The Unspoken

by Brigette Bernagozzi

12:00 a.m.

There is a tiny cut on my hand, a spot I must have missed with the moisturizer a while back, which becomes irritated whenever the weather gets colder. It is a small but insistent kind of pain, and as I sit in my green chair contemplating my backyard in the dark once again, I can’t think of anything else but this small annoyance.

It has been a good day, a productive day, a day filled with writing-talk, dinner with friends, and even a film festival which is pretty much my favorite event all year. And yet, this tiny cut is demanding all my attention right now, the way that pain always tries to do. The weather, though recently beginning to warm up, has left its mark on me.

The feeling of winter is still with me, too; I haven’t managed to shake it just yet. The days are warmer now, but the nights retain a chill that makes me shiver most nights at the bus stop. I know, with all the sensibility of my logical brain, that we are on the cusp of spring, but my body refuses to accept it as real, until there is steady proof, until it can be counted upon in a more consistent way. Until then—until every day brings the same, reliable promise—I will remain just a little suspicious.
*
Lately, a friend and I have been getting together to write haiku poetry. We take our time about it, 5 verses between the two of us per session. We are following, as closely as we can, an adaptive form that requires us to build on one another’s poetry in a collaborative effort. We use an old yellowed book of experimental poetry in mixed-language translation as our guide. We rely upon this format: Stanza 1- mention or reference a particular month; Stanza 2- reference a season; Stanza 3- introduce a new idea; Stanza 4- no mention of the season here, so the author has a bit of freedom. Then we wash, rinse, repeat.

I find the comfort of structure an enjoyable way to write; having an unseen force to push against in my writing is helpful. And yet, when consistently juggling seasons and months becomes tiresome, we try to find a way to “say it,” establishing the “when” of our verse, without actually saying it. This is an old, well-worn technique for most poets, but non-fiction writers are accustomed to truth-telling, and sometimes I find it difficult to hold back on the tell. In my classes, professors ask us to write about grief without the word “grief” itself, to prune our writing back in a way that hardly resembles the old academic writing, with its need for clear thesis statements and literary evidence at every turn. It resembles instead the way my roommate might attack the boxwoods in our back yard with pruning shears whenever they get out of hand.

All this has got me thinking about the power of the unsayable, and how it so often seems to overshadow those things that we have no trouble speaking aloud. Once the words are committed to the page, or to a listening ear, is it possible that this act alone can lessen their power over us?
*
When my grandmother passed in 1998 from a brain tumor, I found the process of her dying an excruciating one to bring up in conversation. The first person I spoke with about it on the day of her death–a music teacher of mine–seemed sympathetic, but later insisted that I should stick around for rehearsal. I could not do that, I told her. Who could make music at a time like this? She insisted that times like this were indeed the most appropriate for the creative arts. But I couldn’t bear to bring my grief to the stage, to my friends and peers. I couldn’t lay it out in the open like an unwrapped gift. I couldn’t feel her logic, and I felt betrayed instead. I didn’t want anyone telling me how to mourn.

I stopped talking for a while.

Fast-forward 15 years. This December, by the time we lost her husband, I no longer felt like the child I once was. Once again, I learned of the news on my way to choir practice, as though the universe had waited until just this moment by design to tell me of his passing. This time, though I didn’t tell anyone just yet what had happened, I came prepared to sing.

Later on that night, when I needed to talk about it this time around, there were friends in Pittsburgh in whom I could confide. We drove around town looking at Christmas lights and drank hot chocolate in the car. We talked around the subject at first, but when I was ready to rehash my indecisiveness about whether I should return home to New York in the middle of finals, I was supported fully by a set of listening ears.

Naturally, this was not easy terrain for me to navigate. But even so, I spoke about Poppop to others; I let friends console me. I composed an essay about him, called “The Box,” and shared it in my writing workshop. I felt different, this time around, more in control; these acts of expression seemed to lead me out of the darkness. This is not something I could have known in 1998, but I’m glad to know it now.

Nana’s passing still seems mysterious and strange to me, after all this time. The power of the unspoken won out, then. Yet here I am, letting her husband go with all the grace I can muster.
*
On the page, we’re not always meant to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We are often meant to let our readers get there of their own accord, keeping the act of discovery alive for them while we act the part of mere guides. But in our lives, sometimes this is not enough, and this is the different between living and writing.

