Advent in #7-L

By Nola Garrett

Advent is a penitential season.  It’s a dark time for getting ready, a time for repair.  It’s that last, slow, ungainly month of pregnancy.  Daylight is brief, especially this year in downtown Pittsburgh when it’s been cloud-ridden and drizzly nearly every day.  My immediate family is in such disarray of various sorts that other than attending a Christmas morning church service, I’m spending the day blessedly alone in my condo.  I’ve been assembling a new poetry manuscript and letting myself read kindle novels with little redeeming social or literary worth.  Pretty much, I’m in the midst of doing as little as I can to steel myself for yet another Christmas.  I know all this sounds bleak, but it’s not.

Last Saturday, I visited my son who a few weeks ago has finally chosen to enter a six month residential alcohol rehab facility.  I’m filled with guarded hope.

It’s been more than a year since my last pair of new glasses, and lately I’ve noticed that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has been diluting its ink again….  Yesterday, I walked to Visionworks for an eye exam where I was warmly greeted by the young woman technician whom I had worked with last year.  Already, she’d chosen some frames that she thought I might like, and she was right.  But, even more interesting was that the Visionworks folks have a new, eyeball-shaped machine that photographs retinas, which means I didn’t have to deal with the after effects of those eye drops that blur one’s sight for hours afterward.

While I was assembling my manuscript, I discovered/noticed three poems that didn’t fit, but could form the nucleus of another collection.  Perhaps a chapbook?

This morning I measured the height of the first blossom on my red amaryllis: twenty and one half inches.  All this growth and beauty with so little sun!

Later this week or next, I am going to Home Depot to choose pale pink paint for the eight by eight foot walk-in closet that used to be my former husband’s.  I’ve already bought a small oval chandelier to replace the pull chain, porcelain, work light currently lurking in there.  And, I’ve ordered a small, faux oriental rug for the floor.

Lastly, I’ve pulled from the bookshelf my autographed copy of Nancy Willard’s Water Walker to reread one of my all time favorite poems: “A Hardware Store as Proof of the Existence of God.”   As Robert Frost would say, You come, too…

I praise the brightness of hammers pointing east
like the steel woodpeckers of the future,
and dozens of hinges opening brass wings,
and six new rakes shyly fanning their toes,
and bins of hooks glittering into bees,

and a rack of wrenches like the long bones of horses,
and mailboxes sowing rows of silver chapels,
and a company of plungers waiting for God
to claim their thin legs in their big shoes
and put them on and walk away laughing.

In a world not perfect but not bad either
let there be glue, glaze, gum and grabs,
caulk also, and hooks, shackles, cables, slips,
and signs so spare a child may read them,
Men, Women, In, Out, No Parking, Beware the Dog.

In the right hands they can work wonders.

In the midst of so much glorious repair, how could Nancy Willard have left out the transforming power of fresh paint?


 

Book Review: THE AMERICANS by David Roderick

 photo f85798ac-481b-4be3-ab03-9bc1088e03ea_zpsbd446336.jpg The Americans
Poems by David Roderick
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

We can’t fence in wildness; we can’t fence out the world. It’s an old story of man’s interactions with nature and the global community. But in David Roderick’s The Americans, it’s seen through new, unflinching eyes. Here, Roderick’s strong voice and steady gaze interrogate suburbia, art, and American history to show us the myriad of ways humanity fails to manipulate its surroundings.

The goal is to sterilize, make safe. Roderick opens his collection with the first in a series of “Dear Suburb,” poems. He wastes no time in employing a pitch-perfect image that sets a tone for the rest of the book:

but after I mowed the lawn
and watched the robins chesting
for seeds, I couldn’t resist
what hung in the toolshed
where, with a pair of garden shears,
I cut all the hair from my arms. That need,
that scared need to whiten
or clean a surface: plywood or lawn…

This desire is called a sin “against the fly’s flyness” and is imbued with everything the suburbs have come to mean—control over nature, distance from danger, a uniform whiteness. Underneath this compulsive need to change appearances, something sinister bubbles. Roderick revisits the idea in a later poem, “Target”:

Did we know
we were the last
of the shorn beasts?

Yes.

But dazed in traffic,
our streets’ by-and-by,

we failed to hear
that lion above saying,

You there, in the dark, you.
Job shaved his head,
but still the lice bit him.

We can change appearances all we want, but there’s no escape. Whatever it is we fear, it will always haunt us. In fact, it’s inside of us, as Roderick shows in “California Clouds.” The protagonist of this poem is a man who was “never young,” who meekly submits to “the rules of the coffee house // (only an hour in the socket).” When he hears from a barista about a coyote living in Bernal Hill, he wants “to know how it happened, howling // above some much domestic life, inside it.” This is a man who “never shunned safety,” who once tried saké and thought it “tasted / like oblivion.” By all accounts, the guy is a wimp:

He returned, deleted, returned. Bills
racked up. Women thought he was something
of a limp-fish. He never finished

his masterpiece titled “Self-Portrait
as a Crucible of Style.”

And yet, when this unlikely hero happens upon the coyote’s dead body “with two / holes in its side,” he cries “for its howling, / that creature, his low cortege of clouds.” This is what we get for defying our nature; we render ourselves impotent, mourning our losses and still surrounded by danger.

We’re all implicated. It’s built into the book’s title. But in case we missed it, Roderick has some reminders for us. The poem “In My Name” plays on the phrase’s double meaning: a house clear of mortgage payments is in my name, but so is something done in my stead. Beginning with Necessary Evil and Enola Gay—the B-29s used in the 1945 bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima—Roderick reminds us that “smoothly soldered rivets saved the men inside.” Meanwhile, the speaker exits this memory and falls asleep:

I lie in another state, placeless in the air,
with the sound of occasional sirens
or barking dogs. In a magazine
I read about Predators over Pakistan,
our drone with fifty eyes named Gorgon Stare.
The men at Langley, bombing by remote…

We are the men inside, bombing by remote. Separated by magazine pages from the reality of this destruction, we sleep soundly. Roderick is unafraid to indict us, indict himself:

When I signed my mortgage, I also signed
for the peonies and for the shield of my yard’s
tall trees…

…Here’s the price I pay
for sleeping: Reapers circling a far-off village,
my drones. To eyes at a distance, a screen
lies always between a failure and a dream.

This sentiment is echoed from an earlier poem, “Terra Incognita,” which reflects on American torture of foreign citizens. It happens in nameless places like warehouses, recalling the distance and mythology of Guantanamo Bay. The speaker thinks to himself, “While I drank like a lush / it happened. While I washed down // a pastry with a divine swipe of cheese inside.” Being an American, he thinks, “isn’t like being from one of the old nations— / it’s not a gift, exactly, but it’s also // not something to take lightly or give away.” Retaining the privilege of ignoring injustice supposedly crucial to maintaining our way of life—a necessary evil—that’s the dream. With murder as its foundation, the dream is a failure. Try as we might, we can’t stay separate from it.

But when did being an American come to mean this sort of ignorance? Roderick seems to tell us it was always the case. He invokes the Kennedys, visual artists, Spanish conquistadors, and Irish immigrants to show us a timeline of American history whose very bedrock is this sort of violence. We try so hard to quell our fears, to stay, as the husband in “Eros and Dust,” “safe within a moat / that can’t be crossed.” All we succeed in is destruction. Roderick presses us to examine this heritage, to sit with discomfort and at least admit culpability. There’s no solution offered—perhaps that will come in his next collection. But for now, we must listen to these timely words and remember the power of poetry to depict a society, to inspire change.


 

Book Review: LUCKY BONES by Peter Meinke

 photo 4bc9654f-a658-4cd6-972b-4b7f046b3ca5_zpsd3965aaf.jpg Lucky Bones
Poems by Peter Meinke
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

Reviewed by Ian Vogt

Recently I read an issue of Poetry in which there was an essay titled, “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer” by Mary Karr. Karr quotes Auden: “The purpose of poetry is disenchantment.” She continues, “Poetry in the recent past hasn’t allowed us much joy.” In response I’d like to consider a poem by Peter Meinke, “Poem on Your Birthday,” from his new collection, Lucky Bones. Here is a poem that delights. Delights in itself, nonetheless: “Right now I’m so excited / by this very poem.” I’m reminded of William Carlos Williams’ particular syntactic gait, the way he was able to capture the bustling activity of the moment through it. A few more lines later in the poem:

But it’s no use: I love it today
with my primitive heart
wingless as an Apteryx
Hey poem come down to me
Make this day a special day:
the twenty-fifth of March
two thousand and six

This is the kind of poetry that does not blush at joy. And, to be frank, the kind of poetry that we all could use more of. The closest Meinke’s contemporaries get is a joy that is overtly self-aware and ironic, and thus often evaporated. Meinke addresses the difficulty of joy in one of his older poems, “Brief Meditations on a Woodcut by Leonard Baskin”:

Happy poems are the hardest because
you come off like a dog wagging its tail…

And yet should we therefore fail
to see the young so very pleased
to be themselves? I say Praise without pause
a damaged world deserving our applause.

Here one can see Meinke yoke youth with happiness, a theme heavily addressed in his new book. The poem above is guilty of a type of nostalgia, as are many poems in Lucky Bones. Meinke masterfully weaves memory into his poems, using it as a tool for his craft. The very first poem in the collection, “Old Houses,” is a concrete poem in the shape of an abode. Meinke spends many of its lines romanticizing old residencies, and ends with the ominous: “…even the garage / long ago burned down was an object of affection.” Meinke then launches into two more poems of destruction: “Drive-by Shootings,” with its surreal vaccination scene, and “The Firebug,” another arson poem. From the beginning, the reader enters a hostile space in which the past is suspect.

The first section of Lucky Bones titled “The Molecule of Life” is motivated by both memory and worldview. Many of the Latin-titled poems are overtly political, such as “Habemus Papum,” Habeus Corpus,” and “Five Landays with a Latin Phrase,” so that lines like “O goodum! Habemus Papam / who’ll soon intone / the usual crapam” may be heard. There are also poems of nostalgia, such as “The Family Megashelter Song, 1961” and “The Lover.” And there are poems that are somewhere between memory and worldview, such as “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi” and “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis.” Sprinkled throughout are carpe diem poems like “Cassandra in the Library,” “The Activist,” and “The Molecule of Life”—“The Molecule of Life” being the title poem of the first section, a poem that celebrates life, art, and perception. The poem “The Storm” is emblematic of the tone of the first section, especially the lines “that in a world so easy to slip / from we remain.” One begins to discern a backward-facing narrative not so thrilled to turn around.

