Pushcart XLII: Brian Doyle, “Memorial Day” (non-fiction) from The Sun, June 2016

Art by Stan Fellows

Art by Stan Fellows

We are at a parade. It is Memorial Day. I am sitting on the curb in front of the church with my brother, reserving our family’s spot…. Our dad will not walk in the parade wearing his uniform. He declines politely every year when he is asked. He says he no longer has his uniform. He says he does not know where it went, although we think he does know where it went. He says he wore it only because the job had to be done, and now that the war is over, there is no reason to have a uniform. He says uniforms are dangerous statements, if you think about it. He says uniforms can easily confer false authority, and encourage hollow bravado, and augment unfortunate inclinations, and exacerbate violent predilections. This is how he talks.

Complete story available online at The Sun

A snapshot out of the past, perhaps the 50s, with Dad a WWII vet. It’s a short essay, nicely written in a style appropriate for a child’s-eye filter. Kids hear things they don’t quite yet understand. But they observe. It’s a good premise for an essay, a way to comment without commenting, an observation that’s really a commentary, that lets the reader observe and draw her own conclusions from those observations.

And what the kid sees here is, he sees Dad being reserved about his own service. He sees him only applauding when the firefighters go by. I’m not sure I get the subtext any better than the kid does; maybe it’s because the veterans are now out of harm’s way but the firefighters still have to show up at the next three-alarmer? Or maybe he remembers some darkness from the war. We all think of WWII as the “good war”, played by the rule book (doesn’t it strike anyone else as strange that there are rules for war?). But we also know that maybe that wasn’t precisely the case.

This is my second encounter with an essay by Brian Doyle. The first, “The Hawk” from Pushcart 2013, was similar: short, observational, emotional in an understated, indirect way. It’s a style that works quite well for him.

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Pushcart XLII: Steve Stern, “The Plate-Spinner” from Agni #83

There used to be thirty-six. You should have seen them in their glory days, what a spectacle! Silhouetted in amber spotlights on a muggy august evening, the saints were truly the carnival’s main attraction. No spring chickens even then, they were still remarkably spry, their stamina inexhaustible as they galloped night and day, each on his own spinning plate the size of a barrel lid, their beards and earlocks flying, the tails of their caftans streaming, horizontally behind them. …
In those days I hardly even knew their names, the saints, or “stylites” as Old Man Rothstein called them, nor did I set much store by the pitch he’d worked up for their act:
Ladies and gents, please to observe the Lamed Vovniks – which is Hebrew for Thirty-Sixers, count ‘em – holy men from the legendary city of Sfat. See how they got to keep steppin’ lively on them magic plates or else the good Lord’ll remove His grace from the world. In other words, my fellow mishpookies, if they ever stop their centrifugatin’ or them plates cease their gyroscopic whirliggigery, it’s all she wrote for the rest of us…”
…it was an article of faith that the luck of the carnival somehow depended on the rabbis treading those whirling zinc discs.

Some things in this story are real; some are not real. And some are sort of real It’s fun to figure out which is which. But then, I have a strange idea of what fun is. This sort-of-apocalyptic, sort-of-fantasy story based on Hassidic beliefs and practices was definitely fun.

For example, I spent a fair amount of time re-reading the description of the saints, or stylites, or rabbis (they’re called all three as the story progresses) before concluding they are not real, at least, not in the world as we know it. In the world of the story, they’re very real, a bunch of old guys running around in circles 24/7 on top of spinning plates, with various ways of coping with sleep and more, um, private needs. They seem to be a combination of the old plate-spinning acts from goofy talent shows, and the 5th Century Christian ascetics of the early Byzantine empire, known as Stylites, who sat up in tall, narrow towers for years to show their devotion to God.

The Lamed Vovniks are in the category of Sort of Real. As the story tells us, the phrase does literally mean “The Thirty-Six” but the significance is much greater than that: in Hassidic lore, branching from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, there are thirty-six righteous people (usually men, but occasionally a woman is included) around at all times for whose sake God will not destroy the world. I suspect 36 has a particular meaning in Hassidic numerology, but my casual research can’t find consistent references to what it would be.

How the Lamed Vovniks got turned into a carnival act – and that it remains unexplained – is part of the weirdness of the story, and part of its appeal.

