Coal Hill Blog
By John Samuel Tieman
It’s official — I am an American hero. Not long ago, an R. O. T. C. outfit wanted to make a display featuring local veterans. I can’t turn down fellow teachers – that and I just like these folks – so I gave them my photo and my medals, my “rack”, for their display. I finally saw the display yesterday. There I am, under the heading “An American Hero”.
I sometimes think that the first duty of every war veteran is forgive him- or herself.
There is another awkward moment known to most Vietnam veterans. In my case, a student asks, “Dr. Tieman, did you ever kill anyone? You write about war all the time. Something bad must have happened.”
I used to equivocate. Make a joke. Change the subject. Or just lie.
The honest answer is, “Yes.” Once. By accident, sort of. But there are two stories. The second one ends with an accidental death. The first one begins with murder.
I’ll tell you what I remember, what I think I remember, what I heard, what I learned.
I was a musician. A parade soldier. Clarinet and saxophone. To this day, I love a rousing Sousa march. I didn’t have a dangerous job. Indeed, if I had only spent my service in the States, I’d look back on it all this with some degree of fondness. But, during the last part of my active duty, I went to Vietnam. The 4th Infantry Division Band. True, I did not have a dangerous job. But it was a dangerous time, the Cambodian Invasion, in a very dangerous place, the Central Highlands. In the States, my job was often fun. In The Nam, I was in over a hundred rocket and ground attacks. Some attacks simply annoyed us, a single rocket in the middle of the night. Other times, my friends died.
Then there were times when we were our own enemy.
Late summer, early evening, 1970. I was twenty years old. I remember (curious that I’d remember this) it was cloudy. I was walking up a dirt road that ran in front of our hooch. I passed these three fellows. Two were trying to calm the guy in the middle. The guy in the middle said nothing. He was seething, Even at that moment, his rage was remarkable, the subsequent events notwithstanding. It is worth noting this, because being angry in The Nam normally didn’t merit notice.
I learned decades later, from our piano player, Dick Bittner, that this guy had been to see the chaplain. The chaplain had refused to see him. Dick Bittner is of the opinion that subsequent events could have been avoided if the chaplain would have shown more compassion. Who knows? When I saw him, he was indeed coming from the direction of the chaplain’s quarters. He was heading for Charlie Company, an infantry unit catty-corner across this field, an old rice paddy, from the band. When Charlie Company was in from the bush, I used to smoke dope with those guys in that dried up paddy.
Perhaps an hour later, after sunset anyway, I was talking with Parsons and Novak. They were the chaplain’s assistants, “The God Squad”. Nice guys. I sometimes bunked with Parsons. They did mention the angry guy. But mostly we just sat around chatting about this and that. I was sitting on the ground.
Then there was a quick burst of M-16. Maybe three or four rounds. Close. Real close. Meters from here. We froze, stared at each other. Then a lot of shots.
I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t brave. I didn’t feel anything. I switched that part of me off.
I didn’t go into action so much as I switched on the automatic part of me.
I leapt to my feet. The others remained in the hooch, more stunned than anything else. Perhaps they were still having the feelings I had turned off. I got my helmet, locked and loaded my M-16. I took a position behind a sand bag wall slightly above and to the east of the field.
That’s where I saw him.
I heard later two stories. In The Nam, I heard that the guy, the angry guy, killed four people, including the two I saw with him. Years later, Dick Bittner told me that he murdered his 1st sergeant. These two versions are not mutually exclusive. In any case, murder.
Then he retreated to the field, the old rice paddy. Right in front of me.
I could see exactly where he was, despite the blackness, the moonless cloudy night. I saw his muzzle flashes. I was slightly more than ninety degrees to his right, and, as I said, slightly above him, behind a sand bag wall. Perhaps a hundred or so meters away. I doubt if he even knew I was there.
I was an Expert Rifleman. This was an easy shot.
I wanted to shoot. I was ready to shoot. I withheld my fire. The angry guy was firing into the night, and it was clear that other grunts, very close by, were hunting him. But I wasn’t sure where they were. No sooner did I have this thought when I saw a grunt in the dark, not five meters in front of the angry guy, open up. Full automatic. Virtually point blank.
The whole incident, from first shot to last, took a few minutes.
I learned something about myself that night. A lot of folks wonder if they could shoot someone. I’m not one of those folks.
I spent the next three decades wanting to not know that about myself.
Some time later, I’m not sure how long, weeks, I was on guard. I had two weapons, my M-16 and an M-79. I was still pretty new to The Nam, and somewhat unaccustomed to the M-79 grenade launcher, having only fired it a few times. The ground in front of our guard tower was a free fire zone. Meaning I could shoot anything anytime I wanted. Our standing orders were, “If it moves, shoot it.” A lot of guys took target practice there. That and firing randomly kept the enemy sappers, who infiltrated from the nearby village, An Khe, uncertain as to any pattern of fire. I decided to give myself some target practice.
Years later, I told the whole story in a poem.
After I got out of The Nam
I made up some tales, some
mostly jokes –
One time we’re tokin’ –
One time the whores –
because nobody made any movies
about how we’re heroes.
So now I’m told
You’re a good guy, John,
Welcome Home, Pal!
So now I’ll tell one
last story. One night
I’m the new guy so
I decide I’d try my M-79.
Now an M-79 launches a grenade
a little farther than you can
hit a good home run.
I aim for this field.
Bingo — a good shoot.
But the wind figures
in different, a freak
drifts the hit
into this village.
Where it kills this kid.
Except for the scream
that’s the unadorned story.
Nothing ever came of this incident. I believe it was counted as a “confirmed kill”, thus turning an accident into a dead Viet Cong. In truth, in that area, most of the locals were Viet Cong or Viet Cong sympathizers. Not that any of that matters to me now.
I spent the next thirty years begging God to forgive me. Only to realize finally that it was not God who was withholding forgiveness. I sometimes wished I had killed either no one at all, or a thousand people. Because one man has a face, a family, a history and a scream.
These two incidents, these lives, these deaths, live on in me. They search for some resolution I know I will never find. Yet search I will.
In therapy, I learned, finally, that despite all the tall tales, all the jokes, despite all the “You wouldn’t believe what I saw this one night in The Nam …”, I will never recall Vietnam and not, in the quiet that follows, be sad.
The years and the therapy have helped. I don’t hear the scream anymore. But now and then, between newspaper stories on Saturday morning, or driving down Forest Park Parkway, or, like now, staring at a computer screen and wondering what I’ll write next, now and then I see those muzzle flashes. And I take aim.
“War Story” first appeared in the Cimarron Review of the University Of Oklahoma, and was reprinted in two chapbooks, Morning Prayers, published by The Pittsburgh Quarterly OnLine, and A Concise Biography Of Original Sin, published by BkMk Press of the University Of Missouri At Kansas City.
by Jim Danger Coppoc
If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world, there’s nothing to it
“In this class, and in the literary life in general, there are two rules, and two rules only—one, have something to say; two, don’t screw it up. These are the roots of both content and craft.”
-me, every semester on the first day of English 306/406, Intro to Creative Writing: Poetry
I have a good life. I married my dream girl, my friends and family are amazing, I have a good and growing audience for my writing and my music, I get to travel to places I used to only dream about, and I’m able to make a decent living teaching and doing only the things I love. This is not to say that there are no hard times, but in perspective, the ups in my world are bigger, better and more numerous than the downs by a long shot.
This, of course, makes it very hard to write good poems
See, when others teach poetry, they often teach that the center of a good poem is the image, or the metaphor, or the diction, or some other element of craft. I have never believed that for a second—not even during the grad school years, when I was required to accept at face value all the craft-based wisdom that dripped from my assigned teachers and mentors. This might sound like heresy, but I don’t believe the center of a good poem has anything to do with craft—I believe it has to do with conflict. Tension. The agon at the center of the Greek protagonist and antagonist. Paint me a picture as beautiful as you like—it’s not going to grab me until I see a little darkness behind the Mona Lisa smile.
Of course, there are moments. The poet (and my friend) Jack McCarthy died recently, and his passing touched me in such a way that I could not sleep until I’d written him a poem. My wife had feelings for another man, and I’m two poems and four songs into that experience already. Sometimes I remember the times my life was more of a struggle, and if I can dig my way deeply enough into those memories, works like my long poem Manhattan Beatitude are born. But these moments don’t erase the fact that on a day-to-day basis I am struggling to come to a place where I have something to say. Where I can write without violating my own first rule.
So now we’ve come to this blog, and to the direction I’m taking it. To accountability.
Each month, I plan to try a new experience or exercise to kickstart my poetic self. A way to dig back into the agon without having to destroy my life in the process. Live like Ward Cleaver—write like Sylvia Plath. I don’t have these exercises laid out yet, and I’d love any suggestions you (should I be forward enough to call you “Dear Reader”?) could offer, but I assume the best moves will come to me when the time is right.
This month, I chose to dive deeply into my domestic life, instead of rebelling against it. I’ve begun a writing project with my 3-year-old son, Fionn, one of the lights of my life. He supplies the content, and I supply the line breaks. We’re up to 5 poems now—my favorite so far is our first, where Fionn takes on the complex dynamics of a blended family. It begins with a few words about our cat.
Lilypad likes sunbeams
Lilypad likes cold beans
Lilypad likes to snuggle
and Lilypad likes my mom
What kind is your mom?
My mommy is Mommy
but my brother calls her “Jen”
My brother’s first mom is at work
I’m going to draw pictures for them both
I don’t remember
“What kind is your mom?” Agon. Tension. Beauty. And 3-year-old Fionn never had to set foot inside an MFA program to get it.
By Songyi Zhang
When you get on the Guangzhou metro, you see a gray-haired old man and a pregnant woman standing by the hand railing while two rows of seats facing one another are occupied with young Chinese in their twenties and thirties. You wonder why these seated people are so indifferent. After all, this car is specialized for those who are in need.
“This is the problem of Chinese people’s Suzhi,” my best friend said to me.
When you are walking on a path with beautiful lawn and plants on one side, and a river on the other, you can’t help finding litter under a shrub or a stone bench. The grass is trampled, revealing clear marks of pedestrians’ foot prints and bicycles’ tire prints. You wonder why people are oblivious to such damage.
“This is the problem of Chinese people’s Suzhi,” my cousin said to me.
When you are in line for your turn to pay the bill in a hospital, people behind you keep pushing forward, leaving zero space in between. You haven’t got organized after your transaction is done, the next person has already occupied the window. You nearly lose your cool but you realize just as your family and friends have told you before
“This is the problem of Chinese people’s Suzhi.”
