Pushcart XLI: Sea Sharp, “The Tallgrass Shuffles” (poem) from Storm Cellar 4.2

Cover art from Sharp's recent collection

Cover art from Sharp’s recent collection

 
last night the wind said
be careful girl the
moon be watching
 
said keep your fingers
out the mud keep your tongue
in your head said the moon
 
is watching you said she’ll pull
you apart like the tide
when your time comes girl
 
Complete poem available online from Storm Cellar

One of the many benefits I get from reading Pushcart is that I “meet” so many interesting writers through their work. So far, I’ve been most intrigued by poet/math tutor Dominica Phetterplace, by the late Steinbjørn B. Jacobsen from the Faroe Islands, and now by Sea Sharp, intersectional “refugee of Kansas” now living in England.

I had a strong sense of the oppression of this poem on first read. I thought of Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” with all the commandments and blame and implied terror of the world, the need to step very carefully even though you see others dance and dream and you can’t understand why you’re different. The moon imagery brought two things to mind: the moon is strongly associated with the feminine, and the moon sits up there in the sky above us all glowing white. I thought I had to choose. It wasn’t until I read Sharp’s website that I realized I didn’t, that the two conceits could coexist, and that’s the point.

However, it wasn’t until I read about her recently published poetry collection, The Swagger of Dorothy Gale & Other Filthy Ways to Strut that this poem came into focus for me. Now, I admit, I have no idea if this is one of the poems in the volume, but it has to be, it just must: Dorothy being chased down that Yellow Brick Road by a cautionary wind and a scolding, judging moon that has nothing to do with any wizard. Shuffling? Forget that; not this Dorothy Gale, no matter what the wind says.

Another great aspect of Pushcart is that I see some literary journals I otherwise wouldn’t. Storm Cellar calls itself “a literary journal of safety and danger” which, too, fits this poem. Focusing on, but not exclusive to, the Midwest, they look for “authors and artists who are under-represented in the Anglophone literary world. We want everybody to get weird and enlightened and learn and fall in love and have superpowers.” My wish list.

Pushcart XLI: Cate Hennessey, “Beets” (nonfiction) from Fourth Genre 17.2

I have three seed catalogs on my kitchen table this morning, all of which arrived just after the new year. The furnace is having a hard time—3 degrees at 7 a.m.—and it’s trying mightily but not warming the rooms above 60 degrees. So here I sit, wrapped in sweaters and slippers and scarves, listening to the soft hiss of the gas burner as it heats the kettle. Dogs breathe sleep on their blankets. The sky is blue and cloudless outside, crackling bright, stark beautiful. Four months until anything can go in the soil. We gardeners are a hopeful lot.

Oh, the lure of seed catalogs: beautiful flowers, vegetables you want to eat right off the page. Who could resist? But so much doesn’t show up in those pictures: the dirt, the bugs, the weather that won’t cooperate, the animals searching for a meal, the seeds that never sprout, the sprouts that never bloom, the fruits that warp or bubble or shrivel. I tried it once. Literally, once. I grew some sweet peas, not for the produce but for the flowers, germinating the seeds on my windowsill then transplanting them to containers in the sun. Lovely and sweet-smelling, if sparse, they attracted bees from miles around. Then there were the three cherry tomatoes that made it into a single salad. I’m a city girl; I’ll stick to the supermarket.

But I understand the impulse. What is a seed but hope? This tiny, ordinary thing, stuck into the dirt beneath our feet, will somehow turn into something growing and alive, something to nourish body and/or soul. Forget the thing with feathers; the speck in your hand, that’s hope right there. But that isn’t all a seed needs: an element of luck is required, too, or your perfectly-timed planting can be derailed by a late frost or an early heat wave. Or something more catastrophic.

Hennessey creates a nice progression as she moves from beets and seeds to hope and its unavoidable partner, luck, from her diningroom table and her catalogs to her grandparents, who knew more about planting beets when they were children than she’ll ever know.

That most hobby gardeners need to learn how to store beets, that I need to learn how to store beets, kills me. Busia and her sisters and rural Poland would have known this by age 8, maybe earlier. Would they have had names for different varieties of beets? Or was only one kind of beets grown in sub-Carpathian Poland between the world wars? I don’t know; the people I want to ask are all dead.

So often, by the time we know the questions we need to ask, the people who know the answers are dead. But they leave something behind, of only the desire to find out.

Hennessey’s grandparents met in the camps, and survived. Here she pays a tribute to luck, but recognizes its limitations and honors those not so blessed:

If there is redemption from war, it is in them….
Of course that I am here at all is a direct consequence of the war that threw my grandparents together. But there were millions and millions for whom the family story ends only in death, given not even the strange and eternal gift of trauma. A future woman looking at the bird feeder becomes impossible. So I am back to lucky. The millions dead quite outweigh the scribbling, this moment at the table in which the snow lies still and the trees flutter with birds.

We then close the circle and go back to beets and seeds, the catalog and the kitchen, but it has a new feel to it now, an element that we’d not seen before. There’s a history there, and the seeds mean more, the purples and reds are more vibrant because we know how it came to be that the catalogs span the table. That’s what history does, especially the intimate history of families and individuals: it adds undertones to what would otherwise be ordinary.

And by the way, I’m craving roasted beets right now, tossed with a splash of orange juice and sprinkled with a little nutmeg and salt.

Pushcart XLI: Alex Dimitrov, “Cocaine” (poem) from The Adroit Journal #13

People disappear.
And go looking for a place to be looked at.
All the way down Wilshire and above us: like a sheet of indigo tile.
As we waited, our nicotine glowed in the distance like flies
to some heaven, some high road.
“Who sat on mountaintops in cars reading books aloud to the canyons?”
Like gods and at home being extras at best.

Complete poem available online at The Adroit Journal

I give up. Doesn’t happen often – I can usually find something to grab onto in any poem, essay, or story, even if I don’t really understand what’s going on – but here, I found myself at a complete loss after many readings, whispered, shouted, silent. Even after I found an interview with the poet in which he explicitly discusses the origins of the poem – two trips to LA, passing down the same block of Wilshire a year apart – I still don’t follow. I’m feeling pretty stupid right now, particularly since it was nominated by three poets in addition to the journal itself, so its meaning and excellence are clearly evident to those who know what to look for – and I’m missing it entirely. Guidance welcomed.

Pushcart XLI: Liz Ziemska, “The Mushroom Queen” from Tin House #63

For about an hour now she’s been thinking about the two races of man. One race is very, very slow; they crawl upon the earth like slugs, leaving silvery slime trails wherever they go. The other is very, very fast, about as fast as electrons, and when they pass by they leave a radiant residue, though you can never be sure if you’ve actually seen them, or if there’s a smudge on your glasses picking up the light in a funny way. The two races live side by side, completely unaware of each other, sucking on the same earth.
But on the night of the fool moon, a special moon that occurs once per decade—or every 9.3 years, to be exact—when the moonrise lag is equal to the moonset lag, causing great upheavals of the deep, cold waters of the Pacific Ocean, the slow race can sometimes catch up to the fast race.
All of this is just nonsense, of course. It’s the duration that’s the important part here. Nine-point-three years is a long time to be married.

Most of the philosophy moocs I’ve been taking over the last few years (including the one I just posted about) tackle issues related to “the hard problem of consciousness.” One of the foundational papers looking at the mind-body problem – are they the same? Is the mind physical, metaphysical, functional? – is Thomas Nagel’s “What is it Like to Be a Bat?” His conclusion: we can’t know.

That may be the case, but in this story a woman finds out what it’s like to be a fungus, while at the same time, a fungus finds out what it is to be human. And they relate their experiences quite convincingly.

The Mushroom Queen was tired of living underground. She can assume any form. Her skin is nicer than human skin, firm and white, and it has no pores, only spores, because mushrooms are self-propagating, which can get pretty lonely. So she deposed herself and came to the woman’s house from the east, traveling west along the shore of a wide green river, over the Appalachians, beneath the Great Lakes, flowing right across the vast midwestern plains. She was born over a century ago in the unkempt garden of a red-brick house that was once a home, then a nursery, then a nunnery, and is now again a home. That is where our woman arrives now, sucked across the country and extruded from the ground beneath a trellis of tangled vines that sprout purple flowers in the summer. They have switched places, the discontent of one calling to the desire of the other. Nature abhors a vacuum.

I did my usual googling around on the story, and discovered an interesting tweet by the author linking to a BBC article titled “Plants have a hidden internet.” And another find: slime molds have solved mazes, and traced subway and road systems. Consciousness is typically associated with attention and volition. Communicating needs and deciding pathways seem to require these things. So is this consciousness? Is it intelligence?

