Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (Vintage reprint, 2007)

It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different…. If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they’d say, “Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes.”

Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes… Thrown, in this way, into the binding conviction that only a miracle could relieve her, she would never know her beauty.

Over the past couple of decades, I’ve read so many analyses, adaptations, and references to this book, I felt as if I’d read it. But reading about a book is not the same as reading it. I have a history of reading about instead of reading, of studying instead of experiencing, and I’ve been trying to reverse that somewhat, so I chose to sit down and read the book I’ve been reading about for so long. I can’t say it was a completely new experience, and I have to admit, a lecture and an interview still came into play, but I’m glad to have finally had the experience.

The book was on my mind because I’d encountered what I felt were oblique references to it in two recent readings. To my surprise, I discovered a third reference, though it was several years ago.

The popularity of the key idea – that beauty is something imposed from outside by the powerful, more akin to conformity with an ideal than an aesthetic evaluation – is not surprising. That this supposed ideal is used to exclude and devalue is pretty much a given. It goes way beyond eye color, but that particular symbol was the genesis of the book: Morrison has told the story several times about a childhood friend, a black girl, who longed for blue eyes, though that wish was from nowhere near as devastated a place as Pecola’s. Still, it started Morrison on a train of thought:

When I began writing The Bluest Eye, I was interested in something else. Not resistance to the contempt of others, ways to deflect it, but the far more tragic and disabling consequences of accepting rejection as legitimate, as self-evident. I knew that some victims of powerful self-loathing turn out to be dangerous, violent, reproducing the enemy who has humiliated them over and over. Others surrender their identity, melt into a structure that delivers the strong persona they lack. Most others, however, grow beyond it. But there are some who collapse, silently, anonymously, with no voice to express or acknowledge it. They are invisible. The death of self-esteem can occur quickly, easily in children, before their ego has “legs,” so to speak. Couple the vulnerability of youth with indifferent parents, dismissive adults, and a world, which, in its language, laws, and images, re-enforces despair, and the journey to self-destruction is sealed.

Foreword, Toni Morrison

Since thousands of commentaries on this book are easily available, written by authors from highest academics to ninth-graders (and I will make use of at least one of these), I’ll focus on its relevance to the recent references that snagged my interest.

The first was the novel The Come In All Colors by Malcolm Hansen, a story about a mixed-race boy kept in the dark about his heritage until it becomes cruelly relevant to the white folks of the Georgia town in which he lives. His mother, a light-skinned black woman, is named Peola, the same name as the black child in the Fanny Hurst novel, Imitation of Life, who tries to pass as white as a teen and adult. The high-yellow character in Morrison’s novel, Maureen Peal, notices the similarity in names, though she incorrectly identifies Hurst’s character as Pecola. All of this activity swirling around these names, all of this attention by light-skinned black women! Maureen has the relative privilege of lighter skin, her family line having worked hard to preserve it over generations. Hansen’s Peola serves as a bewildering figure to her son, who isn’t sure who’s what. Hurst’s Peola makes the most of her coloring, turning her back on even her mother. And then we have Pecola, who just yearns for blue eyes, eyes that she somehow believes would counteract the black skin that makes her unlovable. She is, of course, unable to realize that she is not unlovable; it is her parents, and the world at large, who are unloving; the friendship offered by Claudia, Frieda, and Maureen is not enough to undo parental disregard and societal shaming.

Those echoes of whiteness’ attributed beauty indicate why Morrison would name the character Pecola, but why Polly Breedlove would choose the name Pecola for her daughter is never addressed. Hurst’s novel wasn’t yet written when Pecola was born. With my meager research skills, I can’t find anything beyond unauthenticated internet nonsense about the name, and I see nothing that would have been readily available to Polly in the Ohio of the late 20s.

The second reference was the short story “The Whitest Girl” by Brenda Peynado from Pushcart XLIII, 2019. It’s something of a reversal of color roles in a predominantly Latinx high school. Terry is The Whitest Girl who shows up and is seen as both “too good and too white”, a kind of love-hate thing, envy turned into rage implicit in some Morrison characters, most notably Cholly. In Peynado’s story, Terry is much like Pecola: she fades into the woodwork and barely speaks. The Latinx girls seem mostly resentful of her lack of effort to modify her whiteness, as other Anglo girls at the school with their tans and their choices in hair and clothing.

The reciprocal need to modify one’s blackness to more imitate whiteness is also part of Morrison’s book, exemplified by the character Geraldine whose son torments Pecola over a cat.

Here they learn the rest of the lesson begun in those soft houses with porch swings and pots of bleeding heart: how to behave. The careful development of thrift, patience, high morals, and good manners. In short, how to get rid of the funkiness. The dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions.
Wherever it erupts, this Funk, they wipe it away; where it crusts, they dissolve it; wherever it drips, flowers, or clings, they find it and fight it until it dies. They fight this battle all the way to the grave. The laugh that is a little too loud; the enunciation a little to round; the gesture a little too generous. They hold their behind in for fear of a sway too free; when they wear lipstick, they never cover the entire mouth for fear of lips too thick, and they worry, worry, worry about the edges of their hair.

This is another insidious expression of racism: the demand that black people become as white as possible, if not in skin color, in behavior. It’s behind a great deal of “respectability politics” and the disregard for unarmed black youth shot dead by police. Music, clothing, food, dance, language, art; to the white power structure, it isn’t just a preference, it all ends up tainted by association with blackness. The demand to assimilate requires complete subjugation to white standards, and even then, will only go so far.

I was surprised to find a third reference from almost eight years ago in an unexpected source: in her paper on second person narratives, Monika Fludernik referenced The Bluest Eye as a form of skaz narrative, a traditionally Russian form, adapted, she claims, by black women like Morrison:

Skaz narration, as a fictional technique that pretends to reinstitute a specious orality, recuperates the original communal character of oral storytelling, with the effect of subverting the by now established separation of narration and narrated in terms of fictional worlds. Second person fiction utilizes this subversive potential for creating an unsettling effect – that of involving the actual reader of fiction, not only in the tale, but additionally in the world of fiction itself, an eerie effect that can be put to very strategic political use. The technique has been widely applied, for instance, in recent black women’s writing where it allows the fictional narrator both to evoke the familiar setting for the community-internal reader and to draw readers from different cultural backgrounds into the fictional world of the black community, thereby increasing potential empathy values and forcing an in-group consciousness on the (factually) out-group reader. Examples for the extremely successful
application of this rhetorical skaz strategy can be located, e.g., in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Sula…

Monika Fludernik, “Second Person Fiction”

I’m a little hazy on the boundaries of skaz narration, and the book has several narrators, including an omniscient third person and Pecola’s voice in her own head. But I believe this refers to the child Claudia revealing Pecola’s life and circumstances with a kind of closeness a third-person narrator couldn’t match. We also hear from an adult Claudia near the end, in one of the most powerful moments of the book: the acknowledgement that the black community failed Pecola, failed itself.

While I was wandering around just seeing what was out there on this book, I came across a lecture by Prof. Amy Hungerford from the Open Yale Course “The American Novel since 1945” which made several points I would have missed. One in particular (around the 43-minute mark) addresses the potentially malignant effect of reading and writing, which Hungerford sees associated with rape.

Her analysis begins with the scene in which Soaphead Church prepares the poisoned meat for Pecola to feed the neighbor’s dog, as a sign that God will grant her blue eyes. It is this event that finally pushes her into a kind of psychosis, so it’s a pivotal scene. We can be forgiven for almost overlooking the casual line, “A bottle of ink was on the same shelf that held the poison.”

But that line, in combination with the Dick and Jane primer that has been showcased repeatedly throughout the book, a primer telling a story that must seem bizarre to children like Pecola, a primer inculcating the White Ideal in young kids who might not be able to understand why their worlds do not look like Dick and Jane’s: this is the poison. “If you are a young black girl learning to read, you are bringing into yourself a deadly kind of poison” says Hungerford. This is echoed in the “talking to herself” scene at the end of the novel, where Pecola reveals, to herself and the reader, she was raped a second time while she was reading. Reading is, or at least can be, a kind of penetration, of the most intimate kind.

I seem to have turned this into a reading-about-the-book, but at least I started with reading the book. By the way, it’s one of the most challenged books in America, in terms of library and school bans. I was in school when it was released, and I don’t remember hearing anything about it, but that was in Florida. I looked up the original NYT review, and it was very positive, predicting a glowing career for Morrison; little did they know how she would exceed their expectations. But at least they got it right, in a time when they could very easily have gotten it wrong.

Ellen Litman , The Last Chicken in America (Norton, 2007)

I used to have this confused idea, this delirious noble dream – we come to America and I immediately begin to work, an unglamorous, hard job. I support the whole family and they are grateful, grateful and also proud of me because I go to school at night. But things are different. I can’t get a job because of the welfare thing, and I can’t go to school because of the financial aid thing. So instead I translate and interpret for my parents. I make all the phone calls too, while they argue over my head, pushing me to say contradictory things. I told them that if they want to argue they can make their own phone calls. I tell them that I’m tired and nervous, and that my English isn’t good, at least not good enough to deal with them screaming and with an American person on the other end not understanding me. They call me lazy and irresponsible and say that the next time they will have to ask Alick, a stranger, for help, because their own daughter is too damn selfish. Which is fine, they say, because the next time I needed something from them, I better be prepared to wait a long, very long time.

– “The Last Chicken in America”

With all the political focus on immigration these days, it’s easy to forget that immigrants aren’t all alike. Not only do they come from different places, for different reasons, and in different circumstances, but even within those subdivisions, there are differences, differences between generations, sexes, and just differences in personalities, expectations, and goals. Litman’s story collection does a nice job of introducing us to several members of a community of Russian Jewish immigrants who landed in Pittsburgh, and pointing out how, while there are some common threads, each of them has different challenges and different approaches to life in America.

Many of the stories feature Masha, who in the first story is about eighteen. We follow her from shortly after arrival, her anxiety and frustration abounding as shown in the quote above, and through college as a commuter student studying computer science (“The safest job in Squirrel Hill was still in computer programming”); then, in the last story, we catch up with her a few years later and see she left Pittsburgh, and left her programming job, for Harvard’s Slavic Languages graduate program.

In the meantime we meet other members of the community: Liberman, an older widower encouraged – or coerced – by his kids to emigrate for health reasons; Natasha, a divorcee trying to find a social circle; Anya, another teenager torn between obedience and her own desires; Mike, aka Mishka, who gets entangled in a coworker’s personal life; a group of three men and their wives, bound together by circumstance. Among the ancillary characters we see glimpses of twin teenage girls from Donetsk, Ukraine, and how they form a closed circle; we meet Pamela, an American who shows Masha a different way of being Jewish; and we run across a visiting Russian professor who is everyone’s idea of the egotistical visiting professor, and has his own idea of what it is to be Russian, an idea Masha recognizes can’t share.

It’s subtitled “a novel in stories” but Litman tells Arsen Kashkashian of Kash’s Book Corner that was the publisher’s decision for marketing purposes; she simply wrote a set of stories set in the same neighborhood, sometimes sharing characters. There is a chronological progression, particularly in the “Masha” stories, and the hallmarks of a novel – change over a span of time – holds true. I was reminded of Ernie’s Ark, Monica Wood’s similarly constructed, though thematically different, collection of linked about numerous characters in a papermill town in Maine. Wood resisted the novel-in-stories label in favor of linked stories because she feared readers might have different expectations of a novelization. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Masha, the central character of the collection, has a number of similarities to Litman, who came here at age 19 with her family. In an interview with Katharine Whittemore of UConn Magazine (where Litman is a professor of creative writing), she tells of a specific incident in 1990, after Perestroika but before the breakup of the Soviet Union, that spurred her parents to emigrate: a Russian general on television called for pogroms against Jews. This was an exacerbation of the typical anti-Semitic sentiment, as Litman explained in the interview:

In Russia, you simply couldn’t be a writer if you were Jewish. You couldn’t aspire to certain things. We were taught very early that you have to work twice as hard as others to get things. I kept a journal and wrote poetry, but there was no way to “be a writer.”
You have to understand that Russian Jews were never considered Russians. On my passport under nationality, it said “Jewish,” not “Russian.” Being Jewish affects a lot of things, unofficially and officially. Which college you can attend, which job you can get. Some colleges won’t accept Jews because “they have bad vision.” Others admit under a quota from the local party district.

This background is reflected in Masha’s story line in a couple of places.

