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January 8, 2014

River Reveries: Citywide Poets Anthology

by Jim Welke

River Reveries: Citywide Poets Anthology presents poetry written by Detroit metro high-school students who participated in the Citywide Poets after-school writing and performance program sponsored by InsideOut Literary Arts Program:

  • Khaylon Bell
  • Ashley Brooks
  • Amiah Burner
  • Dejiza Coleman
  • Ajanae Dawkins
  • Michael Faison
  • Bianca Gould
  • Wendy Hernandez
  • Damon Hogan
  • Kennedie King
  • Cynthia Lee
  • Terrell Morrow
  • Aminah Muhammad
  • Briana Sanders
  • Ralph Smith

The poems in the anthology were selected by Joy Gaines-Friedler, Kim Hunter, and Dawn McDuffie.

As Detroit stumbles through its fiscal crisis, created largely by actors other than city residents and leaders, the students of Detroit schools live their lives shrouded behind a curtain of misinformation and cynicism. When you hear people outside of Detroit talk about the people inside of Detroit, you hear distrust, and bigotry. The public comment sections on the websites of media outlets amplify the negativity, the fault of anonymity these sites afford cowards eager to blame everyone but themselves for all of the world’s ills. Sadly, these same observers influence public policy by electing clever demagogues who echo the observers unfounded beliefs in exchange for votes. This pernicious reverberation affects education reform with things like standardized tests rising to excessive importance, ill-conceived cost cutting, and pressure on teachers unions. The real fixes for education are usually more complex, but achievable if we forgo demagoguery and pursue solutions that keep the students’ interests at heart — witness Baylor-Woodson (see following). In a state where educational achievement compares poorly to other states, and Detroit ranks below other big cities, our elected leaders tend to fault urban students for dragging the averages down. To quote a report from The Education Trust, Midwest “Annual Report 2012 What Our Students Deserve” (pg. 6)

So why has our ranking declined? The conventional wisdom in Michigan holds low-income, and black and brown children responsible for our state’s low average — and assumes middle-class and white children are doing just fine. Indeed, this belief is so prevalent that state educational leaders and policymakers have been known to say, “If it wasn’t for our urban and poor students, we would be doing a whole lot better.”

 

Not only is this belief based on dated stereotypes, it also is patently false. Yet, it is used to justify inaction on improving our state’s schools.

Then, the same report goes on to profile Baylor-Woodson Elementary School in Inkster, MI (sidebar, pg. 4):

The demographics alone predict that a school like Baylor-Woodson would rank among the lowest performing in the state. Most of its students (98 percent) are African American, and 84 percent qualify for free and reduced-price meals. Serving third through fifth graders, the school was in dire financial straits and rapidly losing students to nearby charter schools when Maridada (previous district superintendent who initiated reforms) arrived.

 

Despite the obstacles, he and his school leaders — including Bashir (current district superintendent) — committed to raising achievement. Baylor-Woodson beat the odds, countering recent trends in almost every way. While student learning has stagnated for years across all racial and class distinctions in Michigan, the children at Baylor-Woodson have made huge academic gains.

 

In the 2010-11 school year, nearly all Baylor-Woodson’s more than 550 students met state reading and math standards. Moreover, 73 percent of the school’s fifth-graders exceeded the math standard; statewide, only 45 percent of fifth-raders posted advanced scores that year. Reading proficiency rates in the school are almost as impressive, with 63 percent of fifth-grade students posting advanced scores in 2010-11, compared with 44 percent statewide. Local families have responded.

A few more statistics and observations from the same report:

Certainly, our (Michigan) African-American children are in deep trouble: They were the lowest achieving black students in the nation, ranking dead last in fourth-grade reading among the 45 states that reported data on African American students. They also were last among the 44 states reporting scores in fourth-grade math on the 2011 NAEP.

 

Michigan’s eighth-grade African-American students fared not much better, scoring 34th out of 43 states reporting for reading, and 42nd out of 43 states reporting for math.(pg. 8)

 

 

But Michigan’s performance problem goes far beyond our communities of color. Our white students are sinking to the bottom of the national academic ladder, as well. They now trail 34 other states on the NAEP fourth-grade reading national examination.

 

While other states’ white students have been making significant gains in learning, our white students remain stagnant. (pg. 9)

 

 

Clearly, our state’s achievement challenge is hardly a “minority problem” or a “poverty problem.” Michigan has an education problem — and it cuts across all income brackets, races, and school sectors. (pg. 10)

 

 

As the data throughout this report make clear, Michigan’s students are falling farther and farther behind their peers across the nation. This is through no fault of their own; our students are just as talented, intelligent and full of potential as any children in the United States.

 

Be they white, black, Latino, higher income, or low-income, Michigan’s children are not the problem. Our state’s education problem is something that we, the adults of Michigan, have created, and we must fix it.

 

Certainly, Michigan’s parents must do their part by supporting their children in school and sending an unequivocal message that kids who work hard get smart. But we also call on Michigan’s political and education leaders to step up and provide the leadership and resources that our state needs to turn around our dismal student performance.

 

If we commit ourselves to creating the excellent schools our students need and deserve, the Great Lakes State can also be a Great Education State.

What all of this means for many students in Detroit is that they get their education in a parallel universe: parallel, that is, to the more affluent suburbs where the basic needs of student living — supportive parents, siblings, and neighbors; good diet; adequate sleep; a safe, quiet place to do homework; after-school recreation; absence of crime — are met. While legislators and bloviating observers seem to think these assets occur everywhere like sunshine and rain, they don’t. A lot of kids in Detroit have longer, more threatening walks to bus stops, where they wait interminably for buses, where they witness or fall victim to violent crime; many go to school hungry and tired due to chaotic and crowded households. Most go to school thinking they matter less than kids in other parts of the country, that they face opportunities limited to the point of suffocation — they believe the world at large doesn’t give a damn about them, and rightfully feel skeptical when outsiders promise to help. Yet, keep in mind that not every Detroit resident lives in abject poverty — just show up outside one of the magnet schools at the beginning or end of the school day and you’ll see a line of late-model autos driven by well-dressed, well-educated parents arrive to pick up or drop off their offspring. A plethora of solid, hard-working, media-ignored citizens occupy the neighborhoods of Detroit, and pay taxes that sustain it. At the same time, the emergency manager, governor, and legislature seek to drive municipal, teacher, and other labor unions out of existence, thus dealing a blow to the engines of middle class stability those leaders claim to revere. Not every student rides the bus through mean streets every day. But many do, and not by choice or inclination. If these leaders get their way, more will.

That’s a shame, because as the excerpts from the above report indicate, education in Detroit need not stay broken. But preserving the faltering middle-class should be a pillar of every aspect of the recovery.

The poetry in “River Reveries” proves that kids in Detroit know exactly what some benighted souls beyond the boundaries of Detroit think of them despite having never met those kids; and it proves the students are smart — smart enough to perceive the narrow slot their circumstance forces them into, and which demands they fight their way out of. “River Reveries” also reveals that youth in Detroit suffer the same vagaries of life, ride the same emotional and aspirational roller coaster as youth everywhere.

“Detroit” by Terrell Morrow in River Reveries brings many of the historic emblems of the city to bear — red wings, fists, a paradise valley, pistons — in a forceful argument for the resilience of city residents:

They tell me we can’t keep it together.

I fight for your honor, trying to ignore the families

I’ve seen ripped apart through the pressure

of financial stress that weighs down the strength

of even the toughest pistons.

Briana Sanders brings an impassioned defense against the prevailing misunderstanding of her and her peers in “Detroit For the 1%,”

We aren’t murderers, and the only thing

we’ve ever shot down are stereotypes.

There are some people in this city

who actually keep their heads in books for fun.

The authors of these poems see the world with the crystalline clarity that adults often fail to credit teenagers with. In “Moon to the Woman” by Ajanae Dawkins, subtle metaphors convey perceptions of inadequacy unfairly assigned:

I am still only the moon.

 

I am barely a light

and far from glory.

How do you think I feel

about the sun? The sky spends

its darkness resenting me.

Michael Faison with “The Real Glasses See Everything,”

I see the reason they call my city what they call it.

I see people selling green trees that burn like firewood.

