Theatre Review: House & Garden by Alan Ayckbourn

by Noah Gup

Alan Ayckbourn’s “House & Garden,” is held together on a fairly incredible concept: two separate plays with the same cast going on at the exact same time. Characters run in and out, often screaming, complaining, or mumbling. Plates are shattered, marriages crumble, copious amounts of alcohol are consumed; essentially it is standard dark comedy. Yet with a deft touch for humor and all-around splendid acting, PICT brings “House & Garden” to life, creating a hilarious, chaotic, shallow, but ultimately entertaining look into the intersecting lives at the Platt residence.

Each play centers on a different dysfunctional relationship. “House” focuses on the comical communication problems between Teddy and Trish Platt, who are hosting a fete at the house and garden mentioned in the title. The focus of “Garden,” is the Mace marriage (close friends of the Platt’s), whose relationship is shaken by the discovery of adultery. Weaving between the two quarrelling couples is a pair of young lovebirds, Jake Mace and Sally Platt, who regard their parents with a realistic mix of admiration and revolt. Throw in some eccentric house help, a slick city visitor, and a famous French actress, drizzle with rum, shake repeatedly, and there you have “House & Garden.”

Of the two plays, “House” is a more standard affair, focusing on the Platt legacy. In the house, the characters work to present their lives as clean as the house. It is the more dramatic of the two works and also the more cohesive. In “Garden,” however, characters are not afraid to get dirty, and Ayckbourn’s comical characterization shines. Despite leaving many questions unanswered (and at points succumbing to silly slapstick), I left “Garden” entertained, even moved. David Bryan Jackson brings wrenching sincerity to deer-in-the-headlights husband Giles Mace, and his awkward attempts at father-son bonding are simultaneously humorous and tragic. However, Giles is sadly absent from most of “House,” just as the city slicker Gavin (played appropriately icky by Leo Marks) is virtually nonexistent in “Garden.” Yet this is the nature of “House & Garden” and a full, satisfying grasp of all the characters can only be gleaned through watching both. And with Ayckbourn’s vivid characters, returning to see them again is like visiting new friends.

Still, both plays are riddled with jumps in logic. Characters make brash decisions and change drastically with little motivation. While all of this creates ridiculous comedy, it is often more ridiculous than comedic. While Ayckbourn’s web of intersecting failed relationships are fascinating and funny, the plot is familiar. “House & Garden” has many funny moments, but, after leaving the theatre, the plays are easy to forget. Instead, it is the gears working behind the scenes that make the experience memorable. As both the house and the garden fall into disarray, the actors remain completely coordinated, moving from stage to stage naturally. Even amid the chaos on stage, the actors’ movements from stage to stage are completely controlled. After seeing both, the care Ayckbourn took to create his project becomes clear, as does the actors’ skillful transitions. Through a wonderful ensemble cast and painstaking organization, PICT brings Ayckbourn’s ambitious vision to life. While it may not be life changing or heart breaking, “House & Garden,” underneath its elaborate concept, is pure and simple entertainment.

(“House & Garden” runs through July 17th at the Charity Randall and Henry Heymann Theatres. For more information visit www.picttheatre.org.)

Art and Soul

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

As soon as I came up with that title I realized I just can’t help myself—I am an ad man’s daughter after all; I come by the glib and the slick naturally. That said (and perhaps as a counter to the genetic link!), I also put my heart and soul into most of the works I attempt (the blessing and curse I was reviewing inside myself, which prompted me to write this short essay.)

I throw myself from the cliffs, I hurl myself into the wild surf of language, or, if I’m painting, into the swift currents of color, line and shape. If that sounds like it could be painful—well, it sometimes is. It is also exhilarating.

An idea glimmers. A scene or a subject arrives. That usually means a lot of preliminary background work—pushing myself into the darkest crannies, the narrowest passageways—arriving at all the dead ends and also the occasional airy rooms where some apparition shimmers into being at the edges of consciousness. The excitement of the original idea has given way to the dig and the delve of it.

Recently I conducted an author interview onstage before an audience. When, a few weeks before, I had committed to the job, I began reading everything I could find by and about this writer—novels, short stories, reviews, essays and interviews. I listened to whatever I could find on the internet. I researched the landscapes in her books; I looked up places and people I suspected might have inspired some of the stories and writing. My research took me all over the virtual globe, and across the virtual centuries. As I researched I jotted notes, then wrote pages and pages of thoughts and questions for the author.

Nearly all of which I discarded in the end, preferring instead to write a bare-bones outline with a few key prompts to remind me of those subjects I wanted to be sure to touch upon—a few guideposts to keep me from going astray, from leading the author into the wilderness while the spotlights glared.

It was a lot like writing a poem. The pages and pages of notes, the revisions, the futile “final drafts” that morph into longer/shorter/completely different shapes on the page; that suddenly jettison what seemed most important, only to end up on some rocky little peak sticking up out of the oceans of printer paper and thought: the poem! at last! (I won’t even mention those paintings with seven layers of paint, seven versions of “cushion” under the final image…)

The author I interviewed wrote her first short story while she was in graduate school. She put it through seventy-five drafts—she revised it seventy-five times. Then it won a Pushcart Prize. She put her heart and soul into it, as we all do when we’re serious about making art.

Art and soul: There is, I remind the relentless self-critic inside, nothing glib or slick about that.

The Attic of the Mind

I climbed the ladder
to that place

where bare nails plunged
through the tarry skull

of the house;
where light filed

in through slits
in slivers

between raw
timbers.

_____

Cafe Tacuba

By John Samuel Tieman

When I lived in Mexico City, I now and again stopped at the Cafe Tacuba, just a few blocks from the Zocalo, the city center. The Cafe Tacuba is a pastry and snack joint built in a colonial nunnery. It’s a popular lunch spot for government workers. It’s built right on the old Aztec causeway leading in and out of Tenochtitlan. Of course, today it’s just one of the many doors in the many high rises in the center of Mexico City.

