Pushcart XLII: Keith Woodruff, “Elegy” from Wigleaf 9-29-16

(R.W.W. June 4, 1998 — July 14, 1998)
Early morning. As he enters the chicken coop, the hens are quiet but for that low steady clucking. Calmly, the boy reaches into the first nest and gently takes the brown egg. He wants to get in and out without rousing the hens. Three eggs in his basket now. His chore each morning before school.

Complete story available online at Wigleaf

We all have those moments when our point of view changes forever. Sometimes it’s a major paradigm shift (when I discovered what menstruation was, I realized the women in my life, the world in general, had been keeping this huge secret from me, and I wondered what else I wasn’t being told), sometimes it’s narrowly focused but has a strong impact (I watched a friend of mine walk away with a boy I liked, and I realized she was right for him and I was not). It’s like a photograph that’s suddenly enhanced, or recolored, and you can’t imagine why you didn’t see some crucial detail before.

Every morning they do this dance. The rooster is just doing his job. The boy gets that but feels they should have an understanding by now. That the rooster should back off and stop making his shit job of gathering eggs harder than it has to be.

Woodruff catches that moment with this flash fiction about a boy gathering eggs. One minute, it’s a tedious chore like any chore; the next, he realizes what an egg is. Years later, in the climax implied rather than written, he has a heart-rending moment when he finally understands the rooster, that the rooster’s job was far more than he’d realized as a kid. The title and epigraph, so easily overlooked in stories, are crucial, and provide the cavernous space in which the emotion of the story echoes and resonates, the different chords building and augmenting each other as we fully realize what’s happened.


Pushcart XLII: Christopher Citro, “It’s Something People in Love Do” (poem) from Sycamore Review 28.1

It’s a late film, not one of their best, clogged
with a love interest that never really makes
your pants itch, but when the Marx Brothers
keep the train moving so the hero can make it
to town to record the deed and afford to marry
the girl of his dreams, they chop the whole
damn train up to feed the fire.

Let me again plead ignorance of the intricacies of poetry beyond a few basics, and admit that I have no idea why this is written as a poem and not a story. What does the structure do for it? If I had to guess, I’d say it was a summary of the poem: the form, a regularity of even-length lines (but not necessarily even rhythms), versus the wide-ranging emotionalism of the content, just as the relationship it describes, measured by practicality and stability, encases a heart of passion and wild imagination that desperately wants to use a different yardstick:

What I am saying is maybe everything’s not
a metaphor for trying to pay the bills on time.
I love your credit score. It could pin my credit score
to the late summer soil and pee on its head.
My credit score would roll over and take it.
But what do you think of that chicken dinner
I made last night, how caramelized the thigh,
the bourbon from a plastic jug.

I broke the poem into three sections, of 13, 3, and 12 lines. The first section describes the movie (Go West), and then wham, we’re in the kitchen with these people, late at night, maybe after a fight about money, and there’s a capitulating honesty followed by an invitation to try the new yardstick. The final line kills me: imagine loving someone who needs this explained.

In the end, I gave up and read it as a story. It’s not available online via Sycamore Review, the original publisher, but those who can’t get their hands on a print copy (or a copy of Pushcart – local public libraries can be very helpful) might want to check Citro’s blog. It’s worth it. I love this poem/story.

It simultaneously makes me smile, and breaks my heart. And believe me, I’ve been on both sides, I’ve been the careful planner and impulsive romantic. I’ve worried about paying the bills when I should’ve been tearing the roof off and licking bourbon-laced chicken juice from my beloved’s mouth, and I’ve thrown caution to the winds when I should’ve been taking care of business. Maybe that’s the case here, too: this isn’t a permanent state of the relationship (that would be too sad), but a moment after a fight when readjustment is possible, a crossing of parallel paths to bring two sides back together. Or it’s a weasel worming out of the latest failure of responsibility. I’ve mixed those two up before, too.

Pushcart XLII: Rachel Cusk, “Freedom” from Paris Review #217

I asked Dale whether he could try to get rid of the gray.

I don’t know if times of political turmoil has unleashed supercharged creative forces, or if I’m reading differently, or if it was simply a great year for fiction; but here again is a story so packed with fascinating layers, I can’t quite hold it all in my head at once. As the title clearly states, is most clearly about freedom. The setting, a hair salon, allows for a highly metaphorical approach, yet the surface story retains a lot of tension, particularly right now: is the kid gonna blow?

I don’t know how most readers would interpret that first sentence; the setting isn’t established, so “get rid of the gray” could mean a lot of things. Cusk could have written it more clearly, but she didn’t; I’d assume we’re supposed to pick up some associations from the line in the absence of cues. It could refer to weather (turns out, the weather is indeed rainy and dark). It could refer to color in art or decorating or fashion. And it could, and does, refer to hair coloring. But “gray” brings with it all kinds of associations, most of them unpleasant: murkiness, uncertainty, age, decay. No wonder she wants to get rid of the gray.

Everywhere you looked, there was only the reflection of what was already there. Often I had walked past the salon in the dark and had glanced in through the windows. From the darkness of the street it was almost like a theatre, with the characters moving around in the bright light of the stage.

Being completely untrained in drama, I would consider this a play in two acts (or maybe it’s two scenes, seeing as I don’t know the difference). Start with the setting: the day is dark and rainy, the roads fading to black, but inside the salon, everything is light and reflection: white décor and mirrors everywhere (talk about getting rid of the gray!). We have three major speaking players, a bit part, and two silent but pivotal characters: a 12-year-old boy forced into a haircut by his mother, and said mother. The speaking characters are Dale, stylist and presumably the salon owner; his client, who as our first-person narrator goes unnamed; and Sammy, the woman who cuts the boy’s hair while Mom waits. The first act takes place before the boy enters, the second, after. As the dialogue proceeds, it becomes more and more evident: There is no way to get rid of the gray, but we keep trying, and convincing ourselves it was never there.

In the first act, the prelude to the boy’s entrance, Dale, our narrator, and Sammy discuss hair coloring, and by extension many other things, in terms of commitment:

‘We’re talking about a commitment,’ Dale said. ‘You have to keep coming back every six weeks. That’s a life sentence,’ he added darkly, his eyes meeting mine in the mirror. ‘I’m just saying you need to be sure.’
The other stylist looked at me sidelong with her lazy smile.
‘A lot of people don’t find that a problem,’ she said. ‘Their lives are mostly commitments anyway. At least if it makes you feel good that’s something.’

These are three interesting views of something as silly as hair coloring. Dale – who, remember, makes a living styling hair – argues against commitments as an infringement on one’s freedom (and expresses exactly why I have up on hair color long ago and just let the gray do its thing), yet his subsequent actions show he’s quite a control freak. Sammy, who also styles hair for a living, takes a realistic approach: we all have commitments, so why not take on those that deliver something enjoyable. Our narrator, the client wanting to get rid of the gray, serves as something of a foil to the other two, exposing a kind of phoniness embedded in both freedom and control.

Enter the boy, and now the play starts in earnest. Just his entrance, his passage from the dark outside to the bright, reflective inside, is loaded, as he holds the door open a little longer than Dale would like and earns a sharp rebuke. Turns out he was holding it for his mother, which means a classic double-bind. And that’s just his entrance.

Although most of the story is a philosophical discussion, the little details keep the tension high. The boy maintains a loaded silence during the haircut he seems forced into, his hands gripping the arms of the chair as the adults continue to discuss the burden of commitments and the limits of a freedom that seems far away for him. This is a kid with a lot to say, and no place it’s safe to say it.

It’s no coincidence the story ends with the door as well, and an explosive passage from the white reflections of the salon into the darkness of the rainy night. Because no pre-teen aching for just enough freedom to arrange his own haircuts on his own terms can take that much reflection, in the glare of that white-hot light, for that long. Much better to retreat into the gray, where he can learn about freedom, and obligations, at his own pace.

I should say that my impression of the story is a little different from that of Ross McMeekin, who discusses it in the Ploughshares “The Best Story I Read This Week” blog. Where he sees anger, I see an anger coupled with fear, the fear of becoming adult and laboring under the obligations freedom brings; and the fear that adulthood is nowhere near as free as he, at 12, believes it to be.

