Archive for the ‘Why We Like It’ Category

Why We Like It: Reading Susan Wheatley’s “The Recording Angel” with Wim Wenders’s WINGS OF DESIRE

Thursday, March 26th, 2015
Rochelle---aka The Angel of---Hurt

Rochelle—aka The Angel of—Hurt

Volunteer Rochelle Hurt, who will be coming on staff next year as one of CR’s assistant editors, once went by a different name. After college, drawn by the bright lights, frenzied crowds, and—it must be said—classy costumes, she devoted herself to the glory known by professionals as the grappling arts. As the avenging Angel of Hurt, she powerbombed, chokeslammed, and moonsaulted her way to the top of her field. Yet standing upon the stacked spines of conquered opponents, she felt . . . empty. Whereupon she saw something . . . up there . . . twinkling in the distance. Yea, the ivory tower glowed even more powerfully than a klieg-lit coliseum. There was one more celestial stronghold left for her to scale. She promptly applied to grad school.


WINGS_OF_DESIRE_SE-21Rochelle Hurt:
 Reading Susan Wheatley’s “The Recording Angel” reminded me of a favorite Wim Wenders film, Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin), in which angels roam Berlin, invisible but always in close proximity to humans. Against a backdrop of graffiti and 1980s pop cultural icons (including Nick Cave and Columbo’s Peter Falk), these angels listen to and record the thoughts of humankind. Susan Wheatley’s angel plays a similar role. The poem begins: “For he observes when the posts are well sunk beneath the frost line/ And he knows when they are not, and the wooden church will fall/ For he stayed the hand of Abraham and keeps the oceans in check.” The potential for sentimentality in a list like this is undercut by the poem’s point of view: We’re not given the recording angel’s unfiltered observations, but rather an image of him in the recording process. The poem is really about the act of amassing knowledge, not the knowledge itself. There is an emphasis on lack and passivity in the angel’s process: “he knows when they are not”and “keeps the oceans in check.” This kind of knowledge-building through lack is mimicked in the poem’s rhetorical structure, which piles up information through the anaphoric repetition of “for,” suggesting that these bits of knowledge are explanations of an antecedent we never get in the poem. Its absence allows the poem’s content to accumulate indefinitely, because it avoids the closure of a complete sentence.

Both Wenders’s and Wheatley’s angels serve as artist figures, though the two have very different temperaments. While Wenders’s angels take pleasure in even the most mundane human musings, Wheatley’s can hardly bear the earthly world: “he bandages his ears so as not to hear the people pleading.” The risk of becoming emotionally overwhelmed is implicit in the angel’s struggle. In this way, speaker-as-writer and angel are compared. Likewise, in Wenders’s film (which he explained was partially inspired by Rilke’s poetry), the creative process as a result and a means of observation is examined through music, acting, writing, drawing, and performance—and this process is far from painless for Wenders’s characters. One of his angels begins to feel too much for the world he observes, falling in love with a circus performer. In doing so, he essentially assigns more value to the content of his recordings than to the art itself, sacrificing his ability to record the world for an ability to participate in it. The similarly meta-poetic quality of Wheatley’s poem (a recording of a recording) is explicitly recognized in the final stanza: “For he is scribe and intermediary/ For I am scribe and intermediary.” Angel and writer watch each other, and so they seem equal, but the poem’s final turn reveals the fallacy of this logic: “For I cannot see/ And he cannot turn aside his many eyes.” Ultimately the writer cannot see the world from the distance afforded the omniscient angel, while the angel cannot not see the world in its unbearable totality.

