Dance Review: Backlit in a Whole New D by The Pillow Project

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

There’s just something about Pearlann Porter. Her company, The Pillow Project, presents work unlike anything else on the Pittsburgh dance scene. Her latest evening length show was the product of a 16 year work in progress. The result was hypnotic.

“Backlit in a Whole New D” premiered this past weekend, and was set to music that captured Porter’s attention back in 1996. It might be difficult to imagine five contemporary dancers improvising to a punk rap group. But The Beastie Boys’ lesser known instrumental album, “The In Sound from Way Out,” feels more jazz and funk than hip-hop.

After several attempts at choreographed material, Porter realized that the music called for improvisation. By that time, her style of “free jazz” had solidified and she had a host of dancers perfect for the job. Rather than moving to the music, she teaches her dancers to play the music with their bodies. This doesn’t come easily for all trained artists. Porter says it requires a certain “honesty.”

What adds a unique dimension to Porter’s work is the “luminography” design by collaborating artist, Mike Cooper. Cooper uses a camera and several projectors to light the dancers in unusual ways, often creating stunning visual effects. His work in this show was the most complex I had seen.

Like most of the performances that take place at The Space Upstairs (the Pillow’s home), the vibe was more communal than concert dance. The couches, chairs and high top tables gave the space an intimate bar feel. In fact, martinis were served after the show.

Audience members snuggled in with their complimentary 3D glasses, and watched as the company casually entered from various parts of the large room. Under low light, the movement began with what felt like good old fashioned groovin’. Immediately evident was just how much the music fed the dancers’ souls.

What was even more impressive was how each performer connected with the lighting. Depending on where they landed a phrase of movement, one dancer’s hand lit up in red, while another’s face was bathed in blue.

But that wasn’t even half of it. Eventually, the images of the dancers were projected onto the back wall, and then multiplied. The effect was like watching the dance through a kaleidoscope. Black and white images came in waves, on and off the wall. The 3D glasses, which we were instructed to wear when we pleased, gave it a colorful, even hallucinogenic look.

The dancers seemed to be conversing among themselves through movement that ranged from shadow boxing to playful taunting to flat out jamming to the contagious beat. One stunning and tribal moment came when they all clumped together and pounded the floor, shouting in ecstasy.

Each individual grabbed the audience’s attention in different ways. The young Grant Haralson rolled up his shirtsleeves and performed a short solo that showed off his technique and theatrics. Riva Strauss simply strutted forward and slipped off her jacket, and the crowd was sucked in. And, as far as I’m concerned, Taylor Knight could improvise for hours to the sound of nothing, and it would be impossible to look away. Near the end of the show, he improvised with a cigarette, and somehow made smoking look like an art form.

“Backlit in a Whole New D” was one of The Pillow Project’s most innovative works to date. I’m looking forward to what Porter dreams up next.

Book Review: The Imagined Field by Sean Patrick Hill

The Imagined Field, poems by Sean Patrick Hill. Paper Kite Press, 2010.

reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe

Hill’s collection begins with “When You Hardly Knew Your Fingers,” a surreal portrait of a struggling spiritual life. “It’s an old story, need.” he begins (line 1). He continues with images of alienation and loneliness: “Wind in trees, gaunt horses,/A bank of bleeding hearts–//Like granite they make hunger look easy. A matter of grim resistance.” (lines 1-5). Even the dying seem to have mastered their reactions to life (and death) better than the narrator. But solace can come from observing the beauty in the fragility of life: “Take the trillium, for example, its three-lidded eye:/Six seasons seed to flower./Such mild ambition. Did you know as little/As one touch could wreck it?” (lines 7-11). Later, he explains the source of his alienation, relating to the flower, and “…your own fatal contact//When you hardly knew your fingers/Could do such damage.” (lines 20-23). He continues, “Passion is something you beg for…but I wouldn’t say it’s something/You deserve.” (lines 13-15). There’s a kind of humility, there, which could serve to increase the narrator’s alienation, or which could actually shift the focus from himself and outward.

