The superhero is a staple of pop culture, but poets can use elements of superhero identity to craft poems and explore their own mythology. Lynn Levin offers a writing prompt designed to allow poets to reach beyond the real in search of other truths.
WRITING THE SUPERHERO POEM A Craft Essay by Lynn Levin
Gods and demigods, the superheroes of myth and legend, have provided people with drama, wisdom, moral lessons, and hopes of divine intervention for thousands of years. Thunderbolt throwers like Zeus and Thor, fierce beauties such as Athena and Artemis, super-mortals like Hercules, not to mention countless deities and folk heroes from other world traditions may be seen as the forerunners of Superman, Batman, Zena Princess Warrior, Wonder Woman, and the rest of the comic book pantheon. Anthropologists tell us that the transcendent, that sense of unearthly force, is a universal feature of human perception (or the human imagination, depending on one’s point of view). Today’s supernatural pop-cultural good guys and bad guys tie into our attraction to the transcendent. We want larger-than-life fictional superheroes to rescue those in distress, combat the forces of darkness, and entertain us. While comic book writers, TV or movie producers, and video game developers are usually the ones to rally the superheroes, poets can write superhero poems which enlist and evoke the transcendent power of myth.
Superhero poems attract poets and readers for a host of reasons, among them dreams of triumph, rescue, the restoration of justice, and a psychological fascination with the doubled self. In her fascinating essay “Poems about Superheroes,” originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review, Stephanie Burt observes that poets and readers are attracted to superhero poems both out of both familiarity and mystery: we recognize the characters, and we know what a secret identity is. Superhero themes allow poets to become fantasy writers.
Superhero poems might speak of happy victory, but they are often grim. In his poem [my neck a toothsome feeding ground vespered swarms had drunk of me before this new batman] subtitled “a song for Robin,” (Tea, Wesleyan), D. A. Powell writes of an orphaned and seductive Robin who has affairs with numerous men as he seeks to attract his next Batman. The Boy Wonder is not fighting crime; he is looking out for his own future, hunting for his next savior but not in the name of love and partnership. His quest is ruthless, based on survival.
Another dark superhero poem comes from Lisa Prince, a poet and writer from Southern Ontario. In “Icarus’s Daughter,” Prince borrows from the classics but wings away from the traditional myth of the overreaching and doomed Icarus. Here the daughter of the tragic figure tries to be human in the face of legend; she struggles on after things fall apart.
She had not longed for flight, despite the wings she’d been given.
Between her toes, sand. Every call she heard was ocean. Every step she took was wave.
Her fingers, nimble, plucked those vibrant feathers one by one. Hope to a stranger. Faith to a bride. Peace…
…she knew none.
In the empty spaces of her wings, nothing grew. Pale skin turning paler, sicklier.
The song was clearer now that she knew. It was those wings binding her. Those wings…
…spread against the morning sun, leaving her translucent, standing atop a crested hill, overlooking
blue-green waters, pale and still.
all she needed to do
With her eyes closed she breathed the scent and sound of the ocean
spread her wings
The family tradition for self-destruction moves Icarus’s daughter to pick apart her wings and plunge into the sea. This suicidal fall is very much the opposite of what we usually think of when we think of soaring comic book heroes.
I experimented with a superhero prompt in a recent poetry writing class at Drexel University. The prompt proved effective far beyond my expectations. The superhero prompt appealed to the students’ familiarity with and delight in pop culture, and it encouraged them to write through a persona. Some students created mighty warriors. Others celebrated very down-to-earth champions, such as working mothers or superheroes in itchy costumes.
Here is the superhero poem prompt:
Write a poem about a superhero you are fond of or who excites your imagination. This might be a character who comes to your rescue or the rescue of others. The character might restore justice, overpower evil doers, or make the world a better place. On the other hand, the superhero might cause trouble. The character might accomplish amazing feats or more modest feats. You can write about a traditional figure from myth or contemporary pop culture, or you can invent your own superhero.
After I explained the prompt to my students, I shared a few poems from Jeannine Hall Gailey’s Becoming the Villainess (Steeltoe Books), a collection of superhero persona poems. In her book, Gailey includes poems that focus on characters from fairy tales and Greek mythology as well as some superhero figures of her own making. The samples from Gailey combined with the students’ own familiarity with mythology, comic book, and other media superheroes, as well as the students’ eagerness to speak through a mask helped them generate vivid poems.
The prompt proved liberating in many ways. Surprisingly, none of my students wrote about existing characters from myth, legend, or popular culture. These college poets all made up their own superheroes who spoke to their fears and desires. Often the poems starred regular people, such as the previously mentioned working mothers, whom the writers held in high esteem. The exercise led many students to write poems with more action, more story, and more character development than they would normally do.
In this poem by English major Amberlyn Wilk, the superhero is a glamorous and angry protectress of young women.
The Raging Bitch
She protects the streets with her winged eyeliner on point so women can go out at night without pretending to talk on the phone. No more evil lurks around the dark corners when she’s patrolling. Ladies no longer speed walk home with keys carefully placed between their fingers. There are no more tiny pink cans of mace squeezed Into the teeny little pockets of their skinny jeans. They don’t need to call an escort because she is there— The invisible escort is always with them. And you know she won’t break any of her French tips When she destroys any predator who may be prowling the streets. She is something that the law could never be, What the women of the world have been crying out for. She is a there to make sure that 1-in-5 stat disappears Because she can see that the wolf whistles in sheep’s clothing. No longer will a woman leaving the house after 9 pm Be playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette because she is there. She is there to make sure that no more women Sleep with a knife under their pillow. She knows that Christine wasn’t wearing the wrong clothes and Katherine isn’t just a loose slut and Amy’s silence did not equal consent and Brooke didn’t lead him on and Sophie didn’t enjoy herself at all. And she knows above all else that none of them were asking for it. The system has failed them But she never will.
In contrast to Wilks’s fierce avenger, computer science major Andrew Yaros created a mild-mannered comic superhero who uses the power of pun making to lighten the burdens of mankind.
Super here? Oh…
Every day, I tell myself This curse isn’t worth it, This burden is more than I can carry, Why has this responsibility been thrust upon me?
But we live in horrible sick society, A society without puns And someone needs to make them, And that someone is I.
I’m compelled to make puns No matter the time or season, And even when I write poetry I make puns without rhyme or reason.
And every day, I carry my burden. I create puns whenever I can, Even if no one will hear them: It must be done for the good of man.
I live in fear each day, Knowing the world will lapse Into chaos, famine, and nuclear war If I neglect my duty for but one minute.
It is the hell I live in, But it cannot last forever: One day I may need to have a son of my own To pass the torch to, as my father did to me.
A world without puns? A world without me.
The superhero poem prompt, obviously, can be broadly interpreted. My students’ superheroes sometimes swooped the skies, and sometimes they were fierce, but more often they were humble souls, very human, and friends to mankind. Traditionally good characters can take on questionable roles. Conversely, superhero poems can serve to redeem or re-envision mythic or comic book figures who have been saddled with a bad reputation. I have written a series of poems about Lilith, a figure with roots in ancient folk tradition, who, non-biblical legend has it, was the first wife of Adam. Lilith has suffered a very bad rap in legend, but my mission has been to humanize her and be kind to her. For example, in one of my poems, Lilith goes shopping with Eve at Macy’s.
