Book Review: Trace by Eric Pankey

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Trace
Poems by Eric Pankey
Milkweed Editions, 2013
$16.00



Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe

Pankey explores the idea of traces in several ways throughout this collection. One version is as traces of religious faith or traces of evidence supporting that faith. Another is traces of memory, specifically memories of Pankey’s deceased father. And finally, there are traces of meaning in the poems, which could be inspired by any of the other traces.

The collection opens with a section of poems focused on Pankey’s religious beliefs. “The Sacrifice” questions the validity of blind sacrifice. “A Bird Loose in the House” nicely conjures an analogy of the soul, “A shadow-play alive on a curtain alive with wind.” As evidenced in this poem, Pankey finds inspiration in nature, not only for poetry but for his faith.

Pankey tends to avoid the easy, well-trod imagery of religious poetry. He doesn’t speak from a place of fear of retribution, or scold. He doesn’t belittle human endeavor for the sake of appeasing divine ego. Instead, he paints a chaotic world in which so little is understandable, not that science has failed us, but rather a world so complex, simple cause-and-effect relationships often don’t make sense. “The Creation of Adam” describes a humanistic landscape:

On a cross of branches tied with baling wire,
An old man hung a ragged wool overcoat.

As he weeded, he instructed the scarecrow
On the doctrine and conundrum of free will.
When a crow landed on the scarecrow’s shoulder,

The scarecrow, who had listened well, knew
If he chose, he could shrug and shoo the crow.
If he chose. And could shrug. And could move his lips.

Another version of traces are traces of memory. “Faith” describes a lost love, which retreated like a glacier. “The Burning House” describes “The house afire, the house of my childhood,/All tinder and kindling married to spark.” The burning house is never consumed, of course recalling the biblical burning bush; it exists in a liminal state in Pankey’s memory. “Southern Elegy” is a subtle commentary on place. Pankey describes a garter snake hunting “along cracked masonry/Marked by rust, along slate//Slabs in the unkempt graveyard.” It’s a desolate world in which “Autumn passes like empty freight cars –//Some doors open, some doors closed.”

Finally, Pankey focuses on traces of meaning in his poems, which he struggles to reach. But clarity isn’t something that can necessarily be reached. “Sometimes I exist,” he says in “Models of Paradise” “only as anxiety.” And later, he struggles with finding that clarity not only in his poetry but in his faith as he describes “Just stars above me,/ a broken abacus of stars:/The beads scattered, the beads unthumbed.” Finally, he begins to reach meaning, “What we lack, mostly, is context.” This leads to wisdom: “One measures the void a gram at a time.”

Pankey doesn’t so much try to make sense of the world as he tries to make sense from the world. He shares observances, reserving comment many times, in favor of letting the images resonate by themselves. Pankey’s language is beautiful and spare and he constantly surprises with profound lines. Pankey’s built a name for himself, and considering the quality of the poems in this collection, it’s no surprise.



Eric Pankey is currently Professor of English and Heritage Chair in Writing at George Mason University. Trace is his ninth collection of poetry.

How Ralph Vaughn Williams Saved My Life

by Nola Garrett

Driving my 2010 orange Honda Fit, I was on my way to the University of Tampa’s inaugural concert of their new pipe organ. I was stopped for the red light at the six lane intersection of Sunset and McMullan Booth Road. I had just slipped in my new CD of Williams “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallas” and other works written during the years he began collecting English folk songs during the early part of the 20th Century. I was happy, relaxed, and filled with anticipation.

My first brush with Ralph Vaughn Williams’s music was All Saints Sunday, 1973, in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, when I first sang what I gradually came to know as one of his most famous compositions, his hymn tune, “For All the Saints.” That majestic opening, a single deep bass, full reed organ stop, G quarter note, followed by the hymn’s melody and slow walking bass gave me shivers. I felt as if that hymn dragged me up from the violent depths of my first marriage to consider a second life. Each of the eight stanzas began the same way, and each time I found myself shivering. Still do, every time I sing it decades later.

I’ve come to think that deep bass G and that following walking bass may have acted as a sort of sounded dark light or chiaroscuro on my perception. Scientists studying perception say that the brain doesn’t just passively receive but actively reaches out. The mind with its own hopes, according to Frederick Turner in a recent essay, “The Dark Light of Domenic Cretara,” in
seeks confirmation or a check on its view of the world. Sometimes this check leads to the reinforcement of denial or depression; other times it grasps the light or trust. So, the melody would have been my light while the single deep bass G and walking bass would have been and continues to be my shadow that gives form to my light.

Because “For All the Saints” has eight verses and that authoritative, initial bass G, most church organists, including First English Lutheran Church’s cantor, Cynthia A. Pock, Obl. ECST, AAGO, will be quick to tell you, “It’s not an easy hymn to play.” The hymn should be played slowly, and both that initial G and the walking bass are scored for pedal. Truth be told, eight slowly played verses is a very long hymn either to sing or to play. Ralph Vaughn Williams, composer and church organist, certainly understood that strain, for he wrote an alternative four part harmony setting for verses 4,5, 6, and eliminated the pedal walking bass. Often these three verses are sung by the choir, and/or the 8 verses are sung alternately all, men, all, women, all, choir, all, all. Either way, it’s still an endurance test for organists. Nevertheless, on a few special occasions I’ve heard organists, including Cynthia Pock, open the hymn with an elaborate improvisation and/or end the seventh verse with a improvised key-change modulation, adding further majesty (and mystery) to the last verse!

Eventually, I wondered if other Williams compositions would effect me the same way. I sought out his recordings, read the liner notes, researched more details about his life, and his growth as an English composer. None of his other music gave me shivers, but at least I found the word that most writers used when describing much of music he wrote based on his folk song research—mysterious. Another description for shivers. I felt relieved that at least I wasn’t some sort of religious nut.

I read Simon Heffer’s Williams biography published by Northeastern University Press in 2000 and discovered Williams’ beliefs, or perhaps more precise, his doubts concerning Christianity. At the time Williams wrote his hymn tune for William W. How’s text, “For All the Saints,” he also helped revise the 1906 English, all the while forthrightly acknowledging his agnosticism, even refusing to take communion at the church where he served as organist. I respect Ralph Vaughn Williams for his honest doubt which I think may well be another source of the mystery pervading his compositions. Heffer describes his listening impressions of the first English folk-song Williams collected:

…on first hearing the tune, it strikes the listener as though he has known it all his life. It has the strain of heroic melancholy and profound peace that is religiose without being religious…stripped of sentiment and romanticism. It echoes and represents the mysticism that would become a dominant strain in Vaughn Williams character, a substitute for orthodox religion that would increasingly inform his music.

Yes! What a joy it was to find in someone else’s words a description of what you’ve been shivering, feeling, needing to understand. Thank you, Simon Heffer.

So. Just as I settled back into my driver’s seat to the first orchestral measure of “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” I heard/felt a loud, dull bang-quick wham as my car was rear-ended & I closed my eyes & felt my seat belt tighten & felt the back of my head flap back into the padded headrest & next my head whacked left & hurt hard. I opened my eyes, heard Ralph Vaughn Williams’s music still playing, and I turned off the ignition so my car wouldn’t catch fire. I saw that my driver’s side air bag had deployed like a sad balloon. Two teen age boys were opening my car door and saying “I’m sorry!” “I’m sorry.”

I found my purse still sitting beside me. I grabbed it as the two boys and an older man helped me out of my car which I noticed was now pointing toward home. My head didn’t hurt as much, but my calves stung. And, I knew I was alive and walking to the berm. Minutes later the EMTs from the fire station I had passed a half mile back were paying no attention to the teenage boys, but were taking my blood pressure, asking me my age, counting my heart beat. My blood pressure was 130 over 80. “A little high for me,” I told them, though they assured me “It’s damn good.”

