A True Story

by Publius

I’m writing a syllabus for an English course I’ll never teach. That and I’ve got to teach algebra.

I’ve been given eleven points to revise on a syllabus, a syllabus I’ve been using now for six months. Otherwise, the class will not be approved for instruction. I’ve got to bring my syllabus up to the standards of a university syllabus. The fact that I used this syllabus in an English class that I actually taught at a university, that isn’t quite the point. I’m told that I’ll find if my course has been approved sometime in April.

That and I’ve got to teach algebra. The English teachers have been told that the school could do well, on the state test, in algebra. So I should start my English class with an algebra problem. I point out that there is a reason why I’m certified in English. My basic skills at algebra are comparable to my word attack skills when it comes to Welsh place names. I also point out that, the last time I took a course in algebra, was the Nixon Administration. So I’m told to make a word problem.

Which I do. I get it back with an “OK” and initials from some nameless, overworked pooh-bah downtown. “A train leaves Portland at 6 AM and is headed to Philadelphia. Meanwhile, a jogger is running west along Interstate 10 just east of El Paso. Each is averaging less than the other did the other day. At this rate, how many Aztecs does it take to sell an apple yesterday in Nigeria or Montreal if Montreal is less than, or equal to, a train that leaves Portland at 6 AM?” That’s my problem.


Book Review: The Human Line by Ellen Bass

Reviewed by Christopher Stephen Soden

The Human Line by Ellen Bass
Copper Canyon Press

In this powerful collection of poetry, Ellen Bass invites the reader to participate in a reawakening of sentience, a renewal of seraphic credentials.

How often we hear religious leaders deal in perfunctory, enigmatic, clandestine phrases and homilies that carry very little meaning, if any, for the uninitiated. Expressions like “washed in the blood” or “unconditional love” or “moved by the spirit” can seem vague and somewhat famished. And how do we apply them in a world filled with trauma, devastation and disappointment? It would be impossible to reduce The Human Line to a single purpose or theme, and yet it feels focused and consistent in its unflinching love of the human race. Bass manages to find lyricism and wry, genuine humor in a life fraught with frailty, stupidity, abuse and catastrophe. And, this is important, she doesn’t deal in abstractions, but details. In Subway in Madrid, she describes a middle-aged matron who delivers a strange message to two giggling teenage girls : Sois Preciosas (You are precious, i.e. valuable). They ignore her, probably not understanding…“ but one may remember those words /when a boy enters her, /spilling his river of stars, and the other, / the first time he slaps her.” This is a clear indicator of The Human Line’s undeniable rush of power and pathos. Bass has a penchant for placing the gorgeous smack-dab beside the repugnant. She does not let us, or herself, or God (…god of Joan of Arc, god of Crazy Horse, Lady Day, bringing us to our knees…. God of plutonium and penicillin, drunk, sleeping on the subway grate…) off the hook. She embraces (which is not to say enjoys) the painful and horrendous, still finding exquisite comfort in quiet, plain, epiphanies. The Human Line raises difficult, cosmological questions with fearless, humble, divulgence and intelligence. Her frankness can be stunning. Overwhelming. Yet she never loses sight of what poetry needs to be. Her poetry is meticulous, controlled, suffused with memorable, resonant imagery, and wry wisdom with the immediacy of an icy, naked plunge.

The Human Line is a raw, magnificent, volatile collection that will reach you in ways you’d never imagined, and grace you with shudders and guffaws.


An Octave above a Scream

by Elizabeth Kirschner

I begin with a sentence: “And the mist has salt in it that burns as it heals, burns as it heals.” This sentence has circled and circled in the aviary of my brain for days on end, will wing its way into a poem. I live on the water, the water lives in me, swamping me, pulling me under into duende energies. From across the bay, the mists bulldoze in, fill my rooms until my hands are cloudy mittens and I breathe in the haze smoldering in my soul. Is it the poisonous smog created by the toxins of my toxic childhood and will the mist, with its burning salts, sear me clean?

Always the search for the irreducible line, that tail feather that hefts the poem into flight. This is the work of the poet and for this poet, I’m haunted by the very words I create—my poems scare me. The words that fly out of my pen are bullets and are terrifyingly violent as was the brilliant cruelty, delivered onto me with Biblical force, first by those who brought me into the world, then subtly, masterfully, by my ex-husband.

