Pushcart XLIII: Justin St. Germain, “Murder Tourism in Middle America” (nonfiction) from Tin House, Fall 2017

A week earlier, Bonnie—my copilot and de facto girlfriend—had asked if I wanted to drive with her to Minnesota…. Google Maps suggested a route that ran fifty miles from Holcomb. I said yes, as long as we could make a detour. She agreed to accompany me to a murder scene much more readily than I’d expected. Bonnie was up for anything, a trait that had attracted me to her, and that now made me keep her at arm’s length, unable to imagine a relationship.
Going to Holcomb was a pilgrimage of sorts. I’d been writing a book about my mother’s murder for the last five years, and to write about murder is to live in the long shadow of In Cold Blood. Capote’s seminal book had become an obsession of mine. I’d wanted to write a response, a counterargument, a true murder story that made a gesture his didn’t: to present the victim as a person, not a narrative prop, and to treat their death itself as tragic, not as an occasion for a larger tragedy. A printed copy of the manuscript sat on the passenger’s floorboard of our car; the final edits were due in a week, and I’d been reading it out loud to Bonnie on the trip, listening for false notes. It was scheduled for release in a year—from Random House, Capote’s publisher—and, save for my editor and agent and a few friends who’d read an early draft, Bonnie was its first audience.
Somehow the contents of Capote’s book, and what I’d read about the writing of it, failed to warn me how drastically plans can change on trips to Kansas.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This Faulkner line has been on my mind a lot lately, and maybe it was on Justin St. Germain’s mind, too, as he drove into Holcomb. His mother’s murder was still very much alive for him – of course, it would be, even had it not been riding with him in the car in the form of the manuscript about the event – but the 1959 murder of the Clutter family, the subject of Capote’s In Cold Blood was also in the car with him.

This memoir is an account of his visit to Holcomb, where the Clutters are still remembered in diverse ways. One of the more chilling echoes of the past is the house itself, home to a suicide by the owner after the murders, then sold at auction for $1 to a family unable to resell it; they now have to deal with trespassers, murder tourists less polite and respectful of private property than St. Germain. The Tyson Foods slaughterhouse later built outside town lends another bizarre touch.

From the beginning, Capote conceived of the book as a tragedy: hence the silos rising like Greek temples from the plains, the minor Holcombites who act as chorus, its classical story arc and emphasis on fate. Hickock is the second actor, the cops and justice system the antagonists, the Clutters vehicles for the hero’s hamartia. The hero is Perry Smith.

I haven’t read In Cold Blood. I saw the 2005 movie Capote, but only vaguely recall it for the mesmerizing portrait of the writer tortured between two poles of love and exploitation. But St. Germain’s particular take-away, as he wrote about his mother’s murder, was the emphasis on the killers and the rather superficial gloss of the victims, a gloss that has been challenged by those who knew them. Capote had his motivation; St. Germain’s was, of course, very different. But he recognizes the challenge involved: while true-crime books are always popular, “nobody wants to read about a victim”, he says; it causes anxiety, whereas reading about killers gives a vicarious thrill of a kind of power otherwise never experienced. I’m not so sure; isn’t it possible readers want to know what makes the killer different from them, assure themselves that evil is something that lives in other people?

It’s something of a creepy coincidence that St. Germain’s girlfriend, who unwittingly instigated the trip and then accompanied him, was named Bonnie, as was the murdered Mrs. Clutter. Bonnie forms a secondary focus in the essay:

Some rare moments feel significant even as they happen: you see the future stretch ahead, flat and forbidding, like a highway across the plains. Capote had one in Garden City, on the courthouse steps. Smith had one on the Clutters’ lawn before he killed them. I had one leaving the cemetery, watching the wheat bend in the wind just like Capote writes and realizing that whatever was happening between Bonnie and me was beyond our control. That night, in the last hotel room left in Salina, we threw our bags down and fucked like we were about to die, and in the aftermath I told her nobody had ever wanted her as much as I did, and she took that to mean I always would, although I didn’t mean that at all. We made it to Minnesota the next day. Two years later, we did that drive again, to start a new life there, and six months later Bonnie passed through Kansas while leaving me, and six months after that I drove through yet again, in a panic, with a ring in my pocket. Capote got one thing right: there are only two kinds of endings, death and the ones we invent.

A little googling tells me that, at least as of 2017, the couple is still together. In 2013, St. Germain’s book about his mother’s murder – by her husband, rather than in a random spree killing by a stranger – was published. And Holcomb, Kansas still sits on the plains, in past-present tense.

Pushcart XLIII: Kristin Chang, “Yilan” (poem) from The Shade Journal: Seed

Angie Wang: cover art for <em>Past Lives, Future Bodies</em>

Angie Wang: cover art for Past Lives, Future Bodies

In Taiwan the rain spits on my skin.
         I lose the way to my grandmother’s
house, eat a papaya by the side of the road,
         papaya in Taiyu meaning wood
melon. My grandmother’s house is wood
         & always wet, as if absence
holds water. As if drowning
         itself. My stomach oversweetens
on fruit, wears a belt of rot.

Complete poem available online at Shade Journal

Taiwan is one of those complicated places: originally settled thousands of years ago by seafaring islanders, who were pushed out of the way by subsequent arrivals (sound familiar?), an island that’s been a blend of religions and languages, and an unwilling pawn in power plays for centuries and today is a potential keg of dynamite as it finds itself the reluctant tentpole of the One China policy. Into this comes Kirsten Chang, an American-born descendent who initially rejected, then embraced, the culture of her mother.

The poem is from her recently published collection Past Lives, Future Bodies and, as she explains in her Queen Mob’s Teahouse interview, draws on “the rhythms and migrations of stories, but also about the grief between the women in my family, those severances and losses that are birthed from movement”.

That movement may be why the poem is formatted in three-line stanzas, indented in a way that, even in the absence of rhyme or consistent meter, suggests a similarity to terza rima’s walking quality. The content as well has a kind of semantic and linguistic momentum: the papaya leads to wood melon leads to wood house leads to wetness and water.