Lately, I’ve had many opportunities to be heard in the ways that I desire, to say the thing I am not sure I want to say, but which needs to be said. And yet, as I sit here in the darkness of my backyard, the dining room light glowing through our picture window and casting shadows in stripes on our lawn, I find that the brightness makes me both uneasy and grateful all at once. It is nice to be able to see my words on the page, for once, as I sit out here in the dark. But I feel exposed, too, as though any neighbor peering out a window or even my own roommate and her guests might catch me in the act. The act of what? I wonder aloud. I suppose I mean the act itself of capturing the unsayable. The act of speaking things aloud which make me uneasy, and steeling myself for truth-telling in a way that even a fancy degree in nonfiction writing has not prepared me for.

What brings me truth and clarity on the page does not necessarily do so elsewhere in my life. The unsayable has the power to overshadow a person; I must try to bring it to light. This process probably looks just like thinking to my neighbors peeking through those far-off windows. Inside, it leaves me feeling vulnerable. But it is the good kind of vulnerability, the kind that can take a person from the isolation of a self-imposed silence to the quiet camaraderie of a cup of hot chocolate and some Christmas lights with a friend who knows just when to speak, and just when to keep on driving.
_____

Run Did I

by Publius

In the parking lot, maybe a half-hour before first period, just as I pull-up I see our crazed educational consultant pull-up in the parking lot. She has this way of hovering around the door, and, without so much as a “Good Morning”, just goes some onerous task she wants the teacher to complete. Our rule is that a minute of her time is an hour of our time. And it’s never a happy ending. Invariably a waste.

Like the other day she comes into my room during lunch, and promises, “This will only take five minutes.” She goes to my computer, fails to find this, fails to log onto that, and then freezes the screen for a bit. Finally, she manages to return my computer to its original state, and says, on her way out the door, “See, I told you this would only take five minutes.”

So this is all a long way of saying, first thing this morning, I see her in the parking lot, and go out of my way to avoid her. Instead of signing in at the front office first thing, I went to my room, taking as much time as I thought it would take for the consultant to sign-in and go to her office. Then I went to the office.

That’s when I hear the screams. In the distance, I see the consultant scurrying off like a rat with a ticket for the Titanic’s return voyage.

I go in the office. There’s this mother hollering at our crazed vice-principal. “You gave my son a three day suspension ’cause you say he sinks his pink into this girl on the bus yesterday. But everybody knows my boy is a butt fucking faggot! These charges are bogus. You gotta un-suspend his fudge packing ass, so I can punch-in work by eight.”

The vice-principal keeps mumbling incomprehensible ed. jargon. “ACT/SAT disambiguation data need we,” and such like she’s some crazed front office Yoda.

For my part, I think, ‘Student I know. Nice is he. Too bad this is. But out of here I need.’ So fast I sign-in, and unnoticed escape I make.

Over my shoulder, I see the vice-principal just walk away from this woman. In the hall right outside the office, she grabs Mrs. Hussein. (Hussein, it’s worth noting, is an observant Muslim.) The vice-principal tells Mrs. Hussein, “In the office talk to you a woman must.”

____

Who’s the Most Important Character?

by Dawn Potter

Today, most of us automatically equate narrative with prose: stories, novels, memoirs, plays, and biographies that depend on skillful narrative control. This is understandable because many successful poems ride on the strength of their word choice, imagery, or cadence rather than their superior character development or plot construction. Nonetheless, as a narrative form, poetry predates prose by thousands of years. Poetry and storytelling are synonymous in the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, the Beowulf poet, Chaucer, and many, many others. Even by the nineteenth century, when the novel began to dominate European and American literature, narrative poets such as Coleridge, Tennyson, Longfellow, and Browning remained enormously popular with a reading public hungry for stories.