It’s a lesson we adults sometimes forget: while we think our childhoods were carefree, they, too, were loaded with obligations. The nice thing about being adult is that you have more choice about which obligations you take on, and more awareness of value of the freedom you give up to shoulder them.

Global History of Capitalism MOOC

Course: Global History of Capitalism
Length: 6 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk
School/platform: Princeton/edX
Instructor: group

Since the global financial crisis of 2008, there has been an explosion of interest in the history of capitalism. Some narratives focus on enormous waste, environmental destruction, overpowered corporations, exploitation of workers, or outrageous inequality. Others are more positive, telling a story about unparalleled prosperity, longer life expectancies, integration of markets, connectivity among peoples, and poverty alleviation.
In this course, we emphasize the complexity of capitalism over such neat narratives. By looking at capitalism through a global lens, we investigate multiple types of explanations and impacts on local, national, regional and global levels. We also examine a range of different topics deeply connected to the evolution of capitalism; including labor relations, migration, commodities, consumption, finance, war, imperialism, development, energy, and the environment.

I chose to take this course, on impulse, for two reasons: after my wonderful experience in the Oxford mooc on economics, I felt a bit more confident about venturing outside my comfort zone; and, I thought it might help to get a better grounding in the vocabulary I see whizzing by me in my Twitter and news feeds.

The course was structured a little differently from the usual lecture – > quiz. The class was presented as a roundtable discussion by six Princeton grad students obtaining their PhDs in History. I appreciate the effort to try new formats, and I think it was quite successful in that it was well-suited for students of different levels. The graded material was aimed at the lowest common denominator, so for those like me, who really don’t know our commodities from our fiscalizations, there was ample opportunity to at least understand the playing field. But the readings, discussions, and posted discussion questions would allow those with more background to go into far more detail.

I did meet my goal of understanding the vocabulary better, and followed most of the history. I also found it monumentally depressing, since it seems to me we’re doing everything wrong. A few things surprised me: I’m not the only one who thinks growth is not the yardstick by which we should be measuring the economy, for instance. I was particularly depressed to find that, globally, economic inequality has improved (sort of mirroring Steven Pinker’s assertion that the world overall is a better place now than ever before) , mostly due to the rising middle class in Asia, but within individual countries and economies, inequality has increased.

Each week started with a brief overview of the topic by the grad student who would lead that week’s discussion. A set of articles or book chapters was presented for pre-reading, and the grad students discussed the issues raised in a series of three 15-minute videos. After each video, a few graded “knowledge check” questions were posed, and at the end of the video series, several ungraded quizzes of varying formats – short answer, drag-and-drop, identification – helped provide more emphasis on the basics for those of us who needed it. Several discussion questions based on the material were also posed. The discussions tended to be above my level, so I didn’t participate, but peeked in to see some of the responses.

Three exams of 20 questions each, spaced every 2 weeks, made up the bulk of the grading. These weren’t hard, but did require reading the assigned articles as well as understanding the videos. I was a little bothered by the notation on the quizzes: “If you did not get the score you were hoping for, please return to this page after 8 hours and try again.” Coursera does this as well. I’m not sure why it bothers me; I certainly benefit from it, since it allows me to fix mistakes, figure out if I truly didn’t understand something or if I just got one thing confused with another, and mooc grades are pretty irrelevant anyway, but somehow it takes the fun out of it. Maybe I’m just an academic masochist. In any case, I would have passed even without the mulligans, and I’m not taking my final score as any sort of indication of my true understanding of capitalism.

The discussions went something like this:

>>So like — I guess like we’re talking about specific institutions inside the state, right? So we could be talking about the International Monetary Fund or — I mean, like, I guess like what — I always push, I don’t know. Like, I guess the state, for me, can be so many different things and there are so many different parts to it. So I guess I’d just like to say like — I’m not sure I can like answer it but that we have to be maybe a little bit careful about what exactly — which part of the state we’re talking about.
>> So I think Levy sort of answers that by talking about the Federal Housing Administration —
>> Right.
>> And also about the government conceding, sort of, more ground corporate companies and allowing for mortgages on a private level. And, I mean, part of his story, interestingly, is, sort of, the public sector seeking ground to private profit-seeking which is still an action or, sort of, something the state creates but it doesn’t realize that it’s doing it. It’s an unintended consequence.

A graded question would cover when the IMF was set up, rather than the details in the discussion. Someone who really lives for this stuff would have a great time, but me, it’s all I can do to keep the IMF and WTO straight because they’re really very different and were set up in completely different circumstances. And I’ve never understood the FHA, but turns out it wasn’t essential to do so. See what I mean about different levels?

I think it was a successful course, and I quite liked the unusual format; in general, I appreciate it when courses try something a little different. Don’t be afraid to give it a shot even if you’ve a beginner who never heard of Bretton Woods (I kept thinking of it as Birnam Wood, very different thing) or if you have never understood the implications of the gold standard; it’s a way to make a start. And if you’re conversant in these things, I think the different theories discussed could expand your understanding as well.

Pushcart XLII: Daniel Harris, “Zombies” (nonfiction) from Salmagundi 190/191

Historically, there are two entirely unrelated types of zombies, one dull and quiescent, the other rabid and infectious. There are, on the one hand, the somewhat soporific zombies who shuffle around such films as White Zombie, Revolt of the Zombies, and I Walked with a Zombie – macabre colonialist cautionary tales from the 1930s and 1940s often set in a tenebrous Caribbean where evil voodoo mesmerists resurrect dead slaves. On the other hand, there is George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead in which, after a returning space probe from Venus explodes in the upper atmosphere, spreading either radioactive contamination or Venutian microbes, the dead arise to cannibalize the living. This one low-budget cult classic inspired a feeding frenzy that culminated in thousands of films, novels, video games, T.V. shows, apps, tshirts, action figures, board games, pet costumes, collectible dolls, mutant Mickey Mice, and cookie jars with lids made of slate grey ceramic brains – the spawn of a mercantile pandemic for which there is as yet no known cure.

Confession: I’ve never seen a zombie movie. I have, however, read Bennett Sims’ zombie novel, A Questionable Shape which is more about philosophy, art, literature, and the nature of our relationships to each other, and to the world (it’s a great book). And Manuel Gonzales’ short story collection The Miniature Wife featured a couple of zombie stories that also were about things other than zombies. So while I’m travelling blind in some areas of this essay, I recognize other points quite handily. I found it quite enjoyable, since I prefer thinking about what zombies mean, and why we’re so obsessed with then, to actual zombie adventures. And that’s what the essay is: an examination of zombies as an expression of contemporary culture, the zeitgeist of our discontent, if you will.

The essay goes on for seven or eight pages, comparing zombie movies and gross-out movies (Animal House, American Pie), the connection to gamers, the importance of the bite in symbolic and cinematic terms, plot, connections to ancient literature (Homer, Hesiod, Virgil all incorporated the undead), and the relationship to contemporary movements such as anti-urbanism, individualism, and libertarianism. It’s all quite interesting, if not particularly moving.

And then we get to the final paragraph, where the boom drops:

Why does a culture of plenty obsess over scarcity? Do we feel we are living in a fool’s paradise, that plenitude is unsustainable, that we have pushed the planet beyond its limits? The comforts of civilization are fraught with anxieties about hardship and distress, fears that manifest themselves in popular culture, in novels and films that imagine a world depleted of its resources. Global warming, pandemics, nuclear war, terrorism, pollution all contribute to our sense of the precariousness of our affluence and privilege, apprehensions that lead us to create obsessive scenarios of decimation, annihilation, apocalypse. Zombies are the scolds of prosperity, loquacious lay preachers who remind us that the whole complex structure of civilization could collapse in an instant and we could find ourselves, between breakfast and lunch, scrounging for our next meal, even as they scrounge for theirs, us.

I don’t think that’s specific to zombie lit, however. Doomsday books and movies have been a staple of pop culture for decades, and, as pointed out in the essay, disaster/ghost/horror stories go back to the beginnings of literature: what is the story of Adam and Eve if not the ultimate universal doomsday scenario? What is the Theogony if not a horror story? One of the differences between Eastern religions and philosophies, I’ve learned in my mooc travels, is that the West views humanity as flawed, needing rescue from a supernatural source, and history as linear, while the East sees the universe as cyclical and people as capable of finding the right path to internal peace without supernatural intervention. Yet Eastern literature has its share of ghost stories, too.

