Book Review: The Holy Ghost People by Joshua Young

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

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

On Catholic Anti-Semitism

by John Samuel Tieman

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

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

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

So consider this an addendum to my sentimentality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____

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

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

 

Reviewed by Alan Senatore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

 

 

Reenactment: A War Story

By John Samuel Tieman

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

Then he said, “It’s realistic.”

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

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

_____

Book Review: The Earth Avails by Mark Wunderlich

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

 

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

June 20th

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

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

&&&&&

 

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

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

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

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

 

&&&&&

 

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

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

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

 

&&&&&

 

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

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

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

 

&&&&&

 

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

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

 

&&&&&

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

 

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

 

            Tenderly will I use you curling grass.

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

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

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

              mothers’ laps

            And here you are the mothers’ laps.

 

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

 

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

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

              of their laps.

 

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


 

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

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

 

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Professional Development

by Publius

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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

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


 

On Nothing: A Summer Essay

by John Samuel Tieman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

 

Reviewed by Mike Walker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Greek Yogurt

By Karen Zhang

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____

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

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

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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


 

prayer at Nikko Shrine by Basho

Basho

in awe I beheld

spring leaves

blinding sun

 

translated by John Samuel Tieman with Asuzka Tanka

 

 

 


 

Book Review: The Heart of June by Mason Radkoff

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

 

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet throughout the novel, Radkoff’s decisions concerning character and plot development steadily unfold. His writing allows readers to ease into a comfortable afternoon, say hello to characters that are as real as their neighbors, and, for a time, forget their own concerns. Readers will recognize their own lives in loveable Walt, even down to his insights about procrastination. In this Everyman and his friends, Radkoff represents every one. And maybe, he offers the heart of everyday Pittsburgh to the rest of the world.
______

First-time novelist Mason Radkoff was shortlisted for the 2012 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition. As a carpenter restoring homes both modest and grand, Radkoff bore witness to the subtle drama residing within the walls that contain our lives, which he then used to create a tale filled with honesty, humor, and love.


Life in Missouri

By John Samuel Tieman

Here, in Missouri, I live in a fairly liberal enclave within a larger, stupider state. I really should say a stupider state and a half, since southern Illinois is really us, and it’s the stupider half of that state. Even within relatively liberal St. Louis, I live in University City, the most liberal bit. We were the only township in Missouri to have gone for George McGovern. We were the first municipality in the state to allow civil unions, pass a resolution discouraging the police from enforcing marijuana laws, that sort of thing. The state, on the other hand, just passed a law saying it would not enforce Sharia law, should Muslims take over Missouri, something Phoebe and I were certainly worried about.

With all that in mind, Missouri is really quite beautiful. It’s sometimes like living in an enormous national park, one with hoosiers instead of park rangers, admittedly, but lovely nonetheless. The Mississippi is at flood stage, and is, in the true sense of the term, awe inspiring. So were the seven tornadoes we had a week or ten days ago, thank you global warming pick-up driving four miles per gallon hoosier wankers. And then there’s my beloved Cardinals — best record in baseball! And I love the Arch, which I regard as one of the truly magnificent works of public art.

But there are days when even I have to love these hoosiers. I say “these”, because we are talking about half of my family. Back in the 80′s, we went to visit the village where my father was raised. It’s in the foothills of the Ozarks. He runs into this good old boy, and asks him how all is going.

“Oh, Chet,” he says to my dad, “you wouldn’t believe how everything has changed.”

I look around. There are still the three streets, the railroad tracks, the fields. My father is having much the same reaction. So he asks.

“Everything has changed. Everything! We now got us a homosexual and a one-way street.”


 

 

Book Review: Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade, 2004-2014 by David Mason

 photo 5fa0bad3-dc00-4304-8a22-1ba89fb3e676_zpsa53b96a0.jpg Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade, 2004-2014
Poems by David Mason
Red Hen Press, 2014
$18.95


Reviewed by Jason Barry

On a breezy evening in early April, Colorado’s Poet Laureate David Mason gave a reading from his latest collection, Sea Salt: Poems of a Decade, at Boulder’s Innisfree Bookstore and Café. During a question and answer session after the reading, a member of the audience asked Mason what inspires his writing the most, he responded “So much stands between us and our experience of nature, and one of the reasons I write poems is to discover the texture of the world again.”

Sea Salt is a collection of work devoted to that rediscovery of nature. It’s a lyrical celebration of the earth’s dynamic textures: the crash of an ocean wave on the shore, the calming trickle of an alpine creek at night, that peculiar scent of fescue in the valleys or those gleaming, seductive eyes of a fox beneath the pines. Mason’s poems are earthy, and the best in this collection take the sea or river as their subject matter and setting. Several of the pieces in the volume are written in formal meter—iambic as the preferred metric—and the trapeze repetition is well-suited for Mason’s water motifs and rhythmic investigations. The poems we have in this collection are measured and mature (in both the formal and emotional sense); they are reflective and wise, and they give us a glimpse of a poet who is concerned with the earth and the lessons it has to teach us about living and dying.

In his expansive and beautifully composed sonnet, “Another Thing,” Mason invites us to join him on a trip beneath the sea, to explore the ocean’s dangerous tides and (if we’re lucky) to wash-up, changed but unbroken, upon the sweeping shore.

Like fossil shells embedded in a stone,
you are an absence, rimmed calligraphy,
a mouthing out of silence, a way to see
beyond the bedroom where you lie alone.
So why not be the vast, antipodal cloud
you soloed under, riven by cold gales?
And why not be the song of diving whales,
why not the plosive surf below the road?

The others are one thing. They know they are.
One compass needle. They have found their way
and navigate by perfect cynosure.
Go wreck yourself once more against the day
and wash up like a bottle on the shore,
lucidity and salt in all you say.

What I love about this piece is its call for renewal, and the way it invites us to transform our lives for the better, even if we must act in solitary (‘solo’), unconventional (‘antipodal’) and perhaps even radical ways. In these lines, the author’s voice is both firm and encouraging; it points to—or perhaps reinforces—a course of action that is known to us but might have been forgotten. It’s a call to adventure and bold decision-making, and it invokes the notion that the way toward a flourishing and creative life might require us to wade neck-deep into swift currents, to risk what we are now for what we might become. This poem serves as a reminder (an antipodal compass) to stick to the difficult path if it’s authentic, to not become complacent in living a muted or dull life shaped by the influence of others who cannot see the changing clouds above them.

In his longer poem “Let it Go,” Mason’s lyrical subject is the Earth, and he address it as though he were speaking to a friend or a close (though sometimes difficult) acquaintance. Here is an excerpt toward the end of the piece:

I’m shedding what I own, or trying to,
walking down the path of blooming dryad
and the pitch of pines, until I hear the stream
below me in the canyon, below the road,
below the traffic of ambition and denial,
the unclear water running to the sea,
the stream, dear Earth, between my love and me.