Turns out that the two teen age boys—brothers— were driving at least 60 mph the blue Toyota truck that rear ended me. They never looked up until their cell phones flew from their hands into what must have become part of the pile of glass, metal, and plastic someone swept to the roadside. Also, seems that my car was not only rear ended, but also then thrown into a six inch steel pole on the driver’s side and turned around 180 degrees.

In my wallet I found my Florida driver’s licence, owner’s card, insurance card, copied the boy’s info, used my cell to phone my husband to come take me home, answered the police’s questions, thanked the two witnesses who stayed more than a hour to talk with the police. They had been driving separate cars they swerved out of the way of the heedless brothers.

Magically, a tow truck arrived. The driver handed me his card, then wenched my hunched Honda Fit crookedly up as if he were hoisting an very old man onto a hospital bed. I didn’t cry, but I wished I could. My legs still stung, though my opaque hose were intact. It would be more than 3 months before all my many, many bruises disappeared.

A few days later, I drove a rental Kia Soul to the tow yard to remove my personal effects and licence plate from what had now officially been deemed my totaled Honda. The guys at the yard immediately demanded my ID, checked their list, then stepped back, saying “You’re alive? That’s a car in a world of hurt! When we opened the hood we found that the engine mounts had snapped. The engine was sitting loose, sideways in the engine compartment.”

The guys walked me to my car, removed my crumpled licence plate, helped me retrieve most of my stuff. Strangely, I sit in my dead car’s driver’s seat. The keys hang in the ignition. On a whim I push the CD eject button and out slides “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” Though it’s still a mystery to me why my car’s battery powering that CD player gave my music back to me, I relaxed. I felt the same happiness I had felt a few days earlier when I first placed Williams’ CD into that machine.

I am grateful for Honda’s engineering that keeps the passenger compartment secure during almost any accident, which is why I made the two brothers’ insurance company buy me an new orange 2011 Honda Fit. I also believe that because I was so relaxed, Ralph Vaughn Williams saved my life. Twice.

_____

Scriptorium

by Jim Danger Coppoc

My grandmother used to turn off her hearing aids at what seemed like the oddest times. There are those in my family who considered this an act of passive aggression. The more of herself she lost to dementia, though, the more striking the difference became between those moments the hearing aids were on, and she was fighting through the pain and confusion to make sense of her surroundings, and those moments the hearing aids were off, and her face registered nothing but a perfect, blissful peace.

The world I live in—a world of students and their essays, children and their questions, a marriage by turns on fire and burning down—is chock full of beauty, love, joy, adventure and excitement, and I never have to reach very far to find my gratitude. But sometimes when that beauty comes at me from ninety directions at once, with demands and deadlines attached to every one, I wish I had my grandmother’s hearing aids—those magical instruments that could instantly switch off the noise and bring her back to center.

I think a lot of writers have the same dilemma. We are called to engage fully in life, so that we have something real to write about, but we are also called—sometimes at the same time—to disengage fully so that we can do the work of processing, writing and revisioning our experience.

Ernest Hemingway famously sharpened 20 pencils before each writing session to put himself in the right frame of mind. Willa Cather read the Bible. Best-selling novelist Steve Berry goes in to work early, before anybody else is there, and writes in his laptop. J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in coffee shops because the walk outdoors was what it took to get her infant daughter to sleep.The list goes on—from the hyper-literary to the hyper-popular, writer after writer describes the need for silence. For escape. For a quiet center from which he or she can write.

That’s why this month my project to make myself a better writer was to find a space to escape the rest of my life. A scriptorium. A sanctum sanctorum from which I can put my words out into the world, and in which I can focus only on writing. I rented out a corner of an artsy tattoo shop on a second floor, with high ceilings, exposed brick, and a window overlooking Main Street. I don’t imagine the few lit journals that publish me will pay the rent, so I’ll take on more readings and sell more books to pay for it. I’ll be there 3 mornings a week for as long as I can afford it. With luck, I’ll find the place my grandmother found—my quiet center—and I’ll be able to put something worthwhile out into the world.

_____

Ann Richards

by John Samuel Tieman

I’ve never understood how the people of Texas could have elected George W. Bush over Ann Richards for governor back in the 90’s. Perhaps they got tired of her rancorous wit and wanted to have a simpleton instead. I remember Michael Moore made a film called “TV Nation” in which he went around to all 50 governors to see if he could get a hug. When he approached Ann Richards, she said, “Son, I just lost my re-election. I don’t have to hug you. Hell, I don’t even have to pretend that I like you anymore.” Then, to her everlasting credit, she gave him a hug.

_____

Molly’s Idea Garden

By Susan Kelly-DeWitt

It’s quite nice to be out here in one of Molly’s innovative “cottages,” listening to the sound of the wind, shrubberies brushing the outside walls, branches doing arabesques; feeling a bit like Dorothy just before she’s transported to Oz. There are some garden tools within sight—rakes, a shovel, hoes, crowded into a Wilson golf bag beside one of the tall open windows where a rose climbs and the greens of several trees I can’t name cascade into view.

An old road sign stuck in the lawn says: SEE CLEARLY – DRIVE SAFELY.

I’ve brought my computer along for company; it’s running on battery power alone (like me?)—no internet here today, but Molly says the little room with the green wicker chair I’m snuggled in will have wireless soon. I’ve come to try out the space she has created as a prototype for an artist’s retreat in her half acre back yard, and, if I’m lucky, I’ll also try out a few new ideas of my own.

I might take time to write an overdue letter to an eighty-five year old poet friend who moved to the desert a couple of years ago to be nearer to her children and grandchildren, leaving behind the rich artistic life she had forged here in Sacramento, starting over again in her eighties. Her last letter to me was full of ebullience, detailing her life of poetry and art and projects and people.

She invited me to spend a week or two as her guest in the South of France! in a house that had, as if by magic, been offered to her for an entire year. Her letter also included her new business card, in red with a floral design and her soon-to-be French address and phone number.

I’ve delayed answering because I haven’t had the kind of concentrated time a response to her letter deserves; but I have it now, right here, today, on this windy morning in April, in Molly’s garden, which she was thinking at first of naming Sly Fox Farm but then opted for the cheer of Good Golly Farm instead.

I’ve shifted from the wicker chair to inhabit the modest writing desk tucked in one corner of the “cottage,” so my view of the garden has changed. I can see trumpet vines from here, and the flowers look like clusters of big orange grapes. There’s also a windmill spinning this way and that, like confused thoughts, and what looks like a tomato patch just beginning to sprout.

Nothing to disturb me now—no chores, phone calls, demands; the sounds of branches scraping the roof only energize. For two hours I can be the hermit in her hut on the mountain while life streams by.

Yes. Inside the stillness inside, the wind my heart is is quieting. The white sheers billow slightly and the sound of a jet passes over.

I love Molly’s new idea, to use her wildly creative garden as a retreat, a kind of artist’s day camp—to map out a space for writers and artists to engage for a few hours with group solitude. (I can’t help thinking of Merton in his hermit’s cabin: “The wind comes through the trees, and you breathe it.”)

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Why Are Writers Such Idiots When They’re Writing?

by Dawn Potter

Last night Tom was asking me questions about my western Pennsylvania history-in-verse project–my illogical research; my imaginative process; worst of all, my definition of precision–and all I could do was stammer out inanities. Although he was friendly and interested and ready to have an artist-to-artist conversation, I could not give him any coherent explanation for what sounded, in the air, like a really stupid approach to history, diction, narrative structure, character development, etc., etc.

The moment was disheartening, especially given the fact that we have so little opportunity to talk to one another as colleagues. One or the other of us always seems to be doing the grunt work of living while the other is thieving time and money to muddle with art. We pass the ball back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. At the moment it’s on my side of the court, while he is spending his days dealing with a horrible dog-kennel owner who keeps making him tear down the stuff she asks him to build after she suddenly changes her mind about it. Meanwhile, he’s cold and dogs bark at him all day long.

