Coal Hill Blog
Poems by Roy Bentley
|Lynx House Press, 2013
Reviewed by Jason Barry
“The hardest part is when someone tells you
about America and defines promise as hope,
and a love for the truth pushes you to give
the raised middle finger to what you hear.
The hardest part is living without hope.”
- Roy Bentley, from the poem “Converters”
It’s easy to see why Bentley’s work has gained such traction in contemporary poetry outlets: his poems are technically proficient but never pedantic; they are hard-hitting and serious, subtle and philosophical. As William Heyen has written in the jacket blurb, “I know of no other poet this percussive, this relentless, this unswerving . . . His [Bentley’s] dedication to even debilitating truth will not allow him to flinch.”
Like the recent work of Yusef Komunyakaa and Philip Levine, Roy Bentley’s Starlight Taxi moves the reader—by way of skilled metaphor and storytelling—to the grittier, more difficult aspects of American living: a career that didn’t work out as planned, the charcoal-filled lungs of coal miners, the seared fingertips of steel workers, various dropping offs and burning outs, alcoholism, and child abuse. Each of these themes and subjects in Bentley’s latest book could warrant pages of critical discussion, but I’d like to focus here on only three of them—the ones I take to be most pivotal to the core of his book, and indeed most central to getting at the heart of the author’s poetic story: memory, violence, and acceptance.
Memory is perhaps the most important recurrent theme in Starlight Taxi, and several of the poems are grounded explicitly in it. These are reflections of an earlier time: Dayton Ohio in 1960, for example, or Christmas in the late fifties. They tell of the author’s life in the Midwest (and in Florida and Appalachia) and they are concerned primarily with history, both personal and public, and how narrative shapes the course of what’s remembered and what’s forgotten.
In “Zombie Apocalypse,” Bentley describes a scene in a nursing home. His mother and her friend, Dorothy, are residents of the home. When Bentley gives his mother a box of chocolates during a visit, the following exchange occurs:
I hand her a box she opens with help. Chocolates.
When she finishes, she closes the box, hands it back.
asks, Why are you here, Billy? I’m not Billy. A nurse
says she’s been striking attendants. Kicking, hitting
other residents. Around every exhausted official word
a wheel of better times spins, though it’s slowing down.
I say, I’m sorry to hear that and take my mother’s arm.
And consider killing her—I carry a knife on my belt—
but movie-butchery is R-rated for a reason: the gore.
There’d be blood. I’d think of roses, Mother’s Day.
But then I’d have the memory of her fear as elegy.
Dorothy is beside us, telling my mother the world
is ending. For them, it is. And the three of us walk.
Dorothy loses interest in endings, and my mother
changes the subject. There is always that to do.
This poem is illuminating in its treatment of not only memory, but also violence and acceptance, the subjects we’ll turn to shortly. Let’s start with a focus on memory. Memory in “Zombie Apocalypse” is mostly a private matter—i.e. the inner workings of the author’s subjective mind (as opposed to group memory or public historical narrative), and yet the last lines of the poem hint at a question that extends above and beyond that of the individual.
When Bentley writes, “Dorothy loses interest in endings, and my mother / changes the subject. There is always that to do” he invites the reader to consider the connection between the questions we ask, the conversations we have, and the states of affairs in the world. How many events––wars, famines, the loss of family and loved ones—seem to disappear because we change the subject? How many arguments and heated discussions are ended with a plea to “drop it,” as if doing so would itself alleviate or solve the problem(s) at hand?
Bentley is not a poet who changes the subject from the pressing and difficult questions, and he tends to follow the thread of his poetic inquiry wherever it may go—even if it’s heading into dangerous or difficult terrain. Note the lines about the prospect of killing his mother:
And consider killing her—I carry a knife on my belt—
but movie-butchery is R-rated for a reason: the gore.
There’d be blood. I’d think of roses, Mother’s Day.
But then I’d have the memory of her fear as elegy.
Bentley does not offer us an inflated image of his mother, nor does he tell us why life is still beautiful when one is old, etc. He decides against the killing (presumably by way of stabbing) of his mother not for the sake of her life, but for his own wellbeing; it’s the thought of her fear in his memory that persuades him to reconsider. It would be awful to clean up all that blood and to think of Mother’s Day and roses for the rest of one’s life, wouldn’t it?
There is also a sense of acceptance here, an understanding that life isn’t always beautiful. Dementia and death are all around us. When faced with difficult questions and circumstances, we have four options: we can look away from or change the subject, we can argue or complain about things, we can accept reality as it is (or at least how we perceive it to be), or we can slip into the oblivion of apathy and stop acting/asking altogether.
For me, this poem not only accepts the horror of aging and forgetting, but it also dares to bring the subject up in a violent way— in a knife and blood sort of way. It’s a bold poem, and one that doesn’t shy away from the awful qualities of life or the motivations to end it should things get dirty.
But Bentley does not always reveal his hand so quickly or expresses violence with such explicit, “movie-butchery” type imagery. In perhaps my favorite of the batch in Starlight Taxi, the poem “My Father Dressing Me as Zorro,” Bentley addresses our themes of memory, violence, and acceptance:
Outside the store with the circling Lionel train,
he ties cape strings, loops twin black ends,
making a bow at the front of my throat.
Now he relaxes back, into the bucket seat
of his ‘63 T-Bird. Says he’s gotten remarried.
He tells me it was sudden, no guests. Says
he’s sorry, too, he wasn’t around on my birthday.
He fingers a shirt pocket for a pack of L & Ms.
Now I’ve lowered a mask over my face.
The eye-slits don’t fit, and I can’t see.
I scent the smoke of his cigarette. I tell him
they turned off the electricity, the gas and phone,
that neighbors fed us after he left. I’m feeling
in the gift box for a toy rapier, which I wave
between us. He tells me to stop horsing around:
this close, one of us is likely to get hurt.