Why We Like It: “Drawn In” by Martha Collins

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Like most of the students in our eclectic PhD program, CR volunteer James Ellenberger has a “life-I-left-behind” story. Some of these pre-ivory-tower tales involve spotlit stages and mosh pits, the shark-eat-bull world of high finance, the loss of a productive copper mine in a crap hand of five-card draw, and a new identity courtesy of the witness protection program. Thus we were not surprised that night at Arlin’s a few months back, when we were swilling RyePA in celebration of a staffer completing her exams, to learn of James’s shocking past, his secret gift, his hidden passion: high-end shoe repair. He was waxing rhapsodic over the intricacies involved in reattaching a platinum-plated zipper to a $3000 Louboutin python stiletto boot when managing editor Nicola Mason interrupted: “Wait. You were . . . a cobbler?” Not only that—as you’ll discover below—but also a proponent of good dental hygiene who can pull off a Harry Potter metaphor.

James Ellenberger: Martha Collins’s “Drawn In” follows something like the artifice of an advent calendar: Instead of tooth decay in the name of our Lord, however, there’s a six-line poem tucked behind each flap. I’m fondest of the structural integrity of these vignettes—and how Collins, in evoking Dante at points throughout the poem, asks her readership to consider the continuous movement from section to section as a kind of terza rima. Beyond that, the poems themselves resemble the staircases at Hogwarts, constantly shifting, never really losing momentum. Take, for instance, the transition between sections two—“held by the walls// of this now for my small city”—and three—“City where Catherine/ and Jesus traded hearts”. The repetition of “city” manages to hammer into colloquialism the high religious ethos and rhetoric surrounding the referenced locale (Siena, Italy). These shifts between high and low diction might be suspect if it weren’t for the smart scaffolding that these poems are built into. Structure aside, the poem’s just damn beautiful. Excerpting here, due to the integrative and fluidity of the form, doesn’t do the poem justice, but what follows is a handful of my favorite lines:

                where Dante, knowing
nothing of crust or core, made his own
       layers down, where he had

                 to go, on his way, down

Why We Like It: “The Radical” by Brock Clarke

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

Our new assistant editor, Don Peteroy, has some definite ideas about fiction. Author of Wally (Burrow Press, 2012), an epistolary travel novella about an unstable protagonist who drives from Cincinnati to Inuvik, Northwest Territories, to settle a score with Santa Claus, Don keeps a photocopied image of L. Ron Hubbard taped to his office wall. This morning, he was talking with one of our volunteers about how uncanny certain trends in contemporary American fiction have become. “It’s like a collective unconscious thing,” Don joked: “If a character’s blonde, he’s evil. If he has green eyes, he’s going to seduce someone. And, strangest of all, if a story opens with a couple painting a bedroom wall, you know a sudden death’s about to occur.” Read on to discover why Don admires Brock Clarke’s short story “The Radical” (11.2), which not only manages to avoid these tropes but successfully negotiates another theme that has become common to both fiction and nonfiction: the contemporary cancer narrative.

Don Peteroy: A writing professor of mine once advised, “If you can predict what your next move is going to be, do the opposite.” Brock Clarke’s “The Radical” seems to make best use of that technique: Inevitability is turned inside out; surprises escalate, one-upping each other; rules are established and immediately broken. Though it sounds like I’m describing a story by Steven Milhauser or Robert Coover, the experiments in Clarke’s piece are subtle; barely detectable. The protagonist finds out he’s got cancer. On the night of his diagnosis, he writes a letter to his wife, Therese. She never actually sees the letter, but hears about it years later, and this belated discovery marks the beginning of a slow-moving deterioration that will affect their relationship and that of their close friends.

I admire how much of the dramatic effect of this story hinges on dislocated time. Though the moment of narration is years later, we’re not aware of any retrospective distance until about halfway through the story. Up until that point, it’s strictly present tense—but then we must recalibrate. This isn’t a gimmick or trick: The shift evokes in us the kind of temporal and causal dislocation that the protagonist experiences. Furthermore, we get the sense that the protagonist admonishes the advancement of time—it brings about decay and dissolution. He attempts to forestall the inevitable. Structurally—even down to the sentence level—the story embodies the protagonist’s penchant for evasion. Soon, however, we’re thrown back into linear time, where there are consequences. This is evident in the last full paragraph, which builds tension by delaying closure, but cannot indefinitely forestall the inevitable, discomforting resolution. The effect is profound. Because the story is narrated from some point in the future, we’d expect the narrator to have come to terms with (or to have mastered) his interpretation of past events. Not quite. “The Radical” is both a story about loss, and a story about the drama of telling such a story.

