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.

I still remember the marvelous “From Your Hostess at the T&A Museum” by Kathleen Balma, 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 Balma’s dancer and this one. Whereas Balma 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.

Pushcart 2015: Rachel Zucker, “Mindful” (Poem) from Kenyon Review, #35:3

Frederic Pissarro: "Multitasking"

Frederic Pissarro: “Multitasking”

jammed my airspace w/ an audible.com podcast
& to-do list Deborah lent me this pen better
make use of turn off it filled up inside dear friends
[swipe again] invite me to Brooklyn [swipe
again] I briefly [GO] hate them am rush rush &
rushing headphones never let me airways
I run & the running [GPS: average time]
[activity started] [GPS: per mile] then a snowstorm
no school I cried & said Mayor Bloomberg
should be scalded with hot cocoa when someone said
yay for snow I’m cutting it too close, Erin, if
a blizzard makes me [too slow swipe again]

I took one look at this poem and thought, no way. I’m not going to do this. I’m just going to skip it, who’s to know (I skipped one story, could you tell?)? But I tried again. And, as happens sometimes, it worked. I mean, it really worked.

I stopped trying to read a poem, and started imagining a poet, a situation, a mind. Mindful, in the new-agey sense, means in-the-moment, paying attention, focused. Here we have a different kind of mindful: a mind, full. Really full – of the immediate (swipe cards to get through turnstiles), the semi-immediate decisions involved in getting from point A to point B by any conveyance, telephone conversations or perhaps im’s or tweets or something else. A million ways to stay connected means a million ways to be bound and strangled.

I know people who cry over a snow day (especially this past winter in New England). Not all of them are mothers. Some of them are bosses of mothers, or clients of mothers or coworkers of mothers, and they know it’s not nice to get angry because a mother has to be late or absent if we as a society have valued child-rearing and wish to be inclusive enough to allow women to have children and have jobs, and for pete’s sake the women who are poor are told they’re lazy if they don’t work while the women with skills and education are told they’re selfish to work so why don’t we give this lady a break when she has to make childcare arrangements on a snow day, but I had an appointment… and I understand the poem completely.

[all service on the local track] fall asleep fast I pray
to whom? [1 X-fer OK] is this what I was
waiting for: the one nap moment of silence?
IF that’s what I wanted should have made other
don’t you think choices? What do you mean by
‘dark’? asks Erin. What do you mean by
‘unhinged’? airways [GO] I give one son
a quarter for two or fewer complaints a day
& none for more the pediatrician confirms
they each have two testicles then shoots
the smallest boy in the arm that was the easiest
part of my day [X-fer OK][OK][OK][GO] stroller…

Zucker’s conversation with Martha Silano of American Poetry Review includes a wonderful exchange about what it means, or doesn’t mean, for a female poet to include a baby in a poem. Silano references an earlier APR essay by Joy Katz about the “Oh, no” moment when a baby turns up in a poem she’s writing, and how she fears it might cause a loss of credibility. Zucker rather demolishes that as a concern: “I would really have to take a deep breath and figure out why having a baby in a poem is a problem…. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do that. What the fuck was I supposed to write about? My whole life was just in this pukey, poopy thing.” I wanted to cheer for her. No doubt it’s a man who valorizes his potency or considers its decline who thinks a woman who includes a baby in her poetry isn’t quite serious. Then again, such men tend to find ways to not take women seriously no matter what they write about. And I say this as someone who has no real interest in babies or poems about babies, but who has a great deal of interest in all poets writing about what is central to them, what inspires them, what they feel a need to write about.

…Rebecca wanted us to do something
radical at this reading I don’t have time did
wash my hair lifestyle choice I know time
isn’t ‘a thing you have’ I meant to ask isn’t there
some way, Erin, to get more not time but joy?
she’s not home maybe running or at the grocery
or school [X-fer] can you anyone hear me?…

I’ll admit I have no real grasp of what’s going on in this poem, who Rebecca and Erin are, but I do get the sense of frenetic multitasking, juggling a great many responsibilities while creating Art. Writing may be a lot easier for a poet who can isolate from the world for a time, but maybe there’s another kind of art, another route of inspiration in the scattered attention that some lives require. I love how this poem embodies real-time stream-of-consciousness in a way Kerouac only guessed at, the activity in our minds as we switch roles on a second-to-second bases and the reaction to the activity, with the profound tucked in there with the mundane. How at once alive and aware and lonely and overwhelmed this sounds. Some sections are desperately interrupted, some more conversational. I don’t have the skill in poetic analysis to find all the patterns, but I’m sure they’re in there.

This is a real mind at work, running soul-deep while swiping transit cards and negotiating the world. This is what inner life sounds like for a lot of people. Cubism reversed; instead of an object having simultaneous multiple perspectives, the subject simultaneously inhabits multiple vantage points. I can’t live this way; I disintegrate. I’m not even sure I like it. Every once in a while someone will knock on my door, so intent on their phone they don’t realize they’ve got the wrong apartment. I’ve had people literally run into me while engrossed in some conversation. I don’t care at all about someone on the bus or in a waiting room talking on their phone, to me it’s no different than an in-person conversation, but I’m beginning to resent the requirement being forced upon the unphoned to compensate for the phoned. Then again, is it any different from someone engrossed in thought?

meat in the freezer or oven on so what? don’t
make dinner – ha ha who will? the military? –
don’t rush multi-stop stop checking the tiny
devices brain sucking the joy out here’s the
[too fast][swipe again] express

This is super-contemporary, in terms of the technology and the immediacy and the concerns. And we have to wonder: where is the tipping point, where the benefits begin to outweigh the liabilities, where the frantic excludes the joy? Will we even have time to notice?

Pushcart 2015: Sina Queyras, “Like A Jet” (Poem) from Malahat Review, #184

Art by Ziba Scott: "Making ‘Elegy For A Dead World'"

Art by Ziba Scott: “Making ‘Elegy For A Dead World'”

A hole in the sky where softness hung,
A crater where the world was, a moment
The size of Manhattan: amazed
We are not all sliding in.

So many elegies. I’m not sure if that’s because elegies were the form to write in 2012, or if death was on the minds of the editors as they chose. This one is available online.

It appears in Queyras’ sixth collection, M x T. The title is not a cryptic abbreviation but a mathematical expression: Memory * Time. The collection “meditates on the nature of grief marked indelibly by modernity and technology”, writes Julie Enszer in a detailed and quite lovely review for The Rumpus.

Time, they say, time, and with it healing but also
Recrimination and upset, my tumourette an airbag
Behind my eyes, blind me, my lack of patience:
Why is my exuberance rewarded? Hers snuffed?

The poem appears as a series of eight numbered sonnets, beginning with a grief so overwhelming it’s almost visible on the page, as the opening quatrain above shows. “The body is leaking fluid; I am leaking, / I no longer care who sees me leak” that sonnet concludes, and I see so many possible references in that – tears flowing out. Because of that leaking, I’d briefly wondered if the death was of a newborn, a miscarriage perhaps, then later changed my mind. Whoever the topic, it’s an extremely intense portrait of grief; I’m not sure I could read it if I had just lost someone I loved. There’s a hint of a problematic relationship (“finally / She could not scowl me away”), and a sense of deep, ubiquitous loss (“Every last vein crammed with absence”).

Poetic references abound, and I’m not able to scan them all. Eliot’s jet? The only connection between TS Eliot and a jet is in some discarded lines from Prufrock that include reference to a gas jet. “Jet” is one of those ambiguous words, and interpretation depends on the reader’s generation and background: sophisticated travel, technology from the 19th century, an ancient gemstone. Perhaps Eliot’s quote about evil and good intentions surfaces, indicating further relational disruption. The poem begins with a sensual Whitman epigraph, and includes a line from Plath and mention of Sexton, but I’m over my head here.

