Monday, February 25, 2013

#70: "Requiem" by J.D. Smith

~This poem previously appeared in The Raintown Review (2012).


A teddy bear, an R.I.P.
            Spray-painted on a wall,
An empty bottle mark the place
            That saw a young man fall.

His name reads like leftover type
            Or random Scrabble tiles
Appearing now, if not before,
            In transcripts and case files.

Perhaps a hard look or a word
            Translated into beef:
The seed unknown, the harvest come
            To customary grief.

What counsel could be offered here
            That wouldn’t be declined
As some attempt to, once again,
            Impose a whiter mind?

From habit, hope or vague good will
Some write checks and some vote.
Awaiting the desired effects
            Leaves ample time to note

A teddy bear, an R.I.P.
            Spray-painted on a wall,
An empty bottle mark the place
            That saw a young man fall.


Monday, February 18, 2013

#69: "Plot, Variations I, II and III (Chapters One through Ten)" by Robin Black

~This essay first appeared in The Colorado Review (2007).


I bought my family’s burial plot in early April 2001.
The students in my Advanced Fiction Writing course have continuing difficulty distinguishing between what—if anything—happens in a story and what—if anything—it means.
I’ve been trying for more than five years to write something about the days right after my father died.
The plot is large enough for me, my husband, my two brothers, my sister-in-law and my parents. When I bought it, I stopped at that number, recoiling at the thought of the next generation—my own children, niece, and nephew—ever buried there. Or anywhere. And anyway, I decided, by the time they’re all old enough to die, death will almost certainly have been cured.
It’s just about a mile from my house. My mother lives in Manhattan and my brothers north of Princeton, but we settled on a place here in Philadelphia for two reasons. First of all, it’s beautiful—a Civil War–era cemetery filled with mature trees and marble monuments landscaped into hills. Some of the mausoleums are true works of art. The other reason we chose it is that when the decision came up, when it became pressing, I told my mother and my brothers that I would like to have Dad nearby—that I’m a cemetery visitor by nature and would find comfort in his proximity. That was about a month before he died.
“On a sentence by sentence level,” I write on one student story, “your work is really very fine. I found myself making very few line edits. And I have a vivid sense of the characters and the setting. You might want to check for areas where the descriptions could be tightened—you’ll see I’ve marked a couple of those, but basically you should be very proud of the prose itself.
“I do have some questions, though, about the larger meaning of the piece. A lot happens, but it isn’t clear to me what you want me to take away from having read this. I’m not insisting that Harvey go through any kind of earth-shattering epiphany here; that doesn’t feel like what you’re going for and trust me, I don’t think every story needs that kind of ending. But still, all these events you’re recounting don’t seem to add up to much—I don’t have the feeling by the end that I understand something more or better than I did when I started reading—even just something about the story itself. That sounds a little harsh, I know, and I don’t mean to be harsh—because, really, there’s a lot here to be admired. One of my own teachers used to talk to me about the difference between a story and an anecdote. We can speak about this more when we meet, but I wonder if pondering that distinction a bit might be useful for you?”
This week, I tell my mother it’s useless trying to write about the whole what the hell went on with me around Dad’s death thing. After more than five years, I’m done trying.
“Not everything that happens is a story,” I say. “I should know that by now.”

Monday, February 11, 2013

#68: "The Silents" by Adam Vines

~This poem first appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review (2011)


Her platinum finger-waves fallen, her roots dark as liver,
bearing witness like Nora’s I.O.U.
in A Doll’s House, looking now like a faded star’s comb-over,
Anita Page trades Clara Bow her mackerel-blue

brooch for three cigarettes. Thunder
cracks over the delta. Alice Joyce armors
her cheeks with her hands and squats under
a bush, her eyes empty as an itinerant farmer’s. 

Vamps, virgins, and flappers wait for the curtains
to meet, for the subconscious noises
from critics cueing the Wurlitzer
for the upturned faces of those relegated to vaudeville haze.

The yellowing Friday Photoplays burn,
the women’s I dos and I can’ts engraved
in their expressions on the covers--words
their lost, soft tongues never had to crave.

Buster Keaton rows up to the shore,
then suddenly--arm raised, hat cocked--
his peevish “Ladies . . . ” diffracts the sun-glare
from the firmament painted across the backdrop. 


Monday, February 4, 2013

#67: "World Without Columbo" by Kim Church

~This story was previously published in Shenandoah (2004).

            After the hurricane, when our cable service was finally restored, we began picking up channels we hadn’t paid for.  It’s been months now and the company still hasn’t caught on.  My husband feels guilty, but I tell him to look at it this way: we’ve been given a gift, the best kind, one we didn’t expect or deserve, and we should make the most of it, especially since we know it can’t last forever.  The truth is, I don’t want to lose my Columbo reruns.  One of our new stations plays two Columbos every Monday morning and one on Thursdays, and I’ve been taping them all.
            I’ve always loved the show, the puzzle of it.  Every episode is an inverted mystery: early on, you witness a murder; you’re in on the murderer’s construction of an alibi.  The object isn’t to come up with who did it or how or why, but to pick out the flaw in the murderer’s deception, the telling clue.
            Columbo notices everything.  He has an eye for inconsistency and always zeroes in on the one detail, however small, that doesn’t fit the big picture.  The streak of shoe polish on the living room door.  The victim’s radio tuned to classical music instead of country-and-western.
             I had just started middle school when the series premiered in the fall of 1971.  It came on every third Sunday, part of the NBC Sunday Night Mystery lineup, and I watched with my father, the only thing we regularly did together.  Unlike his other shows, this one was quiet — no canned laughter, no gunfights, no screaming.  Even the music was understated, sometimes no more than a single piano note played over and over again, steadily building suspense. 
            My reason for watching was different than my father’s.  I wanted to learn to think like Columbo, to have the kind of mind that would always recognize what was important.  My father wanted to be entertained.  He went in for all the corny side plots involving Columbo’s unnamed basset hound, his sputtering French car, his rumpled raincoat with the half-smoked cigar in the pocket.  Columbo’s bumbling-cop routine cracked my father up.  Columbo could never leave a room only once; he always had to duck back in with — my father would call out in unison — “just one more question!”  Mostly my father liked Peter Falk.  “That’s actually Peter Falk’s raincoat,” he would say.  “That’s his own suit.  See those shoes?  He brought them from home.”  He would study Peter Falk’s face to figure out which of his eyes was glass.  That was the mark of a truly great actor, he believed, when you couldn’t tell which eye was glass.