Book Review: BEST BONES by Sarah Rose Nordgren

 photo 98d88d4b-d0d1-4a59-b67a-5ae522d5c5ec_zpsc56si66z.jpg Best Bones
Poems by Sarah Rose Nordgren
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
$15.95

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

Into the Woods might not have taken home an Oscar, but its recent Disney reboot proves we’re still a culture that values fairy tales. One of my favorite moments from that score comes from the song “Stay With Me,” when the Witch begs her daughter Rapunzel, “Stay with me, the world is dark and wild. Stay a child while you can be a child.” Songwriter Stephen Sondheim says of the number, “It’s about parenting children, which of course is what fairy tales are about.”

But we’re not here to talk about Into the Woods. Because, as much humor and nuance as the show brought to our oldest stories, Sarah Rose Nordgren has come to push their lyrical weirdness even further to bring us a uniquely American fairy tale. In these tales, gender, war, religion, and the American South are some of the subjects that children are coming to grips with. When Ed Ochester calls Nordgren’s poems “part Alice in Wonderland,” he gets it just right — their lines remind us that sometimes the kids are in charge, the adults don’t have all the answers, and the moral doesn’t make sense.

“Kids These Days,” a poem whose title sounds like it just jumped from the mouth of any complaining parent, is perhaps at the crux of these conflicts. One of many poems where Nordgren proves she can span centuries in just a few lines, we cut from a list of our long-lost ancestors directly to the present moment:

At some point today it started raining
very hard and there was no shelter.
We all scattered from the schoolyard
in fifty directions, wearing books on our heads.
There are so many ways to go wrong
that we’ve stopped sorting them.
The globe is on its stand in the dusty room,
not spinning or teaching anyone a lesson.
There must be a good reason that the whole
world seems so anxious on our behalf.

There’s innocence here, and ignorance — which is perhaps the same thing said less generously. There’s a sense that these children, like all others before them, will suffer the consequences of not heeding their elders. Yet the situation here seems increasingly dire. In the modern world, there are even more ways to go wrong. These children stumble through rain on the edge of disaster, waiting to find out what’s causing the hubbub. As Nordgren will ask in a later poem, “what good is an illegible message?”

Under Nordgren’s watchful eye, all the accoutrements of childhood become things to be feared. “The Only House in the Neighborhood” brings dollhouses to a new level of creepiness by pairing images of a seemingly perfect family with a growing, uncomfortable quiet. Sure, “there is a birthday party nearly every day, / no fear of death or failure, no mortgage / to pay, no money at all.” Reality, in these ways, may have vanished, but fantasy breeds a different discord. “The stove doesn’t work. The food is painted / on the refrigerator door.” There’s nothing here to sustain life. So “no matter / if Baby bathes with his clothes on, or Mother… spends a week facedown on the laundry room floor.” The silent horror builds to a surprising finish — a child’s hand toppling an undersized rocking horse — where Nordgren reminds us that we both create and destroy the worlds we inhabit.

Throughout this collection, Nordgren proves herself a technician of craft. We get rhythm and rhyme, narrative sequencing, lyric tension, and various uses of form. But her most successful poems are those that blend technique with visceral reality — that join, as Stuart Dischel praises on the book’s back cover, “the cool surface of craft and the human heat of the heart.” At some points the story gets lost in a beautiful image; at others the poet seems unwilling to go far enough in interrogating her subject. This happens most clearly in poems, like “Instructions for Marriage by Service,” which seem to address race. But parsing gender, family, and lessons passed down, Nordgren’s words wield a stunning power. She states complex truths plainly; she says in “The Wife” of marriage, “Stepping to like a mare… I became more creaturely // with each passing year.”

For all their compression, these poems are like the Witch’s world: deep, dark, and wild. They draw readers to the story’s entrance again and again, promising new beauty each time. “Still Birth,” the book’s second poem, reminds us why it’s worth it in the first place:

The introduction was too long, but
the invisible boy had already traveled
for a year and a day… Though you know
the story, I mean to remind you
he will, eventually, return. Not in body,
no, but every time I tell it he becomes
more real. This is one of the stories
we live in against nature—I was trying
to tell you over the wind. If you learn anything
from living in this house, it will be how
to survive a variety of interruptions.

Our worst tragedies and our greatest joys are the interruptions, the realities of life and the morals of stories. Through a series of wondrous, fantastical images, Nordgren conveys unspeakable emotion. We’re transported back to the first time someone stood over us with the offer of only a story, begging us to listen closely.


 

Book Review: NESTUARY by Molly Sutton Kiefer

 photo aff65420-8048-4e89-8868-014d13945735_zpsuym7e7vi.jpg Nestuary
by Molly Sutton Kiefer
Gold Line Press, 2014
$10.00

Reviewed by Amy Lee Heinlen

Sometimes you read something and wish you would have written it, it strikes a chord so deeply within you. Or, and probably even better, it inspires you to write your own story. For me, as I try to capture in words my voyage into motherhood, Molly Sutton Kiefer’s Nestuary is this book.

Her book-length lyric essay pulls in the sun but only reflects certain, specific light, just like the moon. A myriad of sources appear in these pages such as peer-reviewed scientific articles, hallowed writings of other women and mothers, quotes from bumbling politicians, and monographs on Witchcraft. Sutton Kiefer masterfully braids these texts with her own story of motherhood told in three parts.

All of these pieces absorb the speaker as she tries to find her footing in a world where her body and her spirit are potentially at odds. With language that moves the reader seamlessly through lyric dream-like sequences, references to Diana, Our Lady of La Leche, MacBeth, and other icons, into more direct narratives of her real-life reproductive challenges and successes, Sutton Kiefer has formed a “compelling document” as Arielle Greensburg so aptly calls it.

Part 1 opens with goddesses and moon rituals, a psychoanalyst’s explanation, an incantation, and a list indicated by Roman numerals. We are empowered, if a bit unsure as to why we’re being told all of this.

                        Thessalian witches were believed to control the moon:

  If I command the moon, it will come down; and if I wish to withhold the day, night will linger over my head; and again, if I wish to embark on the sea, I need no ship, and if I wish to fly through the air, I am free from my weight.

Psychoanalyst Mel D. Farber explains this ceremony as linked to the protective-mother fantasy.

[…]

I imagine the night sky properly disrobed, leaving only the chips of light and blackest black. I imagine a woman in white swallowing the bulb of the moon, wearing it at her center.

Several pages later, Sutton Kiefer tells us the clinical, non-magical issue: that she has polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

My androgen levels are too high. This leads to these symptoms: weight gain, acne, hirsutism, diabetes (my test came back negative), patches and skin tags (not as far as I know), snoring (poor husband), depression or anxiety, and also trouble ovulating.

She knows how this sounds, she knows what we need: “I can tell you (now): This story has a happy ending.” But not before we learn the grueling routine that fertility treatments impose on this couple:

In the months that we attempted to have a baby, my body arbitrated the following: day one is now the first day of menstruation; days five through nine are for the Clomid doses; then there’s days eleven through eighteen, which are supposed to be fun, […]; day twenty-three is when my blood is drawn to see if the Clomid did its job; twenty-eight is the pregnancy test day […]. No certainly not, not the least bit pregnant.