In the space between the fifth and sixth sonnet, the world appears to begin turning again as the speaker looks forward:

                    …No more death
Please: bite hard, I want to feel the future coming.
I felt something snap just now. It wasn’t you parting
Your body – it’s months after that, as if all this time
Grief has been spinning our heels and now we slow, steady,
Let it nestle into a fold with the lost coins and lint.

That is how it works with great loss, isn’t it. At first it’s unbearable, but we do find a way to bear it, and it becomes part of our landscape until eventually we can talk about it, even write about it. Grief follows the form of elegy, which may be, I wonder, how the elegiac form arose. No matter how great the loss, if we are to go on, we find a way to incorporate the loss, to wear it, carry it with us, rather than to sit in its space.

Who will sort the apples? Leonard. Leonard will sort the
Apples. Frederick will drive the car. Jack will feel for you.
Describing is owning. Give me a woman with a lens
In her hand. Give me a woman with a will to read.
Give a woman a lost woman, an open vista, a stack of vellum,
Give me Time, give me swagger, give me your ears.

Love, loss, grief, life: Memory, multiplied by Time.

Pushcart 2015: Xuan Juliana Wang, “Days of Being Mild” from Ploughshares, #119

We are what the people called Bei Piao – a term coined to describe the twenty-somethings who drift aimlessly to the northern capital, a phenomenal tumble of new faces to Beijing. We are the generation who awoke to consciousness listening to rock and roll, and who fed ourselves milk, McDonalds, and box sets of Friends. We are not our parents, with their loveless marriages and party-assigned jobs, and we are out to prove it.
We come with uncertain dreams, but our goal is to burn whitehot, to prove that the Chinese, too, can be decadent and reckless. We are not good at math or saving money, but we are very good at being young. We are modern-day May Fourth-era superstars only now we have Macbooks. We’ve read Kerouac in translation. We are marginally employed and falling behind on our filial piety payments, but we are cool. Who was going to tell us otherwise?

I found the plot to be in the way of the story here. Once I got the plot out of the way, I loved this.

The plot concerns a jumble of roommates, some of whom make a marginal living shooting videos for rock bands whose main purpose seems to be to find fame by being banned. I started making my little charts, as I do when I get bogged down in too many details about too many complexly interacting people – but eventually, I decided it didn’t matter to me. I’m sure it mattered a great deal to Wang, I’m sure she constructed the plot with precision and finesse, and that every action has a reaction and it all fits together beautifully, but I get impatient with music-industry bluster (as I did with Goon Squad) and I’ve lived through too many generations of “we’ve just discovered what makes the world work and no one gets it but we’re still bored and aimless” to keep track – corporate culture, Beats, hippies, yippies, GenX, entrepreneurials, millenials, hipsters. Because of my weak grasp of Asian history even in my own lifetime, I’m not sure precisely how that maps on to China – May Fourth, Cultural Revolution, May 35, Bei Piao? But it seems any system, once it’s popular enough to become a system, is burdensome.

I found some references online which allude to a variety of contexts for this phrase Bei Piao. An American basketball player, relocated to Beijing after retirement from the NBA, refers to himself as such a floating migrant. The founder of the Miss Meusli cereal company refers to herself that way as well, having come to Beijing temporarily and somehow finding her dreams there. A Macleans article imparts aimlessness to the word rather than dream and drive. The University of Michigan’s International Institute applies the term to rural farmers who come to the city as construction workers, a late shift in population centers. So maybe, like hipsters and hippies and all the rest, Bei Piao are whatever you make of them. For Wang, I see a distinct Brooklyn view.

While the plot deals with doomed romances and the lengths some will go to for fame and fortune, the story running underneath concerns the first-person narrator. If he’s given a name, I missed it in the jumble of people coming and going and worrying and art-ing, but he doesn’t need one. I know who he is. He’s young, he’s having a great time, he’s lost, he’s trying to find his way, and Dad wants to send him to Louisiana to manage the family oil wells. He isn’t sure that’s the way he wants to find.

We also learned English. We realized how different it really was to speak Chinese. We didn’t used to have to say what we meant, because our old language allows for a certain amount of room to wiggle.
In Chinese we can ask, “What’s it like?” because it can refer to anything going on, anything on your mind. The answer could be as simple-sounding as the one-syllable “men” which means, you’re feeling stifled but lonely. The character drawn out is a heart trapped within a doorway. Fear is literally the feeling of whiteness. The word for “marriage” is the character of a woman and the character of fainting. How is English, that clumsy barking, ever going to compare?
But we did learn useful acronyms like DTF (Down To Fuck) and Holy Shit, and we also became really good at ordering coffee. We learned how to throw the word love around, say “LOL” and laugh without laughing.

That’s the story.

I tried to find this word “men” with a symbol of a heart trapped in a doorway. I didn’t do so well – while Indo-European words are relatively easy to research, Chinese offers special challenges, especially a word like “men” which in its English meaning is so ubiquitous as to mask what might be germane, and that’s without getting into delicate shades of meaning and context. But I did find a few Chinese dictionaries on googlebooks that might give a clue: one specifically lists one cites “stifling, lacking good ventilation; (of a person) full of ideas but not inclined to talk.” Another discusses a compound, meaning “sad, melancholy, a heart… before a shut up door”. I think I see the connection with what the narrator is saying, yes?

In the 60s, at the height of the nonconformist craze, there was a little quip going around that ended up incorporated into a couple of songs over the decades: “I want to be different, just like everybody else.” Nonconformism becomes its own prison, and hipsters return now to the styles of yesteryear to underline their nonconformity. So too are the lyrics of the song the band is working on in this story: “We have passion, but do not know why. What are we fighting for? Where’s our direction? Do you want to be an individual? Or a grain of sand.” A life of freedom can turn you into a grain of sand as well.

We learn that Americans are able to take certain things for granted, like that the world appreciated their individuality. That they were raised thinking they were special, loved, and that their parents wanted them to follow their dreams and be happy. It was endlessly amazing.

I wonder how many Americans would tell them, it isn’t quite that easy. In fact, I suppose that’s the point of the whole story, that what’s happening to this ragtag group in Beijing and what the narrator is feeling is the same thing experienced by thousands of disaffected twentysomethings crowding into unzoned Brooklyn lofts, and that’s the same thing that drew thousands to Haight-Ashbury in 1967. How many of those died young? How many made a difference? And how many ended up twenty years later in a suburban home with a picket fence, worrying about taxes and insurance and the best schools for their kids?

And I know this story works, because at the end, I wondered how American individualism would work out for our narrator – whose name I never knew.

Pushcart 2015: Tarfia Faizullah, “The Streetlamp Above Me Darkens” (Poetry) from New England Review, #34

Cover art from Faizullah's first collection, Seam, by Dilara Begum Jolly

Cover art from Faizullah’s first collection, Seam, by Dilara Begum Jolly

for this, I am grateful. This elegy
doesn’t want a handful of puffed rice
tossed with mustard oil and chopped chilies,
but wants to understand why a firefly
flickers off then on, wants another throatful
or three of whiskey. This elegy is trying
hard to understand how we all become
corpses, but I’m trying to understand

How to understand permanence, when there is no such thing?

In a wonderful conversation from Kenyon Review (made even more poignant because it is with Jake Adam York, who passed away just nine months later at age 40), Faizullah talks about the origin of the elegies she wrote for her sister: “When my sister first passed away, I silently spoke to her often. It was a way of conjuring her as much as it was a way to comfort myself.” Silent conversation eventually evolved into several elegies, like this one. She compares them to the layering of palimpsests, another wonderful image, and discusses the impossibility of testimony and conflicts of remembrance and guilt.

The poem (which is available online, thank you, New England Review) starts and ends with jhal muri, if I remember correctly from my culinary explorations; it’s a street-food snack of spicy puffed rice seasoned with chilis and mustard oil. This closing of the circle seems particularly appropriate to an elegy about permanence, as if it creates its own permanence – or at least the possibility of permanence inherent in a circle – to compensate for the lack of permanence of anything on earth. We do go on, somehow.

