Pushcart XL: Wendy Rawlings, “Food and Worker Safety Across the Globe: A Nervous and Incomplete Case Study” (non-fiction) from Creative Nonfiction

So the situation was: our niece Amy up at 4:20 a.m. with vomit out one end and diarrhea out the other, except diarrhea not so much diarrhea-y but rather small particles of waste in bloody slurry. Amy’s parents and three sisters sleeping the profound sleep of the post-Christmas holiday-exhausted, so Amy, age 11, procured old towels used to wipe off Lynx (Irish Setter) when he came in from yard with dirty paws, set them up as nest in bathroom, and just sort of bled and vomited until light of day. Not really so bad (it would, after all, get so much worse) other than nastiness of forced evacuation of Stouffer’s lasagna consumed at dinner with large glass of orange juice and then the long stretch of dry heaving afterward. Amy grateful for one thing: had iPad for company.

~~ Complete essay available online at Places Journal

Hey, if you think the opening sentence is disgusting, wait until you read about the Chinese factory workers who killed themselves rather than work another day. Too far away? Then how about some of the lowest paid workers in America doing one of those jobs we keep hearing about: the jobs Americans don’t want: picking spinach in Salinas Valley all day long with no access to toilet facilities. Because they are what this story is really about. Amy is just collateral damage. But she’s someone who matters to us, so she draws us in so maybe we can look at the true cost of an iPad or cheap lettuce.

Calling this essay far-ranging would be like calling the moon a big rock. It meanders from Amy to iPad factories in China to produce farms everywhere to Lilly Pulitzer clothing (really?) to the etymology of “karaoke” to a Facebook friend named Quonnie to the medical details of hemolitic uremic syndrome to those fragrant plastic boxes of Fresh Spring Mix that I often buy when I get tired of Red Leaf or Romaine (I’m not stupid, I’m always nervous about that “triple-washed” reassurance, but I pretty much cross my fingers and hope I won’t be a statistic). Rawlings even admits at one point, ” I think I’m losing control of this story.”

I don’t think she lost control of it at all. I think the frenetic pace, the rapid-fire changes of topic, the intermixing of humor and tragedy, is the story. Lai Xiaodong, burned to death in an explosion caused by the aluminum dust he used to polish iPad logos in Foxconn’s factory in Chengdu, China, is the story. Bai Bing and Wu Mei, poisoned by the n-hexane used to clean iPads in a Suzhou factory, is the story. Paco, the spinach picker, is the story. Ma Xiang-qian and Zhu Chen-ming, two of the eighteen Foxconn employees who committed suicide by jumping from the Foxconn building, are the story (a problem remedied by safety nets because working conditions, well, do you want to pay more for your iPad?). Brianne Kiner, one nine-year-old who was hospitalized with E.coli toxicity in Seattle after eating a contaminated Jack in the Box burger, is the story (and if I may interject my own factoid, it’s ok now, the danger of E.coli contamination of meat has been reduced by washing meat, not to mention lots of other foodstuffs, with ammonia).

If it’s a wide-ranging story, it’s because it’s a wide-ranging subject. And by the way, I don’t mean to pick on Apple, and I don’t think Rawlings does, either. It’s just that Amy had an iPad, and the details of Microsoft’s sins – or Lilly Pulitzers (“From South America to the Far East, our product is made all over” their Facebook page proclaims, hoping people will think of the exotic and not the child labor or low wages) – are less well-publicized. But I don’t think this essay is intended to be investigational journalism, but a personal reaction using existing investigational journalism as a resource.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my “friends” on Facebook (I put friends in quotation marks because she’s not really my friend, just someone I knew in college, from which we graduated almost 25 years ago) posted a photo of “Minimum Wage Barbie.” The doll’s wearing a McDonald’s uniform and carrying a tray with a Happy Meal on it. Across the top of the doll’s box are the words GIRLS! This will be you if you don’t study. My “friend” added to her post, “I’ve been laughing about this all morning.” Now, you will probably accuse me of being overly sensitive and politically correct, but I walked around for the rest of the day thinking about Bai Bing and Wu Mei, Ma Xiang-qian and Zhu Chen-ming and their shitty jobs and their shitty useless dumbass deaths. They didn’t work in dangerous, low-wage jobs because they hadn’t studied hard at college. And in fact, I remembered that my Facebook “friend” hadn’t done much studying at the second-tier liberal arts school in the Northeast that the two of us attended.

As we become more and more globalized, we have to realize that our choice affect other people. It’s easy to say, “Family first,” and nearly impossible to see Paco or Bai Bing as family. That’s the value of this kind of essay. Maybe the locally grown produce or the shirt made in the New Jersey factory is more expensive, and we know there are no guarantees nor is every American factory a model of worker safety and fair labor practices. But maybe the cost of reducing prices is getting a little too rich for us. Maybe, as in the previous poem “Waiting for Rain” we need to think of humanity as a family, as one body, one organism, if for no other reason, than in self-interest. How long will it be before the 1% regards us all as disposable as Bai Bing, or Wu Mei – if they don’t already.

By the way, Amy survived her bout of economically-induced illness. Which is more than you can say for Bai Bing et al.

Pushcart XL: Ellen Bass, “Waiting for Rain” (poem) from The Sun #458

Finally, morning. This loneliness
feels more ordinary in the light, more like my face
in the mirror. My daughter in the ER again.
Something she ate? Some freshener
 
someone spritzed in the air?
They’re trying to kill me, she says,
as though it’s a joke. Lucretius
got me through the night. He told me the world goes on
 
making and unmaking….

~~ Complete poem available online at The Sun

It’s very difficult to dissect a poem when the subject is as personal and universal as a sick child. I wonder if that’s part of the process, for a poet, of dealing with such a massive personal stress: to control it, use it, turn it into something with meaning and beauty in order to get through another crisis.

Ellen Bass knows a lot about coping with crisis. Back in the 80s, she co-wrote The Courage to Heal, which became the bible for those still recovering from childhood sexual abuse, the scope of which was just emerging into the public consciousness at the time.

But this poem is a different kind of crisis: a sick child. We start with that intimacy, a mother waking up, thinking of her sick daughter. But this is set in the larger context of the earth itself, personalized by the drought clearly seen in the shrinking Kilimanjaro snowpack. Zoom out farther, to the entire universe, to Lucretius’ Epicurean theory (ancient epicureanism isn’t what you think it is) of atoms and the void: we are interrelated on the smallest, and the largest, scales, as we share atoms with all other matter in the cosmos. My own personal buddy, Walt Whitman, echoed such a strain in “Song of Myself”: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” The dying elephants in Tanzania, the sick child in California, are one.

Bass zooms in again, bringing us to a painful intimacy with her child, and ultimately, with her, by the close of the poem:

She’ll bring the pink plaid suitcase we bought at Ross.
When she points it out to the escort
pushing her wheelchair, it will be easy
to spot on the carousel. I just want to touch her.

The child is so fragile, so easily sent into paroxysms. We think the world is more robust, but that’s only because the scale is so much larger; if we could zoom back, we might see it, too, is wheezing.

Pushcart XL: Asako Serizawa, “Train to Harbin” from Hudson Review #67.3

I once met a man on the train to Harbin. He was my age, just past his prime, hair starting to grease and thin in a way one might have thought passably distinguished in another context, in another era, when he might have settled down, reconciled to finishing out his long career predictably. But it was 1939. War had officially broken out between China and Japan, and like all of us on that train, he too had chosen to take the bait, that one last bite before acquiescing to life’s steady decline. You see, for us university doctors, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We all knew it. Especially back then.
 
Two nights and three days from Wonsan to Harbin the train clattered on, the lush greenery interrupted by trucks and depots manned by soldiers in military khaki. Despite the inspections and unexplained transfers, this man I shall call S remained impassive, shadowed by a dusky light that had nothing to do with the time of day or the dimness of the car’s interior; he sat leaning against the window, face set, impervious to the din around him. Later, I would come to recognize this as a posture of self-recrimination, but at the time I had barely recovered from our initial journey by sea, and I was in a contemplative mood myself, in no condition to pause over the state of others, much less engage with my colleagues, who by now had begun drinking in earnest, liquor still being plentiful then, loosening even the most reticent of tongues. So I excused myself and must have promptly nodded off, for the next moment it was dawn, the day just beginning to break, the long length of the train still shrouded in sleep. I was the only one awake, the only one woken by the sudden cessation of rhythm, which drew me to the window, still dark except for my reflection superimposed on it.