Over the past two months while I was in China visiting family and friends, I kept hearing the disappointing comments about Chinese people’s Suzhi—that is, personal quality. As more and more rural people flood in major cities to make a living, I often saw unacceptable public conduct—jaywalkers, parking on the sidewalk, smoking in a non-smoking building, dogs and kids defecating on the street, so on and so forth.
My dad joked that I had been in the U.S. for too long. That’s not true. Two and a half years being away from home won’t completely change me into an American. But it does change my impression of urban Chinese people. Where are the Chinese virtues that we boasted of for over two thousand years? Where is the practice of respecting the elderly and caring for the young? What about observing the public order and making the city as clean as our homes?
The outside world utterly differs from what we learn in school. I’m saddened. When the Chinese top leaders visit Russia, for instance, will they be ashamed to see the “Do Not Litter” sign in Chinese? Will the sign that says “Keep Quiet” in Chinese characters embarrass them while they dine in a French restaurant?
Retold by Michael Simms
A man in a hot air balloon realized he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below. He yelled: “Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am!”
The woman below replied: “You are in a hot air balloon hovering about thirty feet above ground. You are between forty and forty-one degrees north latitude and between fifty-nine and sixty degrees longitude.”
“You must be a writer,” said the balloonist. “I am,” replied the woman, “How did you know?” “Well,” answered the man, “everything you told me was well said, but I have no idea what to do with it, and the fact is, I am still lost. Frankly, you have not been much help so far.”
The woman responded, “You must be a publisher!” “I am!” replied the balloonist, straightening his tie, “but how did you know?” “Well,” said the woman, “you don’t know where you are or where you are going. You have risen to where you are by a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise you have no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is, you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it’s my fault.”
By Songyi Zhang
My husband had a medical emergency last week. Thank goodness the episode is over and we’ve returned to a normal life. But this incident taught me a lot about health care in America, and I have to say I was impressed.
The story began on Tuesday when my husband was scheduled to have cataract surgery. At the pre-op room, he was aware that the tightness in his chest had recurred. After notifying the doctors and nurses, we were told the surgery was postponed, and my husband would be sent to the emergency room for an immediate heart checkup. Shortly, a team of four or five uniformed, well-trained paramedics arrived and drove us to the hospital, which is about a three-minute ride. Outside the surgery center, an ambulance with a fire truck parked behind were standing by.
In that full minute, I thought I was in a reality show. I had never been in an ambulance. Nor had I encountered such a big-cast emergency. Sitting in the front seat of an ambulance, I had various thoughts. But the multi-button control panel around me was too complex for my mind to take in. As the ambulance moved along, my heart beat faster. I was on an urgent mission, I said to myself.
Long story short, after my husband transferred to the emergency room, he was so conscious that he kept correcting the doctors and nurses that he had chest tightness but not chest pain. The cardiologist was able to schedule him to do a procedure in no time. By noon, he underwent an angioplasty after tests found a couple of blood vessels to the heart were blocked. The procedure went smoothly and he had to stay overnight in the hospital for observation.
I was impressed by the efficiency of the medical staff who dealt with my husband’s case. The nurses who helped him to go through that difficult evening were friendly and responsible. They patiently answered my questions. I felt relieved. That’s quite different from China. The Chinese nurses are often too busy to communicate with the patient’s family. There are too many patients and not enough nurses in China. Quantity overwhelms quality. Perhaps hospitals in China should think about tying hospital payments to patient satisfaction.
I was also impressed by the advanced medical equipment used in the hospital in America. For instance, it was the first time I saw computerized IV injection and a digital bleeding stopper. TV remote is connected with the buzzer to the nursing station. The barcode on the patient’s wristband is like a signature that allows nurses to access the patient’s profile. A tiny piece of stent made of metal wire can unblock my husband’s artery. How amazing modern technology is.
Most importantly, I appreciate the great work the medical staff has done. It’s still beyond my belief that my husband is released from the hospital safe and sound in such a short time.
Blowout, poems by Denise Duhamel. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press Pitt Poetry Series, 2012. $15.95.
Reviewed by CL Bledsoe
Duhamel charts the rise and fall and aftermath of a relationship in these poems, from the first real sparks to the warning signs to the realization it’s over, the divorce, and the settling of ashes. Her language is sedate, avoiding the easy trap of sentimentality and melodrama, though at times in danger of going too far the other way and reading like line-broken essays which rely on the subject matter to carry the reader, especially with some of the long-lined, multiple-page poems. This is, of course, the popular style, and Duhamel is a popular poet. One of the main reasons for this is her humor, which shines in many of these poems, even though she’s sharing often quite personal and obviously painful material. As Mel Brooks said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die. Duhamel bears her soul, sharing the darker stuff, and laughing along with us at her own, and our own, humanity.
“How It Will End” is a clear standout and the opener for the collection. It describes the couple witnessing a lifeguard fighting with his girlfriend. The onlookers immediately project themselves onto the couple, though they can’t actually hear what’s being said, “My husband thinks the lifeguard’s cheated, but I think/she’s sick of him only working part time/or maybe he forgot to put the rent in the mail.” (11-13). I actually chuckled a few times at this poem. How often does that happen? The onlookers’ own frustrations come out – the true success of Duhamel in this poem is her timing. She surprises the reader with her honesty and humor. “’You never even give the guy a chance and you’re always nagging,/so how can he tell the real issues from the nitpicking?’/ and I say, “She doesn’t nitpick!” and he says, “Oh reall?/Maybe he should start recording her tirades…” (25-28). The pacing and rising action of the poem is perfect (which is interesting as Duhamel later shares that she never really learned to write fiction because she missed a fiction writing class).
In addition to her marriage woes, Duhamel charts much of her love-life, but again, in a non-melodramatic and often quite touching way. “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” “Fourth Grade Boyfriend,” and others like this break up the tone of the book, adding more humor and warmth. “Shortcut” describes an ominous encounter with a group of older boys that could’ve gone very badly for the young Denise. She also moves to deftly-rendered character studies which also follow the theme of love and relationships.
The portrait of Duhamel’s ex-husband is very unflattering. An artist who was often unemployed, or underemployed, one isn’t quite sure what it was that attracted her in the first place, other than the allure of his art, itself. Duhamel pokes fun at herself; she realizes that her choices in life could reflect poorly on her. But who hasn’t made dumb choices? And who hasn’t thrown good money after bad and stayed in a negative situation rather than changing it? Duhamel has emerged from these experiences wizened and confident. She also realizes that she doesn’t have anything particularly new to add to this idea of lost love. It’s the same old story, but her humor, her honesty, and her attitude “make it new” and make her work truly exceptional.
By Songyi Zhang
If you ask a Chinese in his twenties or thirties—are you a fanglu? you’ll be very likely to get a positive answer. These days the number of Chinese fanglu (literally, house slaves) grows as quickly as the domestic economy. They have to work even harder than most people to pay their huge mortgages. My two-month stay in China refreshes my memory of the costly housing.
The property price boom appears across the country, mostly in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chongqing. The real estate market price has gone up double or even triple in less than a decade. Take my home city, Guangzhou, for an example, one square meter on average cost about five thousand RMB (approx. 840 US dollar per 10.8 sq feet) ten years ago. Now, it costs at least ten thousand RMB per square meter. So the price of a two-bedroom flat can easily come up to one million three hundred thousand RMB (approx. two hundred thirty thousand US dollars).
That means to buy a house in China, you have to be a millionaire. But even in the well-developed United States, millionaires only make up about one percent of the total population. In China, there’re many upstarts becoming millionaires in recent years. They create such a bubbly international scene that Chinese people have a shocking power to spend money, buying luxury goods and possessing private vineyards, yachts and jet planes. But the world doesn’t understand how many common people in China are still struggling for a better place to live.
I happened to be in Guangzhou this January when the central government enacted new rules to limit house purchase. Thus, the mortgage interest is higher for those who already own a house and attempt to buy a second or third house. The measures aim to curb the skyrocketing realty investments. As a result, the housing market price in Guangzhou, for instance, came down ten percent in the beginning of the year.
However, that minor decrease doesn’t relieve much of the fanglu’s burden. Today, newlyweds would rather live by themselves than with the husband’s parents. So young couples who plan to get married are under tremendous pressure to purchase a million-yuan-worth flat. By the time they pay off the house, they may turn gray-haired people. While young people can work hard to achieve their goals, the older labor workers may never live in a house of their own. They’re the typical “sandwich class”—neither too underprivileged to receive government housing subsidies, nor sufficiently well off to make the down payment. The housing market price seems to go faster than what they earn and save.
No wonder people often say, those who have a house can afford more, those who don’t have a house can hardly afford one. And between these two extremes live the fanglu struggling under the weight of their mortgages.
“Speaking as an irrelevant atom of fleeting may-fly consciousness on a dust-mote planet amid countless planets in a forgotten corner of an overlooked galaxy amid billions of such random aggregations of violent fire in a chaotic cosmos, I hope I have a few decades left before my loosely cooperating atoms dissolve their partnership and erase my memories and awareness and return to the earth to fuel dandelions and robins’ eggs, because I’m enjoying myself.”
– Michael Sims (no relation to our editor)
Marrowbone (Beetnik Press)
Relic (Appaloosa Press)
Unbridaled (Valium Vixen Press)
Reviewed by Brigette Bernagozzi
Several new chapbooks and independent literary presses have made their way into the world this week, and I’ve had the pleasure of reading three of them in particular. All three have been penned by women and all three relate to the natural world in mysterious ways. The first is Hannah Kreitzer’s Marrowbone, which has been described as a collection of “myths and fables” by the publisher: “These three stories will whisk the reader to arcane and mysterious lands, but the darkest journeys take place within the human heart.”
