Book Review: Interstitial by Sean Patrick Hill

reviewed by CL Bledsoe

Interstitial
by Sean Patrick Hill
Buffalo, NY: BlazeVox Books, 2011.

BlazeVox poetry collections tend to have three things in common: physically, they tend to be oversized (not necessarily thick, but wide or tall) and very attractive; stylistically, they tend to be experimental (whatever that means – so basically, they don’t usually publish poems that slap the reader in the face with obvious meaning, but rather poems that require a little bit of work; you might need to strap on your snorkel, fins, and air tank to plumb the depths of a BlazeVox collection) which doesn’t mean that they’re simply gibberish; and quality-wise, they tend to be pretty strong. I can think of several recent BlazeVox collections I’ve really enjoyed: Sarah Sarai’s The Future Is Happy, Kristinia Marie Darling’s The Moon and Other Inventions, and Rob McLennan’s Grief Notes, to name a few. Hill’s collection has all of these qualities in common. It’s laid out length-wise with a beautiful cover, and it’s certainly a powerful collection of poetry by one of the most talented poets working today.

“The Emperor’s Nightingale” references the story of the mechanical nightingale we’ve all heard:

The song goes something like this: A kind of pining binds us in muslin and butcher’s strong. Only now have we begun to see to what extent we are unwritten. Leaves, integers, moths—of course we are machines in the ghost. I never said I wanted everything I touch to resemble gold.

Hill weaves a surreal tapestry reflecting a rural, poor upbringing in fresh, powerful images. “How is it we forget that some of us are not allowed to remain/poor,” he says, in “Poem” (7-8). There is comfort, of course, in the familiar, even if that familiar environment is a negative or limiting one. And there’s beauty in even the bleakest stories. “Moon reflected in a moving window” tells the story of a train wreck. It begins, “Cassidy laid his head like a zinc penny on the track./At five, the freight arrived from Omaha.” (1-2). He continues, “We’ve heard the story at every crossing, walking to the factory:/Kid wearing earphones full of noise, deaf to the afternoon.” (7-8). Hill is subtle, but isn’t that kid wearing the earphones BECAUSE he’s walking to the factory, which is probably his only real option for making even decent money? He’s hiding from the hopelessness of his world—that same world that might kill him. But in addition to the narrative aspects, Hill’s language describes the setting vividly: “A dog barks at the moon reflected in a moving window./Skin thickens around the ankles of utility poles.” The thickening skin, literally, could mean tar, but it implies so much so subtly. (4-5). In “Crossing Idaho,” he describes the weather: “Like a coffin carried on stage, snow falls and falls.” (1). One is reminded of Chekov’s line about the pistol in the first act. It’s not just the vividness of Hill’s imagery that’s outstanding; it’s the way he weights those descriptions with such powerful implications. In “The Taste of Bone,” he reminds us, “All we need do to experience disaster is be born.” (8).

Hill’s first collection, The Imagined Field, was an excellent debut, and he’s refined his talent here.

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2013 Runner-up Sentence of the Year Award

“A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery.”

— Nelson Algren (quoted by Garrison Keillor)

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Letter to Ada Limon

by John Samuel Tieman

Dear Ada,
Years ago, when I was young, I taught school on the island of Dominica. One day, I read to the students Alan Dugan’s “Love Song: I And Thou”. Immediately after class, a student asked me to recite the ending of the poem for him —

I can nail my left palm
to the left-hand crosspiece but
I can’t do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,
a help, a love, a you, a wife.

I recited it several times until he had it memorized.

A few moments later, as I walked to my next class, I passed that young man. He was speaking to his girlfriend. I overheard him say, “I can nail my left palm …”.

I swore I would write Dugan about that. I even found his post office box. And, like so many young people, I thought there was plenty of time.

And then I read that Dugan died. So today I’m writing to you — although we’ve never met — because a poetry reading — one you organized — is happening once again in my classroom.

Patrick Kramer, a gifted student teacher, is doing a lesson on spoken word poetry. I normally supervise him from a distance, so to say. But today, the room to which I often retreat is in use.