I’m pretty skeptical about such things. Consider: molecules called phospholipids come together to form cell membranes, not from any life force or desire, but simply because their polar heads and non-polar tails align as a circular bilayer due to electromagnetic attraction and repulsion. Consider also the “suicide” of infected/cancerous cells: they present indicators of their condition, thus marking themselves for destruction by cytotoxic T cells looking for those indicators. We might think, what noble cells, sacrificing themselves for the good of the organism! But the MHC receptors that perform this act of heroism evolved at some point on cells, and organisms with them had an evolutionary advantage over those without. It’s not always that easy to tell the difference between will and simply obeying the laws of physics.

Then again (I’ve always said every issue has at least five sides), theoretical physicist Max Tegman recently proposed that consciousness is a state of matter, similar to liquid or gas, called perceptronium. What is the origin of electromagnetic forces, gravity, and such? Could matter, at the sub-sub-atomic scale, have something akin to perception and preference?

I love a story that teaches me something, and even more if it lets me take a sidetour… But back to the story. The woman-as-fungus presents clear evidence of all the characteristics of consciousness even as she transforms into the mycelium beneath the surface of the world: information processing, a sense of wholeness, even a sense of embodiment.

In her newly dematerialized state, she is simultaneously nowhere and everywhere. But this is just an illusion, a temporary form of vertigo brought on by the sudden vastness of her being. In reality, she covers a little less than three square acres, one edge dangling in the cool green waters of the Hudson, the other pushed up against the crumbling blacktop of Route 9. A red-brick house squats on her chest like a poorly digested meal. There’s a maple tree growing out of her forehead, its flame-colored leaves the color of her panic.

The Mushroom Queen, her double now leading her old life as a human woman, has her own problems. She’d rather be eating the compost heap than the nice Brie her husband puts on the table (the rind is a distant cousin, after all). She finds it difficult to talk. Bathing in water makes her feel dirty, so she rolls around in the dirt to clean up afterwards. And there’s a growing sense of decay in the life she’s taken over, as the walls grow green slime and the dogs don’t get walked any more.

The dogs play a sort of Greek chorus in all this, acting out their own little dramas in different ways. Jill Schepmann of The Rumpus characterizes one of them perfectly as “the snarkiest little brown dog ever.” Even a little brown dog knows the dangers of desire – and yet can’t resist.

The very first paragraph bothered me, I’ll admit, for the most ridiculous of reasons: I happen to hate the “the woman/the man/the boy” construction. There’s nothing wrong with the usage; it’s useful for stories where names won’t be used, and here, with the duality of The Woman and The Mushroom Queen, it’s particularly appropriate, but we all have our little tics. It sent me into hypercritical mode, mentally rewriting “There’s a small brown dog nestled…” to “A small brown dog nestles…”, thanks to another tic around the “there was” construction (trauma from a long-ago writing class … deep breath… but that’s no excuse). Pretty arrogant of me, considering this story was already edited by the author, then again by Tin House, before being selected for not one but two prestigious prize collections (it can also be found in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017). The fool moon made up for it, and from there I was quite happy, not thinking about such nonsense again.

The narration switches modes as needed. In general it’s close 3rd person, flitting between various POV characters as they tell their own sides of the story. But it zooms out briefly to omniscient to bring up the real-world science, and then again at the very end to … well, I’ll leave that for the readers to discover. I consider the end a bit ambiguous, with two general ways it could go, but I choose to believe in the nestling of the small brown dog.

I notice this story was nominated by the original publisherTin House, of course, and by Ayşe Papatya Bucak, whose “Iconography” from the 2014 Pushcart I loved. I can see a similarity, not in the stories, but in the willingness to go beyond the literal, and to write serious stories with just a little twinkle in the eye.

Pushcart XLI: David Tomas Martinez, “Consider Oedipus’ Father” (poem) from Poetry, June 2015

It could have been a car door
                leaving that bruise,
 
as any mom knows,
almost anything could take an eye out,
 
and almost anybody could get their tongue
                frozen to a pole,
 
which is kind of funny
                to the point of tears
                plus a knee slap or two
that an eye can be made blue, pink
by a baby’s fist, it fits
perfectly in the socket. It’s happened to me.
                Get it?

Complete poem available online at Poetry

A brutal poem, but in vocabulary, it’s also a very subtle poem, as subtle as the excuses the abused tell for their injuries. Lots of words of injury in innocuous contexts: tears, slap, sock-et, and hands, lots of hands.

My favorite line is almost comic: “For me, a woman’s tears / are IKEA instructions / on the European side.” I’m not sure what’s so hard to figue out, but I guess I’m the wrong one to ask.

I found myself uncomfortable as I read, at least until it gets into more analytical territory:

I’m sure for Laius, Oedipus’s father, it was the same.
                Think of him sleeping
after having held a crying Jocasta
because they had fought for hours
because she was stronger.
 
                Who knew better the anger of young Jocasta?
Knew that when the oracle, or the police,
                come, they are taking someone with them.
 
I’m sure Laius looked at the crib
                and thought better you
than me, kid
.

I’m not sure I understand the reference to Jocasta’s strength. Though she had nothing to do with Laius’ sins that brought on his curse, I always thought of her as a full participant in the abandonment of the baby Oedipus. I’ll give her mixed feelings, that she might be devastated as she pierced his ankles. I do love that sense of Laius trying to weasel his way out of another scrape. Excuses. Always excuses. The man gets the title; the woman gets the blame, the woman and her tears, her strength, damn her.

I had a hard time getting a grip on this one. That doesn’t mean it didn’t hit squarely on point, just that I’m not able to come up with much, or am not willing to publicly come up with much. It might be one of those things you get or you don’t.

Pushcart XLI: Doug Crandell, “Winter Wheat” (non-fiction) from The Sun #469

That fall my brothers and I would be sowing the fields on our own for the first time. Dad was working extra shifts at the ceiling-tile factory with the threat of layoffs ever present. One night he sat us down and said, “Wheat’ll be yours to get in the ground. Work together.” That was it. Derrick was eighteen, Darren was almost fourteen, and I was ten and proud to be included. “Questions?” Dad said. He was so spare with words that every one he did speak seemed significant. He looked at us, his eyes like round black stones. I envied the manly hair on his arms.

Complete story available online at The Sun

Doug Crandell seems like someone I’d like to know. The internet tells me his day job with the University of Georgia involves working with employers to reduce barriers to employment for the disabled. He’s also found the time to write five books with some of the most compelling titles I’ve seen, things like The Flawless Skin of Ugly People and Hairdos of the Mildly Depressed. Of his memoir The All-American Industrial Motel, Publishers Weekly says: “Throughout, Crandell struggles with the idea of what makes a man: is it working with your hands? Can a real man make a living off words? And, perhaps most importantly, how do men comfort one another in times of grief?”

Those are the same questions that permeate this essay, which I presume is also a memoir of one season when Crandell was ten years old. A stranger came to town: a man with a different way of being a man. A man who looked a little like a hippie or something, with his long hair and his beard. A man who held his baby because, well, it was his baby, why shouldn’t he hold it? A man who hugged and sang and played music while working – hard work, farm work planting winter wheat, 80 acres of it – and made work fun. A man who treated three young neighbors like friends and paid kindness for kindness. A man who left a space when he was no longer there.

I had the bad luck to read this while wasting a spare quarter hour in a coffee shop, and even though the story went exactly where I knew it was going to go from the bottom of the first page, I was glad I had extra napkins to wipe away the tears. Is it a sappy story, yes. Is it a new story, no. But it’s well-told, and there is a twist of sorts: the boys’ father is the centerpiece. He holds his first reactions of uncertainty and disapproval in abeyance, but, in the end, one honorable man recognizes another, and three boys learn that honor comes in different shapes and sizes.

In his Introduction, Bill Henderson named Wendell Berry as his muse for this year’s volume. This piece fits perfectly with that intent.

Pushcart XLI: Martin Espada, “The Beating Heart of the Wristwatch” (poem) from Purple Passion Press

My father worked as a mechanic in the Air Force,
the engines of planes howling in his ears all day.
One morning the wristwatch his father gave him was gone.
The next day, he saw another soldier wearing the watch.

Complete poem available online at The Progressive

In the age of cell phones and digital watches, have we lost the sense of time tick-tocking away? Maybe that’s overly romanticized, but I think there’s something about those regular clicks that subconsciously reminds us of time slipping away, maybe for the good, maybe for the bad. I wasn’t quite expecting the turn this poem gave to the ticking of a wristwatch, however: as a son’s reminder of his father’s heart, a perpetual keepsake that survives the loss of a parent.

