The Answer

by John Samuel Tieman

When I awoke Saturday, the first thought was, ‘Today is the day that Ruth dies.’

Ruth is my mother-in-law. Thursday, she had a heart attack. Friday, my wife, her daughter, Phoebe, put her in a hospice.

Her hospice is in the country, in southern Illinois, an hour outside St. Louis. The old folks home, where Mario, Ruth’s husband, still lives, is set like an Andrew Wyeth painting, the house on the hill, an empty pasture rolling toward the viewer, only someone old in the foreground rather than a comely model. On the drive, Phoebe and I look across a soy bean field, and see The Arch oddly on the horizon. We stop at the old folks home to pick-up Mario. The hospice is ten minutes from the home.

Mario is ninety-two and blind. Ruth is unresponsive. I have to explain to Mario how his wife looks. Her lips are white. I ask him if he would like to hold her hand. Mario is of that generation of men never trained in reflection or expression. He sits. I put her hand in his. He kisses her hand, and simply says, “Good-bye, Ma.” Then sets his head on the edge of the bed and weeps. Sixty-two years of marriage.

The family gathers. We’re alternately chatty with life and denial, then quiet as we listen for Ruth’s next breathe.

the answer

my mother-in-law
R. C., 1923 – 2012

there’s no climate change in a hospice
the shadows the same the year round
the only sign of autumn is some kid’s hand turkey
taped next to the hand sanitizer on the wall
the wall is marred by a poorly moved bed
even death is dull when it’s measured

four breaths a minute
three then
there’s no memory in a hospice
no Kilroy died here! and So did Red!
there’s only the folks in charge of death
the chaplain, the daughter and the poet

but that’s how I learned what’s a death rattle
the nun who stops praying
the daughter who drops a book
the charge nurse who whispers This is it


Campaign Ads

By Karen Zhang

I’m very annoyed with the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign. I live in the Washington D.C. region—I couldn’t be any closer to the spotlight. The campaign for the GOP is such a long haul, starting more than a year ago. Local TV stations have never missed a day since April 2011 to report on the Republican contenders. Virginia is considered a swing state in this year’s election. So the campaign ads from both the Republicans and the Democrats have gone viral on the public air. These ads are filled with negativity. To some extent, they’re eye-openers to me — in China you’d be given the death penalty for making such fierce criticism against the ruling government. Perhaps I should take the battle of campaign ads as an example of American freedom of speech.

The incessant TV campaign ads do no good for either candidate, but they do create substantial profits for the TV stations. As a viewer, I’ve become more angry than supportive. Neither Obama’s nor Romney’s proposed agenda is perfect. It bugs me that both of them have used China as a scapegoat for the high domestic unemployment rate. China is indeed the biggest provider of consumer goods for the United States but a coin has two sides. Without the government’s encouragement and the businessmen’s willingness to reduce manufacturing costs, the commercial deal with China won’t work. After all, China’s labor cost is not cheap compared to that of ten years ago. Why don’t the American politicians examine themselves what has gone wrong with their policies before pushing the faults on others? That’s so typical even in China’s leadership.

Long ago, I’ve learned the path to the White House is astronomically priced for any presidential candidate. But this year I learn the campaign ads have gone overboard, particularly in the swing states—Virginia is one of the few victims. I don’t think the voters in these states will be swung to either side after watching the same offensive ads a million times. At least too much advertising has antagonized me further about the November election. Over the weekends when I traveled to New York City and New Jersey, which don’t swing as much as Virginia, I realized how much I had missed the campaign-free TV commercials.

Alas, if I can’t get away from my the election politics, then I’ll just have to bear it for a few more months. God bless the Virginians!


The Order of Things: Home Design

by Eva-Maria Simms

I have not been outside in four days. Thursday I started renovating my entry hall, and the detail mania took over: no sooner did I take out the curtains, they needed to be washed; the curtain rods needed cleaning, the casement needed to be painted, the windows needed to be windexed, the screens scrubbed of spider webs and bug cocoons. So much need! The space between window and screen had become a hotbed of dust and insect activity over the past few years – perhaps because the window is warmer in the winter and its cavity protects from rain and wind. I have no idea how all these bugs got behind the screen…. The window, the screen, the sill, the curtains: all wanted attention, all needed to be wiped and washed and touched. And this was just the little window corner of my entry hall. There was so much more to go. Thursday morning I opened Pandora’s Box, and I slaved for four 12 hour days to put everything back into it, just cleaner and more orderly.

We usually think of things as the backdrop of our lives, the silent participants who are at hand and make no demands. But that is not what things are. They are demanding presences, encroaching entities. “Things people our soul”, as the child psychologist Langeveld has said. Things demand care and attention. They want to be touched and placed. They have friends among other things, like the clique of picture frames on the side table or the dyad of chair and reading lamp in the corner. Yet despite their affinities, each thing also wants to have a space around it where it can remain separate and unique and demand our sole attention. It wants to step out of the background of other things just once a while, even though mostly it is content to be part of the larger, receding volumes around the specific outline of figural objects. Japanese aesthetics knows this: too many things, too many lines, and we cannot appreciate each one. Our attention can only hold a few appearances at once. Too many, and it skips around like a flea on the floor in search of a warm body.

My German grandmother used to say: “Jedes Ding hat seinen Ort, tu es hin und zwar sofort”, “Everything has its own place, put it there right away”. When I was young I disparaged this proverb since it seemed to express the excessive demand for orderliness of a Hausfrau. But having lived with things for a long time, I have to agree with my grandmother. Every thing has its place in the spatial web, and if it gets misplaced from there it will be in the way somewhere else: it will jar our perception, it will trip under our feet, it will be lost when we need it and sometimes forever. The central idea of Feng Shui is that things and their relationships with each other have a psychological reality which stresses or relaxes, clarifies or confuses, comforts or stresses us. The ancient Chinese knew that paying attention to the psychological, “energetic” order of things makes for a much better home life.

