Monday, August 14, 2017

#241: "House of the Ancients" by Clifford Garstang


~This story was previously published in REAL (Regarding Arts and Letters) (2008).

  
Nick—having learned from his Lonely Planet guide that the Mexico City subway is cheap, but infested with pickpockets—clutches his shoulder pack to his chest. He knows that the obvious anxiety marks him as an American or, at best, a Canadian, but right now, eyeing his fellow passengers, he doesn’t care. He’s been walking all day, like a zombie for the last hour. He’s worn out. The blister on his heel burns. He detects, via the low-pitched growl at the bottom of his gut, that he might soon be laid low with whatever it is that keeps Alexis tethered to their hotel room. And now he needs to know—it’s essential that he knows—that he is headed in the right direction. The guidebook falls open where he’s dog-eared the subway map. He boarded at Auditorio and the train has just left Constituyentes. Good. South, just as he wants, toward Barranca del Muerte. Ravine of Death.
As the train pulls into Tacubaya, a sprawling station where three lines meet, he slips the guidebook back into the bag. At least the flood of new passengers won’t identify him immediately. Unless the shiny Nikes give him away. Or his White Sox cap. Or his Levis and University of Chicago t-shirt.
When the doors hiss open, a family enters: a dark man with a guitar slung over his shoulder, a woman with a babe-in-arms, and two small boys. At the head of the subway car, the man unslings the guitar and hugs it close, plucking the strings tentatively as he sings in a piercing voice that rises above the train’s clatter. The lyrics don’t penetrate Nick’s meager Spanish, but the other riders, who nod appreciatively with the staccato beat, seem to recognize the song. The wife takes a seat with the baby and keeps her eyes low. The boys—Nick has assigned them names, Roberto for the older, and Pablo for the little one—the boys make their way through the car, Roberto down the left side, Pablo down the right, each with a grimy hand extended, stopping before every promising passenger, waiting for a coin or a head shake, or a scowl.
It is tiny Pablo, wearing green sweat pants and a tobacco-brown sweater, who stands before Nick, gazing up at him with wide, dark eyes. The father’s voice sails through the car, an arrow Nick thinks is meant for him, and Pablo bounces his open hand, a hand no larger than a cat’s paw, on Nick’s knee. When Nick presses a peso into Pablo’s palm, there is no smile, no acknowledgment. The boy breaks his gaze and moves on. At San Pedro de los PiƱos, the boys jostle through the rushing passengers to join their parents, and the family passes into the next car, to be replaced by a grim-faced young man selling DVDs of a rock concert that he displays on a portable player held above his head, sour chords blaring from the machine’s tiny speakers as the vendor maneuvers through the oblivious crowd.
The train hurtles through the tunnel, a passage in time for Nick, back to his Chicago commute, images of Alexis flickering on the black windows, their future together, healing the strain of faded newness, feeling their way toward something solid and lasting.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

#240: Four Poems by Michael Hettich

~These poems were selected by Clara Jane Hallar, Assistant Editor for Poetry.


~This poem was previously published in The Great River Review (2015).


The Milky Way

If we could imagine that every word we speak
were an animal or insect, the last of a species
ever to be born, that the very act of speaking
brought extinction even before our words 
had been heard and replied to, we might get a feeling
for the vanishings we witness but don’t see. And if every
conversation were understood as a kind
of holocaust denuding whole landscapes, some people
would simply fall silent—as far as they could—
while most others would keep chattering on. Just imagine
the vast forests of lives, the near-infinity of forms 
brought to a halt with a simple conversation.
And I would be one of the talkers, despite
the fact that I knew what my talking destroyed.
And so I would mourn every word I said,
even while I argued passionately for silence
and for learning to honor the sacred diversity
of life. Just imagine watching the stars
go out on a dark night in the far north, a clear night,
one after the other until the sky was black.

Once, when I was taking out the garbage, just walking
dully across my back yard, a huge bird—
as big as a vulture but glittering and sleek—
rose from the grass and flew into my body,
knocked the breath out of me, then flew up and away
with a powerful pull of its wings. I could hardly

see it in the darkness. And then it was just gone.


  
*****

Friday, July 28, 2017

#239: "Old Men Don't Need Much Sleep" by Richard LeBlond




~This essay was previously published in New Plains Review (2015), as “Higher Ground: Old Men Don’t Need Much Sleep.”