I see females getting inside big black cars with dark-tinted windows

Like midnight.

I see two people fighting on the corner for money.

Angry pit bulls in cages.

“They Don’t Understand My Stance,” by Wendy Hernandez,

The resonating report of the searing bullet case.

It sprung but did not coil back.

Leering at me for coiling,

falling, crumbling, and gasping

between sobs at his lifeless knees.

But while these students stroll amidst the ashes of a city that we all hope has bottomed out and now begins a new ascent, they remain young and suffer all the slings and arrows the gods hurl at youth.

Such as this, in Aminah Muhammad’s “Advice from a Giraffe / to Any Tall Skinny Girl Going Through Puberty,”

…Ah my spots. I know you might wanna keep

those blemishes from the acne you’re going through right now,

But they’ll go away eventually. Unfortunately, they’re not

permanent like mine.

“Smile” by Bianca Gould:

Pretty girl,

why don’t you see

that everything

about you

is satisfying?

That the one thing

I desire

is your smile?

“P.S.” by Cynthia Lee,

You always made it seem as if

fatherhood was just another game

of hide-and-go-seek for you.

 

Forever hiding and leaving me to seek.

Kennedie King’s “So Vain,”

For once in my life,

I have written a poem about this woman:

me.

And for once, I am forcing you

to listen to me.

Amiah Burner with “Silence,”

“I see you as a friend.”

 

There is nothing more

to say now, as we sit

in awkward silence.

In some of these poems, the anger rises up unmistakably. And other times we see despair and angst that no child should countenance.

“When Life Gives You Lemons” by Damon Hogan,

When life gives me lemons, I say

give me oranges.

 

Because life — I’m tired of this!

You expect me to drink

your lemonade forever?

Dejiza Coleman, “My Bomb”

Is not made of time,

it has no limit.

What created it? I’m not sure,

but it’s indestructible

inside of me

And sometimes these poems wander into the realm of taboo, where irrational denial blinds us to what’s going on.

Khayleen Bell’s “Wait For Me,”

Age is just a number,         Right?

Age shouldn’t determine

who you can love, who you can’t.

I want to go back

to the Elizabethan Ages

where this kind of love

is allowed.

Ralph Smith’s “The Artist,” that enumerates various paths to suicide, and then:

So I’m here on the floor,

on the floor on my back.

On the floor on my back

when my vision fades black.

 

So what do we do now?

I asked the voice in my head

Now we just wait until

you’re on the floor dead.

And then we find the pure, hard-earned resilience that so blesses Detroit residents.

Ashley Brooks, “I Wanna Be a Bottle of Water,”

So I can be recycled,

Or poured into something

To make it grow,

Or used to wash things

When there’s nothing else to use,

Or mixed into red Kool-Aid,

Or crushed like a junkyard car

Only to get my shape back.

Except for the above poem, you’ve only read excerpts. Get a copy of “River Reveries” from the Citywide Poets and the InsideOut Literary Arts Program. The work enshrined in “River Reveries” stands as testament to the decency, dignity, and most importantly the discipline of the students who composed these poems, as well as the efforts of those who mentored them. And, it gives the lie to the small-minded myths that hover and cloud perceptions of urban youth everywhere. Kids, in their brief careers as students can accomplish much when granted the opportunity and given a little guidance. They possess a nearly infinite capacity to learn and startle all of us with their creation. This volume of poetry will bring clarity to your vision of youth in Detroit that no jaded news anchor or journalist can. George Bernard Shaw said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” In a way that’s true, at least when seen from the perspective of age. But we can listen, and learn. And then it won’t be so much wasted.

 

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January 7, 2014

The Psychiatrist, Poetry by Mariela Griffor

by Jim Welke

The Psychiatrist, poetry by Mariela Griffor, from Eyewear Publishing

The poetry in The Psychiatrist, written by Mariela Griffor and published by Eyewear Publishing, vibrates with enough resonant force to shatter the complacent sang-froid of any reader with at least an iota of empathy in their veins. The fifty poems recorded in this narrow volume do share revelations of interior, psychological torment to fit the title, The Psychiatrist, but they also reflect on the human condition at large, particularly the deleterious effects of political injustice on the human psyche. The numbing pressure of threatened violence plus the trauma of realized violence bears down on this verse, compacting and distilling it into the sort of clarity that a confrontation with imminent destruction induces: dilation of time, heightened sensory awareness, eerie calm. Often the violence, the trauma, occurs in recollection as though the writer invokes post-traumatic stress disorder. A riff on insomnia called “Poem without a number: house,” reads in part:

I remember:

a barricade. A homemade bomb

made by my hands, the image of my lover and

in my head a semi-automatic

as redemption

I beg forgiveness of all of you.

The rain is too thin to stop the fire.

My legs and arms are heavy.

Behind me Santiago blazes

and bullets whiz at the sight of who we were,

ancestral pain I cannot shake off.

His body disappears from the earth into the air.

A heart spattered in the streets follows me in my defeat.

Some of the work reflects on healing, but the injury hovers just out of sight, in shadow. In “Valentine’s Day in Detroit” Ms. Griffor eludes those demons for a spell when she sheds her “coat of memories:”

A house untied to the ground,

a laundry room of nostalgia,

a window clouded by

little sleep,

a coat of memories we remove

every February,

a simple grin and a Sanders chocolate box,

then, we grow to the light like sweet peas.

Mariela Griffor, born in Concepcion in 1961, grew up in Chile during the sixties and seventies. She was twelve when General Augusto Pinochet — backed in Parliament by the Christian Democrats and the National Party, and encouraged if not overtly supported by the US government — led a coup d’etat against President Salvador Allende, who died that day at the presidential palace, La Moneda, either by murder or suicide depending on whose account you trust. (Does it matter? Allende resisted the assault for six hours with an AK-47 given to him by Fidel Castro.) For a succinct and remarkably lucid account of the events leading up to the coup, give a read to a piece Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote back in 1974, “Why Allende had to die.” Pinochet’s junta wrested power from Allende on September 11, 1973 (Pinochet formally ascended to the presidency in 1974) and ruled until 1990. During his tenure, Pinochet and his minions ruthlessly suppressed opposition; mutilated bodies of his “enemies” appeared in the streets daily. Yet the opposition persevered, coalesced, resisted suppression. In “Sunday walk, urban talk” Ms. Griffor writes:

In those days we didn’t need much.

A heavy ammunition was resting in our hearts.

 

None of wanted to be compared with Guevara.

Too tiring. Too much. Almost a sacrilege.

Not for what people think.

None of us wanted to leave the country

or experience any adventures.

The level of influence exerted by the US government to expel Allende from power might be debatable (although cash infusions by the CIA to support a trucker and shopkeeper’s strike prior to the coup that accelerated decline of the economy and undermined Allende’s support seem fairly well documented), but the CIA admits support for the Pinochet regime after the coup. Banks and other corporations in the US also propped up Pinochet.

A cynical proponent of realpolitik might argue that Pinochet would have consolidated power with or without US assistance, and thus it was in the US “interest” to buy influence. But that obscures the more notable opportunity missed by the US to stand up for the rule of law and the unassailable imperative of democracy. The US did nothing to roll back the coup and restore a democratically elected president to Chile’s executive branch. That constitutes a sin of omission that suggests de facto approval of Pinochet’s action, and by induction implicates the US government in the oppression, torture, and murder committed by Pinochet’s grim apparatus.

While Pinochet consolidated power and “disappeared” the opposition, Ms. Griffor passed through her formative years. By 1980, she would have been nineteen years old and witness to indescribable turmoil in her country. The extent of her participation in the resistance may now be of importance only to her, but clearly she sacrificed and suffered to end the torture, bloodshed, and economic oppression that plagued Chile during her years there. In an excerpt from “Love for a subversive,” she writes:

I remember only the

scars over your lips,

scars over your left eyebrow,

the pieces of flesh missing

around your nostrils.

 

The pain of your scars

wakes me up at night and I hurt

as I did giving birth to your child.

 

I don’t know with any certainty

what to do next.