Several online reviews refer to the humor in the book. I tend to be more finely attuned to darkness, but yes, there are many humorous scenes, not necessarily in a laugh-out-loud way but more in a recognition of our common frailties way. Airplane behavior; expressions of romantic interest; unexpected houseguests; and that great American coming of age story, father-daughter driving lessons.

As might be expected, references to Russian culture abound. Two Russian songs make their appearance in separate stories. Poets are quoted. I did my second read in front of my computer so I could be better acquainted with these elements.

And then there’s the language. Just in the first story, I was struck by two phrases that I figured had to be some kind of reference: God’s dandelion, in reference to an elderly woman, and How many winters? How many springs? opening a phone call to someone not heard from in a long time. It turns out, these are typical Russian phrases, and, in fact, Penn State Slavic Language professor Adrian Wanner used these, and other examples from the collection, in his book Out of Russia: Fictions of a New Translingual Diaspora:

A stylistic feature of Litman’s book that deserves special mention is her loan translations of Russian idioms. The result is a “strange’-sounding discourse which, while not technically wrong, gives English language a vaguely foreign feel. …
Litman’s English language becomes a sort of palimpsest of an imaginary primary text – it is as if the narrative were a clumsy, literal translation of a Russian original, or perhaps the conscious choice of a translator who rejects a “smooth,” assimilationist rendering in favor of a “foreignizing” solution. But in the present case this translational effect is illusionary, of course, since the author wrote the text directly in English. The hybrid discourse, mimicking an English surface rendering of a Russian deep structure, serves as an apt representation of the heroine’s own bicultural background and unresolved tension between her Russian and American identities.

And again I come across that idea of the immigrant as palimpsest.

Norton has a Reading Group Guide that includes some excellent discussion questions and a brief interview with Litman. She mentions the title: it comes from a supermarket scene in the first story in which Lina, Masha’s mother, keeps picking up frozen chickens. “It’s not the last chicken in America,” her husband tells her. This phrase was chosen for the story’s title following the suggestion of a teacher. This is, in fact, how I became aware of the book; the teacher’s advice shows up in Steve Almond’s This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, and I’ve wanted to read this book ever since. So it took me six or seven years, so what.

A brief (hah; I’m not known for brevity) rundown of my favorite stories:

“The Last Chicken in America”
As the lead story, this sets us up with a picture of the early days of a family’s immigration. Teenage Masha struggles to figure out her role in America, while her parents struggle to learn enough English to find jobs, having left good employment as an engineer and a teacher. This all causes a great deal of conflict within the family, but also a good deal of resilience. The ending of the story leaves a lot of room for hope, hope that pays off as we read through the rest of the stories.

This is what’s wrong with immigration. Those who could be your friends at home here become cautious competitors. Parents envy their children. Sisters become dangerous – all that private information they can unleash at a strategically chosen moment. It’s about surviving. Immigration distorts people. We walk around distorted.

In my room I study what it means to be an American woman: strappy sandals, skimpy suits, the hair – straight and shiny. A Russian woman is all about hardships, guilt, and endurance. She waits and forgives and then waits some more. But an American woman doesn’t wait: she puts on a push up bra and has meaningless sex whenever she feels like it.

My parents are irrational, impossible to be around. There seems to be an angry electric current running through their blood. I understand. I try to be understanding. it’s because of the jobs, there are no jobs in Pittsburgh. They’ve been to the resume-writing workshops and to the interview-going workshops ; they’ve memorized hundreds of sample dialogues and know how to write the perfect thank you letter. But nobody wants a former teacher and an engineer with minimal English skills.
They take it out on me and on each other. We don’t look much like a family anymore. But we have to stick together – there are still appointments, phone calls, and Giant Eagle.

And it probably won’t last, the way the three of us are together like this and laughing. But tonight we are perfect. Tonight we’re the way a family should be. It’s warm and the heat is rattling in the basement like a high speed train, sending puffs of hot air through the floor vents. There’s plenty of chicken and frozen pizza in our refrigerator. And there’s Child’s Play 2 starting on the Movie Channel, which we somehow get for free. After supper my mother will distribute the bars of Klondike ice cream and we will huddle together in front of the TV, shuddering and laughing at the horrors of Chucky the doll, feeling warm and fortunate in our American apartment. Feeling like we have everything.

“What Do You Dream Of, Cruiser Aurora?”
Now we get a look at immigration through the eyes of an older man, a widower whose adult children have nagged him to come to America, where his daughter has lived for five years. He’s rather ambivalent about the transition, which isn’t helped by his daughter’s attitude once he’s here, or by his grandson’s fear of him. On the plane, he plays a game of I’m ignoring you with the woman across the aisle from him, a tactic he uses again later in the story. The title comes from a Soviet song about a historically-laden warship, now a museum in St. Petersburg.

Liberman met Mira on the flight to New York. For twelve hours, they sat across the aisle from each other –
stretching, lurching into bleary dreams, stirring awake when there was turbulence, sipping tomato juice from plastic see-through cups, not risking anything stronger – two ponderous old people, both traveling alone. He didn’t want to talk to her. She was a chatterbox; he could tell by the way she’d been going on to her neighbor, an Armenian woman in the window seat. To avoid conversation, he kept his eyes closed. But eventually a restrained understanding developed between them. When Mira’s earphones broke, Lieberman offered her his pair. When he had to use the bathroom, he asked her to look after his things.
They were on a charter flight from Leningrad, an uneasy mass of immigrants, and everybody had a story to tell.

Had he made a mistake? Could he go back now? Or was it too late? He’d left his Leningrad apartment to Arkasha, which meant he would have nowhere to live. He could live with Arkasha, but Arkasha’s wife wouldn’t like it. He wondered now if Mira had ideas like that. Of course they weren’t acquainted enough so he could ask her.

In the lunchroom, Russian seniors were clustered to the right. You could recognize them immediately: men in ill-fitting brown trousers, women in cotton dresses and knitted cardigans, all of it purchased a long time ago and altered repeatedly. Lips pursed sternly, faces stiff. Compared to them, the Americans (mostly women) looked like careless parakeets – bright, excessively painted, and cheerful.

We, she said, and he knew she had come with her family. That was how people at JFK airport had talked – we – perched on top of their orphans’ bags, each family banded together, spreading like a gypsy encampment. That was the proper way to emigrate, so you wouldn’t feel like an intruder later, so your grandson wouldn’t get afraid.

“Russian Club”
We join Masha, still living at home but now in college studying computer science. She joins the campus Russian Club, a lightweight social club light on actual Russians, on a whim. Victor Harlamov, a visiting philology professor from Moscow, shows up at a meeting, and she is bewitched; whether it’s a literary or a romantic crush is never quite clear, but she joins his class and he treats her as a star pupil. The Russian Club works on a trip to Russia, but Masha has trouble arranging the logistics; she might be less than eager to begin with. This causes a rift between her and the professor. This could play as a romcom, but the resonances (all Russians are not alike) allow for much more.

“What do you miss the most?“ he asked.
I said I missed walking in Moscow, traversing old boulevards, the sidewalks glistening in the night, Pushkin Square, the lovers clutching flowers beneath the poets statue – the sentinels of love.
He said he also liked the boulevards, and Eskimo ice cream sticks for twenty-five kopecks.
What Victor missed was the Russian brokenness. He said it was the core of the Russian soul. “You see it in poets: Tsvetaeva’s suicide, Esenin, Mayakovsky. But it’s not just the poets. We are sensitive, foolish, illogical. We live in a state of turmoil, on the brink of being destroyed, steps away from the next drunken bout.”
I knew what he meant. I had my own brokenness.

He was convinced that had I stayed in Moscow, I would have applied to Moscow State. He was mistaken. Philology was too prestigious, the competition rigorous, with tens of applicants contending for each space, and a Jewish person with no connections would have been felled. That’s what we called it – felled – when you did well on the exams, but the committee tricked or failed you.
“This doesn’t happen anymore,“ said Victor.

There were topics we never discussed. My Jewishness, for example. He never asked about my parents or why we had come to America. I wanted to tell him. I thought he’d understand. He was open-minded, intelligent, a boy from a little Siberian village who’d made his way up, first to Moscow, then to America.
But he never asked, never shared his own reasons for I leaving.

Here they were, burning to save my old country, spoiling for a fight. Didn’t I care? Didn’t I love it?
But it wasn’t my country anymore. I’d never really belonged there, in the Russian they imagined, among its fields and chapels, the clamor of its bells, the beggars in black shadows along the walls, the golden light bleeding from tiles, candles, and icons. It had been the fall of my senior year in high school, our class trip to the Troitsky monastery, and the boy I liked was crossing himself by the icon of Nikolai the Miracle Worker. He had a silver crucifix under his shirt, which probably meant nothing, except it was what nationalist patriots wore in those days, when they went on TV at midnight and talked of planned pogroms. No I didn’t miss Russia.

At our last class, Victor said the silver age outlived itself. The best poets perished in Russia, while those who escaped were nothing but pale imitations. He wrote on the back of my paper, “For a true Russian person, immigration is death. A Russian poet can’t survive in immigration. “

“When the Neighbors Love You”
Anya wants to go to BU, her parents want her to go to Pittsburgh and live at home. She resolves the conflict on a secret roadtrip with a friend. This story contains some of the most beautiful writing in the collection.

You think: you were twelve and wore brown corduroys. You once read Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet , but you don’t remember the plots anymore. The neighbors called you a clever girl and a darling. You weren’t supposed to hear but you did anyway, through the running water in the kitchen, where mother-of-pearl teacups lay in your hands like seashells. Your heart swooped at the praise and you imagined a brilliant future: articles, book jackets, scholarships to Europe. You were Anna Akhmatova , with her choker and rosary beads; you were Marie Curie at the Sorbonne, austere in her grief. You were in love with the handsomest of professors – British, possibly married, with a sarcastic crinkle around his eyes. But the romance, too, had an exceptionally happy ending, because you were a smart girl, a girl who made smart decisions, and nothing bad could happen to a girl like this.

One aspect of the book that initially didn’t impress me at all was the cover. But the more I read, the more I realized the girl-jumping-over-puddle image was perfect. It’s a long leap; she might land on her butt in the middle; she might get her boots muddy. But she’ll get to the other side.

Those who were born here often have the idea that immigrants arrive brimming with eagerness and gratitude. What’s often left out of the picture is the anxiety of adjusting, and the sorrow at leaving behind what – and who – was, for however many years, home. Litman gives us a more complete picture than our imaginations allow, and also shows how heterogeneous the immigrant experience can be. Masha’s journey is very different from her parents’ or Liberman’s, and everyone’s journey changes en route. Moving to a new town can be unsettling; how much more unsettling then is moving to a new country. Give ‘em a break while they work it out.

What’s Next? A Preliminary Reading List for the next Five Months

As I did last year, I plan to fill the time between now and whenever BASS 2019 drops (expected in October; the guest editor is Anthony Doerr) with assorted readings: novels, story collections, nonfiction books and essay collections or anthologies, maybe even a little poetry.

The “For Later” list on my local library account contains over 120 entries of books I’ve seen along the way and thought, I might want to read that; some of them were put there eight or ten years ago. In addition, I have a bookmark list for the interlibrary loan catalog with several hundred items, and an Amazon shopping list with another 50 or so ideas. So I have a lot to choose from.

While the books I’ve selected for this “long list” are eclectic, many fall into a few noticeable categories:

● Fiction using God/religion/spirituality for plot;
● Nonfiction about work, including a few about jobs seldom written about;
● All genres by established authors, and reading-list standards I’ve never read;
● Plus an eclectic assortment of more recent releases that caught my eye, though often I can’t remember when or how.

 
I doubt I’ll get to them all. I expect to be moving at some point in the next month or two, so that will disrupt things for a while. I may give up on some, swap in others. But it’s a start. I’m already in possession of nine of the titles, with two more on the way. Most of the rest will be library borrows (moving is expensive).

I plan to rotate through the categories, though I don’t have any order in mind. I welcome anyone who’d like to read along; I’ve been using Goodreads more regularly than I used to, so when I start a book, I’ll post it there under “currently reading”. But to start: I’m already halfway through Ellen Litman’s story collection, and plan to read Morrison next.