Now there’s no one left to abuse me. This morning, most mornings, I can’t get out of bed. I’m beached in sleep, the mattress a raft, my sweaty sheets, a flag of surrender. This after decades of launching out of bed in the pre-dawn hours before the pain came in to scalp me. While the morning moored me in tidal despair, another line, like a vulture, circled me: “Only the clocks watch over me.” These clocks have iron hands, decapitate my great, sorrowing angels, the ones who know the story of who I was before I was born. I need to have that story told to me as though it were a nursery rhyme. Perhaps I was one of God’s little lambs, the one destined for slaughter, needed for sacrifice.

Has abuse made me holy, the desecration, in the end, transformed into consecration, the pen, my tool for resurrection? This even though I have driven a stake into the blind spot in God’s eye, the way my ex-husband did me in while I reeled in a bout of madness?

That madness violated me, gutted me, destroyed me, round after artillery round in the battlefield of my mind, for too many years, countless years, this madness which drove me into the lock-up, the skeletal key thrown away, my keepers upon me like rabid dogs, abruptly, absolutely, came to a dead stop on the day my divorce settled. January 28, 2010 was the court date which ended a twenty year sentence. I didn’t know a sentence could go on for years, like a bad run-on headed for a front end collision. Mine did and the crack-up was disastrous.

While pinned to the bed like a butterfly in the hobbyist’s drawer, what I longed for is simple: I need to be needed. My son, nearly grown, lives with his father in the Arctic house I deserted. He might as well be living on another continent, the one my ex traveled to, getting as close to the North Pole as possible on an ice cutter boat. Furious and fierce wolves roamed there, white wolves, and my ex was one of them, his body, that ice cutter.

No longer needed as a mother, I long to be needed as a poet, all poets do, our urgent heart cries beg to be heard, but for most of us, the lines we sling fly back into us as boomerangs and books, far too many books, go down deep black holes. Too much interiority can lead to wandering in the mine shaft for years and I’ve been down there for decades, am one hell of a sooty canary.

Ah, but I sing—fiercely, furiously. Sometimes those songs screech into an octave above a scream, ignited by my fire breath, the primitive rhythms struck upon my drumstick bones.  I maintain that the writing of poetry is physical, sometimes brutally so and I’m a heavyweight who’s very light on her feet still ducking the blows of my childhood, blows which literally left me brain-damaged. The boxing ring is the arena upon which I pin down poems the way Father did me while the ballerina on my music box slowly pirouetted. The tune it cricketed is eerie, ceaseless, and it fills my rooms as does the mist while I weep my infant tears, the ones sleeted with salt, and I burn as I heal, burn as I heal.




Book Review: The Water Books by Judith Vollmer

The Water Books: Poems
Judith Vollmer
Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press

reviewed by Mike Walker

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to introduce a poet, or even a review of her book. Where do you start? The first poem in the volume, the biography of the poet who wrote it? Most of the time, I would consider the book as a collection or the primary themes therein, but for once it seems the vocation of the author—as a writer and teacher—is somewhat central, so it is here where we will enter the Water Books.

Judith Vollmer, a professor of creative writing at the University of Pittsburg and Drew University, takes on a vast study of life in all its manifestations in her fourth collection of poems. While many poets have faculty appointments in departments of English and/or creative writing, Vollmer’s devotion to pedagogy is somewhat special, as it is very evident in her writing; so much so, in fact, to make mention of her professorship seems essential to any review. Vollmer’s work is in places very personal—such as her poem “Camping on the Hudson”—but also highly studied works of precise composition that showcase a devotion to poetic form, as in “Birds of Rome” and “Fields Near Rzeszow”. So it seems only appropriate—only fair even—to point out Vollmer’s role as a teacher, as her new collection could be used as a great point of departure into the study of contemporary poetic forms. Vollmer springs from one style to another with little effort and, more importantly, always with an eye to maintaining a steady and strong voice as a poet. This ability, when actually found (which is itself quite uncommon) I’ve discerned is almost always located in poets who are also teachers. The teacher, it seems—via teaching forms, teaching approaches to writing—also teaches herself the same skill over and again.

