2012 Autumn House Sentence of the Year Award

“If Obama can force you to get health insurance just by calling it a tax, than there is nothing to stop him from making you gay marry an illegal immigrant wearing a condom on a hydroponic pot farm powered by solar energy.”

— Stephen Colbert


Gardening Frantic

By Karen Zhang

These days I have been practicing the known tagline—“More saving, more doing. That’s the power of the Home Depot.” As summer is around the corner, I spend more time outdoors—not working out but gardening. I till, I dig, I shovel, I mow, I plant, I water, I bend down on my knees and stoop a thousand times before I stand and clap off the dirt from my gloved hands. After spending a considerable amount of time outdoors, I wonder if I’ll become an amateur biologist, following Rachel Carson’s footpath.

In the past, I thought the Home Depot was a man’s world while Macy’s department store might be a better venue for women’s shopping sprees. But this spring, my numerous visits to the Home Depot have changed my impression of American life.

Unlike the urban Chinese who would rather hire others to fix their homeowners’ problems, many Americans spend hours in bettering their properties. Gardening is only a small part—and the most visible one—of the changes you can do to improve living. I didn’t realize how rewarding gardening would be for me until I have an American life. (I didn’t have such a luxurious time and space in China where a majority of people worked their butt off all year round just to skimp and save to buy their first apartment.)

It’s the environment that changes my view. I see more grassland and trees in America, not to mention squirrels, rabbits and deer cohabitating with humans. I would not pay as close attention to the plant names as now. Despite the need to reshape the landscape for urbanization, Americans try to preserve nature as intact as possible. No wonder a Chinese friend of mine who came to the U.S. for the first time said to me that most parts of the country look more rural than China. Perhaps because of this sense of protection, Americans begin their reservation from their back yards and front lawns, as well as from their balconies for those who live in condos.

A report done by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows landscape irrigation nationwide is estimated to account for almost one-third of all residential water use. In drier climates, up to 50% of household water use comes from landscaping. When I first read these figures, I was startled by the fact that how generous Americans were to use water for their gardens instead of for drinking. There’re so many regions in the world today that are still in drought or forced to use contaminated water.

As an old saying goes, “No pains, no gains.” But for beginners, you should be prepared that your pains may not be returned with gains. I’ve experienced it many times. Yet, I’m still enjoying more doing around the house. Gardening makes me wonder now and then—as I look out at the flowers I planted, I can’t believe I am in America.


Paper Streets

By Eva-Maria Simms

Most streets in my neighborhood end either at the cliff with its spectacular view of the Ohio River valley or, at the other end of the mountain, in the woods. They peter out into crumbling asphalt and are choked down by Japanese knotweed before losing themselves – as what is called a “paper street” hereabouts – into the wooded, now uninhabited hillsides and valleys. Paper streets exist only on maps. A long ago urban planner laid out the grid of city streets but forgot that the cliff was too steep, or the woods were too dense, or a creek cut up the landscape. Sometimes a lonely street sign points into the wilderness, or you find a telephone pole marking the intersection of two deer paths. Once there were houses and even farms further down the paper streets, and you can still find vaulted cellar entrances, mine shafts, decades old rusted appliances, and contractor debris which has been illegally dumped for more than a century. Sometimes, if you follow a deer track though the dense undergrowth, you come across the fins of a 1950’s Chevy sticking out of the loam — I was told that the kids in the 50’s used to steal cars, drag-race them along Grandview Avenue, and finally push them over the hillside to make them vanish in overgrown valleys and deep gulches. There are “bald spots” in the landscape where nothing grows, and we do not know if the small creek that snakes down to Saw Mill Run valley is a clean spring or polluted water run-off from an abandoned coal mine. There are few paths besides deer trails crossing this landscape. The woods have been left to themselves and nature has reclaimed the spaces which people abandoned when Pittsburgh’s luck ran out and the population dropped by 2/3rds. No one walks down the hills to the steel mills in the valleys; no one forages for blackberries or elderberries in the clearings or knows where the mushroom patches are; no children build play forts in the trees anymore.

At the end of some streets you find a dilapidated wooden fence which tells you that the “Duquesne Heights Greenway” begins here, and all you see is green wilderness. These fences are remnants of a 1970’s neighborhood initiative to protect the wooded slopes by declaring them a “greenway”, but there are no traces and no stories among my neighbors of the people who worked on this and no trails to show off their efforts. Behind the fence: wilderness. There are no signs that tell you that this is public land, that it belongs to all of us, that it is part of our neighborhood, that it is our commons, and that you are allowed to go there.

My children played baseball at Dilworth Field for many years, and I had no idea that there were actually hiking paths in the woods behind the baseball diamond. The trails were built in the 1920’s and 30’s, and the WPA had a hand in the construction of walls and stairs. I never realized that I was allowed to go into those woods, that there were paths through the forest, and that all of it even had a name: Mount Washington Park. Later I found out that Mount Washington Park has an interesting history: it was created in the wake of the social reformist Olmsted City Beautiful movement by a neighborhood initiative in 1908 — against some resistance from the City parks staff — as a park overlooking “the beautiful panorama of the Sawmill Valley”, as a the city councilman put it upon the dedication of the flagpole in 1923. In his 1870 essay, “Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns,” Frederick Law Olmsted wrote: “We want a ground to which people may easily go after their day’s work is done, and where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets . . . We want the greatest possible contrast with the restraining and confining conditions of the town, which compel us to walk circumspectly, watchfully, jealously, which compel us to look closely upon others without sympathy”. Urban green spaces were created as a psychological and moral balance to the alienating influences of capitalist cities. The beauty of nature was thought to heal the soul. But no one in the neighborhood today remembers this grand vision of social reform through beautiful nature spaces for the benefit of working people. By the middle of the 20th century, the neighbors withdrew from their shared front porches and spent their recreation time inside. Blue light began to flicker from every single living room in the evenings. Urban picnics and Sunday afternoon hikes became a thing of the past. Families became afraid of the woods.