Whenever I see couplets, I now think of two people, and more often than not, that turns out to be the case. Here, we have sisters. Faizullah was born here in the US well after her family immigrated here, but the poem seems written from Bangladesh, where her sister died: “Across two oceans, there
is a world in which I thought I could live / without grief.” When you love someone, there is no place without grief; but there is also no place without love, even in the grief. The love shines through here.

As an elegy should, it turns from past to future: “How to look down into the abyss without / leaning forward?” The experience of grief must itself be a moving forward. I’d never thought of it that way before. It feels so much like the past, yet it is indeed motion.

The poem ends with a snippet of one of those mental conversations Faizullah might have had with her sister, a conversation that puts a point on it: in spite of our protests, the pain is something we crave, because human connection is necessarily linked to pain, and to blot out the pain is to blot out the connection.

Pushcart 2015: Rebecca Solnit, “Mysteries of Thoreau, Unsolved” (non-fiction) from Orion, May 2013

Orion photograph: “Air Your Dirty Laundry” by Chloe Beacon

There is one writer in all literature whose laundry arrangements have been excoriated again and again, and it is not Virginia Woolf, who almost certainly never did her own washing, or James Baldwin, or the rest of the global pantheon. The laundry of the poets remains a closed topic, from the tubercular John Keats (blood-spotted handkerchiefs) to Pablo Neruda (lots of rumpled sheets). Only Henry David Thoreau has been tried in the popular imagination and found wanting for his cleaning arrangements, though the true nature of those arrangements are not so clear.

I had a strong and complicated reaction to this essay (available online, thank you, Orion), and I’m not sure why. I let it sit a few days, thinking maybe I was in a bad mood or was under the emotional influence of some other event. But no, I still have a strong reaction to it. I’m still not sure why. But my purpose here is to record my reactions to what I read, though I sometimes, as now, do so with trepidation.

Solnit characterizes this piece as being “about categories, which I have found to be leaky vessels all my life.” It stems from a response on Facebook to a comment she made about the breadth of America – “nation of Thoreau and John Brown… slaveowners and slaves.” This fit in somehow to a counterargument to the notion that Americans don’t care about prisoners. I’m not sure what that was about, but while it’s true there are people who are working tirelessly on prison reform, we are still the nation with the highest incarceration rate; we are the nation that created Homan Square; and we are also the nation that fought for justice and eventually ordered reparations to its victims. America’s a complicated place.

What has this to do with Thoreau’s laundry? Apparently someone on Facebook replied to Solnit’s post so: “And the nation of Thoreau’s sister who came every week to take his dirty laundry.”

The sneering follow-up message I got from the person who claims that Thoreau was a man whose sister did his washing made me feel crummy for a day or so during an otherwise ebullient period of being around people that I love and who love me back. I composed various ripostes in my head. Having grown up with parents who believed deeply in the importance of being right and the merit of facts, I usually have to calm down and back up to realize that there is no such thing as winning an argument in this kind of situation, only escalating. Facebook’s verb “friend” is annoying, but its corollary, “unfriend,” is occasionally useful.
I decided against unfriending but for simply avoiding the person into whose unfriendly fire I’d strayed. The thing to do was to seek out more convivial company.

I would imagine there was more to the exchange than that, because that hardly seems to rise to the level of “sneering.” I think of Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu receiving threats of violence. I think of the tumblr Penn professor Anthea Butler kept of the racist messages she’s received to make clear what she deals with daily. And I worry: have I become so inured to online jousting that anything short of epithets and death threats seems friendly? I’m not immune to hurt feelings, after all; just yesterday I wondered if I was being trolled on a MOOC message board (rule of thumb: if I can’t tell, I’m not).

Why am I making such a big deal of this? Because the essay makes a big deal of it, before getting down to the heart of the matter:

None of us is pure, and purity is a dreary pursuit best left to Puritans.

I have absolutely no doubt that Thoreau was a good guy with a generous, compassionate heart; he was on the side of the angels in many important causes – pacifism, abolition. I have no doubt he had many flaws. I have no doubt the world is a better place because he was in it. And I have no doubt that his more quotidian requirements during his stay at Walden – meals, laundry – were supported by others. I see no contradiction there, no hypocrisy. Interesting people are complicated.

Emerson owned the land on which Thoreau built his cabin. If you’re going to escape from society, it’s helpful to have a friend with a place you can go. I see no hypocrisy in that, either. If Newton stood on the shoulders of giants, why shouldn’t the rest of us? In America, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, as well as the shoulders of slaveowners, of slaves, of native Americans and those who murdered them. Slaves built the White House, the modern world economy.

None of us is pure, so let’s stop making our heroes live up to that impossibility. It wasn’t Thoreau, after all, who said, “I built that.”

What did he say:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

~~ HD Thoreau, Walden

I see nothing there about doing one’s own laundry. I don’t even see anything about self-reliance; that was Emerson’s essay.

Yet, I understand the kick-back, and I think it does come down exactly to “You didn’t build that.” A person who has been raised with education, role models, societal acceptance, and the confidence that comes with that has advantages. It isn’t about money, or even about being educated or smart; it’s about being given slack to experiment. Then, it was about “That odd Thoreau boy’s off doing something in the woods, Henrietta, he’s always got to be different,” versus gathering a posse to chase him out of town. Today, it’s about a white open-carry advocate walking by a school with a gun on his hip, arguing with cops for ten minutes before walking away, while a 12-year-old playing with a bb-gun is shot dead after 2 seconds of assessment. It’s about getting the benefit of the doubt. It’s about who looks suspicious and who doesn’t. It’s about privilege – not in terms of money, or an easy life, as Franchesca Ramsey explains, but in terms of assumptions strangers automatically make about us.

Thoreau was arrested for not paying a tax he believed supported war and slavery. It seems his arrest was, by the way, illegal. Even privilege isn’t enough, sometimes. But he lived, and in the past few years, we’ve seen many who don’t fare as well. And, by the way, he spent one night in jail before an unidentified woman, possibly a cousin, paid the tax (I wonder if it was out of solidarity, or social embarrassment; in any case, Thoreau got out of jail on her dime).

But Thoreau didn’t claim he built anything; he just investigated the world and wrote down what he thought. Maybe it’s the heroism we thrust upon him, that makes him such a target for a take-down.

My favorite part of Solnit’s essay has nothing to do with Thoreau, or laundry, but concerns etymology:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, free has the same Indo-European root as the Sanskrit word priya, which means “beloved” or “dear.”… The scholars say that the word may hark back to an era when households consisted of the free people who were members of the extended family, and the unfree ones who were slaves and servants. Family members have more rights than slaves and servants, so even though “free” in the United States is often seen as meaning one who has no ties, it was once the other way around. Which is another way of saying that freedom has less to do with that Lynyrd Skynyrd sense of the word (in which we don’t care about prisoners were anyone else) and more to do with the idea of agency.

I love that the root of freedom is linked with family ties; it ties in nicely with a conversation I’m having right now with an old friend. And I’d love to have a sister who would do my laundry. But I have to wonder: what might Sis have accomplished, if she hadn’t been so focused on doing all that laundry? And, doesn’t she deserve a small recognition of her contribution to Thoreau’s accomplishment, as well?

Pushcart 2015: Mary Szybist, “Too Many Pigeons to Count and One Dove” (Poem) from her collection, Incarnadine (Graywolf Press 2013)

—3:21                                The startled ash tree
                                                        alive with them, wings facing
                             through silver-green leaves – jumping
—3:24                                from branch to branch
                             they rattle the leaves, or make the green leaves
                                           sound dry –

Thank goodness – a poem I can do something with! I was getting a little worried there. Of course, I might not understand it in the way Szybist intended, or in the way poetry-people understand it, but in my own fashion I see many interesting aspects. The text isn’t available online (unless you’re very determined and google a line, hint hint) but there is an author’s recording.

