Pushcart XLIII: Rick Barot, “UDFj-39546284” (poem) from Arroyo Literary Review #9

For context, today I learned that the farthest galaxy
we know of, located by scientists in 2011
 
is 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away.
It goes by the name of UDFj-39546284
 
for reasons that I haven’t yet looked up.
In the photograph you can see online, the galaxy looks
 
like dusty stuff in the corner of a window pane,
something you could look at sometimes,
 
something that is nothing, and has nothing
to do with what you know about distance and time.

If this poem were available online, I’d start at the beginning, but it isn’t, so I’ve presented, as an opening, the end, which is the titled example of the point of it all: what we “see” – that is, how we interpret the sensory signals we receive and turn them into opinions, facts, beliefs – depends on a whole lot of things, including a) what we expect to see; b) what we’ve seen before; c) what we want to see; d) what aspects of the scene we’ve been told are important; etc etc. It’s the poetic version of the intersection of the neuroscience of perception and philosophy, my favorite place.

The poem starts off with bunraku, a Japanese form of puppetry in which the puppeteers, two or three per puppet, are in full view of the audience, holding the puppets and coordinating movements. I was lucky to see a bunraku performance of Hansel and Gretel at my local library a few years ago, and I agree with the speaker of the poem: at first, you watch the puppeteers, but then you get used to them, and you start watching the puppets and get caught up in the action of the play. This is “The seeing and non-seeing that makes humans / humans”, as the poem puts it. Or, as comes later, foreground, background, context.

…. I’m thinking now of the placid
 
English estates where the servants had to face the wall
whenever anyone of importance was near,
 
where workers had to cut the lawns with scissors
in candlelight, to save the master the trouble
 
of seeing and hearing all that effort.
What the mind does with this kind of information
 
is probably the knot within the post-
in what we call post-modernism, knowing all we know
 
now about the cruelty that made modernism
modernism….

Do we see the beautiful lawn, or the servants whose crippled backs and hands made it that way? Are their images as disposable as their lives? Whose lives are we not seeing right now?

I like the commentary on modernism, when we knew everything as objective truth, vs post-modernism, when subjectivity took center stage and we realized things look different depending on where you’re standing. Don’t talk to me about post-post-modernism, I’m not ready yet.

The speaker gives other examples of this process of foregrounding/backgrounding – painters who were hired to paint background, while named artists who signed the paintings did the figures in the foreground; his grandmother’s hands in an old photo – until we get to the galaxy UDFj-39546284. I did spend some time looking for the naming conventions that would generate such an appellation, but the best I could do was to discover UDF means “ultra-deep field” on the Hubble telescope. The other characters might signify a particular image taken by the ‘scope, and a particular grid on that image, some kind of location parameter, but I don’t really know.

A couple of things about the peculiarly-named galaxy that aren’t necessarily clear from the description of “the oldest galaxy”. First, because of the expansion of the universe, farthest means it is the oldest galaxy, the one formed first of all the galaxies we know (and it is, it seems, a proto-galaxy rather than a formed galaxy), though of course there may be others we just haven’t seen yet. Its light has been travelling for something like 13 billion years to reach Hubble. And, the most interesting point: it no longer exists. I’m not sure how that is known – maybe it’s due to the age, galaxies have life spans too, and our own will someday die – but what we see was there, but now is not.

This is a poem, and, as I often do, I wonder why this is a poem, not an essay. There’s no meter I can discern, certainly no rhyme, yet it’s arranged in pairs of lines (TIL they can’t be called couplets unless they have the same meter). Why pairs? Does this suggest a duo, such as what we see and what we perceive? Or what is foreground and what is background? Or is it more of a process, a one-two step, almost a march? Or was it just what the poet was in the mood for? Is what we are seeing – an image of a thought, an emotion – something that was there, but now is not?

These are the background questions the poem raises for me. And, because the poem has sensitized me to these issues, I wonder why I choose to foreground my interpretation of content, and background form. There might well be another way to see it, and seeing it that way, like walking around a building to get a better sense of its structure, might increase – or change entirely – the impact.

Pushcart XLIII: Brian Doyle, “The Wonder of the Look on her Face” (nonfiction) from Creative Nonfiction #62

I was in an old wooden church recently, way up in the north country, and by chance I got to talking to a girl who told me she was almost nine years old. The way she said it, you could hear the opening capital letters on the words Almost and Nine. She had many questions for me. Did I know the end of my stories before I wrote them? Did my stories come to me in dreams? Her stories came to her in dreams. Did the talking crow in one of my books go to crow school? Where did crows have their schools? Did the crow’s friends talk, too? Did they have jokes that only crows know? Did I write with a typewriter like her grandfather? Did I use a computer? If you write on a computer, do the words have electricity in them? Is it too easy to write on a computer? Do you write better if you write slower? She wrote with a pencil. She was about to start writing her third book. Her first book was about bears, and her second book was about her grandfather’s fishing boat.

Complete story available online at Creative Nonfiction

This encounter with a child, told in one breathless paragraph, seems almost to be stream-of-consciousness – a one-and-a-half page embodiment of the “it’s more fun if you don’t know where you’re going” idea – but I see three main sections. We are introduced to the girl through her ideas and questions about writing (and the memorable emphasis conveyed by italics), then Doyle tells her some of his ideas about writing – not how to do it, but what is most fun for him – and then the closing section ends with his impromptu gift of a pen (“it might have a very good book in it”), received by her with an ineffable quality of wonder.

Doyle, Canadian author of several books of essays, short stories, and YA lit, has been a frequent occupant of Pushcart pages; this is my third encounter with him. He died in 2017. This essay, published in the “Joy”themed issue of Creative Nonfiction, makes a nice epitaph: a gift to all of us for our own writing, to discover our own joy, whether or not we know what will happen.

Pushcart XLIII: Sanjay Agnihotri, “Guerrilla Marketing” from One Story #236

Vikram dropped onto his knees and prayed to the goddess Lakshmi for a cash windfall. In less than six months, his only daughter, Heena, was getting married in Baroda, India, and he didn’t have money for the plane ticket home, let alone the wedding spread. If anyone should understand his desperation, it was the goddess of prosperity, and so—in the Balaji temple in Parsippany, New Jersey—Vikram bent down and prayed like he used to when he was a boy, when he believed the gods could deliver anything.
…. For a couple of weeks now, Vikram had been investing in prayer, but tonight, when dollars didn’t fall from the temple ceiling, he grabbed the old Brahmin priest and pronounced the goddess Lakshmi a whore. The priest, who was accompanying a youth group, passed off his heavy load of Sanskrit texts, adjusted his cotton dhoti, and pushed Vikram out the temple doors.

Vikram faces a number of challenges in this story: the dicey situation encountered by many immigrants who have little choice but to put up with abuse and exploitation in exchange for low-wage jobs, some bad luck, and, not least of all, his own impulses, which drive him to shady get-rich-quick schemes instead of legitimate offers. It was a combination of these that got him run out of LA after a teenager died of a drug overdose during his overnight shift at a cut-rate motel, which happened because he was off making a deal on bootleg DVDs. Life is tough, but Vikram doesn’t make it any easier on himself, as when he loses his temper with the priest in the opening paragraphs.

At one point, Vikram seems to be on the verge of success, when an important business owner recruits him. Vikram thinks it’s as an accountant – he’s got a degree in finance – but it turns out to be more exploitation, this time with a twist of irony: he’s to stand on the street, in cold sleet, wearing a Statue of Liberty costume, advertising Liberty Tax Services. Since he spends money on new business clothes, “and, most importantly, Drakkar Noir cologne”, he has even less to put towards the plane ticket home for his daughter’s wedding. The cologne is a really nice touch of characterization; this isn’t a guy with a lot of common sense.

One Story has an informative interview with Agnihotri. The inclusion of Vikram’s personal flaws is not accidental; this was in part to guard against sentimentalism, and to keep the character from becoming a stereotype. There’s a collection of linked stories in the works, including this one.

There’s a lot of chaos, but little motion in the story; Vikram doesn’t change, he just keeps getting into worse and worse circumstances. Even though it’s easy to get exasperated with him, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him at the same time. He works through all kinds of physical illness and discomfort, because what choice does he have? “He’s stuck, caught in the trap, like all of us”, says Agnihotri. It’s a diabolical hamster wheel, spinning lower and lower into disaster.

