Book Review: Bread of Tears by Nathaniel K. Rounds

reviewed by Patrick Stevens

Bread of Tears is at once engaging and unsettling. It’s not a “one read and done” collection. On my first pass through Nathaniel K. Rounds’ work, I found myself wondering just what had happened to Rounds to make him create such disjointed, almost crestfallen characters and imagery. It was like someone woke up Ezra Pound, made him read the collected works of Bukowski, and then dosed the guy with some serious depressants.

My first clue into Rounds’ motivations came with some research into the title. The phrase “bread of tears” is taken from Psalm 80. The verses around it say the following:

How long, Lord God Almighty, will your anger smolder against the prayers of your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have made them drink tears by the bowlful. You have made us an object of derision to our neighbors, and our enemies mock us.

It was then that I began to understand the subjects of Rounds’ poetry. They are not the subjects of love, objects of affection, or esteemed champions of victory. They are not even the hard-working, salt of the earth people whose praises are sung throughout the verses of Whitman and others like him. In a way, they are not subjects of anything. The poems are about people so defeated by life that they are never mentioned at all.

Understanding this, Rounds’ poems go from appearing disjointed and melancholy to pointed, unsettling, and often uncomfortable. From Dina the bloodied washerwoman to the overbearing Timothy Hay to the twins literally left to sea by their more accomplished brother, Rounds forces the reader to stare at the figures in the background of the painting and face the truth: the reason they are not in the foreground is that their lives are so ugly, downtrodden and meaningless that we as polite observers of art would rather ignore them.

I was desperate for a moral center in the work. There had to be a moment, however brief, where Rounds gave me the lens through which to view these poems and not feel entirely disconsolate. With a good deal of relief, I found it in the poem “Surreal Estate (Antic Loo, Antic Loo)”. In it, Rounds invites the reader to “Graciously barge through the/Sugar-coated throng/Of fair cousins speaking of the weather/To fair weather cousins/And punch holes/Through the local headlines”. In the end, he says, “All that remains/Is an empty pit/Coated with sugar”. So it is with the message of “Bread of Tears”.

The object of poetry, all too often, is to spread a coat of sugar over the world. It is not quite good enough to call a thing by its real name; some metaphoric replacement full of flowery adjectives must lie in its place on the page. Rounds is not afraid to call these things as they are; there is no hesitancy to deconstruct people, places and things to simply what they are. Trees stripped to their raw flesh, a Mossberg 12 gauge, a destroyed mud-caked piano – these are the sights to be seen.

“And the world is an upturned tree/Of repurposed copper coil and aluminum”, Rounds declares in The Garbage Tree. Seeing the world through the eyes of these cast-off people, one finds it hard to tell Rounds that he is wrong.

So what is there to say about “Bread of Tears”, in the end? It is stark, it is unsettling, and it is a place turned on its head by life itself. Yet somehow, as Rounds forces us to look at the rusted out corners of the world, we may just realize that these are the places unencumbered by congeniality, pleasantries, and all the other trite bullshit that makes our own lives often unbearable. Upon first glance at the people displayed within this collection, I felt sorry for their lots in life. Yet in the end, the one question I am left with is this: between them and me, who should really have my pity?

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Patrick Stevens is an author, poet, and scriptwriter from New Jersey. His upcoming poetry collection, “Rebirth Under Dead Trees”, will be available from unboundCONTENT in the fall of 2012.

Be Cool

by Publius

There’s a side of me that my friends never see, and that is the strict disciplinarian. I’m actually considered one of the stricter teachers in the building, someone who is perfectly capable of holding down a class full of Crips. I’m perfectly capable of giving a kid three days suspension for not calling me “Sir” — and I have.

And, as odd as it all sounds, I do it out of love. I have often said to colleagues who despair, who want to just walk out, “If not you, then who? Who is going to do this job? Who is going to love these kids? Who, if not you?”

I have a number of students who are genuinely mentally ill, a few with genuine personality disorders. I’m no diagnostician, but it is clear enough that abandonment issues, not surprisingly, seem to lead the list of issues.

And for good reason. The year before I was hired to teach 7th grade, that same 7th grade had seven English teachers, one of whom lasted a day.

One quarter of my job is education. Three quarters of my labor is social¬ization. Underlying all that, my job is simply being here, simply showing my students that a male can be a stable object in their lives.

One day I ask Dolan, in a round about way, if he has any insight into Perry. Perry is perfectly capable of — and I mean this literally — talking from the very beginning until the very end of the day. Ranting, really. Perry is genuinely mentally ill. So I ask Dolan about Perry. He’s known Perry since 4th grade.

“Oh, Perry, he’s always been like that. But really, he’s just like all the rest of us.”

‘What do you mean?’