The poem features at least three father-son pairs: the speaker’s father and his father; the speaker and his father; and the watch thief and his son. Quite possibly, the watch thief’s father is implied there as well. I wasn’t aware of the watch as a masculine symbol of one’s father, but why not. It could be, as well, that the symbolism is unique to the speaker, and he’s merely projecting it onto others, assuming they feel as he does.

When he died, I stole my father’s wristwatch.
I listened to the beating heart of the watch.
The heart of the watch kept beating long after
my father’s heart stopped beating. Somewhere,
the son of the man who stole my father’s wristwatch
in the Air Force holds the watch to his ear and listens
to the heart of the watch beating. He keeps the watch
in a sacred place where no one else will hear it.

The second stanza starts in what I consider a very confusing way: if the father’s watch was stolen years before, is this a replacement watch? Why would he have to steal it, and from whom? There must be a reason the poet chose to write it this way, so I tried to see it in different ways: maybe we’ve changed speakers, it’s the son of the watch thief – but no, he’s referenced later in the stanza. Maybe I’m just getting tangled up in minutiae. But it stopped me, and it’s an odd place to stop.

The repetition of phrases – “the beating heart of the watch. The heart of the watch kept beating…” does have a rhythmic presence. I also felt the last line of the poem – ” We listen for the heartbeat and hear the howling” – had a lot of rhythmic howling in the repeated “h” sounds, linking back to the howling of the jet engines and the howling night the father got drunk in the first stanza.

I find it kind of surprising, given the subject, that the poem doesn’t have a more obvious rhythmic structure. Maybe it does, and I just don’t have the ear to pick it up; maybe it’s meant as contrast.

I’m a big fan of the digital world, from the computer I’m typing this on right now, to, yes, the cheap no-wind watches that helps us catch the trains on time. I’m not sure if such things even last the decades needed to become associated with one wrist. If they do, I’m sure a son would treasure it passed down from his father. But he won’t know its beating heart. Does that matter?

Pushcart XLI: Vladislava Kolosova, “Taxidermy” from Ploughshares, Summer 2015

Inside, a stuffed lynx stood on its hind legs, holding the Russian flag. I followed the music somewhere from inside the house, the furry white carpet drowning the sound of my heels. A stuffed Labrador. A stuffed gazelle. Eva and Husband were in one of the living rooms on the first floor, arguing. I stayed in the hall, pretending to admire the minimalist art in ornate, gilded frames. A giant slab of marble leaned on the wall. Engraved on it, Husband was standing with his legs apart, wearing a suit and looking all business. He wore a heavy gold chain instead of a tie, and a massive watch. Both were worked in gold. Whoever made it even took the effort to engrave “Rolex” in tiny, tiny letters. In the background: the black gelding and Eva in a short, tight dress. The thing must’ve weighed half a ton.

Russian student works her way through college via the oldest profession. I was a little disoriented at first, took me a while to figure out Russia since all hooker stories are basically alike. The jokes serve the function of distancing: “I couldn’t really imagine how people coordinated 12 limbs and three genitals…..It’s basically like twister.” It’s hard to break through the “commoner wiser than noble fools” trope, let alone the “hooker you like more than the john” trope.There’s a flashback that I could’ve done without, because the imagery in the present of the story is pretty compelling. I wonder if this would be better as a flash, in fact. But it’s got humor and pathos and we understand the characters as much as anyone can understand people like these in a place like that.

Symbolism of death permeates the story, maybe a little too much. The ending reminds me a little of Karen Russell’s “The Prospectors” from BASS 2016, except those dead people were both innocent victims of an accident, and physically dead.

Those marble slabs started to appear at graveyards a couple of years ago. They were multiple times as tall as any tombstone before, engraved with life-size men, often armed. Long golden epitaphs, short lifespans.

Life isn’t easy in the Russian Mafia. You get rich, and often you get dead, so you have your tombstone ready to go. Live fast, leave a good-looking, and rich, corpse. And yes, these tombstones are real. These are living, breathing dead, more dead than the stuffed wildlife, patting themselves on the back. Maybe their options really are that limited, but there’s at least one hooker who isn’t having it. I can see why the current American administration, people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, is in bed with them. Too bad they don’t have the sense of the hooker.

Pushcart XLI: Adrian Matejka, “The Antique Blacks” (poetry) from Copper Nickel #2

– For Sun Ra, Richard Pryor, Guion S. Bluford & the 13 other black astronauts who made it to outer space

 

In Richard Pryor’s origin myth of black
size, the two most magnanimous black men
 
in the world are peeing off the 30th Street Bridge
into the White River’s busted up water. & above,
 
Constellations in the sky’s pat afro seem
as indiscriminant as linked in hair & more mundane
 
lights move lowly on the horizon the way cop
lights always move when black people think
 
about congregating outside of church. One
brother stairs towards Saturn & says, Man,
 
this water is cold. The other looks in the same
direction & says, Yeah, & it’s deep, too.
 
*
 
They are as the upward inflection of it –
                the honeyed smile of space
                front & center in our heads –
                Voyager winking
                like a gold incisor
                on its way out
                                of this solar system.

Last week, just days before reading this poem for the first time, I found this clue in a NYT Sunday crossword puzzle: “Old bandleader with an Egyptian-inspired name”. I didn’t know, so only came up with “Sun Ra” incidentally as other clues filled in 18-across. I looked it up to be sure, and discovered the jazz and electronic music artist Sun Ra, leader of Arkestra (I had to say it out loud before I got it, but I’m dense). Although Sun Ra is no longer on this astral plane, the Arkestra performed on NPR’s Tiny Little Desk Concerts as recently as 2014.

So I was thrilled to come across his name again in this poem, this time linked to Richard Pryor, Guion S. Bluford, the first African-American astronaut in space, the thirteen who came after him – and a teenager in Indianapolis.

And again I will admit I’m overmatched and refer to a more educated source for a more professional reading, this time Rebecca Schwarz of The Review Review. She cites the ease with which the poem moves through different forms, similar to the ease with which Matejka moves from Richard Prior comedy to poetic imagery of space travel to his own youth in Indianapolis to Sun Ra in a poetic version of jazz improv.

This movement also characterizes Matejka’s early life: “My mother told me I lived in Germany and in 10 states before the age of 7. That’s healthy, I’m sure”, he says in an interview with Emily Bonner of Barely South Review.

One of Schwarz’ observations strikes me as the essence of writing, all writing: the poem has an intimate feel when the subject is the vastness of space or the progress of history, and feels universal when it returns to the most personal moments. This reminds me also of Roxane Gay’s comment from a few years ago: that an essay must “look outward as much as it looks inward.” This poem does both at the same time, reversing mood and subject, turning the personal universal and the universal personal:

The moon was still out the Tuesday morning I got my first
real curl & Guion S. Bluford became the first black man
into outer space. August 30, 1983. I styled my wet frond
like Purple Rain Prince: left side tucked behind my ear, right
side getting activator in the same eye I would have used
to telescope the Challenger as it eclipsed Kennedy Space Center
at midnight in the habit of every brother I have ever met
trying to get away from something without a quotient. Math,
astrophysics – it doesn’t matter. It all equals escape. All
those funny words related to spaceflight, too – velocity,
trajectory, stamina
….

Maybe that’s why I loved the poem without being able to pin it down (though I always swoon at any mention of the Voyager Music from Earth recording sent to space almost 40 years ago; I still remember the excerpts included on the Cosmos record). I felt right there with Matejka making his Prince curl; I understand the dream of escape. Like Schwartz, I felt the joy in the poem, a poem that includes sobering images but always, always, looks up, like the cap of Richard Prior’s characters or the tip of the space shuttle on the launchpad – or a young man in Indianapolis who loves words.

I’ll offer one additional observation: the poem begins and ends in couplets, a form I associate with a pair-bond of some kind. Here, I’d say it’s the poet talking to the reader, and I think it might be what creates that sense of intimacy. “I’m going to tell you something,” says the poem. All we have to do is listen.

I’m not sure how to read the title. Antique Black is sometimes used as a home furnishings designation, but it’s more of a descriptive than prescriptive phrase and can mean anything from a rubbed black finish to plain old black paint with the name fancied up. The notion of a rubbed finish is interesting in this context: friction, applied by hand, polishes the stain unevenly, leaving a slightly mottled matte finish that’s hard to machine-replicate. I suppose Sun Ra, Bluford and Prior are now an older generation, pointing upward for Matejka’s generation, and even more, his students at Indiana University where he teaches.

Forthcoming this month is Map to the Stars, Matejka’s collection examining “the tensions between race, geography, and poverty in America during the Reagan Era.” I’m pretty sure, from the description (I can’t find a TOC) this poem is included.

