Book Review: The Devil’s Snake Curve
by Josh Ostergaard

 photo 734107db-ed2e-4909-8ae3-9a43952d414c_zps39550200.jpg The Devil’s Snake Curve
by Josh Ostergaard
Coffee House Press, 2014
$16.00

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

At first glance, former urban anthropologist Josh Ostergaard has written a love story. There’s nostalgia, great passion, cheating, impenetrable beauty, and remorse. There’s reunion, resignation, and heroic angels. And lots of hot dogs. Ostergaard comfortably puts down six in a nine inning span. And so, reluctantly, I had to accept the book for what it was, a compendium of thrilling baseball anecdotes.

This drew my attention. I am frequently stopped by the Subject Matter police for driving over the lyric. Ostergaard spent ten years proving some kind of point about baseball and American history. Didn’t anyone tell him subject matter was boring? That good writing was all about seductive language? Thankfully no one did, for while Ostergaard goes down a rabbit hole he finds mysteries and shouting and wicked ways. I read it and saw how politics hoodwink the masses. I saw our need to reaffirm our hierarchical society without blaming ourselves for doing so. I saw the romance of defeat.

The Devil’s Snake Curve is also one of the most interesting “alternative history books” I’ve read, somewhere between Churchill’s two volume Duke of Marlboro and Charles Lowery’s James Barbour, A Jeffersonian Republican. The history is alternative because it doesn’t settle on one actor or a few specific events in time. Rather, in an era when Presidents feel compelled to declare war on emotion, Ostergaard is compelled to give us the history of an emotion. And he does so without Googling anything. His is a grim business of old newsreels, paper stubs, and countless visits to sporting museums.

If you look past the conspiracies linking the Yankees to World War II internment camps and rest homes in Arizona, The Devil’s Snake Curve is also a crystalline metaphor for the self-persecuted post-modern poet jammed between the art and the job of it. It’s a book that could have just as easily been about small presses in Kansas City and the larger ones in New York which always seem to win. Between alt-lit and academic literature, the have-nots and the haves in today’s conversation about writing. Ostergaard’s mastery of baseball portraiture—in excruciating detail—is what lets us imagine the whole world in a catcher’s expectant return of a pitcher’s menacing glare.

What better place to begin this kind of baseball book than an epigraph from the controversial sports figure Mary Robison: “Now he and I are watching some men with a ball. No matter the shape or size of the ball, what team or for what country the men fight. The TV is showing men with a ball so we’re watching.”

In his chapter “Origins,” Ostergaard tries to understand with mathematics and beer and song why the sport has such an obsessive hold on its fanatics. There is the dual drama of our subjugated compartmentalizing behavior braided with hero worship and the mysteries of chance. “What began as a pitcher’s duel may end with a home run.” In a masterful stroke of meta-almanac baseball writing, Ostergaard even writes a capsule review of his own book: Its stories are the murmurs between innings. They are the pitches that make up a game. They careen off the wall and roll into dark corners. The game is played in fragments. Meanings accrue. Memories interrupt history. Each of us should be an umpire.

On a baseball diamond there are five sides to every story. Ostergaard dulled his scissors cutting into his arguments and pasting them into each section of his book which include: Origins, Machines, War, Animals, and Nationalism. But this book is also part memoir, if just barely so. Probably no more than thirty pages of memoir. We get the part of growing up in a culture of defeat. That his Kansas City Royals are a Podunk team in a Podunk part of the world. We see Ostergaard change the seasons, listening to summer games in the dead of winter that he recorded on a trusty cassette tape recorder. We see him drawing bored circles in the outfield dirt. Later we see him rage and still later we see old regrets wash out the color in his face. The other team has uniforms and a soundtrack. His team has a pitcher with a cigarette bobbing on his lip.

Why does nothing mean so much? Ostergaard seems to be asking. Nothing is more linear than a game of baseball. And yet the process and the outcome—the journey for those of you keeping score—is so elastic. One scene which conveys this occurs as his family returns from vacation. Ostergaard writes:

Distance Factors

My sisters and I were in the backseat of my parents’ station wagon, rambling south through Iowa in the summer of 1983. We were on our way back to Kansas from our annual trip to Minnesota. We had spent a week in a tiny cabin on Pelican Lake, where every night we had campfires on the beach. By day I had stalked the weed lines with a butterfly net, looking for schools of bullhead fry. Now in the car we scanned the fields, counting horses to pass the time. My dad drove and listened to the radio. We had just entered the range of the Royals AM broadcast. I could hear the static fizz, and my dad fiddled with the dial. The Royals were playing the Yankees in New York.

In such a simple paragraph, Ostergaard combines Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, and New York, and lakes and fields, and horses and fish, and Time. In the scene, there is triumph when George Brett hits a go-ahead top of the ninth homerun, then curses when Yankee manager Billy Martin has it disqualified on a pine tar technicality. It’s heartbreaking how the observant and curious boy nonetheless “didn’t understand” why his father was so jubilant, then crushed.

It’s almost as if the father’s been programmed, and that all of us have been hard wired to wage the fight of our lives for the sake of mediocrity. Not all of us can be Yankees. Not all of us can be one percenters. “How would you make a Yankees sandwich? In Kansas, we believed the only ingredients were arrogance and money.”

For Ostergaard, our very existence is based on inspiring ourselves to participate in a fight we cannot ever win. The Yankees’ job is to inspire us to risk losing to them by thinking we have a shot. Guess what? We don’t have a shot. Dreams are not enough. Joy is not enough. To make dreams come true you need money, arrogance, charisma, and at the very least, a low-residency MFA. Shaving the hair off your face is also a plus.

Even the belief in language and the hope of writing is its own kind of failure. The best we can do is walk away. Ostergaard traded his anthropology career for a job writing grant proposals at Graywolf Press. He gave up on his hometown Royals ever doing anything, and he walked away from this book a number of times. For five years The Devil’s Snake Curve was a novel about a father and a son. When he finally finished it he decided to send it to 100 small press publishers. If no one took it then he’d just toss it over a fence. Two days later he signed a contract with Coffee House Press. Jesus, how does that happen with a book about everything to do with nothing?

Quite simply, The Devil’s Snake Curve is that good. It reads well, either a paragraph at a time or in seventy page clips. When moments become too literal, Ostergaard spits on the metaphysic, weaving memory and sunlight and static A.M. radio. Before he’s carried away he’s back on message with another entertaining gem. Read him slowly and you’ll be outwitted. Read him quickly and you’ll be bombarded.

What does the empire fear most? It fears passion. It fears the George Brett in each of us who can burn a double into a triple. It fears our faith in our ability to turn the game. Last June, when Ostergaard was interviewed in HTMLgiant, correspondent Adam Robinson asked him about the Royals, who’d just completed an improbable ten-game winning streak. Ostergaard said he didn’t deserve to celebrate because he’d grown so frustrated with the team’s owners. Kansas City was the smallest media market in big league ball. Its owners were misers, only developing talent for the sake of selling its talent to other teams.

Last week when the Royals upended the Orioles in the American League Championship Series in four straight games, The Devil’s Snake Curve added a whole new chapter in invisible ink. It’s a chapter about slipping in and out of irony; it’s about how one man’s blues is another man’s scripture, and the razor thin margin between hunch and prophecy.

Our problem is that we yearn to believe the defeated outcome is in doubt. We’re talking about devils and going down swinging or caught looking. Now that the Royals are in the World Series, isn’t that proof of something?


 

Why I’m Catholic

by John Samuel Joseph Tieman

First, a confession. I am, after all, Catholic. I watch EWTN, the Catholic TV station.

In any case, I was flipping through the channels, and came across a Mass on EWTN. It was being said by a Passionist. I have a fondness for Passionists, for their combination of the contemplative and the active. The guy was a university administrator at some university out East someplace, and this was his retirement Mass. So, yea, OK, I’ll give it a look.

At the end of the Mass, he gave his retirement speech. He planned to spend his remaining years in his cell, and in his lab, contemplating eschatology, and experimenting in molecular biology. I was touched.

Then, to show his love for his colleagues, his students, for the viewers at home, he said he had brought with him a relic of the founder of the Passionists, St. Paul of the Cross.

He blessed us with The Holy Bone. I was down on my knees in front of my TiVo.

We’re a Church that takes the remains of those we love, puts them in the chipper, and turns them into relics. And that’s why I’m Catholic. A molecular biologist, in flowing white robes, blessing me with The Holy Bone. There are no Holy Bones in a Unitarian chapel. There’s one in every Catholic altar.

To be a Catholic is, by definition, to be comfortable with both paradox and mystery. It’s everywhere in The Church. Go to Mass. Contemplate the Summa Theologica while you hear, at the Consecration, “Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body … Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood …”. It’s primitive. And profound.

I went to Catholic grade school, high school, and got my Ph. D. from a Jesuit university. You don’t get any more Catholic. My Confirmation name is Joseph. I’ve never aspired to be a good Catholic. But, as a character on Nurse Jackie said, “You can leave the Church, but the Church never leaves you.” What a Jewish friend said of being a Jew, I can say of being a Catholic, “I wasn’t born to a faith – I was born to a fate.”

I belong to a Jesuit parish. There was once an exorcism in my parish. Just one. But this is the very exorcism upon which William Peter Blatty based The Exorcist. Ask my fellow parishioners publicly about the exorcism, and the answer will be quite rational, even a bit dismissive. Privately, I’ve heard of angels. One Jesuit, a novice when he participated in the exorcism, said he saw more evil as a chaplain in Vietnam than he ever saw in that room with that boy. He also swore that the bed rose off the floor. As for me, I think that sad little boy was mentally ill. And I think the bed rose off the floor. I remain agnostic about the angels.

I belong to a very annoying Church. This is The Church that gave us priests who abused children. This is The Church that goes berserk over birth control. But this is is also The Church that gave us Oscar Romero, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Pierre Teilhard De Chardin.

We have a proud list of folks who have found a home in The Church. Among the converts to Catholicism are Thomas Merton, Edith Stein and John Henry Newman. Let’s not forget Oscar Wilde, who said, “I could believe in anything, provided it is incredible. That’s why I intend to die a Catholic, though I never could live as one.”

We take a perverse pride in creative bad Catholics, Federico Fellini, Francois Villon, Guillaume Apollinaire, Pablo Picasso, Federico Garcia Lorca. And let’s not forget Madonna.

On the other hand, we can’t forget John Wayne Gacy and Alexander VI. If you sit where Adolf Hitler sat in his church choir, straight across from him was a statue of an abbot. It is adorned with what was, at that time, a common version of the cross. The swastika.

I was never abused by a priest. Nor was I ever beaten senseless by a nun. I wonder if I missed something. On the other hand, I did go to Confession with Walter Ong. And, yes, to me he was always Father Ong. Instead of three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys, for the penance he’d give a reading list. And don’t think he couldn’t bless you with The Holy Bone.

Mystery. Paradox. The theology of Thomas Aquinas. The music of Franz Liszt. The poetry of Juana Ines De La Cruz. I once saw a peasant, who crawled all the way from Cuernavaca to Mexico City on her knees, this to pray to Our Lady Of Guadalupe. And this is what I love about Catholicism. The saint and the sinner. That side altar, at the Carmelite monastery, dedicated to a poet, John Of The Cross, and, in the pew, a holy card with a “Prayer Never Known To Fail”. The gothic cathedral, and the hospital chapel. The fact that the Mass, said by the Pontiff in Rome, Italy, is the exact same Mass said by the parish priest in Rome, Georgia. I like to picture Gabriel Marcel praying his rosary. I like the rosary.

I love Thomas More. But my favorite saint is Brother Andre, who worked for forty years at odd-jobs in a little school in Montreal. Brother Andre is buried in a simple tomb, one inscribed with only “Pauper, Servus Et Humilis”. “Poor and humble servant.” That simple tomb is in the largest basilica in the western hemisphere, the Oratory Of St. Joseph.

And that’s why I’m Catholic. That and The Holy Bone.

This summer, my wife and I will spend a few weeks in Europe. She’s a psychoanalyst. So, first, we’ll go to Vienna, where she’ll worship at the First Church Of Freud. Then we’ll go to Prague. She’ll attend the meetings of the International Psychoanalytic Association. I’m going to see the Infant Of Prague.


