another read-at-my-computer session, as with Azazeel a few weeks ago. Savonarola, Lorenzo di Medici, Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Angelo Poliziano, and Camilla Rucellai (the Savonarola follower and seer, not the one obliquely related to the Mona Lisa, if I’m reading correctly) are the primary historically documented players, along with assorted religious and government people. The most important non-historical character is Isabella, who is something like a live-in girlfriend to Pico.

I have to admit I had some misgivings early on. I considered putting the book aside, in fact, but given that I’d just abandoned three Sinclair Lewis novels, I thought maybe I was in a bad pattern so just kept reading. I’m very glad I did; the more I read, the more I had to keep reading.

I learned about such things as the Medici Giraffe (which occasionally finds its way into art of the period as a tribute to Lorenzo) and the Pelican of Piety, a symbol used in Renaissance art of the charity of Christ. Then there’s Camilla’s prophecy that Pico would forswear his evil ways (besides a girlfriend, he had written 900 theses that were considered heretical) and take Dominican vows “in the time of lilies”; everyone thought she meant in Spring, which was good news since, in November he seemed to be dying. But he died anyway, as the French, with their fleur de lis flags, passed through Florence by the grace of negotiations and tribute towards other battles. It seems that story has been borrowed by several writers, most notably George Eliot.

Walton’s Girolamo is not at all the fanatical Savonarola that I had in the back of my mind. He disagrees with the Church in many instances, but on things that need disagreement, such as corruption, oppression, and the misbehavior of Popes who not only eschew celibacy but install their children in positions of power. As Walton presents it, the Bonfire of the Vanities was not his idea; it was recommended in a meeting (of all things – a meeting!) as a kind of energizing stunt, since the Medici Giraffe was no longer available. It’s based on a prior event by Bernardino of Siena. Girolamo is seen going over all books and art to determine if they should be rescued; he wavers over Boccaccio, but figures there are enough copies to allow one to burn. Botticelli and other artist donated pieces to the pyre, presumably because they had better works. And, in a fascinating little tribute to Shakespeare, on the night before the Bonfire, a merchant of Venice named Antonio shows up and offers Girolamo a great deal of money for all the items on the pile. The thought process Girolamo goes through before turning down the offer is quite reasonable. This is not an obsessed madman, but a thoughtful monk who appreciates art and literature and philosophy, but has a genuine set of principles.

The Grail comes into things early on as a small stone hidden in a book. Girolamo finds this, wonders about it, hangs onto it, but isn’t sure what it means. And it sits there for about 170 pages doing nothing. Don’t worry; it will come into its own in another lifetime.

In the final pages of Part One, Girolamo is hanged over fire, as he indeed was in history. The superstition is that those who are good, who are going to heaven, fall from the gallows onto the fire on their faces (prostrate before God, perhaps?) so do not feel the flames, while those who are destined for Hell fall backwards and feel everything. This moment after execution becomes a resonating trope opening every Return part. But it is here, in Part Two, that we first learn who – or what – Girolamo actually is (seriously, SPOILER ALERT, it’s the last time I’m telling you):

And the rope breaks, and he falls into the fire, not forward onto his face, like good people, but onto his back, like the damned.
He lands on his back, slamming into Hell with a force that would have knocked out the breath and broken all the bones of a living man. He knows he is not that, nor never has been…. He is a demon, beaked and bat-winged and foul; he was sent into the world to live without this knowledge only to make this moment of returning what it is: Hell.
It is the utmost imaginable anguish. Of course it is, for this is truly Hell, and torment is Hell’s only handicraft. This moment of utter knowledge and despair is his earned and well-deserved punishment for opposing God. For he had been an Angel, long ago, spending all his days praising God, in heaven. …and from that, he had, through his own will, fall into this.

Well, that was unexpected.

If this raises some questions, be assured that Girolamo will spend the rest of the book, his multiple iterations, asking the same questions. Few will be definitively answered, but some light will be shed on most. I’m left with many, but they are questions more of faith and interpretation than of fact; Walton’s answers wouldn’t be any more satisfying than my own.

One of the theological ideas presented again and again over time is apocatastasis, the theory that Hell is itself a kind of purgatory, and that all souls will eventually be purified and redeemed. This was rejected long before, however, by no less than St. Augustine. Apparently it survives in some sects, but in Girolamo’s time, it is considered untrue. Even if true, he doubts it applies to the demons, the fallen angels. Yet he hopes. “Hope hurts,” he says.

What stood out to me, given the whole Dante-does-Groundhog-Day prompting, was the difference between Dante’s Hell, and Walton’s. Dante constructed an elaborate system of punishments for various categories of sins, relating each punishment to the sin with exquisite specificity: wind, water, fire, ice, disembowelment, decapitation. In Girolamo’s Hell, there is only despair of everlasting separation from God. Now, many years ago, the Baptists and Pentecostals tried to sell us on fire and brimstone being metaphorical equivalents this separation, but given the prominence of the former and the occasional mention of the latter, I suspect they would be disappointed in Walton’s version (and tweens-teens are fare more impressed by flames and screaming than by despair). However, she is extraordinarily good at conveying Girolamo’s pain, a pain that has little to do with physical discomfort and everything to do with loss and hopelessness:

He could summon up his own cell, as he has done before. Only the crucifix of his bedside he cannot summon, or the painted likeness of the Savior on the wall, or the faces of the Virgin or the Saints. He is filled with the emptiness of where those things should be.
He has done it before. He can do it again. Yet it is only now that he realizes the full horror of his predicament. He has been lent to earth again and again, and in endless iteration will go on being lent, be born again and to go through that same life of hope and ignorance, only to return again and again to this first appalling moment where he must face the fact that he has forever lost God, and all hope and possibility of God’s love.
That is what it means to be damned.

Notice also the punny twist on Lent. The odd-numbered Parts do begin, typically, in the spring, when Lent would fall, but now there is this other meaning.

Milton comes into play as well through the fallen angel thread, though Paradise Lost would not be written for over a century after Savonarola. For while Girolamo’s struggles on earth take up most of the book, it is this falling of angels that intrigues me the most. It’s a topic that’s always been addressed mostly in legend and speculative theology with only a few verses of biblical support. Milton started his poem with Satan, cast out, as an antihero, rebelling against a tyrannical God, then goes on to destroy humanity’s sacredness. As the poem evolves, he becomes less and less sympathetic, until at last God again is victorious over him by having the last word.

In Walton’s book, the details of the rebellion are unclear throughout, a technique I appreciate since more detail would necessarily entail its own theology. There’s a puzzling use of the name Asbiel, similar to Abdiel, one of the angels in Milton’s poem, the angel who tattled on Lucifer; I’m not sure if they’re supposed to be the same being, since that would create a pair of brothers who started the rebellion. My read at the moment is that Crookback (I’ll get there, don’t worry) is indeed Lucifer, Girolamo/Asbiel is his brother, and they were the initial troublemakers. The had “wanted a world without pain, when pain was just an intellectual concept.” They had pride, to believe they knew better than God.

As Bill Murray’s weatherman had to lose his cynical, narcissistic way of viewing everyone else as instrumental to his own needs in order to break out of his loop, so must Girolamo overcome his pride. And that involves his brother, who on earth is the mercenary soldier called Crookback (and sometimes Richard III), who sent the Grail to Florence where Girolamo finds it and discovers it unleashes his memories of past lives, deaths, and his demonic nature.

In addition to the Shakespeare references, I found a few others (and who knows what I missed through my own ignorance): my manuscript-hunting buddy from The Swerve, Poggio Bracciolini; and Michelangelo, who plays a bit part in a couple of Girolamo’s lifetimes:

Michelangelo Buonarroti comes over, a cup of wine in his hand. He is growing a beard. “I have it !” he says delightedly.
“What?” Girolamo asks, but Marsilio knows.
“That huge block of marble that’s been standing about for so long?“
“Yes. I am going to carve the prophet Amos, to go high up on the cathedral. I thought him with the face of brother Giovanni. What do you think? “
Isabella and Girolamo exchange a glance. Marsilio nods gravely. “I think that would be splendid,“ he says.
Michelangelo looks at the others. “And his body too,” he says, with a hint of defiance in his tone.

Yes, there is humor, probably more than I recognized. In one spot, Girolamo offers an apple to a beggar, and sheepishly tells his earthly companion, “I like apples.” In another spot, when a plan involving the Grail goes awry and it is lost to Crookback, Girolamo’s great friend Pico says, “Well, that went badly”, perhaps an anachronistic understatement, but one that, under the circumstances, made me laugh. Out loud.

But again, I come back to the religious component. See the comparison between Girolamo’s Heaven and Hell:

“Will there be poetry in heaven?“ [Angelo, the poet] asks, like a child, as he hands back the cup.
“I think there will be something better, “ Girolamo confides. “Something that poetry reminds us of, and that is why we are drawn to love it. I think loving all earthly beauty is a way to lead us to love heavenly beauty. So there will not be sunsets or poetry, but there will be something like them but even better.“

There is no relief in Hell, so he cannot weep for his innocence, his lost illusions. Will is power here, and he has his place in the ranks of power. That is all he has. … There is no fellowship in hell, the only relationship possible is that of tormenting one another. Spite, Hell’s closest approach to joy.

Through Girolamo’s subsequent earthly lives, some details change a little, some a lot. He has different close allies each time; given that he is a demon and Hell has no relationships, his earthly relationships are wonderful, even as he bears the knowledge of his despair. He formulates plans to break the cycle, to harrow hell, as it were, to free the demons there. This is like Milton’s hell, not Dante’s: Girolamo’s Hell has only demons. Questions of atonement, of forgiveness, of salvation in the face of eternal damnation, of hope and despair, become more prominent as the cycles proceed. It’s truly wonderful. Girolamo may be a demon, but he’s a demon with a mission, and a heart of gold, just about the most sympathetic demon you could ever know.

I am, as I’ve said, left with questions. Where did the Grail come from? Sure, it’s a gift from the King of Hungary, and Girolamo discovers it by chance, but how did that happen? How does it have the power to harrow hell? How does the time looping work: does the entire world loop indefinitely? Does it go back to the day in April when he discovers the stone, or back to the beginning of the universe? If/when he stops looping, will that be the End of Time, or just the End of Hell? And then, not a question but an interpretation I wish I could verify: I see a strong parallelism between Christ harrowing people and Girolamo harrowing demons. Christ is the begotten of God, sent to live on earth, die, and redeem human souls. Girolamo is the brother of Lucifer (my interpretation; in any case he is the brother of a Prince of Hell) who is “lent” to earth to redeem the unredeemable, using the Key to the Kingdom Christ gave Peter. Why is it Girolamo who is the earthly figure for the demon Asbiel, instead of someone else, in another time or place?

None of these questions, or the others that flit by once in a while, are really answerable, since this is a fantasy based on religious imagery and story. I’ve never been comfortable with the category of fantasy, but I keep running into such wonderful examples such as this, and Helen Oyeyemi, and various authors from my Pushcart and BASS editions. And now, Jo Walton, an author new to me.

Given that I gave up on organized religion fifty years ago (though I do hang out in churches sometimes, because, to paraphrase Willie Sutton, that’s where the music is), it’s odd that I’m so drawn to these kinds of stories about holy forgiveness and damnation on such cosmic scales. That’s what story does: it brings us closer to what was far away. Girolamo, Pico, Angelo, Camilla, Isabella, they have all captivated me, and now that I have finished the book, I find I miss them. The good news is: I can come back to them any time, just by opening to page one.

A Sinclair Lewis sampler: Babbitt, Main Street, It Can’t Happen Here

“I tell you, my friends, the trouble with this whole country is that so many are selfish! Here’s a hundred and twenty million people, with 95 per cent of ‘em only thinking of self, instead of turning to and helping the responsible business men to bring back prosperity! All these corrupt and self-seeking labor unions! Money grubbers! Thinking only of how much wages they can extort out of their unfortunate employer, with all the responsibilities he has to bear!
“What this country needs is Discipline! Peace is a great dream, but maybe sometimes it’s only a pipe dream! I’m not so sure—now this will shock you, but I want you to listen to one woman who will tell you the unadulterated hard truth instead of a lot of sentimental taffy, and I’m not sure but that we need to be in a real war again, in order to learn Discipline! We don’t want all this highbrow intellectuality, all this book-learning. That’s good enough in its way, but isn’t it, after all, just a nice toy for grownups? No, what we all of us must have, if this great land is going to go on maintaining its high position among the Congress of Nations, is Discipline—Will Power—Character!”

It Can’t Happen Here

A couple of years ago, It Can’t Happen Here was the hottest book in America. Written in 1935, it painted a satirical picture of the US to succumbing to the same fascism that was overtaking Europe. Hence its recent popularity.

I wanted to read it, but I also wanted to read some other Lewis works (and I’ll admit, I hoped this might help with my persistent tendency to confuse Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, as a minor side bonus). Because I’m fond of medical stuff, I initially thought of Arrowsmith, but from the description it seemed like medicine was a side detail, so I ruled that out. I decided against Elmer Gantry as being too familiar from more modern situations.

Babbitt was often cited as the book that earned Lewis the Nobel Prize, so that was high on my list. Main Street was one of the few books with a female protagonist, and has also been frequently mentioned in recent years, so that was a definite possibility. That gave me with three possibilities. I couldn’t decide on just one, so I checked all three out of the library.

I didn’t finish any of them. Hey, sometimes that’s how it goes.

It Can’t Happen Here had me pissed off by page 6 (thanks to passages like the one quoted above), and I realized I did not want to read an overtly political novel right now. I particularly didn’t want to read one that could have been taken from Twitter (I’ve muted nearly all the news-and-opinion people, and increased the art, humor, literature, and medicine, but it’s still like running a gauntlet some days). And I don’t need any convincing that of course it can happen here, particularly since it is happening here right now.

Babbitt went better, for a while.

But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practise, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor-speeding; he paid his debts; he contributed to the church, the Red Cross, and the Y. M. C. A.; he followed the custom of his clan and cheated only as it was sanctified by precedent; and he never descended to trickery—though, as he explained to Paul Riesling:
“Course I don’t mean to say that every ad I write is literally true or that I always believe everything I say when I give some buyer a good strong selling-spiel….”

After 200 pages, ok, ok, I get it, they’re all hypocrites, decrying labor unions for forcing membership while insisting every business owner must be a Booster. They’re shallow, letting the Church and the Republican Party and whatever advertisement looks prettiest in the magazine determine what they believe, think, and buy. They measure the perfection of life by the possession of a sun-porch. And then there’s the racism, displayed when the porter on a train doesn’t know the exact time:

“They’re getting so they don’t have a single bit of respect for you. The old-fashioned coon was a fine old cuss—he knew his place—but these young dinges don’t want to be porters or cotton-pickers. Oh, no! They got to be lawyers and professors and Lord knows what all! I tell you, it’s becoming a pretty serious problem. We ought to get together and show the black man, yes, and the yellow man, his place. Now, I haven’t got one particle of race-prejudice. I’m the first to be glad when a nigger succeeds—so long as he stays where he belongs and doesn’t try to usurp the rightful authority and business ability of the white man.”