The long list:

God, religion, spirituality:

• Wilton Barnhardt: Gospel (St. Martin’s, 1993). This is sort of cheating, since I’ve read it several times, but not recently. It drove this mini-group of God-centered books, in fact. Borrows a lot from clichés, but I can’t help it, I miss God (the character, in a small but pivotal part) every time I come to the end.
• Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Pantheon, 2010). This is a novel in 36 chapters, each an argument for… well, you get the idea.
• C. Michael Curtis, ed. : God Stories (HM, 1998) Everyone from James Baldwin to Philip Roth to James Joyce chips in.
• Youssef Ziedan: Azazeel (Atlantic, 2001). Along the lines of Gospel but set in the fifth century, recounting a monk’s travels in Egypt in the early days of Christianity.

 
Jobs, especially those rarely written about:

• Finn Murphy: The Long Haul (Norton, 2017). Murphy took a summer job as a trucker after his third year of college, and kept going.
• Stephanie Land: Maid (Hachette, 2019). The hardest-working people around get the least money, and the least respect.
• Jacob Tomsky: Heads in Beds (Anchor 2016). The Kitchen Confidential of the hospitality industry.
• Sandeep Jauhar: Doctored (FSG, 2015). Yes, doctor books abound, but I can’t resist them, especially, given my recent close encounters with doctors, disillusioned ones.
• Nell Painter: Old in Art School (Counterpoint, 2018). Not exactly a job, but close enough.
• Kwame Onwuachi: Notes from a Young Black Chef (Knopf, 2019). Ok, so chefs also write a lot of books. I can’t resist an occasional nibble.

 
Filling in my literary gaps: literary standards and established authors

• Walker Percy: The Moviegoer (RH reissue, 1998)
• Donald Barthelme: Sixty stories (Penguin reissue 2003)
• Sinclair Lewis: Main Street/Babbitt/It Can’t Happen Here (LOA reissue 1992)
• Umberto Eco: On Literature (HB 2004)
• Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye (Vintage Reissue 2007)
• Hannah Arendt: Essays in Understanding (Schocken reissue 2018) . Yeah, I know, everyone’s reading The Origins of Totalitarianism but I thought this might be a better place to start.
• Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections (Picador reprint, 2002). No, I’ve never read Franzen. So shoot me.
• Nathanael West: Miss Lonelyhearts/Day of the Locust (LOA reprint 1997). I’ve always wanted to read these.
• Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man (RH, 1982 ed.). Yeah, again, no I haven’t read it, stop judging.

 
Miscellaneous fiction and non, with the possibility of a hint of poetry

• Ellen Litman: The Last Chicken In America (Norton, 2007). A novel-in-stories about a community of post-Soviet Russian Jewish immigrants in Pittsburg.
• Simon Winchester: The Professor and the Madman (HC 1998). Because I’d rather read the book than see the movie.
• N. K. Jemisin : How Long ‘til Black Future Month? (Orbit, 2018). I try to read a little fantasy now and then, and this sounds intriguing.
• John Boyne: A Ladder to the Sky (Hogarth 2018). I tend to like writers as characters.
• Michel Lincoln: Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press, 2015). I’m scared (the one story of his I encountered in Pushcart was bizarre, in a good way) , but I’ll give it a shot.
• Julie Schumacher: The Shakespeare Requirement (Doubleday 2018). A follow-up to last year’s Dear Committee Members.
• Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Friday Black (Mariner, 2018). How cool is it that there are two widely-discussed fantasy collections by writers of color.
• R. Jay Magill: Sincerity (Norton, 2013). A history and philosophical investigation of the trait.
• Emily Wilson: The greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca (OUP, reprint 2018). I know surprisingly little about the Stoics, and almost nothing about Seneca, so I thought this might help.
• Mark Kurlansky: Salt: A World History (Penguin, 2003). I love books that use something simple as a way to tell broad stories about people, histories, and places.
• Victoria Chang: Circle (SIUP, 2005). One of the Pushcart poets from this year.
• Tony Hoaglund: Twenty Poems that Could Save America (Graywolf, 2014). Another Pushcart poet; this is a book of essays about poetry; I may combine it with one of his poetry collections.

 
Gotta go – I have reading to do.

Pushcart XLIII: Looking Back

And so over the years, with the help of these writers and thousands of others, literary publishing has changed for the better. The point: do not despair about the present situation where truth is denigrated, facts depend on whatever power brokers say they are, and hype and celebrity seemed to rule the national mind. Our struggle is worth it. We are not back in the era when non-commercial writers wrote for their desk drawers only. This is a true, quiet revolution. Let’s keep it.

Introduction, Bill Henderson

I have no idea how the actual business of writing works, but I would imagine that appearing in a Pushcart volume is a big boost to the career of the so-called emerging writer, someone who’s produced some work of quality but hasn’t yet convinced agents or publishers that she’s good for the long haul. If you read the interviews and contributor notes for stories and poems, you notice that a page of poetry, or fifteen pages of prose, can take years to perfect. It’s no small accomplishment to make it past the slush pile and into publication in the first place, then to get through a second round to be chosen for Pushcart. It’s a big deal.

That said: this is the first time in nine years that Pushcart has disappointed me.

Now, I admit I’m not a writer, nor am I a trained critic or reviewer. I’m just a reader, with my own preferences, blind spots, and educational deficiencies. And I’ve been in a terrible funk over the state of the country, the state of the world, for a couple of years now, increasing as justice becomes more and more something for the rich and powerful to use to keep their status. So it’s quite possible this volume will read differently at another time (if there is another time; I fear, truly fear, we are stuck in this one for the forseeable future). Maybe I’ll come to see it more as Jake Weber does; his summary post sees “Unjustified optimism, necessary optimism: American Attitudes about the Future in the Pushcart 2019 anthology”. It’s an excellent summary post; I highly recommend it, as I do his posts on individual stories.

It’s not that I think the stories are bad; with a couple of exceptions, they’re pretty good. In a way, it’s my past experience with Pushcart (and perhaps my recent read of BASS 2018, which I found extraordinarily wonderful) that makes this one seem underwhelming. I’ve come to expect surprise, imaginative craft, things I’ve never seen before, an emotional experience, from the Pushcart material. I felt little of that this time. I could recognize, ok, here’s the part that’s heartbreaking, but, with a couple of exceptions, my heart remained stubbornly whole. Yes, the problem may be my heart, or my reading. But while I saw some interesting stories, I saw nothing that made me want to grab someone and shove the book in their hands and say, You’ve got to read this!

A noticeable chunk of the volume felt downright elegiac, the literary equivalent of the In Memoriam segment of an award show. I’m probably going to get in trouble for this paragraph; the literary community, those who really know what they’re doing, the ones for whom this volume is actually published, probably treasure those pieces. Most years contain pieces by deceased writers, either accidentally or on purpose, but this year included several such pieces, as well as memoirs. I suppose this is a good place to do that – it lends a nice continuity, seeing brand-new writers next to those who’ve shaped their genres over decades – but it started to feel a bit forced. And, next to so many stories about death (not an uncommon feature of literary fiction), the volume started to feel funereal.

My own illness, resulting in an absence of several weeks right in the middle of the book, didn’t help. Oddly, when I got back to work, I felt more confused but less depressed by the pieces, perhaps because I started working at a much quicker pace, batting out five or six posts a week instead of my usual two or three. I probably spent the same amount of time on each post, several hours each morning and additional time as needed in the insomnia hours, but left out a lot of “sleep on it and mull it over” time. That might be the key: I was more in-the-moment. An interesting observation, to be sure. I won’t know for sure if I missed a lot, or just avoided some dreading, until I have some distance.

To get specific:

Things started out with promise. Pam Houston’s opening essay on the down side of irony gave me a lot to bounce off of: I summed it up as “ while I basically agree with the overall theme – caring is better than not-caring, and we can’t afford to be sealing ourselves behind a wall of cynicism and irony – I somehow have a lot of issues with the how she gets there.” Karen Russell’s “Tornado Auction” got a little overcomplicated, but ultimately delivered. “Into the Mystery”, Tony Hoagland’s poem, spoke to me, and even gave me some structure to work with; I’ve noticed my enjoyment of a poem tends to increase when I find something I understand about how it’s written. In a nice piece of editing, “The Whitest Girl” and “The Hunter”, a back-to-back pair of prose pieces, one fiction, one essay, provided interesting perspectives on Latinx-Anglo cultural relations.

My favorite fiction was David Naimon’s “Acceptance Speech”. It combined an unusual narrative approach – a speech at an awards dinner – with a truly interesting relationship dynamic; the title added a little linguistic flair. This was what I came for. Another favorite story was Sarah Resnick’s short story, “Kylie Wears Balmain,” a swipe at the contemporary predominance of entertainment over art and thought captured within a clever structure. It bemoaned exactly Henderson’s point from his introduction: the money is behind celebrity gossip, not a debate of ideas.

Lisa Taddeo’s “A Suburban Weekend” was a learning experience: I eventually realized the story I hated masked a touching emotional piece. It’s a story I can’t say I loved, but I greatly appreciate the craft. It’s quite a task for a writer, like one of those science fiction stories where the received frequency is a carrier for a subfrequency (Sagan’s Contact made major use of this, as did several episodes of ST:TNG; I don’t quite understand the science, but get the concept).

While I enjoyed cross-discussions on the fiction pieces with Jake, I had some similar back-and-forth with my Vermont Poet friend, Patrick Gillespie, on the poetry. I have a lot of problems with poetry: I keep changing my mind about whether the poet’s vision, or the reader’s interpretation, is paramount; whether there is a “right” reading for a poem or whether it’s a free-for-all; if aesthetic experience equals meaning. Can I love a poem and have no idea what it means? What is it that I love, then? Is that the meaning? The question before me as I read this volume was: Why is the poem written in this way, this form, with this language? How does it contribute to meaning / aesthetic experience? I only occasionally had answers. I’m planning to take the Yale OCW on Modern Poetry, but I doubt that will help much. Courses tend to help me with the poems they cover, but not with techniques or approaches for my future reading. I may need to eventually accept that I’m just poetry-stupid, but I do enjoy these annual forays.

In addition to Houston’s opening essay, I found two of the nonfiction pieces particularly interesting. One was Molly Cooney’s “Transition”, which took the transgender journey out of the political realm and made it much more personal. I also found “Powder House,” the closing essay by Molly Gallantine, intriguing reading. I learned a few things, and nothing makes me happier than encountering something I didn’t know, in an interesting and memorable way.

Maybe I was just the wrong reader at the wrong time; maybe Pushcart tried something a little different this time; maybe they accidentally used the “honorable mention” list instead of the award list; maybe they’re feeling as distraught about current events as I am. The Introduction bears that out, though it also includes some of that optimism Jake sees:

For many of us, we too live now in an alien world dedicated to power and lies. It is hard to laugh and smile. This is not the world we cherish. It is tempting to just retreat into tribal clusters, or surrender it all to a drugged wasteland.
But of course we cannot and will not retreat.

So do not despair about our contemporary blasts of power and lies. Stay calm and carry on writing. Eventually the power-obsesssed will destroy themselves.

Introduction, Bill Henderson

I’m not so sure there will be much left if that does eventually happen. But here’s to Pushcart, for keeping the faith.

Pushcart XLIII: Molly Gallentine, “Powder House” (nonfiction) from Fourth Genre #19.1

Outside 77 St. Marks Place in Manhattan, an old man walks a miniature dog, and a skateboarder sweeps past them on the street. Inside, I blink and slowly dig my spoon into a half crystallized, fishy gelatine, slunk out of a plastic bowl. The apartment belongs to a friend of mine from grad school named Brandon. A tenement built in 1845, it is a typical narrow railroad layout with the rare prize of a balcony on either side.
When my mother first walked down St. Mark’s, with its line of smoke shops, open mic venues, and its tattoo parlor doubling as a coffee shop, she called it “a circus”. I was drawn to the neighborhood as I was drawn to Brandon’s character – to his inquisitiveness and loud laugh. Brandon embraced eccentricities. He was always working on quirky projects, constructing things: a coffee table, a costume for Burning Man, a black-and-white film on his Super 8 camera.
Brandon and I make the movie together. In the film, my hand picks up a small antler and places it into a pot of boiling water on his stove. it’s the first step in our gelatin recipe: sterilizing cartilage.

It’s an essay about W. H. Auden, a post-Revolution era cookbook, a New York gluemaker, 9/11, hartshorn aka baker’s ammonia, the changing face of formerly artsy NYC, architect Richard Meier, and the war on terror. And it’s all held together by… Jell-O.

