Pushcart 2013: Ain’t More Thing to Climb*

Art by Caitlin Faulks (caitii-cat) on deviantart

Art by Caitlin Faulks (caitii-cat) on deviantart

Thank you, honored reader, for sampling our collection….And even more can be found through a subscription to the little mag of your choice or a purchase at your local, independent bookstore.
We depend on you. Without you, the theater goes dark.

~~ Bill Henderson, Editor, Pushcart XXXVII

Once again, I find myself in the position of hyperenthusiasm that some find tiresome – and if I’m truly honest, I’ll admit the fiction on average didn’t quite charm me as much as last year and the year before, though that may just be a function of rising expectations – but still: I love Pushcart.

This is my third year blogging the fiction, my second year considering (if briefly) the poetry, and the first year I’ve read every non-fiction piece, making this the first Pushcart of which I’ve read every single prize-winning word.

I skipped a few of the fiction pieces I’d blogged before, like “Tiger” by Nalini Jones (which I enjoyed enough in One Story to go out and get the collection What You Call Winter) and Wendell Berry’s “Nothing Living Lives Alone” (which I pretty much trashed when I encountered it in PEN/O.Henry 2012; I’ll return to it some day, but it’s too soon. It served its purpose here as the story that downright annoyed me in this anthology; there’s always one, an any prize anthology. I now see it as a sign that the editors are doing their job well).

In looking back over the posts, I found I’d forgotten only one of the stories. I think it’s preferable that I actively hate a story than that it fades from memory, but it says something about this anthology that only one story out of so many pages was unmemorable.

There were plenty of stand-outs. I find it interesting that a couple of them are enigmas, stories I don’t understand but still love: “The Seventy-Fourth Virgin by M. C. Armstrong, for instance, or Laura Kasischke’s “The Barge.”

Jeanne Shoemaker’s “Sonny Criss” didn’t particularly appeal to me but I still admired it. That happens sometimes.

Then there were those stories that flat-out amazed me: “Emissions” by Joshua Cohen, “The Fall of Punicea” by Paul Stapleton (which, during the writing of this post, I simply had to read again to see if it was still wonderful; it was), Seth Fried’s “Animacula” which I love more each time I read it.

Non-fiction was the big surprise. Granted, I had a couple of “so what” reactions, and Kent Russell managed to write the only piece in three years of blogging prize anthologies that I just couldn’t finish with “American Juggalo” but overall this was great reading. “To The Rainforest Room” by Robin Hemley, “Helen Keller Answers the Iron” from Andrew Hudgins (as embarrassed as I am to admit it), and Sue Allison’s “Made to Measure” were particular favorites, though I have to give special mention to Jennifer Lunden of “The Butterfly Effect” for 1) winning me over in spite of myself, and 2) being a PortlandME neighbor.

The poetry was more fun than last year because I got help. It’s always nice to be able to refer to someone who knows what they’re talking about when I don’t, and with poetry, I’m always at a loss. Why is this a poem, instead of a flash? Why is this a great poem, and not adolescent emo? I found most of the poetry highly enjoyable, and, like last year, far more accessible than I would’ve expected, but I still am fumbling when it comes to why the line break is here and what the purpose of the spacing is. Maybe I’ll know more after my poetry class this fall.

I have longstanding disengagement difficulties: all things end, and at the end of something wonderful, I find it difficult to put down. Normally, I combat this by jumping right into something new. But disengaging is more difficult at this point since I have an unaccustomed break in my prize-anthology schedule: PEN/O.Henry, usually released about now, won’t be out until Fall. I have plenty of other things to do, of course, and there’s always lots out there to read; it’s just that the prize anthologies form the backbone of my blogging schedule. I’m substituting the reading for my upcoming Fiction of Relationships class, but still, I’m feeling a bit vague and aimless at the moment.

Maybe it’s nice that I can let Pushcart linger a little before it takes its place on my shelf with its sisters and cousins. And, of course, there’s always XXXVIII to look forward to.

*What, you haven’t seen Vi Hart’s video, “Ain’t More Thing to Climb?” Well gee, watch it now.

Pushcart 2013: Julián Ríos – ” Mortes’s Story” from Procession of the Shadows: The Novel of Tamoga excerpted in The Hudson Review, Spring 2011

It was toward the end of September, when the drowsiness of autumn was beginning to make itself felt; the hours went by more slowly and time itself seemed to stagnate like the forlorn waters of the salt marshes around Tamoga.
“A traveling salesman,” said or thought absentmindedly all the bored men gathered in the station with nothing better to do as dusk fell and they saw first the enormous suitcase and then the short man, comically veering from side to side in his efforts to drag it along the platform. “A dung beetle,” someone in the group joked, trying to breathe new life into their flagging conversation. They stared at the stranger for a few moments longer, but nobody could be bothered to add another comment. They watched the train disappear into the endless rain, feeling a twinge of disappointment, a nostalgia for times past.

Prepare for a close read: this is a sentence-level story.

I suppose to be consistent I should rail against the inclusion of a novel excerpt as a short story; but notice, right in the title, the excerptness of the piece is clearly declared. Is it a novel, or a collection of linked stories? In the foreword (available online via Googlebooks, as is this first story if you’re careful) Ríos gives this characterization: “Although the nine chapters can stand on their own as short stories, I always thought of them as forming part of a choral novel about an imaginary town and space, with characters revealing the events of their lives and the lives of others in a way that was to a greater or lesser extent interrelated.” I’m completely smitten with the term “choral novel” which might work today for US marketing purposes, where short story collections have always been considered anathema. It is, it seems, what I would consider a “novel in stories.”

There’s a vaguely old-fashioned, mysterious air to the story, not surreal but not quite real, either. The atmosphere creates most of that, a description of a town already that hasn’t bothered to stop breathing yet.

From the window of his second-class compartment, Mortes would have gazed out at the rain-swept platform, the faded sig with the letters T and M almost completely worn away, so that it read A OGA. He would have been greeted by a jumble of clouds and roofs. Seeing this, he must have thought the town was gloomy enough for what he had in mind. It’s also likely that what persuaded him to get off the train at the last moment was weariness, boredom… not to mention that from the start he thought he could rely on our stupidity and collective curiosity, our lack of foresight…

Mortes – note the name – is the “stranger who comes to town,” one of the fundamental plots of all fiction. We see a little bit into him, and a little bit into the town through him as he spends his day and evening there. Early on, we see “he was only among us for a few hours,” and given the atmosphere, we have a good idea of how the story will end.

The narration captured my attention from the start. I was under the impression it was the “we” voice, first-person plural, since it switches pretty handily throughout from “he” to “we.” Yet, although the narrator seems to be quite familiar with the histories of everyone in the story, and quotes them liberally on the matter of Mortes’ visit, the narrator does not have access to inner thoughts; these are surmised or guessed. So this is not an omniscient “we.” And then… aha! There is a single “I” in the narrator’s voice, on the second page, putting the story in “storyteller voice”: the storyteller never overtly interacts with anyone else in the story and never introduces him/herself. This disappoints me somehow; I was so hoping for another first-person plural. As to the identity of the narrator, whether it is an actual person, or more of an ethereal presence, perhaps emerges more clearly elsewhere in the collection (which I have a great urge to read).

The story ostensibly follows Mortes, who has become something a legend in the town on the edge of extinction, where nothing out-of-the-ordinary ever happens. But it becomes more of a study of the townspeople Mortes encounters:

Despite the fact that he was only among us for a few hours, he is still remembered with great relish, especially because of how his story ended; many people swear not only to have seen him, but to have talked with him. He had the gift of metamorphosis, apparently, because each one of us remembers him differently – although it’s possible that all of our impressions were equally correct: happy, timid, forlorn, a joker, sneering, respectful, cynical, dull, likable: he is all those things in our accounts of him. In the end we are left with fascination, and the impossibility of telling his story, because in this case the words are more concrete than the facts, and a story is really only worth telling when words can’t exhaust its meaning. We are also free to imagine and attribute multiple, contradictory, and obscure objectives to that rather short, rather skinny, rather ungainly stranger who chose Tamoga as the stage for his performance. Now Mortes is nothing more than words and a vague image already beginning to fade in our memory…

As Mortes avails himself of the various services of the town – the bus, the hotel, the café, the club, the telephone office, the brothel – we learn about the residents. One-Armed Gomez, the bus conductor; Doña Milagro, abandoned wife, uncle’s heir, and innkeeper; Alcides, her godson; Prado, restauranteur; Barbosa, the barkeep; Señorita Serena, the telephone operator; Doña Maria, the lonely old woman who revels in her nightly anisette; and, finally, Cardona, the inspector, who investigates exactly what we’ve known he’d be inspecting from the first page.

The circumstances of Mortes’ visit to the town are as murky as the fog that envelops them all. He seems to have leapt from the train at the last second. His telephone conversation says one thing; the other party, when she arrives after it’s all over, says another. In some ways, this story is like a game of telephone, as history and tradition change each time the passes through another teller. I suspect the root purpose of the story, the first in the book, is not to tell us about Mortes, but to introduce the town. That it’s done with an intriguing mystery and character study is a bonus.

Being woefully ignorant of world literature (well, all literature, really, but especially that from outside the US), I’d never heard of Julian Ríos. From the Dzanc review I discovered that Ríos wrote Shadows in the 60s when Franco was in power, and put it aside as unpublishable due to the censorship of the time. He went on to make his name as a post-modernist with other novels, only returning to Tamoga recently. I’m glad he did.

Pushcart 2013: Seth Fried, “Animacula: A Young Scientist’s Guide to New Creatures” from Kenyon Review, Spring 2011

Lorna McIntosh: "Invisible Animacula"

Lorna McIntosh: “Invisible Animacula”

But if emotion is not a direct response to our state of being, then what function does it serve? This question that the prehalifite view perceived as being so crucial is, of course, ridiculous. It neglects the fact that the universe is a hairy, tangled mess filled with purposeless digressions, of which our entire emotional framework is most likely just one among the uncountable. At any rate, be wary of those who would attempt to judge things solely by their function. The world is not an implement.

I made some comments on this piece when I first encountered it in Fried’s story collection The Great Temptation last year. I was going to allow that to stand for its appearance in this Pushcart volume (the second story from that collection to be selected for the Pushcart), but on re-reading the story, I changed my mind: as one story in a collection, it got short shrift, with only brief mention a few of the individual organisms.


Yes, organisms. The story is comprised of a set of gently academic (i.e., no training required for readers) essays, some laying out foundations of science, and some detailing a set of microorganisms you’ve likely never heard of. Don’t feel bad; no one has. They don’t exist in our current scientific literature, or, for that matter, in our universe. But they exist in Seth Fried’s.

If this were just a clever fictional scientific report about fictional organisms, it’d be a thoroughly enjoyable novelty piece. What raises the level is this: Through the examination of these organisms, Fried mines down into our humanity. It’s not just what the critters are; it’s what we reveal about ourselves as we examine them, and how we react to that very revelation. We can learn a great deal from these organisms, about our sense of identity, our need to see a purpose to our existence; about our flawed perception and status-seeking tendencies; and about fear, hope, and self-destruction.

Sprinkled among these bio-graphs are a set of short essays on the nature of science as a whole. My favorite is “The Role of Creativity in Science” which begins with an engaging thought experiment (“If a stranger were to approach you with a box of crayons and ask you to draw a clown, how would you respond?”) and its application to the scientist, who, in spite of the image we all have of the bespectacled humorless drudge squinting at a bubbling beaker, is a highly creative individual. It takes great creativity to imagine that something, anything, from unexpected fogging on photographic film to the gunk that grew in a lab dish left in the sink during an August holiday, might be might be important.

And of course it takes a lot of creativity to come up with organisms that exemplify our most human characteristics. We can learn a lot from studying these organisms.

What surprised me on reading the story in the Pushcart anthology was the omission of certain sections that were in The Great Frustration. Some of these were my favorites – the beautiful dawson, the unobservable bartlett, the sonitum that thrives on sound, and the delicious bastrom which only becomes more delicious when it is eaten alive in a frightened state (and you know where it goes from there). Presumably, these were added for Fried’s collection and did not appear in the original Kenyon Review publication of this story. This leads to one conclusion: you simply must obtain a copy of The Great Frustration, if not for the bastrom, for last year‘s Pushcart-winning “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” which was the reason I bought the collection myself.

Some of my favorite creatures in this edition of the story:

The Eldrit

Once characteristics of a creature are fixed, it is given a role to fill as a result of those characteristics.

Identity: The eldrit changes. In fact, it’s impossible to describe, since between the scientist observing it in the microscope and writing down those observations, it’s already changed into something else. An intense investigation was undertaken to observe an eldrit continuously, assuming it would run out of permutations and reveal its true nature. That observation revealed no such true nature; or, more accurately, that its true nature is to change. All of which is fascinating, but leads to a larger question:

Why does it change? The example of a microorganism adapted to life in the lower intestine raises the question: if you find yourself in a shitty situation, why not change?

But the ability to change is not without sacrifice:

…the eldrit misses out on one of the most pleasing aspects of being a creature, which is, simply put, being a creature.
…Consider the gazelle. There is an unmistakable bravery in its implicit admission that, through being a gazelle, it is a gazelle…. it manages to take responsibility for what it is, while the eldrit can only change unconditionally, a slave to its wild, untouchable freedom.

