by Sarah Cadence Hamm

Renee Sadbury, school nurse at Beakman K-12 was sure it was neglect. Unlike the other kindergartners, who romped across the playground with baby fat flapping on their chubby cheeks, little piggies in snowsuits and pom pom’ed hats, Margaret Powler was shaped like a pear. Not in the way a woman looks like a pear: little Margaret was narrow at the top, shoulders slumping into a swollen belly, gas-filled. Hard to the touch. While her sister Jenny was a slip of a thing. Which could be normal; there was no average when it came to middle school bodies, burgeoning awkward breasts or the conspicuous lack thereof. But what if Jenny, in all the variation of bodies, was as sick as her sister, and no one saw but Nurse Sadbury?

This kind of vision was not new to her. As she called for a conference with the mother, the numbers on her keypad worn shiny as wet shell with her fingertips, Nurse Sadbury thought of all the things she saw that no one else did. The undersides of tongues. The inner ear. A ghost when she was fifteen, during a black-out that lasted all night, though her brother called her crazy, and told all their friends at school. Bruises in fantastic patterns, damning places.

She didn’t use the term “conference,” of course. While the phone crackled in the crook of her neck, Nurse Sadbury said it would be, “just a little chat about Margie.”

The mother said, “It’s Margaret. I’ll be there.”

And there she was on the office couch. Lilly Powler, a powder-smelling woman with a high coif of hair and a red bow mouth, two minutes early and inspecting her bone-colored gloves, the type a lady might wear to tea. Nurse Sadbury hadn’t seen gloves like that in years, not since her own mother’s time. Fashionable as they looked, she couldn’t help the thought they hid some embarrassing blemish. Eczema, maybe. A pimply rash.

“Mrs. Powler,” Nurse Sadbury began, but Margaret’s mother shook her head.

“You can call me Lilly.”

“Lilly. That’s a pretty name. And the girls, too, Jennifer and Margaret— they’re such classic names. Not like a lot of kids today. Sometimes I think if I hear another ‘Mackenzie,’ I’ll scream.”

Lilly shifted, the vinyl seat beneath her whispering. She twisted her delicate watch around to check its face. Nurse Sadbury looked down at Margaret and Jenny’s files, arranged side by side on her cluttered desk.

“Do you work, Mrs.— Lilly?” Asked Nurse Sadbury, though it was there on the form.

“I do,” said Lilly. “I should be at work now.”

“And your husband? What does he do?” The nurse continued, though all that was on the form as well. The greater part of her job was asking questions, when she already knew the answers. Looking at the form’s tidy sections for “mother” and “father” and “sibling,” Nurse Sadbury wondered what questions people might ask her, to get inside those boxes. Deceased, deceased, estranged. And what sort of answers she could give, to keep them at bay.

“My husband left us when Margaret was two,” said Lilly.

After a moment, Nurse Sadbury said she was sorry to hear it.

She looked at the framed poem on her desk, embossed in gold over a Thomas Kinkade-style beachscape—“Footprints in the Sand.” Pastor Jim had given it to her years ago, claiming it came from his own desk, touting the poem’s ability to comfort a troubled spirit, but Renee Sadbury knew better. It came from the Fishers of Men Christian Bookstore in Poughkeepsie. Their window display was nothing but framed copies, row upon row, the price tags obscuring a corner of the poem, so the title read “Footprints in the Sa”.

Nurse Sadbury picked up the frame, studied it in the dull blue light. It had been too long since she’d rearranged the little treasures on her desk, and now a thin scrim of dust obscured the words.

“In times of loss,” she said, “I try to think of this. I try to think, I’m not alone. I’m not being abandoned. I’m being carried. By…something bigger than me.”

Nurse Sadbury had a hard time focusing on Lilly’s face. Maybe it was her pale skin in the bland fluorescent office, or the glinting threads sewn into her tweed skirt suit. Whatever it was, it started a throb beneath the nurse’s temples. When she blinked, she could see the outline of Lilly’s body, done in negative on the backs of her eyelids.

“There’s nothing bigger than me,” said Lilly. Not unkindly.

“No, you’re wrong,” insisted Nurse Sadbury, and she thrust the poem at Lilly. Who would not take it, who looked at the poem as if it would dirty her gloves to touch it. “I’ve had doubts too, but doubting is a false path. Faith can heal—”

But she couldn’t parrot Pastor Jim’s words, couldn’t make the gift the gesture it was meant to be. And she was being shamefully unprofessional. In the picture, the orange sunset gave the beach an apocalyptic air. As if just out of frame, a ship sank, flaming, into the ocean.

A skinny middle-schooler with strawberry hair rapped on the doorframe. Beside her was Margaret, her face pointed and keen as a fox. Not holding her big sister’s hand, as a normal child might, but staring at Nurse Sadbury’s desk, at the gag-gifts accumulated over a lifetime of office work. A mug, stained with ink on the inside, insisted the drinker didn’t have to be crazy to work there, but it sure did help. Outside in the hall was the tangible quiet of a school in session, disturbed only by the faintest squeak of small shoes.

“I thought the girls should both be here.” Lilly said. “Shut the door, please, Margaret.”

Jenny folded herself neatly on the couch beside her mother, and Margaret, without permission or any sign of affection, climbed onto her sister’s lap, as if she were just a lumpy part of the cushion.

“That’s…yes, that’s fine,” said Nurse Sadbury, though she felt outnumbered, somehow. The three of them in a row. She rested the poem face down on top of her files. It was time to begin.

“Margaret,” asked Nurse Sadbury, “what’s your favorite food?”

If an eight year old could look affronted, that was the expression on Margaret’s face now, as if the nurse had belched in front of her, or told a joke in poor taste. Margaret looked from her sister, who was staring out the window, to her mother, who nodded once.

“I don’t have one,” Margaret said.

“What? You don’t like pizza?”


“Ice cream?”

“Lactose-intolerant,” Lilly said softly.

“You must like something,” Nurse Sadbury said, and tried to smile. It felt like her lips were stuck above her teeth; she covered her mouth with a small plump hand. “What did you eat for breakfast today?”

“Leftovers. From Mommy,” said Margaret.

“Leftovers? That’s interesting. What kind of leftovers?”

Margaret looked at her mother again, and again, Lilly nodded.

