Pushcart XLI: Rebecca Makkai, “The George Spelvin Players” from Pleiades 35.2

Barnes Harlow was actually Jason something, but no one dreamed of calling him that. He was Barnes Harlow when he was robbed of the Daytime Emmy, he was Barnes Harlow all twelve years he played Dalton Shaw, Esq., and he was Barnes Harlow when, in that guise, he married Silvia Romero Caldwell Blake, poisoned his mother-in-law, opened a restaurant, burned down that restaurant, was drugged by Michaela, and saved the Whitney family from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Soledad shared these details with the core company, who sprawled exhausted on the stage. In the five minutes since Barnes had left the theater, Soledad had relayed the basic history of the fictional Appleburg, Ohio, and told them what Barnes Harlow looked like with his shirt off. “Not greasy-smooth,” she said. “Just, you know, TV-star smooth.” She swore her grandmother had tapes of the show, stacks of VHS cassettes in her basement.
“On a more professional level,” Tim said, “what did we think? Star-struck aside?”
Beth vowed to speak last. Last week in the green room, Phyllis had accused her of treating every conversation like a race.

Complete story available online at Pleides

“There are only two plots: A stranger rides into town, and a man goes on a journey” is one of the many writers’ aphorisms taken as gospel (QI credits this one, not to Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, but to a metamorphosis of an exercise from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction). In this story, the stranger is Barnes Harlow, former soap opera star come to a ragtag Missouri theater company. But I got sidetracked by something else.

In 2011, Makkai published a novel titled The Borrower, about a children’s librarian who either kidnaps or is kidnapped by Ian, one of her 10-year-old patrons, leading to a road trip (the other side of the stranger comes to town) that reverses with a single phrase: “They lost.” I read that book in 2012, and I still remember sobbing over my cheeseburger at the local pub where I was reading. I’ve been thinking of those words for weeks, maybe because I saw Makkai’s name in the table of contents, or maybe because I never forgot that moment, and I try to remember that, even though Ian returned home, the trip was not a failure but ended with a kind of slow-motion salvation. That librarian (and possibly Ian) is in this story. It’s not her story, but as a secondary character she allows for additional perspective.

I even see a structural comparison between novel and story: the story turns, reverses itself, on a single sentence. I know how that feels; does everyone? To have one phrase, one utterance, change the context, the mood, the background assumptions, the momentum of a gathering or a road trip or a theater company’s mission, a call to reality? It works so many ways in this story, with so many characters, it’s as if it explodes. Or maybe implodes.

There was a term Beth had learned in a sociology class, though she couldn’t remember it now, for a society where people had more than one connection to each other. In a big city, a guy would be your mailman and nothing else. But in a small town, he might be your mailman and your cousin and your neighbor, and his wife is your boss. She wondered what her sociology professor would make of the George Spelvin Players—who not only lived and worked together, but whose constantly shifting fictional relationships were also vivid, if not real. Beth had been Tim’s mother, his wife, his sister, his therapist. He had killed her in six different plays…. She wondered if what they were trying to do with Barnes, through this obsessive examination, was to weave him into their complex fabric. They refused to let him be simply a colleague. They wanted to envelop him: talent, legitimacy and all.

Beth has an additional relationship to Barnes once they sleep together, and it’s into this theater-world confusion about what is real and what is fictional that Barnes, cornered about his petty theft of multiple trivial items from everyone in the company, says the words that implodes it all: “You’re not real. I made you up.” And then, worse: “Did I make up that sex, or did I make up all the sex ever?”

Exit Barnes. As Soledad says, “Beth broke the soap star.” But exit the company as well; they disintegrate during the town performance of A Christmas Carol they’d been rehearsing (with Barnes hastily replaced). They all start quoting lines from random plays. And the librarian holds on to her Starbucks cup and smiles through it all (who wouldn’t; it seems hilarious to me), while a 10-year-old boy plays along. I don’t think the 10-year-old is Ian, but I’m happy that he could be.

By the way, the use of the name “George Spelvin” by an actor who doesn’t want to be associated with a terrible play, or a terrible theater troupe, is true. I hadn’t known that, though I was aware that “Alan Smithee” was sometimes used by film directors who didn’t want their name on a movie once the studio execs cut it for reasons having nothing to do with art. I wasn’t aware there was a similar tradition, probably an earlier one, in theater.

I’m thinking back over the works in this volume so far, and art seems to be a frequent theme. It might even be hidden in less obviously art-related works, like the poem “Elk” or the hornet article. I’ll have to keep that in mind as I read on.

Pushcart XLI: Shane McCrae, “Still When I Picture It the Face of God Is a White Man’s Face” (poem) from Poetry, Nov. 2015

Image by Joshua Tilghman after Michelangelo

Image by Joshua Tilghman after Michelangelo

Before it disappears
on the sand his long white       beard before it disappears
The face of the man
in the waves I ask her does she see it ask her does
The old man in the waves       as the waves crest she see it does
she see the old man…

Complete poem available online at Poetry

In McCrae’s bio entry on the Poetry website, I read “[his] attention to both meter and its breakage in his poems emphasizes the chafe of historical accounting against contemporary slippage, engaging this country’s troubling history and continuation of oppression and violence.” I can see elements of both in this poem: phrases lapping and overlapping as waves at the shore. The choppiness of the language adds to the disjointed images and messages we’re subjected to all the time, but perhaps more to the attention span of a child: everything is in the moment.

Thanks to a lesson I learned from “Spring Forecast” a few entries ago, I’ve never been more aware of the title informing the poem. Without the title, this could be any beach scene. Start with the title, and cute family drama becomes social commentary: we see the difference between the vision and imagination of the child who creates God in her own image, and the adult, aware (those spaces after white, twice) that interpretation of what we see is shaped as much by socially acquired imagery of what is the norm and what is other as by the reality of photons on retina.

Pushcart XLI: Lia Purpura, “Scream (or Never Minding)” (non-fiction) from The Georgia Review, 69:3

There are things I’m supposed to never mind. “Never mind” means silent and agreed upon, and that I must want, more than anything, to get through the day, and so should assent to go along. Glance. Turn the page. Turn away from a scream, and the place from which scream would rise, if cultivated by attention paid.
 
Subjects one might avoid: ruined land, ruined animals. Because the issues of the day can begin to feel old, and people get tired of feeling bad.
 
When I was a child I was not daunted. I let myself get completely exhausted.
 
Never minding makes it possible to do things like eat what you want, and talk about simple, daily things.
 
A scream is not speech.

I wasn’t sure if this would be considered an essay or a prose poem. Then I noticed that Washington College’s Literary House Press, who will be publishing it in a limited-run illustrated letterpress edition this coming fall, calls it a “lyric essay.” That’s a good description. We go from Munch’s “The Scream” to #419 and back again, and it hangs together beautifully though it may take some time to understand how.

As with several of the pieces I’ve read in this anthology so far, I was very aware of a kind of prescience in that the essay was written at least a year and a half ago, yet it’s painfully, tragically appropriate to now. Of course, I can’t rule out that I’m simply seeing everything as pertinent, no matter how far afield. But given all the recent screaming (including mine), I have to wonder: were we never-minding all along?

I learned a great deal about “The Scream” from this piece. I did not know that Munch created four different versions of the scene we all know, nor that one of them, a pastel, includes a poem, hand-written by Munch in two columns on its frame, a poem nearly, but not quite, identical to one he’d written in his diary three years earlier:

I was walking along the road with two friends
The Sun was setting – the Sky turned blood-red.
And I felt a wave of Sadness – I paused
tired to Death – Above the blue-black
Fjord and City Blood and Flaming tongues hovered
My friends walked on – I stayed
behind – quaking with Angst – I
felt the great Scream in Nature

I also did not know, until Purpura’s essay told me, that the location of the painting is an actual road in Oslo, one that, in Munch’s time, overlooked both a slaughterhouse, and the insane asylum where his sister lived.

I did not know any of this, and that surprised me, given the ubiquity of this image. Which is, of course, Purpura’s point, though she expands the scope well beyond art history.

Purpura points out how we’ve trivialized the painting, turned it into a joke, a t-shirt icon (not to mention a cake at the café Munch Museum). The power is too much, so we’ve reduced it to the never-minding of signifying upset without the messiness of being upset. She compares it to busts of composers in her elementary school music room:

I remember the bust of Beethoven and Mozart (and Haydn and Liszt and Chopin) in my elementary school’s music room. I couldn’t make any sense of them: a pianist with no arms; but joyless composer who wrote “Ode to Joy.” Their limbless bodies in marbly coldness. Stunted and chopped. I knew I had with a bit of neck was meant to be never minded. Another version of how-things-are-done. The men, canonical. The sculptures, memorial. A cliché of sight. I understood.
Still it was hard to see anything but severedness.

I’ve been in maybe two or three dozen music rooms over the years, and most of them had similar busts. Now I want to run into all of them – all that severedness! – and smash all those busts. Or melt them, I suppose, they’re probably plastic, cheaper than marble or plaster. She’s right; they don’t make sense. How did I never realize this before?

Munch’s painting looks very different to me now. As does #419.

#419 is a cow; that’s a tag in its ear; there’s a #308 right behind it, a #376, and a #454 – all jammed in the frame of the photo.. This must be a mixed lot. If I stand back just a little or, rather hold the newspaper out at arm’s length and unfocus a bit, the numbers fade and the cows are wearing bell-shaped earrings.If I shut my eyes, and shut many more things – doors in the brain, as if windows in cold – if I conjure up Heidi and green fields and milk pails, I can hear the little cowbells tinkling.

We see what we want to see because it’s easier when we sit down to eat a cheeseburger – as I do fairly often – if we don’t think about cow #419. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as we are all discovering now. Call it compassion fatigue, or settling for not-the-worst, or just plain not wanting to look. Never-minding has its costs, and eventually the piper must be paid. Then the screaming begins.

Pushcart XLI: Charles Baxter, “Avarice” from VQR #91

My former daughter-in-law is sitting in the next room eating cookies off a plate. Poor thing, she’s a freeloader and can’t manage her own life anywhere in the world. Therefore she’s here….
The simple explanation for her having taken up residence here is that she appeared at the downtown Minneapolis bus depot last week, having come from Tulsa, where she lived in destitution. She barely had money for bus fare. My son, Wesley, her ex-husband, had to take her in. We all did. However, the more honest explanation for her arrival is that Jesus sent her to me.

~~ Complete story available online at Virginia Quarterly Review

In February 2015, Charles Baxter published a story  collection titled There’s Something I Want You To Do. I first encountered a story from this volume, “Bravery”, in 2013 via the BASS of that year; I wasn’t sure what to make of it, since it seemed to have many elements but I couldn’t see the connecting thread. In 2014, also via BASS, I came across a second Baxter story and learned about the collection, which was not yet published. Each story was named after a virtue or vice, and included a request. If I may repeat myself (and copy a paragraph from my post on “Charity“), his 2013 Bread Loaf lecture considers how requests function in a story: requests take on social consequences, they reveal power relationships, and they force character-revealing choices upon us.

And now Pushcart brings me a third story from the collection, and I have learned something new: the stories are loosely connected in that several of the characters appear multiple times. Since I’ve only read three of the stories, I haven’t seen that, but I’ve read that both Dolores, our narrator here, and her son Wes, both appear in other stories.

So much goes on in this story – as it does in all of these stories Baxter included in his 2015, There’s Something I Want You to Do – yet I have trouble pulling it all together beyond the completely inadequate description of “Thought of a woman who knows she will soon die.” I had a similar inability to fully grasp the first story. Now I’m beginning to think it’s the collection as a whole that perhaps holds the answer, that show the thread weaving from beginning to end. But I could be mistaken. I’m afraid my inability to find a point of focus has replicated itself in this post; please forgive me as I ramble on.