At a short seventy-five pages, Vollmer also performs an impressive feat of including not only a powerful depth and scope of her writing, but a pithy, comprehensive, development of the topical matter of her poems despite the length of the book. You read through the book feeling it is a lot longer than it really is, in part due to the weight of some of the topics she approaches—fallen troops’ corpses returning stateside via Dover Air Force Base, in example—but also because her poems, like Ezra Pound’s, Cynthia Zarin’s, or Geoffrey Hill’s, are difficult, demanding, and astute works. Even at a mere page or two, they command the reader’s complete attention in the way of a complex novel. In places her writing seems nearly to dare the eye to not follow it, dashing around the page, leaving thoughts hanging on the sides of margins, yet this is of course a pedagogical method itself to in fact ensure the reader stays engaged and fully aware of the trajectory at hand. Vollmer seems to include in places an anathema against not reading with care, the fact her words detail crucial events, serious moments, and do such well. We are implored, begged and even nearly scolded into reading her in places by the summation of her own adroit language. She is—again I will state it—a teacher, and like Emily Dickinson we get the impression her wars are laid away in books. Probably many of them. Maybe an entire library.

What has the teacher learned? She’s seen a lot, though she’s not positioning herself foremost as a dedicated world traveller or travel writer. Instead, what is most powerful about Vollmer’s writing is when her poetry finds its catalyst at home: when she writes of the nearby, she cuts through the ice, she brings out the intimacy of place in a way few poets bother to do today. In “Field Near Rzeszow”, she is of course in Poland, at the scene, at the site, but she’s manifested herself as something more—not just the poet who happens upon an apt topic when far from home, but one who brings it back in her pocket with the knowing and familiar feeling she applies in other poems that are in fact crafted close to the lamp-stead of home instead of many kilometers away. Vollmer quickly admits when she feels uncertainty or that her presence is alien to a landscape, but never does it stop her from writing. She is confident though delicate in places; sure though obviously at times secretly half-doubting. There is a most kind and open honesty steeled in such writing.

Like most reviewers of poetry, I often take advantage of how poems can be quoted in reviews—a trick much more difficult to pull off in a meaningful way with fiction—but with Vollmer, this trick is on most of her poems a lost effort: in her poem “When, On a Late March Evening”, Vollmer builds a consummate though quick narrative in a simple paragraph. She tells us a story, at first we’re not even sure a story about what, per se, but a homeless man who slept on her garage’s roof, a student who expressed some sympathy for this man, words of a former professor . . . a lot of ideas run together quickly, in the way that poetry is the ideal form to convey such ideas, but also the beauty is that in a fleeting moment here, Vollmer approaches the depth of fiction—for she is working in effect in prose and benefits from its mechanisms. Again, her abilities lay in her experience as a teacher and scholar, for it takes someone who really knows the language to pull this stuff off. A few writers come to mind who were not teachers—Dawn Powell in her novels, in example—who mastered the language in a pedagogical manner, in a way that was craft-born but also dedicated to expressing, if not lessons, actually, at least things that want to be learned. In Vollmer’s poetry, there is no lack of ideas and opinions that are crying out to be heard.

In Vollmer’s poem “A Pittsburgh Novel”, she traces out so many small aspects of life in her city, using the metaphor but also the reality of the novel as her map. Our aforementioned friend Dawn Powell, once stated that “a novel must be a rich forest known at the start only by instinct”, and that seems a fair and noble claim to place on Vollmer’s poems in The Water Books, too.

Until the storm arrives from Chicago, they will rock or sway
their uppermost stick-bundles & leaf-crowns

Thus opens Vollmer’s poem “Trees at Night” and gives you a sense of her language, the word-craft of a poet but one who via either her own fiat and industry or the adept study of that of others has come to learn much from the trade of fiction writers. Vollmer has a way of getting into the heart of nature without ever making it cloying or seem too much a ready stand-in for her other explorations. Her nature, her wilds she camps in, her trees even swaying in the gentle wind before the coming storm—this nature is deep, damp, and dense: it is the heavy nature of the mid-Atlantic and New England states. She does her region a great service in how she describes it, and moreover, she does it fully and honestly.