Indeed, Marrowbone delivers to the reader a strange world filled with unusual characters, including one of the most intriguing characters in this slim volume, a bony animal-like figure who befriends a fellow traveler:
That night the sun gave swift surrender to the butter-pale half moon. I fell asleep with ground squirrel and cold water in my stomach, the bonebuck’s ribs bracing my spine, and I dreamed a sky full of crows layered dozens-thick between the clouds and earth. Bones were strewn all through the field around me—ribs and limbs cast askew like forgotten omens. Snow came down through the crows’ wings, stacking up around the bones and settling on my boots…
The stories in this book lead the reader to some fascinating and unexpected places, and we never lose our confidence in Ms. Kreitzer’s vision and skill as we journey along with her characters. Chelsea Ardle, one of the publishers of Marrowbone and co-founder of Beetnik Press, shared with me her impressions of Ms. Kreitzer’s take on the natural world and of the chapbook itself:
Marrowbone takes the reader to places unknown, and yet, emotionally familiar—a woman going through her time of the month, trying to find some comfort; a girl trying to find her rhythm on a path unknown; a love lost. In her fictional tales, Kreitzer uses subtle symbolism to tell old stories through new eyes. In her descriptions of place, I think it is easy to recognize the author’s own ties to land.
On a more personal note, the publisher continues: “I will tell you here that Kreitzer is a strong supporter of being barefoot for as long as it is possible during the year. Her feet are calloused and knowledgeable of the places she has walked, the land she lives on. This fact, shows through in the chapbooks stories to me, especially ‘Threefold.’”
As I read this volume, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the way Ms. Kreitzer distills the mysterious into concrete terms. A native of Maine, she cites as one of her writerly influences John Prine, “who is a quiet master of earth-stained truth and humor,” and has said of her own connection to place: “I love the woods and the dirt and the shared heritage of stoicism. Being from Maine means knowing something about space and silence. I’m grateful for that.” Ms. Kreitzer has proven herself an expert in those very topics via the earthy yet elusive stories in this collection.
After hearing Lorena Williams read from her new nonfiction chapbook Relic last week in Braddock, PA, I quickly became enamored with the honest resilience of her prose. While she is currently a writing teacher at two universities, the bio on the back of the book also tells me that she has played the roles of “Wilderness Ranger… wildland firefighter…and…whitewater guide,” so by the time I open her chapbook to the first page, her well-wrought descriptions of place don’t surprise so much as thrill the restless wanderer buried somewhere within me. Her descriptions of the natural environment are shot through with a quiet kind of beauty:
My jog takes me along the ditch road past rolling hills of sagebrush, the windswept Oregon desert silent but for the tee-dee, tee-dee of pygmy nuthatches huddled together in the morning sun. The crunch of my shoes through crusty snow disturbs the tiny blue-gray birds into a chattering departure, only for them to alight on the very same branches moments after I pass.
Ms. Williams displays a finely tuned sense of place in these tales, as befits her biography on the back cover. I find myself intrigued with this description of the author’s roots: “A native of the American West, Lorena Williams has long preferred rock to brick, sage to streets.” Released by Appaloosa Press, Relic displays the tension between the Oregon landscape of Ms. Williams’ roots and the Pittsburgh cityscape that is her more recent home:
Content with the reasonably unchanged vista—the cows, the distant tractor making its way up Graham Boulevard—I turn toward home and prepare to lie.
“No—I actually really like living in a city,” I say through a mouthful of scrambled egg. “It’s great being so close to everything, you know? I ride my bike pretty much everywhere.”
Throughout Relic, Ms. Williams confides in the reader as she explores a kind of longing for the land of her childhood, and we can only respond with appreciation for the beauty of both her landscapes, real and longed-for, and her words themselves.
Shannon Hozinec’s chapbook Unbridaled, a book of poems, also makes its debut this week. According to her bio, Ms. Hozinec is a Pittsburgh poet who “is powered by an oft-lethal combination of whiskey and hairspray!” I appreciate the humor in this description, though the majority of poems featured in the book are of a far more serious nature than this brief description.
According to the publisher, this intriguing collection of poems “examines what happens in a post-apocalyptic society after a pseudo-human creature corrals a horde of lostlings under his wing. It engages with bloodlust and dominance, sacrifice and self-preservation, gender relegation and destruction—with what is earth, what is meat, and what is unalienable within us all.” An earthy kind of premise, indeed! While this description sounds terrifying to me, the poetry itself is a gifted mixture of surprising images and juxtapositions like this:
The sky ate and ate, clutching
the open spaces in our jaws where
it flashed through and became the world.
and this one from later in the same poem:
Past the hungry days, gathered,
shudder as we remember how it felt to eat our least favorite dogs.
On the whole, I found Ms. Hozinec’s use of language to be thought-provoking and often astonishing. Witness for yourself in an excerpt from “The Melting Town”:
Besmeared with mud as we were–
as we walked, we created the ground. And oh,
we are such a wooden bunch,
wearing gristle-grain proudly on our chests–
each step turned old beasts to ash.
Her images resound and linger, long after the book has been set down.
It’s Senior Prank Season. This year’s Best In Show goes to the kid who snuck out of class, and put lubricated condoms on each of the outer third floor doorknobs. I don’t approve of this, which is not the same as saying that it doesn’t garner a certain perverse respect on my part.
Today at lunch, we had nominations for the annual Millardian Award.
Mr. Avril calls us to order, and begins, “First, an announcement. The last day of school will be March the 3rd.” Which is to say that it will be the last full day of instruction before — field trips, more fields trips, emergency field trips, cramming for the state exam, the pre-state-tests, the state test, the post-state-tests, benchmark tests, preparing for senior prom, senior prom, preparing for junior prom, junior prom, Culture Week, and senior skip day, just to mention a few.
Then the Millardian Nominations.
The Milliardian is named in honor of Millard J. Fillmore, deemed by our Social Science Department to be the president who came — and here is our single criterion for the award — as close as is humanly possible to doing nothing at all while still breathing.
In the administrator category, one nomination went to Dr. Hendricks, who, during her professional development session, showed a half-hour film without turning on the sound. It was like some bizarre silent flick without the sub-titles. And nobody in the audience said anything either. The session was so inane that the silence was greeted as a relief.
In the teacher category, we nominated Mr. Martinez. He was asked to sub for a language class. Since he’s Mexican, he goes in, lectures for a whole hour in Spanish. It was a Chinese class.
Mrs. Lane, our next nominee, began a lecture on Melville by saying, “Moby Whale is a big white dick.” Then she just dismissed the class. What would be the point of carrying on? The sweet little detail I love is that, during this one sentence lecture, she stretched out her arms as a kind of measure of length. Or perhaps hung-ness.
In the Total Dissociation category, we have Mr. White. He had a meeting with our batty vice-principal. She talks, and he stares. And stares. And stares. He becomes so dissociative that she runs into the hall for help, because she thinks he’s had a brain seizure.
The nomination for Best Announcement goes to Mr. Danbury. Danbury read a list of maybe fifteen foreign students. Slaughters, just slaughters, every single name. Then he gets confused and announces, “Ah, the names I just read, ah, you don’t need to do anything. Everybody else needs to go to 314.”
Avril concludes, “Nominations will be open until March 8th, the day Millard Fillmore died, as near as anyone can tell. Lunch is adjourned sine die.”
There’s an announcement, an “emergency faculty meeting” immediately after school. On the way, North mumbles something like, “Somebody better be having sex with a student, because I was planning a barbeque.”
It turns out that we, the district, need to spend half a million dollars by Friday. Someone downtown didn’t read the bit that said this grant money had an expiration date, Friday. So now, rather than spend it over the course of a year, we’ve got Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
There are some conditions. The grant it’s not for core academics. It’s for stuff like field trips, extra-curricular activities and like that. All of which have to be ordered and done by Friday. So field trips are out, as are 99.9% of all extra-curricular activities, because we couldn’t possibly get a bus, plan, get the thing done and all that by Friday.
We can also spend it on “perishables”. No one knows what a “perishable” is. North mutters, “Can you spend it on me? I’m perishable.”
There’s some talk about educational movies for the kids. I suggest “Into Great Silence” and “Last Year At Marienbad”, both of which are duly noted. I’m asked to spell Marienbad. No one ever explains “perishable”.
In the end, we settle on are three huge pizza parties for the entire school. For three days, every day from one to three. It’s being billed as a celebration. North asks for his pizza to be vegetarian. The principal gets so mad he puts North in charge of the events.
Last thing I hear is North on his cell phone ordering “854 pepperoni pizzas, and one vegetarian, for tomorrow at one. And the same order for Thursday. And the same order for Friday.”
I’m guessing that , for the first time in human history, by Friday there will be teenagers who will be tired of seeing free pizza.
The rest of the money we just throw back.
Engaging in Life with Barrett Warner, Associate Editor of Free State Review
By Nicole Bartley
At first glance, you may not believe that a man who raises horses at his farm in Maryland’s Gunpowder watershed is also a poetry editor for a literary magazine. Yet Maryland’s new biannual literary magazine, Free State Review, saw both its first issue release for Winter 2013 and Barrett Warner’s inauguration run as an associate editor. Warner’s lifestyle fits well with the magazine’s theme of “people doing things.”
Warner, a poet himself, concentrates primarily on poetry submissions and helps with short stories. However, much of the magazine’s content does cross his desk. He is also a reviewer for Coal Hill Review, Loch Raven Review, Rain Taxi, Rattle, Otis Nebula, JMWW, Concho River Review and Chattahoochee Review. His poetry has appeared in Gargoyle, California Quarterly, Roanoke Review, Natural Bridge, and Comstock Review, among others. His chapbook, Til I’m Blue in the Face, was published by Tropos Press.
Coal Hill Review managed to distract him from his busy schedule for an interview before a reading event in Pittsburgh on April 17, during which editors and featured writers will present at the East End Book Exchange.
Coal Hill Review: What got you into writing?
Barrett Warner: I was one of those kids that was just fascinated by letters. When I was a kid, I was constantly drawing letters. When I was in 2nd grade, I read the Magical Monarch of Mo by L. Frank Baum. It just totally set me sailing. I dabbled at [writing stories]. When I was in high school, I began writing stories in earnest. I had an ability to type three pages an hour and always had three hours. I must have three dozen stories from that period, all nine pages long.
CRH: When and why did you shift toward editing literary magazines?
BW: It was a shift that was 35 years in the making. I shifted primarily to writing poetry in 1994. I had published a dozen stories and was a finalist for a Stegner fellowship at Stanford University right out of college. I didn’t get it, but I was sort of on a real fiction track. I segued into editing by starting with revising my own poems. When I switched to writing poetry, most of my poems were outlines for writing my stories. It took me 10 years of revision to write the short story out of my poem.
CRH: How did you get the job?
BW: One of the other editors knew me and knew my work, and knew that in the past year I’d been doing a lot of book reviews and felt like I would be a good person. I had a lot of breadth of knowledge of what was out there and what people were trying to do. I’d written a lot of essays on it. It was just sort of putting a couple things together and it worked out.
