By Songyi Zhang

 OWS is an abbreviation for Occupy Wall Street. If you google the acronym, you’ll find it has its own page on Wikipedia. The movement is so well-known that my dad in Guangzhou was concerned two months ago about my safety in the U.S.. In one of our phone conversations, he even gave out a precise number of the places that were affected by the OWS.

“The news says the protests appear in twenty-four places in America. Are there any protests near where you live?” my dad asked in a worrying voice.

“No,” I said, feeling embarrassed that I hadn’t known the seriousness of the protests. “We’re living in the suburb. We’re safe. Don’t worry,” I said.

Before long after the phone conversation with my dad, I learned from the news that the OWS had sparked similar protests and movements around the world. Greece, in particular. We had a Chinese friend who happened to visit the States while the OWS took place in New York. He said he took many photos with the protesters on the Wall Street. He said he would show the pictures to his family and friends back home. I suppose the Chinese media widely covered the Wall Street protest, giving Chinese authorities a good chance to mock America’s limp economy.

I wish the misunderstandings between China and the U.S. will be resolved. Both countries are suspicious of one another. The cold war mentality is still strong. The ordinary people in both countries want equality and fair play. The discrepancy between the rich and the poor is drastic in China. So is it in America. It works in both countries that the rich should take bigger social responsibilities, which include paying more taxes and sharing their wealth with the needy. An ideal society can’t tolerate corruption, greed and injustice. So no matter if it’s a capitalistic country or a socialistic one, common people are always fighting for these good wishes.

Although Chinese people can’t express their hopes as aggressively as the OWS epidemic, I’m sure the protest echoes with many young Chinese. If I were with our Chinese friend in New York, I would have done the same thing—taking photos with the protesters and giving them a boost.


War Heroes

By Frank Izaguirre

When El Exilio found out Fidel might finally be dead there was a party out on La Calle. The Cubans came out dancing and waving banners because they thought they had finally won the war. La Guerra Fría may have ended twenty years ago for everyone else, but not the Miami Cubans.

Mami and I didn’t go to Calle Ocho because we wanted to be with my 89-year old Abuela. “Oye Panchito,” Mami would always say, “don’t forget to visit your abuelita de vez en cuando.” When Abuela came to the door of her Hialeah apartment, I bent down to hug her frail body, but she swung an arm around my back and we danced a bolero across the room. Mami told her she sometimes worried she was getting too old to live by herself and Abuela threw her hands up in the air, yelling, “¡Olvídate de eso chica!” She could still swing her machete if anyone gave her trouble.

I laughed and went to the kitchen to make some café cubano, which is really just espresso with extra sugar but just about the most patriotic thing a Cuban can drink. Then we sat around the TV to watch Univisión. No one was sure if El Tirano was dead yet, but at the very least he was dying so we could be happy about that. When it was time for dinner I held out my arm and helped Abuela shuffle to the table. We ate while the triumphant voices of Radio Mambí echoed in the background, and Abuela’s famous lechón con congrí was so good I went back into the kitchen to serve myself seconds while Mami made el cafecito. When we returned to the table Abuela was gone.

I found her back in the other room, dimly lit by the TV’s glare. “Todavía no,” she sighed from the couch. “Yo vuelvo,” she looked at me and said, “si de verdad se ha muerto.” Abuela has been in the United States for more than forty years. How could she still want to go back? “Yo me muero en Cuba,” was all she said.

And suddenly all I wanted was to give Abuela my arm and help her shuffle all the way back to Oriente. I could be a guajiro, live in the Cuban countryside, even if only for a little while. I wanted to finally lay eyes on the Sierra Maestra, the tocororo, the zunzún, places and creatures of which I’d heard only stories. Cuentos de La Isla Perdida.

Perfect, Abuela and I will go be guajiros, just like Teddy Roosevelt said. When the Rough Riders came to Cuba, he congratulated all those machete-wielding campesinos who drove out the Spanish without even guns by yelling, “You’re all war heroes!” The Cubans didn’t understand, but they took the name anyway. Now all the Cubans from outside La Habana call themselves guajiros. When Fidel is gone, we’ll be war heroes again.