The language that surrounds a “non-pregnancy, a failed month…” is isolate and bitter. “I am ruined at the repeated instances of no” she tells us “…but the world is full of that half-slash no.” She keeps trying, despite, or in spite of, the devastation it brings, the separation of body and self, “I am wicked to my body. I lean into the mirror sometimes and say, I   hate you I hate you Ihateyou.”

Just when we need it most, Sutton Kiefer gives us white space and on the next page, definitions for [fol-i-kuhl], [met-fȯr-mən], and [sist] that allow for free association and whimsy, even though these words are in her vocabulary because of her PCOS.

Sutton Kiefer’s wish is granted, but as fate would have it, she is “remarkably and unsurprisingly bad at being pregnant.” This includes extreme morning sickness and Restless Leg Syndrome among other things. Given what it has taken to become pregnant, these results don’t tamper the joy. Part 2 of Nestuary focuses on the pregnant woman as an entity, and on Sutton Kiefer’s body and birth plan.

It seems to be a byproduct of pregnancy that the new mother considers mortality and death while anticipating the life growing inside of her. Here, the author asks, “Why are there so many images of the headless pregnant woman?” and takes us through potential scenarios where the act of birth is separate from the woman, either through the disembodying pain of childbirth or some trauma that had removed the mother from conscious being to an incubator. In this eerie and effective way, Sutton Kiefer disturbs the accepted trap of thinking of the pregnant uterus as somehow separate from the woman who houses it.

Unable to have her daughter through vaginal birth, Sutton Kiefer questions, “[D]id I give birth? Isn’t giving active? […] I did no pushing, so then did the doctor birth?” Here she turns to the women writers who have documented this complex emotion before her. Excerpts from Camille Roy, Toi Derricotte, and Naomi Wolf, among others, help to ground, give permission even, to the author’s feelings of failure. It is the language that is used by medical professionals, by other mothers, by well-meaning folks, that permeates mothers’ vocabularies, that dictates the feeling of triumph or failure in her expected ability to bring a child into this world. Sutton Kiefer is given what she has invoked, but not in the way she imagined. Though a Caesarean section was not part of Sutton Kiefer’s birth plan, her body is in tune with the instincts to protect this child, “It beats this way, it knows. But it is told, again and again what a failure it has become.”

If Part 2 is about the reinforcing language of failure, Part 3 is about the triumph despite it. Sutton Keifer is an abundant milk producer. Her body, in a way she can measure, is doing more than she ever expected it to. Her daughter is “magnificent.” Her family thrives. And then, two years after the arrival of her daughter, she has “gotten pregnant. Naturally.” Finally, Sutton Kiefer is able to drown out the noise of opinions on her body:

     Do you want your tubes tied?   No.

         Do you want your tubes

               tied?   No.   Do you want

                        your tubes tied?

Her use of enjambment, the training of a poet, lends even more power to the determination of being heard when those in the medical profession think they know better. Again, on her choice to co-sleep, the language and therefore the power becomes hers again: “Now, there’s four-in-a-bed: him, her, me, him. Bookended, I am. […] When I nap alone, […] I’m unhibernated and growlish. Bring him back, my little pinner-of-souls.”

Sutton Kiefer’s personal story is gripping, but it is the juxtaposition of the varied other sources within her the story that gives it such boundless depth. After reading Nestuary, I understand, in a way I have never fully comprehended, how transformative motherhood always has been, always will be. Through her honest telling of her story and where it situates her within the larger fabric of motherhood, I better understand my own mysterious and curious journey, its powerful language, and how to make it my own.


 

Dance Review: WAYWARDLAND by Jil Stifel and Ben Sota

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Each season, the New Hazlett Theater chooses a handful of local artists in multiple genres to perform as part of their CSA (Community Supported Art) series. Last Thursday, Jil Stifel and Ben Sota presented WaywardLand, an hour-long quartet also featuring Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight.

The piece was a collaboration of styles; Stifel’s background is mostly in modern dance, while Sota’s expertise is in contemporary circus. I couldn’t help but think about their work in light of the 2015 Grammy Awards which aired four days earlier. Kristen Wiig and local dancer and reality TV star, Maddie Ziegler, performed a duet to Sia’s “Chandelier.” The audience loved it, and more people were talking about modern dance than ever before.

Like ballet, tap or jazz, modern has its own set of prescribed movements, but is also open to the creation of the artist. The choreography often has no specific storyline and instead offers imagery the audience can interpret however they wish.

Stifel’s work normally falls into this non-narrative category. She does it well, with off-beat innovation. On the other hand, the Wiig/Ziegler performance used movements once considered interesting but now overplayed. Yet, that Grammy performance received accolades other local artists with more innovation might never earn.

Stifel and Sota’s WaywardLand could have easily gone the way of overdone. When people think of the circus, they might envision death-defying stunts like tight-rope walking and trapeze flying. Both were involved in the piece, but not in any dramatic way. Although Sota possesses those sensational skills, he and the performers opted for unpredictability instead.

For example, midway through the dance, the back curtain parted and out rolled a 150-pound German wheel (imagine a human-size hamster wheel with only a few spokes). Rather than using the apparatus in an expected way, the performers highlighted its varied uses. They lay the wheel flat and moved inside it, swaying left and right as if on a boat drifting at sea. Sota and Stifel eventually used the prop in a more traditional way, but they flipped and cartwheeled with playfulness rather than spectacle.

All four dancers utilized stilts. While the device might sometimes be used as a gimmick, the gear enhanced the main image prevalent throughout the piece—the Greek mythological figure of a minotaur, half-human and half-bull. The dancers bucked and growled, stomping their elevated feet like animals poised for a fight.

Even without the stilts, the choreography included creature-like gestures interspersed throughout phrases of larger movement. Their leaps and turns and floor-work, both on and off center, bore no resemblance to the usual ordering of steps we often see in contemporary dance.

The piece cannot be reviewed without mentioning the scenic and music design that contributed greatly to the fantastical feel of the work. Blaine Siegel created the set, which included repurposed doors, minotaur masks, and ropes dressed in various fabrics hanging on the rafters and arranged on the stage. David Bernabo generated the sound, a mix of percussion, accordion, bass, violin, piano, looped wind and more, all of which added to the dreamy atmosphere.

WaywardLand had the quality of a Dali painting, whimsical yet somehow completely sensical. The journey was circuitous, with unusual stops along the way. Unlike the melodrama of a televised dance production, this piece had thought-provoking bells and whistles, stimulating images without the frills.


Book Review: JUNKETTE by Sarah Shotland

 photo bf9c3b90-3ff3-4704-9379-2cafaa16148b_zpsa0lehipb.jpg Junkette
by Sarah Shotland
White Gorilla Press, 2014
$11.99

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

Your skin crawls, you feel the craving kick in, and you want more. That’s exactly the experience of reading Sarah Shotland’s Junkette. This candid tale of addiction makes you hunger for more—more love, more drugs, and definitely more for the protagonist, Claire. As a college educated woman, she struggles to gain enough money to leave New Orleans and the addiction that keeps her living in a cramped apartment with her boyfriend, Mack. As Claire fights to find herself, she comes to realize just how hard escaping might be.