Pushcart XLIII: Allison Adair, “The Clearing” (poem) from Southeast Review #35.2

What if this time instead of crumbs the girl drops
teeth, her own, what else does she have, and the prince
 
or woodcutter or brother or man musty with beard and
thick in the pants collects the teeth with a wide rustic hand…

Complete story available online at Southeast Review

Ok, we’re back to the land of “I have no idea what’s going on”. This poem made me far more uncomfortable than the BBHBB poem, possibly because the meaning was less clear. It seems to be a linkage of fairy tale with primeval misogyny, turning the Brother Grimm into writers for L&O:SVU. Nature itself is against the female: the wolf who “licks his parts with a sandpaper tongue”, and in the final lines:

…how dark birds come
after, to dress the wounds, no, to peck her sockets clean.

That would be social media, blaming the woman for being out after dark, for being drunk, for wearing a short skirt, for flirting at a party, for having a vagina to penetrate in the first place. For ruining a young man’s life by demanding justice.

But it could be a poem about something else entirely, I have no idea.

Pushcart XLIII: Andrew Mitchell, “Bloody Mary! Bloody Mary! Bloody Mary!” from Southern Indiana Review, Spring 2017

Kevin Middleton: “Pizza Party”

Kevin Middleton: “Pizza Party”

For his son’s twelfth birthday, Frank Rudman rented the Party Cave at Pizza Piazza and invited Ethan’s seventh-grade class for a Sunday afternoon of endless cheese slices and cake and twenty dollars’ worth of quarters for the old pinball machines chiming in the back of the room. It was now one o’clock – the party started at noon – and so far only two other kids had arrived: a tall, sharp-shouldered boy named Chester Taft (“Yes, I am related to President Howard Taft,” he’d told Frank solemnly, as though it were his superhero identity) and little Lucy Handler, a breathless fourth-grader – a neighbor – who insisted on reading aloud the fortunes she interpreted from the lines on Frank’s palms: lotteries and new loves and even an impending reincarnation as a bottlenose dolphin.

The failed-party trope – and its cousin, the disastrous-wedding – is ubiquitous in fiction, probably because we’ve all been there in one way or another. This particular party not only has the guests who don’t show and the oddball guests who do, but an absent cake (“The cake is included in the Ultimate Party Package, sir”) and a weird game of Bloody Mary that I don’t fully understand but which seems to involve an imaginary ghost appearing in a mirror. Since participation is required, it’s no surprise when the game falls flat, given the participants. Add in Howard Taft’s descendent’s mother, who greets her son on his arrival home wearing a pink bikini top too small for her abundant breasts, and you’ve got a kind of fun story.

Of course, it’s a little less fun with Frank’s dead wife, Ethan’s dead mother, in the background. She died some time before, and Frank can’t stop thinking about how much better things would be if she were still here. In fact, that’s the purpose of the party: “He had wanted to give his son a birthday that would take his mind off things for a couple hours – Frank’s mind, too, he had to admit…” And I think that admission, slipped in so casually, is the point of the whole story. It’s not about the kid: it’s about Frank.

We don’t hear much from Ethan during all this. In fact, the only scene he appears in directly has him laughing about Bloody Mary being yet another person who doesn’t want to come to his party. Granted, he must feel a bit disappointed – or, maybe he knew all along what would happen – but the whole story is about Frank’s disappointment, not Ethan’s.

And that, I think, is the point. Frank even comes close to understanding this at least once:

Frank slouched deeper into the booth. Jesus, a pizza party? The last thing an eleven – no, twelve! – year-old boy wanted was a quaint bash at a kitsch, rundown, haven to the 1970s pizzeria, especially when he was plopped at the bottom rung of Outlook Spring School’s social ladder. Had Frank even asked Ethan what he wanted to do on his big day? No! He’d envisioned pro-Ethan throngs gathered at the Piazza’s front doors…. So complete was his faith in the allure of free pizza.

It sounds mean to call a still-grieving widower a narcissist, but that’s the shoe that fits. And it’s not just a reaction to his wife’s death, apparently: we read a long musing about a couple of former friends who fell away after Bonnie came into Frank’s life, long ago. He had a better excuse to ignore the plight of the neighbor, also a family friend, whose husband ran off and left her, since that happened around the time his wife died. But the evidence is pretty clear: Frank hasn’t been paying attention to anything but himself for a long time. No wonder he gave his son the birthday party of his own twelve-year-old dreams, instead of seeing current reality.

But the end of the story signals the potential for change, thanks to Ethan, who is not so self-absorbed. When Little Lucy has nightmares about Bloody Mary, it’s Ethan who knows how to distract her, and stops Frank from committing the same error over again by reminding him of her fondness for fortune telling. This gives Frank a chance to see another person as something other than himself, to react to another person’s needs. To develop a little empathy, thanks to Ethan. And the children shall lead…

Jake Weber had a somewhat different reading of this story (which is one of the advantages of this double-team approach, getting to see things from different angles). I can’t disagree with him – it does seem a bit written-for-TV – but I think that’s because the kid is an “attractive nuisance” who distracts from what I see as the heart of the story. And that might be deliberate, as it reflects the story, too: whether it’s a familiar party-gone-wrong motif, or grief from a recent loss, there’s a lot that can distract us from what really requires our attention.

Pushcart XLIII: Su-Yee Lin, “A Flock, A Siege, A Murmuration” from Bennington Review #3

Christine Grabig: “A Bird in Hand”

Christine Grabig: “A Bird in Hand”

When they said, two hundred cases of bird flu confirmed, we kept to our houses and apartments. We avoided the outdoors and all its creatures. We wore masks to avoid breathing the air that could be polluted with just about anything. We looked askance at the chickens tied with rope to the front of tool shops, to the songbirds kept in cages in the trees. We thought to ourselves: we will live as though we are dying.
I was applying for med school in the States then, although living in China as an expat. I had an excuse to never leave my apartment but when the government asked for volunteers to cull the poultry from the wet markets, I went into their offices. They looked at me, masks over their faces like my mask over mine. I said, I want to help. And they said, why? For science, I replied.

Complete story available online at Bennington Review

A crisis can hit on many levels; this story explores the individual, social, and ecological aspects of an overwhelming epidemic, an exaggerated fictional version of the real 2013 wave of bird flu. And for me, there was an additional personal association. I should add that the story is misclassified in Pushcart as nonfiction. Since Bennington Review published it as fiction, I emailed Lin to double-check, and she kindly verified it as fiction.

We see the individual impact through the eyes of the unnamed narrator. Because she is an expat and a future physician, her (she might just as easily be male, but since the roommates are female, and the writer is female, I’ll take the path of least resistance) outlook is perhaps more detached in some ways, more emotional in others. And then there’s the practical level, conveyed with eerie images like the smell of roasting poultry as chickens, geese, and pigeons are incinerated. Will she think of this time whenever she smells a cooking chicken? The scientist/humanist is a good choice for this character. “We will live as though we are dying”: perhaps that’s why she seems to feel less vulnerable to the epidemic as she travels the country helping to cull birds. Yet she evinces sorrow and even guilt over the ecological slaughter she is part of, wondering if her roommates have any idea what she is doing, and projecting some of her reactions to her future medical career:

I thought about medical school. I thought about the feel of a fluttering bird’s heart, the way their tiny eyes looked at you, the sharpness of their beaks. I thought about the corpses I would feel under my scalpel, the skin falling away to reveal fat and muscle. I thought about what disease can do to a body, how blood can pool under the skin, how the cells can implode, how the things inside of you can be transferred to outside the body.

The social impact becomes evident through a host of minor characters. One roommate shows symptoms, and the other, her friend, heads for the hills, leaving our protagonist to deal with the impending illness. People rarely speak; businesses close. This is the down side of living as though you’re dying. “What was there to lose, though? The worst was already here.” And as the epidemic slows:

On Nanjing Road East, I met a Uighur man grilling lamb on skewers. Only three skewers on the makeshift portable charcoal grill, but the smell wafting from it was irresistible. That was the intention. … The street empty but for the two of us. Aren’t you afraid of the virus? I asked. Aren’t you? he shot back. I shook my head. He shook his. It’s over, he said. It doesn’t matter anymore. I thought about that the entire walk back. The subway lines had long since shut down.

What does it mean, to kill all the birds? I once wrote a silly little fable about a king who ordered all the birds killed because he was jealous of their song. I did some thinking at the time about what birds are to us, even (maybe especially) those of us living in the middle of cities. Birds are perhaps the most natural thing we encounter on a regular basis, even if it is only the lowly pigeons. For those in more countrified settings, birds are a continual part of the visual and auditory sensorium. I’m not sure what the role of birds is in the biosphere, but I figure they wouldn’t be there if they had no purpose in promoting the life chain. And for some, birds are commerce. What does it mean, to all these different views, to destroy them? Is this sacrifice part of living as though we are dying?

