In This Collection, War is a Verb

Author, Rebecca Makkai

Author, Rebecca Makkai

I’m a newbie to Rebecca Makkai.

And sometimes I just like a good title.

I may think the cover is too abstract (who am I kidding, is this even a real thing?) or too geometric, and unless it’s a Penguin, too plain.  Sometimes I don’t like a cover because it capitalizes on the female author by putting a woman’s curved spine and a man at the helm of her neck, but the book has nothing to do with glassy-eyed love and so much more to do with innocence or coming of age.

This was a tangent.

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

Over vacation, I read Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai. Like any good story collection, the reader discusses their favorites leaving gaps in the narrative for the fill-in of the next reader to use their story against this one on the page, or in cohesion with this one on the page if they find themselves in a character. For Music for Wartime this is going to be a bigger undertaking because I was fond of most of the stories in the collection, a few were outstanding, one wasn’t really legible (in the understanding sort of way), but it had pretty words, so this review will be categorial.  I’m not sure how Makkai wanted this book of stories to be categorized, but I’m going to give my own categories (like I’m at a pool in the summer on the edge of a diving board before someone yells ice cream flavors and I have to yell “Moose Tracks” or “Half Baked” before I go under).

1 | Stories about women who haven’t yet used up their love (or don’t quite know where to put it).

In this category, we have the following stories:

  1. “The November Story”
  2. “Couple of Lovers on a Red Background”
  3. “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship”
  4. “Exposition”
  5. “Cross”
  6. “The Museum of the Dearly Departed”
  7. “Acolyte”

In these six stories, women are featured, in different spotlights, exposing their vulnerabilities in one way or another.  In “The November Story,” a reality television producer who is balancing her relationship with a longtime girlfriend and an on-television love affair that she has winked into existence through gossip with both parts of the couple, must decide in what ways love becomes an action. Bach stars as a boyfriend. Yes, Johann Sebastian Bach, sans wig.  Unfortunately, after seven children, he was still deemed a bit dry in the bedroom.  (“Couple of Lovers on a Red Background”)  A woman finds her own racism in “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship,” but the reader comes to the realization that everyone has this inherit need to categorize their world, thus, this blog.

“The loneliest thing in the world is lying awake beside someone asleep.”

Salamander Grand Piano V.2.1. Ein sehr gutes Creative Commons

Salamander Grand Piano V.2.1. Ein sehr gutes Creative Commons

“Exposition” was one of my favorite stories in the collection, and some could argue that it doesn’t belong in this category.  It is from the perspective of a soldier/spy recording his recent arrest of a woman playing illegal piano music.  He talks about the intoxication of the music’s spell and how long it took him to arrest the performer, who was a woman named Sophia Speri, and the solider assumes knew that this was the “last concert of her career.” I love this story especially because of the guts, the singular darkness of the stage while she played, the trouble of secret invitations to a show that most knew would be interrupted.  Mostly, I love the mental image of a black room that can still almost imagine the black silk shine of the piano at the center of the stage.

“I swear to you that it does not.  You could chop us open from head to foot, you could pull our hearts from our chests, and you would not find the notes.”

Roadside Memorial // Wikipedia // Creative Commons

Roadside Memorial // Wikipedia // Creative Commons

“Cross” was about a musician, a one-time kiss that became a story, and a roadside cross.  I’d never thought about a roadside cross as an intrusion in a person’s life (specifically if they own the land and think plastic flowers are tacky) so I found the general plot of this one inventive.  The last story in the collection (and this category) features one woman who was living a lie without knowing it, and another woman who has drowned a truth with lies she tells herself.  The neighbor woman (who is Jewish) is married to a Nazi collaborator (Hungarian police I believe) and the woman who has been lied to is shocked by this knowledge, as was I, as I read.  I think I actually, literally, gasped, by the pool and my boyfriend gave me this look, but I couldn’t even say it aloud.

“Well, there were signs like crosses and runes and totems, and then there were the signs of the body.  Those ones didn’t play fair, didn’t sit on your lawn and wait for interpretation.”

The concept of “Acolyte” is FANTASTIC.  A grandmother who paints the faces of young women with stage makeup to make them look older in the dusk, so young, male soldiers don’t bother them in the street.  I will read this story ALL DAY.  #playlikeagirl

2 | Stories where I wanted a novel

  1. “The Singing Women”
  2. “The Miracle Years at Little Fork”
  3. “Other Brands of Poison (First Legend)”
  4. “Good Saint Anthony Come Around”

I believe in salvaging the voices of those about to be lost.  I found myself connecting with most stories on Story Corp.  I find other people’s letters fascinating. And if I could read every diary of every fourteen year old girl from this year, I would take it as an honor.  That’s why I felt specifically tuned in with “The Singing Women,” the first story in the collection.  A music producer goes to the land that his father had fled and records three women speaking and singing in their dialect.  A dictator gets wind of the recordings, as dictators most often do (because art can almost never be done in secret, it begs for light), and sends his men to kill the women.  However, the reader doesn’t actually get to experience the killing, the lives of the women before or after the recording, this is just a fable taste of the whole narrative.  I want to know these women, I want to hear their endangered language, their songs of lamentation, their bellows from the corner of a garden.

"Jumbo" // Wikipedia // Creative Commons

“Jumbo” // Wikipedia // Creative Commons

A circus story, unless The Night Circus or Water for Elephants, okay, unless it’s in novel form, will always be my favorite. “The Miracle Years at Little Fork” might be my favorite story in the collection because it had everything; pregnant girls who must live in a Catholic sanctuary to birth a child that will be given away to a couple two doors down, completely unpredictable weather, a dead elephant.  This was the closest Makkai came to magical realism, I think, in this book.  Not that she was trying for that, but she hints at it with this story.  Plus, the priest is just a likable character even though he questions his own faith.  In fact, I liked the people of the town so much, I wouldn’t mind seeing them all again in a larger work.

When someone is fooled with writing ink, I’m down for the story. (And I want the whole thing).

“Good Saint Anthony Come Around” has an end twist that would have just knocked my butt out in a novel, but in a short story it was just a quick intake of breath and a, “fast, turn the page.”  It’s the story of a man’s battle with aids, and his partner’s good luck, and both their acts as mentor and artist.  I think this story had so much more to it than what could fit in a short story, but maybe it’s good as a short story because I can answer all of my own questions from the page.  I don’t know. I would read an entire book about these two people and all of their friends as well. Particularly, the list of “goners” that one of the “goners” was keeping at the time of her own drug-related death.

“It’s chilling, how you can spend years with someone and be left with only the smallest scraps. That sentence was one of my scraps.”

3 | Stories that are blatantly about war and music (and not personal wars, or cultural wars)

  1. “The Worst You Ever Feel”
  2. “The Briefcase”
  3. “Everything We Know About the Bomber”

Of these three stories, I could do without “The Worst You Ever Feel.”  Other than the violinist who was a prisoner of war, I had no fondness for the characters.  However, people on Goodreads claim that this is the star story of the collection, so it’s still readable.  “The Briefcase” is one of the longest stories in the collection and it talks about a prisoner who escapes a chain gang and takes over the life of the man that is captured to replace him, who leaves all his belongings on the street.  This story has a pretty good plot twist, but it was almost expected to end the way it did.  I can’t imagine just plucking someone off the street for a crime they didn’t commit and having them change their clothes and hook into a prison line.

War is insane.

“History was safer than the news, because there was no question of how it would end.”

