Pushcart 2015: Ada Limón, “How to Triumph Like a Girl” (Poetry) from Gulf Coast, #27.

I like the lady horses best,
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.
I like their lady horse swagger,
after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!

Look what we do to girls. We paint them with their horses, but only if they’re wearing frilly dresses and a happy smile and carrying a soft, feminine rose.

We might even put a girl on a racehorse, but only if her hair is long and flowing and the horse is dancing and everything is beautiful and graceful and gentle.

I didn’t realize this until I went looking for images of a strong woman with a horse. Go see for yourself: the woman wears a flowy dress (or if she’s a cartoon or game figure, a metal bikini), or wears jeans – action clothes – but merely stands, actionless, next to a horse. We fear the power of girls. And when we grow up, we fear the power of women.

Ada Limón ain’t having none of that.

She starts, perhaps, with a sonnet form, that most romantic, genteel of structures. But not a sonnet (it’s available online, thank you Gulf Coast) – her form has 18 lines, two breaks, three sections. She turns the form into what she needs it to be – and that is the definition of power.

“Ears up, girl” – a slight sexual connotation, perhaps, but I hear “Chin up” in this day when women are stripped of rights worldwide, in a day when the US seems determined to force women back into kitchens and bedrooms (except for poor women, of course, who are forced into low-wage jobs because how else can Wall Street and Washington survive except on the backs of uneducated single mothers).

What do ears do? They listen. They allow girls to listen to their racehorse heart.

The same power that turned a sonnet into a paean to female strength can turn little girls, who long ago were transformed from curious engines of creativity into insecure waifs waiting for permission, back again into what they was meant to be, whether that be a quiet poet with flowing hair, or an Olympic medalist. Put her in touch with her racehorse heart, and a girl will find the form that suits her.

Don’t you want to believe it?

I do. But it gets harder all the time.

Pushcart 2015: Frederic Tuten, “The Tower” from Conjunctions, #60

The Library in Michel de Montaigne's Tower

The Library in Michel de Montaigne’s Tower

Sometimes his urine was cloudy. Sometimes gritty with what he called “gravel.” Sometimes his piss flowed bloody and frightening. No matter how disturbing, Montaigne recorded his condition in his travel journal as coolly as he did the daily weather. He was always in various degrees of pain, and he noted that too, but dispassionately, like a scientist in a white lab coat.
Even before he suffered from kidney stones and the burning pain that came with them, Montaigne had long thought about death, and not only his own. He had thought about how to meet it and if doing so gracefully would change the encounter. His closest friend, the man he had loved more than anyone in the world, was to love more than anyone in the world, had died with calm dignity. In his last minutes, in his last words, his dear friends did not begrudge life or beg for more time or express regrets over what was left undone or make apologies to those he might have or had offended or injured. Montaigne thought that when death approached, he would neither wave him away nor welcome him, but say to death’s shadow on the wall, “Finally, no more pain.”
I put my book aside when she walked in.
“I’m leaving you,” she said. She had a red handbag on her arm.

I don’t know enough about Michel de Montaigne, or about Blaise Pascal, for that matter, to do full justice to this story. In fact, one of the ways I can tell how much I like this story, even though I don’t fully understand the nuances, is that it interests me greatly in finding out more about these two philosophers. However, for the moment, I will have to approach this at my current level. As it happens, it works there, too.

The observation of the red handbag, made after hearing his wife is leaving him, tells us a great deal about the narrator. But maybe too much: I can’t decide if he is someone so afraid of the prospect of losing his wife – in the context of Montaigne’s loss of his best friend – that he escapes to a kind of detached observation, or if he truly is the detached thinker, observer, analyst, who does not bother to immerse himself in the everyday experience to feel anything about her departure. Or, for that matter, if she’s a flake who pulls this every other week. Maybe it’s what she routinely says when she goes out for an afternoon.

The conversation that continues after the above opening doesn’t shed any light on the matter:

“For how long?”
“And what about Pascal, will you take him?”
“He’s always favored you.” I was very glad. I could see Pascal sitting in the dining-room doorway, pretending not to listen.
“Yes, that’s true.”
“Don’t you care to know why I’m leaving?” she asked, petulantly, I thought.
“I suppose you’ll tell me.”
“I will, but maybe another time.” She stared at me as if wondering who I was. Then she started to speak but was interrupted by a car-horn blast. I’ve looked out the window and saw a taxi with the man behind the wheel.
“May I help you with your bags?” I asked.
“I’ll send for them later, if you don’t mind.”
“Who will you send?”
“The person who comes.” She stared at me another moment and then left.

Now, this is clearly a literary conversation. It’s much too sly and studied to be the sort of thing people actually say to each other; it couldn’t be used in a movie script unless it was a high-concept piece. But I still loved it. Realism is great, but it’s also nice to sometimes read a more stylized discourse, one that is more of a fencing match than an exchange of information.

Montaigne went to his Tower for ten years to study and write, after his best friend died. Our narrator goes to his study, after his wife leaves.

It welcomed me as never before. My desk with its teetering piles of books and loose sheets of notes and a printer and computer at the Chinese lamp, little pots full of outdated stamps and rubber bands, and instant-coffee jar crammed with red pencils, green paperclips heaped in a chipped, blue teacup, a stapler, an old rotary phone, framed prints of Goya’s Puppet and Poussin’s Echo and Narcissus, Cézanne’s Bathers, and van Gogh’s Wheat Field in Rain greeted and accepted me without any conditions. I could sit at my desk all day and night and never again be presented with the obligation to clear or clean an inch of the disorder. Now, if I wished, I could even sweep away every single thing on the desk and leave it there and hungry. Or I could chop up and burn the desk in the fireplace. I would wait for a cold night. There was plenty of time now to make decisions.

I love this passage; I think we all know that feeling of returning “home” whether it be a family, a house, or a room. Our narrator expresses far more emotion, even sexuality – entering the room that welcomed him, feeling greeted and accepted – than when he’s talking about his wife. Again, I can’t decide if he really is this locked out from feeling, or if he is stanching the flow of blood from an inner wound, if he truly hates his wife (there are hints that she is awful, but I didn’t see enough of her to be sure; and perhaps she has her reasons for being awful at this point) – or if he know his wife will return shortly.

Which brings me back to the overarching question: what is up with this guy?

To answer that fully, I think I would need to study Montaigne a lot more. An hour of looking through the Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which never fails, no matter what the article or how familiar I think I am with the topic, to go over my head by the third sentence) isn’t nearly enough. But apparently Montaigne had some contradictions going on as well: he believed in immersing oneself in everyday experience to learn, yet isolated himself, etching Latin and Greek quotes on the beams of his tower library, including the one shown here: “I am human; nothing human is strange to me.” I wonder if the irony is as applicable to Montaigne as it is to our narrator, who appears to be more attuned to his study, and his cat, Pascal, better than his wife.

Pascal – the cat – also serves as a point of introspection. He disappears, presumably run out of a window. There’s a connection between Pascal the cat and the philosopher Pascal’s observation, “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it,” since at the very end of the story, our narrator says, “You should have stayed home.” It’s not clear to whom he’s speaking, his wife, or the cat – or himself, longing for the study, or even Montaigne, who should’ve never entered the tower – or perhaps never should have left, since that was his intellectual and spiritual home. Which is the abyss, in the story – real life, or his study?

In my research, such as it is, on Montaigne, I discovered a book review in The Guardian, written by Colin Burrow, Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher by Anne Hartle, that seemed particularly appropriate to this story:

Consciousness for tower people is being partly a body, partly a pen, partly a voice, partly a half-memory of someone else’s voice, partly the thing that enables you to realise that you are all those things at once (although this bit of consciousness doesn’t always function very well and needs a lot of encouragement), and partly a set of uneasy attitudes, ranging from shame to self-satisfaction, towards what in yourself is received and what seems immediate. Thinking is done not by starting from the beginning, but by thinking onwards and backwards and hoping that some clarification will emerge.
~~Colin Burrow

I see a lot of the narrator in that. He has no idea what he’s doing, but he keeps doing it. Does he hope to figure it out some day? Does he care? Or is he so self-satisfied, he needs no confirmation from anyone other than himself?

I wonder if I’m just dense, or if this is how the story is written, to leave so much open, to have us watch this man and wonder about him. Forward/back, good/bad, partly this/partly that. Maybe all at once. Intriguing.

This is the second Tuten story I’ve read thanks to Pushcart; the first was more focused on art (particularly Cézanne’s Bathers, which also appears here in the study) but was likewise over my head, yet had the same mysterious, inescapable appeal.

Pushcart 2015: Rebecca Gayle Howell , “My Mother Told Us Not to Have Children” (Poetry) from Rattle, #42

Tom French: from the "Duality" series

Tom French: from the “Duality” series

She’d say, Never have a child you don’t want.
Then she’d say, Of course, I wanted you
once you were here. She’s not cruel. Just practical.
Like a kitchen knife. Still, the blade. And care.

The duality I’ve been noticing in this volume so far is at its most explicit here, embedded in some of our most emotional language. Tough love. Smother love. I love you to pieces. In this poem (available online as both text and audio, thank you, Rattle), we see both sides. A kitchen knife is an essential tool; it’s also a weapon. Just like mother love. The interplay of blade and care plays throughout the piece. A bath in dirty water, tenderness that feels like drowning. Drowning that feels like air: the freedom to say what something is.

The line breaks contribute to the duality with enjambments that could go either way, or change on continuation after the break: “Of course, I wanted you” sounds like the end of a sentence, but it isn’t; that clause offers comfort, the next takes it away. I’m befuddled, however, by the transition from brothers and sisters to crickets eating the back forty; is this a simile? Or a juxtaposition of two images? I’m not sure. Could it be either/or?

But I found something else that commanded most of my attention: “Instead, our estate was honesty…” I found my anger intensely triggered by that line. I’m damn sick of people who proudly boast, “At least I’m honest,” which seems to mean, “I don’t care about your feelings enough to do the work to deliver the truth in a way that won’t hurt you. My need to say whatever I think be it useful/appropriate or not, is more important than you and your petty feelings.” I think this kind of honesty is thinly-veiled aggression, not a virtue. Go away and don’t come back until you learn how to behave.

I’m not sure if it’s the poem, or me, or the combination of the two (sometimes we find something at the moment we need it; we call it coincidence), but it’s something that demands I listen.