Kindling, a bonfire in honor of Pasolini,
who prayed to his own mother, cursing & thanking her for too much love.

Here again, we have within a slight few words a grand scope of vision, despite scant details. The camping/hiking/outdoorsy/woodlands feeling is here once more, as it is cast like sunlight far and wide all over Vollmer’s poetry, and her musings on Pasolini are made not only stronger but more personal via her inclusion of something outside of the man himself. All at once, her words become about Pasolini and act as a mechanism for knowing him while also something very removed from him. Vollmer is a real master of the elements, of the poet’s ability to truncate meaning and then, as if adding water to a powder, action out some bliss of chemistry and rebuild the short and sweet into a long-form meaning.

A funny thing happened while I was reading The Water Books: I knew I’d encountered Vollmer before but simply thought it was in literary journals—she’s published a lot—and really didn’t give it a second thought; after all, she’s established, it wouldn’t be odd in the least I had read her work before. However, then it struck me: this is the same woman who wrote a book of poems entitled Reactor in 2004. How could I forget? Reactor concerns, at least in a general sense, the nuclear power industry and its plans to ship nuclear waste to a remote site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada for long-term storage—a plan that has been hotly contested and protested by a variety of groups and communities. Much of my own research concerns nuclear power and nuclear physics, and I recall Vollmer’s book at the time angering me somewhat, for in that book she not only seemed highly opposed to the Yucca Mountain project but also nuclear power in general and expressed such by mustering out stereotypes of nuclear danger we’ve had at least since the Silkwood movie came out in the early 1980s. At points Reactor thus felt trite and hardly rooted in actual science, as are many fictional and artistic explorations of nuclear power or nuclear . . . well, really nuclear anything. All you need is some flashing lights, men in white space suits, and a doctor who has never seen such a horrible mess before (it helps to make the doctor pretty, like Dr. Crusher or Dana Scully)—then you have a nuclear disaster certain to scare and enthrall! Yet even where I didn’t agree with Vollmer’s views nor always how she chose to express those views, I did even then highly admire her writing. The Water Books provide her with a slate to consider a much more varied array of topics with the same powerful ability at discernment and the same strong will to produce a reaction in her reader.

I don’t make mention of Reactor to say I think any less of Vollmer—I don’t, and again, if anything she impressed me greatly by at once saying things I didn’t fully agree with yet saying these things in a way that won me over at least to her aesthetics, if not her politics. She may have the same effect on a few readers in The Water Books when she takes jabs at former vice president Dick Cheney and others, but once again she does so with the most adroit constructions of language. If anything, the tropes she employed in Reactor are gone or at the least more refined in The Water Books and nothing comes off as trite or insincere or trying too hard. Vollmer’s greatest triumph in this volume is that she is, mainly via her expressions nature and its effect on the human psyche, able to convey a sense of peace and clarity while she is also able to demonstrate what she views as problems or injustices in the world as things that violate or disturb this natural realm of peace. Of course, that is also a role of the teacher: to identify what is right and wrong and speak of it, to let her students know about it, and encourage their own ability and willingness to do the same.

Judith Vollmer should be better-known to the general public than she is, but then again, how much of the general American public reads contemporary poetry? If they did—if the majority of us did—I hope we would know her, for we should know her: she expresses complex thoughts directed by heartfelt emotion on current issues that face our society. In The Water Books she is able to do very well something I felt she didn’t quite accomplish in Reactor, which is to ground her views in fact and, where fact alone is found immaterial, she set up her stance on the firm ground of powerful backdrops including the natural world so lovingly sketched out in many of her poems. Vollmer is never ostentatious and it is even rare that she is verbose, yet she can with a real economy of language produce something beautiful and often powerfully discursive. Vollmer proves she can write what she sees, and what is more, use those places, aspects, and items as stages for larger ideas, and via this approach she provides us with a real wealth of material in a small volume writ large as life in The Water Books.



by John Samuel Tieman

          I no longer know the Vietnam War.   I only feel it. 