 

Book Review: The Insomniac’s Weather Report
by Jessica Goodfellow

 photo 191aa37b-6ade-4a8f-9854-e4c1f323fc71_zps775efc45.jpg The Insomniac’s Weather Report
Poems by Jessica Goodfellow
Isobar Press, 2014
$15.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Jessica Goodfellow’s book The Insomniac’s Weather Report tumbles into a world of water, semi-consciousness, and circular logic. The collection is divided into four sections and these divisions seem to offer the only real stability in the work. To hold onto anything here is illogical, for anything is nothing, and then everything, all at once. I read as if tiptoeing; I don’t trust that the poem will state without taking back, without it, somehow, claiming it’s not a poem, not not a poem, either. And when the narration does spin, I follow it without question, as if obviously, it’s foolish to think anything is definite.

The first section, “Uses of Water,” lays the foundation for the circular narration that carries throughout the collection. Water moves each poem, as it’s positioned as the central image. This works well as a beginning, for water is the source of all things living. It’s necessary for existence, yet it’s constantly shifting form and location. This shifting property of water extends to a larger discussion on instability. The poems are titled “What You Measure If You Use Water As A Clock” or “What You Lose If You Use Water As A Preservative.” Water is never simply water, but a tool. In “What You Dampen If You Use Water As A Boomerang,” the speaker talks of the body as fact, then shifts in the fourth stanza, she writes,

…The sea
is not a boomerang, returning
unchanged—who boldly inked this
edge of continent on map? As if

blue roofs of ocean
shift and slap in maneuvers—
familiar and chaotic—the body
and its households recognize.

The speaker rejects water as stagnant and firm. Yet, the word “water” can be replaced with the word “body,” so the title reads “What You Dampen If You Use Body As A Boomerang.” Again, water seems to be a tool, simply a means towards what’s spoken about.

The other sections continue to focus on the theme of instability. Section two introduces an insomniac who

…longs to transliterate
rain into a human alphabet—
French, maybe. A lullaby, a chanson,
a hymn. A baptism of sleep
as unstable as water.

Section three, titled “Flotsam and Jetsam,” rinses tension on the poems’ shores. The speaker sounds the most disillusioned, circular, questioning. The poems match this in both form and content; they refrain multiple lines or build on a singular statement. For example, in “The Geometry of Being,” the first stanza begins with 3.1, then the second 3.14, then the third 3.141 until the poem ends with 27 lines of pi blocked against the page. Here, the speaker is called irrational, which becomes the link between the mathematical and the human condition. The poem draws its logic and language from both worlds:

they never reach an end, never reveal any patterns, never repeat.
I think of the ancient Greeks, how their words for irrational
number
meant measureless number.

3.141
When you call me irrational, I hear that I am measureless…

Still, the poem ends with a moment of uncertainty, a desire towards a definitive: “Tell me, is it hopeful or hopeless, / this confluence of spirit and flesh.”

The final section, “Alphabet Fugue” is the longest of the four. The poems build on one another, the end title word beginning the following title. In “Roof: Fugue:” Goodfellow defines “fugue,” as the act of fleeing, a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated, a disturbed state of consciousness, a “loss of memory coupled with disappearance from one’s usual environments,” among others. While these definitions mark the section, they also represent the collection as a whole. Our world, our bodies, these poems, are fugues. Goodfellow puts it best when she writes,

Here we are then: in a world where logic doesn’t function,
or else emotions can’t be trusted. Maybe both.
All known tools of navigation require an origin.

Otherwise, there is only endless relativity and then
what’s the point of navigation, in a space where
it’s hard to be lost, and even harder not to be?


Dance Review: Loving Black by Anthony Williams

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

“I’m a man. I’m black. I’m queer. I’m skinny. I’m awkward.” Anthony Williams, a dancer and teacher in Pittsburgh, began his choreographic process by reflecting on himself. He chose labels that described him, then researched some of those labels for a more universal look at what it means to be a black man in our society.

Loving Black, an all-male quartet, premiered Friday night at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s Alloy Studios. As part of the “Fresh Works” series, Williams was given 80 hours of studio time, along with technical support, to create a work-in-progress.

The dance began in darkness with the sound of the infamous Willie Lynch speech given in 1712. Lynch disturbingly gave instructions on how to control one’s slaves by exaggerating their physical differences and turning them against each other. In one haunting line, Lynch wrote, “I have outlined a number of differences among the slaves, and I take these differences and make them bigger. I use fear, distrust, and envy for control purposes.”

As the lights came up, the four dancers did exactly the opposite. Each performer moved into the same strong standing position. They proceeded into a bold unison phrase that highlighted their similarities and brought them together.

Eventually, the dancers split into duets. In one meaningful moment, Jovan Sharp repeatedly pushed off the embrace of Michael Bishop. The section highlighted Williams’ interest in how black men relate to each other physically. Here, we heard the words of poet and speaker, Mark Gonzales. “As with most men, it is easier for me to give hugs than to accept them.” Sharp and Bishop finally embraced.

Jean-Paul Weaver entered and the three dancers continued in a trio of partnering that deftly showed off their strength and fluidity. That culminated into a phrase of “stepping,” a rhythmic style with African roots that uses stomping and clapping. The men laughed, enjoying themselves.

When Williams entered, the performers turned away in rejection. Williams soloed in and around them, as if trying to be part of the group. The three others gradually joined in behind him, but from a distance. They ultimately came together for a technical section of phrase-work with long lines and challenging balances high on their toes.

The piece ended on a celebratory note. With gymnastic movement, the performers rolled into and out of the floor with ease. They pressed into handstands only to rise to their feet again. The luxurious extension through their bodies signified inclusion. Just before the lights went out, they fell onto their backs in exasperated joy.

Overall, Williams choreographed what he intended. One of his goals, he said, was to “find our similarities as black men, and pick each other up.” The show was certainly uplifting; audience members rose to their feet, and nearly everyone stayed in the theater for a gratifying question and answer session. As a work-in-progress, my hope is for the piece to be fully fleshed out and lengthened, to dive deeper into the important questions Williams posed.


 

Grains of Dust

by Gerry LaFemina

“My imagination is a monastery, and I am its monk.” – Keats to Shelley

*

For me writing is the closest thing I have to religious experience. Whether it’s because, through the act, I open a trapdoor into some Jungian subconscious, or it speaks to the transcendental nature of words themselves, or it’s something else completely, I don’t know. But every writer, I think, is an ascetic in some way.

*

There are a lot of little hurts in West Branch, Michigan (and Staten Island, New York and Friendsville, Maryland, etc). Write about them.

*

We’re creatures of rhythm—from our mother’s heartbeat heard in the womb to the pulse that maintains us. Each of these rhythms is unique. This is the beat of our poems.

*

The satoric moment—the moment when clarity reveals itself—is the lyric moment we try to capture: something releases the pigeons within us so those birds ascend in a fury of wings and feathers. That moment when the birch bark is ripped asunder and the knots in the tree’s muscles are freed, that’s the moment we try—often futilely—to capture.

*

Perhaps memory is composed of an archipelago of vivid images. To write from memory means to raise them above the sea level of the mundane with as much vividness and energy that made you need to recall it.

*

Matthews: “Memory is a constant good to writing. But memory is not a system of information storage and retrieval. Memory itself is a kind of writing.”

*

Abstractions are balloons that float above our heads. Images are the strings that allow us to grasp them. Some poems are one balloon. Some are a bouquet of such balloons: colorful, delicate, and striving to rise above us.

*

At Bay deNoc College, a student asked me about the number of sirens in my work—especially, she noted, in love poems. I hadn’t noticed this before, and although sirens were often background noise to a New York childhood, I think it has to do with the fundamental need for tension in a poem. It’s important to keep in mind the proximity of despair in even our happiest moments; after all, faith is strongest only in relationship to doubt.

*

Miró: “Each grain of dust contains the soul of something marvelous. But in order to understand it, we have to recover the religious and magical sense of things that belong to primitive peoples.”

This makes me think of the ancient Talmudic scholars who believed in the spark of god which is found in all things, that remnant of creation. Sounds like the big bang, to me. Sounds like each word in a poem should be aware of what it contains.

*

Poetry is flying a kite in a hurricane.

*

In a New Yorker interview, director Mike Nichols said: “When a joke comes to you, it feels like it’s been sent by God. What it is, really, is discovering your unconscious.”

Same can be said for poetry.

*

Two touchstones of poetry: Subtlety and specificity.

*

Again Miró: “For me form is never something abstract; it is always a sign of something. It is always a man, a bird, or something else. For me painting is never form for form’s sake.”

*

Sometimes formal poems remind me of the well-gridded, well-groomed streets of gated communities: ordered, clean, soul-less. Sometimes free verse poems remind me of cluttered, winding, narrow streets in some European city—the soul is there, but we’re too busy navigating the streets to experience it. Both ways of founding a poem can be poorly done. It’s not in design, but in execution, that a poem’s power is found.

*

The formal and intellectual gamesmanship of the so-called avant-garde (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, fractal poetics, etc) doesn’t interest me beyond the first glance. They are curiosities, but usually not filled with the heart I long for in poems.

*

The writer is a magician. Like a magician the result of craft is more for the audience than the poet. Metaphor is one way to make a silk scarf turn into flowers. The lyric moment gets the applause.

*

Felix Adler (Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown): “The simpler the trick, the better, so long as it contains an element of surprise.”

*

Poetry is ordinary language raised to the nth power.

*

A poem is rhyme, meter, form in service to the details/images/“narrative” of the poem, in service to the tools of lyricism and meaning, not the other way around.

*

Greg Orr: “Memory is a form of imagination.”

*

Randall Jarell: “A poet is not so much one who has had the experience so much as someone who needs to have it.”

*

Re: Plato’s two worlds: the world of being and the world of becoming—the world of things and the world of ideals. We live in the world of things, therefore poetry based purely in abstraction, in the world of ideals, takes poetry away from its inherent readership. Imagery that engages the senses that reflects the things of the world enables the reader to engage abstraction in a tangible way, much as the way the experience of sitting in a chair enables us to engage the ideal chair. Every poem, therefore, exists in both worlds simultaneously. It is, and it is becoming.

*

The poem’s page is a door between the abstract world and the quotidian world. The right words unlock the door.

*

Like the space within the atom—between electrons and the nucleus—the space between the lines of a poem needs to have gravity, pull, necessity.

*

Poems are a way of thinking, which is why Plato was frightened of the poets. It’s a way of thinking and a rhetoric that is antithetical to deductive reasoning. This is also why Hegel saw poetry as the second highest art form after philosophy.

*

Images in poems can work like buoys in a harbor: they gauge the depth of the poem’s waters through their use, how the language around them works, how connected they are to abstraction, and how they engage other images, narrative strands, language within the poem.

*

Poems are not feelings put down on paper, but may be feelings mediated by craft and the act of translating them into language.

*

Memory has no fixed points. Memories don’t take up disk space. By using memory in poetry one attempts to give memory its own particular place.

Therefore returning to a memory in another poem, a poet does not alter the memory as the writer remembering is the changed thing.

*

Pierre Bonnard “painted from memory because he wanted images that had made a connection between reality and emotion” (NPR)

*

Visual art is eternally present tense even when dealing with history. The present tense lyric attempts a similar simultaneosity. It wants to capture an event that has already happened by giving it resonance through voice which the reader then experiences in the now.

*

The importance of the image in a poem is that it helps us not only re-envision an abstraction, but also, by way of its symbolic/metaphoric weight, re-envision the object itself.

*

Consider the use of imagery in a poem as the use of talismans. The poet imbues in the image emotional/spiritual/psychic weight so that the reader can feel it. In other words the best/strongest/most memorable images in a poem are like charms, like relics, like something someone we loved left behind—a shirt, perhaps, that we keep among our thing so that the beloved remains with us even though the person has gone.

*

Poetry like magic is about making what is impossible seem possible. Or the other way around.

*

It helps to consider the poem as a lever, gestures on one side of the fulcrum have to move something on the other side of it. If not, nothing happens.

*

I read the Bible, stories, and magic books as a child. Which means I learned the sublime—and myth, story, and the power to transform the things of the world—to make things do the improbable. I also played Eye-Spy which taught me to pay attention, and sang along with the radio in the back seat of my mother’s car. Those five things are all any poet needs.

