Monday, October 31, 2011

#7: A Poem by Brandel France de Bravo

~~This poem previously appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review (2011)

Grammar School

America the Beautiful was our soundtrack, each of the twenty-four
frames per second as bottomless, open as the holes in our desks
where the ink bottles weren’t,  like the cloakroom without cloaks—just
parkas and yellow raincoats.  Hands perpetually raised, the smell
of mimeographs redolent as our mothers’ perfume, violet fingers
quivering in the air. God shed your grace on me, which would be
the lavatory key,  shackled to a wood brick bigger than a 7 year-old’s
hand, thighs, buttocks clenched against shame.  And naps
at our amber waving desks on pillows of crossed arms, my soul
 to keep, as the radiators, skeletal beneath the windows,  sang
their hiss and clang lullaby. Waking, we tied on our thinking caps,
index fingers ready to march once more across the Weekly Reader,
 to bushwhack through the dense green words,
fearful of ambush.

America the Beautiful was our soundtrack, each of us a majestic
 purple note, and each of the twenty-four frames a forspacious story,
until the projector, its young eaten, stutters to white, until Mrs. Boston,
roaming the aisles, would single out the one not seated
to teach us proper speech. “Where’s Antony?” she’d ask, or “Where’s
Jerome?” and Denise, Deborah and “T,” falling like straight men,
hang men every time would point to the student clapping erasers
or standing startled at the pencil sharpener, and shout, proud
to know the answer to something, “There he go!” And Mrs. Boston,
hands on hips, would turn to us, smirking slightly and using
the double negative I found so thrilling—my white mother would have
slapped me for it—to correct: “I don’t see him going nowhere.
There he is,” she scolded. I knew the difference between the two verbs
but the lesson came too late for me, going always  a substitute
for being in a life spent leaving: this classroom, this brotherhood,
this sea to shining, and Antony still
not nowhere.



Monday, October 24, 2011

#6: "Black Hole" by Walter Cummins

 ~~This piece previously appeared in Outerbridge (1993)
            The cloud cover thickened just as the cable car began its ascent, lifting off from the wooden boarding shed and skimming the tall spruces on the mountainside. Paul knew they had lost the sun for the day; only a small circle of blue sky remained far in the distance.  When they reached the peak, even the nearby ranges would be swallowed in grey.
            "We won't see a goddamn thing."  Paul kicked a boot at the side of the car.
            "Stop pouting," Leslie told him. 
            "I came here for mountains."
            Their eyes locked, and Paul quivered with resentment.  An hour before, maids clattering outside their hotel room, they had thrashed in lovemaking, not caring that their cries could be heard in the hallway.  Now he found her lips thin and mean as she clenched her jaw.  We're only good in the dark, he wanted to tell her but instead turned away from her face.
            Below the dangling car, the village and its lake shrank into postcard perspective.  But the plastic windows of the car were yellowed and scratched, blurring his view.
            Perhaps most people had known clouds would ruin the midday brightness.  Only a few others were in the car with them, pressed against the sides and peering outward: a very old man in hiking breeches with a gnarled walking stick; a mother and young daughter with the same plump sullen face, side by side but saying nothing to each other; a middle‑aged couple in shorts and thick boots over heavy woolen socks, their legs tanned and muscled.
            When the car reached the first of the towering pylons that braced the cable, it rumbled over the metal base and pitched sideways.  Paul panicked: the wires were snapping, they would plummet.  He gripped a handrail and then‑‑an instant later‑‑felt foolish, wondering if Leslie had noticed.  She stared out at the treetops.
            "The top of the world," he scoffed.      
            Leslie turned to meet his gaze.  "I'm as disappointed as you are." 

Monday, October 17, 2011

#5: "Tourist Season at Auschwitz" by Mark Lewandowski

~~This piece previously appeared in The Gettysburg Review (1999)