“He’s just like all the rest of us — he doesn’t have a father.” At which point Dolan, whose plans include the N. F. L., tells me how he’s OK, because he taught himself how to play halfback. So he doesn’t need a dad.

One day, I was teaching and the kids were talking, acting-up. I tried to shut them up several times, but to no avail. So I put my head in my hand for half a second, and said what has become my favorite prayer — “Lord, you’ve entrusted me with Your most sacred creation, the children. Now give me the strength, Lord, the strength …”.

At which point Kevin looks up at me, worried, and says to the class, “Be cool, everybody. Be cool. Or he’s going to leave us just like everyone else leaves us.”

At which point I remember that this English class had seven teachers last year, including the teacher who came and went in one day.

So I take a few moments and remind them that, on the very first day, I promised them that I will never abandon them. I haven’t. And I won’t.

Thus assured, they return to talking and acting up.

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The Roll Call Of Sorrow

by Publius

When I first walk-in around 6:30 AM, I’m always struck by that institutional smell. It’s not a bad smell; it’s just, well, a school smell.

I like to get to work early. But this is not out of any ambition, any work ethic. My day is long; my work is hard. I like to begin with silence.

A silence which ends at 7:10 AM, when the school awakens.

It’s easy to fall in love with my students. I love their innocence, their energy, the way they flitter from one locker to the next, one friend to the next, a constant whirl of motion, noise, in the hallway just outside my room, Room 213.

They are agitated, hungry, frightened, tense, disorganized, confused, in need of more light. Like me. Just like me.

First bell, homeroom, 7:20. Dawn.

I call the roll. Danny, this hyper kid, is out of his seat again. He is always compliant, but it usually takes telling him three times to get him into his seat. He should be in special ed., that’s obvious, but, because of the bureau¬cracy, I’m told this is unlikely to happen, this despite the fact that his needs are transparent.

Someone tells me Josh is in juvenile detention. I want to ask, but don’t have the time in the swirl of motion that is homeroom. Besides, I’ll see him this afternoon, or I won’t.

Still, I pause for a moment at this news. I like Josh, and he likes me. But his eyes are dead. How do I bring hope to a kid I’ll never turn my back on?

Then announcements over the PA. My PA doesn’t work well, it never has, so there’s always a lot of, “What did they say? Was that my name? What time is the field trip? They say music, or was that math, that’s cancelled?”

Someone lost a lunch card. Out of my twenty-five kids, all but one qualify for free lunch. To qualify, a family must make less than $20,000 or so.

Dolan, who plans to play fullback for the N. F. L., is proud that he scored the winning touchdown last Saturday. He demonstrates his triumphant catch to all who will listen. Few do.

Someone says they talked to the sixth grader who went into labor during fifth period yesterday.

Another kid asks who did the homework. No answer.

The bell rings again.

My first class begins at 7:30.

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Tyranny of Cheer

by Julia Heifets

When and why do you smile? And how often? Do you ever feel pressured to smile? And do you ever wonder why that is? Recently, I’ve been pondering the issue of false cheer in our society—how and why it’s promoted, and its potentially negative influence.

Perhaps you’re wondering how smiling can be bad—after all, the smile generally stands for all that is positive and good. Smiles often appear on the faces of Greek statues of the Archaic period (c. 650-480 BC), and though the significance of the practice is not clear, it is often thought that for the Greeks, the smile represented a state of ideal health and well being Later on, in 18th Century England, the Earl of Chesterfield wrote that smiling was a touch of subtlety that added to the sophistication of the nobility.

Health, well-being, sophistication, nobility… the Greeks, the British, the forefathers of our Western culture… Doesn’t sound too bad… But what happens when we feel pressured to smile or display congeniality for appearance’s sake? For example, those artificial smiles of polite enjoyment you flash your boss when he makes a joke, or the forced smiles of flight attendants as they shuffle up and down the aisles? And how about the quick, tight-lipped smiles strangers are apt to flash you on the subway, bus, or on the streets as they pass by and your eyes happen to meet? When you think about it, it does seem a bit strange: these people don’t know you personally, so why are they smiling at you? All of this brings to mind one thing: social convention.

The roots of this practice originated when people came to settle the New World. There, camaraderie served as a necessary foundation because people had to overcome harsh conditions and work cooperatively to survive and build and sustain a community. Centuries later, the growth of capitalism and its emphasis on individualistic progress resulted in the emergence of cheerfulness as the US national ethic, symbolized by the lovely, white-toothed smile. It was considered that in order to be successful in this new, competitive society—to promote the self and increase production levels in the workplace—one must always be able to manage one’s emotions. Otherwise, the individual would fall apart and be disorganized.

