And Trouble Deaf Heaven with my Bootless Cries

by Publius

When I got back to school, everyone congratulated me on my standardized test scores. I had never taught Advanced Placement before – I’d taught college, college credit courses, but never A. P. per se. So, when most of my kids scored low, I was pretty much “oh well, fuck all”. It turns out that more of my kids passed that test than had ever passed before at this school. The school was surprised that anyone had passed at all. And the boss is happy, of course, because all this makes the school, meaning him, look good to his boss downtown. That’s the good news. The bad news is that my boss is still a wanker. Summer did nothing to alleviate that.

I’ve never written about my principal. I’d like to say something funny. But he’s one of those principals, so common in this district, who presume that shaming folks into submission is the same as leadership. Over the P. A. last week, he berated the janitors for “the filthy grounds”. He called a meeting, and berated the guards for chewing gum. He commonly scolds teachers in front of the students. I hasten to say that I have not escaped this. I’ve been told, in front of my colleagues, that “there’s no education going on in your room.” I was threatened with a letter of reprimand for poor penmanship on a hall pass. I could make a vastly longer list, except it’s so painful.

One day at lunch, my buddies and I counted twenty-one people who had resigned the school, and in some cases left the profession, because of this guy. Two people just got up and walked out the door. One first year teacher simply couldn’t deal with his “nasty-grams”, as we call them, his demeaning emails, and walked out her second week on the job. I knew one guy who took a job as a jailer rather than continue under this principal. A few folks retired earlier than they’d planned. In many other cases, the principal, while not the sole reason, was a major factor in a resignation.

I don’t know what is gained by shaming someone for a mistake. Few things can disable an individual, or a workforce, quite as quickly as being demeaned. At least in part, this is because nobody can hear the critique when all they can hear is their own rage or depression. When one is demeaned, it is not the singular fault but the whole person who is demeaned.

So, the boss isn’t funny. But he isn’t simply disliked. He’s despised. I’m not without some sympathy for the guy, because he must have been, to borrow from Danny DeVito, “potty trained at gunpoint.” Such knowledge helps me a little, but, frankly, not much. Thus do I borrow from Martial for my comic relief, which is to say my anger –

We no longer love you, boss,
but the reason – it’s just hard to tell;
though there’s one thing we know,
and we can tell this full well –
we’d all love to smash your ass, boss

_____

A Conversation in Poetry

by John Samuel Tieman

Walter Bargen, Missouri’s first Poet Laureate, is the author of five books of poetry. I met Walter when we served on the Literature Panel of the Missouri Arts Council. This exchange happened over the internet from 20 – 22 October 2011.

jst

after making love
by a small and nameless stream
she misses Pine Street

—–

wb

All day in bright sun
Willow leaves
Reflect upon the water.

Car window down
Autumn leaves on the driver’s seat
Going places.

—–

jst

this pigeon is caught
in my class — it shits on my
grade book then escapes

—–

wb

Late for its final meeting
A dragonfly
Skims autumn’s dark surface.

—–

jst

even the robin
left it untouched – the one
raisin on our porch

—–

wb

On the first turn
the engine purrs.
Time to let the cat out.

_____

Refusing to Diminish Others

by Christopher Stephen Soden

Traditionally the busiest time of the year for most retail businesses is the Christmas season. Generally speaking, it’s chaos. Or at least it was when I still worked at Taylors and Borders Books. I was at Taylors from 1983 to 1990. One Christmas we were really in the thick of it. Phones were ringing nonstop. Everyone was harried and customers were rude. You couldn’t wait for the day to end so you could leave. If you didn’t ignore the constant demands you’d go without lunch. On that particular day I fielded a phone call I will never forget. I was overwhelmed and distracted and rushed. I grabbed the phone and said, “Taylor’s Books.” A soft gentle British voice replied, “Hello, dear.” “Hello,” I said startled. She asked for some book I can no longer recall, but I was startled by the warmth and gracious tone in her voice. As if she was filled with gratitude for my help. When I returned I took her off hold, and explained we had no copies, but could order the book if she liked. “No, thank you, dear,” she responded, as if I had crossed an ocean for her. As if my feelings were that valuable to her. I tried to respond in kind but I was choking up. This elderly woman didn’t care what the rest of the world was like. She was making it a point to use the simple power we all share to heal the seemingly ubiquitous rage and damage we constantly endure. She wasn’t going to participate in that. I started to cry and I thought, “Dear God, am I so starved for some shred of kindness that when it comes along, I just go to pieces?” I think most of us share this frustration. Imagine what it would be like in the world, if we all refused to diminish others (or ourselves) simply because of our hurts and disappointments?
_____

Book Review: The Hands of Strangers

The Hands of Strangers:
Poems from the Nursing Home

Janice N. Harrington
Rochester: BOA Editions, 2011
ISBN: 9781934414545

reviewed by Mike Walker

Janice Harrington, an accomplished poet and author of children’s books, takes on a difficult, deep, yet rewarding topic in this collection of poems regarding life in a nursing home. It would be all too easy to approach this topic with an overly-heavy application of pity and pathos, but Harrington, an adept wordsmith and even more adept student of human character, avoid such trite pitfalls. To write of the elderly and their frail condition, to write of the loss of abilities—and sometimes even loss of memory—that these people who have seen so much, done so much, now grapple with, is no easy undertaking but one Harrington masters in poems such as “Pietà”:

His blue-milk skin, blue-veined
and blue-bruised, eases against her chest.
His brow leans into her shoulder. His lips
press her uniform’s rough pleats and leave

damp wings traced in spittle above her breast,
though she does not notice and, straining,
bears the weight as the years have taught

The focus and intention of her words are clear here, but the impressive aspect isn’t in the empathy for both the elderly patient and the patient nurse that Harrington conveys but the nuanced, careful, way with words she applies in her approach to description. Harrinton’s biographical information included with the book itself mentions that her upbringing in rural Alabama greatly influenced her manner in story-telling, but there is also an astute aspect of formalism in this poem fitting of its namesake. Harrington is not always original in her foci in these poems—there’s a lot of expected scenes and issues that you’d not be surprised to find in any collection around the theme at hand—but she is always sagacious in her descriptions. If you are going to entitle a poem “Old Photos” in a book dedicated to life in the nursing home, you’d better be a true master with words and also able to conjure a tale alive in very fast time. Harrington rises to this challenge time and again in these poems, performing a task difficult for any poet dealing with any topical matter, which is to provide the reader not only with a pithy description of the subject at hand but to allow his mind to wander outside of the immediate and into the related. As I had recently been reading about the history of mental illness and its treatment in South Carolina, many of Harrinton’s poems transported me back to that topic as well as the specifcs she concerns herself with in her poems. To me, this is most necessary because good poetry can open up the full gamut of the issues it regards in a way that even the most deft of prose often cannot.