“A leg,” Margaret said. “But I didn’t really like it.”

“Well maybe your mother should fix you some cereal instead. Fried chicken isn’t a proper breakfast.” With an audible intake of breath, Nurse Sadbury gave the speech she’d practiced in the mirror that morning, and again, mumbling, over her lunch. “Mrs. Powler, you can’t just give them anything. And you can’t let them choose for themselves, because obviously, Margaret is in a difficult stage where she doesn’t want to choose. You’re the parent. I know things are difficult for you at home, but Margaret seems gravely undernourished and if this problem persists, I’ll have to get social services involved.”

Lilly Powler looked down at her hands and sighed, plucked the tips of her bone-colored gloves.

“I try to feed them what they need,” she said. “But I can’t seem to figure their tastes. Hopefully it will come in time.”

“Mom, jeez…” Jenny slumped a little beneath Margaret. “Don’t cry.”

“Well,” said Lilly, “It’s difficult to be a mother of exceptional children.”

Lilly looked up and Nurse Sadbury saw her wet eyes, green like sea glass; green like the weeds that blew and curled beneath dark water, weeds that caught at children’s ankles, weeds that tangled in the hair of grinning mermaids, drowning sailors in the sea.

“Mommy,” said Margaret, “What’s fried chicken?”

“I’d like to see that poem again,” Lilly said, and sprang across the desk, the poem and the files and her dainty gloves all falling to the floor.

It did not hurt. Or at least, of all the pain in Nurse Sadbury’s life, this hurt was the quietest. Because of her training, she knew exactly where they touched her on the inside— here her gallbladder, there her heart. Lilly liked the sweetbreads best. The lights above them flickered and dimmed, the prelude to a black out. Renee Sadbury was fifteen again, the ghost’s hard promise hanging in the crook of rafters. But this time, it did not matter what her brother said, or who believed her. Because here was the truth. She was carried by it.

When they were finished, Jenny handed out wet naps from her mother’s purse. Lilly collected her gloves and eased them back on to her hands. With her dirty sneaker, Margaret toed the poem out from under the couch where it had fallen, and placed it back among the treasures on the desk. With wet lips, Lilly stooped down to blow away the dust.


Book Review: The Devil’s Snake Curve
by Josh Ostergaard

 photo 734107db-ed2e-4909-8ae3-9a43952d414c_zps39550200.jpg The Devil’s Snake Curve
by Josh Ostergaard
Coffee House Press, 2014

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

At first glance, former urban anthropologist Josh Ostergaard has written a love story. There’s nostalgia, great passion, cheating, impenetrable beauty, and remorse. There’s reunion, resignation, and heroic angels. And lots of hot dogs. Ostergaard comfortably puts down six in a nine inning span. And so, reluctantly, I had to accept the book for what it was, a compendium of thrilling baseball anecdotes.

This drew my attention. I am frequently stopped by the Subject Matter police for driving over the lyric. Ostergaard spent ten years proving some kind of point about baseball and American history. Didn’t anyone tell him subject matter was boring? That good writing was all about seductive language? Thankfully no one did, for while Ostergaard goes down a rabbit hole he finds mysteries and shouting and wicked ways. I read it and saw how politics hoodwink the masses. I saw our need to reaffirm our hierarchical society without blaming ourselves for doing so. I saw the romance of defeat.

The Devil’s Snake Curve is also one of the most interesting “alternative history books” I’ve read, somewhere between Churchill’s two volume Duke of Marlboro and Charles Lowery’s James Barbour, A Jeffersonian Republican. The history is alternative because it doesn’t settle on one actor or a few specific events in time. Rather, in an era when Presidents feel compelled to declare war on emotion, Ostergaard is compelled to give us the history of an emotion. And he does so without Googling anything. His is a grim business of old newsreels, paper stubs, and countless visits to sporting museums.

If you look past the conspiracies linking the Yankees to World War II internment camps and rest homes in Arizona, The Devil’s Snake Curve is also a crystalline metaphor for the self-persecuted post-modern poet jammed between the art and the job of it. It’s a book that could have just as easily been about small presses in Kansas City and the larger ones in New York which always seem to win. Between alt-lit and academic literature, the have-nots and the haves in today’s conversation about writing. Ostergaard’s mastery of baseball portraiture—in excruciating detail—is what lets us imagine the whole world in a catcher’s expectant return of a pitcher’s menacing glare.

What better place to begin this kind of baseball book than an epigraph from the controversial sports figure Mary Robison: “Now he and I are watching some men with a ball. No matter the shape or size of the ball, what team or for what country the men fight. The TV is showing men with a ball so we’re watching.”

In his chapter “Origins,” Ostergaard tries to understand with mathematics and beer and song why the sport has such an obsessive hold on its fanatics. There is the dual drama of our subjugated compartmentalizing behavior braided with hero worship and the mysteries of chance. “What began as a pitcher’s duel may end with a home run.” In a masterful stroke of meta-almanac baseball writing, Ostergaard even writes a capsule review of his own book: Its stories are the murmurs between innings. They are the pitches that make up a game. They careen off the wall and roll into dark corners. The game is played in fragments. Meanings accrue. Memories interrupt history. Each of us should be an umpire.

On a baseball diamond there are five sides to every story. Ostergaard dulled his scissors cutting into his arguments and pasting them into each section of his book which include: Origins, Machines, War, Animals, and Nationalism. But this book is also part memoir, if just barely so. Probably no more than thirty pages of memoir. We get the part of growing up in a culture of defeat. That his Kansas City Royals are a Podunk team in a Podunk part of the world. We see Ostergaard change the seasons, listening to summer games in the dead of winter that he recorded on a trusty cassette tape recorder. We see him drawing bored circles in the outfield dirt. Later we see him rage and still later we see old regrets wash out the color in his face. The other team has uniforms and a soundtrack. His team has a pitcher with a cigarette bobbing on his lip.

