Book Review:The History of Permanence by Gary Fincke

The History of Permanence by Gary Fincke
Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2011

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

The Susquehanna is an old river. Kerouac called it “the mighty ghost of the East.” At 440 miles, it’s the longest river to drain into the Atlantic Ocean. That’s a lot of haunt, but author Gary Fincke doesn’t scare easy. The director of the Writing Institute at Susquehanna University has published over twenty volumes of poetry, short stories, nonfiction and memoir. Although the Pittsburgh native jay-walks between genres, he’s primarily known as a poet. Fincke’s most recent offering, The History of Permanence, won the 2011 Stephen Austin Poetry Prize. All but two of its twenty-eight poems and sequences were previously published, making this book feel like a greatest hits collection. The adverbacious liner notes say Fincke “has built a reputation for his skill at combining the realism of personal narrative with the realism of the fantastic precisely imagined.”

Fincke’s subjects are everyday, ordinary people to whom very bizarre things might happen on a Tuesday. The collection begins with “The Possibility for Wings,” a meditation on what aerodynamic form our souls return—the suicides getting crows, the lonely hearts getting butterflies. Two friends speculate the winged possibilities for their own passe composse, their souls becoming “moths or whatever” and the speaker chooses the “poorwill,/ the only bird that hibernates.” As if listening to this conversation, the Gods send an airplane overhead, “shaping our fear against the summoned sky.” The speaker never says it was divine intervention, or something random, but in many places where Fincke knits the ludicrous with the day to day—such as neighbors chatting in the backyard—there’s a spiritual energy at play. The reader feels the spirit by its sudden arrival or sudden departure from the poem, and sometimes by characters who are seeking that energy, and not finding it.

“The Serious Surprise of Sorrow” begins “She’s twelve, the girl who discovers a foot/ Washed ashore in British Columbia./ Interviewed, she chatters, puzzled, amazed.” This poem is written in blank verse tercets, creating a kind of order when realities collide. Also, by focusing on the girl instead of the foot, the reader is invested before the absurd takes hold which becomes apparent when two more feet wash ashore, both left ones like the first, each wearing a size twelve running shoe, a size as big as the girl is old. The concluding image finds old men with metal detectors, moving as if wearing prosthetic feet, “Walking with stuttering steps like robins,/ Their heads cocked a moment, then cocked again,/ Their beaks passing over the unmown grass,/ Listening for the soil’s faintest sound.” A poem, then, about everyone looking for a certain random and holy energy, “becoming the urban legend,” or perhaps, leg end, of the mysterious left feet.

Fincke seems to love teaching poetry as much as he does writing it. At Susquehanna University, twenty-eight percent of the graduates have taken courses in his small department, making his the biggest rival of the Science and Business programs. So it’s not a surprise to find a few poems about poetry in this volume, notably “Meat-Eaters” which contrasts two different writing approaches:

In B-films, the carnivorous plants
Are always huge. They swallow anyone
Who wanders near, a single knot of vines

Tugging a victim into the dark maw
Of horror, not discriminating
At all, as if eating were accident.

Fincke observes a killing field of sundews in England which consume millions of butterflies—the souls of lonely hearts—but his final rhapsody is for the Venus flytrap because for the poet “working alone, selectivity/ Is what matters.” The plant “Measures its meals so it doesn’t/ Squander the down time of digestion/ on the undersized. The jaw seals/ Slowly, the spaces between its teeth/ Allowing the escape of small insects…Not through mercy, but efficiency.”

One of the most efficient techniques Fincke uses for his hyper real and hyper absurd marriages is to be very tidy in how he enters and leaves a poem. His care with getting into a poem spares the reader the over-written set-up most poets rely on for unexpected juxtaposition. His poem “Selflessness” is a marvel in how he gets from the animal kingdom to a single trans-gendered womb in less than forty syllables so that in the space of fix or six breaths the reader finds himself in very new territory but without any whiplash:

In the animal kingdom among fish,
one father carries all of the laid eggs
in his mouth sixty-five day starvation,
to make the flexible, deep mouth a womb.

This poem evokes the simplicity of parenting and fatherhood in general: the fish spitting out the babies and taking them back in his mouth at night, the daily chores of being a selfless dad. One of the hardest things to do when writing blank verse is to use language which still gives the feeling of a poem rather than a story, and this must have been additionally hard for a poet who’s an accomplished short story writer. When he uses blank verse Fincke puts a stop—a comma, a period, an em dash—somewhere in the middle of each line. He uses verbs for description—puzzled, amazed—and keeps analysis to a minimum. You’d have to be a real asshole to find something wrong with these touches, but unfortunately, I’m an asshole. In “Selflessness” Fincke’s language gets a little too religious, with his clunky “Such sacrifice” and “his mouth like God” and “He’s a living prayer.” This makes it seem like he’s taking a shortcut to suggest something sacred or mystical. Fincke is much better merely implying some spirit energy rather than being so out loud about it. He’s even forgiving of the father at the end: “…every father has his limits, and so/ does this one, turning his back, one morning,/ as they feed, swimming away while he still/ knows them, before his children grow so large/ he can’t tell them from what he hungers for./ If he forgets to flee, he will eat them.” Fincke’s excellent departure line returns the terrifying moment to the ordinary behavior. The father is essential, but deadly.