________

from Palpable Magic: Essays and Readings on Poets and Poetry
(forthcoming from Stephen F. Austin U Press, 2015)


 

Book Review: Nevers by Megan Martin

 photo 527f4239-0350-48cf-b6b2-8fd083ff3b0e_zps3c361cbd.jpg Nevers
by Megan Martin
Caketrain Press, 2014
$9.00

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

From the title I expected Megan Martin’s book, Nevers, to be a book about being unfulfilled, a book of false starts. However, it is much more complicated than that. The ambitious author/narrator is more interested in deconstructing love and finding her true self through her aspirations as a writer. She also attempts to come to terms with her ideas about gender roles, marriage, and society’s concept of beauty. As she struggles with these matters, Martin often forgoes the traditional narrative style in favor of a metafictional one. She remarks on the process of writing the book and invites the reader yet another step closer into the brilliant and complicated mind of Megan Martin.

Martin uses short two page vignettes to capture the angst, jealousy, and hidden passions within the narrator. In the section titled, “A Bride Outdoes Me,” she writes about her best friend—a once hardcore feminist, like herself, who has suddenly become a stereotypical middle class woman that has lost her radical edge. During her friend’s wedding, she internally bashes her friend for leaving behind their shared values, while also picturing her own future wedding. Still Martin manages to “pat [her]self on the ass for remaining ‘real’ and ‘unchanging’ all these years, for continuing to believe so goddamned ferociously in art.” This hypocritical thought alienates the narrator from the rest of the wedding guests. Yet, this angst is short lived as she ends the passage with, “I let the ants in through the zipper-door in order to feel them, not to understand.” Here, I found myself rooting for Martin to discover a perfect balance between her past ideals and her present self, but as the book continues this struggle only seems to get more complicated, as more dichotomies are introduced.

Another remarkable thing is how Martin’s use of metafiction does not restrict her voice, character development, or imagery. Instead, she shows her vulnerability and courage as she talks about the process of writing this book. While poking fun at herself, she writes, “Shit. I hate when the narrator is a writer” and “I only write because I want to talk about myself all the time.” By using self-depreciating humor, she presents her opinions in a way that keeps the average reader reading and the radical feminist happy—a balance, which could have been difficult to maintain, since the book is constantly tipping the scale one way or the other.

If Martin had used longer passages or even a more traditional style for her stories, then some of the strong language and metaphors would have been lost. In this case, the sparse language reinforces Martin’s metaphors and creates lasting images. For example, she remarks on two foxes that she sees outside:

I can see how one fox’s life doesn’t need clarification, while the other’s does, supremely. The foxes appear otherwise equal, but that second fox is fucked and will have to find religion pronto. The first is satisfied with her mediocrity, but I can’t tell whether she is about to murder, seduce or abandon the second.

These dark themes creep into Martin’s writing and capture the real struggle between her past self and the ever-evolving one. She also takes great pleasure in pointing out what other people are afraid to acknowledge: “babies are not inventions. People just think they are because they are incapable of actual inventions.” Again, Martin’s desire to be creative, but also the inner turmoil is brought to the forefront just begging to be scrutinized.

Perhaps Martin’s most important point comes with the apology for the book in, “Warning Label.” Here, she talks about the psychological torture that is undertaken when writing the book and the process it takes to truly understand one’s self. Like Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and many other great writers before her, she wishes to show that she does not know everything. More importantly her opinions on feminist issues and writing are limited and cannot be fully encompassed within the book. She does not want the reader to take these ideas and directly apply them; rather she wants the reader to think. She writes:

A poem should flop and writhe in its own gruesome mystery, very near to dying! A poem should be the moment prior to dying that never tells what happens next! A poem should be vomited forth and gravied onto a weekly prickly lawn!

Martin is suggesting that there aren’t clear lines between poetry and prose, and that she wishes for people to reexamine yet another dichotomy. Martin’s fictional vignettes are examples of that non-distinct line.

Ultimately, nothing about Megan Martin’s book Nevers is easy to define and that is the brilliance of the work. Her search for herself, her need to create and tangle with society’s outdated notions, help fuel the book. The reader is then left with lasting images of foxes, writing, and love as ever-evolving concepts. While I originally thought this book could not easily be defined, I did discover that “never” is not always an absolute concept, but a constantly changing one.


 

Greeting Cards

By Karen Zhang

I remember how difficult it was in China to find a greeting card for my friends. There were holiday cards for the Chinese New Year and for occasions like weddings and birthdays in stationery shops, but no card to send to a friend just to say hi.

On the other hand, I’m thrilled and stunned by shelves of greeting cards on display in Americn shops. There are not only cards for weddings and birthdays but also for sympathy, for graduation, for job promotions, and for just saying “I like you.” Just in the category of birthdays, there are cards for grandparents, grandsons, granddaughters, husbands, wives, brothers, and sisters. There are serious ones and humorous ones, sad ones and happy ones. You name it, and there’s a card for it.

Perhaps because of the wide selection of greeting cards, Americans purchase approximately 6.5 billion greeting cards each year. It’s a substantial figure, about five times the population of China.

But Chinese people don’t send many greeting cards. In China I received greeting cards only from my American friends. I was always surprised that they were able to find the right card for the right occasion—birthday, Christmas, congratulations, thank-you, Halloween, get-well. The cards always seemed exactly right.

Americans are familiar with Hallmark and American Greetings as they are two of the largest publishers of greeting cards in the world. Thanks to the Internet, today more people use electronic greeting cards than the paper ones. I still prefer writing a paper card and sending it — it seems more intimate than an electronic one.

Today an American family can customize their own greeting cards with family photos and original art. But in China this is still an expensive production and is rarely done. Perhaps this is a business opportunity for the right entrepreneur.
_____

Book Review: Late Lights by Kara Weiss

 photo 490d6af3-3862-4a38-8209-b3d388800f3c_zps1aff98ad.jpg Late Lights
by Kara Weiss
Colony Collapse Press
$14.00

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

It’s Monty’s fourth stint in juvenile detention, and in three weeks he’ll be free. He’s almost sixteen. And he’s decided: this time is the last. He watches the shadows shake and bend. He imagines the sweet smell of autumn. Other nights these shadows would be a riot, an explosion, stifled anger uncorked. But not tonight. Tonight, they’re just shadows on the wall.

Kara Weiss’ Late Lights, out now from Colony Collapse Press, guides the reader through glimpses: snapshots of lives, interwoven by feuding and occasional understanding. Reuniting, but rarely resolving.

Late Lights is a novel-in-stories, or more accurately, a novella-in-stories. At 123 short pages, Weiss manages to do what a good number of authors cannot—create a long-lasting world, one whose characters linger in the reader’s consciousness. The questions raised by the characters render the reader unable to consider anything else.

The story is certainly a quick read—a smallish, almost square book, like something you’d find on a coffee table. It’s an afternoon spent with children and adults, and children who grow into adults. Characters like Monty, whose flirtation with juvenile detention has marked him as “damaged goods” in the eyes of his father. Or BJ, whose “body was lean, but it was the leanness of childhood that she’d managed to hang on to, and it was well overdue.” She quietly watches her childhood crumble around her and actively seeks to stop her growth through self-mutilation. Erin consistently tries to balance her love of her friends with the disapproval of a broken family. When it comes to Monty, Erin actively rebels against her mother, whose wealth has seemingly robbed her of empathy.

Childhood friends, Monty, Erin, and BJ, share recollections of leaping into crisp piles of autumn leaves and had a naive certainty that they would never grow apart. But the relationships fade, as many things from childhood do. The memories from that time hold fast, though. They build and break the teenage protagonists. Throughout his adolescent years in juvenile detention, Monty’s mind wanders through his past with Erin and BJ, and what his future might hold. Erin’s affluent life is what Monty has always dreamt for himself, simple order and apparent ease: “The house was clean. There was always lox, and orange juice, and fresh mozzarella in the fridge, and fresh bagels on the counter. Someone was always reading the paper.” Despite their disapproval of him, Monty admires Erin’s parents, and wants to make their lives his own.

Monty desires this stability more than anything, but throughout Late Lights, Weiss details the barriers preventing this. Monty is a victim of the justice system, a churning machine that fails so many which it purports to help. Turned out of juvenile detention shortly before his sixteenth birthday, he moves in with his father, who “welcomes” him home by providing him with no house key, a small place on the moldy couch on which to sleep, and the imposing promise of domestic abuse. Not the future he imagined for himself. Forced out onto the streets in the midst of a freezing Boston winter, Monty turns to the only respite he has left—Erin’s family.

It is these events that bring these characters back together in their late adolescence. Teenage years spent apart—Erin at boarding school, Monty in detainment, and BJ in self-imposed isolation. They have grown apart, and Weiss details their newfound differences through startlingly intimate glimpses into their psyches. This is one of the reasons why Late Lights is so powerful—there is nothing withheld in these characters’ portrayals.

Weiss transitions between each characters’ voice throughout Late Lights. Erin’s story, “What’s Personal,” is written in strong first person, while Monty and BJ are detailed in the quieter, more detached third person. These deviations made perfect sense as I got to know these characters. It’s almost as though that’s how they’d want to be portrayed.

These stories are about growing up, and being thrust into a gritty, cracked world that no one is really prepared for. In one of the more striking scenes of the collection, Monty sits in Erin’s father’s car, shortly after running away from home. He’s freezing, and having long outgrown his shoes, his feet are bloody and torn. Erin’s father wraps his feet up, gives him a pair of his old shoes, and studies him carefully. He tries to reconcile an image of a broken young man with the boy who played at his home nearly every day during his daughter’s youth:

His old sneakers seemed to dangle from Monty’s feet as if not fully attached. The shoes bulged over toes and bones where the gauze padded raw wounds. He looked so small in those big shoes. Like a kid.

The characters in Late Lights grow worlds away from each other, but are always interwoven. They are united in their imperfection, their incompleteness, and their longing for a lost childhood.


 

Job and I

by Nola Garrett

O that my words were written down!
  O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
  they were engraved on a rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
  and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
  then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
  and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
                                         Job 19: 23-27a

A couple of weeks ago, a dear poet friend told me her poetry manuscript had just been announced a finalist in a poetry book publication contest.  I’m sure she told me this because she knew I would understand how painful this news was to her.  Over the last quarter century I’ve been a book semi-finalist or finalist 17 times. And, I’ve received hundreds of rejection letters from magazine editors for poem submissions.  We talked a while, and then the next day she emailed me to ask how I’d dealt with so many near misses.  To answer her question all I had to do was look up from my computer screen to the cork board hung near my desk where most all my poetry writing life I have kept a copy of four verses from Job 19.

When I seriously began writing poetry at age 45, all I wanted was to have at least one poem published in a respected magazine or journal.  I expected that I’d get lots of rejections.  That’s when I cut those verses out of my church bulletin and kept them to remind me that longing for publication was nothing new.  I delighted in Job’s wit in foreseeing the invention of the printing press.  However, after only a handful of rejection letters, my first acceptance of three poems from a flaming liberal theological journal, The Other Side, nearly overwhelmed me.  I had to reconsider what Job was trying to tell me.   Perhaps writing poetry was more than publication?  Writing might be a gift I’d been given and a way through my life that held implications I would gradually learn.

That first poetry acceptance came in 1986 while I was living in the Saegertown Lutheran parsonage and sharing an office and an early HP touch screen computer with my husband.  My husband’s sermon and doctoral dissertation writing always trumped my poetry writing when it came to computer time.  Gradually, I began to long for a room of my own with a computer of my own.  That longing was fulfilled a couple of years later when my husband accepted a call to Wesleyville, a suburb of Erie, PA, where I claimed the extra 8×10 foot bedroom overlooking the fenced backyard,  dominated by an immense pin oak centered 15 feet from my window.  My husband moved on to a new computer and a larger office; I inherited the touch screen HP.  I had bookshelves built on two walls, installed a desk made of a green painted door balanced on a pair of 2-drawer file cabinets.  I got his old desk chair, but I did buy a new pink-print recliner for my reading chair.  As a birthday gift, my mother-in-law gave me $25 that I used to buy a second-hand brass, floor lamp that I still treasure.  That’s when I hung my first cork board over my desk and taped Job’s verses on the bottom where among all my poetry contest announcements I could easily find him.

Slowly, my right bottom file drawer began to fill with files of my poems and a paisley printed cloth-bound notebook began to record my poetry rejections and acceptances.   In that cozy, first room-of-my-own office, I wrote a poem titled, “Job, Too,” published in the 1989 Winter issue of The Georgia Review, my first major literary publication.  “Job, Too” is in no way a cozy poem.  It pretty much sums up the book of Job with the phrase, Shit happens, which turned out to be the reason for its publication soon after the Georgia Legislature had passed a law banning the phrase on bumper stickers.  Stanley Linberg, Georgia Review’s editor, even phoned me to warn me that his journal and I might be attacked by his state’s rabid legislators.  Stan Linberg was a wonderful editor, but he greatly overestimated his readership among his local statesmen. However, I found myself going back to reread and to research further the time and the authorship of Job.

