Goodnight, Pushcart

"Funny games Pushcart race in England" (Ullstein Bild,1930)

“Funny games Pushcart race in England” (Ullstein Bild,1930)

Every time I come to the end of one of these reading projects that stretches over time – Pushcart, BASS, Dante, whatever – I find myself slowing down, postponing the inevitable. I’m not someone who does well with change; I’m more comfortable with patterns, and shifting from one project to another has always been difficult. So I’ve let this blog sit far too long without officially closing the cover on Pushcart XXXIX. But I find a wrap-up to be useful in itself; it gives me a chance to reflect on what happened, from slightly outside the experience.

One of the best things about Pushcart is that it stretches my comfort zone.

I’m still a little afraid of poetry, and forcing myself to encounter dozens of poems in various styles allows me to figure out an approach to each – an approach that may differ. Poetry, art, isn’t constructed on an assembly line, so each aesthetic experience is unique. I also don’t have much opportunity to encounter contemporary poetry outside of Pushcart. While I might run into a reference about Wordsworth, Sandburg, Keats, in the course of reading anything, it’s less likely my daily travels through words will mention Ocean Vuong or Rachel Zucker.

Through this volume I encountered poetry that used language differently. Susan Stewart gave me a new way of looking at trees, and at words, in “Pine”. I have no idea if I found what Mary Szybist intended me to find in “Too Many Pigeons To Count And One Dove“, but what I found impressed me. And while my first reaction to Rachel Zucker’s “Mindful” was – as I said at the time – “no way,” I soon recognized my own reality there, reminding me how important it is to keep an open mind, to notice but not be constrained by first impressions.

This experience of exceeding my own self-imposed limitations isn’t just part of the poetry I read. I grew impatient with Lincoln Michel’s “If It Were Anyone Else” and was ready to dismiss it as some kind of postmodern fiddle-faddle, but a second look, a willingness to trust the words on the page, generated a second-look experience I wouldn’t have missed for anything. Three times, I thought I knew where “Animals” by Michael Kardos was going, and three times I ended up somewhere else.

Because of the breadth of the volume – stories, poems, non-fiction – as well as the number of pieces, I’m going to forego any attempt at “favorites.” As I look back over the posts I’ve made in the past nine months (yes, this project stretched out longer than I’d expected), I realized I couldn’t really remember one piece I’d enthused about; I wonder what that means. Was it fast food – or did it strike so deep, I’ve repressed it? As usual, the few pieces that didn’t really mean anything to me are more memorable, but a “not-favorites” list seems rather negative. And that they are more memorable may mean I have more growing to do before I’m ready for them.

Though it’s hard to put one thing aside and move on, it’s time. Good night, Pushcart XXXIX, I won’t forget you just because you’re on my bookshelf along with your siblings, and we’ll spend more time together.

Pushcart 2015: Alan Rossi, “Unmoving Like a Mighty River Stilled” from Missouri Review, #36.3

"Icarus": sculpture by Russell Whiting

“Icarus”: sculpture by Russell Whiting

Blake’s SUV wound along the highway, and in the distance the Sierra rose gray and snow-specked against the horizon. Blake was driving, rarely watching the road, and talking about the new helmet camera he had bought. Kieran sat in the backseat and watched the back of Blake’s long, ponytailed red hair, wondering if Blake noticed how often he was correcting for left of center, while Blake continued talking about the helmet cam, his head bobbing while he spoke. Kieran occasionally glanced at the back of Ian’s head, shotgun, a clean-shaved-bald head, to see how he was responding to Blake, if he was as annoyed as Kieran. He didn’t think Ian was. Blake was going to use the helmet cam on the climb up the Dome, he was saying, correcting left of center, and then hop into a canyon right behind Kieran with the helmet cam on to record the entire thing, POV. Ian could take the pics, but Blake wanted to hear the fear, is how he put it.
All you’re going to hear is a lot of wind, Ian said. But you go ahead, little buddy. Watch the road.

While I had enormous empathy for the main character Kieran and found his existential dilemma both familiar and intriguing, this story was by far the hardest for me to read in this anthology. I don’t think it was the long – sometimes multi-page long – paragraphs, or the contemporary eschewal of quotation marks or the unfamiliar situation of three extreme sportsmen out for a climb, or a fly, or whatever the hell it is they’re out for. I just found it extremely hard to connect my understanding of Kieran’s dis-ease, as he puts it, with the story. I wonder, as I often do when I struggle with a piece, if that’s the point.

He seems like someone I’d enjoy knowing. His friends seem like frat boys I’d avoid. I have a hard time understanding if he used to be more like them, or if they’ve become more like themselves, or if I’m just an old fart who has no patience with this show-off he-man thing. Hey, I watch American Ninja Warrior, and watched the original Ninja Warriors when it was available, so I can’t have that hard a time with show-off he-men.

And yet, I struggled to read this piece. I’m still pretty sure I missed most of it.

One of the main reasons for self pitying: he worked as a Client Relations Manager for an insurance claims unit. He could not see himself as an Insurance Claims District Manager. Yet he was one, chatting and approving or disapproving claims and making small talk, the whole time watching himself, sickened by it, doing this chatting and small-talking. His voicemail had become a point of great disturbance and dis-ease in his life. He often thought “dis-ease” and then “disease” and then “dis-ease.” Titties, titties,titties, Blake was going.

It’s passages like that, that make me think I’ve missed something great. Maybe someday I’ll go back for it. Because this recognition that something is basically wrong with the way one is living one’s life, this analytical approach to a state that is all jumbled emotion, this being stuck with the moronic Blake and wondering how to get free, or if it’s possible to get free, that’s something that interests me.

Pushcart 2015: Marilyn Hacker, “Ghazal” (poem) from Little Star, #5

Across the river, in the orchard on the hill, a woman
said, sometimes a handful of red earth can fulfill a woman.

I’d never heard of the ghazal before: a poetic form indigenous to Middle Eastern and Indian literature, featuring a theme of love and separation – unrequited or absent love, separation, longing – and using a structure of couplets which end with the same word throughout the poem. The focus here is obviously on a woman: the speaker? The poet?

It’s a highly evocative poem (you can find it on tumbler), but it’s unclear to me exactly what in particular is being expressed. Because I know about the unrequited love theme, because I know a little bit about Hacker’s world view and see the poem’s connection to Arabic poetry, language, and stories (the “red earth” imagery appears in A Thousand and One Nights), I sense an emotional reaction to the political, the loss one of place and identity – or, given the turn to imagery with more violent content at the middle, perhaps a loss of a way of life, of safety.

Another feature of the ghazal is the maqta: the last couplet includes the author’s name, “often in very creative ways.” Fittingly, the word hakawati is the Arabic word for “storyteller.”

The hakawati with grey hair and no breasts
writing words and crossing them out is still a woman.

I’d say using the word self-referentially as a name is pretty creative.

Pushcart 2015: Patricia Lockwood, “Rape Joke” (poem) from The Awl, July 2013

The rape joke is that you were 19 years old.
The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend.
The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee.
Imagine the rape joke looking in the mirror, perfectly reflecting back itself, and grooming itself to look more like a rape joke. “Ahhhh,” it thinks. “Yes. A goatee.”
No offense.

I remember when this was first published online at The Awl. I have a very small, tightly curated Twitter feed (I’m one of those people who actually reads every tweet) yet dozens of links showed up on the first day, dozens more on the second. I resisted – I really don’t need to read a piece complaining about rape jokes, any more than I need to read a post opposing murder, racism, or kicking puppies – but eventually I read the poem. It was a surprise, because it accomplished more than I’d thought it could.

By now I’m sure everyone with an internet connection has read it. Maybe you’ve heard about the ensuing controversy: the New Yorker review of the collection in which it appears, taking a rather dismissive tone towards anything that might work on Twitter. The kickback on The Toast. The writer who felt censored when his essay was removed from HTMLGiant. The story on The Wire about the real-life rape joke, the guy convicted of attempted rape on the day this poem was published, who explained his actions: “My prank was supposed to be to scare her by grabbing her from behind and taking her down to the ground….her eyes made me think that she had a good sense of humor and she was a good person to play the prank on.” Ha. Ha.

That’s pretty much why rape jokes aren’t funny, why the rape joke is itself a rape. It’s a way of dismissing in word what can’t be abused in act.

Lockwood’s poem made it more concrete by turning the rape joke into a character and occasionally conflating it with the victim via self-referential text that can’t decide if it’s prose or poem, changes POV and voice every once in a while, and is as confused as a 19-year-old who’s raped and told it wasn’t really rape because she was drunk. Or as any woman told she had it coming because she wore a tight skirt, or was out late at night, or she went on a date, because it’s more convenient for the attacker, our preconceptions and prejudices, and sometimes the entire community, that way. The poem reflects the absurdity of that.

Lockwood has a sense of humor that’s as serious as a heart attack. “There’s something inherently funny about being suddenly pretty well-known for writing a poem called ‘Rape Joke,'” she says. “If I had known that that was going to happen, I would have put it in the poem as the punchline.” I think she still should. Claudia Rankine updated the list of names in Citizen with the second printing. Lyn Hejinian updated “My Life” to include more of her life. Art, life and death continue beyond publication dates. So does rape.

