Still Cooking

by Nola Garrett

I live in downtown Pittsburgh alone. And, the two questions I’m asked nearly every day are “Where do you grocery shop?” & “What do you eat?” Always in that order. I don’t know if Manhattan or Tampa Bay single residents get these questions often, but I do know that Pittsburghers believe eating, family, and neighborhood are so intertwined that one might starve to death without all three—sort of like a toothless Eskimo widow on an ice floe drifting out to sea. I feel my questioners’ imagined pain, but I’m still eating balanced, home-cooked meals. Probably helps that I’m an introverted writer who loves to cook.

Cooking for one has posed for me an interesting challenge. While I do admit my first couple of weeks alone consisted of bowls of Cheerios and Stouffer’s mac & cheese, both salted with my tears. Restaurants are plentiful downtown, but eating out was too expensive in many, many ways. Parts of my new lone life soon dragged me all over the Pittsburgh area into The Strip District and out past lots of grocery stores. Out of curiosity I stopped in, discovered something new each time: smaller grocery carts, smaller stores, small cans of whole artichoke hearts, fresher spices, Mrs. T’s potato, spinach & feta pierogies, pints of coconut ice cream, ethnic bakeries, lower priced fresh vegetables and fruits, white Stilton with mango and candied ginger, frozen fish filets individually wrapped. I could do that! I could buy a pack of boneless pork chops, put each chop into a sandwich-sized zip bag and freeze it. I also bought Shake ‘n Bake for Pork.

While a chop thaws in cold water, I turn on the oven to 425 F, clean and thick-slice a few fresh veggies—carrots, parsnips, squashes of all sorts, new potatoes, small turnips, egg plants, fennel bulbs, Brussels sprouts, or sweet onions—place them on a foil wrapped pizza pan sprayed with olive oil. I toss the now thawed chop in a baggie with a couple of tablespoons worth of Shake ‘n Bake, then re-spray the veggies, and put the pan in the oven. Twenty minutes later I am eating supper with NBC’s Brian Williams wry humor and his shameless love for all good dogs.

Next, I got hungry for pasta with homemade sauce, but I didn’t want to make a regular big batch of tomato sauce, even though I knew I could freeze it in small batches. Frozen tomato sauce takes a long time to thaw, and it discolors most plastic containers. What I craved was a freshly made small sauce. I happened upon a copy of Real Simple Magazine, featuring quick meals that included a recipe for tomato sauce made from canned whole tomatoes. As I read I realized that I could easily cut the size of that sauce by using only one 14.5 oz. can of tomatoes, but what pot did I own that was small enough and heavy enough to make a good cooked down sauce? None.

That same week Macy’s had a sale on 2 ½ quart Bella enameled cast iron pots. Quickly, I cut from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a Wow! Pass, walked up to Macy’s, took the escalator to the 6th floor, and that evening I had the best tasting pasta I’ve had in more than 20 years.

All you need is enough olive oil to cover the bottom of your pot, 2 or 3 cloves of garlic roughly chopped then sautéed in the oil, a 14.5 oz can of Giant Eagle tomatoes, drained into the hot garlic oil mixture. Next, you smush the tomatoes with your hands over your sauce pot. (I know it’s messy but it gets the best results—trust me on this one.) After you’ve washed your hands, add a shake of salt and several grinds of black pepper. While you heat your salted pasta water, occasionally stir your slowly simmering sauce. When your pasta is cooked—I like angel hair because it cooks fast, if you use larger sized pasta start it cooking sooner—drain the pasta and stir it into your lovely sauce. Serve it with a generous dollop of part-skim ricotta cheese, a handful of grated Romano, and fresh chopped basil or parsley. If you want a more hearty meal, throw a couple of store-bought frozen meatballs into the sauce a few minutes before you add the pasta.

Since those two transforming meals I’ve expanded my home cooked menus though not my waist. I’ve added fish, both fresh and frozen, quickly sautéed or baked; crab cakes and salmon cakes made from the small canned variety. I’ve found that a pound of lean hamburger browned with taco mix will make me two or three taco salads, because the cooked meat mixture keeps well in the refrigerator for a week. An omelet and a salad is another good meal. In my new Bella pot, I’ve made small lamb stews using a couple of leg of lamb slices, also small batches of chili and soup.

I’ve never been much into desserts, but I’ve found that a few dried apricots or a couple store-bought pizzelles go well with the NBC News. And then there’s that coconut ice cream….

Concerning the question of where I shop: around. I have a car, so really grocery shopping for me is no different than it is for those who ask me that question. They think nothing of driving five or ten miles to grocery shop. Neither do I. I enjoy driving, so I’ve given up the idea of loyal shopping. I shop about every ten days, drive to the Squirrel Hill Giant Eagle, or Water Works Giant Eagle, or the Lawrenceville Shop ‘n Save, or Aldi’s, or The Strip.

If the roads are bad or if I have a basic ingredient emergency, I drive across the Rachel Carson bridge to the North Shore Giant Eagle which is only a mile away. Some hardy residents living in my building walk to that store. Sadly, The Bird’s executives have deemed the North Shore unworthy of small sizes, low fat foods, variety, their fresh baked Tuscan Multi-grain bread that makes such great toast, and their house brand Triple Vanilla ice cream. In fact, almost always that store’s ice cream cases resemble an empty tundra. Maybe that’s where Pittsburgh’s depressed Eskimos launch their ice floes? Also, that’s the only store from which I’ve unwittingly brought home spoiled food: coffee creamer, avocados, and raspberries. That Giant Eagle is the only store in Pittsburgh where I have always encountered shoppers reading labels for calories and fat content. I suspect that if the North Shore executives looked around the immediate neighborhood they would see how close Heinz Lofts, Allegheny General’s hundreds of employees, and the condos looming just across the Three Sister bridges are to that store, and there might be less hue and cry for a downtown grocery store.

I walk to buy my skim milk at the Rite Aid on Penn Ave and bread sticks or French bread near Market Square. During the summer I buy fresh flowers, a few fruits, and veggies at the Square’s Thursday farmer’s market. Though the prices are high, everything is local and very crisp. Apparently, in a few months a downtown high end grocery store near Market Square will emerge where I can easily walk; however, I probably won’t do the bulk of my shopping there. It’s that “high end” label that lets me know there will be variety, but also there still won’t be many grocery bargains to be had near Market Square.



by Jim Danger Coppoc

I wanna hear a poem about revolution
about fists raised high and hips
twisting in a rumble like a rhumba
I wanna follow the footsteps of Che
and hear the truth about the day
the CIA killed Lumumba

-from Steve Coleman, “I Wanna Hear a Poem”

I’m waiting just offstage, two hours after the plane landed, trying to catch my figurative breath, about to give what I hope will be the show of my life to a room full of total strangers.

“Jim Coppoc is, well, Dangerous.” the program director alludes to my Facebook name, which has somehow become securely attached to me in real life as well. She pushes her reading glasses into place, and beams down at the front row. The front row beams back.

“He’s, um…” she looks down at me, as if there’s a question she forgot to ask, then back to the audience. She lifts a paper from the podium.

“Coppoc has published several books of poetry and nonfiction, his plays are being produced in multiple cities as we speak, and…” she drifts off into boilerplate she got from a book cover somewhere.

Bookstore owners. Grad students. Library administrators. Conference organizers. It seems like nobody is quite sure how to introduce a creature like me at readings. They know that half the audience is there for my spoken word roots, but they’ve been trained to believe that “slam” is an insult to the serious and literary minded. So instead, they gloss over the most important parts of me, offer up a list of books and awards, and get off stage as quickly as they’re able.