This sophisticated poem about pain and protection has more nuance to it than we might think on first glance. First, the imagery of protection. Note the store with the “circling Lionel train,” the bucket seat that surrounds the father’s body (we feel relaxed when we’re safe, when we’re protected) inside of the car—itself a type of shelter from the world outside. Notice the mask and the hiding behind it, and the presumed notion of feeling safe and indestructible when wearing it. Observe, too, the cigarette smoke and the shield that it provides for the boy (he doesn’t address his father until the mask is on and the smoke is rising).
Violence is also at hand; the bow being tied at the front of the child’s throat calls to mind the image of a noose and the procedure of being hanged. There is the violence of living in a home where the basic necessities have not been met or provided for. And in the last few lines, the poem suggests an implicit or past violence: “I’m feeling / in the gift box for a toy rapier, which I wave / between us. He tells me to stop horsing around: / this close, one of us is likely to get hurt.”
Surely there has been a previous instance of someone getting hurt, and we wonder how many times the father has told his son to stop horsing around. We have a sense in these lines that violence is just around the corner, is just outside of the old T-Bird. The hard discussions between father and son need protection to get off the ground, and this protection (as mentioned above) is found in the Zorro mask, the car, the smoke, and the seats. The mask, of course, is the key physical and psychological barrier between the father and son. Note that the young Bentley cannot see from behind it, and presumably his father cannot see him either, or at least not see his eyes.
This fleeting exchange is the closest to vulnerability that these two get, and when the son reaches toward the rapier (a toy, no less!) we sense the barrier between the two— and their precarious emotional balance—is threatened. Although one might accuse the author of hiding behind his Zorro mask and thus avoiding danger, it’s clear that the poem does what it needs to do: it reveals a seesawed history of violence and abuse (of power and protection) though we must read carefully to discover it.
Yet some readers might feel that Bentley leaves them hanging; that things still need resolving, unpacking. But we are not offered an exit into the rosy or sentimental in this poem, nor are we given a quick resolution to a lifetime’s worth of problems. True, we will never be able to take the mask off the boy or glimpse his saber in its shiny, deadly glow, nor will we know the full conversation between father and son. But we know the score well enough, and the skilled withholding and covering-up in this piece is just what makes it successful.
Starlight Taxi is for those who want to journey with an unsettling companion on sketchy roads; for those who don’t mind a pinch of salt in their wounds, or the possibility of shaking their modus operandi with violence. Read Bentley if you can handle the songs of an experienced bluesman—a traveler of dark alleyways, a frequenter of factories and barrooms—and read him if you have guts enough to accept the facts on the ground, even if they’re ugly.
Starlight Taxi is Roy Bentley’s fourth book of poems, released in 2013 by Lynx House Press (a non-profit and independent publisher based in Spokane, Washington) and is the winner of the 2012 Blue Lynx Prize for poetry. Bentley, an Ohio based writer and poet, has received awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and the Ohio Council. His poems have appeared in prestigious literary magazines and journals, including the Southern Review, North America Review, Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, Shenandoah, and many others.
by John Samuel Tieman
This morning, as I left for work, after all these terrible storms we’ve had, I noticed the tiniest of my wife’s daffodils are starting to bloom. As cliched as it may sound, I felt like Rudy was saying, “It’s OK, John. Storms will pass. And, as always, life will continue.”
Let’s speak to each other
in the language of paper airplanes,
bend our edges in to meet
and fold the quiet into shapes,
mold our wings according
to the soft geometry of handmade things.
Let’s use our time aloft to catch our breath
and clear the air before we yaw,
pamper back the creases in our rumpled craft
and fly some more.
You said I sounded
like an actor in a poorly rehearsed play, so
I gave up speaking in favor of the Hindustani drone,
of music waving like seaweed, wrote songs
about the foothills in flower with tarweed and poppies,
about the threadbare hat I filched from a neighbor
and the wilted plant on my father’s desk.
My droning was tonic alongside your upness,
your downness, your whispery voice. You flexed
your fingers, turned in your shoulder, fastened us
together, a tune unfolding, one line coaxed
after another, silences framed to open out
and let the music breathe.
Do you hear wisps of sound?
It might be carpenter ants
in the beams or maybe we’re just
not getting enough sleep, not
getting enough air, judging
from the yawn-triggered yawns,
the nervous assemblies of words,
the way we’re folding sentences
into a conversation shaped
like an origami duck.
And while we’re chatting about how the moon
devises shorelines, do you notice the undertow
of kisses forming, notice we’re standing
this close, our hands curled up together
like a couple of cats?
I’m far from you
and tired like wine gets
tired, and missing
the still of your mind
at work working out its
thought across the room.
I’m missing Summer
where you are, where
early morning smells
like the back of your neck,
missing our walking,
quiet, hands held warm
with the pleasure of our blood
Excerpts from Peter Schireson’s chapbook The Welter of Me and You. To purchase the chapbook please visit the Coal Hill Review chapbook catalog.
Retold by John Samuel Tieman
Tetsugen, a devotee of Zen in Japan, decided to publish the sutras, which at that time were available only in Chinese. The books were to be printed with wood blocks in an edition of seven thousand copies, a tremendous undertaking.
Tetsugen began by traveling and collecting donations for this purpose. A few sympathizers would give him a hundred pieces of gold, but most of the time he received only small coins. He thanked each donor with equal gratitude. After ten years Tetsugen had enough money to begin his task.
It happened that at that time the Uji River overflowed. Famine followed. Tetsugen took the funds he had collected for the books and spent them to save others from starvation. Then he began again his work of collecting.
Several years afterwards an epidemic spread over the country. Tetsugen again gave away what he had collected, to help his people. For a third time he started his work, and after twenty years his wish was fulfilled. The printing blocks which produced, and the first edition of sutras can be seen today in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto.
The Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen made three sets of sutras, and that the first two invisible sets surpass even the last.
By Karen Zhang
After a couple of hours waiting for a free ticket, I finally had a closer look at the White House. Along with the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge, the White House is one of the few American icons that Chinese people recognize, so I was excited to see it.
The garden of the White House is open to the public twice a year—once in spring, the other in the fall. Together with thousands of enthusiastic visitors coming for the spring garden tour at the White House, I was fortunate to queue in the early group and got the advantage to take photos with a smaller crowd. Because I was early enough to visit the president’s house, I even saw the famous “First Dog” Bo which is a furry black Portuguese Water Dog with white paws and chest. Bo was probably finishing his first romp and poop of the day. As soon as his handler saw more people walking in, he led the dog away from the lawn and soon disappeared out of sight. Anyway, this was the highlight of the tour—neither the blooming tulips nor the renowned cherry blossoms matched the morning greeting with the First Dog.
Normally, visitors can see the White House only through the iron fence surrounding the property. It’s nearly impossible for a visitor to take a snapshot of the White House except through the branches of the old trees or the fences. But on the day of the spring garden tour, I took as many photos of the White House as I could without obstruction, including photos of the Washington Monument beyond the south lawn. At zero distance, the White House didn’t look as stately as what it is shown on TV. It was like a snow-white club house with a friendly staff to guide visitors and answer their questions.
In China, you would never be allowed to visit the Chinese leaders’ offices—the notoriously secret Zhongnanhai in central Beijing – much less their homes. For the American public, everyone is informed about the everyday life of the president, from his basketball practice to his press conferences in the rose garden. With the convenience of social media, President Obama’s amiable images with the family and even with First Dog Bo can go viral instantly; whereas in China, the scandals of top officials only stimulate ordinary people’s imagination, simply because no one really knows what the Chinese leaders do after their public appearances. No way will the doors of Zhongnaihai be as welcomingly open to the public as that of the White House.
This is an amazing country.
Poems by Lisa C. Krueger
|Red Hen Press, 2014
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
A few summers ago, the Saratoga Racing Tip Sheet on Lisa Krueger noted: “Goes a few places. Moves away from the obvious. Sometimes needs to look back over her shoulder to make sure the reader is following.” Big bettors may wish to read Krueger’s newest volume, Talisman, and put this Golden State poet into their combinations. The new Krueger is sleeker, has a convertible soul and gets plenty of air into lungs. In Talisman, she writes to heal all of us, especially her grieving, implicated, rapturous self. Here, the flower child reminds us that landscape, and ocean, and sky—all of these elements occur in some wonderful dream when experience is sleeping.
Krueger’s poems are what happens when experience is suddenly woken by life. Although her Beat cousins liked to start with a car and a highway, Krueger begins with a crash in “What She Felt:”
In L.A. my sister’s car wrapped like foil
around a pole as the sun sank,
offering illusions of a softened world,
the other car careening, reversing,
screeching off into the almost dark.
That’s plenty of clarity, except for one huge detail—Krueger doesn’t have a sister. I mean, of course she does, but try to forget that right now. Krueger is writing about herself as her sister, having a secret self through her, a wilder one, a nearly dead one, a patched up self: “They lay her on pavement, / forced rods into her skull. / They called what they did a halo.”
Don’t many of us have a secret sharing soul like this one? A sister, or a brother—one who leaps from windows dressed like Superman? These secret selves become our heroic angels. Krueger’s poem nicely ends without ending: “What she felt, they said, / wasn’t what we felt. // My sister surfed every sunset. / Her hair was wet.”
Krueger keeps the reader close to her by making good use of internal logic and related images. The sun sank, wrapped like foil, surfing, metal clasping flesh, Jaws of Life, breathing machine…the logic keeps us focused without giving us tunnel vision while the poem’s energy goes upward, outward. It’s a call for each of us to wax our boards, jog into the tumult, make our hair wet, go where she’s going, risk our lives, risk our secrets.
In “Girl, I’ll House You” Krueger writes: “says my sister, / my only sister, my / best kept secret, // disabled sect of self.” The sisters—psychic twins—one a poet and one a muse, do all sorts of things: visit each other in asylums, bicker, go to Labyrinth parties where “we walk woodchip paths / that spiral in nautilus design…the universe listens to people / who wander in circles / then offers a response.”
Krueger’s “Pre-measured” differs from the other sister poems where the tension is between active and passive sides. Here, the two are just being together in the kitchen. The effects of an accident linger in one, but this visit is more about baking a pie. The crash survivor has lost her sense of nuance and the only world for her is a literal one. The speaker, however, seems to exist in a realm that is nuanced to the point of abstraction. Conflict produces an inevitable Lady Macbeth moment. The nurturing sister tells the victim sister that creation requires cleanliness, and the soap “turns around and / round in her hands:”
How pure is this? she says,
holding her hands above her head.
Sometimes the secret sister is an herbivore. In “Prodigal,” a deer who eats flowers and who mangles fences suggests the image of metal mangling limbs in “What She Felt.” The deer, like the wounded surfer, is also a swimmer, and begins to swim in the backyard pool:
I no longer feared she would drown.
I began to talk, not knowing if she heard.
Once I called her Mother.
She swam to me, animal face dispassionate,
fierce, a glint of silvery down
echoing the flash of my heart.
You are old I said to her.
I listened to the patterns of her breath,
the animal vowels, the voice.
