Pushcart XLI: Reading in the Time of Solastalgia

Trini Schultz: “The Sound of Rain”

Trini Schultz: “The Sound of Rain”

Solastalgia is a very good word, made by combining the Latin solacium (comfort) and the Greek root -algia (pain). Philosopher Glenn Albrecht created it to define “the pain experienced when the place one lives and where one resides is under assault.”

~~ Lisa Purpura, “Scream (or Never Minding)”

It’s a question I seem to hear amongst the smartest, most creative, most engaged people I know: Does writing matter, now, in this time? So many of us feel our space is under assault on multiple fronts. I can only write so many letters, donate so much money, to do what I can to keep light in the world. The psychic, spiritual, and emotional nourishment from reading, thinking about what I’ve read, and forming tiny essays in response, seems far better than curling up in bed and pulling the covers over my head.

These characters, poems, these stories fictional and real – a rejected teenager trying to find her art, a charmingly goofy children’s author from the Faroe Islands, a New Orleans rapper, a Russian mobster, a fungus-lady, a burrito maker, a Brazilian telegraph operator, a disabled vet and the animal shelter worker who accidentally euthanized his dog, a woman on a strange trip through Vienna, an anorexic college student, a farmer recovering from great loss, a Jewish family over decades of change, an unwilling drug cartel participant – are a precious resource and we would be poorer without them. I’m grateful to the writers who put these words on paper, and I hope they know they serve a vital purpose, “holding open a space that is always under threat of being shut down” as artist Jenny Odell put it.

As I progressed through the volume, I tried to keep an eye on connected themes. It seemed we started with explorations of art in its many forms: its purpose, effects, practitioners. The body came into focus, shifting to embodiment and the joining of the body with the natural world, turning to psychic connections with each other and with something outside ourselves. Then disconnectivities, whether through chance or choice, emerged, just in time for the reader to disconnect from the book and move on. Of course, I could be imposing my own moods on defenseless entries, seeing Orion in unrelated stars or a face on the surface of Mars. That’s always the thing about art: it’s a collaboration between artist, medium, and beholder, and all have their say.

I confess to feeling a bit guilty that I may not have given all these pieces the attention and thought they deserved. Time was not so much the issue as my mood, affected by matters public and private. Not all of those moods were negative, by the way; I’ve discovered it’s just as hard to focus under the influence of joy and enthusiasm as when overcome with anxiety, anger, sorrow, or hopelessness. But I did not give up.

And so, one day at a time, we read, and write.

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Pushcart XLI: Lauren Slater, “Bloodlines” (nonfiction) from The Sun, March 2015

I put my hand on the mound of dirty laundry, then lifted my palm to my nose and took in the scent of him. I felt happy because, well, here he was, the man I’d married, his scent the same now as it had been twenty-odd years earlier…. I recalled an experiment I had once read about: A group of men wore simple cotton T-shirts for a couple of days, perspiring in them, sleeping in them, and finally peeling them off and giving them to the researchers, who then asked female test subjects to select the T-shirts that smelled the best to them. The researchers found that each woman consistently rated highest the T-shirts from the men whose immune systems contained important components that hers lacked, thus ensuring that any offspring they produced would have a robust defense system. In other words, women are drawn to men who have deep genetic differences from them — immunologically, at least. Why would this be? Because evolution does not want us to pick mates with genomes that are the same as ours. Evolution wants diversity; the more, the better.

Complete story available online at The Sun

This essay – it’s listed as an essay, and is included in the 2016 Science & Nature volume of the Best American series – sweeps from a dissolving marriage (Wikipedia indicates Slater is now divorced) to home DNA testing for ancestry and medical markers to what it’s like to live with cancer even after a ten-year “clear” period. I had a lot of thoughts about this as I read, but I’m not going to share many of them, since my thoughts have been a bit unreliable lately.

Opposites may attract, but living with them is a different story.

We have been married for twenty-two years. Everything was fine until, twelve years into it, we had kids. Our children changed us. They brought out in B. a love so fierce, so focused, that I fell off the edge of his world, plunging into some sea where, no matter how much I flounder and flail, he fails to toss me a line.
My children often seem to be apparitions, floating forms, people of poured glass, ghostly and beautiful and beyond my reach.
I recently told my husband that if we want to save our marriage — in which whatever common ground we had has long since eroded into rubble and slid down some steep slope — then we need to spend time together without the children. It works like this, I told him: The husband and wife are a team of two. That team has to be the priority, or the family collapses.
It works like this, my husband told me: We need to do more things together as a family. If I would join them when they play Scrabble or Clue, then our marriage would improve.

I found it an odd choice for the final entry in the volume, given that Pushcart, unlike BASS, can determine the order. But this could be the product of my unruly thoughts at this time. I’ve been waiting for those thoughts to settle down, but they show no sign of doing so, and time moves on. I must do something; and since I’m unwilling to commit myself in white and black on this one, I’ll just leave these passages and the link to the original publication for those who’d like to pursue it.

Pushcart XLI: Daniel Peña, “Safe Home” from Ploughshares 41.2

Cuauh always greases the landings. If the winds are strong, he lands in the desert north of Obregon, on a sand strip outlined by burning tar barrels, desert oak, and split saguaro cut lengthwise to catch the neon sun. But if the winds are calm, Cuauh lumbers his aircraft, an aging M20J, onto a neighborhood street in Lomas de Poleo just inside Ciudad Juarez. All of the homes abandoned. Everyone gone from the drug wars.

Storytelling is a great way to turn information into an emotional experience. That’s what Peña’s done here: this story began as academic research. He tells the story’s story in the Houston Chronicle: how, during his own pilot training, he’d seen Mexican planes at lots of Texas airports; how he learned of their connection to drug cartels; how he researched drug cartels, and the effects of American policy, both in graduate school at Cornell and continued his research in Mexico City as a Fulbright Scholar. He could have written something academic or journalistic, but instead he turned it into this story of Cuauh, an undocumented worker flying crop dusting planes in Texas until he’s deported. Nonfiction generates sympathy; fiction creates empathy. At least, this fiction does.

This was in the beginning, when Cuauh was freshly deported. The new pilot from Texas who’d once been a drop duster. He was kidnapped in Nuevo Laredo right after he’d walked the bridge, and ever since, he’d been lonesome in that briny way – sulking, scared, stone hopeless.

Around the time I was reading this story, I saw a news story about one Beatriz Morelos Casillas, deported for driving without a license after 20 years – just a shade too old for DACA – and sent to Nuevo Laredo, “one of the most dangerous places in Mexico and where the State Department issued a travel warning in December 2016 due to violent crime.”

Life meets art.

Cuauh’s crisis begins when he sees the purple cowboy boots hanging out of a familiar truck. He knows whose feet are in those boots. He isn’t exactly friends with Lalo – friendship isn’t a wise investment in their business – but he’s well-enough acquainted enough with the guy to wish him no harm. What he doesn’t yet know is the role he’ll have to play in that harm. And refusing is just not an option.

The cell chiefs kept names and addresses of relatives. Even if they couldn’t find you they would find your brother or your parents. It was the thing that kept Cuauh from simply talking his plane and flying off into the north. It was the fear of it that kept him coming back, day after day, to the desert strip or the little road in Lomas de Poleo.

It’s a grim story, a story I almost wish I hadn’t had to read. But that’s the power of storytelling, for better or worse: it shines a spotlight in places we might not want to think about, and lets us see people we might think we already know in a different light.

Pushcart XLI: Tatiana Forero Puerta, “Cleaning the Ghost Room” (poem) from Hawaii Pacific Review 2/25/15

Mami made me dust
the ghost room as she swept
the kitchen downstairs, washed the fruit-
shaped porcelain dishes.
 
I objected, tearing up and shaken, clutching
to the dust rag, heart pounding. She said,
it builds character of high caliber, camaraderie
with the spirits. You want the dead on your side.