In the worst of times, we fret about our demise; in the best of times, we fear it won’t last. Our awareness of the inevitability of our own death – often cited as the difference between people and animals – takes many forms. Zombies are one way we assure ourselves that not only are we not really gone, but that we can bring our friends with us, whether or not they want to come along.

Pushcart XLII: Teresa Dzieglewicz, “Stranger, Thank You for Giving Me This Body” (poem) from Rhino, 2016

Art by Élie Nysquisot

Art by Élie Nysquisot

                                    to break
on Lakeshore Drive. For the eyes I turn
                  to the radio as the lady
in the red SUV slams
                  on her brakes. Thank you for bringing me
into this world,
                  where my Pontiac crumples
like crepe paper, where the airbag’s white fist
            pummels my chest and burnt talcum erupts
                        like confetti, stains my clothes
with the scent of singed hair.

Complete story available online at Rhino

We’ve all heard that, in a moment when one expects to die, our lives will flash before us. The speaker in this poem has a slightly different vision: a thank-you note to the unknown woman who bore her, then gave her up for adoption.

Like the prior poem, two related but separate threads are overlaid and seen together, like seeing two translucent panels together, each contributing something to make an impression that is neither. Here, it’s stark life-and-death imagery, the gratitude overlaying pain.

I found this poem to be a great example of the use of structure to reinforce meaning. The jagged line indents perhaps bring to mind the shattered glass and ruptured steel of the car around our speaker (and let me admit that I haven’t precisely reproduced the poem’s format; but since an online version is available, I merely approximated the indents). I’m not sure if there’s a technical term for using the title of a poem as a first line without repeating it in the poem proper – a special form of enjambment, maybe? – but it seems to give a sense of a muddled beginning, something a little different but easily comprehended, similar to how an adopted child might view her own beginning.

The poem reads like a grateful prayer, a recognition of something that may not always be acknowledged. I wonder if the title is worded as it is – “thank you for giving me” – to bring to mind forgiveness, perhaps in both directions: the child and mother forgive each other for whatever wrongs they may have perceived in the past: the child forgives the mother’s abandonment, the mother forgives the child’s anger. Whatever rancor may have been, it is gone now: the essence of forgiveness.

By tracing the negatives –

But I mean, I’ve learned no name
      for how we’ve never sat across a table,
            fingers greasy with fries,
                  how it wasn’t you who read to me each night,
                              taught me to make pizzelles and Sunday gravy,
rushed to the emergency room.
                  But still, somehow, I know you
by the beautiful facts
                  of my fingers, my cracked sternum, the skin of my chest
            purpling with fireworks of blood.

– the positive is acknowledged: even though the beginning confuses us for a moment, it began something beautiful. May we all have such gratitude in our final thoughts – and a little before wouldn’t hurt, either.

Pushcart XLII: Carolyn Forché, “The Boatman” (poem) from Poetry, October 2016

We were thirty-one souls all, he said, on the gray-sick of sea
in a cold rubber boat, rising and falling in our filth.
By morning this didn’t matter, no land was in sight,
all were soaked to the bone, living and dead.
We could still float, we said, from war to war.
What lay behind us but ruins of stone piled on ruins of stone?
City called “mother of the poor” surrounded by fields
of cotton and millet, city of jewelers and cloak-makers,
with the oldest church in Christendom and the Sword of Allah.
If anyone remains there now, he assures, they would be utterly alone.

Complete poem available online at Poetry

Poets can be inspired by all sorts of things: a heroic moment from history, a graceful Grecian urn, daffodils, a mouse, a louse, a nightingale. Or a cab ride through New York courtesy of a Syrian refugee who tells his story. Forché tells us in the audio reading that accompanies the online version of this poem.

Since I’ve just taken several history moocs that looked at the Levant and at medieval Islam, I was interested in the geographical references of the poem. The city of Homs, familiar to us from the news, is the “mother of the poor”, so called in modern times because the cost of living was low. The Sword of Allah refers to Khalid ibn al-Walid, a compatriot to Mohammed and military hero in the early decades of the Islamic Empire; his mausoleum in Homs is bordered by a mosque named in his honor. The “oldest church in Christendom” is more problematic; as far as I can tell, the oldest known church building is a house church in Dura-Europas, not Homs; Syria was part of the Byzantine empire early on, and thus was an early site of several forms of Christianity, so perhaps “church” is being used in the congregational, rather than architectural, sense.

In any case, places and names are merely background; the heart of the poem is clearly deeper.

A brief discussion by Poetry Magazine editors Lindsay Garbutt and Don Share in their October 2016 podcast helped to align the poem for me. The two journeys – one a flight from war to an uncertain destination, a flight that is possibly more deadly than what is left behind but still offers possibility; the other, a simple transit – are overlaid in the poem, resulting in a kind of melding of one small facet of the experience: the putting of one’s safety in the hands of another for the duration of the trip. We get to hear a lot about refugees through newscasts, commentary, and debate, but this is an attempt to let us hear more directly, albeit filtered though the poet’s ear, heart, and mind, from one man who managed to arrive safely, and now spends his day ferrying others, bringing them safely to their destination.

Leave, yes, we obey the leaflets, but go where?
To the sea to be eaten, to the shores of Europe to be caged?
To camp misery and camp remain here. I ask you then, where?
You tell me you are a poet. If so, our destination is the same.
I find myself now the boatman, driving a taxi at the end of the world.
I will see that you arrive safely, my friend, I will get you there.

The connection between cab driver and passenger, between refugee and harbor, is beautiful and devastating. Any one of those people we see on the news could become our shepherds; and, believe it or not (and I fear it becomes more believable every day now), we could find ourselves on troubled waters, looking for a safe place to come ashore. We are not just our brothers’ keepers: we are our brothers, every one.

Pushcart XLII: Stephen Hess, “Act” from Noon, 2016

Art by Anne Rosenvald

Art by Anne Rosenvald

Last spring, I declared to several of my friends that I intended to videotape myself performing a variety of basic, yet highly artificial acts. At the time, I had settled on three specific scenarios; reading the entirety of Thomas Berhnard’s novel Yes aloud, attempting to erase every spot of snow cover on a stretch of sidewalk with my footprints after a winter storm, and walking through city streets to the point of injury, yet continuing on until the pain became unbearable….At the time, I was feeling melodramatic and depressed, and was also filled with such intense anxiety that I could not speak or write clearly, so I felt that recording myself would allow me to articulate a statement that would have otherwise escaped me, and for reasons I cannot explain.

At least two or three times during each Pushcart read, I come across a piece that is so far beyond me, I can’t even begin to comprehend it. This piece is a case in point. At least two complicating factors cloud the field: genre, and a discovery I made while doing research to find a way in.

It’s a short piece, about four pages. Most of it is navel-gazing about intent and failure of execution, none of which yields any real insight or conclusion; a list of other projects never done, and a self-addressed letter, closes the piece.

The point is that I wanted to document something but I didn’t, but I did the things I proposed to do anyway, so I can’t say whether I lost or gained something….

That phrase, “The point is that I wanted to document something and I didn’t” appears twice, and in such a short piece, that must be significant.

About genre: There’s no narrative structure, no protagonist, no rising action – climax – falling action. Yet it’s listed as fiction. Pushcart has been known to be a bit sloppy about categorizations. Here, it makes a difference that seems significant to me, because more than anything else it reminds me of Andrew Zolot’s “The Piece Need Not Be Built”, a nonfiction piece from Pushcart 2014, an art commentary that made a huge impression on me. I keep thinking this is a natural offshoot of that: a performance artist’s commentary on, not his work, but the absence of it.

But for some reason it makes a big difference to me if this is an essay written for that purpose, or if it’s fiction about an artist writing such an essay. I wonder if there is a big difference, or if it’s just part of me trying to categorize everything, if the fiction is so out-of-the-box I can’t handle it so I want to put it in another box.