The added pain of exile must only exacerbate the effects of that suffering and sacrifice: in 1985, age 24, she left Chile for Sweden, and in 1998 moved to Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan with her American husband. In “The Rain,” she writes:

The sound of the rain in Michigan

Reminds me of the rugged winters in my old country

the cold feet in old shoes,

the fast sound of the water hitting the ground,

the smell of eucalyptus in the air.

I close my eyes and make a wish:

wish I could see, for just a moment, your hair

dancing over your face

trying to escape the weather.

At home in Michigan, her thoughts drift back to recollections crystallized in her consciousness by chaos induced adrenaline, ready to surface with heedless insistence when triggered by signal events like the whispering patter of rain, reminiscent of The Narrator in Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu.” And the poems in this volume propel you through time, backward and forward, with the lyrical grace of Ms. Griffor’s delicate phrasing. Her suffering as well as her joy, hope, idealism, fear, doubt, and thrill saturate these pages like a stain. If you read “The Psychiatrist,” you will feel what she feels, and that’s the amazing feat of finely polished poetry: the sensations conveyed are visceral and involuntary; sensations transcend literal interpretation of the words on the page. But pay attention, those sequences of words are artful and melodious; like songs, you can read these poems over and over and they continue to satisfy. That they appear in a language not her first passes understanding; they represent a Nabokov-ian achievement of language facility.

While Ms. Griffor’s poetry stands on its own apart from the context of her life and the political atmosphere in Chile that influenced it during her early years, the context seems worth emphasizing for its relevance to the situation the United States and other western industrialized countries find themselves in now: growing wealth inequality, decline of the middle class, expansion of the ranks of working poor one bad day away from the streets, the obliteration of labor unions and social safety nets, the rise of religious fundamentalism and right-wing intolerance of anyone near the margin of society, and the growing influence of corporate money in political decision-making.

All of these afflictions were endemic in Chile in the 1970’s when Allende finally achieved election to the Presidency after many previous tries. He sought to undo the economic and political inequity in Chile, and thus represented a grave threat to the status quo, both in Chile and abroad. The entrenched, comfortable right felt as much fear of Allende as the disenfranchised, restive left felt gratitude for him.

Perhaps it stretches credulity not much at all to imagine that social upheaval on a similar scale might grip some rich industrialized nation in a decade or two if the pendulum of political influence wielded by the oligarchic right does not soon reach its apex.

Opposition does exist. Some might judge the Spanish Indignados movement followed by the Occupy movement failures, but these might be the first groans of a sleepy giant awakening. Certainly the Occupy movement gained traction much faster and wider than anyone anticipated, even the inspired crew in Zuccotti Park. While any sane citizen hopes for a gentle political solution to untenable inequality, the danger posed by a fearful right should not be dismissed. The right reacted instantly to the Occupy movement with fear and loathing, i.e. “smelly hippies.” Fear often motivates irrational behavior more forcefully than anger. If the reaction of the right in the US to the election of the timid, compromise-seeking Barack Obama offers any insight, imagine the corporate-financed reaction to the election in either Western Europe or the United States of an all out Socialist modeled after Allende. Chile’s past might be prologue for any number of nations that find themselves drifting toward the unknowable tolerance threshold of the poor for obvious, pernicious inequity. Greece recently spun unnervingly near to anarchy. It would be deliberately obtuse to ignore instability of the system we’ve created, or allowed others to create as a result of our indifference and passivity.

With Ms. Griffor’s personal reminder of the depths as well as the summits human compassion and aspiration can reach, those of us pre-occupied with “first-world” problems might pause for a moment and reflect on the fragility of our existence: economically, politically, and environmentally. History marches on indifferent to the quiet wishes of passive bystanders; history heeds only the demands of the forceful. Surely there will be resolution to growing inequity; the question will be how do we achieve it? Acute pain often yields fine art. If we pause and read a bit of poetry, listen to the murmuring oracles in our midst, we might manage to vote our way toward collective sanity, if we scoff at wisdom we might again see rockets falling on the palace roof. Mariela Griffor’s The Psychiatrist offers a good place to start.

From “Sunday walk, urban talk:”

Ignacio, what happened?

We were almost sure we would make it out alive.

What kind of country is this that falls in love

with death every time freedom disappears

from its core?

 

What kind of country is this

that kills its own sons and daughters

 

 *******

 

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August 1, 2013

Review: Simply Separate People… Simply Separate People, Two

by Jim Welke

crawford-simply-separate-96x150     crawford__Simply Separate People, Two

 

One’s self I sing, a simple, separate person

Walt Whitman

 

Lynn Crawford wrote two novels premised on this line of poetry — partly premised at least. You gotta be impressed with a poet that effects that sort of reaction.

No. Action.

Both of her books elucidate the lives of characters through action: big action, and small action. These stories are not defined by the thoughts of characters, by the daydreams and esprit d’escalier of a protagonist as Jean Paul Sartre might give you in the Age of Reason, or Albert Camus might deliver in The Stranger.

That is not to say Ms. Crawford’s characters are thoughtless puppets either. They are not. In fact, her characters reveal more and more depth as you read them; the way an acquaintance reveals facets as passing familiarity becomes friendship. The initial infatuation might diminish, but empathy and admiration replace infatuation. Her characters appear with a wide spectrum of shifting attributes, just as humans you meet do. Her characters, while compelling, do not appear as monochromatic archetypes. For contrast, Hemingway was a specialist in creating monochromatic archetypes. (Note: this writer is an unapologetic, eternal fan of Hemingway and has read “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” at least dozen times and “A Sun Also Rises” at least four.) But he wrote in reaction to what came before him; refining technique that came before him. And he was a fanatic about purity. Each of his characters carried the burden of symbolizing something immutable and discrete. Jake Barnes represented the cool, competent, distant observer; Brett Ashley symbolized tragic, goddess-like capriciousness borne of an infinity of influence and security — but only in the realm of trivial things. Robert Cohn represents the striver, the seeker of light who fails to see that he is blind. But Hemingway’s characters never wavered from the slot they traveled in, and that steadfastness guaranteed they would meet tragedy. They could never adapt. And Hemingway would not want them to, because that would drain energy from the forces that propel his story; centrifugal forces that spin his characters away from one another in the end.

Simply Separate People nominally describes four lives of four characters — Physh, Pumper, Seamstress, Bry — that intertwine as their stories progress, like vines that climb a tree trunk, crossing and weaving together. You could argue that Ms. Crawford devotes nearly as much effort rounding out her secondary characters, DR, DR’s sister, the mayor, Rhulera, Trowt, Euge, and Jorge, but those first four define the nucleus of the story, and largely it is their “simply separate” existences that form the nucleus of the narrative. The others orbit, like energetic particles that distinguish the elemental natures of the main four.

We see lives shattered in Simply Separate People, but only in recollections, and then through oblique references. For Physh, the character who appears at the opening of the book, we never find out the details of the tragedy that befell her, only that her once close family died — with the exception of her. The person she seems closest too (but not intimate with), a man called DR, suffered a similar tragedy except his sister survives. We learn quite a bit about this sister, but always through second hand accounts by Physh, which may or may not be reliable.

After the introduction of Physh, Ms. Crawford devotes subsequent chapters to characters whose lives intertwine with Physh’s — Pumper, Seamstress, and Bry — each of whom describe their existence in the first person. Seamstress and Pumper are each assigned two chapters, Bry one, and Physh three (she gets the last word). First person telling enhances the apparent psychological revelations of these characters, or so you might think, except these soliloquies appear as journal entries or “documentation” as Bry calls it. The passages are generously detailed, but as they progress the reader begins to think that anything committed to a journal passes through a filter of self-conscious editing by the super-ego. Hence the intertwining of these simply separate lives.

If the story were told by an omniscient third person narrator, we likely would not question the reliability of the telling; redundant but slightly divergent telling would be eliminated; and we would see more of how the lives progressed in parallel (how events affected the lives), rather than how the characters minutely influence one another, and thus influence events.