Thank goodness Krueger loves a stanza break. The patterns of her breath, her vowels, and her voice make me think of Pilates, all that exhaling, and all that taking in of everything…it’s nice to have genuine pauses that a break offers just to wipe our foreheads. I could have used a couple in “Guest Farm Pardon,” a poem about caressing that urgently trucks eighteen lines. The caressing—tender, almost sexual—is between the speaker and a sleeping wild boar. The boar “assumes the possibilities of night” and has a “vigilant carnal scent.” Again, Krueger connects personal peril to evolving her spirit, but the connection isn’t rattlesnake Pentecostal, it’s more a process of connecting our frailty to the sweetly impossible. The poet also puts the ending of this poem in its middle as if to say, there’s no such thing as an ending when you’re rubbing a beast with tusks. Her lines “Most nights she yearns for sleep / but feels afraid, as though / she must fix her life” would ordinarily conclude a poem like this but Krueger goes on until she achieves an unguarded, feral complexity.
In section II of Talisman Krueger migrates from the duality themes of the first section to poems where we trust in the one-ness. Because of that trust, Krueger is now able to offer non sequitor images which might have given us trouble if she hadn’t already used the order of her poems to coach us how to read her. Unexpected pairings emerge, such as the lines “She notices the odor of ripeness from bananas / wondering why some people need to be kind” and “My daughter got ill the year / they tore out eucalyptus // along the 101.” There is a seamless ecological synthesis at work in poems such as “The Old Story Follows Us” (“I want to run my hand / across the ridge”) and “Opening to Light” where a husband’s birthday becomes claustrophobic; he feels trapped by time in the space of his marriage:
He wanted to open everything,
he wanted to rip off the roof.
Wildness would offer shelter.
That would be Heaven.
In order to deal with emotional trauma we must strengthen our spirit. In order to strengthen our spirit we must put ourselves in some sort of physical peril or risk. It helps to have a few magic powers to aid us. The marvel of Krueger’s poetry is how she shows us how to be one of Rilke’s mysterious heroic angels as if it were the only way to cope with human emotional catastrophes such as grief, abuse, or even love. It’s a wise and sustaining message, but Krueger’s elastic gift to us is her abstract confessional lyric. Personal experience is a metaphor first and foremost. Krueger lives her images just enough to help draw us to the essence. It’s the first step towards transcendence from lives of generally slight impressions to lives of vision.
by John Samuel Tieman
There is an inter-office memo. “Staff, there is no other system. I hope this answers the question.” Thus are we given the choice between being computer programmers, or being a vice-president for programming. Naturally, since we need the dental plan, we choose to be programmers and vice-presidents. Soon, we run out of programs to program. We then write programs about testing programs. While that task is in progress, the more creative among us write programs that supplement the programs, programs that augment the meta-programs, as well as programs that test the programmers and the vice-presidents.
One vice-president almost emails his wife a billet-doux. Instead, he considers company policy. The company hires only one guard. The vice-president approaches the guard. The guard is silent. The vice-president apologizes. The guard is silent. The vice-president confesses. His inter-office confession reads, “Staff, there is nothing new. Please continue.”
by Nola Garrett
Sticks-in-a-drowse droop over sugary loam,
Their intricate stem-fur dries;
But still the delicate slips keep coaxing up water;
The small cells bulge;
One nub of growth
Nudges a sand-crumb loose,
Pokes through a musty sheath
Its pale tendrilous horn.
from Theodore Roethke’s COLLECTED POEMS, 1948
Besides giving up my pinball machine, the hardest part of moving from a four bedroom, custom-built Florida house to a two bedroom Pittsburgh condo was abandoning my garden. That garden pretty much encompassed the entire yard because instead of rolling out the usual Florida lawn sod, I had xeroscaped with stone(s) and wood chips. I kept no indoor plants, but in the yard I had planted lots of citrus trees—including a Meyer lemon—five flowering trees, and kept a volunteer elderberry from which to make jelly or an occasional pie. My usual herb garden was planted along both sides of the front walk. I’d also tucked into a back, single-windowed corner a small waterfall-pond edged with stones and flowers. Tending the yard, as well as the steep, vine-planted back bank down to Lake St. George, the gardens, the pond, the large house, the swimming pool, a small poetry career, an ailing husband; shopping and cooking all the while dealing with my own aging process just got to be too much. I was exhausted. Even though I still loved doing it all, I gave up that beautiful house, its grounds, its lake view, and gardening. I had to save my own life. For a while longer.
Anticipating my drive north to Pittsburgh, out on the pool lanai I clipped a few sprigs from two huge Christmas cacti brooding in a dark corner, that I had moved as sprigs from Erie 15 years earlier. I stuck them in a water glass to root—my only concession to what I envisioned as my future, plantless condo life. When the house sold and the time came to load my car, I wrapped my hairy rooted cactus sprigs in a wet paper towel, put them in a small plastic bag to ride shotgun with me up I-75. And then, at the last minute I also rescued a few flower pots that I’d left at the curb. When I unpacked in Pittsburgh, I firmly pushed the flower pots into the very back of the linen closet, placed my cactus sprigs into another old glass and set it in my north east dinning room window. As far as I was concerned, my Pittsburgh garden was complete.
My first venture into gardening at age eight was the result of a gift of several dozen tulip bulbs from my Great Aunt Et. Aunt Et was short. Aunt Et was so short and agile that she comfortably planted and weeded her vegetable and flower gardens by simply bending at her waist. She loved growing anything, cooking, baking cookies, and talking a mile a minute all the while her false teeth clicked and danced within her smiling mouth. She liked talking to anyone, even me practically eye to eye when my family was always invited for New Year’s dinner in her big red brick house on the east side of Erie, PA. She was also a good listener who somehow figured out that I’d really like to grow flowers though my Dad was of the opinion that his garden was only for growing food to get us through the long hard cold winter in Mill Village 25 miles south of Erie.