But my main problem was one of boredom. I knew there would be a turning point, but I didn’t want to read another 150 pages to get there. So I stopped reading and found a quick-and-dirty summary that told me how Babbitt would fall out with the Right People and come to some kind of minor revelation about what freedom is and isn’t, culminating in the final page, a page that is almost worth reading the 400 pages before it, when his 18-year-old son, who Babbitt wants to be a lawyer, shows up married and skips college to work in mechanics. It’s a lovely scene, Babbitt’s “new voice, booming, authoritative, dominated the room.” I’m not typically in favor of a man telling his wife to shut the hell up, but in this case, it feels earned. “Babbitt crossed the floor slowly, ponderously, seeming a little old” to reach his son, and after a few faint protests, the changing of the guard is finally accomplished on several levels:

I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life! I don’t know ‘s I’ve accomplished anything except just get along. I figure out I’ve made about a quarter of an inch out of a possible hundred rods. Well, maybe you’ll carry things on further. I don’t know. But I do get a kind of sneaking pleasure out of the fact that you knew what you wanted to do and did it. Well, those folks in there will try to bully you, and tame you down. Tell ’em to go to the devil! I’ll back you. Take your factory job, if you want to. Don’t be scared of the family. No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I’ve been. Go ahead, old man! The world is yours!”
Arms about each other’s shoulders, the Babbitt men marched into the living-room and faced the swooping family.

Made me feel bad that I skipped 200 pages. But not bad enough to go back and read them.

I had much the same experience with Main Street. After enjoying the first 100 pages or so, I felt jerked around by the midpoint of the book. Carol feels defeated in her quest to liberalize Gopher Prairie; she feels content by some aspect of her life; oops, no, she’s down again; and no, here she is up. I had much the same back-and-forth with myself: as much as I appreciate her zeal for creativity and thought, I was annoyed by her Great White Savior attitude. I sympathized with it as well. I’ve never been able to find a group where I felt comfortable to be who I am; I’ve always struggled to fit in as what the group wanted me to be. Which is why I avoid groups. And even on the internet, I’m mostly alone, save for a few intersections. But that’s my comfort zone; I don’t have to change who I am, and neither does anyone else. And of course, I’m a lot older than Carol, so our approaches would naturally differ.

I see the same sort of irony as in the other books. Take for example, the scene where she’s trying to convey her frustration with small-town life to her husband:

This is an independent town, not like these Eastern holes where you have to watch your step all the time, and live up to fool demands and social customs, and a lot of old tabbies always busy criticizing. Everybody’s free here to do what he wants to.” He said it with a flourish, and Carol perceived that he believed it. She turned her breath of fury into a yawn.
“By the way, Carrie, while we’re talking of this: Of course I like to keep independent, and I don’t believe in this business of binding yourself to trade with the man that trades with you unless you really want to, but same time: I’d be just as glad if you dealt with Jenson or Ludelmeyer as much as you ran, instead of Howland & Gould, who go to Dr. Gould every last time, and the whole tribe of ’em the same way…”

But I still want to ask Carol, hey, you’re the one who married him, how could you not know this would be your life? That, when you tell him you want to “do something with life”, would reply, “What’s better than making a comfy home and bringing up some cute kids and knowing nice only people?“

There’s a nicely done scene that shows, without telling, the exact relationship between husband and wife. When Carol comes home debating herself about whether she’s happily married or not, and does her best to convince herself she is, she finds her husband reading a magazine:

She dropped into his lap and (after he had jerked back his head to save his eye glasses, and removed the glasses, and settled her in a position less cramping to his legs, and casually cleared his throat ) he kissed her amiably ….

She starts up a kind of pre-affair relationship with Guy Pollock, a quiet man she sees as sympathetic. But then she realizes, “he had never been anything but a frame on which she had hung shining garments.” Everyone we meet is a frame on which we hang garments, some shining, some stained. And again I want to tell her, hey, you did the same thing with your husband, and now you’re disappointed, how could you not have known. And then I remember my own marriage. I didn’t know anything. So maybe I should give Carol a break.

I found some perverse enjoyment in the conflict between Carol and the townspeople. When Carol, having worked in the Minneapolis library herself, proposes to the Gopher Prairie librarian that the job of a librarian is to increase reading, Miss Villets disagrees: “The first duty of the conscientious librarian is to preserve the books.” Carol likes that shopkeepers pay attention to her preferences, “even if they weren’t worth fulfilling.”

One thing that struck me while reading this was Carol’s tendency to think, I must go on, I will go on, lending a slight Beckettsian flavor to the novel. Beckett was decades later, of course, but it’s an interesting link. Yet I got bored about halfway through. That’s my pattern for all three books: I feel like, about halfway through, I’m done, it’s time to skip to the end. In Carol’s case, that’s less the minor revelation of George Babbitt, and more the sense of “resistance is futile” as she resigns herself to Gopher Prairie. I think it’d be interesting to see her twenty years hence, as another young, eager-to-reform ingenue moves into town.

I think one reason I had so much trouble with these books is what I call the “Pope and Shakespeare problem”. A wag in a former English class joked, “Alexander Pope has to stop writing in clichés”, the joke being they weren’t clichés when he wrote the them. It’s nearly impossible to read the Hamlet speech, or portions of Romeo and Juliet, or entire Shakespearean sonnets, and really hear the words; the impressions of repetitions over the years make the words a kind of trigger for recollection, rather than an aesthetic encounter. Lewis is credited with writing about small towns, about conservatism, in a less idealistic way (to say the least); since his heyday, so many others have covered this field (especially in the 50s), it’s hard to read him as original. It’s like taking a kid to see the first Star Wars, Episode IV: they don’t understand what a big deal it was – the light sabers, the saloon scene, The Force – back in 1977.

It’s one thing to know a Babbitt is a “a materialistic, complacent, and conformist businessman”; it’s another to have experienced just how hypocritical and boring he is, and to have witnessed the potential for change. This reading was a necessary and positive experience, even if I didn’t finish any of the books. It accomplished what I’d intended: to see more of what is the American canon, to better understand when these works serve as reference points for other works.

Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman (HarperCollins 1998)


Popular myth has it that one of the most remarkable conversations in modern literary history took place on a cool and misty late autumn afternoon in 1896, in the small village of Crowthorne in the county of Berkshire.
One of the parties to the colloquy was the formidable Dr. James Murray, the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. On the day in question he had traveled fifty miles by train from Oxford to meet an enigmatic figure named Dr. W.C. Minor, who was among the most prolific of the thousands of volunteer contributors whose labors lay at the core of the dictionary’s creation.

Although the official government files relating to this case are secret, and have been locked away for more than a century, I have recently been allowed to see them. What follows is the strange, tragic, yet spiritually uplifting story they reveal.

No, I haven’t seen the movie. Given the tepid reviews, I don’t plan to. But I was interested in the story, given that one of my three prized possessions is the Compact Edition of the OED [Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (in slipcase with reading glass)], bought during a BOMC promotion ($25!) when I was studying linguistics in college.

One more housekeeping task: the title above applies to the American edition; the British edition was titled The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words and is the title credited in the film. To my surprise, I rather prefer the American title, since it emphasizes a point made early in the book:

The story that follows can fairly be said to have two protagonists. One of them is Doctor Minor, the murdering soldier from the United States, and there is one other. Just say that a story has two protagonists, or three, or ten, is a perfectly acceptable, unremarkable modern form of speech. It happens however that a furious lexicographical controversy once raised over the use of the word – a dispute that helps illustrate the singular and peculiar way in which the Oxford English Dictionary has been constructed and how, when it flexes its muscles, it has a witheringly intimidating authority.

I would timidly suggest that the book, in fact, has three protagonists. The third is not the OED, but language itself.

As illustrated above, each of the eleven chapters begins with an entry from the first edition of the OED, a word that has significance for the text that follows: murder, polymath and philology, lunatic, sesquipedalian, elephant, bedlam, catchword, poor, dénouement, masturbate, diagnosis. Although the relevance of some of these are obvious, others are unexpected; if you’re curious, I recommend reading the book. It’s part biography, part history, and part linguistic text, and dances among these foci to create a surprisingly emotional experience.

The story is pretty well-known by now: Dr. William Minor, an American surgeon who started showing signs of psychiatric illness while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, moved to London in the hopes of easing his mental pain. It didn’t work; he murdered George Merrett, just an ordinary guy with six kids and a pregnant wife on his way to the early shift at the brewery, during a psychotic event. Minor spent most of the rest of his life in an English asylum, though obtaining fairly good conditions due to his obvious high intelligence when he wasn’t alarmed by demons only he could see. During the same period, James Murray, a poor Scot who truly pulled himself up to the pinnacle of academia by his intelligence and determination, became editor of the then-fledgling “Big Dictionary”, the first undertaking in the English language to illustrate the meanings of every word, and changes in those meanings, by quotations over time. This required a huge volunteer force to read and submit quotations from 150 years of literature, so flyers were sent out to recruit those who were interested. William Minor happened across one of those flyers, and was indeed interested; he became one of the most prolific contributors from his cell in the asylum, using the uninformative address “Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire”.

But the popular myth story above – which includes a dramatic reveal as Murray greets the governor of the asylum with the assumption that he is the amateur wordsmith and only then finds out his best worker is a madman – is just that, myth, fake news, a Hollywood rewrite. The real story is, I think, far more human and moving. Murray became aware that Minor was not just a country doctor with a lot of time on his hands by way of a visiting scholar who referred to him as “poor Dr. Minor”, and set out to understand just what was so poor about him. That single word, poor, is the turning point of the tale. Murray could have taken several paths, including cutting off all communication and expunging Minor’s participation to protect the dictionary project from scandal. But he chose otherwise:

I was of course deeply affected by the story, but as Doctor Minor had never in the least alluded to himself or his position, all I could do was to write him more respectfully and kindly than before, so as to show no notice of this disclosure, which I feared might make some change in our relations.
…A few years ago an American citizen who called on me told me he had been to see Dr. Minor and said he found him rather low and out of spirits, and urged me to go to see him ….I then wrote to Dr. Minor telling him that, and to that Mr. (I forget the name) who had recently visited him had told me that a visit from me would be welcome.

This did indeed result in a visit, and those visits continued over a period of some years. He did this six years before the dramatic fictional story connected with an elegant formal dinner honoring the dictionary staff, with full knowledge of Minor’s background, and with the respect and compassion deserved by all. Yes, I definitely prefer this account to the “surprise!” version.

Winchester presents evidence that Minor earned the compassion bestowed on him with behavior before and after the murder. He was, after all, a surgeon, and though that was a very different prospect in the latter half of the nineteenth century than today, it had a humanitarian aim. He also was a military officer. After his confinement, he apologized to Merrett’s widow and sent her money out of his army pension; she forgave him, and came to visit him several times, often bringing books he’d requested.

One point that’s emphasized is how different and similar Minor and Murray were. Minor was from a wealthy family, and had education easily available, while Murray was from working-class people and left school at 14, as was the practice then. He later made up for it, but it was a struggle. They were both of high intelligence and strongly motivated. It seems they were similar in appearance, particularly in the cultivation of long beards. One was, of course, mentally ill, and the other quite sane; yet they were united by their shared love of words. Murray arranged for a photographer to complete a portrait of Minor, which adorns the cover of the book. I’ve put a background of both men on the header image; without knowing, would you be able to tell which was the professor and which the madman?

While the history and process of the creation of the OED is well-described, Winchester has written another work, The Meaning of Everything, to more fully cover the details of the seventy-year process. James Murray was not the first editor, and he did not live to see the work completed, though he did produce several of the first volumes. Minor also did not live to see the final publishing. His psychiatric and physical illnesses worsened to the point where he was no longer able to participate in the project. He was eventually returned to America, where he spent his final year in a hospital.

It’s a book that wraps together several separate threads. For all its focus on historically documented facts, it has quite an emotional impact. In fact, I had a lot of trouble dictating the final paragraphs to include as quotes, because I kept tearing up as I read:

… The only public memorials ever raised to the two most tragically linked of this saga’s protagonists are miserable, niggardly affairs. William Minor has just a simple little gravestone in a New Haven cemetery, hemmed in between litter and slums. George Merrett has for years had nothing at all, except for a patch of grayish grass in a sprawling graveyard in South London. Minor does, however, have the advantage of the great dictionary, which some might say acts as his most lasting remembrance. But nothing else remains to suggest that the man he killed was ever worthy of any memory at all. George Merrett has become an absolutely unsung man.
Which is why it now seems fitting, more than a century and a quarter on, that this modest account begins with the dedication that it does. And why this book is offered as a small testament to the late George Merrett of Wiltshire and Lambeth, without whose untimely death these events would never have unfolded, and this tale could never have been told.

It’s not a book about a dictionary at all; it’s a book about being human.

Finn Murphy, The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road (Norton, 2017)

My own baptism into life as a driver for a major van line was not smooth. I was nervous and cocky when I first got on the road…. Almost 40 years later, I am a calm, meticulous, and imperturbable driver. I am highly sought after and exorbitantly paid. That didn’t happen overnight.
You are about to go on the road with me, a long haul mover. It’s a road uncongested by myth. You’ll see the work, meet the families I moved, and visit with the people who populate this subculture. You’ll smell the sweat, drink in the crummy bars, eat the disgusting food, manage an unruly labor pool, and meet some strange people. But I hope you also experience the exhilaration and the attraction, of the life out there. ….
Come on, let’s take a little ride. ..

A few months ago, the PBS News Hour aired a segment with Finn Murphy and mentioned his book. I was interested in knowing more about a kid from Cos Cob, Connecticut, who drops out of Colby College after his third year (!) to take up truck driving, so I put it on my To Be Read list; in fact, it got me started on the category of “books about jobs, especially those rarely written about” that’s part of my interregnum reading this year.

The book is mostly about Murphy’s particular niche in the industry, long-haul household moving, usually for executives relocating or retiring. These movers, called bedbuggers, are low-status to other truckers, but earn pretty good money. Boy, do they work for it, though, and this book shows exactly how.

There’s plenty of trucker slang and details about trucks, for those who are hoping for that. There’s some autobiography. About half of it is about individual moves, some for nice people, some for real dickheads. And sprinkled through it all, we get a glimpse of Murphy’s views on his industry, on economic tradeoffs, and on life in general. For instance, the first moving job he handled on his own, at 21 years of age, generated the aphorism we could all take to heart: “Don’t let anyone ever tell you what to do with your truck.” He’s also developed an interesting view of possessions:

After more than three thousand moves I know that everyone has almost the exact same stuff and I certainly know where it’s all going to end up. It’s going to end up in a yard sale or in a dumpster. It might take a generation, though usually not, but Aunt Tilly’s sewing machine is getting tossed. So is your high school yearbook and Grandma’s needlepoint doily of the Eiffel Tower. Most people save the kids’ kindergarten drawings and the IKEA bookcases. After the basement and attic are full it’s off to a mini-storage to put aside more useless stuff. A decade or three down the road when the estate is settled and nobody wants to pay the storage fees anymore, off it will all go into the ether. This is not anecdotal. I know because I’m the guy who puts it all in the dumpster.
Movers are there at the beginning point of accumulation and all the points to the bitter end, so we tend to develop a Buddhist view of attachment…. Sentimental value of stuff is a graven image and a mug’s game. The only beneficiary is the self storage guy. What my customers need to know is that it’s not the stuff but the connection with people and family and friends that matters. Practically everyone I move gets this wrong.

