A Purification Ceremony

A letter from our friend Lorrie Carter who, with her husband Bob, is serving as a medical missionary in the mountains of Guatamala:

Nine days seemed like a good number of days to accomplish this mission, and this number is the most important to the Mayan calendar. We climbed many mountains, and four teams of five installed 16 stoves a day each for a total of 112 indoor (420 lb.) and outdoor stoves. We also installed 64 water purification systems. It was incredibly hard work. Bob and I worked well with the team and became experts in installing the stoves.

When it came to climbing the mountains, we were not so great. Between Bob and his back and me with my knee, we were quite the geriatric pair. Somehow we made it every day, even when the climbs were vertical slopes of rock covered with mud.

But all in all, I wonder if the reason for my presence was something entirely different. We had Saturday free in Antigua to decompress. Bob and I wanted to vegetate by the pool at the hotel, but God had another plan.

A couple had canceled their reservation for the Mayan ruins tour. Since the trip had already been paid for, Bob and I were asked to go along with two other missionaries to make the tour happen.

The ruins were small, and only the foundations remained of the Mayan royal quarters along with the many, many altars to their gods. We walked along marveling at the symmetry of the neighborhood and listening to our guide until we reached the far end of the complex where a trail began into a wooded area. The guide told us to be quiet because to everyone’s surprise a ceremony was beginning.

It was a rare appearance of the Shaman at this site. Something special was happening. The altar was a pile of rocks with small holes or caves with candles in front of each cave like a small curtain of fire. The Shaman wore a robe with a large embroidered bat on his back. Our guide explained that this bat symbolized the spirit coming up from the underworld.

The Shaman blessed and purified all of the Mayans who were at the foot of the altar, primarily young women in their early teens. The purification ceremony was to appease the gods so unclean spirits would be released from the underworld, rendering them harmless.

At the end, I bowed and prayed the Lord’s prayer until the ceremony ceased and we returned to the van. It was a super nova moon that night, and many celebrations around the world ensued. But in Guatemala on that day, Jesus was invited into an ancient ceremony by a small group of missionaries. Did it make a difference? Only God knows.



Thinking of my Father

by Aubrey Woodward

I read a piece more than a month ago that appears in the Best American Short Stories series for 2012, and I’ve been thinking about it since. Whenever I finish something I’ve read, whether it be a short story, a novel or a poem, I struggle to explain my exact feelings after the fact, but this story, for me, felt dreamlike — as though I had previously experienced the events it contained. The story itself follows a father and son as they struggle to connect by means of a video game, the father investing more interest in the game than in his own finances or hygiene. Over the course of the narrative, the reader witnesses the father’s process of deterioration through the eyes of his young son, who fights to overcome the embarrassment he feels on behalf of his father.

Let me begin by saying that my mother and father have been divorced for almost the entirety of my life. After age five, I spent weekends with him in countless apartments, in different locations and in the houses of women with whom he decided to live. He allowed me to watch movies well-beyond my years, eat the food I wanted — provided he could afford it — and stay up until he fell asleep on the couch, as he often did. These memories I have arranged and stored, succinctly, mechanically, leaving them to suffer from their own irrelevance to my daily life. I do not speak to my father, I do not think of my father, but this story seemed to so adeptly capture the complete awareness I experienced as a young child. Like the story’s protagonist, I employed the inevitable reverence I felt for him as a means of combating the knowledge of my own shame. My naïve understanding of the world operated on the assumption that adults know what’s best, that I could put my trust into their opinions despite how dysfunctional or careless they might have seemed. And this is the paradox the author made so clear to me upon reading his work: Although my young age lent itself to a smaller range of understanding, I carried the burden of recognizing the faults within my father when even he could not.

My mother tells me of a time when I cried because I was worried where he would stay after his then-girlfriend kicked him out of their apartment. This sense of concern I felt for my father seems illusory to me now, although worrying is a trait I have carried into my adulthood. I do not worry about him anymore, but sometimes I find myself wondering what he looks like. There is a moment in the story during which the child painfully debates whether or not to tell his father that he has “cheese-puff dust” in his hair, and as I see my father now, he is probably playing a video game somewhere with that same orange dust sprinkled across his beard.

Poetry is Dead… Again

by Jim Danger Coppoc

So apparently, poetry is dead.

I know this because I hear it at parties. I know this because all my poet friends are terrified of their own irrelevance. I know this because Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia—in the latest installment of a centuries long tradition of replaying again and again the same essay lament about the state of contemporary poetry—tells me so on the pages of this month’s Harper’s.

See, according to the standard anti-party line, poems used to be more—bigger, grander, better. Poems used to be about Important Things, and their writers used to know how to get those Important Things across. Today’s poets wouldn’t know Important if it bit them in their assonance. All they write about is themselves, in voices meant only to please their masters. All they’ve ever been trained to do is intellectual masturbation.

And so, every couple years, someone in a (safe, tenured) position of authority bravely breaks (or rebreaks) the hegemonic silence and calls every living poet he (and yes, it’s almost always a “he”) can think of to account. Edmundson, a Yale-trained scholar of 19th century capital-R Romantic poetry, is only the latest in this series.

Of course, I’ve read just about all of the poets Edmundson mentions. In some cases, my pettier self wants to agree. Others, we’re so far apart on that I’m convinced I could change his mind if only he’d come audit my 300-level Intro to Poetry course. But there again, that’s my petty self talking.

Instead, maybe I’d do better inviting Mark Edmundson to audit another course at either my institution or his: Freshman Composition.

You see, Freshman Composition (or whatever each new crusader in that field renames it) is where students first come into contact with the idea of “rhetoric”—of the nuts and bolts logistics of getting a real message across to a real human audience.

In rhetoric, we learn (in some form or another) that “a Text occurs when an Author attempts a Purpose with an Audience under a Context.” We find—and for many this is a mind-blowing discovery—that there is no such thing as a “good poem” (or essay or letter or website or whatever you’re composing) in a vacuum. We discover that each text must appeal to its intended audience to accomplish its intended purpose in very heterogenous and personal ways.

In other words, if middle-aged hausfrauen with long-forgotten bachelor’s degrees in literary studies get turned on at their weekly trip to the bookstore reading about John Ashbery’s Mottled Tuesday—well, then, John Ashbery is doing his job. If some PhD student at a state college in the Midwest feels somehow changed by finally getting Jorie Graham, then Jorie Graham has done hers.

But of course these aren’t the only poets poeting. Edmundson conveniently forgets that. As with every other iteration of this same essay, Edmundson chooses the implied working definition of “poetry” as “whatever your 8th grade teacher beat into you.” If Edmundson wants the sound and the fury of poets in the trenches—the kind of conflict that makes the “agon” in pro- and antagonist—he needs only to look to the world of hip hop (the most popular contemporary poetic form). If he wants grand expository on Big Ideas, I’d happily buy him a beer at any local poetry slam.

For that matter, even in the “literary” world, if Edmundson needs to see some poetry with a pulse, I’d invite him to investigate groups like Cave Canem or Kundiman, or publishers like Write Bloody Press. I’d happily mail him a starter set of books that might help.

In the end, Edmundson is right, but he’s right only for himself, and only in very narrow ways. The poetry he’s attacking has a purpose and an audience, but that audience is not him. He would do well to recognize that, let go of his seemingly personal attachment to making this poetry about him, and move on.

And for next week (or next month or next year), when someone else writes the same essay believing he (yes, probably still “he”) is breaking new ground, I invite you to save this blog to your desktop, learn the “search and replace” function of your word processor, and see just how well the new critic’s name fits in place of Edmundson’s.