Complete poem available online at Hawaii Pacific Review

Most of us have deeply ingrained attitudes towards the dead, and fear probably ranks highest. To a young girl, the idea of dusting in a room where someone died – we never know who Mr. Traynor was, a tenant, a patient? – must’ve been terrifying. She imagines him in the rocking chair where he spent most of his time. But Mom saw it differently.

While the first four stanzas express the child’s discomfort and resentment, the last three acknowledge the lesson that was taught and the gratitude felt towards a mother who made her “wipe / the mirror clean to reflect my / fear up close”, to “see myself in its pupils.” And as mother prepares child for an inevitable eventuality, so the poem prepares us for the last lines.

Pushcart XLI: Steve Almond, “Dritter Klasse Ohne Fensterscheiben” from Ecotone #19

"Different Trains" by Steve Reich (composer) and Bill Morrison (filmmaker)

“Different Trains” by Steve Reich (composer) and Bill Morrison (filmmaker)

In the spring of 1889, Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Constantinople for the first time. He was enchanted—by the Topkapi Palace, the promontories of the Golden Horn, and in particular (as the rumor went) the exotic gyrations of the Sultan’s harem. The German Emperor, then at the height of his power, became convinced that the destiny of his kingdom resided in the expansion of its frontier into what he whimsically called “the Sultan’s forlorn flank.”
The discovery of vast oil reserves beneath Iraq ratified this notion and led to the conception of the so-called Bagdadbahn, a railway intended to connect Berlin to the Persian Gulf. Using the Ottoman Empire as a fueling station and trade depot, Germany would challenge the imperial dominance of Britain and Russia.
Historians may debate to what extent these ambitions contributed to the First World War. This much is known: in 1912, the Deutsche Bank transferred Wilhelm Geist, a Jew of modest birth and steadfast manner, from Berlin to Constantinople to oversee the project.

If you think that story opening is so dry you have to blow the dust off it to read it, well, I won’t disagree with you. It’s kind of odd to encounter in the “knock their socks off with an exciting first paragraph” age. I suspect the story would be savaged in a workshop setting, and without Almond’s name, would never get out of the slush pile (a few months ago, my blogging buddy Jake Weber had similar comments about another Pushcart-winning story that would never have seen the light of day without a “name” attached to it. But I promise, here the detachment adds to the story, since it’s indicative of character. And, by the way, there’s plenty of action. A visit from the Kaiser. The tension of a project failing in the setting of a losing (literally) battle. A terrifying train ride. There’s also a great deal of emotional depth as the focus shifts from Wilhelm to his wife to their daughter over the years covered in 16 pages. And it all comes down to this: you can never outrun the past that made you who you are.

The Bagdadbahn was a real project in the early 20th century, and in fact still exists although its use is limited to certain stretches and purposes. Herr Geist, however, appears to be a fictional character, or at least his contribution is too obscure for Google. We start with his obsession to complete the railway, an obsession he never realized; it was abandoned at the end of WWI, and only completed in 1940, just in time for another war. But that’s not part of our story.

As it becomes evident that Germany is losing the war and Constantinople is in danger, Frau Geist (we never learn her first name) and child Leah board a train for Berlin; they will never see their husband and father again, only hearing of his death months later.

They make a larger journey than planned on that train ride, however. From a privileged life of respectful servants and social status, Frau Geist is now merely a homely defenseless Jew. While it will be a few decades before Germany adopts genocide as policy, their lives are changed. The train they ride is commandeered for military transport of wounded soldiers, and they are evicted from their comfortable compartment. It’s only by the grace of Frau Geist’s small stash of gold coins that they are not thrown off the train and abandoned in Hungary or Romania.

Frau Geist pulled Leah under her mink and whispered, “You see? We’ve found a cozy place to sleep!” Thick bodies resettled themselves against her, seeking warmth. She smelled the putrefaction of their wounds. The stars whistled and zoomed.
As dawn filtered into the car, Frau Geist surveyed the pine benches, the filthy water closet. Daggers of ice dripped from the window slots. Her shoulders jerked silently. Leah heard her mother murmur a single phrase with such bitterness it was as if the words were a poison released onto her tongue: “Dritter Klasse Ohne Fensterscheiben.”
Third class without windows.

With Geist’s train building obsession, and Frau Geist’s traumatic journey, and the general aura of Germany and war, albeit WWI, in mind, I couldn’t help but flash on Steve Reich’s “Different Trains”, a musical statement about the Holocaust. Sometimes we’re lucky we’re on the train we’re on; sometimes not. Sometimes we don’t know for years which it will turn out to be.

We see mother and daughter make it to Berlin, and out of Berlin just in time. We watch as their lives unfold in perhaps predictable ways. And then we see them come together again, since they are perhaps they are the only ones who can understand each other.

Leah picked up one of the anise biscuits her mother had set out with tea. It crumbled on her tongue. All women are hostages, she though suddenly. They believe themselves protected by beauty or wealth or powerful men. But in the end the world takes hold of them and they are left to protect themselves.

Like I said: it’s not a dry story at all. The initial tone sets it up like a relationship: the story only lets us come closer as we get to know these women better.

As I noted a few posts ago, Ecotone publishes fiction that shows a special connection to place, particularly transition between places: “a place of danger or opportunity, a testing ground.” Our characters move from Berlin to Constantinople to Eastern European railroad beds to Munich to New Jersey and Chicago, but nothing is ever left behind.

Whenever I read a story by Steve Almond, I think of his teeny-tiny book of writing advice/microflashes, This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey. One of those flashes got me to cry over Richard Nixon. Reeling me in to the Geist saga wasn’t ever in doubt. Love your characters, he advises. Push them up against their deepest fears. Turns out, all our deepest fears – failure, loss, loneliness – are pretty much the same, though they happen in many different settings.

Pushcart XLI: Douglas Milliken, “Blue of the World” from Glimmer Train #94

May 24th, 1965
Walked the orchard line with the boy today after the service, from the house to the north end of the property. All the blooms had blown off the limbs, so just a foamy wash of white or dried-up yellow petals were left here and there on the ground. Very many small green apples have started, few much bigger than the head of a nail. The trees looked good. I do not much fear a late frost ruining everything that’s begun. But in this, I’ve been wrong before.

A mysterious start: who is “the boy”, why is he with the rancher, what was the service, why is there so much tension in these opening paragraphs? We don’t know for several pages that the boy isn’t a neighbor’s kid or some distant relative comet to visit but the rancher’s own son, and the service was the wife’s, the boy’s mother’s, funeral. The central mystery: how does a family recover from great loss?

We might think Dad is cold and hard, but then we see the colors. It’s a story told with color, the blue of the world in the title referring to, at one level, the pre-dawn night that brightens into dawn, though of course the meaning expands as the story proceeds. The sky, the flowers, horses, crops, all have colors, and this man we thought might be cold and hard records them in his diary, along with comments like “It’s hard to enjoy a thing when your memory of it is sweeter.” This is a man who is so engrossed in watching a black beetle on a brown stump pick at a dead bird that he misses the blue disappearing from the world. This is a man who takes weeks to refer to his son as our boy, a man who occasionally sees and talks to his dead wife. This is a deeply feeling, painfully wounded man slowly healing from fresh grief.

His son knows this too, doesn’t seem to need much comforting for his own grief. I wonder how much that costs him, how much anger will show up eventually when he’s able to express it. The roles are somewhat reversed, the son now the wiser parent, willing to let Dad mourn. But not indefinitely. He reminds Dad that, though he was taken out of school early, he will be returning in September. He tells his father the neighbor’s good will has a time limit. He even explains a common-sense version of the social-norms vs market-norms theory Prof. Dan Ariely researched: introducing money into a social relationship decreases, rather than increases, cooperation:

He said I was getting it all backward. Said we ought to have lent the mule to the Haskells for free as a favor, and only charged him if the beast got hurt or took ill. He insisted that favors are worth more than dollars, as the price of gold goes up and down but a favor is always a favor. At the very least, we should have traded services….
Then he did something that surprised me. He was squatting down in the potato mounds, but he’d stopped picking weeds. He was looking at his hands in the cool, dark earth. Then he said that people’s sympathy for me was wearing thin. He said I was eating up our neighbors’ goodwill by being a greedy fly. I told him sympathy was another name for cancer. I’d be happier when it was gone.

