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

Nata Romeo: “Nurture”

Nata Romeo: “Nurture”

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

Complete story available online at Threepenny Review

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

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

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


Pushcart XLII: David Wojahn, “Absolute Rhythm” (poem) from Blackbird 15.2

Krishnakali Roy: “Rhythm”

Krishnakali Roy: “Rhythm”

I believe in an absolute rhythm, a rhythm . . . in poetry that corresponds
exactly with the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed.


Siri, show us a picture of an iamb.
& the pixels gathered on the phone screen,
Half-moon married to slash, scythe
Beside spear-shaft. Crescent or chalice,
Then a wheat-stalk bending to autumn zephyrs.
& yes, the hearts’-blood coursing:
Drumtap, birdcall, ringtone. Resplendent
Atavistic pictograph. Sympathetic magic,
Impious to demean it to concept, to symbol,
To sign….

Complete poem available online at Blackbird

With the first line, I thought this would be a fun poem, a literary romp on autocorrect. With the next few lines, I thought, instead, it was a discourse on symbols, particularly in light of Pound’s epigraph. But it became a lot more than that.

For some reason, one line of the compound epigraph was left out of the Pushcart edition. Fortunately, it appears in the original online publication: a single line, “—Claudia Emerson, 1957–2014” that informs everything else that happens on the page. This is a tribute, a memorial service, an elegy to a colleague, friend, and Pulitzer-prize winning former Poet Laureate of Virginia. I confess, as someone who is still embarrassingly unfamiliar with poets (that’s what I’m doing here, after all, isn’t it) I’m relying on google to fill me in. She died at the obscenely young age of 57, and given the number of nominators for this poem – four, where one is the norm and two is somewhat unusual – she must have touched a great many lives.

The poem is quite evocative, even to those of us who aren’t as familiar with Emerson. It all revolves around a tattoo of an iamb, glimpsed in several settings over time. In elegiac style, it ends by looking forward, to the speaker remembering her as inspiration going forward, with the iamb tattoo the very last image.

So let’s start with Pound’s quote. It’s from “A Retrospect” in which he lays out the rules for his vision of poetic modernism. The meter of the poem was less a structural element and more an organic part of the emotional content.

This lead me to a very interesting academic argument. It seems that, at the 2018 AWP conference, Annie Finch discussed heartbeat as the basis of meter, specifically, of iambic pentameter: the “lub-dub” of the heart generates iambs (soft-loud), and a spoken line in one breath averages five heartbeats. Yes, she is (I gather from later comments; the address itself is not online) careful to point out that this is an average, that both heartbeat and breath capacity vary from person to person (and from moment to moment over the course of a day) but in general it fits.

Enter Derek Mong, who disagreed with Finch in a post on Kenyon Review, leading Finch to restate and elaborate her premise, generating another round from Mong.

The heartbeat has long been suggested as the basis of musical rhythm, by the way. Connecting it to iambs is pretty natural, at least to those of us who remember Esther Greenwood’s failed attempt to drown herself in The Bell Jar: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”

I do have some questions about this approach, since poetry in other languages don’t use iambic pentameter nearly as much as English does (or did, at least, when sonnets and blank verse ruled the house). But I’ve always been taught that this is the “natural” meter of English; what makes it natural, I’m still not sure, other than “all the others sound fake or rhythmless”. However, the physical heartbeat as the source of iambic pentameter, or any poetic meter, is more literal than what Pound was suggesting. But I suspect it’s no accident the iamb tattoo in the poem is placed on the wrist, on the pulse.

But then we add a complication, and it gets really interesting: although this is all about iambs, the poem itself begins in trochaic, not iambic, rhythm (though it does get more complicated in later couplets, beyond my ability to parse). The opposite of iambs. Is this to distinguish the poet from the subject? To indicate the rhythm of that iambic pulse has ceased, to contrast between life and death? Does this incorporate Pound’s idea that rhythm “was part of the poetic idea itself, not a discipline over which the poem was strung” or is it an engineered distinction?

I found it very moving, gradually deepening on first read to a kind of relaxation in the hands of someone who knows what he’s doing with words. The tattoo makes a lovely central image (one image only, insisted Pound), rounding out our impression by following that image over time, and using it as a banner going forward, as does the echo of a life well lived.

Pushcart XLII: Christopher Todd Anderson, “About the Tongue” (poem) from Tipton Poetry Journal, Winter 2016

My tongue is a prodigy. If it had arms
and legs it would be on talk shows.
It is a genius, it is buff and agile. Eyeless,
it tells sweet from sour, bitter from salt.
It could be the world’s best carnie
or con man. It can wrestle its lover
all night in the dirtiest hotel in Joplin,
then spend the next morning singing
Verdi and feasting on satsuma oranges.

Somewhere not long ago, I said that poetry came from all sorts of inspirations, from the grand (O Captain My Captain, Paradise Lost) to the mundane (To a Louse, To a Mouse, Ode to a Goldfish, Death of a Toad). So why not a poem exalting the tongue?

The poem reminds us that, in spite of its rather ugly appearance, the tongue is a workhorse, taking part in communication, nutritional intake, and pleasure both gustatory and sexual. It’s powered by several different cranial nerves, and includes muscles, sensory cells, and lymphatics (all those anatomy moocs are paying off). I never thought much about my tongue until the dentist noticed a lesion a couple of years ago; suddenly, all I thought about was my tongue and the prospect of losing part of it (turns out, it was nothing more than a bite mark of unusual persistence).

We could dismiss this poem as fluff – and, ok, it is, there’s no deep meaning here, at least none I can see – but there’s something very solid about it. Like the organ it lionizes, the poem is kind of ridiculous looking yet works very well. Here’s where I again curse my lack of familiarity with poetics; I’m sure there’s some reason the poem strikes me as unusually complete and satisfying, but all I can say it’s like a well-crafted chair or house or clock: it reeks of quality. It reads well, like a good song with nicely coordinated lyrics and melody.

The last lines – “Watch as, slick as an eel, / it swims upstream through a river of gin” – might be a clue that the particular tongue in question, as well as the mind writing the poem, has been given some extra lubrication, allowing words to pour freely and without judgment as to the seriousness of their purpose. I can easily imagine the poet, after a long day (Anderson is a professor whose dissertation examined “the depiction of unattractive, repugnant, violent, and disordered aspects of the natural world in nature-oriented poetry of the past two centuries”), downs a few G&Ts and thinks, why not a poem about the tongue? And does a pretty fine job of it, to boot.

Pushcart XLII: Jaquira Díaz, “Beach City” (nonfiction) from Brevity #52

We talked about Miami Beach like it belonged to us, convinced that the tourists who came down to swim in our ocean and dance in our nightclubs were fucking up our city. We were seventeen, eighteen, nineteen-year-old hoodlums, our hair in cornrows, too-tight ponytails, too much hairspray, dark brown lip liner, noses and belly buttons pierced, door-knocker earrings, jailhouse ankle tattoos….
We were the ones who knew what it meant to belong here, to be made whole during full moon drum circles, dancing, drinking, smoking it up with our homeboys. We knew what it meant to bloody our knuckles here, to break teeth here, to live and breathe these streets day in, day out, the glow of the neon hotel signs on the waterfront, the salt and sweat of this beach city.

Complete story available online at Brevity

When I encountered Díaz for the first time five years ago, I said her story had a “mastery of tone and nuance”. She still does. This reads like poetry.

It’s a short piece, a memoir-ish essay about growing up in a city famous for its high-end glamour lifestyle. After the introduction dispenses with the outsiders, she tells us of her own experience in brief snippets. The slight defensiveness of the opening fades and pride of ownership and belonging takes over, her disdain for the bright lights and fancy cocktails and expensive clothes eclipsed by community and friendship and love.

I think a lot of us understand this sense of being part but apart, whether we live in college towns or resort areas. Even in sleepy Vacationland, we have the summer influx, the cruise ship visitors who ride up and down Congress Street on the Downeaster Duck bus/boat, watching us locals emerge from CVS with our aspirin and pretzels or go to the bank or take a lunch break from our jobs.

But I wonder if there is more recognition on the other side than we locals realize. My husband and I used to visit Mt. Desert Island once or twice a summer. We always recognized we had a lot more in common with the people making birdhouses than the Bar Harbor/Northeast Harbor yacht set, or even the Acadia National Park hikers. We knew we didn’t belong at Jordan Pond House, but we went anyway, just for the popovers. Then we’d hang out in Southwest Harbor, where the working people kept their boats, and feel like we were home.