A few contemporary narrative poets, such as Anne Carson and Rick Mullin, carry on this ancient storytelling tradition. But more often poets seem to turn to anecdotes, or brief narrative vignettes, rather than long, complex, plot-driven tales. Character development—particularly the first-person I character—is the linchpin of many of these anecdotal poems, which, in the guise of memoir scraps, informal conversations, or journal entries, lure a reader’s attention toward the I.Sometimes everything in an anecdotal poem seems to circle that central focus. In “The Quest,” for instance, Sharon Olds recounts the horror of briefly losing track of a child in the city. Yet even though the poem is filled with references to the daughter, the I character is its emotional core. The poem is constructed around how I feels, not how the daughter feels.This is my quest, to know where it is,the evil in the human heart. As I walk home Ilook in face after face for it, Isee the dark beauty, the rage, thegrown-up children of the city she walks as achild, a raw target.

“The Quest” blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. Is the I really Olds herself? Or has Olds invented an I who is disguised as herself? In “Self-Portrait as Van Gogh,” Peter Cooley plays more explicitly with these questions of character identity:Before a mirror at midnight I compose myself,donning the gold straw hat I tilt at just his angleto assure the vision will stay caged.I squint, ruffle my beard, henna the tips.

Cooley’s poem serves as a good reminder: although poems have the unique ability to make us believe in them as truth, we should never assume that the I in a poem is anything other than the poet’s invention. Even the intimate, eloquent, heartbreaking I in Keats’s “Bright Star” is a character framed within a work of art. He’s not the poet but the poet’s creation.In other words, characters, like so many other elements of poetry, can seem solid and simple even as they lead a poet to explore strange territory and make unanticipated disclosures. Like her relationships with real people, a poet’s relationship with her characters can be confusing, resentful, admiring, even dangerous. Yet she is also their creator and manipulator and thus remains separate and, to a certain degree, ambivalent about their behaviors and motivations.In an essay about Shakespeare, Auden wrote about this necessary detachment: “A dramatist’s characters are, normally, men-of-action, but he himself is a maker, not a doer, concerned not with disclosing himself to others in the moment, but with making a work which, unlike himself, will endure, if possible forever. . . . What a man does is irrevocable for good or ill; what he makes, he can always modify or destroy.” In other words, as my sons used to say with exasperation when they discovered that once again I’d borrowed bits and pieces from our shared lives to create characters and a situation, “Mom! You exaggerate everything!” For when she’s creating characters, a poet ruthlessly borrows from all the material she has at hand: her own internal motivations, her family’s actions, her neighbor’s peccadilloes. Sometimes the characters that emerge closely resemble the borrowed material. Sometimes the borrowed material becomes imaginative fodder for an invented persona.Yet in poetry, it’s not the character per se who charms, amuses, or repels the reader. It’s the way in which the poet uses words to construct that character. As D. H. Lawrence noted, without his “language so lovely,” even Shakespeare’s most famous creations would be intolerable company:

And Hamlet, how boring, how boring to live with,
so mean and self-conscious, blowing and snoring
his wonderful speeches, full of other folk’s whoring!

[From another chapter-under-construction for my forthcoming book The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]

_____

Dance Review: ( ) by The Pillow Project

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

In the dark quiet of late Saturday night, The Pillow Project welcomed an intimate crowd for their latest work, a study about distance and connection titled: ( ).

Director of the Project, Pearlann Porter, has always been curious about a relationship quality she refers to as “the space between us.” Her philosophical nature leads her to create work that is both inquisitive and passionate. Despite the lack of storyline that may confuse a non-regular audience member, everyone leaves feeling the emotion of the performers.

Although a distinct feeling comes through in all of Porter’s work, it is not because of any overdramatic performance style by the dancers. It’s actually the opposite. The movement is minimal, but the lighting, set-up and music always provide a meaningful tone.

This show opened with three couples, each wrapped in an embrace, under individual and very dim spotlights. Pedestrian and street sounds accompanied their subtle movement – a slight turn, a shift of the head and neck, a touch of the cheek. The closeness of each couple, both physically and emotionally, was palpable and quite sensual.

As the lights went down soft string music began, eventually revealing David Pellow playing live upright bass while two dancers took the center of the space. The couple maintained close contact at first, and seemed to be engaged in a gentle struggle of push and pull. Eventually they broke apart, but remained connected by a long band of fabric looped around their bodies.

The slow pace of the music picked up and the dancers responded with quick bursts of movement. Eventually the two freed themselves from the fabric connecting them, but ended up coming back together physically at the end of the section.

