by John Samuel Tieman

There is an inter-office memo. “Staff, there is no other system. I hope this answers the question.” Thus are we given the choice between being computer programmers, or being a vice-president for programming. Naturally, since we need the dental plan, we choose to be programmers and vice-presidents. Soon, we run out of programs to program. We then write programs about testing programs. While that task is in progress, the more creative among us write programs that supplement the programs, programs that augment the meta-programs, as well as programs that test the programmers and the vice-presidents.

One vice-president almost emails his wife a billet-doux. Instead, he considers company policy. The company hires only one guard. The vice-president approaches the guard. The guard is silent. The vice-president apologizes. The guard is silent. The vice-president confesses. His inter-office confession reads, “Staff, there is nothing new. Please continue.”

Vicarious Gardening

by Nola Garrett


Sticks-in-a-drowse droop over sugary loam,
Their intricate stem-fur dries;
But still the delicate slips keep coaxing up water;
The small cells bulge;

One nub of growth
Nudges a sand-crumb loose,
Pokes through a musty sheath
Its pale tendrilous horn.

from Theodore Roethke’s COLLECTED POEMS, 1948

Besides giving up my pinball machine, the hardest part of moving from a four bedroom, custom-built Florida house to a two bedroom Pittsburgh condo was abandoning my garden. That garden pretty much encompassed the entire yard because instead of rolling out the usual Florida lawn sod, I had xeroscaped with stone(s) and wood chips. I kept no indoor plants, but in the yard I had planted lots of citrus trees—including a Meyer lemon—five flowering trees, and kept a volunteer elderberry from which to make jelly or an occasional pie. My usual herb garden was planted along both sides of the front walk. I’d also tucked into a back, single-windowed corner a small waterfall-pond edged with stones and flowers. Tending the yard, as well as the steep, vine-planted back bank down to Lake St. George, the gardens, the pond, the large house, the swimming pool, a small poetry career, an ailing husband; shopping and cooking all the while dealing with my own aging process just got to be too much. I was exhausted. Even though I still loved doing it all, I gave up that beautiful house, its grounds, its lake view, and gardening. I had to save my own life. For a while longer.

Anticipating my drive north to Pittsburgh, out on the pool lanai I clipped a few sprigs from two huge Christmas cacti brooding in a dark corner, that I had moved as sprigs from Erie 15 years earlier. I stuck them in a water glass to root—my only concession to what I envisioned as my future, plantless condo life. When the house sold and the time came to load my car, I wrapped my hairy rooted cactus sprigs in a wet paper towel, put them in a small plastic bag to ride shotgun with me up I-75. And then, at the last minute I also rescued a few flower pots that I’d left at the curb. When I unpacked in Pittsburgh, I firmly pushed the flower pots into the very back of the linen closet, placed my cactus sprigs into another old glass and set it in my north east dinning room window. As far as I was concerned, my Pittsburgh garden was complete.


My first venture into gardening at age eight was the result of a gift of several dozen tulip bulbs from my Great Aunt Et. Aunt Et was short. Aunt Et was so short and agile that she comfortably planted and weeded her vegetable and flower gardens by simply bending at her waist. She loved growing anything, cooking, baking cookies, and talking a mile a minute all the while her false teeth clicked and danced within her smiling mouth. She liked talking to anyone, even me practically eye to eye when my family was always invited for New Year’s dinner in her big red brick house on the east side of Erie, PA. She was also a good listener who somehow figured out that I’d really like to grow flowers though my Dad was of the opinion that his garden was only for growing food to get us through the long hard cold winter in Mill Village 25 miles south of Erie.

Aunt Et may have been small, but she was a powerful talker. Though I wasn’t allowed to waste the ground of Dad’s garden, I was allowed to dig up the lawn out by the driveway. I can still almost feel how tired and sweaty I was that fall Saturday from removing the sod and digging those dozens of six inch holes in which to plant my tulip bulbs that Aunt Et had sent home with my Dad for me. And, I will always remember the spring of ’49 when those tulips arose, bloomed red, yellow, white, purple along with a couple that were striped red and white! I couldn’t bear to pick them. As if they were in some way Aunt Et, I visited them every day until they receded as the lawn’s grass marched back.

The next year my mother planted lupines on both sides of the driveway—her first time for flower gardening—too.


During my first marriage, I lived with my husband on his fallow 100 acre farm. I took up bee keeping and planted a garden of both vegetables and flowers. When for some obscure reason he brought home half a dozen Grey Toulouse geese, I took care of them. After a year or so, I noticed that many of the geese’s eggs were being eaten by the local wildlife. The next spring, I ordered an egg incubator, read the detailed instructions, gathered a dozen goose eggs, and set the incubator in our bedroom.

Thirty two days later, I was awakened before dawn by a weak peep peep. I leapt out of bed, turned on a light, opened the incubator to find that the peep peep was coming from a slightly wobbling intact egg. A few hours later there was a duet of peep peeps from another intact egg. I reread the instructions and was relieved to find my eggs were doing just fine, but I needed to not only keep sprinkling the eggs with water and turning them as I had been doing every day, but also I now needed to briefly immerse each egg twice a day in warm water. Three days later the first gosling pecked its way out of its shell. Over the course of the next day or so, all but three of the rest managed the same feat. However, I had to carefully restrain myself from establishing any eye contact with the goslings or they would imprint on me, and I would be impressed into mother goose service. I knew there was no way on Earth that I could carry out the skills of a mother goose from even the most detailed of instructions. So, each night as the goslings hatched, eyes closed I would put the goslings into my coat pockets, sneak outside to the nests of what had become my setting geese, and push the newest goslings under a goose. Given the fierce protective nature of geese, I had thought that might be an impossible feat; however, it turned out that all those months of my feeding and walking among the flock may have built a trust between us so that they accepted my furtive midwifery. Or maybe the sounds of those peep peep’s each setting goose, too.

Leaving my geese behind when I had to move from my abusive husband’s farm was harder and more painful than my leaving him.