In 1990, Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg issued a new translation and a new interpretation of parts of the Hebrew Bible, The Book of J, in which Bloom suggests that the J passages—essentially all the uncanny, deeply human, narrative portrayals of Yahweh—were written by a woman, perhaps the daughter of a priest.  I, along with most of the American scholarly reading public, was fascinated.  Although Bloom never includes the Book of Job in his authorship surmise, Job was written at the same time as the J author was writing circa 950–900 BCE.  What if the J narrative writer also wrote poetry?  Say, the poetry sections of Job which especially in chapter 28 and the last chapters in which Yahweh speaks using so many childbirth metaphors?  What if the J writer never married or was widowed or even divorced?  If so, she would have returned to her priest father’s home.  And, Jewish law would have allowed her to do some kinds of work.  Maybe she was a midwife?  Maybe she had enough time between childbirth patients to write poetry?  Maybe she had a room of her own?

Since I first read Bloom, I’ve moved three times, had three different desks, had four other writing spaces, the last two here in what has become my Pittsburgh condo.  When my husband and I moved from the Florida home we had built after his early retirement, I gave up what at that time I considered to be the very best room of my own that I had ever had for a 36″ white Ikea desk in a corner of our condo’s living room.  I had Ikea bookshelves installed on both sides of the entrance hall that hold less than half the books I had owned in Florida.  My poetry files, now filling two three-drawer Ikea metal cabinets, were in our bedroom.  The condo’s 2nd bedroom became my husband’s office, so he would have somewhere to retreat when he became emotionally overwhelmed.  Everything seemed to be working; I even had a few poetry acceptances.  I was busy rehabing our condo, and I was learning how to live as a Pittsburgher so I could understand how to write Pittsburgh poems.

Then, my husband sued me for divorce, moved out, and left in his office only an ivory slip-covered sofa bed, a two-drawer file cabinet, and a closet filled with tax records and boxes of photographs, mostly of birds hidden in trees and of outtakes from family birthday parties.  For weeks I hoped he might return, and at the same time I dreaded he might return. I was paralyzed. I would walk into what I still felt was my husband’s office, turn around, and go watch another repeat of The Big Bang Theory.  Then, my brother Jerry came for a visit and slept on the sofa bed.  He reported he slept well.

Somehow, my brother’s visit banished my husband’s ghost from that room.  That time when I walked into that room to remove the bed sheets, I decided I would find one thing I could change about the room.  I moved the sofa bed from the east wall and placed it in front of the window.  The first thing I noticed was a perfectly good electrical outlet and a working phone jack on the east wall.  My husband had placed the sofa there.  He had placed his massive desk on the west wall, all the while complaining that the phone jack behind his desk didn’t work, so that he had to go out and buy a long phone cord to snake around the corner into our bedroom so he could have a phone on his desk. Hmmmm?

The next day I moved my desk, office chair, dictionary stand, and computer to the east wall of  my newly claimed office.  I went to Ikea for another smaller white desk for my printer and two simple white floor lamps.  From the hall closet I moved an oriental rug to ground the sleeper sofa, and from what had been my husband’s closet I moved a tall skinny bookcase he had used for sweater storage, but that I now use for writing supplies and unsold copies of my two poetry books.  Months later, I replaced his plain white sheer curtains with ecru lace “bird song” curtains from my favorite mail order catalog: Country Curtains.  Beside the sofa I’ve installed upon a rustic-stick end table a Christmas cactus in a deep green pot.  I’ve gradually added green themed pictures and an antique verdigris copper door plate my son Alfie gave me.  And, above my printer hangs a new white-framed cork board with Job 19 taped on the bottom margin.

A couple of weeks ago, Christian Century accepted for publication one of my new poems, “January 26th: the Anniversary of My Mother’s Death,” wearing this epigraph:

He is green before the sun,
And his branch shooteth forth
In his garden.
Job 8: 16.


Book Review: Deathbed Dime$ by Naomi Elana Zener

 photo 131e1c09-1655-48bd-b581-a1720b0fdb67_zpsd173ce25.jpg Deathbed Dime$
by Naomi Elana Zener
Iguana Books, 2014
$25.99

Reviewed by Alan Senatore

Deathbed Dime$ tells the story of thirty-two-year-old Joely Zeller, an estates attorney,  who tries to distance herself from her privileged upbringing and earn success on her own terms and through her own work. Born to a Hollywood director and actress, she finds her calling in the courtroom as opposed to on the movie set. Upon graduation from law school, she finds work with a well-established New York law firm and leaves behind her family and friends in California. She tries her best to become partner at the firm, only to be passed over for a less qualified colleague. After the career disappointment, further tragedy strikes as her love life crumbles and she is left to reinvent and discover her true self by embracing the family and friends she left behind. This is where the fun begins, so to speak.

Naomi Elana Zener takes us through Joley’s attempt to gain control of her life by overcoming discrimination in work, love, and life. Deathbed Dime$ reads like simple light comedic fare through the detailing of the super-heroine’s trials and errors while establishing herself as the premier estates attorney in California (if not the world) as well as accepting the love she truly deserves (a wildly successful, handsome, smart lawyer like herself, Ethan Berg, who she happens to have been friends with for years and has loved her for about just as long even though she constantly ignores his attempts to foster that love with her). On the other hand, Deathbed also ends up dealing with cultural, sexual, and racial stereotypes.

The story is set around a bunch of white people with few flaws (other than having lots of sex at work and shopping too much) and doing whatever they please. In fact, the only characters of color are relegated to service roles as limousine drivers and as lesser personnel in the workplace. Though this at first appears offensive, it could be interpreted as commentary for the actual lack of racial diversity in law and entertainment. Zener does place an Asian-American woman in a prominent role, Coco Hirohito, as Joley’s best girlfriend and colleague, but a prominent black judge/congressman/businessman could still have been incorporated.

Though racially Zener misses, her commentary on cultural stereotypes proves more interesting. Joely is of Jewish heritage. Her profession is law and her parents are both in the entertainment business, both particulars fulfilling stereotypes. In one instance in the story, Joely is ignoring a fellow flight passenger until she realizes she could earn a fortune off of the young woman’s case and jumpstart her career. Remembering the girl’s name from files she had seen, Joely remembers the case’s potential:

I knew why her name was familiar. Esty was the long lost niece of Ivana Iretzki, the dead woman at the heart of my former firm’s new estate case. She was the heiress no one could locate. I tuned out of Esty’s rambling and tried to recall the details of the Iretzki file…

Later, in an odd blend of the law and Hollywood, Joely and other members of Joely’s new jumpstart law firm are walking down the red carpet for a Hollywood premiere. Her nemesis, the “Lazy, entitled , super WASPy and Mein Kampf-totting” Chip Hancock, the same person who was picked for partner over her by her former employees, also is on the red carpet. He refers to her through a racial slur and she subsequently punches him in the face. Zener deals with these themes unclearly. Nowhere in the story does it become clear that Chip is a Nazi other than when Joely needs him to be because he is her nemesis. It is unclear if Joely is a victim of discrimination or part of the perpetuation of it. Referring to her status in her former firm she claims, “I’m a Jewish woman ticking off diversity quotas for their boys’ club.” Yet, she uses discrimination as well.  It appears she is less the protector of the Jewish culture and more a creation from its stereotypes.

Of most importance to this story is the commentary offered on women and their sexuality. It is a constant battle between giving in to sex and remaining focused on a career. Her relation with Ethan exemplifies this as an employee at their jumpstart law firm points out:

“Joely, you walk around here like the Queen of Sheba. You have Ethan twirled around your little finger and even though you don’t want him, you won’t let him be happy with anyone else.”

Joely is constantly at odds with her desire for love and need for a successful career. Throughout much of her life and the story she is pushing away love to ensure her success as an individual. She is able to turn down sexual advances on a number of occasions in order to keep focused on her new law firm. On the other hand, she has had a sexual relationship with her law professor that ended in heartbreak. Her Asian side kick sleeps with partners at her former firm and ends up trying to use it to her advantage:

“I’ll still be offered partner. But I had to blackmail the managing partner after I dumped him. Unfortunately, ex-wife number three was his former secretary and still friends with all of the firm’s support staff. Needless to say, the word of our affair spread through the firm faster than a California wildfire. So now I’m a triple threat: female Asian attorney who sleeps her way to the top.”

Even with all of the tools for a career or job, the stigma of sexual promiscuity can interrupt a woman’s career according to Deathbed.

Though Joely is for the most part infallible, which destroys any aspect of suspense in Deathbed, only stereotypes can hold her back. But Joely is so smart and attractive nothing can stand in her way except for her own inhibitions, but Zener doesn’t let Joely ever fail enough for the reader to think that something actually might not work out for the character. Zener created a superwoman whose kryptonite is wanting the best for herself. Who can relate to this kind of character? Who wants to? In the end, Joely is feels like a brunette version of a Barbie doll with an I.Q of 190. I found myself rooting against her.

Deathbed Dime$ reads really easily, and it is obvious Zener did her research for the content of the story. Zener’s message remains unclear for the stereotypes she addresses; it appears that she does recognize many issues, but if she could have championed them better. In the end, Joely is not a good representative of women; in fact, she is the type of image that causes unrealistic ideals.


 

Publius Moves On

I always wondered what it would be like on my last day of work. I thought I would be sentimental. I didn’t think the feeling would be relief.

There are many other things I didn’t think. I didn’t think that the fun bits of my career would be the early parts.

I used to think that what made a great teacher was that they had an interesting life. Larry Walsh published a book of poetry. Ralph McGuire spoke sixteen languages, eight fluently, two with native fluency. Larry Russel’s wife was a photographer for National Geographic, and Larry every year played at the North Sea Jazz Festival. I’m not saying that every teacher need be a scholar or an artist. I am saying that the job’s purpose, in part, is to make possible the more interesting bits of our lives, not to crush them. Yet crushing the job has become.

So many years ago, when I got my Ph. D., I wanted to teach the poorest of the poor. Be careful what you wish for. Now it’s come to this: I need to retire to save my own soul. I once thought I was one of the strong ones.

***

The Teacher’s Retirement Speech

When I’m gone, I don’t want a tree or a bench named me.
I’d like someone to find a pay stub and ask “Wasn’t he…”

Someone gave me a card that said the stuff that makes the sun makes us.
For my part, I’d like everyone to take a breather—–to hell with the sun and the uplifting

stuff and think of light as an innuendo, a glance from your lover over dessert,
the glance that says sex tonight. Then think no more

about it. So let the answer to “Wasn’t he” be—–something that flashed
past an unwashed window, something glanced out the corner but gone,

a lesson you forgot when you were interrupted, the desire you feel
when you kiss the lipstick left on her last glass of wine.


 

Book Review: Interrobang by Jessica Piazza

 photo 0ae29e21-7c9c-4fd5-a883-936dfe2d93cc_zps60e566b9.jpg Interrobang
Poems by Jessica Piazza
Red Hen Press
$17.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

Jessica Piazza’s debut collection, Interrobang, begins with fear—specifically melophobia, the fear of music. But from the poem’s first few lines, it’s clear that this fear isn’t of just any music:

They’ll tell you there are only two ways: flawed
windpipes that knock like water mains behind

thin walls or else a lovely sound like wood-
winds sanded smooth—no middle ground…

The speaker is afraid of her own voice, of “Them” telling her she’s singing badly. Their critiques are endless and contradictory: “begin // again, again, again, now overwrought, / now under-sung; not done.” How apt a conflict to incite this particular collection, a series of poems exploring personal longing through the common lenses of love and fear. (What if readers think she explored these subjects “wrongly?”) But by the end of the poem the speaker seems to shrug off these ethereal naysayers, telling us: “Sing into a conch and you’ll sound like yourself. / Sing into a conch and you’ll sound like the sea.” She keeps singing and her voice, once she trusts it, transcends her body and becomes a natural element. We breathe a sigh of relief; we’re being led by a strong, sure voice.