~~Complete story available online at Hudson Review

I keep wondering what the definition of a great story would be. Something like this one, I would imagine: an emotional experience created by aesthetic choices skillfully executed, a text that seals the reader into a world with the characters until we laugh and cry and suffer and rejoice along with them, because we have melded with them in some undefinable way. Although I will avoid spoilers, I must insist that the story be read, via the link above, before it is read about.

It’s off to a languid, language-rich start, as shown by the opening paragraphs above. Long sentences, dependent phrases strung like railroad cars themselves, images, enough information to begin to ground us in WWII China, but I was a bit confused, uncertain of exactly what’s happening in the context beyond the train. A discouraging opening, maybe – I certainly felt discouraged – but as it turns out, it’s perfect because it allows some atmosphere before the gritty details are revealed in such an understated manner as to emphasize their importance.

While Auschwitz and Joseph Mengele are world-wide symbols of atrocity, Unit 731 in the Pinfang district of Harbin doesn’t sound that familiar. During WWII, it was known as an epidemic prevention center. That description isn’t totally false, but omits the primary purpose: it prevented the threat of epidemics faced by Japanese soldiers by brutal vivisection of Chinese prisoners of war, creating in them the diseases of interest, then dissecting them – often alive, usually without anesthesia – to examine the pathological processes. Mengele, by any other name. But it’s hard to feel righteous: The US struck a deal after the war: the scientists received immunity, the project remained secret for 40 years, and the Army got the data, which they felt would be useful vis-à-vis Soviet Russia in the post-war era.

Serizawa’s story follows the path of one fictional doctor who was recruited as staff with the promise of intellectually challenging research opportunities. We see his slowly growing awareness of what was happening, the denial (“the will not to believe”, Herman Wouk called it in War and Remembrance), the horror and guilt that weigh upon him afterwards. The character S forms the moral center: he steals some documents that will reveal to the world what is being done. The narrator waits, with equal measure of fear, guilt, and hope, for S to reveal the documents, for the investigations to begin, for the trials to commence.

As for S, he may as well have not existed the way things turned out; he never exposed those papers. Yet he had offered me a chance, and perhaps that is my final offense. I did not take that chance. Instead, I carried on, watching, as the world marched on—another war, another era—with fewer of us left every year to cast a backward glance.

The last scene is wonderfully constructed and emotionally devastating. A change in tense and a slight shift in voice brings us to full understanding of the relationship between the narrator and S, while breaking our hearts. Remember The Sixth Sense? A lot of people, including Roger Ebert, said they had to go back and watch it again after the ending revealed the little boy’s secret, to see how it was done. I had the same experience with this story.

But that isn’t the power of it: the power is how much compassion and love it generates for a monster. Because, as it turns out, the monster has his story, too. Don’t ever think it couldn’t happen here, it couldn’t be you, because I’m sure that, if you’d asked him, the doctor would’ve said it couldn’t be him on that train to Harbin.

Pushcart XL: Rigoberto González, “The Soldier of Mictlán” (poem) from four Way Books

Once upon a time there was a soldier
who marched to Mictlán in his soldier
boots and every step was a soldier
step and every breath was a soldier
word. Do you know what this soldier
said? I’d like a piece of bread for my soldier
hand. I’d like a slice of cheese for my soldier
nose. And I’d like a woman for my soldier
heart. …

~~Complete poem available online at Poetry.

A quick primer: Mictlán is the Aztec underworld, the place of the dead. I’m startled by some similarities to Dante’s Inferno: nine levels, a river, a dog, a four-year journey.

That’s the easy part. I’m not sure there’s a word to describe the style of this poem. Perhaps polyphonic verse? It’s extremely clever: while written in a single block with each line ending the same, when read aloud the rhythm creates different patterns, often very strong rhythms. Take a look at a restructuring of the first few lines above, for example:

Once upon a time
there was a soldier who marched to Mictlán
in his soldier boots and every step
was a soldier step and every breath
was a soldier word.
 
Do you know what this soldier said?
 
I’d like a piece of bread for my soldier hand.
I’d like a slice of cheese for my soldier nose.
And I’d like a woman for my soldier heart.

Suddenly death and war turn into a nursery rhyme. If you read it aloud, you’ll find several places, most places, break apart into stanzas like these, a variety of irresistible rhythms that cling lines together differently from the printed page. And notice, the “I’d like” section could be much simpler, could match the first group more closely by just omitting a few words in each line: I’d like some bread for my soldier hand, for example. But that isn’t how it’s done. That isn’t how it’s meant to be. It’s meant to be different.

It wasn’t until I read a post in Waxwing that I got a glimmer of what might be at stake here: The disguised rhythm is different, but the lines uniform, like soldiers in a row: each one a different soldier, but as a group the same. Not one soldier of Mictlán, but soldier after soldier, each line a soldier, a horde of soldiers one after the other entering the land of the dead, because that’s where so many soldiers end up, without bread, without cheese, without love, for the good of king and country, their stories told by a series of nursery rhymes to make it all palatable.

The poem leads off González’ 2014 collection Unpeopled Eden, described by the publisher thus: “Haunted by border crossers and forgotten deportees, lost brothers and sons, González unearths the beautiful and musical amidst the grotesque. These mournful, mystical poems are themselves artifact, a cry for remembrance….”

Pushcart XL: Kate Petersen, “Mezzo” from Kenyon Review, #36:3

Though it had been four years since she’d seen him, (since she’d been passed over), and they were predicting more snow for Boston, it was the right year to have lunch, so Martha took the commuter rail in from Worcester to meet her old teacher, Fred Holleman.
“We’ll have lunch every year that has an extra day in it,” he said at her last lesson before graduation. “It’s extra so that old friends find the time to have lunch.”
It was his way of speaking – imaginary, in a way – but Martha believed in it, had ever since her fourth lesson ten years ago, when she was fifteen, her voice airy and breaking across the important phrases of the soprano audition piece. “Know this?” he’d said in the middle of the Italian aria, and began to play the low opening bars to “Send in the Clowns.”

I’m not sure which came to Petersen first – did she write a shell of a story and realize it was the narrative form of the song, or did she want to fit a story to the song? – but the fit is extraordinary, not just in the broad strokes but in numerous details throughout. Yet for a reader unfamiliar with the song, the story would still work, the details smooth and not seeming shoehorned in at all. That’s pretty impressive, especially considering the density of details in the story: words, images, fragments of scenes.

Martha seems an odd name for our protagonist. Were parents naming their children “Martha” twenty-five years ago? Not often; it was the 218th most popular girl’s name in 1989, according to Time’s widget. I’m not sure of the significance of that, whether it’s to give an old-fashioned accent to the story, or to underline Martha’s odd-duckness, though she isn’t really so much odd as awkward and insecure. I’m not even sure significance is necessary; it just struck me as atypical.

The basic plot is a friendly lunch with her college voice teacher just before a concert he is in town to present, but a blizzard thwarts the event and sequesters them in a downtown hotel. Martha’s crush on the professor is balanced by her hurt at having been passed over for a grad-school scholarship when he recommended someone else. Her motivation through the story is to show him a piece she composed with him in mind, an original poem set to music:

A blue night is like a blue note:
not quite there, but close enough
the way I was almost inside of those lobbies then, those
thick-lit rooms of people.

Between the parallels to the song and the misunderstandings and missed connections that ensue, it might seem like this is the script for a romcom, and it could have easily gone that way way – or even into farce territory; don’t you love farce? – but Petersen keeps it under control. The tone is melancholy and reflective, the narration internal, and that provides a deeper resonance than expected from a summary: it’s a saxophone with its blue notes, rather than a piano playing a well-known tune. Although “Send in the Clowns” is a song I know very, very well (don’t we all), I didn’t even see all the references until the second time around, so they aren’t essential, just intensifying. I’ll admit that I also enjoyed it because of content. Like Martha, I’ve had a lifelong habit of developing crushes on music teachers. And I know what it’s like to very much want to be someone’s protégé, but to lack the requisite chops to be of interest to anyone interested in having such a disciple. It’s also not a surprise that, given my great fondness for Molly McNett’s “La Pulchra Nota” from last year’s Pushcart, that I should be particularly taken with another voice-teacher story, this one from another century, and the other side of the classroom.

I do have a complaint, however (don’t I always): the timeline clues seem crammed in to the opening paragraphs in a way that doesn’t make them that easy to follow. Or am I just dense about time? It is numbers, after all. But I had to draw a picture to figure it out, to get that she’s 25 years old and that this would be the first opportunity for the leap-year lunches he casually mentioned when she graduated. But even that brings me around to a nicely written moment: “She called people who said to call, and when she was asked for her number, which wasn’t often, she gave it, the real one. It was a sort of hope, she supposed, and let her down as hopes did.” The story is loaded with those. That’s what makes it a saxophone instead of a romcom.

