Coal Hill Blog
There’s a rule. Whatever goes on the very first form of the very first day, that’s what you’re stuck with all year long. Misspell your first name, and that’s who you are all year.
4th period and I have my really bright kids, my honors class. I’m in Room 205, but, right at the beginning of the year, the very first form of the year put me down as Room 206. That’s Bob Spire’s room, a nice guy, special ed., went to Northwestern. I know where my classroom is, and he knows where his special ed. room is, so the room number mess-up doesn’t make much difference.
Or at least it doesn’t make much difference to me and Spire.
Some kids care. Like today. This new kid transfers into Dr. Publius’ 4th period honors class. So they sent him to Spire’s special ed. room. As the new kid takes-in Spire’s special ed. room, what he presumes to be a super-smart class, he’s thinking that this is going to be a really long four years. Spire is having them do a worksheet, “They’re, Their, and There”. The class is getting excited about the new crayons.
Meanwhile, I’ve got some new special ed. kid working on Christopher Marlowe’s “Tragical History Of Dr. Faustus”.
Book Review: Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River and The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation
Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River, Edited by Helen Ruggieri & Linda Underhill, Mayapple Press, 2013, $19.95.
The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation, Photographs by Jim Schafer, Text by Mike Sajna, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992, $90.00.
Reviewed by Nola Garrett
Every morning from my condo’s dining room window, the Allegheny River looks different. Not that the river has escaped its concrete banks nor has the river ceased to flow under Pittsburgh’s three sister bridges, but the river’s surface changes color—brown, green, ice white, patent leather black at night—shines, glowers—rises, falls, freezes, carries craft of myriad sizes including tree trunks; acquires windswept paths during rain, and even appears to flow upriver as far as the 6th Street Bridge when the west wind blows. Also, every morning here near the Allegheny’s confluence into the Ohio, I think about where it has been and that a great deal of its water has been part of French Creek and the rock-filled crick that winds through Mill Village, PA, the small Erie County town where I lived as a child. And, I feel at home.
While I soon learned the geography of where the creeks of my childhood went down stream, what I found most interesting was where they came from. I still remember the summer day I finished 3rd grade, carrying my shoes, slipping on the mossy rocks, wading upstream, crossing back and forth to better footing to find the source of our town’s crick. I was surprised how quickly my crick narrowed and how ordinary the trickle seemed that emerged from a hillside spring not very far from my elementary school. I felt as if I had discovered a wonderful secret. Years later after I graduated from college and owned a car, I drove to a few untended acres owned by the Western Pennsylvania Nature Conservancy near Chautauqua just across the New York State line to the equally ordinary, but mysterious source of French Creek. I remember how quiet I felt.
Frankly, I loved French Creek—still do—and it never crossed my mind that anyone wouldn’t until I until I met my college roommate, Turzah Atwell, who firmly told me she hated French Creek. Turzah was from Franklin, PA, where French Creek joins the Allegheny River. Every spring when the ice went out, French Creek flooded her out of her home. That year’s flood was the cause of Turzah’s catching pneumonia. She told me about how she felt struggling for breath, how filled with fear she might die she was. While Turzah was a good roommate, I did come to understand that Turzah could hold a powerful grudge. That’s when I rethought what I had always found wonderfully exciting about French Creek—its floods. Mill Village sits about fifty feet above the French Creek flood plain we called “the flats,” which during my childhood regularly flooded hundreds of acres of marvelously fertile potato fields. The floods’ wild drama closed roads while leaving ice chunks as large as pickup trucks and doing the good work of depositing silt upon the fields. Maybe that wasn’t the only way to think of French Creek or for that matter the Allegheny River.
I think that encounter with Turzah was when I first glimpsed the power of rivers beyond personal attachment. I’ve been reckoning differently ever since. Rivers course through public health, religion, geology, anthropology, history, politics, economics, engineering, music, poetry and prose. Our rivers belong to us, and at the same time rivers own us body and mind and soul. Here in Western Pennsylvania we have found the Allegheny to be a worthy opponent. We’ve tamed its floods, its meanders and bars with locks, dams, and concrete walls; so that here in Pittsburgh while I’m walking along the sidewalks around The Point, sometimes I feel as if I’m visiting a river zoo.
So, here in this blog—my anti-book—I commend to you, my readers—screen to screen—two books dealing with the Allegheny River in opposite ways.
Written on Water: Writings about the Allegheny River is a new anthology of poetry including a few pieces of creative non-fiction and a bonus CD of songs and poems featuring Pete Seeger, Peter LaFarge, Jerome Rothenberg and the Allegheny Valley Singers. The order of the book moves from the Allegheny River’s source and its early Indian history to Pittsburgh seen from the perspective of contemporary Pittsburgh poets such as Ed Ochester and Julia Spicher Kasdorf. Of course, this book consisting of poetry and songs means personal attachment of all sorts will be explored, but as you read these poems remember the phrase, “the personal is political” and you’ll find more variety of knowledge than you might expect.
I particularly liked this anthology’s second poem by David Budbill spoken from an Indian’s point of view:
Shotetsu saw the wind ripple the surface
of a stream as it flowed through a meadow.
He also saw the wrinkles of his own old face
reflected on the surface of the stream.
This brief poem certainly tells us a lot about how viewing a river’s source affects us in timeless and all-inclusive ways. Several pages later, Philip Terman, who teaches at Clarion University, writes a poem titled “River of Many Names” four pages long in five sections that I found equally moving. Here’s a taste from the first section:
We could fish until we grow old,
or simply stare like we were wise
and gather together the experiences
of our many selves.
We could pray in droughts for its rising,
in floods for its holding back.
Near the end of this collection are two poems by Julia Spicher Kasdorf, “Westmoreland” and “The Girl in the Back Seat Returns to Pittsburgh.” Though each of these poems could stand alone, this pair of poems in terms of this anthology need each other. “Westmoreland” ends
…. Was it much worse than any place
we could have grown up? Or like all the Hawthorne they forced
us to read in 11th grade, was Westmoreland County wasted
on us, so young, all we could learn was to hate it.
“The Girl in the Back Seat Returns to Pittsburgh” begins
Now I see the statue at the traffic circle is not
a talk between Satan and some poor lady who
doesn’t know her dress has fallen past her waist.
and then takes us through the Fort Pitt tunnel and over the rivers to Phipps Conservatory and a tour of Pittsburgh ending with this observation:
Amazing to finally see humanity figured
as a careless woman, singing: great to see Earth
as a goaty man, such a relief to find this bald
fact cast in bronze….
These poems are not Huckleberry Finn floating down the Mississippi; these poems speak to us about how it feels to live our lives in the long valley of our river, The Allegheny. Even if you don’t listen to the CD, I think you’ll find this book to be a lovely bargain for a long, long time.
Ninety dollars is a lot to pay for any book, even if it is a gorgeous, well written, beautifully photographed, entertaining coffee table book about everything you ever wanted to know about the Allegheny River, but The Allegheny River: Watershed of the Nation is worth it! Of course, there are other legal ways to read this 1992 book. You could check it out of a library. You could put it on your Christmas list. You could buy it used on amazon.com like I did.
This collection of photographs by Jim Schafer came first. Then Jim found Mike Sajna writing for Pittsburgh Magazine and convinced him to take dozens of research trips up and down the Allegheny River with him to write a series of essays to give words to his pictures so his photographs could find a publisher. Not the way most books get written or published. This book begins in Pittsburgh and ends on a hill in Potter County on the Barnett Brothers potato farm. Turns out this is no ordinary hill. It’s a hill known as “the triple divide…marks the divide between the waters draining west into the Allegheny, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico; north along the Genesee River to Lake Ontario and the Gulf of St. Lawrence; and east down Pine Creek to the Susquehana River and the Chesapeake Bay….a single point where, if one spilled a bucket of water, some of the water would flow toward Newfoundland, some toward Norfolk, and the rest toward New Orleans.” Accompanying this marvelous information are two full page color photos of the hill top water and a quarter page photo of the Barnett Brothers potato farm sign. I feel as if I have already gone there, but I know that sometime this coming summer, I’ll drive there to see for myself. That’s the kind of power this book has.
Even though I’ve given away the ending, the rest of the book is just as good. If you’d ever wondered why the first Allegheny River lock in Pittsburgh begins with Lock #2, this is your book. If you’d like to know the details of the 1939 St. Patrick’s Day flood, you need this book. Same thing for the “Barrel Flood” on the same day in 1865. And if you’d like to read about the most horrible thing that has ever happened on the present site of Heinz Field, July 9, 1755, you’ll wonder if it’s the inspiration for the Steelers’ defensive line. And, there’s a long excerpt from Peter Oresick’s poems, Definitions, “After the Deindustrialization of America, My Father Enters Television Repair” as part of a chapter dealing Ford City during the 1980′s and 90′s. Interested in fishing—read this book. Indian Treaties? George Washington? Gypsy Moths effect of the river? Creation myths? Ida Tarbell? Money and Washington politics and the height of Pittsburgh’s bridges? Besides, there are ancient drawings and/or photographs illustrating just about everything else about ourselves and the Allegheny River.
By John Samuel Tieman
in a parking lot
I spot an acorn falling
from nothing at all
I used to live in Mexico City. About 1984 or 1985, I went to Tepeyac on December the 12th, the Feast Of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Tepeyac, which is now a part of Mexico City, is the hill where Our Lady appeared to St. Juan Diego.
Never before nor since have I experienced religious ritual with quite this combination of the devotional and the bizarre. Jugglers. Bishops. Fire breathers. Deacons and nuns. Aztec dancers in feathered headdresses yards across. Someone is reciting a litany. Union workers carry a banner, “The Sewer Workers Of Azcapotzalco Salute La Virgencita”. It’s like a circus, only with rosaries.
Just outside the shrine, within sight of Juan Diego’s tilma, the great relic, there’s a commotion. Right next to me, the crowd parts for a woman, a peasant who has crawled on her knees all the way from Cuernavaca, maybe one-hundred miles. Her son is assisting her. I ask the son, “What is her prayer?” And he answers, all of this is in Spanish, “The chicken.” That’s when I notice the bird in her arms. Her son explains, “Her prayer is for more eggs.”
Beside me, slightly out of sight of the son, smartly dressed young man, educated no doubt, rolled his eyes and spits the word, “Naco.” “Peasant.” As for me, I’d give my decades of education for one-tenth of that peasant’s faith.
when I was a child
I wrote a note to myself
on how to find faith
I’ve since traveled the world
in search of that note on faith
by John Samuel Tieman
Gus McCrae of Lonesome Dove says, “The older the violin, the sweeter the music.”
But I like to think of myself as an old C-melody sax. That’s an actual name, by the way, C-melody saxophone. A lovely name, when I think of it, with a lovely sound.
The Chapel of Inadvertent Joy
Poems by Jeffery McDaniel
|University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013
Reviewed by Dakota Garilli
The first Jeffrey McDaniel poem I ever read was “The Quiet World,” originally published in his 1998 collection The Forgiveness Parade. I found it in the Poetry Foundation’s archive and only read it in isolation—appropriate, perhaps, since silence and isolation are so central to that poem’s meaning. Until I read Chapel of Inadvertent Joy, I was unsure how a collection of such emotionally rich, surreal-yet-real poems might function side by side.
My initial reading of McDaniel’s fifth full-length collection was thirty minutes spent gorging on the excess of dark, beautiful words. I read for candor and, to put it bluntly, a type of emotional orgasm that can only be stoked by the poetic moves McDaniel makes throughout this collection. But, over the next few weeks, I went back through the book more slowly, mining each poem for flashes of technique, motifs, and the tiny, bold truths that McDaniel drops among these pages like glittering jewels. I found much more than can be summed up in a singular review, but here’s a taste to pique your interest.
The first poem clues us in to the type of speakers we’ll meet throughout the collection’s 88 pages. “Hello” is a direct address to the reader that opens: “The person gazing at this page before you had really amazing eyes—/ blue the way the Caribbean is blue that first minute off the plane/ to someone who grew up in Jersey.” In these lines, we see the immediacy with which beauty fades, the nature of perception that causes most joys we find in life to manifest as inadvertent, unexpected flashes. Arguably one of the most autobiographical poems in the collection, “Hello” is written in the voice of a speaker who is newly forty and lamenting the arrival of middle age. “I know I’m complaining, and that it’s unattractive,” our speaker states, “but please, forgive me, because complaining is like sex for old people.” This apologetic undertone, the confessional admission and request for forgiveness, is universal to many of the poems in Chapel of Inadvertent Joy. After making a number of lyric turns built on a meditation about Eden, penises, and the physical signs of aging, the speaker makes a final direct address to the reader, pleading: “Now, if you would just lean forward a little, friend,/ and drag your fragrant strands over my voluptuous grief.”