Which makes “Poem on Your Birthday” such a standout poem: it unironically delights in becoming older. And also the poem “Floaters,” which ribs at the aging body. There is also the strikingly honest and melancholy title poem “Lucky Bones,” in which the speaker turns to toss his keys “that flashed through light / like lucky bones” to his wife who is no longer there to catch them. The aforementioned moment sneaks up on the reader like grief so often does, and takes what’s conventional and arresting in a poem—its final lines—in a surprising direction. This candidness is strikingly reminiscent of poems from Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds, poems written after love. One might not be surprised to find lines like, “Now I come to look at love / in a new way” in a poem like “Lucky Bones” or “Hymn 2014,” which speaks to their honesty—honest moments cushioned by humor and wordplay.

The second section of Lucky Bones titled “Skipping Stones” marks a movement toward persona and sympathy poems. There’s the comical “Emily Dickinson Thinks about Buying a Ribbon,” a sort of surface level feminist poem, the light-hearted “Belgian Truffles (A Tart’s Love Song),” the racially charged “Winter in Detroit,” and the whimsical “Mountain Man.” “Skipping Stones” implies both solitude and companionship, both inwardness and outwardness. Those that pass Meinke’s pond enter his bubble-thoughts and pass through a little disoriented, a little dazed.

I would be remiss not to mention the center justification of the vast majority of poems in the collection. I liken this stylistic choice to a provocative pose. You’d be hard pressed to find other published poems written in 2014 that are center-justified. This choice requires a bit of bravado. There is confidence in it, and a bit of posturing. Meinke is an oddity of a poet, not ashamed to delight, not afraid to do a little peacocking. Lucky Bones takes a close look at what it means to start growing old, then walks off laughing.


 

Book Review: THE ROOMS ARE FILLED by Jessica Null Vealitzek

 photo 931f81f9-b99a-4cb0-a1bb-56661dd6e09a_zpsb2bd7bfe.png The Rooms are Filled
Jessica Null Vealitzek
She Writes Press, 2014
$16.95

Reviewed by Nicole Bartley

There are two versions of a small town. In one, everyone knows each other and offers support when something goes wrong. In another, people are used to traditional mindsets and lifestyles, and either welcome change or destroy it. The main characters—a young widow, Anna, and her nine-year-old son, Michael, along with his fourth-grade teacher, Julia—experience each of these “small town” reactions in Jessica Null Vealitzek’s debut novel The Rooms are Filled.

The first chapter branches between what is and what was. Now, Michael watches paramedics try to resuscitate his father, who had suffered a massive heart attack. Just days earlier, Michael and his father wade through knee-deep snow to track a local wolf pack and ensure that inhumane traps are sprung without harm. In Michael’s mind, both timeframes happen simultaneously as he tries to register his father’s sudden absence. Eventually, Michael and his mother move from Minnesota to Ackerman, Ill.—from small-town country where a kid can drive a truck at nine years old and jump naked into a lake, to small-town suburbs where difference is ostracized and Michael must pay to use the community pool. And somewhere in all this, Vealitzek introduces Julia and Rose, who are learning to cope with their newly realized sexuality in 1983. Steady Rose is confident with her identity, whereas Julia is stuck on others’ opinions. She flees, leaving Rose behind, to take a teaching job Ackerman.

After all this, the story doesn’t actually begin until page 71, when Michael arrives at Julia’s fourth grade class. On this page, the main characters’ arcs merge and the story can finally and continually progress. Up until that point, it had stalled. Although the frantic first chapter immediately garners sympathy for Anna and Michael, the rest of the beginning is filled with extensive backstory. This causes the well-crafted prose to dull, until page 71.

After the introduction to each other, the story exists for Michael and Julia, and Michael’s sections provide the most fascination. He is intriguing but simple, connected to nature, open-minded, sensitive, and intuitive. He is “small and quiet,” as his compulsive neighbor Tina notes. His attention is always placed on forgotten elements, and noticing them adds a touch of complexity to his personality. For example, “He loved the smell of pencils, the shiny smooth pages of books, and the lit classroom on dark, stormy mornings.” And he is very smart—“last year he was elected president of his elementary student council, and he was only a third grader.”

However, his intelligence creates trouble for Vealitzek. She uses limited third person to remain close to certain characters, and making a child intelligent beyond his years gives her the freedom to write more maturely than she does for the other kids. This results in descriptions that don’t quite fit. For example, “When she was angry, she developed a brogue,” Michael recollects about a previous teacher. Although it’s his thoughts, there’s that word: brogue. Most kids aren’t smart enough to know that the word exists, much less what it means, and there’s nothing in Michael’s history that would explain his knowledge of it. This is one of the very few slips in Vealitzek’s writing craft. She gets lost in her own language and occasionally forgets that not everyone can speak like she does, which causes a momentary hiccup in the narration flow.

Julia—kind, selfless, compassionate—is tied to Michael’s life the moment he steps through her door. Consequences surrounding her decisions and sexuality provide the other half of conflict in the novel. The two characters are victims of bullying throughout most of the story. Michael admits a secret about himself, and his classmates call him “retard” and declare that he has AIDS. Julia is dogged and assaulted by Tina’s father due to her sexuality. And when Julia steps in to protect Michael from his classmates, people whisper about her being a softy, parents retaliate for the wrong child, and the principal’s blasé attitude is almost callous. Of the interaction between the principal and Julia, Vealitzek writes:

“I’m confident he and the other boys just need time to adjust.” He smiled.
“I think we need a policy on bullying.”

“A policy on bullying?” Ludlow laughed. “What would that be, exactly? That kids shouldn’t be kids? No jokes? No teasing?”
Julia started to answer, but he picked up his blinking telephone to signal the meeting was over.

The people, it seems, who are most able to detect bullying are those who have been or are being bullied themselves. For everyone else, it doesn’t happen around them and can’t possibly be occurring if they can’t fathom its existence. For example, that same principal turns his attention onto Julia when her secret is out. And people who see bullying happening in front of them simply turn away.

All of this, though, is predictable. Elements of conflict are introduced—like positioned dominoes—and readers know what to expect when they fall. Readers can already determine the consequences of Julia’s sexuality becoming known, and they can anticipate the reaction when Michael proclaims a secret about himself. Each character receives what we’ve known was coming for them, whether they deserved it or not. Although we know what’s coming, we still don’t want it to. And if any readers are uncomfortable with continuous conflict, then the set-up and climax for each main character will make them squirm.

Yet there is one element to Vealitzek’s writing that shines above all else. She has a way of remembering the quiet but profound moments of childhood. The counting rhyme that most kids used growing up: “My mother and your mother were hanging up clothes. My mother punched your mother right in the nose. What color was the blood?”And she pinpoints moments of intense emotion that recall the precise feeling of largeness around an ignored or belittled person. For example, when Michael hides in bathroom, she writes:

He felt very alone, as if the rest of the world danced in happiness around him, oblivious to the child curled up in a ball in the center.

She takes Michael’s experiences and uses them to wrench out her readers’ memories and hold them up for inspection. “Remember this?” she seems to be saying. “You weren’t so different, were you?” That seems to be the point of the entire story. No matter who you are, where you come from, or who you love, you’re no different from anyone else. There should be no “apples and oranges” discussion required about relationships, there should be no tetherball game to determine dominance, and there should be no reason to crawl brokenly into bedrooms or bathrooms. Yet these events happen, and as Vealitzek’s dominoes must pick themselves up and survive, so must her readers after they finish the last page and nurse their own old wounds.


 

Non-Compulsory Chapel

by Nola Garrett

A few weeks ago, from Pittsburgh I drove north on I-79 through the deepening autumn to Edinboro, PA to attend an Edinboro University retired faculty luncheon. There was a hearty turn out of all us old profs, and as usual, I was grateful we were all wearing name tags. Every time I go to these sorts of events I can hardly believe how mightily age has edited our appearance. However, the food was good, and we all seem to have kept our sense of humor. What made this gathering a bit different was that the new president of EUP, Dr. Julie E. Woolman, was there to thank us for helping Edinboro U be ranked in top 10 list of colleges that nurture students. There EUP was up among several Ivy Leagues! Made me think of Pittsburgh’s myriad high rankings as “Most Livable City.”

Later that afternoon, I drove to the EUP police station to pick up a parking hang-tag, so I could park on campus while I visited the library’s archives. I was pleasantly surprised to be issued faculty parking decals that were good for a year, just like my car bumpers used to sport before I took early retirement during 1996. Made me and perhaps my Honda Fit, feel years younger!

From 1977 through 1980 I used to be the editor of EUP’s faculty-administrator newsletter, The Edinboro Review. I out of sheer curiosity had decided to take a look in the University Archives at how and what I had written during that time. A few days earlier, I had called David Obringer, the library’s archivist to dig out all the back copies, and he handed them to me the minute I approached him at The Reference Desk. How did he know me? Maybe it was my age, because he was still in junior high when I retired. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel reading my stuff from so long ago. I found an obscure carrel and hoped no one who might recognize me would notice.

Soon, I was flooded with what I had thought were lost memories of those four years when I was taking notes for many faculty and administrator interviews, researching campus places, and even moments when I was writing and laying out the pages—cutting & pasting. A few hours later, I decided to scan some of my interviews and editorials. No problem. That was the 70s, now it’s the 21st Century where there’s the odor of the University’s Starbucks in the air.

As I drove south down I-79, one of my essay/editorials kept wandering through my mind. Something about it reminded me of Pittsburgh. So I’d miss Pittsburgh’s rush hour, I stopped at the Grove City Outlets for dinner. While I waited for my order, I checked my email. That got me firmly back into now and even thinking about how The Steelers might do Sunday. And, that’s when I knew I’ve become a true, believing Pittsburgher and when I understood the connection between Pittsburgh’s livability and my 1978 Edinboro Review Editorial.