This is my second encounter with Steve Stern. The first time was back in 2012, when I hated his story “The Ballad of Mushie Momzer” because it was relentlessly depressing, beating down the hapless protagonist with no mercy. I acknowledged I was probably missing important references to Jewish folk stories, since that’s Stern’s specialty. This time, I was a bit better prepared, not just by general knowledge but by (sing it with me, you know this line) the coincidence of having taken a couple of moocs recently that added to my understanding of Judaism: one, a mooc on Talmud, and one on Kabbalah that just concluded. And this story is loaded with references to Kabbalah and Hassidism, half of which I probably overlooked. I loved it.

Two warnings: Self-indulgence alert. I’m going to go through it in great detail, mostly just to exercise my own understanding of the references. And, spoiler alert, since such an approach requires telling a great deal of the story. That’s ok, the voice is so strong, and since there are so many great details I’ll leave out, it’s really worth reading even if you know generally what’s going to happen. And, as I said, I have probably missed a great many things, and may have made some mistakes (corrections welcomed).

Our narrator is Corliss, who ran away from the orphanage where he grew up and joined the carnival at a young age. The inciting event of the story is the die-off of 26 of the saints, leaving ten. This seems to be sufficient, they feel, since ten is a minyan (the minimum necessary for Jewish worship), but the world begins to fall apart: computers crash, the world economy collapses, and it’s basically societal chaos. The carnival finally falls apart, but Corliss stays with the saints, tending the poles to keep them spinning.

It’s an arduous undertaking, since there’s no money, and all he has for barter are carnival prizes. A group of street kids – the urchins, he calls them – hang out and start helping to keep the rabbis spinning so Corliss can get food and sleep a little. “I couldn’t quite grasp that current events had taken such a toll on the Cavalcade of Fun. I’d always believed we were proof against the intrusions of history.” Yeah, we all believe the leopard won’t eat our faces, until he does. At another point he says, “It amazed me that, while civilization had ground to a halt, nature persisted and even flourished, as if it had been liberated at last.” Doesn’t amaze me at all. Liberation is mentioned three times in the story in various ways, making it something of a floating theme.

Corliss asks the saints why they spin; they don’t remember, though they have some thoughts about going forwards so you don’t go back, and a riff about sexual union with the divine that’s straight from the Kabbalah. Yes, the projection of the divine has male and female parts and they like to get together. Unfortunately, there are also evil equivalences of these parts – Samael and Lilith – and when they into things, the world feels pain. I’m not making this up, I swear, though the details are a bit beyond my level.

One of the rabbis tells him he isn’t worried about death. “I been dead already before. In heaven they told me, Come back again when they’re finished, your good deeds.” This, too, is Kabbalistic, the notion of a sinner being reincarnated to atone for past misdeeds. I am SO glad I took that mooc. But the saints aren’t getting any younger, and they start taking the Sabbath off, sitting in place on their plates (I think; I have a terrible time visualizing any of this, it’s so bizarre).

Then the girl with the plums shows up. I’m not sure if plums have any special significance in Hassidic culture, but her name is Lily and her dog’s name is Beelzebub and the significance of that isn’t too obscure. She’s helpful for a while, but then she distracts him in the usual way girls distract boys, and guess what:

At first you might have taken their banged-up plates for the shields of fallen warriors, but this was no battlefield, The papery corpses in their sable garments looked more like cast-off chrysalises than human beings. Maybe by abandoning their bodies I’d set free their souls. It would have been nice to think so, but in their absence – broken bodies notwithstanding – I’d never felt so alone.

Lily has taken off, and Corliss is left with cleaning up the remains of the crashed rabbis. He does something odd: he loads their corpses on a makeshift raft, sets it afire, and pushes it out into the flooded river. This isn’t Jewish at all; it’s Vedic, carried forward into Hindu culture. I’m not sure why this is in the story, but I’m thinking there’s an interesting explanation for something so out of place.

Then he goes back to clean up the plates and poles, and notices one pole still has the plate mounted, though at a precarious angle. The urchins show up, and form a pyramid (hmmm) to open a path to the plate, but that damn dog Beelzebub beats him to it.

Beelzebub, starting to trot in place, accelerated our spinning. Clumsily, until I found my footing, I attempted – having no choice – to follow his lead.
We gathered momentum, the dog and I, charging ahead while the temp raged and a different order of weather was taking shape in the river – you could glimpse the waters of heaven pouring down into the waters of Earth…. I was running to beat the devil now, wondering, as I did, if the spinning had prompted the deluge or vice versa. Had the saints been saving the world from disaster or propelling it toward its destruction?

There’s an interesting little detail in there: he starts out following the dog, and ends up being chased by it, which of course is what happens when you’re both running in circles. But I suspect it’s bigger than that, more of a metaphor for the kind of reversal that happens when we pursue evil: we end up pursued.

