Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Wrapping Up Another Year   

…[A]s readers, wokeness is a good shorthand for the kind of engagement with difference that happens to us when we read, especially when those characters and sensibilities we fall in love with on the page come up against a hostile social context. The Pushcart anthology highlights exactly that form of conflict.

Julie Sheehan, “Social Ills, Literary Riches”: Book review in The East Hampton Star, 12/2/21

I came across this local book review early in my Pushcart read, right after I’d taken issue with the Publisher’s Review comment calling Karen Lin-Greenberg’s “Housekeeping” hilarious and quirky. Sheehan’s insights were much more aligned with mine; her style also worked for me, as she wove in a discussion of “woke” and included a brief look at the order in which the material is presented.

This question of ordering is something I look at every year. I’m still uncertain about the first piece, “Suffering in Motion,” and why it was chosen for the lead-off spot. Many of the stories dealt with identity, and with being who you are in spite of others telling you you’re someone else; why this one? Could the title have tipped the scales, as we are all, in this second year of pandemic, suffering in motion, trying to carry on in spite of grief and loss and conflict and anxiety – and now, in a development that could not have been part of the equation, war – that surrounds us? Is the message to draw hope and strength from a character who, by acknowledging limitations, finds a way to nonetheless experience joy? Or is it just the first in the roll call of current social issues that opened the anthology?

I found Sheehan’s comments on the final piece, “The God Phone” coincided with my own, with the sense of connection in spite of distractions and varying priorities, with the sense of comfort we all get from knowing we are not alone, and the role reading plays in finding that comfort.

In between the opening and closing, Pushcart arranged sections on relationships – with family, with society, with those who flit by our lives briefly but still manage to have impact upon us – on grief, on political moments, on the various struggles we face. It was a great year.

I only blogged two poems, one of which has been kicking around for so long it’s already iconic. I apologize to the year’s poets and regret missing out on poems that would have moved me greatly if I’d just put more effort into reading them. But this is the path I’ve followed for the past several years, since realizing most of my poetry posts ended up being variations on “I have no idea why this is a poem or what it means.”

The fiction was uniformly wonderful, though it ran the gamut in style and subgenre. As for my favorites, how can I choose. I thought early on nothing could come close to “Reality TV” by Michael Kardos in terms of surprise upon surprise, but then came Senaa Ahmah with “Let’s Play Dead” to show me wrong. I wouldn’t have thought small-town realism such as Karin Lee-Greenberg’s “Housekeeping” or “The Loss of Heaven” by Dantiel Montiz or Maria Black’s “Mark on the Cross” could work so well to find emotional strings that I didn’t know longed to be played. “Baikal” by Lindsay Starck took me to Siberia at an unexpected time, and still echoes. I’m not sure I fully understood Stephen Mortland’s “Elenin” or Lucas Southworth’s “The Crying Room” but both were great reads. Two overtly political pieces, “O Despot! My Despot!” by Patrick Dacey, and “A Tale of Two Trolls” by Marcus Spiegel, were very different reading experiences, yet both had me laughing in spite of the existential dread they tap into.

While I always find Pushcart’s nonfiction to be engrossing reading, teaching me things I never knew I cared about, a few were real standouts. “Gutted” by Cathryn Klusmeier managed to weave together salmon fishing – the author’s occupation five months of the year – and grief over her father’s decline from dementia. Rebecca Cadenhead’s “My First Blood” created a kind of social ecology from the bioecology discovered on the author’s trip to Patagonia. And Jerald Walker’s “The Kaleshion” did such magic with a haircut, blending humor with the very real concerns of race and tying them into a clever little surprise of form, I immediately got his essay collection, which will be part of my In-Between Read coming up.

The 2022 Pushcart anthology is, above all else, timely. Not only do its contributors represent the wide spectrum of voices getting published today, but their contributions survey the abuses specific to our moment — racism, sexism, homophobia, climate catastrophe, and political violence. In them, a dazzling range of characters suffer, fight, fail, and occasionally triumph against forces arrayed with particular ferocity against the powerless. Literature explores this theme better than anything, so the anthology brims with writing of exceptional quality. It’s a gift for readers eager to imagine other people, what it’s like to wear their skin, to walk in their shoes.

Julie Sheehan, “Social Ills, Literary Riches”: Book review in The East Hampton Star, 12/2/21

Whatever your anxiety, whatever your struggle, whatever your sorrow, there are others who share it. You are not alone; we can learn from each other. That is the power of story.

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  • Julie Sheehan’s book review, “Social Ills, Literary Riches” from The East Hampton Star is available online

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Leora Smith, “The God Phone” (non-fiction) from Longreads, January 2020

What happens when ordinary people play God to strangers? Leora Smith explores the history of one of the oldest art installations at Burning Man and the conversations that unfold there.

Intro by Longreads

I confess, I’ve never had any idea what Burning Man is. I put it in the category of things I didn’t really care enough about to research, and moved on, figuring it was some kind of music festival for those too young to credibly claim Woodstock, crossed with a Juggalo gathering (which I don’t really understand either). Lots of cool people being cool by going naked, getting drunk, and pretending to have a great time.

Turns out, it’s a temporary city encompassing ten Principles – Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, Immediacy – that provides a venue for artistic and creative expression. They emphatically deny it’s an art festival, and warn you that the desert will try to kill you.  The cost for a week – tickets cost $475, plus a $140 vehicle fee – is a little more than a week at Disneyland, another place I don’t particularly want to go.

While Smith’s article gives some general background to the event overall, she focuses in on the telephone booth labeled, “Talk to God.”

It’s easy to be cynical about Burning Man. At its worst, the event is capitalist escapism. A party where the wealthy run away from, and disdain, the most toxic elements of a system that, for 356 days of the year, many of them sustain, advance, and profit from.
But sitting at the God Phone reminded me that, at its best, Burning Man is an immersive art project. One based on values of communalism, kindness, and generosity.
Many of the people I met at the God Phone had attended Burning Man three, four, even 15 times. Some of them were wealthy, but many weren’t. I learned that a lot of people first went to Burning Man for the parties, but almost no one went back just because of them.
People went back because it was a place where they felt they could be their fullest selves, which meant wearing a tutu, taking on a new name, or just telling a stranger that sometimes they found themselves on a dance floor and all they wanted to do was cry. Then trusting that someone would say, “You’re wonderful, and I love you unconditionally.”

Smith gives a history of the phone, which has been shepherded by different artists over the years. She took a turn answering the phone, and found it disturbing; the caller said they were thinking about doing something, and she got a vibe about suicide. When an attendee later suicided, she wondered if that was her caller. As a result, she wondered if those answering the phone should have some kind of training, like crisis line volunteers have, and the article devotes a good deal of space to that kind of response.

But it’s not the whole experience. There are jokesters, of course, who have fun with it. And then there are those who see the phone as an opportunity to connect – not with God, but with someone.

When the phone rang and I answered it, the receiver weighed heavily in my hand.
God, what do you know about shame?
The man calling wore a gray steampunk jacket and large goggles to protect against the dust. He explained how hard he’d worked to get to Burning Man, but once he arrived, he just felt lonely. Then he felt ashamed for being lonely. A lot of people feel that way, I told him. They all call me.
When I got home, I reached out to Benji to ask why he returned so often. “It’s therapeutic,” he told me. “It reminds you that we are all struggling with things, we are all insecure, and we’re all lonely.” He added, “It’s not nice to know that other people are suffering, but it’s comforting to know that not everyone is having the best time all day long. … It feels not alone.”
* * *
Unexpectedly, 24 hours at the Talk to God phone booth reminded me of my first year of law school, when I felt so sad and overwhelmed that I sought out counseling for the first time.
In the counselor’s office at the school, she asked my field of study and I told her. She responded, Oh, I’m seeing all of your classmates. Before she said that, I’d thought I was the only one struggling. But afterward, a warm feeling washed over me. It was the same one that Benji described at the God Phone, and the same one that Karen tried to foster in her courses: normalcy.

This need to feel that our uncertainty and struggle is normal, rang very true for me. It rings true now, when I see PSAs on television, posters on busses, brochures in the library, advising us that the kind of anxiety and depression that have surrounded so many of us during these past two pandemic years – feelings that the current war only intensify – are normal and shared by many others, urging anyone who needs support to reach out to family, friends, or professionals.

But it goes back much farther for me. When I was a kid, I played a lot of what my father called “depressing music.” Folk music about war and poverty and sorrow; classical music in minor keys. Don McLean’s “Starry Starry Night.” When my first official major depressive episode finally made itself known at age 16, my father blamed the music. What he didn’t realize was that the music was the only thing that made me feel like there were other people in the world like me, people who felt things they didn’t understand deeply and painfully. Its was the dance music, the cheerful pop tunes, the never-ending chatter of boys and clothes and hair and makeup in high school that made me feel alone and defective.

I can understand the draw of a God Phone, even if I can’t understand the draw of Burning Man.

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  • This article is available online at Longreads  

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Ifeoma Sesiana Amobi, “A Small Blip on an Eternal Timeline” from Narrative, Winter 2020

Chinwe Uwatse: “Impossible Dreams” (detail)
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed — and gazed — but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

William Wordsworth, “I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud”

As odd as it may seem to front a post about a story of two Nigerian immigrants with one of the most British of poems, I had to do it. You see, one of the characters in the story is an artist, and she refers to the painting she is currently working on as her sea of daffodils. Her attachment to it makes Wordsworth’s words pale in comparison. It’s more than the alleviation of loneliness for her: it’s about purpose, about doing what she’s meant to do in spite of everyone telling her to do something else.

And that’s the story, really, of both of these characters. Their inner drive is thwarted by expectations of others. Soma has already cast her lot with her art, but Emeka is burying his dreams of music to follow the path his father has set for him.

Emeka and I built our kingdom in a slanted row house on a patch of green grass in Highland Park, Pittsburgh, PA. Our floors creaked, our toilet growled, our heater hiccupped and often went out for the night, but it was our kingdom. Ours. Our little hideaway where time stopped for us, stretching into forever at our whim. It was where I could paint pomegranates and daffodils and portraits of an eager-eyed girl without feeling like I was wasting my life away. It was where Emeka could beat his igba to the Afrobeats of Fela Kuti and dream.
It infuriated me the way he hunched over his desk into the early morning hours, squeezing his head with sweaty palms. Huffing through the names of pathogenic organisms and their virulence factors for med school, chasing a fantasy that wasn’t even his: shadows of a dead throne in a dusty village in a land far, far away that his father, its long-lost king, wanted to bring back to life. Lurking in these shadows were tales my mother used to whisper in my ear…. I would pull Emeka away from his desk and into bed when the taste of bitter became too much for me to bear. Our arms and legs would entwine like thirsty vines, and heat from the blood rushing through our veins thrilled us. After making love, we cupped our hands to each other’s lips and whispered our deepest fears into them. With a flourish of our fingers, we released them into the universe.

This is one of those lushly written atmospheric pieces detailing the emotional struggle between two lovers, but more importantly, the struggle each of them fights between their own goals and desires, and the pressures of their families and cultures.

Soma paints flowers and fruits. She hasn’t had a big break (yet), she hasn’t been to art school. She just paints because she can’t not paint. She’s working on a sea of daffodils now. And here’s where she shows Wordsworth a thing or two:

I shook my head and pointed like a madwoman to different spots on the canvas. “Look. Look at how the light isn’t hitting the flowers quite right here. That petal. There. It’s awkward. You don’t see that? The lines are too crooked. The daffodils, they need more magic. They need more pop.”
“They are popping. They are popping.”
He placed it on the easel. My sea of daffodils. It wasn’t a Njideka Akunyili multimedia piece or Chinwe Uwatse’s Impossible Dreams. I did not paint pictures of Nigerian landscapes. I did not delve into cultural or social themes. The first time Emeka saw my work, he squinched his face and asked in a scholarly tone what it meant. What kind of commentary was I making as an African woman drawing fruits and flowers? I had a teacher once, in a continuing ed studio workshop, who asked me the same thing. He told me that I would have a hard time competing with African artists who were making bold statements as a result of living in a state of existential urgency. He did not realize that my flowers were also coming from existential urgency. I asked him why my paintings had to mean something. Why they couldn’t just make me feel something. Something indescribable. Why couldn’t they just open a door for anyone to walk through and experience an existence that’s greater than they will ever be but also in this strange and relieving way, a part of them. An alternate reality that is ours. Isn’t this what we all want? To find that magical place in the midst of our tiny, broken-up lives? The teacher gave me a B.