          I am in D. C. for a conference.   I’m staying at the Renaissance Hotel on 9th.   But I am drawn to Panel 49W, Line 035.   Robert O. Bumiller.   The Vietnam Memorial. 

          I walk the length of the Mall from east to west.   I’m only vaguely aware of everything around me.   Capital Building.   Washington Monument.   Tourists.   Smithsonian.   Lincoln.   Vaguely aware.   I free associate.   I remember a lot of guys who died in the Nam.   One guy was shot right in front of me.   But Rob … 

          I grew up with Rob.   Rob’s mom and my mom went to school together.   They stayed lifelong friends.   Rob and I, we were childhood companions. 

          Rob grew up in wealth.   But he was crazy wild.   Couldn’t stay in school.   Finally, he was drafted, and sent to the 1st Cavalry Division.   11B20, infantry rifleman, “straight leg grunt” we used to say.   In August of ’68, he had the back of his head shot off.   He was just short of his 21st birthday.   He lived long enough to call home one last time from a hospital ship.   That’s where they sent folks when they were sure to die, a ship.   Anyone with a chance got flown to Japan.   Rob’s dad picked-up that phone.   That call killed Carl, the dad, as sure as a bullet to the brain.

           There’s a kiosk just before I get to The Wall.   This guy sells all these Nam knick-knacks, bumper stickers, buttons and such.   We chat.   I notice Vietnam magazine.   I’m startled, frankly, because I’m this month’s featured veteran.   My narcissism compels me to tell the guy this.   Suddenly, I’m signing autographs.   But it’s not like it’s flattering.   It’s awkward.   I’m a pretty obscure writer.   I rarely see my writing outside my own study.   I’m unaccustomed to signing autographs, and I don’t know how to do this gracefully.   So I just stop.   One guy shyly looks at me, the magazine in hand.   I should offer, but I just walk away. 

          Panel 49W is about halfway down the right.   Line 035 is about half-way up The Wall.   I don’t pray.   

          I touch his name.   I remember joking with Rob in the kitchen.   Setting off sparklers on the 4th of July.   How he hated Oscar, his middle name.   How Rob and another friend, Doug, drove me to our high school one snowy day.   I let go of his name. 

          I move down a few panels to 1970, the year I was in the Nam.   Hank.   Pete.   Greaser.   Others.   I don’t pick-out their names.   It is enough to know they are here. 

          On the way back to the Renaissance, at the corner of 9th and G Streets, there’s a beggar in a fatigue jacket.   He stops me, stands right in front of me, stares at my lapel pin, my Vietnam Service Ribbon.   He asks, “Brother, do you know me?”   I give him a dollar.   He thanks me.   “But do you know me?”


Book Review: The Beds by Martha Rhodes

The Beds by Martha Rhodes
Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press, 2012
ISBN-13: 9781932870534

Reviewed by Mike Walker

This slim volume by poet Martha Rhodes gained my interest for several reasons but none as immediate as the titles of the poems it contains, titles like “Who’s Ill Now?” and “The Pleasures and Inconveniences of Being Detested”. Sure, many a contemporary poet can entitle a poem “Sex” or make reference to a physiological condition (“Thrombosis” in Rhodes’ case here), but Rhodes is the first to tell me of the pleasures, never mind the inconveniences, of being detested. I liked this woman before I read hardly more than a title, and what is more, her photo on the back cover has to be the most sullen author photo I’ve ever seen but I tend to think that was her goal, too. Here is a writer who is not, for the most part, a happy camper throughout her book, but she makes the very best of her condition under the sign of Saturn. Her photo even bespeaks that: she’s sincere. She’s in this for the long haul.

If you listen to music, if you read the popular press, at some point you must wonder what bounty we’d have if all those emo kids who formed their glum bands and wrote lyrics of doom, bygone love affairs, and angst were actually good writers: after reading Rhodes, I feel I’ve seen a hint of what people who are morose yet not bitter, gloomy yet purposeful in it, and had actually confronted real aspects of despair in life could contribute via sincere poetry. There is an element close to theatre also in Rhodes, plus an aspect close to quality legal writing—you feel in places she is jotting down the sins of many and the evidence to back up her claims for some holy judge. Her work, in the words of a reviewer quoted on the back cover, is constantly “unsettling”; I would call it “dark” but those emo kids and aspiring poets below Rhodes’ own high caliber have co-opted that term to the point it lacks the weight it would require to be an adjective fit for Rhodes’ own writing.