It was along this very street that Cortez and his crew were run out of town on the Noche Triste, 30 June 1520. Somewhere, right here somewhere, he and his crew dumped the entire Aztec treasury, this to lighten themselves for their getaway. Those who did not, those soldiers who kept the gold in their boots and uniforms, sunk down into the mud beside this one causeway out of town. Later, after Cortez slaughtered the Aztecs, he would try to find the gold, but the mud is just too deep.

So, today, everyone knows it’s right here somewhere. Within yards of this very bagel is a gold plate engraved with the finest Aztec workmanship, a plate from which the mighty Moctezuma II himself ate his very bagel. But today, that million dollar plate has a fifty million dollar office building on top of it. So there your fortune sits, just sits. Right here somewhere.

_____

American Homes

By Songyi Zhang

A few years ago, an American friend of mine visited China and asked me why Chinese don’t want to have their own houses. I said we do. We save money for our lifetime just to purchase a decent apartment. (Owning property is not cheap in China, especially in cities.) Then my friend disagreed with me. He said a condominium is not good living. Too crowded—Dozens of families live together in one soaring apartment building. His point was a homeowner should possess a single house with yards and preferably a garage.

I took his words to heart. I thought what my friend said must be one of the American dreams. After I came to America, I finally understand the so-called one-family-living-in-one-house mode of life. Instead of the soaring apartment buildings, independent houses like the ones we would build in a Monopoly game, are easily seen in residential areas across the United States.

In America, my line of sight has been lowered. Buildings were no higher than four or five stories. For a Chinese family, a condominium with two bedrooms has plenty of room, but not for an American family—owning a house is an ultimate goal for many newlyweds.

Now I’m living in such an American dream, sharing homeownership with my husband in Virginia. To my amazement, Americans love storing stuff! With the space of a three-story townhouse, almost all the closets are filled, shelves are occupied and countless papers, knickknacks and a lot of unnamable junk are placed on every possible surface in the house.

I guess Americans hoard unconsciously. Because of sufficient storage space in the house, things get cluttered gradually. Things that are stored are perfectly out of mind until years when they are useless or out of fashion. Their final destiny is either in the annual yard sale or in the dumpster.

I’ve been on such a path in the past two weeks, cleaning up a nearly twenty-year old house. As I put it, I’m helping the house to lose weight. Having lived in this house for less than a month, I’m already overwhelmed by complications of ownership.

I want to ask my American friend why would Americans want to own a big house? Can’t they see there’s so much work attached? Mowing the lawn, tending the plants, vacuuming, dusting, sweeping, wiping, paying bigger bills for utilities because more space means consuming more energy, repairing the house if needed… the list is endless.

I miss my apartment days.
_____

Your Huddled Masses Yearning

by Publius

             Majeed is an immigrant.   He speaks five languages, and is illiterate in four of them.   He learned Afghani at home, and the other three languages in refugee camps throughout Europe.

             He never attended school, not one, until, at fourteen or fifteen, he enrolled in this high school.   He spoke no English.   I know he flunked one grade here, maybe two.   He was “socially promoted” through the rest.   Somehow, he got into my senior English class.   He was twenty years old.   We teachers refer to such students as “senior citizens.”

             Majeed is a tall, gangly, gentle fellow with a ready smile.   When he was in my class, he slept much of the time.   He was depressed.   He was traumatized by war.

             He read haltingly.   His spoken English, while heavily accented, was clear.   His writing was just this side of illiterate.   He tried to complete some of my assignments, but he was easily frustrated.  

            He worked most of the night in his dad’s shop selling, as near as I could tell, just about everything.   When he spoke of the shop, I imagined a kind of bazaar.   Majeed worked every night to support a family that numbered in the double-digits, with more on the way both by birth and by boat.   He is a devout Muslim.

            To flunk or not to flunk, that was my question.   I could have flunked him for his absences alone.   But I just didn’t have the heart for it, not in the last semester of his senior year.   I gave him a D-.   And spent days praying that I had done the right thing.    

            Yesterday, Majeed came by for a visit.   I hadn’t seen him in two years.   He gave me a photo of his new shop, his very own, in a fashionable part of town.   He’s taken after dad, and sells everything.   The bazaar has come to the mall.   

            I hugged Majeed.   Why?   Because this is why I became an inner city teacher.   To help an immigrant get a chance at that white picket fence in the ‘burbs.   

            I bought a little frame for that photograph.   The real pay-off, and I have Majeed’s word, is that I get a deep discount on my next monkey pod bowl, or my next flashlight, sprinkler, a skillet.   I could get some bling.   I need a wallet.   Yea, that’s what I need, an alligator skin wallet with my initials in silver.

_____

 

Joggers

By Songyi Zhang

One thing I notice in the U.S. is that Americans care about their workouts. Some people spend thousands of dollars buying exercise machines—exercise bike, treadmill, dumbbells, yoga mat, yoga ball, you name it—and make one of their family rooms into a gym. Some people like to run or jog outdoors regardless of weather. Rain or shine (or even snow), they persist in their daily exercises in the park, on the sidewalk, and by the lake. A gym has become a necessary building on an American campus. It is also one of the most popular hangout spots for students and faculty.

I remember years ago when I was an undergraduate in China, a new American teacher came to our university. After he settled down on campus, his first question was — where is the gym? I had no idea — even though we had had P.E. class for a year. Few Chinese students used the gym, let alone knew where it was. I directed him to our P.E. teacher. Finally, he found the gym in a tiny, rundown brick house in a hidden corner by a modern running track. The exercise equipment was nowhere as nice as that in an American high school.

Working out is of great importance to many Americans. Various health clubs, such as the YMCA, are everywhere across the country. I guess if a Chinese would put the distance between a new house and public transportation into consideration before moving into the neighborhood, an American is likely to be concerned about how far it is from the new house to a gym, and if it’s too far, he always can alter a room into one.

I had never seen so many joggers until I came to America. I remember my first visit to Central Park in New York City last winter. I was astonished to see swarms of people wrapped in their athletic garments—tuques, gloves, tight vest, slick pants and sneakers—running in the same direction in the park. Different from groups of retirees doing Tai Chi in parks in China, the army of runners in Central Park, as well as in other American cities, is an extraordinary demonstration of the role of aerobic exercise in the American way of life.