In both Simply Separate People and Simply Separate People, Two, Ms. Crawford uses a subtle tactic to amplify the apparent veracity of her characters’ disquisitions: she allows each to speak in their own vernacular, such that the tone, vocabulary, and punctuation change with each change of first person narration. This might seem obvious, but Ms. Crawford devotes each chapter to a unique voice, not merely dialog bracketed in quotes with a bit of sloppy slang, liaisons, and contractions thrown in as local color. As you move along, you become accustomed to one voice as that of the author. You think, “Oh, this is how she writes; how she constructs sentences, punctuates, chooses words, adds adjectives.” And then you begin another chapter and think, “This could have been written by an entirely different author.” That’s not the same as mixing up tone and dialect in a stretch of dialog. It’s almost like the author self-induced schizophrenia, at least in terms of writing voice. And writing voice — finding your voice as they say — is something writers strive to do (without overtly striving, one hopes) to stand out amongst authors and be recognizable to readers. Once attained, they don’t often toss that voice aside for a new one. In Simply Separate People, we witness mental gymnastics by Ms. Crawford, but like all great performers she makes it look so easy we hardly notice.

As the narrative in Simply Separate People unfolds, some strange things happen: Physh house-sits in a co-op apartment owned by the sister of her confidant, DR. The apartment “sits at the edge of a huge, dirty city with narrow streets, unsanitary rivers, and earsplitting traffic… held together with a decoration theme: country. Complex flower, ivy and other plant arrangements; weave rugs, gingham-checked cushions.” The sister keeps her telescopes on the balcony of the apartment, which she describes as her “observatory.” The sister explains, “Without telescopes you can’t separate figures individually.” And with that we inspect Ms. Crawford’s world through a telescope.

Following that initial introductory meeting between Physh and the sister, the sister never again appears directly but communicates mostly by fax with Physh, or through DR via phone. The sister goes off on “global business” and does not return. Clearly, this sister of DR possesses some rare qualities. But it’s not just the sister, Ms. Crawford slips in anecdotes throughout the book that could only be described as magical realism; magical realism worthy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez:

Trowt had developed a chocolate in his well-equipped kitchen using double boilers, beaters, rubber spatulas. The homemade sweet became a hit with dinner guests. Many rallied around him, convincing him to make and package batches to sell in stores specializing in coffee and confections. A designer friend helped make eye-catching wrapping and lettering which the Pumper and I had probably seen.

One week several people in the city died, all attacked by domestic animals — pets with no violence in their history. Most attackers were dogs but there were a few cats, one snake and a bird. Traces of Trowt’s chocolates were found in all victims’ digestive systems. One personal trainer had traces on her teeth; she had eaten the candy that recently. More recent was the restaurant owner who had a small, ½ melted square in his mouth under his tongue.

Simply Separate People II continues the story of Bry begun in Simply Separate People. Except Physh, Pumper, and Seamstress slip into the background as expositional elements. Bry and her husband, Euge, raised their first set of twins in the country but now they move to the city where Euge takes on a new job. Bry gives birth to a second set of twins. Jorge, Euge’s father, joins them in the move to the city. Jorge appears in the first Simply Separate People, and plays a mystical role in both stories (and makes one wonder if Jorge is a reference to Jorge Luis Borges), but read the books if you hope to grasp that role.

Bry says of her husband and their move to the city:

He likes it here, in this urban expanse, though he frequently visits our land, stables and house back home. I, too, visit home, but not as frequently as he does.

Navigating this big, dirty city requires feeling lonesome and brave. Maybe this is what cowboys or pioneers experienced as they plotted their courses through empty western spaces.

Euge is an outdoorsman back home. However, he enjoys this urban center, especially his job here, I am sure, because he is able to incorporate his knowledge of the outdoors in his life here. He is the head guide at an immense indoor activities association. The club has horses, lakes, stables, rivers, cliffs, ski areas, and offers classes on cabin building, stargazing, astronomy, rafting, fishing, and hunting. Euge is the only guide certified to teach members to train, ride, and whisper to horses. The management relies on him to keep activities and classes realistic.

With her husband off at work, Bry takes up creative writing while her three-year-old twins nap or are otherwise engaged. Prior to writing she tried triathlon training, but found her female peers too demanding and judgmental — they were urban super-moms who insist on strict compliance with their training and child-rearing regimen. Bry compares them to vicious pit bulls. With writing, Bry finds a solitary outlet for innate talent and creativity. And here, Simply Separate People II takes a twist not present in the first book: Ms. Crawford incorporates Bry’s creative writing as chapters, forcing an abrupt transition to a new set of characters, a new voice, in a new vernacular. In the first such transition, Bry retraces the plot of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, but updates the characters with modern sensibilities, and relocates them from Pamplona to a “yoga conference” entitled “SACRED FLOW = TRANSFORMATION.” You might think this impossible; too far out to sea from Hemingway’s literary island. But Ms. Crawford pulls it off; creates characters with vastly different world view, but similar monochromatic intensity to those in The Sun Also Rises.

In the second and last chapter of Bry’s writing experiments, the story derives from The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James. Bry’s version takes place in northern Michigan, out in the woods. She mimics the structural pattern of the James novella — the building suspense, the ambiguity of character intent — but with modern tropes and dialect, and with those magical elements that tip the reader off balance:

I walk out to the sandy beach, sit down in the large deck chair facing the lake, wait. I have a feeling that I know what is going to happen. It is that time of day, the sky turns a sort of gold, and I expect to see the brothers run out of the woods and into the water. Sure enough, within moments, they come running out of the woods, arms linked running into the freezing cold Lake Huron. They stop at the water’s edge and scream, “YES” as icy waves lap over their shins and thighs and torsos. They dive into the water, swim out far. I see them do jumping jacks, handstands, flips in the water. After awhile they return to the beach, do some more calisthenics. I believe that they do the same routine Sue and I did the other morning. They take one last plunge in the lake. I cannot stop watching them. I notice they have muscular arms, wear tight, short sleeve shirts, have erect nipples. They walk toward me on the reclining beach chair. I stand up, wonder if Sue and Dan are going to see any of this from the house, and ask the brothers if they want to come inside and join us for a beer.

“We don’t drink,” they both answer at once.

“Well,” I answer, “I mean, you can have other things besides beer to drink: water or something warm…”

“You misunderstand. We do not drink. Anything. Liquid turns solid in our mouths,” says Chris.

“How do you hydrate?”

“We absorb liquids through our skin. This is one reason why swimming is so important,” says Chris.

“And the rain, the snow,” says Dave.

After awhile I ask, “Well, do you want to come in for a visit?”

“Another time. We have some fruit to rinse, some mushrooms to fry,” says Chris.

They turn around, jog back into the woods.

The use of stories within stories reminds one of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, a postmodern ramble with alternating narrators and narratives. Postmodern tendencies exist in Ms. Crawford’s work: multiple points of view with loosely connected narratives; solipsistic, individualistic characters veering toward nihilism; the borrowing of plots (from Hemingway and James); the dismissal of social and cultural conventions (in the big dirty city, at least).

You can read Simply Separate People and Simply Separate People, Two superficially and find engaging stories with interesting, often startling plots, and characters with sufficient depth to believably support those plots. Or, you can dig deeper and delight in the fine tuned writing craft of Ms. Crawford. Either way, these books are worth a read. On second read they give the reader even more gifts.

 

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May 16, 2013

A Dirty River Runs Through It

We Make Mud -- Peter Markus

We Make Mud, a collection of prose pieces by Peter Markus, airlifts the reader into a mystical, timeless landscape populated with spirits who stand in for tangible, flesh and blood characters. On the cover of the book, the word “stories” appears, unobtrusive, discrete, shadowy amidst a watercolor landscape of cloud-covered river floodplain (painted by Astrid Cravens). The word stories should be spoken softly here; the stories of Mr. Markus are not of the form we are taught to associate with that word. The prescribed dramatic arc, like an idealized rainbow on an unobstructed landscape, never happens in these tales. The pieces defy linear narrative structure – beginning/middle/end. Catalyst, confrontation of obstacles, resolution — those tried and true conceits of literature and film — left the building when Mr. Markus put pen to paper. So the word “stories” hovers with tremulous conviction, out there in the clouds on the cover of We Make Mud.