Many of McDaniel’s speakers throughout the collection will make similar requests for pity and touch. In “Pity Party,” the speaker asks his reader to invite a crowd of mourners to join him—a widow and the father of a suicide victim among them—“but make sure/ each ends by testifying/ that my woes put/ their woes in perspective.” Another speaker envies “The Cougar Tree” because it doesn’t shy away from the touch of woodchucks, south-flying birds, termites, and teenage lovers. The emotions that McDaniel calls up are those we feel in times when we’re sick to establish human connection but too disgusted by ourselves to reach out. They are universal and visceral, but sometimes damn depressing.
Yet McDaniel never lets us sit too long in the darkness; it’s clear he aims to make us understand that these types of suffering are a part of our shared human experience, but he’d also like to remind us of the light. As many have said of his work before, some of the most beautiful imagery we get in these poems comes from the metaphors McDaniel employs. In “The Track of Now,” young women wear “dresses made from the skin of green apples” and Joan Wasser’s singing voice is “fierce and luminous,/ like watching glass being blown.” Later, a lover’s eyebrows become “church benches/ I want to be carved into like initials.” Neon is described as “an elongated firefly, a match/ in a constant state of strike.” Even one speaker’s description of his first relationship—“two malnourished, rootless things/ clinging to each other and calling it love”—connotes a sense of naïve hope and the freshness of feeling that comes with youth.
In fact, one might say that the dichotomy of dark and light is the engine of this collection. In “Happy Marriage,” the symbolic dark sedan, which will be a motif throughout the book, shows the reader that things are not always what they seem at surface-level:
“A dark sedan
pulls up to the curb of your mind. You know
you should turn and run the other way.
But you don’t. You stand there.
The blackened rear window rolls down.
It’s a boy you knew in high school, holding a rose.”
The poem’s subject, the unhappy wife, allows herself to give in to a fantasy that for a moment enlivens her mundane marriage. We can assume from the poem’s title that people around the wife are unaware of how restricted she feels. McDaniel plays with this relationship between who we are and who we present ourselves to be. In a later poem, “Yard Work,” the speaker prunes a hedge “so the bush can live, so its leaves can flourish/ and protect us from the eyes of neighbors.” Many of the speakers in the book’s first section, “Little Soldier of Love,” keep their darkest traits a secret despite feeling desperate to bare them to the world.
“Satan Exulting Over Eve,” based on a William Blake drawing of the same name, builds on the dark/light dichotomy. Wisdom becomes venom, “scaly logic coils around” Eve, and Satan accuses God of “dressing up/ your little mousetrap like paradise…” In Satan, we see a speaker who moves toward greater honesty, or at least provides a new perspective for an old story, when he remarks, “I, your slithering assassin,/ your eternal patsy, merely carried out/ your grimiest deed with reptilian loyalty.” Anyone who’s ever felt a flash of empathy for the serpent in Eden, this reviewer included, will find comfort in the gray areas this poem presents.
But perhaps one of the most self-aware personas that McDaniel employs in his first section is that of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. We can feel McDaniel’s awareness of pop culture here as he provides commentary on a recent political scandal, the epicenter of which, New York City, lies just twenty miles from where McDaniel teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. The poem ends with Spitzer holding a coin. One side says, “you will do great things in your lifetime./ The other side reads: you will rain shame/ upon your family.” Spitzer flips the coin to determine his fate, he quips, “as if only one of them can be true.” Here is Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings, ends, and transitions, the presider over possibilities. Both of his faces, this collection reminds us, reside in all of us.
Once McDaniel has established his particular brand of the good/evil dichotomy, he introduces us to the speaker of his second section, “Reflections of a Cuckold and Other Blasphemies”. The blasphemy, of course, is tongue-in-cheek, addressing the perceived sin that any real man in today’s society would be committing if he willingly allowed his wife to engage in adultery time and time again. Because of constructed gender roles, the fourteen poems we get from the cuckold’s perspective are, at times, uncomfortable to read. The voice McDaniel creates for our cuckold, though, feels so very real. At age thirteen, the speaker is sat down by his father for a talk about “The Birds and the Bees” which takes a page from Marcus Aurelius: “reject your sense of injury/ and the injury itself disappears.” Just when we’re ready to discount the impotent, emasculated cuckold entirely, he lets us in on the fact that he fulfills a necessary role: “I’m the one who sees the tree/ fall down in the forest./ I’m the one who makes it real.” The universality of this comment hits us in the gut. We are all, at our basest and most vulnerable, the cuckold. The answer to how we’d react in a similar situation becomes much less clear.
And that’s what McDaniel does—reminds us all that we’re painfully imperfect. That’s okay, though, as we learn in his final section. “Return to El Mundo Perdido” is an anthem for transience, the utter humanity of sinfulness, and the act of self-forgiveness. In the title poem of the section, the speaker returns to a Mayan city he’d visited thirteen years earlier looking for “some residue of the old me.” This poem is McDaniel in-process, “searching for a metaphor to connect the new and old” selves. After trying unsuccessfully to equate monkeys to teenage boys and an ocelot to his id, McDaniel’s speaker is ready to give up the attempt. At the last minute, he sees “a strangler fig, Ficus aurea” which (no spoilers) allows for the perfect comparison.
In “Mapache,” a speaker motivated by fury to run over a raccoon recalls that “In a dream, when an enemy appears,/ they say it’s a dark version of your self,/ a chance for your two halves to meet.” Here, McDaniel hits on the central theme of the collection. In life, we are always meeting our worse selves—the real question is what we’ll do when we come face-to-face.
It is this recognition that we are all made of dark and light that allows a speaker of indeterminate gender in “Kicking the Lust Bucket”—a genderlessness that seems necessary to the poem—upon being leered at by a man in a café, to empathize and “not recoil/ from the hunger/ in the man’s eyes.” Lust, the speaker says, is universal,
that never stays filled.
A drop always spills,
and all the bucket feels
is the absence of that drop…”
As the collection culminates, McDaniel’s speakers truly come to terms with their darker deeds, wishing only for reconciliation—or at least penance. In “Reckoning,” the speaker admits, “I don’t want to get away with it/ anymore. Getting away with it/ is the worst punishment of all.” But from where does this forgiveness come? The final and titular poem of the collection leaves us with the idea that we must find the small beauties that enter our lives and learn to forgive ourselves first. “When they said smell the roses,/ they didn’t tell you that every day the rose changes,/ that first you must identify the rose.” No matter the darkness, there will always be an inadvertent joy for us to relish in. And when we do, the speaker pleads with us to:
Feel the convergence of all your stray voltage. Don’t pull out
of that feeling… It’s true—you don’t deserve this,
but it’s yours anyway: the gold-tipped spurs of this moment…
Jeffrey McDaniel has published four books of poetry: The Endarkenment, The Splinter Factory, The Forgiveness Parade, and Alibi School. His poems have been published in numerous anthologies and magazines, including Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, and Best American Poetry 1994 and 2010. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, he teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
by John Samuel Tieman
Et introibo ad altare Dei: ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.
“And I will go to the altar of God, to God, the joy of my youth.”
As I began 8th grade, my greatest existential conundrum revolved around whether nuns wore brassieres. And, if so, why?
When I was a boy, I attended a small, Catholic grade school. I thought that world timeless. Nuns in wimples. Daily mass. Incense. And, like all things that seem timeless, it was fleeting.
It’s hard to say when that world ended. But November 22nd, 1963, will do.
University City is a small, inner suburb of St. Louis. Small as it is, there are those of us who love it. Christ The King School, C. K. S. to those in the know, was (and still is) also a small place. In 1963, it was Old School Catholic. I was an altar boy. Mass every day before school. Stations Of The Cross every day after school during Lent. Latin. Almost every grade was taught by a nun. It was a world that seemed as immutable as a medieval hymn. A world that had always been thus.
Aside from my immediate family, and a few family friends, the Sisters Of Mercy were the most important adults in my life. I’ve heard tales of kids abused, smacked with rulers. While I will not dismiss their suffering, my experience was one of comfort and nurturance. Christ The King School provided stability, predictability, purpose.
The nuns were strong, capable, educated. And anachronistic. Their world was crumbling. Vatican II and the feminist movement would challenge their lifestyle irrevocably.
But, in 1963, nuns were still all long black habits punctuated by a stark white wimples. It was still a day when a daughter, who became a Carmelite, trumped the daughter who married a millionaire stock broker.
Into this world came John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Young. Glamorous. And Catholic. Catholic as St. Louis is – it is a city named for a saint, after all – I was not immune to anti-Catholicism. The Lutherans down the street would not let me play with their sons, because I was Roman Catholic. Once, in central Missouri, when we ate at a “Restricted” restaurant, my mother, in hushed tones, told me to not say anything overtly Catholic. “Restricted” meant no Blacks, no Jews, and no Catholics. So J. F. K. was a kind of vindication, a coming of age for Catholics. Then one day someone shot that young man.
On that Friday fifty years ago, we kids came in from our mid-day recess. It was immediately clear that something bad had happened. Sister Mary Amabilis, who was both our teacher and the principal, told us to sit quietly, and left us for, perhaps, half an hour. We could sense her seriousness, her anxiety, as she and the other nuns gathered in the hallway, as they chatted in whispers.
Then, shortly after one, the announcement.
Since is was a parish school, meaning everyone lived within blocks, we were dismissed early.
Thus were we introduced to a terrible truth. We didn’t learn it all at once. It was more like the way a small spoon of incense, poured over a single coal, fills a church. And gradually dissipates. People die. Lives change. Even the One, Holy, Catholic And Apostolic Church changes. Today, there is not a single nun teaching at that school.
Yet, when so many folks are gone, when things are broken, shattered, the memories remain like souls, their resurrections. Even after fifty years, the incense, the Latin, the ink wells, the Palmer Method, the uniforms, the Angelus bells. And those nuns, their strength, their intelligence, their holiness. These recollections no madman’s bullet can shatter.
The Cleaner of Chartres
by Salley Vickers
|The Viking Press, 2013
Reviewed by Nicole Bartley
Everyone has a story. For The Cleaner of Chartres, Salley Vickers chose the one belonging to a quiet cleaner in Notre Dame, the famous cathedral in Chartres, France. Vickers’s problem with this choice, however, is the style with which she began the tale.
The use of a prologue has become such a stigma in contemporary literature that authors have resorted to explaining setting and history in the first chapter. In The Cleaner of Chartres, readers are greeted with the history of Notre Dame’s fires and descriptions of the main character’s obscurity instead of an intriguing opening line. Because of this, the first chapter is dry and factual, and readers may not become interested until the second chapter—one that should have started the whole book with the words “Agnes Morel was born neither Agnes nor Morel” (9).
The novel follows Agnes both as a teenager and an adult while she struggles to find a quiet place in life. Fate seems to conspire against her, and half the time she simply waits until it’s safe to move again. Readers meet Agnes as an adult who is appointed as the official cleaner for Notre Dame and various townsfolk. Readers are then introduced to baby Agnes, who is found in a basket by a farmer and brought to a convent. From there, teenager Agnes is raped, accused of being a whore, and shipped off to a psychiatric ward when her baby is adopted and she falls into severe postpartum depression, catatonia, and psychosis. The rest of the book is a juxtaposition of the crazed teenager and the somber, isolated cleaner; it weaves two timelines together until readers have a complete understanding of this unfortunate woman.
Compared with Agnes’s childhood, middle chapters in present-setting Chartres are dull. Agnes is often in the background of events and only becomes pivotal when she is falsely accused of a couple of crimes. Otherwise, she never stands up for herself. During her whole life, she allows others to dictate where she should live, what to think, and how to act. She perseveres with almost profound insight about others and abstract concepts, but she relies on truth and friends to save her. It is hard to care for a weak character; pity and morbid fascination should not be the only driving factors of a story.
Vickers’s fixation on the wrong elements extends further to backstory and architectural facts, so much so that the main plot is buried underneath a massive amount of unnecessary detail. For example, early in the novel, Professor Jones hires Agnes to organize his notes and photographs. He then inspects her work and gleefully relives memories, even in his dreams. Vickers writes,
“Professor Jones had dropped into a morning doze. He was five years old again, sitting beneath the keys of an upright piano at his mother’s feet, as she sang in the Welsh tongue that had long since left his waking mind. If he sat there long enough she would scoop him up in her soft white arms and carry him to bed. Nestling against his mother’s warm bosom – made slightly uncomfortable by the spikes of Sunday brooches of jet, bought during her parents’ honeymoon at Whitby – Professor Jones on his bench sighed in a peaceful contentment that he was unlikely to ever know again” (16).
