Aliens Behind the Wheel

by Songyi Zhang

“I passed my driver’s test!” I cried and jumped like a 5-year-old seeing pandas for the first time in the zoo.

I got my temporary Pennsylvania driver’s license last weekend at Penn Hills Station, Pittsburgh, after four months’ constant practice behind the wheel. It was my belated rite of passage since I am ten years older than the state’s legal driving age of 16.

Accompanied by a soft spoken, blue-eyed young examiner, I was in and out of the parallel parking zone in two minutes. I had practiced the move only one hundred times. I then slowly drove along Rodi Road behind a crawling sweeper truck to make the loop from Stoneledge Drive to Darrell Drive. In fifteen minutes, the test was over.

 “Congratulations! Not many people pass on their first try,” a middle-aged clerk at the counter where I posed for my new license photo.

I feel it’s surreal that I can operate a four-wheel machine in a city famous for its hilly roads. It’s not easy for Pittsburgh’s foreign drivers, more accustomed to flat land, to deal with the winding roads and the narrow, two-way streets, on both sides of which cars often park back to back.

As a matter of fact, I had never felt the urgency of learning to drive when I was in my hometown, Guangzhou, China, a metropolis of ten million people where public transportation is as convenient as flagging a New York Yellow cab. But until I got to America last summer, I realized that learning to drive is a survival skill not only for Americans but for aliens like me, who want to travel freely in the great Land of Opportunity.

In my first few months in Pittsburgh, I’ve learned that nothing in America is within walking distance. If I were told ten minutes to get to a place, it meant by car.

Learning to drive in Pittsburgh was unforgettable. I attended four lessons instructed by Ellie Miller, a veteran instructor from Easy Method Driving School.  She’s lately retired. In her 28 years of teaching, Ellie experienced dozens of life-threatening moments with her foreign students. She recalled a 24-year-old Indian student who made a left turn, driving into the oncoming traffic lane by instinct because in India, drivers keep left. Fortunately, there was no traffic coming.

Although I passed the driver’s test, I still feel intimidated to drive uphill like South Negley Avenue where I cannot foresee the traffic on the top of the hill. Surprises, such as a stop sign, might wait for me on the hill before I make a sharp turn.

“You’ll learn the principle of gravity quickly in Pittsburgh,” Ellie repeated to me about the importance of controlling brakes in Pittsburgh.

Maintaining a good speed is also a challenge. My Rwandan friend, Justa Igihozo, who is a new driver in Pittsburgh, says she would be speeding if she drove at 55 in her home country, because 60 kilometers (37 mph) is the speed limit in Rwanda.

I often find myself the only one who drives under or at the speed limit in Pittsburgh. This is apparently so when I drive to Penn Hills on I-376 at the speed limit of 55 mph, most vehicles pass me.

It’s too easy to get lost in Pittsburgh for most roads in the city are not straight. At times Y intersections join in the middle of a curvy road. My teacher Heather Lai, who recently moved to Pittsburgh from Taiwan, got her family an automotive GPS receiver. She named it “Lydia” because the gadget gives direction in a sexy female voice.

“Now my husband loves going out alone with Lydia in Pittsburgh rather than with me as his co-pilot,” she says.

Despite my frustration as a new foreign driver, I’m impressed by the courteous driving manners in Pittsburgh. My Indian friend, Harpreet Sarao also agrees.

“We don’t have polite hand gestures (for drivers) like here. If you did that, people think you are crazy,” Harpreet says. She also says she doesn’t hear many honks in Pittsburgh as honking is fairly common in India. 

I feel differently about honks though. One time I almost had a fender bender after a driver in the next lane honked at me when I changed lanes. I instinctively tapped on the brake. Later, Ellie told me it was a friendly, brisk honnk-honnk instead of the angry honnnnnnnk.

How would I know the sound of honk has such knowledge? I’m sure my PA driver’s license will enrich my understanding of American driving.   