As my Christmas cactus cuttings settled into Pittsburgh’s light, I had lots of friends and family’s first visits, and most brought house warming gifts: bottles of wine, local restaurant gift cards, and plants. I couldn’t bring myself to refuse their well meant gifts, and further after each plant bearer left I couldn’t bring myself to throw away a perfectly good small fern, a tiny red bromeliad, a serviceable succulent, or even the 3 foot palm tree that my brother, Jerry, gave me. I did, though, keep them all herded in my dining room. They were low light plants. How much work could they make?

Meanwhile, I was enjoying Gateway Center’s expertly kept, ever-blooming pink roses and admiring Point State Park’s carefully tended, faux woodland of wild flowers and trees as spring/ summer/fall melted into each other. Mid-winter came, and the palm tree jaundiced, then died. I cleaned out its pot, pushed it into the linen closet with the rescued Florida pots. Another six months passed as I continued to dump enough water on the sill plants to keep them alive.


Sometime after Christmas this year, I began to feel rested, to feel as if in some way I had as a person begun to put down my roots in Pittsburgh. At that point, I inspected those survivors still huddled against the dining room window glass. All of them had grown, even thrived almost out of their cramped quarters. Intending to at least give the water glass dwelling Christmas cactus a real pot, I bought a bag of potting soil. When I went to choose a pot from the linen closet, I realized the cactus needed one of the larger pots, a pot too large for the sill, so I placed it in my office. Though it had already finished its bit of holiday blooming, within a week it sprouted more flower buds, re-bloomed. Who knew Christmas cacti relished computer light? At that point I gave in to my past, bought some fertilizer, another larger bag of soil. I used the rest of the rescued pots for the gift plants, then acquired a big money plant and an even bigger clump of mother-in-law tongue, knowing full well that in spite of their names they were both easy, undemanding souls. I realized I felt better. Maybe it was the extra oxygen the exuberant transplants were generating, or maybe it just felt good on some curious level to become for a few sentient beings the wind and the rain?


Yet, I must admit there was one other gift I received that I almost threw out. Late November, early December last year a condo employee informed me that I had a package marked both fragile and time-sensitive waiting for me. I was puzzled; I hadn’t ordered anything of that sort. When I opened it I discovered that my poet friend, Pat Callan, who lives part time in Florida had sent me an early Christmas gift—a dozen paper narcissi bulbs and a simple unglazed, red pottery bowl. Her gift seemed like too much. Too generous. Too much work for me. I wavered. I took a long walk down by the Allegheny River, looked at its no color water and the gray sky, but I kept walking anyway. I came back to my warm, light-filled condo, looked around in my dining room cabinets where I found a net bag of polished pebbles that I had bought years before from Target just because they were quietly beautiful, and just for the sake of their beauty, at the last minute I had tucked them into a moving box packed with dishes. While the bulbs wouldn’t really have to have soil they would need some sort of support—those pebbles. Still, it all seemed to be too much.

The next morning I finally nestled into the pebble-filled bowl the six bulbs that within the darkness of their dry bag had begun to push out a new complexity of pale sprouts. I poured in a cup of warm water, and carried my new garden into my living room to place it near my reading chair.

Retirement Planning

By Karen Zhang

Having newly stepped into the American labor force, I’ve had to navigate the byzantine process of planning for retirement. Unlike in China where municipal governments control retirement funds, Americans rely on the financial markets to invest their retirement money.

Instead of letting your money accumulate over a period of time, the American investment companies put your money in the stock and bond markets and let the money grow until you retire.

Of course, same as the Chinese employers, the American employers will also contribute a matching portion to the employee’s retirement fund. But neither the Chinese employers nor the employee has direct control of the retirement fund. The municipal government does.

To decide which retirement plan to invest is fairly tough for me. I am a complete investment dummy. My philosophy never moves beyond one plus one equals two. That is, if I save one dollar every day, by the end of the week I will have seven dollars. But the American way is I should take some risks and I will probably get more than seven dollars by the end of the week. But how? There are a million probabilities and options there for me to choose. Ah—back to the unique character of American life—making choices.

For days, I was overwhelmed with financial jargon from the retirement plan literature. How will I distinguish Risk A from Risk B? How will I foresee I will gain instead of lose my retirement fund thirty years from now? The instruction says a conservative option is to join in the formulated 5-year increment lifecycle investment. I say, even this investment is too risky for me. Why can’t I just put aside the money without investing it for the future? Yes I can if this is my option. But my employer will not contribute their part if the retirement fund is not placed in the investment market. I guess I just cannot have a simple retirement in America, can I?


How To Tell A War Story

by John Samuel Tieman

I remember the day Senior Drill Sergeant Rose lined us up in squads of eight. It was the first week of Basic Training.

“Every single one of you is going to The Nam. Consider yourselves officially dipped in shit. Now look up and down your squad. There’s eight of you. This time next year, one of you will be dead. So pay attention to your drill sergeants, and you may be one of the lucky seven who comes home only wounded or crazy. That’s your first lesson. Now here’s Drill Sergeant Thomas, who’s got a war story.”

Sgt. Thomas was mean. But at first his look wasn’t so much mean as blank.

From beside Sgt. Rose’s rostrum, Sgt. Thomas smartly steps out as if he’s on parade. He stands before us at attention. He does an about face. He takes off his drill sergeant’s hat, his fatigue shirt, pulls down his pants then his boxer shorts. The skin, from his knees to his shoulders, is streaked with half-a-dozen long diagonal scars, and bunches of little ones. Then he puts his clothes back on, does another about face. And grins. He never says a word. Just that demented grin. The story was made entirely of keloids.


In the years immediately after the war, every day I used to dwell on the war. And I don’t mean I’d think of it now and again. I mean I’d dwell at length. I remember one week when I wondered if I could recall each day I’d been in Nam. Each night for about a week, just after I turned out the light, just before I went to sleep – I could recall every day of the war.

Some time later, it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought of The Nam in twenty-four hours. I’d been home for over three years.

When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “The Wall”, was constructed, for the first time I saw a complete list of the American dead. I pulled out this yearbook sort of thing I have from Basic Training, and compared it to the list. I wanted to see if Senior Drill Sergeant Rose was right about that one in eight thing. I saw Thornton’s name. I saw my bunk mate, Lewis. And I stopped. It is enough to know some of us died. Beyond that, I just don’t want to think of them that way.  10,000 miles from home. Crying for mother. The chaplain leaning in and saying, “Private, I’m going to give you your Last Rites now. Are you ready?”


