Book Review: The Geese at the Gates by Drucilla Wall

Drucilla Wall, The Geese at the Gates
Salmon Poetry, December, 2011
ISBN 978-1-907056-59-8

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

The search for truth and beauty is a panic for dreamers. Try heading north from native Creek country, turn left at Philadelphia. Keep more or less straight to Wyoming, then dog-leg back to Nebraska. Pick up the big river and let it run you south to St. Louis. Avoid the floating McDonald’s.

Drucilla Wall’s journey likewise takes a very promising turn on the trussed banks of the muddy river’s western shore. Her debut collection, The Geese at the Gates, is a book of great arrival and strong presence. Big forces have put a vast geography into Wall’s middle, but irony has quieted this terrain. The Beats’ hurry for constant motion and their ecstatic, restless subtexts are generously absent from this book. Even the geese in her title poem do not migrate: “The fat geese should be slicing/ the heavy clouds, heading south./ In the last heat of these afternoons/ I should hear them exclaiming/ on their way. But the geese remain/ all winter. Having forgotten themselves/ and changed their story.”

When Wall writes about a car, it’s almost always parked: “we can see our cars wiggle their/ steely asses under the laurel oaks./ All that shiny potential.” In a poem about her son Matthew, he is running, but his eyes are closed. He’s asleep: “You’re safe,/ safe in your bed./ It’s only a dream, a dream./ Sinking back, you answer,/ blinking, disappointed,/ Only a dream?”

Wall stands well apart from the usual crowd of word slingers. Poets today seem obsessed with wanting a poem to have something happen, but dramatic tension doesn’t require cause and effect, action and reaction. Wall’s poetry liberates us from that facile snare. Her poems don’t require verbs to manifest meaning. Occasionally a speaker will roll over or recline. Sometimes there is a memory of an action from twenty years before. Wall nicely doesn’t need to establish motivation to justify action which doesn’t occur. The result is that her poetry—her essence—isn’t cluttered by personality and the tricks of story-telling. There isn’t any Vaudeville in her meter. While there’s movement, it’s usually just the narrator’s eye, panning about, or else making a feast of unexpected associations. Her title poem “moves” from parked geese to parked cars, a shopping mall, Egyptian cotton made in China and washed in Mississippi waters, all the way to the memory foam of God’s bosom where we wonder “how to rid ourselves/ of these fat, honking angels here among us.” We’ve navigated the globe without leaving the windows, looking down on geese which don’t fly, perhaps like us, fat, honking poets whom we are, needing and dreading a higher purpose.

Wall’s traditions spring from older grounds in Ireland where Irish poetry from Yeats to Muldoon hasn’t stopped being Irish no matter with what the rest of the world is pathetically busy. To that island’s fetish for boundary and place, Wall adds a mystical, feathery, almost Japanese way of observing. She wants us to know Jack Gilbert’s waterfall without hearing the sound of its water, wanting us only to hear its beautiful silence as it rages.

Wall’s “Disappearance Song” takes place on St. Patrick’s Day. The first stanza is the rapture of an awakened spring. It’s second stanza is a classic haiku, scanning five-seven-five, so that two distinct traditions, the Romantic Era’s nature praise poem, and the haiku—an imagistic surrender—are wed: “Now behind it all/ the silence of honeybees,/ the absence of wings.” When we remember that St. Patrick chased the snakes of Ireland and sent them all to England, we can look at this poem as an elegy for the environment we’re losing, and perhaps disappearing ourselves along the way.

Wall releases information very slowly, unlacing her brief narratives with agonizing—for us—deep-breathed modulations. Most writers have shown us their tits by page three. Eighty delightful pages of Wall and I’m still anticipating, absolutely aquiver on my chopper. Oh for a glimpse. It almost happens in “Deer Woman at Fifty”

One misty night on the road
to Wentzville, a doe cut across
the headlights and vanished
kicking gravel chips
from the edge of the woods,
her provoking rump
giving the last flash.

What begins like fable…’twas a dark and stormy night…immediately gets specific, so that the abstract qualities of the poem are not lost in abstract language. Her specific, rational observations enhance the unknown. “On the road to Wentzville” immediately engages our right brain hemisphere. It makes us think of maps, signs, trailheads. The fact that Wentzville is a town named for the past tense of a being verb, literally, “wents ville” also intrigues. The images of the doe “kicking gravel chips” steers us to Wall’s belief that movement is only one half the thing in motion. The other half of movement is the way such motion affects the larger world.

By contrast, Wall also celebrates some movement which has no impact. “Invisibility Lesson #1” teaches us “the way Indians walk in the woods” and concludes: “You’ll know when you get it right/ by the deer ignoring you,/ and the arrowhead hunters,/ with their shovels and sieves,/ shouting your obituary/ right across your path.”