Fincke is so aware of the demonic tendencies in his world he would never have to spend a weekend in Iraq in order to write a book of poems about torture. The exotic is not the thing; rather, the interplay, that millisecond vibration one feels before a light flicks on. In Pennsylvania, we need only to do a little fishing, or some casual gardening. If the season’s not right for cultivation, try the florist. In his poem “The Doctrine of Signatures” a man seeks a certain something: :The woman who followed me from flower/ To flower said Birthday? Anniversary?/ And I shook my head among the arrangements/ Until she shifted to Accident? Sickness?” Paracelsus’ Doctrine of Signatures assigned healing purposes to flowers and seeds based on shape, size and shade. The speaker wanders aisles finding remedies for pancreas and liver and soul, “the flowers that form like tumor…scattered/ Like great seasonings for the earth, blended/ So perfectly they lie invisible/ Until they rise from our astonished tongues.”

Some people feel ashamed about the ordinary. Every next generation is screaming to be different from the former, yet all of its revolutionary members are wearing the same Earth shoes, or “Crocks” or Nike running shoes. Fincke’s riddle is that the more we’re dependent on communities, the more our individuality wants to spark and reclaim its own freedoms, and to do this while still making connections and feeling empathy. Kerouac’s restless bone was geographic. Fincke’s bone is temporal. He carves and shapes vast stretches of Time and this sometimes makes it tricky to not come off as a Delphic Oracle. The quotidian elements of his narrative threads are the perfect fuzzy handcuffs to rein his big reach. “Specificity” is an elegy, in a modern sense, for the poet’s friend Len Roberts: “Until I was twelve, worn out/ and God’s will were the reasons/ my relatives died.” Fincke calls it King James medicine, and he pushes back to his mother, his grandmother, and his great greats in creating the evolution of mystery. When the poem ends, that mighty old ghost of mystery is still at it:

And now, after memorial,
after an hour of tributes
by poets who traveled hours
to eulogize, I sit with my wife
who orders a glass of Chambord
for a small, expensive pleasure

in a well-decorated room,
the possibility of happiness
surprising us in the way
hummingbirds do, stuck in the air,
just now outside this window,
attracted to the joy of sweetness
despite the clear foreshadowing
of their tiny, sprinting hearts
.

____

Book Review: The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

“The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles is an agonizing 10.5-hours-long piece of existentialist fiction. Most literature doesn’t evoke the rage in me that resulted from this book; I’d consider burning it if I hadn’t only listened to its audiobook.

According to the blurb, “Paul Bowles’s writing is so extraordinary, so special. The landscapes are magical, the characters are questioning so much–it’s haunting in a very beautiful way.” In addition, it is “a landmark of 20th century literature, a novel of existential despair that examines the limits of humanity when it touches the unfathomable emptiness of the desert.”

It’s also about detachment from the world and loved ones, and nihilistic tendencies that leave characters both empty and dumb. The story includes a love triangle within a faithless marriage, set in the vast expanses of North African deserts during post-WWII. There are culture clashes, international conflicts, and sickness. All that is fine, because it’s enough to make anyone ask, “Why the hell am I here?” and find a way to escape, which establishes a good story.

But, it belabored the existential theme to the point that I had to ask: “Why the hell am I listening to this?”

I’m all for existentialist fiction, but not when characters contemplate their existence only because the author seems to demand it, instead of developing existential crises on their own. Every character is selfish, naive, conceited, pompous, spoiled, and pretentious. I couldn’t care for or about any of them; nothing in their lives made me feel sympathetic toward them. The two men are unremarkable and unmemorable, but it’s the woman, Kit, who really pissed me off.

Through her actions, Bowles reveals that he knows nothing about wome. I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought women were all irrational, flighty, weak, stupid, and overly emotional. Kit gives women everywhere a bad reputation. She avoids her husband, Port, despite passionate proclamations of love; has sex with the family friend, Tunner, despite said proclamation that was made to him; and even locks Port in a room while he’s on his deathbed. Spoiler Alert! She leaves his corpse there to rot, locked in that room, for the authorities to find.

What woman does that? I can go only so far in rationalizing her actions. She’s in shock. Ok, fine. She’s in shock and wants nothing nearby that reminds her of a faithless, failing marriage and a body she doesn’t know how to properly dispose. So she runs. Stupid woman, who has a passport, runs into the desert instead of deciding to return home to the United States.

Kit is also a slut. She finds people to make decisions for her in exchange for sexual favors, so all she has to do is exist. She falls in love with every male that gives her attention. She even expects a strange man riding past on a white horse to save her as if he’s her Prince Charming. In fact, she lifts her arms to him, as if he were going to swoop down and carry her off somewhere grand just because she’s pretty. She goes as far as saying she loves a different man after just meeting and sleeping with him, despite having also just met his wife. When she leaves this married man, she is accepted into a random caravan and is raped. Repeatedly. By two men. But somehow that’s okay.

And that’s what pissed me off. She accepts rape from a stranger as an act of love. She makes feeble attempts to smack him away and then lies there and accepts it like he’s a long-lost lover. What woman does that? What woman thinks, “He’s not doing this for himself. Every motion he makes is for me alone; they’re loving touches.” What woman begins to consider her rapist with affection?

A woman fights. She kicks, punches, and claws her way out unless she has a weapon pointed at her, which Kit did not. Because as a woman in that situation, even if the rape occurs, even if you’re battered and broken, you can be sure that you fought through it. But not Kit! Oh no. She loves him the moment she believes that he’s caressing her. She loves him so fervently that when his companion mounts her, she just stares at the “accommodating” first rapist in confusion and reproach. As if that, alone, would make him repent.