For the rest of the show, each couple took their turn entering and exiting the space, sometimes leaving their partner alone for a moment of solo material. Atmospheric music eventually pulsed a rhythmic beat, giving opportunity for the dancers to react with more prominence and weight.

Even when left alone, each performer maintained their connection to the group, sometimes mirroring a couple’s movement from afar, sometimes simply keeping eye contact. That was all part of Porter’s larger point – that despite the distance between us, that empty space remains full and alive.

Like much of Porter’s work, the show lulled the audience into a hypnotic dream-like state, and eased us back to reality slowly with stillness from the dancers, followed by a revisit to the sound that began the show, and finally a gentle lifting of the lights.

As always, Porter thanked the audience and invited everyone to stay for coffee and discussion. While the rest of the world is home on their “pillow,” Porter and her artists find inspiration in the late night musings of life and art. What happened Saturday night after the lights came up will likely be fodder for her next show.

_____

War Story

By John Samuel Tieman

It’s official — I am an American hero. Not long ago, an R. O. T. C. outfit wanted to make a display featuring local veterans. I can’t turn down fellow teachers – that and I just like these folks – so I gave them my photo and my medals, my “rack”, for their display. I finally saw the display yesterday. There I am, under the heading “An American Hero”.

I sometimes think that the first duty of every war veteran is forgive him- or herself.

There is another awkward moment known to most Vietnam veterans. In my case, a student asks, “Dr. Tieman, did you ever kill anyone? You write about war all the time. Something bad must have happened.”

I used to equivocate. Make a joke. Change the subject. Or just lie.

The honest answer is, “Yes.” Once. By accident, sort of. But there are two stories. The second one ends with an accidental death. The first one begins with murder.

I’ll tell you what I remember, what I think I remember, what I heard, what I learned.

I was a musician. A parade soldier. Clarinet and saxophone. To this day, I love a rousing Sousa march. I didn’t have a dangerous job. Indeed, if I had only spent my service in the States, I’d look back on it all this with some degree of fondness. But, during the last part of my active duty, I went to Vietnam. The 4th Infantry Division Band. True, I did not have a dangerous job. But it was a dangerous time, the Cambodian Invasion, in a very dangerous place, the Central Highlands. In the States, my job was often fun. In The Nam, I was in over a hundred rocket and ground attacks. Some attacks simply annoyed us, a single rocket in the middle of the night. Other times, my friends died.

Then there were times when we were our own enemy.

Late summer, early evening, 1970. I was twenty years old. I remember (curious that I’d remember this) it was cloudy. I was walking up a dirt road that ran in front of our hooch. I passed these three fellows. Two were trying to calm the guy in the middle. The guy in the middle said nothing. He was seething, Even at that moment, his rage was remarkable, the subsequent events notwithstanding. It is worth noting this, because being angry in The Nam normally didn’t merit notice.

I learned decades later, from our piano player, Dick Bittner, that this guy had been to see the chaplain. The chaplain had refused to see him. Dick Bittner is of the opinion that subsequent events could have been avoided if the chaplain would have shown more compassion. Who knows? When I saw him, he was indeed coming from the direction of the chaplain’s quarters. He was heading for Charlie Company, an infantry unit catty-corner across this field, an old rice paddy, from the band. When Charlie Company was in from the bush, I used to smoke dope with those guys in that dried up paddy.

Perhaps an hour later, after sunset anyway, I was talking with Parsons and Novak. They were the chaplain’s assistants, “The God Squad”. Nice guys. I sometimes bunked with Parsons. They did mention the angry guy. But mostly we just sat around chatting about this and that. I was sitting on the ground.

Then there was a quick burst of M-16. Maybe three or four rounds. Close. Real close. Meters from here. We froze, stared at each other. Then a lot of shots.

I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t brave. I didn’t feel anything. I switched that part of me off.

I didn’t go into action so much as I switched on the automatic part of me.

I leapt to my feet. The others remained in the hooch, more stunned than anything else. Perhaps they were still having the feelings I had turned off. I got my helmet, locked and loaded my M-16. I took a position behind a sand bag wall slightly above and to the east of the field.

That’s where I saw him.

I heard later two stories. In The Nam, I heard that the guy, the angry guy, killed four people, including the two I saw with him. Years later, Dick Bittner told me that he murdered his 1st sergeant. These two versions are not mutually exclusive. In any case, murder.

