Coal Hill Blog
by Arlene Weiner
When I was an undergraduate at Barnard College, we were allowed to take graduate courses at Columbia University. I took a class in, I think, “The Classical Tradition,” with Gilbert Highet. Highet was quite well known. He was on the board of the Book of the Month Club, had written a book called The Art of Teaching, and had written a great doorstop of a softbound book with the same title as the course. Since I was a callow undergraduate, and accustomed to extremely intense classes, I thought his class was not very rigorous. I didn’t yet appreciate that graduate education could take the British form of meetings with a mentor, with the initiative and rigor supplied by the learner/scholar. I do remember that when I had a conference with Highet, he asked if I’d like tea and gave me a cup.
I still have Highet’s enormous book, a very useful reference for centuries of influence of Greek and Roman civilization. And I recall “Highet’s Law:” “First-rate results can have third-rate causes.” He enunciated that law, as I recall, with respect to Shakespeare (first-rate) and Ovid (third-, or perhaps second-). He may specifically have been speaking of Ars Amatoria, the Art of Love, which he regarded as a spoof in which Ovid pretended to be taking seriously a subject that was beneath seriousness, the seduction of easy women.
Which is how I get to pirates. It has struck me how many excellent authors, in recounting how they fell in love with writing, say that they read and imitated Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood. I took Captain Blood to be an example, of genre fiction, of good story telling, of “low” culture in general. A third-rate cause with first-rate effects. But having just read a Wikipedia article about Captain Blood I think it may be better than I thought: probably swashbuckling but historically accurate and complex, a tale (or, originally, a suite of tales) about Peter Blood, who’s unjustly judged a traitor to King James II, is enslaved and transported, and who becomes a successful buccaneer. And I think I’d better read it.
(My apologies to readers who know all about Captain Blood. I wouldn’t be surprised if that included nearly all the men who read Coal Hill Review and some of the women. Let us know.)
Still—Highet’s Law holds. Poetry nowadays is the resultant of many influences, including pop music, advertisements, comic books, video games. Maybe not only third-rate causes, but many beneath seriousness. How wonderful when it is Shakespearean and transmutes the third-rate and low-rent into the first-rate.
Poems by George Bilgere
|University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
Reviewed by Alison Taverna
The world George Bilgere represents in his sixth collection, Imperial, tight-ropes the simple with the complex. Bilgere’s voice—casual, matter-of-fact, and vaguely amused—edges at the last second with anxiety and denial. His poems, an empire of “Yard Sale,” “Fly Balls,” “Prostate Exam,” simultaneously mix with the metaphysics and mythology of what Bilgere attributes to the “beautiful ordinariness.” Among these pages occurs a combustion of universes. The stars collide on the heels of our feet, galaxy light-years rush us slowly through the decades, away from the youth of yo-yo’s and the Cold War, into the final battle with old age. This proves fitting, for even among the grandiose “It would be normal life, / which threatens at all times to overwhelm us.”
The convergence of universes is found most prominently in “Scorcher.” The setting: an after-dinner walk during summer twilight. The heat of day folds into the damp cloth of night, the birds asleep, the lightning bugs aglow. The poem’s action is close to motionless, the neighbors “mystical and obscure,” and the walkers awed by the brilliant strangeness of humanity amidst the vastness. Bilgere narrates the scene with a slow affection, ends the poem on a bird’s-eye view:
“for this shared mystery
of being human
on this dark little planet,
on one of the slender,
gracefully swirling arms
of one of the smaller galaxies.”
Here, Bilgere shows that the world of our planet is only an arm on a child galaxy. Throughout the collection, Bilgere constantly reminds us of our place, and while his tone never veers towards anger, there appears an air of pointedness, as if Bilgere himself has uttered with his pencil tip, we need perspective.
This happens in “Mexican Town.” The poem is quick in comparison, especially against the pace of “Scorcher.” No time to appreciate, to dive into the culture, and here craft matches intent: to reveal America’s under- appreciation of an extrinsic, natural world, free from the technology that consumes our current age. The final stanza sums it up, the brevity obvious,
“The boys go down to the beach
and play futbol in the sand.
At sunset they race each other
into the surf. It’s sad.”
Perhaps due to the sadness that comes with the loss of connectedness in our modern world, Bilgere’s speaker is reluctant to move forward. In “Jane,” the speaker witnesses the old woman across the street pack in preparation for “a home of some sort. A facility.” While the speaker talks with Jane, the only real information provided in regards to her is the fact that she is old and must move to accommodate such aging. The word facility repeats five times within six stanzas. A white-knuckle denial lives inside the speaker,
“…I have no intention of doing so.
What Jane is doing—growing old,
taking out her ominous black trash bags
to vanish terribly in the snow, getting ready
for someone to drive her to a facility…”
Instead, Bilgere circles the past around his tongue, writes about youth in the 1950’s with Stan Musial and Duncan Imperial Yo-Yo’s, the horrors of war and the atom bomb through the lens of new toy technology. This way the past, barely, looks better than the future.
In “Traverse City,” the speaker reflects on the days spent with family by the lake, “The tiny cottages on the shore are still there.” The appearance of the lake and beach, and even the children playing on the shore is cyclical. This physical preservation of the past fogs the speaker’s ability to solidify the procession of time. In one of the more moving stanzas in Bilgere’s collection he demonstrates the bewilderment of time passing, of growing old:
“My sisters are middle-aged women,
children and divorces behind them.
I am older than my father ever was.
Yet there are the cottages and the beach
where we played with our buckets and shovels,
as the children on the sand are playing now.
No one can explain this.”
In addition to the individual loss Bilgere’s speaker experiences, a cultural loss brims to the surface. The art of language fails in this new America. “Yard Sale” finds volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica soaking on a card table in the rain. Bilgere writes, “It looks brand new, even though it must be sixty years old./ That’s because it was only used a couple of times.” The days of needing physical books to discover information are long gone.
“Attic Shapes,” also hints towards the loss of language when the speaker stores his dissertation, for the second time, in the attic. The hours spent studying Keats, and the years living a lifestyle that would make the Romantics proud, become boxes collecting with dust. The language that fueled the past has given way to the “beautiful ordinariness,” a world in perspective. Maybe, though, reason backs the evolution of days, the future not entirely lost, because on second look we’ll find
“a time too painful with hopeless yearning,
and too beautiful with poetic self-pity,
and generally too terrible with loneliness and mystical confusion,
either to hear again or ever throw away.”
by John Samuel Tieman
Settling on the screen
Of the crowded movie house,
A white butterfly.
– Richard Wright
Thank you for that kind and generous introduction. I am really looking forward to meeting whomever it was you were talking about.
I may well be the least likely poet in the world to give a lecture on composition. I sometimes think I have these mutually exclusive frames, in which people know me as one thing but not the other. Some know me as a certified middle school and high school teacher. Others as a university lecturer. Some as an obscure historian. Others as a minor poet. To the extent that anyone knows me at all, I’m probably best recognized for my political commentaries. A few folks know my scholarly essays about educational psychology. My beloved wife is a highly regarded psychoanalyst, so in some crowds I’m Phoebe’s husband. To some I’m Mr. Tieman, and to others I’m Dr. Tieman. Some know me as a Vietnam veteran; some know me as a peace activist. I don’t know – maybe I’m simply a highly accomplished dilettante.
My point being that my writing, frankly, is just one aspect of my life. An important one, don’t get me wrong. I identify myself as a writer, as a poet and an essayist. And as an educator. And as an historian. As a war veteran. As a scholar. As a loving husband. As a Roman Catholic, for that matter. All that. And more.
In any case, you asked. Let me begin by saying that I am not going to be didactic. Too many good writers have written eloquently on this subject. (What does one say after Phillip Sidney’s An Apology For Poetry, Richard Hugo’ s The Triggering Town, John Ciardi’s How Does A Poem Mean?) But you asked. Therefore, I will tend toward the impressionistic, and the vaguely autobiographical.
Let me begin with a poem about poetry.
I’ve never written a poem
that said what I meant
one means as much as shrapnel
one means as little as ink
I wish I had wisdom
instead I have lines
silent as a blackboard in summer
loud as a glacier breaking away
I’ve never known a poem
to stay where I left it
a prisoner climbing a fence
a landing light in the sky—–
I sometimes think I wasted decades looking for inspiration, when all I needed to do was simply open my eyes.
mother and suckling
boy at the bus stop on Pine
she notes the dawn and
wonders what the day will bring
besides milk and sleep and light
I have almost no imagination. Easily my best known poem was inspired by a shadow.
we undress for love
and for ten seconds the dusk
makes us young again
That haiku was published in Japan in translation in the millions. And it was inspired by nothing beyond what it says. I love my wife. I love her body. Twilight and I wish we were young. I used to think that all poems were inspired by a great sunset, a cataclysmic earthquake, the death of a young athlete. In Vietnam, I saw a sunset that made even the birds pause. In 1985, I survived the Mexico City Earthquake. A student died on the soccer field last year. And I got from these not a single line of poetry. Then — then yesterday –
in utter silence
I stare out our new picture
window to the street
a basketball rolls by followed
by not a soul …
Sometimes a poem takes decades.
Many years ago, I made the acquaintance of Howard Nemerov. I don’t want this to sound any larger than it was — acquaintance is just the right word. He lived down the street from me here, in St. Louis. Sometimes we’d talk of war, World War II for him, Vietnam for me. I remember once saying how I always felt like my service was a failure, that somehow I had failed The Manhood Test. It was one of the first times I’d ever been aggressively honest about my trauma. He admitted having the same feelings. “It’s amazing how war can make us feel like a failure, even when all we failed to do was get ourselves killed.”
And, of course, we spoke of poetry. I have for decades meditated on an off-handed comment he made. “I have no imagination.” At first, I was uncomprehending. Years later, as I walked across the campus of Washington University, years after he’d passed, I saw Howard’s old office window. There were the gingko trees he wrote about in his poetry. He didn’t imagine anything. He just looked out the window. That act of looking took no imagination. The art was in his craft.
This poem below records an event that happened in 1970. My first night in the 4th Infantry Division, North Vietnamese sappers blew-up twenty-one helicopters. Welcome to The Nam. The next night, we watched as “Puff The Magic Dragon”, a Douglas AC-47 gunship, killed these N. V. A. maybe a half-a-mile from the camp. This gunship carried three mini-guns, Gatling guns, which fired so many rounds, 6,000 rounds a minute, that it was said that they put one bullet in every square inch of an area the size of a football field. These mini-guns don’t even sound like a rat-a-tat-tat machine gun. It’s much more like wwwwhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh, so many bullets firing so fast that they are indistinguishable. The next morning, a patrol didn’t find any bodies, just body-sized splotches of blood.
I wanted to capture the fact that my feelings were a combination of relief and awe. It is a cliché to say that soldiers are always afraid. No doubt many are. But I wasn’t afraid. And I wasn’t brave. This untitled poem records the night in The Nam that I became dissociative.
I have struggled for decades with my own reaction formation, which is a near-pacifist stance. I hate war. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find it arousing. Hence, “it’s finally time” to tell a story that I, for decades, didn’t want to know about myself. Perhaps my memories of Howard put me in mind of W. B. Yeats’ “After Long Silence”, the echo of which can be found in this poem –
Years after the war, it’s finally time,
our first sergeant retired,
our outpost plowed under,
the secrets no longer the news, that we tell
the story and tell it again until we hear
what we hated to know:
that we admired the arc of the tracer,
that we admired the splotches of blood.
I’ve been influenced by many other poets.