Why We Like It: “Bedside” by Andrea Cohen

Thursday, December 11th, 2014

Poet, first-year PhD student, and rock-star volunteer Matthew Pennock harbors some idiosyncratic aversions: proems that overuse anaphora, hoppy beers, zombie films that try too hard to make a point. In the office last week, as Matt entered copyedits into WordPerfect, we caught him gazing longingly at a stack of unopened boxes of back issues. When we asked what was wrong, Matt sighed: “Why can’t poetry be as creepy as Toddlers & Tiaras?” Read on to discover why Matt admires Andrea Cohen’s brief but affecting lyric “Bedside” (11.1), a poem, Matt says, that keeps him thirsting for more.

Matthew Pennock: Economy of language—that’s the name of the game in poetry. Who needs all those words, anyway? That stuff’s for dead Russian novelists, and magazines in dental-office waiting rooms. Give me a six-line poem any day. Give me a dense little word star radiating from the page. Andrea Cohen only needs twenty-five words in her poem “Bedside” to accomplish what Tolstoy might’ve taken twenty-five pages to do.

Cohen’s poem revolves around the central metaphor of water. Water is life, youth, and love, and when we lack these things we wither; we dry out. The lasting effect is a piece fraught with angst and disbelief: fear that current loneliness will become permanent; fear that age has taken its toll, and that the speaker is long since passed her prime—all of it hinging on a central image, “When did the tumbler // of water, bedside, fill / with dust?” A palpable experience for anyone who has awoken to a dry mouth and reached for last night’s water glass—the taste of one night’s dust altering the flavor of the water. I know that taste. I know that fear. Cohen’s poem makes me experience it all over again.

Why We Like It: “Vogelsong” by Leslie Parry

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

A self-proclaimed tech-geek and amateur dog-trainer, new volunteer and first-year PhD student in fiction Brenda Peynado has a talent for incorporating her disparate interests into conversations at the CR office. A discussion about the midterm elections or streamlining our contact database can lead Brenda into an analysis of the male catcall in the Dominican Republic or a consideration of myth and realism in the novels of Isabel Allende. It’s this interest in the multifariousness of human consciousness, Brenda tells us, that attracts her to Leslie Parry’s haunting story “Vogelsong” (11.1)—the idea that a single person contains multitudes, and that the many can speak as one. Read on to discover why Parry’s story continues to fascinate and even disquiet us so many months after we first encountered it.

Brenda Peynado: I’ve always loved the first-person plural. I love that it can propel the reader into dizzying relationships quickly, and then show how a whole group is haunted, how a whole group falls apart. “Vogelsong” is a beautiful example. Like a ghost story, the collective memory of the day a busload of blind schoolchildren came to the eponymous Florida attraction still lingers desperately in the staff’s imagination, spoiling the sanctuary they’d tried to build there. In turn, the collective character’s nostalgia of what they cannot keep forever chills the reader.

Nothing about “Vogelsong” is typical. The cast includes a harmonica-playing elephant, an ex-beauty queen with her face disfigured, the German immigrants who own the retreat, orphans, and a drunk performance-diver. The setting, exquisitely rendered, exploits surreal elements of the Florida landscape: a discarded fountain of youth, old walls of a slave plantation that advertise death tallies, alligators and canoes, and “a breeze carrying the smell of molasses and rust up the river.”

Parry’s offering will stay with you long after you put it down, haunting you the way only the best ghost story can. Except here, the ghosts are the exquisite moments of your own life that slip away, whole days that disintegrate, until all that is left is the recollection of how “the wheezy hee-haw music would follow us as we rounded the fountain, as two otters splashed away and darted to the shore, and just as we turned east, the sun would flame to life behind a black whoosh of birds, and then we’d think, Oh.”