There’s a kind of looseness in the identity of the speaker. Chang is quite young – her Twitter profile gives her age as 20 – so it can’t be her mother mentioned in the stanzas about the Japanese coming during the war. This may be where ideas of reincarnation and transmission across cultural connection comes in.

The speaker watches a typhoon from her Taipei hotel, and muses on the words that connect Taiwan and typhoon, her family’s past, and the history that has flowed through her to bring her to this spot:

In Chinese,
         typhoon is tai feng, sharing a word
with tai wan. A nation named
         after its greatest disaster. My body
named for what it bears, what
         it bares: this nation,
where nothing is still
         waiting to be saved
& the dead are still

Those last lines emphasize the motion by almost denying it: the enjambment momentarily changes the meaning of “still” twice, from being still – lacking motion – to still as in even now, a perpetuation. And the last step, the dying, is the big one, almost a leap.

Pushcart XLIII: Myron Taube, “Lupinski” from New Letters #83:2/3

“Your wife told the nurse she doesn’t want any heroic measures.”
Heroic Measures. I remember those words from when we first took Miriam to the hospital, some nurse give us papers to sign: if you’re dying, do you want Heroic Measures? To tell the truth, I don’t know what they mean when they say Heroic Measures. To me, Heroic Measures is when Superman jumps in front of the girl and the bullet bounces off his chest and he saves the girl’s life. But I know what “if you’re dying” means.

Sol Epstein’s a little confused. Who can blame him: his wife’s seriously ill in the hospital, and the doctor’s asking him if he wants the priest to come now, which is pretty weird considering he and his wife are Jewish. Turns out the doctor thought Sol was Mr. Lupinski visiting his wife next door. Sol’s relieved there’s been a mistake. But it’s not enough of a mistake to matter, as it turns out.

It’s a very sweet, sad story, told with a distinct Jewish American flavor I haven’t seen in a long time, that ends up exactly where you think it’s going to end up, though it takes a route through the neighborhoods of confusion (with a stop for some meat loaf and a recipe I might just try myself, it sounds so good, even though I don’t like meat loaf very much). Because when you’re losing your wife of 64 years, confusion might just be the easiest way to go. Sixty-four years. That right there is a Heroic Measure.

And as always, Jake Weber’s done a terrific job of discussing the story in his blog post, focusing on when background information collides with the “Each Story Must Stand On Its Own” ethos of contemporary literary theory. I’ve always been more of a Gestalt reader; to me, context, including the circumstances under which a story was written, is part of the story’s genesis, just as my life experience, including the tearful goodbyes I’ve said, is part of my reading. It’s interesting to see how Jake balances the two in this case, since the story is very close to memoir.

Pushcart XLIII: J. M. Holmes, “What’s Wrong with You? What’s Wrong with Me?” from Paris Review #221

Toyin Odutola, "Uncertain, yet Reserved," 2012

Toyin Odutola, “Uncertain, yet Reserved,” 2012

“How many white women you been with?”
The room was filled with good smoke and we drifted off behind it.
“What’s your number?” Dub looked at Rye real serious like he was asking about his mom’s health.
I leaned forward from the couch and took the burning nub of joint from his outstretched hand. We called him Dub because his name was Lazarus Livingston—Double L. His parents named him to be a football star. He could play once upon a time, but not like Rye.
Rolls, who was too high, chimed in: “Stop it, bruh, that shit’s not important.”
“Of course it is. I’m finna touch every continent,” Dub said.
“White’s not a continent,” Rolls said.
“You know what I mean.”

I’ve never claimed these posts are “reviews”; their only my reactions to a given story, book, poem or course. I have no training in writing actual reviews. I assume there are certain guidelines: some things that should be included and some things that should be left out, a predominance of objective rather than subjective reactions, criteria that should be considered. That’s fine, but it’s not what I do. I read a story, and react to it.

In this case, my reaction was: I have no idea what this story was about.

That isn’t quite true. I knew it was about a group of young black guys talking about sleeping with white women, and one of the men had a disturbing experience he didn’t want to reveal. But a story is a lot more than plot points, and in this case the essence, the nuance, was lost on me. I wasn’t all that sure exactly what it was that was so upsetting to him about the encounter, though it clearly had to do with race, and his reactions.

Jake Weber to the rescue. His post about the story laid out the four guys, the differences between them, the basic action, and a great analysis of what was on Rye’s mind. He even brought in something I hadn’t grasped at all, the reaction of the narrator to Rye’s disclosure.

I also found Holmes’ Paris Review interview very helpful. He sums up the heart of the story:

With this story, what’s more important to me than pointing out that black people are fetishized—though all of that is in the background or the foreground, or however you want to put it—is the question of how someone maintains a genuine, truthful, intimate relationship with someone else if they’re afraid that that’s in the back of their mind, the back of their throat, you know? Can someone maintain that relationship?

It was one of those cases where I liked reading about the story far more than I liked reading the story. That happens to me sometimes. I guess it’s a sign of my lack of literary gravitas. Once I understood what it was really about, I liked this story a lot. Or, at least, I liked reading about it. I think a lot of us wonder if the person in our bed has some motivation that has nothing to do with our charm or attractiveness, but social attitudes towards race raise the stakes, and complicate the resolution, infinitely more.

This is the opening story from Holmes’ debut collection, How Are You Going to Save Yourself, published last summer. The linked stories follow the four young men we meet here.

One of the benefits of reading stories on the edge of my understanding is the expansion of my grasp. Maybe next time, I’ll be able to enjoy reading the story as much as reading about it.

Pushcart XLIII: Mary Ruefle, “Singular Dream” (poem) from Poetry, January 2017

I was born in Speckled Eggs Garden.
I will die on Broken Egg Farm.
I’m hopping between them now,
I consider everything
to be friendly
and nothing dubbed.
I am a chick with legs
and yellow hair.

Complete poem available online at Poetry

What am I supposed to do with a poem about a chicken? Seriously, Henderson, you have me immersed in guns and death and then spring chickens on me?

Thing is, I have a stubborn fondness for Mary Ruefle, born of my 2014 Pushcart encounter with her poem “During a Break in Feeling”, tackled with the help of some Modpo friends, and her erasure poetry. So I had at least some understanding of what she might be up to here.