And of course, the initial rape is swept aside in florid prose meant to make the reader pause to consider symbolic implications of every little detail. We are detached from the action, just like Kit is mentally and emotionally detached from everything. She’s raped, but during it, let’s wonder at the glory of the rising and falling sand dunes of the Sahara desert. Such a technique is like a camera panning over to fluttering curtains next to an open window during sex scenes, back when movies strove for propriety.

Afterwards, she becomes his sex slave, pines for other male residents in a household while being held captive, and doesn’t argue when she’s forced to marry her rapist. In fact, when she finally flees, she’s still married to him—though I’m sure that doesn’t prevent her from sleeping with other random men along the way.

The argument that events and decisions are pertinent only to this character’s personality is weak, specifically because her characterization is weak. I never acquired a full sense of who these people were. Although Kit’s actions were always a surprise, I never learned anything more about her, no added depth.

So yes, I hated this book. It only serves to perpetuate the prejudices against women–flighty, irrational, over-emotional sluts and bat-shit crazy dolts. Oh, and it’s okay to rape, because she’ll love you for it. No thank you, Paul Bowles. You can keep your despicable and deplorable characters and your mutually cheating real-life marriage; meanwhile, I’ll block this book from memory.

_____

Dance Review: On Being by Staycee Pearl Dance Project

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Staycee Pearl’s latest evening length work, “…on being…” began as an exploration of post-blackness in America, a concept even Pearl had trouble defining because of its broad meaning.

She and her company spent months researching black art, music, literature, dance and more. While they gained insight and inspiration, none of them could come up with a singular definition of black culture in the 21st century. As one dancer, Mariana Batista, said, “I have many more questions now than when we started.”

In modern dance, there certainly isn’t a clear characterization of black movement. Established African-American choreographers of today have their own signature styles, from Camille A. Brown’s rhythm to Kyle Abraham’s intricacy, to Sidra Bell’s theatricality.

Pearl’s choices usually bring a mix of past and present. Within a phrase of her movement, one may see a big, technical leap reminiscent of her time at the Alvin Ailey school. And in the next second, her dancers may sink to the floor with the release styles more prevalent today.

“…on being…” suited the cast, all of whom excel at multiple genres. But what they brought to the stage in terms of self-exploration was even more exciting. Her dancers realized they could not define themselves by their race, when so much factored into their artistic experience. Gender played a role in their work, as did sexuality.

The result was a non-narrative piece focused on the individuality of the dancers. Although the five of them come from varying life experiences, they were strong as a unit. Perhaps that was the point. “We are all very round, whole people,” Jessica Marino wisely noted.

Herman Pearl, Staycee’s husband and collaborator, mixed music that ranged from recognizable soul to hypnotic waves of atmospheric sound. Each dancer had plenty of solo moments wrapped around duets, trios and a few sections featuring all five of them.

One particularly memorable duet was between Seth Grier and Ethan Gwynn. To a spliced version of “Natural Woman,” the two moved simplistically, allowing the audience to ponder notions of sexuality and gender without hitting us over the head with any overt message.

The quiet and lovely Jasmine Hearn also had some beautiful moments, many quite theatrical. She seemed to step outside her comfort zone, showing growth in her performance ability.

Jessica Marino and Mariana Batista were equally breathtaking, most notably in a duet of unique floor phrasing.

The most interesting part of the evening came when Internet persona, Hennessy Youngman, talked (via video footage) about how to be a “successful black artist.” He sarcastically instructed his audience to fall back on slavery as something white people are likely interested in. His humor was a reminder of cultural stereotypes still present in our day and age.

Pearl’s piece worked because there was no direct message. The choreography explored themes that she couldn’t, and may never, define. Because she was comfortable with that, the audience was, too.

_____

Perky

by Publius

My student teacher gets back from a meeting at his university. So I say to him, “I see other teachers in this building teach all the time. So I know what I look like compared to Mr. North, say, or this one and that. But I have no idea how I compare to other mentors of student teachers. So how do I compare to what your peers say about their mentors?”

He thinks seriously for a second. “Well, they say, for the most part, that their supervising teachers are young, perky and uplifting. And you’re — well — you’re none of those things.”
_____

Book Review: Salt Pier by Dore Kiesselbach

Salt Pier (Pitt Poetry Series)
by Dore Kiesselbach
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012
ISBN: 978-0822962175

reviewed by Mike Walker

Dore Kiesselbach brings forth in this slim volume a true, robust, and fully novel burst of poetry—an outpouring that appears like a new crop, with a lot of little things to find in the market-sized assortment that it tallies as a whole. Poems such as “Infection” and “Bullet Ant” speak with a sudden and powerful economy of illness, danger, and other conditions of bodily harm. Dore Kiesselbach writes in a narrow sense on the page, taking up little room and having few poems wander longer than the slight piece of paper allows, but he is able to both fill up a massive space with the ideas he brings forth even when on seemingly simple topics. In this sense, his work reminds me a lot of the songs of the British pop group Saint Etienne insofar as how this band can place an entire wide concept—urban planning, for example, or British coastal towns—in the space of a three-minute song. Using easy, topical, titles such as “Commute” or “Balance”, Kiesselbach proceeds to interrogate every possible aspect of the extended meanings of these terms, in all their varied applications, but with a real sense of thrift and gravity, never toying with his concepts nor his reader but instead also furnishing only the most-useful of truths plainly told. If that does not sound, at first mention, like what we expect from poetry, we’re missing out on the greatest of powers that poems can hold, which is to offer truncated communication of the most-universal and expansive of ideas and subjects.