Pushcart 2015: Aisha Gawad, “Waking Luna” from Kenyon Review, #35.2

Art by Huda Lufti: "Femme Gaultier and Egyptian Pop"

Art by Huda Lufti: “Femme Gaultier and Egyptian Pop”

My cousin Luna sleeps on a Super 8 motel bed in Jersey City, in a room that overlooks the Holland Tunnel toll plaza, next to a Home Depot that makes me sad because I can’t imagine anyone in this place having a home for which they might ever need a hammer or some drywall or satin-finish paint. But there it sits, massively waiting, just in case. New York is just eight dollars and ten minutes away.

When we were eight and first learning how to pray, we used to think the world would pause for us until we had finished. We would slip our little white prayer scarves over our heads, kneel and bend and kneel and bend, turn our heads and say peace be upon you and the Mercy of Allah to the right and then to the left, and when we stood up, yanking the scarves off, we were always shocked to find out that we had missed the first ten minutes of Ducktales.

Two cousins, a rescuer and rescuee. Luna is a pole dancer with bad habits chemical and personal, and Amira shows up to get her out of whatever jams she gets herself into. It’s so much an “I love the black sheep of my family” story, yet it’s set in a cultural background that adds depth to the double portrait.

I very much like two of the scenes from this story. One is above, and I can see these two little girls with their own eight-year-old visions of how the world works, and their surprise at learning they were wrong. They have learned many similar lessons since then. The description of the Ramadan fast – who cheats, and who doesn’t – also stood out. It’s a scene KR editor David Lynn mentions specifically in his “Why We Chose It” column. He reads a great deal about the immigrant experience into the story. While I loved the way the specific cultural background played into the story, I instead found myself focused on a more universal element: the tie between some family members that can’t be broken – even when it is:

I remember when I still felt like there was a bungee cord running from my lungs, dragging along the streets of Brooklyn and up into her mouth, no matter where she was, every breath connected, my inhale dependent on her exhale. I don’t remember when it snapped.

My favorite stories give me a sense of what I keep calling “projection into the future” – a sort of sequel that plays in my mind after I’ve read the last sentence. I can imagine several futures for Amira and Luna. Perhaps Luna gets tired of calling for help. Or perhaps she learns from her mistakes, and no longer needs to call for help. The one possibility that I don’t see, is that Luna calls, and Amira doesn’t answer. I’ll admit, that may be wishful thinking on my part.

In her KR contributor conversation, Gawad points out these two characters are from a novel-in-progress; it’s a scene, she says, that “never makes it into the storyline of the novel but yet still informs it emotionally.” Sounds like an interesting novel.

A few months with Dante: vines, hyperspheres, and forgiveness

Domenico di Michelino, “La Divina Commedia di Dante” (1465)

Six months, 1600+ pages of translation/commentary, approximately 60 hours of video lectures later, I can say I’ve read Dante’s Commedia. It’s something I’ve always wanted to read, given its importance in so much Western literature, but I’ve always been intimidated. An unusual concatenation of disparate events finally got me going. You never know when a project’s going to crop up. But one of my life truths is: never question a healthy impulse.

One of those events was the announcement of a series of three Georgetown MOOCs covering the Commedia as well as La Vita Nuova. Since I described my experience of the Inferno course earlier, I’ll skip over most of that. I will say that I may be the only person who found Inferno to be the least interesting of the three Divine Comedy canticles. Granted, part of that may have been because I was distracted by the material in the MOOC, which I found more oppressive than educational. For “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso”, I focused on the Hollander translations and commentary, along with the Yale Open Course lectures by Giuseppe Mazzotta. I still used the Georgetown material, but to a far lesser degree, and more as a supplement than a focus. And I do love how they incorporated art into the text. For me, it worked much better this way.

I was surprised at how attached I became to Virgil along the way. I was never crazy about Aeneas’ dismissive treatment of Dido when he decided to move on to fortune and glory, and that alone colored my impression of the entire Aeneid. I was downright resentful of what I referred to (to the amusement of some of my fellow students) as Dante’s cultural bias – come on, Brutus and Cassius as Judas’ compatriots in the mouth of Satan? Seriously? – particularly his depiction of Ulysses as one of the most execrable sinners, a transgressor of boundaries, as theologically sound as that might be in the context of the poem, while Aeneas was a hero. But Virgil grew on me. His understated departure from the poem, again a structural and thematic necessity, was devastating, and I was surprised to find myself in tears. I did not react well to Beatrice’s abrupt and harsh treatment of Dante at that point, and apparently I’m not alone: Prof. Mazzotta mentioned one of Jorge Luis Borges’ Nine Dantesque Essays complains about that exactly. I was doubly displeased when Georgetown focused on the importance of the transfer and the meaning. No one wants to let anyone mourn any more. Well, I mourned for Virgil. And I still think he got a raw deal, being sent like an errand boy to guide Dante around, only to be dismissed without any acknowledgement, locked out of the heaven to which he guided others. On the plus side, his home in Limbo among the Virtuous Heathen, surrounded by Plato and Aristotle and Homer, struck me as a better place for him than the Paradise where there’s nothing left to say.

I should reiterate – although it’s probably evident by now – that while I was intensely religious in my tweens and early teens, and have always been interested in the study of religion through history, sociology, and philosophy, I’m more of a secular humanist than a theist. Fact is, I don’t have any beliefs rigid enough to label, though I see possibilities everywhere. But those more heathen than I have found much to enjoy in Dante. Obviously, I’m not going to “review” the poem – that would be ridiculous, given my lack of background in the dozens of areas necessary to fully explore all that’s there – but I will recount some of my experience, which is all I do here anyway.

I’ll start with where the primary impetus to read at this point in time this started: with the hypersphere.


Another of the events that sent me down this path was, of all things, a math MOOC from last summer. Not only did one of my favorite fellow students use the name “Purgatorio,” but it turned out the instructor was, among other things, a Dante fan, and had given a lecture in another venue which referenced Dante’s view of the universe in Paradiso as a hypersphere (the pertinent part of the lecture begins at about the 14 minute mark, but the whole thing is worth watching). I read Dante almost heading towards that scene in my head. I still don’t know enough about hyperspheres to really “get” it, though I found an animation featuring a kind of “flipping of pages” which makes sense in this context. I have no way of knowing how accurate that is, but any representation of a hypersphere is going to be approximate.

But two things really grabbed me about the scene: first, Beatrice’s explanation, in medieval Italian which, of course, I don’t read – “Da quel punto depende il cielo e tutta la natura” – that gets translated into “From that point depend the heavens and all nature.” That ties in with the four-dimensional hypersphere, as I understand it: there’s a point at which, in three dimensions, everything turns inside out on itself. That’s the point where the pages are flipping in that animation, the point in the lecture at the 19:30 mark) where we “flip past an equator” to discover concentricity around a different pole. And, as I tend to do, I get carried away, and my mind went straight to William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow, a humbler point from which, all the same, so much depends. And if I haven’t blasphemed poetics enough, let me add that the drunken angels of Canto 30 brought to mind Emily and her liquor never brewed, leaning against the sun.

And finally, to cap off this hypersphere obsession, I discovered something wonderful in the Yale OCW lecture by Giuseppe Mazzotta (about the 41:00 mark): a little rebus in which the words “When” and ” cross at the word “hemisphere”, describing, as he puts it, the universe as two hemispheres (the caveat being that the poem did not drop nicely typeset from the sky). He’s referring more to creation, but there’s also this hypersphere Dante experiences when he turns and sees the point and what is ahead is suddenly behind and inside out.

So lest it seem like some of us are going off into an unrelated hyperspace on this hypersphere notion, none less than Robert Hollander also provides a modern structural reference to Canto 27, line 109 – though he includes a caveat to “temper an enthusiasm for such “premodern physics” on Dante’s part” with consideration of Bonaventure’s Itinerarium mentis, V, something else it seems I need to read. Every time I read something, I find something else I need to read…

Forgiveness and “cheap grace”

Purgatory showed the sweat behind seeking forgiveness. I think we’ve lost this idea in society, if we ever truly held it. We look for, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, cheap grace. We want to drink our little wine and eat our little cracker and feel cleansed without ever thinking about what might need cleansing. We want to take down a single flag and declare the whole 450 years of racism even. We want to cry on tv and earn the compassion of everyone who’s ever made a mistake. What we don’t want to do is change. Reading Purgatorio, seeing the souls carrying out their penance in a spirit of eagerness rather than resentfulness (this is fiction, after all), was a good reminder: Absolution should cost something, involve work.

I had a harder time with the idea of giving forgiveness. The example in the canto was of the martyr Stephen forgiving his murderers even as they stoned him. I think the point was not that they no longer were guilty of their crime, but that he was relieved of a burden of hate and rage. But I wonder: is such forgiveness possible in real life? Shortly after I read that section, some of the families of nine people murdered in Charleston, SC proclaimed their forgiveness for the racist shooter. A lot of thoughtful people I respect had a great deal of trouble with that; it seems another burden placed on one already burdened community that isn’t expected from others. But the point is: we need to forgive for our own sake, not for the sake of those who wrong us. And, I believe, one can forgive, and still seek justice, because those are two separate things.

But if I was a bit shaky on forgiveness, I found I could far more readily understand faith, though probably not in the way Dante intended.