Hill’s poems are powerful, imagistic works that swoop into stunning scenes with solid language. “The Hours” reminisces about the narrator’s past. “I had slept alone for weeks,” he begins (line 1). Hill paints a vivid scene, “Days when rain made idle threats/I climbed the California hills,/And not even poison oak/Could offend me.” (lines 3-6). “This was after the floods./This was during my breakdown./Mud stained the roads/Like a bad memory,” (lines 8-11) he tells us. There are evocative images of eating Sunbeam white bread, old seaside farms. He concludes:

What matters are the hours, like frightened birds.
The way the land ends at the sea and says,
What’s done is done.
The way the sky just keeps walking
Where you can’t follow.
(lines 40-44).

“The Last Frontier is Not in Alaska,” paints a vivid scene, both physically and psychically: “In this desert our lives are, at best,/A draw,” he begins (lines 1-2). Hill expresses trepidation towards his surroundings. The “desert” could be real or figurative. “It’s not that sunlight struggles./It’s that clouds never give up.” he continues (lines 4-5). And “Wells are a constant source of worry.” (line 10). It’s a dangerous world with little possibility of control. “Don’t bother to ask forgiveness./The river accepts no excuses./Learn to swim.” (lines 12-14). Even things that might be considered positive are sources of concern:

Unless we do something, blackberries will win.
Then again, they have a way of fixing
The soil for themselves: they poison the ground.

That is, they cheat.
That’s what we mean by the sins of the father.
(lines 19-24).

He concludes with an image of scorn: “Lilies our mothers planted are like teenagers/Who say they didn’t ask to be born./They secretly hate us.” (lines 29-31).

Hill is working towards something in these poems. He rarely spells it out or tries to hit the reader over the head with meaning; instead, he lets us work through the process, as well, and come to our own conclusions. “Cairns” delves into his journey:

…My wife taught me her best slipknot,

That love is not that kind
Of burden
But a mild steel:

No China doll, nor wandering Jew
But something more

Like a dove
Covered in tar.
(lines 3-13).

He isn’t romanticizing this idea of love: he’s trying to be brutally honest. He’s trying to get at truth. he goes on to describe a very violent personal experience which served to try to rip him away from this “slipknot.”

A reference that pops up more than once is to Don Quixote. In “The Genius of Birds,” Hill points out: “Cervantes had it right:/you could live your life in a dream and get away with it.” (lines 31-32). And this seems to be at the center of Hill’s struggle: the world seems to be so often an ugly, greedy place, but the ‘dream’ is difficult to live in. But what is “the dream?” Perhaps it’s that tar-covered dove mentioned above. Perhaps it’s an appreciation of beauty or tranquility. But this seems to be fleeting, which makes it all the more precious.


Birds N’at

By Frank Izaguirre

In the three years since moving to Pittsburgh to pursue a graduate degree and begin a career, learning Pittsburghese has been a fun and effective way to set down roots and learn the local culture. Now, I work dahntahn Mondee through Fridee and watch the Stillers on Sundee while the warsh runs.

And for a birder like me, an equally effective way to set down roots has been learning the local birds, from the barrage of kaleidoscopic warblers in spring to the thrilling invasion of winter finches happening right now.

It may not be surprising that there is confluence between these two diversions. Equally, if not more enjoyable, than learning Pittsburgh’s birds has been meeting its birders. I’ve learned from them not just the birds and not just the regionalisms, but an array of interesting regional bird name pronunciations.

In the spring, Chimley Swifts chitter ceaselessly as they move through the air, seeming to never land. Brahn Creepers visit the parks from higher forests. The Dahny Woopecker, a common bird of the woods whose dainty squeaks are often heard before the bird appears, is present any time of year.

Just yesterday while driving down I-79 after pursuing gulls and waterfowl up Erie, I spotted an enormous immature Balled Iggle. A couple weeks ago, several friends and I heard the ethereal whistle of an Eastern Screech-Ahl from deeper in the woods.