My entry hall is clean and painted antique red, white, and tricorn black. It looks as if it had wanted these Napoleonic colors all along (my house in Pittsburgh has the crazy idea that it wants to be French. No, not me. I am German…). I have found that after a really good design job I am not surprised and vowed about the effect a room has. Rather, I have a quiet sense of déjà vu: the house has dreamed to be this and I became its tool. We both knew this all along. I was only too self-important, too human, to recognize that things themselves have intentionality.

Looking at the walls, contemplating the space, planning color, repairing the stairs, cleaning all surfaces, painting the ceiling, giving my hands and my body to the obsessive call of things until I forget to eat and for three nights fall exhausted into my bed – all this went into the work. The best we can do as creative, artistic people is to return things to their proper relationship with each other and make their order visible. Beauty is not in the surface of paint, color, and texture, but in the relation that all things in a space have with each other. And once we have lent our bodies and minds to the order of things, it allows us to dwell in a living place that surrounds and embraces us, or, as the Lakota greeting says: “walk in balance and beauty.”



by Publius

So I say to the kids, ‘Write three paragraphs about your favorite vacation. Introductory paragraph, development, conclusion …’. An assignment teachers have been giving since time immemorial.

Samantha raises her hand. “What if I’ve never been on a vacation? Never left the city?”

‘Ah, well, if you’ve never been on vacation, never left town, then write about someplace you’ve been that’s interesting.’

“Can I write about the first time I went to jail?”

‘That would be interesting.’

She’s fourteen.

I get three such papers.

I get quite a few papers from kids who write about rooms where they feel safe. Two write papers in which they dream about where their fathers live.


Book Review: Home

by Nicole Bartley

Toni Morrison’s novels are rarely quick reads, even the short ones take time to absorb. It’s not the pacing that slows the reader, but the fact that Morrison deserves time and thought. She always includes profound and sometimes unsettling themes within simple plots, and Home is no different.

It is a story about co-dependent siblings. Frank has always protected his younger sister, Ycidra (or Cee), who had been called “gutter child” since she was a baby because she was born while the family traveled. Frank enlists in the Korean War and Cee runs off to marry “a rat,” who steals the car they had borrowed and abandons Cee. After a couple dead-end jobs, Cee becomes a doctor’s assistant and is soon ill from an infection caused by the doctor’s exploration of her womb.

Frank returns from the war as one of the only survivors from his hometown in Georgia. He falls in love with a woman who can calm his post-traumatic stress disorder, but she eventually leaves him. Soon afterward, Frank receives a letter from Sarah, who is a woman who works with Cee. “She be dead,” is all it says. Frank then sets out to travel from outside of Portland to his hometown. On the way, he suffers a PTSD episode in public. The police apprehend him and restrain him in a hospital. He escapes with his clothes and service medal, but no money, and relies on the kindness of strangers in order to take a couple busses and a train back home.

One prevailing theme in Home is the concept that people are inherently good. Both Frank and Cee experience kindness, ignorance, hatred, and desperation from strangers, employers, and family members. While they were children, their grandmother denied them nutritious food and constantly judged Cee to be trash. As an adult, Frank is given charity money, lodging, and gifts of clothes from various strangers as he travels, but he’s also incarcerated and mugged. Cee’s employer uses her as a test subject and causes an infection, but does nothing to cure her. Frank must take Cee back to elderly women in their hometown for medical attention. It takes months for Cee to heal, and weeks until she’s able to return to Frank’s care. In that time, she matures from her exposure to the other women’s personalities and skills, and to her own stupidity. On that matter, Morrison writes, “As usual [Cee] blamed being dumb on her lack of schooling, but that excuse fell apart the second she thought about the skilled women who had cared for her, healed her… So it was just herself. In this world with these people she wanted to be the person who would never again need rescue.”

This touches on a second theme that Morrison often incorporates in her stories: female prowess. Women or girls in her story are either already strong, or they grow from their experiences. Home incorporates both of these types of characters. After reading Morrison’s stories, readers can step back and find the strict or taxing women in their lives and see them in a new perspective, thus finding ways to learn from them. How many of us have had elderly neighbors who gossip and judge, but also help when others need it? How many of us have abusive relatives who could still provide a few lessons if we stopped to listen? How many of us have strong women who were always there, affecting our lives and never receiving gratitude? And finally, how many of us want to be like those women? In this slim book, Morrison causes her readers to consider their lives, recollect all the complaints we’ve issued, and recognize where the fault actually lies and how to fix it, thereby making us stronger.

In tandem with this concept of strong women, the story also contains a few brief passages that offer social commentary that are as true now as in the ’50s. These are lines that stick out, ones that college students underline has key passages that resonate or provide fodder for discussions. It is as if Morrison inserts an “Oh, by the way, has this notion occurred to you yet?” For example, she writes in one passage:
You free. Nothing and nobody is obliged to save you but you… You young and a woman and there’s serious limitation in both, but you a person too. Don’t let [your grandmother] or some trifling boyfriend and certainly no devil doctor decide who you are. That’s slavery. Somewhere inside you is that free person I’m talking about. Locate her and let her do some good in the world.

Sadly, racism and prejudice still exist in modern days—people are still segregated, hated, and ridiculed based on the color of their skin or their genders. In addition to this, women are undergoing civil rights issues due to the threat of legislature that limits a woman’s rights to her own body. Morrison’s characters embody both of these issues, especially because of Cee’s infections. The above passage, then, pushes home the concept that we have the strength and the right to save ourselves, to define ourselves without requiring approval from anyone else. Also, the last line, “Locate her and let her do some good in the world,” almost echoes a popular quote from Ghandi: Be the change you wish to see in the world. This passage, then, is a verbal slap upside the head for young women who believe that the outside world is the cause for all their woes.