In any event, Díaz’s evocative essay brought a lot out for me. Isn’t that the ultimate goal of writing: not to be over there, explaining one’s existence, but to connect with others, to let us all be the same in some way. The next time you’re on vacation, enjoy the luxury, but look also at the wonders beyond the glitz.

Pushcart XLII: Lydia Conklin, “Counselor of my Heart” from Southern Review 52.1

After crossing Memorial Drive onto the bank of the Charles, Molly let her quasi girlfriend’s dog off leash. Chowder bounded next to her, limbs flapping against the snow—so puppyish she wanted to push him over. But nothing could annoy her now, not even the stupid dog. She had a day off from the hot dog stand. The air smelled like fire.
She was just wishing the dog away when she became half-aware of the squirrel skittering over the frozen river, making the sound of a rake dragged over plastic. Later she’d wonder why she didn’t turn and face the squirrel, seriously question his purpose on the ice. Did he think he’d buried a nut out there? Had he, actually? Was it floating, swollen, an inch above the river bottom?

There’s a certain kind of character I seem to have a lot of trouble reading. Maybe it’s because I’m intimidated by people like them in real life: anyone, but usually someone fairly young, defended by an air of ironclad self-confidence with little discernible foundation, and armed with withering disdain for everyone else.

In Molly’s case, her self-confidence is an act, since she’s already dodged some emotional outpouring Beth (that’s the quasi-girlfriend) was ready to drop on her. And now she’s here dogsitting in a Harvard dorm where Beth RAs, and she’s none too happy about it. I don’t mind people who hate dogs; I mind people who hate everything. And kill dogs.

Yeah, that’s the inciting incident. Molly doesn’t kill Beth’s dog, exactly, but watches it fall through the ice. I can’t tell if she realizes there’s really nothing she can do (most of us have seen the PSAs about the impossibility of broken-ice rescues), or if she thinks her dislike for the dog is the reason she didn’t try to pull him out. In any case, she spends the rest of the story worrying about what’s going to happen when Beth returns, first by herself with the aid of some White Kush, then with the student who comes by RA Beth’s to report someone smoking pot in the building. Molly’s disdain soars to new heights with him, probably because she’s a Northeastern grad.

I liked the scene with the squirrel – what was it doing out there, besides providing a target for the dog, which helps the story but doesn’t answer the question – but the rest of the story went by me. I’m probably going to discover, at some later date, that it’s a sensitive portrayal of the conflicted female psyche torn between independence and attachment, or a profound statement on relationships between lovers of unequal professional status. To me it just felt like one of the art school kids sneering at me in the elevator because I obviously don’t measure up. I have enough adequacy issues in real life without absorbing them from fiction.

This is the second story I’ve read from Conklin (who, by the way, is a Harvard grad). I quite enjoyed her “Rockaway Beach” for its use of language. I wonder if my level of discomfort with Molly was also a product of her use of language; if so, it’s a feature, not a bug.

Pushcart XLII: Camille T. Dungy, “Natural History” (poem) from Boston Review, 3/30/16

The Rufous hummingbird builds her nest
of moss and spider webs and lichen.
I held one once—smaller than my palm,
but sturdy. I would have told Mrs. Jeffers,
from Court Street, if in those days of constant flights
between Virginia and the West I’d happened
on that particular museum.

Complete poem available online at Boston Review

Not knowing much about hummingbirds, or any birds for that matter, I went looking for images of hummingbird nests. Two things struck me: the bird seems to be part of the nest, and the nests all look very much alike. That fits with the use of the image in this poem. I know what the Jeffers’ home looked like. It’s not that people from that place and time all had similar houses, but they were in some sense the same, a place to burrow down, a place safe from the world. That safety is praised in the poem as well. We’re not so far removed from it today, in fact.

(By the way, this volume seems to be full of bird imagery, bird stories and poems. I wonder if it really is – and, if so, what the significance of that is – or if I’m just using a lot of bird art.)

The Jeffers’ rootedness is contrasted with the speaker’s constant motion. Somehow that fits with the hummingbird, too, now that I think about it. In flight, a hummingbird’s wings beat about 50 times a second – a second, not a minute – yet in the nest, it’s a little sphere of stillness.

I guess it’s no surprise
they’d come to mind when I think of that cup
of spider webs and moss, made softer by the feathers
of some long-gone bird. She used to say, I like it
right here where I am. In my little house. Here,
with him.

There’s a distinct sense of regret to the poem. Not a tragic regret, not a regret for the speaker’s travelling lifestyle – at least, not much, though there are whispers – but a too-late recognition that these people, still and rooted as they were, would’ve been worth knowing better. “Everyone must have once / held someone as old and small and precious as this.” Yes, I think so. So look at what you hold today.

Pushcart XLII: Saeed Jones, “Elegy with Grown Folks’ Music” (poem) from Tin House #69

“I Wanna Be Your Lover” comes on the kitchen radio
and briefly, your mother isn’t your mother—
just like, if the falsetto is just right, a black man in black
lace panties isn’t a faggot, but a prince,
a prodigy—and the woman with your hometown
between her legs shimmies past the eviction notice
burning on the counter and her body moves like she never
even birthed you. The voice on the radio pleas,
“I wanna be the only one that makes you come
running.” Some songs take women places men cannot

We work so hard, we of the human species, to categorize everything from what we wear (so we can prohibit jeans and leggings but allow trousers) to what we study (so we can chalk up our distribution credits in English instead of, say, history, which we already have) to what we eat (so we can refuse anything that isn’t natural or vegetarian or kosher). And of course it applies to people: to race, ethnicity, nationality, and gender. Breaking down the categories, allowing some crossovers and hybrids to exist, creates chaos for those who believe the world naturally exists in categories, rather than categories being something we impose upon the world.

But of course, it doesn’t, not even at a strictly physical level. For the first six weeks of development, a human embryo is sexually indifferent, the biologist’s term for “it could go either way.” As much as it may pain the patriarchy, the normal development development is into a female embryo, fetus, person; the male is the other, resulting only from the interference of the Y chromosome and its SRY gene. But, we all start out with potential for both, even on a strictly physical level. Psychologically, it’s even more complicated, since society gets into the act, determining what to categorize as female, and what as male.

This poem ain’t having none of that. Prince is a prodigy, lover, brother, mamma, sister. Mom, under the spell of his music, is Vanity 6, and the kid is just astonished by it all, and nothing but jealous of the voice on the radio taking away his mom…

… and because you’re young and don’t know the difference
between abandoned and alone just like your mother’s
heart won’t know the difference between beat
and attack. She will be dead in a decade and maybe
you already know what you’re losing without knowing
how, but you’re just a boy for now and your mother
is just a woman, just a girl, body swaying, fingers
snapping and snakes in her blood.

I love the melding of categories in this poem, all kinds of categories beyond male and female: joy and sorrow, responsibility and freedom, uncertainty and growth, youth and age, love and anger, boy and mom. There’s a joy to it, dancing layered on top of eviction notices, the rhythm of the heartbeat laid over the silence of heart attack. Screw categories: be what you are. And sometimes, be everything, all at once. I notice Jones read this poem for a Prince-themed party in 2015, a year before the singer’s death. Context screws with categories, too.

Pushcart XLII: Christian Wiman, “I Will Love You in the Summertime” (nonfiction) from American Scholar, Spring 2016

Teresa Chen: Ambivalence #6 - 2016

Teresa Chen: Ambivalence #6 – 2016

Twenty years ago, while watching some television report about depression and religion—I forget the relationship but apparently there was one—a friend who was entirely secular asked me with genuine curiosity and concern, “Why do they believe in something that doesn’t make them happy?” I was an ambivalent atheist at that point, beset with an inchoate loneliness and endless anxieties, contemptuous of Christianity but addicted to its aspirations and art. I was also chained fast to the rock of poetry, having my liver pecked out by the bird of a harrowing and apparently absurd ambition—and thus had some sense of what to say. One doesn’t follow God in hope of happiness but because one senses—miserable flimsy little word for that beak in your bowels—a truth that renders ordinary contentment irrelevant. There are some hungers that only an endless commitment to emptiness can feed, and the only true antidote to the plague of modern despair is an absolute, and perhaps even annihilating, awe. “I asked for wonders instead of happiness, Lord,” writes the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. “And you gave them to me.”

Complete story available online at The American Scholar

A few pieces back, I praised Jamie Quatro’s story “Belief” for its straightforward approach to life as a Christian, and its honesty about the mix of joy and struggle. This piece, written in a very different style, takes a similar look at what it means to have faith.