Retrospective: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov

Reviewed by Noah Gup

While it can be relaxing to read a book that doesn’t require a tableside dictionary, often more challenging books allow a reader to engage fully with the text, even if we feel that the author is trying to parse out uncommitted readers. Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (Vintage International 1992, originally published in 1941) delicately walks the line between these two types of reads. The format of the book makes it highly readable, even addictive, but the mind-boggling details and layers of narration challenge a simple comprehension. Nabokov combines the page-turning aspect of a great detective story with complexity characteristic of highbrow literature, making the rare book that is suitable for both classroom and beach house.

The format of the book is enough to induce a mild headache: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is the narrator, V.’s, biography of his recently deceased half brother, the renowned author Sebastian Knight. Nabokov’s book is supposedly written by V., who is writing about the works of another author, forming a dense, three-layered cake of authorship. While this could potentially weigh the book down, V. fortunately serves as a deft and lively narrator, splicing his often-humorous commentary with keen observations of his subject and the world around him. Describing a childhood memory:

I remember peering over the banisters and seething him come up the stairs, after school, dressed in the black regulation uniform with that leather belt I secretly coveted, mounting slowly, slouching, hugging his piebald satchel behind him, patting the banisters and now and then pulling himself over three steps at a time. My lips pursed, I squeezed out white spittle which falls down and down, always missing Sebastian; and I do this not because I want to annoy him but merely as a wistful and vain attempt to make him notice my existence.

While Sebastian’s plight has a familiar trajectory (tortured, talented artist who dies young), Sebastian’s fascinatingly surreal novels make him into an engaging subject; they truly seem like real books from a real, talented author. By creating such careful detail, Nabokov ensures that the fictional world of the faux-biography is compellingly realistic. Even more, Nabokov keeps the search for truth as taunt as a classic mystery tale, gradually revealing more and more until V. uncovers the story of Sebastian’s life and death.

However, the relationship between V. and Sebastian is more complex than writer and subject. Details from Sebastian’s own novels reappear in V.’s narrative, challenging the reader’s notions of V. and Sebastian’s roles. But with each vexing question, Nabokov pulls the reader further into the world of his book with elegant detail, such as a lovely segment describing Sebastian’s first heartbreak. The novel is not afraid to tackle subjects such as mortality, family and, as Sebastian calls it, “the absolute solution” of life. But it just as energetically lampoons Mr. Goodman (a target of V.’s hatred), describing his face as “remarkably like a cow’s udder.”


On Cunnilingus And Psychiatry: In Memorium, James Gandolfini

By John Samuel Tieman

Why did my wife and I fall in love with James Gandolfini and his Tony Soprano?

Because art speaks in ways that are at once both clear and unconscious.

We missed the first episode or two. But we heard from buddies that “The Sopranos” is a good show. We’d also heard that it’s written by David Chase, the same guy who wrote large parts of “Northern Exposure”. We’re of the opinion that “Northern Exposure” is one of the best shows ever written. So, sure, we’d give it a look.

I was hooked from the second I heard the opening lyrics –
Woke up this morning, and got yourself a gun.
Mama said you’d be The Chosen One….
She said, you’re one-in-a-million — you got that shotgun shine.
Think about it — born under a bad sign with a blue moon in your eyes.

The real clincher was later in that episode, when Tony, who is in therapy, says, “Uncle Junior and I, we had our problems with the business. But I never should have razzed him about eating pussy. This whole war could have been averted. Cunnilingus and psychiatry brought us to this!”

So every Sunday evening, my wife and I invited Anthony, that lovable sociopath, into our home. We admired the way he cared for his family, the way he was loyal to his colleagues, the way he killed people who needed killing. And he scared us. Sometimes Tony needed killing.

I could give all kinds of technical reasons why “The Sopranos” was great art. Great writing I’ve mentioned. Also, the show had one of the greatest endings big screen or small. But that’s not why my wife and I loved James Gandolfini.

So let me just say – he had great eyes. When he’d get mad, that flash of anger, I know that flash of anger. Gandolfini was a big man, and he played a very physical character. But those eyes. When he loved, hated, softened, hardened. Those eyes.

Artists live unusual lives. So do audiences. Artists paint, write, act, sculpt, compose alone in our small rooms, or on our small stages, and, no matter how popular we are, we never meet even a fraction of the folks who invite our artifacts into our lives. Yet they allow us into their unconscious. They actually let us make them laugh and cry and such.

99.999999999% of the time, we never even meet these people. They never meet us. We communicate using a very narrow vehicle, the artifact. Yet there is communication on the most profound level.

We artists open our unconscious, our loves, our hates, we pour stuff into the artifact, stuff we know is in the artifact, and, if the artifact is ever to become art, stuff we didn’t consciously realize is there. Then something remarkable happens. An audience. An audience who opens their unconscious, their loves, their hates, stuff they know, and stuff they didn’t even realize was in their soul. That’s when the artifact becomes the art. When the unconscious of the artist, carried by the artifact, engages the unconscious of the audience. The art is not in the artist; it’s not in the artifact; it’s not in the audience. It is in the unconscious engagement, the we-ness of the moment that is facilitated by an artifact. Hence, those eyes. Gandolfini’s eyes. Tony’s eyes. Those eyes.

To put it differently – Forget about it! Here’s what Tony taught me.

There is no such thing as art. There is only that moment when the unconscious of the artist touches the unconscious of the audience, the moment of we-ness. It is a moment of which we can speak. But it is a moment we can neither control nor fully understand. It is a relationship that will live on in these folks, a relationship that will search for some resolution neither audience nor artist will ever find. Yet search they will.

In other words, when Tony holds a gun to your head, you don’t look at the gun. You know what the gun will do. You search the guy’s eyes.

While the show was in production, I facilitated a professional development for a school in Jersey City, Tony’s hometown. I asked a teacher there if she’d take a picture of me outside the set for Tony’s strip club/office, the Bada Bing. We didn’t have time. She joked that she was going to photo-shop me into a picture, but we also simply forgot to have any photographs taken. I now rate this among my life’s great regrets.


Theater Review: The Tempest by Unseam’d Shakespeare

The Tempest, or the Enchanted Isle. By William Shakespeare, John Dryden, and William Davenant, adapted by Scott Palmer. Directed by Michael Hood. With Ron Siebert, Colleen Pulawski, Claire Chapelli, Nicholas Browne, Nick Benninger, Thomas Constantine Moore, Jennifer Tober, Kevin Donohue, Brett Sullivan Santry, Charles Beikert, Michael Perrotta, Marc Epstein, Connor McCanlus, Andrew Miller. Unseam’d Shakespeare Co. June 13 through 29. Studio Theater, University of Pittsburgh (basement of Cathedral of Learning).

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

Even before the lights dimmed for Unseam’d Shakespeare’s The Tempest, or the Enchanted Isle, the scenery prepared us for a charming and tongue-in-cheek performance: A gaily painted faux proscenium and footlights, rows of curling waves, flats representing tropical palms and horrid caves.“This is not Shakespeare’s play,” director Michael Hood warned us in the program.

Shakespeare Improved was the title of a 1920s collection of Shakespearean plays presented in Restoration times. How improved? Change the ending, add rhyme, sentimentalize, do whatever you care to. The Restoration era in England was the return of the repressed, with a vengeance. The Puritan Parliament had closed the theaters in 1642, had executed King Charles, and had ruled for more than a decade. When, after civil war, the Stuart king Charles II came to the throne, the atmosphere was libertine and frothy, and the restored stage was too. Why, women’s roles were taken by women!