Why does nothing mean so much? Ostergaard seems to be asking. Nothing is more linear than a game of baseball. And yet the process and the outcome—the journey for those of you keeping score—is so elastic. One scene which conveys this occurs as his family returns from vacation. Ostergaard writes:

Distance Factors

My sisters and I were in the backseat of my parents’ station wagon, rambling south through Iowa in the summer of 1983. We were on our way back to Kansas from our annual trip to Minnesota. We had spent a week in a tiny cabin on Pelican Lake, where every night we had campfires on the beach. By day I had stalked the weed lines with a butterfly net, looking for schools of bullhead fry. Now in the car we scanned the fields, counting horses to pass the time. My dad drove and listened to the radio. We had just entered the range of the Royals AM broadcast. I could hear the static fizz, and my dad fiddled with the dial. The Royals were playing the Yankees in New York.

In such a simple paragraph, Ostergaard combines Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, and New York, and lakes and fields, and horses and fish, and Time. In the scene, there is triumph when George Brett hits a go-ahead top of the ninth homerun, then curses when Yankee manager Billy Martin has it disqualified on a pine tar technicality. It’s heartbreaking how the observant and curious boy nonetheless “didn’t understand” why his father was so jubilant, then crushed.

It’s almost as if the father’s been programmed, and that all of us have been hard wired to wage the fight of our lives for the sake of mediocrity. Not all of us can be Yankees. Not all of us can be one percenters. “How would you make a Yankees sandwich? In Kansas, we believed the only ingredients were arrogance and money.”

For Ostergaard, our very existence is based on inspiring ourselves to participate in a fight we cannot ever win. The Yankees’ job is to inspire us to risk losing to them by thinking we have a shot. Guess what? We don’t have a shot. Dreams are not enough. Joy is not enough. To make dreams come true you need money, arrogance, charisma, and at the very least, a low-residency MFA. Shaving the hair off your face is also a plus.

Even the belief in language and the hope of writing is its own kind of failure. The best we can do is walk away. Ostergaard traded his anthropology career for a job writing grant proposals at Graywolf Press. He gave up on his hometown Royals ever doing anything, and he walked away from this book a number of times. For five years The Devil’s Snake Curve was a novel about a father and a son. When he finally finished it he decided to send it to 100 small press publishers. If no one took it then he’d just toss it over a fence. Two days later he signed a contract with Coffee House Press. Jesus, how does that happen with a book about everything to do with nothing?

Quite simply, The Devil’s Snake Curve is that good. It reads well, either a paragraph at a time or in seventy page clips. When moments become too literal, Ostergaard spits on the metaphysic, weaving memory and sunlight and static A.M. radio. Before he’s carried away he’s back on message with another entertaining gem. Read him slowly and you’ll be outwitted. Read him quickly and you’ll be bombarded.

What does the empire fear most? It fears passion. It fears the George Brett in each of us who can burn a double into a triple. It fears our faith in our ability to turn the game. Last June, when Ostergaard was interviewed in HTMLgiant, correspondent Adam Robinson asked him about the Royals, who’d just completed an improbable ten-game winning streak. Ostergaard said he didn’t deserve to celebrate because he’d grown so frustrated with the team’s owners. Kansas City was the smallest media market in big league ball. Its owners were misers, only developing talent for the sake of selling its talent to other teams.

Last week when the Royals upended the Orioles in the American League Championship Series in four straight games, The Devil’s Snake Curve added a whole new chapter in invisible ink. It’s a chapter about slipping in and out of irony; it’s about how one man’s blues is another man’s scripture, and the razor thin margin between hunch and prophecy.

Our problem is that we yearn to believe the defeated outcome is in doubt. We’re talking about devils and going down swinging or caught looking. Now that the Royals are in the World Series, isn’t that proof of something?


Why I’m Catholic

by John Samuel Joseph Tieman

First, a confession. I am, after all, Catholic. I watch EWTN, the Catholic TV station.

In any case, I was flipping through the channels, and came across a Mass on EWTN. It was being said by a Passionist. I have a fondness for Passionists, for their combination of the contemplative and the active. The guy was a university administrator at some university out East someplace, and this was his retirement Mass. So, yea, OK, I’ll give it a look.

At the end of the Mass, he gave his retirement speech. He planned to spend his remaining years in his cell, and in his lab, contemplating eschatology, and experimenting in molecular biology. I was touched.

Then, to show his love for his colleagues, his students, for the viewers at home, he said he had brought with him a relic of the founder of the Passionists, St. Paul of the Cross.

He blessed us with The Holy Bone. I was down on my knees in front of my TiVo.

We’re a Church that takes the remains of those we love, puts them in the chipper, and turns them into relics. And that’s why I’m Catholic. A molecular biologist, in flowing white robes, blessing me with The Holy Bone. There are no Holy Bones in a Unitarian chapel. There’s one in every Catholic altar.

To be a Catholic is, by definition, to be comfortable with both paradox and mystery. It’s everywhere in The Church. Go to Mass. Contemplate the Summa Theologica while you hear, at the Consecration, “Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body … Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood …”. It’s primitive. And profound.

I went to Catholic grade school, high school, and got my Ph. D. from a Jesuit university. You don’t get any more Catholic. My Confirmation name is Joseph. I’ve never aspired to be a good Catholic. But, as a character on Nurse Jackie said, “You can leave the Church, but the Church never leaves you.” What a Jewish friend said of being a Jew, I can say of being a Catholic, “I wasn’t born to a faith – I was born to a fate.”

I belong to a Jesuit parish. There was once an exorcism in my parish. Just one. But this is the very exorcism upon which William Peter Blatty based The Exorcist. Ask my fellow parishioners publicly about the exorcism, and the answer will be quite rational, even a bit dismissive. Privately, I’ve heard of angels. One Jesuit, a novice when he participated in the exorcism, said he saw more evil as a chaplain in Vietnam than he ever saw in that room with that boy. He also swore that the bed rose off the floor. As for me, I think that sad little boy was mentally ill. And I think the bed rose off the floor. I remain agnostic about the angels.

I belong to a very annoying Church. This is The Church that gave us priests who abused children. This is The Church that goes berserk over birth control. But this is is also The Church that gave us Oscar Romero, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Pierre Teilhard De Chardin.

We have a proud list of folks who have found a home in The Church. Among the converts to Catholicism are Thomas Merton, Edith Stein and John Henry Newman. Let’s not forget Oscar Wilde, who said, “I could believe in anything, provided it is incredible. That’s why I intend to die a Catholic, though I never could live as one.”

We take a perverse pride in creative bad Catholics, Federico Fellini, Francois Villon, Guillaume Apollinaire, Pablo Picasso, Federico Garcia Lorca. And let’s not forget Madonna.