We love superheroes because they are exciting and because they fulfil our wishes for power, vengeance, justice, rescue, and other goals that seem beyond our reach. In poetry, they also turn out to be powerful muses.
Prince, Lisa: “Icarus’s Daughter” appears by permission of the author. The poem was first published in Prince’s Sign Language (and other hand signals), a chapbook in the November 2006 issue of Lily: A Monthly Online Literary Review.
Wilk, Amberlyn: “The Raging Bitch” appears by permission of the author. Copyright c 2017 by Amberlyn Wilk.
Yaros, Andrew: “Super here? Oh…” appears by permission of the author. Copyright c 2017 by Andrew Yaros.
Lynn Levin is a poet, writer, translator, and teacher. Her work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Michigan Quarterly Review, Per Contra, Painted Bride Quarterly, Boulevard, and other places. She teaches at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania. Her website is www.lynnlevinpoet.com. The second edition of Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press) by Valerie Fox and Lynn Levin is expected to be published in 2018. “Eve and Lilith Go to Macy’s” and Levin’s other Lilith poems may be found here.
This November blew
down to the just-reaped
fields a hectic
More golden leaves
than fevered leaves
but the fevered
claimed the land
in the way
that we call fair.
Now what rustling
what rising up
and from which points
on the compass?
Below the roar
things are worse
and same. There’s
lead in the gut,
poison in the vein,
the air’s too hot,
the cost of cure
insane. People say
what they mean
and they’ve been
waiting to say it
for years. How
this fall over
our set faces. I see
the spray paint
on the wall.
What riddle there,
dark and illegible?
Lynn Levin is a poet, writer, and translator. She is the author of six books, most recently Miss Plastique; as co-author, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets; and a translation from the Spanish, Birds on the Kiswar Tree by the Peruvian Andean poet Odi Gonzales. Lynn Levin is the recipient of 13 Pushcart Prize nominations. Garrison Keillor has read her poetry on his radio show The Writer’s Almanac, and she has twice been a guest on the NPR show Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane. Lynn Levin teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University.
by Richard Burgin
Johns Hopkins University Press, 184 pages
reviewed by Lynn Levin
When you read Richard Burgin’s fiction, be prepared to slip into the lives of the neurotic, the slightly or very twisted, the disconnected, and the agonizingly lonely. And expect to find yourself sympathizing with them.
Don’t Think, Burgin’s newest collection of short stories (and his nineteenth book), is one of his very best. The author’s straightforward and suspense-driven storytelling voice is as compelling as ever, the stories somewhat spooky and darkly comic. They give you the willies and keep you coming back for more. But Burgin, in this latest collection, demonstrates a new empathy for his characters. This notable evolution gives the characters softer landings and a fuller resonance in the reader’s imagination.
The protagonists of Don’t Think are mostly single middle-aged men, isolated souls detached from parents, siblings, children, ex-lovers, and the few friends they ever had. The rest of the dramatis personae comprise drug dealers, prostitutes, molesters, users, charlatans, rivals, and seducers, many of whom turn on the hapless stiffs who venture into their webs.
The book opens with the relentlessly lyrical and meditative story “Don’t Think,” which is narrated in the second person. The main character tries to reassure himself that bad memories, rejections by parents and brother, breakups with spouse and lover, and his son’s Asperger’s Syndrome should be replaced with grander thoughts. Think of ultimate things, he tells himself: the mysteries of the universe and how it came to exist. All that, however, proves vain. What grips the soul is the human; above all, what grips this speaker is his connection, however challenged, with his son. “It’s selfish,” the story concludes, “in a way, to love a world where there is so much suffering. But don’t think of that.” Think of your son, says the speaker, “of the love in his eyes. Think of all of this as long as you can.”
Richard Burgin is the winner of five Pushcart Prizes and the editor and publisher of the distinguished literary magazine Boulevard. His signature brilliance comes with high-concept stories in the vein of an earlier classic, “The Identity Club,” a tale about a cultural society and the fatal pledge that comes with membership. Don’t Think features several stories in this mode. “The House Visitor,” a story I especially love, follows the exploits of a lonely man obsessed with sneaking into people’s houses when they are away. The man’s aim, though completely weird, is sad and innocent: he wishes to sample for short spells the love and comfort of a family home. He never comes to steal, only to soak up the ambiance of a life lived with others. The story layers his comic-transgressive intrusions with harrowing memories of the abuse he suffered in his childhood home. On the night the story takes place, he enters the home of a mother and young daughter while they are out trick-or-treating on Halloween. Dramatic tension peaks when the mom and daughter return home.
Unforgettable also is another high-concept story, “V. I. N.” An acronym for “Victims of Infinity and Nothingness,” V. I. N. is an existentialist support group. That is a hilarious idea, but it loses its funniness as the story progresses. At meetings, the participants are supposed to share lofty observations about ontological matters, sometimes garnering applause. In the view of Whitman, the charismatic charlatan poised to take over the club in a sort-of-coup, V.I.N.’s opposition to “establishment morality” gives him license to betray a lover, deal drugs, and generally behave in any way he chooses. Rogers, the hapless loner, who originally looked up to Whitman, eventually decides that being lonely is better than being in Whitman’s thrall.
Burgin’s pithy observations, often delivered under comic circumstances, add more surprise. While hiding in the house he invaded, the main character in “The House Visitor” needs to pee. “But I certainly can’t give into that impulse either. Civilization,” he says, “is basically the repression of impulses.” Not that he represses his impulse to invade people’s houses. Further on in “The House Visitor,” the character says, “ I look at people a little differently than most—as aliens. It makes them seem tremendously compelling.” In “The Intruder,” a story about a lonely disabled man who shelters a young female vagabond, the insomnia-stricken protagonist observes, “Life is adverse to solving things, though it camouflages problems temporarily with pleasure.”
The stories, for the most part, take place in New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis, and the urban locales set the stage for their share of disturbing, seedy, and melancholy encounters. Burgin’s familiar tropes notwithstanding, Don’t Think ushers in something new for this author. His stories still creep around you like a low fog, but an endearing new gentleness is also at foot. Many of the characters seem more likable and more self-aware. Maybe some of them are older and wiser; maybe some of them want to be nicer to themselves. Maybe the author wants to be nicer to them.
In “The Chill,” for example, a frightened and friendless man, after a harrowing and disastrous day of attempting human connection, ultimately finds warmth and comfort as he gazes on photos of his loving parents. It takes a long-ago and faraway memory to bring the man a little solace, but Burgin grants the man that relief. In “Olympia,” we again see the author’s kinder and more understanding approach to his characters. This story tracks the long on-again, off-again affair between an older, wealthy, famous female theatrical and movie producer and the younger male photographer she uses for sex and companionship. Olympia’s promises to boost the younger man’s artistic career never fully materialize; she continually commands the spotlight. Additionally, she torments him by alternately coddling and unpredictably raging at him. The story however, achieves a peaceful ending. Although the younger man moves away, the two ex-lovers stay in touch. Their bond endures thanks to sporadic communications. As the main character notes, “we managed to share an adventure that for some reason life decided we should go through together, or as together as people like us could ever be.”