Unseam’d Shakespeare previously presented John Dryden’s All for Love, a classicized tragedy imitating Antony and Cleopatra. (Disclosure: For a time I was on Unseam’d Shakespeare’s board.) Dryden “reformed” Shakespeare’s play by concentrating the action in time and place—Dryden knew Aristotle’s rules. But that came later. This Tempest is another kettle of fish. It may remind you of Gilbert and Sullivan. The adaptors and the director are out to maximize the fun and farce, and they wink and nod and camp it up from the moment that Ron Siebert as Prospero steps over the cardboard waves and pretends not to know his lines. Which is not to say that they throw Shakespeare into the trash. No, you will hear Shakespeare’s glorious language, particularly the songs (with contemporary music composed by David Martynuik), sung by a graceful, campy Ariel (Kevin Donohue). You will see the comedy of the low characters, wonderfully funny in the performance. It’s just that Davenant et al. admired Shakespeare’s conceptions so much that they couldn’t get enough of them. Did Shakespeare’s Tempest have an innocent young woman who has never seen a young man? Well, then, let’s have TWO such young women. And let’s have a young man who has never seen a woman. (Why not? He’s been imprisoned in a rock for his whole life.) Do you like Caliban, the morally and physically repugnant half-human in Shakespeare’s Tempest? Let’s give him an equally lecherous (and nearly nude) sister! And let’s make the most of the opportunities these new characters give us for smutty pursuits!

The large cast (three of whom are Equity actors) and the technical crew are excellent. Unseam’d Shakespeare’s Tempest was an entertaining evening.

The Guest Critic

by Jim Danger Coppoc

So there’s this setup I keep walking into. I get invited to be a guest critic (and sometimes even a “celebrity” guest critic!) for workshops run by various poetry and arts organizations. At least half the time, I’m the youngest person in the room—sometimes by several decades. There’s always a wide variety of experience and skill in the craft, but the poems are heartfelt, and the poets generally have such incredible life experience and perspective that I’m left thinking about what I’ve seen for weeks afterward.

The problem is that inevitably a certain number of poets in the room choose to write in a voice that isn’t theirs, and that doesn’t belong in the same century they’re writing in. They believe that the only way a poem can sound like a poem is to heighten the diction to sometimes ridiculous extremes—“the verdant, sylvan glades effervesce their leaves in brilliant hues of viridian and bice…” Sometimes I’m left wondering whether the poet or his/her thesaurus actually wrote the line.

And here we come to the setup. Out of duty, I make some gentle reminder along the lines of “less is more” or “be careful not to fall into the trap of bogging down your readers in language more complicated than they really need,” and some grizzled and venerable veteran of the group stares me down, takes a deep breath, and lets me know that writers of a certain age appreciate a certain gravity to their diction. Apparently, at 37, I’m just too young to understand the beauty of language.

There’s a group like this near where I live. They’ve invited me back five times over the last 6 years, so we’ve come to know each other almost as family. I’ve seen their souls bared again and again in the poems they’ve submitted, and they’ve seen mine in the readings I give at the end of each session. We meet at a Methodist church, they serve the kind of coffee and pie that can only come from middle-aged church ladies, and we grow together more every year.

This year, I finally got comfortable enough that I could share my response.

The most senior members of this group came of age in the Modern era, where economy of language was a key tenet. They didn’t know any of the same poets from this era I do, but they did recognize this trend in prose writers like Hemingway and Faulkner. The next generation down, which includes most of the group’s officers, came of age in the explosive mid-20th century that included writers like the Beats, the Confessionals, the Black Mountain Poets, etc. After that, postmodernism took root, then postmodernism’s many offspring, and so on. In fact, not one member of the group could think of a single poet contemporary to their generation who writes like they do.

Then came the clincher—most of them couldn’t think of a single poet contemporary to their generation at all. So we started talking about where they do draw their inspiration from, and it turned out most of the group never really outgrew the 19th century and earlier poets they’d first encountered in eighth grade English class.

The discussion ended with my joking offer to give any poet in the room a free pass on diction if they could show ID documenting them as a true Victorian at least 114 years old, but what we talked about stayed with me for quite a while after that session was over.

I’ve always told my students at the university level that writers write in community, and encouraged them to seek out writing groups, writing partners, slams, workshops, etc to support them and keep them moving forward as writers. I’ve never put much effort, though, into encouraging these same students to seek out the same sort of support for their development as readers of poetry. I give them a syllabus of books and journals and online resources, and just expect that they’ll continue seeking out contemporary influences after they leave my classes. My real world experience with lifelong writers of poetry tells me that this doesn’t happen nearly as often as I would like it to.

So today, as the deadline for this blog entry approaches, I’ve decided to make a commitment myself, and consciously model it both for my students and for my workshop attendees. I’m going to stop browsing journals for my friends’ names, and start reading them instead as an act of discovery—of intentionally expanding my awareness of what’s out there in the contemporary poetry world. I’m also going to start reading one full-length poetry collection each month that has been released in the last year or two. My current favorite press—Write Bloody—has recently been putting out books faster than I can read them anyway, so I’ve got a good place to start.

And from now on, every time I do a reading, instead of my usual “cover poem” by beloved dead poets like Ginsberg and Cummings and Piñero, I’m going to start making a point of sharing something beautiful I just read—something I intend to draw the audience to a certain journal or website or book publisher, so that they can do some contemporary reading too.

Who knows, maybe it’ll catch on so well that someday I’ll have to start cautioning the octogenarians to be less hip-hop or less New Yorker or less anything-new instead…


The North Pond Hermit

by Dawn Potter

This week, the big news around here is the North Pond hermit. You can read all about him in the papers, but the essence of the tale is this: 27 years ago a recent high school graduate vanished from his home in central Maine. His family thought he’d gone to New York City, but no one ever heard from him again.

Meanwhile, along the shores of North Pond, twenty or so miles to the west, owners of camps and vacation cabins began to report odd break-ins. Now and again, this and that would disappear: foodstuffs, clothing, supplies. It’s not like they were being cleaned out; more like the burglar was a borrower, which if you’ve ever read Mary Norton’s 1952 children’s book by the same name, you’ll know is a euphemism for subsistance thievery. A legend began to grow: the culprit was the North Pond hermit. But he was a legend; no one had laid eyes on him or had any evidence that he actually existed–other than the fact that a person was regularly taking their stuff.

Finally someone set up a hidden camera, the first step in breaking the case. And this week, wardens discovered a well-hidden encampment along the shore . . . so well hidden it had been there for 27 years. The North Pond hermit was not a myth. He was a real man, who had lived alone in this place for nearly three decades. He never farmed, fished, or hunted. He spent his days sitting on a plastic bucket watching eagles fly overhead and reading whatever books he’d stolen from the camps. At night he would go out to “borrow” what he needed. He never lit a fire. Once the snows started, he stayed in his camp so that no one ever saw his tracks. He kept warm in layers of sleeping bags.

Now he is in jail, and the wardens have dismantled his home. He doesn’t seem sorry. He says he was getting weary of the business. He is clean and neat and quiet, as he was when he arrived.

Everyone I have spoken to is mesmerized by this story. Even the guys on the local sports radio station can’t stop talking about it. There is a huge outrush of admiration and even a tinge of envy for him. He did not become homeless because he had no other choice. He simply went into the woods. To most people, his thievery has become immaterial.

Like everyone else, I’m fascinated by the North Pond hermit. But as much as anything, I’m intrigued by the way we all want to turn him into literature. Already I’ve referred to the case as a tale. When I first read the news article, I immediately thought, “This should be a ballad.” An acquaintance thought “novel.” My older son, after he read the link I’d sent him, wrote back and said, “Fairy tale.” In yesterday’s paper I saw that someone had already composed a folk song about him. And of course the comparisons to Thoreau are rife.