Gallantine’s current website indicates she’s putting together “a book of essays that investigate America through the culinary lens of Jell-O”. In 2011, Gallantine and her above-mentioned friend Brandon made a short Super8 film based on her MFA thesis about gelatin. I’m not sure of the sequence, but this article appears to be about the making of that film, which indeed includes the grating of hartshorn and production of a rather loose gelatin mold.

It sounds impossible to link all these things together in a way that makes sense, let alone that’s readable, but somehow she pulls it off. Everything is connected to everything else. The dust from the grated hartshorn reminds her of Marcy Borders, who became locally known as the “Dust Lady” as she was photographed covered with dust from the disintegrating Tower on 9/11. The exquisitely detailed architectural models of Richard Meier (the model-people have facial expressions), housed in a museum on the site of a former tobacco factory, somehow remind her of Borders as well. The apartment in which they made the film once housed Trotsky and, later, Auden. They use the recipe from Hanna Glasse’s 1796 book Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple. Later, gluemaker Peter Cooper, in pursuit of glue recipes, created Jell-O on a site that previously manufactured ammunition.

In Latin, gelatin means “frozen” or “to freeze”, which may be one of the many reasons we associate it with a kind of utopian America. What Jell-O tapped into and sold to its consumers exists both in and out of time. It’s a depiction of an America we are nostalgic for, even if our memory of it is a shared delusion. In Jell-O America, families have a mother and a father, a high – if not superior – moral standard, and everyone dines on roasted bird and treats from the icebox. A woman unveils her molded gelatin creation to her family, garnering squeals of delight. The woman stands proud. It is the food of perfection, a substance that allows her to assert control over otherwise unwieldy fruits and vegetables. Psychologically speaking, it is a food that encapsulates and controls.

I would never have thought of Jell-O as a metaphor for a society, a culture, a country, but turns out, it works well. What holds us together is wobbly, takes time to set, and can shift over time. Dismantling that “shared delusion” (at least among the white middle class; those struggling under Jim Crow or unable to achieve their dreams because girls don’t do that sort of thing might feel differently) about the glorious past might be the healthiest thing we as a culture could do, but it’s so nice to think there once was a time when everything was ok, maybe because it means things could be ok again.

This makes a nice final piece, since it is so broad and encompassing. All the individual stories and poems are situated in this gelatin called Pushcart XLIII, and some of it makes us happy or sad or angry or pleased. But it doesn’t hold still either. Read this book five years from now, and a retrospective will be born.

Pushcart XLIII: Leslie Jill Patterson, “Brace Yourself” from Prime Number #113

You like to claim you landed at Eagle Hill by mistake. A misunderstanding of some kind. Truth is, Billy Scales and his ranch hands found you in a bar named True Grit, and they knew, from minute one, who you were.
They knew you stuffed your suitcase in a hurry and surely didn’t come to Colorado for camping in the mountains—because it was fifty degrees outside and dropping, and, even so, you wore a sleeveless dress and city-girl sandals with leather daisies arching over your foot. You avoided eye contact, propping a book around your plate and pretending to read when they took the bar stools next to yours. You ordered off the kid’s menu and packed half of it out in a to-go box, so you were clearly guarding every dime. They probably even knew you tucked your wedding ring inside your purse before you walked through The Grit’s door. And when Billy invited you to his equine program—where women caught in hazardous marriages learned to tug a rein resolutely, steering their lives away from vows they should have never spoken—your story was so obvious, he pitched his invitation in the same pragmatic vein that he mentioned where you could find a low-rent apartment and which local bank offered free checking.

Complete story available online at Prime Number

I’ve said many times I like second person, how it both distances the reader from the story and draws them in. In her interview that accompanies the story online, Patterson tells us why she chose this often-disparaged pov. It was less about deliberate literary technique than about her ability to write about something that was very close to her, the character of Billy and the other cowboys. She needed the distance to present the story she wanted to tell.

In places, the story tells of the life the narrator has escaped by telling what is different here: when she struggles with the hose filling water buckets in the barn and squirts water all over, no one yells at her. I wish there had been more of that; it tells her story, but tells it slant, as Emily Dickinson wrote.

We don’t get to know the name of the narrator, which is typical for second-person stories, but here it serves the characterization: she’s on the run, so anonymity is part of her life. One of the cowboys calls her Dolly, which seems a bit demeaning, but he’s the one who helps her the most by bringing her into his “horseriding for abused women” program. I kept waiting for the cowboys to turn into something nefarious, so I felt a great deal of tension for much of the story. That put me right in the narrator’s shoes; she acknowledges the fear, and the hope that these men, this place, this time, it will be different. And although the story doesn’t end with a clear declaration, I had the sense that she has found a place to heal. Another reader might find something different.

Ambiguity seems to be the hallmark of this story. Are the cowboys good guys or bad guys? How does an English professor end up in a roadside bar? How does the professor spouse in the nice suit turn out to be a bad guy? How does a cowboy, a complete stranger, happen to have a solution to her problems? That, for me, is a breaking point of coincidence: of all the gin joints in all the world, she walks into one where a cowboy runs a program for runaway spouses.

There is one overwhelming peculiarity about the story; not the story itself, but how it’s presented in Pushcart. It was published in Prime Number, an online zine, as the winner of a fiction contest; the judge’s comments precede it on the website, while bio and brief interview follow it. Pushcart printed the judge’s comments as well. I’ve never seen that before. The closest I’ve seen was last year, when the introduction to the volume included part of a letter Charles Baxter sent along with the story he nominated, which was chosen as the first entry. But that’s a very different thing than including comments with the story; I thought it set the story up for failure.

I was really thrown by this, and checked Jake Weber’s blog post about the story to see if he’d had any reaction; indeed he did. One of his reader/commenters said it made it seem like a metafiction story, which of course it isn’t. That was exactly what happened with me: I was expecting some kind of story about writing a story about writing a story. Even the best traditional-narrative story would be disappointing after that kind of expectation. Then, too, there’s the thing about someone telling you what a wonderful story something is; there’s something about human nature that just goes, “Well, we’ll see about that.” Again, that’s an obstacle the story has to get past.

It’s ironic this presentation is done to a story about an abused woman whose husband constantly sets her up for failure. It might well look like mansplaining as manipulative sabotage, to someone who’s been there. Or maybe that’s paranoia. More ambiguity. And if I were a writer, I’d likely be thrilled to have such praise preface my work, so who am I to say.

Pushcart XLIII: Phillip Williams, From “Interruptive” (poem) from Poetry, May 2017

What can I do but make of the eyes of others
my own eyes, but make of the world a ghazal
whose radif is a haunting of me, me, me?
 
Somewhere there are fingers still whole
to tell the story of the empire that devours fingers.
Somewhere there is a city where even larvae
 
cannot clean the wounds of the living
and cannot eat on the countless dead
who are made to die tomorrow and tomorrow.

Complete poem available online at Poetry

This is another of those poems I’m nowhere near up to the task of discussing. Not because of obscurity or sophisticated poetic techniques, but because the message is overwhelming, damning, and I may only be reading parts of it. Fortunately, Williams has done some discussing of his own in a guest post at Poetry; but hold the celebration, as the explanation is almost as overwhelming as the poem.

The first section of the poem puts us in battlefield mode, not sparing any details of violence and death. The second section is something like an apology:

But I have not been with my feet on the earth
there where bullets make use of skin like flags
make use of the land. My thinking is as skeletal
 
as the bombed-out schools and houses
untelevised. What do I know of occupation
but my own colonized thinking to shake
 
free from.

This is often the ultimate argument against reform, whether it be of foreign policy or criminal justice: You weren’t there. Williams deals with this thorny issue of witness at a distance in his guest post; is it valid? Must we put ourselves in danger to speak out about creating danger? There is a flip side to this: the end of the draft with the Vietnam war has created the unintended consequence of an army of people who come from military families, or have few other options. Most Americans, including politicians who decide when and where troops are sent, no longer have skin in the game; it’s someone else’s kids being sent over there, another motif Williams puts to use:

The television tells me Over there, and one must point
with a fully extended arm to show how far from,
how unlike here there really is. Over there
 
where they blow each other up over land and God.

As though we don’t do that sort of thing over here.

The Pushcart edition of the poem leaves out images included in the published version at Poetry: three images of a wall made of the word wall repeated (the header image) with, first, the word child, then that word child rising via a cluster of balloons, and finally, a hole. Each image is followed by a description, evoking the description allowed in text-only renderings, that discusses the image. But the images themselves are worth seeing, a good reason to check out the original, linked in the first quote above. Still, the omission fits, somehow, with the ideas in the guest post, about witnessing from a distance, about sympathy vs empathy, and with the ideas in the poem about what it is to worry about over there versus here when we see one but not the other, and so can’t really see that they are, in many ways, the same, including some of the same horrors.

It’s a long poem, and complex, with stories of individuals, stories of countries, and the irony of forcing upon others the choice of American values or die.

What do I know of injustice
 
but having a home throughout which bullets,
ballots, and brutality trifecta against
people who were here before here was here
 
and people were brought here to change
the landscape of humanity?

There’s often a contemplation I often have, that by simply being here, being American, every child who starves in Yemen, every baby torn from its mother on the southwest border, every abuse in Abu Ghraib is done in my name: “…my wallet has made monstrous my reflection, / I have done terrible things by being alive. / I have built a wonder of terror with my life.” It’s way beyond boycotts at this point. There are days when I wonder why we’re all not marching in the streets. But we have mortgages and student loans and health insurance to pay and IRAs to worry about. The American Dream, a self-perpetuating machine, is its own best protection, and its design has not been by accident.

And now I ask the question that’s been on my mind with every poem in this volume: why is it written in this way? As usual, I have no idea. The language is evocative, but I think that’s primarily because of the content, which is mostly accessible. Based on the title, and the appearance of at least one other poem titled ‘from “Interruptive”’, I’m assuming this is part of a much longer, perhaps chapbook-length, poem. Interruptive means exactly what it says: something that interrupts. It’s not only interrupting the peace of mind where we can go to work and play video games and watch GOT and forget over there, but the poem is self-interruptive via those wall inserts. As I mentioned above, I think we maybe need to be a little more interruptive.

And about those walls: in his guest post, Williams makes clear he wanted the Wall to be unidentified, to apply to whatever situation comes to the mind of the reader, and he accepts the unpredictability of that approach: “…the poem is only as powerful as its reader.” The implications scare me.

The final image description conveys a kind of limited hope, or at least, aspiration to hope:

 
[Image of an eight-meter-tall wall bearing a hole in its center, or a 1.7272-meter-tall wall, which is me, bearing a hole in my center. I am the wall and the hole is what makes me better. I want to be better.]
 

So do I. But where do we start?

Pushcart XLIII: Jane Mead, “He” (poem) from American Poetry Review #46:2

Out of quarry-dust
he comes running.
Running as a crab runs
 
he comes out of the hills
The hills that own him –
as a lie comes to own
 
its person, like that.
and the hackles of the land
rise up behind him.
*
On the sub-zero
Range-land the deer
bed down. He –
 
harrowed, and holds
rivers of snow
and forgetting – he
 
beds down.

It’s too bad this isn’t available online. It’s a long poem, in terms of lines and pages (about 7) but because the lines are so short, it’s quite short really, about 600 words. A page or two in prose. Sections are marked off with bullets, composed of three to six stanzas each. And each section contains something important to the progress of the poem, which is why I wish it were online. I can’t quote the whole thing, after all. This too fits with our discussion of the relationship of poetry and flash fiction: it’s what the flash people would call very tight, all essential.

But the stanzas, the divisions, the structure is also important, something I might not have fully realized until I read it out loud, dictating it into a text file for quoting. The short lines make for very fragmented reading, reflecting a subject who may be fragmented himself. My impression is of a homeless man, perhaps mentally ill, perhaps autistic, perhaps just worn out and depleted of his resources; fragmented, thoughts running through him and into the poem.

There seem to be two settings: at first, we see him in a wilderness setting, maybe a western plain, a place of sheepdogs and sagebrush.

In the morning, he –
 
stooped and stretches –
signs a song of praise
from long-ago, while
 
a little sun strikes
a little frost
on the skin of the earth :
 
some say the gate out is the river
some say the gate out is rain –
but I agree with those who say
that every gate is a gate of praise …

 
then sagebrush rattles
then out limps a tattered
sheepdog, thin and just like
 
that.