I was very surprised when, during my usual googling-around to see who Kate Petersen is and what she’s up to, I found a piece in Necessary Fiction titled, “Why No One Writes Lyric Realism Anymore.” I don’t have any expertise in the technical aspects of literary criticism, so I’d be hard-pressed to define “lyric realism” but it sure sounds like this story. I shouldn’t have worried: the title belonged to a piece of fiction, not a didactic or an interview, and again she illustrates the abstract through a concrete story – pretty brilliantly, since it’s all very meta. I’ll have to keep a lookout for more; this is getting more and more interesting.

Pushcart XL: Tony Hoagland, “Song for Picking Up” (poem) from The Sun, #461

Every time that something falls
someone is consigned to pick it up.
 
Every time it drops and rolls into a crack,
blows out the window of the car
 
or down onto the dirty restaurant floor
— a plastic bag, a paper clip, a cube of cheese
                                                                     from the buffet —
 
there somebody goes, down upon
                                                               their hands and knees.
 
What age are you when you learn that?

~~ Complete poem available online at The Sun

It’s not just the image of someone on hands and knees – a deeply rich symbol, being down on one’s knees – that makes this powerful. It’s not just the reminder that moms and janitors pick up after us (and, by the way, they could be one and the same). It’s not just that we need reminding sometimes, that whenever we make a mess – whether it’s throwing strawberry hulls on the sidewalk, or trapping the vulnerable into no-win mortgages or drone-bombing some country that has despots and assassins but also farmers and babies and grandmothers just trying to survive – that mess will need cleaning up. We can clean it up ourselves, or we can just walk away knowing it will be cleaned up some day by someone, though perhaps not in a way we like, and maybe in a way that’s worse than the original mess.

It’s all that, this poem is, but it’s more because of that last stanza that snapped me to attention:

After that, then, no more easy litter. No more towels
on the hotel bathroom floor. You bend over
 
for even tiny bits of paper,
or, bitterly, you look back at your life — like Cain
 
upon the body of his brother.

Cain is another of those deeply-rich symbols, like being down on your knees. And, like knee symbology, we have many ways to go with it. Bended knee can refer to worship, to fornication, to the romance of “Will you marry me” or to hard, dirty labor, but all have their roots in subservience. We can dissect the mark of Cain as a symbol of evil or as a protective measure, see him as the bearer of evil into the world or look at him through the lens of forgiveness and atonement (I’m taking a mooc about the Talmud at the moment, and we just had a great discussion about the Jewish concept of T’shuvah, which, in my elementary understanding, encompasses concepts of atonement, forgiveness, and return from exile). He didn’t clean up his own mess, and look what happened.

But why should Cain be bitter? He was the cause, not the victim. Maybe, even causes suffer. Maybe even Cain deserves compassion. Now I’ve got a rabbit hole to explore.

It’s even possible some damn fools will come along and try to proclaim the mess to be the way it should be: embrace the mess. Watch out for those people. Chances are, they sell the mess, but never have to step in it.

Take-home: Imagine your mom on hands and knees picking up the mess you’re thinking about leaving behind. Makes it easier to live neatly.

Pushcart XL: Catherine Jagoe, “A Ring of Bells” (non-fiction) from Gettysburg Review, 27:2

Church bells punctuated our lives, doling out information and instructions, for the church clock tolled every hour. Eight bells meant it was time to jump out of bed and get ready for school. One bell meant it was lunchtime. Six bells, and it was time for Dad to switch on the evening news. Bells at 7:30 pm on a Friday meant the ringers were holding their weekly practice. In the evening, ten bells meant it was time to switch out the light. On New Year’s Eve, twelve strokes meant squeals, hugging, and one of the grownups popping a cork. Saturday bells signaled a wedding or a funeral.

~~Complete article available online at Gettysburg Review

This is what I love about Pushcart – about reading in general, actually. You never know what’s on the next page. It might be bells.

A few years ago, I sang in a choir at the local Unitarian church. The sexton would ring the steeple bell just before the service, using a thick rope hanging from the ceiling and stored well out of reach at other times. I can hear the bells every Sunday still from my apartment. When the Longfellow Chorus, another of my singing projects, used the church for its concerts, those bells chimed in to help with our final piece. There’s another church with a carillon that plays a 20-minute set of hymns in the evening, but that’s automated; there’s something particularly quaint and charming about actual bell-pulling.

There’s more to bell-ringing than just yanking on a rope. Jagoe takes us through the technical process, the effect it had on her as an adolescent, and the persistence of the memories, a lifetime later.

For those interested in finding out more about the craft, there’s a lovely video that covers history and technique. But this isn’t a how-to essay. It’s much more personal than that.

My ten years of bell ringing precede and include my years of teenage love, of anorexia and clinical depression, of losing my virginity and my faith. The bells woke me every day and kept vigil in the long nights of my illness when I lay unable to sink into sleep. The bell chamber became a refuge where I could sink into rhythm and concentration and briefly escape the obsessions that tortured me…. There, I didn’t have to speak. All I had to do was show up, hang onto my rope, and sound my bell on time. Ringing anchored me physically, acting as a literal lifeline to a community of music making and faith at a time of radical isolation and silence in my life. I was one note in a communal instrument speaking to the town.

Like Jagoe, I’ve sung in choirs since I was a kid. I’ve never pulled bells, but I did ring in a handbell choir for a while. And like her, after adolescence my only connection to church was music. I like to sing, and for amateurs with a fondness for polyphony and harmony, church is where the music is. In churches, as in schools, music is often the victim when expenses must be cut. Jagoe makes a convincing case that a church’s music program is about more than providing background music during the offering, and a school’s music instruction teaches more than scales and time signatures.

Pushcart XL: Raena Shirali, “Holi: Equinox Approaches” (poem) from Quarterly West, #82

holi

                 –“Young woman attacked on bamboo platform in front of entire village.”
                 The Independent, January 24, 2014

 
         Palash, flame of the forest, unfurls
against morning: a signal as it begins.
If only to forget the women
 
we won’t speak of, we toss
powder colored with spring crops
& watch our bodies eviscerate
the concentrated tone. If only to celebrate,
 
we look, for a day, past
the fire our kin have lit—blaze that chases
young women into alleys, or out
 
of this nation. If only to watch these bodies—only
ours.

~~ Complete poem available online at Quarterly West

First, read the news account of the incident that triggered this poem. Then, read the complete poem.

There’s nothing I can really add. Oh, I can fill in a few details (Holi is the spring Festival of Colors, a playful celebration involving throwing colors at anyone within range) (her crime was in being seen with a Muslim man) (the rape was ordered by the village council in lieu of a fine she could not pay) (India’s Supreme Court pronounced the rape “disturbing”) (enjambment is used brilliantly) (one truly outraged blogger asked, among other things, “Should I write about how painful it must have been for a father to see his daughter being gang-raped in front of the whole village because he didn’t have enough money to save his daughter?” ) (palash is a flower ground up to make some of the colors for the Holi celebration) (the woman was hospitalized in serious condition) (the rapists were sentenced to 20 year prison terms) (I can find no indication of how the woman is doing) but really, all you need is in the poem.

Although I’m carried off on waves of rage and horror by the content, I should say a bit about the poetry, particularly the enjambment (such a good word for a poem about rape). The first stanza ends with forgetting the women (I wonder what happened to her after she left the hospital) then completes the thought, specifying which women we will forget: the one we won’t speak of, not because of what she did, but because of the ugliness of what was done to her (although that distinction will be lost as it is for the American college student who, when she reports a rape, is asked what she was wearing that night before the rapist is sentenced to six months so as not to disrupt his life too much). Then there’s the inter-stanza enjambment again of “into the alleys, or out / of this nation” which uses the force of “in or out” (oh, god, the violence encoded here through language) to carry the momentum through, then twists the sense to show how serious this is.

         If only I could tuck a jacaranda
flower behind her ear, place dried tea leaves
in her hands, ask that she color her flesh
 
back again….