Nonetheless, he smiles at me when he gets home, and this is one of the enormous gifts of our partnership–that he can, more often than not, still manage to smile at me, even though he knows I’ve been sitting in front of the wood stove reading a page, messing around with five words, staring at the ceiling, drinking tea, staring at the ceiling, drinking more tea, staring at the ceiling, reading a page, and earning no money whatsoever. I fear that, when I’m in the grunt position and he’s in the muddling-with-art position, I am not always so forbearing.

Last night I wanted to assure him that I really was accomplishing something, was moving along effectively, was making something beautiful. What I sounded like was a stammering, slack-jawed time waster.

Dear writer friend, if you were telling me this story, I would staunchly declare: “Of course you feel that way. You’re in the zone. Your brain doesn’t have the capacity to do anything other than create the work right now. It can’t talk about the work. Why expect it to?”

You would sigh and look glum and say an unconvinced voice: “I guess you’re right.”

Yesterday I spoke briefly with my friend Teresa, who is also in the zone. We made a few half-hearted jokes about the things that Real Writers do when they’re in the zone, like forget to take showers and drink too much and absent-mindedly seduce their friends’ spouses. Our chatter was supposed to cheer us up, and it sort of did, in a stammering, slack-jawed, time-waster sort of way.

Although it did remind me that I’d forgotten to take a shower.

_____

Book Review: Electrico W by Herve Le Tellier

Electrico W
Herve le Tellier
Other Books, 2013

Reviewed by Noah Gup

Writing about love inadvertently teeters on the edge of cliché. Typically, the subject is treated as a plot-point, a simple development for the many romance movies that spring up every summer. Herve Le Tellier’s Electrico W (Other Books 2013) is a resounding rebuke to this formula. In most other circumstances, a sad sack journalist running away from a failed relationship would lead to finding love in a new locale. Not so in Herve Le Tellier’s newest book, where relationships do not run smoothly, and people’s emotions are more complex than one-word classifications. Both in its clever meditation on love and even the act of writing about love, Electrico W is a knotty wonder, both intricate in its form and serious in its emotional heft.

Taking place in seven days in Lisbon (each chapter corresponding to a different day), the plot is minimal to say the least. Vincent, the narrator, is a reporter working the Lisbon beat for a French newspaper and is assigned to collaborate with a photographer, Antonio, on the arrest of a recently captured serial killer. The assignment takes the back burner to Vincent and Antonio’s problematic romances and exploration of the city, and the book is made up mostly of a series of conversations and reflections.

It’s a simple concept and the beginning takes off slowly. However, the book comes into focus (in perhaps its loveliest segment) when Antonio describes his first childhood love. It is the shadow of this first love, known only by her nickname Duck, which sets a nostalgic, lovelorn tone that persists throughout the rest of the novel. The segment, beginning with Antonio as a child running to catch the Lisbon tram (named Electrico W), is so charming, and the intensity of their young love so palpable, that its inevitably sour conclusion is wrenching. Vincent, curiosity piqued by Antonio’s past, searches for Duck in Lisbon, while still reconciling with his own history of failed romances. It becomes a kind of personal detective story, where Vincent takes advantage of those around him in an attempt to weasel his way to the truth.

Vincent’s manipulation, while occasionally repulsive, gives the book momentum. As Vincent uncovers more about Duck, the pace picks up and climaxes in a surprising and perfectly understated way. Even though Vincent’s snooping can be uncomfortable, he manages to be a sympathetic character. Jaded from unreciprocated love, his fixation on Antonio’s idyllic relationship with Duck is understandable. Even more, as the book progresses, Vincent reveals more about his dysfunctional family, making him a difficult, but compelling mix of relatable and conniving. Especially in the book’s final chapters, when his tragic history is revealed, the reader roots desperately for Vincent despite his reprehensible actions.

Yet the book is more than just a character exploration. Vincent himself is attempting to write a novel on the fatal duel of the math prodigy Evariste Galois, killed by a man obsessed with Galois’ lover. In another anecdotal story, Vincent recounts his favorite movie in which a boy falls in love with his female companion travelling across France, but ends with a melancholy parting of ways. These reverberations add layers of detail to the apparently straightforward plot. And Vincent’s reporting on the bizarre Lisbon serial killer is intriguing both in its own mysteries (did he do it?) and its connection to the greater story (is there any?). These are the types of giddy, page-scouring questions that arise when reading this book. And while the plot occasionally stumbles into soap-opera territory, as when Antonio’s Lisbon lover encounters his girlfriend visiting from Paris, the layers of meaning make the book into a strangely satisfying puzzle.

Tellier’s masterfully pared-back writing lets the intricacies of his book come forth. It is reserved and often invisible, only drawing attention to itself in snapshots of elegance: “She was describing shapes in the emerald water, ephemeral figures, no two the same, manipulating the bamboo precisely, unhesitatingly. It was as if she was forming letters, writing words long forgotten by the waters but carried to us silently on the shimmering wavelets.” Primarily, he brings his characters to the forefront, and this is what makes Electrico W so riveting. Its writing is disarmingly simple, but its interconnected details and questions require an intense reading.

In the story’s epilogue, which flashes forward several years from Vincent and Antonio’s journey in Lisbon, it is not happily ever after. But it is genuine, and genuinely sad, in its portrayal of relationships decaying with time. Electrico W is a true love story, dealing directly with the uncomfortable aspects of desire. But just as Tellier’s beautiful language occasionally shines through, there are moments, such as Vincent’s meet cute with the comically candid Manuel, that are totally joyous. Even though this friendship doesn’t end as expected, just like Electrico W as a whole, it’s a wonderful journey.

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Returning to the Crazy Ward

by Elizabeth Kirschner

I enter a psych ward, one of the ones I’m so good at staying out of these days and cross the red line. The walls are yellow, like old cellophane, and the floor tiles are gray as dull nail heads. The air smells of old tears, tears that have scabbed over. I walk into the community room to do art therapy. There, the staticky TV is on and the inmates are scattered on chairs and the sofa like crash dummies. Pinned to the community board is a quote from Goethe, the one I had copied, years before when in the lock-up, to paste onto a journal full of inspiring pictures and sayings that I made for my son, Dylan.

I read it aloud, “Whatever you do, or dream you can, BEGIN IT NOW, boldness has genius, power and magic in it: BEGIN IT NOW.” I look around the room in this holding tank for the damned and don’t see a whole lot of boldness or genius before me. Instead, I’m thinking that if fish could be depressed, then I’m in a dime store bowl full of depressed fish. Faces bob, go under, bob, go under again.

“Time to sit in a circle and hold hands,” I say to my unhappy campers while wishing I had a plastic sit-upon for each one. I look at them–poor and heavy as gravestones–but in the lock-up, you do what you are told. Not doing so can isolate you in your room, or worse, it can mean having an armed guard outside your door, so down go the rumps–big ones, scrawny ones, old ones, young ones.

The ward is a true democracy–we are equals in that the Screamer is equal to the Pacer who is equal to the Cutter. The keepers, however, are dictators. No sharps or cords, room checks every ten minutes all night long and the door is always left open.

“Now hold hands.” I say, as though we’re in Romper Room. Fingers lace together like gnarly daisy chains.

“Do you remember the song I taught you?” I go on and receive slow, dopey nods. “Okay, let’s sing it.”

I start up, “Boom, boom,” and a few crackly voices join in–these inmates really do remember.

“Boom, boom,” we all start to chime, “Boom, boom, ain’t it great to be crazy?” We pause, as if to place an exclamation point in a word bubble in the air between us. “Boom, boom,” we begin, again, “Boom, boom, ain’t it great to be crazy, boom, boom ain’t it great to be nuts like us,” I hold my hand, like a baton, for an emphatic moment, then resume, “to be silly and foolish all day long, boom, boom, ain’t it great to be crazy?” We sound pretty good, even though we are starkly off-key. “Again,” I say and the faces of these depressed fish start to lighten, even brighten. We sing the same verse over and over. “Boom, boom ain’t it great to be crazy?” Smiles appear on the blank chasms of the faces around me. “Boom, boom ain’t it great to be nuts like us?” The community room is now afloat with a noisy luminosity; “to be silly and foolish all day long,” a spittle of laughter comes out. “Boom, boom, ain’t it great to be crazy?” A few tooted guffaws. By the end of the next round, we’re all cracking up.