Next morning Mami and I went to have breakfast at Sergio’s, but there was such a huge crowd we went to the McDonald’s next door instead. Even there CNN reported on Fidel’s bad health, and I wondered if Mami would go back too. I knew she wouldn’t go forever, but maybe she’d visit. When I asked, she dropped her McMuffin and clenched my wrists. Her fingernails sank into my skin and it hurt. “Don’t ever go there Frank!” I saw her eyes moisten and overflow. “Don’t ever go there because it was too fucking hard for us to get out!”


“War Heroes” first appeared in Hinchas de Poesia #5, an on-line journal based in Los Angeles.


2011 Autumn House Sentence of the Year Award

submitted by Eva Simms

“A Swedish moose that is believed to have become intoxicated from eating fermented apples was discovered entangled and hanging over the branches of a homeowner’s apple tree, oblivious to its fate.”

from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


The Orchards of Syon a Decade Later

by Mike Walker

Geoffrey Hill is one of those names in contemporary English-language poetry that passes our lips without thinking when we consider our current poetry that has ample roots in historical forms and scholarship. He is one of those rare poets today who, whether we like him or not, read him or not, is carrying forth not only the modern tradition of Eliot but the traditions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and their literatures. His own poetry is informed and bolstered by fact that he is an academic, and not of the MFA creative writing program sort but one who teaches old-school English literature the old fashioned way at an old-enough institution—Boston University—and who recently was elected to the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford, one of that hallowed institution’s most-respected of honors. His most recent book of original poetry, Clavics, was released in 2011 and a sweeping anthology of his work, Collected Poems 1952-2012, is due for publication in 2013. He is, no doubt, a made man in poetry—some would even probably apply the term “elder statesman” either in honest respect or as a sign of his place in history and the passing of time away from the type of poetics Hill favors, but without doubt he’s made a deep mark in the poetry of our time.

Come 2012—a year that is only a shy month away—Hill’s 2002 book of poems, The Orchards of Syon, will be a full decade old. The Orchards of Syon was one of those landmark volumes, one that came forth in the same year and even the same season as Jorie Graham’s book Never. It was published in a time when America was still trying to define its position post 9/11 and a time also when the arts were at once seen as less than crucial to society and more vital than ever. Thus, Hill’s book would be one of those to carry values of the recent past into a new decade marked by fear, by war, by a new sense of urgency that some would contend we—Americans, Brits, Westerners—had not felt since the heyday of the Cold War. Hill, for his part, draws on everything from his childhood in rural England to Dante to World War I’s horrors: he pulls together an adroit, powerful, and consummate fabric of literary and historical references but threads it all into a cohesive whole via the yarn of personal experience:

And here—and there too—I
wish greatly to believe: that Bromsgrove
was, and is, Goldengrove; that the Orchards
of Syon stand as I once glimpsed them.
But there we are: the heartland remains
heartless – that’s the strange beauty of it.

There is something quite warming and even tonic about such words; Hill probably was unaware when he began these poems that they would be not only desired for their qualities of solace in time of grief and fear but necessary in the world in 2002. To the roll and green of the English countryside—written about time and again and by the giants like Clare and Wordsworth—he brings a contemporary view but one that is based in the tautologies of the classical world, the Miltonian grandeur and Romantic complexity of description, the lustre of the Victorians and the bittersweet tale of modern European history. Hill understands how poetry in the English language evolved since the influence of the chansons du geste through Spencer’s metonymy and metaphor up via Eliot to where we are today, and every word of it at times it seems is somehow repeated in his own work. He’s not, as some critics would claim, a deep-dyed Tory but yes, it’s clear he’s read Thucydides. He sees and hears history resoundingly and if he is conservative, well, what other choice has he? Steeped in the traditions of high culture, the British victory of the second World War, the highs and lows of the old-world nation-state through two centuries, those words from every dusty volume of Cicero—what choice has he?

Though there are ample voices of old dead white guys here and there in Hill’s poetics, it is a woman—albeit a dead white one—who at times steps forth from the shadows to make her influence most known: Emily Dickinson, that most elusive and sublime of American poets, is clearly an influence on Hill. The following is pure Dickinsonian speech though adapted for contemporary context and devoid of the coy, cunning, shy nature Dickinson offered up—Hill needs not those trappings in these frank days, not when he’s a man expected to write poems for a living:

            Now you also,
sine nomine, if that is what you are,
earthy-etherial, I desire you
to fathom what I mean. What do I mean?