But I am slam. And so are you.

See, poetry is a process, not a static art. It grows. It evolves. But it never loses the most basic parts of its own DNA—the core pieces that animate and give it life.

Poetry is the Ur genre. It existed before fiction, before nonfiction, before drama, before anything else we think of as literature. All other genres spring from it. Poetry is in the chants and ululations around the campfires of our earliest ancestors. It’s in the griots and shamans and monks and cantors and clergy and medicine people. It’s in our bones—the natural music of bodies in motion and at rest. It took a long time for us to forget that, and if slam and hiphop and charismatic religion are any indicators, the truth is that this most basic, primal aspect of poetry has never really left us.

The earliest laws were written as poetry. The earliest histories and religious texts too. For millennia, even poetry and music were indistinguishable. A ballad is a ballad is a ballad, no matter what the delivery. A psalm is a psalm with or without a lyre. A villanelle is just a villanella that goes undanced.

The list goes on, but I think the point is clear. This truth might be hidden now, but all the priests and troubadours and minstrels in our collective history knew, without a doubt, that poetry and music are just two dialects of the deeper language of the human spirit.

In the mid 1980s, a construction worker from Chicago named Marc Smith took a good look at the contemporary poetry scene, and realized that all of us could stand to be reminded of this. In a flash of genius, he added a silly game show format with live judging to an open mic, Slam poetry was born, history was made, and a movement was begun.

And once begun, Slam grew like a contagion. People get one taste of poets who write for a real human audience—poets trained by the random and arbitrary nature of the contest not to take themselves too seriously—and they want more. After the first couple years, slam spread like wildfire. Ann Arbor. New York. San Francisco. All the big cities and college towns of the United States and then abroad. It found its way into schools and libraries, coffee shops and theaters, street corners and music venues. It found its way into our culture, and made a home there for itself that it’s unlikely to be dislodged from anytime soon.

If you’re reading this blog, it’s likely you’ve been touched by slam. Maybe you’ve read poets like Patricia Smith (a 4-time national champion), or maybe you’ve read one of the many hundreds of young poets in Cave Canem and elsewhere who’ve been mentored by her. Maybe you’ve picked up a book published by a trendy press like Write Bloody (founded by a slammer), or maybe your college poetry professor, like me, likes to sneak away on Tuesday nights to refill his tank at the local slam and draw inspiration to bring back to the classroom.

Poets write in community, and when the community is on fire with something this transformative—something that reaches this far back in our collective poetic unconscious to the deepest roots we have—it’s bound to touch all of us eventually.

I do have books, and I do have awards. I’ve been very fortunate so far. Some of that is talent, some of it is luck, and some of it is just hard work and good networking. But the core of who I am as a poet has nothing to do with the number of lines on my CV. Who I am and who I want to be as a poet is the thing that Marc Smith was trying to touch almost three decades ago. I am Slam.

To those who might be reading this blog because I’m coming to your town, and you’ve been tasked with introducing me—if you want the introduction to be both honest and meaningful, consider leading with that.

Capital Metro

By Karen Zhang

I am a commuter to the national capital of the United States. I don’t know if I should feel good or bad about this. In China, if you get a job opportunity in Beijing, many people will look up to you. After all, it’s an international metropolis where a good living is guaranteed.

I remember when I visited Washington D.C. as a tourist for the first time, I was shocked to see how old and run-down the metro facility was, compared to the bright, stable and fast trains in my hometown Guangzhou, China. I even said to myself that thank goodness I wasn’t depending on the metro. I’m sorry to say that to many international visitors, the D.C. metro is known for its dark platforms and poor signs. Only until you are a commuter, and have ridden the train a hundred times, can you take it easy without constantly peeking through the window for station signs.

The interior condition of a train is no better. The announcement system is poor throughout the train, although occasionally you find a good one in some cars. You need to try your luck to hop on a car with bright light and ventilated air. Hopefully you’ll find a seat to secure yourself. A bumpy ride is too common to mention. As the day goes stale, you’ll find more used newspaper scattered on the floor or on the seats. Feel free to pick a copy to kill time as the trip may take longer than expected. Technical problems seem to have badgered the entire metro service for too long, from the railroad to the escalators inside the stations, you name it.

One time when I was on my way to work by subway, a nonstop mechanic sound squeaked in my car as if cages of birds chirped in agony. Another time I smelt burning rubber under the arriving car. My colleague told me her worst experience was when she was on a very jerky train, she felt so sick that she had to get off the train at midway to vomit.

Recently, D.C. unveiled a new design for its subway trains. Ta-da! The sleek 7000-series trains look attractive from the picture in the paper. It says the new model will be the biggest change to the old cars since the system opened in the late 1970s. As the nation’s second-busiest subway system, Washington D.C. looks forward to this brand new day. The first of the more than 350 new cars are expected to go into service in 2014. I really can’t wait.

Book Review: What Things are Made Of by Charles Harper Webb

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What Things Are Made Of
Poems by Charles Harper Webb
University of Pittsburgh Press:
Pitt Poetry Series, 2013

Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe

Webb’s title implies a certain amount of realism, an engineer’s approach, and his poems certainly follow through with this idea, though frequently with a philosophical bent. His weapon of choice is humor. The collection opens with “Nostalgia’s Not What It Used To Be,” an elegy for the ice cream trucks of his youth. Webb begins by admitting the fallacy often ignored in nostalgia for the past, the idea of “privileged bourgeois affability and valorized/ consumption.” The songs played by the trucks “legitimized patriarchy, women’s oppression,/ and the Mariana Trench of slavery.” He goes on to question the relationships he remembers, the people he remembers as “friends who may/have cared nothing for me.” He admits the “Capitalist hegemony” and even the stereotypes reinforced by some products. But under the weight of all this middle-class guilt, he does manage to dig out some slight memory of untainted human interaction.

Webb tackles interesting occurrences as easily as many poets tackle life-and-death situations. “Mummies to Burn” deals with just that: the practice of burning mummies for locomotive fuel in the nineteenth century. “Duck Tape” plays with the common mispronunciation while also poking fun at the governmental placebo of the Bush era.

“Where Does Joy Come In?” Reads like a riff on one of those questionnaires one find’s in a Woman’s Day magazine:

It sneaks through the cat-flap when you’re busy microwaving a beef-and-cheese burrito.
It slides down a beanstalk from another galaxy.
It overflows your clogged commode.
It breaks into your triple-locked, burglar-barred life, just before you can bolt out the door.

Webb’s humor and verve morph what could easily be trite material into something profound and enjoyable. “Never Too Late” is a nature poem, ostensibly, but also a respite from the memento mori of life as Webb recalls his childhood. Webb’s true power, as evidenced by his humor but also demonstrated beautifully in this poem, is his ability to sneak up on the reader. He begins with a natural description:

Doves flute in peeling eucalyptus trees.
Rain pit-pit-pits off lance-point leaves,
and pings into expanding bull’s-eyes

on Descanso Pond. Redwings ride
bucking tules at the water’s edge.
Beside them, still as a decoy, a mallard

rests—emerald pate, brass chest,
pewter sides…

His language evokes elegant imagery which would be enough to make this a fine poem. But as he continues, the scene grows into something truly beautiful as flowers, wildlife, and fish all become evident, and then the turn:

…The baking soda

submarine I lost in 1963
surfaces: full-sized, blowing
like a whale. The crew flash V for Victory.

Suddenly, the poem isn’t simply a nature poem but recalls something profound from the narrator’s youth. Though in poems like “The Last Bobcat” Webb displays his ability to write a powerful, serious nature poem. He begins with the wonderful line: “The hill behind our house still wears its cape/of African daisies.”

