Lost in Translation

By Songyi Zhang

With the suggestion of our hostess Irene, we went to a Mexican restaurant for dinner after we arrived in Lexington, Massachusetts. It has been always a headache for me to have Mexican food. Not because that I don’t like the taste but because I can never understand the menus. What are the differences among tacos, burritos, fajitas and many other names ended with either –as or –os? The English subtitles usually help little except telling me the ingredients in each dish. I need visual indication. What does the food look like?

My American friends are usually patient enough to go through the Mexican food 101 with me. This lesson needs to be repeated every time before I order. But the more I listen, the more confused I am. I can’t imagine the way the food is made and the way we are supposed to eat it. The culture in another continent is indeed tremendously different. To a Chinese, Mexican food involves many ways of wrapping. It’s like Chinese cuisine. We can make rice in dozens of ways. Mexicans use corn and beans widely.

I don’t remember I ran into big difficulty in the restaurants in Montreal even though French is the predominant language there. During our stay there, we dined in a couple of restaurants. The menus were in both French and in English, including the one in a Spanish restaurant. I was at ease reading the menus. Even though I came across strange words on a French cuisine menu, I was unfazed. Because I could guess what the dish may look like. For instance, escargot is a fancy word for snail; veau sounds like veal and I guess it must be veal. I can recognize “entrée” and “dessert” even though they’re in French. On the contrary, I was completely lost when reading a Mexican food menu.

It’s not uncommon that when we come to a new country, we want to try the local food. My American friends often laugh when they hear the first-time visitors to America looking for American food. I guess Americans aren’t as proud of their burgers and hotdogs as they are of cuisines from other cultures. Mexican food certainly is popular in the States. Among several times I had potluck dinner at American homes, the hosts often serve tortilla chips dip as an appetizer. They seem to like chips very much. But I find the yellow triangle chips too dry. To be courteous, I do as the Americans do.

When my family in China asks about my being in America, I often reply in confidence that I am doing well simply because I don’t have a language barrier. But apparently my presumption doesn’t fit the circumstance of dealing with Mexican food. If Spanish speakers outnumber English speakers in the States, I will be helplessly lost in translation.


The Season of Saintly Sorrow

~~Elizabeth Kirschner

Robert and I are walking and our footfalls are so quiet, we might as well be barefoot. We are walking among a black gallery of trees, which are metamorphic with mystery. The bare, sibilant branches are tuning forks misted by the celestial. We brush hands, pause, brush lips, then bend over rain-tingled twigs cast down by windfall shadow. Before us, two thin trees meet at their darkest points, scaling the woods we walk in quietly, ever so quietly.

“That’s us,” whispers Robert as he points to where the two trees make a tilted crucifix.

“Yes,” I reply, “we do touch each other in deep places, don’t we?”

“Why not?” he answers, “isn’t that why we’re together?”

I nod my head in agreement like a bird intent on where she wants to go, who longs only to nest in the dark appearance of evening air, just now descending.

“I love November most,” continues the man I call my husband, who I wed at sea by the lighthouse I spy on my long strolls each eve, the ones I now take two decades later in too much aloneness.

“When the leaves come down,” he says, “a certain calmness comes. It’s my season,” he says as he draws near me like the flesh and blood female I am, long before I become an abominable snow woman.

“November is the season of saintly sorrow,” I whisper while touching Robert’s earlobe as if it were the pink womb of a lady’s slipper which has long stepped off the edge of earth.

“Here,” he says as he kneels down before me on a plush mat of mulberry-colored leaves, leaves which now keep to deep, luxurious sleep.

I, too, kneel down as though the woods were a confessional in which praise, not sin, is sung.

“It’s all very holy,” I say, under a sky that is a chapel dome.

“Only here, only this,” he whispers, then plants me with his kiss.

I lie down and bring Robert with me. All around I hear the rush and thrum of stellar wings.

“You are my bird of paradise,” he goes on and I wax exotic and erotic at once.

