Book Review: Little Heretic by Gerry LaFemina

 photo a39964f9-26c8-4266-a137-be56844b36bf_zpsb59de7a0.jpg Little Heretic
Poems by Gerry LaFemina
Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2014
$18.00

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

 

Oh how desire can make us feel/ like gods and beasts both…

—“Papyrus”

I think it’s generally true that good poetry is born of obsession: an unavoidable exploration of those subjects, people, and memories that we writers can’t turn away from. If poetry is, at least sometimes, an exploration of the self, then obsession is that concentrated site where the self most exists to be interpreted. In Little Heretic, Gerry LaFemina’s speaker has more than enough obsessions to go around: latent Catholicism, time and history, past lovers, punk rock, New York City. LaFemina plumbs the depths of these essential ingredients to find what’s really lurking underneath—morality, mortality and (just maybe) forgiveness.

What I love most about this collection is that it doesn’t let up. No matter where the reader turns, Catholicism, or religion in general, is waiting. It’s found in all the obvious places: the churchyard, the confessional, a bar called St. Dymphna’s. But LaFemina’s New York City is also one where “the honking taxis cry Ho- / sana! Hosana!” and a booth at the adult video arcade is a “little cubicle… the size of a confessional.” LaFemina’s organic comparisons, his inability to turn from worship as a broader point of reference, highlight this speaker’s obsessive tendencies—in fact, all of our obsessive tendencies. Punk rock gets worshipped, too, (think of the pigeons “like rock kids/ before the stage, [bustling]/ with avian wisdom”) along with youth and old lovers. As a former Catholic, this deifying of the everyday makes total sense to me. Spend your formative years with all the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic Mass and everything from then on seems instilled with that same gravity.

But Little Heretic isn’t just for lapsed Catholics and those who remember CBGB (I don’t, and I still “got” these poems). LaFemina’s ruminations bridge gaps in content knowledge by employing familiar patterns of thought. “So much of Manhattan/ remains the same despite what’s changed,” the speaker tells us in “Another Blues in E Minor.” Who among us doesn’t live in this dual world of memory and The Now, constantly orienting and re-orienting ourselves against our surroundings both immediate and remembered?

So many mornings I re-entered the world
as sunlight filled the filthy windows, & watched
dust motes swirl
                              like poltergeists of longing.
Nothing will drive them away.

—“On Hearing David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’”

Hearing a Bowie song immediately plunges the speaker into memory, eventually bringing him to this thought of a common past experience. But note the verbs. For four lines we’re situated firmly, or so we think, in the past. Then, suddenly, those dust motes are still in the room before us, choking the air. And are the dust motes the “them,” really, or does “them” refer to the poltergeists of longing? Or memories? Obsessions? For LaFemina, as for most of us, time is one big simultaneous experience—memory is evoked in the present and every moment is already the past. This reality of the nature of time is what allows LaFemina to bring in icons of our collective and his personal history, whether rain dancers from the Reconstruction or high school friends, without jarring his reader.

Alongside memory enters another human constant: guilt. Or, the way LaFemina spins it (which I prefer), the desire for penance. Even LaFemina’s skeptical speaker who often speaks against the idea of penance is aware of some social cost, even one that’s self-inflicted, assigned to bad behavior:

I place a ten dollar bill in the mission box
a homeless friar holds out. Brother, can you ….
Like a pigeon, he rocks his head & bestows
a blessing on me

so I give him another ten bucks, unworthy.
This is the cost to walk with one’s sins
even among the city’s blessed anonymity.

—“Dim Sum”

LaFemina’s speaker isn’t afraid to have complicated feelings about his own self-worth throughout these poems. Some days he wants to be a superhero, others he’s sure he is utterly depraved. But all in all, he’s working toward acceptance. Sound familiar?

One thing that seems to make that acceptance easier is the speaker’s (arguably impossible) striving for objectivity. He almost apologizes in “The Poet at 37,” admitting, “such melodrama was never a strength of mine.” Despite the constant overlay of God and punk, there are moments when this voice tries to articulate its experiences in only the realest way possible.

I wasn’t a new man, not even close,
wasn’t in love, wasn’t anything special—all us pedestrians
trying in vain to shelter ourselves from the gossip wind,
from the tendrils of precipitation, from the inevitable
walk back to apartments that waited like the dull expressions of parents
we’d escaped. She didn’t change my life & I didn’t change hers.
It took only 17 years to figure this out, but it’s one thing I’m certain of.

—“The Inherent Shortcomings of Metaphor”

Such simple declarations, but so much weight. I’d be remiss in not adding that the oomph here is in part due to the fact that LaFemina has planted his flag, in this poem especially, as King of Enjambment. Regardless, in this moment the speaker finally sloughs off that coat of drama his obsessions wear so comfortably for the feeling of skin on skin. The ability to truly appreciate past experience, to really move toward forgiving ourselves, seems to come with the stripping away of nostalgia. The lessons emerge only when we see things as they truly were.

Despite that, LaFemina chooses to end the collection with a quiet poem admitting that even the simplest of our experiences can be interpreted in countless ways. His list poem, “Daybreak,” characterizes light with a shifting series of labels and qualities, all of which seem wholly accurate. Light is sacred, we think, but yes, also, light is quotidian. We are all simultaneously zealots and heretics, concurrently gods and beasts. And maybe we’ll never understand it all. Or maybe we will. But probably all that’s guaranteed is that we’ll keep trying. Maybe all life of life is just “light [we’d] walk into if [we] could.” If that’s the case, I’d hope to have Gerry LaFemina as a companion on that bustling sidewalk.


Dance Review: being Here…/this time
by Marjani Forté

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

New York choreographer, Marjani Forté, brought the newest version of her three-year work to the Alloy Studios Friday night. Being Here…/this time investigated mental illness, addiction, and poverty in America. Forté was initially inspired by an experience she had on the subway train with a “symptomatic” woman in crisis. That led her to various conversations with peers and ultimately to six women in Connecticut, all of whom shared their personal traumas.

The sixty-minute show was split into four installments. Audience members were free to watch the first three sections in whatever order they chose. To conclude the show, everyone came together for the final trio.

Two installments took place in the main studio. A diagonal row of chairs cut the space in half, creating two intimate places for solos and duets to occur. In the first section I watched, the audience was given earplugs to drown out any background noise. Alice Sheppard performed a solo bound by a wheelchair. She began with rigid gestures as local dancer, Jasmine Hearn, entered from the side and pressed herself against the back wall.

Sheppard quickly pushed her chair toward the audience, stopping within inches of one man. She stared at him intensely; her energy and movement became more heated. Hearn disappeared as Sheppard fell off the wheelchair smiling maniacally then gasping, twitching and even sucking her own toe. The effect of the section was almost frightening, certainly powerful and thought-provoking.

In the next installment, we were given headphones to listen to accompaniment for another studio duet. Tendayi Kuumba entered the space backwards from the far wall. The sound of kids playing flooded our ears, but quickly turned to cries of sadness and a voice layered over top insisting, “We’re okay.”

Kuumba’s movement was equally as severe as Sheppard’s, but the dynamic of her solo felt much more laden with grief. Perhaps it was the lullaby that morphed out of the sound and text. Or Kuumba’s delicate lift of an arm after pointing fiercely and directly. She, too, stared straight into an audience member’s eyes. Her gaze was notably different, though. We could feel her struggle, see her anguish.

Hearn weaved her way into this installment as well, alternating between laughing and crying, all while stumbling in a seemingly aimless pattern. Although she had moments of bigger, technical phrases, most impressive was the expression in her eyes. She searched the room with a lost but determined gaze.

Forté performed her installation in a small corner of the lobby. The audience sat all around her; she was perched slightly above us with a blurred video image projected on the wall to her right. Forté said the image was taken from a rehearsal, but represented angels or communication with others.

To start, Forté closed her eyes as if to center herself. She then pulled up a gospel song on her iPhone, called “I Won’t Complain.” The movement she used was subtle compared to the others’. Her gestures were sparse, held back in emotion as the lyrics suggested. She rubbed her knuckles with anxiety, pulled her fist to her mouth in frustration, and hid her face in shame. Eventually she teetered on the edge of her chair and fell off with open arms. The most powerful part of the section was when she walked away. The music remained for what felt like several minutes. Her absence was visceral.

Back in the main studio, Sheppard, Hearn, and Kuumba performed the final installment. Forté’s lack of presence was still notable, but we were hopeful her character had moved forward. The three others came together in a unison phrase that combined gestures from the earlier sections. They frantically counted down from ten as the movement escalated, then broke into their individual motifs.

The movement slowed, and Hearn spun in dizzying circles, arms wide in surrender to her experience. I got the sense that these women were doing the best they could with the lives they’d been given. I thought of my own experiences with strangers and people close to me who have suffered from mental illness and addiction. The piece drew out a sense of compassion for what Kuumba poignantly described as “the beast” inside us all.


 

Erecting Stones, Part Five

by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

Outside my once destroyed home, my son continues to carve away the trees I planted in my younger days when he was only a toddler. He’s clearing some to make room for light. He’s attempting to smooth the rugged ground, to build a fence, to renovate our war-damaged home. Maybe he will succeed, I think as I climb onto his Nissan Xterra to depart Liberia and return to my comfortable America. Jestina, my adoptive daughter, is already in the car. She’s all dressed  to send me off. I turn to look in the back, and a small boy, about nine years old is sitting in the corner. He’s attempting to hide from me, but it’s me he’s taking to the airport. “Where are you going, Papeh?” I ask.

“I taking you to the airfield,” the child stammers.

“Why? Where is your mother? How can she let you go so far with us?”

“She say I can go with you, Grandma,” the child says, and tears rush to my eyes.

“With me to America?” I ask, confused.

“To the airfield.”

“But why, Papeh?”

“Because I will miss you, Grandma,” the child interrupts me. He’s sitting tightly in the corner, afraid I may throw him out, begging with his eyes. The child that I only got to know during my brief stay next door is escorting me to the airport? I sigh to myself. Of course, I’d taken time every so often to visit his family in their yard, to sit and talk to his parents about sending him and his siblings to school. I even took time to help discipline them over some mischief they’d gotten themselves into, begging his parents to take good care of them despite their extreme poverty. His mother rose early and went to work, cleaning house and cooking for Lebanese people for sixty dollars a month, leaving home at 10 am and returning home at midnight. Her children aimlessly roamed the neighborhood after school. Many days, they did not go to school from lack of tuition money; many days, they had almost nothing to eat; many days, I gave them food when I learned they had not eaten all day; many days, Jestina fed them. Some days, Papeh and his friends would stop by and ask if they could bring me water from the well, and I’d cook them a meal just seeing how hungry they looked. Many days they lived on mangoes shaken down from the trees in my yard.

So when the neighborhood children around my yard learned I was not here to stay, they came to my door, in small groups and one by one, “Grandma, we will miss you—oh,”

“Grandma, why you have to go back to America?”

“Grandma, why?”

“Grandma, when you coming back ’gain?”

I stare now at Papeh, his skin glowing from too much grease, his shirt and shorts, clean, and his usual unkempt hair, combed out. He wants me to know that he is clean enough to go with his American Grandma to the airport. Tears fill my eyes. “It’s okay if your Ma says it’s okay, Papeh,” I say, hugging him. Around the car, the neighborhood children line up, watching, waving. Jestina, sitting next to Papeh, is also smiling. Yes, his mother told her this morning that Papeh could go with us to the airport, she confirms. I jump down to hug each child goodbye. I get back into the car, next to MT. The children step away, waving as the car climbs up the rugged terrain.

There is hope, I tell myself over and over, completely turned as I stare back at what used to be my home. Facing backward, I’m looking afar at what was once lost and the efforts to rebuild. I’m also reminded that if we don’t take care, we might raise up the angry ghosts of all the people we lost in the war, ghosts of some of the most beautiful people our country ever knew. Hours later as the plane takes off, I clutch my seat because somehow, I’m trying to convince myself that there is still hope for Liberia. There is hope because some of us are still hopeful.

 

To read the entire piece, ERECTING STONES, please click here.


 

 

Erecting Stones, Part Four

by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley 

A week later, I’m sitting at the wedding of a young couple in Paynesville. There is hope. The young are still getting married. Flowers everywhere, the bride is late as always in Liberia. Before arriving at the church, some of us closest to the family, gather at the home where the bride is being readied for the wedding. When I arrive, I am given a chair to sit on. The bride, dressed in a lovely laced dress, sits on the bed, her iPad in hand, going over emails and photos of her life awaiting her in England. Then in come a group of dancing women. They are dressed in the fashion of Bassa women dancers in celebration, according to their Bassa Ethnic tradition, in black Western coats and Liberian lappas, chalked faces painted in black, red and white, loud red lipstick, large false teeth, palm leaves strung around their heads. Three women are dancing around the small room while another two beat on tin cans, iron rods and a drum. Their songs are in Bassa.

Right there, at my feet, one woman, in a large maternity dress, her fake pregnancy, falls to the floor to perform a ritual dance of the Bassa expectation for this young bride. I grab my camera phone and turn it on quickly, videotaping the traditional dance unknown to my Grebo culture. The songs are beautiful and the dancing women are good. They are joined by friends of the bride and groom, the mother of the bride and her relatives. The room is hot. The bride’s mother is my newest friend, a woman who lived some of the war years in England, raised her daughter partly in England, and now was visiting our homeland to support her daughter’s wedding. The daughter will take her new husband back to England someday, we are told.

We make way for the performance.

I capture the whole story on camera. The woman on the floor is rolling around now, faking labor pains, and then, the drums get louder with singing, and the mother-of-the-bride dances on. But the bride is too shy of this strange culture to care. She continues to stare at her iPad. I take her photos on and off. I’m interested in where the story is going, so I keep my focus on the woman who is now wriggling on the floor as if in a trance. A couple women stand over her like they do when a woman is in labor. They’re pretending to be helping the woman, “struggling” with the birth. They hold out their hands as if for the baby’s head. Then suddenly, the baby is delivered as the laboring woman rises. Someone next to me hands her a small child, and the dancing is once more lively with jubilation and shouts, a story that this child in her bridal gown, all beautifully attired in western traditional dress, one of the finest brides you’ll ever meet, must take in. It is clear from this drama that she is expected to begin planning on a baby as soon as possible, even in her cold new homeland of England. I smile, pitying her.

Even then she continues to ignore the dancing women.

At the church, which is filled to capacity, the bride marches to meet her husband. We are at least two hours behind schedule, but this is not a country where time matters. There is hope, I smile. There will be children born abroad, children who might someday come home to their parents’ homeland, second generation Diaspora Liberians, to fix this still broken country, to erect their own stones or the stones their grandparents broke down.

 

Part five, the final installment of Patricia’s piece, will post on the Coal Hill Blog tomorrow, 08/15/14


 

Erecting Stones, Part Three

by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley 

This evening, March 31, three months into my stay, my brother, Norris, and I are at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital, not to visit a sick relative, but to arrange medical care for our sister in-law who is dying. I’m scared that she will die if we don’t help. She’s been ill so long that no one could say when she actually took ill. As we’re making arrangements with a nurse, my phone rings. It’s MT. He has had a minor accident. But it is more than that. The accident was a fender bender with a taxi driver. But it is more than that. I begin to shake all over. First, it was my sister-in-law, Wortor, lying on the bare floor of a shack church where a spiritualist preacher told her to wait for healing from God, to wait forever as her body is sapped by disease, to wait on God, who would not want anyone waiting on a cold, damp and dirty floor with no medication. She lies there, waiting, the sound of pounding ocean waves around her, the powerful Atlantic, against the zinc shack of a make-shift church along the shores of Corner West, Point Four, an area of Monrovia, almost forgotten by God.“She will die, I tell you, if we do not take her from here,” I said to my brother as the ailing woman wailed my name that afternoon, begging me, her “Sister,” to rescue her from the church. Now we are at JFK in an attempt to save her life in a country with almost no adequate hospitals or doctors.

But there has been an accident. We rush through our meeting with the nurse in charge and drive fast to one of Paynesville City’s Police Depots. There, we discover MT’s damaged car, he and his friends talking to the police, who come in and out of the small depot, claiming to know nothing about the whereabouts of the driver that has caused the mob to smash up his car. The mob, which nearly stoned MT to death, but they could not open the door to get at him. I stare in awe at the car, glass splinters falling off the back and the side windows, the door handle on the driver side, twisted off as the mob attempted to yank the doors open and pull MT out. And this was only for a fender bender near a UN post that was supposed to be one of the safest areas of Paynesville? And this is the new Liberia? I stand in awe, questioning my mind.

My son, the son of Liberian immigrants to America, returning home like many of the children we fled with to America, seeking to rediscover or discover their parents’ lost homeland, is attempting to tell us his side of the story. He is shocked that a mass of more than a hundred were called just because he brushed against a taxi driver’s beat-up car, despite his decision to repair the damage. But the policeman from the scene of the accident claims that it was the taxi driver who incited the mob to attack MT. From their investigation they learned that  the taxi driver told a group of bystanders that an American man had killed a little girl with his car, a lie usually told to get mob anger on an innocent person. And, as the crowd rushed toward MT to execute mob justice, the kind common in Monrovia these days, the taxi driver fled the scene. The policeman also fled, afraid for his own safety. Now, he is telling us why he ran, and he wants us to trust him, that he fled only after he’d warned MT to get back into his car and to lock the doors because “that crowd moving toward them was coming for him.”

We stand before the small police depot, damaged vehicles everywhere, the sandy Paynesville soil still hot from the day’s heat. We’re trying to figure out how to get justice, how to have the taxi driver arrested, how to get the police officer investigated. But justice is a complicated word in Monrovia. The police have already proven in a few minutes of their investigation only from behind their drab wooden desk that they are going to be useless in this case just as in all of the hundreds of other cases that come to them. Glass falling off, I rub my palm along the sides of my son’s beautiful SUV he’d paid so much money to bring into the country. My heart sinks for him. After all, this is the country I gave him at birth. After an hour of confusion at the depot, someone writes up a permit to allow us take the car away.