I find myself half agreeing and half disagreeing. I’m particularly interested in this because I’m getting ready to move – just a couple of blocks, but I still have to figure out what to take and what to toss since I’m downsizing. I find I’m letting go of a couple of pieces of real furniture because they’re less useful than the IKEA shelves (except they’re Staples shelves). I figure I’ve had my rolltop desk for 35 years now, so it’s provided plenty of enjoyment. As for my mother’s china, I feel like I’m betraying her by giving it away, so I’m keeping a few of the unusual pieces. When I sold my piano 25 years ago because I just couldn’t afford to keep moving it, I was devastated for days; it was just part of me for so long, to lose it was to give up a piece of my self-image of a person-with-a-piano. So while I agree that stuff is just stuff, some stuff has more importance than other stuff.

There’s a fairly big omission in the book. Murphy took what he calls a long hiatus from trucking, from the 80’s to 2008, and doesn’t really explain it. When I hear something like that, my mind goes to dark places: jails, rehabs, hospitals, homeless shelters. It turns out, on rewatching the PBS segment, it wasn’t that dark at all. He started a business and got married. It’s odd he’d omit that. His return to trucking after the collapse of both, however, is beautifully conveyed:

In 2008 I found myself washed ashore in a city out west where I knew nobody; I was fifty-one years old, single, with no job, no plans, no nothing. I was unmoored. It was the most difficult period of my life. I didn’t want to think about how I’d lit the fuse to my previous life and watched it explode. All I wanted to do was to go back on the road. I wanted to climb into a truck, hit that start button, watch the air pressure build up, and go. In that respect I knew I’d have plenty of company among other drivers. That’s what we do.
Fifty-one years old is not a propitious age to go back to building tiers in a moving van. I was in decent shape, but moving furniture is a young man’s work. I wasn’t at all sure I could make the grade. What I did know was that I could certainly perform other tasks much better than before. I was no longer a young man in a hurry. I wasn’t a young man at all. I was another piece of flotsam hitting the road because I thought I’d run out of options.
Another thing I knew now was that moving, for the shipper, was to experience an emotional nosedive. Maybe I couldn’t lift like I used too, but maybe, just maybe, I could use my own failures and hard-earned understanding to grease the wheels of my work and make the experience easier for the people who were moving. Maybe I could breach the wall of suspicion and enmity people have about movers. That felt attractive. I wanted to do it the right way, the way I never had done it before. I wanted to interact with my shippers and helpers applying compassion and professionalism. I wanted to approach the work itself with serious intellectual intention toward performing even the smallest tasks properly.

I greatly enjoyed these introspectives. He wonders why people hate movers so much. I do, too; I’ve always been grateful someone was willing to do what I couldn’t. He’s not going to stand still for any myths about the trucker as modern-day cowboy, either; there are log books, weigh stations, and plenty of paperwork. He’s not big on myths in general. “The myth of the trucker as a latter-day cowboy is the same narrative that the urban rapper or the southern rebel adopts to accept his place at the bottom of the American dream.” He has tremendous respect for people who work their way up from nowhere, but recognizes that they are exceptional, not typical. Every time I hear that crap, I want to ask why the speaker hasn’t become incredibly rich because after all Bill Gates started Microsoft and Steve Jobs started Apple so what’s wrong with you? I find it idiotic when, at the end of something like American Idol, the winner says something stupid like, “See, if you work hard you can accomplish your dreams” when tens of thousands of people worked just as hard and most of them never saw the inside of a studio. Fact is, some people are incredibly talented (and that includes traits like perseverance, dealing with disappointment, and motivation), and some are lucky. Murphy had the intense motivation, the interest in physical work, from the start, but never forgets his privilege.

His mover-stories are both entertaining and meaningful. An obstetrician, originally from India, is moving to LDS country for the high birth rate, and maybe for the polygamy. A family watched as a staircase collapsed and their treasured piano smashed on the ground, then invited the crew to stay for dinner. A high-rise delivery requires clever negotiation skills when another move has commandeered the elevators. One exec refused to let the movers use any of the 11 bathrooms in the house, telling them to use a Porta-Potty a mile away.

My shipper, after helping topple his bank in 2008, caught another plum job with another troubled public company that was paying for this move. Without getting all Eugene Debs about it, it seems to me that while many bad movers end up in orange vests picking up trash on roadsides, many bad executives get new million dollar jobs running other companies into the courtroom.

Sing it, bro.

One of his stories is about a bar, connected to a motel, that caters to long-haul movers, the only such set-up he’s seen. Since, for whatever reason, they’re the bottom of the totem pole at most trucking-oriented restaurants and bars, it was a real oasis. The bartender checks to make sure he’s done driving for the night before serving, then shows him around. A guy at the end of the bar would sell excess packing and loading supplies, as well as drugs. The hookers who populate other cheap motels, looking to roll any trucker dumb enough to take them on, are chased away. And best of all: moving company shirts with logos from all over the country, and even around the world, are pinned to the wall. Murphy tries to get his best friend and company owner to come out and put up a shirt, but it doesn’t work out. Spoilsport – it would’ve made a great ending. But, to be honest, that he didn’t do it made me trust that the rest of the book was real, which in this era of 86% true nonfiction and alternate truth, is no longer a given.

Finn Murphy doesn’t fit into any convenient category. Maybe that’s why, after reading his book, a couple of interviews (including an extended one with PBS’s Terry Gross, who he admits in his book having a bit of a crush for) I don’t really feel like I know him at all. He’s very open in the book about a lot of things, from outlooks on life to the client wife who jumped his bones to the two-year estrangement with his parents when he left college (his father presented him with a bill for tuition spent), yet I feel there’s a curtain there. Maybe it’s just the confounding of my expectations. That’s a good thing, because I need to remember, especially now, that everyone is their own category.

I lay quietly, snug in my cocoon, wondering why people think it’s odd that a guy like me is a long-haul mover. I just helped another family navigate a major transition. What else could possibly matter? This is why we’re all here: to help each other navigate.
My last thoughts before drifting off were about navigation. A mover’s job is to shift people from where they are to where there supposed to be. Lucky for me, every once in awhile I find the place where I’m supposed to be too. It’s a priceless gift that I only get when I’m out on the road.
It’s the best job in the whole world.

It’s not the life for me – I prefer stability and predictability – but his enjoyment comes through loud and clear. It’s a rare thing, to find work that suits you so well. It’s even rarer to recognize what suits you when you run into it.

Youssef Ziedan, Azazeel (translation, Atlantic 2012)

Where should I begin my narrative? The beginnings are intertwined, teeming in my head. Perhaps, as my old teacher Syriana used to say, beginnings are merely delusions we believe in, for the beginning and the ending exist only along a straight line, and there are no straight lines except in our imagination or on the scraps of paper where we trace our delusions. In life and in all creation, however, everything is circular, returning to where it began, interwoven with whatever is connected. There is in reality no beginning and no ending, only an unbroken succession. In the universe the connections never break, the weft never unravels, and the branching never ceases, nor the filling and the emptying.

I know exactly what he means. I’ve spent a couple of days now staring at my computer screen, or mulling over how to write about this book, and I still don’t know. The theme of writing is, indeed, part of the book, but it’s a book that has many themes, and which one stands out at any moment is likely to be more about the reader than the book itself.

Like most stories, this one is told out of order. Let’s start with the basic plotline: a 5th century Egyptian monk/physician who refers to himself as Hypa (we never learn his given name; he renames himself after Hypatia of Alexandria) leaves his Coptic monastery/school and travels to Alexandria to study medicine, in the hopes of returning to his homeland. He runs into some trouble in Alexandria, but eventually settles in, then runs into more catastrophic trouble, at which point he heads eastward in despair. He spends a few years wandering the Holy Land in the footsteps of Christ, then makes his way to a monastery in Jerusalem, where he meets up with the priest Nestorius. At his urging, he heads towards a monastery between Aleppo and Antioch, where things go fine until they don’t. After a fevered illness, he writes up the story of his travels, buries the manuscript in a chest, and heads off for who knows where. The manuscript, which is the novel itself, is discovered in a 1994 archaeological dig, though occasional margin notes indicate someone writing in an Arabic script of the 10th century had found the manuscript, and reburied it with the notation: “I will rebury this treasure, because it is not yet time for it to appear.”

So this gives us several levels of storytelling: we have the monk Hypa writing his autobiography; we have a 10th century commentator; we have a fictional contemporary translator presenting the work; and we have the reader and the book in reality (or what passes for it these days). The novel opens with a “Translator’s Introduction”; this is the fictional translator, not the actual translator (the book was originally written in Arabic), whose translator note appears at the end.

I adopted a time-consuming but necessary reading process for most of the book: I’d read 20 or 30 pages, then spend an hour or two at my computer, looking up references for the people, places, and events referenced. I’ve had some introduction to all of this through a variety of moocs, but I wanted to be sure I understood what I was reading. Several of the characters and events are historical, some (including Hypa himself) are fictional.

I also wanted to figure out the timeline, since the story starts in Jerusalem and refers back to some horror in Alexandria for the first half, then proceeds more or less chronologically, referring forward to a character named Martha who will have some major impact later. I still don’t feel confident about the timeline. Hypa seems to be 20 years old in Alexandria, 30 in Jerusalem, and 40 at the end, but don’t quote me on that. And then there’s all the fifth-century ecclesiastical and political history. Oh, and philosophy: knowledge of Plotinus (and the fine points of Catholic Christology) helpful.

See why it took a while to read? But oh, I enjoyed it. It’s a book that’s going to require several readings over time to really nail down.

Let’s go back to a basic question: who or what is Azazeel? Those who paid attention in Sunday School might recognize it as a word for the devil, but it’s a lot more complicated than that, and there’s little agreement. The Bible mentions Azazel (one e) in Leviticus as part of an annual cleansing of sin from the Hebrews wandering around the Sinai after escaping Egypt:

6 And Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. 7 Then he shall take the two goats, and set them before the Lord at the door of the tent of meeting; 8 and Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Aza′zel. 9 And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin offering; 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Aza′zel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Aza′zel.

Leviticus 16:6-10 RSV

The King James Version translates the word to scapegoat (the goat that escapes with the sins of the people). So it isn’t the goat itself that’s evil, but the sins of humanity placed on it. Other material shows the goat was led to a cliff, where it was hurled to its death, and it was the cliff that was called Azazel.

In the non-canonical (to most religions) Book of Enoch, Azazel comes up again, this time more clearly as a person, angel, or demon who teaches people to make weapons, and jewelry: “And there arose much godlessness… and they were led astray and became corrupt in all their ways.” Yep, you throw weapons and money into the mix, that’s gonna happen. Devil knows how to corrupt.

I advise a grain of salt here since I have no idea of the reliability of this source, but I’m very taken with one particular interpretation, as it relates extraordinarily well to Hypa:

Each goat represents one type of person. The goat selected for YHWH represents the obedient servant who is committed to God; this one sacrifices his life to serve before YHWH. The other goat represents the haughty and proud who is free to live his life his own way, separate from YHWH and sent out into the wilderness.
While it would seem that the goat released into the wilderness has the better deal, this is not true, the goat that is sacrificed to YHWH is completely dedicated to YHWH while the other is sent out into the wilderness, probably to die from starvation. The Jewish tradition actually says that the goat was taken to a high place, a cliff, and thrown over it.

Jeff A. Benner, Ancient Hebrew Research Center

This is Hypa’s primary dilemma, the choice between the monastic life and the joys of the world, which range from sex to philosophy to music. This conflict is made more real by his conversations with an imaginary voice in his head who he comes to call Azazeel, a voice that can only be from a part of Hypa himself; a repressed subconscious, if you will. It is this voice that expresses doubts and alternate interpretations, and eventually tells Hypa to write his story. But it is his own voice that raises questions like, Was Jesus really crucified? And, did Mary truly bear this child? Throughout there are references that could be interpreted as biblical allusions: the walk across the Sinai out of Egypt, the three temptations over his life, and, of course, this conversation with the devil.

All of this plays out in a time when not only was the Church of Alexandria on the warpath against pagans (several slaughters in the book are historical events), but divided in itself over the fine points of the nature of Christ: homoousios or homoiousios. Priests and bishops were excommunicated as heretics, even murdered, over that one letter, this fine point over whether Jesus was begotten or created, as the lyrics of “O Come All Ye Faithful” put it. Nestorius, Hypa’s eventual friend and confidant, rejects the doctrine of Theotokos, Mother of God, in favor of Christotokos, mother of Christ, and thus is one of those cast out. This final loss breaks Hypa.

Several characters refer to this conflict over insanely small details – which lasted for the first thousand years of the Church, by the way, and eventually caused the Great Schism in the 11th century – as motivated more by power than by the love of God. Nestorius, for example, privately denounces both events in Alexandria, and the Council of Nicaea of 325, to Hypa:

The truth is, Hypa, that it is all a fraud. Satan was the driving force behind everything that happened one hundred years ago at the council of Niceae. By Satan I mean the devil in the form of temporal power, which goes to people’s heads. Then they challenge the authority of the Lord and tear each other to pieces, then they lose heart and are scattered to the wind. Their passions overwhelm them and they act foolishly and violate the spirit of the faith in seeking to obtain the vanities of the transient world. What happened in Nicaea, Hypa, was null and void through and through.

This fictional conversation is particularly interesting, since I have read in several places that Nestorius was in fact vigorously anti-Arian. I don’t have the background to assess the issue, but I wonder why Ziedan would include it, possibly to further underline the confusion of the time. Towards the end of the book, when Nestorius is proclaimed Bishop of Constantinople, Hypa finds many of the reports he hears of his edicts to be disturbing and not at all in keeping with the priest he came to admire and consider a mentor of sorts.

A very interesting language trick caught my attention. Remember, the book was originally in Arabic, so I have no idea if this language is in the original: during a particularly important murderous rampage, the Christians shout, “We will cleanse the land of the Lord” as their rallying cry. Notice this can be read two different ways: We will cleanse (the land of the Lord), that is, we will cleanse Alexandria, OR We will clean the Lord out of Alexandria. It’s a particularly brilliant turn of phrase at a particularly important moment in the book. And, by the way, the rampage follows a particularly vicious sermon preached by Cyril which blamed pagans as the root of all sorts of trouble; historians vary on how much blame falls on him for the subsequent murders. Nestorius will later tell Hypa that an investigation found no fault with anyone. “The people of Alexandria have no mercy and do not fear punishment for their deeds,” says Hypa. It’s interesting to read a novel, written by an Egyptian scholar of Islamic manuscripts and set 1500 years ago, that seems so terrifyingly relevant to today’s America.