And as I write this, a pair of Northern Cardnuls is visiting my feeder, reminding me of the many ways Pittsburgh has become my home.

The Woodcarver

A Fable by Michael Simms

There was once a young woodcarver who loved to walk through the forest. One day in a part of the forest where he had never been before, he came to a house in a clearing. There were people working on the house carving beautiful scenes into the doors and lintels. An old man with long white hair came out of the house and greeted the young woodcarver. The old man showed him the nearby groves and gardens where people harvested food for the community kitchen, stables where the draft animals were cared for, workshops where men split logs for shingles. Everywhere the young woodcarver looked, he saw people happily working. He was especially impressed by the quality of the woodcarvings. He showed the old man a few of his own pieces. The old man called to a couple of the men working on a nearby lintel and asked them to take a look at the young woodcarver’s work, and they were impressed. The old man invited the young woodcarver to join the community and work on the house.

The woodcarver enthusiastically agreed, but first, he said, he had a few questions. How much of the house would be his? Which of the trees in the surrounding forest would be his? How much food from the groves and gardens would be his? Could he sell what he did not eat? If he found gold in the earth beneath their feet, would it be his? The old man sadly shook his head and asked the young woodcarver to leave. The young woodcarver became angry and said that it was very unfair for the old man to invite him to join the community, and when he asked a few questions, the old man withdrew his invitation. The young woodcarver said that he suspected that the old man had tricked all of these people into working on his house for free. The old man apologized and explained that he had not meant to be unkind, but he could tell from the questions that the young woodcarver would not be happy in the community.

The old man explained that the house was not his; he was merely the caretaker. He was from the nearby village, and many years before, sick of heart at having lost his wife and children, he had come to the house in the forest quite by accident. It had been in disrepair with a roof that had collapsed and vines growing through the windows. Having nothing better to do and not wanting to return to his empty life in the village, he had started rebuilding the old house. Soon, others joined him and the community grew. It gave the old man pleasure that the house had become so beautiful, and he was restored to happiness. He thought of himself only as a trusted servant of the community, not its leader. The house and the land around it were not owned by any individual, but rather by the community as a whole.

The old man suggested that the young woodcarver go to the nearby village to seek work. The village was known for its many woodcarving shops, and a few woodcarvers had become wealthy and famous. In fact, the two woodcarvers who had been impressed by the young man’s pieces lived in the village and came to the house in the forest in their spare time.

The young woodcarver did as the old man suggested, and after many years of work, the woodcarver, now an old man himself, famous throughout the world for his beautiful carvings, returned to the house in the forest. The community was in need of a caretaker, and there the woodcarver lived out his days.

Sometimes The Kursk

by John Samuel Tieman

lonelier I thought
than a frozen ocean’s wharf
a young widow’s moan

Sometimes I love a good disaster story. The noble hero rescues the helpless. The survivor who, against all odds, comes away unscathed. The stoic victims remembered annually. Then sometimes it’s the Kursk.

Capt. Lieut. Dmitri Kolesnikov wasn’t a hero. He wasn’t particularly stoic. I’m not sure how many remember him. Yet there remains the home videos, the wife, the letter.

In his videos, his wife is funny, cute, obviously intelligent. They’re in love. It’s charming. Then he dies. He was aboard the submarine Kursk, which sank in 2000. Kolesnikov and 22 others survived for at least eight hours, if not for days in a cold, cramped and dark room. The submariner’s equivalent of being buried alive. On his body, a letter. “I am writing blindly. So I’ll write by feel.”

“I am writing blindly. So I’ll write by feel.” His words have haunted me for a dozen years. Some say we write in order to know what we think. I think we feel, then a kind of knowing follows. All the rest follows that. All the rest is sometimes writing. There were poems written in Auschwitz. There were messages sent from the Titanic. We feel, we think about what we feel, then all the rest follows and fades. Dmitri Kolesnikov’s letter is barely legible.