There is no hope for justice. There will be no investigation despite the deceptive words from the police depot chief that they would search for and capture that driver and all those who committed this crime. Laughable matter, I say to myself about the police capturing anyone. The sound of falling glass follows us down to Pagos Island, and into our garage as MT parks the car. We are comforted that the mob did not pull him out, did not break any of the windows on the front of the car, where he and his friend were seated, did not break the doors through to him and his friend, did not hit their rocks on my son’s head, did not pull him out or drag him away. This is our consolation, my consolation, as I fall asleep in the dark, the sounds of crickets in the backyard. The air is so humid; you can almost cut through it with a knife.

In the morning, Norris rushes to the J. F. K. Memorial Hospital to meet up with the ailing Worter, who is too paralyzed with Diabetes to stand. She’s carried on the arms of her two older children from a taxi. She will be seen through the outpatient wards. Inside and around the hospital, a more important emergency is at hand. The former Vice President or warrior-turned-Vice President with Charles Taylor, Mr. Moses Zeh Blah, has just died. Blah was one of Taylor’s generals who trained with him in Libya in order to launch their bloody civil war more than twenty years earlier. It is April Fool’s Day, so I’m wondering. But my sister-in-law is more important to me than any Vice President. I will visit her this afternoon when she is admitted, I tell myself. But on the radio, there is news that the hospital compound is filled with pressmen and controversy, a chaotic atmosphere.

This now dead man served as president of Liberia for only two months during the interim before the installation of Gyude Bryant’s transitional government in 2003, the first interim president after the fourteen-year-war. The vacuum between Taylor’s departure and the institution of the first civilian rule at the end of the war brought the former warrior, Mr. Blah, a brief presidential stardom. So, as Wortor, the unknown Liberian woman, was sitting on a crowded bench with hundreds of other unknown people that would not be seen today, the confusion of the death of Mr. Blah took over the country. Many still thought of him as the former president while others thought of him as one of the most brutal of Taylor’s warriors during their invasion of and long struggle for Liberia, the one that killed their father, mother or relative during NPFL’s capture of the first suburb in Monrovia.

Wortor would only live a few hours in that hospital, where she was admitted into the emergency room quarters instead of the ICU ward. Late into the night of April 1, Wortor would die, an irony in itself, a simple, poor, unknown woman who had almost no means to medical care, dying the same day as the once two-month President, warrior, rebel, whatever you wish. Irony of ironies, I thought, waking up on April 2 to the radio blaring with politicians shouting at one another about what the government did or did not do to help an ailing former president. I wept loud and hard, not for their lost “hero,” but for Wortor, who arrived at the hospital too ill to survive. Wortor, who died after diagnosis from lack of care and medical supplies amidst the discordance in a country still at war with itself. I had already buried three relatives when Wortor died, and as sad as that was, the rate at which people were dying convinced me that I would be burying many more family members in my short stay in Monrovia.

Her funeral day is hot and rainy, her young daughters fainting all over the crowded church floor and at the gravesite as we scramble in the rain to awake them. But before Wortor, we had buried my brother, Jacob Tugba Jabbeh, my Aunty Julia Nyemade Jabbeh, my cousin, Rose, Mama’s first cousin and many others. By the end of April, I am convinced that this is a country of lost ghosts, trying to return to life.

Sadly fascinating is the powerless presence of the poor that quickly overwhelms the visitor. They still roam the streets despite years since the institution of peace and the election of Africa’s first female president and her reelection to a second term. The massive poverty against and the rampant corruption could kill the newcomer.

Outside my window this Saturday morning, the neighbors are rising from sleep. The national radio station plays on and off, African music, Liberian indigenous music and talk show arguments about nothing significant. Here, everyone plays their radio without consideration for their neighbors, so who cares? I rise, and go outside to chat with the neighbors on one side of my house. This is now my adoptive family, Jestina and her small children, who call me Grandma. Many days, I feed them. I give them money for food, to go to the doctor, for clothing. But this is not your family to complain about their poverty. Instead, Jestina had been saving up her pennies to put together a small business. Today, we’re talking about my contribution so she can begin. “How much money do you have now?” I ask her.

“Mommie, I have two hundred dollars and fifty. I need only fifty more to begin. I already pay for my market table, Mommie,” the thirty-two-year-old woman tells me. Sweat pours down her cheeks, her lappa strapped tightly against her chest, her one-year-old son, Gift, on her lap. She’s smiling, happy to know she may get my help.

“I’ll give you one hundred,” I say, and she jumps up, dancing, the ground hard, rugged, and uneven. You could compare this soil to the country. “Thank you—oh, Mommie, I love you so much.”

 

Part four of Patricia’s piece will post on the Coal Hill Blog tomorrow, 08/14/14


 

Erecting Stones, Part Two

by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley 

Outside, the neighborhood is alive with noisy children, the new children of the new Liberia. They will not go to school tomorrow. They will not eat tomorrow. They will never know what life used to be before the war. Why did we go to war, I keep asking myself as I walk around Pagos Island, a hilly place that has been taken over by abandoned, unfinished homes, abandoned dreams and hopes for a better future. My old neighborhood is now filled with a new group of residents too weary of caring for the abandoned properties of us runaways to care. The big houses are now either crumbling or have been taken over by termites, wild bush and termite hills. The new Liberia, despite efforts to restore the country, still resembles a lost country.

I am here on my sabbatical, to work on and edit my memoir whose title keeps changing. But one day soon, it will be published. There will be one title that finally sticks, I tell myself. The stories in the memoir seek to tell my side of the Liberian civil war story, the story of my sufferings and my losses, the deaths of my family and the stories of hundreds of thousands of us scarred people. So, every morning, I pack up my laptop and sit next to my son who takes me to town for my writing day. Sometimes, my brother, Norris Tweah drives down the rugged road from the main highway on his way to work to give me a ride to town where I can write in a cool restaurant. There’s no electricity or water throughout much of the country. So, my son and I spend hundreds of dollars on gasoline and diesel each month to power up his generator for a few hours of electricity every night. A few hours after we turn off the generator, my laptop dies. We also spend hundreds on drinking water every month, like everyone else. This is a country where you are almost your own government.

On days when I cannot get a ride, I walk up a mile or more of the huge hill from Pagos Island to the Palm Springs hotel across Tubman Boulevard to write. I utilize their cool air conditioning and electricity. Funny, how difficult it is to accomplish what I came here for, I tell myself every now and then. In America, in the comfort of my home, I’d have to walk across from my bedroom upstairs to what used to be MT’s bedroom, now turned into my office, to write. And even that was difficult. Now, I have to walk more than a mile up a steep hill, breathing hard, passing by poor swamp people who have dried up the half-river, half-swampland to build their mud shacks, greeting them as they smile up at me, this new Liberian who looks American. “Hello, Book woman,” an aging woman says.

“Hello, Ma,” I stand and make small conversation for two minutes and be on my way. Up, puffing and breathing, I climb, running across the busy highway, my laptop in hand, sweating, the world already over 98 degrees. Then I walk past the hotel security guards with their respectful greetings, bowing and shaking my hand and smiling, recognizing me as one of the elites, a woman who seem so educated, you knew it by just meeting her. They step aside to let me into the gates that keep the poor and lowly outside. In the hotel, everyone notices me, so I find a small corner where I can ignore diners coming and going. I write for hours, almost unnoticed, purchasing small unwanted food, sometimes a $5 plate of fried plantain and a Coke. Writing and talking to the young attendants who work for pennies on the dollar, cautioning them to go to school, knowing how much easier that was to say than to do. The ocean waves at the back of the hotel, my solace. I cannot really ignore the expatriates coming and going, smoking, talking in low tones. I write, lifting my head every few minutes to stare in awe at these expats who have taken over my country like termites, plotting our fate for tomorrow’s wars.

 

Part three of Patricia’s piece will post on the Coal Hill Blog tomorrow, 08/13/14


 

Erecting Stones, Part One

by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley 

There’s a huge box of books leaning against a corner of the living room wall. Outside, the day is bright and humid. It is the Dry Season in Liberia. Everything here in Congo Town feels like hot plastic, as if it will soon melt. The coconut and mango trees cast shades here and there, across our yard, the afternoon shadows of a dying day. Breadnut trees lean as if to fall. Next to the box of books, the sunlight draws lines against overcast shadows on the floor. I’m sitting on a futon couch that Mlen-Too II, my son, who we call MT, has tossed in the middle of what used to be our living room.

He’s still sorting out where everything belongs, having just moved into the Congo Town home from an overpriced apartment. Two years ago, MT moved back to our homeland as if to sort out himself or the past or something we forgot to take along when we immigrated to America. He’s restoring our war-ravaged home to make it habitable again. As if erecting stones or uncovering old stones, buried over the decades, MT who was only five when we fled, is digging up the past we cannot dig up for ourselves, the past we almost forgot to return to or we were too afraid to confront. This was our home where my mother took refuge until she died, and then other family members took over the nearly demolished property, hiding here from the bombings and gunfire in Liberia’s fourteen year civil war, as if hiding was something anyone could do.

When I arrived yesterday I was afraid of moving into a place with so many painful memories.  I feared walking firmly upon this rugged ground would crack some egg beneath my feet, as if some unmarked grave would tumble. This is my first real visit here, the first time that I’ve been in this house for more than thirty minutes since 1991. All around is debris from what we lost to the war. My mother lived here until she died thirteen years earlier, in 2000, as the war was waged, while my family and I lived in America. This was my first night sleeping in my master bedroom after nearly twenty-two years of running. When I decided to move in with MT, I did not calculate that Mama’s ghost would be waiting to welcome me back home.

I lay in bed, cold, even as the heat penetrating makeshift curtains MT had put up filled the room. This was where I used to wake up every morning to bombings, where I stayed up many nights, listening to the sounds of missile attacks banging and to the news of government executions of whole families in the city.

Last night, I thought I saw my dead mother standing at the doorway, smiling, as I tried to sleep. “So you came back after all these years, my daughter?” She said, in the dark, leaning against the shut door, her six foot stoutness looming. I rose quickly, my heart pounding hard. How did she know I had returned? I rushed to the door, the room pitch dark, and my feet shaky. I wanted to greet Mama like a true Grebo daughter, to feel that image of my tall, funny mother, but there was only emptiness at the door.

I turned on the light, but she was not there. I returned to bed, wetting the pillows with the tears I’d held back over the last five years of my short trips back home. This was Mama’s room for years as the war rocked the house and the country. During the long war, I used to be terrified of a bomb landing on the house and killing her. But a bomb was not big enough to kill my mother who was bigger than any bomb. She died nine years after my family left her here, after her six month visit with us in Byron Center, Michigan, where she shockingly convinced us that she belonged in Liberia, amidst the war and bombings. America was not for her, she said.

So, we packed her up and sent her back home where her three other children and dozens of family still lived, clinging on to life. But years of war wore out her aging body, sapped her health away, and one day, she fell and died suddenly at 63. Not in this house, but in her small little shack home. As if to make a point, Mama died in her own home, away from the house I’d left in her care. Despite her death, she was everywhere still.

Now, the box of books is daring me to come close. So I rise to the challenge. I begin sorting, sitting flat on the terrazzo tiled floor. I am saddened to discover that they are books from our home library collection from twenty-two years prior. Dark and faded from dust and exploding concrete, after splinters from the bombings pierced through our home that first year of the war, the books smelled old. Several have been partly chewed up over the years by mice and termites. I draw a chair closer and begin tossing them out all over the floor. My treasures, I sigh, old textbooks from college days, books from teaching English and Literature as a young college instructor, my husband’s books about Business Education and Theology. I pick up textbooks from my graduate school days at Indiana University-Bloomington. I hold on to the hardback, now without its photo leaf wrapping, Reynolds Price’s The Source of Light and Mustian: Two Novels and A Story, novels I read for my “Writing About Literature” class in 1984. Sitting very still, reading a few pages, teary, and recalling Price’s visit with our class and how, the sassy woman that I was, questioned his writing style, my Liberian accent distinguishable against a roomful of all white creative writing graduate students. The hardback books are still priceless today; I swallow hard. I spend the day on the floor, sorting, amazed at how everything else we owned had been looted, how our past here has been reduced to this partially shredded box of books, brown from smoke and the years.

 

Part two of Patricia’s piece will post on the Coal Hill Blog tomorrow, 08/12/14


 

Bonsai Garden

By Karen Zhang

On a recent weekend I visited the national arboretum in Washington and marveled at the exquisite bonsai trees on display. The Bonsai Garden inside the arboretum—a huge botanical garden containing a variety of woody plants intended partly for scientific study—is divided into three parts: the Chinese pavilion, the Japanese pavilion and the North American pavilion.

Greeting by a zigzagging stone path lined by Asian plants, such as needle pine, willows and bamboos, I entered the Bonsai Garden with continuous wows. I couldn’t believe that in North America I could find something resembling the essence of a Chinese classical garden. The swallow-tailed roof, stone wall, red-wood furniture, reflection pond and above all, the miniature trees in pots, some of them aged a hundred years old.

Bonsai, literally meaning plantings in a pot, is considered a refined garden art in China. Traditionally, one would find Chinese scholars’ homes with bonsais for interior and exterior decoration — a symbol of elite status. Wandering around the Chinese pavilion made me feel as if were in Suzhou, an eastern Chinese city renowned for its classical gardens. There were illustrations on display telling visitors how Bonsai was made by the delicate hands of masters. But after seeing that, you may want to think twice about “torturing” a plant to satisfy your perfection toward beauty. For a modern sensibility, there are too many manipultaitons– wiring, twisting and replanting — for us to feel the the beauty of the bonsais is worth it.

The North American pavilion exhibits a number of bonsai done by American masters, some of whom are Chinese by ethnicity. The trees are slightly bigger and their style is wilder. I guess that gives credit to the American no-strings-attached free spirit. American masters prefer to use bulky tree trunks like bald cypress and juniper. One bonsai was so upright that it reminded me of a strong silver sword piercing the sky.

I saw in the arboretum brochures a few names of Westerners who were introduced as the Bonsai Garden keepers. Some of the bonsai trees in the North American pavilion were created by them. I understand this is how Americans present what they learn about the traditional Asian culture, and how they incorporate the Chinese bonsai planting skills with American aesthetics. As a Chinese, I think it’s great to see East Asian culture presented so beautifully in America.

_____

Book Review: Sorrow by Catherine Gammon

 photo 3c434ab7-0f32-411e-805a-29c21c9013b9_zps383c1206.jpg Sorrow
by Catherine Gammon
Braddock Avenue Books, 2013
$16.00

 

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

For years she had kept herself alive by working out the details. What was left to imagine? She knew everything except which of them it would be. Necessity was what she understood: When? Now. Why? Because. But Who? always eluded her. Choose me, the little voice said.

In Sorrow, by Catherine Gammon, readers are immediately thrown into the mind of Anita Palatino, a seemingly competent woman who works in New York City and lives with her mother. Yet, Anita is secretly haunted by memories of her childhood of sexual abuse; as a result, she creates an outer shell to ensure that she will not suffer again. However, when she reviews the above questions and finally determines whom she will murder, the actually act of killing her mother sends her into a tailspin and she spends the rest of the novel fighting to reconcile.

Told in three separate parts, Gammon explores themes of abuse, guilt, love, repression, faith, and the undeniable desire to be a whole, unified person. Throughout each section, Anita’s walls start to come down, exposing more of her torrid past and a circle of unrepentant abusers. Surrounded by neighbors and a young nun who all believe she’s innocent, Anita struggles to keep her secret from those closest to her and find a way to make peace with her past transgressions. All the while, the reader is left wondering if Anita will ever be exposed for her crime.

Gammon uses third person point of view to examine Cruz Garcia, Tomas, Sister Monica Luz, and Magda Ramirez. These characters allow new insight into Anita and permit Gammon to weave a more complicated narrative filled with pain and uneasiness. In only a sentence or two, Gammon manages to reveal each character’s feelings in a way that resonates with the reader. For example:

When [Sister Monica] proposed to Cruz that Anita should leave with her and make a retreat with the sisters, the look of alarm passed so quickly across his face that Sister Monica must have been unsure whether she had seen it until his eyes began to glisten and he agreed that it was the right place for Anita to go.

Not only are these character shown as complicated individuals and their desires are illuminated to ensure that the reader understands the dynamic relationship between Anita, Sister Monica, and Cruz Garcia. Gammon further illustrates this by detailing small gestures that creates a tension and a desire to find out what else Sister Monica and Cruz Garcia are hiding.

On the other side of the friend spectrum, Tomas — a young man who escapes illegally to the United States — is caught between his own need to work at the grocery store for money, his love for Anita, and a desire to return to El Salvador where his family resides. Then there’s Magda Ramirez who uses Anita’s crime as a way to examine her own tangled past with her husband and a desire to earn more than just a steady paycheck. Together these characters get the chance to really live for the first time in years as they make an irreversible decision to either continue to stand with Anita or allow their own needs for love and desire to come first.

Unfortunately in Anita’s story, she’s forced to encounter one of her past abusers with or without her friends. During these intimate and awkward moments, she becomes even more fragmented. Using long sentences, Gammon exposes Anita’s true thoughts:

Anita in the darkness by herself hears the breathing in the darkness hears the breathing by herself Anita hears her name in the breathing in the darkness her name Anita in the name her life her heart her dying hears the flow of blood and the pulse and in her heart the heart of living[…]

Here, the lack of punctuation continues for four pages, until the end of the chapter. While there are other spots that Gammon uses long, twisting sentences, filled with commas to expose Anita’s rambling mindset, this chapter highlights the darkness within her and the deeply rooted explanation for her crime.

Only when Anita finally defeats her past, lays herself completely bare, and turns to her friends for help does she think, “So much of my life was made up of these moments of mixed knowledge, of delayed recognition, of discovering again what she already knew.” This idea explains Anita’s character transformation and throws the reader directly into the thrilling climax where Anita’s true character is tested.