The Faith of a Vine

Three cantos in Paradiso are devoted to Dante’s oral exams prior to his graduation to the Empyrean. Really, they’re overtly based on the medieval process for obtaining academic degrees, which, as I understand it (having never gone through the process) persists to this day in the oral exams and dissertation defenses of even the most secular academic institutions: a process of close questioning by faculty who just keep digging until they’re convinced the candidate isn’t just repeating words but understands the meaning of his profession. In the case of Paradiso, these oral exams are on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, given by saints most associated with those qualities: Peter, James, and John, respectively.

While Peter questioned the protagonist Dante (as distinct from the poet Dante) about faith, I discovered faith in a different way. It’s my habit to do my reading at a back window of my apartment, where there’s a broad sill to use as a standing desk, in part so I can work out the kinks from hunching over a computer for hours. The view from the window is less than inspiring – a parking garage – but I usually find something of interest out there anyway: the tree that aligns with my window, squirrels or birds in that tree or on a railing or even, rarely, on the outside ledge of my window. Maybe just the contrast of sky and brick as I look out at the buildings in the distance. It may not be the view I’d choose, but it’s the view I have, so I do what I can with it.

As I read Dante’s defense of his thesis on faith in P.Canto [23], I noticed something new in my view: a vine poking its way a few inches up the window, sticking off into empty space as it left the bricks that anchored it to the wall. I don’t typically see the back side of my building, but when I looked later, it does appear that I am now the closest I will ever get to the Ivy Leagues: vines cover part of the back wall. And one vine, on some mission to spread, was growing out into nothing. Eventually, it grew long enough to sag under its own weight and found the bricks at the bottom of the window sash.

That’s faith. It doesn’t know if it will find anything, but it grows because it must grow, and faith has to be at the core of that growth; otherwise it would stay in the safety of the known. Faith is coded into the DNA of this vine, so that it reaches out, for something it can cling to. This has been a particularly bleak time for many of us, as we watch bluster preferred over wisdom, greed over cooperation, anger and fear over everything. But we have to keep growing, in the faith that there’s something worth growing towards.

I highly value Dante’s exquisitely constructed defense of faith, and the learned lectures of the professors from Georgetown and Yale on the theology and poetics, and feel nothing but admiration and respect for more contemporary artists who fold Dante into their work. But that vine growing on a brick wall behind a parking lot made faith more real to me.

For a heathen, I got a lot out of this reading, but of course, it’s the kind of massive work that requires multiple re-readings. I want to let things settle a little, maybe pick up a little more background in some of the key references. But I definitely plan to read it again, using a different translation/commentary as a primary guide. I’m interested to see what reads differently in another time. And what reads the same.

Pushcart 2015: Fady Joudah, “Mimesis” (poem) from Alight (Copper Canyon Press)

My daughter
                     wouldn’t hurt a spider
That had nested
Between her bicycle handles

I hesitate to quote even that much of this poem, first because it’s so short (13 lines, less than 60 words), and second, because it turns so perfectly on such an honest, unexpected, heart-stopping point, that to cut it up is to do it disservice. Fortunately, it’s available online (thank you, Poetry Foundation).

We’ve become inured to suffering. We’ve even got a term for it: compassion fatigue. We rush past the appeals for help on our way to writing blog posts, finishing online courses, getting to work on time, making dinner. And then one poem makes the suffering of millions very personal, very real, and one little girl shows wisdom that would benefit us all.

The poem is from Joudah’s collection Alight. In a Kenyon Review interview with David Baker, Joudah mentions the poem is in the second half of the collection, where he focuses his attention on “the life of family and parenthood as it relates to the mind in the world.” That’s it exactly: this sweet domestic scene, father and daughter, becomes an emphatic reminder that the world is not the way it is by accident. Refugees don’t just happen. They are created by policy, policy instituted by people.

“Mimesis” is often defined as imitation, the process whereby art imitates life. Plato objected to mimesis, as being inaccurate, prone to misuse, and potentially harmful to the psyche. Aristotle thought otherwise, seeing it as the most natural process by which we learn all things, and as emotionally cathartic. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle, as even the best things can be used to harm, and the humblest to heal.

I’m still reeling from this poem. I think I’ve written too much already. I think I’ll let it stand at this, and we can listen to the echoes of that last line:

isn’t it?

Pushcart 2015: Bennett Sims, “Fables” from Conjunctions, #61

Art by James Jean

Art by James Jean

The boy begs his mother to buy him a balloon. As they leave the grocery store and cross the parking lot, he holds the balloon by a string in his hand. It is round and red, and it bobs a few feet bove him. Suddenly his mother looks down and orders him not to release the balloon. Her voice is stern. She says that if he loses it, she will not buy him another. The boy tightens his grip on the string. He had no intention of releasing the balloon. But the mother’s prohibition disquiets him, for it seems to be addressed at a specific desire. Her voice implies that she has seen inside him: that deep down – in a place hidden from himself, yet visible to her – he really does want to release the balloon.

I’m not always sure what Bennett Sims is doing, but I always enjoy trying to figure it out. I’ve encountered him twice before, once in a Tin House short story and once in his fascinating philosophical zombie novel A Questionable Shape.

Here, he’s presented a group of five short fables (an audio recording of him reading four of them is available online, thank you, Conjunctions) describing a boy’s discovery of various aspects of the human psyche through contacts with animals and inanimate objects. And inanimate animals.

I’m fond of checking the precise definitions of words whose meanings seem obvious, and my superficial trip into the internet in search of the meaning of “fable” shows why. For example, Rev. Gregory Carlson (no relation), Professor of Literature at Creighton University, distinguishes between parable and fable beyond the talking-animal feature of the latter: “Parables invite reconsideration of our values. Fables usually stop short of challenging our values. They lure us rather into playing our way into understanding; they invite us to expect that snakes will be snakes and foxes foxes; they urge us to be ourselves, to be savvy and perceptive.” I’m not sure it’s possible to see yourself in a mirror without smoothing your hair or adjusting your tie, but what if you don’t realize it is yourself you see, and think instead the fable applies to all those other people?

One distinction between classic fable and these stories is that the animals and inanimate objects that illustrate the morals of the stories are not the explainers of those morals. In all five of Sims’ stories, a generic character, “the boy,” is both the experiencer of the events, and the interpreter. The animals and things that he encounters do not interact with him; there is no anthropomorphization, and they are not subjects. The boy is the subject, and only through his assignment of motives, patterns, and overall truths to the objects in each story does a moral emerge. In that, perhaps it’s more of a psychological study of a boy, who is, of course, created by a writer, serving as a sample of humankind.

Sims has already performed a self-analysis on these stories, particularly the first one, in an interview with Amy Scharmann of Subtropics, so I feel a little silly writing about what I saw in the pieces. However, I still think meaning is a cooperative act between writer and reader, so I’ll offer a few thoughts, held before I found out what the fables really meant.

I felt a strong connection between the balloon story and Eden, the fall, hamartiology, and theodicy, with the mother as God and the balloon as the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It’s not an exact fit, but close enough. Does sin – or evil, if you prefer – exist in a vacuum, or does something need to precipitate it? Does the existence of good itself force evil into existence as a negation of good? Or are we born just aching to sin, to let go of the balloon, just for the power of it? And of course there’s the whole “why did God put the Tree in Eden anyway, only to forbid it?” Having just read through Dante, I’m familiar with the approach used to explain this, but the question remains: was Creation a rigged game from the start?

Sims’ second story spoke to me of power and the desire to control, to manipulate. The boy wants the crow to caw, not because the caw is a beautiful thing to hear, but simply because he wants that damn crow to do his bidding:

The crow is unfazed. It retracts its head on its neck slightly but it doesn’t caw, and it is careful neither to open nor close its beak. It really is as if there is something in its mouth, something that it is determined not to drop. But its mouth is empty, and so the boy imagines that it is this very emptiness that it is bringing back to its nest, that it is building a nest of absences, gaps. The way it jealously hoards this absence between its mandibles, like a marble. Its beak must be broken, the boy decides, broken open. Or else, no: The bird is simply stubborn. It could caw if it wanted to. It is resisting only to spite him.

For a while, I wondered if the boy was a psychopath, but no: don’t we all have it in us to be jealous of nothing, simply because someone else has it? Poverty is the ultimate equal opportunity gig, and there are many who seem to be jealous of how easy life is for the poor. Can we covet another’s lack? Or is it simply an excuse for exerting power over the powerless, because it feels good?

A dead chipmunk leads to a take on Appointment in Samarra, the connection made crystal clear by the last line. Yet there’s something else going on here, a matter of perception, of projection. A dog enclosed by an invisible fence likewise poses a threat that must be countered. I’ve often marvelled at the invisible fences we all obey: domesticated animals that don’t tear us to pieces but instead purr on our laps and walk beside us on leashes, for example. But human behavior as well. Civilization itself might be defined as the near-universal obedience to invisible fences; having just re-read Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents for a mooc, I recognize the cost of this obedience, but also of the absolute necessity for it, as preferable to Hobbes’ “nasty, brutish, short” natural life. And yet, we sometimes flirt with our invisible fences. I fear that’s happening right now in politics, and I have a rather pessimistic view of the outcome – much as the melting ice cube is purported to have in the final story. Doom is the inevitable end of life, but do we have to chase it so gleefully?

I think there’s a larger theme at work here, something covering all five stories: a kind of projection of will, of malicious intent, onto others, be they the mother who forces the situation with the balloon, the stubborn crow, the frightened chipmunk and the obedient dog who are only seconds away from violence, or the melting ice cube rushing to meet its death. The preemptive strike is necessary. Kill or be killed. The law of tooth and claw. Not out of necessity – there is no reason for the greed, we have enough for all – but out of some primitive instinct poking its way through our neocortex. And all the malevolence takes place between the ears of a child.