One of the most outstanding poems in the collection for me was “Protect and Serve” which tells the tale of the author stepping off a BART train—probably in Berkeley, certainly somewhere in the East Bay as he’s above-ground and Oakland is later mentioned. It is night and the author is lacking cab fare for the rest of the journey home so instead, he walks across a high bridge—a bridge a person shouldn’t be walking across at night nor in this odd manner. Passersby see him and fear the worst, summon the cops, and soon the author is under arrest for his own protection as an apparent suicide. What makes this poem stand out in part is that I also lived in the Bay Area and know the BART well—I can see this in action, I can see the policemen’s faces and their ease in guessing they have yet another depressed kid (as the cops in the poem do call our hero) on their hands. I can see the humor and I can see the very San Francisco nature of the whole absurd scene. Beyond that though, the aspects I marvel at in this wonderful—and also, like most of those collected here, short—poem are the wealth of small details included and the ability of the author to make this into . . . well, truly authorship. There is story-telling here, this has the tenor and command of a good short story. While a poem, there is a clear voice of the author—not only because he is speaking apparently from life experience but also because he demands from his poem the purpose of relating a story, a narrative, just as one would over a beer at the bar or a professor might at the start of class or a man on the radio would have in decades past. This is story-telling in the smart guise of a poem.

Most of Kiesselbach’s writing has a narrative tone to it, an event he has in mind to speak of, and the very best examples in this book are often those concerning nature:

Startled from snow-day slumber
by a neighbor’s mutt, it
banged its buzzard’s head
then couldn’t solve
the problem of the white
pine’s limbs with wings
nearly too broad
for a planned descent.
Somewhere a lumbering
angel knows whether
it was dead before
it hit the ground.

This is the poem “Turkey Fallen Dead from Tree”, at once funny and morose, absurd yet perfectly true-to-life in its telling of a very unfortunate incident for a rather awkward bird. These things do happen: as an avid hiker and woodsman I can tell you they really do, and the way such incidents unfold is caught here in a manner both adroit and unique.

Kiesselbach constantly walks the line between personal and universal, between science and the realm of myth-prone emotion. “Beach Thanksgiving”, one of my favorite of poems ever about the beach—and that I say as someone who adores and gobbles up all literature I can find of quality on beach-oriented topics—makes plain the magic of fellowship on the beach but also is true and sincere with its ample details. How, exactly, Kiesselbach fits so many details such as these into his poems I’m not quite certain even after reading them over and over again. In a poem like “Green Zone” we see bright flashes of Dylan Thomas but we also see the articulate voice of an architectural historian or social scientist looking down the busy rush-hour street and taking copious notes.

At points Dore Kiesselbach’s forthright plain language spills too many raw emotions out into the open and seems to lay naked to the eye things better wrapped in layers of dressing. His poem “Volley” concerns his father and family and is one such example, but when his poetry seems to suffer even in the slightest way from his honesty, we have to remind ourselves of all the poets—indeed, all the writers—who suffer from not giving enough instead of providing far too much. Another poem—which like “Volley” also speaks of his family—entitled “Apology” is more engrossing simply because it provides a shorter moment, a very direct and specific moment, for the reader to consider in relation to the expanded topic at hand.

Salt Pier is just full of energy—were the poems longer, they would feel like a full soccer match played with no half-time, such is the energy they carry. Some poems, such as “Ward”, feel long despite their economy. Some invite outside references while others are properly self-contained in their own little frames. Always, what he is doing is something both humble and bold. The poem “Windmill” reads like a thesis on contemporary life but it wasn’t meant as such out of the box, I feel pretty certain. Kiesselbach knows there is such a thing as trying too hard and overall avoids that in these poems, providing very nuanced readings of life that are powerful but never try for a higher goal than their immediate specifics foremost, and whatever other asides they contain are simply a bonus round for the reader. Rock and roll is alive and it lives in Minneapolis, Prince once sang, and poetry it appears also is alive and well and it lives with Dore in Minneapolis.
_____

Theater Review: Zanna, Don’t!

reviewed by Dylan Jesse

Zanna, Don’t!. By Tim Acito and Alexander Dinelaris. Directed by Robert C.T. Steele. Musical Direction by Harry Jamison. A production of the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre. Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial Hall, Univeristy of Pittsburgh Oakland campus. February 14 through March 3, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8PM. Sunday Matinees at 2PM.

Pittsburgh in the last bitter throes of winter is not known for the kind of vivid color and unbridled exuberance that Zanna, Don’t!, the Off Broadway hit by Tim Acito and Alexander Dinelaris, brings to the stage in the current production by the Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre. And I, for one, am grateful that it does. Zanna, Don’t! walks a fine (and fantastic) line between a whimsical drama of troubled high-school romances and the deeply heavy issue of intolerance in a culturally-inverted world where chess-team captains are school sex symbols and the most shocking thing imaginable is a heterosexual kiss scene in the school play. No, Zanna, Don’t! is not a subtle exploration of these themes but the points that it makes are not only timely but timeless. With a run time of an hour and forty minutes (done without intermission, no less), Zanna, Don’t! is a lively and blistering musical production that charges straight into the questions of what it means to fall in love in a time and place that rigidly proscribes what is and is not an acceptable expression of what the heart desires.