In Rhodes’ poem “After a Long Time of Not”, she makes explicit that she’s not attempting darkness anyways, but simply demonstrating life as we often overlook it:

The pink of his earlobes as he sleeps,
is what she’d reach to touch.

Does he wish for something of her?

You have no business writing a poem that short unless you really, really, fully know your craft and thankfully, Rhodes knows it inside and out. She’s told us little, but from it I conjure a woman divorced or perhaps just left somewhere or maybe a younger woman such as the girl in Saint Etienne’s great song “Like A Motorway” who was tricked into a short love affair then her lover vanished, leaving her with the memories, the loss. In Cristina Garcia’s novel Dreaming in Cuban, there is an old woman who sits on the balcony and writes love letters to a man from decades in her past—letters never once answered, yet she keeps on writing. Rhodes called up all these thoughts in my mind via a few short lines. That’s not luck, that’s skill all the way.

Of course, not all her poems are such short little things, with most actually taking up a whole page. They are however all filled with sadness and beauty at equal turns, as is witnessed in the opening of the final poem of this book, “The Jade Plant”:

I want to go to the room
where the jade plant thrives

on the white pine floor. I want
to sit next to the plant all day.

This is the perfect entry to a closing of souls, a closing and cleaning out of rooms, an approach to renewal that’s filled with fits and starts, delays and encumberments like a train making its way through a New England snowstorm. We have read throughout The Beds of people in trouble but often trouble none of them can really complain of—or at least trouble no one will listen about—and they need healing, but where? Perhaps here, this zen spot too perfect except made real and original via Rhodes’ skill with words. This woman is actually good press for bad events, a winner beside the rest of the soft-sculpted horror stories of pity that poets try to tell. Some of her peers should just give over to writing penny dreadfuls already, but Rhodes discerns ample merit in what poetry can offer those interested in misery, and she knows the antidote is to also—with due realism—offer hope.

Rhodes’ poem “Come to Me, His Blood” is one of the best poems I’ve read all year but would be impossible to do justice to via a short quote in a review yet is too long to include here in full. It is within itself reason enough to purchase this book: if ever a collector spent millions on a Rothko, then it’s worth spending less than twenty bucks or so for The Beds. There is in a poem like the above a reasoning of art, a mandate for what art should be at its best. When does a poem reach that level? How about when it is something, like the color-field painting, to which you return again and again and again, just to view it and believe in its quality.

“I don’t want an ice chip to ever travel from my finger to my heart”. With that line, found unexpected and almost hiding in the middle of one of her poems, Rhodes explicates in a sense what this book is all about: the way we interact with others, the love lines and hate lines that we travel in various romantic and familial relationships. She is an old hand at verse but at times a young heart, crafting out truths that we do not always desire to acknowledge but we cannot fully escape. Poetry like this can be difficult for Rhodes never is one to shy away from tough topics: the death, illness, and long-lasting longing. However, these are the topics that in one way or another our canon of literature is built upon, are they not? They are topics that are universal, emotional, and compelling because we all can identify with them at length. It takes a very expert poet to take on these foci and do it in a manner both original and resoundingly honest, but Rhodes has accomplished that feat in The Beds.


A Kirschnerian Howl

by Elizabeth Kirschner

In me is a howler, screeching, half-mad, possessed. Her screams are lightning bolts exploding in my spine. She is shrieking louder than a cacophony of crows, very black rapacious crows. Still young, she wants to kill me, bludgeon me with a meat hammer, pound flesh till it thins, spurts blood which spatters my walls. A blaze of black violence, Gothic, demonic.

For now, she has shackled me to the writing desk, is the dictator of a hellish dominion and I must screech the pen across the page, eat her words, spit and spew them back up. I am to do this all day and into the night without surcease, I am her sluttish slave, must eat only that which is half-rotten, crawling with maggots.