Breaking News // Creative Commons

Breaking News // Creative Commons

“Everything We Know About the Bomber,” was really, really, really good.  It captured my thoughts on basically every serial killer that I’ve ever tried to research.  We all, as a media, want to know the tiny details of their upbringing, only to realize that they tell us nothing about why they did it, and even they themselves can’t sometimes explain their motives.  I was actually moved by this story because it was a take on how the news is portrayed in our 24/7 breaking news era, but also how we dissect people of mystery.

“We agree, collectively, that the amount of time we have devoted to studying his skull shape, lineage, caffeine intake, and psychiatric history is neither helpful nor tasteful.”

Birds as bad omens. // Creative Commons // Google // WBU

Birds as bad omens. // Creative Commons // Google // WBU

4 | Stories that don’t belong in this collection

  1. “Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart” because it’s predictable, boring, and obvious.  I don’t believe in placing stories for political correctness especially when the character’s sexuality have very little to do with the actual story which is just about two people who don’t belong, and on the spectrum of unbelongingness, how one is farther away than the other.
  2. “A Bird in the House (Third Legend)” because it was short, and pointless.  I get that she was going for the legend of omens, but it just didn’t quite get there.
  3. “Suspension: April 20, 1984,” I just don’t get you.

This collection took me a while to get through because as you can imagine a collection of stories about despair, or secrecy, or aftermath, can be quite dense, but it’s worth it.  I think for the amount of stories in this collection and the scope of how Makkai was able to look at war as a verb and not a noun, it is impeccable.


I don’t know how to talk about Charleston, so I come to this discussion with a list of books, and an open-heart.

“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.” George Washington Carver

Superbowl prompted students to discuss race relations. Link when you click picture.

Superbowl prompted students to discuss race relations. Link when you click picture.

In some ways, we all share the same history. Histories are interwoven.  No one person lives a solitary history, yet one person can claim a history as their own.  Historians have called it a quilt, a melting pot, a cycle, a river, a tree, a labyrinth, a pathway.  I’m not sure any of these have done it justice.  I almost want to call my idea of history a garden.  I believe this because in order for a garden to grow, it must grow together in the square patch it has been built.  However, one drought, one “bad apple,” one certain pesticide, one rodent, can ruin that small, homely-built wealth that’s trying to be cultivated.  And plants grow towards both light and voices.  They lean with the life that surrounds them.  If they’re given love, they’re watered, maybe even they listen to some soft classical; they thrive.

My own history is both wicked and profound.

At least two of my great-great-greats were confederate soldiers out of Georgia.  Few people could read in their homes. One may have owned slaves.

Slave House @ Boone Hall Plantation (Photo by Me)

Slave House @ Boone Hall Plantation (Photo by Me)

While I can’t understand this history from just looking at documents, I do understand that this part of history is a part of my garden of history.  My future existence depended on the people in that frame.  I do not know them, I can only see army medical records and dig at Louisiana State University for love letters, I do not know if they fought to keep slavery alive, if they believed in the hoopla of the Southern way, if they followed a religiously democratic majority, if their brothers were fighting and they took up arms, if the choice was their own. I can’t even speculate.

What I can say is that I will never be silent about this part of my history.

In a recent survey out of NY Mag, Sean McElwee makes the claim that millennials may be just as intolerant as the older generations, but because they believe that racism no longer exists (to an extent of noticeability) in America, that they have no need to discuss race and race relations.  In fact, Gene Demby, backed up this point on NPR this weekend by stating a few of the following statistics:

  • [In a discussion about millennials thinking a color blind world would be a better one] “most of those respondents said they also grew up in homes where they didn’t talk about race at all.”
  • “A big study from the Public Religion Research Institute from last year showed that three-quarters of white people had entirely white friend circles”
  • “…Because they’re not interacting nearly as much as we would like to think that people are these days.”
Slave House @ Boone Hall Plantation (Photo By Me)

Slave House @ Boone Hall Plantation (Photo By Me)

I use the they because while I’m a millennial by definition, I believe something entirely different than these surveys show.  I believe race should always be a discussion.  I know that I will never understand or know the struggle of raising a young black man.  I know that I will never be able to undo the fact that until the 1950s, African American people were not allowed to own houses, and were practically shunned from the business world.  When my best friend, who is mixed (and was called an Oreo by his white friends, and a boy who “acted white” by his black friends in high school) watched a Katy Perry video he nonchalantly said, “she’s so cute with her insistence on promoting black culture,” but then when Nicki Minaj does a similar pop anthem, with just as much ass as Katy Perry displays boob (weapons) it is hated by the critic community, and by white parents who would gladly buy Katy’s pop-pink album off the Target shelf.

If you asked Taylor Swift (who I adore) who invented twerking (as she – most purposefully I believe – placed an African American woman at the head of the twerking line as she crawls beneath their legs in “Shake it Off”) would she claim Miley Cyrus as the winner or acknowledge that New Orleans is the first place that the word was heard.

There are so few television shows about African American families that Deadline wrote an article claiming that the “Ethnic casting trend has hit its peak in 2015″ which I’m not sure is doing good by acknowledging the racial gap on television, while simultaneously using the word “ethnic” in a sentence which makes “ethnic” sound “non-american,” or “other.” The Daily Beast had to criticize Empire for showing blacks as criminals.  Pink is the New Blog wrote a whole blog on whether or not white audiences would watch Black*ish calling into question the idea that a white girl who may watch every single other Housewives of, will refuse to watch Atlanta because the show features only black castmates.

Let me tell you what though, NeNe Leaks can rule the world.

Confederate Flag outside of SC State House @ ABC News

Confederate Flag outside of SC State House @ ABC News

Diane Rehm discussed racism, the confederate flag, and gun violence in America, on one of her shows this past week and it was one of the most educational radio hours that I’ve heard in a long time (in general).  In the talks, it was determined that racism was not dead.  One man called in claiming the confederate flag was a deeply rooted part of his heritage as a Southerner.  However, this flag was used not once, but twice as a weapon of propaganda against African Americans.  The first time, as a symbol of the confederacy during the Civil War, which if the South would have won, the entire existence of the United States would have failed to be a union and who knows where we would be as a developed country.  Propoganda number two as a weapon against the Civil Rights Movement, popping up precisely after the horrifying deaths of the four Birmingham girls.  Finally, finally, after not one single Republican candidate was able to openly state that they believe the confederate flag should be removed from the South Carolina capitol, the Senate in SC has called for removing the flag.  They have a freaking confederate museum in Charleston anyway, just put the flag there.

But now, to me, this flag is a symbol of keeping a certain people down.  It’s a hateful reminder of a past that no one is trying to erase, but people are trying to overcome, to do better, to be understanding, to acknowledge the importance and the struggle of African Americans in American culture, but not further this struggle by flying a cloth of propaganda.

Woo, got a little political there, sorry.

What I’m trying to say with all these links, and facts, and things that probably only two people will get through, is that racism has not ended.  We can all, always do better.  I taught for the last three years in a predominately African-American school and I will continue to do this at my new school.  I can say honestly that I have loved my students regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, or views on the world.  They are growing, learning, and understanding.  I can honestly say that if a large black man is walking on my side of the road that I will not cross in fear, or in generalization, but I will wave and smile.

Does this mean that I don’t joke with my best friend Seth about black people time, or that he didn’t text me yesterday and tell me that USC is “100 years of white people money?” No, it doesn’t mean that.  I have work to do and I’m willing to acknowledge it, but I think it starts with a conversation.