The book opens with a quote by William S. Burroughs, “Perhaps all pleasure is only relief,” and a poem by Anne Sexton. Together these epigraphs immediately set the melancholy tone that will only continue to get darker as the book progresses. Told from first person point of view in short scenes and lists, the book moves quickly as the reader sees Claire almost flee her life of drugs, strung-out friends, and bar tending for Boulder, Colorado where she believes she could finally be free.

One of the most notable qualities about Shotland’s book is her metaphors. She writes about bodies and how, “Some of the time you have to die to a place. You don’t die to the people.” The metaphor continues as Chico, a weed dealer and Claire’s friend, remarks:

You gonna get [bodies]. You think I have to die to a place with no regrets? That’s the only reason you have to die to a place…But all that dopey business, that’s the bodies—everything costs you something with that dopey stuff.

Here, Shotland illustrates how Claire doesn’t quite realize how serious her addiction is or how much she’s sacrificing to stay in New Orleans, doing the same thing she’s been doing for years. As the metaphor shifts, the reader gets to see just how many “bodies” Claire will gain.

As the book progresses the reader continues to crave, to want more along with Claire. It’s a need that itches just below the surface and continues to bubble up every time the reader is cramped inside Claire and Mack’s tiny apartment or the Moonlight, the crowded bar where Claire works. Only when she’s out roaming the streets looking for Chip, her friend and drug dealer, or Mumps, the guy who is always willing to loan people money, does the reader get a chance to breathe. This relief is short lived, however, as Claire plunges further into her addiction and gets caught up in even more dangerous situations. It’s a true testament to Shotland’s writing that she manages to create such cramped and desperate atmospheres in only a few short lines:

Mack still isn’t home. I wish I could keep minutes on my phone, wish Mack had a phone, wish we had a house phone, wish someone had a fucking phone. Phone booths are stationary and we are moving. It was a smart person who came up with the cell phone.

Shotland’s continued use of commas only amplifies Claire’s need to get out of her apartment and out of her current life. Instead, she’s trapped inside, waiting for her boyfriend to get back, and waiting to get high.

Moments of true horror, like her failed attempts to stop using and seeing firsthand what a lifetime of drugs does to a person, forces Claire to constantly evaluate her situation. When she tries to quit, she thinks: “I’m still in this fucking bed in this fucking house where I will never be able to leave. But I love it here. I’m lucky to be here. I mean it.” It is in these small moments of heartbreaking honesty that Shotland captures the cyclical nature of addiction. As the chapter ends, Claire gives into her habit again, reveling in it she remarks, “I get to float and sink and I know right here is the place I was meant to love someone.”

Sarah Shotland’s Junkette not only depicts the lives of drug addicts—it embodies all addiction—to food, to love, to the need for escape. As Claire fights to break free, she ends up giving up more than she bargained for as the “bodies” start to pile up. The reader will quickly flip through the pages as the story heads to a unique and powerful ending—one that even Claire won’t be able to escape.


 

Re-reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover

by Nola Garrett

And dimly she realized one of the great laws of the human soul: that when the emotional soul receives a wounding shock, which does not kill the body, the soul seems to recover as the body recovers. But this is only appearance. It is really only the mechanism of the re-assumed habit. Slowly, slowly the wound to the soul begins to make itself felt, like a bruise, which only slowly deepens its terrible ache, till it fills all the psyche. And when we think we have recovered and forgotten, it is then that the terrible afer-effects have to be encountered at their worst.

                                    Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence

 

I surprised myself recently, after a phone conversation with my long time English major friend, Mary Lou, concerning our mutual love of poetry and literary fiction, when I decided to tackle this door-stop sized, formerly banned novel again. This time, 58 years later, I read it on my Kindle. Last time, I skimmed it for the sex scenes, hoping to understand how on earth one manages to get tab A inserted into slot B. And, if there was a plot beyond the details of seduction, I couldn’t figure that out either. Didn’t even try.

I was shocked to realize how contemporary Lawrence’s post World War I novel is with the experiences of our returning wounded soldiers from the United States’ recent wars. Multi-limb amputations. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Long term, medical and therapeutic, home care for the bodies and the souls of both spouses. And, a plot driven by what may happen when the roles of lovers deteriorate into patient and care-giver.

No wonder, I couldn’t understand Lady Chatterly’s Lover that summer of 1956 when I stayed in Painsville, Ohio at my Uncle Jerry’s house and worked as a waitress in his restaurant to earn money for college. I slept on a sleeper sofa in the 8′ by 10′ library that served as a guest room in my uncle’s high-modern architect-designed and furnished house on Euclid Avenue, two blocks west of Jerry & Bert’s 225 seat restaurant. Uncle Jerry, his wife, Alberta, and their daughter, Colleen, four years older than I, ate all their meals at the restaurant, worked at the restaurant all day, and after the dinner rush, came home to change clothes, then adjourned until well past mid-night to the racetrack to bet on the horses. Week days, I worked the 5 to 11 dinner shift. Saturday mornings, I cleaned their house, and then I took the New York Central train back to Erie and home to Mill Village. I returned every Monday afternoon by bus.

Essentially, six days per week that summer, except at work, I lived entirely alone. The only food in that grand house’s refrigerator was a bottle of catsup. The only other food in that house that was not a home was a half filled salt shaker. I signed up for a Painsville Public Library card, and though I was supposed to eat all my meals at the restaurant, I soon bought cereal, milk, bread, butter, and fruit for my breakfast rather than traipse down the street and interrupt my reading. Late afternoons, I ate an early supper with Frances, Jerry & Bert’s 2nd shift head waitress who eventually confided that she and Uncle Jerry were in the midst of a decades long affair. I listened. I read. I learned a lot that summer and also the next summer I worked at Jerry and Bert’s, but nothing, I’m sorry to admit, that helped me to understand Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

Even at age sixteen, I was uncomfortable about the morality of the sex scenes’ adultery. I still am. While the game keeper, Mellors’, lovemaking was titillating, I remain troubled by what I now recognize as his PLAYBOY faux philosophy that all men (and women, perhaps) have a sacrosanct right to good mutual sex. I’m even more uneasy about Mellors’ lack of interest in his daughter by his first wife, his unborn child, and Connie’s pregnancy. I suppose one could make an argument that Mellors, too, was injured morally by his war experience, but Lawrence seems more focused on Mellors’ easy movement though the convolutions of that era’s English class system.

Sometimes while I was rereading Lawrence’s writing, I was nearly drunk on his writing style, his ear for a sentence’s rhythm, his lush, old fashioned word choice—crisis for orgasm or coming—his ability to shift multiple interior narrators with an omnipotent narrator. I’ve always loved Lawrence’s poetry far more than his prose, mostly because he is so skilled at choosing the poetic moment in unlikely places, say from a child’s point of view beneath a grand piano or from a man’s careful encounter with a snake that suddenly leads him to confront himself in the midst of beautifully controlled line breaks. Rereading Lady Chatterly’s Lover drove me back to my bookshelves to Lawrence’s Collected Poems where I rediscovered more poems about people and humanity as a whole than seemed necessary. I preferred his tortoise poems.