On the other hand, we can’t forget John Wayne Gacy and Alexander VI. If you sit where Adolf Hitler sat in his church choir, straight across from him was a statue of an abbot. It is adorned with what was, at that time, a common version of the cross. The swastika.

I was never abused by a priest. Nor was I ever beaten senseless by a nun. I wonder if I missed something. On the other hand, I did go to Confession with Walter Ong. And, yes, to me he was always Father Ong. Instead of three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys, for the penance he’d give a reading list. And don’t think he couldn’t bless you with The Holy Bone.

Mystery. Paradox. The theology of Thomas Aquinas. The music of Franz Liszt. The poetry of Juana Ines De La Cruz. I once saw a peasant, who crawled all the way from Cuernavaca to Mexico City on her knees, this to pray to Our Lady Of Guadalupe. And this is what I love about Catholicism. The saint and the sinner. That side altar, at the Carmelite monastery, dedicated to a poet, John Of The Cross, and, in the pew, a holy card with a “Prayer Never Known To Fail”. The gothic cathedral, and the hospital chapel. The fact that the Mass, said by the Pontiff in Rome, Italy, is the exact same Mass said by the parish priest in Rome, Georgia. I like to picture Gabriel Marcel praying his rosary. I like the rosary.

I love Thomas More. But my favorite saint is Brother Andre, who worked for forty years at odd-jobs in a little school in Montreal. Brother Andre is buried in a simple tomb, one inscribed with only “Pauper, Servus Et Humilis”. “Poor and humble servant.” That simple tomb is in the largest basilica in the western hemisphere, the Oratory Of St. Joseph.

And that’s why I’m Catholic. That and The Holy Bone.

This summer, my wife and I will spend a few weeks in Europe. She’s a psychoanalyst. So, first, we’ll go to Vienna, where she’ll worship at the First Church Of Freud. Then we’ll go to Prague. She’ll attend the meetings of the International Psychoanalytic Association. I’m going to see the Infant Of Prague.


Book Review: The Insomniac’s Weather Report
by Jessica Goodfellow

 photo 191aa37b-6ade-4a8f-9854-e4c1f323fc71_zps775efc45.jpg The Insomniac’s Weather Report
Poems by Jessica Goodfellow
Isobar Press, 2014

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Jessica Goodfellow’s book The Insomniac’s Weather Report tumbles into a world of water, semi-consciousness, and circular logic. The collection is divided into four sections and these divisions seem to offer the only real stability in the work. To hold onto anything here is illogical, for anything is nothing, and then everything, all at once. I read as if tiptoeing; I don’t trust that the poem will state without taking back, without it, somehow, claiming it’s not a poem, not not a poem, either. And when the narration does spin, I follow it without question, as if obviously, it’s foolish to think anything is definite.

The first section, “Uses of Water,” lays the foundation for the circular narration that carries throughout the collection. Water moves each poem, as it’s positioned as the central image. This works well as a beginning, for water is the source of all things living. It’s necessary for existence, yet it’s constantly shifting form and location. This shifting property of water extends to a larger discussion on instability. The poems are titled “What You Measure If You Use Water As A Clock” or “What You Lose If You Use Water As A Preservative.” Water is never simply water, but a tool. In “What You Dampen If You Use Water As A Boomerang,” the speaker talks of the body as fact, then shifts in the fourth stanza, she writes,

…The sea
is not a boomerang, returning
unchanged—who boldly inked this
edge of continent on map? As if

blue roofs of ocean
shift and slap in maneuvers—
familiar and chaotic—the body
and its households recognize.

The speaker rejects water as stagnant and firm. Yet, the word “water” can be replaced with the word “body,” so the title reads “What You Dampen If You Use Body As A Boomerang.” Again, water seems to be a tool, simply a means towards what’s spoken about.

The other sections continue to focus on the theme of instability. Section two introduces an insomniac who

…longs to transliterate
rain into a human alphabet—
French, maybe. A lullaby, a chanson,
a hymn. A baptism of sleep
as unstable as water.

Section three, titled “Flotsam and Jetsam,” rinses tension on the poems’ shores. The speaker sounds the most disillusioned, circular, questioning. The poems match this in both form and content; they refrain multiple lines or build on a singular statement. For example, in “The Geometry of Being,” the first stanza begins with 3.1, then the second 3.14, then the third 3.141 until the poem ends with 27 lines of pi blocked against the page. Here, the speaker is called irrational, which becomes the link between the mathematical and the human condition. The poem draws its logic and language from both worlds:

they never reach an end, never reveal any patterns, never repeat.
I think of the ancient Greeks, how their words for irrational
meant measureless number.

When you call me irrational, I hear that I am measureless…

Still, the poem ends with a moment of uncertainty, a desire towards a definitive: “Tell me, is it hopeful or hopeless, / this confluence of spirit and flesh.”

The final section, “Alphabet Fugue” is the longest of the four. The poems build on one another, the end title word beginning the following title. In “Roof: Fugue:” Goodfellow defines “fugue,” as the act of fleeing, a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated, a disturbed state of consciousness, a “loss of memory coupled with disappearance from one’s usual environments,” among others. While these definitions mark the section, they also represent the collection as a whole. Our world, our bodies, these poems, are fugues. Goodfellow puts it best when she writes,

Here we are then: in a world where logic doesn’t function,
or else emotions can’t be trusted. Maybe both.
All known tools of navigation require an origin.

Otherwise, there is only endless relativity and then
what’s the point of navigation, in a space where
it’s hard to be lost, and even harder not to be?

Dance Review: Loving Black by Anthony Williams

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

“I’m a man. I’m black. I’m queer. I’m skinny. I’m awkward.” Anthony Williams, a dancer and teacher in Pittsburgh, began his choreographic process by reflecting on himself. He chose labels that described him, then researched some of those labels for a more universal look at what it means to be a black man in our society.

Loving Black, an all-male quartet, premiered Friday night at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s Alloy Studios. As part of the “Fresh Works” series, Williams was given 80 hours of studio time, along with technical support, to create a work-in-progress.