Although the story has a strong, if emotionally restrained, apocalyptic tone, it ends with recovery: “The city emerged slowly from its invalid state.” I’ve always hated the word invalid, combining in this era the sense of illness and the sense of non-validity, but here it works perfectly: the epidemic was an invalid phase, in both senses of the word.

And here is where I found a personal connection. I recently was laid low by a non-serious, but quite debilitating, illness, and after a couple of weeks of lying around feeling sorry for myself, I had to remember: There is nothing wrong with you now; get up and get back to work. Recovery is every bit as mental and emotional as it is physical. Our narrator shows this quite beautifully:

It was November when I saw the first bird. A common sparrow, streaks of black and brown on his head. I enticed him over to me with crumbs of the thousand-layer sesame-and-scallion bread you can find all over the city and he came to my bench in the park, completely trusting. He hopped into my gloved palm. I laid my other hand over his head. I felt the rapid beating of his heart but he did nothing but flutter his wings. How easy it is to crush a life. How hard it is to save one.

Hunter and prey, condemned and executioner, come together to begin again. Recovery is possible, if we can avoid complete destruction before we hit bottom. We can go on to heal, ourselves, and others.

Pushcart XLIII: David J. Rothman, “Kernels” (poetry) from The New Criterion #36:2

When you told me about his whistling belt
And your cruel stepmother, who placed each kernel
On the hard floor then made you kneel, I felt
Like I had wandered into some infernal
Fairy tale. But it was real.

Complete poem available online at New Criterion

On the surface, the poem is a story we’ve all heard many times: the story of the abused child, told between adults, a story of rage, strength, and, perhaps, forgiveness. We are frequently shifted between the teller of the tale, who was the abused child, and the listener/speaker of the poem, who is… we don’t know. A friend? Lover? Counselor, minister, door-to-door vendor? The contrast is between the sufferer, who forgives, and the listener/speaker, who does not. It goes through tiny chapters: the revelation above, a moment of reflection, then an address to the sufferer, and a closing declaration by the listener/speaker.

You did the brave thing, learning how to live.
But me? They hurt a child. I don’t forgive.

But here’s where I wish I had more of a foundation in formal analysis: the poem seems to take the form of a sonnet, with some modifications, that coincides with the chapters.

The original Shakespearean sonnet of 14 lines is traditionally divided into three quatrains – four-line sections – each with their own alternating rhymes, and then a final rhyming couplet. As best I can tell, Rothman’s poem modifies that by extending the first, very traditional quatrain into the fifth line, the remainder of which seems to be unrhymed, a half-line unto itself. Then there is another traditionally rhymed quatrain, followed by a three-line tercet with interleaved rhyme, borrowed from the earlier Petrarchan form of the sonnet. The two emphatic lines of listener/speaker declaration end the poem.

Several lines stand out as emphatic markers, the rhythm distinct from the surrounding lines: “But it was real;” “And I believe you have.” They’re shorter sentences than the rest, and somehow signal a shift.

Then there’s the remarkable line, smack in the middle of the poem: “Failure to grieve / can freeze what frees us up”. The sound is distinct: the repeated “ee” sound, the homophones “freeze” and “frees” acting as semantic opposites. At this point I wonder if the listener/speaker is talking about him/herself, is another sufferer, or perhaps someone who saw abuse close at hand. Is the listener/speaker (and isn’t it interesting that I’ve come to that phrase, the speaker of the poem is the listener in the narrative) indicating there is something frozen, unfree about the sufferer? Or is the listener/speaker’s inability to forgive a sign of something unfree? What is the relationship between the two? Is it possible they are the same, someone so alienated from the past so as to see it as someone else who forgives, but a core that still rages?

Considering my initial reaction to the poem was “I’ve heard this before”, I’m glad that a bit of concentration yielded more than was first evident. I only wish someone who knew what they were doing – with sonnet, formal analysis, whatever – could provide more guidance.

Pushcart XLIII: David Long, “Skull” from Glimmer Train #99

You’re four hits into a bowl of two-hit weed, you and a waif named Keiko. It’s the now-distant summer you sublet that rathole on Grosvenor Avenue, a time when your life still could go many ways. Inside, the flat is close as hound’s breath, so you’ve been living on the fire escape since the third night of the heat wave. You’ve padded the slats with sheets of industrial cardboard from a loading dock and five-dollar sleeping bags from the Army Navy. No one uses the north fire escape, so its your private crows nest….
Keiko has the skin of a china doll. She could bet twenty or seventeen or fifteen. Her hair would be glossy as a rocking horse mane if washed and not so raggedy – it looks like she cut it with a jackknife in some public restroom. As always, she has on the black Pretenders tee, skinny-leg black jeans, worn-to-shit black high-tops. She showed up first with Joey de Souza and Phil Frost and others you know from busking, so you figured she was attached to one of them, but a week later she came alone, asked if she could hang….

The first thing I noticed about this story was the preponderance of descriptive passages. It’s not a style I typically like, but I can see the work being done by description here. Keiko, the waif and china doll, is imbued with beautiful fragility and pallor (the china in china doll refers to the porcelain, not the ethnicity, although I would guess from her name Keiko is of Japanese ancestry) in contrast to her black clothing and dirty, sawed-off hair. The fire escape, a “private crows nest”, lends the sense of far-seeing that becomes relevant at the end of the story. And the phrase “a time when your life still could go many ways” creates both a sense of lenience, the forgiving time, while establishing the story is being told from a more settled future when one’s past choices allow for less flexibility for future choices.

But my favorite descriptor is of the fire escape on this top floor, “which meant no mess of slats between you and the sky.” This again emphasizes the openness of possibilities, as well as the unimpeded embrace of infinity and nature even in this squalid apartment.

It’s a very short story, about three pages, but I think it could be even shorter; I’d love to see this as a true flash, without the background and fewer descriptors, since it focuses in on one particular crucial moment. Keiko and the narrator don’t sleep together; he doesn’t even try to get in her pants, possibly because he senses she may be very, very young. He seems to feel more of a protective than libidinous impulse towards her, given the china doll fragility. I’m just glad to see a story featuring a male-female relationship that does not include sex. Then again, I’m way beyond the life-is-full-of-possibilities, sleeping on the fire escape looking at the stars age.

On one of their nights together sharing hits of weed, she seems upset, and finally shows him a picture of what is probably the Sedlec Ossuary, a church made out of bones recovered from a six-hundred-year-old burial site originally started in the 13th century when a monk sprinkled the grounds of his church with soil brought from the hill where Christ was crucified. Centuries later, the bones – of somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 people – were rearranged in artistic formations, including walls of skulls. I happen to have run into this structure before, thanks to BASS 2011. It makes a huge impression on the delicate stoned teenager Keiko.

Her cheeks are wet, her gaze perfectly abject. I don’t want my skull to have nothing in it, she says.
I know, you say. Nobody does. Nobody on Earth.

I like the double meaning of a skull with nothing in it. First, since she’s holding in her hand the remains of the dead, it implies a fear of death. But it also implies a wasted life, a wasted mind, a brain with nothing to contemplate beyond weed and where she will sleep that night. She may be unaware of the dual meaning; maybe it’s the narrator who feels it more, as he contemplates his choices, some of which will involve an empty skull, some of which may not. I’d like to think both of them begin to think in terms of doing more with their lives than getting stoned, before that becomes the only choice they have.

And, by the way, a china doll has an empty skull.

In his post on the story, Jake Weber focuses on the death angle, and explores the difference between a comedic and dramatic approach. Interesting: we both imagine the story retold in a different way, though he seems more pleased than I with the form as presented.

Pushcart XLIII: Gabriel Brownstein, “No Time Like the Present” from Harvard Review #51

Katya was a yoga teacher and very pretty, with a round face and little black dreadlocks, a degree in cinema studies from Bard College, and a tattoo of an infinity sign on the back of her neck…. Tomorrow was her lumpectomy. She took a pill and kissed her daughter Nomi goodnight.
Sebastian Fishberger, her husband, was fourty-four years old…. While his wife brushed her teeth, Sebastian lay on the couch, drinking his third whisky of the night, and reading a book that had helped Katya with her anxieties, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, by Jonathan Garment M. D.

