Magic Words

By Songyi Zhang

Among many English words I learned as a beginner, the polite expressions, such as thank you, excuse me and I’m sorry, are used most often in my life and are also the most well-known to Chinese; even my father who doesn’t speak a word of English would say “Saw-ly” or “Fan-Q” to my English-speaking friends.

Like the American children, as kids, we were taught to speak politely to others in China. But one thing struck me when I was in a restaurant in Pittsburgh, hearing an American mother saying to her five-year-old child, “Please, Marc. Could you please not to play with the food?” Having followed his mother’s instruction, the boy got a compliment of “Thank you! At a boy!”

I haven’t heard of a parent talking to a child so politely in China. Instead, there is usually an imperative tone attached to the speech of a teacher to students, of a boss to employees, of a government clerk to visitors or of a parent to a child. I’m not sure if the familiarity between family members simplifies the wording of politeness. My father seldom said please to my mother if he asked her to do something, nor did they say thanks to me if I helped them out. I was so used to the bare request in my family that on the contrary, I would feel awkward if my mother thanked me. “We’re family. You don’t need to thank me,” I used to say to her.

When I first arrived in America, I did not know what the phrase “ magic word” meant. But I did notice that please and thank you were omnipresent in various conversations around me. Until one day my American teacher who is a mother of three boys explained to me, “That’s what I taught my sons when they were little,” she said proudly.

Yes, words like please, thank you and the others work magically in our daily social contacts. The person who says it conveys a message of courtesy; the one who receives it will feel delighted to be appreciated. I understand now why my companion complains that I am rude when I asks him to remove the chair without saying please. I learn my lesson. I carry the magic words every day, saying them to people I know or to those I don’t know. Several times thank you just slips out of my mouth without my thinking about it. But even though it may be an incorrect response, it lightens the day of the others, doesn’t it?   


On Nothing: An Essay

by John Samuel Tieman

I love being alone. I love staring out my window at nothing, and sitting here thinking of nothing. This is an essay about nothing at all, an essay addressed to the whole world, which is to say no one in particular. The world is a nice place, but you can’t just hang out with the world.

First, a few disclaimers. I love my wife. I’m one of those folks described as very married. In twenty years of marriage, in thirty-two years of friendship, I’ve not so much as raised my voice to Phoebe. Our compatibility is, frankly, remarkable. When folks ask me how we do it, what can I say? Marry someone with whom you’re remarkably compatible?

Then I love my friends. I have friends that go back forty years to my army days, thirty-five-plus years to my undergraduate days. I love them all.

But I also love being alone, staring out my window at nothing, sitting here thinking of nothing.

I love my home. I live in St. Louis, although, staring out my window, it’s just a city. I stare at just a backyard with a street running next to it which ends at the crest of a hill about two-hundred meters from here. There’s a little public school on the other side of that rise. When the wind is blowing from that direction, you can hear the kids play. My wife went to school there back in the mid-60’s. There’s also a Catholic church on the other side of that hill. I attended that church, went to that parish school, and, indeed, was confirmed there. I can hear the noon Angelus bells. But I can’t see the school or the church from my window. I sometimes pray the Angelus.

Occasionally a firetruck rushes up to the corner, where it turns to go somewhere, north, south. But once it stopped. Now that was Big Time. Rumor had it that someone at the corner had a meth lab which exploded. But I don’t know. It didn’t make the Post-Dispatch.

On the other side of my backyard, the closest neighbors are a black family, friendly enough folks, although I don’t know them as well as I know the other neighbors. I call the wife ‘The Empress Dowager’, because on her left hand she has three fingernails each over a foot long. I’ve got to wonder what that’s about. But I don’t ask, because the fantasy is a lot more fun than any actual answer.

Not long ago, I saw the movie Into Great Silence. I love it so much that I bought the DVD as well as a book about Carthusian monks. That’s what the movie is about, monks, a Carthusian monastery full of them. Carthusians make Trappists look like weenies. They are hermits, who, while they live in a monastery, spend almost all of their time in their cells. I get that, but I don’t get why they don’t want to get laid. Or, for that matter, why they don’t want to catch a few innings of the Cardinal’s game on the tube – who doesn’t want to watch Albert Pujols bat? But the great silence, staring out the window at nothing, praying my rosary for no one about nothing. Yeah.