I see several requests in this story, as I have in the ones before. I think the central one is a request that has not yet been made: Dolores will ask Corinne to be with her when the time comes. That is why Jesus sent Corinne, after all. Corinne seems like an odd choice, since she abandoned Dolores’ son Wes, her husband (now remarried), and Jeremy, her son, soon after Jeremy’s birth (if this sounds confusing, well, this family dynamic is indeed confusing). Tough she apparently supported herself by working as a nurse in another city for most of the 16 years since, she’s now described as a decompensating bipolar depressive of inappropriate appearance and manner. I wonder if post-partum depression is implied as the reason for her desertion years before, or if her mental health has been precarious all along. “How lovely is her madness to me now,” Dolores tells us, for her madness is how Jesus brought her here, just when she’s needed.

Dolores has her own tragedy as well. Her husband was killed by a drunk driver when Wes was very small. ” The socialite’s out of prison now, but my husband is still under the ground….” she tells us. And she admits she would have murdered the woman if she had escaped justice.

Looking at me, you would probably not think me capable of murder, but I found that black coal in my soul, and it burned fiercely. I loved having it there.
All my life, I worked as a librarian in the uptown branch. A librarian with the heart of a murderer! No one guessed.

I have no trouble believing that. I believe we are all capable of harboring murderous thoughts; murderous deeds are another matter. Dolores’ Christianity plays a major role in this story. I’m so used to reading stories about Christians who are saints or hypocrites, it’s nice to read about a Christian who seems to be merely human, more on the saintly side, but who cherishes the one sinful impulse she has. I can understand that. It’s the Tree in the Garden; if we can’t conceive of sin, what’s the virtue in not succumbing to it?

Avarice is woven through the story. Teenage Jeremy is outraged by the poisoning of elephant drinking holes in order to obtain their ivory for carvings. Corinne frequently rants about capitalists, her pension fund lost by greedy investors. And Dolores lays her husband’s death, not on drunken driving, but on avarice:

But I still think of that woman, that socialite, driving away from my dying husband, and of what was going through her head, and what I’ve decided is that (1) she couldn’t take responsibility for her actions, and (2) if she did, she would lose the blue Mercedes, and the big house in the suburbs, and the Royal Copenhagen china, and the Waterford crystal, and the swimming pool in back, and the health-club membership, and the closet full of Manolo Blahnik shoes. All the money in the bank, boiling with possibility, she’d lose all that, and the equities upping and downing on the stock exchange. How she was invested! How she must have loved her things, as we all do. God has a name for this love: avarice. We Americans are running a laboratory for it, and we are the mice and rats, being tested, to see how much of it we can stand.

Dolores describes how she and Corinne will walk through a variety of Minneapolis landmarks, ending in Father Hennepin Park. Father Hennepin was a French priest and, in the late 17th century, explorer who traveled from Louisiana to Canada tracing the Mississippi River, was captured by the Sioux Indians for a time, and published several accounts of his travels characterized by some as “highly embellished”. It’s possible there’s some connection, besides religious belief, between him and Dolores, but I don’t see it.

But I think his religious imprint, as well as Dolores’ faith, is central to this story, perhaps the collection, in a way I can’t quite parse. Buzzy Jackson’s Boston Globe review takes her faith seriously: “While the image suggests God looking down on this pious woman, the presence of Baxter himself, the Great Narrator, hovers over, too.” In LARB, Susannah Shive has a different take, one that draws on the character’s appearance in an earlier story (where she apparently has an interest in extraterrestrials) and characters from other stories and concludes, “[I]f we’re not willing to assert that faith will conquer nothing, we must align ourselves with an eccentric zealot.” I don’t see the Dolores of this story as eccentric, nor as that much of a zealot.

What draws me to this section combines the simple, natural beauty of the passage with narrative technique. One of the questions I always have with first-person narrations is: Who is the narrator talking to, or thinking at? It’s one of those suspension of disbelief traits of fiction, that we read without considering that, but it’s always present, and here it’s showcased with particular clarity as a leaf falls into Dolores’ lap and she narrates: “Here. I place it before you.” Baxter includes an image of a maple leaf, something I’ve never seen in Pushcart or BASS. First, who is she talking to? The reader, Corinne, God, some undefined “you”? Breaking the fourth wall, except in an epistolary work, is unusual. And second, why include an actual image for something as familiar as a maple leaf?

Henceforth my patience will be endless, thanks to the brevity of time. Stillness will steal over me as I study the world within. When I look down into my lap, I’ll see in this delicate object the three major parts, with their branching veins, and the ten points of the leaf, and the particular bright red-rust-gold color, but it’s the veins I’ll return to, so like our own, our capillaries.
I’ll finger the maple leaf tenderly and wonder why we find it beautiful and will answer the question by saying that it’s God-given.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at this leaf in her terms. What are the ten points? I’m looking and I can see 11 points, or 5 points, or maybe 27 or 29 points, but I can’t come up with ten points. The Canadian leaf logo has 11 points. The three major parts are easy to see as the Catholic Trinity, the similarity of veins suggests a unity of all nature, but what ten points? The Ten Commandments? There are ten stories in the collection, and in Jackson’s interview referenced above, Baxter admitted using the Ten Commandments as a structuring concept. And again I think the collection has a deep structure that is missed by chopping it up into individual stories, but now I have actual evidence.

The final paragraphs beautifully outline the simplicity and complexity of Dolores’ faith. I regret reading about her extraterrestrial eccentricity, because I see her, in this story, as a true Christian. Shive sees Narnia; being a heathen, I recall Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I also recall Marx: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.

Pushcart XLI: Shelley Wong, “The Spring Forecast” (poetry) from Crazyhorse #88

Soon, the sea. On the city corner,
     a tree asserts I am every
            shade of pink.
Like the inside.
     Dresses as transparent
as watercolor. Doors flung open
     
                  to receive gold arrows.
      (stringing the strings)
Skirts flare into bells. Hair
      like bougainvillea.

One of my first serious literary experiences in college (or as serious as one can be in Poetry 101) was a class on The Canterbury Tales. The instructor tried to convince us the Prologue had a sexual tone – all that piercing and bathing and generating – and I was unconvinced. I guess I’ve learned something since then, because I see a lot of the Canterbury Tales sex in this poem. Not to mention a bunch of other stuff.

But first – full disclosure. I was googling around looking for notes on the poem, as I always do, or at least an online copy so I wouldn’t have to type all those indents (I hate typing indents, though formatting them for blogging is even worse) and what do I stumble across but Jacob Weber’s blog post about this very poem. Jake has been a regular participant in my BASS posts for a couple of years, and this year, Pushcart.

We had similar overall impressions (with some big differences) of a walk down a city street to the beach in Spring, with romance blooming all around. I’d been thinking myself pretty clever for considering the ambiguity of “strings” as referencing music and/or Cupid’s bow, but he’d made the same observation so now I feel like a copycat. In fact, his analysis is certainly preferable, for anyone serious about poetry, to anything I’m going to come up with, so I highly recommend a trip over there.

I’d throw in some observations about the rhythm of the poem. “Soon, the sea” sets a wavelike rhythm in short phrases that persists until “Skirts flare into bells”, an appropriate phrase for a disturbance of regularity.

I also had a very different impression of the identity of the speaker. I was thinking it was a man, enjoying the springtime pulchritude, until he’s interrupted by a memory, a voice in past tense from somewhere inside his head:

Once, a stop sign
     
before the water. Once, he traced
     the arch of her foot.

And then it’s back to present tense. And I have to wonder: what happened at that stop sign? Is he an old man, remembering his own spring romance from days gone by? I hear this intrusive memory returning, maybe, with “Her hand / petaling open” and I’m imagining all sorts of things happening at that stop sign, from long-lost love to rape to a tragic accident. Is he on his way to the Island, where, though he won’t enjoy the scenery, he also won’t be tormented by this memory any more? Or where he won’t be bothered by temptation? And yet he longs for the pied-à-terre. Could this be a woman, recapturing a once-experienced spring blooming, with sweet nostalgia for the foolishness, and a not-terribly-serious wish to live in the midst of it forever?

The personage of the speaker became my focus. The poem references both “he” and “she”, and the syntax is irregular enough to put those in any context. But in the end, I’m left ambivalent. I always wonder, when I’m ambivalent, if it’s because I’m stupid or because that’s the point. We remember our youth in a certain way, and even when we romanticize it, I think we always know it was filled, not only with bursting pink, but with uncertainty and worry and pressures.

I had to smile at one of Jake’s comments about sexual excitement recast in a dark light, mocking the romance. I skipped right over theme of “niceties constructed to cover animal lust that leaks out anyway” and rushed straight to abuse and death. I went a step too far, I have to admit: the peach, “strings up” and the “offwhite leader”, well, I’ve been reading a lot about Reconstruction lately, so … I think I’ll leave it there. I prefer Jake’s interpretation of strings up: bikinis. Wish I’d thought of that.

I too wonder, as Jake did, if there’s some reference I’m not getting. I seem to be getting all kinds of references, and that’s even worse: The Canterbury Tales, To The Lighthouse, Prufrock, and The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, and I wonder why I’m trying so hard. Why can’t I just see this as a guy lost in a sexual fantasy as he walks along Main Street on his way to the island, and admire the poetics? Short answer: because I don’t know much about poetics.

In the end, I have no idea if this is a pleasant idyll, a bittersweet memoir, a social critique, or something else entirely. Bring on Emily: I dwell in possibility. But I do wish I knew what town I was in.

Pushcart XLI: Paul Crenshaw, ” The Hornet Among Us” (nonfiction) from War, Literature, and the Arts #27

The Japanese giant hornet is not the largest insect in the world, but perhaps the most fierce. It can grow to two inches in length, with a wingspan of three…. Here’s how the hornets work: scouts zoom around, searching for honey bee hives. This is all they do, from when they wake in the spring to when they hibernate in the fall. When a scout finds a hive, it leaves pheromone markers around it, which draw other hornets. When the others arrive, they begin systematically slaughtering the bees. A Japanese giant hornet can kill 40 honey bees in an hour. A nest of Japanese giant hornets, around 30 or so, can destroy an entire honey bee colony in a few hours. The hornets seize the bees one by one and literally slice them apart. They cut off their heads and limbs and wings and keep the juicy, most nutrient-rich parts, which they chew into a paste to feed to their larvae. They eat the bees’ honey and devour their young. They do not take over the bees’ hives or carefully consume all they have killed. They take only the flight muscles and other juicy bits and leave the heads and limbs lying around.

~~ Complete article available online via WLA Journal

As I read this, I wondered: does an insect even have a brain? Turns out it does, though it might be more accurate to call it a ganglion, a collection of nerve cells, rather than what we think of when we say “brain”.

A team of researchers at Macquarrie University in Australia consisting of a zoologist/neuroethologist and philosopher have hypothesized that an insect “has a capacity for the most basic aspect of consciousness: subjective experience.” That is, insects may experience a mental state, that it “feels like” something to be an insect. Maybe they wonder if these giant meat creatures who keep intruding into their spaces and swat at them have brains.

Crenshaw takes a more behavioral view of insects in this essay. As a lifelong entomophobe, I found it quite creepy to read about all the ways certain insects wage what can only be called war. I was a lot more comfortable with his etymological exploration of the word “hornet” in various constructs: it’s related to buzzing. He attributes Biblical references to hornets to Hebrew words for panic, or army. We’ve been observing insect behavior for a long, long time.

I wonder what it feels like to be the Japanese giant hornet destroying a honey bee colony, or an army ant, fire ant, wasp, or spider, the other insects whose behavior Crenshaw examines before turning to the most panic-inducing, war-waging creature of all.