Tomorrow plays a big role in this story, but it’s today that’s the problem. On the one hand, we have the issue of how to deal with the night before a crucial event, in this case, surgery. The surgery itself is, as surgeries go, relatively minor, an outpatient procedure, but it’s the implication of cancer that’s terrifying. I’m still not sure if Katya has been diagnosed, and the lumpectomy is the treatment, or if the lumpectomy is a biopsy, but I don’t think it matters: whatever the details, it’s scary.

But, like tomorrow being switched out for today, the story leaves Katya behind and focuses on husband Sebastian. He’s not dealing with his pre-op anxiety as well as she is, partly, I suspect, because she doesn’t need his help (it’s so easy to blame the woman for the man’s behavior…). So he turns to whiskey and the book, which apparently comes from Katya’s comfort zone, Eastern philosophy/religion.

For me, the key passage comes early on:

The first time Sebastian came to a half-familiar Sanskrit word, he thought he understood it. The second time, he was less sure. The third, he realized that his eyes were running over the same lines again and again. His eyelids got heavy. The ship of meaning came unmoored from the words. He held the book in front of his face, but now he dreamed he was on a boat, reading. The sentences became a noise in the background of his dreaming, a sound like the lapping of the tide. His little skeff ran past a spiny reef, and toward open water. Under the surface, he saw the creamsicle fins of a big orange fish. He heard a tiny click – he imagined it was the click of Katya’s reading lamp. His eyes opened. He thought of the front door – the door had come with the house, the ugly green front door – its knob was old and cheap and spotty in parts where the brass finish had worn off. The knob was sticky. The knob didn’t work.

The doorknob – a means of entry and exit – becomes Sebastian’s obsession. He decides, in the middle of the night, to go to Home Depot and buy a new one to fix the problem. Things go awry, and more awry, as he makes one terrible decision after another: shoplifting, drunk driving, leaving the scene of an accident, homicide.

I read the story waiting for the “and then he woke up” moment, but there isn’t one. Is it all a dream – he was falling asleep over the book, remember – or did it happen? The not-knowing made me very uncomfortable, and it occurred to me, maybe this is the anxiety of the night before: not knowing.

As usual, Jake Weber had a far more sophisticated response to the story: a quartet of possible interpretations. Then he tucks in a final comment: “I choose to believe that Sebastian really dreamed the whole thing.” I’ve never been so glad to see a sentence in my life.

What is it, besides the sleepy scene, that read so strongly of a dream to me? There’s none of the bizarre time-warping or sudden appearances and disappearances that Ishigoro harnessed
as “the grammar of dreams” when he wrote The Unconsoled. The closest thing to dream weirdness is the 24-hour Home Depot (as I understand it, several home improvement chains tried this years ago, but found it unprofitable; there still are a few isolated instances, perhaps) and the bizarre nature of Sebastian’s decisions, which could also be a product of alcohol.

Even with my dream reading, it’s clear to me that Sebastian never realizes it was a dream. He’s going to send his wife off to surgery, convinced he’s killed a cyclist and that the police will be driving up to take him away any second. And again, I compare that to the original anxiety: there can be something unreal about a crisis when you’re in the thick of it. Then, later, you look back and wonder why you didn’t just do X or Y, why Z seemed like the only possible course of action. Waking-dream grammar.

Pushcart XLIII: Tiana Clark, “BBHMM” (poem) from The Journal #41.1

I, too, want to be naked,                     zebra-striped
in the almost dried accountant’s blood,                     sticky
and sucking                    a fat blunt inside a Louis Vuitton
suitcase brimming                    with the newest money.
 
This                    is another way to see myself, too,
in the way Rihanna                nooses              a white woman          up
by her smooth feet, a blue-blooded pendulum          swaying
as her beautiful tits                look more perfect than ever.

Complete poem available online at The Journal

Ekphrastic poetry, the august journal Poetry tells us, is adescription of a work of art, but also more: “Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.” The Getty Museum reminds reminds us that, in the original ancient Greek use, ekphrasis was an intense description of anything; they use the example of Homer devoting 150 lines of the Iliad to a description of Achilles’ shield. But they, too, indicate that “an ekphrastic poem usually includes an exploration of how the speaker is impacted by his or her experience with the work.”

Tiana Clark also draws upon high-status definitions of ekphrasis in her article at Adroit Journal describing her experience of writing and publishing this poem, using a quote from Edward Hirsch, poet and author of How to Read a Poem: “There is something transgressive in writing about the visual arts. A border is crossed, a boundary is breached, as the writer enters into the spatial realm, traducing an abyss, violating the silent integrity of the pictorial.”

Clark’s description of her experience shows she understands transgression:

When I wrote this poem as a modern ekphrastic response to Rihanna’s music video, I was met with some resistance from various sources in my life and M.F.A. program….
I was told not to publish the poem. I was encouraged not to write about pop culture, and definitely not pop music. I was told the poem was too violent. I was told the poem would make white people feel uncomfortable, and then a white person actually said, “This poem frightens me.”….
….when I, a black artist, want to use black art that was made for me (FUBU poetics), somehow that’s not allowed or not deemed as elevated or worthy enough of a subject for a timestamp.

Tiana Clark, interview at Adroit Journal

I will admit, the Rhianna video this poem describes makes me uncomfortable, too. “Bitch Better Have My Money” is violent and angry. It’s also beautifully produced with a seriously catchy hook, multiplying my discomfort. I’m not including a link to it, so some unsuspecting naif doesn’t get more than they bargained for by clicking, but it’s very easy to find (and is preceded by multiple warnings about violence and language – and nudity, as though that’s the problem).

However, on watching the video again, I realized the violence is more implied than shown. Bullets and fists and knives fly in critically acclaimed movies like The Godfather and TV cop shows (often about women being raped and murdered). By contrast, In the video, we see two women get on an elevator, one with a large trunk, and one woman get off dragging the trunk. We see a chain saw, but no dismemberment. We do see a woman swinging upside down, strapped to the underside of a pool float, and in the trunk, but she doesn’t look all that terrified (though she does clearly look dead in the pool). And we see the amazing opening and closing scene referenced in the opening stanza. We see revenge. We see payment of what is owed.

That’s what strikes me most about the video: “Pay me what you owe me.” This isn’t a robbery or a shakedown; it’s a collection letter. Yes, it’s set in an entertainment context, a manager or agent who has skimmed off the top and not delivered the artist her due. I don’t know about now, but women in entertainment, particularly women of color, have historically been victims of this kind of fraud. But given the American habit of stealing from African Americans on US soil for the past 400 years or so, it reaches far beyond Hollywood.

I hate it when people
 
talk about black artists                    being capitalists.
Why can’t we thrive in something rich and green too? And let us
be loud about it? Let us be loud        without consequence.

I’m still uncomfortable with the video. I’m not entirely comfortable with the poem. But I realize my view, and Clark’s view, are very different (FUBU poetics indeed), and I don’t begrudge her a viewpoint. In fact, I’m becoming more and more appreciative of the idea of the poem, the more I look at it.

Pushcart XLIII: Hal Crowther, “Christian Soldiers” (essay) from Narrative, Spring 2017

Father Dan was the poet, the intellectual of the brothers Berrigan…. As a federal fugitive, Dan Berrigan represented the confluence of serious poetry and nonviolent resistance to the government of the United States—to me, at that time, an irresistible combination. I read most of Berrigan’s work that was then in print. Impressed by his craftsmanship and passion, I was an unlikely candidate for his brotherhood of faith. His poem “The Face of Christ” begins “The tragic beauty of the face of Christ shines in our faces.” A pilgrim like me, from a family of agnostics, Unitarians, and hardheaded, freethinking Scots, is not instantly engaged. But what fascinated and haunted me was the life where his intellect and faith had led him, a life that in a few months would place him in a prison with felons who had never read a poem.

Daniel Berrigan, for those of you who only read about the 60s in high school history textbooks, was a fixture of the Vietnam era as an anti-war priest. He ended up on the FBI’s Most Wanted list and was imprisoned several times for destroying draft records and other acts of nonviolent civil disobedience (and lest you think he was some kind of radical liberal, he also protested at abortion clinics). One of the fine points that’s been lost to history – a history not that old – is that a great deal of protest against the Vietnam war was generated by the draft, an element that is no longer in play today when we send troops to Iraq or Afghanistan. I have to wonder if the Iraq war, now considered a major policy failure by a broad range of analysts, would have happened if there’d ben a draft.

But back to Berrigan. He died in 2016, inspiring Crowther to write this piece as a remembrance. Through it, he examines the effect of religion on public opinion and societal values, from the conscience-building Jesuit foundations of the Berrigans to “the soft, malleable, spongy sort of God who forgives us for everything or who can be molded to any desperate purpose – the worst examples of this all-too-human heresy would be the KKK using the cross of Dan Berrigan’s Jesus as a symbol of racist terrorism, or jihadists murdering Muslims (and others) in the name of a homicidal god.”