The title comes from a comment made by Wiman’s two-year-old daughter when, during a bedtime ritual, he asked if she loved him. He interprets her cryptic reply – “I will love you in the time where there is time for everything, which is now and always” – while recognizing that he is constructing meaning apart from her intent: “I think that sometimes life and language break each other open to change, that a rupture in one can be a rapture in the other, that sometimes there are, as it were, words underneath the words—even the very Word underneath the words….” That’s the essence of poetry, isn’t it, to use words to evoke the ineffable meaning beyond, underneath, the words.

There’s a section on the meaning of prayer, drawing out the aphorism “Prayer doesn’t change things; prayer changes people, and people change things” into a more sophisticated setting, prayer as less of a laundry list of needs and wants and more of a meditation to connect with the divine will. He draws from a number of poets and writers of various times and places to express, much as Quatro did, the complicated nature of faith for him, its combination of “lament and love”. That phrase stood out to me, since I encountered it at length in last fall’s mooc on classical Greek literature. It seems lament and love songs are intertwined, exchanged, and mirrored in many of the epics and plays. This fits with the very common experience of us all: we cry at weddings or when receiving great news, and bond over laughter and comradeship at funerals and wakes. Yet Wiman is certain of the centrality of faith for humanity, whether as individuals we have “addressed it consciously or not.”

As for myself, I have found faith not to be a comfort but a provocation to a life I never seem to live up to, an eruption of joy that evaporates the instant I recognize it as such, an agony of absence that assaults me like a psychic wound. As for my children, I would like them to be free of whatever particular kink there is in me that turns every spiritual impulse into anguish. Failing that, I would like them to be free to make of their anguish a means of peace, for themselves or others (or both), with art or action (or both). Failing that—and I suppose, ultimately, here in the ceaseless machinery of implacable matter, there is only failure—I would like them to be able to pray, keeping in mind the fact that, as St. Anthony of the Desert said, a true prayer is one that you do not understand.

I connect very strongly with the ambivalence in the piece, with the acknowledgment that faith brings with it a certain discomfort. Wiman, former editor of Poetry Magazine and presently faculty at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music, wrote about his return to faith following a medical diagnosis in 2012.

Pushcart XLII: Chase Twichell, “Sad Song” (poem) from Salmagundi, Spring/Summer 2016

It’s ridiculous, at my age,
to have to pull the car onto the shoulder
because Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash
are singing “Girl From the North Country,”
taking turns remembering not one girl,
but each of their girls, one and then the other,
a duet that forces tears from my eyes
so that I have to pull off the road and weep.

Complete story available online at Salmagundi

I was expecting something quite dark to be lurking behind this poem. Some of the language is quite violent – wound, split open, necklace of stones, and the setting in the cold winds of the North Country. Then I found the wonderful audio linked above, which combines the poem, excerpts from the Cash/Dylan duet (the song is a reworking of “Scarborough Fair”), and an interview with Twitchell, and discovered it is indeed about the loss of a first love, and the lifelong pain that can cause.

It’s a layering of pains. Not only is there the sense of being used and discarded, there’s the shame attached to losing one’s childhood, a secret shame for girls that has no real equivalent for boys. Then there’s the emotional embarrassment of having been duped, and the extra humiliation of feeling the pain years later. But as the poem beautifully describes, this first hurt is “the sluice through which all of childhood pours”, the introduction to the world as potentially cruel, to people as potentially hurtful, and to loss as something to be feared. We get more cautious as we grow older because we know how much things hurt.

The most striking image for me comes towards the end:

… she grows up
wearing a necklace of stones,
one for each girl not her,
though they all live together here
in the North Country, where the winds
hit heavy on the borderline.

I like the image of the necklace of stones weighing her down, but particularly that they all live together, these discarded lovelorn girls. There is potential power there, camaraderie, but instead, it has a sad feeling. And we’re back to the shame and embarrassment. You can’t draw comfort if you can’t speak of your pain. Remind you of anything?

Pushcart XLII: Bret Anthony Johnston, “Dixon” from VQR, Summer 2016

A star-smeared night, the usual briny and humid haze of the brush country in August, and Dixon was hauling twenty cases of stolen toys up from the Rio Grande valley. They were in the bed of his truck under a blue tarp. He took care to drive the speed limit and flash his blinker. If the border patrol at the Sarita checkpoint asked, he’d claim a delivery mix-up. If the guards were white, he’d blame it on Mexicans.
The toys had been slated for Dairy Queen kids’ meals, a promotion for a book series called Pegaterrestrials in which the characters were half alien and half winged horse, but that morning the office phone rang and a collectibles dealer had offered three grand for the lot. Dixon was forty-two and he’d managed the franchise outside Harlingen for four years. He knew he’d be fired, maybe arrested, too, but he also knew better than to give himself time to reconsider….

Complete story available online at VQR

Dixon isn’t a bad guy, not at all. He’s a father who’d turn himself into a Pegaterrestrial to save his daughter. His intentions are great; he just falls a little short in the execution. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride – or, as in this case, fly. And he’d get his fifteen-year-old into the drug rehab program she needs.

It’s a story that walks an interesting line between comedy and tragedy. An out-of-control teenager, a family on the brink of financial and legal disaster, against a guy named Cornbread who runs an outfit selling bootleg fast-food toys at flea markets. A wife and mother who focuses on what she can do for her husband and daughter: making “real food”, tuna fish, for dinner, instead of the ubiquitous free Blizzards that flow through the house like water. A guy in a humid, miserable landscape, who sees nothing but the light at the end of the tunnel, and is constitutionally unable to consider that it might be an oncoming train.

I’ve read somewhere that the motivation of all fiction is to show change, or the impossibility of change. Given the final lines, this story’s job is the latter. Somehow, that makes it sadder, funnier, and much more real.

But I think something else this story does is more important. If I read one summary of Dixon – he’s a Texan ready to blame everything on Mexicans; he’s a thief, and a toy thief at that; he gave his daughter a shotgun for her 12th birthday – I’d put him in a category, and not a nice category. This story takes him out of a category and turns him into a person. I can feel great compassion for him, maybe laugh at him a little, definitely frown on some of his decisions, but really feel for his dilemma, one many parents face: how do you save a child gone wrong? His views on Mexicans, on guns, on pretty much anything else, fade beside that. Seeing him as a person, even a flawed person, closes the gap between us, make it possible for us to connect, at least a little.

This is what fiction can do for all of us: remind us that the people we put in categories, the people we yell at on Twitter, are people, with fears, dreams, and foibles. They could be people we might like, if we met them in stories. And maybe the next time I hear of someone who gave a rifle to his 12 year old, instead of putting him in a category, I’ll remember Dixon, and see a person.

Pushcart XLII: Ethan Chatagnier, “Miracle Fruit” from New England Review #37.4

British Library: Cotton MS Nero C IV 'Winchester Psalter' f.3r

British Library: Cotton MS Nero C IV ‘Winchester Psalter’ f.3r

At seven pm, three quarters of the recessed lights in the main office space are programmed to turn off. What’s left is deemed bright enough for the custodial staff to do their work, but what I love, looking out at it through the interior window of my office, is that the glow of all the screensavers creates a faint aurora over the top of all the cubicle walls almost like that of a town at night hidden just beyond a ridge. I know it’s just a silly image, but it gives me the sort of comfort I imagine God would feel looking at a snow-dusted Swiss village and allowing himself to forget the rest of the troubled world for a while….
I like walking out to the deserted parking lot as well, no claustrophobia of cars, nobody yammering into a cell phone or blasting bad music, but tonight there is another car, a Camry with Avis stickers, and it’s parked right next to mine. Leaning against it is a slender, copper-haired woman wearing a fitted trench coat and kitten heels who is definitely not from Nebraska.
“Can I ask you about Aeon, Dr. Schuyler?” she asks.
“Mother Jones?”
“New York Times.”
Surprising. To someone like me, our Aeon acquisition is front page news, but most people would rather see pictures of a beheading or read a new brownie recipe. It’s good that someone is paying attention, I think. But it’s bad news when a New York Times reporter ambushes you in the dark of an empty parking lot rather than contacting the corporate media office. It means this is just the slight visible outgrowth of a story already being tracked, of documents already being compiled and pieces put together. It means you are not just the person who picked up the phone. You were chosen.

I kind of missed some of this story, so I went back and read it again. I still don’t quite get some of the logical connections, but I think I’m still distracted by the math. Math? What? I’ll get there, I promise (and it’s nowhere near as interesting as I’m trying to make it sound, which is an uphill battle anyway, trying to make math sound interesting). But first, the story.