Editorial

Last semester I failed Art 257 Communications Graphics II. It wasn’t because I was dumb—I got an A on the first exam—or because the prof wasn’t any good—Mr. Mullen is marvel of patience, good humor, practical experience and encouragement—or because the course content was dull or shallow—note the new design of The Edinboro Review. I did it myself from what I learned in class. I flunked for the same reason that probably 85% of our students fail: I quit going to class. So, if all of the above is true, how come I quit?

I quit for the same reasons that I have heard dozens, no scores, of students sit or stand uncomfortably in my office and try to explain to me. First, I got sick and the class went on without me while I visited St. Vincent’s emergency room. Then my mother was hospitalized for ten days for a series of painful and frightening tests. And finally, I graded mid-term exams rather than take them. By that time I had missed nearly three weeks of Graphics class. Though Mr. Mullen assured me that I could make up the class, I couldn’t seem to find the time to do it nor a time to meet with him that did not conflict with his or my class time. It was inconvenient, and so I failed.

I wouldn’t have thought much more about this ordinary story except that it was so ordinary, such a commonplace occurrence on the Edinboro State College campus. I got to wondering why it was so ordinary in spite of good teaching, reasonably bright students, regularly scheduled office hours, and much exhortation toward warm and human advising. I came back to time.

I thought of how often my students and I could not find a mutually free time except at night or on Saturday. I thought or all the freshman advisee meetings for which there was no possible day time meeting, so they were grudgingly and/or poorly attended at night or on Saturday. I thought of the difficulty of scheduling department meetings with our majors: no time. Yet, over and over I hear about our student retention problems, the need for student-teacher contact outside the classroom, and the need for regular unhurried student advising.

If time is money, then why don’t we put our money where our mouth is? Why is there no time within the master schedule, say an hour or an hour and a half once a week, to be used for student advising? All profs could schedule one of our regular office hours at that time. It’s not a very new idea. Many successful church-related colleges have it on a daily basis. It’s called non-compulsory Chapel. Surely, it shouldn’t be a problem of logistics, considering the capabilities of our computer. Perhaps, once or twice a year it would be possible during that time to hold a student faculty convocation so that our students would experience some the tradition and pageantry of the academic world before graduation (when it’s probably too late.) Let us hope we are not so busy producing credit hours that we don’t have time to meet with our students.

Pittsburgh has its own version of non-compulsory chapel—Steelers’ NFL games that most citizens attend, watch on television, or work in support of the games. During Steelers games traffic diminishes. Stores empty. Even the city sewer and water pressure fluctuate at the end of each Steelers’ quarter. Though RB LeGarrette Blount recently discovered the entire game’s attendance was compulsory, the rest of Pittsburgh’s citizens are free to use Steelers game time any way they please, even if it means not having much to talk about the next day.

I do watch most of the Steelers’ games on TV, but I’ve also discovered the pleasures of shopping in nearly empty stores with clerks so bored they are grateful to serve me. During Sunday afternoon games, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert seats are easy to come by. I know young, working mothers who use game time to take their children to the zoo, museums, or libraries. It’s a good time to score a meal in what is usually an over-booked restaurant. And, during Steelers’ games, I’ve come to understand, various sorts of Pittsburgh alliances, both personal and political, are strengthened.  It’s a good thing for Pittsburgh to have a non-compulsory, regularly scheduled time for community building and/or reflection. Go Steelers!


 

In principio erat Verbum

by John Samuel Tieman

There’s a blaze of light
In every word,
It doesn’t matter which you heard,
The holy or the broken – Hallelujah!

-Leonard Cohen

Not long ago, a student asked, “Dr. Tieman, when you were a kid, which poet influenced you the most?” I was surprised by my own answer: St. Thomas Aquinas.

I’ve heard a lot of great poets in my day, and heard them read some of the greatest poems of our era. I heard Allen Ginsberg do the whole of “Howl” from memory. I heard Yevgeny Yevtushanko recite “Babi Yar”. Yehuda Amachai and his “Seven Laments”. Richard Eberhart’s “The Groundhog”. John Okai’s “Aayalolo Concerto”, and his words which will stay with me for the rest of my life –

Between me and my God
There are only eleven commandments;
The eleventh says: Thou shalt not
Bury thy brother alive

I’ve heard a lot of great poets and their poetry. This is a list that can fill pages. And I haven’t even gotten into that distinct yet related topic, great lyrics. I heard Leonard Cohen sing “Suzanne”. But about that student’s question.

I was born and raised in St. Louis. We used to brag that we were “The Rome Of The New World.” Meaning it’s very Catholic. It is, after all, a city named after a saint. For readers who know St. Louis, I was raised in University City, the Jewish enclave. I attended a Catholic grade school and high school. In grade school, we attended Mass every day – Every day! – before school. That’s weekdays. Then there was Sunday. The occasional Holy Day, which fell on a Saturday, was considered a real rip-off. Ours was a small church, Christ The King. Very art deco. But very small. In my travels, I’ve seen larger chapels.

The design was all that was modern. I once asked my mother about a hymn I didn’t recognize. “Oh, that’s one of those new hymns,” she said. I then noticed that it was written around 1750.

It never occurred to me, until decades later, that there’s something exotic about the notion that there’s the language in which you converse, and the language in which you pray. My Jewish buddies prayed in Hebrew, and I prayed in Latin. (It also never occurred to me that there’s also something odd about a little Catholic kid kvetching the whole time he schleps a ton of books to school. But the Yiddish influence is another essay.) In this pre-Vatican II world, I don’t remember anyone who really had understanding of Latin. Understand in the sense of effortless. Or understand in the sense that many understand a second language. I used to live in Mexico City, but, when I speak Spanish, I frequently have to pause, search my mental dictionary. But Latin, with maybe the exception of a priest or a nun, Latin we knew by rote. In our missals, the Latin was on the left, and the English translation was immediately to the right. The recurring bits of the Mass, these we simply memorized. To this day, I can recite the “Credo”, “Gloria”, the “Sanctus”, all from memory. My point being that, while we didn’t own the words, we did own the poetry.

But about St. Thomas Aquinas. Last Sunday, I saw “60 Minutes”. In the opening segment, Pope Benedict was consecrating, as a basilica, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The choir sang the “Panis Angelicus” by Thomas Aquinas.

That was our Communion hymn when I was a boy. “Panis angelicus / fit panis hominum”. Angelic bread / becomes the bread of humanity. For a few seconds, I was back in that little church, Christ The King. And there they all were, my mother, Uncle Earl, Aunt Helen, my brother, my sister. Gramps. My grandmother. My neighbors both sinner and saint. My playmates. All at the Communion rail. Monsignor Ryan, Father MacCarthy, Sister Mary Amabilis, Sister Mary Rita, Sister Mary Rosella. There they all were. Fifty-five years wiped away by words of a medieval poet.

And that’s what I learned from Thomas Aquinas. That the words matter. That the words can last. But more than that. More than even their ability to transport us through time and space. Once, in a small church in the Midwest, we sang a poem, a poem beautiful, pure and holy. And that poem was us.


 

Book Review: ACCEPTING THE DISASTER by Joshua Mehigan

 photo aa4d89ff-c79e-4630-b322-533b6f9da43e_zpsba0c522e.jpg Accepting the Disaster
Poems by Joshua Mehigan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
Hardcover: $23.00

Reviewed by Jason Barry

Accepting the Disaster is a brilliant new book of verse from one of our finest poets, Joshua Mehigan. This is Mehigan’s second collection, and it’s a formally crafted volume that has the sparkle and shine of a master at work, a poet at the top of his game. Mehigan’s attention to metrical detail is evident at every turn—from dazzling sonnets and rhymed stanzas, to philosophical psalms and minimalist triolets, this book has it all. Let’s begin by considering the opening sonnet, “Here”:

Nothing has changed. They have a welcome sign,
a hill with cows and a white house on top,
a mall and grocery store where people shop,
a diner where some people go to dine.
It is the same no matter where you go,
and downtown you will find no big surprises.
Each fall the dew point falls until it rises.
White snow, green buds, green lawn, red leaves, white snow.

This is all right. This is their hope. And yet,
though what you see is never what you get,
it does feel somehow changed from what it was.
Is it the people? Houses? Fields? The weather?
Is it the streets? Is it these things together?
Nothing here ever changes, till it does.

This poem calls to mind suburban streets or the rural countryside, and it evokes a sense of lackluster routine and drab mediocrity, where things are never more than “all right.” We can see the downtown streets where seasons come and go as they always do, bringing nothing unexpected with them. It’s the quintessential American image of strip malls, billboards, and folks who wish for nothing more than for things to remain the same. Where is this place? Mehigan leaves the question open, but uses ambiguity in the fifth line (“it’s the same no matter where you go”) to suggest that this town could be one of thousands: it’s the one you encounter in New Jersey and Nevada, the place you drive through in Utah that looks identical to the one you passed in Colorado. We have a sense that despite one’s personal efforts, style, and individuality, one’s coming and going has no causal effect on the nature of this place.

Yet we know that we haven’t seen it all, that there’s more to the picture than can we can glean on first impression. When Mehigan writes “though what you see is never what you get,” he suggests that his poetic image is not a definitive representation of the truth. Even an unnamed town can change. We cannot, however, detect its transformations at hand with our faculty of sight, but only with what we feel (see line eleven). There is nothing tangible to perceive or latch onto here—no epistemological evidence of sight or sound to confirm our impressions of change. All we have to go with is our feeling, and we leave the poem with a sense of impending emotional disaster.

In his triolet, “The Crossroads,” Mehigan gives us another glimpse of the ordinary gone wrong, of a scene so common we hardly seem to notice it at all:

This is the place it happened. It was here.
You might not know it was unless you knew.
All day the cars blow past and disappear.
This is the place it happened. It was here.
Look at the sparkling dust, the oily smear.
Look at the highway marker, still askew.
This is the place it happened. It was here.
You might not know it was unless you knew.

