In principio erat Verbum

by John Samuel Tieman

There’s a blaze of light
In every word,
It doesn’t matter which you heard,
The holy or the broken – Hallelujah!

-Leonard Cohen

Not long ago, a student asked, “Dr. Tieman, when you were a kid, which poet influenced you the most?” I was surprised by my own answer: St. Thomas Aquinas.

I’ve heard a lot of great poets in my day, and heard them read some of the greatest poems of our era. I heard Allen Ginsberg do the whole of “Howl” from memory. I heard Yevgeny Yevtushanko recite “Babi Yar”. Yehuda Amachai and his “Seven Laments”. Richard Eberhart’s “The Groundhog”. John Okai’s “Aayalolo Concerto”, and his words which will stay with me for the rest of my life –

Between me and my God
There are only eleven commandments;
The eleventh says: Thou shalt not
Bury thy brother alive

I’ve heard a lot of great poets and their poetry. This is a list that can fill pages. And I haven’t even gotten into that distinct yet related topic, great lyrics. I heard Leonard Cohen sing “Suzanne”. But about that student’s question.

I was born and raised in St. Louis. We used to brag that we were “The Rome Of The New World.” Meaning it’s very Catholic. It is, after all, a city named after a saint. For readers who know St. Louis, I was raised in University City, the Jewish enclave. I attended a Catholic grade school and high school. In grade school, we attended Mass every day – Every day! – before school. That’s weekdays. Then there was Sunday. The occasional Holy Day, which fell on a Saturday, was considered a real rip-off. Ours was a small church, Christ The King. Very art deco. But very small. In my travels, I’ve seen larger chapels.

The design was all that was modern. I once asked my mother about a hymn I didn’t recognize. “Oh, that’s one of those new hymns,” she said. I then noticed that it was written around 1750.

It never occurred to me, until decades later, that there’s something exotic about the notion that there’s the language in which you converse, and the language in which you pray. My Jewish buddies prayed in Hebrew, and I prayed in Latin. (It also never occurred to me that there’s also something odd about a little Catholic kid kvetching the whole time he schleps a ton of books to school. But the Yiddish influence is another essay.) In this pre-Vatican II world, I don’t remember anyone who really had understanding of Latin. Understand in the sense of effortless. Or understand in the sense that many understand a second language. I used to live in Mexico City, but, when I speak Spanish, I frequently have to pause, search my mental dictionary. But Latin, with maybe the exception of a priest or a nun, Latin we knew by rote. In our missals, the Latin was on the left, and the English translation was immediately to the right. The recurring bits of the Mass, these we simply memorized. To this day, I can recite the “Credo”, “Gloria”, the “Sanctus”, all from memory. My point being that, while we didn’t own the words, we did own the poetry.

But about St. Thomas Aquinas. Last Sunday, I saw “60 Minutes”. In the opening segment, Pope Benedict was consecrating, as a basilica, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The choir sang the “Panis Angelicus” by Thomas Aquinas.

That was our Communion hymn when I was a boy. “Panis angelicus / fit panis hominum”. Angelic bread / becomes the bread of humanity. For a few seconds, I was back in that little church, Christ The King. And there they all were, my mother, Uncle Earl, Aunt Helen, my brother, my sister. Gramps. My grandmother. My neighbors both sinner and saint. My playmates. All at the Communion rail. Monsignor Ryan, Father MacCarthy, Sister Mary Amabilis, Sister Mary Rita, Sister Mary Rosella. There they all were. Fifty-five years wiped away by words of a medieval poet.

And that’s what I learned from Thomas Aquinas. That the words matter. That the words can last. But more than that. More than even their ability to transport us through time and space. Once, in a small church in the Midwest, we sang a poem, a poem beautiful, pure and holy. And that poem was us.


Book Review: ACCEPTING THE DISASTER by Joshua Mehigan

 photo aa4d89ff-c79e-4630-b322-533b6f9da43e_zpsba0c522e.jpg Accepting the Disaster
Poems by Joshua Mehigan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
Hardcover: $23.00

Reviewed by Jason Barry

Accepting the Disaster is a brilliant new book of verse from one of our finest poets, Joshua Mehigan. This is Mehigan’s second collection, and it’s a formally crafted volume that has the sparkle and shine of a master at work, a poet at the top of his game. Mehigan’s attention to metrical detail is evident at every turn—from dazzling sonnets and rhymed stanzas, to philosophical psalms and minimalist triolets, this book has it all. Let’s begin by considering the opening sonnet, “Here”:

Nothing has changed. They have a welcome sign,
a hill with cows and a white house on top,
a mall and grocery store where people shop,
a diner where some people go to dine.
It is the same no matter where you go,
and downtown you will find no big surprises.
Each fall the dew point falls until it rises.
White snow, green buds, green lawn, red leaves, white snow.

This is all right. This is their hope. And yet,
though what you see is never what you get,
it does feel somehow changed from what it was.
Is it the people? Houses? Fields? The weather?
Is it the streets? Is it these things together?
Nothing here ever changes, till it does.

This poem calls to mind suburban streets or the rural countryside, and it evokes a sense of lackluster routine and drab mediocrity, where things are never more than “all right.” We can see the downtown streets where seasons come and go as they always do, bringing nothing unexpected with them. It’s the quintessential American image of strip malls, billboards, and folks who wish for nothing more than for things to remain the same. Where is this place? Mehigan leaves the question open, but uses ambiguity in the fifth line (“it’s the same no matter where you go”) to suggest that this town could be one of thousands: it’s the one you encounter in New Jersey and Nevada, the place you drive through in Utah that looks identical to the one you passed in Colorado. We have a sense that despite one’s personal efforts, style, and individuality, one’s coming and going has no causal effect on the nature of this place.

Yet we know that we haven’t seen it all, that there’s more to the picture than can we can glean on first impression. When Mehigan writes “though what you see is never what you get,” he suggests that his poetic image is not a definitive representation of the truth. Even an unnamed town can change. We cannot, however, detect its transformations at hand with our faculty of sight, but only with what we feel (see line eleven). There is nothing tangible to perceive or latch onto here—no epistemological evidence of sight or sound to confirm our impressions of change. All we have to go with is our feeling, and we leave the poem with a sense of impending emotional disaster.