I suppose what prompted me to reread Lady Chatterly’s Lover at this point in my life is that in some ways I am now living here in my condo alone, except for the building’s other condo owners and the condo’s employees. I’m still eating breakfast at home, so I don’t have to interrupt my reading.  The difference is that now I understand the mechanics of sex and how to read a literary novel. This time, I wasn’t far into this novel when I surmised I might be living here alone in this condo for some of the same reasons Clifford and Constance Chatterly’s marriage failed, not because I was ever unfaithful, but because I, too, had been unable to successfully bridge the gap between lover and care giver.  I found myself fascinated by the slow, mutual disintegration of Clifford and Connie’s intimacy, even as they both willingly focused on the physical care of all aspects of Clifford’s paralyzed body. In an odd way Clifford was at once too intimate with his wife and not intimate enough, because he refused to speak with her about his emotions concerning his paralysis. I recognized what Lawrence’s narrator was saying about Connie’s care, “He was a hurt thing, and as such Connie stuck to him passionately.” It was that word, “thing,” that made me wince in self recognition. And, it was Clifford’s saying to Connie, “I’m not an invalid!” his eventual angry denial of his paralyzed legs even as he sat in his wheelchair that confirms Connie’s observation in Chapter 5 “that the terrible aftereffects have to be encountered at their worst.” How does one bridge that awful truth? Especially, when health and/or safety are at risk? Some couples manage, but I still don’t know how. I wish I knew.


 

Book Review: GUINEVERE IN BALTIMORE by Shelley Puhak

 photo 0c4474d8-2c23-4407-8528-3a86318d81df_zpssib67amr.jpg Guinevere in Baltimore
Poems by Shelley Puhak
The Waywiser Press, 2013
£8.99

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

       “How we are never more alone
            than in love…”

Winter is perhaps the best season to read an ode to failed romance, especially one with a compelling conceit. By engaging clever language alongside Arthurian characters transported to contemporary Baltimore, Shelley Puhak takes a subject often badly written and turns it into poetic gold. Structured as a play told in individual poems, Guinevere in Baltimore builds slowly and quietly as we get to know the characters whose stories will culminate in an explosive ending.

As in any good drama, hints of the final scenes are built into the opening poem. “On Having Sex, Grief-Stricken” presents an unknown female speaker addressing her lover.

I straddle you, sobbing.
I’m stunned our bodies
can still screw
together, the threads
can catch: what has
steeled in you winding
up into my wooden.

This union of wood and steel hardly seems sensual, and it serves as a warning: every passion dies. By the collection’s end, each couple will stand helpless as their love goes lackluster and the decision must be made to flee or stay the course. A later poem, “The Court Troubadour’s Song for the Old Streetcar Track,” echoes these sentiments:

Whatever we have meant—

you and me—before asphalt and machinery
         intervened, the stars are still cross with us…

… I can’t
         slip into your spaces; you will never
fill my dark fissures. I am crossed with you.

The streetcar track: once vibrant, now obsolete. It stands as a powerful metaphor for two lovers whose lives intersect only briefly, crossing paths once with a spark before rushing headlong to separate destinations. Whatever else is at play in this futile affair, the hand of fate is apparent—those stars, still cross, foretelling the inevitable end.

At its heart, the story we’re told is also one of the strength of women. Puhak adorns all her big players with a series of even bigger motifs—destructive flood and fire, expansive forests, outer space—but this play privileges its leading ladies. In the cast list, Guinevere is the queen and Arthur her husband. Elaine of Corbenic, before any of her typical feminine roles, is “alternately, of Chicago.” Even the unnamed Speaker is painted as “neither Maid, Wife nor Widow, yet really all, and therefore experienced to defend all.” As in the old stories, Guinevere and Elaine vie for Lancelot and all of the men act like playboys. But even with an imperfect cast, the bulk of the story is told with a clear feminine voice.

This is especially apparent in Lancelot and Guinevere’s closing statements. Lancelot writes to his lover from Philadelphia, saying

and I’m tired, Ginny, oh so very tired,
and even here in Clark Park, I see plums

piled in the trough of a housemaid’s apron,
pesticide-free plums bursting into flame

in colors not yet charted, but always the same
shade as the underside of your tongue.

He’s caught, eternally nostalgic, marking time and his surroundings by the ways they remind him of Guinevere. The queen, on the other hand, chooses to address her unborn children. “I carry the gene that makes / one susceptible to rain,” she tells them in apology. Her incisive words make clear that Guinevere is the book’s most aware character. She indicts the patriarchy, proclaiming, “And the wound that won’t heal: women. / The story they keep telling: // that I am waiting to be sought.” But by the poem’s end, she’s redeemed her own voice and the unlived lives of these children, building a world in which women are valiantly recast as the new cartographers. Love lost or otherwise, it’s clear that Guinevere will survive and thrive:

                They say the moon borrows its brilliance,
offers no light of its own. They say my river

runs soft, runs softly. Keep clinging to its bank,
             my sweets. When I make my own map
         of the world, I’ll sketch this shore, your pebbled
forms, in ochre and animal blood.


Brother, Can You Spare A Salinger?

When I travel, I am often struck by who makes it on to the local money. Recently, when I was in the Czech Republic, I saw John Amos Comenius on the 200 crown note. Comenius was an educational theorist and philosopher, someone I have long admired. When I lived in Mexico, the poet Juana Ines De La Cruz was on the 1000 peso note. My wife is in her Carl Nielson phase. That composer is on the Danish 100 kroner bill.

It’s difficult to imagine America honoring artists and intellectuals – and I mean honoring them at all, much less on money. But let’s try. I propose that the following Americans appear on the following denominations.

the penny – Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond
the nickel – Josephine Baker
the dime – J. D. Salinger
the quarter – Leonard Bernstein
the half-dollar – John Steinbeck
the silver dollar coin – Anne Sexton
the golden dollar coin – Phillis Wheatley
the paper dollar – Allen Ginsberg
two dollars – Langston Hughes
five dollars – W. E. B. DuBois
ten dollars – Betty Freidan
twenty dollars – Charles Ives
fifty dollars – Jackson Pollock
one-hundred dollars – Diane Arbus
five-hundred dollars – Louise Nevelson
one thousand dollars – Mark Rothko
five thousand dollars – John Singer Sargent
ten thousand dollars – Margaret Mead
one hundred thousand dollars – John Dewey


Dance Interview: Pittsburgh ballerina, Maria Caruso, premieres her final stage performance

Interviewed by Adrienne Totino

Pittsburgh ballerina, Maria Caruso, has had quite an impressive career as a performer, director, and educator. The path she took as a dancer was more of a circuitous pirouette than a straight arabesque. Now that she has solidified her role in the community, she is ready to step down from the stage.