Wall probably does not write poems in the nude, but she does seem to take off her watch before composing. There is hardly a clock face to be had. Not only is her poetry nearly devoid of temporal markers, but in several poems she conveys several centuries in one stanza so that images mixed in time–“colonial” and “highway”–are almost matter of fact. In another, “Hannibal, Missouri” characters go in and out of the 1840s. Tom Sawyer jogs past the diner and “Becky Thatcher strolls down Main Street/ with a smile and a pistol in her hand,” while the “kids out/ by the Dairy Queen prefer their cherry vodka.” Wall’s poem, “Regarding Last Chances,” about relationship miscues, ends on a hopeful note: “I have one page left/ in my appointment book,/ where another man’s name/ is penciled in.”

Where time is so indefinite, space means everything. This is Wall at her strongest, giving us just enough light to adjust our irises and just enough detail to rightly furnish each stanza. “Under the lights,/ the elongated hurt,/ stubborn clay,/ turns within the force/ that is your will,/ beyond any choosing,/ to each smallest/ rounding of the elbow,/ slightest declination/ of the fingers,/ builds gesture to gesture,/ circling more and greater/ space into fire.”

Wall’s mastery is that in spite of her dialed-down revelatory pace she writes very personal poems. Her intimacies are thrilling. There’s the evocative sexual imagery in “Blue Marker Landscape” in which the speaker is doodling a Kansas farm scene on her lover’s back, when—because it’s Kansas—the winds pick up and a tornado whirls their embrace. In “Snake Shadows” Wall writes: “my arms coiling your chest,/ my hands diamond heads,/ my tongue water over rock,/ your sounds the prayers of stones.”

Any one of Wall’s gorgeous blossoms could stop a train, but one of my favorites was “For Matthew at Twenty-five.” Although one never stops being a parent, the poetry about being a parent seems to come to a crashing halt after our children start driving cars. For Wall, nurturing means everything and it will go on forever. Archetypes aside, she’s plain good at it, whether scrubbing a sick cat or comforting a restive child or a worried husband.

Do you remember collecting
the bright leaves of autumn,
how we ruined the iron,
pressing them in waxed paper,

and taped them to the windows
to glow like stained glass,
now that another holds your hand
and takes you walking in the woods?

The nicest part of walking the woods with Wall is that she doesn’t stop to sniff every butterfly, just the ones which matter. The unfenced world there, its trees and denizens, is meant to be lived and experienced first, then dreamed and remembered, and only after the longest and most pleasant of whiles, to write a timeless poem about.

Potato Chips

By Songyi Zhang

These days I crave Lay’s wavy chips. I’m surprised at myself.

In China, potato chips are considered junk food. And of course, kids love junk food. Who doesn’t? But parents go nuts if they see their kids munching too many potato chips. In Southern China where I grew up, deep fried food is regarded as the chief culprit of sore throat and pimples. Fried potato chips are definitely unhealthy food. When I was a kid, I needed to hide behind my mother’s back to enjoy a few pieces.

In America, potatoes are a staple. Americans can prepare potatoes in a dozen ways, as creatively as Chinese prepare rice. Home fried potatoes are usually on the breakfast menu in American diners. Just in the first month after my arrival in America, I had tried French fries, baked potatoes, mashed potatoes and potato chips. Thank heavens Mom wasn’t around.     

I remember how shocked I was when I was introduced to potato chips as a side dish. A common American lunch is a sandwich with a side dish, which includes apple sauce, soup, veggie salad or chips. At Panera Bread, a chain deli popular among university students, I saw a whole shelf of various potato chips and similar crispy junk food. They’re stashed in red, orange, white, green bulging bags. How can potato chips count as part of a meal?

My American classmates loved having chips in class. (That’s something Chinese students are not allowed to do—eating in class.) And they often told me a bag of chips was their supper when we had an evening class. I said nothing but was amazed. How can a bag of potato chips fill up a stomach? Having potato chips is like chewing a gust of wind.

I’m not sure whether my craving for chips these days is a sign of my having adopted American culture, but I’m still Chinese enough to feel guilty when I eat them.