Readers don’t need to know where Jones’s mother got the brooch or that it existed. In fact, the whole passage could be condensed into a few sentences about a mother singing a Welsh song to her son before bedtime. Short, endearing, and just as efficient as all the tiny details above. But with Professor Jones in particular, some of Vickers’s passages read like a free writing experiment, as if she donned memories and rambled just to see what emerged. Instead of determining what she could keep to provide depth to characterization, she kept it all, including breaks in speech patterns. She is adept at showing personality through dialogue, certainly, but the detail becomes cumbersome.
This detail is key to the whole story, though. It constructs the very thing that the novel presents as vile: gossip. Old biddies, Madams Beck and Picot, fill their days with speculation, prejudice, and judgment, and whispers and misconceptions surround Agnes. The narrator gives every possible piece of information—no matter how innocuous—about everyone in Agnes’s world just to appear “in the know” like certain characters. The result is a book that reads as if it is one long gossip session.
Luckily, Vickers occasionally inserts gems of description to counter an overabundance of detail. For example, when Agnes is marveling the cathedral’s ceiling, Vickers writes,
“The tremendous height of the ceilings, the noble lofty columns – like lichen-covered trees – the succession of roaring arches, affected her profoundly and the jeweled brilliance of the stained glass, re-created in the ephemeral butterflies of light which played over the grey stone, lifted and brightened her darker thoughts” (56).
Most people can imagine the splays of color along gray stone walls of ancient churches. It’s part of their lure. This visual talent, as well as speculation about Agnes—both her past and the resolution of her troubles—will pull readers to the last page. But it is a tough journey. Perhaps if Vickers chose to reorder her chapters, she might hold readers’ attentions better—hook them into Agnes’s childhood from the start and make them curious… instead of rambling about the church and secondary characters.
But, hidden much like the plot, The Cleaner of Chartres answers a question that most people have asked at least once: If I disappeared, would anyone notice or come find me? This reveals another gem in the book; The Cleaner of Chartres isn’t just about stories, self-worth, and truth… it’s about how one person can affect the lives of many, and the discovery and selection of family.
Salley Vickers was born in Liverpool, the home of her mother and grew up as the child of parents in the British Communist Party. Her father was a trade union leader and her mother a social worker. She won a state scholarship to St Paul’s Girl’s School (something which caused her father some anxiety because of his dislike of public schools and for a while he felt that she should not attend the school) and went on to read English at Newnham College Cambridge, with which she recently renewed working ties. She has worked, variously, as a cleaner, a dancer, an artist’s model, a teacher of children with special needs, a university teacher of literature and a psychoanalyst. Her first novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, became an international word-of-mouth bestseller and a favourite among book clubs and reading groups. She now writes full time and lectures widely on many subjects, particularly the connections between, art, literature, psychology and religion.
By Karen Zhang
My first understanding of a union strike in the United States came last year when I flipped on the TV station and saw dozens of public school teachers in Chicago picketing their school.
Later, a hundred or so Walmart employees went on strike outside Washington, DC, dodging cars and shopping trolleys until they stood face-to-face with a shop manager. Just about the same time, workers of the 85-year-old Hostess Brands, the bankrupt maker of Twinkies snack cakes, also launched a strike against salary and benefit cuts.
Recently, confrontations between workers and employers appear to be sharper and more frequent in China as well. But independent labor unions are almost non-existent in China. The Chinese so-called national trade union is state-controlled. The Chinese government doesn’t allow unions with full legal independence from the national trade union. Worker strikes are illegal.
In America, labor unions play an important role in protecting employees’ labor rights. Take the teachers union in Chicago, for example. When the strike happened, even the mayor couldn’t utilize his power to stop the protest. He could appeal in public to end the strike but not to suppress by force, as the Chinese authorities would have done. Sadly, the Chinese government can command the police force anytime to prevent any form of worker strikes from happening.
I have been told teachers unions across America bear significant responsibility. Most public school teachers are associated with the teacher union. Perhaps it is one of the few strong unions in the country. According to a news report, as the American economy has shifted from heavy industry to services which are more mobile, union membership has fallen, from 24% of private-sector workers in 1973 to a mere 7% in 2011. Yet the unions still have considerable power among government workers.The politicians who negotiate wage deals with public-sector unions are often funded by the same unions. This partly explains why America’s municipal finances are a mess.
It has been a long-standing practice for Walmart to discourage its workers from unionizing. However, the mega-retailer has made an exception to allow employee unions in China. As I said earlier, all labor unions are associated with the national trade union, which is state-controlled. It is obvious that Walmart’s acceptance of government-sponsored unions is to maintain a good relation with the Chinese government. After all, who wants to miss a lion’s share in an economic power house, which has become the world’s second-biggest economy, overtaking Japan and following the US?
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
For the choreographic duo, Jamie Murphy and Renee Smith, sound matters. Murphy deals with hearing loss in her left ear. And Smith’s grandfather has suffered from hearing damage since serving in the war. In the dance collective’s latest piece, See What I Hear, the two explored ways in which we are affected by sound or silence.
The evening-length work took place at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater for two nights and one child friendly matinee. Seven dancers took to the stage with an array of musical accompaniment. Gordon Nunn composed the pre-recorded sound, and the dancers performed live, using their own voices.
Large sheets of paper created the set; some dangled from the rafters and some lay crumpled at the back of the stage. One long, thinner sheet created a pathway from the back right corner to the front left. The dancers moved in and around and on top of the sheets, which added another layer to the soundscape.
To begin, we heard rushing water and hushed but excited voices. The dancers entered gradually, a few from the audience. As a group, they performed a gestural movement phrase that mimicked each sound they made. For example, we heard the creak of a screen door opening while the dancers used a pulling arm motion. Without the beat of traditional music, the dancers had to tune into each other with heightened sensibility.
Later, Smith performed a solo while five dancers voiced the accompaniment using a deep but breathy “whoosh,” a high-pitched “boop boop boop,” and more. When they noisily crescendoed, Shana Simmons tried to shush them, then yelled “Stop it!” which put an end to the racket. Eventually that led to a duet between Murphy and Smith. They manipulated each other with simple but interesting partnering, a calm after the sound storm.
One particularly compelling section used video projection to show how different sounds affect different people. Abigail Adkins moved lightly and freely to the image of birds chirping. Laura Warnock used pointed gestures to accent a smart phone’s many tones. When presented with the image of war and repetitive gun shots, Lamar Williams and Brady Sanders were jolted into spastic motion. In a humorous moment, Smith had a frenetic solo of fist pumping and hair pulling to the sight and sound of a Jerry Springer show. Eventually the solos and sounds overlapped and the audience was bombarded with a barrage of noise that ended in screaming, laughter and a blackout.
The lights came back up slowly. Murphy, Smith and Sanders all moved quietly on top of the sheets of paper. Sanders performed a lovely solo; paper shifted underneath him as he appeared weightless on his feet.
Each dancer re-entered, making their way to the diagonal pathway across the stage. Their individual movement phrases, combined with unison and moments of contact, showed how communication through touch is important. To end, they frantically tore down the paper, ripped it, and kicked it in a final wave of sound before the lights went down.
In a day and age of buzzing smart phones, beeping texts and dinging email notifications, the show reminded us to broaden our senses and heighten our awareness. I personally walked out with an appreciation for the bustling sounds of East Liberty, thankful that the Murphy/Smith Dance Collective created art that demanded a level of mindfulness important for all of us.
by Jim Danger Coppoc
At least once a month—and just about every time I do a reading—someone asks me for advice on publishing, getting a job, getting into an MFA program, etc. Most of the time this person is already a writer, and when I see their work it’s usually pretty good, but they also always seem to be looking to take that next step and become professionals.
The problem is that I’m not sure I actually know what professional means. If there is a clear path to a writing career, I never found it. I stumbled through my first few years on some combination of luck, pluck, guesswork and industry. I wrote all the time—most of it junk—and I failed again and again and again until I didn’t. Most days, that’s still the cycle I’m in. Writing is hard, making a career of it even harder.
So here’s my first piece of advice for those wanting to become a “professional” writer. Don’t.
Seriously—don’t. You’re probably very talented, but so is everybody else. MFA programs all over America are overflowing with young, ambitious, talented writers who will never make it and who will spend the rest of their lives working crappy jobs teaching freshman comp just to pay off student loans. Give up the idea of writing as a profession, because except for a lucky few that path just doesn’t exist.
If you can do that—if you can strip yourself of any capital-R Romantic notions of winning a National Book Award, getting your work in the Norton Anthology, and watching your mailbox flood with royalty checks—you just might come to a much more important and telling truth:
Writing is not a profession; it is a calling.
Right now, the rest of your life is spread out before you. If you can imagine yourself grading the essays of football players and Ag majors every evening for the rest of your life, replacing the steak-and-caviar award dinners of your dreams with Chinese takeout in your crappy apartment; if you can imagine yourself driving the same car fifteen years at a time, forgetting about royalty checks and watching your mailbox fill with rejection slips and past due bills instead—if you can imagine all that, and the writer’s life still seems worth it, then we might have something to talk about.
If it turns out instead that the lifestyle you imagine is more important to you than the actual act of writing—well, your skills would be equally useful in law school, and that path can buy you all the steak dinners and first-class living you need.
So here, for those of you still with me, is what I know about becoming a professional. It’s not much, but it’s what worked for me…
First, write. Then read. Then write. Then read. Then write then read then read then write then write then write then read then write.
Most of what you write won’t be very good. You won’t know that on the same day you write it. Sometimes you’ll instantly fall in love with garbage. Sometimes you’ll hate what’s creeping out of your pen, but later it’ll turn into the best and most important art you’ve ever made.
If I’ve learned one thing studying the writers who have made it, it’s that they write. Whatever processes or rituals or routines they need—at the end of the day, they sit down with pen and paper (or keys and screen), and they do their job.
Anne Lamott—whose Bird by Bird is a book every aspiring writer should own—writes in her essay/chapter “Shitty First Drafts” that what is important is getting your thoughts on paper, no matter what shape they’re in. Self-censorship is the enemy. Quality comes with revision, not with drafting. You can’t really begin to apply real craft until you have something on paper to apply that craft to.
And of course, learning the craft you need to apply in revision is not something you can do by yourself. You can’t reinvent the wheel with every story/poem/essay. You would never get anything worthwhile done.
A more realistic approach is to carefully read all the writers you can who are better than you (and there will always be writers better at something than you), and learn how they work. My imagery comes from Leonard Cohen, Allen Ginsberg, Miguel Pinero, the King James Bible, and a whole host of slammers from around the turn of the century. My prosody comes from Jack Kerouac, Saul Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Bryonn Bain, Shane Koyczan, and the Baptist hymns I grew up with. My themes come from grunge music, urban spaces, the Gospel of Matthew, and all the hip-hop crossover poets—like Saul Williams and Miguel Pinero—I can find…
These lists go on, but the point is that writers write in community. If you want to grow, you will need both a living community of writers, editors and honest friends, AND a large library of truly great influences you can draw from. There’s no Ginsberg without Whitman or Blake. There’s no Shakespeare without Petrarch. There’s no tree without roots. It just doesn’t work any other way.
As for the MFA—well, that choice is yours. I chose the best possible MFA for me. Hamline University is interdisciplinary by nature, and so am I. Jim Moore—one of their flagship poets—brings big metaphor to everyday living in a way I needed to learn. Deborah Keenan—their other flagship poet—is good at all the things I’m not. I learned more from her than I could have from a thousand professors whose writing is more similar to mine.
Maybe even more important than all that, the MFA program at Hamline prides itself on faculty who can teach instead of just faculty who bring big name recognition and high visibility. This is what I needed at that point in my life.
I made my choice. You make yours. Find writers you admire, and look them up on sites like Rate My Professor to see if they can teach. When you find the faculty you need, apply to the schools they work for, regardless of reputation or location or price or any other factor. If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad…
And give up on trying to game the application. Just send them your best writing sample and your most honest essay. Don’t overthink. Let the pieces fall where they may. If the program doesn’t like what you do, you would probably not be happy there anyway.
As for the job market and the publishing game—nobody really knows how they work. Apply to places you want to work, where you’ll be surrounded by people you want to work with. Send out to journals and book publishers you admire. Find out whether or not you admire them by doing your research, reading past issues, and learning what they’ve published before.
Whatever you do, don’t lose sight of what’s important. Careerism has its place. That place is not on top of your list of priorities. Read what you read. Write what you write. Remember your calling, and trust that somehow the Universe will keep you afloat long enough to put something worthwhile out into the world.
If it can happen to me…
by John Samuel Tieman
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 Nemerov’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 “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 more like wwwwhhhaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh, 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.
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.