Caruso’s decision to stop performing came after the premiere of her 2014 ballet, Left Leg, Right Brain. She says she had been waiting for the moment when her company, Bodiography Contemporary Ballet, was in the right place. “I realized there is a great deal of leadership in the company, and they are ready to keep catapulting forward.”

To describe Caruso’s work, one must understand her history. Like many ballerinas, she was enrolled in dance by the age of 2. Her teachers recognized her passion and drive right away. But, Caruso didn’t just love movement; she thrived academically as well. At age 16, she had already taken college courses and graduated from high school. Although one of her longtime dreams was to go to medical school, she chose to continue with dance at the collegiate level.

After graduating from Florida State, she moved to NYC in hopes of building a career. She quickly realized that, despite her high level of technical ability, her curvy body type wasn’t desirable in the classical ballet world. Hence, Bodiography was born out of Caruso’s eagerness to use dancers of varying shapes and sizes. Two years later, the company had their first professional season in Pittsburgh, her hometown.

For many years, Caruso mostly choreographed rock ballets. In 2009, she presented Something About Nothing, a show set to the music of Pink Floyd. After one of the performances, Dr. Dennis McNamara of the UPMC Cardiovascular Institute, approached Caruso about her choreography. The two spoke about his work in heart disease and Caruso’s interest in the medical field, and how the two might be combined. Not long after, she choreographed the first of many medical themed shows, Heart: Function vs. Emotion.

Caruso took a major step from musically driven material to science-based and therapeutic choreography. In Heart, as well as her 3 other medical ballets, Caruso did heavy research into each health condition (even observing a transplant surgery), and involved patients of various diseases in the actual shows.

Heart brought awareness to transplant and PAH patients, while 108 Minutes dove into limb, organ, and tissue replacement. Whispers of Light had a more psychological angle, raising awareness for Highmark’s Caring Place and focusing on children who had lost a family member or loved one. Left Leg, Right Brain highlighted the story of local artist and filmmaker, Frank Ferraro. The piece shed light on Parkinson’s, through Ferraro’s personal experience with the disease.

The non-dancers who have performed in these ballets have had a range of feelings about the choreographic and performance process, ranging from deep gratitude to Caruso for sharing their stories, to cathartic experiences that have helped them with self-acceptance.

Caruso will continue her work in this way, but also has a desire to get back to the musically-inspired choreography that initially gained her a following in 2002.

Next month, on February 20th and 21st, Bodiography will present a 50-minute long ballet set to the music of Coldplay. Before that, an 8-minute pas de deux will open the show. And to close, Caruso will perform a 35-minute solo to end her performance career.

The solo will highlight Caruso’s work as an artist and entrepreneur. The stage will hold many of the props Caruso has used in different pieces over the years. A mirror, a bed, and a desk are just a few. The backdrop will be set with a clothesline holding Caruso’s old costumes. Through movement vignettes with voiceover sound of Caruso telling her story, the audience will witness the trajectory of her career over the past 14 years. (Show details and ticket information below.)

Although choreographing the solo has brought her to tears, Caruso is ready to move forward. She will still direct and make work for Bodiography. In the future, she hopes to offer a sampling of both medically and musically motivated work. For 2016, she would like to focus on raising awareness and support for children with cancer. In addition, she is considering a rock ballet featuring famed music duos.

As always, Caruso has other projects keeping her busy. After the premiere of Whispers of Light (2013), one cast member’s mother reached out to her wondering if there was a way for Caruso to codify her choreographic process into a dance therapy system. Caruso jumped at the idea, and has since written a book, Bodiography Dance Movement Therapy System: The Healing Power of Dance and Movement for EveryBODY. And she now has trained facilitators working in various health and healing organizations.

At Vincentian (a rehabilitation center), Caruso and her teachers will work with patients for a full year, a program fully supported by Highmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield. After only 16 weeks of being there, Caruso says the participants are moving better, and three students who normally use a wheelchair were able to stand on their own.

There is no doubt that Caruso’s life changed the moment she began work on Heart. She has found a way to combine her love of science and movement, and she has grown tremendously in the process. The Pittsburgh dance audience will miss seeing her on stage, but the community at large will benefit from her work outside the studio.

To see Caruso in her final stage performance, check out the following show details.

What: My Journey (Reflections, Perceptions, and Misconceptions)
When: February 20th and 21st at 8:00 p.m.
Where: Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Downtown
Cost: Tickets start at $26.75.
Visit http://trustarts.culturaldistrict.org/production/43541


Nicole Bartley’s Top Ten Fiction Recommendations

1) Helen Wrecker – The Golem and the Jinni
This is the debut novel many authors dream of writing. It is clever, beautifully written, enthralling, and unique. It brings fantasy to a realistic level without removing its magic, and creates a portrait of a famous time and city in a new way.

2) Suzanne Rindell – The Other Typist
How stable are you in your ways? Are you crazy? Are you really who you think you are? Are you sure? Rindell makes readers wonder all this in her novel about the roaring 20s, snazzy parties, and prohibition from the center of a police station.

3) Ann Hood – The Obituary Writer
This novel is lovely in its melancholy and loss. The writing is strong and evoking, and the other-woman character is a sympathetic heroine. A good book to curl up to with a soothing cup of tea, and maybe some toast.

4) Matthew Dicks – Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend
Imaginary friends are real, and following one while his autistic boy is kidnapped is both engaging and oddly harrowing. Readers may even be compelled to resurrect their imaginary friends just to say hi and see them again.

5) Mason Radkoff – The Heart of June
This book is Pittsburgh from a working man’s perspective. Emotional, intellectual, hand’s-on, with in-depth descriptions of Pittsburgh and what it is to be from there. It’s easy to fall into this story and care for the characters, as if they’re real neighbors.

6) Anthony Marra – A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
The writing in this novel is so strong and it’ll keep readers enthralled. Although the events are depressing, the book’s overall impression is strangely bright.

7) Rysa Walker – Timebound
Here is time travel that is complex but sound. Events happen in tangents, and readers get a glimpse of one timeline that has been altered but still exists, is altered and doesn’t exist, and is fixed and exists…among many other possibilities. The story is on the older range of young adult titles, and the characters and situations are intriguing.

8) Therese Ann Fowler – Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
If you think you know something about F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, think again. The novel explores the concept of being mentally unstable, and the perceptions of independence and insanity.

9) Gail Carriger – Etiquette & Espionage (Finishing School)
This young adult steampunk novel occurs a handful of decades before Carriger’s paranormal romance series, The Parasol Protectorate. A girl, unsuitable for common society, is sent to a finishing school that turns out to train girls in the art of social etiquette and secret espionage. It is so much fun and incredibly adventurous, and it’s great to learn where familiar characters from the later series started.

10) Michael J. Sullivan – The Crown Tower (Riyria Chronicles)
The series explains the beginning of a partnership between a well-meaning, likable mercenary, a hardened assassin, and a woman who helps them. This partnership, rocky at first, is highly entertaining and a wonderful explanation for the Riyria Revelations, which is later in their timeline but the first series to be published. Anyone looking for high fantasy from an non-magical perspective should read this series.