I’ve been pondering this. Why do we all want to transform what were undoubtedly 27 slow years of silence and tedium into dramatic narrative? I’m sure, eventually, people will start saying, “HBO movie!” or “Northwoods Law!” Maybe they already are. But the initial reactions I’ve heard, even from my tech-soaked son, have reached back to the roots of the oral-written tradition. The North Pond hermit has turned some mysterious key in us.


Book Review: Landscape with Female Figure

by Nola Garrett

It has been a little more than two months since an underground fire forced Consol Energy to shut down its Blacksville No. 2 deep mine along the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border, and neither the company nor the federal agency in charge of mine safety oversight knows what caused it.

And they may never know.

Don Hopey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, A-1, May 17, 2013

Andrea Hollander, Landscape with Female Figure: new and selected poems, 1982–2012, Autumn House, 2013, 187 pp.

It’s been seven years since Woman in the Painting, Andrea Hollander Budy’s last book of poems appeared, a generous collection, numbering 90 pages; but since then much has happened in Andrea’s life. Her only child has grown. Her father has died. Her marriage of 35 years has ended in divorce. She has moved from Arkansas to Portland, Oregon.

Such is the stuff of poetry and loss.

There no shortage of stuff written by and about poets’ divorce(s). Consider the short list: John Milton, W. D. Snodgrass’ best seller, Heart’s Needle, Silvia Plath & Ted Hughes—Ariel vs. The Birthday Letters. Last night, I reread Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap, her prize-winning collection of poems which are about her divorce after 30 years of marriage. Olds, perhaps wisely for the sake of her children, chose to withhold publication of her collection until ten years had passed, though I just don’t buy Olds’ ongoing crush on her ex, distrust her use of so much arcane language. Though Olds talks about pain, she intellectualizes it. Andrea Hollander’s divorce poems are grittier, more cautious, and contain more of an arc.

I first met Andrea at the 1995 White River Writers Workshop, held at Lyon College, Batesville, Arkansas where she served as Writer-in Residence. And, served is absolutely the right word to describe how she organized the very best workshop I have ever attended. At that time she and her husband, Todd, owned a nearby bed and breakfast, so she decided to treat the workshop participants, she told me, the same way they treated their guests. Everyday against the June, river valley heat, Andrea sensibly wore simple cotton shirtwaist dresses. Not only were the meals well chosen and prepared, but also the faculty, the accommodations, the arrival instructions, the writing assignments, the readings, the computer lab, the daily schedule, the receptions, the quiet time for writing, and even a dance party on the last night. Faculty and writers truly mingled rather than observing the usual caste customs. Most of the poems I wrote there were later published. I met at Andrea’s workshop a half dozen people I still consider to be my friends. And, one evening on my way to dinner, I was nearly overcome with joy by the trills of an acute, gray bird perched on the peak of the dining hall’s entrance roof. It was Andrea’s husband, Todd, who identified for me—a northwestern Pennsylvania native—that song: the very first mocking bird I had ever heard.

The first section of Landscape with Female Figure contains Hollander’s new poems which deal with loss, grief and divorce. The opening poems show the speaker slowly letting herself acknowledge the facts of her failing marriage. The first poem, “Finches or Sparrows,” depicts the fog of war one encounters during the early stages of divorce grief—the memory of her mother’s death—her struggle to attend accurately even the most ordinary events.

Then the wheezing stopped,
the wild, invisible gods released them,
and I saw I had been mistaken: All at once
they dropped, fluttering to the ground,
nothing but leaves, yellow and brown.

As the other poems follow, each one’s syntax less complex, images exploring guilt and doubt, art and reality, until finally “Portrait with Purple Shroud” that ends

When I go back
I’ll sleep on the sun porch.

I was afraid
until I understood I was afraid.

Near the end of the New Poems series, Hollander abandons syntax, departs from her life-long control of tone and focus, writes of what I think is the most painful and difficult moment of divorce that many divorced persons fail to experience, finds the courage to descend back down into the black hole of her word mine, and writes “Question.” A page and three quarters, long lines with no stanza breaks, no punctuation, except for a final question mark. Her poem that tells us what it’s like to know you may never know why your years’ long marriage ended with a divorce is the longest poem that I know of that she has published.

Seems to me, all lovers create within their relationship a private language. Married lovers, too. Their language holds them together, enables them to build a family. Genesis 11 describes Yahweh coming down to watch the Tower of Babel being built, then confusing the workers’ language so the builders could no longer understand each others’ speech, resulting in the abandonment of their work and ultimately their homes, their city, and their lands. While I am not suggesting Yahweh causes divorces, I am suggesting if married couples no longer are able to talk their language with each other, divorce happens. No more to build on there. Why else is the first task of any marriage therapy to reestablish communication? Further, during divorce that loss of language especially for a poet is doubly painful. Paralyzing. A personal and artistic embarrassment. So, when a divorced poet chooses to question the reasons for that loss (many divorced poets never publicly try) what may emerge is the poetry of a changed poet rather than the answer why.

I’m thinking that after Andrea’s divorce organizing a this selected poems might have been a welcome task, not to say that task isn’t an honor for any poet. When compiling a selected, lots of poets disown many of their early poems. However, Andrea Hollander has been even-handed in choosing approximately the same number of poems from each of her three previous collections published under her married name. And, rightly so, because these selected poems portray a poet writing in the same controlled voice, same tone, same point of view, many poems of ekphrasis set in domestic scenes, many poems tenderly revealing the irony within relationships at crucial moments.

There is a striking symmetry within the New poems and the Selected, each set in Hollander’s writing studios. “Dawn” ends the selected series from her first book, House without a Dreamer, containing the wispy

I want to know why
the words I am saying seem to be spoken
by somebody else.

“Writing Studio” is the penultimate poem of the New Poems, ending with this measured, though confident self description:

You are the watcher
at the edge, a gleaner.
After the harvest is over,
you may take what you can,
but only after the crows
are done.

Yes, grittier—back from Andrea Hollander’s descent, now back mining in Portland, Oregon, even though she may never know why. I have a dear friend, Ginger Carlson, 90 years old and still stylishly counting, who recently sent me an email concerning her long past divorce: “Divorce saved my life—is that a bad thing?” I suspect that Ginger and Andrea, if they met, might well make good companions.


Dance Review: Continuum Dance Theater at the Three Rivers Arts Festival

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

After a week of on and off rain that is typical for Pittsburgh’s annual Three Rivers Arts Festival, the sun shone brightly on Point State Park for Saturday’s activities.

As one of the final dance performances of the week, Continuum Dance Theater hit the Second Stage at Gateway Center to perform an excerpt of their latest work, “Objects of DESIRE.”

The piece will premiere in full at the New Hazlett this December, as part of the theater’s first ever “CSA: Artist Harvest” performance series. Through interviews with local community members, the company has gathered material about what we desire most in life to inspire their choreography.

For an audience of mostly festival patrons (with a few familiar dancer faces), Continuum showed a small section of their work, but also polled us on our own “American Dream,” using those answers to inform their movement.

To start, dancer Jess Marino lay buried in a heap of bras, eventually digging her way out and performing a solo amongst the sexy lingerie. The image brought to mind the unfortunate reality of women as sexual “objects.” Shana Simmons joined her and the two continued in a duet that took them right off the small stage and into the audience. Despite the concrete and lack of space, they managed to show off their partnering skills and even some floor work.

After the short excerpt, the audience was asked to write down something that they desired in the past, right now, and for the future. From the collection of responses, Marino and Simmons chose a few words and promised to incorporate them into a movement section they would perform near the end of their hour long set.

Before that, they gave the audience another chance to influence the show. In a game of improvisation, a few patrons were given small signs, each with one word written in large print – balance, pursuit, union, consistency, and others. During that section, audience members held up their signs, one at a time, and the dancers let that particular word affect their movement. For example, during “balance,” they teetered precariously from the edge of the stage, mostly dancing on one leg.