The other complicating factor is an article I uncovered while wandering around the interwebs looking for something I could use as a way in. This itself was complicated by the prominence of Brookings Institute Fellow Stephen Hess, who is, I’m pretty sure, not the same as the Stephen Hess who wrote this piece, but the Stephen Hess I’m trying to find – using the usual tricks like “fiction” or “writer” or “author” doesn’t help since the Brookings Stephen Hess is also a writer – is something of a phantom. I finally came across a piece in Unsaid by Hess, in very much the same style as this piece, with a heading “RIP Stephen Hess 1980-2015”; if this is factual and not some artistic manipulation, the author died at the heartbreakingly young age of 35. But being enmeshed in the Andy Kaufmanesque world of what-is-art-and-what-is-life (a realm Unsaid and Noon and, it seems, Hess himself, generally inhabit) I wasn’t sure what to think. I finally ran into a post by Elizabeth Ellen, who nominated the piece to Pushcart, that confirmed Hess did indeed pass away in 2015.

And this opens up another puzzle: was he ill? Did he know he would die soon, and this piece foreshadows that, is the kind of legacy an artist leaves to document intent when the act is not documented? Or was it unexpected, and this is all coincidence? Am I being ghoulish even thinking about such things, on this day after 17 people, including several teenagers who were doing nothing more risky than attending school, were murdered because the values of this country are now greed and violence?

I do not wish to offend; but I am confused and more than a little heartbroken. Maybe at some future point we will all regain our senses (too late for me, I fear, but I hope for the sake of your children and grandchildren) and I will see clearly.

Pushcart XLII: Valerie Sayers, “Tidal Wave” from Image #90

In the early days of integration, when only white girls tried out for cheerleader, our elections were a cross between small-town participatory democracy, Soviet-style anointment of the chosen, and the Miss America Pageant. We sat rapt in the bleachers while the candidates cartwheeled in front of the whole school, flashing their white panties. Then we trooped back to homeroom to cast our votes.
We were chatterers, smarty-pants, A-track girls who raised our hands on one beat and never let the boys get a word in edgewise. We would never be cheerleaders, but we knew what it took: a cheerleader didn’t need to be pretty, though most of ours were pretty, as a matter of fact, and a cheerleader didn’t need to be athletic, though some of ours weren’t too shabby in the handstand department. A cheerleader only needed to exude unshakable self-confidence and, maybe as a corollary, to beam bubbly friendliness and make it look like it wasn’t fake—we knew all about fake friendliness. We were growing up in South Carolina, for God’s sake.
All our stories are unresolved high school stories.

Complete story available online at Image

A sense of place: that’s a buzzphrase used a lot in discussions of fiction. The place doesn’t mean just physical or geographic location, but encompasses time and culture as well. The American South seems to come up most frequently in discussions of place. Flannery Connor spent her career building on the sense of place that was her South. It’s no surprise that Sayers herself heavily influenced by Connor; it’s only slightly surprising that the English teacher in this story, Mr. Thigsby, is partly based on Sayer’s own English teacher from her years at Beaufort High School, novelist and Southern fiction specialist Pat Conroy.

Mr. Thigsby said we were ignorant little yahoos, the way we slathered on baby oil and roasted ourselves at the beach, when for centuries poets had known the most beautiful skin was alabaster. Look at Botticelli’s Venus, look at Vonda Freeman, for goodness sake.
So we all did. We twisted in our seats toward the back of the room, where Vonda’s face had turned one of those fiery shades that is certainly not alabaster. She wore an expression we had never seen on each other’s faces, a combination of pain and shame and sweetness, and she stared down at her desk so assiduously that Mr. Thigsby said: Vonda, sugar, I most certainly did not mean to put you on the spot, but now you have perfectly illustrated feminine grace.
Later, we all agreed that when she finally allowed herself to look up that day with her slow-breaking smile, her eyes darted toward Margaret Washington and Marcus Toomer, who stared out the window as assiduously as Vonda had stared down at her desk while the white folk discussed the perfect shade of pale.

Many of us who grew up in the 60s and early 70s know this place, or something like it; not necessarily the South, but a place that was part of the Moral Majority, disapproving of hippies and integration and antiwar protests. Many of us knew the hero-worship of cheerleaders. And most of us are aware that poor kids tend to be isolated, though sometimes they have enough charm, beauty, smarts, or talent to become stars. And sometimes, they use the setbacks along the way as some kind of platform from which to push off and rise to extraordinary heights. As Vonda does.

It’s a story of regret, told by one of the crowd of students whose white middle-class lives are fully planned out for them. While we spend a long time in the past, the story is a recollection from much later. Facebook plays an interesting role, as both a marker of character, and an indicator of the group ethos of the students who haven’t really changed much from high school. The story has a pronounced sense of regret, as they see how Vonda has cut her own path, and it seems much more interesting than the Atlanta suburbs, high school reunions, and serial marriages. The narrator – who speaks in “we” but somehow remains separate – seems to have felt regret even in the past, but wasn’t equipped to do anything about it. Her regret in the present is even more pronounced.

What if we’d done things differently in high school? We all wonder that. If we’d stopped worrying about seeming “cool” (or whatever the current slang might be; doesn’t matter, it’ll be something else two years from now), if we hadn’t been so careful to not be shocking (or, maybe, if we hadn’t been so determined to be shocking, since it works that way, too), if we’d ignored all the advice and gone with our gut. We might have turned into Vonda. And, admiring the NPR story about her, the narrator knows what she might have passed up.

Arab-Islamic History mooc

Course: Arab-Islamic History: From Tribes to Empires
Length: 9 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: IsraelX/edX
Instructor: Miri Shefer-Mossensohn
You and I are about to embark on a journey through 1,000 years of history. This is a pre-modern case of global history, spanning three continents and the lives of millions. We’ll visit some of the sites where historical events occurred. We’ll learn about regimes; we’ll learn about people– men, women, children, who walked the streets of the Middle East. We’ll be accompanied by some of the best scholars of the pre-modern Middle East– colleagues from Tel Aviv University and from other institutions here in Israel, the US, and the UK. You’ll have ample opportunities to enter the historian’s lab and have hands-on experience in playing the historical detective yourself by reading excerpts from historical works and looking at paintings, artifacts, and buildings. These will allow us to piece together a picture of the past– the stories of individuals, their lifestyles, their common perceptions, their customs, and allow us, eventually, to explain the profound changes in political organization, in social interaction, and in religious affiliation.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve taken several courses touching briefly on the history of various pieces of the medieval Muslim empire. This one was a lot more focused and a bit more extensive, and I finally feel like I’m beginning to get it. I still have trouble keeping all the threads straight, since a lot was going on in a lot of places – the Arabian peninsula, the Levant, Iran, central Asia, north Africa, Iberia – among a lot of people – Arabs, Samanids, Buyhids, Fatimids, Andalusians, Seljuks, Berbers, Mamluks, Sassanids, Persians, Mongols – and much of it overlaps as groups assimilate, migrate, conquer, or get conquered. But I feel like I’ve made a solid start, and since I created a Cerego set for the course, I’ll be reminded of all of it from time to time and will retain at least the basics of who, what, when, where, why.

The course begins with five weeks of history, starting from Mohammed and moving to the entry of the Ottomans. Yes, there were leaders and battles and invasions, but there were also little family dramas that played out in political reality, along with dramas of how that political power was legitimized and exercised across an empire consisting of many different groups, and the ways in which the empire maintained unity. Then we looked at cultural aspects: how people lived, religious details, the Translation Project, and the flourishing of arts and sciences in the Middle East, while keeping in mind the interplay between history and culture.

Each week featured a variety of learning media: Video lectures, of course, but also written documents, punctuated by beautiful manuscript illustrations (and available as PDFs for those, like me, who want to copy everything so we can refer to it forever), and interviews with a variety of academic specialists. All of these were followed by brief, ungraded knowledge checks which are useful for highlighting central points. A graded quiz finished off each week.

I was impressed by the final exam, which was weighted at 60% of the final grade. Most of it was information retrieval, but the context of the questions made it a bit more of a challenge than just a rephrase of the material, and several questions required combining individual facts. I even discovered two errors in my Cerego cards thanks to the final – which makes me worry: how many more errors lurk unfound?

A unique feature of the course was the ungraded Historian’s Lab. Each week, a source document (in translation) or artifact was provided, along with some questions relating to the week’s topic for forum discussion. I was a bit lost here, and very intimidated by the evident expertise, so I didn’t add anything but gained some insight from comments of other students, sometimes confirming and often expanding my initial impressions. It’s a handy way to provide an extra challenge in the course, since most moocs have students at every level from absolute novices to accomplished scholars.