I love this section. I’ve seen this several times in, of all things, cooking competition shows. A chef has trained in French technique at the CIA (the cooking school, not the spy shop) or with a high-end chef in a nouveau-cuisine restaurant, but because she is Asian, or Latina, she’s expected to specialize in her cultural cuisine. This seems to me just as perverse as refusing to allow non-European cuisines into the culinary citadels. Soma relates so clearly how daffodils and fruits inspire her; why not let her take her path, perhaps it will lead her somewhere else when she’s perfected it, much as the most famous artists sometimes work in various schools. Yes, I’m thinking Van Gogh’s wonderful realism, which doesn’t erase his sunflowers or stars, but shows another side. And by the way, I went back and forth for a long time trying to decide on an image for this post: Uwatse’s “Impossible Dreams,” or a sea of daffodils. I feel like I betrayed Soma in choosing Dreams, but in the end I went with a recognized Nigerian artist rather than an anonymous stock photo.

Soma is our point of view character, so we see Emeka through her eyes. Though he lives with her and they act like they’re in love, his family has arranged a marriage to a more suitable woman, a woman getting a formal education, a woman who can help him when  as a doctor and then as leader he rescues his father’s village in Nigeria.

Although most of the text is internal, there are several scenes that illustrate the conflict they both face. Emeka tells her to apply for grants, get some kind of official acknowledgement of her talent, so he can present her as worthy to his family. She tries to make Nigerian food – fritters made from black-eyed peas – though she’s more of a spaghetti-and-meatballs kind of girl, and it ends up in the trash. Then there’s a brief but eloquent moment in the bagel shop where she works:

At Bruegger’s that day, I was training a new employee at the counter to strive for “Best in Class”: smile at your customer, ask politely how they can be helped, cut their bagels down the middle as clean as possible, pick only the freshest-looking ingredients for their sandwiches. Be proud of how you’ve brightened their day so that your great work continues. Somewhere in the middle of smearing mayo on a bagel, I had to turn away and shut my eyes tight to keep myself from losing it.

Yeah. Who hasn’t been there. For me it was writing articles about the need for long term care for the office newsletter.

I’ve often indicated my impatience with what I call the “sensitively crafted domestic realism story,” and this might seem like exactly what I’m talking about. But several things lift it from that category. First is the fascinating symmetry between the two characters: he is miserable while he’s trying to please his family and tradition and squelch his dreams, and she is miserable while she’s resisting pressure to abandon her dreams and toe the line. Second is that the conflict is far more specific than the vague marital unease that is the basis of routine domestic realism, conflict that’s beautifully illustrated by the scenes I outlined, among others. And third is the beautiful prose. No, that isn’t fair, I often complain about beautiful prose as distracting, and to be honest, here it is as well. But… it’s really beautiful. Fourth, I see a natural future in this story, where Soma grows as an artist, and we learn what the daffodils mean to her and why she must paint them – and how she grows them into her own fusion of style.  

Since each of them is currently resolving their personal struggle in opposite ways, the ending is inevitable.

And, frankly, cheering; I don’t think I could have handled it if she’d put away her paints and enrolled in a computer science program.

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  • Story is available online at Narrative (with registration, free and painless)

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Marcus Spiegel, “A Tale of Two Trolls” from  Santa Monica Review, Spring 2020

Art from Drawception: Notorious
Pepe the Frog is a cartoon character that has become a popular Internet meme (often referred to as the “sad frog meme” by people unfamiliar with the name of the character). The character first appeared in 2005 in the on-line cartoon Boy’s Club. In that appearance, the character also first used its catchphrase, “feels good, man.”
The Pepe the Frog character did not originally have racist or anti-Semitic connotations. ….[I]t was inevitable that, as the meme proliferated in on-line venues such as 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit, which have many users who delight in creating racist memes and imagery, a subset of Pepe memes would come into existence that centered on racist, anti-Semitic or other bigoted themes.
In recent years, with the growth of the “alt right” segment of the white supremacist movement, a segment that draws some of its support from some of the above-mentioned Internet sites, the number of “alt right” Pepe memes has grown, a tendency exacerbated by the controversial and contentious 2016 presidential election.

ADL website

When I was a kid, I ran away from home. I had a very clear idea of how things would go: someone kind and understanding would take me in, recognize how special I was, and would make me part of their family and raise me to achieve all that I could until at long last I realized I had to return to my own family and allow them to join me in my new wisdom. As you might expect, this plan fell apart pretty quickly, because the first thing someone does when they realize a kid is running away from home is call their family and send them back. I was completely surprised that my plan didn’t work. It seemed so simple. I mean, wasn’t it repeated in a dozen books, tv shows, and films of the period? (Portions of this scenario have been modified to protect… well, me).

Spiegel’s story features a couple of characters who, though they had at least part of a college education, made the same mistake of assuming the scenario they have in their heads would succeed simply because they imagined it.

I’ll admit, I was nervous about the story at first. It seemed to feature a couple of nascent alt-right activists, though I wasn’t sure if they were actually Antifa activists doing a fake-out as alt-right. Maybe you can tell I’m still not sure exactly what Antifa is, or what everyday activism is for that matter. It seemed as though I’d finally stumbled across a story featuring alt-right characters. But this can’t be the alt-right, can it? I mean, they’re so… stupid. Is this satire? Am I supposed to feel sorry for them? Angry at them? Afraid of them?

Then I realized something crucial to my reading of the story. Nowhere do Yuri and Winch express political opinions. They never mention immigration, abortion, race, religion, what the local eighth-graders are checking out of their school libraries, or any other alt-right hot-button issues. For them, public policy is the well-buried means to an end, and the end is: becoming famous on YouTube.

So I decided to let it be hilarious.

Since the world is increasingly the battleground of propaganda, practical wisdom seems to require that everyone become her own Leni Riefenstahl . It’s either that or become someone else’s dupe.
Yuri and Winch, for their part, have taken measures to adapt to the new counterpunching regime. Their most significant attempt at persuasion is the YouTube show and podcast Tadpole Island. They’ve recorded six episodes thus far, most of which feature their only other friend in the flesh, Olaf Norquist, the self-styled black magician and alt-right political commentator. But they have yet to offer up their golden ball to strangers perusing the net.
Tadpole Island is hosted by Yuri’s alter ego, Zepé – basically Yuri in a frog suit, speaking in an invented accent that Norquist has described as a cross between Jamaican, Aussie, and Martian. The frog character, of course, is modeled on Pepe, crude demiurge of the meme, though somehow Yuri’s Zepé suit calls to mind Kermit or Super Mario similarly clad. Either way, Zepé is destined to be a mammoth success.

You might wonder, after reading that, why it took me so long to realize it was hilarious. Hey, I’m a cautious reader, ok?  And historically, I have trouble with contemporary (that is, ironic) humor.

If their first goal is fame, their second is retribution. Or, possibly, fame is in the service of retribution, but they plan the fame first and only incorporate retribution later.

The retributee is Professor Badendorf, a German Studies teacher who wouldn’t help Yuri get out from under a missed deadline that resulted in an F. Somehow this involved a bad case of whooping cough, which had me thinking anti-vaxxer, except – is whooping cough something you can self-diagnose, or did he have a cold and expanded it for dramatic purposes? Then I went down a neuroscience rabbit hole (one of my favorite types of rabbit holes) when I read that Yuri had again forgotten to shave the right side of his face. Hemispatial neglect can be a symptom of a stroke or other brain damage, but it’s usually left-sided and not just on the face but the whole body, so what is this referring to, and boy am I overthinking this. See, it wasn’t quite as simple as the Kermit/Mario costume to get to hilarity. And it turns out Kermit/Mario is a whole thing; I’m really too old for this.

In any case, they plan to kidnap this professor for the dramatic seventh episode of Tadpole Island.

Once Badendorf was loaded into the Honda’s trunk, they would drive to the Bunker and transfer him into what they were calling his “cage” – which actually looked more like an igloo made out of cardboard boxes that they’d spent much of the night constructing.
The days would creep along for Badendorf. He would have little to hope for apart from his two meals of frozen corn niblets served to him in a doggie bowl.
At some point during the professor’s imprisonment they would call him from his cage and force him to do the show. Badendorf and Zepé would have a dialogue. Zepé would quash him with his superior intellect. Zepé and Winch would then subject him to some light torture on camera, afterwards returning him to his cage.
Those dark web episodes of Tadpole would be legendary in no time…. In a matter of days, or even hours, their subscriber list would bloom.
Nothing clickbaits like suffering.

My childhood runaway plot was better planned than this. But it’s the story they have in their heads, and they’re going with it.

Of course, first they have to find the Professor. And, while looking for him, Yuri runs across Hannah from European Mythology at the panel reception, and we delve into Incel 101. The line “In ten minutes, Yuri has managed to consume more vegetables than he has in the previous ten months” is where I started laughing out loud. As Aaron Sorkin assured us with The Social Network, a great deal of evil can be traced back to a spurned romantic advance.

For all the hilarity, every once in a while there’s a drop-dead line, like the thing about suffering as clickbait. Then there’s the key point the story brought up for me, something I’ve been debating for the past six years or so: will the ruthlessness of the alt-right doom us, or will their absurdity save us? In this case, absurdity is clearly in ascendancy. Let’s hope that’s how it works out in real life.

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  • “Pepe the Frog” entry on ADL’s website
  • Author’s website

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Pam Durban, “The Very Great Abyss” from Cincinnati Review #17.2

Very Great Abyss influences the Po which is the spirit of the Metal Element. Of the five spirits the Po, also known as the Corporeal Soul, is the one that supports the functioning of the body. It is what gives us our instincts, our animal nature. It is our animal soul. Paradoxically, the Po also allows for a tricky balancing act of living life as a human being, namely that of being a creature of spirit inhabiting the body of an animal. When the Po is troubled, this balance between spirit and body, between heaven and earth, can be disturbed. Lung 9 is able to go down into the abyss, to the depth of the soul. It can retrieve a person who has lost their way, calm one who is manic, stabilise someone who feels like they are cracking up or losing control. In short, it can reach down into the very depth of a person, calming, revitalising, rejuvenating and bringing a sense of security and stability.
…. Self acupressure is good but treating another allows the work to go much deeper.

John Kirkwood: Five Element Acupressure

We continue with the theme of grief, particularly how the avoidance of grief costs so much more than its acceptance. So many of us have to learn that the hard way, it seems. And, like the prior story, it turns out that connecting with another’s grief might be the way to deal with your own.

The plot is simple: a woman goes from massage therapist to sex worker after her beloved brother dies in combat.

Last January Miranda had graduated from massage school in Pittsburgh.… At school they’d called her a natural, said she had good hands, intuitive hands that felt the places where the body armors itself against the pain of walking through this world. She was the one the teachers called on in acupressure class. “Come show us the location of the Sea of Tranquility and the correct pressure to apply there,” they said. “Come locate the Very Great Abyss.” And every time, she’d go straight to the tiny point on wrist, hand, foot, eyebrow that set the life-force flowing again.
In March she’d rented this room, knowing what this place was, still believing she could do here just the work she’d been trained to do. Now it was September: the leaves on the oaks in Soldiers’ National Cemetery were turning, the reenactment armies had left for their winter camps, and the show she was supposed to get on the road was the show you imagine as soon as you hear the name Gettysburg Massage.

The reason for the transformation isn’t explicit, but she mentions a way of coping with her new profession that might apply to her exit from therapy: “You’d be surprised, she might have said if anyone had asked her, how you can adapt to almost anything once you find the right distance from it…” She needs some distance from being a healer to give herself time to heal. And she’s brought back to herself by a client who is also grieving, when he asks for an actual massage. Strange, the paths we take to face our grief. But whatever works.

It’s the lyrical language, the connections between Gettysburg, the life of a military family, and feeling adrift and alone, that creates mood and ambience as the two mourners hover and play at connecting, then finally connect via a small spot on the wrist known as The Very Great Abyss.

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  • John Kirkwood: Five Element Acupressure website quoted above
  • A brief excerpt from the opening of the story is available at The Cincinnati Review

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Lucas Southworth, “The Crying Room”  from Copper Nickel #30

Ambiguous loss is a situation that’s beyond human expectation. We know about death: It hurts, but we’re accustomed to loved ones dying and having a funeral and the rituals. With ambiguous loss, there are no rituals; there are no customs. Society doesn’t even acknowledge it. So the people who experience it are very isolated and alone, which makes it worse.
….It requires dealing with the stress of not knowing and therefore how to cope with that. Your only option is to build resilience.
….We must increase our tolerance for ambiguity and [decrease] our hold on needing certainty all the time. We get sedentary and we get comfortable in our own little circle of people who are like us, and there’s so much more out there in the world. We need to reach out and get a little uncomfortable trying something new.