I am her ghost writer and her anger is righteous, a searing of the very veins she’d like to slash. Her rage is so monolithic it is venomous, dangerous and my fear of her is rabid, something gone amuck, Lorca’s scorpion tails stinging with the sound of whiplashes.

That I have failed her abominably, horribly and horrifically is something I cannot live with. Her youthful brilliance came with thousands upon thousands flashes-in-the-pan. Stories tore out of her, they rippled with a muscular violence, landed with a deadly blow. Her talent was hot, spread like wildfire. She was courted by agents, editors, elite magazines. One editor of a big, big press glued herself to those wild talents, hovered over her, was nearly gluttonous to have her as one for whom she could be conduit, circuit, who could kick-start her career.

But now that young woman is kicking the barn down. She whose physical strength is such that it could make her brutal, murderous, she who dances among stallions, mucks stalls, tosses fifty pound bags of grain like tiny sugar sacks, runs round the paddocks in hard cuffs of soil, hauls water, bales hay, splits wood.

She wants an ax now. She wants to slaughter the old red barn boards as though they could bleed. She throttles the door with her fists, rams it with swift kicks, punches out cracked bull’s-eye window panes with her bare hands. She keeps at it for hours because she is burning with destruction, longs to tie herself to the stake, go up in a fury of flames, be a martyred writer.

She does this because the editor who groomed her thoroughbred bones, thoroughbred sentences, her nearly apocalyptic stories for too many years to count, this editor with whom she had entrusted her first book, a short story manuscript long labored over has returned her humble gift with a poisoned pen letter, the obsequious, deadly formal rejection slip. Within minutes, the brilliant young woman would be stripped of story writing for good. What ensued was a blow by blow massacre of each of her writerly blood cells till her heart was dammed with pus and the death rattle rose like snake hiss out of her lily white throat.

Down, down, down she went, but the old barn flew away like a rusty cage full of screaming banshees. Earth was grazed, the yard a killing field blooming with bloodied skulls glowing like vermillion moons. She lay down amidst the death stench, dabbed it on her wrists and neck, went into rigor mortis, grew stiff as stone.

Days, weeks, a century passed. No one noticed her absence, no grave marker was erected and no trail of sorry grievers ever appeared. Instead there was wind, wind that scalded her bones, wind like a train wreck flattening everything in sight—cardboard houses, picket fences like bald white stitches, trees that were careening crucifixes and the damage was massive.

Even though she was dead, she still starved herself, had a wolf with bared fangs slinking inside her ghost and her word smithereens were scattered like a mountain of black ash. Never again would a story be written. Forevermore the haunting cries of Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks, their tails ragged, their majesty somehow demolished and impoverished.

Instead the lame footed poems began with heavy ball and chain lines. Books appeared like makeshift fish shanties, shacks in the black forests, mountain huts the mystics abandoned. They smoldered like time bombs, grew waterlogged, sank down into depths so black and bleak the soggy pages were gummed together, smelled of toxic mushrooms. They slipped off precipices, were executed by that trained assassin, the critic.

And in that ramshackle grave, the dead one gnawed her bones until they were raw, let the leeches cup her blood. Her carcass was wrapped in fly paper, her teeth grew into carnivorous caves, her face was dessicated wood twisted with worm holes and her soul was gruel.

Not long ago, I wiedlded a spade, dug into dirt, dug again, heaved bloodstained earth into wind that blew it back in bits of shit. I dug for days, a week, a century, heard the song of Lorca’s stinging scorpions, moaned and groaned like a captive animal and when I finally struck her clavicle, the shovel clanged.

Since then, a surgical archeological dig, the sifting through ruins, the splintered bones unblessed relics. There in dust and blood, I try to shim her together, plug bone into socket, electrify her brains, shock her into being with frayed hot wires and bring her into a home she vehemently hates, but not nearly as much as she hates me.

She wants to claw my eyes out, sever hands from wrists, drive hooks into my tongue. I am nothing but old to her, a has been writer, my lame footed poems the greatest injustice done to her hot-headed talents. Those I know are only decrepit, their work death warmed over. Even my son is an object of disgust to her as he is the apple of my eagle eyes, my piercing black eagle eyes when all she wants is to train me in her gun sights, hold me hostage till I learn to write as well as she which never will be.