When Rome fell to the barbarians, while the city was sacked and burned, while a thousand years of darkness set upon the western world, someone, looking at everything they had ever known fall, must have thought that the invaders in all their glorious multitudes looked like swarming ants. When Masada was surrounded, one of the besieged surely believed the Romans were hornets, alien, so far removed from humanity that they were of another world. When the Greeks stood at the narrow neck of Thermopylae, they must have seen the hordes coming for them, wave after wave after wave, as non-sentient, some form of mindless drone. And when the airplanes lit the night skies over Baghdad, a child, huddled in a corner somewhere, certainly believed that some creature from nightmare, from legend or lore or myth, had arisen like prophecy.

I know what it feels like, on this day, to hear the buzzing of hornets.

Pushcart XLI: Sally Wen Mao, “Anna May Wong Blows Out Sixteen Candles” (poetry) from Missouri Review #38.1

When I was sixteen, I modeled fur coats for a furrier.
White men gazed down my neck like wolves
 
But my mink collar protected me.

I bet men – and not a few women – are tired of hearing about the indignities of being female. And I’ll bet nearly everyone, including some of the woke, is shocked to find that Asians deal with racism, too. Well, the speaker of the poem doesn’t care what people are tired of hearing about, or what level of stereotyping others think is not too bad; she’s mad as hell and she’s not gonna take it any more.

The poem is one of a set of five poems concerning Anna May Wong, considered the first Chinese American actress. Her career started in the 1920s and moved from silents to talkies to radio and television, and while she performed in dozens of movies and almost as many TV roles (IMDB lists 61 credits), when it came to major roles, she was sidelines by whitewashing: the casting of white actors in non-white roles, a practice that’s still common today.

The conceit of the poem is the conflation of Wong’s 16th birthday and the speaker’s sweet 16 from 1984 [Addendum: See Comments – I missed a major reference here] with the overarching sense of the present. The concerns haven’t changed much:

                                                            ….It’s 1984
 
so cast me in a new role already. Cast me as a pothead,
an heiress, a gymnast, a queen. Cast me as a castaway in a city
 
without shores. Cast me as that girl who rivets centerstage
or cast me away, into the blue where my lips don’t touch
 
or say. If I take my time machine back to sixteen, or twenty,
or eight, I’d blow out all my candles. Sixteen wishes
 
extinguish and burn.

I don’t have much to add. Anna May Wong, and/or Sally Wen Mao, has done a pretty good job of speaking for herself. Most women do.

Pushcart XLI: Micah Stack, “The G.R.I.E.F” from Oxford American #89

OA Art: “Sleep” (2008) by Kehinde Wiley

OA Art: “Sleep” (2008) by Kehinde Wiley

                           “Pleurant, je voyais de l’or—et ne pus boire.
—Arthur RimbaudFull disclosure up front: I am a gay black man, a proud New Orleanian, thirty years old, five out of the closet, a decade on the down-low before that; bi-dialectal as every educated brother in this city must be, a code-switcher as needed; a poet in my spare time, in my unspare time a poetry teacher devoted to dead French guys and live black ones. Like most black men of my generation, I belong to the hip-hop nation, and like any sensible gay man, I’m ashamed at times to say I’m a fan. The homophobia, the drug dealing and gun toting, the bling and the misogyny—it can feel like stylized, repetitive ugliness, at least mainstream gangsta shit. But I’m an addict, hooked on one rapper above the rest: Mr. Stillz. I’ve memorized hundreds of his verses, seen the documentaries, the interviews, the countless clips of him recording in his psychedelic freestyle mode. I subscribe to the hip-hop mags because he decorates their pages. So naturally my theories ran buck-wild when the photograph surfaced.

~~ Complete story available online at Oxford American

Who hasn’t made a hero of someone known only from afar, someone who shares a grim aspect of life and has risen above it, someone who seems to embody a dream. Maybe a pop culture icon. Maybe a cool kid at school, a teacher, an activist, a historical figure. Someone who lights our path from a distance. And sometimes – if we can move beyond our own expectations and let the hero be who he is instead of who we think he should be – our path is lit by our idol’s failure to live up to our expectations: we know where not to step.

The observer-narrator of this story, introduced in that first paragaph, is crucial, yet fades into the background as he tells us the story of Mr. Stillz and his mentor, Tyrone. Another iconic relationship, mentor and protégé, and just as fragile – or not, if we can measure up – as hero worship. I think there’s a good dose of hero worship in mentoring, for that matter. And I think, in the best examples, it goes both ways.

The story is online and deserves to be read firsthand; I’ll assume it has by anyone who’s slashed through the above to get this far (I don’t know why I’ve suddenly taken to overly complicated syntax, except that’s just how this one is coming out. My version of hip hop, perhaps). Some readers will have a tendency to dismiss something rooted in an art form that often gets pretty nasty. I’m a 60-something white lady from New England whose idea of music is a triad of Palestrina, Mozart, and Simon & Garfunkel, what do I know about hip hop, but damn I loved this story.

The Trench Sweeper raps about what’s around him—Tyrone’s rims spinning like rotisserie chickens, his grandmama’s stoop where he’s trying to make a living. The bike he pedals on, the crack he’s peddle-ing; he can’t stand being broke, so he’ll fall for better things. He is a hustler—he’d rather die than to live average, even if he got to live savage. He was born to eat rappers like they came from McDonald’s, then he hollers Rest in Peace to his mama and Ronald.

In spite of the disclaimers about being ignorant of hip hop, I’ve become familiar with the linguistic fluency demanded of high-level rap through linguistics. It’s just as complex and rare a talent as composing an opera, a skill perhaps dating back to Homeric bards who used repetition and sound patterns to recite thousands of lines. Stack’s description captures it about as well as text can. Ahmad Trench, aka Trench Sweeper aka Mr. Stillz, uses what’s around him, including the pain of his life, to create art, to earn his tattoo The G.R.I.E.F.: The Greatest Rapper in Existence, Fucker.

Stack paints that pain in heart-wrenching colors as Mr. Stillz visits, post-Katrina, what remains of his childhood home, what remains of his childhood:

What they find is three concrete steps that lead to a porch and a flood-stained yellow door still in its frame. No roof, no walls, no house.
It’s not Mr. Stillz but Ahmad Trench who walks up those steps, who stares at that door that leads to nothing, just a yard littered with scraps of other people’s lives. Memory supplies the side of the house. Ronald perched above him on the ladder saying, Hand me that purple paint. They were fighting on this porch the day she died. Memory supplies her voice: We been over this, Ahmad, and his own: He ain’t my daddy, he ain’t blood. Then the El Camino, the ski-masked goon with the chopper, the gunshots and echoes. The house-front splattered with Ronald’s skull, blood sliding down the door into his mama’s hair.
A pelican explodes into flight with a squawk and Ahmad starts kicking the door. It’s still locked and he kicks it until the wood splinters around the deadbolt.
Where all the lights in my city go? he says.

And suddenly it doesn’t matter that I don’t really know what hip hop is; I know who Ahmad is, I understand this aspect of Mr. Stillz. This is what fiction can do. All our rage, our heartbreak, is the same.

But don’t forget, our observer-narrator is here too, whose emergence from the shadows at the end of the story – literally, as he seeks an autograph from Mr. Stillz in a perfect ending scene – ties everything together. Remember, he introduced himself as a teacher of French poetry. Now, if there’s one thing I know less about than hip hop, it’s French poetry, but that’s what Google is for. A Rimbaud epigram starts off the story. And here’s where things got really interesting. The quote translates to “Weeping, I saw gold – but could not drink.” I had no idea where that fit in Rimbaud’s poetry, but by the end of the story I could see perfectly well what it had to do with Mr. Stillz: he has all the talent in the world, but it could be destroyed because, against the homophobic backdrop of the hip hop community, he’s in love with his mentor and adoptive father. The inciting force of the story is the publication of a photo of the two of them kissing. Yes, it raises serious questions. But Rimbaud got there first.

One of the places I ended up in my online research (which, I agree, is nowhere near in-depth enough) on Rimbaud and Verlaine was a Kenyon Review article by American literary critic Jeffrey Meyers. See if any of this reminds you of Ahmad and Tyrone:

Portrait of Rimbaud by Jean-Louis Forain

Portrait of Rimbaud by Jean-Louis Forain

Rimbaud’s sophistication, poetic talent, and extraordinary ideas exemplify the mystery of genius. A brilliant young scholar in an excellent lycée, one of the best in France, he was intellectually confident. But his childhood left him emotionally damaged and mentally troubled. He came from a severely deprived background in the bleak town of Charleville, in northeast France, near the Belgian border. …He was stifled by his family and refused to finish high school, where he felt he had nothing more to learn. He made several attempts to run away from home, culminating in his third trip to Paris, where he began his torturous three-year relationship with Verlaine, poetic mentor, parent-substitute, and lover. ..,Rimbaud’s decision to derange the senses, including the most basic human emotions, seems willful and pathological, but was also rational and deliberate. He had a program: he would take drink, drugs, even poison; he would endure unspeakable tortures, commit acts of violence, become a criminal, risk losing his poetic insights, even risk death. During his years with Verlaine (1871-73), Rimbaud put his program into practice, experiencing exhaustion and starvation, filth and debauchery, degradation and disease, violence and destruction, while heightening his chaotic state with hashish and absinthe. …Rimbaud reversed centuries of cultural tradition. Instead of assuming that the artist’s task is to create order out of experience, Rimbaud believed the disorder of the poet’s mind was sacred.

~~Jeffrey Meyers, “The Savage Experiment: Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine”
Available online at Kenyon Review

A short time after the affair ended (with a gunshot, but I’ll leave that for the readers’ explorations), Rimbaud self-published “A Season in Hell” whence the opening epigram came. Specifically, it’s from the section titled “Alchemy of the Word” which has a definite relevance to Ahmad’s talent as a rapper (“I invented colors for the vowels!”), but a more poignant relevance to his personal agony : “Weeping, I saw gold – and could not drink”. Rimbaud soon stopped writing poetry and began travelling the world via various non-literary pursuits (soldier and merchant among them) until he died at age 37.

Why am I so obsessed with Stillz? Why him and not some “socially conscious” rapper? The critics claim he has nothing to say, but goddamn does he say it—the most stylish nothing. To hear him in his prime is to hear a man delirious with his talent, flinging out onomatopoeic neologisms, pop-culture references, dizzying internal rhymes, scat jokes, and witty nonsense, every bar a pun or a punch line. The critics are also wrong. There’s pain coursing through all his best music. It’s just hyper-compacted, snagged in a phrase or tucked under a silence. His soulful eyes brim with the sorrow of a sunken city, the sorrow of men like I once was: covering up shame with defiance, cringing in the closet. He’s my modern-day Rimbaud, and Tyrone’s his poor Verlaine.

Our observer narrator fades into the background until he’s needed, and then he comes up front and plops something like this down on us, moving between Mr. Stillz and Rimbaud like there’s nothing between them. And maybe there isn’t. A lot of the people who turn their noses up at hip hop, at rap as art, see French poetry in the same way. Let’s face it, artists are often on the edges of propriety, and when they aren’t, their characters are. That’s how art shifts the borders of the world. Art can soothe and comfort, can beautiful in meaningful ways, but painting “Nude Descending a Staircase” or writing Don Quixote – or performing an unexpected halftime show – can change how we see the world, maybe change art itself.

Stack put me right there with a French poet and a closeted New Orleans rapper. Because I swear we’ve all kicked at doors to nothing simply because they were the only thing around to kick at. I swear, I’ve been kicking at one lately, and there’s no end in sight.

Pushcart XLI: Robert Wrigley, “Elk” (poetry) from Conduit, #26

Photo by Inger Sjöberg

Photo by Inger Sjöberg

His hindquarters must have fallen through
the ice, and he could not pull himself back out
and the incoming colder weather
refroze the hole around him and he died,
sinking some, only his broad horns
holding his head and neck above the surface.