I find recordings in general, and this one in particular, to be less than ideal, however. That’s strange, since poems are meant to be read aloud. I do indeed read all these poems out loud, and I agree that something is lost if poetry is not heard – but poems are also visual if they are distributed in print, so I think something is also lost if the poem is not seen. Especially in this case.

The first thing a reader would notice, even perhaps before reading the words, is a set of numbers at the beginning of each stanza. “—3:21″ reads the first; the second, “—3:24″. I’ve done my best to reproduce the poem visually, but I’m not sure I got it right, not sure I could get it right, given my HTML limitations. But – is the dash to the left is an em-dash, or is it longer? And then: am I making too much out of a dash? I mercilessly ridiculed a Harvard MOOC for the professor’s agonizing overanalysis of the relative lengths of Emily Dickinson’s handwritten dashes, the possible meanings behind them, how they were translated into type. So what am I doing?

I’m not sure. But it’s fun, so I’m going to keep doing it.

The numbers are probably most easily recognized as time stamps: they initially increase in small increments, three minutes, two minutes, one minute, then the last third of the poem all takes place at 3:33. Imagine reading this poem in that time frame. Take a full three minutes to read the first stanza. Let the second stanza stretch over two minutes, and so forth, and then read the last seven stanzas quickly enough to all fit into the span of one minute. It’s a different poem.

If I can bring in a ludicrously incongruous pop culture reference (with all that modernist talk of refusing to distinguish between high culture and low culture, have I pushed it too far?), I thought of Data reading Doosodarian poetry with its embedded lacunae, pauses in which the reader was to reflect on the emptiness of the experience. Here, the poet conveys the sense of watching the birds over time – yet the first stanza, stretching over three minutes of time, includes some of the most active verbs of the poem: startled, alive, lacing, jumping. Take a look again at the first stanza: how would you read that stanza over three minutes’ time?

There’s also the sense of time speeding up, as the time intervals grow shorter and shorter. Does the time indicate something about the speaker’s thought pattern, leisurely at first, perhaps bored, that boredom measured by the frequency of looks at her watch, or, more contemporarily, her cell phone – perhaps waiting, hoping for an incoming call? – needing something to do, something more active. By the time the speaker says, “I am tired / of paying attention” we’re at the point where seven stanzas bear the same digits, 3:33. Is this an attention span thing, or confusion? Is it tied to the content – because, while the poem is ostensibly about watching birds flitting around trees, it’s of course about much more than that. Has the underlying content become too predominant to be overlain with birdwatching?

This was my biggest disappointment with the recording: not only are the timestamps not indicated (which at the very) but there was no difference in the reading of the poem. Far be it from me to tell a poet how to read her own work, but if you’re going to put time stamps on a poem, shouldn’t a reading reflect that?

But wait: what if it’s not hours:minutes but minutes:seconds? It’s only the tyranny of the clock that suggests the former; would not a stopwatch more commonly indicate the second? Imagine the poem read at that pace, all 19 stanzas in a span of 12 seconds. It’s a different poem: now it becomes a thought, and a quick one at that, jumping from one thing to another, bird-like.

And that’s only if the numbers are taken as time stamps, with the em-dashes as visual markers. What if the dashes are instead minus signs? Is the sequence running backwards? No, that’s ridiculous; but this dwelling-in-possibility stuff requires that I think about it, and just because I can’t see anything the numbers could be besides time stamps, doesn’t mean that’s what they must be.

The line indents seem to create a kind of fluttering. As the birds jump from branch to branch, tree to tree, so do my eyes jump from line to line and stanza to stanza, until I come to this:

—3:29                   Nothing stays long enough to know.
                              How long since we’ve been inside
                                                        anything together the way
—3:29                               these birds are inside
                             this tree together, shifting, making it into
                                                                  a shivering thing?

Now there’s a lacuna to reflect on. How long do we stay? How often do we give up before we know? And here’s where the speaker first connects birds in a tree to some relationship. The stanza begins with a complete sentence on a line. The grammar, the line, the meaning, stays long enough for us to know. This only happens three times in this poem, a complete sentence on a line, and two of them are sounds: a boat horn and a church bell. A warning and a summons? Why is a church bell sounding at 3:30 anyway, does that time have some religious significance on this day, does it routinely ring every half hour, is it a wedding or funeral? Is that what makes her miss, or not-miss, someone?

That connection continues, as she looks at birds again, so many bird antics that seem made for relational analogies – wings seem tangled but pull apart, far and near, not touching, seems caught, flapping violently, tilts down – while the poignant “I cannot find / a picture of you in my mind”, the only rhyme in the poem, so clear a rhyme it must be intentional, but why that rhyme, why there, in the middle of all this bird-fluttering observation? This is what lies at the core of the poem, while the speaker looks at the birds that keep flitting in the trees.

The word “dove” appears for the first time in the middle of the poem, when the speaker notes: “I cannot find the dove, / have not seen it for minutes.” For minutes – in this poem with time stamps. I wonder if this is a pun on “four minutes”, and, occurring in a stanza marked 3:32, hearkens back to the stanza at 3:28, in which “One just there on the low branch – / gone before I can breathe or / describe it” – is that the dove, undescribed? Is that the being inside the tree together making it shiver, gone so quickly, there wasn’t time to reflect?

And by the way – what’s the difference between pigeons and doves? I’m no ornithologist, but a quick google confirms what I’d always heard: they’re more or less the same. We think of doves as pure and white and peaceful, while we think of pigeons as dirty and ugly and annoying, but the distinction between them is nebulous. I can see a relationship analogy in that: we think of love as something glorious and soul-changing, but it’s also about forgiveness and tolerance and patience, and maybe staying long enough to know. Like pigeons and doves, the space between love and not-love can be indistinct.

When the speaker says:

                                                                       ….why do I miss you
—3:33                                           now, but not now,
                                          my old idea of you, the feeling for you I lost
                             and remade so many times until it was
—3:33                                something else, as strange as your touch
                             was familiar….

…she’s provided enough cues that I understand: the sense of flux, of flitting, of time being something other than what’s measured on a clock, of appearances and reality being different things.

Oh, and by the way, line breaks. The line breaks in general make the poem flittery fluttery, flying from branch to branch. Another one I like in particular is in the first two stanzas, quoted above: “– jumping / / from branch to branch”, the line break jumping just as the bird does. Nice. And, borrowing a point I learned from Ken Nichols at Great Writers Steal, this teaches us how to read the poem.

But there’s more to line breaks: meaning evolves as we jump from one branch to the next, from one word to the next. “Why do I miss you” is one thing. “Why do I miss you / now” is another: I shouldn’t still miss you, or why now and not before, or what is it about this moment, watching birds chase from one tree to the next, what’s the difference between those trees, those branches – how long it took the speaker to understand the birds were feeding, how long it takes us to understand someone is being nourished, nurtured, because it doesn’t look that way to us. The “Why do I miss you / now, but not now;” is yet a third thing: is it that in the seconds it has taken her to go from one thought to the other, from one branch to the other, the missing is gone?

I like a poem that interests me enough to raise questions. Are these important questions? The center of the poem seems to be the relationship the flitting birds bring to mind. Typography, church bells, line breaks, does any of it matter? Of course. If Szybist just wanted to say, “In a relationship, you have regrets and wonder what went wrong,” that would’ve been a tweet. This is a poem. Everything matters. How it matters, whether it matters enough, is for the reader to decide.

I think it does. Then again, I’m relieved to have a poem I can see something in, after a bit of a dry spell, so I may be overreaching. My favorite sport, overreaching. Incarnadine, a series of reimaginings of the Annunciation, was awarded the National Book Award for Poetry. I’m sure it deserves better (for one thing, I have no idea what this poem could have to do with the Annunciation – have I missed the point completely?); but it makes a nice place to practice.