Morrison also excels at revealing life’s grit. She doesn’t veil details for the sake of propriety. All of her books maintain this writing style, resulting in readers almost expecting curse words, intimate details of bodily functions, or deviant sexual scenes. She writes the uninhibited truth about life. Returning readers may be less prone to being offended by the language. Morrison has a flare for making deviant activity enticing. And, in terms of language, Morrison allows her characters to speak the same way people would in the real world. This is evident in the lack of proper grammar or sentence structure in the narration, as well as in dialogue. People, especially those who are poor and live in the country, do not censor themselves. In a stroke of realism, Morrison doesn’t censor them either. When Cee is ordered to lie out in the sun with her legs spread and without clothes, she protests from embarrassment. One of her caretaker frankly says, “You think your twat is news?” In everyday conversation, many people would be offended by this statement, and yet it appears to be fitting in a Morrison novel. If that is the way people talk when censorship isn’t a concern, then that is the way her characters talk. This complements the narration and provides something tangible in order for the readers to understand location. The language aids in representing “home,” and readers may consider their own hometowns and recognize that language and accents are just as important as the physical details.

However, Frank and Cee’s hometown appears as a backdrop of events rather than a character in itself. Morrison concentrates on her characters and their histories. Even Frank’s journey home is more about the people he meets along the way than the journey itself or the destination. Also, throughout most of the story, Frank and Cee hate their hometown. They both left as soon as possible. In all that time growing up, moving apart, and finding one another again, they each represented home for the other. Only when they were together did they fit in the world. It is only after life takes a turn for the better, toward the end, that Frank and Cee begin to see their hometown as “fresh and ancient, safe and demanding.”

Whereas Morrison fails to turn place into a character, she manages to use the narrator instead. Occasionally, short italicized chapters punctuate the narrative after a few regular chapters. It is almost as if the narrator (who may or may not be Morrison) becomes an off-stage character. The voice in these italicized chapters belongs to Frank, who is speaking to the narrator as that person writes his story. Frank usually opposes the narrator and “clarifies” bits of information or emotion for the narrator’s (and thus the audience’s) benefit. Other times, he seems to reminisce about a moment that had just been explored in a previous chapter, or a new one that the narrator may not have included. In this way, Morrison creates a parallel story. It is also as if the story has a commentary feature, like on a DVD’s special features disc, with character commentary instead of an actor’s. This effect is intriguing. It makes Frank’s character more real, as if Morrison based the entire story off a real-life friend. It provides layers that fold into each other and flatten only at the end of the novel. It leaves readers guessing about what else is omitted from the narration, as well as whether the narrators and characters are reliable storytellers.

Morrison also skillfully shifts points of views between the main characters and secondary characters, who appear only briefly. This is evident in a scene when Frank removes Cee from the doctor’s house. Sarah stands at the door and watches Frank carry Cee away and, for two paragraphs, readers are able to see her side of the story, her fears and expectations. During this brief scene, she provides an explanation of the doctor’s history, which readers would not encounter during the regular narration. The POV returns to Frank when Sarah shuts the kitchen door, because her role is complete.

Despite Morrison’s stable use of realism, she incorporates a touch of magical realism, which exists in most of her stories. In Home, this touch manifests in the form of a short, older man who wears a pale blue zoot suit, a wide-brimmed hat, and pointed white shoes. Frank first sees him on a train. The man sits next to him, says nothing, and soon leaves. There is no indentation from where he sat on the seat. He appears again in a child’s room when Frank is offered shelter for the night from a family. Frank, in alarm, jumps to fight the man and protect the family, but the man again vanishes. This incident suggests that the man is part of Frank’s imagination, perhaps a symptom of his PTSD. However, he doesn’t reappear again until Frank is digging a grave with his sister. This time, Cee notices him while Frank remains oblivious. Here, at the end of the story, readers may suspect that the man was a ghost of the person whom Frank and Cee were burying, a man they had seen buried in a ditch when they were children, and a man who was guiding Frank home in order to do the right thing.

This small insertion of magical realism suggests that in the gritty details of life, there are still fantastic moments that guide and shape us from childhood to adult hood. The fact that the man appears only when Frank is either traveling home or already there might mean that wherever readers consider to be home, magic is there just for us.


Art, Politics And Aztecs

by Phoebe Ann Cirio and John Samuel Tieman

Nothing feels benign anymore. That’s the lesson of terrorism. Planes used to be safe — flying used to be fun! So were movies and restaurants.

Everything feels wrong. We can land a rover on Mars, but our kids can’t pass math. We esteem yesterday over today and tomorrow. Major religions seem rigid. Many folks find life black and white. Then there’s the hate, the violence. It seems like one day there’s a shooting, and the next there’s an execution . America can’t even invade the right country anymore. Life seems overwhelming.

How do we approach all this? How do we approach all this safely?

Not long ago, we were in Mexico City. There is something quite evocative about standing before the Chacmool, a sacrificial altar. A human sacrificial altar. It reminds us of New York City.

A few years ago, we spent a week in New York City. We especially wanted to see the exhibit of Aztec art at the Guggenheim Museum.

We had lunch at the Tavern On The Green, a fashionable restaurant in Central Park. We sat next to a delightful group of eight women. They were high school classmates. To celebrate a birthday, they had flown in from all over the country. There was much photographing and joking. Their friendliness overtook our corner of the restaurant. And while we were not in their party, they were impossible not to notice.

Especially when, as suddenly as a tsunami, their conversation turned to the World Trade Center. They all knew someone who had died. One spoke of a neighbor, another of a brother-in-law. With anxiety still in her voice, the teacher told how she watched the towers collapse from her classroom. Most poignantly, the retiree added, “It’s different now that I live in Florida. Those people aren’t like us. They aren’t always on alert.”

The ladies at the neighboring table know something about fear.

The Aztecs ruled their region by terrorizing their neighbors. They were a rigid society. They were feared and despised by their neighbors, upon whom they constantly warred. But the aim of their “Flowery Wars” was not slaughter. They captured their opponents for human sacrifice.

That’s what’s so engaging about the Aztecs. In the town where Ground Zero is being reconstructed, we identify with the sacrificial victim.