We make love slowly, become unearthed on earth, rise and sigh, rise and sigh. Birds don their sooty jackets in metallic air that falls like smoke rings. Once and only once, I murmur Robert’s name like a mantra. My lips slightly parted with just the dot of a tongue darting within—dark, magic and wet.

“Keep me, my keeper, like a keepsake,” I say while thinking vaguely about the leaves, which do not know how to bleed, or have their blood be let, nor do we, yet.

Robert passes his hand across my face, like the shadow of a wave while I close my eyes, dream in reams of peace. For a moment, we are not those trees scaled like a crucifix, but two trees sharing one mythic trunk. Soon wounds will start to pool, shine like blind eyes. I blink, look up at the canopy which defies time and space.

Somehow we return to ourselves like passengers on a ship that will float across the moon once it rouses itself into a golden globe.

“You know what I want,” I say.

“What?” Robert replies.

“A recipe on how to make tea out of the debris of these leaves.”

“Easy,” he responds, “steep them in this spicy air.”

“And I’ll pour it into my poor kettle which only knows how to sing.”


We get up, continue along the old logging trail, among coral mushrooms, soft as gum, which hold their toxins deep within. I realize that we cannot hope for more, or hope for less because to be means to know all things decease—even the light, I see, is declining. Even so, it manages to leave a hush in its path, palpable as those wings which hummed and thrummed about me.

I cup a snowy tree cricket, green as the delicate morsels which tasseled these branches last spring, and carry it to Robert. He bows before it as the insect leaps earthward with its tiny box of music packed in its miniscule body, that sweet machine. All desire comes from a machine that small, is powered by currents of music, which surge forth from both significant and insignificant creatures, of which we are both.

“To the mountaintop!” declares Robert and I fall into marching order as if in a migratory pattern. We pass by the slender birch I always touch when on this trail, the one I first touched at dawn on our wedding day. I have bonded with this tree in a bond that abides but does not bind and that is just what I want my marriage to be, is a bond that abides without binding over the tides of time. Yet, in time and over time, my aloneness will arc into me like a broken rib.

But not now, because it is the season of saintly sorrow and whatever saintly is beautiful as is what Robert and I share, even in the cold parlors of November. The wounds in trees are but black hearths throwing off, it seems, a little heat, a little passion.

When we reach the mountaintop, there is no vista, but I am visited, albeit briefly, by the long shadows of Chinese mystics long deceased, shadows that dress me with blessings. I see huge limbs that have been snapped like the necks of swans, by dense storms which fell like romance—heavy, mindless, not heedful of the past.

“This is the fountainhead,” I announce to Robert who looks at me in a way that I know needs no explanation.

“You’re my favorite poet,” he replies, an answer I’ve well-schooled him in.

We stand there at the fountainhead from which all things do flow, in air we share with birds, those studious tutors of joy who deliver short sermons on surrender. We stand in the lowering light which falls, like a wild calling, that asks us to trust in God as we must trust till all this gold filigree does rust as will our bond that will bind instead of abide over time.

For now, and it feels like a forevermore now, we are entranced by the moment, which seems to plop like a pebble in a birdbath where the ripples quiver, quake like green haloes. Jarred into awakening, I give half a cry to sky mirage, then surge toward Robert in poem-like reaches, will continue you to do so until we are too far afar for not just human, but even divine intervention.


Russell Thorburn

By Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I can’t remember how many years ago I first “met” Russ Thorburn (ten maybe?) but it was after I saw his ad for manuscript editing in Poets & Writers.

At that time I had a collection I had loosely titled “Eden Street” and, after some emails back and forth, I decided to send him a stack of poems, which he sifted and sorted into the draft of an early full-length collection. (I’ve written here before about how many of those aborted attempts I made over the years…) Anyway, Russ and I have stayed in contact (though erratically) ever since, and it turned out that my book, The Fortunate Islands, was published by Marick Press, which had also published his Father, Tell Me I Have Not Aged, a year or so before—it was in fact Russ who first suggested I try Marick Press; that suggestion resulted in a string of coincidences and in Ilya Kaminsky’s decision months later to go to bat for my book with Marick’s publisher.