Aunt Et may have been small, but she was a powerful talker. Though I wasn’t allowed to waste the ground of Dad’s garden, I was allowed to dig up the lawn out by the driveway. I can still almost feel how tired and sweaty I was that fall Saturday from removing the sod and digging those dozens of six inch holes in which to plant my tulip bulbs that Aunt Et had sent home with my Dad for me. And, I will always remember the spring of ’49 when those tulips arose, bloomed red, yellow, white, purple along with a couple that were striped red and white! I couldn’t bear to pick them. As if they were in some way Aunt Et, I visited them every day until they receded as the lawn’s grass marched back.
The next year my mother planted lupines on both sides of the driveway—her first time for flower gardening—too.
During my first marriage, I lived with my husband on his fallow 100 acre farm. I took up bee keeping and planted a garden of both vegetables and flowers. When for some obscure reason he brought home half a dozen Grey Toulouse geese, I took care of them. After a year or so, I noticed that many of the geese’s eggs were being eaten by the local wildlife. The next spring, I ordered an egg incubator, read the detailed instructions, gathered a dozen goose eggs, and set the incubator in our bedroom.
Thirty two days later, I was awakened before dawn by a weak peep peep. I leapt out of bed, turned on a light, opened the incubator to find that the peep peep was coming from a slightly wobbling intact egg. A few hours later there was a duet of peep peeps from another intact egg. I reread the instructions and was relieved to find my eggs were doing just fine, but I needed to not only keep sprinkling the eggs with water and turning them as I had been doing every day, but also I now needed to briefly immerse each egg twice a day in warm water. Three days later the first gosling pecked its way out of its shell. Over the course of the next day or so, all but three of the rest managed the same feat. However, I had to carefully restrain myself from establishing any eye contact with the goslings or they would imprint on me, and I would be impressed into mother goose service. I knew there was no way on Earth that I could carry out the skills of a mother goose from even the most detailed of instructions. So, each night as the goslings hatched, eyes closed I would put the goslings into my coat pockets, sneak outside to the nests of what had become my setting geese, and push the newest goslings under a goose. Given the fierce protective nature of geese, I had thought that might be an impossible feat; however, it turned out that all those months of my feeding and walking among the flock may have built a trust between us so that they accepted my furtive midwifery. Or maybe the sounds of those peep peep’s each setting goose, too.
Leaving my geese behind when I had to move from my abusive husband’s farm was harder and more painful than my leaving him.
As my Christmas cactus cuttings settled into Pittsburgh’s light, I had lots of friends and family’s first visits, and most brought house warming gifts: bottles of wine, local restaurant gift cards, and plants. I couldn’t bring myself to refuse their well meant gifts, and further after each plant bearer left I couldn’t bring myself to throw away a perfectly good small fern, a tiny red bromeliad, a serviceable succulent, or even the 3 foot palm tree that my brother, Jerry, gave me. I did, though, keep them all herded in my dining room. They were low light plants. How much work could they make?
Meanwhile, I was enjoying Gateway Center’s expertly kept, ever-blooming pink roses and admiring Point State Park’s carefully tended, faux woodland of wild flowers and trees as spring/ summer/fall melted into each other. Mid-winter came, and the palm tree jaundiced, then died. I cleaned out its pot, pushed it into the linen closet with the rescued Florida pots. Another six months passed as I continued to dump enough water on the sill plants to keep them alive.
Sometime after Christmas this year, I began to feel rested, to feel as if in some way I had as a person begun to put down my roots in Pittsburgh. At that point, I inspected those survivors still huddled against the dining room window glass. All of them had grown, even thrived almost out of their cramped quarters. Intending to at least give the water glass dwelling Christmas cactus a real pot, I bought a bag of potting soil. When I went to choose a pot from the linen closet, I realized the cactus needed one of the larger pots, a pot too large for the sill, so I placed it in my office. Though it had already finished its bit of holiday blooming, within a week it sprouted more flower buds, re-bloomed. Who knew Christmas cacti relished computer light? At that point I gave in to my past, bought some fertilizer, another larger bag of soil. I used the rest of the rescued pots for the gift plants, then acquired a big money plant and an even bigger clump of mother-in-law tongue, knowing full well that in spite of their names they were both easy, undemanding souls. I realized I felt better. Maybe it was the extra oxygen the exuberant transplants were generating, or maybe it just felt good on some curious level to become for a few sentient beings the wind and the rain?
Yet, I must admit there was one other gift I received that I almost threw out. Late November, early December last year a condo employee informed me that I had a package marked both fragile and time-sensitive waiting for me. I was puzzled; I hadn’t ordered anything of that sort. When I opened it I discovered that my poet friend, Pat Callan, who lives part time in Florida had sent me an early Christmas gift—a dozen paper narcissi bulbs and a simple unglazed, red pottery bowl. Her gift seemed like too much. Too generous. Too much work for me. I wavered. I took a long walk down by the Allegheny River, looked at its no color water and the gray sky, but I kept walking anyway. I came back to my warm, light-filled condo, looked around in my dining room cabinets where I found a net bag of polished pebbles that I had bought years before from Target just because they were quietly beautiful, and just for the sake of their beauty, at the last minute I had tucked them into a moving box packed with dishes. While the bulbs wouldn’t really have to have soil they would need some sort of support—those pebbles. Still, it all seemed to be too much.
The next morning I finally nestled into the pebble-filled bowl the six bulbs that within the darkness of their dry bag had begun to push out a new complexity of pale sprouts. I poured in a cup of warm water, and carried my new garden into my living room to place it near my reading chair.
By Karen Zhang
Having newly stepped into the American labor force, I’ve had to navigate the byzantine process of planning for retirement. Unlike in China where municipal governments control retirement funds, Americans rely on the financial markets to invest their retirement money.
Instead of letting your money accumulate over a period of time, the American investment companies put your money in the stock and bond markets and let the money grow until you retire.