By Karen Zhang
When I first arrived in America, I noticed a lot of teenagers smoking. On campus I was shocked to see girls in their late teens and early twenties smoking outside the buildings. Rain or shine or even snow, these smokers were adamant about their addictive love for cigarettes.
In China, a majority of smokers are men. Women smokers are always considered to be morally tarnished. While the ban on smoking inside buildings in America seems to do little to discourage the habit, in China, the situation is even worse. Smokers drag their cigarettes stealthily indoors regardless of the “No Smoking” sign hung on the wall inside the buildings.
In this regard, American smokers are more obedient as they walk out of the buildings to smoke. As for how obedient, let me tell you the news from Virginia where I live. Because Virginia’s tobacco tax is the second-lowest in America, smugglers buy cigarettes there in bulk and sell them to retailers at enormous profit in New York and other high-tax states.
I hadn’t thought that the difference in tobacco taxes between states would promote smuggling domestically, but evidently it does. When I was studying in Pennsylvania, my smoker classmates were aware of an increase of cigarette prices. But they didn’t quit the habit. I thought they probably purchased cigarettes out of state just as some Pennsylvanians go elsewhere to buy liquor. Aren’t the tobacco retailers doing the same thing?
What challenges the authorities to capture the smugglers is how cannily they evade the law. Virginia has recently declared it illegal to buy and possess, with intent to sell elsewhere, more than 5,000 cigarettes. Smugglers often break the big quantity of shipment into a small number of cartons.
Black-market cigarettes are not new in my home city Guangzhou where imported cigarettes are smuggled mainly from Hong Kong and Macau. Their prices are usually cheaper than the market price. But the black-market cigarettes in America are sold at the local market price. Unless there is some kind of technology embedded in the black-market cigarettes that differ from the legal cigarettes, cracking down the tobacco smuggling will be a long battle. No wonder the news report says, when gun-running was at its peak, I-95 was known as the “iron highway”. Now it is the new Tobacco Road.
Girl at the Watershed
Poems by Nicola Waldron
Stepping Stone Press
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
You’d expect a little vertigo from a poet who migrated from the berries and cream at Cambridge to the red eye gravy of South Carolina. The speaker in Nicola Waldron’s poems in Girl at the Watershed is ever on the move, but even at 30,000 feet, or on bicycle, or dogging it, she has an uncanny ability to find her middle in spite of the contrary motions she engages. Sometimes it’s a moment, or else a rock, but feeling or thing, it’s always a magic lamp of a noun kicked up in the flourish of action.
Waldron’s finding of her middle is often represented by holding the stillness of it in her hand. Stillness in spite of the heavy forehand pace. The result is that Waldron’s most profound lines have nothing to do with the obviousness I associate with light and dark subject matter. Sure, there’s some grief in here, but these are not poems about how the speaker lost a leg or had a parent die or sometimes considered suicide or noticed how an incident along the coast bore a resemblance to Greek mythology.
There’s plenty of Voice, and Tone, but these don’t steer the lines either. Instead, Waldron’s poems are crocheted with a kind of fantastic internal logic. Her words are marionettes, yet we seldom notice the strings. The drama is that dazzling.
Some readers will want a clue as to how a patriotic Brit would have found herself in a state known for hounds traveling in pick-up beds or which was the only state to carry Bush One in the 1992 Presidential election. About the only thing South Carolina and England have in common is a love for breakfast. England is one of those countries which have specialized dishes for coddled eggs. The state flower of South Carolina, on the other hand, is the Waffle House billboard that blooms at every highway interchange where one can have grits and pancakes for 24 hours every eight miles.
I was looking for those clues in Girl at the Watershed because I know Waldron as a memoirist who has made great work of tugging back the curtain and dressing, but not undressing, in front of the reader. The tone in her prose is so direct it’s as if you’re listening to her chapters instead of reading them. Her poetry however, is quite a different beast. The mystery is in the revelation. Every second, every small square inch, seems to have a story to tell.
Waldron’s poem “In the Capay Hills” involves a trek through old French fur trader country along the Cache Creek in Northeastern California where the speaker and her partner have gone to find “something more than fields / blank with winter; pages waiting to be turned.” Her partner has “purple rings around his eyes” much like the sediment that she cannot name that “splits the red stone.” The waters “rage with life” but a “quail sits dead on the trail like a defeated dancer.” The couple are lost and must become each other’s compass: “The bridge to the trail’s been washed away. / Without direction, what are we to do…?”
I pick out stones and when he calls,
I bring him the sandstone treasure in my hands,
and he takes my face in his hands,
because there’s no one like me who loves him.
The logic here transforms her face into his sandstone treasure, and “In these hills, / we cannot get enough of touching: we reach out / like prophets, making the streambeds run.” The couple have to pass the dead quail twice, once heading out, once heading in. On the second pass, the speaker gets “down on my knees, press my two fingers inside the crescent footprint of a deer, to show him I am true.” It’s a graceful stroke: the two lovers, the two fingers, the raging with life, the passing by death, the touching, the kneeling, the Sufi crescent, her lover’s washed out bridge of his faith, her belief in everything, and her trueness which becomes their direction.
“Red Barn” is a conditional poem. It’s premise is not what the speaker would do if she had a million dollars, rather, what she would do if she were a farmer: “I’d weave the dubious contours / of my land into some kind of dream…I’d kneel in the valley / and wash my face in the sand, / in the lines the sky made before falling…We could lie on our backs and look at clouds— / call it work, I would have reasons / for the folding of the mountains.”
Like Elizabeth Robinson has sometimes done, Waldron is more apt to dwell on her birth than her death, as if her own birthing, her becoming, were something that never stopped happening. It’s a process where we move from blindness to vision so that sense of self and sense of place are linked. Most poets start thinking a lot about death when their parents die and there aren’t any more doors between themselves and nothing. Waldron in her true and believing way looks for ways to add doors between herself and the fear. “New World” is a symphony of this thinking about existence.
If I chose to travel here,
how then did I come to exile?
If I can sort the broadness of new sound
like pebbles on sand, but make no sense
of a hand raised, a soft hello;
if I, afraid of voices jangling in midair,
feel color now but distantly,
translating marigolds as sun,
should I stay
to make my history happen here?
Will what was England in me
be swept down strange waters?
I do not recognize the bird you call robin:
to me, the hated blue-jay is miracle;
here, springtime is not carried in
on swallows’ feet, but comes to earth
as fury. How is it summer will follow
without lawns of daisies, ladies’ slipper, chamomile?
Can an alien lie down, feel April on her skin?
and what does her child hear
at the moment of birth?
Waldron’s syntax lets her connections and associates occur without any awkward self conscious feelings or edgy juxtaposition. Her poem “At 30,000 Feet” is a marvel of symmetry as she butts up against some issues: “While the movie runs eight inches from your face, / I lift the window shade and scan the screen.” In the first line, we’ve moved from 30,000 feet to eight inches, and soon we go from a movie running to the world running outside the window. The couple are flying and the first information we get is where they are not flying to: “the ice below that frills and parts like first love / is from Iqaluit: a place we’ll never go.” Waldron then smears her brush into the birthing and existence bucket: “It’s been six hours now since London, my body / lifted by my father from the gritty newborn earth. / Outside it’s 70 below and if we fall out here / we’ll freeze and die before we can say I—
Your hand falls loose against my thigh,
I squeeze the belt across my lap,
which makes me want you.
The sun behind us races to keep up.
When I turn my head, I’m looking
at the left side of your face, where
they cut the skin to take the cancer out.
I wonder about the science of flight,
and if we’ll understand each other
when we land breathing in America.
My favorite poem in this short collection is “Stalker” where again there’s a suggestion of sky and flying, and again, the speaker focuses on one small mystery: “I pick out a rock and / pretend it is my father: / it is a big rock, and cowardly. / When I grasp it in my fist / it cringes, and will not / look me in the eye. / Perhaps it is / the altitude.”
Girl at the Watershed is all too-brief a book from a writer who has lived and seen so much and publishes so seldom. Waldron surely has more to come—she’s previously been a winner of the prestigious United Kingdom Bridport Prize—and it will be fascinating to learn which press will have the honor of putting out her long anticipated debut collection.
by Nola Garrett
It was a Tuesday morning, my favorite day of the week because it’s so ordinary. Not yet dressed, I was eating my breakfast, reading the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette when I noticed a couple of thick cords drop past my corner window. Window washer I thought and returned to another bite of toast, another front page article. A couple pages later, a young man, fully harnessed unto the two cords briefly met my glance, then in seconds soaped and squeegeed my seventh floor window clean. Though I knew my monthly maintenance fee paid for his services, I still felt amazed and grateful I didn’t have to clean that window that otherwise brings me a quiet joy with what property appraisers refer to as a “beneficial view.” Of course, the appraisers are talking property value, while I consider looking out that window or any window soul food.. Doesn’t really matter what I’m looking at, just that it’s framed by a window. The fact of the frame turns the view, any view—a coal heap, a brick wall, a tree branch—into art.
Billy Collins’ two page poem, “Monday” from The Trouble with Poetry addresses window watching from another point of view:
The birds are in their trees,
the toast is in the toaster,
and the poets are at their windows.
and the poets are looking out their windows
maybe with a cigarette, a cup of tea,
and maybe a flannel shirt or bathrobe is involved.
Then his poem becomes a bit darker:
…the poets are at their windows
because it is their job for which
they are paid nothing every Friday afternoon.
But, the poem goes on listing the ordinary views to be seen from windows and the necessity of poets’ to keep looking out windows. Then Collins writes the poem’s turn by proposing what it would be like if poets had no windows but only walls by ending “Monday” thusly:
I mean a cold wall of fieldstones,
the wall of the medieval sonnet,
the original woman’s heart of stone,
the stone caught in the throat of her poet-lover.
Hardly an appraiser’s beneficial view, yet something I found interesting to remember during breakfast.
Just as I laid aside my newspaper’s first section, I noticed the window washer’s dangling ropes had moved to an adjoining window. I turned to the Local News section, and there was a quarter page color photograph of my window washer, identified as Robby Hessmann, washing the windows of my building! I supposed he must have known his photo had been taken, but he might not have known if or when it would be published. And, besides now I could thank him, so I hurried to find my scotch tape, grabbed a marker, circled his pic, wrote “Thank You” above the page mast, and taped it to my window he would next wash.
I didn’t have to wait long until Robby arrived. He grinned in delight and waved a thank you back. He dug into his pants pocket, pulled out his cell phone, and swung back deep into the morning sky.
I froze in fear. What if I had so distracted him that he lost his grip? Fell to his death? It would be my fault. I’d be the woman whose heart was stone.
Robby Hessmann, though, is one cool dude. He swung back twice—took two cell phone photos—smiled another thank you straight at me, then cleaned my window perfectly.
by John Samuel Tieman
If Democrats want an emotionally charged, yet meaningful bumper sticker, I suggest, “Republican = Anarchy + Nihilism.”
I am not anti-Republican. Nor am I anti-conservative. I am anti-anarchy. I am anti-nihilism. Our republic is based upon dialogue and compromise among groups committed to loyal opposition. In other words, I am fond of the African poet, Atukwei Okai, who wrote, “Between me and my God / There are only eleven commandments; / The eleventh says: Thou shalt not / Bury thy brother alive.” This is my point.
This is what I hate. “My No. 1 objective for 2016 is to make sure we don’t have another Democrat governor in Missouri.” Those words were spoken by Catherine Hanaway, former Speaker of the Missouri House, a recent candidate for Missouri Secretary Of State, and current U. S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri. The “No. 1 objective” is opposition for the sake of opposition, negation for the sake of negation. There’s no sense that the state should have as its highest priority poverty, jobs, infrastructure. “My No. 1 objective for 2016 is to make sure we don’t have…” Hanaway is hardly unique. I could have chosen from dozens of similar quotes made at the local, state or national levels.
A couple of quick definitions. When I say anarchy, I refer to a society without a publicly supported government. When I say nihilism, I mean the negation of various aspects of life that give existence meaning. If this seems abstract, it has practical consequences. Taken together, these mean “No!” to almost everything. “No!” to public health care. “No!” to helping the poor. “No!” to the maintenance of bridges and roads. “No!” to dialogue and compromise. “No!” for the sake of negation itself.
Conservativism has never been about negation. Conservatism is a positive vision of, among other things, tradition, ritual, responsible hierarchy, noblesse oblige, family, small government, fiscal austerity, devotion to place, peace through strength, homage to the past. In other words, a “Yes!” Nowhere in this vision is the sense that, in order to be a Republican, one must adhere exclusively to ultra-right Christian dogma. Nor is there the sense that government can do absolutely nothing of value. Indeed, conservativism, at its finest, is an optimistic vision of both the individual and the community.