One of the most outstanding poems in this collection is one entitled “May Engles” after a character—more than a character, a person, for we are not dealing in the remote world of fiction here—who passes away, neglected, unknown, without fanfare. In turn, Harrington takes it upon herself via measures both normal and supernatural to memorialize May Engles, to project her name and image far out into the world as we do for movie stars who die young or political leaders we actually profess to love. Again, it’s not the concept but the word-craft here that makes the poem stellar: we can imagine a woman dying in the nursing home, alone, without the attention to her basic humanity we all would hope for—that part is easy enough. Reba McEntire even had a song on an album in the early 1990s about a nursing home resident who did not die but never was visited by her family. It’s not a very original problem, the plight of the unfortunate elderly and how much of that plight is predicated on memory and lack of community with those who should matter most. However, in Harrington’s hands it becomes a poem of magical realism, of history, of tall tale. Harrington’s charm, and also her greatest strength, is that she never preaches, never tries to shame us, but instead brings us to feel awe-struck wonder where instead we only expect at best to feel sympathy. Another reviewer of this book claimed Harrington illustrates the “terrible” of her topic—the horror, I think he meant, of nursing home life—but I think she demonstrates the acute abjection and also the scant places of sublime beauty in such life.

Most of the time when we are invited to visit a nursing home or volunteer at one, to become involved in the lives of our elders who are to some extent confined, restricted, in their abilities, we are implored via a joint calling of duty (to our elders) and emotional profit (the stories we’ll hear! the things of history we’ll learn!). The public relations ploy of the nursing home as an institution nearly always brushes the disturbing or difficult aspects of nursing home realities under the rug or else simply claims such is best ignored in favor of the goodness—the vitality of humanity—encountered there if we dare. All this is noble, and all is fair, but what Harrinton accomplishes via her poems is something else, a discernment of worthy detail in even the most difficult, most harrowing, most distressing parts of life in an institution of chronic care.

In another poem, “Walking Roba”, Harrinton addresses the everyday, quick yet long-felt issue of lingering racism: a resident, an elderly Black man, needs to use the restroom and is not close enough to his own bedroom so an aide walking with him steers him into another patient’s room only to have that resident scream at them to “get that nigger out of here!”. Both men come from an era where racism was not as hidden as it is today and both came, we would hope, to witness change for the better, but perhaps not. Or perhaps the white man who yelled at Roba and the aide thought he was back in the 1950s—it’s hard to tell. What matters is that Roba probably was unsurprised, even if he’d not encountered his co-resident’s wrath before, he had without doubt encountered someone like him. He was beyond being insulted: the insults happened long ago and to a younger man. This old one was not so fragile even if he needed the help of an aide to make his way down the hall. Harrington, who is Black herself, addresses race in numerous places but she never makes of it a sermon or lesson; she never makes the book about racial injustice or even a single poem seem to be about such. She gains my greatest respect as a writer in her ability to accomplish this delicate task. Harrington is able to do such because she is able to write a poem such as “Ward of Sleep”, a poem about death that is both obvious in its sublimity but also has the structural feel of prose, almost of instruction. It reminds me of reading a naval medicine text once and encountering the instructions for preparing the dead for burial at sea: the washing, the care for the body. She is an astute eulogist here, and her ministry is both to the dead and those who remain of the living. Death, of course, is the most intractable malady anyone will face, and this is a place were many traumas and pathogens are greeted daily.

My favorite poem in this book though has to be “Reality Orientation Therapy”, a poem that owes a high debt to Ezra Pound—a poet who is, oddly enough, not mined nearly as often as you would hope by contemporary poets who need means of addressing the psyche in full. Harrington tells us that, “No, starlings have no songs. They cough like old men”. The birds, the choice of bird, the application of metaphor and most of all the boxy yet still not too long structure of the entire poem is consummate. It takes no time to read, and it’s done with so fast, but it contains enough information to last an hour. An hour of terror. The five minutes the nurse dreads of waking a patient who will not know even where they are when they awake, or perhaps even who they are. And yet there is never a sense of pity: we feel for the nurse as much as for the patient; we feel her understandable frustration.

The final section (of four) of this book is devoted to poems focusing not on patients or care-givers as have the other poems, but the mundane devices of technology that enable nursing home care—the complex medical history in the chart, even the lowly bedpan. The details of day to day life in the nursing home are made explicit by such poems—often hauntingly, awkwardly, haltingly explicit. The poems in this section are perhaps as a group the most powerful of all simply because they follow that favorite old rule of fiction writing—to show instead of to tell—a rule apt for poetry, it also turns out. Here, we are reminded also what “technology” really is: not just fancy electronics but anything tangible that enables technique. The willing, glad, and oftentimes greatly-hampered goal of both the nurses and the technology they use is to keep patients alive and functional despite the rigors of age and disease. Harrington’s book is painful and difficult because it makes the challenges faced in the more extreme aspects of elder-care very apparent and the reader may feel he cannot escape the imperfect, the frustrating, the tough chores of washing, feeding, trying to make someone remember her own name. However, you cannot help but walk away from this book impressed, not only with Harrington’s fine craft as a poet but with the tasks that nurses, aides, and others take on every day. You will not look at someone in scrubs who you know is not a doctor the same again when you see them in the grocery store at some odd hour, tired as all, buying something for dinner at midnight.

Harrington has done us all a great service in rendering views of the lives of patients and care-givers alike in this slim book; I would wish to suggest for her future efforts that she might do the same for police officers, for surgical teams, for a variety of fields that those outside of them see only in media stereotypes and plain language. The ability of poetry to bring difficult lives into view with empathy is something Harrinton handles with the utmost of skill, and I do hope she will continue to apply for all of our profit.
_____

Lesson Plan: From An Inner City High School

by Publius

There are a lot of reasons to quit this job. Kate did. I don’t blame her. But of all the reasons to quit this job, the three best are depression, humiliation and rage.

A freshman turns in the homework. I look at his t-shirt, and see a disarming photo of a nice looking young man. Then the script below the photo reads —

R. I. P. Kooley

01/22/90 – 09/18/09

It’s depressing. I read about this killing in the paper. A drive-by. Kids killing kids. I ask. The freshman tells me that Kooley was his cousin. Then he changes the subject. He looks at a picture of my wife and me, a picture on my desk. I tell him how it’s a shot of a particularly pleasant memory. He tells me how he’ll never get married. “Too much drama.” He changes the subject, but the topic is still sadness.

And this happens all the time. So far, I’ve lost two students to drive-bys.

That’s one reason to quit.

Dan studied archeology. At lunch, he regales us with exotic yarns of the Middle East. He thought about continuing in that field, but wanted a family and time for a family. “Kids instead of digs.” Now, he’s got two little girls, but not much sleep.