St. Patrick’s Basilica, Montreal
the leaflet says Emile Nelligan once prayed here
horrified and solar and pale
dementia like an ice violin
a vein where no one finds gold
what did you see when you saw Jesus
a rag doll a neon eclipse Baudelaire
fantastic nostrils sudden birds
psalms sung by orphans
nearly fifty years in a hospital and
I envy you, Emile Nelligan, envy you composing
the same poem every morning and every morning
When my wife Phoebe and I vacationed in Montreal a few years ago, I was amazed at how little I knew about Canadian poetry. We went to Sunday mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where I read in a brochure that Emile Nelligan was baptized there. Without explanation, it read “Nelligan” like I should just know him. He is considered the Arthur Rimbaud of Canada. Schools and libraries are named after him. Like Rimbaud, he stopped writing in his late teens, in Nelligan’s case at the onset of schizophrenia. Emile Nelligan spent the rest of his life, the next forty-two years, in a hospital. And became a legend.
Here’s a poem Nelligan wrote. His poem is from a notebook found on him just after he had the schizophrenic episode that landed him in the hospital. For a little over two months in the summer of 1899, he wandered the streets of Montreal, sleepless, reciting scraps of poetry, haunted by the dementia he recorded in that notebook. I’ve often thought that this poem speaks to us directly from the dementia, and, perhaps, comes as close as one can to expressing what Jacques Lacan calls “the real”. I follow his poem with my humble effort.
He wrote –
And now I dream of shadows stained with blood,
Proud prancing steeds; the sounds I hear
Are like children’s coughs, cries of tramps’ despair,
Death-rattles of the slowly dead.
Where are they from, those horns that blare and blow,
Snare-drum or fife in noisy wars?
It could be said that through the town, hussars
Gallop with sea-green helms aglow.
I wrote —
Vision, 3 AM
And now I dream of a certain shadow stained
glass creates, of a procession and its priest,
of children softly coughing, of pews.
Where are they from, the psalms and antiphons,
the incense and The Seven Sorrows,
the nun who prays, “Let us pray”?
It could be said, of a certain Catholic
orphanage, that deacons in purple stoles
lead the Stations Of The Cross.
What I love about writing is the process. Good poem or no, good essay or not, I love to sit at my desk, stare out the window at, today, the snow, knowing that I have a warm cup of coffee, a brilliant and sexy wife, and, if I’m lucky, a good idea.
I am in perfect agreement with Sigmund Freud’s theory that the artistic process comes out of the same place as play. I have never been one to suffer over writing. My wife is an insightful writer. I love my wife, but there is a certain way in which I don’t understand her, or anyone, who suffers as she does with writing. If I found it unpleasant, I wouldn’t do it.
One of the mysteries of my marriage is watching
Phoebe revise. I’ve seen her take a thirty page draft
and just throw the whole thing out. All of it.
And start over. The ideas are all there and greatly
clarified. But the words she throws out.
What she keeps is the clarity of thought.
For my part, I stand in awe. She jokes
how revision begins with bloodshed.—–
I have no great lessons to impart, nothing large that I’ve learned in life. If angst is a lesson, I’ve learned a lot about that. I am glad I was a professional musician before I was a writer. Music taught me patience and practice. My wife was surprised when I told her that, as a classically trained musician, I often spent the first hour of each day simply playing long tones – one note held for, say, half a minute – scales and chords. All this before I ever opened a sheet of music.
I’m also glad I was a bachelor for forty years. That also taught me about practice, patience and rejection.
Tieman’s Rule Number One: Being an artist is no excuse for being a wanker.
I’ve known poets who were really nice. I know poets who are doting parents, and poets who have sexually abused children. I’ve known poets who are lawyers, and I’ve known poets who are felons. I can’t count the alcoholic poets I’ve known. What seems to unite these poets is a love, indeed a need, for the word. That’s about it, at least as near as I can tell.
But about that dissipation.
More than for his athletic prowess, considerable though it was, Stan Musial is remembered for his simple decency. Bob Costas tells of a night with Stan, Stan’s wife Lil, and Mickey Mantel. “The Mick” vowed to stay sober for the evening, so as not to embarrass himself before Stan and Lil. Later, after the Musials left, Mantel said to Costas, “I had as much ability as Stan. Maybe more. Nobody had any more power than me. Nobody could run faster than me. But Stan was a better player than me, because he was a better man than me. Because he got everything out of his life that he could, and he’ll never have to live with all the regret I live with.”
In my youth, I drank too much, did drugs, womanized. In a war of questionable morality, I killed a boy. I traveled the world in order to run from my troubles. I spurned the love and kindness of people who truly cared for me. There is much I regretted, and much more I simply learned to live with. Throughout all that I was an artist. I just wish I had been a better person. I thank God I got better with age. I became a better person, and, because of that, I became a better writer.
Sometimes it helps me to remember my favorite Bible passage, the 38th Chapter of Job, the one where God finally responds to Job by saying, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. … Can you lift your voice to the clouds, that a flood of waters may cover you?”
A few folks have asked how, with my busy work schedule, do I manage to find time to write? A lot of the time, frankly, I don’t find the time. It’s the price I pay for a pension, the price I pay that my wife and I might have a dental plan. Someone once said to me, “If you a good teacher, then you often go home tired.” I must be the best freaking teacher in the world. There have been days when I’ve pulled into the garage, turned-off the car, and have fallen asleep right there.
I love Japan, its people and its culture. I spent four years as a Buddhist, and spent about a month in a Buddhist temple at the foot of Mount Fuji. I fell in love with Akiko Yosano, a feminist known for her tanka. I love the way she combines sexuality and spirituality.
Tanka and haiku provided a solution to a nagging problem. Often I would begin a poem and, because of my schedule, I’d write a line here, a line there, all this over the course of maybe a month. But if, after that month, I thought the poem sucked, if it seemed, as it often was, choppy, then – WHAM – there went January.
Thus began my romance with haiku and tanka. They’re short enough that I can scratch a line here, there, and have a poem done in a day. This form also fits in nicely with an aesthetic that influenced me when I was young, the epigram, especially the epigrams of Martial, Catullus and Ernesto Cardenal. In any case, Akiko Yosano and my wife inspired this one —
when you stepped out
of the shower this morning
I kissed you long
enough for you to leave
wet impressions on my shirt T
Here’s a line by Ernesto Cardenal that haunted me for decades. It’s not in his Epigramas; it’s from “Managua 6 PM”, but it is epigrammatic –
Y si he dar un testimonio sobre mi época
es éste: Fue bárbara y primitiva
Which I’ll translate as –
And if asked to give testimony over my era
it’s this: It was barbaric and primitive
Cardenal’s emphasis on the poetic and the political inspired this tanka of mine –
if asked to judge
my age I’d say we wasted
our best years on war
from Nam to Iraq we saw
the whole world through sniper scopes
Occasionally I can still find time to write a full-length poem.
I asked Andre how he felt after yesterday’s professional development. “It wasn’t especially soul crushing.” This was his idea of something good to say.
That said, we spent the entire morning pondering the following question. “How does the ability to read complex texts relate to the student’s potential for college and career success?” Andre keeps a list of the top ten “soul crushing” workshops he’s attended. It’s chilling to consider that this one didn’t make the list.
I usually write poetry at these meetings. It looks like I’m taking notes. Like this one, for example, which I published not long ago.
7:45 Roosevelt High
it’s been a dark dawn and at the last minute
Arianna grades the long student
she smells the stale ink
and something akin to her mother’s old
her sweater smells of Tide
and chalk she rubbed off the board
she’s been beat for an hour and a witness
to nothing but D’s and lipstick
that smeared on her cuff
a yellow bus crunches low gear
and this is how she begins
nervous over her bell
and the next unit
which she promises
everyone will love
I always liked that poem. I remember needing a name, and, looking up, I saw a name-tag on this woman across from me. I spent some time imagining what her day was like, not that it would be that different from any of the rest of us. Then I noticed a smudge of lipstick on her cuff, and I knew I had my poem. All the stuff about the mother is my own mother, who, at that time, was 101. Also, I do the laundry for my wife and I, so the Tide is mine. I chose the name Roosevelt High because every school district in the U. S. has a Roosevelt High.
But I never got a copy of the poem to Arianna. By the time I published the poem, she had quit.
Thus do I have little wisdom to pass along. Listen to the greats. Have fun with the process. Practice. Find a form that works for you. All that and the simple fact that accomplishment means little without kindness and decency. I got better with age. I became a better writer, because I became a better person. “I, too, went to bed amid the howling of the autumn wind, and awoke early the next morning amid the chanting of the priests … .” So says Matsuo Basho in his Narrow Road To The Deep North.
I don’t want to get away without talking about prose.
I write my prose like I write my poetry. When I’m writing for a newspaper or a magazine, I look for good verbs, alliteration, rhythm, all that. In a word, prosody.
I even break my prose paragraphs like I break my poetry lines.
I don’t want to take my audience’s time by reading a whole essay. I think, however, this prose technique comes together, at least for illustrative purposes, in a form I call the modern haibun. In essence, I update and Westernize a Japanese form. I begin with a haiku, go to a prose poem, and finish with a tanka. And while I borrow the form from the Japanese, it really is thoroughly Western in its sensibility. The prose is much more influenced by, say, Michael Benedikt than Matsuo Basho.
a modern haibun
again I surrender to
the whisper of snow
My wife is reading Freud this evening. I sweep the fireplace, the ashes from Sunday more interesting for what they were. Phoebe says something I don’t quite catch, something about desire.
I stare out our picture window. I inventory our yard. Pine, twilight, beast, leaf, pulse and fog, raven, root. In the west, from work, a husband caught on a detour lengthened tonight by longing
“My War”, my memoir in this month’s Vietnam magazine, I’m surprised by the letters from strangers. Several veterans had the same job I had. Others vets were stationed where I was, An Khe, an obscure corner of jungle. One message from a wife — the husband never talks about our war.
in this Nam photo
the burnt torso of a monk
an enemy monk
tonight a cigarette glows
in the dark and is crushed
If there is one last thing, and only one last thing, I would wish a young poet, I would wish that poet a great passion. Everything else will follow, the right words, the necessary silence.
That’s it. That’s all I got. That’s what worked for me. Is it is generalizable? I don’t know. I think I’m safe in saying that life is better if you’re not a poetic prick. At least that was my experience. As for the rest, maybe there’s a small something in there somewhere.
Parts of this lecture originally appeared in the following magazines, books, journals and newspapers: The Autumn House Anthology Of Contemporary American Poetry, Coal Hill Review, Mainichi Shimbun, Modern English Tanka, Schools: Studies In Education, and my chapbook of poetry, A Concise Biography Of Original Sin. Ernesto Cardenal’s epigram is taken from his Nueva Antología Poética, published by Siglo V
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
Director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater (KST), Janera Solomon, enjoys taking risks when choosing artists to perform at the thriving East Liberty space. Attracting patrons to the more unusual shows at the theater has become her specialty.
The Pittsburgh contemporary dance scene used to be small; we could count on seeing the same audience members at each show. Not true anymore, especially not at the KST. Friday evening, the lobby filled up with dance enthusiasts, community members, and what looked to be several newcomers.
Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project performed their latest version of an old work, “Beautiful Struggle.” Esther Baker, co-choreographer for the company (along with her husband, Olivier Tarpaga), was inspired lately by her role as an activist to dismantle white supremacy. Though the show could be described by some as “challenging,” people of all walks of life were engaged from the beginning.
The show started with an installation in the lobby. Baker stood on a 4×4 table, dressed in only underwear, a blonde wig, and red high heels. Volunteers instructed us to take a marker and write something directly on Baker’s body. Specifically, we were to write about a struggle of our own. Many went for it, without shyness. Others hung back and watched as Baker changed positions to offer different body parts.
From there, we progressed into the theater where the 45-minute choreographed piece took place. Tarpaga stood among the audience, playing bass and chanting rhythms with unique sound. Dancer, Lindsay Fisher, stood above him and watched while Tarpaga made his way to the stage and continued playing live music.
Fisher began a small phrase of movement that represented one of the major themes of the piece, our basic human struggle. In smooth and precise undulations through her torso, she scrambled around the front of the stage and then fell backwards as if knocked down by an outside force. That simple action escalated until Danté Brown joined her and the two skittishly crawled to the back of the stage, curled into fetal positions.