So I’m in the back of my classroom. I figure I’ll work on grades. Then Mr. Kramer begins a tape of a poetry reading, a reading you organized in 2009 in the Bowery. He plays three poems, compelling stuff. I stop my grading.

The assignment is for the kids to write, and present, their own poems. A couple of kids present very interesting poems. Then a young woman burns my inner ear with her words about her suicide attempt.

Did you ever think you’d inspire black kids and immigrant kids in St. Louis?

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The Vice-Principal

by Publius

Over the years, I’ve had several principals and vice-principals who were truly mentally ill. A drug addict. A sadist. Tons of narcissists. I’m no diagnostician, but I believe my current vice-principal had brain damage a few years ago, when she had two severe back-to-back falls. Some days, that makes me sad. But it doesn’t make the day easier.

Like yesterday, when she goes up to Brian, and says, “Mr. Reuther, we need to” then just stares, then concludes, “you know.” Then just walks off.

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The Hauberg: A commons that has avoided the tragedy for centuries

By Eva-Maria Simms

Hardin, in The Tragedy of the Commons (1968) has argued that free, common spaces will inevitably be ruined by the selfish greed of the members of the commons. “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons” (p. 1244) Garbage is a step towards the ruin of our common spaces and a marker of the ethical failure of community members to pay their fair share and take only what the communal spaces can bear. It is a direct sign of the “tragedy of the commons”. However, Hardin’s argument about the inevitable destruction of commonly held places (like state parks and shared grazing land) through capitalist greed already assumes that the traditional social commons, which regulates the use of shared spaces on the local level, has been destroyed. But not all traditional commons’ have undergone Hardin’s tragedy, and I agree with Cox (1985) that the ruin of common spaces lies in the bioethical failure of communities to understand and manage the commons. Communities that understand, manage, and care for their common spaces have been able to protect the integrity of their natural places. One example of a commons that has survived since the 17th century comes from the Siegerland, the German region where I was born and raised.

The Siegerland is a hilly, forested, barren landscape in central Germany where tough, stubborn people have eked out their living growing rye and buckwheat, potatoes and root vegetables on small, steep fields. 2500 years ago the Celts built their iron smelters close to water sources and began the tradition of making charcoal by building Kohlenmeiler, which were wood piles that were carefully stacked and covered with clay and allowed to slow-burn for months in order to produce a very hot burning coal. The Celts left the Siegerland after all the beech woods were cut down. It took the forest 800 years to recover. The need for charcoal for metalworking and the use of tree bark in the tanning industry led over the centuries to deforestation of many places in Europe, and the Siegerland was no exception.

In the heavily forested Siegerland the villages began to regulate the use of their common woods when, once again, their forests were threatened by the greed of individual land owners in the 17th century. The Hauberg was created when they incorporated all the surrounding forest land into the village bounds, compensated the land-owners with shares in the commonly held land’s productivity, and founded village societies that were responsible for regulating and managing the use of the forest. Village families used their Hauberg in an 18-year cycle, reaping different benefits from the trees and the land every year in rotation: growing rye in clear cut sections, harvesting firewood in older growth, feeding pigs on oak mast, selling mature wood and bark to the iron, charcoal, and tanning industries. The shares were passed down through the generations. The most important principle they followed was to take only so much out of nature as grows back, so that future generations would not be endangered. They called this Nachhaltigkeit, which means something like “to endure over a longer time”, which we today call sustainability.

The Haubergsgesellschaft, the village organization that oversaw the use of the village forest, avoided the tragedy of the commons for almost 400 years. It teaches us that the tragedy of the commons is not inevitable. Implied in its success is also a lesson for urban nature stewardship: the tragedy of the commons lies not in the inevitable destruction of the commons, but in the inability of many communities to understand that they have a commons they are responsible for. As long as our urban nature spaces remain invisible to the adjacent communities they are also not appreciated and claimed as part of the neighborhood commons. No matter how many state laws and city ordinances regulate the use of urban forests, they will be ruined unless the local community reclaims them, makes them newly visible, and includes them within the imagined boundary of their neighborhood landscape.