The sacrifice was bent backward over the Chacmool, the altar. The victim’s arms, legs and head were held firmly by five priests. A sixth priest quickly and expertly plunges an obsidian knife between the terrified victim’s ribs. He twists the knife, spreads the ribs. A sacrifice is considered well done when the priest holds aloft the still-beating heart.

In a hostile universe, daily human sacrifice was needed to appease the gods. Sacrifice was a common part of minor ritual. On the other hand, thousands were sacrificed during the dedication of the Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, today’s Mexico City.

But such sacrifice also earned the Aztecs the hatred of their neighbors, who were easy for Hernan Cortez to recruit. The Aztec empire ruled central and southern Mexico for about 300 years. But their reign ended swiftly upon the arrival of Conquistadores in 1519.

There was much to learn from an exhibit of Aztec art set in the town where there occurred the greatest loss of life due to a terrorist attack on American soil.

The Aztecs felt inferior to others. They esteemed their ancestors over themselves. Their theology was demanding. Life was black and white. The living were haunted by the dead, and they needed to appease the terrifying gods with human sacrifice. Xipe Totec, their god of fertility, was honored and appeased by priests who draped themselves in the skins of the sacrificed. They wore these skins until they virtually rotted off. Priests so clothed reminded the citizens that they were never safe from the demands of the gods. The Aztecs inhabited a world they found terrifying, and coped by becoming terrifying themselves.

Today, the Aztecs are reduced from their grandeur. We no longer have to fear them. We can go to the museum, and see the beautiful and frightening artifacts of a once dangerous people. Unlike the enemy who brought down the Twin Towers, the Aztecs no longer need be feared. Here at least we can be reassured that some fearsome enemies can be stopped.

Now we have a different enemy, one that we cannot see coming. Terrorism lurks in the most benign places, so that nothing feels benign anymore. (Where will we be vulnerable next? The food supply? Our french fries?) We have become afraid and vulnerable.

There was much reassurance offered by that exhibit. When we identify with the victims of the Aztecs, then we participate in an internal drama. We imagine capture and death, but we evade it. This time we get to leave unscathed. The ladies at the adjoining table remembered, again, years and months later, the ones who did not survive the attack. The Aztec exhibit engaged us in an imaginative trip into the terror. But this time we walk away.

Phoebe Ann Cirio is a psychoanalyst in private practice. John Samuel Tieman is a regular contributer to Coal Hill Review. They are married, and live in St. Louis.


Dance Review: Camille A. Brown & Dancers in Mr. Tol E. Rance at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater welcomed Camille A. Brown back to the Pittsburgh stage for the world premiere of her latest work, “Mr. TOL E. RAncE.” Brown says her relationship with the theater happened “very organically,” when she first performed a solo in 2009 for the newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival. This past Friday and Saturday night, Brown brought her entire company to perform.

When Brown originally set out to create a piece about the first blacks on Broadway, one of her board members directed her to a book by Mel Watkins called On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy from Slavery to Chris Rock. She immediately tore through the material she needed, but came back to the book later, curious about what she’d missed. That, in turn, led her to more research, and ultimately broadened her theme to the history of African American humor.

The show was, in fact, humorous. Brown is known for her love of theater. She knew when she began choreographing that the piece called for theatrical comedy. Sprinkled in, though, were definite moments of poignancy, thought-provoking and heartfelt.

Act One opened with live piano by company collaborator, Scott Patterson. The dancers entered gradually, wearing gray pants and tops, suspenders and matching caps, costumes that resembled old minstrel show clothing. Their movement was slow, suspended, and darkly lit, to not compete with the musical performance.

As the sound suddenly crescendoed, so did the dance. In fast, furious movement, inspired by the tap genre, all seven dancers performed frenetic phrases of intricate, rhythmic steps. Most impressive was that the piano eventually quieted; the dancers didn’t follow any beat, but remained in unison by listening to the sound of their breath and the stomp of their feet. The section was a nod to famous black duos, like the Nicholas Brothers.

The piece slowed down as video projection took us through the years of black television sitcoms: Diff’rent Strokes, Good Times, The Cosby Show, Bernie Mac, and the classic Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The dancers hilariously shouted the lyrics to the theme song of the latter, and parodied the moves of that time with a quite perfected “running man.”

Act Two began with a different feeling. What started as an amusing disagreement between two dancers turned into an all out fight between the entire group. The scene set up a section about stereotypes in the black culture. The company mimicked an “awards ceremony,” wearing white gloves that were common in blackface shows, when white men mocked African Americans in offensive acts of racism.

One of Brown’s goals was to not only give an historical context, but to also show how current media and entertainment biases still exist. After some satirical booty shaking, crotch grabbing and ass smacking, the dancers came to an abrupt and powerful stop, leaving one male performer on the stage as the lights dimmed. The deliberate, yet simple gestures of the dancer were projected on the back curtain as the solo unfolded. The image had a reflective quality, as if he were looking into the future at himself, from a different time. Would his former self be pleased with society’s forward progress? Or saddened by old conventions still fixed?

The curtain eventually lowered, revealing the rest of the company in shadow, emerging slowly from the back as Erykah Badu’s “On & On” played in spurts. The movement of the group depicted struggle as they advanced. Six dancers fell to the ground, leaving Brown and Patterson to close the show.

Patterson played the simple melody of “What a Wonderful World,” providing just the right amount of hope, with a sense of realism, to end. Brown moved clearly and unhurriedly as the audience held their breath. She removed her white gloves, and the lights faded.


Distracted Walkers

By Karen Zhang

If you are talking on the phone while crossing a busy street in China, the likelihood of your getting hit by a car is close to a hundred percent. Thanks to the sign of “Yield to the Pedestrians” or simply the value of “people foremost” in the U.S., pedestrians who are engaged in their smartphones while walking are lucky enough to escape from accidents. But one cannot always be that fortunate.

A recent safety report shows that about 1,150 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms in the U.S. last year for injuries while walking and using a cellphone or some other electronic devices. The number shows no sign of reducing but instead, is on the rise.