Slave Mart Museum in Charleston (Photo by Me)

Slave Mart Museum in Charleston (Photo by Me)

I think about what happened in Charleston, and I can’t deny that I felt that the city was racist just on principal.  There’s a three-story Forever 21 on the curb of a street where cobblestones were laid by forced labor only one-hundred and fifty years ago.  The lack of respect that this city has for its rich history and heritage kind of made me sick, but what makes me sicker is that a twenty-one year old boy was convinced of white power from a computer screen.  What makes me the sickest is that he considered not killing those people because of their very kindness, a kindness that all races try to instill in their children and hope that it sticks, the way kindness is a honeysuckle stem.

In order to start the conversation (like those nine other paragraphs I just wrote weren’t heated starters), here are a few books in different categories that I believe really reach across racial gaps and made me look inside myself to see the ways that I needed to learn.

Adult Fiction:

  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

    Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

    Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison: If anything, just read the first chapter.  The phlegm disgust in your throat afterwards should teach you something.

  • Native Son – Richard Wright: I just think this has to be on the list. Period.
  • A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry: I never really understand the housing situation that faced African Americans across the US, but specifically Chicago in this play, until I read this book.  It has so many race relations, gender, relations, and just a group of characters that are working on discovering where they fit in a culture that is constantly trying to shove them into a hole.  Even within the family, there are relations that show how this discovery varies between genders, and varies between African-American cultural identity.
  • There Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston: In our school library, Zora Neale Hurstons biography was labeled “Ethnic Section” and wasn’t removed from this category until she was being given away in the front of the library.  I grabbed her up and kept the sticker because I think it’s important to see how ideas are changing and broadening.  Please just read this book if only because it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read and Zora Neale Hurston was a character of a human being who died in utter poverty with an unmarked grave until her work was rediscovered later after her death.
  • Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

    Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

    Toni Morrison in general.  Read everything the woman ever wrote.  When you’re finished, read Sula again.

  • Virgin Soul – Judy Juanita: This book is newer than most books on this list.  It tells the story of a woman in the 1960s Black Panther Movement.  She’s forced to the fringe of the movement due to her gender, but it’s a worthy read just for her interior struggle. It’s a good pairing with Malcolm X speeches.
  • Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck: I think the most important storyline in this book is between Lennie and Crooks, because Lennie is mentally-impaired and he shows nothing but adoration towards Crooks, yet the other members of the Steinbeck tribe looked on Crooks as an other, all those, you know, mentally-average people.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee: Because how can you discuss race without discussing this book.
  • Salvage the Bones – Jesmyn Ward: The most tension I’ve ever felt in a book.  The storms coming, the air is thick and ornery.
  • Othello: Every book list needs a Shakespeare.
  • White Teeth – Zadie Smith: Hated this book, love what it stands for, love Zadie Smith.

YA Lit:

  • Bluford Series - Paul Langan

    Bluford Series – Paul Langan

    Brown Girl Dreaming – Jacqueline Woodson: It’s poetry that’s real, and current, and just won a Newberry Medal.

  • Chains (Series) – Laurie Halse Anderson: It tells a story of slavery in a beautiful way.  Laurie Halse Anderson is the Taylor Swift of YA.  She can do no wrong in my eyes.
  • The Bluford Series – Paul Langan: My students would hate it if I made this list without this series on it.  They straight stole them off my bookshelf and devoured them.
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith: It’s one of my Mom’s favorites.

Nonfiction:

  • Black Boy – Richard Wright: This book literally hurt my heart.  It was so hard to read.  I would pick it up and read three pages and have to put it down. It took me WEEKS to read. Its importance in the discussion is outweighed by none.
  • A Lesson Before Dying - Ernest J. Gaines

    A Lesson Before Dying – Ernest J. Gaines

    A Lesson Before Dying – Ernest J. Gaines: I think this is nonfiction, but I’m not one hundred percent now that I think about it.  Ernest Gaines could sell you a car that doesn’t even work.  His writing is beautiful and meaningful and everything.

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander: Truth is sometimes hard to read, but it’s even harder when it’s not in the past and you’re living it.

Poetry:

  • The Essentials of Etheridge Knight

    The Essentials of Etheridge Knight

    The Essentials of Etheridge Knight– Etheridge Knight: Because he can tell you how he’s “feeling fucked up.”

  • Blood Dazzler – Patricia Smith: Because even if she just watched the news from her comfortable home to write this collection, the feeling is a damn hurricane in your soul.
  • Head Off and Split – Nikki Finney: It has nursery rhymes that you can’t even speak anymore after reading the poems.
  • Langston Hughes – Whether you’re young or your old.  He matters.
  • Lucille Clifton – Because she has the first hips that I ever wanted.
  • Copper Canyon - Countee Cullen

    Copper Sun – Countee Cullen

    Countee Cullen – This was the first poet that I ever used that had the n-word (and we say ninja in my classroom because I can’t handle much else) written on the page.

  • Claude McKay – His name might be the most used name in textbooks for American Lit (that or Whitman, and what does that tell you).
  • Natasha Tretheway – Poet Laureate 2012.

While I wish this battle was over, and I wish that each race in America, each race listed on the census and each person that has to bubble-in “other” and write their race out, was equal, I can’t actually say that and believe it. We have a world of work to do, and lucky for us, we have a lifetime, and the ability to teach the next generation.  There is always power in knowledge, power in forgiveness, and power in discussion.  Anyone who comes to my table with an open-mind, I will greet them likewise and we will begin both bare, and plain-spoken.


I Volunteer as Dampling.

Some little girls want to be veterinarians, some want to ride their bikes down the highest neighborhood slope faster than the boys, some imagine themselves as princesses in far off castles that they’ve only seen in pop-out books, most often, I wanted to be a mermaid.

And I still do.

And sometimes I even believe in them. I said this like it’s a secret, it’s definitely not.  It’s a well-known fact among my friends that I believe in mermaids, their pale tranquil skin against the cave black of deep sea.  I never really imagined them with webbed hands and feet, but now that I’ve inserted that into my mermaid fantasy – like one inserts a face into their end of the aisle husband fantasy – I feel that this must be true.

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

And thus, The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan.  All fantasy and fire, The Gracekeepers has been one of the most inventive, meaningful and smooth books that I’ve read this year.  I felt a bit enlightened. I felt a bit sick, in the Margaret Atwood way.  And I felt a bit better about how animals might be treated in the circus.

But this isn’t a normal circus, no, the Excalibur, the setting for most of the novel, is a circus made of soft shell boats (I imagine to look a bit like clams with pearls – glamours – inside) and a girl with a bear.  The girl with the bear, North, is one of the main characters in the book as the reader follows her hidden pregnancy through a map of the sea.  North is a dampling meaning that she’s lived her life on the water, she was born on the water, and is expected to stay in her class of water-dwellers.  The earth has (probably due to climate change, Senator Jim Inhofe) become mostly water – melted polar ice caps and such – and now the land is sacred, and rich.  Although, Kirsty Logan never explains the background of the world becoming this way, I like the ease of which this doesn’t bother me at all as a reader, and I can see our world collapsing into this “stay in your place” mentality.  I mean, history is one big cycle, right?

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

Trees are not meant to be harmed.

Water filth are not much allowed to go past the dunes.

Half-breeds are buried alive at the tree (think Pocahontas without the grandmother’s face).