The Kessel

Purpose: The kessel’s claim to fame is its brief life – one four-hundred-millionth of a second. That gives rise to all sorts of interesting observations about humanity:

In consideration of the kessel, human nature seems to be open to two conflicting criticisms. The first is that we see our average lifespan as being insufficient… despite the fact that we still find time enough to be bored and to wish for time to move faster. While the second criticism is that we see our average lifespan as sufficient and that the actions contained therein are significant. We flatter ourselves with the assumption that anything of importance can be accomplished in our seventy to eighty years when the earth has been around for billions of years and has been known to change dominant species as if they were hats.

But typically, one level of introspection is not enough for Fried, nor for his characters. The document also discusses the effect of the study of such creatures on the scientists conducting the study: “this air of arrogance and scorn…They are typically unkempt and wild-looking…these people are ready to conclude that everything we hold dear is futile and amounts to nothing.” Yet he doesn’t leave us there, either; the kessel has other qualities that are far more uplifting.

What I find striking about this section is the overt idea that birth, procreation, and death can exist simultaneously for the kessel – while the essayist allows for despair and hope in the same fashion, allowing form, content, and theme to merge into a single experience.

The Paglum

In other words, an impression reveals to us how much of reality can be discarded with reality still being successfully expressed. In the end, an impression is not a depiction of reality, but a seeing-through, a shutting-out of everything that is not essential.

Perception: Bobby McFerrin does a video in which he said of his bodily percussion, a precursor to contemporary beatboxing, that he gives the audience enough to continue in their own imagination; he sings the bass line a little, then switches to melody and the audience “hears” the bass line continuing (you can see this in practice in his spectacular audience-participation version of “I Can See Clearly Now“). Maybe he learned that from the paglum, an exceptional impressionist that never loses its own identity while evoking another. The consequences of this trick of perception may seem small, until you consider how we manage to see what we want to see so much of the time and base our behavior on that skewed perception.

The Perigite

Progress: This creature lives in space, in rings outside the Earth’s atmosphere. And again, Fried uses them to examine a very human reaction:

Just as we tend to look back with pity and condescension on all the creatures that are still bound to the ocean, we as a people began to understand that the next stage of life would look back in the same way on us, still bound to this floating palace of dirt….we feel usurped and irrelevant. Excluded, and jealous. Yet, we also cannot help but maintain that first touch of pride we experienced upon learning of life’s great journey out into the universe. Despite ourselves, we regard those far-off rings affectionately. We wish them well.

That last section makes a lovely close to the piece, sending us off into space and into the future with an optimistic vote of confidence in our ability to be, when it all comes down to it, human in the best possible sense of the word, in spite of the complexity that being human entails.

Pushcart 2013: Anthony Wallace, “The Old Priest” from The Republic of Letters

The Republic of Letters story art

The Republic of Letters story art

The old priest is a Jesuit, brainy and fey. He smokes Pall Malls fixed bayonet-style in an onyx and silver cigarette holder, and he crosses his legs at the knee. He tells stories as if he is being interviewed for a Public Television special on old priests. A small, guttural chuckle serves to launch one of his very interesting anecdotes: it’s a kind of punctuation that serves as transition, like a colon or dash. You bring your latest girl to see the old priest, you always bring your latest girl to see the old priest.

The good news: the story’s terrific, and it’s available online. The bad news: it’s surprisingly long for an online story – 12,000 words. And, oh, it’s in second person, both primary characters unnamed. To cap it off, the protagonist is, among other things, a writer. Given all those no-no’s, I’m surprised anyone anywhere ever published it, let alone that it ended up with a Pushcart prize, but that should tell you something: namely, it’s a damn fine story. And isn’t that always the point?

It’s a story about exactly what you think it’s about but it’s couched in the lifelong relationship between a wannabe-writer with no stories to tell, and a priest overflowing with stories – he once flamenco’d the night away in Spain, saw Ava Gardner at a bullfight. But it’s really at its heart about what we carry with us and how we finally lay it down: love in all its destructive glory.

It’s a story that’s difficult to discuss without spoiling it; the effect is in the reading. The structure is a spiral built around the protagonist’s friendship with the priest, his teacher in high school. The emotional ride, brought to a devastatingly perfect touch-down by the last paragraph, is spectacular, as the writer “circles the airport” throughout the story, getting closer with each pass but not landing until the final sentences.

Throughout the first half of the story, the priest tells his wild tales (come on, seeing Ava Gardner at a bullfight in Barcelona? That sounds like something borrowed from Hemingway) while the wannabe-writer bemoans his lack of life experience, the paucity of stories he has to tell. He eventually realizes he does, in fact, have stories to tell: the priest’s stories:

You call the book The Old Priest and you get an agent interested, and he gets a publisher interested. Priests old and otherwise are hot news that year because of the sex abuse scandal that is in all the headlines… It is written in the second person; it is “mannered, overstylized, derivative,” to quote one reviewer. As a writer you have some talent, most people seem to agree, but you also have an odd quirk that has proven a fairly severe limitation: you are only truly comfortable writing in the second person.
In fact, you wanted to change the title of your book to The Second Person, but the publisher didn’t want to do it and the book went out into the world as The Old Priest. “Old priests are what sells,” the editor told you, “not witty references to grammar books and Graham Greene. Let your character be the sap and you be the smart one.” He was smart, that editor, but he missed the reference to Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Also perhaps the second person as the conscience or moral self, now that you think of it. All the same, you liked that: “Grammar Books and Graham Greene” should really be the title of something, though nothing you will ever write.

Being a bit of a second-person fan, of course I loved this. But the theological reference, not to mention Graham Greene, are just for show: second person is necessary to distance the wannabe-writer from himself. It’s explicitly stated in that explanation about second person as moral self. I’m also reminded of Marko Fong’s term for this use of second person: “alienated first person.” I’m especially fond of this term applied to this story because the wannabe has all the experience he needs. But he can’t face his own experience, he’s still trying to process it throughout his life, so he keeps circling the airport.

I wasn’t optimistic when I started this story, seeing as I haven’t had a lot of luck with stories featuring priests; but within a page, I was hooked, and stayed there. Part of that is the ramping of tension throughout: did he, or didn’t he? I also found some great scene work: priest and writer getting stoned on magic mushrooms with the priest hallucinatorially turning into a goat-man in a section that reminds me of the Bolaño story I just read; it’s great imagery with amazing symbolism built in, and just the right touch of bizarre ambiguity.

In another great scene, the protagonist recollects the role of priests in his family:

At a certain time of the year the parish priest came to bless the house. You remember your grandmother kneeling down in the cramped living room, her head bowed, the priest intoning the words and sending sprinklets of holy water flying from a small, occult-looking bottle drawn from his inside pocket. You like to remember his black suit, his black hat with its short brim, his small black cigar balanced nimbly on the railing just beyond the open doorway. The priest reeking of cigar smoke and spewing holy water on the dated furniture. Your grandmother kneeling on the spinach-colored carpet, kerchiefed head bowed low. Years later this memory or set of memories was triggered by the climactic scene in The Exorcist: the two priests standing in the room with the possessed girl, throwing holy water and chanting, “The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!”

Again, the subtext of that in the context of the story is spectacular.

I’m very fond of the telescoping of levels of story – the writer in the second-person story writing the second-person book that is the story, or part of it at least, and even extending into reality: the writer of the story shares a few autobiographical traits with the protagonist: he was a casino dealer and is now a university professor, and based the old priest on “an influential Jesuit he met in his schooling.” And come on, though I rather dismissed it just a couple of paragraphs ago, the Graham Greene reference and theological nature of “The Second Person” is very clever, yet it fits in completely naturally, without that tacked-on feeling of a writer out to prove how clever he is. Incidental cleverness, organic to the story. And finally, at the very end, all the cleverness breaks down into honesty. No wonder a 12,000-word online story in second person about a writer won a Pushcart.

I guess my bad-luck streak with priest stories is officially broken.

Poetry: Pushcart XXXVII (2013)

Wordart by Marta Pelrine-Bacon

Wordart by Marta Pelrine-Bacon

Last year when I posted about the Pushcart poetry, I admitted I was scared of poetry. I still am. But maybe a little less scared.

This September I’ll be taking a (free!) poetry class from the University of Pennsylvania via Coursera on Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, a course that promises to teach me ” how to read poems that are supposedly ‘difficult.'” I considered waiting until after the course to do this post, but that would push things to next year, and that’s just not a good idea. And it isn’t like I’ve never taken a poetry class before. But learning the basics of meter and how to recognize a sonnet aren’t skills that I find particularly useful when I’m confronted by a poem.

So I just read, and react. I’m always surprised at how accessible the Pushcart poems are; a couple of them went over my head, and I’m sure I could’ve gleaned a great deal more, particularly in terms of techniques used. But each of these poems was an aesthetic and emotional experience for me. I hope someday poetry can also be more of an intellectual experience, and I’ll be able to better articulate exactly how the poet creates that experience.

I’ve divided the poetry into three categories: first, those that include commentary, in-line or by link, from people who know what they’re talking about. Second, poems that are available online; I did my best to provide some semblance of comment for these. And third, the ones that aren’t online; I’ve included a few lines and some general notes.

Poems I had help with:

Adam Zagajewski: “I Look at a Photograph” from Tin House, Spring 2011 translated by Clare Cavanagh (available online; scroll halfway down the page)

I gaze at the photograph, I can’t tear my eyes away,
and suddenly I imagine that they’re all still alive
as if nothing had happened, they still scurry to lectures,
wait for trains, take sky-blue trams,
check calendars with alarm, step on scales,
listen to Verdi’s arias and their favorite operetta,
read newspapers that are still white,
live in haste, in fear, are always late,
are a bit immortal, but don’t know it,

I’m very lucky to find myself in e-contact with writer Naomi Williams through our blogs, so when I noticed she, as a former Pushcart winner, had nominated this piece, I thought I’d ask her to speak to it, to share what it was that struck her about the poem. She generously agreed; here are her comments:

First–and I’m assuming this is carried over from the original Polish, but I don’t really know–the entire poem is one long sentence. The way he’s able to pile on clause after clause, moving from the photo to his memories to his imagination and back, in the end, to himself, sustaining that tension all the while — it’s just mesmerizing. Mesmerizing to the reader the way, it seems, looking at the photo is to the speaker.

I also love the use of tense in this poem. The photo captures a moment in the past, and the speaker acknowledges that “freezing” in time by using present tense throughout. Or maybe he is himself caught in that moment — suggested by his admission that he “can’t tear” his eyes away from the picture. Even before he tells us outright that, “suddenly I imagine that they’re all still alive,” he’s already given himself away in the previous line when he describes, in that sort-of “eternal” present tense, the “Orthodox churches,/where on Sundays the basses sing so mightily…” The Orthodox churches that, for all we know, are no longer standing at all.

It’s one thing, of course, to imagine that people one once knew are still, in some alternate, photographic universe still living the lives they were living when the photo was taken. But Zagajewski maintains present tense even when he refers, late in the poem, to actual, datable events like the invasion of the NKVD — events that are obviously not depicted in the photograph & most likely occurred later.

I’m also just taken by the way his images and references aggregate & mix up the universal and the personal, the general and the specific, the historical with the timeless. You’ve got the more-or-less general “they” who are all “still alive,” scurrying to lectures, waiting for trains, etc., who give way to specific individuals–his grandmother with her cake, his cousin about to catch pneumonia–who in turn give way to, or are perhaps swept away by–the generic depradations of “pogroms, uprisings, deportations” and then the specific ones (Wehrmacht, NKVD), before returning to a more general “they,” which then becomes “me”–“me,” the speaker, but by then, of course, “me” the reader as well.

The poem is, as you say, a sad memoir, but it also places us all, in this way that I find simultaneously chilling & reassuring, in the position of those (“they”) who go on with their lives as if nothing will ever change but who are always on the cusp of disaster, always too late to save ourselves from history, & always too busy with our “so much to do” to remain other than in ignorance of that inevitability.

Thanks, again, Naomi, that’s so much more specific than my typical poetry comments. I was struck by the religious imagery in the beginning – the basses in the Catholic and Orthodox church choirs singing so loudly the community could hear – which gave way, both in the poem and historically, to the Wehrmacht and then the NKVD.

Patricia Smith: “Laugh Your Trouble Away” from Sugar House Review, Fall/Winter 2011

                       You pout, he pulls,
and, not for the first tune, you wonder what he hides.

For me, the power of this poem was in the slow dawning of exactly what’s happening. It highlighted in a concrete way how race matters; always, every day, race matters. Sometimes, no matter how enlightened or liberal we are, we forget that. As I started reading, I had pleasant memories of all the carnivals and midways of my past, only to be brought up hard against what kinds of memories others might have. This is one of my favorites, because it taught me more than poetry, and that’s exactly what poetry, what all art, should do.

Mary Szybist: “On a Spring Day in Baltimore the Art Teacher Asks the Class to Draw Flowers” from The Kenyon Review, Fall 2011

What should be remembered, what

The Associate Editor of The Kenyon Review explains “Why We Chose It” as part of a trio of Szybist poems about annunciation. By itself, I don’t see annunciation, but it’s devastating, nonetheless. The juxtaposition of art and abuse; the use of memory, to remember what can’t be forgotten but also can’t be borne. No matter how much I read, I’m still astounded so much can be wrung out of words.

