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

Makoto Fujimura:  "Tree Grace"

Makoto Fujimura: “Tree Grace”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Michael Cope: “Sciatica”

Michael Cope: “Sciatica”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art by Nitin Singh

Art by Nitin Singh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete poem available online at Poetry Magazine

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

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

Art: Martha Kelly

Art: Martha Kelly

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

Complete story available online at Gettysburg Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One person’s utopia is another’s dystopia.

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

Artist: April Harrison

Artist: April Harrison

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

Complete poem available online
at New England Review

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

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

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

Maya Lea Portner, Reem Bassous: “Negotiating Dystopia”

Maya Lea Portner, Reem Bassous: “Negotiating Dystopia”

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

Complete story available online at A Public Space

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

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

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

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

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

Pablo Romero:  One Hand Slam Dunk

Pablo Romero: One Hand Slam Dunk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John F. Petro: “Myth & Moor” (1885)

John F. Petro: “Myth & Moor” (1885)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete story available online at Wigleaf

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

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

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

Pushcart XLII: Christopher Citro, “It’s Something People in Love Do” (poem) from Sycamore Review 28.1

It’s a late film, not one of their best, clogged
with a love interest that never really makes
your pants itch, but when the Marx Brothers
keep the train moving so the hero can make it
to town to record the deed and afford to marry
the girl of his dreams, they chop the whole
damn train up to feed the fire.

Let me again plead ignorance of the intricacies of poetry beyond a few basics, and admit that I have no idea why this is written as a poem and not a story. What does the structure do for it? If I had to guess, I’d say it was a summary of the poem: the form, a regularity of even-length lines (but not necessarily even rhythms), versus the wide-ranging emotionalism of the content, just as the relationship it describes, measured by practicality and stability, encases a heart of passion and wild imagination that desperately wants to use a different yardstick:

What I am saying is maybe everything’s not
a metaphor for trying to pay the bills on time.
I love your credit score. It could pin my credit score
to the late summer soil and pee on its head.
My credit score would roll over and take it.
But what do you think of that chicken dinner
I made last night, how caramelized the thigh,
the bourbon from a plastic jug.

I broke the poem into three sections, of 13, 3, and 12 lines. The first section describes the movie (Go West), and then wham, we’re in the kitchen with these people, late at night, maybe after a fight about money, and there’s a capitulating honesty followed by an invitation to try the new yardstick. The final line kills me: imagine loving someone who needs this explained.

In the end, I gave up and read it as a story. It’s not available online via Sycamore Review, the original publisher, but those who can’t get their hands on a print copy (or a copy of Pushcart – local public libraries can be very helpful) might want to check Citro’s blog. It’s worth it. I love this poem/story.

It simultaneously makes me smile, and breaks my heart. And believe me, I’ve been on both sides, I’ve been the careful planner and impulsive romantic. I’ve worried about paying the bills when I should’ve been tearing the roof off and licking bourbon-laced chicken juice from my beloved’s mouth, and I’ve thrown caution to the winds when I should’ve been taking care of business. Maybe that’s the case here, too: this isn’t a permanent state of the relationship (that would be too sad), but a moment after a fight when readjustment is possible, a crossing of parallel paths to bring two sides back together. Or it’s a weasel worming out of the latest failure of responsibility. I’ve mixed those two up before, too.

Pushcart XLII: Rachel Cusk, “Freedom” from Paris Review #217

I asked Dale whether he could try to get rid of the gray.

I don’t know if times of political turmoil has unleashed supercharged creative forces, or if I’m reading differently, or if it was simply a great year for fiction; but here again is a story so packed with fascinating layers, I can’t quite hold it all in my head at once. As the title clearly states, is most clearly about freedom. The setting, a hair salon, allows for a highly metaphorical approach, yet the surface story retains a lot of tension, particularly right now: is the kid gonna blow?

I don’t know how most readers would interpret that first sentence; the setting isn’t established, so “get rid of the gray” could mean a lot of things. Cusk could have written it more clearly, but she didn’t; I’d assume we’re supposed to pick up some associations from the line in the absence of cues. It could refer to weather (turns out, the weather is indeed rainy and dark). It could refer to color in art or decorating or fashion. And it could, and does, refer to hair coloring. But “gray” brings with it all kinds of associations, most of them unpleasant: murkiness, uncertainty, age, decay. No wonder she wants to get rid of the gray.

Everywhere you looked, there was only the reflection of what was already there. Often I had walked past the salon in the dark and had glanced in through the windows. From the darkness of the street it was almost like a theatre, with the characters moving around in the bright light of the stage.