Once Gammon illustrates the importance of exposure, the reader can see the true effects of abuse and the need for escape that Anita so desires. Sorrow makes one last impression when the book ends with the chilling idea of “love” as a motivator for Anita’s crimes. One that shows that if she had not been so blind to the affection of her friends and neighbors, then she never would have been forced to relive her past, kill her mother, or experience the rippling effects of her crime.


 

Erecting Stones

by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

There’s a huge box of books leaning against a corner of the living room wall. Outside, the day is bright and humid. It is the Dry Season in Liberia. Everything here in Congo Town feels like hot plastic. The coconut and mango trees cast shades here and there, across our yard, the afternoon shadows of a dying day. Breadnut trees lean as if to fall. Next to the box of books, the sunlight draws lines against overcast shadows on the floor. I’m sitting on a futon couch that Mlen-Too II, my son, who we call MT, has tossed in the middle of what used to be our living room.

He’s still sorting out where everything belongs, having just moved into the Congo Town home from an overpriced apartment. Two years ago, MT moved back to our homeland as if to sort out himself or the past or something we forgot to take along when we immigrated to America. He’s restoring our war-ravaged home to make it habitable again. As if erecting stones or uncovering old stones, buried over the decades, MT who was only five when we fled, is digging up the past we could not dig up for ourselves, the past we almost forgot to return to or were too afraid to confront. This was our home where my mother took refuge until she died. And then other family members took over the nearly demolished property, hiding here from the bombings and gunfire in Liberia’s fourteen year civil war, as if hiding was something anyone could do.

When I arrived yesterday I was afraid of moving into a place with so many painful memories.  I feared walking firmly upon this rugged ground would crack some egg beneath my feet. I felt like some unmarked grave would tumble. This was my first real visit here, my first time here for more than thirty minutes since 1991. All around is debris from what we lost to the war. My mother lived here until she died thirteen years earlier, in 2000, as the war was waged, while my family and I lived in America. This was my first night sleeping in my master bedroom after nearly twenty-two years of running. When I decided to move in with MT, I did not calculate that Mama’s ghost would be waiting to welcome me back home.

I lay in bed, cold, as the heat, penetrating makeshift curtains MT had put up filled the room. This was where I used to wake up every morning to bombings, where I stayed up many nights, listening to the sounds of missile attacks banging and to the news of government executions of whole families in the city.

Last night, I thought I saw my dead mother standing at the doorway, smiling, as I tried to sleep. “So you came back after all these years, my daughter?” She said, in the dark, leaning against the shut door, her six foot stoutness looming. I rose quickly, my heart pounding hard. How did she know I had returned? I rushed to the door, the room pitch dark, and my feet shaky. I wanted to greet Mama like a true Grebo daughter, to feel that image of my tall, funny mother, but there was only emptiness at the door.

I turned on the light, but she was not there. I returned to bed, wetting the pillows with the tears I’d held back over the last five years of my short trips back home. This was Mama’s room for years as the war rocked the house and the country. During the long war, I used to be terrified of a bomb landing on the house and killing her. But a bomb was not big enough to kill my mother who was bigger than any bomb. She died nine years after my family left her here, after her six month visit with us in Byron Center, Michigan, where she shockingly convinced us that she belonged in Liberia amidst the war and bombings. America was not for her, she said.

So, we packed her up and sent her back home where her three other children and dozens of family still lived, clinging on to life. But years of war wore out her aging body, sapped her health away, and one day, she fell and died suddenly at 63. Not in this house, but in her small little shack home. As if to make a point, Mama died in her own home, away from the house I’d left in her care. Despite her death, she was everywhere still.

Now, the box of books is daring me to come close. So I rise to the challenge. I begin sorting, sitting flat on the terrazzo tiled floor. I am saddened to discover that they are books from our home library collection from twenty-two years prior. Dark and faded from dust and exploding concrete, after splinters from the bombings pierced through our home that first year of the war, the books smelled old. Several have been partly chewed up by mice and termites over the years. I draw a chair closer and begin tossing the books out all over the floor. My treasures, I sigh, old textbooks from college days, books from teaching English and Literature as a young college instructor, my husband’s books about Business Education and Theology. I pick up textbooks from my graduate school days at Indiana University-Bloomington. I hold on to the hardback, now without its photo leaf wrapping, Reynolds Price’s The Source of Light and Mustian: Two Novels and A Story, novels I read for my “Writing About Literature” class in 1984. Sitting very still, reading a few pages, teary, and recalling Price’s visit with our class and how, the sassy woman that I was, questioned his writing style, my Liberian accent distinguishable against a roomful of all white creative writing graduate students. The hardback books are still priceless today, I swallow hard. I spend the day on the floor, sorting, amazed at how everything else we owned had been looted, how our past here has been reduced to this partially shredded box of books, brown from smoke and the years.

*

Outside, the neighborhood is alive with noisy children, the new children of the new Liberia. They will not go to school tomorrow. They will not eat tomorrow. They will never know what life used to be before the war. Why did we go to war, I keep asking myself as I walk around Pagos Island, a hilly place that has been taken over by abandoned, unfinished homes, abandoned dreams and hopes for a better future. My old neighborhood is now filled with a new group of residents too weary of caring for the abandoned properties of us runaways to care. The big houses are now either crumbling or have been taken over by termites, wild bush and termite hills. The new Liberia, despite efforts to restore the country, still resembles a lost country.

I am here on my sabbatical, to work on and edit my memoir whose title keeps changing. But one day soon, it will be published. There will be one title that finally sticks, I tell myself. The stories in the memoir seek to tell my side of the Liberian civil war story, the story of my suffering and my losses, the deaths of my family and the stories of hundreds of thousands of us scarred people. So, every morning, I pack up my laptop and sit next to my son who takes me to town for my writing day. Sometimes, my brother, Norris Tweah drives down the rugged road from the main highway on his way to work to give me a ride to town where I can write in a cool restaurant. There’s no electricity or water throughout much of the country. So, my son and I spend hundreds of dollars on gasoline and diesel each month to power up his generator for a few hours of electricity every night. A few hours after we turn off the generator, my laptop dies. We also spend hundreds on drinking water every month, like everyone else. This is a country where you are almost your own government.

On days when I cannot get a ride, I walk up a mile or more of the huge hill from Pagos Island to the Palm Springs hotel across Tubman Boulevard to write. I utilize their cool air conditioning and electricity. Funny, how difficult it is to accomplish what I came here for, I tell myself every now and then. In America, in the comfort of my home, I’d have to walk across from my bedroom upstairs to what used to be MT’s bedroom now turned into my office, to write. And even that was difficult. Now, I had to walk more than a mile up a steep hill, breathing hard, passing by poor swamp people who have dried up the half-river, half-swampland to build their mud shacks, greeting them as they smile up at me, this new Liberian who looks American. “Hello, Book woman,” an aging woman says.

“Hello, Ma,” I’d stand and make small conversation for two minutes and be on my way. Up, puffing and breathing, I climb, running across the busy highway, my laptop in hand, sweating, the world already over 98 degrees. Then I walk past the hotel security guards with their respectful greetings, bowing and shaking my hand and smiling, recognizing me as one of the elites, a woman who seemed so educated, yo­­u knew it by just meeting her. They step aside to let me into the gates that keep the poor and lowly outside. In the hotel, everyone notices me, so I find a small corner where I can ignore diners coming and going. I write for hours, almost unnoticed, purchasing small unwanted food, sometimes a $5 plate of fried plantain and a Coke. Writing and talking to the young attendants who work for pennies on the dollar, cautioning them to go to school, knowing how much easier that was to say than to do. The ocean waves at the back of the hotel, my solace. I cannot really ignore the expatriates coming and going, smoking, talking in low tones. I write, lifting my head every few minutes to stare in awe at these expats who have taken over my country like termites, plotting our fate for tomorrow’s wars.

*

This evening, March 31, three months into my stay, my brother, Norris, and I are at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital, not to visit a sick relative, but to arrange medical care for our sister in-law who is dying. I’m scared that she will die if we don’t help. She’s been ill so long that no one could say when she actually took ill. As we’re making arrangements with a nurse, my phone rings. It’s MT. He has had a minor accident. But it is more than that. The accident was a fender bender with a taxi driver. But it is more than that. I begin to shake all over. First, it was my sister-in-law, Wortor, lying on the bare floor of a shack church where a spiritualist preacher told her to wait for healing from God, to wait forever as her body was sapped by disease, to wait on God, who would not want anyone waiting on a cold, damp and dirty floor with no medication. She lay there, waiting, the sound of pounding ocean waves around her, the powerful Atlantic, against the zinc shack of a make-shift church along the shores of Corner West, Point Four, an area of Monrovia, almost forgotten by God.“She will die, I tell you, if we do not take her from here,” I said to my brother as the ailing woman wailed my name that afternoon, begging me, her “Sister,” to rescue her from the church. Now we are at JFK in an attempt to save her life in a country with almost no adequate hospitals or doctors.

But there has been an accident. We rush through our meeting with the nurse in charge and drive fast to one of Paynesville City’s Police Depots. There, we discover MT’s damaged car, he and his friends talking to the police who come in and out of the small depot, claiming to know nothing about the whereabouts of the driver that incited the mob to smash up MT’s car. The mob would have stoned MT, but they could not open the door to get at him. I stare in awe at the car, glass splinters falling off the back and the side windows, the door handle on the driver side, twisted off as the mob attempted to yank the doors open to pull MT out. And this was only for a fender bender near a UN post that was supposed to be one of the safest areas of Paynesville? And this is the new Liberia? I stand in awe, questioning my mind.

MT, the son of Liberian immigrants to America, returning home like many of the children we fled with to America, seeking to rediscover or discover their parents’ lost homeland, is attempting to tell us his side of the story. He is shocked that a mass of more than a hundred were called just because he’d brushed against a taxi driver’s beat-up car, despite his decision to repair the damage. But the policeman from the scene of the accident claims that it was the taxi driver who incited the mob to attack MT. From their investigation they learned that the taxi driver told a group of bystanders that an American man had killed a little girl with his car, a lie usually told to get mob anger on an innocent person. And, as the crowd rushed toward MT to execute mob justice, the kind common in Monrovia these days, the taxi driver fled the scene. The policeman also fled, afraid for his own safety. Now, the same policeman wants us to trust him, to trust that he fled only after he’d warned MT to get back into his car and to lock the doors because “that crowd moving toward them was coming for him.”

We stand before the small police depot, damaged vehicles everywhere, the sandy Paynesville soil still hot from the day’s heat. We’re trying to figure out how to get justice, how to have the taxi driver arrested, how to get the police officer investigated. But justice is a complicated word in Monrovia. The police had already proven in a few minutes of their investigation only from behind their drab wooden desk that they are going to be useless in this case just as in all of the hundreds of other cases that come to them. Glass falling off, I rub my palm along the sides of my son’s beautiful SUV he’d paid so much money to bring into the country. My heart sinks for him. After all, this is the country I gave him at birth. After an hour of confusion at the depot, someone writes up a permit to allow us take the car away.

There is no hope for justice. There will be no investigation despite the deceptive words from the police depot chief that they would search for and capture that driver and all those who committed this crime. Laughable matter, I say to myself about the police capturing anyone. The sound of falling glass follows us down to Pagos Island, and into our garage as MT parks the car. We are comforted that the mob did not pull him out, did not break any of the windows on the front of the car, where he and his friend were seated, did not break the doors through to him and his friend, did not hit their rocks on my son’s head, did not pull him out or drag him away. This is our consolation, my consolation, as I fall asleep in the dark, the sounds of crickets in the backyard. The air is so humid, you can almost cut through it with a knife.

In the morning, Norris rushes to J. F. K. Memorial Hospital to meet up with my ailing sister-in-in-law, who is too paralyzed with Diabetes to stand. She’s carried on the arms of her two older children from a taxi. She will be seen through the outpatient wards. Inside and around the hospital, a more important emergency is at hand. The former Vice President or warrior-turned-Vice President with Charles Taylor, Mr. Moses Zeh Blah, has just died. Blah was one of Taylor’s generals who trained with him in Libya in order to launch their bloody civil war more than twenty years earlier. It is April fool’s Day, so I’m wondering. But my sister-in-law is more important to me than any Vice President. I will visit her this afternoon when she is admitted, I tell myself. On the radio, there is news that the hospital compound is filled with pressmen and controversy, a chaotic atmosphere.

This now dead man, served as president of Liberia for only two months during the interim before the installation of Gyude Bryant’s transitional government in 2003, the first interim president after the fourteen-year-war. The vacuum between Taylor’s departure and the institution of the first civilian rule at the end of the war brought the former warrior, Mr. Blah, a brief presidential stardom. So, as Wortor, the unknown Liberian woman was sitting on a crowded bench with hundreds of other unknown people that would not be seen today, the confusion of the death of Mr. Blah took over the country. Many still thought of him as the former president while others thought of him as one of the most brutal of Taylor’s warriors during their invasion of and long struggle for Liberia. Many thought of him as the one that killed their father, mother or relative during NPFL’s capture of the first suburb in Monrovia.

Wortor would only live a few hours in that hospital, where she was admitted into the emergency room quarters instead of the ICU ward. Late into the night of April 1, Wortor would die, an irony in itself, a simple, poor, unknown woman who had almost no means to medical care, dying the same day as the once two-month President, warrior, rebel, whatever you wish. Irony of ironies, I thought, waking up on April 2 to the radio blaring with politicians shouting at one another about what the government did or did not do to help an ailing former president. I wept loud and hard, not for their lost “hero,” but for Wortor, who arrived at the hospital too ill to survive, for Wortor, who died after diagnosis from lack of care and medical supplies amidst the discordance in a country still at war with itself. I had already buried three relatives when Wortor died, and as sad as that was, the rate at which people were dying convinced me that I would be burying many more family members in my short stay in Monrovia.

Her funeral day is hot and rainy, her young daughters fainting all over the crowded church floor and at the gravesite as we scrambled in the rain to awake them. But before Wortor, we had buried my brother, Jacob Tugba Jabbeh, my Aunty Julia Nyemade Jabbeh, my cousin, Rose, Mama’s first cousin and many others. By the end of April, I am convinced that this is a country of lost ghosts, trying to return to life.

Sadly fascinating however, is the powerless presence of the poor that quickly overwhelms the visitor. They still roamed the streets despite years since the institution of peace and the election of Africa’s first female president and her reelection to a second term. The massive poverty against and the rampant corruption could kill the newcomer.

Outside my window this Saturday morning, the neighbors are rising from sleep. The national radio station plays on and off, African music, Liberian indigenous music and talk show arguments about nothing significant. Here, everyone plays their radio without consideration for their neighbors, so who cares? I rise, and go outside to chat with the neighbors on one side of my house. This is now my adoptive family, Jestina and her small children, who call me Grandma. Many days, I feed them. I give them money for food, to go to the doctor, for clothing. But this is not your family to complain about their poverty. Instead, Jestina had been saving up her pennies to put together a small business. Today, we’re talking about my contribution so she would begin. “How much money do you have now?” I ask her.

“Mommie, I have two hundred dollars and fifty. I need only fifty more to start. I already pay for my market table, Mommie,” the thirty-two-year-old woman tells me. Sweat pours down her face, her lappa strapped tightly against her chest, Gift, her one-year-old son, on her lap. She’s smiling, happy to know that she may get my help.

“I’ll give you one hundred,” I say, and she jumps up, dancing, the ground hard, rugged, and uneven. You could compare this soil to the country.

“Thank you—oh, Mommie, I love you so much.”

*

A week later, I’m sitting at the wedding of a young couple in Paynesville. There is hope. The young are still getting married. Flowers everywhere, the bride is late as always in Liberia. Before arriving at the church, some of us closest to the family gather at the home where the bride is being readied for the wedding. When I arrive, I am given the best chair to sit on. The bride, dressed in a lovely laced dress, is sitting on a bed, her iPad in hand, going over emails and photos of her life awaiting her in England. Then in come a group of dancing women. They are dressed in the fashion of Bassa women dancers in celebration, according to their Bassa Ethnic tradition, in black western coats and Liberian lappas, chalked faces painted in black, red and white, loud red lipstick, large false teeth, palm leaves strung around their heads. Three women are dancing around the small room while another two beat on tin cans, iron rods and a drum. Their songs are in Bassa.

Right there, at my feet, one woman, in a large maternity dress, her fake pregnancy, falls to the floor to perform a ritual dance of the Bassa expectation for this young bride. I grab my camera phone and turn it on quickly, videotaping the traditional dance unknown to my Grebo culture. The songs are beautiful and the dancing women are good. They are joined by friends of the bride and groom, the mother of the bride and her relatives. The room is hot. The bride’s mother is my newest friend, a woman who lived some of the war years in England, raised her daughter partly in England, and now was visiting our homeland to support her daughter’s wedding. The daughter will take her new husband back to England someday, we are told.

We make way for the performance.

I capture the whole story on camera. The woman on the floor is rolling around now, faking labor pains, and then, the drums get louder with singing, and the mother-of-the-bride dances on. But the bride is too shy of this strange culture to care. She continues to stare at her iPad. I take her photos on and off. I’m interested in where the story is going, so I keep my focus on the woman who is now wriggling on the floor as if in a trance. A couple women stand over her like they do when a woman is in labor. They’re pretending to be helping the woman, “struggling” with the birth. They hold out their hands as if for the baby’s head. Then suddenly, the baby is delivered as the laboring woman rises. Someone next to me hands her a small child, and the dancing is once more lively with jubilation and shouts, a story that this child in her bridal gown, all beautifully attired in western traditional dress, one of the finest brides you’ll ever meet, must take in. It is clear from this drama that she is expected to begin planning on a baby as soon as possible, even in her cold new homeland of England. I smile, pitying her.

Even then she continues to ignore the dancing women.