So sine nomine and sans tache, Hill has already implored our attention while confusing the dickens out of us—and this is still very early into the book, folks. His poetry is known to be “difficult” but once again like Graham, this is both the effort of critics and I think by now the effort of Hill himself to live up to certain expectations. The same way you wait for high notes on a Mariah Carey song simply because she’s known for such, you wait for the latin, the odd historical references, and the careful way with obtuse language that are by now hallmarks of Hill. If he left these out, if he aimed for clear prose, we’d all feel rather let down. Still, Hill’s choice of words is at times overwrought while in others places simply too trite or expected: a lot of things are described as “ash grey” or like-minded words that remind us only of what we already know: he’s still talking about England and wants to underscore the effect of the wars post-industrial growth, and urban sprawl upon the pastoral countryside he recalls from his youth.

There are two things I find highly worthy in Hill’s work here, though, and it’s not that he has written the type of poetry that probably helps the editors of the New Criterion sleep better at night, knowing that all postmodern poetry isn’t confessional or too-earnestly experimental. Firstly, yes, Hill writes a rare form of poetry for these days—a poetry that is concerned with place, with history, with the personal but at a rather impersonal level. Hill restores to the canon via these orchards the valid need for poetry to be “about” things instead of being about people or one’s self. Sure, other poets—many other poets—still write about a morning’s chill or an old woman they always see at the post office, but Hill approaches each and every topic with a real attention to word-craft: his works bespeak his efforts, and stand out as what laymen expect of poetry—to be poetic, stately, even verbose. His poems look even in simple serif font like calligraphy due to his skill and choice of words. The second task Hill accomplishes in this collection—and one he makes most clear here over all his other volumes of poetry—is that he provides an experience that seems perfectly literary and not given over to any other media. In an age that is, even moreso now than in 2002, all about adaptation and multimedia, Hill proves poetry to be better at taking on a landscape than a camera’s lens or page of watercolor paper at times. Pound knew this, Milton knew this, but even in Pound’s day the lines between media were pretty clear—today, should we write a poem or do a video, or something else? Hill proved, in 2002, that poetry would never become outdated or secondary to other mechanisms of expression by, wonderfully enough, writing poetry that one could at first glance declare old—even outdated.

Don’t think for a second that Hill isn’t aware of what he’s doing—though again, he could not have been as aware in 2002 as he should be now in retrospect. He provides us with his own view on the utility of poetry:

                               I ask you:
what are poems for? They are to console us
with their own gift, which is like perfect pitch.

Well yes, “perfect pitch”: that is pretty much the feeling you get from these poems. We needed poems to console us in 2002, and many were written for that specific post-9/11 purpose, but poems that were innocent of the most recent disaster they’d desire to console us of might in fact be the best poems to apply for that grim job. The Orchards of Syon skirt all over history and often trudge alongside pain and suffering in no small part because so much of what we record as worthwhile in history is the wars, the natural disasters, the rulers overthrown, the kings who died only to have their brothers fight it out as to who got what in their kingdoms. I read this book in 2002 and I at once found it highly useful in realizing something every politician should have seen with clarity: 9/11 wasn’t some horrible entry into a new chapter of history, but simply the type of event that sadly is commonplace throughout history and only made worse by the ability of technology to scrip terror in large print. Hill, though he certainly did not plan on it, becomes a master of providing us with empathy for when and where we need it yet also a stern teacher who can undercut our sorrow in this book.

It is easy enough to mine history and literature—especially the classics—for literary metaphors and iconography, and it’s a trend we see in plenty of contemporary poets. However, Hill’s approach goes far beyond this, it returns us to a type of poetry that takes us back to everything from Thomas Chatterton’s youthful attempts to create the persona of Thomas Rowley to John Clare writing about his own nature-filled childhood as Hill would centuries later under very different circumstances but under the same oblative auspices. Hill’s Orchards of Syon have without doubt stood the test of a decade and I suspect will easily stand the test of many more. Reading it now, I had the same feeling of unique greatness I felt years ago when in a dusty and quiet university library on a misty morning I first encountered John Matthias’ Bucyrus: two very different books of poetry, but much alike in their abilities to isolate the reader from his world for an hour or two and make him reconsider it anew.