Book Review: Sense by Arslan Khasavov

Sense by Arslan Khasavov
translated from the Russian by Arch Tait
Moscow: GLAS Publishers, 2012

reviewed by Mike Walker

The reputation of Russian literature in the West has long centered around the greats of the distant past—Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy—with little thought given, it seems, to the writers of the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. Certainly, the dissident poets of Stalin’s time have gained the attention they well deserve, but post-Soviet—what might be perhaps considered “new Russian” literature—is hardly known in the West. Beyond that, the fall of the Soviet Union has allowed minority groups and their identities in Russia and the other former Soviet states to become better-known worldwide, though their own specific literatures still suffer from a level of neglect that emerging literatures in other regions simply have not witnessed. While African, Latin American, Arab, and Asian literatures have only grown in their international readerships and number of works translated, it seems that post-Soviet literatures have not benefited from the same zest for widespread interest in foreign writing. Another area of post-Soviet writing not well-represented in translation is that of younger writers—the first generation of citizens to grow up without having ever been part of the Soviet Union.

GLAS Publishers is trying to remedy this situation with its “New Russian Writing” series of emerging Russian literature in English translation. One of the most acclaimed and interesting volumes to come out of this project is the translation of Arslan Khasavov’s debut novel Sense. Khasavov is a Kumyk who grew up in Turkmenistan and came to Moscow for university at the Asia and African Studies Institute of Lomonosov Moscow State University. Following his degree and further studies in Russian literature, Khasavov became a freelance journalist in Moscow and was able to garner a number of impressive assignments including work with the BBC. The Kumyks, it should be understood, are an ethnic group that historically have lived mainly in Dagestan and are thus an Islamic, non-Russian, minority with their own language and very removed from the traditions of the Kievan Rus’ that formulate the basis even today of mainstream Russian society. The Dagestanis are related to their neighbors the Chechens and long-standing tensions exist between Russians and both groups due to the treatment of these Caucasian minorities following the Second World War by Stalin and also the recent conflict and struggle for Chechen independence. Caucasians, whether Chechen, Kumyk, Dagestani, or otherwise in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia are often the targets of hate speech and sometimes acts of violence. Young male Caucasians are especially prone to being targets of discrimination and suspicion. Much of Khasavov’s journalism centers around both the continuing strife in the Caucasus and the treatment of ethnic Caucasians in Moscow, as he has experienced this situation of discrimination first-hand. Far from being simply a mouth-piece for his side of the story when it comes to the plight of Caucasians, however, Khasavov has provided in his journalism a nuanced view of how young people from the Caucasus who have settled in Moscow for their education or other reasons are developing an ex-pat’s savvy sense of identity and community. In Sense, he applies this same approach but beyond a journalist’s discernment or a native’s inside experience, he is able to provide a deft, often very funny, take on how ethnicity and youthfulness both conspire to present an absurd sense of reality in post-Soviet Russia.

The central character in Sense is Artur, an idealistic, if rather delusional, young man of twenty who forms a political front known as SENSE that has the stated goal of creating a new, utopian, society in Turkmenistan. Why Turkmenistan? Because it is, according to our hero, the supposed center of the world. This gives the reader some foresight into the rather unbalanced views of Artur and the absurd nature of the novel; however, Sense is not simply a post-modern work in the comic style of Nikolai Gogol out to sell a sociopolitical point alone but instead the novel is overall a fairly insightful examination of Russian youth today, albeit one where much artistic license has been taken to allow for the most entertaining story possible. Khasavov has social and even political issues to bring to our attention, to be sure, but he seems more keenly interested in the general state of his generation in Russia after Communism. To that end, he has Artur meet a variety of other young people who represent the various subcultures and social groups found in contemporary Moscow. Those who long for a return of Communism, those who support greater social freedom than what United Russia (President Putin’s party) promotes, those who believe Islam is the key to peace—all these very different approaches and philosophies are represented.

Any writer who embarks on such a journey will run the risk of creating characters that are stand-ins for greater issues or simply stereotypes, but overall Khasavov rises above this and provides characters who are truly interesting if often in a way that begs the reader to suspend any disbelief and just enjoy the crazy motion of the story. Still, in all, Sense provides a tale that is not just a post-modern fable and in fact invites the reader into a very powerful internal view of today’s Russia. The youth of the Russia of right now—those in their teens, those attending university—have the agency for experiences that was mostly out of the range of possibility for their parents or anyone who grew up under the Soviet system. Not only because of changes in Russian society, but due to the ability via the Internet and other technologies to communicate with people all over the world. The newfound emphasis on ethnic and localized culture following the fall of the Soviet Union also has allowed greater agency in young people from non-majority origins to be themselves instead of conforming to a majority view of social norms. That said, with new freedoms have also come new oppressions: fueled by the Orthodox church and United Russia, new laws have challenged gay rights—especially in St Petersburg—and the aforementioned discrimination and violence directed towards Caucasians has remained a serious and disturbing problem. The position of youth in this dynamic mix is essential as they are the ones who will guide society out of this transitional period. Will they elect a more liberal sense of equality or dwell in the fear of Russia becoming a less-homogenous and more diverse nation? These are the core questions addressed in Sense.