“I am writing blindly. So I’ll write by feel.” A dozen years later, and I am compelled to type his words, not because I must write them, not because I must hear them, not because I want to preserve them, but because, in the silence of my study, I must feel them with the tips of my fingers. I never knew Dmitri Kolesnikov. He had a nice smile. A nice wife. Likely a nice guy. But for all I know, he might have been brutish, sadistic, a martinet, a malingerer. What I do know is that once, in a tiny room, sad, afraid, he blindly wrote what he felt. Then he waited to die. Like all the rest of us.

I’ve ten thousand words
I’ll never put in prayer
the gods want the heart


Book Review: Between Gods by Donna Lewis Cowan

Between Gods, poems by Donna Lewis Cowan. Cincinnati: Cherry Grove Collections, 2012

reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe

Cowan’s debut collection begins with “Thaw,” a beautiful meditation on the changing of the seasons, played out through ice skaters:

At the pond’s edge, the skaters steer
from the etched-out hollows, speed

toward the marrow mapped tight.
We are trying to outrace it, thaw

channeling into the grids – where you could
step through, surrender the balance
(lines 1-8)

Cowan is hinting at more than a change in seasons; she’s alluding to growing up. She continues, “So you are an accomplice, shearing/the surface into further conquered// territories, into what will happen” (lines 16-19). These skaters are trying to wring the last bit of experience from the winter before the ice melts, though it is futile: “something our heat/cannot alter.” (lines 25-26).

Many of Cowan’s poems explore characters from religious stories. “Daphne & Apollo: Meditations” is a triptych which retells the myth of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne. What stands out about Cowan’s work is her masterful use of language. In the first section, she describes Apollo’s efforts: “his fingers/like flies against a windowpane” (pg. 14, lines 10-11). In the second section, Daphne has turned into a flower: “She wondered, if she had arms to move/could they round about a child” (pg. 15, lines 9-10). She regrets her decision to transform herself, but she finds no solace: “…the blooms about her//tightened, offered nothing;/their stems were stolid as crucifixes” (lines 15-18). It’s a lovely line, resonating with the web of religious imagery throughout the collection. In the third section, Daphne is trapped in her decision while Apollo sings, his voice, “passion raise like the chronic sweat of flowers” (pg. 16, line 12). “The Siren” is an exploration of the myth of the mythical beings who lured sailors into rocks. “Penelope” is a monologue from the point of view of Odysseus’ wife who delays the advances of suitors while waiting for her husband’s return. Cowan’s true talent with these poems is her ability to humanize mythical characters. She begins with Penelope’s concerns with her own mortality:

Now four years of fraying wool
on the loom – my hands grey,
splintered as never before –
and once the tapestry is finished,
anything may happen. We are so
vulnerable to magic; one may be raped
by swans; none of it is hearsay.
(pg. 30, lines 1-7).

It’s a touching portrait focusing on the fragility of Penelope, as opposed to the stolid, somewhat heroic version who waits patiently for Odysseus, as is often portrayed. Cowan develops Penelope’s somewhat sardonic voice: “I have heard you are lover to a woman/who could keep you with her forever –/and what a trick!” (pg. 30, lines 9-11). Cowan creates a sensual scene to portray Penelope’s loneliness:

Here the soldiers’ wives use each other
for company; the handmaids touch
my skin as they touch my gowns,
with windy light fingers, out of habit –
pressing harder only to coax
the wrinkles out. One stray touch
and my skin is alive for hours –

that is loneliness, a pair of hands
winding through that medusa
of strands, soothing the loose ends
into patience…
(pg. 30, lines 13-24).

There’s humor, as well. One of the suitors, drunk, tells Penelope, “…his semen is wine/drawn from the rarest of sea-violets” (pg. 31, lines 3-4). Finally, Penelope is faced with the futility of her situation, as the suitors gossip about Odysseus’ trysts with goddesses, and she pictures him, “driv(ing) glory slowly,/absently into the sand” (pg. 31, lines 11-12).