CRH: How were you approached to do it? What was your reaction?
BW: The other senior editor called me up and I immediately wanted to do it. Part of it was anything that my friend Jim Clark was involved in, I felt like I wanted to be part of. I just knew instantly that I wanted to do it.
CHR: Were you part of the process to start this new literary magazine?
BW: Hal Burdett… he recruited Jim Clark and Jim recruited me. There’s another person who helps out with some of the readings we have and some of the managing. Her name is Raphaela Cassandra.
CHR: Did you set out to emulate a particular literary magazine, or to start with a clean slate?
BW: I’ve been publishing my work since 1982; Jim since 1966. Both he and I had seen a lot of literary reviews come—some make a splash—and we also saw ones that seem to stick around for a while. We knew what our own experiences had done and we just wanted to steal from the best and try to be original—just try to have our own focus. We knew what we liked and we just wanted to concentrate on that for the most part. We like the print journal, we liked activities, so a lot of the literature in our journal is not so much conceptual and speculative, it’s more like people doing things.
We really emphasize that we like literature that comes out of action. It doesn’t mean like an action-thriller. The easiest way to look at it: It used to be that you’d have a window installed by somebody that made the glass. There’s a real sort of in-touch with reality there. We go for the literature of people who are out there doing something and living life. Riding horses, rolling up nets, just engaged in life rather than a more academic sort of thing.
CHR: Were there any dreams for this literary magazine? What were the realistic expectations?
BW: Well, we sort of dream one issue at a time. Hal comes from this newspaper background, so the big thing in newspapers is distribution. We didn’t want this to necessarily be something that was read by 100 people just like ourselves—we wanted to see if we could get it out there in the world, both to be read by other writers and also with general readership. We want to be able to support print runs of 500. We want it to become a national literary magazine.
CHR: How was its name created?
BW: We were just kicking around some ideas and we like the Maryland state motto (The Free State), and just started with that. We’re all Marylanders. It’s sort of like a Maryland’s publication, but at the same time it’s also a little bit like bringing in the world a little bit and exporting the state a little bit.
CHR: How did you determine the cover image? Does it match with the magazine’s contents, or stand alone?
BW: When Mark Strand was in Baltimore, we got to know him a little bit. As a result, we had some of his paintings. I just asked him, “Mark, do you mind if we use [one] for the cover?” And he said, “Absolutely, go ahead.” The way it transferred to the cover, you can’t see it well. It’s a very sort of Prince Edward seascape. In the original painting, it … [is] as if you’re viewing a book that’s opened—viewing it from the top. Not all of that came out when we digitized it. We just thought it was a striking portrait of land, sea, and sky. I do think it matches with the content in the sense of cross-genre. We have a poem submitted by a novelist, we’ve got an essay by a poet, we’ve got a poet who wrote two short stories in plain verse. So there’s a real cross-genre element of people stepping outside themselves. Mark is much more known as a poet, so that’s why we were interested in having him as a painter.
CHR: Was there a minimum page count in mind for the first issue?
BW: We just wanted to have enough pages to be able to have a spine, so that put us in the 60s range. We ended up having around 90 pages. We were really worried we weren’t going to have enough pages. But submissions came in. The funny thing is that we had only one rejection.
CHR: How did you advertise for submissions?
BW: We just put the word out like word of mouth. We canvassed a lot of readings and talked to people. We sent smoke signals up everywhere. We did everything we could to put the word out during announcements at the poetry readings—we let people know we were up and running. We felt like we got some really nice submissions. For the next issue, of course, we got swamped by submissions. [Page count is] not a problem we’re ever going to have again.
CHR: Did you solicit for stories and, if so, how did you decide who you were going to ask?
BW: We just let people know that we were putting together a literary review. A couple of people that sort of followed my book reviews, they knew about it, so some of them sent in work. We didn’t make a special appeal.
CHR: Will you solicit in the future?
BW: Our policy is: “Hey, we’re just letting people know.” We feel really good about it. We think these issues are taking really nice shapes. I suspect if we have special theme issues, [we will solicit].
CHR: How long did it take to receive submissions after advertising?
BW: It took about two months before we got the first batch in. In the first batch was Edgar Silex, Barbara DeCesare, Chris Toll (who died after he submitted), and Jessica Lynn Dotson. The interesting thing there is that Edgar and Chris and Barbara were veteran writers. Jessica Lynn Dotson had not published anything before. But since we took those two poems, she’s been in six other magazines and has a Pushcart nomination. She’s just skyrocketing—this is all within three months. Two other authors, Bethany Schultz Hurst and Katherine Cottle, after we accepted their work, they became finalists for the Yale Younger Poetry Award.
Part of the success, I think, is that we were able to put the word out and we’ve been in the business a long time. Probably, if you ask the other writers, they would say, “I always wondered how long it would take Bar and Jim to do something like this.” The other thing is: Because we’re so involved with literature, writing poems and stories and doing all the book reviews and going to a lot of readings, we’re all able to find these authors when they’re really on the rise.
CHR: How did you determine what piece is featured on the website, like Bethany Schultz Hurst’s?
BW: We’re just basically trying to feature a different one every month. First we chose Scott King, and then we chose Bethany. Part of it had to do with the timing of when they made submissions. Scott King submitted his work early, so we had more time to fall in love with him. As for Bethany, she is somebody I’ve sort of been tracking for six months and I’m seeing her get more and more stuff out there. So I felt like I knew her a little bit as well. The point of the splash page on the website is to share a story about the author, if there’s a story to be told.
CHR: Is anyone on the staff paid, or is it all volunteer?
BW: We’re all crazy volunteers.
CHR: 14 clams?
BW: We’re happy to receive clams. We were offered a dozen oysters, but that’s not a rarity in Annapolis. We took the oysters but we still made them buy the review. None of us are used to being hustlers—we’re not used to being salesman. We’re just trying on these outfits and doing the best we can to make it work.
by John Samuel Tieman
Did I ever tell you about the time I met Margaret Thatcher?
Harold Wilson arranged for me to do an interview at 10 Downing Street. I was researching my master’s thesis in British history at Oxford in 1978.
I really had no idea what to expect. Compared to the White House, 10 Downing Street is very unassuming. I was shown into a small vestibule. I remember smoking a cigarette, and putting it out in a small plate. While smoking, I admired a painting. I suddenly realized I was staring at a Gains borough. I didn’t want to think about what I’d just put my cigarette out in.
The front door opens, and in suddenly comes James Callaghan and his cabinet, followed by the shadow cabinet. What I remember about Margaret Thatcher is her smile and her handshake — they weren’t so much automatic and facile as they were spring loaded.
I did the interview for my thesis. I went to exit. As soon as I walked out, there were cameras, a bank of microphones — I felt like saying, “Well, I’m glad to see there’s such interest in my master’s thesis. Footnotes are going fine …”. But my appearance was quickly followed by a look of disappointment on the part of the reporters. It turns out that, at that hour, Britain was negotiating the transition of the colony of Rhodesia into the independent nation of Zimbabwe. That, and Tieman was researching his thesis in British history.
Debbie came to work with her sweater tied around her waist. For that, she got a letter of reprimand from the principal. Debbie is beautiful, Phi Beta Kappa from Northwestern, and extraordinarily competent after only two years on this job. So, of course, the principal hates her. But she doesn’t ask why.
I miss The Why Jar. Lenny Gates used to keep The Why Jar. But, sadly, it is a custom that has, like so many great customs, fallen into disuse.
When I first began at this school, everyone had to put a quarter into The Why Jar every time someone asked why-question, a how-question, or tried to use logic when confronted with absurdity. For example, one might ask, “Why am I making two copies of lesson plans nobody reads?” There’s a quarter for The Why Jar. Or, “How am I supposed to answer the vice-principal when she says, Don’t forget – What was it? – you’ll remember then remind me”? Cha-ching goes The Why Jar. Sometimes you can compound a Why Jar Violation, like “Why do they make announcements before school? How are the kids supposed to act on that announcement when some of them are not even off the bus yet? Here’s what they need to do …”. Such a compound cost Sullivan about sixteen bucks one lunch. Art The Art Teacher just drops-in a saw-buck every once in a while, this for violations he makes while ranting to himself. At the end of the year, we treat ourselves to lunch. I think the year we started state testing, we treated ourselves to The Ritz.
Speaking of the state test, rumor has it that The Great State is opting out of No Child Left Behind! Instead, there will be a leaving exam created by the state. This does give rise to consideration of Publius’ Third Law Of Educational Dynamics — A bad idea in motion tends to stay in motion until it is acted upon by another bad idea. Nonetheless, there is some cause for celebration.
I’m also a little worried about the loss of material. Some folks are inspired by beauty. I’m inspired by absurdity. That said, beauty comes and goes, but absurdity is forever. I’m actually somewhat comforted by my wife’s notion that “We live in a stupid state,” because there will always be fresh material. And we do live in a stupid state. I thank Jesus for Arkansas and Alabama, because that’s the only reason my state comes in 48th on most shit lists.
On a brighter note, the School Board and the City Council today are honoring our basketball team for being State Champions. I’m also touched by the comment of one sports reporter, who notes how polite our kids are. And it’s true — they clean-up real good. It’s nice to have something unequivocally good to celebrate.
Speaking of good news, I just heard that Valerie this year graduates from Howard, and is going to Georgetown law school next year. I almost cried when her mother emailed me the news. I taught Valerie in 7th grade. That middle school had all the sadness, indeed tragedy, of a Black ghetto school in America. Three of her classmates were killed in drive-bys. One got killed when her older sister was driving 90 down Lakeside Boulevard. But Valerie made it to law school. And her old teacher almost cried. Why? Because today I didn’t need to ask why I do this job.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
Executive Director of Pittsburgh’s Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, Janera Solomon, met Kate Watson-Wallace eight years ago at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. Solomon was impressed with her creative idea for a dance trilogy called “American Spaces,” where she would create work in a house, a car, and a store. The two developed a relationship, and since then, Watson-Wallace has performed in Pittsburgh several times.
This time, she and her company, Anonymous Bodies, spent a year in residency at the theater, working on her world premiere of “Mash Up Body,” an installation piece that ran this past weekend for an intimate crowd at the Alloy Studios.
The studio was transformed into a theater-in-the-round, with black curtains draped over the floor to ceiling windows, new lighting, and a full sound board for collaborator and musician, Christopher Sean Powell.