Russia’s youth have also in this new era discovered a voice of their own, informed by their past and by Euro-American youth culture but also a voice unique, distinct, and original. The fashion designer and photographer Gosha Rubchinskiy is representative of this trend and in his menswear and photos of Russian skaters and punk kids who at once look forlorn and quite couture, he expresses a lot of the latent themes found running through Sense. Rubchinskiy himself in an interview to the American press has stated he finds St Petersburg more interesting now—more vital, more happening—than Moscow, and Russian youth I know have spoken of Kazan and Sochi as places to visit just as much as the two eternal leading cities of St Petersburg and Moscow. The world-view is changing: there are young business students fluent in English in Novosibirsk who work off of Macintosh laptops and watch Japanese animé; there are teens online via ВКонтакте (or, as it is now better known, VK) which is more or less the Russian Facebook. BMX is becoming huge in Russia’s urban centers and teens ride American-built bikes, posting photos of those they have or those they pine for on their VK accounts. Football (soccer) though remains king, and everyone has his own team to follow with a sense of loyal devotion unmatched even by Western Europe or American college football rivalries.

ВКонтакте is a joy: in some ways I must say I like it better than Facebook and besides, it enabled me to “meet” a number of young Russians from all over their vast expanse of a nation—people I might never have known to even exist otherwise. The Russians in their twenty-somethings who have the free time to establish extensive ВКонтакте profiles are, in general, not surprisingly of the wealthier and more educated set. If anything, they often outshine their American counterparts in their apparent wealth and wanderlust: photos abound of beach holidays in Sochi or Turkey or weekends in Paris; nights watching a football match between FC Zenit and one of the rival Moscow clubs in Saint-Petersburg; winter vacations spent snowboarding near Murmansk. Not all Russians live like this, of course, but then again neither do all Americans. What their profiles and conversations with these young Russians portend, however, is an exacting, powerful, and dynamic desire to live life and really enjoy it. My friend Anton, from Krasnoyarsk, perhaps put the situation best, in an almost Joycean sentence he typed to me one night as an instant message: “We want to see what we can, ours is a huge country but we’re in Europe too so we can hop a plane or a train and you’re there with your friends and just drink, just go where there’s something to do, snowboard, beach, whatever. We’d be all over America if it wasn’t so far away. You know, we just drink on the train—it doesn’t seem so long then—just drink and play cards, chess, stare out the window as trees go zip zip zip by.”

This same basic view on life appears in spades in Sense, though tempered by the divergent political leanings of the various characters. Part of the author’s message, it seems, is to say that we are aware of so many outwardly political young Russians in this novel because the hero of the tale has gone out of his way to move in such circles, to court the lunatic political fringe. If, we may well say to ourselves, if only Artur had not gone off the deep end—poor, poor, Artur! A tragic hero, however one who is moving by his own private logic, and some of the most sudden and powerful moments in the novel occur when his logic is in fact proved to be correct and utterly valid. At a mere twenty years of age, couldn’t Artur just attend university and get on with life, we wonder nearly aloud, but then we encounter some event where his actions—or at least the philosophical and political catalysts to them—seem somewhat appropriate. Artur, for all his complaints with Russian polity and society, becomes a hero in a way that is especial to Russian literature and tradition. Emotional, manly, finding a desire to prove his courage and acumen, at once intellectual and base, grand yet impoverished, he takes us centuries back into the tropes of the grand old Russian novels.

Artur is, for better or worse, a character who invites sympathy—not only because of his youth and lack of clear understanding of the world, but due to the showmanship in his voice as he implores the reader to believe in and side with his narrative. Khasavov does a sterling job of selling us on Artur and making Artur’s voice true even given Artur’s obviously uneven bearings. As a reader, it’s easy to bounce back and forth between seeing the absurd nature of Artur’s desires and plans and at the same time viewing them as simply youthful political devices writ very large, very rough. Given the current political situation in Russia, it’s easy to see most of the groups vying for a voice also in the actions that take place in this novel. That may be the greatest benefit of all in what Khasavov has given us.



By Songyi Zhang

When I first came to America, the small white U.S. Postal Service (USPS) delivery van caught my attention. Its steering wheel is on the right like the vehicles in Britain. At the time I was learning to drive in Pittsburgh, I thought to myself that the cute little delivery van is my dream car.

However, I’m afraid the white mail delivery vans won’t be on the street often in the future. Recently, I read the news about the closing of half of the USPS processing facilities around the country. As a result, the first-class mail delivery will slow, forcing many stamped letters to arrive in two days rather than one. Another source also said that the USPS plans to cancel mail delivery on Saturdays. All these changes aim to trim costs and avert bankruptcy.