I’m always a little uncomfortable with nature poems – I feel like I’m supposed to be in awe of something, but I’m not sure what – but following the theme of “look beyond the surface of what’s in front of you” from the first couple of pieces in this year’s volume, I found several points of interest.
The narrative concern a youngster (I’m presuming), headed out to the frozen-over lake to skate before the forecast snow falls, who finds a dead elk stuck in the ice where he seems to have fallen through. Apparently this sort of thing happens a lot in Norway: the NRK calls it the fourth leading cause of death for moose, and once in a while, a school of fish gets itself naturally frozen. So I’d imagine it isn’t unheard of in Wrigley’s home state of Montana, either.

The poetic speaker seems to take it in stride. Things get a bit grotesque for those of us city folk who can watch homeless old men lie passed out on the sidewalk and read about shootings and stabbings of our neighbors and drone bombings of children in Yemen with mere disgust or sorrow or helpless rage but are appalled at the idea of a coyote eating the face off a trapped elk. I think it’s the face. Eating a leg would be gruesome, but the face is so much more personal. To the coyote, it’s just dinner; he doesn’t claim to be made in the image of God. What’s our excuse?

I see the poem as occurring in several stanzas, though it’s presented without any white space. Given my penchant for finding patterns when I’m not sure what else to do, I can see some similarities to both elegiac and sonnet form, complete with variations and shared structures moving from past to present to future, shifting attention from object to subject, from observation to speculation.

But I’m punching above my weight there, so I’d rather think about the meaning of two particular places:

A half-mile skate back to where I hung my boots
from a limb, a hundred yard walk from there
to the truck, in which I keep a bow saw,
which I could use to remove a wedge of pate
with the perfect rack, but I choose not to.
Something in the weariness of the bones
of his jaw, also the snow just now beginning.

I love that simple “but I choose not to” – present tense, single-syllable, a wall of will. But the speaker doesn’t try to claim more than he’s earned: he’s motivated partly by the distress he sees in the elk’s posture, but also by self-interest, because it’s just too much work. Had the snow not been starting to fall, had the saw been at hand, he might’ve gone home with the rack, and he doesn’t try to paint it otherwise. And by the way, that last couplet is one of the two-line turns in between two sonnet variations, as well as the turn of the overall elegiac structure. Because I can’t resist. And I’m trying to get the thought of what it’s like to saw an elk’s antlers off out of my head.

The final sextain also got my attention:

Although the coyotes may be back tonight,
to dig their way from the horns’ stumps
for the ears, which I notice are still whole and upright,
the left one turned slightly farther left,
as though, with the last of his miraculous
senses, he heard them coming over the ice.

Beginning with “Although” preps the reader for a second clause: although this, that. But there is no that, only this; the “although” connects to the prior lines. Past, present, and future are all brought together, speculation brings subject and object together once more as the speaker notices those ears and imagines what it might mean. The final line is horrifying, and brutally honest. Yet I wonder if the optimistic elk might have thought the sounds of approach predicted rescue rather than scavenge, and was cheered. And then I wonder if I’m really that determined to turn this into something hopeful, to avoid considering that we are all stuck in the ice and the sounds we hear are footsteps of coyotes rather than angels.

Pushcart XLI: Eric Wilson, “I Sing You For An Apple” (non-fiction) from New England Review, 36.2

Photo by Randi Ward

Photo by Randi Ward

When the phone rang that evening in 1978, I was caught off guard. “How soon can you be here in DC?” the voice was asking. I lived in Los Angeles. “And—you do know Old Icelandic, right?” Old Icelandic, spoken by the Vikings some thousand years ago, was extinct.
As I hung up, I wondered: How had my career come to this?

~~ Article available online at lithub courtesy of NER

What a charming memoir, I thought after my first read. Multiple amusing anecdotes told with a pleasant air of bewilderment shading to exasperation, moving from the personal to the universal by the end: That guy criss-crossing the country waving children’s books at esteemed professors isn’t just a character, he’s a national treasure, and the books serve an important cultural purpose. Look beyond what you see in front of you, there’s always more.

I should’ve paid more attention to that last bit: there is indeed always more.

Wilson was a professor of Germanic languages until universities started cutting programs like that in favor of… well, I’d imagine in the 70s it would’ve been contemporary philosophical theoreticians, because no one’s ever learned anything about the present by understanding the past (yes, that’s sarcasm, and for our daily dose of irony, now they’re cutting those philosophy courses to focus on business, computer science, and STEM. Don’t get me started). But Wilson made the best of it, forging a career as a translator which included, one summer in 1978, touring the country with a writer and political activist from the Faroe Islands at the request of the State Department, who wanted to be on his good side should his efforts to promote independence from Iceland succeed.

The title comes from one of those amusing anecdotes about Jacobsen’s visit: he wandered lost around the Grand Canyon on his own, finally running into a couple of fellow hikers, and asked them for help:

He had told other hikers, “I sing you for an apple!” People, sensing something was wrong, must have been solicitous of him, giving him water to drink as well as apples and perhaps even sandwiches. He told me he planned to write a memoir about his trip to America.
He would not entitle it the Faeroese “Eg sang fyri eitt súrepli!” It would be just what he had told the other hikers, in English: “I Sing You for an Apple!”

I saw the film “Arrival” a few weeks ago, after having read Ted Chiang’s story “The Story of Our Lives” on recommendation of a mooc friend. I’m not sure I’ve encountered two detailed examinations of translation difficulties in such a short time before. Between the language problems (which I’ll leave for those interested in reading about the difficulties of negotiating Faroese, Danish, and Old Icelandic) and Jacobsen’s eccentricity – amplified by his fondness for all varieties of American booze – Wilson had his hands full trying to shepherd him from place to place while explain everything from high-heeled shoes (which, I gather, aren’t worn in the Faroe Islands) to cornrowed hair.

The Internet wasn’t available in 1978, so Wilson had only the brief biographical sketch given to him by the State Department. Thirty years later, he googled the name:

At the time of his visit, I had no idea how important he was in his Islands, nor to what degree he was loved. In translating his books for the various professors we met with on our trip, I hadn’t realized the full magnitude of his accomplishments. This was a language that had come close to extinction; now thanks to the children it was being kept alive.
I scrolled through the list of his works, which was exhaustive. Plays, children’s books, works for adults. But nowhere did I see either “Eg sang fyri eitt súrepli!” or “I Sing You for an Apple!” So I realized it was up to me to tell his story.

As I do for all pieces I blog, I went looking to see what was available on Mr. Jacobsen. I thought
I might find an image to serve as a header, maybe a photograph, or the cover of one of his books. I did find those things, but I found something else, something that made him and his work even more personal to me. There’s always more, remember?

Wilson recounts a particular children’s book Jacobsen showed to a professor on his trip:

[T]he next thing I knew he was over on the young professor’s side of the table, presenting a small children’s book that I hadn’t seen before: Lív og Hundurin. On the cover we saw a girl named Lív and a blue-eyed dog with a long red tongue.
Lív æt ein lítil genta, hon var rund og næstan altíð glað. I was able to sight-read the Faeroese: “Lív was a little girl, she was round and almost always happy.” In the colored illustrations, Lív played with her dolls, and her friends Kára and Hanur and Eyð played with their building blocks—when one day Mamma opened the door and out of nowhere there appeared a blue-eyed dog. It smiled at Lív, a long bright red tongue extending down from its eager smile.

I rather sailed over that at the time, then later realized it was part of the effort to preserve the Faroese language in the next generation. But an article by writer/translator/photographer Randi Ward turned it into something far more significant:

Lív (1981) is a book-length poem dedicated to everyone who experiences loss. Lív, the Faroese word for life, was the name of Steinbjørn B. Jacobsen’s daughter. She was struck and killed by a vehicle in 1980 while visiting her father’s home village of Sandvík.
Steinbjørn sent copies of Lív to friends and family to thank them for their support. The volume was later made available to the public free of charge.

~~Randi Ward

Look beyond what you see in front of you, there’s always more.

Pushcart XLI: Dominica Phetteplace, “The Story of a True Artist” from ZYZZYVA #105

From video trailer for <em>A Book of Uncommon Prayer</em>, Matthew Vollmer, ed.

From video trailer for A Book of Uncommon Prayer, Matthew Vollmer, ed.

I was once a star on YouTube. With my friend Cam, we went by the handle Cam&Lo,
our videos were all variations of the same theme, which we created together. Most of the screen would show whatever videogame he was playing, with his joke commentary. The lower left of the screen contained a box that showed only the top of my head. Just my eyes, rimmed with liquid liner, and my blonde hairbow headband atop my black hair, I would make various exaggerated expressions, depending on what was happening with the videogame. That was my commentary.
At our peak, we had 800,000 subscribers. Which is a lot, though maybe not quite enough to justify calling myself a star. But I felt like a star. I got fan mail and hate mail. I got recognized at Celebcon, where fans would stop and ask to take selfies with the top of my head. My parents never understood what made our work popular and funny and interesting.
“I don’t get it,” they would say. “Can you explain that?”
“Exasperated sigh,” I would say. “If you don’t get it, then my explaining it won’t help. Shakes head.”

The thing about this story is how it keeps coming at you. Wave upon wave, every paragraph, sometimes every sentence, a six-layer cake of character, action, meaning, and it just never stops. It’s exhausting, and wonderful. Just like Lourdes. Hey, if you were named after Madonna’s kid and had “a large body and a weird sense of humor….brown skin and a poor family” and a craving to make art, you might never stop either.

A lot of readers might be put off right away by the details of setting and character. A couple of teenage YouTubers who speak their expressions? Shakes head! By the way, that was one of Robin
William’s many norm-shattering shticks as Mork back in the 70s, heavy sigh. But before you’re put off by the excruciating self-conscious pop-cultureness of it all, think about a few things.

For instance, think about what it means to be reduced to the top of your head. Granted, that’s a little better than being reduced to T&A, but not much. That’s what I mean about the six-layer cake: along with this image (and in spite of myself I keep imagining MST3 on Twitch), there’s this little thing about female objectification, another about race- and fat-shaming, then there’s the role of the sidekick (shakes head again! Nothing new under the sun), and of course parents – or readers – who don’t get it. Parents never get it, whatever their kids’ “it” is, clothes, music, books, Elvis, art. Beware of the parent who does get it, in fact. But to add another layer to this opening page, income from the eyebrows’ Taco Bell endorsement paid the mortgage for Lourdes’ family while her dad’s out of work. That’s an interesting family dynamic.

Then there’s the dynamic between Lourdes and Cam. Co-artists, sure, and of course it goes deeper than that, at least for one of them. Their art has heartbreaking dimensions: “One of our installations was the performance of trying to be popular.” What kid hasn’t dabbled in that genre? For that matter, what adult hasn’t seen the movie everyone’s seeing just to talk about it, or taken up golf because that’s what the boss does? For many of us, our lives are exhibitions of performance art titled “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, And Doggone It, People Like Me.” Art as a way of distancing yourself from your deepest fears.

But all that is just exposition. The story starts when Cam heads off for greener pastures – or, as he puts it, “to pivot mediums in order to grow as an audience.”

Cam ended us in first period.
In second period he was posting his first Vines.
By third. He already had 100,000 followers and counting.
At lunch I wasn’t sure who to eat with, so I went to the courtyard as usual.
“Facepalm,” he said when he saw me.
“Sigh,” I said.
“It’s just that the Popular Kids installation is going to be a solo work from here on out. Also, it’s now called Popular Kid, singular.”
I was too stunned to even say the words “stunned face” out loud, so I just turned and walked away.

I have to admit, knowing that Vine has, since this story was written, been shut down, gave me a little sense of Schadenfreude. Of course, Cam would’ve moved on to something else long before that announcement, but still it’s nice when Real Life adds an ironic twist to Fiction.

If the idea of Cam, with his good looks and rich family, leaving Lourdes, with her big body and her brown skin and poor family, behind to find real fame and fortune on his own seems high school, think of it as the 45 year old mother of two whose husband decides he deserves a 25 year old trophy wife, or the 55 year old handed a pink slip because he’s just not cutting it now that the market’s more tech savvy, or the erstwhile best friend who becomes scarce when her promotion means hobnobbing with a higher class of barflies at places no underling can afford. Transferability. It’s what gives this story the impact of a freight train.