In his triolet, “The Crossroads,” Mehigan gives us another glimpse of the ordinary gone wrong, of a scene so common we hardly seem to notice it at all:

This is the place it happened. It was here.
You might not know it was unless you knew.
All day the cars blow past and disappear.
This is the place it happened. It was here.
Look at the sparkling dust, the oily smear.
Look at the highway marker, still askew.
This is the place it happened. It was here.
You might not know it was unless you knew.

We are invited, of course, to observe the aftermath of an automobile accident on the highway, at the crossroads, as it were. And yet, all day the cars “blow past and disappear” as if nothing important happened, as if the spot has no special significance whatsoever; most people go about their lives as usual, and it’s only those who are “in the know” that know the real horror of this place.

What’s terrible is how often we—those of us who continually drive away—fail to register the full weight the crossroads has for others. What I love about this triolet is the stripped down quality, the way it appeals to all of us and also registers individually, the way it renders an everyday situation both personal and powerful. The first line (the one that repeats in the fourth and seventh), “This is the place it happened. It was here” brings us back again and again to the spot, and we depart with an image of car dust, oil, and whatever else our imagination brings to the wreckage. Alas, how soon we’ll forget and move on with things: the sparkling dust will blow away, a new sign will be put in place, and the oil stain will be painted over.

The two poems we explored above exhibit Mehigan’s talent for general description and universal depiction of place. The town in the poem “Here” could be anywhere in America—as could the dust and damaged highway marker. But Mehigan doesn’t limit himself to such a barebones aesthetic. Consider, for example, his gritty sonnet entitled “Heard at the Men’s Mission,” where a cast of unsavory characters populate the foreground:

How many sons-of-bitches no one loves,
with long coats on in June and beards like nests—
guys no one touches without latex gloves,
squirming with lice, themselves a bunch of pests,
their cheeks and noses pocked like grapefruit rind—
fellas with permanent shits and yellowish eyes
who, if they came to in the flowers to find
Raphael there, could not be otherwise—

have had to sit there listening to some twat
behind a plywood podium in the chapel
in a loose doorman suit the color of snot,
stock-still except his lips and Adam’s apple,
telling them how much Jesus loves the poor,
before they got their bread and piece of floor?

What wonderfully grotesque imagery! We can feel the presence of the homeless as if they were all around us—their pockmarked faces, filthy coats, and body odors permeate the scene, though we finish the poem feeling sympathetic and thinking twice about their situation (and also questioning the imbalance of power and the condescending, religious rhetoric of the man behind the podium).

The beautiful turn in this sonnet marks a shift in our perspective: we begin by having the preacher’s (or outsider’s) point of view, yet by line nine we’ve turned the corner and can envision the world as if we, too, were one of the unfortunate sons-of-bitches in the soup kitchen line, subjected to the preacher’s gilded talk and hypocritical banter. This is the kind of description that comes with having spent significant time among the poor, and we gather that the author has a keen understanding of the lives of outcast, downtrodden, and itinerant members of our society.

Each poem in this collection invites patient, multiple readings. Mehigan takes us on a journey from the countryside to the city center, and we roam with him through bum-infested cathedrals and insane asylums, machine shops and polling stations, and even mythological woodlands where girls dance feverishly under shimmering moonlight. The work in this collection is perfectly executed, philosophically rich, and emotionally intense. Accepting the Disaster is sure to be a landmark cherished by lovers of formal poetry, and one of the best books you’ll read for years to come.

Rookeries and Red Wheelbarrows: Some Thoughts on the Poetic Line

by Gerry LaFemina

 What makes a poem a poem?  Well, we all accept that a poem is written in lines, rather than sentences, but what does that mean for us as poets?  Where do lines “break” and who breaks them?  The phrase makes it so accidental, when really line is one of the most deliberate of our choices.  Before the advent of free verse, lines were often decided by meter and rhyme; in the contemporary era, poets often need to decide what drives their line, poem by poem.  Writing in lines allows a poet to manipulate the pacing of the poem, the meaning of the poem, and the rhythm of the poem.

Here’s a poem that we’ve seen plenty of times by William Carlos Williams:

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

If we were to just write this out as a sentence, “So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens,” we would have a pretty unimpressive sentence.  But we’re not writing sentences, we’re writing poems.  So perhaps we would make it look like a poem.  Here it is as a quatrain:

So much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.

Perhaps this is more interesting, but not overly so.  The question is, why?  Why does the poem as Williams published it work in ways that it doesn’t work as a sentence or a quatrain?

The simple answer: the line and stanza.

The line in this Williams poem brings a syncopated jazz beat into the dull farm implement:

So much depends

a red wheel

            glazed with rain

beside the white

In the poem as published, the two stressed syllables in the first line of each stanza and the single stressed syllable of each second line, gives the poem a jazzy rhythm which works against the pastoral, farm imagery of the scene.  Since the two beats in the opening lines never occur in the same place, they have a less metronomic sensibility than we associate with metrical poetry.

But also consider what a wheelbarrow looks like.  It has a bucket and a two handles, with a wheel at the center of it.  Notice how each stanza kind of looks like a wheel barrow.

Line then becomes defining for the poem, can be transformational.  How poets use the line and stanza creates and manipulates the reader’s experience of the language.  Take, for example, this exercise I did with students in which I asked them for four lines.  Students volunteered the lines one at a time:

I like penguins.
They are so cute
in their tiny tuxedos
like a thousand James Bonds.

Like the Williams poems, these lines are pretty dull as far as their phrasing is concerned.  What are they really?  A declarative sentence, a declarative sentence, a prepositional phrase and a simile.  The diction doesn’t do much for the poem, except in the second line in which the “so” makes this poem sound as if written by a middle school student:  “they are so cute.”  But look what happens if we alter the syntax of the second line:

I like penguins.
So cute they are
in their tiny tuxedos
like a thousand James Bonds.