Yet, where is it written that stories need follow a simplified Hollywood arc to capture the reader’s attention? Open Mr. Markus’s books, open your mind — no, unleash your mind — and ramble amidst the shimmering, pearly, iridescent string of moments Mr. Markus knits together. After all, life — despite the insistence of Hollywood to the contrary — progresses in spite of, not as a result of the beginnings, middles, and ends we fixate on like distant road signs. If the notion of non-linearity irks you, think of this prose as an exhilarating nighttime ride down a mountain road pretzeled into a sequence of blind curves. Sure, to the detached observer a beginning, middle, and end will be apparent, but as you round the next curve, clueless of what lies ahead, you exist in the moment. Only now matters. That’s really how we encounter life. Our brains order events, organize, linearize. Plans hold an important place in our achievements, yet it is worth remembering the past and future exist only in our imagination — what happens right now matters.

Up front, the author dedicates We Make Mud to a trinity of three named but otherwise unidentified entities: Helena, “who put the word brother under my tongue;” Sol, “the word brother made flesh;” and Beck, “who made all this mud possible.” As a humble, non-omniscient reader I should probably resist the temptation to consider mystical trinity in that dedication. The word brother, the brother made flesh, and the mud — are all one, yet distinct? Turn the page, though, and you discover a fourth dedication, “and in memory of / Bob.” So, if a theology underlies the dedication, it is Mr. Markus’s own. Or, not.

The fifty-three stories in We Make Mud often share common elements: brothers, a river, mud, a father, a mother, and fish. In a traditional story structure sense, the brothers, as one, play the protagonist. The river then, must be the antagonist. Or, the reader might view the stories as ensemble pieces, where the terms protagonist and antagonist need not apply. And then, moments arise when the brothers, the river, the mud, the father, the mother, the fish along with other transients like the moon, the stars, and Girl seem all one, seen variously from different angles; shaped into different forms. Yet compelling, engrossing, dramatic tension persists throughout the book.

We Make Mud opens with the following description:

The river was not far from the place we called town. It, our town, was a dirty river town with a dirty river running through it. Town, it was mostly just a two-way road cutting through the middle of the place where the all-by-itself traffic light was always blinking from two sides of it yellow and from the other two sides of it red. Our town, us brothers one day discovered, it was not the kind of a town where the cars not from our town liked to stop. Ours was a drive on through kind of a town, a pass-on-by-on-your-way-to-someplace-else kind of town.

As evidenced here, Mr. Markus’s prose offers more than a journalistic telling. This prose is poetic, musical. This prose is rhythmic, melodic. This prose is infectious. When you open this book you realize immediately this is no airport pulp. Events do not unfold in an orderly, this-then-this narrative but rather fade in and out of view, timelessly. Recurring events, or re-told events, are often preceded by the passage:

There was this look that us brothers, we sometimes liked to give each other this look. It was the kind of a look that actually hurt the eyes of the brother who was doing the looking. Imagine that look.

And then, repeatedly a scene recurs that involves the brothers’ hands, and nails, and a hammer. This you must discover on your own. It stuns.

A fish head covered telephone pole in the backyard features in many stories. In “The Sound the Hammer Makes,”

…a tree back there that does not have any branches…

But preceding this passage, in “The Hands that Hold the Hammer,”

…a telephone pole back there studded with the chopped off heads of fish. In the end there were exactly one hundred and fifty fish heads hammered and nailed into this pole’s fish-headed wood.

Later, in “What Our Father is Here to Tell Us,”

…our backyard’s fish-headed telephone pole, it is a lit-up lighthouse shining in the moon’s nighttime light. …

And so on, this pole variously described, occurs over and over. Why exactly 150 heads nailed to it one wonders, but Mr. Markus does not reveal. Perhaps one head for every day the flood engulfed Noah after the rain fell for forty days? Probably not. But one can’t help but speculate on what appears to be profuse symbolism in this book. That is part of the fun.

Aside from objects like the backyard pole, three entities stand central to the collection: the brothers, father, and mother.

Jimmy and John is my brother’s and my name. We call each other Brother. Our father, he calls us brothers son. When our father hollers to us brothers that word Son, the sound of it, that word, the way that it hangs in the air between us, it is a sound that we can’t help but turn our heads to. When we hear that sound, us brothers, we both of us brothers know that we are crossing that river together. Son we hear our father say to us now…

Both father and mother seem to manifest as apparitions, but probably more so the mother, whose introduction occurs blandly enough:

Maybe what our father figures is that our mother is out of the house shopping.

But then (Mr. Markus dispenses with quotations around dialog):

When he asks us brothers, Where is your mother, one of us brothers whispers, Fish, and the other one of us mutters, Moon. To this, these words, our father, he nods his head, then he heads back down to the river. And without so much as a word or a wave from his goodbye, we watch our father walk back across the river’s muddy water, back to the river’s other side: walking and walking and walking on, until he is nothing but a sound that the river sometimes makes when a stone is skipped across it.

Later:

But our mother, our mother, she isn’t our mother anymore. Our mother, asleep in bed, she is just this lump of a mother asleep in a bed with mud now dried in clumps upon its bedsheets. It, this bed, with this other mother asleep in it, it could be bed made out of mud for all this other mother knows. Mud has got a hold of this mother now. …

Clearly, these characters are more than two brothers living in a house by a river with their father and mother and a telephone pole in the backyard. The brothers refer to one another as Brother, and the father refers to them as Son, and the mother does not refer to them at all except in third person recollections. And the father walks on water, the brothers appear sometimes as a single actor, the mother turns to mud, the fish sing, and then there’s that thing with the hands, the nails, and the hammer.

Aside from the mystical component of We Make Mud, Mr. Markus also bring a childlike, wondrous view of the world. He captures a child’s sense of the world (the brothers’ point of view) and reproduces it with striking clarity. This passage exemplifies that childish, Huck-Finn-ish, breathless relationship to reality that Mr. Markus masters through poetic parsing of words, and meticulous punctuation:

We were down by the river, us brothers, fishing for fish, when Boy walked up to tell us what it was that he was dying to tell us: that he’d just seen himself a ghost. This ghost, Boy said it, it wasn’t just any ghost, this ghost that Boy said that he’d just seen. This ghost. Boy told us brothers, it was the ghost of a fish. A ghost fish? Brother asked this back, because he wanted to believe it.

The author intermixes violence, humor, and surrealism in these tales: father searches for boots already on his feet, the boys decapitate another boy (like they do their caught fish — more a symbolic gesture than literal), the boys create a girl from mud, and call her Girl and her heart shatters into a billion pieces and the pieces becomes stars. The boys walk out into the river, inhale water to breathe, and explore the bottom of the river. Fish heads nailed to a telephone pole sing to the brothers. And what all this mixed up action and imagery do, above all else, is render plot predictions pointless. And that leaves the reader suspended in a perpetual state of now, like Alice in Wonderland wondering at the ever changing landscape, but not forcing reason and logic on it — suspended disbelief, as they say in the movie business.

In addition to a prismatic version of reality, Mr. Markus also uses repetition to embed his riverine landscape in the reader’s consciousness. Like that passage quoted above about the brothers looking knowingly into each other’s eyes, or nailing a fish head to the pole, some events occur repeatedly, re-told identically or with slight variation. Repetition serves to reinforce the familiarity of an image, but also to alter the meaning of it — or to erase the prior meaning of it and allow it to take on new meaning (like a word repeated over and over until it no longer seems familiar).

I suppose the easiest way to characterize these stories would be to call them allegories or fables. But that misses the musicality of the repetition, the poetic cadence, the mystical aura, the magical realism. There is no understatement in saying Mr. Markus invented a form of literature that transcends all categorical boundaries.

Of course, any old hack could do that poorly. But Mr. Markus yanks us out of the familiar, drops us in a dreamscape, and enchants us. And we are rapt. The brothers here are sirens; they sing, the fish sing and we listen, spellbound.

In a way, Mr. Markus follows in the tradition of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, William S. Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, or Anthony Burgess with invention of language and new ways to use it. But all of these writers, and others, re-invented language (and grammar, and punctuation) uniquely, and Mr. Markus does too. It would be useless to compare We Make Mud to the books of any of these authors, except to say they all employ unconventional language usage. All of these authors, including Mr. Markus, recognized the inadequacy of language to convey perceptions and tried to adapt it to express them better. They all took a huge, irreversible leap of faith when they struggled to cultivate not only a unique style, but a dialect (or idiolect).