The dance began in darkness with the sound of the infamous Willie Lynch speech given in 1712. Lynch disturbingly gave instructions on how to control one’s slaves by exaggerating their physical differences and turning them against each other. In one haunting line, Lynch wrote, “I have outlined a number of differences among the slaves, and I take these differences and make them bigger. I use fear, distrust, and envy for control purposes.”

As the lights came up, the four dancers did exactly the opposite. Each performer moved into the same strong standing position. They proceeded into a bold unison phrase that highlighted their similarities and brought them together.

Eventually, the dancers split into duets. In one meaningful moment, Jovan Sharp repeatedly pushed off the embrace of Michael Bishop. The section highlighted Williams’ interest in how black men relate to each other physically. Here, we heard the words of poet and speaker, Mark Gonzales. “As with most men, it is easier for me to give hugs than to accept them.” Sharp and Bishop finally embraced.

Jean-Paul Weaver entered and the three dancers continued in a trio of partnering that deftly showed off their strength and fluidity. That culminated into a phrase of “stepping,” a rhythmic style with African roots that uses stomping and clapping. The men laughed, enjoying themselves.

When Williams entered, the performers turned away in rejection. Williams soloed in and around them, as if trying to be part of the group. The three others gradually joined in behind him, but from a distance. They ultimately came together for a technical section of phrase-work with long lines and challenging balances high on their toes.

The piece ended on a celebratory note. With gymnastic movement, the performers rolled into and out of the floor with ease. They pressed into handstands only to rise to their feet again. The luxurious extension through their bodies signified inclusion. Just before the lights went out, they fell onto their backs in exasperated joy.

Overall, Williams choreographed what he intended. One of his goals, he said, was to “find our similarities as black men, and pick each other up.” The show was certainly uplifting; audience members rose to their feet, and nearly everyone stayed in the theater for a gratifying question and answer session. As a work-in-progress, my hope is for the piece to be fully fleshed out and lengthened, to dive deeper into the important questions Williams posed.


Grains of Dust

by Gerry LaFemina

“My imagination is a monastery, and I am its monk.” – Keats to Shelley


For me writing is the closest thing I have to religious experience. Whether it’s because, through the act, I open a trapdoor into some Jungian subconscious, or it speaks to the transcendental nature of words themselves, or it’s something else completely, I don’t know. But every writer, I think, is an ascetic in some way.


There are a lot of little hurts in West Branch, Michigan (and Staten Island, New York and Friendsville, Maryland, etc). Write about them.


We’re creatures of rhythm—from our mother’s heartbeat heard in the womb to the pulse that maintains us. Each of these rhythms is unique. This is the beat of our poems.


The satoric moment—the moment when clarity reveals itself—is the lyric moment we try to capture: something releases the pigeons within us so those birds ascend in a fury of wings and feathers. That moment when the birch bark is ripped asunder and the knots in the tree’s muscles are freed, that’s the moment we try—often futilely—to capture.


Perhaps memory is composed of an archipelago of vivid images. To write from memory means to raise them above the sea level of the mundane with as much vividness and energy that made you need to recall it.


Matthews: “Memory is a constant good to writing. But memory is not a system of information storage and retrieval. Memory itself is a kind of writing.”


Abstractions are balloons that float above our heads. Images are the strings that allow us to grasp them. Some poems are one balloon. Some are a bouquet of such balloons: colorful, delicate, and striving to rise above us.


At Bay deNoc College, a student asked me about the number of sirens in my work—especially, she noted, in love poems. I hadn’t noticed this before, and although sirens were often background noise to a New York childhood, I think it has to do with the fundamental need for tension in a poem. It’s important to keep in mind the proximity of despair in even our happiest moments; after all, faith is strongest only in relationship to doubt.


Miró: “Each grain of dust contains the soul of something marvelous. But in order to understand it, we have to recover the religious and magical sense of things that belong to primitive peoples.”

This makes me think of the ancient Talmudic scholars who believed in the spark of god which is found in all things, that remnant of creation. Sounds like the big bang, to me. Sounds like each word in a poem should be aware of what it contains.


Poetry is flying a kite in a hurricane.


In a New Yorker interview, director Mike Nichols said: “When a joke comes to you, it feels like it’s been sent by God. What it is, really, is discovering your unconscious.”

Same can be said for poetry.


Two touchstones of poetry: Subtlety and specificity.


Again Miró: “For me form is never something abstract; it is always a sign of something. It is always a man, a bird, or something else. For me painting is never form for form’s sake.”


Sometimes formal poems remind me of the well-gridded, well-groomed streets of gated communities: ordered, clean, soul-less. Sometimes free verse poems remind me of cluttered, winding, narrow streets in some European city—the soul is there, but we’re too busy navigating the streets to experience it. Both ways of founding a poem can be poorly done. It’s not in design, but in execution, that a poem’s power is found.


The formal and intellectual gamesmanship of the so-called avant-garde (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, fractal poetics, etc) doesn’t interest me beyond the first glance. They are curiosities, but usually not filled with the heart I long for in poems.


The writer is a magician. Like a magician the result of craft is more for the audience than the poet. Metaphor is one way to make a silk scarf turn into flowers. The lyric moment gets the applause.


Felix Adler (Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown): “The simpler the trick, the better, so long as it contains an element of surprise.”


Poetry is ordinary language raised to the nth power.


A poem is rhyme, meter, form in service to the details/images/“narrative” of the poem, in service to the tools of lyricism and meaning, not the other way around.


Greg Orr: “Memory is a form of imagination.”


Randall Jarell: “A poet is not so much one who has had the experience so much as someone who needs to have it.”


Re: Plato’s two worlds: the world of being and the world of becoming—the world of things and the world of ideals. We live in the world of things, therefore poetry based purely in abstraction, in the world of ideals, takes poetry away from its inherent readership. Imagery that engages the senses that reflects the things of the world enables the reader to engage abstraction in a tangible way, much as the way the experience of sitting in a chair enables us to engage the ideal chair. Every poem, therefore, exists in both worlds simultaneously. It is, and it is becoming.


The poem’s page is a door between the abstract world and the quotidian world. The right words unlock the door.


Like the space within the atom—between electrons and the nucleus—the space between the lines of a poem needs to have gravity, pull, necessity.


Poems are a way of thinking, which is why Plato was frightened of the poets. It’s a way of thinking and a rhetoric that is antithetical to deductive reasoning. This is also why Hegel saw poetry as the second highest art form after philosophy.