Another reason I wish this were online: as printed in Pushcart, he signs, not sings, a song of praise. I hope with all my heart this is not a typo, because that little thing there is something like speed bump: slow down, pay attention. Notice the phrase enclosed in dashes, “stooped and stretches”, a slightly out-of-sync phrasing that appears elsewhere: “his hands are bitten and grease”, and made me stop and make sure I had it right.

It might also be a clue to the subject. Is he deaf or otherwise unable to sing? He hums later; maybe words are a problem. Is he from a culture with a gestural language? Or does he merely prefer it? It’s an interesting little quirk. And of course, it could be a typo, which makes it all the more interesting, adding in the mysteries of constructing meaning like a literary MacGyver defusing a bomb with a piece of gum and a fingernail paring. And, not for nothing, the Inverted Jenny is one of the most valuable of stamps, and various biblical printing errors are prized.

We then find out something more about this person:

He had a father
and a mother!
His dreams were
 
cathedral homes
for beetles, of which
there are 450,000
 
different species so far
identified.
Or, Could you
takedown the heaviest
 
book from the top
shelf please? Read
to me more about
 
A is for Aviary ?

*
he would inquire.
Now sleep is all
the cathedral he desires
 
please.

It’s one of those heartbreak passages, juxtaposing our subject in the past with the present. He once had a home, a home with lots of books, and loved hearing about beetles. Now he has no home, no mother or father, no books. What happened between then and now? I want to know.

The cathedral becomes a central image in the poem now as the scene changes to a city: “He lives on the steps / of the cathedral now. / Cardboard, wind tug / and rattle.” These are the accoutrements of the homeless: discarded cartons for mattresses, the elements. I also flashed on the medieval leper’s rattle, required of all those afflicted to warn others of approaching danger, but I suspect that isn’t really an element here. He points out the Angel Gabriel on the steeple blowing his horn, or maybe it’s a Native American (the term used in the poem; this is another insight into our subject, how he grew up, what he’s used to) with a peace pipe. He gives water to stray cats that gather behind the cathedral, because there’s no one else to do so, everyone having left the city for the summer.

The language gets more disorganized, or perhaps it’s just more symbolic. There’s something about a star and a certificate, about cheese for “for the mad dog who runs / through his memory // blinded.” A humming running through him like a tuning fork. And then a cryptic verse near the end:

Well, he whose
singing was a matter
of grave opinion

is now otherwise
employed. He is harness
and wind now, wind

and harness.

The plot thickens. Was he a serious singer who failed a crucial audition? A pop star who hit the coke too hard? Or, and this is only because of the word grave, some kind of religious practitioner, a cantor or shaman, someone who sang or chanted for the dead or dying? It sounds quite free, to now be both harness and wind, or maybe something out of a Greek epic, the whip and the reins, impulse and restraint always fighting each other.

This is one of those poems that intrigues me, even though I don’t quite follow. Part of that is the subject, but it’s also the poem, which blends story and language in a way that makes sense to me.

Pushcart XLIII: Carl Phillips, “Monomoy” (poem) from Poetry, Jan. 2017

Lisa Saint: Dance In The Storm

Lisa Saint: Dance In The Storm

Somewhere, people must still do things like fetch
water from wells in buckets, then pour it out
for those animals that, long domesticated, would
likely perish before figuring out how to get
for themselves. That dog, for example, whose
refusal to leave my side I mistook, as a child,
for loyalty — when all along it was just blind …

Complete poem available online at Poetry

It’s time to abandon all the agonizing and just write about the poem, as I read it. I take a cue from the title: Monomoy is an island, now uninhabited and partly converted to a nature preserve, just off Cape Cod. I imagine the speaker walking around the island, enjoying the quiet and beauty, while various thought go through his mind. Maybe they’re triggered by what he sees; maybe they’re just what’s on his mind that day.

I can see four distinct though related thoughts. The first, above, might be triggered by the absence of artifacts on the island. The example of the dog feels terribly sad, but also shows that we construct reality, we don’t necessarily perceive it.

The speaker then considers vulnerability, how it can invite abuse and violence. He constructs a scene where someone overhears a stranger’s comment – “Don’t you see how you’ve burnt almost / all of it, the tenderness, away” – and tries to ignore it. We call it privacy, or feel embarrassed, but maybe we move away because the vulnerability might be contagious.

Then there’s a short riff on estrangement, sacrifice, drama: “then it’s pretty much the difference / between waking up to a storm and waking up / inside one.” One is objective, the subject as observer, a roof or a pane of glass or at least a sheet of vinyl between skin and wet; the other is subjective, drowning in rain.

The final section is a lovely little anecdote:

…. Who can say how she got there — 
in the ocean, I mean — but I once watched a horse
make her way back to land mid-hurricane: having
ridden, surfer-like, the very waves that at any moment
could have overwhelmed her in their crash to shore, she
shook herself, looked back once on the water’s restlessness — 
history’s always restless — and the horse stepped free.

That look back on what she escaped, that’s a beautiful moment, the physical reality of seeing the storm versus being in it, from the better side.

I’d thought the ideas that ran through the poem – the loyalty/need, vulnerability, estrangement, and escape from the storm – were in the sphere of human socialization, brought about by interactions with the natural environment of the island: the dog, the storms, the horse. But it seems it’s more individual than that.

The poem is one of the final entries in Phillips’ 2018 collection, Wild is the Wind. Jason Gray’s review of the book in Image was highly instructive, in that he saw Phillips using nature as Emily used her environs: “The horses, the sea, the leaves are his bees and Amherst garden.” I could see that: a sort of scaffold onto which to project meaning. But I was still in Soc 101.

Then I found an interview Sophie Weiner did with Phillips in New Limestone Review, in which he characterized the collection, not yet released, as more about love: it does look a bit more at what it means, I suppose, to believe in something like love, like the idea of commitment to love, once one is old enough to have seen how those commitments can turn out to be meaningless. How do we continue to believe in meaning, and why?”

I haven’t read the collection, just the one poem, but, yes, I can see that, instead of the speaker contemplating the human condition amidst nature, he’s bouncing off the solitude – a close, though not inevitable, neighbor of loneliness – in a more individual way. The dog’s loyalty that is merely need, the vulnerability, the estrangement, the horse in the storm, all take on different shades, and the pain comes to the fore.

Pushcart XLIII: John Ashbery, “Just the One Episode” (poem) from Litmag #1

Art by Stacy Hutchinson (detail)

Art by Stacy Hutchinson (detail)

My thanks for these various emails,
and regrets for not responding sooner.
I was weighing myself on the old-fashioned scale
in front of the druggist. It delivers your fortune
along with your weight – “your wate and fate.”
Mine was, to say the least, distressing,
but, like all prophecies, contained
in the narrow groove of its delivery.

John Ashbery died in 2017 after a life of poetic greatness. Poetic dunce that I am, I only became aware of him about five years ago via the Modern Poetry mooc (Modpo) lovingly cultivated by Al Filreis at Penn. Ashbery was a featured poet during that iteration of the course; “Some Trees” became the source for my own vid-poem during my mesostic phase, and his “Instruction Manual” likewise found its way into my “When MOOCs collide” video. The haunting “As Long As You Are” were the last words spoken in the final live webcast of the course, and left many of us around the world in tears. So I have a strong affection for Ashbery.

What I don’t have is the expertise to do him justice. But I shall give it a might try, as this is likely the last opportunity I will have in these pages. This is, by the way, his first appearance in Pushcart, presumably because he rarely appeared in small presses.

In the category of happy coincidence, my Vermont Poet friend Patrick Gillespie put up a post just a couple of days ago that used Ashbery as an example of what he calls representational poetry as opposed to notional poetry. One of the many useful ideas I found there, one that seems quite specific to this poem we have at hand, is: “Ashbery disrupts any notional content with a kind of notional incongruence that defies the communication of a larger, consistent idea or notion.”

The above quoted lines seem congruent enough, but then again… Does the speaker imply that he didn’t reply to the email because he was busy weighing himself? Or is the apology dispatched with in the first two lines, and now he is merely sharing details of his life, starting with the weighing?

Do those old-fashioned scales still exist, other than on eBay? Is this a memory of days gone by? Or is this more of a daydream, a fantasy, or a metaphor for a more realistic scenario, such as a medical appointment, or perhaps the routine weighing of oneself on a bathroom scale and discovering significant, unintended weight loss? It seems very much like the delivery of personal prophecy, one with menacing implications.

That line, “contained / in the narrow groove of its delivery” resonates, not so much with considering the source, but with my cognitive-behavioral training, the recognition that words are neither good nor bad, kind nor insulting, encouraging or scary, but that our interpretation makes them so.

These are all somewhat mystifying but recognizable ideas. Then the poem goes into metaphoric hyperspace about “The French doors of truth” and, while the speaker’s eyes may be open, I am lost. I don’t know what the “tragically hemispheric wall of our deliverance” might be; I keep wanting to connect it to birth, to death as a birth into something else, something unknown, but that seems a bit fanciful and unsupported. All I come up with is, we know we must come to an end, and we don’t know what comes after.

But what are the apples, the painted rags? Somehow I connect this with Frank O’Hara’s poem “Oranges” which involved a painting, paint on canvas. They were close friends, sometimes wrote poems in conversation; could this be another of those, to one who’s gone before? But that may be comparing apples and oranges, and I may need to see someone about my loose associations.

I realize I’m fully invested in the poem as premonition of death. That’s not a completely unjustified option, but I wonder what I’ve turned away from as I turned to this. How much does my prior knowledge of Ashbery’s death, combined with the persistent elegiac tone of this entire Pushcart volume, bear upon this unconscious decision, and how much is in the text?

Then to end the poem we come back to the concrete:

The horoscope wasn’t wrong, only a little late,
while I have stuff to do, and crates to open.

The crates feel urgent to me. Somehow I come up with the image of unpacking from a move, but I have a move coming up soon so I might be imposing that on the poem. Has someone else died, necessitating a move or some kind of rearrangement of belongings, and the horoscope’s prediction was of a loss, rather than of personal misfortune? In any case, the turn is from contemplation of bad news, to more mundane and practical matters. This is a turn I should take more often.

I wonder if this is itself a letter to O’Hara, or what such a letter would have been like had O’Hara not died young. If Ashbery’s mortality was weighing heavily on him, he might have had an impulse to write O’Hara again. In updating to email, it would be as if the lapse in time, acknowledged in the first lines, wasn’t that important, as if he’d been corresponding with the dead poet all along.

This O’Hara connection comes up only because it happens to be something I am aware of. That’s the problem, isn’t it. I’m unaware of so much, perhaps there’s another reference that better fits the bill. I just read a commentary on one of the Umberto Eco novels which declared that it’s a puzzle for the reader to guess the historical and philosophical references within; I wouldn’t stand a chance. How can this referentiality work, when each reader has a different exposure to outside material?

What of the title? I read this medically as well: one episode of syncope, of chest pain, of some symptom that is a harbinger of more to come. It would be possible to see it as more of an episode in a series, as of a television series or the real-life program of every day living. But I am pretty much stuck on this coming to terms with one’s demise.

I went through some of the PennSound material on Ashbery and discovered a 1966 interview on “These Lacustrine Cities”. He distinguishes between obscure and incomprehensible, and asserts the importance of a poem communicating something, even if it is obscure, because it can be easier to communicate some things obscurely. I was most interested in his preface, in which he explained what he was thinking when he wrote the poem, but he adds, this “doesn’t bear on the meaning since no reader could ever know”. He was thinking of the ancient lake dwelling centers in Europe, Zurich in particular, settlements of thousands of years ago with houses built on stilts (if I recall my History of Architecture, similar structures existed in Japan and in northwest North America), now only left in ruins. While the poem does not specifically reference these settlements, knowing about them made the poem a lot more meaningful to me; or maybe I just enjoyed hearing it, who knows. And sure enough, his explanation of the poem didn’t include any references to anything specific, but to ideas, emotions, motivations anyone can access. Identifying them, however, is the challenge.

The “notional incongruence” Patrick raised is not necessarily a bad thing. We often combine unlike images, find inspiration for the sublime in the absurd. “One commonly reads something to the effect that Ashbery’s lines should be allowed to wash over the reader like evocative abstractions. In other words, like art,” says Patrick in his post. And here I am trying to nail down imagery, metaphor, to present them like butterflies pinned to a board, instead of enjoying their flight.