The story moves slowly, its rhythm one of diary entries that recount the realities of ranching amidst plain spoken lyricism. It’s one of the longer stories in the anthology, but I was buried in it throughout. Somehow I never thought in terms of resolution, and it’s just as well. The epiphany (yes, of course there’s an epiphany) was more implied than realized. Things could go either way for this family. But it was a remarkable read.

I discovered Milliken is another Maine writer, making that two in one Pushcart. I haven’t encountered him before, so I’m happy to make his acquaintance.

Pushcart XLI: Sara Batkie, “Laika” from New Orleans Review #41

Andrew Wyeth: "Christina's World"

Andrew Wyeth: “Christina’s World”

Babette came to the home the same week we got a television. They arrived three days apart, both dropped unceremoniously at the front door. Madame Durance never bothered much with the girls but was very put out by the lack of paperwork for the strange machine. “We need to keep track of these things,” she said, nudging the box with her sensible shoe. “What if it makes us all sick?” Hollis the orderly had it hooked up within an hour. It was 1957, the year Khrushchev looked up to a stardrunk sky and found a new world to conquer. We were all hankering for the unknown, though that could be hard to find in Nebraska.

I’m reminded yet again of my writer-friend Marko Fong describing a particular use of first person past as “memoir voice.” Transposed to fiction, it mimics nonfictional memoir, as it “assumes that the narrator and the ‘character/survivor’ are effectively two different first person ‘I’s.” This story makes great use of that: The distance of those 50 years gives the writer the ability to write the events in 1957 in a more mature voice, to imbue the ordering and details of the narration with insight atypical for a teenager, but readily available to the older survivor who is the narrator.

It was an unspoken rule that the girls not ask each other what brought them to Durance Home. It was simple enough to guess some of their troubles, the ones with space pod bellies already in orbit. They’d grow big, disappear for a day or two then return with bodies evacuated of their heroes. Nothing left but tears. The rest were dragged in by their mothers. I was brought by my brother, the only family I had, my slippery fingers having found their way into one pocket too many. He bought me a chocolate malted on the drive, the last ice cream I would taste until adulthood.

I loved reading this story; it’s full of small moments and observations that create an atmosphere for the subtle plot. Like the boys running alongside the bus the girls took on occasional field trips, waving and pressing their palms against the windows: “This was the only touch of a boy I’d ever known: partitioned, ghostly, and quick to fade. I liked it that way.”

I saw twin themes of isolation and hope weaving throughout the story. Not only are the three main characters isolated in their own ways, but the two prominent symbols of the story are as well. First, there’s Laika, the Russian space-dog who captures the narrator’s attention:

I thought about Laika, looked up at the sky above us, the impossible cradle that carried her. I imagined her passing through the stars, being accepted as one of their own, each small bright ball leading her gently along her path. I thought of her smile flashing across the television screen, all the hope she held in her, and I wished her safely home.

Another powerful scene introduces the narrator to Christina, the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World”.

Her name was Christina, so the plaque said. Though suffering from polio, she refused the use of a wheelchair. The artist was inspired to paint her after watching her crawl across a field from a window in his house.
It must have taken her hours. What sort of person could just stand by and observe something like that? But it was a hopelessness there’s no helping. Like Laika. Like all of us, I suppose. Perhaps capturing it was all that could be done, was, in its way, the only chance of honoring it.

Wyeth’s comment on Christina: “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.” At 14, the narrator knew both sides of hope, the -ful and the -less. Hopelessness is its own isolation, isn’t it. After this passage, I started thinking of the unnamed narrator as Christina: hobbled, but going forward in the way she knows best over a great expanse towards an isolated house. I’m grateful for the painter-writer, the survivor-narrator, with the patience to wait.

The plot hinges on the source of Babette’s pregnancy. She claims it’s another divine intervention; whether that’s from naiveté or shame isn’t entirely clear for some time,but eventually shows us another kind of hopelessness: the help that is not forthcoming. This becomes tied to the hopelessness of our narrator, who recalls Babette, Christina, Laika by name but doesn’t get a name herself (just as we never see Christina’s face, but only her weakened legs and her longing). Just as Madame Durance only gets part of a name, and then I know: she was the first generation of isolation by hopelessness.

Laika died in orbit. Our narrator reveals the details in a tribute to that “memoir voice” and the power of time to change perspective, to change reality itself. The plan was humane by standards of the time: she was poisoned by her last meal to prevent extended suffering as the craft was not designed to survive re-entry. This was November, 1957. It was not publicly known until 2002 that she actually died much sooner than was planned by failure of the heat control system; she cooked, alone in the capsule. Laika was, by the way, a stray, plucked from the streets of Moscow. And when we read here that the scientist in charge of preparing her for the mission took her home the night before launch to play with his kids – “I wanted to do something nice for her…. She had so little time left to live” – we can’t help but think of a 14-year-old taken for her last malted on the way to Durnace Home. I can’t help but think of our narrator, fifty years later, still there, finally, patiently, telling us the truth about Babette.

I found an extra delight waiting for me after the last line, the last period of the story, where Pushcart lists those who nominated the piece for the anthology. Typically it’s the original publisher, often accompanied by one or two writers, former Pushcart winners who recommended it. This story was nominated by Seth Fried, whose terrific work has been reflected several times over the years in these pages. I thought I recognized some elements from his writing, particularly a story titled “Those of Us in Plaid”. Seth has a sense of humor (I sent him a goofy fan email once, and he responded in kind) so I asked him if he’d be willing to share his reasons for nominating the story. And, bless his heart, he responded kindly:

Aside from Batkie’s great writing in general, I was struck by the moral complexity in Laika. You compared the story to “Those of Us in Plaid” and I think it is circling a similar idea. We’re seeing someone powerless struggling with feelings of being complicit in the face of ugliness and abuse. That’s something I explored with morbid comedy in “Plaid” and that Batkie takes on with a stark lyricism that I found affecting.

Seth Fried (nominator)

We never find out what happens to Babette, beyond that she leaves after her space pod belly empties. Our narrator’s complicity is an angle I’d like to consider more. Is this story her plea for absolution? Time becomes a character as it allows consideration, but also delays revelation. I wonder how Babette would tally up the net effect.

Pushcart XLI: Jericho Brown, “The Tradition” (poem) from Poem-a-day

Jacob Lawrence: Harriet Tubman series, panel 4, 1940

Jacob Lawrence: Harriet Tubman series, panel 4, 1940

Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Star Gazer.
Foxglove.

Complete poem available online at Poets.org

The final line – go ahead, read it, it’s only 14 lines – is a knife to the heart. I wasn’t expecting it, though I see now the ground was prepared – it was our dirt, philosophical advice, father, brothers, even the blossoms fast-forwarded to see them in time. It’s all there, I just wasn’t really reading, I saw flowers and thought, oh, flowers. Yes, flowers, blooming so beautifully until that turn in the last line and then they aren’t.

I thought about just putting the poem here to speak, which it does more eloquently than any commentary could. That felt like cheating somehow. I thought about doing more with sonnet structure. About looking more closely at the flowers mentioned: don’t flowers have individual meanings or something? I waited a couple of days for some inspiration, for something I could write that would be the right setting. I think I should’ve gone with my first instinct.

The poem serves as an epigraph for The Fire This Time, the 2016 anthology of essays, poems, and written work edited by Jesmyn Ward dealing with race in America. And now it’s 2017. Damn it.

Pushcart XLI: Ron Currie, “Cross Your Fingers God Bless” from Wigleaf

The Flammarion engraving, 1888

The Flammarion engraving, 1888

Because she was not a superstitious person, in the days leading up to her solo hike in the thickly wooded ridges Annie ignored several warnings proffered by the universe regarding what was about to happen.