Pushcart XXXIX: Michelle Seaton: “The Prospects” from One Story #180, 6/22/13

Via Deadspin

Via Deadspin

But for now the prospects still live at home, in football-fervent cities and towns, among the hollowed-out factories, the vacated office parks, under the care of their parents, the unemployed and the over-mortgaged, the downgraded part-timers, the patriotic, the doggedly informed, the God-fearing and peace-loving, the green-thinking and Internet-surfing, but most of all, the hopeful…. And in these homes, each prospect is still a boy who seems to ingest his body weight in food five or six times a day, whose use a pizza or roast chicken as an appetizer, a boy who can down a quart of milk while standing at the open refrigerator door, a child who cannot look both ways before crossing the road, who cannot be trusted with the car or the television remote because he has no impulse control, no sense that others also exist. Yet, this child seems tailor-made for the triple-XL world which he will inhabit, a world of super portions, mega-churches, and 56-inch plasma screens…

[post originally written summer 2013]
I’m not usually big on sports-recruiting stories: the exploitation, the lying, the haves having more while the broken bodies of ruined young men (and women; I read Little Girls in Pretty Boxes) pile up. I feel like if you’ve seen one “prospect” story, you’ve seen ‘em all. I suppose I’m a bit jaded about it all. It’s a system beloved by exploiters and exploitees alike, even by those chewed up and left by the wayside in many cases, so who am I to sputter.

That unanimity may be changing, though, and that’s why this story has a certain relevance: a former student athlete is suing the NCAA, and cutting players in on a piece of the pie is a minor cause célèbre for the Left (sandwiched between analyzing mass shootings, single shootings of unarmed teenagers, and voter suppression, not to mention the occasional Royal Baby vs Poor Baby comparison; I don’t think anyone at MSNBC has slept for the past six months).

Michelle Seaton, a former sports reporter, understands the ubiquity of the issue; in fact, she credits her selection of POV to that very ubiquity in her One Story Q&A: “A third-person plural narrator is in a position to emphasize how many of these conversations go on every season and how interchangeable they are.” But she wants to show me I am wrong, that there is another way to write about it. And she does a great job.

This piece (it’s closer to creative non-fiction than a short story) hangs out with the kids and their parents at first, as in the quote above. But it earns its keep when it then shifts its focus to the recruiters – not the guys raking in the big bucks, but the front-liners doing the hard work, just trying to survive on the fringes of a sport that’s left them unable to do much else – and suddenly becomes a narrative with a past, present, and grim future:

A recruiter in a small program is a man who stocks shelves and collects tip money for each delivered pizza and sells athletic shoes in a sporting goods store.… He is a man who once dreamed of greatness as a coach, but whose dreams have shrunk to one goal, that of a paid position at any program.
On rainy days these recruiters limp with little reminders of injuries…. Each man can narrate the whole scenario of his injury, can tell it with a smile that hides some other, more complicated feeling, that hides the vivid remembrance of lighting out on the grass, on the turf, gulping for air and try not to puke from the throbbing, the stinging, the skin tightening around the swelling, the others crowding around as the pain comes in waves, sharp and then tall and thin in a long, shrill shout when the trainer palpates the hot skin, squeezing the accumulating blood and marrow, crunching the dislocated bits of tendon or cartilage between thumb and forefinger, then waiting for the trainer to glance up at the sad and knowing expression, before giving a quick handshake that hurts everyone that this bone, this joint, this ligament, this tendon, this body, this tool so carefully tended will never again be what it was just a few minutes ago.

I have to admit this isn’t my favorite One Story offering (but there’s pretty stiff competition, since they’ve been hitting it out of the park lately; I’ve found the past six stories, going all the way back to February, extraordinary). Still, I can appreciate the structural composition, and I give Seaton a 10 for style: long sentences that peak at just the right moment. If I weren’t so tired of the institutionalization of sport next to the marginalization of teaching, health and child care (as per the map above, the highest paid state employee in 40 states is a university sports coach), I might be more enthusiastic about content.

[Addendum: This story made the Pushcart XXXIX volume; couldn’t have been a more timely appearance. And that infographic still depresses me – though I continue to be amused that Nevada’s highest-paid state employee is, not a football coach, but a plastic surgeon. For Conservatives wondering where our values have gone, I think this map shows that pretty clearly.]

Pushcart 2015: Philip Levine, “Albion” (Poetry) from Threepenny Review, #132

Map of the Lower Mississippi's evolving floodplains, from cartographer Harold Fisk's 1944 report, Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River.

Map of the Lower Mississippi’s evolving floodplains, from cartographer Harold Fisk’s 1944 report, Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River.

On narrow roads twisting
between the farms, if farms
these were and not fallow
fields set off by stone walls
too low to keep anything
in or out.

What business do I have posting about poetry, any poetry, let alone the work of a former US Poet Laureate? That my feeds were flooded with sorrows and tributes last February upon his death intimidates me further: Can I do him justice? No, I can’t, but I’ve admitted all along I have no idea what I’m doing. This is my classroom; this is how I’m learning. So I hope Mr. Levine will understand, and his many admirers will not take offense, should I get it wrong. But while my expertise and knowledge may be insufficient, I had some very strong impressions as I read this poem (available online, thank you, Threepenny Review).

The first was what seemed like multiple references to Robert Frost. A stone wall, birch trees, the word “undergrowth”. Granted, none of those things are so unusual. But the wall is “too low to keep anything in or out”; the undergrowth “separated us”; and the birch tree, paired with sycamores, calling to mind not a Frost poem, but a quotation from an included in one of his early collections: “Zaccheus he did climb the tree our lord to see”.

That was forty years ago
or more. We were still
young or young enough,
and new to the adventure,
so of course we kept going,…

All of these appear in the first half of the poem, which, by the way, is the second thing I noticed: what seems to me like a clear division into the first 30 lines, recounting a memory, and the second 30 lines, reconsidering that memory in light of greater experience gained since then. I’m probably overreaching, but I wonder if there’s a looking back at a poetic life itself, a muse – an escape, an elevated perspective, via birches and the sycamore – a lifelong companion.

I also notice some microrhythms and line breaks. It’s interesting I’ve been noticing these details so much this year; maybe I’m just stuck on the concrete, it’s a phase I’m going through as a result of too many poetry classes and not enough poetry. Pretty much any text can be seen in a pattern – I did quite a con job in college on the fig tree dream segment of The Bell Jar to get through an assignment on rhythm – and I don’t have the experience to tell the difference between coincidence, sophistry, and authentic nuance. Still, the phrase “stone walls” does have a spondaic meter that sounds like a stone wall, and adding “too low” to that just emphasizes it over four beats. I also like that the undergrowth that separated us is hyphenated via line break.

I can’t recall how long we
stood there nailed to the spot,
hand in hand, expectant,
as though anything
could tell us where we were.

Then there’s the multiple reading of those lines. “As though anything could tell us” has both a negative sense – a sarcastic, “sure, like anything could do that” sense – and a more positive sense: hold your breath, pay attention, because it could be anything, the slightest little detail, that could have meaning. I can’t help but assume the phrasing was chosen deliberately to show how easy it is to turn things around, to see ourselves as lost when we’re just waiting. And to mark the different perspectives: forty years ago, youth saw the expectant meaning; now age, burdened with the futility of many lost expectations, nevertheless admires and perhaps envies the naïveté it once possessed.

And again, that theme I wondered about with the first story: looking forward and back at the same time (we look forward in youth, back in old age, but can we do a bit more of both at all times?) and the human capacity to interpret reality in different ways, depending on one’s inclination. Can anything tell us where we are? Because right now (always, really, but now is where we are always most likely to get lost), I think we really need to know.

Pushcart 2015: Maribeth Fischer, “The Fiction Writer” (non-fiction) from Yale Review, #101

"The Storyteller" :  Zimbabwean art

“The Storyteller” : Zimbabwean art

Even now, I see her hands and forearms covered with ink – phone numbers, dates, reminders about meetings, words she wanted to remember. And once, sitting at the bar at Smitty McGee’s, she swung around on her stool, lifted the hem of her skirt and showed us her leg, covered to mid-thigh with writing: notes about the novel she was working on; a song lyric she’d heard while driving. Another time, over coffee in the morning, I saw words from the day before imprinted on the side of her face. I knew how she slept then, hands tucked under her cheek. I didn’t mention that the words were there and later, after she saw herself in the mirror, she said, “Why the hell didn’t you tell me? Geez, would you let me run around with my dress stuck in the back of my underwear too?”
       “It was hardly noticeable,” I laughed. The ink had been smudged, like faint bruises.
       I’m still not sure why I didn’t tell her she had writing on her face – it is the kind of thing you’d want your friend to let you know. It seems fitting that I didn’t, though, for this is how I’ll always remember her: words literally pushed into the pores of her skin.
       Writing a story on her body so that her body had a story.
       In the end, this was all she was – a story we would tell repeatedly. Each time, we would embellish it more, highlighting certain moments, habits, things she used to say or do.
       Like stripping an old car for salvageable parts: that’s what we would do to her life.
       It’s what she had done to ours.

Stories. A writer’s life revolves around stories, of course, but so do many aspects of our lives, as illustrated by many of the works I’ve already encountered in this volume: the woman who tells her son a story, and the son who lives the story she tells, in “The Mother”; the story a young writer-to-be, misplaced in military service, told himself about his adequacy in the face of absurdity, while the perpetrators of that absurdity told themselves it was a necessary security precaution, in “My White House Days”; the story the perpetually down-on-his-luck loser of “Say” told to get a song from the only person who mattered; the stories we tell to get through blackouts, lonely evenings, jobs that grate down our ethical sense, or to comfort us in a world that seems at odds with everything important to us. Stories that tell us what we want to hear, when we can’t hear it anywhere else. Stories let us make sense of the world.

Maribeth Fischer tells us a horror story in which the monster is a story.

She was bamboozled by a twinned pair of diabolical flim-flam artists: one, a new friend, and the other, her own tendency, the one we all have, to see what she wanted to see, to fulfill some subconscious need. When Natalie, a fellow writer came to town and showed interest in her, Fischer was swept away with the feeling of being noticed, of being chosen by someone who seemed greater than herself. She threw herself into the friendship, as she had in other relationships, urgently trying “to make myself indispensable; if I’m not , no one will need me. And if no one needs me, no one will want me.” It’s not as flattering as being selfless and compassionate, but, as examined in “Annie Radcliffe, You Are Loved”, it probably underlies a great deal of do-gooderness in the world. Fischer is astute enough, and honest enough (what admirable honesty!), to recognize it later as she writes this memoir.

But not at the time.