Pushcart XL: Zebbie Watson, “A Single Deliberate Thing” from Threepenny Review, #139

It had been a long, rain this July and before that, a dry June. The pastures were brown, the grass chewed to stubs and coated in dust. The horses stayed in all day and if I tried to turn them out before dark, they stood by the gate and sweated and stamped. Most farms got the corn planted early enough that it grew shoulder-high and deep rooted, but the second cutting of hay would be late and small and the soybeans were doing poorly, their leaves chewed by the deer and withering on the stem. I was counting swallows and waiting for the letter from Kentucky that might let me know if you still love me.
There were more swallows that summer than I can ever remember seeing.…

Having just brought out James Cary’s “Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this” quote just two posts ago to defend the deliberate use of oddness in the service of meaning, I have to admit I can find no reason for the repeat of the word “chewed” in the first paragraph. I’m going to guess it’s to emphasize the narrator’s sense of being consumed by her own passivity, and it goes together nicely with the swallows who fit perfectly with the dryness. Lots of ingestion going on here.

It’s an almost classic structure of two parallel stories: a dying horse, and a dying romance. A little too on-the-nose for my taste, but I can see it as a fantastic teaching story. This is how you do it, how you show an inner journey by an outer story.

I’m quite taken with the theme line: “It was then that I realized I’d done nothing all summer but wait for rain, that I hadn’t done a single deliberate thing.” And of course, the story ends with a confounding deliberate act: a decision to not-know. I suspect that in the cool days of Fall, she’ll take the letter, still unread, out of the drawer and throw it in the trash. Then she’ll get another horse. At least I hope so.

Pushcart XL: Brandon Hobson, “Past the Econolodge” from Noon, 2014

After all that, they told me to take out the trash and leave. I put everything into a duffel bag, including the lighter and book I stole from Whitefeather’s dad. The little girl was crying but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her goodbye. They wanted me gone. They called my social worker and made me wait outside in the yard. It was getting dark and I could see road dust settling from a truck that drove by. But I didn’t want to go back to the shelter, so I left on my own. I jumped the fence and walked all the way to Highway 51, past the EconoLodge and to the gas station across from it.

Writers are frequently advised to start their stories in the middle of things, then use various techniques to fill in the details. That doesn’t usually mean starting a story with a phrase like “After all that…” but I have to admit, it really does put the reader in the middle of things.

Hobson fills in some details, but most of them he leaves to us to  imagine. The detail about taking out the trash… now that’s a twist of the knife. Don’t just kick him out, make sure he does something useful when he leaves. Taking out the trash: the perfect thing to ask someone to do when you’re throwing him away.

What “all that” might this teenage boy have done to be kicked out of his foster home so abruptly? We already know he’s stolen some items, and by the end of the story we know he can be something of a slob, and is capable of treating people with contempt. We don’t know who Whitefeather is, presumably a friend, probably a girlfriend, possibly someone from a previous foster family, but it doesn’t matter: what matters is that we know our narrator stole a lighter and a book. A lighter? Possibly a practical choice, possibly an item that can be sold. A book? I really want to know what book. Is it significant to the father, to Whitefeather, to our narrator? Is it stolen to take something of value away from the father, perhaps in retaliation for the father taking Whitefeather away from him, or is it just a book he liked, or just whatever was on the table as he left, next to the lighter, and he wanted to steal something? And then I start wondering again about why they’ve so emphatically kicked him out.

The right details create lots of maybes in my head. In a story as short as this one is (not even two full pages) the details have to do a lot of the work. I think the tone does a lot of the work, too.  It creates a distinctly ominous tone throughout, though I can’t quite articulate how; as I read, I kept waiting for some catastrophe to occur, and by the end, although no catastrophe is described, I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Face it, the “after all that” wasn’t described, either; this is a story that leaves a lot in between the lines, and in the echoes after the last sentence is read.

The text gives no answers, only directions. But they’re good directions, and it’s a marvelous study in subtlety, in conveying a lot in a small space.

Pushcart XL: Rachel Rose, “White Lilies” (poem) from Prism, #52:3

It is hard for the dying to leave us.
We make it hard for them. So they wait
for us to step outside before they cut
the cord. So the baby
in the cabin, lungs full of staph,
who had been fighting the infection
for long nights and days
waited until his mother went out
to chop firewood before he sighed
and stilled.

Progression, transitions of focus, of person/subject; that’s what most interests me here, seeing a player introduced, take center stage as another is introduced, then be eclipsed by the newcomer, only to see the pattern play out again. There are two constant presences, although we aren’t aware of them at first. Nevertheless, they’re there.

I’d divide the poem, which is written as a block of lines, a single stanza so to speak, into six sections by these shifts. The first sentence, which I see as the first section, starts out with the most abstract, passive construction possible: “It is… [phrase].” I still remember a high school writing class, an assignment to write up a local newspaper story about a minor fire from some bare facts, and I began the story with: “There was a fire at…” In my defense, I was trying to avoid excess, like “Fire raged last night in the home of…” (it was a kitchen fire, for pete’s sake!). But I went too far, and thus learned about the purpose and importance of the lede.

But why would a writer of Rose’s stature begin a poem that way – a poem judged not only publishable, but prize-worthy? And again, I remember something I first read on Charles May’s blog, a remark from Irish novelist Joyce Cary: “Every professional artist has met the questioner who asks of some detail, Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this?” If the poem starts that way, there must be a reason. I think the reason is this progression, this wandering through different aspects: we begin with the most abstract, an establishing shot if you will, and then zoom in for closeups on the players. The near-repetition of the first sentence in the second – a clarification, really, a restatement, an assignment of responsibility – could be seen as underlining this. “That wasn’t quite what I wanted to say, but it’s a start; here, let me try again.”

The last word of that first line, in fact, brings “us” into the mix. Still abstract; not “us” in the sense of “the three of us sat around the table” but a more general everyone-us. This marks a transition to the second line, which brings the abstract “us” – the ones who are being left by the dying – and the abstract “they” – the dying. But it attributes concrete action to the “they”, and motivation as well. And it turns us towards the direction we will next travel, as “us” and “them” go from abstractions to individuals.

The third section is the concrete example of a particular baby who did, indeed, wait until his mamma stepped outside before dying. The abstract theory is suddenly very personal, as we are brought closer to these two individuals and see both their pain and needs. The fourth section continues to focus on the mother in vivid terms, and brings in the speaker of the poem, the “I” as another person in the scene: as a child, she saw the mother, clutching her dead baby in her arms, running desperately for help. While the baby is still present, he fades from the specific, becoming more of a concept, an echo, which hovers in one form or another over the entire poem from the fourth word on.

The fifth section then turns to the “I”, her memories of gathering flowers as a child, of being forbidden to attend the somber funeral. We spend some time with her memory of the events, and her present-day meta-analysis of the process of memory, before linking it via metaphor to the sixth and final section, putting us in the footsteps of the father who, arriving home, does not yet know his child has died. That poignant, highly detailed moment before the world changes, when whistling is still an option, ends the poem as far from the abstract opening as can be imagined. I think of the excellent/horrific short by David Foster Wallace, “Incarnations of Burned Children” and his focus on the father who also was outside just a moment before his child incurred a terrible accident. That moment from normal to new-normal, from innocence to loss, has a lot of power. We could be in that moment right now. Or now. Or now.

Lilies are quite versatile, spanning from weddings to funerals without hesitation; at Easter they mean resurrection, but they’re also highly sexualized. The all-purpose flower, beautiful, ready to take on whatever emotional significance is needed.

I’m also compelled to remark on the “I” who, as a child, gathered white lilies but was forbidden to attend the funeral. Would it not be better for her last memory of the baby to be at his burial, rather than his lifeless body clutched in the arms of his frantic mother who is running for help that does not exist? So often we try to protect children from pain, but I think it’s ourselves we are protecting. A funeral is about controlled, socially acceptable emotion, and the presence of a child could disrupt that control. A crying child could make us cry, or feel our own loss more authentically, and we wouldn’t want that, not in public, now would we.

Pushcart XL: Allegra Hyde, “Bury Me” from Missouri Review, #37.3

Art by Shira Sela

Art by Shira Sela

It was the strangest funeral I’d ever attended. Sunsoaked—on the old farm field behind Sally’s house—the bereaved dressed in a rainbow of colors, the air sugared with cotton candy and the pangs of a string quartet. A downy white pony for children to ride.
Sally saw me and came sailing across the lawn, a loose yellow dress lashed to her body.
“My mother’s,” she said, hiking the address past her knees, as if she were a little girl crossing a mud puddle. “I’m so glad you’re here”. She gave me a wet, splintering smile. “I almost thought you weren’t coming.”
“Sal –”
But she was already gone, and engulfed by relatives, all of them echoes of her: lithe Nordic bodies, white-blonde hair, long noses. Polished people who looked like they’d be cold to touch.
I had not wanted to come. It had been three months since I so much as grabbed coffee with Sally, and in those months I finally felt able to think straight.