Being completely untrained in drama, I would consider this a play in two acts (or maybe it’s two scenes, seeing as I don’t know the difference). Start with the setting: the day is dark and rainy, the roads fading to black, but inside the salon, everything is light and reflection: white décor and mirrors everywhere (talk about getting rid of the gray!). We have three major speaking players, a bit part, and two silent but pivotal characters: a 12-year-old boy forced into a haircut by his mother, and said mother. The speaking characters are Dale, stylist and presumably the salon owner; his client, who as our first-person narrator goes unnamed; and Sammy, the woman who cuts the boy’s hair while Mom waits. The first act takes place before the boy enters, the second, after. As the dialogue proceeds, it becomes more and more evident: There is no way to get rid of the gray, but we keep trying, and convincing ourselves it was never there.

In the first act, the prelude to the boy’s entrance, Dale, our narrator, and Sammy discuss hair coloring, and by extension many other things, in terms of commitment:

‘We’re talking about a commitment,’ Dale said. ‘You have to keep coming back every six weeks. That’s a life sentence,’ he added darkly, his eyes meeting mine in the mirror. ‘I’m just saying you need to be sure.’
The other stylist looked at me sidelong with her lazy smile.
‘A lot of people don’t find that a problem,’ she said. ‘Their lives are mostly commitments anyway. At least if it makes you feel good that’s something.’

These are three interesting views of something as silly as hair coloring. Dale – who, remember, makes a living styling hair – argues against commitments as an infringement on one’s freedom (and expresses exactly why I have up on hair color long ago and just let the gray do its thing), yet his subsequent actions show he’s quite a control freak. Sammy, who also styles hair for a living, takes a realistic approach: we all have commitments, so why not take on those that deliver something enjoyable. Our narrator, the client wanting to get rid of the gray, serves as something of a foil to the other two, exposing a kind of phoniness embedded in both freedom and control.

Enter the boy, and now the play starts in earnest. Just his entrance, his passage from the dark outside to the bright, reflective inside, is loaded, as he holds the door open a little longer than Dale would like and earns a sharp rebuke. Turns out he was holding it for his mother, which means a classic double-bind. And that’s just his entrance.

Although most of the story is a philosophical discussion, the little details keep the tension high. The boy maintains a loaded silence during the haircut he seems forced into, his hands gripping the arms of the chair as the adults continue to discuss the burden of commitments and the limits of a freedom that seems far away for him. This is a kid with a lot to say, and no place it’s safe to say it.

It’s no coincidence the story ends with the door as well, and an explosive passage from the white reflections of the salon into the darkness of the rainy night. Because no pre-teen aching for just enough freedom to arrange his own haircuts on his own terms can take that much reflection, in the glare of that white-hot light, for that long. Much better to retreat into the gray, where he can learn about freedom, and obligations, at his own pace.

I should say that my impression of the story is a little different from that of Ross McMeekin, who discusses it in the Ploughshares “The Best Story I Read This Week” blog. Where he sees anger, I see an anger coupled with fear, the fear of becoming adult and laboring under the obligations freedom brings; and the fear that adulthood is nowhere near as free as he, at 12, believes it to be.

It’s a lesson we adults sometimes forget: while we think our childhoods were carefree, they, too, were loaded with obligations. The nice thing about being adult is that you have more choice about which obligations you take on, and more awareness of value of the freedom you give up to shoulder them.

Pushcart XLII: Daniel Harris, “Zombies” (nonfiction) from Salmagundi 190/191

Historically, there are two entirely unrelated types of zombies, one dull and quiescent, the other rabid and infectious. There are, on the one hand, the somewhat soporific zombies who shuffle around such films as White Zombie, Revolt of the Zombies, and I Walked with a Zombie – macabre colonialist cautionary tales from the 1930s and 1940s often set in a tenebrous Caribbean where evil voodoo mesmerists resurrect dead slaves. On the other hand, there is George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead in which, after a returning space probe from Venus explodes in the upper atmosphere, spreading either radioactive contamination or Venutian microbes, the dead arise to cannibalize the living. This one low-budget cult classic inspired a feeding frenzy that culminated in thousands of films, novels, video games, T.V. shows, apps, tshirts, action figures, board games, pet costumes, collectible dolls, mutant Mickey Mice, and cookie jars with lids made of slate grey ceramic brains – the spawn of a mercantile pandemic for which there is as yet no known cure.

Confession: I’ve never seen a zombie movie. I have, however, read Bennett Sims’ zombie novel, A Questionable Shape which is more about philosophy, art, literature, and the nature of our relationships to each other, and to the world (it’s a great book). And Manuel Gonzales’ short story collection The Miniature Wife featured a couple of zombie stories that also were about things other than zombies. So while I’m travelling blind in some areas of this essay, I recognize other points quite handily. I found it quite enjoyable, since I prefer thinking about what zombies mean, and why we’re so obsessed with then, to actual zombie adventures. And that’s what the essay is: an examination of zombies as an expression of contemporary culture, the zeitgeist of our discontent, if you will.

The essay goes on for seven or eight pages, comparing zombie movies and gross-out movies (Animal House, American Pie), the connection to gamers, the importance of the bite in symbolic and cinematic terms, plot, connections to ancient literature (Homer, Hesiod, Virgil all incorporated the undead), and the relationship to contemporary movements such as anti-urbanism, individualism, and libertarianism. It’s all quite interesting, if not particularly moving.