I of course was drawn to the manuscripts and descriptions of the different scripts used over the centuries, though this was a very small part of the course. I smiled throughout at the pseudo-animation of various manuscript illustrations, sometimes a collage of separate images, with slight movements and sound effects running over the lecture. Because I follow several medievalists on Twitter, I sometimes see images from Arabic, Persian, or Turkish manuscripts; a week ago Emily Steiner (@PiersAtPenn) tweeted images from the Book of Kings, which we just covered this week. Combine that with Peter Adamson (@HistPhilosophy, of HoPWaG fame) being in a non-Western philosophy phase at the moment and retweeting a photo of a contemporary statue of Avicenna from Dushanbe, Tajikistan, just yesterday, and I’m really glad I took this course. In fact, I’m ready for more!

Pushcart XLII: Laura Kasischke, “Praying Mantis in My Husband’s Salad” (poem) from Lake Effect #20

Once, he found one
among the lettuce leaves and
cabbage shreds a former
girlfriend had
arranged on a plate for him. If
it was still alive, I can’t
remember what my husband said that
he and the girlfriend did with it.

Words pass over me so easily sometimes. I was all set to file this under “goofy love poems”. It is, but it’s also well-structured and crafted with purpose: to see different perspectives, to carry emotional impact.

What’s the one thing anyone remembers about a praying mantis? The female has a tendency to eat the males after – or sometimes during – mating. “Yet this behavior seems not to deter males from reproduction”, National Geographic notes drily (or maybe the dryness is inferred by me). Seat that in a poem written by a wife about her husband’s ex-girlfriend, and you’ve got a little soap opera in a poem.

… He’s never, my
husband, been
a salad-eater. Was he then?

Are we still talking about salad?

There’s a wonderful balance of humor and venom, much as the mantis maintains a prayer-like posture before killing; “And their martian faces, of course, with / such innocent expressions. / But all-knowing. / And all business.” And again: are we still talking about salad?

What really grabs me comes up next: “My tiny, triangular head, swiveling / From side to side….” In reviews for Kasischke’s 2017 collection Where Now in which this poem appears, I see phrases like “notices then subverts the so-called ‘normal’”, tug-of-war, and shape-shifting. And here’s a downright shift of speaker, right into the mantis’ triangular head.

Then we shift into the future, while never leaving the recollection of the past; because that’s where the present is, always.

… the meal she’d made for him, and which
They were about to share, beginning
With that salad, and
Also ending there.

Yeah, this is clearly about way more than salad. And I imagine the speaker, forevermore on the alert for the possibility that another praying mantis – or some other predator – might turn up in her husband’s salad some day.

Pushcart XLII: Christopher Kempf, “Michaux State Forest, New Year’s” (poem) from Gettysburg Review, Summer 2016

The approach of the Angel Raphael: Original mezzotint, 1825-1826.

The approach of the Angel Raphael: Original mezzotint, 1825-1826.

We run the kókúku trail (translation—
snow owl, in late-American) alone
this morning, its strict, midwinter alders
dark against the snowfall, its flocks of crows
shrieking as we pass. & as for the river—
there is a river. & as for those vast
accumulations of gasses—& as,
too, for the Fords & Hyundais, & the flows
of copper from Chile to Santa Cruz
& the migrant workers of Sri Lanka
scaling their towers in Dubai—that will,
some evening, rear up & expunge us,
yes, we can almost imagine ourselves
last here, our species’ sole surviving pair
of scavengers ventured forth for water
& shelter, as surely it will be, we
accept now, those new years the planet—poor
rock—is at last absolved of us.

Complete poem available online at Gettysburg Review

Paradise Lost is one of those literary works I’m afraid to read; I keep hoping I’ll come across a mooc or some heavily annotated guide at some point, and will finally tackle it as I did Dante a few years ago. But too late for this poem, which draws heavily on it; I think if I had more than a vague outline of the content, I’d be much better prepared. Oh well, the poem will still be there some day in the future when I finally get around to it. In the meantime, I can do the best I can with the poem, which shouts its message so clearly it almost compensates for my lacks.

It’s an eco-poem, but has so many reverberations – with the tragedy of 18th century Native American culture, with the short-sightedness of American capitalism, with industrial greed as the antidote to poverty, with Milton and Shakespeare – it’s far more than that. While I can’t really nail it down into a precise outline of interwoven themes and images, I wonder if maybe that’s missing the point, that poetry doesn’t have to be science, but can just leave a trace of some ineffable sensation lingering that sticks with us.

From the highest location for miles,
Milton says, he is shown, Adam, the wide
& lavishly manifold history
that will follow him. & it is glorious,
partly. How the banners ripple cleanly
from their turrets. With what refinéd grace
the courtesans attend their farandoles
& coronations. Paintings. Waltzes. Also,
however, in the teeming congeries
of men & animals, influenza
racing like a terror. Diphtheria
lifting its lurid flag, & back of this,
Milton describes, the emergent money
systems of sixteenth-century Europe
carried forth in the rolling cannon smoke
of capital.

This section draws from Book XI of Paradise Lost: after the first people are cast out from Eden, the angel Michael shows Adam the history that will unfold, the history he has created by his sin: his older son killing the younger, greed and hatred, hypocrisy, sacrificial altars, all humanity’s foolish and wayward doings up to the Flood, so Adam has an idea of just what he has unleashed. Kempf sets this against the French intrusion into North America in quest of furs, colonies, wealth, and the Indians’ view of the destruction caused by these endeavors. What follows is a reference to the massacre at the Enoch Brown schoolhouse in what today is Pennsylvania, a particularly grisly Native attack on children, teachers, and a pregnant woman that inflamed tensions. The speaker acknowledges the white settler’s point of view through the eyes of Andre Michaux, botanist, explorer, and namesake of the state park in which the poem is composed; but he sets that against the point of view of the Lenape Indians:

He would have, Michaux, heard
often of their savagery. He would have
called it that, & been properly appalled
when four Lenape entered a schoolhouse
here, winter 1764, & peeled
their blades across the skulls of the children
as they practiced their numbers. He would have
wept probably, though for the Lenape
it seemed simply the extravagant end
of a whole history of sicknesses
& ruin.

There is, of course, no pardon for murdering children (though we as a nation have decided it’s more important for NRA funds to flow freely than it is to reasonably license and control guns, even following the murder of twenty children in Newtown, CT). The speaker manages to give voice to both sides, not glossing over the horrendous violence, but looking back to see what it was in reaction to. And, by the way, violence beget more violence, as the settlers instituted “scalping bounties” to encourage murder of Indians.

And speaking of violence begetting violence:

When finally the earth—or
“this goodly frame, a spot,” Milton says—starves
us from its forests & riversides, it
will not be merciful. It will finish
us slowly. We know this.

Here I again call upon context: having just been immersed in a Shakespeare mooc for several weeks, I flashed on Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man” speech, written about 60 years earlier, which also uses the term “this goodly frame”. Is this a deliberate allusion? Or is it just a phrase common at the time, thus prone to being used by two poets? For that matter, did Kempf deliberately include an ambiguous phrase – and one which, in either context, is comfortable in this context – or was that, too, a happy accident?

I was able to find a footnote referencing a pertinent article on the cross-reference between Milton and Shakespeare by Concordia professor Judith Scherer Herz titled “Paradise Lost VIII: Adam, Hamlet and the Anxiety of Narrative” and am attempting to get my hands on the article (from 1988, but my local library has pulled off bigger miracles). In the meantime, I’m left to my own devices to see a connection with the poem.