Another theme, mentioned a couple of times, is the association of ignorance and bliss. Hypa puzzles over this:

Why was the Lord angry when Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge? …. Why in the first place did God want man to remain ignorant? Was the knowledge that Adam obtained a prelude to him obtaining eternal life? Who are those about whom the Lord said that Adam had become one of them? If Adam and Eve had remained ignorant, would they have lived forever in the Garden of Eden? Is it right that immortality should go along with ignorance and disregard for nature?

Theologists through the ages have had various answers for that one. Again, it rings so true with the contemporary climate, where history and philosophy and art are being forsaken for computer science, where truth itself is what power says it is.

It’s something of a niche book. I don’t remember where I came across it, but I would have been attracted to the historical aspect. It was awarded the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009 (a division of the Booker prizes), and created quite a bit of controversy in Egypt where Cyril is regarded as a saint in the Coptic Church. To be fair, we have to remember many early Christians were slaughtered by the Romans, so it isn’t completely unexpected that they would become bloodthirsty once power was obtained.

I’ve often said that I’m never happier when a book teaches me something. I did a lot of extra reading while reading this book, and I think I’ve at least gained some idea of the breadth of what there is to learn, even if my learning is still incomplete. I’m glad I got to know Hypa, and I will know him better next time I read this book. He vanishes from our sight with the last sentence of his manuscript; I hope he found some measure of peace.

Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (Vintage reprint, 2007)

It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different…. If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they’d say, “Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes.”

Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes… Thrown, in this way, into the binding conviction that only a miracle could relieve her, she would never know her beauty.

Over the past couple of decades, I’ve read so many analyses, adaptations, and references to this book, I felt as if I’d read it. But reading about a book is not the same as reading it. I have a history of reading about instead of reading, of studying instead of experiencing, and I’ve been trying to reverse that somewhat, so I chose to sit down and read the book I’ve been reading about for so long. I can’t say it was a completely new experience, and I have to admit, a lecture and an interview still came into play, but I’m glad to have finally had the experience.

The book was on my mind because I’d encountered what I felt were oblique references to it in two recent readings. To my surprise, I discovered a third reference, though it was several years ago.

The popularity of the key idea – that beauty is something imposed from outside by the powerful, more akin to conformity with an ideal than an aesthetic evaluation – is not surprising. That this supposed ideal is used to exclude and devalue is pretty much a given. It goes way beyond eye color, but that particular symbol was the genesis of the book: Morrison has told the story several times about a childhood friend, a black girl, who longed for blue eyes, though that wish was from nowhere near as devastated a place as Pecola’s. Still, it started Morrison on a train of thought:

When I began writing The Bluest Eye, I was interested in something else. Not resistance to the contempt of others, ways to deflect it, but the far more tragic and disabling consequences of accepting rejection as legitimate, as self-evident. I knew that some victims of powerful self-loathing turn out to be dangerous, violent, reproducing the enemy who has humiliated them over and over. Others surrender their identity, melt into a structure that delivers the strong persona they lack. Most others, however, grow beyond it. But there are some who collapse, silently, anonymously, with no voice to express or acknowledge it. They are invisible. The death of self-esteem can occur quickly, easily in children, before their ego has “legs,” so to speak. Couple the vulnerability of youth with indifferent parents, dismissive adults, and a world, which, in its language, laws, and images, re-enforces despair, and the journey to self-destruction is sealed.

Foreword, Toni Morrison

Since thousands of commentaries on this book are easily available, written by authors from highest academics to ninth-graders (and I will make use of at least one of these), I’ll focus on its relevance to the recent references that snagged my interest.

The first was the novel The Come In All Colors by Malcolm Hansen, a story about a mixed-race boy kept in the dark about his heritage until it becomes cruelly relevant to the white folks of the Georgia town in which he lives. His mother, a light-skinned black woman, is named Peola, the same name as the black child in the Fanny Hurst novel, Imitation of Life, who tries to pass as white as a teen and adult. The high-yellow character in Morrison’s novel, Maureen Peal, notices the similarity in names, though she incorrectly identifies Hurst’s character as Pecola. All of this activity swirling around these names, all of this attention by light-skinned black women! Maureen has the relative privilege of lighter skin, her family line having worked hard to preserve it over generations. Hansen’s Peola serves as a bewildering figure to her son, who isn’t sure who’s what. Hurst’s Peola makes the most of her coloring, turning her back on even her mother. And then we have Pecola, who just yearns for blue eyes, eyes that she somehow believes would counteract the black skin that makes her unlovable. She is, of course, unable to realize that she is not unlovable; it is her parents, and the world at large, who are unloving; the friendship offered by Claudia, Frieda, and Maureen is not enough to undo parental disregard and societal shaming.

Those echoes of whiteness’ attributed beauty indicate why Morrison would name the character Pecola, but why Polly Breedlove would choose the name Pecola for her daughter is never addressed. Hurst’s novel wasn’t yet written when Pecola was born. With my meager research skills, I can’t find anything beyond unauthenticated internet nonsense about the name, and I see nothing that would have been readily available to Polly in the Ohio of the late 20s.

The second reference was the short story “The Whitest Girl” by Brenda Peynado from Pushcart XLIII, 2019. It’s something of a reversal of color roles in a predominantly Latinx high school. Terry is The Whitest Girl who shows up and is seen as both “too good and too white”, a kind of love-hate thing, envy turned into rage implicit in some Morrison characters, most notably Cholly. In Peynado’s story, Terry is much like Pecola: she fades into the woodwork and barely speaks. The Latinx girls seem mostly resentful of her lack of effort to modify her whiteness, as other Anglo girls at the school with their tans and their choices in hair and clothing.

The reciprocal need to modify one’s blackness to more imitate whiteness is also part of Morrison’s book, exemplified by the character Geraldine whose son torments Pecola over a cat.

Here they learn the rest of the lesson begun in those soft houses with porch swings and pots of bleeding heart: how to behave. The careful development of thrift, patience, high morals, and good manners. In short, how to get rid of the funkiness. The dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions.
Wherever it erupts, this Funk, they wipe it away; where it crusts, they dissolve it; wherever it drips, flowers, or clings, they find it and fight it until it dies. They fight this battle all the way to the grave. The laugh that is a little too loud; the enunciation a little to round; the gesture a little too generous. They hold their behind in for fear of a sway too free; when they wear lipstick, they never cover the entire mouth for fear of lips too thick, and they worry, worry, worry about the edges of their hair.

This is another insidious expression of racism: the demand that black people become as white as possible, if not in skin color, in behavior. It’s behind a great deal of “respectability politics” and the disregard for unarmed black youth shot dead by police. Music, clothing, food, dance, language, art; to the white power structure, it isn’t just a preference, it all ends up tainted by association with blackness. The demand to assimilate requires complete subjugation to white standards, and even then, will only go so far.

I was surprised to find a third reference from almost eight years ago in an unexpected source: in her paper on second person narratives, Monika Fludernik referenced The Bluest Eye as a form of skaz narrative, a traditionally Russian form, adapted, she claims, by black women like Morrison:

Skaz narration, as a fictional technique that pretends to reinstitute a specious orality, recuperates the original communal character of oral storytelling, with the effect of subverting the by now established separation of narration and narrated in terms of fictional worlds. Second person fiction utilizes this subversive potential for creating an unsettling effect – that of involving the actual reader of fiction, not only in the tale, but additionally in the world of fiction itself, an eerie effect that can be put to very strategic political use. The technique has been widely applied, for instance, in recent black women’s writing where it allows the fictional narrator both to evoke the familiar setting for the community-internal reader and to draw readers from different cultural backgrounds into the fictional world of the black community, thereby increasing potential empathy values and forcing an in-group consciousness on the (factually) out-group reader. Examples for the extremely successful
application of this rhetorical skaz strategy can be located, e.g., in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Sula…

Monika Fludernik, “Second Person Fiction”

I’m a little hazy on the boundaries of skaz narration, and the book has several narrators, including an omniscient third person and Pecola’s voice in her own head. But I believe this refers to the child Claudia revealing Pecola’s life and circumstances with a kind of closeness a third-person narrator couldn’t match. We also hear from an adult Claudia near the end, in one of the most powerful moments of the book: the acknowledgement that the black community failed Pecola, failed itself.

While I was wandering around just seeing what was out there on this book, I came across a lecture by Prof. Amy Hungerford from the Open Yale Course “The American Novel since 1945” which made several points I would have missed. One in particular (around the 43-minute mark) addresses the potentially malignant effect of reading and writing, which Hungerford sees associated with rape.

Her analysis begins with the scene in which Soaphead Church prepares the poisoned meat for Pecola to feed the neighbor’s dog, as a sign that God will grant her blue eyes. It is this event that finally pushes her into a kind of psychosis, so it’s a pivotal scene. We can be forgiven for almost overlooking the casual line, “A bottle of ink was on the same shelf that held the poison.”

But that line, in combination with the Dick and Jane primer that has been showcased repeatedly throughout the book, a primer telling a story that must seem bizarre to children like Pecola, a primer inculcating the White Ideal in young kids who might not be able to understand why their worlds do not look like Dick and Jane’s: this is the poison. “If you are a young black girl learning to read, you are bringing into yourself a deadly kind of poison” says Hungerford. This is echoed in the “talking to herself” scene at the end of the novel, where Pecola reveals, to herself and the reader, she was raped a second time while she was reading. Reading is, or at least can be, a kind of penetration, of the most intimate kind.

I seem to have turned this into a reading-about-the-book, but at least I started with reading the book. By the way, it’s one of the most challenged books in America, in terms of library and school bans. I was in school when it was released, and I don’t remember hearing anything about it, but that was in Florida. I looked up the original NYT review, and it was very positive, predicting a glowing career for Morrison; little did they know how she would exceed their expectations. But at least they got it right, in a time when they could very easily have gotten it wrong.

Ellen Litman , The Last Chicken in America (Norton, 2007)

I used to have this confused idea, this delirious noble dream – we come to America and I immediately begin to work, an unglamorous, hard job. I support the whole family and they are grateful, grateful and also proud of me because I go to school at night. But things are different. I can’t get a job because of the welfare thing, and I can’t go to school because of the financial aid thing. So instead I translate and interpret for my parents. I make all the phone calls too, while they argue over my head, pushing me to say contradictory things. I told them that if they want to argue they can make their own phone calls. I tell them that I’m tired and nervous, and that my English isn’t good, at least not good enough to deal with them screaming and with an American person on the other end not understanding me. They call me lazy and irresponsible and say that the next time they will have to ask Alick, a stranger, for help, because their own daughter is too damn selfish. Which is fine, they say, because the next time I needed something from them, I better be prepared to wait a long, very long time.

– “The Last Chicken in America”

With all the political focus on immigration these days, it’s easy to forget that immigrants aren’t all alike. Not only do they come from different places, for different reasons, and in different circumstances, but even within those subdivisions, there are differences, differences between generations, sexes, and just differences in personalities, expectations, and goals. Litman’s story collection does a nice job of introducing us to several members of a community of Russian Jewish immigrants who landed in Pittsburgh, and pointing out how, while there are some common threads, each of them has different challenges and different approaches to life in America.

Many of the stories feature Masha, who in the first story is about eighteen. We follow her from shortly after arrival, her anxiety and frustration abounding as shown in the quote above, and through college as a commuter student studying computer science (“The safest job in Squirrel Hill was still in computer programming”); then, in the last story, we catch up with her a few years later and see she left Pittsburgh, and left her programming job, for Harvard’s Slavic Languages graduate program.

In the meantime we meet other members of the community: Liberman, an older widower encouraged – or coerced – by his kids to emigrate for health reasons; Natasha, a divorcee trying to find a social circle; Anya, another teenager torn between obedience and her own desires; Mike, aka Mishka, who gets entangled in a coworker’s personal life; a group of three men and their wives, bound together by circumstance. Among the ancillary characters we see glimpses of twin teenage girls from Donetsk, Ukraine, and how they form a closed circle; we meet Pamela, an American who shows Masha a different way of being Jewish; and we run across a visiting Russian professor who is everyone’s idea of the egotistical visiting professor, and has his own idea of what it is to be Russian, an idea Masha recognizes can’t share.

It’s subtitled “a novel in stories” but Litman tells Arsen Kashkashian of Kash’s Book Corner that was the publisher’s decision for marketing purposes; she simply wrote a set of stories set in the same neighborhood, sometimes sharing characters. There is a chronological progression, particularly in the “Masha” stories, and the hallmarks of a novel – change over a span of time – holds true. I was reminded of Ernie’s Ark, Monica Wood’s similarly constructed, though thematically different, collection of linked about numerous characters in a papermill town in Maine. Wood resisted the novel-in-stories label in favor of linked stories because she feared readers might have different expectations of a novelization. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Masha, the central character of the collection, has a number of similarities to Litman, who came here at age 19 with her family. In an interview with Katharine Whittemore of UConn Magazine (where Litman is a professor of creative writing), she tells of a specific incident in 1990, after Perestroika but before the breakup of the Soviet Union, that spurred her parents to emigrate: a Russian general on television called for pogroms against Jews. This was an exacerbation of the typical anti-Semitic sentiment, as Litman explained in the interview:

In Russia, you simply couldn’t be a writer if you were Jewish. You couldn’t aspire to certain things. We were taught very early that you have to work twice as hard as others to get things. I kept a journal and wrote poetry, but there was no way to “be a writer.”
You have to understand that Russian Jews were never considered Russians. On my passport under nationality, it said “Jewish,” not “Russian.” Being Jewish affects a lot of things, unofficially and officially. Which college you can attend, which job you can get. Some colleges won’t accept Jews because “they have bad vision.” Others admit under a quota from the local party district.

This background is reflected in Masha’s story line in a couple of places.

Several online reviews refer to the humor in the book. I tend to be more finely attuned to darkness, but yes, there are many humorous scenes, not necessarily in a laugh-out-loud way but more in a recognition of our common frailties way. Airplane behavior; expressions of romantic interest; unexpected houseguests; and that great American coming of age story, father-daughter driving lessons.

As might be expected, references to Russian culture abound. Two Russian songs make their appearance in separate stories. Poets are quoted. I did my second read in front of my computer so I could be better acquainted with these elements.

