Pushcart XLII: Stop

As always, thanks to you, dear reader. Without you we would perish You remind us of this every year. This frantic world needs you more than ever. Keep the faith.

~~ Bill Henderson, Introduction

I have a small framed print hanging in my bookshelves: “Out of chaos, brilliant stars are born.” It’s supposedly Hexagram #3 from the I Ching, though the way Chinese philosophy is so often distorted, I’d want to verify that with an expert. I like it, regardless of its authenticity. And it’s often true of art: times of intense political and social upheaval supposedly lead to new expressions, new purposes for art, new generations of artists. I don’t know if that’s true of the present moment, but this volume, particularly the first half, was outstanding. Then again, I’ve never met a Pushcart I didn’t like.

Often, as I write these posts, I used the text of the story or poem to write about other things, whether it’s hair or current events or Kabbalah. It’s really a matter of what strikes me about a piece: sometimes technical aspects are what stand out, and sometimes the content is all I can see. And sometimes, particularly with poetry and the more advanced aspects of prose, I just don’t have the technical knowledge to recognize or address form.

I often worry that I should be writing more about technical issues, craft: the meter of a poem, the point of view of a story or its narrative structure. But I think I’ve finally made some peace with that. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, to be analyzed; it’s there to be enjoyed, and to inform other areas of our lives. Maybe a story nudges awake an idea from long ago, and now I’m more able to grasp it. Maybe a poem shapes a thought I’ve been having, helps me develop and redefine a vague impression, gives language to what was ineffable. That’s worth noting, even if it has nothing to do with meter or pacing.

For my particular tastes, this volume was very much front-loaded: a high proportion of the initial pieces were knock-my-socks-off good. I won’t deny that craft had a lot to do with this, but content played a significant role as well. I loved encountering Walter Benjamin “in the wild”, having studied his ideas in a more academic setting via a couple of recent moocs. Ditto Kabbalah. I felt like a family’s reaction to a floating sneaker said far more than the fun tone implied it would. I called on my local librarian to help with some minor research into a phrase that appears in Paradise Lost as well as Hamlet, and again reflected on how history is never dead, it just keeps re-revealing itself to us over and over. I thought about freedom vs. responsibility, and how each looks from the other side.

I saw distinct real-life connections, particularly to the refugee crisis, and over the course of this six-month read, saw it evolve from something happening in Europe, to something happening right here. I’d like to think I’m a little less helpless to do anything about it as a result of these encounters, but I’m not sure that’s the case.

The front-loading had a consequence, of course: the last few weeks have been tough sledding. It isn’t that I didn’t enjoy anything – on the contrary – but that sense of “wow”, the discovery of something brilliantly imaginative or unexpected, no longer appeared. Combined with the grim content of so many of the later pieces, I began to feel burdened. I hope I can encounter these writers, maybe even these pieces, again, when my expectations are lower and my resilience is higher and everything doesn’t remind me of children crying for their parents.

There are simply too many “favorites” in a volume this large to list them all, but I’ll single out a few, pieces that struck me as extraordinarily imaginative and/or effective. “Catacombs” by Jason Zencka just kept becoming a new story with every paragraph; his change of voice is brilliant. Cecilia Woloch’s “Reign of Embers” still rings in my ears, and I suspect it will for some time. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Anthony Wallace gave me an incredible workout on aesthetics, and brought in much of my recent mooc study. Steven Stern’s “The Plate-Spinner” skillfully walked a think line between reality and fantasy, with a self-propelled narrative. “Float” by Reginald McKnight kept me charmed while revealing something important. Christopher Kempf’s “Michaux State Forest, New Year’s” was at once beautiful and horrifying, days of future/past. “Freedom” by Rachel Cusk used small details of setting in important ways. “My Dear Master Liszt” by Ben Stroud combined art, psychology, and history in an unexpected setting. Jamie Quatro’s “Belief” was a joy to read, a down-to-earth, reality-based meditation on religion that kept away from polemic and sentimentality to delve into the heart of faith. And though I wasn’t initially blown away by the final story, it keeps coming back to me in new ways. That often means something; I wonder if I’m still working on the lens to read it properly, if some day I’ll pick up a tomato and find myself sobbing, undone.

And now it’s time for something a little different, a summer project to keep me blogging until BASS rolls around next Fall. In about six months, Pushcart XLIII will drop, celebrating 2017 in literature from the small presses. If chaos does generate great art, it’ll be spectacular. 2018 could be even better. Let’s hope there will be readers to enjoy it.

Pushcart XLII: Delaney Nolan, “Everything You Want Right Here” from Electric Literature #195

Steve Goad: “The Lone Tomato”

Steve Goad: “The Lone Tomato”

Natalie was pulling the slot machine lever, dropping in coins from a little yellow purse she held in her lap. I was drinking my fourth daiquiri, which was also yellow.
“This honestly tastes like real bananas,” I said.
We were standing near the one window in Game Room Twelve, which was tinted dark but still showed the red desert going on outside, the same for miles, thousands of miles, I guess. Jermy, who works janitorial on our floor, told me once that the desert led to a massive sinkhole, that magnificent quantities of sand were pouring into the sinkhole day after day, and that eventually we would pour in, too, all of us, the casino and the games and the residents and everything. But that is ridiculous. There might be one sinkhole. But we can’t be surrounded by sinkholes, not in every direction. Statistically, we’re going to turn out fine, in the long run.

Complete story available online at Electric Literature

I’m always interested in how a not-quite-reality-based story cues the reader in that they’re not in Kansas, or in this universe, any more. There are hints in these opening paragraphs, but I’d assumed the sinkhole talk was the desert variety of an urban legend. But then we get to the excitement over a tomato plant. And a scrawny tomato plant, at that. But when you haven’t seen a tree, or eaten a peach, in years, well, any tomato plant looks pretty good. And when you’ve been eating a thousand varieties of starch and sugar for that long, a forthcoming real tomato is eagerly anticipated.

We don’t get a lot of backstory here. Apparently the world has turned to sand, and the casino is a kind of shelter where at least you won’t starve. The details of what went wrong aren’t spelled out; it’s more about the tomato. If that sounds weird, well, I have a serious sweet tooth, but if all I’d eaten lately is cotton candy and lollypops, I can imagine the lengths I’d go to for a taste of that sweet/sour juice, the pop of skin, the squish of pulp, the feel of seeds on my tongue.