And to the reader of We Make Mud, this use of unconventional language means they should jump into the flow of Mr. Markus’s river with both feet too. Pages go by quickly, but do not speed read this book. Focus instead on the journey, on the scenery rolling by. Read one or two or three stories a night until the book is done. To read more would be to invite fatigue and impatience. The style of writing employed here will become tedious and irritating if you try to force it to conform to conventional narrative expectations. So do not rush it. Instead, read a bit each night and let your subconscious digest the magical imagery Mr. Markus lays before you. You will find your own daytime perception of reality slightly altered too. You will see the world differently, you will expect more from your reality. And that’s the most we can ask of art.

 

Peter Markus is the author of the novel, Bob, or Man on Boat along with three books of short fiction, Good, BrotherThe Moon is a LighthouseThe Singing Fish and We Make Mud. His stories have appeared in a wide range of literary journals, including Denver Quarterly, Chicago Review, Massachusetts Review, Black Warrior Review, New Orleans Review, Quarterly West, Northwest Review, Third Coast, Willow Springs, Another Chicago Magazine, Seattle Review, 3rd Bed, Post Road, and Unsaid. His work has also appeared in anthologies brought out by HarperCollins, Norton, St. Martin’s Press, Bloomsbury. He has received grants from ArtServe Michigan, was for six years the writer-in-residence at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, and has been a writer with InsideOut since its inception in 1995.

Fish on!

Bob, or Man on Boat by Peter Markus

Bob, or Man on Boat by Peter Markus takes us down to the river again, but in the form of a novel. If you know Mr. Markus’s work, you might guess that this novel does not present a straightforward, linear-time narrative comprised of conventional prose. But that’s what makes Bob, or Man on Boat an exceptionally engaging read. If Mr. Markus had put down his story as a straightforward, linear-time narrative comprised of conventional prose it would still make an interesting tale. As such, you could say the novel is about a man alienated from a father, Bob, who left home in favor of subsisting alone on a small motorboat out on a river. That river runs past the now defunct steel mill that once employed his father, and when it went defunct, Bob’s father went defunct too, thus driving Bob perhaps a little nuts, but definitely away, out on the river. That would be the essence of the story, but what that synopsis leaves out are the myriad details of Bob’s existence, and his son’s quest to understand that existence.

The writing in Bob, or Man on Boat takes various forms, sometimes a series of short sentences each its own paragraph, sometimes longer paragraphs with comparatively generic, expository prose, other times one or more stanzas of poetry. But really, all of it is poetry in the sense of meter and musicality. It is clear after reading only a few pages that Mr. Markus chooses his words and forms his sentences very, very carefully, and I would guess, frequently revisits them for further revision and excision. I say excision because Mr. Markus appears to have mastered that pseudo-axiom of writing that demands everything non-essential to conveying the thought at hand must go. Proust did not subscribe to this axiom, but in his case, thankfully… sort of. But unless a writer intends to spend half his life completing a book, and expects to die doing it, brevity begets readability. In the words of the acerbic screenwriter William Goldman: “Kill your babies.” No matter how much you love a particular turn of phrase, if it does not help tell your story, out it goes. (William Goldman also said of Hollywood and its denizens’ capacity to judge creative work, “Nobody knows anything.”)

A perfectly good example of trimming the narrative down to essentials occurs on page 3:

Bob’s father was what we call, in our town, a hot metal man.

In our town there is a mill that used to make steel out of a stone we call ore.

But the mill, our mill, it is no longer a mill that makes steel.

The mill, it has been dark and quiet and with no fire burning inside it since Bob was a young man about ready to make steel alongside his father.

This excerpt also reveals, besides Mr. Markus’s careful excision of unnecessary detail, his sort of vernacular style, which affects the tone of a local working guy who speaks unselfconsciously without resorting to lofty, clever vocabulary and phrasing to position himself in a class hierarchy, as say, an academic might. The excerpt also reveals Mr. Markus’s selective repetition of key words: mill, steel, father. This sort of repetition occurs frequently throughout the book, and lends to the musicality and seeming spontaneity, even when a passage occurs as simple prose. The repetition, instead of being tedious, reinforces those details Mr. Markus seems to want to emphasize. Through repetition you absorb those essential details without ever stopping to think, “Hmmm, this must be important to the story, I better remember that.”

When Mr. Markus employs dialog, he omits quotations and selects moments of speech that capture the essence of the speaker. In fact in many cases, the “dialog” presents the voice of a single speaker:

Sometimes, Bob comes walking into town, lugging with him, hanging from his hands, two buckets filled with fish.

Fish, Bob’s lips whisper.

Fish.

It’s all Bob has to say.

It’s as simple as this.

Fish.

Bob does not have to say it any louder than this.

Fish.

From that short passage, a sense of Bob emerges that pure expository writing might have required several long paragraphs to convey. Another example of Mr. Markus’s spare exposition and dialog occurs after a man falls in the river and drowns (with a bit of Mr. Markus’s sly humor) while pissing off the side of his boat. The boat is recovered, and the narrator, seeking to emulate Bob, buys the boat from the man’s widow.

When I left with the dead man’s boat, I told her I was sorry.

For what? she said.

He’s the one, she said, who should be sorry.

She looked off towards the river.

All the time out on that river, she said.

All the time fishing for fish.

Do you fish? she asked me this.

No, I said.

What you want this boat for then? was what she wanted to be told.

I want to learn how, I told her.

I told her I want to fish.

If Jane Austen had written this passage, picture what it might have looked like. It would have taken pages to convey the same essential quanta of information that Mr. Markus gets done in eleven brief, well-crafted sentences. (For the record, this writer admires Jane Austen.)

As the novel progresses, we discover Bob’s relationship to nature: birds on the river, the moon, sun, and stars. He lives out on the river year round, and cuts holes in the ice in winter to get to the fish. We learn the fate of Bob’s father, and the names of the narrator’s son. We watch the narrator move closer and closer to Bob, possibly discovering, possibly engendering commonality between he and Bob. We learn of Bob’s visits with the townspeople who buy his fish and sell him gas, and his relationship to others in boats on the river. We learn that Bob had a dog once, but the dog was lured away under mysterious circumstances, leaving Bob alone on the river again.

Bob’s amusing perspective on other boats:

Summer days, Bob watches these boats and these people speed on by, going to where Bob doesn’t know.

Sometimes these boats, the people on these boats, when they motor on by Bob in his boat, they holler out to Bob for Bob to get out of their way.

Bob doesn’t holler anything back.

Bob doesn’t bother.

Bob isn’t bothered too much by these boats.

Bob knows that, in a couple of years, those boats won’t be out on the river getting in Bob’s way.

Those boats will be put up on trailers, they’ll be stored away in somebody’s backyard garage.

The people who own these stored-away boats, they’ll cover up these boats with tarps to keep them from getting dusty.

Bob knows what keeps a boat from getting dusty.

A boat is like a fish.

When you take a boat out of the river.

It is no longer a boat.

It becomes something else.

A boat is not a boat, Bob knows, unless it’s a boat floating out on the river.

In Bob, or Man on Boat, Mr. Markus brings us with him down to the river he knows so well. He presents Bob and his river with the lucid, logical, pragmatic clarity of a man who gained knowledge of this place through hard won experience. And that underlying knowledge, that experience, makes Bob, or Man on Boat a masterful representation of a singular place that could be no other place, and while you read this novel you will inhabit it alongside Bob and his singing fish. And you won’t feel out of place.

While this book reads fast — it’s double spaced and only 133 pages — read it slow, there’s poetry in there. Savor it, re-read the passages that grab you. Read some out loud to your dog or cat. You will be enchanted, and you’ll carry that enchantment with you even when you don’t have the book in hand. Make the most of it, places like this and characters like this seem to be fast vanishing from the landscape as sprawling homogenization erases local color. Thanks to writers like Mr. Markus, they will at least be preserved in fiction.

 

(For a journalistic view of lost American ways of life on the water, read Peter Matthiessen’s Men’s Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork [1986] — you’ll be astonished by how damn hard it is to make a living fishing on a small boat.)