At the church, which is filled to capacity, the bride marches down the aisles to meet her husband. We are at least two hours behind schedule, but this is not a country where time matters. There is hope, I smile. There will be children born abroad, children who might someday come home to their parents’ homeland, second generation Diaspora Liberians, to fix this still broken country, to erect their own stones or the stones their grandparents broke down.

*

Outside my once destroyed home, my son continues to carve away the trees I planted in my younger days when he was only a toddler. He’s clearing some to make room for light. He’s attempting to smooth the rugged ground, to build a fence, to renovate our war-damaged home. Maybe he will succeed, I think as I climb onto his Nissan Xterra to depart Liberia and return to my comfortable America. Jestina, my adoptive daughter, is already in the car. She’s all dressed  to send me off. I turn to look in the back, and a small boy, about nine years old is sitting in the corner. He’s attempting to hide from me, but it’s me he’s taking to the airport. “Where are you going, Papeh?” I ask.

“I taking you to the airfield,” the child stammers.

“Why? Where is your mother? How can she let you go so far with us?”

“She say I can go with you, Grandma,” the child says, and tears rush to my eyes.

“With me to America?” I ask, confused.

“To the airfield.”

“But why, Papeh?”

“Because I will miss you, Grandma,” the child interrupts me. He’s sitting tightly in the corner, afraid I may throw him out, begging with his eyes. The child that I only got to know during my brief stay next door is escorting me to the airport? I sigh to myself. Of course, I’d taken time every so often to visit his family in their yard, to sit and talk to his parents about sending him and his siblings to school. I even took time to help discipline them over some mischief they’d gotten themselves into, begging his parents to take good care of them despite their extreme poverty. His mother rose early and went to work, cleaning house and cooking for Lebanese people for sixty dollars a month, leaving home at 10 am and returning home at midnight. Her children aimlessly roamed the neighborhood after school. Many days, they did not go to school from lack of tuition money; many days, they had almost nothing to eat; many days, I gave them food when I learned they had not eaten all day; many days, Jestina fed them. Some days, Papeh and his friends would stop by and ask if they could bring me water from the well, and I’d cook them a meal just seeing how hungry they looked. Many days they lived on mangoes shaken down from the trees in my yard.

So when the neighborhood children around my yard learned I was not here to stay, they came to my door, in small groups and one by one, “Grandma, we will miss you—oh,”

“Grandma, why you have to go back to America?”

“Grandma, why?”

“Grandma, when you coming back ’gain?”

I stare now at Papeh, his skin glowing from too much grease, his shirt and shorts, clean, and his usual unkempt hair, combed out. He wants me to know that he is clean enough to go with his American Grandma to the airport. Tears fill my eyes. “It’s okay if your Ma says it’s okay, Papeh,” I say, hugging him. Around the car, the neighborhood children line up, watching, waving. Jestina, sitting next to Papeh, is also smiling. Yes, his mother told her this morning that Papeh could go with us to the airport, she confirms. I jump down to hug each child goodbye. I get back into the car, next to MT. The children step away, waving as the car climbs up the rugged terrain.

There is hope, I tell myself over and over, completely turned as I stare back at what used to be my home. Facing backward, I’m looking afar at what was once lost and the efforts to rebuild. I’m also reminded that if we don’t take care, we might raise up the angry ghosts of all the people we lost in the war, ghosts of some of the most beautiful people our country ever knew. Hours later as the plane takes off, I clutch my seat because somehow, I’m trying to convince myself that there is still hope for Liberia. There is hope because some of us are still hopeful.


 

Memo (I Couldn’t Make This Up)

by Publius

 

Dear Colleagues,

Please note that, for the rest of the academic year, if you need anything printed, you need to go to the men’s bathroom.

As you know, our departmental printer broke. And, as you may also know, as a cost-cutting measure, the district fired all but one printer repair person. Which means he can only get to one school at a time, which also pretty much means he only gets to each school once a year.

Unfortunately, this year his manifest read “Room 125,” the men’s bathroom, rather than “Room 215,” our work room. Thus was the new printer installed in the men’s bathroom.

For the sake of the ladies in the department, in order to pick-up and distribute copies, I would like to suggest that the gentlemen start rotating their bathroom breaks on an hourly basis. I’ll post a schedule in the bathroom/printer room.


 

Book Review: How Blasphemy Sounds to God by Gary Fincke

 photo c23ff664-77b8-4a9f-8986-e1d7047fc99c_zps4f79e560.jpg How Blasphemy Sounds to God
by Gary Fincke
Braddock Avenue Books, 2014
$16.95

 

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

 
“Shaken, I stared at myself in the mirror above the dresser. At twenty-three, I looked old enough to appear ordinary in a coffin.”

Striking sentences like these remained with me long after finishing Gary Fincke’s How Blasphemy Sounds to God. The book’s imagery lingered like regret, something with which each of Fincke’s characters are intimately familiar.

The twenty-three year old coffin-dweller is Corey Gillis—a quiet, confused young man who acts as an observer of the world around him. He watches, he reflects, but rarely judges. He is oftentimes a blank slate, one whose inner recesses the reader rarely accesses. And that’s what makes this story collection so fascinating.

Fincke’s book is set in the Appalachia of the 1960s and 70s. It is presented starkly, matter-of-factly. The character I encountered first and foremost was not the protagonist, but the setting in which he lived. Corey’s Pittsburgh is one of global paranoia, the anxiety of growing old, and the pressure of choosing a way in the world. A landscape of fear and uncertainty.

The collection is a novel in stories, each tale picking up from roughly where the last left off. Written in the first-person perspective, Corey tells the reader the story of his young years, from the confusing dysfunction of his childhood to the intimidating beginnings of an adult life.

In the greatest coming-of-age stories, there is nearly always a profound change that takes place in a protagonist—one that redefines both the character and the world around them. Corey continually grows through each story, steadily losing that precious ignorance afforded to us as children. He begins losing that ignorance, that innocence, at an early age, mainly thanks to the constant, overshadowing presence of his mother and father.

Like Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Fincke’s prose has a knack for cultivating an atmosphere of melancholy. It was a sadness that spread through me—rattled through all of my bones with each turn of the page. Until the final stories, when this sadness grew into a desperation. I needed to know what would become of Corey and his family. My urgency matched Corey’s own as he became a more evocative character with each passing tale—his words took shape and affected the characters around him. The older he grew, the more he became a presence in his world, unlike during his childhood.

And how realistic Corey’s evolution is. As the reader, as the protagonist, as a child, we do what we are told, we believe what our parents tell us. We grow as they direct us to grow. We blankly nod and say, “Okay,” as Corey does time and time again throughout his youth. But what does that blind obedience afford you when your instructors are as confused as you? As Corey ages, he sees the cracks beginning to form in his family, and how devotion to opposing ideals can so effectively break up a home. He is constantly caught in the center of his broken parents—his mother, a radical, charismatic educator, who emphasizes worldly experience and hard truth over dogma. And his father, tied to the television, to his church, to the collective fear of Russia, of Vietnam, of a changing world in which the U.S. is no longer the undisputed global superpower.

With straight-forward prose that often seems conversational, the collection’s narrative voice constantly propels the reader forward. Always forward—through the drawn-out deaths of family members, through presidential assassinations, through the turn of the decades. Corey’s uncertainty about his own future oftentimes combines with his floating imagination. Quick moments of elevated beauty drop and ripple in the midst of crisp sentences.

I wasn’t going into the mill like my father. I wasn’t managing Hickory Farms. I wasn’t going into the army. I didn’t need luck to keep from frying in molten metal or tearing apart above a Bouncing Betty. I sat there…and thought about how it would feel if you were half a mile inside the earth and the wall may or may not buckle on you.

The pressure of earthen walls is quite the fitting analogy for Fincke’s How Blasphemy Sounds to God. It documents the pressure of the Earth itself—of a changing world, of the devolution of a family, of the growth of a child.

______

Gary Fincke has published twenty-five books of poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction. Twice awarded Pushcart Prizes, Fincke has also been recognized by both the Best American Stories and the O. Henry Prize series, and cited twelve times in the past fourteen years for a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays. In 2003, he won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for his story collection, Sorry I Worried You


 

Stolen Eggplant

By Karen Zhang

I cannot think of another better title for this piece than “Stolen Eggplant” to express my anger and regret. This summer I planted a box of Japanese eggplants. Just as they were bearing fruits and I was receiving praises from a neighbor, one of the biggest eggplants was gone overnight!

The day before I had checked on my eggplants and planned to harvest the biggest one the following day. But what awaited me was the empty branch with a cleverly-hidden cut. I assumed a greedy neighbor must have her eyes on that very eggplant for a long time and when it was time to take action, she was also well-prepared to not arouse my notice

Although I have received comforting words from my friends and family over this small loss, I still cannot understand why this misfortune has happened to me. Or I should say, neighbor-theft happens in America with no exception.

Before I came to America, I kept hearing about the safe and quiet neighborhoods in this country. Granted, before my eggplant was stolen, I did believe American neighborhoods were safe and even soul-less—as American people rarely roam around on the streets but drive mostly. An American friend of mine told me he had kept his house door unlocked for years, uneventful still. A biker could leave his bike on the lawn, untouched. A letter got misdelivered and the neighbor returned it to the right address honestly..

Now my eggplant is gone and my faith for a safe and quiet neighborhood has changed. I have to be vigilant. As a saying goes, once bitten twice shy. I have moved my eggplants to the fenced back yard from the open air in the front of the house. However, critters like chipmunks and squirrels are easily lured by the big fruits. I’d rather feed the critters with the fruit of my hard work than encourage a neighbor to get something for nothing.

Alas, when it comes to growing vegetables in America, you cannot always win but must get ready to fight against weather, invaders and many other unexpected threats.

Who says American life is easy as a pie?

_____

Book Review: The Holy Ghost People by Joshua Young

 photo dc599729-b2e7-49a7-8703-e7eb684fea6b_zps9e7455a6.jpg The Holy Ghost People
A Play in Verse
by Joshua Young
Plays Inverse Press, 2013
$12.95

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

The power of drama is that it plays back to us the human condition in a way that, while not always wholly realistic, seems just real enough for us to understand and absorb. Add to that the connotative meaning-making and compression of language found in poetry and you have Joshua Young’s The Holy Ghost People: A Play in Verse. Equal parts supernatural, ominous, and linguistically beautiful, Young’s play has all the right stuff to help us make sense of a subject—religious disagreements in America—that we might otherwise find incomprehensible in its vastness.

But to boil the book down to that one simple nugget seems unfair to the scope of Young’s project. This is also a wonderfully terrifying god-cult horror movie, a study in metaphysics, a slightly surreal retelling of life in fundamentalist Christian communities—or maybe just everyday American suburbia. Young’s archetypal character names (the Holy Ghost People, the Speakers, etc.), indeterminate setting (a city neighborhood, time: whenever), and his placing us directly in the midst of a situation (“we’ll come in at the half-act & the holy ghost people will be here already”) make this play an allegory with all the potential to stand the test of time. This is 2014’s Vanity Fair, another story without a hero depicting humanity’s inevitable failings of morality and understanding, but Young doesn’t seem to share Thackeray’s desire to promote a specific mode of thought.

From the outset, the Speakers attempt to show how different the Holy Ghost People are from typical humans. Their hair looks like neon, they can conjure a deity known as Sylvia, they wear white cloth and seem to glide when they walk. The list of items they consider blasphemous seems laughable to us:

SPEAKERS   the holy ghost people find the strangest of things blasphemous: bibles, cru-cifixions, dalmatians, great danes, orange cats, nikes, paleontologists, hair braids, cocaine, mirrors, horses, snakes, egg shakers, egg beat-ers, diet soda (except pepsi), pickup trucks, red pens, paper cuts, dogs smaller than 10 lbs, people who don’t believe in time travel, gold, silver, red light bulbs, energy saving light bulbs, hybrids suvs, parkas, flip phones, thongs (both kinds), smoked salmon, alloy bats, the sci-fi channel, alt-country, nu-metal, bark in play-grounds, dead pigs…

The Speakers decide that the Holy Ghost People’s religion is nothing but “a story punched together/ with astronomy & pop-astrophysics & [they] do not/ believe [the Holy Ghost People] because there is nothing to believe.” They tell the preachers, “we have learned to recognize cults.” And this attitude seems warranted for most of the play—the Holy Ghost people speak at times in unintelligible nonsense, at other times in unrelenting dogma. At one point they react violently to blasphemers. They deliver to the Speakers a menacing prophecy:

HOLY GHOST PEOPLE    god will come for you in the ether-light of dreams, your throat will be slit in your living room, in your lawn, in the road, in your workplace, in your bed. when there is a dead owl without its feet in your back lawn, you have been judged & god is coming, or he is sending us to finish. you will know in the morning & god will come in the night & the owl will rise & you will be dead flesh. you’ll ask for sylvia then.

Over time, though, it becomes clear that the Speakers are just as dogmatic as the Holy Ghost People. They worry that “the weakness of faith revs.” Their biggest issue with the Holy Ghost People is that they cannot prove that their god is more real than the Speakers’. The two groups are cut from the same cloth and only separated by the names and qualities they give to their gods (jesus, god, sylvia, science). Twice throughout the play they break into a chorus of the repeated line, “we drink from the same water.”

Young shows his smarts with these characterizations. The reader, at first, feels gradually more and more comfortable with the Speakers, until she realizes that they are simply another shade of the Holy Ghost People. Who, then, in the play stands in for your everyday person? We’re given three representatives in the supporting cast: the Barfly, who only drinks; the Policemen, “kind of annoyed with the holy ghost people,” who dismiss both the Holy Ghost People and the Speakers from the scene of a stand-off; and the silent people who sit quietly on barstools or in parking lots. Young’s world, then, is one of high drama created by a passionate fight between two small groups over religious truth—the rest of the population either drinks to deal with the chaos, feebly tries to hold onto order, or entirely surrenders its voice. Sure, the Holy Ghost People are not quite anything we’ve seen before… but this world is ours.

After reading through the play once for the story, I’d encourage you to go back and examine Young’s language more deeply. There are many beautiful lines and stanzas that could inspire or stand as full poems in their own right. At one point the Speakers, presumably speaking to other Speakers about the Holy Ghost People, say, “but you are so right about them./ they are not truthful & you look like your/ mother in the garage shadow.” The Holy Ghost People decree that “all you need to/ make a star is tongue-baths & god’s will.” And the language is not only beautifully lyric—at times it enters a space where meaning is built solely by connotation:

SPEAKERS  give us the good stuff. the black tongue & stomach deep. give us the army jacket & stairwell run. the dresser of good booze. the holy ghost people parade. the holy ghost people preach. sermon-flare. the snake handlers have been bitten, give into the holy ghost people. the tv’s waving lights ruptured in four.

Almost Steinian in its way, Young’s language here is certainly poetic but also suits his subject matter. In conversations like those between the Speakers and the Holy Ghost People, words almost never mean what they seem to on the surface. At one point, Young compresses an entire debate between the two groups as the Holy Ghost People saying “evidence, evidence” and the Speakers replying, “we respond. ok. evidence, evidence.” His language is at its most compressed here, entire opposing dogmas being concentrated into the same two-word phrase.

As a reviewer, it’s always wonderful to come across a work of literature that is simply too well-written to be fully articulated in the span of a single review. Young’s play in verse is certainly one of those works. It’s my hope that the lines above inspire you to seek it out but, as a final motivator, I give you my favorite “poem” from the play, some lines from the speakers which I think very easily stands on their own:

SPEAKERS   transit into the trail—the detour, the hedge, the channel spike—you are so drunk when i pick you up & you want to see the floating bridge, the construction—you say, there’s supposed to be an abandoned piano, abandoned train cars, filled with gravel & chunks of coal. you’re asleep when we get to the bridge. i watch the construction lights from the hood, waiting for you to wake & demand a cigarette.

JOSHUA YOUNG is the author of When the Wolves Quit (Gold Wake Press), To the Chapel of Light (Mud Luscious Press), and, with Chas Hoppe, The Diegesis (Gold Wake Press). He is the Associate Director of Poetry and Nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago. He lives in the Wicker Park neighborhood with his wife, their son, and their dog.


 

Dance Review: Texture Contemporary Ballet in Life, Love, & Jazz

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

On Saturday night at the New Hazlett Theater, Texture Contemporary Ballet presented a two hour long show of five works in various styles, proving once again that the company is capable of much more than ballet technique.

Associate Director of the company, Kelsey Bartman, opened the show with her group piece, Fun. The popular rock band of the same name accompanied the seventeen dancers through a playful romp of shoulder shimmies, big, jazzy unison, and flat out, non-technical jamming to the music.

The highlights of the piece came in two contrasting sections. In a humorous moment, several women came toward each other in a slow motion fight scene reminiscent of the West Side Story Jets and Sharks. The other high point was Bartman’s solo, under a wide spotlight. Bartman seemed to be more expressive than usual, showing off a fluid torso and emotional transitions into and out of the light.

In Hollowed, Bartman and Executive Director, Alan Obuzor, performed a pas de deux to the haunting voice of Lana Del Rey. The two moved effortlessly from pirouettes to interesting gestures, and as always, their partnering showed an incredible comfort level between them.

Amanda Summers shined as the soloist in Bartman’s, Spinning Plates. Moments of traditionally light, ethereal movement countered her ease with more weighted dynamics. Most impressive was her ability to emote without drama. Summers had an honest quality about her.

Detachment. Without Reason by Gabriel Gaffney Smith had the most interesting choreography of the evening. The dancers wore pant suits in grey and black, a unique change from the normally scantily clad ballerina. The piece blended dissonant rock sounds with spoken word and even a few seconds in silence. Much of the movement was athletic and bound, with an unpredictable trio of intertwined limbs and frenzied, passionate partnering.

To close the show, the Marty Ashby Quartet played live, original jazz compositions from the theater’s rafters, in Life, Love, & Jazz. The piece showcased Texture’s technical abilities in both ballet and jazz. A throwback to the Fosse era, the dancers were calm and collected, moving easily across the stage in frontal, audience-focused sequences. The choreography matched the musicians’ smooth sultriness and quick rhythms. A cheeky section had five men swooning and even fainting over the lovely Alexandra Tiso. And a duet between Obuzor and Katie Miller stood out for its purity of movement and delicate lifts.