It’s a sequel to the earlier “Miracle Fruit”, focusing on the human elements of desire for what has been lost in a setting of the wrong kind of plenty. And a lot more has been lost than fresh vegetables:

The thing is, in the casino you tend to get into a routine, and it makes time go weird — you’re walking past a bank of video poker screens when you realize a week’s gone by without you really noticing. So at some point around last year I started holding on to leftover bits from meals, just to remind myself: time is passing, time is passing. This is your life. It really is.

They’ve been in the casino, located some place in Kansas, for four years now. There’s really no place to go; it’s the only building for three states. There’s constant entertainment – gambling, movies, a laser corridor, a pool party, the pool filled with Marshmallow Fluff, twice a year – and ingenious ways of turning sugar into dinner. Winning the tomato plant is the equivalent of a Powerball win, and they become a celebrity couple. They fantasize about the eventual tomato. The casino chef suggests they candy it. Because, what else does he know?

Maybe, like the robot story before it, this is just a fantasy, a what-if, and any similarity to our current lives – lived by the light of smartphones running the latest apps, fretting about trivia while ignoring as best they can the sands piling up all around us – is a coincidence. Maybe we need to get outside the casino once in a while, before there’s nothing out there. Or maybe it’s too late.

The story concludes with, sadly, the truest possible expression of human nature. There’s a scene that reminds me of the end of The Day After, with Jason Robards wandering around the charred ruins of what used to be his home, telling the lost and distraught man who cowers there, “Get out of my house!” until he’s offered an onion. There’s loss. And there’s escape – to what, isn’t clear, but at least it isn’t about sugar and slot machines.

At first, I thought this was an odd choice for the final word from XLII. Then I thought back to the first story, “Catacombs”, and its themes of devastating loss and obsession. And I thought of Richardson’s opening words in the Introduction, a brief dedication to President Obama: “We miss him.” And I think of the gathering sands all over the world. I think it’s the perfect ending for this particular year.

Pushcart XLII: Matthew Fogarty, “Maybe Mermaids and Robots are Lonely” from Stillhouse Press

Jordan Shields: “R1”

Jordan Shields: “R1”

And just because his skin is steel doesn’t mean he feels nothing. Maybe they’re at a beach and she’s in with the tide. Or maybe they’re at the tops of skyscrapers, a city between them, and all they can see is each other: her with the curls that fall in a tangle over her shoulders and the dress that drapes her fins, him with the earnestness of a logic board. Wherever it is they find each other, he has to believe in the possibility, because if this isn’t possible, what is?

Speculative fiction typically includes elements outside of realism, from vampires to Martians to future histories. But what if, layered on top of that, the fiction itself speculates: what if this happens next? Or, instead, this? This is what if. It’s kind of a choose-your-own-adventure story, without all the page-turns.

So robot meets mermaid – we don’t know how, it’s flash fiction – and, maybe, they fall in love. “He says, ‘I’d rust for you.’ She says, ‘You leave me breathless.’” But they are of different worlds. He sadly watches her return to the sea – then gets an idea for a wetsuit, and heads out to find her.

He wonders whether robots can drown. He wonders whether she’s forgotten him, or whether maybe he’s in the wrong ocean, or if it’s all just a cruel glitch. She’s a failure of programming; she doesn’t exist. Maybe this is what happens in the night, when the factory is closed and it’s dark—idle robots dream of love and mermaids.
Or maybe that’s when she catches him, thrashing for life, fishhooks her arms under his. He says, “I’m sorry. I’m not programmed to swim.” And she smiles, takes his hand, says, “Then don’t let go.”

If this reminds you a bit of a certain 30-year-old Tom Hanks/Daryl Hannah romcom, well, sure; it was a charming movie, after all, and the story is just as charming. What if you add “what ifs” to let the reader decide between the tragedy of loneliness, or the joy found in the willingness to cross any divide to share life with another? What if you just read it as a technofable?

In an interview with Tara Laskowski at Smokelong (one of the finest flash fiction sites out there), Fogarty said, “I love entering through the whimsical and finding the serious.” I’m not certain I see the serious here, but the whimsy suited me just fine.

Pushcart XLII: Jane Wong, “When You Died” (poem) from Foundry #1

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha: Father/Mother (brown envelope cover)

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha: Father/Mother (brown envelope cover)

Five years of fireflies in oil; five years of ants gnawing
through red flags; five years of pockmarked suns, your face:
each ray, each sweltering August; five years of unraveling,
hair loosening from your crown like a rotten tooth;
five years of how easy it is to split a frog in two; five
years of pollen in your mouth, that bitter buzzing;

Complete story available online at Foundry Journal

And again, I come to a poem that makes little sense until I read some context. Yet it’s quite beautiful, the kind of beautiful that makes me want to understand. A kind of pain only beautiful now that it’s recollected in tranquility.

Wong has considered what she calls “The poetics of haunting” for a long time. Her dissertation was about precisely that: “how social, historical, and political contexts “haunt” the work of Asian American poets.” She made it into a website , a collection of the works examined in the academic document, and discussed the origins of her interest in this aspect of poetry – “it’s not a matter of the repressed coming back to haunt you, but is a productive and intentional act to go toward the ghost and rewrite forgotten histories – in her TEDx talk.

Which brings us to this poem, part of a “project” addressing her own personal history, the recollection of stories from an unknown, unnamed family who died long ago:

With my missing family members who starved during the Great Leap Forward, I can not visit their graves, their physical bodies. They exist as ghosts for me—a kind of presence that it always there, across distances and spaces of time….
In my forthcoming project, I am writing a series addressing my missing family members during the Great Leap Forward (poems entitled “When You Died“). I do not know their names; I wish I new their names. I wish my family could talk about what happened during that time, but they do not. Silence itself is a ghost.

~ ~ Poet interview at lithub

Given the current situation here, I can’t help but wonder if thousands of Central American kids will be growing up not knowing their stories, how their parents, in a desperate attempt to get them to safety, were torn from them. I wonder if some Guatemalan poet, some years down the line, will also try to remember a forgotten history. Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

Sometimes, even if the poem doesn’t land, the backstory does, and I end up in a puddle of tears just the same.