More than just someone of firm conviction, Piazza proves herself in this collection to be a master of form. From sonnets to pantoums to poems that create their own rhyme schemes and metrical patterns, the powder kegs Piazza offers us here have clearly been painstakingly arranged. In “Clithrophilia: love of being enclosed,” she longs for “wonders, harbored,” writing:

And I’ve ached for it all: a closet; a stall;
the crevice between your flesh and the wall.
A way to forsake this freedom I’ve heeded
too often…

Under pressure, forced to be economical with her words, Piazza employs bold images and makes riveting connections and conclusions. Each poem contains harbored wonders. The speaker in “Xenoglossophobia: fear of foreign languages,” like so many of Piazza’s speakers, directs the reader in how to process something she’s seeing. From her first description—“The background’s Brighton Beach”—to her last—“gray sea, white house, red slash that is her heart”—Piazza fleshes out a painting from sketches into full detail, shocking us by landing on the only vivid color mentioned.

We enter Piazza’s collection with the assumption that love and fear are separate entities, possible endpoints on a spectrum of human emotion. But by the book’s midpoint we reach “Phobophilia: love of fear,” a dystopia of grisly images. Piazza handles these atrocities with a surprisingly gentle touch:

The censors will reveal the body, but
black out the eyes…
                        Tomorrow, paradise.
Tomorrow, trucks idling at yellow lights
will dash, will crush the thousand hands that wave
unvoiced applause. And then: mass graves…
            Tomorrow, circuses
will drop the safety mesh, disaster checked
for falling flyers with brute prayer alone.
Though some will slip, we know the system will
be wholly good…

Here, fear and love converge like the interrobang, simultaneous interrogation and exclamation. For Piazza, they’re sometimes one and the same. And in case we miss the memo, she gives us “Eisoptrophilia” and “Eisoptrophobia”—the love and fear of mirrors—a few pages later. Fear mirrors love, and often we love the things we fear.

There’s no real equivalent “fear of love” poem (though we do get an entry on “fear of sexual love.”) Arguably, that’s because the whole book addresses a fear of love. Every poem stands as a testament to this anxiety surrounding intimacy, especially those that flesh out the romantic through-line of the collection. “People Like Us,” the first of three series of sonnets, tells the story of a failed love affair from the moment of attraction to the aftermath of separation. The speaker appeals in these poems to herself and her lover, but also to society at large:

People like us, we’re dust, we’re everywhere. We lie
in spaces between places praying madly for
each other, staying mad at one another…
                        Chasing careless fathers or
neglectful mothers…

For Piazza’s speaker, love is a series of failures repeated time and time again with new subjects for our affection. It’s a futile search to fill an emptiness that has always existed, tied up in a fear of our inheritance—we get “Patroiophobia” later. To explore the depths of love and loss, she depicts tragic characters like the mother in “Pediophilia: love of dolls.” Loss is marked immediately: “The week her daughter died, the room her girl / had occupied became a home for dolls. / The first an angel… It looked like her.” There’s unspeakable pain here, a frightening illustration of the lengths we’ll go to memorialize love in our lives.

But life isn’t always lived in these extreme moments, and Piazza chooses to end her collection with a return to unadorned reality. “What I Hold” begins with its own answer: “a glint—an intimation of what gleams.” The speaker resorts again to a description of her surroundings, but this time her words are almost clinical:

The birds I hear don’t sound like opera, not
like flutes or piccolos at play. They sound
like birds. Sometimes the birds are all I’ve got.

We wind through these sonnets past attempts at forging meaning from moments that “amount / to nothing but a blink over the lifetime of the eye.” “I’m not a girl who has epiphanies,” the speaker tells us before launching into a story of her meeting of a tired woman who begs for a ride home. I won’t give away the ending, but let’s say that Piazza comes again to that eternal conflict—choose love, or choose fear? An impossible question, perhaps, but one that winds up central to her self-perception. Beneath its possibilities exists a clue toward the things we hold inside us:

And maybe to this day that choice still seems
like a hint, a minute’s inkling of what gleams.


Dance Review: Kimono
by Mark Conway Thompson

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

The Kelly Strayhorn Theater hosted its first “Fresh Works” showing of the season on Friday night. The program gives Pittsburgh-based artists eighty hours of rehearsal space and technical support, to work on mixed-genre collaborations.

Kimono was directed by Mark Conway Thompson, who worked internationally as a mime for multiple decades. He performed the trio with Taylor Knight and Anna Thompson, both of whom graduated from Point Park University in 2012 and have been dancing in Pittsburgh ever since.

The 40-minute work-in-progress dealt with predation and was partly inspired by a fictional artist who found healing from trauma through the making of kimonos. Conway Thompson also drew inspiration from real life victims of abuse. For example, Japanese artist and World War II POW, Itchiku Kubota, also used art as a way to rebuild his life after war. And Shelomo Selinger, a Holocaust survivor, took to sculpting as his pathway to emotional freedom.

To begin, Conway Thompson and Knight stood nude under low lighting, performing the first of many intricate gestural phrases of the hands and fingers. The image was one of the only abstract moments in the show, and was quite beautiful. The movement developed further, in two separate solos by the men. Eventually alone, Knight stood center stage while a masked figure, Anna Thompson, moved toward him. She swiftly attacked him with a knife and the lights went down.

Conway Thompson later took his turn as predator. Knight and Anna Thompson performed a captivating duet of precisely mimed gestures that sometimes articulated all the way through their spines. Conway Thompson hid, just barely visible, near the back corner of the studio space, masked, as if stalking the others. One by one, he assaulted them, and carried them off-stage.

The aftermath of the attacks was the most haunting and mesmerizing part of the piece. Knight entered first, wearing loose-fitted gray clothing. His appearance was disheveled and his body language projected emotional agony. He tiptoed around in a staggering manner, feet turned in and back hunched. As if he were fighting off his inner demons, he began thrashing and gasping. He stripped his clothes, in a cathartic purge, and fell to the ground. Conway Thompson covered his body in a butterfly kimono signifying Knight’s freedom and ability to move forward.

Anna Thompson began her own purification in a similar state. In a baggy gray dress, she sank to her knees almost immediately, clutching what looked like a bloodied rag. She also gasped, swallowing the air, and ripped off her dress. The process of ridding herself from her predator was both difficult to watch and impossible to ignore. Knight eventually offered her a kimono. The two of them walked off as the lights went down.

The piece was quite literal in its interpretation of the pain and trauma of victimhood. In some ways, it felt necessary to push the depicted violence. Because we are a culture desensitized to brutality, the piece needed to be overt with the point.

On the other hand, some of the props were a bit too obvious. The predator’s mask, for example, felt cartoonish. At other times during the piece, the cast used simple black fabric to cover their faces; that would have sufficed as the attacker’s disguise, and would have been more frightening than the mask. Conway Thompson did say that some of the set props were subject to change. A toned-down approach would be more powerful.

The piece was timely and important, especially in light of recent news stories dealing with shootings, domestic violence, and corporal punishment. Conway Thompson expressed accurately that we have a hero worship of predators in this country. He said his desire with Kimono is to “push back at the bully, bad guy, strong man attitude…to render it unfashionable.”

There is a saying that, in the creation of art, it is better to go too far and pull back later than to never go far enough. The cast performed the work with authenticity, bravery, and uninhibited candor. With some honing and fine-tuning, the finished product has the potential to bring meaningful awareness to this crucial issue.


 

Food Safety

By Karen Zhang

Recently, a giant Chinese meat company, Shuanghui International, has bought the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, at the price of US $4.7 billion. The news immediately went viral on the internet in China probably because the Chinese people are very concerned about food safety.

The food safety scandal in China has been going on for years, from tainted baby formula to diseased pork, from polluted vegetables to heavy-metal rice. In fact, as the pace of the country’s economic growth gets faster, more food safety problems surface. Nearly every type of food you can think of has been a subject of scandal. Chinese people are living in fear. No one knows what food will be next.

Now the merger has aroused the suspicion of the Chinese public about whether Shuanghui International is trying to boost its meat quality by bringing in a foreign partner. After all, being cheated multiple times, Chinese consumers have lost faith in domestic food products. Imported food suddenly is what people are avidly after. The Hong Kong government has had to limit quantities of imported baby formula sales to mainland visitors in order to ensure the supply of the city. Perhaps you have figured out why Chinese tourists in America are so generous with their money on foreign brands. Quality is the key — although vanity is part of it as well!

It’s a shame that Chinese food manufacturers cheat consumers and the government is ineffectual in inspecting the supplies. In this respect, China is far behind the U.S. Many Americans think that China will soon surpass America, but actually China is still very backward.

As more Chinese people become middle-class, they’re consuming more meat. The country has been a net importer of pork since 2008. As urbanization develops rapidly in China, more people will adopt a meat-heavy diet. Thanks to globalization and the expansion of fast food chains and a high-calorie diet, in no time, Chinese kids will look no different than overweight children in the West. The merger of two large meat companies may be good news for the meat-loving Chinese who want the supply of quality pork to keep coming!

_____

Book Review: Riceland by C.L. Bledsoe

 photo 3d22af97-93e8-4d69-a85e-1a7ac9ef0a72_zps4b795650.jpg Riceland
Poems by C.L. Bledsoe
Unbound Content, 2013
$15.00

 

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

Immersive travel writer Joseph Hone wrote a million words, but I only remember a handful: ninety percent of love is tact, and ninety percent of writing is tactless. Put another way: reviewing a book I love is one thing; reviewing a book I love written by a man I love is a trickier affair. Not to sound doubly negative, but love isn’t possible without lines that mustn’t be crossed. And yet, how can I write a review without crossing every line?

C. L. Bledsoe’s fourth collection of poems is one of the most difficult acts of love any writer has attempted. In Riceland the author journeys to his youth in the Arkansas delta. These are poems of early first impressions of life, written as conversations clustering around images. Bledsoe wants to bear hug his sorrows—truly, his grief today—but first he must find the bear. His search is a marvel as he returns to a time long before he possessed the rich ironic sensibility Bledsoe is known for in his previous work and in such novels as Last Stand at Zombietown.

Although Bledsoe is quite comfortable using an elastic voice, stepping—or shuffling—into and out of his narrative threads in his previous poems, his voice in Riceland is not so preoccupied with witty touches to hold our attention. Rather, it is a curious voice. It belongs to a speaker almost ready to begin asking smaller questions in order to escape much larger ones that dominate his life such as why his mother is dying of a genetic mutation which is destroying her nervous system. That the child poet could still have wonder at the world is surely what saves him:

When I was a boy       I heard roaches sing.
It only happened at night        after Mom got sick
and went back to St. Louis. Dad worked long hours
and stayed drunk. Every day,
I came in from the rice fields
     too sweaty to sleep but too tired not to
     pressed my cheek to the wall beside the bed
     because it was cool
and they were in there                        singing.

(from “Roaches)

Even a despondent origin has its beautiful stars and Bledsoe delights in rustic shenanigans, dangerously “surfing” the silo’s grain feeder, hosing out the blood from the catfish butcher shop, identifying with his father over a pelican eating their livelihood, escaping the tub and running naked circles around his brother’s friend Crow as an eight-tracked Jimmy Page whined and wailed, and his sensing of shame when the silent pig farmer came to collect tubs of fish guts to feed his hogs. Everyone and everything around him is searching for words in an obliteration of noise. In “Cry of the Catfish” Bledsoe mutely watches—and learns—as the catfish try to speak while being skinned alive: “Even sober, / my father could skin a catfish faster than it could die. / Their little mouths worked, / but they couldn’t make a sound, / as he snatched one out of the dirty white basin, / hung it like a thief on a cross, / and cut it.” Wouldn’t anyone else have said Jesus? It’s as if Bledsoe’s beginnings aren’t even worthy of a savior, rather, he gets the savior’s crucifixion neighbor.

Hunting squirrels was next.
(…)
They barked at us sometimes;
He’d let one live long enough for that,
and I’d get a shot at it.

The author bonds with his father over many physical and bloody labors. Life here is cheap, and merciless, as we see in another poem where the young artist helps his father chain a dead calf which is stuck inside its desperate mother, then drives the tractor pulling those chains into a tree. The live mother and its dead son correspond with the live son—Bledsoe—and his dead mother. The father wrestling the both of them, the “levees in curves that made no sense to me. / Straight, young spears of rice, green and thick as hair / covered the field’s bone-white dust.” In “Bachelor Club,” Bledsoe offers a rare interpretation of what he describes: “Theirs was not a world in which scrapes / were kissed, forks were placed properly or even / used; theirs was a world in which the soft veal / of youth is eaten, the playful is stewed.”