Images in poems can work like buoys in a harbor: they gauge the depth of the poem’s waters through their use, how the language around them works, how connected they are to abstraction, and how they engage other images, narrative strands, language within the poem.


Poems are not feelings put down on paper, but may be feelings mediated by craft and the act of translating them into language.


Memory has no fixed points. Memories don’t take up disk space. By using memory in poetry one attempts to give memory its own particular place.

Therefore returning to a memory in another poem, a poet does not alter the memory as the writer remembering is the changed thing.


Pierre Bonnard “painted from memory because he wanted images that had made a connection between reality and emotion” (NPR)


Visual art is eternally present tense even when dealing with history. The present tense lyric attempts a similar simultaneosity. It wants to capture an event that has already happened by giving it resonance through voice which the reader then experiences in the now.


The importance of the image in a poem is that it helps us not only re-envision an abstraction, but also, by way of its symbolic/metaphoric weight, re-envision the object itself.


Consider the use of imagery in a poem as the use of talismans. The poet imbues in the image emotional/spiritual/psychic weight so that the reader can feel it. In other words the best/strongest/most memorable images in a poem are like charms, like relics, like something someone we loved left behind—a shirt, perhaps, that we keep among our thing so that the beloved remains with us even though the person has gone.


Poetry like magic is about making what is impossible seem possible. Or the other way around.


It helps to consider the poem as a lever, gestures on one side of the fulcrum have to move something on the other side of it. If not, nothing happens.


I read the Bible, stories, and magic books as a child. Which means I learned the sublime—and myth, story, and the power to transform the things of the world—to make things do the improbable. I also played Eye-Spy which taught me to pay attention, and sang along with the radio in the back seat of my mother’s car. Those five things are all any poet needs.


from Palpable Magic: Essays and Readings on Poets and Poetry
(forthcoming from Stephen F. Austin U Press, 2015)


Book Review: Nevers by Megan Martin

 photo 527f4239-0350-48cf-b6b2-8fd083ff3b0e_zps3c361cbd.jpg Nevers
by Megan Martin
Caketrain Press, 2014

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

From the title I expected Megan Martin’s book, Nevers, to be a book about being unfulfilled, a book of false starts. However, it is much more complicated than that. The ambitious author/narrator is more interested in deconstructing love and finding her true self through her aspirations as a writer. She also attempts to come to terms with her ideas about gender roles, marriage, and society’s concept of beauty. As she struggles with these matters, Martin often forgoes the traditional narrative style in favor of a metafictional one. She remarks on the process of writing the book and invites the reader yet another step closer into the brilliant and complicated mind of Megan Martin.

Martin uses short two page vignettes to capture the angst, jealousy, and hidden passions within the narrator. In the section titled, “A Bride Outdoes Me,” she writes about her best friend—a once hardcore feminist, like herself, who has suddenly become a stereotypical middle class woman that has lost her radical edge. During her friend’s wedding, she internally bashes her friend for leaving behind their shared values, while also picturing her own future wedding. Still Martin manages to “pat [her]self on the ass for remaining ‘real’ and ‘unchanging’ all these years, for continuing to believe so goddamned ferociously in art.” This hypocritical thought alienates the narrator from the rest of the wedding guests. Yet, this angst is short lived as she ends the passage with, “I let the ants in through the zipper-door in order to feel them, not to understand.” Here, I found myself rooting for Martin to discover a perfect balance between her past ideals and her present self, but as the book continues this struggle only seems to get more complicated, as more dichotomies are introduced.

Another remarkable thing is how Martin’s use of metafiction does not restrict her voice, character development, or imagery. Instead, she shows her vulnerability and courage as she talks about the process of writing this book. While poking fun at herself, she writes, “Shit. I hate when the narrator is a writer” and “I only write because I want to talk about myself all the time.” By using self-depreciating humor, she presents her opinions in a way that keeps the average reader reading and the radical feminist happy—a balance, which could have been difficult to maintain, since the book is constantly tipping the scale one way or the other.

If Martin had used longer passages or even a more traditional style for her stories, then some of the strong language and metaphors would have been lost. In this case, the sparse language reinforces Martin’s metaphors and creates lasting images. For example, she remarks on two foxes that she sees outside:

I can see how one fox’s life doesn’t need clarification, while the other’s does, supremely. The foxes appear otherwise equal, but that second fox is fucked and will have to find religion pronto. The first is satisfied with her mediocrity, but I can’t tell whether she is about to murder, seduce or abandon the second.

These dark themes creep into Martin’s writing and capture the real struggle between her past self and the ever-evolving one. She also takes great pleasure in pointing out what other people are afraid to acknowledge: “babies are not inventions. People just think they are because they are incapable of actual inventions.” Again, Martin’s desire to be creative, but also the inner turmoil is brought to the forefront just begging to be scrutinized.

Perhaps Martin’s most important point comes with the apology for the book in, “Warning Label.” Here, she talks about the psychological torture that is undertaken when writing the book and the process it takes to truly understand one’s self. Like Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and many other great writers before her, she wishes to show that she does not know everything. More importantly her opinions on feminist issues and writing are limited and cannot be fully encompassed within the book. She does not want the reader to take these ideas and directly apply them; rather she wants the reader to think. She writes:

A poem should flop and writhe in its own gruesome mystery, very near to dying! A poem should be the moment prior to dying that never tells what happens next! A poem should be vomited forth and gravied onto a weekly prickly lawn!

Martin is suggesting that there aren’t clear lines between poetry and prose, and that she wishes for people to reexamine yet another dichotomy. Martin’s fictional vignettes are examples of that non-distinct line.

Ultimately, nothing about Megan Martin’s book Nevers is easy to define and that is the brilliance of the work. Her search for herself, her need to create and tangle with society’s outdated notions, help fuel the book. The reader is then left with lasting images of foxes, writing, and love as ever-evolving concepts. While I originally thought this book could not easily be defined, I did discover that “never” is not always an absolute concept, but a constantly changing one.


Greeting Cards

By Karen Zhang

I remember how difficult it was in China to find a greeting card for my friends. There were holiday cards for the Chinese New Year and for occasions like weddings and birthdays in stationery shops, but no card to send to a friend just to say hi.