She has already given up on me. This morning she wanted me to heave my computer through the study window the way Lillian Hellman did her typewriter. I am unplugged from it, the phone, other people. I am under her imprudent jurisdiction and she will be sure to make me suffer for writing those lame footed poems, waterlogged books, for not making good on her early promise, for my life in her hag shadows, my word drippings her scurvy.

Imprisoned for life, my pen with its shark’s tooth nibis the very tool of my undoing. Now I must enter her hinterlands, stay there forever and beg for her mercy but she is a ruthless, tyrannical god with ungoldly power and her story, her buried alive story is a tour de force that that ends with a crack of the whip upon my back and although the whip can’t sing, it does know how to howl a Kirschnerian howl that thunders the heavens till even the angels cower.


Restaurant Review: 1947 Tavern

By Noah Gup

Despite his devotion to a healthy lifestyle (and vegetarianism), my father occasionally craves a Burger King Whopper.  I have been known to go to ridiculous lengths for an order of fries from the O, only to collapse into hibernation post-fries.  Tavern 1947 takes these unhealthy cravings and compiles them into one menu: short ribs, pulled pork, macaroni with bacon.  It reads like a doctor’s list of “Foods to Avoid.” 

Tavern frites are a perfect example of this level of indulgence: thick-cut potato wedges are covered in melted pimento cheese and shredded pork.  Of course it’s salty, but the thick slices of fries are surprisingly soft in the center, and would be just as good more simply arranged.  An appetizer of minis is a slightly less heavy appetizer options.   The “minis” are a sampling of three different sandwich options, all in cute little buns, each with a different meat.  All are tasty snacks, if not distinctive in-of-themselves.

Unfortunately, lighter options do not hold up.  A salad with roast vegetables is just sad-looking lettuce with roasted mushrooms, peppers and squash.  With a clever twist, four options of homemade salad dressing are served in a cardboard beer four-pack.  They range from a simple Balsamic to a creamy Horseradish Lemon, though somehow they all manage to be bland.

The star of the menu is the Mac’n’Cheese.  1947 Tavern offers four varieties of this entrée, ranging from the unadorned to one topped with spare ribs.  The Mac’n’Veggies , while rich, is not particularly flavorful, mostly due to its hollow béchamel sauce.  The roasted veggies of the salad reappear in the pasta, but their flavor was mostly lost in the thick cream sauce.  The pasta itself, however, is wonderfully al dente, adding a solid texture to noodles.  A sinful Mac and Bacon uses a smoky, spicier pimento cheese sauce instead of the béchamel, yielding significantly better results.  Of course it is rich to the point that after two bites it’s difficult to continue.  But the peppery pimento coupled with crisp bacon makes it equally difficult to stop eating.

Tavern 1947 also offers more reserved sandwiches and this simplicity seems to pay off.  1947 Tavern’s take on the classic French Dip is simple but satisfying.  Piles of roast beef and a slice of cheese are piled onto a fantastically crisp baguette from Allegro Hearth Bakery.  A bowl of its juices, enhanced with rosemary, is served on the side.  Dipping the sandwich in the juices softens up the crusty bread and adds a salty, savory flavor.  Sandwiches also come with a choice of fries, Asian slaw, or a side salad.  The Asian slaw is strangely flavorless, with a sprinkling of sunflower seeds adding only textual variation.  But with the Tavern’s sizeable sandwiches, the sides are more of an afterthought.

During all of this caloric overloading, the atmosphere is comfortable and casual.  Dim lighting from elegant square lamps reveals a tidy (and TV-less) bar.  Booths are comfy, and a chalkboard in the back displays specialties and the twenty-five varieties of bourbon. 

After leaving Tavern 1947, it’s difficult not to feel heavier and slightly disappointed.  The generous portions of Mac’n’Cheese can no doubt satisfy any hungry visitor, but the dishes themselves hardly seem worth the added heft they carry.  But as the name suggests, it is above all else, a neighborhood bar.  With its welcoming and subdued ambiance, 1947 Tavern is a lovely place to spend an evening.   It just may not be the best place for a meal.

(1947 Tavern is located at 5744 Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside.  Prices range from $9-$14.)