As a native German, I have always been surprised that when Americans do hike or bike for fitness in their urban parks, they stay on the paved thoroughfares and few venture of the beaten track into the wilder parts. Nature is mysterious, dark, and confusing, and people fear the “bums, rapists, and murderers” who potentially hide behind the bushes or around the next bend, as the urban legend goes. The irrational fear of nature is so pervasive in our culture that I often have to convince even myself that, in my rambles through the woods, I am not very interesting to human predators, and that it is highly unlikely that one of them is waiting for me crouched close to the muddy ground or in the cold shadow behind the pines. I am trying to teach myself not to be afraid.

Nature at the end of my street and behind the ball field had become invisible by the end of the 20th century. The woods were slightly menacing because there were rumors about prostitution, drug dealing, and homeless encampments, and there was plenty of evidence of partying teenagers who left empty beer cans around burnt out campfires. No one wanted to live next to the woods, and the closer you got to the trees, the cheaper and run-down the houses became. Appalachia began at the end of our streets. The paper streets led into no-man’s land and became access roads to illegal dump sites for the unwanted debris of our civilization.

A decade ago I began exploring the woods. Eventually I discovered a new neighborhood initiative connected to our Community Development Organization who imagined all the parks and wooded slopes surrounding our mountain connected into one large “Emerald Link”. In 2005 the city officially granted it the protection of a regional park. Now we are working on establishing a trail system, managing invasive species, cleaning up dump sites, and changing the perception of urban wilderness at the end of our streets. Emerald View Park, with now over 260 acres of woods and meadows, is slowly becoming a reality.


Occasionally I have parents

by Publius

Occasionally I have parents who offer to beat their kids in front of my class. I politely decline, like I do again today with Samantha‘s dad.

Last semester, Samantha’s father was the first parent to make such an offer. At that very moment in my classroom there were medical students from the nearby university. They were lecturing about AIDS. I had visions of going into the classroom, asking these med. students to pause for — What? — the weekly exemplary beat-down?

This afternoon, I found out that dad doesn’t even live with Samantha. I’m not surprised. But then again I pray to God that I never get used to such news.



by Julia Heifets

As soon as my thesis defense was over, post-graduate panic swept over me like chicken pox. What to do? How to make money? Get a job, get one no matter what it is, and fast. So I did it. Part-time, local café. The late shift. How bad could it be? Sure, the place closed at 1 AM and cleaning went until 2, and sure, it was a fifteen minute bus ride away from home (and the buses in Pittsburgh stop running around 1:30), and sure, the owner had hit on me when I once visited the establishment to buy a cleaning tool for my hookah that strongly resembled a toilet brush, and… There was no end to objections or excuses, but I gulped them all down and decided that I was going to do this.

The girl told me to come in at 8 PM for training, which was to last for four days, unpaid, with only the shared end-of-the-day tips to look forward to. After the training period, you were paid eight dollars an hour, plus tips. She said the money was really good. I didn’t know what that meant, but I figured I’d take her word for it. Back then, really good of any kind sounded like raspberries and caviar to me, though my anxious brain wondered whether she had health insurance and how she managed to pay for her car. But never mind all of that—I could do it. She said I was on the “server track,” but first, I had to prove myself in the kitchen. After several weeks, I’d be moved up to server status.

I arrived wearing a sleek black pencil skirt (one that I wore to interviews) and a purple top with patterned sequins. The girl and her colleague wore sneakers, very short jean shorts, and baggy t-shirts with school logos on them. They assessed me quietly as I sat before them, folding my hands in my lap. I was then given the employee manual to peruse, and told to enter the kitchen when I was done. I was relieved that the owner wasn’t there—it was a little embarrassing to think of working for a person whose advances you’ve rejected.

As employees, we had to ask the manager for permission to go on break. We couldn’t use our cell phones unless we were on break. If we wanted to eat there, we had to pay for the food. (Now that I know how it’s prepared, I wouldn’t be paid to touch it). If customers walked out without paying the bill, it was our responsibility to cover the costs. If we made any mistakes with food orders, it was our responsibility to cover the costs. It seemed like I reread that phrase a thousand times, dispersed throughout the manual. What greedy owners! What unfair conditions! I had worked at a take-out place (no serving or kitchen drudgery required) that allowed us to do whatever we wanted (and eat there for free) as long as we did our jobs well. Perhaps my old boss was too lenient. I set the manual down on the dusty bench and made way for the kitchen.

For the first half hour, the girl working there ignored me as she busied around making drinks and serving customers. I dawdled in the background like a dodo, observing, trying to understand where everything was located, and pestering the new boy (it was his last day of training) for answers. He was very obliging and friendly, and I took a great liking to him. I followed him around as he showed me where the recycling was, the storage, how to make the “house” iced tea that required 8 cups of Lipton powder instead of 4. “Everyone loves our tea,” the girl declared. Of course, they don’t recognize that it’s Lipton because it’s twice as sweet, so they assume it’s special.

The manager arrived at 9, and began taking notice of me. She showed me the fridge, the wall upon which instructions for how to make various drinks and food items were pasted, the paper stained, the ink blotchy and faded. She showed me how to make their special coffee, how not to burn milk when heating it on the burner, how to include the correct proportions of ingredients so that the drink maintained a jelly-like consistency, etc. I tend to leave things on the stove and burn them, so for the first couple of times, the burners were doused in frothing milk, but soon I learned to stand, watching the filmy layer like a guard dog.

Orders began to accumulate, and the boy and I ran around the kitchen, throwing ingredients into the blenders for milk shakes and smoothies, skinning the paper from straws only half-way so that our fingers wouldn’t touch the tips, making coffee, tea, and other drinks that required multiple ingredients and various methods of preparation. We didn’t know how to make these things, so we ran to and from the Wall of Instruction, peering through the stains and spots to see the tiny type beneath.