Like “Another Thing,” this poem calls to mind the ideas of navigation, paths, and water both upon and beneath the earth’s surface. Note the lines about the stream below the canyon and the road, its “unclear” and murky qualities. You’ll notice here the imagery that parallels two lines from the preceding poem: “And why not be the song of diving whales, / why not the plosive surf below the road?” Both poems are concerned not only with moving surface water, but also with the depths: the streams and plosive surf suggest the change and transformation that is inherent to all things liquid, while the diving whales lead us to think about psychological, subterranean currents that move the author’s life—along with his lover’s—and keep them grounded to and connected with the earth. There is also a sense here that water shapes and carves, that it leaves canyons and markings on everything it touches.

And in the poem, “River Days,” we are reminded again of the water’s powerful impression:

You stared into the canyoned years,
millions of them, where the water-saw
lowered the river bed so far
that we could only gape, our minds leaping.
We must mean what we say,

the way the gorge reveals its earliest foldings,
the way it waits for us to learn the ground
we walk upon, cousin to the cold and
distant planets, the way it watches us
by being seen and partly understood.

The gorge reveals its many layers to us, shows itself in a lucid and exposed way, unveils the earth’s composite nature even though we don’t fully understand it and, indeed, have not been there to witness its many transformations. In the same way that the lines on the face of an elderly person reveal a history of experience, of difficulty and overcoming, of living, so too does the canyon reveal the struggles of the earth with water, with changes of the seasons and the impact of floods and drought. If we allow the fluidity of water into our lives, Mason has us thinking, then we should be prepared to have its history engrained into our nature as well.

David Mason is a writer who’s preoccupied with water and the lessons it provides to a thoughtful, reflective person. Although there are poems in Sea Salt that take on a different subject matter at the surface, such as the changing relationship between the author and his father, or the lives of the author’s friends, we sense that these poems too are concerned with transformation and aging, with loving and loss, and thus they are fluid and also about water. Sea Salt is a heartfelt and touching collection of exquisitely crafted poems, and Mason succeeds admirably in putting the reader in touch with the textures of the earth and its animals, its elements and raw power, and for this he should be applauded.
______

David Mason is the Poet Laureate of Colorado. His books of poems include The Buried Houses (winner of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize), The Country I Remember (winner of the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award), and Arrivals. His verse-novel, Ludlow, won the Colorado Book Award in 2007, and was named Best Poetry Book of the year by the Contemporary Poetry Review and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. It was also featured on the PBS NewsHour. Mason is the author of an essay collection, The Poetry of Life and the Life of Poetry, and a memoir, News from the Village, which appeared in 2010. A new collection of essays, Two Minds of a Western Poet, followed in 2011. He recently won the Thatcher Hoffman Smith Creativity in Motion Prize for the development of a new libretto. A former Fulbright fellow to Greece, he lives near the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs and teaches at Colorado College.


 

Small Talk

by Nola Garrett

I’m not good at organized small talk. I dread cocktail parties, church suppers, Christmas parties, big birthday parties, even poets’ wine receptions. I seem never to have anything to say face to face with half drunk strangers wearing name tags. Once at an apartment house cocktail party, I asked the landlord a too obvious question, and he evicted me. I find that my best party gambit is to drink ginger ale, find an empty seat at the farthest edge of the room, settle in, and observe. After a decent interval, I can thank the host and leave.

However, I do enjoy chance meetings and the small passing conversations those situations engender. I find I’m often asked for advice by younger shoppers in grocery stores. I like the tiny bits exchanged during the elevator rides in my condo. Once as I walked past a woman who had just alighted from a downtown bus, she began talking with me as if she were talking with her sister. She was almost as surprised as I was, but as we stood there chatting among her profuse embarrassment, it became evident that she had boarded that bus from Oakland to Downtown for no other reason than simple loneliness. At my suggestion, we adjourned to McDonald’s for ice cream cones, and then went our separate ways.

A week or so ago, I was sitting in the Allegheny Court House around the corner from the hallway outside the judge’s chambers where the judicial mediation for my divorce was being held. For a few minutes I conferred with my attorney, and then she went into the courtroom. I sat there oddly at peace, mostly because I trusted my attorney and because I felt I was nearly finished with this divorce that was not of my choosing. A few minutes later another woman about my age sat down a chair away from me. I smiled. She smiled back. We exchanged first names. Turned out Jan was dealing with a divorce similar to mine, though her divorce was finalized she was still attempting to reclaim monies her husband owed her.

Ten minutes later, my attorney returned, told me the judge had agreed with everything we had presented, and now all we had to do was wait to hear if my husband would accept the judge’s mediation findings. We could both hear from around the corner my husband’s angry disagreements with the judge and even with his own attorney’s advice.

Meanwhile, Jan’s attorney arrived and the two of them conferred. A few minutes later, her attorney went looking for her husband’s attorney. While we waited, my attorney chatted with me and lots of other passing attorneys and court personnel. Jan’s attorney returned, told her that her husband had not yet appeared. Promising to return in a half hour, Jan’s attorney left. Jan and I continued our small talk. As promised, Jan’s attorney returned to explain that her husband apparently would not appear nor would his attorney. Jan prepared to leave, but before she left she removed from her wrist one of her elastic bead bracelets, a green one interspersed with metal beads imprinted with the words, wish and hope, and placed it on my wrist. I had nothing with me other than my poet’s business cards, so I gave her one. We hugged and she left.

More than an hour later while my husband still was arguing with his attorney, my attorney approached his attorney to find out if any progress toward resolution had occurred. Turned out the real sticking point left for him was the escrow account. He demanded it all. The judge wanted the account to be evenly split. If both of us couldn’t come to an agreement, the divorce proceedings would continue for months or even years longer.

I looked down at the bead bracelet Jan had just given me, remembered her ongoing sense of hurt and injustice even though her divorce was finished, and I said to my attorney the small magic words that I have said several other times during my life, words I have never regretted: It’s only money.


 

Book Review: The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog by Alicia Suskin Ostriker

 photo 31a43176-0499-4db7-9147-29ab68b8308e_zpsce473e38.jpg The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog
Poems by Alicia Suskin Ostriker
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

 

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

“A very important thing is not to make up your mind that you are any one thing,” said Gertrude Stein. Alicia Suskin Ostriker borrows those words for the epigraph of her newest poetry collection The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog. They are, in fact, the perfect words to frame a collection that creates for readers an unlikely chorus of three voices searching for identity and examining the world around them. Taken together, these three characters weave a multicolored tapestry of memory, philosophy, and desire to remind us that our perceptions of life are what define our experience.

While reading Ostriker’s poems, the multiplicity of voices and the use of flower as persona struck me as vaguely familiar. About halfway through the book, I realized it is somewhat in conversation with Louise Glück’s collection from 1991, The Wild Iris. In that book, Glück inhabits voices that are natural (in the form of wildflowers), human, and divine to explore the concepts of faith and mortality. While the two collections share some structural similarities, it’s clear that Ostriker’s project is embarking on a new journey. For one, her diction isn’t as formal or somber as Glück’s. As Tony Hoagland writes of the voice in her poems, “Ostriker has devised a style that is offhand-seeming, a voice that is effortlessly concise.” It’s this voice that allows readers to easily engage with Ostriker’s poems and inhabit the minds of her three distinct characters.