Her words might change meaning retroactively; or, non-words or obscure words might suggest more common meanings through close spellings. What does it mean, “to be friendly / with nothing dubbed”? Dubbing is a film technique to translate a film from one language to another; it’s also a process of naming and entitling, as with dubbing a knight, with an old and obscure meaning of “to dress or adorn”. A “chick with legs and yellow hair” could describe a teenager walking by, rather than a literal chicken, giving a slang and somewhat casual sense.

Oh Lord Almighty, creator of
all things beautiful and sick,
who prefers another life on top of this,
who are you to judge?
When Adam and Eve vanished
solemnly into the dark,
shrouding themselves in the forest,
I was timid and nibbling and
stayed behind, betrayed only
by the plucking of my beak
upon the ground you so graciously
provided (thanks).

That’s a good point; it was only the humans that were kicked out of Paradise. Orthodoxy does not consider that animals have free will to obey God or not; this might seem reasonable until you’ve tried to get a cat to eat the special food you bought for her. In any case, it’s a nice little scene.

I spent a fair amount of time looking for some interpretation of “noth” (hampered by the ubiquity of Chris Noth), but in the end decided nothing was a good an inference as anything. As for “margent”, that applies to the flowery borders, the margins if you will, of a document, giving yet another sense of the chick being outside the margins, but still under the care of the Lord of the Margent, and who’s to say it’s worse off, or not as valuable, as we humans are.

In the end I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing here – this Pushcart isn’t going so well for me so far – but I still have a fondness for Ruefle, whether I understand her or not.

Pushcart XLIII: Robert Hass, “Dancing” (poem) from American Poetry Review 46:06

Daniel Baxter: Sketch of Vigil Honoring Victims of Gun Violence

Daniel Baxter: Sketch of Vigil Honoring Victims of Gun Violence

The radio clicks on—it’s poor swollen America,
Up already and busy selling the exhausting obligation
Of happiness while intermittently debating whether or not
A man who kills fifty people in five minutes
With an automatic weapon he has bought for the purpose
Is mentally ill. Or a terrorist. Or if terrorists
Are mentally ill. Because if killing large numbers of people
With sophisticated weapons is a sign of sickness—
You might want to begin with fire, our early ancestors
Drawn to the warmth of it—

Complete poem available online at American Poetry Review

In December 2017, Beacon Press published Bullets into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence, an anthology of poems – including this one by a former US Poet Laureate – and citizen responses touching on the subject of guns in America.

The poem takes a sweeping historical view of our fascination with guns, starting with the first time someone in prehistory discovered “some sands that, / Tossed into the fire, burned blue or flared green”, to the myth of Prometheus, to Rome and medieval Europe and the Age of Exploration – “How did guns come to North America?” – and the Civil War and all the wars since then, right up to June 2016 when:

They were dancing in Orlando, in a club. Spring night.
Gay Pride. The relation of the total casualties to the history
Of the weapon that sent exploded metal into their bodies—
30 rounds a minute, or 40, is a beautifully made instrument,
And in America you can buy it anywhere—and into the history
Of the shaming culture that produced the idea of Gay Pride—
They were mostly young men, they were dancing in a club,
A spring night. The radio clicks on. Green fire. Blue fire.
The immense flocks of terrified birds still rising
In wave after wave above the waters in the dream time.
Crying out sharply. As the French ship breasted the vast interior
Of the new land. America. A radio clicks on. The Arabs,
A commentator is saying, require a heavy hand. Dancing.

It’s a longish poem, three pages of free verse in uniform lines (one of those poems that makes me wonder why it’s a poem instead of prose), that maintains a momentum by repetition of tropes like the sands thrown into the fire, the blue and green sparks, looking back at the beginning while moving to the present. There’s a video of Hass doing an informal reading of the poem in the office of a Miami Dade professor; he repeats the line “they threw powder in the fire” at the end although that isn’t included in the APR published version. It’s this simple act, this fascination with the sparks unleashed by burning certain minerals, that connects us with those imagined paleolithic wonderers, traces the fires of Prometheus, whose liver was eaten every day by birds but grew back each night to allow another day of torment. There are days in contemporary America when it doesn’t seem like punishment enough.

As I read this poem, I realized how tired I am of the tributes and memorials – or rather, tired of the need for them – and how I wish some day they will be part of history instead of everyday life.

Pushcart XLIII: Steve Stern, “Carolyn” (non-fiction) from Bat City Review #13

I don’t want to write this. I’d always counted on C. D. Wright – she was always Carolyn to me – outliving me long enough to say inappropriate things at my funeral. It gives me vertigo to find myself hanging about on earth in her absence. Forgive me if I tend to view her as somewhat larger than life – problem is, she was.
I knew her best back in our scruffy Arkansas days.… This was 1973.

In November 2016, Brown University hosted “Come Shining: A Tribute to C.D. Wright”, a two-day event in honor of the recently deceased poet who had taught there for over 30 years. Steve Stern delivered a version of this memoir as his contribution. I’m at a disadvantage, since I’m hopelessly ignorant of poets; although she was awarded both Guggenheim and Macarthur fellowships (and won several top-level book prizes) she appeared in Pushcart only once, just prior to my use of the anthology as an annual project.

I am, however, familiar with Steve Stern. He wrote the wonderful story “The Plate Spinner” that so charmed me last year. His forte is building on the Jewish folk tale. I guess I’d imagined him as having studied at a yeshiva somewhere before turning to writing, but that’s what happens when you’re stuck in stereotypes: he’s from Memphis and was an honest-to-god hippie on an Arkansas commune back in the 70s. And so I learned something from this elegy. The University of Arkansas back then was a kind of fountain of young people who would, like Wright, become great poets, not to mention an incubator for a young couple named Bill and Hillary Clinton. Stern traces her life through various turning points, but still sees her through the eyes of youth.

My ignorance is not disrespect. I wonder what budding greatness I’m overlooking right now. Not that it matters; I most likely won’t be around when it bears fruit. But you might be. Pay attention.