A lull came, and I looked at my watch—I had been on my feet for three hours, and it was only 11. I hadn’t eaten, just drank cup after cup of water to prevent myself from evaporating before the glaring heat of the burners, and my feet ached like they often do after a good two hours of flamenco. I looked down at my clothing, surprised to find it relatively clean even though I’d been handling ashes, milk, liquids, and sputtering whipped cream cans the entire evening. I looked around for a place to sit, but there were no chairs in the kitchen. I could fit into the sink, but I’d get wet and probably fired.

1 AM slid by, and my eyes were closing. My feet felt like they’d been standing in galoshes filled with stones. My stomach ceased rumbling, all hopes for food lost in the never-ending rush of drinks and cleaning up after spills. 1 AM! The place should be closed by now, but when I looked out into the seating area, there were still a few customers sipping their drinks. 1:30… Why don’t they kick them out, I asked the nice boy who had been helping me all evening. He shrugged. Part of their laid-back appeal, he suggested. Right… Well, I wasn’t going to loll around and wait for them to leave; I rolled up my sleeves and began hunting for the large yellow mop-bucket with wringer. Let’s get started on cleaning, I told the boy.

We rolled up the plastic mats, bits of food falling onto my flats. I wheeled the mop-bucket/wringer combo from under the counter and looked around for a hose. It appeared that there was no hose. Where’s the hose, I asked the boy. He smiled and shook his head. The only resort was to lift the entire bucket into the sink and fill it there. Fine. I could do that. Lift the empty bucket inside I could, but lift a half-full bucket out of the tall, narrow sink—I could not. The boy just stood there behind me, laughing and smiling. What gallantry these days—men really know when to help a woman out. In my clumsy attempts to lift the bucket out of the sink, I spilled a quarter of the water onto my top and skirt. At least the water was semi-clean.

It was 2:30 when we finished cleaning. I mopped the floors and bathroom stalls, scrubbed and washed almost all of the dishes, dried and shelved them, wiped the counters, and made myself as busy as I could in order to avoid the leer of the owner who had arrived just a short while ago. Do you like beer, was his first question. Do you have a boyfriend, was his second. After that, I began to maniacally scrub the stove, and he finally left, taking the bucket of dirty water with him. I throw it out for you, he slurred. Thanks…

We got out at 2:35. The boy and I each received $15 dollars for the entire night, our share of the tips. The server girl pocketed the remainder. My head spun, feet and back ached, and I wondered how the hell I’d be getting home. I asked the boy how he got home—apparently, he walked for 40 minutes. Got up at noon the next day. Repeated the nightly routine. I wished him luck, and we parted ways. I walked onto Fifth Avenue and continued marching in the middle of the street; there were no cars in sight. As I walked, a giggle bubbled through me, and then a laugh that sounded like a rearing horse. I kept laughing and walking in the middle of the street. A lone pedestrian walked by on the sidewalk, staring. I laughed harder. I thought, well, thirty five more minutes to go, so I might as well enjoy the open, navy sky, the quiet, the emptiness, as if the city was abandoned—the roads holding nothing but air.

I failed, that much I knew. Of course, there were many people who were used to such a late schedule, who were used to kitchen drudgery, and who wore the appropriate attire for it. These people also probably did not have to walk for forty minutes to get home at 3 AM—they had cars or bikes or rides. These were different people, I was different from them—perhaps less hardy, but no better or worse. I just wasn’t cut out for it, as they say. The shapes didn’t match, the hat didn’t fit, the sandal hurt. Any way you’d like to describe it, that’s what it was. How not to walk home laughing?


Medication Nation

By Karen Zhang

While flipping channels on TV, I see American pharmaceutical companies put out a barrage of ads for their new drugs. These commercials seem to highly focus on its side effects. (I know the ads are required by law to mention side effects.) The key point is consumers should consult their doctors before using these medications. In comparison, Chinese TV commercials do more bragging on the medicine, whether or not it is effective.

But the number of Americans that rely on daily medicine is striking. More than 50% of insured residents of the United States regularly take prescription drugs for at least one chronic health condition, according to a study conducted by Medco Health Solutions in 2008. In other words, half of the national population is unhealthy.

I’ve never seen so many pharmacies around one neighborhood until I came to America. From Wal-Mart to Target, from Rite Aid to Walgreens, from local supermarkets to online drug suppliers, you can fill your prescription anytime, anywhere. I’m sure the pharmaceutical industry in America is a big piece of cake that lures everyone for a bite.

It’s understandable that chronic patients need to take prescription pills on a daily basis. But a healthy person may also take nutrient supplements. To rephrase my mother’s warning—if you’re not myopic, why bother to wear glasses? If you’re fit as a fiddle, why bother to take pills? But that’s certainly not the American philosophy.

My husband has diabetes and a heart condition. His current daily medicine meal is twelve pills a day. The pills he takes are colorful like a handful of candies. I always wonder if each kind counter-affects the other. As long as his mind stays lucid to keep track of the amount and the color of each drug. Knock on wood! Now when my husband sees his doctors, he has to give out a long list of medications. If only one has a super memory to remember those pharmaceutical names.

I also wonder if taking medicine gives a patient more psychological satisfaction than the medical effect in itself. Psychiatric medicine is often controversial. Can medicines really combat one’s depression and stabilize one’s mind? Or does the action of taking them relieve the patient’s mental condition? And if one accidentally overdoses, tragedy ensues.

Perhaps because of the environment, I also have contracted an unprecedented, come-and-go health problem in America—“sun allergy” as one doctor called it; “skin herpes” another doctor named it. I never had this skin issue in China. Now I take medication if the problem recurs—just as the Americans do.