And then there’s the language. Just in the first story, I was struck by two phrases that I figured had to be some kind of reference: God’s dandelion, in reference to an elderly woman, and How many winters? How many springs? opening a phone call to someone not heard from in a long time. It turns out, these are typical Russian phrases, and, in fact, Penn State Slavic Language professor Adrian Wanner used these, and other examples from the collection, in his book Out of Russia: Fictions of a New Translingual Diaspora:

A stylistic feature of Litman’s book that deserves special mention is her loan translations of Russian idioms. The result is a “strange’-sounding discourse which, while not technically wrong, gives English language a vaguely foreign feel. …
Litman’s English language becomes a sort of palimpsest of an imaginary primary text – it is as if the narrative were a clumsy, literal translation of a Russian original, or perhaps the conscious choice of a translator who rejects a “smooth,” assimilationist rendering in favor of a “foreignizing” solution. But in the present case this translational effect is illusionary, of course, since the author wrote the text directly in English. The hybrid discourse, mimicking an English surface rendering of a Russian deep structure, serves as an apt representation of the heroine’s own bicultural background and unresolved tension between her Russian and American identities.

And again I come across that idea of the immigrant as palimpsest.

Norton has a Reading Group Guide that includes some excellent discussion questions and a brief interview with Litman. She mentions the title: it comes from a supermarket scene in the first story in which Lina, Masha’s mother, keeps picking up frozen chickens. “It’s not the last chicken in America,” her husband tells her. This phrase was chosen for the story’s title following the suggestion of a teacher. This is, in fact, how I became aware of the book; the teacher’s advice shows up in Steve Almond’s This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, and I’ve wanted to read this book ever since. So it took me six or seven years, so what.

A brief (hah; I’m not known for brevity) rundown of my favorite stories:

“The Last Chicken in America”
As the lead story, this sets us up with a picture of the early days of a family’s immigration. Teenage Masha struggles to figure out her role in America, while her parents struggle to learn enough English to find jobs, having left good employment as an engineer and a teacher. This all causes a great deal of conflict within the family, but also a good deal of resilience. The ending of the story leaves a lot of room for hope, hope that pays off as we read through the rest of the stories.

This is what’s wrong with immigration. Those who could be your friends at home here become cautious competitors. Parents envy their children. Sisters become dangerous – all that private information they can unleash at a strategically chosen moment. It’s about surviving. Immigration distorts people. We walk around distorted.

In my room I study what it means to be an American woman: strappy sandals, skimpy suits, the hair – straight and shiny. A Russian woman is all about hardships, guilt, and endurance. She waits and forgives and then waits some more. But an American woman doesn’t wait: she puts on a push up bra and has meaningless sex whenever she feels like it.

My parents are irrational, impossible to be around. There seems to be an angry electric current running through their blood. I understand. I try to be understanding. it’s because of the jobs, there are no jobs in Pittsburgh. They’ve been to the resume-writing workshops and to the interview-going workshops ; they’ve memorized hundreds of sample dialogues and know how to write the perfect thank you letter. But nobody wants a former teacher and an engineer with minimal English skills.
They take it out on me and on each other. We don’t look much like a family anymore. But we have to stick together – there are still appointments, phone calls, and Giant Eagle.

And it probably won’t last, the way the three of us are together like this and laughing. But tonight we are perfect. Tonight we’re the way a family should be. It’s warm and the heat is rattling in the basement like a high speed train, sending puffs of hot air through the floor vents. There’s plenty of chicken and frozen pizza in our refrigerator. And there’s Child’s Play 2 starting on the Movie Channel, which we somehow get for free. After supper my mother will distribute the bars of Klondike ice cream and we will huddle together in front of the TV, shuddering and laughing at the horrors of Chucky the doll, feeling warm and fortunate in our American apartment. Feeling like we have everything.

“What Do You Dream Of, Cruiser Aurora?”
Now we get a look at immigration through the eyes of an older man, a widower whose adult children have nagged him to come to America, where his daughter has lived for five years. He’s rather ambivalent about the transition, which isn’t helped by his daughter’s attitude once he’s here, or by his grandson’s fear of him. On the plane, he plays a game of I’m ignoring you with the woman across the aisle from him, a tactic he uses again later in the story. The title comes from a Soviet song about a historically-laden warship, now a museum in St. Petersburg.

Liberman met Mira on the flight to New York. For twelve hours, they sat across the aisle from each other –
stretching, lurching into bleary dreams, stirring awake when there was turbulence, sipping tomato juice from plastic see-through cups, not risking anything stronger – two ponderous old people, both traveling alone. He didn’t want to talk to her. She was a chatterbox; he could tell by the way she’d been going on to her neighbor, an Armenian woman in the window seat. To avoid conversation, he kept his eyes closed. But eventually a restrained understanding developed between them. When Mira’s earphones broke, Lieberman offered her his pair. When he had to use the bathroom, he asked her to look after his things.
They were on a charter flight from Leningrad, an uneasy mass of immigrants, and everybody had a story to tell.

Had he made a mistake? Could he go back now? Or was it too late? He’d left his Leningrad apartment to Arkasha, which meant he would have nowhere to live. He could live with Arkasha, but Arkasha’s wife wouldn’t like it. He wondered now if Mira had ideas like that. Of course they weren’t acquainted enough so he could ask her.

In the lunchroom, Russian seniors were clustered to the right. You could recognize them immediately: men in ill-fitting brown trousers, women in cotton dresses and knitted cardigans, all of it purchased a long time ago and altered repeatedly. Lips pursed sternly, faces stiff. Compared to them, the Americans (mostly women) looked like careless parakeets – bright, excessively painted, and cheerful.

We, she said, and he knew she had come with her family. That was how people at JFK airport had talked – we – perched on top of their orphans’ bags, each family banded together, spreading like a gypsy encampment. That was the proper way to emigrate, so you wouldn’t feel like an intruder later, so your grandson wouldn’t get afraid.

“Russian Club”
We join Masha, still living at home but now in college studying computer science. She joins the campus Russian Club, a lightweight social club light on actual Russians, on a whim. Victor Harlamov, a visiting philology professor from Moscow, shows up at a meeting, and she is bewitched; whether it’s a literary or a romantic crush is never quite clear, but she joins his class and he treats her as a star pupil. The Russian Club works on a trip to Russia, but Masha has trouble arranging the logistics; she might be less than eager to begin with. This causes a rift between her and the professor. This could play as a romcom, but the resonances (all Russians are not alike) allow for much more.

“What do you miss the most?“ he asked.
I said I missed walking in Moscow, traversing old boulevards, the sidewalks glistening in the night, Pushkin Square, the lovers clutching flowers beneath the poets statue – the sentinels of love.
He said he also liked the boulevards, and Eskimo ice cream sticks for twenty-five kopecks.
What Victor missed was the Russian brokenness. He said it was the core of the Russian soul. “You see it in poets: Tsvetaeva’s suicide, Esenin, Mayakovsky. But it’s not just the poets. We are sensitive, foolish, illogical. We live in a state of turmoil, on the brink of being destroyed, steps away from the next drunken bout.”
I knew what he meant. I had my own brokenness.

He was convinced that had I stayed in Moscow, I would have applied to Moscow State. He was mistaken. Philology was too prestigious, the competition rigorous, with tens of applicants contending for each space, and a Jewish person with no connections would have been felled. That’s what we called it – felled – when you did well on the exams, but the committee tricked or failed you.
“This doesn’t happen anymore,“ said Victor.

There were topics we never discussed. My Jewishness, for example. He never asked about my parents or why we had come to America. I wanted to tell him. I thought he’d understand. He was open-minded, intelligent, a boy from a little Siberian village who’d made his way up, first to Moscow, then to America.
But he never asked, never shared his own reasons for I leaving.

Here they were, burning to save my old country, spoiling for a fight. Didn’t I care? Didn’t I love it?
But it wasn’t my country anymore. I’d never really belonged there, in the Russian they imagined, among its fields and chapels, the clamor of its bells, the beggars in black shadows along the walls, the golden light bleeding from tiles, candles, and icons. It had been the fall of my senior year in high school, our class trip to the Troitsky monastery, and the boy I liked was crossing himself by the icon of Nikolai the Miracle Worker. He had a silver crucifix under his shirt, which probably meant nothing, except it was what nationalist patriots wore in those days, when they went on TV at midnight and talked of planned pogroms. No I didn’t miss Russia.

At our last class, Victor said the silver age outlived itself. The best poets perished in Russia, while those who escaped were nothing but pale imitations. He wrote on the back of my paper, “For a true Russian person, immigration is death. A Russian poet can’t survive in immigration. “

“When the Neighbors Love You”
Anya wants to go to BU, her parents want her to go to Pittsburgh and live at home. She resolves the conflict on a secret roadtrip with a friend. This story contains some of the most beautiful writing in the collection.

You think: you were twelve and wore brown corduroys. You once read Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet , but you don’t remember the plots anymore. The neighbors called you a clever girl and a darling. You weren’t supposed to hear but you did anyway, through the running water in the kitchen, where mother-of-pearl teacups lay in your hands like seashells. Your heart swooped at the praise and you imagined a brilliant future: articles, book jackets, scholarships to Europe. You were Anna Akhmatova , with her choker and rosary beads; you were Marie Curie at the Sorbonne, austere in her grief. You were in love with the handsomest of professors – British, possibly married, with a sarcastic crinkle around his eyes. But the romance, too, had an exceptionally happy ending, because you were a smart girl, a girl who made smart decisions, and nothing bad could happen to a girl like this.

One aspect of the book that initially didn’t impress me at all was the cover. But the more I read, the more I realized the girl-jumping-over-puddle image was perfect. It’s a long leap; she might land on her butt in the middle; she might get her boots muddy. But she’ll get to the other side.

Those who were born here often have the idea that immigrants arrive brimming with eagerness and gratitude. What’s often left out of the picture is the anxiety of adjusting, and the sorrow at leaving behind what – and who – was, for however many years, home. Litman gives us a more complete picture than our imaginations allow, and also shows how heterogeneous the immigrant experience can be. Masha’s journey is very different from her parents’ or Liberman’s, and everyone’s journey changes en route. Moving to a new town can be unsettling; how much more unsettling then is moving to a new country. Give ‘em a break while they work it out.

What’s Next? A Preliminary Reading List for the next Five Months

As I did last year, I plan to fill the time between now and whenever BASS 2019 drops (expected in October; the guest editor is Anthony Doerr) with assorted readings: novels, story collections, nonfiction books and essay collections or anthologies, maybe even a little poetry.

The “For Later” list on my local library account contains over 120 entries of books I’ve seen along the way and thought, I might want to read that; some of them were put there eight or ten years ago. In addition, I have a bookmark list for the interlibrary loan catalog with several hundred items, and an Amazon shopping list with another 50 or so ideas. So I have a lot to choose from.

While the books I’ve selected for this “long list” are eclectic, many fall into a few noticeable categories:

● Fiction using God/religion/spirituality for plot;
● Nonfiction about work, including a few about jobs seldom written about;
● All genres by established authors, and reading-list standards I’ve never read;
● Plus an eclectic assortment of more recent releases that caught my eye, though often I can’t remember when or how.

 
I doubt I’ll get to them all. I expect to be moving at some point in the next month or two, so that will disrupt things for a while. I may give up on some, swap in others. But it’s a start. I’m already in possession of nine of the titles, with two more on the way. Most of the rest will be library borrows (moving is expensive).

I plan to rotate through the categories, though I don’t have any order in mind. I welcome anyone who’d like to read along; I’ve been using Goodreads more regularly than I used to, so when I start a book, I’ll post it there under “currently reading”. But to start: I’m already halfway through Ellen Litman’s story collection, and plan to read Morrison next.

The long list:

God, religion, spirituality:

• Wilton Barnhardt: Gospel (St. Martin’s, 1993). This is sort of cheating, since I’ve read it several times, but not recently. It drove this mini-group of God-centered books, in fact. Borrows a lot from clichés, but I can’t help it, I miss God (the character, in a small but pivotal part) every time I come to the end.
• Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Pantheon, 2010). This is a novel in 36 chapters, each an argument for… well, you get the idea.
• C. Michael Curtis, ed. : God Stories (HM, 1998) Everyone from James Baldwin to Philip Roth to James Joyce chips in.
• Youssef Ziedan: Azazeel (Atlantic, 2001). Along the lines of Gospel but set in the fifth century, recounting a monk’s travels in Egypt in the early days of Christianity.

 
Jobs, especially those rarely written about:

• Finn Murphy: The Long Haul (Norton, 2017). Murphy took a summer job as a trucker after his third year of college, and kept going.
• Stephanie Land: Maid (Hachette, 2019). The hardest-working people around get the least money, and the least respect.
• Jacob Tomsky: Heads in Beds (Anchor 2016). The Kitchen Confidential of the hospitality industry.
• Sandeep Jauhar: Doctored (FSG, 2015). Yes, doctor books abound, but I can’t resist them, especially, given my recent close encounters with doctors, disillusioned ones.
• Nell Painter: Old in Art School (Counterpoint, 2018). Not exactly a job, but close enough.
• Kwame Onwuachi: Notes from a Young Black Chef (Knopf, 2019). Ok, so chefs also write a lot of books. I can’t resist an occasional nibble.

 
Filling in my literary gaps: literary standards and established authors

• Walker Percy: The Moviegoer (RH reissue, 1998)
• Donald Barthelme: Sixty stories (Penguin reissue 2003)
• Sinclair Lewis: Main Street/Babbitt/It Can’t Happen Here (LOA reissue 1992)
• Umberto Eco: On Literature (HB 2004)
• Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye (Vintage Reissue 2007)
• Hannah Arendt: Essays in Understanding (Schocken reissue 2018) . Yeah, I know, everyone’s reading The Origins of Totalitarianism but I thought this might be a better place to start.
• Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections (Picador reprint, 2002). No, I’ve never read Franzen. So shoot me.
• Nathanael West: Miss Lonelyhearts/Day of the Locust (LOA reprint 1997). I’ve always wanted to read these.
• Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man (RH, 1982 ed.). Yeah, again, no I haven’t read it, stop judging.

 
Miscellaneous fiction and non, with the possibility of a hint of poetry

• Ellen Litman: The Last Chicken In America (Norton, 2007). A novel-in-stories about a community of post-Soviet Russian Jewish immigrants in Pittsburg.
• Simon Winchester: The Professor and the Madman (HC 1998). Because I’d rather read the book than see the movie.
• N. K. Jemisin : How Long ‘til Black Future Month? (Orbit, 2018). I try to read a little fantasy now and then, and this sounds intriguing.
• John Boyne: A Ladder to the Sky (Hogarth 2018). I tend to like writers as characters.
• Michel Lincoln: Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press, 2015). I’m scared (the one story of his I encountered in Pushcart was bizarre, in a good way) , but I’ll give it a shot.
• Julie Schumacher: The Shakespeare Requirement (Doubleday 2018). A follow-up to last year’s Dear Committee Members.
• Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Friday Black (Mariner, 2018). How cool is it that there are two widely-discussed fantasy collections by writers of color.
• R. Jay Magill: Sincerity (Norton, 2013). A history and philosophical investigation of the trait.
• Emily Wilson: The greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca (OUP, reprint 2018). I know surprisingly little about the Stoics, and almost nothing about Seneca, so I thought this might help.
• Mark Kurlansky: Salt: A World History (Penguin, 2003). I love books that use something simple as a way to tell broad stories about people, histories, and places.
• Victoria Chang: Circle (SIUP, 2005). One of the Pushcart poets from this year.
• Tony Hoaglund: Twenty Poems that Could Save America (Graywolf, 2014). Another Pushcart poet; this is a book of essays about poetry; I may combine it with one of his poetry collections.