The storm intensifies, and Corliss gives us his last report:

What I do know for sure, however, I can’t let on; because if I told you all I could see from the lofty perch, before the approaching waterspout lifted me and the Bub up into its black funnel, you would rip your garments to the navel in grief for having lost that wisdom.

There’s a reversal in that, too: the telling would imply loss of wisdom. I’m not sure what this means, but it seems important, and I wonder if it might have something to do with the death of the rabbis causing a kind of uncreating, a reversal, of the universe.

Since the story isn’t available online, I was hoping to find a video of Stern reading it, but instead I found one of him as the invited guest at a temple service. He was surprised at the invitation, and admitted, “I’m gloomy guy. I’m just no damn fun.” Unlike Mushie Momzer, I found it quite fun to read. Maybe I just felt more grounded in the details. In any case, it’s an imaginative, intelligent story, well told.

Pushcart XLII: Francisco Cantú, “Bajadas” (non-fiction) from Ploughshares, Winter 2015/16

Look, my mother said, I spent most of my adult life working for the government as a park ranger, so don’t take this the wrong way —but don’t you think it’s below you, earning a degree just to become a border cop? Look, I said, I spent four years away from home, studying this place through facts, policy, and history. I’m tired of reading. I want to exist outside, to know the reality of this border, day in and day out. Are you crazy? she said. You grew up with me, living in deserts and national parks. We’ve never been far from the border. Sure, I said, but I don’t truly understand the landscape, I don’t know how to handle myself in the face of ugliness or danger.

Francisco Cantú, Fulbright fellow, grandson of a Mexican-American immigrant and son of a park ranger, spent four years as a border agent because he wanted to truly understand the landscape. Then he earned an MFA in nonfiction so he could write about it in a series of essays, collected for his soon-to-be published book, The Line Becomes a River (Penguin House, February 2018).

In this essay, we see the first year of his career patrolling the border in the form of diary entries. It’s just as uncomfortable to read as you expect it to be. And it’s just as important as you expect it to be, because for many of us, perhaps most of us, we, too, have witnessed the border at a distance. We read news stories about vans stuffed with dead passengers who paid everything they had for a chance; we read political bombast about rapists and drug dealers; we hear the other side, about desperate people fleeing gangs and drug wars and poverty so extreme we can’t really imagine it.

But what is it that border agents actually do? I realized as I read this essay, I had no idea, beyond the vague idea that they find people crossing the border illegally and arrest them. I would imagine there are tv shows and movies that show such things, but I’ve never watched them; unlike Cantú, I’m comfortably ensconced in the world of words, not the world of desert and scrub brush and mountain lions and people flat out of choices.

There are days when I feel I am becoming good at what I do. And then I wonder, what does it mean to be good at this? I wonder sometimes how I might explain certain things, the sense in what we do when they run from us, scattering into the brush, leaving behind their water jugs and their backpacks, how to explain what we do when we discover their lay-up spots. Of course, what you do depends on who you’re with, what kind of border agent you want to become, but it’s true that we slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, that we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze, and Christ, it sounds terrible, and maybe it is, but the idea is that when they come out from their hiding places, when they return to find their stockpiles ransacked and stripped, they’ll realize their situation, that they’re fucked, that it’s hopeless to continue on, and they’ll save themselves right then and there, they’ll struggle toward the nearest highway or dirt road to flag down some passing agent or head for the nearest parched village to knock on someone’s door, someone who will give them food and water and call us to take them in—that’s the idea, the sense in it all.

The observations aren’t sensationalized or sentimental, but they often have compassion – for both the agents, and the people they pursue – at their core. I have to wonder if Cantú is thinking, If my grandmother hadn’t come here years ago there but for the grace of God go I. There but for the grace of God go all of us. Law enforcement and humanity do not have to be mutually exclusive.

They do, however, wear on the soul.

Last night I dreamed I was grinding my teeth out, spitting the crumbled pieces into my palms and holding them in my cupped hands, searching for someone to show them to, someone who could see what was happening.

I expect we’ll be hearing a lot about this book in a few weeks when it’s released. I expect some of the discussion will make some of us angry for various reasons. The book might make people uncomfortable. That’s what art is supposed to do.

Pushcart XLII: Natasha Trethewey, “Imperatives for Carrying On in the Aftermath” (poetry) from Poem-a-Day

"Dancer" by Marvin Posey

“Dancer” by Marvin Posey

Do not hang your head or clench your fists
when even your friend, after hearing the story,
says: My mother would never put up with that.