And then we get to the final paragraph, where the boom drops:

Why does a culture of plenty obsess over scarcity? Do we feel we are living in a fool’s paradise, that plenitude is unsustainable, that we have pushed the planet beyond its limits? The comforts of civilization are fraught with anxieties about hardship and distress, fears that manifest themselves in popular culture, in novels and films that imagine a world depleted of its resources. Global warming, pandemics, nuclear war, terrorism, pollution all contribute to our sense of the precariousness of our affluence and privilege, apprehensions that lead us to create obsessive scenarios of decimation, annihilation, apocalypse. Zombies are the scolds of prosperity, loquacious lay preachers who remind us that the whole complex structure of civilization could collapse in an instant and we could find ourselves, between breakfast and lunch, scrounging for our next meal, even as they scrounge for theirs, us.

I don’t think that’s specific to zombie lit, however. Doomsday books and movies have been a staple of pop culture for decades, and, as pointed out in the essay, disaster/ghost/horror stories go back to the beginnings of literature: what is the story of Adam and Eve if not the ultimate universal doomsday scenario? What is the Theogony if not a horror story? One of the differences between Eastern religions and philosophies, I’ve learned in my mooc travels, is that the West views humanity as flawed, needing rescue from a supernatural source, and history as linear, while the East sees the universe as cyclical and people as capable of finding the right path to internal peace without supernatural intervention. Yet Eastern literature has its share of ghost stories, too.

In the worst of times, we fret about our demise; in the best of times, we fear it won’t last. Our awareness of the inevitability of our own death – often cited as the difference between people and animals – takes many forms. Zombies are one way we assure ourselves that not only are we not really gone, but that we can bring our friends with us, whether or not they want to come along.

Pushcart XLII: Teresa Dzieglewicz, “Stranger, Thank You for Giving Me This Body” (poem) from Rhino, 2016

Art by Élie Nysquisot

Art by Élie Nysquisot

                                    to break
on Lakeshore Drive. For the eyes I turn
                  to the radio as the lady
in the red SUV slams
                  on her brakes. Thank you for bringing me
into this world,
                  where my Pontiac crumples
like crepe paper, where the airbag’s white fist
            pummels my chest and burnt talcum erupts
                        like confetti, stains my clothes
with the scent of singed hair.

Complete story available online at Rhino

We’ve all heard that, in a moment when one expects to die, our lives will flash before us. The speaker in this poem has a slightly different vision: a thank-you note to the unknown woman who bore her, then gave her up for adoption.

Like the prior poem, two related but separate threads are overlaid and seen together, like seeing two translucent panels together, each contributing something to make an impression that is neither. Here, it’s stark life-and-death imagery, the gratitude overlaying pain.

I found this poem to be a great example of the use of structure to reinforce meaning. The jagged line indents perhaps bring to mind the shattered glass and ruptured steel of the car around our speaker (and let me admit that I haven’t precisely reproduced the poem’s format; but since an online version is available, I merely approximated the indents). I’m not sure if there’s a technical term for using the title of a poem as a first line without repeating it in the poem proper – a special form of enjambment, maybe? – but it seems to give a sense of a muddled beginning, something a little different but easily comprehended, similar to how an adopted child might view her own beginning.

The poem reads like a grateful prayer, a recognition of something that may not always be acknowledged. I wonder if the title is worded as it is – “thank you for giving me” – to bring to mind forgiveness, perhaps in both directions: the child and mother forgive each other for whatever wrongs they may have perceived in the past: the child forgives the mother’s abandonment, the mother forgives the child’s anger. Whatever rancor may have been, it is gone now: the essence of forgiveness.

By tracing the negatives –

But I mean, I’ve learned no name
      for how we’ve never sat across a table,
            fingers greasy with fries,
                  how it wasn’t you who read to me each night,
                              taught me to make pizzelles and Sunday gravy,
rushed to the emergency room.
                  But still, somehow, I know you
by the beautiful facts
                  of my fingers, my cracked sternum, the skin of my chest
            purpling with fireworks of blood.

– the positive is acknowledged: even though the beginning confuses us for a moment, it began something beautiful. May we all have such gratitude in our final thoughts – and a little before wouldn’t hurt, either.

Pushcart XLII: Carolyn Forché, “The Boatman” (poem) from Poetry, October 2016

We were thirty-one souls all, he said, on the gray-sick of sea
in a cold rubber boat, rising and falling in our filth.
By morning this didn’t matter, no land was in sight,
all were soaked to the bone, living and dead.
We could still float, we said, from war to war.
What lay behind us but ruins of stone piled on ruins of stone?
City called “mother of the poor” surrounded by fields
of cotton and millet, city of jewelers and cloak-makers,
with the oldest church in Christendom and the Sword of Allah.
If anyone remains there now, he assures, they would be utterly alone.