Book Review: Poet in Andalucía by Nathalie Handal

Poet in Andalucía by Nathalie Handal
University of Pittsburgh Press

reviewed by Mike Walker

The concept of a volume of poetry transporting its reader to a far-off locale is not a new one. Given the constant tropes of how poetry is supposedly an emotional, romantic, art, the idea of remote vistas and escape almost too-easily fits into the realm of the poet’s craft. Expectedly, there are many poor—perhaps even horrible—examples of this approach, however, this is not to say it cannot be done very well, and be fully effective in its transportation of reader to a place miles away. In the case of Nathalie Handal, the place in question is Andalusia, the southern-most geographic region of Spain and what was once the heart of the Islamic Caliphate of Córdoba.

Andalusia really contains a wealth of history and at that, history of many flags, many languages, many colors. Handal could have filled a whole book simply with images and visions of Moorish Spain and left it at that, but instead, she attempts to cover the entire range of Andalusia’s long-running game of politics and personages. Overall, she is very successful, too. She can compose a poem about Toledo’s glory and then one about Jorge Guillén, jumping from century and realm of polity in one graceful swoop. In this, and due to how pithy and informative her poems are—and how constant her voice is regardless of its specific topic—Handal is able to offer a book that nearly reads as much as a travel journal or even historical record as it does a work of poetry. In the instance where I come to her poem “The Thing about Feathers”, not even half-way into the book, I feel like I am in the middle of a truly majestic, swelling, work of fiction. Much of my own scholarship is on Chrétien de Troyes ‘s Lancelot, le Chevalier de la Charrette and somehow, in the middle of Handal’s discourse of Moors and Spanish poets I got the feeling of that great work—the feeling of something designed to be entertaining yet rooted in deep history, of something that has grown larger than life since its creation and sounds nearly oral even when read in silence on the page. Of course, the book I am holding was only published in 2012, but never mind that: what Handal has done is no less than a spectacular triumph as she has knitted up and enveloped centuries worth of history into a slim volume and nonetheless it all reads—consistently—like grand literature.

We are strange when we’re lost,
his father told him.

With these lines, we start into a poem. This is how Handal often begins—straight out the chute, but certainly mid-stream, half-way through the film, far into the maze. That is travel. As seems fitting for a poet “in Andalucía”, we catch up with our poet and not the other way around, and this is as it should be, since Handal’s approach helps convey the very sense of her journey itself.

I have inherited your shadows,
and a thousand crossroads.

This theme of travel is constant, and often comes with a motif of awe, of narrative reaching beyond whatever immediate import it contains as where it rests as lines of a specific poem. Everything in this book feels interconnected. There is an element of García Lorca in Handal’s writing—not surprising, as she mentions him and other Spanish poets throughout the book—still, his spirit floats over the pages just like Handal’s words float over the entire Iberian landscape.

He longs for
the secret forms of god
along the back of his neck

Those quick lines are probably my favorite in this entire book, and picking favorites is a chore not easily undertaken given the bounty of options the poet provides. Aware that she is as much a teacher as a poet in these pages, Handal also includes a helpful set of notes about her travels in Spain and the topics and places she concerns herself with in the poems. Most readers may find they need it: having taken several courses in college in European and Moorish history that covered Andalusia in depth, I thought I would be fine yet here and there Handal would introduce something I’d not really encountered—or at least understood—before. Moreover, she made me desire to open up García Lorca once again and read him anew.

Handal quotes everyone—like a reporter on assignment overseas, she is quick to get a word or two from all those of importance she can interview. Only with Handal, she has the benefit of not limiting her interviews to the living but includes everyone from (literally) dead poets to an Umayyad prince from Moorish times long, long ago. This quoted material bookends the sections of her book and interfaces with her poems, making the effect of the whole somewhere between epic poem and an anthology of travel writing. Quoting others at times indicates an author is either running thin on original work or else trying to locate herself as someone of equal greatness to those she quotes, but Handal applies her quotes to the best of use, building with them a historical and atmospheric timeline of sorts into which she can insert her poems. The whole feeling the reader takes from this experience is one of a real journey, a tangible venture through Spain and the crisp waves of the water, the fine sand, the rocky shores, the savory kitchens, the faded tiles in churches centuries old all come forth with power and poise.

Two rather unrelated but vital elements allow Handal’s poetry to be as strong and robust as it is: for one, she has a well-developed understanding of observation, which is something not all poets today retain in their array of skills. As writers encouraged to look inward and expected to produce works that do not even require in most cases plots or the development of characters as in fiction and drama, poets can become more insular than anyone else working in literature. Not Handal: she takes her tasks of description as seriously as any first-rate journalist would, focusing on all that comes into her path. Secondly, Handal is able to produce clear prose, writing that is contemporary, familiar and direct yet that also is warm and and lyrical, creating the type of romantic, nearly courtly sense of succession— of prolongation of the narrative at hand as something unified. What might have been only travel sketches transcribed into verse are instead very singular, consummate, organic, creations. They stand on their own but also, even better, as a whole in the scope of the book.

This book, and its author, are a treasure. In the course of reviewing books of poetry for four different literary periodicals, I encounter “good” poetry all the time—little of what established publishers send out to reviewers is without merit—however, it’s exceptional to find something as cohesive and engrossing as Poet in Andalucía. I highly recommend it and await Handal’s next journey.


Sam, the end

by Publius

I just found out that Sam got busted for stealing a car. He is to be suspended for 180 days. I call this ‘the death sentence‘.

On an impulse, the other night he goes out and steals a Mercedes. (Why bother with a Toyota, right?) Then he goes home. After a hard night of ripping folks off, he oversleeps. He panics the next morning, but remembers he’s got a car. So he drives to school, and parks in the faculty parking lot. It is, after all, where everybody parks. Since impulse control is not Sam’s strength, it did not occur to him that the security guard might question a 12 year old driving.