Complete poem available online at Poets.org

We’re often reluctant to sit still for another person’s pain, and will do what is necessary to not let it touch us too deeply beyond a polite sympathetic murmur. This is particularly true when the victim’s behavior seems to contribute to the tragedy a friend now deals with. “What was she wearing?” “Did he eat right and exercise?” “Did she try antidepressants and therapy?” Because, of course, rape/cancer/suicide doesn’t happen to people who do everything right, and while our compassion is boundless, we often act like it must be carefully rationed for only the most deserving. And of course, nothing like this could ever happen to us, because we are smarter than that.

Here, the speaker offers bitter advice in the wake of reactions she’s received when revealing her mother was murdered by her husband. It basically boils down to: If someone doesn’t get it, don’t bother trying to explain.

                                       ….Learn
to ignore subtext. Imagine a thought-
cloud above your head, dark and heavy
   
with the words you cannot say; let silence
rain down….

The specific examples cover a wide swathe of dismissals. One of the most enraging, in the context of a poem, is the professor who tells the poet to write about something else. Or maybe the most enraging is the juror who thinks couples should “work it out.”

The final stanzas convey the reality of the speaker’s world:

….one does not bury the mother’s body
in the ground but in the chest, or—like you—
 
you carry her corpse on your back.

I believe the speaker will put the corpse down when she is ready. If that isn’t soon enough for the rest of the world, too bad. She has learned to cope with that, as well.

Pushcart XLII: Anthony Wallace, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” from Southern Review 52:3

Reverse of a silver tetradrachma featuring the Owl of Athena; ca. 480–420 BC

Reverse of a silver tetradrachma featuring the Owl of Athena; ca. 480–420 BC

A well-dressed couple entered the lobby of the Hötel Saint-Dominique, the young woman first, pushing an expensive-looking pram, the muscles in her slender arms and legs taut with purpose. When they came to the hostess’s desk just outside the bar, the young woman recited their family name and the time of the reservation. She looked at her wristwatch to show that they were exactly on time. The hostess smiled and then the young woman added, “A corner table, private but with a view of the dining room. I don’t want to wake her.”

My reach is going to far exceed my grasp (R>G) on this one. I kept encountering Easter eggs – you know, those little surprise asides that stand out if you’re in on the joke, and otherwise pass unnoticed. Considering the ones I found, I’m thinking there must be dozens more that I just wasn’t equipped to see. I’d love to know about them. Or I can just keep taking moocs on philosophy and literature and art and see what happens.

And yes, there will be spoilers. But it’s ok, it’s the sort of story that isn’t in the reading, but in the finding, and the connecting, and I haven’t exhausted those avenues.

The basic plot is a little strange, but not complicated. A couple with a baby carriage come in to an elegant restaurant for dinner; the waiter notices the carriage contains not a baby, but a doll; the husband appears to overhear him telling this to a coworker; the couple leaves, with the mother tearing the doll apart as they go, scattering its limbs in the restaurant. The restaurant crew comments.

This in itself raises some questions beyond, who brings a baby to an elegant restaurant? She’s fairly disappointed with how dinner goes – minor details keep annoying her – but there’s no real explanation for her storming out. At one point she’s rocking and almost-nursing the doll; then she’s tearing it apart. What happened? Is it possible they didn’t know it was a doll until the husband overheard the waiter’s remarks, he told the wife, and she was enraged at being fooled? Or at being found out?

However, all of this needs to be considered in the larger context. The story bears the name of a Walter Benjamin essay on art, a reference I probably would have missed had I not just completed the Design Theory mooc just mentioned in my previous post. Given that the doll is a mechanical reproduction of a baby, this can’t be a casual coincidence.

As I said, I’m reaching a bit beyond my grasp here (R>G#1), but as I understand it, Benjamin’s essay sees a difference between art, and the reproduction of art (and what is a baby if not a work of art, and what is a doll if not a reproduction of a baby), in that the aura of the original, the contact with the artist, is lost in the reproduction, reversing the concentration that contact with art brings into the distraction that immersion in reproductions bring:

Distraction and concentration form an antithesis, which may be formulated as follows. A person who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it; he enters into the work, just as, according to legend, a Chinese painter entered his completed painting while beholding it. By contrast, the distracted masses absorb the work of art into themselves. Their waves lap around it; they encompass it with their tide.