When I first got home, I used to dwell on the war. Now, it’s like it creeps up on me every few weeks, like some Mephistopheles stalking a soul he already owns.

Like today. The ROTC folks at my school are making a display of veterans on the faculty. They ask me for a medal. I bring them my Vietnamese Cross Of Gallantry.

Last night, I taped the movie “Tigerland”, largely because that’s where I trained, Fort Polk. The movie was waiting for me when I got home from work.

As was the novel All Quite On The Western Front. I set it on my desk this morning. My wife never read it. I promised to read to Phoebe my favorite passage, the last chapter.

Later, on “The Five O’clock News”, there’s the story of a boy killed in Vietnam. They were bringing home, after all these years, his remains. Bone fragments.

And I wept.    It all just sort of crept up on me.

American Caricature

By Karen Zhang

I like reading caricatures. The exaggeration of a celebrity in a drawing makes the hidden satire much more lively and unforgettable. I appreciate the artwork as much as the message conveyed through the image. I once subscribed to the New Yorker magazine. In the end, I was more interested in the humor and cartoon section in the magazine than the long-winded articles. Perhaps, drawing is like music. Both can reach a wide audience without geographic and cultural boundaries.
I notice that the American president is the most publicized caricature in the American media. For example, when President Bush junior was in office, his caricature with his distinctive monkey-like face was everywhere in the political humor. Now it is President Obama’s turn. His big ears, long face and his signature cheek-to-cheek smile appear in nearly all sorts of newspapers and magazines. During the last election year, Obama’s caricature had a new companion, or I shall say a new rival. The American media was also thick with Mitt Romney’s caricature with his overly-groomed hair and protruding chin.

Leaders in China are not made fun of. For centuries, Chinese people have regarded their emperors as deity. Those who disrespect the leader of the country were as sinful as a Christian insulting his God. Even in modern days, despite that freedom of speech in China is relatively open, the Chinese media is still careful about criticizing, say, President Xi Jinping’s policies in the form of caricature.

As a Chinese, I find Americans are really bold in expressing their mind, regardless of right or wrong. I saw a caricature of Hillary Clinton portrayed as an evil woman at the Benghazi hearings. I saw the caricature of Speaker of the House John Boehner pounding the gavel with crocodile’s tears. It was so much fun to read and re-read these caricatures. They mark a period of history. After all, American celebrities are quite expressive and dramatic.

I don’t know if there is a limit for caricaturists in America. Are there any rules of what they can draw and what they cann’t? Is their satire subject to liable? Will the caricaturists receive warnings from the authorities if their work offends a particular interest group? Chinese officials hunt down the people who slander them or make them look ridiculous.


Dance Review: Just Us…The Journey Continues by Reed Dance

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Over the weekend, Reed Dance premiered Just Us…The Journey Continues. The show was their first since leaving the August Wilson Center. Despite the group’s makeover (several new company members and a smaller performing venue), they emerged as bold and fiery as ever.

The Alloy Studios was a great place to see the dancers up close and personal. The small black box allowed for many of the perks of a traditional theater – intricate lighting design, raked seating, and a lobby for chit-chat. And with its intimacy, we were able to see the dancers’ vivid expressions and the details of their movements.

Reed chose six works for the program, a blend of old and new repertoire. Terence Greene, a Cleveland choreographer who has worked with the company quite a bit, presented two joyful and expressive large group pieces. “Breath” and “Faith” both had an infectious, crowd-pleasing effect.

Each dance accentuated Greene’s contemporary and African styles, which the performers handled with ease. The costumes stood out as well. In “Breath,” local artist, Vanessa German, made exquisite dresses for the women – black and deep orange with detailed patterns. For “Faith,” Cleveland School of the Arts provided long robes for the men and bright blue, flowing dresses for the women.

“Faith” closed the show, as it always should, and had the audience clapping, singing and raising their hands as if in Sunday Baptist church, Greene’s imagined setting for the piece. Kaylin Horgan performed the female solo this time around. Her effervescence lit up the stage (maybe even the entire neighborhood), convincing and moving.

NYC choreographer, Christopher Huggins, also had two works in the show – “Mothers of War” and “The List.” The former portrayed the agonizing truths of war. An emotional duet between Antonio Brown and Rebekah Kuczma bookended the dramatic progression from the group throughout. The latter piece also described painful anguish, following one Jewish family’s horror through the Holocaust.

To break up the high-energy tempo of the show, two smaller works perfectly changed the pace. In the first half, Brown performed a solo called “Knock Knock.” The piece showed off his seemingly liquid joints and athleticism. Utilizing powerful text and a pulsating beat, Brown told the story of one man’s navigation through life without a father.

In the second half, Kaylin Horgan and Rebekah Kuczma performed a world premiere by NYC choreographer, Sidra Bell. “Now You Can Let Go” was perhaps the most unique piece in the show. With quirky, angular gestures and unpredictable partnering, the movement was sometimes tender, and oftentimes curious. Reed said the duet spoke to the women’s friendship.

Just Us… proved that Reed Dance will continue to shine under their new name. Each dancer had the versatility to perform the company’s wide range of repertory, with stamina and finesse as stunning as always.

The Next Renaissance or The Conjectures of a Reluctant Optimist

by John Samuel Tieman

Y si he de dar un testimonio sobre mi época
es éste: Fue bárbara y primitiva
pero poética.

And if I have to give witness to my era
it’s this: It was barbarous and primitive
yet poetic.

    -Ernesto Cardinal / John Samuel Tieman

I: The Madonna

My wife and I spent a couple of weeks this summer in Prague. We fell in love with the city. My wife attended a psychoanalytic conference, which left me with a few days on my own. Enough time for me to fall in love with the gothic Convent Of St. Agnes, which now houses the medieval collection of the Czech National Gallery. I spent two days there.

I learned many things. But of interest here is “The Madonna Of St. Vitus Cathedral.” It was one of the first “beautiful Madonnas,” sometimes called “the pretty Virgins.” In a few words, the painting is clearly medieval, but presents many features that prefigure the Renaissance. The Jesus and the Mary are anatomically proportional, for example. Obvious as it may be to those far wiser, it dawned on me, as I explored this painting at length, that it is possible to discuss a period that was, while clearly medieval, in essence pre-Renaissance.