Another good word for this voice might be “unassuming.” Ostriker’s characters, even in their starkest pronouncements, never take on the arrogance of certainty. They simply present readers with their perspective on life. All the while, though, their voices retain great power. The best example of this comes in “The Outsiders,” a poem in which each character reflects on her marginalized status:

Actually I am at the epicenter
of your subconscious
I am the witch
the mother
the excreted
the marginal one said the old woman
I’m the damned dark of the moon

Have you noticed
poets don’t write poetry
about flowers
these days
so what said the tulip
lightly tossing her blossom
the bees dig us

The characters own their history here—even the Dog stands among a pack, all of the canines “remembering when we were wolves… every single one of us/ unleashed.” Ostriker uses the Old Woman to recall, like Sexton and Plath before her, various mythologies of women throughout history—the witch, the Madonna, the whore. The Tulip takes a stab at the poetic canon, and the Dog at human civilization. It is out of this tension between one’s unstoppable power and the limits imposed by society that these voices are born.

“The Outsiders” might very well speak directly to the ideas that Ostriker only nods at throughout the rest of the collection. Structurally, we’re always aware that no one voice is more important than the others. Each poem is broken into three stanzas—one for each character—and each stanza is comprised of the same number of lines. The lack of punctuation allows each voice to flow smoothly into the next, exposing to readers a constant stream of thought as well as multi-layered language. Sometimes a poem passes by in a moment, sometimes the stanzas stretch across pages, but in each case the trio is given an equal opportunity to explore various subjects and impart their wisdom. These poems don’t shy away from heavy subject matter—God, family, death, and politics are all considered, among other topics. By each poem’s end, the reader finds herself unconsciously absorbing the words each speaker orates. This, Ostriker seems to say, is how identity and ideas are created. We all are an accumulation of the stories we hear and the lessons we’re taught.

That accumulation is what allows for the many-ness in Stein’s epigraph. Or, as Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Throughout the book, the Old Woman is described as impure, proletarian, literary, a mother, a drunk, and naked. The Tulip is red, purple, dark, throaty, Biblical, and naturally selected. The Dog is philosophical, frightened, nostalgic, a mongrel, vain, and imbued with divinity. As each poem begins, the reader is unaware what new facets of identity will be held, sparkling, against the light. But by the end, each new layer makes perfect sense. “Yes,” we think as we read, “I, too, contain multitudes.”

So it’s true that this is not a book of poetry suited to a reader asking for answers. But, then again, what good book of poetry is? Ostriker is content to dive into a messy excavation of life, comfortable to question even her own conclusions. Take, for example, these lines from “Many Lives:”

Many lives said the old woman
the grains of sand add up
I have been a housefly and a queen

Do you even know what love is
said the dog and are you sure
the grains of sand add up

We open with a claim and end with a question that surely exists in the reader’s mind—Do those grains of sand add up? These voices aren’t here to grant us a final answer. Due to the book’s unpunctuated style, we get that line “the grains of sand add up” twice without embellishment. No period, no question mark. How will we choose to read it? The question at the end is nearly unavoidable, but the reader might elect to make it a declarative statement. Or she might side with the Dog, deciding to leave the whole discussion open-ended. Inevitably, the reader’s interaction with the poem is as necessary an ingredient to meaning as the words on the page. She is as much a free agent as each of the three characters.

This existential freedom, I’d argue, is what Ostriker celebrates. Our ability to simultaneously inhabit our many selves, to pursue the immediate desire. It’s on that note that the collection ends, though without a strong sense of finality. The quest for understanding will extend, for characters and reader alike, beyond these pages. Even so, Ostriker gives the Dog a final say in “Summertime,” an exultation of revelry:

Finally they have taken me
to the shore it is the happiest
day of my life says the wet dog
oh those seagulls

______

Alicia Suskin Ostriker is one of America’s premier poets and critics. She is the author of fifteen poetry collections, including The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979–2011; The Book of Seventy; The Mother/Child Papers; No Heaven; the volcano sequence; and The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968–1998, as well as several books on the Bible. She has received the Paterson Poetry Prize, the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement, the William Carlos Williams Award, the San Francisco State Poetry Center Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award. Ostriker is professor emerita of English at Rutgers University and teaches in the low-residency MFA program of Drew University.


 

 

On Leadership, Empathy And Final Exams

by John Samuel Tieman

The schedule for final exams was just posted. We will spend three and a half hours each day with the two classes taking the exam each day. Two classes per day, one on Friday, three and a half hours with each class. Make-ups Friday afternoon. All this to give high school finals, each of which takes forty-five minutes.

This decision met with outright anger from the teachers and students. By no means is this worst decision this year. But it is interesting. Why? Three reasons. First, the person, who decided all this, doesn’t appear to be able to imagine the impact of that decision upon our daily lives. Second, the administrator is removed from any direct consequence of this decision. Third, the administrator apparently has no way to hear the reactions of the teachers and students.

It is hard to decide whether this is a problem in the administrative model, or if this decision comes from an inability to understand what another feels.
—–
I am inclined to think that we should consider a new model of educational leadership, one not unlike an M. B. A. model of business leadership, or a West Point model of military leadership.

Gone is the day when the long serving teacher became the department chair, then the principal, later the superintendent. In my state, Missouri, principals are required to have at least five years in the classroom. Why? Because, at the time the law was written, many principals had fewer than five classroom years. It’s worth noting that most of us regard five years as a significant, albeit limited, experience. The relevance of that experience be¬comes more limited with time. A move to a new district limits the experience that much further.

Gone is the day when the C. E. O. started on the shop floor, became foreman, went to night school to learn accounting, apprenticed in the front office, and so forth. Someone earns their M. B. A., and starts in the office. The job is the functioning of the company, not the structuring of the shop floor, a job best done by a shop foreman.

Perhaps we can learn from the graduate of West Point. That graduate starts as a lieutenant. He or she will soon be a company executive officer, and a company commander. Their job will be the functioning of the platoon and the company, not the structuring of the private’s daily life. This latter job is best left to the sergeants and the cor¬porals. No colonel would micromanage the corporal’s work detail.

We talk, in the abstract, about the function of a district, and the structure of a classroom. In reality, the classroom is micromanaged through the standardization of everything from the daily lesson to, in some cases, the very words of instruction. The results are at times disastrous.

I don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong with folks going straight into educational administration. I think there is something inherently wrong with the colonel telling the corporal how to supervise the buffing of the barracks floor.
—–
A word about empathy. It is possible that the person, making the decision about the final exams, lacks empathy. I refer here to the sense of empathy as attunement.

It is best to start off with what “empathy” is not. It is not “sympathy.” Interestingly, Dictionary.com makes special reference to the fact that these two terms are often confused. Empathy is the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another. Empathy is the ability to know emotionally what another is experiencing from within their frame of reference. Empathy is me thinking about you thinking, me understanding your thinking from your point of view.