[Addendum: Aha, a PDF of the 1988 article from the journal English Studies in Canada arrived, free of charge, compliments of my library, the UMass/Aherst library, and the Interlibrary Loan program. Public libraries are awesome!
I learned several things things from Dr. Scherer:
First, and perhaps most important: the use of the phrase is not an accident. “The linking phrase functions in Milton’s text as both allusion and echo. Milton is far too conscious a poet to let in another unwittingly, especially Shakespeare”, says Scherer.
Now, about Book VIII, she makes several points that relate to Kempf’s poem:
1. The poet is delaying The Fall with this mini-narrative; Kempf is doing something like the reverse, rolling back time to our Fall itself.
2. Adam is not gazing in wonder at the stars, but challenging Raphael about what seems to him, unaware of what is about to happen, about the seemingly unnecessary complexity of the natural world; this leads to doubt; I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lanape Indians felt similar doubts about the French settlers in their midst.
3. Adam is “a speaker whose relation to his materials is complicated both by his participation in his own narrative and by his essential ignorance of its final shape”. This seems pretty modernist to me, which is surprising; but I may be misinterpreting Scherer here. In any case, the speaker in Kempf’s poem is likewise an observer, and a participant, as are all of us in contemporary society.
The passage that seems most relevant: “Adam both derives from and is Hamlet’s original. Hamlet is what Adam will sound like after the goodly frame has shrunk to the sterile promontory.” And so we have Kempf’s speaker, what Michaux will sound like, if he were here, seeing the goodly frame polluted and stripped bare to make it yield every possible nickel. And we stand beside him and see our sin played out. ]

If I’m interpreting Milton correctly, the pre-Fall Adam is marvelling at the splendor of the universe and asking the angel Raphael how it works. Hamlet’s approach is distinctly different: he recognizes the marvels of the universe, but mourns them as he is unable to appreciate them in his state of mind; the earth has become “a sterile promontory.” This seems more pertinent to the speaker’s frame of mind, yet Kempf chose to stick with Milton; is he assuming the connection will be made?

In any event, both uses of the phrase deal with beauty, and loss of that beauty; Adam before, and Hamlet after that loss. Maybe it’s about point-of-view: the Lanape, and Michaux, would have seen the glory of the earth without knowing the Fall was coming, a la Milton; today, we imagine it, a la Hamlet.

Our speaker returns to Milton, to the pre-Fall tour of the universe, and we again see him in awe. But another element is woven in, some acknowledgment of what the Lanape Indians might have felt.

How for Adam the vast
globes rolling in their sky lanes, & comets
& stars & “space incomprehensible”
between the moon & Sirius exist
merely—oh, & here he is particularly
brilliant, listen—to “officiate light”
round this meager atom, the world. & round
its lemon trees & robins. Round his wife’s
hair in its evening coruscations. Her hand
in his hand. & the lush & ample breast
of the new world laid before them. For that,
he thinks, my God, what wouldn’t we butcher?

Just breathe a moment, and let that last line sink in.

One of the features of this poem that I found annoying was the use of ampersands instead of the word “and”. The symbols are used, particularly in the beginning of the poem, to begin sentences. I don’t see a clear pattern. I did a “paragraphed” version of the poem, to see if .& was an indication of a new thought, or what might be considered a stanza, but I don’t think so. I wonder if it’s another of those typographical signals, little tics to keep us on our toes, to pay attention when shortcuts are taken. And maybe there’s a sense of continuity, everything both blended together – the Lanape, Michaux’s park, the earth, we of the 21st century – and separated.

I’ve been delaying publication of this post to see if the article on “this goodly space” would come in; not yet. If it shows up, I’ll do an Addendum. But having read ahead, I can now say that I’ve been greatly surprised by three poems in this volume, poems that grew on me, revealing more and more as I read through them and read them again and thought about them. Slow reading has its rewards.

Pushcart XLII: Ada Limón, “The Leash” (poetry) from Poem-a-Day

Image from Rachel Visser's animation of the poem

Image from Rachel Visser’s animation of the poem

After the birthing of bombs of forks and fear,
the frantic automatic weapons unleashed,
the spray of bullets into a crowd holding hands,
that brute sky opening in a slate metal maw
that swallows only the unsayable in each of us, what’s
left? Even the hidden nowhere river is poisoned
orange and acidic by a coal mine.

Complete poem available online at Poets.org

Context – the time, place, mental state, the overall gestalt in which a piece is read – has been a frequent theme for me as I’ve been reading this volume. Given that years, decades, centuries may pass between when a piece is written, and when it’s read, and the infinite different postures of the human mind and heart, it’s kind of a miracle we can connect to written work at all. This poem was published over two years ago – who knows when it was written – but I feel like it was written today just for me. I probably would’ve felt that way yesterday, too. And most of the yesterdays – oh, hell, all of them – from the past year-plus.

I’m so captivated by content I haven’t even worked on the rhythm or sound qualities (though the opening lines have a particularly frictional and explosive alliteration well suited to the content). I looked at it as more of an essay, opening with the state of things-as-they-are, the anger and despair so many of us have been feeling for so long, we forget it isn’t normal. Nods to, what, drone attacks, school shootings, rampant pollution written off as the cost of modernity (including the electricity with which I write these words, nudging me with an elbow of guilt right in the complicity), it’s too much, too much, and she knows we fear, that we “want to lick the creek bottom dry to suck the deadly water up into our own lungs” because this can’t be survivable.

But, of course, it is survivable.

Reader, I want to
say, Don’t die. Even when silvery fish after fish
comes back belly up, and the country plummets
into a crepitating crater of hatred, isn’t there still
something singing?

And suddenly I’m comforted, as if a quilt is tucked around me, or someone is holding my hand. I’m reminded of the music of the spheres, all the things that are still good and beautiful in the world. It’s very personal; I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a poem address the reader as Reader, though I’m sure they exist (it isn’t like I read much poetry outside of Pushcart), as sometimes fiction or essays will in various forms (Gentle Reader, Dear Reader). It’s like the poet – not the speaker, somehow, though they need to be kept distinct in theory, at least – is right here in the room with me.

Then she admits “I don’t know”. This is even more comforting, to be around someone who doesn’t have everything figured out, but who has faith that we’ll get through even this.

The leash metaphor comes into play via her dog, who loves to chase pickup trucks, running after them, “she’s sure, without a doubt, that the loud roaring things will love her back”. And the speaker (yes, here I feel a difference, probably just because I’m less a miserably sick child and more of Reader, having been healed by just those few words) keeps her dog safe because she knows the trucks may not love her dog back, so she pulls on the leash. Anger and despair, the dog; faith, the leash. Don’t ever let go of the leash.

Perhaps, we are always hurtling our body towards
the thing that will obliterate us, begging for love
from the speeding passage of time, and so maybe
like the dog obedient at my heels, we can walk together
peacefully, at least until the next truck comes.

So we move from the terrifying, frantic opening, via a turn of direct address, to a calm, thoughtful ending. Both speaker and dog are still here, enjoying the walk, but there is no denial or delusion: the leash is ready for the next time it is needed.

Would this poem have meant as much to me in another time? It was published in January, 2016, so it could it be completely unrelated to the context in which I see it. Like the poet, I have to admit: I don’t know. But at this time, literally this afternoon, in the context of today, it was what I needed. It was my leash, keeping me from spiraling down.

In preparation for this post, I did quite a bit of listening to her read other poems via youtube recordings of various poetry readings, and I remember “How to Triumph Like A Girl” from Pushcart 2015. I think Limón would be a favorite poet of mine, if I could focus on poetry enough to have a favorite: her works aren’t so obscure as to make me feel stupid, yet have a quality I hear as beauty, and even though I’m not trained enough to parse it, it pulls me in.

Pushcart XLII: Blair Hurley, “The Home for Buddhist Widows” from West Branch #81

Before light has come and the little birds whose names we don’t know are fluttering and darting out of the eaves of the temple, one of the monks is hitting the ancient cast-iron bell.

It is traditional in many Asian countries to withdraw from the world for a time after the loss of the husband, to rest, to recover from one’s grief through contemplation. Indian women might join an ashram. Here in Japan, medieval noblewomen would visit a monastery to live as nuns, to purify and replenish themselves. Now the notion has fallen out of fashion; there are few Buddhist nuns in Japan anymore. But word has spread among the Americans…. In Akron, in São Paolo, a pamphlet is pushed across the table by a friend. Or late-night browsing on the internet for “how do widows” and letting Google autofill: “how do widows cope, how do widows recover” leads us to a Buddhist website.

It seems you can go to the other side of the globe to heal your broken heart, but you’ll still find yourself in the never-ending hell of life with other people: the monks who look down on you (maybe because you’re a foreigner, maybe because you’re a tourist); the overachiever (she’s always three koans ahead of everyone else), the rebellious one (why do we have to sweep every day, why can’t we tend the sand garden once in a while?).