On the other hand, I’m thrilled and stunned by shelves of greeting cards on display in Americn shops. There are not only cards for weddings and birthdays but also for sympathy, for graduation, for job promotions, and for just saying “I like you.” Just in the category of birthdays, there are cards for grandparents, grandsons, granddaughters, husbands, wives, brothers, and sisters. There are serious ones and humorous ones, sad ones and happy ones. You name it, and there’s a card for it.

Perhaps because of the wide selection of greeting cards, Americans purchase approximately 6.5 billion greeting cards each year. It’s a substantial figure, about five times the population of China.

But Chinese people don’t send many greeting cards. In China I received greeting cards only from my American friends. I was always surprised that they were able to find the right card for the right occasion—birthday, Christmas, congratulations, thank-you, Halloween, get-well. The cards always seemed exactly right.

Americans are familiar with Hallmark and American Greetings as they are two of the largest publishers of greeting cards in the world. Thanks to the Internet, today more people use electronic greeting cards than the paper ones. I still prefer writing a paper card and sending it — it seems more intimate than an electronic one.

Today an American family can customize their own greeting cards with family photos and original art. But in China this is still an expensive production and is rarely done. Perhaps this is a business opportunity for the right entrepreneur.

Book Review: Late Lights by Kara Weiss

 photo 490d6af3-3862-4a38-8209-b3d388800f3c_zps1aff98ad.jpg Late Lights
by Kara Weiss
Colony Collapse Press

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

It’s Monty’s fourth stint in juvenile detention, and in three weeks he’ll be free. He’s almost sixteen. And he’s decided: this time is the last. He watches the shadows shake and bend. He imagines the sweet smell of autumn. Other nights these shadows would be a riot, an explosion, stifled anger uncorked. But not tonight. Tonight, they’re just shadows on the wall.

Kara Weiss’ Late Lights, out now from Colony Collapse Press, guides the reader through glimpses: snapshots of lives, interwoven by feuding and occasional understanding. Reuniting, but rarely resolving.

Late Lights is a novel-in-stories, or more accurately, a novella-in-stories. At 123 short pages, Weiss manages to do what a good number of authors cannot—create a long-lasting world, one whose characters linger in the reader’s consciousness. The questions raised by the characters render the reader unable to consider anything else.

The story is certainly a quick read—a smallish, almost square book, like something you’d find on a coffee table. It’s an afternoon spent with children and adults, and children who grow into adults. Characters like Monty, whose flirtation with juvenile detention has marked him as “damaged goods” in the eyes of his father. Or BJ, whose “body was lean, but it was the leanness of childhood that she’d managed to hang on to, and it was well overdue.” She quietly watches her childhood crumble around her and actively seeks to stop her growth through self-mutilation. Erin consistently tries to balance her love of her friends with the disapproval of a broken family. When it comes to Monty, Erin actively rebels against her mother, whose wealth has seemingly robbed her of empathy.

Childhood friends, Monty, Erin, and BJ, share recollections of leaping into crisp piles of autumn leaves and had a naive certainty that they would never grow apart. But the relationships fade, as many things from childhood do. The memories from that time hold fast, though. They build and break the teenage protagonists. Throughout his adolescent years in juvenile detention, Monty’s mind wanders through his past with Erin and BJ, and what his future might hold. Erin’s affluent life is what Monty has always dreamt for himself, simple order and apparent ease: “The house was clean. There was always lox, and orange juice, and fresh mozzarella in the fridge, and fresh bagels on the counter. Someone was always reading the paper.” Despite their disapproval of him, Monty admires Erin’s parents, and wants to make their lives his own.

Monty desires this stability more than anything, but throughout Late Lights, Weiss details the barriers preventing this. Monty is a victim of the justice system, a churning machine that fails so many which it purports to help. Turned out of juvenile detention shortly before his sixteenth birthday, he moves in with his father, who “welcomes” him home by providing him with no house key, a small place on the moldy couch on which to sleep, and the imposing promise of domestic abuse. Not the future he imagined for himself. Forced out onto the streets in the midst of a freezing Boston winter, Monty turns to the only respite he has left—Erin’s family.

It is these events that bring these characters back together in their late adolescence. Teenage years spent apart—Erin at boarding school, Monty in detainment, and BJ in self-imposed isolation. They have grown apart, and Weiss details their newfound differences through startlingly intimate glimpses into their psyches. This is one of the reasons why Late Lights is so powerful—there is nothing withheld in these characters’ portrayals.

Weiss transitions between each characters’ voice throughout Late Lights. Erin’s story, “What’s Personal,” is written in strong first person, while Monty and BJ are detailed in the quieter, more detached third person. These deviations made perfect sense as I got to know these characters. It’s almost as though that’s how they’d want to be portrayed.

These stories are about growing up, and being thrust into a gritty, cracked world that no one is really prepared for. In one of the more striking scenes of the collection, Monty sits in Erin’s father’s car, shortly after running away from home. He’s freezing, and having long outgrown his shoes, his feet are bloody and torn. Erin’s father wraps his feet up, gives him a pair of his old shoes, and studies him carefully. He tries to reconcile an image of a broken young man with the boy who played at his home nearly every day during his daughter’s youth:

His old sneakers seemed to dangle from Monty’s feet as if not fully attached. The shoes bulged over toes and bones where the gauze padded raw wounds. He looked so small in those big shoes. Like a kid.

The characters in Late Lights grow worlds away from each other, but are always interwoven. They are united in their imperfection, their incompleteness, and their longing for a lost childhood.


Job and I

by Nola Garrett

O that my words were written down!
  O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
  they were engraved on a rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
  and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
  then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
  and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
                                         Job 19: 23-27a

A couple of weeks ago, a dear poet friend told me her poetry manuscript had just been announced a finalist in a poetry book publication contest.  I’m sure she told me this because she knew I would understand how painful this news was to her.  Over the last quarter century I’ve been a book semi-finalist or finalist 17 times. And, I’ve received hundreds of rejection letters from magazine editors for poem submissions.  We talked a while, and then the next day she emailed me to ask how I’d dealt with so many near misses.  To answer her question all I had to do was look up from my computer screen to the cork board hung near my desk where most all my poetry writing life I have kept a copy of four verses from Job 19.