Pushcart XLII: Lo Kwa Mei-En, “Aubade for Non-Citizens” (poem) from New Orleans Review #41

Alien status, a blue bourgeois dress, the hustle of Rome. A waltz—
zoom out—the citizen ingenue’s cool, cool crinoline and persona
buckling in the silhouette the ahistorical hourglass. I have no story,
your shout into this century’s solar wind, a yellow ribbon on a bomb
compromised by compromise, a citizen’s birthright, a little box
xeroxed white, the alien body folded like a french flap in the epic
determination to predetermine the alien body in the here / now.

Complete poem available online at Poetry Society

As with several poems in this volume, I was completely confused as to what is going on here. It starts out with clear references to aliens – that is, the political designation of someone residing in one country with citizenship from another – but that quickly morphs into a more science fiction notion of aliens (the poem originally appeared in the Science Fiction issue of the New Orleans Review) with references to gravity and ships and “Here on Earth” and colonists. Adding to my confusion is the element of entertainment: karaoke, webcams.

….The future, the TV
vectoring the colonists’ self-portrait, thumbs up for this handmade
family, zoom in—Citizen 2 karaokes in low gravity (Zou Bisou Bisou),
unlikable kiss shot to Earth besmirched. The camera winking, stiff
grafts in the ship’s greenhouse untrembling at the speed of light,
turmeric tumescing quietly, and the brilliant soldier of a pear sapling.


So, I did what I do: I went looking, and I found an author statement explaining the genesis of the poem. This was extremely helpful in understanding how the pieces fit, because the pieces are, indeed, 1) her own immigration experience, 2) a project to colonize Mars, and 3) reality TV. And once I knew the background, it all made sense.

This comes from the mission statement of Mars One, a non-profit foundation that aims to establish the first human colony on Mars by the mid-2020’s…. Reading about the standards of physical, social, and psychological desirability potential colonists needed to fulfill in order to be deemed eligible reminded me of the questions asked of immigrants attempting to obtain American citizenship—Have you ever been a sex worker? Are you willing to go to war for the United States of America?—and the message of undesirability that underlies such questioning. When I learned that Mars One planned to narrow down their applicant pool to four final colonists via a reality television audience vote, I was reminded of how popular culture, deformalized media, and social narratives can serve as powers that can enforce (or denounce) the structures of phobic policy.

That’s kind of impressive, to weave all those things together, even if it was done in a fashion that was, for me, less than coherent. I wonder if a more expository approach would have blunted the impact of the combination of events, if disorientation is part of the intended aesthetic experience. The poem is included in a linked collection, The Bees Make Money in the Lion, which continues to explore the idea of this Mars colony. That title, by the way, evokes the Biblical Samson’s riddle pointing to a beehive within a lion’s carcass, itself a story with a wealth of interpretations, and juxtaposes it to the economics of worker bees. Like Oulipo, the concept interests me greatly and I admire the semantic crossconnections, even if I am a bit dubious about the poem itself.

And of course, as I’ve been saying all along, context is king. The cries of children in cages still ring in my ears, the sound of Republican heavyweight Corey Lewandowski’s abhorrent “womp womp” when told of a child with Down syndrome who was taken from her parents (call them asylum seekers, refugees, migrants, they are trying to negotiate a bizarre system with a built-in Catch-22 aimed at keeping them out for the express purpose of keeping their families safe) and put into what amounts to a confused, uncontrolled system so ad hoc and run with so little disregard for children and human rights that no one can explain just how the children will be reunited with their families, where they are all being kept (New York, Michigan, tents on the Texas border where temperatures consistently exceed 100 degrees), and, most troubling, just where the girls are. But corporations are making money, so what are these concerns. This is what colors everything now: disgust for the country that is my home, rage that it is done in my name as a citizen, and absolute impotence to stop it in the face of shameless greed, bigotry, and egotism that propels it. Protests, petitions, phone calls, donations may help us feel better, but I don’t see anything that can stop the boulder rolling down the hill, crushing what is left of America.

Pushcart XLII: David Meischen, “How to Shoot at Someone Who Outdrew You” (nonfiction) from Gettysburg Review 29:3

Krista Whitson: “Dance Halls of Central Texas”

Krista Whitson: “Dance Halls of Central Texas”

The morning I learned of Hank Locklin’s death, I disappeared right out of my life, jolted elsewhere by a single fragment of the deluge spilling from my web browser. March 9, 2009, was an ordinary Monday morning. A breeze drifted through my central Austin neighborhood. I was sixty years old. I’d long since quit listening to stations that call themselves country—that wasteland of loud pop ballads cowboyed up with twang, with steel guitar and fiddle. A name, then, a simple Internet death notice. A voice, singular as the whorl tipping my ring finger. Opening words to a song. And five decades dropped away beneath me.

Please help me I’m falling . . . in love with you.
Close the door to temptation, don’t let me walk through.

Complete story available online at Gettysburg Review

Music, for many of us, forms the backdrop of our lives. So many times a song, written by a complete stranger, crystallizes our state of mind in a way our own thoughts have resisted. I still remember how “Both Sides Now” summed up one summer. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” still breaks my heart, even though I’m a decade too young to remember WWII and the separations it was written to honor. And once it a while, God help us, even Madison Avenue captures the essence of a moment, as so many of us recalled when “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” played on the final Mad Men episode.

Meischen’s memoir traces his evolving understanding of love through song. As a child, then a teenager, growing up in Texas, a boy on a farm raised by parents who’d known hard knocks and tragedy, the weekly outings to the dances at Rifle Club Hall were a way of connecting life with living through the polka and the jitterbug. And at the same time, he began to realize that his father’s life was not a perfect fit for him.

It would be years before Meischen discovered words like gay or found a way to forge a life that felt comfortable. But music – country songs at first, then the piercing “Unchained Melody” – knew how he felt, though it took him a long time to work his way towards what he needed.

This is not a story about confrontation; it’s about cherishing one’s roots while discovering one’s wings.