The hour long show took place in two “acts.” In the first half, partially inspired by a David Lynch film, the performers dressed in all black, casually entering and exiting the space from the audience seating. The shape of the phrasing did have a “Lynchian” feel, random like a dream sequence, at times baffling, but always entertaining.
In creating the piece, Watson-Wallace was interested in the “random ways in which we use our bodies to play people we are not.” The dancers did use traditional movement styles, but just as we would start to see a classic contemporary phrase, the performers would suddenly stop, pose in an unusual way, model a runway walk, or even talk to an audience member. Each performer showed us their many distinct qualities, sometimes spastic and sometimes quite vulnerable.
Mostly, the work was humorous. In one section, Devynn Emory spoke into a microphone, directing the other dancers in random tasks – breathing in and out; lifting one another; and lying down to snuggle. The audience even joined in for the “tonal work,” poking fun at the vocal spiritual practice.
The second half was mostly improvised, with the idea of “mashing up” or wrecking the first half. Cori Olinghouse entered the space in loud pink and purple clothing, an orange chair slung over her shoulder before she threw it violently to the floor. The rest of the cast entered in the same bright colors, trashing the space with cords, clothing and more chairs.
One hilarious moment came near the end when Marjani Forte mimicked Watson-Wallace in a classic question and answer forum that often follows dance performances. “Thank you for having us…Yes, I was interested in having a variety of bodies on stage…Thank you so much to the Kelly-Strayhorn.”
The music grew louder over Forte’s voice on the microphone, and suddenly the entire cast was dancing, party-style, to Janet Jackson’s “All For You.”
If it all sounds like sixty minutes of random absurdity, I assure you it wasn’t. In fact, it didn’t go on quite long enough, and Watson-Wallace could have been on stage much more often.
Of Watson-Wallace’s work, Solomon said it best: “Even in the moments when she pushes her audience, she’s not simply toying…she’s inviting us into her world and asking us to consider seeing her (and ourselves) differently. I appreciate that opportunity.”
The audience clearly appreciated the opportunity as well, showering the performers with excited applause. Although we may have been unsure of what we had just witnessed, it somehow resonated with us deeply. And that kind of resonance, to me, equals success.
City of Asylum. Conceived of and directed by Cynthia Croot. Henry Charity Randall Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial Hall, University of Pittsburgh Oakland campus. April 4-14, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8PM, Sunday Matinees at 2PM, ASL Interpretation Performance Saturday, April 6th at 8PM.
reviewed by Dylan Jesse
For the first time in the long history of our species—the first to develop so complex, intricate, and varied a system as language—we have the ability to broadcast our every utterance on a global scale at the slightest whim.With the advent of ever more expansive and refined communication technologies, every bad joke, minor quip, heavy thought, and meager comment can reach from our neighbors to our friends to people we may never meet. We put ourselves so readily out to the globally connected community, but how many of us are willing to face imprisonment, hard labor, torture, or exile for the thoughts and words we proffer? This is a consequence that many courageous individuals—whether or not we ever read their works or learn their names—face across the globe even as you and I sit and read these words from the comfort of our chairs. Our words are arguably one of our greatest achievements as a species, and even in this hyper-connected age they can bear a terrifying weight. They can spark revolutions (look to the impact outlets like Twitter had on the momentum of the protests in Egypt and Tunisia for a recent example) or end the lives of those who penned them. Thankfully, Pittsburgh provides refuge for a few invaluable voices as part of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), allied stateside as part of the Cities of Asylum network with Las Vegas and Ithaca. An under-sung feature of the Steel City, this program gets much-needed exposure in the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre’s newest original production, City of Asylum.
In its 90-minute continuous run time, City of Asylum brings to the stage a stirring collage of material cobbled together from interviews, videos, online journals, poem, and other works of the authors that have been supported by the City of Asylum program operating here in Pittsburgh: Israel Centeno (from Venezuela), Khet Mar (from Burma), Horacio Castellanos Moya (from El Salvador), and Huang Xiang (from China). These four luminaries have faced horrors unimaginable to most of us for the works they authored—be them journalistic, fictional, or poetic—and it is to their credit that they had the determination and courage to say what they have. City of Asylum highlights the beauty and artfulness of their words as well as the unfathomable brutality they endured in their homelands. The production brings together the circumstance, character, and a brief taste of the content that has brought these four individuals to Pittsburgh as part of ICORN. The interweaving of the writers’ works with dramatic presentations of their personal stories and own words is a challenging task that, under the direction of Cynthia Croot, the Pitt Rep cast pulls off with acumen.
The production itself is a patchwork multimedia presentation that utilizes the fullness of the proscenium stage’s backdrop to immerse the audience in the world of each of the four featured writers, starting with the most recent City of Asylum writer-in-residence, Israel Centeno, and working back to the first, the revolutionary dissident poet Huang Xiang. Each is handled differently: the emphasis on Centeno’s own works; the childhood and eventual emigration of Khet Mar; the captivating depiction of Castellanos Moya’s journalistic background and writing process; the torment of Huang Xiang and the entrancing poetry he was able to produce even during years of torture and incarceration. City of Asylum is smartly crafted to whet the audience’s appetite to seek out the authors’ works themselves.
While the entire cast delivers emotionally challenging and memorable performances, not to be missed is the Pitt Rep debut of Weiqi Li and his powerhouse performance of Huang Xiang’s poetry (projected on the backdrop in the author’s native writing) in the fourth and closing act. The merging of a bi-lingual spoken presentation, the multimedia projection, and the otherwise spartan staging lay bare the beating heart of the writing that provided the impetus for City of Asylum. Though the other three acts are all done entirely in English (with a few words and phrases exempted), all are done with deft emotional precision. We are truly privileged to have them as part of our city, as part of our Pittsburgh literary culture, and as part of our global writing community. And we are equally privileged to have a director, a university, and a repertory theatre that are willing to help share their contributions with not just Pittsburgh, and not just the literary or theater-going audience, but with the ever-growing global voice demanding the freedom of and respect for artistic expression.
A Mountain City of Toad Splendor, poems and prose by Megan McShea. Baltimore: Publishing Genius Press, 2012.
Reviewed by C.L. Bedsoe
When I read collections like this, I’m frequently reminded of the excellent poem (and song) “It’s Saturday” by John S. Hall which contains one of my favorite lines: “Sense cannot be made. It must be sensed.” Hall is getting at the core of art. There’s something in it that doesn’t have to be explained, perhaps shouldn’t be explained. McShea’s collection, similarly, doesn’t jump out and fish-slap the reader with obvious meaning. Rather, it gambols around meaning like an impromptu interpretive dance. Poems range from the building blocks of “Table Saw,” each line of which begins with “Table” and adds another word which changes the meaning of each successive line: “Table/Table saw/Table saw bird” etc. to surreal stories like “The Appointment,” whose imagery shifts like a stream-of-conscious fill-in-the-blank. Here’s an excerpt from near the middle of the flash piece, in which McShea describes a mother and son’s outing. They go to a building which immediately doesn’t impress. It is “flatter than we had imagined it” and has a confusing intercom: “It sounded like the ocean, but in a very high resolution, with cries of bird and shouts tossed by waves and even sand under our feet.” They undress and wait in a room:
“This is nothing like I expected,” said my mother, who had persuaded me to join her in coming here. “Well, what did you expect?” I asked. “I thought it would be rosy, like a womb,” she said. She sounded sad.
“Change your rabbits!” came a shout from up the stairs, and then again, descending closer, “change your rabbits immediately!” A man in coveralls appeared with wide black eyes. “Oh, pardom me,” he said when he saw us there. “You’re not the people I thought you were.”
But it was too late, for mother and I had already changed our rabbits.
McShea is quite playful. She’s included poems with titles such as “Four Unrelated Sentences with Unrelated Elements,” “Conditional Clauses,” and “Pledge of Allegiance,” which is a deconstruction of the titular pledge, but also an homage to the idea of the thing. “Three Large Swollen Things” is a triptych in which each line section is an acrostic spelling out “Large Swollen Things.” From section 1:
Lingering amidst our
rigged up with fancy
glows a bride
entirely made of cotton
sticks to sin talk
when it wants fed
options evaporate quickly then
like it never lost anything
not without a certain inky grace
to be hewn from
in their suckling linens
nesting there like a
gull out of
“11 Irritations that Morning” is a more straightforward poem. It begins, “I want things and beautiful/light, a perfectly soft don’t.” It’s a beautiful ode to being. “On the street, that recently-cleaned texture/of things. To be alone daily makes/everyone seem interesting.” And isn’t that what poetry’s all about?
McShea is a mistress of sound and mood. “Baltimore Prayer” is a wonderful example:
Precisely this fogged window, which prevails in the cold, wet night, blinks out onto an uninhabited land of Other People’s houses and in sight of all that forgotten real estate, along with all the amiable conversations on phones across America and evenings shared in movie houses, around the corner from a recent homicide, down the block from wild lots and weeds, great unknowns, colossal, all evolving along with Darwin and his species. One’s life, assumed to be finite, ticking away. Night covers things up but you can still hear the rain.
Pressure comes from a thousand enemies buried in your heart. You practice fighting them, and then one day, it seems like they’re gone. One day, allowing for silences, it breaks. You can prepare. It’s like preaching. Ready yourself.
This afternoon, we had a faculty meeting, during which the vice-principal explained that we need to be nice to foreigners. This is because, “When Ho Chi Minh was in Wisconsin, he hated it. They weren’t nice to him. And that’s why we had the Vietnam War.”
I found this weirdly inspiring. For decades, I’d wondered why I fought in Vietnam, and now I had the answer — people are just not nice enough. Her remarks reminded me of a poem by Ernesto Cardenal in which a lonely Hitler waits for a young lady to pass. Below is my poem followed by Cardenal’s in Spanish:
for E. C.
every afternoon she’d stroll with her mother
along Mockingbird Lane and every afternoon
where Mockingbird crosses Bishop
Boulevard there at the corner
George Bush waited for her to pass
as university students learned how to kiss
and even the little children held hands
W. never learned how to dance
and he never dared a word with her
one day she passed without her mother
one day she passed with an ROTC cadet
then one day she didn’t stroll by at all
that’s why he bombed Iraq
that’s why he tortured anyone with answers
Todas las tardes paseaba
con su madre por la Landetrasse
Y en la esquina
de la Schmiedtor
todas las tardes
esperándola para verla pasar
Los taxis y los omnibus
iban llenos de besos
Y los novios alquilaban botes
en el Danubio.