The world of Zanna, Don’t! is something of a photo-negative reflection of small-town American adolescence re-done in sequins and Technicolor. Set in the halls and hangouts of Heartsville High, the play follows the lives of students in a world where same-sex pairings are not only the norm, but the only thinkable option. The school DJ, Tank (played with incredible energy by Jay Garcia) reminds everyone, “Girls grab your girl, and guys grab your guy,” as the play begins with an upbeat number that introduces one of the most memorably over-the-top characters on the whole production: Zanna (played magnetically by Rocky Paterra). Zanna is part fairy godmother in lightning-patterned fuchsia pants, part magic wand wielding cupid in a gold-fringed jacket (complete with wings, of course). In this Gilbert and Sullivan-esque world where the marginalized have become the mainstream, Zanna is the incessantly optimistic magical match-maker. The score, it should be noted, is flawlessly delivered by a live group of musicians up center stage under the sharp leadership of conductor and pianist Harry Jamison. The music itself is a suitably vivacious mix of ’50s and ’70s pop-influenced numbers that keep the whole production clipping along through the uninterrupted run time.

Music aside, Zanna finds himself entangled in a slew of romantic shake-ups, not the least of which is his quest to light a fire in the hearts of the bashful school heart-throb (due to his standing as chess team captain, of course) Mike (played by Ethan Miller) and the new boy in school (and lowly football quarterback) Steve (played by Aric Berning). Among the moments to watch out for with these two are a scene at a Heartsville High football game wherein (through a novel use of strobe lighting) Steve in all of his pink-sequined uniformed glory wins the game with a touchdown by catching his own pass, and the locker room scene afterward where Zanna and Tank conspire (with several comically frustrated attempts) to make the two swoon with the power of a well-timed radio request. The comedic abilities of the cast as a whole are not to be under-rated: between the cheeky writing and the just-too-much nature of a musical about high-school romance, the cast delivers an energetic performance that keeps the audience laughing while challenging the authority of socially-informed notions of right and wrong regarding sexual orientation. And when else are you going to see a world in which a high school has a competitive mechanical bull-riding team (and I might be showing my ignorance here, but is that a thing?), and it is firmly seated at the apex of female social structure?

The social critique comes to a real head when Mike, our dreamy chess team captain, proposes a new play for the school musical—one that dares to ask the question of whether straights should be allowed in the military. In his words, “If musical theatre doesn’t address important issues, what will?” Just one in a slew of subverted expectations, the question itself provides the vehicle whereby this play gains its strongest and most culturally relevant grounds. It should be noted here that new boy Steve’s two dads are both generals in the army, and they are certain to be in attendance. Steve is faced with the most daunting and controversial aspect of the performance: an actual, real-life, on-stage heterosexual kiss. In the world of Zanna, Don’t!, the military is still a staunchly conservative (read: homo-normative) culture, and this is where we really start to see the fruits of the play’s often reductionist social inversions.

In our own world, it has only been since September 20th, 2011, that the federal law banning openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals (known as the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, or DADT) was done away with. And still we read stories in the news about organizations like the Boy Scouts of America prohibiting openly homosexual men and boys from joining their ranks. As progressive as we may think our society to be, the threat of discrimination based on sexual orientation is not a thing of the past—it is terrifyingly real and often much more than just a threat. The power of this production is its ability (both through the writing and the abilities of the actors under the keen directorial eye of Robert C.T. Steele) to present its audience with a context that affords even the most comfortably heterosexual audience member with a much-needed “what-if” lesson in empathic understanding. In the world on stage, the opposite-sex kiss inevitably leads to an off-stage romance between Steve and his female counter-part (played by Liz Dooley), one which they try their best to in turn ignore, deny, hide, then embrace as they plan to escape to that great shining bastion of heterosexuality: San Francisco.

I would love to tell you how all of it ends, but that not only ruins the fun, it is beside the point. The point is the message: that love is love no matter who feels it; that the heart wants what it wants apropos of no one’s approval; that football uniforms could seriously use some more sparkle. The Pitt Repertory Theatre’s production of Zanna, Don’t! more than meets the challenge of a musical performance that is as demanding on its actors as it is rewarding to its audience. What’s more, the Pitt Repertory Theatre is partnering with area GLBT organizations like PFLAG, GLSEN, and Persad to host after-show community discussions to address issues concerning not just the GLBT community, but everyone who knows that love is something we all share, even if we do not always share it with each other.

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The Inspection

by Publius

On Fridays, it is my custom to do a reading for my students. I’ve done this for years. I am on the state arts council, which means that I get free subscriptions to great literary magazine published in the area. I also subscribe to several national journals, and am familiar with the production of respected publishing houses. My point being that I often read what I receive, and like, during the week. I tell my students that, on Friday, “I bring you my mailbox.”

So I do a poetry and/or short story reading. The instructions are for the students to simply lay back, enjoy it or not. “Think of it like a song on the radio. You like it. You don’t like it. If you like it, great. If you don’t, there will be another song. In any case, you will hear what folks, alive right now, are writing.” Thus do I expose my students to W. S. Merwin, Amiri Baraka, Yusef Kumanyaka, Jo McDougal, Tim Seibles, Rita Dove et al. “So lie back. Pay attention. Enjoy.”