We are invited, of course, to observe the aftermath of an automobile accident on the highway, at the crossroads, as it were. And yet, all day the cars “blow past and disappear” as if nothing important happened, as if the spot has no special significance whatsoever; most people go about their lives as usual, and it’s only those who are “in the know” that know the real horror of this place.

What’s terrible is how often we—those of us who continually drive away—fail to register the full weight the crossroads has for others. What I love about this triolet is the stripped down quality, the way it appeals to all of us and also registers individually, the way it renders an everyday situation both personal and powerful. The first line (the one that repeats in the fourth and seventh), “This is the place it happened. It was here” brings us back again and again to the spot, and we depart with an image of car dust, oil, and whatever else our imagination brings to the wreckage. Alas, how soon we’ll forget and move on with things: the sparkling dust will blow away, a new sign will be put in place, and the oil stain will be painted over.

The two poems we explored above exhibit Mehigan’s talent for general description and universal depiction of place. The town in the poem “Here” could be anywhere in America—as could the dust and damaged highway marker. But Mehigan doesn’t limit himself to such a barebones aesthetic. Consider, for example, his gritty sonnet entitled “Heard at the Men’s Mission,” where a cast of unsavory characters populate the foreground:

How many sons-of-bitches no one loves,
with long coats on in June and beards like nests—
guys no one touches without latex gloves,
squirming with lice, themselves a bunch of pests,
their cheeks and noses pocked like grapefruit rind—
fellas with permanent shits and yellowish eyes
who, if they came to in the flowers to find
Raphael there, could not be otherwise—

have had to sit there listening to some twat
behind a plywood podium in the chapel
in a loose doorman suit the color of snot,
stock-still except his lips and Adam’s apple,
telling them how much Jesus loves the poor,
before they got their bread and piece of floor?

What wonderfully grotesque imagery! We can feel the presence of the homeless as if they were all around us—their pockmarked faces, filthy coats, and body odors permeate the scene, though we finish the poem feeling sympathetic and thinking twice about their situation (and also questioning the imbalance of power and the condescending, religious rhetoric of the man behind the podium).

The beautiful turn in this sonnet marks a shift in our perspective: we begin by having the preacher’s (or outsider’s) point of view, yet by line nine we’ve turned the corner and can envision the world as if we, too, were one of the unfortunate sons-of-bitches in the soup kitchen line, subjected to the preacher’s gilded talk and hypocritical banter. This is the kind of description that comes with having spent significant time among the poor, and we gather that the author has a keen understanding of the lives of outcast, downtrodden, and itinerant members of our society.

Each poem in this collection invites patient, multiple readings. Mehigan takes us on a journey from the countryside to the city center, and we roam with him through bum-infested cathedrals and insane asylums, machine shops and polling stations, and even mythological woodlands where girls dance feverishly under shimmering moonlight. The work in this collection is perfectly executed, philosophically rich, and emotionally intense. Accepting the Disaster is sure to be a landmark cherished by lovers of formal poetry, and one of the best books you’ll read for years to come.


Rookeries and Red Wheelbarrows: Some Thoughts on the Poetic Line

by Gerry LaFemina

 What makes a poem a poem?  Well, we all accept that a poem is written in lines, rather than sentences, but what does that mean for us as poets?  Where do lines “break” and who breaks them?  The phrase makes it so accidental, when really line is one of the most deliberate of our choices.  Before the advent of free verse, lines were often decided by meter and rhyme; in the contemporary era, poets often need to decide what drives their line, poem by poem.  Writing in lines allows a poet to manipulate the pacing of the poem, the meaning of the poem, and the rhythm of the poem.

Here’s a poem that we’ve seen plenty of times by William Carlos Williams:

So much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

If we were to just write this out as a sentence, “So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens,” we would have a pretty unimpressive sentence.  But we’re not writing sentences, we’re writing poems.  So perhaps we would make it look like a poem.  Here it is as a quatrain:

So much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens.

Perhaps this is more interesting, but not overly so.  The question is, why?  Why does the poem as Williams published it work in ways that it doesn’t work as a sentence or a quatrain?

The simple answer: the line and stanza.

The line in this Williams poem brings a syncopated jazz beat into the dull farm implement:

So much depends
            upon

a red wheel
barrow

            glazed with rain
            water

beside the white
                        chickens.

In the poem as published, the two stressed syllables in the first line of each stanza and the single stressed syllable of each second line, gives the poem a jazzy rhythm which works against the pastoral, farm imagery of the scene.  Since the two beats in the opening lines never occur in the same place, they have a less metronomic sensibility than we associate with metrical poetry.

But also consider what a wheelbarrow looks like.  It has a bucket and a two handles, with a wheel at the center of it.  Notice how each stanza kind of looks like a wheel barrow.

Line then becomes defining for the poem, can be transformational.  How poets use the line and stanza creates and manipulates the reader’s experience of the language.  Take, for example, this exercise I did with students in which I asked them for four lines.  Students volunteered the lines one at a time:

I like penguins.
They are so cute
in their tiny tuxedos
like a thousand James Bonds.

Like the Williams poems, these lines are pretty dull as far as their phrasing is concerned.  What are they really?  A declarative sentence, a declarative sentence, a prepositional phrase and a simile.  The diction doesn’t do much for the poem, except in the second line in which the “so” makes this poem sound as if written by a middle school student:  “they are so cute.”  But look what happens if we alter the syntax of the second line:

I like penguins.
So cute they are
in their tiny tuxedos
like a thousand James Bonds.

By changing the word order, the second line now sounds like it is using some “high” diction (one of my students called it “Yoda” talk), giving the poem a seriousness that isn’t conveyed with the subject matter.

Of course, in the current order, we know exactly what the poet is talking about.  What happens though, if we swap the order of the first and last lines so that we begin with the simile:

Like a thousand James Bonds
they are so cute
In their tiny tuxedos.
I like penguins.

In this version the poem begins with mystery.  By beginning with the pop-cultural reference of James Bonds, we begin with questions for the reader: what are like a thousand James Bonds?   And how are they like a thousand James Bonds? We don’t get the answer. The writer may have piqued our curiosity enough that we continue downward, as opposed to the first version where, if we don’t like penguins, or we think penguins have been overdone, we may not have continued.

Furthermore, consider what happens were we to reverse the syntax of that new last line:

Like a thousand James Bonds
they are so cute
In their tiny tuxedos.
Penguins I like.

Now we end on the speaker’s liking as opposed to the vision of the penguins that ends the previous version.

We can swap the order another way:

They are so cute,
like a thousand James Bonds–
I like penguins
in their tiny tuxedos.

Again, we delay the object of the speaker’s affection–what is so cute?  What is like a thousand James Bonds?  The third line–the declarative line–answers those questions and then is followed up with the expository final line. The connotation of tuxedos is dramatically different than that of the other endings of this poem: as tuxedos makes us think of formal occasions. Although James Bond sometimes wears a tux, ending on Bond surely doesn’t only bring that connotation into the poem.

By only reversing line order and word order, we create a variety of possible options for this poem that change how the reader experiences penguins and the speaker’s sense of the bird.  Now consider what happens if we change the length of the lines.

I like
penguins.  They are
so cute in their tiny tuxedos
like a thousand
James Bonds.

By breaking the first line on “like” we hold a pause on the word, emphasizing the emotion of “liking.”  The next line is an affirmation of the beingness of penguins.  Look how the middle line is the longest line, and it’s “book-ended” by the s-o/o-s sound combination.  The fourth line makes us wonder a thousand what?  A thousand bucks?  James Bonds is surely not what we’re expecting.

This version of the poem is doing something interesting in terms of rhythm, too.  The first and last lines are both two-syllable lines.  The second and fourth lines are both four syllable lines, so that the poem mirrors itself.

Some slight shifts change how we read it even more:

I
like penguins
in their tiny tuxedoes.
Like a thousand
James Bonds.  They are
so cute.

The pauses inherent in the line breaks make the second line like penguins seem like a simile. It isn’t, but it changes how we experience everything that follows.  By using a bit of counter point in the penultimate line: James Bonds they are, our eye reads that they are James Bonds because our eyes are trained to work independently of our ears–so even though our ears hear the sentences as they are punctuated, our eyes see the patterns of words that each line is independently as well as a whole.

Change it up just a bit more and you get, what is to me, perhaps the most interesting of these poems:

I
like penguins–
like a thousand James Bonds
they are
so cute in their tiny tuxedos.

The second and third lines seem to create a pattern of similes: I’m like penguins, I’m like a thousand James Bonds… that force us to consider how these things are similar, how they might be similar to the speaker, and establish an anaphoratic pattern that is instantly broken by line four they are (the simile of course remains accurate–we all “are”), but the sentence and line are doing different things–the way they ought to.

So far such line alterations have resulted in a “longer” poem because the number of lines is longer, so consider the second version in only three lines:

I like penguins.  So cute
they are in their tiny tuxedoes
like a thousand James Bonds.

In this variation of the poem, line one isn’t just a declarative line of taste–instead so cute answers the natural why/ the reader might ask.  Furthermore line two forces us to see the penguins by pointing them out in a full independent clause.  The last line, of course, is a pure simile, and adds, as it always has, a bit of humor in the pop cultural reference.  Are these the Sean Connery James Bonds or the Timothy Dalton James Bonds or the terrible aging Roger Moore James Bonds?  There are a thousand of them–like the end scene of the original Casino Royale.

Realize, I’m working only with the same original set of sixteen words.  Imagine the possibilities of repeating just one word:

I like penguins.
They are so cute.  Penguins
in their tiny tuxedos
like a thousand James Bonds.

The addition of the word penguins–both times at the end of a line–emphasizes the presence of the penguins.  Don’t forget there are “thousands” of them.

Or consider one of the variations above with the additional “penguins.”

They are so cute,
like a thousand James Bonds–
penguins.  I like penguins
in their tiny tuxedos.

By changing I like penguins to penguins.  I like penguins we reinforce the liking of penguins in the line, even though the first “penguins” belongs to the previous sentence.  And if you end with that line:

Like a thousand James Bonds
in their tiny tuxedos
they are so cute.
Penguins.  I like penguins.