On the morning of the October day that England qualified for Italia ’90 (the World Cup soccer tournament), a small group of Englishmen were seen by some of the sports press at Auschwitz, laughing and posing as they took pictures of each other—doing the Nazi salute.
Pete Davies, “All Played Out”
At Birkenau stands a mound unlike those dotting the countryside that Poles have built in remembrance of past generals and statesmen.  You will not see picknickers lay out blankets on it or watch their children roll down the slopes.  The Birkenau mound is a mass grave for Soviet soldiers killed by the Nazis.  The bodies were packed so tightly together that they are still decomposing, and when it rains now, almost fifty years later, human grease rises to the surface and fans out through the grass in a brilliant rainbow of color.
            Not far from the mound lies what looks like an ordinary pond.  Bend over and peer into its depths and you might be surprised not to see a minnow or two, at least, in the water.  Take a stick.  Dip it into the water and movie it in circles.  Soon, a whirlpool of gray ash will funnel to the surface.  This pond is only one repository for the remains of the Jews.
            A Polish actor told me that these were just a couple of the sights in the Auschwitz complex most tourists miss.  I was with two American women I had met in a youth hostel in Kraków.  This was the summer of 1990.  The Berlin Wall had been down for only seven months.  American tourists were still a novelty to most Poles.  The actor, who spoke English fluently, spied us three on the rickety commuter train from Kraców to Oświęcim, site of Auschwitz and Birkenau.  He was going to visit his mother, who was a librarian at the Auschwitz museum.
            “By all means,” the actor said, “do not spend the entire afternoon in Auschwitz.  After you have watched the movie and seen the major displays, go to Birkenau.  The barracks still stand unmolested by museum directors.  Wander the buildings and you will read messages written in coal by the inmates.  You will find fragments of clothing, steel cans, rotted straw, heating stoves.  Leave the barracks and follow the tracks to the gas chambers.  They have not been reconstructed.  They have been left the way they were found, a much more profound statement to the horrors of the Holocaust than the glitz you will find in Auschwitz.  Why would the retreating soldiers bother to destroy the evidence if they were not aware of the incredible crimes they had committed against humanity?  Do not believe that they felt justified or that Hitler brainwashed them.  They knew their sin.  You will not experience their guilt among the glassed-in cases of human hair and suitcases at Auschwitz.  Only in Birkenau, the much larger of the camps, will you find what you are seeking.”

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

#4: "Little Sinners" by Thomas E. Kennedy

~~This piece previously appeared in American Fiction 1 (1990)

My ninth summer, in 1952, I ran with a kid named Billy Reichert, a classmate from The Christian Brothers Boys School. We were thieves. We used foul language. We smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes purchased with stolen quarters. We pored over the dirty pictures on a pack of Tijuana playing cards Billy had secreted in his basement. It was a lovely summer.
I loved stealing. You had to be quick and brave. I loved that feeling in my stomach just before I made my move. I glanced at whatever it was--a Milky Way bar, a cap pistol, a comic book--walked past, scanned the shop in front of me, turned, scanned behind, and if the coast was clear, zip!  I moved, shoved it in my pocket, under my shirt, down my pants. Then I hung around a while as a precaution, but also as part of the fun: that incredible sense of power it gave me to stay there, moving slowly amongst the enemy, the loot on my person, ­the danger, the triumph, the sheer belly-tingling risk! I asked the shop clerk, the guy with the pencil moustache and under-slung jaw at Gerstie's, say, the price of some impossibly expensive item, HO gauge electric trains or a glittering package of imported hand-painted lead soldiers in red coats, looked wistful, wandered out with my head down. I understood from overhearing my father, who was a legal counselor for the State of New York, that the law said you could not be arrested for shoplifting until you were actually out the door, so I was prepared to put the booty back on the shelf again at the least suspicious glance. But none ever came. I was too quick. Me and Billy could lift just about anything – coins out of the cigar box on the brick and plank newspaper stand in front of the Roosevelt Avenue cigar shop, comic books out of Gerstenhar­ber's, cupcakes and Mission sodas from the A&P or Frisch's Market, toys from the glass shelves of Kresge's or Woolworth's, and assorted junk, mostly mysterious small automotive gadgets, out of Sears & Roebuck's which, for some reason, we called Searsie's. If there wasn't anything in particular we desired, we would lift any old thing, just for the joy of it.
Billy was a nice-looking good-natured boy, blond and tan and blue-eyed with a big white smile and easy laugh. My feeling for him was a little like love. We were together all the time that summer, morning to night. We rose early in the mornings to go out prowling in the mild air, breathing the aroma of honeysuckle and cut grass. Usually I was up first and called for him because of his sister.

Monday, October 3, 2011

#3: Four Poems by Hailey Leithauser


~~this poem previously appeared in West Branch (2009)

Overnight, someone has discovered suffering.
Someone has putt-putted over an ocean of misery,
and planted a flag.                             
You can hear the cloth snapping in the morning
air that philanders the hyacinth
that sits by the door. You can almost see it
from the balcony where you recline,
tasting a glass of very cold
tomato juice, or a minted tea.                        
Listen...snap, snap, snap...
and then a lull, and then a moment,
and ... snap, snap...
the decorum of a hand
brushing crumbs from clean linen.
If asked, you would guess stripes
or a Scandinavian Cross,
a field of quince yellow
and aquamarine,
an eagle in the center, or a falcon
circled in stars,
clutching an emblem of laughable knives.