The American Brand

by Arlene Weiner

My talented and savvy cousin Bob says I ought to think about my brand. He’s an artist and artisan, and part of his business (Fahrenheit.com) is rebranding companies. He suggests “That New York poet.”

It’s too hard to think about defining myself, performing myself, so instead I start thinking about women with instantly recognizable brands: Lady Gaga, Madonna. Condoleeza Rice? What about poets? Sharon Olds? Jorie Graham? How about Billy Collins? He’s one of the most popular poets in the U.S. What is his brand?

I slip into thinking about art in general, and then the American brand in the arts. Historically some American artists have had a huge influence in the world. I think of Walt Whitman, of Isadora Duncan, of Jackson Pollack. Of the beats. Walt Whitman: the broad-brimmed hat, the open road, the oracular free verse, the inclusiveness. Isadora Duncan: the bare feet and flowing garments. Jackson Pollack, the poured paint. Collectively, the brand is Liberty. Liberation from meter and respectability, from shoes and corsets, from brushes and perspective. No coincidence that the statue of Liberty Enlightening the World, broken chains at her feet, is our enduring logo.

The literary and social critic Philip Rahv looked at American writers and defined them as either palefaces or redskins, according to how they dealt with experience. Emily Dickinson, Henry James, T.S. Eliot: palefaces. Mark Twain, Walt Whitman: redskins. The American brand abroad is definitely redskin.

(A complexity is that both abroad and at home, African-Americans are a specific vector and creator of the American brand: banana dance, jazz in the 20s, Roll Over Beethoven and Good Golly Miss Molly, moonwalk. In art they are seen as quintessentially “nature” and “freedom” (what a paradox!)—raw versus cooked. This is a stereotype, of course—even in the fields they are most stereotypically known for, dance and music, African- American step dancers, dance moves, bands, may swing but can be choreographed and performed with astounding discipline and precision.)

It must be that President Obama wants to refresh the American brand, renew the contagion of liberty. As his predecessor President Bush may have wished to do, with maybe a different definition of liberty. But Liberty Enlightening the World has a book and a lamp, not a drone and an assault rifle.

Book Review: The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux

Reviewed by Frank Izaguirre

Becoming friends with Paul Theroux must be something like hunting a Siberian Tiger. Who can withstand such punishing cold, so many months of bonechilling loneliness through the bleak forest of his companionship? And then, who can handle the life-crushing possibility that at any moment the majestic beast might spring forth from the eerie stillness of the landscape and eviscerate one’s helpless soul, sheering limb from body with his flesh-rending prose?

So for someone who admires both his prolific literary career and heroic grumpiness, there can be perhaps no greater challenge. Which is why, now that I’ve fully disclosed my intentions, I am herewith reviewing his latest book, The Tao of Travel. The book is fantastic, and horrifying. Essentially, The Tao of Travel is a hodgepodge of quotes and two to three paragraph musings about aspects of travel and travel literature such as “Travel as an Ordeal” and “Everything is Edible Somewhere.” Theroux’s encyclopedic knowledge of world literature is on full display, and he performs a great service by discussing travel writers of lesser fame, often from previous centuries. To his further credit, he mostly eschews the well-known contemporary travel writers with which many readers are familiar.

But awkwardly, he sometimes brings up the same authors repeatedly without adding much new insight on them or their works. For example, he mentions Bruce Chatwin in five different chapters, in a couple of which he makes double appearances. This gives Theroux’s discussions a somewhat haphazard feel.

The structuring of the book comes quickly into question too. The first twenty pages are composed entirely of travel quotes divided into sections such as “Solitary Travel” and “Travel as a Waste of Time,” forcing the reader to wait before reaching actual new writing. But the really strange thing about the first section is that it’s about 90% Theroux quotes. There are stretches of several pages bereft of quotes from writers other than himself. If the entire section was only him, then we could relax and just accept that he’s a narcissist or masturbator who wanted to start the book by quoting himself for twenty pages. Instead, we’re left with the truly disturbing notion that he might actually believe only 10% of the best travel writing quotes ever written are not by him.