 

Book Review: THE AMADO WOMEN by Désirée Zamorano

 photo c4fc758b-5805-43f5-ad74-05a5565c9268_zps03a9d4a7.jpg The Amado Women
by Désirée Zamorano
Cinco Puntos Press, 2014
$16.95

Reviewed by Melissa Schwenk

“You had to parcel out your secrets, you couldn’t trust any single person with the entire, authentic you,” states Sylvia Amado in Desiree Zamorano’s novel The Amado Women. The book opens with one of Sylvia’s biggest secrets—that she’s in an abusive relationship with her husband. Set in sunny California in the early 2000s, the novel explores the intricate lives of four Latina women—a mother and her three daughters—as they try to piece together who they are and how their secrets affect them. Numerous twists and turns unfold, and any reader will be excited by the dynamic ride.

Told from a third person omniscient point of view, the characters’ thoughts and feelings spring to life as the reader gets impossibly close to the four main characters within just a few pages. From inside Mercy’s head, the matriarch of the family, the reader quickly learns that she believes “happiness is a decision.” Therefore, she has to fight for everything she does—from getting her teaching degree to reconciling a childhood mistake. Mercy’s daughters have their own secrets, too. Celeste, the oldest, lives in San Jose and struggles to remove herself from her past. Sylvia fights to protect her two children from a crumbling marriage. And Nataly attempts to find herself through sleeping with a married man.

One of the remarkable things that Zamorano manages to do is deliver flashbacks in a quick and succulent manner. For example, the author dives into Sylvia’s past right after spending time with Celeste’s thoughts on Sylvia. In the flashback, the reader sees Sylvia struggle as a teacher in just a few sentences:

She didn’t know how to teach spelling. She didn’t know how to teach writing. She didn’t know how to teach math. She threw away her red pencils. Apparently teaching was a lot more difficult than it looked.

The reader grasps Sylvia’s own past dealing with abuse as the flashback continues, which paints her as not as innocent as she seemed in the beginning of the novel. This is something that Zamorano does again and again throughout the story. She takes seemingly innocent ideas and flips them on their head, creating a pattern that reflects each character’s need for acceptance and love.

Zamorano’s biggest accomplishment comes when she writes about Latina struggles. At work Nataly is often asked by customers: “Where are you from?” In these instances, she typically tries to laugh off such questions about her skin color, but sometimes people follow up with, “But you don’t look Mexican?” and she’s forced to play nice in order to receive a tip. Here, Zamorano displays the minor annoyances and offenses experienced in a predominantly white society and the way her culture is seen through outsider eyes.

The only issue in the book comes with the vast amount of secrets that are revealed in the short 234 pages. Each woman harbors multiple secrets that hinder her in some way, but after so many, it begins to feel somewhat unrealistic. Each secret is big, powerful, and at times it seems unbelievable that four women could have so many things happen to them in such a short time span. However, Zamorano makes up for this with her elegant writing style and imagery. For example:

Nataly had spent two months with Peter, months that sparkled gold and white with an undertone of elemental darkness. At work she found herself shuddering with memory and desire. If she had ever known, she had forgotten what it meant to ache in this way.

These colors are shown throughout, especially in Nataly’s passages, as she is an artist, and color reflects her passion. Zamorano also uses these subtle clues to help the reader understand the women’s inner feelings and piece together the complicated novel.

Once all the secrets are revealed in Desiree Zamorano’s The Amado Women, the reader dives head first into a world that is painstakingly real. The Latina voices are genuine and linger in the reader’s mind long after it ends. But the underlining thrill of the book comes from the importance of secret keeping and being able to escape that self-inflicted prison. By simply allowing others to know your secrets and no longer lying to those you love, the reader learns that, “Lying’s good for two things, Celeste. The short term and things you don’t care about…Neither of those apply here.”


 

Book Review: YOU COULD LEARN A LOT by RJ Gibson

 photo 564a2350-3174-49cb-8408-da4ab328ee58_zps3aafe783.jpg You Could Learn a Lot
Poems by RJ Gibson
Seven Kitchens Press, 2014
$9.00

Reviewed by Dakota Garilli

In 2006, Alice Smith crooned, “Gimme some new religion, something that I can feel.” Eight years later, RJ Gibson has answered that call. Through a blend of nature, religion, and pop culture, Gibson’s new chapbook You Could Learn a Lot depicts a desperate, sensual faith that has everything to do with our collective desire to be touched.

The chapbook opens with a surprising pastoral that quickly shifts focus when the speaker comes upon the remains of a wild rabbit. “It wasn’t supposed to come to this,” the speaker laments. “I wanted to talk about the light, not what/ it catches on, the mutability of meat.” These lines, which evince the speaker’s disgust with reality and his own worldview, stand as the ethos of the collection. These poems will, again and again, fight between depictions of light and dark, change and stagnation, the sacred and profane. The poem’s final image of fritillary butterflies’ “proboscises:/ drilling, rising, drilling” the rabbit’s body serve to establish a link between sex and death that will resurface in a number of later poems.

The meat of the collection is a central interlude of eight re-envisions of myth. This series, entitled “Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes” blends Greek myth with cultural references from pornography and cult classic films. These poems are not for the uninformed reader; while each poem might be read and appreciated at face value, only the reader who goes on to research the mermaid show at Aquarena Springs or the mating habits of Pseudacris crucifer will experience the full depth and intelligence of Gibson’s reinventions. While not exactly fables, many of the poems in this section land on a particularly keen line or idea. “Metamorphosis 2012” ends with another line that would make a fitting epigraph for the chapbook: “I rest in this muck. Longing draws me forth.” “Ganymede 1990,” a love poem to Jeffrey Dahmer, has the speaker witness Dahmer’s cryptic revelation:

he gestured pointed
toward that     SHINE
Mine to decide
if he meant life
or light or both

A serial killer deified and we his worshipers. It’s how the media treat these topics, and Gibson deftly shows us what new idols our culture has chiseled from stone. If this all seems ominous, you’re starting to get it. After all, “Dido 1976” ends with the prophecy, “Everything burns. Nothing mortal will remain.”

After foretelling humanity’s violent death, Gibson flips the script on us. The chapbook’s final poems are as consumed by ugliness as those that came before them, but here the poet’s deep attention allows a new beauty to surface. Whereas the collection’s first section is marked by resistance—the speaker in “Meditations on Mortality” begins by saying, “These are the ways I wish not to die…”—the final third of the book is characterized by a sort of acceptance. Starting with the speaker in “Dear Dad,” who consents to his role of “being small in this city and glad of it,” these last poems are sung by a chorus who crave and revel in the difficulty that earlier speakers were reluctant to face.

These poems abandon resolution. As the speaker in “Locu$ Amoenu$” remarks:

I want to be dumb
in my body: all hips & thrust & jerk. To be
shallow as these lyrics. To be always in
the middle of one mile, to be in the going. Never
arrival. Never—

This desire to be in-between is essentially queer and situated in contemporary spirituality—live in the moment, be in the now. Longing powers the engine of both sex-positivity and the excess that potentially results from this celebration of our carnal nature. By writing “What We Call the World Is Always the Immediate” in the second person, Gibson characterizes us all with the same yearning:

… You want
the world
soft as a body. You’re always wanting
the softness of bodies…

Abundance, you say, so much…

… of course the earth

so ready to burst

it smells as if everything
is about to happen,

only some of it good.