Complete poem available online at Poetry

Poets can be inspired by all sorts of things: a heroic moment from history, a graceful Grecian urn, daffodils, a mouse, a louse, a nightingale. Or a cab ride through New York courtesy of a Syrian refugee who tells his story. Forché tells us in the audio reading that accompanies the online version of this poem.

Since I’ve just taken several history moocs that looked at the Levant and at medieval Islam, I was interested in the geographical references of the poem. The city of Homs, familiar to us from the news, is the “mother of the poor”, so called in modern times because the cost of living was low. The Sword of Allah refers to Khalid ibn al-Walid, a compatriot to Mohammed and military hero in the early decades of the Islamic Empire; his mausoleum in Homs is bordered by a mosque named in his honor. The “oldest church in Christendom” is more problematic; as far as I can tell, the oldest known church building is a house church in Dura-Europas, not Homs; Syria was part of the Byzantine empire early on, and thus was an early site of several forms of Christianity, so perhaps “church” is being used in the congregational, rather than architectural, sense.

In any case, places and names are merely background; the heart of the poem is clearly deeper.

A brief discussion by Poetry Magazine editors Lindsay Garbutt and Don Share in their October 2016 podcast helped to align the poem for me. The two journeys – one a flight from war to an uncertain destination, a flight that is possibly more deadly than what is left behind but still offers possibility; the other, a simple transit – are overlaid in the poem, resulting in a kind of melding of one small facet of the experience: the putting of one’s safety in the hands of another for the duration of the trip. We get to hear a lot about refugees through newscasts, commentary, and debate, but this is an attempt to let us hear more directly, albeit filtered though the poet’s ear, heart, and mind, from one man who managed to arrive safely, and now spends his day ferrying others, bringing them safely to their destination.

Leave, yes, we obey the leaflets, but go where?
To the sea to be eaten, to the shores of Europe to be caged?
To camp misery and camp remain here. I ask you then, where?
You tell me you are a poet. If so, our destination is the same.
I find myself now the boatman, driving a taxi at the end of the world.
I will see that you arrive safely, my friend, I will get you there.

The connection between cab driver and passenger, between refugee and harbor, is beautiful and devastating. Any one of those people we see on the news could become our shepherds; and, believe it or not (and I fear it becomes more believable every day now), we could find ourselves on troubled waters, looking for a safe place to come ashore. We are not just our brothers’ keepers: we are our brothers, every one.

Pushcart XLII: Stephen Hess, “Act” from Noon, 2016

Art by Anne Rosenvald

Art by Anne Rosenvald

Last spring, I declared to several of my friends that I intended to videotape myself performing a variety of basic, yet highly artificial acts. At the time, I had settled on three specific scenarios; reading the entirety of Thomas Berhnard’s novel Yes aloud, attempting to erase every spot of snow cover on a stretch of sidewalk with my footprints after a winter storm, and walking through city streets to the point of injury, yet continuing on until the pain became unbearable….At the time, I was feeling melodramatic and depressed, and was also filled with such intense anxiety that I could not speak or write clearly, so I felt that recording myself would allow me to articulate a statement that would have otherwise escaped me, and for reasons I cannot explain.

At least two or three times during each Pushcart read, I come across a piece that is so far beyond me, I can’t even begin to comprehend it. This piece is a case in point. At least two complicating factors cloud the field: genre, and a discovery I made while doing research to find a way in.

It’s a short piece, about four pages. Most of it is navel-gazing about intent and failure of execution, none of which yields any real insight or conclusion; a list of other projects never done, and a self-addressed letter, closes the piece.

The point is that I wanted to document something but I didn’t, but I did the things I proposed to do anyway, so I can’t say whether I lost or gained something….

That phrase, “The point is that I wanted to document something and I didn’t” appears twice, and in such a short piece, that must be significant.

About genre: There’s no narrative structure, no protagonist, no rising action – climax – falling action. Yet it’s listed as fiction. Pushcart has been known to be a bit sloppy about categorizations. Here, it makes a difference that seems significant to me, because more than anything else it reminds me of Andrew Zolot’s “The Piece Need Not Be Built”, a nonfiction piece from Pushcart 2014, an art commentary that made a huge impression on me. I keep thinking this is a natural offshoot of that: a performance artist’s commentary on, not his work, but the absence of it.

But for some reason it makes a big difference to me if this is an essay written for that purpose, or if it’s fiction about an artist writing such an essay. I wonder if there is a big difference, or if it’s just part of me trying to categorize everything, if the fiction is so out-of-the-box I can’t handle it so I want to put it in another box.