By changing the word order, the second line now sounds like it is using some “high” diction (one of my students called it “Yoda” talk), giving the poem a seriousness that isn’t conveyed with the subject matter.

Of course, in the current order, we know exactly what the poet is talking about.  What happens though, if we swap the order of the first and last lines so that we begin with the simile:

Like a thousand James Bonds
they are so cute
In their tiny tuxedos.
I like penguins.

In this version the poem begins with mystery.  By beginning with the pop-cultural reference of James Bonds, we begin with questions for the reader: what are like a thousand James Bonds?   And how are they like a thousand James Bonds? We don’t get the answer. The writer may have piqued our curiosity enough that we continue downward, as opposed to the first version where, if we don’t like penguins, or we think penguins have been overdone, we may not have continued.

Furthermore, consider what happens were we to reverse the syntax of that new last line:

Like a thousand James Bonds
they are so cute
In their tiny tuxedos.
Penguins I like.

Now we end on the speaker’s liking as opposed to the vision of the penguins that ends the previous version.

We can swap the order another way:

They are so cute,
like a thousand James Bonds–
I like penguins
in their tiny tuxedos.

Again, we delay the object of the speaker’s affection–what is so cute?  What is like a thousand James Bonds?  The third line–the declarative line–answers those questions and then is followed up with the expository final line. The connotation of tuxedos is dramatically different than that of the other endings of this poem: as tuxedos makes us think of formal occasions. Although James Bond sometimes wears a tux, ending on Bond surely doesn’t only bring that connotation into the poem.

By only reversing line order and word order, we create a variety of possible options for this poem that change how the reader experiences penguins and the speaker’s sense of the bird.  Now consider what happens if we change the length of the lines.

I like
penguins.  They are
so cute in their tiny tuxedos
like a thousand
James Bonds.

By breaking the first line on “like” we hold a pause on the word, emphasizing the emotion of “liking.”  The next line is an affirmation of the beingness of penguins.  Look how the middle line is the longest line, and it’s “book-ended” by the s-o/o-s sound combination.  The fourth line makes us wonder a thousand what?  A thousand bucks?  James Bonds is surely not what we’re expecting.

This version of the poem is doing something interesting in terms of rhythm, too.  The first and last lines are both two-syllable lines.  The second and fourth lines are both four syllable lines, so that the poem mirrors itself.

Some slight shifts change how we read it even more:

like penguins
in their tiny tuxedoes.
Like a thousand
James Bonds.  They are
so cute.

The pauses inherent in the line breaks make the second line like penguins seem like a simile. It isn’t, but it changes how we experience everything that follows.  By using a bit of counter point in the penultimate line: James Bonds they are, our eye reads that they are James Bonds because our eyes are trained to work independently of our ears–so even though our ears hear the sentences as they are punctuated, our eyes see the patterns of words that each line is independently as well as a whole.

Change it up just a bit more and you get, what is to me, perhaps the most interesting of these poems:

like penguins–
like a thousand James Bonds
they are
so cute in their tiny tuxedos.

The second and third lines seem to create a pattern of similes: I’m like penguins, I’m like a thousand James Bonds… that force us to consider how these things are similar, how they might be similar to the speaker, and establish an anaphoratic pattern that is instantly broken by line four they are (the simile of course remains accurate–we all “are”), but the sentence and line are doing different things–the way they ought to.

So far such line alterations have resulted in a “longer” poem because the number of lines is longer, so consider the second version in only three lines:

I like penguins.  So cute
they are in their tiny tuxedoes
like a thousand James Bonds.

In this variation of the poem, line one isn’t just a declarative line of taste–instead so cute answers the natural why/ the reader might ask.  Furthermore line two forces us to see the penguins by pointing them out in a full independent clause.  The last line, of course, is a pure simile, and adds, as it always has, a bit of humor in the pop cultural reference.  Are these the Sean Connery James Bonds or the Timothy Dalton James Bonds or the terrible aging Roger Moore James Bonds?  There are a thousand of them–like the end scene of the original Casino Royale.

Realize, I’m working only with the same original set of sixteen words.  Imagine the possibilities of repeating just one word:

I like penguins.
They are so cute.  Penguins
in their tiny tuxedos
like a thousand James Bonds.

The addition of the word penguins–both times at the end of a line–emphasizes the presence of the penguins.  Don’t forget there are “thousands” of them.

Or consider one of the variations above with the additional “penguins.”

They are so cute,
like a thousand James Bonds–
penguins.  I like penguins
in their tiny tuxedos.

By changing I like penguins to penguins.  I like penguins we reinforce the liking of penguins in the line, even though the first “penguins” belongs to the previous sentence.  And if you end with that line:

Like a thousand James Bonds
in their tiny tuxedos
they are so cute.
Penguins.  I like penguins.

The last line repeats penguins.  Once as a fragment.  Then as a declarative sentence.  How does the fragment change the tone of the declarative sentence at the end?  The first use of Penguins answers all our questions, but with a dumbfounded bluntness, thus giving the final sentence  a kind of wistfulness as if the speaker knows it’s silly to like penguins so much.

If this is what can be done with four lines–four fairly mundane and ultimately uninteresting lines–then imagine what can be done with your own lines should you actually choose to spend time considering the limitless possibilities of line length and diction, tone and sound.  The line, we’re reminded, is the core of poetry–not the sentence.  We make and manipulate meaning through how we make and manipulate line.  And by looking once more at “The Red Wheelbarrow” we see the further possibilities stanza might afford us.

Ultimately, creating rules for our line is the one way we make meaning in the poem, one way we create the rules for a tennis court without the net.  Line might be dictated by meaning or sentence or rhythm or rhyme.  I like to think of the line as a series of rubber bands.  How far can they stretch out before they snap us back to the left margin?  The poem’s energy is in the motion back, the slight hesitancy of whatever lingers at the end of one line and the jarring point we return to.