Eventually, Baker entered. She shook and twitched, hands tied by ropes to the table that had been used in the lobby. Her own distress was clear, but not specific. Perhaps she was putting movement to her own difficulties in life – navigating an interracial marriage and parenting a mixed race daughter in a world where prejudice still exists.
The voice of white anti-racism activist, Tim Wise, boomed over the sound of Tarpaga’s drumming, and Sabela Grimes’ live mixed beats. We heard one line repeatedly, “There is no such thing as the white race.”
Tarpaga and Grimes alternated between dancing and playing music. In one moment, Tarpaga performed an athletic phrase of African and contemporary movement. Later, Grimes had a short hip-hop solo that sent wavy motion through his chest and arms.
Brown, whose own work explores gender, provided the flash of comic relief. His solo reflected masculinity and femininity in their stereotypical forms. He shadowboxed with tight fists, and then sashayed like a model in the next second. All the while, he spoke to the audience. “You like this step? How about you, girl?”
The dancers came together at different times, sometimes in quick duets or smaller groups. Under a strobe light, all five of them showed off their individual styles in various movement sequences around the table.
To end, Fisher reminded us of the racial “struggle” still prevalent in today’s society. She staggered, fought, and fell down, again and again. We could hear her labored breath as the lights went down.
As Baker explained after the show, “beauty and violence can coexist.” The audience certainly witnessed both in the thought-provoking piece. Although the work was based on the personal journeys of the performers, the commentary was inclusive, compelling, and important for all of us.
By Karen Zhang
Immigration has always been a national issue in the United States. Recently, this issue returns to the spotlight among the American lawmakers. Immigration reform will definitely affect millions of illegal immigrants in America. However, many of them have contributed a great deal of this country’s labor force, especially in areas that are dangerous, dirty, or low paid.
Every morning before daybreak, I come across a number of Spanish-speaking road construction workers on the streets of Washington DC. While they have finished their work, I’m just beginning mine. Carrying ice coolers on their shoulders, they shuffle their leaden feet after a night’s hard work in the open air. Rain or shine, cold or hot, they wear the same glowing yellow uniform vest, white helmet with worn marks and heavy leather boots. Their work clothes are often muddy and somewhat stinky as they pass by me quickly, but they seem cheerful.
Whenever I see these workers, I think of the ones in China. Lots of city dwellers complain about the grim state of being unemployed. Yet, the jobs that require long working hours in harsh conditions are often taken by migrant workers—those who come from poor rural areas. I remember when I mentioned the term “migrant worker” in my writing during my studies in America, my mentor pointed out that in this country the term connoted the immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere who picked up dirty jobs. Well, in my country “migrant workers” means the poor people who travel hundreds of miles from home just to eke out a living.
I read that strawberry farms in California face shutdowns. Not because the farms don’t do well—their strawberries are juicy red and large, waiting to be harvested — but because the farms face shortages of temporary workers who mainly come from across the border. When hearing this news, I was a bit shocked. One of the farm owners said in a TV interview that the public thinks local Americans would fill the vacancies but in fact few Americans are willing to do the hot difficult labor. The same situation happens in public restroom cleaning, mining, landscaping piece work and many other low-paid, no-benefit occupations.
To live in this country, I need to learn basic Spanish in case I have to communicate with a plumber who doesn’t speak English well, or a fishmonger who knows little conversational English. I sincerely hope whether legal or illegal immigrants, they will find their place at home in this country of freedom and tolerance.
The River Underneath the City
Poems by Scott Silsbe
|Low Ghost Press, 2013
Reviewed by Dakota Garilli
In August of 2012, my mother drove me across the state of Pennsylvania from Bergen County, New Jersey. We were headed for my new apartment in Pittsburgh. Mom had no clue what to expect. What would this timeworn city have to offer her son, who’d grown up within 40 minutes of Manhattan? Dad still called Pittsburgh “The Steel City,” and I’m pretty sure a few of my aunts were worried about air pollution. “What’s even out there?” one cousin asked.
Nearly two years later, here’s one thing I’ve learned about Pittsburgh: there’s a lot. The city boasts a thriving cultural and literary scene—small presses like Autumn House and Low Ghost, local bookstores like Caliban and East End Book Exchange, workshops like Jan Beatty’s “Madwomen in the Attic,” and reading series like Marissa Landrigan’s “Acquired Taste” are all proof of that. Art galleries line Penn Avenue, operas play downtown, and for a month this past summer we covered one of our 446 bridges with knitted and crocheted blankets. In other words, it seems my family was worried I’d be walking into the sooty, overpopulated Pittsburgh of the 30s and 40s.
Enter Scott Silsbe’s The River Underneath the City. This is, among other things, a book about Pittsburgh, and Silsbe wants to remind us that the real Pittsburgh exists somewhere between the two versions above. Pittsburgh as city of industrial heritage, Pittsburgh as reinvented Mecca. I think one of Silsbe’s great successes in this book is his perfect rendition of a place in flux.
But before the flux, the place. From the book’s first poem, it becomes clear that Silsbe aims to be something of a documentarian of Pittsburgh culture. “Breakfast at Rocky’s,” set at a popular local eatery, introduces readers to a waitress who speaks in Pittsburghese.
Someone asks for a newspaper and my waitress says,
“Why would you want to read ‘at? It’s all bad news.”
She is right and the conversation turns to the Pirates
who are dropping a series against the Orioles.
“Who hit the homeruns?” a customer says
and she says, “Wah-ker and Tah-bah-tah.”
Cultural tags like these appear constantly throughout the book. In “Motörhead and Milkshakes,” the speaker drives through the neighborhood of Oakland watching “the Catholic school girls on Craig” and “detouring from Forbes into Schenley.” Other poems take us to Shadyside, where “old men are jogging by/ on the sidewalk wearing earphones,” then “over and under/ and around the Westinghouse Bridge.” In one of my favorite poems from the book, the speaker and his friend Moody leave 80s Night at Belvedere’s, a popular dive in the Lawrenceville neighborhood, and drive across town to “the corner of Mifflin and Biddle” in search of a cassette tape of Larry Levis on the poet Tony Hoagland’s porch.
Yet Silsbe’s poems are not simply a catalogue of details about Pittsburgh. It’s clear that these depictions of locations and events are being drawn with a purpose—to say something about the moment and about memory. In “Let’s Get Lost,” the speaker says “Light is
such an amazing thing in Pittsburgh.
On the bright red bricks of the house
across the street and hitting the water tower
on the far-away hillside, barely visible between
the rooftops of the houses, but there—a presence.
We can feel the speaker’s voice straining in these lines, trying to reach out and articulate the small, unspeakable moment. Silsbe makes similar moves in poems like “Castle Shannon,” where he spends three stanzas describing the experience of seeing a librarian carry books, and “I’m Still a Jagov But I Love It,” which depicts a couple playing pool at the Take a Break Bar. The speaker in these poems is keen on keeping Pittsburgh alive, ensuring that these Everymen and –women remain a permanent part of our cultural consciousness. Silsbe becomes Pittsburgh’s Whitman, in a way, when he writes in “The End is Never Near:” “What I said, I said for everyone.”
In addition to these rather concrete poems, Silsbe includes a number of lyric explorations of emotion and existence in this collection. We get some of Silsbe’s most beautiful images here—“a world/ of photographs and cyanotypes,” “the dying column, with its broken oxygen,” “a halo… sewn out of… weeds”—but his voice doesn’t come across as strongly without a story or a setting to ground it. At times it seems that these poems might be a bit too insular, that perhaps they speak to memories that Silsbe alone can access. Still, they certainly lend to the urgently wistful tone of the collection. “Of Remembering and Forgetting,” which I like to imagine came in second place as a title option for the book, gives us the lines that are central to these poems: “I can dismiss everything for the sake of memory./ But don’t ever forget that there was a beginning,/ and middle, and an end.”
Despite the declarative nature of this statement, Silsbe takes an interesting approach to time throughout the collection. And this is the flux. By never directly addressing time, Silsbe allows his reader to live somewhere in between all the Pittsburghs that have ever existed. Music comes up often in this collection; the speaker mentions Dizzy Gillespie, Motörhead, Chet Baker, the Dead Kennedys, and a Billy Bragg song. These references alone span a spectrum of time from the 1920s to the 1980s. Are these speakers listening to the music in its own time or today? If the poem about Tony Hoagland’s porch is set when Hoagland was still living in Pittsburgh, then it happens sometime around 2002. If not, it could be any time since. One speaker remembers Duke’s Bar, then tells us at the end of the poem that it’s long gone, “replaced by two chain burrito shops and a sub place.” In Silsbe’s deft hand, time keeps collapsing in on itself, nowhere more than in the poem “The Floating Theater”:
Sonny Clark still plays piano up in the Hill District.
Johnny Unitas is still quarterbacking in Bloomfield
on fields made out of dirt and factory soot, I’m sure.
True, third base of Forbes Field has been relegated
to a bathroom stall in a men’s room in Posvar Hall.
But Gertrude Stein frequents a bench by the Aviary
on occasion. Just down from Gus the Ice Ball Man.
The 1940s. The 1950s. The 1870s. The 1970s. Today. Silbse reminds us here that time is not linear—that memory is a constant layer informing the present moment. That heritage always lives on, no matter how much a place may change. As he says, “Through all of the rain-streaked windows of buses/ you can see the Pittsburgh that used to be and also/ the Pittsburgh that is—somehow they’re coexisting.”
This Pittsburgh is constantly changing. Recently the web has been buzzing with articles about a new migration of young professionals to the city, and countless organizations are working to revitalize neighborhoods like Garfield and Braddock. Streets and bridges are getting face-lifts, and new restaurants are cropping up every day. It’s no wonder that Silsbe has written us a definitive text of Pittsburgh as he’s known it. Without books like these, entire histories—those of people who knew and loved their places dearly—would be lost to us forever.
And so Silsbe’s voice is all of ours, really. Beyond its intimate connection to Pittsburgh, it’s really a voice crying out for memory, reminding us that it lived. We all live in Silsbe’s world, one where people “disappear a little, as if remembering.” Where time is less a demarcation so much as a distance that can always be traversed. Where nostalgia is the lay of the land. It’s a world where all of this looking back is sad, but optimistic—all of these memories and all of this change imply new lives to live in the future. “Tonight it’s beautiful out,” Silsbe writes in the final collection of the poem, “tomorrow it’ll be even better./ I am in Pittsburgh. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” I’d like to thank him for reminding me, a year and a half after I arrived, that I feel the exact same way.
by Susan Kelly-DeWitt
I like to keep in touch with the poems of friends who have died. Because death is the unknown galaxy separating (linking) us, I want to infuse myself with the still-living light of their words.
And so I returned again to Walter Pavlich’s Spirit of Blue Ink (published by Swan Scythe Press in 2001.) I was looking for a poem to read at another friend’s surprise 50th birthday party (which included a read-around by many of the poets gathered there for cake, talk and merriment.) I chose the title poem of Walter’s book, and felt so good about reading those words for my living poet-friend, part of a happy celebration of his lively presence on the planet.
Later that night I slept with the book on a table beside me, so that I could read it through once more the next morning. Before picking it up again I scanned the news: Syria, Iraq. Then I started rereading Walter’s book. I marveled at the poems’ ingenious depth of perception, passion for the unsung, and courageous emotion. When I came to “Black Flower” I was back in an old war but not much had changed.
A place of suffering, a Golgotha.
Each hill is such.
The soldiers don’t know what they want.
Each home has at least one dead room.
There is shrapnel in the white sausage
Grease of a skillet.
Windows burst like glass lungs.
Paprika, blood and gun powder.
At the church Christ dangles from nails
As usual. But mortar fire has interrupted
His sorrow and his dying.
A hole burst above his hip,
His belly, into his chest.
His entire left arm
A vacant marble wound.
So he hangs on one less nail.
