The practice of frame-shifts, as embodied in poetry, blogs, stories, music, reviews, performances, and other speculative fictions. Also a Net Galley Reviewer. To sign up for the newsletter, paste & link to http://eepurl.com/blVuIH. For author landing page and shop, paste & link to https://formsofresistance.com/
Here is a guest blog by Richmond artist Monica Lewis about trusting your terrestrial frame of reference.—rr
One Poster’s Insight, One Earth in the Balance
In Richmond’s Fan neighborhood, a resident has commissioned and displayed a series of wheat-pasted posters that are artistic statements on the issues of politics, voting, race, and social change. As new posters are put up every few weeks, pedestrians are treated to ever-changing, serendipitous discoveries. The posters are delightful and many offer thoughtful illustrations of the word “hope.” What, exactly, does that word mean? Like “love,” it is a concept that we hang onto when we desperately need reassurance and goodness. But the word is only helpful when in the context of a story or a real event; it offers nothing as an empty abstraction. Currently on display is a poster by Brenda McManus, who teaches graphic design at Pace University and co-runs BRED, a studio for experiments with typography and printmaking. Her formal, restrained poster deserves close consideration.
McManus’s poster is a sparse composition that plays with the cornerstones of Western image making: Albertian perspective and the Golden Rectangle ratio. (Note its divisions of the main black rectangle into smaller rectangles.) Referencing another Western concept, the white lines on the expanse of blackness are reminiscent of a solar system diagram. Furthering this visual metaphor, the pitch blackness of outer space is pierced by a light source — a sun — at the vanishing point of the perspective lines. The word “hope” emanates from this light source. Our earthly home, depicted as a blue marble of a planet, revolves around and depends upon this cosmic power.
The word “truth” is written on the planes that create a sense of distance, making a diorama box for us to peer into. Across this box, in defiance of the perspective trick, is the word “trust.” In both words, there is the letter “U.” Both “U”s line up at the source of light.
Really, this poster is a poster within a poster. That is to say, this black composition floats upon the poster’s larger composition. This black rectangle dominates its sky-blue background but its off-center placement reveals an additional meaning. Being off-center, the sky-blue segments around it are of varying sizes. They do not function as a frame. Rather, it is as if planes move across this sky-blue space. We see fragments of other edges. Designers call this kind of composition an “open design” because elements run off the page. The effect is of infinity; there is so much more — so many more compositions — that we cannot see.
Our view may be incomplete but the systems of perspective and proportion can be trusted for their reference to reality. As if there were any question, this poster has a handy “you are here” arrow pointing to our Earth. The arrow fittingly resembles the symbol of a house: a simple structure with a pitched roof. Yes, Earth is our home.
There may be other vantage points and other interpretations — other planes that move across the nothingness of space — but we are on Earth and we can trust the truth of our representational systems. There may not be an exact correspondence. There might be moments of irritating conflict (as when the last two letters of “trust” and “truth” do not align perfectly), but the overall effect gels into a reliable vision. Trust is a conscious decision. We know the match is not perfect — there is some slippage — but when we trust we allow light to shine in the darkness. Hope is the promise of good things ahead, as sure as the sunrise at the dawn of a new day.
This message is timely. In recent days, the GOP has solidified Trump’s Big Lie. In recent years, we have lost too many people to Q-Anon’s conspiracy theories. For decades, climate science has been doubted and denied, costing us valuable time in the race to lower emissions. The directive to “trust truth” is needed because, somehow, the acceptance of truth has become optional. When citizens choose to ignore facts and reality, we venture into a dangerous state of affairs. This situation, and all its implications, teeters on hopelessness. Hence, this poster’s imperative, “trust truth.” That is our hope.
—Monica Lewis, Richmond Chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby
I am currently working on a musical comedy entitled “Escape Plans.” It is a response to recent events. A particular concern is the behavior of evangelical groups over the last few years. This letter reflects some of my concerns. –rr
Like the fox giving advice in the henhouse, the latest tele-apologist for bullydom has recently opined on Disney’s attempt to make human relations training more inclusive. While I readily agree that “staff training” of any kind can be more about covering the topic—whatever it is—than actually changing the institution, I was intrigued by the fault the fox had found. Any overly-earnest instructor who actually tries to challenge students must be careful about who is listening. Even though the point of the training is to make institutional change, such a trainer is expected to deliver the message in such a way that those opposed to change will not be disturbed. Having taught for thirty years helps me to savor the contradiction.
With the glossy sincerity of a televangelist who has already pocketed the collection, the foxy host showed concern (by raising eyebrows) for democracy—a concern serenely suppressed as the insurrection of January 6 has become a season of electoral tomfoolery. He worried so about the trainees being told not to say “all lives matter” and being exposed to dangerous ideas of critical race theory, such as systemic racism. He called to the congregation for an Amen and got it—without even needing an altar-call or having to show animated fervor by mussing his hair or his perfect part.