Cowan also deals with the mythology of everyday life. “Cleaning Lincoln Logs” is a meditation on the expected arrival of a child: “The impossible task:/making our leftovers/clean enough for a daughter,” she begins (lines 103). Cowan’s language is simple but resonating:

You empty the scratches
where you etched
letters, initials,

before you knew
how the world
could whittle away
each masterpiece.
(lines 14-21).

But this isn’t a maudlin poem: she is emphatic about passing on these toys and all they represent. “They are still alive,” she says about the toys, about what she once built and imagined with them (line 17). She hopes to pass on only the toys, not all of the damage and baggage that has occurred since she, herself, played with these toys.

Cowan is a talented poet with an ear for language and vivid construction. She tackles themes and ideas that easily fall flat, but pulls them off with aplomb and verve. Throughout the collection she deals with issues of spirituality, not just as an abstraction, but as a vital question presented in beautiful language. Part history, part magic, this collection is well worth a read.

Hurricane Sandy

By Karen Zhang

Coming from a southern Chinese city that has weathered numerous tropical storms over the years, I took little concern about the hurricane warnings in America. In fact, the American weathermen seem to be a little too melodramatic about the sudden change of weather. In the Washington D.C. region for instance, when the temperatures in the summer get a bit too high, the weatherman will use words like “record high”, “scorching hot” or “unbearably warm”, as if Chicken Little is announcing “the sky is falling”.

I felt this way until last October, when Hurricane Sandy landed on the east shore of America, particularly in New Jersey and New York City where I used to spend holidays. Two incidents happened to draw me closer to the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

We visited Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge twice, before and after Sandy. The Refuge is mainly a wetland facing the Atlantic Ocean. With the pine tree forest and a number of fresh water enclosures, migrant birds and local fowls find home in this rich habitat. Not to mention the wild ponies grazing freely in herds. Vacationers in late summer enjoy the long coast line inside the Refuge. Tourists come as far as Quebec, Canada (and me from China, of course).

However, our second trip in November to the Refuge showed a gloomy picture. Not only because the season had changed, but also largely because of Hurricane Sandy. The topography in some areas was significantly altered. Where there was used to be a dense forest of pine and other soaring trees, now was a hollow clearing, with a number of trees bent, twisted and fallen. Where there was used to be a bike lane straight to the seashore, now was a path blocked by a knee-high sand dune. Where there was used to be a marsh with four feet high reefs, now was a fresh water pond, attracting winter fowls to dig their heads into the new territory for food. The beach in the fall was nearly vacant. A few tourists were busy picking up the treasure that Sandy brought to shore—countless shells in various shapes glistening with their charming colors in the mild sun.

If walking on a storm-ridden beach is my physical contact with the devastation by one of the strongest hurricanes in North American, a half-week heat shortage at home certainly has transported all my senses to the misery of those who live through blackouts and chill in their broken homes after Hurricane Sandy. I must have been spoiled by living in a heated house. In those nights when my house was cold like an ice hotel, underneath three layers of blankets and bundled with thick sweater and socks, I realized how vulnerable human beings are in the face of climate change.


Student Teachers

by Publius

I love working with student teachers. Perhaps, in part, it’s a way of revisiting my youth. Perhaps, in part, it’s an act of hope.

Today, Mr. Palmer, my student teacher, made one of those mistakes we all make when we are young teachers.

My students, his students now, are writing non-fiction. So Mr. Palmer brought in a love story he studied a few years ago when he was an undergraduate. My class, his class, is an A. P. comp. class, in theory a college class. In theory.

In any case, a love story. A young American, lonely, taking a train from Paris to Beirut, meets a young man, and falls in love. They want to be alone, so they head for the bathroom.

This is the point at which I perked-up, stopped grading papers and —

It turns out that the young lover is a cross-dresser. In the bathroom, they fire-up a joint. At which point the Lebanese dude bends the cross-dresser over, and humps his ass. He rather tenderly gives the American a reach-around. The story ends with the narrator, years later in a gay bar in New York, sadly recalling his one true love.

In truth, the story is narrated with great tenderness and nostalgia, to the extent you can get nostalgic about a reach-around. That said, I see why my student teacher recalls it as moving. I also believe it to be the only story to which my students paid unflagging attention.