 
Gotta go – I have reading to do.

Pushcart XLIII: Looking Back

And so over the years, with the help of these writers and thousands of others, literary publishing has changed for the better. The point: do not despair about the present situation where truth is denigrated, facts depend on whatever power brokers say they are, and hype and celebrity seemed to rule the national mind. Our struggle is worth it. We are not back in the era when non-commercial writers wrote for their desk drawers only. This is a true, quiet revolution. Let’s keep it.

Introduction, Bill Henderson

I have no idea how the actual business of writing works, but I would imagine that appearing in a Pushcart volume is a big boost to the career of the so-called emerging writer, someone who’s produced some work of quality but hasn’t yet convinced agents or publishers that she’s good for the long haul. If you read the interviews and contributor notes for stories and poems, you notice that a page of poetry, or fifteen pages of prose, can take years to perfect. It’s no small accomplishment to make it past the slush pile and into publication in the first place, then to get through a second round to be chosen for Pushcart. It’s a big deal.

That said: this is the first time in nine years that Pushcart has disappointed me.

Now, I admit I’m not a writer, nor am I a trained critic or reviewer. I’m just a reader, with my own preferences, blind spots, and educational deficiencies. And I’ve been in a terrible funk over the state of the country, the state of the world, for a couple of years now, increasing as justice becomes more and more something for the rich and powerful to use to keep their status. So it’s quite possible this volume will read differently at another time (if there is another time; I fear, truly fear, we are stuck in this one for the forseeable future). Maybe I’ll come to see it more as Jake Weber does; his summary post sees “Unjustified optimism, necessary optimism: American Attitudes about the Future in the Pushcart 2019 anthology”. It’s an excellent summary post; I highly recommend it, as I do his posts on individual stories.

It’s not that I think the stories are bad; with a couple of exceptions, they’re pretty good. In a way, it’s my past experience with Pushcart (and perhaps my recent read of BASS 2018, which I found extraordinarily wonderful) that makes this one seem underwhelming. I’ve come to expect surprise, imaginative craft, things I’ve never seen before, an emotional experience, from the Pushcart material. I felt little of that this time. I could recognize, ok, here’s the part that’s heartbreaking, but, with a couple of exceptions, my heart remained stubbornly whole. Yes, the problem may be my heart, or my reading. But while I saw some interesting stories, I saw nothing that made me want to grab someone and shove the book in their hands and say, You’ve got to read this!

A noticeable chunk of the volume felt downright elegiac, the literary equivalent of the In Memoriam segment of an award show. I’m probably going to get in trouble for this paragraph; the literary community, those who really know what they’re doing, the ones for whom this volume is actually published, probably treasure those pieces. Most years contain pieces by deceased writers, either accidentally or on purpose, but this year included several such pieces, as well as memoirs. I suppose this is a good place to do that – it lends a nice continuity, seeing brand-new writers next to those who’ve shaped their genres over decades – but it started to feel a bit forced. And, next to so many stories about death (not an uncommon feature of literary fiction), the volume started to feel funereal.

My own illness, resulting in an absence of several weeks right in the middle of the book, didn’t help. Oddly, when I got back to work, I felt more confused but less depressed by the pieces, perhaps because I started working at a much quicker pace, batting out five or six posts a week instead of my usual two or three. I probably spent the same amount of time on each post, several hours each morning and additional time as needed in the insomnia hours, but left out a lot of “sleep on it and mull it over” time. That might be the key: I was more in-the-moment. An interesting observation, to be sure. I won’t know for sure if I missed a lot, or just avoided some dreading, until I have some distance.

To get specific:

Things started out with promise. Pam Houston’s opening essay on the down side of irony gave me a lot to bounce off of: I summed it up as “ while I basically agree with the overall theme – caring is better than not-caring, and we can’t afford to be sealing ourselves behind a wall of cynicism and irony – I somehow have a lot of issues with the how she gets there.” Karen Russell’s “Tornado Auction” got a little overcomplicated, but ultimately delivered. “Into the Mystery”, Tony Hoagland’s poem, spoke to me, and even gave me some structure to work with; I’ve noticed my enjoyment of a poem tends to increase when I find something I understand about how it’s written. In a nice piece of editing, “The Whitest Girl” and “The Hunter”, a back-to-back pair of prose pieces, one fiction, one essay, provided interesting perspectives on Latinx-Anglo cultural relations.

My favorite fiction was David Naimon’s “Acceptance Speech”. It combined an unusual narrative approach – a speech at an awards dinner – with a truly interesting relationship dynamic; the title added a little linguistic flair. This was what I came for. Another favorite story was Sarah Resnick’s short story, “Kylie Wears Balmain,” a swipe at the contemporary predominance of entertainment over art and thought captured within a clever structure. It bemoaned exactly Henderson’s point from his introduction: the money is behind celebrity gossip, not a debate of ideas.

Lisa Taddeo’s “A Suburban Weekend” was a learning experience: I eventually realized the story I hated masked a touching emotional piece. It’s a story I can’t say I loved, but I greatly appreciate the craft. It’s quite a task for a writer, like one of those science fiction stories where the received frequency is a carrier for a subfrequency (Sagan’s Contact made major use of this, as did several episodes of ST:TNG; I don’t quite understand the science, but get the concept).

While I enjoyed cross-discussions on the fiction pieces with Jake, I had some similar back-and-forth with my Vermont Poet friend, Patrick Gillespie, on the poetry. I have a lot of problems with poetry: I keep changing my mind about whether the poet’s vision, or the reader’s interpretation, is paramount; whether there is a “right” reading for a poem or whether it’s a free-for-all; if aesthetic experience equals meaning. Can I love a poem and have no idea what it means? What is it that I love, then? Is that the meaning? The question before me as I read this volume was: Why is the poem written in this way, this form, with this language? How does it contribute to meaning / aesthetic experience? I only occasionally had answers. I’m planning to take the Yale OCW on Modern Poetry, but I doubt that will help much. Courses tend to help me with the poems they cover, but not with techniques or approaches for my future reading. I may need to eventually accept that I’m just poetry-stupid, but I do enjoy these annual forays.

In addition to Houston’s opening essay, I found two of the nonfiction pieces particularly interesting. One was Molly Cooney’s “Transition”, which took the transgender journey out of the political realm and made it much more personal. I also found “Powder House,” the closing essay by Molly Gallantine, intriguing reading. I learned a few things, and nothing makes me happier than encountering something I didn’t know, in an interesting and memorable way.

Maybe I was just the wrong reader at the wrong time; maybe Pushcart tried something a little different this time; maybe they accidentally used the “honorable mention” list instead of the award list; maybe they’re feeling as distraught about current events as I am. The Introduction bears that out, though it also includes some of that optimism Jake sees:

For many of us, we too live now in an alien world dedicated to power and lies. It is hard to laugh and smile. This is not the world we cherish. It is tempting to just retreat into tribal clusters, or surrender it all to a drugged wasteland.
But of course we cannot and will not retreat.

So do not despair about our contemporary blasts of power and lies. Stay calm and carry on writing. Eventually the power-obsesssed will destroy themselves.

Introduction, Bill Henderson

I’m not so sure there will be much left if that does eventually happen. But here’s to Pushcart, for keeping the faith.

Pushcart XLIII: Molly Gallentine, “Powder House” (nonfiction) from Fourth Genre #19.1

Outside 77 St. Marks Place in Manhattan, an old man walks a miniature dog, and a skateboarder sweeps past them on the street. Inside, I blink and slowly dig my spoon into a half crystallized, fishy gelatine, slunk out of a plastic bowl. The apartment belongs to a friend of mine from grad school named Brandon. A tenement built in 1845, it is a typical narrow railroad layout with the rare prize of a balcony on either side.
When my mother first walked down St. Mark’s, with its line of smoke shops, open mic venues, and its tattoo parlor doubling as a coffee shop, she called it “a circus”. I was drawn to the neighborhood as I was drawn to Brandon’s character – to his inquisitiveness and loud laugh. Brandon embraced eccentricities. He was always working on quirky projects, constructing things: a coffee table, a costume for Burning Man, a black-and-white film on his Super 8 camera.
Brandon and I make the movie together. In the film, my hand picks up a small antler and places it into a pot of boiling water on his stove. it’s the first step in our gelatin recipe: sterilizing cartilage.

It’s an essay about W. H. Auden, a post-Revolution era cookbook, a New York gluemaker, 9/11, hartshorn aka baker’s ammonia, the changing face of formerly artsy NYC, architect Richard Meier, and the war on terror. And it’s all held together by… Jell-O.

Gallantine’s current website indicates she’s putting together “a book of essays that investigate America through the culinary lens of Jell-O”. In 2011, Gallantine and her above-mentioned friend Brandon made a short Super8 film based on her MFA thesis about gelatin. I’m not sure of the sequence, but this article appears to be about the making of that film, which indeed includes the grating of hartshorn and production of a rather loose gelatin mold.

It sounds impossible to link all these things together in a way that makes sense, let alone that’s readable, but somehow she pulls it off. Everything is connected to everything else. The dust from the grated hartshorn reminds her of Marcy Borders, who became locally known as the “Dust Lady” as she was photographed covered with dust from the disintegrating Tower on 9/11. The exquisitely detailed architectural models of Richard Meier (the model-people have facial expressions), housed in a museum on the site of a former tobacco factory, somehow remind her of Borders as well. The apartment in which they made the film once housed Trotsky and, later, Auden. They use the recipe from Hanna Glasse’s 1796 book Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple. Later, gluemaker Peter Cooper, in pursuit of glue recipes, created Jell-O on a site that previously manufactured ammunition.

In Latin, gelatin means “frozen” or “to freeze”, which may be one of the many reasons we associate it with a kind of utopian America. What Jell-O tapped into and sold to its consumers exists both in and out of time. It’s a depiction of an America we are nostalgic for, even if our memory of it is a shared delusion. In Jell-O America, families have a mother and a father, a high – if not superior – moral standard, and everyone dines on roasted bird and treats from the icebox. A woman unveils her molded gelatin creation to her family, garnering squeals of delight. The woman stands proud. It is the food of perfection, a substance that allows her to assert control over otherwise unwieldy fruits and vegetables. Psychologically speaking, it is a food that encapsulates and controls.

I would never have thought of Jell-O as a metaphor for a society, a culture, a country, but turns out, it works well. What holds us together is wobbly, takes time to set, and can shift over time. Dismantling that “shared delusion” (at least among the white middle class; those struggling under Jim Crow or unable to achieve their dreams because girls don’t do that sort of thing might feel differently) about the glorious past might be the healthiest thing we as a culture could do, but it’s so nice to think there once was a time when everything was ok, maybe because it means things could be ok again.

This makes a nice final piece, since it is so broad and encompassing. All the individual stories and poems are situated in this gelatin called Pushcart XLIII, and some of it makes us happy or sad or angry or pleased. But it doesn’t hold still either. Read this book five years from now, and a retrospective will be born.

Pushcart XLIII: Leslie Jill Patterson, “Brace Yourself” from Prime Number #113

You like to claim you landed at Eagle Hill by mistake. A misunderstanding of some kind. Truth is, Billy Scales and his ranch hands found you in a bar named True Grit, and they knew, from minute one, who you were.
They knew you stuffed your suitcase in a hurry and surely didn’t come to Colorado for camping in the mountains—because it was fifty degrees outside and dropping, and, even so, you wore a sleeveless dress and city-girl sandals with leather daisies arching over your foot. You avoided eye contact, propping a book around your plate and pretending to read when they took the bar stools next to yours. You ordered off the kid’s menu and packed half of it out in a to-go box, so you were clearly guarding every dime. They probably even knew you tucked your wedding ring inside your purse before you walked through The Grit’s door. And when Billy invited you to his equine program—where women caught in hazardous marriages learned to tug a rein resolutely, steering their lives away from vows they should have never spoken—your story was so obvious, he pitched his invitation in the same pragmatic vein that he mentioned where you could find a low-rent apartment and which local bank offered free checking.

Complete story available online at Prime Number

I’ve said many times I like second person, how it both distances the reader from the story and draws them in. In her interview that accompanies the story online, Patterson tells us why she chose this often-disparaged pov. It was less about deliberate literary technique than about her ability to write about something that was very close to her, the character of Billy and the other cowboys. She needed the distance to present the story she wanted to tell.

In places, the story tells of the life the narrator has escaped by telling what is different here: when she struggles with the hose filling water buckets in the barn and squirts water all over, no one yells at her. I wish there had been more of that; it tells her story, but tells it slant, as Emily Dickinson wrote.

We don’t get to know the name of the narrator, which is typical for second-person stories, but here it serves the characterization: she’s on the run, so anonymity is part of her life. One of the cowboys calls her Dolly, which seems a bit demeaning, but he’s the one who helps her the most by bringing her into his “horseriding for abused women” program. I kept waiting for the cowboys to turn into something nefarious, so I felt a great deal of tension for much of the story. That put me right in the narrator’s shoes; she acknowledges the fear, and the hope that these men, this place, this time, it will be different. And although the story doesn’t end with a clear declaration, I had the sense that she has found a place to heal. Another reader might find something different.

Ambiguity seems to be the hallmark of this story. Are the cowboys good guys or bad guys? How does an English professor end up in a roadside bar? How does the professor spouse in the nice suit turn out to be a bad guy? How does a cowboy, a complete stranger, happen to have a solution to her problems? That, for me, is a breaking point of coincidence: of all the gin joints in all the world, she walks into one where a cowboy runs a program for runaway spouses.

There is one overwhelming peculiarity about the story; not the story itself, but how it’s presented in Pushcart. It was published in Prime Number, an online zine, as the winner of a fiction contest; the judge’s comments precede it on the website, while bio and brief interview follow it. Pushcart printed the judge’s comments as well. I’ve never seen that before. The closest I’ve seen was last year, when the introduction to the volume included part of a letter Charles Baxter sent along with the story he nominated, which was chosen as the first entry. But that’s a very different thing than including comments with the story; I thought it set the story up for failure.

I was really thrown by this, and checked Jake Weber’s blog post about the story to see if he’d had any reaction; indeed he did. One of his reader/commenters said it made it seem like a metafiction story, which of course it isn’t. That was exactly what happened with me: I was expecting some kind of story about writing a story about writing a story. Even the best traditional-narrative story would be disappointing after that kind of expectation. Then, too, there’s the thing about someone telling you what a wonderful story something is; there’s something about human nature that just goes, “Well, we’ll see about that.” Again, that’s an obstacle the story has to get past.