The Splendor of Letters

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I’ve been reading The Splendor of Letters by Nicholas Basbane, absorbed by his stories of poets and writers connecting through time—of literature saved from obscurity or rescued from oblivion by translators, by booklovers, by fellow writers.

I’ve also been inhabiting all those terrible times he details, when an entire culture’s writings have been obliterated—deliberate attempts like the Romans’ against the Carthaginians, the Conquistadors’ against the Mayans, the Nazis’ against the Jews; campaigns of destruction by individuals like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot; natural disasters like Pompeii and Herculaneum.

As I was planning this blog, the earthquake in Haiti struck, the decimation unfolded and hopes ran out. The Chilean quake followed so soon after it seemed like the world was coming unglued. In fact, the earth’s axis did shift as a result of the Chilean quake, shortening our day by 1.26 microseconds.

Here I look around the rooms of my house, at the books, the people, the art. I walk through the streets and imagine it all collapsed, broken, crumbled. Things blur and reel. For I too live in earthquake country—in fact, Words in Earthquake Country was the title of an early manuscript I discarded along the way. I’d written it after the 8.1 Mexico City earthquake in 1985. The title poem (published in Nimrod as “In the Tradition of the Drinking Song,” and since revised) begins:


In Mexico City, Danillo Cabrera

clings to a lintel as the doorframe falls

four floors down, “like an elevator.”


He says the Our Father wedged

among the dead.


In the earthquake country of my living room

none of the old prayers work

though whenever I write “God”

I still use a capital letter.


A few weeks ago we had a 6.9 temblor three hundred miles north of here, along the California coast. We didn’t feel it much in Sacramento, though several people reported seeing the water in their backyard swimming pools spiking. This connected for me because during the 7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, (shortly after I started a Stegner fellowship at Stanford ) I was having dinner with my new Stegner clan in an apartment shared by two fellows in Palo Alto. We heard what sounded like the roaring of a locomotive bearing down on us and the world came unglued; as we ran single-file outside we saw exactly what the Sacramento folks described—the water in the apartment complex pool leaping up in wild spikes, sloshing out over the edges. I drove home the next day, trying to avoid every bridge, every overpass, and holding my breath each time I couldn’t. I veered south around the bay before heading north to where my children—who I managed to speak with before the phones went dead—had clung to each other in a doorway as the floors shook and windowpanes clattered.

But, back to Basbane:  Even though so much of his book recounts destruction, it’s finally about preservation, about the friendships forged between authors and readers. It’s both humbling and restoring to learn how hard so many have worked to save a single poem, a few lines of a psalm or a treatise on gothic architecture, a few words from a guide for decorating Etruscan pots.


Biting off More Than I Can Eschew

By Arlene Weiner

“The trouble with you, Arlene,” a friend said, “is you can’t stay mad.” How right she was. Too much negative capability, I suppose—I begin to put myself in someone else’s shoes, see there might be another side to the story. As soon as I make a sweeping generalization, I think of an exception.

So though I once said, “If I ever write a poem about Icarus or Persephone, just shoot me,” I quickly repented. True, I’d read too many, in classes, workshops, and elsewhere. But now I began to think, “Why? Why those figures?” One reason is the emerging poets’ pride in knowledge, in taking possession of mythology, a knowledge not shared by everyone, but something discovered, almost private. But primarily because these are two young figures that are attractive to the (mostly young) poets writing about them: the ambitious young man wishing to soar, the romantic young woman imagining herself prized by the Dark Lord. In these stories the limbs of wish and fear are entangled, because they are warnings—Don’t stray from the path, don’t aim too high! Persephone is a Little Red Riding Hood in classical draperies, Icarus falls. I haven’t seen many contemporary poems about young men in myth whose ambition is satisfied,.like Perseus or Jason. (Well, if you know Jason’s whole story, you know he’s slime.)

I’m not the only one who issues prohibitions for poetry. Teachers say: No adjectives and adverbs! Show don’t tell! No ideas but in things! Just like my (now given up) ban on Persephone and Icarus, their bans probably come from reading a lot of poems, sometimes from, let’s say, passion fatigue. Sometimes the fatigue is more specific, a “not [that trope/subject/word] again!”