Then he retreated to the field, the old rice paddy. Right in front of me.

I could see exactly where he was, despite the blackness, the moonless cloudy night. I saw his muzzle flashes. I was slightly more than ninety degrees to his right, and, as I said, slightly above him, behind a sand bag wall. Perhaps a hundred or so meters away. I doubt if he even knew I was there.

I was an Expert Rifleman. This was an easy shot.

I wanted to shoot. I was ready to shoot. I withheld my fire. The angry guy was firing into the night, and it was clear that other grunts, very close by, were hunting him. But I wasn’t sure where they were. No sooner did I have this thought when I saw a grunt in the dark, not five meters in front of the angry guy, open up. Full automatic. Virtually point blank.

The whole incident, from first shot to last, took a few minutes.

I learned something about myself that night. A lot of folks wonder if they could shoot someone. I’m not one of those folks.

I spent the next three decades wanting to not know that about myself.

Some time later, I’m not sure how long, weeks, I was on guard. I had two weapons, my M-16 and an M-79. I was still pretty new to The Nam, and somewhat unaccustomed to the M-79 grenade launcher, having only fired it a few times. The ground in front of our guard tower was a free fire zone. Meaning I could shoot anything anytime I wanted. Our standing orders were, “If it moves, shoot it.” A lot of guys took target practice there. That and firing randomly kept the enemy sappers, who infiltrated from the nearby village, An Khe, uncertain as to any pattern of fire. I decided to give myself some target practice.

Years later, I told the whole story in a poem.

War Story

After I got out of The Nam
I made up some tales, some
mostly jokes —
One time we’re tokin’ —
One time the whores —
because nobody made any movies
about how we’re heroes.
So now I’m told
You’re a good guy, John,
Welcome Home, Pal!
So now I’ll tell one
last story. One night
on guard
I’m the new guy so
I decide I’d try my M-79.
Now an M-79 launches a grenade
a little farther than you can
hit a good home run.
Slow
I aim for this field.
Figure
range.
Bingo — a good shoot.
But the wind figures
in different, a freak
breeze
drifts the hit
into this village.
Where it kills this kid.
Except for the scream
that’s the unadorned story.

1987

Nothing ever came of this incident. I believe it was counted as a “confirmed kill”, thus turning an accident into a dead Viet Cong. In truth, in that area, most of the locals were Viet Cong or Viet Cong sympathizers. Not that any of that matters to me now.

I spent the next thirty years begging God to forgive me. Only to realize finally that it was not God who was withholding forgiveness. I sometimes wished I had killed either no one at all, or a thousand people. Because one man has a face, a family, a history and a scream.

These two incidents, these lives, these deaths, live on in me. They search for some resolution I know I will never find. Yet search I will.

In therapy, I learned, finally, that despite all the tall tales, all the jokes, despite all the “You wouldn’t believe what I saw this one night in The Nam …”, I will never recall Vietnam and not, in the quiet that follows, be sad.

The years and the therapy have helped. I don’t hear the scream anymore. But now and then, between newspaper stories on Saturday morning, or driving down Forest Park Parkway, or, like now, staring at a computer screen and wondering what I’ll write next, now and then I see those muzzle flashes. And I take aim.

—–

“War Story” first appeared in the Cimarron Review of the University Of Oklahoma, and was reprinted in two chapbooks, Morning Prayers, published by The Pittsburgh Quarterly OnLine, and A Concise Biography Of Original Sin, published by BkMk Press of the University Of Missouri At Kansas City.

_________

La Vie

by Jim Danger Coppoc

If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world, there’s nothing to it

-Willy Wonka

“In this class, and in the literary life in general, there are two rules, and two rules only—one, have something to say; two, don’t screw it up. These are the roots of both content and craft.”

-me, every semester on the first day of English 306/406, Intro to Creative Writing: Poetry

I have a good life. I married my dream girl, my friends and family are amazing, I have a good and growing audience for my writing and my music, I get to travel to places I used to only dream about, and I’m able to make a decent living teaching and doing only the things I love. This is not to say that there are no hard times, but in perspective, the ups in my world are bigger, better and more numerous than the downs by a long shot.