The other complicating factor is an article I uncovered while wandering around the interwebs looking for something I could use as a way in. This itself was complicated by the prominence of Brookings Institute Fellow Stephen Hess, who is, I’m pretty sure, not the same as the Stephen Hess who wrote this piece, but the Stephen Hess I’m trying to find – using the usual tricks like “fiction” or “writer” or “author” doesn’t help since the Brookings Stephen Hess is also a writer – is something of a phantom. I finally came across a piece in Unsaid by Hess, in very much the same style as this piece, with a heading “RIP Stephen Hess 1980-2015”; if this is factual and not some artistic manipulation, the author died at the heartbreakingly young age of 35. But being enmeshed in the Andy Kaufmanesque world of what-is-art-and-what-is-life (a realm Unsaid and Noon and, it seems, Hess himself, generally inhabit) I wasn’t sure what to think. I finally ran into a post by Elizabeth Ellen, who nominated the piece to Pushcart, that confirmed Hess did indeed pass away in 2015.

And this opens up another puzzle: was he ill? Did he know he would die soon, and this piece foreshadows that, is the kind of legacy an artist leaves to document intent when the act is not documented? Or was it unexpected, and this is all coincidence? Am I being ghoulish even thinking about such things, on this day after 17 people, including several teenagers who were doing nothing more risky than attending school, were murdered because the values of this country are now greed and violence?

I do not wish to offend; but I am confused and more than a little heartbroken. Maybe at some future point we will all regain our senses (too late for me, I fear, but I hope for the sake of your children and grandchildren) and I will see clearly.

Pushcart XLII: Valerie Sayers, “Tidal Wave” from Image #90

In the early days of integration, when only white girls tried out for cheerleader, our elections were a cross between small-town participatory democracy, Soviet-style anointment of the chosen, and the Miss America Pageant. We sat rapt in the bleachers while the candidates cartwheeled in front of the whole school, flashing their white panties. Then we trooped back to homeroom to cast our votes.
We were chatterers, smarty-pants, A-track girls who raised our hands on one beat and never let the boys get a word in edgewise. We would never be cheerleaders, but we knew what it took: a cheerleader didn’t need to be pretty, though most of ours were pretty, as a matter of fact, and a cheerleader didn’t need to be athletic, though some of ours weren’t too shabby in the handstand department. A cheerleader only needed to exude unshakable self-confidence and, maybe as a corollary, to beam bubbly friendliness and make it look like it wasn’t fake—we knew all about fake friendliness. We were growing up in South Carolina, for God’s sake.
All our stories are unresolved high school stories.

Complete story available online at Image

A sense of place: that’s a buzzphrase used a lot in discussions of fiction. The place doesn’t mean just physical or geographic location, but encompasses time and culture as well. The American South seems to come up most frequently in discussions of place. Flannery Connor spent her career building on the sense of place that was her South. It’s no surprise that Sayers herself heavily influenced by Connor; it’s only slightly surprising that the English teacher in this story, Mr. Thigsby, is partly based on Sayer’s own English teacher from her years at Beaufort High School, novelist and Southern fiction specialist Pat Conroy.

Mr. Thigsby said we were ignorant little yahoos, the way we slathered on baby oil and roasted ourselves at the beach, when for centuries poets had known the most beautiful skin was alabaster. Look at Botticelli’s Venus, look at Vonda Freeman, for goodness sake.
So we all did. We twisted in our seats toward the back of the room, where Vonda’s face had turned one of those fiery shades that is certainly not alabaster. She wore an expression we had never seen on each other’s faces, a combination of pain and shame and sweetness, and she stared down at her desk so assiduously that Mr. Thigsby said: Vonda, sugar, I most certainly did not mean to put you on the spot, but now you have perfectly illustrated feminine grace.
Later, we all agreed that when she finally allowed herself to look up that day with her slow-breaking smile, her eyes darted toward Margaret Washington and Marcus Toomer, who stared out the window as assiduously as Vonda had stared down at her desk while the white folk discussed the perfect shade of pale.

Many of us who grew up in the 60s and early 70s know this place, or something like it; not necessarily the South, but a place that was part of the Moral Majority, disapproving of hippies and integration and antiwar protests. Many of us knew the hero-worship of cheerleaders. And most of us are aware that poor kids tend to be isolated, though sometimes they have enough charm, beauty, smarts, or talent to become stars. And sometimes, they use the setbacks along the way as some kind of platform from which to push off and rise to extraordinary heights. As Vonda does.

It’s a story of regret, told by one of the crowd of students whose white middle-class lives are fully planned out for them. While we spend a long time in the past, the story is a recollection from much later. Facebook plays an interesting role, as both a marker of character, and an indicator of the group ethos of the students who haven’t really changed much from high school. The story has a pronounced sense of regret, as they see how Vonda has cut her own path, and it seems much more interesting than the Atlanta suburbs, high school reunions, and serial marriages. The narrator – who speaks in “we” but somehow remains separate – seems to have felt regret even in the past, but wasn’t equipped to do anything about it. Her regret in the present is even more pronounced.

What if we’d done things differently in high school? We all wonder that. If we’d stopped worrying about seeming “cool” (or whatever the current slang might be; doesn’t matter, it’ll be something else two years from now), if we hadn’t been so careful to not be shocking (or, maybe, if we hadn’t been so determined to be shocking, since it works that way, too), if we’d ignored all the advice and gone with our gut. We might have turned into Vonda. And, admiring the NPR story about her, the narrator knows what she might have passed up.