~~ Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

If that feels like a stretch, don’t forget the essay and the story share the title, and by the way, the story specifically mentions Benjamin through the thoughts of the waiter:

The waiter had recognized the professor, had a few months before attended one of his lectures on the theory and practice of translation, a field in which he was an eminent authority—the man who some people said was the next Walter Benjamin in that he frequently discussed literary translation not in terms of what it got right but, more importantly, what it got wrong: the misreading or misinterpretation that led, strangely, to greater fidelity to living art and the possibilities for interpretation that implies.

This talk of misinterpretation, of fidelity to living art, seems to me to be somehow relevant to the events of the plot, but I can’t pin it down.

Benjamin’s essay is very concerned with film as a medium. And by the way, there’s at least one film reference in the story: “The couple sat together in silence, picking over their second course. The waiter arrived with a bottle of Chablis, that green-eyed goddess, uncorked the bottle in front of them….” In Marathon Man, there’s a similar scene at Lutèce, with the line “The great Chablis of the world are almost always green-eyed” just before Dustin Hoffman’s brother, an undercover spy, reveals Elsa’s suspected Nazi past to Hoffman (whose character is, guess what, a historian). No, I didn’t have this off the top of my head, but the “green-eyed” reference was so confusing – was it a typo, should have been grey-eyed? – I did some googling (R>G#2) and found the line.

At the risk of wearing out this trope (or is it just obsessive pursuit?) let me connect Benjamin and film and Nazis a little more closely (R>G#3) via the last paragraph of his essay:

Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own alienation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art.

~~ Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

As far as the aestheticizing of politics, calling Leni Riefenstahl (his essay was published in 1936, three years after her first propaganda film), the marches, the rallies, and oh god, Wallace couldn’t have predicted that I’d be reading this in a time when we have a reality-TV star as President, while half of America is reading the juicy political tell-all released at midnight the other night to a buying frenzy usually associated with Harry Potter or teenage vampire novels. As for communism politicizing art: isn’t all art inherently political, whether it strives to be or not?

Benjamin was, by the way, part of the Frankfurt School, philosophical descendents of Hegel and Kant, a bunch of early 20th Century Marxists (including My Favorite Marxists Horkheimer and Adorno) hanging around in Germany when Jewish Marxists could still hang around in Germany and breathe at the same time; he tried to escape in 1940, got as far as France, and killed himself when it became apparent he would not make it into Spain.

But wait, there’s more: throughout, the mother is several times referenced in ways that bring to mind the Homeric depiction of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom:

….it was her eyes that one was irresistibly drawn to with their finely reticulated gray irises and luminous, overlarge pupils….

These musings occupied the waiter while he waited to go back into the dining room, to wheel in the dessert cart, to offer the gray-eyed goddess what was in his power to offer her. The gray-eyed goddess, ‘the trim-coifed goddess—

That’s the clearest reference to Athena this side of the 8th century BCE, especially the phrasing of that last sentence, the double-descriptor so common in Homeric poetry intended for oral recitation. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was buddy to both Achilles and Odysseus in their respective epics. But what does Athena have to do with any of this?

Consider another excerpt from the story:

The hostess, who had an MFA in screenwriting and who’d written two screenplays she was unable to sell, was just such a cynical product of the service industry. To her way of thinking, there were only two kinds of people in the world: those who’d had their screenplays optioned, and those who hadn’t…. For her, the important distinction was that the optioned got to live in the historical moment, and hence live real lives, while those not optioned were consigned to live at the end of history, like orphans stranded at the end of a dirt road. The hostess had remained in the second group far longer than she’d expected, and she was in the process of adjusting herself to that fact.

That also tweaked my antennae (R>G#4) due to the “Architectural Imagination” mooc
from last spring, which used some theory from Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics. Let me paraphrase and conflate some notes from the mooc lectures by Prof. Hayes: In the symbolic period, WeltGeist (world spirit) is outside the object (typified by Architecture of mud, stone, wood) looking in, and the object is pointing to it; In the classical period (typified by Greek and Roman sculpture), the WeltGeist shows forth from within the object; In the romantic period (post-Roman, typified by music and art), the WeltGeist has almost left the object. At the end of the Romantic period, the WeltGeist escapes the physical, and moves into thought (philosophy, theology) and no longer needs Art. Which may be why nobody likes modern art or music. But as this is a historical process, it can only be observed when it’s over, when it’s too late.