And though we know that evil, too, is inevitable, we reach the end of the poem eagerly awaiting what happens next. Gibson responds to himself two poems later with “Oh,” echoing the previous title in its opening lines: “Oh, world! Oh, god! Whatever/ I might call you.” The poem seems at first another lament—“I’m almost tired/ of desire and any number of its aliases,” but in that “almost” is a world.

In the span of a few lines, the poem becomes an ode to lust: “I want the body, its flush and stink,/ its urge radiating from the gut.” Though nearly spent by desire, the speaker envisions his next lover, thinking, “Perhaps/ there’ll be another man who becomes/ the embodiment of Oh! for me,” a man “who wants as much as I do./ who lets me do it…” There’s joy in the excess, a certain kind of love or intimacy that’s strengthened by its urgency. We pray in unison with Gibson when he writes

            Dear god, we are hungry. Inside
he is warmer than I hoped.

We shine red.


 

Book Review: FOG ISLAND MOUNTAINS by Michelle Bailat-Jones

 photo 8870e3e1-53e2-4925-8667-4e8842f9862f_zps77bb2c8a.jpg Fog Island Mountains
by Michelle Bailat-Jones
Tantor Media, 2014
$17.95

Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti

It’s a hushed, delicate world explored in Michelle Bailat-Jones’ Fog Island Mountains, out now from Tantor Media, Inc. A world that I got to know quite well over the course of the novel, and am truly having a hard time leaving. Or perhaps it’s better to say that the landscape Michelle Bailat-Jones so expertly crafted is refusing to leave me—it’ll take a long, long time for me to forget the profound melancholy and sorrow experienced by her characters. And I’m thankful for that.

As if they were all a part of a painting, one of muted colors and infinite detail, Bailat-Jones brings to life the inhabitants of Komachi, a small town huddled beneath the volcanic Kirishima mountain range in southern Japan. During the onset of the biggest of summer’s typhoons, many of the residents of this community find themselves pulled into the story of one grief-stricken family.

Bailat-Jones’ narrative centers on Alec Chester, a South African expatriate, and his Japanese wife, Kanae Chester. Alec has lived a long, fulfilling life in Japan, yet he still struggles with his identity as a foreigner in this intimate, yet isolated community. Even though he has resided there for decades and fathered three children, Kanae is what truly grounds him in the misty landscape of southern Japan. And when he starts to lose her, his sole support, the village is both figuratively and literally almost blown away.

The novel’s opening scene sets the tone immediately: Alec receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis, something he and Kanae are woefully unprepared for. Alec, overwhelmed and frustrated, expects Kanae to be the first person to provide some measure of comfort, only to realize that she is nowhere to be found. She flees Alec and his diagnosis—she flees a future without him. And it takes a typhoon and the reemergence of a dear childhood friend to give Kanae the resolve to face her husband’s imminent death.

Besides the plot, there is the writing itself, and the novel’s narrative style is unlike most fiction I’ve read. It’s written in first person omniscient, meaning that the book is told from one character’s perspective, who has seemingly impossible knowledge and insight into the characters around her. This narrator, Azami, one of the town’s oldest and strangest inhabitants, reports the village residents’ thoughts, their feelings, every word that they say and don’t have the strength to say. She simply knows things she has no business knowing. The typhoon’s strong gusts carry this knowledge to her, she says, and she writes down what she hears.

           “Every story has a seed—a word, an act, an image,” Azami writes. “Grandfather used to tell me that even a gardener cannot remember exactly where and when a seed is planted, but when the first sprouts break through our dark volcanic earth, that is the time to pay attention…to stand guard and help the plant grow taller, and we are always standing guard…”

Azami narrations are poetic as she moves from the macro to the micro, and back again. A passage about the typhoon’s rushing wind effortlessly flows into an analysis of Kanae and her despair. Fog Island Mountains is written in breathless prose, the kind that pull you along constantly, always promising more, always asking for your careful reading, if only to appreciate the beautiful language.

            …And although the wind is still driving down upon us, the storm has shifted its center, it has moved to a higher elevation and the peaks of the Fog Island Mountains are offering their resistance, slicing the wind, carving it up into lesser gusts and flipping it back unto the storm itself, and slowly, starting from now, right now, this storm will leave us.

The storm, the winds, are characters—they too are residents of the Fog Island Mountains. Bailat-Jones focuses on setting and environment in crisp, precise detail. The constantly approaching typhoon instills a sense of foreboding in the reader, an urgency for Alec and Kanae to reconcile before it’s too late. To face a future without each other, together.

Succinctly, Fog Island Mountains is a story told from a storyteller’s perspective—a folktale with a bird’s eye view. Its analysis of human weakness in the face of unexpected tragedy consistently shocks and surprises, but always, always garners empathy for the characters. This is a book full of moments that make you consider how you would react if placed in similar scenarios. It’s a work that encourages deep introspection—perhaps that’s why it still lingers in my mind.


 

Book Review: THE GREENHOUSE by Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet

 photo c2ee0e04-816b-4093-8d36-b2e3f9f51541_zps15a7ef15.jpg The Greenhouse
Poems by Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet
Bull City Press, 2014
$14.00

Reviewed by Alison Taverna

Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet’s second poetry collection, The Greenhouse, reflects on the complex nature of motherhood. Stonestreet’s narrator, a new mother, lives on the bridge between tenderness and restlessness, magic and restriction. Her body once inseparable from the emerging life inside is now distinct, yet still extremely influenced by this child. A “greenhouse” of nurture and nutrition, the narrator is “a bubble, a greenhouse, a lens…” Deeper, Stonestreet’s metaphor seems to suggest that motherhood is often a suffocatingly warm and isolated space in which both mother and child live. Yes, childbirth is a gift, but equally too, it alters a mother’s life. This sacrifice, as Stonestreet reveals, does not come as selflessly or seamlessly as we often expect.

These poems never rush, but crawl across the page. If I read too quickly, the narrative thread unravels and I’m forced to begin again. Too often we readers storm through poems, half-attentive, but in The Greenhouse we are all mothers who can’t afford to lose focus for even an instant. Stonestreet achieves this necessary attentiveness through her line breaks and white space. Rarely do we experience a one stanza, tight-lined poem. Instead, they stretch across pages, extend far into the right margin, and indent away in frequent jumps. While this slows the pace of the poem, it more importantly demonstrates a mother’s, this narrator’s, nature of time, endless and slipping through consciousness, as Stonestreet writes,

 

It’s only beginning to recede, that time, that milk-

dream

 

of a year

the long hours in the rocker, the occasional calculating, to assuage my restlessness…

 

This pace rocks us away from the fast-moving, overstimulation frequent in the everyday. Here, similarly to the narrator, we’re both made to feel attentive and lulled into timelessness.