Cox, S. J. B. (1985). No Tragedy of the Commons. Environmental Ethics, 7(1), 49-61.
Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162(3859), 1243-1248.

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Theater Review: Looking for the Pony

Looking for the Pony by Andrea Lepcio. Off the Wall Theater, 25 West Main Street, Carnegie, PA. Directed by Robyne Parrish. With Daina Michelle Griffith, Karen Baum, Theo Allyn, and Cameron Knight. Music by EMay. March 1–2, 7–9, 14–16 at 8:00 p.m. March 3 & 10 at 3:00 p.m.
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Before the performance of Looking for the Pony begins at Off the Wall’s theater, you notice Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s set. In the center of the stage area is a large platform with two circular tiers. On the floor, a compass rose, the arrows pointing to all directions, radiates from its center. Behind this platform, against the rear wall, is an elevated desk. A fair portion of the wall is covered with chalkboard. Oh, there’s a seesaw, too, and a lectern.

Why the compass directions? Probably to express the physical distance between the two main characters, Ouisie and Lauren, but perhaps also reflecting an expression I’ve heard quite a bit recently: a “cancer journey.” One of these two women, friends from childhood, sisters by need rather than by blood, will be diagnosed with breast cancer early in the play and will endure a merry-go-round—it might almost be a roller coaster—of hope, fear, tests, doctor-shopping, filling out forms, contradictory diagnoses, insurance hassles, and the whole nine yards of “courageously battling” cancer, as too many obituaries have it.

If you’ve experienced cancer up close, you might hesitate to see this play. Don’t. It’s not a Disease of the Month tearjerker, though you might want a couple of tissues. It’s more about Ouisie’s dis-ease. Ouisie, who’s a few years younger than Lauren, is torn between getting on with her late vocation as a writer and “being there” for Lauren, who lives far away from her. Ouisie considers deferring her admission to graduate school, and the chance to study with a Big Writer, to stay with Lauren; but Lauren insists that she leave and take up this big chance. And Lauren continues to insist that Ouisie choose her writing over Lauren’s needs whenever a conflict arises.

Time is fractured. We jump forward a few months or a year, back twenty-five years, forward again. (OTW’s plays recent productions The Other Place and Gruesome Playground Injuries had this structure, too.) One minute the “sisters” are children on that seesaw, the next they are speaking on the telephone about Lauren’s children and Ouisie’s writing seminar. It’s to the credit of the director and the actors that this isn’t confusing. And that circular platform turns out to rotate, expressing the dizzying instability of dealing with cancer’s life-and-death doubt, while dealing with ongoing life.

The four local Equity actors are excellent. Karen Baum and Daina Michelle Griffith make the main characters touching and often funny. Theo Allyn and Cameron Knight play a zillion supporting roles each and range from moving to hilarious. There’s a Marx-brothers-like struggle between Allyn, as an insurance company representative, and Knight, as a lawyer trying to get her to approve payment for an expensive procedure. It’s a physical chase, wrestling match, mixed martial arts event.

I’ve seen the three women in many local productions, but Knight is new to me. Hats off to his infinite variety. He creates credible characters in a few minutes each. As a hair stylist and a vain celebrity doctor he’s exaggerated and funny; as the elderly client of Lauren, a social worker, he’s touching. And hurrah, the writing guru isn’t caricatured. Hurrah, too, that an African American actor is playing roles that don’t necessarily specify an African American.
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Book Review: The Switching/Yard by Jan Beatty

reviewed by CL Bledsoe

The Switching/Yard, poems by Jan Beatty. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.

Anyone who’s ever ridden on a train has found himself staring out the window and wondering at what he saw. The landscape, the towns we pass, the people; all evoke stories. In her most recent collection, Beatty has written some of these stories. Beatty’s focus is on urban images, especially train yards and manufacturing. “California Corridor” gives us a view of Beatty’s world:

On the San Joaquin Line
between Modesto & Merced,
past the arroyos, past the fruit trees
in rows, rows—hands of the farm workers/
beauty always with blood behind it,
nothing free.
(lines 1-6).