To finish the show as promised, Marino and Simmons revealed their chosen responses to the question of what we, as an audience, truly desire. They picked several meaningful answers: a family, wisdom, true happiness. And some humorous: girls, a bigger butt.

With those words in mind, they performed the same excerpt they began with, using our responses to change the quality of their movement. One moment resembled “wisdom,” when Simmons perched thoughtfully at the edge of the stage. And there was definitely a nod to “bigger butt,” when Marino shook her not-so-large backside center stage.

Among the visual art that fills the festival, it was nice to have live performance also included. To be a part of Continuum’s choreographic process was clearly fun for everyone who eagerly watched, nodded, and applauded as the dancers simultaneously educated and entertained us.


Check out the Continuum Dance Theater website for details of the full-length show this December: http://continuumdancetheater.blogspot.com/.


Miss Freud Returns To The Classroom

Miss Freud Returns To The Classroom:
Toward A Psychoanalytic Literacy Among Educators

by John Samuel Tieman

I am a teacher. The other day, I mentioned to an educational consultant that many of my students were feeling anxiety about the state exams. “You’re a psychologist,” she said, “so give the kids pieces of candy, and just don’t mention the tests.” I was speechless. It quickly became clear that she, among other things, had no sense of what I meant when I said, “Some of the kids are dealing with anxiety by over-stimulating themselves, others act out, others regress, still others seem depressive.” She makes no distinction between a psychologist and a psychoanalytically informed teacher. She’s not unusual. She knows that I studied child and adolescent development at the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute, but she doesn’t understand what that means.

No one has The Answer for educational reform. No one is that wise. But I do have one good idea. Not a sweeping, one size fits all reform, but a somewhat conservative, back-to-basics approach that some might find useful in some settings. Psychoanalytic literacy.

Almost all educational psychology these days is cognitive/behavioral. The problem is one of over-emphasis. Pick-up almost any ed. psych. book, and you likely will find only a few pages, sometimes only a few paragraphs, on Sigmund Freud and his followers in the 20th and 21st centuries. Much more space often is devoted to Pavlov, and all those slobbering dogs, than is given to Anna Freud, herself a school teacher and the mother of educational psychology.

The emphasis tends to be on mechanics. Take the current fascination with brain science. Some days, it feels as if all anyone has anymore is a brain, that no one has a mind. As Lemka says in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, “What you like about brains, Max, is that they all work in the same way. What you don’t like about minds is that they don’t.”

Educational psychology needs to get back to its roots. We need to honor, and attend to, the emotional lives of teachers and students. The cognitive/behavioral model tends to view the student as a set of behaviors. There is nothing inherently wrong with this partial view. Indeed, it can be quite useful. My concern is to get back to the roots of all educational psychology, the psychoanalytic model, the fullest model, as well as the century of data and application that has followed upon that model.

This cognitive/behavioral approach tends, in practice, to be even narrower than, say, the theories of B. F. Skinner. We educators tend to think of psychology as a branch of problem-solving. The student does this, then you do that. Problem solved. Psychology is purely instrumental. It is the tool, the means to elicit submissive behavior. This is not a healing art. This is not about relationship – it’s a manipulative tool.

Psychoanalytic theory gives teachers a form of literacy, a rich vocabulary with which we experience and express our relationships in school.

I got a visit the other day from Tomyko. I taught him English in middle school. Tomyko was a nice kid. But his future looked bleak. He had what I call ‘the litany of sorrows’. Poor. Occasionally homeless. No known parents. Friends in the Crips. He was experimenting with drugs and sex.

Tomyko was a nice kid, yes, but also a maddening one. Talking. Never doing the work. He made me constantly angry. But, if there is one thing a psychoanalytic orientation has taught me, it is that it’s OK to be angry as long as the relationship is maintained.

We had long talks, Tomyko and I. By applying my psychoanalytic studies, I learned a lot. I learned how to take the kid aside, discipline him, and also make sure that ‘You and I are still cool, right?’ I learned to address the misbehavior, but not attack the person. I learned from Tomyko to listen to the relationship, to the feelings between us. I learned to listen to his longing for a father, and the anger he projected on me, the father figure, the only stable male in his life. I learned to listen to my own feelings. Why do I feel like a scolding father? Or worse, a shaming father? I learned to listen for warning signs. Why do I want Tomyko suspended, transferred, expelled? Above all other things, I learned that, whatever the tensions, the hope is to grow within the relationship, to grow in a way that moves both toward their fullest potential.

Tomyko told me that he’s in the community college. So the story has a happy ending. And while I cannot take credit for the edifice that is his life, I can take credit for a brick or two.


Book Review: A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind

A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind:
The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton

Alfred Starr Hamilton,
Edited by Ben Estes and Alan Felsenthal.
Song Cave, 2013

reviewed by Mike Walker

A poet, perhaps more than any other type of artist, can toil in total obscurity. He doesn’t need a band or a pianist to back his singing; he doesn’t need a dance company or theatre; he doesn’t want for a gallery to show his work or even a local art supply store clerk to one day ask with a friendly smile what he’s painting with all those brushes he’s purchased. He can write, safe at home, for hours on end day after day, night by proverbial night, and no one may know. Thus, there are poets who are unknown their entire lives, by either personal design or despite their efforts to bring their work to publication. Either way, it is fully possible that decades could flow by before a poet’s work becomes known and yet he or she has been working devotedly as a poet. Such is next to impossible with someone in the performing arts, with the exception of perhaps a composer and is unlikely for most visual artists. It could happen in other genres of literature, true, but poetry seems most suited to this lonesome life.

Alfred Starr Hamilton is one such poet, a poet who worked in more or less isolation and produced a body of poetry that is only now becoming widely known. Granted, he did publish duing his lifetime (he died in 2005) and an anthology of his work at the time both published and unpublished came out as early as 1970, yet it wasn’t until this year with Song Cave’s publication of A Dark Dreambox of Another Kind that his work has found the benefit of the logistics of major publication to reach a wide readership in the United States and beyond. Hamilton is unique—certainly that can be claimed of any poet, but he really is: his poetry defies both today’s MFA hot-house environment and the rise of contemporary poetry of the 1960s when he began to publish. No one else was nor now is quite doing anything akin to his efforts—at least no one known. His poems are fits and starts, they have the type of juttering feel that the poems of teenagers—especially boys—often have where the writer becomes carried away with thought and at once is lost from his attention to the form and where it’s going. Hamilton asks many questions, offers few answers, visits multiple metaphors and yet never settles on any running motif for long. Yet, somehow, it all really works. His “January Gallery” is a good example:

Did you say today?
Did you say tomorrow
Or the next day, or the day afterwards?
Did you say a picture at a January Gallery?
Did you say a glass eye for your mirror
For a club foot for a clump of wintery woods?
For a little lavender that stares back at you
Today and tomorrow, and days afterwards.

The focus on time recalls something similar I found in the first poet who really captured my attention: my high school friend Terik Trout and his poems at age fourteen, where he’d write things like “four years from then two years ago” in a way that was half between a faux Olde English, kings-n-castles attempt at sounding serious and imposing and half towards some obscure suggestion of time-travel or bending the very being of time as we know it so that what is future and the past became the same geography. The attention to physical features and ailments is also a common thread in Hamilton’s poems: the club foot, the glass eye—these sundry asylum items of severe deformative or recompense from misfortune or injury fit well the rugged woe of the “outsider” poet, the man who writes both from within and without.