It’s a near-future picture of an overpopulated world that can no longer produce enough calories to feed all the people. Dr. Schuyler is a plant geneticist for a Monsanto-like megacorp. Doc has a genuine awe for natural biodiversity and the long, slow processes that create and expand it; he tends a small garden of delights at home, and grows Synsepalum dulcificum, the “miracle fruit” that blocks sourness, on his office windowsill, a project that requires a homemade humidification system since office air is not the same as the plant’s native West African air. In the story, this berry is something of a well-kept secret, but I’ve seen both news stories and chef videos about it; seeds are available online.

Doc is quite conflicted about his role in the company. That conflict is what drives the story forward, particularly after he realizes that his company is acquiring the last of the big seed banks and plans to destroy everything once it’s been reviewed for profitable possibilities.

The memo isn’t hard to find….: a memo that says that the security risks of holding on to the bank outweigh its value as an asset; that says it would be more detrimental to the company [emphasis mine] if the bounty of these seeds escaped containment than if the smallpox virus did; that recommends incineration. Attached was a suggested schedule for the incinerations: Flowers, vines, and other non-fruiting plants first. Then non-orchard trees. Then fruit and nut trees. Them bulbs and vegetables. Last, grasses and grains.
First they came for the Socialists, et cetera, et cetera.

This is one of my major points of confusion. I’m not sure I understand the company’s fear of the seeds “escaping containment”, nor do I fully understand why that would be such a catastrophe to the firm. Maybe I’m dense. I’m assuming the company wants to monopolize effective foodstuffs, but it could be something else.

The good doctor is less confused about the journalist who keeps ambushing him in the parking lot. I love the metaphor for the initial situation, as she tries to get documents relating to the impending destruction for publication:

She’s out there, all right. Her attire has mutated from what you’d wear to a client meeting to what you’d wear on a date….
What I like is not her in her professional garb or her date clothes, not an inch more or an inch less of leg, not a certain amount of décolletage or the right heels. I like the process of it all, despite the constructions, despite the obvious ends fueling all these different means. What can I say? Who doesn’t want to feel like a lock being picked?

Their relationship intensifies as he tries to explain his love for biodiversity to her, but never gets sexual; it’s quite lovely to watch. She is, perhaps, the miracle fruit that blocks the bitterness of reality.

“There’s a great beauty in the amazing diversity of plant life. Not just in the jungles, but in a place like this. It was never just grass, despite what the movies show. And the plainsmen who grazed it to death were not immune to its beauty. They just had families to feed.”
“I sense a point emerging.”
“So one way of looking at it is that I have an overly generous definition of family.”

But the miracle fruit only lasts a short time.

His resolution of this conflict is the rising action of the story; his reaction to the fallout from that resolution creates the climax. It becomes a tragic version of Noah’s Ark, and again, I think I follow the motivation, but I’m not sure. I come back to the present, how nearly daily revelations of extreme corruption and greed at the highest levels, plus ongoing massive local and global injustices, seem to make less of a splash in the public consciousness than a new Netflix series or the Twitter outrage of the day. I think the good doctor in the story, as Noah stocking the ark in his basement, just decided that saving the world was a fool’s errand; and, in a dual role perhaps, as God overlooking the world so beautifully described in the first paragraph, decided that the world wasn’t worth saving, given the limited definition of family that prevails. I can’t say I, in the present, disagree with him.

Now, about the math…

Our population is growing at an exponential rate, and crop yields at a linear rate. Already we have 9 billion people on a planet that can only feed 8 billion. Despite all the seeming logistical impossibilities, ten-year projections have the population at 10 billion and food production at enough for 8.1 billion.

Those “logistical impossibilities” seem pretty serious to dismiss with a mere clause (how does population continue to grow when there is limited food supply?) but I’ll just add that to the points of confusion. I had an immediate reaction to the first sentence about the exponential and linear rates: Wow, I understand that! Five years after ProfG tried to get that into my head with bright color graphics and animations, I can read that sentence and “see” it, without sitting down and figuring it out! But then I started thinking (always a dangerous effort) and ran into trouble: could I create graphs that showed the relationship between the two rates? I certainly should; but could is another question.

I soon dissolved into tears, a not-uncommon reaction I have when confronting math in the wild. So I emailed my mooc buddy Purgy, who’s always been generous with his time when I have math issues. It was a little scary – English isn’t his native language, and we’re talking math, so I had to find my way through words like ansatz and affine – but it turned out I made an epically stupid but easy-to-fix mistake in the linear function (a mistake that could have been avoided had I sketched a graph first, but no-o-o-o-o, I thought I could skip that step), and was in the ballpark on the exponential give or take a couple of decimal points, so I managed to come up with my graph. I suspect any attentive ninth-grader could’ve done so in far less time with far less blood, toil, tears, and sweat, but at least I got there. Thanks, Purgy!

Despite what I see as logical flaws and inconsistencies in the story (and I’m well aware it may be my own logical facilities that are flawed), I enjoyed this for the relationship, and the characterization of the scientist. And the math, which may have tipped the needle for me – as inconsistent as that in itself may be.

Pushcart XLII: Solmaz Sharif, “Desired Appreciation” (poem) from Kenyon Review #38.1

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce: View from the Window at Le Gras

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce: View from the Window at Le Gras

Until now, now that I’ve reached my thirties:
All my Muse’s poetry has been harmless:
American and diplomatic: a learned helplessness
Is what psychologists call it: my docile, desired state.
I’ve been largely well-behaved and gracious.
I’ve learned the doctors learned of learned helplessness
By shocking dogs. Eventually we things give up.

Complete poem available online at Kenyon Review

This is another of those pieces that got a lot more interesting the more I understood about it. And it starts out pretty interesting at that: the speaker is an immigrant exhausted by the need to constantly reassure the native-born citizenry that she is grateful to be here, that everything is fine-fine, when she knows firsthand how not fine so much is.

The John Brown quote was my first hint that there was more than was obvious to me. Then I found Sharif’s extensive interview with Kaveh Akbar at Divedapper, examining the genesis of the poem. She’d read some of the documents of the torture techniques used by the US, hence the references to tube feeding and handcuffs and doctors on site, amidst the more cheerful face the country put on itself while this was happening. All of this comes to the speaker when she’s asked if she’s grateful to be here – much as Sharif is often asked.

The entire poem is inspired by, and initially mimics, Ovid’s Ibis, written in the town of Tomis on the Black Sea during his long exile from Rome for reasons that remain unclear (in a further twist, the exile was officially revoked in… 2017). In the context of the poem, I have to wonder: did the residents of Tomis regularly demand his gratitude?

The poem is from Sharif’s debut collection, “Look”, a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award. The choice of cover image for the book intrigues me: it’s recognized as the oldest surviving photographic image, “View from the Window at Le Gras”, a heliograph by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, predating Daguerre by about 10 years. I’m not sure of the significance of this, but the resemblance of the image – a country estate – to the thick stone walls of a prison can’t be coincidence.

Pushcart XLII: Amit Majmudar, “Bully” (poem) from The Hopkins Review 9.1

David W. J. Lloyd: Shaddowmen Bully the Small

David W. J. Lloyd: Shaddowmen Bully the Small

First day fake friend
With the knuckle-
Crusher handshake
Making new kids
Buckle pleading
By the bus stop:

Complete story available online at The Hopkins Review

There’s something about the letter “f” that’s particularly vicious. Maybe it’s just me; maybe it’s the association with “fuck” and its euphemisms. Maybe it’s the bite, the upper-teeth-on-lower-lip, combined with the (potentially spitting) hiss. It gives this poem a particularly nasty opening, as if the bully isn’t nasty enough on his own.

But the poem is not simply a litany of abuses. Everything has two sides, and the kid who one day calls you “Shitskin” might pick you up and help you to the nurse’s office after he witnesses a beating. He may find some perverse comfort in his racist taunts, but he still has a small space of humanity inside. And then he’ll call you Shitskin the next day, maybe because he’s afraid of what would happen to him if that small space got too big.

And in the end, the bully himself has two sides, because we know that bullies learn to become bullies from someone. And we discover a small space of humanity in ourselves, that we can have compassion for a bully.