That is the paradox the ice has been presented with: this light at its core, the light that is killing it, is what enables it to escape. It has to glide along a film of its own dying. The faster that it moves, the more of itself that it melts, and so it is alive with its own limit, animated by this horizon inscribed in its being. There is a lesson to be learned in this, the boy thinks.

Maybe we’ll learn that lesson just in time. If not: melting ice is the perfect fade.

Pushcart 2015: Michael Dickman, “John Clare” (poem) from Brick, #92

Now I remember
I wanted to talk to you
between your Selected Poems
and the punk rock music
playing on the radio
Between the blue irises and the Mexican lawn service
The skaters and the dragonflies
Do you know what it’s like here
Scared beneath trees
the light on the one rose
is the one light
The sun keeps going

At first, I thought this poem (available online, thank you, Brick) was the voice of a parent speaking to a beloved child, lost. That’s because I’d never heard of 19th century English romantic poet John Clare (poetry is like math: the more things I find out about that I never heard of, the more I find there is to find out beyond that). In his interview with Andy Kuhn for the Katonah Poetry Festival, Dickman says: “….[M]y most recent influence is John Clare. A Mud-Man Punk Rocker from the 1800’s. All I want to do these days is write a poem about a bird’s nest, all because of him.” So it’s perhaps more of an homage, a child speaking to a beloved long-lost parent.

I went looking for John Clare. I found some interesting biographical material – poor boy makes good, but ends up in an asylum anyway – and a couple of poems that made a special impact on me. Heartbreaking poems, considering the context: “I Am”, written during his second stint in the asylum: “I am – yet what I am none cares or knows;…I am the self-consumer of my woes….I long for scenes where man has never trod / a place where woman never smiled or wept / and there to abide with my Creator God / and sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept.…” Now there’s a poem about a beloved child, lost.

The other Clare poem that stood out to me, particularly in reference to Dickman’s poem, is “The Nightingale’s Nest.” It was written earlier in Clare’s career, and is more of a narrative about his adventures as a boy hunting for birds’ nests – and then leaving them undisturbed to flourish in nature as they were meant to do: “Deep adown, / The nest is made a hermit’s mossy cell…./ So here we’ll leave them, still unknown to wrong, / As the old woodland’s legacy of song.”

This, then, is the overriding Clare theme that Dickman has chosen to illustrate: the collision, illustrated so clearly in the opening lines, of the rural and the urban, the natural and manmade, the idyllic past and the unknown, complex future. That intensifies the poignant, mournful quality I’d misinterpreted:

Flowers call you on the telephone
and the rain passes you notes
none of us will ever read
now I remember every line
a pine needle
falling at your feet

Nature itself connects the living to the dead, the past to the present. Whitman’s shared atoms, our concerns and joys still the same after millenia of kingdoms rising and falling: beyond inspiration, there’s a direct communication here that I find very beautiful.

In the end, it’s a love poem:

I wanted to show you

What could be more loving?

Pushcart 2015: Amaud Jamaul Johnson, “Pigmeat” (poem) from Darktown Follies

Come: these hands, this beat, the broad
Hiccup, a smile. Here, when all the heat
Has been washed & wrung clean from the body
When the men begin to open their leather cases
& hold their monocles a little closer to my heart
& the parable of the homegrown &
The parable of the artificial Negro
Will be told.

And here’s another poem that benefits greatly from a little context. Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham started out in black vaudeville shows and by the middle of the twentieth century, started performing in burlesque with the likes of Milton Berle and Eddie Cantor – in blackface. A complicated story, a complicated history, a complicated man.

These complications show up in the poem. The “Artificial Negro” plays on the Flannery O’Connor story with a blunter name there’s no need to spell out here. O’Connor’s artificial Negro is a Christ figure in the form of a lawn jockey who offers reconnection and salvation to a grandfather and his grandson, two lost souls accidentally touring hell. But Johnson’s Pigmeat as the Artificial Negro is more of the Creator Created by the Creation: a black man in blackface? What to make of that? What to make, in the first place, of the minstrel shows that appropriated black culture in order to mock it? Johnson’s collection, Darktown Follies, is patterned after these minstrel shows, as he explains in an excellent Next Big Thing entry, where he writes: “I wrote this book because I wanted to create a framework for those hesitations regarding race and power…. I hope my readers feel a little off-balance.” This one did.

And what to make of a poem that uses Markham’s linguistic patterning, a fluency that has become the hallmark of rap and hip hop…

Here, come Hell or high-water; Hell
Or some falter. All the ease in legalese,
Here comes my tautology –
A blackness of a blackness of a blackness.
My monochromatic rainbow,…

…to mock back?

Pigmeat Markham performed what could be considered the first rap song. His “Here Comes the Judge,” initially a comedy routine in his act, became a standard bit on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In which led to the release of a single (as well as an imitation), and to a gig for Markham on the series (if you’ve never heard of Laugh-In, well, that’s what Google is for). Who created whom?

What’s amazing is how that goofy phrase, so familiar to those of us who grew up with it as a joke, turns ominous at the end of the poem. The Artificial Negro, like Christ, is a figure of salvation, but also of a day of judgment and reckoning. Poetry, at its best, finds all the nuances in words and phrases we thought we knew, stands them on their heads, and knocks us flat with implications. Here comes the judge. I sure hope so, because the list of those whose blood cries out for justice gets longer every day.

Pushcart 2015: Yannick Murphy, “By the Time You Read This” from Conjunctions, #60

“Dear Paul, by the time you read this, I will be dead If you don’t stop seeing that other woman, I will come back to haunt you. I will be the face in the mirror when you shave. I will be the wind you hear at night I will be the creak in the stairs and the loud shudder of the settling roof beams that wakes us up from our sleep. “

I’m afraid I don’t have much to say about this story. It’s pretty much all contained in that opening paragraph: a suicide note by a woman enraged that her husband is cheating on her. It’s funny. It’s very funny in places, as the woman writes to her family, the UPS man, her high school English teacher (giving rise to occasional questions about grammar and diction throughout the piece – lie/lay becomes a recurrent theme). In places, it’s wonderfully poignant and revealing of the trapped, helpless feeling that can lead to suicidal thoughts:

“Dear Chloe: I hope you never understand why your mother did this. If you ever find yourself close to understanding I want you to call and get help right away. Please promise me that. There are plenty of numbers to call in case of emergency on the fridge. (You might even consider calling Irving Propane; their staff has always been helpful and ready to come out to the house at a moment’s notice if we think we hear even the slightest hissing sound of gas leaking from our lines.)”

But in places, I’d call it… overshooting poignant and landing on silly. I kept wondering when I’d hit the “aha” moment, when I’d see something beyond Sheila Levine (yes, Sheila hasn’t aged well, since the desperation to get married is almost incomprehensible now, but it was my first suicide-note-as-narrative reading) but I never found it. I hope other readers are more astute. There must be a reason this piece, as opposed to dozens of humor pieces that must’ve landed in the Pushcart inbox, was chosen. Or, for that matter, in Conjunctions – now the most Pushcart-awarded literary magazine around – in the first place.

Maybe, some time from now, I’ll run into something – a comment on a blog, another story that brings me back to this one – that will turn this into something special. In the meantime, it was a pleasant diversion. I do like humor.

Pushcart 2015: Jamaal May, “The Hum of Zug Island” (poem) from Kenyon Review, #35.3

In Windsor they blame it on machines
across the Detroit River. Residents can’t ignore
the low frequency hum taking the shape of a sea-
serpent on oscilloscopes. Beyond gray snow,
plastic bags, and crushed hypodermic needles,
I know Zug Island is humming—waiting
the way the organs in me are waiting….

And again, I had to find a way in to a poem. I could sense something there, waiting for me, but I didn’t know how to get to it. In this case, I used form, which led to the structure of the collection from which it came, which all brought me to the heart, where I was so overwhelmed and astonished, I didn’t know if I could ever organize my thoughts enough to write about it. I still don’t know if I can, but I’m going to try, by retracing my steps.

On first read (it’s available online for those who’d like to follow along, thank you, Kenyon Review) I just got machines – messy, dirty, unpleasant, scary – and some kind of pressure. Time. Waiting. Ignoring.

I didn’t realize I had it all, until I went looking for more. I started with form.

In his Conversation with KR, May described the poem as a sestina. I had no idea what that was (I’ve already admitted I’m poorly educated in poetics, which is what I’m doing here: learning from the best). Turns out, a sestina is a poem in six six-line stanzas with a three-line envoi, a sort of summary, at the end. But that isn’t all. Instead of rhyme, the poem is given unity by repetition: the same six words are used to end every line in a specific pattern, changing order with every stanza, until in the envoi, two words are used per line. It’s insane. How does anyone write like this? It’s so rigid and intricate – kind of like… a machine…

And yet, I can see for myself how effective it is. Three of the six words that form the structure of this poem are: machine, waiting, ignore: three of the words I “got” from reading, when I thought I didn’t get much. “Needle” is the fourth word, which may have contributed to the scary unpleasantness. “Snow” and “sea,” the final two structure words, are broad enough to go in any direction. They can be beautiful and freeing – or dirty, unpleasant, and scary.