The terms “luxury” and “privilege” continuously resurface throughout the collection. In “After Dropping My Son Off at Preschool” the narrator, overwhelmed by free time, begins “The world slowly coming back. The luxury of stepping outside / myself…” A few lines later, when the narrator invents facts about gingkoes, she states “It is a luxury and a privilege to be such an idiot.” While the infrequency of such actions makes them seem luxurious, the narrator attaches guilt to these moments, as if having a life extrinsic to her child is selfish. This is further reiterated through Stonestreet’s use of parenthesis. In “Flowers, Doggies, the Moon”:

 

(and where else would I rather be?)

That’s not to call up the rhetoric of choice, privilege, the drill
        of tussling generations (what we fought for / what we take for granted

and embrace) it’s just
        so difficult to step (back) into the sea…

 

I read the parenthesis as a secret and shameful thought, barely a whisper, which speaks from the part of her that is exhausted and constrained. These hesitations are not singular to the narrator, to any mother, which is perhaps the point of the collection, bringing voice to the collective struggle, for “when it feels like too much, my friend says, I try to remember to look at their hands…” Thus, in The Greenhouse we watch the source of life, and we too are claustrophobic, guilty, and blessed.


A Brief Essay on Love, Art, and Staring at a Woman’s Breast

by John Samuel Tieman

There is a level in which we all stare, but it’s usually done surreptitiously. I know that I am perfectly capable of “checking-out” a woman at great length. I’ve even developed techniques to aid my endeavor. Scratch my forehead to cover my eyes. Hold the menu just high enough, so that it comes between her eyes and mine, but not between her breasts and my eyes. That said, the success of these techniques is not even. I’ve sometimes even embarrassed myself in this endeavor. Like just the other day, when this woman discovers I’m looking at her breasts, which were lovely. But it is unusual to have such permission to stare from a stranger. It’s not like she said, “Oh, it’s okay. Please, stare at my breasts.” But a portrait does, in fact, say just that – “It’s okay to stare.”

In some sense, however, I wonder if this isn’t what all art does. The novel or the poem, the sculpture or the portrait, the opera or the TV show, all these allow us to stare at someone’s most intimate moments. We watch the first kiss of Romeo and Juliet. We watch the Stooge slip on a banana peal. We watch Michael Corleone kill his own brother. And we do so without blinking.

I remember being at Madame Trousseau’s wax museum in Times Square. I went right up to Gena Davis, as it were, and stared at length at her. I was surprised at how tall she is.

unnamedWe, my beloved and I, are also truly quite taken by this idea of a portrait allowing us to stare. It’s a compelling idea. We wonder if maybe this is also a great part of love, saying to the lover, “It’s okay to stare at me.”

My wife and I not long ago saw the original “La Fornarina” by Raphael, and were so taken by it that we have a framed replica of it in our bedroom. It is thought that she was the lover of Raphael. The half naked pose, of course, suggests something she would do for a lover. Phoebe and I think she is saying, “It’s okay to stare at my breasts.” We think of this as the moment just before she says, “It’s okay to watch me caress myself.”


 

Book Review: PRAGUE SUMMER by Jeffrey Condran

 photo 795203e5-8362-48bb-a381-4232db61484a_zpsf23f536c.jpg Prague Summer
by Jeffrey Condran
Counterpoint Press, 2014
Hardback: $26.00

Reviewed by Chris Duerr

I am delighted to write that upon first opening Prague Summer by Jeffrey Condran I had no idea what to expect. I say “delighted” because, having no familiarity with the real life Prague, there was no choice but to surrender myself as a tourist to the narrative voice, and soon found myself enthusiastically embarking on an adventure through the winding streets of the complex and eccentric city.

Prague Summer begins with the uncanny image of a woman falling to her death, painted for the reader in a baroque, melodic style that defines and enriches the entire novel:

The body seemed almost to float as it left the protection of the window casement. Against the dark sky, buoyed on a humid night’s air, its pale green skirt billowed like gossamer around thin hips and legs. The passive face of the woman looked toward the heavens, mouth open, a few strands of dark hair caught in the corner of her colored lips. For a moment, the whole—skirt, legs, hips, hair—paused cinematically before remembering its obligation to fall swiftly to the unforgiving cement below.

“Cinematic” is a term that often came to mind as I roamed Condran’s Prague, meeting his cast of curious and often offbeat characters, most of whom are early on revealed to be expatriates, lending a sort of natural flow to their enthusiastic observations which I was happy to share. The narrator, Henry, is a rare book dealer whose quips and factoids about his trade, and lines such as “It is always with Nabokov in mind that I remember my own first kiss” will no doubt delight each and every bibliophile.

He and his brilliant wife, Stephanie, pass their days immersed in the food, drink, and sights of a city that seems to be inhabited by a swirling global population of writers, artists, and bons vivants, which includes their friends Michael Leo and Anna Nemcova, an unconventional and money-troubled couple out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald daydream.

But the charming routine of cocktails and first editions cannot hold out when a long-time friend of Stephanie’s, Selma Al-Khateeb, comes to visit following the arrest of her husband Mansour by the FBI. In the words of Henry, “Imagine: our friend, a martyr to the War on Terror.” Without knowledge of his crime nor how long he could be detained, the emigrants have no choice but to comfort their friend and ponder life in a world shifting drastically around them, until Selma develops an idea for a justice all her own.

Jeffrey Condran’s Prague Summer is a perfect choice for readers of many stripes: mystery lovers, romantics, book collectors, previous visitors to Prague, would-be travelers, or simply admirers of well-constructed sentences, perfectly conveying time and place. The reader is aware from page one that the ancient city of the title is to be just as intriguing, witty, and sordid as any of the characters within. While visiting the New Town Hall to examine a copy of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of the Witches, Henry ponders the curious and bloody act of defenestration, once practiced where he stands. “Apparently, throwing people out of windows is a thing here, a fitting metaphor for the city’s political history.” Prague, one gathers, is a place of continuous, glorious upheaval where one cannot help but be swept along by the Vltava.

Truly enjoyable novels of place such as this are not built of landmarks and historical and political anecdotes alone. The essence of the city is captured brick by brick in its minutiae, so poignantly remarked upon by the ever-astute Henry. Early in the novel, Henry and Stephanie venture to a fashionable birthday party at the bookstore owned my Michael and Anna, to be attended by hobnobbing musicians, writers, filmmakers, and students from the world over. Amidst a traffic jam caused by “twentysomethings wearing nothing but jockstraps and curly neon-green wigs,” as his diplomatic wife frets over the arrival of her emotionally distraught friend Selma, Henry focuses on the “decorum” of a Czech beggar outside the car window.  “The man crouches nearly prostrate on the ground, almost like a Muslim at prayer, his forehead resting on the pavement, his hands out before him in supplication. He speaks to no one, silent, his needs absolutely clear.” The chaos of the world does not stop for this man. Just like Henry, he is yet another piece of Prague’s intricate puzzle, but his solemnity in the face of his own desperation shows that buried beneath even the darkest streets of the city, in the depths of life’s unfairness and inequality, are the noblest hearts, attempting to survive.

Na zdraví.


 

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.