Last Friday, I get inspected by district pooh-bah. The class was Advanced Placement English. My evaluation reads —

According to Mr. Publius, the class was just “chilling.” All the teacher did
was read poetry to the students. The students were asked to reflect with
their hearts and minds. That’s all.

How does the teacher test that? The teacher needs to add rigor — what skill
is being taught? How do you measure that skill? How does this help the
school, and/or the district, with the state test?

It is worth adding that I have edited slightly the district pooh-bah’s remarks — edited for grammar, mostly sentence structure and punctuation.

These reports just go into a drawer. That’s all.

_____

Book Review: Simic and Gaspar Twenty Years Apart

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

1.
I recently read two books, published twenty years apart, and both are works of genius. My first question to myself: How did I miss the one published in 1992, by an author whose work I have loved since the beginning? Somehow I did miss it— and then, after buying it, even lost track of it on my own shelf, among the stacks.

Dime-Store Alchemy by former U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic is a collection of prose poems (some call them short essays but I disagree) about the life and work of the surrealist collage artist Joseph Cornell (who also influenced Elizabeth Bishop.) Beginning with a preface that details Simic’s own fascination with Cornell and a short “chronology” of Cornell and his evolution as an artist, the
poems that follow, while exploring Cornell’s life and work, also serve as a memoir of Simic’s own travels through time and space. “I have a dream in which Joseph Cornell and I pass each other on the street. This is not beyond the realm of possibility. I walked the same New York neighborhoods that he did between 1958 and 1970.” (p. ix)

As we read we understand that Cornell’s obsessive and inspired use of collage, his reliance on “chance operations” (p. 30) also grounds Simic’s poetic approach.

…A pebble becomes a human being. Two sticks
leaning against each other make a house. In that world
one plays the game of being someone else.
This is what Cornell was after too. How to construct a
vehicle of reverie, an object that would enrich the imagination
of the viewer and keep him company forever.

(“The Truth of Poetry”)

This book is so wise, so rich, so surprising that I often find myself thinking I could spend an entire year on one sentence alone. And there are so many sentences like that! —far more than the number of years left to contemplate them. “All art is a magic operation, or, if you prefer, a prayer for a new image,” Simic tells us in the poem, “A Force Illegible. “

Below is a poem in its entirety that speaks to the quote above:

Our Angelic Ancestor

Rimbaud should have gone to America instead of Lake Chad. He’d be a hundred years old and rummaging through a discount store. Didn’t he say he liked stupid paintings, signs, popular engravings, erotic books with bad spelling, novels of our grandmothers?

Arthur, poor boy, you would have walked the length of Fourteenth Street and written many more “Illuminations.”

Poetry: three mismatched shoes at the entrance of a
dark alley.

2.
“Since the beginning” almost describes my following of Frank Gaspar’s poetry. His first book, The Holyoke, won the Morse Poetry Prize (selected and introduced by Mary Oliver) in 1988. I came across the book a few years later and began using it for my poetry workshops (Gaspar has published four more books of poetry and two novels since then); I have used his poetry collections in my classes ever since, and always the students are blown away by his work.

But: Back to the twenty years apart: His most recent poetry collection Late Rapturous (published by Autumn House Press) came out in 2012. It is a widely and wildly visionary collection. Like Simic, Gaspar has become a master of the prose poem form, though the poems in Gaspar’s book are generally much longer and more densely packed. Cornell would have loved them, for, like Simic’s poems, they are masterful and ingenious constructions—poetic collages “in which objects are renamed and invested with imaginary lives” (Simic, “The Truth of Poetry,” p.46).

In fact, the poems here seem like a culmination of all Gaspar’s previous work. And if you look at Mass for the Grace of a Happy Death, his second collection, you will find a poem a little past midway into the book, called “Love is the Power Which Impels One to Seek the Beautiful”—a poem which seems to foreshadow, to predict where his poetry will go in the future (beginning as he did in The Holyoke, with poems using stanza breaks, free verse lineation, a more open narrative, before he developed/discovered an ever richer, ever denser, prose poem form.)

Here are the prophetic last lines of “Love is the Power…”:

…Now, after all these years of reading
poems, I may finally understand certain questions
of form. There is the line with its heartbeat, and
there is language with its catalog of figures, and
there is symmetry and breath. Every beginning
demands an end, every curve a consummation, and
the world and our lives must locate themselves in
image or cease to exist. This could be a kind of
Longing or a kind of Will. In seeking beauty it is
sometimes necessary to reject a familiar or even
an attractive form. If a symmetry is broken, we
begin again. In some things failure is impossible
.

Yes, Gaspar’s new poems radiate wildly. They encompass. They refer. Like Simic’s book, they’re not afraid to exist in several dimensions or in several layers of existence at once—each poem a kind of “Cornell box”— “finite infinity,” as Dickinson said.

Now, to set something down in
the midst of folly, one true word, one simple cry out of the black arroyos
and dangerous washes, the canyons, the granite redoubts, but the lone sob
of the desert hen is not enough, the television’s mangled voices creeping
through the drywall and stucco are not enough…

(“June/July—Eleven Black Notebooks at the Desert Queen Motel”)

If the roof of the world is a wheel, if the heart of the world is a heart.
then you have another poem about truth, and if that’s the case
you had better not trust it, not trust its voice or its knowing vowels
or its perfumed arrogance. We’ve all been down that road, and it
leads to the edge of a town with one broken-down gasoline station
and its pile of yellowed ledgers, and one sad ghost wondering where
the glory days have slipped off to.