Natalie affected more than just Fischer. The heretofore lackluster writing group blossomed and expanded, developed energy and enthusiasm. She was, after all, a Success, having landed a lucrative two-book contract with Random House, which led to requests for an article series by The New Yorker, then a second article series. The town was so overwhelmed by their good fortune to have this amazing resource available to them, no one really noticed there wasn’t a single word in actual print…

Because for the nine months that Natalie was in our lives, she was a big-time author whose life was about to change in wonderful, dramatic ways. She was a wonderful teacher and Kent was in love with her and she was, as Randy Lee said, happy. And I was a woman who was fun and spontaneous. Fun. A word that had been gone from my life until Natalie brought it back to me…. The members of the writers’ guild began to see themselves as writers, began to believe that their stories mattered. And so they did. And I can’t help it: I find something beautiful in this capacity to believe so fervently in the stories we fabricate that we become what we dream.

If Fischer had written this as fiction, it would’ve been too unbelievable. How gullible are these people, we’d wonder. But I’ve been there.

There are people who not only can project the image of What They Are so strongly it overshadows the reality of what they are, but they know exactly who will be susceptible and who will not. I’ve had “friends” like this. They are Batmans who know when they see a Robin. These friendships can work, for a time. It’s only when Robin thinks maybe Batman should do something a little different in this case, or when Robin gets a little limelight, that Batman gets upset. As Fischer says in a turning point in her relationship with Natalie: “…I had unknowingly betrayed her, broken an unspoken pact.” Two things happen then: the relationship falls apart, which feels like catastrophe to Robin; but that’s followed by a gradual regaining of sight, the ability to see the story one has been acting out. Someone else’s story. Not a story of rescue and redemption, but a story of dominance, and, surprisingly, mutual need.

There’s an Armenian motto I came across several years ago, via a sculpture by John Ventimiglia featured in my local public library: “Three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for the listener, and one for the world.” That’s pretty astute writing advice right there: a story requires, not just a teller, but a listener, who has a pre-existing milieu of beliefs and needs into which the story falls; from there, it moves outward. Fischer tells us how that interaction might play out when the listener is herself a storyteller.

Stories, the only thing that allowed Scheherazade to survive for a thousand and one nights.
Stories, the only thing that allows anyone to survive loving someone she will one day lose.

Even though she eventually recognized how she’d been fooled – her friend Kent had been bilked out of a considerable sum, in fact – Fischer still felt a loss, the loss of the story, the belief. This is what turns the essay from a “This happened to me” story into a story that, as Roxane Gay tweeted a couple of years ago, “look[s] outward as much as it looks inward.” The writer, whose job it is to make the reader believe, is by nature a believer of the story that surprises, that takes unexpected twists and turns. The writer is vulnerable to the perils of belief, the price of her art.

Pushcart 2015: Louise Glück, “Approach of the Horizon” (Poetry) from Threepenny Review, #133

One morning I awoke unable to move my right arm.
I had, periodically, suffered from considerable
pain on that side, in my painting arm,
but in this instance there was no pain.
Indeed, there was no feeling.

As someone who frequently talks, and thinks, in metaphors, I love the images and wordplay that run through this poem (available online, thank you, Threepenny Review). Life as an airplane ride really perks up “please return your tray tables and seats to their original upright position,” doesn’t it?

That central metaphor is surrounded by other more unusual images. In particular, I was struck by the monitor that beeps and chirps with the heartbeat, something we’re all familiar with even if we’ve never been ill; either we’ve been at someone else’s bedside, or maybe we’ve just seen it in a movie. Then there’s the moment when the beep lengthens into a long tone – or, as in the poem, when the line that bounces with each beat of the heart becomes ” a straight line, / like a minus sign.” A new way of seeing flatlining: person, minus life. Or: life, minus one person.

My rather superficial observations were greatly deepened by a couple of other resources I stumbled across in my travels. One of them, from Boston Review, is Craig Morgan Teicher’s review of Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night – the collection in which this poem appears (and recent winner of the National Book Award). I wasn’t aware that the book was a portrait of a dying painter; that adds to the poem. Teicher also points out the opposites and reversals: the character is a painter rather than a poet (bringing to mind O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter” perhaps?) and male rather than female, and is based on a similar reversal of a character Glück used previously. All these inversions – do they mean something? Of course they do.

And here’s where PMF Johnson’s comments got me to recognize what was happening with the last stanza, the last word. If I may draw on another source (I need all the help I can get), a post by Ken Nichols of Great Writers Steal explained how James L. Dickey teaches the reader how to read his poem “Falling” so that by the time we get to the climactic moment, we know how the punctuation works. I think Glück is doing something like that here. By calling attention to double meanings of words like “left” – the left arm, or the arm that is left, that is, not paralyzed – as well as the many common uses of “departed”, we’ve been trained in what to look for, so we’re ready for the final lines:

I will be brief. This concludes,
as the stewardess says,
our short flight.
And all the persons one will never know
crowd into the aisle, and all are funneled
into the terminal.

The word “terminal”, of course, means ending, and is often used in relation to death; we’ve been primed to see the parallel meanings. But because of the airplane flight imagery throughout, there’s another sense: we finish our flight at a terminal, but we also go to the terminal to take a new flight, to travel somewhere else.

A long time ago, my father gave me a book of poetry for Christmas. It wasn’t a particularly “good” book – a typical anthology, thematically organized, a sort of “Poetry’s Greatest hits” but because I was 13 and had only read the few poems from English class, these seemed quite special. I still have the book (he wrote on the frontispiece, “From Dad, Christmas 1969″) and one of the entries was an unattributed poem sometimes referred to as “The Ship” or “On the Shore” or, since it’s of uncertain origin, by any of a dozen other titles. The speaker is at that moment when one shore loses sight of the ship – but the other shore just now sees it approaching. Glück’s work is far more subtle, of course, and includes many other nuances, but I was 13 again, and remembering this book from so long ago.

In the past few years, I’ve become very aware of my own mortality in a personal and imminent way. My family is long dead. As I read history, it’s a parade of rulers, artists, and often, ordinary people, who are now not of this earth. As celebrity after celebrity dies, watching tv becomes a recitation of “He’s dead now.” Even Spock eventually dies – but doesn’t necessarily end.

That’s the human adventure: is death an end, or a beginning? Can it be both? And again, we’re back to the “is it good or bad, light or dark, forward or back” sense I’ve been encountering as I’ve read this volume.

Pushcart 2015: Daniel Tovrov, “The News Cycle” from Zyzzyva, #99

Ruben Ubiera:  "Death Of Journalism" (2008)

Ruben Ubiera: “Death Of Journalism” (2008)

Doom comes in cycles here. Right now, everyone is preparing for the end. Resumes are being sent out wildly, clips are being saved, contacts are being pressed for leads; no one is actually working. The Global Financial Times, it seems, is about to fold. Jeremy Black, from the Politics desk, has been tape-recording editorial meetings and forwarding every e-mail from management to his personal account. He plans on writing a book about the company once the end finally does come. There certainly isn’t a shortage of material. In little more than two years, the GF Times has become a textbook example of how not to run a newspaper. Jeremy’s worried he’ll be sued, which is probably true, but I don’t think the parent company (whichever it is) has the resources for any sort of robust legal effort, even with its alleged cult money. Jeremy says I need a backup plan, too, before it’s too late. But I’m not worried. I’ve seen this before – the doom, that is. Everything will be fine. Anyway, I’m too focused on my Syrian Proxy War story. If this really is all coming to an end, that needs to go out ASAP. It’s an important piece, I sincerely believe, and it’s good. I did good journalism, despite all the obstacles that management put forth, and if the paper does come crumbling down, this piece could land me my next job. Even if it doesn’t come crumbling down, this piece could land me another job. And for that reason the story needs to go out before it’s either scooped or before the situation on the ground changes and renders it irrelevant.

Anyone remember Broadcast News? Holly Hunter as Jane Craig, a True Believer in the sacred covenant between Society and Journalism, watching the network news organization she belongs to turn away from investing in serious reporters in favor of Hairdos with great camera personality, from the mission of informing the public to the business of market shares? I haven’t seen the movie in years, but I can still picture her in that auditorium, the thinning audience bored until she shows a video about a 10,000-domino trick that pushed a US trade policy story off the evening lineup. The remnants of the audience cheers for the dominos. “I know, it’s fun,” says Jane. “I know it’s fun. I like fun. It’s just not news.” The last of the audience walks out.

And that was before the Internet.

The narrator of this story is no True Believer. Maybe she (more likely he, but why not live dangerously) once was, but now she’s trying to keep a paycheck, and that means pumping out the kinds of stories that draw massive hits. As she says: “It was hard to write about Syria while generating web traffic…”. To her credit, she’s still trying.

This is one of those stories that’s nearly impossible to read – the paragraphs are pages long, and the stretches about the details of the online news business – “GF Times spams Google, Google catches on and changes up. GF Times constricts while management punishes us – either with mandatory night and weekend shifts, new desk assignments, or hit quotas – Hoa breaks the new algorithm, hits go up again, and then back to the start” – are nearly as incomprehensible (and horrifying) as the details about atrocities in Syria. But guess what: modern life is nearly impossible to read (not to mention pretty horrifying). Just try to figure out who owns Newsweek, if you still remember that Newsweek used to be a solid information-and-analysis journal – and this story is a barely-disguised narration of its purchase by IBT, “an innovative digital media company.” As for the Middle East, the UK’s Financial Times found the perfect way to describe the nonsensical chaos – and that was before ISIS. Um, I mean, ISIL. Whatever.

It’s an impossible story. That’s why it’s perfect – and why it’s crucial.

This narrator shows us exactly the mess of pottage we’ve traded our birthright for. The Fourth Estate – the Free Press – is now about search engine optimization. It’s about finding out what we want to read, and telling us that. What we need to know to make decisions about our lives, our votes, our kids, our beliefs, is just… too hard. Too long to read.

Like the paragraphs in this story.