Where does this kid get a break? His parents abandoned him. Foster care fails him. Now we expel him. And this kid is so clearly, clearly treatable.

After school, I see him outside, across the street, just looking at us. Just looking. I call to him. Sam says something in reply, something blurred by the sound of traffic. We smile. Camouflage smiles. But our eyes betray the depth of sadness and a distance, just a street, which our sadness cannot bridge.


Book Review: Farang by Peter Blair

By Marcella Prokop

To read Peter Blair’s Farang is to find oneself in a lucid dream. Set in Thailand and wavering between Bangkok, the “Up-country” and Pittsburgh, Blair’s language moves readers through scenes with the elegance of a foreign dancer: the rhythms are mesmerizing, the experience transcendent. Having spent three years in Thailand in the Peace Corps, Blair knows what it is to be a farang, the Thai word for “foreigner” that means so much more than just that. He writes as an English teacher in a foreign land, his main speaker working through the joys and sorrows of instruction, of class bonds, of trying and sometimes managing to fit in. The nature of duality that defines those who are bound to contradictory memories, places and interests comes to life in the existence of Thai culture. Thailand is duality—it is the land of pleasure but also the land of restraint, of the Buddha—and this conflict is woven into this collection. Whether illuminating saffron robes or Pittsburgh’s “cold November drizzle,” Blair details the beautiful nature of memory, loss and uncertainty in these luminous poems.

“Thai and American cultures, two dreams / of one world, the Dharma,” he writes in the opening poem, “Discussing the Dream of Culture with Professor Kwaam.” Blair’s speaker questions the Dharma—the word of the Buddha and the way of life in his new home—and finds himself grasping for answers. To accept Buddhism is to accept the loss of ego, and throughout these poems Blair’s many speakers question tradition, reality and the life that unfolds around them. What is it to dream, to exist in this reality? Buddhists love confusing those unversed in their word, not to be cruel, but to crack open the uninitiated mind to a new perspective. As the speaker in this first poem works through a streetside meal of noodles in Bangkok, he is confronted by the “emptiness deepening” in his companion’s bowl. This is a powerful poem, for its lack of resolution sets the tone for the collection. As the seasons and locations change, the principal speaker becomes more firmly entrenched in his dual nature, forgetting who he is and questioning what he knows. Yet strong voice is not the only element that unifies these poems. The ever-present reminder that at some point we are all foreigners in our own lives binds each scene to the reader. And so, like any good dream, another strong element of craft swirled into the sounds of Blair’s poetry is his way with delicate images: the flash of ocean as a student drowns, the scent of an indescribable soup steaming from a bowl, the brilliance of a silent Buddha flaking chips of soft gold. Despite the confusion of this dual world, each image provides clarity in description, adding texture to these poems.

In “From the Window,” the first poem in the second section of the collection, the speaker abandons all he has come to know. He leaves Siripan, his Thai lover; his former students; his now-familiar Bangkok, the City of Angels. Yet there is continued uncertainty, and continued growth. Blair’s inquiries and insights in this section become as vaguely precise as a monk’s questions: What comes first, the mountain, or the valley? Is life as an outsider choice or consequence? In this section readers find a different country, and with it, another set of lyrical poems that lead deeper into the Thai dream as remembered by a foreigner gone native.

The train pulls away from Bangkok station,
away from Siripan, from the closed
school and into a myth of rice fields.
What’s older, the farmer plowing
a glass sea, or the idea
of motion, of wheels and wind?

A small blue comma, the man’s body,
hunches over the plow in the distance.

The speaker questions movement here, his motion as well as the wheel that turns for all who live. Later, in “Barubador Temple,” he examines a new conflict:

If I wasn’t in love
with stones I could be the one
monk statue sitting free, nothing but air
and light around me.

This is intriguing scene and language because on the one hand this speaker is free, not just of traditional American constraints, but also in his ability to move from place to place. Yet his struggle to let go of his Western notions of life and attitude bind him to his body. Is it possible, he wonders, to sit, to know one space, and yet be grounded? Is it right to be happy in that place, yet wistful for another? As Blair moves through his two lives the question continues to haunt him.

One of the joys of reading these poems is that they work like a traditional Koan—a Zen form of poetry that confuses, yet (hopefully) enlightens the reader or listener. Each piece in this collection presents questions and lessons that prompt the reader to consider his or her nature. Getting into the meat of these poems, then, is like meditation, like getting to the moment or near-moment of Nirvana. The careful reader will suddenly, abruptly, feel the click, the ah-ha! of understanding. It takes loss and confusion, these stories say, to find the truth of being.

In “Night House,” contemplating a student’s paper about a Thai fairy tale, Blair’s speaker unites the abstract and concrete by exploring emotion and necessity:

How can I grade its agreement
or tense? I want to hear the mother’s
voice, her spirit calling like the frogs
in the paddies. Is that her, that magic
mother who speaks the language of rain,
husks and the night house?

English teacher or not, the reader can understand the speaker’s problem: Is it better to maintain the order of structure and expectation and ignore the beauty of the content, or is it best to let oneself go to the whirlwind of feeling created as structure is broken? This is a question answered in the literal form of Blair’s poems. The rules of storytelling apply to each poem, allowing each character to have his or her voice. It’s a paradox that Blair as the principal author/speaker could accomplish this only through losing and questioning Blair as person. This cleavage is strongest in “Two Farangs” as the speaker transcends location and color, forgetting his own body, his own identity, while watching another farang from across the street:

Look, at that farang strutting
down the sidewalk, I think,
sweaty, hairy chest and shock
of frizzed, blond hair bright
in sunlight. Ragged pants,
no shirt, that beard.
I’m about to cross the street
to warn him we Thais
find big white bodies unsettling
as ghosts, until I glimpse
my pale reflection in a store
window, my round farang eyes
staring back at me in wonder.