Pushcart XLII: Laura Kasischke, “Praying Mantis in My Husband’s Salad” (poem) from Lake Effect #20

Once, he found one
among the lettuce leaves and
cabbage shreds a former
girlfriend had
arranged on a plate for him. If
it was still alive, I can’t
remember what my husband said that
he and the girlfriend did with it.

Words pass over me so easily sometimes. I was all set to file this under “goofy love poems”. It is, but it’s also well-structured and crafted with purpose: to see different perspectives, to carry emotional impact.

What’s the one thing anyone remembers about a praying mantis? The female has a tendency to eat the males after – or sometimes during – mating. “Yet this behavior seems not to deter males from reproduction”, National Geographic notes drily (or maybe the dryness is inferred by me). Seat that in a poem written by a wife about her husband’s ex-girlfriend, and you’ve got a little soap opera in a poem.

… He’s never, my
husband, been
a salad-eater. Was he then?

Are we still talking about salad?

There’s a wonderful balance of humor and venom, much as the mantis maintains a prayer-like posture before killing; “And their martian faces, of course, with / such innocent expressions. / But all-knowing. / And all business.” And again: are we still talking about salad?

What really grabs me comes up next: “My tiny, triangular head, swiveling / From side to side….” In reviews for Kasischke’s 2017 collection Where Now in which this poem appears, I see phrases like “notices then subverts the so-called ‘normal’”, tug-of-war, and shape-shifting. And here’s a downright shift of speaker, right into the mantis’ triangular head.

Then we shift into the future, while never leaving the recollection of the past; because that’s where the present is, always.

… the meal she’d made for him, and which
They were about to share, beginning
With that salad, and
Also ending there.

Yeah, this is clearly about way more than salad. And I imagine the speaker, forevermore on the alert for the possibility that another praying mantis – or some other predator – might turn up in her husband’s salad some day.

Pushcart XLII: Christopher Kempf, “Michaux State Forest, New Year’s” (poem) from Gettysburg Review, Summer 2016

The approach of the Angel Raphael: Original mezzotint, 1825-1826.

The approach of the Angel Raphael: Original mezzotint, 1825-1826.

We run the kókúku trail (translation—
snow owl, in late-American) alone
this morning, its strict, midwinter alders
dark against the snowfall, its flocks of crows
shrieking as we pass. & as for the river—
there is a river. & as for those vast
accumulations of gasses—& as,
too, for the Fords & Hyundais, & the flows
of copper from Chile to Santa Cruz
& the migrant workers of Sri Lanka
scaling their towers in Dubai—that will,
some evening, rear up & expunge us,
yes, we can almost imagine ourselves
last here, our species’ sole surviving pair
of scavengers ventured forth for water
& shelter, as surely it will be, we
accept now, those new years the planet—poor
rock—is at last absolved of us.

Complete poem available online at Gettysburg Review

Paradise Lost is one of those literary works I’m afraid to read; I keep hoping I’ll come across a mooc or some heavily annotated guide at some point, and will finally tackle it as I did Dante a few years ago. But too late for this poem, which draws heavily on it; I think if I had more than a vague outline of the content, I’d be much better prepared. Oh well, the poem will still be there some day in the future when I finally get around to it. In the meantime, I can do the best I can with the poem, which shouts its message so clearly it almost compensates for my lacks.

It’s an eco-poem, but has so many reverberations – with the tragedy of 18th century Native American culture, with the short-sightedness of American capitalism, with industrial greed as the antidote to poverty, with Milton and Shakespeare – it’s far more than that. While I can’t really nail it down into a precise outline of interwoven themes and images, I wonder if maybe that’s missing the point, that poetry doesn’t have to be science, but can just leave a trace of some ineffable sensation lingering that sticks with us.

From the highest location for miles,
Milton says, he is shown, Adam, the wide
& lavishly manifold history
that will follow him. & it is glorious,
partly. How the banners ripple cleanly
from their turrets. With what refinéd grace
the courtesans attend their farandoles
& coronations. Paintings. Waltzes. Also,
however, in the teeming congeries
of men & animals, influenza
racing like a terror. Diphtheria
lifting its lurid flag, & back of this,
Milton describes, the emergent money
systems of sixteenth-century Europe
carried forth in the rolling cannon smoke
of capital.