NPR interview with Dr. Pauline Boss, professor and therapist

Although Dr. Boss coined the term “ambiguous loss” in 1973 as she researched and developed therapeutic methods for helping people deal with it, I’d never heard it before now. There are two general categories: those whose loved ones have literally gone missing, and those whose loved ones are physically present but psychologically absent due to mental or physical illness. This story deals primarily with the first type, but also includes another possible version: when one feels responsible for a loved one’s death. Maybe.

It’s a story that could have easily crossed the line into schmaltzy sentimentality, but overall resists the urge thanks to what I see as three factors. First is the weirdness quotient, and by weird, I don’t mean SF/F-weird, just weird enough to register as not quite everyday. Second is some interesting plot choreography. Third is placing the reader in their own ambiguous state. This allows the final paragraph to let loose, in a way that’s powerful rather than gooey, with everything the story has held back.

We meet our unnamed first person narrator (no one has a name in the story; I’m guessing the anonymity is part of the emotional distancing between everyone) on a bus ride to an unnamed city. We discover she’s imagining her fourteen-year-old son in the seat beside her; he appears angry. I don’t know if Southworth researched ambiguous grief, but this is one of the hallmarks of the first type: the psychological presence in spite of physical absence. We don’t yet know if he just isn’t with her on this trip, or if his physical absence is more permanent; we don’t know why he’s angry, but it seems a familiar state. We are ankle-deep in ambiguity already.

We follow the narrator to a diner in the city, where she orders eggs and looks at employment ads. We find out she’s a doctor. She asks the waitress if she knows what crying rooms are. She doesn’t, though she’s heard of them. I don’t know what they are, either; more ambiguity for me, plus a little weirdness. I looked up crying rooms, to see if I was just uninformed; turns out Spain has La Lloreria, crying rooms, in an effort to reduce stigma around getting help for mental illness in the interests of reducing its suicide rate. I don’t see anything in the US other than rooms to bring babies who cry during church or other gatherings.

 Our narrator says, “I read the ad again and picked up my fork. The eggs were perfect. Yolk filled the entire plate as soon as I cut in.” I detest eggs, but I understand from all the cooking shows I’ve watched that this runny-yolk thing is a mark of perfection. I have to wonder if that is a sign that the crying room job advertised is seen by her as perfect, as well.

That’s just the first page.

Our narrator goes for her interview.

From what I understood, I told them, I was perfect for the place. I’d worked nights before. I liked it. I wasn’t too young or too old, too talkative or quiet. I wasn’t easily rattled or taken in. I had no interest in family or being liked or making friends.
The owners didn’t bring up that I was overqualified. They just conferred with each other for a minute. Then they listed the rules.
Pretend you don’t recognize anyone, they said, even customers that come in often. Wear sunglasses to hide your eyes. Keep your hands out of sight as much as possible. Ask three simple questions. How long would you like your room? What is your preferred method of payment? Can you see the elevator, down the hall to the left?

Ok, like that isn’t weird at all, is it. I can sort of understand the sunglasses, but why hide hands? We never find out. Ambiguity.

At this point we start to find out about the narrator’s backstory, why she’s in this new city, where her son is. Or isn’t. Guess what: it’s weird. He and her husband disappeared, leaving nothing behind but their shoes. I spent some time trying to figure that out. All I could come up with was: The narrator is the one with the emotional resonance, but I get to share the ambiguity.

The story takes us through her familiarization with the crying rooms, and her tentative attachment to a client whose daughter died. “It was my fault, she said. It might have been.” That’s all we get, and now we’re up to our necks in ambiguity, right along with the two women.

And finally, as the women become closer, the story ends with a poetic paragraph that unleashes all the sentiment it’s reined in so tightly:

Some crying turns like a hurricane, some falls in a patter, some hovers as mist. Some crying stalks the house in silence, pretending not to notice. Some lays dormant, ticking, a bomb. Some dismantles the horizon. There is crying that can only come in new cities. There is crying of anger, of unhappiness, of remorse. Some crying is like being behind a curtain or being behind a world behind a curtain. Some ferries like a vessel or a ship, at the mercy of weather and wind. Some is fragile, on the edge, threatening to break until it does, a stone through glass, a sheet of ice on the sidewalk. There is crying of tragedy, of shame. There are sniffles and yowls and caterwauls. And some crying sutures. Some stitches, some staples and binds. Some replaces, transplants, transforms. And some crying is the best way to get to blood, the best way to get to what lingers. Some is like seeing, almost. Some like understanding, almost. And some is like accepting, almost, what can’t be, what won’t be, what isn’t and what is.

Acceptance is, as they say, the final stage of grief. But with ambiguous grief, how do you accept what isn’t known?

A few stories ago, I listened to a podcast that explained the difference between narrative and lyric. Narrative proceeds along a time line: one event, then the next, with connections that might be lyric or explicit, but time moves and the story changes with it. Lyric occurs in a moment of time. That’s what this final paragraph does: it encompasses the narrator’s experience, both leading up to her trip and as the manager of the crying rooms, it embraces her confusion, her sorrow, even her medical training. But it stays in that one moment, happening all at once. And it occurs to me, this is the yolk, heretofore constrained within the sac of tense albumen, running all over the plate.

Whether you prefer the precision of most of the story, or the lyric burst at the end, or the juxtaposition of the two, it’s a fascinating story. Weird, ambiguous, controlled, explosive. Just like grief.

*  *  *     

  • NPR interview with Pauline Boss quoted above
  • Reuters article about La Lloreria, Spain’s version of the crying room.
  • Author’s website

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Jeremiah Moss, “Open House” (non-fiction) from N+1 #36

N+1 Art by Amanda C. Mathis: Displacement
It reads like a personal essay if you don’t think about it too much, but it really is research based… there’s multiple section about Instagram and how it’s shaping this.… there’s a fair amount of sourcing, but he doesn’t do it in a really overt way where it’s a giant block quote…. It’s really outward looking, in some ways research reported but also personal. …. A lot of times fiction writers who are writing an essay, it’s got a very narrative frame, like “New person is moving in” and it’s not that at all, it’s much more complicated than that; he’s covering decades here, he’s not interested in one neighbor, he’s interested in thirty years of changing.

Justin St. Germain I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead podcast (edited)

I’ve got to find time to listen to this podcast; it rambles a lot (as all podcasts do, that’s what people love about them, they aren’t speeches) but it contains so much info on different approaches to essay writing.

The essay in question is about gentrification, specifically in New York.

The Great Invasion began sometime in the late 1990s but didn’t really take shape until after September 11. That’s when the new people found the East Village. The new people, the emphatically normal, come from someplace else, the Midwest, the South, but that’s not what makes them invaders. Many of us come from someplace else. I come from someplace else. Move anywhere and you’re potentially interloping. So what is it? How can I talk about the new people and their superpower of invasion? I’m forever grappling with this question, reducing, stereotyping, and then struggling not to be reductive. What I keep coming back to is their apparent belief that their way of living belongs everywhere, that it should trickle down the ladder of power and fill every lower space, scouring and purifying as it goes. Spaces of queerness. Spaces of color. Spaces of marginalization. Spaces of This is our little scrap of somewhere, can’t you just let us have it, oh you who have everywhere? With good reason, colonization and Manifest Destiny are the enduring metaphors of gentrification.

It makes a great read, funny and poignant in turns, with recognizable characters and situations if you’ve lived in a neighborhood for any length of time. I’ve seen a lot of changes in my small city over the past twenty years, some good, some bad. And I do recognize the feeling of being swept out so the more desirable tenants can come in. I’m not sure it adds anything new to the topic; this has been going on forever in New York, traceable through a lot of literature set in the city with parents arriving here especially in the pre-war years and their kids breaking away from their traditions but returning to upgraded housing. But it’s a great way to remind people that the poor have lives and pasts and histories that matter, too, and maybe we should think twice before turning their buildings into condos and townhouses to build up the tax base.

The author is fascinating in himself. Jeremiah Moss is a pseudonym for his writing; Griffin Hansbury became a psychotherapist, writer, and activist whose blog is full of stories about people being pushed aside to make room for people who matter more.

I came in the early 1990s because it made sense for me to be here. I was a young, queer, transsexual poet, and where else would a young, queer, transsexual poet go but to the East Village? Back then the neighborhood still throbbed with its hundred years of counterculture, a dissident history going back to the early anarchists and feminists, up through the bohemians and Beats, the hippies and punks, the poets, queers, and transsexuals too. I had a pair of combat boots and an elite liberal arts education, thanks to a full ride of grants and work-study programs, but not much money. I hail from generations of peasants, washerwomen, and bricklayers, orphans raised by nuns, 12-year-old factory workers, icemen who sang opera while they slung frozen bricks, soldiers, hucksters, and bookmakers, thick-legged Italians and paper-skinned Irish Catholics, most of whom didn’t get to high school and not one of whom saw the inside of a college classroom. I had ambition but didn’t yet understand entitlement…. The East Village was full of people who were bruised like I was bruised, people who weren’t quite pulled together but were trying to make something interesting with their lives. I belonged here. In this neighborhood. In this crumbling tenement.

I find myself with little to say about the piece, mostly because the essay is clear and forceful. I’ll just leave it at that.

*  *  *     

  • The essay is available online at N+1 
  • Author’s website
  • The episode of the podcast I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead referenced above can be found online; the discussion of this essay begins around 58:15

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Lindsay Starck, “Baikal” from New England Review #41.1

NER art
As someone who does not possess the fortitude or willpower necessary to run across Lake Baikal, I had questions for my character: namely, “How?” and “Why?” From the beginning, I was interrogating her. As I wrote more, it became clear that the central relationship of the piece had been shaped by unspoken questions. When I read that the founder of the race had described Baikal as “alive” and “breathing,” I wondered if the narrator could be the lake itself. I’ve long admired the “Ithaca” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is written as a catechistic call-and-response, and also John Edgar Wideman’s “Stories,” which is a flash fiction piece composed of “question after question after question.” Finally, one of my favorite remarks about literature is Anton Chekhov’s observation that the artist’s task is not to answer questions but to pose the questions correctly.

Lindsay Starck, author interview at NER

I’ve often said domestic realism is not my favorite subgenre of fiction. Just because every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way doesn’t mean I want to read another story full of “finely crafted” sentences that “illuminate with great sensitivity” all those ways. Sure, many of these stories embed profound truths in their paragraphs, but slogging through pages of everyday ordinariness is a horrible way to go about presenting them.

Seems like Starck has found a way, however, to make domestic realism amazing, even to me: start with a unique narrative style; include only what must be included; carefully control the reveals to reveal not information but character; and use, as the metaphorical lens such stories often include, a marathon across a frozen lake that is melting thanks to climate change. Now there’s an image of marriage for ya.

Since I’m always blathering about loving stories that teach me something, let’s start there. Yes, there is a Baikal Marathon in Siberia. The next one is in three days: February 27, 2022. I swear, I did not time my reading to coincide, it’s just another of those coincidences I can’t get enough of. And no, it’s not being cancelled because of climate change, at least not yet; it’s only been run since 2005, not for 50 years, so let’s assume the story is set in the near-future. And strange as it is to read a story about an American going to Russia for a race while, in real life, Russia seems to be determined to start WWIII this week, well, that’s a more disturbing coincidence than the date of the marathon. Navigating over the icy surface described by the official marathon website above must be incredibly tricky; real life is equally so.

Now let’s get to that unique narrative structure: the use of a Q&A, as if between a narrator and a reader.

What was she thinking?
That depends. When she stepped onto the tarmac in Irkutsk, the sky crisp and glittering, she was wondering why it had taken her so long to come to Siberia. But earlier, when she boarded the stale plane in Beijing, she was trying not to think about the world’s first marathoner. (You know: the one who died.) And when her husband dropped her at the airport curb in Minneapolis, she was wondering if he’d miss her.
Would he?
He certainly would. They’ve been married eighteen years. Besides: Lately he’s been missing her even when she’s standing right in front of him. Last Sunday, after she’d returned from a fifteen-mile run, she’d been flipping pancakes on the stovetop while he scrolled through headlines on his phone at the counter across from her. There were no more than three feet between them. But when he glanced up and saw a bead of sweat slide past her ear to her chin, her face rosy from the heat of the gas flame, he’d been struck simultaneously by the urge to wipe it away and by the fear that if he tried, he wouldn’t be able to reach her.
What does that mean?
He can’t say, exactly. He knows it sounds strange. How absurd it is to long for a person who is right in front of you!