Pushcart 2015: Rick Bass, “How She Remembers It” from The Idaho Review #13

They left Missoula with a good bit of sun yet in the sky—what would be dusk at any other time of year. The light was at their backs, and the rivers, rather than charging straight down from out of the mountains, now meandered through broader valleys, which were suspended in that summer light, a sun that seemed to show no inclination of moving. Lilly’s father had only begun to lose his memory, seemed more distracted than forgetful, then. He had been a drinker, too, once upon a time, though she did not know that in those days. It had been long ago, before she was even born. A hard drinker, one who had gone all the way to rock bottom, good years wasted, her mother would tell her later—but he was better now. Though recently those few memories he did still have—the reduced or compromised roster of them—were leaving. Even small things from the day before, or a week ago.

I found a lot packed into this story (available online, thank you, Idaho Review): the power, and limitations, of memory; the use of setting and perspective as story elements; free will; the fundamental meaning of empathy as it emerges in an adolescent.

Can a story contain all that? When I see so much in a story – too much, maybe? When I hear Martin Luther King and Dante in the same story, I have to wonder if I’m looking too hard, seeing what’s on my mind instead of what’s on the page. But… is that a bad thing?

Start with a fiction standard: Setting. Here, our protagonists – a father and twelve-year-old daughter Lilly – cross over The Divide into Paradise Valley on their way to Yellowstone, a valley that includes, in addition to the beauty one would expect, some distinctly non-paradisical features. A tacky neon sign from the 50s. A woman on her way down. A man already down. Lilly takes it all in; she doesn’t turn away. And she doesn’t sneer. She feels gratitude. In the lingo of this moment, she recognizes her privilege. If that sounds too determinedly au courant, think of it this way: she experiences empathy instead of superiority. It’s something we could all feel more of these days. All days, for that matter.

Memory is so pronounced a theme, it’s nearly a character in the story. It’s a story told in retrospect, so the very story itself is a memory. But it’s also the story of memory. The pair stop for a carnival, only to find it’s closing down; Lilly’s able to conjure up an imagined Ferris wheel ride to make up for the missed experience. Can imagination substitute for memory? Her father is watching his memory slip away, possibly aware of this at the time of the story (I’m not clear on that point), but eager to recapture what he can while there’s still memory left to do so.

Their route includes the lodge where he and his wife stayed years ago:

A garish 1950s-style faux-neon sign, hugely oversized and illuminated by rows of individual brightly painted lightbulbs, had been welded to an immense steel post to hold its colossal weight, the kind of sign one might see outside a lounge advertising itself as the Thunderbird or the Wagon Wheel, but would generally not expect to encounter back in a quiet grove of trees far off the beaten track in south-central Montana.
It pleased her father to see that the sign was still there, by the rushing little creek, and he got out and took a picture of it to show her mother, though he said that to appreciate it fully, one needed to see it at night.

“Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars…” Only when your memories are leaving you, do you treasure them – even the one of the awful eyesore smack in the middle of the grandeur of Paradise Valley. This man who spent some occasion there with his wife remembers the sign with more apparent appreciation than he shows the mountains, the forests, the river. But now memory won’t do to preserve this – so he takes a picture.

It must’ve been tempting for Bass to dwell on the father’s memory in light of his decline; but Bass instead focuses on Lilly. It’s an unexpected choice, to look at the memories she stores rather than those Dad loses. I’m absolutely sure it’s the right choice.

While Dad captures his memory on film, Lilly notices the marquee advertising a concert, and has a stab of compassion for the singer who will be performing in the middle of nowhere. Her ability to reach across boundaries of self into the needs of others is quite unusual for a 12-year-old, perhaps unbelievably so. Granted, the story is being told in retrospect, but is that the sort of thing your average 12-year-old would even notice? She hasn’t had the kind of hurt that sometimes limits how far outside our own skin we can see, that turns wonder to ennui or cynicism. Maybe that in itself is unrealistically unusual – or maybe we’ve just come to accept it as normal, to inculcate the notion of compassion as dangerous weakness, far earlier than the brink of adolescence. If so, shame on us.

Lilly sees all the juxtapositions of beauty and ugliness as they travel: the lovely songbird outside a house where the poverty and despair hang in the air like smoke; the storm and the clearing. She doesn’t avoid any of it. She accepts it all as reality, non-judgmentally. Maybe that’s because she’s twelve, and she’s only travelling through.

One of these interactions predominates: Lilly first sees the woman in the Cadillac feeding an ice cream cone to her chihuahua. Later, they see her car broken down on the side of the road. For me, it was the most powerful scene in the story, the true crossing of the Divide:

She thought she understood why her father hesitated—why he was annoyed, even, that on such a perfect morning, there was this complication to their day, this unwelcome challenge or summons to Samaritanhood—but she was surprised by the anger she felt there in the car.
He actually drove on past the woman, not really deliberating—she and her father both knew he was going to stop and turn around, and go back—but instead allowing himself, she thinks now, the brief luxury of believing he could keep going. Of believing he was free to keep on going.
The woman watched him pass but made no gesture, no outreach or call for help other than to make a sour face briefly as she confirmed once again that she understood how the world was…

I’m reading the Purgatorio section of Dante’s <emCommedia at the moment, a continuation on my own of the reading I started last Fall through the Georgetown University MOOC, so I'm primed to mentions of free will. This one struck me: how important it was to Dad to make sure he, and perhaps Lilly and the woman in the car as well, knew he had the free will to drive by. It was an option. Maybe it was the default. He needed to make clear – to himself, if not to Lilly – that he consciously chose, that he was capable of choosing compassion. Lilly gets it. She's a little impatient at first, but she gets it.

We make choices every day. How far will our compassion extend today? Is this woman good enough to waste compassion on? How many times have you heard, "I'll save my compassion for [someone deserving]." :Why do we insist that compassion is a limited resource? Just in the past few days I've been reading Cantos XIV and XV, which, among other things, discuss the human obsession with things that can't be shared, versus love that reflects back and forth among sharers and thus multiply – "for like a mirror each returns it to the other." I'd like to believe we can have compassion for everyone, and not only will it not run out, but we will find it multiplies.

What would it be like, to be him—the man in the stained T-shirt, porch-staggered and blinking groggily at the bright sunlight? It was only her own victory of being loved deeply that allowed her the luxury of such indulgent imaginings, such frightful considerations of slumber, detachment, escape.
It was only her own victory of being loved deeply that allowed her the luxury of such indulgent imaginings, such frightful considerations of slumber, detachment, escape.

I’d like to live up to Lilly’s level of compassion.

Memory is clearly a theme of the story; the rest is probably my overreaching. And memory is a marvellous thing. Lilly is recalling this story, a story about memory, and look what she remembers: yes, initially, it’s about pretty scenery, but most of her memories are far more personal. The Ferris wheel ride that didn’t happen. Some people less lucky than she is. The scenery is lovely – and is captured in a photograph or, now, is available via Google. But what about the things that change us? Can they only live in our synapses? And what happens when those connections fail? What is left behind, is what they changed us into, how we went forward from that time, how we entered into the memories of others: the human organism as a network of memories.

How do you want to be remembered?

I was skeptical when I started this story. It seemed like it would be your typical “Aww, how sweet” road story about a father and daughter bonding, or maybe failing to bond, in a natural setting that would underline each mood shift. Instead, it went much deeper. Most of that is certainly coincidence, my own state of mind at the time. I’m pretty sure Lilly’s father wasn’t thinking of Dante when he turned around and pulled over to help, nor was Rick Bass when he wrote this story. And neither would I have been but for the coincidence of time and my tendency to become obsessed with whatever project I’m working on. But reading is a journey, and this was the road I found. Not the worst road to travel.