This section draws from Book XI of Paradise Lost: after the first people are cast out from Eden, the angel Michael shows Adam the history that will unfold, the history he has created by his sin: his older son killing the younger, greed and hatred, hypocrisy, sacrificial altars, all humanity’s foolish and wayward doings up to the Flood, so Adam has an idea of just what he has unleashed. Kempf sets this against the French intrusion into North America in quest of furs, colonies, wealth, and the Indians’ view of the destruction caused by these endeavors. What follows is a reference to the massacre at the Enoch Brown schoolhouse in what today is Pennsylvania, a particularly grisly Native attack on children, teachers, and a pregnant woman that inflamed tensions. The speaker acknowledges the white settler’s point of view through the eyes of Andre Michaux, botanist, explorer, and namesake of the state park in which the poem is composed; but he sets that against the point of view of the Lenape Indians:

He would have, Michaux, heard
often of their savagery. He would have
called it that, & been properly appalled
when four Lenape entered a schoolhouse
here, winter 1764, & peeled
their blades across the skulls of the children
as they practiced their numbers. He would have
wept probably, though for the Lenape
it seemed simply the extravagant end
of a whole history of sicknesses
& ruin.

There is, of course, no pardon for murdering children (though we as a nation have decided it’s more important for NRA funds to flow freely than it is to reasonably license and control guns, even following the murder of twenty children in Newtown, CT). The speaker manages to give voice to both sides, not glossing over the horrendous violence, but looking back to see what it was in reaction to. And, by the way, violence beget more violence, as the settlers instituted “scalping bounties” to encourage murder of Indians.

And speaking of violence begetting violence:

When finally the earth—or
“this goodly frame, a spot,” Milton says—starves
us from its forests & riversides, it
will not be merciful. It will finish
us slowly. We know this.

Here I again call upon context: having just been immersed in a Shakespeare mooc for several weeks, I flashed on Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man” speech, written about 60 years earlier, which also uses the term “this goodly frame”. Is this a deliberate allusion? Or is it just a phrase common at the time, thus prone to being used by two poets? For that matter, did Kempf deliberately include an ambiguous phrase – and one which, in either context, is comfortable in this context – or was that, too, a happy accident?

I was able to find a footnote referencing a pertinent article on the cross-reference between Milton and Shakespeare by Concordia professor Judith Scherer Herz titled “Paradise Lost VIII: Adam, Hamlet and the Anxiety of Narrative” and am attempting to get my hands on the article (from 1988, but my local library has pulled off bigger miracles). In the meantime, I’m left to my own devices to see a connection with the poem.

[Addendum: Aha, a PDF of the 1988 article from the journal English Studies in Canada arrived, free of charge, compliments of my library, the UMass/Aherst library, and the Interlibrary Loan program. Public libraries are awesome!
I learned several things things from Dr. Scherer:
First, and perhaps most important: the use of the phrase is not an accident. “The linking phrase functions in Milton’s text as both allusion and echo. Milton is far too conscious a poet to let in another unwittingly, especially Shakespeare”, says Scherer.
Now, about Book VIII, she makes several points that relate to Kempf’s poem:
1. The poet is delaying The Fall with this mini-narrative; Kempf is doing something like the reverse, rolling back time to our Fall itself.
2. Adam is not gazing in wonder at the stars, but challenging Raphael about what seems to him, unaware of what is about to happen, about the seemingly unnecessary complexity of the natural world; this leads to doubt; I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lanape Indians felt similar doubts about the French settlers in their midst.
3. Adam is “a speaker whose relation to his materials is complicated both by his participation in his own narrative and by his essential ignorance of its final shape”. This seems pretty modernist to me, which is surprising; but I may be misinterpreting Scherer here. In any case, the speaker in Kempf’s poem is likewise an observer, and a participant, as are all of us in contemporary society.
The passage that seems most relevant: “Adam both derives from and is Hamlet’s original. Hamlet is what Adam will sound like after the goodly frame has shrunk to the sterile promontory.” And so we have Kempf’s speaker, what Michaux will sound like, if he were here, seeing the goodly frame polluted and stripped bare to make it yield every possible nickel. And we stand beside him and see our sin played out. ]

If I’m interpreting Milton correctly, the pre-Fall Adam is marvelling at the splendor of the universe and asking the angel Raphael how it works. Hamlet’s approach is distinctly different: he recognizes the marvels of the universe, but mourns them as he is unable to appreciate them in his state of mind; the earth has become “a sterile promontory.” This seems more pertinent to the speaker’s frame of mind, yet Kempf chose to stick with Milton; is he assuming the connection will be made?

In any event, both uses of the phrase deal with beauty, and loss of that beauty; Adam before, and Hamlet after that loss. Maybe it’s about point-of-view: the Lanape, and Michaux, would have seen the glory of the earth without knowing the Fall was coming, a la Milton; today, we imagine it, a la Hamlet.

Our speaker returns to Milton, to the pre-Fall tour of the universe, and we again see him in awe. But another element is woven in, some acknowledgment of what the Lanape Indians might have felt.

How for Adam the vast
globes rolling in their sky lanes, & comets
& stars & “space incomprehensible”
between the moon & Sirius exist
merely—oh, & here he is particularly
brilliant, listen—to “officiate light”
round this meager atom, the world. & round
its lemon trees & robins. Round his wife’s
hair in its evening coruscations. Her hand
in his hand. & the lush & ample breast
of the new world laid before them. For that,
he thinks, my God, what wouldn’t we butcher?