With the black flower
Of an explosion
Between his lips.
Yes, the Bosnian War that inspired Walter’s poem is, at least on the surface, in the past now, but what he captured so powerfully is still a world that exists this very moment for so many.
I read his poem as he must have written it: with tremendous sadness, with anger and despair, and—against all reason—with hope.
The Bookman’s Tale
by Charlie Lovett
Reviewed by Nicole Bartley
What would you do if you found the Holy Grail of books? In Charlie Lovett’s, The Bookman’s Tale, such a book is called Pandosto. On its title page is the name of W. Shakespeare from Stratford, and in its margins are notes linking this man and this book to one of Shakespeare’s plays, “A Winter’s Tale.” It is the only document proving that the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare actually wrote history’s renowned plays. But, like a bad mystery novel, nothing is as it seems.
Lovett’s story follows Peter Byerly, a collector, restorer, and seller of antique books. He lives a reclusive life in England, personally imprisoned after the death of his wife, Amanda. During an attempt to reclaim his life, he discovers a hundred-year-old watercolor portrait that looks strikingly like Amanda in a book about Shakespearean forgeries. This launches him down an obsessive journey toward the Pandosto, and uncovering the identity of the artist B.B. Mingling with the main plot involving Pandosto‘s authorship and authenticity, and resulting murder mystery, readers learn about Peter and Amanda’s collegiate courtship.
The novel’s beginning caters to sentimentalists with a penchant for nostalgia, people who would find book restoration to be fascinating and who would want to know how the Pandosto could survive for centuries hidden from history. The latter part of the novel is for adventure enthusiasts who like a good murder mystery—if it were a good murder mystery. The two plots don’t mesh well, and the immaturity of the end clashes with the mature portrayal of Peter’s work. Because Lovett is a former antiquarian bookseller, the sections involving Peter’s craft are polished and authoritative. The murder mystery, however, seems slapdash. It’s as if Lovett assumed that book restoration alone wouldn’t be enough to engage his readers, so he added a couple dangerous love affairs.
The danger isn’t the only thing that seems to be immature. Multiple facets of the ending—including character growth, the villain’s “big reveal,” and resolution of events—are predictable and stereotypical. Lovett also uses many instances of meta-writing—molding events and details to fit the author’s needs instead of the story’s. It’s as if Lovett didn’t trust his readers to comprehend the story’s overall purpose. He even writes, “Let it be a monument to foolishness… an empty tribute to what happens to a man who places money over love, rivalry over integrity, forgery over reality” (321)—just in case the readers didn’t already understand.
In fact, Lovett’s meta-writing hinders characterization. When Peter first meets Liz, she is brazen and immediately trustworthy without any evidence supporting her reactions to Peter. She says, “You’re a man of mystery and you don’t look much like a serial killer, so I ask again—how about some dinner” (43)? This may result from Lovett’s history of writing children’s plays, wherein details need to be obvious. For example, when Peter is hunting for the identity of a woman in the watercolor painting, Liz asks him the point of knowing, Lovett writes:
“Peter pondered the question for a moment. It was one he had been careful not to ask himself so far—it was easier simply to be swept along by the mystery—but he knew Liz had gotten right to the heart of the matter. ‘I think it’s because I’ve been trying to say good-bye for so long,’ he said, picking his words carefully, ‘that I need this not to be her. I need to find out who it is so it won’t be her anymore. And then maybe she really will be gone’” (45).
Over time, readers will have realized this fact, but Lovett just presents it openly. He doesn’t know how to write realistic interactions. Most of the dialogue between characters seems to fit in romantic comedies or campy mysteries—things children would expect and understand.
Because meta-writing provides everything necessary, there is no depth to Lovett’s characters, including his protagonist. Peter has social anxiety disorder, which Lovett reiterates constantly, but he has no follow-through. Readers do not see little scenarios in Peter’s head before he goes out or meets someone new, he doesn’t devise ways to avoid close interactions. His anxiety is simply acknowledged as an excuse to be quiet and withdrawn. Lovett may describe Peter’s thoughts, but he doesn’t meander along Peter’s emotional concerns.
Additionally, Amanda’s mother is caring and understanding. Her father shows affection by clapping Peter on the back and talking about sports, but nothing else. No matter how emotional or tense a situation becomes, it is solved by a smile, hand holding, a kiss on the cheek, and a clap on the back. They serve as tropes and nothing more. Because readers cannot feel what Peter feels or connect with the secondary characters, it creates distance and makes it hard to care about what happens to them. In fact, readers may care more about the Pandosto’s journey through history.
However, once they get past the incomplete characterization and dialogue, they will recognize the novel’s key conflict: a longstanding controversy surrounding the true authorship of Shakespeare’s works. Although Lovett doesn’t necessarily offer a personal stance in the Stratfordian/Oxfordian controversy—which states that Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlow, or Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s works—he does provide a “what if?” scenario. What if a document surfaced that conclusively proved the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare’s authenticity? How might such a discovery occur, and what is the procedure to validate originality? Lovett does attempt to be objective by volleying between originality and forgery, hope and defeat, but ultimately he picks a side.
Readers may have a tougher time picking a side regarding this book. Each positive aspect is counteracted by faulty craft. The result is ignoring the dialogue and mystery in favor of the mastery—the book restoration and controversy. Without that, it’s just another romantic suspense story with a dash of nerdiness.
Charlie Lovett is a writer, a teacher, and a playwright. His plays for children have been seen in over three thousand productions worldwide. He served for more than a decade as Writer-in-Residence at Summit School in Winston-Salem, NC. He is a former antiquarian bookseller, and has collected rare books and other materials related to Lewis Carroll for more than twenty-five years. He and his wife split their time between Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Kingham, Oxfordshire.
by John Samuel Tieman
A lot of my non-Catholic friends are asking me about Pope Francis. Whether Pope Francis is more popular than Jesus, this only time will tell. But he is popular. The Washington Post thinks he is more popular than John Paul II. He is Time magazine’s “Person Of The Year”. You’d think Catholics would be, dare I say, counting our blessings.
But conservative Catholics are choking on their communion wafers, and liberal Catholics, while hopeful, are cautious. Why?
Francis is no radical. You don’t get anywhere in the hierarchy unless you tow the dogmatic line. Conservative Catholics, like EWTN radio, are quick to point out that Francis has changed no doctrine. That’s true. Nor is he likely to change disciplines like priestly celibacy. If you’re holding you breath for female ordination, you’ll turn blue soon.
It’s not so much what he is changing as what he is emphasizing — and what he is deemphasizing.
Francis is no radical. That can’t be said often enough. He is, however, a product of his priestly culture, he’s a Jesuit, and he is the son of South America.
Francis is not changing doctrine, true. However, this Argentine bishop is emphasizing something that, while not explicitly said, has long been a part of Latin American ministry, which is the “preferential option for the poor.” Given the choice between helping the rich or the poor, preference is given to the well-being of the poor and powerless. This is central to Francis’ ministry, and, indeed, central to his mindset.
The rest simply follows.
Francis has deemphasized the culture wars. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” the pope said in a recent interview. In what many regard as a profoundly symbolic move, the pope recently relieved Cardinal Raymond Burke from a key post on the committee that fills episcopal vacancies. Cardinal Burke, the former Archbishop of St. Louis, is seen by many as perhaps the most conservative American bishop. He is a leader among conservative cardinals. During the 2004 presidential election, Burke publicly stated that Catholic politicians, who support legalized abortion, should not be given or receive Communion. That meant John Kerry. More recently, the cardinal said, “Since President Obama clearly announced, during the election campaign, his anti-life and anti-family agenda, a Catholic who knew his agenda regarding, for example, procured abortion, embryonic-stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage, could not have voted for him with a clear conscience.”
Burke’s removal, from that committee, will have little immediate consequence. The papacy of John Paul II was so long that his many conservative appointments will be in place for decades. To a large extent, the removal of Cardinal Burke is symbolic. Burke remains the Vatican’s Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, a position analogous to the chief justice. But we are talking about the Catholic Church here, a Church in which symbolism is no small thing.
Pope Francis has washed and kissed the feet of prisoners, AIDS patients, Muslims, and drug addicts. Reliable rumor has it that he goes out at night, beyond the Vatican walls, among the poor. He lives in a small apartment, carries his own bags, drives a used car.
Pope Francis is no radical. This does not prevent Rush Limbaugh from denouncing him as a “pure Marxist”. Among the many things that Mr. Limbaugh does not understand, there is this. While the Church does not endorse any one economic system, it does regularly denounce exploitation. Hence, John Paul II condemned various forms of socialism that tended toward Stalinism. Now, Pope Francis is criticizing extreme forms capitalism. There’s nothing new here. We just haven’t heard capitalism criticized for a while. At least not with such emphasis. In November, Francis denounced “the idolatry of money.” Trickle-down economics he characterized as “a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power, and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”
About that women’s ordination thing. Francis is a Jesuit. He has lived his whole life in a celibate, all male environment. I like Jesuits, and I like people who like Jesuits. I got my doctorate from a Jesuit university. My wife and I attend a Jesuit parish. But, as Phoebe says when she’s around Jesuits, it’s like she’s in the Castro district of San Francisco. Their nice to her. They’re liberal minded. But I’m the guy who gets invited to the party. In his latest document, “Evangelii Gaudium”, Francis talks about women’s “sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess.” He mentions “the special concern which women show to others, which finds a particular, even if not exclusive, expression in motherhood.” He carries on with these statements of “feminine genius” in a manner that can only be regarded as stereotypical and even retrogressive.
While the pope may not be a radical, he is refreshing. He has not changed doctrine, and he never will. He has, however, changed the emphasis, and this amounts to a change in the direction of ministry. So far, this is largely symbolic.
And therein lies the hope.
If you think that symbolism is not important to the Catholic Church, you need to cross yourself and say three Hail Marys.
Pennsylvania Welcomes You
Poems by Kristofer Collins
CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013
Reviewed by Alison Taverna
As a Boston native living in Pittsburgh for the past five years, I’m sympathetic to the belief that a city produces hypnotic powers on the psyche, charms us, provides a geographical ‘tribe’ that continues, no matter where we’ve been, to call us to our home streets. Kristofer Collins’ most recent collection, Pennsylvania Welcomes You, is a tribute to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and to those city dwellers who stand like bookmarks against its populated streets. The poems address particular local hotspots, poems titled “BBT” for Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, like publicized love letters. Yet, Collins is steadfast in welcoming his readers into the intimate as he writes, “We can read it together/Exhausted under the sheets, the city spread wide & waiting for our feet.”
Before we reach the poems, the table of contents stands: a column, single-spaced, without page numbers. The titles stack down the page like a skyscraper, tight and together. At times the lack of page numbers causes confusion when searching for a particular poem, but Collins’ artistic choice here seems intentional. Within the collection, each poem is a new street corner, a side-alley window into a different district, a neighboring bar, and so while a lack of direction appears disorienting, it’s not, for we are never truly lost. For the duration of the collection, at least, this is our city too.
Collins’ speaker appears equally content and discontent, which makes it difficult to peg down a tone for the collection, but feels truer to real human emotions. For example, in “Poem Addressed to Jaquelyn Seigle” Collins writes,
“…I’ve spent many
Good days writing poems outside bars
Watching the old neighborhood & the girls
Who live there now.”
There is a wistfulness to these lines, yet not quite a full-faced-nostalgia, for the speaker never claims to regret the way the neighborhood has changed. It’s more a head nod, an acknowledgment that times are changing, and the speaker, regardless, will continue to sit in the same spot and write poems.
There is direct nostalgia in a later poem, titled “The Book of Names”:
“And admittedly I don’t think of you as often as I should
But when I do there is such an ache so much good talk I miss
In our booth at Nico’s splitting pitchers precisely as atoms…”
Here, the speaker is nostalgic for the times of the past, but only when he consciously reflects. This balance teeters throughout the collection, each poem nostalgic, while simultaneously content with the present.