For Burgin’s characters, this may be as solid as connection gets. Nevertheless, closeness, or approximations of closeness, seem more achieved here than in the author’s previous books. The end result is that Don’t Think ranks as one of Burgin’s most gripping and memorable, a collection that still makes me feel uneasy but which also makes me a little happier for the lonely, used, and unappreciated people who live in his fictions.
Lynn Levin’s newest books are the poetry collection Miss Plastique(Ragged Sky, 2013), a Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in poetry, and Birds on the Kiswar Tree (2Leaf Press, 2014), a translation from the Spanish of a collection of poems by the Peruvian Andean poet Odi Gonzales. She is co-author of Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2013), a Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in education/academic books. Her poems, essays, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, Cleaver, The Hopkins Review,Rattle, Young Adult Review Network, and other places. She teaches at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania.
In my deathwish days when I was young
I reaped the bitter from the field
and ate the poison pokeweed raw.
What did I know of boiling and washing
of throwing the bad soup out?
In my deathwish days, I never had enough
of wretchedness. A bird in the pokeberries
I drank the toxic wine and warbled
my bitter thoughts. Oh, I had lived a life
of deferment: of little I never had enough.
Then early one morning, sick of it all
I caught the wild perfume of the honeysuckle.
I heard the chorus of its delicate tongues.
I drew the stamens through the butter
and moon. I sucked the clear sweet drops.
I left my house. Dawn came up.
Lynn Levin’s newest books are the poetry collection Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky, 2013), a Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in poetry, and Birds on the Kiswar Tree (2Leaf Press, 2014), a translation from the Spanish of a collection of poems by the Peruvian Andean poet Odi Gonzales. She is co-author of Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2013), a Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in education/academic books. Her poems, essays, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, Cleaver, The Hopkins Review,Rattle, Young Adult Review Network, and other places. She teaches at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania. Her story “The Birthday Present” appears in Issue 4 of Cleaver and her flash piece “The Ask Sandwich” in Cleaver’s .5 Preview Issue.
CREATIVE WRITING PEDAGOGIES FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
edited by Alexandria Peary and Tom C. Hunley
Southern Illinois University Press, 310 pages
reviewed by Lynn Levin
We live in an era of border crossings. In marriage, family, race, gender, and geographical boundaries, our world is more than ever about blending, bridging, transforming, and migrating. Frontiers are shifting in literature, too: the move is on toward hybrid and blurred genres—prose poems, flash fiction, videos, and other experiments in expression. Into this climate of mixing and crossing, comes Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Alexandria Peary and Tom C. Hunley (SIU Press, 2015). The book details the many ways in which creative writing instructors are crossing boundaries: for example, using compositional strategies in the creative writing classroom.
The twelve essays in this book are rich in theory, research, practical ideas, and in-the-trenches know-how. The contributors are academics who are also poets and writers. They all specialize in teaching creative writing, composition, and/or literary studies. Many of the essays captivate with inspired ideas. A few, aiming for the scholarly, rely a little too much on academic jargon and buzzwords. All in all, I found a raft of useful crossover and new-generation ideas for teaching creative writing and, as a by-product, some new ideas for teaching composition as well.
Tom C. Hunley
In their chapter Tom C. Hunley and Sandra Giles—collaboration is advocated throughout the book and many of the essays are co-authored—argue that creative writing can be taught, and to that end they advocate a rhetoric-based creative writing class. Hunley and Giles urge teachers to make their creative writing students attend to audience and purpose and to keep in mind the Aristotelian appeals to ethos, logos, and pathos. The authors point out the ways in which fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry can all be served by such rhetorical techniques as comparison, imitation, narrowing, and amplification. As enlightening as this chapter was for the teaching of creative writing, it was, for me, just as valuable for comp teaching. I will surely put to use the invention exercise of gnome (sententia) in which students recommend or disprove an aphorism. Writing instructors, say Hunley and Giles, should be as steeped in rhetorical theory as much as in great works of literature.
Many of the contributors rebel with some zeal against the traditional writers workshop. They contend that it relies overly on the apprentice writer/literary master model, which they critique as a hegemonic and hierarchical concept that positions the instructor as the cultural authority. I think that mastery should count for something, but a powerful voice misapplied can shut down a student. Several contributors offer antidotes to the traditional model. In his chapter, Patrick Bizarro advocates “mutuality.” Instead of editing a student’s poem or story or essay into publishability, Bizarro says that the teacher should act not as expert, but as the writer’s partner or companion. He offers a parallel text response chart in which the instructor poses reactions to the text and asks the writer to deepen or clarify her ideas. Not the teacher as expert, but the teacher as willing and receptive reader.
In their feminist approach to the creative writing workshop, Pamela Annas and Joyce Peseroff also rebel against the concept of the workshop leader as literary master. Peseroff urges decentering the workshop leader’s authority. She calls for a workshop that responds to students’ needs. Class members should be asked what they want out of the workshop, how they would like to introduce their work, when and how would they like to participate in the discussion. She also suggests rotating discussion leaders. This is very different from the MFA model in which the student writer remains silent as the group discusses the work, only being permitted to speak at the end of the discussion. As someone who has been following the MFA model, I found Peseroff’s approach inviting and refreshing. I will surely experiment with it. I also liked Peseroff’s idea of textual intervention in which students rewrite canonical work: for example, she suggest writing a story from the point of view of one of Cinderella’s stepsisters.
Understanding how often women writers may self-censor (is my material important enough? are motherhood and daughterhood worth writing about?), Pamela Annas emphasizes the role of the teacher in helping students to locate their material and giving them a safe place to share it. She offers many detailed lesson plans, and unique in-class writing exercises. I was particularly taken by Annas’s bridging idea that introduces graphic novel techniques into the writing class. She suggests having students pick a scene from their work, then sketch or verbally describe that scene as a single graphic frame.
Similar themes and pedagogical values run through many of the essays. These include the value of writing across the curriculum, the desire to explode the traditional apprentice/master model of the workshop, the promotion of process over product, and the blending of genres. This last I found quite useful in terms of lesson planning. Not only did I like Annas’s idea of the graphic frame, but I was very taken with Steven Healey’s chapter which delivers a trove of hybridizing ideas.
Healey promotes the concept of “creative literacy,” a phrase he developed to describe the works produced across the arts, often via collaboration and made public off the page. His ideas include poems to be written on bridges, on the walls (imaginary walls, I hope) of fast-food restaurants, or recited in shopping malls. Aware that the US economy is more often a creative economy than an industrial economy, Healey promotes creative literacy as a way of encouraging students to develop creative thinking in general. The hope is that creative writing classes will help students develop creative skills they can use in any occupation they pursue.