Of course, same as the Chinese employers, the American employers will also contribute a matching portion to the employee’s retirement fund. But neither the Chinese employers nor the employee has direct control of the retirement fund. The municipal government does.
To decide which retirement plan to invest is fairly tough for me. I am a complete investment dummy. My philosophy never moves beyond one plus one equals two. That is, if I save one dollar every day, by the end of the week I will have seven dollars. But the American way is I should take some risks and I will probably get more than seven dollars by the end of the week. But how? There are a million probabilities and options there for me to choose. Ah—back to the unique character of American life—making choices.
For days, I was overwhelmed with financial jargon from the retirement plan literature. How will I distinguish Risk A from Risk B? How will I foresee I will gain instead of lose my retirement fund thirty years from now? The instruction says a conservative option is to join in the formulated 5-year increment lifecycle investment. I say, even this investment is too risky for me. Why can’t I just put aside the money without investing it for the future? Yes I can if this is my option. But my employer will not contribute their part if the retirement fund is not placed in the investment market. I guess I just cannot have a simple retirement in America, can I?
by John Samuel Tieman
I remember the day Senior Drill Sergeant Rose lined us up in squads of eight. It was the first week of Basic Training.
“Every single one of you is going to The Nam. Consider yourselves officially dipped in shit. Now look up and down your squad. There’s eight of you. This time next year, one of you will be dead. So pay attention to your drill sergeants, and you may be one of the lucky seven who comes home only wounded or crazy. That’s your first lesson. Now here’s Drill Sergeant Thomas, who’s got a war story.”
Sgt. Thomas was mean. But at first his look wasn’t so much mean as blank.
From beside Sgt. Rose’s rostrum, Sgt. Thomas smartly steps out as if he’s on parade. He stands before us at attention. He does an about face. He takes off his drill sergeant’s hat, his fatigue shirt, pulls down his pants then his boxer shorts. The skin, from his knees to his shoulders, is streaked with half-a-dozen long diagonal scars, and bunches of little ones. Then he puts his clothes back on, does another about face. And grins. He never says a word. Just that demented grin. The story was made entirely of keloids.
In the years immediately after the war, every day I used to dwell on the war. And I don’t mean I’d think of it now and again. I mean I’d dwell at length. I remember one week when I wondered if I could recall each day I’d been in Nam. Each night for about a week, just after I turned out the light, just before I went to sleep – I could recall every day of the war.
Some time later, it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought of The Nam in twenty-four hours. I’d been home for over three years.
When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “The Wall”, was constructed, for the first time I saw a complete list of the American dead. I pulled out this yearbook sort of thing I have from Basic Training, and compared it to the list. I wanted to see if Senior Drill Sergeant Rose was right about that one in eight thing. I saw Thornton’s name. I saw my bunk mate, Lewis. And I stopped. It is enough to know some of us died. Beyond that, I just don’t want to think of them that way. 10,000 miles from home. Crying for mother. The chaplain leaning in and saying, “Private, I’m going to give you your Last Rites now. Are you ready?”
When I first got home, I used to dwell on the war. Now, it’s like it creeps up on me every few weeks, like some Mephistopheles stalking a soul he already owns.
Like today. The ROTC folks at my school are making a display of veterans on the faculty. They ask me for a medal. I bring them my Vietnamese Cross Of Gallantry.
Last night, I taped the movie “Tigerland”, largely because that’s where I trained, Fort Polk. The movie was waiting for me when I got home from work.
As was the novel All Quite On The Western Front. I set it on my desk this morning. My wife never read it. I promised to read to Phoebe my favorite passage, the last chapter.
Later, on “The Five O’clock News”, there’s the story of a boy killed in Vietnam. They were bringing home, after all these years, his remains. Bone fragments.
And I wept. It all just sort of crept up on me.
By Karen Zhang
I like reading caricatures. The exaggeration of a celebrity in a drawing makes the hidden satire much more lively and unforgettable. I appreciate the artwork as much as the message conveyed through the image. I once subscribed to the New Yorker magazine. In the end, I was more interested in the humor and cartoon section in the magazine than the long-winded articles. Perhaps, drawing is like music. Both can reach a wide audience without geographic and cultural boundaries.
I notice that the American president is the most publicized caricature in the American media. For example, when President Bush junior was in office, his caricature with his distinctive monkey-like face was everywhere in the political humor. Now it is President Obama’s turn. His big ears, long face and his signature cheek-to-cheek smile appear in nearly all sorts of newspapers and magazines. During the last election year, Obama’s caricature had a new companion, or I shall say a new rival. The American media was also thick with Mitt Romney’s caricature with his overly-groomed hair and protruding chin.
Leaders in China are not made fun of. For centuries, Chinese people have regarded their emperors as deity. Those who disrespect the leader of the country were as sinful as a Christian insulting his God. Even in modern days, despite that freedom of speech in China is relatively open, the Chinese media is still careful about criticizing, say, President Xi Jinping’s policies in the form of caricature.
As a Chinese, I find Americans are really bold in expressing their mind, regardless of right or wrong. I saw a caricature of Hillary Clinton portrayed as an evil woman at the Benghazi hearings. I saw the caricature of Speaker of the House John Boehner pounding the gavel with crocodile’s tears. It was so much fun to read and re-read these caricatures. They mark a period of history. After all, American celebrities are quite expressive and dramatic.
I don’t know if there is a limit for caricaturists in America. Are there any rules of what they can draw and what they cann’t? Is their satire subject to liable? Will the caricaturists receive warnings from the authorities if their work offends a particular interest group? Chinese officials hunt down the people who slander them or make them look ridiculous.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
Over the weekend, Reed Dance premiered Just Us…The Journey Continues. The show was their first since leaving the August Wilson Center. Despite the group’s makeover (several new company members and a smaller performing venue), they emerged as bold and fiery as ever.