Pero él no sabía
bailar. Nunca se atrevió
Después pasaba sin su madre
con un cadete.
no volvió a pasar.
De ahí más tarde
la anexión de Australia,
La guerra mundial.
reviewed by CL Bledsoe
by Sean Patrick Hill
Buffalo, NY: BlazeVox Books, 2011.
BlazeVox poetry collections tend to have three things in common: physically, they tend to be oversized (not necessarily thick, but wide or tall) and very attractive; stylistically, they tend to be experimental (whatever that means – so basically, they don’t usually publish poems that slap the reader in the face with obvious meaning, but rather poems that require a little bit of work; you might need to strap on your snorkel, fins, and air tank to plumb the depths of a BlazeVox collection) which doesn’t mean that they’re simply gibberish; and quality-wise, they tend to be pretty strong. I can think of several recent BlazeVox collections I’ve really enjoyed: Sarah Sarai’s The Future Is Happy, Kristinia Marie Darling’s The Moon and Other Inventions, and Rob McLennan’s Grief Notes, to name a few. Hill’s collection has all of these qualities in common. It’s laid out length-wise with a beautiful cover, and it’s certainly a powerful collection of poetry by one of the most talented poets working today.
“The Emperor’s Nightingale” references the story of the mechanical nightingale we’ve all heard:
The song goes something like this: A kind of pining binds us in muslin and butcher’s strong. Only now have we begun to see to what extent we are unwritten. Leaves, integers, moths—of course we are machines in the ghost. I never said I wanted everything I touch to resemble gold.
Hill weaves a surreal tapestry reflecting a rural, poor upbringing in fresh, powerful images. “How is it we forget that some of us are not allowed to remain/poor,” he says, in “Poem” (7-8). There is comfort, of course, in the familiar, even if that familiar environment is a negative or limiting one. And there’s beauty in even the bleakest stories. “Moon reflected in a moving window” tells the story of a train wreck. It begins, “Cassidy laid his head like a zinc penny on the track./At five, the freight arrived from Omaha.” (1-2). He continues, “We’ve heard the story at every crossing, walking to the factory:/Kid wearing earphones full of noise, deaf to the afternoon.” (7-8). Hill is subtle, but isn’t that kid wearing the earphones BECAUSE he’s walking to the factory, which is probably his only real option for making even decent money? He’s hiding from the hopelessness of his world—that same world that might kill him. But in addition to the narrative aspects, Hill’s language describes the setting vividly: “A dog barks at the moon reflected in a moving window./Skin thickens around the ankles of utility poles.” The thickening skin, literally, could mean tar, but it implies so much so subtly. (4-5). In “Crossing Idaho,” he describes the weather: “Like a coffin carried on stage, snow falls and falls.” (1). One is reminded of Chekov’s line about the pistol in the first act. It’s not just the vividness of Hill’s imagery that’s outstanding; it’s the way he weights those descriptions with such powerful implications. In “The Taste of Bone,” he reminds us, “All we need do to experience disaster is be born.” (8).
Hill’s first collection, The Imagined Field, was an excellent debut, and he’s refined his talent here.
“A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery.”
– Nelson Algren (quoted by Garrison Keillor)
by John Samuel Tieman
Years ago, when I was young, I taught school on the island of Dominica. One day, I read to the students Alan Dugan’s “Love Song: I And Thou”. Immediately after class, a student asked me to recite the ending of the poem for him –
I can nail my left palm
to the left-hand crosspiece but
I can’t do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,
a help, a love, a you, a wife.
I recited it several times until he had it memorized.
A few moments later, as I walked to my next class, I passed that young man. He was speaking to his girlfriend. I overheard him say, “I can nail my left palm …”.
I swore I would write Dugan about that. I even found his post office box. And, like so many young people, I thought there was plenty of time.
And then I read that Dugan died. So today I’m writing to you — although we’ve never met — because a poetry reading — one you organized — is happening once again in my classroom.
Patrick Kramer, a gifted student teacher, is doing a lesson on spoken word poetry. I normally supervise him from a distance, so to say. But today, the room to which I often retreat is in use.
So I’m in the back of my classroom. I figure I’ll work on grades. Then Mr. Kramer begins a tape of a poetry reading, a reading you organized in 2009 in the Bowery. He plays three poems, compelling stuff. I stop my grading.
The assignment is for the kids to write, and present, their own poems. A couple of kids present very interesting poems. Then a young woman burns my inner ear with her words about her suicide attempt.
Did you ever think you’d inspire black kids and immigrant kids in St. Louis?
Over the years, I’ve had several principals and vice-principals who were truly mentally ill. A drug addict. A sadist. Tons of narcissists. I’m no diagnostician, but I believe my current vice-principal had brain damage a few years ago, when she had two severe back-to-back falls. Some days, that makes me sad. But it doesn’t make the day easier.
Like yesterday, when she goes up to Brian, and says, “Mr. Reuther, we need to” then just stares, then concludes, “you know.” Then just walks off.
By Eva-Maria Simms
Hardin, in The Tragedy of the Commons (1968) has argued that free, common spaces will inevitably be ruined by the selfish greed of the members of the commons. “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons” (p. 1244) Garbage is a step towards the ruin of our common spaces and a marker of the ethical failure of community members to pay their fair share and take only what the communal spaces can bear. It is a direct sign of the “tragedy of the commons”. However, Hardin’s argument about the inevitable destruction of commonly held places (like state parks and shared grazing land) through capitalist greed already assumes that the traditional social commons, which regulates the use of shared spaces on the local level, has been destroyed. But not all traditional commons’ have undergone Hardin’s tragedy, and I agree with Cox (1985) that the ruin of common spaces lies in the bioethical failure of communities to understand and manage the commons. Communities that understand, manage, and care for their common spaces have been able to protect the integrity of their natural places. One example of a commons that has survived since the 17th century comes from the Siegerland, the German region where I was born and raised.
The Siegerland is a hilly, forested, barren landscape in central Germany where tough, stubborn people have eked out their living growing rye and buckwheat, potatoes and root vegetables on small, steep fields. 2500 years ago the Celts built their iron smelters close to water sources and began the tradition of making charcoal by building Kohlenmeiler, which were wood piles that were carefully stacked and covered with clay and allowed to slow-burn for months in order to produce a very hot burning coal. The Celts left the Siegerland after all the beech woods were cut down. It took the forest 800 years to recover. The need for charcoal for metalworking and the use of tree bark in the tanning industry led over the centuries to a deforestation of many places in Europe, and the Siegerland was no exception.
In the heavily forested Siegerland the villages began to regulate the use of their common woods when, once again, their forests were threatened by the greed of individual land owners in the 17th century. The Hauberg was created when they incorporated all the surrounding forest land into the village bounds, compensated the land-owners with shares in the commonly held land’s productivity, and founded village societies that were responsible for regulating and managing the use of the forest. Village families used their Hauberg in an 18-year cycle, reaping different benefits from the trees and the land every year in rotation: growing rye in clear cut sections, harvesting firewood in older growth, feeding pigs on oak mast, selling mature wood and bark to the iron, charcoal, and tanning industries. The shares were passed down through the generations. The most important principle they followed was to take only so much out of nature as grows back at the same time so that future generations would not be endangered. They called this “Nachhaltigkeit”, which means something like “to endure over a longer time”, which we today call sustainability.
The Haubergsgesellschaft, the village organization that oversaw the use of the village forest, avoided the tragedy of the commons for almost 400 years. It teaches us that the tragedy of the commons is not inevitable. Implied in its success is also a lesson for urban nature stewardship: the tragedy of the commons lies not in the inevitable destruction of the commons, but in the inability of many communities to understand that they have a commons they are responsible for. As long as our urban nature spaces remain invisible to the adjacent communities they are also not appreciated and claimed as part of the neighborhood commons. No matter how many state laws and city ordinances regulate the use of urban forests, they will be ruined unless the local community reclaims them, makes them newly visible, and includes them within the imagined boundary of their neighborhood landscape.
Cox, S. J. B. (1985). No Tragedy of the Commons. Environmental Ethics, 7(1), 49-61.
Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162(3859), 1243-1248.
Looking for the Pony by Andrea Lepcio. Off the Wall Theater, 25 West Main Street, Carnegie, PA. Directed by Robyne Parrish. With Daina Michelle Griffith, Karen Baum, Theo Allyn, and Cameron Knight. Music by EMay. March 1–2, 7–9, 14–16 at 8:00 p.m. March 3 & 10 at 3:00 p.m.
Before the performance of Looking for the Pony begins at Off the Wall’s theater, you notice Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s set. In the center of the stage area is a large platform with two circular tiers. On the floor, a compass rose, the arrows pointing to all directions, radiates from its center. Behind this platform, against the rear wall, is an elevated desk. A fair portion of the wall is covered with chalkboard. Oh, there’s a seesaw, too, and a lectern.
Why the compass directions? Probably to express the physical distance between the two main characters, Ouisie and Lauren, but perhaps also reflecting an expression I’ve heard quite a bit recently: a “cancer journey.” One of these two women, friends from childhood, sisters by need rather than by blood, will be diagnosed with breast cancer early in the play and will endure a merry-go-round—it might almost be a roller coaster—of hope, fear, tests, doctor-shopping, filling out forms, contradictory diagnoses, insurance hassles, and the whole nine yards of “courageously battling” cancer, as too many obituaries have it.
If you’ve experienced cancer up close, you might hesitate to see this play. Don’t. It’s not a Disease of the Month tearjerker, though you might want a couple of tissues. It’s more about Ouisie’s dis-ease. Ouisie, who’s a few years younger than Lauren, is torn between getting on with her late vocation as a writer and “being there” for Lauren, who lives far away from her. Ouisie considers deferring her admission to graduate school, and the chance to study with a Big Writer, to stay with Lauren; but Lauren insists that she leave and take up this big chance. And Lauren continues to insist that Ouisie choose her writing over Lauren’s needs whenever a conflict arises.
Time is fractured. We jump forward a few months or a year, back twenty-five years, forward again. (OTW’s plays recent productions The Other Place and Gruesome Playground Injuries had this structure, too.) One minute the “sisters” are children on that seesaw, the next they are speaking on the telephone about Lauren’s children and Ouisie’s writing seminar. It’s to the credit of the director and the actors that this isn’t confusing. And that circular platform turns out to rotate, expressing the dizzying instability of dealing with cancer’s life-and-death doubt, while dealing with ongoing life.