But is constant emotion-control necessary, and is it healthy? In my opinion, the expectation to smile and be merry silently destroys our ability to communicate effectively, as well as breeds stress and depression by suppressing the very element that is the key to a healthy psyche: the freedom to express genuine feeling and sentiment.
As previously stated, the smile has historically represented an expression of cordiality, of warmth, of well-being. Shouldn’t these expressions be genuine? If these are the ideal conditions for smiling, then just think how ridiculous and oppressive it is for people to force a smile even when they are terribly sad or anxious, or if they simply don’t feel like smiling. In Europe, people generally don’t smile if they don’t want to, and they definitely do not smile at strangers – least of all the French and Russians. I’ve visited both of those countries, and if my line of sight happened to meet with someone else’s and the automatic smiling reflex popped up on my lips, the other person would glare at me as if I were picking my nose or wore mac-and-cheese for a hat.

Perhaps people who do not try to adapt to a social norm that promotes artificiality of character are healthier, both mentally and physically. According to several studies, in Europe, there are twice as few people who smile randomly at one another. There are also twice as few Europeans who consume prescription drugs for depression and other mental disorders. In addition, fewer Europeans have the need to visit psychiatrists and therapists. Americans, on the other hand, have a huge trend of participating in therapy and of taking antidepressants. In 2003, Delta airlines spent nine million dollars on antidepressants for employees and their dependents (Tyranny of Cheer).

Perhaps the emotional labor of keeping up a cheerful physiognomy takes its toll on people’s abilities to deal with their problems, thereby increasing their risk for depression and stress. Of course, these studies do not prove causation or even strong correlation, but these cultural differences are something to consider.

Another interesting study sheds light on the smiling habits of Americans: Mr. Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, conducted a research experiment in which he analyzed the yearbook smiles of a number of women and grouped them into two different types of smiles: the forced “Pan American” smiles, where only the lip corners are pulled up a bit, showing only the top row of teeth. Then come the Duchenne smiles, in which the bottom teeth are also showing, as well as the appearance of crow’s feet near the eyes, and baggy lower eyelids. Duchenne smiles are considered to be genuine and non-artificial, while Pan American smiles are forced, feigned gestures. Mr. Keltner followed up with those same women decades later and found that those with Duchenne yearbook smiles were generally happier than the women with Pan American yearbook smiles; they were more content in their marriages and displayed a higher quality of overall well-being. This research may point to the idea that fake smiles and their promotion do not result in greater happiness—rather the opposite.

Of course, there exists a field of research supporting the belief that maintaining a positive outlook versus a negative one can indeed be beneficial to one’s mental and physical health. Dr. Brummet, Professor of psychiatry at the Medical Center of Duke University, conducted an eleven-year study that examined 866 adults with heart disease. Results showed that those with a positive outlook on life were 20% more likely to be alive eleven years after the study began than those with a pessimistic outlook.

My goal is not to counter the benefits of a positive outlook. I am not against smiling—I am against the expectation to smile—against forced smiling. I understand that smiling is beneficial to sales and business; smiling promotes business and has very little to do with personal feelings and relationships. I also understand that smiling is addictive: when people around you smile and are happy, you tend to start smiling and happy feelings ensue. But to tell people that they should smile simply because that’s what is expected of them, because that’s what everyone wants to see, is not a valid reason for a person to smile. To spread fake joy into society, to have everyone catch the plastic smiling bug, is just a devious way of conforming everyone to societal pressures and norms, and suppressing people’s genuine responses.

I’d like to be the sole master of my emotions and facial expressions, especially outside of the working environment. I’d like to be able to walk around grumpy or stony-faced if I so pleased, without incurring any of the usual “why don’t you smile” or “why the long face?” remarks from perfect strangers. Freedom from at least that one convention would be nice. Perhaps one day…

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Book Review: Attention Please Now by Matthew Pitt

Reviewed by Noah Gup

Baseball has been a fixation in all aspects of American culture, perhaps most potently in literature. There is something deeply poetic about the stop-and-go momentum of baseball games and the romanticized innocence of childhood that comes with it. Matthew Pitt, in his collection’s title story, essentially bucks any of this childish romanticism. The story is narrated by a cynical, alcoholic announcer who gives inspiration to the band of misfit players by publicly discussing their most embarrassing moments. To put it lightly, all of the characters are selfish and unsympathetic. Yet Pitt has such a mastery of specific vocabulary (the batter spits a “slug of chaw”) that his view into this world of baseball, however morally murky it may be, is nonetheless enticing. And the final, emotionally charged moment is the perfect pay-off, bringing the bittersweet reality of family to the forefront.

Yet despite the intense portrait of a small-town that could easily sustain more exposition, the stories shift constantly to new, engaging worlds. While they sometimes feel trite (“Wanted: Rebel Anthem”), when Pitt gives himself a leisurely easel to explore the background, it is crafted beautifully, such as the beautiful yet difficult undeveloped island that sets the stage for “The Whole World Over.”

