Tuesday, November 14, 2017

#250: " Where the Highway Ends: Sketches of Denise Levertov & Mitchell Goodman" by Mark Pawlak

~This essay was previously published in Hanging Loose (2007).



“Life and memory of it so compressed they’ve turned into each other.
Which is which?”—Elizabeth Bishop
“We do not remember days, we remember moments.”—Cesare Pavese


Preface
I came to MIT in 1966, on a scholarship, from a Buffalo, New York, working class family, a family where books were suspect and my decision to go to MIT instead of a local college surprising. I was majoring in physics when, during my senior year, I took a poetry writing class with Denise Levertov. In Denise, and her husband, Mitch Goodman, I found the intellectual family, and the wider world, that I had been searching for. Over the years, I continued to live and work in the Boston area, mostly in Somerville and Cambridge. My relationship with Denise continued as she became my confidante, my poetry mentor, my guide to a life of the mind broader than just physics and mathematics. I was soon admitted into her large but intimate circle of friends, social activists, and writers. This included becoming an invited guest at her country house in western Maine. At some time in the early 60s, Denise and Mitch had bought a farmhouse in the township of Temple—literally where the highway ends. It served them for years as an escape from the summer heat of their Greenwich Village apartment. After they moved to Boston, as it was closer to the farmhouse, they took off to Temple more frequently and in all seasons, as indicated in the following sketches from memory. As you read them, imagine the effect on a young mind of this couple, poet and novelist, well-read intellectuals, and political activists.

Summer
I remember flying with Denise in a small prop plane from Boston to Farmington. The twin engines thrummed as we skimmed the green treetops of Maine’s endless woods. It was my first visit, August. Mitch was there to greet and drive us in his Volvo to their Temple farmhouse.

There was always at least one other Volvo parked on the front lawn. Over the years, with each visit, I would find the collection had grown. Mitch bought them for spare parts to keep one aging Volvo running. His answer to inquiries was always “You can imagine how common a Volvo dealer is in rural Maine.”

The kitchen window looked out on a lone apple tree beside a fieldstone fence a short distance behind the house; beyond the fence was a broad, grassy field. It sloped up from the farmhouse to a tree-lined ridge; to the right of the house the field descended sharply in the direction of Temple Stream. A granite slab served as the front-door step. Denise and I sat there one morning as she read me the poem she’d just written: “night lies down/in the field. . . .”

Monday, November 6, 2017

#249: Three Poems by Bruce Robinson

~Selected by Clara Jane Hallar, assistant editor, poetry


~This poem was previously published in Spoon River Quarterly (1991).




Dialing and Dolor
                                    la vida es sueño

            Selena’s on the telephone. Richard
is in conference. Philip’s on hold.
Rosalie is calling. Kevin
is dialing. Mark is listening.

            At the front desk Pat is decding
whether to be masculine or feminine.
Most of us have already made this decision,
some have lived to regret it.

            And where is Caroline?  Philip calls Selena,
there’s no answer. He calls Bob, but
Caroline’s not there.  He calls me,
I’m holding for an open line. “Mark, is Caroline there.”

            She is not. She is in the conference room,
speaking to herself, practicing eye contact,
practicing doing without cigarettes
for an hour and a half, studying inflections, weighing nuance.

            Through the skylight the sun lights
without connection or warmth; it’s working on a
concept, it’s on to something big. The sun is so much
like light it’s almost uncanny,

            As if masculine were feminine,
or dialing listening, sometimes there’s just
the warm contours of the telephone
when you’ve been on hold.


*****

Monday, October 30, 2017

#248: "Who Owns This?" by Nathan Leslie

~This story appeared in Boulevard (2011).