Dan was publicly humiliated yesterday for the high crime of tardiness. Five minutes late in the morning, he still had more than enough time until students arrived. But, in front of several of us, he was mortified by the principal. At lunch he tells how he’s again considering that doctorate he never got. “Why should I put up with this?”

‘If not you,’ I say, ‘then who?’ People talk about reforming inner city schools. But only a few are actually willing to work in them — and that’s all that really counts. Reformers annoy us more than help us. We’re aided neither by uplifting liberals nor condescending conservatives.

There are about 200 job openings in the district today. We used to have 65 teachers in my school. We’re down to 25 teachers, although we still have the same number of students, 800 and change. Each of us teaches two extra classes, and gets one break once every other day. There are many subjects we simply no longer teach.

Thus we come to Tieman’s Rule # 57: If you not depressed at times, if you’re not incensed at other times, then you’re not engaged.

Kate was rookie of the year last year. Great start. But she feels rage, because she’s bullied by the boss. The boss writes her disciplinary letters, we call them “nasty-grams”, every morning for a week. So yesterday she just says Fuck this! So I write —

teacher ed.
we haven’t said ‘pedagogy’ in decades
we’ve theories about seating charts
playground is a duty like lunch or hall
we’re hideous as dictionaries or yellow
shirts in fluorescent lights
near an intersection of broken glass we ride
an elevator that once smelled of the best of intentions
so when I heard you just said Fuck This! and walked
out just like that
I loosened my tie and graded a theme
and wrote Fuck An A, Kate! on a paper

_____

Codgers Talk!

By Songyi Zhang

Through my godfather Frank in upstate New York, I met several interesting American “codgers” – as they call themselves. They’re Frank’s buddies. Every weekday morning, these guys in their sixties and seventies sit in a local diner, Jodee’s, sipping coffee, having a calorie-rich American breakfast and shooting the breeze.

Among them the frequent patrons are Frank, a retired math teacher; Tom, a retired NYC cop; Dick, a retired executive in a phone company; Tim, a retired manager in a local supermarket; Bob, a retired safety inspector and Paul, an active minister in a Baptist church.

It took me a while to match their names with their faces. That’s just me, a Chinese with a poor memory of English names. I joined Frank at Jodee’s every day while I visited him. So when I was in the diner, I was treated really like an alien as I was the only Asian there. The waitresses would speak slowly in English to me to take my order (although I don’t think it’s necessary as I’m confident with my English) and they were also polite to me, instead of making jokes the way they did with the frequent patrons.

I was also the only woman around the table. Obviously, I wasn’t sensitive about what they discussed. Not only because I wasn’t familiar with the context but also because their topics were quite masculine. Subjects ranged from sports to politics to the obituary in the town. I wonder if this is a universal feature among men’s gatherings.
In southern China, retired people go to restaurants for morning tea and dimsum as a daily routine. In most cases, Chinese men sit together after their wives finish their breakfast and go off for morning exercises in the park. The Chinese men usually bring the daily papers to the restaurants and comment on the headlines right off the bat with their male buddies. How great the attraction of politics is to retired men!

I remember when I travelled to Maine, in a local diner I saw a wooden sign read: No politics here. The sign was hung above a long bench and a table at a corner. I thought to myself women probably would gather over there.

Like the Chinese retired men, Frank and his coffee buddies also enjoy reminiscing about the good old days. Tim is quite a collector. One time he showed me a thick album of the newspaper clippings about the events happened in the town. The yellow pages underneath the cellophane cover dated back to the late 19th century. I learned from one clipping that a minister went to Guilin, China for a mission before World War I. At that time, the place Guilin was spelled differently. Just like Beijing was called Peking and Guangzhou was Canton. Another time Tim bought the black and white pictures to the diner. The pictures were taken on the main street of the town in 1960s. I was fascinated by his nostalgic evidence. Just a simple collection of the past aroused so many discussions among the old fogies. What impressed me was how ordinary Americans treasure their individual history. In this regard, Chinese are far behind. Due to warfare, natural disasters and political movements in China, countless family history has been damaged, destroyed or lost.

Sitting with these American codgers from all walks of life, I found my insight was like Marco Polo sharing his stories from his Far East expedition. Their jaws dropped at hearing we Chinese chew fish heads and chicken feet. Their eyes popped as I told them Chinese beggars and hookers loved harassing foreigners. In return, I learned the American sense of humor from them and lots of slang, such as skinny dip and fanny. What a cultural shock! More to come.

_____

To Celebrate The Sacrifice Of The Hero

 by John Samuel Tieman

I guarantee that this week, the week of Veteran’s Day, someone someplace will say, “We celebrate the sacrifice made by the hero in uniform.”

This is an essay about language, especially the words celebrate, sacrifice and hero. Ironically, the very terms Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day are confused. Veteran’s Day is for all those who served in the uniformed services. Memorial Day is for those who died. It is just as well that we confuse these terms. It reminds us of how few people actually serve, how these two days have more to do with barbecues than actual heroes.

No official word is adequate to describe war, and certainly not the word celebrate. I am at a loss to understand what there is to celebrate in a war. Except for the soldiers and their families, nobody today sacrifices. There’s no war tax, no rationing. As for hero, the word is so overused as to be meaningless. I recently heard a local TV channel use hero to describe someone who rescues puppies.

Nobody will celebrate that Stan, a veteran of the Air Force, dropped out of university because of the pain in his right foot, which had been crushed when a missile dropped on it. Stan didn’t sacrifice for his country. The accident, according to Stan, was meaningless. A winch broke, and front half of his foot was smashed.

Nor will anyone remember what Cal sacrificed. Cal was Bob’s dad. Cal died of a broken heart as sure as his son died of a gunshot in The Nam. Bob had his head blown off, because a rifle misfired in what the army termed a “misadventure”. His father did not celebrate.

Mark, from the south side of Chicago, was smart, quiet, unpretentious. We shared a barracks in Basic Training. His name is on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. No one calls him hero. He was drafted. He didn’t win any medals. Mark didn’t sacrifice his life: his life was torn from him.

There was a fellow I once walked past in Vietnam. He was on guard duty. I passed close enough to chat for a second. He died that night. He was killed while guarding the Finance Company of the 4th Infantry Division. You don’t think of accountants dying in a war. Yet die he did. I didn’t know him. But I remember him. He wasn’t a hero. I heard later that he fell asleep on guard duty. There is nothing to celebrate, though there is much to mourn.

Perhaps, because I am a war veteran, I have more to remember than most. That said, I will not remember the war dead, or my brother and sister veterans, any more this week than I remember them any other week. Besides, the act of remembering is a solitary thing. It doesn’t do the remembered any good or ill. But the words, by which we record the memory, the words matter. Sacrifice is too sacred a word. As for celebrate, there’s nothing to celebrate. It’s war. Heroes, yes, there are, in fact, heroes. But mostly there are just sad, scared, lonely young men and women, the heroes included. Perhaps the only word that really matters any more is remember.