Pushcart XLI: Monte Reel, “Naming Happiness” (non-fiction) from Orion #34.101

Almost every day during the fall that I turned forty, I walked to a park in Buenos Aires where a C-shaped pond cradled a large flower garden.… On weekdays I visited the park alone, but on Saturday mornings I brought my three-year-old daughter, Sofia. She liked my company because I carried stale bread to feed the coscoroba swans and white-winged coots. I liked her company because she didn’t mock me when I stared at birds and trees and tried to match them with pictures in field guides. I probably should have sagged with shame: I was fast becoming a cliché, the Lover of Nature, one of those guys with the boots and the new field glasses who’d lost the ability to mask his low-grade OCD. But Sofia didn’t judge. Maybe watching someone struggle to attach the correct names to common objects seemed perfectly natural to her, since she spent a lot of her time doing pretty much the same thing.
She stared at the stripe of sunlight that sparkled atop the wind-stirred ripples in the middle of the pond.
“What is that called?” she asked. She must have watched me pin down the name of the leaf. Maybe she wanted to play the same game.
I tracked her squinting gaze. “You mean that stripe on the water?” I asked. “The sparkles?”
“What is that called?”
“Not sure,” I said, to casually. “I think it’s just called sparkles.”
She sighed, theatrically. “No it’s not.” She’d recognized the lazy disregard in my answer, and I recognized her frustration: it was the maddening sense that the world is speaking a language we haven’t fully learned, and no one else seems to realize that this is a serious problem.

One of the many concept I swam around in during the Chinese philosophy moocs I took last year was the differing attitudes toward language and naming. The Confucians, particularly the later Mohists after the Linguistic Turn of the mid-Warring States period, put great stock in names, in precise language, in the concept of “rectifying names” to form the basis of “bian“, distinctions, arguing. The Mencians, and later the Daoists to an extreme degree, were less enthusiastic about language (and eschewed bian entirely) since it represented a social construct and therefore wasn’t natural. The problem they always ran into was how to teach and represent Daoism without language, and that’s where a lot of the fun comes in.

Reel seems to combine both viewpoints: he wants to name the world, but using poetic rather than factual or scientific understanding of his nature guidebooks. The complementary bookend closing the essay reveals his discovery of the term “The Road to Happiness” to describe the glimmering stripe of light over water, found in an English translation of a 1950s Russian physics paper. ” The act of pinning a precise label on that phenomenon filled me with something I’ll call ecstasy.”

There’s a definite beauty to the phrase “The Road to Happiness”, and I’m not about to stand between anyone and his ecstasy. But it doesn’t bring me ecstasy, and I wonder if this naming he seeks is purely subjective, almost solipsistic. When I hear the phrase, I think of someone walking out on that road and sinking beneath the surface of the water, which brings to mind something other than happiness. However, I do appreciate that some phrases grab us in ways we don’t understand. It’s a more personal, spiritual take on the Confucian/Mohist “rectifying names”.

Mine was an age of specialization that actively discouraged the kind of intellectual leapfrogging that drove naturalists like Thoreau to try to unite science and spirit, to reconcile the romantic and the empirical. I always feared overstepping my bounds.… Attempting a generalized grasp of natural phenomena, without dedicating oneself to a tightly focused area of study, betrayed a pitiful naïveté.… This logic had formed an alliance with the fear that hid somewhere in my hindbrain: knowing too much might kill whatever magic remained in the world.

I always get nervous when a writer invokes Thoreau. Nature essays are not my thing. I’ve read some great ones, thanks to Pushcart, but I’m one of those glass-half-empty people when it comes to the wonders of the natural world: Yes, sunsets are beautiful, there’s nothing like snow-capped mountains or a murmuration of starlings, but please, let me enjoy them from an air-conditioned or heated room and for god’s sake those are spiders and here come the bees what are you crazy?

Reel tells a story from his childhood: he collected “Indian beads” and created stories about the people who had made and traded them. Research revealed the objects to be the fossilized remains of creatures known in Linnaean classification as Delocrinus missouriensis, and in common parlance as “sea lilies”. They aren’t lilies at all; they are ocean-dwelling animals related to starfish, and related species are abundant today in Monterrey Bay. In 1989, the fossilized remains from eons past were named the state fossil of Missouri due to their plentiful presence in the state.

This raises the question: how did so many sea creatures end up in Missouri? And the answer is found in earth science: 150 million years ago, when dinosaurs were still plodding around, the Great Plains were part of a large sea. Reel found this information disappointing; I find it exhilarating. I celebrate the imagination of a child, but I also celebrate the amazing processes by which the world exists in the form we see it today. And don’t get me started on what happens when we ignore reality and live in fantasy.

I thought of Whitman’s poem “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”, which has the speaker leaving a scholarly lecture on stars to stand under the still night sky and look up. In another poem, Whitman acknowledged his enormous respect for science (“Hurrah for positive science! long live exact demonstration!… Gentlemen, to you the first honors always!”) before presenting his own orientation: ” Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling,/I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling.” I think Reel is making a similar point, that science can take him so far, but it is not his dwelling. By the way, one of the University of Iowa professors who runs their Whitman Web mentioned a reading of Whitman’s poem I’d never heard before: given the references to time, he wasn’t escaping science, he was bringing it outside with him, checking out the light that had travelled years to get here. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, though I’m not sure it fits with the science of the time.

I had a strong reaction to another section of the essay:

The Germans, I would learn, had come up with the precise word for what I was doing. Beziehungswahn is the mania for seeing meaningful connections linking almost everything, including oneself, to almost everything else. It’s a clinical term. A form of madness.

German often has wonderful words for concepts that take entire sentences to express in English, so I was delighted to find another. Except… a bit of research tells me that Beziehungswahn is a clinical term captured in the English diagnostic phase “ideas of reference”. This is not some universal oneness better ascribed to Buddhism – or, again, Whitman (“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you…. I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,/If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles”). It is instead the psychotic delusion that the waitress at the coffee shop is talking to her customers about you, or the color of that man’s tie is a message meant only for me. It’s “everyone’s laughing at me” on steroids, and it’s exquisitely painful and disabling, not soul-expanding at all. But I may be misreading Reel’s intent, and I may be misinterpreting the use of the word.

Reel is a well-established journalist and author of The Last of the Tribe: The Epic Quest to Save a Lone Man in the Amazon.

Pushcart XLI: Emily Skillings, “Basement Delivery” (poem) from Jubilat #28

Having lived so long without one, we forgot
what a basement felt like—how it seemed
to the carrier(s), to the inhabitant(s),
the structure(s), that there was an underneathness
to all that daily interaction and exchange—
i.e. an empty teacup hovering just above a pool.

Complete poem available online at Jubilat

Welcome to another round of “Karen doesn’t have a clue about how poetry works (but that doesn’t stop her from blogging about it)”.

Let’s start with the teacup above a pool. To me, a teacup is a strong symbol of social propriety and decorum, linked to the Queen, delicate sandwiches, formal luncheons intended primarily to show off new hats. A teacup is fragile, merely a swirl of porcelain in space, as opposed to a coffee cup which is solid and practical. I’m not saying that’s what a teacup actually is, just what it brings to mind. Then there’s the pool below, with its unknown depths and shifting surface, a place where one could dive in or drown, who knows which.

Then there’s the basement. All houses have foundations, but a basement is something else, a hollow in a foundation, where old junk or dormant ideas are stored, a place that can become another room someday when the time is right or just stay a spidery place for laundry machines and boxes of the past.

My family moved from New England to South Florida when I was a kid; we lost our basement along the way. A house with a basement feels different, at least the houses I’ve been in. The floors echo. And there’s always something else, something unseen, beneath. In metaphorical terms, this could be viewed as positive or negative – it’s great to have a sense of where one came from, to have space for future memories, but doesn’t memory also limit our expectations? And did I mention spiders? And sump pumps? – but it seems to me the poem treats it as positive, keeping a vibrant, energetic tone throughout.

I get the general idea of being without a basement as being without that extra, out-of-sight-out-of-mind storage, and the installation of a basement as expansion of the capacity for memory, for depth of experience. The installation itself is whimsical and fun: of course, basements aren’t installed in this way (I know nothing about construction, but I suspect it’s not possible to install a basement under an existing house). Ten women arrive to install it. Why women? Because women tend to keep family memories more than men? Why ten? The number required for a minyan? A sufficient generational span to warrant a basement of the past?