But: back to Russ. I have kept track of his publications over the years since we first corresponded, beginning with Approximate Desire, published by New Issues in 1999. Since the book with Marick, he has published two others (both in 2009), which I want to write briefly about here. (Russ has also written and produced several plays, which you can read about on his website:


The Whole Tree as Told to the Backyard is an eccentric and ingenious little collection of poems—a big gift in a small package—a 5 x 6 paperback (reminiscent of the City Lights’ Pocket Poets Series) with a charming cover drawing by Bernie Park, who also appears in two poems between its covers. The blurb on the back, by Peter Markus, mentions the poems’ “wild sense of invention”; Marcus also notes that “it’s difficult to say if Thorburn is inventing a personal past or drawing from it.” That mystery is part of what makes reading these poems so engaging and surprising. Think of a Georges Braque painting in poetry—at least that’s my take—Braque bordering on surrealism. (From Wikipedia: “Braque described ‘objects shattered into fragments… [as] a way of getting closest to the object…’” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Braque)

To illustrate how Thorburn shatters his images into wholeness, here is a snippet from “The Snow Was Articulate” on page 46:

A snow with a nervous condition

reaching for upper registers or talking

about Varykino. Six o’clock

the moon said in its ghostly timepiece.

The snow implored you to use science

to explore why you hit the guardrail

to the abyss. You recalled the vertigo

and were overcome by the Russian poet

whose voice turned your head.

You have to love “snow with a nervous condition”!

The allusion in this excerpt is to Pasternak and his 1957 novel Dr. Zhivago, and to the subsequent 1965 film by David Lean—references that also reflect Thorburn’s lifelong interest in cinema. That said, I’ll let this be the segue to The Drunken Piano, his other 2009 collection, published by March Street Press.

Here from that book is the last poem in the first section, which takes its title from Bergman’s 1968 Swedish film:

Hour of the Wolf

The late hour of a man looking at himself

in the reflection of a bus window at three A.M.,

as he travels through the heart back

to her in spite of returning terror. Snow pounds

the bus as he recalls the mouth of Liv Ullman

watching her husband, Max von Sydow,

drive crazily around a canvas with a knife.

Snow scrapes the windshield faster

than the wipers can clear madness away,

and Lake Michigan lies frozen and smiling

between trees at the travelers, as the bus driver

sings a blues song. The young traveler

pictures a pregnant Liv Ullman with her

dramatic cheekbones. He sees his own wife

alone with their child, the man but twenty-five

feeling tightened by his wire-rims and anxious,

hoping he won’t lose everything.

A middle-aged woman asks for his destination.

He closes his eyes afraid to sleep because

of the weathered barns and veins, motels

peeled down to vacancy signs, all the yellow

lines we cross over in our sleep.

Drunken Piano, like so much of Thorburn’s work, is a crazy and invigorating drive through language and story (through history). It’s improvisational in the best way—it’s jazzy, and it also sings the blues.


Theatre review: The Mistakes Madeline Made, by Elizabeth Meriwether

Presented by No Name Players
reviewed by Rita Malikonyte-Mockus

Disguised from childhood,
haphazardly assembled
from voices and fears and little pleasures,
we come of age as masks.

R.M. Rilke

More than seventy years ago, a French playwright and theatre director, Antonin Artaud, introduced a dissenting observation: “Sophocles speaks grandly perhaps, but in a style that’s no longer timely. His language is too refined for this age, it is as if he were speaking beside the point.”

No Name Players, a group of professional Pittsburgh actors, seem to have been speaking to the point locally for more than ten years now. They are part of what is now known worldwide as a true-to-life theatre. Nothing exalted or ineffectual gains entrée to their experimental playground: the performances are short, colloquial, witty and based solely on ensemble collaboration and the players’ respect for each other’s talents. No more masterpieces, no more stars, no more lengthy and boastful brochures.