It was a period of transition.

Which brings me to 2014. No one likes to think that they live in a dark age. (Many, perhaps most, medievalists dislike the very term “Dark Ages”). Yet I’m not sure what else to call the 20th Century. Verdun. Vietnam. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Auschwitz. Mustard gas. The Armenian Genocide. Stalinism. World War I, which was followed by another world war far worse. The Crusades pale by comparison. If the 20th Century wasn’t a dark age, then the term has no meaning.

With that in mind, our time is also a period of transition. Many scholars speak of the end of Modernism, that we are in a time of Post-Modernism. Jacques Derrida comes to mind, as does Michel Foucault. And many other equally brilliant scholars.

In my opinion, Post-Modernism isn’t so much a fixed ideology as it is a fluid critique of Modernism. It is indicative of a transition rather than any fixed point. Post-Modernism is essentially skeptical. It deconstructs. It offers an important vision of transition. But its very purpose is not foundational.

I’m not dismissing Post-Modernism, not by any means. It facilitates transition, and that is vital. Transitions are confusing. Post-Modernism gives an explanation, a kind of symbolic comfort to the confused. To risk a metaphor, it criticizes the old world, it explains the voyage, but it stipulates no port of call. It reacts. It doesn’t establish. Post-Modernism deconstructs Modernism, and, in doing so, provides a purely intellectual interlude into which no popular movement, nor any resultant magnum opus, has yet to enter. That’s not a bad thing. It’s simply transitional. But it is not comparable to, say, the medieval religious movements that gave birth to both the Dominicans and the Franciscans, out of which grew such masterpieces as the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, and the poetry of Francis Of Assisi.

Which brings me back to “The Madonna Of St. Vitus Cathedral.” No one likes to think that they live in an unenlightened era. Nonetheless, it is possible to think of our years as comparable to that pre-Renaissance period. Perhaps we are approaching The Next Renaissance. I hope so. The alternative, that the 21st Century will be worse than the 20th, is too horrible to contemplate.

II: The Next Renaissance

Why should anyone have hope?

We have polluted the planet to the point of global warming. The United States elected a president, George W. Bush, who doesn’t believe in evolution. One poll found that 22% of adult Americans, and 20% of high school students, thought it was possible that the Holocaust never happened. The 85 richest people own 46% of the wealth – on the earth. In 2012, 49 million Americans lived with food insecurity, 33.1 million adults and 15.9 million children. In a recent poll, 51% of Republicans believed that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim, who was born in Kenya. In that same poll, more than half of the Democrats believe that President Bush was complicit in the 9/11 attacks. I got an internet ad that began, “Earn Your Ph. D. Online!” In education, complete standardization is a planned terminus.

This is a litany of ignorance and decadence that could go on ad infinitum.

So why should anyone have hope? Why should anyone feel that all this portends anything except darkness?

Perhaps because the very transition itself may be hopeful. One can hope that we are transitioning, because we have exhausted decadence and ignorance. Be that as it may, Modernism is ending. But thought is not. “The Madonna Of St. Vitus Cathedral” is indicative of a new learning that was, in essence, salvific.

Allow me another litany.

The Catholic Church is entering an era that is post-sacerdotal, one where the parish is run by the people. Our president is black, and our country increasingly brown. Major TV channels are in Spanish. My youngest niece just retired as a full-bird colonel in the Army. I think I was the only passenger who even noticed when, on one leg of our trip to Prague, all our pilots were female, and all our flight attendants were male. Wikipedia does what Denis Diderot and the Encyclopedists only dreamed. Occupy Wall Street made it possible, for perhaps the first time since the McCarthy hearings, to openly critique capitalism. Malala Yousafzai was shot in Pakistan, but healed in England, and now campaigns for the education of young women worldwide. Homosexuals can openly marry. In the United States, the death penalty is itself on the verge of extinction. It is possible to consider an end of the most corrosive effects of positivism, and the beginnings of a new humanism. Some of the finest works of art, that have ever been produced, are being crafted right now.

This too is a litany than could go on ad infinitum.

Of the two litanies I’ve just provided, we will choose the one we prefer. In the end, it’s not like I can really prove The Next Renaissance is approaching. My only point is that absolutely nothing dictates that this current transition must end badly.

But mine is pure speculation, reluctant optimism. So I say there is reason for hope. In any case, if the alternative is true, if the 21st Century grows worse than the 20th, then none of this matters. Because Sobibor’s fate will be envied.

Memorable Porridges

by Nola Garrett

I have a low pleasure threshold.  I suppose another way to say this would be that I’m easily amused, as if I were living my life as a playful cat.  This winter I’ve especially enjoyed watching falling snow here from the condo’s windows when the air currents surrounding this building caused the flakes to fall up.  I find it intriguing to see how snow transforms Mt. Washington’s cliff side into stacked deckle edge book pages, depicting Pittsburgh’s geological stories.  I’m still savoring my morning walk a week ago from Grant Street down Forbes Avenue when with my every step the snow softly squeaked.  I know that I’m blessed to be retired, so I don’t have to drive every day no matter how snowy the roads become.  Not commuting, too, is a pleasure: another reminder that I’m living a cat’s life, though my years as a tenured English professor gave me great pleasure with only occasional grief.

Beyond the stages of healing, grief, I’ve found, does have its simple pleasures such as learning to live alone.  I’ve slowly transformed my living space into a place cleared of painful reminders and kept what soothes me.  I’ve added an additional desk, a pair of floor lamps, a red velvet back pillow, a down comforter, plants, a plant stand, and lace curtains.  I eat when and what I want to eat—lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, and oatmeal.  The oatmeal has been something of a surprise that’s taken me a long time to understand.

Some of my earliest memories with my brother Joel are watching Mom cook oatmeal for our breakfast.  Joel and I came up with a phrase to describe the emerging tiny steam explosions dotting the boiling oatmeal’s surface, “bubble stankers.”  Though our phrase was faintly naughty, Mom never objected the same way she always would if we said “belly button” which made saying “bubble stankers” all the more delicious.  Further, Mom always cooked oatmeal with raisins just for her and us kids, because Dad refused to eat any breakfast that didn’t consist of at least fried eggs and meat.  Dad weighed 300 pounds; Mom 117.  Gradually, I came to understand that serving oatmeal for breakfast was Mom’s quiet declaration of independence—her version of a low pleasure threshold.  I’ve taken oatmeal a few steps further by adding white raisins, currants, or a selection of Jumbo Mixed raisins and eating it for lunch or even dinner.