Deeper in, the reader encounters some genuinely engaging writing. Not only do we learn about obscure travel writers from eras past, but Theroux consistently proves his ability to sift through the fluff and reveal the truly captivating moments in other writers’ works, the same talent he uses to make sure there’s not a dull moment in his writing, although there must certainly have been dull moments in his travels.

Ironically, some of the most interesting reflections are when Theroux discusses anti-travel writers, like Henry David Thoreau. Theroux cites Thoreau’s criticism that travel yields only “a thin and diffused love and knowledge” and that “the traveler’s is but a barren and comfortless condition.” Theroux then blunts the attack by reminding us that Thoreau was proactively contrarian and curmudgeonly. (One can’t help wonder whether if the two somehow met they’d be the best of friends or the universe would implode.) And just when it seems like Theroux has set himself up to either launch a massive counterattack or offer some unholy concession, he settles for “it seems a stretch, but there it is,” and moves on to Emily Dickinson. This is what you get with The Tao of Travel: lots of interesting tidbits, nothing profound. It’s telling that the book’s most memorable lines are quotes from other authors or snippets from Theroux’s earlier works.

Another missed opportunity is Theroux’s apparent disinterest in discussing how any of these authors affected his own writing and career, which I’m sure many fans and, ahem, aspiring writers that form part of his readership would be interested to learn. Here we have another central irony of The Tao of Travel. For a book about travel literature, there’s surprisingly little reflection on how travel influences literature.

I met Paul Theroux once, although he doesn’t know it. Or, more honestly, after raptly watching him deliver a lecture, he signed one of my books and when he lifted his gaze onto me I cowered and ran.

Even so, the evening is among my fondest memories. As he addressed a packed auditorium, I marveled at how nonchalantly, how iconoclastically, he suddenly spoke in African languages totally foreign to my ear, often delightfully neglecting to translate. While summoning memories from far flung corners of the world and recounting his story of becoming a writer, I imagined the thousands of pages he’d written over the course of a lifetime springing from his head and filling the immense empty space above him in neat rows and columns. The phalanx of pages towered over the crowd, terrifying and mesmerizing. Then I imagined the few pages I’d so far written superimposed over his, covering only a pathetic corner. I saw it as a contest, a friendly provocation.

So I must ask: Paul, did you really want to reduce all your timeless travelogues to mere sound bites? Who twisted your arm? Why’d you let them? You’re Paul Theroux! I’d rather read about your experiences in the plush 5-star hotels you now stay at than have your work chopped into bite-sized mouthfuls. I feel like a baby bird whose mama just regurgitated a half-digested meal down its throat.

My recommendation is that fans should definitely buy the book and definitely give Theroux hell for pulling such a fast one. Think of The Tao of Travel as half excellent Paul Theroux desk reference, half shameless thievery.

Things could be worse. Our dear champion of the belief that the world is interesting and therefore worth exploring already has his success. He could withdraw into seclusion. He could leave us with no new narratives, no further dispatches to look forward to.

Don’t do it, Paul. Don’t do it, my friend.


by John Samuel Tieman

One of the mysteries of marriage is watching
Phoebe revise. I’ve seen her take a thirty page draft

and just throw the whole thing out. All of it.
And start over. The ideas are all there and greatly

clarified. But the words she throws out.
What she keeps is the clarity of thought.

For my part, I stand in awe. She jokes
how revision starts with bloodshed.


Charlie The Building Checker

            By Publius

           The governor is making a surprise visit tomorrow.   We just found out at 2 PM.

            In anticipation of this surprise, the students are called down to the auditorium, and told to be nice, cheery, surprised of course and, above all else, quiet, lest they spend the remainder of their formative years in a re-education camp.

            As for the faculty, we get anything we want.   Want a stapler?   First thing tomorrow, downtown will send seventeen.   With the understanding that, once the governor leaves, we won’t get a roll of toilet paper for the remainder of the school year.

            But we do get a dozen workers on my floor alone.   We’re getting new baseboards, curtains, windows washed, floors buffed.   The Potemkin Village School.   I ask the vice-principal if my wall paper could have a light floral design, and, for my trouble, just get a look.