The last line repeats penguins.  Once as a fragment.  Then as a declarative sentence.  How does the fragment change the tone of the declarative sentence at the end?  The first use of Penguins answers all our questions, but with a dumbfounded bluntness, thus giving the final sentence  a kind of wistfulness as if the speaker knows it’s silly to like penguins so much.

If this is what can be done with four lines–four fairly mundane and ultimately uninteresting lines–then imagine what can be done with your own lines should you actually choose to spend time considering the limitless possibilities of line length and diction, tone and sound.  The line, we’re reminded, is the core of poetry–not the sentence.  We make and manipulate meaning through how we make and manipulate line.  And by looking once more at “The Red Wheelbarrow” we see the further possibilities stanza might afford us.

Ultimately, creating rules for our line is the one way we make meaning in the poem, one way we create the rules for a tennis court without the net.  Line might be dictated by meaning or sentence or rhythm or rhyme.  I like to think of the line as a series of rubber bands.  How far can they stretch out before they snap us back to the left margin?  The poem’s energy is in the motion back, the slight hesitancy of whatever lingers at the end of one line and the jarring point we return to.


 

Dance Review: PASSENGER by Shana Simmons Dance

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

In Pittsburgh, and other cities, site-specific dance has become commonplace. From small parks to large warehouses and everything in between, choreographers have taken their work outside the classical theater for many years.

This past weekend, Shana Simmons and her dance collective brought their latest piece, Passenger, to the National Aviary on the North Side. The evening-length show was part of a nationwide effort (Project Passenger Pigeon) to bring awareness to the centennial anniversary of the bird’s extinction.

The performance was broken up into four parts. Sections 1 through 3 took place in the atrium of the Aviary. Underneath a dome of glass, seating was arranged in a semi-circle.  Feathers, twigs, and cloth created a border in front of the chairs; the dancers performed within that intimate space.

In the first part, “Bird Beauty,” the performers explored the movement of these unique pigeons, not only in flight, but also on the ground. Wearing elegant costumes of wide slit pants and fitted tank tops with a “tail” in the back, the dancers began with slow moving unison as if migrating together. The phrases used big extension of the arms that showed off their wingspan, and light, airy jumps.

Interspersed with the larger movements were quirky pecks of the dancers’ heads (beaks) and sharp twitches of their elbows (wings). The gestures were intriguing, technical but not cartoonish. Despite the literal interpretation, Simmons and the cast created something accessible without mockery – a difficult task.

Part 2, “Bird/Human Behavior,” explored relationships between the two. A few standout moments came in this section. The first was an ode to nesting behavior in humans and birds. Each performer gathered the materials lining the space, then used smooth partnering and floor-work to build their nest. They worked together with simple weight sharing and bigger lifts. Everything about the section felt organic, proving just how much research went into the project.

The other exceptional moment brought humor to the work. In a mating ritual, Brady Sanders and Ashley Kostelnik imitated the process of two birds coupling. A voice on the sound system described what was happening, informing us that either gender initiates contact and sometimes one bird might rebuff the advance. The other dancers vied for Sanders’ attention, flirting more like humans and highlighting the aspect of competition prevalent in most animals.

To transition into the third section, “The Last…Martha,” the dancers’ movement crescendoed as they ran forward in a breathless flight or fight for their lives. They pushed each other down repeatedly while feathers, from their hair and costumes, and from the ground, were frantically propelled into the air.

Finally, only one dancer remained. Jamie Murphy played the part of Martha, the last known passenger pigeon to die in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo. Murphy’s solo was accompanied by live vocalist, Anna Singer, who performed Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise.” The song and the solo were both haunting. A sense of loneliness overtook the air of freedom that began the piece. As Murphy rolled to her back, the others blew feathers over her body, an ode to the loss of an entire species.

After the main performance, the audience was permitted to walk through the Aviary’s “Free Fly Zones” in a fourth and final section. While observing warblers, penguins, starlings, and other unusual birds, the dancers kept the performance alive by improvising throughout the space. Simmons and the dancers succeeded in both educating and entertaining the audience, another challenging feat.

Despite a somewhat abrupt transition between the second and third section, Passenger told a daunting story in an incredibly beautiful way. With streamlined choreography, skilled dancers, exquisite costuming and well-suited sound, everything about the piece worked. Simmons not only sparked my interest in the subject matter, but also had me longing to get back to the Aviary and learn more.


 

Book Review: CITY OF ETERNAL SPRING by Afaa Michael Weaver

 photo 8adbdc87-e490-4f66-9a16-8426d3d20ebb_zps8e7d06b3.jpg City of Eternal Spring
Poems by Afaa Michael Weaver
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

Reviewed by Mike Walker

City of Eternal Spring is a difficult, demanding book from the onset: however wrongly, we often tend to look for central themes and backgrounding for poets and their poetry, being too accustomed to a Chinese-American poet writing about her ethnic experience or a black poet about his, and losing sight, I feel, commonly of the role of good poetry, period, in contemporary literature. Afaa Michael Weaver, a highly-accomplished yet under-known poet who also happens to be black and happens to be a scholar and explorer of Asia therefore shatters the assumptions that some of even the most well-meaning or educated readers may bring to a book prior to opening its cover. His work here, in the third volume of an ambitious three-volume collection, does concern his ethnicity, it does concern his travels in Asia, but it concerns much beyond. It concerns narrative language and form in a manner often lost today in poetry; it concerns his efforts to make peace with abuse he suffered as a child. It is, as serious poetry ought to be, a challenge in all the best ways.

I know there are readers who will take issue with what I noted above about how we approach a writer of any minority status, they will say we’re beyond this, we no longer see a “black writer” or a “gay writer” but I will contend we still, alas, too often do just this. We find in college courses that writers, especially contemporary poets, often organized in such a fashion where we want for a token someone to represent every facet of diversity. The problem is, the lesbian poet has to then be, foremost, a lesbian. The black male poet is expected to contribute something on racial injustice, the Asian-American something on her struggle as such—as an Asian, as a woman, but what about as a writer or a teacher or whatever else she is? We set expectations of poetry to tell about the person that sometimes are at ill odds with the trajectory the poet wants and desires to take. I don’t want that mistake made with Weaver’s fine book: for its emphasis on Asia alone and its quality of writing, it could stand as a one of the best and most-crucial volumes of original poetry of the year thus far, but the aspects of the poet dealing with childhood abuse also contribute a whole separate though united dimension to the book and the poems it contains.

Weaver’s Plum Flower Trilogy, which this book concludes, takes on a huge project—the reflection of personal history and the human body via Asian, in most instances Daoist, metaphorical explorations. Thus, many poems in this final book are quite personal, but they also are wide-ranging, focused in places on several topics, such as one concerned with the poet’s reaction to learning Michael Jackson died while he, the poet, is in Asia. Effortlessly, Weaver fuses his impressions of the famed singer’s death with his first-hand take on small visual details before him. Something noteworthy for America, for pop culture, has happened, something surprising, something nearly wanton, and yet life goes on and in many ways, in this place where he walks and records what he sees, hears, and smells, it happens in a way life could have progressed centuries ago, with the same daily tasks at hand. It is not how many poets, even our greatest ones, would have approached Jackson’s death. It is more: it is about how a person is displaced‚ either by death, or by the media reaction to death for one of great fame, or by actual removal—by travel and by immersion in another culture. Likewise, when Weaver writes about the earthquakes in Taiwan, he speaks as someone close to the topic but with a feeling of removal still—closer than us, but not native, perhaps near-native given his dedication to learning the language and culture, but still coming as a traveler to the scene.

Travelers, versus tourists, are a rare breed these days: We either go places on business where we are too often cloistered from the acute aspects of a foreign land via our business hotels, meetings in English, and other efforts made to make the experience as smooth as possible or else we are tourists, literally, as we are on holiday tours. Cruises, package deals to see a lot of Europe in a very short time, efforts at eco-tourism that while often well-meaning are tours nonetheless and meant for tourists all the same. The traveler, whether a man in the 1880s making his way through western Texas or a man in the 2010s making his way through Taiwan and elsewhere in vast Asia, are another thing altogether. These are people who are in the midst of a strange land, strangers fully, strangers trying to learn the local ways half via personal interest and half via great imperative to do what one must to survive and to make the experience as much a quality one as possible. That duty is upon our traveler: with the tourist, the surety of quality of course is in the hands and promises of the tour operator—so the responsibilities are rather different.

Weaver is very aware of his position as a traveler and what it means. In his poem “Buying a History of the Language,” which is one of my favorites in this book, he makes it clear that he’s doing things that are the domain of a traveler alone, encountering the origins of a language in a native bookstore, yes, learning about China from the book’s page but buying the book in the first place within China. Weaver entitled the second section of this book “Exile” because he is simultaneously a traveler and an exile: beyond where he came from, where he established via legacy and nationality and education and all else a sense of self versus one of somewhere else. He writes in one poem of walking into a bookstore and seeing a book in a language he did not understand and while he interplays Chinese here and there in his poems and clearly understands not only the language in the sense of being able to communicate in it but also the concept of its vast depth, scope, and history, he in addition knows what he doesn’t know. He realizes his position of removal, his position of not being where he started nor where he wishes to finish nor exactly in transit—as he’s dedicated a lot of time both in actual days and the efforts of these poems to being in situ—so he is, in many ways, in exile.

Despite—or perhaps indeed because of—his self-imposed exile, Weaver writes of his own history in poems such as “Tea Plantations and Women in Black” where the concept of a plantation expectedly returns him to the plight of African-Americans in the United States. It is in poems such as this one, especially given how short, tight, and compressed it is, that there would be an ease in the poet producing something too coy, too earnest, but Weaver avoids this pitfall. His poem is quick, both in its length and its ability to arrive at its core points, yet it leaves the reader wanting more in the very best way. These poems are highly narrative and what they truncate or outwardly leave out is nearly always non-essential and despite how brief they can be, their narrative powers and sheer ability to put together a whole story in a few lines is staggering in scope. I normally like to quote from poems when I review books, but here it is rather tough to do so with much meaning: Weaver’s poems, while often beautiful, are built of uncomplicated language and a couple borrowed lines will do little to convince anyone of their real gravity. Weaver notes, in example, the difficult, nearly-impossible, mission of learning the Chinese characters, he says: “if there are not enough stars in the sky to count the years it will take to learn these characters, do not tell” strikes me as less poetic than it is simply honest.