Life as metaphor in this inquiry into self and reflection on who he is and who he’s become challenges the speaker throughout these poems, and Blair’s gentle way of setting up this tension pushes toward some kind of long-sought release. But as he brings his collection full circle in his return to Pittsburgh, that desire, like all desires, must fade in order for the speaker—and thus, the reader—to feel at peace with what is.

In “Back in Pittsburgh” the speaker feels out of place during the ceremonies surrounding his father’s funeral. The memories of the times mentioned and people conjured are no longer his to cling to. Lost among once-familiar faces and streets and bars, the speaker attempts to return to the familiarity of his Thailand.

what I expect
to see throws me: not Singh quart bottles
but Iron City ponies on the table,

not sunshine on the wide Bangkok Boulevards
and palm trees waving in glare, but overcast sky,
narrow streets hugging hillsides, my tires
drumming cobblestones between old steel rails.

Those who have left home for distant lands and returned to once-familiar shores will connect with Blair’s words here. The expectations, the memories of what once was—after life in another country these things too, are simply dreams, fading from grasp as times flows.

Driving the old streets I spot a blue bicycle
like the one I ride everyday in Ubol.
I want to follow it, as the rain thickens
into curtains between us, want to believe
its wavering silhouette will guide me home.

Home? Where is home, for this ghost of a man, this drifting voice here, that stone statue elsewhere? The speaker’s dream has faded at the end, and caught between the reality of what is, now, and what was—both in Thailand and at home—he cannot find a place to plant himself. In the end, he dreams of two worlds again, his Thailand, his Pittsburgh, and both are gone, leaving him forever changed.


Drinking Age

By Karen Zhang

When I first came to the U.S., I had to be asked the question of “How old are you” for the first time when I checked out at a supermarket. It never occurred to me that I had to bring my ID to a store. I had been in America only about two weeks. I shopped with my American retired professor friend for groceries. He wanted to buy beer for his house guests. His gray hair and fatherly look could no way stir the cashier’s suspicion since you have to be twenty-one to buy beer. But it was me—a twenty-six-year-old Chinese who probably looked sixteen then—who spoiled my friend’s shopping plan.

“Can I see your ID?” a chunky middle-aged cashier asked. She deftly swiped the items on the belt across an infrared monitor.

“I don’t have an ID with me,” I said as if I was accused.

“I have my driver’s license,” my American friend said as he pulled out his ID from the black leather wallet.

“No, I want to see hers,” the cashier insisted. “I know you have no problem in checking out the beer. But I’m not sure about her.” She eyed me firmly.

“I don’t have a driver’s license and I don’t have my passport with me,” I said flatly.

“How old are you?”

“26.” I was shocked by the question. I was told it was impolite to ask a woman’s age. Good manners seemed to be played down this time.

“It’s the company’s policy that we should check young people’s IDs if they check out beer.”

“He bought the beer, not me,” I argued, feeling I had no advantage in this conversation.

“No. Since you and he are in the same party, I’ll still need to check your ID.”

Just when I was about to refute, my friend gave up and said, “All right, take out the beer.”

Thanks to the cashier who stuck to her guns, we didn’t get beer. My friend got it a few days later by himself. I can’t say if that cashier was too rigid or too responsible. I also can’t say if I should feel flattered when my young appearance on a legally-aged body causes an ID check before my drinking. But I now understand why there are many late teens Westerners on a binge in China and why many young Americans would like to party in Canada where the legal drinking age is 18 or 19. Isn’t this an American rendition of a Chinese saying—every policy has a counter-strategy?


Dance Review: Art and Style Studio Annual Showcase

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

The Art and Style Dance Studio might be tucked away from the bustle of Pittsburgh’s South Side, but inside the nondescript building on Jane Street is a sense of liveliness unique to ballroom dance. Terry and Rozana Sweeney, the owners, hold classes and performances in latin and ballroom styles, for students of all ages and levels.

The space lends itself brilliantly to performance and competition. A sprawling wood floor provides plenty of room for the sweeping rise and fall of a waltz. The tall ceiling and round balcony compliment the regal nature of a fox trot. Even a sizzling salsa grabs the attention of the audience, seated up close and personal.

Friday marked the studio’s ninth annual showcase, where students competed with their partners in the style of their choice. The Sweeney’s choreographed each number, then coached the couples in technique, style and performance for a month prior.

Said Rozana Sweeney, “Compared to the competition we run every March for competitors from all over the country, this event is a more personal one for our students.”

The evening featured fourteen routines in an array of styles ranging from cha-cha to jive. Dancers competed as “amateur adults,” or “juniors.” Audience members were responsible for choosing the winners, via voting cards.

A group number opened the show. Two couples danced the bolero, a romantic and slower tempo latin dance. The women wore black flowing dresses with multicolored scarves at their waists and flowers in their hair. They rocked and swayed in their partners’ arms to the gentle lilt of the music.

In a more animated routine, dancers Mike MacConnel and Gena Melago danced a jive. MacConnel, an energetic performer, played the part of the quintessential nerd. The two brought sass and laughter to the audience.

Maria Chaderina and Adam Glatz danced a cha-cha, wowing the crowd with their fluid limbs and sultry hip undulations. Originally from Russia, Chaderina recently received her Ph.D in Finance from Carnegie Mellon University. She is clearly talented in many ways.

The crowd pleasers of the evening were seven-year-old Christopher Paluselli and nine-year-old Alyse Fay. The juniors danced a paso doble, and exhibited all the intensity and sharpness the style demands. Although they showed well practiced technique, their cuteness gave them an edge.