The perceivable connection between these stories is, most bluntly, dysfunction. Each story displays fissures between characters’ feelings and their actions, what they can say and what they want/need to do. This conflict is displayed clearest in “Goes Without Saying,” where the barrier between an agent for a music label and his deaf son is explored. Yet this eventually becomes exhausting, with a suite of stories particularly disheartening. Nearly every marriage in this collection is completely dysfunctional. While this can be portrayed elegantly, as in the slow burning “The Whole World Over,” it often feels like an exhausted source of tension. In “Answers to Frequently Asked Questions,” the narrator is too much to bear, first wrongly accusing his wife of cheating, then abandoning her. While unsympathetic narrators can often be compelling, Benny’s motivations are never expressed clearly, and the awkward question and answer portions don’t help.

The strange and humorous “Au Lieu de Fleurs” is a surprising delight amid all this domestic conflict. This quirky story moves from a café serving only soup that “smelled of clams and sewer,” to a clown’s funeral, to a park’s public bathroom, yet ultimately celebrating the compassion and talkative nature of the charming narrator.

Despite the sometimes monotonous plotting, Pitt’s dense and often striking writing is a constant. A recurring, ghostly dog’s gait in the first story is described “like some prisoner at sea walking the plank, with fierce, final dignity.” And in “Observing the Sabbath,” after a character severs a relationship by cutting the phone line, “the exposed wire was the color of a hamstring.” In this way, reading Attention Please Now can be a consistent pleasure, with Pitt’s writing guiding the reader through even the most uncomfortable territory. And Pitt often finds the humanity within these stories. The final story, “Kokomo,” is a perfect example. In brief, it is a fairly standard apocalypse tale, but the powerful mother-son bond it portrays elevates the story beyond its plot.

Much of Attention Please Now feels familiar: marital strife, the bond between parents and children, the baseball field. But, as the title demands, the power in this collection is in the details, in the intricacies of the writing, and the tiny beautiful moments that punctuate these lovely stories.

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Just a Short

by Publius

Yesterday at the faculty meeting, folks complained that the announcements are way too long, and that many, delivered to the whole school, only pertain to a few. The principal promised to think about it.

Thus it is that, today, we have had the following announcements:

“Just a short announcement to those for whom this announcement is, ah, you know, an actual announcement. Six Flags.”

And my favorite thus far. “Just a short announcement. Bluetooth.” Someone, I think it was Mr. North, hollered down the hall, “Can I buy a verb?”

Then there was simply, “Don’t wear black tomorrow.”

And, “Just a short announcement to those to whom this announcement is to you. Stand-by.”

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Metrobus Parking

by Songyi Zhang

Recently, I have found a new alternative way to get to Washington D.C. without driving. I can take a bus not far from home to the closest metro station, and from there I can reach anywhere in the capital by subway. I am thrilled about my discovery. After all, public transportation is poor where I live. It is unpleasant to get stuck in the heavy traffic on Route 66, which probably is the busiest highway in the United States. Having lived in a big city in China for many years, I am more comfortable with public transportation than driving.

However, disappointingly, the free parking lots in Fairfax County around the metro stations and bus stops are limited. The demand is always higher than supply. On one Wednesday morning at around 8:30, I drove to the bus stop parking lot, which is about one and a half mile away. To my surprise, it was completely full. A couple of cars were like mine, cruising around to look for a slim chance. At that moment, I began to feel I was in a lost competition. I would imagine a commuter must have felt that stress, starting from the beginning of the day. Only the very early bird would be likely to get a parking space. But there is no guarantee. No wonder people start traveling at four a.m. to work so as to beat the traffic, or to get a free parking space.

What I don’t understand is why the department of transportation does not increase parking space and bus schedules to the D.C. metro. There are assigned parking lots that are not fully used because the MetroBus does not stop there frequently. And the parking lot that I wanted to use and that the MetroBus stops frequently can only accommodate 385 free parking spaces. As the Washington D.C. metropolitan population is growing, bettering the public transportation service is the best solution to relieve the traffic in this region.

On my latest trip to Guangzhou, China, my hometown city, I found there are ten metro lines as opposed to three lines three years ago. As a result, there are more bus routes that connect the metro stations. Public transportation is essential to city dwellers. But in America, people rely too much on cars. Before I came to America, I heard so much praise about carpooling. I thought America was a carpooling society. But to see is to believe. Based on my observation, eight out of ten commuters in northern Virginia that go to work by car ride alone. I am afraid the traffic in this region is in a poor cycle—deficient parking spaces that connect public transportation leads to the increase of vehicles on the road. As a result, the traffic will be paralyzed.