Empathy is a neutral term. Sympathy has the connotation of kindness. Empathy can be kind. It can also be vicious. As Richard Friedman put it in the New York Times, “When the Nazis were bombing Rotterdam in World War II, for example, they put sirens on the Stuka dive-bombers, knowing full well that the sound would terrify and disorganize the Dutch. The Nazis imagined perfectly how the Dutch would feel and react. Fiendish, but the very essence of empathy.”

Some people have a reduced capacity for empathy. It must be said that it would be extremely worrisome if an administrator lacked that capacity. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fourth edition), one characteristic of a narcissistic personality disorder, and of an antisocial personality disorder, is the reduced ability to feel empathy.

Empathy is a form of attunement to the emotional disposition of the other.

The administrator must be attuned to the emotions of the other. It is an absolute necessity for any form of educational dialogue. It allows for an accurate judgment of the feelings between administrator and teacher or sutdent. I hasten to repeat that these feelings are not necessarily positive and uplifting. Nor should they be. Sometimes what is shared is anger and frustration.

_____

Dance Review: We Sing the Body Eclectic by Shana Simmons Dance and I am Woman by Murphy/Smith Dance Collective

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

The first ever Pittsburgh Fringe Festival took place over the weekend, with more than 20 performing arts shows in various venues around Shadyside. The now worldwide festival was modeled after the original, in Edinburgh, and supports up-and-coming artists in theater and dance, all of whom are “on the fringe” of the mainstream arts scene.

On Saturday night, back to back dance performances took place at the Winchester Thurston dance studio. Local companies, Shana Simmons Dance, and Murphy/Smith Dance Collective, shared short works with an intimate and engaged audience.

I am Woman was choreographed by Jamie Murphy and Renee Smith, and originally premiered in December of 2012. The two were inspired by a heated election season and the women’s issues that were passionately debated. They decided to look at the history of women throughout the decades, creating an evening-length work with seven dancers.

For this festival, they showed excerpts of the piece, utilizing five dancers. In the first segment, the performers dressed in skirts, aprons, and pearls, while a voice over the speaker system gave instructions on how to be a good wife. “Be happy to see him!” we heard, in reference to the husband, after his work day. The dancers smiled cheekily and moved lightly on their toes through their supposedly joyful housewife duties.

Later, Jamie Murphy shed her dainty garments for a pair of simple striped pants. She moved in and out of the floor with ease, flexing her muscles as the sound morphed into a pastor and his male congregation complaining about women who do not dress feminine enough. Eventually, the other women entered the space wearing similarly tailored pants, and form-fitted blazers. They performed in unison over top of Hillary Clinton’s voice echoing sentiments for women’s equality.

Despite the topic having been explored quite a bit in the arts, I am Woman felt relevant. In fact, many of us could still use the history lesson. The Murphy/Smith Dance Collective took us back in time in a creative and interesting way.

In We Sing the Body Eclectic, Shana Simmons and the Eclectic Laboratory Chamber Orchestra (ELCO), explored ways in which we are affected by technology. The piece utilized four dancers and a large group of musicians. Similarly to I am Woman, the sound was equally intriguing as the movement.

To begin, ELCO used three different John Cage pieces, organized by artistic director, David Matthews. The second work was an original composition of “crackly” phone sounds by associate director, Alan Tormey. The final piece was called “Syndakit” by renowned performer and composer, Elliott Sharp.

In the first section, the dancers followed a digital clock, projected on the far wall, to guide the timing of their movement. The musicians watched closely and chose corresponding sounds, similar to how Cage worked with Merce Cunningham in early modern dance.

The dancing ranged from incredibly slow-motion walking, to intricate partnering. As the piece crescendoed, the performers used running transitions between big bursts of athletic movement, showing off their stamina and power.

Overall, the work cleverly portrayed the influence of technology on our minds and bodies. The concentrated but sometimes catatonic state of the dancers’ measured moments mirrored the lull of the laptop screen. And their frenetic, rapid quality was reminiscent of our need for instant gratification, a sad side effect of the tiny devices we call “smart” phones.

The festival’s simple goal of giving smaller, innovative artists performance opportunity made the weekend worthwhile. Hopefully the events will spark annual interest.


 

American Films

By Karen Zhang

I must confess I am a movie buff through and through. Since I came to America, the only entertainment I cannot live without is movies, either at home or at theaters. Now I understand why years ago some Americans in China told me what they missed most from their home country was watching movies.

On average, American theaters play at least two new movies weekly, often shown on Friday at theaters. I see why the first-weekend box office is a weather vane of a movie’s popularity. One of the best things about watching movies in America is the overall price of movie tickets, which is more reasonable than that in China, where a movie ticket can easily cost the equivalent of over US $15.

Hollywood movies are always well-received in China, especially among young people. Since the American domestic box-office revenues are shrinking, thanks to the online media and the option of watching movies on various electronic devices, more and more film producers place their hope in the overseas markets, including China. In the meantime, the growing number of Chinese middle class needs to be entertained. China has now overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest movie market.

I used to go to theaters in China, but of course not as often as I do now. Besides the fact that the movie tickets are expensive, new films don’t come out as quickly and frequently. However, the pirate market is a different story. Occasionally, pirate DVDs are available before the film is released in China.

Facing a similar fate to news media, imported movies in China have to get approval from censors before showing at the Chinese theaters. To protect Chinese films’ market share, Chinese authorities allow only 34 foreign films to be released in the country each year. But that amount is still larger than the number of imported movies from China released in the States.

Standing between two cultures, I wish Americans were able to watch more Chinese movies. Perhaps more cultural exchange would help reduce misunderstandings between the two nations.


 

What Is Socialism?

by John Samuel Tieman

When I hear, “Obama is a socialist”, I want to hand that person a dictionary.

I am a democratic socialist. When I say that here, in St. Louis, folks are mystified. Were I to say to someone in Europe, “My mother supported us on her secretary’s salary — I’m Catholic — I teach in an inner city high school — so yea, I vote socialist”, were I to say that to someone in Europe, they’d likely reply, “That figures.” Then yawn. Here, it’s a big mystery.

First of all, when someone says “socialist”, the immediate follow-up should be, what kind of socialist? As near as I can tell, when folks say “Obama is a socialist”, they refer to democratic socialism, a socialism exemplified by Tony Blair and the British Labour Party.

Social democracy, also referred to as democratic socialism, is by far the most common form of socialism in the west. It rejects the authoritarianism of Soviet communism, and favors democratic reform. Democratic socialist parties have, at one time or another, had ruling coalitions in almost all western democracies. In the United States, Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas ran several notable, if futile, campaigns for president. At present, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders is our only socialist senator.

In addition to the politicians mentioned above, prominent social democrats in the United States, past and present, include Helen Keller, Cornell West, Barbara Ehrenreich, John Dewey, Howard Zinn, Michael Harrington, Dolores Huerta, Sidney Hook, Rosemary Ruether and Gloria Steinem, to name just a few.