The overall winners of the evening were Becky Stern and Mike MacConnel. Their tango told the story of one woman’s fantasy. MacConnel played the part of a flirtatious restaurant waiter, while Stern was a customer bored with her date. They danced to “La Cumparsita,” a famous and instantly recognizable tango. In using both the ballroom and Argentine style of the dance, the two traveled through the space with drama, interspersing moments of close hold and articulate foot patterns. Their theatrical skill, in addition to the crisp clarity of their bodies, won them the show.

For anyone with a desire to cultivate their own inner ballroom dancer, check out Art and Style Studio. The Sweeney’s continue to teach students, regardless of their level, how to move with grace and flair. Each performer floated through the evening with poise and confidence.

Writing A Haibun

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I belong to a Poet’s Club (as we have chosen to call ourselves, and which I have written about here before.) Each time we meet, the host-poet hands out a writing assignment for the next time; our most recent assignment was a haibun.

Haibun is traditionally a prose/haiku set having to do with travel. American haibuns have stretched that tradition. As Kimiko Hahn explains in a column for poems out LOUD: “Present tense, brevity in prose, objective detachment and implication are common characteristics of modern haibun in English but no characteristic is an inviolable rule.” (http://poemsoutloud.net/columns/archive/haibun_hybrid/

My reentry blog after several months of silence is an attempt to combine several different layers into the form.

Night Travels and the Desert Poet

Yes, I’m sleepwalking while awake so I’ll remember what I see. I undo the lock, lift up the clear pane, and hoist myself in through the open window. I’m not a prowler or a thief, so I simply stand there in the dark while my eyes adjust. I can already make out a book by the desert poet, open on a bedside table. A man is asleep in the bed beside it; his left arm is extended, the hand relaxed and open so his index finger just grazes the page (the poem) where a truck hauling used generators pulls into a motel parking lot, causing the windowpanes in that stanza to vibrate. The sleeper doesn’t hear this of course, and it’s hard to know if his finger can translate words on the page into messages his dreaming brain will understand. A tall brass lamp beside his bed has a blue-green shade that must, when it’s switched on, cast a light that shimmers like the water in an unpolluted mountain lake. I imagine it now, lapping the sleeper as he sits in bed reading: It’s midnight. He props himself up with an extra pillow and opens the desert poet’s book; the rumpled green quilt on the bed is drawn around him as he stops to savor words like “dharma” and “hamstrung” and “multitudinous”; he lingers over many passages in the surrounding poetic code. As I said, I’m not a thief, so I won’t pry open the sleeper’s thoughts—won’t ask how it feels to travel through a desert washed in light like blue-green water—if the desert poet’s heat has set fire to some ideas—if they’re boiling inside!—if his cup runneth over and his heartbeat measures out equal parts of sorrow and jubilation. Instead I gaze slowly around again, trying to take it all in—I’m aiming here for a generosity of looking. This time I see a pair of glasses, a lace cloth on the dresser—reticella—a tear in one corner, as if something sharp had caught in a loop and ripped it there. I notice the tiny bottle of perfume, and a hand mirror beside a black and white photo in a silver frame—the not-so surprising fact that the woman pictured there looks strangely like the daytime me. I touch nothing, except with memory’s thumb. I climb silently back through the still-open window to the other side. I leave the sleeper inside to lock things up, to pull the pane shut again, if he must.

travel weary night
sleeps—cloud bed, open window
someone’s eye climbs in

(Have I written a haibun? Only the Poet’s Club–and maybe the Night Traveler– knows….)


I Held Sam after Class Today

by Publius

I held Sam after class today. He stared out the window and cried.

He tells me that he just wants to go home. We discuss his behavior. Sam knows his behavior is disruptive, but he hates his Ritalin because it “flattens his affective range” — in other words, the pills keep him from feeling anything.

A week or so ago, his first decision was that he wouldn’t take his meds on Fridays, so he could have fun with his buddies after school. I warned him against this then.

But Friday was so much fun that he decides, for this whole week, he will not take his meds at all.

I ask about his folks. His mother kicked him out of the house, and just placed him in foster-care. The problem is that the current foster-mother is a drunk. Sam and his new foster-brother wait until she is asleep, and get into her liquor. Last night was the first time he had ever been drunk. He really liked it.

He’s 13. And he mourns the loss of his birth mother with a pain that only God can measure.


Book Review: Miraculum by Ruth L. Schwartz

Pittsburgh: Autumn House Press, 2012
ISBN: 978-1932870596
112 pages

reviewed by Mike Walker

Ruth Schwartz’s new book of poems starts off with a quote on poetry as an art by Pablo Neruda and this seems like a most-apt and fitting introit to the poetry that follows. Schwartz, as well as being an established and accomplished poet, is a psychologist and the dynamics of interpersonal relations and the life of the mind one would expect from a clinical psychologist is apparent in her writing. While her topics are diverse, her focus on personal interpretation and also on the mind-body relationship are clear in many of them. When she writes about other people, her introspective skills shine through and I cannot help but think she also, in turn, probably employs many of the benefits of her skills as a poet in her work with patients.

“How we shuffle along in our various bodies” she begins the title poem “Miraculum”, going on along on this trajectory with teenage girls, the postman, and an older woman all called in as examples of the variety of humanity and human movement. The poem is at once heart-warming and nearly scientific: it bespeaks a clear sincerity in its tone that is amplified by these examples of people who feel like honest observations from actual life.

The face of the pavement is wrinkled by light.
The dusty parking lot has turned to snow.
And this other dust, the dust of our hearts?

These words conclude Schwartz’s poem “Beginning, Over and Over Again” and offer a prime example of how her word-craft is tight, evocative, and yet almost truncated, edited down to its basal strengths. The biographical paragraph on the back-cover of the books identifies that Schwartz lives in Oakland, California, but there’s something very snow-bound about many of her poems, something of dark skies and cold days. Coupled with this is how she writes about love and interpersonal dynamics of romance—which is from an expectedly older, wiser, viewpoint.