Diane Seuss: “Everything is Sexual or Nothing Is, Take this Flock of Poppies” from Blackbird, Fall 2011 available online)

                       …Either the whole world is New
Orleans at 3 a.m. and a saxophone like a drill bit or it’s all clinical
          sunlight and sad elementary school architecture, circa 1962…

I’m going to just enjoy the delightful read and leave the commentary on this to Ken of Great Writers Steal, where you’ll find, as I did, that the poem teaches structure before spiraling off from the concrete to the abstract. Not to mention potential and kinetic energy.

Elizabeth Powell: “Match.Com/Matthew Likes Buttered Toast, Vulnerability…” from New Ohio Review Spring 2011

We are invented, in part,
By the wanting and not having
Of others….

By now, you should be realizing that Great Writers Steal is a far better place for poetical analysis than this is. But what I contribute is the view of someone who doesn’t quite get poetry, and this poem worked for me because I got it immediately: the crazy idea of meeting someone we will love online, the dream that the people we meet online will be people like us, and not people like Matthew. And the loneliness that’s behind it all.

Jill McDonough: “Preface” from Harvard Review Online #6 (available online)

Hand and foot, from head to toe, the body we know
like the back of our hands, we say, patting our palms
since we don’t know back from front

Reproduction, and how we make sense (or nonsense) of it. And guess who has a terrific take on the use of italics for dialogue.

Rasheda White: “A Shadow Beehive” from Ecotone, Fall 2011 (available online)

                       I hear my mother
in the kitchen drying out the darkness.

In the Fall 2011 issue of Ecotone, John Rybicki included a set of poems by children, including this one by fourth-grader Rasheda White, saying: “Children see the magic and possibility that reside in all things.…Lift these pages to your eyes and read, and if the urge strikes you, drop to your knees.” The imagery is delicious.

Poems available online:

Sommer Browning: “It Isn’t Dead, Just Different” from Spork, (text)

At night the Turnpike is lit like a wet snake.
No matter which way you travel, you’re heading
for the fangs.

A brush with death, and chicken sandwiches on the New Jersey turnpike. The anthology has omitted a few things – dialogue tags, italics – from the original. I’m not sure it’s an improvement. Then again, I’m not sure I could tell this was a prize-winning poem in a game of “emo or poetry?”

Alicia Ostriker: “April” from Poetry, February 2012 (available online)

What a concerto
of good stinks said the dog
trotting along Riverside Drive
in the early spring afternoon

More juxtaposition: this is the third stanza. Whether it’s a rising arc, a downward spiral, or a level playing field, the reader gets to decide.

Elton Glaser: “Do the Do” from Southern Poetry Review 48:2 (available online)

It’s all jism and jungle, late love and cheroots,
Sweat equity on the dance floor.
Somebody lies about his rusty heart. Somebody don’t.

I can hear the music as I read this, I can smell the room. I like how the focus moves around the room before zeroing in on the band, each member in turn.

Matt Mason: “Notes for my Daughter Against Chasing Storms” from Nebraska Poets Calendar ( video available online)

Tornadoes swing through like a kid
playing hopscotch…

Oh, you must see him read this poem; it takes a turn I sure wasn’t expecting, but it turned out to be one of those “oh, of course!” surprised-yet- inevitable turns. There’s a school of thought that literature must be kept context-free, but I disagree, particularly on this poem: my reading from the printed page had a melancholy, tragic feel; had the poet been a woman, I think this would’ve been correct, but his more ebullient, mocking read makes perfect sense as well. How interesting, the difference between my read off the page and his from the lecturn. I learned something from this one: try reading in multiple ways to get a view of the poem from different angles.

Jane Hirshfield: “In A Kitchen Where Mushrooms Were Washed” from Ploughshares, Fall 2011 (available online)

As a person who’s once loved completely,
a country once conquered,
does not release that stunned knowledge.

I love the story of this poem: a friend asked Hirshfield for “poems for a mushroom/fungi anthology” but as she had no mushroom poems, she wrote the introduction instead (“Poems, like mushrooms, demand our close attention before they can be found or seen at all”). The idea of a mushroom poem lingered, and she ended up writing two, including this one. I’m not sure I quite grasp the poem as a whole beyond the lingering-scent imagery, which is lovely, but I’m fascinated by the above lines.

Alan Michael Parker: “A Fable For Our Anniversary” from Subtropics, Spring/Summer 2011 (available online)

It was one of those dawns that didn’t
and then was. The crows were calling
in their office across the street,

all that old business of the soul and such,
but don’t you worry, I wasn’t scared.
And now I have a goat:

Think Mockingbird – though you can’t tell from the stanzas here. I loved reading this, yet once again, I have no idea why in objective terms it’s a great poem, other than recognizing the combination of a hint of threat (the last bag of rice, the crows) and fanciful magic.

Ted Kooser, “Lantern” from The Kenyon Review, Fall 2011 (available online)

In the predawn cold and darkness,
it was only a pinch of light,
not more than a cup of warmth,
as a farmer carried it over the snow
to the barn where his dozen cows
stood stomping, heavy with milk
in the milky cloud of their lowing.

Everything leaves something behind, and sometimes that something can generate more than you ever dreamed possible. At least when in the hands of the 13th U.S. Poet Laureate.

Marianne Boruch: “The Art of Poetry” from Pilot Light, September 2011 (available online)

isn’t sleep. Isn’t the clock’s steady
one and one and one though seconds eventually make
an hour. And morning passes
into a thing it might not recognize by afternoon.

This is the kind of poetry I feared Pushcart would be full of before I started reading it: beautiful images, but damned if I know what she’s talking about.

Fred Moramarco: “Elegy for Kenneth Koch” from Poetry International #17 (available online)

It seems too crazy, like one of your mad, funny poems,
that you’re not with us anymore, not here to point out
the thisness of things, like mountains, circuses, and fresh air.
You were always the court jester of poets,
topping pretension from its granite and marble heights.

Even a poetic Philistine such as I can appreciate a student’s life-long respect for a teacher. Moramarco passed away himself in February, and the poem was republished as a memoriam.

Laura Rodley: “Resurrection” from The New Verse News (available online)

Carry this, they ask,
carry this load of bamboo
tied with rope upon my back
take this load to my mother,
tell her I got lost upon the way
and now in deep waters of the ocean
I have not forgotten.

A lovely elegy for the spirits of those lost to the tsunami. It starts off with some measure of futility – irony of the closing-the-barn-door variety – then turns exquisitely, heartbreakingly personal.

Reginald Dwayne Betts, “What We Know of Horses” from River Styx May 2011 (audio and print available online)

… Call this place a horsecollar, a way to redefine a world,
& watch how it cuts into skin, how the leather embraces
all of our necks. Even as a visitor behind plate glass I brace
myself for cuffs.

This is overwhelmingly powerful, but controlled; a look at prison through the man whose brother is incarcerated. The horse metaphor comes from Psalm 20: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses.” The poem uses dual word meanings – “horse” meaning heroin, “cuff” as shackles and a slap – to take self-aware self-destruction as a partner and dance.

Michael Waters: “Beloved” from Gospel Night (available online if you’re very careful)

She scours shelves for American novels –
Overhead bulbs fizzled out years ago –
Then finds the harrowing tale of a slave
That makes her bulb seem to surge with power
Hour after hour in the old cubicle.

It’s a gorgeous poem, a love song to books and that was before I found the author’s commentary. His wife lived in Romania under Ceauşescu, and at 16, she carried own light bulb to the library to read: Ethan Frome, Toni Morrison, whom she met ten years later. Another remarkable poem.

Toon Tellegen: “A Man Found An Angel” from The Manhattan Review Fall/Winter 2011/2012

A man found an angel, in some out of the way place,
let’s fight, said the man,
good, said the angel

I adore this little parable. Maybe we’ve all been thrown into the abyss, victims of our own hubris, and we don’t even have the awareness to realize it. The poem was translated from the Dutch by Judith Wilkinson; I’m always surprised when poetry translated can work like this. The translator must become a bilingual poet.

Adrian Blevins: “Tally” from The Georgia Review, Fall 2011 (available online)

The babies smelled like mixed-up milk and cotton dragged
through a little wax, but not like sugar or any amount

of caramel. …

Now, see, just when I think I’ve got the hang of it, something comes along that stumps me. I’m pretty sure this is painfully grim. I just don’t know the specifics. Then again, are the specifics necessary?

Deborah Brown: “Walking the Dog’s Shadow” (available online)

It’s best to let grief enter you like this,
alone with your own black dog,
a drag on anyone’s leash”

Wonderful metaphors, and a touch of word play – “shows you how well it heels” – make this special. To think of grief as a pet makes it more manageable, gives you a new avenue of approach.

G. C. Wadrep: “Internal Monument” from Michigan Quarterly Review (available online)

A man was sad—for himself, maybe for someone else, maybe he had lost something, or someone—so he hired some workmen to erect a monument.

A charming little fable. I think it’s about ego props, and the false directions we take all the time. I would think the monuments inside ourselves would be the ones that matter, but apparently they don’t help much. Which leaves the stars, if we could only raise our eyes and look up.

And the rest:

Matt Hart: “Beyond and Beyonder” from Smartish Pace #19

                                                  …When they listen
to our music, when they open our books, remember
our wars and treaties and image, will they find there
a lightness or an absence where we fluttered?…

We all need to remember that we will be judged, just as we judge those who went before us. It’s a lovely poem, but I’m afraid it’s in that category of “teenager or master?” for me – I like it, I just don’t know enough about poetry to understand why it’s a great poem.

Christine Gelineau: “Socanasett” from Paterson Literary Review, 2010

When the clothes went missing
from a neighbor’s line we understood the boys
were not cold, or suddenly shy but
crafty, looking to blend back in
with those of us who didn’t yet now what they knew:
the true worth of one’s own skin
and what it can cost to own it.

I was gliding along, thinking of the time I lived near a youth detention center – then the last two lines stopped me dead. This is how you sneak up on a reader with an interpretation that changes everything.

Cristian Flores Garcia: “Lucky One” from American Poetry Review, Sept/Oct 2011

We wait. We sit. We hold hand, sister and I. He asks
which one is the lucky one?

Lucky is a relative term when you and your sister are crossing the border in the trunk of an ’86 Ford Grenada to get to your parents. The poem itself mimics the girls’ experience: the tight constriction, the flash of light, the relief at the end – but you, and they, know it isn’t over.

Davis McCombs: “First Hard Freeze” from Indiana Review, Summer 2011

… and whatever it is
that will unmask the girl who masks the old
woman who is turning the tap comes crawling
up from timber on a night like this…

I think this is about fear of death, but I’m guessing.

Diane Wakoski: “Oysters with Lemon in Montmartre” from Fifth Wednesday, spring 2011

In any mirror, you always face the loss
of memory; mirrors retain
nothing of what they have seen.

I like the balance of accessibility and fancy here. A woman finds a random scrap of paper with those title words written on them, and they take her back to another time. Part memoir, part rumination on memory itself, all revolving around oysters and a summer in Brittany long ago.

James Richardson: “Vectors 3.1: Aphorism and Ten Second Essays” from Hotel Amerika, Spring 2011

The self does not exist. But just try to change it.

I think this is cheating. Yes, they’re very clever aphorisms, all worth reading. But… is there a unifying principle here? Maybe it’s just over my head, in which case, it’s brilliant. At least more brilliant than I.

Bruce Bennett: “The Thing’s Impossible” from Ploughshares, Fall 2011

Don’t write a villanelle to tell a tale:
they’re not the form for narrative or plot.
It’s pretty obvious why you will fail.

Guaranteed to make you smile. Beside the limerick (if a limerick can be considered poetry), the villanelle is the only form of poetry I instantly recognize, and, thanks to Plath, Thomas, and Auden, love. It takes a twisted mind to invent such a form, but it has the sing-song effect that’s counterbalanced by the often melancholy content. Bennett starts off with a quote from The Making of a Poem in which “the absence of narrative possibility” is asserted, then goes on to tell a story via villanelle. Just the act itself is poetry.

I’d hoped to have this post ready for National Poetry Month, but life intervened. That’s ok, I’m the sort of person who reads two short story collections in Poetry Month and does poetry in Short Story Month. The line blurs sometimes, anyway.

Poetry was more fun, and less scary, than last year. I’m even looking forward to next year already.

Pushcart 2013: Jeanne Shoemaker, “Sonny Criss” from The Iowa Review, Fall 2011

Photo by Carol Walker, WildHoofbeats

Photo by Carol Walker, WildHoofbeats

Sonny Criss was named after his father, William Henry Criss, called Sonny for the obvious reasons, and lived with his mother, Delpha Mae Criss, and his father on a fifty-thousand-acre spread halfway between Chugwater and Wheatland, Wyoming. His best friends were his horse, Spider, a 15.3-hand chestnut quarter horse, and his blue heeler dog, Red.