The company’s most recent choice, The Mistakes Madeline Made by Elizabeth Meriwether, directed by Marci Woodruff (Pitt Studio Theatre), is laden with the familiar symbols, realities and rituals of our neurotic age. It takes place in a world of fear and masked identity. All of the main characters are portrayals of knotted psyches, bruised by the unlived unconscious content that is never silent in them. The play can be perceived as an allegory of the debased and vulnerable modern self, the self that is largely atrophied by brutally efficient bureaucratic forces and injured by its own ineffective coping mechanisms.

The setting of the play is an odd kind of office where everybody is running errands for a rich family that the audience never gets to see, a sure breeding soil for all kinds of psychological deterioration. “We are a country of babies and secretaries,” observes the late war journalist Buddy (Todd Betker), parsing the karma of the corporate madness. Buddy’s sister Edna (Liz Roberts), still mourning her brother’s death and also becoming more and more disturbed by the absurdity of the office routine, develops ablutophobia, a fear of bathing – beyond the pale in a culture that fears uncleanness like the Last Judgment. Edna’s boss, Beth (Tressa Glover) is the master tamer of unruly office workers, but, ironically, a highly pitiful character herself. Beth’s extremely adaptive modus operandi is jam-packed with the artificiality of her hackneyed locution of choice: “confirm or deny,” the kind of office slang that forms the limit of her speech. Wilson’s (Don DiGiulio) caricature of the office life is expressed through his compulsive act of imitating the sounds of the copying machine. But Wilson is a romantic geek. His developing love for Edna leads this comedic spectacle of office horrors to a somewhat expected melodramatic conclusion. Ironically, Beth, who clearly lacks love and intimacy in her life, unintentionally fast-forwards the play to its sentimental conclusion: “Life is all about the tiny miracles of love.”

It would probably sound like a serious violation of the humble No Name Players’ intention if I were to praise their professionalism individually. But their merit in the amusing ensembles as well as in the jolting scenes kept the audience on the edge of their seats for the entire duration of the play.

The most obvious criticism of Meriwether’s play may be that it is so eclectic and packed with seemingly unrelated elements, that not even Woodruff’s directorial acrobatics can weave it together into a satisfyingly coherent whole. But is it a fault? Rilke’s lyric describes the human fate as “haphazardly assembled”; this is all the more true of work and leisure in our highly impatient, fragmented, spectacle-driven times.

I Got a Call from the Office

by Publius

     I got a call from the school’s front office.   I haven’t fed the box. 

      Actually, to be exact, I haven’t fed the box the right pieces of paper.   How did I know anyone would read the box? 

      The box is the storage bin for our lesson plans.   These lesson plans take hours to create.   They have to be aligned with state standards, and they have to have all manner of back-up lessons and self-evaluations.   Keep in mind that we get only three free hours in a week.    

      The lesson plans are not for us, the teachers.   They’re certainly not for the students.   They are for inspectors from downtown, who in their turn pretty much ignore them.   The only person who seems to care is our resident, in-house inspector, a guy appointed by downtown.   We call him The Narc. 

      In truth, we have to write lessons for books we no longer teach.   The district bought a curriculum, just a wretched thing that we all now ignore.   During first semester, we’re supposed to read, for example, The Jungle and Emma to freshmen.   We tried it once.   I could take the snores, but the screams … so, we changed the curriculum.   Of course, we can’t tell downtown that we’re now teaching To Kill A Mockingbird.   So we write plans for lessons we don’t give. 

      Teachers just don’t take the box seriously.   When he wrote his lesson plans, Mr. Gates used to write a paragraph or two, then insert, “If anyone is actually reading this, dial 555-3478 and I’ll give you $20.”   The day he retired, Gates took out that $20 and paid for a round. 