And don’t forget the other layers. Lourdes has a virtual therapist. Let me tell you something: all therapists are virtual therapists. It’s a perfect little addition to this scene of art removed from all things artistic, of popularity removed from relationships, of people removed from what makes us human. When her virtual therapist tells her to find her authentic self, Lourdes runs out of time before she can reply that there is no authentic self (shades of Zhuangzi’s concept of wu-wei), so heads for the bathroom where she leaves graffiti as Marina Abramović, a 70-year-old Serbian performance artist so world-famous even I’ve heard of her. Lourdes knows how to pick role models, even if she does suck at picking best friends.

The story keeps coming back to art in different ways.

I often worry that only rich people can be true artists…. If it were just me, I wouldn’t fear homelessness. I would live in a dumpster and call it an installation. It’s just that I had two parents and two siblings and they would prefer not to live in a dumpster.I oftentimes worry that you can’t be a true artist if you have a family that depends on you.

Note the change in tone here. The artifice is muted, leaving nothing but a straight-up consideration of a topic that’s appeared in a variety of blogs and literary magazines from Toast to Salon and the New York Times (not to mention my twitter feed). Nonartists romanticize the Starving Artist trope or pronounce solemnly that maybe these artists don’t have talent, which ignores the kind of persistence needed to get a different artistic vision seen, let alone appreciated.

And what of artists who have a vision distinct from white middle class America? I’m not familiar with how it works in the visual arts, but we all know the Academy Awards is run by old white men who will tolerate only certain visions. In writing, there’s been a certain amount of activism recently to get writers of color and women more well-represented, starting with book reviewers and editors, but progress has been slow. Granted, this is some distance away from YouTube success, but who am I to say where the line is between art and entertainment. The story’s finest moments are to generate reflection about such thing, Is the value of art measured by the number of Likes or subscribers or income? and Who gets to make art (which follows from, who can afford to take those prestigious unpaid internships).

Let me slip in a word about the author, Dominica Phetteplace. I hope to see a lot more from her. She writes a lot of science fiction, and, be still my heart, she’s a math tutor. This just gets better and better. And I didn’t even know any of that when I read the story.

Back to Lourdes. If I’d seen a girl like her in Real Life – and, hey, I live blocks away from an Art College, I see girls like her all the time – I’d feel a touch of annoyance at the “look at me” desperation. But that’s what’s so great about fiction: I learned to see Lourdes beyond the hairbow. She’s naïve, she flaunts artifice, but damn, even when her heart’s breaking, she does the work, she plows through disappointment and fear and keeps going and turns her tears into art. If that isn’t authenticity, I don’t know what is. I hope she has the chance to grow into the artist she so wants to be. And that means I hope all the Lourdeses out there, the ones who aren’t fictional characters, have that chance.

I’m ambivalent about the final scene. Is she creating something new, or retreating to an old pattern? Has she allowed herself to be reduced to something else? Is that what every artist does, reduce themselves to a particular work, and it just becomes more blatant in performance art? Has she merged the authentic and the artifice? Is my ambivalence the point? Is ambivalence the point of all art – to raise questions, not to give answers?

Unlike BASS and the PEN series, Pushcart doesn’t order its material alphabetically. This story was chosen to lead off the collection; I think it’s useful to wonder why. Will questions about art come up throughout the volume? Is it meant to set a mood, to remind the reader of the paths the writers of the material between the covers have travelled to make it to our living rooms? To make us appreciate that, for the cost of three fancy coffees, we can participate in an aesthetic experience, even if we spend most of our day in distinctly non-artistic pursuits to pay the rent? To inspire? To give thanks? To remind us of all those, also worthy, whose art is not here for reasons having nothing to do with talent or artistry?

It’s a story about insecurity, love, financial pressure, abandonment, loyalty and not, revenge. It’s sad, funny, thought-provoking, inspiring, addictive, infuriating. All at once, coming at you, every paragraph, sometimes every sentence. Awe-stricken stare.

Pushcart XLI: Why Bother?

"Lost (albeit in a good book)" – anonymous Scottish bookartist

“Lost (albeit in a good book)” – anonymous Scottish bookartist

Every small press writer and editor knows the question: In the age of instant info, twenty-four hour entertainment, political blowhards and gigantic atrocities, isn’t there something better I should be doing with my life than struggling to create authentic and honest art?

~~Bill Henderson, Introduction

I’ve been having a lot of trouble getting back into the groove. That’s partly because this time of year is always unmoored by structure – in between moocs at the moment, in between readings, shakily navigating the two weeks when everything’s on hiatus for special holiday celebrations – but it’s mostly because the events past two months have left me with a dismal view of what lies ahead. Why bother with anything as frivolous as reading, contemplating, and blogging creative work?

Bill Henderson finds his answer to the question in the unidirectional persistence of writer Wendell Berry. I found a different source: San Francisco artist and Stanford lecturer Jenny Odell, whose advice to her Stanford students was retweeted into my feed a few days ago:

I may have mentioned before that I and other artists I know were unsure of what to do with ourselves after the election. We felt like what we were doing was trivial and meaningless compared to more direct political action. But in thinking about this incident, the reactions to it, and the larger situation it points to, I’ve come back around. As you leave this class, I want you to consider that making art and consuming art are in themselves political acts. By caring about art, you are taking a stand for everything in this world that is *not* obvious, that is nuanced, that is poetic, that is not “productive” in the sad, mechanistic way we now think about productivity, that imagines something different. You are holding open a space that is always under threat of being shut down.

~~ Jenny Odell

I wouldn’t presume to call anything I do here “art”, but I’d like to think my efforts contribute to some part of what is meaningful yet unmeasurable. I know what I do here has value for me; I’d like to think it occasionally has value for someone else, in that, for the past several years, I have focused more upon my reaction to a piece than on analyzing the literary technique, trying to model what it is to read for oneself, for understanding and enjoyment rather than for a grade.

Literature does not have to stay stuck in classrooms. Literature is not meant to be something taught to us by someone who “knows” what it means; it’s meant to be explored and discovered in a personal way. If I find something in a story or poem that elicits a memory, yet I can’t explain why I was moved (as happens at least a few times in every anthology), that has as much value to me – perhaps more – as the story that clearly demonstrates perfect five-part structure or outstanding mirror characters or sophisticated symbolism. I’m not reading to pass a test here; I’m reading for my life, just to read, and react, and understand and grow.

"Lifeline" Rajinder Parsad Singh Tattal, aka ‘Pen-Tacular-Artist’

“Lifeline” Rajinder Parsad Singh Tattal, aka ‘Pen-Tacular-Artist’

A few years ago, I came across a semi-surreal short story by Australian writer David Brooks (not the American journalist) titled “Blue”. I wish it was available online; I found it in the 1989 edition of Sudden Fiction International. It’s been on my mind a lot lately, as it starts in “a summer of fires and shark attacks” and shows how people work through, are driven by an inner need felt but not understood, to work through a drought. The story, just a couple of pages long, ends with a phrase that reduces me to tears every time I read it: “And we knew, all of a sudden, how terribly, terribly thirsty we had been.”

I expect we will all be terribly, terribly thirsty in the coming seasons. We will all find our ways to work through it, whether it be Wendell Berry or the words of an artist or blogging about contemporary literature and moocs or direct political action or following a snarky medievalist on Twitter or all of the above, and it all shows who we are and what we believe. So I head into Pushcart, not wanting to declare what is good and bad, but looking for new ways to read poetry and nonfiction, looking for new understandings and viewpoints that will show me, show anyone who looks, where the water can be found.

Keep Calm and MOOC: early 2017 plan

For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that – I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.

~ Sylvia Plath

So now the new year’s about to start, along with a whole bunch of new moocs I can bury myself in. Which is what I’ve been doing for about three years now, but this time, it might just save my life, or at least my sanity as 2016 leaves me drained of all hope for 2017. If that sounds like a lot riding on very little, well, yeah. But there’s nothing like wondering just how egg plus flour plus sugar equals cookie, or exactly how leukocytes know what’s bacteria to be killed and what’s a necessary body cell, or what Brunhilde means when she starts screaming “Ho yo to ho!” to distract me from impending nuclear annihilation and the end of what’s passed for democracy for the past 200-odd years.

As always, this is an approximate list. Somehow it doesn’t look like much when I write it down, but there are a couple of heavy-duty reading courses in there, and a math-heavy science course that’s already got me nervous. Plus my self-directed side projects, mostly math-related (Alcumus, Lemma), and reading –the new Pushcart is ready to go. I still might just curl up in the corner and stare into space with a blanket over my head, never let it be said I didn’t try.

Anatomy (Xseries)
Start: Self-paced, opens January 1  Rescheduled for Summer/Fall, 2017 4-5 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk per course
School/platform: University of Michigan/edX

Official blurb:

[Y]ou will explore human anatomy using a systems approach, and a vast library of multimedia materials, so you may understand the features of different organ systems in relation to the human body’s form and function.

Given the short duration of the four individual courses in this series, and the expected time expenditure per course, I would imagine they’re more generalized than some of the anatomy courses I’ve already taken. Then again, maybe Michigan just expects more. In any case, I haven’t previously covered some systems, and it’s always nice to review. The four individual courses are:
(1) Musculoskeletal and Integumentary Systems opens Jan Summer 2017;
(2) Cardiovascular, Urinary, and Respiratory Systems opens Feb Summer 2017;
(3) Human Neuroanatomy opens March Fall 2017;
(4) Gastrointestinal, Reproductive and Endocrine Systems opens April Fall 2017
Those dates have changed several times, and quite dramatically, since I enrolled.


U.S. Government – Foundations, Democracy & Politics
Start January 10, 2017 6 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: Purdue/edX

Official blurb:

Learn about the Constitution, political processes, and democracy in the United States and prepare for the AP United States Government and Politics examination.

Status: Dropped by 3rd lecture. Courses like this is why high school students think civics, history, politics is boring. I’m also in too raw a state to listen to phrases like “the welfare state” right now.

I laughed when I heard that the UK Parliament had produced a mooc about themselves (on Futurelearn) and cringed to imagine what a mooc created by the US Congress would look like, so I’m relieved this is by a university instead, which gives it more credibility (doesn’t that say a lot about government right there). It seems to be an AP course for high school students, but hey, why not, the about-to-be-real-life US government seems to be making it up right now so maybe knowing the rules is a good thing so I know how mad to be when they’re broken. I’m not sure I’m up for this; maybe it’s too soon. I have a feeling the forums are going to be quite, shall we say, energetic. But I’ll give it a shot.


International Human Rights Law
Start January 10, 2017
10 weeks, 6-8 hrs/wk
Instructor: Olivier De Schutter
School/platform: Université catholique de Louvain/edX

Official blurb:

Human rights are developed through the constant dialogue between international human rights bodies and domestic courts, in a search that crosses geographical, cultural and legal boundaries. The result is a unique human rights grammar, which this course shall discuss and question, examining the sources of human rights, the rights of individuals, the duties of States, and the mechanisms of protection.

Status: Inactive, may resume later. This turned out to be the course I feared the first one would be: a great deal of difficult, time consuming work for a goal of highly technical detail that I’m not sure I’m interested in acquiring. Because it’s self-paced, it can be completed any time in the next year, so I haven’t dropped it, but I have too much going on right now to approach it with the effort required; I may pick it up at some point in the future when I have less going on.

I so enjoyed (to my great surprise) the introductory International Law course offered this past fall by a different Louvain instructor, I decided to take some additional courses in their “Micro-Masters” series. The intro course or equivalent is listed as a prerequisite for this; that means, prepare to work (the intro course is offered concurrently). I’m not sure I’ll be able to give this enough attention, since a lot of moocs are clustered in January, but I’ll give it a try. And, ironically, due to current events, as a US citizen I might need to know more about human rights in the near future.