Why We Like It: “Bonsai Dawn Redwood Grove” by K. E. Duffin

Friday, October 17th, 2014

Volunteer Daniel (“Dan”) Groves comes from a long line of Groveses. His father was a Groves, his father’s father was a Groves, his father’s father’s father was a Groves. Naturally, when Dan writes last name, he scribbles “Groves,” but don’t be fooled. On the day he was born, the hospital intern responsible for typing out birth certificates, an avid disco fan, was listening to a cassette on his brand new, ten-pound, $325.00 Sony Walkman. The cassette was a limited edition, fan-club-only album titled Songs You Never Knew the Bee Gees Wrote. The intern received Dan’s info just as the title track from the famed John Travolta/Olivia Newton John film blared through his headphones, and the intern sang along: “Grease is the word, is the word that you heard; it’s got groove, it’s got meaning.” As he sang, he happened to be typing what should have been “Groves.” Instead, he typed “Grooves.” Dan has succeeded in concealing and correcting this blunder for decades, but sadly, he has also internalized it. Unbeknownst to Dan, groove is the criterion that informs his entire aesthetic. Were you to wake him in the middle of the night, when his cognitive filters are disabled, and ask him why he likes such-and-such poem, he’d mumble, “It’s got groove; it’s got meaning.”

Daniel Groves: In K. E. Duffin’s “Bonsai Dawn Redwood Grove,” the poet observes that “time/ is undone,” and then immediately asks—“but by what mechanism?” One answer could be that time is undone by the mechanism of the poem itself, which seems to invoke ancient artistic practices, with which the poet is aligned, in order to evoke even more ancient—ageless even, by comparison—natural processes. Moving down the page we follow the references as they move, like the sun, from East to West. The title refers to the ancient art of Bonsai, native to Japan, Land of the Rising Sun; the first line’s description of Bonsai Dawn Redwoods as having “many-fingered green hands” alludes, with a playful variation, to Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” mnemonic, often used to mark beginnings, and thus to the dawn of the Western poetic tradition; lastly, the poem takes the form of a sonnet, “little song,” a form imported to England from Italy during the Renaissance. Amid these references to cultural heydays, the poet notes that the “green hands” “reach out from the Eocene” (“Eo-” from the Greek for “dawn”—the Eocene being the dawn of modern mammals), but even evolution itself has not had time enough to produce a bird “tiny enough to adorn such feathery fern.”

The poet, however, can “will it there, furtive and unheard,” as a figure for her dawning sense of herself, which is “small on these mossy slopes” but nonetheless serves as a mechanism by which “Eons pass” (this “Eo” a false dawn) and “time is undone” as “the mute bravado of duration elopes with all my smoldering days.”  Though I remain congenitally wary of most groves, K. E. Duffin’s “Bonsai Dawn Redwood Grove” is a delightful exception.

Why We Like It: “Classified” by Sarah Burke

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014

New volunteer Matthew Pennock hails from NYC, where he studied, earned a poetry degree, and taught school, but he is mainly known for being the reincarnated Houdini. As a baby, Matthew escaped from his crib nightly, and in the morning his parents would find him stuffed inside his sock drawer or an empty box of Tide. Though he grew larger as he aged, Matthew challenged himself to fit inside, and then escape from, smaller and more oddly shaped containers: the helmet of a suit of armor, a clarinet case, a bottle of Britney Spears’s fragrance Curious (he emerged redolent of Louisiana magnolia, golden Anjou pear, and dewy lotus flower). Considering his past life and accomplishments, we do not find it curious that he chose to write on “Classified” in our current issue.

Matthew Pennock: Sarah Burke had me at line 1. I turned the page to her “Classified” and read “Wanted—shell the mollusk exudes like sweat.” What follows is an immaculately rendered poem in which images work in concert to create a feeling of paranoia and exhaustion all too present in our current cultural climate.