Similar to the balance between contentment and discontentment, there is a balance between localized and common knowledge that rears its head more frequently when intimately discussing a home location. Personally, I assume everyone knows the Boss, Whitey Bulger, and the battle between the Italian North End and the Irish South. After one graduate workshop class, I’ve concluded, this is Bostonian knowledge, with the exception of a few history buffs. Overall, Collins walks this line carefully, successfully, because the emotion of his work is never sacrificed based on location. Still, there are moments where cue words would benefit the outside reader to eliminate possible alienation, especially when it occurs in the first poem of the collection as Collins ends,
“Behind K & L Gates, stroking the Roberto Clemente, fingers
Facile as Anton Karas’ upon this golden zither, I brush the hair
From your eyes at PPG Place and check my teeth for cervelat”
In one breath we are overloaded with Pittsburgh, which five years earlier, would have felt exclusive.
Collins loses me in places, true, like in “Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin, TX,” when after the second stanza there is a sudden spark of violence, “How nervy taking a razor to a stranger’s wrist, drawing/ My heart into that mix. A thief of names is that what I am?” The poems, in places, seem more for those they are dedicated to, for ‘Anna’ and ‘Jonathan Moody’ and ‘Don Wentworth’ and ‘Robert Frank’ to name a few, instead of a wider audience. With these poems there is the distinct sense that I’ve walked into the middle of a conversation on Forbes between old college roommates. On some level, though, there remains a charm to this degree of intimacy, and it’s Collins unflinching dedication to these streets and individuals that keeps me invested.
One of the main elements in Pennsylvania Welcomes You that I found fitting was Collins decision to leave each poem open, lacking end punctuation. It’s a D.A. Powell move, and the way it works in Chronic it works here: the individual flows into a collective. Each moment blends into the next as if the speaker has one foot on each page, balances between times that never truly feel distinct enough to name.
My one hesitation is the amount of exclamation points found throughout the collection. It’s a form of punctuation that, within poetry, always tastes forced.
Even among the exclamation points, it’s hard to overlook Collins’ moments of brilliance, his control of language, with lines such as “Nostalgia creeps up on us like a housecat/Let loose in the yard” “I am tattooing the tatters of your memory into this soggy napkin we call ‘poem’” and “the black sky has got its hat On.” These are the lines that stand like road signs, welcome us into Collins’ world, and make us trust we are among a skilled tour guide.
There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like this in his sentence.
…The three extra days were for leap years.
from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
As I park my car this morning, I notice some guys working in the football field, and others carrying bricks to the football field.
Lenny Gates bought the newspaper today. That’s so we can take roll. We pass the newspaper around. By the time it gets to me, the sports section, the funnies, the editorials and most of the news is gone, leaving me only the law and order section. But that’s all I need. That’s how we take roll. Or at least part of it. We check the newspaper, the law and order section, what my wife calls “the murder and mayhem page”, to see which of our students have been arrested. I’ll have two absent from my second period.
Lenny has instructed his first period to bark today. The educational consultant is supposed to be helpful. She has the people skills of a wolverine in heat. Last week, she told Lenny’s department chair that his classes are “going to the dogs”. The department chair immediately told Lenny. She’s supposed to inspect his first period today. So Lenny’s instructed the kids to bark at her. I can already hear a few woofs down the hall.
While we wait around before school starts, Lenny tells me how took his social studies class to the state penitentiary yesterday. It was supposed to be one of these “Scared Straight” sorts of things. Instead, it turned into a reunion. As he and his class walked down the central corridor of a cell block, instead of feeling intimidated, he kept hearing stuff like, “Hey, Mr. Gates, remember me? It’s Dontel Freeman. I’m the one who got the B+ on the mid-term in 1993!” The students weren’t scared. A lot of them spent their lunch hour with friends and family.
Lenny spent his lunch counseling a kid, a kid in his first period, about how to get his homework done. The kid lives in a one room flat with his mother. Between about four in the afternoon and one in the morning, the mother needs the flat. It’s where she turns tricks. The family business. The kid’s out on the street. There’s no public library near-by. Hell, there’s nothing near-by except crackheads and Crips. So no homework. But Lenny knows an old, retired teacher just off a bus route near the kid’s flat. He called her last night. Lenny tells me she’s cool with the idea of helping the kid with his homework. She stays up late anyway, now that she’s retired. So he’s got good news for one kid today.
Just before the bell rings, I mention the bricks. Lenny knows about the bricks. These workers don’t have anything to do. So one of them wrote-up a work order for a wall. Just that. Nothing more. “Wall. One. Brick. Metropolitan High School.” The principal had no idea what to do with the workers or the wall, so he tells them, “I don’t give a damn. Build it on the fifty yard line of the football field for all I care. Just get this damn thing out of my life, and don’t tell me about it.” So they do what they’re told. Wall. One. Brick. Metropolitan High School. Fifty yard line.
Apparently they go and like lay a row of bricks across the fifty yard line, take a three hour breakfast, lay another row, a three hour lunch, and so on. But the story has a trick ending. It’s freezing cold right now, so, when it thaws in the spring, when the ground gets soggy, the wall will fall, and have to be rebuilt who knows where but anywhere but there. (I suggest the principal’s office.) But at least those workers are getting a paycheck this winter.
by Nola Garrett
1. I never saw my grandmother twice with the same colored hair. Instead of the world, she traveled the spectrum— Tahitian Brown, Romanian Gold, Irish Red— without even the pretense of reclaiming tints once hers. I was so embarrassed, my teenaged self was mortified. My grandmother after years of misdagnosis died. Rather than her liver, it was her heart after all, but who could tell? As for myself, one October afternoon when earl snow on my unraked leaves looked like me peering out of my mirror at an old self, I wasn’t quite ready. Yet, my staid self departed on Light Brown # 7. 2. During my afternoon walk, I may have found a geode. Gray, hunched, a little off-center, it could be opened, perhaps to a scatter of sand or to an amethyst vault, or left alone like both my grandmothers. Oh, they married, raised their share of children, but as widows their lives began. Neither was a Mrs.— just Belle and Marie. Belle for a living sewed and mended, reused her basting thread, played church piano, read, bathed at her kitchen sink with multi-colored soap slivers. Marie watched TV evangelists, favored her richest son, dyed her hair a different color every month, window shopped daily, preferred rhinestones and orange. Disliking dogs, sticky children, and old men Belle and Marie each slept away in their small lavender rooms. I smile. I whisper back to them my middle name—Maribel.
by Jim Danger Coppoc
Next month, I will be judging the State Finals for Poetry Out Loud in Iowa. Poetry Out Loud is a national recitation contest where high schoolers choose a selection of canonical poems to perform from the stage to a live audience.
I’ve done judging and coaching for POL in several states, and I’ve given most of my adult life to the study of spoken word. I intend to keep doing this as long as the various state arts councils allow me. I think it’s time I declared my biases and offered some coaching, so competitors know what they’re getting into.
First, a bit of rhetoric. Poets are people. Audiences are people. Poems are tools for disseminating ideas—logical, emotional and ethical—among people.
Who are your people? Who’s in your audience? Regardless of what the author intended (I’m very firmly in the “the author is dead” school), what do YOU intend to get across with this poem? What’s the central conflict/tension of the poem? What’s the core message? If you could assign your audience one “takeaway,” what would it be?
If you don’t know the answers to these questions, all the technical performance work in the world can’t help you. Voice, breathing, dynamics, whatever—they are tools, not goals in themselves. They only work when you’re using them do the work of poetry—to get your ideas into somebody else’s head.
Of course, research can make this easier. If you read all the poems POL has to offer, and read them deeply and out loud, eventually you’ll know which poems speak to you best, and can best be translated by you to a live audience. Do not choose based on what you think people will like or what you think sounds like an important poem. Choose with your heart. Which one of these feels like it could/should be yours?
Next, lose the ridiculous distinction between poetry and song. There is none. A spoken poem is a song with particular choices in pitch and timbre. Your choir teacher/vocal coach has just as much to offer in this process as your English teacher, and might be willing to help. Use your resources, and SING!
With these two ideas in mind—1) that poetry comes alive only when it is treated as living communication among real live humans, and 2) that the mechanics of spoken word are breath for breath the same as the mechanics of song—you are ready to begin.
Print out the poem, double or triple spaced. Get a pencil, and mark it up. What are the natural dynamics (louder and softer parts) of this poem? Where does the tone change, and what should your voice/body do to reflect this? Where do you stumble, and need to put in extra work? What’s the core message, and how does each part of this poem contribute?
Remember, the poem should take your audience on a journey. If you read it the same way from beginning to end, the journey won’t be very interesting. Pay attention to what you’re doing in any given moment, how it’s related to all the other moments, and what you’re doing to bring the audience through these moments with you.
Also remember that I asked you to use a pencil. It’s likely your performance will grow and evolve as you practice. Don’t be afraid of this process. Embrace it, and keep pushing for something better. One end writes; the other end erases.
THIS IS THE ONLY ALL CAPS SENTENCE IN THIS ESSAY, BECAUSE I WANT YOU KNOW IT’S IMPORTANT! People don’t like to be yelled at all the time. People don’t even like to be talked to all the time. Have you ever seen a score of sheet music without any pauses?
Take your pencil, and mark all the natural silence in the poem. Remember that the words you’re using are drawn on a canvas of silence. Some poems are busier, some poems are quieter, but all poems have silence in them, and that has to be respected.
Now you’re ready to begin.
Stand up. Make sure there is room around you. Put your arms straight out to your sides, making a “T” with your body.
It is likely you did this with your palms down. Everybody does. In fact, this exercise wouldn’t work if you hadn’t.
Leave your arms where they are, and rotate your thumbs 180°, so that your palms face straight up, and your thumbs point behind you. Push your arms back, following your thumbs, until your hands are just behind the plane of your body.
If you did it correctly, this action should have pushed your sternum up and out, and your shoulders down and back. Whatever happens for the rest of the poem, keep you sternum out and your shoulders back. This is the only way your lungs and diaphragm have enough space to do their job.
Keep your sternum where it is. Lower your arms.
Your body is now prepared to breathe, so breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Take deep, slow breaths. Feel the energy flow in and out of your body, in balance with the air around you.
It’s not actually energy—it’s oxygen—but it has the same effect when you’re delivering a poem.
Now, on an out breath, begin your poem. Pay attention to all the dynamic and tonal markings you made on the page. Keep mind, body and spirit open. You should imagine yourself as an instrument. Don’t mute that instrument. Open.
This will be hard to maintain. I know this, and so does ever other working spoken-word artist on the planet. This is why we rehearse.
Now that you understand the poem, and you’ve begun using your body to correctly sing it, make space in your life to rehearse. Begin rehearsals early, and hold rehearsals often. Get as many live audiences as you can, and find microphones and stages as frequently as possible. The closer your rehearsal is to the actual conditions you’ll perform under, the better.
If there is an all-ages open mic near you, go there. If you happen to write your own poetry, and can find an all-ages poetry slam in your area, go there too. Even if you don’t write, find your local poetry slam, and sit in the audience. You can learn a lot just by watching.
As you rehearse, continuously google “Poetry Out Loud,” “poetry slam,” “spoken word poetry,” etc. Look up the great contemporary artists, like Shane Koyczan, Patricia Smith, Suheir Hammad, Anis Mojgani, and others. Locally, get all the audience you can find, and ask them to reflect back to you what they see, and where you can improve.
If you’re brave enough, record yourself, and watch the tapes.
As with any other sport or art, the more preparation you put into this, the better the results.
And now, at the end, come back to the beginning. When you step out on that stage and see me in the judges chair, when you see all your friends and teachers and their friends and family in the audience, when you see a sea of faces out there all looking back at you, waiting to hear what’s going to come out of your mouth in the next few minutes—remember that we are all human, and that there’s nothing humans want more than a good story.
Use your poem to give us that story.
by John Samuel Tieman
Gun Day Nine – Reflections
I sometimes consider how small the weapon is, and compare that to how much it can destroy.