Pushcart XLIII: Olufunke Ogundimu, “The Armed Letter Writers” from New Orleans Review #43

It all started with a letter, slapped smack in the middle of our street sign. It was Uncle Ermu who saw it, and he was livid.
“Ermu…an affront on the ermu…hard-working residents of Abati Close ermu,” he stuttered.
It wasn’t a formal letter; it was a letter from one dear neighbor to another. It was a spidery cursive scrawled on A4 paper, in black ink.
Hello Everybody,
We are coming for a visit soon. We will convey to you the days we will be visiting Abati Close by and by. We will appreciate your maximum cooperation. Do not aid the police in any way. Please be warned that all trouble makers shall be dealt with, severely.

Mr. God-Servant kindly appended his signature on behalf of our local chapter of the Armed Robbers Association (ARA).

Complete story available online at New Orleans Review

Ever hear a joke, and kind of get it, but feel like there’s something you’re not quite catching, some subtext or unfamiliar trope that would really send it home? That’s what happened with me here. I’m a little surprised and also a bit disappointed with myself, since I’ve read collections and novels by several Nigerian writers over the past few years; I should have done better. Then again, maybe I’m overthinking it.

Start with what I’m sure of: first person plural, the “we” voice. I’m quite fond of this point of view; it tends to emphasize group conflicts over individual differences, often creating an us-vs.-them atmosphere. That’s part of what the story does, though it’s more like us-vs.-them-vs.-them. Many individuals appear, but we’re clearly looking from the townspeople’s viewpoint at the robbers, who are the stated opponent, and at the police, who are not much better. It’s interesting that, while the police and the robbers have an internal unity, the town is a lot more chaotic; their semblance of unity is more of a forced reaction to the other two groups rather than any intrinsic commonality beyond address.

It’s a kind of Bizarro world, where the robbers are organized and efficient, and the police are in that weird place where their corruption is hampered only by their incompetence, with the hapless Abati Close community caught in the middle. For a while I toyed with the idea that the police were the Armed Robbers Association, but, no, they’re at best passive accomplices by omission. And if this doesn’t remind you of current day American politics and government, you haven’t been paying attention.

The police officers turned to the other witness they had: the street pole. It became the center of their investigation—only God knows how many times they went round the grey pole, staring at the green sign board attached to it.
“If it wasn’t made and installed by the state government, we would have asked how much it cost,” Sergeant Wale said.
“With proof of receipts of its fabrication, of course,” Corporal Juba said, and noted this in his notebook.
“Or of the name of the welder that made it? Where he bought the metal from or the paint he used?” said Sergeant Wale.
“But of course,” said Corporal Juba.
They fondled it, hit it with their scarred batons, talked to it, whispered to it, growled at it, and finally left it alone when it couldn’t tell them who pasted the letter.

As usual, Jake Weber’s post showed some real insight into the story: he recognizes that the robbers are the only group who does “exactly what they say they will.” It’s not that they’re good guys; they are thieves, after all, and they do use a machete when they don’t get cooperation. But the police could learn something from their focus and discipline. For that matter, so could the townspeople. Yet there are moments when both the police and the neighbors are treated with great sympathy.

Jake brings up another good point: “How do Nigerians view the story?” I think he’s referring to authenticity, but I wonder if they would recognize little tropes that aren’t clear to me. Is this supposed to be a comedic, but relatively realistic, portrayal of how things work in Nigeria? Or are the three groups symbols of certain centers of power – say, the government, the people, and the foreign interests robbing them both blind (as I’ve surmised is the case from other stories set in Nigeria)? I don’t know. The story was on the short list for the 2018 Caine Prize; I don’t fully understand how such things work, so whether that means a Nigerian, or at least African, seal of approval, I don’t know.

The last paragraph leaves me with almost a mystical sense of the story:

Our story takes on several layers of untruths—depending on who is telling the story and where the telling is taking place—but the essence is the same. There were two letters and a visit; on that we, the residents of Abati, all agree.

This happens with all major events, of course. One person expands her role; another minimizes or erases a step he regrets. Exaggeration leads to eventual fabrication which becomes almost calcified as memory. And again, we’re reminded of the lack of unity among the townspeople. But there’s something about this paragraph – it almost sounds like a benediction – that makes me again feel like I’m missing something important. Then again, maybe it’s just the Nigerian version of the Keystone Kops.

Pushcart XLIII: Anthony Marra, “The Tell-Tale Heart” from McSweeney’s #49

To begin with, I had nothing against Richard. No, just the opposite. He was my roommate and friend, the cultural and civic leader of our two-bedroom apartment ….
His only shortcoming, if you can call it that, was his iPhone. Every experience he dutifully engraved via tweet, post, or status in the marble memory of the cloud. Reality was only visible to Richard at 326 ppi. He had thousands of friends on Facebook, most of whom he’d never met, and when I saw the whole of his sturdy frame hunched over that glossy four-inch screen, tapping seriously, there seemed something pitiable about such a tall man submitting to something so small. It was clear he yearned for connection – he was no different than you or I, Your Honor.

You probably remember the original Poe story; if not, it’s available in various places online. Marra’s version, part of McSweeney’s “Cover Stories” edition, preserves a great deal, but makes a few interesting changes.

Poe’s protagonist finds himself obsessed with a neighbor, specifically, his eye: “He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it.” It takes him a week, but he finally offs the guy in his bed, cuts him up, and buries him under the floorboards. When the police come around to inquire about a scream heard on the night the old man disappeared, our narrator answers their questions, then becomes flustered as he hears, increasing in volume, the beating of the old man’s heart. At last he breaks down, thinking the police are toying with him and unaware that only he can hear the sound; he tears up the floorboards, revealing the corpse, and confesses.

The irritant for Marra’s narrator is his roommate’s iPhone; specifically, Richard’s habit, over the course of a week, of ducking into the bathroom to pose for selfies to post to Tinder. And, after our narrator dispatches Richard and buries him under the floorboards, it’s not the police but a Tinder date who arrives; it’s the buzzing of the phone, not the beating of a heart, that embodies the murderer’s guilt and leads to his confession.