Weddings and funerals make very popular settings for short stories, or scenes within novels or movies. There’s all that emotion right there, leaking on to the characters and, by mental association, the readers. Great numbers of characters from the past can be brought together, to demonstrate either change or stagnation, to paint relationships in actions and dialog rather than recollection, and to allow a kind of time-shift in perception: I used to have a lot of fun with these people; what did I see in them? for instance.

It’s also a great opportunity for quirks that either reveal character or simply create interest. Don’t you want to know more about this funeral, about the person who planned it, about the people who’ve attended, just from the opening paragraph? I know I do.

In fact, it’s such a convenient trick, it can seem like a gimmick. But I think Hyde pulls it off very well, because the funeral, with its strange cheerful veneer and the underlying death that’s at its center, is very related to the core of the story: the progression of the relationship between narrator Madeline and her once-BFF, funeralista Sally.

Upstairs, Sally lay on the bed next to Carlton, who still wore his clothes from the night before. Sally, though, was naked. It was how she liked to sleep. I have seen her naked plenty of times, but never so still. Never like that. It shocked me – the vulgarity of nude flesh – her flat chest, hip bones jutting forward, pubic hair shaved away. There was nothing I couldn’t see.

Much of what works are little pieces like that, scenes so intense the reader becomes a voyeur. Sometimes a single sentence, like “Sally draped an arm on each of my shoulders, so that for a moment her face eclipsed my whole vision”, put me right there in the backyard milling around before the funeral. But they aren’t in the story just for the sake of emotional heightening; they signify as well. Woven throughout are inserts of technical descriptions of the white pine tree, related to Madeline’s work as a botanist; these, too, signify, one sentence in particular: “The tree, however, is relatively resistant to fire.”

I had some gender-confusion early on. I’d assumed the narrator would be female, given the author’s name, but in the opening paragraphs, for some reason I changed my mind. This was quickly resolved by her name, but it made me think about cues we pick up, assumptions we make, even when we think we’re open-minded and gender shouldn’t matter. Vigilance, always.

In some way, this story reminded me of Bret Anthony Johnston’s work, how every sentence is carefully arranged and the entire narrative is perfectly groomed to lead to one spot. Sometimes I have to admire the story, even if I don’t particularly “enjoy” it (whatever that means). But here, I both admired and enjoyed. Hyde’s first story collection, Of This New World (which includes this story, as well as some science-fiction-fantasy work), is due for release in October 2016, and I’m genuinely curious to see more of her work.

In the end, the story comes down to reading a remark that could be an offhand remark except it’s repeated later in the story (and I’m ambivalent about the repeat; is it really necessary?). I’ve debated whether I should reveal that remark or not. I want to, because it’s nicely done: it invites the participation of the reader, and, while it definitely gives a direction to things, it allows for several possibilities. But, it is something of a subtle spoiler. So I think I’ll omit it. I have to leave some room for curiosity, now that the festive funeral is out there.

Pushcart XL: Nicole Brossard, “A Tilt in the Wondering” (poetry excerpt) from Vallum

LEXICON 1
 
my best buy of the year is an alarming creativity
a new concept for management so business becomes
a cute gentle occupation
almost a must for you and me to be creative so
everyone take part in the nyou wealth
 
I left the office I left the bar with non-written words
just excitement sur le voile du palais

I’m usually way over my head with poetry, some times more than others, like now. So I’ll just blather. I see someone, someone with a poet inside, who’s working perhaps in marketing, getting out of the business world, shedding it like a skin, feeling good to be back to her natural form. Excitement on the palate: ready to taste what is real, what is alive. And there’s a change, not only in scenery, but in language and emphasis. Now, this probably is not at all what’s happening. It’s more likely that nothing’s “happening” in the poem, it’s not a narrative at all, but this is what comes to me as I read it.

Again, I wish a piece was online, since I can’t possibly do it justice. It’s an excerpt from a single poem, published in chapbook form. Brossard typically writes in French, so most of her readings on youtube are in French. An exception is the Pennsound clip of a conversation with Charles Bernstein, which is about half and half, and has nothing to do with poetry but with her impression of regional French accents within the New World, that is, Haitian French vs New Orleans French vs her native Québécois French. What makes it an interesting inclusion here is the camera angle, clipped above: Brossard is literally atilt in the wondering.

After leaving work, it seems we have a movie:

VISUAL LEXICON 2
 
saw only 5 seconds of the kneeled woman about
to be throat cut by a male, saw a line of blood
from left to right on the neck
did not want to find out if it was true.
Suspect it was true. Could not watch. Would with one touch
of the finger on the screen not see IF IT WAS REAL real if it was
                                                                                               not REAL

At this point I have to wonder: why is it crime if the woman’s throat is cut on the street, and entertainment if it’s cut on the screen? A few months ago, I read a think-piece about the prevalence of violence against women in tv shows and movies. Although I’ve often enjoyed the original Law & Order and find the Criminal Intent spin-off fascinating, I’ve never paid much attention to the SVU part of the franchise, which, oddly, seems to be the most popular. Is that because, while the first two feature a blend of victims and evil motivations from greed to power to lust to jealousy to pain, SVU focuses on rapes, sadistic murders, and child abuse, its victims almost always women and children? I go back to last year’s essay by Pacifique Irankunda, “Playing at Violence,” and again wonder the hell is wrong with us.

Of course, Brossard may have something completely different in mind

HALF-WAY
 
half-way through the book
time came back with a question a trace
a spiral ready to expand meaning
a tilt in the wondering
 
how do you remove time from
meaning so meaning grows roots
in sound to exist beyond sounds

And that’s for me the mystery: are we talking about the wondering being tilted – “a tilt in the wondering” – or are we atilt within the wondering? The orthography declares a preference. I think I prefer the camera’s opinion.

Pushcart XL: Joyce Carol Oates, “The Childhood of the Reader” (non-fiction) from Conjunctions, #63

At the roadside fruit and vegetable stand on Transit Road, in Millersport, New York, I would sit reading. Head lowered, scarcely aware of my surroundings, which is the consolation of reading.
… Quart baskets, bushel baskets of pears. How much did my parents charge for a bushel basket of pears? I have no idea; surely not much. Their prices had to be competitive with those of commercial vendors, if not lower. If you were a small-time farmer you could pitch your goods so low that you made virtually no profit and work for nothing. (All of the farms in our vicinity employed “child labor” – the farm owners children. Hours of such employment are not negotiable.) Yet I remember the sting of embarrassment when a potential customer, frowning over our pears, or strawberries, or tomatoes, deftly turning back the tight leaves of our sweet corn to examine the kernels, decided that our produce wasn’t priced low enough, or wasn’t good enough in some way, returned to her car, and drove off.
Sitting at a roadside, vulnerable as an exposed heart, you are liable to such rejections. As if, as a writer, you were obliged to sell your books in a night

Funny, I’ve heard writers describe book signings and readings in just that way. I suppose the commerce end of things is more private, but considering what writers go through in workshops, it’s still a study in vulnerability. Funny again: I have a hard time imagining JCO as vulnerable.

Her 2015 memoir The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age includes a form of this selection under a different title. In addition to the roadside stand opener with its whispers of loneliness and, yes, vulnerability, it includes the kinds of scenes you’d expect: a small child checking Plato out of the local library, a young woman discovering a previously unimagined world in college – in her case, the world of literary magazines, but I think, I hope, all college students discover previously unimagined worlds, since that’s what education is about – her job at the library, complete with her shock at a $1.00-an-hour paycheck shrunk to 70 cents. And then there are pointers to the JCO we will all know: she won the Mademoiselle fiction competition in college, the same spot won in other years by familiar names such as Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion.

But there’s also a bit of a surprise: the graduate school emphasis on reading and analysis, separated from aesthetic appreciation. And her frustration with the dearth of writing during that period.

Writers who are enrolled in graduate programs soon feel the frustration, the ignominy, the pain of being immersed in reading the work of others… When they are themselves unable to write or even to fantasize writing.

When I was doing online writer’s workshops (before I finally accepted that I am not a fiction writer, that in addition to lacking talent, imagination, and training, I’d rather read and write about my personal reactions to fiction than imagine layered characters and intricate narrative arcs to express “what I want to say” and just write what I want to say) I kept coming across blurbs claiming “Anyone can write stories, here’s all you need to do” with five, or seven, or twelve easy steps, more information available in this book for $15.95. Even great writers will claim it’s more about persistence than talent. But I do think there’s that calling, the inner drive to write stories, just as for journalists there’s an inner drive to record, for scientists to understand, for teachers to explain and develop. Anyone can be a writer – or a journalist, a scientist, a teacher – but to be a great anything, it has to start with the innate need to do the core of the job.