The problem is not conservativism. The problem is the Republican Party. It is easy to argue that the Republican Party has been hijacked by the Tea Party. There is much truth to that. But, if the Republican Party cannot immunize itself from a nihilistic and anarchistic far right, it becomes a national problem that affects us all, right and left. Why? Representative democracy is a dialogue informed by loyal opposition. “No!” is not a dialogue. “No!” is not diplomacy. “No!” is not fiscal responsibility. “No!” is not a nutrition program. “No!” is the impossibility of governance, and, indeed, the impossibility of hope.
Like an addiction, there can be no recovery without an admission that there is a problem. Denial merely postpones the inevitable reckoning. I am not wise enough to offer solutions to a party of which I am not even a member. I leave that to others who are better schooled in such matters. But this is a problem that affects us all. In the broadest sense, this anarchy, this nihilism, does not simply threaten this or that bill, this or that policy. It threatens our very vision of what it means to have government, our very vision of what it means to have hope.
I refuse to sound the death knell. But I do mourn for the party of Jack Danforth, Gerald Ford, David Brooks and, for that matter, many in my family. There is an old saying in politics. While a politician may only win 51% of the vote, he or she represents 100% of the district. The demand upon that politician, the demand upon all of us, is for an openness to, and a respect for, differing views, interests and hopes. But the Republican Party has become the party of “No!” “No!” to any positive vision of government. “No!” to anything except the most narcissistic vision of individualism. And I do mourn.
by Dawn Potter
Gretel Ehrlich writes, “A writer makes a pact with loneliness. It is her, or his, beach on which waves of desire, wild mind, speculation break. In my work, in my life, I am always moving toward and away from aloneness. To write is to refuse to cover up the rawness of being alive, of facing death.” Within that aloneness comes, now and again, the grace of a conversation—with a poem, with a forest, with a circle of readers, with another burning, lonely mind.
For Robert Frost, that conversation happened with poet Edward Thomas, whom he met in England in about 1913. After Thomas was killed in the war, Frost said, “[he] was the only brother I ever had. I fail to see how we can have been so much to each other, he an Englishman and I an American and our first meeting put off till we were both in middle life. I hadn’t a plan for the future that didn’t include him.” He told Thomas’s wife, “He is all yours. But you must let me cry as if he were almost all mine too.”
I met my friend Jilline Ringle in the mid-1980s, when we were eighteen-year-old college students. She was an aspiring actor, I was an aspiring writer, and we began a burning conversation that lasted until her death in 2005. We wrote to each other when we were callow, hopeful, untrained girls. We wrote to each other when we began to achieve our first tiny successes. We wrote to each other at moments of misery and epiphany. Today she has been dead for nearly a decade, yet our conversation continues, as Frost’s conversation with Thomas continued for the rest of Frost’s long life.
In 1999, when I was overwhelmed by babies and solitude and the struggle to make poems, Jilline sent me a letter:
“I love, I love, she cries into the gust.”
That is our mantra, yours and mine, each for our own reasons, each for our own sanity. This is why we have each other. There is a talismanic charm . . . that we cling to in order to return ourselves to this earth. Keep figuring it out, honey; I will be flat and frank with you if you will as well with me. If it is impossible for us to hold each other’s hands, we will charge each other’s minds telepathically, ethereally, and hopefully we will help turn on some lights in those dark corners.
With love, your lantern bearer.
[from a draft-in-progress of The Conversation (Autumn House Press, 2014)]
The Zero Hour. By Madeleine George. Directed by Robyne Parrish. Off the Wall Productions, Main Street, Carnegie, PA. October 25–November 9.
Reviewed by Arlene Weiner
At Off the Wall Theater currently, Erika Cuenca and Daina Michelle Griffith are giving virtuoso performances as multiple characters. Their principal roles are the enmeshed lovers Rebecca (Cuenca) and O (Griffith). Cuenca’s Rebecca is the barely controlled Felix of the pair, gainfully employed writing school textbooks, riding the New York subway to work, seeing a therapist. Griffith is O, unpredictable, funny, impossible. She’s a Wild Thing, but one who doesn’t leave their one-room, leaky-ceilinged squat. They squabble comically like old married people. Both assume other roles. Griffith in particular becomes a dizzying variety of people Rebecca meets, from Rebecca’s therapist to a subway-riding Nazi with hypnotic blue eyes. Cuenca becomes O’s mother, then Rebecca’s.
I find it exhilarating to see theater whose artifice is transparent, as here. A row of chairs and a horizontal pole represent the subway, always in sight. (The Number 7 train is practically a co-star.) Quick costume changes take place on stage. The same person plays many roles. It’s a stunt, in a way, like watching the Cirque de Soleil of acting. But the level of acting here goes beyond virtuosity. Cuenca and Griffith inhabit their roles, make them human—and, not incidentally, sympathetic. We care about Rebecca and O. And they’re sexy. And comic.
At a poetry workshop recently I said that I generally feel that poetry that links the Holocaust with some personal emotional travail is disproportionate. Narcissistic. The Zero Hour comes perilously close to this but tactfully avoids it. Here, Rebecca is writing a text about the Holocaust for seventh-graders. O wants her to include material on Nazi persecution of gays, impossible in the bland, offend-nobody textbook world. The political is the personal: O wants Rebecca to come out, to her mother and the world. Rebecca doesn’t want to think about her sexual identity. She becomes more and more preoccupied, finally obsessed, with the Holocaust, until she’s seeing Nazis everywhere, including the train.
John Steffenauer is effective in a small role. I’d call him the deus ex machina that enables Rebecca’s climactic recognition, but the role’s no deus, more like a dork. No, sorry, Steffenauer, not a dork. A decent guy, maybe. The direction and technical team deserve a lot of credit. (Those costumes had to be engineered for quick changes.)
Oklahoma! Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. Directed by Patrick Cassidy. Point Park Conservatory Theater. October 18-27.
Reviewed by Arlene Weiner
It was morning in America on the stage at Point Park’s Rockwell Theater. I wasn’t eager to see Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, set in Indian territory on the verge of becoming the Sooner State. I almost said “evergreen” musical—can it really be evergreen? It’s actually 70 years old. Post-Sondheim, post-Chorus Line, post- the attacks on America and drone warfare, wouldn’t the corn be too high?
Reader—remember how good corn tastes? This production was sweet and fresh. It was done without irony, thank goodness, and was exceptionally lavish yet tactful. I wondered whether even the original Broadway production had such a large cast of cowboys, farmers, and calico-clad gals. [Evidently, according to the Internet Broadway Database, it had.] The student cast was absolutely equal to their roles, and the direction as well as the actors must get credit for the perfection of such details as the comic timing of Ado Annie and Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler. There was also a clarity about the production—the cowboys and farmers distinguishable, the dance sequences part of the drama. Projections of what appeared to be period photographs during the overture and musical interludes supplied historical context and, for me, didn’t tip over into intrusiveness, as audiovisual enhancements frequently do.
The dancing was spectacular. It was new, choreographed by Zeva Barzell, but the cowboys’ dancing had the flavor of Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo choreography. Repeated gestural elements, as when Laurie and the girls sang “Many a New Day,” read very clearly. I expected the ballet sequence, Laurie’s dream, to be too long, awkward and dated, but the excellent young dancers, supported by the background projections and music, made it suspenseful, built real tension. Also building tension, and real menace, was the Jud Fry, both in the dream and in “real life.”
If I recall correctly, Leonard Bernstein made an extended comparison between the genres of musical and operetta, using Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls and The Most Happy Fella as examples. In addition to their formal differences, musicals, he said, came out of the milieu familiar to the New York audience and authors, like Guys and Dolls; operettas were set in a faraway exotic place—The Most Happy Fella in the Napa Valley of California. (Was this before South Pacific?)
It may not seem obvious now, when it plays all over the country and its title song is Oklahoma’s unofficial state song, but Oklahoma! would have been exotic to the Broadway audience. And recall the date: 1943. This sunny all-American musical opened during World War II, when the real-life boys were in uniform and the real-life girls might be wearing snoods and slacks for war work.
I have two regrets about this Oklahoma!: like most musicals I’ve seen lately, it was miked; and I didn’t see it early enough to recommend it to everybody I know.
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
by Therese Anne Fowler
|St. Martins’ Press, 2013
Reviewed by Nicole Bartley
The Golden Couple of the Roaring ’20s was actually tarnished pyrite. This is revealed in Therese Anne Fowler’s recent novel, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. Its overall message seems to be that reputations lie; it shatters any incomplete preconceptions of Zelda and Scott, leaving readers wondering what is fact and what is rumor. As Fowler writes from Zelda’s perspective,
“I was a Sayer, after all; a woman, yes, but still a Sayer; my life was intended to mean something beyond daughter-wife-mother. Wasn’t it?
“Oh, just let it go, a different voice urged me. What difference could your puny achievements possibly make?
“All the difference, the other voice answered.
“Which of my many possible lives did I want to define me? Which one could I have?
“And the question that troubled me most: Was it even really up to me?” (308)
Before readers delve into the story, they may skip to the last pages—not to learn how and when it ends in Zelda’s life, but how much of the novel is fact or fiction. Fowler’s repeated disclaimers that Z is a work of fiction based off an investigation of contracting facts, beliefs, and gossip is reassuring. The question, “Did this really happen?” may still exist in readers’ minds, but they can be assuaged by Fowler’s attempts to be as faithful to Zelda’s reality as possible.
The novel follows Zelda Sayer’s life after she meets F. Scott Fitzgerald, and finishes soon after Scott dies. Readers are easily swept up in the glitzy and glamorous era of New York and Paris in the 1920s, and the soothing beauty of the timeless Mediterranean. The couple flits between parties, hangovers, and writing sprees in a whirlwind of activity and promises. However, Fowler does not dwell on Scott and Zelda’s moments of destitution. Readers are never sure how Scott and Zelda are able to survive—where they get their money when he’s not writing, how much they have to borrow, or whose kindness they request; they just seem to get by. And according to Fowler, even Zelda was in the dark about financial circumstances.
Plot holes aside, the novel uses solid descriptions and voices. Readers could easily envision Zelda’s hometown, the glittering parties, and the sweeping landscapes of New York and southern France. And in the beginning, Zelda’s enthusiastic southern belle mentality radiates from her narration and dialogue. But as the story progresses, the structural twang in her narration slowly disappears. Perhaps as the story progresses, she is assimilating northern American and French cultures and leaving the South behind.
Largely, Zelda’s growth is due to Scott, and her transition from maiden into worldly woman is gradual and believable. Readers witness Zelda’s growth through her own eyes, as well as Scott’s dismaying spiral into paranoia and alcoholism. There is something voyeuristic about living a renowned writer’s life through his wife’s eyes. Through Zelda, Fowler reveals more of an unbiased representation of the writing life than if she had undertaken the task from Scott’s perspective. So many writers are neurotic, self-deprecating, and overly critical about their work, and it seems F. Scott Fitzgerald was no different. This novel is as much about him as it is Zelda, and writing about him from a woman’s perspective might have been easier for Fowler. The double layer of writers’ mentalities might have driven Fowler mad, but Zelda’s madness was a challenging and welcome plaything.
For most of the book, Zelda’s famed craziness is nonexistent. Her physical and medical problems coupled with marital strains make her behavior erratic, but insanity seems to be nothing but a vengeful rumor… until part four. Fowler’s Zelda is a misunderstood and captured woman struggling with her own independence during a riveting but stifling age when a woman’s role was wife, mother, and homemaker. Scott’s insecurities and unstable senses of responsibility drive her first to infidelity and—after his desperate attempts to make her adhere to a woman’s “proper” role—a physical and mental breaking point. In the story, the doctors call schizophrenia a “divided mind,” which is what Zelda is pushed toward: a divide between who she is and who Scott tries to make her be. (Doctors have since reevaluated her condition and diagnosed her as bi-polar.) Fowler writes,
“I was fighting for my right to exist independently in the world, to realize myself, to steer my own boat if I felt like it. He wanted to control everything, to have it all turn out the way he’d once envisioned it would, the way he’d seen it when he’d first gone off to New York City and was going to find good work and send for me. He wanted his adoring flapper, his Jazz Age muse. He wanted to recapture the past that had never existed in the first place. He’d spent his life building what he’d seen as an impressive tower of stone and brick, and woken up to find it was only a little house of cards, sent tumbling now by the wind.” (346)
But Fowler does more than explore the causes of Zelda’s insanity. She presents Zelda’s story and fragile state so realistically that readers will easily sympathize with her shifting emotions and rationality. This is one of Fowler’s main accomplishments: She made madness become rational. Another accomplishment: She reveals a person underneath the mask of legend.
by John Samuel Tieman
All this talk about red states and blue states reminds me of one of my favorite historical quotes. When asked in 1860 about secession, old Judge Petigru responded that secession will never work for his home state, because “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”
Some things never change.