Nearly forty years later, I encountered Galway Kinnell’s poem, “Oatmeal” even before he published it in his 1990 book, WHEN ONE HAS LIVED A LONG TIME ALONE.  I immediately elevated “Oatmeal” to my poetry’s Top 10.  It seems to me that though that poem is not his book’s title poem, it is the real heart of that collection.  Kinnell’s “Oatmeal” speaker and John Keats who joins him for a breakfast porridge initially take a less enthusiastic approach to their breakfast cereal:

Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him: due to its glutinous
  texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime, and unusual willingness
  to disintegrate, oatmeal must never be eaten alone.

Keats then goes on to explain his composition of “Ode to a Nightingale” and to relate his poem’s lack of unity to eating oatmeal alone.  (Only halfway through reading “Oatmeal” at this point I was laughing so hard I cried.)  Kinnell recounts

[Keats] still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas,
and the way here and there a line will go into the configuration of a
  Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up and peer about, and then lay
  itself down slightly off the mark, causing the poem to move

  forward with God’s reckless wobble.

After breakfast Keats recited “To Autumn” and then off-handedly gave credit for two of that ode’s most memorable images to a view of an oat field and to eating oatmeal alone.  Lots of poets at that point would rest on their laurels, but not Galway Kinnell.  He takes the poem further, gives a critical jab to Patrick Kavanagh by inviting him to eat oatmeal and presents the poem’s readers another line, a line that has somehow helped me to accept “God’s reckless wobble” and its relationship with my own grief:

Maybe there is no sublime, only the shining of the amnion’s tatters.

Like Galway Kinnell, I’ve come to enjoy eating oatmeal alone, and I’m willing to give him and his poems some of the credit for my easy pleasure.

Highet’s Law and a Pirate of the Caribbean

by Arlene Weiner

When I was an undergraduate at Barnard College, we were allowed to take graduate courses at Columbia University. I took a class in, I think, “The Classical Tradition,” with Gilbert Highet. Highet was quite well known. He was on the board of the Book of the Month Club, had written a book called The Art of Teaching, and had written a great doorstop of a softbound book with the same title as the course. Since I was a callow undergraduate, and accustomed to extremely intense classes, I thought his class was not very rigorous. I didn’t yet appreciate that graduate education could take the British form of meetings with a mentor, with the initiative and rigor supplied by the learner/scholar. I do remember that when I had a conference with Highet, he asked if I’d like tea and gave me a cup.

I still have Highet’s enormous book, a very useful reference for centuries of influence of Greek and Roman civilization. And I recall “Highet’s Law:” “First-rate results can have third-rate causes.” He enunciated that law, as I recall, with respect to Shakespeare (first-rate) and Ovid (third-, or perhaps second-). He may specifically have been speaking of Ars Amatoria, the Art of Love, which he regarded as a spoof in which Ovid pretended to be taking seriously a subject that was beneath seriousness, the seduction of easy women.

Which is how I get to pirates. It has struck me how many excellent authors, in recounting how they fell in love with writing, say that they read and imitated Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood. I took Captain Blood to be an example, of genre fiction, of good story telling, of “low” culture in general. A third-rate cause with first-rate effects. But having just read a Wikipedia article about Captain Blood I think it may be better than I thought: probably swashbuckling but historically accurate and complex, a tale (or, originally, a suite of tales) about Peter Blood, who’s unjustly judged a traitor to King James II, is enslaved and transported, and who becomes a successful buccaneer. And I think I’d better read it.

(My apologies to readers who know all about Captain Blood. I wouldn’t be surprised if that included nearly all the men who read Coal Hill Review and some of the women. Let us know.)

Still—Highet’s Law holds. Poetry nowadays is the resultant of many influences, including pop music, advertisements, comic books, video games. Maybe not only third-rate causes, but many beneath seriousness. How wonderful when it is Shakespearean and transmutes the third-rate and low-rent into the first-rate.

Book Review: Imperial by George Bilgere

 photo bilgereimperial_zpsde794649.jpg
Poems by George Bilgere
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

The world George Bilgere represents in his sixth collection, Imperial, tight-ropes the simple with the complex. Bilgere’s voice—casual, matter-of-fact, and vaguely amused—edges at the last second with anxiety and denial. His poems, an empire of “Yard Sale,” “Fly Balls,” “Prostate Exam,” simultaneously mix with the metaphysics and mythology of what Bilgere attributes to the “beautiful ordinariness.” Among these pages occurs a combustion of universes. The stars collide on the heels of our feet, galaxy light-years rush us slowly through the decades, away from the youth of yo-yo’s and the Cold War, into the final battle with old age. This proves fitting, for even among the grandiose “It would be normal life, / which threatens at all times to overwhelm us.”

The convergence of universes is found most prominently in “Scorcher.” The setting: an after-dinner walk during summer twilight. The heat of day folds into the damp cloth of night, the birds asleep, the lightning bugs aglow. The poem’s action is close to motionless, the neighbors “mystical and obscure,” and the walkers awed by the brilliant strangeness of humanity amidst the vastness. Bilgere narrates the scene with a slow affection, ends the poem on a bird’s-eye view:

“for this shared mystery
of being human
on this dark little planet,
on one of the slender,
gracefully swirling arms
of one of the smaller galaxies.”

Here, Bilgere shows that the world of our planet is only an arm on a child galaxy. Throughout the collection, Bilgere constantly reminds us of our place, and while his tone never veers towards anger, there appears an air of pointedness, as if Bilgere himself has uttered with his pencil tip, we need perspective.

This happens in “Mexican Town.” The poem is quick in comparison, especially against the pace of “Scorcher.” No time to appreciate, to dive into the culture, and here craft matches intent: to reveal America’s under- appreciation of an extrinsic, natural world, free from the technology that consumes our current age. The final stanza sums it up, the brevity obvious,

“The boys go down to the beach
and play futbol in the sand.
At sunset they race each other
into the surf. It’s sad.”