Where Patrick is less than enthusiastic about words as art rather than meaning (his sentence closing that above thought is: “That said, the purpose of language is to communicate. Full stop.” I’m pretty sure I disagree with this, but that’s between Patrick and me), Meghan O’Rourke expanded favorably on Ashbery’s less interpretable technique in a Slate article from 2005: “The best thing to do, then, is not to try to understand the poems but to try to take pleasure from their arrangement, the way you listen to music. It’s only then, for most readers, that the meaning begins to leak through.”

It’s a poem that evokes the hell out of me (but is it the poem, or the associations?), but also frustrates me as I fail to catch the butterflies. Maybe that’s the lesson I need to learn, to just enjoy the pursuit. But then someone will come along and explain every syllable, and I will again feel inadequate to the task, stupid, unworthy of the oxygen it takes to keep my fingers tapping.

Oh well. I should get to opening some crates of my own.

Pushcart XLIII: Molly Cooney, “Transition: The Renaming of Hope” (nonfiction) from Georgia Review, Summer 2017

Ashley Mackenzie: Phase Transition

Ashley Mackenzie: Phase Transition

I will miss Anne, with the well-placed e and easy shape. Steep climb, perfect point, and the slide into the runout of three short, round letters. The way the letters smooth across the page in a tiny creek of repeat, nn, and slip into silence. Anne. I will miss the way her name sighs. Anne. It’s quite ordinary, really, the taper into nothing and the beauty of that sweep.
I will miss the way Anne fits with Molly and Ellis. I’m Molly, and this is my partner Anne and my kid Ellis. Anne doesn’t say her name, unless she’s standing in front of an extended hand, forced to own something. But I say it, like a mantra sometimes, a reminder of where my feet stand. Molly, Anne, and Ellis. A reminder of where her toes are headed. She doesn’t even know her own name yet.
I will miss the voice of a decade of whispers, of vocal cords still short and lithe. The voice that hides behind compression shirts and silence and my willingness to speak, that presses down and adjusts its register, wishing for longer, thicker cords pushing sounds to a depth her small voice can only imagine now.
I hope she lets me record I love you before I have to let her voice go.

Complete story available online at Georgia Review

We all know the politics, the important civil rights issues (who knew plumbing would become part of political debate). But Cooney’s essay, though it touches on some of those topics, focuses on the interpersonal effects of transgendering. What is it like to pick a new name, to hide breasts, to need adult masculine clothing in petite sizes, to consider costs, including financial costs, and benefits of medical treatment? And: what’s it like to have one’s life partner transition? For all our sophisticated pondering about gender fluidity and spectrums, real life experience can be a lot more uncertain, a lot less classifiable into moral certainties.

One focus of the essay is the voice, how it defines us. Anne sees her voice as a betrayal; she’s masculinized her appearance, but without testosterone, her voice remains feminine. All her life she’s been quiet for various reasons: an overwhelming family, bullying at school. Now her voice becomes her tell. I would very much like to know, if she starts testosterone and her voice deepens, she will speak up more.

Names turn out to be more complicated than we might expect. We all use pseudonyms in the form of screen names these days, and many of us use nicknames, middle names, or other variations, but when it comes to changing one’s name, that seems like a bigger deal. The choices are infinite, raising the dilemma of overchoice, too many choices. And what do the kids call a transitioning parent? Anne’s process came late enough that she was able to pre-plan (they decided on “Poppy”), but other situations might get more complicated.

Then there are the more subtle aspects of gender, things we don’t notice until norms are violated:

There are layers and layers of learning how to re-gender yourself. It’s not just new clothes and a new name. Not just wide stance and strong shoulders, nor just taking up space and talking loudly. For many transmen it’s about how a guy props the door with his foot, that imperceptible difference in the kick of leg and tilt of hip. The tight nod hello. How a guy holds his toddler, no hip, arm crooked high. To teach yourself gender is to walk through the world as an artist, noticing details not meant to be noticed, watching each shift and sway and breath to find out how we codify and signify gender, and then to try on that skin day after day after day.
….There is no manual, no checklist, no comprehensive website; the process is mostly about so many details that are learned along the way, observing people and listening to stories shared by other genderqueer and transpeople, and it’s about so much patience.

When I read this, I immediately thought: why is there no comprehensive website? On causal googling I was able to find a few message boards, but they might not be sufficient (there are tons of message boards for all sorts of things, and most of them are crappy). Anyway, message boards are merely updated versions of word-of-mouth. But each situation is so different, and there are a huge range of needs; is large-scale advice possible? For very subtle features – posture, communication style – there may be no substitute for practice with feedback.

The article transitions into a different consideration: what is it like to be the partner of someone transitioning? Pop culture plays these things for laughs, or solves them neatly in 30 minutes or 10 pages, but again, real life isn’t as easily plotted. Cooney describes her reactions with exquisite clarity:

Holding Anne’s hand queered me. Standing next to her gender-nonconforming cuteness outed me to the world. What a relief. Anne fought all her life to blend in and I clamored to be noticed. As Anne transitions, she’ll shift from being seen as a queer dyke to being a straight white guy—suddenly tossed up from years of isolation to the place of privilege in our narrow mainstream world. And me? What will become of me? I’ll be seen as a straight girl living in the Longfellow neighborhood of South Minneapolis with her husband, toddler, two cats, and a dog in our two-story house with a porch in front, raspberries in the garden, and a giant maple out back. I try to imagine the assumptions people will make about my family and my life, about who I am and what I stand for. You can see us now, standing side by side. Hand in hand. Ellis tight on my hip. Anne’s feet facing forward and my toes outturned, the way they always are.
This is not what I signed on for.

As it happens, in a former job I was acquainted with a woman who began undergoing transition. When he mentioned his intent and new name, my first thought was, “How is Carol doing with this?” I didn’t know either of them well enough to inquire. But now I have something of an answer, even if it doesn’t wrap things up neatly in 30 minutes. Love is love, and love is complicated, and all of us follow different paths through it. I wish my colleague, and Cooney and her partner, the very best, however they work things out.

Pushcart XLIII: Julian Randall, “Codeswitch Decomposing into Lil Wayne Lyric” (poem) from Ninth Letter, Winter 2017

Jeff Manning: Find Your Wings II (detail)

Jeff Manning: Find Your Wings II (detail)

                         After Danez Smith
 
Lord Please Forgive Me for My Brash Delivery
A face is for other people’s benefit, a brochure gospel
undone by a mouth. I am the most marketable sin since 2004.
A smile that yields only bones, a mouth slick with restraint.
I am a good filament, a bright obedient electric. I speak,
and sometimes am found.

Complete poem available online at Ninth Letter

And once again, the disclaimer that’s getting worn out: I’m out of my element. But that’s what google is for. This seems to be another conversation in poetry, though I’m unable to locate the original Danez Smith poem that inspired it. I regret to say that, while I am vaguely familiar with Lil Wayne, at least the name, I’m unfamiliar with his work. Hey, gimme a break, I’m a senior citizen still mourning the breakup of Simon & Garfunkel; the only contemporary music I hear these days is on tv shows and ice skating competitions (yes, I’m really that boring).

The poem has an interesting structure, so at least I can start there. Each of five sections begins with some version of the sentence “Lord Please Forgive Me for My Brash Delivery”, with each iteration losing a word or two from the end. Thus the second stanza continues:

Lord Please Forgive Me for My Brash
body and especially my mouth, for-
give me my scholarships, for-
give me my name brand ambition, for-
give me my tattered skin on my G-Unit sneakers
how easy I drenched all the photographs

I’m not sure why the apology is necessary, if it relates to the speaker, to the poet, to Smith, or to Lil Wayne (or all of them). I do like the way the lines are enjambed by for-, which makes it sound like a continuation of “for this, for that” but is really a repetition of “forgive” hyphenated. And I’m fascinated by the sneaker competition between rap stars.

As the stanzas continue and the first line is whittled away, the language becomes less formal, until, as promised, the final stanza is a reframing of a Lil Wayne lyric, or possibly a mash-up of lyrics.

Fortunately, the poem is available online, so I’ll just step aside and get out of the way.

Pushcart XLIII: Thylias Moss, “Blue Coming” (poem) from Abstract Magazine TV, Sept. 2017

Yves Klein: People Begin to Fly

Yves Klein: People Begin to Fly

Poetry is connected to the body,
 
 
part of my fingertips, just as blue as anything
that ever was or will be blue—
 
–blue that dye aspires to, true blue
denied to any sapphire, Logan sapphire included, even
 
if she wears some
on those blue fingers, blue spreads, consumes her
 
as if she hatched from an Araucana egg:
 
SHE IS BLUE, fingers, bluest hands ever, Tunisian blue, Djerban blue hands,
shoulders, breasts, every
nook and cranny blue, big bad wolf says: how blue you are!
The better to blue you….

Complete poem, and audio of poet’s reading, available online at Abstract Magazine

April is National Poetry Month. As it happens, many of the Pushcart entries I’m encountering this month are poems. And a lot of them baffle me. I’ve been feeling pretty bad about that.

Like this poem. It starts with a nod to poetry, then turns into a paean to blue. Is the initial blue of the fingertip ink from a blue pen? The depressive nature of blue, the musical Blues, all roll by, and we get to orgasmic blues, blue as the color of sex. I always thought blue was the color of thwarted sex. I guess I was wrong.

So I was feeling quite … um, blue… about yet another “I have no idea what’s going on here” post in National Poetry Month. But then I started poking around, and discovered some things that made the poem much clearer to me.

The poem can be found in a variety of places on the internet, in addition to the Abstract Magazine site where it was nominated to Pushcart. Many of those versions differ slightly, and some of them mention it is in conversation with a poem by Bob Holman,. This poem, reproduced in an interview with Paulo da Costa, also references blue, the National Enquirer, a fly buzzing, and other elements that appear in Moss’s poem, including the orgasmic ending. In the interview, Holman explains:

What I am talking about here is of course not sex. It is about how you come to understand a poem. It is the same way as making love. It is a give and take between you and the poem. You never know if someone’s way of understanding a poem is righter than yours but it doesn’t stop you from having your orgasm with that poem, with that poet.

Bob Holman interview

I wish I could believe that. I still cling to the notion that there is a right interpretation of a poem, which adds to my frustration as I keep trying to find it, always worrying about being wrong. Part of that is just my natural insecurity, but a lot of it is the byproduct of poetry classes in which, even in the most generous sections, one reading was favored. I’m quite fond of some unorthodox readings of a couple of poems, but could I stand behind them?

How about looking at the final lines of the two poems side by side:

Blue static
Blue stuttering
 
Blue hands
 
Blue – Code Blue
coming together, what a mighty tincture,
–not exactly at the same time, but coming, connected
to coming
Her fingertips writing a
 
Blue coming.

                            Moss

….you never know
If someone else’s orgasm is better than yours
But that shoudn’t stop you
From coming together
Even if it’s not exactly
At the same time.

                            Holman

Based on the lines about fingers, Moss’s poem seems to focus more on the orgasmic quality of writing a poem, rather than reading/hearing it. But it could be a male/female comparison, or just two different people with different ways of communicating the same idea: that poetic interpretation is individual, and not a competition. And when you “get it”, it’s orgasmic.

Knowing Moss’s poem was riffing on something else helped a lot in dealing with the Enquirer and flies and such. I like conversations across poems, between poets. Even if I’m not sure what they’re saying. They know what they’re saying, and it’s nice to just listen, and see if I can hear.

Pushcart XLIII: Emmanuel Oppong-Yeboah, “Kra-Din” (poem) from Kweli Journal, June 2017

Wiz Kudowor: “Migratory Forms” (2014)

Wiz Kudowor: “Migratory Forms” (2014)

                        i. okra (soul)
 
I pray my dead speak to me // and my dead stay silent
I pray my dead speak to me // and my dead say “no”
I pray my dead speak to me // and my dead say ________
 
which I don’t hear // in a foreign language
which is to say // my own

Complete poem available online at Kweli Journal

Once again, I’m at an extreme disadvantage. But this time, I have some resources that can help. Take everything here with a pound of salt – I’m at the most superficial level of understanding here – but I think I have a glimmer of what’s going on here. It’s a poem about diaspora, separation from one’s origins, ancestors, and what can be lost.