The title poem deals with a history of physical philosophy, from Thales, who thought things were made of water, to Aristotle who added earth, wind, and fire. Though he waxes philosophic, Webb is really getting at the fragility of life. And at its heart, this collection reveals Webb as a humanistic, down-to-Earth soul trying to survive and prosper but also trying to live well and morally. The fragility of life is so absurd that one can’t help but laugh. In poems like “Manpanzee” and “Sad for the Hunchback,” Webb reveals his own moral failings while also recognizing that they are common failings; he doesn’t stand on an altar of shame or moral righteousness. There, he deals with the fragility of goodness and morality, which can shift so easily given the proper circumstance. There’s a preconception about humor: that it’s easy and that it lacks substance, but Webb shows that his humor isn’t light. There’s darkness beneath it.

Charles Harper Webb is the author of numerous poetry collections, including Reading the Water, Liver, Tulip Farms and Leper Colonies, Hot Popsicles, Amplified Dog, and Shadow Ball: New and Selected Poems. His poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry, the Pushcart Prize, and Poets of the New Century. Webb has received the Morse Prize, Kate Tufts Discovery Award, Pollak Prize, and Saltman Prize, as well as a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Guggenheim fellowship. He is professor of English at California State University, Long Beach, and teaches in the MFA in creative writing program there.

Defense of Poetry

By Dawn Potter

Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry” makes me proud to be a person who tries to write poems.

Language, colour, and religious and civil habits of action, are all the instruments and materials of poetry; they may be called poetry by that figure of speech which considers the effect as a synonyme of the cause. But poetry in a more restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language, and especially metrical language, which are created by the imperial faculty, whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man. And this springs from the nature itself of language, which is a more direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being, and is susceptible of more various and delicate combinations, than colour, form, or motion, and is more plastic and obedient to the control of that faculty of which it is the creation. For language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination, and has relation to thoughts alone.

* * *

Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.

* * *

A single word may be the spark of inextinguishable thought.

* * *

Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.

* * *

Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our nature are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.

All of this feels true to me. No doubt someone with excellent arguing powers could prove otherwise, but the creation of poetry has nothing to do with argument. I especially love the final line I’ve quoted: “the conscious portions of our nature are unprophetic either of [creation’s] approach or its departure.” I agree: any real poem I’ve written has crept in through an unlocked, unwatched door.

The Joke, The Tense, The Stare

by John Samuel Tieman

I’ve given more thought to a psychiatrist, whose work I’ve always admired, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. I’d like to add three stages of recovery to her five stages of grief.

My father-in-law just died. Phoebe’s father, Mario Cirio, died peacefully in his sleep. He was 93. I am not being clichéd, as one often is at these times, when I say that Mario was one of the kindest, gentlest and generous men I’ve ever known. I am deeply saddened by the loss, but profoundly grateful for the ways in which he enriched our lives.

That said, in the short term, it’s anti-climatic. He left his body to St. Louis University’s medical school. There will be a memorial service in the near future, but there is no funeral to arrange. There’s no hurry about the obit. We’ve notified family, friends. There’s paperwork. But no drama. Mostly it’s just us, the sadness, and Phoebe’s three stages of recovery.

The first stage is the first joke. Two or so days after Mario’s death, I said to my beloved, “Jesus, Phoebe, your whole life has turned into a Tammy Wynette song. Your mother died less than a year ago. Then your father died. You just had major surgery, with a shoulder replacement to come next month. You have bad teeth. You’re just lucky you don’t have a dog to die, or a pick-up truck to break-down.” For the first time in days, she laughed.

The second stage is the change of tense. It is that simple moment. “I wonder if Dad is – I mean was, was – I wonder if Dad was…”

The third stage is even simpler than the second. As we drive home from the bank, as we feed the birds in the yard, as we fold the laundry, my wife grows quiet. And simply stares into the distance. I wait. I don’t need to ask.

Book Review: Night Moves by Stephanie Barber

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Night Moves
by Stephanie Barber
Publishing Genius Press, 2013

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

We’re a nation of critics and deciders—folks hired for their opinions rather than physical labor. One of the pleasures of nonobjective painting is that the role of the critic in defining contemporary art becomes obsolete. The artist—photographer Linda Conner in the Seventies, or painter Susan Rothenberg in the Eighties, or poet and video artist Stephanie Barber today—loosely shapes the art, sharing the discovery process with the viewer or reader. In its purest form, the nonobjective painting or poem is the energy produced between the original signifying work and its audience. An audience of thousands or an audience of one. It doesn’t matter. It’s about the waves produced by someone experiencing the photograph or poem, waves where feelings and thoughts don’t swim in different lanes. Think Reiki therapeutic massage. The touching is figurative, but the healing is real.

Stephanie Barber’s Night Moves tests the outer limits of concept poetry, but because hers are found words the bulky, baggy premises which accompany most concept works are happily not present. Barber draws on YouTube comment threads responding to Mr. Seger’s song “Night Moves,” a ballad of desire and aging and nostalgia. Is it even poetry one might ask, to tap into the energy between a Classic Rock song and its listeners and then to reproduce it without altering so much as a comma? Thomas Sterns Eliot might have thought so, based on his view that poetry was the mix of desire and memory. And whether one samples Sanskrit texts or The Golden Bough, or whether one samples three chord harmony, using literary allusion to scaffold the mix is sturdy stuff.

“I remember…I remember…,” writes one listener. Keyword search “Heart” and variations on “Memory” in this volume and you’ll quickly run out of fingers and toes to count with. One of the mystifying traits in Barber’s Night Moves is how the “comments” come from witness, and become seductive in the way that witnessing is so sculpted by memory and wanting. By using their comments, each listener becomes a speaker, each speaker, a viewer. Participation is the thing, Barber seems to say. It’s what makes art of our day to day, as if life weren’t about the drowning but all the riotous splashing we make before the end.

“Love this song…I remember this song and dancing around singing it, stereo as loud as it would go…” says another. Like people who all seem to remember what they were doing when Kennedy was shot, these speakers hear the song and it cues them involuntarily to a forgotten context. It was love-making before there were any responsibilities. It was having a magic night begin with an unforgettable dinner at the Golden Corral. It was a song you hummed driving your first car before you ever flattened a tire or bent a rod. The funny thing is that so many have forgotten an “unforgettable” time. Hearing the song out of context brings it back, which is one way that old music is still so important to poetry.

The comments Barber reproduces are not epitaphs in some strange graveyard. Listeners interact with the song, but they also interact with each other interacting with the song. There’s even a lot of debate as to what makes music real, or what “points” may mean, or what could be wrong with the seventy-eight or eighty-four people who hit the “dislike” button. Maybe they never had sex, one listener wonders. “Must be under twenty years old,” another writes. In one sequence, two listeners spar about the meaning of art:

You claim this song is boring but I think what
you are missing is that it is a “Mood” song. It might not
have interesting melodies and chord changes but to
Add these you would Subtract from the “Mood.” Some
of the best songs are the simplest and this you do not

In such plain-spoken ways, Barber transforms a modest 2013 discussion about a 1978 song that romanticized something going on in the summer of 1962, so that the YouTube comment thread reads like the minutes of an AWP panel about the meaning of poetry today, its riddle of memory, and desire’s cryptic role. “Gina will never know the truth,” someone writes, in what could well be the best six-word short story since Hemingway.