Later in the day, I passed by one of those mall speakers that’s usually blasting out something I don’t want to hear. I stopped. It was Ben King singing “Stand by Me,” an anthem hymn to all the young men—Isaac Woodward, Emmet Till, Rodney King, Michael Brown, George Floyd—whose black lives did not matter and could be disregarded. Who stood up for them? Certainly their families and some sad, angry protestors—some of them not even black. What about institutions? Walking backwards in molasses: the sweet nostalgia of the way things never were. At the end of his henhouse sermon, the fox invited the congregation to come forward and testify against Cancel Culture. Afterward, Mrs. Fulva Vulpes served her famous casserole.
Short-take Poetry Review: Propaganda’s Terraform (HarperOne, June 8, 2021)
Hip-hop humanism may not be your thing, but in this time of denial, back-biting, and betrayals we could do worse than pay attention to an artist determined to be a full-bodied Earthling who sees the land and its creatures as members of the family and the artifices of culture as something to change. We made culture, he says; then it made us. While we may be thinking about terraforming Mars, why not realize that what we made we can remake? Why not terraform the Earth into a place that invites all creatures to thrive? Or must we be stuck with zero-sum racism and gutter politics? Propaganda is the stage name of Los Angeles poet, musician, and performing artist Jason Petty, whom you may follow online. I particularly like the lyrical poem, “If coffee were a man.” Hear it here:
The dream always begins in a crowd. Susie and I become separated. She cannot find her way and I cannot find her. I wake up. She died thirteen years ago. The crowd may be in a theatre, department store, airport concourse, or a traffic jam. People rush by on either side of us, looking for seats, bargains, flights, or a way around us. Sometimes our cars are separated in a parking lot or on an interstate highway, where missing an exit is a moment of terror. In these dreams, I relive the terror of knowing that she was lost in a crowd or car and unable to help herself as Alzheimer’s disease was shutting all the doors and windows of her mind.
This dream is also about anyone helpless to find a way through our unforgiving infrastructure. Some of the lost are people with early-onset Alzheimer’s, like Susie, terrified by the flashing lights in the concourse and unable to use cell phones or to make sense of the internet, if it is available. Others do not speak English or are too young or old to find their way. Some may have lived in an area for generations but no longer recognize the highway-sliced community and fragmented habitat. Some rely on wheelchairs or special devices blocked by curbs, steps, narrow passages, or electronic interference. Others are simply visitors to a strange city’s heaped towers, road-mazes, off-and-on-ramps, warning-signs, flashing lights, dead-ends, one-ways, and relentless pushing from all sides.
In a village during the late Neolithic or Medieval periods—or even, in most places, during the nineteenth century—a confused person with dementia would probably have been able to find her way around. Multiple support systems were available to help her—that is, all the other villagers. We like to believe that we are better off than those villagers—who were victims of drought, pestilence, invasions, and famine—but when we dug irrigation ditches, rolled out highways, and strung telegraph wires, we made some compromises.
What dreams do planners have? Do they imagine structures and transportation systems for the confused, blind, nonnative speakers, walkers, native animals, the deaf, the native plants, bikers, children, brightly reflective surfaces, homeless wanderers, legless veterans in wheelchairs and elderly with walkers, absorptive blacktops? Do they imagine the invisible structures of waterways, sewers and storm water conduits, electric and communication cables, cell towers and wireless transmissions, gas lines, and routes and communication needed for emergency services?
Multiple grids overlie our cities and landscape. They do not fit together neatly. Federal, state, and municipal boundaries, jurisdictions, waterways, easements, property rights, zoning restrictions, mitigation areas, farm and pasture land, energy sectors, historic and environmental reserves—all intersect in conflicts and speculative competition. The many grids are not accounted for in the geographic information systems programmed to manage them. In fact, some of the most powerful grids are even more invisible than the streams and rivers re-routed under city streets: grids of racism, commercial speculation, and of the legal structures needed to maintain them.
Whose dreams shall we honor to help each other find our ways through the world?
The French film title could also be translated, “Mona—no roof, no law.” The young vagabond, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, refers to herself as a “camper” in her encounters with farmers, goatherds, academics, housekeepers, nurses, and young men on the make. Her corpse is discovered in the first scene; the remainder of the film traces her story to that discovery. It is an unpleasant story about a rather unpleasant character. Certainly, she shows no gratitude to anyone who helps her. Most people ignore her or give just enough to send her away. She is raped several times, almost dies in a fire, and is nearly forced to work as a prostitute. Vardas clearly wanted her to visit all sectors of society—the sympathetic biologist who feels guilty for not doing more, the philosopher-turned-goat-keeper who, with questionable bona fides, chides her for allowing the trash she has read to create a world-view that holds her hostage; the nurse who thinks of Mona’s life as romantic until Mona gets drunk with the nurse’s elderly patient.