There was this guy.  He called himself Franklin, though I found out later his real name was Charlie Smythe.  Well, Charlie (or whoever he was) liked the name Franklin.  Not Frank or Frankie.  Franklin.  He was proper that way.
            We both lived in the gated community, Meadow Haven.  I was working three nights a week at the Meadow Haven Club.  It was an upscale community pool—just for the residents of Meadow Haven.  The developers carved out a nine-hole golf course, a pool, a line of Jacuzzis, and faux-clay tennis courts.  The works.  Not that most of the Meadow Haven residents didn’t have their own means of entertainment (pools and Jacuzzis of their own), but I worked at the pool anyway.  If Meadow Haven residents wanted to be seen, they’d go to the pool.  That was the difference.  My job was to hand out towels (if needed) and make sure the residents signed their name and address in the assigned box.  I knew most of the regulars, so it was merely a formality.  I was good at being friendly, at smiling my clean-cut grin and validating the Meadow Haven ethos, or whatnot.  I’d get an occasional tip, a lawn-mowing gig.  It was generally relaxing.  There was nothing much to it.
            But back to Franklin.  Unlike most of the other regulars, Franklin always came to the pool unaccompanied.  Of course, our bread and butter were the housewives and their rug-rats.  Each afternoon Franklin would show up in his black Nylon jogging pants, his yellow or green t-shirt, and he always carried a twelve-ounce bottle of Deer Park water in his right hand—in between his finger and thumb as if it were a cigar.  He’d make a federal production:  unscrew the cap, take a small sip, lick his lips, lick his lips again, screw the cap back on dramatically with a flick of the wrist.  He liked being watched.  He liked attention. 
Franklin was a short man with a short man’s complex.  He had an Irish-looking face, with a pug nose and strawberry-blonde hair.  Franklin moved quickly, swinging his arms wildly, as if he were power-walking.  Overcompensation if you ask me.  He usually wore a rhomboid gold earring in each ear, pirate style.  When he took off his shirt I could see the weird, faded places where you could tell he had tattoos removed from his reddish skin.  But whoever removed the tattoos didn’t do such a hot job:  the ghost of his previous tattoos was still there.  When I knew him Franklin was maybe forty—the kind of guy who was not quite my father’s age, but certainly too old to be my brother or cousin.  But I was in college at the time, so my perspective of everything was skewed.
            So I was sitting at the desk reading an Elmore Leonard paperback propped on a stack of towels.  Franklin came up to me.  Most of the residents signed in, took a towel, said hello, and went for a swim.  I felt this guy standing there, watching me.  Just standing there.  Then I heard the smack, smack, smack of gum between his teeth.  His breath smelled like apricots.  Great, I thought, I have to look up from Rum Punch.
            “Hey, bub,” he said.  “Do you know who owns this?”
            I was dumbfounded.  The facial expression I screwed on probably shouted:  “That is a stupid question.”
            “Who owns this?  You do, really.”
            “Right,” he said, still chomping away on his apricot gum.  He crossed his arms as if to defend himself against the oncoming I-gotcha.  “But I still have to sign in.” 
            “You don’t literally own it,” I said.  “But the development owns the golf course, the pool, the Har-Tru tennis courts.  You know, your community association dues and membership fees help pay for maintenance.”  I don’t know why he didn’t see the big picture, but then I guess he wasn’t the first clueless rich guy in the world.
            “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said.  Franklin had an odd way of talking—some kind of aw-shucks 50’s amalgam, with a heavy dose of the new-agey that emerged as we became acquainted.  He was friendly, open-hearted; Franklin always was.  But there was something else there too.  Something.  I mean, “Bub?”  Who says that?  Franklin went on:  he just moved in and he figured he’d see if we needed a sculpture in our lobby.  “You have to have a sculpture,” he said.  He said it might add to the “authority” of the place, the overall “energy.”
            Now you have to understand, “lobby” is far too grand of a word to use to describe the area in which I sat—despite the dues and fees, which mostly covered salaries and upkeep of the facilities.  Aside from the desk, there was a scuffed miniature pool table with warped faux-cherry cues, an air hockey table, and a cheap, triangular, laminated coffee table—management used it for fliers and announcements and the like.  For penny-pinching reasons Meadow Haven didn’t give much thought to the lobby; residents complained it looked like the lobby of a public pool.  No room for a statue, unless it was a little desk-top paperweight do-dad.
            I shrugged, but Franklin kept pressing.  How the lobby needs a statue.  How every lobby should have a statue.  How a statue brings the “energies” of the room to focus.  How a statue makes a lobby feel homey, full.  Like I gave a rat’s ass.  I just wanted to be left to my own devices—to my on-the-job R&R.
            “I’ll have to ask Lynda,” I said.  I propped my head in my hand.  “She’s the manager.”  I let my gaze drift back down to Rum Punch, hoping he’d get the hint.
            “Great, thanks a mil, bub,” Franklin said.  “If you’d do that for me I’d really appreciate it.  And if you want a statue of your own, let me know, will ya?  I mean, I’ll sell you one lickety-split, on discount.”  He made clicking sound with his tongue and pointed at me as if we shared some inside joke.  We didn’t. 
            “Okay,” I said.
            “Just remember:  I’m a sculptor.  I sculpt.  This is my life-force.  Help support your local artist.  We are part and parcel.”  Of what, I thought.  I just didn’t get his whole thing.
            He smacked his gum and signed in, grabbed a towel, glanced at the name.  Even carrying a towel, Franklin somehow managed to swing his arms. 
            “I’ll ask Lynda,” I reiterated, trying to avoid his eyes.  The guy weirded me out from the word go.  I guess there are worse things; he was memorable. 
            Then I let Franklin dissolve into the background.  Went back to my Rum Punch.