Maybe the lilies pray for us,
for all the ways we keep ourselves
from opening…

The lines above come from the poem “Lilies at Midnight” which forms something of a spiritual and artistic core of this book and brings forth some of its richest writing and most pure images. Schwartz is able to craft the lily into something far beyond metaphor and enable to the flower to take on many roles in society and literature. The poem reads like a sweeping tour of how people, romance, and flowers interact in the guise of this specific flower, but more than that, it demonstrates why we have florists, why flowers matter and are crucial to so many functions and core events in our society.

“Winter Solstice” is another poem that invokes the roles of nature in human affairs of the heart. Such efforts are not atypical of our contemporary poets and in the hands of some, so many poems in one book focused on romance would seem a bit much unless it was early into the month of February, however, in Schwartz’s skilled craft, her high number of poems on romantic themes are simply delights. In other poems, most notably “Driving Home”, Schwartz is adept at placing the daily human processes of modern life (post-modern life perhaps?) into the eternal and magisterial realm of nature that continues along, always the same, season by season. Our commutes to and from work pale in contrast but they also fit into the patterns of nature Schwartz identifies in this and many of her other poems in this volume. “The Immutable” is another poem of this tenor and this same high caliber: In its expression of a child’s curiosity and the tireless cycles of the ocean’s steadfast waves, it tells us so much about ourselves.

One of the seemingly most straight-forward yet one of the most-powerful poems in this book is titled “Some Answers to the Question ‘Who Are You’” and the poem in fact offers these answers. Perhaps telling of the poet’s training and experiences as a psychologist, this poem interrogates crucial, basal, issues of identity as they come forth in our everyday speech. The “answers” are quite varied and appear to come from different people, with some being very honest and logical such as one where the speaker states she is a cardiologist while others are flights of fancy, such as a pilot who is throwing people one by one off his plane, high over the open ocean. He tells us he too will soon jump into the sea—just not quite yet. It is in writing such as this that Schwartz shows us one of the foremost jobs of the contemporary poet: to ask questions, to postulate realities, to investigate—and to lead her reader moreover to also investigate—the interplay between mind and external world.

Another poem that really stood out to me was “Many Things Are True”, which like many poems presented here concern human relations—mainly those romantic—in the larger metaphoric arena of the wealth of nature. Winter is again conjured up, but instead of presenting any feelings of coldness or barren expanses, it offers a framework of the stoic, strong, environment that our mere human lives move through. Woodpeckers, one example of many where Schwartz brings us animals to help animate her material, natural, sphere for us, peck away and the world—a “new planet” in the poet’s own words—exists in radiance in the background, like the fabled “blazing world” Margaret Cavendish described in her own romantic flights of fancy so many years ago. The crowning power of this book is exactly this quality: it is the rare ability to join the outright fantasy and the very tangible reality—the veracity of the cardiologist and the horror of the suicidal pilot, plus all the lovers found here and there within the forests of Schwartz’s words.

Miraculum is an especially rare book in that it concerns often everyday issues and ideas yet in a way that brings back lyricism to what we call “poetics”. Very much worth reading, I would dare call it even one of the best books of new American poetry thus far of this year.


A Hearing

By Karen Zhang

I thought it was a unique Chinese way to assemble a homeowners association, especially since disputes between Chinese homeowners and developers have increased exponentially in Chinese cities. I’ve now discovered homeowners associations in America have great supervising power over any individual household.

I realized this after my Virginia home received a notice that was more or less a subpoena to a hearing regarding my family’s supposedly misplacing a trash barrel at the wrong time and at the wrong spot. The notice was enclosed with an eight by five snapshot of the evidence—a trash barrel marked with our house number standing at the corner of a sidewalk, where the curb is painted yellow to alert no parking. At the corner of the picture showed the time—3:52pm, April 26, 2012. The notice declared that each household should place their trash barrel directly in front of their houses either after dark or early the next morning when the trash is picked up.

In China, I would ignore such a notice but my husband told me that if we didn’t attend the hearing we could be fined or face legal action. That sounded threatening. At the hearing, my husband and I faced three members of the homeowners board across a table. I immediately recognized the woman who once gave me verbal warning about the trash. She must be the one who took the evidence photo. Why would the homeowners association make such a sneaky move to snap a photo rather than simply knock on our door to clear any misunderstanding?

It is a big deal to attend a hearing in China. But Americans seem to be born to be litigious. Unofficial statistics show the United States has one lawyer for every 270 Americans, the most in the world. Whereas in the U.K., for instance, each lawyer is for 400 Britons. (The ranking for Chinese lawyers is too far behind to be visible on the list.)

My husband told the board that for fifteen years he had been leaving the trash in front of the house as directed with no trouble. The board barked back that our trash barrel was too close to a “NO PARKING” sign. My husband countered that the trash barrel was never on the yellow “NO PARKING” line and that the sign doesn’t say “NO TRASH.”

So what happened? The board saved its face by fining us $50 and then saved our face saying that if we were good for six months, we would not have to pay the fine. We still put our trash barrel directly in front of our house but further away from the sign and yellow line. What I learned from this hearing is even though I may be a silent lamb in China, I have to be feisty in America. For my own sake, I must use a tit-for-tat strategy. I may not be as noisy as an American but I can be eloquent for my own rights.



by Publius

Jonah and I chat. Jonah is another kid who is constantly disruptive.

He says, “I know what I need to do. I just wish I knew how to do it.”

My wife would say that Jonah is a perfect candidate for psychodynamic psychotherapy. He’s bright. He understands the effects his actions have upon others and upon himself. He wants what kids his age want: he wants to love and be loved.

But all he knows is how to get negative attention. He has almost no capacity for comforting himself.

For which he soon will be kicked out of this school, sent to another, and so on until he is sixteen.