Don’t get me wrong. I am very, very Catholic. But I have never wanted to be a good Catholic. The Trappist Thomas Merton once said something like, “God, protect me from all right thinking men, which is to say men who agree perfectly with their own police.” I used to love Thomas Merton. I still like him, but I like him better dead. That way I can pick and choose the bits I like from his life. The actual monk, I think I would have found annoying. Pretty much like I find my whole Church these days. I belong to a very annoying religion. I love the St. Louis Cathedral when it is cool, dark and empty. But Catholic I am. I can no more stop being a Catholic than I can stop being a Midwesterner, both of which I’ve tried. But what a Jewish friend says of his religion, I say of mine. I wasn’t born to a faith: I was born to a fate. Which leads me to nothing at all.


The White Book

by Arlene Weiner 

Somewhere among my effects—my stuff, my junk—there is a small book with a white cover, stiff and warped. It’s not a Bible, and I’ve not read it very much. It’s a copy of poems by Tennyson.

For the first twenty years of my life I lived in an apartment house in Manhattan, a five-story L-shaped building that abutted a twin building, so that together they formed a protective U around a courtyard. My neighbors were Irish (mostly: the Stewarts, the Harrisons, the Kirks, the Keowns, the Dwyers, the O’Dwyers), French (one couple, the Rollands, on the fourth floor), Greek (one family, the Armases, with a girl and a boy the same age as me and my brother), Jewish (a few: the Pages, the Weinglasses, the Pollacks, Martha Greisel), German (the Wankes).

Among all these nameable nationalities, there was one couple, the Cheadles (Dickensian name, especially since he was a lawyer), whom we called “English.”  They weren’t from England. They simply didn’t have a tag like the rest of us. They were, I guess, what people now call “WASP.” Mrs. Cheadle had a fluty Eleanor-Roosevelt kind of voice. She told me once that Mr. Cheadle had gone to Columbia Law School in the same class as Franklin Roosevelt. 

I think the Cheadles had come down badly in the world. No lawyer, doctor, or teacher lived in our building or in the near neighborhood. And while I was living there, they came down even more, because they moved from an apartment on the first or second floor to a three-room basement apartment, with half-height windows that looked out onto the feet of people coming and going—or playing—in the court. 

I commuted to college from that apartment house, for four years walking a block or so to the screeching elevated subway train that I took downtown. And then I married. My neighbors showered me with rice. Mrs. Kirk gave me two silver-plate serving pieces, a fork and pierced spoon that I still use frequently—out of her own things, because they were tarnished and my mother polished them. Mrs. Cheadle gave me the white book. I think it meant she had hopes for me.


Book Review: The Metropolis Case by Matthew Gallaway

Reviewed by Evan Oare

Subtly rendered with glimpses of brilliance, we can only hope that Matthew Gallaway’s first novel, The Metropolis Case, is not his last and indeed bears no similarity to the opera at the heart of its plot. Tristan and Isolde, notorious for its tendency to claim lives and careers because of its length and difficulty, acts as centerpiece to the multiple plotlines which explore the tenuous relationship of reality to art, especially music.

There are four main characters. Lucien is an aspiring opera singer in 19th-century Paris and Vienna. There’s Anna, whose launching pad for a resilient opera career is her turn in Tristan and Isolde. Maria is a socially stunted girl coming of age in 1970s Pittsburgh and then at Julliard as her operatic abilities pull her out of disenfranchisement. Finally there is Martin, a middle-aged lost soul living in modern-day New York City (who ostensibly seems to be a little bit of a guise for Gallaway).

At one point, Martin becomes unexpectedly ensnared by the strange accessibility of the opera, an art form that intimidates him and tends to do the same to many others (including this reviewer). Similarly, the novel surprises as it comfortably eases into a plot that, while dependent on an understanding of Tristan and Isolde, never feels oppressive or akin to collegiate study. The reader is deftly initiated into the tale with just as much background information as is necessary. Gallaway handily uses it to augment its true preoccupation: the representation of how music can transform a life.

Weaving NYC with the Paris and Vienna of over a century ago, as well as 1970s Pittsburgh suburbs, Gallaway again takes situations that seems strange and unlikely to intersect and turns them into something that ultimately makes a great deal of sense. Metropolis’s ambitions are high and largely realized. As any successful story that employs multiple storylines, it isn’t evident why these disparate characters are important to one another until one is convinced that the stakes that govern each are so similar that one eventually questions, How could they not be essential to one another? It produces an intimacy between the characters that consequently develops the book’s intimacy with the reader—exactly the force which is the ultimate strength of a successful novel.