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Dance Review: New Moves Contemporary Dance Festival, Program B

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Modern dance devotees flooded The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater over the weekend for the 4th annual newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival. The three day long celebration brought sixteen choreographers and over 40 dancers to the bustling East Liberty sprawl.

Program B took place on Friday, and hosted a range of national and international performers and companies from Pittsburgh, NYC, Philadelphia and, for the first time, Budapest, Hungary.

The evening felt significantly more bold than in previous years, with work that ranged from technical to theatrical and in some cases, an impressive blend of both. Each piece fit into the festival’s unexpected theme of “identity.” Exploration of one’s individuality seemed fresh on the minds of the young dancers and choreographers involved.

The show opened with the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble from right here in Pittsburgh. The company performed “TORQUE,” choreographed by Point Park professor, Kiesha Lalama.

To the sounds of traditional Irish and West African rhythms infused with electronic beats, the piece investigated how we try to escape the “daily grind.” Through a combination of slow, snaky undulations, and quick, fierce gestures, the company once again displayed their physical prowess. The tight unison of their movement proved the likeness of each dancer, despite their physical differences.

From Philadelphia came IdiosynCrazy Productions and Anonymous Bodies, two different duets that shared an edgy dance theater style.

IdiosynCrazy explored the theme of “sameness” in their work, “Plastic City.” The duo wondered how they might appear more similar despite their different anatomies, skin colors and movement habits. They succeeded in their quirky but seamless floor work and the unpredictable humor interspersed.

Anonymous Bodies presented a piece that used mostly dramatic elements to communicate their themes – a static TV screen, laptop computer, American flags and silver wigs that concealed the two dancers’ faces. They examined “theories of identity” with repetitive and often pedestrian movement mingled with moments of striking stillness.

Marjani Forte, of NYC, performed a solo about self-acceptance entitled “EGO.” Through the study of fear, change, growth and insecurity, Forte unearthed a wide range of movement dynamics, presenting herself as complex yet well-rounded and able to accept herself fully.

All the way from Hungary, in their first U.S. tour, Bloom! Dance Collective closed the show with their award winning full length dance, “CITY.” The company described the piece as a “political pamphlet entwined with movement,” and dealt with issues of belonging versus discrimination in urban life.

In light of the recent and frustrating immigration debates, the company managed to present the topic with hilarious mockery that had the audience doubled over with laughter. Perhaps it was the full frontal nudity right from the start. Body parts flipped and flopped as the dancers stood confidently front and center, bouncing to circus music that set the stage for satire.

The piece did take a more serious tone at times, revealing the intelligence of the choreographers. A robotic voice, similar to an automated and unwanted telemarketer, repeatedly shamed one dancer who only wanted to be part of the group. The voice taunted – “Nobody wants you here,” “Put your clothes on,” and “You look like a criminal.” Although the work was largely theatrical, the movement quality was sweeping, with an ebb and flow that not only carried the piece, but held it together in a clean and clear way.

The success of the closing dance in particular raised the standard for newMoves, and brought attention to what will continue to “bloom” for the festival’s future.
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Book Review: The Book of Ten by Susan Wood

The Book of Ten
by Susan Wood
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011

reviewed by Mike Walker

Susan Wood brings us this new collection of her poems and a steadfast intent to write with courage of history and contemporary American life. She is able—adept, even—to make things mundane seem complex and worthy of her pen while in due contrast illuminating things that could be considered justly grand as very human, tactile, and near. Like Jorie Graham or Geoffery Hill, she is swift and unapologetic about plunking her reader down in the middle of some landscape—as if the dear reader had been on holiday there with her all along—and provides details of her views of this place, making it familiar at once even if it screams unknown, remote, or exotic. Wood, however, also is skilled in providing intimate junctures involving her own presence without fanfare, without any involved surroundings grand, exotic, or otherwise:

A parrot of irritation sits
on my shoulder, pecks
at my head, ruffling his feathers
in my ear. He repeats
everything I say, like a child
trying to irritate the parent.

These lines come from Wood’s poem “Daily Life”, a title that sums up about half or better of her poems in this collection. The marvel is really her ability to write plain-spoken verse about her day and then write a poem such as “Decalogue: Thin Ice” where, while also intimate, her tone and focus jumps into a more universal and complicated formulation. Wood is concerned with family, with the nexus of generations most appreciated at middle age, and, as a professor (she teaches in the English department at Rice University) she probably has a very keen sense about younger people also, and the dynamics of their relationships with lovers, parents, and siblings. Hence her recollections of her childhood and teen years in these poems seem as fresh as they are nostalgic and as global as they are personal.