The four local Equity actors are excellent. Karen Baum and Daina Michelle Griffith make the main characters touching and often funny. Theo Allyn and Cameron Knight play a zillion supporting roles each and range from moving to hilarious. There’s a Marx-brothers-like struggle between Allyn, as an insurance company representative, and Knight, as a lawyer trying to get her to approve payment for an expensive procedure. It’s a physical chase, wrestling match, mixed martial arts event.
I’ve seen the three women in many local productions, but Knight is new to me. Hats off to his infinite variety. He creates credible characters in a few minutes each. As a hair stylist and a vain celebrity doctor he’s exaggerated and funny; as the elderly client of Lauren, a social worker, he’s touching. And hurrah, the writing guru isn’t caricatured. Hurrah, too, that an African American actor is playing roles that don’t necessarily specify an African American.
reviewed by CL Bledsoe
The Switching/Yard, poems by Jan Beatty. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.
Anyone who’s ever ridden on a train has found themselves staring out the window and wondering at what we saw. The landscape, the towns we pass, the people; all evoke stories. IN her most recent collection, Beatty has written some of these stories. Beatty’s focus is on urban images, especially train yards and manufacturing. “California Corridor” gives us a view of Beatty’s world:
On the San Joaquin Line
between Modesto & Merced,
past the arroyos, past the fruit trees
in rows, rows—hands of the farm workers/
beauty always with blood behind it,
nothing free. (lines 1-6).
Her language is clean and straight-forward. She describes a beautiful and alien world full of hard-working, underpaid immigrants struggling to survive while waiting for “the angels of bread” (9). She describes California as “a wide,/wide lover” (12-13). A handful of Beatty’s poems describe her fascination with the natural world. “We Cover Our Heads Like Deer” is about a bunch of writers and artists bird watching. The situation is absurd; Beatty is instructed to cover her head with a blanket and walk like a deer, though she doesn’t know what that means. Beatty is often an outsider in these situations, just as she rides on a train observing the difficult lives of others but not entering them. “White Girl in a record Store” describes her attempt to broaden her horizons as she attempts to buy “Rapper’s Delight.” Beatty becomes embarrassed as the record store employees try to sell her a bunch of merchandise. She’s simply curious about a part of the culture she’s missed, but can’t make the leap from her comfort zone to actually connect.
The title poem describes Beatty’s trip to meet her birth father, passing through a manufacturing wasteland, “2 giant sleeping cranes, nothing as lonely as/a crane not working,” she begins. (1-2). As the train moves north away from the switching yard, Beatty describes a beautiful landscape, “…the sky’s/blue-dark with the trees going back to their night souls” (17-18). “We are all so/separate with the same lives,” she reminds (pg. 30, lines 16-17).
Though Beatty deals with some pretty weighty themes, she’s also got quite a sense of humor. “Dear American Poetry,” takes to task the lack of diversity in those poems selected for the major anthologies – diversity in terms of the race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. of the poets, but also for the lack of real emotive power in the poems. “Stein: Letter to a Young Rilke” has a similar tongue-in-cheek approach. She also touches on certain aspects of pop culture, mainly music, by addressing Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and the like.
But sense of place is the real focus of the collection. Beatty describes meeting her birth parents which adds to her desire for a connection with place. Beatty uses language and descriptions often reserved for the Rust Belt, but her focus is California and the west. It’s a changing landscape, at times barren and luscious. Beatty is as much an outsider as we are, trying to make sense of it, and we get to peek at her discoveries.
We had “an emergency faculty meeting”. So I took these notes.
“– The state test is coming up. Get worried.
– Teach the test and nothing else.
– We need everyone to pass the state test. So don’t give it to any kids who won’t pass.
– According to a new state regulation, we can now exempt some kids (they’re described as the lizards) who we know will flunk. Kids, for example, who have been speaking English for an hour fifteen minutes. So flunk anyone who won’t pass the test.
– On the other hand, the state mandates that we have a 95% passing rate. So don’t flunk anybody, because that makes us look bad.
– Also don’t give anyone a D. That makes us look like we’re passing kids we would otherwise flunk. Which, of course, is true.
– So if a kid is going to flunk, give the kid a C.
– Everyone is here all the time. We also need a 95% attendance rate. The last two weeks, we will have 100% attendance.
– To repeat. Do well on the test, and get the lizards out. But don’t flunk them. And everyone is here all the time.
– Oh, and don’t write the answers on the board. That made us look bad last year, because it made us look too good. That’s why we have to get a 91% this year. We got an 81% last year.
– Have a good day.”
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
With all the American contemporary dance happening in Pittsburgh lately, New Zealand company, Black Grace, came as a welcome surprise Saturday night.
Founding Artistic Director and Choreographer, Neil Ieremia, was born and raised in New Zealand, but attributes his signature style to his Samoan heritage. Growing up, singing and dancing were part of his traditional culture.
The company was formed in 1995, and for years was comprised of all men. When the original dancers’ careers came to a close, Ieremia found it difficult to find many new male dancers. He joked that in New Zealand, men are usually “growing beards and playing rugby.” Admittedly, I haven’t seen a rugby match since college, but the athletic style of Black Grace seemed equally, if not more, physically taxing than the extremely vigorous sport.
Ieremia asserts that the women he added to the company bring elegant lines to the choreography. But the men were equally impressive in that area. The entire company had an incredible athleticism that barely slowed during the two hour show. To develop the speed and stamina necessary to perform the work, the dancers cross-train, running hills and even wrestling to stay in shape.
The first half, called “Pati Pati,” was influenced by traditional Samoan dances that use body slapping and seated motifs. To the beat of a drum, the dancers pounded the floor, clapped their hands, and stomped their feet in complicated rhythms.
A particularly intricate section that used snapping and chanting came from an old piece about children’s hand games. The dancers had precision and power unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In repetitive jumps and falls to the floor, the energy didn’t waiver even once.
The second half began in silence, with a slower rhythm and partnering sequences using smaller groups of dancers. One visually beautiful section used a large light blue cloth. The dancers weaved in and around it, wrapped themselves inside of it, and lifted one another over top of it. Eventually, they held the cloth still, while images of varying landscapes were projected onto it. To the sounds of nature, scenes of mountains, oceans and seasons changing gave a break from the more vigorous movement.
Act 2 included more contemporary material, proving Ieremia’s talent in multiple genres. The tempo varied, and his use of space expanded from large group unison to interesting duets and trios. Although the program was a touch too long, the audience rose to their feet at the end, in awe of the uniqueness and dynamism that is distinctly Black Grace.
The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson
Soho Press, 2012
Reviewed by Nicole Bartley
Readers already know the ending of The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson when they begin the story. That’s what happens when it’s based off historical events, the back summary describes those events, and the prologue reveals too much. We know the main character poisons men in her village, gets caught, and survives—though she doesn’t know how she managed it all.
But that’s the whole point: She doesn’t know. The readers are tasked to figure it out. This book was never about what happens—it’s about how it happens and why. Instead of providing readers with a twist or surprise ending, Gregson takes them on a long journey.
Sari, the main character who was branded as a witch and is a social pariah, becomes engaged to her cousin Ferenc soon before her father dies. Within months after her father’s death, Ferenc and the rest of the village men are called off to fight in World War I. This results in the women letting their guards down and easing into comfortable friendships. When Italian POWs arrive, most of the villagers begin to conduct affairs. After the husbands return broken or more abusive, their women search for an escape. Sari discovers that her sweet fiancé has turned into a controlling, paranoid man. This sparks the village poisonings that go on for years. For a while, the other women view death as an easy fix to life’s problems until a botched murder attempt.
The story is faithful to historical events in Nagyrév, Hungary, between 1914 and 1929. The main midwife Julia turns into Judit, and Susi turns into Sari, Judit’s apprentice and the clerk who signs death certificates. The method of creating arsenic is the same, as are the detections and criminal investigation methods. Gregson researched the incidents well and incorporated all of them, weaving together possibilities with facts.
Despite deaths and legal ramifications, there is no grand climax, and there isn’t meant to be. Life is composed of defining moments of intense conflict and mundane actions, as if it follows rolling hills. So instead of a dramatic accusation, the final conflict is quiet and gradual, almost to the point of anticlimactic. However, this quality of authenticity is hindered by most of the characters lacking depth.
Perhaps Gregson’s characters couldn’t evolve during the writing process because she tried to adhere so closely to historical facts. Thus, most of the villagers represent shallow archetypes and are dull, predictable plot points. It’s hard to care about any of them. There is the battered wife who is quiet but has great personality when she’s left alone long enough; the wizened crone whom everyone else fears, but is really a pushover; the war-torn fiancé; the abusing husband; the kind and worldly older Italian lover; and the snobby village queen bee.
Of those, the strongest characters are Judit and Ferenc. Judit is crude, cynical, and indifferent toward the villagers, but also honest and affectionate toward Sari. They are kindred spirits because they are both outcasts and deal in herb lore. Judit emits an air of experience to the extent that she no longer cares about life. She is an aged bottle of wine turned to vinegar.
Ferenc is a well-rounded dynamic character. The gradual alterations in his personality are fantastic. He begins sweet and caring, if a little consumed by hormones. Readers will begin to believe that he’ll take good care of Sari after they’re married, and he’ll treat her well and appreciate everything about who she is. And finally, someone in life other than Judit will want her. However, readers’ faiths in him begin to falter when he imagines Sari’s likeness above the battlefield—apart, untainted. He becomes obsessed with his idea of her; she becomes his salvation and sense of control. His disappointment after returning to her reality contributes to his downfall. When he comes home, he’s mentally and emotionally broken. He’s suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and he’s paranoid. He begins to doubt Sari and control everything about their lives.
An excellent moment of foreshadowing occurs before he beats her. Sari knows that something is wrong. She recognizes Ferenc’s tightening control over her, his loosening grip on himself, and his absolute need for her. Gregson writes:
“They are engaged, they will marry, and then she will be his. She would be just the tonic he needs, to build up his strength, to make him brave enough to leave the house, to reclaim his life again. It’s different, everything is different now, but she’s still his. She is still his” (151).
It seems as if this realization should have been reason enough to leave. However, Sari makes excuses and tries to ignore the warning signs. In fact, readers will recognize danger in this passage but to Sari, it represents a balm of excuses to soothe her growing concerns.