Complete story available online at Wigleaf

It’s less than 600 words long, but boy does this story use structure and rhythm to its advantage.

The four opening single-sentences paragraphs just keep layering it on. The rational impulse to ignore coincidence. Increasing coincidence, increasing rationality. We know something’s coming, and it’s going to have to do with a bear. But the event itself is never spelled out, just foreshadowed and then reflected from a later point of view. I love this, because the story isn’t about a bear attack or even about whether the signs meant anything or were reconstructed out of late-arriving confirmation bias: the story is in the human struggle to understand reality, and particularly in the conflict existing relationships undergo when Annie’s view shifts.

Like Annie, we’re in an environment of determined binarism. But what if reality isn’t so neatly arranged? What if there are elements of physics and metaphysic, of the natural and supernatural, everywhere? What if they’re the same thing seen from different viewpoints, or times, or dimensions? I spend a lot of time taking moocs about such blended views of reality, like investigations of whether physics leads back to some creative divinity leads back to physics, or if there’s cognitive science to support Daoism. I wonder if we’re not headed for our own bear attack if we don’t start listening to what we’re screening out.

But I think the point is more in the realm of, what happens to friends and family when we change our beliefs? We tend to congregate with people who have belief systems reasonably compatible with our own; what happens to friendships and family ties when that changes? What does that say about the strength of those beliefs? If it’s uncomfortable to be around a Christian-turned-atheist or liberal-now-conservative, does that reflect on one’s confidence in one’s beliefs in the first place? World-views are messy; they involve paradoxes and conundrums. How many of us have examined our beliefs beyond the surface? How many of us really want to?

Two metacomments about this piece: First is that Ron Currie Jr. is a Maine writer, so shout-out for that. I read his second novel, Everything Matters, a kind of weird but, in the end, truly touching book about second chances; Second is that I’m so glad that the tiny (free) online flash journal Wigleaf gets some Pushcart love these days. Bill Henderson has been an outspoken critic of online fiction for as long as there has been online fiction, but he seems to have made a reluctant peace with electrons. See, the stuff you’re screening out can be fun.

Pushcart XLI: Elizabeth McCracken, “Mistress Mickle All at Sea” from Zoetrope  19.4

New Year’s Eve in a Rotterdam garret, the whole block blacked out, bottle rockets rattling the casements: Mistress Maggle, villainess of the children’s game show Barnaby Grudge, off duty and far from home, ate a cold canned hot dog in the dark and pronounced it delicious. These were the last minutes of the old year. She’d come from Surrey to visit her half brother, Jonas, whom she’d last seen in Boston just before their father had retired to Minorca. Expatriation was the family disease, hereditary: thanks to an immigrant ancestor, they all had Irish passports. The world was their oyster. An oyster was not enough to sustain anyone.

The question that most perplexed me about this story was answered when I found a short excerpt of the first paragraphs in an online teaser by Zoetrope. In my copy of Pushcart, the title remains “Mistress Mickle”, but throughout the story the name used is Mistress Maggle. I spent far too much time wondering why that was so, hunting for a hint. Turns out it’s one of those weird copyediting changes that sometimes happens with reprints, I guess. But it did rather distance me from the story. Then again, my concentration has been pretty compromised lately.

So, Mistress Mickle, or Maggle, whose real name is Jenny Early (“though 49 seemed too old to be Jenny and too late to be early”) is definitely at sea, literally as well as figuratively, going way beyond her discomfort with her own name. She starts out visiting her half-brother in Rotterdam, then takes a boat home to England – or, rather, back to England where she lives, since she’s from Boston, or Ireland, or I’m not sure, really, and I don’t think she’s sure, either. Along the way she seems to feel more lost by the minute. The encounter with her brother, complete with the news that his girlfriend is expecting, sends her down memory lane revisiting an old romance that didn’t work out. On shipboard, she encounters another children’s entertainer who genuinely enjoys entertaining children, and plays a much friendlier character rather than the scolding shrew she portrays; a mirror image of sorts. I get the sense that she’s desperately unhappy, yet unable to figure out just what to do about it.

The narration is a slightly odd voice, extremely close 3rd person, so close it almost reads like she’s the one narrating herself in 3rd person. The ending makes that narration crucial, since, well, she dies. Maybe. She is a bit of a hypochondriac, after all. But in that last paragraph the narration turns into direct address, zooms out, and interpret however you like.

In any case, it’s a sharp and very witty story, lots of clever jibes and twists of phrase that make it fun to read. I’d like to read it again when (if?) my focus returns.

Pushcart XLI: Jean Valentine, “Hospice” from Shirt in Heaven

I wore his hat
as if it was the rumpled coat
of his body, like I could put it on.

At first I was worried: it’s a poem about death, obviously heartfelt and personal, by a highly distinguished poet, and I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. I wondered again if I should be doing this, blogging every poem like I have any idea what I’m doing. But that’s the deal, because otherwise it’s too easy to turn the page and do something easier, and what way is that to do anything worth doing. And as sometimes happens (which is why I’ve stuck by the deal), while no doubt there are subtleties beyond my reach, I found more was accessible than I’d expected.

First is the repetition of words: hat, hand, water, life, rumple. Rumple, of all things. The others are grand words, but rumple? It’s the rumpling that makes the hat, the hand, the water, the life, all beautiful and meaningful. The repetition unites the poem, keeps reminding us why we are there in the hospice room with the dying… dying who? Friend, lover, spouse, child, rival; the details of gender, age, and relationship are omitted so the figure is vague. All we can see is the speaker.

Embodiment again: that familiar recent theme, the body as the medium of experience. Here it’s the medium of goodbye, not grief exactly but more like the presence at a ship’s launching; more like anticipation. I’ve been encountering embodiment in many diverse areas while reading these pieces, in physics and philosophy (which again twine together as they did in ancient Greece). The observer is part of the observed. To measure is to affect what is measured. That must be just as true of watching someone – someone beloved – die as it is of measuring the velocity and position of electrons. Truer, no doubt.

And embodiment, in poetry, turns to typography as form becomes function:

I remembered
like an islander           my island

 

like a calving iceberg, air

The island, the I- land, as he-land slips away from sight: isolation. Just yesterday I learned, courtesy of lexicographer @JesseSheidlower, that island and isle are linguistically unrelated, one from Latin, one from Anglo-Saxon. And now I’m self-conscious about every I that I type, which maybe isn’t a bad thing.

And at the end, after an asterisk (A star? A sound? Or just typographic direction?) there’s a turn. Poems frequently feature turns as part of the semantic structure; sonnets and elegies depend on them. This poem doesn’t have the surface structure of either sonnet or elegy, but maybe it’s an elegy in a deeper way. The turn is one of the most dramatic I’ve read recently; I actually see the speaker physically turning after the death has occurred:

I thought I’d have to listen, hard,
I didn’t even swallow.
But nothing from you stopped.

In prior lines, the speaker used third person to refer to the he; now she promotes he to second person, to you. I can’t help but see this as a step closer to first person, to the I of the island. I see it in my mind, this scene, a companion/comforter/witness at the bedside facing the dying, then rising and turning outward back to the world with that you. Or maybe it’s a different turn, an embodiment not of the hat but of the spirit, a more conceptual turn. And suddenly I wonder if I have it all wrong, if the speaker is the dying, the he/you is the friend/comforter/visitor/witness, the turning not from losing to loss but from embodiment to release.

Of course, it’s entirely likely I’ve missed a larger point about relationships or grief or death while I looked at typography and grammatical persons. But I’m glad I stuck with the poem, that I didn’t let it scare me away, because if nothing else, I know other ways of turning.