Encapsulating what democrat socialists believe is like herding rabbits. Take war and peace, for example. Eugene Debs was a pacifist. Shimon Peres was Israel’s Minister Of Defense. There are socialists of every religious persuasion. Most are anti-communist.

Social background is no predictor of socialism. Prime Minister Harold Wilson was an Oxford don. Member Of Parliament James Kier Hardie was a Welsh coal miner. Nor is education a predictor. Gloria Steinem went to Smith College. Helen Keller was famously homeschooled.

With all that in mind, in general social democrats support:

  • 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;
  • Environmentalism and environmental protection laws, funding for alternative energy resources, and laws designed to combat global warming;
  • A value-added tax and a progressive tax to fund many government expenditures;
  • Fair trade, not free trade;
  • Policies that value immigration and honor multiculturalism;
  • A foreign policy supporting the promotion of democracy, the protection of human rights, and, whenever and wherever practical, effective multilateralism;
  • Advocacy of social justice, human rights, civil rights and civil liberties.
  • Democratic socialism should not be confused with such anti-democratic movements as Stalinism. It is worth emphasizing that social democrats see democracy as both a process and an end unto itself. The vision of democratic socialism is one in which there is a decrease in the power of money in politics, and an increase in the voices of ordinary workers. This vision is of a society in which everyone, rich, middle class and poor, shapes society.

A word about capitalism. Democratic socialism stands for a continual reappraisal of capitalism. One problem with the United States is that there is no persistent critique of the Gordon Gekkos. Beyond that, the relationship between capitalism and socialism is something of a debate.

On the socialist right is the “Third Way”, a synthesis of or right-wing economics and left-wing social policy. Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Great Britain, is an advocate of the Third Way.

Other social democrats feel the Third Way is a betrayal of basic socialist principals. These folks would say that socialism and capitalism must be in constant dialogue. This dialogue stems from fixed ideological positions, which include loyal opposition, but do not include a “Third Way” synthesis.

On the far left are those social democrats who are true to their vision of Karl Marx. These folks feel that democratic socialism is transitional. The end point is the communist utopia.

The overwhelming majority of democratic socialists today are in the camps represented by the “Third Way” and the center-left.

And Obama is not a socialist. But I am.


 

Book Review: Bloom in Reverse by Teresa Leo

 photo 7766eaff-4e13-4cef-9af6-27e93f71bc2e_zps099c2122.jpg Bloom in Reverse
Poems by Teresa Leo
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

One of Immanuel Kant’s philosophical musings stands as such: it is not how we bring ourselves to understand the world, but how the world comes to be understood by us. In the aftermath of a friend’s suicide, Teresa Leo’s speaker mourns, while attempting, out of forced necessity, to find life within death. The poems move like children led by an unknown hand through a dark hallway—trusting, yet questioning. In Bloom in Reverse, Leo reveals that healing comes from the world pulling forward, matched with our ability to follow, to receive a hand, regardless of our understanding.

Broken into four sections, Bloom in Reverse begins at an end. While Leo chronicles the death of a friend’s suicide, she simultaneously chronicles the life of her speaker, recovering from this suicide. In the first section, titled “No,” the speaker grapples with the full-body consumption of loss. Each poem tunnels a hole, the small ring of light fading, in order to get closer to what’s gone. Through this cave-in, we learn of both the friend and speaker’s “troubled room,” synonymous, it seems, for ‘troubled lives.’ The friend’s room is described as

collapsed,
taking with them the floor, the staircase,
and finally the house; every last thing
that she wanted to say was gone

Yet, the speaker, too, collapses. She internalizes her friend’s death, for “The troubled room is now my head…” The final poem in the section, “After Twelve Months, Someone Tells Me It’s Time To Join The Living,” moves towards recovery. The pace of the poem quickens, Leo’s doesn’t use a period until the fourteenth stanza. It’s as if the sheer thought of moving on causes anxiety. After the period comes a shift in pace, the rush leveling. The poem ends on a realization, one that speaks towards the entire section:

because maybe it’s exactly the thing

we can’t release that keeps us
on this side, among the living.

Leo treats nature as a separate entity, a character within the collection. The speaker calls upon the natural world in an attempt to understand death. In “I Have Drinks With My Dead Friend’s Ex-Boyfriend,” both search for their lost friend in natural images:

a bird that veers off, breaks formation

from the flock, a branch heavy with ice
that can no longer hold

and snaps from the tree…

When these signs fail to ebb their missing, they find comfort in “what can be conjured between us.” Healing comes from intimate interactions, instead of searching for symbols. This concept is echoed in one of the strongest poems:“Your Rose Bush,” which comes from the second section, “Wolves in Shells.” The speaker kills her friend’s roses, for “these particular roses always bloomed/and died the same day…”. Instead of finding her friend re-incarnated within nature, the speaker finds her own grief:

and so your rose bush is not—
not here to invoke or provoke,

not here to dismember the mind,
no false hope, a bloom in reverse,

just another way to say
I disremember you.

Here is the Kantian moment; the speaker finally rejects nature as a symbol. The realization: “I disremember you.” The heavy reliance on nature limits the speaker’s ability to heal, for she is filled with “false hope.” The end of the rose bushes symbolizes the end of denial. Now, the speaker is able to face the terrible concreteness of death. Leo’s title, Bloom in Reverse, references this acceptance. From here on out, the speaker chronicles her own “bloom in reverse.” Through the thorns, a second life begins.

The final two sections, “Hidden Wings” and “Passenger” depict the speaker’s metaphorical journey back from the dead. The speaker reaches her most content, healed moment by the final piece, “Advice For A Dying Fern.” The poem describes the treatment of a dying fern plant,
“ripped from pots,/ stuffed in garbage bags,/left to decompose/in corners of the house…” An “advice poem,” Leo urges,

…but check—

under the dying leaves,
among dirt and bound-up roots,

there still may be fiddleheads…

Here, the couplets represent the two lives: the speaker and her lost friend. Further, Leo reaches out, asks her readers to be made aware of those struggling with depression and self-harm, to remember, even still, “the living ready to burst/through the dead.”
______

Teresa Leo is the author of the poetry collection The Halo Rule, which won the Elixir Press Editors’ Prize. She is the recipient of a Pew fellowship, a Leeway Foundation grant, two Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fellowships, and the Richard Peterson Poetry Prize from Crab Orchard Review. Her poems have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She serves on the board of Musehouse, a center for the literary arts in Philadelphia, and works at the University of Pennsylvania.


 

Dance Review: Far by Wayne McGregor/Random Dance

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

The Pittsburgh Dance Council concluded its 2013-2014 season with London company, Wayne McGregor/Random Dance. The international troupe featured ten performers from South Africa, Albania, Switzerland, and Poland, to name just a few places.

Far was an hour-long collaboration between McGregor, the dancers, and musician, Ben Frost. The set design was equally important, and included a large light board at the back of the stage, created by Random International.