Through reading another of May’s conversations, this one with Stacey Balkun of The Normal School, I learned of the generation of this poem, linked to the structure of the collection, Hum, in which it appears. Six of the other poems are about phobias: fear of needles, being ignored, machines, etc. May took those six words and, over time and with some rewrites, ended up with two sestinas that “act as a pair of subtle bookends that tie the phobia thread together and, by extension, the core tropes of the collection.” I love the way these poems use form: he includes a form I particularly love, the contrapuntal, titled “I Do Have a Seam” – three poems in one, a left side, a right side, and both sides together, making it the perfect form for that content (there’s a really nice digital short on his Youtube channel)

I needed to understand one more thing before I could make my way to the poem: what is Zug Island? Is it even a real thing? It certainly sounds like it in the poem, but where, what, is it, and why does he say it hums? Turns out, not only is Zug Island very real (it’s in Detroit), its hum is also very real, and a source of considerable irritation to those living nearby, particularly to those in the pleasant suburb of Windsor, Ontario, just across the river in Canada. The hum is probably coming from the US Steel plant.

We all want what our technology can produce: the steel, oil, minerals, electricity, paper. And we want the financial stability of industry. We want our machines. But not the pollution, the smells, the traffic. Or the hum. We even have an acronym for it: NIMBY, Not In My Back Yard. Give us the benefits, but hide the dirty, unpleasant, scary parts. Or put them in someone else’s back yard.

My jittery friends, I know waiting
is a hand closing slowly around needle
points, but we need the patience of a frozen sea.
Sometimes that quiets my machines,
the hum gets easier to ignore….

The hum I hear through this poem goes way beyond Zug Island, way beyond the scars we put on our landscape. This hum is the imbalance of wealth in America, which is nothing compared to the global imbalance of wealth. This hum is who’s doing those jobs you keep hearing about in political speeches, the jobs Americans don’t want, because they’re dangerous, poorly paid, unpleasant, physically exhausting, and how little they’re getting paid so we can eat the fruits of their labors. This hum is WalMart workers on food stamps. This hum is whose apartment gets turned into a condo and where they go then. This hum is whose kids get clean, well-maintained schools with highly trained and experienced teachers, and whose kids get nothing after some politician gets elected by cutting taxes. This hum is who’s protected by the police, and who’s abused and killed by them. This hum is the sound of the dream deferred from under the rug where we’ve swept it. This hum is about who decides to go to war, and who is sent onto the battlefield. This hum is which lives matter. This hum is reminding us: we will reap what we have sown, and it will be dirty, unpleasant, scary.

Then again, maybe that’s my hum, not the hum in the poem, and I’m forcing my hum onto the poem, because I can’t think of much else these days.

In the KR conversation I quoted earlier, May talks about his approach, which also incorporates the mechanistic aspects of the poem and the collection:

These poems are in greater danger of mono-dimensionality, which in a poem with sociopolitical concerns leads swiftly to didacticism. I find that an idea can be so good or important or jarring or socially relevant the poet can be less naturally inclined to find the other spokes that make the wheel turn. My mentor Vievee Francis always said a poem needs torque. I take this to mean a poem always needs a thing moving against another thing around a fulcrum, because without torque nothing moves. I’m kind of old-fashioned in that I want poems to move people.

I love that a 12th century form I’ve never heard of led me here. I took a circuitous path; that could be considered torque, no? A bit of patience and thought and research brought me beyond the surface and let me hear the hum, which may be the first step to figuring out what to do about it.

Pushcart 2015: Matthew Vollmer, “For Beds” (non-fiction) from New Orleans Review

Sea bed sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor

Sea bed sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor

Merciful God, we humbly thank Thee for setting the earth on its rotation around the sun, thus providing humanity with periods of light that permit us, as we go about our daily business, to recognize with relative clarity the things of the earth, and for the atmospheric changes and angles of the sun that allow us to sense the progression of time and thus acknowledge all manner of climatological differences. So too do we thank Thee for creating a period of darkness during which our eyes might find respite and our minds repose, and where we might also experience a reprieve from sense-making, most palpably experiencing, in our dream-states, the joys and terrors of embarking upon adventures much greater in scope than we would ever hope to undergo during our comparatively prudent daytime excursions. But most of all, oh LORD, we thank Thee for the beds upon which we sleep, and for which we too often take for granted, failing to remember the hay-or-leaf-stuffed animal skin mattresses of yore, or the goat-skin waterbeds of Persia, or the heaped palm-boughs of Egypt.

The last few pieces I’ve read have been pretty intense. I like intense, but even so, it was nice to read something a little lighter. And it is available online (thank you, New Orleans Review.

Just because it’s not as gut-wrenching as Alzheimer’s disease or disabled children, that doesn’t mean it’s not crafted. For those familiar with formal prayers there’s a recognizable progression: A universal opening acknowledging That From Which All Has Come, the focus on a specific item in that creation for which these particular thanks are offered and some elaboration of its value to the earthbound, a request for a blessing upon this cherished object, and a reminder to be vigilant in thankfulness.

We therefore ask a blessing upon these our beds, that they may not do us harm but fulfill their promise in providing us a place to safely slumber, that they might be rafts upon which we lie to escape the storms of life, and that furthermore, they may remain a place where children are forbidden to jump—if only so that children may discover the joys of benign transgressions…

And just because a piece isn’t gut-wrenching doesn’t mean it can’t provide a vehicle for contemplation. A bed is a wonderful thing, isn’t it. Just ask someone who sleeps on a sidewalk.

It’s a selection from A Book of Uncommon Prayer, an anthology, edited by Vollmer, updating the traditional prayer book with more modern concerns: “Post-Game-Day Blessing”, “For People Who Are Seeing Their New Rental For the First Time,” “For the Moth, But Also for the Spider.” I’m deeply fond of a quote from the trailer: “let us not forget what is shallow & what is deep eventually meet,” from Sasha Steensen’s “Poems for Lent”. It’s wonderfully autological: true, even profound, on a shallow level, at least if you squint, but if you think of it beyond the time we give our Hallmark Card profunditites, it’s of course ridiculous, since where shallow and deep meet, either a) shallow is no longer shallow, or b) deep is no longer deep, or c) both, so shallow and deep never meet… and all that still leaves the whole T-or-F of the mandatory coexistence of shallowness or depth (as well as Łukasiewicz’s many-valued logic needed to determine where shallow is no longer shallow etc etc), and it’s true again, since shallow and deep have met in those very lines.

… where was I? Oh, yeah, yammering about intense. Boy, I’m gonna hate this post in the morning…

Pushcart 2015: Oliver de la Paz, “Boy. Child Without Legs. Getting Off a Chair” (Poem) from American Poetry Review, #42.3

Photographed 1887, Eadweard Muybridge
The boy raises himself up by his arms
and follows a sequence of intentions.
Thrusts his hips out. In this action,
he is no longer a boy but a bell. The clapper,
the weight of his leg stumps. He rocks himself
and sets his body down on his haunches.
Then draws his arms slightly up and forward
again. Palms against the wooden studio floor. Perhaps
he feels the grit of sand between his fingers
or the lacquer blackening his nails. Regardless,
the intent to move is paramount because the line
between frames demands consecutive action.

In 1872, Leland Stanford – railroad tycoon, former Governor of California, racehorse rancher, and educational benefactor (yes, that Stanford) – had a pressing question: does a horse in full gallop lift all four feet off the ground at once? This notion of “unsupported transit” seems to have been something like the extraterrestrial life question of its time. Stanford asked photographer Eadweard Muybridge to photograph such a stride. In 1872, this wasn’t technically possible, but Muybridge persevered, and in 1877, he produced the photographic proof. He might have managed it sooner, had he not spent some time murdering his wife’s lover and standing trial for the crime (he was found not guilty, ostensibly due to the unpredictable behavioral and emotional effects of a serious head injury sustained many years before). The project had widespread effects in the scientific and artistic communities.

In 1884, Muybridge began a similar photographic study, titled “Animal Locomotion,” for the University of Pennsylvania. Using similar photographic techniques, he captured motions of various animals, including people, doing everything from descending a staircase (yes, that’s where Duchamp got his inspiration; I told you, wide-ranging effects) to pitching a baseball and fencing. From the local almshouse, Muybridge recruited some disabled people – like the boy with no legs.

The poem in Pushcart is structured in couplets, although the online version shows a single block. I’m not sure if that’s an upload artifact or if one or the other source was edited, with or without the poet’s request. When I see couplets, I think of a relationship between two people, but I have to wonder here if here instead the two lines are about two legs, legs the boy doesn’t seem to miss all that much since he’s pretty good at getting on and off that chair. Maybe the poet doesn’t mind the missing couplets just as much. Intent is part of the poem as well, and I realize I’ve been wondering about intent as regards formatting, just by coincidence of having found the poem on an online feeder site.

Intent is front and center throughout. The chair is the only thing that has no intent in the poem. The boy, the camera, the photographer, all are present, active. The chair is merely there, the thing to mount and dismount. I wonder if there’s some connection to poetry here, but I can’t see a poet referring to a poem as such a passive thing, merely providing a scaffold for the subject, the writer, the pen to act upon.

The motion Muybridge sought to study is front and center in the language of the poem: the boy raises, thrusts, rocks, demands, shears, peals, sails, wheels, contorts. And, in the glorious finale:

                  .The reel
clicks its repetitions. While the breath of the man
behind the camera syncopates with the boy’s own
swaying legs. In this frame, he is sitting still.
In this frame he flies.