            I run into Ned.   Ned used to be our janitor, our janitor since 1968 until downtown fired him as a cost-cutting measure.   The savings came when they re-hired him at half pay and no benefits.   He actually doesn’t work for the district per se anymore, but is now a kind of roving janitor for a company I’ll just call FuckusCo.   I like Ned.

            So we chat.   Ned tells me about the guy who stole a whole playground.   Charlie The Building Checker.

            So FuckusCo hires all the fired folks.   It was a plan.   Then they hire a guy to check on the newly rehired fired folks.   Charlie The Building Checker, who, of course, is a brother-in-law of some uber-boss.   At first, this gets little more than a so-what-else-is-new.

            But Ned’s got a dirty thinker in his brain.   It’s why I like him.   Ned can’t get a key for any of the jobs he’s got to go to.   Here he is, a formerly long time employee of the district, and he can’t get a key.   But Charlie The Building Checker gets a key.   In fact, he gets all the keys.   So this goes on for a year and change, and finally Ned is like, “What the fuck?   We show-up for a job, wait an hour for the schmuck who’s always – Always! – at the Lewis School and always has that same lame ass Sorry wrong address wrong time wrong school excuse”   Ned is mad because he figures this guy is a fuck-off because he couldn’t be doing anything at the Lewis School because the Lewis School is closed.  

            Besides, Ned thinks, who is this guy?   Does anyone know him?   Then something dawns on Ned.   A little detail.   Ned was a long time employee of the school district, and, as such, had to have a police background check.   We all do.   But FuckusCo isn’t the district.   It’s an independent contractor.   Since Ned had a background check, he just kind of thought that his district background just rolled over into his new old job.

            FuckusCo doesn’t run background checks.   But Ned did.  

            Or, to be precise, Ned’s kid did, the kid who’s the computer geek.   A simple search of recent newspaper archives, and it turns out that Charlie The Building Checker is a five time felon.   A little grand theft auto, a few second story gigs.   Recently released, just a little over a year ago.   And what do we do?   We give him the keys to the school district.  

            But Charlie The Building Checker is not a fuck-off.   Indeed, it turns out he was quite a hard worker.   And smart.

            All those times at the Lewis School?   All those times the guy was late?  

            The guy would show-up at some school.   He’d have a legitimate work order, be in a legitimate FuckusCo uniform, the I. D., the whole thing.   And he says, “Mr. Jennings, I’ve a work order to remove your television.”   And he would.   Not only that, he’d get Mr. Jennings to sign the work order.   But he wouldn’t just steal it.   He’d park the television in someone else’s room, say Mr. Publius.   He’d install it and everything.   Then he’d wait to see if anyone complained.   If they did, then it was, “Oh, stupid me.   Messed up the work order.”   And he’d fix it, return it to the original room.   Except nobody really complained.   Why would Mr. Jennings complain?   He just signed off on the work order!   So he’d just go back to where the TV was parked, “Sorry, Mr. Publius, you were right.   You didn’t order this, did you?   Wrong room.   Sorry.   Sorry.   Stupid me.   Would you mind signing this work order?”   And, puff, a TV disappears.

            Of course, the TV didn’t just disappear.   When Ned and the others opened the Lewis School, the entire basement and first floor were littered with televisions and smart boards and computers and such.   He’d just started to stash stuff on the second floor.   The piece de resistance, however, was the playground.   Charlie The Building Checker stole a whole playground.   Jungle gym.   Seesaw.   Sandbox.   And hid it in plain sight.   He hired some day laborers, undocumented Mexicans, had them take a playground from a closed school and install right it in front of a closed school, the Lewis School.

            I’m not so much astonished by the thievery as I am impressed by the chutzpah.

            Upshot of the whole thing is that Charlie The Ex-Building Checker gets his keys taken away.   FuckusCo asked the district for some place to store odds and ends, say the Lewis School.   For the foreseeable future, Charlie’s job is to get the stolen stuff back where it belongs.   To this end, he gets one key per day.   And some days he gets Ned – Lucky Ned! – to supervise his thieving ass.   But Ned says that Charlie doesn’t always remember where he heisted the stuff from.   So sometimes Charlie The Ex-Building Checker just goes into a school before school starts, and installs stuff.