Can traditional religion, burdened by its own history, disrespected by science, crowded almost into the shadows by conspicuous consumption and metastasizing technology, still inspire unusual individuals to live heroically, on a consistently higher moral plane? The answer, for anyone familiar with the Berrigan brothers, is a confident “Yes.” But there’s always my other question, which I’d never be rude enough to pose to a man of faith: If God made and loves us all, why did he make so many of us cruel and stupid?

I’ve said several times that some of the most honorable people I’ve known were Christians – Catholic, Mormon, Protestant – but that their religion was something I learned about after I began to admire them. The people who lead off their Twitter profiles with “Christian” seldom impress me with their ethics; they tend to use religion as a club, in both the weapon and clique sense of the word, and find ways to justify what they want to believe. When I see a person acting with kindness, generosity, and compassion, I’m open to knowing more about where that comes from. When I see someone acting with superiority and judgment, I run the other way.

What seems to attract Crowther to Father Dan’s ethic is an internal consistency, along with a willingness to accept responsibility for his actions. It’s easy to be a Twitter warrior; it’s a lot harder when you are willing to go to prison for actions you believe to be right.

Pushcart XLIII: Eli Barrett, “The Imagination Resettlement Program” from Pleiades #37.2

The first one I saw was a tiger with golden stripes—shiny gold, like metal—breathing fire in my front yard, scorching the hell out of my Bermuda grass. I still don’t know where that thing came from, maybe a folk tale or a kid’s cartoon. All I know is it scared the bejeezus out of me. I hunkered down in my house for days afterward, watching the news. At first, no one could figure out where all these strange creations were coming from. Then they started finding famous ones, like Tarzan and Tom Thumb, until finally a government spokesman came on and told us that centuries of creating characters had caused a crisis. The world of imagination was overpopulated and overflowing.

Initially, I thought this story, while very much on the right track, just missed the mark. I was comparing it to a couple of other works: Joyce Carol Oates’ wonderful story “EDickinsonRepliluxe” in which android versions of various historical figures are made available to consumers, and the more on-point novel Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, a Norwegian YA book written to teach philosophy to his teenage daughter.

However, those comparisons are not really appropriate, as Barrett’s story focuses on a different aspect, something that wasn’t clear to me until I read Jake Weber’s post explicitly discussing authorial intent and reader interpretation, an interesting and worthwhile examination of one of my favorite topics, in light of this story. And again, I wish I’d thought of that.

But I didn’t, so I’ll stay in my lane. While Gaarder’s character Sophie is presented as having independent will and curiosity once she begins to investigate the world philosophically, Barrett’s characters remain as created, despite Carl’s attempts to educate them. Thus the conflict is much different.

The displaced characters had to live somewhere, and the government thought it would give the economy a boost to pay people to board them in their homes. For years I’d been scraping by on disability checks, so in spite of that bad brush with the tiger, I decided to apply to the program. Some people got lucky. Imagine having Winnie-the-Pooh living in your house! Or Cinderella! I got Mary. She was a simple advertising character, but she turned out to be better than any fairy tale princess around.
They dropped her off on a chilly morning. She must have been freezing, because with my bad leg it took me a long minute to walk to the door. There was an icy sort of rain falling, like frozen sand, and it glistened all over her coat and blonde hair. “I’m Mary,” she said, “the bridal detective.”

Predictably, Carl falls in love with Mary, an unsatisfying relationship since she is not a complete person but a one-dimensional advertising projection whose only concern is finding the best bridal deals. She is literally, and ironically, “always a bridal detective, never a bride”.

When Carl takes in Tommy Lee, a TV character, there’s a similar inability to expand the character-as-created: Tommy Lee is from an old-time Western family drama, and he expects, at the end of each day (episode), to be taught a lesson by Carl (his ersatz father), because, for those of you who never saw The Waltons or Ozzie and Harriet, or even the early years of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, that’s how television series were written at one point: the character learns a life lesson in the final act, but never really changes, or the series would be over. Fortunately, TV started to evolve in the 70s, storylines started stretching over several weeks or even seasons, and characters did change over time.

Tommy Lee never got to that point, however; he falls in love with Mary, and though every night Carl explains to him that she’s not right for him, the next day he goes back to planning to marry her.

The story gets connected to the present day by the gradual change in societal attitudes towards the imaginative characters that have shown up. While at first they were welcomed and taken in to private homes by eager families, as time goes on they are viewed as a threat. A nearly-worldwide ban on imagination prevents the creation of new characters, except in a few “rogue states”, and the general public becomes more and more angry at the newcomers, eventually demanding they be put into labor camps. Somehow there’s an underground dedicated to returning the characters to their original habitat:

Vanity repatriation, they call it. There is a black market for writers who want to return their characters to the world of imagination….
The experts say that when these characters are in the world of imagination, they can’t see our world at all. But maybe when Mary goes home, she’ll know it was me who freed her. She’ll know it was me who loved her.

And again, we have a story where the exact details of how all this works aren’t clear, and don’t need to be clear. How does this repatriation work? I have no idea, but does it matter? The point is, Carl realizes he can’t have Mary, so he does the next best thing by making sure she’s as happy as possible, rather than surrendering her to a labor camp. Isn’t that the essence of love?

By resisting the urge to imbue the imaginary characters with the possibility for change, Barrett creates a nice tension between Carl, an actual person with a will, and his two boarders. Carl shows the capacity to “read the room” and adjust to reality, while Mary and Tommy Lee are stuck in their worldview, unable to change or adapt. We may not like a character, but we’re stuck with what we see on the page.

And here’s where Jake’s take on authorial intent and reader interpretation comes into play. We can imagine we see a man in the moon, or the hunter Orion in the stars, but we can’t make them be what we imagine them to be; they are still a big rock and a random arrangement of lights. Is it the task of an author to create a character that can only be interpreted in the way the writer intends? Or are characters who allow multiple interpretations far more interesting? Is that why Hamlet would be so much more fun to live with (or more harrowing, perhaps) than Mary?

Pushcart XLIII: Tom Sleigh, “Face” (poem) from Literary Imagination #19:2

i.m. Mark Strand

 
Mark came into the room and said, Tom, you have
the face of a dog. Alan, you have the face
of a horse. And me, I have the face of

 
but Mark couldn’t decide what kind of face
he had, or else I couldn’t in the dream
remember or maybe it was that the dream
 
couldn’t remember. And in the second part
of the dream Mark came into the room smiling
and laughing, and after a while he left the room
 
and Alan said, It’s only natural he wants
to have a good time.
And when Mark didn’t come
back for a while, I went looking for him,
 
and though I knew where he was, I couldn’t find him.
….

And here I am again, thinking I would understand this poem much better if I had a better grasp of who Tom Sleigh is, who Mark Strand was, who the Alan in the poem is, and how they all relate to one another, poetically and/or personally. I do know Mark Strand was a master poet who died in 2014. I’m going to assume Alan is Alan Shapiro, with whom Sleigh edited the Spring 2016 issue of Ploughshares as a tribute to recently deceased poets Mark Strand, Philip Levine, C.K. Williams, and Seamus Heaney: “ ‘We wanted to bring them back–if only in these pages.’ Featuring work from the aforementioned poets alongside their students, peers, and also variety of emerging voices, the stories and poems in these pages reassure us that great writers and teachers never really leave us.” So I am going to assume this poem is a dream-recreation of the process of editing that issue.

It’s a dream in five parts. In the first, as above, Mark joins Tomm and Alan and identifies the two living poets as having the faces of a horse and dog, but can’t identify himself. The second part is more of a reaction. In the third part, Mark returns and changes the identifications: now Tom has the face of a horse, Alan the face of a dog, but Mark still doesn’t know what he is. In the fourth part Mark decides he has the face of the horse and the dog.

And then the fifth part:

And in the fifth part of the dream –
but there was no fifth part of the dream –
only Alan, me, horse, dog, and Mark
 
coming and going, coming and going in the room.

I get a very strong sense of the poet/teacher who is always present, offering what may to me seem like random and unsatisfying hints and prompts, but which, to the more attuned poetic ear, is inspiration. Is this based on a real dream? Is the sequence meaningful in some way beyond my understanding?