Pushcart XLI: Barry Lopez, “The Invitation” from Granta #133

Granta art by Nick Clements

Granta art by Nick Clements

When I was young, and just beginning to travel with them, I imagined that indigenous people saw more and heard more, that they were overall simply more aware than I was. They were more aware, and did see and hear more than I did. The absence of spoken conversation whenever I was traveling with them, however, should have provided me with a clue about why this might be true; but it didn’t, not for a while. It’s this: when an observer doesn’t immediately turn what his senses convey to him into language, into the vocabulary and syntactical framework we all employ when trying to define our experiences, there’s a much greater opportunity for minor details, which might at first seem unimportant, to remain alive in the foreground of an impression, where, later, they might deepen the meaning of an experience.

Complete essay available online at Granta

As I read this essay, I kept thinking, “I’ve read about something like this, recently.” It took me a while to pull it out of my overloaded and sometimes unreliable memory. The Chinese Thought mooc, of course! Confucians see language – including the behavioral language of ritual – as the means of perfecting the individual to full humanity, whereas Daoists feel it’s a distraction from what is essential. “The Way that can be spoken of is not the enduring Way,” wrote Lao Tzu in the Dao de Jing in the 4th century BCE. “He who speaks does not know.” Yes, Prof. Slingerland pointed out the irony of a book dissing language, but that’s how Dao rolls.

Most importantly, he didn’t stop with examining ancient texts, but related the concepts to contemporary neurological, social, and behavioral science. In this case, that meant a guest lecture from UCSB psychology professor Jonathan Schooler on his theory of verbal overshadowing: attempts to describe nonverbal experiences tend to make the experiential memory less accurate on subsequent recall. In its simplest form: if you show someone a face, and ask them to describe it in words, they will be less likely to recognize the face a few moments later than if they did not need to put language to the impression.

Lopez goes beyond this in a paean to the primacy of experience Lao Tzu would appreciate: a broadening of pertinence from the immediate event to what was seen a half hour, or three days, before (tracks of a caribou, for instance), and to later events. The event of seeing a bear isn’t over when the bear is no longer seen; it might never, technically, be over, in much the same vein as the Butterfly Effect.

He also advocates grounding experience in a place. It’s too bad Orion didn’t get to publish this article; it’s exactly their “Nature, culture place” brand (and may the Universe forgive me for using the word “brand” in that sense, it just happens to be appropriate to syntax and semantics).

A grizzly bear stripping fruit from blackberry vines in a thicket is more than a bear stripping fruit from blackberry vines in a thicket. It is a point of entry into a world most of us have turned our backs on in an effort to go somewhere else, believing we’ll be better off just thinking about a grizzly bear stripping fruit from blackberry vines in a thicket.
The moment is an invitation, and the bear’s invitation to participate is offered, without prejudice, to anyone passing by.

I’m not sure I want to participate in such an event, apologies to Lao Tzu and Lopez; I’m not much of a nature person to begin with, and the bear’s a dealbreaker. But I understand the point, the distancing of us from not only nature, but from reality. And again, we have this triad of will, nature, and body that’s been humming around for the past several pieces: the will to experience nature without culture’s safety nets around the body. The willingness to experience.

Pushcart XLI: Kate Levin, “Resting Place” from River Teeth, Sept. 2015

When we arrive at daycare, I step out of the car and close my door gently, hoping not to startle my son awake. As I open the back door to retrieve him from his car seat, I see the bird.
 
I gasp, but only its stillness is gruesome.

Complete piece available online at River Teeth Journal

The first year, maybe two, that I blogged Pushcart, I only did the fiction. Then I added the nonfiction, and a year later, one post for all the poetry, reading it separately. I think I missed a lot skipping around that way. Case in point: we have a second piece about a child, and a bird. A very different piece in tone, theme, and genre – I’m not sure if this is poetry or nonfiction (I would call it poetry), but I’m sure it doesn’t matter – to show us the wide-ranging possibilities of a single combination.

Again, we have a frightening intrusion into an everyday moment, nowhere near as tragic as in “The Raptor” but alarming nonetheless: Life and death, protection and destruction, innocence and guilt, side by side. But mostly there’s the sense of fragility: not just of the sleeping child or the trapped bird, but of the possibility of tragedy under the most pacific scene. Maybe it is the same theme, or at least a similar one: danger lurking everywhere, revealed at the most innocuous, routine moment, and the effect that has on a parent. “There is my sleeping son, and there is the dead bird,” says mom.

But that’s just the first act of this one-page play; the scene doesn’t end there.

But then I would look at him, breath muscle bones, humming in motion; a system insisting on itself. Who was I to doubt it?…. Through the windshield I can see my son, eyes still closed. Beneath a buckled harness, his chest rises and falls, rises and falls, rises and falls.

And we come to the question of will, also raised in “The Raptor”. Both involve the will of a very young child. But here, the will is more the will of the body: the will of “a system insisting on itself.” The rise and fall of the chest (echoing the open and close of the car door?), even in sleep, even next to death.

I’m taking yet another biology mooc, and I continue to be in awe of this bundle of atoms we call our bodies, of the billions of things that happen every second to keep our chests rising and falling, to keep us working and playing and loving and laughing and writing blog posts. Is the will to live the will of the body? Maybe it’s the will of nature: like charges repel and opposite charges attract, ions pump, cardiac muscles contract, nerve cells signal the diaphragm to take another breath, even in sleep. “A system insisting on itself,” and mom sees her world isn’t quite as fragile as she thought.

The juxtaposition of these two pieces is marvelous. Either one alone has power, but together, they hold a conversation.

Pushcart XLI: Charles Holdefer, “The Raptor” from Chicago Quarterly Review #21

Photo by Christine Dibble

Photo by Christine Dibble

Cody was the only one to see the raptor descend. What to believe. On the second day of their vacation, Lisa had put Ronny – barely three weeks old! – on the picnic table in his baby seat while she paused to apply sun cream to his soft, wrinkly knees…. “Happy Ronaldus!” Lisa straightened for a moment to apply some of Ronny’s protective cream to her own face. Up here in the mountains you had to be careful, the ultraviolet rays were more powerful.
Cody sat on a nearby rock, looking up at the pines, the fleecy clouds, and a black dot that was growing bigger.

I see so many threads running through this story: faith, religion, sex, danger, loss, family, human frailty. Yet I can’t get a firm hold on it, or organize it in a way that makes sense to me.

First, the word “raptor”. It’s not an uncommon word – technically, it’s any bird of prey, such as a hawk, vulture, eagle, falcon – but if a bird swooped in and flew off with a baby, I’m not sure I’d describe it as a raptor. I’d be more along the lines of “some big bird”. Given the religious twist of events, and the similarity of “raptor” to “rapture”, I have to wonder if it’s a symbol for divine plans. Or maybe it’s about finding rapture in various ways: in sexuality, booze, or intense religiosity. Maybe the word is just to link it all together linguistically. Even the playful family nickname “Ronaldus Magnus” reminded me both of medieval kings and popes, and of Seinfeld’s Festivus, at least until I discovered it’s an occasional right-wing nickname for Ronald Regan.

Then there’s the second sentence: “What to believe.” There’s some trick of narration there. Though five-year-old Cody was the only one to see the actual abduction, the parents saw the raptor flying away with Ronny, so they would believe the child. This is an outside narrator commenting with the view of those outside the family. And suddenly we’re in “The dingo took my baby” territory: ornithologists offering opinions about raptors’ capacities to carry off tiny babies, interviews for Cody and the parents. Although much of the story appears to be close third person from within the family, this more distant narrator introduces several crucial transitions, including a series of “Even if not for the raptor” examples of the changes that befell the family afterwards. But that early sentence left me a bit off balance.

Ronny found himself in a nest on a cliff ledge with two baby birds. Still looking up at the blue sky, inhaling the thinner, colder air, his cries competed with the screeks of his companions. Oh, he was hungry! As the blue air turned purple and then black and stars pricked the blackness and constellations whirled in the firmament above, he welcomed the warmth of the bodies next to him, and it was a comfort when the big, heavy body sat on him, with its stronger heat, its thicker feathers.
Ronny tired himself with crying and then fell into a doze, feeling the beats of hearts next to his. They beat very fast.