During the group’s ten-week creative process, McGregor took inspiration from 20th century artist, Francis Bacon, and the Age of Enlightenment, a 17th century cultural movement of intellectuals that used rational thought to challenge religion and other traditions. Specifically, McGregor and the dancers analyzed the book Flesh in the Age of Reason and grotesque, figurative images by Bacon.

The paintings greatly influenced the movement, said Jamaican dancer, Michael-John Harper. He explained that Bacon’s work provoked them to “dig deep in their minds, and break habits to keep the choreography fresh and alive.”

Indeed, the piece had a freshness about it. The dancers clearly had a strong foundation in classical ballet. The first section, a prologue to the piece, resembled a modern pas de deux with long lines and seamless partnering. Interspersed, though, were snaky undulations of the spine and intricate gestures.

The light board gave its own show, at first faintly beaming like a starry sky, then erupting like a frenzied meteor shower. For much of the beginning, small sections of solos and duets occurred under that silvery glow. The sound was mostly dissonant, atmospheric; combined with the movement, the effect was somewhat animalistic.

During the middle of the piece, a group of women entered the stage under brighter light and to the accompaniment of a lilting female voice. The movement escalated in various solos, but retained the same liquid quality from earlier.

Eventually the men entered, partnering with the women. There were quick entrances and exits into the exposed wings as the sound turned eerie, almost frightening. The lighting became frantic, numbers flashing on the board as if counting down to something significant. Dancers huddled off to the side, watching and waiting for their turn.

As the piece progressed, moments of unison brought the performers together for brief interludes. The music became sinister, including sounds of animals screaming, and text sprinkled in but barely perceptible. The dancers seemed to be moved by an outside force, which gave the shape of the piece an otherworldly feel.

The movement slowed to a serene duet with effortless partnering, and light vocal accompaniment. To conclude the piece, one woman lay flat on her back as her partner walked off slowly. The light board flashed and fizzled. The sound faded and the curtains closed.

Dancer, Daniela Neugebauer, explained the work as a series of deaths, the end of an era. Far did have a dystopian quality. Perhaps our day and age is changing and a new time is upon us. For Wayne McGregor and his company, the future looks quite impressive.


 

Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

 photo 7f980b7a-e276-4c33-8874-612ba6d3a1c0_zpse21c3dc3.jpg The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells
by Andrew Sean Greer
HarperCollins, 2013
Hardback: $26.99

 

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

Many people have thought: What would my life be like if I were born in a different era? Andrew Sean Greer answers that question and takes it a step further in his recent novel, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells. The piece itself is an exploration of possibility, covering not only the side effects of electroshock therapy, but also the repositioning of the main character’s entire life throughout time. It asks existential questions about a person’s place in life, the concepts of security and happiness, and presents an opportunity for readers to answer for themselves.

Greta Wells is a middle-aged woman from New York City in 1985 who experiences hardships in her life from which she wanted to flee or fix. Her brother, Felix, dies of AIDS and her longtime boyfriend, Nathan, leaves her for another woman. But she is also a woman from New York in 1918 and 1941. In those eras, her husband is off at war and she takes a younger lover, and her eccentric and beloved aunt dies in a car accident that causes Greta to suffer a broken arm. Because of her depression from these events, she tries electroshock therapy as a last resort, which results in travels through time and space.

The novel begins with a reminder about how magic works. Not the stage show kind that’s flashy and fake, but the quiet kind that slips through the cracks of everyday life. Greer writes:

“Who would ever guess? Behind the gates, the doors, the ivy. Where only a child would look. As you know: That is how magic works. It takes the least likely of us, without foreshadowing, at the hour of its own choosing. It makes a thimblerig of time. And this is exactly how, one Thursday morning, I woke up in another world.”

Greer’s novel doesn’t just take Greta and plop her in a different time. Everyone in her immediate life also exists, and she must relearn who they are and who they remain. The historical thread is the same in each world, though, and she follows events to the best of her memory. However, once she figures out how she’s traveling, most references to psychological breaks, sadness, or her procedure disappear. The whole reason for the novel disappears, and only its causes remain—causes that must be fixed. Her brother is in denial about his gay lifestyle in both earlier eras, she cannot reconcile her lover while she’s married in 1918, and her husband is cheating on her in 1941 before he must be deployed in WWII. Eventually, Greta desires treatments only to travel, rather than fixing her depression.

The problem with Greer’s novel is its incomplete exploration of Greta’s eras. Usually in stories about time travel, characters are warned not to change anything because it could massively affect the entire world and its future. But in Greer’s novel, there are no butterfly effects; her actions and the presence of her immediate family and friends do not change the overall outcome of historical events. Her personal world is small enough in the grand scheme of things to go unnoticed; which is normal for everyday people who are not important enough to change the world—only immediately surrounding lives. Thus, the book suggests that the only significance in someone’s life is the people included in it, and world events are only tools for setting.

But setting is still important. Setting is what drives the problems for Greta, her brother, and her husband. Setting is what introduces conflict that the characters must react to, and setting is what they all go into in the end. New York is a demanding and lively city that bother caters to “deviant” activity and condemns it. Greta finds herself exploring streets she once knew well, and finding treasures in each era that no one else realizes is there, like a key in an archway. Her apartment exists in each era as a focal point, and everything else radiates from there. Nathan is abroad in WWI as a medical officer and, upon his return, Greta doesn’t want to be married to him anymore; Felix experiences prejudice and incarceration because of his and Greta’s German descent; Felix is jailed because he’s caught at a homosexual sex party at a time when homosexuality was taboo, and Felix cannot reconcile his orientation with having a fiancé in 1918 and a wife and child in 1941. These troubles both occur in her home and return to it for sanctuary. Yet Greta cannot find any for herself. For example, in 1918, she struggles to find her place in life, as well as her 1918 self’s place. Greer writes:

“And what do I mean by free? … A shrew, a wife, or a whore. Those seemed to be my choices. I ask any man reading this, how could you decide whether to be a villain, a worker, a plaything? A man would refuse to choose; a man would have that right. But I had only three worlds to choose from, and which of them was happiness? … So tell me, gentlemen, tell me the time and place where it is easy to be a woman?”

This introduces a gap in storytelling. Greta is strong and independent, despite her current slump. She uses that independence to “fix” her other lives, without remembering the context of setting. In 1918, the women’s suffrage movement has yet to culminate. She doesn’t register this cultural importance, and there should have been consequences to her actions throughout the novel, conflicts that should have reminded her about a woman’s place back then. Readers only witness an example of this when 1918 Nathan, her husband, returns from the war with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, though that is hidden beneath vague references of previous abuse. Her eventual punishment is indicative of PTSD mixed with abuse, but she never realizes where Nathan’s actions originate. Her mind is so fixated on traveling and “correcting” each life that she doesn’t consider why things are the way they are, only that they are “wrong.”