Her language is clean and straight-forward. She describes a beautiful and alien world full of hard-working, underpaid immigrants struggling to survive while waiting for “the angels of bread” (9). She describes California as “a wide,/wide lover” (12-13). A handful of Beatty’s poems describe her fascination with the natural world. “We Cover Our Heads Like Deer” is about a bunch of writers and artists bird watching. The situation is absurd; Beatty is instructed to cover her head with a blanket and walk like a deer, though she doesn’t know what that means. Beatty is often an outsider in these situations, just as she rides on a train observing the difficult lives of others but not entering them. “White Girl in a record Store” describes her attempt to broaden her horizons as she attempts to buy “Rapper’s Delight.” Beatty becomes embarrassed as the record store employees try to sell her a bunch of merchandise. She’s simply curious about a part of the culture she’s missed, but can’t make the leap from her comfort zone to actually connect.

The title poem describes Beatty’s trip to meet her birth father, passing through a manufacturing wasteland, “2 giant sleeping cranes, nothing as lonely as/a crane not working,” she begins. (1-2). As the train moves north away from the switching yard, Beatty describes a beautiful landscape, “…the sky’s/blue-dark with the trees going back to their night souls” (17-18). “We are all so/separate with the same lives,” she reminds (pg. 30, lines 16-17).

Though Beatty deals with some pretty weighty themes, she’s also got quite a sense of humor. “Dear American Poetry,” takes to task the lack of diversity in those poems selected for the major anthologies – diversity in terms of the race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. of the poets, but also for the lack of real emotive power in the poems. “Stein: Letter to a Young Rilke” has a similar tongue-in-cheek approach. She also touches on certain aspects of pop culture, mainly music, by addressing Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and the like.

But sense of place is the real focus of the collection. Beatty describes meeting her birth parents, an experience which adds to her desire for a connection with place. Beatty uses language and descriptions often reserved for the Rust Belt, but her focus is California and the west. It’s a changing landscape, at times barren and luscious. Beatty is as much an outsider as we are, trying to make sense of it, and we get to peek at her discoveries.

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Bullet-Points

by Publius

We had “an emergency faculty meeting”. So I took these notes.
“– The state test is coming up. Get worried.
— Teach the test and nothing else.
— We need everyone to pass the state test. So don’t give it to any kids who won’t pass.
— According to a new state regulation, we can now exempt some kids (they’re described as the lizards) who we know will flunk. Kids, for example, who have been speaking English for an hour fifteen minutes. So flunk anyone who won’t pass the test.
— On the other hand, the state mandates that we have a 95% passing rate. So don’t flunk anybody, because that makes us look bad.
— Also don’t give anyone a D. That makes us look like we’re passing kids we would otherwise flunk. Which, of course, is true.
— So if a kid is going to flunk, give the kid a C.
— Everyone is here all the time. We also need a 95% attendance rate. The last two weeks, we will have 100% attendance.
— To repeat. Do well on the test, and get the lizards out. But don’t flunk them. And everyone is here all the time.
— Oh, and don’t write the answers on the board. That made us look bad last year, because it made us look too good. That’s why we have to get a 91% this year. We got an 81% last year.
— Have a good day.”

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Dance Review: Black Grace at the Byham Theater

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

With all the American contemporary dance happening in Pittsburgh lately, New Zealand company, Black Grace, came as a welcome surprise Saturday night.

Founding Artistic Director and Choreographer, Neil Ieremia, was born and raised in New Zealand, but attributes his signature style to his Samoan heritage. Growing up, singing and dancing were part of his traditional culture.

The company was formed in 1995, and for years was comprised of all men. When the original dancers’ careers came to a close, Ieremia found it difficult to find many new male dancers. He joked that in New Zealand, men are usually “growing beards and playing rugby.” Admittedly, I haven’t seen a rugby match since college, but the athletic style of Black Grace seemed equally, if not more, physically taxing than the extremely vigorous sport.

Ieremia asserts that the women he added to the company bring elegant lines to the choreography. But the men were equally impressive in that area. The entire company had an incredible athleticism that barely slowed during the two hour show. To develop the speed and stamina necessary to perform the work, the dancers cross-train, running hills and even wrestling to stay in shape.