I am my father’s son. I didn’t see it at the time. I’m not sure he did either…. My father was a talker—storyteller, jokester, clown. He loved entertaining people, loved all eyes on him, all ears. I’m told I started talking at eighteen months. I can attest I haven’t stopped since. I’ve been turning my life into stories for as long as I can remember. I can play the clown with the best of them.
A confession: When I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, I saw my father as impossibly moody, impossibly judgmental, his moods and judgments tinged by anger. I promised myself—promised—that I would not be a moody, angry father. Thirty years went by, and then one day in my early forties, I woke to a stunning fact. I was a moody, angry father.
Flip sides of a coin. I share both sides with the man who fathered me.

The memoir is a chapter from Meischner’s memoir-in-progress; other chapters appear here and there in literary magazines. In an interview with Kelcey Parker Ervick, he describes himself as a literary late-bloomer. I respect those who take their time before taking flight.

Pushcart XLII: Nick Norwood, “Latchkey” (poem) from The Greensboro Review, Fall 2016

Photo by Alexander Harding

Photo by Alexander Harding

Remember the first time
you let yourself in—
stunned by the sheer
silence of it all,
the sunlight blooming
on mute, blank-faced

We don’t know why this kid is now coming home to an empty house; maybe we don’t need to know. We can’t be sure whether he’s excited or scared; probably both, as he runs with a burst of energy, yelling at the sun to go away so he can be alone. Does he see it as a threat? An intrusion on his privacy? It’s probably something he never noticed before, just as, when we’re trying to fall asleep at night, we hear quiet sounds that never made it to our consciousness during the noisy day.

But even a kid’s energy can’t continue forever, so…

you dropped
into your mother’s chair
and watched
that same sunlight creep
silently across floors,
up walls,
and let itself out.

His mother’s chair: an important detail. Almost like a hug, sitting in that chair, I’d imagine, comfort and safety surrounding him. That gives him breathing room, enough to observe, to watch, and to learn that, if you have a safe place, even the scariest things might turn out to be kind of interesting, kind of beautiful, and you just might miss them when they go away.

I love the image of the sun moving around the room. Many years ago, there was a TV commercial for something, windows or shades maybe, that showed a sped-up beam of sunlight moving across a room as the day progressed and the light angles changed. At the time, I wished I could do something to capture that in my living room. I never thought I’d find it, captured for me, in a poem.

Pushcart XLII: Rebecca Hazelton, “Gunpowder” (poem) from Southern Indiana Review, Fall 2016

What if I did request that incendiary
                                                  touch, the slow-burn
                    of all too much, the bleaching kiss of a man
who twisted my mouth
                    into the words he wanted to hear?
                                                                                If it’s written, it’s written,
but what’s read differs.

When I saw this poem was nominated by Alan Michael Parker, I expected a twist of wry humor. Maybe that’s the case, and I’ve just had all the humor drained out of me over the past 18 months. The poem is, however, clever, and maybe that’s a better way to think of humor anyway.

The first few lines work with rhyme and rhythm. Some of that carries through – the wordplay of friction and fiction – but I’m left torn between the violence of love and the violence of violence, and why am I so obsessed with violence? I suppose gunpowder comes with its implication of violence, no matter how you arrange the words.

A section in the middle references alchemy, and feels right, even if I’m still not sure where the fire is or what’s being burned. Although alchemy has a rep for being all about turning stuff into gold, it’s really about finding ways to adjust substances by adding and subtracting fire, water, earth, air, and who knows what into the perfect ratio, the expected result being that perfect metal which (in the ancient/medieval mind) is incorruptible. And if metal can be perfected, why not the body? We all remember the factoid that Chinese invented gunpowder, and, by the way, the discovery was made by alchemists looking for the elixir of life, the substance that would purify the body, make it incorruptible. And if the body, why not the soul? Is that what love is, the purification of the soul, and our speaker is purging fire?

So after groping fruitlessly for a while, I turned to Google, and found an interview with exactly what I needed: “…[T]he inspiration for this poem came from Francis Bacon who said the printing, gunpowder and the compass altered ‘the face and state of the world.’ This poem uses composition of gunpowder as a metaphor for a challenging relationship.” As usual, I was trying too hard; it’s really right there on the page.

I said love, and that is a match.
                    I said believe me, and that was powder.

What an interesting change of tense: the saying of love was in the past, but the equating it with a match is in the present; the believing is all in the past. It’s the recognition, perhaps, that love is a match, that is present, a post-game analysis of what went wrong. Believe what? The love? Followed by… the flight of fear, of too much? Or a betrayal that proved the love false?

“I fell into a burning ring of fire” sang Johnny Cash. June Carter wrote the song, about Cash, when he was still married to his first wife. Nothing to do with the poem, really, except.

Pushcart XLII: Kaveh Akbar, “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Relapse Fantasy” (poem) from zyzzyva #107

BevShots: Liquor under a Microscope

BevShots: Liquor under a Microscope

You’re in a car and crying and amazed
at how bad it feels to do bad things….

Complete poem available online at Zyzzyva

If there’s one thing addicts love to do, besides their addiction, it’s talk about their addiction. Or, in this case, fantasize about it. It does feel bad to do bad things, but somehow, like multiplying two negatives equals a positive, it feels good, too. So we take a little tour of bits and pieces from a nightmare, without having to live the nightmare.

I have a very low tolerance for addiction literature. Sure, it’s powerful since it taps into all the energy zones – self-destruction, acting against self-interest, danger, pain, death – but I just find it all boring. But it does, in this case, make a nice little poem, neatly wrapped up by the last couple of lines:

It’s so lucky,
this living forever all at once. When you turn
on the lights, you’re inconsolably
glad. You could stop this whenever, but why?

Why indeed? The glad is worth it all.

Yet when I read a review of Akbar’s chapbook Portrait of the Alcoholic, dedicated “for drunks”, and from which I assume this poem comes, I wonder if I’m putting too much emphasis on the “relapse” of the title, which to me signals recovery. Maybe not so much. Though it isn’t evident in this poem, the collection, the collection includes several references to Akhbar’s Muslim background. Per Seth Copeland’s review, “drunkenness in the Islamic literary tradition is a long and time-honored metaphor. For what? Abandonment to God, a cessation of the self—but not so here; no. Here it’s real, it’s coarse, it’s dangerous.” Just like the real thing.