It’s unheard of that a national postal service would go bankrupt. At least it can’t happen in China where postal service is state-owned. However, the USPS is an independent branch of the federal government. It competes in delivery service with private corporations like UPS and FedEx. The agency has to face the financial problems that every enterprise deals with. Good service relies on good profits.

Although individuals now prefer the convenience of email and online bill-paying, after people shop online, they’ll need package delivery. In China, we’ve seen increased shipping by China Postal Service because of online shopping. I hope the USPS will survive in this competition with other private package delivery services.    

What disappoints me is that as the USPS keeps losing money, ordinary people are the ultimate victims. Poor people cannot afford expensive express mail postage, and now they may have to wait two days for their regular mail being delivered. What’s the meaning of “first-class mail” if the mails won’t be treated first class?

I thought postal service is as crucial as medical system and utility services to our everyday life. The USPS is one of the biggest employers in the country. If the agency cuts expenses, more people will lose jobs, too. The high national unemployment rate will continue.    

I can only picture the USPS business falling into a bad cycle: poor service leads to fewer customers, and the agency will lose more money. I feel bad that the anger of ordinary people towards governments increases. Although the USPS doesn’t receive any tax dollars from the government, it is still under congressional control. Can the Congress do something to help the USPS stay alive?  


Dance Review: Private Places by IdiosynCrazy Productions

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Philadelphia based dance company, IdiosynCrazy, shook up the local contemporary dance scene this past weekend in their hilarious and haunting new work, “Private Places.”

Audience members gathered in the lobby of the Alloy Studios, much like travelers huddled around the entrance gate to an airplane. The piece was inspired by just that – the inside of an airline cabin. Not only was Artistic Director, Jumatatu Poe, interested in people who work in tight, enclosed spaces, but also how flight attendants in particular are trained in “emotional management.”

We’ve all heard stories of passengers losing their cool; maybe we’ve even witnessed it. And we’ve seen the calm, but strange smiles on the faces of the flight attendants taught to deal with such outbursts. Think of the Saturday Night Live airline skit from the early 90’s – David Spade and Helen Hunt as disgruntled attendants, rushing passengers out with a snarky “Bye-Bye.”

The eight performers of IdiosynCrazy took that idea about one hundred steps further, deeply investigating human relationships and what might happen if psychological madness ensued during a regular commercial flight.

Each audience member was assigned a letter – A, B, C or D – which indicated our seating during the performance. Three dancers greeted us in the lobby, with the kind of insincere smiles that indicate something boiling underneath. One group at a time, they ushered us to our seats.

The third floor studio was transformed into an airline cabin. A long, rectangular space was enclosed by large plastic sheets. Movable chairs were lined up in four rows. Dancers sat us individually, with a blank stare that sometimes lingered a bit too long. We waited and watched, as others were greeted and sat in the same peculiar manner.

Right away, the neuroses of the performers developed. In a robotic tone, three dancers circled each other maniacally, repeating the phrase “Do you need anything from me?” Others moved about as if drugged, making strange sounds one would imagine hearing in the hallways of a mental institution. Another trio danced a slow unison phrase of overly sexual movement. Poe was inspired by a dance form called J-Setting, a club culture that pushes boundaries of masculinity and femininity, and is popular in the gay community.

All of this happened in the small aisle space in between seating, to the lulling tic-tock sound of a metronome. Dancers bullied audience members, asking them to get up and move, and invading their personal space. Somehow it was funny, and the group of us were willing to go along for the ride.

As the piece continued, the dancers appeared to be breaking down emotionally, moaning, crying and shouting. The physical and sexual barriers continued to fall away. Costumes came off, revealing bare breasts and bottoms. And in an escalation of fury, the entire cast came together and stripped completely.

The revelation was slow enough that we didn’t feel like voyeurs. Perhaps it was because the disorder was well underway when we arrived. We were invited into it. By the end, we certainly had more questions than answers. But for reasons I’m not even sure of, the whole thing made sense. Maybe in our own “private places,” we can relate to the chaos in this crazy world.


A Modern Haibun

 by John Samuel Tieman 

                                                            another Monday

                                                            again I surrender to

                                                            the whisper of snow

My wife is reading Freud this evening.   I sweep the fireplace, the ashes from Sunday more interesting for what they were.   Phoebe says something I don’t quite catch, something about desire.  

I stare out our picture window.   I inventory our yard.   Pine, twilight, beast, leaf, pulse and fog, raven, root.   In the west, from work, a husband caught on a detour lengthened tonight by longing

A portion of my memoir appears in this month’s Vietnam magazine, and I’m surprised by letters from strangers.   Several veterans had the same job I had.   Others vets were stationed where I was, An Khe, an obscure corner of jungle.   One message from a wife — her husband never talks about our war.