Jeremy, from the politics desk, has been able to survive the bad times by writing flattering, aggrandizing articles about Ron and me and Paul. To protect his reputation, Jeremy published them under a pseudonym, which no one bothers him about so long as he’s getting hits. The Pauls have a relatively small but cult-like following – to the cheese who (when not stockpiling guns in their doomsday bunkers, no doubt) read and share every article that mentions the libertarian congressman; if it’s favorable, it goes up on RonPaul.com. “Fred Romain,” has three pieces there now. I wonder if he’ll include in his book, because what Jeremy is doing sure as hell isn’t journalism. But one Ron Paul article takes an hour to write and on burdens Jeremy for the rest of the day so he can do something meaningful. During the last Great Google Downgrade, I got lucky twice. First, a lunatic in Belgium attacked a bus stop with a hand grenade, killing two and injuring six. The assailant also blew off his own arm, which lay photogenic lady next to a pommes frites cart. Normally, that’s not a big story, but the attacker had brown skin, so leading headlines with “terrorists?” In them generated a nice amount of traffic. The story was somewhat difficult to follow from New York, but because I was allowed to copy-and-paste the body of my original story and reposted with a new, slightly updated lede – examples: “a third man now is in critical condition after…” or “police are looking for a second suspect in Liege, Belgium, where…” – I was able to pump out stories faster than our competitors and siphon off some extra traffic that way. The man turned out to be a local, and not a terrorist. Just a guy who snapped. It turns out that brown people are actually quite common in Liege, the fact that became another article. The second lucky break was when a Christian pastor was hanged as an apostate in Iran. His name was Youcef Nadarkhani and he led the congregation of 30 from his basement church in Rasht. Iran’s religious police arrested Nadarkhani during the Christmas-night raid. Nine others were arrested but eventually released. The Gilan district court found Nadarkhani guilty of converting Muslim men over the age of 13, a crime under Ayatollah Khomeini’s founding fatwas. Despite international pressure, Tehran went ahead and sentenced him to death, drawing scorn from world leaders and 150,000 unique page views for me, a personal record that was rewarded with a twenty-five dollar gift card to Starbucks from the GF times. That’s what people want to read about. Muslims persecuting Christians. “They don’t want to read about Iranians training Syrian militia in a desert somewhere,” Jeff Polaski, our editor-in-chief, explained to me.

Impossible to read. Admit it, it’s nowhere near as fun as a dress that might be white and gold or blue and black. But there are a couple of key sentences in there – “which no one bothers him about so long as he’s getting hits” and “That’s what people want to read about. Muslims persecuting Christians” – that should scare us to death. Because that’s why we’re reading what we’re reading, and that’s why we see the world the way we do. We get our news from Buzzfeed and Jon Stewart. To be fair, Jon Stewart often hits the nail on the head (don’t miss the 3:25 mark). But he’s lasted 17 years because he surrounds it with goofiness to make it palatable.

Youcef Nadarkhani is a real person, by the way, and he really was imprisoned for three years, released, re-imprisoned, re-released. Who am I talking about, you ask. See?

A quick google of “Daniel Tovrov” turned up some interesting tidbits. Like, he’s in the MFA program at Columbia (or was, I’m guessing, at the time this story was written). Like, this is his first published fiction. Like, it’s not his first published writing – he has plenty of journalism clips on his website, including several news stories on the Middle East for the International Business Times – the same IBT that bought Newsweek. Like I said, barely disguised.

I wish I could get everyone to read this story. But most people will glance at the paragraphs that go on for pages, they’ll see stuff about Syria and some technobabble, they’ll say, “It doesn’t look like something I’d enjoy.” You’re not supposed to enjoy it. You’re supposed to be scared shitless. Or enraged. But what we’re supposed to do about all this, I’m not sure. Resist clickbait? Yeah, like that’s gonna happen. And I’ll admit: I’ve descended into hopelessness. But I’m 60. I’m checking out soon. What about you – is this the world you want to live in, where what you think you know is never challenged by pesky complexity?

The final line I originally wrote for this post was: “Move over, Jonathan Swift and Joseph Heller, there’s a new master satirist in town.” Except this isn’t really satire. And if that doesn’t scare the hell out of you, well, it doesn’t matter, I’m sure tomorrow will bring another blue/black (or gold/white) dress to keep you entertained while someone else decides our lives – and decides who’ll write what to tell us how happy we should be about that.

Pushcart 2015: LaToya Watkins, “The Mother” from Ruminate, #29

"The Geneaology of Jesus – A Countdown to Christmas" by Jessica Lynette

“The Geneaology of Jesus – A Countdown to Christmas” by Jessica Lynette

The Visits done died down a little bit now. Some still come. The rustlers like this one sitting in front of me. They still ask bout Hawk. Bout how he came to call hisself the Messiah. Bout who his daddy is, but I ain’t got nothing for them.
I look out the window I keep my chair pulled up next to. Ain’t no sun, just cold and still. Banjo lift his head up when he see my eyes on him but it don’t take him long to let it fall back on his paws. He done got his rope a little tangled up. Can’t move too much with it like that, but he can breathe and lay down. He alright. I’ll go out and work out the knot when I can – when this gal leave.
It’s cold out there, but I ain’t too worried bout Banjo. He got natural insulation. I’m the one cold and I’m on the inside – supposed to be on the inside cause I’m a person. I ain’t got no insulation though.

Character; setting; diction: three of the mainstays of fiction. And this story – a story about storytelling – is a master class on all.

First, diction. Diction, in good fiction, informs and is informed by character. Watkins has chosen a first-person narrator, and for this character, that means a story written in dialect. It’s not easy to write in dialect. I don’t even like using the word “dialect” since it hints that there’s a standard of normal and everything else is other, but it’s a word useful in linguistics, without any hint of valuation, to describe a subset of spoken language characteristic of a particular group, a twist on language that is understandable to those outside the dialect group, but has its own rules and quirks. Dialects quickly become stigmatized (even academia or medspeak, dialects used by the highly-educated; linguistics doesn’t discriminate, that’s what amateurs are for).

I often have trouble reading stories written in dialect because they tend to include lots of apostrophes. Those apostrophes indicate absence; missing letters. More normality indicators. One of the reasons I like the way Watkins has written this story is that she’s left out the apostrophes. Yes, “about” is “bout”, but that’s different from “’bout”, I think. Visually, it’s cleaner, easier to read. Symbolically, I prefer it too: it doesn’t scream, “Something is missing here!” The word is just spelled differently, because that’s how it’s used in the dialect. She also avoids apostrophizing –ing’s by just including the –ing. Few of us speak in written English; all the little things, “gonna” and “wanna” and “yeah” show up, even when we write “going to” so why not just write it, and let people read it as they hear it, which is probably with the elided “g” anyway. We get the idea; we know how Ms. Hawkins – oh, hell, call her momma, that’s who she is, not Ms. anything – speaks. Her word choice, her sentence structure, aside from pronunciation – number, tense, vocabulary – provides the information we need to hear her as she speaks. Poking our eyes out with hundreds of apostrophes isn’t necessary. Bravo.

Setting and character are also interwoven:

I pretend in my mind I was raised here and not on 34th. Just pretend I been on the East side all along. On the East side where good-time whoring didn’t never catch, even if being strung out on drugs did. Where snow come to cover up the dirt in places where grass don’t never grow, like icing covering up chocolate cake or brownies or anything dark and sweet. The East side. Where you be happy poor and don’t try to pretend you can whore your way out. I just pretend in my mind I was brought up poor and wasn’t never no whore.

Again, we know exactly what the East side is, though I wasn’t sure what it was the East side of. It doesn’t matter. And don’t kid yourself, we all try to whore our way out. We’ll meet a few young ladies in this story who aren’t whores in the sexual sense, but they sure are trying to whore their way out (or in, perhaps): they’re reporters. As momma says, “… I know her kind. She want her story. She’ll cry to get it.”

That moves us into the story of the story. The unveiling is multi-layered and wonderful, a little at a time, so I’m not going to play spoiler.

The story gets into several issues, but storytelling itself is central. The stories we tell ourselves. The stories we tell others. Stories passed on, misunderstood (deliberately or not), abused. Stories retold for the wrong reasons, and the right reasons. Stories that doom us, and stories that save us. Stories that save others. Momma is a goddess of stories, and she’s got one that never seemed to matter to anyone until her son, some kind of self-proclaimed Messiah, died in a cult mass-suicide. But she’ll only give her story to someone who needs – and deserves – it.

I think bout my last conversation with Hawk. He talked bout earthly fathers and his heavenly one. “Well, you know in one them books, Matthew, I think, when everybody get to begetting somebody else?” She nod her head. “Well, Hawk told me that ain’t had nothing to do with Jesus momma. That’s all bout Joseph. The step-daddy.”
“That’s right. The genealogy in that book is Joseph’s,” she say, nodding her head. She interested in what I got to say now.
“Well, if the Jesus, the one you and half the world think was the Messiah, and his disciples ain’t care nothing about who was and wasn’t his real daddy, why we always trying prove DNA and mess today?”

Some stories are more important than others. And some stories are more important in how they’re told, and why. Momma is absolutely correct: with all the fuss in Matthew (and Luke) about the Virgin Birth, when push comes to shove, Matthew gives Joseph’s genealogy as Jesus’, until it comes to the last line, when all the begatting turns into “and Joseph was the husband of Mary.” Biblical scholars explain there’s a reason Matthew did this: he was writing for a Jewish audience, and this type of genealogy, linking Jesus to the patriarch Abraham, was important in fulfilling scriptural promise. Mary’s lineage just won’t do for that (Luke uses it in his gospel, though he too includes Joseph). Biblical scholarship is complicated.

The stories we tell, how we tell them, to whom. And why.

Pushcart selected this story from Ruminate Magazine, a journal ” created in April 2006 by a group of fellow writers, artists, and believers who wanted a space for the thoughtful expressions of those who are nudged forward, backward, and sideways by faith in God” and featuring ” short stories, poetry, creative nonfiction, and visual art that resonate with the complexity and truth of the Christian faith”. Some stories are complicated.

In an interview for the UT/Dallas newspaper, Watkins, a doctoral student and instructor, explained her motivation for telling this story: “I wanted to explore the black, matriarchal experience in West Texas since it’s a place that never saw slavery firsthand. It was a place with imported segregation; that separation wasn’t forced, but understood.”

The stories we tell. They matter.

Pushcart 2015: Ellen Bryant Voigt, “Geese” (Poetry) from Granta, #124

there is no cure for temperament it’s how
we recognize ourselves but sometimes within it
a narrowing imprisons or is opened such as when my mother
in her last illness snarled and spat and how this lifted my dour father
into a patient tenderness thereby astounding everyone
but mostly it hardens who we always were

Maybe the most obvious thing about this poem is the best place to start: the lack of punctuation, of capitals, of any notational signal as to where a sentence starts or stops, whether blocks of meaning are separated by brief pauses of commas, longer pauses of semicolons, are parts of lists, are asides within em-dashes, or end with the full stop of a period.

Whereas I, or any reader, really, would be able to notice this, Katy Diddon, in her Kenyon Review piece on Voigt’s book from which this poem comes, relates the technique to mortality through Voigt’s role as an elegist: “I believe that her choice to write without punctuation in this volume changes the argument with mortality; in particular, she puts conclusions into flux, which alters each poem’s trajectory, and therefore transforms the elegy on almost every level.”