Dance Review: PASSENGER by Shana Simmons Dance

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

In Pittsburgh, and other cities, site-specific dance has become commonplace. From small parks to large warehouses and everything in between, choreographers have taken their work outside the classical theater for many years.

This past weekend, Shana Simmons and her dance collective brought their latest piece, Passenger, to the National Aviary on the North Side. The evening-length show was part of a nationwide effort (Project Passenger Pigeon) to bring awareness to the centennial anniversary of the bird’s extinction.

The performance was broken up into four parts. Sections 1 through 3 took place in the atrium of the Aviary. Underneath a dome of glass, seating was arranged in a semi-circle.  Feathers, twigs, and cloth created a border in front of the chairs; the dancers performed within that intimate space.

In the first part, “Bird Beauty,” the performers explored the movement of these unique pigeons, not only in flight, but also on the ground. Wearing elegant costumes of wide slit pants and fitted tank tops with a “tail” in the back, the dancers began with slow moving unison as if migrating together. The phrases used big extension of the arms that showed off their wingspan, and light, airy jumps.

Interspersed with the larger movements were quirky pecks of the dancers’ heads (beaks) and sharp twitches of their elbows (wings). The gestures were intriguing, technical but not cartoonish. Despite the literal interpretation, Simmons and the cast created something accessible without mockery – a difficult task.

Part 2, “Bird/Human Behavior,” explored relationships between the two. A few standout moments came in this section. The first was an ode to nesting behavior in humans and birds. Each performer gathered the materials lining the space, then used smooth partnering and floor-work to build their nest. They worked together with simple weight sharing and bigger lifts. Everything about the section felt organic, proving just how much research went into the project.

The other exceptional moment brought humor to the work. In a mating ritual, Brady Sanders and Ashley Kostelnik imitated the process of two birds coupling. A voice on the sound system described what was happening, informing us that either gender initiates contact and sometimes one bird might rebuff the advance. The other dancers vied for Sanders’ attention, flirting more like humans and highlighting the aspect of competition prevalent in most animals.

To transition into the third section, “The Last…Martha,” the dancers’ movement crescendoed as they ran forward in a breathless flight or fight for their lives. They pushed each other down repeatedly while feathers, from their hair and costumes, and from the ground, were frantically propelled into the air.

Finally, only one dancer remained. Jamie Murphy played the part of Martha, the last known passenger pigeon to die in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo. Murphy’s solo was accompanied by live vocalist, Anna Singer, who performed Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise.” The song and the solo were both haunting. A sense of loneliness overtook the air of freedom that began the piece. As Murphy rolled to her back, the others blew feathers over her body, an ode to the loss of an entire species.

After the main performance, the audience was permitted to walk through the Aviary’s “Free Fly Zones” in a fourth and final section. While observing warblers, penguins, starlings, and other unusual birds, the dancers kept the performance alive by improvising throughout the space. Simmons and the dancers succeeded in both educating and entertaining the audience, another challenging feat.

Despite a somewhat abrupt transition between the second and third section, Passenger told a daunting story in an incredibly beautiful way. With streamlined choreography, skilled dancers, exquisite costuming and well-suited sound, everything about the piece worked. Simmons not only sparked my interest in the subject matter, but also had me longing to get back to the Aviary and learn more.


Book Review: CITY OF ETERNAL SPRING by Afaa Michael Weaver

 photo 8adbdc87-e490-4f66-9a16-8426d3d20ebb_zps8e7d06b3.jpg City of Eternal Spring
Poems by Afaa Michael Weaver
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014

Reviewed by Mike Walker

City of Eternal Spring is a difficult, demanding book from the onset: however wrongly, we often tend to look for central themes and backgrounding for poets and their poetry, being too accustomed to a Chinese-American poet writing about her ethnic experience or a black poet about his, and losing sight, I feel, commonly of the role of good poetry, period, in contemporary literature. Afaa Michael Weaver, a highly-accomplished yet under-known poet who also happens to be black and happens to be a scholar and explorer of Asia therefore shatters the assumptions that some of even the most well-meaning or educated readers may bring to a book prior to opening its cover. His work here, in the third volume of an ambitious three-volume collection, does concern his ethnicity, it does concern his travels in Asia, but it concerns much beyond. It concerns narrative language and form in a manner often lost today in poetry; it concerns his efforts to make peace with abuse he suffered as a child. It is, as serious poetry ought to be, a challenge in all the best ways.

I know there are readers who will take issue with what I noted above about how we approach a writer of any minority status, they will say we’re beyond this, we no longer see a “black writer” or a “gay writer” but I will contend we still, alas, too often do just this. We find in college courses that writers, especially contemporary poets, often organized in such a fashion where we want for a token someone to represent every facet of diversity. The problem is, the lesbian poet has to then be, foremost, a lesbian. The black male poet is expected to contribute something on racial injustice, the Asian-American something on her struggle as such—as an Asian, as a woman, but what about as a writer or a teacher or whatever else she is? We set expectations of poetry to tell about the person that sometimes are at ill odds with the trajectory the poet wants and desires to take. I don’t want that mistake made with Weaver’s fine book: for its emphasis on Asia alone and its quality of writing, it could stand as a one of the best and most-crucial volumes of original poetry of the year thus far, but the aspects of the poet dealing with childhood abuse also contribute a whole separate though united dimension to the book and the poems it contains.

Weaver’s Plum Flower Trilogy, which this book concludes, takes on a huge project—the reflection of personal history and the human body via Asian, in most instances Daoist, metaphorical explorations. Thus, many poems in this final book are quite personal, but they also are wide-ranging, focused in places on several topics, such as one concerned with the poet’s reaction to learning Michael Jackson died while he, the poet, is in Asia. Effortlessly, Weaver fuses his impressions of the famed singer’s death with his first-hand take on small visual details before him. Something noteworthy for America, for pop culture, has happened, something surprising, something nearly wanton, and yet life goes on and in many ways, in this place where he walks and records what he sees, hears, and smells, it happens in a way life could have progressed centuries ago, with the same daily tasks at hand. It is not how many poets, even our greatest ones, would have approached Jackson’s death. It is more: it is about how a person is displaced‚ either by death, or by the media reaction to death for one of great fame, or by actual removal—by travel and by immersion in another culture. Likewise, when Weaver writes about the earthquakes in Taiwan, he speaks as someone close to the topic but with a feeling of removal still—closer than us, but not native, perhaps near-native given his dedication to learning the language and culture, but still coming as a traveler to the scene.