Yes, that got my attention.  I thought it would be difficult to follow, but it turned out, it’s quite easy. It’s just like asking questions about a story.

But if that’s all there was, it’d be a gimmick. So think about how easily the story shifts from one character to the other, from the wife off marathoning in Siberia to the husband at home waiting for the (overdue) call that tells him she’s safe, as a result of that technique.

Then layer in that sometimes a question is deferred, or is only partially answered, and it comes back later, with a surprising new angle.  April and Max are casually mentioned as “the thing with,” and of course the question comes up: Who are April and Max? But he doesn’t want to think about them right now. And it comes up in a completely different context about his wife’s work as a scientist:

Her job is Lake Baikal?
No, her job is Lake Superior…. He would have liked for her to tell him why she was worried, but she didn’t volunteer it, and he knew better than to ask.
Would he have understood her fears if she’d explained them?
Maybe. But then again, their work is so different. While she arranges zooplankton onto slides or collects samples from the rocky shores of Lake Superior, he gives elegant lectures to classrooms packed with English majors. For two decades, he was famous for his passion for the material. Then came April, and now he is famous for that.
Who is April?
Listen: He was grieving. Aren’t people allowed to make bad decisions when they’re grieving?

And now we have a much better idea who April is, draped in the context of fearing to ask, of consequences, of excuses. Now, come on, isn’t that so much better than sixteen pages (however insightful and beautifully written) about how she caught his eye and the details of his grief and how her hair smelled and… oh, wait, we have one more reveal about April:

And now?
As she’s grown older, she’s found that nothing rolls away quickly. Not hangovers, not sprained ankles, not the occasional aches in her hips or her knees. Not the image of April’s bare legs wrapped around her husband’s waist. She’d been worried about him after the funeral, so she’d stopped by his office with a coffee and entered without knocking. She’d dropped the coffee on the hard blue carpet — It is not true that she hurled it at the two of them, though that’s the rumor that seeped into both of their departments — and part of her still feels ashamed that someone from maintenance had to be called to come clean up her mess.
Her mess?
His mess. Theirs. Because of course, after that, there was Max.
Who is—
It’s not important. Why dwell on the details of their mutual betrayal? He sought solace in someone else’s arms; a little later, so did she. This is neither interesting nor new. It’s simply what happens to a marriage when it feels as though the world is ending.

So much happens in that section. Not just April, but who owns the mess, the impatience with continued identity (why don’t we find out who Max is and the circumstances of that discovery? Because it would detract from April, whose story is absolutely magnificent in how it weaves between both husband and wife and leads to Max, do we really need to know about Max, or is the reveal about the attempt to smooth things over in the Italian restaurant enough?) and then that amazing thing about feeling like the world is ending, which could be how a scientist studying a dying lake might feel, how a marathoner running the last marathon on melting ice might feel, how a husband might feel when his wife flies off to Siberia and it’s been three hours past the time she was supposed to call.

Starck does this attack-and-retreat-and-regroup thing with several other elements, like the children, and, of course, the race itself, which is in progress throughout the story. She has a gift for subtlety that’s sort of like the musical score from Jaws: an underlying threat you don’t consciously hear until the last moment.

So yes, I love this domestic realism story  because it’s told in a way that keeps me on the edge of my seat, that surprises me over and over, that ends with the plaintive question that applies to everything: “Is it too late?” That’s always the question, isn’t it.

*  *  *     

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Maria Black, “Mark on the Cross” from The Sun #531

Sun Art by Kelsey Layne
It was early morning and Maria Black was putting on her sneakers, getting ready to go for a walk, when she thought, “Maybe I should check my email…” she recalled.
When she opened her inbox there was an email from The Sun magazine, saying that she had won a Pushcart Prize for her fiction story, “Mark on the Cross,” which had appeared in their Spring 2020 issue. “I initially thought: ‘This isn’t real, I’m being pranked…it’s a hoax,’” recounted Black, a 30-year Lenox resident who is currently living in Northampton, Mass. But then she read the email again, and it was indeed correct. “I was just shocked that I had won.”
In 2016, five years earlier, Black had started sending out the fiction story in an attempt to get it published. It was rejected over 35 times…. she had sent it to the New Yorker and even though they rejected it, they had responded with feedback, saying it was “too melodramatic.” So Black “toned it down” and continued to send out the revised piece to publications between 2017 and 2019. “The New Yorker’s comments really helped me.”
Then she finally submitted the fiction story to The Sun magazine in December 2019, they accepted it, and it was published in the Spring 2020 issue.

Article from The Berkshire Edge

Since there’s absolutely nothing melodramatic about the published story, I’d love to see what that failed draft looked like. But why bother: the final story is highly readable, funny and poignant in turns, and has some interesting character mirroring.

Everyone in the story gets a name – including the crew leader at Starbucks –  except our first-person narrator. I have to wonder why that is. Since introductions appear several times, it would have been easy to slip it in. Does this allow us to put ourselves in her place more easily? Or is there some other reason? I tend to dislike the technique, whatever the reason, because it makes it harder to write about, but that’s not really a good reason.

Like the prior two stories, we have a relationship story that serves as a frame for a more thematic approach: what’s real, what’s fake, and ways we avoid, or come face to face with, our own truths.

When I was a junior in college, I spent the week before Christmas with my aunt Sallie in New Jersey. Sallie has a cabin by a lake right off Route 34. She calls it a lake, but it’s a weed-choked pond put in to sell property. Sacagawea Shores. They brought in sand for the beach, so now there’s a roped-off swimming area and a raft and a lifeguard. The “cabins” have sheetrock and wall-to-wall carpet and granite countertops and jacuzzis. On the outside, the logs are painted brown — a community rule — and each cabin has a dock on the pond, but only paddleboats are allowed. Sacagawea Shores. A place to pretend around, like a ouija board. Migrating geese land there, which is something, I guess. They take their small consolations, which was what I was supposed to be doing. Mom’s idea. Go to New Jersey, she said. Fall out of love.
Sallie is not my real aunt. She and my mom are friends from college…. Sallie, the pretend aunt in the pretend cabin on the pretend lake.

Right off the bat we’ve got the two basic elements, theme and frame: The fakery, and the attempt to get over a failed love affair. It’s also a fun introduction. Humor shows up a lot here, from these opening paragraphs to the delivery of a huge carton of pig from Sallie’s brother who converted to Judaism and now can only enjoy his pork vicariously.

Our narrator, walking Sallie’s dog Lulu into town to get a coffee, sees a makeshift roadside memorial. It’s a photo, taped to a makeshift cross, of a boy, Mark, who was hit by a car and died at that spot two years ago. Exactly two years ago.  This two-year time frame is part of the mirroring: The girls she meets were about two years younger than Mark, and she has been at college, and with her ex-boyfriend, for a little over two years. There’s also a shared wish to escape. The narrator idly thinks about running away out West to escape from the pain of the breakup; Myra, the town girl, wants to get out of this town.

Then there’s the thievery. The town girls steal her dog, which is really Sallie’s dog. She steals the picture of Mark from the tree. She doesn’t consider it stealing; she tucks it in her copy of The Divine Comedy (oh my – “When half way through the journey of our life / I found that I was in a gloomy wood, / because the path which led aright was lost”) for safekeeping. The girls don’t consider themselves dognappers; they were rescuing an abandoned cold little shih tzu to keep it warm. But each sees the other as a thief.

She stopped walking, and her expression sharpened. “You took him off the cross.”
I thought this was an odd way of putting it.
“Why?” She was looking hard at me. “You shouldn’t have.” Her nose had gone white. I thought she might hit me.
“He was getting ruined,” I said, though that’s not why I had taken him.
“He isn’t yours.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She was still holding Lulu, and now she held her more tightly.
“He’s ours,” she said and paused, clearly about to say something more. “You stole him.”
That was rich, I thought, coming from a dog thief.
It’s a picture,” I said. “And I was going to put it back.” I studied Mark’s face. “OK, I wasn’t. But I will.”

The fakery here is almost art. We can fool ourselves about anything. But in the end, honesty wins.

The story ends with what seems like a personal church service at the tree facing Mark on the cross. Given how he really did lose everything, she puts him back on the cross and takes herself off, admitting her part in the breakup. It’s a subtle, gentle moment, punctuated by Aunt Sallie driving by to keep it from getting maudlin. A nice touch.

I sometimes mention a story projects into the future, an effect I like. This one doesn’t so much leave me thinking about the future as about Myra, the dognapper: as she and our narrator sit by the tree, what truth is she finally facing?

*  *  *     

  • This story can be read online (temporarily) at The Sun
  • Article quoted above from The Berkshire Edge, August 18, 2021

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Molly McCloskey, “A Little Like God” from McSweeney’s #60

Molly McCloskey was born in Philadelphia and grew up in North Carolina and Oregon. She lived in Ireland for 25 years and now resides in Washington, D.C…. She has taught writing at universities in Ireland and the US, including Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, and George Washington University in Washington, DC. She has also worked in the field of international development in the UN’s Kenya-based Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for Somalia. She holds an MA in Philosophy from University College Dublin and an MFA from Boston University.

Bio from author’s website

Regular readers here who pay attention (if there are any) might be surprised that I start a post with an excerpt from a traditional author’s bio. For the past couple of years I’ve been using the more interesting parts of the Contributor Notes included in BASS, which give some hint as to how the story came about, but I don’t include any biographical details. For that matter, I hardly read them unless I have some reason to do so, since I rarely find them interesting.

I searched for and read this bio because the story, though clearly labeled fiction, reads like a memoir/essay. So I was not surprised to find the first person narrator is, at least to some extent, based on McCloskey: she’s spent a long time in Ireland and has landed in Washington to start a one-year teaching job that she hopes will become permanent. Whether the other elements are fictional or autobiographical, or some blend of the two, is unknown.

In the mornings, my bed was littered with skin. It was like sleeping with a molting thing, or a being that had passed the night evolving. I thought of tails or fins abandoned in the bed clothes. After he left, I’d shake the sheets out the window and send flakes of him over the brick patio, where they were carried on the breeze into the grass quad adjacent to my house.

Now that’s an opening paragraph. It turns out the molting is the result of psoriasis, but it’s a great metaphor for how, when he leaves for a time, he stays with her, as if parts of him are left behind. That’s the way most intense relationships are. We change in response to someone else, maybe not a lot, but at least in some surface ways, to accommodate another person in our lives. And they leave something behind. In this case it seems a bit more disgusting than the smell of aftershave on a pillow, but hair in the sink is also pretty common and that isn’t the most pleasant thing either.

The other thing that struck me about this story, maybe because of the previous story “Elenin,” is how it uses a romantic relationship as a frame on which to hang something deeper. In “Elenin,” it was imagery; here, it’s the gulf between career military and civilians.

He was a year back from Afghanistan when we met, one of those wars Americans had begun to lose track of, so that people sometimes forgot whether we were still fighting in it or just advising others who were fighting or pretending to advise them while we fought it, in secret, ourselves. He had just turned fifty, which seemed old to me for a deployment, but he’d been on the medical side of things – gathering Intel on threats, everything from snakes and fungi to weaponized chemical agents – more than on the frontline. Not that there was a frontline, as such. Or maybe there was. What did I know about how battles were fought? I was an English professor who spent my entire adult life abroad. I had once worked with a colleague in England designing what she’d called a “vet-friendly curriculum,” which prompted me, for a time, to think about the mental lives of people who go to war and about what literature might owe or could offer them. But that wasn’t like knowing them. It wasn’t like finding flakes of one in your bed, having him flop like a fish next to you all night long.

Much of the protagonist’s thoughts go to how her life is so different from his, with this attraction persisting in spite of that. There are comments I’ve made myself, such as how we’ve pretty much subcontracted military service to a small portion of the country and, aside from a few parades and some weird uses of the word patriotism and the now-obligatory “Thank you for your service,” we don’t really think much about it, but no one complains when military budgets are increased while other budgets are cut. The man in the story (no one has names) seems to have PTSD, for he sleeps “vehemently.” When she discusses certain topics with him, like surveillance or corruption, he gives few details but admits, “You have no idea.”