Suddenly, it’s incredibly funny to be crazy. Yes, it’s stupidly funny to be crazy and nuts like us. It’s even loonier to sing about how great it is to be silly and foolish all day long. Maybe, laughing about being crazy has genius and power and magic in it. Surely, it is bold.

_____

Two Theater Reviews: Scarcity by Lucy Thurber and Oedipus and the Foul Mess in Thebes by Sean Graney

Scarcity. By Lucy Thurber. Directed by Justin Zeno. Organic Theater Pittsburgh http://www.organictheaterpgh.org/ in the Studio Theater at the University of Pittsburgh. With Matt Bonacci, Bridget Carey, Hanna. Hannah McGee, Michael Moats, Meagen Reagle, Jaime Slavinsky, and Michael Young. August 8-18th.

Oedipus and the Foul Mess in Thebes. No Name Players, http://nonameplayers.org at Off the Wall Theater, Carnegie, Penna. A world premiere performance of an adaptation from classic Greek dramas by Sean Graney. Directed by Steven Wilson. With Cameron Knight, Ricardo Vila-Roger, Colleen Pulawski, John Garet Stoker, Todd Betker, Patrick Cannon, and Tressa Glover. Music by Ryan McMasters. August 2-17.
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Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

Lucy Thurber is currently getting the unusual recognition of having five of her plays produced simultaneously in New York City, in off-Broadway theaters. These are “The Hilltown Cycle.”[http://www.playbill.com/news/article/181079-Lucy-Thurber-Five-Play-Cycle-The-Hilltown-Plays-Begins-Off-Broadway-Run-Aug-14] This isn’t a hail-and-farewell to a playwright long past her prime—Thurber is in her 40s. Pittsburghers can have a taste of her quality (20 percent of those productions) at Organic Theater’s Scarcity.

There’s a long history in American theater, extending back at least to the early 20th century, of entertaining the classes with the economic troubles and sexual low- and hi-jinks of the masses, particularly the rural masses, which were exotic to the New York audience. Tobacco Road, which I imagine played as a tale of hillbilly degradation, ran for years. Then on a different plane there’s Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Desire Under the Elms.

Organic’s Scarcity falls on a prurience-to-profundity scale between Tobacco Road and Orpheus Descending. There’s a hint of mystery and fate, in a child’s reading of a Tarot pack and her claim to “see,” but I think that’s a red herring. Mostly it’s a realistic (there IS a kitchen sink) melodrama of people who are hard up and pretty hard to take. There’s considerable sexual heat and tension in the play, much to the credit of the main actors and the directors. The gorgeous Jaime Slavinsky (though she’s in jeans, not in the Daisy Mae shorts featured on the poster) and the almost equally gorgeous Matt Bonacci are the fussing, fighting, and fecking parents of two children, a high school student (Michael Young) and the considerably younger Rachel, the talented Hannah McGee. Michael Moats and Meagan Reagle separately visit this family, drawn in by their separate sexual hungers. The role of Moats’ wife (Bridget Carey), when she shows up, seems written for a sit-com.

What’s new about this play? Perhaps that it’s presented from the point of view of the blue-collar people rather than the idealistic but un-self-knowing school teacher (Meagan Reagle) who’s the stranger who comes to town to set the action in motion. Her mouth, expressing distaste, is something to behold. Her stiffness and clumsy condescension make her a cartoon until…Until she turns into Miss Julie. Michael Young, playing the student in whom she takes an interest, is wonderful in both his eagerness and his contempt. Hannah McGee plays Rachel, one of those preternatural children wiser than anyone around her. When she dealt the Tarot for herself, I feared for her life. Jaime Slavinsky makes Martha sympathetic despite her flaws. The father of the family is not.

There’s a whiff of incest.

And the f-bombs fly.

When I saw the set before the beginning of Scarcity, I thought, uh-oh. Is this supposed to be rural degradation? The Jukes and the Kallikaks? Because they don’t have a k-cup coffee brewer and granite countertops? It looks homey. I didn’t think that when I saw the set of Oedipus and the Foul Mess in Thebes. We seemed to be in a hospital that has gone to the dogs. An IV hangs from a pole. A cupboard is open, revealing packages of bandages. The whole playing area is littered with crumpled papers. An unanswered monitor alarm keeps up an irritating beep.

Finally (the beep goes on) the actors file in, face the audience, sing Stephen Foster’s lovely and melancholy “Hard Times Come Again No More,” and exit. That is all that remains of the Greek chorus lamenting the plague that has struck Thebes. For this play—and play is a good word for it—is a mashup of five ancient plays dealing with the cursed family of Thebes and Sean Graney aims to tell the story by any means necessary: to strip away some elements, like the chorus, and the necessity of having messengers narrate offstage action, and to reimagine it as a mixture of tragedy and farce. (Some exposition is handled simply and frankly by one of the actors in a blue spotlight to speak it.)

Once again we have a dysfunctional family, but these people are much better dressed. Beautifully, in fact, in modern dress, with purple for the royals, including a tailored lilac-colored suit for Creon. And beautifully played. I’ve mentioned Cameron Knight before. He has the resonant voice and presence—and the arrogance—to play King Oedipus and is a hoot as a Muhammed-Ali-like Theban champion. Ricardo Vila-Roger is excellent as the cheesy Creon (literally cheesy—he noshes a bag of Cheetos, called “cheese curds” in the script, through most of the play) and Todd Betker as Polynices. Tressa Glover plays multiple roles well. Colleen Pulawski is astonishing as Jocasta and Antigone: beautiful bearing, expressive eyes, fine line readings. John Garret Stoker is fine in two small roles, and Patrick Cannon’s small turn as Eteokles matches Polynices’ inanity.

A couple of years ago I saw a production that married Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida with Thomas Heywood’s The Iron Age to tell the whole story of the Trojan War. Bad idea, though it had some striking moments. It didn’t last ten years, but it lasted too long. I feared that this play would do the same—not only incorporating all three plays of Sophocles’ Theban cycle (many literature majors will remember Oedipus and Antigone, not so many will remember Oedipus at Colonnus) but also adding material from Aeschylus and Euripides. I was wrong. It’s not quite The Reduced Shakespeare Company, but it dispatches Jocasta and Oedipus’ eyes quite rapidly and moves on to Oedipus and Antigone in exile. And holds our interest for the rest of the evening. (Geekily, I read Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes the morning after I saw it and I can report that Graney’s adaptation is very free—and cunning—indeed.)

Oedipus’ arrogance and Creon’s truckling are established by Oedipus’ repeating “I solved the riddle of the Hellbitch” [the Sphinx] and Creon’s invariably and quickly responding, “And that was terrific”—or “splendid.” That’s farcical. As is Haemon’s, “What is it with this family?” Though it isn’t the Reduced Shakespeare Company, it has in common with RSC that it loves the plays and it nudges them in the ribs from time to time as only a lover can do.

(A shout-out to Don DiGiulio, scenic design, Kate Mitchell, costume design, and Eve Bandi, lighting design.)

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Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
by Rachel Joyce
Random House, 2012

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

When he woke up, retired 65-year-old Harold Fry probably didn’t know that he would be the man who would walk 500 miles to see a dying friend. Yet that is exactly what happens in Rachel Joyce’s national bestseller, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Although there is nothing spectacular or riveting about this story, it piques readers’ curiosities.

It begins when Harold and his wife Maureen’s lives are drastically altered after they receive a letter from Queenie, a former co-worker who is dying of cancer. Harold steps out to mail a brief response, unsure of how to express everything that remained unsaid between them. He eventually believes that if he walks the 500 miles up England to see her before she dies, she will wait just long enough. The extra challenge is that Harold travels with only the clothes on his back and a pair of yachting shoes. As he puts one foot in front of the other, readers will find themselves walking with him—comparing his life to theirs and wondering if they, too, could do what he has undertaken.