The poem is included in Sleigh’s 2018 collection House of Fact, House of Ruin which publisher Graywolf Press describes: “The book ultimately turns on conundrums of selfhood and self-estrangement in which Sleigh urges us toward a different realm, where we might achieve the freedom of spirit to step outside our own circumstances, however imperfectly, and look at ourselves as other, as unfamiliar, as strange.” I don’t know about the other poems in the collection, but it fits this one perfectly.

It’s another poem I don’t really get, but one that interests me. I like the repetitive but progressive dream sequences; I may not know what’s going on, exactly, but I’m intrigued nonetheless.

Pushcart XLIII: Rick Moody, “A Country Scene” (nonfiction) from Salmagundi #174

The meth heads, if that is the correct designation, had been watching the house for months. Agreed, this presumes the meth heads had their shit together enough to watch anything at all, beyond NASCAR or Alaska State Troopers. Their hard, rural lives mainly involved sleeping in, for days at a time, in the extremity of despond, because that was what it felt like when the pollutants evacuated the relevant neurotransmitters….
Did they start watching the house after they were rebuffed in their attempt to snow-shovel the driveway, for cash, on one occasion? ….We can imagine their contempt for the owner as he lifted each wet, intractable shovelful of precipitation, when more practical methods were, for a paltry sum, being offered to achieve a like result. Maybe they wanted a closer look at the premises, while shoveling, as they waited for a climatically advantageous period, a period in which the owner of the house would no longer be likely to visit so frequently as he did in summer. It was, after all, his second home.
And so: the meth heads decided upon October, right after the birthday of the owner. They did not break in during a birthday celebration, during the eating of gluten-free chocolate-chocolate made from a box. Among the questions pursuant to the crime, including wondering whether the perpetrators were beaten frequently as children, was the question of whether they were observing through the windows during the two-day birthday celebration. Was candle extinguishing observed? Conjugal activity? Excretory episodes? And did they try the patio door with their crowbar before the burglary?….

Nonfiction takes a lot of forms, and most of them show up in each Pushcart volume at least once. There’s straight reportage, which informs the reader of some relatively obscure topic: the story on a community of people living in their cars at an Oregon rest stop was a good example. Persuasive essays present a point of view and support it with some aspect of logical argument. Then there’s memoir, which may capture just a brief moment of the writer’s life to share it, along with some life lesson; “A Fish in a Tree” from this year’s volume, for instance. Very common these days is the “thought piece,” which, though based on personal experience rather than logical argument, may combine different elements, as Pam Houston’s opening essay did this year.

Creative non-fiction might fall into any of those other categories, but usually includes some formal, structural, or narrative element that makes it atypical. Kiese Laymon’s essay collection How to Kill Yourself and Others in America takes the overall form of a music album, and goes through storytelling, letter writing, and rap. Jason Novak’s painful remembrance of a child took the form of a comic. Although formal experimentation is more common as fiction – I’ve seen pieces set as glossaries, indices, lists, recipes – creative nonfiction can take a variety of paths.

Rick Moody chooses to relate an incident in his life by means of what seems to be a story, complete with a Study Guide at the end. The story is from the point of view of a group of rural meth dealers/users who break into a house and spend a couple of raucous days there.

In short order, across the threshold, the meth heads came to feel that all that was in the house belonged to them. The door swung back, and to the meth heads it was like the first time they non-consensually abridged the freedoms of a teenage learning-disabled girl. The prevailing order of things, in which, by and large, you leave to other people their ideas about property and ownership, was overturned, and the appurtenances of that house were theirs.
However, achieving the threshold of the premises also leads us to an important metaphysical question, one that is implicit in breaking and entering in the majority of circumstances, and that metaphysical question is: having had their quiet enjoyment of the premises would they shit on the bed, whichever bed; for many lawless, upcountry sons of liberty, this was a traditional part of the breaking and entering game, it was part of the folk literature of breaking and entering, a culmination even, and though they had performed just the four or five burglaries in the Eastern Dutchess County area, they were well aware that shitting on the bed was practically de rigeur.

The house, of course, turns out to be Moody’s. The shitting-on-the-bed trope runs through it, the ultimate symbol of degradation. It’s easy to be an armchair liberal who sympathizes with the structural inequalities in society, forces that keep some people at socioeconomic bottom and allow others to rise; it’s a lot harder when a bunch of guys break into your country house, your second home – the house where your family held a birthday celebration a few days before – spill the food on the floor, pour out the booze, and shit on the bed.

Having described what happened by imagining the invaders actually performing their acts – a bit of clearly indicated speculation in the service of nonfiction – the Study Guide begins with the kinds of questions you’d normally expect in a study guide, but then moves into a much more personal expression of horror and rage.

Questions for Further Study
 
1) How is class a particular feature of the burglary at the heart of “A Country Scene”?
2) Is it possible to write a story in which there are no conventionally sympathetic characters? Is the narrator in this story sympathetic?

10) Is it possible for the perpetrators of these burglaries, who took, for example, the ring I proposed to my wife with, to commit these crimes without ever undertaking to feel the loss that the violated party feels (and here I use the word violated, despite its overuse in this context, because I now understand precisely what it means)?
11) How can I go on doing my work, when the place where I did my work was the setting of this “country scene”? That is, a place defiled by these guys, and made more their home than mine?

The break-in becomes theft, not of the contents, but of the house itself, and certainly destruction of a sense of safety and comfort, a full-immersion bath in vulnerability. When we first read the title – The Country Scene – we imagine lots of green and butterflies and singing birds, a relaxing break from the pace of city life, or even suburban life for those with jobs and deadlines and demands. We want to kick back, take our shoes off, and bask in the sun for a moment. Until we read this story, which paints a very different Country Scene, one that could intrude on the more pleasant variety at any time.

The slow pace, the gradual movement from an almost comic scene of ridiculous destruction to the sense of personal violation, makes this approach particularly powerful.

Pushcart XLIII: Maggie Smith, “Parachute” (poem) from Pleiades

Because a lie is not a lie if the teller
believes it, the way beautiful things
 
reassure us of the world’s wholeness,
of our wholeness, is not quite a lie.
 
Beautiful things believe their own
narrative, the narrative that makes them
 
beautiful. I almost believed it
until the new mother strapped
 
her infant to her chest, opened
the eighth-floor window,
 
and jumped.

Complete poem available online at Pleiades

Poet Maggie Smith (not to be confused with the British actor) wrote this in response to a real news story: a 44-year-old attorney and new mother, presumably suffering from post-partum depression, jumped out of an eighth-floor window with her baby. The woman, who left behind a 13-page suicide note enumerating her flaws as a mother, died; the baby somehow lived.

Smith ties it to her daughter’s field trip visit to a firehouse. Kids love this kind of thing: they slide down the pole, caught by burly firefighters who keep them safe on the 12-foot trip, they see videos about stop-drop-and-roll, they look at the shiny fire trucks and the axes, and somehow it’s all separated from the actual fires, from real fear and pain and death. At least, we think it is, until later: “She asks me if she knows anyone/who got dead in a fire, anyone who/got fired. When will I die? she asks.” How do you answer a question like that? How do you explain a mother jumping out of a window with her baby?

A lie is not a lie if the teller
believes it? Next time the man
 
in the video will not ignite.
The baby will open like a parachute.

Maybe you tell a story. Maybe you tell a story to yourself that makes it more bearable.

This poem is part of Smith’s 2017 collection Good Bones, and for me is intrinsically linked to the title poem of that book, recreated here as a 4-minute film. Apparently this poem went viral after both the Pulse shooting in the US, and the murder of British MP Jo Cox in England, and ultimately was declared the poem that most captured the tumult of 2016 by various press outlets. It covers the same ground: how do you talk to kids about the dangers of the world, without scaring the hell out of them? This becomes especially meaningful when you’ve got kindergarteners practicing lock-down drills and being taught good touches and bad touches.

These two poems walk a kind of balancing line between hope and despair. It’s a tough spot to hit, but Smith does it quite effectively.

Pushcart XLIII: Olabajo Dada, “The Bar Beach Show” from Southampton Review #11:2

Every other Sunday, the army hosted a sold-out show at the Bar Beach. They ran flashy advertisements in the Daily Times a couple of days prior to the event, promising “a show like never before” while occasionally announcing a hike in the gate fee because of the surge in gas prices, or to offset the cost of new swings and slides they installed on the beach for “energetic Nigerian tots.” On the day of the show, while children played soccer and flew kites around lovers moseying along the shoreline, who patronized hawkers peddling snacks, and swimmers rose and fell with the waves, soldiers set up barrels right next to a bamboo stage where invited musical guests entertained the crowd just before the show’s most popular attraction. Then, with much ceremony and to deafening cheers and jeers, the soldiers paraded newly condemned criminals and tied them up to the barrels. And while they wailed and pleaded and ceaselessly declared their innocence, the soldiers yanked out their assault rifles and mowed down the convicts like inanimate paper targets. Their bodies, which were thrown far out into the water according to a new decree, sometimes returned to the beach after a day or two, always naked and often missing several succulent appendages.