And then I get it: intent, and motion. In college, I spent a semester comparing action/intent indices of portions of Beowulf to dissect motivation and emotion, authority and passivity. Motion without intent is coincidence, accident; intent without motion is impotence. Put them both together, and you get power: legs or not, you can fly.

But the chair, passive and still: the chair still has to be there.

Pushcart 2015: Nancy Geyer, “Black Plank” (non-fiction) from Georgia Review, #67.1

John McCracken: "Black Plank"

John McCracken: “Black Plank”

Every few minutes, my father pushes out of his armchair to take a tour of his house….
I appreciate my father’s inquiries, because while I was growing up his career—which took him around the world—came first. The interest he’s showing me now feels like a novelty. It’s utterly free of preoccupation. The thought crosses my mind that maybe this is how I’ll remember him: a single weekend will erase years of inattention. In any event, work is not what I’m doing. I’ve given up on trying to write in my father’s home, which is just outside of Washington, DC, where I live, and am tackling my e-mail instead. Among the recent acquisitions at the National Gallery of Art, I learn from the museum’s newsletter, is a 1967 piece titled Black Plank by John McCracken, a Minimalist artist with whom I’m only vaguely familiar. I mumble something to my father and he shuffles back to his cluttered study.

A story, be it fictional or true, can be told many ways. One of the reasons I love these “prize” anthologies is that they display different ways of telling stories. I don’t always like, or understand, how some authors choose to tell their story, but I love the kind of brilliance that goes into figuring out how to tell a particular story. And once in a while, I’m fascinated with how a story is told, AND I understand it, AND I enjoy it. Like this one. And for the icing on the cake – it’s available online (thank you, Georgia Review).

As with the fiction story “Trim Palace,” the heart of Geyer’s non-fiction piece is only revealed by a few casual sentences sprinkled from the first paragraph on. These hints combine perfectly with the surface story, an essay about art, to create a whole that is, I believe far more powerful than a direct telling would be.

If AIDS was the horror of youth, and breast cancer the phobia of female middle age, Alzheimer’s disease is the terror of the golden years. Every forgotten name, every misplacement of keys, leads to the consideration, “Is this it?” Though it’s almost a certainty heart disease will get me before my brain has time to form the enough plaques and tangles to matter, it’s still a constant fear: losing one’s memory, one’s life as lived, a little at a time, irrevocably.

Part of the reason for the additional power of the story is the removal of all sentiment and overt emotion. Instead, we look at art and other metaphors, leaving the emotional energy in the reader’s lap:

Black Plank. I come to a halt at these words as if I’ve been driving, not scrolling, and they are an obstacle in the road. Together they are inelegant, “unworkable in the literature of wonder or beauty,” in G. K. Chesterton’s formulation. They sound like the name of a disease—a mold that attacks the trunks of trees. They also evoke a human affliction: mind matter that’s thick and dark, or—because the words are a bit of a tongue twister—blank.

When I read the title of this piece, I did, indeed, misread it as “Blank Plank.” I had no idea what it meant. But set in the story here, for me the primary association was: walking the plank. A line from old cartoons, from pirate adventure stories, not from literature. Low culture, not fine art. Yet here it is: Geyer is watching her father walk the blank plank, and she is unable to do anything about it other than watch. And write.

This is poetry. Oh, it’s prose piece. But in the same way a plank of wood can be art if it’s handled correctly, so too can prose become poetry. I’ve quoted Wordsworth’s definition of poetry several times in these pages: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” In his lectures on Dante’s Commedia, particularly the “Paradiso” canto, Georgetown philosophy professor Frank D’Ambrosio takes it farther, sees a comparison between poetry and the Eucharist: “The force of Dante’s warning is, if up to this point you really haven’t committed yourself to the transformative miracle of poetry, then don’t bother with the rest.” This is the power of poetry: to change the meanings of words, to create something more than the single thought of a declarative sentence, to add subtext and overtones merely by using the right word, a word that, when viewed in another context, might not suggest all the things suggested in the poem. ” I dwell in Possibility – / A fairer House than Prose ” wrote my friend Emily Dickinson; poetry allows for more than is on the page.

That’s what this essay is. Not that it’s written as a prose poem; some portions are beautifully lyrical, but that isn’t the point. The point is that everything mentioned has multiple layers, such as her description of the meaning of the edifices of buildings and the steps of the Supreme Court, the implications of reality (prose) intruding on symbolism (poetry). It’s too long to quote here, but it’s worth reading (and did I mention the piece is available online?).

This is the closest Geyer gets to sentiment, yet she observes sentiment rather than writes it:

Hanging from a bookshelf in my father’s study is a whiteboard on which is written
B—in Congo
Nancy here till Friday noon

To the immediate left of the board is my college photo, and although it’s possible I’ve been in that position for years, I suspect that my father’s wife, just before she left for Africa on business, moved it there to reinforce the connection between my name and my face. To the right of the board is a medium-size mirror. The third part of this book-blocking triptych, the mirror haunts me, though I can’t figure out why. Eventually I decide that its placement serves a purpose as well: to reacquaint the inner and the outer selves.
Getting to any of the books on the shelves is difficult. Pictures hang from every edge. Framed newspaper articles that feature my dad. Photographs of him shaking hands with well-known people. Diplomas and letters and certificates of appreciation. This display looks for all the world like that of a man with an enormous ego. But there is no ego. My father had always hung a few mementos in his study, but the extravagance now is so that he might be reminded of what he had made of himself.

Another quality of poetry, particular modern poetry as I learned in my beloved Modpo, is the tendency for form to enhance meaning. As I read the words of the National Gallery of Art’s description of the “There is Nothing to See Here” exhibit in which Black Plank appeared – “Verging on invisibility or immateriality, these works can provoke, mystify, or even go unnoticed. The very difficulty of seeing them demands an extraordinary patience in viewing them” – words Geyer quotes in her essay, words that apply to the artwork, to the story, and to the subject, I’m convinced this story was told exactly the right way.

As for the “Black Plank” itself, the art work, I’ve always been ambivalent about highly conceptual art. It’s as if it’s a trick: is the object art, or is it something left there by mistake, perhaps by a worker who had too much to carry and will be returning for it later? That’s a standard cartoon of modern art, going with the trope, “But is it art?” Personally, I’ve never understood what’s so wonderful about the Mona Lisa, but I admit I have no artistic sense at all.

But the “Black Plank” will stay with me, whether it’s art or not. And that means “Black Plank” surely is.

Pushcart 2015: Kamilah Aisha Moon, “Watching a Woman on the M101 Express” (Poem) from She Has A Name

Picasso, "Weeping Woman"

Picasso, “Weeping Woman”

You sit in a hard blue seat, one
of the ones reserved for the elderly
or infirm, a statue of need. Your mouth
open as if waiting for water or medicine, as if
mugged mid-sentence, or some ice age hit
right after terrible news.

I once read something about “Meryl Streep tears”: crying so that makeup is undisturbed, eyes and skin of the face don’t redden or swell, and tears find their way delicately down a smooth cheek in a single trickle without getting sucked into the divots of the nostrils, which, of course, never themselves drip. Movie crying. The writer confessed she’d never mastered the art of pretty crying. Neither have I; nor have most people. The woman observed by this poem certainly hasn’t.

I have been both the subject and object of this poem (available online). I’ve seen people on busses – on sidewalks, in stores and offices and front porches – displaying the kind of sorrow described here, openly crying, and not movie-star tears, but sloppy drippy raw-faced emotion that’s real and scary and, yes, ugly.

I know the uncomfortable feeling, a mix of curiosity but also empathy, the uncertainty of the line between helping and making it worse. No one wants to be callous, yet no one wants to be incautious. There’s a desire to reach out, but not to get involved; to get credit for concern without paying the cost of connecting to such pain:

I want to ask—
just so you know someone
is paying attention, but not enough
to know what ravages. It’s rude
to stare.

And I’ve also been the public weeper – no, not reading-weeping, which I’ve mentioned often enough, but that’s close to Meryl Streep tears, deeply felt but still controlled and circumscribed by the pages of a book, understandable to bystanders as a temporary aberration, nothing to worry about. I mean the other kind of public weeping, where it just isn’t possible to hold it until behind the privacy of a door. I always have this association of crying with peeing in public, even more unthinkable, but also a release of water that simply can’t be controlled in a socially acceptable manner.

What’s notable about this poem is the detail. The speaker doesn’t look away, but notices: “Tears navigate moles, veteran / swimmers of your creek-bed face,” rather than the more romantic movie-star single-tear-traces-down-a-pink-cheek. The metaphor of “eyes that never quite close, / even in deepest sleep, lids // an undersized t-shirt that leaves belly / exposed” connotes a certain slovenliness of emotion rather than delicacy. This is no genteel sorrow; this is real. And there is concern here: ” I study the pink // of your jaw, and wonder if you’ll come back / before your stop comes.” Or is that mere curiosity?

The detail goes beyond what can be seen, to the tactile of “the hard blue seat” and “the metro’s bump and buck”. The subject is placed in scenery of other passengers as supporting players. Very thorough, for such a short poem. The reader is invited into that bus, invited to experience the poem along with the speaker. We’re allowed to add our own questions: Where is the woman going? Will the speaker share this with someone at home later, think about this woman later tonight, or next week some time?