Travelers, versus tourists, are a rare breed these days: We either go places on business where we are too often cloistered from the acute aspects of a foreign land via our business hotels, meetings in English, and other efforts made to make the experience as smooth as possible or else we are tourists, literally, as we are on holiday tours. Cruises, package deals to see a lot of Europe in a very short time, efforts at eco-tourism that while often well-meaning are tours nonetheless and meant for tourists all the same. The traveler, whether a man in the 1880s making his way through western Texas or a man in the 2010s making his way through Taiwan and elsewhere in vast Asia, are another thing altogether. These are people who are in the midst of a strange land, strangers fully, strangers trying to learn the local ways half via personal interest and half via great imperative to do what one must to survive and to make the experience as much a quality one as possible. That duty is upon our traveler: with the tourist, the surety of quality of course is in the hands and promises of the tour operator—so the responsibilities are rather different.

Weaver is very aware of his position as a traveler and what it means. In his poem “Buying a History of the Language,” which is one of my favorites in this book, he makes it clear that he’s doing things that are the domain of a traveler alone, encountering the origins of a language in a native bookstore, yes, learning about China from the book’s page but buying the book in the first place within China. Weaver entitled the second section of this book “Exile” because he is simultaneously a traveler and an exile: beyond where he came from, where he established via legacy and nationality and education and all else a sense of self versus one of somewhere else. He writes in one poem of walking into a bookstore and seeing a book in a language he did not understand and while he interplays Chinese here and there in his poems and clearly understands not only the language in the sense of being able to communicate in it but also the concept of its vast depth, scope, and history, he in addition knows what he doesn’t know. He realizes his position of removal, his position of not being where he started nor where he wishes to finish nor exactly in transit—as he’s dedicated a lot of time both in actual days and the efforts of these poems to being in situ—so he is, in many ways, in exile.

Despite—or perhaps indeed because of—his self-imposed exile, Weaver writes of his own history in poems such as “Tea Plantations and Women in Black” where the concept of a plantation expectedly returns him to the plight of African-Americans in the United States. It is in poems such as this one, especially given how short, tight, and compressed it is, that there would be an ease in the poet producing something too coy, too earnest, but Weaver avoids this pitfall. His poem is quick, both in its length and its ability to arrive at its core points, yet it leaves the reader wanting more in the very best way. These poems are highly narrative and what they truncate or outwardly leave out is nearly always non-essential and despite how brief they can be, their narrative powers and sheer ability to put together a whole story in a few lines is staggering in scope. I normally like to quote from poems when I review books, but here it is rather tough to do so with much meaning: Weaver’s poems, while often beautiful, are built of uncomplicated language and a couple borrowed lines will do little to convince anyone of their real gravity. Weaver notes, in example, the difficult, nearly-impossible, mission of learning the Chinese characters, he says: “if there are not enough stars in the sky to count the years it will take to learn these characters, do not tell” strikes me as less poetic than it is simply honest.

The role of metaphor here is not to explain the simple, but the complex; Weaver’s metaphors are much larger affairs than one typically expects and he is not interested in metaphors where he can plainly explain, as narrative, what is at hand. He can tell us, in example, about how he marvels at the sense of cohesion and duty in Chinese society and he can tell us, simply, how he notices old couples talking together—huddled together—and provide us with a picture in our minds of such grandmas and grandpas in close conversation that requires no metaphor whatsoever. However, metaphor in larger measure and of more robust, complex construction is merited when speaking of his personal history and childhood abuse. How do we seek solace and remedy for things that are both awful and long ago? Things able to remain with us not years but decades? English itself lacks very sound or sure terms for such a mission—the French “cherchant du réconfort” is more noble and also more accurate. For his part, Weaver turns to the Chinese language but even more the landscape and human geography of it, via Daoist teachings, he has mapped out. He is also very adept at finding in rural Chinese farm life—a life much unchanged for decades despite the boiling rise of Chinese urbanity over the past twenty or so years—likenesses to his own black heritage in America. Again, in less-able hands such efforts could feel forced, but Weaver is restrained and skilled enough to only provide honest, vivid, and necessary examples of how his culture and the one he is visiting reflect each other in often nearly mirror-like gloss. Peanuts, a crop of great actual and cultural import to both Black Americans and to rural Chinese, become a focal point in a poem, in example, and the depth Weaver produces is powerful: not just the surface values of the peanut in terms of a crop with meaning to the ethnicities at hand, but the pragmatic and economic values therein of a humble yet hardy crop, a rich crop of the impoverished, a crop of various broad uses and high nutritional content. His metaphor here is not metaphor: it is what Susan Sontag desired, a removal from metaphor and it is devoid of tropes—it is not about Black people raising peanuts or Chinese farmers raising peanuts, but about encountering a foodstuff valued by two cultures and appreciating it as the wonder of agriculture it is incarnate.

“Wind and air have forgotten magicians,

who can fly beyond the range of the compass”

This, quoted above, now this is worth quoting: lines that are in rare instance for our poet as these so removed from direct narrative, yet all the more beautiful and fully keeping of their strengths of narrative language and simple explicatus intact. Weaver’s expert ability to employ exactly the best words at the exact most-apt moment is something I suspect not only to be the profit of a lifetime of quality writing, but also of coming to the third book in a trilogy where he can draw from themes and items he has considered for two other books’ worth of writing. It’s a rare and very special situation for a poet and one that can only be earned via the sheer amount of grand effort Weaver’s invested in his writing.