                                                            in this Nam photo

                                                            the burnt torso of a monk

                                                            an enemy monk

                                                            tonight a cigarette glows

                                                            in the dark and is crushed


Obama and the Leftists

by Michael Simms

Obama was the better candidate for lots of reasons, but leftists and liberals shouldn’t see him as their savior. He’s a fiscal conservative, a militarist who is trying to save the American empire, and a tepid supporter of social reform. I volunteered for his campaign, and I’m very relieved that he won re-election — the alternative was too awful to contemplate — but he’s dead wrong on many of the issues of peace and justice. Leftists and liberals have an important role to play in the next four years; we are his conscience. Our message to him should be: we supported you when you needed us, now we need for you to do the right thing.


Book Review: Meat Heart by Melissa Broder

Melissa Broder
Meat Heart
Publishing Genius Press, 2012

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

There are only eighty-eight keys on a piano and the best of us only have three simple chords to our lives—work, love, and play—but music is not made of math. Neither is poetry. Still we take some risk in making art from our confessions. The narrative that comes from living in the world is too often one-dimensional, or else it’s too wink-wink, and that’s the peril. Melissa Broder’s second poetry volume Meat Heart shows us why that risk is so important. In these intensely personal poems her experience—her personal witness—is a stepping stone to revelation. Broder’s is the perfect bascule between apocalypse and rapture. She snuggles up to the edge, she rocks back, she rounds and folds inside the arc, she reaches and grabs the other side.

Broder plays a jive, a rag, a stride, a blues, a hymn. She finds her center by getting outside of her middle. Give her eight beats and she’ll discern the plaguing icons, love them, discard them. Prufrock wondered if he dared to eat a peach. Broder isn’t so polite: “Listen wormhead/ There is no celery emergency/ …/ No evil peach in your vein of air.” In her title poem the love, glow, and magic all of us are seeking are only Slim Jims, tacos, and all-night burgers. In another poem, “Lack,” Broder is ravenous for icons: “I found the Summer of Love in a trashcan at Hardees & I ate it.” We are gluttons for it because we’re never satisfied. In “The Mail,” Broder is “disgusted by the U.S. Mail/ its endless soul-crush pulp of catalogs/ utility bills, act now offers and sales/ stinking with aggravation.” Broder wants something different, free from obvious rituals that displace her soul’s true purpose. “The Mail” continues: “Just once I would like to reach in the slot/ and come upon a stony hollow/ or perhaps, a tiny garden…This will be the depth of my story,/ the stunning extent of my smile:/ a scattered few pinprick dung drops,/ some night weather, no envelopes.”

Most of us are what we eat. Broder is what she vomits. She’s a self-mutilating anorexic alcoholic: “There are scratch marks all over/ my life…Let’s/ write a sermon on control. Let’s/ write a love song for heavyweights.” Broder’s poem “Supper” puts all her key images—boys, food, smells, and church—into a rousing intimate couplet:”Boy comes to me at church potluck/ perfumed with frankincense and lasagna.” Their courtship begins with tater tot casserole, a gateway food that can only lead to angel cake and ice cream glossolalia as Broder becomes the “burping circus lady” who’s “busting from her garments.” Just at the brink of a Willy Wonka-styled destruction, Broder finds “There is room at the organ bench” and plays.

Hungry for seconds? “Binge Eating in 2067” which turns out not to be all that futuristic. Consider these lines: “I have a jaw that seeks chunks/ and he has the heart of a fat man,” and later, “When he cooks a real live cassoulet/ flesh and fat, no hoax/ I turn my face from the bowl/ and put my fingers in his mouth.”

It’s the moods of these poems—their great suffering arcs—rather than nifty openings and closings, that catch you and whip you forward into Broder’s doom. You’re relieved as each one ends, and immediately nostalgic for the inscrutable what-was-that? you felt as you strummed into its seductive opening. I know why I liked the poem “Waterfall,” but I don’t know why it made me cry so hard:

The most romantic thing a human being can say
to another human being is Let me help you vomit.
your vomiting; it is like a psalm to me
a place where wilderness might be new.
Other people’s dirt makes a lovely frock.
Grant I be forgiven in the gush.

Broder’s poems are works of art and works of life. She isn’t the first writer to believe one should live a poem before one writes it, but she’s one of the more effective partisans since she understands its limitations. She confesses just enough to make it clear she has a great grasp of her subject—herself— showing us how genuine is her poetry bone. This is something real to her—her poetry, her life—and it becomes real to us. By turns we learn how to make poetry of our own pathetic misfit lives.