 Old Men Don’t Need Much Sleep

I set out from Broken Bow, Nebraska, on the last day of spring 2011 to visit Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It was the third day of my annual trip west from North Carolina. I grew up in Oregon but had moved east nearly 50 years before. Most of my family remained in the Portland area, and I flew out every Christmas. But when Mom died in 2002, Christmas lost its cohesion, and I started driving out in summer. In addition to visiting family, I wanted to revisit places from my past and explore the unknown. Time had also become a factor. My bucket list had gotten more crowded without having to add new entries.
Wounded Knee is the site of an 1890 massacre of more than 150 Lakota Sioux men, women, and children. It is regarded by many historians as the final conflict for the West. The site has been designated a National Historic Landmark, but is not promoted for public visitation by U.S. or tribal authorities. There used to be a small village there with a trading post and museum, but these were destroyed in 1973 during an occupation by members of the American Indian Movement and consequent facedown with federal authorities.
In recent years I have been reading more about the removal of Native Americans from their homelands, the forced settlement onto reservations, and the causes of conditions that persist on those reservations today. Books are dangerous. They awaken curiosity. They prompt journeys.
Since I regarded my visit as something close to trespass, I decided to bypass the reservation town of Pine Ridge, pay my respects quietly at the Wounded Knee cemetery, and leave unnoticed. As usual, things did not go as I imagined they would.
It was raining when I woke up in Broken Bow, and it rained all morning as I followed Route 2 through the green sandhills of northwestern Nebraska, the largest region of dunes in the Western Hemisphere. The unrelenting drizzle was becoming a threat to the outdoor lunch I had packed. On the road I look for a natural setting for lunch, but if raining, I look for a restaurant. Skipping lunch was not an option. A life without lunch is a life without meaning.
By late morning, an indoor lunch appeared likely, and Pine Ridge was the only town around, about a dozen miles from the cemetery. It was still raining as I approached the reservation from Nebraska a little after eleven. I had been up since 5:30 and decided to have lunch before going to the cemetery. I was getting hungry, and it would give the rain another chance to realize it had made its point.

Monday, July 17, 2017

#238: Three Poems by Lori Lamothe




~These poems were selected by Clara Jane Hallar, assistant poetry editor


~This poem previously appeared in New Madrid (2016).

Forecast


At the border between properties
a galvanized washtub collects falling
snow. Hours later, the white’s risen
so high it brims over emptiness.
I want to kneel down before it
and rinse my bare arms in its cold,
clean comfort. I want to let the idea of
an original, untouched world accumulate.
Because there are so many spaces inside me
waiting for renewal. The heart with its huge
barn doors thrown open in anticipation
of love’s galloping horses. The mind
and its attic of memories, or even the hands
held out for work, its solid, familiar tools.
Above me, the clouds open their trap doors
all at once and flakes sift down, blanketing
everything with a marvelous innocence
that will surely last long enough this time.



Monday, July 10, 2017

#237: "My House Wordship" by Richard Kostelanetz

~This piece was previously published in Home & Away (1991).

I sit here in this old house alone.
–Edmund Wilson, Upstate (1971)

My apartment became famous for a day, early in September 1985, when it appeared at the top of the front page of the widely read New York Times's Thursday "Home" section. Accompanying a feature article on "Living with Too Many Books" was a photograph of me sitting beneath towering shelves tightly filled with paperbacks. Whereas most features in the Times are forgotten a few days afterwards, this one is often remembered, mostly by those likewise crowded. The article said I had ten thousand books, which seems too high, for the only figure authorized by me was "956 running feet" of shelves containing books. Those more experienced insist that the count must now be closer to fifteen thousand, which is the result of reading roughly a book a day for forty adult years.
            What the size of this library mostly reflects–a point missed by the writer, specializing in interior design–is not that I "collect" books, because I don't, but that I've worked my way through several intellectual fields. After taking degrees in American civilization and American history, I became interested in literature and literary criticism; more recently, I've written about other arts. By contrast, no one pursuing a single discipline would need so many books at home. A second fact shaping the size of the library is professional independence. Whereas professors can rely upon a university library, I can use only the New York Public. However, not only is its stocking erratic, but even the famed research central at 42nd Street is missing many items listed in its catalog.
            A third, more personal fact is that my books are extensively annotated, not only with marks on their pages but also with sheets of paper filled with handwritten notes. When I want to find something that I remember being in any book of mine, I first consult these sheets. In a practical sense, these sheets and annotations are more valuable to me than the books; for unlike the books, they are irreplaceable.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

#236: "When the Saints Go Marching Out" by Roland Goity

                                                                           

~This story originally appeared in Talking River Review (2006).


August 24, 2005:  Ivan boasted a warm, alcohol-fueled grin from his window seat as he and Katrina descended upon Louis Armstrong Airport. It had already been a long day; they rose before sun-up to catch their flight from San Jose, and had a long layover in St Louis (two Lynchburg Lemonades) before catching their connection to The Big Easy, Crescent City, The City that Care Forgot, N’Awlins. Katrina napped beside him with her mouth open, and Ivan nudged her awake. “There it is, baby: a place with class, with history, with style,” he said. “Get out your beads and get ready to party!” 