Once I showed a poem to a poet friend, and she said, “Not ‘shards’! Please don’t use ‘shards’!” It seems that she’d been judging poetry contests, and the word “shards” appeared over and over, a kind of mark of poeticism. And since she said that, I’ve seen the word many, many times, in workshops and, yes, in published poetry. Again I ask, “Why?” Why is the word “shards” so attractive? As with the allusions to the myths, one reason is that it displays a little learning: it’s a word out of the common, a discovery. It also has a sound that is quite close to “sharp,” which pleases because it means something sharp. Most of all, because it means something fragmentary, and fragmentation is the great subject of modernism.

As my friend understood, I’m easy. I wouldn’t deny myself the pleasure of Jack Gilbert’s Falling and Flying, a perfectly fresh use of the Icarus story., and I’m still willing to entertain a poem with adjectives, adverbs, Persephone, or “shards,” even Persephone and “shards.”


A Lesson In Voice And Tone

by John Samuel Tieman

 I generally share my poems with a few friends before I mail them out.   A sample audience, as it were.   Because of this, I’ve been asked how I came to write the enclosed, as the voice and tone are different from poems I’ve written lately.   Perhaps the following note, written to a friend and editor, Mike Simms, may be of some interest.  I enclose my poem, and the influences to which I refer.

     In the immediate, I was responding to Mike’s comment that my poem sounds “like Charles Bukowski goes to Vietnam.”


            It’s funny you should say that.   I was just reading Bukowski early this morning.   I wanted to find and forward a poem of his, “The House”, to my wife, Phoebe.   She counts Bukowski in a category she denominates “Literary Pigs.”   Henry Miller.   Gregory Corso.   And like that.   Anyway, I sent her one of his poems.   Phoebe is perfectly comfortable with the concept of loving the writing and shooting the writer.

          Maybe something in that working class thing stuck.   As I wrote my poem, I had to decide which way to go with the voice, middle class or working class.   For example, the original read “nonetheless”, which I finally decided to change to “anyhow”.   And so on.   Something about the situation seemed to call for the working class voice — but with a specific requirement.   The voice needed to couple a tone that carries a certain dignity with a crude vocabulary.   A requirement that just cries out for The Tieman Touch.

          At the very end, I was actually thinking of the ending of Stanley Kunitz’s “The Portrait”.   Thinking ‘How does he make that 50 year shift in two or three lines?’, to which question I just answered ‘He just does.’   So I just did.

          I also just watched last night the 1979 movie version of All Quiet On The West­ern Front.   For a long time after my war, I couldn’t bring myself to read that novel.   I think I finally read it toward the end of my junior college days.   I still think it’s one of the great anti-war pieces.

          The situation in my poem is, of course, a real memory.


                                                there was this guy I used to talk to
                                                in Nam a Vietnamese
                                                corporal just like me only gook

                                                most the time I couldn’t understand

                                                a word the fuck said but for all

                                                his accent I liked his slant

                                                eyed ass anyhow

                                                so this one day

                                                he disappears so I figure

                                                he’s in the bush

                                                hunting the little evil people until

                                                the next month

                                                I see he got hunted

                                                shows up without a left leg

                                                nobody talks to him

                                                I mean me too

                                                all I could do was for a second

                                                just stare and go

                                                forty years after the war

                                                and all I can do is still stare


The Mega-Attack of Pure Joy

by Elizabeth Kirschner

      It happens sometimes, quick as a wink and just in the nick of time—the mega-attack of pure joy. I never know when it’s coming, but when it does, as it did last night, I’m seized by joy, end up singing and dancing around the house just like a child, just like a very happy child, which I never was.

     Battered into being by my parents, I’m often crushed by joy’s antithesis, the cold cauls  of depression. My mood shifts are incredibly fast, often leave me breathless, but the fact that I can rise into, thrive my way into joy is an unexpected, much beloved gift, almost a crowning and one I hope to give in return.