Texture’s work has certainly grown over the past year. Bartman and Obuzor are honing their choreographic skills and will only continue to grow. The two take obvious risks in movement invention; not often do we see unusual gestures and floor work in a ballet concert, even a contemporary one. I still crave deeper themes in their choreography, subjects that investigate nontraditional topics. The company is young, and it will be interesting to see the direction they take as keep growing locally and nationally.


 

On Catholic Anti-Semitism

by John Samuel Tieman

Perhaps the greatest challenge for anyone religious is to consider The Answer, but hold off on The Rule.

Not long ago, I wrote an essay about growing up Catholic. It was generally sentimental. Among other things, I wrote about the comfort I took from the Church during an emotionally turbulent childhood. Comfort. Stability. When I think of the Church of my childhood, this stability is what I often remember.

A Jewish buddy wrote me about my essay. When he thinks about his family’s encounters with The Church, it is not comfort that comes to mind. His father fled the anti-Semitic Catholics of his city in Poland. For my friend, mention of The Church brings to mind a very different set of memories.

So consider this an addendum to my sentimentality.

As I said in the previous essay, I belong to an annoying Church. That’s how I experience The Church at its worst. Annoying. I’ve never been molested by a priest. I’ve never had my shtetl burned to the ground. I don’t get pregnant. I don’t cringe when I hear the word “crusade”. I have experienced anti-Catholicism – it was painful, but still well within the class of annoyance.

We Catholics are at our most small c catholic when we are in the minority. We are at our worst when we make The Rule.

There’s a three-fold trap to bad leadership. The first is when the leader can’t imagine the consequences of the new rule. The second is when the leader personally experiences no consequences from his or her new rule. The third is when that leader receives little or no accurate feedback concerning the new rule. There would be no pedophile scandal if Catholic bishops had children.

It would be easy at this point to simply say, “Well, we’re all human. We’re all flawed. It’s not the fault of the religion. It’s all the fault of the flawed humans. A flaw. A mistake.”

When I take my students to the Holocaust Museum here, in St. Louis, I make it clear that anti-Semitism is very Christian. A lot of young folks want to treat this as yesterday’s flaw. I’m just old enough to remember when, on Good Friday, we prayed for the conversion of “the faithless Jews”. It’s a painful memory, this memory of a prayer. But remember we must. It was not a personal flaw. It was liturgy. It was Church policy. Lest we forget, here’s what we prayed when I was a kid in the ’50s and early ’60s –

Let us pray also for the faithless Jews: that almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord. Let us pray. Let us kneel. [Pause for silent prayer.] Arise. Almighty and eternal God, who dost not exclude from thy mercy even Jewish faithlessness: hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people; that acknowledging the light of thy Truth, which is Christ, they may be delivered from their darkness. Through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.

That’s what we said. That’s exactly what we said. It was no mistake. The only flaw, the only mistake, is to forget that it was no mistake.

We Catholics also like to dismiss another painful memory. “Christ Killers”. Although apologists are correct in saying that Jewish deicide was not part of formal dogma per se, many Catholics, including members of the clergy, and not just a few bishops, preached that the Jewish people were collectively guilty for Jesus’ death. Vatican II repudiated that. That was a step in the right direction. But it didn’t change centuries of history. That damage was done.

If you sit where Adolf Hitler sat when he sang in his church choir, straight across from him was the statue of a much revered abbot. You can see that statue to this day. It is adorned with what was, long before Hitler’s youth, a common version of the cross of Christ. The swastika.

When someone feels they have The Answer, there is an overwhelming urge to take The Answer and make The Rule. How could The Rule be so wrong if The Answer is so right?

I love my Church. But we do need a new rule. My new rule is very small c catholic. It reads –

Just because you think you have The Answer
doesn’t mean you get to make The Rule.

_____

Book Review: Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold by Tim Chapman

 photo 229f0a4f-8e18-4bb0-9ad7-9f7f692f687c_zps90461a10.jpg Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold
by Tim Chapman
Allium Press, 2014
$14.99

 

Reviewed by Alan Senatore

Tim Chapman’s Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold is a fresh take on the typical crime thriller. Chapman distances his work from the simple, run-of-the-mill, “who done it,” adding complexity by incorporating historical fiction and knowledge of forensic science. Set in both contemporary and 1930s Chicago, three story lines, centered on mobsters and gold, come crashing together. Chapman’s dynamic characters make us question our own morality and ethical boundaries when it comes to economic concerns and desires.

Right away, in the front matter, Chapman readies the reader to encounter ethical and moral economic quandaries by including a section from Thomas Hood’s poem titled, “Gold!:”

Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!
Bright and yellow, hard and cold
Molten, graven, hammered and rolled,
Heavy to get and light to hold,
Hoarded, bartered, bought and sold,
Stolen, borrowed, squandered, doled,
Spurned by young, but hung by old
To the verge of a church yard mold;
Price of many a crime untold.
Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold!

The human desire to acquire gold, a valuable metal that is symbolic of wealth and power, is clear. Not only does the poem highlight the monetary value of gold, but it comments on how gold is acquired: “stolen, borrowed, squandered, doled.”

Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold, seemingly written for our attention-deficit-disorder culture, provides quick and entertaining chapters that rotate between three tales destined to coincide. Chapman weaves the stories of Delroy and Lucille, a young and simple-minded couple from Kansas who move to Chicago in the 1930s to start a new life; a desperate criminal named Gilbert Anglin in search of mobster treasure of the Karpis-Barker Gang; and the hero, Sean McKinney, a quirky, forensic scientist (possibly in Chapman’s own image) trying to balance morality and ethics. While the overall plot twist becomes apparent a bit early in the story, the interesting set of characters and subplot developments maintain interest throughout the piece.

It’s hard to tell if Chapman understands where he succeeds most in his story, because of how well it is imbedded into the minutiae. His commentary on economic concerns per different time periods and social levels is very powerful, but it seems lost or at least underplayed in the very nature of the genre and subject matter. McKinney, a single dad, is constantly battling a moral obligation to clear a suspected murderer by breaking the boundaries set for his job, which runs the risk of his termination at the forensics laboratory. After his boss informs him there will be a formal investigation into possible obstruction charges an exasperated McKinney lays out his beliefs:

It’s not that I have a right to interfere, I have an obligation. I became a forensic scientist because it gives me the opportunity to search for truth, truth that can help determine who’s committed a crime, and sometimes, who hasn’t.

McKinney, though he is often portrayed as the “cool fifty-year-old guy,” is redeemable through his heart. He does his job because he believes in it.

Meanwhile, when Lucille and Delroy first arrive in Chicago, most of their possessions are stolen, and despite constant day-long searches for honest work, Delroy is eventually coerced to join a group of gangsters to make due. But the life of crime brings only troubles for him and Lucille. After another robbery, Delroy questions his life of crime:

“What have I come to?” he sobbed. He hooked his elbow over the sill, pulled himself to his feet and raced down the stairs. He intended to run off. Leave the gang there. Somehow get back to Chicago, grab Lucille, and hightail it to Kentucky.

Then there’s Gilbert Anglin. At his very simplest, he is a man on a mission for mobster gold, and nothing and nobody will get in his way. While it is easy to submit to his simple-mindedness and apparent two-dimensional desires, Gilbert’s development is dark, twisted, and dynamic. His progression into desperation narrows his thoughts and his character. He changes from a man to a serial killer before our eyes. After sleeping with a waitress his picks up in a small-town diner, Chapman provides insight into the mind of the serial killer.

While she slept he aimed the little gun at her and imagined what it would feel like to pull the trigger. It would, he thought, be a little sad. Maybe he would enjoy it at first. He would probably enjoy it more than shooting little old ladies.

Gilbert is more than a deranged man. He is a study of desire. He shows control and is able to compartmentalize what he is doing; killing is his business:

He’d known kids who pulled the legs off insects to see them squirm, or thrown rocks at stray cats. Those kids had disgusted him, yet here he was, killing people and enjoying it. He was looking forward to killing Terrell right now, and the excitement of his anticipation was mixed with selfloathing…When decisions were influenced by anything other than business considerations it was time to reevaluate.

While Chapman succeeds in slyly incorporating commentary on the world, he sacrifices realism for plot advancement. Chapman’s treatment of police and law enforcement is the most glaring issue. He adopts the idea, and then expects the reader to follow, that police and law enforcement are and must be stupid. Too often are police ignoring facts and possible leads in regards to open investigations, mostly in order to have McKinney continue on his adventures. Speaking about a recently murdered woman, a cop blatantly ignores connections:

I don’t really have time to look into this now, McKinney. The family’s real upset, and I feel bad for them, but we just don’t have much to go on. Our best bet is if the daughter can give us a description, but she’s in no shape to answer questions and I’m up to my neck in gang shootings. I’m sorry, I just don’t have the time.

The treatment of the police reminds me of how the law is often portrayed in film comedies; bumbling and stumbling around, and all the while it makes you wonder where your tax money is being spent.

Nonetheless, Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold, provides enough of a new take on the crime thriller that it keeps the reader determined to see what happens (if only involving the subplots). The characters are much more entertaining and dynamic than they appear to be, especially after considering the social, cultural, and economical concerns that Chapman confronts them with. In its simplest, this is Chapman’s ode to the forensic scientist, but if you dig deep there are facets of Bright and Yellow, Hard and Cold that will have you questioning what effect greed has on us all.


 

 

 

Reenactment: A War Story

By John Samuel Tieman

A friend invited me to a Civil War reenactment. He was well meaning enough, although why he’d think I, a Vietnam veteran, would enjoy such a thing, who knows?

Then he said, “It’s realistic.”

To which I replied, “You want realistic? Here’s realistic. Fill their rifles with real bullets. But the blood and the gore, that’s not what I’m getting at.

The one who lives, the dead guy’s war buddy, there’s where you’ll find your realism. The survivor, in five years he’ll think how his buddy would have graduated from college. In ten years, how his buddy would have started a family, bought a little house. In a park one day with his own kid, fifteen years from now, he’ll imagine how his buddy would shag some flies with a son. But he won’t. Because he died. In twenty years, the survivor sending his kid to college, he’ll think how his buddy won’t. Twenty-five. Thirty. And on it goes until forty years from now, when he visits some memorial somewhere, and he puts his hand on his war buddy’s name – reenact that. That’s realistic.”

_____

Book Review: The Earth Avails by Mark Wunderlich

 photo 291329a6-45dc-4785-991d-c98101d39488_zps76d636a3.png The Earth Avails
Poems by Mark Wunderlich
Graywolf Press, 2014
$15.00

 

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

God appears to be making a comeback. Six months ago Flannery O’Connor’s spiritual journal was unveiled in The New Yorker. The break came on the heels of former child evangelist Terry Lucas’ If They Have Ears to Hear (Southeast Missouri State University Press), and Edward Mullaney’s Figures for an Apocalypse (Publishing Genius Press)—a dark minimalist collage of nouveau romans and the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

These works raised a few issues for postmodern reader such as how do we save ourselves from our own subject matter without a place to escape. They also hint that anarchy in poetry—a music of forms—is a critical push back against impenetrable and predictable layers of order in our society. Regrettably, these authors lacked the stamina needed to subdue the answers to questions they provoked. They’re poets for Christ’s sake, not bloodhounds, and poets readily grasp that it’s far easier to question the meaning of life than to actually live it. Still, the authors O’Connor, Lucas, and Mullaney—one from the past, one from the Golden State, and one from Brooklyn—ushered an important vertical dimension, bringing some sorely needed longitudinal thinking to the latitudes of the alt lit poetry community. Not since Saint Ignatius threw down his Consolation of Desolation has there been so much fuss about the up and down escalators between Heaven and Earth. Hang on tight, that handrail is there for a reason.

Mark Wunderlich makes a solid entry into this conversation with his third book, The Earth Avails. The title comes from an Anglo-Saxon charm, or ritual prayer-song, said or sung during the honey harvest to prevent swarming. It also seems to link him in a strange way with those curious bee poems in the last pages of Plath’s Ariel, as if we’re about to read of morbid sadness, a sadness that must nearly overtake us. In The Earth Avails, the poet’s soul seems in a constant state of surrender to an unhappy universe, the seasons, and all the possibilities for destruction—blights, illnesses, infertilities, coyotes. When it’s not shaking the white flag Wunderlich’s rustic soul is in the barnyard bleeding-out a lamb or taking a shotgun to a raccoon, but not before taking the Have A Heart cage trap to a reasonably beautiful and quiet setting at wood’s edge.

The Earth Avails mercifully is not divided into sections. There are no commercials in this drama. Nor does one need to read one poem in order to grasp another. Some of the poems are autobiographical. He visits his youth here and there, and commingles these with some reports from the limestone rich ground in upstate New York where he resides, but the majority of these poems are what Wunderlich calls “house prayers” after the late 18th Century prayer book models written by German immigrants to central and western Pennsylvania. For anyone keeping score, this was the onset of the Enlightenment Era.

Wunderlich’s house prayers are occasional poems. Some address very specific agricultural fiascoes, some are written as simple conversations with God, and so forth. Each prayer also serves as a prompt for the speaker to reveal himself as he loosens his meditation on us. Since many of them are written in second address, written to “you,” these prayers have the added bonus of making the reader feel like God. When he begs God for rain in his poem “Prayer in a Time of Drought,” Wunderlich is also in some way begging the reader to unlock our own shut doors that keep “the skies from opening / and cooling and sending the quenching, / sweet smelling rain.” His closing words, “Father please,” made me ache.

Wunderlich’s God is not necessarily a Christian one. In true Lutheran fashion the Messiah doesn’t even show up the first time, let alone a second coming. This gives the Lord a very Old Testament feel, which in turn imbues the speaker’s misfortunes, and blessings, with a larger proportion. Still, there is a reason that twenty years ago this book would not have been optioned by Hollywood for a film starring Charlton Heston. As William Carlos Williams said, each poem is a small universe. Wunderlich adheres to this wisdom while tackling a much larger universe. In other hands, the scope of these poems might have swallowed the poet, and even metaphor itself, but Wunderlich’s gifted use of language, his familiarity with older syntax and construction, and his ability to find the precise noun during some very imprecise moods alert us that these poems are shaped by someone skilled in the art of the beautiful and the true.

Americans have always had a restless bone (did somebody just say Manifest Destiny?), and we’ve come to associate a spiritual record as a journal of discovery. That usually means going places in a poem. No thank you, Wunderlich seems to be saying, as if he’s perfectly at peace being engaged in labor-intensive routines on his small piece of ground. Rather than write himself outside of the box, to use poetry as a way to leave what Bruce Springsteen calls “his own small town,” Wunderlich climbs deeper into it, lushly revealing its habits and rituals and horrors.

The way some people put bumper stickers on their cars to show where they’ve been to I imagine Wunderlich has a sticker that says “Mail Box” or “Corn Crib.” Maybe going on the road meant something fifty years ago, but Mailor’s American Dream is not quite the same with 7-Elevens dotting the turnpike like punctuation. Wunderlich prefers to stay at home and let the world—and its loving, vengeful God—come to him: “Once I walked out and the world / rushed to my side. The willows bent // their pliable necks, tossed green hair hugely. / The hawk cried by the well.” Thus it’s ironic that The Earth Avails begins with a journeying poem, but the discoveries are all within his own midst, his waking up and his gratifying slumber. “Once I Walked Out” concludes with a desperate yoga that might have added ten years to Frost’s life:

I swung my arms, pulled air into my lungs—
pine pollen, dust mote, mold spore, atomized dew—

bright wheel of flame twisting in the heavens
flushing the eye with light.

Wunderlich’s deft handling of images in series takes us from a dust mote to the solar system within just a few paces without the reader feeling hurried. He does this again I “prayer for Sunshine During a Time of Rain” when he writes: “The corn, stunted in the fields / presses green tongues to the sky, / desperate for a lick of sun, the garden bloats / and goes to seed, pebbled with slugs.” In those two brief couplets the reader is handed the cosmos, weather, dirt, rocks, time passing, and even ecological French kissing.

Another poem, “Heaven-Letter” also goes back and forth between God—a great force, a blinding light—and the day to day as represented by particularly mundane tasks on the speaker’s farm:

With your sorghum broom you sweetened my path, pulled
the woolen shawl around me while I slept.

That the lightning struck the willow
and did not fall—for this I am grateful.

Help me to work. When I mow or plant,
when I seal the summer fruits in jars,

slaughter or pluck, slit the rabbit’s throat, butcher the fallow hen,
when I mend my rended garments, stitch the blanket top,

it is for you. When I wash or scrub upon my knees,
it is to see you more clearly.

Poetry about subject matter has been frowned upon by some critics, and rightly so. The feeling among Beats that one had to live a poem before writing it was actually a lot closer to Hemingway—who believed one had to die in order to write about death—than to Mark Strand. The problem with subject matter by itself, writing what one knows for example, is that it becomes too difficult to get at the mystery of something. The world of the poem becomes very two-dimensional and it’s not enough to merely rely on Time to add another dimension. The result is a very horizontal condition which we access by reading how the experience or the concept of the experience made the speaker feel or else made the speaker think of something. Wunderlich’s use of poems as prayers acknowledges his subject matter, but shifts the focus onto a seductive, faithful and spiritual realm with which one never tires for its many surprises. And it’s all about the work, the work of writing: “Urge, with your holy claw, the scratching of my pen.” In “A Servant’s Prayer,” Wunderlich prays: “Remind me that behind this knotted tapestry / of tasks and humiliations // is a shining world that must remain hidden / so it may remain unspoiled.”