The narrator’s thoughts turn to potentially threatening events, all the things that could happen. She doesn’t seem particularly scared, just aware how fragile society is and how little it takes to disrupt things.

The climax of the story involves an incident in Washington that could be terrorism: two small bombs go off, and the city locks down while the perpetrators are sought. I flashed back to the Boston Marathon bombing, to several writers I knew who were locked down, to the search, and eventual capture. It seemed a very close match to the story. The point was to separate the two lovers, she wondering where he was and what he was doing, but unable to contact him for days and the discomfort of that on top of the general fear.

But there was more than just fear. There was also something more alluring, as she realized at this point that whether the year-long gig was extended or not (it wasn’t), she would stay in Washington.

I think I decided to stay during those hours I’d spent locked in my house. Something in me fell for the city then. Something in it felt human, and mine…. Never had I felt so isolated and yet so deeply a part of something.

I can’t say I understand that, but many people have reactions I don’t understand. I have to admit I wasn’t particularly engaged in this story, despite recognizing some elements. Something about the voice held me at arm’s length, and I didn’t see any need to get closer. It goes like that sometimes.

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Stephen Mortland, “Elenin” from NOON, 2020

Honoré Daumier, “Mr Babinet, warned by his concierge of the arrival of the comet”, illustration for Le Charivari, 22 September 1858
Comet Elenin first came to light last December, when sunlight reflecting off the small comet was detected by Russian astronomer Leonid Elenin of Lyubertsy, Russia. Also known by its astronomical name, C/2010 X1, Elenin somehow quickly became something of a “cause célèbre” for a few Internet bloggers, who proclaimed this minor comet could/would/should be responsible for causing any number of disasters to befall our planet.
….”I cannot begin to guess why this little comet became such a big Internet sensation,” said Yeomans. “The scientific reality is this modest-sized icy dirtball’s influence upon our planet is so incredibly minuscule that my subcompact automobile exerts a greater gravitational influence on Earth than the comet ever would. That includes the date it came closest to Earth (Oct. 16), when the comet’s remnants got no closer than about 22 million miles (35.4 million kilometers).”

NASA article: “Comet Elenin is no more”

As I read this story, I kept thinking of a story from a couple of years ago: “The Important Transport” by Diane Williams. They both rely on imagery rather than plot; they both involve marital infidelity, and evoke some kind of disaster. They’re both very short. And they are both stories I struggle to understand, to make sense of, stories I feel like I’m overreading and underreading at the same time. I’m surprised I thought of the Williams story at all, given its brevity and my lack of comprehension, yet it was insistent in my mind. So I will again wade into shadows and fog and try to explain what strikes me about this story, because, in spite of my uncertainty, it appeals to me.

Three elements predominate. The backbone of the piece is an extramarital affair that was ended against the will of the first person narrator. The second element is an impending comet. The third is brought in with the final sentence, a quote from Psalm 6. Sprinkled among these three things are images of doom and sickness. Maybe. Because I admit I’m not really on top of this one. But let’s try anyway.

Let’s start with the narrator’s interaction with the waitress at a diner, the opening scene of the piece.

She had a voice like a toy siren that wound up and grew louder as she spoke, shrill and almost funny. “And they’re saying we might pass through,” she said. “not the comet itself, but the debris from its tail.”
The television was bolted into an upper corner of the wall. The big rock magnified, green and grainy, moved slowly across the black and white tweed sky. She and the I watched the terrible thing together, though neither of us could comprehend the other’s capacity for pain.

At one point, the waitress addresses the narrator as “doll” and it is based on that rather flimsy evidence that I assume the narrator is female. The waitress’s voice like a siren, the “terrible” comet, the ancient and medieval association of comets with disaster, the explicit mention of pain, all give this scene a sense of danger, of impending doom.

The narrator arranges to visit her paramour, though he does not sound pleased. He seems even less pleased when they meet.

I remembered the first time and how bad he felt then. The way he’d shrunk from me and how reticent he had been to accept anything like grace.
“I told you already,” he said. “And it’s September now. I don’t know what more you want me to do.” The sun crossed over the tops of the trees. The sky turned sepia. Bright swimming amoebas cluttered my vision. The mud was swallowing us so that our shoes made suctioned cries when either of us shifted. After the last time, he’d seemed uncomfortable again, like the first time but with greater pity. Then he’d stopped calling, and it could only have been because I’d been away. But what did he see now? Nothing about me looked sick.
“Have you heard about the comet?” I asked him. “they’re saying it might pass through us. I can’t remember the name of it, but it sounded like something else. Like something harmless, benign.”

It’s unclear exactly what has transpired between them. They seem to have had an affair, which he ended out of guilt. But there’s so much more in this section. Amoebas cluttering her vision? Is this literal – a physical disruption of eyesight, perhaps by tears (there are parasites that invade the eyes, but that seems overly esoteric) – or metaphoric, an inability to know what to do now? She was away, but we have no idea why or where. And that killer sentence, “Nothing about me looked sick.” This retroactively brings the amoebas and being away into a more medical sense, but is this sickness physical or heartbreak? Use of the word benign again pulls it towards a medical interpretation, and a grim one, the opposite of benign being not benign at all. I wonder if her illness is related to this man, if he knows she’s ill, if that figured into his ending the affair or if it was just run of the mill guilt. Mud sucking their shoes adds to the sense of unpleasantness, of being in a bad place, being perhaps stuck. Then there’s the somewhat odd phrasing of the comet passing through us: not just hitting us, but impaling us, invading us.

She waits after he leaves, sees him in the house with his wife. And another drop-dead sentence: “It’s a shame to be a stranger to someone you want to love, never to conform to their likeness or they to yours.” But, evocative as this is, this puts us squarely back into your everyday end of the affair.

Until the comet is described again in catastrophic terms. I discovered that the story’s title, Elenin, is the name of the comet (actually the name of the discoverer which traditionally becomes the name of the comet) described in the opening quote. Conspiracy theorists claimed it would change the earth’s orbit, but it was just a bunch of rubble by the time it made its closest pass, which was not close at all. But to a woman whose heart is breaking, who may be suffering from a frightening illness, the historically-laden portent may be too powerful to overlook.

And then the final sentence: “But Thou, O Lord, how long?”  

This is a sentence from Psalm 6. It’s often called a penitential psalm; David, for all his stature in biblical history, was often quite a bad boy and frequently begged for forgiveness.

1 O Lord, rebuke me not in thine anger, neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure.
2 Have mercy upon me, O Lord; for I am weak: O Lord, heal me; for my bones are vexed.
3 My soul is also sore vexed: but thou, O Lord, how long?
4 Return, O Lord, deliver my soul: oh save me for thy mercies’ sake.
5 For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?
6 I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears.
7 Mine eye is consumed because of grief; it waxeth old because of all mine enemies.
8 Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity; for the Lord hath heard the voice of my weeping.
9 The Lord hath heard my supplication; the Lord will receive my prayer.

Psalm 6, KJV

Interesting that the psalm refers to the eye being consumed. As is often the case with penitential psalms, it ends with confidence that God will forgive, that things will get better.

But there’s another interpretation of the poem, one of recovery from illness. This may be illness of the soul caused by sin, but I discovered one paper that sees it differently: “…[P]ersonalistic etiologies of illness bind together the body as a spirited being with emotionally traumatizing events carried out by perpetrators.” A rejecting lover could be considered a perpetrator of emotional trauma.

It seems like a lot of imagery and energy for what is, after all, just a romantic breakup. But I suspect the value of the story is measured in how it uses language to evoke disaster, pain, and illness. That I long for some certainty as to what is happening, is not the fault of the author. That I can’t stop thinking about it, every word choice, every nuance – fretting over what I am missing or inserting – is.

*  *  *     

  • NASA article on Comet Elenin
  • Analysis of Psalm 6 relating to interpretation of illness

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Jerald Walker, “The Kaleshion” (non-fiction) from Creative Nonfiction #73

Art from LitHub
A particularly high point: Sidestepping all the mayhem, in an essay called “The Kaleshion,” Jerald Walker recounts the perilous path from Afro to Jheri curl to self-administered haircuts, one of the last of which yields a hilarious disaster and a rare and welcome moment of laughter.

Kirkus Review of Pushcart XLVI

I concur with Kirkus Review. Think of this piece as a palate cleanser: having examined – sometimes with a touch of humor – all manner of contemporary and perennial troubles, from climate change to domestic violence to children lost in the economic shuffle to racism, we’re now allowed to laugh out loud. And a satisfying laugh it is, too.

It’s a short piece, and it’s available online (link below) so I’ll let the Kirkus commentary serve as a brief recap. What I am compelled to point out is that, for all it’s narrative drive and humor, there are craft elements that deserve attention. Like, the use of second person voice in nonfiction.

Kaleshion isn’t a word in the dictionary. It’s a word on your barber’s wall, handwritten beneath a photo of a bald head. There are other photos up there with made-up words to identify other haircuts, but your father never selects those, because they require hair. Male preschoolers should not have hair, your father believes; that’s a crime to which he’ll no more be party than to genocide…. What’s the deal with that? You don’t know. All you know is he relaxes his stance in the nick of time, because it’s 1974 and the Afro is king. You grow yours the size of a basketball and swear on your grandmother’s grave that you’ll never get a kaleshion again.
But it’s never a good idea to swear on your grandmother’s grave.

While the instruction manual mode of second person would seem to be the natural way to use the POV, here we’re in narrative mode. The memoir reads more like a fictional story, giving it more of the narrative drive I noticed before (it really keeps you turning pages) while glossing over years in places. The tendency of second person to conflate, or at least slightly confuse, subject, object, and reader, allows the narrator/author to take a step back and foreground the character/author.

This confusion, the exploitable flaw of second person, is emphasized, brought into the narrative in fact, in one scene in particular when Walker, as an adult, goes to a new barber and asks for a trim, but gets something else.

When he spins the chair around, you are surprised to discover the mirror is actually a window, through which you see another man in another barber’s chair staring at you. And yet, somehow, the barber standing behind that man’s chair is also standing behind yours, which means the window isn’t a window and the man is you. It’s amazing the difference a kaleshion can make.

This scene where the second-person “you” mistakes himself as a third-person “him” for a moment is a brilliant way to bring second-person into the story, not just use it as a writing tool.

At the same time, the story evolves in top-notch narrative form to bring in another great craft moment: using humor to highlight tragedy: Walker’s girlfriend doesn’t recognize him, and he fears she’s calling the police, which could lead to… well, you know. While the story never loses a beat, nor drops the amused tone, we’re reminded how the real world permeates even absurdities, to the extent that some readers will start whining, “Why is everything always political with these people?” all of which only makes it sad and funnier at the same moment.

The final anecdote is again hilariously relatable for anyone who’s had a near-catastrophe – coffee spilled on a tie, a broken heel – moments before an important public moment. The ending brings back the confusion of the barber’s chair and makes a point about ego at the same time, then closes with the perfect phrase.

I swore, after I ordered an additional three books the other day, that I wouldn’t buy any more for this year’s In-Between Reading, since I already have far more than I can read in six months. But this essay impressed me so much, from technique to pure enjoyment, I had to order Walker’s 2020 essay collection, The Making of a Slave.  I often get into form, function, and meaning when I look at poetry, but in this essay, it all worked together. I can’t wait to read more.

*  *  *     

  • This essay is available online at the original publisher Creative Nonfiction and as an excerpt from the essay collection at LitHub   
  • Find out more about Walker’s 2020 essay collection, How To Make A Slave

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Debra Gwartney, “Suffer Me To Pass” (non-fiction) from VQR 96.2

Oh, savage Beauty, suffer me to pass,
That am a timid woman, on her way
From one house to another!
—Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Assault”

Let’s talk about epigraphs.

Typically, an epigraph – a short quote from some other work an author inserts at the beginning of her own piece – is considered a thematic introduction, or perhaps a contrast to the ideas to come. It’s always fun to figure out the connection.

As I read this essay following the portion of the poem above, I kept trying to figure out the connection. Savage beauty: is this a person, an idea, some metaphorical thing? Why is it blocking her path? Ah, there are beer bottles on a hiking trail, is this another ecological piece, a “leave no trace” thing?

But then I encountered, as did the narrator, the man with the hatchet.