      My greatest source of joy is my miracle son, Dylan, now seventeen—a true mega-boy.

      He is by nature playful, delightful and that very lightness of being is something we have always shared. As a toddler we would take bubble baths together, run naked out into the yard and perform nudy-tudy dances among the fireflies. As a young man he never fails to make me laugh. Not long ago we had a whipped cream fight in the car—Dylan even blasted some of it up my nose. When he plays Ultimate Frisbee, which he is passionate about, he is joy embodied, in flight.

     I have learned much from my son, but one thing persists and that is just how intense joy can be. We’ve all felt the intensities of grief, but joy distilled is equally potent. It is, at its height, a power surge. It isn’t just contagious, it is powerful and empowering.

       That lesson is evident in the dance world and because I study ballet, I know how physical joy can be. It is also strenuous—soaring into the leap, nailing multiple pirouettes—anyone who has observed dance is made captive by joy.

      Why then is it so rare in the writing life? Is joy too fleeting, too effusive, elusive to capture? There are poems and stories that make us laugh, but I can ensure you, mine never do. I take my work very seriously, perhaps too seriously. Nonetheless, the practice, the daily practice of writing, does bring me much joy. After thirty-five years, I’m still eager to get down to work each morning and am unhinged on those rare days when I can’t practice my art.

      Sheer joy, penultimate joy, heavenly joy. It’s a mega-attack on our highest side. Its complex is complex and sometimes its manifestations can be overwhelming. How so? I return to my son. When he was born I was enraptured. I remember looking at Dylan when he was just ten days old with a passionate happiness, knowing I would never gaze at a newborn of my own again. I was highly conscious, terrifically grateful that I had another passion—my writing. Without it to ground me, I would have, if it’s possible, loved my child too much. I would have gone off the deep end and those few degrees of separation have been essential to his well-being.

       Every day I sit down ready to make a mega-attack on the poem and most days, it attacks back. What can I say about the writing life, why I persist, most writers persist, against all odds? We create the work, put it out there and are greeted by silence and rejection, rejection and silence. One artist once said she felt her music went into a big, black hole. I know that big black hole thoroughly, but the work never fails to bring me joy—it is ever enlivening, ever enlightening.

      Dylan infected me with joy from day one. Writing did, too, even blood and guts poetry, naked poetry. My often melancholy muse can be celebratory: every poem is a wedding, even if it is a Baudelarian bouquet of the flowers from hell.

     Let’s leave it like this: art is the highest form of play. I don’t know who said it, but it holds true for me. My only wish is that you, too, catch the fever of joy just like spring fever. It’s February outside and there’s a big winter storm happening, but I feel like May on the inside, an aging May perhaps, but oh how I long to play all day long, every day, come what may.


Fierce and Lonesome

by Elizabeth Kirschner

     These words—fierce and lonesome—hold hands, become mates. A dynamic combo, explosive ammo for the writer. I can’t help but think my lonesomeness makes me fierce. Out of hours and hours of being just one in a universe of many, there comes not a torch song, but torched words, each with its own touché.

      It has to be that way. Every word in a poem, story, essay, needs to be a flash in the pan. Generative destruction—that’s how I write. I break down the irreducible into the rich roux of language. Beginnings must have ends, middles must have tides. Sound waves  wavering on light years, yes, that’s the particular music. Writers need not hit the pretty keys, but most certainly, the perfect ones.

      I who am afraid of so many things—staying up too late, traveling, unraveling—go into writing full tilt. I put down my truth and each line or sentence comes with a death threat. I bear to carry, I carry to bear. The word becomes pregnant and although I’ve only given birth to one child, the birthing of words is perpetual, the clock by which I sing.

      I am persistent, insistent, almost demonic about doing the work and doing it right. Others talk about how brave I am, but that’s not exactly true. I’m driven, riveted to the page upon which I write and what emerges is a whirl of words furiously spinning like Sufi dancers or a weaver at the loom. Rhythmic dancing, rhythmic weaving. Sometimes the words are woven together with webs, other times, Whitman’s ductile thread.