Mona is a person without worth, either invisible or seen as an opportunity, source of guilt, or recipient of appropriately measured concern. Her careless encounters with men present a discouraging portrait of the possibility of any human engagement without some level of aggression. Perhaps this is what Vardas intended.
Three species of aggression are particularly noteworthy: unpredictable aggression, predictable aggression, and sanctioned aggression.
The young toughs looking for hits, lays, highs, and something to steal represent unpredictable aggression. Employers, parents, and caregivers who take it upon themselves to berate, threaten, and punish are predictable aggressors: they have power over their charges and use it in predictable ways. Sanctioned aggressors are those sanctioned by the community to compel others to do something for the good of the community. Here find zealous schoolteachers, like Samuel Butler, Sr., headmaster over Charles Darwin, who later said that Butler’s school did nothing for his mind. Here also are police, judges, pastors, militias, and rulers. Merchants who have amassed enough wealth to become corpocrats also seek to be considered sanctioned in their aggression because such classification would show that paying no taxes and meeting no regulations on their exploitations of labor and habitats are for the good of the community—making them ”job-creators,” perhaps.
The dynamic is worth consideration: humanity divided into the camps of aggressors and vagabonds of no worth. Another depressing French film—one wants a bouncy American-style ending; one gets a corpse.
Speaking of the body politic, perhaps Vardas had one other thing in mind.
Thinking back over the film, and the last year or so, it is the women that one notices. Sorry guys, but we seem to be stuck in the three species of aggression. The women in the film—and in the street over the last few years, perhaps even beginning with that first rally in D.C. in 2016—are the ones who notice the invisible people in pain, like George Floyd. The women are the ones who give Mona help—even when she doesn’t congratulate them for doing it.
Surely The Poor should be grateful for SNAP or Tax Legislation or Low Rent. But if they don’t show gratitude or congratulate us, why, we should back off. Yes?
Again, over the last months, it is the women who have said “me too” in empathy and justice, who have helped the helpless to vote, or to get PPEs—some of them dying as they do so. Men expect you to meet conditions—the honor culture, don’t you know—but women seem to give without conditions. And those who make it into legislatures try to make laws that do the same. Something about mercy and justice, perhaps.
Did I mention that I’m fed up with honor culture, racism, and the three species of aggression? After millennia, let’s turn to the original caregivers for less aggressive solutions to problems created by a long history of violations. Men can learn to follow. We could do worse.
Scenes From A Writing Class (Actually, All The Participants May Be Me)
And suddenly I’m thrashing, doomed and desperate, in its mouth.
Too many trees!
A tale shifts with its telling. It becomes the teller.
In this photograph, a cormorant, fleeing, has caught a fish, which a second cormorant, looming, threatens to seize. It’s not a tale yet, but it’s the cusp of one. “Look, characters! Look, they’re having a dramatic moment!” So we look. We reach in, we begin imagining. But to write what we imagine, to craft a tale, we must push beyond the threshold, and advance into the dark of it. With intent, and with a methodology.
With our first steps, we shape a stance. Where do we place ourselves? Whose skin do we wear? Whose voice suits the telling?
The strongest choices tend to be the simplest ones. “Look, characters!” Who are they?
(1) The fisher cormorant…
(2) The thief cormorant… And thirdly?
(3) The fish.
Yes. There’s a certain reluctance to empathize with the fish, which is what a point of view character demands of us. We would rather not be this fish.
Good. Any other possibilities?
(4) The lake? Well, if you must. A bit contrived, perhaps? Too gimmicky a narrator for most tastes, as with any inanimate tale-teller. But give it a try, if you must. Animate it!
(5) The artist? Which artist? The photographer? Yes, very good: someone has chosen to observe, and capture, and display this image. Who, and why?
(6) The teacher, who has chosen to share it? Yes. What fun! Why not me? Go for it!
(7) The viewer. Of the photograph? Yes, we’ve spoken about this: all art, even casual or private art, aspires to affect an audience. Beginning with its own creator! And after that, whoever else sees it. We can write from that audience’s perspective.
(8) The writer him or herself! Splendid! Or yourself—or I!A photograph suggests, but what it shows is static. It says, “Peek in my window!” Whereas a tale is progressive—it travels—it says, “Ride with me!” It acquires a landscape—with glimpsed distances—even as it insists, “No, look over here!” Our tale reveals what we order and disorder it to reveal.