So let me say a few last words, one last memory.

I left Vietnam in December of 1970. I used my G. I. Bill to go to Southern Methodist University. In my senior year, 1975, the North Vietnamese invaded the South. My old base camp, An Khe, fell without a fight. I remember the very night I heard the news.

I thought of Williams Bridge. Williams Bridge spanned a small river in An Khe. Specialist 4th Class Eric Williams died while building that bridge. I never met him. He died four years before my tour of duty. He was not a hero. He did not sacrifice his life. He drowned in an accident.

As I watched the news that night in 1975, I thought about the death of Specialist Williams. Somewhere, in all that grief, were all the deaths, Americans, Vietnamese, the French and all the rest. But I fixed on The Sp. 4 Eric Williams Bridge. And I wept bitterly. Because it was all in vain. There was nothing to celebrate.

The next day was an ordinary weekday. I just went to class. I remember listening to a lecture in Dallas Hall at SMU. And knowing that, of all my classmates, my teachers, friends, people I liked, people I loved, of all those folks, I alone wept for Eric Williams.

_____

Restaurant Review: Pusadee’s Garden

Reviewed by Noah Gup 

            With smartphones virtually universal, it is difficult to find any time in the day free from the ring of incoming emails or text messages.  More than just offering a night out from cooking, restaurants offer refuge from the stress of everyday responsibilities.  Pusadee’s Garden in Lawrenceville, away from most other shops on Butler Street, is distinctly independent from most other restaurants.  It seems to be its own little world, which is totally fine because there are few better places to spend an evening.

Pusadee’s Garden serves Thai fare that can be found at many similar restaurants, but with an attention to detail that is nearly unprecedented.  Pork dumplings are spiced and chewy, without gumming up the mouth.  Curry puffs are filled with a warm and rich medley of squash and sweet potatoes, offering a sweet and spicy appetizer that keeps the winter out.  The fresh rolls are possible the most impressive.  The rice paper is soft, and the taste of basil is strong.  Combined with crisp lettuce and bean sprouts, this ubiquitous appetizer is transformed into an ode to freshness.  Even better, each appetizer comes with its own unique dipping sauce.  Pork dumplings are served with spicy soy, the curry puffs with cucumber-vinegar chutney, and the fresh rolls with a delicious chili-honey sauce.  Each is unique and thought-out, complementing their dish and tasty enough to sample on the tip of a fork.

Many of the usual suspects of Thai restaurants appear on the menu, but with several interesting, more authentic choices.  Khao soi, a fantastic noodle dish, resembles a curry.  Served in a soup bowl brimming with yellow curry this dish presents an all-cure; enough spice to clear sinuses, enough smooth egg noodles to settle a troubled stomach, enough cauliflower and broccoli to rejuvenate the body, and enough fried glass noodles on to add a fun crunch.  It is a dish rich in texture and flavor. 

Crispy Tilapia is another astonishing creation.  A thin fried layer surrounds the tender fish, and it is topped with a burning garlic sauce, which resembles a homemade Siracha.  With bountiful amounts of chili and red pepper flakes, it is intense (when ordered medium, the dish came out pretty hot).   A bed of vegetables and a side of rice dim the heat, but it’s the sharp bite of the “3 flavor sauce” that gives the dish its power.

In keeping with the season, Pusadee’s pumpkin curry is another tasty surprise.  Sweeter than the curry served in the khao soi, chunks of pumpkin and sweet squash mix with slices of pepper and carrots mingle with silky tofu.  While the curry is spicy, chunks of squash sooth the sizzle.   These entrees, just like most everything at Pusadee’s Garden, showcase a depth and variety unmatched in many Thai restaurants.

There are also a few dessert options, and it would be a crime to skip the heavenly coconut ice cream.  Draped with strips of mango, the ice cream has chunks of coconut within.  Tasting like actual coconut, and not too sweet either, this is a dessert good enough to eat in any season.

The restaurant itself has a welcoming and intimate atmosphere.  It is one skinny room, but with lovely white embossed walls and paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling.  There is a large outdoor garden with tables, but inside the restaurant is small and cozy, perfect for an escape from the cold.  Service is attentive, timely, and caring without being intrusive. 

After the coconut ice cream was cleared and the check was placed on the table, my family wasn’t ready to live.  With the echoes of chatter around the walls, the occasion glimpse of a child running around in the back, and the smell of curry floating in the air, it was better than going home.  Winter was stuck outside, work was stuck at the house, and we were here, away from it all.  For two hours, these problems faded away, and all that mattered was the rush of flavors that flooded in, the waves of conversation that came and went, the satisfied groan of noodle-filled stomachs.  For two hours, the stress and strain of the week was soaked up by plates of rice.  For a meal, this is everything we want.(Pusadee’s Garden is located on 5321 Butler Street in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh.  Entrees range from $11-$18.)

_____

A Glimpse of Ghana

By Songyi Zhang

There are no manicured roadside lawns but torn plastic bags strewn on the dusty ground. There are no skyscrapers like the Empire State Building, but clusters of tin-roofed cottages are painted the lime green, red and yellow of competing phone companies that use the buildings as ads. There are no empty sidewalks but pathways filled with endless streams of people crisscrossing one another. Many wear sandals, the women in African wrap skirts with babies tied to their back and balancing goods on their heads. The lush palm trees and the coconut stands remind visitors this is a tropical country, Ghana in West Africa.

Invited by the U.S. Peace Corps for its 50th anniversary celebration in Ghana, my American husband and I visited the former Gold Coast this late August. For the first time I stepped on the soil of Africa.

Mild breezes accompanied us throughout our six-day visit. We did not expect the moderate temperatures with high 70s°F and low 80s°F. The local people told me that August was the winter in Ghana. So even though Ghana is on the northern side of the equator, the country shares the South Hemisphere seasons.

With the help of our Ghanaian neighbor back in the U.S., we had a driver and a car while we were in Ghana. Our main purpose was to reunite with old friends. But since this was my first time in Ghana, we squeezed time out to sightsee the capital Accra and Elmina (about 100 miles westward from Accra).

Like many national capital cities, Accra is a very busy metropolis. Its everyday congestion reminded me of Beijing’s dreadful traffic. Roads in Ghana are rough. We were lucky to be on quite a few concrete roads in Accra and on the way to Elmina. But we also experienced the muddy unsurfaced roads just inside the capital city.