Pushcart XLII: Tarfia Faizullah, “I Told the Water” (poem) from Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2016

Joerael Je: A Cup holds Water so do We 2016

Joerael Je: A Cup holds Water so do We 2016

I told the water             You’re right
     The poor are
                             broken sidewalks
     we try to avoid

Audio recording available online on Soundcloud

This is the third Faizullah poem I’ve encountered now, and each one has a haunting mood, a voice I find compelling even though I’m not entirely sure what the subject is. It’s that voice that keeps me hooked, rather than impatient, the sound of the words somehow conveying there’s something here worth hearing, if I can only find out how to listen.

The poem starts with poverty and moves on to lying “facedown in dirt”, the speaker becoming “hieroglyph a wet braid caught in your throat”. War and the urge to defy gravity. A “graveyard of windows”. And in the end, defiance:

Last night I walked out onto your ice
                                                    wearing only my skin
           Because you couldn’t tell me            not to.

I thought of hurricanes. I suppose that’s because the chaos in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Maria is still very much with us. And I still vividly remember Katrina, since a couple of friends of mine lived in Metarie and were incommunicado for quite some time (they were fine, they left, if far later than they should have). It’s always the poor these disasters strike worst: people with houses built on flood plains, people living in trailer parks or in substandard homes, people who can’t afford to evacuate or rebuild or invest in insurance policies. On a grander scale, it’s the world’s poor who suffer the most from climate change, which boils down to changes in water distribution and access.

But, as well as that fit, I left something out.

Faizullah lives in Michigan, an hour away from Flint, where residents were poisoned for two years by lead in their drinking water after the state government saved a few thousand by using unsafe pipes, while installing bottled water coolers in government offices so those making the decisions would not share in the consequences. As Faizullah says in a PBS interview, ““I was thinking about things like helplessness and poverty and allocation of resources…” And even those of us on the road of good intentions might forget Flint, in the wake of newer crises.

The poem is included in her recently released book Registers of Illuminated Villages, a collection of all the places undone by the imbalance of poverty and power.

Whether Flint, or Puerto Rico, or New Orleans or Bangladesh, water is both survival and danger. I see now how the poem captures that, the speaker admiring, and fighting, the water, and the invisible power behind it, giving voice to those who have none.

Pushcart XLII: Louisa Ermelino, “The Ménage” from Sarabande Books

I didn’t know Rosie then, when she lived on the beach in Calangute with her old man and the English couple. I could see her from my house when she would come out in the mornings to sweep. They were all four of them tall and beautiful, I remember, both the English girl and Rosie with wild red hair. They kept to themselves and I wasn’t interested in new friends. I was too busy licking my wounds.

Think of this as Eat, Pray, Love for the dysfunctional.

It starts out the same way: our narrator travels the world to heal her broken heart. In India, she notices the intriguing group, but never meets them. After a while she tires of sex and drugs – “I was done with the East” – and moves on to Australia, where she crosses paths again with Rosie. At this point she becomes an observer-narrator, someone Rosie can tell her stories to.

And Rosie has lots of stories.

I didn’t know the Ians and Rosies and Cynthias of the world, with their fearlessness, their disregard for consequences. They both attracted and repelled me.

I kind of feel bad for our narrator; given Rosie’s steadfast self-interest and lack of conscience, I can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen after the story ends. But I suppose that’s another story, isn’t it. I like a story that ends with me imagining what happens next, not in an unfinished sense, but in a further-adventures way. And, as Rosie herself says, “Oh darling, have you not learned anything?”

The story is from Ermelino’s 2016 collection Malafemmena, “Cruel Woman”, which is also the title of a popular Neapolitan song from the 50s (thanks for the consult, Silvia!). For those of us intrigued by bad girls, or bad boys, stories are a far safer option.

Pushcart XLII: Andrew Solomon, “On Gay Parenting” (nonfiction) from Threepenny Review

People often ask me when I came out, generalizing from the experience of many young people who announce themselves to the world on a particular afternoon. But I did not divorce my reticence in a single sharp break. Rather, I seeped out like a spreading wine stain. I told someone; I told a few more people; I denied what I’d said; I said it again, to someone else; I wished it away; I told my family; I denied it to the people I was sleeping with; I admitted it to those people; I denied it to my family; and so on. I had been completely closeted for two decades and I took another decade to declare myself even to myself….
Since then, coming out has been an almost daily exercise.

Complete story available online.

Those of us who have never had to explain or defend our sexuality might not understand the impact of coming out, but Solomon does a great job of comparing it to a separate issue: revealing his depressive illness. I think it’s a good analogy; those of us who struggle with mental illness are never sure how the person we’re revealing to will react. Maybe they’ll start to treat us like we’re about to flip out at the least provocation; maybe they’ll publicize it beyond our comfort zone; maybe they’ll deride it (my favorite reaction is always, Gee, I get depressed/anxious sometimes too, but I don’t call it an illness). Or maybe they’ll just say, Oh, ok, ask a few questions, and return to whatever the original topic was.

The article isn’t really about how gay couples parent their kids. Of course not; that would be silly, since gay couples parent the way any couples do: teaching, sometimes scolding, comforting, nurturing, disciplining. It’s more about how it feels to live in a world where the three-letter adjective matters so much to those outside the family.

New family structures are different from mainstream ones. We are not lesser but we are not the same, and to deny the nuance of that asymmetry is to keep us almost as ensnared as we were when our marriages and families were impossible. Acquiescence to historical standards is still commonly recognized as the essence of good parenting, but I would emphasize the equal power of imaginative breaks with tradition.

I came back to Miss Manners, oddly enough. Even in the 80s, the queen of propriety held to the belief that family events like weddings should be tailored around the family and participants, rather than tailoring family to fit some rigid template of What a Family Should Look Like (she was far more dogmatic on wearing black to weddings, or simplifying place settings).

Maybe we’re so determined to have everyone lined up in cookie-cutter fashion because it’s easier. Not on the parents, and not on the kids, certainly, but on the rest of the world, to have everyone fit a mold, so we can react to everyone the same way. It’s the same thing with accents, languages, religious customs: I think a lot of the push towards conformity comes from those who simply don’t want to have to work so hard to learn to pronounce names or can’t bear to see a guest eat salad at a barbecue. Maybe we need support groups for such folks, so the rest of us can just live our lives.