Since I, as poetically naïve as I am, was unfamiliar with Voigt and thus had no idea she was known as an elegist, and wasn’t even aware this poem was an elegy (though it does deal with her mother’s death), I’ll have to take Diddon’s word for it. Makes sense: the period as finality, the eschewal of periods and other guiding marks a move towards fluidity, continuation. It makes great sense – if I recall correctly (and verification confirms the basics), the poetic form of elegy moves from mourning a loss to bringing the essence of what was good about the lost one into the present, and projecting that good into the future: sorrow, then hope and strength as a legacy of the beloved.

Voigt herself gives a slightly different take on this punctuation choice in her Granta:

I shouldn’t discount having my sixty-fifth birthday, which causes its own sort of impatience. After several years of idling – either silence, or more-of-the-same – I began a new poem that had a great deal of repetition, a great deal of descriptive excess, and multiple, very fast tonal shifts; somewhere around draft #25, it occurred to me those shifts could happen more easily if I removed the syntactical markers – i.e., the conventional punctuation that helps ‘chunk’ the functional parts of an English sentence. This required me to think more carefully about how those markers might be implied rather than notated, and in turn freed the line to be the sole manager of pace and pause, moments of rest. And I found that very exciting – enough so to make a commitment to the protocol and its possibilities. So there is no punctuation at all in the new book.

I’ve tried to keep that in mind when examining the poem (as opposed to just reading it), looking for ways the rhythm affects pace and even meaning.

In reading the poem out loud, I found some interesting progressions and patterns. The first stanza, quoted above, starts out in perfect iambic pentameter: “There is no cure for temperament it’s how” but that line begs to be continued of course, into the next line which also starts in perfect iambs: “we recognize ourselves but sometimes within it” – oh, a little shuffling at the end there, though it could still be considered pentameter if shift from iamb to anapest, but then it all goes to hell in the center of the stanza, and the next two lines are jumble of everything, until we get to the final line of the stanza and revert back to (nearly) perfect iambic pentameter: “But mostly it hardens who we always were.” Mostly. She could’ve written that to be perfectly regular, but she didn’t; she only wrote in mostly perfect meter. Language rhythm and syntax working together.

And yes, there is a clear break, rhythmically and semantically, as well as visually, between the two stanzas, if the remaining group of lines can appropriately be called a stanza.

if you’ve been let’s say a glass-half-empty kind of girl
you wake to the chorus of geese overhead
forlorn for something has softened their nasal voices
their ugly aggression on the ground they’re worse than chickens
but flying one leader falling back another moving up to pierce the wind
no one in charge or every one in charge in flight each limited goose
adjusts its part in the cluster just under the clouds
do they mean together to duplicate the cloud

And yes, again, we start off with a mostly iambic line again (hexameter this time) and at first it tracks just fine, even without punctuation, but then we’re caught up in the center which gets a little peculiar, rhythmically and even semantically – I gave up trying to “punctuate” it, are the geese forlorn for something, or are they forlorn – because something has softened their nasal voices, and what is the thing with chickens, is that an aside, I’ve put it in em-dashes but I’m something of an em-dash addict. In any case, the poem at that point is describing how a flock of geese moves, one goose leads, then another, “no one in charge or everyone in charge” and yet they all get where they’re going together, just as the poem seems to break up but still gets to the end, where the last five lines again settle down and speak of forcing blooms in winter.

So we have a wife and mother dying, and the normally-dour father finds his gentleness is accentuated by the scene. What about the daughter, the speaker? Is she a glass-half-empty kind of girl, arriving at the conclusion that in geese or families, “there is no end to hierarchy”; or is she a take-charge girl who forces blooms by “a premature and structured dark”? Can she be both? Undecided? Something else: an observer, recorder, an elegist? Is the premature dark a bad thing… can it be a good thing?

It’s a lovely poem to play with. In the end, we have some choice in how we react to our surroundings, whether a death or a flock of geese or winter. The degree of choice we have depends perhaps on something within us, as does the choice we make, and how we view the aftermath. We can let darkness defeat us – or we can use it to help us bloom.

Pushcart 2015: Thomas E. Kennedy, “My White House Days” (non-fiction) from New Letters , V79#3-4

I used to be able to tell about this straight out. Not that I was proud of it, but neither was I ashamed. Years ago, I had what used to be referred to as a nervous breakdown. I tried to kill myself. When I broke down, I decided it was because of secrets, and I didn’t want anymore secrets. Then I began to heal and didn’t want to talk about the breakdown any longer, tended to gloss over that period of my biography.
At the time, late summer-early fall of 1963, I worked in the White House – in the executive office building, now referred to as the old EOB, which housed inter alia the office of the Vice President. JFK was president. I worked as a stenographer for the White House Communications Agency – WHCA, responsible for the president’s travel. You might think you see where this is going – 1963, responsible for the president’s travel – but it’s probably not what you think.

Now, I didn’t write 30 books, as Kennedy has, nor did I go to writing school and I certainly don’t teach it (as Kennedy does), but it seems to me, if you’re going to write an essay about My Years in the White House, and your name is Kennedy, your first sentence should be “No, not one of those Kennedys” instead of tucking that information into the middle of the piece. I guess that’s why I’m not a writer. And I suppose, if he’s written 30 books and won numerous awards (this is his second Pushcart), I should’ve recognized the name. Maybe that’s my problem, but it’s just the beginning of how jerked-around I felt by this piece.

But none of that is the point. Or maybe it is the point, since Kennedy gets pretty jerked around himself, by the military in the name of National Security. The absurdity of all that, and its effect on a perfectly normal, bright and promising boy whose only failing was earnestness, is the point.

A product of Queens, NY parochial school and a less-than-idyllic home life, he joined the military in 1963 hoping for an assignment in France, where he could learn more about the literature and language he had already come to love. When offered a position at the White House, however, he saw it as a privilege to serve the President, so France would have to wait.

What he didn’t count on was the security interview:

His questions seemed ordinary enough that I don’t remember them – until he asked:
“Have you ever engaged in normal sexual relations with a woman?”
Suddenly I was back in confession with the priest. But I had what I thought was the right answer – that is, the answer they wanted…
With mild indignation, I said, “No!
The major looked up at me from his pad and asked, with slight incredulity, “No?
The trap had snapped shut. I had exposed myself to the suspicion that I was a rat who smelled strange bread in women. There was no going back. I blushed. “No.”
His eyes were on me, then dropped to his pad, where I imagined his printing in all caps the word RISK. “Have you ever had abnormal sexual relations with a woman?”

And it goes downhill from there, culminating in Kennedy’s “nervous breakdown”. Thankfully, he recovered, though it took some time – about 50 years, in fact – to come to terms with it.

To those born in the Digital Age, or even the Age of Aquarius, it may seem implausible that a 19-year-old male would assume that chastity was a virtue, or, for that matter, not a subject of shame. To those of us who grew up in the same era, perhaps around Fundamentalists rather than Catholics, and perhaps had our own troubles that assured our chastity was not at risk, and also specialized in giving authority figures the answers they wanted, let me assure you it isn’t that outlandish. I had my “nervous breakdown” – my first two, in fact – before I realized, courtesy of the psychiatric profession, that chastity was a symptom, though of what, I was never sure.

So I have some appreciation for what Kennedy went through. That he went through it at the hands of the government, in the name of some bizarrely intertwined combination of morality and national security, is tragic.

Just recently I saw the film The Imitation Game, and by coincidence a rerun of the older Fat Man and Little Boy. Both of these were set in the WWII era. Both involved men older and with more experience in the world than the 19-year-old Kennedy, but were nonetheless ground up by military authority, here or in the UK, in the name of national security. How we treat our heroes! Worse, how we treat our kids, on their way to becoming heroes, should they make the mistake of entering the military in a state of earnest innocence.

Pushcart 2015: D. A. Powell, “Calling All Gods” (Poetry) from KenyonReview, Vol.XXXV #2

"Abandoned Boat House" by Carrie O'Brien Sibley (modified)

“Abandoned Boat House” by Carrie O’Brien Sibley (modified)

Because I stand with my great unknowing yap and pray for speech.
Because I would open my body like a rasping bellows and have you fill it.
I do not know your name.

I first thought this was, per the title and the pervasive religious imagery, a one-sided conversation with a divinity who maintains a distance. The combination of religion and sex was irresistible; I gathered some sources on the uses of sexual imagery in religious texts and liturgy from the Judeo-Christian bible to Vajrayana Buddhism. I had a lot of fun.

But I read the poem again and wondered: is the poem instead about the night, about darkness? Or are they the same thing, for this speaker, a would-be worshiper of the night? In either case, the longing is unrequited, the unloved lover craving intimacy but receiving only the bare mechanics. It’s horribly sad, full of desperate longing, intensified by the title.

The final verse seems to indicate, finally, a fulfillment of the longing, and a line I love though I don’t fully understand its import: “Abandoned boathouse hallelujah.” I get the feeling this is all not about religion, or the night, but sex pure and simple, phrased in mystical terms. In any case, that boathouse – I’m intrigued. What is it that happened there? And if I can’t understand a poem, being intrigued is the next best thing. Maybe even the better thing.

An interesting side-note about the title: in the Pushcart TOC (at least the paperback edition I have) the poem is listed as “Calling All Odds”. That strikes me as a wonderfully amusing typo. What is a god, if not odd? And what is a god, if not one who defies the human odds?

Pushcart 2015: Joe Wilkins, “Say” from The Sun, #448

Let’s say we have a man and a woman.
Let’s say they’re riding in some old Chevy pickup, windows down, prairie earth wheeling past. Let’s call it Nebraska. No harm to say some old Chevy. No harm to say Nebraska.
Though, to be honest, judging by the cheatgrass spiking the ditches, those four cow skulls nailed down a fence post’s crooked length, and the great bluescape of sky, it might be Wyoming, or Montana, or a Dakota — any of those dun-colored, too-wide-open, go-crazy-you’re-so-lonesome places in the middle of America.

Given my fondness for nontraditional narrative styles, it’s a given I’d love this story (available online, thank you Utne Reader). Not that the narrative is all that non-traditional: it’s very old-fashioned in fact, in the tradition of folk tales and songs: “Now I’m going to tell you a story.” But in this story, the narrator, who in a folk tale might only supply a conduit, is central. The story’s about him.