Perhaps due to the sadness that comes with the loss of connectedness in our modern world, Bilgere’s speaker is reluctant to move forward. In “Jane,” the speaker witnesses the old woman across the street pack in preparation for “a home of some sort. A facility.” While the speaker talks with Jane, the only real information provided in regards to her is the fact that she is old and must move to accommodate such aging. The word facility repeats five times within six stanzas. A white-knuckle denial lives inside the speaker,

“…I have no intention of doing so.
What Jane is doing—growing old,
taking out her ominous black trash bags
to vanish terribly in the snow, getting ready
for someone to drive her to a facility…”

Instead, Bilgere circles the past around his tongue, writes about youth in the 1950’s with Stan Musial and Duncan Imperial Yo-Yo’s, the horrors of war and the atom bomb through the lens of new toy technology. This way the past, barely, looks better than the future.

In “Traverse City,” the speaker reflects on the days spent with family by the lake, “The tiny cottages on the shore are still there.” The appearance of the lake and beach, and even the children playing on the shore is cyclical. This physical preservation of the past fogs the speaker’s ability to solidify the procession of time. In one of the more moving stanzas in Bilgere’s collection he demonstrates the bewilderment of time passing, of growing old:

“My sisters are middle-aged women,
children and divorces behind them.
I am older than my father ever was.
Yet there are the cottages and the beach
where we played with our buckets and shovels,
as the children on the sand are playing now.

No one can explain this.”

In addition to the individual loss Bilgere’s speaker experiences, a cultural loss brims to the surface. The art of language fails in this new America. “Yard Sale” finds volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica soaking on a card table in the rain. Bilgere writes, “It looks brand new, even though it must be sixty years old./ That’s because it was only used a couple of times.” The days of needing physical books to discover information are long gone.

“Attic Shapes,” also hints towards the loss of language when the speaker stores his dissertation, for the second time, in the attic. The hours spent studying Keats, and the years living a lifestyle that would make the Romantics proud, become boxes collecting with dust. The language that fueled the past has given way to the “beautiful ordinariness,” a world in perspective. Maybe, though, reason backs the evolution of days, the future not entirely lost, because on second look we’ll find

“a time too painful with hopeless yearning,
and too beautiful with poetic self-pity,
and generally too terrible with loneliness and mystical confusion,
either to hear again or ever throw away.”


The Guest Lecture

by John Samuel Tieman

Settling on the screen
Of the crowded movie house,
A white butterfly

— Richard Wright

Thank you for that kind and generous introduction. I am really looking forward to meeting whomever it was you were talking about.

I may well be the least likely poet in the world to give a lecture on composition. I sometimes think I have these mutually exclusive frames, in which people know me as one thing but not the other. Some know me as a certified middle school and high school teacher. Others as a university lecturer. Some as an obscure historian. Others as a minor poet. To the extent that anyone knows me at all, I’m probably best recognized for my political commentaries. A few folks know my scholarly essays about educational psychology. My beloved wife is a highly regarded psychoanalyst, so in some crowds I’m Phoebe’s husband. To some I’m Mr. Tieman, and to others I’m Dr. Tieman. Some know me as a Vietnam veteran; some know me as a peace activist. I don’t know – maybe I’m simply a highly accomplished dilettante.

My point being that my writing, frankly, is just one aspect of my life. An important one, don’t get me wrong. I identify myself as a writer, as a poet and an essayist. And as an educator. And as an historian. As a war veteran. As a scholar. As a loving husband. As a Roman Catholic, for that matter. All that. And more.

In any case, you asked. Let me begin by saying that I am not going to be didactic. Too many good writers have written eloquently on this subject. (What does one say after Phillip Sidney’s An Apology For Poetry, Richard Hugo’ s The Triggering Town, John Ciardi’s How Does A Poem Mean?) But you asked. Therefore, I will tend toward the impressionistic, and the vaguely autobiographical.

Let me begin with a poem about poetry.

the art


I’ve never written a poem
that said what I meant

one means as much as shrapnel
one means as little as ink


I wish I had wisdom
instead I have lines

silent as a blackboard in summer
loud as a glacier breaking away


I’ve never known a poem
to stay where I left it

a prisoner climbing a fence
a landing light in the sky

I sometimes think I wasted decades looking for inspiration, when all I needed to do was simply open my eyes.

mother and suckling
boy at the bus stop on Pine
she notes the dawn and
wonders what the day will bring
besides milk and sleep and light

I have almost no imagination. Easily my best known poem was inspired by a shadow.
we undress for love
and for ten seconds the dusk
makes us young again

That haiku was published in Japan in translation in the millions. And it was inspired by nothing beyond what it says. I love my wife. I love her body. Twilight and I wish we were young. I used to think that all poems were inspired by a great sunset, a cataclysmic earthquake, the death of a young athlete. In Vietnam, I saw a sunset that made even the birds pause. In 1985, I survived the Mexico City Earthquake. A student died on the soccer field last year. And I got from these not a single line of poetry. Then — then yesterday —

in utter silence
I stare out our new picture
window to the street
a basketball rolls by followed
by not a soul …


Sometimes a poem takes decades.

Many years ago, I made the acquaintance of Howard Nemerov. I don’t want this to sound any larger than it was — acquaintance is just the right word. He lived down the street from me here, in St. Louis. Sometimes we’d talk of war, World War II for him, Vietnam for me. I remember once saying how I always felt like my service was a failure, that somehow I had failed The Manhood Test. It was one of the first times I’d ever been aggressively honest about my trauma. He admitted having the same feelings. “It’s amazing how war can make us feel like a failure, even when all we failed to do was get ourselves killed.”

And, of course, we spoke of poetry. I have for decades meditated on an off-handed comment he made. “I have no imagination.” At first, I was uncomprehending. Years later, as I walked across the campus of Washington University, years after he’d passed, I saw Howard’s old office window. There were the gingko trees he wrote about in his poetry. He didn’t imagine anything. He just looked out the window. That act of looking took no imagination. The art was in his craft.