Pushcart XLII: Meghan O’Gieblyn, “Dispatch from Flyover Country” (nonfiction) from Threepenny Review, Summer 2016

The Midwest is a somewhat slippery notion. It is a region whose existence—whose very name—has always been contingent upon the more fixed and concrete notion of the West. Historically, these interior states were less a destination than a corridor, a gateway that funneled travelers from the east into the vast expanse of the frontier. The great industrial cities of this region—Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis—were built as “hubs,” places where the rivers and the railroads met, where all the goods of the prairie accumulated before being shipped to the exterior states. Today, coastal residents stop here only to change planes, a fact that has solidified our identity as a place to be passed over. To be fair, people who live here seem to prefer it this way. Gift shops along the shores of the Great Lakes sell T-shirts bearing the logo Flyover Living. For a long time, the unofficial nickname for the state of Indiana was “Crossroads of America.” Each time my family passed the state line, my sisters and I would mock its odd, anti-touristic logic (“Nothing to see here, folks!”).

Complete story available online at Threepenny Review

I have a lot of trouble with the notion of “flyover states”. It seems to me most of the US is a big flyover zone to New York and Washington. So let’s stick with “midwestern” since that seems more appropriate to the article anyway.

O’Gieblyn tells not just of her relatively recent life in Michigan, but compares it with her previous residence of Madison, Wisconsin, “the Berkeley of the midwest”, one of the “cities that lie within the coordinates of the region but do not technically belong there”. Then she mixes in some religion, courtesy of the remnants of a Bible camp that draws in believers every Summer.

I can understand the “anti-touristic logic” she mentions above. There’s a lot of that where I live, an area that gets a significant influx of tourists, hence income, in summer. Yet there’s a definite attitude of who’s local and who isn’t that goes deeper than “winter people”. I’ve lived here over 20 years, but will never be a Mainer because I wasn’t born here. By the way, notice on the map above: most of Maine doesn’t even get flown over.

Whether we call ourselves midwesterners or Californians or North Carolinians or whatever, it’s a matter of identity.

On Saturday nights, the camp hosts a concert, and my husband and I occasionally walk down to the Tabernacle to listen to whatever band has been bused in from Nashville. Neither of us is a believer, but we enjoy the music. The bands favor gospel standards, a blend of highlands ballads and Gaither-style revivalism. The older generation here includes a contingent of retired missionaries. Many of them are widows, women who spent their youth carrying the gospel to the Philippines or the interior of Ecuador, and after the service they smile faintly at me as they pass by our pew, perhaps sensing a family resemblance. Occasionally, one of them will grip my forearm and say, “Tell me who you are.” The response to this question is “I’m Colleen’s daughter.” Or, if that fails to register: “I’m Paul and Marilyn’s granddaughter.” It is unnerving to identify oneself in this way. My husband once noted that it harkens back to the origins of surnames, to the clans of feudal times who identified villagers by patronymic epithets. John’s son became Johnson, etcetera. To do so now is to see all the things that constitute a modern identity—all your quirks and accomplishments—rendered obsolete.

I have to shake my head when I hear for calls of ending “identity politics”. People are all about identity. Maybe the key to the Midwest is this idea of family identity, of stability. To some of us this feels like security; for others, it feels like a life sentence. For those of us whose families have scattered, other forms of identity fill in. We find new ways of creating social bonds. Just because we don’t share bloodlines doesn’t mean we can’t feel loyalty, trust, and reciprocity with others who share our identity. And those who enjoy one form of identity fear those who don’t share it, along with a natural resentment of those who would disparage it.

O’Gieblyn uses a fascinating conceit to structure the piece: smoke from the California wildfires moved across the midwest, changing the sunsets, including those in Michigan. She likens this to the winds of change that bubble up in places that don’t seem to have a lot to do with the neighborhood, be it new technology or ideas. It’s something from elsewhere. From away, as we say in Maine (or, as real cradle-to-grave Mainers, do). It seems ominous, unpleasant. And it generally clears out after a while. Real change happens slowly in flyover zones.

And this may be the point of the article published in 2016, the Year of the Flyover Voter. While some of us feel like we’re being yanked back to a past we thought we left behind, maybe, for some, it just seems like the sunsets are back to normal. That’s a divide far harder to overcome than geography. We could do it – we could heal, see each other not as threats but as interlocking parts of a whole, each valuable in our own right – but it seems there’s more profit, more power, in exploiting it.

Pushcart XLII: Kathleen Lynch, “Abracadabra” (poem) from Tule Review

Cover art (modified) from Ann Morgan's novel Beside Myself

Cover art (modified) from Ann Morgan’s novel Beside Myself

When mom wrung her hands over her many
& various worries, whispering I’m simply beside myself,
I tried to picture that diaphanous other version
of our mother – not a ghost, but not all there like
a real body – a mystery vapor-vision that mimicked
her hand-wringing, pacing – always beside her.

Idioms and slang can be confusing to kids. I can remember, when I was a sheltered kid old enough to know better, really, being away at Bible camp and hearing our cabin counselor tell us about some interpretation of scripture: “I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, but this means…” I looked at all our ten-year-old toes pointing to the center of a rounded rectangle, and moved my own feet back under my bunk to protect them. On another occasion around the same time, I had an earache, and the aunt I was staying with for the summer told my uncle she had to call my father for money, because “a doctor visit can cost $10 a shot.” (Yes, it was that long ago). I started to cry, because I didn’t like shots, not at all.

Lynch takes these innocent misunderstandings and uses them as a storytelling device, taking us through her life from the innocence of childhood to the reality of the adult who knows exactly what it is to lose one’s head, to be beside oneself (which, by the way, is related to ecstasy from the Greek ekstasis, “out of place”). We flip forward to see how the speaker, as an adult, experiences being outside herself, with the metaphorical bleeding into the literal in a bit of fancy.

More often than not, we turn into our moms. Drives us crazy, but there it is.

Pushcart XLII: Anne Ray, “Weekend Trip” from Gettysburg Review, Summer 2016

On our way to the yearly party Yahlie’s friends throw, we encounter a woman and her baby. The drive is one day from Santa Fe to Amarillo, one to Austin. Maybe Yahlie and I will do it in less, with our feet up on the dash and Styrofoam cups of soda in the cup holders. She and I felt the need to get out of town. In our house, the stereo is broken, and we can’t find the cable to hook up the VCR we found. Texas feels like a step down from where we’ve come from, devilish and mean. Her friend Kirsten, who Yahlie says is belligerent and doesn’t listen, said we could stay for a while, which we might. We have $220 between us.