The role of metaphor here is not to explain the simple, but the complex; Weaver’s metaphors are much larger affairs than one typically expects and he is not interested in metaphors where he can plainly explain, as narrative, what is at hand. He can tell us, in example, about how he marvels at the sense of cohesion and duty in Chinese society and he can tell us, simply, how he notices old couples talking together—huddled together—and provide us with a picture in our minds of such grandmas and grandpas in close conversation that requires no metaphor whatsoever. However, metaphor in larger measure and of more robust, complex construction is merited when speaking of his personal history and childhood abuse. How do we seek solace and remedy for things that are both awful and long ago? Things able to remain with us not years but decades? English itself lacks very sound or sure terms for such a mission—the French “cherchant du réconfort” is more noble and also more accurate. For his part, Weaver turns to the Chinese language but even more the landscape and human geography of it, via Daoist teachings, he has mapped out. He is also very adept at finding in rural Chinese farm life—a life much unchanged for decades despite the boiling rise of Chinese urbanity over the past twenty or so years—likenesses to his own black heritage in America. Again, in less-able hands such efforts could feel forced, but Weaver is restrained and skilled enough to only provide honest, vivid, and necessary examples of how his culture and the one he is visiting reflect each other in often nearly mirror-like gloss. Peanuts, a crop of great actual and cultural import to both Black Americans and to rural Chinese, become a focal point in a poem, in example, and the depth Weaver produces is powerful: not just the surface values of the peanut in terms of a crop with meaning to the ethnicities at hand, but the pragmatic and economic values therein of a humble yet hardy crop, a rich crop of the impoverished, a crop of various broad uses and high nutritional content. His metaphor here is not metaphor: it is what Susan Sontag desired, a removal from metaphor and it is devoid of tropes—it is not about Black people raising peanuts or Chinese farmers raising peanuts, but about encountering a foodstuff valued by two cultures and appreciating it as the wonder of agriculture it is incarnate.

“Wind and air have forgotten magicians,

who can fly beyond the range of the compass”

This, quoted above, now this is worth quoting: lines that are in rare instance for our poet as these so removed from direct narrative, yet all the more beautiful and fully keeping of their strengths of narrative language and simple explicatus intact. Weaver’s expert ability to employ exactly the best words at the exact most-apt moment is something I suspect not only to be the profit of a lifetime of quality writing, but also of coming to the third book in a trilogy where he can draw from themes and items he has considered for two other books’ worth of writing. It’s a rare and very special situation for a poet and one that can only be earned via the sheer amount of grand effort Weaver’s invested in his writing.

Perhaps the most gripping aspect of Weaver’s poetry here however is his cohesive application of Daoist images and concepts to explore the abuse he suffered as a child and also to explore his position currently in the world around him. He is steadfastly careful to not preach Daoist views as a key that unlocks any door but simply as a vantage point that has allowed him necessary distance from himself and his own personal history. While some people might turn to psychoanalysis for such a mechanism, in his Daoist approach Weaver is able to place very core human emotions within the unique geography of a combined landscape, portraying his journey through time as a man akin to a journey across a territory charted out on a map. His poems are perfect for this approach, too, as they are short and compact yet, again, very narrative in nature and brimming with visual cues to larger themes taking place. They function as a collected corpus in this book much as a map rolled out over a table could: showing various locations and the major roads and paths nearly lost to time which lead between one place and another.

Clearly, Weaver’s book is a triumph and a graceful, powerful conclusion to his trilogy as well. Weaver offers up poems that accomplish the rare feat of describing both a foreign land—the whole spectra of people, places, traditions insofar as such can be bottled up in poems and transmitted to a reader. However, he does much more: he flawlessly incorporates his own personal history and personal struggles with his explorations of Asia and in doing so, makes his poetry all the richer instead of truncating or lessening either his autobiographical approach nor his geographical journey. This book therefore is rich, deep, and yet accessible to the reader who is willing to approach it; we need more poetry of this tenor, more poetry that is able to interrogate cultural traditions but without the normal tropes of a poet pigeon-holed into a certain ethnic, national, or other tradition: a poet, as Weaver proves himself, who is truly a traveler.


 

I Saved the Ragu

by Sheila Squillante 

Today is my father’s 35th birthday and I am sitting on the edge of the white porcelain tub in our upstairs bathroom, while my mother swabs cotton puffs soaked in hydrogen peroxide on my road-burned knees. The clear liquid hits my raw skin and immediately foams up, white and stinging as it pulls dirt, gravel and other black bits to the surface. Usually, I think this is sort of fascinating—look at all the stuff in there!—but today, I have other things to think about.

“Ouch!” I complain, wincing away from her touch.

“This doesn’t hurt,” she tells me, and keeps swabbing. How would she know? I wonder. All I can think about besides the open wound of my knees and the fact that I still have to baby-sit tonight, is my bike. My brand new, first-ever, 10-speed. I just got it 3 weeks ago for my 12th birthday. A present from my parents. I’ve been riding it around our cul-de-sac and on the next street over where my friend Jean lives, practicing shifting gears and getting used to the hand brakes and skinny tires, working on my balance. I’ve been doing pretty well and pretty soon Jean and I are going to ask our mothers if we can be allowed to ride bikes to the park together after our homework’s done. Jean’s bike is not as new as mine, which means she’s better at riding. Hers is purple metallic and looks a little like a rocket. I’m so glad that my bike isn’t pink or baby blue like my old ones. It’s red and silver and feels like a real bike to me. No wire basket, no girly streamers. This is going to be so cool.

The cold liquid runs down my leg and soaks the top of my sock. I reach down to wipe it off and notice a little bit of blood there against the white cotton, my blood, and imagine my brand new, first-ever, ten-speed lying splayed in the driveway, it’s frame bent horribly from where the car hit it, the spokes and gears broken, beyond fixable.

“Ouch!” I say again, and this time, though I’m also getting angry now, when I think about it, I really just want to cry.

***

          Today is my father’s 35th birthday and my mother is throwing him a party. She’s running around “like a chicken with its head cut off,” she calls it, vacuuming and dusting and wiping down the bathroom counters and toilets with Scrubbing Bubbles and bleach. I’ve been helping her all morning, cleaning my room first and then sorting through the plastic forks, spoons and knives we keep in the bottom drawer of the oak hutch, far away from the real stuff that belonged to my mother’s grandmother. It’s a whole set of sterling with loopy vines and full blossoming flowers on the ends. Each piece is engraved with the initials “TD.” D for Drew, her last name; T for Tiny, what people called her.

Better though, prettier, I think, is the dresser set—the silver mirror and comb, and the brush with such baby-soft bristles that I wonder how it would get the knots out of anything. Not my thick dishwater mop, that’s for sure, but of course I never try it. It’s so old and special.

I ask my mom what else she needs me to do and she muses, “Well, I still need to run to the store to grab a few things for the party, but I guess I’ll do that later, after I pick up the beer.”

“I can do it,” I say. “I can ride my bike to Quik-Chek. It’s just down the road. Please?”

Just down the road is true enough, but the road in question is Colonial Road and that intersects with Franklin Avenue, the main street in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, where we live. I walk on it every morning to get to my middle school. I walk past old-fashioned Archer’s Stationary store, which, as far as I can tell, sells pretty much everything but stationary, and which has a Ms. Pac-Man machine in the back by the storeroom that I play sometimes, but I’m nowhere near high score. Walking, I always have to worry that a car might splash mud or slush or rainwater up on my school shoes and skirt. It happens sometimes and I have to spend the day like that—wet and dirty in patches. Uncomfortable for hours.

Quik-Chek, a three-aisle convenience store where you can get rare roast beef sandwiches with mayonnaise and tomato sprinkled with salt on rye bread—my all-time favorite—is attached to the gas station on Franklin Ave. Their logo, a check mark inside a square box, always makes me think of finishing tedious tasks like emptying the dishwasher, which I hate.  Check. You’re done!

“I don’t know,” she says, eyeing me carefully. “Are you sure you can handle it?”

I would like to swear to God that I can—that’s how sure I am—but I can’t because I know that sort of talk will neither convince nor impress my very Catholic mother. It could even backfire my plan entirely, so I just say, “Yes, Mom, I’m sure,” and she agrees on the condition that I go and come right back. No side trips. She gives me a short grocery list: plastic tablecloth, birthday candles, one jar of Ragu brand spaghetti sauce to plump up the lasagna she’s making for the party tonight. I convince her that I can balance these three items in a bag on my handlebars while I ride. It’ll be fine.

And it would have been fine, except that on the way back from the Quik-Chek, I’m riding like I’m supposed to on the right side of the road—always with traffic, not against—holding the paper sack with the table cloth and birthday candles and the spaghetti sauce between my thumbs, while I steer with my fingers, and I see what’s kind of like a sandbar in the shoulder there and I think maybe I shouldn’t ride into it, maybe these skinny tires will get wobbly on me if I do and I’ll fall into the street. But I can’t really ride around it either, since the asphalt’s pretty crumbly at the edges, so I decide I should probably cross now since, anyway, there’s my street coming up—Ackerman Street—and so I start to drift, I drift as if I hadn’t really decided this, which, of course, I had—this was my bad decision—I drift now, slowly, out into traffic.

The car that hits me—a big American something—is only, thankfully, going 10 or 15 miles per hour. It has just then pulled onto Colonial Road from Franklin Avenue and hasn’t had time to accelerate up to the 35 mile per hour speed limit. The wide chrome smile of the fender kisses my back tire and I’m not, to tell the truth, really surprised to feel myself tumbling, “ass over teakettle,” as my mother calls it, over my handlebars and onto my hands and knees on the street. The paper sack and its contents also fly, but I’m not thinking about that now. I stay the way I land, on all fours, for a long moment, cursing my bad decision to cross, inventorying my pain to see if I am seriously hurt, and worrying that I’ve ruined my father’s birthday.