Pushcart 2015: Lyn Hejinian, “The Unfollowing” (Poetry) from Lana Turner, #6

Jackson Pollock, "Mural" (1943)

Jackson Pollock, “Mural” (1943)


Afloat in a glass-bottom boat, I see into the sea—a miniscule emerald memento
That the strongest social bonds are forged by language doesn’t nullify
           the power that dancing around the puppet effigies of the men
           in power has
On the solemn face of the glinting belly is a button baby
You have to know how to roll on the horizon
Followers follow, possibles possibulate, coruscations consider, blood

An allegory is a depiction of something that can’t be depicted

I confess: I gave up on this one. Fortunately, it’s available online (thank you, Lana Turner Journal) so my ineptitude doesn’t need to dissuade anyone else.

Language poets gave me a lot of trouble in ModPo, including Hejinian, whose “My Life” was included in the curriculum (an excerpt, at least). It’s a poetic biography of sorts, and she’s added to it a few times as the years went by. I love that idea; she writes about “The Rejection of Closure” in an essay available online.

(One way to tell I’m lost is that I start throwing a lot of resources around, hoping no one will notice I’m not really saying anything except, “Oh, here’s this thing that’s maybe relevant… or maybe not.”)

One of the problems I have with Language poets is the non-linearity of text. I can recognize the sounds that lead one to another in the opening lines quoted above, and I love the wordplay, but I have no idea how to understand it as a whole. Is it even meant to be understood as a whole?

So, instead of unfollowing, I have simply failed to follow. But with best wishes, and a trail of bread crumbs for the more intrepid.

Pushcart 2015: Reginald Dwayne Betts, “Elegy with a City in it” (Poetry) from Kenyon Review, #35.2

There are men awed
by blood, lost in the black
of all that is awful:
think crack and aluminum. Odd
what time steals,
or steals time: black robes, awful
nights when men offed in streets awed
us. Dead bodies sold news; real
hustlers bled. The Post a reel
for Rayful: black death, awe,
chocolate city read
as accumulation: the red
of all those bodies. Red
sometimes a dark and awful
omen the best couldn’t read.

Sometimes a poem stops me short. Sometimes it’s too much. How can I talk about the wordplay: homonyms “red” and “read”, “reel” and “real”, “awe” and “awful”, the symbolic and literal meanings of “black”, the repetition, the rhythms of the lines, the interplay of violence and news, with the poem on the news, in pictures, in words, embodied as I read. It’s about a different city and a different aspect of injustice, but the words, the music of rage and despair and powerlessness and injustice are the same, have been the same for four hundred years.

I considered posting an excerpt, with a link (it’s available online temporarily at Poetry Daily), with a comment about letting the poem stand on its own. But that didn’t feel right. It felt like refusing to face reality. It felt like shirking responsibility, avoiding consequences. And there’s been entirely too much of that. I’m proud of the young woman who’s decided to take account for one life. I’m not so naïve as to think this is change; power finds ways to reassert itself, and the pushback will be immense. But it’s hope.

           …. Chocolate city red
under the scrutiny. Asphalt red.
When we heard about Black,
there was this silence, awful
silence, like death was odd,
and still when I sing this awful
tale, there is more than a dead black
man in the center; there is a city still
as all the bodies that make ’86 real—
a city still, and awful, still and stark red.

I just don’t have the wisdom to add much. So yes, I’ll let the poem stand on its own wisdom, on Betts’ wisdom, on Betts’ hope. Read his poem. Read his story. Black lives matter, every one.

Pushcart 2015: Michael Kardos, “Animals” from Crazyhorse, #83

It’s nearly lunchtime and the woman on the phone is getting snippy, so I intentionally flub a word. “I know this must be fistering for you.”
“I beg your pardon?” she says.
“Fistering. Fisterating?”
“Do you mean ‘frustrating’?”
“Yes—I mean that. I use the wrong word sometimes,” I tell her, just as I’ve been taught to say. My confession will cause her temper to subside.
“But your English is really quite good,” she says.
“Thank you,” I tell her. “You are kind.”
“It’s the truth, Raj. Have you ever been to America?” She calls me Raj because she believes it’s my name. Because I told her it is.
“No, Josephine,” I tell her. That’s her name— Josephine Sanders. “Though one of my cousin attends U.C.L.A. He likes America very much.”
I know nothing about this woman other than her name, phone number, and computer model, but I sense she isn’t a bad person. Certainly, her frustration is warranted. The CD-ROM drive on her new computer shouldn’t already be failing.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the process of reading: the collaboration of writer and reader to produce meaning, aesthetic effect. Is the responsibility all on the writer? Does not the reader need to bring something as well? Do some authors, some works, expect a little more? Do some readers, some reads, fall short? When a story doesn’t work, is it due to empathic failure on at least one side – the failure of the writer to give the reader sufficient understanding of the conflict, or the inability of the reader to identify (or identify with) that conflict – that the story does not elicit an emotional response, or elicits a response that is not aesthetically satisfying?

This story is available online (thank you, Crazyhorse) so beware of spoilers ahead: as always, I urge anyone reading here to read the story before proceeding. I am not a literary critic or reviewer; I only report my own experience with what I read, and I wouldn’t want to prematurely contaminate another’s experience. And I’d enjoy hearing the experience others have had with this story.

As I read it for the first time, I noticed the “morphing” quality so many good stories seem to have. With the first paragraph I thought, “Oh, I see, it’s a story about a boy in India who connects with an American via a technical support call and it changes one of their lives in some way.” That frame didn’t last long, of course; tiny, well-placed clues kept undermining it, until I realized something else was going on. A few pages in, it suddenly became a story about an elaborate corporate con, though not the one I expected. Then it became two strangers-in-the-night, a lost dog, an underachiever, a confessional, and I got lost in too many subplots.

Whereas in “Blue” I saw it as metaphor, and thus I could roll with the objectively odd events that transpired, here the coincidences seemed trite and forced (a veterinary school dropout finds a sick lost puppy? Oh please) and I didn’t understand any of the whys: Why does the woman confess? Why does she turn a technical support call into phone sex? (I maybe figured that one out, actually: it was a desperate attempt to be recognized as human) Why does Raj/Charlie shut down when his efforts to help fail? And most of all, why on earth did Kardos write that end scene? There’s inevitable surprise, and there’s ridiculously overblown.

This is a failure of empathy, I thought; the author has failed to uphold his end of the bargain.

Half of that evaluation was accurate.

I’m still not sure whose fault it was. It might have been the dog’s. Just because they’re animals doesn’t mean they’re blameless. But I do know this: There are certain people in the world who have a knack for keeping the peace. And those people have a responsibility. I’m one of those people. I’ve always been one of those people.

I found the story online in PDF form; to make quoting easier (and typos in quoted text less likely), I copy/pasted it to my notes. As happens sometimes with PDFs, that didn’t go terribly well. All “fi” and “fl” combinations resolved to added spaces, which is easy to fix with a global replace. All paragraphing was lost, which is… not. Even though it’s a somewhat longish story, I decided to go through and restore one paragraph break at a time using the book text as a guide. Happily, this would do for a second read as well; I hadn’t been looking forward to that.

Something funny happened while I was finding paragraph breaks: I found the story. Hey, whatever works. And, as rooted in the mundane details of ordinary life as it is, the story is definitely metaphor.

It’s metaphor of how we don’t really care about each other, and what that leads to. It’s metaphor of exploitation: a business exploits those desperate for work, turning them into sub-exploiters who cooperate in the mission: to cheat those desperate for help, at which point those targets exploit whatever means they have to get what they need, and, when that fails, to lash out. Metaphor of a certain lack of persistence: we give up so easily, sometimes we give up on dreams, sometimes on rescue, sometimes on ourselves. We give up on empathy, because it’s too damn hard. That’s the kind of people we are, some of us. I was reminded again of Aesop’s Fable about the Scorpion and the Frog. It’s our nature.