JCO’s been widely praised for her work in literary analysis, and some of her novels have become Lit101 standards. But for me, it’s when she writes stories – about Emily Dickinson, about Robert Frost, about mothers dealing with children, about children dealing with mothers, about women dealing with life – that she swims through the water she was born to breathe. Then again, I’m biased.

Pushcart XL: Afaa Michael Weaver, “Waste” (poem) from Poetry, #December 2014

Romare Bearden, "Untitled" (The Father Comes Home) c.1970

Romare Bearden, “Untitled” (The Father Comes Home) c.1970

       …I am a wish in the skies
spun out from celestial space to be poor,
 
to be covered with black skin, a felt
quilt of a map with only one way to China—
 
through pain as big as hogs squealing
at killing time on black farms in Alabama—
 
the noise of death, the shrill needle
that turns clouds over to rip the air
 
above the cities where people are young
and all that is given is never taken away.

~~ Complete poem available online at Poetry

By sheer coincidence of timing, I just finished the portion of a 10-part mooc on Chinese history introducing ancient Chinese philosophies, including Dao. Although there are many approaches, I was quite drawn to both Laozi (who is echoed in Whitman) and, especially, Zhuangzi who tells intriguing parables about butchers and butterflies (one of the marvelous supplementary lectures, by Michael Puett, is available online). I can’t say I come close to understanding this in any depth, but I don’t despair: Afaa Michael Weaver has been studying Dao for years, and he’s still figuring it out. One of the ways he figures it out is through his poetry.

This poem is found in his collection City of Eternal Spring, the third part of a trilogy outlining his journey from suffering to recovery. I confess, this poem is beyond me, but the echoes are so beautiful, I can’t help but listen. In a reading at Carthage College, he prefaces the poem (13:35 mark) with the remark, “When souls change genders”. I’m not sure how that fits, but it’s part of the intrigue.

Pushcart XL: Joanna Scott, “The Knowledge Gallery” from Conjunctions, #63

“You saved nothing?” I asked, unable to contain my disappointment. I’d been hoping that a woman of her advanced age would have a diary or two in a drawer, maybe index cards or even notes scrawled on the backs of those old envelopes used for Baronial Cards.
She idly tapped the tassel on the window blind to set it swinging. “My dear, multiply two by zero and it would be nothing. If, rather, you mean anything, then yes, the last of it went into recycling when I moved here.”

Let’s start here: two times zero isn’t nothing, it’s zero, and if you think zero is nothing, then 1 is the same as 1,000,000. But Eleanor Feal, the author being interviewed in the opening scene of our story, seems to understand the difference between nothing and not-anything, at least linguistically, as she calls NAP agent on her first sentence. Judging from the first sentence, and how it reads the second time around, I’m betting author Joanna Scott knows, too. So I wonder if something else is going on. But… what’s an NAP agent? I’m glad you asked.

If you’re confused, you’re gonna love this story, or maybe hate it. Sadly, it’s not available online. I can’t do it justice, not because I try to be spoiler-sensitive (there’s nothing to spoil; the story is in what happens after you read it, how you try to figure it out, not in any plot twist or character-expanding surprise), but because it’s all still churning around in my head and I’m not sure I’ll ever get it to sit still for analytical parsing. I don’t think it’s the kind of story that was written to sit still.

Let’s start with a thumbnail sketch: sometime between now and 2052, paper is outlawed for ecological reasons, and everything is uploaded to the Cloud. This works out great until, well, you know what’s gonna happen. It happens to our unnamed narrator:

I was twenty-five years old and confidence that all was going according to plan. I agreed with my peers that we were living in a golden age. Except for the endless skirmish in northern Nigeria, the world was at peace. Every question had an answer… Until the morning when I was typing the final sentences of chapter two of my dissertation on my laptop, writing the words –
What words? Maybe something close to these words I’m writing now, surely involving dependent clauses, nouns, and article, an adverb, whatever, I’ll never know because I can’t remember the specific words, only the experience of watching the loop of a b break away from its stem, an o dissolve, an a sink to the bottom of the screen and disappear, replaced by symbols:⊆Σфℜξω, and on and on in a blur where there had once been sentences.

The National Archive Project is formed (aha! So that’s what NAP is) to recover the lost materials, and our narrator’s specialty is the subject of her pre-crash dissertation: Avanti literature. She’s running into some difficulties with this: each author wants to talk about, not his or her own work, but about another author. So our agent’s list of authors grows longer – she’s spoken to 27 writers in the present of the story – yet she has not recovered anything other than a list of names. Notice: she has not recovered nothing.

It’s the details that make this a story about, first of all, storytelling, of course, but also, about nothing vs zero vs absence of what was, about days of future past and past future and what is the present anyway, all in a self-referential inward spiral that leaves me chasing after one element, then another, until I get back to where I started from the center. It’s great fun. And I don’t think I’ve caught the half of it.

The many details lead to a number of comments, which, as hard as I’ve tried to organize them, simply come at me in different ways every time I approach them. So I will just start, and hope a structure emerges. Or doesn’t, as the case may be.

I see some logical holes in the story (why destroy paper that’s already been made? but many of our laws are incongruous) but I suspect they are wormholes with meaning rather than oversights or writer’s choices for streamlining. Example: so much of the named technology remains the same (the Cloud, FaceTime, Macs). That’s a tricky point for future stories, because if you have to spend all your time explaining that Arcus (or whatever) is what used to be the Cloud, you’re going to clutter things up. In a novel, you can show a character using Arcus, and the clever reader (the only reader a clever writer expects) will at some point realize, “Oh, Arcus is the Cloud.” But this is a short story, and a rather short short story at that: twelve pages. It could be called a writer’s choice, a compromise in the interests of clarity, and a wise one. But… could it be something else? Could it contribute to the cyclical, spiral connection between past, present, and future, another theme of the story?

The crash scene is wonderful. If you’ve ever been in a communal computer room, you know how it goes: the gasps, the groans, the terror that sweeps the room. I used such a computer room when I finished up college in the mid-80s (hey, so it took me a while, shut up) and this scene perfectly captures those days, in November and May, when twenty of us simultaneously realized the 20-page term paper due in two days was stuck somewhere we couldn’t reach. I’ve heard stories of writers who lost entire novels to a bad hard drive. Getting writers to back up their work was, until the Cloud, like pitching colonoscopies: nobody does it until they have a scare, and sometimes, it’s too late.

Beyond the amusement and self-recognition, I’m intrigued by the text that appeared in place of English on the computer screen, pictured above. The story isn’t clear if those are the only characters, if they’re repeated, if they’re just the first characters and what follows is random scattering of other characters we don’t realize we have unless we really look. But it occurred to me, all of those characters have mathematical meaning. Take a look at the symbols easily available on Word: they include various languages and linguistic symbols, currency symbols, arrows, corners, musical notes. All of the characters shown here, however, are mathematical. Subset. Sigma (summation). Phi, the “golden ratio”. Fraktur-R, the real portion of a complex number. Xi, the perennially lost “x” algebra students are forever trying to find, among other meanings. Omega, the first transfinite ordinal, a countably infinite set (and thanks to MIT’s “Paradox and Infinity” mooc, I have a vague idea of what this means) – and, to those of us who just read and don’t math, the End. Is there some meaning to these characters?

I asked for a math consult (thank you, Purgy!) to see if these characters might form a pun, a rebus, or have some other meaning when viewed by someone knowledgeable about math, but nothing stood out to him, so it could be they’re just random symbols. Perhaps the mathematical sense of all of them is meant to echo computer code. Or perhaps it’s something neither of us has thought of (Purgy hasn’t read the story, and I’m a mathematical idiot). I can see some possibilities – something about infinite self-reference, spiraling inward deeper and deeper until it collapses on itself like a black hole and nothing can escape but black-body radiation, a nothingness that isn’t nothing at all, but an immensely dense something. [Addendum: I pulled out the last stop and emailed the author, who, in her kind response, assured me the characters were random and had no meaning. I’ll admit, I’m a bit disappointed – but those who don’t want to face the truth should not seek it]

Oh, yeah, by the way, black holes crop up in the story, too, in connection with a minor discussion our NAP agent has on crash day with a tech support geek who’s popping doughnut holes as she impatiently waits for him to solve her computer problem:

“I don’t really understand why they call them holes,” he said at last.
“What?”
“If it were up to me, I’d call them centers.” I realized he was talking about the doughnut holes only when he offered the bowl to me, inviting me to take one. “I mean, the holes are what they leave behind, not what they are. It’s like saying their absence. Identifying them with the space they once filled.”
I wanted to say something insulting, but the rest of my day depended upon this techie’s ability to recover my files. I needed his know-how, as did the students who are lining up behind me.
“A whole is a hollow space in a solid body.” He tapped the escape button on the keyboard several times. FaceTime on his Mac rang. “Hang on, will you?” He said to his screen. “On the other hand, there are black holes, defined by such a strong gravitational pull that no matter can escape. They’re interesting, don’t you think?”