The earth in Ghana is starkly red, rich in iron and aluminum. People seemed to get used to walking on the uneven red soil. They flip-flopped, shuffled and kids even ran with their bare feet. Occasionally, I saw young men playing street soccer with gusto. No wonder Ghana had one of the strong African teams in last year’s World Cup.

Being stuck in traffic was common in Accra. That allowed me to rubberneck from the passenger seat. The traffic jam brought opportunities to those who carried goodies on their heads and cellphone cards, maps and souvenirs in their hands. These hawkers were like agile fish swimming between narrow car spaces, enticing drivers and passengers to buy what they sold. At times the beggars in rags joined the single file march, begging in an indistinguishable language.

At one time, I heard kids who sold snacks call me “obruni.” My husband said the word meant “white person” in Twi, one of the widely spoken languages in southern Ghana. I laughed. Perhaps in Ghanaian eyes, those who don’t have skin as dark as theirs are all “obruni.” Later that day, I googled a phrase to respond such a greeting, “etisen obinini,” meaning “hello black person.” Alas, I did not hear anyone call me “obruni” again. Instead, more Ghanaians said “Nihao” to me. I was surprised at first but soon I realized there are many Chinese businessmen in Ghana, so are there many Ghanaian traders in China. Chinese restaurants have mushroomed in Accra in recent years.

Having lived in the U.S. for more than two years, I noticed a drastic difference between Ghanaian and American daily life. You can’t drink tap water. You need to bring your own napkins. You only can shop with cash. You have to bargain for everything including taking a taxi. Auto maintenance falls behind. I thought to myself most the dusty cars on the streets in Ghana would have retired to the junkyard in the U.S.. They were clunkers either dented in various degrees or emitting black smoke. Even so, the cars still zoomed forward to any possible space. In the U.S. if my car’s check engine light lit, I would have panicked and I would have it checked immediately in the garage. But in Ghana, it seemed everyone was driving calmly with a check engine light on. This is African life. Different living conditions result in different life attitudes.

Ghanaians are known for being laidback. That is probably why the tourist attractions in the country are not lavishly publicized. We went to Elmina Castle, one of the oldest castles in West Africa, with a history of about five hundred years. There was not a single sign on the main highway giving directions to the Castle. Constructed by the Portuguese colonists and later occupied by the Dutch and the British colonists, the Castle was used as a slave prison during colonial time. Slave trading was prosperous in Ghana. The slaves that were about to be sent to the New World were all incarcerated in the pitch dark cells inside the Castle. From the only window of one cell, I saw the roaring waves in the Gulf of Guinea and the hustling and bustling fishing villages by the seashore. The sky was as gray as my mood. My heart wrenched. What have the colonists left for their settlements? Life in Ghana is still tough in many ways despite the fact the country is developing rapidly.

The Accra Mall is one of few malls and a landmark of globalization in Ghana. I was shocked to find international brands like Puma, Apple Inc., Panasonic and Sony inside the two-story big mall. Besides, a brightly lit supermarket with at least 20 checkout lanes sold all sorts of fresh produce and necessity goods. From bread, cheese, beverage, imported wine to cookers and bath towels, you name it. On the second floor were the movie theatre and a large game room. How can the Mall not to attract the novelty-seeking young Ghanaians? How can you believe today’s Ghanaians lead this kind of posh Western life?

Compared to the well-to-do Ghanaians who have a good education, a good job, a big house fenced with high walls and drive high-end vehicles like Mercedes, quite a few Ghanaians still live in suburban or rural areas where concrete roads don’t exit. The residences look makeshift. Some houses are made of clay or thatch. Some are even roofless. Open sewers run through narrow alleys between houses. It is not uncommon that many poor families cannot afford to send their kids to school. Thus, older kids work despite being underage while the young ones roam on the streets. I notice it’s quite unusual for Ghanaians not to have sibling. If I were a Ghanaian, I would be a rare animal as an only child.

However, I was a rare Chinese customer in the Chinese restaurant we had dinner one night. Although the décor and the menu were Chinese style, the servers and the customers in the dining hall were mostly Black with a few White customers. I was definitely the only Chinese customer. In the U.S., I have never been served by White waiters in a Chinese restaurant. If Chinese food is too difficult for Caucasians to serve, the Ghanaians certainly get the credit for being knowledgeable about the Chinese menu.

Our whirlwind visit in Ghana broadens my horizons. Before my visit, I thought Africa was only a huge continent that can easily move one’s sympathetic heart. After the trip, I realize Ghana, just like many other African countries, welcomes global investment while it shows a striking discrepancy between rich and poor. If centuries ago the colonists trampled Ghana’s sovereignty, bringing deep Western influence to Ghanaian life, today’s globalization in the country is a new round of economic invasion. But this time, not only does the Western world take part in the game, so does the Oriental world, including economic powerhouse China.

_____

An Interview with Chana Bloch

By Zara Raab

(first published in San Francisco Book Review)

Chana Bloch has published four books of poetry — The Secrets of the Tribe, The Past Keeps Changing, Mrs. Dumpty, and Blood Honey. She is the co-translator of The Song of Songs (with Ariel Bloch) and The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (with Stephen Mitchell), as well as Amichai’s Open Closed Open and Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch (with Chana Kronfeld). She has degrees from Cornell, Brandeis and U.C. Berkeley. For more than 30 years, she taught in the English Department at Mills College, where she directed the Creative Writing Program.

When I asked Chana Bloch for an interview, she graciously invited me to her house in north Berkeley. Before sitting down in the kitchen to talk on a warm July afternoon, Chana showed me the photographs of her family in the hallway — photos of her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts taken in Eastern Europe or shortly after they arrived in this country. These are some of the figures who emerge so powerfully in the poems of Blood Honey.

Zara Raab: You’ve written and translated many books, as well as teaching at Mills College for many years. That’s a full life! What draws you to poetry? Why do you write and translate poetry?

Chana Bloch: I’ve always loved language, the sound of words, the music of words. Often it’s the sound of a word that will lead me where I want to go. And I love the compression of poetry, the fact that you can get a lot said in a small space. Early on, I discovered that the outside and inside of things don’t always correspond, and I wanted to understand what was happening on the inside of my life. “If we were so happy, why weren’t we happy?” — that became a key question.

I wrote stories and poems — actually, rhymed poems — when I was I in high school, and started writing poetry seriously in college and grad school. I was drawn to translation at about the same time because it’s a good way of teaching yourself to write. As for translating from Yiddish and Hebrew: I’m a first-generation American, still very connected to the Jewish culture I grew up with. I wanted to contribute something of substance to American-Jewish culture, which seems me to increasingly lightweight.

ZR: So you were translating poetry right from the beginning. . .

CB: Yes. I started translating from Yiddish, the language of my parents, which I studied as a child — poems by Jacob Glatstein and stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I began to study Hebrew in college and grad school, and during the five years I lived in Jerusalem, and I went on to translate the Israeli poets Dahlia Ravikovitch and Yehuda Amichai.