The interactions vary between the heart-breaking and ones sopping with praise. Most are emotional, some rational, some even seem scripted by authors who have some experience at this sort of thing. “I awoke last night to the sound of thunder. How far off I sat and wondered. I feel such emotion with this part of the song. So true. That’s how life is. Honestly, one of the best transitions in song writing I’ve ever heard.” This writer, like all the others, anonymous, which blurs point of view. We’re used to first, second, and third voice, but Barber’s Night Moves seems to offer a hybrid, a fourth voice which combines the other three and makes it seem as if the reader is hearing his own thoughts aloud.

Particularly evocative are the anonymous notes intended for a specific unknown someone: “Night moves in her dad’s barn 1975 love you Pam! Hope you are doing well. I think of you every time I hear this song.” Someone else chimes in “Pam I do not know where you are now. I think of you every time I hear this song. I am glad my first night moves were with you. I hope you have a great life.”

One of the hazards of living in a high concept world where the idea of something has more weight than the actual doing of it, where the abstract replaces the concrete, is that poets lose track of a narrative thread’s value. It becomes all about the lyric, or all about the extended metaphor, and we lose track of how important it is to use narrative to give the reader’s empathy some place to go. Greek myth is interesting, but it becomes relevant to us through the story of the Odyssey. “Today’s music can’t tell any stories about their experience in life,” someone writes. Neither does a lot of the poetry either.

I love how this “nonobjective painting” of a poetry book makes us ache for more in our lives to not be so objective. Praise to Stephany Barber for taking the time to sit cramped on her former bodega’s trembling wooden floor between the friendly cat and the other cat who gets sick a lot, hustling what internet she could when the wind was blowing right, and crying for days over this comment thread that was so sad and so inviting that she had to share it with us.

This book gives us permission to lust for what we remember about whom we loved. Take any three years out of the past fifty. What were you doing 1962? What were you dreaming about in 1978? What has become of all those doings and all those dreams? Your personal answer is a poem for everyone. Now thump your left hand on the roof of your speeding dark sedan and sing it.


By Karen Zhang

Lately when I chew on fish and chicken, I suddenly realize neither of them have bones. Yes, it’s a good reminder that I am in America, where bones are disliked. I’m afraid someday in the near future I will take boneless meat for granted. And I won’t enjoy authentic Chinese dishes as much as I should.

We Cantonese have an innate palate for bones. The boneless fish and chicken I have here in America would be considered tasteless in my hometown. The well-known dimsum dish—chicken feet—is a good example of delicacy. Not to mention pork ribs, fish heads, whole fish with heads and tails, even shrimps should come with heads. These peculiar choices of food are only available in Chinese or oriental supermarkets in America. But in my gastronomical hometown—Guangzhou, you will find it ten times more difficult to get fish fillet and boneless chicken.

I certainly don’t want to be regarded as a bone-gnawing monster. My parents used to say that the essence of eating is chewing bones because they consist of high nutrition. They are right. I find after eating boneless fish, the taste doesn’t stay. It’s like a new dish you learn to make yourself is always more delicious than if it is prepared by someone else. Without the challenge of fish bones, I find the process of eating meat comes too easy.

When it comes to food, I have no idea why Americans like boneless everything. However, this preference doesn’t apply to the women’s fashion world. It has been a long tradition in America, as well as China, that women models tend to be ultra-thin. Their bony figure adds to their likelihood of getting success. As a result, teenage models often have eating disorders. Keeping up with the size zero isn’t easy, and of course unhealthy.

In a recent spring issue, Vogue magazine finally took the health issue into account. Including the Chinese edition, all the five regional editions of the fashion glossies all follow the company’s new guidelines—too young and too thin is no longer in. Specifically, models under the age of 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder can’t work with this world’s top arbiter of style.

I have always thought Chinese women are too self-conscious about their figures. When I was in China, my girlfriends often complained to me they disliked their overweight arms or legs or face or belly. Under their influence, I may have complained too much about my body. When I got to America, I found people not only have different skin colors but also various sizes. The so-called obese women wear tight blouses and mini-skirts with pride. Shouldn’t my whiny Chinese girlfriends learn from these proud American women?

Now I understand why my husband said to me when we were in China, “Wait until you see the women in America — you aren’t fat at all.” I now know that it’s not important how others look at you but how you feel about yourself.

Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

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A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
by Anthony Marra
Hogarth, 2013

Review by Nicole Bartley

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is depressing darkness filled with war-torn horrors and punctuated by bright moments of fragile tenderness. Individual points of light converge to create a story—to convey connected lives. To view a constellation is to see each star’s past during the present. So, too, is it with Anthony Marra’s characters—each one composes a story that spans generations.

The story follows a group of neighbors in a modern Chechyan village. The current government abducts a father, Dokka, who manages to hide his young daughter, Havaa, before their house burns. A neighbor and friend, Akhmed, finds her in the woods and shelters her first in his house and then in a nearby hospital, where he convinces the chief, Sonja (pronounced Sohn-yah), to not only provide him with a job but also protect the girl without him. What follows is five days of memories, secrets, and a constant debate between life and death.

Marra’s writing is beautiful and filled with lyrical phrases, intricate details, and crisp narration that hook into readers and keep them wondering until the last page. It is also harsh, horrific, and unrelenting in its depictions of a stark war-torn village that immediately settles readers into a fear-filled landscape. Despite this, Marra pays close attention to intimate, delicate additions and profound descriptions. He is adept at switching the direction of analogies, especially when fixated upon light; his best and most poetic lines contain light. For example, instead of a house disappearing into ash or smoke or being razed to the ground, “[Akhmed] watched the house he had helped build disappear into light” (6). Marra writes,

…a few hours of flames had lifted what had taken [Akhmed] months to design, weeks to carry, days to build, all but the nails and rivets, all but the hinges and bolts, all into the sky… There were these things and the flames ate these things, and since fire doesn’t distinguish between the word of God and the word of the Soviet Communications Registry Bureau, both Qur’an and telephone dictionary returned to His mouth in the same inhalation of smoke. (4)

Perhaps this use of light is a counterbalance to an otherwise dark story and setting. Marra mentions moonlight that lies as a flimsy bed sheet, and a cigarette lighter’s droplet of flame. Put poetry in light, and anything can seem bearable: daily gradual starvation, the occasional bombing raids and shootings, an informant providing names of innocent people just to fulfill a grudge, the daily possibility of someone triggering a landmine, the constant fear, and the absence of innocence from childhood. He writes:

As children Sonja and Natasha played hide-and-seek in the dust-thick catacombs of the apartment cellar. Light streamed through the high windows in long diagonals. On the floor, each semicircle was a pool of lava, and light-caught dust motes were the remains of children who had stumbled into those incandescent rays. (187)

However, the strong writing seems to dissipate as the story progresses, and the amount of shining phrases diminish with each chapter. It is as if Marra used the first chapter to dazzle readers, who will then continue to read to discover what’s happening and why.

Marra also has particular aptitude for weaving time. In the book, readers learn about Chechnya’s militaristic history as well as the characters’ personal experiences during the span of five days. The book is separated into “day” sections, and chapters contain events specific to a designated year. But they also contain references to past and future years and scenes—circumstances that readers have already and will eventually encounter. All Chechen life is happening “now;” time within time within time.