It’s not just two times zero, and “You saved nothing” versus “you didn’t save anything”. The story, a story about lost literature, is full of nothing that is the absence of anything that makes it something.

And then we have the Avanti writers.

Another consult, this time on language (thanks, Silvia!): The Italian word “Avanti” means “go forward” or, more colloquially, “get a move on”, but in the distant past, was used in the sense of “before”, probably acquiring the current sense from “going forward from x you find y, therefore x is before y”. I wonder if this is more of the shifting timescape. And, by the way, for contemporary Italians, Avanti conjures up a newspaper, which is also interesting: a news paper. Later in the text, a caretaker says to Eleanor Feals: “Andiamo” which, as any Italian opera buff knows, means “let’s go,” a similar exhortation that, however, includes both the speaker and the hearer. Avanti, to andiamo. You, to we.

In terms of its basic elements, Avantism was as diverse as literature itself. There were mysteries, tragedies, farces, fictional biographies, and biographical fictions. One novel used an encyclopedic structure, with chapters arranged alphabetically by subject. Another built its narrative out of a collage of quotes taken from other Avanti texts. Some authors concentrated on providing rich scenic details; others strove to give their characters an expansive interiority. All of the manuscripts were handwritten. Finished books were produced by expert letterpress printers on wove pearlescent paper, with painted cloth bindings.
What united the Avanti authors, besides the care they took with the printing of their books, was there dystopian imaginations. All the Avanti novels I read, plus those I knew of through hearsay, were set in an apocalyptic future, where civilization had deteriorated either into anarchy or tyranny.…
The Avantis prided themselves on scorning publicity. They had no websites, send no tweets, and were rarely photographed. Their work appeared only in hard copy. Once all publications became electronic, the Avantis refused to publish at all, sharing manuscripts only among themselves. The general public was indifferent. By the time I’d narrowed down the subject of my dissertation, few people had ever heard of the Avantis; fewer still had read any of their books.

These are the authors, then, who, when their work in the Cloud is lost, keep referring our NAP agent to other writers rather than discussing their own books. There’s something very odd about that. It’s not exactly a return to telling stories around the fire in the cave, it’s not exactly a game of telephone since there’s no message being passed along. I’m not sure what it is, but I’m sure it’s significant. A network of nothing, taking the place of that which is now absent. It’s something.

I’m something of a fan of temporary art: Phil Hansen’s tattooed bananas, Kurt Wenner’s sidewalk chalk anamorphics, Andres Amador’s sand pictures, Simon Beck’s snow art. There’s something about the evanescence that makes it feel all the more precious, something about loss that makes the having all the sweeter, something about the focus on the process that shames our focus on results. If we were immortal, we’d have scientists working on a way of achieving death.

I wonder if our obsession with capturing every moment on our always-present cameras blunts the present, makes us favor the past, artificially preserved past at that, rather than memory. Maybe that’s what Avanti is saying: Onward. Get a move on. And then, when our intrepid NAP agent (yes, I do love that acronym) shows up: “Let’s go.” Together.

We expect Pushcart stories to be very, very good. They’ve been chosen three times: once for publication, again for submission to the Editors, and a third time by those Editors. But “good” is such a bad description. Some are good in the “awww… that was really nice” sense. Some are good in the “wow, I can’t believe she did that, why didn’t I think of that” sense. And some, like this one, are good in the “I can’t stop thinking about this” sense. It’s possible, of course, that I’m overreading, or I’m captivated by something that is, to the more sophisticated reader, been-there-done-that. One of the reasons I have faith that this story has so much more to it than I can read is that it was nominated for its Pushcart by JCO; that could mean anything, but it doesn’t mean nothing. Another reason is that Scott won a Macarthur “genius” grant in 1992, so chances are she’s writing above my grade level.

I’ll be staring at those mathematical characters for a long time. Most, I’ve encountered already, albeit at a very elementary level. I will probably encounter them again. Maybe some day, the answer will leap out at me. Or maybe someone will see this, and from a greater breadth of understanding, suggest something that clicks. In any case, I believe there’s something wonderful here, something just beyond the reach of my fingertips. I just have to stretch a little more to grasp it.

Pushcart XL: Chana Bloch, “The Joins” (poetry) from Southern Review, Winter 2014

Paige Bradley: "Expansion"

Paige Bradley: “Expansion”

…what’s between us
is made of clay,

like any cup on the shelf.
It shatters easily. Repair
becomes the task.

We glue the wounded edges
with tentative fingers.
Scar tissue is visible history,

the cup more precious to us
because
we saved it.
 

~~ Poem available online in text and audio.

Many years ago, on a virtual mountain now lost amidst the electrons, I fell in love with the Japanese aesthetic concept of wabi: the flaw that perfects. Now, as it happens, my grasp of this idea was itself flawed – it’s more closely related to the idea of taking nature as is, not forcing nature into an artificial concept of beauty but letting blossoms rot and leaves fall, and it’s most often heard of in combination with its partner sabi, the acceptance of age with all its effects. Personally, I think my flawed understanding perfected the idea, but I suspect a few thousand years of Japanese philosophy might argue with that.

As it turns out, I was perhaps closer to the philosophy behind kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with golden joins. The artist does not try to hide the break, but instead makes it part of the aesthetic of the piece. It’s quite an honest approach to art, and an expansion of the concept of beauty to include history.

Bloch uses these ideas to approach a broken and repaired relationship in this poem. Interesting, how this is the second approach to broken cups included in this Pushcart. The first, Margaret Gibson’s “Broken Cup,” applied the metaphor to health, and saw the break as a weakness that imbued the cup with great value, as its handling now required extra care. Here, Bloch’s relationship metaphor also sees enhanced value in the broken piece, but feels it is for the opposite reason: the joined places are stronger than before the repair.

There’s no reason both can’t be absolutely true. And absolutely false. How each of us approaches the broken cup in our lives is up to us, and could easily vary depending on not just our attitude, but the circumstances of the break, and the nature of the cup itself. However, the point is made: a break can be successfully incorporated into history, can be embraced.

I use that word, “embraced”, under the influence of a video by nerdwriter, aka Evan Puschak: “Kintsugi: The Art of Embracing Damage”. He so beautifully sums up the concept, I feel like there’s nothing left to do, except to note that I can’t speak to the accuracy of his report, only to its meaningfulness, particularly in relation to Bloch’s poem.

Why is the poem written as it is? I can speculate. The opening line: “What’s between us” puts two one-syllables at either end, with a two-syllable between. Something bigger than us is between us. I find it interesting that, while the speaker is referring to the emotional bond that keeps people together in a relationship, as gravity keeps the earth and moon together, “what’s between us” could also be read as “something has come between us,” as a problem. Again, we have the choice of how to view what is between us: as a shared experience that lends depth and strength to our relationship, or as a problem.

After several rolling lines with varied rhythms, the speaker discounts the idea that the bond between them is flexible, like the thin sheet of skin that webs thumb to hand. No, she says, this thing between us “is made of clay.” The four syllables march across the page with an emphatic force. And again, it’s a question of what we make this: a wall between us, or a way to connect through the golden join.

Why is the poem written in three-line stanzas? I’m not sure if three has particular significance to Japanese art, but it tends to stand for completion in English language. A couple of years ago, I took part of a poetry workshop with Robert Haas through Iowa’s OPEN mooc platform. He had some ideas I found wonderful, among them:

      ― a single line poem is about identity
      = a two line poem is about relation
      ≡ a three line poem is about weaving together different things.
      ≣ a four line poem is how we organize the world

Now, he was talking about poems, not stanzas in poems. But I’ve come to see poems written in couplets as being about relationships between two subjects, and so I can easily see how a three line stanza could involve this weaving together, a join. It could also be about two people and the thing between them – which, again, could mean the relationship made stronger by a break, or could mean the problem itself. I also wonder about my vague recollection (which may be as flawed as my long-ago understanding of wabi) of rhetorical structure: two is the structure for opposition, three is the structure for stability, four is the structure for conformity.