It is important that we have enough knowledge to more or less get by, but not so much that we lose contact with subtle harmonies. Like strawberries, those harmonies will turn in an instant and we’ll miss them if we’re too smart. It is precisely because those subtle harmonies are the source of mystery in his writing that Wunderlich has created this uniquely traditional and oddly experimental form of collecting them as house prayers. Consider the closing lines of “Driftless Elegy,” a long sad poem—I kept blinking though its middle parts—describing a return to the depressing Wisconsin territory of his youth:

In an early photograph I have, part of the town
goes up in flames—a premonition from the 1880s.

A group of women, corseted, skirts infested with lace,
watch from behind a buckboard as ash flings itself

into the sky. To the right the blur of a girl
rushes away like a ghost. No face. Hardly a form.

Just a hat and a dress, and the news of a fire,
though no one is alive who knows her name.

A hundred years from now would any of us be writing so sweetly and so sharply about the twin towers? The desolation of the postmodern poet is that even in community he feels isolated and alone, lonely, and afraid of death. This is why the focus has to be outside of ourselves completely, just shy of a light year away, and yet we must bring to bear on that outward focus all of the intimate, boring details, all of our clarities, to that aim. Consolation is only possible through empathy and empathy requires some sort of spiritual focus to transcend contradiction. Wunderlich carries this to extraordinary measure. At times, the speaker and God seem like lovers, and yet the God is also an executioner. In “Prayer for a Journey by Sea” he writes: “The day will come for you to draw / the bright sickle of the moon // across my wooly throat. / Do it with love, without regret.” Wunderlich also addresses empathy dead on in “A Husband’s Prayer” when he concludes: “our hands / barely touching as we sleep.” The empathy, making a connection, is more important than romantic love.

It is remarkable to me that as I read these poems, each one reporting an often very foreign context to me, I found myself saying, that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to say all this time. And yet, I hadn’t really been trying to say those things. It’s just that Wunderlich has such an indirect, even plain spoken way of “controlling the interview” between the poem and the reader. He lets us pray these poems with him.

The phrase that sticks in most readers minds from O’Connor’s spiritual journal was her comment about God being the only true atheist. That line kind of morphed in my head with advice from novelist Bob Bausch to “write what you know,” and poet April Bernard to “write what you don’t know.” The conflicting wisdom says a lot about the difference between genres. In fiction we create stories. In poetry, we create mysteries. But what if you’re not a poet or a novelist? What if you’re a minister; how would you follow this logic? Writing what you believed, I reckoned, was writing what you didn’t believe.

Maybe Christianity has it wrong. Maybe instead of creating us in his image, God destroyed us in his image. No one is afraid of mortality like a ghost. And if we’re not fully engaged in life, in our own autobiographies and the possibilities that defy them, then we’re all ghosts. “Come Lazarus,” Wunderlich seems to be saying. “Step out from behind that boulder. Grab a plow. Glance at the sky. Let me show you what you’ve been missing.”


 

June 20th

June, this year has been rainy and unsettling for me here in the condo. June 2nd, I signed the closing mortgage refinance papers into my name here on my dining room table, and I have dwelled for ten days surrounded by The Three Rivers Arts Festival.  Living in the midst of the Arts Festival sometimes feels like being assaulted by a gang of jewelry makers, hot sausage sandwich cooks, and amped-up bass players. Most of my building’s residents leave for their out of town vacations during these ten days.  I should, too, but I feel leaving home for a vacation is even more stressful than living with the festival that at least closes promptly at 9:00 p.m.  Besides, I’m poet. I’m in favor of public art.

June, I think, is a dangerous month: school lets out for summer vacation which gives everyone either too much free time and/or ruins family and work schedules. Things happen.  Garden weeds are at their worst.  People move.  Marry.  Divorce.  Babies get left in hot cars to die.  Air conditioners give out.  We remember all those U.S. World War II boys who died on Normandy’s beaches.  And, if some hapless, vacationing American is shopping in Paris, the French clerks still will ignore us if we can’t speak French.  June yearly reminds me life is not fair.

&&&&&

 

June 20, 1959, I was taking a Pre-Session Phonetics class for my Speech minor at what was then called Clarion State Teachers’ College.  That evening, in my second floor dorm room I was reading my homework assignment when my Uncle Russell and Aunt Martha knocked on my door.  I was amazed and puzzled.  Why were they visiting me at that hour all way from Mill Village in Erie County, a two hour drive away?  Why were they allowed upstairs to knock on my door?   Why weren’t they smiling?

I don’t remember their exact words, but what they quickly told me was that my brother, Joel, who was 17 months younger than I, had died earlier that day. My brother, who only a few months before had surprised me with a larky, two hour visit while I was working in CSTC’s dining hall scraping garbage off lunch plates, would never again kid around with me.

Uncle Russell and Aunt Martha were vague concerning why or how Joel had died.  All they would tell me was that Joel had died in Erie behind the store on the west side that our third cousin, Dick, worked. They were there to take me home for Joel’s funeral.  I packed my suitcase for a three day stay, because I knew that I would have to come back quickly to Clarion to finish my class.

What did I, an eighteen-year-old college English major, know?

 

&&&&&

 

Well after 10:00 p.m. that night I carried my small suitcase into my family’s red wallpapered kitchen so big it even held a stone fireplace. My weeping mother was just starting to remove Joel’s supper from the oven where she had been keeping it warm for him.  She scraped his plate into the garbage.  Then, she emptied our pale blue everyday teapot down the sink drain.  She barely noticed my arrival, except to tell me that Joel’s long time girl friend would be sleeping with me in my room.  Uncle Russell went directly to see Dad in the living room.

Except for my five year old brother, Jerry, I doubt there was any sleeping in that house that night.  Certainly, Joel’s girlfriend, whom I discovered had just days before accepted a diamond ring from him, never slept. Neither was there any information given about how or why Joel died.  What I did find out the next morning, much to my horror, was that Joel in his casket was delivered by the undertaker to our living room, directly beneath my upstairs bedroom, where it remained for the three days before his church funeral.  Hundreds of relatives, friends, neighbors, and the curious trooped up our front walk for the viewing, held every day from nine in the morning until nine each night.  Laden with casseroles and desserts, others came in through the back door into our kitchen.  Nobody knocked.

Meanwhile, Dad took up a position at the head of Joel’s metal casket where he carefully drew everyone to view what he continually explained was “the most natural view of my big bull calf.”  Mom pretty much stayed as a greeter in the dining room, except that after everyone left each night she sat crying alone in the living room with the casket until morning.  Dad slept in their downstairs bedroom.  As usual, I could hear his snoring that filled the entire house.

 

&&&&&

 

Somehow after the funeral, I found a ride back to Clarion and was allowed to take the Phonetics class final exam.  I’m sure, given that I missed so many classes, that I failed it, though I was given a C for the class.  A gift.  Clarion had a rule at that time that students were not allowed to stay in the dorms between semesters or between summer sessions, so I reluctantly had to return home the weekend after my final exam.  The house was back in order, our home was silent.  Joel’s pickup truck had been sold.  I suppose to pay for his funeral.  However, Dick, our third cousin, who had spent several years in Western Penitentiary for theft, lived across our street.  He was sitting on his front porch, so I walked over to find out why or how Joel died.

Because of Dick’s recently deepened black sheep status, he was relieved to be able to talk to anyone who wasn’t connected with the Coroner’s Office about Joel’s death behind his Erie store.  Dick told me Joel had arrived jubilant at his store the morning of June 20th.  That morning Joel had given Dad the last payment for his truck, and he was there to celebrate because he knew Dick would understand how good it felt to no longer be in debt.  Then, to further celebrate his independence from Dad—a loud, rigid fundamentalist, tee totaling Christian—Joel strolled to the local State Store and bought a bottle of vodka.  When he returned, he offered a drink to everyone in the store, then according to Dick, Joel chugged the rest of the vodka.  Soon, Joel said he felt tired and went out back to lay down for a nap in the back of his very own pickup truck.  A few hours later, Dick went out back to check on him and discovered Joel wasn’t breathing.  Dick called for an ambulance, but by the time the ambulance arrived, it was too late. The police and coroner were called, and Joel’s death was declared an accident.

However, although Dick identified the body, no one wanted to inform our parents of Joel’s death, especially because of how he died.  Finally, very late in the afternoon, the coroner who knew our family drove to Mill Village and told my Uncle Russell who lived just four houses down the street from our home.  First, Uncle Russell made the arrangements with the undertaker to pick up Joel’s body.  Then, the coroner and Uncle Russell drove up the street to tell Mom and Dad.  According to Dick, Uncle Russell talked the Erie newspapers into leaving out Joel’s cause of death.

 

&&&&&

 

As far as I know, neither of my parents ever revealed to anyone the real cause of Joel’s death, except to vaguely mention a heart problem, which I suppose is a version of their truth. But, even I, a mere 18-year-old English major, could feel their shame, a shame I did not and still do not share.  I also do not share their penchant for fending off the truth with silence.

A few days after Joel’s funeral on my 19th birthday, I had surgery for appendicitis.   Early that fall, my Mom’s mother and stepfather were instantly killed in a head on collision with a drunk driver.  That Thanksgiving, when I came home from Clarion, Dad told me that the reason Mom was in bed was that two weeks earlier she had suffered a major heart attack and that I was going to have to cook Thanksgiving dinner for 21 members of our family who were always invited to our home for that meal.  So, I did.  I knew there was no further discussion wanted or allowed.

 

&&&&&

That was then, but I, the eternal English Major, am still reading, considering Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, especially section 6 where he writes:

 

            And now [grass] seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

 

            Tenderly will I use you curling grass.

            It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,

            It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,

            It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their

              mothers’ laps

            And here you are the mothers’ laps.

 

Yes, if my family had been able or willing or permitted to share the truths of our grief over Joel’s death, we would have known Joel and ourselves better.  Perhaps, we would have known how to love each other better. However, if all that had happened, perhaps I wouldn’t have become a poet/writer, who like Whitman says a few lines later:

 

            I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,

            And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out

              of their laps.

 

And maybe, June 2, 2014, I wouldn’t have had needed to sign those mortgage papers on my black, dining room table here in what now legally has become my condo.


 

Book Review: Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

 photo 5704a15b-504c-4099-bf0e-a9e1964b8bf2_zpse79a47e1.jpg Under the Wide and Starry Sky
by Nancy Horan
Ballantine Books, 2013
$26.00 (Hardcover)

 

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

In the trend of novels about famous authors’ wives, Nancy Horan transitions from Frank Lloyd Wright and his three wives in Loving Frank to Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne in Under the Wide and Starry Sky. The story follows both Louis and his wife Fanny during their spotty affair, eventual marriage, and tense life together. Hers is a story about fitting in, whereas his is about finding a place in her life and achieving his literary dreams. Oddly, her inclusion in the literary wives club of history is so vague that people may not realize she also had several mental breakdowns—Zelda Fitzgerald outshines Fanny in that regard.

Key to the novel is Louis’s literary life. Writing about a writer always enables an author to comment about craft. Horan drops enough opinions that it’s hard to distinguish which belong to the characters and which are hers. She comments through Louis about the writing process by stating, “His work wasn’t as backbreaking as prying gargantuan rocks out of the earth, but in fairness to himself, he’d pushed his body hard, writing that heap of words.” Later, when Louis is tutoring a young neighbor girl in the craft of writing, he says:

But if you want to be a writer, you are going to have to put yourself in the shoes of people who are not so good. Everybody has faults. Some people have a lot of them. Yet no one sees himself as a monster. You need to try being him—or her—to know how she feels and thinks.

And again, after Louis meets Henry James, James “insisted a novel should convey a sense of reality so convincingly vivid that one couldn’t help by say, ‘Yes!’ when reading it.” Horan seems to take these statements to heart with her portrayal of Louis and Fanny, to the point that details and events become so intimate that they are almost uncomfortable to read. The most notable being Fanny’s madness—when one of her children dies and when she becomes violent later in life—and Louis’s various bouts of mortal illness—Fanny caring for his eyes, getting sick on a train to San Francisco, coughing blood when he suffers from upper respiratory infections—in addition to their overall lifestyle while they live on a Samoan island.

Readers first meet Fanny and learn of her situation: an estranged wife who takes her three children to Europe to pursue a painting education. While there, she meets Louis and all but scorns his youthful but sickly exuberance. As the novel progresses, perspectives shift between the two main characters—all to understand how unlikely their pairing is and the toils of a romance and career that takes them around the world. The merits of shifting perspective offer readers a window into both characters’ minds and emotions, which may be Horan’s attempts to show the entire situation and give antagonists full personalities with redeeming aspects.

However, such close awareness to both characters removes any mystery. Louis’s sections flow better and hold readers’ attentions more. If Horan maintained his view point throughout the novel, then the story would be more compelling. Mysteries would remain mysteries and unfold realistically instead of being explained beforehand—such as when Fanny returns to the United States without providing Louis with a proper reason. Removing these details would push readers to desire resolution. Instead, they already know everything, and the interim is a slow-paced wait until the situation is made “right” again. It is almost as if Fanny’s sections are just for readers’ benefits, but Louis’s portions are where the real story is.

But the story isn’t just about Fanny and Louis’s interactions. More often than not, readers will forget that Fanny is ten years Louis’s senior, until the characters insert reminders. It is always an issue when society becomes involved, but disappears when Fanny and Louis are alone. Fanny’s age, darker complexion, and American roots are stigmas, and she is ostracized from Louis’s group of friends because of them. Horan writes:

After Louis went upstairs, Fanny stood alone in the kitchen, anger rising inside her…. No one would admit it, but Fanny was outside the circle. What was she to them? A nurse.  A housewife…. Maybe, in reality, that’s all she was. Some days it felt that way; there was so much hard labor in taking care of Louis and the household. She had been trying to write a story of her own for months, but every time she got a head of steam going, some duty waylayed her. She had gladly signed on to this life when she’d married him, but if Louis were well, she suspected there still would be little encouragement from him for her writing ambitions.

Fanny seems to be reminded of her strangeness only when someone else treats her differently. She is acutely aware of her situation and need for acceptance, but Horan presents age, ethnicity, and social stature as interesting taboos. It isn’t a problem unless someone else makes it one, which is true of most modern issues. This conflict resurfaces later in life when her madness all but consumes her. Louis, after reading her diary, even wonders: “He had learned late in the game that Fanny was the kind of woman who needed building up. But then everybody needed praise. The question was: Can a person go mad from want of it?” This query, due to other elements of Fanny and Louis’s lives, is never overtly answered by Horan; she leaves that judgment to her readers.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky is about the reality of relationships—the stuttering but brightly romantic beginnings that condense into a mellow familiarity and dependency. Illness and disillusionment shadow every major character throughout the novel, and readers only glimpse flashes of contentment and stability. If readers expect a novel filled with adventurous romance—the likes of which would come from Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—they will be disappointed. But those who are inclined to voyeurism will appreciate the nuances of love through the hardships of daily life.


 

Professional Development

by Publius

As a former acid freak, I’m trained to handle extraneous bullshit. My dead pet schnauzer humping my leg while he lights the fuse to a dynamite stick he’s crammed up his ass for example. Stuff like that. But today? No one is trained for today.

We just went to an all day professional development. The whole district gathered in an indoor sports auditorium downtown. Next to me is a buddy from another school, a former ballet dancer. We promise to periodically stab each other for stimulation.

The day begins with motivational speakers. Actual motivational speakers. Here’s how I made my first million in real estate — speakers like that. What this has to do with teaching in an inner city school, who knows? By the end of it, however, about half the audience is motivated to leave teaching.

Just before lunch comes this guy, a local TV anchor. I’m not sure what his theme is — I’m well known locally because I learned to have a facile smile while I read a teleprompter? Anyway, he actually sets up a TV link in order to interview his former 8th grade teacher, who is now retired and in a home somewhere that’s not here. She comes across as lovely Miss Sally from Sweet Bird Of Youth Middle School. The problem is that she hasn’t been retired for so long that there aren’t plenty of folks here who remember her.

I ask the guy in front of me, “So what was she really like?”

He says, “She had a reputation for being the meanest teacher in the metropolitan school district.”

“Why?”

“Because she actually was the meanest woman in the metropolitan school district. If she liked the student, like she must have liked this guy, then the kid was fine for as long as the kid answered with a smile and otherwise remained motionless. But if she didn’t like the kid — or anyone else for that matter — that dislike immediately went to hate, which immediately went to revenge for any offense real or perceived. That was true for students as well as colleagues, family, neighbors, even some buddy for the forty-five minutes she’d occasionally have one. She’s crazy. But, in her defense, she was an equal opportunity sadist. I remember the first day she taught at my middle school. It was like someone threw a crocodile in a koi pond.”

In the afternoon, there was supposed to be actual information. Something about a new curriculum. There was only one problem. A power failure. Soon as the presentation began, all the lights went out. Except for the one little light on the presenter’s podium. So this dude, the presenter, he’s fine. He’s got his little light. So he just carries on.

He introduces his power point presentation. He uses his laser pointer on the blank screen. He even says stuff like, “Let me clarify roman numeral II.” There are hand-outs. The poor schlemiels, who distribute the hand-outs, have to feel their way aisle to aisle. Judging from the grunts and the curses, and that distinctive a-bunch-of-papers-just-fell-on-the-floor sound, more than just a few of these distributions ended sadly. This goes on all afternoon. All afternoon. About a glaciation into this presentation, I realize my buddy has been gone for like an hour, so I too excuse myself to “go to the bathroom.” I find I’m not the first to get this idea. In the lobby, it’s like intermission at the symphony, except it isn’t.

I heard later that the lights finally came on just minutes before the day was over. There were like fifteen people left in the auditorium. Twelve were using the opportunity to catch-up on their z’s. Three teachers were taking notes.

But the day had a trick ending, one last shtook. In the morning, we all gathered at our various schools, parked our cars, then were taken by yellow bus to the auditorium. In the afternoon, the district forgot to schedule buses to take us back. The feeling was not unlike finishing a long day, finally getting home, only to be leg-humped by your pet schnauzer. Except for the getting home bit.


