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

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

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

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

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

Pushcart XLII: Steve Stern, “The Plate-Spinner” from Agni #83

There used to be thirty-six. You should have seen them in their glory days, what a spectacle! Silhouetted in amber spotlights on a muggy august evening, the saints were truly the carnival’s main attraction. No spring chickens even then, they were still remarkably spry, their stamina inexhaustible as they galloped night and day, each on his own spinning plate the size of a barrel lid, their beards and earlocks flying, the tails of their caftans streaming, horizontally behind them. …
In those days I hardly even knew their names, the saints, or “stylites” as Old Man Rothstein called them, nor did I set much store by the pitch he’d worked up for their act:
Ladies and gents, please to observe the Lamed Vovniks – which is Hebrew for Thirty-Sixers, count ‘em – holy men from the legendary city of Sfat. See how they got to keep steppin’ lively on them magic plates or else the good Lord’ll remove His grace from the world. In other words, my fellow mishpookies, if they ever stop their centrifugatin’ or them plates cease their gyroscopic whirliggigery, it’s all she wrote for the rest of us…”
…it was an article of faith that the luck of the carnival somehow depended on the rabbis treading those whirling zinc discs.

Some things in this story are real; some are not real. And some are sort of real. It’s great fun to figure out which is which. But then, I have a strange idea of what fun is. This sort-of-apocalyptic, sort-of-fantasy story based on Hassidic beliefs and practices was definitely fun.

For example, I spent a fair amount of time re-reading the description of the saints, or stylites, or rabbis (they’re called all three as the story progresses) before concluding they are not real, at least, not in the world as we know it. In the world of the story, they’re very real, a bunch of old guys running around in circles 24/7 on top of spinning plates, with various ways of coping with sleep and more, um, private needs. They seem to be a combination of the old plate-spinning acts from goofy talent shows, and the 5th Century Christian ascetics of the early Byzantine empire, known as Stylites, who sat up in tall, narrow towers for years to show their devotion to God.

The Lamed Vovniks are in the category of Sort of Real. As the story tells us, the phrase does literally mean “The Thirty-Six” but the significance is much greater than that: in Hassidic lore, branching from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, there are thirty-six righteous people (usually men, but occasionally a woman is included) around at all times for whose sake God will not destroy the world. I suspect 36 has a particular meaning in Hassidic numerology, but my casual research can’t find consistent references to what it would be.

How the Lamed Vovniks got turned into a carnival act – and that it remains unexplained – is part of the weirdness of the story, and part of its appeal.

This is my second encounter with Steve Stern. The first time was back in 2012, when I hated his story “The Ballad of Mushie Momzer” because it was relentlessly depressing, beating down the hapless protagonist with no mercy. I acknowledged I was probably missing important references to Jewish folk stories, since that’s Stern’s specialty. This time, I was a bit better prepared, not just by general knowledge but by (sing it with me, you know this line) the coincidence of having taken a couple of moocs recently that added to my understanding of Judaism: one, a mooc on Talmud, and one on Kabbalah that just concluded. And this story is loaded with references to Kabbalah and Hassidism, half of which I probably overlooked. I loved it.

Two warnings: Self-indulgence alert. I’m going to go through it in great detail, mostly just to exercise my own understanding of the references. And, spoiler alert, since such an approach requires telling a great deal of the story. That’s ok, the voice is so strong, and since there are so many great details I’ll leave out, it’s really worth reading even if you know generally what’s going to happen. And, as I said, I have probably missed a great many things, and may have made some mistakes (corrections welcomed).

Our narrator is Corliss, who ran away from the orphanage where he grew up and joined the carnival at a young age. The inciting event of the story is the die-off of 26 of the saints, leaving ten. This seems to be sufficient, they feel, since ten is a minyan (the minimum necessary for Jewish worship), but the world begins to fall apart: computers crash, the world economy collapses, and it’s basically societal chaos. The carnival finally falls apart, but Corliss stays with the saints, tending the poles to keep them spinning.

It’s an arduous undertaking, since there’s no money, and all he has for barter are carnival prizes. A group of street kids – the urchins, he calls them – hang out and start helping to keep the rabbis spinning so Corliss can get food and sleep a little. “I couldn’t quite grasp that current events had taken such a toll on the Cavalcade of Fun. I’d always believed we were proof against the intrusions of history.” Yeah, we all believe the leopard won’t eat our faces, until he does. At another point he says, “It amazed me that, while civilization had ground to a halt, nature persisted and even flourished, as if it had been liberated at last.” Doesn’t amaze me at all. Liberation is mentioned three times in the story in various ways, making it something of a floating theme.

Corliss asks the saints why they spin; they don’t remember, though they have some thoughts about going forwards so you don’t go back, and a riff about sexual union with the divine that’s straight from the Kabbalah. Yes, the projection of the divine has male and female parts and they like to get together. Unfortunately, there are also evil equivalences of these parts – Samael and Lilith – and when they into things, the world feels pain. I’m not making this up, I swear, though the details are a bit beyond my level.

One of the rabbis tells him he isn’t worried about death. “I been dead already before. In heaven they told me, Come back again when they’re finished, your good deeds.” This, too, is Kabbalistic, the notion of a sinner being reincarnated to atone for past misdeeds. I am SO glad I took that mooc. But the saints aren’t getting any younger, and they start taking the Sabbath off, sitting in place on their plates (I think; I have a terrible time visualizing any of this, it’s so bizarre).