This, of course, makes it very hard to write good poems

See, when others teach poetry, they often teach that the center of a good poem is the image, or the metaphor, or the diction, or some other element of craft. I have never believed that for a second—not even during the grad school years, when I was required to accept at face value all the craft-based wisdom that dripped from my assigned teachers and mentors. This might sound like heresy, but I don’t believe the center of a good poem has anything to do with craft—I believe it has to do with conflict. Tension. The agon at the center of the Greek protagonist and antagonist. Paint me a picture as beautiful as you like—it’s not going to grab me until I see a little darkness behind the Mona Lisa smile.

Of course, there are moments. The poet (and my friend) Jack McCarthy died recently, and his passing touched me in such a way that I could not sleep until I’d written him a poem. My wife had feelings for another man, and I’m two poems and four songs into that experience already. Sometimes I remember the times my life was more of a struggle, and if I can dig my way deeply enough into those memories, works like my long poem Manhattan Beatitude are born. But these moments don’t erase the fact that on a day-to-day basis I am struggling to come to a place where I have something to say. Where I can write without violating my own first rule.

So now we’ve come to this blog, and to the direction I’m taking it. To accountability.

Each month, I plan to try a new experience or exercise to kickstart my poetic self. A way to dig back into the agon without having to destroy my life in the process. Live like Ward Cleaver—write like Sylvia Plath. I don’t have these exercises laid out yet, and I’d love any suggestions you (should I be forward enough to call you “Dear Reader”?) could offer, but I assume the best moves will come to me when the time is right.

This month, I chose to dive deeply into my domestic life, instead of rebelling against it. I’ve begun a writing project with my 3-year-old son, Fionn, one of the lights of my life. He supplies the content, and I supply the line breaks. We’re up to 5 poems now—my favorite so far is our first, where Fionn takes on the complex dynamics of a blended family. It begins with a few words about our cat.

My Mommy

Lilypad likes sunbeams
Lilypad likes cold beans
Lilypad likes to snuggle
and Lilypad likes my mom

What kind is your mom?

My mommy is Mommy
but my brother calls her “Jen”

My brother’s first mom is at work
I’m going to draw pictures for them both

What’s next?
I don’t remember

“What kind is your mom?” Agon. Tension. Beauty. And 3-year-old Fionn never had to set foot inside an MFA program to get it.

_____

Jim Coppoc makes his living through some murky but evolving balance of poetry, nonfiction, pedagogy, playwriting, music and performance. In addition to his long history on spoken word and musical stages, Coppoc has recently been getting a lot of good attention from the literary world, with 4 Pushcart nominations for both poetry and nonfiction. Among other projects, Coppoc teaches Film, Literature and American Indian Studies at Iowa State University; plays bass in the Gatehouse Saints and guitar/keys/vocals in Love Rhino; blogs for Coal Hill Review; and lives in Ames, Iowa with his wife and two sons.

Suzhi

By Songyi Zhang

When you get on the Guangzhou metro, you see a gray-haired old man and a pregnant woman standing by the hand railing while two rows of seats facing one another are occupied with young Chinese in their twenties and thirties. You wonder why these seated people are so indifferent. After all, this car is specialized for those who are in need.

“This is the problem of Chinese people’s Suzhi,” my best friend said to me.

When you are walking on a path with beautiful lawn and plants on one side, and a river on the other, you can’t help finding litter under a shrub or a stone bench. The grass is trampled, revealing clear marks of pedestrians’ foot prints and bicycles’ tire prints. You wonder why people are oblivious to such damage.

“This is the problem of Chinese people’s Suzhi,” my cousin said to me.

When you are in line for your turn to pay the bill in a hospital, people behind you keep pushing forward, leaving zero space in between. You haven’t got organized after your transaction is done, the next person has already occupied the window. You nearly lose your cool but you realize just as your family and friends have told you before

“This is the problem of Chinese people’s Suzhi.”

Over the past two months while I was in China visiting family and friends, I kept hearing the disappointing comments about Chinese people’s Suzhi—that is, personal quality. As more and more rural people flood in major cities to make a living, I often saw unacceptable public conduct—jaywalkers, parking on the sidewalk, smoking in a non-smoking building, dogs and kids defecating on the street, so on and so forth.