But at one point I turn around and see that more and more people have gathered where we stood—new hires, upper management, the girl from the mailroom—and they’re all waiting their turn to hug my dog, who doesn’t squirm or protest at all as she’s passed around from person to person. She lets herself be folded into each set of arms, remaining completely calm, either because she’s sick or because of the cold or the strange surroundings, or, more likely, because that’s the kind of animal she is.

I do still think the ending is overblown and a bit trite. And the puppy, yeah, that’s a little much on the other end. And maybe that’s the clue: it’s metaphor. If we can all get our collective heads out of our collective asses – and let’s face it, some of us have had our heads up our asses so long, we’ve hung pictures on the walls and called it home – maybe we wouldn’t need helicopters and lost puppies. Maybe there won’t be so much empathic failure. But maybe that’s our nature.

There’s some nice rhythm in here, as well. Phone conversations that play musically. A sudden switch to passive voice that underlines the shift to empathic failure. And, oh, yes: there was empathic failure. The story is about empathic failure.

Funny, how a half-assed rereading turned this into an experience. That’s why I blog stories. Sometimes I have to be forced to overcome my nature.

Pushcart 2015: Susan Stewart, “Pine” (Poetry) from Paris Review, #207

"Ogham Tree Grove"  by Yuri Leitch

“Ogham Tree Grove” by Yuri Leitch

a homely word:
a plosive, a long cry, a quiet stop, a silent letter
           like a storm and the end of a storm,
the kind brewing
           at the top of a pine,
                       (torn hair, bowed spirits, and,
                               later, straightened shoulders)
who’s who of the stirred and stirred up:
          musicians, revolutionaries, pines.

I never realized “pine” had so many possibilities. If you’d like, read the poem online (thank you, Paris Review), and walk through the pines with me:

My first thought was that a phonetic dissection of the word “pine” was an odd way to start. In linguistics, “p” is indeed an unvoiced plosive consonant. “Aye”, yes, a long cry, aye, cry, changing shape along the way. Since my first connection with the word “pine” on reading this was “pine box” – that is, coffin – a long cry would be an appropriate association. But we don’t run into a pine box until later; there’s much more interesting stuff before then. Where was I – yes, the cry. Then, “a quiet stop”; now, the IPA charts I originally learned from had “n” as a nasal, but then I’ve also read about it as an alveolar fricative; and yes, there are those who define it as a stop. Susan Stewart’s a Princeton professor who won a MacArthur “Genius Grant”; I’m not going to argue with her if she wants to call it a stop. And the silent letter; who doesn’t read that and hear “the rest is silence” ?

But wait: we don’t really start with that at all, do we. We start with “a homely word.” “Homely” on face value means “ugly”, but it has meanings shading towards “simple” or “rustic” as well. Pine is an undistinguished wood. I happen to be very fond of it, as it’s hardy, plentiful, thus cheap, and can be very beautiful, or very plain. What I like most about it is that its knots, its flaws, are what make individual boards interesting and unique. It is, however, very soft, unless treated. I’m wondering if there’s some metaphor here, and for what. For people? For poetry? For life?

Or is pine just pine? In Pine-Sol and in pine: “…one means of knowing the real thing is the fake you find in school.” And we have humor, wordplay: “The air had a nip: pine / was traveling in the opposite direction.” Is this a turn signal? Have we have now begun the descent portion of our flight? I don’t think so; it’s way too early, isn’t it? School has just let out… does it start that early, the travelling in the other direction?

Now out of school, I learned a lot from this poem. I didn’t know the White Pine, aka Japanese Pine, often used for bonsai, grows its needles in telltale groups of five. But that’s just the beginning of what I learned:

An alphabet made of trees.
In the clearing vanished hunters
        left their arrowheads
        and deep cuts in the boulder wall:
                 petroglyphs, repeating triangles.

There is an alphabet made of trees, shown in the header art above: Ogham, where the pine tree is the ailm, something like an “a”: a single horizontal line. This alphabet is found in texts, and is carved on stones in Ireland. And of course, there is an online transliterator, though I have no idea who created it, or how accurate it is.

I also immediately thought of John Ashbery’s “Some Trees”, that poem I discovered through ModPo that creates a sense of interconnectedness even on a passing mention. So much interconnectedness, yet I struggle to find the overall structure of this poem.

The final stanza:

No undergrowth, though, in a pine forest.
Unlike the noisy wash
of dry deciduous leaves,
the needles blanket the earth
pliant beneath a bare foot,
a walk through the pines.
Silence in the forest comes from books.

If you’ve ever walked in a pine forest, you know the spongy feel referenced here. I remember being terrorized by that feeling when I was younger, fearing the ground would absorb me at some point, frozen in place until I had to be carried out. And that last sentence leaves me breathless – an appropriate response, I think.

I see so much in those closing lines: “pliant” is so similar to “plant”; the indent on “floating” gives the word itself a floating sense; is the walk in the pines, and thus the poem, perhaps a life, now come to an end? Is the walk through the pines the reading of a poem on paper? Is there some strangeness to reading it via illuminated pixels instead? Or is it just about pines? I wish I could interpret intelligently.

But maybe interpretation is the wrong approach to this poem, to any poem. Maybe a poem is more than a balance sheet of symbols and sounds; maybe it’s the wind on which we fly, and there’s no need to quantify or characterize. I’m having this very argument, about another poem, with someone right now; the way always presents itself, doesn’t it; it’s up to us to see it, and, if possible, take it. And, by the way, if I see something different in this poem tomorrow, or next year, or in ten years, is it not inherent in poetry that it grow with me, adapt itself to every “me” that reads it, however separated in time and thought they might be?

So what is the poem as a whole, how does it flow, how does it mean? I see the words, but does it make a sentence, a paragraph, a unified idea with a beginning, middle, end? Is it a lifespan: birth in a word, the individuation of sounds and letters, gathering meaning as it goes along, learning to communicate and have useful function, culminating in a pine box, ending in silence of discarded needles, while the tree itself goes on to make more needles? Is the linguistic beginning a layout of the poem: stanzas in turn plosive, cry, stop – the rest is silence –

Or is it just a meditation on the word “pine” and the images it brings the poet?

I’ll admit, I’ve lost the forest for the trees here. But you’ll have to admit, too: they’re pretty awesome trees.

Pushcart 2015: Edward Hoagland, “Hippies and Beats” (non-fiction) from New Letters, #80.1

Being a little younger than the Beat generation writers (although my first book was published in the same year, 1956, as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems) and yet older than the mainstream Hippie movement later on, I observed both the certain skeptical affinity.

I was uncertain through much of this essay. A reminiscence? I don’t sense much affection, or even much connection to the people and things that went before. There’s some compare/contrast, but it’s a short essay, just over four pages, so how informational can it be? For such an august literary personage with such an interesting past (he literally ran off to join the circus as a kid, served in the army, graduated from Harvard, travelled the world writing about peoples and places; how many people can claim those disparate things?) this seems an odd approach.

The two movements – the Beats of the 50s and the Hippies of the 60s – sometimes get conflated by virtue of the shared flouting of convention, but Hoagland points out some fundamental differences: how women are viewed (“The Beats were patriarchal, for the most part”) and the anti-intellectual intellectualism (“The Beats didn’t read very much that wasn’t Buddhist or Beat, but they weren’t anti-literate, like many Hippies, who seemed to regard reading as an Establishment activity”).

And, by the way – did any of it make a difference? How’s the Establishment doing today? Does anyone get the sense that protest itself has been co-opted? Then again, maybe it always has been that way – per deliciously telling phrases like “mainstream Hippie movement”.