Alternate take, based on a true story: When I was a mere lass of 19 or so, I made some self-deprecatory remark and a friend answered, “You know what bothers me about you? Your abasement.” I spent a couple of beats trying to figure out why I was a basement before it clicked. I don’t think that’s anywhere in the text of the poem, but every reader brings a different past – a different basement, if you will – to a read, and that’s mine for this one. I tried reading the poem in that light, in fact. A poem about installing abasement would be a very different poem, wouldn’t it? Darkness, underneath the pink (I’m still haunted by “The Spring Forecast” from a few weeks ago) and the we and the freed collection? Is this a poem about the erosion of confidence that comes, for so many girls, at puberty? Is the substory that comes at first blush of waking sexuality a sense of shame, of a new context in every social exchange? And again I’ve fallen into some super-subjective abyss. Give me a minute to climb out…

Then I have formal questions. Why three sets of six lines plus a couplet, enjambed with the last sestet? Does trochaic pentameter (if that’s what it is; I have some congenital inability to accurately parse meters, especially when they are just a bit irregular, as they are here and in most modern poetry) add some level of meaning? What function does this serve? Must it serve a function, whether aesthetic or symbolic? And semantic questions: Why the (s)s in the first stanza? To me it adds to the whimsy, maybe just because it looks like smiles, but is there a deeper, more poetically valid reason? And that last line: while keeping the importance of time forefront (it was again again), the whimsicality of the poem stretches to another level, almost to wordplay with “Leave no stone already.” There’s a confusion of past and present, but why end on that switch? To confound the past’s role, now strengthened by the basement, in expectations of the future?

This is why I get so frustrated with poetry: significance of any element varies from poem to poem. I’m going to stick with what grabs me – the teacup and the basement and the pink and the ten strong women and foundational memory, background, context (oh, but I do so love the abasement angle, it followed me home, I promise to feed it every day, can I keep it, please, please?) – until I learn a better way to read.

In her On Poetry podcast episode, Skillings (a Columbia teaching fellow and MFA candidate) mentions she’s only been paid for two poems. “No one goes into poetry for money anyway,” says host Gabriela Garcia. Same could be said for all that’s important and irreplaceable. Her first full-length collection, a compilation of her work over the last four years (including this poem) will be released this Fall.

Pushcart XLI: Jane Lancellotti, “If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Write a One-Star Review” (non-fiction) from Narrative, Winter 2015

Charles Joseph Travies de Villiers: "La Critique" (c. 1830)

Charles Joseph Travies de Villiers: “La Critique” (c. 1830)

“The highest Criticism,” Oscar Wilde wrote in his famous essay “The Critic as Artist,” “is more creative than creation.” What he meant, of course, is that the riches of the imagination are as crucial in judging art as they are in creating it. Notice how the godlike capital C for Criticism is working here. How it makes you wish that Wilde himself could show up next to the reviewer’s desktop and cover the whole darn keyboard with his paisley cravat to prevent the cynic from posting that he would rather scoop out an eye with a rusty spoon than read Great Expectations.
Through the ages, there have been major thinkers, such as Matthew Arnold, whose fluency and insight elevated the ways in which we talk about art. Only now, instead of Arnold of Great Britain, we have Arnie from Massapequa, who misguidedly equates Jane Eyre with “another of those cheesey love novels written by Danielle Steel.”

Complete essay available online at Narrative

When a newly-published friend found himself squeamish about facing Amazon comments, Lancellotti read the online reviews for him, and discovered the universe of haters. They’ve always been there, and not just since the Internet. They’re the Monday-morning quarterbacks of the creative arts, the people who sneer, “My five-year-old draws better than that” at the museum, who want books and movies about good guys and bad guys, not ambiguity and symbolism and structural amplification of effect. They’ve just become more visible in the past ten years. I used to follow “Least Helpful”, a compendium of less-than-insightful negative reviews. They mostly do movies now, but their Classics Revisited section makes the point of this essay. Or you could just ask the next teenager you see what he or she thought of The Scarlet Letter. I happen to think the way literature is taught in most schools has something to do with it, but that’s just a hunch.

But so what? Maybe I’m speaking as a non-writer who doesn’t have to deal with the issue, but there are plenty of serious literary reviewers out there (like the NYT and Washington Post, both of which gave the friend’s book positive reviews, not to mention dozens of literary websites and journals), and chances are, readers who are considering buying a serious book take those reviews more seriously than what’s on Amazon. Isn’t there room for everyone? BuzBo and ChaCha have a right to their opinions, too, and as long as they’re not writing for Kirkus Reviews, why shouldn’t they express those opinions? I doubt Jane Austen is losing sales because of them.

Who are these people? Are they online versions of the bully who kicks over bicycles? Or the kid who gets his bicycle kicked over? Or are they, more likely, past-hopeful writers whose thwarted ambitions propelled a spite-filled review of Philip Roth?

The more important issue is: why do we get so nasty? Lancellotti wonders if internet reviewers would be as harsh to the author if they met face to face. I doubt it; consider road rage, where cars offer some kind of protection. Maybe there’s a clue here as to the nasty turn political discourse has taken. Maybe we’re all just getting meaner, because we spend hours a day in consequence-free jousting on media like Twitter where the snarkiest comment wins. Nastiness inflation, if you will. I have to wonder if it goes back to the first “My kid beat up your honor student” bumper stickers.

Another issue the essay mentions is the function of criticism, of the book review. The word “critic” comes from the Greek word meaning “judge”. That implies a set of at least partly objective standards to which a work should be compared, rather than a tongue-lashing. But the word has a definite negative connotation, so much that we soften it as “constructive criticism”. And criticism goes much deeper than book reviews; it’s often an analysis of an entire approach to literature, and a description or proposal of guidelines for that approach. But that isn’t the kind of criticism that’s happening on Amazon, nor should it be.

If I may, ahem, criticize – I don’t think this essay adds much to the ongoing discussion of  why anonymous internet reviews are so negative, and it brings even less to a clearer understanding of the genre of criticism. At first I thought we were getting a more personal view from the writer’s angle, but that’s dispensed with quickly in the opening and closing paragraphs in favor of what might be called “ain’t it awful”: the conflict between popular taste and artistic vision. It is, however, an essay about art: the impact of art, various views of art; and that seems to be the focus, so far at least, of this year’s Pushcart. Personally, I preferred how Dominica Phetteplace explored the issue – or, for that matter, Vi Hart’s video essay. But that’s only my opinion, as a reader, based on my personal taste – not as a professional literary critic. I’ll leave that to the people who are trained. People like the editors of Narrative Magazine and the Pushcart series. And I’ll try to learn from what they see.

Pushcart XLI: Stephen Dunn, “The Revolt of the Turtles” (poetry) from Southern Review 51.3

Sculpture by Isaac Cordal: “electoral campaign” from the exhibit "Follow the Leaders"

Sculpture by Isaac Cordal: “electoral campaign” from the exhibit “Follow the Leaders”

On gray forgetful mornings like this
sea turtles would gather in the shallow waters
of the Gulf to discuss issues of self-presentation
and related concerns like, If there were a God
would he have a hard shell and a retractable head,
and whether speed on land
was of any importance to a good swimmer.

You can almost hear them, can’t you, these turtles debating questions much like our own “How can God be a trinity” or “Is philosophy of any use to anyone anymore” or “If you do what you love, will the money really follow”. But these turtles have some serious business on their minds as well, such as running a world where kids keep flipping them over on their backs.

It’s an amusing poem, but dark at the same time. We can’t help but see ourselves in the turtles, but also feel superior to them because we see their mistakes. It’s so easy to see what’s wrong from the outside. It’s why we’re all experts on how other people should live their lives, while our own lives are in tatters. Lecturing us wouldn’t do any good, so Dunn holds up a mirror made of turtles.

One of the turtles has an idea as he considers “ways in which power could bring about /fairness and decency” :

And when he finished speaking
in the now-memorable and ever-deepening
 
waters of the Gulf, all the sea turtles
began to chant, Only fairness, only decency.

Poor turtles. We all know that historically, fairness and decency don’t stand much of a chance against fear-mongering, greed, and deceit. We’re in a real-time laboratory right now to see if they stand any chance at all. I waver daily, sometimes hourly, between hope and despair.

I didn’t realize the full significance of the ever-deepening waters mentioned in that last stanza until I discovered the Summer 2015 issue of Southern Review was a 10-year retrospective on Katrina. I imagined the turtles holding their meeting a day or two before the storm. That’s when I knew I had to include the sculpture popularly called “Politicians Discuss Global Warming” as header art. Poor turtles.