The first half, called “Pati Pati,” was influenced by traditional Samoan dances that use body slapping and seated motifs. To the beat of a drum, the dancers pounded the floor, clapped their hands, and stomped their feet in complicated rhythms.

A particularly intricate section that used snapping and chanting came from an old piece about children’s hand games. The dancers had precision and power unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In repetitive jumps and falls to the floor, the energy didn’t waiver even once.

The second half began in silence, with a slower rhythm and partnering sequences using smaller groups of dancers. One visually beautiful section used a large light blue cloth. The dancers weaved in and around it, wrapped themselves inside of it, and lifted one another over top of it. Eventually, they held the cloth still, while images of varying landscapes were projected onto it. To the sounds of nature, scenes of mountains, oceans and seasons changing gave a break from the more vigorous movement.

Act 2 included more contemporary material, proving Ieremia’s talent in multiple genres. The tempo varied, and his use of space expanded from large group unison to interesting duets and trios. Although the program was a touch too long, the audience rose to their feet at the end, in awe of the uniqueness and dynamism that is distinctly Black Grace.

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Book Review: The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson

The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson
Soho Press, 2012

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

Readers already know the ending of The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson when they begin the story. That’s what happens when it’s based off historical events, the back summary describes those events, and the prologue reveals too much. We know the main character poisons men in her village, gets caught, and survives—though she doesn’t know how she managed it all.

But that’s the whole point: She doesn’t know. The readers are tasked to figure it out. This book was never about what happens—it’s about how it happens and why. Instead of providing readers with a twist or surprise ending, Gregson takes them on a long journey.

Sari, the main character who was branded as a witch and is a social pariah, becomes engaged to her cousin Ferenc soon before her father dies. Within months after her father’s death, Ferenc and the rest of the village men are called off to fight in World War I. This results in the women letting their guards down and easing into comfortable friendships. When Italian POWs arrive, most of the villagers begin to conduct affairs. After the husbands return broken or more abusive, their women search for an escape. Sari discovers that her sweet fiancé has turned into a controlling, paranoid man. This sparks the village poisonings that go on for years. For a while, the other women view death as an easy fix to life’s problems until a botched murder attempt.

The story is faithful to historical events in Nagyrév, Hungary, between 1914 and 1929. The main midwife Julia turns into Judit, and Susi turns into Sari, Judit’s apprentice and the clerk who signs death certificates. The method of creating arsenic is the same, as are the detections and criminal investigation methods. Gregson researched the incidents well and incorporated all of them, weaving together possibilities with facts.

Despite deaths and legal ramifications, there is no grand climax, and there isn’t meant to be. Life is composed of defining moments of intense conflict and mundane actions, as if it follows rolling hills. So instead of a dramatic accusation, the final conflict is quiet and gradual, almost to the point of anticlimactic. However, this quality of authenticity is hindered by most of the characters lacking depth.

Perhaps Gregson’s characters couldn’t evolve during the writing process because she tried to adhere so closely to historical facts. Thus, most of the villagers represent shallow archetypes and are dull, predictable plot points. It’s hard to care about any of them. There is the battered wife who is quiet but has great personality when she’s left alone long enough; the wizened crone whom everyone else fears, but is really a pushover; the war-torn fiancé; the abusing husband; the kind and worldly older Italian lover; and the snobby village queen bee.

Of those, the strongest characters are Judit and Ferenc. Judit is crude, cynical, and indifferent toward the villagers, but also honest and affectionate toward Sari. They are kindred spirits because they are both outcasts and deal in herb lore. Judit emits an air of experience to the extent that she no longer cares about life. She is an aged bottle of wine turned to vinegar.

Ferenc is a well-rounded dynamic character. The gradual alterations in his personality are fantastic. He begins sweet and caring, if a little consumed by hormones. Readers will begin to believe that he’ll take good care of Sari after they’re married, and he’ll treat her well and appreciate everything about who she is. And finally, someone in life other than Judit will want her. However, readers’ faiths in him begin to falter when he imagines Sari’s likeness above the battlefield—apart, untainted. He becomes obsessed with his idea of her; she becomes his salvation and sense of control. His disappointment after returning to her reality contributes to his downfall. When he comes home, he’s mentally and emotionally broken. He’s suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and he’s paranoid. He begins to doubt Sari and control everything about their lives.