What can be scary is that it reveals us too—and not just to our readers! An honest writer will reflect from its every shard. It can be a useful trick to acknowledge this fact—that we stand, furtively stripping, in a hall of mirrors—and to speak from that pose.
(9) The reader. Yes. There are Venn overlaps here, of course, but yes.
(10) God? God as imagined by the characters? Or by who? Or some kind of authentic, above us all God? Yes, I accept that a range of options is possible, but which did you intend? Ah. Again, please, for the whiteboard? “The God who created a world in which cormorants have to kill to survive…and fish have to die…and thieves prosper while others go hungry.” Well, your third contention is debatable, and there are other conceivable and inconceivable Gods who might have some part to play in this drama—but for our #10, let there be God! And we’ll call it a list.
Now. Pick one of these ten. Open your soul to them; find their voice; be them. Write!
The beak unclenches—flips—clasps harder.
Gut-speared—then clamped, and flapped—I flounder
and lunge—a low, slapped froth of water
flails me—I flail—am plunged back under.
Keelhauled up out, hoist at the sky,
I twist one rivuletting eye
to where the lake churns below, and die—
leaving, on its quicksilvering skin,
my shape, in glints of scale and fin,
to spall through trawled mirrors of trees.
Do fish feel pain? Science suggests that they do. This is an inconvenient finding, so it tends to be labeled (see Wikipedia) as “contentious”. We can’t really know what another human feels, let alone some other species! And anyway, fish surely can’t feel emotional pain, as we do.
I write my fish as articulate, self-aware, and even desperate, and yet I distance myself. My language is pretty and my tone measured. There’s death here, sure, but it’s a little jaunty.
Be them? Well, there are degrees of empathy. One can aspire.
Ultimately, there is just one honest teller of a tale, and that’s the writer. Our characters, 1-7 and 9-10—but most especially 1-4, who are wholly Other, and 10, who is Inconceivable—are an illusion; their voices are inflections of our own.
Imagine that for some reason I am broken. The long pandemic. The hard winter, with its ice storms and its power outages. The political climate. Personal troubles. The usual brokenness: Thoreau’s quiet desperation; Baudelaire’s ennui. Its particulars I’ll exclude, of course, from my story, but can I, and should I, exclude my brokenness? The fisher cormorant, if I place it at the tale’s center, will battle its own brokenness. Or the thief cormorant will master, but not quite, its brokenness, which, say, drives it to greater ruthlessness. Or the fish, dying (but what do fish have of memory, and know of loss?) will struggle to rescue some bright, less broken fragment from the tear of beak and gullet. Or rage in a squirm of silver against death.
And so on. The lake may rail at or revel in its jungle laws; the observer, whether the photographer, the teacher, or God herself, will bare her poor lost soul.
Imagine, too, that for months now, I’ve been unable to write. I’m grumpy because my pharynx is bad. In January, to confront the malady, I start a prose essay about self-talk: the exclamations—jubilant, or startled, or broken—which escape the confines of one’s inner colloquy, and erupt into the air. I tell of my college roommate’s favorite snarls, which were “Puke!” “Spew!” and “Fester!” To which I would mockingly retort, “Chair leg!”—as if my own mutterings—”Look, you can work till you’re grey!” “Dead soldiers in the rain!”—were any less weird. I rouse my rumpled thoughts into language. They sag back into toss and mumble. I roll over and let the thing lie.
More recently, I’ve begun to exclaim, “Too many trees!” I conversed, once, with a Japanese visitor to Richmond, who didn’t have much English, but who kept this phrase at the ready. When one of us asked him what he thought of our city, he cried out, with a kind of indignant, astonished, excoriating glee, “Too many trees!” Richmond, and we hadn’t known it, was infested with trees? Was such a thing even possible? How different must a perspective be from my own to arrive at such a judgment! Yet now I come out with this phrase at the oddest moments! Rarely in incomprehension at the world; sometimes in incomprehension at myself; occasionally to fix myself with its mantra; but mostly for the strange tickle of its noise. It is, I believe, a sort of mildly terrible sneeze. A sneeze (God bless, God break me) of absurdist, self-ridiculing woe.
Today, I confess, exasperated with my tale of two cormorants and a fish, I’ve been inviting each narrator in turn to chorus the phrase with me. A dumb whim, but a stubborn one. As I flee with my catch, or pursue with my wings outspread, or look down, as the God who God knows why has made the world this way, I blurt, Too many trees! Too many trees!
Until over me the dapple of a sunlit surface dims—as a great swift shadow hardens in the water weeds—and violently I am yanked into a beak—and up—out into sky, and a wheel of trees—gasping and thrashing in its maw.