And it just so happens, Hegel (with whom I wrestled mightily this past summer in yet another mooc, “The Great War and Modern Philosophy”) had some ideas about Athena, though he used her Roman name Minerva:

Philosophy always arrives too late. As the thought of the world, it only makes its appearance after actuality has finished its process of development and is over. …Only in the maturation of actuality does the ideal appear to confront the real. Then the ideal reconstructs this world for itself in the form of an intellectual realm, comprehending in its substance. When philosophy paints its grey on grey then the form of life has grown old, and this grey on grey is not capable of rejuvenating it, merely of understanding it. The owl of Minerva only begins its flight when the twilight falls.

~~ G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1820), “Preface”

Nothing is as it seems. The baby in the pram is actually a doll. The hostess is actually a screenwriter (this is Paris, not Hollywood, where everyone’s a screenwriter). The waiter’s a philosopher. The restaurant seems empty except for the couple. The most un-Athena-like character in history is framed as Athena. What’s going on? Is it some kind of deconstruction of reality, a jumbling of images?

The narration is what some writers call head-hopping – third person through various characters as the story progresses – so it seems there’s a disembodied narrator – the WeltGeist, Philosophy, Art freed from material form? – floating outside of it all. Maybe that’s a working theory (R>G#5): the narrator/WeltGeist follows the progression outlined by Hegel, moving from outside looking in (the initial entry into the restaurant), to inside looking out (in the mother’s head), to being freed (the doll-dismemberment) to ending with philosophy and thought via the hostess and waiter. That doesn’t quite track, but it’s the best I can do.

[Addendum 1/14/18: I’ve been thinking about this story for the past week, and I have a new working theory: The key is in how the waiter, representing Art as it matures into Philosophy and absorbs the partaker, and the hostess, representing the reproduced Art that distracts the partaker, react differently to the scenario they’ve just witnessed. He is “forever changed by his encounter”, though he isn’t sure exactly how, like Paul on the road to Damascus; she sees the event as a screenplay, to be reproduced as a movie.]

I sure wish some philosophy professor would do a mooc, a lecture, a podcast, a Medium article, whatever, on this story; if I could find so many Easter eggs, imagine what someone who actually knows what they’re talking about could do with it.

Pushcart XLII: Ron Koertege, “Thanks for Coming In” (poetry) from Nerve Cowboy #41

We just want to talk about your excursion on the 27th.
Sunday before last. Isn’t that right? You wore that thrift
store sombrero. Move a little closer to the machine, please.
There’s nothing to be afraid of. Excursions are allowed.
It isn’t as if you tried to escape.

Complete poem available online at Hometown Pasadena

And again, context is king. I might have let this poem roll off my back a couple of years ago – maybe even three months ago – as an amusing little diversion. You gotta work for it, get past the thrift-store sombrero and the lavender underthings, to what’s under the amusement: cold terror. I think we’ve all been too amused for too long and a little cold terror is called for, but I’ll admit it’s a lot less fun than amusement, which is why cute cat videos (not to mention lavender underthings) are so popular.

You and your companion began by
chatting about radioactive waste management. Excellent.
Then you put your hand on her leg. And by “her” we mean
your not-wife, but she of the lavender underthings. Stay seated,
please. We are measuring electro-dermal activity.

It’s all in the questions that come to mind. Escape from what? Why are they wearing uniforms? And, more central to us as readers, perhaps, is the kicker at the end: why is poetry such a big problem? And then there’s the SMBC comic of the day that happened across my feed on the day I first read this poem, which maybe had me primed for amusement, for taking jibs at poetry.

Now before you got into the back seat and
mussed up your uniforms, you read to your not-wife from
a book. None of what was recorded made sense to our data
banks, so we were wondering what exactly were you reading?
Poetry. Oh, dear. Would you like some water? We’re
going to be here awhile.

But then the questions came in, and I realized, this isn’t funny at all. Poetry isn’t the butt of the joke, it’s the antithesis of order. It’s the heart of what the authoritarian fears most: personal autonomy, freedom of mind, a human soul at work. More dangerous than radioactive waste by far.

I still see writers asking why they should bother writing stories, essays, poems. This is why. Keep writing. It drives the bad guys crazy, keeps the good guys sane. SMBC had it almost right: Poetry – art – is fuel.