 

Book Review: Intimates and Fools by Laura Madeline Wiseman & Sally Deskin

 photo 58bc5c5c-3569-41d8-a1a0-fd35776df9cc_zpsb7a2ed7e.jpg Intimates and Fools
Poems by Laura Madeline Wiseman
Art by Sally Deskin
Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014
$14.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

In the collaborative project Intimates and Fools, we learn 1950s’ “sex symbol,” Marilyn Monroe, slept in her bra. This is the same woman who said “beauty and femininity are ageless and can’t be contrived, and glamour, although the manufacturers won’t like this, cannot be manufactured. Not real glamour; it’s based on femininity.” It seems, in the face of beauty, our actions fail to reflect our beliefs. As Wiseman and Deskins quote from The Great Gatsby, the desire for glamour spins us into “the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” In this project, two women de-lace, unhook, and regular wash a culture’s notion of femininity. The hope becomes such: beauty free from foolishness.

The bra is a two-fold symbol. A bra, in its function, simultaneously reveals while it supports, holds back. Therefore, a bra has the ability to show and suppress sexuality. This dual purpose complicates the bra’s function, and thus, a woman’s concept of beauty. As the subject of the work, the bra as object effortlessly opens up a critique, or more accurately, a worry about the stereotypes of femininity.

Wiseman’s speaker personifies bras. They are rational, for “They want to know why I’m setting them aside for the goodwill, why I refuse to slide them on, why they aren’t worthy…” This voice humanizes, sheds the hyper-sexuality we often superimpose. However, this personification still feels slightly problematic. The humanization, while rational, sounds silly, cartoon-like. More so, the humanization raises the bra’s importance to an uncomfortable level. A materialistic object, it seems, should never hold that much value. But perhaps discomfort is the point.

The strongest, most powerful moments in the narrative come from the outside perspective. In contrast to the speaker’s sweet compliment to her sister, the outside world objectifies the speaker. They “said to me: Look at the white girl with big tits. Dirty Pillows, said Stephen King. and Mr. T, What’chu talking about, Fool?” I’m uncomfortable again, but here it feels purposeful, so I welcome it.

The script-like text in Intimates and Fools tilts down, across, and sometimes around the page. It weaves in conversation with the artwork. The variation of text placement adds movement to the page. The artwork is vibrant and varied. On the first page we are met with abstract, deep colored orbs. The watercolor is imperfect, messy and disconnected. The bras are uncharacteristically beautiful. These abstract, imperfect art pieces visually demonstrate Wiseman’s narrative: beauty is not one form, one color, or one size. These pieces contrast the smaller, more concrete and clear images of  bras. These small drawings seem unfit to sit in tandem to the abstract. The most obvious contrast occurs towards the end of the collaboration. On the left sits a frilled, single-colored conned bra reminiscent of Madonna. Above are the words “I’m not a fool.” On the opposite page, the art explodes, extends its figure to embody the torso, the roundness of the cups, the multi-colored body. Below, “I’m a survivor.” And it’s here, in boldest of contrasts, I’m convinced, fully, that I’d rather survive too.


 

On Nothing: A Summer Essay

by John Samuel Tieman

I love being alone. I love staring out my window at nothing, and sitting here thinking of nothing. This is an essay about nothing at all, an essay addressed to the whole world, which is to say no one in particular. The world is a nice, but you just can’t hang out with the world.

First, a few disclaimers. I love my wife. I’m one of those folks described as very married. In twenty-two years of marriage, in thirty-four years of friendship, I’ve not so much as raised my voice to Phoebe. Our compatibility is, frankly, remarkable. When folks ask me how we do it, what can I say? Marry someone with whom you’re remarkably compatible? Then be conflict avoidant? Anyway, so, first, I love my wife.

Then I love my friends. I have friends that go back forty years to my army days, thirty-five-plus years to my undergraduate days. Folks like that. I love them all.

But I also love being alone, staring out my window at nothing, sitting here thinking of nothing and all that.

I love my home. I live in St. Louis, although, staring out my window, it’s just a city. I stare at just a backyard with a street running next to it. The street I stare up ends with the crest of a hill about two-hundred meters from here. There’s a little public school on the other side of that rise. When the wind is blowing from that direction, you can hear the kids play. My wife went to school there back in the mid-60′s. There’s also a Catholic church on the other side of that hill. I attended that church, went to that parish school, and, indeed, was Confirmed there. I can hear the noon Angelus bells. But I can’t see the school or the church from my window. I sometimes pray the Angelus.

Occasionally a firetruck rushes up to the corner, where it turns to go somewhere, north, south. But once it stopped. Now that was Big Time. Rumor had it that someone at the corner had a meth lab which exploded. But I don’t know. It didn’t make the Post-Dispatch.

On the other side of my backyard, the closest neighbors are a Black family, friendly enough folks, although I don’t know them as well as I know the other neighbors. I call the wife “The Empress Dowager”, because on her left hand she has three fingernails each over a foot long. I’ve got to wonder what that’s about. But I don’t ask, because the fantasy is a lot more fun than any actual answer.

Not long ago, I saw the movie Into Great Silence. I love it so much that I bought the DVD as well as a book about Carthusian monks. That’s what the movie is about, monks, a Carthusian monastery full of them. Carthusians make Trappists look like weenies. They are hermits, who, while they live in a monastery, spend almost all of their time in their cells. I get that. I really get that. I don’t get why they don’t want to get laid. Or, for that matter, why they don’t want to catch a few innings of the Cardinal’s game on the tube – who doesn’t want to watch the Cardinals at bat? But the great silence, staring out the window at nothing, praying my rosary for no one about nothing. Yea.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a good Catholic. I am very, very Catholic. But I have never wanted to be a good Catholic. The Trappist Thomas Merton once said something like, “God, protect me from all right thinking men, which is to say men who agree perfectly with their own police.” I used to love Thomas Merton. I still like him, but I like him better dead. That way I can pick and choose the bits I like from his life. The actual monk, I think I would have found him annoying. Pretty much like I find my whole Church these days. I belong to a very annoying religion. I love the St. Louis Cathedral when it is cool, dark and empty. But Catholic I am. I can no more stop being a Catholic than I can stop being a Midwesterner, both of which I’ve tried. But what a Jewish friend says of his religion, I say of mine. I wasn’t born to a faith: I was born to a fate. Which leads me to nothing at all.
_____

Dance Review: The Ubiquitous Mass of Us by Maree ReMalia/merrygogo

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

One of the biggest challenges as a performing artist is to create work meaningful for the choreographer and cast, while simultaneously allowing the audience to be drawn in to that deeply personal world. This seems especially true for non-narrative work, which has no storyline. The story is ours to imagine.

Choreographer, Maree ReMalia, struck that balance in her latest work, The Ubiquitous Mass of Us. The group of nine performed the piece as part of the New Hazlett Theater’s CSA program. The house was packed, as eager and expressive as the cast.

The interdisciplinary performance fell under the category of “dance” for ReMalia, with movement ranging from exploratory and pedestrian to technical. Also incorporated was an ample dose of theater, self-generated sound, and an elaborate set created by Blaine Siegel.

To begin, the performers emerged from the rafters and balconies. Playwright and filmmaker, Paul Kruse, arrived onstage first, gesturing and sounding out caveman-like syllables. “Gah!” and “Shah!” He drummed his fingers against the cardboard boxes Siegel had glued together, painted, and stacked in various places around the space.

Adil Mansoor, a theater artist, dove into a monologue about space, using text that had been written by dance scholars over the years. The idea of how we take up space was one inspiration for the piece. During the choreographic process, the dancers also explored questions of identity. Who are we as individuals? Who are we together? How far beyond what we conceive of ourselves can we go? Mansoor struggled against the words in frustration, but willed himself to continue.

The entire group moved to the back corner of the stage, clumped together and laughing hysterically. We didn’t know why we were chuckling along, but the laughter was contagious. Eventually, the music began, created by Dave Bernabo (also a performer in the piece). The sound Bernabo produced matched the idiosyncrasies of the individuals.

After a slow motion section and a beautifully simple line the dancers formed, more hilarity ensued. Joseph Hall unexpectedly dropped into a middle split, and then Moriah Ella Mason joined him in a battle of extreme yoga postures. When they couldn’t outdo each other, Hall stuck his fist in his mouth, and Mason pulled her toes to her lips.

Another funny moment came when Kruse performed a less than perfect tap dance for Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight. Thompson and Knight, unimpressed, made a puking sound, and a gagging motion.

Interspersed throughout the hour-long show were a few lighter, unique movement phrases, influenced by ReMalia’s study of Gaga Technique which encourages dancers to push the limits of their personal movement vocabulary.

Continuously, though, the work came back to a bound, bold, and intense style of moving that displayed both struggle and release. The humor also remained. Jil Stifel and Mansoor catcalled the others, which led into a lovely solo by Stifel. Soon enough, a strange pair of voices, hidden behind a stack of boxes, accompanied Stifel quite dramatically with the famous Auld Land Syne song.

Mansoor eventually came back to his monologue from the beginning. “Space is a place for transformation,” he shouted, as his cast members began destroying the set, deconstructing boxes and tossing them about. One box, hanging from the ceiling, dumped Styrofoam peanuts onto the stage. The dancers screamed, running around as if they’d gone mad. All nine of them rushed toward us, shouting like mayhem, and the lights went black.

ReMalia and her group did an incredible job going beyond their natural tendencies to reveal something interesting about each one of them. That push somehow made us want to join in on what looked like pure and unrestrained fun.

Overall, the comedy was impressive, the structure was fulfilling, and the performers came together in a cohesive way that is incredibly difficult in multi-disciplinary art.


 

Book Review: The Complete Kobzar by Taras Shevchenko, trans. Peter Fedynsky

 photo 8f1b59d3-2cb2-4361-9e3d-31e1cf82ddf2_zpscf296ed9.jpg The Complete Kobzar: The Poetry of Taras Shevchenko
Translated by Peter Fedynsky
Glagoslav Publications, 2013
€20.90

 

Reviewed by Mike Walker

Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar is perhaps the greatest—or at least best-known—work of Ukrainian literature from the classic period of romantic, independent, native Ukrainian writing. Yet despite that, it has been—in full, and not as a poem or two selected into some anthology of Slavic literatures—an elusive work to locate in translation. Thus a complete translation appearing in English is a grand event: for the first time, a comprehensive version of all the poems included in the original Kobzar—plus some alternate and additional poems the author published elsewhere in his lifetime and supporting, expository materials—is available. Translator Peter Fedynsky is himself Ukrainian-American and long has worked as a translator and journalist in Russia and Ukraine; Fedynsky knew of the Kobzar and saw the need to have this crucial work of Ukrainian literature translated into English so when he retired from journalism, he took it upon himself to produce a robust, complete, translation. The resulting volume is a staggering work of scholarship and devoted translational acumen that places Shevchenko in the realm of Slavic literary greats where he rightfully deserves to be located. 

Since Shevchenko’s work has not been easy to find in English translation prior to this effort, it is probably necessary or at least prudent to provide some background on Shevchenko himself. Taras Shevchenko is known in Ukraine as both a poet and painter, but insofar as he is known at all in Russia and the West, he’s better-known today as a painter than a writer. This is not just by happenstance: Shevchenko became during his lifetime a highly-opposed writer and was considered a dangerous revolutionary by the Imperial Russian government and, as he was well-known as a painter, there was a strategic effort to promote his visual art and downplay his literary efforts. The Valuyevsky Ukaz and later the even more-severe Ems Ukaz were issued during Shevchenko’s time—two imperial edicts that forbid the use of the Ukrainian language in any form of printed publication and, for all intents and purposes, outside the home even as an oral language. Shevchenko and other writers were obviously affected the worst by this, though the expected reaction in the government’s eyes would have been for them to turn towards writing in Russian, a language most knew fluently and one that Shevchenko certainly knew from time spent living in Saint Petersburg. That was not, of course, what happened: Shevchenko wrote in his native Ukrainian and increasingly turned towards themes drawn from Ukrainian folk-tales and legends, the common argot of the people, and pastoral tropes well-loved throughout rural regions. All this was probably based in a true fondness for his native literature and land, but also was a reaction to the forced, systematic, oppression of his people’s language. Like many other dissident writers before him and since, Shevchenko took an official mandate against the type of work he believed in as a catalyst to produce work that in an even more acute sense challenged the government. His actions resulted in imprisonment and efforts to suppress his published works, but even in his own time also resulted in his earning a folk-hero status in Ukraine and the rest of “Little Russia” (portions of what are now Belarus and Poland). 

Given the current political strife in Ukraine, the treatment of Little Russia under the tsars and later the like-minded approach the USSR took towards Ukraine makes Shevchenko’s writing more apt and timely than ever, but also requires further understanding of the greater sociopolitical context at hand. One of the greatest sources of trouble between Russia and Ukraine has always been the issue of language: some may assume the current situation in the Ukrainian East is due to post-Soviet developments in Russian nationalism but it goes all the way back to Shevchenko’s time and indeed, before that. The tsars undertook a constant if varied effort to regulate and mitigate the cultural importance of Ukrainian language and move the people of Little Russia towards an alignment with Imperial Russia’s mainstream views and the Russian language. Similar approaches were taken in Belarus but without as pronounced an articulation in good part because of the parity of Polish, Belarusian and Russia all in Belarus meant that Belarusian did not on a proto-nationalistic level present so articulate a threat. (However, the Soviet Union continued in the Byelorussian SSR a stronger program of mandatory use of Russian in all official capacities than it did with Russian over Ukrainian in the Ukraine; when Belarus became independent after the fall of the USSR, there was a huge push towards restoring Belarusian as the primary language yet this caused expected problems since at least two generations of citizens knew Russian better than Belarusian. See my article in the ATA Chronicle for a nuanced exploration of this situation: Walker, Michael. 1999. “The Restoration of a Language: Belarusian in Medical Discourse”. The ATA Chronicle, 28:58 Nov./Dec, 1999.)

With language a core issue in the extended arguments of polity and society between Little Russia and “Big Russia”, writers found themselves on the front lines of many battles. Shevchenko’s poems chronicle rural Ukrainian life of his time in a way that is both accurate and reflects the real situation of his people but also all the same draws deeply on folk traditions and well-known popular stories and characters. A “kobzar”, it should be mentioned, is a bard who travels the countryside in Ukraine playing the kobza, a lute-like instrument and singing/telling stories via verse and song. Thus, in the Kobzar, Shevchenko presents the historical kobzar’s vision of a collection of essential narrative in verse to be repeated and shared with his countrymen. The kobzars would become much-persecuted under Stalin until their profession was nearly wiped out and, in a type of irony that could only happen in the USSR, replaced by phony (or at least new and less-than-authentic) kobzars schooled in a state-approved variant of folk history. In Shevchenko’s time, the core problem with the kobzars was they were communicators of an especial form of Ukrainian culture that was absent in Russian culture while the goal of policies towards “Little Russia” was to illustrate a “big brother” (Russia) and “little brother” (Ukraine) relationship where Ukraine sought advice and input on all matters from the more-established Russian society. Perhaps more than any other native tradition, the kobzars reminded Ukrainians of the rich legacy of their language and culture and as to a literary representation of the kobzar, well that of course would be ten times worse.

To approach the Kobzar now as a work of protest literature would be, if not exactly incorrect, a very incomplete view. Shevchenko’s primary goal was to produce a compelling collection of poetry capable of entertaining his countrymen while also retaining a sense of historical folk culture. Ways of rural life and occupations are celebrated, such as in poems entitled “The Sexton’s Daughter” or “Maryanne the Nun;” folk characters, too, in poems like “The Witch” make their appearances aplenty. Some poems, “The Witch,” “The Blind Woman” and especially the longform ones of which  “The Great Vault” is a perfect example are akin to epics, stretching into complex narratives. As the titles above suggest, a good portion of the poems feature women in central roles and while not always progressive in his depictions of women, Shevchenko at least gives them featured roles and notes the vast scope of female presence in everyday life—from a princess to a maid, from witches to widows—an approach more encouraging than we find from many male writers in world literatures of the same period. 

The role of politics in these poems is varied, with one poem “Kings” being a powerful critique of tsars and their power while more minor politicians and petty local leaders also do not escape the poet’s critical gaze. However, though poetry, this was truly romantic poetry of the most literal, pastoral, typology—poetry long before the twentieth century conventions towards using poetry as a metaphorical battlefield for large political issues; it is not satire, it is not a matter of casting characters in different guises to simply fashion a point. The language and narratives here are rich and often complex in depth and scope. Shevchenko’s efforts encompass a very full, robust, take on society as he knew it in Ukraine and it should be noted he knew Russian society, also: Shevchenko lived a long time in Saint Petersburg and had travelled in other parts of Russia. Shevchenko seemingly desired to provide a sense of how Ukrainian life had given rise to an especial form of poetic vision, one that was informed by other romantic and proto-romantic currents but less individually organic than the German or British romantics would provide. Again, the basis in folk literature is key, as is the use of Biblical views and references, a search for a tangible bridge between Heaven and Earth. A sense of earlier times and pastoral nostalgia is clear and the language—especially the dialog—is often overly-wrought, beyond even what one might expect for poetic conventions, yet the feel overall is fresh and engaging. Despite the rural settings and pastoral tropes, the focus is mostly on human interaction and this is accomplished via dialog and strong (if at times wandering) narrative trajectories.

It is, in the context of world literatures, useful nonetheless to realize that Shevchenko was a contemporary of poets such as the Englishman John Clare who wrote pastoral poems of the most sweeping, earthy, agrestic variety one can imagine. Some of that same sense of campestral beauty and wonder does appear in Shevchenko’s work, especially when he is attempting to convey the especial sense of the pride and unity Ukrainians find in their land. Likewise, dialog is often put to use to demonstrate the purpose and import of family and social relationships, such as when a witch queries a gypsy lady of whether she has children or not and upon learning the gypsy is without children wryly illustrates all the points of how children, indeed, are the center of a woman’s world. Whether Shevchenko intended this conversation to come off as satire or not is less than clear, but it reads as if it was written only a year ago: the points of gender roles and how a witch, in the 1830s or thereabouts, might have been one of very few female roles to escape the duties of child-rearing. 