Damplings even have their own burial sites in the middle of the ocean, close to the equator which is where Callanish comes in (names are perfectly created in this novel).  Callanish is a landlocker that has left-off her family’s land due to an “incident” and has become a gracekeeper.  She is mostly alone with her thoughts and the birds that are forced to die as symbols for the dead, anchored to leftovers in the middle of a misted ocean.

Callanish was my second favorite character because she was so dynamic and so many people in one woman. She had a one night stand with a man who wouldn’t leave, she mails feathers, she wears debutante gloves on every occasion outside of her dock, and she is unafraid to wear lingerie on a revival boat.  Of course the character with the most lost would be the most badass.

Callanish performs Restings, the burial rites of dumplings, at the equator.  At first, I thought her life of isolation was something she just accepted without cost, but as the book progresses, the reader learns that Callanish is serving time for something that she believes her single mother will just not forgive.  Instead, Callanish uses her charm to survive a journey back to her roots in order to determine what can be forgiven and what, forgotten.

North and her bear, I imagine.  I didn't quite imagine North would have a 1920s bob, but I can work with it.

North and her bear, I imagine. I didn’t quite imagine North would have a 1920s bob, but I can work with it.

There are other characters, my favorite being the ring leader, Red Gold, because he is one of the most giving characters in current dystopian literature.  He is practically ready to sell his soul to the idea that he can rescue all damsels in distress.  He’s loud and boisterous on stage, but quiet and contemplative behind the mouth of the sails.  I find his relationship with North to be a pivotal turn in the father/daughter relationships of literature (he is not her real father, but his care towards her is one that beckons him the title).  North, meanwhile, has worked for him for most of her life as the bear-girl, and is unafraid to little-spoon with the bear at her backside every night in the soft given sheets of her clam nest.  She is protective of him as her secret-keeper, and waltzes with him on stage every evening.

This book is one of fantasy, which could easily fit into the vein of young adult or adult fiction.  I loathed Night Circus, but I imagine readers who fancied that book for more than just the cliche relationship, might like The Gracekeepers for its lack of cliche relationships.  Gracekeepers also establishes the relationship between two women as the most powerful a woman can have, which as a 3-5 pm everyday after school Sex & The City viewer, I believe this is truth.

Book Map, every reader loves a book with a map.

Book Map, every reader loves a book with a map.

I found that this book pushed the reader along its own current without stopping for the reader’s needs, but leaving a pinch of anxiety throughout.  I forever worried that the bear would be killed by the tragic, skinny-bitch wife of Red Gold.  And even on the ending of the book, I wanted to go for round two.  I do hope that this will turn into a series based on reader demands, or commenting too much on Kirsty Logan’s instagram page (yes, she has one, find it and request a sequel).

I did feel a bit towards the end that this was two stories that weren’t going to gel together, and I feel like it went on a little too long, I could have dealt without the revival boat.  I do have an inkling though that Logan used the revival boat with purpose (its giant Mary – mother of Jesus – sail crested on the side of the boat was enough to keep me interested because of course in dystopia, there are still religious fanatics).  I think she might be gearing up to use the revival boats more in the next book, at least … there better be a next book.

This is a great summer beach read, for a landlocker, or a dampling that finds herself most secure when she’s diving head first into the salt of an ocean wave.

 


Hot Glue for the Cracks

Let’s go through a list of things I love:

1. poetry
2. young adult fiction that is not dumbed-down
3. Flux publishing
4. Publishing houses that have tumblrs.
5. Moped(ing) … at least it’s on my bucket list.
6. Stephanie Lyons and how she starts her Goodreads bio with “Most days I’m 17.”
7. Girls in books who date boys that are seriously wrong for them, but spark. Because, I’ve been there.

Dating Down by Stefanie Lyons

Dating Down by Stefanie Lyons

Somehow, I just didn’t get what I need from Dating Down.  There were moments when I thought, “awh, yes, we’ve arrived, finally,” but then they would be fizzled out with useless lines of poetry that should have never been poetry.

Let’s start there.  I think when an author writes a novel that is usually written in prose (YA) and writes it in verse, it has to be for a very delicate reason.  It has to have the strength of specifically chosen words that are arranged in a way to move the reader through the line, but stop them at each end stop, each brief indent of white space.  If a novelist writes a book in verse just because, just because it’s new, just because it’s in fashion, just because it seems fun, just because occasionally she wants to rhyme a line, this cannot be.  A novel should be written in verse only when it must be written in verse.  It must have less words.  It must have words chosen not from a bucket of synonyms, but from an unscathed thimble.  I do not believe that Stefanie Lyons proved, for the first critique of this book, that it needed to be written in verse.

And I was pumped about this.  A YA novel written in verse about a girl making a poor relationship choice while all her friends watch from the sidelines as she loses herself in his poorly timed and cliche lines.  The story isn’t new. And neither is the verse.

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 8.53.40 PM

Bro Meme @ chunkr

At times I literally said aloud, “What was that shit?” because a line was so frustratingly already “prosed-out” (kind of like “bro’ed-out frat guys but with words that should be in sentences) that I was confused and at a point of book-throwable.

That wasn’t the only problem I had with this book.  It’s a story line that’s been done four thousand and eighty-seven times (to be exact) and if a writer can’t make it new, just don’t.

STOP.

Staaaaaaahhhhp it.

Meme @ Uratex

Meme @ Uratex

This is the quintessential teenage love story.  Throw in some drugs. Throw in a side hoe.  Throw in a few lessons that make girls realize what they should look for in the next guy, only to make this exact same “choosing the bad boy” mistake about four more times before she’s officially grown out of it, and even then, she probably marries a guy who rides a motorcycle, or screams fuck really loud every time he drives through a tunnel or over a bridge, or steals pencils from Target because the pack was already opened, someone already opened it.

Basically, the story of this book.

Basically, the story of this book.

Basically, here’s the lesson.  My Mom taught it to me, and I chose not to listen, which is exactly what my mother did, and my grandmother before her, and my great-grandmother before her, and my great-great grandmother, and so on and so forth back to the time when my father’s family were Kings and Queens of Denmark and my daughter will probably disregard it until she’s twenty-four and realizes her worth.

And this is the one thing that Stefanie Lyons gets right in this story.  The gut feeling.  All girls have it, all girls choose to ignore it, all girls get seven months, four years, twenty-two days down the line and realize that all those gushy feelings they were feeling should have been trumped by the one gut feeling that said RUN. or said HM. or made you start a sentence in your diary with “I’m just not sure…” or “I wonder if he…” or “Maybe…” then you probably should have listened to that gut feeling that just feels like a slight drain leak instead of those humming butterflies.

Image @ dawngrant.com

Image @ dawngrant.com

In the section “Cracks, Pt. II” Lyons conveys this gut feeling spot-on from the girl perspective.  This is the point in the book when you want to just shake her, but you can’t because she’s a naughty book character, so shake your friends who do the same thing.

Cracks, Pt. II

We roll down the street
bouncing along
split-open car seats
slightly ripped vinyl
coils and springs
years and years of people
in the passenger’s seat.

How many girls have sat here with him? Jessica?

Each bump
every pothole
lively swerve
sharp turn
seems my seat might eject me.

Another bump, another girl?

Suddenly, so insecure I never used to be like this
with Ted or with myself.
Is this what love is?
A jerky jagged jumpy ride?

music.gearlive.com Courtney Love is planning a film about Kurt Cobain's life.

music.gearlive.com
Courtney Love is planning a film about Kurt Cobain’s life.