Then the girl with the plums shows up. I’m not sure if plums have any special significance in Hassidic culture, but her name is Lily and her dog’s name is Beelzebub and the significance of that isn’t too obscure. She’s helpful for a while, but then she distracts him in the usual way girls distract boys, and guess what:

At first you might have taken their banged-up plates for the shields of fallen warriors, but this was no battlefield, The papery corpses in their sable garments looked more like cast-off chrysalises than human beings. Maybe by abandoning their bodies I’d set free their souls. It would have been nice to think so, but in their absence – broken bodies notwithstanding – I’d never felt so alone.

Lily has taken off, and Corliss is left with cleaning up the remains of the crashed rabbis. He does something odd: he loads their corpses on a makeshift raft, sets it afire, and pushes it out into the flooded river. This isn’t Jewish at all; it’s Vedic, carried forward into Hindu culture. I’m not sure why this is in the story, but I’m thinking there’s an interesting explanation for something so out of place.

Then he goes back to clean up the plates and poles, and notices one pole still has the plate mounted, though at a precarious angle. The urchins show up, and form a pyramid (hmmm) to open a path to the plate, but that damn dog Beelzebub beats him to it.

Beelzebub, starting to trot in place, accelerated our spinning. Clumsily, until I found my footing, I attempted – having no choice – to follow his lead.
We gathered momentum, the dog and I, charging ahead while the temp raged and a different order of weather was taking shape in the river – you could glimpse the waters of heaven pouring down into the waters of Earth…. I was running to beat the devil now, wondering, as I did, if the spinning had prompted the deluge or vice versa. Had the saints been saving the world from disaster or propelling it toward its destruction?

There’s an interesting little detail in there: he starts out following the dog, and ends up being chased by it, which of course is what happens when you’re both running in circles. But I suspect it’s bigger than that, more of a metaphor for the kind of reversal that happens when we pursue evil: we end up pursued.

The storm intensifies, and Corliss gives us his last report:

What I do know for sure, however, I can’t let on; because if I told you all I could see from the lofty perch, before the approaching waterspout lifted me and the Bub up into its black funnel, you would rip your garments to the navel in grief for having lost that wisdom.

There’s a reversal in that, too: the telling would imply loss of wisdom. I’m not sure what this means, but it seems important, and I wonder if it might have something to do with the death of the rabbis causing a kind of uncreating, a reversal, of the universe.

Since the story isn’t available online, I was hoping to find a video of Stern reading it, but instead I found one of him as the invited guest at a temple service. He was surprised at the invitation, and admitted, “I’m gloomy guy. I’m just no damn fun.” Unlike Mushie Momzer, I found it quite fun to read. Maybe I just felt more grounded in the details. In any case, it’s an imaginative, intelligent story, well told.

Pushcart 2012: Steve Stern, “The Ballad of Mushie Momzer” from Prairie Schooner, Spring 2010

I was conceived when my brother Doodya, who was also my father, sat in the privy behind the family’s hovel in Vidderpol playing with his schwantz. This is what they told me, and the Jews loved telling me at every least opportunity. My mother, fat and blind, eyeballs like soft-boiled eggs, had lumbered into the outhouse to move her bowels. She hosted the skirts of her tent-sized shift to squat over the hole, where she felt herself impaled on an alien organ as it spurted its load. When she shrieked, Doodya opened his eyes and, bellowing like a gelded calf himself, shoved my mother onto the outhouse floor. Then pulling up his moleskins, he trounced through the muddy yard scattering fowl, gathered his patched caftan and phylacteries from a hook, and vanished from the earth as surely as the Ten Lost Tribes.

And then his life really goes downhill.

I tried with this one. I tend to enjoy Jewish stories, and Steve Stern writes almost exclusively from Yiddish folk tales, so I was looking forward to it. But this, this was agonizing. I’m not even sure it was supposed to be funny. I was so miserable reading it, I couldn’t tell. I kept waiting for it to turn the corner. Not into a happy ending – into something, anything that made it worth slogging through page after page of misery. Was I supposed to be laughing at this guy’s misfortunes?

Such as his harelip, cleft palate, and other deformities? His annoyingly cheerful buddy Angel? His kidnapping into the Army? His castration following his only sexual encounter? His seeming return to try again? Is there a message here I’m supposed to get?

I kept thinking, this is the Jewish version of Jim Shepard. But I didn’t enjoy this story at all. In fact, it annoyed me, which is unusual. It does have a very strong voice, with a kind of sneery whimper of derision to it; that might add to that.

I’m positive there’s some larger picture I’m completely missing. It’s a parable about the Jewish experience, or about Life, or about The Human Condition, or The King of the Schlemazels, or some such thing. Or it’s a perfect example of some form: the Yiddish folk tale, the Hero Myth, the Job parable. Or maybe it’s an homage to someone, like Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, both of whom are among Stern’s inspirations.

I can glimpse a few hints – he thinks the afterlife can’t be worse, yet it is. The scenes he sees through the scrim are of him; the desire he has to impart hope to the struggling actor, to empower him to change his life, is made manifest as he is returned to his life at a point at which he can still effect change. Really? That’s it? All this misery, for that?

I freely admit my ignorance, and my complete lack of whatever aesthetic sensibility (dark humor? irony?) is required here. I’m glad it’s a great story, and if someone wants to explain why, I’ll be delighted to listen. Just don’t make me read it, ever, again, please.