There is no doubt that Hamilton desired his work to be read: he had sent poem after poem to literary journals, especially to Epoch of Cornell University which eventually did publish his work. In later years following his death, The Boston Review and New York Times would even get into the act with articles offering high praise for Hamilton’s offbeat work. Even before that, within his lifetime, poets who were established enough to make their livings and careers off poetry were becoming fans of Hamilton and word of his work spread, if slowly and in the shadows, through American literary circles. I mention this because whenever Hamilton garners a review or critical article such as the present effort, his “outsider” status is played up to the grandest levels of despair: he may have not had much—in his later years he lived on a paltry sum of inherited money—and he did in his letters let on to being lonely, but his legacy was far from neglected and he knew that, too. I don’t think it mattered very much to him either way though: he wanted his work in print but over time just writing appears to have become more central to his efforts.

Once we thus free Hamilton to a degree from the chains of forlorn hope and look at his writing without setting it aside as the work of a man seperate from society, I do feel we can actually appreciate his efforts even more: It’s a coy turn to make a writer’s work about himself, but it’s also one that runs the danger of subtracting from Hamilton’s best poetry its own unique powers. If there is merit in Hamilton’s isolationism, it’s located in his deft ability to craft poetry that doesn’t care at all about outside impressions. Yes, he wanted it read—Emily Dickinson also wanted her own poems read, despite the mythos to the contrary about her own isolation—but Hamilton valued his external status for the lack of demand it allowed. The lack of demand for given output in certain terms, certain timing, certain sizing, certain anything. There were no given guidelines to follow, no ready exclusion criteria. 

To sting a centipede around

A pineapple bend, on a peach –
truth is
Studied on the breast – abysmally

This is from Hamilton’s poem “Tampa, Florida” and is representative of his way with language, his wonderful lack of respect for conventions of syntax, for one, and his lust for what language can accomplish when free of its obligation towards narrative. Isn’t that part of the purpose of poetry? To be free of narrative, at least of traditional narrative? Yet how much contemporary poetry tells the tale of the poet’s move into a new apartment, how his bike was stolen from outside the economics building at his college, or how his sister came to leave her husband? Hamilton’s poem really is about Tampa—I can say that with some authority having been raised in central Florida myself—but it tells no story, explains no premise, leads us down into no beach, via no path, devoid of any human move from here to there. No street, no mayor, no “this is here”. It’s static, yet fully dynamic as few poems are: when a person is mentioned it is “A picture of a tramp is being excruciated/Betwixt a splintered parked bent bench” thus not really letting on in full whether there is a tramp, a park bench, an actual “parked bent bench” or a picture thereof of any or none of the above. I think it’s great that we get these blurs of images, of icons, really, as if he had been forced to paint Tampa from afar for us—which perhaps he was. We mostly expect a writer to provide a dispatch from a location to inform us—he can tell us with authority of this place because not only was he there, but he wrote from there: the words in hand were fostered by a pen in the very locale described. But is a second-rate writer or busy journalist more adept to describe a place just by the virtue of being there than a first-rate dreamer is to craft a portrait of it in a few scant lines from a distance?

What’s charmingly interesting about Hamilton is how at once his poetry can, on one page, read like a laundry list of glances and notes that make little immediate sense yet comes together in a delightful if odd construct and on the very next page, his work can read like a pop song’s lyrics. Hamilton seems keenly interested in describing the smallest of details yet in a manner that repeats, truncates, then somehow repeats again these details and the necessary verbs and adverbs to rescue them from the black hole of suck they’d otherwise trip into without his help. He retains the base connection between between actual life and pop/folk memory. Take as an apt example:

were you ever a little reindeer
out in the rain
not a big rain
but a little rain
and the way was clear

and you had your umbrella with you
not too big an umbrella
but a little umbrella
and your name was Cinderella

On some level this is simply pleasing nonsense, isn’t it? The verse here represents faux observations that are not really (we can only assume) factual observations able to actually tell us about anything going on—almost like nursery nonsense verse of old. These are words that feel good to read together, to say aloud as they sit on the page together, they seem to beg to make sense together yet they don’t: their syntax is correct, of course, but their meaning is truncated, limited, by no obvious trajectory or larger scope of narrative.

“And your name was Cinderella”: That’s about the level of narrative Hamilton commonly seems to provide, yet it works more often than not. There is no doubt in my mind that Hamilton intends this, that nothing he offers is by way of accident, mental mischance, psychological disease or overly honest toil sadly misplaced in intent: too often in reviews and articles he’s made out to be someone to pity, someone who was so far from the mainstream, such a loner perhaps, that he must have gone a bit mad. I don’t buy it. I think he was laughing all the way to the bank, even if his pockets were empty when he got there. His poetry reveals a complex sense of wonder, a delight in how people work even though this is a delight he would rather cloak away from direct details of a human nature much of the time. Did people scare Hamilton off in social constructs—in typical social aspects? Maybe. Did they fascinate him? Most certainly. Animals, too, but mostly people it seems. Places, also, but still people foremost. People could be addressed, they could be actors, they could play someone else, they could be stand-ins, replicas, evolutions of themselves. All of this comes across here and there in Hamilton’s poems when we look for it.

Hamilton also found language itself to be a landscape able to deftly entice and wrap us up in its darker ways no matter our first intentions when borrowing it for our own devices and desires. That is very clear in how he approaches words, often skirting their more-positive or most-common meanings and digging up the less-decent aspects. He is not often openly morbid, but as in his line quoted above where he asked “did you say a glass eye for your mirror” he is adept at dragging out obscure items, odd nouns, things that are a bit Victorian, a little gothic, or simply unseemly for polite discourse. A glass eye . . . what an interesting article, that. A device that cannot do what an eye does, but only replaces how others see an eye—a cosmetic item unable to do what its original does but required to take care of “looks”, the very thing it should be able to do but cannot even attempt. And a mirror? Is it a mirror? It produces a gaze, it’s needed for vain reasons alone, right? We don’t speak of glass eyes—well, in part today because thankfully we have improved medical solutions to many problems glass eyes once were called upon to—if not remedy—cover up. Like the ear-trumpet long before it, the glass eye is an older device by virtue of high technology now on its way out, though sometimes still necessary. Moreover, we tend not to speak of something that is unfortunate, something of an injury or its repair. Outside of sailors in bars near their ports or doctors in the hospital’s hallways late at night, such things are not supposed to reach the level of conversation. Even now, even when horror movies can show every awful act and then some, even when the television news can speak frankly of rape and murder, the glass eye is a bit awkward, a little not-for-the-faint-of-heart. It’s a replica, it’s meant to replace, it can be removed and set below the bathroom mirror apart from its human, ready to scare the child who wanders past it as uncle sleeps at night.

The main core of Hamilton’s world appears to be quintessence: he is focused on what is most-apt, most-common, most-repeated, most-associated with certain words, places, or concepts. He can do this and divorce it from things or people that are specific because his concerns are often so general, yet he still locates the unique within the broad, the global. Most of his geography is American, but he is not chained to the regional or national on a topical level at all. He is not a Robert Frost or Lorine Niedecker. His poetry is not, overall, useful in providing nuanced introspection into a cohesive landscape or cultural geography. However, here and there just as in the poem regarding Tampa, Hamilton is able to tell us a lot about a place while really saying very little. His poems stand alone, as they do not pretend to any vast designs of narrative, yet they speak nearly as letters would, the same voice coming back once again to pick up where he left off—even if on a totally new topic. You still know who it is, you don’t need to read the envelope. Again, quintessence. On his own terms, Alfred Starr Hamilton has a view of the world and all its worldly designs long in mind and he’s keen to say a thing or two about it.

For a retrospective anthology of a poet’s work, I don’t think I could ask for much better than this. Hamilton’s poetry is unique, forthright, and engaging and the organization of it here is produced in a manner that makes you want to read the entire book in one fell swoop, not overlooking anything, in desire of more and more.