Majmudar, named Ohio’s first Poet Laureate in 2016, is, in the tradition of William Carlos Williams et al, a doctor, a diagnostic radiologist. I find it interesting and encouraging that several hospitals and medical schools publish literary journals. Bellevue Literary Review, first published in 2001, is well-known to Pushcart and BASS readers, and spawned a book division as well. The Hopkins Review, affiliated with Johns Hopkins, of course, is a newer participant in literature, entering the field in 2016. I’ve also discovered several other medical schools have literary journals. Most of these feature works that in some broad way reflect on health. This makes sense, as medicine has traditionally been seen, even in the modern age of rationalism, as a combination of art and science. From where I sit, it’s become far more about data management, but, like the vicious fricative f, maybe it’s just me.

Medieval Icelandic Sagamooc

Course: The Medieval Icelandic Sagas
Length: 6 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of Iceland/edX
Instructor: Hjalti Snær Ægisson, Beth Rogers

The Medieval Icelandic Sagas is an introductory course on the single most characteristic literary genre of Medieval Iceland. Mainly written in the 13th century, the Icelandic Sagas are comprised of roughly 40 texts of varying length.
In this course, you will learn about three Sagas, written at different times, with the aim of giving an overview of the writing period and the genre as a whole. These are Eyrbyggja Saga, Njáls Saga and Grettis Saga. We will explore the landscape and archaeology of Iceland to see how they can add to our understanding of the Sagas as well as take an in-depth look at the most memorable characters from the Sagas.

Short version: Terrific course for anyone interested in story structure, medieval history, contemporary research of medieval sources, or manuscripts. Presentation is sometimes a bit awkward, but the content – and the podcasts – more than make up for it.

I seem to be the only person on earth who’s never read anything based on Norse mythology: No, I haven’t read Neil Gaiman, or even LoTR (so sue me; I’ve always been anti-cool). Shame on me, considering my father’s Scandinavian background (my aunts taught me a couple of words of Swedish and a few recipes: Vetebröd, which I made every Christmas until a few years ago, mandel kakor, and kroppkakor, a potato-meat dumpling I never could get myself to even taste, it looked so gross). But beyond “Babette’s Feast” and “Sophie’s World” I’ve never been particularly interested in the details of Scandinavian culture. So this was all new to me. Well, ok, I knew about Thor and a little about Vikings, but that’s about it.

What really worked for me in this course was the multi-dimensional approach: the sagas as literature, as metaphors for Icelandic events, as sociocultural apologias, and as physical manuscripts. The purposes of the stories, the themes in various times, and the social forces affecting their popularity and remembrance all came into play. For a six-week course, they packed in a great deal, yet the reading was surprisingly limited. While we were, of course, free to read the sagas discussed in their entirety, the course focused on specific sections as exemplars of various points; individual chapters or short groups of chapters were the only assigned reading.

Each week included brief video lectures, written material (often in graphic layout), one or two interviews with an academic with particular expertise in the issues being examined, and a few ungraded “knowledge checks”. Graded material included and a weekly quiz for weeks 1-5 (totaling 40% of the final grade), the final exam (30% of the final), and three Peer Assessments, one every other week (30% of the final grade). I’m always a little anxious about peer assessments, but these were relatively simple and the grading criteria were open-ended and thus forgiving. I found the first one particularly helpful in getting the material organized in my head for better retention; the third one was basically a fun exercise.

And yes, since there were a lot of unfamiliar names, and since this was material I want to retain long-term, I used Cerego, so I’ll be getting questions about “Handing Grettir Around” periodically over the next year (you’ll have to take the course to see why that’s such a delightfully amusing prospect). This was particularly helpful when the final exam rolled around, since I’d been seeing the material at various intervals all along.

A special treat that I almost missed entirely: As a supplement to the course material, the two instructors recorded a podcast at the end of each week. I wish one of these had been available at the beginning; where in the lectures and interview, Hjalti seemed well-meaning but stern and a bit stiff (partly due to “I must appear academic” syndrome, I’d guess, and partly due to the read-lecture-to-camera that so few profs can pull off), in the podcasts he and Beth came across as real people, and delightful, fun people at that. Because manuscripts are of particular interest to me, I found the W2 episode most helpful with course material, but later episodes were great fun, featured saga/Viking re-enactors, musicians, craftspeople, and a host of off-the-cuff topics (such as reactions when people hear Beth’s dissertation is on dairy products in Scandinavian literature. Turns out, skyr is pretty interesting, and I wish Iceland luck in promoting it as a substitute for Greek yogurt (if they can produce a fat-free, sugar-free, 80-calorie, 12-grams-of-protein, fruity version for under $1 a serving, I’m in). I discovered the podcasts a bit late, only after Week 2, and they made a huge difference in my perception of the course as a whole.

I wish there had been a “preview podcast” available from the start in the course material; I think I would have had an easier time with Week 1, a general introduction to Icelandic sagas. I found this week to be the most difficult, probably because I had no background to rely on. I briefly considered giving up at some point, but I really wanted to get to W2, which focused on manuscripts. I had more background here and was able to get a better footing. From there I was hooked, through weeks on the role of landscape in the sagas, how women were portrayed, the depictions of paganism and the Church and the importance of the conflict during conversion, and the supernatural in the sagas.

The forums were active and well-supported, with questions suggested for each week. I asked a few outside questions (some of them clearly outside the course material). When it worked, it was great: I asked about the “missing rubric” mentioned in a lecture, and Beth went out of her way to bring Robert, the resident manuscript expert, to the boards; I ended up with a lovely example. The course also had a Facebook page, but since I gave up on Facebook way way back when they decided they could manage my feed better than I could (and have no desire to start again, given the disclosures of recent weeks), I missed out on that.

I greatly enjoyed all of it. I feel like I’ve made new friends with poor, misunderstood Grettir, with the merciful Þorbjörg, the chieftain’s wife who saved him from hanging; with Flosi, who avenged the death of Hildigunnur’s husband when she whetted him with the bloody and then suffered from enormous guilt and pain; with Thorgeir, the pagan chieftain who lay under a skin blanket at Alþingi for a day and a half before agreeing to the Christianization of Iceland, then threw his pagan statues into Goðafoss, the waterfall of the gods. I loved learning about things like the Gráskinna, the “ gray skin” manuscript with the sealskin cover that, through subtle changes, makes Hallgerður more sympathetic to the reader; about the contemporary researchers like Jesse Byock, who excavated Mosfell in search of clues about Egils saga, and Emily Lethbridge whose SagaMap plots locations from the different sagas.

I’ll miss them all, and I’m glad I got to know just a little bit about Old Norse, Iceland, and their sagas. And, of course, I can revisit them any time, just by opening a window.

Pushcart XLII: John R. Nelson, “Funny Bird Sex” (nonfiction) from Antioch Review 74.1

We humans like to think our species is unique.… Fire, underwear, irony, iPhones, art appreciation, AK-47s, judgment in the afterlife, life after offspring—all these set us apart, or so we believe. We’re the animal with a touchy self-pride, the animal that insists on locating itself in a separate, usually higher category. Man is the only animal that laughs at the sex lives of other animals.

One of the things I like about Pushcart is that they are not tied to the alphabetical-order tyranny of BASS; they can run a string of dark matter (exploitation, slavery, depravities, loss, the violence lurking beneath the surface of us all), scatter some hope and inspiration among it, then relieve the tension with sexual humor, all while still examining the subjective/objective aspects of writing and experience. Or maybe it’s just a fun piece about bird sex.

Just as I got to this essay, a video from a year ago came up in my twitter feed with the caption: “A year later, still #1.” Tell me you haven’t seen this scene played out at every bar, every wedding, every office party you’ve ever been to. Tell me you don’t know someone who reminds you of the (male) cockatoo on the right. Tell me you’ve never been the (female) cockatoo on the left. Or vice versa. This is Nelson’s point: “When we laugh at birds, we laugh at ourselves.”

In addition to reading examples of funny bird sex, Nelson tells us of funny human reactions to bird sex. It seems, in a trick of watching the watchers, birders who come upon bird sex in the wild invariably giggle. I would, I suppose. But one Althea Sherman, in 1925, had less of a sense of humor, objecting to profligate house wrens, flickers (“a weak-minded, inconsistent, frivolous creature that is called from duty by the notes of any stray male”), and a particular red-winged blackbird she named Brigham for his polygamy. Give ‘em a break, Ms. Sherman, it’s hard out there for a bird. I was going to comment on the tiny size of a bird brain, but it turns out birds have as many neurons in their forebrains as mammals.

But if we hold birds accountable for their sex lives, we need to recognize our similarities:

Males of many animal species are “dim in their sexual discernment,” says Robert Wright in The Moral Animal, and will try to breed with almost anything. Sure, it’s funny to us that a turkey will try to hump a stick with a fake head. But what about the millions of human males who masturbate to representations of women, including “women” who are literally cartoons?