August 29, 2005: Sheryl and her six-year-old daughter Markeesha sat on the lumpy, sunflower-patterned couch in their Garden District apartment and sang one song after another. By the time they got to When the Saints Go Marching In, they were on their feet and tapping beats on the hardwood floor. When they finished, Sheryl hugged Markeesha whose eyes pooled with tears. Torrential rainfall and triple-digit winds rapped at the boarded-up windows and Sheryl did her best to hide the sinking feeling she had. “You sure Nana’s okay?” Markeesha asked again. Sheryl nodded and sighed with relief. Through fate, her mother was spending the week with friends in Shreveport. 

August 25:  After a night of Hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s and making boisterous fools of themselves at Preservation Hall, Ivan and Katrina were at it again. They were on Day Two of their planned tour to hit every nook and cranny of New Orleans’ famed French Quarter. And Ivan could hardly believe it. Only two days before he was in Silicon Valley pushing e-commerce solutions to anyone who’d listen; now he was strolling about cobblestone pathways and wrought-iron gates on Royal Street, taking drunken horse-drawn carriage rides in the shadows of stately mansions on St. Charles Avenue.  Jazz music drifted along the street, from bars and clubs and sometimes the sidewalks themselves. The street musicians were so good, in fact, Ivan guessed they’d probably command top dollar in most cities. This was Ivan’s utopia; this was “Disneyland for adults.” Indeed, it wasn’t long until he and Katrina arrived at a bar on Bourbon Street and were coaxed onstage by the long beckoning finger of the bass player in a ZZ Top-style trio: a rangy black man with an old-style ‘fro and instrumental chops not unlike Stanley Clarke, the king of Ivan’s self-congratulatory musical hierarchy. As they danced alongside the band, it seemed somehow natural to Ivan that he and Katrina were now improv entertainers of the Old Absinthe House. Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory himself, often celebrated there back in the day, and at that moment Ivan felt he’d forged a spiritual bond with the great general and president. This marvelous southern city satiated his ego, and as he danced the “po’ fool white boy” before the lively crowd, Ivan wondered what might someday be his own claim to fame. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

#235: "Hiking with Kierkegaard" by Mark Liebenow

~This essay previously appeared in Chautauqua (2014).



Hiking With Kierkegaard      
The Struggle Between the Idea and the Experience of Nature: A Debate Informed by Goethe, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, the Velveteen Rabbit, and a Hike to the Top of El Capitan.


            Before dawn in late September, I stand on a bank of the Merced River, below black mountains in silhouette, and watch the river’s dark blue water flow out from the forest and surge quietly past. The undulating surface reflects glints of silver from the sky’s early light. Mist hovers in the chill above the autumn meadow. When there is enough light to see, I begin a ten-hour hike by going up the steep switchbacks on the canyon’s north wall to the top of Yosemite Falls.
            An hour and a half later, catching my breath on the canyon’s edge, I glance back at Half Dome across the valley, locate my trail, and head into the forest for El Capitan, anxious to see what it looks like from above. From the valley floor, El Cap is a smooth granite monolith that rises 3000 feet straight up. Rock climbers travel from around the world to spend days pulling their way up its vertical face; for them it’s a rite of passage. I prefer to hike over the mountains and explore the forest along the way.
            In a shaded grove near Eagle Peak, I pause for a quick drink of water, but as I look around the landscape at an elevation of 7400 feet, a strange sensation invites me to sit on a boulder. What’s confusing is that on a long hike I don’t usually stop for water because I want to get back to camp before dark. I just swing my backpack around, grab a bottle and drink without ever breaking my stride. Setting my drive to get to El Cap aside, I wait to discover what is causing this feeling.  It seems like something that I’ve forgotten or lost.
            The growing heat of the sun filters through the trees and balances the crisp, cool air of early morning. Chickadees are chirping, chipmunks are scuffling through the dirt and leaves looking for stray acorns, and the breeze hums as it twirls needles in the sugar pines towering above me. I am energized by the quiet sounds and scent of pine, and the moment feels perfect, although this doesn’t say it right. I feel physically connected to the land. This says more, but the words don’t say enough. I linger for twenty minutes letting the presence of the landscape deepen.
            I come into nature because of surprises like this, whether I’m hiking in Yosemite, canoeing among the moose in the Boundary Waters above Minnesota, walking the old prairies of Wisconsin, or poking around tide pools on Oregon’s serrated coast. Yosemite Valley is seven miles long and one mile wide, and by camping for a week I experience something of the rustic life of John Muir. Nature’s architecture has created a place both intimate and open where people can explore the boundary between self and the wilderness.
            This trip I’m also here because grief has morphed into Moby Dick at home and I’m locked in a battle like Ahab, unable to kill it or let it go. Five months after my wife’s sudden death in her forties, I’m stuck in anger, depression, and apathy, and I’m hoping that nature can help me with this.