Peary and Hunley counsel a smorgasbord approach to the wide array of methods and mixing techniques in Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century. They urge the reader to take what he wants from each chapter and leave the rest. I found some of the prompts and approaches completely new. Others, just as valuable, come from time-honored traditions. In the latter case, there’s much to be gained by having one’s memory refreshed as to their usefulness. One of the main take-aways from the book is this: a creative writing instructor knows that, as scintillating as she is, her own personality and publishing record are not enough to help her inspire her students, help them shape their work, and empower them to believe in themselves as creative thinkers. Peary and Hunley’s Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century offers help with its bridging ideas.
Lynn Levin’s newest books are the poetry collection Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky, 2013), a Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in poetry, and Birds on the Kiswar Tree (2Leaf Press, 2014), a translation from the Spanish of a collection of poems by the Peruvian Andean poet Odi Gonzales. She is co-author of Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2013), a Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in education/academic books. Her poems, essays, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, Cleaver, The Hopkins Review, The Smart Set, Young Adult Review Network, and other places. She teaches at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania. Her story “The Birthday Present” appears in Issue 4 of Cleaver and her flash piece “The Ask Sandwich” in Cleaver’s .5 Preview Issue.
BIRDS ON THE KISWAR TREE by Odi Gonzalez, trans. Lynn Levin 2Leaf Press, 140 pages
reviewed by J.G. McClure
It’s the Last Supper. The apostles pray earnestly as Christ radiates a heavenly light, bread-loaf in hand. It’s a scene we know well, with a key difference: dead-center of the canvas, surrounded by corn and chilies, a roasted guinea pig splays its feet in the air.
This is a prime example of the Cusco School of painting, an artistic movement that developed during Peru’s colonial period and that forms the subject of Birds on the Kiswar Tree. As translator Lynn Levin explains in her notes:
Painting flourished in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Peru when Spain sent highly-accomplished painters, some of them painter-priests, to the Andes in order to evangelize the people through art and art instruction. The Church, however, put severe restrictions on the native artists: they were permitted to paint only religious subjects. The artists responded by producing work that was pious, syncretistic, and subversive. In hidden nooks in churches, Quechua artists painted angels with harquebuses; they furnished the Garden of Eden with Andean birds, trees, and flowers…
The Last Supper by Marcos Zapata, in the Cuzco Cathedral
The fascinating thing about the Cusco School is that it was genuinely pious and deeply subversive at once. Take the first poem in Birds, “The Last Supper.” A snippet from a modern-day museum guide explains the painted scene:
Here the cunning Indian painter – The Anonymous One of the Cathedral – in a flight of ecstasy added on his own initiative his favorite foods
But Gonzalez gives a voice to the anonymous artist to show what’s really at stake:
in place of
the holy bread – flat and unleavened –
I set upon the paschal table
roasted cuy, stuffed peppers
Here the rich names and flavors of the artist’s foods stand in stark contrast to the dully “flat and unleavened” holy bread. Certainly, it’s subversive to replace the foods the Spanish would expect with indigenous favorites. But at the same time, Gonzalez shows us that the artist has also chosen to do so in order to make the religious scene richer, more appealing—a gesture of sincere piety. The poem continues, bringing that blend of piety and subversion to the foreground:
as if the Upper Room were not in the Holy Land
but more likely
in a cozy tavern in Cusco,
let’s say “La Chola.”
The artist subversively relocates Christ and his disciples to Cusco, insisting upon the importance of Peru and of the indigenous culture that the Church was attempting to suppress. At the same time, though, it’s in the service of devotion: he knows the taverns of Cusco well, and by placing the Last Supper there, he is able to identify with it more deeply, to feel it as “cozy” and familiar.
In other poems, Gozalez’s critique can be much more biting. Take “The Expulsion from Paradise,” in which the anger of the artist and the injustice of the Church are felt so bitterly that God himself is implicated. We get a snippet of the decree forbidding anything but religious subjects:
To the Guild of Painters we hereby command you may paint only what the Scriptures say under the penalty of excommunication
The threat of expulsion from the Church mirrors the threat of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. This casts the Church in the role of the God of Genesis: don’t eat the apple, don’t paint secular material. The artist-speaker then shows us how,
Acolytes, deacons, tonsured monks,
priests, thurifers, and lectors
watch over me as one would watch a criminal
The proliferation of religious figures gives a sense of constant, suffocating scrutiny. He notes that he is watched like “a criminal” – a simile that implies he is not actually a criminal – in a quiet act of subversion. He then goes on to assert his rebellion much more forcefully:
they drum into me eighty times a day
the same passage from the Gospel
and the result?
Adam and Eve carry the weight of the composition
but this Eden abounds
in kiswar trees,
hordes of parrots and ñukchu flowers
Adam and Eve carry not the weight of sin but the “weight of the composition” – in other words, the Church’s control over what the indigenous painters are allowed to compose becomes equated with the Fall of Man. Eden, meanwhile, “abounds / in kiswar trees” – the natural world surrounding Cusco is cast as Paradise, and the Church is at fault for causing the expulsion from it. The critique is scathing.
Even more, when we then get another snippet of a powerful voice – “Begone ye impious ones / Depart ye from the kingdom” —it’s not entirely clear whether we’re getting the voice of the Church or the voice of God. It could be either. Since the banishment has been cast as an act of injustice, it thus suggested that God himself may be unjust. For all his anger, though, the speaker still wonders if he has seen “The apparition of the Virgin” in his canvas—a note of lingering faith that makes the poem all the more richly complex.
Gonzalez shows the same talent for navigating complex—even paradoxical—material in “The Painter / His Early Works.” The poem begins with a beautiful description of the artist’s accomplishments:
I was able to moisten
the slight bevel of the lips
of The Young Virgin at Her Spinning Wheel
to reveal the watery eyes
of The Penitent Magdalene the feet
of Saint Christopher in the water
stamping on shoals of fish
Translator Lynn Levin
For all this, though, the speaker could not “form / the letters of my own first / and last names,” and as a result his name has been lost. Paradoxically, though the painter remains anonymous, the poem ends with a powerful assertion of identity: “I am the Anonymous One of The Almudena Church, / of Santa Clara, The Nazarenes, / of the Chapel of Huarocondo…”
Rich and complex in its exploration of syncretism, subversion, history, art, what is recovered, and what is lost, Birds on the Kiswar Tree does too much to cover in one review. Levin’s translations (undertaken in collaboration with Gonzalez) combined with her incredibly helpful footnotes successfully open the poems to Anglophone readers, while the bilingual format ensures that readers of Spanish can enjoy Gonzalez’s subtly musical verse in its original language. These poems recover voices we may not have realized were lost – and they have much to tell.
J.G. McClure is an MFA candidate at the University of California – Irvine, where he teaches writing and works on Faultline. His poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications including Fourteen Hills, The Southern Poetry Anthology (Texas Review Press), Colorado Review, and Green Mountains Review. He is at work on his first book.
As I began reading this short novel by Tsipi Keller, I found myself enjoying what I thought was going to be a leisurely experience with chick lit. Nothing too demanding, nothing to worrisome. Elsa, at the start, is as much about the jealousies of girl friendships as it is about the protagonist’s desire for some overdue sex and true romance. About a third of the way into the book, however, the narrative becomes increasingly disturbing as Keller skillfully pitches the fascinating but dislikable protagonist, thirty-nine-year-old Elsa, into a gradually darkening labyrinth of seduction and danger. I so wanted to reach into the story and shake Elsa. “Get out of there while you can!” In the meantime Gary, Elsa’s wealthy middle-aged date, whispers in her ear in a velvet voice, “You’re a fool…So trusting.”