Not that it’s pitch-perfect at all times. Gallaway’s brief forays into sexual encounters betray a maladroit handling of the act (but hey, good sex writing is really difficult). Also, an instance of something straight from science fiction unduly appears, something not effectively allowed for by the terms set forth throughout the preceding text. However, this incident is thankfully not so overly divergent that it can diminish the flashes of personal insight and overall beauty of the writing style.

The fact that Pittsburgh makes an appearance in the novel is not coincidental—Matthew Gallaway was a native before he moved on to Cornell University and subsequently law school at NYU. Gallaway is an avid blogger (short stories that employ his cats are as entertaining as any other internet-based cats meme). Also, he recently detailed his feelings on Pittsburgh in the Post-Gazette.

Gallaway is reading at Carnegie Public Library—Main (Oakland) on Thursday, April 21st at 6PM (Free). To reserve a seat, call 412-622-8866 or visit the Writers Live website for more details and to reserve a seat online.


The Minority

By Songyi Zhang

Can you believe an Asian woman like me with dark hair, dark eyes and round face is considered an Englishman? Or can you believe as a tourist you cannot openly take photos of where you are or stare at the local riders in the horse and buggy?

On one of my visits to the Amish country in Western Pennsylvania, I was drawn to the multi-colored, handmade quilts hanging outside a white wooden house. A tourist’s instinct was to take a snapshot. I, too, held up my camera, angling the right direction to capture both the plain house and the quilts on the porch. As I was about to press the shutter, a female voice pealed from a gap of a half-open door, “No photo please!” I was startled, diverting my gaze from the camera. A thirty-something woman in a milky-blue, plain-cut dress and a white apron stood at the door. As I looked at her closely, she immediately shut the door and hid behind the curtained window. Her bonneted head showed from behind the curtain. All I remember was her unpleasant frown like the one we have when a salesman knocks on our door. Not until I walked away from her property did she pull down the curtain. My heart thumped fast. I had never been treated so coldly when taking photos. Why was the woman so mean to me?

Later I learned that the plainness-pursuing Amish people do not like to be involved with the outside world. That means to the Amish, all those who are non-Amish are known to them as English. I’m sure my sightseeing in their territory is an intrusion, an unwelcome trespass. I’m an outsider in this self-contained world where men sow on the land, women sew at home.

Largely sharing a Swiss-German ancestry, the Amish are a distinguished minority in the U.S.. They refuse to use modern facilities: no electricity, no automobiles, no fancy clothes. Their simple lifestyle not only attracts the other American citizens but aliens from all over the world. To some extent, the Amish are aliens to us Englishmen.

Before I came to the U.S., I knew of the Amish from the movie Witness starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis. However, my experience in Amish country arouses my curiosity. How can they get away from temptation in an affluent country which offers so many conveniences and choices? Why doesn’t Americanized globalization affect the Amish country as profoundly as it affects China which is ten thousand miles away from the U.S.?

Yet, along with hunger, money sometimes trumps conviction. When I was in Berlin, Ohio, I passed by an open-minded, blue-clad Amish family selling homemade pies, maple syrup and handicrafts at a street stand. The aromatic pies easily wavered my determination to lose weight. After a second thought, I walked back to the stand and attempted to make a purchase from the brown-bearded Amish man. Upon seeing my return, he greeted me with a jocular question, “Having guilty conscience?” I grinned and happily picked up an eight inch strawberry and rhubarb pie and a jar of maple syrup. He humbly received the green notes from me, a gratifying deal for both of us.


Theatre Review: Mercy and the Firefly by Amy Hartman

Reviewed by Michael Simms

Lucy Clark, a nun who teaches in East Los Angeles, returns to Homestead, Pennsylvania, having kidnapped fifteen year-old Mercy Rivera whom she believes is in danger after witnessing a murder. Lucy’s old boyfriend Oliver and her mother Vivian reluctantly take in the girl. What ensues is a four-way struggle for power in an upside-down world where drug dealers rule the streets and adults are terrified of children. In fact, these people are afraid of everything, having forgotten even the simple goodness of food and human touch. All the characters are adept liars and manipulators, drug addicts and alcoholics, users in every sense of the word. In this harsh world, tenderness is interpreted as weakness, dreams are mocked and punished, and love is only for suckers.