Pushcart XLII: Jason Zencka, “Catacombs” from One Story #216

Sign in the Catacombs of Paris: “Happy the man who has been able to learn the causes of things and has trampled beneath his feet all fears, inexorable fate, and the howl of greedy Acheron” –  Virgil, Georgics

Sign in the Catacombs of Paris: “Happy the man who has been able to learn the causes of things and has trampled beneath his feet all fears, inexorable fate, and the howl of greedy Acheron” – Virgil, Georgics

Take another look at her: the woman at the bar.
Sitting alone atop a barstool, fingers tracing the stem of a margarita. Blue dress, full, rounded shoulders, tall. She’s a paradox: You’ll remember her for her singularity, and yet her singularity cries out for metaphor, bows to the truth of things that are other things. The tension of her figure against the blue fabric is a suspended orchestral note—rich, dissonant, ever-hovering above resolution. Her smile—teeth, winningly disheveled, free of the eugenic tyranny of orthodontia—is a stand of birches, castle ruins.

The story has nothing to do with the woman at the bar. Almost nothing. Not much. The story has everything to do with the woman at the bar, to the truth of things that are other things.

I spent some time wrestling with how to write about this story. It’s one of those perfect unities of form and content, where the experience of reading it is the experience of the character, so no summary does it justice. It’s so full of twists and turns, I don’t even want to use another quote beyond the opening above. I don’t want to talk about the primary character, or the inciting incident, or the climax, other than to say that as you read the story, it metamorphoses both suddenly and subtly, somehow, in a way that makes it four stories, but one, not a trinity but a quaternity. And it all starts with the scene above, a scene that somehow drips sensuality and forces us to keep reading while always feeling just a little bit off. It’s magical.

But how do I write about a story without writing about the story? Do I just use the One Story author interview that explains the “hinge paragraphs” – oh, I love that phrase, they are indeed hinges – were written first, but Zencka knew the feel of the story from the beginning, and the structural discontinuities were just how he accomplished that – or that his family was similar to the family in the story (ok, one more quote):

In 1980, my family went on vacation to Acapulco. Which was strange since we weren’t wealthy and weren’t much for destination holidays. No Disneyland, no Grand Canyon. If we went anywhere at all it was to my uncle’s potato farm, about two hours from our home in central Wisconsin, where my mom was a secretary at the public junior high school and my dad made manhole covers at the Neenah Foundry. Winnie had pretty well made up his mind that going to Acapulco was just another of the many worthless ideas my parents were churning out in those days until it occurred to him that it might be the site of his deflowering…. Winnie had a few champions – particularly Mrs. Kohlhagen, his freckled and willowy Language Arts teacher – but Winnie’s peers, mostly sons of men from the foundry or one of the nearby paper mills, viewed him with suspicion on their most charitable days, and Winnie yearned for wider realms.

The most mundane family in the world becomes the generator of the strangeness to come. But don’t think, by strangeness, I mean anything to do with magical realism. The tone of the first paragraph, the setting in Mexico, certainly sets it up that way, but nothing here is supernatural. It’s all the kind of full-tilt truth that knocks your head off when you run into it. A boy who worships his older brother. Ok, one more, and that’s it:

Have I said how I loved this boy? Of course, I didn’t realize he was a boy then, and it’d be years and years before I did. But I loved him terribly. I would have waged wars for him, committed numberless atrocities. Surely goodness and mercy would follow such a child all the days of his life, would fill whatever house he dwelled in, light it up like the gaudiest of Christmas trees.

And then there is the phrase, “I was the one who lost him.” Somehow, “I lost my keys” feels passive, even though the grammatical structure is active. On the action/intent index (I had a linguistics professor in college who was obsessed with action/intent indices) there’s no action, no intent. But somehow the story makes it very active, very intentional. I’m not sure how it does that; maybe it’s just my reading, or maybe it’s the context in which the phrase is placed. What do we even mean by “I lost something”; isn’t losing something that just happens? Even when it happens to the object of the sentence, be it keys or brother, doesn’t it happen to us as well? The unstable subject-object relationship migrates from character to page to reader, and who is whom?

And what does any of this have to do with catacombs? No, I’m not going to spoil that segment of the story. I always like to check several resources, to see if my impression of a word is accurate: catacombs are underground burial chambers, but they are also used for religious services, particularly memorials of saints and martyrs buried there. The living visit the dead as communion, as worship. It’s the perfect element for this story, with its themes of loss and memory and obsession. Turns out, Zencka knows something about obsession: having read his author interview, there’s a “damn” in my head, though not on the page, in a perfect place, and knowing it, I can’t unknow it.

Zencka is a master of tone, of conveying setting and mood in a way that makes you sweat, either a musky sultry sweat, as in the opening, or a dirty, tired, frightened sweat, as in this third turn. And though there’s a magnificent, pitch-perfect exchange here, I won’t quote it, out of respect for the wholeness of the quaternity. I’ll just say – and this is from the fourth turn – that George taught me there are no catacombs in Acapulco. And like the woman at the bar who is not really a character, absence is more important than presence.