Detesting running, I’m not inclined to join the jogging crowd. However, I have learned to drive cautiously for fear of running them over. They appear on the street at different times of the day: some in early mornings, some in the afternoons, and some in the evenings after night falls. So driving at night in Pittsburgh poses potential danger, simply because streets are usually quiet and dimly-lit. Occasionally, evening joggers pop out of nowhere between two parked cars, their heads wrapped around the music of their I-Pods, and their feet dancing to a rhythm only they can hear.
_____

Poetry Reading at the Circus

by John Samuel Tieman

It was really interesting being backstage, as it were, at a working circus. The gathering audience is getting ready to play. The circus folks are getting ready to go to work. It’s a bit tense, actually. It’s not play to them. The folks are warming up their acts, which means also warming up the animals, ponies and little dogs and such.

We’re not in The Big Tent, but in the hospitality tent alongside it. Our by-invite-only audience is made up of various folks, legislators, dignitaries. First, there’s five performers from the classical guitar society. Then I begin to read.

That’s when I notice that, just outside the hospitality tent where I’m reading, behind the seated audience and slightly out of sight to them, is the rest of my audience. Uninvited folks who stop to listen. Two clowns, a Shetland pony, and three little dogs standing on their hind legs.

First, I projected to the pony. Later, I schmoozed with the dignitaries.

_____

Opera Review: Euridice and Orpheus by Ricky Ian Gordon

Reviewed by Rita Malikonyte Mockus

Only from the Greek worldview has the genuine artwork of drama been able as yet to blossom forth. — Wagner

Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, founded around the time when Europe was enthralled by the poetic frenzy of Romanticism, was a fitting location for the three summer evenings (June 9-11) of theatrical lamentation for love lost to death. Each performance started with Schubert’s famous art-song The Shepherd on the Rock—which he wrote in poor health during the last months of his life—and ended with Ricky Ian Gordon’s theatrical song cycle Euridice and Orpheus (originally Orpheus and Euridice), written on commission from clarinetist Todd Palmer at the time when the composer was in agony over his partner’s imminent death. The Arcadian scenery of the cemetery contrasted by its monolithic statuary, reminiscent of antiquity, served as the perfect setting for the pastoral German art-song and the contemporaneously re-envisioned myth of Orpheus’ quest to release his wife from death.

But who represents Orpheus, the musician and poet, in this opera? While writing the piece, Gordon imagined the clarinetist Todd Palmer as Orpheus: “In the books, it was a lute./ But in my dream/ it was a reed./ […]/ he could cry/through that strange instrument.” In Pittsburgh’s production, Attack Theatre’s dancer Dane Toney articulates Orpheus’ excited unrest by placing it inside his moving body, thus turning joy and sorrow into vivifying motion. Perhaps Orpheus is also the composer himself, a poet and musician, drafting the essential shape of his own sorrow to fit the finest of the ancient story’s tragic tissue. Similarly, Euridice is represented both by a singer (Laura Knoop Very) and by a dancer (Liz Chang).

Though sometimes harmonically unsettling, Gordon’s Euridice and Orpheus was essentially melodic and tonal, at times alluding to Broadway pop and Benjamin Britten’s art-songs. But when the tragedy started to show its first adumbration of darkness, the music slowly became suffused with the kind of aching that can be produced by a prolonged melody (the “effect of suspension,” as Schopenhauer would have it), as its duration restlessly created the illusion of dissonance, longing to be anchored back to consonance.

Gordon’s musical intention was adeptly embodied by the lyric coloratura soprano of Very, while the beauty of the “richer, darker, starker” sound which, according to the libretto, only reed instruments can produce, was emanating from the two clarinets played by a native of Pittsburgh, John Culver, and a Carnegie Mellon graduate, Ricky Williams.

Under the mindful choreography of Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza, the dancers of The Attack Theatre (Liz Chang, Dane Toney, and Ashley Williams as Spirit) represented the story in a language of emotive kinesthetics that uniquely employed many of the elements of contemporary dance, including mime, props, and contact improvisation. Even the pantomime (one of the popular forms of entertainment in Ancient Greece, accompanied by a sung narrative and flute) was, appropriately to the event’s purpose, part of the choreographers’ palette.

Nature lent her assistance. The performance began with sunset and serenity, but later stormy weather gathered as the plot grew more tense. The valiant Orpheus attempted to inveigle Hades and Persephone to liberate Euridice from the underworld. Her dancing, which at first had been ecstatic and joyous, began, under the coercion of fate, to gravitate towards the River Styx, represented by the little pond in the cemetery. During lulls in the music, the listeners’ attention was caught by a honking sound that turned out to be an addition by the inhabitants of the pond, a flock of geese warning of the approach of the tragic conclusion.

For further information:

http://www.attacktheatre.com/

http://www.rickyiangordon.com/

http://www.operatheaterpittsburgh.org/

_____

The Ultra Magic Classified Decoder Ring Secret Handshake News

by Publius

So this morning, the assistant principal takes me aside like we’re plotting an overthrow of the government. She actually clears out a room of the library, locks the door behind us. She jokes about what folks might think, B.C.I., as my students would say, booty call implications for those of us of a certain age. I’m thinking either she wants sex or I’m fired or both. Or maybe she’s got the code for launching The Bomb. In any case, I say a “Hail Mary”, for real. Finally, when the room is cleared out, the doors locked, she takes me by the arm and breaks the news.

She wants me to teach college credit English. That’s the Ultra Magic Classified Decoder Ring Secret Handshake News. That’s it. Three sections of Advanced Placement English.

It’s funny. I once got a “Secret” clearance in the army, and there was less drama than getting these three classes. This woman does this. It’s really crazy. Getting the classes is nice — they’re generally the smart, motivated kids — but the way the assistant principal did it, well, as we used to say in the army, “I didn’t know whether to shit or go blind.”

But wait, there’s more —

I go to move some books from another class. I say to Bellermine, ‘You know what just happened to me?’ And he says, “Yea, I hear you’re teaching A. P. English.” He’s not even in my department, and he knows. I go over to the Social Studies Department, and start to tell them the story — and they know. All this drama, I’m ready for a heart transplant, all this over something everyone already knows.