This poem below records an event that happened in 1970. My first night in the 4th Infantry Division, North Vietnamese sappers blew-up twenty-one helicopters. Welcome to The Nam. The next night, we watched as “Puff The Magic Dragon”, a Douglas AC-47 gunship, killed these N. V. A. maybe a half-a-mile from the camp. This gunship carried three mini-guns, Gatling guns, which fired so many rounds, 6,000 rounds a minute, that it was said that they put one bullet in every square inch of an area the size of a football field. These mini-guns don’t even sound like a rat-a-tat-tat machine gun. It’s much more like wwwwhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh, so many bullets firing so fast that they are indistinguishable. The next morning, a patrol didn’t find any bodies, just body-sized splotches of blood.

I wanted to capture the fact that my feelings were a combination of relief and awe. It is a cliché to say that soldiers are always afraid. No doubt many are. But I wasn’t afraid. And I wasn’t brave. This untitled poem records the night in The Nam that I became dissociative.

I have struggled for decades with my own reaction formation, which is a near-pacifist stance. I hate war. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find it arousing. Hence, “it’s finally time” to tell a story that I, for decades, didn’t want to know about myself. Perhaps my memories of Howard put me in mind of W. B. Yeats’ “After Long Silence”, the echo of which can be found in this poem —

Years after the war, it’s finally time,
our first sergeant retired,
our outpost plowed under,
the secrets no longer the news, that we tell
the story and tell it again until we hear
what we hated to know:
that we admired the arc of the tracer,
that we admired the splotches of blood.


I’ve been influenced by many other poets.

St. Patrick’s Basilica, Montreal

the leaflet says Emile Nelligan once prayed here
horrified and solar and pale
dementia like an ice violin
a vein where no one finds gold

what did you see when you saw Jesus
a rag doll a neon eclipse Baudelaire
fantastic nostrils sudden birds
psalms sung by orphans

nearly fifty years in a hospital and
I envy you, Emile Nelligan, envy you composing
the same poem every morning and every morning

When my wife Phoebe and I vacationed in Montreal a few years ago, I was amazed at how little I knew about Canadian poetry. We went to Sunday mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where I read in a brochure that Emile Nelligan was baptized there. Without explanation, it read “Nelligan” like I should just know him. He is considered the Arthur Rimbaud of Canada. Schools and libraries are named after him. Like Rimbaud, he stopped writing in his late teens, in Nelligan’s case at the onset of schizophrenia. Emile Nelligan spent the rest of his life, the next forty-two years, in a hospital. And became a legend.

Here’s a poem Nelligan wrote. His poem is from a notebook found on him just after he had the schizophrenic episode that landed him in the hospital. For a little over two months in the summer of 1899, he wandered the streets of Montreal, sleepless, reciting scraps of poetry, haunted by the dementia he recorded in that notebook. I’ve often thought that this poem speaks to us directly from the dementia, and, perhaps, comes as close as one can to expressing what Jacques Lacan calls “the real”. I follow his poem with my humble effort.

He wrote —

And now I dream of shadows stained with blood,
Proud prancing steeds; the sounds I hear
Are like children’s coughs, cries of tramps’ despair,
Death-rattles of the slowly dead.

Where are they from, those horns that blare and blow,
Snare-drum or fife in noisy wars?
It could be said that through the town, hussars
Gallop with sea-green helms aglow.

I wrote —

Vision, 3 AM

And now I dream of a certain shadow stained
glass creates, of a procession and its priest,
of children softly coughing, of pews.

Where are they from, the psalms and antiphons,
the incense and The Seven Sorrows,
the nun who prays, “Let us pray”?

It could be said, of a certain Catholic
orphanage, that deacons in purple stoles
lead the Stations Of The Cross.


What I love about writing is the process. Good poem or no, good essay or not, I love to sit at my desk, stare out the window at, today, the snow, knowing that I have a warm cup of coffee, a brilliant and sexy wife, and, if I’m lucky, a good idea.

I am in perfect agreement with Sigmund Freud’s theory that the artistic process comes out of the same place as play. I have never been one to suffer over writing. My wife is an insightful writer. I love my wife, but there is a certain way in which I don’t understand her, or anyone, who suffers as she does with writing. If I found it unpleasant, I wouldn’t do it.


One of the mysteries of my marriage is watching
Phoebe revise. I’ve seen her take a thirty page draft

and just throw the whole thing out. All of it.
And start over. The ideas are all there and greatly

clarified. But the words she throws out.
What she keeps is the clarity of thought.

For my part, I stand in awe. She jokes
how revision begins with bloodshed.

I have no great lessons to impart, nothing large that I’ve learned in life. If angst is a lesson, I’ve learned a lot about that. I am glad I was a professional musician before I was a writer. Music taught me patience and practice. My wife was surprised when I told her that, as a classically trained musician, I often spent the first hour of each day simply playing long tones – one note held for, say, half a minute – scales and chords. All this before I ever opened a sheet of music.

I’m also glad I was a bachelor for forty years. That also taught me about practice, patience and rejection.


Tieman’s Rule Number One: Being an artist is no excuse for being a wanker.

I’ve known poets who were really nice. I know poets who are doting parents, and poets who have sexually abused children. I’ve known poets who are lawyers, and I’ve known poets who are felons. I can’t count the alcoholic poets I’ve known. What seems to unite these poets is a love, indeed a need, for the word. That’s about it, at least as near as I can tell.

But about that dissipation.

More than for his athletic prowess, considerable though it was, Stan Musial is remembered for his simple decency. Bob Costas tells of a night with Stan, Stan’s wife Lil, and Mickey Mantel. “The Mick” vowed to stay sober for the evening, so as not to embarrass himself before Stan and Lil. Later, after the Musials left, Mantel said to Costas, “I had as much ability as Stan. Maybe more. Nobody had any more power than me. Nobody could run faster than me. But Stan was a better player than me, because he was a better man than me. Because he got everything out of his life that he could, and he’ll never have to live with all the regret I live with.”

In my youth, I drank too much, did drugs, womanized. In a war of questionable morality, I killed a boy. I traveled the world in order to run from my troubles. I spurned the love and kindness of people who truly cared for me. There is much I regretted, and much more I simply learned to live with. Throughout all that I was an artist. I just wish I had been a better person. I thank God I got better with age. I became a better person, and, because of that, I became a better writer.