“You stupid kid!” The woman whose car hit me is yelling and coming toward me now. She looks pale and sweaty and bright red all at the same time. Her hands a blur of motion in the air around her face.

“You didn’t even look!” she screams, “You didn’t look!”

She’s right. I didn’t look. It’s entirely my fault, this accident, I know, so I absorb her anger and her fear the way the pink sponge had absorbed the Scrubbing Bubbles earlier this morning in the bathroom, and just stay there in that cowed position, on all fours like that. I am vaguely aware that someone has come out of the house where G.J., the boy I have a big crush on, and who sometimes shares chewy-sweet caramels and bright blue gob-stoppers that paint our teeth and lips, lives. It’s his mother and she knows my mother. They work together as drive-thru tellers at the bank in the Grand Union shopping center. G.J.’s mother helped my mom choose her costume for the bank’s Halloween party last year. She was a schoolgirl: she wore pigtails and one of my sixth grade dresses. G.J.’s mother recognizes me and runs over, helps me to my feet and then sits me back down on the curb, away from the street, which is now entirely stopped up with traffic.

“Oh my god, honey. Are you okay? Here, sit here and I’ll go call your mom. Is she home? Do you know?”

I nod at her blankly and find that I can’t talk. I’m choking on my own fear now, realizing what has just happened. The woman who hit me is still yelling, but there are other people in the street now too, other motorists and neighbors trying to calm her down and redirect traffic. Her car is undamaged and drivable, but someone is telling her she can’t move it until the cops come. G.J.’s mom, meanwhile, must have realized that she could walk to my house faster than call, because here comes my mother, running across the lawn of the house on the corner of Ackerman Street and Colonial Road. She looks petrified and this is when I really lose it.

“I’m sorry mom…it’s my fault… I should have looked…I didn’t look…I’m such a klutz…”

My mother knows me, knows my instinct to inhabit all blame, to self-deprecate at all times. She also knows, as I do not yet know, that when children are hit by cars, it is never their fault. No matter their bad decision to cross the street and regardless of whether or not they remembered to look. She runs her hand over the top of my head and smoothes down the back of my hair.

***

Today is my father’s 35th birthday, and I’m sitting on the edge of the curb now, trying to stop crying, while my mother calls him from G.J.’s mother’s phone and says, “Get over here now.” She could have run to our house faster than call, but she doesn’t want to leave me. The yelling woman who hit me is also sitting on the curb, but down the road a bit, away from me. She is also, it looks like, trying to stop crying. The police have been and gone, and no ambulance came because I’m just banged up some, “more scared really, than anything,” someone decides, and not hurt enough to go to the hospital.

The traffic is still being redirected around the accident, but it’s time to get that cleaned up, too, so someone—not the woman—has gotten behind the wheel of her car and is trying to back it up and out of the way. Only something’s making it hard to drive it; something’s stuck, and I can’t see quite what that is, but I can hear the scraping sound of metal on metal and metal on asphalt and I realize it’s my bike, my brand new, first-ever, red and silver ten-speed, still caught up under the front fender, now being dragged by the twisted pedal, the broken foot, back up Colonial Road.

I want to scream, “Stop! Fix it! Please!” and “Don’t!” but my throat is swollen shut from crying and now this new fear—my father walking quickly, not running but not strolling either, across the lawn on the corner. I don’t know what to do, how to sit, where to put my hands, my tattered palms studded with gravel.  He’s not smiling, but he doesn’t look angry either. I’m sure he’ll think I’m not really hurt since there’s no ambulance coming, and how will he know, because I know I can’t tell him, that I’m so scared, Dad, because I got hit by a car on my new bike because I didn’t look to see what was coming, and I could be in the hospital or even worse, and it’s your birthday and I caused this; I’ve ruined it all.

I stand up and feel my knees buckle painfully—they will be swollen and raw for days. They will click and snap for years. “Daddy,” I say. And just like always, I walk toward him. I don’t wait for him to come all the way to me, even though this is all I can think about and the only thing in the world that I want, because I’m too afraid that he will stop just short and just stand there, and I won’t get to bury my face in his blue v-neck sweater and breathe in his smell of wool and peppermint and ‘Lectric Shave.

“Daddy, I’m sorry,” I say, because I can’t think of what else to say and because the woman who hit me has stopped yelling now and the traffic is back to 35 miles per hour on Colonial Road and my bike is bent horribly, splayed there on the road, broken and beyond fixable, and because it is his 35th birthday and my klutzy self has about ruined everything, I say, “But look, I saved the Ragu.”

I say this because I know it will make him laugh, will make him think I’m stronger than both of us really, deep down, know I am. I say this word, “saved,” even though we both know it really had nothing at all to do with me since I was busy making bad decisions and flying out over my handlebars and landing on all fours like a wounded puppy. Because that’s what I feel like, to tell the truth, whimpering and expectant down here on the curb, just dying, after all, to be stroked.

The Ragu is, of course, perfectly safe: the paper sack that balanced on my handlebars flew a few feet and landed on the soft grass outside of G.J.’s house, birthday candles still in the box, the glass jar unbroken on the soft ground.

 

Book Review: THE GLAD HAND OF GOD POINTS BACKWARDS by Rachel Mennies Goodmanson

 photo e2331f31-5ee1-4b9c-892c-521f018b5b24_zps181382cc.jpg The Glad Hand of God
Points Backwards

Poems by
Rachel Mennies Goodmanson
Texas Tech University Press, 2014
$17.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

Faith is a lineage: cultural, familial, political, a heritage in some ways inescapable. This is by no means a new idea, but that doesn’t stop Rachel Mennies Goodmanson from exploring it in active, surprising ways in her debut collection The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards. These poems arrest with their images, leading readers through unexpected turns that take us from 1930s Europe to contemporary America. Along the way, Goodmanson paints and repaints the history of Judaism from her place as woman in the world. This is not self-indulgence, but a calling from Torahic mothers like Sara, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel, who, Goodmanson writes, “had the hearts of the bodies we stand on tall as arks / had the shawl to wrap around my bare and sloping shoulders / had the soil to force into my fists and turn my body west.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, this early admission that faith is an imperative thrust upon her by the matriarchs, many of Goodmanson’s poems explore the difficulties of faith. The morning after Kristallnacht, her great-grandfather’s Jewishness becomes an impossible garment: “A glass overcoat waits, open / on the sidewalk: sleeves of debris / for his cold arms to slide inside.” This poem, like many in the collection, thrives on the unsaid. “Today, he learns how clothes betray,” the speaker tells us, and then later, “old customers pass / kicking aside findings with a steely toe.” The tiniest details are employed to depict the vulnerability of being Jewish in Germany during the second World War; we know who these old customers are. “The Glass Overcoat” shifts from its central metaphor to the speaker, who tells us, “From him, I learned to mend.” But even she, mending in contemporary America, cannot always find comfort in her coat—her hands kept from warmth by a pocket mistakenly sewn shut.

Goodmanson follows this poem with one about her grandmother, “How Grandmother Paid Her Passage to New York.” The poem opens with a list of all the belongings Goodmanson’s matriarchs had to give up to pay the price: “One by one her mother sold her silver spoons / and heirloom bracelets; goodbye, porcelain bear, / silk blouses, patent-leather Mary Janes, the scarves…” At first it seems that Goodmanson is simply reinvesting immigrants like her grandmother with power, reminding us of lives led before they came to America with nothing to their name. But then there’s a stanza break and objects take a sinister turn as Goodmanson bids goodbye to

the neighbors, the schoolmates, the mothers dressed so well
at services, the men with businesses who stayed behind
one week, two weeks more. What stylish
objects they became: the coins from fillings
and wedding rings, the soap, the wigs, lamp
after lamp to light a thousand decorated homes.

Stated in its simplest terms, this list leaves readers to realize the meaning behind Goodmanson’s words—the grisly origins of this latter set of objects. Again, faith is made to bear an impossible price.

But faith isn’t all horror for Goodmanson. “The Jewish Woman in America, 1941,” a member of the diaspora, reminds us that the love for one’s culture and home can be retained in spite of past pain. Goodmanson allows the woman in the poem to make a fantastic nightly escape:

… alive with immigrant sweat. The scrubwoman
dreams at night in German, she flies over oceans,
first a bomb, then a boat. Das Glas covers her body,
shards glint like small stars.

The glass of Schönwetter’s overcoat becomes this woman’s dazzling dress, supernatural bauble to decorate the complexity of her homecoming. In “Grandfather Onion,” Goodmanson hints that Jewish faith is like Jewish food, “its complicated / briny odors.” Indeed, food metaphors seem to be one of the ways she can best articulate this concurrent grief and love. As she asks the reader in “Huevos for Seder,”

Who’s to say dirt never
made a meal better, some sour
blackness against the yellow sun, grit
in the gift of sustenance?

If the first four sections of Goodmanson’s book set out to depict the complicated nature of Jewish heritage, then the final section, “The Jewish Woman in America,” articulates her celebration of those complexities. We get a hint of what’s to come here in the fourth poem of the collection, “The Jewish Woman in America, 2010,” when Goodmanson writes, “My God accepts // the muddle of our lives.” This last section is all muddle—mixing of history with the present, heritage with new perspectives, and especially body with body. For the first time in the collection, female sexuality becomes a major theme. Like the speaker in “To Those Still Godless,” the Jewish woman in America is called upon to revise mythology: “you shutter your parents’ house of lessons, you write your myths / on the backs of your lusts…”

Love and sex, in this world, aren’t always beautiful, but they are a reclamation of the body. They are ways to control the unappeasable appetite from “Eating Animals Without Faces,” where “what we seek / alone at night stays hungry, always hungry” and “My Sister the Diviner,” where love is eaten along with food, “that closed mouth, / fit always, despite ourselves, to bursting.”

And so, 65 pages after her list poem “Matriarch,” Goodmanson gives us two final lists that turn all the old rules on their heads. “Rapture” meditates on peaches to give us a new idea of perfection:

                  …Peach God, rapt for carrion,
turning above us in the heavens, waiting for
us, ripening, to satisfy ourselves;
come to him pitted, come to him
finished, made rotten by
your sweet time in his sun.