I felt a lot of distance between me and the characters. There’s a great deal of detail about their downward spirals. There’s also a great deal of caring going on: from the start when Lisa is careful to protect Ronny from sunburn with sunscreen, speaking to him playfully, to much later when Dan calls her in the middle of the night to ask if she ever thinks about him, even to Cory’s concern over his mother’s drinking. Yet it all felt so removed. No one ever become more than a fictional character. I wonder if I’m callous, or if that’s deliberate, a distant narrator’s analytical eye, seeing but not feeling, or at least not conveying feeling. I have to wonder, too, if this is dark humor, something I often miss completely.

When he fell, rolling into the open air, he felt surprised and, at the same time, affronted. What was happening to him?
Ronny bellowed headlong into a vast and hideous deep. There was no time to think of who could hear him. His heels moved eagerly for traction against the retreating sky. This missing sensation seemed precious, but it was also like an insult to him and to the place from which he fell.
Darkness in a hurtling tract, the rub of cold. His voice split the air, refusing to submit or yield. This much felt right. His will was still untouched, his own.

The story deals with two time lines, one in the period immediately following the raptor’s theft sandwiched in between longer segments about the fourteen years that followed. I get the distinct sense that the timelines converge. Cody, having had his personal conversion experience and on a camping trip with the girl who brought him to Jesus, masturbates on the spot, perhaps, where Ronny fell out of the nest so long ago. The text is ambiguous. The end is ambiguous as well, though the idea of sudden danger – whether from his girlfriend discovering his nocturnal activities, or from a raptor, a feral Ronny, or a wild animal – striking without any warning, might be an obvious conclusion.

It’s that mention of will that really feels like I missed something along the line. Again, I end up back at religion. A major part of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic triad is that God has a purpose and we need to make our wills subordinate to his. Many Eastern religions advocate a release of desire to achieve happiness, or following a path set by the universe rather than taking matters into our own hands. But then, there are many people who are just aimless. Again, I’m not sure how any of this fits in, but I heard the note.

That’s really my overall experience with the story: I heard a lot of notes, but I can’t figure out what key we’re in.

Pushcart XLI: Leslie Johnson, “Midterm” from Colorado Review, Spring 2015

Art by Annemeike Mein: “Whirlpool Frog”

Art by Annemeike Mein: “Whirlpool Frog”

Midmorning in mid-October, in the middle of the campus, Chandra stopped in the center of the crisscrossing sidewalks. She pulled the phone from her handbag and pretended to be texting someone; she smiled down at the screen as if someone had texted her back. She felt other students brushing past her on the walkway, but didn’t look up at their faces.

Complete story available online at Colorado Review

I kept thinking of story classifications as I mulled this one over. Some stories are love stories, or war stories or sexual abuse stories or coming-of-age stories; this one seems obviously classifiable as an anorexia story, but I think that’s just the specific vehicle; the motivation is broader. The editor’s introduction to the Spring 2015 issue of Colorado Review nails it:

“Emerging from the grip of winter, when we’ve retreated from the cold, holing up in the warmth of our homes and for a time losing touch with the earth, with one another, sometimes even with ourselves, we long to reestablish ties once the green reveals itself again. The fiction and essays gathered here, in this spring issue, bring us stories of people seeking connection in its various forms.”

The voice, though somewhat off-putting to me, is perfect for the story: it reads like an emotionally unaware college student wrote it, little hints slipping out right and left almost deliberately in that passive-aggressive way of screaming “Why are you always looking at me please pay attention to me just leave me alone”. The anorexia angle, for instance: it’s so evident, from the professor’s remarks about “not another anorexia essay” to the obsession with Pop-Tarts and hip bones, yet that’s just the surface symptomology of the deeper intimacy issues that play out. Like pretending she’s texting someone, which is the new version of 1975’s “inventing lovers on the phone” – or the “I have plans that night” from the 50s. After all, if someone is texting you, that means you’re normal, right? But a cell phone is all the intimacy she can handle.

The story has strong bone structure underneath that deliberately ravaged skin. It’s fascinating to watch as Chandra reveals a tiny bit, gauges the response, and moves a bit closer to Eli (and, literally, farther from her phone and into hot water). She starts off making up lies just to agree with him: she sees the single red leaf he sees, about to fall (now there’s a genuinely good pickup line if ever I heard one), and things go downhill from there. She’s new at this, so it’s natural she doesn’t interpret the signals well: he’s dismissive of nearly everything she says. The final revelation is inadvertent. In the context of an actual nascent relationship rather than pretense, it would be possible to get back on track. But it’s just too much for Chandra.

Approach-avoidance: that tug of war between the guy in real life or the phone in the tree, the fear vs pull of relationship, the anorexic woman who enrolls in a gender studies class than won’t show up. All the usual coming-of-age crap here in Body Week XLI, dialed up to a pathological 11 and covered over with an Everything’s Fine, Fine veneer. The resolution almost doesn’t matter. Almost.

Pushcart XLI: Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, “I Dream of Horses Eating Cops” from Nepantla #2

Art by Ulrike “Ricky” Martin

Art by Ulrike “Ricky” Martin


 
i name my body girl of my dreams
i name my body proximity
i name my body full of hope despite everything
i name my body dead girl who hasn’t died yet
 
i hope i come back as an elephant
i hope we all come back as animals
and eat our fill
 
i hope everyone gets everything they deserve
 

Complete poem available online from LitHub

The ordering of Pushcart pieces, unlike BASS, is up to the editors. This year we opened with a cluster of art-themed stories, a theme that’s echoed from time to time throughout. I sense a distinct pocket of body-themed works, going back to Charlie, or even to Slocomb County, though now the theme takes precedence over other threads. The body as male or female, brown or white, me or not me, human or animal, cop or civilian.

I read a poem that starts out with elements of bitterness, but turns towards hope. I’m enchanted by the idea of wanting to come back as an elephant; I keep wondering what it is about the elephant that is so appealing. Its size? Its reputation for memory? Its thick skin?

I also spent some time wondering about all of us getting what we deserve. I think nearly everyone wishes that, yet I suspect most of us will be disappointed with our deserts, a kind of moral Ikea effect.

Pushcart XLI: David J. Unger, “Fail Again” from The Point #10

FAILURE FESTIVAL is an invitation. An invitation for you to help us engage failure in a public setting. We need you because we don’t know how to do it on our own. We don’t know whether to barrel towards it, argue with it, or sit on its lap. We don’t know if we should give it keys to our apartment, or ask it to apologize. Sometimes we cower in the corner. Sometimes we lie down and try to convince it that we are asleep… or dead.
We want to know what failure reveals about our world that success masks. We do not expect easy answers. We may find none at all. This is a celebration and acknowledgement of the fact that when things inevitably don’t go as we plan, somehow, we must adapt. Please help.

Complete essay available online at The Point

I’ve learned, in the past three years, to embrace failure, mostly through the influence of a bunch of math teachers who are convinced if you aren’t getting things wrong, you aren’t learning anything, and that learning to tolerate frustration and persevere is more important than memorizing trig identities. One thing I can always succeed at is failing at math, so I’ve finally found a way to, um, succeed?

This isn’t a unique approach. Every writer, every dreamer who ever poured out her heart on paper knows at least one line from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”, a line celebrated in 2014 by Trinity College in Dublin with “a free exhibition of beautiful, heroic and instructive failures” in its Science Gallery. And just last month, MIT’s Technology Review published a story on Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman – and PhD candidate in math – John Urschel, who says “In math, you have to be comfortable with failure.” And the Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm 500 Startups is all about failure: “The alternate name we came up with for 500 Startups was ‘fail factory,’ says [founding partner Dave] McClure. ‘We’re here trying to ‘manufacture fail’ on a regular basis, and we think that’s how you learn.’”

Before we were all about “winning”, failure was a recognized route to success.

So I was really eager to read this piece, a journalistic look at the Failure Festival presented in Boulder, CO back in 2014.