An excellent moment of foreshadowing occurs before he beats her. Sari knows that something is wrong. She recognizes Ferenc’s tightening control over her, his loosening grip on himself, and his absolute need for her. Gregson writes:

“They are engaged, they will marry, and then she will be his. She would be just the tonic he needs, to build up his strength, to make him brave enough to leave the house, to reclaim his life again. It’s different, everything is different now, but she’s still his. She is still his” (151).

It seems as if this realization should have been reason enough to leave. However, Sari makes excuses and tries to ignore the warning signs. In fact, readers will recognize danger in this passage but to Sari, it represents a balm of excuses to soothe her growing concerns.

Then he beats her. Savagely. And for petty reasons. After he’s done, his condescending words almost drip poison from the page. If any character in this book is meant to evoke emotion or malice from the readers, it could be him; it’s a mark of good writing when a character pisses off a reader. And Gregson’s technique of including Sari’s name in Ferenc’s dialogue—like speaking to an unruly but punished child—is particularly effective.

Sair, however, is just plain aggravating. Readers may be able to sympathize with her situation, but not with her. She is methodical and clever, but her emotions are flat and distant. Sari seems to observe her world and choose what to react to. She is supposed to be aloof; instead, she is stiff and predictable, as if she is always under the author’s control. Again, this may be from adhering to historical events. There is little substance that makes the readers feel sympathetic toward her. Readers may react more with “All right, let’s see what you do next,” instead of “I can’t wait to learn what happens!”

When the beatings begin, suddenly every aspect of womanhood roars into the story. Initially, Sari becomes annoying because of submitting and making excuses so easily. But when Ferenc endangers her child’s life, she becomes herself. The strength that the narration always talks about surfaces and readers finally see what Sari is capable of doing. But it ends there and she soon returns to her old self.

This is where the third-person point of view has failed Gregson. The prologue is intriguing and beguiling, albeit a bit too revealing, because it opens with first-person narration. But its style sets a false stage for the rest of the book. When chapter one begins, the point of view shifts to third person. Readers are sucked away from the main character to watch as bystanders. It doesn’t matter how much the narration describes Sari’s thoughts and emotions, the readers cannot feel much because of the distance. Due to this and the prologue’s reveal of Sari’s survival, readers cannot feel invested in her character. Thus when she loses “all the vital, vibrant parts of her” (180), it doesn’t seem as disheartening as it could have been.

If that was the only point of view shift, Gregson could have been forgiven. However, it happens constantly. It jumps between characters, as if the camera looks over their shoulders for a few paragraphs before returning to Sari. Mostly this happens with appropriate section breaks and isolated paragraphs. But sometimes the shifts occur for a sentence or two in the middle of a steady section. This spins readers around, and they either falter at the abrupt and momentary change or continue reading with a mild sense that something indeterminate tilted that world. It is hard to tell if this tactic is intentional or if it reveals a faulty craft.

Overall, the novel represents well the victim’s state of mind and the progression of abuse, but in the end the characters are bland and unsympathetic, and the prose style is flawed. The result, unfortunately, is a novel that fails to engage us.

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A Dream

by Publius

In the dream. I work in an office. The company has something to do with aerospace inventions, which I know nothing about. In any case, it is my job to meet with clients, who are satisfied with my work. I have an elaborate office with a living room and a dining room. I go out for coffee. I go down a long corridor filled with people, down two hills, one after the other. I order my coffee, go to put on the lid, and spill the coffee. Suddenly, I’m surrounded by coworkers, who reassure me and buy me another cup of coffee. It is longer to return than it was to leave. My mother abandons me. I feel both sad and relieved. My work buddies and I rest in a large room, and chat. I ask them, ‘Is this job as simple as it seems?’ They laugh almost shyly, and ask me not to repeat this truth. Someone says, “Let’s have fun.” Women go out on the lawn, and dance right in front of the window. I’m about to join them. I wake up. 5:30.
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Publius