But towards the end, music plays in the language, and my heart was indeed captured:

Freedom and ambivalence were what the Hippies sought. The winters were character-building and they learned carpentry, chainsawing, latrine-digging if they stuck around, while their main stoner drug edged toward being decriminalized. But that was less romantic than hitting the road and spilling the beans in compulsive cadences, banging around, depending on the kindness of strangers. My rocking-chair friend and my girlfriend both also died too young, perhaps from a shared distrust of doctors, or from smoking fungicide marijuana. Ginsberg intoned famously at the beginning of “Howl” that “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed…” Dubious, but certainly people he loved.

From the rhythm of that third sentence – a rhythm of rocking chairs and cadences – to the aching nostalgia of the last: Is anything as glorious, as significant, in the retelling as in the experience?

Pushcart 2015: Afaa Michael Weaver, “Visit #1″ (Poetry) from Ploughshares, #38.4

Your grandfather and I walk alike,
each of us counting the brittle spaces
in getting older. At the desk I explain
I want to see my son, and I see you
are now digits on a sheet….

A poem reveals itself many ways, sometimes recreating itself as it does so. With each sentence, these words move us to a different place, and we come to see, in some faint sense, what the speaker is feeling.

At first, it’s a poem about generations. It remains that throughout, but the implication of the passing of generations is different as we read on: the desk? Digits on a sheet? At first I thought, a hospital. Because that’s what I understand. But if I better understood the world from other points of view, I might have caught on earlier: a father and grandfather are visiting the son in jail.

Each line reveals another aspect of the experience, as the father recalls trips to school, and compares them to this visit. In last year’s Pushcart, I encountered Weaver for the first time through his poem “Blues in Five/Four, The Violence in Chicago”. It, too, had this sense of looking back from the present. But that was more of something lost, whereas here, it’s more of something continued. But this visit is also seen as different.

                   … It is the Detention Center,
not school, not the principal, but men
with violence as hope. My father
and I have come to see you, and we
so much want you to outlive us.
To bury you would pull us down
into the spiked pit of grief that kills.

And yet this is the reality so many must face. It becomes an issue of social justice for many of us, but for this father, and this grandfather, it’s something much more personal, much more painful. “I pray for you. It is my only secret,” says the speaker. I wonder: why a secret? From whom? From the son, who would scorn such sentiment?

Although the poem is not available online, Weaver includes a brief author’s note in the issue of Ploughshares in which this appears. It may be as important as the poem itself. Our children – how can we do this to them? How can we allow it?

Pushcart 2015: Russell Banks, “Blue” from The Barcelona Review, #82

Art by sqbr (modified)

Art by sqbr (modified)

Ventana steps off the number 33 bus at 103rd Street and North-west Seventh Avenue in Miami Shores. It’s almost 6:00 P.M., and at this time of year the city stays hot and sticky thick till the sun finally sets at 8:00. She walks quickly back along Seventh, nervous about carrying so much cash, thirty-five one-hundred-dollar bills. She doesn’t want to pay for the car with a check and then have to wait till the check clears before she can drive it home—no way a used-car dealer who doesn’t know her personally will accept a check from a black woman and let her take the goods home before the check clears. She wants the car now, today, so she can drive to work at Aventura tomorrow and for the first time park in the employees’ lot and on Sunday after church drive her own damn car, drive her own damn car, to the beach at Virginia Key with Gloria and the grandkids.

Since this story is available online (thank you, Barcelona Review ) I’m not going to worry about spoilers; this makes it easier to talk about. However, I urge any reader here who hasn’t yet read the story to do so before proceeding. Like any horror story, the effect is in cumulative construction and the intensification of suspense, and is always best enjoyed first-hand and unspoiled.

Horror story? Some, including the author, might be surprised to hear it described that way. But that’s how I was thinking of it, from the first paragraph. I suppose “suspense” might be another word. “A metaphoric description of daily life for a significant portion of the American population” would work, too. I was a nervous wreck, reading it.

What is she going on about now, you wonder.

Ventana is a decent, reasonable woman moving into middle age, her kids grown, her husband now an ex. She’s been saving $100 a month for nearly 10 years, and has decided on this day to buy a car with the $3500. And I knew, as soon as I read the first paragraph, that something awful was going to happen to this woman. Because why create such a likeable, sympathetic character, and put her in such a banal situation, if not to put her through hell – my favorite writing advice from Steve Almond.

The suspense as I read was in what kind of disaster Ventana would encounter. A random mugging on her way to the car dealership? The more sophisticated robbery of hucksterism by a couple of greedy salespeople who know a pigeon when they see one and have the plucking down to a science? The snarling guard dog she’s locked in the lot with? The random teenager ambling by in the night? The absurd callousness of the fire department rescue squad? The news crew in full vulture mode? The life-or-death roulette every black person plays in every encounter with the police?

A horror story of everyday life.

It’s quieter than usual out there in the world beyond the fence. Traffic is light, and no one is on the street—she can see Seventh Avenue all the way north to the bus stop at 103rd and in the opposite direction down to Ninety-fifth Street, where her pink shotgun bungalow is located three doors off Seventh, the windows dark, no one home. The narrow wooden garage she emptied out a week ago and where she planned to shelter her car tonight is shut and still emptied out, unused, waiting. Along Seventh the streetlights suddenly flare to life. The number 33 bus, nearly empty, rumbles past. A police cruiser speeds by in the opposite direction, lights flashing like the Fourth of July.

The story is included in Banks’ 2014 collection, A Permanent Member of the Family. In a generally positive review of that book for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Malcolm Forbes criticizes this one story as “so pock-marked with plot holes the reader is forced to suspend disbelief to make it work.” If you look at it as your typical realism, that’s a fair point – Would even the most stereotypically bloodsucking leech of a car salesperson forget a customer is on the lot and lock up for the night? Is the Miami-Dade public service sector really so incompetent as to tell a 911 caller a rescue isn’t a rescue, but a break-in, and the local police precinct should be called instead? Is any news crew really so worried about makeup and lighting and camera angles as to walk away from a woman trapped behind a spiked fence with a snarling guard dog because the story just isn’t interesting enough? For that matter, is a 47-year-old woman going to climb on top of a Ford Escape (in this case, not so much of an escape) to evade attack, and go to sleep, when she has a cell phone in her purse?

That cell phone brings in an interesting line of inquiry: why doesn’t she call someone? Is the fear of looking ridiculous so strong, as to be life-threatening? Has human trust eroded to the point where we can’t depend on others in emergencies? Is it vanity, foolishness – or fear of the connection, the indebtedness, the possibility of refusal? I know times when I’ve asked for help, and times when I’ve paid for services I could ill afford because I was too afraid to ask for help. But if my life were in danger? Why did Banks include the cell phone in the story? What element of character was he revealing? Was he giving us a way to blame the victim? Is this yet another catastrophe Ventana faces – being blamed for her own doom?

I don’t see plot holes at all, because I don’t see the story as realism. I’d rather see the entire story as a metaphor for the kinds of dangers someone like Ventana – a middle-aged black woman with no particular status or power, but a strong sense of pride and decency – faces every day of her life. If the random thieves don’t get you, the greed just might. If the cops don’t shoot you, there’s still the guard dog. Life as suspense, moving through one peril at a time. And sure, there’s a cell phone in her purse, but that means exposing herself in a position of weakness, and seeing that weakness in the other’s eyes with every meeting from then on. And there’s the usual places to call for help, but help never comes, because a black woman in mortal danger just doesn’t play as well on the 11 o’clock news as a cat stuck in a tree. And it’s all her own fault, anyway.

Now, if I read it that way, I see the point of view of the story as: in the end, it’s nature that’s gonna get us. But not nature in its natural state: Nature, refashioned into a form needed by human possessiveness, to fit a need created by human failings. Maybe that’s what we feel gripping our leg, right now.

I don’t think this requires suspension of disbelief at all. I think it may be the most realistic story I’ve read in a long time. And that is pretty horrifying.