When I seriously began writing poetry at age 45, all I wanted was to have at least one poem published in a respected magazine or journal.  I expected that I’d get lots of rejections.  That’s when I cut those verses out of my church bulletin and kept them to remind me that longing for publication was nothing new.  I delighted in Job’s wit in foreseeing the invention of the printing press.  However, after only a handful of rejection letters, my first acceptance of three poems from a flaming liberal theological journal, The Other Side, nearly overwhelmed me.  I had to reconsider what Job was trying to tell me.   Perhaps writing poetry was more than publication?  Writing might be a gift I’d been given and a way through my life that held implications I would gradually learn.

That first poetry acceptance came in 1986 while I was living in the Saegertown Lutheran parsonage and sharing an office and an early HP touch screen computer with my husband.  My husband’s sermon and doctoral dissertation writing always trumped my poetry writing when it came to computer time.  Gradually, I began to long for a room of my own with a computer of my own.  That longing was fulfilled a couple of years later when my husband accepted a call to Wesleyville, a suburb of Erie, PA, where I claimed the extra 8×10 foot bedroom overlooking the fenced backyard,  dominated by an immense pin oak centered 15 feet from my window.  My husband moved on to a new computer and a larger office; I inherited the touch screen HP.  I had bookshelves built on two walls, installed a desk made of a green painted door balanced on a pair of 2-drawer file cabinets.  I got his old desk chair, but I did buy a new pink-print recliner for my reading chair.  As a birthday gift, my mother-in-law gave me $25 that I used to buy a second-hand brass, floor lamp that I still treasure.  That’s when I hung my first cork board over my desk and taped Job’s verses on the bottom where among all my poetry contest announcements I could easily find him.

Slowly, my right bottom file drawer began to fill with files of my poems and a paisley printed cloth-bound notebook began to record my poetry rejections and acceptances.   In that cozy, first room-of-my-own office, I wrote a poem titled, “Job, Too,” published in the 1989 Winter issue of The Georgia Review, my first major literary publication.  “Job, Too” is in no way a cozy poem.  It pretty much sums up the book of Job with the phrase, Shit happens, which turned out to be the reason for its publication soon after the Georgia Legislature had passed a law banning the phrase on bumper stickers.  Stanley Linberg, Georgia Review’s editor, even phoned me to warn me that his journal and I might be attacked by his state’s rabid legislators.  Stan Linberg was a wonderful editor, but he greatly overestimated his readership among his local statesmen. However, I found myself going back to reread and to research further the time and the authorship of Job.

In 1990, Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg issued a new translation and a new interpretation of parts of the Hebrew Bible, The Book of J, in which Bloom suggests that the J passages—essentially all the uncanny, deeply human, narrative portrayals of Yahweh—were written by a woman, perhaps the daughter of a priest.  I, along with most of the American scholarly reading public, was fascinated.  Although Bloom never includes the Book of Job in his authorship surmise, Job was written at the same time as the J author was writing circa 950–900 BCE.  What if the J narrative writer also wrote poetry?  Say, the poetry sections of Job which especially in chapter 28 and the last chapters in which Yahweh speaks using so many childbirth metaphors?  What if the J writer never married or was widowed or even divorced?  If so, she would have returned to her priest father’s home.  And, Jewish law would have allowed her to do some kinds of work.  Maybe she was a midwife?  Maybe she had enough time between childbirth patients to write poetry?  Maybe she had a room of her own?

Since I first read Bloom, I’ve moved three times, had three different desks, had four other writing spaces, the last two here in what has become my Pittsburgh condo.  When my husband and I moved from the Florida home we had built after his early retirement, I gave up what at that time I considered to be the very best room of my own that I had ever had for a 36″ white Ikea desk in a corner of our condo’s living room.  I had Ikea bookshelves installed on both sides of the entrance hall that hold less than half the books I had owned in Florida.  My poetry files, now filling two three-drawer Ikea metal cabinets, were in our bedroom.  The condo’s 2nd bedroom became my husband’s office, so he would have somewhere to retreat when he became emotionally overwhelmed.  Everything seemed to be working; I even had a few poetry acceptances.  I was busy rehabing our condo, and I was learning how to live as a Pittsburgher so I could understand how to write Pittsburgh poems.

Then, my husband sued me for divorce, moved out, and left in his office only an ivory slip-covered sofa bed, a two-drawer file cabinet, and a closet filled with tax records and boxes of photographs, mostly of birds hidden in trees and of outtakes from family birthday parties.  For weeks I hoped he might return, and at the same time I dreaded he might return. I was paralyzed. I would walk into what I still felt was my husband’s office, turn around, and go watch another repeat of The Big Bang Theory.  Then, my brother Jerry came for a visit and slept on the sofa bed.  He reported he slept well.

Somehow, my brother’s visit banished my husband’s ghost from that room.  That time when I walked into that room to remove the bed sheets, I decided I would find one thing I could change about the room.  I moved the sofa bed from the east wall and placed it in front of the window.  The first thing I noticed was a perfectly good electrical outlet and a working phone jack on the east wall.  My husband had placed the sofa there.  He had placed his massive desk on the west wall, all the while complaining that the phone jack behind his desk didn’t work, so that he had to go out and buy a long phone cord to snake around the corner into our bedroom so he could have a phone on his desk. Hmmmm?

The next day I moved my desk, office chair, dictionary stand, and computer to the east wall of  my newly claimed office.  I went to Ikea for another smaller white desk for my printer and two simple white floor lamps.  From the hall closet I moved an oriental rug to ground the sleeper sofa, and from what had been my husband’s closet I moved a tall skinny bookcase he had used for sweater storage, but that I now use for writing supplies and unsold copies of my two poetry books.  Months later, I replaced his plain white sheer curtains with ecru lace “bird song” curtains from my favorite mail order catalog: Country Curtains.  Beside the sofa I’ve installed upon a rustic-stick end table a Christmas cactus in a deep green pot.  I’ve gradually added green themed pictures and an antique verdigris copper door plate my son Alfie gave me.  And, above my printer hangs a new white-framed cork board with Job 19 taped on the bottom margin.

A couple of weeks ago, Christian Century accepted for publication one of my new poems, “January 26th: the Anniversary of My Mother’s Death,” wearing this epigraph:

He is green before the sun,
And his branch shooteth forth
In his garden.
Job 8: 16.