Once upon a time there was a college student. She was in a class on “Forms & Techniques of the Short Story” and had to write a 3,000 word essay, but she didn’t really want to write an essay, and she’d heard a former student had wrangled his way out of the essay by writing a short story, so she wrote a 10,000-word short story instead of the 3,000 word essay. She’d never written a short story before, but hey, she was taking a Short Story class and she’d read a lot of short stories, and what better way to show she’d learned something than to actually produce the form the class was supposed to be teaching. But the professor said, “No.” The woman was very persistent and said, “What about if you give me 70% of the grade for this story – which is, by the way, 10,000 words, longer than the assignment requires, and shows an example of a western, which is one of the essay topics – and 30% for the essay which I’ll write anyway?” The professor said, “No.” But she didn’t give up, and she finally wore him down: he agreed to give her 50% credit for the story and 50% for the essay which turned out to be terrible, but the short story was good enough not only to get through the class but to get her a Fellowship in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop a few years later.

But even though that’s a happy ending, there’s more to this little fairy tale. This was a very persistent woman, and here she’d written this story based on her grandmother and grandfather on the Wyoming ranch where she’d grown up – “a world that doesn’t exist any more” – so it meant a lot to her, and since the story was good enough to get her into the best creative writing program in the country, she sent it out to some literary magazines. They all said “No.” She sent it to a few more, and they said “No,” too. She sent it to more, and more, and more, until finally, after forty “no”s, The Iowa Review said “Yes.”

Now that’s another happy ending, but in fairy tales, things happen in threes, so there’s still more. The Iowa Review nominated the story for a Pushcart Prize and – you guessed it, it won and ended up in the 2013 Pushcart Prize anthology. And that’s how the woman who just wanted to get out of writing a boring essay (and who refused to listen to the word “no”) turned her first short story into a Pushcart Prize, because “We can all be tricked by cleverness and other conceits. Writing with an open heart is hard to do. I wrote this story with an open heart.”

That woman’s name was, of course, Jeanne Shoemaker, and this is a true fairy tale.

Pushcart (and BASS and PEN/O.Henry) makes a good effort to include a variety of voices, including those rural and western. It would be easy to focus on urban/suburban fiction, using the occasional exotic drama of overseas settings to stir things up. It’s harder to include a story most will see as old-fashioned: a lot of exposition. A portrait of a specific family in a setting that, yes, doesn’t exist any more, that may never have existed for most readers.

But that doesn’t mean these voices, these stories, aren’t important. Stories like “Mr. Tall” or “Two Midnights in a Jug” from XXXV, like “That Story” from XXXVI and even “Nothing Living Lives Alone” (which I hated when I read it in BASS) from this volume. They form our history, our culture. They may not be the dominant thread in literature, and I may not even enjoy some of these stories, I may even make some snotty comments about not understanding why they’re prize-winning material and I may even consider them my least-favorite stories in the volume, but they still matter as much as the voice of the post-modernist or the story about the hipster or the exotic overseas locale or the urban academic or the alienated suburbanites embroiled in a hostile marriage.

This particular story is not an easy story to quote; Shoemaker wrote a saga, not sound bites. You have to follow Sonny through his diabetic coma to get the full impact from a passage like this:

Sonny couldn’t shake the feeling that everything he was accustomed to and took for granted was now tentative and flimsy. Though he had always been a good son, he was kinder to his mother and more patient with his father. He patted his horse and dog more.

You have to see that lead into the care he takes with Red after a rattler bite, the scene in the vet’s office, to know these people.

You have to see how they treat their cows, know about Mom getting older and having trouble doing all the milking, the need to sell those cows, before you can appreciate Will’s comment “Pruitt doesn’t know a thing about dairy cows, didn’t even ask their names,” you have to read the whole scene about the selling of those cows, and the whole story for that matter, before you really get something like:

Bosie and Queenie, the cows that weren’t leaving, wouldn’t get out of the way, wouldn’t let Pruitt separate them. Bosie was Queenie’s daughter, her firstborn, and the two ran the herd. They made cow decisions: where to graze, when to lie down, when to get up.

You can write papers about the symbolism there, but only if you read the whole story, this story about a guy who lives on a ranch with his mother and father, who sees the ranch under assault not from marauding bands of hooligans or space aliens but from the 21st century. A family of people who work hard every day until they drop in their tracks, about neighbors who care about each other, about people who are in a daily working partnership with animals and nature, about losing a way of life a little at a time, but hanging on to it with both hands until there are no more hands to hold on with.

If they were a primitive Amazonian tribe facing extinction, anthropologists would be writing them up. But they’re not, they’re us, the us that we don’t think about very much, so it’s up to Jeanne Shoemaker (and Tony Earley and Wendell Berry and Jack Driscoll and Marc Watkins) to write it down so we’ll remember who we are. Thanks, folks.

Pushcart 2013: Sue Allison, “Made to Measure” (non-ficton) from The Antioch Review

Measuring Tape Art from lofiles.org

Measuring Tape Art from lofiles.org

What do we measure? Everything. We measure IQ, we measure earthquakes, we measure wind chill, wrenches, wire gauge, tornadoes, comas, grit, type; we measure the brightness of lunar eclipses; the hardness of pencils, of gypsum, of talc. We measure the brain activity of meditating monks (very high). We measure brain size.… We measure shoelaces: a shoe with four pairs of holes takes a sixty-centimeter-long lace. We measure consumer satisfaction, carbon emissions, the rate at which the permafrost is melting. We measure justice. Themis carries a scale to make this point: justice is not some abstract value; it is something we measure. We measure what matters to us; once measured, it matters more.

This is my favorite kind of material: a combination of gentle science and story.

Allison sandwiches a great deal of entertaining and thought-provoking information in between the bookends of a related personal experience: during a period when her wristwatch was broken, she somehow always knew what time it was. “It was as if I had acquired a sixth sense.… The physics of being in time felt less like science and more like dancing.”

From there, she discusses many varieties and methods of measuring, and, most specifically, the language of measurement. I’m not sure I always agree with her; I’m not even sure she always agrees with herself. But it’s a delight to read.

The beauty of words is that they are unstable – they change, they stretch, they have various and multiple meanings – but the beauty of numbers is that they are not. The move to metric measurement has meant a move from words – jigger, apostle, nip – and their maddening refusal to remain fixed as if to remain constant is death itself, which, it turns out, it is – to numbers.

Having just completed a math course where the astonishing relationship between numbers was a core part, I’m not signing on to this notion that words are wonderful and numbers are boring and stagnant. Yes, the metric system is very, well, systematic. Isn’t that a form of beauty? Isn’t it quite remarkable that there is a form of measurement that makes it possible to go from the incredibly small to the unimaginably large by just moving a decimal point? That speed and mass and force can all be related simply by choosing the right measuring system?

Allison is a little easier on physicists:

Physicists, it seems, like to name their discoveries with their human, not their scientific, natures. Reflecting the need to ground themselves in the real words, rather than abstract numbers, they talk in barns (1.0 x 10 to the minus twenty-eight meters squared) and sheds (1.0 x 10 to the minus 24 barns) and outhouses (do you really want to know?), and shakes, the time it takes a lamb to shake its tail, which nuclear engineers have given as the name for ten nanoseconds. And it is how we got Clark for the most fundamental particles of the universe and the “flavors” they come in: up, down, charm, strange, up, and bottom. Someone’s going to have to straighten this out all over again someday.

It’s in the discussion of the nature of measurement itself that the essay becomes the most intriguing. Why do we have this compulsion to measure? We measure shoes and houses and amounts of grain for practical reasons, but why, in the fifth century BCE did the “first historian” Herodotus include the thickness and height of the walls of Babylon? Or, two hundred years later, did Aristarchus of Samos wonder how far away the moon might be, and set out to determine the measurement (and remarkably accurately)? “It starts with wonder.” And that might be the most human trait of all.

Her more modern associations interested me as well. I was already familiar with the infinite coastline, but she made an additional connection that now fascinates me:

The more precise our measuring becomes, the more the theories sound otherwise: the theories of Relativity, of Incompleteness, of Indeterminacy, of Uncertainty, and now, of Chaos are the great breakthroughs of the 20th century.

This is perhaps the natural offshoot of the infinite coastling: as we know and measure more and more, what we don’t know becomes more crucial, to the point where we need to measure what we can’t measure. Of course the vocabulary shifts.

I’m more interested than ever in the relationship between words and numbers, thanks to my recent mathematical experiences (the timing of this essay is pure coincidence; funny how I say that over and over again). Didn’t numbers exist before organisms capable of language existed? Sure they did. But is it possible to harness those numbers without language? Can a bacterium add? Of course not; but it can divide. And don’t forget: even a pine cone knows the Fibonacci series.

Whether one is crossing the tundra in caribou skins or pounding the pavement in four-inch heels, to measure is to make a personal connection to the perceived world.… To measure is to make a connection. To do it without a net is thrilling.

I haven’t worn a watch in years. I just never called it dancing before.

Pushcart 2013: Shannon Cain, “Juniper Beach” from Colorado Review, Spring 2011

Charlie works as an auto travel counselor in the Cranston, Rhode Island, branch of the American Automobile Association. Mostly her job involves the assembly of TripTiks. Charlie’s parents are newly dead, their car having run off the road three weeks ago outside Tucson, Arizona. Upon her return to work after their funeral, she began creating TripTiks that send Triple A members to destinations different from those they’d asked for.

Remember TripTiks? I didn’t know Triple A still made them. TripTiks are an assemblage of maps held together by a spiral binding at the top, each of a small stretch of space that when collated by someone like Charlie, provide a single route of travel from Point A to Point B, complete with known construction delays, speed traps, and rush-hour re-routes. Pre-GPS GPS. And, as Charlie knows, “[a] good map tells you where you are, where you’re going, and where you’ve been.”

Over the course of this story, Charlie uses a TripTik to find out those exact things about herself.

In the wake of her family tragedy, she’s been having trouble in a number of areas. At work, for instance. When the Leaf Family requests a TripTik to Disney World, she sends them instead to Jupiter Beach:

If Ruth and Geoffrey Leaf carry out their plans, the Leaf children will not, during this vacation, run squealing into the waves of the great and friendly Atlantic. They will not bite into tuna sandwiches gritty with sand. They will not squint into the clear sky and engage in thrilling speculation about Gulf Coast hurricanes.

The details of how completely and ingeniously she plans this re-routing are completely captivating. Charlie’s one smart cookie. Though I suppose I should give full credit to Cain, who, in her interview with Colorado Review, admits she used to work for Triple A preparing TripTiks. I wonder if any of her customers ended up somewhere they didn’t expect.

Work isn’t the only area of Charlie’s life that’s in bad shape. Her six-year relationship with girlfriend Heather seems “headed for dissolution” though Heather’s unaware of it, or unwilling to face it. Since the tragedy, Heather’s been immensely supportive, in fact. And it’s driving Charlie crazy.

“You’re in shock,” Heather says. “Don’t make any big decisions right now.” She pushes Charlie’s bangs offer for head. Which is an annoyance, given that her four head is the area over which Charlie has configured her bangs to fall.

Whatever interesting edginess that existed in Heather’s personality has disappeared. She has become gentle and kind and philosophical. She offers resources.

That detail about the bangs made me smile; I felt a real bond with Charlie. So many people in my life have felt it was their duty to rearrange my hair, my clothing, my furniture, my life, to suit their tastes, unaware that things might not be the way they are by accident, that they might, in fact, be precisely as I wish them to be.

Charlie buys an RV and heads off to look for America. But it’s not about Heather; she’s just collateral damage. It’s about Dad.

Charlie’s got two images of her father. One is from childhood, and may have influenced her career choice:

Her father took them to every state in the Union connected by asphalt. He exceeded the speed limit, care not a whit about seatbelts, drove under the influence of fatigue and bickering children and sips of whiskey from a silver flask nestled between his legs. He showed the miracle after miracle.

Sounds pretty idyllic, except for the whiskey. Which is a big exception. Charlie has memories of the whiskey, too, from later in her childhood. And now, most recently, she has the image from the accident that took her parents’ lives when her father, drunk, on another road trip with Mom, ran off the road “into a two-hundred-year-old giant saguaro cactus, top-heavy with six tons of monsoon-season moisture. It collapsed onto their car, crushing it. It would be nice if the circumstances of her parents’ death didn’t remind her of a scene from a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.”

Armed with her newly-purchased RV and a file of bizarre accident clippings – the Montana twins whose mother drove the ambulance that responded to their rollover; the family in Yellowstone wiped out by a bus of tourists; the bizarre coincidence of falling ice and a logging truck in Alaska – Charlie travels the country, trying to reconcile the divided images, the anger playing against the grief. Trying to forgive. To heal.

It’s powerful stuff, yet it’s told in such a restrained way, with such detail, there’s not an ounce of sappiness. The ending works perfectly, bringing her full circle, though perhaps not in the most obvious way.

Pushcart 2013: Jaquira Díaz, “Section 8” from The Southern Review, Winter 2011

Ed Smith: "Raft"

Ed Smith: “Raft”

The same summer the Magic City Strangler started cruising South Beach men’s rooms, before the Section 8 projects were dismantled and we were all forced out, I did my last stint in juvie. I was sixteen, and I went in pretending I owned the place, bragging to all the younger girls that it wasn’t my first time.

So much is going on in the background of this story, yet the focus is always on a sixteen-year-old trying to negotiate a path through adolescence. There’s a very subtle hand at work, and a lot of mastery of tone and nuance.

Section 8 housing, the Strangler, and a killer who hasn’t left enough burned female corpses behind to earn a nickname yet – this is the background of Nena’s life. This is where Nena just spent an extra month in Juvie because her mother couldn’t be bothered to pick her up.