Returning to Zencka’s author interview, I highly recommend it for those interested in the craft of writing fiction; it’s a real look into the process of writing, as well as some techniques he uses. For example:

I liked the formal challenge of building a car (a mystery story) and then promptly removing its engine (telling the reader, Sorry, Winnie won’t return, no mysteries being solved here, kiddos) and then seeing if I could still maneuver the thing across the finish line. But mostly no. The “rule-breaking” aspects of this story—the direct address, the implied POV shift, the tense changes, the flipping of the bird to the story’s stated plot—that was all more or less “how the story came out.” During the long revision process, I thought a lot about why these idiosyncrasies worked, and what I had to do to make them work better. But the story’s basic structure, such as it is, mostly came as a result of bouts of daydreaming during which I tried to ask as few questions as possible.

~~ Jason Zencka: Q&A by Hannah Tinti at One Story

So the features I love so much are not consciously planned, but come out of an organic creative process of knowing how the story should feel. That might be why the rule-breaking works so well (at least for me, Hannah Tinti, Charles Baxter, and Bill Henderson), and doesn’t feel gimmicky or forced. It’s as if this is the only way this story could be told, and the story itself, with twisty maze of passages real and metaphoric, leapt onto the page from the writer’s subconscious.

Pushcart XLII: Forward

Encapsulated Janus Particles

Encapsulated Janus Particles

Over the past four decades these introductions have often lauded small press editors and authors. This year we honor Barack Obama, writer.
In his three books, Dreams for my Father, The Audacity of Hope, and Of Thee I Sing, he is honest, elegant and generous. In the White House he insisted on the dignity of the office and didn’t waste time with flatulent opinions or ridiculous, often dangerous, fantasies. He didn’t “do stupid” and he didn’t speak or write stupid either.
We miss him.

And so we dedicate this Pushcart Prize to our writing friend Barack Obama. Not the politician, not the President – the writer, who respects what words mean and can do.

Introduction by Bill Henderson, ed., Pushcart Prize XLII

As miserable as I am about the current state of political affairs, I get nervous when I see paeans to the past. I get nervous about a kind of retro-blindness in which we forget the mistakes that were made, the decisions we disagreed with (and, no matter where on the political spectrum we stood, we all disagreed at least sometimes), and a kind of gilding of an age that wasn’t that golden but just seems so now. It’s the same kind of retro-blindness older Americans seem to have about the 50s, when things were so much better – except for those caught in the nets of Jim Crow, McCarthyism, female subjugation, overt ethnic discrimination, and fatal poverty among the very old, the very rural, and the very ill.

I understand the impulse to look backwards (and yes, so much was so much better), and the beginning of the year is a fine time to do that. But with a new Pushcart before me, it’s time to turn forward – which itself is illusory, since the pieces here were all written in the past, and published prior to December 1, 2016. The past and the future meet in the present, and “….let us not forget what is shallow & what is deep eventually meet” (from Sasha Steensen’s “Poems for Lent”) and I think I’ve just OD’d on metaphor for our current malaise. Time to go forward.

In looking for an appropriate image for this post, I started with Janus, and discovered the Janus Particle:

Janus particles are special types of nanoparticles whose surfaces have two or more distinct physical properties. This unique surface of Janus nanoparticles allows two different types of chemistry to occur on the same particle.

My moocing has been at more mundane levels of science, so I’m not exactly sure what this means (though I’m somewhat familiar with amphiphilic phospholipids, if that’s a similar thing), but it still piques my interest. Like many of the stories and poems – especially poems – in Pushcart that I don’t quite understand, yet lead me to interesting places and stay with me, I think I’ll remember the Janus particle.

In the Table of Contents, I see three BASS 2017 stories, none of which, incidentally, I selected as my favorites from that volume (though they all came close; it was a very good year). I thought maybe it was that they’d appeared in the “slicks”, since Pushcart sticks to small presses, not TNY or The Atlantic. No, my favorites were all from small presses, so I have only my taste and judgment to consider. But what we love, we love.

I see a considerable sprinkling of familiar names (Saunders, Trethewey, Oates, Jones, Faizullah, Johnston – I’m always pleased when I realize I recognize more contemporary poets than I did the year before) and several intriguing titles (“Funny Bird Sex”, “How to Shoot Someone Who Outdrew You”, “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving”). I know there are treasures waiting here among and beyond those cues. It’s time to read forward.