I got a bit lost in the description of the festival itself. Apparently it was a three day audience-participation dance-and-performance-art thing. Garbage bags served as ponchos, tomatoes were provided for throwing and carrots for carving. It was probably much better in person than it was to read about. But I must admit, sadly, the piece didn’t work for me. But if an article about a failure festival fails, does that make it a success?

Pushcart XLI: Richie Hofmann, “Idyll” from Second Empire

Fernando Vincente:  “Atlas” series

Fernando Vincente: “Atlas” series

 
Cicadas bury themselves in small mouths
of the tree’s hollow, lie against the bark tongues like amulets,
 
 
though it is I who pray I might shake off this skin and be raised
from the ground again….
 

~ Complete poem available online at TNY

 

 
 
My initial impression of the poem was of rebirth, of an emergence from a life of repression and fear into a more free existence. But when I’m uncertain, which is most of the time (particularly with poetry), I go researching. And in my research I found gold.

First, cicadas. I have a vague idea of a cyclical existence, of an emergence every so often in a loud frenzy of insect celebration, but I didn’t know if that was folklore or fact. Turns out, it’s both:

Cicadas begin life as a rice-shaped egg, which the female deposits in a groove she makes in a tree limb…. Once the egg hatches the cicada begins to feed on the tree fluids…. Once the young cicada is ready, it crawls from the groove and falls to the ground where it will dig until it finds roots to feed on. Once roots are found the cicada will stay underground…. After the long 2 to 17 years, cicadas emerge from the ground as nymphs. Nymphs climb the nearest available tree, and begin to shed their nymph exoskeleton. Free of their old skin, their wings will inflate with fluid and their adult skin will harden. Once their new wings and body are ready, they can begin their brief adult life.

This fits beautifully into the poem: the mouth and feeding imagery, a life cycle of becoming, “one life / abrades another”, the sense of rebirth even I could not miss on first reading. We all pass from the truths we believed in childhood – truths about ourselves, about the world, generated from unquestioned pronouncements of authority figures or merely from perceptions in a very limited frame of reference – into a more complex, nuanced, and fact-based truths that withstand critical examination as contradictions are encountered.

Yes, of course it’s a coming-out poem, mixing the literal coming out of the cicada from the nurturing protection of the tree to the world, and the more figurative coming out into self-acceptance and freedom to own one’s space in the world as one is, scraping off the criticisms and fears in favor of “a body built for love”. Specifically aiming towards queer metaphor, it could also be applied to any kind of emergence from a poorly-fitting set of imposed norms into a life that fully celebrates one’s existence and understanding of reality, a more nimble and authentic way to progress through the world: feeling what we feel, rather than what we’ve been told to feel.

I was surprised to see a poem from The New Yorker in Pushcart – the champion of small presses ignores the glossies – but the nomination came instead from Hofmann’s premier collection, Second Empire. Soren Stockman’s Kenyon Review analysis gave me a greater appreciation of this metamorphic theme that runs through both the collection and this individual poem:

Richie Hofmann’s debut collection, Second Empire,contains the fierce construction of a life saturated with love. Hofmann’s speaker looks closely at the world he is born into as well as at the world he would create in its place, the former existing as a battlefield whose rules have not been proclaimed widely enough and the latter being forged from a sensual and uncompromising imagination. These two worlds often appear in the same moment, line, sentence, or poem, like two opposing emotions gripped simultaneously in the mind. Over the course of the book, they move closer, tentative as new lovers. Hofmann builds a steadying cord between the eyes and what they view in both his speaker and his reader. He grants us a tightrope and we walk out of ourselves into what eventually become our lives.

~~ Soren Stockman for Kenyon Review

Many of us are right now walking a tightrope of truths: loud voices, some of them supposed authority figures, are telling us, and the truth of what we experience in our own lives and know from however many years of our lives. Can there be a reverse metamorphosis, back into the childhood of uncritical acceptance of authority merely because it has power? I hope not.

I was particularly struck by Stockman’s observations about the cover image of the book: “We see finally the map on the book’s cover to be a torso, then the cords of someone’s neck, and then a mouth opening.” Yes, I had noticed, on the KR page, an intriguing image that looked somewhat like a 19th century anatomical drawing of a torso. His chronology is spot-on: then I noticed the map, then the neck, then the mouth. It’s a carefully cropped version of a work from Spanish painter Fernando Vincente’s “Atlas” series; I’ve used the uncropped version as the header art for this post.

The purists will tell you a poem must be taken on its own, that it’s a weakness of analytical and aesthetic skill if the reader can’t recognize what’s going on based purely on the text of the poem. That may be true, but some of us need some guidance to develop those skills. Sometimes my guidance comes from more experienced and knowledgeable poeticists; sometimes it comes from separating myth and reality to better understand cicadas.

Pushcart XLI: Lydia Davis, “After Reading Peter Bichsel” from Paris Review #215

Yevgenia Nayberg: “Alarm Clock”

Yevgenia Nayberg: “Alarm Clock”

Last spring and summer, I was reading the stories of the Swiss writer Peter Bichsel. I began reading them in Vienna. The little book—a hardcover, but small and lightweight—was a gift from a German friend at the start of my trip, to provide me with something to read in German…. I continued reading Bichsel’s stories on the train from Vienna to Salzburg, and then in Salzburg, and then on the train to Zürich, and then in Zürich, Berlin, Hamburg, and Cologne, and on each train I took to go from one city to the next.
In fact, Peter Bichsel regularly writes about reading and about train journeys. He will also sometimes begin a story, or remark in the middle of a story, “There are stories that are hardly worth telling,” or “There is almost nothing to say about X,” and then sometimes follow that with a “but”: “But I have wanted to tell this story for a long time now,” or “But it has to be told, because it was the first story in my life, the first one that I remember.” He then goes on to tell a lovely, quiet, modest story, a story that glows with human kindness, or love, or some combination of compassion, understanding, and honesty. (Or am I, these days, finding this quality so marked in his stories because I am seeking it?)

I have no idea who Peter Bichsel is, or what kinds of stories he writes, other than what we’re told in the text. It’s possible if I were more familiar with this writer, I’d have a more sophisticated understanding of the story. What I notice – beside the inclusion of at least two of the dismissal/but constructions – is a kind of mirror structure: not just the opening and closing frames of train travel for the main story, but within the story itself, there is a repetition that could be viewed as signalling a return track. Or maybe it’s the odd nature of the writing itself that has me looking for tricks where none are intended, that this is a simple telling of a tale: I was reading this writer, and I decided to write out these events in his style. An homage, that is, to Peter Bichsel.

Lydia Davis sure knows how to write restaurant scenes. About four years ago I read her very short story/essay “Eating Fish Alone” (as part of a food-related mini-collection from Madras Press) and wondered why a piece about choosing a meal was so engrossing. Now I have to wonder if that was a practice sketch for this story (if it is a story). I suspect this is related to an Ishiguro story that I later found out was a practice sketch of “dream grammar” for his novel The Unconsoled; Davis’ story here too, seems to me something along the lines of a dream, not for the illogical sequence of events or sudden shifts in time, but for the extreme close-up on details that seem rather trivial.

The story within the frame consists of the author’s observations of fellow diners at lunch the first day of her Salzburg sightseeing, then of another lunch on the second day after a pilgrimage to Mozart’s birthplace. I can’t see any reason in the text for the Mozart connection specifically, but it still seems significant. Maybe it’s that in a story as packed with seemingly random details as this one, I assume everything is significant at some level I just can’t perceive.

It was the woman at the table to my right who came to interest me the most during that lunch hour, although at first, in my preoccupation with settling into my seat, putting my bag down beside me, bringing out something to read, and looking around to take in the sights and sounds of the room, I did not pay particular attention to her. It was only as I became used to my surroundings, having examined the features of the room, the customers in my part of it – the larger part – and those beyond the partition, having absorbed the particular characteristic sights and sounds of this place and taken note of any more unusual features were occupants, that my attention was more and more drawn to my neighbor.