Oh, on the surface it’s about two people fresh out of luck, heading nowhere on a bleak road. But it’s about the narrator, I’m sure of it. He’s let her down again, and he’s making up this story, willing her to sing. It won’t do for him to be the one to sing; that would just mean he’s making light of his failings. No, it has to come from her. She has to sing.

As I read these stories, I keep looking for a uniting theme, or groups of themelets, in this volume. I started out with a sense of looking back and forward; now I have a distinct sense of “is it good or bad? You choose.” And guess what: this story is about every one of us, at one point or another. How we choose. We can keep seething, we can call it quits – or we can sing.

He’s willing her to sing. The protagonist – and the narrator.

What’s the difference between “say” and “tell”? They come from different roots; interestingly, “tell” has a calculative quality (hey, I never knew that). But I think there’s a more important distinction. We could talk about transitivity and direct vs indirect objects, but here’s the gist: saying can be a solo action, but telling implies an intended tellee, a recipient. To say is to express; to tell is to communicate – or, more accurately, and importantly to the story, to attempt to communicate, since there’s never any guarantee the tellee will listen, or, even then, hear. For more linguistic fun, what’s the difference between “Say” and “I’m saying”? Again, there’s the difference in tense, but here, in the story, the switch between “say” and “tell”, between “Say” “I tell you” and “I’m saying” and I’m telling you”, isn’t about grammar; it’s all about intensification. And boy, does this story intensify.

One of the additional ways it intensifies is by going from “Let’s say” to “I’m telling you.” The first is collaborative, casual, hypothetical – it’s a pipe dream. The second is insistent, authoritative, authorial – desperate; I hear a strong chord of “please!” around the edges, and the reader can’t help but cheer for these two hard-luck cases who have a chance to turn it around.

By the way (and this has nothing to do with the story, it doesn’t fit in this post, but it’s so cool I can’t leave it unsaid): Wilkins was a math teacher. I should’ve known. For half a century, I ran away from math as hard as I could, but for the past few years I’ve been tripping over astonishingly cool math people on a regular basis. All I had to do was sing.

But let’s say — and it could happen, I promise you — she opens her mouth and begins to sing: Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet? Say, down the next dry hill, he can’t help but offer up: Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, / And nothing ain’t worth nothing, but it’s free. Yes, let’s say that, despite it all, they begin to sing. It’s not so hard to imagine, is it? Not so hard to see them barreling down the road, the sun-washed wind in their faces, these getting-by tunes on their lips? Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels, / And a good saloon in every single town.

I love a story that comes with its own sound track – Dylan, Kristofferson, Parsons. But the sound track here is more than just mood music; it’s a conversation in itself, between two people who can’t say, so the songs say for them, ask and answer, offer and accept: a conversation about screwing up, hurting, losing, regret, apology, and the possibility that love can survive all that. The songs say. The songs tell the story. All we have to do is listen.

I’m telling you they sing. Listen. Hear their cracked voices whirl and ring.

The last paragraph, the last line, three sentences – it’s a poem. Wilkins is, after all, a poet as well as a prose writer. It’s all in the rhythm. Meter isn’t my strength, but these lines convince me. Start with “I’m telling you they sing”: three sing-song iambs, and you’re all set up for the fourth da-DUM you just know it’s coming, but: LISTEN. Technically it’s probably a trochee but I hear it as a spondee, almost as – oh, forgive me, Mr. Wilkins, I’m a fool from the TV generation, but it’s the Law & Order “DUN-DUN”. It stops you in your tracks: This is Important. This Means Something (yes, I’m insanely mixing references, but that’s what our psyches are, a big box of mixed references). And the rhythm of the next sentence shifts into trochee: “Hear their cracked voices whirl and sing”, with the perfect little crack in the regularity coming on the word “cracked” (unless you pronounce it in two syllables, but that would be a little too Elizabethan for this story).

I love that last line. It’s the whole story, right there.

Pushcart 2015: Kara Candito, “Monologue During a Blackout” (Poetry) from Jubilat, #24

         What about zebra?—suppose
you had to come back as a zebra,
      knowing you’d spend your life
            trampling the savannah with the desperation
      of an Open During Construction sign?

I had to laugh at the first stanza – that simile is so out-of-left-field, yet so perfect. I was a little relieved to read, in Candito’s Rumpus Poetry Club conversation with Brian Spears, that a laugh, or at least a smile, was the hoped-for effect. Just in time for things to turn achingly sad in the second stanza (the poem is available online at VerseDaily). Humor/ache, black/white.

Then I tremendously enjoyed the discontinuous thought: “…anything can happen. Often // it doesn’t. The rain stops.” Is that good or bad? Black or white? Depends. In a blackout (or in a dentist’s waiting room, where I first encountered this poem, is that good or bad?) it might seem like a comfort. On graduation day, a wedding night, the first day on a new job, it might seem like a downer. Then again, wouldn’t a blackout be fun if the energy not coming through the wires were transformed to his finger tracing her chin… Is a blackout good or bad? Openness.

I’m so taken with individual lines and images – listening to Bach through headphones as “seismic privacy of tiny, angry / gods beating your middle ear” – that I barely realize I have no grasp of the overall poem. I wondered if I’d have an easier time if I knew more about the collection from which it comes, so I did a little more hunting: Spectator, “an homage to anyone who’s been displaced or redefined by bureaucratic systems of power.” Interesting. It’s so intimate. Maybe that’s how you fight bureaucracy: create your own intimate space wherever you are.

I can’t speak to the technique (just for fun, I rearranged all the lines, putting those indented at the same level together, but that was pretty goofy, even for me), but there’s an interview for that, as well, with Justin Bigos on 32Poems; unfortunately, it goes way over my head, but that doesn’t mean I don’t aspire.

Pushcart 2015: Mary Hood, “Breaking It” (Non-fiction) from The Georgia Review, Spring 2013

From boredom, a way to keep me alert on a daily walk on a path I have traveled for years, I set quests. This day I noted things blue. Nothing man-made. I saw at first nothing that qualified. Blue is my hardest color.

And after this walk, blue’s gonna be even harder.

There’s a stylistic flair to this short essay, clearly emphasizing the “creative” part of “creative non-fiction”. Perhaps “meditation” would fit as a descriptive. Each paragraph is broken up by white space, giving the impression of individual thoughts, related but also self-contained. The language is beautiful, varying from straightforward narration to deeper considerations of what is being narrated.

Quest as a game taken seriously strips irrelevancy just as a real pilgrimage does – nothing I cherish and winnow with my eyes is mine, nothing I claim with conqueror’s glance is real estate; I was just passing time on the surface, with a little shallow seeking for what would get me through.

Hood’s quest on this day ends up distinctly un-shallow.

Since it’s such a short essay focused on a couple of images, it would be spoiler-ish to reveal those images beyond saying it’s the juxtaposition of a stand of pines destroyed by beetles, and a bird caught on a fence of hog wire. These events allow for consideration of larger issues: the human effect on nature, sure, but also the difference between spotlighting a single victim and presenting statistics in numbers too large to understand, a difference long understood by charity marketers who know we will be moved to respond with a check to the story of one starving child more readily than to hearing the huge numbers of children who have already died. Towerkill is something we hear about on the news (or I guess most people do; I’d never heard of it), but one bluebird is a different story. And, perhaps the all-inclusive theme of legality vs ethicality.

I didn’t realize until after I’d read the essay a few times that each sentence matters, each image, each thought, builds up to the final paragraphs, to an overall thought-cloud that encompasses blue, eleven, quests, insects and pines, birds and fences, and related to all these – people, and what we do, what we can do, what we could do. It’s kind of overwhelming, really. I’m amazed at how much is in there, how, on a frame of evocative language and imagery, a wealth of interrelated musings have been somehow compressed and streamlined into four pages. To do the essay justice, I would have to quote it all. I think that’s good writing.

And as I read these essays, I say over and over, “I don’t particularly like nature writing, but…” Maybe what I don’t like are routine essays, the beautiful but routine “seascapes” (and, all too often, cute animal portraits) of the written word.

I still remember, 30 years later, an entire 90-minute linguistics class examining the word “broken” and its close relatives. “The window broke” is absurd; windows don’t just break, they are broken, but this word has a way of removing action from consequence, and leaving intent questionable. Beetles don’t intend to break trees; we don’t intend to break birds. Does that reduce the loss?

Pushcart 2015: David Means, “The Ice Committee” from Zoetrope: All-Story Vol.17 #4

It was late afternoon. It would soon be dusk.
“I don’t think I ever told you the one with Captain Hopewell in it,” the man named Kurt was saying.
“Don’t start. For God’s sake, you’ll jinx us for sure,” the man named Merle said. “Just get me thinking about that one and it’ll jinx us.”
“This one isn’t going to jinx us. If you knew the story, you’d know that,” Kurt said, and then for a few minutes both men sat silently and mulled over everything they’d discussed on the nature of luck over the course of the last few months as they’d wandered up and down Superior Street, shaking a cup for spare change, scraping for odd jobs, whatever it took to gather enough for some booze and a scratch lottery ticket. They’d agreed that to talk too much about good fortune just before you scratched would decrease the odds of it coming, because luck had to bend around the place and time of the scratch, establishing itself in relation to your state of mind at that particular moment…. Best to clear the head of all expectation and settle into a state of not-caring as you look out with silent and blissful longing at the lake.

The first two sentences nearly did me in. Who starts a story that way, besides a seventh grader? But I remembered a couple of things.

The first was a quote by Joyce Cary that I learned about through Charles May: “Every professional artist has met the questioner who asks of some detail: ‘Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this?’” If a writer of David Means’ experience opens his story with dead, limp, passive sentences, there’s a reason for it.

The second was a discussion I had a long time ago with a workshop writer about starting stories with phrases like “There was…” Turns out, he’d just done exactly that, and he did it for a reason: to emphasize the passivity of the character he was introducing.

Kurt and Merle are nothing if not dead, limp, and passive.

The story (available online, thank you Zoetrope All-Story) focuses on the time these two homeless guys spend working themselves up to scratching a lottery ticket, making sure not to “bend the luck” the wrong way. I love that notion, of luck bending depending on what you’re doing. Combined with the idea of depending on lottery tickets, it’s rich enough in thoughts and imagery to keep me going a while.

But the stories they tell each other, the thoughts they have, while they’re waiting, fill in the backstories of Merle, the Vietnam vet who can’t stop telling stories and can no longer remember if the stories are real, made-up, or a composite of fact and fiction, and Kurt, former professor who lost his way. I found it a rather tedious read, to be honest (and I usually like Means’ stories), since I was disoriented much of the time – when is this set, that a Vietnam vet is a “kid”) but there are these moments of exquisite beauty and clarity that kept me reading on.