The Philosopher’s Daughter
Poems by Lori Desrosiers
|Salmon Poetry, 2013
Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Lori Desrosiers first came to my attention as the editor of the Naugatuck River Review: A Journal of Narrative Poetry, a journal, similar to Rattle or Flint Hills, and many of the better, though lesser-known journals, that carry the torch of well-crafted poetry publishers. Naugatuck stands out not only for its focus on narrative poetry but for Desrosiers’ fearlessness when it comes to publishing sometimes risqué, bawdy, gritty, but always powerful work. So I was quite excited to sit down with her debut full-length collection, especially considering that it was published by Salmon Poetry, one of the best small presses around.
The Philosopher’s Daughter is a portrait of Desrosiers’ family. She, herself, appears as an ancillary character, an observer; the true focus is on others. The first section, “Starting Places,” opens with “Conducting in Thin Air,” a poem ostensibly about the odd event of an airplane crash survivor (or fortunate dodger, since she missed the flight) who, a week later, died in a car accident. Desrosiers uses this springboard to examine larger issues of mortality and fate, setting up a major theme for later in the collection of the fragility of life. The final poem in the collection, “Night Writing,” bookends this nicely as a sensual exploration of the body, of feeling, so that we see that the answer to the curse of mortality is to fully inhabit the cage, so to speak.
Several of the poems in this section are simple-seeming scenic reminiscences. “Thinking Rock” describes a playing girl “safe/from pernicious imaginary monsters” as she climbs onto the thinking rock and “thinks until she is tired of thinking.” There is a marked lack of danger or stress. Back home, the girl watches her grandfather “smoke his cheroot,/have a whisky with her father./ Smoke rings rise like grey ropes.” There’s a hint of the future danger, here, with these ropes, but only a hint.
“Last Seat, Second Violin” is a humorous poem about the ability of children to overcome difficult or annoying situations in creative ways: “In 7th grade, Mr. Hayden would throw his baton/at anyone who played a wrong note,” she begins. The children are terrified, of course, and learn how to “fake bow” and not actually play any music, leaving it to the first chairs to actually play. A handful of the poems in this section deal with this theme of the attempted stealing of childhood. “Mile Swim” is about the Red Cross certification swimming requirement. The 12-year old swimmer stands “alongside fellow campers’ goose-bumped bodies/to start the swim across lake Coniston.” They “plunge into icy water, crawl away from the screaming/children on shore, relieved it is not their turn today.” Desrosiers’ language is vivid: “Our toes brush lake muck, seaweed, fishes,/shadowy spirits of unhappy campers forced to swim on rainy days.” But the 12-year old Desrosiers breaks free of the others:
To my surprise, I am alone.
Blue ripples, cloudless sky,
silence smells of dragonflies.
At the center of the emerald lake
all is green-gold and shimmery.
For a moment I am free—
free from swimming lessons,
the endless teasing,
the pain of my budding breasts,
my parents’ divorce.
It’s a moment of grace amidst the hardships of growing up.
“Paris 1950” captures a moment in Desrosiers’ parents’ lives in which “I am only a thought.” She begins:
Footsteps on cobblestone
Blanche eats crepes on Ile de la Cite
learns to sing Schubert.
Leonard studies philosophy
at the Sorbonne
The poem is spare and mysterious, mirroring Desrosiers’ knowledge of her parents’ lives at this time. Similarly, Desrosiers meditates upon reading her father’s philosophy books and connecting them to her memories of him (she’ll explore him more in-depth later).
The second section, “Mother’s Places,” focuses on Desrosiers’ mother, Blanche. “Last First Kiss” is a poem about love, specifically about a man who proposed to Blanche:
He was a violinist,
he would pay
for voice lessons.
She described him as
older (27) and going bald.
She was seventeen
Unfortunately (for the violinist) Blanche declined. Desrosiers explains:
she had already been kissed
by my father,
who had no money,
but at eighteen
had long lashes,
and silky blond hair.
“Daughter’s Places,” the third section, focuses on Desrosiers’ relationship with her daughter, and “Internal Spaces,” the final section, focuses more on Desrosiers’ herself as an artist. Throughout all of these sections, though, the mystery of Desrosiers’ father pervades, so that we see that she has become, in many ways, a philosopher herself by examining her life and the lives of those around her in order to find meaning.
What stands out when reading these poems is Desrosiers’ vivid, clear imagery, her attention to detail, and the emotional resonance she manages without tiptoeing into the realm of preciousness. Writing about ones parents, especially her father who died of cancer, would be a difficult task to accomplish without overt sentimentality, but Desrosiers manages to not only do this but to reveal her parents (and her children) as interesting characters.
Lori Desrosiers has a full-length poetry collection The Philosopher’s Daughter from Salmon Poetry (2013). She has a chapbook, Three Vanities, a chronicle of three generations of women in her family, from Pudding House Press. Her poems have appeared in numerous publications. She earned her MFA in 2008 from New England College. Desrosiers also edits the Naugatuck Review: A Journal of Narrative Poetry.
by Jim Danger Coppoc
I’m writing this blog on Columbus Day. Because I am an American of Euro and Indian heritage, this is not one of those days I can ignore race.
I actually think about race quite a bit these days. Because I teach both literature and creative writing, from both mainstream and American Indian Studies perspectives, and because—after the basic bits I gather from Gardner and Bloom—I draw most of my teaching theory from the realm of Critical Pedagogy, I am always teaching race.
Let’s start with a few basic facts. A couple years ago, a student had a question I couldn’t answer in class. How do you know the canon is a bunch of dead white males? Everybody says this, but nobody ever proves it.
Every part of my political self wanted to scream at this student because it just is!, but for once, I was able to step back, and give my critical self some space to enter the conversation. I told the student I’d get back to him.
So I went to the capital-C Canon, and I dove deep into my own weird fascination with statistics-as-truth. After some consideration, I chose four primary stakeholders in the Canon: the government, the literary establishment, the education establishment, and mainstream America. I looked for consensus from the four main stakeholders by choosing representative groups of poets from each, comparing these groups side by side, and building a list of poets who appear all four places.
To represent the government, I chose the poets listed for the National Endowment for the Art’s “Poetry Out Loud” program. To represent the literary establishment, I chose the poets listed on the Academy of American Poets website at www.poets.org. To represent the educational establishment, I chose the Norton Anthology of Poetry. To represent mainstream America, I chose Wikipedia’s “List of Poets from the United States,” to which anyone can at any time add entries. Of the hundreds of poets listed in these groupings, exactly 75 were listed by all four.
Once I had uncovered the 75 poets who by process of consensus seemed to best represent The List of Canonical American Poets (hereafter referred to as “The List”), I decided to evaluate it in several dimensions to see if the stereotypes about canonical poets held true.
First, I wanted to know if The List really was populated by Dead White Males. The List is definitely white (85.33%, compared to 65.4% in the general U.S. population) and even more male (74.66%, compared to 48.5% in the general U.S. population). Surprisingly, though, The List wasn’t very dead. Of the 75 poets to make The List, 21 of them (28%) were still alive. Even those who were dead hadn’t been dead very long. A startling 67 poets, or 89.33%, were alive during the 20th century, with 35 of them, or almost 47%, alive during the past 20 years.
After establishing that the Canon of American Poetry is 1.3 times whiter than America itself, I began to wonder how many other races were represented. The answer, to any degree of statistical significance, is one. Of the 11 non-white poets on the List, 10 are African American. One, Li-Young Lee, is Asian American. With the possible exception of William Carlos Williams, there are no Latinos. With the possible exception of Langston Hughes, there are no American Indians. No other race is represented.
While it is a sign of progress that African Americans are proportionately represented (13.33% of the List, compared to 12.4% of the U.S. population), it is clear at least that no agreement has been reached about leading voices among other races. At best, this represents an unfortunate underrepresentation mixed with inevitable problems in the sampling process. At worst, this is institutional racism.
Although it’s difficult to pin down through statistics, one possible explanation for the racially imbalanced canon could be class. As I researched the biographies of these 75 poets, I was struck over and over again by the wealth and privilege that seemed to accompany the poets’ lives. Numbers aren’t available for each poet’s family income, but it is very revealing that 36 of them (48%) attended Ivy League schools with 21 (28%) at Harvard alone. Bio after bio revealed old families from New York and Boston, world leaders and captains of industry in direct lineage, and the sort of independent wealth that allowed for travel, education, networking, and other seeming prerequisites for the canonical poet’s life.
More than just economics, though, are the social connections these poets share. Thirty-seven of them (49.33%) lived in New York City at some point in life, and most of the rest came from other East Coast states. Thirty-eight of them (50.67%) taught at major universities, giving them access to each other and to the many book and journal editors supported by the American academic system. The Yale Younger Poets Series alone published the first books of more than ten percent of the poets on The List, 8 poets (10.66%) are Columbia grads, and 6 of the poets (8%) are graduates of the Writer’s Workshop.
The last dimension I evaluated The List for was a hodgepodge category of traditional stereotypes. As it turns out, most are true. Poets on the list are 5 times as likely as the general public to self identify as homosexual or bisexual, 3-4 times as likely to suffer from alcoholism, nearly 3 times as likely to suffer from depression, and more than 2.5 times as likely to commit suicide.
Conclusions? Well, all I really have to offer are the numbers. How America came to be this way is a mystery too deep for me, and too deep for any one blog post. The Canon is what it is, and my job, as I see it, is to give my students what they need to raise the right questions to build something better in the next generation.
As for the student who started me on this research project—let’s just say his participation grade was secure for the rest of the semester.
For those who are interested, I’ve pasted in The List below. Please feel free to use your own criteria and repeat the experiment as often as necessary. I’d be interested to see what you come up with on your own terms.
A.R. Ammons, John Ashberry, Amiri Baraka, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Bly, Louise Bogan, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gregory Corso, Hart Crane, Robert Creeley, Countee Cullen, E.E. Cummings, James Dickey, Emily Dickinson, Rita Dove, Paul Laurence Dunbar, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Barbara Guest, Donald Hall, Robert Hass, Robert E. Hayden, John Hollander, Langston Hughes, Richard Hugo, Randall Jarrell, Robinson Jeffers, Donald Justice, Galway Kinnell, Kenneth Koch, Yusef Komunyakaa, Stanley Kunitz, Li-Young Lee, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Audre Lorde, Robert Lowell, Amy Lowell, Archibald MacLeish, Herman Melville, William Meredith, James Merrill, W.S. Merwin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Howard Nemerov, Frank O’Hara, Dorothy Parker, Robert Pinsky, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allen Poe, John Crowe Ransom, Adrienne Rich, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Theodore Roethke, Carl Sandburg, Anne Sexton, Charles Simic, W.D. Snodgrass, Gary Snyder, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Mark Strand, May Swenson, Phillis Wheatley, Walt Whitman, John Greenleaf Whittier, Richard Wilbur, William Carlos Williams, James Wright
I’m sworn to secrecy on this, so I just had to tell everyone. Some secrets are just too good not to share.
So I ask a colleague about my old school, Metropolitan Middle. Her lover works there. She tells me that, thus far this year, they’ve had three principals. “The one they got now, and one who just walked off the job. The other one got fired.”
And I’m like, “Really? Fired? That school is gang infested, drug ridden, violent — what do you have to do to get fired from Metropolitan Middle?”
She swears me to secrecy. Then she tells me that the principal was paying a teacher to come to his office — and spank him.
I kept the secret for about fifteen minutes. I don’t know what more can be expected of me?
Poems by Alan King
|Willow Books, 2012
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
The acknowledgments page is standing room only in Alan King’s debut collection of poems, Drift. In fact it’s two pages long, which might say a lot about King’s gratitude, but climbing aboard these poems (each one is a train car) the first thing I noticed were the many passengers. The speaker is almost never alone. Yet neither are King’s poems boxing matches where dramatic tension is drawn from characters at odds. Usually the company he keeps is a lover, a brother, his mom or dad, a wife, some friends, or just some fellows from the neighborhood. There is a matter of fact sort of intimacy that sweats out from his lines. It made me realize how I’ve been reading too much of the loner stuff, speakers isolated from the world, with fractured egos, driving empty cars on highways without any trucks to follow.
King seems like the kind of poet who would be perfectly comfortable with a stranger sleeping on his shoulder on an airplane. And these poems, having meter without being metric, are conversational without being plain spoken. How nice to read them without suffering the “I am being a writer” tone that dulls most music.