If you can name a particular girl in relation to your man. RUN. If he picks you up with cracked seats and the entire car ride you think love is a “jumpy ride” or you explain your love as a “roller coaster of emotions,” you’re either still in high school, Courtney-Love-Throw-Plates-At-Kurt insane, or you need to RUN. Run your leggings off.  Run even though you’ve given him what your Christian parents told you girls shouldn’t do if they’re not married.  Run even if he says all the right things in that sweet spot of air between his lips and the shell of your ear.  Run if other people are telling you he’s no good, all of the other people. Run if you’re fighting for your love against an army of haters.  (Hint, it ain’t the haters).

Lyons gets this high school feeling. The feeling is spot on.  And that feeling is precisely why we read books.  We think about our Brandon’s, our Justin’s, our Steven’s, our Oh-Jesus-if-I-would-have-ended-up-with-hims.  And we enjoy ourselves.   That’s what this book is.  It’s an enjoyable little diddy on why girls can’t be on top of the world because we’re stuck up in all our feelings about boys, and hair flips, and ab muscles, and whether or not they’re really bad enough.

Damn, we need to hot glue the cracks.

 


Take it on, Hold Your Own.

These poems are for the in-betweeners. The Tiresias’. The sometimes, but. The now, and the then, but not until right now.

Somehow, and in the most beautiful verse, Kate Tempest in Hold Your Own weaves the story of all her separate lives into the myth of Tiresias, the blind prophet that lived both as a man and a woman after seeing mating snakes. She goes through the stages of her life thus far (she’s only thirty) through three sections; childhood, womanhood, manhood, and blind profit (which for me is the peanut butter, paying bills, adulthood section of the book).  It very much reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I could not stop for Death (479)” with the lines:

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –  
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –  
We passed the Setting Sun – 

Vanity Fair cover of Caitlyn Jenner by Annie Lebowitz.

Not only does Tempest recognize the stages of life, but it’s very clear that she has felt, at times, out of her own body, and unrecognizable to her self based on the gender divides of our society. This book incredibly explores the way our society (first world, democratic societies) categorize things as opposites and then “an other.” I imagine Kate Tempest rolling her eyes at what I’m about to say, but I found this book oddly well-timed for me because of the Caitlyn Jenner transformation. In their life, Bruce and Caitlyn Jenner will have lived two separate lives, a modern day Tiresias for the masses.  And through this, Jenner will more than likely get insight into the way both genders are viewed in society giving him superior sight, much like the blind prophet who knew Odysseus before even drinking the sacrificial blood, his second sight was so strong even in death.

In my eyes sexuality and gender are separate entities.  I also believe in the idea that both salve their own spectrum where the extremes are on both ends and everyone else falls somewhere in the middle.  I believe that society has “ideals” for both men and women that usually become stereotypes at some point in any cultural history … but, I believe truly people are a mix of many gender ideas and a mix of many sexuality ideas and in a perfect world, there would be no categories and people would be free to test these different sides of themselves and find their true “belonging” of their soul and body.

(Soap box over).

Picador poetry tour flyer for Kate Tempest with ATC Management

Picador poetry tour flyer for Kate Tempest with ATC Management

With only knowing her verse, I can’t say what Tempest believes, but I can say that she explores this gender identity in the most beautiful and human way.  With lines like the following:

“The best boys would feel like a lady in your arms.
The best girls would fuck like a man, given half the chance.
The good ones are good ones because they are whole ones.
We’re at our best when we mean it.
We all start part of a much bigger notion.
And lock ourselves down like we don’t have a say. [Man Down, 81-82]

Tiresias as a woman with the intertwined snakes (Creative Commons – Wikipedia)

Another poem in the collection “The woman the boy became” explores the discovery of gender and how it teaches us, whether wrong or right, our role.  In the following lines, I thought about a student who came to my room and paced for twenty minutes saying, “I don’t know how I’m going to tell you this.  I don’t think I can tell you this.  I don’t know how you’re going to react.”  It was one of those moments that I imagine all mother’s fear, a daughter, stomach not yet bulging from the light bulb lit within from some boy who ‘didn’t mean anything, Mom, I swear.’ But it wasn’t that at all.  She said, “I like a girl. I like a girl, Ms. M. I like boys too, though. But I’m going to hell aren’t I? I can’t tell my Dad.  But she’s so cute. I like a girl.”

The portrait of Kate Tempest on the back of the book.

And I was immediately sad and jovial.  As her teacher, all the things I wasn’t allowed to say, but as her mentor, all the ways I just wanted to hug her and tell her that we only get one of these little life things, and she has to make herself proud, she has to manage her own worth.

I wish yesterday, at that moment, I had these lines:

“Growing is what anyone would do.
Given the particulars
She knew what she knew
She was ridiculous.
Born too smart and too dumb.
Born to hold the world under her tongue.

Don’t swallow yet.

She felt

All the things that others didn’t feel,
Of if they did,
They did a lot to conceal what the feelings were. [The woman the boy became, 45-49]

There were poems in the collection that I knew I could read with my students and lines that I had to read to my boyfriend, and small points that made me discover my own truth, like:

“Give her a face that is kind, that belongs
To a woman you know
Who is strong
And believes in the rightness of doing things wrong.

Give her a body that breathes deep at night
That is warm and unending; as total as light.

Let her live.”

And later in that same poem:

She grew expert in the field
of love
She learned to see and feel
The deepest secrets lurking in
The hearts of those who came to swim
In her dark waters.
She knew things.
She knew Kings.
And she bore daughters.
She knew love, she made her fortune.
Till she met her match.
Exhaustion.”

Kate Tempest Portrait in The Guardian (2014)

Those lines are from the opening poem which can reach any single person at any single time, it’s called Tiresias. This poem also shows Tempest’s way with language. She finagles the sounds through enjambment and unexpected rhyme. I was particularly excited to see a working sestina in the collection because I thought that was a dead trade, left at sea. (Bringing it back!). I’m sure this comes from her beginnings as a rapper in Britain.

My boyfriend went on a Facebook rant yesterday about word play in rap lyrics and how repeating “Shower Me With Money” in a song called “Money Shower” wasn’t hip hop. (I just had to ask him from the other room if I could interchange the words rap and hip hop, he’s much more knowledgable about music than I am). And his friend replied with “incredible lyrics and word play are not easily digested by the masses.”  While I know this is true, but I hope that it’s not, I believe Kate Tempest’s rhythm and blues should be experienced by the masses.

Here’s a stanza that I penciled for rhythm:

“She turns and retreats.
Finds herself deep
In the smog and the heat,
The fog and the meat
Of the bodies that beat out their lives
In the throb of the street.
She learns to be small and discreet.
She learns to be thankful for all that she eats.
She learns how to smile
without meaning an inch of it.
She learns how to swim in the stink
And not sink in it.
It’s as if this is all she has known” [opening poem, 5]

In the poem “For my niece” she says:

“No flower bends its head to offer
teaching to a seed.

The seed will grow and blossom
once the flower’s ground to dust.

But even so, if nothing else,
one thing I’ll entrust:

Doing what you please
is not the same

as doing what you must.”

Sculpture in bronze and marble of Tiresias by Ralph Brown. Click Image for link.