Every big port like this one had a kid just like Kurt, a kid with sea legs on land and land legs on sea, a kid whose life had ended in country, somewhere in the Highlands, or in Khe Sanh, or in Hue, or in Saigon, as a member of Tiger Force, or as a gunner on a Chinook, depending on which version he decided to tell that day. And there was always an old coot whose life had ended in middle age, beginning with a fight over—over what? he couldn’t really remember—that had resulted in the broken vase (a wedding present), and then another fight and a broken Hitchcock chair (another wedding present), and then another and a broken jaw (Emma, oh my dear sweet Emma!). He felt the deep shame of the memory: the clutch of her long, elegant fingers around her chin and her beautiful, deep, sad, brown brown eyes as he’d glanced back one last time before striking out, moving his feet over the ground day after day, until it seemed he’d walked (and he had, for God’s sake, he had) the upper shore of Superior, across the border into Canada, and then back down, finding his way to the Hope Mission.

I’m still pretty hazy on the significance of the title, though it’s used in the piece. The Ice Committee sounds like an incompetent bureaucracy that stands in the way of sea merchants trying to make a living. I can sense something of that these two guys, who are pretty impotent in how they deal with their lives. In spite of their troubles, there’s a strong connection between the two of them, and I also felt a great connection with the pair, these two guys on a hope mission of their own – and that counts for a lot.

Pushcart 2015: Henri Cole, “City Horse” from Threepenny #134

At the end of the road from concept to corpse,
sucked out to sea and washed up again—

Rhythm is usually the last thing I notice in a poem. Yet it was the overriding impression I got here (the poem is available online, thank you Threepenny Review), perhaps with some help from the second line: a shoreline, waves coming in and out, at first with a comforting rolling pace. That can be very comforting, even at the corpse end of the road. Or it can be the indifference of the universe to the death of one creature (life on earth depends on death, after all), in spite of how deeply that death affects one little boy. But the indifference doesn’t last long; starting in the third line, the smooth regular rhythm becomes more chaotic, more choppy, as the swells break up into crisscrossing, overlapping crosscurrents:

…the color around her eyes, nose, and mane (the dapples of roan,
a mix of white and red hairs) now powdery gray—

Then, the turn. It’s a fourteen line poem, and I’m still in the freshman lit fourteen-lines-equals-a-sonnet stage of poetic development, but I can feel a distinct turn here, after the first eight lines, the last six going from description to disembodied apostrophic paean ” O, wondrous horse; O, delicate horse—dead, dead—” followed by a much more personal view, in a completely different style of diction, of the scene so vividly, artfully described. After the poetic voice of the orator, we hear the pained cry of a child:

                                  “She was more smarter than me,
she just wait,” a boy sobs, clutching a hand to his mouth,…

Rhythm, grammar, composure, all waysided by grief. But the rhythm resumes in the final lines, particularly the last line; but now, instead of a broad, rolling tide, or irregular chaos, we have a funeral march: “the heavy, black, frothing water.”

In spite of my focus on rhythm, my attention afterwards remains on the boy’s exclamation: it doesn’t quite make sense. Is he so distraught the words are just tumbling out? Is this his everyday speech pattern? Is “she just wait” a description of having left the horse briefly tied to a telephone pole while completing some footbound task, or is it a sentence broken off in midstream followed by a plea – “She just… no, I can’t speak, wait a minute…”? In either case, it leaves an unanswered question for the reader: was the horse waiting for him when she was swept out to sea? Was it some other interrupted thought we’ll never hear – “she just always knew what to do” except for now, her own thought interrupted permanently. And what happened here anyway? What is the catastrophe that resulted in this scene? Because Henri Cole was born in Japan, I keep trying to overlay it with the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, but there’s nothing in the text that particularly supports that. The poem, like the end of every life, leaves unanswered questions.

I discovered another Shark Pack Poetry analysis of this poem in my travels – why is it I’ve never stumbled over this site before and now twice find a gold mine of high-end discussion (“We believe deeply in the power of the poetic imaginary and in the intimate revolt”) – this time by Joseph Spece. In addition to a detailed discussion of the linguistic finesse, he relates it to one of my favorite poems, my favorite tropes: Auden’s examination of Breughel’s rendition of the fall of Icarus in “Musée des Beaux Arts”, the way a personal catastrophe might barely register on someone not directly affected. It was not my horse killed, not my child heartbroken, not my son fallen from the sky – until poetry makes it so.

Pushcart 2015: Barrett Swanson, “Annie Radcliffe, You Are Loved” from American Short Fiction #56

“The only selfless action is one that’s unintentional.”

A long time ago in some class far away, I commented that in some ways, Mother Teresa was the most selfish person in the world: if she feels a need to do good, then she’s fulfilling her own need, and that she’s helping others is merely a side effect. I had no idea this had anything to do with Ayn Rand or Darwin or the Altruism Paradox; it just seemed the logical conclusion. If you believe doing good works is “good,” or will get you into heaven, then while the works are still good and others do indeed benefit, you’re still acting in your own best interests, satisfying your own desires to “be good.” The teacher of that class wasn’t sure what I was saying, and skimmed right by it, since something like that could make a lot of people mad, if they’d been listening, but everyone was busy with his or her own little drama. I guess the teacher didn’t know from paradoxes or Ayn Rand or Darwin either.

What I love about this story – one of the several things I love about it – is that Arla, while educated about the altruism paradox both academically, and practically, may never really know how very beneficial her unintentional act – and a very un-self-ish act in that she was barely a self at the time – was to a couple of strangers.

Housesitting at her old house. If she were in front of her class, lecturing to those bovine-eyed college freshman, she’d say, “‘A plausible impossibility is preferable to a possible implausibility.’ That’s Aristotle. What do you guys think he meant by that?” To which her students would lift their eyebrows, as if to say, What the? #wedontgetit. Her students had been amending their statements with more hash tags than usual lately. Could I maybe have an extension on my paper? #ithinkimightbepregnant. Would you read a draft of my essay?
“Come on, guys,” she’d say. “What do you think our Greek polymath meant by that?”
One boy, with the scraggly beard and tilted, who’d spend the whole two-hour class looking at her tits, might say, Uh, rubbing his nose, means anything’s possible?
In block-letters, she’d write a syllogism on the board:
MAJOR PREMISE: Arla Conters, PhD candidate in applied semiotics, your instructor for Intro Ethics, gets paid peasant wages by this illustrious university to teach you how to think. She house sits in the suburbs on weekends to afford her coffin-sized studio in Wicker Park, where she lives with Mr. Bojangles, her parrot, who has cancer.
MINOR PREMISE: The house she grew up in is in Kenilworth, one of those suburbs. (Yes, parrots get cancer).
CONCLUSION: Arla Conters might have to housesit her old house.

It’s a convergence story. I fell in love with the characters, all of whom have been changed by a decision point in their lives, and all of whom, it turns out, will be changed again by their convergence. How they came to be screwed up is central to their convergence, and its effect on them. For most of it, I had no idea where things were going, and yet, when we arrived at the central moment – and the hub of the story takes place within the space of one or two minutes – everything made sense, and I realized why everything else in the story was there. I think that’s called great storytelling.

It’s a longish short story compared to most modern stories, and seems perhaps longer because it’s so densely packed; there’s no fooling around with scenery. Or, I suppose it would be more accurate to say, where there is fooling around with scenery, you better believe it matters.

With each character, I started out not liking them much. In this, it was a convergence of me and each character, since that changed as I read. Arla, too educated, too drugged out, too promiscuous. It’s easy to get judgmental on her, real fast. And yet, I can picture her, years ago, at the “edge of the pool, her legs bent, as if she were about to jump in” … and my heart breaks for her. Teenage Jake’s even less sympathetic at first; I have little patience for anyone breaking a restraining order, no matter what their reason, but when I pictured this chubby kid comparing himself to the athlete, and then read about his over-the-top Romantic Gesture going horribly awry… and my heart breaks for him, too. Twelve-year-old Gordon initially comes off as a frantically hypermotivated fundamentalist, but he, too, has his pains, his moments feeling like “the Bleakest of Coffins,” and his relationship with his dad (who is the 21st century American equivalent of the Roberto Benigni character in Life is Beautiful) is a study in mutuality.

In the boy’s ergonomic backpack were slabs of frozen meat. Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Gordon did his Care for Another meal program, which was sort of like Meals on Wheels, but because he was only 12 and couldn’t drive a car and was thus ineligible to volunteer for M.O.W., he decided to establish his own program, which essentially consisted of his ferrying vacuum-packed Salisbury steaks and chicken Kiev’s to the neighborhood geriatrics on bike or by foot, afterschool, pro-bono. He had only four clients but had been saving up his post-tithing profits from his weekend lemonade stand to afford a full-color ad in the Tribune, which he thought would be a much more efficacious way to promote his start-up charity than simply doing cold calls via the White Pages, which had been his initial strategy before realizing that it wasn’t exactly the brightest star in the whole marketing-strategy Orion.
       On Tuesdays, he had Remedial Debate, which was like a step down from Model UN, which he tried out for and didn’t get accepted into, which of course made him feel the Bleakest of Coffins for like three weeks – that is, until he got the idea to petition the Donald K. Deepmire Middle School’s Extracurricular Activities Board to let him start a Getting-the-Word-Out-About-the-Total-Fun-and-Literary-Genius-of-C.S.-Lewis’s-The-Chronicles-of-Narnia Club.

It’s so easy to feel hostility towards someone based on a single piece of information. It’s harder to look behind that one piece of information, to see a person who has reasons for that particular quality, who deserves compassion and caring in spite of it, who might have other qualities that outshine what seems like a deal-breaker – and who might just overcome the need for the burden some day, given the right convergence and the wisdom to recognize it.

I love the writing as well. While there’s lots of narrative and exposition in standard syntax, the occasional flights into the personas of each character brings them vibrantly to life. Of course, I’m very fond of unusual approaches to text, even when it takes a little backtracking. But I think Swanson’s efforts to bring us inside the heads of the three principles is remarkably effective, and a lot of fun, which is why I’ve included such extensive excerpts here. It is a long story, after all, and these parts are backstory.