From the starting point of Oppong-Yeboah’s bio, which states he is “a Ghanaian American poet living out the diaspora in Boston”, the poem speaks to the African diaspora via the concept of personhood, that is part of the philosophical and religious foundation of the Akan people of Ghana. The three philosophers who most clearly articulate this concept are Kwasi Wiredu, Kwame Gyekye, and Kwame Appiah, although Wiredu’s ideas differ from the other two; I’m slightly familiar with these names, if not the concepts, thanks to the recent six-month exploration of Africana philosophy by the wonderful HoPWaG podcasts. In addition to several excerpts, fragments of sequestered articles, and limited Googlebooks pages, I found two articles (Sykes, Antwi) to be particularly helpful in understanding the poem. Again, since I have insufficient experience to evaluate the reliability of sources, some degree of skepticism on details is warranted, but for the major ideas, these seem to fit nicely with the language of the poem.

The title of the poem, Kra-Din, is the day name of an Akan child; the first part of the name is determined by the day on which the child is born. The titles of the three numbered sections are the three aspects of personhood: okra (soul) originates with the deity, and enters the child at birth; sunsum (spirit) comes from the father, and mogya (blood) is contributed by the mother at conception.

The first section of the poem (soul) is in the form of a prayer/conversation with ancestors; the form is reminiscent of a chant. It starts out with great frustration: the dead are silent, say no, or speak in a foreign language, which, the speaker recognizes, is really his own, distanced now. “what parts of you / have you lost // that you now seek our forgiveness”. It ends with “I am learning let me succeed”; I’m not sure if the learning is the purpose of the speaker’s distance from the ancestors, in which case it is an explanation, or if it refers to learning from the ancestors, in which case it’s a request and apology. In either case, “let me succeed” is clearly a plea, a request for help or leave to pursue more.

The second section is prose-like, and serves as an expansion on the idea of sunsum, spirit. I have no idea if the Akan word for father is papa but it’s evoked anyway in the line “when we say sunsum papa we mean all that glimmers in the night when the moon looks into the face of a brackish pool.” Maybe a brackish pool holds all kinds of terrors, but to me, it’s a lovely image.

The third section, mogya, blood, begins with references to genealogy, appropriate since this is the part of the self that carries lineage and is received through the mother. It ends with something like a message from the speaker’s mother:

son, you come from a place called love
all our people are held in your name
 
it’s said, an entire sea of peoples pulled before a full moon
it’s said, the waves puddled and now each one carries their names
 
son, you come from what remains of them
our people braved water and discovered flame

This is the message of diaspora: don’t forget where you came from. It’s the message, for all of us, of family, of culture, of belonging: wherever you go, whatever you become, you are still you, and you still carry, and represent, those who made you.

Pushcart XLIII: Heather Sellers, “Pedal, Pedal, Pedal” (nonfiction) from The Sun #493

My mother’s fear of people contributed to my shyness. I could not figure out how to interact socially in a light, carefree way: not at school, not at the restaurant where I hostessed, and not at Disney World, where I ran a cash register. I was often mute, unable to get my words to move out of me and into the world.
Whenever I went for a ride, though, I breathed easy, because of the way a bike moves through space: fast, quiet, smooth, each moment unfurling into the next. I could sing and often did: songs from The Sound of Music, Man of La Mancha, West Side Story. When I was on my bike, I could not only envision a happy, outgoing future self; I was her. The true me was the girl I was on the bike, and the other me was like a girl under the spell of a horrid witch in a fairy tale.

Complete story available online at The Sun

Sometimes, a girl’s best friend is her bicycle.

Sellers tells her autobiography through the bicycles she has loved. From her first tricycle, to the red bike she had at age five, to the purple bike she got at age ten, to her mother’s unused green bike borrowed after the purple bike was stolen, to more adult bikes later on, bicycles were her version of a talisman as well as transportation. And later, they were her entrance into social interaction and friendships.

Despite the struggles of her youth – or maybe because of them – it’s a warm, hopeful piece, the stock in trade for The Sun. I found her description of her introduction to university to be both funny and familiar.

At college I’d been expecting to find wise professors, studious young people, and a new intellectual life waiting for me to step into it. Instead the campus was inhabited by heavily made-up girls with jewelry and sandals, and smug-faced boys in chinos and polo shirts — perfectly groomed, confident, and involved in one long conversation that I couldn’t join. I walked around the campus in a daze, unable to fit a single syllable into their flow of words.

That’s exactly why I didn’t go to college right after high school – I wouldn’t have stood a chance – but took night classes until I was in my thirties. Too bad I didn’t have a bicycle.

She tells us of Texas, where no one rode bikes, and Michigan, where she found a bike shop that welcomed her and folded her into a social circle. It wa there that she truly learned to socialize. How someone gets a PhD with the limited skills she describes is beyond me, but more power to her.

Sellers wraps up the piece with a declaration: “On land I have fallen so many times. On my bike I have not fallen — not ever, not once.” That sounds like pressure to me, but to her, it’s safety.

Pushcart XLIII: Melissa Stein, “Quarry” (poem) from WordTemple Press

Josh Phillip Saunders, Visible Poetry Project

Josh Phillip Saunders, Visible Poetry Project

A girl is swimming naked
in dark water. She doesn’t see herself
as graceful but the water tells otherwise,
the way it loosens and strikes
and burnishes. Exposed
ledges, rocks crumble on surfaces
and the surface of the water broken
by her body, marine and white.

In a discussion with Jake Weber, I mentioned that flash fiction often strikes me as having more in common with poetry than with the standard short story. My Vermont Poet friend Patrick Gillespie feels that some poems are really short fiction, or short essays, in disguise. I’d thought that might be the case here, but I’ve changed my mind. While flash makes use of language elements, I see some important moments here that would be lost if the lineation were abandoned. It is a narrative, if a short one, turning dark at the end.

I keep wanting to say the opening above is placid or benign, but is it really? The scene would have been ripe for gentle, flowing language, but there’s little lyricism; I’d call it rather neutral, factual. Look at all the words of violence ending four lines: strikes, exposed, crumble, broken. They are used in non-violent semantic context, but the position in the line, the enjambment, emphasizes them. The scene feels slightly tense, rather than warm and bucolic as it could be.

A boy joins her in the water. Again, we have a few lines of description – he’s small, probably pre-teen, a “mirror stripling” which seems to indicate he’s the same age as the girl – and some words of violence in nonviolent context: pummel, thrash. It’s not clear from the poem if they know each other, or if he just happens to go swimming at the same time.

The girl and boy
pinwheel in the water
and do not touch
but are connected by invisible currents
their bodies manufacture.

Is this going to turn into a romance? The connection might hint at that, but we will see this is not in the cards. “Days of this, weeks.” Is this time dilation, the afternoon swim seeming like forever, or do they literally swim together many times? I’m taken with the image of pinwheeling, which implies communication on some level, cooperation. Even with her eyes closed, she’s aware of where he is when he dives into the water. She doesn’t feel threatened. Yet there’s something not quite summer-day-magical about this; the language doesn’t go there.

The subvocal darkness becomes manifest:

Then, detaching itself from
sun, water, blasted rock
another body comes,
a grown man, all smiles
and cigarettes
and offering….

Whereas the girl and boy are introduced as that, this person is introduced as more of a thing, “detaching itself”, not himself, first introduced as a body, and only then as a man. The description is chilling. We’ve all known men like this, and we know what they’re capable of.

The punch in the gut comes from the final lines:

….I still dream
that the red haired boy held my head
underwater
to spare me what’s the man did

After the pulse returns to normal following the reading of such horrific lines, we can notice a number of things. First, we are spared the details; whatever happened is implied rather than described. This is a change from the close focus on the girl and the boy, even the man, who were carefully, if briefly, described. Some things are universal, need no description.

Second, these lines spring directly from the prior quote; there is no separation of the man with the smiles and cigarettes, and the recollection of brutality. The violence is attached to him, part of him.

The narrative point of view switches from third person to first. That’s interesting; you’d think that the pleasant memories of swimming would be more closely narrated from inside the speaker, with the attack kept at a distance, but it’s the opposite. This could mean that the beauty of the day was pushed into the background, and violence, running through the poem in subtle ways, is foregrounded in the speaker’s memory, not by choice, but because that’s what violence does: it ruins beauty. Yet, in this recollection, the boy’s hair color is foregrounded as well, maybe as a stubborn need to retain something good.

As for the title, let’s not forget that quarry has two meanings. A quarry is a pit left from excavation of stone; these are prone to groundwater flooding after mining is concluded, resulting in a somewhat dangerous but irresistible rural swimming hole. Quarry is also the hunter’s prey. Interestingly, these words, both from the French, have different origins: the pit comes from the Latin for square, while the hunted comes from the Latin for heart, the most valued part of a slain animal, often separated out. As such, both include the sense of excavation, removal of what is valuable. The implications for the poem are striking, as the girl still deals with what was removed from her that day.

The poem has an interesting publication history. It first appeared in the September, 2016 edition of Thin House, then was anthologized in Know Me Here, a collection of poems by women edited by Katherine Hastings; it is from this anthology that the poem was nominated for Pushcart. It was also included in Stein’s 2018 collection, Terrible Blooms, published by Copper Canyon Press; in fact, there are four poems in that collection titled “Quarry”, one in each of the four sections.

Although the poem isn’t available online, it was included in this year’s Visible Poetry Project; the resultant video, directed by Josh Phillip Saunders, includes the full text.

Pushcart XLIII: Emilia Phillips, “Pathetic Fallacy” (poem) from Poem-a-Day  7/31/17

the sap that I am springtime
                 makes me want to reread Virgil’s
 
Georgics while eating cacio
                  e pepe with fresh-shelled
 
peas….

Complete poem available online at Poets.org;
Poet reading also online at Soundcloud

Even I can see there’s a lot in this poem – which means there’s way more I can’t see – so let’s start from the beginning.

Pathetic fallacy has nothing to do with anyone being pathetic. The word, from the Greek for “suffering”, implies a connection with emotion; it’s only in the 20th century it’s acquired the pejorative sense in which we typically use it today. The Poetry Foundation, who brings you Poetry magazine, widely considered the premiere poetry journal in the US, defines the poetic term as : “the assignment of human feelings to inanimate objects…. emphasizes the relationship between the poet’s emotional state and what he or she sees in the object or objects.” This, too, has undergone some evolution; it was originally considered cheating, and is now accepted as… well, what poetry does.

While there are examples of pathetic fallacy in the poem (most notably, the spinach/heart; be patient, I’ll get there) I see the poem as a whole, even poetry in general, as an example. We say things like “this poem was sad/happy/scary”, and maybe that’s only a shortcut way of saying “it made me feel sad/etc”, but maybe not. The act of writing is a transfer of emotion; who’s to say that the poem – not the words on paper, but the aesthetic object – retains those emotions, and transmits them on reading.

Now, about that spinach heart:

…this morning over coffee I
                 watched a video of spinach
 
leaves washed of their cellular
                  information and bathed in stem
 
cells until they became miniature
                 hearts vascular hopes capable
 
of want to roll down a hill
                 of clover to cold-spoon chrysanthemum
 
gelato or to stop whenever
                 their phones autocorrect gps
 
to god….

The spinach heart is real, if a bit exaggerated; what was produced was a patch of tissue that beat spontaneously for three weeks. Seriously. Google “spinach heart” if you don’t believe me.

The poem imbues the spinach heart with the human emotions we connect with hearts. All the metaphors of the human heart is, of course, itself a pathetic fallacy, as the actual human heart is a mass of cells and no more loves or yearns than does your liver; that sort of thing is part of the mind, which no one’s quite sure how to define yet but the phrase “an emergent property of the brain” serves as a placeholder. So now we have a spinach heart (which isn’t a heart, remember, but a small piece of tissue) seen as hoping and wanting and getting pissed off by autocorrect. This doubling of pathetic fallacy delights me, but I’m not sure why.

Why Georgics? It’s in part a paean to rural life, to farming and beekeeping, with a political underpinning (at least that’s what various internet sites say; I have no idea), which makes sense in the light of the spring theme, the spinach, the hill of clover. As for the menu, I understand that. There’s a certain mood that gets me craving herb tea. I’ve never found an herb tea that I could stand for an entire cup, but still, the mood calls for it.