My dad joked that I had been in the U.S. for too long. That’s not true. Two and a half years being away from home won’t completely change me into an American. But it does change my impression of urban Chinese people. Where are the Chinese virtues that we boasted of for over two thousand years? Where is the practice of respecting the elderly and caring for the young? What about observing the public order and making the city as clean as our homes?

The outside world utterly differs from what we learn in school. I’m saddened. When the Chinese top leaders visit Russia, for instance, will they be ashamed to see the “Do Not Litter” sign in Chinese? Will the sign that says “Keep Quiet” in Chinese characters embarrass them while they dine in a French restaurant?
_____

A Parable about Publishing

Adapted by Michael Simms

A man in a hot air balloon realized he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below. He yelled: “Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am!”

The woman below replied: “You are in a hot air balloon hovering about thirty feet above ground. You are between forty and forty-one degrees north latitude and between fifty-nine and sixty degrees longitude.”

“You must be a writer,” said the balloonist. “I am,” replied the woman, “How did you know?” “Well,” answered the man, “everything you told me was well said, but I have no idea what to do with it, and the fact is, I am still lost. Frankly, you have not been much help so far.”

The woman responded, “You must be a publisher!” “I am!” replied the balloonist, straightening his tie, “but how did you know?” “Well,” said the woman, “you don’t know where you are or where you are going. You have risen to where you are by a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise you have no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is, you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it’s my fault.”

_____

Speedy Care

By Songyi Zhang

My husband had a medical emergency last week. Thank goodness the episode is over and we’ve returned to a normal life. But this incident taught me a lot about health care in America, and I have to say I was impressed.

The story began on Tuesday when my husband was scheduled to have cataract surgery. At the pre-op room, he was aware that the tightness in his chest had recurred. After notifying the doctors and nurses, we were told the surgery was postponed, and my husband would be sent to the emergency room for an immediate heart checkup. Shortly, a team of four or five uniformed, well-trained paramedics arrived and drove us to the hospital, which is about a three-minute ride. Outside the surgery center, an ambulance with a fire truck parked behind were standing by.

In that full minute, I thought I was in a reality show. I had never been in an ambulance. Nor had I encountered such a big-cast emergency. Sitting in the front seat of an ambulance, I had various thoughts. But the multi-button control panel around me was too complex for my mind to take in. As the ambulance moved along, my heart beat faster. I was on an urgent mission, I said to myself.

Long story short, after my husband transferred to the emergency room, he was so conscious that he kept correcting the doctors and nurses that he had chest tightness but not chest pain. The cardiologist was able to schedule him to do a procedure in no time. By noon, he underwent an angioplasty after tests found a couple of blood vessels to the heart were blocked. The procedure went smoothly and he had to stay overnight in the hospital for observation.

I was impressed by the efficiency of the medical staff who dealt with my husband’s case. The nurses who helped him to go through that difficult evening were friendly and responsible. They patiently answered my questions. I felt relieved. That’s quite different from China. The Chinese nurses are often too busy to communicate with the patient’s family. There are too many patients and not enough nurses in China. Quantity overwhelms quality. Perhaps hospitals in China should think about tying hospital payments to patient satisfaction.

I was also impressed by the advanced medical equipment used in the hospital in America. For instance, it was the first time I saw computerized IV injection and a digital bleeding stopper. TV remote is connected with the buzzer to the nursing station. The barcode on the patient’s wristband is like a signature that allows nurses to access the patient’s profile. A tiny piece of stent made of metal wire can unblock my husband’s artery. How amazing modern technology is.

Most importantly, I appreciate the great work the medical staff has done. It’s still beyond my belief that my husband is released from the hospital safe and sound in such a short time.

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Book Review: Blowout by Denise Duhamel

Blowout, poems by Denise Duhamel. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press Pitt Poetry Series, 2012. $15.95.

Reviewed by CL Bledsoe

Duhamel charts the rise and fall and aftermath of a relationship in these poems, from the first real sparks to the warning signs to the realization it’s over, the divorce, and the settling of ashes. Her language is sedate, avoiding the easy trap of sentimentality and melodrama, though at times in danger of going too far the other way and reading like line-broken essays which rely on the subject matter to carry the reader, especially with some of the long-lined, multiple-page poems. This is, of course, the popular style, and Duhamel is a popular poet. One of the main reasons for this is her humor, which shines in many of these poems, even though she’s sharing often quite personal and obviously painful material. As Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die. Duhamel bears her soul, sharing the darker stuff, and laughing along with us at her own, and our own, humanity.