Drift is divided into nine roomy sections of between one and twelve poems each. I read one section a day in a span that included busheling some tomatoes for sauce canning, skipping a pitchfork, writing a poem for Saemus Heaney (how original), loading a piano onto a truck, and making love to my wife twice (once downstairs). It’s so pleasant to carry on with them, here and there, sharing King’s world with mine. King’s poems are almost always one page, but that’s plenty of space to offer some adventure. Consider his poem “Conundrum” in which the speaker and his brother head out to find the recipe for pheromones, an irrational pursuit of an irrational goal that somehow makes perfect sense:
A decade before, my brother
and I were strapped inside the leather
belly of an Oldsmobile 88 that roared
like something feral, with speakers
coughing up bass and spitting rhymes
from Busta’s first album. I don’t recall
where we were headed, just that we
cruised the city with our fresh
haircuts and fragrant whispers
of Egyptian Musk behind our ears.
The clock and the compass, the when and the where, are not so important to King’s journeys, this one to “answer the riddles of women,” which makes it possible to swing between narrative and metaphor without losing your balance. The logistics are rich with detail, while the subjects continue to be abstract, searching moments. In “Why I could Never Be Vegan” we initially think we’re in the land of memory: “The smell of charcoal gets me / nostalgic: my childhood and / those summers my parents / were always throwing something / on the grill…” But quickly the discussion moves from nostalgia, to animal rights, to human rights. Birmingham is also part of the speaker’s memory: “…fire hoses / and what was unleashed / on protestors. What’s sacred / then?” In this poem, the only sacred thing left is his mother’s sense of exaggeration: “Ask my mom and she’ll say / I might have been / an Alvin Ailey dancer the way / I Step Hop and Run to a bubbling pot / of curry goat.” The speaker concludes “Why does salad, / despite its dressing, seem incomplete / without chicken?” King is asking, Why does memory, despite its dressing, seem incomplete as well, given our Birmingham, our history?
The past, hunger, hope, and resignation are so intimate in these lines. Perhaps a thousand poets will write a poem about a horse this year, but almost none will have ridden a two minute lick in company, wire to wire, at a race track. Being so comfortable with intimacy, having had some experience with it, having ridden that horse a time or two, we’d expect King to shape some physical intimacy where the actual doesn’t sit so far back from the ideal. His love poems made me think of John Donne. King runs to all sorts of bubbling pots, and not all of them are cooking curry. In “The Invitation,” like many of these poems, King gets us into and out of a poem with images: “Your lips were petals brushing / my neck…” is followed by some light-hearted analysis “This was not supposed to happen // on the third date” and eventually concludes “our bass-heavy pulses. / The eye contact, / you biting your bottom lip, / then smiling.”
The poet’s vexing history and his passionate flair join up in “Horn”:
The more I watch the news,
the more my country resembles
a biblical city destroyed by fire;
the more I think of those
who spat on the messenger
their God sent them. At the gates
of a temple called “Beautiful,”
sat a blind man. How many of us
are him? Sometimes there’s no name
for what runs the streets with
misspelled picket signs and hate
as its bullhorn. Sometimes
what’s wrong with this life
could be an avalanche ready
to wipe us out. The only true Bible
might be your open arms. Your name
is a communion wafer on my tongue.
The only true psalm might be
what washes over us while
we sleep, your breath in my ears—
the sound in a shell.
While some poets may marvel about empathy, how it comes from using image and lyric to wed unmarriageable ideas, King returns again and again to the simple truth, that empathy is very intimate, expressed in the oneness you discover after slipping out of routines of living, desire and memory, but without slipping out of who you are. It’s cruising in a big car with your brother in blood. It’s the sermon in a barber shop. That post-modern poets love the hero afraid of being alone and dying alone may just be a mask for the greater fear of connecting with others, of being intimate. King describes such poets in his poem “How to Call It”:
Take the woman walking
alone down a boulevard
or the guy seated
at a table for two
with a glass of wine
and his favorite book.
King concludes these portraits of poets with one of himself: “I need a lot of things: lips / and fingers waking the body. / And from what? // Call it hibernation, / but never loneliness.” Read a book to yourself and you’re a scholar. Talk to yourself and you’re a nut. But poetry evolved from an oral tradition. It’s always been about talking and listening between friends and strangers.
Why are we so afraid of empathy? That is the “drift” in Drift. King writes in the superb title poem: “What were you / searching for among the buzzing / kazoos and party blowers // punching the air? That night // the bright streamers were serpents / curled among liquor bottles that blurred / like landscape through the windows // of a train headed to the end // of its line. You watched the lit / subway cars zigzag the night / like the Dancing Dragon / of Chinese New Year.”
Move over Mr. grumpy disassociated poet with your arms and legs and ears falling off your disconnected body. There’s a new kid in town.
Alan King is a poet and journalist living in the DC metropolitan area. He is a blogger on art and domestic issues. In addition to teaching creative writing throughout the DC/Baltimore region, he’s a part-time poetry instructor at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the senior program director at the DC Creative Writing Workshop at Charles Hart Middle School in DC’s Congress Heights neighborhood. A past Pushcart Prize nominee, Alan is also a Cave Canem fellow and VONA alum.
by Dawn Potter
Sound may be our deepest and most instinctive connection to poetry, not only as individuals but also as members of the human community and inheritors of its ancient traditions. “The hearing knowledge we bring to a line of poetry,” writes Robert Pinsky, “is a knowledge of patterns of speech we have known to hear since we were infants.” But that childhood comfort stretches beyond the confines of our private selves, back through the history of language and our species.
In “The Hymn to Earth,” a Greek poem dating from about 650 b.c., the speaker reaches out to his listeners, coaxing them to recognize their agency in his creations:
but if you liked what I sang here
give me this life too
in my other poems
I will remember you
No page lay between this poet and his first listeners. Sound was the primary element of communication, and poet and listeners shared a direct physical experience.
Today poetry has become as much a visual as a sonic art. Yet the sound of a poem still transmits an intensely emotional message, even in those moments before a reader begins to engage with the poem’s narrative or thematic threads.
Take the opening couplet of Donald Justice’s “Psalm and Lament”:
The clocks are sorry, the clocks are very sad.
One stops, one goes on striking the wrong hours.
The poem doesn’t rhyme, nor does it scan as blank verse. Except for its couplet format, it looks rather like plain spoken English. Yet if you study these two modest lines, you will see that Justice makes extravagant use of sound: he repeats individual k and s sounds; he repeats entire words and phrases; he uses commas as silent beats within the cadence. Try reading the couplet out loud, and you will feel, too, how his syntax and word choice force you to modify your pacing. It would be almost impossible to read this poem quickly.
For contrast, look at the opening of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s famous “Recuerdo.”
We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
In certain ways the lines look very similar to Justice’s. The two poems share a simple subject/predicate nominative construction: “The clocks are very sad,” “We were very tired.” Both use comma splices as musical devices. But while Justice’s poem moves slowly and heavily, almost to the point of exhaustion, Millay’s speeds across the page. Her rhymes sparkle; her commas denote breathlessness rather than weighty moments of silence. Like the ferry, her lines go “back and forth,” hustling between the rhymes, riding the alliterative vowels: short e’s, long i’s, the repetition of We.
In other words, as I hope this comparison has shown, a poet’s sound devices are intimate elements of a poem’s essential being. From the very first moments of creation, a poet begins to hear her poem take shape. In my own case, I often feel the pressure of a metrical stress or a letter sound before I begin to consider what words I might choose to try out next in a line. This is true whether I am writing formal or free verse. The sounds in my ear lead me to pursue the sense of what I am trying to articulate.
[from a draft-in-progress of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]
by Brigette Bernagozzi
A daytime blog, at last…but something doesn’t feel right, though it’s beautiful outside. What feels off, I wonder? I stop and use my ears. I hear the ubiquitous traffic noises, the sounds of humans doing human things outside, and the calls of birds, all mingled together. I realize that what I need today is silence. Why is it so much easier to hear this silence at night? There is a stillness at that hour that makes it so much easier to think.
But then, there is something else happening in my mind today, a kind of distraction I can’t escape. It hums just below the surface of everything, until the distraction itself becomes my sole focus, flipping my world and its priorities around. All other noise becomes bothersome, intrusive. It is the strain of a song I have been working on for several months, and it is the only sound I want to hear right now. Maybe it is not complete silence I need today, but simply the ability to hear this music, underneath it all.
I have an upcoming concert with several choirs in Pittsburgh, and with the Symphony, yet I’ve been unable to really inhabit the space of the music all semester. Something to do with being too busy, and putting my graduate school homework first, methinks–music is always the thing that’s getting put on that proverbial back burner, since I don’t need it to graduate. I am doing it for the love, as they say.
But something has shifted in me this week. This shift has something to do with a few two-and-a-half hour rehearsals at Heinz Hall, spent in the presence of an inspiring musical trainer, who gives us bits of wisdom such as “The professional gives–the amateur gets. Do it for them, not for you,” and “Music is the consistent eternal march.” Somehow, I’ve started to internalize that last one this week; I’ve awoken these past several days mid-song, as though I’d nodded off in the middle of performing a concert the night before, with the words (in German, no less) still lodged in my throat. It is a strange sensation to wake this way, as this kind of focus usually takes many hours to achieve instead of being built-in to one’s morning–but it feels right to me, somehow. I think of Bing Crosby, of Rosemary Clooney and Billie Holliday–all my vocal heroes from the old days, from my grandfather’s day–and wonder how often they woke up singing.
Perhaps every day should begin this way, with the promise of a song on one’s lips.
“In the arts,” Bob says, “do not divide your own attention between many things. You think of only one thing.” This lesson seems so applicable to everything else in my life right now.
Of course, we don’t always have the luxury of handling only one problem at a time, but if I can manage to maintain my focus out there in the world, until the first of many problems is solved, I feel more accomplished, less divided amongst warring factions of my own psyche that want to do everything, and want to do it right now. I am surely a product of my generation, of this high-speed moment in our culture.
I wish I could hire Bob as my personal musical guru, but I’m sure he costs a lot.
“Auf-er-steh’n,” we sing in German, “ja auf-er-steh’m, wirst du mein Staub, nach kur-zer…” He has some of us hum the words. Those in our choir born from May through August sing them, so that between the two groups we nail the pianissimo just right. A tremulous sound echoed throughout the hall before; now we seem sure of ourselves, sure of this language most of us don’t speak in our daily lives. Some of us hardly even know what we are singing, but nevertheless, we are certain of our voices, now. Bob has done his job.
“Arise, yes thou shalt arise, my dust,” the translation reads on the first page of the Mahler, “after brief rest. Eternal life… To bloom again thou shalt be sown. The Lord of Harvest goes to gather sheaves of us who died…” But we are not capturing it, just yet. “I will arise,” Bob tells us, by way of translating the translation, so that we can understand not just the meaning but the purpose of the words. “My death will give life to something.” A Resurrection Symphony, they call it.
On page 6, Mahler’s own text appears: “O believe! My heart, Believe! Nothing will be lost to you! Yours is, yes, whatever you longed for. Yours-whatever you loved, fought for!” Enthusiastic exclamation points aside, his words seem beautiful to me, accessible. It is as though I could have written them myself, though he composed them between 1888-1894 when he was about my age. “O believe: You were not born in vain! Have not lived, suffered in vain!”
I think of the meaning we try consistently to locate, the purpose we must determine for ourselves before we die, lest we feel we have lived unfinished lives. Mahler felt it, too: “What has arisen must pass away. What has passed away, Arise! Cease to tremble! Prepare! Prepare to live! O pain, you all-piercing one! O death! You conquering one! Now you are conquered!”
Bob is speaking from above, perched at a music stand on the stage, while hundreds of us listen from the audience, in a reversal of the usual setup that places choir singers up high and the teacher down in front. The reversal seems appropriate, as everything Bob says is the opposite of what it seems to be when he’s not in the room. The girl sitting next to me frantically writes down every witticism and piece of advice he utters with her pencil, on the last page of her choir music, lest something get lost in the shuffle of pages and singing.
“Our modern technology keeps us from communicating. It does not help us communicate,” Bob tells us from the stage, and I know in an instant that he is right. It makes me wish I had turned off my phone during rehearsal, that all these girls sitting around me to my right had turned theirs off, too. Some of them are sending text messages during Bob’s talk, including the one with the pencil, even though she certainly seems to be paying close attention to his words in other moments.
I think again of what Bob said before: “You think of only one thing.” I wonder how we will ever find a cure for ourselves, for this inability to do just one thing.
“With wings that I won for myself in fervent strivings of love, I shall spar to the Light,” we sing in German, “to which no eye has reached! I shall die that I may live again.”