I’m reading Marra’s point as the replacement of the human parts of us – our eyes, our hearts – by technology. Instead of an eye with a film over it, Richard is shown indirectly: in a mirror, watching himself on his phone. Instead of the narrator feeling a beam from the eye that finally provokes his attack, it’s the sense of the camera being pointed at him as he watches Richard through the slightly opened door. And, of course, instead of the heart beating at the climax, we have the phone – used for romantic adventures – ringing.

The final paragraph locks in this kind of cyber-human perspective, bringing the theme around from madness and guilt to one of connection:

I thrust it into the woman’s hands, and she stared at me, first dumbfounded, then horrified, and before she accepted the phone, before she snatched it and charged outside to call the police, she looked from Richard to me, from Richard’s empty eyes to my own, and the three of us shared a moment of genuine connection.

It’s clever; it transliterates the theme of the story from guilt to connection, as it translates the elements from body to technology. I was left a little disoriented, though; it somehow seemed humorous, like Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter”, but the tone remains dark and gloomy, hard to reconcile with Richard trying for a week to get a suitable profile pic. This may be the dark, twisted kind of irony I have such trouble handling: an effort to connect leads to murder which leads to a grotesque kind of connection.

Jake Weber’s analysis took a slightly different approach, but we ended up in much the same place. Marra appeared in a previous Pushcart with a story of great depth; I know what he’s capable of. Maybe he just wanted to have a little fun. Or maybe I missed the point. Wouldn’t be the first time.

Pushcart XLIII: Tony Hoagland, “Into the Mystery” (poem) from The Sun #500

Of course there is a time of afternoon, out there in the yard,
an hour that has never been described.
There is the way the warm air feels
among the flagstones and the tropical plants
                                                                                with their dark, leathery green leaves.
There is a gap you never noticed,
dug out between the gravel and the rock, where something lives.
There is a bird that can only be heard by someone
who has come to be alone.
Now you are getting used to things that will not be happening again.

Complete poem available online at The Sun

I always approach the poetry in this volume with a touch of anxiety, since I have little background in poetics. This poem was doubly intimidating, since I was aware that Tony Hoagland died a few months ago. He has appeared on these pages before, and I wanted to do him justice. I also wondered if the poem was prescient, or, for that matter, if all the poems in his last volume from which this comes, Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God, were likely written with an awareness of time. Maybe, maybe not. He’s known for including humor in his poetry; Meryl Natchez describes his work as having “a wry tone, a genius for the appropriate detail, and an underlying sadness about the state of the world” in her review for ZYZZYVA. There is a sense of living in the moment in the content of the poem, a relaxation of the compulsion to analyze.

Ironic, then, that I should, by listening to the audio of Hoagland reading his work, that I should be lead to analyze, and in so doing, increase my appreciation of the poem (which is, of course, the only purpose of poetic analysis, or should be, right?).

I more clearly noticed anaphora in the opening lines: the four lines beginning with “there is a [x]”, followed by the line about getting used to things that will not be happening again. The poetic structure strengthens the poignancy of the moment as he lists what will not be happening again, and I wonder anew if this was written with foreknowledge that it would be the last poem of his last volume on this earth.

But the biggest revelation came with the last lines of the poem:

Now you sit on the brick wall in the cloudy afternoon and swing your legs,
happy because there never has been a word for this,
as you continue moving through these days and years
where more and more the message is
                                                                                not to measure anything.

The poem has, until these last two lines (and let’s call them two, at least for the moment) been fairly unmetered, or mixed-metered, as far as I can tell. But in the poet’s reading, I suddenly heard a very strong /x/ pattern over and over in those last few lines. Warning: I’m venturing onto shaky ground, please be merciful in your judgments. But one way to think of it is like this:

The first line is strict iambic hexameter, the meter of Homeric epic, of the Iliad and Odyssey, stories of long battles and longer journeys home, for a line about moving through the days and years.

Then comes a combined line that begs to be the same, except… there’s a missing unstressed syllable between “is” and “not”, where, coincidentally, the line break occurs; the line break can be seen as replacing the unstressed syllable. The meter, literally the measurement of poetry, breaks down, just as we’re advised not to measure anything, a lovely example of form matching content.

I also played around with the cretic foot, a three-syllable pattern of strong-weak-strong, since that was the rhythm I heard most clearly in Hoagland’s reading. But that gets complicated, since it requires dropping some leading unstressed syllables. But it was tempting reading, since the cretic foot is most often seen in Greek paeans; this poem could be seen as a song in praise of the unnamed, a celebration of the unmeasured. It doesn’t hurt that the Annie Hall “la-di-da” is given as an example of the cretic foot. But in the end, Occam’s razor would favor the prior reading.

It’s also interesting – and this is something I would never have noticed, had I not needed to figure it out for formatting in this blog – that both indents are 80 spaces, not related to the lines that precede the indents. I don’t see any content relationship between the two lines, but it’s a whimsical touch that the line “not to measure anything” is, indeed, measured on the page.

In spite of my initial anxiety, I had a great deal of fun looking at this poem. As someone rather obsessed with measuring, getting things right, never being wrong, I think maybe I should listen to the words more, relax a little, and live in the moment. Sometimes the moment gives you a much better sense of things than any measurement.

Pushcart XLIII: Karen Russell, “The Tornado Auction” from Zoetrope: All-Story, Summer 2017

The auction is a quarterly event, and until my retirement I attended every one. You’ll read in the papers that ours is a “graying community,” a defunct way of life. But on auction day, it never feels so. Scattered around the parking lot, over a hundred twitching, immature storms dimple the roofs of their trailers, like pipping chicks testing their shells. Their wailing surrounds and fills the barn, harmonizing with the hum of machinery. The viper pit of hoses, the blue convection modules stuck to every wall like big, square dewdrops—the various modern wet nurses that keep a developing storm alive. “Back in the Dark Ages, all we had to work with was liquid propane and the real wind,” my old man liked to remind me.
On my way in, I’d passed a quintet of freshly weaned storms, all sired by the same cumuliform supercell out of Dalhart. Beautiful orphans, thriving independently. I’d known this line of clouds my whole life; that Dalhart stud cell was famous when I was a kid. Its signature thunder went rolling through many a turbulent generation, and I smiled to hear it once more. In the refracted glow of such a shimmering lineage, you get the child-joy, the child-fever. I’ll turn seventy-four this March, and it doesn’t matter: that joy regresses you.