Perhaps the most gripping aspect of Weaver’s poetry here however is his cohesive application of Daoist images and concepts to explore the abuse he suffered as a child and also to explore his position currently in the world around him. He is steadfastly careful to not preach Daoist views as a key that unlocks any door but simply as a vantage point that has allowed him necessary distance from himself and his own personal history. While some people might turn to psychoanalysis for such a mechanism, in his Daoist approach Weaver is able to place very core human emotions within the unique geography of a combined landscape, portraying his journey through time as a man akin to a journey across a territory charted out on a map. His poems are perfect for this approach, too, as they are short and compact yet, again, very narrative in nature and brimming with visual cues to larger themes taking place. They function as a collected corpus in this book much as a map rolled out over a table could: showing various locations and the major roads and paths nearly lost to time which lead between one place and another.

Clearly, Weaver’s book is a triumph and a graceful, powerful conclusion to his trilogy as well. Weaver offers up poems that accomplish the rare feat of describing both a foreign land—the whole spectra of people, places, traditions insofar as such can be bottled up in poems and transmitted to a reader. However, he does much more: he flawlessly incorporates his own personal history and personal struggles with his explorations of Asia and in doing so, makes his poetry all the richer instead of truncating or lessening either his autobiographical approach nor his geographical journey. This book therefore is rich, deep, and yet accessible to the reader who is willing to approach it; we need more poetry of this tenor, more poetry that is able to interrogate cultural traditions but without the normal tropes of a poet pigeon-holed into a certain ethnic, national, or other tradition: a poet, as Weaver proves himself, who is truly a traveler.


I Saved the Ragu

by Sheila Squillante 

Today is my father’s 35th birthday and I am sitting on the edge of the white porcelain tub in our upstairs bathroom, while my mother swabs cotton puffs soaked in hydrogen peroxide on my road-burned knees. The clear liquid hits my raw skin and immediately foams up, white and stinging as it pulls dirt, gravel and other black bits to the surface. Usually, I think this is sort of fascinating—look at all the stuff in there!—but today, I have other things to think about.

“Ouch!” I complain, wincing away from her touch.

“This doesn’t hurt,” she tells me, and keeps swabbing. How would she know? I wonder. All I can think about besides the open wound of my knees and the fact that I still have to baby-sit tonight, is my bike. My brand new, first-ever, 10-speed. I just got it 3 weeks ago for my 12th birthday. A present from my parents. I’ve been riding it around our cul-de-sac and on the next street over where my friend Jean lives, practicing shifting gears and getting used to the hand brakes and skinny tires, working on my balance. I’ve been doing pretty well and pretty soon Jean and I are going to ask our mothers if we can be allowed to ride bikes to the park together after our homework’s done. Jean’s bike is not as new as mine, which means she’s better at riding. Hers is purple metallic and looks a little like a rocket. I’m so glad that my bike isn’t pink or baby blue like my old ones. It’s red and silver and feels like a real bike to me. No wire basket, no girly streamers. This is going to be so cool.

The cold liquid runs down my leg and soaks the top of my sock. I reach down to wipe it off and notice a little bit of blood there against the white cotton, my blood, and imagine my brand new, first-ever, ten-speed lying splayed in the driveway, it’s frame bent horribly from where the car hit it, the spokes and gears broken, beyond fixable.

“Ouch!” I say again, and this time, though I’m also getting angry now, when I think about it, I really just want to cry.


          Today is my father’s 35th birthday and my mother is throwing him a party. She’s running around “like a chicken with its head cut off,” she calls it, vacuuming and dusting and wiping down the bathroom counters and toilets with Scrubbing Bubbles and bleach. I’ve been helping her all morning, cleaning my room first and then sorting through the plastic forks, spoons and knives we keep in the bottom drawer of the oak hutch, far away from the real stuff that belonged to my mother’s grandmother. It’s a whole set of sterling with loopy vines and full blossoming flowers on the ends. Each piece is engraved with the initials “TD.” D for Drew, her last name; T for Tiny, what people called her.

Better though, prettier, I think, is the dresser set—the silver mirror and comb, and the brush with such baby-soft bristles that I wonder how it would get the knots out of anything. Not my thick dishwater mop, that’s for sure, but of course I never try it. It’s so old and special.

I ask my mom what else she needs me to do and she muses, “Well, I still need to run to the store to grab a few things for the party, but I guess I’ll do that later, after I pick up the beer.”

“I can do it,” I say. “I can ride my bike to Quik-Chek. It’s just down the road. Please?”

Just down the road is true enough, but the road in question is Colonial Road and that intersects with Franklin Avenue, the main street in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, where we live. I walk on it every morning to get to my middle school. I walk past old-fashioned Archer’s Stationary store, which, as far as I can tell, sells pretty much everything but stationary, and which has a Ms. Pac-Man machine in the back by the storeroom that I play sometimes, but I’m nowhere near high score. Walking, I always have to worry that a car might splash mud or slush or rainwater up on my school shoes and skirt. It happens sometimes and I have to spend the day like that—wet and dirty in patches. Uncomfortable for hours.

Quik-Chek, a three-aisle convenience store where you can get rare roast beef sandwiches with mayonnaise and tomato sprinkled with salt on rye bread—my all-time favorite—is attached to the gas station on Franklin Ave. Their logo, a check mark inside a square box, always makes me think of finishing tedious tasks like emptying the dishwasher, which I hate.  Check. You’re done!

“I don’t know,” she says, eyeing me carefully. “Are you sure you can handle it?”

I would like to swear to God that I can—that’s how sure I am—but I can’t because I know that sort of talk will neither convince nor impress my very Catholic mother. It could even backfire my plan entirely, so I just say, “Yes, Mom, I’m sure,” and she agrees on the condition that I go and come right back. No side trips. She gives me a short grocery list: plastic tablecloth, birthday candles, one jar of Ragu brand spaghetti sauce to plump up the lasagna she’s making for the party tonight. I convince her that I can balance these three items in a bag on my handlebars while I ride. It’ll be fine.