The names are ironic. Lucy, who has forgotten how to pray, has lost her light. Vivian, whose name means Life, regularly volunteers as a cook making last meals for the condemned — “waking them up before they die” as her daughter puts it. Oliver Hill, despite his pastoral-sounding name, lives in an urban wasteland. And Mercy, well, has none. Life — as they know it — is nasty, brutish, and short. So, it’s a surprise – and a relief — that by the end of the play, each of the characters has wrestled his or her stubborn demon to a tenuous draw.

Amy Hartman is arguably the best playwright working today. Her dialogue snaps with poetry, a rhapsodic vernacular that sings the desperate lyricism of the dispossessed. The ghost of a murdered girl opens the play with a rap song, and as she haunts Mercy, who as it turns out, is a soldier in the LA gang wars, Mercy’s language slides into a rhyming ode to the violence of the streets. In a spell-binding performance, Chelsea Mervis brings out the contradiction of a violent manipulative girl who is also a victim of a world gone crazy. Shammen McCune as Lucy captures the character’s confusion in her search for faith and love. Penelope Lindblom interprets Vivian – perhaps the most sympathetic of the characters — as a tough old broad who’s going to survive no matter what. And Patrick Jordan’s pitch-perfect portrayal of the weak and vacillating Oliver rounds out the strong cast.

Melissa Martin’s direction is subtle and competent, letting the actors and the dialogue carry the play without impediment. Stephanie Mayer-Staley, the scenic designer, has divided the stage between two locations – a rubbish-strewn lot and a low-rent apartment, providing the perfect setting for the post-apocalyptic story. Costume designer Michael Montgomery, lighting designer Andrew David Ostrowski, and sound designer Steve Shapiro contribute to a powerful production of a beautiful play.

“Mercy and the Firefly,” by Amy Hartman, is at The Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Studio Stage (222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412/ 392-8000 or online at from April 1 to April 17, 2011




  by John Samuel Tieman                                                         

                                                            as I drive to work

                                                            the dawn light right in my face

                                                            there’s the threat of rain


            So I’m looking at one of these TV clips with the good hearted GI giving candy to this kid.   An uplifting story.   So let me tell a little war story about why I don’t do uplifting.    

             Early December of 1970.   The 4th Infantry.   The An Khe Pass.   Nam.   I’ve got a lot of memories of the An Khe Pass.   Watching a sniper, who tried to kill us, get killed for instance.   Stuff like that.       

           This one day we were on a convoy moving equipment.   I’m in back with the equipment and a grunt, and there’s no cover on our truck.   We’re pissed because it’s rain and it’s Nam and it’s C-rations for lunch.   The C’s were packaged in early 1950-something, one whole war ago.   So, yea, we’re pissed.   Then the grunt says he wants to show me a trick.   That’s the grunt’s words.   A trick.   I half expect him to pull out a deck of cards.   He takes his now empty C-ration can, pulls out a rock from his pocket –  he’s been saving it, I remember him picking it up – puts the rock in the can, and bends back the lid to seal it.   Then he waits.   Not long.   We start to pass this bunch of beggar kids.   The grunt holds out the can, but doesn’t throw it.   He keeps it just out of reach of the beggar kids until he like culls one out of the pack.   A boy maybe eight or ten.   The boy keeps running and the grunt keeps the can just out of reach.   (Keep in mind that convoys never stop.   Never.   To the snipers, we were always a moving target.   Appleman and O’Leary once had a blowout, and we just left their asses.)   So the grunt now has the kid running along the side of the truck.   I guess we’re doing five or ten miles an hour, and the grunt slowly starts to move rearward.   Till finally he’s got the kid at the back of our truck, running between us and the next ten ton truck.   The driver behind us, I mean maybe fifteen feet behind us, he’s not so much horrified as astonished.   This whole time, the grunt is something like impassive, expressionless, flat, this whole time. 

            Now the kid is within an inch of what he thinks is a meal, when the grunt throws the can to a whole other bunch of beggar kids.   The boy breaks left, gets to the other kids, and has to look over their shoulders as they huddle.   All his effort, and the kid can’t even get to the can for all the other beggar kids.   Then they open it.   Then the boy gets it, the trick.   He looks up.   At me.   I had never before, nor have I since, seen a look of such unmitigated hatred.