When the bell rings, when the students are gone, Mr. Palmer says, “You don’t even need to say it.” I give him that ‘We all make these kinds of mistakes when we’re young’ speech — then I immediately run to David North’s room with that whole ‘You wouldn’t believe’ thing going on.

Book Review: Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks
St. Martin’s Press, 2012

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks is the kind of book you recommend with a one-line explanation: It’s amazing.

This story absorbs readers so thoroughly that they won’t realize 50 pages have been read. It’s as if the reader is sitting at a table with the main character as he colors in a coloring book, inside the lines, and tells the story. It’s about an imaginary friend named Budo and the boy who imagined him, Max. At first, readers follow daily routines of school and their home life—subplots such as bullying troubles, Learning Center teachers, and family problems at home. Then Max is kidnapped by one of his teachers, and Budo must find a way to save him, even if it means relinquishing his own existence.

Budo is the perfect combination of a childlike mentality with a few bits of adult knowledge. His narration is repetitive and simple, with a basic knowledge of how the world works. Because Budo was not imagined as being stuck by Max’s side, he can wander away for extended periods of time and for indefinite distances. Max also imagined that Budo is smarter than he is. Because of this, Budo learns from catching glimpses of the adult world, and then uses his knowledge to help Max with his daily routines.

To Max, Budo is a complete, real person. Other imaginary friends are usually startled to learn that he’s one of them. And, he’s five years old, which is ancient by imaginary friends’ standards. Budo speculates that his age and nature are the result of Max being different from other children.

Max either has Asperger’s syndrome or he’s a high functioning autistic. Yet, no one ever mentions these words, including Budo. This is what makes the novel special. To Budo, Max is normal. His fascination with toy soldiers and video games—and his antisocial tendencies—are all regular, everyday attributes of an eight-year-old boy. In fact, the only times the reader encounters signs of autism are when Max becomes “stuck” or when Budo describes him. Yet any reader who doesn’t already know the signs might agree with Max’s father, noting only that Max is peculiar. This lack of concentration on autism itself presents Max as intelligent, clever and talented instead of automatically stunted. It helps to convey that Max is not defined by his autism.

Despite his apparent freedom, Budo is confined by the science of being an imaginary friend. They seem to exist on a separate plane, and only other imaginary friends and the children who “imagined” them can see them. Thus, Budo cannot communicate with other humans. Also, imaginary friends cannot affect their immediate surroundings, and how they interact with their environment depends on how they were imagined. They are governed by the “idea” of things. They walk an inch or so above the floor because it is the idea of the floor that they touch. Some imaginary friends can walk through windows and doors, but others are trapped by the idea of the window and door as an obstacle and can only get through them if they are opened. And, when a child no longer believes in his or her imaginary friend, that friend gradually fades from existence.

Dicks probably had a brainstorming session in order to determine an imaginary friend’s capabilities and to describe all of them, and then kept every idea. The details are extensive, incredibly unique and represent the wide range of childhood imagination. Some friends have no ears but can still hear, others are different colors, one is a flat paper outline of a person that coils and folds in order to move, and another is a bobblehead. One is even a small puppy that can talk. There are so many imaginary friends in the book that Dicks may have interviewed children to discover the appearances and details of their imaginary friends.

But the story isn’t just about the imaginary friends. It’s about what it takes to be a parent, and what it means to be a friend. Max’s mother tries to get his father to recognize that there’s a problem, though she never outright says what it is. His dad believes that Max is just a late bloomer, a normal kid who likes to be by himself. He believes that Max doesn’t need special teachers at the learning center or any sort of therapy. The mother seems frazzled but determined to make the best of their situation, while the father comes off as disinterested, stubborn, and in denial. This results in a dissonance at home, to the point that the reader might worry about a divorce. But when Max is taken, the parents rely on each other and do whatever it takes to get him back.