On city streets, in suburban parking lots and in shopping centers, it’s a common sight: someone strolling while talking on the phone, texting with one’s head down, listening to music or playing a video game. The danger is as high as distracted driving.

Several times a distracted walker nearly bumped into me when I was walking. I couldn’t imagine if I were in a car. When pedestrians have their ears plugged, or vision blocked by their electronic devices, how can they hear the honks from an approaching vehicle? How can they be aware that the walking signal has turned red?

I won’t be surprised if I accidently hit a distracted walker in America, the fault will be on me instead of otherwise. I remember one time when it was supposed to be my turn to make a right turn. A jogger was totally oblivious of the no-walking signal and ran anyway in front of my car, showing angry body language at me. As he ran across the street, he adjusted his earphones as if to shun a real world that will someday cost him a life for his violation.

Although I’ve been living in the States for three years, I still don’t understand why pedestrians take for granted that they always have the right of way. When the pedestrian light is blinking as a warning, some people are still taking their time to cross the street. I still hurry across the street despite having the right of way because in China drivers never wait. If the number of walking injuries keeps climbing, I guess the next person who can develop a “wake up” app for distracted walkers will probably make big money.


At the End of the Day

by Publius

The kid at the front of the class asks, “Do you love us?”

I’m really caught off-guard by this. I want to say yes, but I don’t, because I’m afraid of how the word will get misinterpreted. So I say something positive.

Then I‘m really caught off-guard.

“Do you hate us?”

Again I say something positive, I forget exactly what. But I know I’m making progress when they ask even the hardest questions.

Kevin asks me, “How long you been married?”

‘Going on twenty-one years.’

“How you stay faithful twenty-one year?” This from a kid who is all of fourteen.

Malcolm and Wanita volunteer to clean up my room. They sweep and decide to take a bit of a break. Leaning against their respective brooms, they chat and, in that way students do, forget I’m there.

“Yea, I know what you mean, Malcolm. My mama’s boyfriend was stabbed the other night too …”.

I know I’m getting somewhere with my students when I can leave the room for some time, and the room is still there when I get back.

“Because we want you to trust us,” Shakeisha says.

Which puts me in mind of Publius’s Rule # 21: Trust students implicitly — then check twice.


Loggerhead Hatchlings on the Way to the Sargassum Fields

by Eva-Maria Simms

Hatchling loggerhead turtles dig themselves out of the sand on the beaches of Florida and hurl themselves into the Atlantic Ocean in search of the North Atlantic Gyre, a circular current, which takes them to the undersea meadows of the seaweed sargassum. There they hide and eat and grow until they are big enough to fend for themselves in the open sea and eventually migrate back to their hatching grounds. If they miss the gyre, they will in all likelihood die. How do the hatchlings know that the gyre means safety, and how do they find it? They have no mother turtle to take them along and show them where to go, have no experienced turtles to swim besides.

Like other migrating animals, the baby turtles have the ability to navigate by the electro-magnetic field of the earth. They can intuitively combine the magnetic information about latitude (magnetic fields get stronger at the poles), and longitude (the angle of the pull of the magnetic field lines that intersect the Earth changes) and figure out where they are, as scientists have discovered recently. However, imagining them computating positional information and calculating mathematical coordinates as if they were scientists or nautical engineers is probably not the way it works. Or saying simply “its instinct” is also not very helpful because that does not explain anything. Is there a better way to explain how the baby turtles find the sargassum fields hundreds of miles away in the middle of the Atlantic after they hatch alone in the dark on a Florida beach?

The hatchling turtle has a mother who has laid the eggs and who herself hatched many years ago and went on the same journey just as her mother had before. Our baby turtle is part of a long line of sea turtles that perfected surviving in this particular environment. Over thousands of generations, each single one knew what to do without any example or instruction from other members of its species. Knowledge, for these turtles, is not something learned, at least initially, but they are born with the basic capacity to find the gyre and the safety of the sargassum meadows. This knowledge, however, is not fixed like a map in the brain. It is not a mechanical instinct which responds automatically to a set of stimuli. Rather, it is an open ability to grasp the varying patterns of shifting magnetic fields, the force of currents, the temperature of the sea, the variations in light and darkness and adapt its swimming body to it. This openness to its particular sensory world is a hallmark of the turtle’s mind. The turtle mind is a genius in reading the variable semiotic patterns produced by the deep sea environment, make sense out of them, and adapt its behavior accordingly. Baby turtles are already perfectly equipped to respond sensitively to shifts within this environment as they traverse it. The Atlantic Ocean is their milieu, and it is a complicated world of currents that caress the skin, patterns of light that hit the eyes, predators who bar the way, food that beckons – movement of all and sundry that communicates itself directly through the undulating water against the hatchling’s body.

It is ultimately unimaginable to humans what the world is like for the small loggerheads, but even from brief attempts to feel our way into their sensory world we can guess that that watery world is very differentiated and subtle and that the hatchlings’ bodies have fully functioning sense organs that can respond to its demands. We cannot really grasp what it is like for the sea turtle to experience shifts in the angle of latitude because we humans have no way to perceive something like this. But turtles have sense organs which perceive magnetic fields. They can feel them, like we can feel warmth on our skin or see the colors of the rainbow. We have no comparable sense-organs to make sense of this kind of experience: it is beyond the realm of human perception, and the experiential range of our bodies does not encompass most of the sea turtle’s floating, watery lived world. Our empathy with it is limited, our understanding of it is laborious and rough. Every turtle, on the other hand, makes sense of the sophisticated patterns of currents and magnetic fields, and the species finds its way in the ocean world with ease.