(“Sycamore”)

Now I am reading a book that tells me every raindrop falls to earth
exactly as it’s supposed to. That there are no errors. Therefore,
there is no therefore. Nothing to do then except go out to
the porch and listen to birdsong, listen to the prevailing
wind up in the leafless branches. Do no harm, I told myself.
Look for the small miracles. Already the moon was crisp in the east.
Already the moon was faultless behind the naked limbs, following
the black notes of the huddled birds, shining, and it wasn’t even dark yet.
(“Do No Harm”)

The moment one begins to read Late Rapturous, one feels Dickinson’s “top of one’s head flying off,” the test, for her, of a true poem, a work of true genius.

_____

Local Colors II

by Arlene Weiner

My travels for the past few years have been bipolar. I’ve gone north for happiness, to see my young grandchildren, and south for sad duty, to see my cousin, who has had heart problems and was diagnosed a little more than two years ago with ovarian cancer. My cousin lives south of Roanoke, Virginia in a town, once a railroad hub, with roads that snake up and down over hills. New streets with developers’ names, like Scenic River Road, branch off roads with no-nonsense, industrial-era names: Tanyard Road, Power Dam Road.

My cousin’s resting. The large-screen TV set is playing. I don’t want to turn it off because I might mishandle the two remote controls and black out her service. As it is, it seems she can find only one channel. When I walked into the living room just now, I was astonished to see and hear a woman who might have been Dorothy Collins on “Your Hit Parade” in the 1950s—bouffant hairdo, big smile, sweetly singing “Till There Was You.” A little later I realized, this actually was the Lawrence Welk show, a staple in olden days. A time capsule. The chanteuse. A Negro (as he would have been called then) tap-dancer in a suit, working hard and smiling hard. A pair of ballroom dancers, she in a full-length gown with sparkly bodice, he in a business suit—all in powder blue—dancing a polka to a song from The King and I. All the cast around them in powder blue, surrounding Welk, who is playing the accordion and wears red. And this on the public broadcasting channel!

And now, on the same channel, Song of the Mountains. I’m enchanted by a large bluegrass group, ETSU Old Time Pride Band, young people from East Tennessee State University. One guy in a fedora and blue shirt on bass; another fedora on fiddle; a vest and bowtie on guitar; a Lennonesque guy with a red beard in a yellow newsboy cap; a black girl in a ‘frohawk, tulle skirt, black boots, feather earrings on guitar; a girl in a fancy black dress and pearl earrings who might be in Sex and the City on autoharp. A small, vigorously fiddling brunette in a dress with a shiny silver overlay and fringed hem. They are working hard and seem to be having a good time. As one steps to a mike, two other step back to make room, smoothly. On “Pretty Polly,” the Black girl takes the lead. “I’ve researched this song,” she says, sings a version in which Willy gets his comeuppance in the last verses. It’s rousing.

Shots of the audience show a lot of people wearing red, a lot of people smiling, applauding, including a man in a turban. As John Balaban has written, “Moments like that, you can love this country.”

_____

Eye Surgery

By Songyi Zhang 

A week ago, I accompanied my husband for cataract surgery. At seven o’clock the waiting room of the surgery center was filled with patients and their families. A nurse came in the waiting room to call the patients’ names. On the other side, two receptionists were helping the patients register while a television blasted from the corner.

Same as in China, patients need to read through and sign an agreement prior to the surgery. I doubted my husband could read the small print because both his eyes had cataracts and the one scheduled for surgery already had been soaked in three kinds of eyedrops, four times before we arrived.

A woman receptionist thoughtfully read the gist of the documents and pointed my husband to the signature line. I noticed on the desk there was a sign for language assistance. Apparently, many immigrants come to this surgery center. Translators are available, from Arabic to Vietnamese. I glimpsed through the list. Ha, I can speak two of them—Cantonese and Mandarin. Maybe I can work as a translator here.

We arrived at 7:15 a.m.. But the surgery didn’t start until 9:20 a.m.. In between those two hours, my husband was sedated in a bed in a pre-op room. Each cubicle on both sides of the hallway was separated by ceiling-to-floor curtains.

Americans really respect individual privacy. On the wall is a sign of “Protecting Patient Policy.” It reads, “All health care personnel must obtain permission from the patient prior to discussion any health care issue in front of a patient’s visitors.”

While in a normal consultation, doctors come to the patient in a private room; in China, patients have to line up outside the doctor’s office for their turns. Sometimes the anxious ones even peek inside the doctor’s office.

As we were waiting, four nurses rotated to check on my husband, asking him the same kind of yes-or-no questions—Do you have this problem or that problem? Are you allergic to this or that? What are you here for?

“I’m here for a cataract removal on my left eye,” my husband said the fourth time to a nurse. By then, the IV bag that was injected into him was about empty. I didn’t expect that he would be treated like a severe patient. He was even attached to several electrodes on the chest and a nasal cannula for respiratory. The last time I saw these devices was when my mother was on the verge of dying. I couldn’t figure out how many eyedrops the nurses had applied to my husband before they pushed him into the surgery room.