It’s ironic this presentation is done to a story about an abused woman whose husband constantly sets her up for failure. It might well look like mansplaining as manipulative sabotage, to someone who’s been there. Or maybe that’s paranoia. More ambiguity. And if I were a writer, I’d likely be thrilled to have such praise preface my work, so who am I to say.

Pushcart XLIII: Phillip Williams, From “Interruptive” (poem) from Poetry, May 2017

What can I do but make of the eyes of others
my own eyes, but make of the world a ghazal
whose radif is a haunting of me, me, me?
 
Somewhere there are fingers still whole
to tell the story of the empire that devours fingers.
Somewhere there is a city where even larvae
 
cannot clean the wounds of the living
and cannot eat on the countless dead
who are made to die tomorrow and tomorrow.

Complete poem available online at Poetry

This is another of those poems I’m nowhere near up to the task of discussing. Not because of obscurity or sophisticated poetic techniques, but because the message is overwhelming, damning, and I may only be reading parts of it. Fortunately, Williams has done some discussing of his own in a guest post at Poetry; but hold the celebration, as the explanation is almost as overwhelming as the poem.

The first section of the poem puts us in battlefield mode, not sparing any details of violence and death. The second section is something like an apology:

But I have not been with my feet on the earth
there where bullets make use of skin like flags
make use of the land. My thinking is as skeletal
 
as the bombed-out schools and houses
untelevised. What do I know of occupation
but my own colonized thinking to shake
 
free from.

This is often the ultimate argument against reform, whether it be of foreign policy or criminal justice: You weren’t there. Williams deals with this thorny issue of witness at a distance in his guest post; is it valid? Must we put ourselves in danger to speak out about creating danger? There is a flip side to this: the end of the draft with the Vietnam war has created the unintended consequence of an army of people who come from military families, or have few other options. Most Americans, including politicians who decide when and where troops are sent, no longer have skin in the game; it’s someone else’s kids being sent over there, another motif Williams puts to use:

The television tells me Over there, and one must point
with a fully extended arm to show how far from,
how unlike here there really is. Over there
 
where they blow each other up over land and God.

As though we don’t do that sort of thing over here.

The Pushcart edition of the poem leaves out images included in the published version at Poetry: three images of a wall made of the word wall repeated (the header image) with, first, the word child, then that word child rising via a cluster of balloons, and finally, a hole. Each image is followed by a description, evoking the description allowed in text-only renderings, that discusses the image. But the images themselves are worth seeing, a good reason to check out the original, linked in the first quote above. Still, the omission fits, somehow, with the ideas in the guest post, about witnessing from a distance, about sympathy vs empathy, and with the ideas in the poem about what it is to worry about over there versus here when we see one but not the other, and so can’t really see that they are, in many ways, the same, including some of the same horrors.

It’s a long poem, and complex, with stories of individuals, stories of countries, and the irony of forcing upon others the choice of American values or die.

What do I know of injustice
 
but having a home throughout which bullets,
ballots, and brutality trifecta against
people who were here before here was here
 
and people were brought here to change
the landscape of humanity?

There’s often a contemplation I often have, that by simply being here, being American, every child who starves in Yemen, every baby torn from its mother on the southwest border, every abuse in Abu Ghraib is done in my name: “…my wallet has made monstrous my reflection, / I have done terrible things by being alive. / I have built a wonder of terror with my life.” It’s way beyond boycotts at this point. There are days when I wonder why we’re all not marching in the streets. But we have mortgages and student loans and health insurance to pay and IRAs to worry about. The American Dream, a self-perpetuating machine, is its own best protection, and its design has not been by accident.

And now I ask the question that’s been on my mind with every poem in this volume: why is it written in this way? As usual, I have no idea. The language is evocative, but I think that’s primarily because of the content, which is mostly accessible. Based on the title, and the appearance of at least one other poem titled ‘from “Interruptive”’, I’m assuming this is part of a much longer, perhaps chapbook-length, poem. Interruptive means exactly what it says: something that interrupts. It’s not only interrupting the peace of mind where we can go to work and play video games and watch GOT and forget over there, but the poem is self-interruptive via those wall inserts. As I mentioned above, I think we maybe need to be a little more interruptive.

And about those walls: in his guest post, Williams makes clear he wanted the Wall to be unidentified, to apply to whatever situation comes to the mind of the reader, and he accepts the unpredictability of that approach: “…the poem is only as powerful as its reader.” The implications scare me.

The final image description conveys a kind of limited hope, or at least, aspiration to hope:

 
[Image of an eight-meter-tall wall bearing a hole in its center, or a 1.7272-meter-tall wall, which is me, bearing a hole in my center. I am the wall and the hole is what makes me better. I want to be better.]
 

So do I. But where do we start?

Pushcart XLIII: Jane Mead, “He” (poem) from American Poetry Review #46:2

Out of quarry-dust
he comes running.
Running as a crab runs
 
he comes out of the hills
The hills that own him –
as a lie comes to own
 
its person, like that.
and the hackles of the land
rise up behind him.
*
On the sub-zero
Range-land the deer
bed down. He –
 
harrowed, and holds
rivers of snow
and forgetting – he
 
beds down.

It’s too bad this isn’t available online. It’s a long poem, in terms of lines and pages (about 7) but because the lines are so short, it’s quite short really, about 600 words. A page or two in prose. Sections are marked off with bullets, composed of three to six stanzas each. And each section contains something important to the progress of the poem, which is why I wish it were online. I can’t quote the whole thing, after all. This too fits with our discussion of the relationship of poetry and flash fiction: it’s what the flash people would call very tight, all essential.

But the stanzas, the divisions, the structure is also important, something I might not have fully realized until I read it out loud, dictating it into a text file for quoting. The short lines make for very fragmented reading, reflecting a subject who may be fragmented himself. My impression is of a homeless man, perhaps mentally ill, perhaps autistic, perhaps just worn out and depleted of his resources; fragmented, thoughts running through him and into the poem.

There seem to be two settings: at first, we see him in a wilderness setting, maybe a western plain, a place of sheepdogs and sagebrush.

In the morning, he –
 
stooped and stretches –
signs a song of praise
from long-ago, while
 
a little sun strikes
a little frost
on the skin of the earth :
 
some say the gate out is the river
some say the gate out is rain –
but I agree with those who say
that every gate is a gate of praise …

 
then sagebrush rattles
then out limps a tattered
sheepdog, thin and just like
 
that.

Another reason I wish this were online: as printed in Pushcart, he signs, not sings, a song of praise. I hope with all my heart this is not a typo, because that little thing there is something like speed bump: slow down, pay attention. Notice the phrase enclosed in dashes, “stooped and stretches”, a slightly out-of-sync phrasing that appears elsewhere: “his hands are bitten and grease”, and made me stop and make sure I had it right.

It might also be a clue to the subject. Is he deaf or otherwise unable to sing? He hums later; maybe words are a problem. Is he from a culture with a gestural language? Or does he merely prefer it? It’s an interesting little quirk. And of course, it could be a typo, which makes it all the more interesting, adding in the mysteries of constructing meaning like a literary MacGyver defusing a bomb with a piece of gum and a fingernail paring. And, not for nothing, the Inverted Jenny is one of the most valuable of stamps, and various biblical printing errors are prized.

We then find out something more about this person:

He had a father
and a mother!
His dreams were
 
cathedral homes
for beetles, of which
there are 450,000
 
different species so far
identified.
Or, Could you
takedown the heaviest
 
book from the top
shelf please? Read
to me more about
 
A is for Aviary ?

*
he would inquire.
Now sleep is all
the cathedral he desires
 
please.

It’s one of those heartbreak passages, juxtaposing our subject in the past with the present. He once had a home, a home with lots of books, and loved hearing about beetles. Now he has no home, no mother or father, no books. What happened between then and now? I want to know.

The cathedral becomes a central image in the poem now as the scene changes to a city: “He lives on the steps / of the cathedral now. / Cardboard, wind tug / and rattle.” These are the accoutrements of the homeless: discarded cartons for mattresses, the elements. I also flashed on the medieval leper’s rattle, required of all those afflicted to warn others of approaching danger, but I suspect that isn’t really an element here. He points out the Angel Gabriel on the steeple blowing his horn, or maybe it’s a Native American (the term used in the poem; this is another insight into our subject, how he grew up, what he’s used to) with a peace pipe. He gives water to stray cats that gather behind the cathedral, because there’s no one else to do so, everyone having left the city for the summer.

The language gets more disorganized, or perhaps it’s just more symbolic. There’s something about a star and a certificate, about cheese for “for the mad dog who runs / through his memory // blinded.” A humming running through him like a tuning fork. And then a cryptic verse near the end:

Well, he whose
singing was a matter
of grave opinion

is now otherwise
employed. He is harness
and wind now, wind

and harness.

The plot thickens. Was he a serious singer who failed a crucial audition? A pop star who hit the coke too hard? Or, and this is only because of the word grave, some kind of religious practitioner, a cantor or shaman, someone who sang or chanted for the dead or dying? It sounds quite free, to now be both harness and wind, or maybe something out of a Greek epic, the whip and the reins, impulse and restraint always fighting each other.

This is one of those poems that intrigues me, even though I don’t quite follow. Part of that is the subject, but it’s also the poem, which blends story and language in a way that makes sense to me.

Pushcart XLIII: Carl Phillips, “Monomoy” (poem) from Poetry, Jan. 2017

Lisa Saint: Dance In The Storm

Lisa Saint: Dance In The Storm

Somewhere, people must still do things like fetch
water from wells in buckets, then pour it out
for those animals that, long domesticated, would
likely perish before figuring out how to get
for themselves. That dog, for example, whose
refusal to leave my side I mistook, as a child,
for loyalty — when all along it was just blind …

Complete poem available online at Poetry

It’s time to abandon all the agonizing and just write about the poem, as I read it. I take a cue from the title: Monomoy is an island, now uninhabited and partly converted to a nature preserve, just off Cape Cod. I imagine the speaker walking around the island, enjoying the quiet and beauty, while various thought go through his mind. Maybe they’re triggered by what he sees; maybe they’re just what’s on his mind that day.

I can see four distinct though related thoughts. The first, above, might be triggered by the absence of artifacts on the island. The example of the dog feels terribly sad, but also shows that we construct reality, we don’t necessarily perceive it.

The speaker then considers vulnerability, how it can invite abuse and violence. He constructs a scene where someone overhears a stranger’s comment – “Don’t you see how you’ve burnt almost / all of it, the tenderness, away” – and tries to ignore it. We call it privacy, or feel embarrassed, but maybe we move away because the vulnerability might be contagious.

Then there’s a short riff on estrangement, sacrifice, drama: “then it’s pretty much the difference / between waking up to a storm and waking up / inside one.” One is objective, the subject as observer, a roof or a pane of glass or at least a sheet of vinyl between skin and wet; the other is subjective, drowning in rain.

The final section is a lovely little anecdote:

…. Who can say how she got there — 
in the ocean, I mean — but I once watched a horse
make her way back to land mid-hurricane: having
ridden, surfer-like, the very waves that at any moment
could have overwhelmed her in their crash to shore, she
shook herself, looked back once on the water’s restlessness — 
history’s always restless — and the horse stepped free.

That look back on what she escaped, that’s a beautiful moment, the physical reality of seeing the storm versus being in it, from the better side.

I’d thought the ideas that ran through the poem – the loyalty/need, vulnerability, estrangement, and escape from the storm – were in the sphere of human socialization, brought about by interactions with the natural environment of the island: the dog, the storms, the horse. But it seems it’s more individual than that.

The poem is one of the final entries in Phillips’ 2018 collection, Wild is the Wind. Jason Gray’s review of the book in Image was highly instructive, in that he saw Phillips using nature as Emily used her environs: “The horses, the sea, the leaves are his bees and Amherst garden.” I could see that: a sort of scaffold onto which to project meaning. But I was still in Soc 101.

Then I found an interview Sophie Weiner did with Phillips in New Limestone Review, in which he characterized the collection, not yet released, as more about love: it does look a bit more at what it means, I suppose, to believe in something like love, like the idea of commitment to love, once one is old enough to have seen how those commitments can turn out to be meaningless. How do we continue to believe in meaning, and why?”

I haven’t read the collection, just the one poem, but, yes, I can see that, instead of the speaker contemplating the human condition amidst nature, he’s bouncing off the solitude – a close, though not inevitable, neighbor of loneliness – in a more individual way. The dog’s loyalty that is merely need, the vulnerability, the estrangement, the horse in the storm, all take on different shades, and the pain comes to the fore.

Pushcart XLIII: John Ashbery, “Just the One Episode” (poem) from Litmag #1

Art by Stacy Hutchinson (detail)

Art by Stacy Hutchinson (detail)

My thanks for these various emails,
and regrets for not responding sooner.
I was weighing myself on the old-fashioned scale
in front of the druggist. It delivers your fortune
along with your weight – “your wate and fate.”
Mine was, to say the least, distressing,
but, like all prophecies, contained
in the narrow groove of its delivery.

John Ashbery died in 2017 after a life of poetic greatness. Poetic dunce that I am, I only became aware of him about five years ago via the Modern Poetry mooc (Modpo) lovingly cultivated by Al Filreis at Penn. Ashbery was a featured poet during that iteration of the course; “Some Trees” became the source for my own vid-poem during my mesostic phase, and his “Instruction Manual” likewise found its way into my “When MOOCs collide” video. The haunting “As Long As You Are” were the last words spoken in the final live webcast of the course, and left many of us around the world in tears. So I have a strong affection for Ashbery.

What I don’t have is the expertise to do him justice. But I shall give it a might try, as this is likely the last opportunity I will have in these pages. This is, by the way, his first appearance in Pushcart, presumably because he rarely appeared in small presses.

In the category of happy coincidence, my Vermont Poet friend Patrick Gillespie put up a post just a couple of days ago that used Ashbery as an example of what he calls representational poetry as opposed to notional poetry. One of the many useful ideas I found there, one that seems quite specific to this poem we have at hand, is: “Ashbery disrupts any notional content with a kind of notional incongruence that defies the communication of a larger, consistent idea or notion.”

The above quoted lines seem congruent enough, but then again… Does the speaker imply that he didn’t reply to the email because he was busy weighing himself? Or is the apology dispatched with in the first two lines, and now he is merely sharing details of his life, starting with the weighing?

Do those old-fashioned scales still exist, other than on eBay? Is this a memory of days gone by? Or is this more of a daydream, a fantasy, or a metaphor for a more realistic scenario, such as a medical appointment, or perhaps the routine weighing of oneself on a bathroom scale and discovering significant, unintended weight loss? It seems very much like the delivery of personal prophecy, one with menacing implications.

That line, “contained / in the narrow groove of its delivery” resonates, not so much with considering the source, but with my cognitive-behavioral training, the recognition that words are neither good nor bad, kind nor insulting, encouraging or scary, but that our interpretation makes them so.