The poem, as the title implies, alludes to the structure of a classified ad, relying twice on the italicized verb “wanted,” which is then followed by a series of images, all of which are variations on one theme, close confinement: “Think glove, not box. Vase,/not tank.” These images, however, do not feel claustrophobic; in fact, they feel like the only safe spaces one may inhabit: “Think womb, think flashlight/burning in a makeshift tent of quilts.” After bearing witness to this cavalcade of tight fits, I couldn’t help but see the title in a new way. “Classified” no longer functions solely as an indicator of structure—the form of a want ad—now it takes on the mantle of government. It is a Secret with a capital S, calling to mind the NSA’s wanton violation of our privacy, the vague terror threats the FBI says they’ve foiled but will never reveal. Whenever I think of all the various undefined ways the world wants to destroy me or what I hold dear, I too want to find the safest, most confined space. I want to crawl into an “anthill chambered as a heart.”

Reoccupying the Office: Salutations

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

Hey, all you lit types. We missed you this summer. Hope you got some reading d0ne, swilled some sweetly sour drinks, fed your pets faithfully, and added a few entries to the Annals of Lawn Care. (We know you didn’t go to that Tom Cruise flick, because that thing lost millions.)

We’ve been pretty productive over the so-called break and will soon have some Schiff Prize winners to announce, an amazing graphic play to gladden your eyeballs, and a fall/winter issue (now with the typesetter) jam-packed with long-form goodness (thanks again, NEA)!

With the new term we say a sad farewell to departing Associate Editor Brian Trapp (tears, lamentation) and a cheery hello to new Assistant Editor Don Peteroy, who has served the mag valiantly for four years—even starting his own characteristically zany blog category: Peteroy’s Irrelevant Questions for Relevant Writers. (Look for a new entry later this week.)

In the spirit of transition, we give you a last look back at issue 10.2. For those of you who’ve fallen out of the CR loop, issue 11.1 hit stacks and stands and all manner of grubby palms this July. It’s our 10th anniversary issue, so grab it if you haven’t already.

Now: Volume 10, Number 2, we remember you!

Emily Dickinson wouldn’t leave her bedroom. Robert Frost had a paralyzing fear of public speaking. A certain poet in the CR office only makes eye contact while wearing sunglasses. Poets are notoriously introverted. They spend a lot of time looking out the window, which is probably why, when pressed to make small talk, they are apt to comment on the weather. Read on to learn how our 10.2 contributors have made an art form of window gazing, and elevated “the weather” from small talk to poetry:

Catherine Pierce (on “The Tornado Wants a Companion”): I grew up on the East Coast, where we had occasional hurricanes and blizzards, but never tornadoes. When I moved in 2007 to north Mississippi, a place that frequently experiences tornadic activity (to use a phrase often heard on TV here), I was struck by how terrifying I found this phenomenon—far more terrifying than even the worst weather incidents in my hometown. Eventually I realized my fear stemmed not from the statistical odds of being killed by a tornado (those odds are lower than the odds of dying from, say, smoke inhalation or electrocution, things I don’t think much about in my day-to-day life), but because tornadoes seem to me to have agency. Unlike a hurricane or snowstorm, which just occurs all around you, here’s this single, discrete thing that you can actually witness wreaking havoc. You can watch it coming, and you can hope it doesn’t come for you. I wanted to write a series of poems that explore that agency: If a tornado had a reason, what would it be? What in the world is it that the tornado wants?

Katherine Bode-Lang (on “Death in Midsummer”): I have long been fascinated with astronomy—the sky and our smallness in its presence. This poem is one moment when the strange weather of the hills met our movement against the sky. And I happened to be looking out the window at the right time.