Elsa is the third in Tsipi Keller’s trilogy of psychological novels. The first two were Jackpot and Retelling, which trace the fortunes of women. Elsa calls to mind some of Richard Burgin’s noir fiction. Both writers explore the world of nefarious, but initially engaging, operators who insinuate themselves into the lives of lonely strangers aiming to control or ruin them. Burgin’s characters usually escape their captors. Elsa does not escape Gary.
Elsa Berg is an attractive, sophisticated, and very lonely New York tax attorney, who, while catty and sometimes sour, also regrets her personality defects. “Why can’t she be sweet and generous like some women she occasionally meets, women who are soft-spoken, patient, and tolerant? Why is she so easy to anger, to find fault, with jealousy and resentment always bubbling right below the surface?” One evening she and a girlfriend go to a bar where they happen upon the mysterious and handsome Gary, whom Elsa at first dismisses as too old. After a few weeks of calculated delay, Gary calls and takes her on their initial and only date, picking her up in his Ferrari and swooping her off to his luxurious brownstone. Keller takes her delicious time ramping up the sexual and psychological tension as she allows antagonist Gary to ply the eager but socially klutzy Elsa with booze, a love feast of lamb chops and mashed potatoes, and more liquor. Meanwhile, Elsa makes off-putting comments about a colleague’s crotch, then annoys and even insults Gary.
Elsa’s gaffes and unpredictability startle the reader—such behavior!—and leave Gary more than miffed. Then, again, the reader begins to get the notion that there is something very suspicious about Gary. And it is not just that he is condescending toward her. At one point he clamps his hands tightly around Elsa’s neck, claiming that his hands are cold and he must warm them. Yet once he releases Elsa and calls a truce, she’s all too ready to proceed with their evening. “And yes, she is willing. To make up and forget. Maybe like he said, she is too sensitive…” Keller deploys a close third-person point-of-view that exposes her protagonist’s bitchiness, weirdness, loneliness, neediness, and her tendency to rebuff when she should trust and trust when she should run. Elsa’s reactions made me wonder how often needy people dismiss warning signs in dates and partners.
Shockers abound as Gary leads Elsa into the kitchen, captures her in a spinning net, and leaves her trapped for hours. Eventually he cleans her up and cossets her in a white canopy bed. Thus Elsa allows herself to be pampered and humiliated until events run their fatal course.
Much more than a tale about a smart woman who makes foolish choices, Elsa is a fast-paced, tightly crafted, suspenseful, psychological crime novel that sidles up to the reader, then pounces.
Lynn Levin’s newest books are the poetry collection Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky, 2013), a Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in poetry, and Birds on the Kiswar Tree (2Leaf Press, 2014), a translation from the Spanish of a collection of poems by the Peruvian Andean poet Odi Gonzales. She is co-author of Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2013), a Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist in education/academic books. Her poems, essays, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, Cleaver, The Hopkins Review, The Smart Set, Young Adult Review Network, and other places. She teaches at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania.
The day of his wife’s forty-fifth birthday party, Norbie Bernbaum let Jerry Rosen talk him into an afternoon at the Dirty Martini, a strip club on the edge of downtown where Hot Pantz, Double Dee, and The Bride seduced the clientele to one degree or another. Rosen had been there a couple of times, mostly during weekdays, and he made the place sound so irresistible—the women were just like showgirls—that Norbie was panting to go.
“But what about Donna’s party?” Norbie groaned as Schpilkes, the family dog, came by and leaned against him.
“Just tell her you’re going out to buy her a gift,” advised Rosen. “You’ll be back in time for brisket with the in-laws. I promise.”
Norbie hadn’t bought Donna a birthday present, so this sounded like a plan. He hurriedly splashed on a bit of cologne, brushed his teeth, and scooped his keys off the top of the bureau, which was slightly dusty and decked with family photos. He nearly tripped on a toy police car that his son, Eddie, had left in the upstairs hall. Latin rap pulsed from his teenage daughter Annette’s room. Through the slightly open door, Norbie saw her working her hips to some kind of chipotle-flavored belly dance and cringed. He had to pick up Rosen in twenty minutes.
An accountant in a medium-sized firm, Norbie was in good health and not bad looking: he had a full head of onyx hair and a slight cleft in his chin that could look playful and charming when he was feeling merry. But he had not felt merry in some time. Instead, a blue mold of boredom and resentment had crept over him. He began to wonder what accountancy meant in the big picture and what the big picture was anyway. The idea that he was squandering a third of his life on other people’s numbers poked at him like a constant elbow. As for his marriage, he was bored and resentful of it too. The easy passion he and Donna once felt for each other had subsided with the years and petty disgruntlements of matrimony. Norbie sometimes wondered if this was a normal part of the passage or if he and Donna were just stringing each other along. The problem was that nothing much could gain traction in his soul. He felt like a man dangling and reaching out for something, but he didn’t know what.
As Norbie sought relief from his funk, ideas of purpose would stir in his mind. He should coach Eddie’s Little League team, learn Spanish, take up guitar, engage in a wild affair, maybe even try harder to appreciate what he had. But he only dreamed of these things. He didn’t act on them – neither the good things nor the bad ones. The idea of the affair he dismissed as too real, too intense, too risky. Sooner or later, each notion dissolved like the morning fog, and hard daylight only made him see the big boulder of his life more clearly.
Eventually, he figured that he should simply try to have more fun. And convinced that his opportunities for fun were speeding away from him like a Porsche down the highway, Norbie jumped whenever Jerry Rosen called with a new adventure. So grateful was Norbie for these invitations that he tried not to mind that Rosen was always a few dollars short for beer or greens fees, that he usually had Norbie chauffeur, or that Rosen kept him waiting as he finished his shower, went through his mail, or yakked on the phone with his girlfriends, some of whom were married. Compared to Norbie’s life, Rosen’s life seemed so various and full.
Donna Bernbaum, Norbie’s wife of sixteen years, worked as a part-time paralegal in a small suburban law practice. A devoted mother and a loyal spouse, Donna also cultured her hurts like pearls, and Norbie’s small abuses—no-showing for dinner without bothering to call, playfully putting her down in front of the neighbors, opting for outings with Rosen over dates with her—supplied the grit that started the pearls. Now on her birthday, Norbie avoided eye contact with Donna as he strode toward his red Toyota Camry. He aimed his electronic key at the car like a ray gun.
It was a fruitful May, the air heavily peppered with pollen, and Donna had a bad case of hay fever. Before she could utter a word, a sneeze tornadoed through her body. Recovering, she arraigned her husband, “You’re off with that Rosen, Norbie. I know it.” She fixed him with a narrow look. Behind her sharpness, Norbie sensed the fluttering flags of insecurity and fear.