                                                            driving home from work

                                                            I watch a hawk fly nowhere

                                                            in perfect circles

                                                            when I recall a Nam whore

                                                            her cold breast out of nowhere



Restaurant Review: BRGR

Reviewed by Noah Gup

Burgers and milkshakes. The phrase itself elicits glossy-eyed nostalgia, memories of backyard lunches in the summer, the smoky scent of the grill and the crack of a wiffle bat. BRGR — in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood — strives to transport cold-hearted foodies back to simpler times. Embracing a compromise between highbrow and lowbrow cuisine, BRGR serves shakes spiked with liquor and French Fries drizzled with “truffle cheese whiz,” a strangely delicious bastard child of tailgate bites and haute cuisine.

The restaurant is informal and simple, with dark wooden tables and metallic pillars. Walking in, the first thing to notice is a projector, displaying close-ups of hamburgers on a blank wall, effectively piquing appetites. If you are lucky, you can get seated in some of their criminally comfy leather chairs. On a weekend night, the noise level often limits conversation, which is fine because there isn’t much to say when chowing down on the prime finger food BRGR offers. Fries are subtly spiced and are made dangerously addictive by the aforementioned cheese topping. Thickly battered onion rings leave the fingers greasy and the inner child content.

It isn’t called BRGR for nothing. In short, the burgers deliver. The Kobe Beef Burger finds a perfect compromise between salty and sweet, the crunchy pickled onions and arugula contrasting with savory blue cheese smothered below the burger. Each bite tastes slightly different; each is equally satisfying. Even the buns at BRGR deserve recognition; they can support the massive heft of the meat and toppings throughout the entire meal. The meat is lean, juicy and flavorful, hardly requiring toppings. Unfortunately, the meat’s natural flavor is occasionally overwhelmed, as in the Bad Ass Mexican Burger. Coming dangerously close to a Walking Taco, the Bad Ass is smothered in salsa, tortilla chips and sour cream. While some bites taste like a comfortable fusion, the thick layer of toppings suffocates others.

The undeniable star of the menu is meat. Vegetarians, however, can also indulge. The Tree Hugger falafel burger, liberally spiced with cumin and smothered with thick yogurt, is a solid choice for the meat-averse. If the burgers, fries and onion rings seem like a caloric overload, the seasonal coleslaw can serve as a welcome interlude. The vinegar-based slaw, enhanced with cranberries, almonds and delicately thin apple slices, is refreshing and perfect for spring.

As delicious as the burgers may be, diners must save room for a dessert. Featuring ice cream from Pittsburgh’s own Dave & Andy’s, BRGR has mastered the art of milkshakes. Smooth yet thick, the milkshakes find the perfect balance of old-school simplicity and gourmet experimentation. While a dark chocolate milkshake topped with a swirl of rich syrup offers a glimpse into cocoa heaven, the highlight of the dessert menu is a magical concoction known as The Green Man. In essence, it is a mint milkshake, though its intensely minty flavor of peppermint extract places The Green Man in a category of its own. A crisp butter cookie floats on top, polishing off a delicious desert.

Service is helpful and hospitable, though there were some unfortunate mishaps. An order of fries came out barely warm, and a hamburger ordered medium was served closer to well-done. Regardless, BRGR is a USDA prime choice for those who like an old-fashioned meal with a newfangled twist.

(Burgers range from $7 to $13. Expect a wait on Friday and Saturday nights.)


A Season in Hell XII

by Elizabeth Kirschner

3:44. I can tell time. I have been able to tell time for a long, long time. Time will tell, they say, time will tell—just what? I want to know just what. Will it tell me I am just a passing phenomenon? That I’m suffering from deeds done in a past life? And that’s exactly where I want to be now—in a passed life, passed right through life and out of life as though I were a transparency, my words hardly an outline. Black reflections and dead low tide. Empty Redemption.

I was shocked when I first saw that sign on a highway here in Maine. Empty Redemption. That’s where you redeem empty wine bottles for fifteen cents and O Good Lord have I gone through a lot of wine bottles since moving to Kittery Point. I’d be rich if I had redeemed all those bottles as only the wine quiets my unquiet mind, the one riveted with nails.