I went looking for websites advertising Buddhist retreats for widows, but found nothing other than a few “retreats” in the US claiming to be based on Zen Buddhism (I know someone who went to such a retreat for a couple of weeks); nothing specific to widows. Am I ridiculously cynical, or does this sound like a marketing ploy? In any event, it’s a quiet, soft story about recovery from great loss, somewhat along the same lines as Diane Cook’s story “Moving On” from BASS 2015 though without the dystopian element. The questions raised tend to center on identity outside of marriage, on the problem of breaking patterns that no longer make sense when it’s not clear what patterns do make sense now.

For our protagonist, the question is more about relationships in general:

I go to the window; it’s like my dream, the one where I see my husband off on a trip, and he wants me to run out and kiss him goodbye, watching him leave, and I don’t know why I won’t bend, why I can’t make the cold center of myself soften.

We see her progress by the end of the story, in a touching scene that has amusing possibilities. I think that’s how the story keeps from being overly sentimental: it keeps veering towards comedy, but humor of a tiny chuckle rather than a loud guffaw.

Pushcart XLII: Brian Morton, “Tolstoy and God” (nonfiction) from Agni #84

Saul Bellow had been my favorite living writer for almost twenty years, but I ’d never even thought about trying to meet him. I was so much in awe of him, he seemed so firmly fixed in literary history, that I’m not sure it ever occurred to me that you could meet him. It would be like trying to get together with Milton or Wordsworth or Blake.
But now it looked like I was going to meet him after all.

Complete story available online at Agni

A couple of months ago, when every day brought news of another big name in entertainment accused of some kind of sexual assault or harassment, someone on my Twitter feed said: “I’m at the point when if I see a celebrity’s name trending, I think, ‘Oh please, let him be dead.'” We’ve all engaged in the game of “can you separate the art from the actions of the artist” from time to time – TS Eliot’s antisemitism is a standard in any English class – but it’s a little different somehow when the artist is a contemporary. And it’s a lot different when you get invited to a party and see up close and personal what an ass he is.

This was a wonderful, readable little memoir that hoists Bellow on his own petard pretty handily. Morton gives us enough specifics to understand his appreciation for the writer:

And I didn’t know of any other living fiction writer who thought as persistently as Bellow did about the life of the spirit. I’d once read the transcript of a conversation he’d had with some writing students: one of them had asked a question about literary technique, and he’d answered that technique was unimportant; what was important for a writer was to find and follow the promptings of one’s soul. You could feel, all through his work, that he was a writer who had followed the promptings of his soul. In another place he’d written that “The name of the game is give all,” and the line had stayed with me for years. You can love a writer’s work without loving everything about it, and you can love a writer’s work without loving the writer. Nothing Bellow could do or say at this party would make me love his work any less.

… and enough background on himself and his wife (and her sparkly silver dress) to make the upcoming party suspenseful; we know he’s going to be caught between kowtowing to Greatness and “follow[ing] the promptings of one’s soul.” That in itself brings back the whole art vs artist thing: if the promptings of an artist’s soul are vile outside the art, mustn’t the art itself be the product of similar character flaws? Or is the artistic part of the soul isolated from whatever it is that guides our human relationships?

Bellow is frequently described as “complicated”, a word that usually means unpleasant (for men; unpleasant women get called other things). He was, by the way, a Dreamer: when he was nine years old, his family moved to Chicago from Canada where they’d emigrated illegally from Russia, where they were in some peril. He had no idea he wasn’t a US citizen until he tried to enlist in the Army, at which point he became naturalized. I have to wonder what would happen to him today, what’s happening right now to the future great writers, scientists, scholars, leaders who are being held hostage by a Congress that cares about money and power rather than people.

To be very clear, the assholery in the story has nothing whatsoever to do with sexual misconduct. I’m going to leave the specifics – of the title, the party, and the header image – for the reader to discover, since the piece is available online and it’s a fun read. The conflict is not so charming, but is all around us: how much comfort, status, privilege will you give up to honor your values?

Pushcart XLII: Reginald McKnight, “Float” from Georgia Review, Spring 2016

Walk into my room and come to find one of my Jordan Air Max 360s floating about five foot off the ground. Soon as I see it, my heart kinda go pie-yow! and my neck get hot. Then I smile at my foolish, foolish dumb-ass ass, and I say to myself my brother Ricky had done strung it up from the ceiling. I grab the thing, but it don’t budge. It’s like it’s glued up there in the air, and much as I tug and pull on it, that bad boy ain’t coming down. It ain’t hanging from nothing I can see, just up there where it don’t belong. Feel my neck start to warm up again, and my hands tremble a little. I tug, a couple more times, then give up. Turn back to my door like I’m fenda go ask somebody to come have a look, but I don’t know who in this house gonna explain this.

Complete story available online at Georgia Review

So what would you do if you were a high school kid who came home to find a shoe floating in your room, and nobody else would say anything about it but pretty much acted like it belonged there all along?

Dontrell has a kind of clueless helplessness that emanates as adorability. His father leans an elbow on the shoe while scolding him for leaving a wrench outside; his mother just skips right over it when he asks her; his brother Ricky uses it as a towel rack. What’s a kid to do? ‘Trey’s befuddlement, his frustration, is almost another character in the story. It’s as compelling as any who-done-it, this who’s-gonna-speak story.

Our view of his character deepens when he does something that’s pretty smart, solution-oriented, and logical: he goes to the library and looks for other people having this problem. On the internet he finds lots of people with lots of crazy-ass problems, and learns “a whole lotta people cain’t spell no better than me. Grown people. White people. Motherfuckers from England”, but nothing pertinent to floating shoes. He wonders if he’s crazy. Because that’s what the world does: it puts you in bizarre situations then tells you you’re crazy for noticing they’re bizarre. Anybody know how that feels?

He’s finally relieved, to some degree, when his sister admits she sees the shoes, after he gives her “one of them Muslim school looks: one part God, three parts hitman”, which makes Muslim school sound very much like the Catholic schools I’ve heard about all my life. “You know I cain’t say nothing about it, right?” she tells him. Yeah, he knows. She’s already got a bruise on her neck where Mom smacked her for not closing the window. He closes with an anthem celebrating the point of view he will not cede.

I felt this story. I don’t have much to say about it beyond recommending it as an example of how to connect readers with characters, how to create an emotional experience out of a fairly simple event. I suspect there’s more to the story than I’m getting, and maybe someday I’ll understand what that is. But for now – elephants in the room, gaslighting, naked emperors, this is fine – I got plenty.

Pushcart XLII: Tom Bissell, “Creative Types” from Paris Review #219

The night before their appointment, they sent Haley one final e-mail in which they reaffirmed the when and where and tastefully restated their excitement. But Reuben managed to smuggle in a request: Would Haley mind wearing “normal clothes”? He was about to hit send when Brenna, proofreading over his shoulder, announced that his use of “normal” was, in this context, “problematic.”
“Problematic,” he said. Their son had been asleep for an hour.
Bren, looking at the laptop’s screen, only nodded.
Reuben poised his e-mail-sending finger above the enter key like a scientist about to launch something toward Pluto. “Bren, come on. I’m sending it.”

What are they setting up? We soon find out they’re enjoying some kind of Hollywood success, so it could be anything – A new nanny? A housekeeper, private chef, massage therapist? Nope, it’s a hooker – excuse me, escort – who’s joining them for an evening of fun and games to put the spark back in their marriage. Creative types, my ass.

Maybe it’s the context in which I’m reading – the #MeToo and #TimesUp era – or maybe I’m just in a bad mood, or maybe – and this is probably most likely – it’s the point of the story, but I found it to be annoying. It’s a long paean to the fragile male ego, and the temperamental male phallus, which goes on strike over the least little thing, especially a wife whose career (in reality TV, oh lord) is going well while the penis-owner’s writing career has stalled.

“Oh!” Bren said, as though Haley were a dirty-pawed puppy about to jump in her lap. “Okay! Hello!” While they embraced, Bren held her wine glass – a festive red orb of Malbec – up above her and Haley’s heads, which somehow made Reuben think of mistletoe. His hands had been respectfully stationary on Haley’s body, but Bren’s free hand moved familiarly up and down Haley’s back. That was one great social cultural advantage of women’s hands, wasn’t it. They could go where they wanted to go. They had free rein.