            Which reminds me that Mr. North called.   North decided to take advantage of the district’s temporary largess.   He requested a smart board.   He no sooner hung-up, when someone from FuckusCo called back, and asked him if he’d like two smart boards first thing in the morning.


The Guv

by Publius

The governor came and went in a half hour or so.   He visited one classroom.   Never even got to the second or third floor.   It turns out he just wanted a backdrop for a press conference on why he’s The Education Governor.   Walked into a classroom, leaned over a student, pointed to something, and, a thousand flashbulbs later, he’s The Education Governor. Then he holds a press conference at the front of the classroom.   Visualize the guv at a chalkboard.

There’s another interesting visual, besides the guv in front of chalkboard.   He stands at the front of the classroom, flanked by the superintendent, board of education, other uber-bosses.   Two dozen or more journalists and photographers form a semi-circle around the guv, and, in doing so, completely cut-off the kids and their teacher.

For A War Buddy

by John Samuel Tieman

7 December
St. Louis, 8:00 AM

Dear Dick,
It occurs to me that I got home from Vietnam, and out of the army, forty years ago today. Indeed, at this very hour. My major sensation is not so much sadness or nostalgia as much as — forty years! Forty years. My God, I was only twenty at the time I got home from the war. Where did forty years go …

I’m saddened, but hardly surprised, to hear that you never discuss the war with your wife, Jan. The other day, I was watching some show, and this war veteran said that he has memories he never shares. I was about to congratulate myself, thinking ‘Well, at least I’m not like that’, when, somewhat startled, I said instead right out loud, ‘Oh my god, I’m one of those guys.’ There’s just stuff I never discuss. It’s not that I can’t. It’s just too painful.

When I first got out, I thought going to the university would help me put the war behind me. But it didn’t. I just felt isolated. Anytime I would tell a story, it was usually wild, often laughable, exaggerated, that sort of thing. I never talked about the real pain. I knew my wife, Phoebe, at the time a dear friend, for four years before I even told her I was a veteran.

But, of course, the war didn’t go away. I remember one evening when it occurred to me that I had actually gone twenty-four hours without dwelling on Vietnam — and I don’t mean musing, I mean dwelling. Then I realized that evening that I had been home for three years.

One week, when I was an undergraduate at SMU, I wondered if I could remember accurately my time in the Nam. So, as I lay in bed, just before I’d fall sleep, I relived the war day-by-day. I did this for a few nights. I could recall every single day. I can’t do that anymore. But all I have to do is hear “Taps”, and I find myself, at times, overwhelmed by a sadness so precise that I know it will never go away.

Sometimes the memories are light. Like the time Nance nicknamed me “Buddha”, my Nam name, because of the way I was sitting on the ground when I first met him. Other times, like that night that guy murdered those folks in Charlie Company, in forty years I’ve talked to two people about that. You and my therapist.

Now I’ll tell you something I only told my therapist. When they finally cornered that grunt, that murderer, in that little field just below us, I could see his muzzle flashes as he held off his pursuers. He was so busy with the guys right in front of him that he didn’t know I was directly to his right. I had a clear shot. But it was so dark that I wasn’t sure who was around him, or where. I held my fire. Seconds later, this other guy blew him away.

I learned something that night, something I didn’t want to know. A lot of folks wonder whether they could kill somebody. I’m not one of those folks. And I spent the next two decades – with drugs and sex and booze – trying to unknow that about myself. That and so much more …

Finally, I did my work in therapy. I learned many things about myself. Among them, I simply learned to live with all that sadness. When I recall Vietnam, there are a whole range of feelings, from laughter to horror. But what I needed to learn was, perhaps, the simplest lesson: that whatever other feelings I may have, I will never recall that war and not be sad.


Three Poems by Leonard Gontarek

Love Poem

I erase the penciled name on the front page

of the book.

I can still see the ghost image of the letters,

can trace the shape pressed into the paper.

Tell me again why you left me.



The last time I read this poem

publicly, I was drunk,

standing on a table,

and I went home

with the prettiest woman at the party.


Toward Fire

Could it have been twenty years ago the hearse

drove by filled with oranges?

Wind in trees as though they were catching fire.

Give me, you said, tonight, another night.