Monday, October 23, 2017

#247: Three Poems by Shahé Mankerian

~Selected by Clara Jane Hallar, Assistant Editor for Poetry

~ This poem was previously published in The New Guard Literary Review (2011).



The Mosaic of the Missing

We found the doll’s head
rolled under the chassis
of the charred Mercedes,

then one plastic sandal
on the cracked manhole.
Her mother fell

on the sidewalk, staring
at the feet of the crowd
that circled the bomb crater

like crows. They found
her braided pigtail twisted
around the telephone wire.

We heard the choked whisper
of the mother get louder.
“Ya, Souraia, stay home

and dress your doll.
We’ll have the damn okra
without bread.” We mistook

shards of glass for fingernails.
The three o’clock chimes
of the clock tower muffled

the siren of the ambulance.
The corner grocer needed
help behind the counter,

but his son was busy sifting
through bones and limbs
as if searching for souvenirs. 

*****

Monday, October 16, 2017

#246: "Getaway" by Rachel Vogel

~This story was previously published in Passages North (2009).
~Selected by Kenneth A. Fleming, Assistant Editor, Fiction.


            Ellen lies on a bed at the Plaza Athénée, idly stroking the satin coverlet. She and Jim have been on plenty of weekend getaways, but none like this. We just need some time alone, he has promised, and Ellen wants to believe.
“The water pressure’s weak,” he calls from the shower. He’s annoyed and Ellen wonders how long he will take to ease out of it. In the early days, a drink before dinner did the trick. Now, an entire bottle of merlot can’t shake Jim of the tension he wears like a porcupine coat. Ellen’s sister has urged her to consult a lawyer.
            “Should I call the front desk?” Ellen’s words sound foreign to her, as if another woman has spoken them, a common occurrence since the birth of their child. Spending hours alone with a toddler has atrophied Ellen’s mind. She barely glances at the newspaper each morning before flipping to the ad inserts in search of diaper coupons. She used to read Wittgenstein, for Christ’s sake.
            Ellen looks around the suite, which contains several furniture arrangements they will not use, and lets her eyes linger on a Chippendale breakfront stocked with porcelain knickknacks. It’s funny how all you really need is a bathroom and a bed. Jim would disagree. Their first weekend away, he spent forty-five minutes shuttling around The Four Seasons Miami with the hotel manager. Every room was too small or too noisy. When Ellen finally suggested they settle for a junior suite on the second floor, Jim admonished her. “You’ll never get anywhere if you’re willing to settle.” Where am I going? she wondered, but just in case, she kept her mouth shut.
From the beginning, Jim’s dark eyes and barrel chest made her heart dance in a million directions, and she loved his quick tongue. Sure, it had gotten them into trouble. Like the time he said “fuck you” to the American Airlines flight attendant and security guards “escorted” them off the plane to the cheers of the other passengers. But Jim’s unpredictability provided a certain excitement. Besides, you couldn’t expect to get all of the good and none of the bad in a marriage.
Jim emerges from the bathroom, a towel wrapped tightly around his waist. Ellen loves when he is freshly groomed—the sweet scent of soap, the rubbery feel of his damp skin, the minty smell of toothpaste with just a hint of his real breath coming through. She pats the bed and he sits down. Then he reaches over and squeezes her nipple. God, how she hates that. In six years of lovemaking, Jim hasn’t learned not to go straight for her boobs or her cunt. She likes these parts worked up to, yearns for a delicate path that meanders to an exquisite ripeness. But she wants the weekend to go well. If she offends him—and when it comes to sex Jim is easily offended—he won’t shake it off and they’ll go ten rounds. So she lets him plot his course, even gamely strokes his thigh. In another minute, though, she can’t stop herself from remarking,
            “I wonder if there were any more bombings in Baghdad today.”
            Jim, who follows the war obsessively, grabs the television clicker and looks for CNN. Ellen breathes a sigh of relief. She isn’t ready to succumb, not yet. As he works the remote, she stares at the walls, seeking inspiration. Above the bathroom door, the creamy paper is curling back, exposing a gluey yellow compound which casts a tawdry glow on the rest of the room. The antique furniture, at first glance so elegant, now suggests the tired finery of a brothel in an old Western, while the fringed skirting on a red silk divan dangles like a beaded saloon door. Ellen wonders how many couples have groped each other here, prostituting their better judgment in a last-ditch effort to blow some oxygen back into the dying embers of their passion.
“Can you believe those bastards killed off four more Marines today?” Jim says. An image of blood-drenched bodies and twisted metal floats across the television screen. “Blew them to bits with a car bomb and got away.” He sounds animated, almost gleeful.
Ellen wonders if the attorney’s business card is still tucked in her sequin clutch where her sister slipped it one night after a difficult party.
She wriggles on the bed, a twinge of excitement shooting through her. When Jim turns off the news, she is ready for him.