In an interview at the back of the book, Joyce states, “I tend to write about small, ordinary people who find themselves at an extraordinary point in their lives, equipped with only small, everyday words” (332). Although she never stops reminding readers that Harold is an ordinary man in an extraordinary position, she uses his small, everyday words to showcase flaws and limited knowledge, which is complemented by self-deprecating memories. After a while, Harold realizes that he’s walking not only to keep Queenie alive, but also to atone for his sins. Joyce writes:

“Why must he remember? He hunched his shoulders and drove his feet harder, as if he wasn’t so much walking to Queenie as away from himself” (70).

His journey is particularly haunting because, for a long time, he only has the road and his thoughts. As he meets new people, readers witness how thoroughly each person shapes his view of the world and grafts pieces of them into his being. Joyce writes:

“He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passerby, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went” (90).

England represents one of Harold’s dominant encounters. It plays such a prominent role in the story that place itself becomes a character. Harold has been detached from the world for most of his life and is suddenly thrust into it. Despite his solitude throughout the journey, he finds a companion in nature and begins to prefer it to people. Through his close observations of England’s landscape, weather, and vegetation, Harold develops almost profound wisdom. In addition, natural occurrences remind him of events in his life just as often as people do. Joyce writes:

“It surprised him that he was remembering all this. Maybe it was the walking. Maybe you saw even more than the land when you got out of the car and used your feet” (43).

In this way, Joyce is teaching readers to explore their environments. She is commenting on the amount of knowledge that one can gain from a simple walk, and that nature can provide exactly what readers may be missing in their lives.

The journey changes when the media becomes involved and transforms a simple walk into a star-crossed love story with Queenie—“a perfect love story.” And yet, his walk is all about love: for his wife, his son, and for his friend. The difference between the love is the form: romantic, paternal, and platonic. Despite the media being portrayed in a corruptive light with a touch of group think, it may have had the story right this time—it just concentrated on the wrong form of love.

As the story repeatedly references the distance Harold needs to walk, readers may find themselves constantly humming “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers. The song’s comparison becomes particularly poignant because “you” could mean alternately Queenie and Maureen. Despite no romantic affair occurring, readers can be certain that Harold loved Queenie in his own bumbling and quiet way that never touched his consuming love for Maureen and their son, David.

In the end, when the readers think they know everything, Joyce punches them in the heart. She finally resolves a piece of dramatic irony that was the catalyst of the whole story. This information surprises the characters, and readers are left saying, “Well, duh.” But then Joyce unveils the heartbreaking ace up her sleeve, the piece of information that readers never see coming. It lifts a rosy lens from the readers’ perspectives and reveals a taint on every memory and piece of dialogue about just one character. The information sweeps back and changes the entire story, leaving readers shocked, dismayed, and sympathetic.

This is the type of book that, upon finishing, will make readers set it down and ponder in silence for awhile. Readers may find that the story crept up like the tide, swept over them, and tugged them out to sea. And they can either go with the current, or surface and forget the book’s lessons. It’s just a book, after all. A simple thing anyone can pick up. Much like walking.
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Dance Review: Sidra Bell Dance New York In ‘Garment”

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Sidra Bell is more than a choreographer; she is a philosopher who thinks deeply about life and art. In addition to her MFA in choreography, she holds a degree in history from Yale, lectures at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and was an adjunct professor at Barnard College. Her smarts come through in the dances she makes, but not in a traditional or predictable way.

Bell first worked with the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in 2009 for the newMoves festival. Since then she has been back several times, in various locations. Last week, she and her dancers rehearsed a brand new piece at the Alloy Studios that will premiere in the spring of 2014. To culminate the week-long residency, her performers showed the work-in-progress, “Garment,” on Friday.

The dance was mainly about identity, specifically how we shift identities. Audience seating was not only in the round, but a few chairs were situated right in the middle of the dance floor, to allow for more active viewing.

“The passivity of culture bothers me, and affects how I approach dance,” Bell says. The seating arrangement worked to fit her goal. The five dancers weaved in and around the chairs, approaching the audience directly, breaking our perceived personal space, and sometimes even touching us. “Touch is a strange phenomenon in our society,” she says, admitting that she considers dance making a place to break rules and “misbehave.”

Lucky for the company, our Pittsburgh dance community was up for it. One woman watched intently as a dancer crawled onto the empty chair next to her. Another seemed totally at ease when a dancer sat in her lap.

Most of the thirty-minute piece was that up close and personal. Much of it was a whirlwind of frenetic solo movement. And although there is truth in the saying, “everything in art has already been done,” there were some truly unique moments.

Dancer and Associate Artist Director of the company, Alexandra Johnson, had a wild solo that half resembled krumping with her free, hard-hitting and uninhibited style. Slower partnering phrases seemed to happen accidentally, the dancers molding into each other.

At one point, the performers manipulated one another in slow, hypnotic waves, adjusting body parts, clothing and even hair. Because there was so much to see, in every part of the studio (Bell likes to “split focus”), the one unison phrase was deeply satisfying.

It will be fascinating to see how the piece changes and grows from now until next spring. As always, the dance community will welcome Sidra Bell Dance New York back to Pittsburgh with an eager and open mind.

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What’s the Most Important Punctuation?

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 petulantly
they burn down barns they cant
bug they listn to our politikul
ledrs phone conversashuns what
cud 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 different
i’m ugly and you know it too
you just smiling to make me feel better
but 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.

[Draft excerpt from my forthcoming book The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014).]

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Book Review: Puerto Rico By Alejandro Ventura

Puerto Rico
By Alejandro Ventura
Brooklyn Arts Press, 60 pages, $15
ISBN-13: 978-1-936767-15-1

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

When it comes to oceanic feelings, novelists reach for fishing poles and poets reach for binoculars. Being the latter, I’ve spent my life trying to find a pile of dirt in the high seas. I want to build a fire on it. Combine the five ancient elements into one miraculous instant. But this god-damned planet—earthly rotations and lunatic revolutions aren’t kind to lumps of firmament. Tides, waves, and currents wreak their petty havoc by the minute. That pile is gone in a blink. Along comes Alejandro Ventura. He was born on a pile of dirt in the ocean. It was a big one. It had mountains. It had a race track. Puerto Rico. Rich Harbor. Heaven of intimacy. Where his body grew inside his mother’s body before leaving her womb face first. And then the pile of dirt was gone and just like that the whole world became a subdivision in New Jersey.

Ventura’s debut collection of poems Puerto Rico is slim without being slight, intelligent without being “smart.” He signals that his journey is backward and forward to intimacy—to Puerto Rico—early in the going. In “Beginnings” he writes “I don’t understand the winter. / Blindly, I felt for things that made life bearable” and “The land is fallow here. The animals can sense your guilt.” Ventura doesn’t play games with his lines the way some poets use gaps or step down enjambments or a sickness of commas which tell the reader when to breathe. He assumes we’ve got the breathing part nailed and instead breaks his lines with a maul—a sentence, a sentence, a sentence. The heavy downward energy keeps our feet moving so that we don’t lose a toe. “Beginnings” continues, “The only decent way to die is in your lover’s arms… / An oath is sworn, perilously close to intimacy.”

“A Waiting” is like several poems in this collection, a good one, but also one where the speaker focuses in, controls the shot and just at the moment of genuine intimacy, pulls back one curtain:

What remained, when last we swam at Sandy Hook

and were embarrassed by nudity?

We got lost somewhere along the beach,

and yet, as Deleuze says, no sense of falling explains the face in vertigo.

Like Fontana’s Attese, black gauze supports the canvas.

Brothers abide and are divided.

One remembers the gesture that makes the wound,

but this explains nothing of our lives together.