To follow these temporal jumps, Marra utilizes both tight third-person limited and omniscient narration. He follows a handful of characters, but eventually wanders to different people’s perspectives in order to provide an added bit of information, just for the readers’ sakes. It is as if Marra inserted commentary, wherein the narrator steps in to break the fourth wall and tell readers information that may not, in the end, be pertinent to the story. Most of the information jumps occur in chapters set in the past, as if they are explored more like memories. This is one of the few inconsistencies in the book, when the author’s desire to inform readers interrupts characterization and realistic possibility. For example, he follows a character, Khassan, who encounters a young, scared soldier who saves him and asks him to post a letter to the soldier’s grandparents. Marra writes:

‘You must survive,’ the blond-haired conscript said. ‘You must survive and tell my grandparents. Tell them their grandson is not like the other soldiers. Tell them that they raised him well, that he is trying so hard to stay the boy they raised.’ Khassan would write a letter to the conscript’s grandparents, but without access to a functional postal system, it would remain in his drawer for seventeen months, until the autumn morning when a Russian woman knocked on his door, asking if he had seen her son…. Khassan wouldn’t be able to help her, but he would ask her to post his letter from Russia. He wouldn’t know that in Novosibirsk the grandparents of the blond-haired conscript would receive his letter eight days after they received word of their grandson’s death and would read it is a eulogy at his funeral. (144-145)

Readers don’t need to know this information, except for a little reassurance that not all soldiers and rebels are heartless murderers and thieves, and that even in midst of danger, some people actually are inherently good. But occasional peeks into the future like this one seem out of place during consistent third-person limited narration. They appear more as confusing slips in craft that may leave readers wondering, “Wait, what was that? He could s/he know that? Why is this important?”

Marra often references the future beyond ten years—a future when people have paying jobs, don’t live in fear, and can work toward rebuilding a community by following dreams. But judging by the novel’s timeline, ten years is now. Is Chechnya rebuilt as promising as Marra writes? Are all the novel’s horrors behind that country? Time will tell whether this novel will be referenced in English classes or assigned as suggested reading for history courses, and whether history repeats itself, thus making this story relevant in any era. But one thing’s certain: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena will leave readers aware of the outside world, and thankful for what they have.

Anthony Marra is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, with an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He’s won a Pushcart Prize, the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Prairie Lights Fiction Prize and first place in the Atlantic’s emerging writers’ contest and in Narrative’s short story contest.

Book Review: Birth Marks by Jim Daniels

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Birth Marks
Poems by Jim Daniels
BOA Editions, 2013

Reviewed by Mike Walker

“a tiny yellow leaf falls on to my red kitchen table”

And with that line, I wish to open my review of the book from which it comes, Jim Daniels’ Birth Marks. This book came to me for review as part of BOA’s new books for Autumn, 2013, and it’s an apt selection for this time of the year. Rusted colors like that leaf and the table it came to rest upon, it seems autumnal, but the lives and places described in its pages even more so. Daniels’ primary focus in this collection is the America of the Rust Belt, the America of the Great Lakes’ portion of the Midwest, the America of the automotive industry and steel mills, the America of union jobs and the tight-knit families and often bleak childhoods that went with this blue collar scene. It would not, I need to stress, be a “scene” if Daniels didn’t take it there, but he does and much to his credit: there are numerous ways of writing about places like Detroit—a city begging to have as much written of it as possible—and Daniels picked this trajectory that takes us back and forth from current-day observations over to childhood and teenage memories and back again. Judith Vollmer wrote a book, Reactor, about the canyons of industry and did so from a different approach, but while she focused on how the industrial, the nuclear, meets the natural, the environment, the social, Daniels in contrast pulls the industrial from the inside out, going back into his childhood from where in his father, grandfather, and other relations he first saw the legacy of jobs these men worked. He even says so in one poem, “Company Men” which is possibly the best poem I’ve read yet on the American experience of the type of job a man would get at Ford or elsewhere and would keep until he retired. The type of job that hardly even exists for my own generation and yet seems to remain the mythical model of “good jobs” in many communities and the words of many promises from those who run for elected office.

It is too easy nowadays to picture Detroit mainly on the merits of its current sorry state: to picture it as ruins of once-great industry, to picture it as ghetto, to picture it as dangerous, to picture it as a mess that no wizard that neither is nor was can really sort out. That’s too easy, that’s well enough left to five-paragraph articles in newspapers or at CNN. That picture—and all those photos of once-grand hotels or noble schools with their ballrooms and lunch-rooms in tatters and the copper wire stripped right from the walls—that has its place, to be sure, but omits the working-class experience built on that same drive of industry. It doesn’t include the childhoods spent there in Detroit, much less what a childhood in a smaller city that still depended on the auto industry was really like. Those small cities of Michigan and Ohio and elsewhere still exist and still have at least some of those industries, some of those jobs. A good friend who dreams of being an animation artist (and is great at it, too) works nights for a factory in West Unity, Ohio. The economic structure of such jobs is not what it once was, but some such do remain. This is an America known to many, but fairly absent from our popular culture and when it does somehow appear, it comes in mostly as a member of America’s cast of the past. To understand this America, you need to see it as a child, as a teen, as the grown man who leaves, as the relatives who didn’t, as the streets of it, as the factories, as the jobs—just all of it. One slim book of poems by one author cannot provide everything needed for true understanding, but this one book is a very good place to start.

Aside from my friend with the factory job, I have another friend from Ohio (actually, I have many and have yet to figure out how I know all these great folks unconnected to each other in Ohio, but that’s another matter altogether). My other friend grew up in Bucyrus, in central-west Ohio, and was a friend from high school. He ran track. (Did I just mention he was from rural central Ohio and he also ran track? I’m sorry, in saying both I know I repeated myself: if he was a boy, and a boy from Ohio, and white, and suburban, and able, of course dude ran track.) In Daniels’ book, I see murky traces of the world he described. When I was in college, I worked in a biomedical research lab and we went on a research venture to Twinsburg, Ohio (long story, that) and there—in the north-east part of the state—I saw yet more of the type of world my friend Terik spoke of: small factories including one that makes Day-Glo paint; a powerful emphasis on high school sports but just as much soccer and track as football and baseball, unlike the American South; heating oil tanks by the sides of modest yet decent homes row by row; sidewalks damaged by decades of freezing and then melting under winters’ snows; local restaurants beloved for their pizza or bratwurst. This was the landscape. It was clear and it is very different from Florida, or California or New York (though places like Corning, NY might come close) or anywhere nearly any television show is set. Maybe when she’s done with California, Reba McEntire will set a show in Ohio but I doubt it: the point of her current sitcom is quite telling in and of itself in that her character leaves Tennessee to move to California. We all want Middle America but we don’t know it. Well, this is it. This is that uncast stage.

Daniels’ book isn’t all what you might expect from my claims above: he is an English and creative writing professor at Carnegie Mellon University and some of the poems speak to that experience, dealing with a student’s attempted suicide and the like and these are poems I would welcome in any other volume by a poet in his situation: well-written and honest, from a first-hand view on his topic. However, here they feel like filler because what he offers on his childhood, on Detroit, on Pittsburgh today—that’s all worth its weight in gold. There is a poem by Daniels which is not in this book but concerns 9/11 and is entitled “Soccer Practice, 9/11/01, Pittsburgh” and is one of his best. It’s online somewhere, and you all, dear readers, should go read it. It is close kin to some of the more-general poems in the book at hand, but even better. Again, though, these poems are not the star attraction: the star attraction is the star witness to Rust Belt ruin that is well-crafted enough to be ten times more than just that. The Catholic churches of Detroit make their way into the narrative as does so much else of the city. Detroit is not all cars and crime: before it was “Motor City”, Detroit was “Stove City”. Seriously: it’s where most of America’s woodstoves came from back when everyone had one for heat and/or cooking. Coal stoves, too, and that’s part of the reason really it became the seat of auto industry later: it was already established as a place that could work iron. There’s a strong maritime tradition and traditions ranging from the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald all the way back to the very first discovery of this spot of land by the white man. It’s Zug Island, it’s Canada across the way—a fact that Daniels notes when he speaks of his father drinking Canadian whiskey over ice, and not one of the finer brands, but one that while somewhat inexpensive was still considered a real treat in their household. Such memories as these are what realities are made of, to be sure. Such memories as these—such oral histories, indeed—is what Daniels provides us.