Fundamentals of Immunology: Death by Friendly Fire
Starts January 10, 2017
5 weeks, 7-10 hrs/wk
Instructor: Alma Moon Novotny
School/platform: Rice/edX

Official blurb:

What if your own immune system attacked you? Learn what can go wrong and how to deal with immune errors.

Status: Completed; good course, see complete comments here.

I missed the introductory courses which are recommended as prerequisites (I’ve heard good things about them from my mooc friends), and while they are archived, for some reason enrollment is closed. So I’m combing youtube, where there’s tons of fairly high-quality basic medical education info, hoping that will be sufficient preparation – and in any case, I’m having a great time. I’m looking forward to this.
Addendum: in the Comments below, Prof. Novotny has posted the course trailer – thank you!

Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science (part 1)
Start January 18, 2017 6 weeks, 5-7 hrs/wk
Instructors: Michael Brenner, David Weitz, Pia Sörensen
School/platform: Harvard/edX

Official blurb:

Top chefs and Harvard researchers explore how everyday cooking and haute cuisine can illuminate basic principles in physics and engineering.
During each week of this course, chefs reveal the secrets behind some of their most famous culinary creations — often right in their own restaurants. Inspired by such cooking mastery, the Harvard team will then explain the science behind the recipe.
Topics will include:
• How molecules influence flavor
•The role of heat in cooking
•Diffusion, revealed by the phenomenon of spherification, the culinary technique pioneered by Ferran Adrià.

Status: Completed (at least the portions that I found relevant to my purpose). Fun course. Full comments here.

I took a crack at this three years ago, the first year I went moocing. It was a nightmare. I was still trying to figure out how moocs work, I wasn’t prepared for the math and science, and ended up impatient with the cooking because of it – I mean really, if I don’t have the four cups of flour I need to make cookies, I just wing it, I don’t get out a calculator and figure how much moisture matches with how much starch. I’ve seen it run a couple of times since then, and always thought, gee, I really would like to try that some time. I’m not taking any formal math this quarter, and you know, sometimes you just gotta. It’ll kind of be a little self-check to see if I’ve gotten anywhere in math and science. I’m definitely better at moocing, so that might help.

Question Reality! Science, philosophy, and the search for meaning
Start January 31, 2017 6 weeks 2-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Dartmouth/edX

Official blurb:

What is reality? Explore how physics and philosophy have changed our perspective on the nature of the universe, matter, and mind over time…. This course is a project of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth (ICE), dedicated to transforming the dialogue between the sciences and the humanities in academia and in the public sphere in order to explore fundamental questions where a cross-disciplinary exchange is essential.

 

Status: Completed; see comments here.

I’m curious to see what this is. Sounds a little like the Einstein mooc, though probably with less technical material. Maybe closer to some of the puffball philosophy moocs I’ve taken, designed not to frighten people, and resembling a late-night dorm room bullshit session than a course. I never had the late night dorm room bullshit session experience since I went to a commuter school when I was in my 30s, was married and working. And I love phrases like “dialogue between the sciences and the humanities” though these usually turn out to be just a bunch of parallel monologues talking past each other. (as an aside: I’m re-reading this whole post just prior to posting; it was written piecemeal over several weeks, I’m seeing a great deal of cynicism; not surprising, but I’ve gotta keep an eye on that)

Dinosaur Ecosystems
Starts February 8, 2017
6 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
Instructors: Dr. Michael Pittman, Prof. Xu Xing
School/platform: University of Hong Kong/edX

Official blurb:

A global adventure to learn how palaeontologists use animal and plant fossils as well as living forms to reconstruct dinosaur ecosystems.
Using the Late Cretaceous fossil site of Erlian, China as an example, we bring you to the Gobi desert, as well as leading international museums and institutions to find out how we reconstruct dinosaur ecosystems.

Status: Completed, my comments here.

The folks at HKU, who I met last summer via their great Chinese philosophy course, are incredibly eager to create wonderful moocs, and that goes double for the Dino people – just take a look at their twitter account, @dinoecosystems. The problems for me are: 1) I’m really overbooked for this time period, and 2) I seem to have been born without the “Dinosaurs, oh cool!” gene. Yeah, I confess, I don’t like dinosaurs. I mean, I don’t hate them or anything, but I’m not particularly interested in them. However, with a team this enthusiastic – out of all the posts I’ve written about moocs from a students-eye POV, they’re the ones who showed the most interest in my opinions, even arranging a Google Hangout interview with me last fall – I’m willing to meet them half way. And it does sound pretty fascinating, more about scientific practice than dinosaurs per se. And it’s only a couple of hours a week. Let’s see what happens.

The Science of Religion
Start March 15, 2017 6 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of British Columbia/edX

Official blurb:

The course is based on the idea that religion is a naturalistic phenomenon — meaning it can be studied and better understood using the tools of science. Religious belief and practice emerge naturally from the structure of human psychology, and have an important impact on the structure of societies, the way groups relate to each other, and the ability of human beings to cooperate effectively.

I’m very much looking forward to this course. It’s by the same UBC department that did that wonderful mooc on Chinese philosophy (which I loved, per my comments), and in fact one of the same instructors is working on it; he’s said it’s all different material, so I’m very curious. It was originally scheduled for January, but moved to March; that suits me fine, since January was feeling a little overbooked.

International Humanitarian Law
Start March 21, 2017
7 weeks, 6-8 hrs/wk
Instructors: Raphaël Van Steenberghe, Jerôme de Hemptinne
School/platform: Université catholique de Louvain/edX

Official blurb:

Learn how international law regulates armed conflicts, protects individuals in wartime, including terrorism, and guarantees minimum compliance.

As with the Human Rights course, I decided to take this based on my experience in the prerequisite International Law course.

The Great War and Modern Philosophy
Start April 4, 2017
8 weeks, 6-7 hrs/wk
Instructor: Nicolas de Warren
School/platform: KU Leuven University/edX
Official blurb:

Learn how philosophers responded to the First World War and how the war changed philosophical reflection.
Students in this course will be introduced to different philosophical reactions to the First World War through discussion and analysis of texts, documents, images, artworks, film, and music. The relation between philosophy and poetry will also be explored. In this course, students will gain historical knowledge, conceptual understanding, and literacy for a clearer grasp of the complex ways in which philosophy and the Great War intersected.

Never has Yeats been more appropriate:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world….

Seems like an appropriate class for right now.

Introduction to German Opera
Start April 11, 2017 4 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: Dartmouth/edX

Official blurb:

Want to listen to an opera for the first time? Have you been listening to opera for your entire life? This course is suited for beginners and advanced opera listeners alike…. No previous knowledge of music or opera is necessary. Join us as we embark upon this community-focused journey to explore the wonders of German opera as it touches upon the human experience!

I greatly enjoyed the Italian opera mooc Steve Swayne led last year. In my post about it, I quipped, “Hoping for a sequel on contemporary opera, or maybe even German opera (with these guys, I might even sit still for Wagner… nah, probably not)”. Springtime for Wagner and Germany… perfect.

Antarctica: From Geology to Human History
Starts April 15, 2017
5 weeks, ?? hrs/wk
Instructors: Dr. Rebecca Priestley, Dr. Cliff Atkins
School/platform: Victoria University of Wellington/edX

Official blurb:

Take a virtual field trip to Antarctica, as we go on location to explore the geology and history of the coldest, driest, windiest continent on earth.

I signed up on impulse: this is Victoria University’s (NZ) first edX offering , so I’m curious. And I like earth science. And we might be the last generation to see the Antarctic before global warming turns it into beachfront properties with hotels and Luau nights and a big oil refinery right smack in the middle. I’ll have to see how the schedule fills out for Spring before committing fully, though

BASS 2016: Just What I Needed Right Now

 
 
Querida reader, ultimately I hope these stories do for you what they’ve done for me – at the very least I pray they offer you an opportunity for communion. A chance to listen, if not to the parrots of our world, then to some other lone voice struggling to be heard against the great silence.

~~ Junot Díaz, Introduction, BASS 2016

If there was ever a particular anthology I needed at a particular time, this was it.

Did I like it because I wanted to like it? I won’t rule this out. In fact, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. “Oh, you just want to like it because it’s multicultural” isn’t an insult. Why isn’t the desire to embrace different voices a good thing, something to be celebrated? I’ve enjoyed plenty of nice-suburban-white-lady-struggles-with-family-issues stories. I give middle-aged-white-guy-trapped-in-marriage-and-job stories the benefit of the doubt. And we all know there’s plenty of rich-white-city-folk-upset-about-something-they-did-to-themselves fiction. Why shouldn’t I, when starting a volume guest edited by a writer known for his promotion of diversity, look forward to something different? Why shouldn’t we all grab the opportunity to see the world through a different set of eyes, as much as we can?

Yes, I want to fight back against the global tide of nationalism in general, and in particular against the terrifying brand of neo-Nazi fundamentalist Christian white supremacy that’s becoming more entrenched in America every day since Nov. 9. But I also genuinely want to know more about what it’s like to be someone who isn’t me, and that includes differences in era, age, gender orientation, race, nationality, religion, language, class, aspirations, and fears. What does it mean to be a young woman, born in Ethiopia but brought to the US as an infant, to connect with her family there? How does life look to a transgender woman in Japan who confronts a figure from her adolescence? Who made these clothes I’m wearing, what is her life like, and what was she thinking about? What was it like during the Depression in America? Is there any way to see midwestern funeral thieves through the eyes of compassion? And invariably, though our lives may differ in major ways, there is some point of commonality to be found. I can learn something from all of them.

These are fictional people, sure, but the more we imagine, maybe the more we are open to the unfamiliar when we encounter it, and the less it frightens us. And by the way, I’d love to read some stories about neo-Nazi fundamentalist Christian white supremacists who struggle with decisions and consequence, if anyone out there writes some that aren’t merely megaphones for hate and power. I’m sure there’s insight to be found there, too.

I can’t begin to pick three favorites from this anthology; I’d say more than half of the stories were favorites in very different ways, and half of the rest were very close runners-up. So I’ll instead present my Sloopies, awards for my own private categories:

Story that made me change my epitaph: “The Great Silence” by Ted Chiang.

Story that’s come back to me every day since I read it: “The Politics of the Quotidian” by Caille Millner.

Story that told the truth underneath the truth: “Garments” by Tahmima Anam;
tie: “Ravalushun” by Mohammed Naseehu Ali.

Story that brought back a memory and made me cry: “Secret Stream” by Héctor Tobar.

Story that made me believe we can find compassion for everyone if we look closely enough: “Treasure State” by Smith Henderson.

Story that proved again the value of putting just a little effort into understanding what the author was doing: “For the God of Love, For the Love of God” by Lauren Groff.

Story of harsh reality told with lyric beauty: “On This Side” by Yuko Sakata.

Story of wild imagination: “The Bears” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum.

Story of everyday simplicity: “The Suitcase” by Meron Hadero.

Story that hit the perfect end note: “Williamsburg Bridge” by John Edgar Wideman.

We’ve all just about come through an annus horribilis that may wring its wretchedness out on us for years to come. I’m grateful for the moments of light I’ve been fortunate to encounter along the way. BASS 2016 was one of them.

Humblebragging: Intellectual Humility MOOC

Course: Intellectual Humility: Theory
Length: 3 weeks 2-8 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of Edinburgh/Coursera
Instructors: Various
Quote:

Faced with difficult questions people often tend to dismiss and marginalize dissent. Political and moral disagreements can be incredibly polarizing, and sometimes even dangerous. And whether it’s Christian fundamentalism, Islamic extremism, or militant atheism, religious dialogue remains tinted by arrogance, dogma, and ignorance. The world needs more people who are sensitive to reasons both for and against their beliefs, and are willing to consider the possibility that their political, religious and moral beliefs might be mistaken. The world needs more intellectual humility.