Ever since Rosen had entered their lives, Donna had felt herself weirdly in competition with him for Norbie’s love and attention. This Saturday, his flight on her birthday made her feel even more sidelined and insulted. Not that a man wasn’t entitled to his free time. And her birthday party was hours away. When, however, her tormented nostrils caught the scent of cologne, a new anxiety pricked her. She hadn’t known Norbie to cheat, but under Rosen’s tutelage anything was possible.
“And what’s that smell? Where are you going on a Saturday afternoon that you have to wear cologne?”
Schpilkes trotted up to Norbie for good sniff. The dog’s tail accelerated to a quick tick-tock. He looked expectantly at his master.
Norbie made no reply, but lobbed a you-must-be-paranoid look at Donna and made the loco sign so she could see it. He knew that being a little mean would make Donna shut up. He slid into his car and started the engine. Today, it was easier for him not to feel so annoyed or judged by her. After all, he would soon be in the bosom of topless dancers.
“We have to be at my sister’s by six. It is my birthday,” she said, fighting suspicion and another oncoming sneeze.
“Terrific. Thanks for the reminder,” snapped Norbie. “If I have to spend time with your family, the least you can do is let me have a little fun first.”
A wounded expression whitewashed Donna’s face. A pearl began to form over the sting of Norbie’s remark.
“Maybe I’m just going out to get you a present. Unless you rather I didn’t,” he said glancing at his watch. What would Rosen think if he had to call and cancel just because he caved to his wife’s nagging?
“You play in the dirt, you get dirty,” warned Donna in just the sort of schoolmarmish tone that made Norbie jump into the fraternal arms of Rosen. As he backed down the driveway, he saw her brandishing a Kleenex. He definitely did not like the way she said “dirty.” It was as if she knew where he was headed.
The thought of Donna’s birthday party circled him like a turkey vulture. He could barely tolerate Donna’s family, a bunch of self-righteous socialists always hammering away with their politics and justice causes. If it wasn’t the whales, it was the handicapped or the undocumented immigrants or people with AIDS. He needed an antidote to all that suffocating goodness, and he was now more glad than ever that Rosen had talked him into a visit to the strip joint.
Donna ducked into the house and told the kids she was off to the health club for a quick lift. For the last several months, whenever she felt Norbie was saying no to her and yes to Rosen, she went to the health club to weight train. She could now curl fifteen-pound dumbbells and bench press forty pounds, yet she lacked the power to cut Norbie’s ties to Rosen. The fellows’ friendship burgeoned. Almost every day begat another pearl.
It would be a busy Saturday. After the gym, she had to run Annette to dance class and Eddie to his ball game. And there was Norbie out and about who-knows-where, no help at all with errands—and on her birthday no less. Of course he was going with that Rosen. It was scrawled all over his face like a signature on a bad check.
Donna Bernbaum detested Jerry Rosen. He was a know-it-all, a schnorrer, and he dripped enticements into Norbie’s brain the way a bad factory leaked dioxin into a stream. A half-hearted salesman of uncertain skill, Rosen had, at various times, peddled ad space in magazines, vacation time shares, radon detection systems, and mortgages. Now he was selling hot tubs. He mostly lived off his wives when he had them and his girlfriends when he was single. Donna couldn’t stand the way Rosen used women and the way he collected male followers like Norbie, guys who mistook the cheesy glow of Rosen’s sporting company for a kind of glamour. She hated Rosen’s stupid satanic-looking Vandyke. She hated the way his cigars stunk up their good car, his cocky self-confidence, and, if she had only known him better, she surely would have hated him more. Just hearing Norbie on the cell with that Rosen made her skin crawl like a roach in a diner. What skeeved her especially was that peculiarly light and eager tone her husband used only with Rosen. It was a voice he never used with her.
While Donna militantly believed in protest, she worried that today she had antagonized Norbie too much. It was something about the sight of him backing down the driveway and speeding off down the street. She stood for a moment in front of their house as she watched Norbie disappear. A pang of anxiety went through her. She polished her newest pearl.
Jerry Rosen kept Norbie Bernbaum waiting as he finished watching a golf tournament on TV. Norbie understood that Rosen was a tacky playboy, and he therefore secretly considered himself morally superior to his friend. Rosen, for his part, liked Norbie well enough, but saw him as a watch to unwind, a pal to fill his loneliness, and, should he sell him a hot tub, a customer from whom he could profit.
Rosen seemed to be endowed with great bravado and self-esteem, yet inwardly he was not a happy man. On some level he knew he was self-centered, of little help to those around him, and below par on the job. He sought to blot out this sense of lack with pleasures and entertainments—women, golf, cards, dining out, shopping, movie going—and endless hours of chitchat: gossip, trivia, and advice he foisted on his listeners. Yet after all of this, there was still the lack.
The golf match crept by slowly, and Norbie grew increasingly antsy. It was already after two in the afternoon. He instinctively felt a little bad at having treated Donna poorly, but he tried to delete those feelings. Then there was the matter of the birthday present. Norbie usually just bought Donna a card and maybe flowers, but now he was committed to buying her an actual gift. But what? A nightgown? A handbag? He hadn’t a clue what she’d like.
“Hold your horses, bubbeleh,” Rosen soothed as he pared his fingernails. “Those gorgeous gals aren’t going anywhere.”
The Dirty Martini was a low, flat building that might have once been a factory or a grocery store. An easel-style marquee in front said, “Philadelphia’s Bachelor Party Headquarters. Congratulations, Brad.” Another sign in the parking lot said “Police and Dirty Martini Parking.” Although it was early afternoon, all the parking spaces were filled. Cops or no cops, it was a dodgy neighborhood, so Norbie didn’t want to park the red Camry on the street.
“Here’s a space,” said Rosen pointing to a spot designated for disabled parking.
“Are you crazy?” replied Norbie. “It says a minimum fifty dollar fine, plus towing at the owner’s expense.”
Rosen minced his lips and rolled his eyes heavenward. “Listen, do you really think some gimp in a van is coming to the Dirty Martini? They have to put a handicapped space there. It’s a federal law or something. Just park for crying out loud. You don’t have all day.” Then he looked at Norbie meaningfully and added, “Well, if it will make you feel better, limp in and if anyone asks say you twisted your ankle.”
So Norbie did as Rosen instructed, parked in the handicapped space, and made his way into the club half jumping, half limping. Like Hopalong Cassidy on his way to the bordello. He felt very foolish.
Two plaster statues of female nudes pillared the entrance to the club. In the parking lot, a number of men lingered talking on their cell phones. Inside, a huge bouncer, who looked like a body builder, had Norbie and Rosen pass through a metal detector. Rosen sauntered through. Norbie kept up his limping act. By the metal detector were signs that warned against cameras and touching the girls. Norbie was surprised at all the security. It made him kind of nervous. He heard raucous laughter coming from a curtained-off room. Peeking in, he saw several girls in fishnets and black leather bustiers wheeling in a big box that was iced like a cake. He felt sure that a girl would pop out of that cake.