In most reviews of poetry books, I include a fair amount of quotes from the books themselves: what better way to showcase the fine language at hand? However, with Daniels, I’m not going to do that: These poems are more about narrative than the slick roll of the words themselves, although much of Daniels’ language here is downright beautiful—make no mistake about that. His power to describe in a way that really takes you to the quick and often harsh core of the matter though, sparing no detail but still with a breathtaking speed that outpaces poets known for their economy is really what allows Daniels to press a short story’s portion of narrative into the slight space of two pages or less in many of these poems. Unlike many in contemporary poetry, it’s not down to the power and purr of just a few words with Daniels: when he tells us in “Company Men” that “we do not discuss our jobs, we leave our jobs where they belong” it fits perfectly to the extended narrative at hand. Ripped from the page, truncated and thrown down here as an example, you’d think perhaps this was from a second-rate spy novel and the men in fact were CIA, but in context it speaks to the blue-collar experience fittingly. Small bits of what Daniel has done in his poetry cannot convey the whole much larger than these parts. He knows that too, certainly: you cannot capture the works of the great European masters via a few pixels from your phone’s camera nor play Mozart on the tin bell of your phone’s speaker with impressive results. Daniels knows that his poems are not going to overrun us with fancy language as some expect from the poet’s pen but instead do the work of the journalist, only faster, and most-often better. He’s not alone in this: G.C. Waldrep has the same skill as does Diane Ackerman—a poet often thought of more as a journalist, come to think of it—at her very best.

If I can find any fault with this book, it’s simply that, as stated above, Daniels in places introduces poems that do not fit well into the primary extended narrative which is about working-class America and especially Detroit and its environs. Poems about his family on vacation are great and as well-written as anything else he has here, but they don’t help inform the comprehensive focus. And the thing is, the poems about the blue-collar basis of what we consider even now as the American Dream are so very good that you find yourself wanting more of these. That said, you can consider the poems that I’d dare title as off-topic for this collection really as just a bonus round: they’re good and worth reading. Daniels perhaps was not interest in the collection at hand being as cohesive as I myself, as a reader, viewed it, but regardless, it works best as a single effort. We don’t have enough contemporary writing on this topic, not of this quality, and not in the form of poetry, certainly. Daniels’ best poems here allow you to see every detail—even when he has left some details out—of the tired but proud father with the factory job and the wife and kids at home on an evening when the weather is not yet cold but a chill is in the air and the boys are thinking about hockey. He is able to put you there, distance and time no longer a factor in the least. So we need more poetry of this caliber, of this intent.

We’ve got baby Jesus here in the house
of unbelievers. Sometimes a good story
can keep you going a long time.

So, here you have a quote from this book. An apt one I feel—one that captures some of that Catholic faith as transformed into the post-Catholic, post-factory, post-working-class, world from which our author as professor and modern family man speaks to us now, but tinged and yet adroit with all and everything faith always has been about in the first place.

Jim Daniels’ recent books include Trigger Man: More Tales of the Motor City and Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry, winner of the Midwest Book Award. His poems have appeared widely in such places as Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 anthologies, Best American Poetry anthologies, the Pushcart Prize anthologies, and Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry” series. His poem “Factory Love” is displayed on the roof of a race car. Daniels has garnered such honors as the Brittingham Prize for Poetry, the Tillie Olsen Prize, the Blue Lynx Poetry Prize, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and two from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. He is the Thomas Stockham Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, where he received the Ryan Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Elliott Dunlap Smith Award for Teaching and Educational Service. A native of Detroit, MI, Daniels is a graduate of Alma College and Bowling Green State University. He currently lives in Pittsburgh, PA, with his family.

Can a person be taught to be a poet?

by Dawn Potter

Or can she only be taught to appreciate poetry? In other words, are all poets actually self-taught? And are writing workshops essentially useless–either “warm and fuzzy” or “butcher block”?

If you read the exchange here, and can manage to overlook the bad manners, you may find yourself pondering the questions the disputants bring up, questions that I find both tedious and germane. I do get weary of these what’s-the-point-of-an-M.F.A. quarrels, but I also know that nearly all the poetry workshops I’ve attended have been either “warm and fuzzy”–e.g., “This is such a great poem! I love it!,” which is flattering yet unhelpful–or “butcher block,” in which a participant prepares to be publicly humiliated for breaking craft rules, focusing on unfashionable subjects or forms, or not respectfully imitating the teacher’s style. Of course there are variations on these two extremes; of course there is also the personal bond (or lack thereof) between a student and a mentor; of course there are the issues of stage of growth and prior experience.

You can read about approach that Baron and I use at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, which involves neither cuddling nor hatchets. But, in the end, is this method more effective than any other at teaching a writer to be a poet? We work primarily with teachers, who, even if they think of themselves as poets, are for the moment focused on bringing poems to their students. In other words we are trying to teach teachers to be the kind of mentors that we, as young embryo poets, did not have ourselves.

Nonetheless, we grew up to be poets anyway.


Book Review: The Beds by Martha Rhodes

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The Beds
Poems by Martha Rhodes
Autumn House Press, 2012

Reviewed by Marcella Prokop

In her fourth collection of poems, Martha Rhodes examines illness, love, the infidelity of the body, and “The pleasures and inconveniences of being detested.” This, the title of the twelfth poem in her collection The Beds, begins with frailty, meanders through the doctor’s office around “friends tired of all the errands and schlepping” to end on a humorous note, setting the tone of breakdown and amusement that underscores this book:

Broken leg
Broken leg
And broken leg again.
And 81 stairs.

Despite the difficulty of caring for an ailing loved one, or caring for themselves, Rhodes’ speakers share an unwavering sense of grit and humor, and the poet’s ability to work from abstract title through bone (and heart) breaks and line breaks to clear image often brings the reader to a muscle-clenching moment of understanding. This sense of connection is sometimes so subtle it may be missed on the first read.

This is the case with “Thrombosis,” “A rat carried this week to us between its teeth and dropped it at our feet…And the rat will find its way to us here, too, where at the hospital I hold onto your foot lest you be rolled away without me…today I am able to eat every doughnut New York City offers.” Rhodes with another story within a story, the connotation of doughnuts and roundness and illness gelling together in an instant at the end:

My grandfather was a baker from Vienna. Perhaps he’d say to me today, Doughnuts are in your blood. And what should I say about your blood, dear, not knowing yet what’s in your blood that brings us here this week.

Without a doubt, Rhodes’ poems are curious and provocative, like a small animal scratching at the window. Her simple, quick lines create a sense of immediate imagery, urging the imagination to run like a fever unchecked. And as the sound and mouth feel of her words works its way inside, the symbiotic relationship of reader and writer, of experienced and imagined, consumes the reader.

On the surface, Rhodes’ poems are about the natural processes of separation and loss, illness and grief and the mirthful capacity to overcome reality. Weaving imagery of the domestic life and the human implements of hospitals and houseplants into the earthy textures of the world beyond, Rhodes yields a quiet, uncanny power over nature unknown to most humans.

In “Fog Horn,” for instance, the gauzy language of disorientation pulls at the reader’s senses.
The first stanza, “The sheet’s dark-on-dark pattern, / a flat dull sea, calm enough,” pulls readers into a quiet, dark seabed of solitude. But as the couplets progress, the speaker becomes unsettled, then solid, leaving the reader with a sense of direction.

I’ve begun my own noise—
of warning—a trembling at first,
then persistent, even confident,
through the night’s steady fog.