The poem is part of Moon’s collection She Has a Name:

The opening pages of She Has a Name identify the collection as a “biomythography,” a term created by Audre Lorde to describe a narrative based on myth and history, fact and fiction. Kamilah Aisha Moon’s biomythography tells the story of a young woman with autism from multiple points of view… Whether protector or questioner, each voice strives to understand what autism means to his or her own life.

And then I go Aha! as if I understand: the crying woman on the bus is the subject of the collection, described in Moon’s Rumpus interview as the primary speaker’s sister. Or maybe it’s merely an overwrought bus rider, and the speaker, intimately familiar with outbursts of strong emotion, observes it through a lens that blends stranger with family, that allows some objectivity but also draws her closer.

Pushcart 2015: Stephanie Strickland, “CAPTCHA” (Poem) from Boston Review

cranium chambered cairn and passage grave
bulging Neolithic earth mound enclosing the vault
calibrated stone to this standard surpasses us
lost too inner touch on bone pale solstice beam
dervish Snow Queen covens of raven rim her platinum
cloak downed traces of her sledge paused print a fine grid…

So again, I confess: I don’t get it. But this time, at least I think I get why I don’t get it. Fortunately, the poem is available online via the Boston Review tumblr for those better equipped.

I believe it’s set in a gaming environment, which is why I don’t get it. There is a game “Snow Queen”, but this becomes more apparent in the second group of stanzas, where the Emerald Viewer and avatars come into it. But without more of an understanding of the game, I’m afraid I’m left grasping at pixels for most of the poem.

I typically associate stanzas in couplets with some kind of relationship between two people. Could it in this case be between a player and the game? Or, more generally, between people and technology? That’s where the final stanza, powerful even though I wasn’t sure what had preceded it, drew me:

                                                  …you install
an IM app in your dream equip folding but unfading
tutelary mesmerie with chat while falling as a peregrine
tinsel buttercup foil painted roof ruined roof of the Plaza
verdigris mansard copper slate rushing toward her she could tell
by a tension in the air wire-fine overhead—one rustling
shift—time to be swept back to sea so typed in mistakenly
( no peregrine eye ) randomly assigned CAPTCHA squiggle
Turing test box of twisted-letter text to tag her

personhood denied

There’s a real finality to that close, a slamming of a door. But beyond that, it took a poem to get me to consider the strangeness of a machine deciding who is human and who isn’t, the strangeness of the necessity of creating a machine to arbitrate humanity. And, considering how many times I’ve failed the Captcha tests, to reflect on that. Just who’s in charge here? There are lots of Frankenstein-regrets—building-the-monster stories out there about computers, but this one carves it down to a singular moment, and a familiar, personal level.

But wait – there’s more! Isn’t there an alternative reading, perhaps the intended one, I don’t know. It’s the character in a game, or the computer itself, speaking. It sees the IM app installed, the “she”, became intrigued, and tried itself to tag her – only to be kept out by the automated gatekeeper, its personhood denied. Again, this harsh slamming of a door, no less poignant because it slams on circuits and code.

Interesting, where a poem I don’t understand can take me.
I also discovered something interesting about Captcha: reCaptcha. As I understand it (which isn’t that well, keep in mind), only one of the two words in a Captcha box is a test; the other is a word Googlebooks has failed to scan properly, and it’s a way of sort of crowdsourcing the corrections:

Beyond its obvious use for foiling bot attacks and would-be spammers, the reCAPTCHA Project has another, more altruistic purpose. Several years after introducing the world to CAPTCHA technology, von Ahn realized that, despite taking just a few seconds to type a CAPTCHA, humans were spending hundreds of thousands of hours each day typing in more than 100 million CAPTCHAs. reCAPTCHA technology was developed not merely with an eye toward improving cyber security, but also as a way to harness and reuse the collective human time and mental energy spent solving and typing CAPTCHAs—a concept von Ahn has dubbed “human computation.” By constructing CAPTCHAs using words tagged as unreadable in the digitizing of books and other printed material, millions and millions of cyber users play a part every day in the digitization and preservation of human knowledge by transcribing words. Tests have shown that reCAPTCHA textual images are deciphered and transcribed with 99.1% accuracy, a rate comparable to the best human professional transcription services. In just the first year after launching reCAPTCHA, humans correctly deciphered and transcribed more than 440 million words, roughly the equivalent of 17,600 books.

~~ Carnegie Mellon University CyLab

I’m still not sure how this works with single-word boxes, but it’s pretty interesting how first, the machine plays gatekeeper, and then, the person fixes what the computer can’t do. That’s a pretty interesting metaphor right there, worthy of another poem.

Pushcart 2015: Alexander Maksik, “Trim Palace” from Tin House, #58

When I ran into Joshua for the first time in nine years, I was working at the Delta terminal and had just cleaned the men’s room next to Malibu Al’s. I can’t remember why I looked up, but whatever the reason, there he was coming out of 58A.
It wasn’t allowed, but I was taking my twenty minutes in the terminal rather than the break room – a windowless box I hated many times more than the job itself. Joshua was at the head of the line walking off the jet bridge wearing a black suit and the loosened tie the color of a good lime. At first I thought he was alone, but then a woman, mesmerized by her phone, glided to him as if guided by radar and gave him a little hip check. I was frozen and my adrenaline was going like I’d been caught doing something I shouldn’t have been. Which, from a certain perspective, was exactly right.
I sat there waiting until he turned his head and looked right at me. Our eyes met for a second. He made no move and I thought, Thank God, he doesn’t recognize me. And then I thought, The fucker is pretending he doesn’t recognize me. And I started to feel all righteous, but I realized he was doing exactly what I was doing, and it made me sad to think we’d just let it go, that he’d just keep on walking, I’d keep on sitting there, he’d keep on wearing suits and getting off airplanes with his pretty wife or whoever she was and I’d go on racking elephant rolls of toilet paper and scrubbing shit from white tile.
But he stopped…

I wish this story were available online. First, because it should be read, and felt. Second, because I’m going to quote several long passages, necessarily, because that’s the story it is: gold nuggets in luxurious paragraphs that aren’t padded in the slightest, where everything matters, where the style is embodied in the story itself. And third, because I’m going to get spoilery. So see if you can dig up a copy of Tin House Winter 2014. It’s stories like this that renew my regret at being unable to renew my subscription.

The effectiveness of the story lies in what is barely hinted at. Peter, our narrator and protagonist, mentions some murky past event involving cinder block walls. Prison? A mental institution? Rehab? All of the above? It’s never spelled out. But whatever it was, it was enough to turn him from the optimistic college grad who moved to LA with best buddy Joshua to seek his fortune, into… something else. Someone who would rather clean airport toilets than take his lunch break in a windowless room. Someone who’s ambivalent about seeing Joshua nine years later, the friend who’s fulfilled all those dreams from that earlier time, because it’s so clear that Peter… hasn’t. And while that particular situation is probably not something he has to worry about most of the time, here in this story, it’s the personal hell the writer shoves him up against.

Hemingway spelled out his iceberg principle of fiction writing in a 1959 Paris Review interview with George Plimpton: “There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know, you can eliminate, and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it, then there is a hole in the story.” Maksik took it to heart when he wrote Peter’s story, as he explains on the Tin House blog: “In earlier drafts, I included a great deal more of Pete’s life – past and present. As is often the case at the beginning, I found that I was writing those scenes more as a way to discover Pete’s character than in direct service to the story. I find it’s the best way for me to start – don’t think, include everything. The problem is that I fall in love with sections (or sentences) that serve me, but not the reader. That was the case with “Trim Palace” and it took me years to excise what needed to be excised.”

I could see the result in the story. The visible part is carefully sculpted, just enough to make sense: it’s just a story about a guy taking care of an old friend’s old dog. But that’s just the plot; the story, the invisible part, broke my heart as I read, unawares, until the tears blurred my vision.

I was thinking about Joshua at the bar, sitting on a stool all the way at the end, leaning his shoulder against the window, the window giving onto the street. Joshua watching me work in the early days, drinking for free. Those nights when he was always there, coming in early after whatever job he was doing – working in mailrooms, working as someone said assistant, someone’s gofer. Those early days before our impatience set in, before our fear.
I was thinking about the flickering fluorescent light, my palm against the cool white cinderblock. My cheek. Sometimes my lips, my tongue. The constant noise. The screaming at night.
I opened my eyes. A jet drew a neat white line across the sky.
Juliette watched me, head bobbing in rhythm with her easy panting. I reached for her. She flicked my hand.

Juliette is the old dog. Following their brief airport meeting, Joshua offered Peter $2000 to dog- and house-sit for a week while he and the perfect wife fly off somewhere stylish and exciting. This could be a simple plot twist, but the details and nuance here are important. Look at the new relationship that’s developed. In that first accidental reunion, Joshua is shocked at what’s become of his friend. He does follow up, which is a plus. And in that call, because he was, at least once, a close friend: “I got to ask. Short version, okay, but, what the fuck happened?”

Short version. Just the tip of the iceberg is all he has time for. But there’s no short version for Peter, so he changes the subject. It’s a mark of generosity that Joshua is entrusting his elegant house, and beloved dog, to someone who obviously isn’t the same person he used to know. But it has to hurt, to know you’re only worth the short version.