Here, as with fruit, our wasting away can be a sweet thing; “the very taste / of sin” rewritten as rapture. The final poem continues to muddle the sacred and profane, telling the reader, “Our bodies // naked before men are God” and “The lungs expand with our God, God / in the scream, also the moan.” Then we zoom out, back again to the original pains and gains of faith and heritage: “The broken limb // and its setting right. God in / the remembering and the forgetting.” In the way we write and rewrite our worlds.


Conference

by Sarah Cadence Hamm

Renee Sadbury, school nurse at Beakman K-12 was sure it was neglect. Unlike the other kindergartners, who romped across the playground with baby fat flapping on their chubby cheeks, little piggies in snowsuits and pom pom’ed hats, Margaret Powler was shaped like a pear. Not in the way a woman looks like a pear: little Margaret was narrow at the top, shoulders slumping into a swollen belly, gas-filled. Hard to the touch. While her sister Jenny was a slip of a thing. Which could be normal; there was no average when it came to middle school bodies, burgeoning awkward breasts or the conspicuous lack thereof. But what if Jenny, in all the variation of bodies, was as sick as her sister, and no one saw but Nurse Sadbury?

This kind of vision was not new to her. As she called for a conference with the mother, the numbers on her keypad worn shiny as wet shell with her fingertips, Nurse Sadbury thought of all the things she saw that no one else did. The undersides of tongues. The inner ear. A ghost when she was fifteen, during a black-out that lasted all night, though her brother called her crazy, and told all their friends at school. Bruises in fantastic patterns, damning places.

She didn’t use the term “conference,” of course. While the phone crackled in the crook of her neck, Nurse Sadbury said it would be, “just a little chat about Margie.”

The mother said, “It’s Margaret. I’ll be there.”

And there she was on the office couch. Lilly Powler, a powder-smelling woman with a high coif of hair and a red bow mouth, two minutes early and inspecting her bone-colored gloves, the type a lady might wear to tea. Nurse Sadbury hadn’t seen gloves like that in years, not since her own mother’s time. Fashionable as they looked, she couldn’t help the thought they hid some embarrassing blemish. Eczema, maybe. A pimply rash.

“Mrs. Powler,” Nurse Sadbury began, but Margaret’s mother shook her head.

“You can call me Lilly.”

“Lilly. That’s a pretty name. And the girls, too, Jennifer and Margaret— they’re such classic names. Not like a lot of kids today. Sometimes I think if I hear another ‘Mackenzie,’ I’ll scream.”

Lilly shifted, the vinyl seat beneath her whispering. She twisted her delicate watch around to check its face. Nurse Sadbury looked down at Margaret and Jenny’s files, arranged side by side on her cluttered desk.

“Do you work, Mrs.— Lilly?” Asked Nurse Sadbury, though it was there on the form.

“I do,” said Lilly. “I should be at work now.”

“And your husband? What does he do?” The nurse continued, though all that was on the form as well. The greater part of her job was asking questions, when she already knew the answers. Looking at the form’s tidy sections for “mother” and “father” and “sibling,” Nurse Sadbury wondered what questions people might ask her, to get inside those boxes. Deceased, deceased, estranged. And what sort of answers she could give, to keep them at bay.

“My husband left us when Margaret was two,” said Lilly.

After a moment, Nurse Sadbury said she was sorry to hear it.

She looked at the framed poem on her desk, embossed in gold over a Thomas Kinkade-style beachscape—“Footprints in the Sand.” Pastor Jim had given it to her years ago, claiming it came from his own desk, touting the poem’s ability to comfort a troubled spirit, but Renee Sadbury knew better. It came from the Fishers of Men Christian Bookstore in Poughkeepsie. Their window display was nothing but framed copies, row upon row, the price tags obscuring a corner of the poem, so the title read “Footprints in the Sa”.

Nurse Sadbury picked up the frame, studied it in the dull blue light. It had been too long since she’d rearranged the little treasures on her desk, and now a thin scrim of dust obscured the words.

“In times of loss,” she said, “I try to think of this. I try to think, I’m not alone. I’m not being abandoned. I’m being carried. By…something bigger than me.”

Nurse Sadbury had a hard time focusing on Lilly’s face. Maybe it was her pale skin in the bland fluorescent office, or the glinting threads sewn into her tweed skirt suit. Whatever it was, it started a throb beneath the nurse’s temples. When she blinked, she could see the outline of Lilly’s body, done in negative on the backs of her eyelids.

“There’s nothing bigger than me,” said Lilly. Not unkindly.

“No, you’re wrong,” insisted Nurse Sadbury, and she thrust the poem at Lilly. Who would not take it, who looked at the poem as if it would dirty her gloves to touch it. “I’ve had doubts too, but doubting is a false path. Faith can heal—”

But she couldn’t parrot Pastor Jim’s words, couldn’t make the gift the gesture it was meant to be. And she was being shamefully unprofessional. In the picture, the orange sunset gave the beach an apocalyptic air. As if just out of frame, a ship sank, flaming, into the ocean.

A skinny middle-schooler with strawberry hair rapped on the doorframe. Beside her was Margaret, her face pointed and keen as a fox. Not holding her big sister’s hand, as a normal child might, but staring at Nurse Sadbury’s desk, at the gag-gifts accumulated over a lifetime of office work. A mug, stained with ink on the inside, insisted the drinker didn’t have to be crazy to work there, but it sure did help. Outside in the hall was the tangible quiet of a school in session, disturbed only by the faintest squeak of small shoes.

“I thought the girls should both be here.” Lilly said. “Shut the door, please, Margaret.”

Jenny folded herself neatly on the couch beside her mother, and Margaret, without permission or any sign of affection, climbed onto her sister’s lap, as if she were just a lumpy part of the cushion.

“That’s…yes, that’s fine,” said Nurse Sadbury, though she felt outnumbered, somehow. The three of them in a row. She rested the poem face down on top of her files. It was time to begin.

“Margaret,” asked Nurse Sadbury, “what’s your favorite food?”

If an eight year old could look affronted, that was the expression on Margaret’s face now, as if the nurse had belched in front of her, or told a joke in poor taste. Margaret looked from her sister, who was staring out the window, to her mother, who nodded once.

“I don’t have one,” Margaret said.

“What? You don’t like pizza?”

“No.”

“Ice cream?”

“Lactose-intolerant,” Lilly said softly.

“You must like something,” Nurse Sadbury said, and tried to smile. It felt like her lips were stuck above her teeth; she covered her mouth with a small plump hand. “What did you eat for breakfast today?”

“Leftovers. From Mommy,” said Margaret.

“Leftovers? That’s interesting. What kind of leftovers?”

Margaret looked at her mother again, and again, Lilly nodded.

“A leg,” Margaret said. “But I didn’t really like it.”

“Well maybe your mother should fix you some cereal instead. Fried chicken isn’t a proper breakfast.” With an audible intake of breath, Nurse Sadbury gave the speech she’d practiced in the mirror that morning, and again, mumbling, over her lunch. “Mrs. Powler, you can’t just give them anything. And you can’t let them choose for themselves, because obviously, Margaret is in a difficult stage where she doesn’t want to choose. You’re the parent. I know things are difficult for you at home, but Margaret seems gravely undernourished and if this problem persists, I’ll have to get social services involved.”

Lilly Powler looked down at her hands and sighed, plucked the tips of her bone-colored gloves.

“I try to feed them what they need,” she said. “But I can’t seem to figure their tastes. Hopefully it will come in time.”

“Mom, jeez…” Jenny slumped a little beneath Margaret. “Don’t cry.”

“Well,” said Lilly, “It’s difficult to be a mother of exceptional children.”

Lilly looked up and Nurse Sadbury saw her wet eyes, green like sea glass; green like the weeds that blew and curled beneath dark water, weeds that caught at children’s ankles, weeds that tangled in the hair of grinning mermaids, drowning sailors in the sea.

“Mommy,” said Margaret, “What’s fried chicken?”

“I’d like to see that poem again,” Lilly said, and sprang across the desk, the poem and the files and her dainty gloves all falling to the floor.

It did not hurt. Or at least, of all the pain in Nurse Sadbury’s life, this hurt was the quietest. Because of her training, she knew exactly where they touched her on the inside— here her gallbladder, there her heart. Lilly liked the sweetbreads best. The lights above them flickered and dimmed, the prelude to a black out. Renee Sadbury was fifteen again, the ghost’s hard promise hanging in the crook of rafters. But this time, it did not matter what her brother said, or who believed her. Because here was the truth. She was carried by it.

When they were finished, Jenny handed out wet naps from her mother’s purse. Lilly collected her gloves and eased them back on to her hands. With her dirty sneaker, Margaret toed the poem out from under the couch where it had fallen, and placed it back among the treasures on the desk. With wet lips, Lilly stooped down to blow away the dust.


 

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

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

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distance Factors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Why I’m Catholic

by John Samuel Joseph Tieman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dance Review: Loving Black by Anthony Williams

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Grains of Dust

by Gerry LaFemina

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

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

*

Poetry is flying a kite in a hurricane.

*

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

Same can be said for poetry.

*

Two touchstones of poetry: Subtlety and specificity.

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

Poetry is ordinary language raised to the nth power.

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

________

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


 

Book Review: Nevers by Megan Martin

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

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Greeting Cards

By Karen Zhang

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Late Lights by Kara Weiss

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

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Job and I

by Nola Garrett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: Deathbed Dime$ by Naomi Elana Zener

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

Reviewed by Alan Senatore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Publius Moves On

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

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

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

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

***

The Teacher’s Retirement Speech

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: Interrobang by Jessica Piazza

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

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dance Review: Kimono
by Mark Conway Thompson

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Food Safety

By Karen Zhang

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

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

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

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

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

_____

Book Review: Riceland by C.L. Bledsoe

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

 

Reviewed by Barrett Warner

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

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

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

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

(from “Roaches)

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

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

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

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

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


 

The Modernists of Al Andalus

By Djelloul Marbrook

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

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

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

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

Look at this:

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

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

Now consider this, more than eight hundred years later:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Book Review: Discontinued Township Road
by Abby Chew

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

 

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 We salvage what we can.

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

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

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