The Alloy Studios was a great place to see the dancers up close and personal. The small black box allowed for many of the perks of a traditional theater – intricate lighting design, raked seating, and a lobby for chit-chat. And with its intimacy, we were able to see the dancers’ vivid expressions and the details of their movements.
Reed chose six works for the program, a blend of old and new repertoire. Terence Greene, a Cleveland choreographer who has worked with the company quite a bit, presented two joyful and expressive large group pieces. “Breath” and “Faith” both had an infectious, crowd-pleasing effect.
Each dance accentuated Greene’s contemporary and African styles, which the performers handled with ease. The costumes stood out as well. In “Breath,” local artist, Vanessa German, made exquisite dresses for the women – black and deep orange with detailed patterns. For “Faith,” Cleveland School of the Arts provided long robes for the men and bright blue, flowing dresses for the women.
“Faith” closed the show, as it always should, and had the audience clapping, singing and raising their hands as if in Sunday Baptist church, Greene’s imagined setting for the piece. Kaylin Horgan performed the female solo this time around. Her effervescence lit up the stage (maybe even the entire neighborhood), convincing and moving.
NYC choreographer, Christopher Huggins, also had two works in the show – “Mothers of War” and “The List.” The former portrayed the agonizing truths of war. An emotional duet between Antonio Brown and Rebekah Kuczma bookended the dramatic progression from the group throughout. The latter piece also described painful anguish, following one Jewish family’s horror through the Holocaust.
To break up the high-energy tempo of the show, two smaller works perfectly changed the pace. In the first half, Brown performed a solo called “Knock Knock.” The piece showed off his seemingly liquid joints and athleticism. Utilizing powerful text and a pulsating beat, Brown told the story of one man’s navigation through life without a father.
In the second half, Kaylin Horgan and Rebekah Kuczma performed a world premiere by NYC choreographer, Sidra Bell. “Now You Can Let Go” was perhaps the most unique piece in the show. With quirky, angular gestures and unpredictable partnering, the movement was sometimes tender, and oftentimes curious. Reed said the duet spoke to the women’s friendship.
Just Us… proved that Reed Dance will continue to shine under their new name. Each dancer had the versatility to perform the company’s wide range of repertory, with stamina and finesse as stunning as always.
by John Samuel Tieman
Y si he de dar un testimonio sobre mi época
es éste: Fue bárbara y primitiva
And if I have to give witness to my era
it’s this: It was barbarous and primitive
-Ernesto Cardinal / John Samuel Tieman
I: The Madonna
My wife and I spent a couple of weeks this summer in Prague. We fell in love with the city. My wife attended a psychoanalytic conference, which left me with a few days on my own. Enough time for me to fall in love with the gothic Convent Of St. Agnes, which now houses the medieval collection of the Czech National Gallery. I spent two days there.
I learned many things. But of interest here is “The Madonna Of St. Vitus Cathedral.” It was one of the first “beautiful Madonnas,” sometimes called “the pretty Virgins.” In a few words, the painting is clearly medieval, but presents many features that prefigure the Renaissance. The Jesus and the Mary are anatomically proportional, for example. Obvious as it may be to those far wiser, it dawned on me, as I explored this painting at length, that it is possible to discuss a period that was, while clearly medieval, in essence pre-Renaissance.
It was a period of transition.
Which brings me to 2014. No one likes to think that they live in a dark age. (Many, perhaps most, medievalists dislike the very term “Dark Ages”). Yet I’m not sure what else to call the 20th Century. Verdun. Vietnam. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Auschwitz. Mustard gas. The Armenian Genocide. Stalinism. World War I, which was followed by another world war far worse. The Crusades pale by comparison. If the 20th Century wasn’t a dark age, then the term has no meaning.
With that in mind, our time is also a period of transition. Many scholars speak of the end of Modernism, that we are in a time of Post-Modernism. Jacques Derrida comes to mind, as does Michel Foucault. And many other equally brilliant scholars.
In my opinion, Post-Modernism isn’t so much a fixed ideology as it is a fluid critique of Modernism. It is indicative of a transition rather than any fixed point. Post-Modernism is essentially skeptical. It deconstructs. It offers an important vision of transition. But its very purpose is not foundational.
I’m not dismissing Post-Modernism, not by any means. It facilitates transition, and that is vital. Transitions are confusing. Post-Modernism gives an explanation, a kind of symbolic comfort to the confused. To risk a metaphor, it criticizes the old world, it explains the voyage, but it stipulates no port of call. It reacts. It doesn’t establish. Post-Modernism deconstructs Modernism, and, in doing so, provides a purely intellectual interlude into which no popular movement, nor any resultant magnum opus, has yet to enter. That’s not a bad thing. It’s simply transitional. But it is not comparable to, say, the medieval religious movements that gave birth to both the Dominicans and the Franciscans, out of which grew such masterpieces as the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, and the poetry of Francis Of Assisi.
Which brings me back to “The Madonna Of St. Vitus Cathedral.” No one likes to think that they live in an unenlightened era. Nonetheless, it is possible to think of our years as comparable to that pre-Renaissance period. Perhaps we are approaching The Next Renaissance. I hope so. The alternative, that the 21st Century will be worse than the 20th, is too horrible to contemplate.
II: The Next Renaissance
Why should anyone have hope?
We have polluted the planet to the point of global warming. The United States elected a president, George W. Bush, who doesn’t believe in evolution. One poll found that 22% of adult Americans, and 20% of high school students, thought it was possible that the Holocaust never happened. The 85 richest people own 46% of the wealth – on the earth. In 2012, 49 million Americans lived with food insecurity, 33.1 million adults and 15.9 million children. In a recent poll, 51% of Republicans believed that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim, who was born in Kenya. In that same poll, more than half of the Democrats believe that President Bush was complicit in the 9/11 attacks. I got an internet ad that began, “Earn Your Ph. D. Online!” In education, complete standardization is a planned terminus.