Transcendence is one of those words that has fallen on hard times. In order to lift out of your own reality you must first have a sense of your own ground zero. The trick to flying is the launch from a sturdy place. After, it’s mostly managing air gusts and a little bit of steering before landing in a soft tumble. Most of us don’t have such a sturdy place to begin, or if we do, we refuse to acknowledge it. This is Bledsoe’s lesson in bravery, that love requires more bravery than war, even an almost tactless bravery which enables you to love the very wounds you spend your whole life cursing.

In a neighboring state which shared the same delta Bledsoe knew, the drunk galloper Faulkner wrote, “We cling to that which robs us.” Most of the time this is what we do. The larceny doesn’t have to be grand. We also cling to what steals only a little of us day by day. Rarely is someone capable of letting go of it. Rarer still to let go through an act of writing. Bledsoe has done this. Riceland is the miracle of his release.


 

The Modernists of Al Andalus

By Djelloul Marbrook

One of the consequences of adult caretakers trespassing you in boarding school is that you’re unlikely to trust the way anyone wants to teach you. So, when I discovered R.P. Blackmur all by myself in a bookstore, it felt like an act of rebellion. Fortunately I had happened on The Double Agent, his 1935 book of essays that introduced what came to be called the New Criticism. I understood none of this. I just liked what Blackmur had to say, which was that we should pay closer attention to the way things are said.

Just as haphazardly I later discovered I. A. Richards and then, much later, Blackmur’s disciple, A. Alvarez, whom I regard as sainted for the stringency with which he publishes his own poems. Years later I discovered Max Picard’s The World of Silence. With Blackmur, Richards, Alvarez and Picard, who needs the noisy Old Testament?

I was well on my way to being the kind of autodidact who can’t remember where he read anything but can’t forget having read it. Clearly not Ph.D. material. It’s hellish having a synergistic, alchemical streak imprisoned in an unannotatable mind, but everyone must endure a curse or two.

Blackmur comes to mind as I read Poems of Arab Andalusia, translated by Cola Franzen, and The Banners of the Champions. Blackmurian analysis draws me to conclude that just as the Arabs and Jews of Al Andalus gave voice and prosodic means to the troubadours, personified by William IX of Aquitaine they gave voice to such modernists as William Butler Yeats and William Carlos Williams.

Look at this:

Although you present perfect
musical soirees to entertain us
let’s get this straight:
the singers are flies,
the flute players mosquitoes
and the dancers fleas.

That’s the poem “Satire,” by Ibn Sharaf (d. 1068).

Now consider this, more than eight hundred years later:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

It’s the famous “The Red Wheelbarrow,” 1962, by William Carlos Williams.

But his poetic demeanor in “The Red Wheelbarrow” is still redolent of Edwardian speech. Robert Lax is closer to modern speech:

the angel came to him & said
I’m sorry, mac, but
we talked it over
in heaven
& you’re going
to have to live
a thousand years

Very little punctuation, as in the Williams poem, lots of attention to placement, but also some street savvy. And get the use of those ampersands, which we’ve seen pervasively on shop signs and lawyers’ doors.

Some poetry translates into certain languages better than others. C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), for example, has had a profound influence on English language poets even though he wrote in demotic Greek. Introducing Rae Dalven’s celebrated translation of Cavafy’s work in 1976, W. H. Auden remarked that Cavafy’s eschewal of metaphor and simile made his poems relatively easy to bring into modern English. For all his scholarly interests, this Greco-Alexandrian poet, with family ties to the Greek community in Istanbul, showed us how a poet who knew his history could write in an unadorned and conversational style. Cavafy showed us much more. His prosody has a classical purity that continually reminds us he was a Greek. And this purity of language and structure arrives in English in ways that have been exciting poets like Auden since they first encountered it. He was a humble civil servant who never published a book of poems in his lifetime. Instead, he circulated poems among a small circle of friends, preferring to reserve his energies for his poems.

Modernism isn’t just language, it’s sensibility, and the distance between the medieval poets of Al Andalus and Robert Lax is closed in an instant once you savor the directitude of those Andalusian poets. You see that, much as they loved the Quadalquiver Valley and the caliph’s garden at Al Zahra, they would have made themselves at home in Marin County or the Hudson Valley.

A great deal of fancy language was spoken and written in the centuries between medieval Al Andalus and William Butler Yeats, but modernism always depends on what needs to be modernized. Modernist poetry doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The Andalusians were opening new periods in medicine, mathematics, horticulture, translation, finance and many other disciplines. Like their lancers before them in Provence, they were moving fast. And the modernists of the 20th Century were leaping forward in science, psychology, medicine, weaponology and other fields.

In both periods the poetry expresses a mercurial terseness, an economy of line and intellect, demotic speech and a sure handedness. But parallels will mislead if drawn too persuasively. The Andalusians were accustomed to bloodshed within and along their frontiers, but it was nothing like the carnage of the 20th Century. Yeats, with whom English language modernism may be said to have begun, witnessed the breathtaking nihilism of World War I and lived long enough to be certain worse was yet to come. (I think it needs to be said that modernist poetry was stirring in France even earlier, and the British, if not the North Americans, were certainly aware of it.)

We know that the Arabs who crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, named for one of their generals, Tariq, spoke much the same language as the Arabs who had burst out of Arabia less than a century earlier under the spell of the heavenly language of the Qur’an.

We know our language is studded with Arabic words—perhaps half the stars in the heavens have Arabic names. And we know that poetry was so meaningful to them that it’s impossible to imagine any of their achievements in militarism, in medicine, chemistry, science or mathematics without poetry. Their approach to poetry was identical to their approach to chemistry. They made no distinction between poetry and everyday life. They saw no conflict between hermeticism and scientific progress, the way we in the West do today. Their constructs were more fluid and elegant than ours, and we have no basis for believing their synergistic approach impeded them.

In spite of C.P. Cavafy’s strophic inclinations, I see clear Andalusian traces in his work. The simplicity of speech, the use of vernacular, the quickness of sensibility—all Andalusian traits. And in Yeats, in spite of the Gaelic overtones, there is the voice of the troubadour, the impulse to speak of simple things, ordinary things, which is so much the modernist signature.

The Arabs—also called Moors and Saracens—who invaded Iberia and fashioned first a magical caliphate at Cordoba and later memorable taifas (kingdoms) throughout Al Andalus—were known for their advanced steel weapons, light mail, light cavalry, long lances and speed, and all these aspects of their presence show up in their poetry.

But there is something else—flashing briefly here in Ibn Sharaf and William Carlos Williams—a sense of wonderment. These Arabs profoundly appreciated their Al Andalus, their garden, as Williams humbly appreciated his red wheelbarrow.

Perhaps even more interesting, while Al Andalus nurtured this modernist respect for small and ordinary things—a sunlit stream compared to a white hand loosening a green robe, for example—this civilization also savored and developed the most cosmic of ideas: higher mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, physics, for example.

It was the Normans among all the Europeans who most appreciated the great heritage that the Arabs would leave Europe. Roger of Palermo wrote to his cousin, Henri Plantagenet, that Arab mathematicians from Iberia could probably help him design a banking system: thus the British exchequer. The Normans, who had been demonized themselves, knew better than to demonize the Saracens. Instead they used them and their advances for their own purposes.

The Franks, to whom the troubadour tradition passed intact and who vastly enhanced it, did not learn from the Saracens as readily. At Tours they celebrated a great victory over the Saracens, a tidal victory, if we are to believe the Christian historians, failing to note that the Saracens did not have the logical wherewithal or even the human resources to occupy and rule the Frankish lands. They were doing what they did best with such limited resources: they raided and looted. But the Franks regarded them as a demonic tsunami, and this demonization prevented them from deriving benefits from their contacts with the Saracens. This failure of vision was soon to be redressed by Charlemagne, renowned for his correspondence with Haroun al Rashid, the caliph in Baghdad.

An intriguing historic aside to this is that at the time there was an Umayyad caliph in Cordoba presiding over a civilization that was just as grand and memorable as Haroun’s—and much closer to Charlemagne. But the Abbasid Haroun and the Umayyads of Iberia were on very bad terms, and the Umayyads were a much greater threat to the Franks than Haroun.

Cola Franzen in 1989 translated into English the Spanish versions of the Arab poems by Emilio Garcia Gomez, a Spanish Arabist who had acquired a large body of Arab Andalusian poetry while in Egypt in 1927. There are undoubtedly African, Jewish and Berber poets in her City Lights book, Poems of Arab Andalusia, but they were all writing in Arabic, just as today many African and Berber writers work in French and English. Her book was published fourteen years after Juan Carlos I succeeded General Francisco Franco in Spain. This is significant, because one of Juan Carlos’ first official acts was to apologize to world Jewry for—and rescind—the brutal 1492 order of Isabella and Ferdinand that expelled Muslims and Jews from Spain. But he has assiduously avoided opportunities to make similar amends to Muslims in whose hospitable realm a Jewish renaissance flowered. This half-baked ecumenism is redolent of Christian triumphalism and has not gone unnoticed by Muslims or by Spaniards who respect their Moorish past.

The Internet search engines yield many references to Juan Carlos’s gesture, but there are few mentions of his breathtaking failure to redress wrongs done to the Muslims. The rationale for the king’s intellectually insupportable position is, predictably, that the Muslims were invaders. So were the Visigoths and the Romans and Carthaginians before them. Moreover, the Jews probably welcomed the Muslims. It is dishonorable to ask the Muslim world to ignore this tortured intolerance, particularly as it dismisses a famously tolerant Muslim era.

Franco had worked hard to separate the Spanish from their Moorish heritage, much to the detriment of Spanish culture and hence to Western culture. Franco’s thought police bedeviled the poets of the Generation of 27, who were trying to recover the suppressed glories of the Convivencia in Arab Spain, when Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted in harmony and prosperity, instituted by Abdar Rahman ibn Mu’awiya I during his thirty-year reign beginning in 756. But under Juan Carlos the outlines of the Convivencia under Arab rule began to reappear, and Spain recognized that Al Andalus belonged to it and it would forever belong to Al Andalus.

Today in the New World, even in the American Southwest and California, Arab Andalusian architecture and landscaping is manifest if unrecognized. It was appropriate that a California publisher, City Lights, should remind the New World how indebted it is to Arab Andalusia.

In 1989, the same year of Franzen’s little volume, also appeared The Banners of the Champions: An Anthology of Medieval Arabic Poetry From Andalusia and Beyond. This hard-to-find and important book by Ibn Said al Maghribi, translated by James A. Bellamy and Patricia Owen Steiner, connects the Arab east and west. There was a tradition among Arab tribes of painting poems on tribal banners and conducting festive competitions of banners. Poetry competitions—not bone-crushing football or mendacious parliaments, tricky diplomatic missions, slippery language—what a magnificent model. Here is probably the true origin of the troubadour tradition.

The Arab poetry of Al Andalus reflects the elegance and confidence of overlords, for that is what the Arabs were. It will always remain difficult to sort out from Arab poetry that written by Berbers and Africans. Not so the Jews. Under Arab rule they achieved a renaissance that allowed them to equal the language of what Christians call the Old Testament. Moses de Leon wrote the Zohar, the crown jewel of the Qaballah, and the Qaballah itself emerged under the aegis of Arab Sufism.

Today pundits who speak all too knowingly of the ancient enmity between Arab and Jew conveniently or ignorantly overlook the Convivencia, during which Muslim, Jew and Christian lived in peace and startling creativity. Nothing is as it seems. Certainly both Sufis and the Qaballists would say so. Nothing is as it seems, especially history: another reason to celebrate the genius of King Juan Carlos.

Jewish poetry in the medieval Arab world—remember, if you will, there was nothing medieval about it to the Arabs, who live by a different clock—exhibits the plain speech and grittiness of a tolerated people who are nevertheless not overlords. Like Arab poetry it assumes that language doesn’t need to be dressed up. This poetry shares a common ground with today’s rap in America, with the rai of North Africa and immigrant Europe and with Arab ideas of horticulture and architecture, but it has less in common with Arab decorative art.

The Jewish poetry of Arab Spain, especially when it is not Qaballistic, is bold, in your face, sometimes raunchy, and determined to speak plainly, testifying not only testament to the tolerance of the times but also to the confidence of medieval Spanish Jewry in their ability to create a society to rival King David’s. They understood their times in a way the Christians did not. They understood they were living in the artistic and intellectual powerhouse of the era, but as a colonized people, they saw the clouds of the Reconquista gathering. They felt a darkness descending. They were to be expelled from a garden once more, a second Eden, this time along with their tolerant masters.