Pushcart XLI: Rebecca Makkai, “The George Spelvin Players” from Pleiades 35.2

Barnes Harlow was actually Jason something, but no one dreamed of calling him that. He was Barnes Harlow when he was robbed of the Daytime Emmy, he was Barnes Harlow all twelve years he played Dalton Shaw, Esq., and he was Barnes Harlow when, in that guise, he married Silvia Romero Caldwell Blake, poisoned his mother-in-law, opened a restaurant, burned down that restaurant, was drugged by Michaela, and saved the Whitney family from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Soledad shared these details with the core company, who sprawled exhausted on the stage. In the five minutes since Barnes had left the theater, Soledad had relayed the basic history of the fictional Appleburg, Ohio, and told them what Barnes Harlow looked like with his shirt off. “Not greasy-smooth,” she said. “Just, you know, TV-star smooth.” She swore her grandmother had tapes of the show, stacks of VHS cassettes in her basement.
“On a more professional level,” Tim said, “what did we think? Star-struck aside?”
Beth vowed to speak last. Last week in the green room, Phyllis had accused her of treating every conversation like a race.

Complete story available online at Pleides

“There are only two plots: A stranger rides into town, and a man goes on a journey” is one of the many writers’ aphorisms taken as gospel (QI credits this one, not to Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, but to a metamorphosis of an exercise from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction). In this story, the stranger is Barnes Harlow, former soap opera star come to a ragtag Missouri theater company. But I got sidetracked by something else.

In 2011, Makkai published a novel titled The Borrower, about a children’s librarian who either kidnaps or is kidnapped by Ian, one of her 10-year-old patrons, leading to a road trip (the other side of the stranger comes to town) that reverses with a single phrase: “They lost.” I read that book in 2012, and I still remember sobbing over my cheeseburger at the local pub where I was reading. I’ve been thinking of those words for weeks, maybe because I saw Makkai’s name in the table of contents, or maybe because I never forgot that moment, and I try to remember that, even though Ian returned home, the trip was not a failure but ended with a kind of slow-motion salvation. That librarian (and possibly Ian) is in this story. It’s not her story, but as a secondary character she allows for additional perspective.

I even see a structural comparison between novel and story: the story turns, reverses itself, on a single sentence. I know how that feels; does everyone? To have one phrase, one utterance, change the context, the mood, the background assumptions, the momentum of a gathering or a road trip or a theater company’s mission, a call to reality? It works so many ways in this story, with so many characters, it’s as if it explodes. Or maybe implodes.

There was a term Beth had learned in a sociology class, though she couldn’t remember it now, for a society where people had more than one connection to each other. In a big city, a guy would be your mailman and nothing else. But in a small town, he might be your mailman and your cousin and your neighbor, and his wife is your boss. She wondered what her sociology professor would make of the George Spelvin Players—who not only lived and worked together, but whose constantly shifting fictional relationships were also vivid, if not real. Beth had been Tim’s mother, his wife, his sister, his therapist. He had killed her in six different plays…. She wondered if what they were trying to do with Barnes, through this obsessive examination, was to weave him into their complex fabric. They refused to let him be simply a colleague. They wanted to envelop him: talent, legitimacy and all.

Beth has an additional relationship to Barnes once they sleep together, and it’s into this theater-world confusion about what is real and what is fictional that Barnes, cornered about his petty theft of multiple trivial items from everyone in the company, says the words that implodes it all: “You’re not real. I made you up.” And then, worse: “Did I make up that sex, or did I make up all the sex ever?”

Exit Barnes. As Soledad says, “Beth broke the soap star.” But exit the company as well; they disintegrate during the town performance of A Christmas Carol they’d been rehearsing (with Barnes hastily replaced). They all start quoting lines from random plays. And the librarian holds on to her Starbucks cup and smiles through it all (who wouldn’t; it seems hilarious to me), while a 10-year-old boy plays along. I don’t think the 10-year-old is Ian, but I’m happy that he could be.

By the way, the use of the name “George Spelvin” by an actor who doesn’t want to be associated with a terrible play, or a terrible theater troupe, is true. I hadn’t known that, though I was aware that “Alan Smithee” was sometimes used by film directors who didn’t want their name on a movie once the studio execs cut it for reasons having nothing to do with art. I wasn’t aware there was a similar tradition, probably an earlier one, in theater.

I’m thinking back over the works in this volume so far, and art seems to be a frequent theme. It might even be hidden in less obviously art-related works, like the poem “Elk” or the hornet article. I’ll have to keep that in mind as I read on.

Pushcart XLI: Shane McCrae, “Still When I Picture It the Face of God Is a White Man’s Face” (poem) from Poetry, Nov. 2015

Image by Joshua Tilghman after Michelangelo

Image by Joshua Tilghman after Michelangelo

Before it disappears
on the sand his long white       beard before it disappears
The face of the man
in the waves I ask her does she see it ask her does
The old man in the waves       as the waves crest she see it does
she see the old man…

Complete poem available online at Poetry

In McCrae’s bio entry on the Poetry website, I read “[his] attention to both meter and its breakage in his poems emphasizes the chafe of historical accounting against contemporary slippage, engaging this country’s troubling history and continuation of oppression and violence.” I can see elements of both in this poem: phrases lapping and overlapping as waves at the shore. The choppiness of the language adds to the disjointed images and messages we’re subjected to all the time, but perhaps more to the attention span of a child: everything is in the moment.

Thanks to a lesson I learned from “Spring Forecast” a few entries ago, I’ve never been more aware of the title informing the poem. Without the title, this could be any beach scene. Start with the title, and cute family drama becomes social commentary: we see the difference between the vision and imagination of the child who creates God in her own image, and the adult, aware (those spaces after white, twice) that interpretation of what we see is shaped as much by socially acquired imagery of what is the norm and what is other as by the reality of photons on retina.

Pushcart XLI: Lia Purpura, “Scream (or Never Minding)” (non-fiction) from The Georgia Review, 69:3

There are things I’m supposed to never mind. “Never mind” means silent and agreed upon, and that I must want, more than anything, to get through the day, and so should assent to go along. Glance. Turn the page. Turn away from a scream, and the place from which scream would rise, if cultivated by attention paid.
 
Subjects one might avoid: ruined land, ruined animals. Because the issues of the day can begin to feel old, and people get tired of feeling bad.
 
When I was a child I was not daunted. I let myself get completely exhausted.
 
Never minding makes it possible to do things like eat what you want, and talk about simple, daily things.
 
A scream is not speech.

I wasn’t sure if this would be considered an essay or a prose poem. Then I noticed that Washington College’s Literary House Press, who will be publishing it in a limited-run illustrated letterpress edition this coming fall, calls it a “lyric essay.” That’s a good description. We go from Munch’s “The Scream” to #419 and back again, and it hangs together beautifully though it may take some time to understand how.

As with several of the pieces I’ve read in this anthology so far, I was very aware of a kind of prescience in that the essay was written at least a year and a half ago, yet it’s painfully, tragically appropriate to now. Of course, I can’t rule out that I’m simply seeing everything as pertinent, no matter how far afield. But given all the recent screaming (including mine), I have to wonder: were we never-minding all along?

I learned a great deal about “The Scream” from this piece. I did not know that Munch created four different versions of the scene we all know, nor that one of them, a pastel, includes a poem, hand-written by Munch in two columns on its frame, a poem nearly, but not quite, identical to one he’d written in his diary three years earlier:

I was walking along the road with two friends
The Sun was setting – the Sky turned blood-red.
And I felt a wave of Sadness – I paused
tired to Death – Above the blue-black
Fjord and City Blood and Flaming tongues hovered
My friends walked on – I stayed
behind – quaking with Angst – I
felt the great Scream in Nature

I also did not know, until Purpura’s essay told me, that the location of the painting is an actual road in Oslo, one that, in Munch’s time, overlooked both a slaughterhouse, and the insane asylum where his sister lived.

I did not know any of this, and that surprised me, given the ubiquity of this image. Which is, of course, Purpura’s point, though she expands the scope well beyond art history.

Purpura points out how we’ve trivialized the painting, turned it into a joke, a t-shirt icon (not to mention a cake at the café Munch Museum). The power is too much, so we’ve reduced it to the never-minding of signifying upset without the messiness of being upset. She compares it to busts of composers in her elementary school music room:

I remember the bust of Beethoven and Mozart (and Haydn and Liszt and Chopin) in my elementary school’s music room. I couldn’t make any sense of them: a pianist with no arms; but joyless composer who wrote “Ode to Joy.” Their limbless bodies in marbly coldness. Stunted and chopped. I knew I had with a bit of neck was meant to be never minded. Another version of how-things-are-done. The men, canonical. The sculptures, memorial. A cliché of sight. I understood.
Still it was hard to see anything but severedness.