If we looked at ourselves the way we looked at birds, we might be surprised. A fun essay. Entertaining. And informative. Isaac Bashevis Singer would be pleased.

Pushcart XLII: Ellen Bass, “Any Common Desolation” (poem) from Poem-a-Day, 11/18/16

can be enough to make you look up
at the yellowed leaves of the apple tree, the few
that survived the rains and frost, shot
with late afternoon sun. They glow a deep
orange-gold against a blue so sheer, a single bird
would rip it like silk. You may have to break
your heart, but it isn’t nothing
to know even one moment alive.

Complete story available online at Poetry; audio on Soundcloud

I almost treated this as a sweet, simple little poem, another of those “what is this doing here” moments I have so often, but a structural element made me look twice, and boy am I glad I did. Let me emphasize again that I have very little training in poetry, and am just flying by the seat of my pants here (hey, we all need our amusements), so don’t take any of this too seriously.

It’s a common thought, really, an oppositional binarism echoed from antiquity to today: We must know pain in order to know joy; we only understand dark because we know light. We appreciate the good things when we know disaster. This kind of thing always makes me wonder what we don’t understand now, because we have never seen its opposite (also a side effect of hanging around too many postmodernists).

The speaker starts with what most of us would consider the “down side” – the “any common desolation” of the title – before listing all the up-sides this down side incurs. She covers the entire sensorium, with elements of sight, sound, smell/taste, and touch. It’s interesting that there’s some violent language in the up-side stuff; leaves shot with sun, a sky a bird might rip. Then the down side is acknowledged again – a broken heart – and again, the good stuff involves words that could be associated with pain: tearing, grating, a cuff. The final pairing, of mud and wonder, likewise includes an ambiguous image of “a needle slipped into your vein” on the up side. The up and down sides, it seems, are not that clearly demarcated at all.

But what really interested me is that use of title as a first line, something I’ve noticed twice now in this volume. I still don’t know what it’s called, so I sent out some queries. Peter Stockwell, a professor of literary linguistics at Nottingham in England (and whose Cognitive Poetics mooc I was lucky to take a few years ago, which is how he ended up on my twitter feed) didn’t know of any canonical term, but suggested “title enjambment”; that cheered me, since I’d suggested a variety of enjambment when I saw this before.

I’m still not completely comfortable with that, though. Enjambment implies momentum, a sense of coming to the end of a line but being pushed across by the natural grammar of the sentence. That’s missing in these title enjambments, since a title is naturally a single line ending with a natural stop. The sense of enjambment isn’t recognized until the first line of the poem is read. This makes me wonder if retroactive enjambment might be appropriate.

The next suggestion came from Patrick Gillespie, a “carpenter & poet living ‘Up in Vermont’”, whose blog came to my attention via a Twitter shoutout from Emily Wilson, the Penn classicist whose recent Iliad translation has been creating a stir. Patrick said:

I’ve always just called them “Line Titles”, but I might be the only one?
Out of curiosity, I looked up Title in the Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms. They go on and on and on (ad nauseum) about Titles and how they *mean* things (to absurd lengths in my opinion) but in all that verbiage they somehow forget to notice the Line Title… That one slipped right passed them.
The poetic dictionary, by John Drury, actually has an entry. He called it, in a burst of descriptive genius: “Title as First Line”. He mentions that Marianne Moore was a pioneer of the “device”. “It resides outside the stanzaic structure”, he writes. And when you hear language like that, you know academics are salivating. What could it *mean*?

(We New Englanders have a sense of humor. We have to. After six months of winter, we don’t get Spring, we get a month of mud & flood season.)

I quite like “line titles”; simple, descriptive, and accurate. Since Academia shows little interest in naming this technique, and since no one pays any attention to me anyway, I hereby name the structure a line title, and declare the function to be retroactive enjambment: a sense of momentum not noticed until the next line – that is, the second line of the poem – is read.

This fits the content of the poem quite well. Any common desolation leaves us with the sense of some love gone, some joy ended. We stop, mourn. But if we can just go a little further – look at the leaves, smell the ginger, hear the oars, remember the moments of safety and love, feel our breath – we can realize it need not be an ending, but an inevitable transition; and there will be more love and joy ahead, because the world overflows with it.

Pushcart XLII: Joyce Carol Oates, “Undocumented Alien (Very Rough Draft Report, Project JRD)” from Conjunctions #67

Test subject #293199/Joseph Saidu Maada (undocumented alien, home country Nigeria, b. 1990, d. 2016).
Most immediate and long-lasting effect of the neurotransmitter microchip (NTM) inserted in the cerebral cortex of the human brain appears to be a radical destabilization of temporal and spatial functions of cognition….
In the last several months of Maada’s life, partly as a consequence (it is believed) of deteriorating vision, hearing, and cognitive functions, subject’s paranoia was heightened so that he became convinced that a team of black spies had been sent to abduct him and return him to Nigeria to be imprisoned and tortured in collusion with the CIA….
Simultaneously, and with no awareness of the contradictory nature of his assumptions, test subject Maada was made to believe that he was a “privileged alien agent” sent to Earth on a “secret stealth mission” from one of the orbiting moons of Jupiter….

JCO has a knack for twisting fiction into different shapes. An allegory built on the rebellion of a teenage mall rat? Sure. A master class in second person by way of mother-daughter tensions? No problem. An examination of subjectivity via an encounter between an aged poet and an up-and-coming writer? Done. An exploration of Emily Dickinson through that old standby SF trope, the android? Got it. And now she ties together elements from current events ranging from immigration to covert experimentation to suicide bombers to fraudulent universities, and styles it as a bureaucratic report starring disgruntled postdocs, a Floribunda rose bush, and the Jovian moon Ganymede.

I found this a very difficult story to read. Not in the sense of upsetting or infuriating; many of the events were horrific or deeply evil, but somehow it was distanced enough from reality by the presentation to keep the torture – and that’s what it amounts to, really – from feeling like I was reading about torture. I suspect that was one planned effect, and one subtheme, of the chosen format: a draft of a lab report consisting of “a compilation of lab notes with some expository and transitional material put together by a small team of postdocs”. The language of science claims to be objective, which means we never hear Joseph’s voice, only the observations and opinions of those who experimented on him. The pure outlandishness of the events further distanced it, removing it from real life; yet we live in a time when absurdity has become reality, as well as deep brain stimulation and smart prosthetics, so there really isn’t much in the story that is so far beyond reality. But it’s more comfortable to think of it as a John LeCarré thriller.

It was, nonetheless, difficult to read, in the sense of being hard to follow and just hard to read the next page. I actually gave up at one point, decided to skip it, something I very rarely do, but on about page 4 I really didn’t want to go through the next 19 pages. I came back to it after reading a few very brief comments about it in various online book reviews of Beautiful Days, the recently-published collection in which it appears. As with the distancing effect, I suspect the somewhat confusing “compilation of lab notes” structure was a deliberate choice, to manifest in the reader a sense of the temporal and spatial disorientation Joseph experienced.

The story, taken apart and put back together in chronological order, begins with Joseph enrolling in a university whose only purpose is to lure people from Africa and Asia with the promise of an engineering degree; when these people turn out to lack the requisite educational background and the instruction turns out to be substandard, they are unceremoniously kicked out of the program, losing their student visas in the process. The tuition, in Joseph’s case paid by a nonprofit, is not refunded, of course.

Joseph then disappears into the Nigerian-immigrant community of Edison, New Jersey, where he manages for a while until he is arrested for walking while black. His immigration status is discovered, and he is offered a choice: deportation, or participation in an experimental program. The experiments eventually include replacing his blood with a transparent substitute, implanting microchips to make him compliant, hear voices, and believe he is an alien from Ganymede, carrying an explosive device that will be detonated at some point; he “need do nothing but submit, and he would be blameless”. See what I mean about being distanced from real life?

For his participation, he would receive 150% of the salary he would otherwise have earned, because “PROJECT JRD has committed to ‘zero tolerance’ of exploitation of any of its subjects domestic or foreign” (the bureaucratic report format also highlights irony).

What could go wrong?

I kept wondering what the purpose was behind the program in general. In the 50s and 60s, the CIA experimented on unsuspecting Americans with LSD dosages given surreptitiously. The belief was that Russia was using LSD on Americans to brainwash them, so research was necessary to determine how it worked and how to combat it. Was this program a similar counterespionage thing, or something else? Something else, as it turns out.