I’m not sure that we are stronger in the broken places that heal. If that’s the case, why don’t we break our children early and often, to make them the strongest they can be? Instead, we rely on the breaks of ordinary life – the death of a pet, the betrayal of a friend, a first love gone bad – to do the job for us. Maybe we think that’s enough. Maybe we know that some breaks do heal stronger, some remain broken, and some heal but hurt forever.

But sometimes, if we’re grown-up enough and have learned enough about relationship kintsugi, it’s possible to choose whether a break is a flaw, or art.

Pushcart XL: Lisa Lee, “Paradise Cove” from Ploughshares, Fall 2014

The beach house in Bodega Bay was supposed to be our escape, but it was just another place for us to be uncomfortable together. Every summer, we used to spend a couple weeks there. My father drove us in his coral car, a BMW sedan so glossy it was almost as if it wasn’t there; all you could see were the objects and colors reflecting off of it.… My father drove, my mother sat in front, and Kevin and I piled in the back. We fought over the dividing line that separated his half of the back seat from mine. After we spent some time jabbing our elbows into each other’s ribs, our mother would tell us to quiet down. She would point her finger at me and say, “Don’t talk back to your brother.” Men were always right, they always had the authority, and she imposed this on me, though living according to that rule was at the root of her unhappiness, even if she never knew it. That, and the tendency to compare herself to everyone else, her husband to other husbands, and her children to other children, in order to measure her own success.

The scenes are crystal-clear and deliver pithy truths about authority and rank within a family, the loneliness when one does not fit into her appointed place, how a child learns about racism in America from the other side of whiteness, how invested everyone is in keeping that a secret, and the marks all of that leaves. I just wish this were a short story instead of a novel excerpt.

I’ve railed about this before. It’s possible for a novel excerpt to work wonderfully. But the two forms are different, and somehow, even an excerpt from an exceptional novel – maybe especially an excerpt from an exceptional novel – just reads off as a story. I’m not about to second-guess Ploughshares, or Pushcart, but for me the rhythm was off. The ending, instead of leaving me with that wonderful “projecting into the future” feeling only left me wondering what I’d missed, or if pages had been left out. That was before I realized it was an excerpt; now I understand.

The portrait of the unhappy-in-its-own-way family in years past was, as I said, captivating, if too short to support the grown-up final trip to Bodega Bay with its shocking ending. I idly wonder if the use of that location brings to anyone else the sense of the original Angry Birds ripping Suzanne Pleshette to shreds and leaving her limp and bleeding on the front porch. It’s not an inappropriate allusion, as this family, and brother Kevin in particular, seems to be a nest of angry birds, contained for years by some force that in the final scene begins to fray.

He caved in like that, always giving up what he wanted, because our parents taught him that men should give up things and women should be given things. I remembered that later, the unfairness to both of us, how one person was given power and authority but forced to sacrifice personal desires, while the other person was made powerless but given the right to material things.

While Jane is a great character, I didn’t get enough of her to set the bait, and nowhere near enough to allow me to see past the abrupt ending. I’d love to know the mother better – and the father, who is only reflected in the family as the world is reflected off his coral BMW. I’m going to assume the novel starts from that ending, and covers the past more fully in flashbacks as it moves forward. Just from the few pages here, I’d heartily agree it’s ground worth exploring, as is the impact of those years on the present. And I have every reason, based on these glimmers here, to believe it will be far more satisfying as a novel.

Pushcart XL: Julia Story, “Picture of a River” (poetry) from Sixth Finch, Winter 2014

Christopher Marlowe? Portrait at Cambridge University

Christopher Marlowe? Portrait at Cambridge University

They could eat food but it made them decay. I read about it, then put the book down and slept for five hours. I dreamed the river took the dead in a type of passageway, on its way to somewhere else, or toward other people.

Angelina Jolie’s belly has popularized the Latin statement “quod me nutrit me destruit”, usually interpreted as “What nourishes me destroys me”. The sentiment goes back much further. Shakespeare used a similar sentiment in Sonnet 73 and in Pericles, Prince of Tyre. What may – or may not – be the only surviving portrait of Shakespeare’s contemporary (and, some believe, his true identity), Christopher Marlowe, includes the same quote; it may be a variation of the inscription on a statue of his literary hero, Ovid, usually translated as: “Here I lie, who played with tender loves, Naso the poet, killed by my own talent.”

They’re talking about ambitions and drives, including the artistic urge to create, rather than food (though I understand the quote has been used, or perhaps mis-used, by pro-anorexia groups), I leapt to those thoughts with the first line of Story’s prose poem. What is ingestion, digestion, nourishment, but destruction, and life itself requires death. Yet that conundrum is the definition of hell: to be destroyed by what is required for life. This is a bit of a digression, as it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the piece. It merely captivated me from the start.

Although the poem is one single paragraph, I can see four different visions of rivers: the book that starts us off, then the dream, then a memory from Sunday school, then a more prosaic river in a town: a river that does nothing. The rhythms of the sentences change between these rivers. We start off with that almost bouncy 1-2-3/1-2-3/1-2-3/and-stop first sentence, but the next section has a more rolling rhythm, like the small waves a river might have. The Sunday school portion describing the Rapture loses rhythm, but it’s picked up again when “the river, here in the book and in my head, moves part of me to another part of me.”

Then the line that echoes the first, rhythmically in style if not in meter: “There was a River in my town: it did nothing” which I can parse into iambic-ish pentameter that comes to a halt at just the right semantic place: on nothing. Even the river of the dead has a function.

I’m not sure if the initial vision is from the ancient Greeks, the Romans, from Dante, or from some later imagining of Styx. I’m not sure of anything here, except that there are opposites that are the same: life and death, nourishment and destruction, this part of me and that part of me, the loving God who rains down destruction on his creation.

Pushcart XL: Anthony Doerr, “Thing with Feathers That Perches in the Soul” (non-fiction) from Granta, #128

The O'Farrell cabin, Boise, Idaho

The O’Farrell cabin, Boise, Idaho

I am driving my twin sons home from flag football practice. It’s September, it hasn’t rained in two months and seemingly half of the state of Idaho is on fire. For a week the sky has been an upturned bowl the color of putty, the clouds indistinguishable from haze, enough smoke in the air that we tasted in our food, in our throats, in our sleep. But tonight, for some reason, as we pass St. Luke’s hospital, something in the sky gives way, and a breathtaking orange light cascades across the trees, the road, the windshield. We turned onto Fort Street, the road frosted with smoldering, feverish light, and just before the stoplight on Fifth, in a grassy lot, I notice, perhaps for the first time, a little house.
It’s a log cabin with the swayback roof and a low door, like a cottage for gnomes. A little brick chimney sticks out its shingles. Three enamel signs hang on the south side; a stone bench hunkers on the north.
It’s old. It’s tiny. It seems almost to tremble in this strange, volcanic light. I have passed this house, I’m guessing, three thousand times. I have jogged past it, biked past it, driven past it. Every election for the last twelve years I voted in the theater lobby three hundred yards from it.
And yet I’ve never really seen it before.

Anthony Doerr gets me every time. I start out thinking, well, this isn’t going to be anything I’m interested in, the history of Boise, Idaho. And I end up in tears, and I’ve made a new friend named John and his new wife Mary, and it doesn’t matter that they’ve been dead over a century; they are part of my life now, and I’ll think of them whenever I see an old cabin in some corner of a nothing town somewhere: someone was here. They had a story, and now their story is part of my story.

Doerr interweaves present with past with distant past as he remembers Boise before “eighteen Starbucks, all twenty-nine playgrounds, all ten thousand streetlights” and thinks about his own road to parenthood, the process of preparing a nursery for twins just as John had prepared his cabin for Mary, on her way from Colorado, back in the mid-19th century when Idaho was still a territory. He uses this concept of preparing a welcome as a connection: “When you prepare a welcome, you prepare yourself…. You say: Here. This might be humble, this might not be the place you know. This might not be everything you dreamed of. But it’s something you can call home.”

And he brings in storytelling – the theme I’ve sensed for several pieces now in this anthology, the theme dear to every writer and every reader – as a beautiful close to the story, a close that loops back to the opening:

What lasts? Is there anything you’ve made in your life that will still be here 150 years from now? Is there anything on your shelves that will be tagged and numbered and kept in a warehouse like this?
What does not last, if they are not retold, are the stories. Stories need to be resurrected, we’ve typified, reimagined; otherwise they get bundled with us into our graves: 100,000 of them going into the ground every hour.
Or maybe they float a while, suspended in the places we used to be, waiting, hidden in plain sight, until the day when the sky breaks and the lights come on and the right person is passing by.

Like I said, he gets me every time. He makes me want to tell someone’s story, quick, before it’s too late.