Rhodes continues drawing upon the natural world in “The Gathered,” layering the detritus of a stalled river and a stalled life until the physical image pushes the mind to a new reality.

The river sludge hardens and cracks.
We pitch tents in mile-long rows.
We’re camped above, too tired to press
one more step; we sleep in fits—
the gnats, the howlings, the mess
of our lives brought in our eyes and lit
before us, our precious disasters.

…we deserve this rot
and roll in it, thrive in it, and in turn
welcome those who follow us. Need a bed?
Rest here with us, friend. End of the line.

Dead end.

While Rhodes’ perception of the physical world lends itself to the hardscrabble life of the outdoors, that sense of emotion, fragility and strength comes through best when she relates the physical world to the natural process of stagnation, decay, creation and existence as it applies to the personal. The best poems in this fifty-four page collection explore death, absence and illness, and create meaning for those facing or remaining after, a final absence. Readers will search for the underlying connotation of each poem, and with each new reading the poems will reveal something new of themselves, in much the same way a wound’s appearance changes with each unbandaging.

Martha Rhodes is the author of At the Gate, Perfect Disappearance (Green Rose Prize), and Mother Quiet. Her poems have been published in such journals as Agni, Columbia, Fence, New England Review, Pleiades, Ploughshares, and TriQuarterly and anthologized in Agni 30 Years, Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women, Poem in Your Pocket (a publication of the Academy of American Poets), and It’s Not You, It’s Me. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Martha Rhodes is the director of Four Way Books in New York City.


Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Gia Cacalano and her multimedia ensemble brought new work to the Wood Street Galleries this past weekend. The show was a continuation of a piece they presented last March called “The Frequency of Structure and Flow Part 2.”

The piece was created as a deliberately pared down version of the first. Or, what one of the dancers, Vincent Cacialano, described as “the skeleton.” Back in the spring, the ensemble collaborated with French artist, Miguel Chevalier, whose video installation covered the walls in bold and bright images.

This time, the performers were given a blank slate, as no visual artist was currently in residence. Cacalano explained that she wanted to let the space dictate the performance. The result was simple and quite stunning.

Five dancers performed, four from the regular group – Cacalano and her brother, Vincent, from the UK, Wendell Cooper from NYC, and Jil Stifel from Pittsburgh. Newcomer, Joanna Reed, also joined the ensemble for the first time.

Philadelphia musician, Michael McDermott, created the music, some recorded and some mixed live during the show. And Wendell Cooper created black and white video footage that was projected against the walls.

Because all of the movement was improvised, the show differed each night. However, the group did work within a structure of five or six sections to keep an overall shape and cohesiveness to the piece.

Like all of Cacalano’s work, the themes were loose, open to interpretation and focused largely on the movement connections between each dancer. The quality always has a meditative feel that is gracefully hypnotic. Although there were definite dynamic changes within the hour long show, the through-line felt like Zen stillness.

Perhaps that is because of each performers’ heightened awareness of each other that puts our smartphone culture to shame. Each dancer took their time exploring the space as if it had been the first time they stepped foot onto the gallery floor. The connection they had to one another was astonishing, considering their long distance working relationships.

The piece began with slow and purposeful walking that gradually expanded into small movement gestures and eventually larger phrases and powerful fast moving sections. Solos organically shifted into duets and group segments, each as interesting as the last.

A few moments stood out in particular. Cacalano and Stifel shared a duet of discovery that had a soothing sense of calm, and ended as they seemed to disappear while the sound and images faded.

Afterward, Cooper, Cacialano and Reed entered the space in near silence, simply standing for what felt like a few minutes. With incredible patience and a comfort level reserved for only the most seasoned performers, they allowed the audience to watch the movement of their breath and subtle shifting of weight and expression. The effect was completely engrossing.

That moment steadily built into a high energy group section with all five dancers weaving in and out of each other. The video images flashed bright while each performer managed to effortlessly stay composed despite the beautiful chaos.

The section ended with an exciting solo from Cooper who seemed to defy gravity with his light-footed, off-center style. He ended up lying center stage while Cacalano soloed around him. She eventually pulled him to standing, cradling Cooper in her arms and pulling him offstage in a completely gratifying ending.

The audience exhaled, relaxed into the same present state of mind as the performers, and waited silently for a bit before sharing their grateful applause.

Pictures, Big and Small: Some Possibly Feminist Thoughts from a Borough in Pittsburgh

by Brigette Bernagozzi
Spring 2013

  I. Pictures, Big and Small

Thinking about the world specifically from the framework of being a woman always gets me thinking of the bigger picture. Lately, I have been following the disturbing events of the Ohio rape case. Also, I have had a few run-ins with misogynist characters this past month in nearby Pittsburgh, including a haughty man at the coffee shop that insulted collectively the intelligence of all women in my university community, clearly (and wrongly) thinking that berating my fellow women would make him look superior and appealing. Stunned (and no longer a very argumentative person in general—or trying hard not to be one, at any rate), I made it as clear as I could that I did not wish to date such a primitive thinker, though I didn’t elaborate much, wishing to cut off our conversation as soon as possible.

Still, this conversation bothered me for weeks. My surprise at the strange turn it had taken had kept me from fully speaking my mind. Whether or not he thought I identified with this community of educated women, why would someone think it is okay to dismiss an entire group of women based on no proof or experience with those women whatsoever, short of “living near the campus”? And why would someone think it is okay to transport an unconscious woman from party to party, treating her like a doll and showing no respect toward her, violating her body and her privacy? There are moments when I have to stop reading, listening, even reflecting on such events, or I know full well that one of two things will happen–either my old anger will come bubbling back up, or an old deep sadness will come instead. Both have something to do with being a woman in this world, and both I’ve worked hard to keep at bay over the years, with some moderate success.

Attending a Women’s Studies class this winter and spring reminded me of an earlier version of myself—a prouder and more argumentative version of me, to be sure, but also a more steadfast one than I can claim to be at the moment. A version of me that marched around Washington during the Bush years with a swollen thumb, wearing a black and white tee that read “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” (if you’re wondering about the thumb, this was after a twenty-or more hour bus ride during which I was stung by a wasp on the bus, which had no first aid kit available, but march on, I did). I walked confidently then, despite the thumb, and heard inspirational women speak that day in the Mall on Washington, and I was more certain then—as many teenagers and young twenty-somethings tend to be—that I knew everything I needed to know. Aging tends to undo this cockiness in most of us, I guess, as we see just how big the world is and begin to sense all that we don’t know, all that we’ll never be able to know. We have to be content to live with seeing only part of the Big Picture during our time here on earth.

Several years after that march in Washington, and after I had been out of that particular political loop for a while, I heard that one of the young ladies who had put the whole event together had been murdered by her ex-boyfriend. I remember her a little, vibrant, dark-haired gal who was lively and passionate about her cause, and about life in general, a wide smile on her face as she herded us all onto the bus.

 II. A Pittsburgh Herstory

It seems only natural, as I sit in my backyard, considering whether or not I am a feminist, that I live in a borough named for the farmstead of Jane Swisshelm (1815-1884, according to Wikipedia). She was a super-progressive lady—an abolitionist, journalist and publisher—whose family owned land in the Swissvale and Edgewood neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, and who obtained a divorce from her husband and moved to St. Cloud, Minnesota to run a series of newspapers . She stayed politically active, writing scathing articles directed at politicians she felt were not nearly progressive enough, and later lived in D.C. She supported Lincoln, becoming a friend of Mary Todd Lincoln’s, and became a nurse in the Civil War, saving many lives. She died in Swissvale and is buried in Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville.