Of course, now that they moved me over to teach these three classes, there’s nobody to teach three sections of what I was to teach, American Literature. But, hey, it’s just literature …

There’s only one advantage to this job. I love the fact that, when I want good material, all I have to do is look up from my desk.
_____

A Day in Colonial Time

By Songyi Zhang

There is so much to learn about American history in colonial times. Our whirlwind visit to the prestigious town of Williamsburg, Virginia, on a breezy December afternoon was like galloping on a horse through a beautiful garden too swiftly to appreciate the details. Williamsburg is largely a recreation of the town as it existed in the 18th century, and it has special significance to me as the place where Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, and many of the other Founders spoke.

It was winter, and the landscape was desolate—trees were bare, rocky roads were nearly empty, slush was piled at the curb. Biting wind scraped my ears. The townspeople wore plain colonial costumes. Occasionally, several locals—both Caucasians and African Americans—rambled on the street or politely greeted us in front of their shops. I couldn’t tell if they were actors or truly residents of the town. The brick buildings looked roomy from outside but the interiors were surprisingly cramped by dry goods and packages and made even more crowded by the oversized tourists in their heavy winter coats. I had to inch forward to the cashier for fear I would knock over the souvenirs on the shelf.

We went into an old-fashioned inn for lunch. The portion must be appropriate to the time—half the amount of a regular serving in a modern American restaurant. That amount was in fact the portion which the restaurants in China would serve. No wonder today’s Americans have bigger bones than those in the colonial time. In the inn, quite a few servers were African Americans in order to recall the slave history, while a majority of customers were Caucasians. I was the only Asian there. The space between each table was narrow, allowing me to glimpse at what the next table ordered, or to discover the tiny bottle that a woman patron kept pouring into her ice tea. The most intriguing sign in the inn was the direction to “the necessary.” I remembered in ancient Chinese there was a similar expression as well. I wondered if I told a modern American that I wanted to use the necessary, he would understand.

Even though I couldn’t see as much as I would have in summertime in Williamsburg, I appreciated the effort to be authenitic —the colonial court house, the public stock where wrongdoers were locked for public view, the horse wagons and the layout of the town. I couldn’t help thinking that while America has preserved its historical sites, China has demolished countless historical buildings to make way for factories and office buildings. One of my travel mates once commented that Shanghai is thousands of years older than New York but looks much newer. In Williamsburg, I became aware that China is destroying its past while America is recreating the look and feel of an older time.
_____

Theatre Review: The Book of Liz by Amy & David Sedaris

Directed by Don DiGiulio. No Name Players, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre. June 10 through June 25, 2011. Featuring Allison Fatla, John Feightner, Kelly Marie McKenna, Jody O’Donnell, and Gayle Pazerski. Stage Managing by Dave Ranallo. Technical Direction by Nick Coppula. Scenic Design by Alanna James. Sound Design by Brad Stephenson. Costume Design by Mandi Fisher.

Reviewed by D. Gilson.

The Book of Liz is quite silly, really, but a lot of fun. It’s the story of Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, a Squeamish—the fictional religious sect akin to the Amish—who leaves the safe fortress of her village, Clusterhaven. Within those walls she is infamous, but grossly underappreciated, for both her humorous spirit and the cheese balls she painstakingly makes every day in two varieties: smoky and traditional. Whtin the frame of 90 minutes, Elizabeth sets out on her journey away from the village and to the city, on her quest for self and freedom. Along the way, she befriends a Ukrainian woman dressed as a peanut and becomes a waitress at a Pilgrim-themed pancake house. Meanwhile, life completely falls apart back in Clusterhaven without her.

The show’s book does not disappoint. We’ve come to expect nothing less than genius from the comedically raucous Sedaris siblings—Amy, star of Strangers with Candy, and David, National Public Radio humorist and best-selling author of Naked and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Within the ridiculous surface of the script, however, there lies the enduring truths of the human spirit, truths the No Name Players were especially adept at bringing to light.

The cast is lead by Gayle Pazerski as Elizabeth, a role she portrays stunningly. Pazerski brings a contemplative and understated humor to the stage; had the role been given to a less skilled actor, one who may fall to the temptation of taking on the role as an over-the-top caricature, the show would be decidedly less successful. Pazerski, however, leads with measured grace and opens the door for a solid cast of character actors playing multiple roles well. The affect reminds one of a Christopher Guest film, a shorter Mighty Wind, perhaps. In the world of comedic performance, I can think of few higher comparisons.

As her journey nears an end, Sister Elizabeth asks her village leader “Why is it, old friend, that I had to dress like a peanut in order to feel like a human again?” Yes, The Book of Liz is quite silly, really. But maybe we’re all, like Elizabeth, seeking what it takes to be human, and further, maybe—nay, definitely—what we need is to sit back in the dark of a theatre for a couple of hours and just laugh.

For performance information visit www.nonameplayers.org.

_____

Book Review : The Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere by Debra Marquart

Reviewed by Sue Kreke Rumbaugh

North Dakota, with its lack of elevation, vegetation, and rain along with the demands of the farming life, provide the fertile ground from which the luscious layers of desire and longing in our author and protagonist develop. Debra Marquart’s memoir, The Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere, for those who enjoy memoir and stories about place, is a must-read. Marquart’s tone of language along with thoughtful imagery and texture of relationships are delicious.

From the outset we are taken into the world of a young girl on a farm, wanting out. North Dakota was not the landscape, nor the lifestyle that Marquart wanted, despite her family’s long and proud history here. She watched as her mother work tirelessly, milking cows while simultaneously washing clothes and preparing meals. The roles for women on the prairie were not for her. Farmboys, “their hands heavy with horniness,” were intriguing, but in the end, not for her either. Driving tractors through rocky land was not for her. Their farmhouse, once an icehouse, “big, drafty” in winter and “hot and airless” in summer was not for her. Getting out was what she wanted. To launch herself on a road to someplace else, somewhere that she could put down roots and grow, took courage, vision and a strong spirit to break free from the boundaries of her family and the strong pull of this place.