This is a litany of ignorance and decadence that could go on ad infinitum.
So why should anyone have hope? Why should anyone feel that all this portends anything except darkness?
Perhaps because the very transition itself may be hopeful. One can hope that we are transitioning, because we have exhausted decadence and ignorance. Be that as it may, Modernism is ending. But thought is not. “The Madonna Of St. Vitus Cathedral” is indicative of a new learning that was, in essence, salvific.
Allow me another litany.
The Catholic Church is entering an era that is post-sacerdotal, one where the parish is run by the people. Our president is black, and our country increasingly brown. Major TV channels are in Spanish. My youngest niece just retired as a full-bird colonel in the Army. I think I was the only passenger who even noticed when, on one leg of our trip to Prague, all our pilots were female, and all our flight attendants were male. Wikipedia does what Denis Diderot and the Encyclopedists only dreamed. Occupy Wall Street made it possible, for perhaps the first time since the McCarthy hearings, to openly critique capitalism. Malala Yousafzai was shot in Pakistan, but healed in England, and now campaigns for the education of young women worldwide. Homosexuals can openly marry. In the United States, the death penalty is itself on the verge of extinction. It is possible to consider an end of the most corrosive effects of positivism, and the beginnings of a new humanism. Some of the finest works of art, that have ever been produced, are being crafted right now.
This too is a litany than could go on ad infinitum.
Of the two litanies I’ve just provided, we will choose the one we prefer. In the end, it’s not like I can really prove The Next Renaissance is approaching. My only point is that absolutely nothing dictates that this current transition must end badly.
But mine is pure speculation, reluctant optimism. So I say there is reason for hope. In any case, if the alternative is true, if the 21st Century grows worse than the 20th, then none of this matters. Because Sobibor’s fate will be envied.
by Nola Garrett
I have a low pleasure threshold. I suppose another way to say this would be that I’m easily amused, as if I were living my life as a playful cat. This winter I’ve especially enjoyed watching falling snow here from the condo’s windows when the air currents surrounding this building caused the flakes to fall up. I find it intriguing to see how snow transforms Mt. Washington’s cliff side into stacked deckle edge book pages, depicting Pittsburgh’s geological stories. I’m still savoring my morning walk a week ago from Grant Street down Forbes Avenue when with my every step the snow softly squeaked. I know that I’m blessed to be retired, so I don’t have to drive every day no matter how snowy the roads become. Not commuting, too, is a pleasure: another reminder that I’m living a cat’s life, though my years as a tenured English professor gave me great pleasure with only occasional grief.
Beyond the stages of healing, grief, I’ve found, does have its simple pleasures such as learning to live alone. I’ve slowly transformed my living space into a place cleared of painful reminders and kept what soothes me. I’ve added an additional desk, a pair of floor lamps, a red velvet back pillow, a down comforter, plants, a plant stand, and lace curtains. I eat when and what I want to eat—lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, and oatmeal. The oatmeal has been something of a surprise that’s taken me a long time to understand.
Some of my earliest memories with my brother Joel are watching Mom cook oatmeal for our breakfast. Joel and I came up with a phrase to describe the emerging tiny steam explosions dotting the boiling oatmeal’s surface, “bubble stankers.” Though our phrase was faintly naughty, Mom never objected the same way she always would if we said “belly button” which made saying “bubble stankers” all the more delicious. Further, Mom always cooked oatmeal with raisins just for her and us kids, because Dad refused to eat any breakfast that didn’t consist of at least fried eggs and meat. Dad weighed 300 pounds; Mom 117. Gradually, I came to understand that serving oatmeal for breakfast was Mom’s quiet declaration of independence—her version of a low pleasure threshold. I’ve taken oatmeal a few steps further by adding white raisins, currants, or a selection of Jumbo Mixed raisins and eating it for lunch or even dinner.
Nearly forty years later, I encountered Galway Kinnell’s poem, “Oatmeal” even before he published it in his 1990 book, WHEN ONE HAS LIVED A LONG TIME ALONE. I immediately elevated “Oatmeal” to my poetry’s Top 10. It seems to me that though that poem is not his book’s title poem, it is the real heart of that collection. Kinnell’s “Oatmeal” speaker and John Keats who joins him for a breakfast porridge initially take a less enthusiastic approach to their breakfast cereal:
Keats said I was absolutely right to invite him: due to its glutinous
texture, gluey lumpishness, hint of slime, and unusual willingness
to disintegrate, oatmeal must never be eaten alone.
Keats then goes on to explain his composition of “Ode to a Nightingale” and to relate his poem’s lack of unity to eating oatmeal alone. (Only halfway through reading “Oatmeal” at this point I was laughing so hard I cried.) Kinnell recounts
[Keats] still wonders about the occasional sense of drift between stanzas,
and the way here and there a line will go into the configuration of a
Moslem at prayer, then raise itself up and peer about, and then lay
itself down slightly off the mark, causing the poem to move
forward with God’s reckless wobble.
After breakfast Keats recited “To Autumn” and then off-handedly gave credit for two of that ode’s most memorable images to a view of an oat field and to eating oatmeal alone. Lots of poets at that point would rest on their laurels, but not Galway Kinnell. He takes the poem further, gives a critical jab to Patrick Kavanagh by inviting him to eat oatmeal and presents the poem’s readers another line, a line that has somehow helped me to accept “God’s reckless wobble” and its relationship with my own grief:
Maybe there is no sublime, only the shining of the amnion’s tatters.
Like Galway Kinnell, I’ve come to enjoy eating oatmeal alone, and I’m willing to give him and his poems some of the credit for my easy pleasure.
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?”