I’ve been in maybe two or three dozen music rooms over the years, and most of them had similar busts. Now I want to run into all of them – all that severedness! – and smash all those busts. Or melt them, I suppose, they’re probably plastic, cheaper than marble or plaster. She’s right; they don’t make sense. How did I never realize this before?

Munch’s painting looks very different to me now. As does #419.

#419 is a cow; that’s a tag in its ear; there’s a #308 right behind it, a #376, and a #454 – all jammed in the frame of the photo.. This must be a mixed lot. If I stand back just a little or, rather hold the newspaper out at arm’s length and unfocus a bit, the numbers fade and the cows are wearing bell-shaped earrings.If I shut my eyes, and shut many more things – doors in the brain, as if windows in cold – if I conjure up Heidi and green fields and milk pails, I can hear the little cowbells tinkling.

We see what we want to see because it’s easier when we sit down to eat a cheeseburger – as I do fairly often – if we don’t think about cow #419. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as we are all discovering now. Call it compassion fatigue, or settling for not-the-worst, or just plain not wanting to look. Never-minding has its costs, and eventually the piper must be paid. Then the screaming begins.

Pushcart XLI: Charles Baxter, “Avarice” from VQR #91

My former daughter-in-law is sitting in the next room eating cookies off a plate. Poor thing, she’s a freeloader and can’t manage her own life anywhere in the world. Therefore she’s here….
The simple explanation for her having taken up residence here is that she appeared at the downtown Minneapolis bus depot last week, having come from Tulsa, where she lived in destitution. She barely had money for bus fare. My son, Wesley, her ex-husband, had to take her in. We all did. However, the more honest explanation for her arrival is that Jesus sent her to me.

~~ Complete story available online at Virginia Quarterly Review

In February 2015, Charles Baxter published a story  collection titled There’s Something I Want You To Do. I first encountered a story from this volume, “Bravery”, in 2013 via the BASS of that year; I wasn’t sure what to make of it, since it seemed to have many elements but I couldn’t see the connecting thread. In 2014, also via BASS, I came across a second Baxter story and learned about the collection, which was not yet published. Each story was named after a virtue or vice, and included a request. If I may repeat myself (and copy a paragraph from my post on “Charity“), his 2013 Bread Loaf lecture considers how requests function in a story: requests take on social consequences, they reveal power relationships, and they force character-revealing choices upon us.

And now Pushcart brings me a third story from the collection, and I have learned something new: the stories are loosely connected in that several of the characters appear multiple times. Since I’ve only read three of the stories, I haven’t seen that, but I’ve read that both Dolores, our narrator here, and her son Wes, both appear in other stories.

So much goes on in this story – as it does in all of these stories Baxter included in his 2015, There’s Something I Want You to Do – yet I have trouble pulling it all together beyond the completely inadequate description of “Thought of a woman who knows she will soon die.” I had a similar inability to fully grasp the first story. Now I’m beginning to think it’s the collection as a whole that perhaps holds the answer, that show the thread weaving from beginning to end. But I could be mistaken. I’m afraid my inability to find a point of focus has replicated itself in this post; please forgive me as I ramble on.

I see several requests in this story, as I have in the ones before. I think the central one is a request that has not yet been made: Dolores will ask Corinne to be with her when the time comes. That is why Jesus sent Corinne, after all. Corinne seems like an odd choice, since she abandoned Dolores’ son Wes, her husband (now remarried), and Jeremy, her son, soon after Jeremy’s birth (if this sounds confusing, well, this family dynamic is indeed confusing). Tough she apparently supported herself by working as a nurse in another city for most of the 16 years since, she’s now described as a decompensating bipolar depressive of inappropriate appearance and manner. I wonder if post-partum depression is implied as the reason for her desertion years before, or if her mental health has been precarious all along. “How lovely is her madness to me now,” Dolores tells us, for her madness is how Jesus brought her here, just when she’s needed.

Dolores has her own tragedy as well. Her husband was killed by a drunk driver when Wes was very small. ” The socialite’s out of prison now, but my husband is still under the ground….” she tells us. And she admits she would have murdered the woman if she had escaped justice.

Looking at me, you would probably not think me capable of murder, but I found that black coal in my soul, and it burned fiercely. I loved having it there.
All my life, I worked as a librarian in the uptown branch. A librarian with the heart of a murderer! No one guessed.

I have no trouble believing that. I believe we are all capable of harboring murderous thoughts; murderous deeds are another matter. Dolores’ Christianity plays a major role in this story. I’m so used to reading stories about Christians who are saints or hypocrites, it’s nice to read about a Christian who seems to be merely human, more on the saintly side, but who cherishes the one sinful impulse she has. I can understand that. It’s the Tree in the Garden; if we can’t conceive of sin, what’s the virtue in not succumbing to it?

Avarice is woven through the story. Teenage Jeremy is outraged by the poisoning of elephant drinking holes in order to obtain their ivory for carvings. Corinne frequently rants about capitalists, her pension fund lost by greedy investors. And Dolores lays her husband’s death, not on drunken driving, but on avarice:

But I still think of that woman, that socialite, driving away from my dying husband, and of what was going through her head, and what I’ve decided is that (1) she couldn’t take responsibility for her actions, and (2) if she did, she would lose the blue Mercedes, and the big house in the suburbs, and the Royal Copenhagen china, and the Waterford crystal, and the swimming pool in back, and the health-club membership, and the closet full of Manolo Blahnik shoes. All the money in the bank, boiling with possibility, she’d lose all that, and the equities upping and downing on the stock exchange. How she was invested! How she must have loved her things, as we all do. God has a name for this love: avarice. We Americans are running a laboratory for it, and we are the mice and rats, being tested, to see how much of it we can stand.

Dolores describes how she and Corinne will walk through a variety of Minneapolis landmarks, ending in Father Hennepin Park. Father Hennepin was a French priest and, in the late 17th century, explorer who traveled from Louisiana to Canada tracing the Mississippi River, was captured by the Sioux Indians for a time, and published several accounts of his travels characterized by some as “highly embellished”. It’s possible there’s some connection, besides religious belief, between him and Dolores, but I don’t see it.

But I think his religious imprint, as well as Dolores’ faith, is central to this story, perhaps the collection, in a way I can’t quite parse. Buzzy Jackson’s Boston Globe review takes her faith seriously: “While the image suggests God looking down on this pious woman, the presence of Baxter himself, the Great Narrator, hovers over, too.” In LARB, Susannah Shive has a different take, one that draws on the character’s appearance in an earlier story (where she apparently has an interest in extraterrestrials) and characters from other stories and concludes, “[I]f we’re not willing to assert that faith will conquer nothing, we must align ourselves with an eccentric zealot.” I don’t see the Dolores of this story as eccentric, nor as that much of a zealot.

What draws me to this section combines the simple, natural beauty of the passage with narrative technique. One of the questions I always have with first-person narrations is: Who is the narrator talking to, or thinking at? It’s one of those suspension of disbelief traits of fiction, that we read without considering that, but it’s always present, and here it’s showcased with particular clarity as a leaf falls into Dolores’ lap and she narrates: “Here. I place it before you.” Baxter includes an image of a maple leaf, something I’ve never seen in Pushcart or BASS. First, who is she talking to? The reader, Corinne, God, some undefined “you”? Breaking the fourth wall, except in an epistolary work, is unusual. And second, why include an actual image for something as familiar as a maple leaf?

Henceforth my patience will be endless, thanks to the brevity of time. Stillness will steal over me as I study the world within. When I look down into my lap, I’ll see in this delicate object the three major parts, with their branching veins, and the ten points of the leaf, and the particular bright red-rust-gold color, but it’s the veins I’ll return to, so like our own, our capillaries.
I’ll finger the maple leaf tenderly and wonder why we find it beautiful and will answer the question by saying that it’s God-given.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at this leaf in her terms. What are the ten points? I’m looking and I can see 11 points, or 5 points, or maybe 27 or 29 points, but I can’t come up with ten points. The Canadian leaf logo has 11 points. The three major parts are easy to see as the Catholic Trinity, the similarity of veins suggests a unity of all nature, but what ten points? The Ten Commandments? There are ten stories in the collection, and in Jackson’s interview referenced above, Baxter admitted using the Ten Commandments as a structuring concept. And again I think the collection has a deep structure that is missed by chopping it up into individual stories, but now I have actual evidence.

The final paragraphs beautifully outline the simplicity and complexity of Dolores’ faith. I regret reading about her extraterrestrial eccentricity, because I see her, in this story, as a true Christian. Shive sees Narnia; being a heathen, I recall Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I also recall Marx: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.