But this is only one half of a breath-taking story. Most volumes of poetry are like little kissing matches. Our nerves are touched. We smile. We smirk. We nod. At times we get excited. Meat Heart is more of a boxing match. Broder confuses our reflexes, softening us with the believability of her otherworldly destruction—her personal apocalypse—and then knocks us down with her speculative poems dealing with the abstract. We trust her as readers to take us there because we’re already swept up in her upside-down life that oddly makes perfect sense. The narrative rings true enough that when her lyric and metaphoric threads take leaps we stick around. This is what makes “Ciao Manhattan” a different sort of poem:

All day long my skull
That horsey gulper

Goes braying after sherbets
Busts up ventricles

Trashes valves
But pauses somehow

Hinge open
The day falls off its reins

My brassiere goes unhooked
God walks in

And says I’m back baby
What now?

We smile at each other
Go horseless and headless

It is so God
When the voice is like wheat

Spooned wheat
In whole milk

Come closer it says
You cute little fucker

The French have one word, sacre, to mean both sacred and profane, depending on the stress, and there is something decidedly Last Year at Marienbad about Broder’s pulse. What Robbe-Grillet does with a circle, Broder conveys by harmony between the actual and the speculative. In “Gate 27” she demures “It’s very important to me/ that there be a sense of unity.” And in “Flurry,” “Something/ about the sum of us/ works best.” Sparks fly when the unity between destruction and glory happens; the feeling is electric. In “Mercy” it happens literally through the poem: “Yesterday the worship rattled like an engine/ I said Let this voltage last forever.” And it almost does, it wants to: “I want to buzz all night…Maybe your hum could just fall from my lips.”

In “Superdoom,” before the electric happens, there is panic, “200 flavors of panic,/ the worst is seeing with no eyes./ Cowboys call it riding your feelings.” Let go, Broder is telling us, ride into the violet. This is the whole world in her sad eyes. “Obituary” captures this theme much better than I could: “But if you put nothing to your eye/ Take the questions out of your mouth/ I’ll let you kiss me on the lips/ and suck my ancient oxygen.”

My favorite poem in this collection is “Bones,” which can be dissected vertically, or horizontally since the first and fourth the second and fifth, and third and sixth stanzas have seamless connections:

I held a nightlight
to my bones.

Run said the moon
or build yourself
a rowboat with a roof.

I am like a sailor
who is terrified of fish

if I see a skeleton
I might begin

to vomit up
the mystery
and then what?

I am nothing
like a sailor.

This is a poem about identity, mortality, and myth, conveyed about as simply and clearly as the big awful of life could be shown, and rendered with a sophisticated lyric parallelism that reveals a curious mind in spite of life’s battering wounds. All of Broder’s most intimate moments involve imperfections. Some of us tolerate flaws; others blink and try not to talk about them. Broder adores imperfections, physical and emotional, a life as crooked and sad as her teeth are straight and happy. As a bad man living a messy life I find these poems thrilling. The search for truth and beauty is also the search for imperfection, and not being so ashamed when we find it.

Rules and Procedures

by Publius

There are rules and procedures. Whenever something is confiscated, say a cell phone, we’re required to tape it to the referral form, make a xerox copy, then send said form, said contraband, and said kid to the in-house suspension room.

So this morning a wet kid showed up to the in-house suspension room with his referral form reduced to soggy wood pulp. The teacher confiscated a water balloon, wrote the kid up, and taped the water balloon to the referral form. The kid, and the balloon, made it about half way down the stairs. Luckily the damn thing didn’t break while it was in the xerox machine.

Then there’s Kim. This afternoon she tells me she referring this kid for having a tampon on her forehead. I don’t even bother to ask. At which point she shows me the referral form, the tampon, and asks me if I have any tape because she’s out. I tell her to not forget to xerox the referral, making sure it’s xeroxed with the tampon attached, and ‘I just got to have a copy. Please. Really, please.’

Garbage in the Woods

by Eva-Maria Simms

In our work of reclaiming the green spaces of Emerald View Park, over the past 6 years, over a thousand volunteers have removed more than 80 tons of garbage from the 275 acres of our urban forest. I have seen rusted cars, refrigerators, and bedsprings. Rubber tires, plastic toys, plastic bags, glass bottles, ceramic tiles, vinyl or aluminum siding, roofing shingles, lead pipes and various other forms of contractor debris littered the landscape. Eighty tons are 173,369.81 pounds of garbage.