And it would have been fine, except that on the way back from the Quik-Chek, I’m riding like I’m supposed to on the right side of the road—always with traffic, not against—holding the paper sack with the table cloth and birthday candles and the spaghetti sauce between my thumbs, while I steer with my fingers, and I see what’s kind of like a sandbar in the shoulder there and I think maybe I shouldn’t ride into it, maybe these skinny tires will get wobbly on me if I do and I’ll fall into the street. But I can’t really ride around it either, since the asphalt’s pretty crumbly at the edges, so I decide I should probably cross now since, anyway, there’s my street coming up—Ackerman Street—and so I start to drift, I drift as if I hadn’t really decided this, which, of course, I had—this was my bad decision—I drift now, slowly, out into traffic.

The car that hits me—a big American something—is only, thankfully, going 10 or 15 miles per hour. It has just then pulled onto Colonial Road from Franklin Avenue and hasn’t had time to accelerate up to the 35 mile per hour speed limit. The wide chrome smile of the fender kisses my back tire and I’m not, to tell the truth, really surprised to feel myself tumbling, “ass over teakettle,” as my mother calls it, over my handlebars and onto my hands and knees on the street. The paper sack and its contents also fly, but I’m not thinking about that now. I stay the way I land, on all fours, for a long moment, cursing my bad decision to cross, inventorying my pain to see if I am seriously hurt, and worrying that I’ve ruined my father’s birthday.

“You stupid kid!” The woman whose car hit me is yelling and coming toward me now. She looks pale and sweaty and bright red all at the same time. Her hands a blur of motion in the air around her face.

“You didn’t even look!” she screams, “You didn’t look!”

She’s right. I didn’t look. It’s entirely my fault, this accident, I know, so I absorb her anger and her fear the way the pink sponge had absorbed the Scrubbing Bubbles earlier this morning in the bathroom, and just stay there in that cowed position, on all fours like that. I am vaguely aware that someone has come out of the house where G.J., the boy I have a big crush on, and who sometimes shares chewy-sweet caramels and bright blue gob-stoppers that paint our teeth and lips, lives. It’s his mother and she knows my mother. They work together as drive-thru tellers at the bank in the Grand Union shopping center. G.J.’s mother helped my mom choose her costume for the bank’s Halloween party last year. She was a schoolgirl: she wore pigtails and one of my sixth grade dresses. G.J.’s mother recognizes me and runs over, helps me to my feet and then sits me back down on the curb, away from the street, which is now entirely stopped up with traffic.

“Oh my god, honey. Are you okay? Here, sit here and I’ll go call your mom. Is she home? Do you know?”

I nod at her blankly and find that I can’t talk. I’m choking on my own fear now, realizing what has just happened. The woman who hit me is still yelling, but there are other people in the street now too, other motorists and neighbors trying to calm her down and redirect traffic. Her car is undamaged and drivable, but someone is telling her she can’t move it until the cops come. G.J.’s mom, meanwhile, must have realized that she could walk to my house faster than call, because here comes my mother, running across the lawn of the house on the corner of Ackerman Street and Colonial Road. She looks petrified and this is when I really lose it.

“I’m sorry mom…it’s my fault… I should have looked…I didn’t look…I’m such a klutz…”

My mother knows me, knows my instinct to inhabit all blame, to self-deprecate at all times. She also knows, as I do not yet know, that when children are hit by cars, it is never their fault. No matter their bad decision to cross the street and regardless of whether or not they remembered to look. She runs her hand over the top of my head and smoothes down the back of my hair.


Today is my father’s 35th birthday, and I’m sitting on the edge of the curb now, trying to stop crying, while my mother calls him from G.J.’s mother’s phone and says, “Get over here now.” She could have run to our house faster than call, but she doesn’t want to leave me. The yelling woman who hit me is also sitting on the curb, but down the road a bit, away from me. She is also, it looks like, trying to stop crying. The police have been and gone, and no ambulance came because I’m just banged up some, “more scared really, than anything,” someone decides, and not hurt enough to go to the hospital.

The traffic is still being redirected around the accident, but it’s time to get that cleaned up, too, so someone—not the woman—has gotten behind the wheel of her car and is trying to back it up and out of the way. Only something’s making it hard to drive it; something’s stuck, and I can’t see quite what that is, but I can hear the scraping sound of metal on metal and metal on asphalt and I realize it’s my bike, my brand new, first-ever, red and silver ten-speed, still caught up under the front fender, now being dragged by the twisted pedal, the broken foot, back up Colonial Road.

I want to scream, “Stop! Fix it! Please!” and “Don’t!” but my throat is swollen shut from crying and now this new fear—my father walking quickly, not running but not strolling either, across the lawn on the corner. I don’t know what to do, how to sit, where to put my hands, my tattered palms studded with gravel.  He’s not smiling, but he doesn’t look angry either. I’m sure he’ll think I’m not really hurt since there’s no ambulance coming, and how will he know, because I know I can’t tell him, that I’m so scared, Dad, because I got hit by a car on my new bike because I didn’t look to see what was coming, and I could be in the hospital or even worse, and it’s your birthday and I caused this; I’ve ruined it all.

I stand up and feel my knees buckle painfully—they will be swollen and raw for days. They will click and snap for years. “Daddy,” I say. And just like always, I walk toward him. I don’t wait for him to come all the way to me, even though this is all I can think about and the only thing in the world that I want, because I’m too afraid that he will stop just short and just stand there, and I won’t get to bury my face in his blue v-neck sweater and breathe in his smell of wool and peppermint and ‘Lectric Shave.

“Daddy, I’m sorry,” I say, because I can’t think of what else to say and because the woman who hit me has stopped yelling now and the traffic is back to 35 miles per hour on Colonial Road and my bike is bent horribly, splayed there on the road, broken and beyond fixable, and because it is his 35th birthday and my klutzy self has about ruined everything, I say, “But look, I saved the Ragu.”