Our narrator is quite interested in the woman at the table to her right, first because she is eating so quickly, while seemingly in no hurry to finish lunch and leave, and second because of an alarm clock on the table. This is the kind of detail that reminded me of a dream sequence. As the story notes, the alarm clock seems to serve no purpose, but reinforces the notion of time associated with this character. Maybe this is what made me think of a mirror story: a reversal of time.

While in general the story is all about observation, there are some incidents of note. The time woman asks if anyone has a pen she may borrow:

When she did not find a pen, she looked up and around at the people near her, including those in my direction, and asked us all generally if anyone could lend her a pen. I hesitated, waiting for someone else to offer. I had been writing in my own notebook, though I had put it and my pen away. I did not want to lend her a pen, even though I had more than one.

I have to wonder: why did the narrator not want to lend her a pen? I think it has to do with story function, with maintaining a distance; if she interacted directly, subject and object would merge, and the preference is to maintain the pre-modern distinction. Of course, that’s reaching, but I’m generally interested in subject/object interaction, so that’s where I go when I have the opportunity. Whether or not that’s where Davis was doing, I have no idea.

Another character of interest sits at the narrator’s table (apparently this is a semi-communal lunch spot, similar I imagine to the old Durgin Park in Boston before it decided to be an upscale restaurant), and while she is examined in detail the narrator’s interest in her is clearly less than in the time woman. I have to wonder if that’s because there is interaction between subject and object, and thus the narrator loses interest in her as a character.

For a time, I felt that we five, in that corner of the restaurant – the silent but contented married couple, who had now finished their palatschinken and returned to their former activities, he reading this newspaper, she gazing at the room; my new table partner with her pale wrinkled face, her little bun of white hair, her somber curiosity; my large-framed energetic neighbor to the right with her firmly planted feet, her wheeling elbows, and her alarm clock; and I – were an odd group, and in our variety reminded me, more than anything, of a group of the more harmless patients on a mental ward at mealtime, each with his or her own difficulty in the face of the food.

That’s a strange observation, but it seems spot-on. I wonder if the narrator is referring to actual experience of having observed patients on a mental ward, or is surmising reality from descriptions in books.

The final event of interest – in a sea of acute observation and speculation – comes at lunch the next day in another restaurant when the time woman again is a fellow diner. The narrator spends a great deal of time trying to figure out how that event, unlikely to occur by chance, has happened; she considers asking the staff about the woman, but isn’t willing to breach protocol simply to satisfy her curiosity. This reminded me of the kind of writing I hear about, a projective technique where the writer considers that the character has a mind of her own and the author’s job is to follow and shape the story to accommodate her.

It’s an odd story, written in slightly odd style, but one I found to be unexpectedly engrossing, as I did Davis’ earlier fish story. Maybe that’s why I’m working so hard – overworking? – to find a more conventional significance and meaning. Maybe I don’t need to find a symbolic structurization (the world as a mental ward; compassion and honesty as something observed but not done); maybe it’s enough that it be an interesting little piece that held my attention for twenty minutes. Maybe it’s more of an appealing wallpaper image or catchy tune than the Key to Human Existence.

And, by the way, my favorite part of the story has little to do with the story at all, but with the blog post written by Jake Weber as part of his continuing WIHPTS series. He makes a wonderful observation about the closing section of the story, something that fits in with my narrator-distance idea. But for the first time since he started the approach, he decides, “No I would not have published this story.”

At first, I took umbrage at that verdict, but I can’t really disagree with his reasons. They’re the sort of thing every beginning writer knows about literary magazines: “Not very promising to be warned early on that there isn’t really much of interest in the story….It’s adjective heavy… so much of this right at the outset of the story, after first being waylaid by a lengthy framing of the story….” Yes, and yes. These are things they warn you about. I don’t disagree with the observation, merely that those are disqualifying factors.

And then there’s the slow pace, anathema to contemporary editors who insist you grab them from the first sentence and never let them go (a quality that nevertheless seems quite lacking to me in most stories, which I’ve always chalked up to my own odd sense of what is interesting). But Jake admits:

I actually somewhat liked the non-hurried pace of it. So many literary magazine stories are frenetic, because we writers are told how critical it is to keep the story moving. This has a feel to it like a story from a century ago, when writers were still self-assured of their own raison d’etre they weren’t always in a rush, didn’t always have to have explosions.

I loved this comment, because it pointed out 1) a need for variety; if every story “grab the reader”, the slower pace stands out, feels like a relief; and 2) the explosions. I once wrote a story – it was written around a single line (“We say, but we don’t always mean”) that was highly personal to me at the time, a story about two boys become two men, with the crucial reunion scene in a coffee shop, a scene I choreographed down to with what words one leaned forward or back, featuring a trash bin with a flap that waved goodbye. In workshop I was told, “Have them meet in a forest, where there’s a fire, and the helicopters come in to save them, and he’s shouting over the noise; Or maybe explosions, a bomb goes off in the coffee shop”. The story did eventually find a home, but this is why I gave up fiction writing. Well, that, and I could never really construct a plot that interested anyone but myself; writing as therapy is great, but doesn’t create art. As opposed to blogging, where I can put a huge digression here in the middle and not worry about it because no more than two people will ever read this. The blessings of obscurity.

In any case, Jake makes a fantastic case for a story he enjoyed but wouldn’t have published, and I have to wonder if that’s what’s why I’m more drawn to Pushcart, which lets the lines be blurred between fiction and memoir, between prose and poetry, which includes pieces I don’t understand and don’t always like, but also pieces that show what is possible beyond the traditional edicts like “Grab the reader from the first sentence and put in helicopters and explosions”.

I do have to agree with Jake’s final assessment: “I’m pretty sure an unknown author would have had a very hard time publishing this story.” Oh, yeah. But what’s the point of being Lydia Davis if you have to climb your way out of the slush pile? Is it fair that others may do this and be dismissed because they aren’t Lydia Davis? No – but that doesn’t mean Davis should be more restricted, but that these rigid requirements have become the antithesis of art and that too many litmags are more about entertainment, about meeting expectations, than shaping them, about following the status quo than challenging it.

/end rant.

Pushcart XLI: Melissa Broder, “Forgotten Sound” (poem) from Last Sext (Tin House 2016)

Photo by Martin Stranka: “Rejected”

Photo by Martin Stranka: “Rejected”

I pretended the lust was voices
And I wrote down the voices
And sometimes the voices spoke as I had written them
To confirm what I already knew
Which is that I am a child and ready for petting

Complete poem available online at The Rumpus

I confess that I’ve been a bit puzzled, maybe even slightly put off, by the Broder phenomenon. She earned her MFA, has published several poetry collections since 2010 (including the one featuring this poem), and her bio at Poetry Foundation lists leadership work with literary magazines and organizations. Yet she became a sensation because of her melancholic tweets (@sosadtoday) and her same-titled book of essays about vulnerability and insecurity and, well, being sad – a book she herself felt might make others take her less seriously as a poet, a book that ended up enshrined in everything from Rolling Stone to Elle to The New Yorker. In the film Broadcast News, dysphoric reporter Allen Brooks whines, “Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If “needy” were a turn-on?” Turns out, in the right hands, it can be.

I can’t dismiss this poem, and not only because Broder was a prolific and respected poet before her Twitter fame. There’s a powerful haunting quality to it that touches me: the build to the last line, the echo after the words go silent like the click of a closing door, a hollow openness reminiscent of the quality Sinéad O’Connor brought to “Sacrifice”. My admiration for Elton John knows no bounds, but it took O’Connor to expose the emotion, as Broder does with Brooks’ well-defended comedic lament.

Maybe it’s a new confessionalism. Maybe it’s just relief that someone else gets it. I’ve said often I don’t pretend to know what’s “good” and what isn’t; sometimes I don’t even know exactly what it is I feel when I read something; but I still know when I feel something intense, something important, and I did. Isn’t that what a successful poem does?