But this book isn’t just about women. Here Greer bypasses the storytelling gap and introduces a tangent path. He turns around Greta’s questions about security and self-assertion and applies them to more than just women. Felix, Greta’s gay twin brother, suffers similar moments of doubt. “When is it all going to be all right? For someone like me?” he asks. This question aligns him, and thus gay men, with Greta’s feminine plight of choices and placement. In the main character’s time of 1985, during the AIDS epidemic, the world isn’t yet “all right.” Although Greer reveals a generational relationship progression—what is deemed acceptable—between 1918, 1941, and 1985, he also makes readers think: What about our time? In 2014, people have greater rates of acceptance, but still haven’t reached a time “when it is going to be all right.”

This may be the novel’s main point: What is considered to be “all right”? Is a story with gaps still “all right,” though it suggests the need for more maturation before publication? If people could change situations by time traveling, would they be better off? And while Greer waxes poetic about love, death, and goodbyes, he also points readers’ gazes toward the future. In another thirty years, will it finally be “all right” for people to choose love, happiness, and placement without judgment? Greer doesn’t answer that question. But perhaps that’s all right.
______

Andrew Sean Greer is the author of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, The Story of a Marriage, and The Confessions of Max Tivoli. He studied writing as Brown University before moving to Missoula, Montana, to receive a master of fine arts degree from the University of Montana. He later wrote for Nintendo, taught at a community college, published in literary magazines, and then published a collection of stories before releasing his novels. He has taught at universities, has won a number of awards. He lives in San Francisco with his husband in a house adjoining that of his twin brother.


 

The Trouble With Numbers

by John Samuel Tieman

I recently read a scholarly article by the principal of a public high school in New York, which in part addressed “data dysentery”, the countless reams of data we educators collect for, well, for what? The collection of data for the sake of the collection of data?

I mentioned this at lunch to a friend, himself a middle school principal in a large eastern district. He told me of a reading program that was implemented in his district. “Teacher-Proof Education”. The district spent millions on lessons were entirely scripted. There was only one program. To the best of my friend’s knowledge, everyone, teachers and principals without exception, felt the program deleterious to the point of counter-productive. So no one implemented it. Not one school. Except when there was a survey, run by outsiders, measuring the program. On those days, everyone implemented it. At other times, analysis depended on self-reporting which, for obvious reasons, bordered on the self-congratulatory.

The program was deemed a success. “People were even promoted,” my friend added with a laugh. He became a bit more somber when he mentioned how a social scientist, one he deeply respected, based part of an article on this data.

First, the disclaimer. I am not a luddite. Nor am I a data hater. Statistical surveys, and other data instruments, can provide deeply meaningful analyses, analyses that can alter an entire society. “The Kinsey Reports” irrevocably changed America by simply informing the nation of our sexual practices.

Contemporary statistical analyses, however, mostly yield noise. Perhaps the greatest disservice is done to serious social scientists, whose work gets lost amid all the stats-trash.

There is, in a word, imbalance. It is time to honor those who do serious data collection by reminding ourselves of some of the fundamental limits of data analysis.

 Data tends to create more data. And this data, based upon that data, can often act like a platonic removal, a shadow based upon a shadow of the original thing.
 Data often obscures its own prejudices. As just one example, every statistical analysis starts with the presumption that the problem at hand is amenable to, and benefited by, data analysis.
 Data has trouble with innovation. Why? Because tomorrow’s innovation is measured by yesterday’s instrument.
 Data often has trouble with social context. Early I. Q. tests were first designed for, and administered to, relatively well educated whites. Blacks did terribly, and were deemed to be intellectually inferior.
 Many large scale studies depend heavily on self-reporting. But how does one report accurately, for example, in a school system? In a rigidly hierarchical system, like a school system, it merits one almost nothing to report accurately, to the next highest level, that which is negative. There are times when, as the report moves up the hierarchy, each level acts as a platonic removal, until the final report, let’s say a report to the state, is just a shadow of the classroom upon which it reports. As anecdotal evidence, I offer the fact that, of the thousands of reading programs implemented in public schools, I’ve not read one that reported itself a failure.
 Perhaps most importantly, our lives are subject to the ineffable, the intangible, the unconscious. How does one measure awe? Faith? Hope? Beauty? More importantly, why would anyone want to? It is not sufficient to say that the opening of Mozart’s “Haffner Symphony” is brilliant in its simplicity?

The best studies do address the problems listed above. Contemporary I. Q. tests, for instance, regularly compensate for social context On the other hand, many studies are simply stats-trash. Let us examine, for a moment, educational psychology. Almost all educational psychology these days is cognitive/behavioral. Such an orientation lends itself to vast amounts of data collection. There is much that can be learned from such measure, much that is great benefit. On the other hand, as any psychoanalyst will tell us, most of what motivates us toward any behavior is unconscious. That too can be known and measured. But such knowing, such measuring, runs the risk of obscuring understanding. It rationalizes the non-rational.

There are times when it feels like the sum of a person is behavior and data, that no one has a mind anymore.

Let me be absolutely clear. Many studies are invaluable in their contributions and robust in their data. I value their work so much that it pains me to read other papers based upon numbers that are just stats-trash.
_____

Book Review: Starlight Taxi by Roy Bentley

 photo 01454a03-d9f2-4180-a748-542dd1e34316_zps2440d756.jpg Starlight Taxi
Poems by Roy Bentley
Lynx House Press, 2013
$15.95



Reviewed by Jason Barry

“The hardest part is when someone tells you
about America and defines promise as hope,
and a love for the truth pushes you to give
the raised middle finger to what you hear.
The hardest part is living without hope.”

- Roy Bentley, from the poem “Converters”

It’s easy to see why Bentley’s work has gained such traction in contemporary poetry outlets: his poems are technically proficient but never pedantic; they are hard-hitting and serious, subtle and philosophical. As William Heyen has written in the jacket blurb, “I know of no other poet this percussive, this relentless, this unswerving . . . His [Bentley’s] dedication to even debilitating truth will not allow him to flinch.”

Like the recent work of Yusef Komunyakaa and Philip Levine, Roy Bentley’s Starlight Taxi moves the reader—by way of skilled metaphor and storytelling—to the grittier, more difficult aspects of American living: a career that didn’t work out as planned, the charcoal-filled lungs of coal miners, the seared fingertips of steel workers, various dropping offs and burning outs, alcoholism, and child abuse. Each of these themes and subjects in Bentley’s latest book could warrant pages of critical discussion, but I’d like to focus here on only three of them—the ones I take to be most pivotal to the core of his book, and indeed most central to getting at the heart of the author’s poetic story: memory, violence, and acceptance.

Memory is perhaps the most important recurrent theme in Starlight Taxi, and several of the poems are grounded explicitly in it. These are reflections of an earlier time: Dayton Ohio in 1960, for example, or Christmas in the late fifties. They tell of the author’s life in the Midwest (and in Florida and Appalachia) and they are concerned primarily with history, both personal and public, and how narrative shapes the course of what’s remembered and what’s forgotten.

In “Zombie Apocalypse,” Bentley describes a scene in a nursing home. His mother and her friend, Dorothy, are residents of the home. When Bentley gives his mother a box of chocolates during a visit, the following exchange occurs:

I hand her a box she opens with help. Chocolates.