But it’s more than just background or setting. It adds a bass line thrum of threat throughout, sure, but, as the last sentence of the story makes clear, it’s also an intrinsic part of the story: Nena’s relationship with her homegirl Boogie.

Maybe it was the way we were raised, the way we were programmed to think of two men, or two women, as simply wrong. Maybe we were excited by the wrongness of it. Or by the danger. Either way, it didn’t matter. I thought of the possibility of losing her, Boogie up in Jersey without me, lying like this in someone else’s bed. And so I kissed her.

With marriage equality surging (finally!) all around us, it’s sobering to remember there are still places where being tagged “gay” can get you sprayed with bleach. Or worse.

This relationship goes through several twists and turns as Nena feels a tug-of-war between her long friendship with Boogie, and the fear of the difference between what one moment might have meant to her, and to Boogie. Diaz executes each change in Nena’s relationship with Boogie with a delicacy that can only be appreciated by reading the story.

Complicating all that is the arrival of a new kid on the block, Junito, who brings out a powerful protectiveness in Nena when he shows a reluctance to discuss his mother’s incarceration: “I wanted to tell him that I understood, but I kept my mouth shut. I hated when people thought they knew what I was going through.” Look at the layers there – she doesn’t want to tell him she knows how he feels because she knows how he feels about that.

Maybe because Diaz isn’t that far removed from teenagerdom herself, the kids are perfectly observed throughout, oscillating between bravado and panic, stupidity and wisdom, cruelty and gentleness without missing a beat. The events swell and recede, and the most important moments happen in near-silence, like prayers:

“Am I sleeping over?” she asked, changing the subject. Before I got locked up, she slept over all the time when her mom worked the graveyard shift.
“Don’t know,” I said. “Are you?”
“If you want me to,” she said.
It had been nothing, but we were still dancing around it. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I took her hand, and we sat there for a while, our fingers interlaced.
“I want you to, ” I said finally.

I love the writerly choices Diaz makes, the way she focuses our attention at various moments. The final climactic event is itself a crash of cymbals, yet the heart of it all lies, again, in that which is not explicitly narrated, but powerfully conveyed nonetheless. And yet, I found it a difficult story to write about: it’s like trying to capture a cloud and hang it on the wall.

Pushcart 2013: Jennifer Percy, “Azeroth” (Non-fiction) from AGNI #74, 2011

Photo by Velija Hasanbegovic

Photo by Velija Hasanbegovic

He wrote a book, a novel. I read most of it, or I tried. It is about a boy forced to leave Višegrad because of the war. He told me he didn’t like it when people asked what was true and what wasn’t. And he especially didn’t like it when I asked. For three years, I felt I only knew about him – his childhood, his parents, his interests, his loves – from a novel.…
I told him I wanted to visit Višegrad but I didn’t tell him it was because I wanted to know the truth about his past or because I thought he was hiding something from me. No. I told him I needed to travel to former Yugoslavia to research a group of Serbians who write satirical aphorisms about the war. “We might as well go to Višegrad too,” I said.

AGNI warns it’s readers right up front: ” What we print requires concentration and takes some time to digest, but it’s worth that time and effort: writers and artists hold a mirror up to nature, mankind, the world; they courageously reflect their age, for better or worse; and their best works provoke perceptions and thoughts that help us understand and respond to our age.” What they don’t tell you is that you can go from the remnants of a war-ravaged town to educational hilarity to video games in the space of a single essay.

Author Percy (sister of Benjamin Percy, whose fiction also appears in this volume; wouldn’t you hate to be the slow kid in that family), who may or may not have actually had the assignment outlined above (the aphorisms, however, by the Belgrade Aphoristic Circle, are very real) has convinced boyfriend Aleksandar to visit his home town of Visegrad in Bosnia, where relatives, friends of relatives, friends of those friends, tell stories of the war. It’s a bit hard to follow, with a constant stream of people and events, but above all, war stories. Soldiers pacified by the smell of roasting corn. A photo gallery of war criminals (including, by the way, both Clinton and Bush, which confuses me). A communal picnic in a graveyard. If that sounds depressing, don’t worry, there’s plenty of sex worked in. A coworker Aleksandar was sleeping with. His first sex in his home town. And then, just to keep things interesting, a blood-curdling blend of sex and war:

Seven kilometers southeast of Viegrad is the Vilina Vlas hotel. This is where the Serbian army brought detainees from Viegrad to be raped, tortured, and murdered. Its most famous for the rate.
Down the road from the hotel, in a small stone building covered in moss, is a Turkish bath. It uses water from Hot Springs in the mountains. In the heat, in the sickly light filtering through the stained-glass, we undress.…
When he kisses me I’m drinking water from the mountains. When he fucks me I’m thinking of the women being raped and whether they were allowed to drink the water for healing.

Sudden shift: medical pretenders. What? Percy returns to the states – she and Aleksandar frequently spent months apart like this, leading her to suspect additional affairs – and finds work as a medical pretender: one of those people who is trained to explain symptoms of a disease to test student doctors. Now, that’s very interesting, but I had to check and see if I’d missed a few pages somewhere. No, this is how the article progresses. From atrocity to pretending to be one of six Hannahs, a woman with seizures caused by conversion disorder linked somehow to her father falling into a grain silo when she was a child… wait, this can’t be right. I’m all for comic relief, and this is great comic relief, but is this a misprint?

No, because Aleksandar returns to the narrative, and confesses what he’s been hiding: not an affair but an online game addiction. He plays WoW.

I wonder when he played if he imagined he was at war – the war he had fled – now, virtually, slaughtering Serbian soldiers himself. I wonder if it was an act of revenge, a way to return to a world and rebuild it, concrete on his own.

Initially it felt … disrespectful to juxtapose the medical pretender bit with the heartbreaking war section. But, as AGNI warns, it takes time to digest. I like the underlying theme of pretending. A teenager runs away from his war-torn country, writes a possibly semi-autobiographical novel about it, then loses himself in virtual wars. A woman who pretends to be someone else, and feels jealous that five other women are pretending the same thing. The shift in the middle gave me the psychological bends. But maybe, overall, it pays the ultimate respects. Maybe it forces us up against the question: Who are you pretending to be, and why?

Pushcart 2013: Timothy Hedges, “Civil Twilight” from The Gettysburg Review, Summer 2011

Augie released the radio, and the woman shuffled a few steps back, muttering words he couldn’t hear. Everyone else on the bus pretended not to have noticed the scene, a familiar phenomenon on public transportation, one that Mayo used to describe to others as “injustice in daily operation.”
“It’s amazing what we choose not to see,” he’d say whenever he drove Augie through the crumbling neighborhoods surrounding old Tiger Stadium.

Remember the writing adage about Chekhov’s Gun? In this story, available online, Hedges doesn’t just show a gun on the wall in the first act: he gives us a close-up tour of the whole armory. The result is a story all about tension.

Bus drivers face a difficult challenge. Which passenger is going to cause trouble? Which one has a knife, or a gun? Is that one just eccentric, or dangerously psychotic? All that, and drive safely, too. It’s not an easy job, and I say that as someone who rides a lot of busses. Sure, I get annoyed when a driver’s too busy working up his Catskills routine to notice the stop cord’s been pulled, but I’m also grateful when one reminds me it’s my stop, or pulls over at a clear spot between snowbanks. Some drivers see themselves as helpers. Some put on a uniform and assume a merciless dictatorship.

Augie, like most, is somewhere in between those two extremes. He’s just doing his job, a job his father did before him, a job he’s learned, not just from the bus company, but from his Dad, known as Mayo:

Every year since he’d been a driver, he’d had to attend daylong “sensitivity” workshops, been forced to sit through role-playing games in which a variety of “challenging” passengers disrupted a route. He’d always thought the acting a waste of time. His real sensitivity training had come from Mayo. “Don’t drive around thinking you’re better than people,” his father had said, pulling Augie close to his face. “You think you’re smart. You better dig deep and find some respect.” He’d released Augie and sat back in his chair, taking a deep breath. “Augie,” he said, his face settling into a familiar impassive mask. “One day you’ll learn: when it’s dark, all sheep are black.”

Dad doesn’t drive busses any more; he’s in the hospital on this Christmas Eve, and he’s expected to leave feet first pretty soon. There’s a lot more baggage between him and Augie than would fit on a bus:

Augie understood this desire to avoid looking the devil in the face. For years after the crash, he’d not known how to talk to Mayo, how to understand the pain of a man whose momentary lapse had caused his wife’s death. When Mayo stood charged with aggravated driving while intoxicated, when he’d faced fourteen years in prison, Augie had been unable to look him in the eyes. His father had pleaded guilty, accepted eight months behind bars, asked for it, even, and, upon his release, moved into a tiny apartment in Warren, right down the street from a bus stop. Augie had let him suffer alone. And now, more than a dozen years later, his father, too, was going to die.

After the opening hospital visit, the story remains with Augie on his Detroit bus route, where he has to do a lot of risk and need assessment based on very little information. And where he chooses what injustice in daily operation he will, and will not, see.

The title is a definition of twilight, explained by Augie, that I’ve never heard before:

Here, surrounded by strangers, he cleared his throat, spoke as if reciting an answer in a long-ago science class. “Civil twilight. The last point in the day when the horizon can be defined. But it’ll be over soon,” he said, his voice lowering. “You can always count on darkness.”

This reminds me of a Jewish definition of sunset to mark the beginning or end of the Sabbath: when it’s no longer possible to tell a black thread from a white one. Augie isn’t Jewish; the definition he’s giving is the official one from the US Weather Service. But given the racial overtones of the story, and the implications of the term “civil,” it’s tempting to make the leap, whether it’s textually warranted or not.

As you read, you might want to remind yourself to relax your shoulders, your neck, unclench your fists, or you could end up with a lot of tight, tired muscles, as I did. It’s that kind of story, were threat lurks in every paragraph. Is this the sentence where it all blows up? Or the next one? I found it an uncomfortable read. I think that means, in this case, the writer did a terrific job.

Back to Chekhov’s Gun. The poem, that is, by Matt Rasmussen:

…When our hero sits

on the edge of his bed contemplating the pistol
on his nightstand, you have to believe he might

not use it.

Maybe the gun doesn’t need to be fired after all.

Pushcart 2013: James Robison, “I See Men Like Trees, Walking” from Wigleaf, 2/9/11

Then [Jesus] came to Bethsaida; and they brought a blind man to Him, and begged Him to touch him. So He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the town. And when He had spit on his eyes and put His hands on him, He asked him if he saw anything. And he looked up and said, “I see men like trees, walking.” Then He put His hands on his eyes again and made him look up. And he was restored and saw everyone clearly. Then He sent him away to his house, saying, “Neither go into the town, nor tell anyone in the town.” –Mark 8:22-26 (NKJV)

I’m not sure it takes a Biblical reading to appreciate this tiny snip of prose poetry (available online), but it probably helps.

As is usually the case with the Bible, you can find nearly as many interpretations of the story from the Gospel of Mark as there are people who read it: “Jesus cured the man twice: once of blindness and then of post-blind syndrome,” says Brian Knowles on Godward. “God reveals Himself progressively,” according to Everett McCoy’s posting on Sermon Central.

What does this have to do with the 124 word flash? Maybe nothing; maybe everything. The author of the story should not be confused with the televangelist of the same name, after all.

When your canvas is 124 words, every one needs to count, and they do. The title is pretty creepy, whether or not you know the Bibilical origins. The alliterative opening phrase – “funnels of frayed rags” – sets beauty against creepiness, particularly when those rags turn out to be bats feasting on mosquitoes. But the narrator brings us back to earth, back to his bucolic summer evening, watering the cabbages with Mom and Daughter playing catch. You can’t read this without hearing the “thwock” of the mitt.

The tone changes again, right in the center of the piece.

Later, my wife is saying how hard to love all things, hard to take the sense of fleas or the cottonmouth that blinded the little girl out Route 9, near Bonner’s Black Angus farm.

True enough. But the fleas, the cottonmouth, even the frayed rags of bats, they’re not evil. They’re just trying to survive, and all they have is instinct. The narrator then takes our attention to another location, the Union cemetery on his property, where “each mossed tombslab, (there are seven), leans for a soul perfectly forgotten.”

I see at least two families of readings, and they’re not mutually exclusive. There’s this idea of seeing in multiple stages. But there’s also the side-by-side idea of nature’s brutality, and that which is unique to people.

I must again give a shout-out to Wigleaf, the original publisher of the piece, for their first Pushcart nod. Considering how outspoken Pushcart editor Bill Henderson has been about online literature in the past, it’s just a joy to see fiction from a 100% online literary magazine – one devoted to flash, at that – represented in this volume (they’ve published online-only poetry before). It’s also nice to see an author with Robison’s resume embrace online journals like Wigleaf, as well as Smokelong, Corium, and elimae, all terrific literary magazines, all proudly online-only. Let’s hope this represents a trend.

Pushcart 2013: Andrew Hudgins, “Helen Keller Answers the Iron” (Non-Fiction) from Kenyon Review, Spring 2011

Though I’d rather have been one of the boys who could smack a baseball solidly with a bat, my talent was telling jokes. I was fascinated in them as mechanisms—machines made of words, to use William Carlos Williams’s definition of poetry. I tinkered with them as obsessively as other boys enjoyed taking apart radios, jack-in-the-boxes, and frogs to see what was inside. In bed at night, walking home from school, sitting in church, I sharpened the details of jokes, changing the settings, naming the characters after kids in my classes, and altering elements that had flopped the last time. I didn’t even have to try to memorize jokes. After I heard a joke, I, like an elephant, never forgot.