The poem goes some other places I’m not sure about; maybe “the earth has gotten sentimental this late in the game” is similar to implying emotion onto a poem; it isn’t the earth that’s gotten sentimental, it’s we who are sentimental about the earth as we continue to destroy it because dammit we want bottled water and air conditioning and SUVs but we feel sad about the wasteland left behind and the homes destroyed in storms-of-the-century that now happen every couple of years. But it comes back to a heart-rending finish:

….I wish I could scream
                 into someone else’s rain

Don’t we all. I’ve often said that just because I ruined my own life, that doesn’t mean I’m not able to see how other people should run their lives. Sometimes I even say it unironically; not being emotionally involved in a situation allows reason to prevail, lets solutions present themselves without fear or anger or love camouflaging them.

But, hey, remember when I said “pathetic fallacy” has nothing to do with anyone being pathetic? Well, the contemporary sense still hovers, even if we stomp on it and hide it under the bed, and a person who wants to scream in someone else’s rain might be viewed as pathetic. But that would be a fallacy.

I’m really reaching now, huh? Shut up, I’m having fun. Let’s go back to the beginning: “the sap that I am….” It’s a kind of reverse pathetic fallacy: instead of seeing emotion in sap (the stuff oozing from trees in early spring), the speaker considers herself sap (in the 21st century, a Sad And Pathetic person, perhaps originating from the earlier sense of being sapped of vitality) because of her emotion. I never realized what an interesting word “sap” was until I googled around a little.

The lack of capitalization and punctuation, irregular enjambment, makes the poem something of a puzzle. I spent an embarrassingly long time trying to parse the first couple of lines, wondering if this was another word-salad poem, and finally rewrote it with more traditional cues:

The sap that I am,
springtime makes me want to reread Virgil’s Georgics
while eating cacio e pepe with fresh-shelled peas.
This morning over coffee I watched a video
of spinach leaves washed of their cellular information
and bathed in stem cells
until they became miniature hearts,

This isn’t the only way to parse things, but it’s the way that made the most sense to me.

The question is: why write it in such a way? I’ve read some analyses of unpunctuated poetry that claim it makes the lines move faster, or results in varied readings, or just slows the reader down. It certainly slowed this reader down. In this particular case, what is lost by rewriting it in more standard form? The lines as written tend to take three or four beats, but I’m not sure there’s a pattern, and even if there is, what is the significance? These are not rhetorical questions; I really want to know.

So much here. I feel this post is disjointed, because I’m not able to quite synthesize it all into a whole; everything just comes tumbling out. Maybe that’s fitting in light of the format of the poem: the reader will need to punctuate as they* see fit. I should go back and edit out all the nonsense (as I often do), but no; I did have fun, and I’ll let it stand, for a future day when I wonder when I stopped having fun doing this.

*I’m really, really trying to get down with the gender-neutral use of the singular they, but it’s going to take a while before I can confidently write it without indicating it’s not a mistake.

Pushcart XLIII: Cortney Lamar Charleston, “How Do You Raise a Black Child?” (poem) from Telepathologies

From the dead. With pallbearers who are half as young
as their faces suggest and twice the oxen they should be.
Without a daddy at all, or with a daddy in prison, or at home,
or in a different home. With a mama. With a grandmama
if mama ain’t around, maybe even if she is. In a house, or not.
In the hood. In the suburbs if you’re smart or not afraid of white
fear or even if you are. Taking risks.

Complete poem, and short film adaptation, available online at MotionPoems

The first line, the first phrase, is killer. It’s not “title enjambment” as I call it, where the title of the poem is the first line; here, the title has closing punctuation, and the first line begins with a period, and all the sentences in the body of the poem are separate answers to the question. The first line is just the first answer. But that implication of “How do you raise a black child from the dead” sets the tone pretty firmly: although there are many ways to do it, it’s an uphill battle, with all the struggles all parents face, plus quite a few that only those of color have to overcome.

This is the second “duo” I’ve noticed in this volume, both regarding people of color. That is, two pieces approach a broad topic from different angles. The first duo was “The Whitest Girl” and “The Hunter”, exploring the interaction of Latinx and Anglo cultures. And now we’ve just read “Field Theories” examining the baggage that comes along with African heritage in America, and this story, which adds child rearing to the tightrope walk, raising the stakes even higher.

As with “Field Theories”, music makes an appearance, lightening the middle of the poem: “With hip-hop or / without. At least with a little Curtis Mayfield, some Motown, / sounds by Sam Cooke”. We all have our generational spreads. There’s a really nice section playing with enjambment that changes direction: “Putting some wood to their behind. With a switch. With a belt / to keep their pants high”. This leads right into a few phrases on high-ness, which comes back to serious business.

Then the final lines bring us back where we started:

With a little elbow
grease and some duct tape. Sweating bullets. On a short leash.
Away from the big boys on the block. Away from the boys in blue.
Without the frill of innocence. From the dead, again. Like a flag.

Every time a young black man dies because he looked dangerous or he moved to fast or didn’t move fast enough or might’ve had a gun that was a toy or a cell phone or whatever, and justice is not forthcoming, we raise from the dead, again.

This is also the second poem in this volume (Maggie Smith’s “Parachute” was the first) to be realized as a short film; not a Youtube video, an actual film with cast and sets and lighting. Purists may not like this: the film adds elements that increase emotional impact, and the poem should stand on its own as a work of language. I admit, particularly when kids are involved, there’s a tendency to bend towards manipulation. But I, with my weakness for sentiment and schmaltz and landing the familiar on the plagal cadence (those who have seen my “When MOOCs collide” video know exactly what I mean), appreciate the additional dimension of film. Poetry has been growing and changing since the first words were spoken; why shouldn’t it participate in technology. And these poems were chosen for filming because they were moving in themselves, not to make them more than they were.

The poem is from Charleston’s 2017 collection, Telephathologies, which examines various themes of Being American While Black. The word “telephathology” is real; in medicine, it’s the practice of pathology from a distance, literally. In poetry, turns out it means the same thing, except the distance varies with the reader.

Pushcart XLIII: Samiya Bashir, “Field Theories” (poem) from Bettering American Poetry #2

Cover art by Toyin Ojih Odutola: “Lonely Chambers (T.O.)”

Cover art by Toyin Ojih Odutola: “Lonely Chambers (T.O.)”

sold for poker chips
left cold left thawed left
 
bent into the yawp
ass up
 
let be
let air
 
bones
unknowns
 
ash
everywhere
 
curved space
dark—breath
 
dark—breath
dark—what?

This is the title poem from Bashir’s 2017 collection, described by publisher Nightboat as “melding blackbody theory (idealized perfect absorption, as opposed to the whitebody’s idealized reflection) with real live Black bodies”. That makes an incredible metaphor, doesn’t it.

While I have some grasp of that description, I’m afraid I have little grasp of the poem except in bits and pieces, individual phrases that stand out to me. It’s a poem that begs to be read out loud, with some phrases sounding much more interesting than they look on the page (“We’ll / build a fort and fill it / with maple trees gone gaudy // with cobalt wishing stones”. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to work?

It includes references to slavery, to darkness, Christianity, mythology, and no doubt a hundred things I’m not able to pick up on. Again I’m in the position of wanting to apologize for not being able to read well enough.

… Huh ? music ?
 
music anyone ever really heard us sing?
let’s move this :anyone ever asked ?
 
even so we sing all day period even so we pass
our days whatever ways we can –
 
we know some folks don’t listen.
Just look. And trace. Look :
 
what is a thing of beauty
if not us

What is a thing of beauty
if not us?
 
Repeat

That “thing of beauty” stanza appears three times in slightly different form, including the final stanza above, which does not end with a period, indicating the continuing repetition, maybe intended to be repeated until it’s believed, by us, by them, by everyone.

Pushcart XLIII: C. J. Hribal, “Do I Look Sick to You? (Notes on How to Make Love to a Cancer Patient” from Bellevue Literary Review #17.1

At first you don’t. You hold back, stroking the small of her back. You kiss her ear. You nestle in behind her. Finally she says, “What, you’re afraid I’ll break? You’re afraid it’s contagious? Trust me, the cancer will not stick to your dick. It’s not gonna rush up your urethra, pummeling your little spermies on the way, and explode like an IED in your insides. It’s only trying to do that to me.”
This is how it’s going to be—she is going to kick cancer in the ass. Everyone says this, “She is going to kick cancer in the ass,” until it becomes a mantra. Everything is going to be as it was before, only now you are “living with cancer.”
“‘Living with cancer?’” she says when her oncologist uses this phrase. “What, I’ve lent out rooms? I’m just supposed to think it’s a particularly sloppy roommate? It leaves its clothes everywhere, its dishes mound up in the sink, it leaves its towels on the bathroom floor and clots of hair in the drain, and when I say, ‘This is not
working out,’ my cancer roommate gets to say, ‘Screw you, I’m staying’? That is so not right.”

Complete story available online at BLR

If you search google for “language of cancer”, you’ll find a great deal of material – written by linguists, psychologists, medical practitioners, and everyday bloggers – on the way we talk about cancer. The military metaphors of battling, fighting, defeating, waging war, have their defenders and detractors, and it’s quite interesting to read. It serves for some as motivation to keep appointments that will result in horrific side effects.

For others, these battle metaphors are less appreciated. They set up the patient as brave and strong, as on a mission. That puts a lot of pressure on someone who is already dealing with enormous obstacles. Soldiers don’t cry. Warriors suck it up and continue once the vomiting stops. The brave have sex because sex is fun and life affirming even when your portacath is aching or the mouth ulcers are painful.

And the significant others of these warriors make love to their partners, because they have to be warriors, too.

The story pays close attention to these language tricks we play on scary things. Take the phrase “living with cancer”. The character in the story reacts to that as absurd. My offhand, completely unresearched impression is that it’s a phrase that came about as cancer treatments improved, as people were no longer sick or well, but in the middle ground of chronic disease that can be managed. It’s better than being labeled terminal, but nowhere near a cure, and knowing one’s life will be impacted by frequent tests and ongoing treatments may or may not be cause for celebration. As the story moves on, it becomes evident Charlotte is no longer living with cancer, if she ever was (I have a feeling the oncologist was a bit optimistic), but dying of cancer.

I have to agree with Jake Weber on this one. In his post, he makes it clear how impossible it is to actually critique this story (particularly since Hribal’s interview indicates it’s based on actual experience), given the emotional content. I’m glad I don’t have to critique, but just report my reading experience.

Telling the story from the angle of the boyfriend tells a slightly different story, but most terminal-illness books (and I have a whole shelf of them, dating back some 40 years) are told by significant others. Hribal’s choice of second-person narration also creates a somewhat different dynamic. I have a particular interest in this point of view, so I was happy to see him include both the tendency to draw the reader in, and the simultaneous distancing effect, that I’ve mentioned before in connection with second-person narration:

I kept coming back to second person because second person, when it’s done well (and I hope I’ve done it well), can do several things simultaneously—it invites the reader to directly enter the story as a character, and it can convey to the reader the feeling that the character him- or herself doesn’t quite want to be there, that they’re in a situation from which they’d like to be slightly distanced. It’s not happening to me, it’s happening to this other person, this “you.” For this story, I did want the reader to be in this particularly uncomfortable situation, to experience it as the character might, which includes his both wanting and not wanting to be there.

CJ Hribal, interview at BLR

I also like his comments about giving two emotions at once to the reader, the fear/horror and the humor, as this couple tries to be brave. The humor schtick, however, is, like the military metaphor, so overplayed as to be almost a requirement, at least in books and film/TV, and again, it demands a lot of cancer patients: not only do you have to be brave and heroic, you have to be funny, all while pain, nausea, and existential panic follow you around. Maybe it helps to cope; I know I can be pretty funny when the chips are down, but I’ve never had to put on a full-frontal-denial defense while in chemotherapy.

The story turns when the defenses break down:

And later, after her brain surgery because it’s spread there, too, and the radiation that follows that, and the ascites that causes her belly to swell like a late term pregnancy, which gets catheterized so it can be drained daily—three liters, four liters, where is all this goddamn fluid coming from? you wonder as you empty the bags into the toilet—when she asks, “Wanna make love?” you say, “Can we just cuddle?” And she says in a tiny voice, her grin exhausted, “Why, do I look sick to you?”
Then she sees the look in your face.
“You’re really afraid you’re going to hurt me, aren’t you?” she says, and you say, “Yes.” And when the tears start to your eyes, she says, “Good, I was waiting for that.”

Two brave warriors, side by side, until one puts down his sword and shield, inviting the other to do so as well. Yes, they’re both more vulnerable, but they’re also more connected without all that armor between them. Maybe it was time. And maybe it should’ve been time long before. They’re the only ones who can know.