The desire for the North Atlantic Gyre is inscribed into the loggerheads’ bodies and pulls them through the sand and into the open sea as soon as they break their eggshells: they are designed to find it. The fit between body and milieu is an intertwined structure, and the turtle has a basic a priori knowledge or sense about what actions are good and beneficial for survival. The turtle’s knowledge, I imagine, is not so much rational and logical, but intuitive and aesthetic. It swims towards what feels right and good. This aesthetic knowledge is not a function of individual experience and personal memory, but of the body itself and belongs to the basic equipment of all organisms. Organisms judge the shifting patterns of their particular worlds to be good or bad. Instinct (if we choose to retain this term) for the turtle is not a fixed pattern of behavior, but a functional, open ability to respond to structural changes in its milieu and judge their value. As the shifting magnetic fields move across the turtle’s magnetic sense organs, they structure the perceptual field in meaningful ways: here is the good direction, but there is the lack of pressure that needs to be avoided; this way feels right, but that way feels anxious. The turtle’s body knows when to push the flippers to the left and tilt the shell to maintain course toward the gyre, which, as it knows in its bones, is the ultimate good. It adjusts its senses continuously, keeping the telos, the goal of all desire, in mind. Guided by knowledge and desire, it can “read” the flux of magnetic patterns and currents as its swims along the earth surface and adapts its body to them. All its actions, from the beginning, are already constituted by the distant North Atlantic Gyre, which, once found, swirls it along in its wake and deposits it in a place of safety, nourishment, and rest.

On Eagle’s Wings

by Dawn Roper

After a confused and slightly panicked phone call from my husband on September 11, 2001, I turned on CNN and didn’t turn it off for the next three weeks. I was alone and watching live when the plane went into the second building. While thousands streamed on foot away from the unfolding disaster, thousands more stood and watched, all reflecting the uncomprehending face of disaster too large to take in.

Flights heading to the USA were diverted to eastern Canada, where much of my family lives. I feared my loved ones were so diminished as to be acceptable losses if other terrorists were on those flights. The Pentagon attack followed with reports of the plane crash in Shanksville, raised the sense of fear.

The devastation of thousands was paraded as they searched in disbelief and hope.

Rare joy was reflected in stories of people reconnected, having been thought dead.

Comfort was found in humanizing stories of those deplaned far from home. They were billeted and embraced by strangers who fed them and prayed with them. Strangers became family in time of need.

I feel I am changed for having watched a live television event featuring the death of thousands. Our generation has no Pearl Harbor or Beaches of Normandy to help us deal with the day’s unfolding terror. We now live day-to-day with the knowledge that we are in a war we cannot see, even as we watch it on live TV.

Donald Rumseld (of all people) echoed my exact thought on that long September day.

And He will raise you up on eagles’ wings
Bear you on the breath of dawn
Make you to shine like the sun
And hold you in the palm of His hand.



by John Samuel Tieman

Everyone has a 9/11 story. To tell the truth, I don’t have a story. I have a record of feelings.

I was teaching 7th grade in St. Louis when The World Trade Center and Pentagon were bombed. Apparently, our administrators had some debate about whether or not to show this over our TVs. But how can we soften the trauma by veiling it?

At first, it was all a bit confusing. Perhaps I am a bit of a rube, but, since I’m not from New York City, I’ve never paid any attention to the World Trade Center. When it first came on the TV, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Then, when the film showed the collapse of the first tower — we were watching recordings about an hour after it actually happened — all the smoke confused me. What’s going on? But then I saw the Pentagon. After my years in the army, in Vietnam, I damn sure knew what that was.

My kids were scared. “Are they going to bomb us? Will they fly a plane into the Arch? What about our school? …”

We watched the TV for a bit more. The news was fragmented. The same news clips repeated. It was time to turn-off the TV. Not because the news is sketchy, but because I saw the dissociation in my students’ eyes. My job was to assure them that life will carry-on for us. We will be sad. We will be scared. But no one will harm Dr. Tieman’s class; no one will bomb our school. As always, I will be here at 6:30 AM. Tomorrow, we will begin the next lesson.

Then there were, and still are, the other feelings. I’m a native Midwesterner, a St. Louisan. But I don’t hate New York. Except as the setting for “NYPD Blue”, I’m simply unfamiliar with it. My wife and I take The New York Times on the weekend, but I never read the local bits. So my connections are tenuous.

After a couple of weeks, I noticed that The Times started running extended obituaries for the 9/11 dead. I didn’t think much of it. Till one caught my eye one Saturday.

To be honest, I paused because the woman in the photo was cute. So I read on. She was a well educated, successful business woman. Every Thanksgiving, she threw a party in her apartment, because her balcony was immediately above the street where the big Macy’s parade balloons are inflated.

I imagined having a friend who threw such a party, me sitting on that balcony, sipping coffee, munching a bagel, staring at a two storied Big Bird. I remember the sadness I felt that day — I still imagine the emptiness where this woman used to be — that sadness has yet to leave me.


School Bus

By Karen Zhang

As the new school year starts, yellow school buses appear on roads across America. I was on a yellow school bus only once — when I joined the undergraduates from Chatham University on a field trip. The inside of the bus is as sturdy as its exterior impression. Hand bars are visible and accessible. Seat belts are installed in every seat. A high protection screen stands before the front row seats to provide safety when passengers fall forward at a sudden brake. There’re multi-mirrors around the driver’s seat to give specific reflections.

What make American school buses unique in design are the two hands of stop signs on either side of the bus. When the school bus stops, both hands will spread like a pair of warning wings. Vehicles around the bus on both directions must stop by law. I am really impressed by the way American school children are protected by the traffic law. In contrast, Chinese school children dying in traffic accidents because of shabby makeshift school buses is hardly news any more.

A car rental company in my hometown of Guangzhou, China, plans to import several yellow school buses from America in the hope of providing safe transportation for local school children. But each rental school bus is worth over a million yuan (approximately 200 thousand US dollars). Many parents are afraid that tuition and fees will increase to make up for the rental. However, in my opinion, it’s not a tough decision. What’s more valuable: a kid’s life or the cost for the kid to ride on a safe bus?

In fact, facing the sluggish economy, even American public schools are having a tough time buying new school buses. For example, the greater Washington D.C. metropolitan area suffers horrific traffic, especially during rush hour. As a consequence, local school children cannot arrive at school on time. Although increasing school buses is on almost everyone’s wish list, getting more buses also means fewer stable jobs for teachers. I’m bewildered by the reason for the government spending cuts. If residents still pay the same amount of taxes, where does the cut money go? Why can public schools afford school buses in the past but not now?