I say this because I know it will make him laugh, will make him think I’m stronger than both of us really, deep down, know I am. I say this word, “saved,” even though we both know it really had nothing at all to do with me since I was busy making bad decisions and flying out over my handlebars and landing on all fours like a wounded puppy. Because that’s what I feel like, to tell the truth, whimpering and expectant down here on the curb, just dying, after all, to be stroked.

The Ragu is, of course, perfectly safe: the paper sack that balanced on my handlebars flew a few feet and landed on the soft grass outside of G.J.’s house, birthday candles still in the box, the glass jar unbroken on the soft ground.


Book Review: THE GLAD HAND OF GOD POINTS BACKWARDS by Rachel Mennies Goodmanson

 photo e2331f31-5ee1-4b9c-892c-521f018b5b24_zps181382cc.jpg The Glad Hand of God
Points Backwards

Poems by
Rachel Mennies Goodmanson
Texas Tech University Press, 2014

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

Faith is a lineage: cultural, familial, political, a heritage in some ways inescapable. This is by no means a new idea, but that doesn’t stop Rachel Mennies Goodmanson from exploring it in active, surprising ways in her debut collection The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards. These poems arrest with their images, leading readers through unexpected turns that take us from 1930s Europe to contemporary America. Along the way, Goodmanson paints and repaints the history of Judaism from her place as woman in the world. This is not self-indulgence, but a calling from Torahic mothers like Sara, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel, who, Goodmanson writes, “had the hearts of the bodies we stand on tall as arks / had the shawl to wrap around my bare and sloping shoulders / had the soil to force into my fists and turn my body west.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, this early admission that faith is an imperative thrust upon her by the matriarchs, many of Goodmanson’s poems explore the difficulties of faith. The morning after Kristallnacht, her great-grandfather’s Jewishness becomes an impossible garment: “A glass overcoat waits, open / on the sidewalk: sleeves of debris / for his cold arms to slide inside.” This poem, like many in the collection, thrives on the unsaid. “Today, he learns how clothes betray,” the speaker tells us, and then later, “old customers pass / kicking aside findings with a steely toe.” The tiniest details are employed to depict the vulnerability of being Jewish in Germany during the second World War; we know who these old customers are. “The Glass Overcoat” shifts from its central metaphor to the speaker, who tells us, “From him, I learned to mend.” But even she, mending in contemporary America, cannot always find comfort in her coat—her hands kept from warmth by a pocket mistakenly sewn shut.

Goodmanson follows this poem with one about her grandmother, “How Grandmother Paid Her Passage to New York.” The poem opens with a list of all the belongings Goodmanson’s matriarchs had to give up to pay the price: “One by one her mother sold her silver spoons / and heirloom bracelets; goodbye, porcelain bear, / silk blouses, patent-leather Mary Janes, the scarves…” At first it seems that Goodmanson is simply reinvesting immigrants like her grandmother with power, reminding us of lives led before they came to America with nothing to their name. But then there’s a stanza break and objects take a sinister turn as Goodmanson bids goodbye to

the neighbors, the schoolmates, the mothers dressed so well
at services, the men with businesses who stayed behind
one week, two weeks more. What stylish
objects they became: the coins from fillings
and wedding rings, the soap, the wigs, lamp
after lamp to light a thousand decorated homes.

Stated in its simplest terms, this list leaves readers to realize the meaning behind Goodmanson’s words—the grisly origins of this latter set of objects. Again, faith is made to bear an impossible price.

But faith isn’t all horror for Goodmanson. “The Jewish Woman in America, 1941,” a member of the diaspora, reminds us that the love for one’s culture and home can be retained in spite of past pain. Goodmanson allows the woman in the poem to make a fantastic nightly escape:

… alive with immigrant sweat. The scrubwoman
dreams at night in German, she flies over oceans,
first a bomb, then a boat. Das Glas covers her body,
shards glint like small stars.

The glass of Schönwetter’s overcoat becomes this woman’s dazzling dress, supernatural bauble to decorate the complexity of her homecoming. In “Grandfather Onion,” Goodmanson hints that Jewish faith is like Jewish food, “its complicated / briny odors.” Indeed, food metaphors seem to be one of the ways she can best articulate this concurrent grief and love. As she asks the reader in “Huevos for Seder,”

Who’s to say dirt never
made a meal better, some sour
blackness against the yellow sun, grit
in the gift of sustenance?

If the first four sections of Goodmanson’s book set out to depict the complicated nature of Jewish heritage, then the final section, “The Jewish Woman in America,” articulates her celebration of those complexities. We get a hint of what’s to come here in the fourth poem of the collection, “The Jewish Woman in America, 2010,” when Goodmanson writes, “My God accepts // the muddle of our lives.” This last section is all muddle—mixing of history with the present, heritage with new perspectives, and especially body with body. For the first time in the collection, female sexuality becomes a major theme. Like the speaker in “To Those Still Godless,” the Jewish woman in America is called upon to revise mythology: “you shutter your parents’ house of lessons, you write your myths / on the backs of your lusts…”

Love and sex, in this world, aren’t always beautiful, but they are a reclamation of the body. They are ways to control the unappeasable appetite from “Eating Animals Without Faces,” where “what we seek / alone at night stays hungry, always hungry” and “My Sister the Diviner,” where love is eaten along with food, “that closed mouth, / fit always, despite ourselves, to bursting.”

And so, 65 pages after her list poem “Matriarch,” Goodmanson gives us two final lists that turn all the old rules on their heads. “Rapture” meditates on peaches to give us a new idea of perfection:

                  …Peach God, rapt for carrion,
turning above us in the heavens, waiting for
us, ripening, to satisfy ourselves;
come to him pitted, come to him
finished, made rotten by
your sweet time in his sun.

Here, as with fruit, our wasting away can be a sweet thing; “the very taste / of sin” rewritten as rapture. The final poem continues to muddle the sacred and profane, telling the reader, “Our bodies // naked before men are God” and “The lungs expand with our God, God / in the scream, also the moan.” Then we zoom out, back again to the original pains and gains of faith and heritage: “The broken limb // and its setting right. God in / the remembering and the forgetting.” In the way we write and rewrite our worlds.