It’s a story that may lose some readers along the way. It kind of lost me, though I kept reading. And when, eventually, it turned, it hit me with the force of, yes, a tornado. I may have even gasped. I certainly ended up in tears when I realized what was really going on.

But back to the beginning: Bob Wurman, retired tornado farmer, goes to the storm auction and, spending his life savings, buys himself a baby tornado. Karen Russell has a talent for painting fantasy scenarios in real colors, and this is no exception. The auction, the purchase, Bob’s demeanor is very much like you’d expect from a farmer buying a colt or a calf or even a puppy to raise to champion status in some domain. The reaction of friends and family – they think he’s lost his mind – is likewise well-tuned to the aging-crackpot-goes-rogue trope.

Many literary science fiction stories gloss over the technical details, painting in broad strokes so as to avoid going afoul of real science. But Russell plows right into the thick of things. I was pretty skeptical; but I’ve been fooled before, so I googled around, and sure enough, artificial tornadoes do exist. The biggest one lives in a chamber in the Mercedes Benz Museum in Germany; the technology was developed to quickly eliminate smoke. Science nerds can even make their own tornado-in-a-box.

Russell takes this into fictional territory: in her world, storms somehow can be released from their containers, and have, in the past, been used for demolition work (aiming them is precision art) and for something called tornado rides. Both uses are now outlawed, so most of Bob’s fellow tornado ranchers have downgraded to wind farming – literally generating wind, not building windmills in areas that are naturally windy – with a few dirt devils sold to rodeos and the like. Bob misses the big stuff.

It’s interesting for those who might enjoy a glimpse of science, or the creation of alternate reality, but it goes on for a very long time before we get the first hint there’s something else at work here.

Raising a tornado, you are always dreaming of its dying day. That’s the breeders ultimate vision – to build a storm until its can unwind spectacularly, releasing all of its cultivated fury, evanescing before your eyes. Whereas with my daughters, I have to pretend they’ll live forever. The alternative is too terrible to contemplate. If there is a life after this one, I’ll be dead myself and still pretending.
My oldest daughter was four pounds at birth, and her appearance flooded the earth with an infinite number of horrors and perils, a demonic surge of catastrophic possibilities out of all proportion to the tiny mass in my arms. Love unlids a Pandora’s box. …. They were born at the same moment, twins: our baby daughter and the dangers.

That’s the line that did me in – “love unlids a Pandora’s box.” This is the story’s point of connection with the Pam Houston essay that preceded it – to love is to risk, to know that it’s likely one’s heart will one day be broken. Yet we love anyway. And in this case, although it may be loving that breaks Bob Wurman, it is also, ultimately, loving that saves him.

I seem to have regained the spoiler-shyness I lost during the last BASS; the story is not available online, but I think the impact is much greater the less you know. The problem is that I fear too many readers will give up, will think it’s just a fancy sci-fi story about an old man getting his last chance at glory, and they won’t bother to wade through the weather talk to get to the heart of the matter. So I’ve tried to compromise with a strong hint.

For those who want a more writerly look at the story, I recommend Jake Weber’s analysis at Workshop Heretic. He goes into more detail about plot, the symbolism of the storms, and, most importantly, points out where the story itself teaches the reader how to read it. Because it isn’t about tornadoes, after all.

Pushcart XLIII: Pam Houston, “What Has Irony Done For Us Lately” (non-fiction) from About Place IV:IV

Attributed to Banksy

Attributed to Banksy

Back in 2000, to help pay for the ranch, I took a teaching job at UC Davis, requiring me to be there for two ten-week quarters each year. I chose spring and fall, because summers are glorious in the high country and miserable in Davis, and because farm animals die most often in winter. I hired a series of house-sitters to tend the ranch while I was gone, often former students who needed a place to finish a book. Twice yearly I’d trade my down, fleece and Xtra Tuffs for corduroy and linen. ….
To the people in Creede I am intelligent, suspiciously sophisticated, and elitist to the point of being absurd. To the people at UC Davis I am quaint, a little slow on the uptake, and far too earnest to even believe.

Complete story available online at About Place

I’ve noticed that Pushcart, free of the alphabetical-order dictum that forces the order of BASS stories, tends to put a piece out front that resonates through the entire volume, as well as carrying forward into a smaller subset of material that will follow until a new theme emerges. We have several themes to choose from with this piece: appreciation of nature, environmental damage, ironic distance vs engagement. And, given that Mr. Henderson just lost his canine companion of eleven years, it’s fitting that the first story should begin with the author in a similar scenario.

My first reaction was to simply trace the essay’s path from a heartrending scene encompassing the last days of her dog, to a passionate outcry about the ongoing destruction of the biosphere that sustains our civilizations and lives with a side-slam on academia for being academic, and back to encountering the grim side of nature with the sweet story of a baby elk orphaned by illegal hunting, all on the premise of favoring hope and genuine emotional engagement over the quicksand of irony and cynicism. But it started to get complicated: while I basically agree with the overall theme – caring is better than not-caring, and we can’t afford to be sealing ourselves behind a wall of cynicism and irony – I somehow have a lot of issues with the how she gets there.

Just as I was putting this post together, I saw a tweet from Michael Schaub: ‘Logically I know that people don’t come up with new words just to piss me off, but I don’t know how else to explain “hopepunk.”’ I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded related to what Houston is saying, so I went hunting and found an article by Aja Romano in Vox explaining hopepunk as the opposite of grimdark and in contrast to noblebright. Caution: I’m about to venture into unknown waters, and I may be getting this wrong.