Kurt Steinwand (on “Frankie the Storm” ): Storms in the news. We give them names, personalities; Sandy with her ironic innocence, though the displaced sand of the Jersey Shore made a connection. The Media sensationalizes, tells the stories. My storm was Italian, a goombah, an intruder, no admired Rocky Balboa. The storm was serious, a shorted-lived member of the Mob who thought he was in cahoots with God; His henchman, maybe even thought he was better, an extension of the Almighty, the Short Reign of Frankie IV. I gave him a name, then believed it was too gratuitous, too legitimizing. I took it out, then put it back in the title and let him have his little moment in the clouds. The power of a poet is often to give a brief life, Godlike, allow it to blow onto the page, be taken seriously with all the senses, and be gone. Or is he? When at the end he’s still “coming in.” That was the essence of this poem.

Why We Like It: Ana Blandiana

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Whether championing the dry-rub brisket of his native Texas or sharing self-deprecating anecdotes from his MFA-daze at NYU, veteran blogger and recent volunteer Jose Araguz infuses the CR office with his characteristic humor and generous intelligence. “Sorry,” Jose will say after praising a sestina’s inevitable yet surprising end-words, “I’m easily excited.” We on the CR staff disagree; when it comes to assessing submissions, Jose displays a keen discernment—a quality everywhere apparent in his appreciation of the brief lyrics of Ana Blandiana (10.2). In fact, Jose’s installment of Why We Like It marks this blog’s first appreciation of any writing-in-translation featured in the magazine—an oversight Jose was enthusiastic to remedy.

Jose Araguz: I have long been a champion of the short lyric. The poems of Ana Blandiana, as translated by Paul Scott Derrick and Viorica Patea, are marvelously complex examples. The two pieces that struck me in particular were “I’m Blinkered” and “Hourglass.”

“I’m Blinkered” begins: “I’m blinkered/ Like the eye of a horse,” setting a sardonic tone right off. The poem then explores the experience the title names, a state of seeing the reader quickly discovers is about not seeing, of being hindered, bothered to the point of not wanting to bother. “Don’t ask me,” says the speaker, “What trees and flowers/ I’ve found along the way.” Capable of both wit and gravity, this nuanced voice pulls the reader in until we are left, like the speaker, receiving “messages/ That [we] don’t understand in the clouds.” The poem is visceral in that it conveys the condition of being physically blinkered, but also expresses a kind of metaphysical ennui.

In “Hourglass,” the speaker contemplates how a grain of sand, stuck in the narrow passage between glass bulbs, “refuses to fall.” Because of the stuck grain, time has stopped: “Nothing moves.” Through this predicament, the speaker relays humor, then pushes forward into more serious territory. The poem ends with the declaration: “A dream of stopping/ On the road toward death/ Is almost the same as being dead.” Suddenly, the reader is moved from contemplating the grain of sand into being the grain of sand.

What does it mean to be stuck? Is dreaming a way of being stuck? What do we miss while “blinkered” by our daily thoughts? These questions are just some of the places I go when I read these poems. Whether grain of sand or the eye of a horse, Blandiana’s short lyrics find ways to transform her personal vision into accessible and meaningful poetry.

Why We Like It: Daneen Bergland’s “Animals Invaluable to Epidemiologists for Tracking the Spread of Disease Will Appear to Us as Angels”

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Sara Watson: As an animal lover, I was immediately drawn to the subject of Daneen Bergland’s “Animals Invaluable to Epidemiologists for Tracking the Spread of Disease Will Appear to Us as Angels.” This poem not only considers our relationship with animals, but even offers them an autonomous dream life.

The speaker in this poem is assertive. She knows her stuff. “A body is just a place to keep your guts safe,” she says, and, “Music has always been good for sad things.” It’s more than the phrases Bergland builds that ring true, however; it is her tone of utter assurance. But the speaker is curious, too, and compassionate, gazing into the face ( the teeth, to be exact) of what must be a very small and very frightened bat, asking, “Do you think we are the stars of animals’ anxiety dreams?”

Charming, funny, and smart, the voice here leads me, ultimately, to new questions about myself and the world.