These are all somewhat mystifying but recognizable ideas. Then the poem goes into metaphoric hyperspace about “The French doors of truth” and, while the speaker’s eyes may be open, I am lost. I don’t know what the “tragically hemispheric wall of our deliverance” might be; I keep wanting to connect it to birth, to death as a birth into something else, something unknown, but that seems a bit fanciful and unsupported. All I come up with is, we know we must come to an end, and we don’t know what comes after.

But what are the apples, the painted rags? Somehow I connect this with Frank O’Hara’s poem “Oranges” which involved a painting, paint on canvas. They were close friends, sometimes wrote poems in conversation; could this be another of those, to one who’s gone before? But that may be comparing apples and oranges, and I may need to see someone about my loose associations.

I realize I’m fully invested in the poem as premonition of death. That’s not a completely unjustified option, but I wonder what I’ve turned away from as I turned to this. How much does my prior knowledge of Ashbery’s death, combined with the persistent elegiac tone of this entire Pushcart volume, bear upon this unconscious decision, and how much is in the text?

Then to end the poem we come back to the concrete:

The horoscope wasn’t wrong, only a little late,
while I have stuff to do, and crates to open.

The crates feel urgent to me. Somehow I come up with the image of unpacking from a move, but I have a move coming up soon so I might be imposing that on the poem. Has someone else died, necessitating a move or some kind of rearrangement of belongings, and the horoscope’s prediction was of a loss, rather than of personal misfortune? In any case, the turn is from contemplation of bad news, to more mundane and practical matters. This is a turn I should take more often.

I wonder if this is itself a letter to O’Hara, or what such a letter would have been like had O’Hara not died young. If Ashbery’s mortality was weighing heavily on him, he might have had an impulse to write O’Hara again. In updating to email, it would be as if the lapse in time, acknowledged in the first lines, wasn’t that important, as if he’d been corresponding with the dead poet all along.

This O’Hara connection comes up only because it happens to be something I am aware of. That’s the problem, isn’t it. I’m unaware of so much, perhaps there’s another reference that better fits the bill. I just read a commentary on one of the Umberto Eco novels which declared that it’s a puzzle for the reader to guess the historical and philosophical references within; I wouldn’t stand a chance. How can this referentiality work, when each reader has a different exposure to outside material?

What of the title? I read this medically as well: one episode of syncope, of chest pain, of some symptom that is a harbinger of more to come. It would be possible to see it as more of an episode in a series, as of a television series or the real-life program of every day living. But I am pretty much stuck on this coming to terms with one’s demise.

I went through some of the PennSound material on Ashbery and discovered a 1966 interview on “These Lacustrine Cities”. He distinguishes between obscure and incomprehensible, and asserts the importance of a poem communicating something, even if it is obscure, because it can be easier to communicate some things obscurely. I was most interested in his preface, in which he explained what he was thinking when he wrote the poem, but he adds, this “doesn’t bear on the meaning since no reader could ever know”. He was thinking of the ancient lake dwelling centers in Europe, Zurich in particular, settlements of thousands of years ago with houses built on stilts (if I recall my History of Architecture, similar structures existed in Japan and in northwest North America), now only left in ruins. While the poem does not specifically reference these settlements, knowing about them made the poem a lot more meaningful to me; or maybe I just enjoyed hearing it, who knows. And sure enough, his explanation of the poem didn’t include any references to anything specific, but to ideas, emotions, motivations anyone can access. Identifying them, however, is the challenge.

The “notional incongruence” Patrick raised is not necessarily a bad thing. We often combine unlike images, find inspiration for the sublime in the absurd. “One commonly reads something to the effect that Ashbery’s lines should be allowed to wash over the reader like evocative abstractions. In other words, like art,” says Patrick in his post. And here I am trying to nail down imagery, metaphor, to present them like butterflies pinned to a board, instead of enjoying their flight.

Where Patrick is less than enthusiastic about words as art rather than meaning (his sentence closing that above thought is: “That said, the purpose of language is to communicate. Full stop.” I’m pretty sure I disagree with this, but that’s between Patrick and me), Meghan O’Rourke expanded favorably on Ashbery’s less interpretable technique in a Slate article from 2005: “The best thing to do, then, is not to try to understand the poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music. It’s only then, for most readers, that the meaning begins to leak through.”

It’s a poem that evokes the hell out of me (but is it the poem, or the associations?), but also frustrates me as I fail to catch the butterflies. Maybe that’s the lesson I need to learn, to just enjoy the pursuit. But then someone will come along and explain every syllable, and I will again feel inadequate to the task, stupid, unworthy of the oxygen it takes to keep my fingers tapping.

Oh well. I should get to opening some crates of my own.

Pushcart XLIII: Molly Cooney, “Transition: The Renaming of Hope” (nonfiction) from Georgia Review, Summer 2017

Ashley Mackenzie: Phase Transition

Ashley Mackenzie: Phase Transition

I will miss Anne, with the well-placed e and easy shape. Steep climb, perfect point, and the slide into the runout of three short, round letters. The way the letters smooth across the page in a tiny creek of repeat, nn, and slip into silence. Anne. I will miss the way her name sighs. Anne. It’s quite ordinary, really, the taper into nothing and the beauty of that sweep.
I will miss the way Anne fits with Molly and Ellis. I’m Molly, and this is my partner Anne and my kid Ellis. Anne doesn’t say her name, unless she’s standing in front of an extended hand, forced to own something. But I say it, like a mantra sometimes, a reminder of where my feet stand. Molly, Anne, and Ellis. A reminder of where her toes are headed. She doesn’t even know her own name yet.
I will miss the voice of a decade of whispers, of vocal cords still short and lithe. The voice that hides behind compression shirts and silence and my willingness to speak, that presses down and adjusts its register, wishing for longer, thicker cords pushing sounds to a depth her small voice can only imagine now.
I hope she lets me record I love you before I have to let her voice go.

Complete story available online at Georgia Review

We all know the politics, the important civil rights issues (who knew plumbing would become part of political debate). But Cooney’s essay, though it touches on some of those topics, focuses on the interpersonal effects of transgendering. What is it like to pick a new name, to hide breasts, to need adult masculine clothing in petite sizes, to consider costs, including financial costs, and benefits of medical treatment? And: what’s it like to have one’s life partner transition? For all our sophisticated pondering about gender fluidity and spectrums, real life experience can be a lot more uncertain, a lot less classifiable into moral certainties.

One focus of the essay is the voice, how it defines us. Anne sees her voice as a betrayal; she’s masculinized her appearance, but without testosterone, her voice remains feminine. All her life she’s been quiet for various reasons: an overwhelming family, bullying at school. Now her voice becomes her tell. I would very much like to know, if she starts testosterone and her voice deepens, she will speak up more.

Names turn out to be more complicated than we might expect. We all use pseudonyms in the form of screen names these days, and many of us use nicknames, middle names, or other variations, but when it comes to changing one’s name, that seems like a bigger deal. The choices are infinite, raising the dilemma of overchoice, too many choices. And what do the kids call a transitioning parent? Anne’s process came late enough that she was able to pre-plan (they decided on “Poppy”), but other situations might get more complicated.

Then there are the more subtle aspects of gender, things we don’t notice until norms are violated:

There are layers and layers of learning how to re-gender yourself. It’s not just new clothes and a new name. Not just wide stance and strong shoulders, nor just taking up space and talking loudly. For many transmen it’s about how a guy props the door with his foot, that imperceptible difference in the kick of leg and tilt of hip. The tight nod hello. How a guy holds his toddler, no hip, arm crooked high. To teach yourself gender is to walk through the world as an artist, noticing details not meant to be noticed, watching each shift and sway and breath to find out how we codify and signify gender, and then to try on that skin day after day after day.
….There is no manual, no checklist, no comprehensive website; the process is mostly about so many details that are learned along the way, observing people and listening to stories shared by other genderqueer and transpeople, and it’s about so much patience.

When I read this, I immediately thought: why is there no comprehensive website? On causal googling I was able to find a few message boards, but they might not be sufficient (there are tons of message boards for all sorts of things, and most of them are crappy). Anyway, message boards are merely updated versions of word-of-mouth. But each situation is so different, and there are a huge range of needs; is large-scale advice possible? For very subtle features – posture, communication style – there may be no substitute for practice with feedback.

The article transitions into a different consideration: what is it like to be the partner of someone transitioning? Pop culture plays these things for laughs, or solves them neatly in 30 minutes or 10 pages, but again, real life isn’t as easily plotted. Cooney describes her reactions with exquisite clarity:

Holding Anne’s hand queered me. Standing next to her gender-nonconforming cuteness outed me to the world. What a relief. Anne fought all her life to blend in and I clamored to be noticed. As Anne transitions, she’ll shift from being seen as a queer dyke to being a straight white guy—suddenly tossed up from years of isolation to the place of privilege in our narrow mainstream world. And me? What will become of me? I’ll be seen as a straight girl living in the Longfellow neighborhood of South Minneapolis with her husband, toddler, two cats, and a dog in our two-story house with a porch in front, raspberries in the garden, and a giant maple out back. I try to imagine the assumptions people will make about my family and my life, about who I am and what I stand for. You can see us now, standing side by side. Hand in hand. Ellis tight on my hip. Anne’s feet facing forward and my toes outturned, the way they always are.
This is not what I signed on for.

As it happens, in a former job I was acquainted with a woman who began undergoing transition. When he mentioned his intent and new name, my first thought was, “How is Carol doing with this?” I didn’t know either of them well enough to inquire. But now I have something of an answer, even if it doesn’t wrap things up neatly in 30 minutes. Love is love, and love is complicated, and all of us follow different paths through it. I wish my colleague, and Cooney and her partner, the very best, however they work things out.

Pushcart XLIII: Julian Randall, “Codeswitch Decomposing into Lil Wayne Lyric” (poem) from Ninth Letter, Winter 2017

Jeff Manning: Find Your Wings II (detail)

Jeff Manning: Find Your Wings II (detail)

                         After Danez Smith
 
Lord Please Forgive Me for My Brash Delivery
A face is for other people’s benefit, a brochure gospel
undone by a mouth. I am the most marketable sin since 2004.
A smile that yields only bones, a mouth slick with restraint.
I am a good filament, a bright obedient electric. I speak,
and sometimes am found.

Complete poem available online at Ninth Letter

And once again, the disclaimer that’s getting worn out: I’m out of my element. But that’s what google is for. This seems to be another conversation in poetry, though I’m unable to locate the original Danez Smith poem that inspired it. I regret to say that, while I am vaguely familiar with Lil Wayne, at least the name, I’m unfamiliar with his work. Hey, gimme a break, I’m a senior citizen still mourning the breakup of Simon & Garfunkel; the only contemporary music I hear these days is on tv shows and ice skating competitions (yes, I’m really that boring).

The poem has an interesting structure, so at least I can start there. Each of five sections begins with some version of the sentence “Lord Please Forgive Me for My Brash Delivery”, with each iteration losing a word or two from the end. Thus the second stanza continues:

Lord Please Forgive Me for My Brash
body and especially my mouth, for-
give me my scholarships, for-
give me my name brand ambition, for-
give me my tattered skin on my G-Unit sneakers
how easy I drenched all the photographs

I’m not sure why the apology is necessary, if it relates to the speaker, to the poet, to Smith, or to Lil Wayne (or all of them). I do like the way the lines are enjambed by for-, which makes it sound like a continuation of “for this, for that” but is really a repetition of “forgive” hyphenated. And I’m fascinated by the sneaker competition between rap stars.

As the stanzas continue and the first line is whittled away, the language becomes less formal, until, as promised, the final stanza is a reframing of a Lil Wayne lyric, or possibly a mash-up of lyrics.

Fortunately, the poem is available online, so I’ll just step aside and get out of the way.

Pushcart XLIII: Thylias Moss, “Blue Coming” (poem) from Abstract Magazine TV, Sept. 2017

Yves Klein: People Begin to Fly

Yves Klein: People Begin to Fly

Poetry is connected to the body,
 
 
part of my fingertips, just as blue as anything
that ever was or will be blue—
 
–blue that dye aspires to, true blue
denied to any sapphire, Logan sapphire included, even
 
if she wears some
on those blue fingers, blue spreads, consumes her
 
as if she hatched from an Araucana egg:
 
SHE IS BLUE, fingers, bluest hands ever, Tunisian blue, Djerban blue hands,
shoulders, breasts, every
nook and cranny blue, big bad wolf says: how blue you are!
The better to blue you….

Complete poem, and audio of poet’s reading, available online at Abstract Magazine

April is National Poetry Month. As it happens, many of the Pushcart entries I’m encountering this month are poems. And a lot of them baffle me. I’ve been feeling pretty bad about that.

Like this poem. It starts with a nod to poetry, then turns into a paean to blue. Is the initial blue of the fingertip ink from a blue pen? The depressive nature of blue, the musical Blues, all roll by, and we get to orgasmic blues, blue as the color of sex. I always thought blue was the color of thwarted sex. I guess I was wrong.

So I was feeling quite … um, blue… about yet another “I have no idea what’s going on here” post in National Poetry Month. But then I started poking around, and discovered some things that made the poem much clearer to me.

The poem can be found in a variety of places on the internet, in addition to the Abstract Magazine site where it was nominated to Pushcart. Many of those versions differ slightly, and some of them mention it is in conversation with a poem by Bob Holman,. This poem, reproduced in an interview with Paulo da Costa, also references blue, the National Enquirer, a fly buzzing, and other elements that appear in Moss’s poem, including the orgasmic ending. In the interview, Holman explains:

What I am talking about here is of course not sex. It is about how you come to understand a poem. It is the same way as making love. It is a give and take between you and the poem. You never know if someone’s way of understanding a poem is righter than yours but it doesn’t stop you from having your orgasm with that poem, with that poet.

Bob Holman interview

I wish I could believe that. I still cling to the notion that there is a right interpretation of a poem, which adds to my frustration as I keep trying to find it, always worrying about being wrong. Part of that is just my natural insecurity, but a lot of it is the byproduct of poetry classes in which, even in the most generous sections, one reading was favored. I’m quite fond of some unorthodox readings of a couple of poems, but could I stand behind them?

How about looking at the final lines of the two poems side by side:

Blue static
Blue stuttering
 
Blue hands
 
Blue – Code Blue
coming together, what a mighty tincture,
–not exactly at the same time, but coming, connected
to coming
Her fingertips writing a
 
Blue coming.

                            Moss

….you never know
If someone else’s orgasm is better than yours
But that shoudn’t stop you
From coming together
Even if it’s not exactly
At the same time.

                            Holman

Based on the lines about fingers, Moss’s poem seems to focus more on the orgasmic quality of writing a poem, rather than reading/hearing it. But it could be a male/female comparison, or just two different people with different ways of communicating the same idea: that poetic interpretation is individual, and not a competition. And when you “get it”, it’s orgasmic.

Knowing Moss’s poem was riffing on something else helped a lot in dealing with the Enquirer and flies and such. I like conversations across poems, between poets. Even if I’m not sure what they’re saying. They know what they’re saying, and it’s nice to just listen, and see if I can hear.