Then he beats her. Savagely. And for petty reasons. After he’s done, his condescending words almost drip poison from the page. If any character in this book is meant to evoke emotion or malice from the readers, it could be him; it’s a mark of good writing when a character pisses off a reader. And Gregson’s technique of including Sari’s name in Ferenc’s dialogue—like speaking to an unruly but punished child—is particularly effective.
Sair, however, is just plain aggravating. Readers may be able to sympathize with her situation, but not with her. She is methodical and clever, but her emotions are flat and distant. Sari seems to observe her world and choose what to react to. She is supposed to be aloof; instead, she is stiff and predictable, as if she is always under the author’s control. Again, this may be from adhering to historical events. There is little substance that makes the readers feel sympathetic toward her. Readers may react more with “All right, let’s see what you do next,” instead of “I can’t wait to learn what happens!”
When the beatings begin, suddenly every aspect of womanhood roars into the story. Initially, Sari becomes annoying because of submitting and making excuses so easily. But when Ferenc endangers her child’s life, she becomes herself. The strength that the narration always talks about surfaces and readers finally see what Sari is capable of doing. But it ends there and she soon returns to her old self.
This is where the third-person point of view has failed Gregson. The prologue is intriguing and beguiling, albeit a bit too revealing, because it opens with first-person narration. But its style sets a false stage for the rest of the book. When chapter one begins, the point of view shifts to third person. Readers are sucked away from the main character to watch as bystanders. It doesn’t matter how much the narration describes Sari’s thoughts and emotions, the readers cannot feel much because of the distance. Due to this and the prologue’s reveal of Sari’s survival, readers cannot feel invested in her character. Thus when she loses “all the vital, vibrant parts of her” (180), it doesn’t seem as disheartening as it could have been.
If that was the only point of view shift, Gregson could have been forgiven. However, it happens constantly. It jumps between characters, as if the camera looks over their shoulders for a few paragraphs before returning to Sari. Mostly this happens with appropriate section breaks and isolated paragraphs. But sometimes the shifts occur for a sentence or two in the middle of a steady section. This spins readers around, and they either falter at the abrupt and momentary change or continue reading with a mild sense that something indeterminate tilted that world. It is hard to tell if this tactic is intentional or if it reveals a faulty craft.
Overall, the novel represents well the victim’s state of mind and the progression of abuse, but in the end the characters are bland and unsympathetic, and the prose style is flawed. The result, unfortunately, is a novel that fails to engage us.
In the dream. I work in an office. The company has something to do with aerospace inventions, which I know nothing about. In any case, it is my job to meet with clients, who are satisfied with my work. I have an elaborate office with a living room and a dining room. I go out for coffee. I go down a long corridor filled with people, down two hills, one after the other. I order my coffee, go to put on the lid, and spill the coffee. Suddenly, I’m surrounded by coworkers, who reassure me and buy me another cup of coffee. It is longer to return than it was to leave. My mother abandons me. I feel both sad and relieved. My work buddies and I rest in a large room, and chat. I ask them, ‘Is this job as simple as it seems?’ They laugh almost shyly, and ask me not to repeat this truth. Someone says, “Let’s have fun.” Women go out on the lawn, and dance right in front of the window. I’m about to join them. I wake up. 5:30.
The History of Permanence by Gary Fincke
Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2011
Reviewed by Barrett Warner
The Susquehanna is an old river. Kerouac called it “the mighty ghost of the East.” At 440 miles, it’s the longest river to drain into the Atlantic Ocean. That’s a lot of haunt, but author Gary Fincke doesn’t scare easy. The director of the Writing Institute at Susquehanna University has published over twenty volumes of poetry, short stories, nonfiction and memoir. Although the Pittsburgh native jay-walks between genres, he’s primarily known as a poet. Fincke’s most recent offering, The History of Permanence, won the 2011 Stephen Austin Poetry Prize. All but two of its twenty-eight poems and sequences were previously published, making this book feel like a greatest hits collection. The adverbacious liner notes say Fincke “has built a reputation for his skill at combining the realism of personal narrative with the realism of the fantastic precisely imagined.”
Fincke’s subjects are everyday, ordinary people to whom very bizarre things might happen on a Tuesday. The collection begins with “The Possibility for Wings,” a meditation on what aerodynamic form our souls return—the suicides getting crows, the lonely hearts getting butterflies. Two friends speculate the winged possibilities for their own passe composse, their souls becoming “moths or whatever” and the speaker chooses the “poorwill,/ the only bird that hibernates.” As if listening to this conversation, the Gods send an airplane overhead, “shaping our fear against the summoned sky.” The speaker never says it was divine intervention, or something random, but in many places where Fincke knits the ludicrous with the day to day—such as neighbors chatting in the backyard—there’s a spiritual energy at play. The reader feels the spirit by its sudden arrival or sudden departure from the poem, and sometimes by characters who are seeking that energy, and not finding it.
“The Serious Surprise of Sorrow” begins “She’s twelve, the girl who discovers a foot/ Washed ashore in British Columbia./ Interviewed, she chatters, puzzled, amazed.” This poem is written in blank verse tercets, creating a kind of order when realities collide. Also, by focusing on the girl instead of the foot, the reader is invested before the absurd takes hold which becomes apparent when two more feet wash ashore, both left ones like the first, each wearing a size twelve running shoe, a size as big as the girl is old. The concluding image finds old men with metal detectors, moving as if wearing prosthetic feet, “Walking with stuttering steps like robins,/ Their heads cocked a moment, then cocked again,/ Their beaks passing over the unmown grass,/ Listening for the soil’s faintest sound.” A poem, then, about everyone looking for a certain random and holy energy, “becoming the urban legend,” or perhaps, leg end, of the mysterious left feet.
Fincke seems to love teaching poetry as much as he does writing it. At Susquehanna University, twenty-eight percent of the graduates have taken courses in his small department, making his the biggest rival of the Science and Business programs. So it’s not a surprise to find a few poems about poetry in this volume, notably “Meat-Eaters” which contrasts two different writing approaches:
In B-films, the carnivorous plants
Are always huge. They swallow anyone
Who wanders near, a single knot of vines
Tugging a victim into the dark maw
Of horror, not discriminating
At all, as if eating were accident.
Fincke observes a killing field of sundews in England which consume millions of butterflies—the souls of lonely hearts—but his final rhapsody is for the Venus flytrap because for the poet “working alone, selectivity/ Is what matters.” The plant “Measures its meals so it doesn’t/ Squander the down time of digestion/ on the undersized. The jaw seals/ Slowly, the spaces between its teeth/ Allowing the escape of small insects…Not through mercy, but efficiency.”
One of the most efficient techniques Fincke uses for his hyper real and hyper absurd marriages is to be very tidy in how he enters and leaves a poem. His care with getting into a poem spares the reader the over-written set-up most poets rely on for unexpected juxtaposition. His poem “Selflessness” is a marvel in how he gets from the animal kingdom to a single trans-gendered womb in less than forty syllables so that in the space of fix or six breaths the reader finds himself in very new territory but without any whiplash:
In the animal kingdom among fish,
one father carries all of the laid eggs
in his mouth sixty-five day starvation,
to make the flexible, deep mouth a womb.
This poem evokes the simplicity of parenting and fatherhood in general: the fish spitting out the babies and taking them back in his mouth at night, the daily chores of being a selfless dad. One of the hardest things to do when writing blank verse is to use language which still gives the feeling of a poem rather than a story, and this must have been additionally hard for a poet who’s an accomplished short story writer. When he uses blank verse Fincke puts a stop—a comma, a period, an em dash—somewhere in the middle of each line. He uses verbs for description—puzzled, amazed—and keeps analysis to a minimum. You’d have to be a real asshole to find something wrong with these touches, but unfortunately, I’m an asshole. In “Selflessness” Fincke’s language gets a little too religious, with his clunky “Such sacrifice” and “his mouth like God” and “He’s a living prayer.” This makes it seem like he’s taking a shortcut to suggest something sacred or mystical. Fincke is much better merely implying some spirit energy rather than being so out loud about it. He’s even forgiving of the father at the end: “…every father has his limits, and so/ does this one, turning his back, one morning,/ as they feed, swimming away while he still/ knows them, before his children grow so large/ he can’t tell them from what he hungers for./ If he forgets to flee, he will eat them.” Fincke’s excellent departure line returns the terrifying moment to the ordinary behavior. The father is essential, but deadly.
Fincke is so aware of the demonic tendencies in his world he would never have to spend a weekend in Iraq in order to write a book of poems about torture. The exotic is not the thing; rather, the interplay, that millisecond vibration one feels before a light flicks on. In Pennsylvania, we need only to do a little fishing, or some casual gardening. If the season’s not right for cultivation, try the florist. In his poem “The Doctrine of Signatures” a man seeks a certain something: :The woman who followed me from flower/ To flower said Birthday? Anniversary?/ And I shook my head among the arrangements/ Until she shifted to Accident? Sickness?” Paracelsus’ Doctrine of Signatures assigned healing purposes to flowers and seeds based on shape, size and shade. The speaker wanders aisles finding remedies for pancreas and liver and soul, “the flowers that form like tumor…scattered/ Like great seasonings for the earth, blended/ So perfectly they lie invisible/ Until they rise from our astonished tongues.”
Some people feel ashamed about the ordinary. Every next generation is screaming to be different from the former, yet all of its revolutionary members are wearing the same Earth shoes, or “Crocks” or Nike running shoes. Fincke’s riddle is that the more we’re dependent on communities, the more our individuality wants to spark and reclaim its own freedoms, and to do this while still making connections and feeling empathy. Kerouac’s restless bone was geographic. Fincke’s bone is temporal. He carves and shapes vast stretches of Time and this sometimes makes it tricky to not come off as a Delphic Oracle. The quotidian elements of his narrative threads are the perfect fuzzy handcuffs to rein his big reach. “Specificity” is an elegy, in a modern sense, for the poet’s friend Len Roberts: “Until I was twelve, worn out/ and God’s will were the reasons/ my relatives died.” Fincke calls it King James medicine, and he pushes back to his mother, his grandmother, and his great greats in creating the evolution of mystery. When the poem ends, that mighty old ghost of mystery is still at it:
And now, after memorial,
after an hour of tributes
by poets who traveled hours
to eulogize, I sit with my wife
who orders a glass of Chambord
for a small, expensive pleasure
in a well-decorated room,
the possibility of happiness
surprising us in the way
hummingbirds do, stuck in the air,
just now outside this window,
attracted to the joy of sweetness
despite the clear foreshadowing
of their tiny, sprinting hearts.