One can find her resting place not too far from the grave of Henry Kendall Thaw (1871-1947)—a mentally ill, sociopathic playboy born in Pittsburgh (he attended Pitt before transferring), who murdered architect Stanford White atop Madison Square Garden in 1906 in a dispute over his own wife, Evelyn Nesbit. (His “Trial of the Century” is a pretty fascinating story in its own right.) Nesbit, a chorus girl and model raised in and near Pittsburgh, was encouraged as a girl by her father to read and was treated by him with respect and a distinct lack of sexism. Later in her life, however, she was mistreated and beaten by her husband Thaw, who was intent on ruining White’s life due to his jealousy and dislike of the man’s success as well as the previous liaison he’s shared with Evelyn. She had to testify in two of his trials, and it is said that his family bribed her to speak of him in a way that would award him the least punishment possible by the courts.

Though I had not heard of Jane Swisshelm before moving to Swissvale, I have long been intrigued by Stanford White and Evelyn Nesbit, since learning their story from the Broadway adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and also living in Mount Vernon, NY, where locals informed me that White designed several homes.

Thinking of these fascinating historical characters who possessed such strong (and sometimes bizarre, or even criminal) personalities makes me feel out of place in my own time, somehow. While these are folks who may have stood out as unusual and who did not necessarily “fit” with the norms of their own era, I will admit that I’ve long been obsessed with this era—with the political and social issues of women’s rights and prohibition from that long-ago time, with the culture of speakeasies and jazz music, with the sense that there was so much at stake in the activism and politics of that time. I find myself fascinated with Doctorow’s vision of women and their personal and political struggles in this era. (I know the score of the Broadway show by heart, and hearing Doctorow read from his work in Philly several years ago was pretty much the highlight of my year.) I’m already planning a trip to the Allegheny Cemetery, to see if I can conjure up any ghosts from the past as I wander about.

When I think of Jane Swisshelm herself, I can’t help but be impressed by all that she accomplished in her life. Jane certainly knew how to get it all done in a day’s work. She wrote while living in Pittsburgh and passionately supported women’s rights, which gives us something in common already. But beyond these basic commonalities that draw me to her legacy, it seems nearly impossible to me that a woman in her time could achieve as much as she did in so many different fields. She is certainly a woman, and a human being, to be admired—an example for women today who are still seeking their own place on the feminist spectrum, a kind of bright star whose influence has not yet burned out completely.

A version of this blog can also be found on my page at:
*See the Wikipedia pages about Jane Swisshelm, Evelyn Nesbit, and Henry Kendall Thaw, which helpfully provided me with historical information, for more about Swissvale, PA and the Trial of the Century.

My Father

by Publius

He wasn’t much of a father, but he was the family lyricist. He once described himself as sitting beneath “the dangling dick of destiny.”

Another time, speaking of my mother, he said, “The problem with Catholic women is that, when they get old, they become all priest infested.” This was followed by a shudder that, given his farmer roots, spoke to an intimate knowledge of infestation.

He had memorized the entire Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. On his deathbed, he recited from memory the whole of Bryant’s Thanitopsis.

He was a lousy father, a drunk and a wife beater. That said, the first memory I have of poetry is sitting on his knee while he read to me The Cremation Of Sam McGee.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
Where the men moil for gold …

I can still recite it …


Book Review: Why We Never Talk About Sugar by Aubrey Hirsch

Reviewed by Noah Gup

One of the early stories in Aubrey Hirsch’s collection Why We Never Talk About Sugar (Braddock Avenue Books 2013) begins with, “Right from the start, Cris was pretty certain she could get me pregnant.” It’s an ambitious first line, one that is both intriguing and bizarre. While the story’s introduction seems odd (let alone physically impossible), the conclusion is surprisingly, generously human. This epitomizes the power of this collection; driven by a keen sense of character, it offers intensely personal tales that, despite peculiar details, connect with the reader.

There is no distinct link connecting the thematically and geographically diverse collection. The struggles of relationships and parenthood echo in several stories, but the strongest link is the immersive and varied settings. Hirsch adeptly adapts her diction to create vivid, detailed worlds, such as the densely scientific “Hydrogen Event in a Bubble Chamber” or the soldier-speak of “The Specialists.” But perhaps most notable is Hirsch’s sparse, yet meticulously constructed, prose. Her stories focus on the characters and often wring profound conclusions from simple, understated actions. In her many stories focusing on familial conflicts, this directness is piercing, especially in “Strategy #13,” where a girl reconciles with her sickly father’s declining health: “I can still picture my father running up the stairs to break up a fight between me and my brother. Now he is huddled on the floor with blood droplets clinging to his hair.” Even in the collection’s eponymous, final story, which enters the realm of magic realism, the frank narration elevates it to a meditative fable on the subject of love.

“Snakeskin” exemplifies Hirsch’s minimalist power. The story is set within a high school, barely longer than two pages, and focuses entirely on the effect of a series of discarded snakeskins discovered in a high school. At first, the principal assumes it is a prankster, but the school eventually adapts to the snake’s unseen presence, described by Hirsch’s careful eye: “students pile their schoolbooks under the legs of their desks to raise them off the ground.” It is quirky, clever, but ultimately a fascinating portrait of the school’s principal. A completely different story, “The Specialists,” addresses sexual assault in the military, through through the lens of two soldiers going through boot camp. Its violent finale manages to feel both genuine and thrilling, and is perhaps the collection’s single most powerful segment.

As with many fiction collections, not all stories in Sugar are equally enthralling. In “Paradise Hardware,” a couple’s infertility struggles are dramatically amplified to the point of absurdity, derailing the story from reality. And with several stories focusing on troubled relationships, the weaker ones (“Made in Indonesia”) seem more like palate cleansers for her more developed, detailed stories. Despite these inconsistencies, it is difficult not to be won over by the minimalist prose and candid emotion of Hirsch’s writing. Some of the stories seem ridiculous, others are highly dramatized, but all reflect a resonating humanity. We observe the collection’s vast array of characters, but in the end, we see ourselves reflected.


in my Nam dream

by John Samuel Tieman

the army drafts me back to the war
I’m the oldest corporal in the 4th Infantry
I curse my neighbors who are all my father
the barracks is French
I beg my wife not to leave me
the Red Alert siren turns to an alarm
Phoebe is surprised I would ask


Allowing for a bit of poetic license, this is in essence a dream I had night before last. I’ve been home from that war for forty-three years. I learned in therapy that, while the pain fades, the wound remains.

But about that poetic license. And about that dream. The controlling image is my war. The dream is about abandonment, and the subject, my greatest fear.

In the actual dream, my love is disrupted, as is my work, as are my friendships. The barracks is a school in which I taught many years ago. There’s no work in that barracks/school, just disorientation. The French barracks image I take from an actual abandoned Foreign Legion barracks in which I spent a night in The Nam. I use a flat statement, ‘the barracks is French’, in which the disorientation is implied. In the dream, I simply turn my back on my father, who abandoned me when I was ten. I didn’t curse my neighbors and friends in the dream. I debated them, the end result being that they leave. I conflate these two bits into a single image, throw out the dream debate and throw in ‘curse’ for drama of the image and the hardness of the c and the r, the hiss of the s. The Red Alert siren turning into the alarm clock, that’s pure poetry aided by associational logic, the purpose being a transition to wakefulness. Phoebe comforts me in the dream. When I actually awoke, she really said almost nothing beyond, “I’ve got another hour to sleep” or some such.

For many years, I used to dwell upon Vietnam. In its many variations, this nightmare was a response to that trauma. Today, just now, I really don’t think that much about the facts of the war. But the emotions — the emotions are forever.