Just another guy complaining about his limited freedom. I am not in the mood for this, given the 152 women who just came forward in court to describe what the freedom-loving Olympic team doctor did to them over a span of years from the time they were barely pubescent while Olympic officials bought their silence. But Reuben soon has more pressing problems: “His boner had indeed been killed by Haley’s CLA$$Y LADY tattoo.” Because nothing is more important than a man’s hard-on. I told you, I’m not in the mood for this.

Haley, the ready-for-anything escort, takes it all in stride and tells them a sad story about her tattoo and a dead friend, and for some reason I didn’t buy any of it. I can’t even give her points for creativity, since it’s the story you’d expect, a tough home life, limited options, a drug overdose.

Stylistically, I did quite like the imagery in the final paragraph. The two women, having had a great time while hubby stood forlornly by, start talking kids, and again he and his flaccid penis are left out.

They said other things while Reuben watched one of Bren’s scented candles burn down to the wick. Almost there. Wait for it. And there it was, the flame surging with a final valiant attempt at ignition. Then it went out. Then it waved its farewell banner of smoke.

That’s a nice snapshot of a marriage ending. I encountered Bissell once before several years ago in BASS, and admired the story, particularly the opening. Maybe another reason the story bugs me is that the three fiction pieces so far in this volume were exceptional, imaginative in very different ways; this, by comparison, felt like just another story. It’s not lost on me how harsh that sounds; that will be something I take up in my own little post-game. So please forgive me if I’m missing something important, but I’m moving on, because there’s greatness coming in the next pages.

Shakespeare Matters MOOC

Course: Shakespeare Matters

Length: 5 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: University of Adelaide
Instructor: Dr. Lucy Potter et al

In this introductory course, you will learn how Shakespeare uses emotion in his plays, how his characters experience and manipulate emotions, and how the emotional resonance of the plays makes them powerfully relevant to the modern world.
As you follow and engage with the emotional journeys of characters in tragedy, comedy, tragicomedy, and history; you will discover patterns of plot, action, and speech that will help you appreciate, understand, and discuss Shakespeare’s plays.
Each week of the course will focus on a different emotion. You’ll cover the range of emotions found in Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, The Winter’s Tale, and King Henry V.
This course includes interactive activities, and interviews with a range of people engaged creatively and professionally with Shakespeare’s plays. You’ll be encouraged to interpret Shakespeare in your own way – to find ‘your Shakespeare.’

Short version: As I read the description above, I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed working it, and by how much I learned. Five plays in five weeks sounds crazy, but it turns out it can be done quite nicely, and this course shows how.

I knew it was a one-play-a-week course, and, at 2-3 hours a week, I figured things would be pretty sparse. While it wasn’t as detailed as the Wellesley courses from last year, which went page-by-page through four plays, it turns out the close focus on two speeches per play served as a very nice platform for covering a wide range of poetic and dramatic devices. I’m also historically somewhat suspicious of phrases like “find your own meaning” as it typically indicates there’s no content, but there was plenty of content here; yet there was ample room for bringing in personal associations and impressions. I participated more in the forums than I have in any course for quite some time, and found that quite rewarding, as there was both staff and student interaction.

The basic plot of each play was outlined at the beginning of the week; reading or watching each play was not required (or even encouraged beyond the obvious value). Because the focus was on emotion, other faculty was drawn in, including Matt Dry of the Psychology department who explained the physical, cognitive, and behavioral interactions of emotions, and Brid Phillips from the Center of Excellence for the History of Emotions who studies the emotional context in older literature, including Shakepeare. But literary structure was on the menu as well. The course compared various forms of speech in the plays (prose, blank verse, poetry) and how each differed in style as well as detail.

The material included a variety of forms: lectures, interviews, and readings. Graded assignments were equally diverse: brief quizzes, discussion questions for the Forums, and a final self-graded Assignment inviting a personal interpretation of one of the speeches. I generally dislike what I refer to as forced-posting; counting discussion forum posts as graded items on questions with narrow focus. Here, for some reason, it worked very well for me. I think that’s partly because I found I could respond to the questions posed without even trying; they were questions I wanted to answer (in most cases; I did skip a few). It might also be because the response from staff was very prompt and encouraging, and other students also interacted, all of which made me feel like I’d made a contribution. It helped that I’d studied the first few plays in other courses so was more comfortable with the material, but maybe it was just my mood at the time. In any case, I greatly enjoyed that aspect of the course.

My favorite week was The Winter’s Tale, a play I haven’t encountered before; the themes of repentance and forgiveness always work for me. I was also greatly surprised at how much I enjoyed the week devoted to Henry V; I’ve always avoided the history plays, but they managed to find a couple of speeches that might turn out to be ways in for me. And it helps that it’s one of the plays featured in a Star Trek: TNG episode. Throughout the course, I should say, I was the “bearer of low culture”, bringing in television, songs, and movies. It’s a role I greatly enjoyed, and no one seemed to mind – but then, in a course where the lead instructor shows off her Shakespeare Rubber Duckie (to quack, or not to quack) and Lady Hamlet Guest Soap (out, damned spot) how could they mind?.

I highly recommend it for those who haven’t read much Shakespeare or haven’t really found it that enjoyable; the narrow focus on specific scenes and emotions, rather than an onslaught of information about every aspect of the plays, might be the way in for you. And for those who’ve been around the plays a bit more, you might find some interesting tidbits as well; if nothing else, you have a chance to strut your stuff.

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

Art by Stan Fellows

Art by Stan Fellows

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

Complete story available online at The Sun

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

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

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

Viral MOOC

Course: Viruses & How to Beat Them: Cells, Immunity, Vaccines
Length: 8 weeks, 2-3 hrs/wk
School/platform: IsraelX/edX
Instructor: Jonathan Gershoni

Have you ever wondered what viruses actually are?
Have you been curious about the ways they invade our bodies, attack our cells and make us sick? Come and learn what viruses are made of and understand the mechanisms of how they hijack and take over our cells.
There is no need for a background in science – just bring your curious mind!

Short version: Well-done introductory course beginning with a broad overview of biology basics, then focusing on pathogens and the immune system, particularly as it interacts with viruses. Great visuals, interesting but plain-language interviews with some serious heavy-hitters (like Nobel laureates David Baltimore and Bruce Beutler, and Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of the HIV virus), and a friendly style make this particularly accessible and, yes, fun.

This is another of those courses that just popped into my inbox out of the blue a few days before it opened. I was debating whether I wanted to re-start MIT’s 728 series on DNA, so I thought this might help make up my mind (it did: I just don’t want to work as hard as 728 demands, right now). It served as a nice refresher of the basics, from chemistry to cell bio to DNA to immunology, ending with a rational look at vaccines (spoiler alert: scientists are for them). It wasn’t quite as virus-specific as I’d expected, but, first, as an introductory course, some preliminary material was necessary, and second, seating the virology in a network of other concepts makes sense.

Each week included lecture videos with ungraded “test yourself” questions, and a lab demonstration or interview on a pertinent topic. A summary lecture, complete with concept map (which I greatly appreciated) finished off the week’s material. A live Q&A session, inviting student questions through the forum and participation through a software portal, took place around week 4. Since participation required downloading something, I didn’t attend, and no video has yet been released for us slowpokes so I have no idea how it was, but the question thread was booming so I’m hopeful.

Graded material included weekly quizzes, a midterm, and a final, with the final heavily weighted. At first I thought of the questions as standard information retrieval, but there are definite shades of meaning in there that require some interpretation and extrapolation. Every once in a while, a congratulatory GIF would pop up when a question was answered correctly; this generally scared the bejesus out of me, showing once again that I really need to calm down.

This is the 3rd of 4 courses I’ve taken in the past couple of months from IsraelX, a group of several schools; that’s kind of a brilliant idea, I’m surprised other countries haven’t done this. I’ve enjoyed each of the courses I’ve taken, and found them very helpful to understanding the various fields (which range from design theory to bio to religion to history). Although most of the rest of their 11 courses on the schedule are outside my areas of interest, I’m hopeful I’ll be learning more from them soon.