In a sequence of surgeries, parts of the subject’s brain were excised and replaced with artificial devices – chips, stents. Such experimentation is crucial, for one day, and that day not far in the future, neurophysiologoical enhancements will be necessary to provide longevity to humankind, at least to world leaders and members of the ruling classes.

Something else.

Some fascinating psycho-neuro-philosophical questions are raised throughout. What would it be like to no longer understand sequence, to not know before or after or yesterday or tomorrow, to have no concept of now versus then? Can will be “hosed clean” from the brain? “Could one communicate with a region of the subject’s brain without involving the subject (‘consciousness’) at all? …. Could ‘consciousness’ be chased into a region of the brain, like a rat into a cage corner?” “Here, there. How do we distinguish?” Is this another distancing tactic? Anything but feeling the confusion and terror Joseph must have felt. Because, after all, this is just a story.


Course: Anatomy (4 course series)
Length: self-paced; 4-8 weeks per course, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of Michigan/edX
Instructor: Kathleen Alsup, Glenn M. Fox, Kelli A. Sullivan

What You’ll Learn:
Learn the foundations of basic human anatomy for every major organ system and the relationships between systems
Understand the major functions and significance of each system, particularly from the perspective of a future healthcare worker
Learn the relevance of organ system features in wellness and pathology
Understand how to engage in the study of anatomy from a system-based approach

Short version: I love anatomy and medical stuff, so I’ll read the back of a cereal box if it has a diagram of an organ on it (which would be really weird, btw). So I jumped on this self-paced four-course series. It wasn’t my favorite medical mooc, but I finished all four sections over about six months and fleshed out (sorry!) some of the fuzzier ideas I had from previous materials by using the course as an outline and exploring materials elsewhere, rather than relying on the materials included.

I’ve taken four prior anatomy moocs – Leiden’s course on the abdomen and pelvis, Louvain’s respiration mooc, Penn’s “Out on a Limb” covering all the structures involved in the shoulder and arm, and the encyclopedic Medical Neuroscience course from Duke. This latest suite of courses from Michigan had the advantage of covering everything in four separate but related courses; it had the disadvantage of being less engaging than the other courses. As a result, I watched the videos, then went off on my own to understand the material covered, making sure I had a reliable source, and that the information was the same as given in the course. I found The Noted Anatomist and Anatomy Zone particularly useful.

It’s one of the Xseries Programs, which means that when you go to the page linked above, you’ll find a price of $179 quoted for the group of four courses. But don’t be scared (at least not yet; the time is a-comin’…). It’s true, you can pay $179 and, assuming you pass the courses, get a Certificate and whatever benefit that affords you, but you can also take the entire thing for free, as I did.

Most of the graded material was in the form of short multiple choice questions, but several units also made extensive use of labeling cadaveric dissections. I have a terrible problem “seeing” anything in cadaveric dissections. They certainly have their purpose, since diagrams make things a little too neat and orderly in the interests of clarity, and they’re essential for anyone who’s going to be doing actual dissection (medical students, future anatomists). But the images – everything desiccated and monotone yellow – are incredibly hard to decipher without a diagram, or prior knowledge, to understand what is shown. Add to that the shrinking of the images necessary for packaging in the video, and I found them pretty useless. Other options, however, are limited. “Live dissections”, filmed during surgical procedures, are very rare at this level (there were a few in the Leiden course). Anatomical artist Frank Netter has made some extraordinary diagrams that bridge that gap, but those are protected by copyright and thus might be expensive (or impossible) to include in a mooc (the Penn course managed, but that’s Penn). Fortunately, there’s a wealth of material out there, and sometimes a casual hand-drawn diagram – or a video using 3D software to recreate structures – was just what I needed to understand how things worked together.

I found the Neuro course to be my favorite of the four, probably because I really like brain stuff. I finally feel like I have some understanding of the internal capsule, and subcortical white and gray matter in general. I learned a few more acronyms (“Two zebras bit my cupcake” for the branches of the facial nerve), and did a lot of detailed work on the cranial nerves. The cranial nerve nuclei were not part of this course, but I reviewed them anyway. I still don’t quite get the hippocampus, since drawings showing the separate layers seem to be completely different from the diagram of the external structure and I don’t understand how they relate, but that’s ok, next time.

And of course, Cerego played a central role in this course, since definitions and diagrams are right in their wheelhouse. I’m going to be editing these sets for a while, since sometimes I would capture something that turned out to be less than useful later. I need to re-do the branches of the thoracic aorta, for instance; I need to approach it more systematically, starting with the main branches and adding layers, rather than just using a huge diagram containing everything but the kitchen sink. I took the more top-down approach with the abdominal aorta, and it worked out quite well. Oh, and thanks to the GI system course, I think I finally understand the portal system. For some reason, I didn’t have it together for the bone course, so I’ll have to put bones in Cerego at some future time.

I always feel bad when I’m less than enthusiastic about a mooc, because, of course, opinions are subjective; I’m sure a lot of people find this series to be exactly what they need and are thrilled with it. Smart and talented people put a lot of work into these things and I’m grateful they’re out there; I need the course structure that even the best Youtube channel doesn’t provide. I did find it a valuable outline for learning. But there must be a better way to teach anatomy – or maybe, providing an outline, and letting students create their own learning (a term I hear over and over again in the context of math classes) is the best approach. As a preparation for further anatomical study, it’s probably as good an option as anything online. And for anatomy geeks, it beats cereal boxes with pictures of organs on them by a mile.

Pushcart XLII: Ben Stroud, “My Dear Master Liszt” from Oxford American, Fall 2016

Letitia Huckaby: “Lynnette” (2016)

I have become a slave owner. Yes, like you I believe in the freedom of all men—your Hungarians, the Poles, the Rumanians!—and in the role we artists must play—light-bringers, revealers of passion, sympathizers with the oppressed! But I have become a slave owner. It is a stain, a mark of rot. How many stains have I come to bear in these last weeks? They are countless.
I beg you, my dear Master Liszt, read this letter.

Complete story available online at Oxford American


Just as well-behaved women seldom make history, nice guys seldom make interesting protagonists or good fiction. It’s just the opposite, in fact: somehow the bad guy gets us on his side. This goes back centuries. I’m taking a mooc on Icelandic sagas, and have discovered 13th century readers of Grettis Saga wrote notes in the margins championing the lazy, vicious outlaw protagonist and cursing his eventual conqueror. For that matter, one of the original Western protagonists, Odysseus, was not a nice guy by many standards. But in fiction, as sometimes happens in life, a bad guy gradually worms his way into our hearts; we discover that, while he may act like a jerk, or even a criminal, he has moments of tenderness, or we discover some rationale for his antisocial behavior, or we admire his willingness to take the consequences; that helps us ease up on the judgment. In other stories, a basically good guy goes bad, and his initial goodness lets us stick with him.

In this story, I found I was completely sympathetic to Miszner from the opening. Who wouldn’t be? I was repulsed by most of his actions later on, but he recognized his disgusting behavior, so I was disappointed, but still with him as this is fiction and compassion is easier to come by than in real life. However, the last line of the story cut him off from my good graces entirely. On further reflection, I realized there are several ways of thinking about this story.

But let’s go back to the beginning. The story is in the form of a letter, obviously; does that make it an epistolary story? Epistolary novels are virtually always multiple documents, allowing for attitude change to occur in the gaps between letters. The changes here are traditionally narrated by someone who already knows the end when he sits down to write, so that changes things a bit. Still, the letter form is crucial, since it allows that last line, hearkening back to the opening. The narration throughout is therefore in the service of the ending.

Miszner is a young pianist who studied under Franz Liszt until he accidentally discovered the master considered him a mediocrity. That work leapt out at me from the text; Amadeus is one of my five all-time favorite movies, and mediocrity – the artist’s recognition of his own mediocrity – is crucial there, too. In fact, in many ways, Miszner reminds me of Salieri, though the Austrian achieved success in his mediocrity in one of the greatest musical cities in Europe rather than in Henderson, Texas.

I reached Henderson, Texas, the town I settled in, newly risen in those remote wilds, and the town from which these pages come.
Only in a place such as this, you said, might I be accepted as a genius—an ambassador of light!—a bearer of art, stirring passions in every breast! And, indeed, my dear Master Liszt, for fifteen years, in this far spot, it has been so.
Henderson has an academy, and for these fifteen years I have been its music teacher. To my students I proclaim emotion and the spirit as guiding stars, and for all the town I am a wonder, with my long hair, my twenty bright cravats, and my white gloves that, like you, I pull from my fingers and toss whenever I play. My townsmen consult me on the revolutions of ’48, the fashions of Europe, the duties of the heart.