Theater Review: Radio Golf by August Wilson

Radio Golf. By August Wilson. June 8-June 29, 2013. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. 937 Liberty Avenue. [http://www.pghplaywrights.com/] Directed by Eileen J. Morris. With Chrystal Bates, Kevin Brown, Wali Jamal, Mark Clayton Southers, and Art Terry.

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

August Wilson undertook the ambitious project of writing a play reflecting African-American life for each decade of the twentieth century. Shortly before he died at 60 he finished the last and latest play: Radio Golf, set in 1995. Inspired by Wilson, Mark Clayton Southers undertook the project of producing all of the plays. Southers’ Pittsburgh Playwright Theatre’s current production of Radio Golf is the capstone of both projects, and, like nine of the plays, is set firmly in Pittsburgh.

What could be more boring than golf on the radio? I once ate in a place where the TV was tuned to a golf tournament. For the entire time I ate lunch, I’m sure, the cameras followed one of the contenders beating grass in the rough looking for his ball. Now imagine that without visual interest. And certainly Wilson wasn’t any more interested in golf on the radio than I, which is a measure of his distance from the character who is. (Behind that “certainly”—at a talkback, Chris Rawson, a scholar of Wilson, said that Wilson had frantically to rewrite Radio Golf to change the golf references, since he didn’t know anything about golf.)

I’d seen Radio Golf before, and thought then that it was less interesting than other of Wilson’s plays. But this production, in PPT’s intimate and somewhat hard-to-find space, is tense and moving. It redeems the play for me. The ensemble acting is excellent, and credit to Eileen J. Morris for creating dynamism among the players. Mark Southers’ Harmond Wilks, stolid at first, contrasts well with Chrystal Bates’ seductive warmth and Kevin Brown’s antic jiving. In Art Terry’s performance, Roosevelt Hicks’ exuberance allows us to have empathy with a character who might be merely a villain in lesser hands and with a lesser playwright. For one of Wilson’s strengths is that he doesn’t stack the deck, at least not completely. In earlier plays, his hard businessmen—West, Caesar Wilks—aren’t lovable, but they may just be right in turning away from sentimentality. The immersive nature of the intimate space with audience on three sides is amplified because most of the characters enter through a door from the audience’s side.

Who has said that all the persons of the dream are the dreamer? The power of the conflicts in Wilson’s plays must be that they externalize conflicts within him. Surely he had to shut the door on distractions and importunings in order to make his work, the monumental Pittsburgh Cycle.

I haven’t mentioned the language, the humor, the wonderful language of the man who started as a poet, the humor of signifying characters.

Pittsburgh people, and people near Pittsburgh, catch this production while you can.


The Craft of Poetry

by Dawn Potter

It’s so easy to overlook punctuation. Our eyes are trained to glide past it, automatically registering the marks as pauses or sentence endings but not otherwise lingering over them. As Baron Wormser and David Cappella note in Teaching the Art of Poetry, “punctuation makes necessary distinctions so that things don’t blur and tangle and confuse.” This is why its absence obscurely distresses us. “Punctuation seems ironclad. There had better be a period at the end of each sentence. It’s the law—and poets flout it.”

Well, some poets flout it. In an interview for The Paris Review, Philip Larkin grumbled:

A well-known publisher asked me how one punctuated poetry, and looked flabbergasted when I said, The same as prose. By which I mean that I write, or wrote, as everyone did till the mad lads started, using words and syntax in the normal way to describe recognizable experiences as memorably as possible. That doesn’t seem to me a tradition. The other stuff, the mad stuff, is more an aberration.

And it’s true that some poems seem to taunt us with willful misuse. In “th wundrfulness uv th mountees our secret police,” bill bissett not only ignores punctuation and capitalization but misspells words, creating a narrative that is also a sort of manipulative graffiti:

they opn our mail petulantlythey burn down barns they cantbug they listn to our politikulledrs phone conversashuns whatcud b less inspiring to ovrheer

Sonia Sanchez takes a different tack in her “Song No. 3 (for 2nd and 3rd grade sisters).” Though she, too, ignores capitalization, she does make use of traditional punctuation. Nonetheless, she doesn’t end every sentence with a period, only the last line of the stanza. Her choice affects how we imagine the speaker’s voice and supports our absorption of the poem’s blunt, childish, yet very clear pain.

cain’t nobody tell me any differenti’m ugly and you know it tooyou just smiling to make me feel betterbut i see how you stare when nobody’s watching you.

Even as many poets experiment with deleting punctuation, others put traditional marks to new uses. For instance, rather than linking images with grammar, Melissa Stein’s “So deeply that it is not heard at all, but” links them with punctuation:

sister: the violin is blue. it plays stars, there was a field—sister: that swelling in your belly will be a milkweed, a duty, a friend—sister: goldenrod blossom: stippled ancillary: nonplussed bird—

Russell Edson, on the other hand, gives us long grammatically complex sentences filled with traditional punctuation that, instead of clarifying the situation, contribute to the poem’s ambiguity, as in this dense line from “Out of Whack”:

Too late, too late, because I am wearing the king’s crown: and, in that we are married, and, in that the wearer of the king’s crown is automatically the king, you are now my queen, who broke her crown like a typically silly woman, who doesn’t quite realize the value of things, screamed the queen.

But even when a poet follows less raucous patterns of punctuation, she chooses each comma, each period, each dash, precisely and deliberately. Punctuation marks, as Wormser and Cappella have said, add clarity; but they also are important elements of sound, affecting a line’s cadence and tonality. The silence implied by a dash is longer than the silence implied by a comma. A question mark indicates a lift in tonal pitch, whereas a period indicates a drop. Even a hyphen or its absence has a subtle influence: the pacing of fire truck is different from fire-truck is different from firetruck.

Punctuation marks can also be stylistic tics, as the dash was for Emily Dickinson. They can even be stylistic anathemas. Richard Hugo, for instance, hated semicolons. In his essay “Nuts and Bolts,” he flatly declared, “No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly.” Derek Walcott, among many other poets, would disagree passionately with that pronouncement. He uses semicolons throughout his book-length poem The Prodigal, often inserting them at line endings to indicate a pause of recognition or comprehension:

Then through the thinned trees I saw a wraith of smoke, which I believed came from the house, but every smoker carries his own wreath; then I saw that this moving wreath was yours.

In short, punctuation is both a flexible tool for experimentation and a formal structural element with rules and predictable patterns. Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose sonnet “The Soldier” will be the centerpiece of this chapter under construction, was well aware of this duality, and he took advantage of both tradition and strangeness in the way in which he handled punctuation in his poems.


a note to poets growing older

by John Samuel Tieman

the words we didn’t say
I take a bite of my lunch
silence sour and salt

This afternoon I sit on my porch, proud of all I’ve won, thinking of my poor days and how, at my age, the middle class doesn’t look as bad from the inside as it does from the outside. When a mockingbird, all balls on wings, flashes up at my snack, snags a berry, and flies off with an “Own that, asshole!” attitude.

Yesterday I spent the day grading final exams, doing the math, praying some day some kid sends me her first symphony. I opened my bag lunch, pulled out a wing, when it dawns on me that it all comes down to an empty belly, a body part, that saying Grace, for this critter, is the same as its Black Mass.

Which is to say that this morning I found a Mass card for an old friend dead now 17 years. I don’t know where the time went sitting here all afternoon. We’ve spent our days, my friends, lost in all the forms, pouring the concrete we hope will never dry, draining the swamp, filling the coffin, being the blank screen, praying like a priest who needs to be defrocked, praying for a vision or at least something in the eye.