I realize that I haven’t really posted any lines from the manhood section, but it’s just as good, and moving, and reaching, and traces the human history, as the womanhood section.  I read this entire collection in one sitting because it was speaking on every page.  Ideas in the middle of pulse and throb. Constant.  And it was exciting.  There wasn’t a train moment, a dull chug, it was more a poke and prod.  Take it on, Hold Your Own.

If nothing else, her poem Brand New Ancients won the Ted Hughes Award for Poetry in 2013 which makes her the closest 21st century poet to Sylvia Plath.  Since their both directly connected to the asshole that is, Ted Hughes.


This Isn’t “Chick Lit” Because “Chick Lit” Shouldn’t Be a Thing….Ever.

The Shore by Sara Taylor (Bailey Prize Winner)

Today, I will ask you to preorder The Shore by Sara Taylor (Bailey Prize Longlist  2015).

In three days, you will have a sea scape of time in your hands in the form of a book.

It will take you across generations, through twisted murders, plots of revenge by medicine woman, how women are courted two-hundred years from now after a sexually transmitted disease will act as population control, beg questions to women raised on the dotted line between high society and marshland due to their coloring, and ask the reader to fill in how a game of poker that becomes a dual rape and then becomes a marriage can produce children that are capable of knocking on the doors of strangers and explaining themselves.

“Plot Twist” Image (Creative Commons)

Plot Twist Image (Creative Commons)This book is incredible. And although all the strings are not tied neatly with a bow by the end, just the act of having to answer the questions posed for myself was a book on its own.   By the first chapter, I was hooked.  The plot twist at the end of chapter one was enough to have me begging the universe for a chance to read before falling asleep flatly in bed.  There’s so many strong women in this book, and not just strong because of their own intuition, but strong in the face of dirty hands.  One of my students wrote an excellent slam poem this week, I wish I could share it all, but in it she says the following, “I was in the tenth grade when I realized I was a little too sensitive.  That I didn’t need to cover my mouth when I laugh. Or agree with people who throw dirt on my name, because I now understand that those are the people with dirty hands and it will take more than just soap and water to fix the mess they have now made of themselves.”

Photo by Micah Taylor, Creative Commons

There are people who will always be against women.  They are the ones who only find strength in those who can lift cars, and not those who can lift hearts.  This book is an argument against those people.  It is words in a fictional universe that can debate those who don’t believe in equality among sexes.

“Chick Lit” (Creative Commons) Found @ chacha.com

“Chick Lit” (Creative Commons) Found @ chacha.comSometimes, as women, we get stuck between the place called “women’s fiction” and that place called “chick lit.”  I really believe that the Bailey Prize (once the Orange Prize) is trying to adjust this slim shadow area where women are allowed to reside in fiction.  There is just no place to rest in that crack on the shelf.  Most people who read this blog do so because they have read a book that has changed them, made them view the other in new light, made them remove themselves from the shadows and step into their own golden flare, or read just simply to exist in a place that goes beyond their reality, I believe that women’s fiction deserves this sort of place.  I believe it can fit on any shelf.  I believe women have gone voiceless for many centuries and their time is just now beginning to sprout in fiction.  I even believe, the blasphemous heathen that I am, that some famous “anonymous” writers or even writers that we praise for being so unadulteratedly manly, owned a coin purse (if you know what I mean by that).

Finished this morning

Finished this morning

The fact is, that women’s history hasn’t yet been fully told. It has not reached the deep cave of the mouth to be heard beyond a few whispered shuffles of polite feet behind armed men.

But this book.  This book will break barriers and do so with small chunks of women’s lives.  A moment, a pill of memoir (although fiction, but feels true in the carat that I keep my own womanhood) for each generation in a family that went silent to men until the last possible second.  Even in the end, there is a character named Sally.  In the beginning of the book, her grandfather gives the ultimatum to her and her brother, that one must stay on the island and take care of the shore house, one must remain distant from the mainland and focus their goals on maintaining a house that was never theres to begin with.  Who must that be? The girl of course.  The woman shoved on a shelf between pink covers and Water for Elephants.  This book says girls have been stuck for too long.

Window Seat Reading

Window Seat Reading

Girls can render guns.
Girls can steal the things that build their father’s up.
Girls can fiercely protect.
Girls can stay behind and build bigger.
Girls can leave the island.
Girls can choose not to marry.
Girls can use herbs to preserve the original foundations of their bodies until a time when they want to use them as vessels.
Girls can learn a history of the other powerful girls behind them.
Girls can be leaders, not led.

I have no other real way to proceed with this review.  This book is so hard to tie down like the women within it.  There are so many stories and they have all stuck, or pieces of them, and organizing them into some logical progression is beyond my ability.  I will warn you that for the first four or five chapters you will be trying to place the women on where they fall in the genealogical line. But don’t. It will come out in the wash.  The blues of it will run clear.

 

 


A Come Of Age Time Capsule

“I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them/
then blow gently,
watch them float
right out of my hands.”

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is an oration to the art of writing, the idea that writing is something inherent and must be done because stories will not just tighten around us like a belt, they will nag until they are told.  Brown Girl Dreaming is a seance to the old south, the South that had rules and regulations that were never discussed over polite dinner conversation, but posted like shouts over bathrooms, water fountains, bus seats left written-wordless.  And it is original in that it is a voice to the old (south) house through the eyes of a child that is now old enough to understand her childish notions.

“I do not know yet
how sometimes the earth makes a promise
it can never keep.  Tobacco fields
lay fallow, crops picked clean.
My grandfather coughs again
and the earth waits

for what and who it will get in return.”

southadamstreet1900.wordpress.com by image July, 1914 case against the Forum Theater owner AM Renne’s segregated seating. (Creative Commons)

I just don’t know what to say about this book.  It’s a perfect time capsule of childhood seeded in history.  We are living in history every moment of our life, even if it’s not necessarily happening to us personally (or it doesn’t feel that way).  Right now, I feel like I’m living the debate for marriage equality (which I believe in all equality in all ways), but I’m watching the treatment of LGBTQ people be questioned, be acknowledged, and be studied for understanding.

teflequityadvocates.com Search by image Photo under Creative Commons from: https://flic.kr/p/

In Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson shows the juxtaposition between Greenville, South Carolina, living with her grandparents who had a heavy hand in raising her, and New York where her mother kept her and her siblings until summer time.  She not only captures my current south extraordinarily; honeysuckles for taste, door-to-door ‘good news’, people who are the salt of the earth, and dusk porch talk, but she also credits the south with deep racism that remained long after the law accepted equality.  For instance, she tells stories about riding in the back of the bus with her mother, and only riding at night, swiftly through the expanse of crops to the city of “looking up.”

Jacqueline Woodson Jacqueline Woodson was born on February 12, 1963 in Columbus, Ohio. She was raised and educated in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York.

Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson was born on February 12, 1963 in Columbus, Ohio. She was raised and educated in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York.

At one point in the story, she captures my childhood of lying and storytelling so well that I stopped reading and tapped my boyfriend, “This, this here, this captures how I felt as a child, this is it. This book, it has me.”

“I am not smart like Dell so I watch her press
the silver moons into her ears
I say, I know a girl ten times as smarter than her.  She gets diamonds every time she gets a hundred on a test.
And Robert looks at me, his dark eyes smiling, asks
Is that something you made up? Or something real?
In my own head,
it’s real as anything.

In my head
all kinds of people are doing all kinds of things.
I want to tell him this, that
the world we’re living in right here in Bushwick isn’t
the only place.”