What is this thing called “funny”?

It’s a question that’s been examined from many angles. Neuroscientists are trying to find it in the brain. Psychiatrists might talk about the play frame. Psychologists are trying to crack the humor code. Linguists have amazingly complex theories (as linguists are wont to do). Isaac Asimov wrote a science fiction story, “Jokester,” to trace the origins of jokes. Comedian Chris Bliss looks at it as a Philosopher’s Stone. Andy Kaufman said he never told a joke in his life, yet he was hilarious.

Now it’s a poet’s turn.

And what a turn it is, starting with the elephant jokes of his childhood:

Elephant jokes mock logic, deliberately deranging the senses of sense. They are an adolescent intellectual’s version of spinning around till you fall down… the sneerers were declaring themselves serious people, nonlaughers. It’s useful to know who those people are.

Traditional riddles are difficult, but fair. But the echt elephant jokes deconstruct riddles. They are so arbitrary that you have to know the answer to get it, which is here only reminiscent of being a student when the teacher asks one of those questions you couldn’t possibly know the answer to, a question whose whole purpose seems to be to make you admit your ignorance. Answering the unanswerable question for his listener, the joke teller is a teacher correcting a dim-witted student.

Most of his analysis is more or less what’s been said before: humor is a defense mechanism, a way to look at what’s scary without being overwhelmed by it. And yes, he moves on in adolescence to jokes that are likely to be more offensive: dead baby jokes. Helen Keller jokes. But for him, they were not just a way to shock the thin-skinned, and not just a way to approach frightening material; they were also a path to self-definition: “I was beginning to see in myself the power to harm awfully and the power to be harmed awfully.”

He also learned about volition:

But by disgusting ourselves, we boys were assuring ourselves we’d never do something just because we could imagine it. Basic as it seems, the point was important to me because in church I sat through many sermons that, quoting Jesus, assured me that to think something was the same as doing it. All that stood between thinking and doing was volition – as if volition was nothing!

He sees the “sick” jokes as a way for him to learn discretion: the times, places, and company in which these jokes might be told. The guys at school, who’d think he was tough. The girls, who’d cringe. Mom and dad? Not a chance. Dad, because, well, he was Dad. Mom, because she’d lost a child. That’s a kind of empathy, I suppose. I doubt he learned empathy from jokes, but he sees it as part of the practice.

He did eventually share a somewhat less “sick” joke with his mother; adolescence is all about testing limits, and Hudgins used jokes. It worked out well in that case: “…it was an illicit pleasure to discover that we could laugh with one another almost like adults, just for the pure joy of laughing.” And later, he learned how to shut it down when it wasn’t funny any more.

The sick jokes – dead baby, Helen Keller, and mutilated-boy jokes – mock human frailty. They became popular when we boomers were, as adolescents, starting to grasp that our bodies weren’t invincible and our lives would have a terminus, even if we couldn’t yet see it over the horizon. And we, some of us, had to toughen our minds to that knowledge.

As I read this, I thought of The Onion‘s recent tweet controversy. It isn’t just adolescents who step over the line sometimes.

The Onion apologized; so does Hudgins:

Now I’m nearly appalled at my callousness. Any joker has to be worried about the truth behind Goethe’s chilling judgment that “Nothing shows a man’s character more than what he laughs at.” But I’m only nearly appalled because I remember what I was thinking then. I could have been Helen Keller. I could still be Charles Woods.… By telling the jokes, I sneaked up on acknowledging that life was harsh, unfair, and temporary – and that my time in the world was unlikely to culminate on a positive note. By laughing at cruelty and fate, you could pretend to be superior to it, and yet what fueled the laughter was the absurdity of laughing: nothing tames death. So you might as well laugh, brother, and strengthen your mind against your own vanishing.

At first, I didn’t buy his apologia. A racist joke, even in the guise of an elephant joke, is not borne out of fear of racism, but rather, at best, out of fear of people of a particular race, of “others”; the joke does not lessen that fear, it merely objectifies and further distances the “other” and legitimizes stereotypes. Laughing at Helen Keller ridicules her for her otherness, and puts a stamp of approval on that attitude. Even a kid has a sphere of influence, and developing a sense of who can “take it” and who can’t, is simply one more way, a very subtle, unconscious way, of dividing people into “us” and “them.” This apology sat wrong with me.

But it led me inward. I repeated an offensive joke once. I got called out on it, by people I respected. The person who told it to me was standing right there, looking appropriately offended. Whether it was because it was something she told me in private, never expecting it to be repeated (and what that in itself said about me as a confidant; did I seem like someone who would accept this as ok? Or was I just that trustworthy to keep a secret?), or whether it was because she was just siding with the “good” guys in case I had any ideas about pointing to her and saying, “She told it to me!”, I’ll never know. I just learned something about using my own judgment that day. As well as something about friendship. Hey! I just wrote my own apologia, just like Hudgins. I did something wrong; I was being mean. We learn from our mistakes. That’s exactly what he’s saying, in fact.

I enjoyed the essay. I see sincerity. And, as embarrassing as it might be, I found a lot of it to be funny: the image of the little boy, the awkward adolescent, trying to be tough. I still don’t get Helen Keller jokes. The running in circles joke, though, that’s another matter.

My advice: read this essay when you’re alone. Unless you want everyone to know you still laugh at elephant jokes.

Addendum: It is truly by coincidence that this appears on April 1. Honest, it was the next non-fiction piece in order. Ok, maybe I did choose to put this in for Monday instead of the fiction piece…

Pushcart 2013: Shozan Jack Haubner, “A Zen Zealot Comes Home,” from The Sun, September 2011

Sun art by Craig J. Satterlee

Sun art by Craig J. Satterlee

A Zen Buddhist monk in my tradition gets exactly one week off a year. This time is specifically designated for a “family visit.” I always take my week at Thanksgiving, and every year I prove right that old Zen adage: Think you’re getting closer to enlightenment? Try spending a week with your parents.

It’s a familiar story, not unique to vacationing Buddhist monks. Kids arrive home from their first year in college, heads spinning with ideas of Liberté, égalité, fraternité acquired in their philosophy and history courses, eager to school their parents on how the world really works, while the parents are figuring out how to pay next year’s tuition. Or the new mother visits her mother, armed with the latest information on child rearing to make sure Granny doesn’t screw up Junior too badly during their weekend visit, oblivious to the realization that she herself was raised completely wrong and still managed to turn out ok.

Kids are always trying to fix their parents. And if I sound like I know what I’m talking about… well, I was a kid, once. Sometimes, kids have good reasons to think their parents need an upgrade. Sometimes, they’re just using a different generation’s measuring sticks.

Haubner’s article reminded me a bit of a standard joke at 12-step meetings, where someone talks about how proud he is of his humility. He’s got some good points:

Why had my father never apologized for beating me? A fair question. And here was another: Why hadn’t I apologized to my five siblings for all the noogies, nipple-twists, and occasional drubbings with a pair of foam-padded nunchucks that I’d subjected them to? The sins for which you cannot forgive yourself are the sins for which you will never be able to apologize. Such is the Catch22 of extreme guilt: I can’t come to terms with the violence I’ve committed until I can admit that I did it, but I can’t admit that I did it until I can come to terms with the violence I’ve committed.
Suddenly I felt a twinge of kinship with my father. We were both at war with ourselves, not each other.

Oddly, in spite of the universal nature of kids struggling to develop adult relationships with their parents, and of even the broader theme of guilt and forgiveness, this article was to me the least outward-looking of any I’ve read in this volume. Maybe it’s just a different approach, one where Haubner gives his experience, and lets the reader draw whatever is applicable.

Haubner’s collection of humorous essays on the Buddhist way of life, Zen Confidential: Confessions of a Wayward Monk, is due out in May.

Pushcart 2013: Joshua Cohen, “Emission” from The Paris Review, Spring 2011

Internet Census 2012 by “Carna Botnet”

This isn’t that classic conceit where you tell a story about someone and it’s really just a story about yourself.
My story is pretty simple:

Right up front: I had a hard time following this story. I see some interviews and reviews describe it (or Cohen) as “brainiac metafiction” a la DFW and Pynchon, or “modernism’s true heir” travelling in the footsteps of Joyce and Beckett (most of whom I’ve nervously avoided so far), and that doesn’t surprise me. I get the sense this story is a shade too fond of its own sophistication. I don’t (yet) get what distinguishes the off-the-wall Giants from the rantings of adolescents (and bloggers) everywhere, but I’ll accept that as my limitation.

Still… there was something about it that grabbed me. A lot of somethings, actually.

The overall setting of the Internet, for starters. The use of language: techniques that kept me jotting notes in the margins (how he tells!), the clever metaphors (including the one on metaphor), what’s unsaid, the title itself, the use of POV.

In the end, I’m left with a hard-to-read story I greatly admire, with authorial decisions I don’t quite understand (particularly with regard to one POV switch, and the ending which seems to just stop) but would like to explore. And I’m left at a loss as to how to discuss any of it.

I could start with the central story – man vs. blogger.

What you do in private is your business, until it becomes public, and then it’s your employer’s business, especially if your employer’s employed by the government of the United States. War’s all about image – and effective chaplaincy and counterinsurgency.
Come again?
You need to clear your profile, son.
My profile, what about it?
Your presence, you need to clean your presence.
I’m not following, and Mono canvassed his apartment, wondering whether the man had a camera focused on him or was just intuitive.
The Internet, Muggs said, are you aware of your Internet?

Mono was not aware of his Internet.

Richard Monomian, aka Mono, Princeton rejectee (in spite of his father’s professorship) turned drug dealer and partier with customers, finds one of those customers, a lovely young thing named Em with whom he shared a few lines until he had to leave for his next delivery, has posted something fairly disgusting about him on a blog; this is why he hasn’t been able to land as much as an interview for a legit job.

Within a week a hundred-plus results all replicated his name as if each letter of it – those voluble, oragenital os, were a mirror for a stranger’s snorting, reflecting everywhere the nostrils of New York, Los Angeles, Reykjavík, Seoul, as thousands cut this tale for bulk and laced with detail, tapped it into lines and his name became a tag for abject failure, for deviant, for skank.
To pull a Monomian.
To go Monomian.
Fucking Monomian.

The story follows his efforts to “clean his presence” via a rent-a-paralegal found – how else – via internet (for a while, I toyed with the idea that she was actually Em, perhaps that everyone in the story, maybe the world, was Em, but no, that would be the rantings of an adolescent) leading to further complications necessitating a hasty flight to Europe.

Pretty cool set-up, right? But to me, this central plot is merely the vehicle for narrative and linguistic play. It’s really a story about the transmission of information.

For instance, it isn’t Mono telling the story, or even a standard third-person narrator. No; the story opens with the first quote above, and of course, the minute someone assures me something is not the case – something I never would have thought of if he hadn’t mentioned it – I assume it is the case, and this is his story. But more importantly, what it does is set up this pattern of revealing information in interesting ways – not through media like the internet, but through narrative method. To me, that’s what the story is about; the plot is there because, well, sure, it has to be, right?

So the story is told to us by a unnamed first-person narrator who meets Mono at a biergarten in Berlin, shares his own tale of what he’s doing there (an interesting enough tale in itself – he “graduated from college with a degree in unemployment – my thesis was on Metaphor – ” and after spending two years in Berlin trying to write a book, was returning to New York for B-school, which will lead to him making his first million five years later at which point he’ll relate this tale… all of which has nothing whatsoever to do with the story, but it’s a great page of intro and begins this mindworm of how we tell stories, how we send and receive information, and adds some level of stupidity, or maybe naïveté, to Mono’s character, since if we believe there is a Mono, he’s on the run in Berlin for reasons that will become clear and here he’s telling some stranger in a bar his whole life story…), and listens to Mono tell his story. Then tells us.

Kind of makes my head spin. But there’s more about how we tell. How the author tells us:

Mono’s mother had died – an aneurysm after a routine job, a clean body in a bloodless bath – three years before these events….And the car his mother left behind precipitated Mono’s fight with his father – when the professor began dating a former student or began publicly dating her. She’d brought the largest veggie-stix-‘n’-dip platter to the gathering after the funeral.

How Mono’s father, moving to California, tells Mono:

Then one afternoon his father asked, Could you lend Aline your car for the day? She swishes to consolidate her life before the moving.
Mono said he said nothing.
His father tried again, Could you drive her yourself, to assist with the boxes?
Mono explained:
That was his father’s way of telling him that Aline was coming to Cali.
My mother’s car? Mono finally asked.
But you can forget about Aline. She’s pregnant with Mono’s half-brother in Palo Alto and this is her last appearance.

Notice the slippery narration, tenses, and of course the lack of anything so mundane as quotation marks, all of which contribute to the difficulty, and the intricacy, of the read. Is Aline now pregnant, or was she back then at the time of the moving (about eight years ago), or was she at the time of the conversation (five years ago)? If she herself is so unimportant to the story, is this little detail of timing important, a clue to just whose story this is, anyway? Or am I overreading again?