Sometimes it helps me to remember my favorite Bible passage, the 38th Chapter of Job, the one where God finally responds to Job by saying, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. … Can you lift your voice to the clouds, that a flood of waters may cover you?”


A few folks have asked how, with my busy work schedule, do I manage to find time to write? A lot of the time, frankly, I don’t find the time. It’s the price I pay for a pension, the price I pay that my wife and I might have a dental plan. Someone once said to me, “If you a good teacher, then you often go home tired.” I must be the best freaking teacher in the world. There have been days when I’ve pulled into the garage, turned-off the car, and have fallen asleep right there.

I love Japan, its people and its culture. I spent four years as a Buddhist, and spent about a month in a Buddhist temple at the foot of Mount Fuji. I fell in love with Akiko Yosano, a feminist known for her tanka. I love the way she combines sexuality and spirituality.

Tanka and haiku provided a solution to a nagging problem. Often I would begin a poem and, because of my schedule, I’d write a line here, a line there, all this over the course of maybe a month. But if, after that month, I thought the poem sucked, if it seemed, as it often was, choppy, then – WHAM – there went January.

Thus began my romance with haiku and tanka. They’re short enough that I can scratch a line here, there, and have a poem done in a day. This form also fits in nicely with an aesthetic that influenced me when I was young, the epigram, especially the epigrams of Martial, Catullus and Ernesto Cardenal. In any case, Akiko Yosano and my wife inspired this one —

when you stepped out
of the shower this morning
I kissed you long
enough for you to leave
wet impressions on my shirt

Here’s a line by Ernesto Cardenal that haunted me for decades. It’s not in his Epigramas; it’s from “Managua 6 PM”, but it is epigrammatic —

Y si he dar un testimonio sobre mi época
es éste: Fue bárbara y primitiva
pero poética.

Which I’ll translate as —

And if asked to give testimony over my era
it’s this: It was barbaric and primitive
yet poetic

Cardenal’s emphasis on the poetic and the political inspired this tanka of mine –
if asked to judge
my age I’d say we wasted
our best years on war
from Nam to Iraq we saw
the whole world through sniper scopes


Occasionally I can still find time to write a full-length poem.

I asked Andre how he felt after yesterday’s professional development. “It wasn’t especially soul crushing.” This was his idea of something good to say.

That said, we spent the entire morning pondering the following question. “How does the ability to read complex texts relate to the student’s potential for college and career success?” Andre keeps a list of the top ten “soul crushing” workshops he’s attended. It’s chilling to consider that this one didn’t make the list.

I usually write poetry at these meetings. It looks like I’m taking notes. Like this one, for example, which I published not long ago.

7:45 Roosevelt High

it’s been a dark dawn and at the last minute
Arianna grades the long student

she smells the stale ink
and something akin to her mother’s old
age home

her sweater smells of Tide
and chalk she rubbed off the board
she’s been beat for an hour and a witness

to nothing but D’s and lipstick
that smeared on her cuff
a yellow bus crunches low gear

and this is how she begins
nervous over her bell
shaped curve

and the next unit
which she promises
everyone will love

I always liked that poem. I remember needing a name, and, looking up, I saw a name-tag on this woman across from me. I spent some time imagining what her day was like, not that it would be that different from any of the rest of us. Then I noticed a smudge of lipstick on her cuff, and I knew I had my poem. All the stuff about the mother is my own mother, who, at that time, was 101. Also, I do the laundry for my wife and I, so the Tide is mine. I chose the name Roosevelt High because every school district in the U. S. has a Roosevelt High.

But I never got a copy of the poem to Arianna. By the time I published the poem, she had quit.


Thus do I have little wisdom to pass along. Listen to the greats. Have fun with the process. Practice. Find a form that works for you. All that and the simple fact that accomplishment means little without kindness and decency. I got better with age. I became a better writer, because I became a better person. “I, too, went to bed amid the howling of the autumn wind, and awoke early the next morning amid the chanting of the priests … .” So says Matsuo Basho in his Narrow Road To The Deep North.


I don’t want to get away without talking about prose.

I write my prose like I write my poetry. When I’m writing for a newspaper or a magazine, I look for good verbs, alliteration, rhythm, all that. In a word, prosody.

I even break my prose paragraphs like I break my poetry lines.

I don’t want to take my audience’s time by reading a whole essay. I think, however, this prose technique comes together, at least for illustrative purposes, in a form I call the modern haibun. In essence, I update and Westernize a Japanese form. I begin with a haiku, go to a prose poem, and finish with a tanka. And while I borrow the form from the Japanese, it really is thoroughly Western in its sensibility. The prose is much more influenced by, say, Michael Benedikt than Matsuo Basho.

a modern haibun

another Monday
again I surrender to
the whisper of snow

My wife is reading Freud this evening. I sweep the fireplace, the ashes from Sunday more interesting for what they were. Phoebe says something I don’t quite catch, something about desire.

I stare out our picture window. I inventory our yard. Pine, twilight, beast, leaf, pulse and fog, raven, root. In the west, from work, a husband caught on a detour lengthened tonight by longing

“My War”, my memoir in this month’s Vietnam magazine, I’m surprised by the letters from strangers. Several veterans had the same job I had. Others vets were stationed where I was, An Khe, an obscure corner of jungle. One message from a wife — the husband never talks about our war.

in this Nam photo
the burnt torso of a monk
an enemy monk
tonight a cigarette glows
in the dark and is crushed


If there is one last thing, and only one last thing, I would wish a young poet, I would wish that poet a great passion. Everything else will follow, the right words, the necessary silence.

That’s it. That’s all I got. That’s what worked for me. Is it is generalizable? I don’t know. I think I’m safe in saying that life is better if you’re not a poetic prick. At least that was my experience. As for the rest, maybe there’s a small something in there somewhere.


Parts of this lecture originally appeared in the following magazines, books, journals and newspapers: The Autumn House Anthology Of Contemporary American Poetry, Coal Hill Review, Mainichi Shimbun, Modern English Tanka, Schools: Studies In Education, and my chapbook of poetry, A Concise Biography Of Original Sin. Ernesto Cardenal’s epigram is taken from his Nueva Antología Poética, published by Siglo V