“Craaazy, craaazy,” yearned a female voice over the sound system in the cavernous main room, which smelled faintly of a moist mustiness. One wall of the club was mirrored. The other was hung with a number of flat-screen TVs tuned, audio off, to a baseball game. The patrons were mostly middle-aged white men. Some were seated on shell-shaped cushioned chairs; others perched on barstools along the polished runway, a black stretch bordered in red lights that rolled out through the center of the room like a long tongue. There was a brass pole in the middle of the walk. Overhead pulsing spotlights splashed the strippers in red, green, blue, and yellow.
The Dirty Martini was like something Norbie had seen in a movie or a TV show, only it was better and real. The door to a deeper, darker, nastier side of sex opened to him, and he felt big, elevated, male. There to be served by juicy little teases who sometimes acted submissive and sometimes acted like they were begging for it.
The two friends settled into bar stools along the catwalk and ordered beers. The DJ played mostly sultry R&B and announced girl after girl. There seemed to be an endless stream of dancers of all races, skin tones, breast sizes, and hair colors. Each came in with her gauzy wrap and five-inch Lucite heels. The Lucite high heels were definitely a very big item. Then inch by inch, each girl unpeeled her wrap until she wore nothing but a thong or a G-string, see-through pasties, and those skyscraper Lucite heels. Then the slow grind. And the embrace of the pole.
Hot Pantz, a very fit black girl in a leopard thong, thrust herself up against the brass pole. Norbie wished he were that pole. Then Hot Pantz climbed the pole and suspended herself upside down. Her legs were like boa constrictors. She had amazing abs. She did all sorts of acrobatic moves. Just like Cirque du Soleil, mused Norbie. Then she slid down the pole and began to stalk catlike on all fours. One man put a bill in her thong. She purred like Eartha Kitt.
From the corner of his eye, he saw a patron leave the club with one of the girls.
A tall blonde with huge breasts came on and slowly gyrated to “Nasty Girl.” “That’s Double Dee,” Rosen whispered. Double Dee did a backbend, lowered herself to the catwalk floor, then knees bent she pumped her beautiful and shapely legs open and closed like a giant butterfly. Shaved, fit, and incredibly tight was all Norbie could think. The kind of girl you can’t get at home. His heart was pounding, and a big erection took root in his pants. He watched as she went down on all fours and crawled up to a patron who lovingly tucked bills in her little pink thong. She smiled at Norbie. He wanted to be a bill in her thong. He took a dollar from his wallet, and she held her side string open for him. His fingers grazed her hip, which was warm and round and smooth. He was mesmerized, lost in a hormonal haze.
“Hey, give me a bill,” Rosen broke in, rubbing his fingers together. Norbie hesitated but, reluctant to seem a poor sport, he handed Rosen a single. “Gimme a five, at least. They like bigger bills,” wheedled Rosen who proceeded to insert Norbie’s five-spot into Double Dee’s thong. Double Dee swung her silky golden tresses and worked the two cupcakes of her ass.
“And now, gentlemen,” announced the velvety voiced DJ as organ tones of the “Wedding March” began, “Here comes the Bride.”
The Bride, petite and virginal, began to step demurely down the runway. She wore a white G-string, a white garter, and a snowy shawl over her small breasts. Dangling from her arm was a white beaded drawstring pouch, the kind brides carry to collect wedding checks. A hush drifted over the crowd, but this was soon disturbed by some rustling at the back of the room.
A grizzled male voice ripped through the sultry atmosphere. “Lawbreaking prick!” The man’s tone spiraled louder with mounting indignation. “Lawbreaking prick!”
The “Wedding March” kept playing, but the DJ fell silent and The Bride froze. The yelling was coming from a guy in a wheelchair. “Whose red Camry is that?” he raged. “You’re in a disabled zone. You’re gonna pay for this, asshole! Management, too.”
Working the hand controls on his wheelchair, the disabled man, a guy in his mid thirties with stringy hair, motored deeper into the club. Fear dug its red polished nails into Norbie’s chest. The huge bouncer lumbered into the room.
A contingent of strippers, now in halter tops and miniskirts (how plain they seemed off the stage!), filtered through the crowd to comfort the disabled guy. Their kindness caused him to lose his tough edge. His voice began to break. “I just wanted to see you girls dance. And some bastard with a working prick…”
Two cops came up to the man in the wheelchair. One took out a notepad and began to take a report.
“Bubbeleh, looks like you’re up shit’s creek,” said Rosen as he took a pull at his beer.
“You’re the one who told me park there,” retorted Norbie lamely.
Having run a license plate check, one cop began to bellow, “Norbert Bernbaum! Is there a Norbert Bernbaum here! Red Toyota Camry!” Norbie was frantic with shame; fine beads of sweat broke out on his forehead. He hopelessly prayed for deliverance. Trembling, he looked at his watch. It was after five o’clock. The party. The present. And he was about to get a citation in a strip club.
The limping excuse did not work with the cops. Then the strippers gathered around Norbie and started to yell at him. “Don’t you have any respect for those less fortunate than yourself?” scolded Hot Pantz. “Shame on you.”
“And I thought you were a nice guy!” hissed Double Dee curling her collagen-plumped lips.
The Bride glared at him and smacked him with her white drawstring purse. “Go back to your wife, you dick!” she shrieked.
The cops assessed him a seventy-five dollar fine, twenty-five more than the minimum. When the bouncer escorted Norbie and Rosen to the door, Norbie saw that his red Camry was being hauled away on a tow truck. It would cost a hundred and fifty dollars to get it out of impoundment, and he’d have to pay for a taxi to the lot, too. He fumbled with his cell phone and was finally able to call a cab. There were six missed calls from Donna and one bitter voice message. “If you don’t think enough of me to get home in time for my birthday party, then I think that is pretty disgusting. But I understand your priorities. And don’t bother coming to my sister’s.”
The ride to the impoundment lot was a long tour of the city’s rundown riverfront streets. The lot, no surprise, was attended by some unsavory types and a couple of pit bulls. Nothing like the sweet-tempered Schpilkes. Forced to pay with his credit card, Norbie knew he’d need to intercept the statement before Donna could see it and interrogate him. Not that he’d have to account to her. She wasn’t his mother. And if Donna did see the statement with the impoundment charge, he prayed she would not use her paralegal skills to get to the root of the story. The parking fine, he’d pay with cash.
The drive back to Rosen’s place was bleak. Norbie imagined Donna’s family at dinner, drinking wine, talking politics, talking about him. “Shit happens,” offered Rosen seeking to break the silence and minimize the situation. “All you wanted to do was be happy and have a little fun. Is that such a crime? You’ll buy the wife a nice gift, that’s all. And you’ll say you screwed up. You’ll say you went to a sports bar and lost track of the time.”
Norbie made no reply. Shame was on him like a red rash, and a sick stomach ache churned in his gut. Over and over he saw those censorious whores and the paraplegic man with stringy hair and a life that was so much harder than everyone else’s. If only he had refused Rosen’s idea and looked harder for a parking spot. That fucking Rosen! And fuck me, fumed Norbie. Fuck me!
“I really think you should help me out with the cost of the fine and the towing,” Norbie said to Rosen.