Wood’s poem “In America” is a perfect example of how she skillfully extends the personal into the realm of the global, illustrating the essence of the common flow of current affairs of this nation. She is able, in a poem of sleek and measured size, to provide a good glimpse into American lives. Not afraid to name proper names, she mentions a man’s girlfriend who works the nightshift at the “Smoothie King” in the mall, providing a clear and very real portrait of this person she—and we—have not even met. We know this girl without meeting her; we know what we need to know. Her narrative is a small thread in the wide quilt Woods presents, but it’s a thread perfectly taken into Wood’s needle. The man—the girl’s lover who plans to marry her—is himself a minor character in a sense, a stand-in for so many people in America, yet Wood is able to make the girlfriend “real” via a few choice words. Likewise, Wood writes of problems germane to race relations and economic/class differences in a way that is subtle yet direct, understated yet firm. It is in this ability we can locate her tremendous skill: she can spend two pages writing of how America “is”—both unjust and romantic, rich and bone-poor—then she can spend two pages writing about her own father and herself, narrow in focus, knitting out as tight a narrative as you can get.

Grief is a common motif in Wood’s poems here, and there is often a very autumnal, final, feeling about some of them. She realizes we live in tough times and of course when writing about people suffering in one sense or another, she offers sympathy combined with a near-journalistic ethos of getting the facts, the details, typed out clear and plain.

Perhaps Wood’s best poem in this collection is one where President Lyndon B. Johnson—now out of office and Nixon in—comes to a congressman’s fundraiser in western Texas. Wood travels back in time, considering a visit to her Texan high school by LBJ when he was running against Kennedy for the Democratic nomination and then the years he was in office both as vice president and then president, then the Nixon years when the fundraiser takes place. In the visitation of a former president to a political dinner, Wood is able to paint a tight landscape of the most known moments of his career, and it is a resoundingly delightful yet somber journey into memory. Like another captivating contemporary poet, Judith Vollmer, Wood is adept at describing geography in a way that puts us right there—in this case, at a small motel in a region of America where Wood tells us you can drive for hours without encountering a single human soul. More in the legacy of the confessional poets than a nature poet contemporary or otherwise, Wood has an agenda for her descriptions of place, but they can well stand on their own footing, too. Wood has a psychologist’s or teacher’s (after all, she is the latter) understanding of how to describe people in an environment—how they look at the world from their own two eyes and how that world becomes either a mirror or an alien landscape to them. In one poem she describes a woman who is out of touch, lonely, and alone in our world yet acute in her own awareness of her plight as she sees the apparent harmony of a comfortable family raising a Christmas toast. Whether or not this lady actually stands lurking outside a window peeping in and seeing this vista or not is moot: Wood provides us the most pungent form of deep empathy for this soul because we can envision the world as she sees it: I would love to have from Wood a description of a pilot walking through an airport or a surgeon walking out of the operating theatre. I enjoyed her ability to put the reader into the shoes of her characters very much and it’s no stretch or ill call to name the people of her poems “characters” for despite how short many of these poems are in length, these people jump from their pages as fully formed as many characters in a novel or short fiction.

The people in her poems, be they grand as LBJ or the famed hijacker D.B. Cooper who vanished without a trace mid-air from a plane in flight, or be they an unknown average American who only wants to impress the woman he desires to marry or be they the father of the poet herself, they are strong, cunning, and stand up as if we’d known them as our neighbors all along. The academic’s varied and informed concern with world affairs is well-coupled with the down-home Texan appreciation of the familiar and dedication to the details of the same in Wood’s poetry. She seems nearly determined to write it all down, as if the entire world she knows could any moment burn to the ground. Perhaps it’s the fact her own father is, if one of her poems speaks of him as it seems it does, aged ninety-three and in a nursing home—there is a sorrowful reality of what could be lost overnight in her poems and thus a rocket-driven push to get all these varied thoughts down to page as they carry the weight of world, family, and legacy within their typography.

It is this understanding of real people, real language, real geography that allows Wood to get away with using a bird as a metaphor for grief in a poem. The concept seems too typical at first, but when she develops the bird’s call into something that rings through the home of the person plagued by grief and then takes it a step further and notes that when this odd birdsong is heard we mistake it for the doorbell and rush to see who has come to call, only to discover once again that no one is there—no one, she tells us calmly, ever is there. It is madness, it could be war, but it’s the internal world of someone overcome by grief. The poet who knows her people, her land, also knows her animals and her animal-knowledge. She’s in a business of writing poems that won’t let go and like Secretary Clinton said during her bid for that office old LBJ once held, Wood is another lady in this, and she’s “in it to win”.

Win she does: this book is one of the most thought-provoking (and feeling-provoking) books of poetry in the English language I’ve read in several years now. She deals in the deepest parts, but never for the sake of seeming serious: she deals there because circumstances of life demand her involvement. She wins—she wins over the reader, she wins against the injustices she finds in our supposedly modern and just society—because she is so skilled in her craft and willing to pick topics that are meaningful but never feel selected as show of force or even an overt show of skill. Wood never seems intent on impressing us but instead simply set on telling her story. You have to wonder at places in this book, why is she not in the fiction business?