My world is filled with music, suddenly. I don’t want to go back to a world that isn’t. I’ve been waiting all semester to wake up singing, to fill the bathroom with the sounds of German and Latin, Norwegian and French while I hum in the shower. To know the music well enough to recall it from memory. To let the voices fill my head, to give them accompaniment while I empty out the trash, take my dirty dishes downstairs, brush my teeth. All I want to do is sing, and the singing follows me to the bus stop, onto the bus, on the sidewalk. It is with me in every moment. The songs I carry with me become my life’s soundtrack for a day, for a week, for a month. When the concert is finished, when the last strains of 2,000 voices have hushed the audience and the applause recedes, the songs will fade from my mind. I will try to hold onto them, but they will lose some of their magic until next fall, until the next concert. I will live in a world where music is here only sometimes, like before.
But for now, the boundary between these two worlds is permeable, a “thin place” like St. John’s Cathedral or the entire city of Edinburgh, a site of transformation and possibility. The songs bleed through. The world is music, one endless song uttered in all languages at once, meant to be sung in the shower, on the bus, or anytime at all.
For more like the above, you can check out the author’s regular blog at http://oakandtheacorn.blogspot.com/.
by Elizabeth Kirschner
But I want a brilliant career as a poet.
May, 1995: I get
a brilliant career in psychotherapy.
I’m also put on Zoloft.
(The playing field is temporarily leveled.)
May, 1996: I have my first seizure.
I’m taken off Zoloft, put on Clonapin, then Neurontin,
then med, med, med ad nauseam.
I have seizure after seizure, also
But I really want a brilliant career as a poet.
I get a brilliant career in Psychotherapy.
(I also get lots of seizures.)
January, 2002: I start EMDR
to stop the seizures.
(EMDR doesn’t stand for Elizabeth Mary, Dylan and Robert, but it works.)
June, 2003: the seizures stop.
I go off med, med, med,
December 9, 2003: I go crazy, land in the lock-up,
It’s Dylan’s eleventh birthday (boo-hoo, boo-hoo.)
I’m put on Risperadol.
January, 2004: I start DBT
to stop the craziness.
DBT doesn’t work.
Because it doesn’t work, I call it the Dia-Bolical Training.
June, 2004: More craziness,
(But I really, really want a brilliant career as a poet.)
I get a brilliant career in psychotherapy.
(The less said, the better.)
2005: I’m still crazy.
I start shopping therapy
to look good for psychotherapy.
(I get a brilliant career in shopping.)
May, 2008: I move to Maine,
when Robert and I permanently separate, but
I’m STILL crazy after all these years.
November, 2008: I meet the sheriff when
Robert files for divorce against me in the state of Maine.
This makes me even crazier.
March, 2009: The Courtroom Massacre.
The sheriff may not have shot me, but
Robert’s lawyer does when he shoots down my character
in the courtroom because of my shopping therapy.
I go crazy in the courtroom.
(The Judge orders Robert to pick up my legal fees
for shooting down my character in his courtroom.)
January, 2010: I’m deposed.
Robert’s lawyer is shocked to hear
that there’s no money in the poetry biz.
The divorce settles.
When the Judge’s mallet thuds down, I’m no longer crazy.
(I stop shopping.)
I STILL need psychotherapy, but
go off Risperadol.
November, 2010: More EMDR
to make sure I don’t go crazy again.
(left brain, right brain, left brain right brain.)
September, 2011: I take up yoga.
(left side, right side, left side, right side.)
I stop psychotherapy, start psychotherapy, stop psychotherapy, etc.
2012: More etc.
(I learn in yoga to chant with my body.)
(Will I now get my brilliant career as a poet?)
Proving Nothing to Anyone
Poems by Matt Cook
|Publishing Genius Press, 2013
Reviewed by C.L. Bledsoe
Funny is hard. For some reason I’ve never understood, there’s a popular attitude that funny is somehow easier than serious, that comedy takes less skill to write than tragedy. I would say that they are equally difficult in many ways—both (when done well) require careful pacing to achieve emotional impact, and both require all the hallmarks of strong writing—but I would argue that comedy, at its extreme, is more difficult in one way than tragedy, at its polar extreme: written comedy requires just as much tragedy as written tragedy does, but comedy also requires hope. Tragedy is allowed to revel in its nihilism, whereas comedy must resolve that nihilism by drawing forth hope from it. Tragedy brings us to the brink of desperation; comedy must bridge that gap.
Matt Cook’s collection is that rarest of thing: funny poetry. “Commitment to Excellence” is a self-deprecating piece which describes a dinner party:
A woman leaned back into a candle
And caught her long hair on fire.
She did not notice this right away, but I noticed it—
but at that very same moment,
I was in the middle of telling a really good story
But Cook isn’t simply reveling in the misfortune of others; he knows “the punch line of the story was only seconds away” so he continues, though he does wait until “after the appreciative reaction of the room” before informing the woman of her burning hair. He makes sure to tell us, “The woman was not seriously harmed,/And then ended up writing me a letter of recommendation.” So there’s a happy ending. Here, Cook is getting at something about the nature of storytelling and art. Aren’t all good stories about the misfortunes of others in some way? “Duane Duane” deals with this issue. Cook describes a man who “was in and out of institutions during the nineteen seventies.” Duane “wrote a song once about feeding saltine crackers to a duck.” Cook goes on to describe Duane’s belief that the actors in Gilligan’s Island were trapped on the island and forced to act out the episodes, “that they were enslaved by television executives and forced at gunpoint, or through emotional blackmail, or whatever, to act out Gilligan’s Island every week.” The depth of Duane’s delusion is intense. He believed the actors attempted to communicate their plight through codes. Cook concludes, “This story isn’t funny, but it’s also funny. It’s not my fault that this story is funny.”
“The Drunk Man’s Hat,” similarly gets at the nature of comedy in a surreal way. “The poetry comes easily in the morning,/Not because the head is clear, but because the head is confused,” he begins. He describes a dream he had about a drawing of a drunk looking for help from a security guard:
The drunk man is saying something like:
Give me the awful chemical I need to clean this hat.
If you can do that for me, I would certainly appreciate it.
If not, I can find something else to appreciate.
Cook’s turn at the end gets to the heart of humor, almost as a study in form rather than a comprehendible narrative. “Unchanged from Ancient Times” accomplishes this in a more straight-forward manner:
He wanted to see trees that were thousands of years old.
He wanted to lie on the forest floor and
Look up and see a view that was unchanged from ancient times.
So he went deep into a national forest and
Then he returned and I asked him how it went.
He said he took mushrooms and freaked out and
Smeared peanut butter all over his Volvo wagon.
Here, Cook explodes the expectation of the reader, but at the same time, he hits something profoundly human with this character. Frankly, if his friend had had some sort of magical experience, the reader might’ve said, “Oh, that’s nice,” but it wouldn’t have meant much, and at the back of our minds, there’d be a hint of doubt. I’ve been in a lot of forests and mostly felt itchy, though they were very pretty. Cook’s description, though, is absolutely believable.
“My Wife’s Car” is a narrative poem that stands out because of its powerful descriptions. The narrator goes for a walk and sees his wife’s car:
You feel a kind of existential panic when you see your wife’s car somewhere.
My grandfather said death is like looking at your house from across the street.
It’s probably something like that.
You walk past a row of meaningless automobiles,
And suddenly there’s your wife’s car—what do you do?
You can’t just walk past your wife’s car.
Cook’s language is straight-forward and lacking in pretention, even when relating profound ideas. The narrator decides to use his spare key to get in and wait for his wife. There are all sorts of preconceptions the reader might have about what will happen next, but the narrator assures us, “I knew she’d be happy to see me because we have an excellent marriage.” The question is, do we believe him?
Then I saw her in the distance approaching the car.
I was enjoying the situation, the childish suspense.
But then she came closer, and I could see she was crying.
She opened the door and she put her arms around me.
She said, “I’m so glad you saw my car.”
Even though Cook may have dispelled our expected outcome (that his wife might be returning from a tryst, perhaps) he still manages to surprise us.
Another thing that sets comedy apart from tragedy is the brutal honesty required of comedy. One has to be able to mock oneself ruthlessly. He states, in “They Probably Laughed”
Just because it takes courage to admit you’re wrong doesn’t mean that you’re wrong.
I used to be young and drunk and stupid.
And then I became less young and less drunk and less stupid.
But I’m still pretty young and pretty drunk and pretty stupid.
Cook makes observations on all sorts of things one might not realize, for example pointing out that fish never taste clean water and then wondering if he’s the first to consider this. At his best, Cook is shocking in the way all good comedy is shocking. He explodes the simplicity of ones preconceptions and gets to the heart of what it is to be human. And he’s funny. So there’s that.
Matt Cook is the author of three books of poetry (In the Small of My Backyard, Eavesdrop Soup, and The Unreasonable Slug). His work has been anthologized in Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, The United States of Poetry, and in Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems, American Places. He lives in Memphis, TN.
by Dawn Potter
Early in this book I mentioned how common, almost ubiquitous, the I point of view has become in poetry. So often our poems are outlets for the personal, the private, the spoken secret. Even when it is an outright fiction, a first-person poem can feel as raw as a diary entry.
Literary essays are a different story. While the I does rule over many forms of creative nonfiction, it is conspicuously absent in academic and critical prose. Its scarcity is puzzling because publishers, even scholarly ones, explicitly ask their authors to avoid wordy passive-voice constructions that mute the speaker’s voice and opinions. “The book can be thought of as a waste of time” is a way to evade responsibility for announcing, “I think the book is a waste of time.” Yet time and time again, authors retreat behind that cushion of words. In doing so, they may take themselves off the hot seat, but they also retreat into obscurity, anonymity, invisibility.
As you work to become a poet, you may find yourself in a position of needing, in some deep, personal way, to write about what you are reading. I urge to you to commit yourself to saying I think—not we think, not people think. Work hard to keep yourself from falling into convoluted grammatical “objectivity.” The truth is that you should not be objective when you’re writing a personal literary essay. You should push yourself to write subjectively about your own curiosity, your own reactions. The goal is to discover what you think about a work of literature, not to create an essay that you makes you look well read or professorially remote. Please understand that I am not deriding academic scholarship or theory. Simply I am saying that, like poetry, a personal literary essay comes from a different and far more vulnerable place in the author. It’s important to push yourself to write in ways that cherish that vulnerability, not mask it.
If I sound bossy here, it’s because I believe that for many years my own writing suffered from a timid unwillingness to face head-on some of the many issues I brought up in the Blake and Milton essays I’ve excerpted in previous chapters. How does a contemporary poet speak to a poet of the past? How does an obscure woman speak to a canonized man? How can their speech be an actual conversation rather than rant, polemic, diatribe, or blind adoration? For creative writers who take reading seriously, these are fundamental questions that have never been easy to answer.
In the introduction of this book I mention Countee Cullen’s life-long, necessary conversation with the Romantic poets—and how some of his peers derided that need. Why, they asked, should a twentieth-century African American poet waste his time talking to nineteenth-century English white men? The question I ask is, why shouldn’t he?
[from a chapter in draft of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]
By Karen Zhang
The other day when I dropped by a local CVS store for errands, I thought I could get my shopping done in minutes. No chance. It wasn’t that my list too long but I had to wait for the cashier to print out a longgggggg receipt—so much longer than my arm. How long is it exactly? Three feet. (I measured it with my metric/imperial system conversion ruler.)
Why on earth does a merchant give out customers long receipts? Does he think we will really read every word on that lengthy slip of paper? I like keeping receipts for the record. But I also notice the pile of receipts gets higher and higher despite the fact that I rarely shop. Perhaps this is an American custom that nobody should get away from the bombardment of advertisement and legal protection.
I did spend some time reading some of the recent receipts. From Home Depot to Macy’s, from CVS to Wal-Mart, nearly every receipt—some are front and back—includes retailers’ return policies, promotion coupons and limitation on these benefits. Of course, as a consumer, all I’m concerned about is how much I’ve spent on this transaction; when, where and what I purchased. This is the basic information on a receipt. In China, all this information can be summed up in a palm-size receipt or even smaller.
Ah, I see. Perhaps the American retailers want to make it easy for the customers not to lose their receipts. I often misplaced the tiny receipts in China. But now, since the overall receipts in America are longer than the grotesque tongue popping out from a jack-in-a-box toy. I have to roll each one of them like a wad of money. (I wish.) Plus, the coupons attached to the receipt may be of use someday. How should I mind carrying it around in a secure place on me?
The legal statement that comes with the receipts is written by attorneys, of course. But how many ordinary people understand the complicated legal terms? With the tiny print and weird font, the message is incomprehensible, but I’m afraid not to get the receipt — there may be something I need on it.