She was a farmgirl, “the ones who lived north, south, east, and west of town. In the middle of all this was me – the girl I was then – the watcher, leaning toward the periphery.” Marquart survived by learning to manage the demands placed upon her and through her love of music, singing, books and imagining her life elsewhere. In the end, the harshness of the land is what enabled her – pushed her – to cultivate the life of her dreams.

In the prologue: “Pilgrim Soul” we learn about the author’s, eager, restless and adventurous soul and her desire to move out into the world. At its conclusion we know that we are going with her on this adventure, the beginning of all that lies ahead for her. Off to college, she looks back at the 70-foot tall rows of cottonwood trees that her great-grandfather planted on either side of the driveway to her family’s farm and laments, “I got myself on that road, and I did not wave back. I concentrated only on flight.”

Marquart’s story that follows begins, ironically, with a return to North Dakota. She comes home with her husband, to attend her father’s funeral, and sees things in a new, deeper way. Revisiting as an adult brings a new point of view, one of researcher. Now she is in search of answers that have haunted her and send her into an investigation of her Russian ancestry as well as what it means to be a farmer’s daughter. Throughout, we see here seeking her father’s approval, which shows up after his death, here and there, as oddly funny little affirmations. As the story unfolds through memories of her childhood, we are reminded that our author feels a strong connection to this place: “Gravity seems to pull stronger in Logan County….the grounding heaviness of the place.”

As the story progresses and we find our protagonist on the other side of her college career, working as an English teacher, Marquart reflects back on an earlier time when her father advised her about her pending work life. “Meaningful work, my father once told me, is something I should never hope for….” Which leads the reader to reflect on the work in which our author is now engaged. The story ends with the moment she learned of her father’s death and remembrances of conversations between the two of them, including their final conversation where we experience the forgiveness between a well-intentioned father and a high-spirited daughter.

In her epilogue, “Sustainable Agriculture: The Farmer’s Daughter Revisited”, Marquart creatively uses the age-old “farmer’s daughter” jokes, placing herself, fictitiously, at its center. In the end we learn how her version of the joke ends. To say more would ruin the story.
______
Debra Marquart is a professor of English at Iowa State University. She teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing & Environment at Iowa State University and the Stonecoast Low-Residency MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. Marquart’s work has appeared in numerous journals such as The North American Review, Three Penny Review, New Letters, River City, Crab Orchard Review, Cumberland Poetry Review, The Sun Magazine, Southern Poetry Review, Orion, Mid-American Review and Witness.

In the seventies and eighties, Marquart was a touring road musician with rock and heavy metal bands. Her collection of short stories, The Hunger Bone: Rock & Roll Stories draws from her experiences as a female road musician. Marquart continues to perform with a jazz-poetry rhythm & blues project, The Bone People, with whom she has released two CDs: Orange Parade (acoustic rock), and A Regular Dervish (jazz-poetry).

Marquart’s work has received numerous awards and commendations, including the John Guyon Nonfiction Award (Crab Orchard Review), the Mid-American Review Nonfiction Award, The Headwater’s Prize from New Rivers Press, the Minnesota Voices Award, the Pearl Poetry Award (Pearl Editions), the Shelby Foote Prize for the Essay from the Faulkner Society, a Pushcart Prize, and a 2008 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship.

The horizontal world was published in 2006 by Counterpoint and received the “Elle Lettres” award from Elle Magazine and the 2007 PEN USA Creative Nonfiction Award. In addition, Marquart is a performance poet, the author of two poetry collections: Everything’s a Verb and From Sweetness. She is currently at work on a novel, set in Greece, titled Evidence of Olives; a roots/travel memoir about immigration, geographical flight, and cultural amnesia titled Somewhere Else this Time Tomorrow; and poetry collection titled, Small Buried Things. For more information or to contact the author: www.debramarquart.com

_____

Graduation Celebration

By Songyi Zhang

I’d heard about graduation proms before I came to America. I was shocked at first to see beautiful and expensive gowns for teenagers in Seventeen magazine. Why would parents allow their kids to spend extravagantly just for an evening ball?

I can’t find any similar tradition for Chinese graduates. A class trip is probably the most popular celebration. The Chinese new graduates usually organize a long-distance trip without their parents. It’s a way to show independence. Also, it’s a good opportunity to hang out with classmates before everyone goes off in different career directions.

In the States, every May and June is a big celebration time for new graduates. Stores and restaurants use the event as a gimmick to attract customers. This May was my turn to graduate from the MFA program at Chatham University. I was turned off when the campus bookstore listed the price of a diploma frame at over one hundred US dollars. I haven’t started earning money, I’d have spent a fortune for my graduation. Is it really worth it?

To lower my graduation expenses, I didn’t attend the commencement. Together with the graduation fee, the cost of a cap and gown will add up to nearly three hundred US dollars. It’s only a matter of formality. I guess either I’m such a low-key person or I’m really cheap.

I don’t remember that I had any extravaganza for my undergraduate graduation. Nor did any of my classmates. Disappointingly, my dad was even absent. Mom was the only family watching me in cap and gown.

Twenty years ago, it’d be unbelievable for a Chinese to understand why American parents throw parties for their children in celebration of their graduation. There’s so much drinking involved; as are physical contacts among boys and girls. In a relatively conservative society, dating is not encouraged among Chinese teenagers.

Twenty years later, perhaps the Chinese upstarts will look at the Western way of graduation celebration as a trend. They also want their children to have fun, to enjoy the kind of life that their generation missed in youth. They spend tons of money to send their children abroad to travel or study in the summer. They buy expensive presents for their children. If their children are accepted by the prestigious universities, middle-class parents will become genies in a bottle to fulfill their children’s costly wishes.

Graduation is a big deal in one’s life. But I find the way Americans celebrate the moment a bit overboard. I don’t appreciate the lavish celebrations. What shocked me at first when I looked at the prom dresses in the teen magazines was the different attitudes between the Americans and the Chinese. The former are spenders while the latter are savers, although today more wealthy Chinese join the league of generous spenders.