As for Budo, he realizes that while Max remains kidnapped, he will always believe that Budo exists. Budo is better off with Max this way, but he understands that Max is better off with his parents instead of a woman who thinks she knows better. Max will never grow up if he remains with his teacher, and Budo recognizes the problem with that. This culminates in a few scenes that are heartbreaking but necessary.

The book also illustrates the importance and the effect that one teacher can have on a student. In a way, it seems as if this novel is homage to the author’s teachers. It is possible that Dicks based the teachers off real people he knew while growing up, or people he knows now. In particular, Mrs. Gosk, who is Max’s favorite teacher, is revered by her students. Budo never stops talking about how great she is, to the point that sometimes she is too perfect. This is countered when Budo sees her away from the other students, where she is revealed to be flawed and emotional, but the tactic almost seems like a requirement to prevent her from being perfect.

Throughout the novel, Dicks represents childhood very well. He pulls his readers back into a child’s mind. He also panders to the inner child of his male readers. For example, there is at least one scene and multiple references to poop jokes. In the beginning, a bully tries to reach Max by crawling underneath a bathroom stall door while Max is inside. In order to escape, Max “accidentally” poops on his head, an event that establishes their relationship for the rest of the story. The event is also remembered fondly and with apprehension by Budo, who recognizes the act as a moment of growth and also a catalyst for future bullying.

Overall, Dicks makes us remember our childhood and the imaginary friends we loved or almost had. His story references the existential question of what it means to be real and alive. And at the end, when Budo is faced with his own mortality, we dredge up memories of past imaginary friends and, for a few brief moments, entertain the possibility that they were real. Then maybe, for those fleeting moments, our beloved or barely formed friends are alive again simply because we believe.


When to Run and When to Hide

by Publius

On Monday, the faculty of the Social Studies Department was informed that they wouldn’t need to teach for the next three days. Instead, they are to give a test. A standardized language test. The students will be shunted into the music rooms, because those rooms are big. There aren’t enough chairs, but there is enough space.

Some pooh-bah somewhere downtown decided that a standardized test, this one to be given to the immigrant kids, should not take so much time. Right idea. So, instead of administering it bit-by-bit over two weeks, they decide to give it all day everyday for three days. This is where the fuck-us bit comes in — if you’re a social studies teacher. Someone decides that teaching psychology, or, say, the constitution, isn’t as important as giving a standardized test. Thus the social studies teachers have to give the reading portion of the test. All day. 8 AM to 3 PM. For two days, plus a make-up day..

The test is for the kids who speak English as a second or third or whatever language. The reading bit involves listening to the kid read a paragraph. A paragraph. The same paragraph. For two days. Plus a make-up day. 8 AM to 3 PM. A paragraph. The look I saw on Mr. North’s face when he heard this will forever define for me the concept stupefied. I mean the poor dude had to lose at least fifteen permanent I. Q. points in five minutes.

Thursday is make-up day. And it’s really strange, because nobody can find the immigrant kids. Someone gets the idea of checking out the bathrooms. And, Allah Akbar, the bathrooms look like Little Baghdad. Yea, you gotta love these kids. They can’t do that she sells seashells by the seashore thing – but that doesn’t mean they don’t know when to run and when to hide. Unlike some social studies teachers I know.


Book Review: Injecting Dreams Into Cows by Jessy Randall

Injecting Dreams Into Cows, poems by Jessy Randall. Pasadena: Red Hen Press, 2012. $17.95. ISBN: 1597092304. 104 pgs.

reviewed by CL Bledsoe

Randall’s collection begins with “Metaphors,” a clever, playful piece that bucks preconceptions, “A duck is like the moon/because a kid can point at both. A house/is like the sky: both hold things…” (lines 1-3). The central image, here, isn’t a comparison of things (as I’m sure you’ve noticed, these lines of Randall’s are actually similes); rather, it’s the linking idea: the kid and the things being held by the house and the sky. One can’t help but think of the house as holding a family (including a child) and the sky as, perhaps, holding God, an idea which links with family in a traditional sense. Randall continues, later with a playful conclusion, “This poem is like a pillow: I hit you with it.” (line 10).