I loaded the weapon just once, just to see what it feels like. It felt heavier than I expected. Then I unloaded it. Now, the Smith And Wesson sits under a hat across the room. It’s like I’m hiding it from myself. The most positive feeling I can muster now is ambivalence.
Our house was robbed once, so I have had fantasies about killing the burglar. I’m a war veteran, and, unlike a lot of the folks I’ve spoken to, I don’t have to ask myself if I would shoot someone. I did shoot someone. Which leads me to the conclusion that, fantasies notwithstanding, I don’t know if I have it in me to ever shoot anyone else. I do know that I own nothing worth a human life.
As I write this essay, there is news of a massive school shooting. This news has eclipsed recent news of a massive mall shooting. By the time I publish this essay, there will be yet another massive shooting somewhere someplace. I wish I could end this essay on a note of hope. But I am amazed at how little my government cares about weapons in private hands. When I made inquires, the local police were indifferent. A summary of my state’s regulations I read while I drank a cup of coffee. I have no idea why the National Rifle Association is worried. My city has more regulations about siding than side arms.
That said, I no longer favor gun control. I want weapons banned. I’m tired of crying when I see, on the front page of my newspaper, terrified children being led to safety from a shot-up school. As for the Second Amendment, I am not a “well regulated militia,” and neither is Jared Lee Loughner or Adam Lanza or Mark David Chapman.
As for our Smith And Wesson, I’m heading back to the gun shop, asking $250 for the .38, and then – I’m thinking sushi for me and, dare I say, my better half.
by John Samuel Tieman
Gun Day Eight
Janet gives me the address of a gun smith, who specializes in antiques. I drive over after work.
Surprisingly, the place is more like a museum than what I expect, a gun-nut hobby shop. And the owners are well educated and articulate.
One guy went to my high school, a private Catholic high school, and we chat at length. I mention that I graduated in 1968, went into the army in 1969, served a tour in Nam. Suddenly, I find I’m one of the guys.
I bring my weapon in. I ask if the revolver is safe. The short answer is yes. The action is fine, the tolerances like new. It’s doubtful if it’s ever been fired. The ammunition is also safe.
So I ask – what do I do with a gun?
“You have no reason to ever fire this”, the gun smith says. And repeats this at least three times. He tells me that this weapon is made of a very low grade of steel, “like the stuff that was used in the Titanic.” I meditate on how well that went. Then he tells me that, if I fire the weapon, I should wear protective eye glasses. And once we’re talking about wounding body parts, I’m done.
by John Samuel Tieman
Gun Day Seven
I ask a neighbor if he thinks I should register this pistol. “No, no, no! The only thing registration will do is help the government find you when they come to take our guns away.”
I don’t know what to say. But I think to myself, “Isn’t there about 17,000 societal things that will go wrong long before the National Guard kicks down my door, and confiscates my antique .38?”
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
A cheery voice boomed through the speakers at the New Hazlett Theater’s Saturday performance of Recipes Our Mothers Gave Us. “You have thirty seconds to choose your ingredients to make a happy life!”
Beth Corning, director of Corningworks, and her dancing partners, Maria Cheng and Francoise Fournier, all rushed to the back of the stage like contestants of a competition reality show, determined to cook up the right recipe for success.
That section came near the beginning of the hour-long dance theater production, and it was perhaps the most memorable: hilarious, but poignant and relevant. The entire show questioned the old clichés we were taught by our mothers. What “recipes” were passed down to us, and how many of those succeeded and failed?
Corning, who choreographed the show as part of the Glue Factory Project (dedicated to performers over age forty), added a Ken doll to her pot of “soup.” And later, as per the American way, a dash of white happy pills.
Cheng, a Chinese choreographer, playwright and actor, dropped a toy piano into her stew, which may have been a quip at the stereotype of Asian-Americans as aspiring pianists.
Fournier, a French-Swedish dancer, rocked a baby doll before tossing it into her mix. Fournier had many moments throughout the show that questioned the old convention of our biological clocks ticking.
Another funny, yet dark, moment came when Fournier performed an emotional solo under low lights. Cheng and Corning stood above her, making critical comments about the movement. They contradicted themselves constantly, proving the point that everyone has their own version of happiness, not to be projected onto others. “Too slow,” Cheng said. “No, too fast,” insisted Corning. Too fat! Too lean! And on and on until Fournier walked off the stage while the two continued to argue over what was right.
That section ended with Cheng speaking honestly about what her mother thought about womanhood. Beauty was sexy, and sex would keep her from being alone. To which Cheng asked the audience, “What if being alone is better than bad sex?”
The show was filled with that wonderful balance of humor and seriousness. Although there was no precise narrative, the three performers seemed to let go of what they’d been taught, to write new and unique grocery lists.
After mindlessly pushing a baby carriage around, Fournier placed it over her head, flipping the notion that children make women happy literally upside down. Cheng tried to squeeze herself into a stainless steel pot, only to discover she didn’t fit that mold. She tossed the ingredients in the air instead, and joyfully pranced through it before exiting the stage. And Corning danced to the beat of her own kitchen whisk. She stopped furiously stirring her soup in favor of her own lighthearted dance.
The show ended on a more subdued note. The three of them each lay on individual cooking carts they’d used throughout the performance. They wondered quietly if they were destined to become their mothers. Was it simply in their DNA? Corning shushed them, shunning the idea.
The stage went silent, then dark. The answer was clear. Life was what these seasoned performers had made of it. Like the full red wine they’d left onstage, in clear, tall glasses, these women had definitely become better with age. That particular cliché must be true.
by John Samuel Tieman
Gun Day Six
I want to speak to someone about gun safety, and about registering my weapon. So I call the police. A secretary answers. She is quite helpful, cheery, almost ebullient. She tells me of the “gun safety officer,” who can visit my home. I find such community outreach comforting. I’m told to call back later.
I call back later. I get a lieutenant, who has no idea what a “gun safety officer” is. Instead, we chat for a few minutes. He, too, is quite helpful, if a bit dismissive. Overall, however, I am most impressed by how little he cares about my weapon.
He tells me I don’t need to register my revolver, although it might be helpful, for example, “if someone steals it and uses it in a murder.” But registration is not necessary. Ownership is conveyed by virtue of the fact that my father-in-law gave us the desk and all it contained. And that’s as legal as it gets. I went through more trouble installing cable TV.
bu John Samuel Tieman
Gun Day Five
I’ve thought a lot about masculinity. One thing Vietnam taught me is that sometimes masculinity is simply too high a price to pay for being male. Is owning a gun about being masculine?
by John Samuel Tieman
Gun Day Four
I need a haircut. I tell my barber, and the barber shop gang, about my weapon. Here for the first time, I get camaraderie. Wistful memories about youthful hunting. Several good tips on safety.
by John Samuel Tieman
Gun Day Three
I think this weapon is making me mildly hysterical, presuming one can be just a bit hysterical. This pistol is all I think about. I note that I never fantasize about what can go wrong with this weapon. That said, it’s not like what can go right is soothing.
I go to work. I informally survey my colleagues. About half have a weapon. I am amazed. One administrator owns four. A fellow is about to inherit 50. People are startled when I ask, “Do you own a gun?” It’s a bit higher order of a question than, “Do you own a Buick?,” but not quite as personal as “Do you own any porn?” Several, who don’t own a gun, admit to wanting one. These are some of the kindest, gentlest, best educated folks I know. Of those I asked, not one lives in a dangerous neighborhood – including me.
Today, I had to humble myself to Janet. I’ve argued with her over the 2nd Amendment, me anti-gun, and she pro. I had to ask her, “What do I do with a gun? I don’t known jack about the laws. I can’t tell whether the gun, and the ammo, are safe. I haven’t handled a weapon in 40-plus years.” Stuff like that. She spared me a razzing. Her snarky smile sufficed. She said she’d get back to me.
Through the internet, I’ve discovered that I have an antique. I half-own a Smith And Wesson Model 4 “pocket pistol,” a nickel-plated, five-shot .38 caliber “top break” that was manufactured no later than 1907, making it over 105 years old. It’s sometimes referred to as a “lemon squeezer.” The model is not rare. It’s worth a few hundred dollars. Phoebe says we should sell it, and treat ourselves to a nice dinner.
by John Samuel Tieman
Gun Day Two
I’m surprised at how small the gun seems.
I looked up my state’s gun regulations online. It was a quick read. As near as I can tell, I can buy, carry and conceal everything up to and including a Light Anti-Tank Weapon.
Phoebe went to visit her father today. She asked him about the gun. He barely remembers it.
by John Samuel Tieman
Gun Day One
Actually, I am not a gun owner. I am half a gun owner. The revolver is right here, in front of my keyboard.
I never thought I’d say that. With the exception of one drunken New Year’s at John McGoogan’s, I haven’t fired a weapon since I was in Vietnam.
I’m surprised I have a pistol. I didn’t plan on it.
My wife’s parents went into the old folks home a few weeks ago. My wife and I, and well as my in-laws, have been moving stuff out of their home ever since, this in anticipation of selling the house.
Phoebe, my wife, really wanted her father’s desk, a lovely oak affair with plenty of drawers. Her father used the desk at the pharmacy he owned, the Delmar-Taylor Pharmacy. He had moved the desk from his pharmacy to his house in University City.
We moved the desk into Phoebe’s study, but the drawers were stuck. The two movers fussed with them until, finally, the bottom drawer opened. And there was an old .38 pocket pistol, along with a holster and a box of ammunition.
The men all paused. Suddenly, something was in the room that could kill us.
Phoebe, interestingly, took the least interest. “I was wondering where that gun was.” She knew her father had a .38. He had been robbed several times at the pharmacy, so a sympathetic cop gave him the pistol in maybe 1950 or ’60. At that time, it would have been a very old weapon. Eventually, he brought it home. Phoebe, in a sense, grew up with it. I, on the other had never had a weapon in the house.
I asked the mover to hand it to me. Now. From my army days, I know this much about handling a weapon: First, make sure it’s unloaded.
The mover offered me 20 bucks for it. I said no. My first impulse was to throw it away. But it’s not really mine. It’s my father-in-law’s. Except he’s blind and in the old folks home, so I guess it’s my wife’s, which makes it half-mine.
What do I do with a gun?
It’s a Smith and Wesson. Respectable. The revolver is in good condition. No rust. Barely needs oiling and cleaning. My father-in-law was the gun owner equivalent of the “little ole lady from Pasadena.” Then I look at the ammunition. Hollow points. So my gentle father-in-law had his bad-ass potential.
I’m not about to shoot any of this stuff, however. Not until I’m sure it’s all safe. The revolver and the ammunition are old. And I’d like to get older.
So how do I feel about this weapon?
It’s arousing. I feel powerful. But that feeling is fleeting. Because I fought a war, I know what it’s like to be shot at and shoot back. But I know enough about all that to know that this doesn’t mean I could do it again. Still, there have been some shootings in the nearby park, and, while I wouldn’t call myself paranoid, I have my dark visions.
This whole business raises all manner of question. Given my near-pacifist leanings, shouldn’t I just throw the revolver away? I’ve been extremely conscious of having a gun around the house. Do I really want to be comfortable with that? If I keep it, where do I keep it? What do I do with a gun?
If I’m going to get all bad-ass, shouldn’t I get a concealed carry permit? Or do I even want to take it outside the house?
If I keep the thing, should I take lessons – I used to be a musician, so the only comparison I have is to music lessons – in safety and shooting? If the truth be known, when I was in the army, I liked target practice. I was good at it, and I have Expert Rifleman Badge to prove it. Which reminds me that this weapon, like my old M-14, isn’t made for fun. It’s made for killing folks.
I’ve got to stop-by the police station, and ask them, “What do I do with a gun?”