I’m guessing Peter’s had a lot of experience dealing with humiliation. It’s revealed beautifully in the scenes with Juliette, the old Great Dane. She has trouble walking. Can’t poop when and where she should. Needs help to get up. But she’s still the same dog who was once a playful puppy, and she’s still beloved enough to hire a dog-sitter rather than send her to a kennel during vacation week. Peter observes her every humiliation, gives her the assistance she needs, cleans up after her. Takes care of her, because it’s his job.

He calls his parents.

Again, both of us waited. I listened and I imagined him doing the same, as if some sound in the background might answer a question neither of us knew how to ask.
“I was thinking, dad. I was thinking I’d like to come home for a while. Come to see you.”
“Oh, I’d like that, Peter. I’d like that so much.”
“Me too,” I said beginning to speak more quickly, walking out to the trees. “I was thinking I’d come home next week and just, I don’t know. I’d see you and Mom and, really, I don’t know exactly. Just be home and get things together and figure out what’s next. It would be nice to be home with you both.”
“Peter,” he said. “You know I’d love that.”
Juliet was still watching me.
“I’d like that. You know I would. I’d love it, love it more than anything, but you also know I’m going to have to ask your mother. I’ll have to ask her. I’ll have to find the right time to ask her. See what she says, see what she thinks about it.” He paused and then said, “About you coming home,” as if I’d forgotten what we were talking about.
I was walking back across the lawn to the house.

I can hear the voice of Edna in Carver’s “Chef’s House” in the cadence of the father’s speech. I can hear his heart break as he hesitates to welcome his son home. And yes, this is where the iceberg started carving into me.

The final scene (which I won’t reveal; I have to leave something as a teaser) consolidates it all in a decision point. I made the mistake of reading this on the bus. I’ve never been able to hold back tears. It’s one of the risks of reading on the bus.In my mind I could hear Adam Crossley’s “Prisoner” playing as I read – “Take me home….” I could see the face of Kalief Browder, whose suicide still haunts us all.

To be clear, this isn’t Kalief’s (why is there so often a sense of intimacy when it’s too late to matter? If we’d had this intimacy sooner, could things have gone differently?) story , not at all. It’s Peter’s story, and I get the clear sense, if from nothing else than his mother’s persistent anger, that his sorrows are more the product of his own deeds. But they’re sorrows nonetheless, and I don’t buy into this obsession we have with rationing our compassion, as though we might run out.

The art of the iceberg story lies in how little is told, and, maybe, in how we can adapt it to what’s in our lives. I heard and saw what I did because of my own experience, and timing, but we’ve all had those moments when we run into someone from the past, and our failure to live up to our potential hangs heavy on us. Sometimes, we just think it does. And sometimes, as with Peter, it really does. It’s everyone’s story. It’s just that, sometimes, it cuts a little deeper.

Pushcart 2015: Ottessa Moshfegh, “The Weirdos” from Paris Review, #206

Dali: Self Portrait Sundial

Dali: Self Portrait Sundial

On our first date, he bought me a taco, talked at length about the ancients’ theories of light, how it streams at angles to align events in space and time, that it is the source of all information, determines every outcome, how we can reflect it to summon aliens using mirrored bowls of water. I asked what the point of it all was, but he didn’t seem to hear me. Lying on the grass outside a tennis arena, he held my face toward the sun, stared sideways at my eyeballs, and began to cry. He told me I was the sign he’d been waiting for and, like looking into a crystal ball, he’d just read a private message from God in the silvery vortex of my left pupil. I disregarded this and was impressed instead by the ease with which he rolled on top of me and slid his hands down the back of my jeans, gripping my buttocks in both palms and squeezing, all in front of a Mexican family picnicking on the lawn.

I’ve been staring at this story for about a week now, hoping I’d either gain some insight, or it’d go away. Not that it’s a bad story, it’s just a story that I don’t “get.” Moshfegh has been on a roll with prize after prize rolling in, but I just don’t seem to be on the right wavelength for this story. Fortunately, this one is available online (thank you, Paris Review) so I’m not in the way of those who can get on the right wavelength.

It is indeed a story about weirdos. And there’s a moment I recognize. But beyond that, I got nothin’.

A quick google proved that others saw more than I did. In Bustle, Joanna Novak praised how ” the first line introduces the narrator’s droll sense of humor”. Maybe that’s the problem; I don’t seem to have the right sense of humor for the 21st century, a failing that began with the Seinfeld years. One blogger felt “[t]his character’s emptiness and aimlessness really got to me.” Being pretty aimless myself, I seem to have problems with stories that highlight aimlessness. But I’m not sure the characters are all that aimless, I just think they’re aimed at things I don’t understand.

The story is indeed about weirdos. The boyfriend is weird, obviously, but the narrator is just as weird because she seems to understand that he’s weird – she even despises him – but she’s still there.

I hated my boyfriend but I liked the neighborhood. It was a shadowy, crumbling collection of bungalows and auto-body shops. The apartment complex rose a few stories above it all, and from our bedroom window I could look out and down into the valley, which was always covered in orange haze. I liked how ugly it all was, how trashy. Everyone in the neighborhood walked around with their heads down on account of all the birds. Something in the trees attracted a strange breed of pigeon—black ones, with bright red legs and sharp, gold-tipped talons. My boyfriend said they were Egyptian crows. He felt they’d been sent to watch him, and so he behaved even more carefully than ever.

Part of my disorientation is that I don’t believe anything the boyfriend says. Is he really an actor, or is he just pretending/imagining a telemarketer is his agent calling and he’s going on auditions the way he imagines the plastic skull on his night table is sending him messages? Is the girlfriend (neither of them have names in the story) playing along? Why?

The new tenants show up, bearing lots of cash and bad teeth, a combination I associate with meth. At the end of the story, the boyfriend is doing meth, so maybe they’re all methheads all along, though the boyfriend’s muscles don’t fit with that, do they? I don’t know enough about them. Maybe that’s what I’m missing.

I went back to the basics: what’s the movement in the story, the narrative? The new tenants. The classic “new kid comes to town” story. Nothing changes, but in giving advice to the narrator, one of the new tenants forces a moment of clarity I found quite powerful:

“I’ve got something for you,” she said. She disappeared into the bedroom, where we’d piled all the garbage bags full of stuff. She came out with a black feather.
“Is that from the crows?” I asked.
“Sleep with this under your pillow,” she said, rubbing her third eye. “And as you drift off think of everyone you know. Start off easy, like with your parents, your brothers and sisters, your best friends, and picture each person in your mind. Really try to picture them. Try to think of all your classmates, your neighbors, people you met on the street, on the bus, the girl from the coffee shop, your dentist, everybody from over the years. And then I want you to imagine your boyfriend. When you imagine him, imagine he’s on one side and everybody else is on the other side.”
“Then what?” I asked her.
“Then see which side you like better.”

Maybe this is why it’s so hard to leave. It’s not even a matter of not having somewhere better to go; it’s more about not having anything better to compare to “now”. Maybe this is how life is for everyone. Maybe there’s nothing better out there for her. Maybe it’s her fault, it’s all she gets, all she deserves. So she stays.

I hope I can catch on to Moshfegh’s style. She seems to be quite a powerhouse, and I expect to be seeing more from her.

Pushcart 2015: Rebecca Hazelton, “Book of Forget” (Poem) from Agni, #75

I made a stage out of an abandoned house, small
enough for me to look bigger, and I walked from end
to end in spangles, shaking what my momma
gave me in a symphony jiggling out over the dry
desert night.

There’s something very poignant about the strippers who appear in poems.

Some time ago I read a piece about an exotic dancer in which the speaker focused attention, not on her body or her situation, but on the collaboration of the audience in the act she performed: if a dancer takes her clothes off in the forest and no one sees, is she still naked?

There’s nothing more phallic than a stripper pole.

This poem takes a different view, however, focusing not on the audience (though the audience does appear in the poem) but the stripper herself, the motivations, memories and reactions she has separate from what the audience is doing. It’s the speaker’s poem, the stripper’s poem, and, if we allow it, our poem.

I’m interested in the contrast between the earlier dancer and this one. Whereas the prior piece had a confident, defiant woman holding a mirror to the audience, daring them to see themselves, here we have a more typical presentation: a woman who is damaged. We don’t get any detail about that damage, only that it results in a woman who feels halved, who expects the world will hurt her. Someone who doesn’t feel unique. Someone who is trying to forget – forget what? What would you dance to forget? Have you learned a better way to forget whatever it is you need to forget?

I wanted to be a contortionist,
to stand on my own neck before anyone else could,
but the world is full of women who can halve themselves.
My talent is in looking like someone you want
when the lights are on and like anyone who’ll do when they’re off.
There are other ways to dance but I never learned.
There are other ways to forget. This one barely works.

I found the poem online at I Read This Poem, a poetry blog that seems to have lasted through only three months last year – too bad, I hope Ms. Arthur starts blogging poetry again, because I discovered a lot about this poem, how it works, by reading her post: the long first sentence, the facelessness, the way sex is hidden though it is displayed. I’d missed all that, focusing on content. My observation was that it’s a sort of elongated sonnet, with a turn from outward to inward and a concluding anaphoric couplet, but that’s a lot of squishing something that doesn’t fit into the wrong space. I did love how “from end / to end” put the “ends” at the ends.

I go back to poignant. One of the tenets of modernism was freedom to use any subject matter. The modern poem finds humanity in a train station, conformity in a wheelbarrow, and here, poignancy in a stripper. Aren’t we all – on social media, in our careers – putting on a show. Aren’t we all trying to forget.