Complete story available online at Gettysburg Review

So many stories and poems live and breathe in tone, something conveyed not by nailing down timelines or plot points, but something far more subtle: a kind of unease, a sense that something’s happening just out of sight. I’m still not sure exactly how it’s conveyed – and it requires reader participation, to be sure – but as I read this story, both times, I could feel a dry heat, yellow dust settling on my skin, until the very end.

It’s a road trip within a road trip: Kate and Yahlie, a couple of college-dropouts-turned-catering-waiters head to a party, and along the way find themselves on a side trip, courtesy of the woman running the antique store they happen to explore. But on a deeper level, it’s about recovering from great loss, with the help of a friend.

I’m not sure if I’m overreading, but it seems to me lots of things take on great significance through reference. “Out here it’s more yellow than gold, and nothing at all is green” – am I still too attached to Ponyboy or is this right out of Frost, adding in yellow as a cheap imitation of gold? The woman in the vintage store has a baby named Pearl, which always brings me back to the Pearl of great price from the Bible via The Scarlet Letter. The story lingers on the name, as the woman dismisses her own: Beverly, which she says has no meaning. But it does: one who lives near the beaver stream. She’s wearing yellow. But in her store is a green wooden chair that Kate falls in love with. Which brings us to chairs: the wheelchair, and the brocade couch at the “installation” at the Austin party – an installation that seems, with its brocade and shelves, to mimic the cheap vintage store that couldn’t find space in Austin. The baby in the antique store: there’s something there about past and future, while the present isn’t going very well.

And doors. Lots of doors. A metaphorical door Kate slams shut on Yahlie over a simple question, a reaction that seems inexplicable until a few pages later. Real doors, like the shop door that keeps the green chair safe – or holds it hostage until it’s redeemed. A door that won’t open until Kate, who understands doors (and roofs, and windows, and chimneys, and soffit, rake, and slope from her architecture studies, abandoned at the last minute) puts her boot to it. “I knew where to kick.”

There’s a wonderful moment where Kate characterizes their conversation as “a little like Franz Liszt playing the piano, a little like prison inmates” only to illustrate this when Yahlie comes out with “We’ll go right after this. You’re not comfortable with other people’s discourses.” I do that sometimes. I used the phrase “ethos of violence” at a party once, and the woman I was talking to looked aside and smiled. I think she was laughing at me.

It’s not until the end of the story that we finally get what we’ve been feeling, but not understanding, all this time. And Kate asks Yahlie a crucial question, and gets the reassurance she has been desperately needing, all this time:

“It just might not be in the cards for me,” I say.
What I don’t say is, Because if I ever sat still I might die. Because I don’t believe I’ll ever be lucky, because I think I’m a slum. Because right here, it’s enough.
“Yes, it is,” she says, softly, her eyes ringed in gold.
The certainty of it! It felt like a gift. I wondered if this was the moment when a door might open, when this feeling would become something I could just pass through the window, or sell to someone for a high price, or just abandon on a wooden sidewalk.

And the doors, the chairs, the gold and green and pearl, all come together and brush away the yellow dust, and I can breathe freely again.

I noticed the nomination notation at the end of the story: Robert Long Foreman, who I “met” a few years ago when his story was in Pushcart 2014. I’ve had a few brief Twitter conversations with him, and at one point he graciously agreed to my request to answer questions about his work to an online writing workshop. So, as I’ve done with a couple of writers in the past, I asked why he nominated the story. I learned something interesting about Pushcart: authors can be nominated. He had nominated Ray; he didn’t read this particular story until it appeared in the anthology:

I remember thinking the story was one that accomplished a lot given its limited space–that it did what a certain kind of good short story does, which is to tell a story that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. The meaning that the story creates somehow exceeds the number of words in the story. I’m always bowled over by that, when it happens.

That seems to be one of the secrets of art: something beyond technique, a kind of cramming a thousand clowns into a tiny car so the reader can watch them spill out, and marvel at how it was all done. I keep reading, trying to find out, but maybe no one really knows.

Pushcart XLII: Pui Ying Wong, “Language Lesson for One” (poem) from Constellations #6

If I knew French
I would speak its music,
its melancholy.
If I knew French
I would ask questions
like how much, where is,
be comfortable with words
like money, lost.

I’ve been trying to figure out what gives this poem its tone. From the very first stanza, I had a particular flavor of sad; melancholy, ok, but more specific than that. Is it just that word, melancholy, in there? I don’t think so. I tried substituting other words – tonality, lyricism, variety, joy – and arrived at the same place. Of course, it’s impossible to unring the bell, so maybe once I had it in my head, that was it.

But I think it’s more than the suggestion of that one word. It’s also the bareness of the poem, the short lines, simple words. I don’t doubt the power of subtle associations – words like comfortable and lost coming up, the solitariness implied by the title itself – but I think there’s something about the sounds of the words. I’m reminnded of the “absolute rhythm” that came up a few poems ago, of Pound’s insistence on “an absolute rhythm, a rhythm . . . in poetry that corresponds exactly with the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed.” This poem just might have such a rhythm. I can’t define it, but I can feel it.

And then I had another association: the French composer Erik Satie, whose minimalist anthem Gymnopaedia #1 shows up on soundtracks all over. As a teenaged piano student of absolutely no talent but much determination, I dismissed Satie as being baby music. What’s this, four or five notes per measure? No accidentals, no key or time signature changes? Let’s go back to Mozart or Chopin, real music! It wasn’t until I matured that I came to appreciate how evocative a simple melody line can be. This poem was meant to be read over Satie, while holding the Pound dissertation.

I wonder if the stanza structure is significant. As I see it, the poem has two halves, with a solo stanza in the middle. The first half, 3 lines times two, then two lines times three describing the acquisition of French, and the verb book the speaker has found, “4000 of them pressed together”. The single two-line stanza, “This afternoon / no one needs it more than I” allows a kind of turn inward, a plan of sorts to find the needed word. In this half, again we have two 3-line stanzas, but only two 2-line stanzas. It’s as if a stanza is missing, making the poem non-symmetrical. A poem about what is absent?