Is this not genius? How we act and are perceived? It is not. Fifteen years, my dear Master Liszt. For fifteen years I have pretended to genius, only pretended. For this I have been punished. For this I have been made to pay.

I feel for this guy, who had so far to go before finding a pond small enough to make him look like a big fish. But I’m not convinced: he’s not talking about feeding his soul with music, but about feeding his ego with praise. The pursuit of the first, though foolish and damned to fail, is romantic and sad and beautiful; the second evinces a corrupted value system. And, more importantly, it is a choice.

Here is also where an alternative reading of the story comes into play. When, as a student, he asked Liszt what he should do if pianistic greatness is not within his grasp, the master suggests he go into his family’s business; lead a normal life, so to speak, and consider freedom from the demands of genius to be a gift. But Miszner is not satisfied with that answer, so he presses further, and Liszt suggests he travel the world to find a small pond. When does Miszner realize “you meant your words as a rebuke”? It wasn’t in the moment, or he wouldn’t have packed his bags that day and sailed in search of his small pond. Did he realize when he first shot the dead body of the hanging abolitionist? When he kept silent when the pregnant slave girl was gang raped? When her baby, now his property, died? Or only afterwards, when in his guilt and shame he realized the price of his pennyante fame?

I could have forgiven him even then. We all screw up, and to recognize one’s sin is to show a capacity for virtue. But redeemability requires one to accept responsibility and suffer the consequences, and here is where Miszner fails.

When I left your rooms in Baden-Baden fifteen years ago, I dreamed of transmuting my mediocrity into genius, of leading my fellow men as a noble artist, of living above the world like a heralding comet or star. Now I am stained with these guilts, these failings uncountable. Have you read on, my dear Master Liszt? I pray you have. It is why I write to you who taught me falsely, who sent me to this Texas. These stains, these guilts, these failings, they are mine. Yes, I own them. But you have a share, and my words—they have brought that share to you.

I’m still debating what words Miszner refers to. The advice to seek glory on a smaller stage? He knows that was his misunderstanding; does he blame Liszt for not being clearer? Or for mentioning the option at all? Or does he blame Liszt for recognizing his lack of genius, even though that lack was demonstrated to him in other cities, indeed recognized by himself, before he got to Henderson? Or is he just looking for any channel to release some of the guilt and shame, much as a beaten child sometimes turns into an abuser himself?

I became infuriated with that last sentence, with what I saw as cheap self-pity and the cowardly deflection of responsibility. But now I wonder if I was too harsh in my judgment. Then I read about Missy May and her doomed baby, and I wonder if there is any such thing as too harsh.

I continued to think about the responsibility a teacher, particularly a teacher of something so subjective as artistic practice, owes a student. I recalled a poem by Jeffrey Harrison, titled “Fork”, made into a top-notch video by some high school class:

You might even say your fork
made me a writer. Not you, your fork.
You are still the worst teacher I ever had.
You should have been fired but instead got tenure.
As for the fork, just yesterday my daughter
asked me why I keep a fork in my desk drawer,
and I realized I don’t need it any more.
It has served its purpose. Therefore
I am returning it to you with this letter.

The situation here is very different. Unlike Liszt, who was answering a question honestly, the teacher has major failings – the constant criticism and negativity, the use of students as a mirror, the flaunting of status – at least in the eyes of the student. Are those criticisms fair? Given that the student went on to become a successful writer, probably. What fascinates me about the poem, however, is not just the similar element of a teacher’s effect on a student of the arts, but whether or not the teacher was, in fact, detrimental. Without that teacher, there would have been no fork. Without that fork, would there have been a writer?

It takes a kind of genius to recognize and properly guide a student of the arts. I would guess that Liszt – the one in the story, anyway, though biographers tend to describe the real-life version as “complicated” and ‘contradictory” – lacked that genius. But I balk at the offloading of blame onto him. Yet it’s a story whose implications I’ll continue to think about, wondering who I’m blaming for my own failings.

Pushcart XLII: Jamie Quatro, “Belief” from Tin House #67

Makoto Fujimura: “Tree Grace”

Some mornings I wake up a Christian. On such mornings, upon waking, I feel a precognitive tug of joy in my body, a sense of delight I experienced regularly in childhood – my mind a blank page upon which someone is poised to write a message of bliss. On such mornings I know the tug of joy is a nudge from God, to remind me I am His child, I came to Earth trailing clouds of glory. How blessed, to feel divine approbation in my biological systems, unbidden. Today, out of gratitude, I will strive to please God with my actions.

If you’re anything like me, you’re tempted to skip out on the rest of the story. Forgive me, Christians reading here, but these days, people proudly announcing themselves as Christians tend to use their religion as a club with which to advocate endless mercy and compassion for those who look and believe like them while harshly punishing those who don’t. There are days when I have to remind myself that there are indeed many wonderful Christians who show generosity and charity of spirit. But not all days.

The second speed bump is that I’m not really big on traditional inspirational reading, either, so a story about a “tug of joy” makes me groan rather than sit up in anticipation. This is simply a matter of personal preference. I tend to be annoyed by people who have the world all figured out.

But neither of those apply to this story. It’s an honest look at the daily experience of one Christian woman, at the struggle she goes through to embody all those inspiring traits. Because even truly wonderful Christians who are full of charity, like this woman, flip out at cats that throw up on down comforters, carpool partners who are late, kids who whine about their math homework, husbands who can’t help much, and Jimmy Fallon’s occasional wrong note. So she ends her day envying the atheists of the world

None of them have to think about pleasing a divine being, no one is asking them to be grateful for anything… they are free to love, they loathe no one. Glorious. I fall asleep determined that tomorrow I will wake up an atheist.
Some mornings I wake up an atheist…. I feel only vacuity, the cold certainty that God is dead and everything I’ve ever felt of Him is the biological result of hormones, or a bright trigger spot in my brain, or psychology/wishful thinking, or what my parents told me. If I love anyone today, it will be the heroic effort of one tiny pointless accidental creature. There is no one watching, no one to please or displease. No mistakes or the need for forgiveness.
A lightness of spirit enters my being. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain….

I’m very fond of stories with non-linear structures: narratives in a mirror shape that end where they began, that spiral in or out, that form parallel tracks or condense then expand, in plot, point of view, or style. Here Quatro takes the former approach, turning it all around.

This is not only an interesting structure, but also brings home what I imagine to be her point (although it may be my point, foisted upon a helpless story): that the harder you try to be perfect, the more you will fail, but if you let it come naturally, you might find yourself capable of enormous wells of those beautiful Christian virtues like compassion and generosity. This brings to mind Confucius – yes, he lived centuries before Christ and had a completely different view of the universe – who said he spent his entire life training himself, through ritual, to do the right thing at the right time, and he finally got the hang of it at age 80 so he no longer had to think about it. This wu-wei, sometimes translated as “trying not to try”, has become popularized in a modified form known as flow. Maybe the woman in the story would think of it as “channeling God”.

Her day ends with an excellent plain-language description of Christian salvation. I was a Southern Baptist for most of my youth, and have read a lot of theology since then, but this gets to the heart of the matter without sounding vague or pretentious:

Before going to bed, it occurs to me that this all-encompassing compassion for humanity is what Christ taught and embodied…. The evil things they do cannot help but create a vast divide. But they should not have to bear the blame. It is not their fault. They have simply forgotten who they are. And as I am perfect in justice – all debts must be paid – I am also perfect in mercy, and therefore will become one of them and pay the cost in full. Breach the divide.

Every once in a while, someone will ask me why I spend so much time on this blog (“it’s so ten-years-ago” a friend recently reminded me). Among the many reasons: because sometimes I end up greatly enjoying a story I wouldn’t have bothered with if I weren’t committed to this.

A word about genre: I was again, as I sometimes am, confused about whether this was fiction or non-fiction. It reads like an essay, and Pushcart has it so listed, both by omitting the “Fiction” indicator and by the index. But Tin House, the original publisher, and Quatro’s own website, list it as fiction. I like that, and I’m going to go with authorial intent in this case. I want to speculate – and this is nothing but speculation on my part – that because the cat, and the homework, and Jimmy Fallon didn’t all happen on the same day, it is fiction, that to call it non-fiction would be that fast-and-loose thing I’ve ranted about before. Calling it fiction doesn’t diminish the reading experience one bit.