Complete story available online at Southampton Review

Bar Beach, Nigeria was indeed the scene of numerous public executions by firing squad, back in the 70s and 80s. It was also, bizarrely, the name given to a TV musical variety show. Youtube had nothing on 80s Nigeria.

It’s a very difficult story to read: emotionally, because it’s horrific and tragic, and cognitively, because it’s just literally hard to read. Parts are written in dialect, and it takes a while to get used to. Dialect under any circumstances is difficult; a quick google finds plenty of tips for writers, but the fact is, for readers it takes patience. I found myself wondering during this story if this is tied in to how people feel about “outsiders”, how white America sees brown people with their accents and unfamiliar names and words and foods and customs we don’t know, and just resists them, not because they’re intrinsically bad, because it’s hard to learn something new. All the pejorative labelling and fear follows from insecurity. Maybe this is another way fiction can help in times of transition – if we could just get past that initial “I don’t recognize this so it must be bad.”

But the dialect issues are fairly minor; it’s the narrative prose itself that’s often hard to decipher. Jake Weber does a great analysis of specific problems. I ended up taking what I call the “Piers Plowman approach” (after my current project, the #piersplowmanreadinggroup): I skimmed until I got to the end, found the ultimate purpose of it all, and then went back to fill in the gaps. And again, I wonder if it’s all just unfamiliarity – with the style, the author, the history.

Akanji is a coffin maker who’s hooked up with the military bad-guys running the Bar Beach show. Together, they bilk the families of the executed prisoners. Akanji is a reluctant participant, but he’s desperate to raise money to get what he believes is life-saving surgery for his wife; the bad-guys are just plain old greedy.

This was the part of the job that Akanji hated. Did Okoro ever care about how these people would be able to afford their loved ones’ funerals after he’d milked them dry to release their bodies and forced them to buy a coffin? Okoro glanced his way and nodded, and Akanji handed him the papers.
“Look,” he said to the women. “I can’t change that price because I’ve factored in the price for the coffin. And that’s even at a 20 percent discount. But I will throw in a favour.”
The women dabbed their faces and looked up at him.
“I’ll tell my soldiers not to shoot them in the head or face. That way you can have an open casket for the wake. Then they can have a proper burial and rest in peace, and nobody feels cheated, not so?” He handed the papers to them. “Pick out any design you like and Akanji will make it for you. Don’t forget to give him your husbands’ measurements. He knows his work very well, so recommend him to your friends.”

We find out at the end that Akanji is being played as well, but he remains unaware. Borrowing from the prior story “Midwinter”, we have a guy who doesn’t yet realize he’s on a hamster wheel, one that’s about to come to a very nasty halt.

I kept thinking of the internet meme that started a few years ago: ‘“I never thought leopards would eat MY face,” sobs woman who voted for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party.’ It’s the updated version of “You lay down with dogs, you get up with fleas.”’ But let’s not forget: leopards eating faces is a tragedy, even when someone seems to sign up for it.

Pushcart XLIII: D. Nurkse, “Midwinter” from Ploughshares #131

Ghost Rider Hamster (Marvel)

Ghost Rider Hamster (Marvel)

Could you love God in a world without death? Teacher asked.
And we children shouted, a bristling forest of raised yearning arms. Yes! No! Depends!
We didn’t know the answer, or even the question, just wanted to be admired for alacrity, vehemence prompted by authority. Some of us took the opportunity to punch our neighbors, or, in our excitement, ourselves.
Yet we felt sorry for her. There were lines like a ledger stave ruled in her forehead, and the wan scuff mark a key might leave on the edge of a lock at the corner of her chapped lips. This morning one of the buttons on her gray blouse was open. How could that happen? No one had buttons like Teacher – huge sofa-buttons, the holes hidden by a scrim of fabric.
Come to think of it, one of her earrings was missing its Neiman Marcus pearl: just a dangling wire clasp.

D. Nurkse (aka Dennis Nurkse) is primarily a poet, which may explain why I was drawn to the language, first in the descriptions and details – a ledger stave, sofa buttons, a bedraggled earring – and then, by the geometry, including the almost symmetrical appearance of the word “authority” near the beginning and end of the piece. For what is God but the ultimate authority, and what is a teacher, to children, if not that same authority? Right down to children as authority to their pets: a hierarchy from God to amoeba.

The very short story/poem – not a prose-poem, exactly, but a story infused with poetic sensibility – takes place in what is presumably a classroom at a religious school, most likely Catholic, where the love of God is a given and all that’s left is to discuss the peripheral details. In a further show of symmetry, a paragraph right smack in the middle of the piece (this is my perversity: I talk about math in poetry classes, and I talk about poetry in math classes) sets the time as the winter of 1950-1951, when the momentum of the Korean war was going back-and-forth almost monthly. For those of us whose only experience of this particular war, long overshadowed by its bigger cousins WWII and Vietnam, was the TV series M*A*S*H, we see it from a child’s-eye view.

Teacher is herself a brave soldier, calling on the less enthusiastic and outspoken class members to recite, encouraging them, too, to consider the answer. And no one really has any idea, because what does third or fourth or fifth grade have to do with loving God, death or no death? But they’ll do everything they can to give the right answer, because that’s what authority is all about.

Then the hamster comes along and blows it all to hell:

Yet Teacher listened, leaning forward, with the attention of a patient when the doctor speaks. In the hush you could hear the constant ping of heat-pipes, teachers in higher classrooms, droning with a heart-stopping authority, and the squeak of the hamster’s wheel
Oil it! We said under our breath. Who knows why it never happened – Who skipped a day on the task chart, who was distracted, why that small trapped creature is still advancing, there in the darkest month, in the cage of a circular journey.

This is the essence of faith: to keep moving, even when the sun is shrinking every day. But what about that squeaking wheel? There’s a tendency to think of it as complaint – as in “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” – but here, it’s more of a signal of neglect.

And that’s where I see the story/poem coalescing: maybe God got a little shopworn himself back in the Days of the Prophets. He provided the hamster, and the cage, and the wheel, and then it became our responsibility to keep things oiled. If we’ve neglected to keep our part in the bargain, well, you can’t be surprised by the squeaking. And the hamster just keeps running in circles.

Can a hamster have a theology? Does it think of the squeak as evidence of God’s nonexistence, of his creative but ultimately impersonal nature, of the natural consequences of original hamster sin? Until we can speak Hamster, we have no idea what the hamster thinks of his squeaky wheel. And yet – and here’s where Jake Weber’s post on this story/poem shines as he dissects theodicy – we’re convinced our pets love us, as we love God. And we’re all just running around in the wheel, while maybe God’s losing his buttons and has tolerated the squeaking for so long, he doesn’t even hear it any more.

Pushcart XLIII: Mary Jo Bang, “Like Someone Asleep in a Cinema” (poem) from Vallum #14:2

Like someone asleep in a cinema who wakes to lean over into your space
and mock your open-eyed wonder. That’s how it was then, the eye
movements of others tracking my every reaction on the stage that ends
by design sans everything. When everything is over the shape of the moon
will still feign a bathtub boat in the underworld, at rest on its side. I’ll be
the flower I’ve always been, held by a woman wearing a hat, half-veil,
half-opened lips, the whites of her eyes matching the moon as the sun
reflects off its surface.

Complete poem available online at Vallum

We have now reached the “I have no idea” portion of our program, where I founder and grasp at straws to come up with something.

My first thought was, the speaker is a stripper, turning the male gaze back on itself. This was primarily based on the stage setting, the sans everything ending, references later to soap and cleanliness. But I’m not really convinced by that. Maybe it’s more of a nested metaphor for the reality of a life, which indeed necessarily ends sans everything. Then we’d have more of a retrospective view, of being scolded for one’s utterings, of everything being over, of time the “hissing is”. That doesn’t feel satisfying either. But I’m afraid I don’t have anything else that works better.

The first lines bring to mind the opening essay of this volume, with its plea to abandon ironic distance for genuine feeling, as again we see someone mocked for “wide-eyed wonder”.

Language meaning mutates in parts of the poem, particularly the word “lie” in the second half.