But Cheryl kept moving ahead. I didn’t want to follow her and I can’t say why I did, really, but together we came upon a man and a woman atop a slope. The woman saw us and said please. That one word. Please, please. The man had his left arm clamped across her chest and in his right hand he held a hatchet. The shiny blade was poised at her neck, which poked out of her filthy T-shirt like a cherry-red thumb.
I whispered to Cheryl, “Run.” We could be back at my car in a half-hour if we hurried like we’d never hurried before, with me at the wheel, doors locked, Cheryl calling the sheriff. Wouldn’t people with uniforms and guns and squawky radios be better equipped to deal with this? But my friend acted as if she hadn’t heard me and she started talking to the woman on the hill in a voice I could hardly make sense of. Oddly calm, the cadence of a mother to a worried child, the singsong of someone slipping a hand under a wounded rabbit, as if we were a hundred miles from any hatchet-wielding man.

Ok, I get the savage, but where’s the beauty in this scene?

Turns out this was all a kind of prelude. The encounter on the trail was a trigger for Gwartney, a reminder of childhood trauma. Her father hit his other daughters. Never her, but her two younger sisters. As a nine-year-old, she deeply learned a lesson: “Whatever it took, I was never to infuriate the man.”

Her friend Cheryl learned other lessons. She somehow got the man to lower the hatchet, and led his wife away, even as the man followed them to their car where they finally found safety and brought the woman to a haven where she could rebuild her life.

And this then is the core of the essay: we can cling to lessons necessary when we are nine years old and defenseless against the adults in our lives, or we can learn other ways of reacting to violence upon others. We can become defenders, not appeasers. What really drives this home is that Gwartney knows there will be no punishment for the husband who threatened his wife with a hatchet; the state itself has become, worse than an appeaser, a sympathizer, because the state is significantly comprised of men who might one day wish to hatchet their wives. And, as well, who has time to prosecute every abuser.

But what about that epigraph?

Since I am admittedly dense when it comes to poetry, I poked around looking for some analysis. It’s typically seen as a nature-versus-civilization type of thing. The speaker encounters frogs on a path, and while she would like to investigate them further, she’s too timid, and thus begs the Savage Beauty of nature to let her pass, to stay on the path from house to house with no messing around in frog ponds. I found a nice outline of this in a 2015 thesis posted online:

Yet, the woman senses that her anxiety stems not from the elements of nature, such as the “crying of the frogs,” but from her compliance with civilization’s demands as she hurriedly travels from one house to another. The speaker recognizes the absurdity of her fear, and senses that society has tamed her the same way it has tamed natural landscapes. For instance, her complacency within her unnatural social environment exemplifies why she would refer to herself only as “a timid woman,” but this self-depreciation also takes on a sarcastic tone which further suggests a longing for a more natural state.

Jenna Lewis, Master’s candidate, Appalachian State University

The conflict for Gwartney is not nature vs civilization, but appeasement vs defense: the allure of safety envisioned by a nine-year-old versus the courage of an adult.

The poem brings a lot to the essay. The title “Assault” refers to the assault of nature on the speaker, who is too convention-bound to meet it with the abandon it requires. Then there is the editing so that it opens everything with that word, suffer. I learned, in the prior essay “Gutted,” about lyric association, and I would guess this would be an example of that technique, sharpening the impact of the essay on a poetic grindstone.

I’ve never experienced physical abuse of any kind. I don’t think I was even slapped on the playground in a grade-school melee. Yet I’m as paralyzed by observed violence as Gwartney is; my instinct is to run, to call for help from people who are better equipped to deal with such things. This doesn’t necessarily stem from fear, though of course I do feel fear, but more importantly, it stems from the sense that I am incompetent. No matter how bad things are, my involvement will make them worse. The greatest help I can give anyone is to keep far away.

We all learn different things. Like Gwartney, I wish I had learned to be Cheryl. And now, like her, I fear it is too late.

*  *  *     

  • This essay can be found online at VQR
  • Read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem in its entirety
  • The thesis quoted above, “The Worlds Of Edna St. Vincent Millay,” is posted online

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Cathryn Klusmeier, “Gutted” (non-fiction) from Agni #91

Photograph by Cathryn Klusmeier
You definitely can miss it, I think, when you read it, in a way I think is kind of great. I ended this essay shook, because she’s a good writer and both of the stories are hellagood stories to tell. A woman on this kind of a boat, catching fish in this kind of a way, is a story itself, and this family story… in a pile of very well-written things that I’m learning are parts of everybody’s lives, there’s something about the thing that looks nothing like that, it just sticks in your head.

Elena Passarello, I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead podcast (edited)

Although I primarily read it for the short stories, I’ve always found the non-fiction in Pushcart to be great reading. No matter what the topic – writers’ experiences, the history of bathing, bell ringing, people living at a highway rest stop – I almost always find myself engaged. And most of the pieces usually go beyond their apparent topics into broader concerns.

So when this essay started out describing the gritty details of commercial salmon fishing, I figured I’d find myself interested in something I’d never really thought about before. And given a fairly direct clue at the end of the first sentence, I knew it would connect to something else, something far more emotionally gutting, if I may borrow from the highly apt title.

When the salmon aren’t biting—which is a lot of the time—Eric and I sit with blood caked on our faces and talk about neon squid lures and diesel engine mechanics and my father’s unraveling brain. As we wait—and even when the fishing is good, we do a lot of waiting—we talk about wind speeds and water temperatures. We talk about gaff hooks and hydraulic gurdies. We wax poetic about properly sharpened filet knives and salted herring threaded on barbed treble hooks. Every morning from May through September we rise at first light to discuss the state of the tides, the swells, the current. We talk about how much sleep we haven’t gotten, how much food we have left. We discuss very seriously the right angle to place the knife so it glides down the salmon’s belly just so. We never talk about how bad the other person smells….
Living and working every day, often sixteen hours at a time, on a two-person, thirty-seven-foot commercial salmon fishing boat in Southeast Alaska is like this. It’s work that lasts all day, every day, seven days a week, for five months straight.

Just when I’m getting into the whole “I’m a fish-killer” thing, wondering just how long I could stand that kind of life (I’d measure in minutes, not months or years), Klusmeier introduces her father: he’s being kicked out of one hospital because he’s violent, so they’ve had to find another, a good one, the last one on the list, but it’s far away so they won’t be able to visit very often. I’m still not 100% sure I know exactly what he’s got: mental illness, dementia, an inoperable brain tumor pressing on his frontal lobe? But what is clear is that he isn’t the father Klusmeier knew, and they’re running out of options, having long run out of money.

Then I read something chilling: this started a long time ago.

I was fourteen the first time my father asked me to kill him. He was forty-eight. “Should the worst happen, I need you to have someone take me out and shoot me. Please, make sure I don’t stay alive. It’s too hard on you. If something happens to me, don’t keep me alive,” he said to me. “I’m asking you. Please.”
…[B]y the time we finally got the whispered early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis it didn’t matter anymore. We had to start making decisions for him. End-of-life care, they call it. And nobody knew what he wanted, and he certainly couldn’t tell us, but I did. I knew. He’d told me exactly what he wanted. He asked me to kill him again two more times after that first day in the street—once when I was sixteen, another a year later. He wanted it to be easy. He wanted it to be fast. He wanted it simple and clean. It was none of those things, of course. I’m not sure it ever is.

I’m guessing that forty-eight year old men don’t tell their fourteen-year-old daughters to kill them if the worst happens, unless they have some inkling that the worst is happening. Alzheimer’s, even the early-onset variety,  can be insidious, and take a long time to progress. Then again, it could be he’d just read an article about some tragic family and wanted to make sure she knew his preferences. I’m not sure a fourteen-year-old has much standing with doctors when deciding end-of-life care, but it’s a conversation more of us should be having within our families. I have a packet of living-will documents sitting on my coffee table; it’s been there a while, I’m just trying to figure out who the two witnesses should be. But I’m a lot older than forty-eight. And every time I can’t remember the word I want, I think about that packet.

You might be wondering what this has to do with salmon fishing. Just in time, Klusmeier tells us:

It’s a hollow sound, the dull conk that makes the wild eyes of a thrashing Chinook go soft. It’s not a tap, it’s a conk. And this distinction is important. A good hollow swinging conk to the temple with a gaff hook quells a salmon in the water. It kills her immediately. Too much force, one loud thwack, and you’ve lost her. You’ve knocked her off the line….
The conk is important, but it took me years to understand why Eric kept harping on it. Why he kept yelling over the drone of the engine, “Don’t tap it, conk it! Listen! Don’t tap it! CONK.”
Because it’s not really for us, that sound. Sure, a good conk is the most efficient way to kill a fish. If a salmon dies in the water, you’re less likely to lose it to a struggle at the boat. It’s quick, you can move on to other lines with other fish. But most importantly, the fish dies immediately. They exit this world before ever leaving the water.

Do you see the connection to Alzheimer’s – the disease sometimes called “The Long Goodbye” – now? It isn’t just salmon that are gutted in this essay. The writer, the subject, and the reader also find themselves experiencing that hollow sensation of being sucker-punched by an unavoidable reality, the kind of pain that love sometimes costs, to make sure we know its worth.

That would have been enough for any essay to deliver. But in googling around to see if there was more information out there, I discovered I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead: a podcast by two writing professors, essay specialists.  Their comments on this essay provided the introductory quote above, as well as a discussion of and how this piece managed to tie together two very different stories without using a lot of connective tissue.

There is no connective commentary; there is resonance in between the two, but it’s all implied, not explicit. Even the resonances are a little subtle… I was worrying about what was going on in the family narrative, and also so compelled by the details of the fish narrative, the resonance was so buried, I was holding on through the story telling. I don’t think I experience this very often in braided essays…. I’m interested in how the writer made that work.

Elena Passarello, I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead podcast (edited)

I’ll return for Justin St. Germain’s comments on “Open House” later when I’ve read that essay. They also compared the current Pushcart edition with Best American Essays in this episode. I’ve never read BAE but the comparison fit with my impressions of Pushcart vs Best American Short Stories: BASS tends to be more commercial and mainstream, while Pushcart tends to push the envelope more.  That’s fine with me; I love both of them for what they are.

But what really blew me away was their more academic discussion of the lyric essay, the use of lyric association, and image links, all of which were new concepts to me. I feel like I snuck into a course on Writing the Essay and came away with a lot of secrets. I spent at least an hour looking into academic essays on these topics, and while I don’t quite have it down, I at least know where the ballpark is.

I’m not really a podcast person; I don’t commute or run which seems to be when most people listen to podcasts, and while I’ll go through twenty-four hours of Yale’s OCW lecture videos or dozens of mooc videos, accompanied by their transcripts, without any problem, I have trouble maintaining attention to audio-only feeds. But I think I’ll make an effort to listen to this one, given how much I got out of one episode. And now that I’ve discovered that Elena was a Jeopardy contestant – well, I’m going to learn to listen to podcasts.

This is why I love Pushcart non-fiction: you never know where you’ll end up, but you’re almost sure to enjoy the ride – even when it breaks your heart along the way.

*  *  *     

  • This essay can be found online at Agni  
  • The episode of the podcast I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead reference here can be found online; the discussion of this essay begins around 1:05:00
  • Cathryn Klusmeier’s website

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Raven Leilani, “Breathing Exercise” from Yale Review, Winter 2019

This story of a young artist in New York dealing simultaneously with professional rejection, shortness of breath, and a stalker kept me up at night after reading it—it’s so profoundly uneasy and sad. What the protagonist wants, the thing she (heartbreakingly) can’t have, is to live “beyond the body”—to make her art and to be free.

Alix Ohlin, “Eight Short Stories About People who Want What They Can’t Have” at Electric Literature

I missed the ending the first time I read this. It’s a disturbing story, full of pain and fear, as well as art I don’t understand, so I probably wasn’t as attentive as I should have been. But when I finally understood the last paragraph, I was, well, beyond profoundly uneasy.

As the brief review quoted above mentions, Myriam has three problems: her career as a performance artist, specializing in self-harm, is not going well; she’s having trouble breathing and doctor after doctor is unable to come up with any diagnosis; and she’s getting emails from a stalker outlining his violent plans for her.