Who can say when a duration has occurred,

as when the grass becomes a field?

It has nothing to do with color, and is timeless.

For instance, why do I mention that day at the beach?

I love this poem. It’s a single-room apartment but it feels so big with its space and time and involuntary memory. The speaker’s self-conscious note which ends the poem has cousins in many of these searching laments. At times the whole poem seems drunk and Ventura’s sober thinking voice slips past. At others, the poems are very sober and his glancing remark seems a little buzzed, as if the intimacy had gotten too real or scary and a little distance was needed to help him find the rail. In “You Are Either Making Mangu or Something Else Entirely” his un-analytic description of place is smoldering: “There is an American tower along the mountain pass to Las Marias / and a Spanish one overlooks the bay at Guanica. / Perhaps they communicate, by pigeon or raven. / Wait, are there ravens on the island? Someone call an ornithologist.”

True, Ventura does address his own contrary side, so it’s not as if I’m calling him out. He calls himself out with such lines as “Free and whole, with no more cynicism than was necessary” and “the only thing you know at death is disbelief” and “no one can disabuse you if you don’t believe in anything, / and merely go about yourself, collecting postcards” and “as if the Apocalypse will grant us a sense of belonging.” In fact, the greatest barrier to arriving at intimacy—which means language and place and seduction—is to believe it can still exist. Ventura doesn’t believe it in most of these poems, but in a few he does, and the results may drop you to the ground. In “Culebra” the poet’s body absorbs his whole loss, nurses teasing him about his round ass after a game of stickball goes awry:

To feel the body’s weight descend the hill with the lesser island above you.

Sunscreen oil eases along the fingernails, which ease along the curve

of the thigh line. The waves continue to cylinder on land.

When your mother dies your fingertips roll into the rosary,

beads being so unlike music. This is a general rule

not unlike the one in the hospital in La Vega, where young women

tell you how round your ass is, after a stickball

lofted into the neighbor’s lawn spiked your arm into an iron finial,

to paint it with a skin of rust and clear your mind of sound.

There’s something I cannot get past, reading Ventura, which is that over fifty years later I still live close to where I came out face-first. His thousand mile wound seems so much bigger than my little ten mile mishap. I’ve driven the wound countless times—it’s on the way to the Post Office and the Feed Store. I’ve walked those miles and ridden horses back and forth, and even though my “Puerto Rico” is so much nearer to me (even on cloudy nights I see its lights), the intimacy is no easier to grasp. I wish for it, too, and I think that’s the story Ventura has walked all of us into. Maybe this is why I sometimes get moist approaching the outskirts of Hampstead. In Ventura I have a brother, and maybe we’ll fight now and then about what it means to be a poem but it’s nice to have him sharing some of the heavy lifting, the big dead weight of not believing anything, or else the little one pound weight of a rum bottle as we share sips off the rim.

I guess what I’m saying is, I liked this book and I look forward to the next.

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Young and Cheery

by Publius

So I say to my student teacher, ‘I know what my teaching looks like compared to the other teachers in my building. I see Art The Art Teacher and Mr. North and the others in these halls. But how do I compare to other supervising teachers? They’re like in other buildings, other school districts. I’m almost the only one around here. So when other student teachers talk about their supervisors, how do I compare?’

He thinks very seriously.

‘Well, the others say their supervisors are young, cheery and uplifting. But you, well, you’re none of those things.’

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Teaching my Son Magic

by Elizabeth Kirschner

I am cooking, cutting potatoes for kale soup as my little family loves kale soup. I am cutting potatoes for kale soup, the peels slick, wet autumn leaves, their meat white as cornstarch when, suddenly, the knife flies out of my hand. It flies out of my hand while a strange wizardry fires up my arm to storm my body. Quick as breath, I go down onto the floor, am a kite, wind-knocked and sky-shattered. Wind-knocked and sky-shattered, I go down and here I am, limbs flailing in a full-blown seizure. Limbs flailing, I’m half on, half off the orange rug with night animals on it–black owls, black cats, black crows.

Half on, half off, the orange rug with the night animals on it–black owls, black cats, black crows, I’m in a full-blown seizure. God scurries like a mouse into a cellar hole, becomes its teeth chattering in darkness. God is the mouse’s teeth chattering in darkness and God is the minuscule skull my young son found in the garden, then capped onto his finger–a finger puppet! God is a finger puppet and I, limbs flailing, a marionette jerked by invisible strings.

A marionette jerked by invisible strings, I stare up into the skylight as though it were a spyglass. Perfect! I think, It’s time to play I Spy! I want to shout, I spy black owls! I want to shout, I spy black cats! to shout, I spy black crows in their priestly robes, but I can’t because I can’t speak when in a seizure, let alone shout. And so, I spy nothingness, the abyss and the loneliness that saddens molecules, but I do not spy God, no, I never spy God when in a full-blown seizure.

But I do I spy, yes, I spy my young son, not God, sitting down beside me. Six or seven, he is sitting cross-legged alongside where I flail, half on, half off the orange rug with the night animals on it. Six or seven, my young son feeds me my meds like teeny-weeny communion tablets. My young son, not God, feeds me teeny-weeny communion tablets, then opens a book to read out loud until the meds kick in.

What he starts to read out loud are not fairytales, no, they are not fairytales full of magical enchantment, they are almost fairytales and fairly stupid ones at that. Surely my illness is not a fairytale, nor an almost fairytale, but it is a fairly stupid one. Surely, my stupid fairytale isn’t full of magical enchantment, but bewitchment.

My young son reads, The hen is screaming. My young son reads, The hen is screaming, “Who will plant the wheat?” Clearly, I’m not screaming because I can’t speak let alone scream, nor can I plant the wheat. My young son keeps reading: now the hen is running to Chickin Lickin, screaming, The sky is falling!. Now she runs to Ducky Lucky, then Goosy Lucy, screaming, The sky is falling! We must tell the President!

Not screaming, nor speaking, I am spying the skylight and what I spy is that the sky is not falling, the sky is definitely not falling in my fairly stupid fairytale, so there is no need to tell the President. I, however, have fallen into a seizure. Not only have I fallen now, I have fallen many times before and will fall many times again, yet I do not need to tell the President. I do need to tell God, but I can’t speak and only hear his mice teeth chattering in darkness. Did I scare God when I went into seizure? Is that why he scurried into a cellar hole? If I did, I understand, because I scare myself, too, but why didn’t I scare my young son?

Maybe I didn’t scare my young son because he is the narrator in this fairly stupid tale. As the narrator in this fairly stupid fairytale, he says, “Yo, just come,” to the frantic hen. Where just where, yo, does he want the frantic hen to go? I want to go with the frantic hen, but how can I when I’m seizing. Yo, I want to ask, Just where, yo, do you want us to come? but I can’t.

I want to go, yo, with the frantic hen to where, yo, my young son wants her to because that might be the kingdom come. I want to go to the kingdom come because, yo, the littlest angel might be there to cure me, the frantic hen, of my illness. If, yo, the littlest angel cured me, the frantic hen, in the kingdom come then our fairly stupid tale would have a fairly happy ending.

But, before we get to kingdom come where, yo, the littlest angel could cure me, my young son stops reading the fairly stupid fairytale. He stops reading the fairly stupid tale to lay his hands upon me. When he lays his hands upon me, he is more patient than sorrow and I praise him. I praise him and I praise his hands, the palms plump as small buttocks. I praise his hands and their sweat, light as the drizzle glazing the skylight.

The light drizzle glazing the skylight is a hard sugar. My seizing body is hard sugar, too, but when my young son lays his hands upon me, the hard sugar starts to melt. When the hard sugar starts to melt my toes go quiet, like ten small peninsulas. My toes, like ten small peninsulas go quiet, are bathed in dawns smelling of basements and plums.