I so wanted to be stone but never achieved it. Wanted to lie to get
what I wanted, without wondering, What will happen if I lie?
…The clock no longer flips one to two,
time is a hissing is. Lying is now in fashion. Lie down with me, people say,
when they hold someone back from the edge of that insane remembering.

I wonder which lying the speaker sees as in fashion. I know what kind of lying is, in fact, in fashion now, but the poem may have other ideas.

Pushcart XLIII: Claire Vaye Watkins, “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness” from Granta #139

I spent the morning on myspace looking at pictures of my dead ex-boyfriend. The phrase my dead ex-boyfriend is syntactically ambiguous you can’t tell from it whether this boyfriend and I were together when he died. We were not. We’d been broken up for about two years. We were together for three then apart for two then he died. He died in a car crash that’s how he died.
….
His name was Jesse but in the years between our breakup and his death he went by Jesse Ray meaning his new friends and his new girlfriend called him Jesse Ray. I never called him Jesse Ray. No one from our old group ever called him that. We all grew up together don’t talk about him much now maybe because we don’t know what to call him.

Complete story available online at Granta

I’m not sure if this is fiction or memoir. Vulture refers to it as autofiction, a kind of blurring of the two genres; if you google the term, you’ll find it’s been around since the 70s but is resurging thanks to Knausgaard. I don’t quite get the distinction between autofiction and the “thinly disguised autobiography” which has been around much longer, or, for that matter, the Roman à clef. Given my annoyance with embroidering the truth and still calling it nonfiction, I’m fine with the “based on a true story” approach. But Granta calls it fiction; here in Pushcart, it’s ambiguous, since it’s listed in the Index as fiction, but the notation is missing in the text itself.

Why does it matter to me? I’m not sure, other than I don’t do well with uncertainty. Would I read it differently one way or the other? Not really. Maybe the problem is one of displacement: I can’t really get a handle on it, and I’m focusing on genre as a reason. But enough navel-gazing.

The story is about the narrator’s relationship with the chaotic Jesse, who has “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness” – the name of a punk-rock band, by the way; the header image above is from one of their videos – tattooed across his collarbones. “I don’t like sweet boys. I liked filthy weirdos who scared me a little and I still do”, she tells us, as we hear about their time tog’ether, he returned from college, she about to depart. “There is no story – he was there and then he was gone.” She found out about his death from her sister, who found out about it on Myspace.

Oddly, it’s Myspace that feels to me the center of gravity in this piece. Odd, because it’s such a vibrant portrait of a guy who lived on the edge, full of enticing details about sex and self-destruction and, yes, life. And odd because I never had a Myspace page; I only briefly used Facebook, back before it became a marketing tool, so why should I be interested? Maybe because Watkins puts it front and center in her opening: “The uncooperative cadence of the phrase my myspace perfectly encapsulates the awkwardness of the early oughts when our story begins.” I don’t think it’s by accident that she changes the more typical “aughts”, meaning the first decade of a century, to “oughts” in a story about a guy who didn’t do oughts.

The narrator – be it a fictional stand-in for Watkins, or a totally fictional character – effectively expresses this intense connection, a connection that breaking up and moving on did not lessen. Is this the product of an intense relationship? Or is it more a reaction to the circumstances, the first loss of a peer? Or maybe it’s displacement, a kind of aggregate mourning connected to the death of her mother, who died while she was at school, and her husband’s former girlfriend, who died in Bolivia doing field work, all the dead bodies unseen, leaving an open wound.

Toward the end, the narration changes and the writer addresses Jess; at this point, the language sometimes becomes chaotic, with run-on sentences and just thoughts pouring out.

Jesse, I wish you were here. America is violent and queer as fuck. The snowbanks are rising and every morning I drive over a frozen river past a mosque an elementary school this week sent a letter threatening a great time for patriotic Americans. I pass a kid who looks like you walks like you did I pass a sculpture by Maya Lin called Wave Field which is like a bunch of waves made of grass covered in snow so like a bunch of bumpy snow. Pretty cool. I drive to a strip mall and smoke weed in my SUV and do rich bitch yoga with these fierce old dykes and Indian grandmas and public ivy sorority alumni and other basic traitorous cunts and for $20 each we all come out an hour later looking like we just got fucked all of them my sisters.

In my quick tour of the internet looking for comments on this story, I see that those who mention it, whether they encountered it in Granta (it was in the Best Young American Novelists of 2017 issue, so it got a pretty wide spread) or elsewhere, were extremely impressed. I feel old.

Pushcart XLIII: Victor LaValle, “Spectral Evidence” from Ploughshares #43:2

“They think I’m a fraud.”
“They think I’m a fraud.”
I like to repeat this to myself in the mirror before I go out and do my job. It might seem weird to say something cruel right before I perform, but I thrive on self-doubt. If I go out there feeling too confident, then I don’t work as hard. It’s easy to get lazy in this trade but I take the job seriously. For instance, the word psychic does not appear anywhere in the window of my storefront. I never say it to my visitors. I call what I do “communication.”

Homer’s Odyssey, written several hundred years before the Golden Age we associate with classical Athens, gives us a glimpse into the beliefs about the Underworld at that time: although a few were selected for particular punishment or honor, most departed souls went to a grey place of little activity or interest, just a bunch of shades milling around. Then again, some people don’t have to wait for the afterlife to experience this kind of meaninglessness.

Our narrator is a middle-aged psychic, or, as she prefers it, communicator with the dead, in New York City. She views her job as performance, which gives us the impression she doesn’t take it seriously. But as we get to know her better, we realize she now takes it very seriously: her own daughter Sonia committed suicide a year ago, and regularly calls to her across the divide with a single sentence: “It’s too dark in here.”

When a group of teenaged girls shows up at her shop, she’s a bit surprised, since most of her clients are far older. They ask silly questions. But it turns out Abby lost her mom six years earlier, and has a serious question: “Is there something… after all this?”, the question people have been asking since there were people. Our psychic isn’t really prepared for heavy-duty stuff like this; she’s all about the scarf and the delayed entrance and putting on a show, but she manages a little reassurance as Abby and her friends leave.

When, a week later, her father shows up, the psychic first thinks he’s trying to get her arrested for fraud. Turns out he, too, has something a lot more serious on his mind: Abby killed herself, and he’s trying to figure out why.

The parallels between the grieving parents are striking. They both fixate on a trinket left behind, some sentimental object that seems to symbolize the love that failed. For our psychic, it’s a broken wristwatch, the hands now lost (“time didn’t stop, it shattered”). For Dad, it’s a tiny keychain flashlight (“there’s a bit of fog on the inside of the protective glass, where the bulb is”). Both were gifts from parent to child. Both embody elements missing from the afterlife: time, and, if we believe Sonia’s voice, light.

My work changed after Sonia died. There is an afterlife and it’s worse than the world we live in. That’s what I know. I don’t understand why I kept the news to myself.
“It’s too dark in here.”
The kettle whistles in the other room but I can still hear my daughter. I suppose that will never stop. I make my tea, then I sit at the table and wait for visitors. From now on whoever comes to see me is going to hear the truth.

The turn of the story comes from the psychic’s recognition of the responsibility, rather than the entertainment value, of her occupation. Did her reassurance encourage Abby to join her mother? If she says the wrong thing, will Dad also die? Suddenly she’s no longer an entertainer; she’s got people’s lives in her hands. Now her scarf becomes another object that embodies emotion as she throws it in the trash.

In his post on the story, Jake Weber has a somewhat different view of the sentence the psychic keeps hearing, and of her plan to let people “hear the truth”.

But let’s change perspective on the story a bit. When I read a story where a dream, or a ghost, or a premonition, or any kind of supernatural force, I consider that it isn’t supernatural at all; all those things are generated by our neurons in our heads, or, in the case of fiction, the heads of the characters. They may be hallucinations, imaginings, subconscious perceptions of buried emotions, things of that nature. On both levels, it’s a story about the role of grief, but by making the voice calling “It’s too dark in here” part of the psychic’s natural mind, rather than something heard, it becomes something else. The afterlife becomes the life after for the survivors, and it is indeed different. The life after is indeed darker, a worse place, a place of self-recrimination and guilt and the constant “Why?”

And, since we’re dealing with fiction, we can step back a little further: it’s the mind of the writer, after all, who generated all of this.

I wonder if the Greek concept of the grey underworld of shades developed from the grey and aimless mourning of the bereaved in the wake of the death of loved ones, captured by tellers of tales and singers of mythical stories. Or perhaps from the grievings of the bards themselves.