Black reflections, empty redemption and me about to go down to the sea. I will walk with eyes half-closed as though I were a humble novice about to take holy orders, but really my eyes are half-closed from all the crying. I will go walk the walk, talk the talk, say hi and yes I’m fine and tell no one about the black sack and the nails because what would they think? How can I write about all the body parts—an arm here, a leg there—or of things put in and out of my holes—a bullet, a poker—especially in my stink hole because only bad girls have stink holes. And only bad women who are in a bad way get choked, then put in a body sack. And because I am a bad woman in a bad way, I’ll drink wine tonight, have more black reflections full of Empty Redemption.


Border Town Blues

By Laura Schultz

The first portion of this saga described my youth circa the 1950’s, in a California border town called El Centro. The story continues but is only the beginning of life as we knew it in this cozy agricultural oasis. At some point in the late 1950’s, a feeling of foreboding came over me and our peaceful life in this idyllic farming community was about to explode– in more ways than a hundred life times could be for myself, many of our town’s residents, and for many people across the country. Our idealism would be scattered into a million pieces like the fragile china from my grandmother’s antique cabinet. It was as if our family’s life had suddenly slipped through my still child like hands onto the stone cold linoleum kitchen floors.

On one hand my childhood in El Centro was still similar to a Disney movie filled with the fantasies of youth. The daily atonal hymn of the combines and conveyor belts in the fields allowed us to feel secure and comfortable. We were warmed by our daily routine and rested in the comfort of knowing a fresh, tasty meal awaited us every evening. The fragrance of freshly mown hay and a sweet scent of sugar beets filled the air as they were being refined into store bought sugar at the Holly Sugar plant nearby.

We were in awe of the farm workers as they toiled throughout the days of frost, spring and the blazing heat to come for the bounty enjoyed by all the other families, except their own. We reveled in our new blue bathtub and matching sinks that sparkled while the workers shared an outdoor plumbing system beside their shabby barracks. In my soul, I felt this imbalance and it saddened me, but I was not mature enough to really appreciate the consequences that were yet to unfold.

We spent our days picking dark, tantalizing berries in a neighbor’s yard after scampering over the fence to retrieve these sweet treasures. I spent many evenings lying on the front lawn, transfixed by a star-filled sky, pondering the perplexing questions of youth. Walking to school with friends I’d known for years was a pleasant and glee-filled experience while our teachers watched over us as they would their own children. Many of us excelled under their strict tutelage while other students descended into despair under the pressure of daily homework. Weekends, however, brought bright lights, excitement of football games and the synchronized marching bands regaled in blue and white. The jubilance of cheering crowds enabled us to savor each victory against our town rivals.

Holidays like Christmas brought pomp and circumstance with lighted sleds on rooftops and crowd lined streets as we rode in the parade on horseback, along with a sheriff’s posse and the town mayor. The Mexican culture was on vivid display during these parades with children in brightly colored costumes and colorful musicians that entertained the crowd with magnificent holiday songs. Our two disparate cultures blended together beautifully though briefly, during these memorable events. If I was a “good girl” as dad used to say, I may have received a brand new pair of riding boots for Christmas. In stark contrast, the migrant children often went without the gifts that were bestowed upon children of the upper strata of farm families.

But, “brother hold onto your socks” as my father used to say. All hell was breaking loose in my mind and heart along with most young people of my generation now referred to as the “Baby Boomers.”As the 1960’s were ushered in with a full-fledged bang, my family and I began to diverge in a very uncomfortable way. Although I respected and adored my family for the most part, I began to explore independent thought, as many young people do most of which horrified our parents. I voraciously read books like the two classics by George Orwell, “Animal Farm” and “1984.” In school we were assigned other classics to read such as “Catcher in the Rye” and I very slowly began to question everything I had been taught both about my cozy little world and the world at-large. Additionally, although at a young age I didn’t understand the fluent Spanish my father spoke with the migrant workers, I longed to understand what they were saying.

Thus began my curiosity and exploration into the Mexican culture and language on a deeper level. This curiosity about cultures far and wide remains with me today, but at that time it only brought me torment. I shared very little with others, even close friends because my views were considered radical. As I changed along with the world around us during this revolutionary time, my relationship with both my parents spelled nothing short of heartache. I felt very alone and spent a great deal of time sequestered in the bedroom reading with a small flashlight way past my appointed bed time.