Anyway, I just hope school children—whether in China or America—won’t be the victims of the haggling in the adults’ world. After all, their safety should be the priority.


Animal Eye by Paisley Rekdal

Animal Eye by Paisley Rekdal
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012
ISBN: 978-0822961796

reviewed by Mike Walker

Paisley Rekdal’s Animal Eye has been described as “pastoral” by a literary critic in the press release that came along with my review copy of the book, and while that’s a very good place to start with this volume it’s not an all-encompassing description, either. Rekdal uses pastoral motifs to engage discourse on life and love—as many poets from Wordsworth onward have before her—but she also constructs full models of life in this book. It is as if a scientist is at work in the basement of the museum of natural history, building a diorama of an entire ecosystem via words. She seems not only interested in using the natural world as a metaphoric lens in her poems but is set on building them item by item into natural worlds themselves. Her poetry—though in most cases short, tight, poems—can overwhelm the reader, though in a very good way.

For example, take a look at the opening of her poem “Nightingale”:

There is a bird that comes at night, he says,
that makes the most beautiful music.

The “he” described is a boy, seated at the kitchen table—we’re given that much—and then he launches into the reason for the title of the poem. “Nightingale” is flowing, bittersweet, and adroit in every capacity—possibly my favorite poem in the entire book. It also prepares us for the longer poem “Wax” that earns its own section in the book: when “Wax” comes on the scene, all else grinds to a halt. The parade of powerful yet compact poems is over for a spell, and instead we have a massive missive about wax museums and thus about the celebrities re-created in wax form therein. Here, in literal terms, Rekdal is working as that museum tech down in the basement and building displays to entertain and inform the public. And when that public reads of her tales, to this museum of melodrama, you know they’ll come in droves.

But before all that, I want to return to the boy and his nightingale:

The field is wet and full of stars.
The boy cocks his head toward the dark.

I won’t give away the full tenor or meaning of this poem, but it’s sublime and filled with language as lush and leading as these fine examples. This kid is describing an event; this boy is telling a tale; this kid is constructing a reality; this boy is cut like a stencil from the Boy Scout ideals of an America that hardly was; this kid could be Ohio, North Carolina, or Detroit. He is rural, he is suburban. He is in from soccer on a November night or bored to tears in the heart of the hot summer. Rekdal provides us with a whole person—she put him together from straw and lumber in the basement I suppose —not just the image or narrative of a person. She offers a character able to tell his own tale as if being interviewed on the nightly news. There is her magic: Rekdal’s boy at the kitchen table is now real, set loose to offer his own commentary, seemingly no longer a voice of the poet but one fully of his own.

In other instances, Rekdal’s work is of the same level of raw craft but somehow the end result is not of the same caliber, such as in “Flowers from a New Love after the Divorce”. Though well-written, even the title is somewhat an example of trying too hard. There is an air of the set-piece to it, a sense of knowing exactly what to expect and just waiting to see the poet draw it all out. These poems though number few in her book and they are even above the level of many contemporary poets, offering sound construction and pithy, ready, emotions. Indeed, were it not for poems such as “Nightingale” or “Ballard Locks” in this volume, even the weakest of Rekdal’s efforts would appear exceptional, but these poems push the standard even higher.

What Rekdal does over and over in this book and does always very well is to interrogate the lives of a variety of people via her pastoral references as seen perhaps by some small mammal or bird—something with that “animal eye”—from a short distance away. She asks us to come to know otherness by firstly becoming the other. If inside the same society as the subject of the poem, we are too insular to these often-cloistered subjects, so she allows us the benefit of being someone else, perhaps even someone/something not human. She allows us removal even beyond being a party foreign to the subject, in a sense doing the opposite of what every author of fiction who tries to make his reader feel like the reader is in fact one of the characters in the narrative; instead of putting us in the same social circle as her characters, Rekdal puts us one step more removed than normal and thus allows us a specific formulation of understanding which is unique to the most different, most foreign, most exotic.

The question of “character” development in contemporary poetry is one too seldom asked or approached in criticism: the way many of us write today involves the creation or replication of personages different from the poet and thus, really, characters in any sense of narrative. It doesn’t matter if they don’t have names, if they don’t extend for five pages of activity or have concrete backstories. They can, like the boy at the kitchen window and his nightingale, be momentary but they’re no less powerful when crafted by skilled hands. Rekdal certainly has this sense of craft down pat: she draws us into these poems via characters who are full, lush, evocative, and compelling—so much so, in fact, you don’t realize at times they are nameless or you are unsure whether they are the poet herself or someone else. Many readers—even those dedicated to contemporary poetry—seem still to presume that any figure introduced in a poem is a real person and thus, ever poem is a chronicle of the poet’s actual life in verse. Not so, of course, as poets can as adeptly create fictional or fictionalized portrayals as readily as any other writer. This is not to say the genesis of Rekdal’s poems is one of only her powers of imagination, but her work is able to expertly weave in so many colors of description aside very compelling and ready characters that I have to wonder of their full origins. Whether fully true to life or truer to a masterful sense of fictional creation, these poems are filled with people we want to know. The boy in “Nightingale” alone could go on to star in an entire novel, just as some scholars claim that Bloom was first seen in a story in Joyce’s Dubliners long before starring in his masterpiece.

Rekdal’s approach to developing atmosphere is no less comprehensive than her ability to flesh out characters of substance: her descriptions of place are stark when need be to allow the focus to fall elsewhere but can be lush and affirming—glossy even—when desired. That “pastoral” quality another reviewer noted is very apparent in places and the development of place can be nonspecific yet realistic, broad, and wide-ranging in scope. Rekdal’s summer-filled or autumnal-flavored spots on the page resonate like vintage landscape postcards and it’s much to her credit that when required, she can draw in these lush string and brass sounds of the pastoral and have her orchestra play a smaller tune devoted to specific human emotions. It’s a treat though when Rekdal fully unleashes her orchestral overtones and depicts a place in such painterly terms, reminding us of one of the most-valued of traditions in Western canonical poetry—that of breathtaking landscape.