Pushcart XLI: Shelley Wong, “The Spring Forecast” (poetry) from Crazyhorse #88

Soon, the sea. On the city corner,
     a tree asserts I am every
            shade of pink.
Like the inside.
     Dresses as transparent
as watercolor. Doors flung open
     
                  to receive gold arrows.
      (stringing the strings)
Skirts flare into bells. Hair
      like bougainvillea.

One of my first serious literary experiences in college (or as serious as one can be in Poetry 101) was a class on The Canterbury Tales. The instructor tried to convince us the Prologue had a sexual tone – all that piercing and bathing and generating – and I was unconvinced. I guess I’ve learned something since then, because I see a lot of the Canterbury Tales sex in this poem. Not to mention a bunch of other stuff.

But first – full disclosure. I was googling around looking for notes on the poem, as I always do, or at least an online copy so I wouldn’t have to type all those indents (I hate typing indents, though formatting them for blogging is even worse) and what do I stumble across but Jacob Weber’s blog post about this very poem. Jake has been a regular participant in my BASS posts for a couple of years, and this year, Pushcart.

We had similar overall impressions (with some big differences) of a walk down a city street to the beach in Spring, with romance blooming all around. I’d been thinking myself pretty clever for considering the ambiguity of “strings” as referencing music and/or Cupid’s bow, but he’d made the same observation so now I feel like a copycat. In fact, his analysis is certainly preferable, for anyone serious about poetry, to anything I’m going to come up with, so I highly recommend a trip over there.

I’d throw in some observations about the rhythm of the poem. “Soon, the sea” sets a wavelike rhythm in short phrases that persists until “Skirts flare into bells”, an appropriate phrase for a disturbance of regularity.

I also had a very different impression of the identity of the speaker. I was thinking it was a man, enjoying the springtime pulchritude, until he’s interrupted by a memory, a voice in past tense from somewhere inside his head:

Once, a stop sign
     
before the water. Once, he traced
     the arch of her foot.

And then it’s back to present tense. And I have to wonder: what happened at that stop sign? Is he an old man, remembering his own spring romance from days gone by? I hear this intrusive memory returning, maybe, with “Her hand / petaling open” and I’m imagining all sorts of things happening at that stop sign, from long-lost love to rape to a tragic accident. Is he on his way to the Island, where, though he won’t enjoy the scenery, he also won’t be tormented by this memory any more? Or where he won’t be bothered by temptation? And yet he longs for the pied-à-terre. Could this be a woman, recapturing a once-experienced spring blooming, with sweet nostalgia for the foolishness, and a not-terribly-serious wish to live in the midst of it forever?

The personage of the speaker became my focus. The poem references both “he” and “she”, and the syntax is irregular enough to put those in any context. But in the end, I’m left ambivalent. I always wonder, when I’m ambivalent, if it’s because I’m stupid or because that’s the point. We remember our youth in a certain way, and even when we romanticize it, I think we always know it was filled, not only with bursting pink, but with uncertainty and worry and pressures.

I had to smile at one of Jake’s comments about sexual excitement recast in a dark light, mocking the romance. I skipped right over theme of “niceties constructed to cover animal lust that leaks out anyway” and rushed straight to abuse and death. I went a step too far, I have to admit: the peach, “strings up” and the “offwhite leader”, well, I’ve been reading a lot about Reconstruction lately, so … I think I’ll leave it there. I prefer Jake’s interpretation of strings up: bikinis. Wish I’d thought of that.

I too wonder, as Jake did, if there’s some reference I’m not getting. I seem to be getting all kinds of references, and that’s even worse: The Canterbury Tales, To The Lighthouse, Prufrock, and The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, and I wonder why I’m trying so hard. Why can’t I just see this as a guy lost in a sexual fantasy as he walks along Main Street on his way to the island, and admire the poetics? Short answer: because I don’t know much about poetics.

In the end, I have no idea if this is a pleasant idyll, a bittersweet memoir, a social critique, or something else entirely. Bring on Emily: I dwell in possibility. But I do wish I knew what town I was in.

Pushcart XLI: Paul Crenshaw, ” The Hornet Among Us” (nonfiction) from War, Literature, and the Arts #27

The Japanese giant hornet is not the largest insect in the world, but perhaps the most fierce. It can grow to two inches in length, with a wingspan of three…. Here’s how the hornets work: scouts zoom around, searching for honey bee hives. This is all they do, from when they wake in the spring to when they hibernate in the fall. When a scout finds a hive, it leaves pheromone markers around it, which draw other hornets. When the others arrive, they begin systematically slaughtering the bees. A Japanese giant hornet can kill 40 honey bees in an hour. A nest of Japanese giant hornets, around 30 or so, can destroy an entire honey bee colony in a few hours. The hornets seize the bees one by one and literally slice them apart. They cut off their heads and limbs and wings and keep the juicy, most nutrient-rich parts, which they chew into a paste to feed to their larvae. They eat the bees’ honey and devour their young. They do not take over the bees’ hives or carefully consume all they have killed. They take only the flight muscles and other juicy bits and leave the heads and limbs lying around.

~~ Complete article available online via WLA Journal

As I read this, I wondered: does an insect even have a brain? Turns out it does, though it might be more accurate to call it a ganglion, a collection of nerve cells, rather than what we think of when we say “brain”.

A team of researchers at Macquarrie University in Australia consisting of a zoologist/neuroethologist and philosopher have hypothesized that an insect “has a capacity for the most basic aspect of consciousness: subjective experience.” That is, insects may experience a mental state, that it “feels like” something to be an insect. Maybe they wonder if these giant meat creatures who keep intruding into their spaces and swat at them have brains.

Crenshaw takes a more behavioral view of insects in this essay. As a lifelong entomophobe, I found it quite creepy to read about all the ways certain insects wage what can only be called war. I was a lot more comfortable with his etymological exploration of the word “hornet” in various constructs: it’s related to buzzing. He attributes Biblical references to hornets to Hebrew words for panic, or army. We’ve been observing insect behavior for a long, long time.

I wonder what it feels like to be the Japanese giant hornet destroying a honey bee colony, or an army ant, fire ant, wasp, or spider, the other insects whose behavior Crenshaw examines before turning to the most panic-inducing, war-waging creature of all.

When Rome fell to the barbarians, while the city was sacked and burned, while a thousand years of darkness set upon the western world, someone, looking at everything they had ever known fall, must have thought that the invaders in all their glorious multitudes looked like swarming ants. When Masada was surrounded, one of the besieged surely believed the Romans were hornets, alien, so far removed from humanity that they were of another world. When the Greeks stood at the narrow neck of Thermopylae, they must have seen the hordes coming for them, wave after wave after wave, as non-sentient, some form of mindless drone. And when the airplanes lit the night skies over Baghdad, a child, huddled in a corner somewhere, certainly believed that some creature from nightmare, from legend or lore or myth, had arisen like prophecy.

I know what it feels like, on this day, to hear the buzzing of hornets.

Pushcart XLI: Sally Wen Mao, “Anna May Wong Blows Out Sixteen Candles” (poetry) from Missouri Review #38.1

When I was sixteen, I modeled fur coats for a furrier.
White men gazed down my neck like wolves
 
But my mink collar protected me.

I bet men – and not a few women – are tired of hearing about the indignities of being female. And I’ll bet nearly everyone, including some of the woke, is shocked to find that Asians deal with racism, too. Well, the speaker of the poem doesn’t care what people are tired of hearing about, or what level of stereotyping others think is not too bad; she’s mad as hell and she’s not gonna take it any more.

The poem is one of a set of five poems concerning Anna May Wong, considered the first Chinese American actress. Her career started in the 1920s and moved from silents to talkies to radio and television, and while she performed in dozens of movies and almost as many TV roles (IMDB lists 61 credits), when it came to major roles, she was sidelines by whitewashing: the casting of white actors in non-white roles, a practice that’s still common today.

The conceit of the poem is the conflation of Wong’s 16th birthday and the speaker’s sweet 16 from 1984 [Addendum: See Comments – I missed a major reference here] with the overarching sense of the present. The concerns haven’t changed much:

                                                            ….It’s 1984
 
so cast me in a new role already. Cast me as a pothead,
an heiress, a gymnast, a queen. Cast me as a castaway in a city
 
without shores. Cast me as that girl who rivets centerstage
or cast me away, into the blue where my lips don’t touch
 
or say. If I take my time machine back to sixteen, or twenty,
or eight, I’d blow out all my candles. Sixteen wishes
 
extinguish and burn.

I don’t have much to add. Anna May Wong, and/or Sally Wen Mao, has done a pretty good job of speaking for herself. Most women do.