I don’t think so. Towards the end of the story, there’s a switch in narrative POV to close third person observation of a character who couldn’t possibly have been observed. This is where the story ran off the rails for me on first read, because I’m pretty trusting. Lesson: paranoia is not necessarily a disease. Lesson 2: If you’re feeling the need to confess something, watch out for your narrative POVs, they’ll betray you every time.

I read this story the week after the Steubenville rape trial (the timing of my readings always amazes me), when all the legal analysts were falling all over themselves feeling sorry for the poor boys whose lives were ruined forever just because they assumed they had a right to have sex with any woman who couldn’t fight them off; when everyone was warning girls not to drink, not warning boys not to rape unconscious teens. The story isn’t about a rape, but it’s about as close as you can get, and it seemed to me everyone, from the narrator to a reviewer who described Mono as “kind” because he talked to his coke customers, was seeing Mono as the victim here, his life ruined merely because he chose to… leave an emission in the hand of girl passed out at a party. Then told another girl about it. Those girls, it’s all their fault.

But here’s the thing: I can’t tell, having read the story twice-plus, if the incident Em posted about Mono was what he told her, something he made up and told her, or something she made up, just for the fun of it. It makes a big difference, and I doubt this, hmmm, omission of emission, was by accident.

So what do you do with a story that has a villain, but you’re not sure which character it is? When you have the ultimate unreliable narrator? Maybe you look at it as a story about the methodology and character of emissions.

Pushcart 2013: Robin Hemley: “To The Rainforest Room” (Non-Fiction) from Orion, May/Jun 2011

"Henry Doorly Zoo" Print by Kathi Geringer

“Henry Doorly Zoo” Print by Kathi Geringer

Nature declawed, stuffed, mounted. What then do we really want from the Authentic Destinations of our imaginations? And how do our perceptions of them differ from the Real Thing? When we think of an unspoiled place, how much do we need to strip away before we reach the desired level of authenticity? Strip Hawai‘i of its inauthentic fauna and you’re left mostly with bats.

I’ll admit: when I saw another “nature” piece, I kind of cringed. Is this Pushcart’s attempt to make up for discouraging electronic literature in favor of tree-based reading?

But it’s not really a nature piece; it’s more of an exploration of authenticity via three rainforests, inspired by his earlier research into the Tasaday. And some Easy Cheese (you’ll have to read the essay, at least the first section, to get the details on that, but it dates back to an unfortunate incident in college involving a Triscuit). It’s very, very funny. And very, very good. And available online.

From time to time, I read sentiments like this: “For a few hours I lived in an alternative Africa, an Africa governed by a quiet glee and an innocent love of nature,” and I think your quiet glee, buddy, your innocent love of nature. This sentence, by the way, is an authentic quote from an actual essay that appeared in a recent travel anthology. When I read it, I could get no further. I wondered what the writer thought he was doing experiencing his quiet glee in this alternative Africa? This sentimentalization of “Primitive Man” in harmony with nature seems akin to a hunter praising the pristine beauty of an elk head he’s shot and mounted. The hunter can move but the elk can’t. The authenticity tourist can and will depart the rainforest, leaving behind his tourist dollars and those irrepressibly authentic Africans twittering their gleeful songs on their kalimbas.

Contrast this with the butterflies, with Wendell Berry. The point is made here – we are destroying ourselves – yet without the preaching, scolding, and clucking. Hemley’s just like me, like most of us I suspect – he cares about the planet, but sometimes he wants the Easy Cheese.

As I read this essay, it occurred to me that someday, assuming the human race survives a few more generations, our grandchildren will be nostalgic for Twitter and X-Boxes. After all, my parents were prone to emotional reminiscences of silent films and radio, and no Baby Boomer meeting is complete without misty-eyed discussions of black-and-white TV and duck-and-cover. When Hemley writes: “The idea of an authentic place implies an unchanging one, which also makes it an impossibility,” I realize: our very idea of what is “authentic” is rooted in our own experience, perhaps even the experience we heard our grandparents talk about so fondly when we were little – so is there such a thing as true “authenticity” or is it part of our yearning to find an ideal that may never have existed?

Hemley began his authenticity tour of rain forests in Nebraska – yes, Nebraska – and if his take on the Doorly Zoo (America’s Largest Indoor Rain Forest, complete with polyurethane trees and imported “authentic” animals who wait in the Green Room for their entrance and end their workday at 6pm) isn’t enough to get you giggling, then you just don’t have a sense of humor:

Why would anyone go to the bother of bringing the rainforest to Nebraska? It’s my theory that Nebraska has developed a severe case of landscape envy.
Arbor Day: invented by a Nebraskan.
The only man-made national forest (Halsey National Forest) is in Nebraska.
The word Nebraska originates from an Oto Indian word meaning flat water.
People of my generation will remember with fondness the weekly TV show Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom…It may be the most logical thing in the world that a state as mono-diverse as Nebraska would be infatuated with exotic flora and fauna. If the rainforest is the closest thing on Earth to the Garden of Eden, to which we always hold out hope for our eventual return, Nebraskans may simply be looking for a shortcut.

I started rewriting Joni Mitchell: “They paved paradise and put up an Indoor Rain Forest.” But Hemley got it better.

Then he’s off to the Arajuno Jungle Lodge in Ecuador, created by former Peace Corps volunteer, park ranger, eco-hero and Pink Floyd aficionado Tom Larson (who, by the way, was born in Omaha). Here’s where much of the “green” of the piece is, with a clear picture of just how and why the rain forests are being destroyed. Sure, there’s greed. But there’s also survival: most of the locals who dynamite fish and build roads and cut down trees do so to feed their families. Tom Larson is doing what he can, starting with asking them, “What would it take to get you to stop dynamiting fish?” and creating a well-stocked, if inauthentic, environment for them to catch enough fish to survive. It may not be the best step, but at least it’s a step; it’s what’s possible.

A trip to the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area Rainforest and, um, Scenic Railway, in Katoomba, Australia, follows: ” I consider this a Bonus Rainforest, like an offer in which you buy two rainforests and get the third for free.” He heard about it while at a writer’s conference, though he didn’t realize at first it was a rain forest; the Australians kept describing it as “the Grand Canyon with trees.”

Hemley’s point is a serious one, made humorously, and maybe, especially when you’re preaching to the choir, this is the better approach.

Maybe everything authentic eventually winds up an exhibit. Worse, maybe everything authentic eventually winds up depicted on a shot glass in a gift shop. Maybe the very idea of authenticity implies extinction. For the record, I’m not in favor of extinction. Here’s one test: if you want to replicate it but can’t, it’s probably authentic. So maybe authenticity is something to be wished for, catalogued, but never owned. Something we can’t quite pin down, but nevertheless yearn for. Something that, for a while anyway, can keep at bay the nightmare of a globe covered with polyurethane trees and inhabited by wild animals who clock out every evening.

Maybe everything’s authentic – including polyurethane trees – or maybe nothing is. Maybe I just needed a laugh (it’s been a tough week in Calculus). And for my own ironic twist on authenticity: I loved this piece so much, I stopped reading in the middle to google Hemley and find out what else he’d written.

Pushcart 2013: Bess Winter, “Signs” from American Short Fiction Fall 2011



It is after a series of nubile young researchers have begun to parade through Koko the gorilla’s life that she learns the sign for nipple. She draws her heavy arms close to her chest, and her leathery pointers spring out toward the unsuspecting graduate student. A look of expectation settles onto her simian face.

As I read this, everything seemed familiar – the bras on the table or draped over the chair, the oddness of the situation, the change in direction not once, but twice. Turns out, I’d read it last Spring when it appeared on the Wigleaf Top 50 List. That’s what happens when you read 50 flashes in a couple of days – you even forget the one about the lesbian voyeur gorilla.

Though that makes a great teaser line, it’s not really what this story – all 638 words of it – is about. Sure, it starts off a little goofy, and then there was the section where I thought the supervisor just found a unique mode of expression for his perversion. But it’s a lot more tender than that; it delves into a strange kind of intimacy, and an intense jealousy. By the end, it’s pretty fascinating, none the less so because it’s based on actual events. And yes, the painting above is actual gorilla art by the actual Koko.

In her author interview with American Short Fiction, Winter explains, ” The flash pieces that stick with me, and that I enjoy reading the most, begin with a scenario that’s entirely unique to the story and quickly reach out and go straight to the core of the reader, implicate the reader in some way by touching on a fundamental human truth.” I think she’s done that quite effectively here. The less information the writer gives, the more the reader has to supply, and at some point a story becomes more about the reader than the writer. That can be taken too far, of course, but I’m a fan of fiction that demands, or at least allows, reader participation. In a writing workshop a while back, someone told me, “Don’t force the reader into a chair when she might want to dance.” That’s always stuck with me. With these 638 words, Winter has provided several chairs, as well as a dance floor.

Pushcart 2013: Jennifer Lunden: “The Butterfly Effect” (Non-fiction) from Creative Nonfiction #40, Winter 2011

"Black Cloud" by Carlos Amorales

“Black Cloud” by Carlos Amorales

When a monarch butterfly sets off on its journey to its winter destination, it does not have to pay a $100 fee because its suitcase is 25 pounds over the limit. It does not have to take off its shoes, its watch, its coat and scarf, in case of bombs. It does not have to put its carry-ons in the overhead compartment or under the seat in front of it. It does not have to watch the flight attendant demonstrate how to put on a seat belt or an oxygen mask. It does not worry about going down. It does not worry.

I have a confession to make. This will surprise some of you who know me, but I’m afraid this story forces me to admit it, as shameful as it may be, and as hard as I’ve worked in the past to leave this particular part of my personality behind: I’m a bigot. No, not against race or gender or ethnicity or religion or any of the usual factors; I’m prejudiced against people who say things like, “I have multiple chemical sensitivity.”

You may be wondering what all this has to do with butterflies. I kind of wondered that myself, while reading this essay – “First,they came for the butterflies…”? And I found an answer. The lesson: sometimes even bigots can learn something if we try.

At the age of nine, Lunden became enchanted with monarch butterflies. She describes in detail her experiences with the caterpillars and chrysalises, how she would watch them go through their stages, and, “when the moment was right,” unfurl damp wings, detach, and eventually fly away. She interweaves this with the ecological plight of the monarch butterfly: their habitat shrinking, as a direct result of “Roundup-Ready” crops and weed-killers that eliminate the milkweed they need for reproduction along their migratory routes. “They can’t find their habitat.” Fortunately, the Monarch Waystation Program is encouraging landowners to cultivate milkweed on their property, to make up for the losses Monsanto hath wrought, to provide the habitat the monarchs need. ADDENDUM: By coincidence, the annual count of Monarch Butterflies was released on Wednesday: down from 7 acres last year, to 2.94 acres this year, as reported by CBS News.

Lunden also includes the story of Pacific Grove “butterfly docent” Ro Vacarro who found her calling on a chance visit during migratory season, and experienced the susurration. She suffered from lupus, making Lunden feel a special kinship with her on two levels. Sadly, Ms. Vacarro passed away just four days before their planned meeting.

Throughout, Lunden describes her own difficulties with finding habitat, and the implications for all of us:

When it hits, it feels as though my brain has swollen inside the cradle of my scalp. A fog rolls in. My capacity to juggle a number of thoughts that once, and ability most people take for granted, dwindles. It alarms me when this happens, when my brain gives way.
I have it easy compared to some people. I know people who suffer seizures when exposed to chemicals. Those airways, joint and muscle pain, nausea, insomnia, disabling fatigue.… Some of them live in ceramic trailers in the deserts of Arizona. Some of them are homeless; they live in their cars or tents. They can’t find any place safe to breathe. They can’t find habitat.
We call ourselves “canaries in the coal mine.” We have multiple-chemical sensitivity, and our numbers are growing.

I had the same feeling reading this as I did when reading Wendell Berry’s “Nothing Living Lives Alone” last year in BASS 2012 (it’s also in this Pushcart volume): though there’s absolutely nothing I disagree with, and much, in fact, that I heartily support (if I had a back yard, I’d be out planting milkweed right now), I felt defensive, as if I were being scolded.

This essay certainly passes the “Look outward as well as inward” test I’ve been applying to all non-fiction in this volume: it carries an important message. Given my own powerful, similar reactions to two stories now, I perhaps need to “look inward in addition to outward,” to give some thought as to the source of my annoyance with these stories, whether it’s truly the stories, or something more internal. A selfish and quite bratty reaction to the lack of sympathy I receive for my own sensitivities, both those diagnosed and those merely evident? Guilt over the multiple cleaning products in my kitchen and my dissatisfaction with the baking-soda-and-orange-peel solution to everything? Or overexposure to the special snowflakes of the world, which makes it difficult to distinguish between those with serious issues and those who use sensitivity as an excuse for everything from irresponsibility to rudeness?

Whatever the cause of my, ahem, sensitivity, it remains an excellent and interesting essay about yet another corner of the environment – our habitat – we are destroying. The canaries, the butterflies, Lunden, are all warning signs.

Lunden is a Maine resident – practically a neighbor of mine, so I’m doubly ashamed of my attitude. She performed an extract of this piece (video available online, 13 minutes) at a Slant session just prior to the one Zin attended last year. There’s also an online audio recording (about 23 minutes) of her reading excerpts at the KGB Bar in NYC, a venue famous for inviting writers to present their work.