 

Peter Markus is the author of the novel, Bob, or Man on Boat along with three books of short fiction, Good, BrotherThe Moon is a LighthouseThe Singing Fish and We Make Mud. His stories have appeared in a wide range of literary journals, including Denver Quarterly, Chicago Review, Massachusetts Review, Black Warrior Review, New Orleans Review, Quarterly West, Northwest Review, Third Coast, Willow Springs, Another Chicago Magazine, Seattle Review, 3rd Bed, Post Road, and Unsaid. His work has also appeared in anthologies brought out by HarperCollins, Norton, St. Martin’s Press, Bloomsbury. He has received grants from ArtServe Michigan, was for six years the writer-in-residence at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, and has been a writer with InsideOut since its inception in 1995.

December 18, 2012

The Language of Hands — Peter Markus — Detroit

Reprinted from:

The Detroit Free Press, “Guest commentary: After Connecticut shooting, healing through children’s poetry“, 14-December-2012

 

The Language of Hands

Peter Markus

 

Our hands are gifts. They give us so much. They give us the ability to hold, to touch, to feel. Hands that build, soothe, smooth. Hands that point up at the sky to tell a child, “Look, honey, the moon!”

But hands, too, can take away. Hands that hit. Hands that slap. Hands that curl into fists. Hands that pull a trigger.

Children are dead. In a school. This is not the first time.

I work with children in schools. A school is not a place where children go to die.

A mother crosses the street with her child and lets the child go.

A father places his hand on his child’s shoulder and says, “Have a good day.”

But the hand of a man—in a school—with a gun. This hand speaks another language.

Guns don’t kill, I hear some say. Hands don’t kill. But a hand on a gun? This can only lead to one thing.

The students I teach know about guns. They’ve seen guns. They’ve heard guns. Some have even held a gun in their hands.

This is Detroit. This is America. This is not some kind of bad dream.

We talk and we write poems about our hands when I walk into these schools. We talk and write poems about all the simple things that our hands can do.

 

The Hand

The hand that plays with my sisters

The hand that hugs my mama.

The hand that plays games with my grandma.

The hand that writes poems.

My hand.

The hand that brushes my hair.


Aaniyah Young

Marcus Garvey Academy

 

We write praise songs about our hands. We celebrate our hands in an attempt to connect up with the great-grandfather of American Poetry, Walt Whitman, who wrote, “And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

Whitman knew: we are connected. Every last one of us here on this beautiful earth.

We are broken by violence. This isn’t anything new. Poetry, I think, can put us back together. Poetry teaches us to feel beyond ourselves. Poetry insists that, to borrow a line from poet Jack Gilbert, “there will be music despite everything.”

Here are some poems to heal us all in this time when all of our songs—the singing songs of childhood, songs about how we hold the whole world in our hands—have been replaced by weeping. These are poems written by hands that dream and dream of a better place.

 

In My Dream Hand

In my dream hand

I can make music.

I can make a castle

Out of my hand.

I have an eye inside

My magic dream hand.

I can see a better place.

 

Jeremiah Steen

Golightly Education Center

 

I Have a Dream Hand

I have a dream hand

That can make the mountains move

Like waves on the water.

 

I have a dream hand

That can go back in time

And stop people from killing.

 

I have a dream hand

That can take God’s words

And help us believe that God’s words are true.

 

Jasmine Smith

Mark Twain Elementary-Middle School

 

These are hands, dream hands, that reach into what I like to call the Dream Box, a beat-up old cardboard box that I carry with me always into the classroom, a box of ordinary appearances that, when we place objects in such a box they are transformed into whatever the child-poet might dream them to be.

 

Dream Box

I take hold of a gun

With my hand

And then I throw it into

My dream box.

When I lift up my hand

I am holding

A hundred-dollar bill.

 

Reagan Chappell

Mark Twain Elementary-Middle School

 

Dream Box

I take hold of a drive-by with my hand

And throw it into the box. When I lift my hand

I am holding a playground full of kids.

 

Mia Hussey

Mark Twain Elementary-Middle School

 

I wish—we all wish, I think it’s safe to say—that the world worked in such magical, mysterious ways. Poetry speaks to that source of mystery, that magic, and leads us all to a more inward and tender place.

 

Inside My Heart

Inside my

heart there

is a cloud

 

that will

never turn

 

to a rain

cloud

 

it will

always be

 

filled with

love.

 

Gabrielle Taylor

Marcus Garvey Academy

 

In times like these, I often find myself reaching to the poems of children to say what needs to be said. There are some experiences that go beyond what words can say.

Today is not one of those days.

# # #

Peter Markus is the Senior Writer with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project of Detroit. He is a 2012 Kresge Arts fellow and the author of four books, the most recent of which is We Make Mud.

 

July 21, 2012

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 — A Modest Defense

Diana & Actaeon -- Titian, 1556-1559 -- National Gallery, London -- artifizz

Diana & Actaeon -- Titian, 1556-1559 -- National Gallery, London

I share here a comment I posted, which I wrote as a reply to a critic’s explanation of a review he made of the exhibition currently on at the National Gallery in London, “Metamorphosis: Titian 2012“. The critic replied to a request I posted for explanation of his negative take on Chris Ofili’s and Conrad Shawcross’ contributions to the multi-media show. I found his review, and his reply offhanded and not very thoughtful, and it really bugged me, so I posted the following, which might be a bit over the top:

Thanks for the quick reply.I haven’t seen Mr. Ofili & Shawcross’ commissioned works (except one or two pictures), so I am in no position to critique them. But from the reviews I’ve read, all the contributions to this ambitious exhibition do have merit worthy of at least a few more words than those you gave them in your review. To be honest, your review, and the title you gave it (with a reference to “pervs”) angered me a bit. It felt like an over the shoulder remark given with a dismissive wave of the hand. But that’s my opinion.

I would venture further to say that the effort by the National Gallery to situate the Titian works in a modern context represents the best purpose of such institutions. Exhibitions like “Metamorphosis: Titian 2012″ illustrate why it is essential that civilization cultivate and patronize the arts, both with attendance at shows, and with public funding: they offer rare moments of reflection on our too often woeful condition. Civilization without art ceases to be civilized. Our museums, theatres, opera houses, dance stages, orchestra halls and libraries are our most precious collective possessions. They map not only the past, but our future via the force of inspiration. Without them, the web of shared history and wisdom that binds us together in the ineffable grander scheme dissipates and dissolves. We stare into the abyss and find nothing redeeming; existential angst overwhelms aspiration, and we descend into nihilistic, self-serving anarchy. As we create, so do we destroy. Witness the library at Alexandria, witness the persecution of “magic” during the reign of the brothers Valens and Valentinian, Roman emperors who drove philosophers to burn their own libraries. I happen to be reading “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (an abridged version edited by Dero Saunders — worth a look!), and there is a footnote on book burning (p. 474):

“The persecution against philosophers and their libraries was carried out with such fury that from this time (A.D. 374) the names of the Gentile philosophers became almost extinct,” said Dean Milman, of Gibbon’s editors. “Besides vast heaps of manuscripts publicly destroyed throughout the East, men of learning burned their whole libraries lest some fatal volume expose them to the malice of the informers and the extreme penalty of the law.”

Suppression of learning and art occurred during the Inquisition. It happens in the US when benighted politicians score points with a too easily fooled electorate by cutting cultural funding below its already shamefully anemic level. Antiquity fell under siege after the US invaded Iraq, and looters destroyed museums and libraries while indifferent leaders of the occupiers did nothing. I live near Detroit, where the Detroit Institute of Arts struggles to put a referendum on the ballot to provide modest but essential funding, and demagogues rail against “lefty priorities.”

So to me, when someone courageous invites inevitable scorn by undertaking an exhibition like this one at the National Gallery, I think those of us who put any value at all on art owe it to them to grant them more than a cursory aside. We owe it to them to recognize the necessity of muses; our collective appetite for grace. From other reviews I’ve read, I suspect this exhibition offers both. You say you found Mr. Ofili and Shawcross’ works jarring. But isn’t that exactly what Titian’s work was, in contrast to the forced (and likely hypocritical) piety and devotion to Christianity prevalent at the time? From what I gather, all of the works commissioned for this show are jarring in one way or another, and that is exactly what we should be thankful for. I listened to the poems, read by the poets, available on the National Gallery website. They varied widely, and some strayed far from both Ovid and Titian. But they got me thinking how little things have changed since Romans burned books, or guys like Actaeon were murdered for being “pervs.” Let’s defend and nurture our better angels, and let our petty ones perish from neglect. We owe ourselves that.