It’s no accident that we are rediscovering Al Andalus and the Convivencia of the Umayyad caliphate. When the respected medievalist Maria Rosa Menocal published The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Little, Brown and Company, 2002) the United States—and the world—was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks. People were searching for reasons why the world seemed to have been thrown back to the medieval confrontation between Islam and Christendom. We are still seeking reasons. Menocal’s description of the glories of the Convivencia were as disconcerting as they were enlightening because we realized—once more—that we don’t know nearly as much as we think we know. By “we” I mean all of us, Christians, Muslims, Jews and all the other inhabitants of the earth.

Menocal’s book challenged us at many levels. It invited us to reflect that if fundamentalism in the Muslim world, in Israel and among Jews and Christians in the United States is replicating the attitudes that drove the world into the Crusades, fundamentalism is also what brought down the Convivencia.

A worthy successor to The Banners of the Champions and Poems of Arab Andalusia is The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492. It isn’t my intention to review any of these books, but merely to point out not only a heartening revival of interest in Arab Spain but its startling connection across the disciplines to our own age. Poetry is only one of these disciplines, worth singling out, I think, because it would be useful for modern poets to savor their indebtedness to the Arabs of Iberia.


 

Book Review: Discontinued Township Road
by Abby Chew

 photo 19302376-8280-41f1-879a-b20741beaab5_zps3f460283.jpg Discontinued Township Roads
Poems by Abby Chew
Word Poetry, 2013
$18.00

 

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

“The Earth doesn’t bleed the way we do. / It’s a different skin. I like knowing — blood flows all ways,” writes Abby Chew in Discontinued Township Roads. Chew’s speaker walks down awestruck, brutal, and unforgiving roads, a country human in its sufferings, but severe in its inexplicability.The community that surrounds such an environment shifts, similarly, between human compassion and rigidness, as if to suggest, eventually, we become what surrounds us.

In “Rooftop,” Sister absorbs the natural world. She learns harmonica for the bats, envious of their movements, their bodies. The speaker watches Sister’s ritual, reveals,

Late in March, late at night,
she crawls out on the porch roof
to sigh and breathe them in.
They fly like flapping black gloves
when she reaches out her left hand
hoping she might become
part of the way the movement
moves.

Here, Chew attributes animalistic qualities to Sister and human qualities to the bats. Sister “crawls” to the porch, while the bats flap like “black gloves.” The image of the gloves sits above “hand” on the following line. This almost physical covering of Sister’s hand by the glove mimics her internal shift.

Sister’s bat experience seems a result of isolation a need for connection, but Chew balances these metaphysical desires with the practical. In “Chicken Coop” the speaker comments on the stupidity of hens and their willingness for Sister to take their eggs. Even though the speaker is addressing the audience, the lines are equally a self reminder, an acknowledgement that in spite of these facts, it’s important to be human.

Of course their brains
are peanuts. Of course. But you
need to know how to frame their house.

Make it warm. Make it tight. Maybe
paint it yellow. Heat the water
in January, when you think your own fingers
may shatter from wind. Don’t tell
them where you’re going when you leave.

Chew’s repetition of “of course,” paired with the compassionate instructions shows the conflict that comes from living in this environment. On one hand, practicality is part of living on the land. On the other hand, there exists a desire for comfort, for giving, one that even a January wind can’t shatter.

The poems in the collection stand direct as corn, bold and seemingly obvious. Chew’s sentences are short, definitive in their breaks and her word choice. Unlike most nature or placed-based poetry, Chew avoids an indulgence in sentimentality, an ode-like explanation of how the natural world invades the psyche. That doesn’t mean there isn’t emotion in the collection. It means that Chew doesn’t overwrite; she lets the Earth have the power.

Arguably the most power comes from “Back Two.” It begins with an address to the audience, “Jog down this road and you won’t see the culvert / once spattered with blood where our dog / killed a ground hog.” The separation between the speaker and the audience, however, makes all the difference in this poem. The following lines read:

You might, if you jog in late fall or winter…
…see the skeletons of three deer—
big bucks, not much antlered—poached and left to rot…

I stepped knee-deep into the belly of one when I jumped…
…The stink and the slap of flesh,
the sudden buzz of flies tapping my half-closed eyes.
That kind of landing can ruin you, I know for sure.

The audience jogs and sees water. The speaker remembers a violent scene. How quick we are to appreciate what is beautiful, to adore a one-sided nature.

As Chew’s collection progresses, the environment’s grittiness yields maturity within the characters. The poems grow into a quiet resolve, a bow to what cannot be controlled. In “Storm” Chew uses weather as a metaphor for a relationship. The Earth becomes a language to the speaker, as she says,

 We salvage what we can.

The sky doesn’t ask if we want our arms
slick with sweat…

July doesn’t ask what we desire.
It only creeps up over the hill each morning,
brings us what we deserve.

Although Chew often creates a distance between the poem and the audience through her use of the second person, there remains a sense of community. Perhaps a “discontinued,” extreme environment renders connection, for “We’re put together inside our bones, and we’re put together with each other, in this place.”


Wherefore Art Thou

And the best comment of the week comes from the young lady, who calls the play I’m teaching “Roosevelt And Juliet”.

She says, “Why do adults want us to admire them? I mean, he’s cute, so I can see doing him. But I’m not going to kill myself for his dumb ass. I mean, really—Off myself ’cause he can’t give me ten minutes?”


 

Book Review: The Swan Gondola
by Timothy Schaffert

 photo 2fac73fc-2fc7-49e3-ac0b-f6609eddf56b_zps3ddad943.jpg The Swan Gondola
by Timothy Schaffert
Riverhead Books, 2014
Hardcover: $27.95

 

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

A fair, done correctly, fills its visitors with wonder and amusement. A bizarre bazaar should make people’s eyes sparkle and satiate their sense of adventure from darling rides and attractions. The fair is the talk of the town during its stay, and memories of its heyday linger even during its decline. Timothy Schaffert tries to accomplish all this with his novel, The Swan Gondola, and almost succeeds. But the audience can sometimes see through the guise and notice where pieces are pasted together and lines are drawn to add effect. What’s left is a warped mirror reflection that hints at real characters underneath a fluffy presentation.

But then, this novel was never meant to be fluffy. It was meant to dazzle in the beginning before unveiling a stark truth: people are broken and misunderstood; they wear masks even in private. To illustrate, the book steps into wonder almost immediately. Darkness falls over a shaking house, inside of which sit two scared elderly sisters, Emmaline and Hester. When the commotion settles, they discover that a deflated hot air balloon had landed on their roof and brought with it Ferret Skerritt, a ventriloquist with a troubled past. The novel proceeds to bounce between that past, the present, and letters to a ghost as Ferret explains what brought him to the sisters’ run-down farm, and explores what resulted from his presence in their home. The key to all of it, met at the key-shaped 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, was Cecily. With biased hindsight, Ferrett describes their whirlwind romance, tragic separation, his desperation to get her back, and their sparse stolen moments.

In Cecily and her baby daughter, Doxie, Ferrett finds pieces of himself that he hadn’t realized were missing. He becomes consumed by Cecily’s presence, and lives completely for her. He comments:

Every time her name crosses my mind, I whisper it. I whisper her name. Like a chant, or a prayer. Cecily. I like hearing it, this name of silk and satin. I like feeling the teakettle hiss of it on my tongue. And like a chant, or a prayer, it soothes my soul.

This narration almost suggests obsession. Yet only when Cecily is gone does the narration introduce a skewed perception. Ferrett is surrounded by people—friends and enemies alike—who convey different events during his time with her. They don’t just include different perspectives, but new information—details that are both unbelievable and yet, somehow, true. Because the readers are so close to Ferret’s mind, which is helped by the first person perspective, they can’t trust what the other characters say. Yet, as the novel unfolds, that distrust slowly shifts toward Ferret. In the end, readers may suspect that he has an unhinged sense of reality. Did he register everything as it was, or did he only see things as he wanted them to be and rejected the rest? His final musings of events reveal a slight but wondrous insanity. He narrates:

On the farm, I came to believe in the logic of dreams. I believed in magic, perhaps even a heavenly order. I went up in the balloon so the balloon would come down, so Emmaline would dream, so the cathedral would rise, so Cecily would speak. Not only did I believe it, but it seemed insensible to believe anything else.

The logic of dreams and magic wouldn’t have been there, of course, without the romantic glitter the fair had settled over a dusty livelihood of peddling for laughs on dirty streets and in seasonal theaters. The fair itself warped reality before its gates opened. And because of the novel’s jumping linear timelines that converge into an ultimate outcome, readers will lose track of time and may believe that a few weeks is a few months. Ferrett, certainly, forgets time and lives wholly in the moment. Everything is drawn out to where even the act of smoking is a holy moment. Schaffert writes:

He took smoke in his lungs like it was a breath of bottled air, and it appeared as if he could feel the cigarette healing all the cracks of his bones, working down through him like a vapor.

Of course, the novel isn’t just about Ferrett and Cecily, or the sturdy old biddies Emmaline and Hester. In fact, the main characters are rather dull compared to their friends. All their intrigue is showcased in the beginning chapters as a hook. But the friends appear as spice to thrust the plot forward. August—a gay Native American who dresses in a drag of mismatched clothing and sells “tonics”—and Rosie—a Polish anarchist who sells tastefully artistic nudie pictures from under his coat—are the leading compatriots in Ferrett’s life. They are solid, reliable, scarily creative, and loyal. Even Mrs. Margaret, a crotchety one-eyed hag who hates Ferret immediately, provides intriguing conflict and believable barriers between Ferrett and Cecily.  More believable, in fact, than the pitiable but diabolical antagonist, Billy Wakefield, the millionaire who owns most of the fair and schemes to steal Cecily. He doesn’t become a fully developed person until the end, when Ferrett finally sees weakness and learns his full story. Of course, he is technically a main character.

When everyone finds their places in the world, tension is finally and satisfactorily released. Readers will close the book and see through the bound papers to the shiny interior: wonder, romance, appeal, and an unexpected sparkling of the supernatural. They’ll want to look away from grimy details that eventually overtook the dream, and ignore the process of dismantling as characters returned to reality. They may want to resume the meandering tread through sugar-dusted flights of fancy, when everything was new and special, and damn the rest.


 

Three Houses

by Nola Garrett 

For my birthday last month, my brother, Jerry, and his wife, Lisa, gave me a small acrylic painting they had bought a short walk from their home in Kensington, MD, at my favorite store, The Society for the Prevention of Blindness Thrift Shoppe.  They explained that they chose it because of the huge rough frame painted with a single coat of flat green porch paint which they thought I would hang in my green and white office. I really appreciated their thoughtfulness, but I found myself disliking the subject of the painting, the color of the frame, and even the placement of it within my writing space.

After their visit, I carried the painting into every room of my condo, all the while puzzling why I was resisting this gift. I set the painting near the door of my office, so that every time I passed or entered my office I would see it. Days slipped by. I considered changing out the painting or even keeping the frame empty though I still didn’t know where I would hang it. Gradually, I began to look more closely at the painting and to wonder what the artist, Madigal, saw in that small scene that I couldn’t or didn’t want to see. At first I had quickly rejected the scene because it reminded me of the tropics and of the fifteen years I had recently spent living in Florida before I thankfully returned to my family and my beloved Western Pennsylvania hills and river valleys I see every day from my condo’s windows.

As I began to look more carefully into the painting, I saw a much walked dirt path leading from two house corners on the left and on the right side a high solid blue concrete wall partially covered with red flowers. Next, I wondered about the absence of people. Maybe, the people really were there represented by the path’s foot prints? And, probably there was a third house hidden by the wall covered by what I now recognized was a hemorrhage of red bougainvillea dripping over the wall and onto the path. Of the two pictured houses, the white walled, red tiled roofed one closest to the viewer had a large window, a welcoming lantern style light, and two large clay pots overflowing with flowers. The farther yellow house presented a windowless facade, a shadowed, tan closed door, and an unkempt tiled roof with what appeared to be mildew seeping from under its eaves.

Three houses! Suddenly, I understood my resistance. This was a portrait of loss, of grief, of denial, of coming back too late.