Gospel of Dust
Poems by Joseph Ross
|Main Street Rag, 2013
Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
There are a lot of people out there writing poetry, and most of it will be forgotten tomorrow, or maybe even later today. But just a handful of poets might be remembered. Joseph Ross should be one of those poets. Ross writes the poetry of witness. His debut, Meeting Bone Man, is a powerful meditation on mortality and humanity. Ross’ follow up, Gospel of Dust, continues Ross’ investigations while shifting to a humanistic examination of Christian values and beliefs.
“In a Summer of Snipers,” is one of several poems dealing with the Civil Rights movement, and not only the accomplishments of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, but the fact that many of them knew that they were probably going to be murdered for their actions. Ross shifts to Brazil for “Mothers of the Disappeared” in which he describes the aftermath of political dissidence. Later, Ross considers the murder of David Kato, a Ugandan Gay Rights Activist, and Matthew Shephard:
Though you died
in crisp hospital sheets,
no one believes you
felt them touch your skin.
The last touch your
skin knew was wooden:
a prairie fence, whose wood
was nearly as splintered
These poems appear in a section called “The Human Gospel,” and it’s difficult not to see the connection Ross draws between martyrdom and holiness. These people often carry certain qualities of sainthood, sacrifice being the most obvious, but also the effect they, or their deaths, have had on the zeitgeist. But not enough effect, obviously; something Ross is trying to remedy.
The second section in the book is called “The Pieta Gospel,” though many of the poems in the book could be described as pietas of a sort. Ross begins with Fritz Eichenberg’s “Pieta” and shifts to “American Pieta,” a poem about the photograph of Mary Vecchio kneeling beside Jeffrey Miller who’d been killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. One of the more well-known poems in this section is Ross’s excellent “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God:”
If Mamie Till was the mother
one of the ten commandments
would forbid whistling.
No one would wear cotton
clothing, every cotton field
would be burned in praise
and their teeth.
If Mamie Till was the mother
every river would be still
so nothing thrown in
could travel downstream;
barbed wire could only be
worn as a necklace
If Mamie Till was the mother
every coffin lid would be
glass, so even God could see
how baptisms are done
Ross’ closing image is especially keen; he’s captured a violent, uncaring world where even God seems oblivious, unaware of just how brutal His world has become.
“The Written Gospel” is Ross’ third section, in which he examines specific biblical instances such as the washing of feet. “The Ritual Gospel” closes out the book with some of Ross’ most powerful poems. Ross established a style of series poems in his first book, and he continues it in this section with poems about Tupac Shakur, for example, in which Shakur is considered as a martyr and even prophet. Cool Disco Dan, the graffiti artist, returns as the subject of a series of poems, as does J. Alfred Prufrock.
What makes Ross stand out is his voice as much as his subject matter. His voice is wise and caring; it’s humanistic and loving, even towards those who’ve done terrible wrongs. Not to seem condescending, but Ross writes about things that matter. So much of modern arts—from visual arts to writing to music—is nihilistic in its approach, and nihilism simply cannot maintain an audience’s interest because it’s incapable of progress and change. If nothing matters, why should I even pay attention? It’s a masturbatory trap, at best, and something quite sinister (though unintentionally so) at worst. Ross is an antidote to this nihilism, which may seem ironic since his work so often deals with death and suffering.
Joseph Ross is the author of two collections of poetry, Meeting Bone Man (2012) and Gospel of Dust (2013). His poetry has earned multiple Pushcart Prize nominations and the 2012 Pratt Library – Little Patuxent Review Poetry Prize. His poems appear in many anthologies and journals including Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion and Spirituality, Tidal Basin Review, Drumvoices Revue, Poet Lore, and Beltway Poetry Quarterly. In 2007, he co-edited Cut Loose the Body: An Anthology of Poems on Torture and Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib. He teaches in the Department of English at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C. and writes at JosephRoss.net
I just get back from Christmas Vacation and walk in, when I see Dr. Galvin running down the hall swinging a broom over his head. Literally. Running down the hall swinging a broom. Later I learn that a bat got in the school. Later. But since I didn’t see the bat — the bat was having no part of this swinging broom thing — there was no ready explanation for Dr. Galvin.
Nor was there any ready explanation for Records Keeping Day. We’re having Records Keeping Day on a day in which there are no records to keep. It’s the day before second semester. We’ve turned in all our first semester records. There are no records yet to keep. I haven’t even seen a second semester student. Hell, I didn’t even see the bat.
Poems by Jennifer Maier
|University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013
Reviewed by Alison Taverna
If Jennifer Maier’s second full-length collection, Now, Now, was likened to a type of candy it would be a Hershey’s Special Dark. I say this based on accurate metaphor, not hunger. On first chew, Maier’s poems are delicate, quiet, deliberately fond with a spark of bitter, subtle destruction, as if what is sweet is temporary. It’s a world of the everyday—of Dave the Electrician, paper men cut-outs, and Edith Wharton’s classic Ethan Frome. Yet, in Maier’s collection the tender hand of memory is tainted by the fleeting nature of time, the past relative to the past of this exact moment, suddenly gone, as she writes, “the past,/ once yours, you wouldn’t trade for any other,/ ringed by the past you’re living now—here…” Everything, it appears, ends while it begins.
I once read in my high school journalism textbook each bar of chocolate contains eight insect legs. I imagine the grasshoppers in their sugar comas, ripped apart in sleep by the dessert miners, their tiny spindle bodies not surprised because it happened to their brothers and sisters. A result of their environment, our lives are a balance as Maier explains, “In the midst of life we are in death.” Now, Now is a woman’s middle-aged awakening, the romantics of youth manifest only in nostalgia and time “a collapsible cup.”
The first poem in the three-section collection, “Hangman” brims with tension, foreshadows the fallible future, which carries into each poem of Maier’s. On the surface, a daughter rides shotgun to her father as they drive into town, play hangman on a pad of paper. It seems innocent enough—the word Volcano—the daughter excited to stump, unaware of the real danger as Maier writes, “he can still get it you know he can if he just concentrates,/ so you hand him the bottle, taking the wheel as he leans back, eyes closed, thinking.” The speaker of the poem seems to be positioned outside their car, this moment, as if it has already been lived and in remembering, years later, the speaker sees the warning signs to come. This is achieved, and appears subtle and effortless, through Maier’s balance between the interior and exterior of the vehicle. She weaves, “Then seven spaces underneath,/ like the broken centerline the father will cross when he feels/ under the seat for the bottle…” The speaker is omniscient here, unveils the inevitability of death hanging, in wait, like the penciled circle of the hangman’s head. Her language is suggestive of violence in, “the headlights that slice through the cab like a quick and painless incision” and “the road a running scar through the dense woods…” Maier likens the hangman to the father, a childhood game to the reality of death. This is the poem that begins her collection, and so, we understand within the following pages that memories will be re-visited and re-examined in an attempt to locate what always existed: imperfection.
While the first section seems the most concentrated to a particular past, the second and third section appear current, moments fresh from happening with titles “The Wind Blows My Dictionary Open To ‘Man’” and “Sharing A Bath.” Yet, what carries throughout all sections is Maier’s wrestle with love—what should it look like, how should it resonate, does it alter with the passing of time and the loss of youth? Should it?
Two of my favorite poems, “Jane” and “Heat and Light” examine the wild, uninhibited love. While the speaker in “Jane” believes with few doubts the relationship between Jane and Tarzan existed, she questions the reality of a woman giving herself entirely to a man:
“Jane was pure make believe: the good,
A-student girl who gives up everything for sex…
And if you were like her, dipped in the waters
of her nature, how could you find your way
home to that lost continent? How could
you ever return?”
To the speaker, the question is not why Jane loves Tarzan, but how. The sacrifice too large to conceive and hidden among the social constructs, for “a woman shapes/ a man, haft and point, into the thing she needs…”
“Heat and Light” echoes the desire to discourage the Jane and Tarzan love, through the novel Ethan Frome. The speaker reminisces on Sister Bertrand’s sophomore English class, thinks,
“She must have thought the subject
of doomed, illicit love
would slow the downward slide
she’d marked in faces streaked
with rouge, in pleated skirts,
rolled at the waist.”
Here, she pushes against Sister’s Bertrand’s opinion of Ethan and Mattie’s love, claims a tight hold, for “Love,/ our true religion, would save them/ in the end.” Wharton though, does not save Ethan and Mattie, and so the ideal, sacrificial love is broken and the students, broken, are left copying “More heat than light” down for their test. Maier is conscious of the past and its ability to curb the future, the speaker’s ideas of womanhood shifted by the literature of her childhood. The past is never the past, but fluid in its influence on the present and future.
Now, Now does not seem to reach a climax or spiral towards a particular finish. For Maier, there is no end, but only the interconnectedness of time and our memory’s desire to look backwards. Maier’s title to her collection represents this idea. On one level, Now, Now sounds like words cooed with a gentle pat after receiving bad news. On a deeper level, the title speaks to Maier’s main focus: time is never stagnant. The now that exists before the first comma is over in an instant, followed by another now. Memory aids in our remembering, but it fails to slow down this process. It’s bittersweet, this life, but Maier accepts this, as should we, as she reminds,
“And if it all passed in an instant,
a comfort now to know you had your life of ordinary good,
of love’s tart fruits, its showery blossoms.”
Jennifer Maier is professor of English at Seattle Pacific University and associate editor of the arts quarterly IMAGE. Her other poetry collection Dark Alphabet won the Crab Orchard Review Series in Poetry First Book Award and was named one of the Ten Remarkable Books of 2006 by the Academy of American Poets. Maier’s poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Poetry, New Letters, Smartish Pace, American Poetry Review, and has been featured on Public Radio International’s The Writer’s Almanac.
by Nola Garrett
Since Pittsburgh’s Light up Night (the beginning of Christmas shopping season) began in mid-November, from my condo’s windows each evening I can see Point State Park’s stylized versions of huge white-lit snowflakes and blue-lit Christmas trees. I suppose the blue-lit trees are meant to be a secular compromise or maybe a nod to both Hanukkah and Advent’s colors. Mostly, the blue trees remind me of the popular song, “Blue Christmas” sung by Elvis Presley and my Christmas of 1973.
During the summer of 1973, one dark June night my first husband in a drunken rage attempted to strangle me. As I found myself struggling for breath, I nearly gave up until I remembered my two blond toddler sons sleeping in the adjoining bedroom. For the first time in more than a decade, I prayed. Then, I realized that both my husband’s hands were occupied, and I reached down, grabbed his balls, squeezed as hard and long as I could with what I believed would be my last breath. He let go, fell to the floor writhing in pain. Wearing nothing except a nightgown, I ran out of the apartment I had rented six weeks earlier for myself and our two toddler sons. I dashed barefoot across the parking lot to a woman friend’s apartment, pounded on her door ’til she let me in, called the police, and wept in terror because my children were still back there alone with him.
The police arrived within less than 10 minutes, interviewed me, and arranged that as soon as they could get him out of my apartment that I could re-enter and be with my sons. I don’t know how those two small town cops managed to get my husband to leave and to arrest him for assault, but within ten minutes they had him loaded in their squad car, and I spent the rest of that night with my sleeping sons.
The next day at the local magistrate’s office when I appeared for the preliminary hearing, my neck now bruised red and black with the imprints of my husband’s hands, the magistrate attempted to persuade me to return to my husband’s house and to drop the assault charges.
I declined. In fact, the following day in my newly acquired attorney’s office, I signed the documents to divorce my husband and to have the papers served at the magistrate’s office after his final assault hearing simply because I knew my husband would likely be present.
What I didn’t know at that time was how uncommon my actions were that day.
It’s taken me 40 years to understand and accept emotionally and intellectually what I accomplished out of sheer terror and ignorance.