In the turbulent 1960’s, my parent’s heroes were Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. My heroes were similar to many of those in my generation who were protesting in the streets for civil rights, the war in Vietnam and the rights of migrants to unionize. While the chants of “Make Love not War” and “We Shall Overcome” abounded, we watched in horror as we saw fellow students being shot and killed at Kent State University for exercising their right to protest. And young men our age died by the thousands in what is now considered a useless war. By the time my father took up his cause by running for the Senate seat in our district in 1964, we had all but stopped discussing the world and politics.

Many of the townspeople agreed with the older generation’s stance, except those farm workers who were trying to organize alongside the leadership skills displayed by the late Cesar Chavez. As this labor movement gained momentum in our town and across the nation, anger and violence ensued. Our family was caught up in the turmoil and I will never forget some of the statements my father made after President Kennedy was shot and killed. While a nation mourned stoically and many were drenched with the tears of winter, we could feel the frosty chill of desolation and despair. We huddled together like lost souls searching for a safe harbor in each other. But in our house, the name of President Kennedy was never uttered again and, for most people, life proceeded as usual.

As our heroes fell, one after the other, we waved goodbye to the innocence of our youth. I still ponder today how our lives could change so suddenly and dramatically as it did when I lost my father as well. I learned as I grew and matured that death of both loved ones and the ideals of our youth can change everything. Nothing remained the same as it was then. El Centro descended into entropy, neglect and the highest unemployment rate in the country. Like so many small towns all across the country, the border town of my childhood is withering like its forgotten family farms. But it will always live on in my memories as the town I knew in the 1950’s with close knit neighborhoods, star-filled skies and the sweet scent of sugar beets that permeated the air.

Book Review: Sasha Sings The Laundry On The Line by Sean Thomas Dougherty

Reviewed by John Samuel Tieman

Sasha Sings The Laundry On The Line
by Sean Thomas Dougherty
BOA Editions
Paperback, $16.00
ISBN 9781934414392
Published September 2010

Many years ago, I was driving down a street with a friend, a geneticist who used to play cello in a symphony. It was spring. I mentioned how beautiful the blossoming pear trees were. He agreed and pointed out that every tree was, from the genetic point of view, identical. I’d driven down that street for decades. But that day, I learned more than I actually saw. My vision was clarified and deepened.

Poetry is like that. When poetry works well, we learn more than we actually read. Such is the case with Sean Thomas Dougherty’s Sasha Sings The Laundry On The Line, recently published by BOA Editions.

Dougherty is a landscape artist. But the landscape is not one painted by Gainsborough. He’s more like Studs Terkel walking along Division Street in Chicago, describing immigrants and drug addicts, the denizens and detritus of urban America. For example, in the poem “Arbitrary Cities”, the poet describes broken glass in a gutter with perfect precision and clarity:

Dear Shasha,
there is a blue bottle broken by the gutter
of our apartment house on Parade Street,
on the edge of the blue light lilted frozen lake,
a blue bottle as blue lake glass, ice blue its song
its ice blue broken song, this stolen prayer,
how neither of us will lift it to our lips like a flute…

In addition to his extraordinary observational abilities, Dougherty is a master craftsman, versatile in his style and original in his approach. In “Arbitrary Cities”, the author moves smoothly from the epistolary description quoted above to prose riffs without missing a beat. In other poems he has long passages of near-rhyme, and his four line elegy for Robert Creeley is unlike anything I’ve read before.

These are very complicated poems with many unexpected jumps and shifts. In the lovely and surprising “Dear Tiara”, every stanza begins with “I dreamed – “I dreamed I was a saint’s hair-shirt, sewn with the thread / of your saliva.” The poem “X” is much more enigmatic, in that every stanza begins with “X”:

X Vietnam veterans with shotguns …
X cops pushing mops, X machinists laid off …
X cafeteria workers and coal smoke …
X the broken traffic light in burnt-out Toledo. On the corner
some woman waiting in the rain for nothing we can name.

I’m not sure what X means. I’m not sure what exactly Dougherty is dreaming. I know this means what I’ve just read. I know this means more than what I’ve just read. Like a dream an analyst records, this is a poetry that goes straight from the artist’s unconscious mind to the unconscious mind of the reader, the poem itself being the means of relationship, the artifact that both holds the thought and everything the thought will become. Time and place become the geography of loneliness. “Dusk drifts like a terrible scream”, and the music becomes “the sound of someone / torn / being sewn.” Thus do we learn more than we actually read. Thus does the reader have, at least for a moment, clarity.