The Book of Ten is worth buying, it is more than worth reading. Read, if nothing else, Wood’s poem “The Magic Hour”. Spend some time with her, as this one is a winner.

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A Haiku

by Publius
 
a balmy spring breeze
flutters the freshly starched blouse
of the corner whore

Which is exactly what happens as I look out my window on a pretty, if balmy, spring day in the ghetto.

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Medical Tourists

by Songyi Zhang

A few years ago, an American friend told me she had her eye surgery in Thailand. I asked her why she chose Thailand. She said the medical technology was sufficient and the cost was reasonable. She spent a couple hundred US dollars on her eyesight correction. It would definitely cost more in the U.S.. Now she does not need to wear glasses.

When I was in China, I also heard news about young Chinese women traveling to Korea to undergo plastic surgery. It is such a trend that there are travel agencies that organize tour groups to Korea for the same purpose—experiencing Korea’s thriving beauty industry. Paying less than 600 U.S. dollars for a four-day tour, tourists not only sightsee some major attractions but also try the skincare treatments and even sign up for plastic surgery. Of course, a stop to shop for the cosmetic products is a must.

Back in the U.S., complaints about high medical cost have increased in recent years. As more people are unemployed, more people can’t afford medical expenses. I remember before I came to America to study, the university required every student to have medical insurance, whether or not the insurance was bundled with a family plan or was independent. I was quite unwilling to pay for that since I was an international student and my tuition was already twice that of in-state students. But all I heard was that without medical insurance, you’ll spend way more on medical care in America. So I have medical insurance. Even after my graduation, I have to continue to pay my full insurance as a self-employed resident.

If the high cost of medical care in America intimidates people to see doctors and encourages more Americans to seek cheaper treatments overseas, why can’t the government, the insurance companies and the medical providers compromise on an affordable and feasible alternative. (I know. The problem is more complicated than that.)

Before I came to America, I used to hear about all kinds of kudos from returned Chinese immigrants bragging about how good the medical care in America. After I got to this country, I guess I have heard the other side of the story—not terribly appealing.

Medical tourists should understand they are also facing another kind of risk when they receive medical treatments abroad. Take plastic surgery as an example, if a foreign patient is dissatisfied after the surgery or the surgery turns out to be a failure, disputes could happen. We all know different countries have different laws. Not to mention the language differences. Can the medical tourist get her money back without aches and pains? I doubt it.

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Theatre Review: A Blonde Gets on a Train, Another Gets Off a Bus. Trouble Ensues.

by Arlene Weiner

Dutchman. By LeRoi Jones. Directed by Mark Clayton Southers. Starring Jonathan Berry and Tami Dixon. Bricolage Theater, 937 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh. Through May 12. http://www.bricolagepgh.org/

Bus Stop. By William Inge. Directed by Gregory Lehane. Philip Chosky Thearer, Purnell Center for the Arts. Carnegie Mellon University. Through May 5. http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=21675&schedule=list

At times I feel the phrase “embarrassment of riches” applies to Pittsburgh, and especially to Pittsburgh theater. In New York or London or San Francisco you might never even conceive the ambition to see all the plays that are offered, to say nothing of concerts and exhibits. Pittsburgh, though, is manageable in so many ways—as I once realized when I drove from the East End to the North Side through downtown at 1 pm, when office workers were teeming on the streets. Piece of cake.

Getting to all the plays? Not a piece of cake. A Viennese dessert cart, or one of those gut-busting Sunday buffets. My partner and I try to get to the productions of many of the small professional theaters and the college theaters. Put differently, we’re maniacs for theater. It is our great good luck, or burden, that as well as the two major professional companies and several minor ones there are ambitious community theaters, theaters within an hour’s drive of the city, and the universities’ drama departments. Two of the universities, Point Park and Carnegie-Mellon, have conservatory programs that prepare students for professional theater. So all together there are opportunities to see new or new-ish plays, demanding rarities, and even never-before-produced plays.

I think we’ll have seen six plays in two weeks, seven in three. We saw two plays now running almost back to back, and they make an interesting comparison: Bricolage’s Dutchman, by LeRoi Jones, directed by Mark Clayton Southers, and Carnegie-Mellon’s Bus Stop, by William Inge, directed by Gregory Lehane. Both are revivals of mid-twentieth-century plays: Bus Stop dates to 1955, Dutchman to 1964.