As soon as she got on the train, she put her head between her knees and tried to breathe. She called her mother, and they had a nice conversation until they came to the subject of her work. It had been eleven years since she’d left home, eight since she’d graduated from a mid-tier art school and made her name showing audiences how much abuse the human body could withstand. It isn’t sustainable, her mother said, and, technically, she was right. As Myriam was getting off the train, the first email came. Hack bitch, it began, before segueing into a surprising deconstruction of one of her more recent shows—soft depictions of black women in ornate Victorian dress: horsehair crinoline, ivory boning, bantu knots. Subtler than her larger body of work, meaning it involved significantly less self-harm. Why not just kill yourself, the author wrote, after a long treatise about the Round Earth conspiracy.

While these all seem like disparate issues, I see a lot of commonality: they all involve pain, and Myriam’s reaction to that pain. It’s the source of the pain that differs, and determines how she reacts.

With her art, which includes such things as deliberately falling down stairs and other acts of self-harm, she is in control of the source of the pain. Pain is the point. Her best effort at explaining why this particular activity is her means of artistic expression: “there was something pure about force, about a fervent belief in her own body, which could be technically boiled down to such clichéd maxims as Mind over Matter and No Pain, No Gain.” But her shows have been less and less well-received by critics and audiences lately.

Her breathing problem is a pain that’s imposed upon her by some unknown, depersonalized force; call it health, or coincidence, or the universe. It doesn’t seem to be a consequence of the injuries she’s inflicted upon herself over the years, but it’s not clear that it’s unrelated. While the condition bothers her tremendously – to the point of incurring a great deal of debt from uncovered medical bills trying to relieve the problem – doctors don’t seem terribly interested, and when tests come back negative time after time, they shrug and dismiss her. So again, she is asking for a reaction and getting no satisfaction.

The stalker is also imposing pain on her, but it’s coming from a highly personalized source. She’s afraid to the point of installing cameras and carrying a knife, but what hurts most is his criticism of her art and recognition of her failing career. She brings the messages to the police, but they can’t help her; once again, she is unable to get the reaction she needs.

There’s a subtle context underlying all this. It’s not by accident that Myriam is a Black woman. “The Black Body” has become something of a focus in recent years with themes ranging from law enforcement’s seeming greater willingness to kill a black body than a white body, to often subconscious assumptions of greater pain tolerance in Black people by medical professionals, to clothing and hairstyles of Black people being prohibited. I’m not fully conversant in these elements, nor am I sure exactly how they fit in here, but Myriam’s self-injury seems to both reflect a sense of injury to her Black body and exhibit pride in her Black body being able to take it.

What I missed the first time around is that her final actions constitute the preparation for a horrific final art project, and how that brings her some relief: as an artist, she can still create, though she is out of favor, ill, and under threat.

She wasn’t unafraid. As she knew it would, the city had opened to her the very moment she was leaving it, given her a sense of optimism that did not comport with the project ahead, and yet there was something else. The excitement that always preceded a new project, the composure, the freaky certainty about how the pieces fit together. A feeling that came from the chest and became a thing as inevitable as breath, an insatiable resolve to live beyond the body that she had tried again and again to turn into art—which she would try to do now, one more time.

This use of breath, healthy breath, to describe the project links the three problematic elements of her life together. Her solution is, as she says, frightening, but it is true to who she is. And it provides the freedom of breath her lungs can no longer provide.

I’ve always struggled to understand art, and performance art is particularly problematic for me. This kind of performance art strikes me as bizarre and more pathological than aesthetic, but maybe that’s the point. If the effectiveness of the piece is measured by the empathetic pain and alarm it raises in me, it’s off-the-charts effective.

*  *  *     

  • This story can be found online at Yale Review

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Devon Halliday, “RecomMEN” from Ploughshares 46.2

The desire for protection is really what the entirety of West Elm Caleb was always supposed to be about anyway—women keeping other women, and themselves, safe from bad actors and actions.

“How Do You Solve a Problem Like West Elm Caleb?” by Madison Malone Kircher at Slate

Sometimes I’m astonished at how stories in anthologies like Pushcart and BASS, whose stories are written a year or two, often more, before I get around to reading them, dovetail with immediately current events. I pretty much ignored the details about West End Caleb. I have carefully curated my Twitter feed into a well-behaved source of just-enough-doom-to-be-aware-of-what’s-going-on balanced with academics, artists, writers, and bots that will be reciting Samuel Beckett quotes, medieval manuscript trivia, and Van Gogh’s lesser known sketches well into the first days of World War III or extraterrestrial invasion, whichever occurs first.

So I was aware there was a TikTok mob raging against a man behaving badly on dates, and someone somewhere said dating sites should include ratings so one’s past couldn’t be so quickly left behind. It’s very possible Halliday was aware of Lulu, a dating app started in 2013 that did just that – but, as the Slate article quoted above mentions, “became a complete cesspool.”

The WEC connection is kind of a shame, because this story uses a non-narrative format that deserves to be examined on its own. I’m not 100% sure I understand exactly what’s going on, which is appropriate, since I’m rarely sure I understand what’s going on when I read even my carefully curated Twitter feed.

A good man can be hard to find – but here at RecomMEN we’ve already found them for you! Our patented algorithm searches profiles from all the most popular dating apps and pairs them with 100% honest reviews from vetted community members who have actually met them in person. Tired of getting bait-and-switched? Tired of swiping through endless identical profiles? RecomMEN puts an end to all that by putting you in touch with the only people who can tell the truth about men: women!

The story takes the form of interactions with the described website. That makes it a bit hard to read (for me, at least). Aside from the home page description above, it consists of searches, which, as anyone who does website searches knows, consists of the information you want, plus a lot of information you should probably pay attention to but hey, who reads the fine print and the details. Here, the details are essential.

Showing posts 1-25 of 4,102, filtered for New York, NY, filtered for “kind”, filtered for “understanding”, sorted by most recent
Posted by @volleyballbabe 2 hours ago

Alec, 36
[Photograph: profile shot of man in line at cash register, excavating wallet from left-side pocket, blurry.]
So first things first, Alec is actually better looking than his pictures which never happens….. Knows a ton about classic film if you are into that kind of thing, had some cute ideas for dates. I feel like he’d be perfect for someone romantic and lowkey with sort of nerdy interests. Not for me but he was super understanding when I said we should just be friends. Hope someone sees this and gives him a chance! (ignore bad profile pics)
0 hearts, one dibs
View Alec’s profile on FindMe and Lobster!

The rest of the story is a series of similar searches.

What I like about this is how it illuminates the process of reading. We could translate this particular section into “a woman searches RecomMEN to find a kind, understanding man in New York,” but that would not convey all the information in this post.

Some of the inferences become apparent after several other posts, but some are evident immediately: “kind” is in the post but not in the sense of “he is kind” so it’s a bit misleading. I also wondered what hearts and dibs signified; are these likes and dislikes of the man being described? Or are they indications of how helpful a post is in deciding whether or not to contact someone?  I notice that in later searches, our user starts ordering by most hearts and fewest dibs, so that seems significant.

Another possibly pertinent piece of information is that Alec is listed on two dating apps. I have no idea how to evaluate this. Do people do that?  Is it considered a red flag? Is two more or less normal but four or five would be strange?

This is what I mean by  illuminating the process of reading. When we read “a woman searches RecomMEN to find a kind, understanding man in New York,” anyone who knows the words and has an idea of what kind of city New York is (lots of people) can interpret the sentence.  In a typical story, some details would enhance the reader’s interpretation: it’s midnight, the woman spills a glass of wine on her desk and grabs the keyboard to keep it from getting wet, it’s early February so Valentine’s day is coming, or it’s mid-May so maybe she’s just graduated or just been to a wedding or just broke up with someone who got a summer job somewhere else, or her hip is hurting her again (aha, she’s an older woman) etc etc.  We do these interpretations automatically in many cases. But with this story, some of us have to work a little harder.

The information I tended to pay the most attention to are the search parameters. After searching for kind and understanding, she (which is an assumption but a reasonable one given the website intro) searches for introvert and relationship. Then there’s fell in love with him. I don’t quite understand these choices, but ok.

Then we get into forgiveness and not minding tattoos, and I’m beginning to think she’s trying to find qualities her recent ex did not possess.

She goes back at one point and tries to find one guy, but there’s a warning about “this link will direct you to an unaffiliated site.” I’m not sure if that’s the routine “you are leaving our site so we can’t be sued for anything that happens” statement, or something more ominous (that is, my interpretation is limited by my general knowledge). In any case, there is no record of this man, which isn’t that surprising given the post she’s responding to is three years old. Someone seems to have grabbed him already.

The story ends as she is continuing to search. The last couple of search parameters indicate the strong possibility of a bottle of wine on the desk: won’t break up with you in a train station in Baltimore after you just spent the weekend with his family  and just like my ex but doesn’t want to change me.  Of course, these yield no matches, but now we know something about what’s going on.

While I’m not sure I’ve got the general story down, I found it a fascinating way to tell a story. I actually tried to do this once, back in the old Flash Factory: the prompt was to tell a story without narration. I used pizza deliveries to show the stages of a relationship. It was a fun attempt, but the basic story was too boring. I’m not sure the basic story is all that interesting here: a woman is lonely after a breakup and all the good ones are taken. But I’m well aware I could be missing a great deal – and the form deserves a lot of credit.

*  *  *     

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Jennifer Bowen Hicks, “Night Cows” (nonfiction) from The Sun, August 2020

The Icelandic Forestry Service is encouraging people to hug trees while social distancing measures prevent them from hugging other people, RÚV reports. Forest rangers in the Hallormsstaður National Forest in East Iceland have been diligently clearing snow-covered paths to ensure that locals can enjoy the great outdoors without coming in too close a contact with other guests, but can also get up close and personal with their forest friends. “When you hug [a tree], you feel it first in your toes and then up your legs and into your chest and then up into your head,” enthuses forest ranger Þór Þorfinnsson. “It’s such a wonderful feeling of relaxation and then you’re ready for a new day and new challenges.”

Iceland Review 4/10/2020: “Forest Service Recommends Hugging Trees While You Can’t Hug Others”

Many of us took up new habits and activities during the pandemic. Flour disappeared from store shelves as sourdough baking soared. A rush of creativity gave us all various musical collaborations, some window-to-window, some over TikTok. I bought houseplants for the first time in twenty years; there were a couple of failures, but most of them are lush and bountiful today.

Hicks made friends with a herd of cows. Especially one named 3214.

The cows showed up just as the world began to end. They were there when I returned to Minnesota from Manhattan, where I’d gone to pick up my older son after his spring 2020 college semester had been canceled…. Number 3214 is the one I look for. She’s not the softest or the sleekest. She doesn’t have the biggest eyes. On the bridge of her forehead, where most of the cows have black fur, she has a thick swirl of dirty white. She is bony, and her coat has lost its shine. But isn’t it always the case that we can’t help but love those who seem to love us? I make this bold claim because 3214 — “Fourteen,” for short — recognizes me, or so it seems. She moves to the front of the herd deliberately and looks right at me, as if trying to hold eye contact.

I’m still not completely clear on where the cows came from – I gather they were delivered to a nearby university – but it doesn’t matter. It’s this odd connection in an odd time that feels so genuine to those of us who also had some odd connections.

Hicks was dealing with a great deal at the time. She worried about the students in her writing class at the nearby prison, students at great risk she was now unable to  contact. She had drive a fair distance to pick up her son when his college closed for spring semester, and also pick up his ex-girlfriend – a “bonus daughter” she calls her – to shelter in place with her. The girl came down with symptoms soon after, then recovered. Hicks’ divorce became final.  So if she found comfort in Fourteen, who’s to blame her.

It’d one of those oddly appealing nature-adjacent non-nature essays The Sun likes to publish, a way of reminding us how connected we are to the natural world no matter how cosmopolitan we think we are. In Iceland they hugged trees. Why not make friends with a cow.

It’s the first piece in this collection that overtly addresses the pandemic. I don’t know if there will be more this year, or next. Or what we’ll be doing next year. Never has time felt more capricious. But there’s sourdough to make, plants to water, trees to hug, and cows to pet, music and art to share, until then.

*  *  *   

  • Essay is available online for a limited time at The Sun

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Seth Fried, “Trezzo” from The Missouri Review 43.1

The truth about yourself that ends up creeping out as you write is your voice. It’s something that emerges on its own whenever you’re so engrossed in the act of completing a story that you relax your sense of focus and do what feels natural to you. The reason your voice is so inescapably original won’t be due to an act of cleverness on your part. It will be a simple result of the fact that no one else has been you before.

Seth Fried, substack “Finding Your Voice”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about voice.