Lie Creative Commons

My mom tells stories about my childhood lies.  I lied compulsively until seventh grade when I learned that you can’t lie or you get kicked out of the lunch table with all the popular girls, and their blonde highlights, and cheerleading pleats.  Until then, I made up all kinds of things – where my siblings were going to college (had they even?), why I needed a little bit more money, where Toe Jam comes from, I probably could have catfished on Myspace before cat fishing was even an MTV thing.  I was intense. It’s because I had stories, and they wounded me from living in a reality where regular everyday just didn’t seem as wonderful as the things I could make seem true.  This is the same for Woodson.  She spoke untruths because she wanted to write the truths for characters.

And she did.

Creative Commons National Book Award

She wrote the truth of the South in a middle grades, National Award Winner.  I would pay to have this book printed for every single student I’ve taught the last three years.  It’s pure magic in that it tells a story that is so electrifying, but in the voice of a child, and in the form of poetry.  It takes all the scare out of poetry.  It has meaning, it has rhythm, it has purpose, but it doesn’t cause fear over whether or not the reader will be able to understand.

Woodson’s poetics work so well.  There are clear shifts in most of the poem sequences, and there are repetitive smaller poems (How to Listen series) throughout the book that remind the reader of Woodson’s lessons for herself, and her reader, and the future.  I’m amazed at what she was able to do in this book and I’m so excited about the future of young adult publishing after reading this.  Sometimes I don’t pursue young adult literature because I feel that it can be “dumbed down” when it shouldn’t be.  It should be just as well-written and meaningful as adult fiction is, but that’s not always the case.  With Woodson’s collection of moment-poems in her childhood, I am confident that young adults can attach to this narrator, her story, and the story of their history through her child’s eyes.

One of my favorite resources for teaching. And such a great message.

This is a beautiful, and fresh, telling of the Southern register in history, as well as the classic tale of coming of age for a girl who isn’t sure who or what she wants to, or should be.  I know that that is a concept that crosses all races, all genders, all sexualities, and all cultures.  Who will we be? And when will we get there? This story answers that question in one of the best ways that I’ve seen.  Be you, and arrest any idea that goes against that.


The BEST Best New Poets

I’m bias.

Best New Poets 2014

Best New Poets 2014

Dorianne Laux was my professor for advanced poetry (3 times because I’m an overachiever) in college and so any poems that she chooses, I will probably prefer as well.

Even so, I found that this poetry collection was a really wonderful “sign of the times.” Cue Ace of Base here for the beats.  There are poems about the future, NASA, the metric system, first person confessional via metaphor, black girls, black girls who riot, guns, gun rights, holiday season (late fall edition), the words of grandparents, reasons why we can’t sleep at night, orgasms (female form), the blood vessels of a mother doing the exact opposite of developing cancer, the nature vs. nurture of marriage, burial rights, rights of passage, writes of passage, a girl in the middle of a night viewfinder on a sniper, the idea that fields grow up, whispers from the earth’s heart.

Estetinė visuomenės saviraiška chorinio meno procese: ANKSTYVASIS CHORINIS SINKRETIZMAS (Creative Commons)

Estetinė visuomenės saviraiška chorinio meno procese: ANKSTYVASIS CHORINIS SINKRETIZMAS (Creative Commons)

If I haven’t exhausted a list on the life that we lead (as a collective American whole) then I’m not sure what else would need to be added.  This just proves that poetry really is the chorus of the human world.  In Greek and Roman dramas, the chorus might seem to a modern reader like a break to the play’s action, but truly the chorus is the mirror of the play.  The chorus is the way that we look at the characters through the lens of a collective whole, a society, a viewpoint that’s beyond just being an audience member, but instead a participant.  That is poetry.

Coin Vortex Funnel Spiral Wishing Well-Great For Charities & Fundraiser

Coin Vortex Funnel Spiral Wishing Well-Great For Charities & Fundraiser

Poetry is a place where the voice can circle like a penny in a whirlpool wishing well (at the children’s museum of my childhood).  It causes vibrations, but rises only to the sound of a whisper, or the thwack of a fist against wood.  There is a voice through poetry that can’t be told through fiction, or any other source.  It must be stated with fewer, but more specific words, and the author must hold several cold glasses at once, a juggler of words and sounds.  Poets are beautiful, and broken, and the sounds they make seem like a thimble, but work like a thunder streak.

And this is why I so loved this collection.  It was such a story of our world in 2014.  I had many favorite poems.

Nightstick (Creative Commons)

Nightstick (Creative Commons)

One of my favorite in the news poems was “Nightstick” by Joy Priest (8).  In this poem a nightstick becomes a character and in the life of the young Kentucky girl who is “a Black girl, but don’t know.” I found this poem impossible to not ingest with the rebellions (some say riots) happening all over cities that are facing both class system stereotypes and race stereotypes.  Right now, the hot news is Baltimore, a city where years of pent up anger (in my opinion) has been unleashed on a CVS.  I’m a little bias to the side of the Baltimoreans because I teach those children in my classrooms everyday.   In fact, I’m going to be using this poem with my students to analyze the use of the nightstick as a tool to get at that voice that has been perpetually silenced in history.  This is a poem of protest.  A poem of emotional carry-ons.  A poem for my students who have never once used “your” and almost always use “you.”

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 7.37.33 PMAnother poem I starred was “Anaphora as Coping Mechanism” by Ocean Vuong.  I’m not sure why.  It’s a sort of prosy structure and I think Vuong gets the closest that I’ve seen (after Larry Levis) to the reaction of death.  There’s the psychologists seven steps of grief, and then there’s Vuong’s “Your tongue is a lit match.” The even though and the afterwards.  The continuous, sometimes monotonous circle of death, as if the person keeps dying in every place that they are not.  This is captured elegantly, but with a certain rawness that I just loved.

“In Allepo” by Daniel Bohnhorst gains honorable mention for giving the side of Syrians through the eyes of a little girl nightmaring through hope.  I could feel her search in my chest.  It’s a really strong glimpse into “the other,” and I appreciate that in my poetry.

Dorianne Laux, Guest Editor

Dorianne Laux, Guest Editor

My most favorite poem in the collection was “Life on Earth” by Amanda Jane McConnon. It made me feel like I wasn’t just a speck in the grand history of things, which isn’t a feeling I usually feel because us humans we always think we’re leading some very important life filled with very important things and our religious values (majority of the party) tell us that we are so loved, so vital. Really, we’re sand (with brains).  This poem though, makes me remember I’m something, a fleck of gold, but something.

This is just a highlight of the goodness in this hot pink poetry collection. If I haven’t yet sold you, here are a few of my favorite lines from a randomly selected group of poems:

Our guns softly touch their bark, / barrels quiet white with failure. It was morning. – “My Father Named the Trees” by C.L. O’Dell

Night stains the bookshelves. The moon, / white and swallowed. – “Peter” by Peter LaBerge

They knew routine and pattern; they did what they were told by instinct / what to do, / just like the sheets that have always made certain shapes when hit by / the wind, / a series of wings naming the thing that unfolds inside me. – “Leavings That Change the Future” by Erin J. Mullikin

Or maybe it’s the taboo allure of the island women, / of the luxury of fooling them / into thinking his body, / even after a decade of fighting, / is still as whole as it was in Ithaca. – “Erasures” by Rosanna Oh


“A Pretty Stem Bowed Down from Neck to Bloom”

– A line from a poem I wrote when challenged by my creative writing students to participate in writing a ghazal with them.