ZR: Your first two books, The Secrets of the Tribe and The Past Keeps Changing, were published by Sheep Meadow Press, which also published two of your books of translations, of Dahlia Ravikovitch’s poems. How did that come about?

CB: Stanley Kunitz heard Dahlia read at the Rotterdam Poetry Festival and was very enthusiastic about her work. “No poetry in recent years has moved me more,” he wrote, and he urged Sheep Meadow Press to publish a book of her poems. After that, they published two of my books. Now Sheep Meadow will be publishing my son Benjamin’s first book of poems, Narrows.

ZR: You translated the biblical Song of Songs with your first husband, the linguist Ariel Bloch. It is a poem of passionate love. Your relationship with him was, I gather from the opening poems of Mrs. Dumpty, very loving, even passionate. But then he became mentally ill and your marriage disintegrated. Reading The Songs of Songs and then Mrs. Dumpty back-to-back was revelatory for me.

CB: Ariel and I were married for almost twenty-four years. In the beginning we had what appeared to be a very good marriage. Toward the end of our work together on the Song of Songs, the effects of his mental illness became more and more evident, and our marriage began coming apart. After we separated, I wrote Mrs. Dumpty over four consecutive summers at Yaddo [a writer’s retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York]. The first poems came pouring out of me, fueled by a fury of emotions that I hadn’t allowed myself to feel during the years when Ariel’s breakdowns dominated our family life. Each summer after that one, I could feel the pain and confusion subside. By the time I was able to write the tender, loving poems — the ones at the beginning of the book — I had come to terms with an experience that was almost impossible to understand. The process of putting it into words saved my sanity.

When I was teaching at Mills, I talked to students about what it’s like to write poems that are based on your own life. You can be faithful to the truth of what happened without being tied to literal fact. Once you set the material down on the page, it becomes a free-standing object that asks to be shaped in accordance with its own laws. You can get beyond the raw stuff of the “confessional” through metaphor, phrasing and precision of language.

ZR: In your wonderful essay on translation, “Learning from Translation” [the Judith Lee Stronach Memorial Lecture delivered at U.C. Berkeley in May 2011], you mention what Robert Lowell told you in a poetry workshop: “You can learn to write from your own translations.” Are there any particular poems that inspired you in your own work when you came to translate them? Or was it more a process of “strengthening your poetic muscles,” to borrow a metaphor you use in the essay? Can you think of a specific example from your work on the Song of Songs?

CB: When you are translating, you have to choose among possible alternatives to convey meaning and register, image and mood and music. Each time you choose, you are sharpening your skills as a poet. In the process, you learn patience as well.

An example? There was a particular verse in the Song (2:5) that I struggled with for months. The King James Bible has “I am sick of love,” which meant “stricken by passion” in 17th-century English; that’s obviously out of the question today. Some translations resort to “I am sick with love,” which is just as bad, or “I am faint with desire,” which sounds much too Victorian. One day, suddenly, it came to me: “I am in the fever of love.” I felt so high that I went out the door and ran four miles. Maybe only another word-nut would understand what it means to be obsessed with a turn of phrase in that way. Only another poet.

ZR: In “Learning from Translation,” you discuss issues of translation and assimilation, how one thinks within a language and a culture. Do you want to add to that?

CB: Some translators want to make their translations reader-friendly by smoothing out any difficulties, editing out the cultural particularity. At the other end of the spectrum, there are translators who work hard to preserve the flavor and feel of the original. I started out closer to the first type, but in time, especially through my collaboration with Chana Kronfeld, I have moved very much in the direction of the second.

What’s the point of domesticating the foreign? It’s like tourist travel made easy: the travel agent smooths the way so you are as comfortable as if . . . you had never left home. If you travel to another place, I think you should come back with something you couldn’t find at home. This assumes that the reader is willing to make a bit of an effort, but why assume otherwise?

ZR: Your readers come to know your love of Yiddish and Hebrew writers, including Singer, Glatstein, Amichai and Ravikovitch, whom you’ve translated. You’re also the author of a critical study of the 17-century English poet George Herbert. You published a book on Herbert, isn’t that right? [Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible, University of California Press (1985)]. What drew you to his poems?

CB: I fell in love with Herbert in graduate school. We made an unlikely pair — a Jewish girl from the Bronx and a devout 17-century Anglican minister. Do you know Marilynne Robinson’s recent novel, Gilead? It’s about a Congregationalist pastor she calls John Ames, who lives in a small town in Iowa in the 1950s, and who seems to me very much like a latter-day Herbert. When I read it, I felt I was back in touch with his spirit again.

Herbert writes as a Christian believer who is wrestling with his faith, but in essence he is writing about the conflicts of the inner life, and I could easily relate to that; I could follow him up to the point where he turned to Jesus for help. But that was more than enough. His poems have a beautiful dignity and candor and seriousness, along with a sharp unsparing wit. In your review of Blood Honey you wrote that there is a moral value in economy; that’s something I find in Herbert’s poetry too.

ZR: What other writers influence you?

CB: I value clarity — an old-fashioned virtue — and concision. I like poetry that appears to be clear on the surface, with unexpected depths. Among my favorites: Anna Ahkmatova, Elizabeth Bishop, Ruth Stone, Jane Kenyon, Charles Simic, Tomas Tranströmer. I read and reread Tranströmer’s poems, which are tight and profound and mysterious. And I’ve learned a lot from Yehuda Amichai’s irreverent use of the Bible, his acerbic wit, his mixing of tones. His work is warm, alive, and very human — funny and serious at the same time. Among earlier poets, Emily Dickinson in particular.

ZR: What do you think of Emily Dickinson’s martyrdom to poetry? Do you find it off-putting?

CB: I don’t think we know enough about Emily Dickinson’s life to make that kind of judgment. By the way, what color do you think her hair was?

ZR: I don’t know. . . . brown, I suppose.

CB: Her hair was red. To my surprise, I discovered that when I visited her house in Amherst.

ZR: They had a locket of her hair?

CB: Yes. From the famous daguerreotype I assumed her hair was dark. But it was red! Doesn’t that change how you see her? I like imagining her as a bold, feisty redhead, never mind the white dress. Well, you see plenty of evidence of boldness in her poems.

ZR: How do you go about making a poem? Would you be willing to share your own process?

CB: Sometimes a poem will start with a image or a phrase, something I’ve read or heard or saved in a notebook. An article I read in the New Yorker about knife sharpening, a review I read in the New York Review of Books about research on the brain, a comment by a musician about the Stradivarius violin — those generated new poems called “Cleave,” “Happiness Research,” “The Little Ice Age.”