More than simply pastoral I would praise Rekdal’s writing in Animal Eye as verdant, as lush, as filled with dreams but not normal dreams—ones that creep out of the skull and remain deep in the carpet until their seeds bloom into actuality. Her praxis here is at such a high level that even her shortest poems are full and never suffer for their economy on the page. When she turns to something nearing long-form, she provides us with “Wax” and after reading this poem, you’ll never look at a wax museum the same again, I promise you. This book is necessary: it is a step in a more consummate direction of contemporary poetry that openly acknowledges the debt poetry has to fiction yet also the multiple debts it has to its naturalistic past. More than a book-length pastoral, this is an eclogue and a fine one at that.


The Spirit of the Other Landscape

By Eva-Maria Simms

When I was a young woman, I traveled with friends across the Southwest from Texas to California. My boyfriend at the time had dumped me the day before we left, and I struggled with heart-break and grief for the two days and nights it took us to drive through West Texas and New Mexico. After driving through the night, we pitched our tents near Lake Cochiti and Brian and Rob went to sleep. My grief made me too restless and I hoped that walking would calm down the torrent of loss that threatened to continually break through my defenses. I knew it would take time to heal, and maybe this was not the best time to take this trip, especially since my now ex-lover was supposed to be here! I tried to think things through, but my thoughts went every which way. All I wanted was to be away from my sympathetic friends and be alone with my misery.

I followed a narrow road that came down from the lake and snaked along the hillside. The merciless sunlight of a New Mexico August morning lay over the valley below, intensified by the radiating heat from the black tarmac under me. I walked along the guard rail, already hot, tired and depressed. A pickup truck drove up behind me, slowed, and passed by so close I could have stretched out my hand and touch it. A man leaned out the window and yelled something at me. My heart almost stopped. I averted my eyes and looked straight ahead. Could I jump the guard rail, if needed? The truck sped up, spewed out a cloud of diesel fumes, and vanished around a bend in the road. Should I return to our camp? It would take me ten minutes to trek back up the road. I heard the growing rumble of engines behind me. Two motorcycles roared past with considerable speed, almost blowing the straw hat off my head. I froze when I saw them turn around at the bend and come back my way. There was nothing for it: I climbed over the guardrail and slid down the slope, my sandals dislodging dust and pebbles and my long skirt brushing against tufts of dry grass and getting tangled in small spiny bushes.

At the bottom of the hill an empty dirt road led between low rolling hills and brush into the distance. A small sign pointed along the road: Pueblo Cochiti. With a still wildly beating heart, I passed the marker. No one was following me. I took a deep breath and slowed down my steps. Everything quieted suddenly. The sound of cicadas oscillated in the warm bright air, which was heavy with the scent of dry grass and dusty earth. The only other sound was the crunching of my footsteps on the gravel road. Silence lay almost palpably over the landscape. No cars, no motorcycles, no signs of the twentieth century anywhere. Blessed solitude.

The heat of midday spread itself drowsy and peaceful over the landscape. It left me alone to do some walking and thinking. With every step, memories welled up and threatened to drown me. No one was here to see me, so I cried. I sobbed. I yelled at the bushes that lined the road. They were strange looking: waist high, mound shaped, lined up a few feet apart, moving past me like ocean waves, one after the other. I told them how tattered I felt and how the future was hanging around me in shreds, and that I still did not know how to deal with the constant need to cry. I feared the time of grief ahead — I knew what it looked like — and the descent into that obsessive darkness which would drain all warmth and light out of the coming months. I told them about my rage. I walked past these motherly, grounded shapes, and step by step I could feel the cloud of grief and anger rise off my shoulders. The solid, friendly bushes seemed to absorb the pain and let it flow into their leaves, branches, and roots. They were willing to carry my grief! At the end of the row of bushes, where a cattle bridge interrupted the road, I stopped and looked back. Surprised I noticed that I felt lighter: my heart was almost easy. I turned my face to see, for the first time that day, clearly what lay ahead.

Since that morning a quarter century ago there have been some other times when I had to traverse the landscape of grief, but I never recovered as quickly as there, in the desert of New Mexico. Those motherly plants did their earth magic and healed something in me. They gave me back my hope and vitality. Their round shape, their constant rhythm, their stillness were elements of a holding environment which was soothing, nourishing, and without demand. I have wondered since then about the healing power of things and places. There are shapes in the natural world that speak to the shapes of the human soul. I needed grounding, comfort, rhythm, and containment. The soul-shapes along the road gave them to me.


by Publius

Donnell gets kicked out of another class. He’s on his way to the office, when he spies me in my room during my planning period. So he stops by my room to see what I can offer by way of avoidance. I say, “Let’s talk, but just for a few minutes. Consequences are consequences.” That said, this gives me a chance to chat, get to know the kid.

So I just listen.

In the course of five minutes, he tells me about his dad and his dad’s three brothers, Donnell’s uncles. Two are murderers. One is doing life. The other murdered his cellmate, but didn’t get caught. It seems that the cellmate had dis-ed the uncle’s sister-in-law when he was on the outside, and had the bad luck of getting this uncle for a cellmate. The third uncle, who wasn’t a murderer, boffed this other guy’s wife, and gets shot-up by the husband. But he isn’t killed. He eventually is released from the hospital, released in a wheelchair. Only to have the husband finish-up what he started. So now the third uncle is killed, dead.

The fourth brother is his dad.

“But I’m fine. My daddy works two jobs.” And, fortunately for him, the dad sounds like a good man.

But Donnell is paying a price. It’s in his eyes, his old eyes, the eyes no child should own. He has that same look in his eyes that I used to see in The Nam. A weariness that comes from carrying a terrible knowledge, the certain knowledge that there is nothing one human being won’t do to another. Or, at the very least, the knowledge that in his family even murder is possible.