About an hour later, I met him in another room. He looked calmer than I thought he would. As I saw a girl patient licking a strawberry popsicle on the other side, my husband told me he also had a cup of cranberry juice and two crackers. I was glad he was in good care. My dad didn’t have such good care after his appendix removal surgery in China.

The next day we received a get-well card from the surgery center. What a thoughtful gesture — something you’d never see from a Chinese clinic.

 _____

Looking for Inspiration

by John Samuel Tieman

I sometimes think I wasted a lot of years looking for inspiration, when all I needed to do was simply open my eyes.

mother and suckling
boy at the bus stop on Pine
she notes the dawn and
wonders what the day will bring
besides milk and sleep and light

I have almost no imagination. Easily my best known poem was inspired by a shadow.

we undress for love
and for ten seconds the dusk
makes us young again

That haiku was published in Japan in translation in the millions. And it was inspired by nothing beyond what it says. I love my wife. I love her body. Twilight and I wish we were young.

I used to think that all poems were inspired by a great sunset, a cataclysmic earthquake, the death of a young athlete. In Vietnam, I saw a sunset that made even the birds pause. In 1985, I survived the Mexico City Earthquake. A student died on the soccer field last year. And I got from these not a single line of poetry. Then — then yesterday:

in utter silence
I stare out our new picture
window to the street
a basketball rolls by followed
by not a soul …

_____

Book Review: In the Company of Spirits by Carmen Calatayud

In the Company of Spirits
poems by Carmen Calatayud
Winston-Salem, NC: Press 53. 2012
$12.95.

reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe

Calatayud is a DC poet, and like many in the DC scene, she understandably focuses on social issues, questions of involvement and public policy. This is the poetry of witness. She slips between potent scenes of tragedy to mythic portraits of landscape and people. The collection opens with “Tale from Chiapas,” a surreal portrait of evocative images:

In this country we count the trees, then count again.
We lift the streets by mixing paint.
Nine guardians live upstairs and we sing with them.
There’s a slit in the sky and we reach through to pull down the sun.

The imagery is dreamlike. There’s an unreal feel to this place. The poem portrays haunting memories, ghosts, “At times, tricky spirits swallow our eyes./They bring bad news like the black moths./We open the coffin, smell al alma during the wind.” (lines 7-9). She concludes, “We point to the northern sky before sleep smokes our limbs./Fig trees spin into ash, and we wash our soil with milk.” (lines 13-14). There’s optimism as well as a certain sense of foreboding.

“To My Father Juan, Who Thought There Was a War To End All Wars,” is one of the more powerful poems in the collection. She opens with a scene of brutality:

The soldiers took your Tio Rafa:
dragged out of bed and shot in the street

the Franco way

the Generalissimo in my dreams
sucked away your soul
when they killed Rafael.

You and your friends played soccer
around the bodies,

death was a daily smell
and the sound of mothers who screamed
like hyenas

hung in the air.

Calatayud tries to make sense of this situation, the same way her father tried to, “All of this, this wasn’t ordained by the Holy Ghost,” (line 19). His belief system is shattered. The effects of this are far reaching, even as an adult, Calatayud describes her father “hoarding canned food in the basement” (pg. 5, lines 23). But there’s no real solace to be had, no way to protect oneself and one’s family against something like this.

So when faced with these sorts of calamities, where does one turn? In “Flames and Angels,” Calatayud turns her attentions to DC: “There is misery by the busload. Mothers scrounge/for bits of bread.” (lines 1-2). She continues, “We can’t make sense of paper, rock or scissors/or velvet political games. We lose a day each night,/tending to the problems of the world in our dreams.” (lines 3-5). This is Calatayud’s survivor’s guilt, as the child of immigrants (at one point, a relative praises Calatayud’s luck at being “white.”). Throughout this collection, she deals with questions of her liminality. She is trapped between the world of her parents and the past and her current life, where she is outside these experiences and looking back, free of them but still tethered to them. In the same way, America is in a liminal stage as the more diverse populations gain more political presence. But, even though many of the more privileged holdouts fear this change, and this fear produces dangers for some others, Calatayud is hopeful. In her title poem, she reminds: “This is the land you came from. There is no worry in this dirt./You are the harvest of our desert dance.” (lines 25-27).

_____

fade to white

by John Samuel Tieman

my oldest old pal
pulls out a photo album
ripples in a lake

“He was 72. He lived a good, long life,” says a young colleague. I’m 62. I shudder. Folks have been on Death Row longer than 10 years.

I’m not aging gracefully. I’d like to “rage against the dying of the light.” Instead, I read the obituaries. I miss Les.

I kept Les’ obituary. Les and I were in the army together, 1969, 1970. We kept up for the next decade. Then jobs and loves and travel and we lost track, only to be reunited in 2003 or 4 or so. The cigarettes killed Les. I don’t have the skill to get over missing Les. I don’t have the time to build that skill. Sometimes I have a memory, say from my childhood, and I stop. I realize that I’m the only one left.

I’m not afraid of death. I’m an aging narcissist. I’m saddened by the fact that I’ll never make love to Suzanne Pleshette, never march with the Foreign Legion, never pinch hit for the Cardinals. I’m getting used to being the oldest person in the room.

After making love, my wife points out that my beard, and the white sheets, are the same color. It’s like I’m fading into the background.

original art
covers my living room walls
but all I see is
the blank tv screen in which
an old man is reflected

_____