Randall’s poems tend towards the brief, often minimalist. Throughout, her sense of humor reigns. “One Day, the Ass-Talker Stopped Talking Out of His Ass,” describes the fateful day we all wish would come for some people, “I was wrong, he said. I was only guessing. I never really knew the answer.” She concludes. If only. “Trouble in Pac-Land” is about exactly what you’d think:

The truth is I don’t know
what it was that set me,
well, packing. Maybe it was
the lack of scrutiny.

All those teenagers
for so long, caressing
that perfect round
controller. And then
they were gone,
moved on, grown up.
(pg. 46, lines 10-20).

A disenfranchised Ms. Pac-Man sets herself up in a new life out of boredom. “I’ve got my own game/that no one plays.” she says. (pg. 47, lines 8-9). It’s a study in existential despair; the waning housewife recreated as pop culture icon who isn’t really any happier.

“In the Mind of Elizabeth Blackwell,” deals with various rumors and aspects of the life of Blackwell, the first American woman to receive a medical degree. Known as a difficult figure because of her unflinching opinions, Blackwell, though well connected, socially, managed to alienate many, though, more importantly, she championed many social and moral reforms.

“The Consultant” gives us our title in the opening line: “The scientists told me they were injecting dreams into cows. “ She describes the experiment and the results the scientists are getting. The scientists inject human dreams in some cows and cow dreams in others. “The cows with the human dreams, they told me, were keeping/ journals of their dreams in their dreams. But the cows with the/cow dreams were not keeping journals.” (lines 5-7). She goes on to point out that “the cows with the cow dreams don’t have hands in their dreams…so they can’t hold pens or pencils…” (lines 11-13).

Randall shifts from the humorous or sardonic tones of certain poems to more sincere poems, though she manages to maintain her sense of humor. “My Son, When He Is Sick,” presents a sweet portrait of Randall’s concern for her sick son:

My son, when he is sick, is a little wet
hot ball candy, sweaty forehead,
damp hair on the back of his neck,
his eyes screwed shut as if that will help.

His toddling voice repeats “oh dear, oh dear”
when we ask what hurts. He says a quiet
“yes” to everything: Is it your tummy?
Your throat? Your foot? Your toy hippo?

He slurps his water and then throws up
everywhere, his father and I leaping to catch it,
begging “throw up on ME, here is my sweater,
my lap, my cupped hands.”
(lines 1-14).

“Why I Had Children” is another humorous yet sweet poem in which Randall examines herself honestly:

Because I was reading too many books and getting too much
sleep and my self-esteem was too high. Because I needed to be
taken down a peg. Because I thought love was one thing and
really it’s another. Because I thought I knew everything about
everything and I didn’t know anything, not anything in the world. (lines 1-5).

“Celie At Four,” continues this theme of parenthood:

The way you say
“I know THAT,”
wanting to get on
to the next thing.
(lines 1-5).

Randall avoids sentimentality by approaching her love and admiration for her child from a different direction: she’s actually a little annoyed at the child’s impatience. “You mean/you now know it/because I just told you.” she continues (lines 6-8). Her child is gaining confidence while Randall’s shrinks: “at four, you’re/seventeen and I’m/the little sister/wanting to be liked.” she concludes (lines 10-13).

Randall’s poems waste no words: they are often short but pack a powerful punch. Her language is clean and precise, which allows her to sneak-attack the reader with profound images. I’ve been a big fan of Randall’s work, which I’ve read in various literary journals, for some time, and I’m thrilled to have this collection to solidify her reputation as a talent to watch.


CL Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel Sunlight; three poetry collections, _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals as well as five forthcoming books. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online at Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is available at His story, “Leaving the Garden,” was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for Story South’s Million Writer’s Award. His story “The Scream” was selected as a Notable Story of 2011. His poem “The Bank” was nominated for 2010 Best of the Nest and his nonfiction piece “Thesis” was nominated for 2012 Best of the Net. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 5 times. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings, Bledsoe has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.