Shevchenko doesn’t limit his settings to Ukraine. Prague, the south of France and, of course, Russia all make appearances now and then. In the poem “The Heretic” we find examples of how Shevchenko has a fairly strong understanding of European polity and Slavic political history. Shevchenko knows that his readership is a literate, educated, yet diverse middle-class—not the nobles of old but a growing part of the population that appreciates literature yet craves the basal aspects of folk-tales, heroes, and settings both exotic and familiar. They were people like himself—not the wealthy, but the intellectual. They yearned for greater understanding of their own cultural past and also of Europe and the history thereof beyond their own immediate territory. Russia’s elite desired literature to be grand, verbose, and most of all, Russian, German, or French and to predicate the very concept of a “literature” on what was marketed as literature’s esteemed and ancient origins in specific cultural traditions. Ukrainian literature, especially folk literature, was by default beyond that scope: Any worthwhile Ukrainian literature would ape the conventions of Russian literature and showcase how Ukrainians could become more like their “big brother” state. That was, in every sense, the trajectory Shevchenko revolted against. And what an advocate he became: His poetry alone would be a powerful plea for his people but his paintings also showcased quite literally how he saw the world, recording Ukrainian life along the same lines of aesthetics as his writing. Numerous drawings and paintings are reproduced in this volume of the Kobzar, adding that visual dynamic of Shevchenko’s creative forces to his literary efforts.

Peter Fedynsky’s translation into English is remarkable in its nuances and its comprehensive, patient, approach to rendering a faithful variant of the original in another language. It is obvious that Fedynsky has invested a great deal of time and effort in producing this translation and it was fully a labor of love all the way. His task was certainly not an easy one: Ukrainian is a very colorful language in any event and the poet at hand made that language even more oral, complex, and yet plain-spoken. It is again the folk cultural influence and also the historical context of the poetry and it doesn’t lend well to translation. Consider translating Wordsworth or Frost into Russian or Ukrainian; consider taking textural material that often tries in great earnest to feel oral and you’re halfway there but still not quite. It is clear that the translator knew what he was up against and he provides footnotes that reveal as much historical context and cultural detail that might otherwise escape the non-Ukrainian reader as possible. Indeed, when “Rejoice, Isaiah” is mentioned in the text, Fedynsky mentions via a footnote that this a hymn by tradition sung at weddings, which is pretty essential to understanding the context. It is a small detail and one many translators or editors might have missed; however, it did not escape the translator here. 

The Ems Ukaz was a crafty, cutting, and very effective measure of political malice and echoes of it resound in the current measures we find in Russian tactics in Eastern Ukraine today. The concept of Russian superiority and cultural elitism—the concept of banning the textural use of another language so the “better” Russian language instead will grow in popular favor—is one we can locate in nearly every culture Russia and/or the Soviet Union touched, from Belarus all the way eastward to Mongolia, where the Soviets did away with the traditional Mongolian script and in a cumbersome, lumbering, manner forced the Mongolian language into Cyrillic for all printed applications. In today’s Ukraine, we still can locate such language wars, but a prime point of historical and sociocultural reference for Ukrainians remains Shevchenko’s classic work. Now, we have that work—in full, not a poem missing and even some additional variants of poems included—in the English language. It is a wonderful, consummate, and notable work of translation and well-deserves international attention. 


 

Greek Yogurt

By Karen Zhang

These days I have a penchant for Greek yogurt. Claimed to be one of the healthiest food products with low fat and high protein, Greek yogurt is not only my favorite but an increasing number of Americans’ favorite. One statistic shows a total of 35% of all yogurt Americans buy today is Greek, up from only 1% six years ago.

Indeed, when I shopped at a local supermarket and glimpsed the dairy section, I saw various brands of Greek yogurt taking up three quarters of the shelf. So why Greek yogurt? What is its attraction?

If you look closely, the price of Greek yogurt is slightly higher than regular yogurt. Perhaps from the manufacturer’s point of view, Greek yogurt is a money-making engine. So no matter if a dairy company with big name or small, it sells Greek yogurt in its own definition. Some brands taste less dry than others. Some looked more yellowish.

When I first tried Greek yogurt, I loved the blueberries, but I hated the plain. I wondered how yogurt lovers could swallow such an insipid thick lump as if gulping a ball of white socks.

It’s all about health and beauty. If you take heed to the taglines of Greek yogurt commercials in America, you will notice they all boast the dairy product is a good low-calorie substitute for sour cream or it can be a light lunch.

Different from yogurt sold in the Chinese market, Greek yogurt is far thicker in texture. While Americans use a spoon to scoop the yogurt like ice cream, Chinese “drink” yogurt directly from a milk bottle or with a straw from a carton box. Since these days Chinese people’s diet is getting more Westernized by consuming more meat and red wine, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Greek yogurt being a hit in China soon. After all, Chinese people are starting to look more like Americans, so we’ll soon have to start dieting. Greek yogurt, here I come!

_____

Book Review: On the Street of Divine Love
by Barbara Hamby

 photo 30ed1044-a65c-496c-87e8-b65585bbdf10_zps3c8e37f8.jpg On the Street of Divine Love
Poems by Barbara Hamby
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

            Hamby’s poems have been billed as “word drunk excursions into the American female consciousness,” and they certainly are; the titles of Hamby’s earlier collections Delirium, The Alphabet of Desire, Babel, and All-Night Lingo Tango make clear her obsession with language and the tensions it creates. But beyond their beautiful words, these poems are psychological expeditions, portals into complex layers of time and space—and not just the streets of Italy, Paris, and London where her speakers often find themselves. In Hamby’s writing, memory, both personal and collective, is a constant layer over the present. The collection’s title poem takes us down the Street of Divine Love, where the speaker is aware of much more than what’s just in front of her:

 

I’m walking down the Vincolo del Amore Divino in Rome
        with a girl I hardly know, behind us the Spanish steps,
Keats’s words swimming inside me like thousands of fish
        in a transparent tank of skin, and if his breath lingered,
it’s gone now, mixed with the sig heils of Mussolini,
        the ecumenical denunciations of 15 popes, the pidgin
of the Japanese American soldiers from Hawaii
        who liberated Rome but weren’t allowed to march into the city
during the day, the cries of the baffled Romans who saw them
        and shouted Cinese, Cinese, and the millions of tourists
aiming cameras with lenses the size of a whale’s penis
        saying to the mystified ticket sellers, Is this a museum?

 

This is a speaker who knows her history and literature, the same speaker who will, in other poems, describe the sky as “a glorious Leonardo blue” and make reference to a wealth of classic films: a speaker who has seen, or at least heard and read about, it all.

But Hamby’s speaker isn’t cataloguing her knowledge to brag. A clue to her motivation can be found in the Rimbaud quote Hamby chooses as an epigraph, which ends “Among the lost you choose me, but the others—are they not dear to me? Save them!” The lost souls and madmen, young women and ghosts that populate Hamby’s poems are all called forth in an attempt to gain them salvation. At one point, the speaker recalls the ancient Roman method of building roads based on birds’ migratory patterns, how they looked to “these last remnants of the dinosaurs/ to help them make their way in the world, so I believe in birds.” Again the past, Romans and dinosaurs, is layered on top of the present, birds and the speaker. And here the reader can see Hamby’s deeper meaning; this connection to the past is what leads to the speaker’s faith. All those who have gone before us, the least creatures, the most unexpected souls—in Hamby’s world, they all have an element of divinity.

Throughout the collection, Hamby strives to find the beauty in ugly things. Her “Ode to Skimpy Clothes…” illustrates this human desire in its mention of “everyone/ wanting to believe that God has appeared in the parking lot/ of an abandoned store, the graffiti a message, something/ divine in the plastic bags and fast-food boxes rolling in the wind.” Rather than settle for mere desire, though, Hamby’s speakers take it one step further. They believe in the birds, and see divine beauty where others can’t. “Ode to the Messiah…” takes readers even further into the depths of darkness before turning toward its surprising ending:

 

…and I would love to see Satan bursting through the starry firmament,
        but there are no stars, only a stew of fog, and let’s face it
all our monsters are bivouacked in our chests like dyspeptic soldiers
        in a mercenary army, hungry, covered in warts
or contagion of some kind, too walleyed and stupid to see
        they are flesh and blood and there’s a glorious song
somewhere inside waiting to be sung in a church or an opera house
        or even a pub where…
                        …Janet, the scullery maid,
        her sweet soprano like a tiny bird, fluttering out
of a corner so dark it might be mistaken for an entrance to hell.

 

This ode, like most of Hamby’s poems, takes us on a wild journey—in this case, to London, Thailand, Honolulu, and the imaginary pub—and flits quickly from peace to horror to awe and acceptance in a seemingly effortless way. Hamby accomplishes this through her style and structure, which evoke the workings of the human mind. As her poems undulate downward with their staggered lines, many of them more than a page long, readers are gradually hypnotized by the memories and leaps of logic these speakers engage. Add in Hamby’s penchant for finding precisely the right, and unexpected word (take chiffon, tesserae, or grifters, for instance), and these poems become dynamic vacuums which capture the reader.

It’s also Hamby’s tendency to celebrate the intangible alongside the tangible that allows her to bridge the chasms between her poem’s subjects. The long titles of her odes do a lot to clue readers in on the journeys that will follow. Two of my favorites are “Ode to Augurs, Ogres, Acorns, and Two or Three Things That Have Been Eating at My Heart Like a Wolverine in a Time of Famine” and “Ode to the Messiah, Thai Horror Movies, and Everything I Can’t Believe.” But perhaps the most effective of these is “Ode to Knots, Noise, Waking Up at Three, and Falling Asleep Reading to My Id.” The poem takes us from the languages of ancient Peru, China, Greece, and Rome to the bedroom of an insomniac to a quick catalog of memorized lines, a loud late-night Italian plaza, a mother’s potential stroke, a jury of cats, a tsunami, and a bus shooting before ending with a woman reading the newspaper. I had to check the poem twice to make sure I had those elements right and in the correct order, but in Hamby’s deft grasp I never once felt lost while reading of it.

At the risk of going on for far too long, let me take a final moment to analyze the book’s beautiful cover art, illustrated by Stuart Riordan. In this collection, Hamby’s poems are all the blue Toyota catapulting us up toward the night sky and new intellectual heights only to let us tumble down gently through beautifully dizzying atmospheres of images. It’s like she writes in “On the Street of Divine Love.” These poems, as a whole, are “a shop of gowns so frothy and pink that wearing them/ [will] transfer you to another plane of existence.”
______

BARBARA HAMBY is the author of four poetry collections, including All-Night Lingo Tango and Babel, winner of the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry. Her book of linked stories, Lester Higata’s 20th Century, received the 2010 Iowa Short Fiction Award/John Simmons Award. She also coedited an anthology of poetry, Seriously Funny, with her husband David Kirby. Hamby is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Kate Tufts Award, and numerous other honors. Her poems have been widely anthologized, including The Best American Poetry 2000, 2009, and 2010. She is a Distinguished University Scholar at Florida State University, specializing in poetry and fiction.


 

prayer at Nikko Shrine by Basho

Basho

in awe I beheld

spring leaves

blinding sun

 

translated by John Samuel Tieman with Asuzka Tanka

 

 

 


 

Book Review: The Heart of June by Mason Radkoff

 photo b8ac9c11-156b-4dab-93e6-3a87ccc3f28d_zps4e4cf5ff.jpg The Heart of June
by Mason Radkoff
Braddock Avenue Books, 2014
$16.95

 

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

The Heart of June by Mason Radkoff is Pittsburgh, from its industrial laborers to its old money societies. Pittsburghers will enjoy mapping the story through their city, writers will appreciate the painstaking craft, hopeless romantics will cheer for the various couples, and laborers will sympathize with and recognize the main character’s choice of careers and vehicles.

The novel follows Walt, a scholar, carpenter, and handyman who ambles through life without urgency to finish his projects. There is nothing spectacular about him. He is the new Everyman—hard working but lazy, intelligent but unmotivated, and would rather eat at diners and bars instead of fancy restaurants with fellow scholars. His ex-wife, Sam, is as down-to-earth as he is, and her husband, Arthur, is a perfect but ridiculous gentleman. Miss June, an ancient socialite who helped to raise Walt and for whom he works, is strict and manipulative but caring. And Gwen, Walt’s student crush when he taught history, is almost too perfect in her ability to do everything, and happens to be going through a divorce.

These characters are full and complex. However, it seems as if the author wanted to write more about Pittsburgh and needed people to fill it. To do this properly, he created realistic characters and entrenched them in the city and its outskirts. Radkoff takes readers through Fifth Avenue, down Craig Street, up the Allegheny River, and out toward parks like McConnell’s Mill and small towns like Evans City. Local readers can map the characters’ progresses, whereas others will get a unique glance into the faded steel mill industry’s orange skies and the old-fashioned lifestyles surrounded by urban landscapes.

However, despite vast descriptions and references to a beloved city from a working man’s perspective, Pittsburgh ends there. The city itself is represented well, but not its people. Their defining aspect is almost nonexistent: Pittsburghese. Occasionally, Radkoff introduces double negatives in dialogue and colloquialisms such as “slippy,” but not much more. It would be difficult to do Pittsburghese justice without also making it a joke, but Radkoff could’ve tried a little harder linguistically. At the very least, he could have removed conjugations for the verb “to be,” which is a singular Pittsburghese trait. Walt is an educated lazy man who occupies a strange space between his poorly spoken (and thus apparently dumber) hard-working friends and the doctors, teachers, and the rich old biddy with which he spends time. The other friends could have been from anywhere that once had a thriving industrial sprawl. Nothing makes them distinctly Pittsburghers, though Radkoff successfully represents hard working, joking, and hospitable people who look after each other.

Through subtly drawn-out characterization and plot that appears and disappears as the need arises, the book follows a realistic pace. Conflict is stable with realistic reactions, and Radkoff includes moments of insight through hindsight, such as when he mentions Walt’s childhood like an ominous undertow that readers may forget until it randomly pulls them under the steady current of narration. Radkoff essentially telescopes into the lives of a few people in a particular city and presents the story as it would be if it happened in real life. In order to rationalize his writing style, Radkoff occasionally inserts passages that fit scenes but also comment on the book. For example, when Walt and Gwen first spend time together, they have a “moment.” Radkoff writes:

“That’s it?” she said quietly, afraid to break the moment.
Walt nodded in return. “That’s it,” he said softly. They lingered there, together, close.
“What are we doing here?” she whispered after a while.
“Building,” he replied, in a whisper of his own.

Radkoff builds Walt’s character through construction projects that ultimately affect his personality. He builds tension and conflict through minor actions. He builds a world within a well-established setting, and he seems to want readers to recognize that in order to build, things must take time and patience. In case readers didn’t get the hint the first time, Radkoff almost overtly states the novel’s symbolism. He writes:

Walt worried this might be too much activity for the grand dame, but Gwen assured him that they were in no hurry during their excursions, moving at a pace as slow as need be. Through it all, the parlor transformation had begun to take hold. Walt’s progress was undeniable, and to those who didn’t know him, the work would appear to be heading toward completion. And it was all for Miss June, performed against the sound of her ancient ticking clock, a steady but anxious race to fulfill her wish.

In one paragraph, Radkoff clearly summarizes the entire book. Walt is renovating a room for Miss June because she is dying. He works against his own lazy clock and her relentless ancient one in order to fulfill a last wish. It also seems to suggest that if readers continue to be patient and persistent, they will reach the satisfying end along with Walt.
This consistent stream of narration occasionally falters, though. It is difficult to discern the characters’ ages, except for Miss June. And after a pivotal scene, the ending wraps up a little too quickly and readers are denied an eagerly anticipated character’s reaction. And sometimes, Radkoff fails to include details where they’re needed. The narration then becomes quick and sloppy, as if in oversight. For example, when Walt and Gwen go on a date, Radkoff suddenly omits details about which the characters comment. Everything else in the story is fully realized, but he leaves some things for readers’ imaginations when they should have been included. He writes:

“You’re paying for our dinner?” [Walt asked Miss June.]
“For Gwenneth. It’s a reward for her hard work. For you, well, let’s just say I’m hoping that some proper nourishment will help keep you on task. You’re far from finished, you know. I can’t have you keeling over before you’re done, which is a distinct possibility given that you take so many of your meals in establishments of questionable repute.”
“I’m speechless.”
This was an uncharacteristically sweet gesture from his formidable old partner.

“Psst,” Gwen said from the door.
She seemed more beautiful than ever, to have somehow turned up the wick on her glow.
“Wow,” he said. “Look at you.”
“Me? Look at you. The girls are gonna throw rocks at all the other fellas.”
“Well, then,” he said, pleased at the compliment. “Our chariot awaits.”

Radkoff usually explains why characters say certain things, or the history behind a reference. Details are rarely omitted. Yet in the above passage, there are no explanations or descriptions. There is no history behind Miss June “uncharacteristically sweet gesture” to pay. And Gwen and Walt are not described, despite commenting to each other about their appearances. Radkoff may want readers to use their imaginations here, to create their own versions of beauty that would automatically be true, but that decision contradicts his otherwise stable narrative style.

Yet throughout the novel, Radkoff’s decisions concerning character and plot development steadily unfold. His writing allows readers to ease into a comfortable afternoon, say hello to characters that are as real as their neighbors, and, for a time, forget their own concerns. Readers will recognize their own lives in loveable Walt, even down to his insights about procrastination. In this Everyman and his friends, Radkoff represents every one. And maybe, he offers the heart of everyday Pittsburgh to the rest of the world.
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First-time novelist Mason Radkoff was shortlisted for the 2012 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition. As a carpenter restoring homes both modest and grand, Radkoff bore witness to the subtle drama residing within the walls that contain our lives, which he then used to create a tale filled with honesty, humor, and love.