Pushcart 2013: Benjamin Percy, “Writs of Possession” from Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2011

When Sammy knocks, when she says, “Sheriff’s Office,” she stands to the side of the apartment door. No one has tried to shoot her, not yet. But you never know.… Every day people are falling behind – every day there is a taller stack of evictions, small claims notices, repossessions of property, wage garnishment for unpaid debts – and every day there is another address to visit, but door to knock on, sometimes to kick down.

This story will break your heart in nine different ways.

The first of the nine sections introduces us to Sammy, the deputy, as she serves an eviction notice. She hates her job. It’s potentially dangerous. And it takes her into “dumps like this,” places that are dirty and smell bad. Sammy’s not a bad person, not at all. She has a heart. But she’s like most of us; she’s got some idea about how people get themselves into these things.

She supposes she feels bad for people. When they cry or bake or point to their grubby children and to say, you are doing this to them. Maybe pities them, maybe that’s a better way of putting it. But then a dog will come padding out of the back room or she will spot a videogame console, a pool table, a cappuccino machine. And she’ll decide from their carelessness that they’re getting what they deserve. She’ll want to say, “How much do you spend on dog food a month?” or “How much you think you could have sold that Xbox for?” But she won’t. Instead, when people show their teeth or kick over chairs or get down on their knees and take her hand and beg, she simply says, “I’m no judge, no jury,” so that people contain their anger and sadness, bottle it up for someone else.

Sammy’s about to learn something.

The story as a whole is, I think, about the different nature of this recession. About how deep it reaches. About how it’s not about the fools and wastrels any more, it’s about veterans, teenagers, middle-class neighborhoods. It’s about people who probably felt like Sammy did, not so long ago, before they ended up laid off or bankrupted by medical bills or priced out of their lives or thrown away. Or maybe it’s just trying to challenge our notions of people deserving what they get.

In this first section, we get a hint of the lesson Sammy is about to learn.

But Frank is old. And alone. And though she is used to dealing with people who have made the wrong choices, they are, almost all of them, young and furious and seemingly capable of rectifying whatever ruin has come to them. He is different. A lone cloud coming apart in grey filaments, a few drops of rain. She feels, no other word for it, sad.

In later sections, we meet John, who’s finally fixing up his house now that his wife has left him and his daughter’s about to leave for college, fixing it up five years too late to enjoy it since he won’t be able to keep up the mortgage with the furloughs his company is imposing. We’re with John as he pulls apart the posts supporting the porch and finds his own metaphor, “the skeletons of four birds along with their rotten wig of a nest.”

He guesses the birds were nesting when the house was being framed, maybe up in the rafters, and the builder climbed a ladder and cradled the nest in his hands and clued and whistled at the baby birds and then tossed them inside the post before hammering on its And whispering goodbye.

We’re with the homeless teenagers who hunt for a big house, four or five stories, one without any signs of dogs or kids, then find a way in and live in the basement for a while, getting to know the pattern of the homeowner before finally moving upstairs during the hours he’s at work. They’ve been there a month now, the longest they’ve ever been able to hide anywhere, and they’re watching tv in the master bedroom feeling almost like normal kids when the guy comes home and asks them – not shouting, not yet – “Who are you and what are you doing in my house?”

In another story, they might have told him their names. They might have told him about their father running off, their mother drinking heavily – the social workers with their tired eyes and a sleepy-sounding voices, the cat is stinking foster homes decorated with crosses and strangely colored paintings of Jesus picking sheep. And the man might have listened.…
… “No,” he would say, his voice softer this time. “Stay. Please.” And the brother and sister would shrug at each other when he motioned them downstairs, when he led them to the kitchen, where they would make sandwiches and poor tall glasses of milk and eat together in the breakfast note that overlooked green expanse of lawn that ran into a pond with a concrete Swan vomiting and ark of green water in the middle of it.
When they finished eating their sandwiches, when they licked their lips and settled back in their chairs, he would look out the window and quietly asked them if they would like to stay.… They would know he meant it, that he wasn’t going to trick them and call the police, that maybe the house felt a little too big for him, that maybe he needed them as much as they needed him, and they would all smile and finish their glasses of milk.
But that is another story

Each vignette uses a different technique to break your heart in a different way, whether it’s about the neighbors turning into a destructive mob, or a kid just playing around, or a little boy who isn’t sure what “We’re under water” and “we’re going into foreclosure” means, but he thinks it’s related to Noah and the flood and the place called Iowa where a town was washed away.

Then we’ll end up back with Sammy, and we’ll know what she knows now: they aren’t so different from us, these people. Maybe all of us are just one bad break, one layoff, one bad decision away from them.

Maybe Rand Paul should’ve read this story during his filibuster. Maybe Congress should’ve read it, instead of the botched attempt they made at reading the Constitution, a couple of years ago. Maybe everyone in Washington should read it now, as they wait for the other side to blink and end the sequester. Because it’s about all of us.

To get back to the literary aspects: I’m tremendously impressed with a website I discovered while researching this story: Great Writers Steal. You may recognize that as part of a quote often attributed to TS Eliot (stolen by Aaron Sorkin and probably others): “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” I have no idea who’s behind the site, but it’s genius: it does in a quarter of the space what I’ve been trying to do for years, extracting the craft from the story. It’s kind of depressing, actually; makes me want to close up shop and leave it to someone who knows what s/he’s doing. Then again, I never would’ve found it if I weren’t stumbling around on my own mission. I’ll be adding it to the Cool Sites for Readers and Writers page in the near future (it’s about that time again, I think, probably later this week) but the post for this story is worth checking out now. If only for the comparison to Les Miserables.

It’s one thing to write about the impact of the economy, how many tens of thousands are foreclosed, the unemployment figures, the politician’s favorite phrase since the Clinton years, “People are hurting.” It’s another to bring us inside the lives of a few of them, one by one, and let them break our hearts. In nine different ways.

Pushcart 2013: Karen Russell, “A FAMILY RESTAURANT” from Conjunctions #57, Fall 2011

"Trellis" wallpaper design by William Morris, 1862

“Trellis” wallpaper design by William Morris, 1862

This morning, my father approached me waving the new menu from RAY’S ITALIAN FEATS, our rival across the street, and demanded that I type this up for you.
“Write the story. It’s a menu, Leni, it’s supposed to have the story.”
“Which one?”
“Jesus, I don’t know, the story, our story! The family story!”

This is all-in-one fiction: a tragicomic family saga/mystery. As I read, I could see Leni writing, at a small table in an out-of-the-way corner of A FAMILY RESTAURANT; I could hear her voice. It’s a terrific read. I’m left with some questions as the end, but maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.

The Bakopoulos clan meandered from Greece to an island somewhere in the vicinity of Florida a few generations back. A FAMILY RESTAURANT has been their anchor since the 70s, always in competition with Ray’s Italian Feats (Ray – “a known defroster” – meant “Feasts” but let it stand). Leni approaches her task of keeping up with the Feats dutifully, perhaps unaware of how sadly hilarious it all is. And perhaps not. Perhaps she’s telling her father something. Or maybe she’s just telling it to anyone who will read.

I’m sure there’s a folklore structure (this seems to be folk tale week) for most of the characters in this story. For instance, there’s the family matriarch, Mama; the son under her spell, Frank; and Irene, the wife he brings home from his brief stay at college when Mama’s health takes a turn for the worse and the restaurant is failing: “They were flying back in time to Frank’s childhood, the zone in which he hadn’t made her the offer, where she did not yet exist.”

Frank and Irene will become Leni’s parents, but not before Mama makes Irene miserable from Day One.

Days 2 through 182 were very much the same. In dreams Irene wiped the dishes and watched her own face shriveling, the young and vibrant layers of her life falling away like flower petals, all of the color and particularity draining out of her as she merged with the bleak, blank face of Mama.
No one lives forever. Irene gave herself this pep talk on Saturday nights, bunning sea dogs near the window with the big fan, straining to see the actual sea. Black waves tugged away from her, as if the world were on a wire, and the night would jump, retreat, jump again. Her eyes could only see so far into the twinkling mist that separated the island from the peninsula, but she had faith that it was there. Twenty minutes by boat. They could get back to it.

What gives me pause here is that this happened before Leni was born; how does she know about it? Either it’s part of the story that’s been told to her (by her father? Her mother? Unlikely, either way, as we’ll see) or she’s made it up out of her own life. These issues didn’t occur to me until after I’d read the story, by the way; it was engrossing and I didn’t get all meta about it until afterwards.

Mama does eventually die, on the same day Irene finds out she’s pregnant with Leni. But that day is remembered for another legacy: a recipe Mama discloses to Frank with her dying breath, in Greek. It’s tape-recorded and translated, then implemented complete with a secret ingredient known only to Mama and Frank. Mama’s buried in Greece, the SPECIAL OF THE DAY #6: MAMA’S DEATHBED SHERBET is added to the menu, and the restaurant business takes off as everyone – customers, celebrities, corporations – offer huge sums for the recipe. Frank keeps his secret; he makes the sherbet in a special kitchen he has built, off the main kitchen, a locked kitchen with no windows. He visits Greece once a year to obtain more of the secret ingredient, which, whatever it is, fits in his duffel bag.

Irene never tastes the sherbet during her pregnancy until the last night, at which point, overtaken by one of those pregnancy cravings, she consumes bowls of the stuff. Then Leni was born:

There was my face, which was also the puckered, miniaturized face of Mama Bakopoulos. … My first days were black ones for my mother. At times she was certain that I was an anchor, flung overboard by Mama from beyond the grave, intended to secure her permanent mooring at A FAMILY RESTAURANT.… Irene watched me like a mirror, waited for her blue eyes to open in my face, for her face to surface in my flesh. But I failed, I couldn’t repeat any part of her.… every night, to please my mother, I was praying for a different face.

As I’m pulling these quotes, I’m wondering how I could call this piece humorous. This goes beyond providing ballast; this is heavy stuff. I recall reading “The Ballad of Mushie Momzer” last year, a similar family saga/folk tale, and hating it, recognizing the voice as humor but finding the content to be depressing (as well as ridiculously bawdy in a sixth-grade way). Maybe I’ve developed the sense required to appreciate this combination of pathos and goofiness. I should read that story again.

The secret ingredient of the sherbet, Irene’s attempts to deal with what life has handed her, and the aftermath of her failure to do so, provide the structure and momentum for the rest of the story. I won’t spoil it; it’s intricate, and worth reading. Things change, of course. Irene leaves; Frank “runs out” of the Secret Ingredient, and still won’t tell Leni what it was:

“Leni,” he said, touching my cheek gingerly. “I’m sorry. Really, it won’t grow anymore. It got, ah” – he frowned, rummaging for the word he’d found in the dictionary to explain what had happened to it after Irene divorced him – “extirpated.”

For years I burned with an anger that I found easiest to direct at my father, the paterfamilias who had cursed me with this face, the secret hoarder, who wouldn’t even try to ease the beating pain in me by drawing me closer, telling me the whole recipe. For years, the ingredient remained a permanent blank in Our Story. Gradually I came to accept that Frank was telling the truth on one count: Whatever glue had held the three of us together, the bloodred epoxy that makes a family, was gone.

I wrote something a few weeks ago about parents and children being in different universes, and how that sometimes accounts for what seems like a lack of empathy as one doesn’t recognize what’s important to the other. Here, it’s more of Frank’s deliberate choice to keep himself separate from Leni, to hoard a secret beyond the ingredient for the sherbet. A fundamental secret: loneliness and heartbreak. Because, he may think, what good would it do to share it with Leni? Is it perhaps more loving, more generous, to serve as the target for her anger?

He does eventually reveal the end of the story, the secret ingredient, during a scary bout of pneumonia. And that’s how we leave this family, with him telling Leni to match the story now on the menu at Ray’s Italian Feats. Leni still wonders about the dessert, which hasn’t been served for nearly 40 years now, as she writes:

Today I have some new theories about the popularity of our dessert at A FAMILY RESTAURANT. What we gave them was only disguised as food, I think. It seemed to nourish some hidden mouth, some universally parched place. Just writing about it here, I can feel that spot in me beginning to salivate. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s what I spent my early lifetime catering to at A FAMILY RESTAURANT.

I’ve often said I like stories that let me project into the future. That isn’t quite the case with this one, but I’m left wondering about Leni. Her story includes her past, but not her dreams or any plans for the future. Has she ever been off the island? Has she ever wanted to leave? Or was her destiny sealed on the night she was born, with her mother gorging on the sherbet, assuring Leni would put down roots in the restaurant that would never weaken? Is she happy? Is she blooming? Or is she stunted and shriveled like her mother before her? Extirpated in situ?

Late addition: The Millions just today (I’ve added this just before this is scheduled for posting) published an essay, “On The Stories Recipes Remember.” Cooking shows have long talked about the stories our food tells about us. So I suppose I do have a projection to make from this story. The capitalization of A FAMILY RESTAURANT – of Ray’s restaurant, for that matter – manifests what seems clear: the restaurant shouts the loudest. And I’m betting someone over at Ray’s went through a similar family saga before coming up with 800 words suitable for the back of a menu. Frank will look at Leni’s version of the Bakopoulos family story and perhaps learn something about his daughter before he shrinks it down to acceptable proportions, acceptable content, and insert it into the menu – which carries in secret this family’s story.