I gave you ice water. Rather, the ice from the water.


Why I Do What I Do

by Leonard Gontarek

My poems have become shorter. Nine lines and less. What do I hope to achieve?

An initial answer is that in this way they contain only what is essential, they cut to the chase. I think, too, they may appear to be only the endings of poems, or something in the manner of a pitch for a movie idea (or poem), or an outline. Could they be miniatures?
It may not be as simple as that.

Recently I was emailed a photograph of a Robert Montgomery billboard. These words appeared where we are usually treated to an ad: The people you love / become ghosts inside / of you and like this / you keep them alive. Couldn’t a poem operate in this way within the pages of a book or website? Crucially stated, starkly, wouldn’t a different kind of poetry emerge. A mystery about it, similar to the mystery that surrounds the objects of the everyday world? It is what I call the ghost-trace or ghost-image.

It is that which is left out, but its presence is as keen as that which is left to observe. Likely the allure has its origin in the sound-byte. Or historically in the memorable short speech. And, of course, in the brevity of a twitter.

These are, of course, fragments. Someone said (Anne Carson?) that by definition fragments are not perceived as whole, unto themselves. If one considers a statue with an arm broken off, or perhaps a sculptured head viewed in a museum which has survived its human-figure statue by hundreds of years, one can see the fragment in a slightly different light. The “head” does not seem lacking, nor dependent, but has become completely and purely an object in its own right.

I identified, in my reading of books of poems, my habit of reading the shorter poems first, then returning and reading the rest of the poems. Shouldn’t this correspond with my writing process? This recognition, and appropriation, was the beginning of my recent modus operandi. Certainly I grapple with this process, but it seems right. It may not be permanent, but it suits the things I want to say now.

I should not be / Fearless of land, / Where the slow / Pours./ I do not see why I should / Overtake, should miss / And long / If still I held them. / They would find me / True. An example of my process. This is from Robert Frost’s poem, Into My Own. Originally eighty-seven words, it is stripped (de-Frosted) to thirty-three words. This is not a revision of Frost, but a distillation of his poem. But I don’t have a bone to pick with Robert Frost — he is magnificent. As an experiment, I applied my process to his, finding a second poem within his. But I wouldn’t want to be the one to explain that to Robert Frost.


Black Friday

By Songyi Zhang

“Do you know about Black Friday?” my American friend asked me last year.

“No,” I said but I was not content to wait for an answer. “Isn’t it when 13th of the month falls on Friday?”

“No, no,” my friend explained. “Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving. Stores usually give the greatest discounts of the year.”

“Oh,” I said but didn’t give much thought about it. I thought it was just like in China, discounts are everywhere before a holiday. But then, I saw a TV news clip showing people getting trampled by other shoppers at a store in Buffalo. I was shocked. How can this happen in America where there are plenty of goods for everyone?

A scene like this is more likely to occur in places experiencing poverty or war. For instance, Afghan refugees looting shops or Indian rioters laying siege to storehouses. I would never have thought that such madness would occur in the U.S.. Just for buying dirt-cheap goods, Americans are willing to stand the winter chill, sitting outside the store all night long, and then going all out to be the first to get their hands on that new toaster-oven.

I remember my dad teaching us that you shop only for what you need when you need it; it’s stupid to compete with the crowd or take the little benefits given by the sellers; after all, the sellers have already figured out how to make a fortune out of you before pricing the items in the store. I bet if my dad saw the TV news about Black Friday in America, he would shake his head sadly.

Last year’s Christmas sales in Pittsburgh came earlier than the year before. By early November, Christmas decorations were on display in Macy’s, and Christmas carols could be heard in the malls. With so many people shopping during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year, I don’t see why people around me still complain about the economic downturn. Similiarly, when I was in the French Quarter of New Orleans last May, I saw tourists flooding the streets all day and night extravagantly drinking, eating, and shopping: it certainly didn’t look like the financial crisis that people in China believe America now is undergoing.

Whether it’s Black Friday or not, shopping seems to play an important role in the American way of life. How can you not be tempted to buy more if you push a gigantic Wal-Mart cart, which can fit at least a Plasma wide-screen TV, between tall shelves stocked with goods made, ironically, in China?