These days I work a lot on the computer. But when I’ve been sitting for hours in front of a computer screen, I find that walking helps; it unglues my brain. When I go for a walk, I always take pencil and paper, and I scribble down lines that come to me. I usually work very slowly, and then I revise and revise and revise.

ZR: What are you working on at the moment?

CB: In Mrs. Dumpty I took on a single daunting subject: the impact of mental illness on marriage and family. In writing Blood Honey I felt a strong impulse to expand my field of vision. I wrote about a poet who lived fifty years in an iron lung, a Harvard student who claimed to be the Messiah, an uncle of mine who killed a man and was proud of it.

In my new manuscript I am trying to extend my range still further. Some of the new poems are about human origins, the death of Socrates, sign language, tourism to Auschwitz. The title poem starts with a epigraph from Pascal: “If Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter, the whole history of the world would have been different.” I’m writing a lot about history — personal history, biblical history, European history, human history.

ZR: I look forward to reading it. What are you reading at the moment? How do you decide what you’re going to read?

CB: Right now I’m reading Adam Zagajewski. I follow the reviews in Poetry and other literary journals, and I devour the New York Review of Books. I belong to a group that meets regularly to read poetry together — ancient, medieval, contemporary, in English and in translation. Each month we read a different poet chosen by the group.

ZR: Do you like the Eastern European poets?

CB: Yes, very much. Did I mention Wislawa Szymborska and Zbigniew Herbert? He’s a wonderful poet, ironic and heartbreaking (and by the way, a distant relative of George Herbert). I like to read about nature and evolution, especially since my younger son became a wildlife biologist. My children’s interests have always been a spur to my own.

ZR: Do you have any other advice for a poet just starting out, or to a young person thinking of becoming a writer?

CB: To a great extent, you have to teach yourself. Merwin said, “No one can teach you to listen for what only you can hear.” You have to find your own voice. Read a lot and keep writing and don’t get discouraged. Don’t take someone else’s criticism as the absolute truth; often it’s just a matter of taste.

Sometimes a critical comment can be devastating. I remember writing a poem in a creative writing course about a girl who was very pregnant. I was 19 at the time, and I’d had a dream about being pregnant; I tried to convey the bodily sensation in that poem. The teacher said: “I can’t decide whether this poem is ultimately beautiful or ultimately ugly. Let me think about it.” The next week he told me, “It’s ultimately ugly,” and he graded the poem: 83. Idiotic! That guy shouldn’t have been a creative writing teacher. In fact, he shouldn’t have been a teacher at all.

ZR: I had a similar experience in my first year of college. The professor took umbrage when I didn’t understand “Leda and the Swan.” I majored in philosophy instead.

CB: I think a critique of a poet’s work ought to satisfy two requirements: to be true and at the same time to be useful — that is, phrased in such a way that the poet can use it. (That’s good advice in a relationship too, by the way.) I can’t stand the sniping comments you sometimes hear in a workshop. I would always tell my students, “I don’t want any blood on the walls.” My approach would be: “Let’s identify what’s working best in this poem and think about how to bring the rest up to that level.”

ZR: A song cycle based on your work, “Chana’s Story,” was composed by David Del Tredici, and premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Your translation of the Song of Songs was set to music by Jorge Liderman. This piece has been performed by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and the U.C. Berkeley Chamber Chorus at Cal Performances. What was it like hearing your own words put to music?

CB: It was fascinating to work with those composers. I met David Del Tredici at the McDowell Colony [a writer’s retreat in Peterborough, New Hampshire]. He initially set one of the lyrics from the Song of Songs, and he wanted to see my own poems. He chose a number of poems from two of my books and set them as a song-cycle; it was his idea to call it “Chana’s Story.”

Every time he set a poem, he would play it for me in his studio and ask for my feedback. If I said, “I think it needs more of an accent here,” he’d whip out his electric eraser and actually make a change! I was delighted by his openness to my comments, even when I didn’t agree with his interpretation. For example, he set “Tired Sex” from Mrs. Dumpty as an angry poem. I think it’s a funny poem, but he was the composer, after all, and it was his prerogative to set it as he heard it.

I worked very closely with Jorge Liderman, the Argentinian composer who taught Music Composition at U.C. Berkeley before his tragic death. Jorge composed a cantata based on my translation of the Song of Songs. Together we decided which verses to include, and in what order, arranging the poems to suggest a kind of plot-line. He really caught the passion and intensity and youthful exuberance of the Song. His Latin rhythms are terrific. So is the unusual combination of instruments. More recently, David Fulmer wrote a piece for string trio and mezzo soprano, commissioned by the Monadnock Music Festival, based on “Deaths I Come Back To.” Fulmer’s music is very avant-garde; he gets some spooky sounds, sounds you can’t imagine, out of the violin.

ZR: Are the performances we’ve mentioned available on CD? Or are there any performances of these pieces coming up that we should know about?

CB: On my website, www.chanabloch.com, there are links to the CDs of Chana’s Story and the Song of Songs, and a sampling of each, along with my readings of poems from each of my books.

ZR: Do you have a favorite poem of yours?

CB: At the moment I’d choose “Brothers” from Blood Honey. When my sons were young I used to read to them, and they’d get unbelievably involved; when I read “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” their eyes were practically popping out of their heads. “Brothers” refers to the folk tales about Baba Yaga, the Russian witch who lives in a house on chicken legs. My younger son adored his brother, but it took him less than half a second to respond as he does in that poem. His response taught me a lot about the state of the world.

ZR: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I’d like to end with the text of “Brothers”:

When I was the Baba Yaga of the house
on my terrible chicken legs,
the children sat close on the sofa as I read,
both of them together
determined to be scared.
Careful! I cackled, stalking them
among the pillows:
You bad Russian boy,
I eat you up!
They shivered and squirmed, my delicious sons,
waiting for a mighty arm
to seize them.
I chased them screeching down the hall,
I catch you, I eat you!
my witch-blade hungry for the spurt
of laughter –
What stopped me
even as I lifted my hand?
The stricken voice that cried: Eat him!
Eat my brother.

(from Blood Honey by Chana Bloch, copyright 2010 by Chana Bloch. Reprinted by permission of Autumn House Press)
_____

Your Father on the Train of Ghosts by C. Waldrep and John Gallaher

Your Father on the Train of Ghosts
C. Waldrep and John Gallaher
Rochester, NY: BOA Editions Ltd.
2011
ISBN: 9781934414484

reviewed by Mike Walker

G.C. Waldrep is one of my favorite contemporary poets and his 2008 book Disclamor is to me a masterwork in short form of geographical and political observation alike. Taking grand inspiration from his personal experiences in walking around the abandoned Cold War defensive batteries and bunkers of Marin County, California, Waldrep considered the complex meanings of these former measures to ensure American security in an age where security concerns once again is at an apex. Cold War history is of keen interest to me anyways, but Waldrep in this book drew together bits of history that might only lure in a military history nerd like myself under normal circumstances yet somehow, via careful craft and expansive knowledge, spins from them tales as much about the internal workings of society and personality as about coastal fortifications. Thus, when BOA Editions sent me Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, for review the first thing I noticed about this fairly thick volume was that Waldrep was one of its authors, and that was plenty to raise my interest. Next though, I learned exactly what I had in my hands: the unique fruit of the labor of two poets—Waldrep and John Gallaher, an equally esteemed American poet—working in tandem to produce poems via email. That is, these two men are not just co-authors of a book, a collection, but of each poem it contains and they wrote these works via sending words and phrases back and forth electronically.