More than eight years ago, my Macedonian daughter-in-law, Natasha and I translated a 1991 book of Macedonian poetry, Radovan Pavlovski’s GOD OF THE MORNING. It was a short book of only 42 poems that we worked through via email and lots of phone calls during a summer I still lived in Palm Harbor, Florida and she lived with my son, Chan, in Pittsburgh. Neither of us had ever translated poetry, but we both had a wonderful time with each other learning how. Natasha chose the order of poems she sent me, based on their linguistic difficulty from easy to complex. The last poem we translated was “Three Houses,” a brief poem neither of us has ever truly understood.
 

Three Houses

The leaf yellowed,
winter whitened,
and I told you
to wait for me;
now the rains pour,
and I’ve returned
with a scrap of gold
for a red apple:
one woman
alone
in three
black houses.

 

Of course, there are a lot of ways to read this poem, one being political since Macedonians always read and argue and live their lives firmly and loudly believing “the personal is political.” Some Macedonians interpret the three houses to be the three states comprising the newly formed nation of Macedonia after the fall of Yugoslavia. Another, more private way to read this poem might be to hear the speaker as a lover or even a son who has returned home too late a year after a death either of a person or of a relationship. I don’t know. I’m not sure I have to or even want to know the meaning of this intense sad poem, but somehow now that I own the gift of Madrigal’s painting I understand some of my resistance to both the painting and the poem.

A few days later I again carried my painting into every room and nook of my condo, this time even into the closets and the bathrooms. Then, I realized there was still a ghost of my husband, who divorced me, in what used to be his bathroom and now has become my guest bath. Part of the reason that bathroom had been his was that it had a stall shower that was safer for him to use than the master bath with a tub/shower. Also, his bathroom had an extra glass shelf that allowed him extra space for his toiletries that he could see and remember more easily. However, now that he has moved out, if that shelf were removed there would be enough room to hang my painting over the guest toilet which has a black seat. What if the huge green frame were black?

My entire life, I’ve repainted lots of things: once a Florida living room, 15 foot high, popcorn, cathedral ceiling that I roller painted light pink before I knew it was considered by experts to be an impossible task. So, my real problem with painting the gift frame, other than defeating the original reason for the gift, was that when it came to painting frames, I had always masked and spray painted them. There was no place here in or out of my condo to carry out spray painting, especially what this frame and painting needed to become—black for grief, black for bringing out the shadows and the mildew and even the black outlines of the welcoming lantern light. Luckily, RiteAid was having a sale on Wet n Wild nail polish, so I bought 4 bottles of black and 4 bottles of clear; and on my dining room table over the next three days with 3 bottles of the clear I sealed the thin coat of green house paint on the raw wood frame and used the black nail polish to give the frame two coats to bring out the shine. With the last bottle of the clear I sealed and shined the thin, green inner frame next to the canvas, emphasizing the lush tropical foliage in the background and of the now symbolic bougainvillea.

One of those days while I waited for my polish/paint to dry I walked up to Market Square to the local Farmer’s Market for my usual purchases of flowers and fresh vegetables. I was surprised to find a beekeeper selling various kinds of honey, including not only the usual clover and wildflower flavors, but also buckwheat honey that is so dark it’s almost black. It’s hard to find, and I adore its deep flavor. I chatted a bit with the beekeeper, and I told him about my experience as a beekeeper decades ago when my husband and I had lived in Saegertown and had won first prize at the Crawford County Fair for our comb honey.

Carrying my produce on my walk back to my condo, I remembered the morning when together we had requeened one of our two hives of gentle Midnite bees. How the small wire cage about the size of three stacked candy bars was delivered to our back door, first thing that morning by the nervous, local postmaster. How an hour later sitting at the picnic table near one of our opened hives, the two of us, dressed in our white, beekeeper overhauls, bent over the small wire cage containing the long slender queen bee walled off with sugar candy from the half dozen smaller worker bees who would eat their way through the wall to free their queen to replenish eventually the entire population of the hive several times over the next three years. While admiring her, I noticed that her wings weren’t clipped, even though I had specified that service in my order and had paid extra. We knew that if one of her wings wasn’t clipped, when she was released inside the hive that she would be able fly away taking with her half of the bees from that hive. With that kind of population loss our hive wouldn’t be able to make enough honey to survive.

I ran inside for a pair of manicure scissors, and my husband and I carefully removed the tiny cork from her end of the cage. I gently grasped her thorax under her wings, but before I could clip one her wings, somehow she flew straight up, circling into the morning sky. We sat there sadly amazed and almost stunned. Gone forever. We knew the waiting open hive was weak, because the present queen was old and that we had just moments ago found her and killed her to ready the hive to receive a new queen. Would the hive make a new queen before we could order and receive a new queen? Would the newly hatched queen be a gentle or fierce hybrid? Would the entire hive of bees up and leave in search of a new queen? We just sat there. Unmoving. And, then the queen returned, landed on my white overhaul arm! My husband cupped his bare hand over her. I slid my hand under his, and this time I was able to grasp her a bit tighter, clip one of her wings, and we placed her back in her candy cage just as my husband replaced the cork.

All those years of working together gone. How could he have forgotten? Three houses. One woman alone. That’s what I was resisting.

I rarely use my condo’s guest bathroom, but now that I’ve hung my refurbished birthday gift in there, I find myself stopping and turning on the light to see how far I’ve come; how somehow everything takes on meaning and reveals its beauty, if one is willing to carefully observe.


 

Book Review: Blackbird by Caitlin Galway

 photo 62055be0-8901-4d1b-a798-d9aaf2505021_zpsa7ff2455.jpg Blackbird
by Caitlin Galway
Aqueous Books, 2013
$14.00

 

Reviewed by Maeve Murray

Blackbird, the debut novel from Toronto-based author Caitlin Galway, is a complex work that displays the writer’s unique and fresh voice. In the book, Galway explores the dark corners of a young girl’s mind, Gwyneth Avery, as she tries to make sense of her world and the many odd characters she meets at Abbot House, an asylum. The story may remind some readers of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar; however, Galway is subtler than Plath and instead of traveling down dark hallways to death and despair, we meander through dimly lit rooms filled with often poetic musings about their contents.

The novel opens with Gwyn depicting the disappearance of her home. She does not do this objectively, but in a complicated, hypnotic manner that immediately draws readers into the world Galway has crafted around Gwyn’s mind. Gwyn says of the event, “If only they all had seen it, I could have explained everything. I could have made the world make sense, with cool air ruffling the water, a white country house disappearing.” And in the next paragraph, she is elsewhere, engaging with the girls of Abbot House. This moment offers a peek into the why of the novel. Why is Gwyn at Abbot House? Why is she troubled? Why do we take an interest in this journey? At this early stage, it because Galway creates dense emotions and images with complex meanings, all while using so few words. She writes:

I paid closer attention to an attic curtain blowing through a hole in the roof. I knew its face, of was and had been. That remarkable clean, uncomplicated silence. Then the house disappeared. As though swallowing a tossed stone, the lake closed over it. Yet the film began again, no beat in between, and the house drifted back into view, continuing its grave avenue down the coast. I watched the film until it became terrifying, until I felt it watching back.

This rich paragraph describes Gwyn’s journey through one specific memory, but we as readers are unsure if the sinking house did indeed disappear or if this is a metaphor constructed by Gwyn’s imagination. In either case, this allows us readers a small glimpse into her mind, how she builds her thoughts somewhat abstractly, but in ways that still make sense. It is complex, but not confusing, and I found its intrigue a powerful draw into the rest of the novel.

Gwyn’s path to discovery and recovery is understated and seems to take place between the lines. After seeing Gone with the Wind for the first time, she wants to know why Melanie had to die giving birth. She questions the fairness, asking, “…what had women done? Of course there was the story of Satan’s apple, but I wasn’t so sure about that. There must have been a sin so damnable that it continued on in our collective unconscious, marking its X in our chromosomes.” Here she’s not simply questioning why it’s so common for women to die during childbirth, but the uncertain truth of what she’s learned in Sunday school. She questions what constitutes a sin and why they carry such heavy punishments. In doing so, she is discovering what she believes and ultimately, herself.

Such realizations continue throughout the novel to its end, where Gwyn must cope with the death of a fellow Abbot House girl. She thinks, “I didn’t want to say what I was thinking. I tried to feel otherwise, as it went sagging through my feet, through ground and root, where Eve might have heard it… But she had thrown away her whole stupid life.” Even as she continues to push through drug abuse and daydreams of how she herself would “do it,” she comes to a single thought—to make “[her] own constellation from this collection of broken stars”— an ending readers desperately want for her after coming so far on their walk through her life.

This is Galway’s Blackbird, a headlong trek through Gwyn’s past, present, and future prospects as she sees them. It’s full of questions, uncertainty, poetry, darkness, and enlightenment. As one who enjoyed The Bell Jar, I can safely recommend this to fellow fans as well as those who did not have a taste for Plath’s harsher realities and gothic tone. Galway is subtle and alluring, a brilliant new author for both leisurely and literary readers.


 

A New Left?

By John Samuel Tieman

I asked a buddy, a fellow social science teacher, his opinion about joining a third party. “Is there a reason for joining any party?” I’m not quite that skeptical, but I get it. I generally vote Democrat, but, were I a card carrying member, I’d resign.

Folks call Barrack Obama “a socialist.” I want to hand such folks a dictionary. The president isn’t a socialist. He isn’t even a liberal. That’s the problem.

We no longer have a liberal party and a conservative party. We have a conservative party, a more conservative party, and a far right. Which leaves leftists where? It leaves most of us unrepresented.

I’m a leftist. I am also an historian. I don’t have great hope for a third party. I also don’t have great hope for the Democrats to incorporate the views of the left. The recent election of Pope Francis makes us painfully aware of just how long it has been since America had a leader who speaks for the poor. Which brings me back to the need for a leftist party.

What would a truly leftist party look like? I think the platform of such a party would have, as its ideological basis, something like this:

A mixed economy, one that consists of private enterprise and publicly owned or subsidized programs for universal health care, child care, elder care, veterans’ benefits, and education;

An extensive system of social security that counteracts poverty, and insures the citizens against destitution due to unemployment, retirement, injury or illness;

A government that supports trade unions, consumer protections, and that regulates private enterprise by ensuring labor rights and fair market competition;

The unequivocal and unwavering support of a woman’s right to choose;

Environmentalism and environmental protection laws, funding for alternative energy resources, and laws designed to immediately combat global warming;

The elimination of the death penalty;

A value-added tax and a progressive tax to fund many government expenditures;

Fair trade, not free trade;

Strict gun control;

Policies that value immigration and honor multiculturalism;

The rejection of predatory plutocracy;

A foreign policy that supports the promotion of democracy, the protection of human rights, and, whenever and wherever practical, effective multilateralism;

Campaign reform which promotes public financing, and restricts private donations;

The advocacy of social justice, civil rights and civil liberties.

These leftist views promote initiatives that range from the progressive to the center left to the democratic socialist. And, yes, democratic socialist. The Cold War is over. Joseph McCarthy is disgraced and, for that matter, dead. Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair was George Bush’s best-est buddy. There is nothing radical about the British Labour Party. Nor is there is anything radical about the now pulseless progressive wing of the Democratic Party or, lest we forget, progressive Republicans from Teddy Roosevelt to Lowell Weicker.

Is the formation of such a party possible? I don’t feel any urgency on the part of the electorate or the elected. What is clear is that, with the exception of a Senator Bernie Sanders (I – Vt.) here and there, there is almost a vacuum on the left. A democracy is predicated upon a dialogue, a dialectic if you will, between opposing forces that form opposite and competing poles of loyal opposition. We don’t have that. In this country, we have the right wing. That’s it. There’s no left wing. There is no loyal opposition. There is no dialogue left and right.

There is much debate about the future of the Republican Party. As well there should be. I think, however, that there should be a shift in this debate. Often, reform within a party originates in criticism from the outside. But, to shift the focus slightly, there is no serious ideological debate left versus right. The anxieties of Jack Danforth and David Brooks notwithstanding, to the extent that there is a debate among Republicans, the debate tends to be concerned with electoral method. How does a moderate Republican keep from getting “primaried” by the Tea Party? Democrats offer no ideological challenge to Republicans.

For that matter, the Democrats offer no serious challenge to Wall Street. Occupy Wall Street called for a rethinking of how we do business. For all the scandal of the 2008 financial meltdown, not one C. E. O. has been jailed. But we don’t just need a new way of doing business.

We need a new way of doing democracy.


 

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.

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