I’ve always preferred to write when I feel whole rather than when I feel broken. It’s not that I flinch from betraying some secret shame, it’s that, in a funk, I write worse. What shame can there be in one’s ordinary nakedness? What beauty might I find, rather, in vulnerability, in our need for touch? And yet I struggle to. I think that I find such states, in me, at least, a bit pitiful, a bit excessive. I’ve known too much good fortune, and am certainly not, not yet, this fish! My world is sweet, even if lately it has seemed more dangerous, and far too savagely divided. (Can we know any other perspective than our own? Can we wish to, at least, try? Even if only for the duration of a writing exercise?) The life of anything that feels—that relishes and takes for granted, that suffers and that dies—may be both terrible beyond all understanding, and wild and lovely beyond all understanding. It may hurt to feel we are preyed on, or to be so small in the world’s immensity—to be just another fish. Yet when we have, or make, the time to look, and to wonder, what an astonishment it remains: this great untamable forest that we swim in, with its terrible birds, its too many trees.
My new poetry collection, PUSHBACK was released yesterday. As a single-minded promoter, I have shortcomings and misgivings—somewhat reflected in the pseudonymous guest-blogs for this issue–and remain up in the air although I now have an author landing site
If you have a moment and the inclination, please consider posting about PushBack on social media today. Each post has a cumulative effect and can really make an impact. (And thank you if you’ve already been doing this!) You can also help spread the word by giving the book a star rating on Goodreads or a starred review on Amazon. If you’d like to buy a copy, it’s available everywhere books are sold. You can order directly from your local bookstore or reach your local bookstore through Indiebound. In Richmond, BookPeople (https://www.bookpeoplerichmond.com/) has signed copies
More purchase links: Amazon , Barnes & Noble , Indiebound . And then there’s this: From the Review by Book Life: “Rose’s eloquent collection, subtitled ‘Selected Poems of Resistance,’ touches on a wide sweep of topics with a singular sense of rhythm and musicality that enriches even some of the book’s most inaccessible pieces . . . “
G U E S T B L O G S
Having a Goal
A recent post on the Minimalist website* called attention to Instagram’s friendly message to users that they are “all caught up” with scrolling. Obviously, given millions of images to scroll, this is impossible, but the insertion of the message gives the user a goal for scrolling. Giving customers a reason to return habitually to a product is fundamental to advertising. Customers come to believe that they are achieving personal goals by using a promoted product or idea. They have identified with the product. The Franklin Mint encourages them to make their collections complete. The NYT Best Seller list encourages them not to miss what Everyone Else is now reading. Hundreds of other promoters warn their potential customers that Everyone Else is also making the best investment, buying the perfect sofa, sleeping on the best bed, eating at the best restaurant, and going on the most fabulous cruise. Buckets fill with lists of goals to achieve because customers OWE IT TO THEMSELVES to match Everyone Else. Houses fill with commemorative dishes, figurines, gold medallions, pedigreed pooches, and gun racks. Heads fill with cute pooch videos and countless posts by strangers that must be passed on to other strangers so that Everyone Else will know about three-in-one tools for washing, whisking, and wiping, or where to buy enough cartridges and salt pork to outlast the Dark Times that are coming according to Everyone Else. Certainly, this is the time to buy gear, extra firearms, and cartons of ready-to-eat meals. Only add water. But it may be hard to catch up to Everyone Else as they burst through the Capitol doors wielding bats. —Andante
There is a kind of parasitic worm, the Acanthocephala, or spiny-headed worms, which live in the intestines of vertebrates. These worms do not really have spiny heads; they possess a muscular anterior proboscis supplied with hooks for fastening into the intestinal wall of their host. The length of spiny-headed worms ranges from a sixteenth of an inch to a foot. They have no digestive systems, relying entirely on the host. The nervous system comprises an anterior cluster of nerve cells and patches of light sensitive retinacula—brain and eyes. Most other body systems are absent or rudimentary, except for the reproductive system. Like the proboscis, the reproductive organs are well developed. Accessory structures, the cement glands and copulatory bursa, ensure attachment during mating. Central to the acanthocephalan way of life, these structures have evolved with maximum quality assurance. Reproducing in large numbers guarantees the survival of a few. As with many other species, this strategy of high biotic potential has proved tremendously successful for the spiny-heads.
Suited as they are for intestinal living, spiny-heads are presented with a wide array of benefits in their tubular habitat, including a ready source of predigested food, excellent climate-control, a short commute and excellent public transportation system. Passing through the gut, the young acanthors ultimately exit the host on their vision quests to new territories, often assisted by the wings of insect vectors in whose body cavities they develop into new forms, the transitional acanthella and the invasive cystacanth. Occasionally, however, the host may provide such an inviting setting that hundreds of acanthors remain close to home in large subdivisions that cause the intestine to come apart. Such unintended consequences are obviously dangerous externalities, but with their small patches of neural tissue, spiny-heads are not given to forethought.