Finally this evening and I will unlatch the front door, wait for the sound of the leaves beneath her feet. Meaning it comes down to this. Nothing goes away. Even in the darkness, we can write about the light.

late night candlelight
city power grid is down
in the indigo
a silhouette – our neighbor
nursing her child


Not Asking for It

by Arlene Weiner

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a Steelers offensive tackle was slashed on the South Side of Pittsburgh on a recent weekend. The police report and the man’s account tell the following story: Mike Adams gave the keys to his truck to a valet for a South Side restaurant on a Saturday night. The restaurant closed for the night and he still hadn’t picked up his keys. He left another restaurant at about 3 a.m. Three men approached him. One of the men said his black F-150 Raptor was a nice truck and another of them said, “Gimme your car.” Recall that Mike Adams is an NFL player. He was reported to be 6’7″ and weigh upwards of 300 pounds.

Adams said, “You ain’t gonna shoot me on the street in front of people” and, according to the police complaint, one of the men said he would shoot him in the face “in front of everyone.” Then one of the men punched Adams and another of the men slashed him in the abdomen.

Without prejudice, I bet nobody is saying or asking any of the following about Adams: What was he doing there at 3 in the morning? Why did he have an atttractive truck? Was he drinking?

Let’s agree that, based on this story, HE WASN’T ASKING FOR IT. Just as a woman alone on East Carson Street, and maybe a little drunk, who was beset by a man, or three men, wouldn’t have been asking for it.


Book Review: Scent of Darkness

Scent of Darkness by Margot Berwin
Pantheon Books, 2013
Review by Nicole Bartley

The Scent of Darkness by Margot Berwin dabs a touch of exotic into the readers’ lives but, in the end, is just a cheap perfume. It explores glamorous, romantic dreams that many women have—dreams that those same women would not want to experience in real life.

The main character, Eva, discovers a small bottle of perfume that her recently deceased grandmother left as a gift. With it is a written warning: “Don’t remove the crystal stopper, Evangeline, unless you want everything in your life to change.” Of course, she puts on this otherworldly perfume of jasmine, rose, leather, fire, and the mysterious scent of darkness, all of which infuses with her body and becomes her natural musk. No creature can resist her intoxicating aroma, and her life is soon jeopardized by aggressive men, pampering women, and crazed dogs.

This is when romantic fantasies become apparent. Because of this new scent, a plain girl from upstate New York gains the attraction of her handsome crush, Gabriel, and moves to exotic New Orleans where her life is consumed with paranormal customs and dangerous love affairs. While there, she meets Gabriel’s painter friend, Michael, who is also inescapably attracted to her. He is greedy and disingenuous, and sets out to ruin Eva’s relationship with nice but misguided Gabriel.

The quality of narration and characterization volleys between fantastic and disappointing. The character progression is intriguing because each character is initially perceived as amazing, but then loses his or her glamour and is eventually cast away. Eva’s mother, grandmother, and various waitresses have distinct voices that portray regional personalities, but other main characters sound just like the narrator. Eva’s narration reads as if she were writing her own story in disjointed memories, but she’s delusional because she believes that her grandmother gave her Gabriel from beyond the grave. She also disregards the fact that Gabriel cheated on and left his girlfriend for her. She justifies this by believing that he chose to be with her because he was meant to, and the scent just made that possible.

The first quarter of the book was unsatisfactory. Seventy pages set up the rest of the novel, as if the story doesn’t actually begin until the main characters reach New Orleans. Berwin seems to be more comfortable writing about that setting, which the characters glide through more smoothly than in New York. But Gabriel is also a mere instrument to transport Eva to that city. Once he completes his task, he disappears into libraries to study and fully emerges only once during a moment of conflict. It’s as if everything was buildup for the real story: Eva’s interactions with Michael.

Even here, the level of intrigue isn’t as intense as the back summary suggests. Berwin doesn’t allow double meaning to exist. For example, on page 103, Michael and Evangeline are discussing whether she will sit for one of his paintings.

“‘…I want to capture a full body this time, not just the face, like I do in the park.’
“‘I don’t want to be captured by you.’
“He stood away from me and took both my hands in his.
“‘It’s just a figure of speech, Evangeline. All painters use it…’”

Instead of allowing readers to detect innuendo—capture her body, heart, and soul; keep her physically restrained; he’s lying, it’s not just a figure of speech in this case—Berwin overtly dispels any suspicion they may have. This removes dramatic irony, mystery, and tension.

Finally, the resolution is fake. Everything appears to be tied up in a pretty ribbon, but it’s loosely tied. Eva manages to satisfy Michael and keep him away, but his promises are empty and there is nothing stopping him from finding and demanding more from her. Also, Eva will always exude her supernatural scent. Despite returning home, she is still in an environment that she left predominately for her own safety. As her grandmother warned, her life is forever changed because of that scent, and Berwin almost makes readers forget that fact. When they remember, it results in a feeling of being cheated, as if Eva went through all of that for nothing.

To make matters worse, this book needed more thorough editing to spot redundancies, plot gaps, and continuity errors.


A Young Woman’s Manifesto

By Aubrey Woodward

Far too often among my peers have I witnessed a dangerous language emerge in regard to the topic of feminism. Those who have openly denounced its value equate the word’s connotations to the confines of the unfavorable and unattractive. Their notions align dangerously with the misconception that we have achieved equality — that those who consider themselves to be feminists exist only on the outskirts of society, planning their uprising like a sadistic cult. I have listened to fellow women defend adamantly their position against membership to the category, falling victim to their belief in a cruel stereotype defined only by its own ignorance. But we cannot ignore the blatant modes of oppression that lie before us: politicians who work openly to limit the decisions of women, men who justify violence and hostility against their opposing sex, and women who participate in the degradation of the gender to which they belong. To truly address these issues, which threaten to perpetuate the language of ignorance, we must first clarify the definition of the term itself and understand the ways in which the implementation of this new definition will carry us into an age of legitimate equality.

Feminism does not indict men, nor does it suppose the advancement of women above them; it does not dictate the manners women assume, nor does it restrict those ends which they hope to attain. In its purist and most honest form, feminism works solely to promote equality among both men and women. By definition, then, the group does not limit its membership to the bra-burning, radical extremists through which it received its harmful and contemporary reputation, nor does it limit its membership to the female population alone. Feminism benefits women in so far as it benefits men: In recalculating our approach toward the treatment of women, we also come to evaluate those factors of inequality that produce vicious assumptions regarding the behavior of men as well. As society elevates the characteristics of submission, physical beauty and general femininity in women, it simultaneously encourages aggression, strength and masculinity in men, thus, creating an inherent criticism toward those who fail to submit to these falsely constructed perceptions. By illustrating a more accurate depiction of feminism, we stand to gain access to a society of equality, its distinction the result of an attitude of acceptance rather than exclusion.

I therefore implore my peers — men and women alike — to adopt the language of acceptance, of equality: of feminism. Do not rely upon the popular opinion of contempt toward this sorely misunderstood subject; do not allow the constricting presence of oppression to overcome the opportunity for advancement and do not exist idly in a generation that refuses to reach forward and extend the boundaries of gender. Insist upon shedding each and every stereotype that hopes to stifle these goals, and encourage the new definition of feminism. From this position we can move away from those preconceived notions that serve as the shackles that prohibit individual decision. From this position we may hopefully enter into an agreement with ourselves, one that refuses to categorize people as feminist or nonfeminist, but rather, as merely human.

Where White People Come From

by Publius

My student teacher is answering questions, explaining where his people come from.

“I’m 100% European,” he says.

A young lady who’s black says, “You come from England or some such?”

“Oh, no, I mean you have to go back generations …”.

“Oh, I get it,” she says. “You mean your family comes from wherever it is white folks get kicked out of.”