      Last week, I just looked into my drawer, pulled out a bunch of old lesson plans — I was really going for poundage — xeroxed them and stuffed the box about two pounds worth.   So I get a call today from The Narc, who says, 1) a few lesson plans were from classes I no longer teach, and 2) not just a few date from 2007.    

      My bad.   I’ve made this mistake before.   My bad that I should forget all this, and teach instead.   Oh, yea, and I was complimented for doing a nice job teaching.   But, first and foremost, I need to feed the box. 

      Thus it is that I’m doing lesson plans today.   For this, I’ve sacrificed what I was going to do, which is to grade student essays. 

American Homes 2

By Songyi Zhang

After nearly three months hard work in cleaning our house full of clutter, the three-story townhouse has become more livable. Of course, I emptied out space to make room for my new clutter.

Hoarding happens in China, too. But generally the problem isn’t that serious in most households simply because on average each Chinese occupies less space than an American. When you live in a relatively small house—in the case of China, most are apartments—you’ll develop a stronger sense of cleaning up. That’s my experience as a lifelong urban dweller.

Recently, I visited several American homes during my travel with my husband to his relatives and friends in northeastern America. Staying with families and friends on a trip saves considerable money. But staying with friends and relatives isn’t commonly practiced in mainland China. Again, either the apartments are too small to accommodate guests overnight, or the guests mostly prefer avoiding the hassles of living in others’ houses. Instead, hotels and inns would be the first choices.

Besides the big sizes compared with Chinese homes, American homes usually have stairs and more than one exit. I was amazed how one can reach the same place in the house through many other ways. The house is certainly a great place for kids to play hide-and-seek. Some families would use the back doors more often than the front doors, whereas some others get into the house from the garage after their cars are parked. Isn’t it fascinating?

While cleaning our house I also learned about the housing in the neighborhood. To mortgage a house in the States is routine. It may take as long as a half of a lifetime for an American family to pay off the house mortgage. People live in a house while paying for it regularly. In China, a mortgage is available but a majority of Chinese who can afford a new home usually pay in full. They have to save money for decades to buy a house. Borrowing money from a bank for housing involves complicated procedures. For conservative Chinese, paying interests regularly on the top of the mortgage is beyond their financial ability. So purchasing a new place to live isn’t as easy for a Chinese as for an American. However, it’s a dream for everyone.

Americans have a definite sense of their owner’s property rights. They plant trees, build fences and draw lines around their houses. I often notice between two neighboring houses one side of the lawn is greener than the other (one home owner must have a green thumb while the other does not) or a wall of pine trees line in the middle of two houses. One of our hosts who had a house facing the Gulf of Maine told me that his property extends to a hundred feet to the ocean. Gosh, doesn’t Mother Nature belong to the public?

Edward Scissorhands

by Publius

I couldn’t make this up.

             I love this job.   At the end of work on Monday, we’re told that “there will be a faculty meeting after school for fifteen minutes.”   True to their word, it only took fifteen minutes to tell us that downtown just mandated yet another standardized test.   This one test will take up the best part of two days, and disrupt everyone’s schedule.

            When I say the meeting took fifteen minutes, I’m not including the screams.

            Sam gave us instructions.   Someone asked, “When did you get put in charge?”  

            “Fifteen minutes before the meeting, right after downtown called.”

            So downtown mandates that, on the first day, we will give the kids instructions for the test.   The kids then will bubble-in their names on the test sheets.   There’s also a brief interest inventory.   For this, the kids will be given three hours.   The next day, we will proctor the test.   We’re given three hours for a test that is timed, 140 minutes.  

            I asked what they plan to do with the kids who aren’t taking this test, the sophomore, the juniors and seniors.   They get to go to the auditorium, and watch a movie.   “Edward Scissorhands”.   I seem to be the only one who noticed that we’re planning to show “Edward Scissorhands” for six hours.