Jogging down Deepmire Circle in blaze-orange Daisy Dukes, Jake’s willing decided that the first thing he did say if a police officer pulled up and collared him about violating the restraining order Annie Radcliffe and her family had placed against him last week was that he was just out here on the run and must have gotten lost. True, he was supposed to maintain a three block perimeter around the Radcliffe residence, but couldn’t the officer see his Dri-FIT Nike running shorts and matching forefend T-shirt? Jeez, he’d say, heaven forfend a guy go for a post-prandial jog in this town without getting an unconstitutional patch down, he’d say. He was just trying to shed some weight, officer. You know, stay tip-top. Trim off the floatie of blubber that spilled over his beltline. What his mother so endearingly called his life preserver. What his friends Munchie and the Beave poked during passing hours at school, yelling, “Dough-boy!” OK, OK,the truth? The truth was maybe that he was out here running because he was planning to try out for the Reese-Meyer-Shannon High School wrestling team in a couple weeks, since scuttlebutt had it that the swiveling and mellifluous Annie Radcliffe, his ex-girlfriend, was now dating Travis Blokum, the Roman-nosed stud on varsity, who bore a letter jacket and had the distinction of being the only sophomore at Reese-Meyer-Shannon with a full beard. Jake thought if he could just crossface cradle Travis Blokum during a public match, Annie’s family might drop the restraining order against him and he could win her back.

I suppose it’s not considered complimentary to say a story reminds me of something, but it does: Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination, which wasn’t that much about the convergence of characters (IIRC; it’s been a while since I read it) but about the different effects a single phenomenon can have on a variety of people. So maybe it’s not the same thing at all, but I still get that general feeling of “wow.” That’s the similarity. How can that not be complimentary?

I’m with Gordon: sometimes the simple things totally astonish me. Like a story that really, really works – though I suppose that’s not simple, at all.

Pushcart 2015: Lincoln Michel, “If It Were Anyone Else” from NOON, 2013

Photo/Illustration by Christopher Nesbet

Photo/Illustration by Christopher Nesbet

A bald man buddied up to me in the elevator, but he was no buddy of mine. He was much older than me, yet more or less exactly as tall, not counting my hair. He was holding a brown paper bag over his crotch.
“Does this go all the way to the roof?”
I made a big show of putting my newspaper down and turning my head.
“What the hell do I know about the roof? What would I do all the way up there?”
We stood still as we moved up the building.
“Just a friendly question.” He licked the bottom of his mustache with the tip of his tongue. “Hey, do you like candy beans?”
There was no one else on the elevator; then the doors opened, and a woman in a green pantsuit stepped in. She looked at us and moved to the other corner.
“Who doesn’t?” I was angry.
The man opened up his paper bag and dug around. He offered me an assortment in his palm. I took three of the red and four of the purple ones.

As I’ve said before, I don’t review books or stories; I don’t know how. I just react to them. That’s never been more the case than here, because I have no idea what’s going on with this one.

Is this a paean to one of those literary schools I’ve never studied, like post-structuralist neo-Freudian anti-colonialism? Or an Oulipo-style thing, where each word has a prime number of letters and an alternating parity number of vowels and it isn’t apparent how brilliant it is until the constraints are understood? Nah, too normal for that. There just seems to be a lot of important symbolism I’m missing.

Everything seems highly significant (holding the bag over his crotch?) and thoroughly extraneous (is a green pantsuit supposed to mean something?) at the same time. Height seems important; not just the height of the narrator and the bald man, but the heights of buildings and the levels of the floors on which the narrator has worked. Given the automatic association of height with superiority, I have to assume that isn’t an accident, that it has meaning in the context of the story. I even drew a diagram of the narrator’s building so I could understand the floors, since the wording seemed strangely convoluted (and something that’s simple, but is worded convolutedly, often means it’s important).

Once I start drawing floor plans, I know I’ve lost my way. So I did something a bit unusual: I sought professional help.

I noticed the story was nominated by Marc Watkins. I’d encountered his “Two Midnights in a Jug” several years ago in my first-ever Pushcart read, and he left a kind comment. So… I emailed him, and asked him why he nominated the story, what I was missing. The kind of email that gives the impression I’m a little bit nuts (as I am – but harmlessly so).

Turns out, sometimes you can depend on the kindness of strangers: Marc answered.

The story is an odd duck, but that is what drew me to it. The plot seems to spiral in and around itself, threatening to collapse under the weight of details that range from the mundane to the bizarrely specific. There’s a claustrophobia in it that reminds me of Kafka, yet the world never feels so alien that you lose connection with the narrator…. May be the story hints at something profound, or perhaps it is a stylistic exercise; regardless, the reason I liked the story and nominated it is because something moved me while reading it. The alienation (which seems to be a major theme in the narrative) was similar to how I feel in some of my writing, even though I grew up in the polar opposite environment than the world described in the story, I felt a connection. And in that small way I felt the narrator and myself were kindred.

~ Marc Watkins

I felt a little embarrassed. Here I’d just done a passionate defense of not barreling headlong through literature in search of The Meaning in my reaction to Sandra Lim’s “A Tab of Iron on the Tongue”. I’d just read, at my library’s quarterly poetry share, Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry“). And that’s exactly what I had done wrong: I was all focused on [ What does the mention of height mean? What does the bald man represent, why all the sweets – candy beans, a cookie store (what the heck are candy beans, and I’ve never seen a cookie store) – and what’s with the baseball game? A floor plan? That’s about as tie-that-sucker-to-a-chair as a reader can get ] instead of: trust the story to take you wherever it’s going. It’s a Pushcart story. It can be trusted.

I read it again, this time looking out the window to see Paris instead of non-stopping it to the Rome of Meaning. And by golly, it worked. No, I still don’t know what’s going on. But I just enjoyed the ride, and came across an obvious question: Why does the narrator bother with this guy at all? Why on earth would he get into a car with someone who appears to be a stalker, if a relatively harmless one? For that matter, why is the bald man pestering him?

He got up beside me at the counter.
“Hey, buddy, I got an idea. Do you like ball games?”
The woman at the counter was asking me about my order. Here eyeballs rolled in their sockets.
“Sure,” I said. “Everyone likes ball games.”
“Let’s go to the ball game. You and me. Just tow guys watching a ball game. What’s wrong with that? I got an extra ticket.”
I didn’t look back at the man, but I felt his hand pressing down on my shoulder. I could tell he was going to keep bothering me. He was like a lost mangy dog I’d accidentally fed scraps to.
“Just this once.” I sighed. “One ball game.”

What is the relationship?

That’s a lot more interesting than the significance of green, isn’t it.

Once I started down that road, a lot of things coalesced. Tiny details – the reciprocity of the hand on the shoulder. The two bystander women looking askance at the pair. The narrator treats the bald man like a kid at several points: the “Just this once” of the above passage, the scolding about the messy car. Maybe the bald man is some kind of “inner child” if you will – yes, he’s initially described as a lot older, but he’s acting like a kid, there’s a great deal of candy and cookies, and a baseball game, and wheedling.

Once I let myself got that far, I found the narrator’s hand on the bald man’s head to be sweetly tender, the bald man’s disappointment to be heartbreaking. You made your choice, pal. Tall buildings, not baseball games. And, until the bald man came by, you never even realized you’d made a choice.

We were getting somewhere now.

Thanks so much for your help, Marc. I would’ve missed Vienna, if it hadn’t been for your remarks.

Pushcart 2015: Sandra Lim, “A Tab of Iron on the Tongue” (Poetry) from The Account, Fall 2013

Eraser Art by Bridget March

Eraser Art by Bridget March

Each time you see a full moon rising,
you imagine it will express
what your life cannot otherwise express,
that it’s a figure of speech.

This one (available online, thank you, The Account magazine) took me back to ModPo, for a variety of reasons.

From the first stanza, I thought – “I dwell in possibility!” – the Emily Dickinson poem that was a semi-mantra for the course. It’s perhaps a recognition of something above and beyond language, which is an odd proposition for a poem, a form that celebrates and lives within language. But it’s the image that has the deep meaning here in the first stanza; the words are a transportation system.

At least, that’s what I thought until I went looking for hints, and found a marvelous commentary by Christopher Kondrich: he points out the “it” in the fourth line has two floating antecedents, and while that’s no-no’d in composition classes, it’s the art of this poem: what is it that’s a figure of speech, the moon, or your life? Both? Back to Emily and Cid Corman and John Ashbery. And I missed it until Kondrich underlined it for me.

An image, a poem, can be like a figure-ground perception test: is it the face, or the vase? The old woman sunken into a shawl, or the young lady in the fashionable hat, looking away? Is a bed a raft or an island?

This really means watching yourself
turn something unknown into
something manageable.

The second stanza made me quite sad, until I looked at it line by line. To start with, “This really means watching yourself” sounds like a warning – hey, watch yourself, buddy; be careful. But the phrase then turns into a proposition of observation. It’s not, Watch out for yourself, but Watch how this happens. That shift happens because of a line break – a break that changes the perception of figure and ground, a break that unites multiple perceptions. We’re so certain we know – we turn the unknown into the manageable all the time, those of us who recoil from ambiguity and uncertainty – but watch out! Because the unknown might just be what we’ve turned it into, and something else, and a dozen other something elses, all at the same time, and poetry, the figure-ground perception sketch with words, is how we hold that.

When Schoenberg pointed out
the eraser on his pencil, he said, “This end
is more important than the other.”

The final stanza is something of a mash-up, bringing in John Cage, another ModPo poet. We may turn the unknown into something manageable, but Cage, Schoenberg, and Lim remind us to keep our erasers handy, because it might also be something else at the same time, and Watch Yourself! or you could miss all the worlds the something else implies. Maybe we can get away from seeing erasure as obliteration of an error, and see it as another doorway, an alternative.

One of my favorite quotes, from Charles DuBos: “The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become. ” Maybe something like this applies to our take on the world – but certainly, to our take on poetry, on art. A drawing of a cat can be banal. Or it can be a pretty cool example of what one can do with an eraser. One of my least favorite aphorisms is “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never know when you get there.” But that assumes there is benefit in getting there, instead of getting somewhere else. If you barrel your way determinedly from London to Rome, you’ll miss what’s just outside your window, which could be… Paris. And you’ll never even glimpse Vienna.

What fascinates about the last stanza – one of the things that fascinates me – is that this is only part of the quote, from Cage’s Lectures and Writings: 50th Anniversary Edition published in 2011; the next sentence is: “After twenty years I learned to write directly in ink.” But that’s not part of the poem – perhaps because it’s exactly the opposite of the poem’s mood, how growth happens: we start out writing in ink, giving the right answers, knowing everything, and if we’re lucky, we run into Emily, and dwell, with our erasers, in possibility. And in stating that, it sounds so definite, as if I know. As if it’s written in… ink…. Uh-oh. Emily, hand me a pencil, please.