*****

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

#245: Three Poems by Kate Bernadette Benedict

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



~This poem was previously published in Without Halos (1988) and Pudding (1993)

“Early Lessons: Submission”


She hates it, they make her eat it,
she mustn’t leave the table until every slice
of cold boiled carrot is off her plate.
6:30, 7:00: she sits there, staring
at those vomit-orange pellets
on pink Melmac, stabbing
at them with a fork, smelling
their sickening odor.
7:30, 8:00: now and then she thumbs a wedge
into her pressed mouth, gagging.
8:30, 9:00: her father holds firm,
she has to eat them.
Her mother warms them up and makes
a carrot sandwich: carrot bits,
pocked with mayo, poking
out of soft white Wonder bread.
It feels moist and lumpy in her hands
but the ruse helps.
She gets most of it down
and is released to one TV show,
a cupcake, her sheltering bed.
Then it’s time for breakfast.
They feed her boiled eggs
with raw running whites,
and orange juice, mossy with pulp,
and bacon, blubbery with slick fat,
and she hates it and has to eat it.


*****

Monday, September 18, 2017

#244: "Go Back to Where You Came From" by Rita Ciresi


~This essay previously appeared in Divergent Voices (2014).

            Like everything else in our house that plugs into a (working) electrical socket, the record player comes on The Truck. My father knows a guy. Who knows a guy. Who knows a guy. You never know which guy will barrel The Truck up our steep asphalt driveway: Ugly. Shorty. The Schnozz. Big Willy.
            Whoever si chiama, the guy flings open the back of the truck and deposits the unsealed box on the back porch. No money changes hands, at least in front of my mother. 
            I don't ask no questions, Ma says.
            The record player comes in the swankiest color of 1967: avocado green. My three sisters and I haul it into the living room and drop to our knees to worship it—like it's the Archbishop's gold ring that contains a sliver of Christ's cross. 
            Sister Uno plugs it in. Sister Due puts the 45 on the turntable. Sister Tre pushes the lever that makes the record drop and the arm lurch over. 
            The speakers screech.
            I cover my ears. The record player is a piece-a-shit, like everything else in our house—the washing machine that doesn't wash, the dryer that doesn't dry, the baccaus that clogs so often I am terrified to cacca in it.
            Needs a needle, Sister Uno says.
            Ma heads for her sewing box. Sister Due digs through the Styrofoam and plucks out a silver stylus, thin as the slivers Ma yanks out of the bottom of our feet when we don't listen to her (you kids, you stunod kids, you don't listen to me, you never listen!), and walk barefoot on the Seaside Heights boardwalk. 
            The needle picks up every pop and scratch on the record. Then a deep, commanding voice enters our living room: Welcome to Italian One. Lesson One. Greetings. Listen and repeat. 
            We listen. But do not repeat. 
            Buon giorno, Signora Rossi, come stai? (Ding!)
            Bene, grazie, e Lei? (Ding!)