            I suggested that, if the kids get tired of that movie, they show Andy Warhol’s “Empire”.   Someone wrote down my suggestion.   “Empire” is that eight hour movie Warhol made, wherein he filmed the darkened Empire State Building one whole night.   One continuous shot.   Eight hours.   A light comes on around hour four.


Tipping like an American

By Songyi Zhang

“Gosh,” I cried after I left a restaurant, “I forgot to pay tips!”

Being a Chinese, I take it for granted that I don’t need to tip for service. In fact, my first tip to my non-Chinese friends when they visit China is “You don’t need to tip the bell boy or the waitress,” I say. “It’s not our thing.” Plus, in most high-class restaurants in China, the service charge, at about 15 percent, is already included in the bill — which usually comes to very little compared to American restaurants. It’s a national disgrace that Chinese workers are willing to work for so little.

So in addition to my poor math, I’m just not used to figuring out how much I should pay in total for a meal in America. To avoid that embarrassment, I’m not a frequent restaurant goer as I would be in my country. I’d rather shop and cook at home in my own kitchen with my own invention of recipes. No tip needed!

I remember last year when I travelled with my classmates and my teacher to New Orleans, I deliberately brought a calculator with me for fear I would embarrass myself in the go-Dutch scenario. Luckily, my travel mates were more familiar than I am adding up and dividing the tab. With their quick math skills, the result of how much each should pay was crystal clear. I saved my calculator for the next trip.

“What will happen if I don’t tip the waitress?” I asked naively.

“Huh,” my American godparent gave me a surprised look, “You’ll not get good service next time, and it’s considered very bad manners.”

“But what if I dine in that restaurant only once?” I argued. “The waitress might never see me again. Does my tipping matter?”

“Yes, you don’t want to disrespect others. Frankly, the servers are living on your tips. Unlike the cook, they have very low salary.”

“You see, I’d rather the bill comes with a service charge like the restaurants in China do. So I don’t need to figure it out on my own. Plus, isn’t tipping voluntary? Is there a law in America that customer must pay tips?”

“No law restricts it, but tipping has become a custom here. It’d be unusual not to pay a tip in a restaurant.”

I guess I can’t win the debate. After all, tipping is an unwritten practice in America. I have to tip my server even when they give bad service. In America, I must do as the Americans do.

I rushed back to the restaurant, caught the waitress’ eye, and dropped three dollars on the table.

Smart, Charming, and Crazy

by Publius

My vice-principal is smart, charming and crazy. She’s pretty in that southern big haired sort of way. I have on any number of occasions found her helpful and insightful. Those would be the times I don’t want to strangle her.

I am no diagnostician, but I believe her to be both narcissistic and borderline. She had a couple of bad falls, which, sadly, left her slightly brain damaged. The problem is, as a colleague says, “Some days it’s like talking to an acid freak.”

Take, for example, yesterday afternoon when I went to a meeting, called by her, about nothing. During the meeting, we were presented with nothing, decided to do nothing, discussed nothing, agreed to nothing and resolved nothing. We soon will have another meeting about nothing. Today, I got a memo from her about nothing.

Immediately after school yesterday, the vice-principal called a meeting of the department. She was panicked. She needed a book count, immediately as in right now, as in she doesn’t care how late we stay. We told her that we had completed this count at the end of last year. Nothing has changed: it’s only the second week of school. She then rambled on about a program, which we all hate, which she knows we hate, which she thinks we should do, and which none of us volunteered to do. We concluded by agreeing to, in the future, discuss all these matters again.

This morning, I got a memo from the vice-principal. I was reminded to count my books.

Later in the morning, my vice-principal comes up to me and says, “Someone is standing in your way.” Then she just walks off.

So I say, ‘What?! Hold it. Come here. What and who are you talking about?’

She leans in close to me, and whispers, “You said her name last year.” Then walks off.

Leaving me to wonder. Someone is standing in my way to — What? My retirement? That’s my next career move. As to the identity of “her”, I’m forced to ponder all the female names I said last year.