On the ground, in the woods, most garbage is immediately identifiable. It consists of stuff which is human made, does not decay in the cycle of a few years, poses potential dangers to wild-life, and is plain ugly. Nature usually deals with it over many decades by rusting it out or covering it with leaf mold and dirt until it sinks into the ground. Most of us who love to walk in the woods are offended when the harmony of a natural landscape is disturbed by a ruined refrigerator with the doors hanging open. What is so disturbing about garbage? Why does it offend our aesthetic sensibility so that more than a thousand volunteers have felt the desire to come into the woods and haul the stuff up to the neighborhood parking lots, where it is collected by the city’s garbage trucks?

I remember my first encounter with massive garbage in the woods a few years ago. We were riding our horses through the Pennsylvania Game Lands in Indiana County. It was a beautiful fall day. Riding a familiar horse intensifies the sense of insertion into the natural landscape because through the close bodily contact with the animal our human senses are sharpened by the horses’ reactions to what is around us. We rounded a bend in the road, and my horse shied violently, almost unseating me. Littered across the road were white bags full of garbage. I knew that people in this area had to pay to have their garbage picked up, and someone could not or would not pay and dumped the stuff here in the woods. We had a hard time guiding our horses carefully through the stink and disturbance to continue on our way. I remember so clearly feeling offended: this stuff did not belong here, and someone had violated our common public space for his or her own profit.

My horse’s reaction was also revealing: the white, smelly bags indicated that something disturbed the habitual order of the landscape and posed a potential danger. It upset my horse because he could not fit it into a known category. In his experience the landscape pattern was interrupted by the scent and bright color of the debris. This alteration of the perceived world put his senses on high alert and his muscles prepared for a flight response. Only calming language, calming body contact, and coaxing encouragement could lead him dancing in a wide berth around the garbage bags and not succumb to fear and flight.

One of the primal responses we have to garbage is that it is disturbing. Something is in the landscape that does not fit: the white garbage bag did not come from here and does not fit itself seamlessly into the scenery. A newly fallen tree trunk is also a disturbance to the creatures who habitually use a landscape, but it soon begins to decay and merge into the greenery and the ground. It returns from where it came. The same is true for animal carcasses in the woods: they upset my horse initially, but after a few weeks they were absorbed by the surroundings and we passed these places without notice. Not so with the garbage bags. They did not return to where they came from. They stayed around as a constant reminder that people interrupt the landscape and litter it with things that are human made.

From a systems/Gestalt perspective garbage is an element that cannot be absorbed by the whole form. It does not fade (or fades very slowly) into the background and interrupts the balance of the whole. A more extreme, but very illustrative example is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which by some estimates covers an area in the Pacific Ocean that is “twice the size of the continental United States” and consists of a floating gyre of mostly plastics from the world’s rivers and beaches. These plastics break down into smaller particles and enter the food chain. One third of the Laysan Albatross chicks of the Midway Atoll between Japan and Hawaii die because their parents feed them plastic which floats over from the Pacific trash vortex. Albatrosses and turtles have no perceptual category for distinguishing plastic debris from other food sources – with devastating consequences for their species.

The lesson about garbage from my horse and from the albatross chicks is that industrial garbage interrupts the perceptual and digestive body-field of living beings because it cannot be integrated into the life and decay cycle of the natural world. It either just hangs around for a long time as a perceptual sore in the landscape (like the rusty refrigerator) or it decays in covert ways that poison the food chain (like the coolants that leach from the rusty refrigerator into the ground water).

Marks, Kathy (5 February 2008). “The World’s Rubbish Dump”. The Independent (London). Retrieved 4 May 2010.

Fuck Us! A Public School Teacher’s Rant

By Publius

Christine got called downtown for a disciplinary hearing. The central office was looking to fire her. Her offence? An email which reads, “I hear you. I’ve also got a class of 42. Fuck us!”

Apparently, there is some policy somewhere someplace against saying “fuck”, although there doesn’t seem to be any policy against getting fucked.

Christine survived. As did most of the thirty other teachers whose emails were flagged. They are untenured, young. In other words, vulnerable. But they also have choices, choices not available to the many of us who are older, tenured, and getting close to a pension. Meaning that, instead of “Fuck us!”, Christine’s next email might read “Fuck this.”

The great irony is that downtown is angry about the use of the word “fuck”. Nobody seems to care that a teacher has forty-two kids in just one class of her seven classes.

Then there was Mary, with whom I taught at a Catholic high school. Mary was called to the door by the principal, a nun. As they chatted, the kids behind Mary got boisterous. Mary was a bit embarrassed. The principal was right there. So, in frustration, she turned to the kids and shouted, “Will you shut the fuck up?!” The nun, in her wisdom, decided to treat it like a UFO sighting — think I saw something, but I’m not going to report it because nobody would believe it.