When she finishes, she closes the box, hands it back.
asks, Why are you here, Billy? I’m not Billy. A nurse
says she’s been striking attendants. Kicking, hitting
other residents. Around every exhausted official word
a wheel of better times spins, though it’s slowing down.
I say, I’m sorry to hear that and take my mother’s arm.
And consider killing her—I carry a knife on my belt—

but movie-butchery is R-rated for a reason: the gore.
There’d be blood. I’d think of roses, Mother’s Day.
But then I’d have the memory of her fear as elegy.
Dorothy is beside us, telling my mother the world
is ending. For them, it is. And the three of us walk.
Dorothy loses interest in endings, and my mother
changes the subject. There is always that to do.

This poem is illuminating in its treatment of not only memory, but also violence and acceptance, the subjects we’ll turn to shortly. Let’s start with a focus on memory. Memory in “Zombie Apocalypse” is mostly a private matter—i.e. the inner workings of the author’s subjective mind (as opposed to group memory or public historical narrative), and yet the last lines of the poem hint at a question that extends above and beyond that of the individual.

When Bentley writes, “Dorothy loses interest in endings, and my mother / changes the subject. There is always that to do” he invites the reader to consider the connection between the questions we ask, the conversations we have, and the states of affairs in the world. How many events––wars, famines, the loss of family and loved ones—seem to disappear because we change the subject? How many arguments and heated discussions are ended with a plea to “drop it,” as if doing so would itself alleviate or solve the problem(s) at hand?

Bentley is not a poet who changes the subject from the pressing and difficult questions, and he tends to follow the thread of his poetic inquiry wherever it may go—even if it’s heading into dangerous or difficult terrain. Note the lines about the prospect of killing his mother:

And consider killing her—I carry a knife on my belt—

but movie-butchery is R-rated for a reason: the gore.
There’d be blood. I’d think of roses, Mother’s Day.
But then I’d have the memory of her fear as elegy.

Bentley does not offer us an inflated image of his mother, nor does he tell us why life is still beautiful when one is old, etc. He decides against the killing (presumably by way of stabbing) of his mother not for the sake of her life, but for his own wellbeing; it’s the thought of her fear in his memory that persuades him to reconsider. It would be awful to clean up all that blood and to think of Mother’s Day and roses for the rest of one’s life, wouldn’t it?

There is also a sense of acceptance here, an understanding that life isn’t always beautiful. Dementia and death are all around us. When faced with difficult questions and circumstances, we have four options: we can look away from or change the subject, we can argue or complain about things, we can accept reality as it is (or at least how we perceive it to be), or we can slip into the oblivion of apathy and stop acting/asking altogether.

For me, this poem not only accepts the horror of aging and forgetting, but it also dares to bring the subject up in a violent way— in a knife and blood sort of way. It’s a bold poem, and one that doesn’t shy away from the awful qualities of life or the motivations to end it should things get dirty.

But Bentley does not always reveal his hand so quickly or expresses violence with such explicit, “movie-butchery” type imagery. In perhaps my favorite of the batch in Starlight Taxi, the poem “My Father Dressing Me as Zorro,” Bentley addresses our themes of memory, violence, and acceptance:

Outside the store with the circling Lionel train,
he ties cape strings, loops twin black ends,
making a bow at the front of my throat.
Now he relaxes back, into the bucket seat
of his ‘63 T-Bird. Says he’s gotten remarried.
He tells me it was sudden, no guests. Says
he’s sorry, too, he wasn’t around on my birthday.
He fingers a shirt pocket for a pack of L & Ms.

Now I’ve lowered a mask over my face.
The eye-slits don’t fit, and I can’t see.
I scent the smoke of his cigarette. I tell him
they turned off the electricity, the gas and phone,
that neighbors fed us after he left. I’m feeling
in the gift box for a toy rapier, which I wave
between us. He tells me to stop horsing around:
this close, one of us is likely to get hurt.

This sophisticated poem about pain and protection has more nuance to it than we might think on first glance. First, the imagery of protection. Note the store with the “circling Lionel train,” the bucket seat that surrounds the father’s body (we feel relaxed when we’re safe, when we’re protected) inside of the car—itself a type of shelter from the world outside. Notice the mask and the hiding behind it, and the presumed notion of feeling safe and indestructible when wearing it. Observe, too, the cigarette smoke and the shield that it provides for the boy (he doesn’t address his father until the mask is on and the smoke is rising).

Violence is also at hand; the bow being tied at the front of the child’s throat calls to mind the image of a noose and the procedure of being hanged. There is the violence of living in a home where the basic necessities have not been met or provided for. And in the last few lines, the poem suggests an implicit or past violence: “I’m feeling / in the gift box for a toy rapier, which I wave / between us. He tells me to stop horsing around: / this close, one of us is likely to get hurt.”

Surely there has been a previous instance of someone getting hurt, and we wonder how many times the father has told his son to stop horsing around. We have a sense in these lines that violence is just around the corner, is just outside of the old T-Bird. The hard discussions between father and son need protection to get off the ground, and this protection (as mentioned above) is found in the Zorro mask, the car, the smoke, and the seats. The mask, of course, is the key physical and psychological barrier between the father and son. Note that the young Bentley cannot see from behind it, and presumably his father cannot see him either, or at least not see his eyes.

This fleeting exchange is the closest to vulnerability that these two get, and when the son reaches toward the rapier (a toy, no less!) we sense the barrier between the two— and their precarious emotional balance—is threatened. Although one might accuse the author of hiding behind his Zorro mask and thus avoiding danger, it’s clear that the poem does what it needs to do: it reveals a seesawed history of violence and abuse (of power and protection) though we must read carefully to discover it.

Yet some readers might feel that Bentley leaves them hanging; that things still need resolving, unpacking. But we are not offered an exit into the rosy or sentimental in this poem, nor are we given a quick resolution to a lifetime’s worth of problems. True, we will never be able to take the mask off the boy or glimpse his saber in its shiny, deadly glow, nor will we know the full conversation between father and son. But we know the score well enough, and the skilled withholding and covering-up in this piece is just what makes it successful.

Starlight Taxi is for those who want to journey with an unsettling companion on sketchy roads; for those who don’t mind a pinch of salt in their wounds, or the possibility of shaking their modus operandi with violence. Read Bentley if you can handle the songs of an experienced bluesman—a traveler of dark alleyways, a frequenter of factories and barrooms—and read him if you have guts enough to accept the facts on the ground, even if they’re ugly.
______

Starlight Taxi is Roy Bentley’s fourth book of poems, released in 2013 by Lynx House Press (a non-profit and independent publisher based in Spokane, Washington) and is the winner of the 2012 Blue Lynx Prize for poetry. Bentley, an Ohio based writer and poet, has received awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and the Ohio Council. His poems have appeared in prestigious literary magazines and journals, including the Southern Review, North America Review, Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, Shenandoah, and many others.
______