I’d never heard of a subfield of philosophy called Intellectual Humility before about two weeks ago; then, in the space of two days, I heard of it twice from two different sources. I’m sure that was just confirmation bias (see, I haven’t been doing all this for nothing); I’d probably hear the term before but didn’t remember it until I signed up for a mooc about it.

I haven’t been paying much attention to Coursera since they went with this new platform. But I do follow professors and departments from past moocs, and since I’ve taken a couple of Edinburgh philosophy courses, a series of cute tweets about Icarus and intellectual humility came across my feed and made me curious.

All material was released at once, so I ended up finishing in about 2 weeks. A few technical glitches, typical of first-run courses and not likely to recur, started things off: the course didn’t open properly, and since that was scheduled on a Friday, there was no staff to fix it until Monday; a couple of lecture videos and transcripts were out of place. The lectures themselves were clear; a couple of them had some minor issues – “place illustration here” instead of the illustration, for example, but they were easy to follow and visually appealing. Grading was done on the basis of multiple-choice information-retrieval tests of the take-as-many-times-as-you-want variety. Many academic articles were provided, mostly as draft versions of journal articles, which is a great compromise between open and closed access.

As is usual with Edinburgh courses, I found the overall course structure a bit confusing. They admirably try to accommodate different levels of interest and experience by dividing each week into Learn, Engage, and Go Further sections, but there are tradeoffs. It’s kind of hard to tell, but only the Learn part is required to “pass” if a certificate is all that’s desired. It’s pretty disconcerting when a notice suddenly pops up: “You’ve passed Week 2” – or worse, “You’ve passed the course!” – when half of the items on the task list were still undone. It’s not exactly conducive to covering the “Go Further” material.

I was startled, and absolutely delighted, to see an article incorporating Edward Slingerman’s Trying Not To Try, the supplementary text from the UBC Chinese philosophy course, as a starting point. I can see the point: can you try to develop humility? Doesn’t that lead to being arrogant about being humble? I haven’t fully digested the article, but it looks at anti-individualism, which is another topic I’ve been running into a lot lately.

The point of intellectual humility seems to be to get people to be more open minded and willing to look at facts instead of relying on things like “the people I like believe this so I do to” or “this is what my parents told me so it must be right” or “Gee, if that other thing is true, I’d have to change how I live, and I don’t want to do that so it must be false.” Good luck with that. The course results from a grant by the John Templeton Foundation, which, among other things, advocates civil discourse about matters of science and religion. Good luck with that, too. I’ve never seen the two as conflicting. No, I don’t believe the world was created in six days, but as far as I know, science can’t tell us what caused the Big Bang or what happened before, and I’m perfectly fine with the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen as long as no one tries to legislate them or teach them in science class.

I enjoyed the overview of morality, and the creation of a philosophical structure using one of four questions: What is valuable? What is a good person? What are good actions? What is a good life? with the other three questions are subordinated to the first. I rather enjoyed the week on measuring intellectual humility as well, though it seems it’s mostly in the self-report stage. I also liked that each week opened with a very brief introduction of the subject, followed by an opportunity to explore ideas without worrying about grades: short answer questions on, say, how intellectual humility could be measured.

Posting on the forums was plentiful – several interesting discussion questions were suggested, inviting but not requiring response. I tried, but found minimal interaction on points raised by lectures or applications thereof, lots of parallel monologues and opinions, and a couple of arguments. I missed the point most of the time. I don’t know if I’m clueless, if my bleak outlook is clouding my vision, or if the whole subject is truly much ado about nothing. It seems to me a lot of this belongs to the discipline of psychology.

Two additional modules, one on “practice” and one on “science”, are scheduled for 2017. I’m glad I took the course, given the minimal time investment, to get an overview, but at the moment I’m not interested enough to follow up; I suppose that may change by the time the future modules open.

Timing is everything. Edinburgh is in Scotland, of course, and the UK just went through their own upheaval last summer. I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that this course was scheduled for the period while we wait for the world’s (arguably) least intellectually humble person to take on the world’s (arguably) most important job. If anyone survives the next few years, some great research might result.

BASS 2016: John Edgar Wideman, “Williamsburg Bridge” from Harper’s, Nov. 2015

So here I am, determined to jump, telling myself, telling you, that I’m certain. Then what’s the fool waiting for? it’s fair for you to ask. In my defense I’ll say I’m aware that my desire to be certain is an old-fashioned desire, “certain” an obsolete word in a world where I’m able only to approximate, at best, the color of a bridge I’ve crossed thousands of times, walked yesterday, today, a world where the smartest people acknowledge an uncertainty principle and run things accordingly and own just about everything and make fools of the vast majority of the rest of us not as smart, not willing to endure lives without certain certainties. I don’t wish to be a victim, a complete dupe, and must hedge my bets, understand that certainty is always relative, and not a very kind, generous, loving relative I can trust. Which is to say, or rather to admit, that although I’m sure I’m up here and sure this edge is where I wish to be and sure of what I intend to do next, to be really certain, or as close to certain as you or I will ever get, certainty won’t come till after the instant I let go.

~~ Complete story available online at Harpers’s

I’ve always wondered why so many suicides pause on the ledge, or the bridge, or with a gun to their head. Then again, I’ve never watched someone commit suicide, unless you count the long, slow ways we all do to one degree or another. Maybe it’s just in movies and TV shows that this happens. Because once you decide, wouldn’t you want to get it done as quickly as possible? Wideman’s narrator recognizes the simple truth that certainty has different meanings on firm ground versus on the ledge.

It’s not a traditional story. Even saying it’s a stream of consciousness work doesn’t really cover it, because it seems pretty deliberately written, as though to evoke SOC without actually executing it. Topics loop from Sonny Rollins playing his sax on the Williamsburg Bridge during a long hiatus in his musical career, to the narrator’s family, to issues of race, to the women in his life.

There’s a lot of language play: the word “color” appears more than you’d expect it to (guest editor Junot Díaz calls it “a meditation on the extraordinary resilience of ordinary black lives in the American Century,” a resilience that is now under more stress than ever). Posterity and Pentecost are woven together, bringing in Habakkuk 1:3-4, a most pertinent Bible verse for this time if I’ve ever heard one. This story was written in 2015, remember. But not everyone was caught by surprise on Nov. 9, 2016.

On the other hand, no doubt color does matter. My brownish skin, gift of the colored man my mother married, confers added protection against sunburn in tropical climates and a higher degree of social acceptance generally in some nations or regions or communities within nations or regions where people more or less my color are the dominant majority. My color also produces in many people of other colors an adverse reaction hardwired. Thus color keeps me on my toes. Danger and treachery never far removed from any person’s life regardless of color, but in my case danger and treachery are palpable, everyday presences. Unpleasant surprises life inflicts. No surprise at all. Color says, smiling, Told you so.

I was trying to make some sense of this, looking for patterns or structure, and came up blank. So I did the easy stuff first, and went looking for images of Sonny Rollins on the Williamsburg Bridge with his sax. Then I went looking for his music, and it struck me, if ridiculously late: “bridge” is a musical term. It’s that piece in a song that you sit through waiting for the familiar verses and chorus to come back. Some people will tell you it needs to be put in a particular place, but I’ve seen a lot of opinions on that, including the “put it where you need to break the monotony”. I found lots of rules on various songwriting sites, rules that take on new meaning in the context of the story: Create an opposite mode to the chorus; move to a new key; let the lyrics deepen the meaning of the song; use the final chords to connect smoothly with what follows. Hmmm.

However, there is another approach. I asked my mooc friend Mark Snyder, a musician and composer, for his definition of a musical bridge. Among other things, he said: ” Watch for the surprise twist! That’ll be the bridge,” an idea that fits the story in at least three ways I can think of: the surprise twist to this guy’s life, the surprise twists within the substance of the looping narrative itself, and the surprise twist in the final paragraph. Theme as structure.

Then Mark told me a story about Walt Parazaider, saxophonist with the jazz/pop/rock band Chicago: he was asked to write a bridge in A flat, without any idea of what the song surrounding it was. It’s part of “Just You and Me” (about the 2:10 mark) and works just fine, so maybe the rules aren’t that important. Bridge as improvisation, a little something different, unexpected, to get from one round of you-know-how-this-goes to the other. I think this perhaps contrasts with the story, as the storybridge is intimately familiar with what came before, if not what came after.

And then there’s the last paragraph of the story. I’m tempted to quote it, but that wouldn’t be fair; the story is online, the link’s above, go read it. Talk about a surprise twist: is this the story we thought it was, or did we just go metafiction? Maybe the bridge comes at the end, an idea loaded with meaning in this context.

The bad news, and the good news, in one package: Everything we read reveals our biases. And through that knowledge, we can tame them. Or not: it’s a choice. I’m unfamiliar with Wideman’s work (why is that, I wonder?). The way I saw the narrator in my mind’s eye changed when he referenced his black father, at which point my expectations became an embarrassment, and a call to personal examination. This is the value, for me, of reading diversely. Another year in which BASS, which orders its stories alphabetically by author, ends on the perfect note.

BASS 2016: Héctor Tobar, “Secret Stream” from ZYZZYVA #103

“Hi,” Nathan said, insisting, because she was dark-skinned and pretty and he felt the need to know why she was trespassing on a golf course. “Excuse me, but… what are you doing?”
“I’m following the water.”
As soon as she said “water” Nathan heard it and felt it: the sound of liquid flowing, dripping, moving through the air, causing oxygen molecules to shift and cool. Looking behind her, on the other side of the fence, he saw a stream. About three feet wide and four inches deep, it curved around some bunkers near the seventh green, and then fell sharply, broadcasting a steady, metallic sound as it disappeared into a concrete orifice beneath Nathan’s feet.

Many years ago, in a world of virtual mountains, I knew a wizard named Ninjalicious. His hobby in the “Real” world was urban exploration: “going places you’re not supposed to go”, that aren’t direct routes from here to there, that live behind formidable doors and around ominous corners and up abandoned staircases. He and his urban explorer friends had a zine and a website and a guide book for the curious. His interest in these places started as a way to amuse himself during a childhood hospitalization, one of many he would have throughout his too-short life; he was about 30 when he died. I still remember him from time to time. He had firm principles rooted in a core belief expressed with respect and upheld with consistency, so I respected him. We weren’t close, or even friends, barely even acquaintances; I communicated with him perhaps twice on those mountains far far away, but something stuck. And now this story about two urban explorers unsure of what they’re looking for has brought his memory back to me again.

But urban exploring is just the beginning of what this story triggered for me. Like any recent convert, I’ve been a bit obsessed with ancient Chinese philosophy lately, and it so happens that water had a position of importance from the beginnings of Chinese history. The third Sage King, Yu, was so proclaimed because of his success at taming the Yellow River, preventing the floods that had devastated so much of the countryside for so long; thus controlling water, as I recently learned, became a metaphor for civilization. Laozi, Mencius, Xunzi, Zhuangzi all used water as metaphors for various forces: human nature, qi, dao.

Sofia was her name and she described herself as a “river geek.” She said she was mapping the creek that ran through the golf course. Also its “tributaries.” It was ancient stream, she told him, born from a spring at the base of the Hollywood Hills, “bubbling up from the underworld”. She showed Nathan her map, a series of blue pencil lines over a street grid she had pasted into her notebook. “It’s groundwater,” she said. Before reaching the golf course, the stream flowed into downtrodden Hollywood proper, around assorted industrial buildings and parking lots, and also through a junior-high campus and the television studios of KTLA. Sofia described all these things with a reverence that Nathan found disturbing: he sensed that she’d been doing this mapping expedition of hers alone, for weeks, and had never talked to anyone else about it until this moment.