And then at the very end, we find out what emotion the absolute rhythm has been telling us all along:

Like the word for loneliness,
not the one that means
without friends or love
but the kind you find
between horizon and the sea,
or homesickness,
the kind you feel when you are home.

Melancholy. Loss. Rescue. Needs. The Satie-esque absolute rhythm. It all adds up now, to a feeling, a particular kind of missing, for which there is no name.

Pushcart XLII: Philip Connors, “Burn Scars” (nonfiction) from N+1 #25

I thought I heard a shout from far below….
The shout came twice more before I recognized the voice and hollered back. It belonged to Teresa, fiancée of my friend John, whom we had both been mourning for three weeks…. During a dozen summers of lookout duty I had mostly spent my nights in a cabin at ground level, in another mountain range entirely, but there was no cabin on John’s peak, only the tower — a spacious live-in model. I invited Teresa up the stairs, feeling almost embarrassed at having to proffer an invitation. She had spent far more time there than I had, hanging out with John; I was merely an emergency fill-in, on loan from a different ranger district twenty miles east. A fire there the previous summer had left my home tower surrounded by a 214-square-mile burn scar: a bird’s nest marooned in a charscape. There wasn’t a whole lot left to catch fire in that country, so my boss figured he could spare me for a few weeks while I covered John’s shifts on Signal Peak, and my relief lookout worked extra to cover mine.

I remember having read a short story featuring a fire lookout. It’s an interesting setting for a story, full of associations – wilderness, caution, protection, vigilance, risk. But this is not fiction. Connors worked as a fire lookout, wrote a book about it, and now tells another episode in this piece.

It’s an elegy of sorts, a kind of mourning song for both John, whose death came not by fire but by a trail accident, and the wilderness as it burns and tries to grow back. But fire isn’t the only danger, as the wilderness itself is encroached on by people – and, as he points out in the essay, fires started by people tend to do more damage than those started by lightning.

This is beautiful writing, lyrically weaving all those themes together as Connors and Teresa prepare to return John’s ashes to the wilderness he spent so much time protecting. I’ve said many times I’m not a nature person, but even I can be alarmed by the loss of woodlands at the hands of both fire, and development. What’s particularly interesting is the implied respect for fire. This isn’t an enemy to be conquered or feared; it’s a force with which we share the earth. It’s a tone I’ve heard in accounts of city firefighters as well.

In 1947, forest fires destroyed huge swaths of Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert Island, up the coast from where I live. I’ve driven through some of those areas. They still have the acrid smell of burning pine, seventy years later.

Although it’s a long piece, it reads quite easily. Nevertheless I found my mind wandering. I’m just not made for nature. But I recognize, and admire, love when I see it, be it love for a friend, or a forest.

Pushcart XLII: Erica Dawson, “Condition” (poem) from Bennington Review #2

If it don’t mean a thing without the swing
of a gavel, if a trace of doubt can trump
a circumstance, oh beautiful for skies
too small.
Today, the paper boasted this—
Five local policemen tied to the KKK—
italicized as if to shout, I’m new

Complete poem available online at Bennington Review

The thematic elements start with police brutality and go from there. The poetic elements are set out in these opening lines: swing, trump, skies, the letter K. These are repeated throughout, but morph along the way: the swing becomes Frost’s “Birches” becomes wood used in an A-frame. It’s the kind of poem that just leaves you in a pool of images related by gossamer, and then it closes down with “If even this.” Which is pretty much how I’ve been the past week, hence the paucity of posts. I’m determined to break out of this, so I’m trying, but “if even this” is killing me.

So I apologize for not giving some of these recent entries their due. It isn’t that they don’t reach me, not at all. In this case, it reaches me all over, reaches me too much, reaches me to the point of tearing my hair, my heart, out.

Pushcart XLII: Thomas R. Moore, “How We Built Our House” (poem) from Moon Pie Press

We built our house of wind and salt,
of seeing and touching. Our shovels
bit in, our wooden-handled hammers
beat rhythms.

Complete poem available online

This has nothing to do with building a real house, of course, although it may have been inspired by a real house somewhere along the way: Moore lives Downeast (meaning midcoast Maine), has pretty much traveled the world, and seems to be the sort of person who might build his own house. But clearly, this house is the metaphorical variety.

The tone is set by that first line, the “wind and salt” image, things common to coastal Maine, things mundane and omnipresent yet taking great importance when needed. The routine work follows, with ordinary tools. Learning is necessary, of course, since no one is born knowing how to build a house, but the motivated can find ways to learn. Awe and mystery come into play, because don’t they always.

And finally, when all is done, the house is enjoyed to the fullest. Makes me want to sit on the porch, too, listening to the owl and watching the flowering fruit tree.

Pushcart XLII: Ye Chun, “Milk” from Threepenny Review, Fall 2016

Nata Romeo: “Nurture”

Nata Romeo: “Nurture”

She’s kept her milk flow for a time like this. She always knew there would be a time like this….
She wants to curse those people sparing no pity for her son, but she’s tired. She needs to save the rest of her energy for her body to continue to produce milk. She doesn’t have much milk left and their fortune will not turn until three years from now. She wishes she had a place to go, a private place where she could lie down with her son, close her eyes, enjoy this little pleasure of giving and taking, this little numbing sensation that’s slowly spreading over her body. Any time now she’s going to close her eyes. The shoes, legs, and wheels around them will disappear. She and her son will turn into some gossamer matter, hide somewhere in the air, until things get better for them.

Complete story available online at Threepenny Review

In 2015, Ye was researching mothers for a planned book. I can’t find a book that fits that description – she’s primarily a poet, her work appearing in last year’s Pushcart, in fact – but this story fits it exactly: the nurturing of motherhood, made tangible by breast milk.

Yet the story links many disparate lives, near and far, in a chain-effect: a passerby who refuses to buy a flower from the starving child, a blogger who posts a picture of this desperate mother breast feeding her six-year-old because she can’t afford food for him, a blog reader. All of them feel memories, impulses, desires of nurturing and/or being nurtured, and all spread it a little farther as they react.

Mother’s milk is the ultimate source of nurturance. And so often, we glorify mothers with one hand, and dismiss them with the other. Here, the power of nurturing becomes disgust becomes the longing to be nurtured, which becomes the anxiety of nurturing, as we skip from one person to the next. There are no absolutes; context is everything.