I once worked for a man who studied acanthocephalans. He was particularly suited to the work—inquisitive, knowledgeable, admired, and aided with a large federal grant to continue his investigations and pay my salary for many years. His interest was so keen that any time not devoted to spiny-heads—attending faculty meetings, giving lectures on general biology, picking up his mail, travel out of town, eating, talking to his wife—he regarded with good-natured disinterest, provided he could soon return to the laboratory, where he inoculated doves, goldfish, and turtles with thousands of cystacanths and wrote a hundred pounds of monographs.
Similar in some ways to the spiny-heads he studied, Professor Austin was peculiarly suited for his peculiar interest. Just as the worm could exist within the intestine without being digested or expelled—its flexible proboscis retracting or fastening as needed—so Austin, within a narrow range, avoided absorption or expulsion by probing or withdrawing as the situation demanded.
Presumably there was a time when most acanthocephalans did not have hooks on their proboscis but did have a digestive system. A minority, with a poor digestive system but stubby hooks, let us say, existed at that time as poor relations on the scraps of detritus siphoned by some unobservant clams. Perhaps a seabird carried one of these clams inland to drop it on a rock and feast. Suddenly released into the bird’s gut, the poor relations with their stubby spines could hold on as their betters perished. Many generations later, their gutless descendants had glorious grappling hooks, in much the same way that other gutless beings often find ways to hang on and hang around.
Of course, millions of worms died initially for lack of a spiny proboscis and, as time went on, millions more died because their probosces were inadequate. Although their evolved way of life was less independent and their way of getting about was clumsy and uncertain, the benefits outweighed the losses. The fact that they were committed to their way of life, totally dependent on their hosts, and lacking the capability to escape it, would not occur to spiny-heads because they were not given to reflection.
What about Professor Desmond Austin, who was in a situation with a comparable degree of dependency? His laboratory was designed around the acanthocephalan life-cycle. In the Cuticle Division, where I worked, cubicles were devoted to Extracuticular Substances, Protein or NonProtein, Excreted or Secreted, Functional or Nonfunctional. Each cubicle was inhabited by a graduate student or technician. Working under Protein, a team specialized in Quantification and Identification, Crystallography, Electron Microscopy, Artificial Synthesis, Deprivation Studies, Extra-vital Uses, and Cost-Analysis and Feasibility of Processing. The Cuticle Division was one of thirty units devoted to the body systems of spiny-heads. The mental territory of Professor Austin had become the host for an enterprise employing almost a thousand researchers. The thirty-first unit, called the NonEssential Division, was managed by Mr. Greth, who was also the only employee in the unit.
The NonEssential Division provided for the nourishment, security, relaxation, medical and mental services of the laboratory’s staff and their families, all of whom lived on site. Mr. Greth was a stooped, balding man who looked like someone assigned to manage nonessential matters. No documents, books, or files were in his office, which was furnished only with a few chairs, a small table, and a recliner, where he was lying on the first day I reported for work—and where he was every time I had to see him over the decade remaining to Professor Austin before his health, marriage, and federal grant simultaneously collapsed. Without getting up, Mr. Greth handed me the keys to my apartment and cubicle and warned me to avoid the construction area for the new division on the Circulatory Disorders of Alternative Hosts, the one extra block in Austin’s teetering project that finally brought it down. As I left, Greth said, as he always did, Flow through but hang on.
Now that it’s all over, specialization is worth thinking about. I mean, there’s obviously adaptive value to a hooked proboscis if you’re an intestinal worm without much else going for you. And any specialist in a cubicle is dependent upon the kind of information that seems relevant to the investigation. So if you’re studying a worm, you’re dependent upon what he wants to tell you. The worm is like your teacher:
I am to teach. You are to learn. I am to cover the course. You are to take it—take it all. I am to grade. You are to pass. I submit your grades. You receive the credit. I permit. You commit. I admonish. You can vanish—if you’re not careful. I teach. You learn. I decide. You concede. I assign. You read. Careful now! I ask and answer. You answer. I must teach. You must learn. I’m not a tutor. I must teach everyone in the class. All of you must be led out, induced, inducted, seduced. Don’t ask me to personalize instruction.
Group work is best. That’s the way we do it in the gut. Don’t ask me how this prepares you for later life. Get with the program. It’s all about hanging on or going with the flow. One of you asked about getting a general education. Well, we don’t live generally, do we? It’s personal and specialized down there in the gut—no generalists need apply. I’m not here to broaden your experience. I’m the proprietor: I’ve got the goods. You’re the customer. But I don’t customize anything. You get what I have to give you. But even though I do the same for everyone, what is received is not the same for all. Every one of you will come out of this course differently educated.