When it comes right down to it, I can’t really say why I was so captivated by this story. Like Ted Chiang’s “The Great Silence”, it just struck something in me. I mention Ninjalicious and water because that’s what it brought to mind, but I don’t really know why I was crying by the end. Maybe it’s because, as Nathan admits toward the end, he can’t get out of his own way – “he preempted disappointment” – even when the water shows him the path. I know someone like that, too, another wizard from the Mountains. I’m a lot like that, in fact. Or maybe, as ZYZZYVA editor Oscar Villalon says in his introduction, it’s because it evokes a sense of something that can’t last, a sense I feel very strongly in this time when nothing seems like it can last much longer.

I’m a little haunted by the story even now, and I’m a bit embarrassed by that, since I can’t explain it, can’t talk about the structure of the plot or the language or any of the other technical places to hide from talking about feeling. Maybe that’s what the beauty of art is: it defies analysis and simply touches us.

Around the World in 77 Days With 13 Writers: World Literature MOOC

Calicut: Civitates orbis terrarum, 1572

Calicut: Civitates orbis terrarum, 1572

Course: Masterpieces of World Literature
Length: 13 weeks, 5-7 hours/week
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructors: David Damrosch, Martin Puchner
Quote:

This literature course explores how great writers refract their world and how their works are transformed when they intervene in our global cultural landscape today.
No national literature has ever grown up in isolation from the cultures around it; from the earliest periods, great works of literature have probed the tensions, conflicts, and connections among neighboring cultures and often more distant regions as well.

Feels like a really good time to celebrate cross-cultural exchange and the global community, eh?

If you’re interested in studying any of these individual works in detail, this probably isn’t the best place to do it. After all, how can anyone possibly cover a dozen works, some of them pretty massive, in twelve weeks? The course is more of an exploration of the development, purpose, and effect of this thing called “world literature” which is more than just a collection of books written in different countries. It’s a type of literature that relates the writer’s native culture to the world at large and/or examines how that culture is affected by, or affects, the world. Issues of cross-cultural translation, colonialism, cultural imitation, and national literary ethos of various eras and places predominate, as interpreted through various authors’ experiences of living in one, two, or multiple countries.

It’s a much more generalized viewpoint, at least in this mooc version, than most literature courses would be. I was mostly unaware of the existence of “world literature” as an academic discipline; I found it a highly useful introduction to the field.

I chose to take this as a “recreational mooc” and thus didn’t read much beyond a page or two of the works I hadn’t already read. Fortunately, I’d encountered most of them before. I also didn’t participate in the forums, though they were active and well-covered by staff. A multiple-choice information-retrieval style graded quiz finished off each week and constituted the grading for the course. I found the questions were well-selected to emphasize the main points of the interviews and discussions, and beyond covering the works themselves also covered the discovery and translation of older works, to authorial biography with more contemporary authors when those details impacted upon the literary outlook.

Each week involved about an hour of video material, both discussions between the two instructors about a certain time period, author, and work, plus an interview with a specialist in the particular writer – and in one case (Pamuk), an interview with the writer himself. The introductory week on Goethe, who the instructors consider the discoverer, or perhaps midwife would be a better term (in their words, “…we know that the birth of world literature took place in the afternoon of January 31, 1827 at Goethe’s house”) featured a walk-through of the garden house in Weimar where he spent a good part of his writing career, as well as a walk through other areas connected with his work. During the week of The Odyssey, Prof. Puchner generously braved sailing the Aegean Sea 😉 to demonstrate Homer’s settings. Most interesting to me, we saw a lot of Istanbul during the week covering Orhan Pamuk; I’ll say more about this presently.

As is natural, I preferred some weeks to others. Each week offered some new insight, of course, but in general I’d say the material covering works I had less familiarity with were the most interesting to me. I found the Odyssey and Borges material, works I’m quite familiar with, to be the most disappointing, though I did greatly enjoy the comparison of worldviews of The Lusiads to the Odyssey. We looked at several works from east Asia, and I was thrilled to recognize some concepts, a familiarity I would not have experienced just a few short months ago before this year’s China binge: the “testing system” of China, the classical emphasis on “rectifying names”, the interaction of Chinese philosophy and Buddhism.

I greatly enjoyed learning about Wole Soyinka through his Death of a Horseman. Since I’m not only unfamiliar with the work, but also unfamiliar with drama as a genre, and even more unfamiliar with the Nigerian rituals he incorporates into his work alongside British ritual, this was all new discovery. How fitting that during the course, Soyinka, who was once exiled from Nigeria for criticizing the government, who has held professorships at Cornell, Emory, and various other American universities, and has lectured at Harvard, Yale, etc etc., destroyed his green card and vowed never to return after November’s election. The man knows repressive authoritarianism when he sees it.

Another particularly insightful week covered Orhan Pamuk’s works. Again, I plead ignorance (I seem to need to beef up my reading of Nobel Prize winners) coming into the course, but I’m fascinated by the foundations of the two works discussed. In My Name is Red he uses the 16th century Ottoman Empire as a setting for a story about painting, and the transition from Persian miniatures, which use a top-of-the-minaret point of view and idealized style, to Venetian realism as a vehicle for discussing the change in Turkish culture in the 20th century after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI. I hadn’t realized the secularization and modernization of the “Young Turks” had included changing the alphabet; that’s quite a lot to deal with. Here in the US we’ve never been able to adjust to the metric system, I can’t imagine if someone tried to change the alphabet on us.

The other Pamuk work discussed, Museum of Innocence, was particularly interesting as it comes complete with an actual museum Pamuk prepared as he wrote the book, filled with 50s and 60s Turkish kitch and everyday doodads just as in the book, where the narrative is a tour of the museum of his beloved. An interview with Pamuk, the only author interview in the course, showed him to have a great sense of humor, and this comes through in his willingness to play with structure. I’m very fond of unusual structures that reinforce the theme of a work (actually, I’m fond of structural play for any reason, but it’s extra special when it’s thematically significant) so I‘m going to have to read these books. They’re the only new-to-me works from the course that I have a real desire to explore further. I’m intimidated, however; I’m not sure I’m up to such masterworks. We’ll see.

And today, as I write this post, I’m hearing the news, sketchy at best, of a bomb exploding outside a stadium in Istanbul. Last week, Istanbul was just the name of a place. Because of this course, it’s now a very real place to me, and I feel for the people there. Maybe that’s the whole point of studying world literature: to make them, us, not just to feel compassion and unity, but to understand, as through Soyinka, that whatever it is, it really could happen here. Not a very popular viewpoint right now, but maybe that’s why it’s important.

Overall it was a successful course, if in an unexpected way. If you’re looking for detailed textual analysis, this probably isn’t the place to get it, but I think it’s valuable for the broader view taken, and as such I’d recommend it highly.

BASS 2016: Sharon Solwitz, “Gifted” from New England Review 36.2

Maeva Fouche: "Pretty Ugly"

Maeva Fouche: “Pretty Ugly”

They lived across from a run-down park on a street they jokingly called Park Place. They drove older cars, drove as little as possible for the sake of the environment. They had a cleaning service, so they wouldn’t fight over who had left what where. But they rarely fought, in part because Allan was easy-going, in part because Thea was happy. Her job required travel (what fun!) but not enough to upset the applecart of the family. She made it to basketball games (Nate), violin recitals (Nate), and soccer matches (Dylan). When she was gone, Allan, who taught two courses a semester at a Research I university, took care of the boys. Amiably. Lovingly.

My first thought was, This is almost an excerpt from a novel. But not quite: it does have a trajectory, though not the expected one, that clearly begins and ends within the pages, so maybe not. Then I read in the Contributor Note that it’s from an in-process “collection of interrelated stories, or maybe it’s a novel in stories” which explains why it is, yet is not, a story-unto-itself.

To further complicate matters, it’s the second Solwitz story I’ve read. Here’s what I said about the prior one:

This story is part of a collection, apparently not yet published, written by Solwitz to chronicle the death of her 13-year-old from cancer: “A collection that shrieks, as I did not, Weep, world”…. you don’t analyze someone’s sacrament.

I’ll leave it there, with my best wishes that she finds the peace she seeks through these stories.

BASS 2016: Yuko Sakata, “On This Side” from The Iowa Review #45.1

Upon noticing him, the girl looked up with a hopefulness that made Toru feel apologetic. Suddenly he could smell his own body. He had come from making the rounds restocking vending machines and hadn’t bothered to shower at the office when he’d changed out of the uniform. With his eyes to the ground, he tried to squeeze past her.
“Toru-kun.” The girl stood up. Her voice sounded oddly thick.
For a moment they stood awkwardly together on the stairs. A mixture of soap and sweat wafted from her. Up close, Toru saw that her face was meticulously made up, her skin carefully primed and her expectant eyes accentuated with clean black lines. He was slow to recognize what was underneath. But then he felt his heart skip a beat.
“Masato?” he said.
“Hello.” As though in relief, she held out her hand, and Toru shook it automatically. Her fingers were bony but solid in his palm. “I go by Saki now.”
“Saki?”
More than ten years ago, in junior high school, she had been a boy.

Sometimes I hear stories. Not in the literal sense, as in listening to them being read, nor in the synesthetic sense of “tasting colors”. It’s more of an association, or a metaphorical impression. Some stories have loud pounding rock beats; others are accompanied by bluesy jazz. This one is very quiet, in a very loud way; a quiet that is insistent on being heard. A wood flute, or maybe a lute. A whisper; a secret. One secret, once deeply buried now spoken aloud; another, once shared, now kept deeply buried. A very interesting reversal of secrets. What secrets held today will someday be shared, and what loud proclamations will one day be hidden in shame?

Toru and Masato weren’t friends in school, but became loosely acquainted through the usual bizarre mechanisms of teenage romantic schemes. But what Toru most remembers about Masato is his leap from a third-floor balcony, a leap that caused great bodily harm and, incredibly enough, a reprimand for recklessness, since there were witnesses who saw him jump voluntarily. Apparently no one wanted to ask why a “quiet, fragile-looking boy who seemed to prefer solitude” would do such a thing. Turns out Toru, who only saw the aftermath, might’ve had a good idea as to what happened. Later, when Saki speaks of revenge, involving giant scissors, upon the bullies in her life, Toru squirms uncomfortably. I’m thinking she settled for justice, no need for scissors.

I like the way the story is told. It could be a simple A to B to C story, but instead it’s layered with a number of elements that add texture while underlining the quiet of the central plot. For instance, one of Toru’s jobs is cleaning graves for the Japanese holiday known as Bon, a festival in which the souls of dead ancestors return (hence the cleaning of graves) to welcoming fires, and on the final night, are sent back again by floating candles along the river. Saki joins him:

Saki contemplated this for a second. “Do you think it’s really peaceful there?” she said. “On the other side?”
Toru glanced at her. She was tracing the clean edges of the gravestone with her long finger. The sun was already high, and everything in sight had a bright shallowness to it. A tiny thunderhead poised over the distant treetops, but no shade was in sight. Just then, there was something so delicate about Saki that for a second Toru had an urge to shield her from the harsh light. He shook the thought away.
“I personally don’t believe in the other side,” he said.

It’s quite a nice fit into the story, this idea of souls returning from the other side, and whether peace is to be found there for those who could never find it here. As I read it, Saki returns, and departs with her mission complete. Toru, on the other hand, still seems stuck in his messy life, messy apartment, messy affair. Toru’s Bon work as a substitute for loving relatives who should be tending graves but are too busy, completes the picture: he cleans up after people too busy to worry about their past, perhaps to some degree cleaning up his own past.

Sakata’s Contributor Note mentions her sense of Japan as “simultaneously my own and foreign”, another nice fit for this story. It’s also a phrase I’ve heard frequently in the World Literature mooc I’m currently taking; just this week, in fact, that phrase was used about both Salman Rushdie and Jhumpa Lahiri in reference to the South Asian settings of their works. I hope that’s a good sign for Sakata; I like her voice, and I’d like to hear more of it.