_____

The Hardness Factor

by Elizabeth Kirschner

I open the red door. It gives way with a dispassionate heave, a dry suck. Winter moths, clustered on the glass skull of the outdoor lamp, scatter like tiny dunces or the chaotic snow falling, hither-thither, inside me. I step into the foyer with its jagged pieces of slate cemented to the floor and think that this is a map of my mind, those jagged shards cutting deep into brain mass, heart mass. My cement is my anti-psychotics which don’t always hold me together so I squeeze myself tightly, scream somehow tightly while my thoughts scatter chaotically like tiny dunces, cold, cold snow.

But at least not for now. I breathe in air that is thin, flat, like blood without cells, champagne with no bubbles. It is the only air available the way the shadowy light in the foyer is the only available light and I borrow this thin, flat air, shadowy light as if I could give it back. In the kitchen, a drawer opens and closes. I remember, without knowing why, that I love the spoon better than the knife because spoons can make music and knives cannot. Knives long to slit the delicate skin on wrists, to make the blood without cells can bubble to the surface, go from blue to bright, bright red. I know this because I have done it, went down on my hands and knees to sop up the blood flowers, legions of them, prolifically blooming.

That I survived slitting my wrists was just another injury, an injustice, but I was only nineteen and believed that all I would be delivered onto was darkness darker than the darkest dark. That darkest dark clings to me as I stand in the foyer on this early December evening. The shadowy figure of my husband moves from the granite kitchen counter to the granite kitchen table. They say that diamonds win the hardness factor among gems—does granite win the hardness factor among stones? It is terribly unforgiving, as is my husband.

“Hi,” I say—yes, “hi” is a word that cannot be ridiculed, but no “hi” comes back, only a dull hello like an echo inside the shell of a bell. “I’m home,” I cry as I take off my coat of many colors, my animal hide boots and slip on my boiled wool slippers. I move quietly in my slippers—quiet is good, cannot be ridiculed, even children understand this. In order to please the shadowy figure I call my husband, I would willingly bleed silence, blood flowers of silence, legions of them that would not need to be mopped up.

I go to him. I always go to him to receive his ghost kiss, let out a dry sigh. My husband is tall and so I must look up to him—he wants this, all men do—and when I look do up, I am penitential. “Forgive me,” I want to say because I say this often in my sorry little voice. Instead I whisper, “did you?” Fear, like a well-kept secret, wallows in me, fear that is always the harbinger of tears.

My husband rolls his eyes—hazel eyes with tight black pupils—hard as granite, that winner of the hardness factor, then shrugs his shoulder as if they itched. “I forgot,” he says and that fear which is always the harbinger of tears, comes up as a dry heave. Dry heave follows dry heave, followed by a combustion of tears.

I cover my mouth to stop the dry heaves, but I cannot stop the tears, never the tears, so I run into the bedroom, hit the floor, go into the fetal ball and bang my head against the radiator, hard. I bang my head again and again, vainly trying to end the pain.

No gift on this darkest of dark December eve. The one I shyly, no apologetically asked for, the gift I wanted for staying out of the psych ward for one long year. I did this by walking with winter, day after day, hour after hour, minute by minute. Yes, I walked with winter, day after day, for one long year even in a summer of a thousand Julys.

As I bang my head, chilblains grow in my fingers and toes. I suddenly understand that I have been freezing to death for nearly a decade. That is when the death head of madness and illness first reared its hideous head, became my Medusa. O how my Medusa loves me. O how my husband does not.

My heart mass is breaking and I whisper to myself, “sorry, sorry, sorry,” as if to forgive myself for the wanting of a gift for staying out of the psych ward for one long year. Slowly, very slowly, I sit up—my bones are but dog bones and I have begged like one before my husband who now stands in the doorway like a scarecrow with the hall light shedding bloodless cells on his itchy shoulders. He stands there the way my father used all those nights, snapping his belt while saying, “Shut up or you’ll get this.” Even if I did shut up, I got the belt anyway.

Would I get it now, the belt instead of another ghost kiss and which would be worse? “Elizabeth,” he says and I remember, distantly, almost ironically, that this is my name. I am proud that I have remembered my name, the way a school child is when she recites her numbers properly.

My husband goes on in a droll, troll voice, “Elizabeth, of course, I didn’t forget.” “Forget what?” I return in a wisp of a whisper as I have forgotten what he has forgotten because my husband always remembers to forget everything. He even forgets that he no longer loves me.

“The gift,” he answers. He pauses, then adds, like a weary parent, “I was only teasing you.” I sigh a dry sigh because teasing always makes me cry. Father teased me relentlessly, told me I was his lucky rabbit’s foot and pet me until I bled.

“Okay,” I say and start crawling like some prehistoric beast, move from crawling to standing, from standing to walking. I go to him because I always do—he is my husband and it is the work of wives to go to their husbands, especially wives who have stayed out of the psych ward one long year.

I take the gift, say “thank you” in my sorry little voice. I open the gift, it is in a jewelry box, and there it is—a necklace upon which hangs an onyx pendant studded with faux diamonds. What, I wonder, is the hardness factor of faux diamonds? Surely my husband would know this as he is a scientist and all scientists know about the hardness and he is brilliant the way diamonds are brilliant, even faux ones.

I do not ask him about the hardness factor. Instead, I return his ghost kiss with a ghost kiss of my own, put on the necklace with the onyx pendant, which will become the last gift my husband ever gives me. That was nearly six years ago and I no rather walk with winter or take anti-psychotics to cement the jagged shards of my brain mass together. Rather, I summer in a summer of a thousand Julys, live on my own without fear, that harbinger of tears, and I have turned my Medusa into a beauty by loving her and that beauty is me.

_____

The Rootless Tree of Imagination

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

It’s a bright sunny January day and I’m cold—freezing actually—even though the frost on the lawn melted hours ago, wafting up in ghostly drifts—even though I’m wearing several layers of clothes, like Heidi when she arrived at her grandfather’s house in the Alps.

The poet in me paces, turns the heat to 68 (a rare event since we usually keep the thermostat at 64-66). She makes a cup of Zen tea, worrying, worrying the entire time—is it spiritual cold? Is it some signal from the atmosphere, personal, or maybe even global?