Smelling of basements and plums, my son’s hands multiply, like loaves and fishes. Like loaves and fishes, they are everywhere on my body. Everywhere on my body, my legs, go quiet, then my back and neck. Even my heart goes quiet. My heart goes quiet, is a genie back in its bottle. When my heart goes quiet and is a genie back in its bottle, the bewitchment ends. When the bewitchment ends, so does the fairly stupid tale and then, the magical enchantment can begin.

When the magical enchantment begins, I get up off the floor, brush crumbs and fish scales off my apron and bow slightly before my young son. I praise him, then go back to slicing potatoes for the kale soup. Yes, I praise him and I praise the kale soup, but I do not praise God. I praise his likeness, here in my kitchen, my kingdom come, happy that this kingdom come has a fairly happy ending.

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Waking Up To my Sister

by Aubrey Woodward

My 18-year-old sister and I recently had our wisdom teeth removed, both of us receiving general anesthesia almost simultaneously. With only three years between us, she and I have shared the majority of our experiences, some of which have not necessarily fostered our relationship. At an early age she played the victim while I remained in a state of constant frustration. Sensitive to the point of being volatile, she controlled our family with her discontent. My mother remembers me asking, “Can we get rid of her?” a question as comical now as it was seriously considered then, or at least within the confines of my young mind. Our clothes, hair and even our friends somehow managed to align, details that only heightened my distemper. Even as we grew older, our personalities failed to discover solace in one another; her aggression could not understand my passivity, and the chaos she seemed to allow disrupted the order I worked to maintain.

Awake from the general anesthesia and existing in a state somewhere outside lucidity, I sat quite anxiously in a room with my mother. Between mention of the numbness in my face and the frantic concern I fostered toward the IV in my arm, I managed a question about my sister. I know this because, as any good parent would, my mother recorded me and my sister following the procedure. The question emerged through a struggle between my bleeding mouth and the bizarre rolls of cotton working to prevent that same bleeding. My eyes opened as if some unseen force of dentistry had allowed me to make my discovery: “Jude?” I asked. And again, louder, “Jude,” adding as many extra syllables as necessary to clarify the issue. Jude is not, in fact, my sister’s name, but rather, a nickname with a long history that excludes anyone outside my immediate family. Regardless, I wanted to know where my sister was; I needed confirmation of her existence. Down the hall, with even less control over her concept of reality, my sister asked the same question, her eyes pleading with my mother. Admittedly, wisdom teeth removal is not life-threatening, nor did it force me to question the health of my sister, but in my most primordial and inarticulate state — one in which I emphatically suggested that undergoing surgery was a “blast” — I needed my sister. I needed to see her, speak with her, laugh with her; I needed her to live our shared experience.

While it has taken me nearly 21 years of existence, some bloody cotton and the lovely effects of modern medicine to fully comprehend the ubiquity of our connection, I do not discredit the often painstaking moments of disconnection we battled to establish the strength of our relationship. The years of fighting, of misunderstanding, of struggle and of impassioned tears have allowed me to know my sister — more so than anyone ever will. She has taught me the value of reciprocity, for not only do I recognize her admiration in me, but I also hope to consistently convey my complete adoration for her. The three years that supposedly grant me wisdom above her do not eliminate my faults, nor do they elevate my own qualities. I see in my sister a charisma, a power and a magnetic vibrance that I can only hope to emulate. It is as though these characteristics, these desired aspects inherent to her, fill the void of my being so as to complete me. And in this way, the script tattooed on my back in the words of E.E. Cummings truly adheres to the purpose of its design: “i carry your heart with me,” as my shoulder blade reads, finds its continuation on the left side of my sister’s back, “i carry it in my heart.”

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Book Review: The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood is a quiet exploration of womanhood within the confines of damaged relationships. Readers are rocked between eras as they learn about love and grief throughout the novel’s parallel plotlines, which interchange between chapters.

In 1919, Vivien is a “spinster” mistress who believes that her married lover, David, suffered from amnesia after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. She is unable to move on until she uncovers his fate, which colors every decision in her life. She uses her grief to fuel her unconventional obituary writing that is renowned for “her gift for bringing the dead to life.”

In 1961, Claire is a dutiful housewife who realizes that her routine-based marriage is stagnant and unfulfilling; that she’s falling out of love with her husband, Peter; and that she is attracted to one of her married neighbors. She cheats on her husband, learns that she’s pregnant, and spends the rest of the book trying to make amends while being obsessed about Jackie Kennedy and the impending Presidential inauguration.

But the story is more about loss than cheating women. Without integrating Kübler-Ross’s five stages, Hood explores what should be said and done to help the bereaved and while grieving. Hood’s writing is honest and blunt. For example, she splatters descriptions of grief’s effects throughout the story.

Grief makes people guilty. Guilty for being five minutes late, for taking the wrong streetcar, for ignoring a cough or sleeping too soundly. Guilt and grief went hand in hand (32).

Grief paralyzed you…. It prevented you from getting out of bed, from moving at all. It prevented you from even taking a few steps forward (101).

The grief-stricken want to hear the names of those they’ve lost. To not say the name out loud denies that person’s existence. People seeking to comfort mourners often err this way. They lower their eyes at the sound of the dead’s name. They refuse to utter it themselves (103).

To fight off these side-effects, the novel mentions the concept of comfort food, be it the dinner parties Claire attends or Vivien’s use of tea, water, wine, broth, toast, cheese and crackers, cookies, or fruit. Vivien also believes that the proper way to show support to loved ones is to maintain their household for them instead of asking to help.

Hood is also masterful at nestling readers inside each woman’s mind in order to experience other characters through emotional lenses. She doesn’t allow readers to make their own decisions about the lovers and husbands; they hate as the women hate, love as they love, and fear for each fleeting encounter. Hood also adeptly represents various aspects of womanhood: being a mother, an aunt-type figure, a wife, a cheating wife, a mistress, a best friend, and a daughter.

In addition, Vivien and Claire are excellent foils for each other—both “other women” but for different reasons with different lifestyles. Vivien is strong and financially independent; she had a secure life alone before and after David with no social stress to get married. Claire is uncertain, weak, and apologetic; her life is tied to her family, partially due to society’s condemnation of wayward women. The main similarity between the two women is their emotional insecurity, both over the loss of a lover.

Although Hood displays excellent research of the separate eras—such as habits, specific brand items, and culture—the women seem to clash with the time-frames’ expectations. Vivien in 1919 seems to have more freedom without consequences than Claire in 1961. But what changed between the freedom of the Roaring ’20s and the dependency of the ’60s? It’s doubtful that Vivien realistically has that much freedom coming out of the Victorian era. And Claire lives in a society past 1940 and WWII when women became more involved with society and industry. Did society backtrack so much in 20 years? Culture is about to shift into an era of sexual freedom and equality, yet Claire is embarrassed from having an orgasm with her husband. Hood tries to explain this with a lengthy rundown of lessons Claire learned from her mother.

Claire came from a generation of women who did not question things. A generation raised by women who didn’t question. Before her mother died… she’d taught Claire the things she believed a woman needed to know: always wear a hat to keep the sun off your face so you don’t get wrinkles; moisturize every day; never to go bed with your makeup on; … a man likes soft hands; always get up before your husband so you can do your own morning routine in private, make yourself look pretty, and have his breakfast ready when he wakes up; keep up on current events; agree with your husband’s opinion, even if you think he’s a horse’s ass for believing that; … know how to sew a hem, darn a sock, replace a button—those skills will make you indispensable; … never refuse your husband’s sexual desires; … and Claire, honey, love goes out the window when there’s no money (181).

The list deftly illustrates the position that women were in during the early ’60s: they existed to look pretty for men, cook for men, and live for and submit to their men. Without question. Claire’s marital problems occur because she begins to ask questions and make no exceptions for her husband’s flaws. Only her guilt makes her silently acquiesce to him by way of apology instead of leaving.