“How It Will End” is a clear standout and the opener for the collection. It describes the couple witnessing a lifeguard fighting with his girlfriend. The onlookers immediately project themselves onto the couple, though they can’t actually hear what’s being said, “My husband thinks the lifeguard’s cheated, but I think/she’s sick of him only working part time/or maybe he forgot to put the rent in the mail.” (11-13). I actually chuckled a few times at this poem. How often does that happen? The onlookers’ own frustrations come out – the true success of Duhamel in this poem is her timing. She surprises the reader with her honesty and humor. “’You never even give the guy a chance and you’re always nagging,/so how can he tell the real issues from the nitpicking?’/ and I say, “She doesn’t nitpick!” and he says, “Oh reall?/Maybe he should start recording her tirades…” (25-28). The pacing and rising action of the poem is perfect (which is interesting as Duhamel later shares that she never really learned to write fiction because she missed a fiction writing class).

In addition to her marriage woes, Duhamel charts much of her love-life, but again, in a non-melodramatic and often quite touching way. “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” “Fourth Grade Boyfriend,” and others like this break up the tone of the book, adding more humor and warmth. “Shortcut” describes an ominous encounter with a group of older boys that could’ve gone very badly for the young Denise. She also moves to deftly-rendered character studies which also follow the theme of love and relationships.

The portrait of Duhamel’s ex-husband is very unflattering. An artist who was often unemployed, or underemployed, one isn’t quite sure what it was that attracted her in the first place, other than the allure of his art, itself. Duhamel pokes fun at herself; she realizes that her choices in life could reflect poorly on her. But who hasn’t made dumb choices? And who hasn’t thrown good money after bad and stayed in a negative situation rather than changing it? Duhamel has emerged from these experiences wizened and confident. She also realizes that she doesn’t have anything particularly new to add to this idea of lost love. It’s the same old story, but her humor, her honesty, and her attitude “make it new” and make her work truly exceptional.

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Fanglu

By Songyi Zhang

If you ask a Chinese in his twenties or thirties—are you a fanglu? you’ll be very likely to get a positive answer. These days the number of Chinese fanglu (literally, house slaves) grows as quickly as the domestic economy. They have to work even harder than most people to pay their huge mortgages. My two-month stay in China refreshes my memory of the costly housing.

The property price boom appears across the country, mostly in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chongqing. The real estate market price has gone up double or even triple in less than a decade. Take my home city, Guangzhou, for an example, one square meter on average cost about five thousand RMB (approx. 840 US dollar per 10.8 sq feet) ten years ago. Now, it costs at least ten thousand RMB per square meter. So the price of a two-bedroom flat can easily come up to one million three hundred thousand RMB (approx. two hundred thirty thousand US dollars).

That means to buy a house in China, you have to be a millionaire. But even in the well-developed United States, millionaires only make up about one percent of the total population. In China, there’re many upstarts becoming millionaires in recent years. They create such a bubbly international scene that Chinese people have a shocking power to spend money, buying luxury goods and possessing private vineyards, yachts and jet planes. But the world doesn’t understand how many common people in China are still struggling for a better place to live.

I happened to be in Guangzhou this January when the central government enacted new rules to limit house purchase. Thus, the mortgage interest is higher for those who already own a house and attempt to buy a second or third house. The measures aim to curb the skyrocketing realty investments. As a result, the housing market price in Guangzhou, for instance, came down ten percent in the beginning of the year.

However, that minor decrease doesn’t relieve much of the fanglu’s burden. Today, newlyweds would rather live by themselves than with the husband’s parents. So young couples who plan to get married are under tremendous pressure to purchase a million-yuan-worth flat. By the time they pay off the house, they may turn gray-haired people. While young people can work hard to achieve their goals, the older labor workers may never live in a house of their own. They’re the typical “sandwich class”—neither too underprivileged to receive government housing subsidies, nor sufficiently well off to make the down payment. The housing market price seems to go faster than what they earn and save.

No wonder people often say, those who have a house can afford more, those who don’t have a house can hardly afford one. And between these two extremes live the fanglu struggling under the weight of their mortgages.

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