Dutchman, essentially a two-character play, is intense, claustrophobic, brief, and still has the power to shock. Bus Stop has eight characters and several meandering story lines. It was a three-act play, traditional at the time, but Lehane has wisely eliminated the intermissions, and his collaborator has cut the script down. Bus Stop was claustrophobic, too, the characters snowbound in a Kansas diner, but Lehane has “opened it up,” moving the diner setting outside a derelict bus with bleached winter grasses and wafflelike clouds above. In a talkback he explained that the team conceived the production as populated by ghosts, types that probably don’t exist any more. (For me and most people my age Bus Stop is also haunted by the ghost of Marilyn Monroe as the singer Cherie—Annie Heise is given a resemblance to the Blonde.)

The characters do indeed seem types (the cowboy, the professor, the no-better-than-she-should be lounge singer) more than characters, as if Inge was performing Kansas for his New York audience. While I watched Bus Stop I almost expected a character to break out into song, and I wonder why it never became a musical. (There is a song, interrupted, late in the play.) Maybe Oklahoma! had pre-empted the center of the country. The actors are winning, even winsome, Jessie Ryan as a naïve high school student especially so. Sometimes Carnegie Mellon student actors, as good as they are, are too young for their roles; Lexi Soha as the more-than-once-around-the-block Grace overcomes that. The technical values, set, costume, and lighting, are excellent.

The characters in Dutchman, too, are types, or even archetypes, and they call each other’s attention to that fact.: a striver, an African American man (or to use the mid-century word, Negro) and an aggressive, sexual, teasing, apple-proffering white woman. It’s summer on a subway car that isn’t air-conditioned. She comes on to him, he resists, then melts a little. Mark Southers not only keeps the claustrophic realistic setting, but also arranges the audience along both sides of the car, looking down on it as if at a bullring, appropriately enough. The acting and direction are superb. Highly recommended.

Bus Stop seems to want to please the audience, too much to seem true. Dutchman, a specimen of the theater of cruelty, wants to shake the audience. And it does.

[A further note: two more claustrophobic plays are currently being performed in the area. The first, an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terrible, about the dangerous games played by a brother and sister in their Room, in the Helen Wayne Rauh Theater at Carnegie Mellon, defines perverse. What a brilliant and (pardon me) seminal figure Cocteau was! You may think the production, with its contemporary references and paraphernalia and the deafening music drowning out the words, is itself inappropriately, or appropriately, perverse. Directed by Joshua Gelb.

The second play, Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, at Off the Wall Theater in Washington, PA, concerns a woman who was a political prisoner, tortured by a sadistic doctor. Years later she and her husband live in an isolated house. When a motorist comes to their home after a car breakdown she believes she recognizes his voice as her torturer’s. I have not seen it yet but I have a high regard for the actors. Through May 12. http://www.insideoffthewall.com/]

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Mr. Riddlesinger

 by Publius

            I have to run some paperwork over to the old Southtown Middle School.   We’re coordinating some middle school to high school curricula.   Southtown is a venerable, late 19th century building.   Right on the river.   A lovely place, except when it rains. 

            I figure I’ll drop in on Arthur Riddlesinger.   I taught middle school with him for years over at Central.   I love the guy.   (A remarkably talented figure skater, by the way.)   Normally, he’d be too busy to talk much, but today I catch him during his planning period. 

            Or rather his mopping period.   It turns out that his planning period today is devoted to mopping up his basement classroom.   

            In fact, he keeps handy a dozen mops, he tells me.   And I’m like, ‘Huh?’  

            “Oh, you think this is because of the recent spring floods.   No.   The basement floods because it rains.”   He just leaves off like that explains everything. 

            He keeps a dozen mops handy, and deals with these inundations like it’s a regular part of his lesson plan for 1st period.   “OK, kids.   Get out your books, turn to page 23.   Do questions 1 – 3.   But first, the mops.”   Except today, for who know what reason, he’s got to do it himself.   

            So I figure I’ll help.   I open up the mop closet, and, may Sweet Jesus gouge out my eyes, there’s the World’s Hugest Extension Cord In The Whole Universe.   It’s like the extension cord equivalent of the Guinness Book Of World’s Records Largest Ball Of Twine In The Whole Universe.   The thing is a thousand feet long. 

            ‘Riddlesinger, what the fuck?   Dude!’   

            He explains that he has the only functioning wall socket in the basement, largely because it’s halfway up the wall, and the water seldom gets that high.   (Which is when I notice that everything, books, pictures, maps, all that, everything is halfway up the wall.   Because of the inundations.)   Everyone else’s wall sockets are near the floor and silted in.   His words, “silted in”. 

            And this is how you show a video in the basement at Southtown Middle School.    The basement folks contribute a dozen extension cords each to Riddlesinger.   He, in turn, makes the World’s Hugest Extension Cord In The Whole Universe, which can, when needed, reach from his far corner to the other far corner of the basement half a mile away.   When it’s not raining, of course. 

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