Although these women are foils living in different eras, their connection is revealed toward the end of the story, which provides an intriguing moment of bonding and recognition. It also makes readers satisfied after encountering subtle hints and dramatic irony. As one story ends and another begins a new stage, the closure between the characters and the readers is complete—all questions are answered after a gentle goodbye, and Hood ends the novel there.
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Book Review: Any Deadly Thing by Roy Kesey

Any Deadly Thing
by Roy Kesey

Reviewed by Noah Gup

From its first lines, Kesey’s collection paints an unforgiving, even cruel, portrait of the world. A father attempts to cut his daughter’s hair. She screams, he grabs her, she bites him and runs off. As an opening sequence, it’s far from inviting, but Kesey’s keen sense of immediacy gives the action a primal, documentarian styled thrill. Later in the story, as the tension and violence escalates (as happens in many of the stories in this collection), it is Kesey’s devotion to character that keeps the story from veering into absurdity. At its core, the story is about a father and his daughter, and despite some unreal circumstances, Kesey’s collection

Dzanc Books 2013) is an intimate portrait of flawed people in search of redemption.

Familial and marital bonds are at the center of most of these stories, specifically the role of father and husband. Kesey’s intense situations demonstrate the limits of these connections, showing how strained relationships reaffirm and challenge notions of marriage and family. Often, they can be simultaneously disheartening and affirming, where his broken families (as in “Stillness”) manage to build bridges between generations only to burn the same bridges down. Yet the frequency of domestic drama and dysfunctional relationships is exhausting and ultimately makes several stories thematically redundant.

If the subject matter verges on monotony, the range of settings creates vivid distinctions between each story. Whether describing meth-infested backwoods or the protocol for handling attempted muggings in the capital of Paraguay (“if you do not let go, they will often scatter”), Kesey imbues the vast range of locales with tangible details.

The vividness of each location is due to Kesey’s beautiful, careful prose. Even in his simplest stories, bits of elegant language elevate the strained plot: “Northern California, he repeats, holding the words in his mouth like hummingbird eggs”. The collection’s best stories are its most eccentric stories, where his elegant writing is able to take center stage. In “Asuncion,” the narrator falls for his attempted mugger, only to begin a sexually charged, cat-and-mouse chase. Kesey’s narration perfects the line between affection and malice, dialing up the dread as the narrator’s actions become less altruistic and more predatory. In “Today/Tomorrow,” perhaps the collection’s strongest story, a man attempts to save his lover from an unknown stalker, the true hero is Kesey’s surreal, magical language. The story is a dream turned nightmare, delicately detailed throughout: “the birch trees spread their arms, hang like thieves, past you the cars ring and ring and the museum walls are a shadow box, headlights kaleidoscoping through the leaves, the wall sings with monochrome flurry and the accordion girl has stopped.”

In stories bound in reality, Kesey’s penchant for dramatic intensity occasionally undercuts his stories. In “Stillness,” a soap opera’s worth of family drama is condensed into a day of hunting, and the screaming conclusion feels awkwardly rushed. While the hunting sequence is riveting, the final twist derives its tension from dramatic clichés, sabotaging the story’s previously measured pace. In other stores, such as “Levee,” there is solid, tangible tension between father and son. However, Kesey shifts quickly between details of past and present, making the story ultimately feel haphazardly constructed. “Bloodwood,” whose powerful emotional core is the narrator’s connection with a wayward, drug-addled boy, is diluted by descriptions of his pet monkey and time working on the local radio station. There are powerful moments in nearly every story, but these often lose steam amid waves of unrelated details.

But when his stories are cohesive and tension is dialed up slowly, it is often breathtaking. In “Shadow Leaving Body,” what begins as a tale of a Japanese man’s futile attempts to find peace and quiet ends in an emotional gut-punch that is both tragic and humane. In “Scree,” a father lays with his sick son, attempting to fight off both dreams and his son’s sickness. Despite the fluid shifting between dreams and reality, the father’s devotion to his son is strikingly intimate: “the father starts rubbing his sons back, in case it helped, in case it helps.” And there are lighter stories, like the comic tale of an obsessive ornithologist who insists on studying hummingbirds or the downright romantic “Probably Somewhere,” that relieve the reader from the dark subject matte.

The collection’s final story, “Stump,” exemplifies the power and flaws of his collection as a whole. Describing a town schlump who follows a firemen call to help “a horse in a stump,” It’s overlong, elegantly written, and with an ending that is equal parts absurd and satisfyingly optimistic. Like his characters, Kesey’s collection isn’t perfect, but there is enough wrenching moments and lovely language to make a reader both exhausted and enthused by both the tense struggle and the faint glimmer of hope.

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Education And The Politics Of Shaming

By John Samuel Tieman

A fellow teacher, a friend from California, asked a question of a workshop presenter. The teacher began in a self-deprecating manner, but the presenter immediately interrupted, saying, “There are no stupid questions, only stupid teachers.”

An art teacher, in rural Missouri, was told at a faculty meeting that her subject was not important, because art was not on the state examination.

A young friend was a principal in a large Eastern district. She wearied of being publicly humiliated for her school’s low standardized test scores. Why? Her’s was an alternative school for children with emotional disorders and learning disabilities. She now teaches in a small private school in rural Vermont.

During the recent Chicago teachers’ strike, I was struck by the educators’ repeated call for “Respect”. There were many issues. But “We want respect!” was the mantra.

Public education is an oppressed profession. This oppression is not about poor working conditions, rowdy students, or even low pay. Some misfortune is expected everywhere. This oppression takes the form of shaming. No one gets their teacher’s certificate, only to be forced to deliver “teacher proof education”, lessons that are entirely scripted from “Hello” to “Good-bye.” Shaming is the most underestimated condition in public education today.

There is no one issue that accounts for this humiliation. It must be viewed as a gestalt, a totality, what amounts to a system of shaming.

A principal works a year without a contract. Part of the justification for giving standardized tests is that teachers’ observations are not trusted. A first year teacher has 177 students, and one free period every other day. Professional development is generally inane. A sixth grade teacher weeps outside her room, because that class has 42 students. Teachers have to answer for the economic conditions of Wisconsin. A high school lost two-thirds of its staff due to cut-backs, although the student population is steady. Because of test scores, states conclude that schools will be closed, districts discontinued, that these educators will never amount to anything. These instances are drawn from folks I know around the country. A similar list could be drawn from almost any one school.

I could fill a dozen pages with hundreds of such instances, no one of which would account for this sense of humiliation. But put it all together.

Shaming is not about a fault. Shaming says that there is something elementally wrong with the person. What makes shaming so damaging is that the central message is not about a fault. Shaming is about how the person is elementally constituted. It is the difference between “You didn’t prepare that lesson well”, and “You’re stupid and will never amount to anything.” Of vital importance here is the fact that shame is not just about an aspect of the self. It is about the whole of the self. It is not about a poorly prepared lesson plan. The whole of the self is stupid. Allow me to illustrate this difference on a most personal level.

Around the middle of last September, Tomyko refused to call me “Sir”. It was not so much what he said, as much as the insolent attitude he took before the whole class. So I gave him three days in-house suspension. But I worried about our relationship. As I wrote him up in the hallway, away from the gaze of the other students, I quietly explained my feelings – not my actions, my feelings. Knowing he knows the expression, I used the cliché, “hate the sin but love the sinner”. Although I did not say it, I distinguished for him the difference between guilt and shame, the guilt, in a very few words, being about the deed, whereas shame is about the person. Just before he went to the office, I added, ‘We’re still cool, right?’ He gave me “a bump”, a kind of handshake. To insure the continuance of our dialogue, I visited him in “in-house”. I left him a book, the one we were reading in class. My hope was that the book acted as an object that signified our relationship, even though I was not present. Tomyko became an A student. Perhaps more importantly, on several occasions he chose to confide in me several significant personal problems. Had I shamed him, our relationship undoubtedly would not have continued on any level except the most pro forma.

Public education is an oppressed profession. One source of oppression is shaming. “Respect” is easily said. But to dismantle this shaming, that will take a national dialogue.
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