Last Thursday morning, December 12, 2013, as I ate my usual breakfast of toast, grapefruit sections, one hard boiled egg, and instant coffee made with skim milk, I read in the front section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that “Pittsburgh police officers responding to calls of domestic violence must offer the suspected victims an 11-question survey aimed at predicting the likelihood that they will be killed by their partners.” Here are the questions:
1. Has he/she ever used a weapon against you or threatened you with a weapon?
2. Has he/she threatened to kill you or your children?
3. Do you think he/she might try to kill you?
4. Does he/she have a gun or can he/she get one easily?
5. Has he/she ever tried to choke you?
6. Is he/she violently or constantly jealous or does he/she control most of your daily activities?
7. Have you left him/her or separated after living together or being married?
8. Is he/she unemployed?
9. Has he/she ever tried to kill himself/herself?
10. Do you have a child that he/she knows is not his/hers?
11. Does he/she follow or spy on you or leave you threatening messages?
Concerning my first husband, except for questions 8, 9, and 10, I had to answer yes to the rest. Breakfast last Thursday ceased to be its usual pleasure as I remembered why I had to answer yes to question 11.
After I began the divorce I moved to a second floor apartment to feel safer, but one day that fall I came home to find at my entrance hall door two overflowing boxes of Christmas tree decorations—strings of blue lights and cartons of silver and blue balls—I immediately recognized as the ones my husband had insisted that we buy for our first married Christmas. Though a blue color scheme hadn’t been my concept for an family tree, to save the peace, I didn’t attempt a compromise. Only a few months into that marriage, I already knew my taste didn’t matter. So, I picked up those boxes, carried them to the apartment complex dumpster. Later from my kitchen window, I watched several neighbors happily salvaging those blue decorations.
That fall though I was a tenured Assistant Professor money was tight. Setting up a new household, while paying for child care and legal help is never cheap. And, I had chosen to forego child support to eliminate my husband’s contact and visitation as a way to protect my children and me. A choice I have never regretted. However, when December arrived, of course, I had no Christmas tree decorations, but I did have a three year old and an 18 month old who deserved their own family Christmas.
The television toy ads that year were filled with visions of Weebles, weighted, round-bottomed wood and plastic clothed “people” that just fit the hands and imaginations of my sons. Around October I bought them each a small set of four that they played with constantly, all the while even the 18 month old could chant their TV motto–Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down! They slept with Weebles. They carried them to the car. They lined them up on the supper table beside their plates. Sometimes they purposely knocked them down, then laughed so hard they fell down. Who says toddlers don’t get irony?
Mid-December, I bought a small metal tree stand, a fresh five foot Scotch pine, two strings of multi-colored lights, one box of fake icicles, a gold-foil star topper, a spool of red, heavy thread, two bags of fresh cranberries, a bag of popping corn, a small box of ornament hooks, and six sets of Weebles. My brother, Jerry, helped me set up the tree in the holder, then carefully rough-housed with my sons which began a dear, deep relationship with them that still lasts 40 years later. By Sunday night with everyone’s help, we had strung the freshly popped popcorn kernels sort of alternating with the cranberries and kind of draped the result amid the lights. I managed to refashion the hooks around the 24 Weebles’s neckless necks, and after everyone threw icicles pretty much all over the pine, we had a real Christmas tree. Later that week, my mother gave us two tiny gold-sprayed clothes- pin mounted bird’s nests containing three even tinier red foil eggs, each guarded by a blue bird. Initially, I made the mistake of placing the nests too high on the tree which I quickly corrected the next morning when I was awakened by the cries of my three year old who had fallen off the chair he had dragged near the tree so he could look into the nests, but instead fell into the tree. Interestingly, neither boy removed the Weebles from the tree or if they did, I don’t remember or didn’t care.
Neither do I remember what Santa brought my sons that Christmas morning. What I do remember is sitting in the same rocking chair I used to sit in while I nursed both my babies, and my drinking a cup of English Breakfast tea while both my little boys played with their new toys, and the first feeling of peace and contentment that I had felt for more than two years. Also, I remember my three year old sadly asking why Santa forgot to give me a present. Next year, 1974, I made sure to buy myself a red leather wallet, wrapped it, and placed it under the tree for “Mom” even though I already had the gift of my two sons.
I asked Andrew how he felt after yesterday’s professional development.
“It wasn’t epically soul crushing.” Andrew is a nice guy. This, it must be noted, was his idea of something good to say.
That said, we spent the entire day at a faculty meeting pondering the following question. “How does the ability to read complex texts relate to the student’s potential for college and career success?” Andrew keeps a list of the top ten “soul crushing” workshops he’s attended. It’s chilling to consider that this one didn’t make the list.
I usually write poetry at these things. It looks like I’m taking notes.
7:45 Roosevelt High
it’s been a dark dawn and at the last minute
Arianna grades the long student
she smells the stale ink
and something akin to her mother’s old
her sweater smells of Tide
and chalk she rubbed off the board
she’s been beat for an hour and a witness
to nothing but D’s and lipstick
that smeared on her cuff
a yellow bus crunches low gear
and this is how she begins
nervous over her bell
and the next unit
which she promises
everyone will love
by Jim Coppoc
‘Twas the night before Christmas
and all through the house
not a creature was stirring
not even a mouse
When Clement Clarke Moore wrote this poem in 1823—a poem once called “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American1”—he published it anonymously. “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” the versified story of Christmas that gave America a good portion of its holiday folklore, was intended to be a gift. A contribution. A retelling and reshaping of many old tales into one unified narrative for the ages.
Or, in another history, Professor Moore was an erudite and serious academic, and was worried that such a light-hearted piece would reflect poorly on him in the academic culture of the time. Apparently, 190 years hasn’t changed all that much.
In either history, Moore only acknowledged authorship when his children, who loved the poem, requested he include it in his 1844 anthology.
However the poem came to be, I grew up with it, and likely so did you. My father. A third grade play. Disney. All the silly parodies we’ve heard over the years. Again and again—at home, at school, on TV, everywhere—we heard and saw version after version after version of this poem until it became part of us.
And this is the power of poetry.
To paraphrase Karl Kroeber, one of my favorite experts in the oral tradition, stories like this—the ones that really sink in—are at the root of how we learn culture, and they operate by what I’ve come to call Kroeber’s “3 Rs”: Repeat, Revise, Retain.
The repetition part is obvious. Most Americans have heard this story so many times that they can (and do) recite it out loud at some point in the holiday season at least once—especially those of us with children to raise.
The revision part might be a little more subtle, but one of the key features of this story is that it is not new. According to legend, Moore borrowed the image of St. Nicholas and the names of the reindeer, blended them with various cultural traditions, and threw in his own musings from a sleigh ride on a snowy day. Even the jolly figure of St. Nicholas was taken from a Dutch handyman of Moore’s acquaintance.
Even after Moore put all this together and codified it in verse, though, the poem continued to grow and change. It has been published under several titles and in many variations. It has been told and retold both orally and in-person, and in all our culture’s many evolving media. The surface details change, but the underlying themes that have to do with the spirit of the holiday remain intact. What anthropologists like Claude Levi-Strauss call the “deep structure” of the narrative has continued unbroken through generation after generation of Americans for almost two centuries.
And so we retain this little piece of culture—this story of the holidays. We shape our experience and that of our children around it. We keep the chain of culture unbroken, and forge our own links every year.
If, as many cultures believe, the world is made of stories, it’s fitting at this time of year to stop and reflect on the many stories that bind us together and keep us in community. That teach us how to see the world and how to be in the world. That make us human, and give us family, community, country and culture.
And while you’re reflecting, don’t forget to take a moment to open yourselves to the wonder of Christmas and share these beautiful, light-hearted verses with your children—the next link to be forged.
And next year—to embrace the pluralism of the Great American Story—remind me to tell you another story I know about a few brave Maccabees, or the Nguzu Saba of Kwanzaa, or the child of a carpenter and a faithful Jewish maiden, born in a manger in Bethlehem…
1Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, from their 1999 book, Gotham: A History of New York City.
The Other Typist
by Suzanne Rindell
|Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2013
Reviewed by Nicole Bartley
Unreliable narrators cause readers to question their own methods of perceptions, particularly when recognizing logical cause and effect. As if to prove this, in Suzanne Rindell’s debut novel, The Other Typist, she takes a character with untapped potential for mental instability and places her in a unique and extreme situation. The book is fascinating, sensual, and sensational. It takes a prudish, conceited, and hypocritical nobody and plunges her into the chaotic world of speakeasies and bootlegged liquor—in the middle of a downtown New York City police precinct.
Rose is drab and predictable. She begins the story in 1923 as a New York City precinct’s typist who lives in a boarding house with other young women. She is intellectual but not social and often silently derides her roommate’s actions as silly, rehearsed, and selfish. As far as readers know, Rose was raised in an orphanage. Because of this, she follows rules, schedules, manners, and etiquette to the letter. Through Rose, Rindell writes:
“In the absence of flesh-and-blood equivalents, over the years I’ve taken a series of rules to serve as my mother, my father, my siblings, even my lovers…. Rules kept me safe. In keeping the rules dear to me, I could always be certain the nuns would clothe and feed me, the typing school would place in me in a job, and the precinct would employ me…. The thing about rules is that when you break one, it is only a matter of time before you break more, and the severe architecture that once protected you is destined to come crashing down about your ears.”
That governing foundation crumbles when Odalie appears. If this name makes readers whistle “Oodalalee” from Disney’s Robin Hood or “Vol der ee, vol der rah” from a post-World War II German song “The Happy Wanderer,” it isn’t a coincidence. Even Rindell writes through Rose’s perspective, “…the name of that latter individual play[ed] musically in my head, tripping along to the pace of my own steps like a child’s song: Oh-dah-lee, Oh-dah-lee, Oh-dah-lee…”
On the first day Odalie is in the precinct, she drops a jeweled broach, which Rose claims to have been a purposeful act to catch her attention and pull her into Odalie’s persuasive schemes. As the story continues, Rose becomes obsessed with the enchanting new girl whom everyone adores. Eventually, the two become friends and Rose moves into Odalie’s extravagant hotel room. Odalie then takes Rose on a late-night adventure to a wig shop, where a secret door opens to invite them into the glitzy, dazzling world of speakeasies. Rindell, during her acknowledgements, claims that she drew inspiration of this era from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and it is here readers first see similarities between the two stories: a quiet neighbor commingles with a mysterious personage who follows a grand but ultimately unstable lifestyle.
Astute readers will also recognize that the writing bears a strong resemblance to a legal confession, as if Rose were typing her own story for the court to read. Rindell reveals the truth in teasing snippets: “I can only say I did it for the love of her, though the doctor I am seeing now hardly accepts that answer. Of course, ever since the incident, the newspapers have painted Odalie as the victim…but of course, if I am to tell it all in order, as I keep promising to do, there are other things I must tell first,” and “I’ve already mentioned my doctor’s encouragement that I explain my actions with an emphasis on chronology.” It is only after a devastating climax that readers are finally given the full account of events.
Here, then, is a second similarity to The Great Gatsby: the overall arc of the plot, but with a twist. Rose doesn’t just represent neighborly Nick Carraway from Gatsby; she represents Jay Gatsby as well because she adopts his glamorous but questionable lifestyle. Readers watch, helpless, as Rose is taken along a dubious but extravagant ride with many events that make her suspect her own safety and Odalie’s authenticity. But she remains faithfully by Odalie’s side and learns from her until Rose’s life and memories are turned upside down. Through Rose, Rindell writes, “The advantage of hindsight, of course, is that one finally sees the sequence of things, the little turning points that add up to a final resultant direction.”
The novel’s first-person narration locks readers in Rose’s mind and personality. Toward the final chapters, when her world no longer makes sense, the readers’ perceptions also become suspect. Up until that point, they agreed with each of her experiences. Her progression and attempts to understand are both well-paced and fascinating. Readers will not only want to know what happened to her, but how she went from a quiet, stuffy prude to a committed woman. And like a bad batch of absinthe or bathtub gin, they may not emerge unchanged from the blinding and disorienting story.
Suzanne Rindell is a doctoral student in American modernist literature at Rice University. She lives in New York City and is currently working on a second novel.