Am I coming down with something again? (I just got over a bout of flu.) Or am I simply experiencing the chill that goes along with certain mornings, that sluggish iciness in the veins that occasionally strikes on even the most clement of spring days?

Whatever it is I pile on the blankets then listen to Susan Stewart’s Cambridge Forum talk on poetry and perception. I reread the Bill Moyers interview with Paul Muldoon in Fooling With Words—I have a bit more leisure to do this now, old as I am, young as I was.

I get up to do the dishes, feeling the ice in my knees but I’m preoccupied. Something is beginning to write itself in my head. The shine on the wet tumblers I set to drain by the sink beams into me; I sense a thaw, a trickling at the base of my brain.

Six paragraphs in and a tangible warming. The brain and heart blood circulating. The oxygen flowing again. (This is exactly what I mean when I tell students: Write or die!) I hear the garbage trucks swinging by outside, saving us from epidemic and plague. I feel our brothers the ants tunneling beneath me in their subterranean caves—

I am losing myself in and to the Word—dressed in my layers I begin toiling toward it like that “small and shapeless person” up the mountain to some Alm-Uncle—like an ant, laboring in the communal villages of language.

“You just become absorbed in how words work, making them work for you. If you’re very lucky, those words will occasionally make some music. And that takes over your life.”*

Under a Yellow Leaf

I was trying to learn what it is to be nearly
invisible, the size of a pink pea

blossom’s sticky anther, a single grain
of pollen. I shrank down then stretched

out on my back under the leaf’s
crisp spine. I shook myself loose

the way an adventurer shakes the dust
from his boots, having just returned home

by ship from a perilous voyage
during which he starved and almost

drowned. What did I see down there?
Everything! The rootless tree

of imagination.

*Paul Muldoon, Fooling With Words, page 162.
_____

Good News from the Ghetto

by Publius

So the first burst of celebration at our school is over, and now the reality of having done well on the state test sets in.

The good news is that the Obama Dash For The Cash has passed us by. My school was to be reorganized, which most of us viewed akin to the sentencing phase of a capital trial.

Instead, the kids scored a 93% on the English part of the state exam, and did good enough on the math and biology bits.

Now, all we have to do is have good attendance, and good graduation rates. These are left to us to report. For my part, I’ve had, and will have all day, perfect attendance. I have no doubt that this will continue to be true during this last week of school, regardless of tornadoes or fire from the sky. I have absolutely no doubt that we will get the required 95% graduation rate — surprise, surprise …

The down side is that we will be expected next year to top what we did this year. And the dirty little secret is — we have no idea what we did right. For my part, I didn’t do anything all that radically different from I always do. Like the other teachers, I attribute this success to the kids. We had an exceptional bunch this year.

That said, how do we top 93% next year? Can we give back twenty points? Or, better still, yea, yea, can we bank twenty points?

As long as we’re a school for ghetto kids and immigrants, we’ll continue to have all the problems one associates with being Black and poor, or immigrant and poor, in America. The fact that a bunch of smart kids passed this way, at just the right time, is (and don’t get me wrong on this) great good fortune. And they’re a great bunch of kids. I love them all.

But it’s like what happens when a school wins the basketball championship — good coaches, a bunch of seven foot kids, and lucky us.

_____

Restaurant Review: Thai Gourmet

Reviewed by Noah Gup

Restaurants have an unfortunate habit of hyperbolizing their significance. With countless claims of “Best Pizza,” and “Artisan Sandwiches,” it is easy to be skeptical of restaurants’ claims. At first glance, Thai Gourmet may seem to be another mediocre restaurant with an ego problem. While the ambiance is more Pamela’s than Per Se, the food is surprising (and surprisingly good) Thai fare that actually lives up to the name.

Nestled in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood, Thai Gourmet is easy to miss, with only a small lit-up sign and Christmas lights in the window. While hanging paper lanterns add a bit of décor, Thai Gourmet is simply adorned. But part of its charm lies in its simplicity; family owned, Thai Gourmet makes you feel at home. Even more, the restaurant is rarely crowded, making conversation easy. But it is neither bar seating nor Christmas lights nor the homey atmosphere that draws groups of devotees. Instead, it is the expansive menu, catering to everyone’s inner Thai cravings that brings people back again and again.

Thai Gourmet offers both common options and more unique creations for appetizers. A dainty order of summer rolls (though slightly gummy) uses mint and basil to a wonderfully refreshing effect. A generous serving of Chicken Satay is standard, but when paired with spicy peanut sauce, becomes difficult to resist. The Thai Samosas are a more interesting option. Stuffed with a smooth combination of sweet potatoes and onions, the samosas are crisp without being greasy. An accompanying sweet and sour cucumber sauce adds a vinegary bite, giving a new spin to a tired dish. The undeniable highlight of the appetizers is also the most unusual. The Hoi Jo, a melody of crab and minced beef wrapped and fried in tofu skin, was, first of all, a triumph of texture. In one bite, the crisp tofu skin is coupled with the soft meat filling, crunchy and chewy, ying and yang. Even more, the meat is liberally spiced, making sure each bite is flavorful with a light tingle of heat.

Even more gems can be found in the entrees. A massive bowl of Tom Yum soup explains why the dish is essential to Thai cuisine. Flavored with chili, lemongrass and lime, and filled with slurp-worthy glass noodles and bites of bean sprouts, the Tom Yum soup manages to be satisfying down to the very last spoonful. No wonder some “scientists” claim Tom Yum soup to have cancer-fighting abilities; after eating the soup, my body felt rejuvenated. The Massaman Curry is surprisingly varied, containing peanuts, carrots, chickpeas and potatoes, all smothered in a rich, sweet, slightly spicy curry. Few things taste better than a bite of good Massaman Curry, and Thai Gourmet offers some of the best. However, the accompanying tofu is oddly tough, even gritty. While most everything is available with tofu instead of meat, all of the tofu is strangely chewy. The Duck Curry had a similar sauce as the Massaman, though a more intense spice and tiny chunks of pineapple modified the flavors. The only real disappointment is the Ginger Pineapple entrée with beef. While containing ample amounts of vegetables, everything comes soaked in a syrupy, overly sweet sauce. With the exception of the Ginger Pineapple, the flavors of every dish are memorable.