“It couldn’t be fair to punish people for trying to get by, people who were good by their own lights, when it took all the courage they had to be good” (259, Robinson).

Sometimes it’s really hard to love my students.  Sometimes I need a constant reminder to be their champion.  It was especially hard last week after having a conversation with a child so bright that the earth could tilt the other way if she just knew how to get it spinning on her fingertip.

The day before we had been having a conversation about her goals and about how she couldn’t write essays on things that bored her (i.e. The characters in A Raisin in the Sun).  She had told me that her future job would “be fun” because she “got to work with bodies and such.”  We talked about what it meant to be a doctor and what a proud profession it would be. The next day, she refused to do ten vocabulary in context questions.  I immediately rode in with “You know to be a doctor, you’re going to have to determine, figure out, and use in real-life situations, thousands of words that you never even knew existed, with roots that span centuries of language.”  (It was probably less eloquent than that).  I was not a knight that day, I was letting the knife shave at my thread of hope.

She said, “I don’t want to be a doctor,” immediately, with head shaking and an imagined finger snap.

“A nurse then?”

“No, neither. I don’t want either of those things.  I could just as easily live off of the government.”

I didn’t have the right words to respond to this so I moved on to the next child with their hand up and watched as she worked out the meanings of the words based on the synonyms or antonyms or just clues in the sentence and life moved on, as it does.

But it frightens me.  Because there are days where my sympathy is worn out for their ideas about the world.  It’s not fair to judge them for this as they’ve only seen a small kernel of yellow daisies along a highway, and watched as the kids who can afford polos can afford college, and the kids who don’t get to choose a latchkey become Carolina red dust before someone can even sigh at their poorness.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

And then I came to Lila by Marilynne Robinson.  And for some reason every time I open a Marilynne Robinson book I immediately want to hate it, but I also know that I must finish it because the answers won’t come unless it is done.  I read somewhere that it was a like a triple crown winner of the publishing world, critics hoped it would win both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize (it didn’t, but it was expected).  The last thing I read by her was Housekeeping and I wasn’t the same after coming around it.  Robinson writes books that must be chewed on slowly, and then stewed about for a few days until the full expanse of what just happened to you can come alive and you can feel something.

This was not the case with Lila, I felt it precisely.

Lila is the story of Lila Dahl and her upbringing as a traveling (maybe migrant worker) in a group of lost causes after she is stolen from her family by a woman named Doll. Doll does her best to take care of Lila and throughout the book, Lila is eternally grateful (if she believed in eternity) towards Doll although the reader finds that Doll has pockmarks on her character, as does Lila.

That’s actually not even right.

Lila is the tramp of society, always on the fringes, the person you see in church but whisper about their ripped jeans at a Sunday service.  She is always coming out of the rain.  She is never accepted, or rarely.  And the people she travels with will have dirt under their nails, and a hunger that goes beyond bellies.  My grandmother would call them “unsavory.”  But she’s beautiful, and worldly, and conscious of the way her words work so she listens rather than speaks.  She’s curious and smart, and a bulb of good fortune to the people that meet her even though in her growing she knows nothing about the expectations of the Christian God.  She’s just genuinely good, and it isn’t often that this character pages up in literature, but I’m thankful I was able to read her grace on the page in this moment of my life.

I talk a lot about the way books come to me and about the way that I believe timing in books, like love, is everything.  Sometimes they come like a tiny children’s chime in a large choir, and sometimes they come like an old cartoon anvil.  I’m not sure how Lila came to me, but I needed her.

Allsbrook, W. (2014). Lila (New York Times)  [Drawing]. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/books/review/lila-by-marilynne-robinson.html?_r=0

Allsbrook, W. (2014). Lila (New York Times) [Drawing].
Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/books/review/lila-by-marilynne-robinson.html?_r=0

This book is also a love story between an old preacher and a lost girl.  It’s an adult Peter Pan story almost.  Reverend Ames makes eye contact with Lila in the last pew, and although it seems unlikely, their love is nestled between the hair of a gap where her head nuzzles his shoulder.  The entire story the reader wonders if Lila will do as she daydreams and leave the Reverend, go back to the shack in the woods where she’s left a sharpened knife and a few half eaten dandelions.  I think the reader knows the whole time that with this kind of love story, there is almost nothing to wonder about.

“And her life was just written all over her, she knew it without looking, because that’s how it was with all the women she used to know.  And somehow she found her way to the one man on earth who didn’t see it or maybe he saw it the way he did because she had read that parable, or poem, or whatever it was” (223, Robinson).

I am amazed at how Marilynne Robinson can make a story in the mind of just two or three characters, with barely any plot in the present tense and it move me the way pine needles bustle in heavy wind.  Lila is my students, Lila is anyone who has ever felt in just one instance that their whole life has just been one big kitchen sweep, Lila is me.

“I got feelings I don’t know the names for.  There probly ain’t any names.  Probly nobody else ever had ’em” (183, Robinson).

Rich fictional technique: Marilynne Robinson  Photo: Ulf Andersen @ Telegraph

Rich fictional technique: Marilynne Robinson Photo: Ulf Andersen @ Telegraph

And the Reverend is every man a woman might want to fall in love with.  He comforts in times of comforting.  He takes a few days after listening to Lila’s curiosities to think them over and then deliberately makes time to talk through them, without answering outright, but actually whispering his truths and attending to hers.  If there was ever a book that taught feminist theory in the way that I believe it to be, it would be this one.  Lila is herself.  She is strong and brilliant, but she has “shame like a habit,” and she never wants for a man, but when she meets the reverend it is like a letter written as an answer.

“She thought it was nothing she had known to hope for and something she had wanted too much all the same” (257, Robinson).

The first book set in Gilead (one of three)

And this brings me back to my student.  My student who is seventeen and unsure of the world, but has to act sure or else it will make her kneel to its wants and needs.  I think today, even more so than usual, we live in a society that looks down on the poor like they’re lepers.  The divide is growing between the super rich and the poverty poor and I’m not sure at this point what is being done to stop it.  And it’s easy to write them off, I know that.  It’s easy to say that they won’t amount to anything and not champion for them.

But then who would?

I think sometimes it’s hard to realize what a poor child begins with at eighteen.  One of my most cherished students has his name on most bills in his house because his mother’s credit is so bad that she has had to use her children’s names.  He said “Ms. M, I have to call and put my best man voice on this afternoon so the cable company will come out and install our cable.”  When his mother doesn’t pay the bill in a few months because she couldn’t get enough hours, his credit too, like hers, will be ruined.

The second book set in Gilead

And explain then how he will get loans for college and he’s supposed to push through when he’s taking care of his mother rather than doing your homework.  He, too, is Lila. We are all a bit Lila, but I look at my kids like soldiers, and then I look at them like slowly beating hearts.  They don’t know what way they’re going because everyday is a new day.  Sometimes they’re just bodies that think and talk and “seems to want its life one more day of it, you don’t have to know why” (179, Robinson).

And I needed that reminder, of the single human battle.  The battle to rise and be greater than you were yesterday even if you have all those yesterdays that say that you can’t do that, and you won’t amount to anything more than yesterday on yesterday.

Well, Lila argues that and values that and uses that.  So read her, like she’s writing you a love letter about how change doesn’t have to come from one decision, but a bunch of small experiences that don’t pile up, but are each presented, each their own small golden token.


Newsday Tuesday

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