Just breathe a moment, and let that last line sink in.

One of the features of this poem that I found annoying was the use of ampersands instead of the word “and”. The symbols are used, particularly in the beginning of the poem, to begin sentences. I don’t see a clear pattern. I did a “paragraphed” version of the poem, to see if .& was an indication of a new thought, or what might be considered a stanza, but I don’t think so. I wonder if it’s another of those typographical signals, little tics to keep us on our toes, to pay attention when shortcuts are taken. And maybe there’s a sense of continuity, everything both blended together – the Lanape, Michaux’s park, the earth, we of the 21st century – and separated.

I’ve been delaying publication of this post to see if the article on “this goodly space” would come in; not yet. If it shows up, I’ll do an Addendum. But having read ahead, I can now say that I’ve been greatly surprised by three poems in this volume, poems that grew on me, revealing more and more as I read through them and read them again and thought about them. Slow reading has its rewards.

Pushcart XLII: Ada Limón, “The Leash” (poetry) from Poem-a-Day

Image from Rachel Visser's animation of the poem

Image from Rachel Visser’s animation of the poem

After the birthing of bombs of forks and fear,
the frantic automatic weapons unleashed,
the spray of bullets into a crowd holding hands,
that brute sky opening in a slate metal maw
that swallows only the unsayable in each of us, what’s
left? Even the hidden nowhere river is poisoned
orange and acidic by a coal mine.

Complete poem available online at Poets.org

Context – the time, place, mental state, the overall gestalt in which a piece is read – has been a frequent theme for me as I’ve been reading this volume. Given that years, decades, centuries may pass between when a piece is written, and when it’s read, and the infinite different postures of the human mind and heart, it’s kind of a miracle we can connect to written work at all. This poem was published over two years ago – who knows when it was written – but I feel like it was written today just for me. I probably would’ve felt that way yesterday, too. And most of the yesterdays – oh, hell, all of them – from the past year-plus.

I’m so captivated by content I haven’t even worked on the rhythm or sound qualities (though the opening lines have a particularly frictional and explosive alliteration well suited to the content). I looked at it as more of an essay, opening with the state of things-as-they-are, the anger and despair so many of us have been feeling for so long, we forget it isn’t normal. Nods to, what, drone attacks, school shootings, rampant pollution written off as the cost of modernity (including the electricity with which I write these words, nudging me with an elbow of guilt right in the complicity), it’s too much, too much, and she knows we fear, that we “want to lick the creek bottom dry to suck the deadly water up into our own lungs” because this can’t be survivable.

But, of course, it is survivable.

Reader, I want to
say, Don’t die. Even when silvery fish after fish
comes back belly up, and the country plummets
into a crepitating crater of hatred, isn’t there still
something singing?

And suddenly I’m comforted, as if a quilt is tucked around me, or someone is holding my hand. I’m reminded of the music of the spheres, all the things that are still good and beautiful in the world. It’s very personal; I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a poem address the reader as Reader, though I’m sure they exist (it isn’t like I read much poetry outside of Pushcart), as sometimes fiction or essays will in various forms (Gentle Reader, Dear Reader). It’s like the poet – not the speaker, somehow, though they need to be kept distinct in theory, at least – is right here in the room with me.

Then she admits “I don’t know”. This is even more comforting, to be around someone who doesn’t have everything figured out, but who has faith that we’ll get through even this.

The leash metaphor comes into play via her dog, who loves to chase pickup trucks, running after them, “she’s sure, without a doubt, that the loud roaring things will love her back”. And the speaker (yes, here I feel a difference, probably just because I’m less a miserably sick child and more of Reader, having been healed by just those few words) keeps her dog safe because she knows the trucks may not love her dog back, so she pulls on the leash. Anger and despair, the dog; faith, the leash. Don’t ever let go of the leash.

Perhaps, we are always hurtling our body towards
the thing that will obliterate us, begging for love
from the speeding passage of time, and so maybe
like the dog obedient at my heels, we can walk together
peacefully, at least until the next truck comes.

So we move from the terrifying, frantic opening, via a turn of direct address, to a calm, thoughtful ending. Both speaker and dog are still here, enjoying the walk, but there is no denial or delusion: the leash is ready for the next time it is needed.

Would this poem have meant as much to me in another time? It was published in January, 2016, so it could it be completely unrelated to the context in which I see it. Like the poet, I have to admit: I don’t know. But at this time, literally this afternoon, in the context of today, it was what I needed. It was my leash, keeping me from spiraling down.

In preparation for this post, I did quite a bit of listening to her read other poems via youtube recordings of various poetry readings, and I remember “How to Triumph Like A Girl” from Pushcart 2015. I think Limón would be a favorite poet of mine, if I could focus on poetry enough to have a favorite: her works aren’t so obscure as to make me feel stupid, yet have a quality I hear as beauty, and even though I’m not trained enough to parse it, it pulls me in.