And you, Sir, are blessed with two things that I, candidly, would cut off my own hand for: a bully pulpit and a willing audience. Cherish them both, and put them to good use. You have my admiration and respect. You’re one of the good guys.

I invite readers’ comments…

July 10, 2012

See the Child (Through the Eyes of a Poem)

Peter Markus shares poetic insights with students
2012 Kresge Fellow Peter Markus shares poetic insights with students,
and vice versa…photo: Detroit Free Press

by Peter Markus

appeared originally at: Guest commentary, Detroit Free Press, 08-July-2012

Call me the Man with the Magic Pencil. This pencil of mine that I’m using right now to write down these words, I’ve had this pencil of mine since the third grade — this stubby stick of wood with hardly no lead on it, no eraser, worn thin like a chicken bone that some dog’s chewed all the meat off of. It’s mine. I carry it with me wherever I go.

I can see things inside this pencil that nobody else can see. Its magic is something I freely share with my students. If I don’t share its magic with the world, the magic inside my pencil will surely dry up.

I tell this to my students before I go around the room tapping on their pencils twice and inviting them to repeat after me, “I believe … in the power … and the magic … of my magic pencil.”

I tell them about the 12-legged purple octopus riding a unicycle down Ferry Street, about the bird with one wing, about the egg that the moon placed underneath my pillow last night.

I tell them stories that I see when I lift my magic pencil up to my eye and see what only I can see.

I’ve been going into the public schools of Detroit with this pencil for the past 17 years as a writer-in-residence with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project of Detroit.

When people ask me what I do for a living, I sometimes tell them that I flip word-burgers at a diner called the Moon Palace, but eventually, if they stick around for more than a few minutes, I’ll tell them that I teach poetry to inner city kids. I like that term “inner city.” It makes me think of the phrase “inner circle,” and to me there’s something sacred and almost hidden about the picture that those words in my mind create.

When I say that I “teach poetry,” what I really mean to say is I create with these students a space in the world where words on the page are considered sacred, a place where students come to believe there are words inside each of their pencils that are waiting to be written, heard, listened to. Their words, in short, I hope to teach them — no matter if they are real or imagined — matter to the world.

These students are fish that are hungry for such bait. I wish you could see with me the looks on their faces when they lift up their own pencils and dive inside. But what we mostly hear are those stories about how these fish can’t swim.

I am here to tell you otherwise. I’ve seen some of these fish walk across the river. I’ve seen some of these fish sprout wings and fly across the sky.

How do you measure such flight? How do you gauge the intelligence of a song?

In the eyes of many in our data-driven world, these are students who, according to the measures of standardized test scores, fall short of being grade-level proficient. These are students who, when you ask them to write down a list of things they’ve seen and heard, will sometimes tell you things that you wish they did not have to know.
Something Lost

I have lost
my father

to a bullet
in the head.

–Alexis Marshall, Southwestern High School

These are students who, when you tell them that the page is a mirror, this is what they see:

Scars

My face
is a book

of invisible
scars.

Each scar
has its own

story. Each
story begins

Back when
I was small.

– Alex Garcia, Southwestern High School

These are students who aren’t afraid to share their stories of personal struggle and pain:

I Cry

for my mother who
did drugs, stole things,
and is in jail right now
in Ypsilanti. I cry

for my father who was
hardly ever around.
I cry for the corner house
where my uncle lives

where a man was shot
on the 4th of July.
I cry for my grandmother
who shouldn’t have

to take care of me
but she does. I cry
for my friend who lost
her grandmother. I cry

every time I am alone.
I cry to cover up
the anger and rage
inside of me, the sadness

and emptiness I feel.
I try to cover up
these feelings.
I bottle everything up

inside. But sooner
or later they have to come out
like right now
in this poem.

– Tiffany Stockman, Golightly Education Center

These are also students who dare to dream and bring insights such as this to the page:

For things are not what you see.
They are what you make them be.

– Cameron McKinney, Golightly Education Center

Call Me Ghost

I am from a place where the old
dog cries. I am from the place where

the sun doesn’t shine. The place I’m
from is where you wake to the smell

of old Delray’s soul. I am from a place
where people call me ghost. I am

from a place where nobody goes.

–Quincy Mann, Southwestern High School

“Such old souls,” a friend recently said to me, about these students, after hearing them read their poems at a recent event at the Detroit Film Theater. And yes, it is the soul; it is the souls of these children, that I believe we, as a culture, are failing to see, failing to teach to.

How do we measure feeling and the type of imaginative intelligence that it takes to shape the emotional topography inside us into such song? Can we “score” a piece of writing that reaches out to us straight from a child’s heart? Is the boy who writes this poem in the wake of losing his mother to a drunken driver merely proficient?

Inside My Heart

Inside my heart
there is a house
where my mom
lives with angels
singing in a voice
that sounds like
the wind blowing
through my hair.

–Deon Bateman, Fitzgerald Elementary School

Such singing needs not only to be listened to; it needs to be heard. It needs to be revered. Like the magic in this magic pencil of mine, if I don’t share poems like these with the wider world, I’m afraid that the poems will dry up, that the fish will have no river to swim in, no ears to sing to. I will not let this happen. This river is a good river. If you walk out into it, this river, it will hold you up. Watch it, listen to it flow.

Peter Markus is the senior writer with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project (or, visit their blog here) of Detroit. Markus, who was recently named a 2012 Kresge Arts Fellow, is also the author of a novel, “Bob, or Man on Boat,” as well as three books of short fiction, the most recent of which is “We Make Mud.”

January 10, 2011

Rejection…

Category: Art,artifizz,writingartifizz admin @ 7:52 pm

Here’s the first question from an interview with writer Paul Harding, author of Tinkers:

From what I’ve heard, you received a lot of rejection letters before Bellevue agreed to publish Tinkers. Now that you’ve got a Pulitzer and a major PEN award, anyone in particular you’d like tell, “I told you so”?

No. I’ve got people in my mind, and I figure they know who they are. Personally, it’s very frustrating to be rejected like that; you work your tail off on your novel or your stories or your poems, and then you’re met with that kind of apathy from the world of publishing. But that’s a fairly common lot for writers. I look back on it as my fair share of that sort of business. Short story writers in particular…they have to keep Excel charts of magazines and rejection letters. There are all these stories of people wallpapering their studies with rejection letters, so I think I just got my fair share of the writer’s lot.

Read the whole thing here: A Conversation With Paul Harding

Now get back to work…;)

October 1, 2010

The Great Gatsby Revisited

Category: artifizz,writingartifizz admin @ 9:32 am
Tags: , ,

The Great Gatsby -- original cover image

1st edition cover -- Francis Cugat

Here’s an excerpt from the original review of “The Great Gatsby” that ran in the NY Times April 19, 1925:

At the Buchanans Nick met Jordan Baker; through them both Daisy again meets Gatsby, to whom she had been engaged before she married Buchanan. The inevitable consequence that follows, in which violence takes its toll, is almost incidental, for in the overtones-and this is a book of potent overtones-the decay of souls is more tragic. With sensitive insight and keen psychological observation, Fitzgerald discloses in these people a meanness of spirit, carelessness and absence of loyalties. He cannot hate them, for they are dumb in their insensate selfishness, and only to be pitied. The philosopher of the flapper has escaped the mordant, but he has turned grave. A curious book, a mystical, glamourous story of today. It takes a deeper cut at life than hitherto has been enjoyed by Mr. Fitzgerald. He writes well-he always has-for he writes naturally, and his sense of form is becoming perfected.

If you like the book, you should read the whole review. But what struck me about this section is how easily it could describe the investment bankers, private equity raiders, and hedge fund managers of today. They are lost and don’t know the way back.

Art would be one place to start. Its foreignness forces you to see the things you might not want to see. Art reveal the true state of your soul better than a long look in the mirror.

Maybe some of these folks should read, or re-read, Gatsby.

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