It seems that, particularly in the genres of speculative fiction and fantasy, as well as in gaming, the approaches of grimdark and noblebright have been jousting since 9/11. Grimdark is exactly what it sounds like: abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Apocalyptic despair. Resignation. Helplessness. Noblebright is an opposing approach that, as Romano explains it, “social systems are good because the leaders we choose are inherently good.” This sounds so ridiculous at this moment in history, I feel like my keyboard is going to explode with laughter. Other sources define it more as a heroic character who embodies good qualities and battles evil, particularly in fantasy and game settings.

So where does that leave hopepunk?

“The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk,” declared Alexandra Rowland, a Massachusetts writer, in a two-sentence Tumblr post in July 2017. “Pass it on.”
With this simple dictum, the literary movement known as hopepunk was born.
Depending on who you ask, hopepunk is as much a mood and a spirit as a definable literary movement, a narrative message of “keep fighting, no matter what.” If that seems too broad — after all, aren’t all fictional characters fighting for something? — then consider the concept of hope itself, with all the implications of love, kindness, and faith in humanity it encompasses.
Now, picture that swath of comfy ideas, not as a brightly optimistic state of being, but as an active political choice, made with full self-awareness that things might be bleak or even frankly hopeless, but you’re going to keep hoping, loving, being kind nonetheless.
Through this framing, the idea of choosing hope becomes both an existential act that affirms your humanity, and a form of resistance against cynical worldviews that dismiss hope as a powerful force for change.

“Hopepunk, the latest storytelling trend, is all about weaponized optimism”, Vox, 12/27/18

Romano gives examples. Game of Thrones (which I have never seen/read so don’t @ me) is grimdark, in spite of the noblebright character Jon Snow. Parks and Rec (which I just watched in its entirety for the second time since it went off the air, solely because The West Wing Weekly podcast featured a special episode showing how it was a comedy version of TWW) and The Good Place (which I lost track of in Season 3 but was a big fan of the first two, given its enthusiasm for philosophy) are hopepunk.

No, I don’t quite get it, but I’m all for positive action and a current of hope and optimism underlying even the worst times. I never got Seinfeld either; they were all nasty, judgmental people who couldn’t stand anyone with man-hands or soft voices, and unlike Archie Bunker, the racist with a heart of gold (a troubling image in itself), there was no redeeming quality among any of them. Yet they were icons of the 90s. Which may be how we ended up with hipsters and twenty-something salesclerks who sneer at you for buying products that pay their minimum wages. Everything’s complicated, isn’t it?

What does all this have to do with Houston’s essay, with dying dogs and orphaned elks and impending environmental catastrophe and distant reading?

Oh yes, distant reading.

Last winter, a colleague taught a class in something called “distant reading.” Because I have spent half my life teaching close reading, when the grad students first told me about it, I thought it was a joke. But distant reading, according to the New York Times is “understanding literature not by studying particular texts but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data.”
“It’s not actually done by people,” my student Becca told me. “You take a body of literature, say, all the books set in Paris from 1490 to 1940, plug them into a computer, and the computer can tell you how many mentions of the Pont Neuf there were.” It was, I understood, an attempt to repurpose literature. As if all beings are best understood only in terms of their aggregate, as if by making things less particular, one made them more powerful or clear.

Now wait a minute. As I understand it (I’ve have had some vague exposure, at a very low level, to this sort of thing via digital humanities and corpus linguistics moocs), distant reading is not a replacement for close reading; it’s a way to look at an author’s oeuvre, or at a genre or period, to find overall trends and patterns, which can then be aligned with history and/or compared to individual works to see what conforms to those patterns and what resists them. Sneering at distant reading is something like complaining about research into brain tumors because it doesn’t treat heart attacks or immunize children against measles. Then again, it’s Houston who’s a professor at UCDavis, so maybe I should just shut up. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d misunderstood, or missed the point.

I seem to be jumping all over the place here. That isn’t a bad thing, to me; an essay that connects to other ideas, that reminds me of something else, is a good thing, a great thing. Or maybe I’m just making excuses for using Houston’s essay to get sloppy about organization, to spout off on my own stuff.

Back to the beginning of the essay. We open with the last days of Fenton, Houston’s 11-year-old Irish Wolfhound. It’s exactly as you’d expect: heartbreaking, poignant, and beautiful, as love and loss flow across the page. I don’t particularly want to know anyone who could read this and not be moved. I myself was sobbing by the end.

Then we move into a broader focus on the natural world, and the impending and ongoing ecological disaster that Houston sees as analogous to the loss of Fenton:

If we pretend not to see the tenuous beauty that is still all around us, will it keep our hearts from breaking as we watch another mountain be clear cut, as we watch North Dakota, as beautiful a state as there ever was, be poisoned for all time by fracturing? If we abandon all hope right now, does that in some way protect us from some bigger pain later? If we never go for a walk in the beetle-killed forest, if we don’t take a swim the algae-choked ocean, if we lock grandmother in a room for the last ten years of her life so we can practice and somehow accomplish the survival of her loss in advance, in what ways does it make our lives easier? In what ways does it impoverish us?
We are all dying, and because of us, so is the Earth. That’s the most terrible, the most painful in my entire repertoire of self-torturing thoughts. But it isn’t dead yet and neither are we. Are we going to drop the earth off at the vet, say goodbye at the door, and leave her to die in the hands of strangers? We can decide, even now, not to turn our backs on her in her illness, we can still decide not to let her die alone.
…. There are times when I understand all too well what my colleagues in Davis are trying to protect themselves from…. If I hadn’t slept those three nights on the porch with Fenton, it would have been three fewer nights of my life spent with an actively breaking heart. But a broken heart—God knows, I have found—doesn’t actually kill you. And irony and disinterest are false protections, ones that won’t serve us, or the earth, in the end.
For now, I want to sit vigil with the Earth the same way I did with Fenton. I want to write unironic odes to her beauty, which is still potent, if not completely intact.

Here’s where I get confused. I don’t know anyone who isn’t concerned, to at least some degree, about our precarious biosphere. There are the deniers, but they have other agendas, and who knows what they feel; I don’t think they are who Houston is talking about, anyway. Is there some pact at UCDavis to ignore the problems of the planet? Does one have to live in close touch with nature to recognize the damage that is being done, and to do one’s best – through daily stewardship, voting, and contributions – to reduce it? Isn’t holding the earth’s head in our laps and weeping as we watch her die a little defeatist? It seems to me a great many people are working very hard to keep it alive; should they now sit upon the ground and tell sad stories?