      Poem, story, essay, click into being with the tip of the whip. I hear it snap. Breaking into any body of writing is like breaking bread—kneaded, risen, shared. So here’s a thought—my lonesome self goes into the tunnel, the dark tunnel, like a train—into,  through, out of which, the cars come flying, electric, lit. And fierceness—also electric, lit—is what creates beauty.

      I turn to a manuscript now defunct, but the title sticks—The Fire Bones. I imagine flaming ladders lending structure, the fire, the passionate heat by which our hearts are given warmth. I imagine walking into burning buildings to save what can be salvaged. It goes against instinct to perform that act—perhaps writing does, too. Think of the fire dancing, then whirl and weave, weave and whirl.



by John Samuel Tieman

My mother is slipping slowly now.   She has no sense of the real world around her.   Yesterday, she told my sister that she is flying.   When sis asked her where she’s flying to, Mother answered, “To heaven.”

I find myself in this strange world that my wife Phoebe calls, simply, a death watch.   I’m supervising two student teachers, so, fortunately, my job is not too demanding right now.   They’re teaching most of my classes today. But it’s strange and sad.   It has a kind of rhythm,a kind of schedule.

I go to work, check on my student teachers, leave them with the class, go to a near-by office, remember my mother is dying, cry a little, have lunch, think of mother, cry, come home, call Sis, see if Mother died, cry some more …

Friday, I took off work because I just couldn’t deal with it.

So that’s my life.   I thank God for those hours when I just forget.   Like last night, when we went to a play.  Strange… I can’t remember the name of the play….

She could die tomorrow, or it could go on like this for months.

My greatest prayer is that she comes to a peaceful end.   That she doesn’t suffer.


The Scent of Music

 by Elizabeth Kirschner

     Today a thought descended: language possesses a lost luminosity. It paired itself with a further one: language is the primitive refined by the writing that wrenches us into being. These two notions feel right to me, complete.

     Writing as quest, as a hunter going after the scent of music inside every word. Like wine tasters, we need a good nose that will put us on the scent trail for the scent messages whorled inside the fingerprints of music.

      Each note a fingerprint, no two alike. Therein, thereby, the trained voice. I believe in the importance of the voice box, listen for its inimitable vibrations. On sound waves, words are caressed into being. Then they align themselves with the rightness, the trueness of stars.

      By which we are guided and what we write does guide us, school us in what was unutterable finally uttered, be it taboo or not. Moving into the taboo is important, very important indeed. If we can leave fingerprints, voice prints on the taboo we might just compose those singing sentences that weave us into one human family.

    Ah, that word, family. So often the lost paradise not to be regained, but we can attach language to that lost paradise and the doomed can be sung into beauty. I know this. I write about that which cannot be accepted by own very real family. They do not want to bear witness to my truths and I understand this fully.

      The lost luminosity, the primitive refined is what makes the unbearable bearable. The holocaust happened and it had been written about. 9/11 happened, too, has been written about, but those abominable happenings closer to home sweet home is so often silenced with dead silence.

      I break the taboo like kindling across my knee to make a little fire and language with its lost luminosity, with the primitive refined, makes that little fire which will warm me on the coldest of nights.

      And this is one such night. Wind chill factors well, well below zero, but thank God, my ink doesn’t freeze. Fluidity is what it’s all about and fluidity comes from fidelity and writing does demand fidelity.

      Call it the Muse or not. My dog is my muse: it’s her true calling. Down behind my writing chair she nests and her devotion to me kindles my devotion to the work. Being disciplined about writing comes easy to me. Discipline in other areas of my life not so easy, except for mothering.

      Yet writing is all about mothering words into being. The hunt is on, yes, the hunt is on for the scent of music in that lost luminosity, in the primitive refined. I have a good nose, a better ear and the intoxications caused by both leave me spinning, weaving word to word.