This writing concept is apt for our internet age and may even seem innovative but also perhaps a bit more appropriate for an undergraduate course than the efforts of two leading contemporary poets, yet like any literature the proof of the pudding must be in the eating, not in the size of the kitchen, the name of the chef, or anything else. What may at first seem like an exercise quickly reveals itself to be a serious working modality in the able hands of Gallaher and Waldrep. A line such as “After the fire, November was a surgeon’s voice” in the poem “Night Autopsy” carries all the allure you’d expect when you encounter it halfway through the poem but also stills you in the reality of poetry that writes of our modern day lives, our contemporary situation so mediated by technology including the very internet magic and email speediness that helped facilitate this poem. Though “Night Autopsy” is held together by the twine of the current, the real, I cannot help but feel though there’s something very film noir, very much historical, very romantic and yet no-nonsense about it, too.

In the titular poem, the images are exacting and pointed, moving the father himself onto the “train of ghosts” and into a world of ample metaphor and images fitting for an aged man who can recall much of a varied and violent century:

Maybe he’s watching the hot-air balloons

that have just appeared
all over the sky, ribbed like airborne hearts

of the giants Jack killed.

In the stories, Jack has no father.

This would explain a lot, you are thinking

as the train begins to pull away.

This is a twentieth-century man: there are wars, and there are trains, airplanes, all manner of vehicles fit for fast travel. Hot-air ballons, those festive fanfares of romance with little real function in contemporary aviation aside from providing newlyweds a lovely view of the countryside or serving as the backgrounds of health insurance ads: They seem fit for just the watching of or the watching from, little more. We are, however, no longer in the twentieth-century and this train itself seems to leave with little fanfare.

Knowing where Waldrep comes from—both in terms of his acute geography and his literary eye—is helpful in approaching this collection. I know much less of Gallaher, but knowing Waldrep I am able in many places to discern his voice in the poems and by subtraction, isolate Gallaher as the other voice remaining. Gallaher seems to share Waldrep’s way of seeing, he seems adept at finding the nuanced motifs of varied trips to other nations, flights afar, and most of all the violence of war. There is here a sense of exoticism but never for its own sake or for the plain sake of artifice. In some places war is even mentioned without being described in enough detail to pinpoint it, but there’s something about the typology of vague Cold War references and general tenor of voice that makes me think of the Vietnam War above all else. Part of this is seeing that what matters—in the dialog between the two poets—arises the necessary facets of dialog between men in general, and comrades in arms certainly come to mind. We also source the voices of men—these two men, other men, the unspoken “father”—at various stations of life: we can hear the voice of the college-aged kid or the young enlisted man beside the words of men well into middle-age.

The age of the authors, or better posited, their collective awareness of age and history, furthers their output markedly. A young man doesn’t write a poem such as “Elegy for the Manhattan Project” or “Trade Deficit”. If a young man were to, he’d be a young fellow with a very old heart. The aforementioned “Night Autopsy” in title and content, part and parcel, is exceptionally masterful. We—most of us who are not pathologists, anyhow—know post-mortems via television crime dramas which have in recent years made much more use of the medical examiner it seems. The reality though of the job is not as alluring as television makes it and the autopsy as a thing, as an odd chore but routine matter for a select few doctors, is oft outweighed by its power as a metaphor. Here, the metaphoric reach of this task is put to best of purposes though. What of the most literally interrogation of the dead in the heart of the night? What if the medical examiner is running behind and must work into the wee hours of the morning? What if we’re in plague times and the corpses are becoming commonplace?

“Candling the Bodies” is another poem on the theme of stewardship of the dead. The language of it, whether by intention of the authors or happenstance, suggests to me the mortuary affairs complex at Dover Air Force Base where war dead arrive to be prepared for their military funerals:

So our job at the hangar
was to hold each of the bodies
up to a bright light, to see

if there were any other
bodies inside.

Day in, day out
we sifted the bodies
from their crates of sawdust.

This is not how, I would think, the work is done at Dover, nor are “other bodies” sought out within the corpses. Dr. William St. Clair Symmers, the great pathologist and writer of medical miscellany, might well appreciate this poem but again the role of metaphor is forged right on top of close reality. As soon as we connect a “hangar” and “bodies” in reading this, how can we not think of corpses—and the war dead at that? However, for all we know—and really, all the poem ever tells—the “bodies” may not even be human. Perhaps there is a corpus at work here, not a corpse; perhaps the bodies are animal and the work veterinary; perhaps they are the spent shells of a warplane, a bird of prey? In any case, as with “Night Autopsy” we get more terse, glaring, yet fully unresolved intersections of life and death.

When I first sat down with this book, I will admit I wondered how well the innovative concept of shared writing of poetry via email would work out and I even feared the Waldrep I’d come to so greatly respect would be washed of his distinct voice in a tandem effort. I had no reason to worry, as it turns out, because Gallaher and Waldrep develop on these pages an uncanny, consummate, ability to write cohesive poems that while united in tenor retain each man’s own voice and come together like a fabric made by an ultra-lux fashion house. Not simply an experiment, this book is ample in length and very serious in tone—encompassing in quality and scope. I highly recommend it as one of the most diverse, unique, and engrossing poetry books of the past couple years and I hope for more work of this approach by Waldrep and Gallaher.

_____

Roll Call

By Publius

This is not the poorest school I’ve ever taught in. Nor the most disorganized. Nor my first all Black school — I taught in the West Indies. But it is poor, disorganized, and located in my hometown.

By far, these are not the worst discipline problems I’ve encountered. (I taught in a school for the behaviorally disordered.) But, most poignantly, a lot of these kids are genuinely mentally ill. Just the pervasive abandonment issues alone are almost tangible.

I do an intake on each student. I interview each student individually. Name. Address. Phone. Parent/Guardian. And so on like that. There is only one kid in my homeroom who comes from an intact family. Two have fathers in jail. One’s mother is in jail. About half cannot give me their fathers’ addresses. Two don’t know where either parent lives. Two don’t know their fathers’ names. One cannot readily recall either parent.

_____