And by the way, I do want people to write what they want, including unironic odes to the beauty of the earth. But isn’t there a place for ironic humor? Doesn’t it expand the reach of the message? Doesn’t the sign above leave a visceral message of the consequences of denial?

Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m missing the point. Or being overly rigid in my metaphoric reading. Or I’m just feeling miffed, and striking back. I’m a city dweller; I always have been. I don’t think that renders me immune to feeling the horror as regulations are rolled back (radiation isn’t that bad for you; carbon dioxide is a good thing, just look at Venus; mmmm, mercury, they put it in thermometers, how bad could it be?) and acknowledging a tragic loss as the Amazon rain forests continue to shrink in the name of commerce (and just wait, the upcoming years are bound to be worse).

I’ve said before that the awe and majesty some see in the Grand Canyon or Lake Louise for me takes place when I get a glimpse of how a living body breaks down glucose to generate energy, or how a cell divides, over and over, for the most part correcting its errors along the way, how just by the tiniest forces of positive-attracts-negative we breathe and sing and love and write. And I have held three cats in my arms as, in their mid-to-late-teens, they died (one was put down while in surgery) and have mourned each one. I know the terrible process by which we decide the suffering is greater than the living, and surrender them to whatever is next.

How will we sing when Miami goes underwater, when the raft of garbage in the ocean gets as big as Texas, when the only remaining Polar Bear draws his last breath, when fracking, when Keystone, when Inhofe…? I don’t know. And I imagine sometimes, often, we will get it wrong. But I’m not celebrating the Earth because I am an optimist—though I am an optimist. I am celebrating because this magnificent rock we live on demands celebration. I am celebrating because how in the face of this earth could I not?

I was in high school on the first Earth Day. I lug my groceries in cloth bags. And, by the way, I haven’t owned or driven a car (or lived in a household with a car) for twenty years. I live in a city because there are busses that get me where I need to go. I did not, I should say, make this choice for ecological reasons; I simply hate driving, and prefer to spend money on things other than insurance and gasoline and repairs. But I’ll match my carbon footprint against anyone’s. I’m not cynical about nature; I just am more comfortable where I am. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care.

There’s one more thing that comes into play here. This isn’t my first encounter with Houston. Her article “Corn Maze” appeared in the 2014 Pushcart. I had a pretty strong reaction to that, too, when she defended 82% truth as a reasonable benchmark for non-fiction. Of course, now that we live in a land where truth barely exists, 82% sounds pretty good, but at the time I pretty much threw a hissy fit. And in the here and now, I kept wondering as I read this essay: which 18% is made up?

I may sound like I’m picking on Houston. I’m not (and if I were, wouldn’t that be like a black fly – one of the best reasons in Maine to avoid nature – picking on a moose?). I’m just reacting to what I’ve read, which is what I do here all the time. It’s just that she tends to come up with things that get strong reactions out of me. That’s not a bad thing. If I were being ironic, I’d just write up the structure and content and turn the page.

But I can’t do that. Because I’m engaged with the issues, and I care.

Pushcart XLIII: Once More Unto the Breach, Dear Friends

Installation art by Jan Reymond; photo by Thomas Guignard

Installation art by Jan Reymond; photo by Thomas Guignard

…. I find it impossible to pretend that all of the “best” (however you define what “best” can mean) is only to be found in our few hundred pages. Over the decades, the quality of independent writing has surpassed any attempt by a mere anthology to capture all, or even most, of that “best.”
So I think it is fair to consider the following pages to be a sample of the excellence out there in the worldwide universe of literary endeavor. Please particular attention to the Special Mention section. All these writers have won a Pushcart Prize to my mind.

~ Introduction


That’s an argument I have whenever I mention these volumes to someone who wasn’t aware of them: “But who gets to decide what’s best?” they always ask, as though the question has never come up. I suppose the series could be re-subtitled “A representative sample of the small presses” but that doesn’t really sing, does it?

These introductory posts are where I transition, refocusing my efforts from whatever I’ve been doing to a six- to nine-month stint going through material that is often over my head: it’s time to feel stupid again. Not that I don’t always feel stupid, since I’m perpetually locked in a battle of wills with math, where I feel stupid every day. But feeling stupid with words hurts more. Still, feeling stupid is the only way I know to learn. And mixed in with the stupid is great beauty, even when – maybe especially when – I don’t know what it’s called. I’m delighted that my blogging buddy Jake Weber will be posting about the fiction in the volume; in fact, he’s already started, so feel free to head on over and get started.

This is where I typically bounce off whatever material is in the Introduction. That’s difficult this time, since the intro is a bit of a mishmash, beginning with the joyous welcome of twin grandsons (Congratulations!) and moving through a mixture of paragraphs about the history of Pushcart, swipes at the current situation in the US, and a heartfelt farewell to a beloved canine companion (Condolences). Maybe that’s the approach to try.

This past year, in addition to the seemingly accelerating loss of artists due to the ravages of time, those of us who pay attention to literary magazines have seen Glimmer Train and Tin House announce their goodbyes (Tin House will continue online and book publications).

“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star,” said Nietzsche’s Zarathustra; “Out of Chaos, Brilliant Stars are Born” claims a rendering of the I Ching. I hope so. I don’t know if I’ll be around to see it, but it seems like it’s gonna be a helluva star.

(Bouncing and transitioning isn’t going so well for me, is it.)

Today I was re-reading Andrew Kaufman’s story “The Tiny Wife” (I have a Madras Press edition I keep in my rucksack for bus rides, waiting rooms, etc.) It starts with an unusual bank robbery; as the robber departs, he announces, “When I leave here, I will be taking 51% of your souls with me…. learn how to grow them back, or you will die.”

Time to see what knowledge, wisdom, and comfort – soul-growing stuff – I can find in the pages of this volume. It’s never let me down.