I don’t have to customize anything because you will customize it on the uptake. Some of you will come out sharp and critical, others limp as an empty egg sac. Some of you will come away with a sense of direction—even a specialty—but most of you will drift back in the dark lumen and let the current decide. I only answer for what I have to deliver. My probings have led to certain preoccupations. You will hear all about them. I get to make the syllabus, after all.
It’s your route out of here. It will be logical and thorough. Oh, I may sometimes distort logic for special effect or clarity. Or I may be thorough to the point of giving an impenetrable answer instead of clarifying a question. I may indeed be logical in broad designs, but sparing in the explanations of disarticulated details. (One of my academic achievements, in fact, is to have speculatively constructed the nature of an articulated existence. Quite an achievement for a boneless scholar, they say.)
And yes, I am aware of the abuses arising from the kind of unwonted consistency-of-thought characteristic of preoccupied scholars. Many dismal periods of our history are not so much examples of failed understanding as of chance variations in the strengths of various habitual preconditions, preconceptions, and preoccupations. As consistency-of-thought usually wins out, however, perhaps it has adaptive value. I leave that to your hooks. Oh, you have none. Distortions of all kinds occur in the degenerated forms of humans, owing to the poor quality of their ability to allow life to pass through them and to know when to engage and when to release. But not all of us can be spiny-heads. —Con Moto
The blog for the snowy end of an incredible month is three very short stories by authors who want to remain anonymous for the time being. To honor their wishes, I have arranged the stories like a musical offering.
Guilt and shame are not the same at all. Bright blue light comes through the windows from an early morning snow and you look out at it. You’re in the dark house looking out at it, watching it cover everything. That’s guilt. Somebody switches on all the lights in the house and a crowd in the street sees you staring out the window. That’s shame.
You do something, you want to leave the lights off. The favorable court of your mind will find a hundred ways to let you off. I call it à la carte rationality. You let the lights come on; you can forget about explaining how what you did was justified. Saying under the circumstances won’t matter outside the court of your mind where you can take turns pleading, prosecuting, judging, and voting for acquittal under the circumstances, given it was a snowy day when it happened, for instance.
Saying it happened rather than you made it happen is acceptable in à la carte reasoning. Nothing has a fixed price. You get to choose.
Weather is different. The ground conditions set the rules. Light snow in the morning with a thin warm layer a hundred feet above the ground, then the snow turns to sleet pellets ricocheting off the roof of the lean-to in the woods. With a thick warm layer, the snow melts but the rain freezes on the ground. It glazes the roof, the pipe lying inches from the body; it even glazes the fingers, and fissures of the face.
Someone coming upon the scene by the woodpile may think it’s obvious what happened, but that’s because the ground conditions have glazed over everything. Under the circumstances, anyone would understand—anyone who had to listen to the old man ranting so much about your whole generation dragging his patriot dreams to hell that he hit his head on the pipe you were holding.
Shh. Don’t tell
The sun leapt out at me today. It warmed my skin as I lay on a railing, legs dangling like a child. Seagulls teeming the joint. Down by the river where you can still share a rare but secret smile with a maskless stranger. Shh. Don’t tell.
My feet held a rhythm and had a step in it. I used to dance on the street where I was from. Riding my bike with no hands. The night air leaving me breathless with hope. That little flame in your belly. The Aurora Borealis trailing me like a persistent nerd in the schoolyard. Holding my babies with locked eyes and love eternal, milk spilling from my breasts. Hot chocolate and wagons, little bodies draped over mine, snow in their boots and shrieks of laughter. Intense conversations for hours. Fires and music.
What happened to us? To our hands interlocking, the whispers of sweet consolation. The warmth, the love, the pain, the giddy apprehension? Bangles jangling in the green grass and brown skin beading with dew. Hot days in lakes so cold, your pelvis burned and then the warmth of sun kissed wood? Children running, matted hair, tattooed and sunburnt. Hope and love growing distant. Longing to be held. Longing for your touch. For a cold day in a warm bed, naked and free. I am mute. My words and body hold no power. They are used against me.
A man paused briefly enough to take a photo of the sunset. Roaring engines and sirens punctuate the air and murderous tension lies bloated, thick in it. A young woman cackles garishly. A stark contrast to her youth and beauty.
My little girl, all blue eyes and heart, cupping my face with her grubby little hands “You need to listen Mummy.” The flowers poured out this summer, knocking heads in the breeze. The church bells clanged all day long but suddenly stopped. Did you notice?
It needs something
Drifting across the sky at sunset over the domestic temple of the Daily Tongue were three clouds like three scratches made by some girl trying to hang onto the day before she dropped below the horizon.