It’s one of those things people who read are always talking about. For decades, I’d see someone claim, “Oh, this story has a wonderful voice” or “this writer uses voice so well,” and I’d kind of shrug because it just seemed like a typical story to me.

It wasn’t until this most recent BASS that I first used the term voice in one of my posts, when writing about Jenzo Duque’s “The Rest of Us.” The first part had a kind of exuberance that carried over when things got more dangerous, sort of like the voiceovers in Goodfellas that made a bunch of criminals seem like a fun community.

Voice had a lot to do with my affection for this story as well. It’s not just the language chosen, but the examples used. You’ve got a kid who claims to be interested in science, but maybe just wants to be gross in class, and maybe is just a little bit psycho, trying to figure out whether a piece of paper is legible after a trip through the alimentary canal or what happens when a potato is soaked in lighter fluid and then set on fire (answer: it sails onto the neighbor’s roof. Purpose: edible fireworks, of course). And you’ve got another kid who’s eager to impress a pretty girl.   

I was an average student and came from what I’d heard adults refer to as a broken home. My mom was a single parent who worked hard but could get so far behind on bills that sometimes there was no electricity when I got home. For me, Annie wasn’t just a crush. She was a glimpse into a world of dizzying stability, a place where there were beautiful girls with green eyes and all the right answers.
We never spoke. I knew without having to try that I couldn’t flirt with her like your pretty-boy Eddie Vecklemens or your jockish Lucas Murnsens. That’s why Ronny’s idiotic questions had been a godsend. When he asked if alligators were bulletproof or why no one had ever invented a shower you could flush, the students around us typically joined in the resulting laughter, but to impress Annie I always shook my head as if I disapproved. The first time I did it, she nodded in agreement and mouthed “Oh, my God.” Over time we settled into looks of studious camaraderie that were the highlight of my day. But those fleeting interactions were gone forever, now that Ronny occupied the space between us, his body odor making the air smell suddenly like lunch meat and cut grass. I leaned forward to exchange a glance with Annie, hoping she might want to share a furtive laugh at our misfortune. Instead she stared straight ahead in steely annoyance. It seemed obvious she’d never look in my direction again.
Ronny noticed my pained expression as I watched Annie and mistook it for a reaction to Hyde’s treatment of him.
“Right?” he said. “All I did was ask a fucking question.”

Both of the boys are from less-than-ideal households, but when they get together, they sort of mediate each other’s shortcomings. At least a little, for a while, as they perform Ronny’s bizarre experiments. “Fun, I would realize later. We were having fun.” For Jacob, this is a new experience, or at least one he hasn’t seen in a while.

The adults in the story are flawed, but remember, they’re seen through the eyes of thirteen-year-olds who are remarkably able to distinguish between people struggling due to real problems, and people being officious jerks. Jacob’s mom is doing the best she can in a tough situation, and he’s quite thoughtful of her. Ronny’s dad is also doing his best, though it’s easier to criticize him. Still, Jacob views him with compassion and is concerned about taking advantage of him. It’s the school personnel who are portrayed as clueless, paying attention to the wrong things. That’s part of the voice, part of what draws me as a reader into Jacob’s world, gets me on his side.

His absent father also plays a role, as absent fathers tend to do by their very absence:

I thought again of that night at the Putt-Putt and then of the last time I’d seen my father. I was in the passenger seat of his red Ford Taurus while he lectured me on the trials of adulthood.
“Once people know you’re poor,” he said, hitting the steering wheel for emphasis, “they never let you forget it. Doesn’t matter how smart you are, how hard you work .”

Of course, the fun can’t last, and the goofball stunts come up hard against a conclusion that forces Jacob to pick a side. Does he make the right choice? Maybe, maybe not. But given how I’d been cheering for him, for both of them really, all along, it’s hard not to feel a little proud of him.

I have a longstanding literary crush on Seth Fried. At some point – I can’t find it, so I can’t be sure, but I think so – I offered to send a copy of his first Pushcart-winning story, 2011’s “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” to anyone who asked for it, because I thought it was incredibly important, as well as a wonderfully insane read. Then in 2013 there was his second winner, “Animacula,” though I found the version in his collection The Great Frustration to be far superior as it included additional organisms (ah, got you curious now, huh?). And this year for the hat trick with this story. I can’t think of another author whose Pushcart stories have so consistently wowed me. For that matter, there aren’t that many authors who’ve had three Pushcart stories in the twelve years I’ve been reading.  

One of the great details in this story is the notebook in which Ronny has written his ideas for experiments. I still remember reading Fried’s One Story interview about “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” in which he said he was carrying a notebook around with ideas for the massacres: “I spent the rest of that semester terrified of the possibility that someone would find that notebook and that I would be arrested for plotting to kill people by means of strategically set-loose gorillas.” That’s one of my all-time favorite writer stories, and I’m glad a relative of that notebook made its way into a story.

*  *  *     

  • Substack article quoted above on voice

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Ross Gay, “A Small Needful Fact” (poetry) from Heart Poems, June 2020

Planting a garden is very much imagining something that’s not there…. You’re putting something in the ground that is both entirely different from the thing which will arrive and entirely the same.

Ross Gay, interview with Kyla Marshell at Poetry Foundation

I was quite surprised to see this poem in the table of contents. Not because it’s not a great poem – it is, it’s practically iconic – but because it was written in 2015 and has been on the Poets.Org database, and in the Split this Rock database, since then, not to mention analyzed, taught, and bounced all over the internet. It’s a poem people who don’t read poetry know. But I’m fine with Pushcart letting it qualify by its inclusion on a WordPress poetry blog in 2020 (all those years they ignored online literature…). Better late than never.

I find the poem is extraordinary because of the complexity hiding behind its beautiful simplicity. It uses what a linguistics/stylistics professor terms “title enjambment” – the title serves as the first line of the poem – to avoid the repetition that would remind us this is a construct, to flow more smoothly an expression of the mind and heart in one long sentence; that the big hands that could be seen as so threatening become nurturing and gentle as they nestle the seedling into the ground;

perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do,

…that it dwells in possibility, like Emily of Amherst, drawn from the one small needful fact that grows into what might have been, most likely, in all likelihood, perhaps, against the odds a miracle occurs; that the final line takes my breath away, an apt use of cliché if ever there was one.  

But there are those who have done more scholarly analysis than I ever could. So I want to consider another aspect: that Ross Gay was a gardener, that he started gardening some time around the time of the publication of his award-winning 2015 collection Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and that I believe how he saw gardening, as expressed in several interviews about that collection, has everything to do with this poem.

And I also want to consider that I can’t find an interview where Gay discusses this poem. Maybe he didn’t need to, it’s the kind of poem you just get. Maybe everything he had to say is in those few lines.

*  *  *     

  • This poem can be found online at Heart Poems and at Split This Rock
  • The poet’s quoted interview with Kyla Marshell at Poetry Foundation: “Wild Love”
  • The poet’s interview with Callie Siskel at LARB: “The Terrible and the Possible” 
  • Analysis of the poem by Daisy Fried at Plume Poetry: “On Ross Gay’s Likely Dispassion”

Pushcart 2022 XLVI: Patrick Dacey, “O Despot! My Despot!” from Zoetrope All-Story 24.3

Apropos of nothing, we’ve unlocked the full text of Patrick Dacey’s short story from our Fall 2020 edition: “O Despot! My Despot!” (@DaceyPatrick). Happy reading!
4:01 PM · Nov 13, 2020·Twitter Web App

Zoetrope: All-Story tweet

It’s the “Apropos of nothing” that makes it. Very little in November 2020 was apropos of nothing. The election had taken place ten days before. The results were called on Saturday, November 7; even here in my quiet (and quite blue) town, hours of car parades, honking horns, street celebrations (as much as could be arranged given the pre-vaccine pandemic) went on for hours. By November 13, suit after suit had been dismissed; this would go on for months (and is still ongoing over a year later) but at that point the die was cast.

And Zoetrope: All-Story, apropos of nothing, made Dacey’s story available online.

I listen from my room below, as my despot weeps in his above.
Such torture!
But what can I do for him? He does not respond well to leaving his comforts. Yet leave he must, or else be forced out, along with myself and the few loyal nationalists who remain in the Great House, who keep guard and order, though I suspect even these proud men and women will in short time dismiss their fidelity and make themselves subjects of documentaries, like so many before them, reclaiming their love of country in the face of our great despot’s fall from grace.

The story was written months earlier, of course; it appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Zoetrope, so was probably written in the first half of that year, possibly earlier, summer at the latest. Was this an expression of confidence, of hope? Wish-fulfillment? Or is it a long view of reality eventually catching up with a charlatan? A long view that still – at least in the eyes of those of us who are less than optimistic about our mid-range future – might be necessary? 

In any case, it was prescient. It is, of course, an ironic homage to Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” in that rather than celebrating the victory of the Civil War against the tragic assassination of President Lincoln, it shows the last days in power of a despot who is, shall we say, so self-focused as to be deluded about his own popularity, as well as his own physical and mental prowess. He is, in short, a fool who mourns only his downfall and counts himself as a victim.

But now, my despot seems to be increasingly unpopular with his people.
“What can I do?” he exclaimed once, after we had watched a slanderous comedy skit on television that showed a much smaller and chubbier man using a bridge made up of his own constituents to cross a gator-infested tributary. “They don’t know the man I was before I was the man I am.”
What words! I thought. What humility!
“Dalton, are you aware that I’m an orphan?”
“No, sir.”
“Because I’m not! Still, I have great empathy for orphans. My parents never knew how to nurture me. But I miss them, Dalton. I miss summer. I miss the ocean. I miss the porch and seeing my trunks hang over the railing, dripping at the bottoms as they dried in the sun. I miss the smell of peaches! And, by God, I’ve never even liked peaches all that much. What a world my memory is! What a muscle my mind! How long must we suffer in its spontaneous revolution?”

But he isn’t the only character here. I wouldn’t even consider him the primary character. That would be Dalton, our first-person narrator, a personal aide to the Despot, the guy who brings him warm milk when e can’t sleep, helps him into a warm bath to untwist his balls when a brief exercise session twists them out of position. Dalton, who has worked for the Despot “more than half my short life,” and, when the Despot forgets who he is, gets strip-searched. Dalton, who, when the Despot becomes ill after dinner, becomes ill as well, contact-nausea if you will. Dalton, who never wavers in his loyalty to The Despot:

Yes, I grew up having misunderstood the true meaning of sacrifice, and I saw my parents give their lives away to ideas and thoughts and dreams.
It took time for me to realize what it meant to be grateful.
Many beatings and lectures. Many sprints and cold showers. I was poor and flabby. You, my despot, made me rich and lean.

I have always thought there are too many seminars and programs about leadership, that we needed some about followship. Because without followers, a leader is just another gasbag.

So that’s why I think of Dalton as the primary character. Yes, the Despot’s whining and excuse-making and self-aggrandizement is amusing, given the context of the present moment. But it is Dalton who carries the lesson.

And it is Dalton who is just as self-deluded as The Despot. Consider the final paragraphs:

He pauses for a moment and looks out at the people in their sea of rage, and then he steps to the podium with his head high and eyes downcast. The crowd halts and heels, the formative training modules so ingrained in our psyches.
There is such great silence, and one ill-timed flatulence.
“My God . . .,” he says. “What life!”
We wait for more. We salivate like dogs.
But that is all.
He turns and walks through us, and we dutifully part and follow him out to the helicopter pad, where he lifts off and thwaps away to his encampment in the hills.
I am left to watch his people tear the Great House down.
I am left to watch it burn.
O despot! My despot!
From above, you must feel you have escaped such a fiery hell!

In spite of his repetition of the phrase “I am left…” Dalton doesn’t even seem to realize that it is he who is left in that fiery hell.

If this brings to mind some of the scenes late in the film Don’t Look Up, where the eccentric billionaire leaves behind the masses who believed his machines would not only mine precious ores from the approaching comet but would destroy it before it struck the Earth and headed off on his private space ship loaded with 200 of his richest friends – I won’t object. I also think of the tweet, way back in 2016, from Leopard Eating People’s Faces Off Party: “I never thought the leopard would eat my face!” Poor Dalton, not even realizing his face has been eaten off. Yet.

Contrast all this with Whitman’s work, which is also a panegyric about a leader spoken by a follower. It is, however, a leader who has not betrayed his followers, a leader who has himself fallen. Maybe Dalton one day will see the difference. Too late, of course, but at last.

*  *  *     

  • This story is available online at Zoetrope All-Story
  • Walt Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!”