Service is splendid. Food comes out amazingly fast, sometimes even too much so; entrees were served before we finished appetizers. Still, this is preferable to an obscene wait for food. The wait staff is attentive and friendly, keeping glasses full and spirits high. While Thai Gourmet offers dessert, the best option may be the bowl of candy that sees each guest off. I took a bite-sized Milky Way on my way out, and, with a stomach comfortably filled with Thai, it never tasted so sweet.

(Thai Gourmet is located at 4505 Liberty Avenue. Entrées range from $9.50-$10.)
_____

The Other Side

~~Elizabeth Kirschner

Yesterday for one still moment in a still point in time, a hummingbird hovered so close, I could have plucked her out of the air, let my fingers be nipples so she could feed, feed. Tempting hummingbirds into gardens, plotted here, plotted there has been a lifelong quest of mine and now I am aging, quietly so. This hummingbird—and for once, I was her garden—transported me to the hummingbirds of Costa Rice, throngs of hummingbirds in an array of iridescent species where here, in the cold Northeast, we are lucky if we are visited by one, the red-throated hummingbird.

I remember little of my travels in Costa Rica, except for its lush rain forests, and I do love rain forests—how they are filled with the sounds of mossy flutes—those quixotic, exotic hummingbirds, the bumpy bus I traveled around the country in with my then husband, son and sister-in-law. All was as things are supposed to be and we all know that supposed to be’s are thin scrims behind which shadow-dances are played and in my shadow-dance, my husband is lifting his sweaty shirt like a turkey vulture airing its wings and we consign ourselves to sleeping in separate beds where our dreams are but a bloody aftermath. “Not good,” pronounced my sister-in-law when she saw the tussled sheets in the twin beds and she was right, it was not good at all. We lay ourselves down, night after night, as a kind of ungodly offering—death demands gifts and the death of a marriage is horrifically demanding—more, more, more, it cries, more, more, more.

Yet in the midst of ruin and decay, an orgy of hummingbirds, feeding, feeding as we all must feed and it is my father’s death, not of the marriage, that I contemplate while the sun simmers in mist thick as boiled wool. This summer I have been drinking in the mist, drinking in vats of it like milk and yet, my thirst is never slaked.

My father. From the bridge I cross each day, I peer at what I call Bird Island. It is always peopled with birds clustered like angels on not the luminous, but black pinhead. This morning, I thought, “my father is out there” and intuited it as truth. He’s rutting among cormorants, omnipresent gulls, among turkey vultures, but no doves and certainly no hummingbirds.

His death was slow, painfully so. In a coma for four months, my father was in a room like a fish tank in the Neuro-Intensive Care Unit. Think winter. Think the cold pressing its frosty lips upon the windows and although he tried, my father could not, would not die. One night his feet turned black and the sound of dancers filled the room. One day I, from too far afar, visited him with my then baby son. My father’s toenails were long, curled. The TV was on as if he could comprehend what a golf match was. He was, as I said, in a coma, on a vent, feeding tube, could only blink his eyes. His hair was long and wavy, skin clear. I brought my baby near to him to be dear to him. Ah, Father lifted his index finger. Ah, my baby touched that index finger with his, a finger soft and healing as a salamander’s tail.

My father, my abuser, came out of his coma, at long last and when he did he was brain-damaged, put in a nursing home that smelled of horse piss in hay, given a spelling board he could not fathom. One night, he yanked out his breathing tube, climbed, or more likely, fell out of bed and crawled, determined to find his high school sweetheart, Susan. I wish he had. I wish he and Susan could have kissed, held hands.

Instead, wheelchairs lined the halls like antique sewing machines that could not mend a stitch. Instead, he did not recognize me or my baby, his youngest grandson. All that summer, I wrote my father letters, epic letters teeming with the details of what seemed like an extraordinarily ordinary life, our trips to the seashore, a description of a clam shack he would have loved. I wrote on and on, desperate to reach a man who, even when well, could not be reached.

I dreamed a dream, a glorious dream. In it, my son and I were in the old cathedral where I first became a soldier of Christ and a soprano, up in the choral rafters, was singing the Ave Maria. It was during my father’s funeral Mass. She stood close to the organ I played as a child, straining to reach the pedals, to pump the pedals hard, the chords gorgeous and deafening the way God was and is gorgeous and deafening.

My father did die that summer, at the end of August, but not in that nursing home smelling of horse piss in hay, but in a rest home at dawn with a nun quietly praying over him. He needed those prayers. And many more, mine included. That he trespassed against me is an understatement I must live with for the rest of my life. That he is forgiven is another truth I must live with for the rest of my life and I have forgiven him even though I probably shouldn’t have. Even God doesn’t forgive everything and I am but an aging woman who courts hummingbirds, those tutors of high lyricism, tiny prophets delivering breviaries on brevity.

My father’s funeral was grueling. My baby placed a white rose on his coffin. The priest, like all priests, sermonized on his goodness as though goodness alone were binding, which of course, it isn’t. Evil is more tenacious and, somehow, willful. My father’s crimes against me were defiantly willful. So were my ex-husband’s. During that grueling funeral in the old cathedral where I became a soldier of Christ, I nursed my son to keep him quiet. Then, suddenly, a soprano, and once I was a soprano, started to sing the Ave Maria up in that choral rafter where I pumped the organ pedals to make music that was gorgeous and deafening. The voice of that soprano was excruciatingly beautiful and beauty, to me, is useless if it is not excruciating.

At the moment when the priest turned the Host and the wine into the body and blood of Christ, in the midst of that highly consecrated moment, my baby popped off my nipple and said, in a big voice, “other side.” My sister and I, though weeping, laughed and a ripple went through the congregation.

“Other side.” Oh my God how I long for that other side. I practice getting there by crossing the bridge, drinking in mist like milk, peering at Bird Island where the indigestible dead birdwalk in memory. Although my father is out there, I cannot get to him as I have no boat, no wings. Only a pen I wield in utter solitude. No husband. No son with me. No Father, no Mother. Only a dream of an other side, my insatiable loneliness and a hummingbird, quick as a wish, then vanishing.

_____