Mimi packed her bag, locked the door, and walked down the stairwell to the parking lot. So much for the day’s dilemmas in the outrage industry. What she did had always been needed. Some paleolithic stringer had been tasked to rub the stones daily. After years of wear, the tiny abrasions inevitably made a polish. Maybe she had admired her reflection before the rock was launched at a hyena, or its human equivalent. Maybe her peers had praised her life’s work.
Impatience didn’t help, whether you were rubbing a rock, waiting for a microwaved dinner, trying to fire up opinion by rubbing sticks—or to make a story stick by setting a fire. Maybe slackers, like the skateboarders in the parking lot, had the right idea, but Mimi had never tried to pretend that nothing mattered.
Then the daydream again: Something on the roof looked into the office rooms. Perched like a grotesque wearing high-heels, she throws hot water through the windows, scratches “Ha!” on the perfect penthouse panes of the media empire. Maybe too much pepper brought it on. But who could eat this so-called empanada as it is? Who was watching? She added more pepper.
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I’m a pushover for psychobabble, searches for meaning, and fiction about psychological pilgrimages, like Scott D. Carpenter’s Theory of Remainders, about a psychiatrist who returns to the scene of his daughter’s murder in Normandy fifteen years earlier in order to find her body and find personal peace. Working as a detective with the tools of psychiatry, he discovers much more. In Collette Shedd’s Facing Lillia, recently published by BairInk (https://www.bairink.com/ ), the pilgrimage is shown through the struggling language of a combative psychiatric patient, an indigenous woman who attempts suicide and sometimes spends days at a time watching herself walk in a dream beset by demons and compulsive, suicidal thoughts.
In a period of mass hysteria, it seems glib to say, “walk it out.” Surely, I should at least offer an explication of groupthink or sociopathy. Instead, I take a walk and invite you to come along. No phone or earplugs, please. Listen to the noise, the screeches of machines, the squawk of Amazon vans turning around, the chatter of squirrels. Look at the sky. The moon has not yet disappeared. Look at other walkers—all ages, all colors, all taking their own steps. Swing your arms. Feel your heart beating. Sniff the camellias, the diesel exhaust, the black compost being raked by a Guatemalan couple into the flower beds of the shopping mall. Breathe it all in. Hold the breath. Process it. Squeeze the energy from the oxygen to release clarity of mind, sustained attention, focus on the moment. Slowly release the breath. Make it into something—a thought, a purpose, a meaning, a poem, or a better story. —Richard Rose
Henry, the oldest, had failed to launch. He lived with his family in a house built in 1738 that stood in the middle of twenty acres of corn field in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. George Washington used it as an infirmary for his troops during the Revolutionary War and their blood stains remain in the wide plank floors today. Sometimes, as he fell asleep at night, the worn floorboards, loose on their hobnails, rattled. He would turn the night table lamp on, get up and set the lock on the door latch, then return to bed to wait for sleep with the light on.
The hand-fitted Pennsylvania blue-gray fieldstone walls were two feet thick, but not thick enough to keep out the world’s contumely. The airwaves carried in news of the assassination of Dr. King, American war crimes in Vietnam, and the violent 1968 Democratic National Convention protests. Yet life was still pleasant in the old stone house and Henry did nothing to change the world but grow his hair long and sew paisley patches into the legs of his jeans to widen them into bell bottoms.
He dubbed 1968 as The Year of St. Elmo, the patron saint of sailors and those with stomach ailments, whose intestines were wound on a windlass to torture the saint into praying to pagan gods. One sultry evening in early fall he bought a nickel bag of grass from a classmate at a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg. He returned home afterward and smoked a joint of it in his bedroom. It was so potent the plumed birds on the antique wallpaper came to life and flew around the room. He opened the window to let the smoke out. It was a clammy night with heat lightning flashing. The smell of rain was in the air.
That is when the St. Elmo’s Fire came. His sister, Julia, was in the kitchen with a friend. They both saw it and started yelling. An undulating blue light drifted through the screen door and floated into the dining room, gathered itself into a ball and rolled down the hall. At the sound of their shouting, Henry ran down the stairs and into the family room in time to see it pass through the side entrance door. He followed it outside and stood by his car parked at the side of the house. It climbed the copper lightning rod that ran up the stones from the ground up to the rooftop. The fire perched on the spire, hissing. Blue snakes writhed from its rim and a violet glow spread over the roof. The rain gushed at once and plastered his shirt to his skin. He stared until lightning flashed upward from the spire into a cloud overhead and it extinguished.
A week after the visitation of the Corpus Sancti, Henry moved into an apartment in New Hope with a friend. It is said that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, but he knew that was not true.