“I don’t make bank like you, my friend. From each according to his ability, you know what they say,” declared Rosen. He blew a smoke ring with his cigar, a big fat zero in the air. “But I’ll see what I can do. Here,” he said and handed Norbie a ten dollar bill. Minus the five bucks for the thong money, Norbie calculated that his companion had really chipped in a measly five.
Down and depressed, partly angry, partly worried, feeling not at all like a birthday girl, Donna fed Schpilkes his dinner and drove with Eddie and Annette to her sister’s. In the car, the children were very quiet.
When they arrived at her sister’s house, Donna preemptively announced that Norbie would not be coming, and after that no one said a word about his absence. At least being with her side of the family was a comfort. Over eggplant salad, they talked about movies, and as dinner progressed they moved on to Iraq and Afghanistan and the miracles orthopedists were working on injured soldiers. As her mom and dad and her sister sang “Happy Birthday,” Donna felt weirdly girlish and unmarried. When she blew out the candles on the pink and white cake, she could barely muster her traditional wish: that lightning would strike Jerry Rosen. The pearls of her hurt hung heavily around her neck.
No longer in a hurry to get home, Norbie drove to a McDonald’s and ordered a vanilla milkshake hoping it would settle his stomach. Amidst the loud primary colors of the McDonald’s, he imagined being yelled at by Donna. He drove to a Walgreens and browsed through the gift items—big candles, jars of potpourri, Whitman’s Samplers—and ended up buying a bubble bath and dusting powder set, a humorous birthday card, and a festive gift bag for the presentation. He planned on using that excuse about the sports bar.
Schpilkes wagged his tail energetically when Norbie came home and nosed his master’s pant legs, curious about the unfamiliar odors. When the family arrived home, Eddie bounded up to his dad, hugged him, and asked him where he’d been. Annette was sullen. Donna, her face drawn and colorless, barely looked at her husband.
“Happy birthday,” Norbie said, attempting cheer, and tried to kiss Donna, who backed away from him. He apologized, offered the sports bar alibi, then handed her the gift bag. He half expected her to clobber him with it à la The Bride, but she merely mumbled thanks and placed the gift bag on the dining room table without peeking inside. There was no yelling. Donna’s eerie politeness troubled Norbie’s waters; a rant or at least a quick curse would have helped him justify his escapade.
“It must have been a very exciting game,” said Donna dryly. She wondered how much of Norbie’s story she should believe. She had always seen sharply through falseness and remarked on it quickly, but now that falseness seemed so close upon her she found herself looking for ways to justify Norbie’s version of events.
That night, they slept restlessly in their double bed, a shadowy wall between them. Some day this turned out to be, thought Donna, inhaling the new atmosphere of mistrust. Yet angry as she was with Norbie, she was glad that he had returned, comforted that he had not abandoned her, relieved that he had not been in a car accident. Then she detected the fading whisper of Norbie’s cologne. She opened her eyes in the darkness. Cologne? A sports bar? She twitched her nose for the scent of another woman. Finding none, she drifted for a while on a current of bitter thoughts, then fell asleep.
On his side of the bed, Norbie tossed and turned. What is wrong with me, he thought, that I cannot be happy with what I have? Why do I want more? And what do I want more of? Visions of Hot Pantz, Double Dee, and The Bride swam up to him like evil spirits. What a dumb shit he’d been. What rotten luck to be caught by the disabled guy, a man frozen from the waist down, who nevertheless had the power to cause him such anguish.
Norbie reached out to Donna’s slumbering form, hoping that she would not wake and shake him off. She was warm, and she was there, and down the hall the children slept, and below Schpilkes snoozed, his simple canine mind at peace.
If Donna had known about Norbie’s afternoon at the Dirty Martini, she would have been more appalled…and then less. She would have approved grimly of Norbie’s comeuppance by the feisty man in the wheelchair. She would have reasoned that at least Norbie didn’t buy a lap dance or contract with a girl for sex. As for the business about the bill in the thong, well that was practically expected of him as a red-blooded patron, no worse than a woman slipping a dollar into a Chippendale’s mankini. But Donna knew none of this, thought none of this. What turned the bad key over and over in her mind was the simple fact that on her birthday her husband had preferred Rosen over her. Why couldn’t someone just shake some virtue into that man?
A week passed of work and chores and not much talk between them. Donna could not bring herself to use the bubble bath and dusting powder, but she wasn’t the type to throw good items in the trash. Unsure of what to do, Donna left the birthday present on the dining room table. At first it glared at her from its brightly colored gift bag, then it seemed to turn into something funky like an overlooked bag of groceries. After a week it practically ossified into a cast. Eventually, she decided to donate it to a women’s shelter.
A gauzy mist overcast the sky as Donna drove to the shelter office (the actual location of the safe house was kept confidential). In the haze, the sun looked moonlike and opalescent. The route took her down some unfamiliar roads, and after a while Donna came upon a white wooden lawn sign planted in some landscaping. The sign read: “7-Day Spa—Massage and Reflexology.”
A treatment would feel good, she thought. A way to do something nice for herself. So she pulled into the parking lot and entered the spa, which looked a lot like a suburban insurance or real estate office. The place was very plain and seemed deserted. Not a receptionist or client in sight. How did they stay in business? Then with a frown, Donna wondered if this could be a happy endings parlor.
After a moment, a woman emerged from a back room and showed Donna a menu of services. She settled on a half-hour deep tissue massage. The masseuse, Rose, was plain-looking and her long mane was grasped in a pink hair claw. She had Donna strip down to her panties and lie face down on the table, which was covered with a white sheet. Rose smoothed massage oil over Donna’s back. Her hands were warm, meaty, assertive. Flute and harp music trickled from a portable CD player. This was meant to make the clients zone out, but the plinking and the blowing just irritated Donna. An aromatherapy machine cloyed the air with a heavy vanilla scent. She sneezed a few times.
At first Rose’s hands fluttered over Donna’s back like butterflies. Not bad, thought Donna. She could get into this. But it had been a while since she’d had touch, so the niceness also made her feel a little sad. Then Rose began to dig. “You work out?” she asked feeling Donna’s body tone. “Lots of tension,” she said. “Lots of knots.” But instead of easing away the tension, the treatment hurt. Was it supposed to feel this way? Perhaps she should ask Rose to stop or go a little lighter. But then she figured that this was what a deep-tissue massage was, so she toughed it out, paid the bill, and, minding her manners, gave Rose a tip. Her back was so sore she had to take a couple of Advil, and she ached all the way to the women’s shelter office. How she regretted that massage. What a stupid thing it turned out to be.
“Of course, our clients would be delighted to have these things. The children will love the bubble bath,” said the receptionist at the shelter office, a friendly but cautious woman who took the toiletries, gift bag and all, and didn’t ask any questions about the provenance. Donna immediately began to feel better. The receptionist offered a tax receipt, which Donna declined. No sense in letting Norbie know that she had visited a women’s shelter, much less donated the birthday present to it.
As Donna drove home, a sense of lightness came over her. The haze had evaporated, and the sun was as yellow as the middle of a daisy. The Advil must have been working because her back didn’t hurt as much, and she felt satisfied by her secret deed. In fact, she found its secretness especially pleasing.
When Norbie returned home that evening, he was glad to see the bubble bath and dusting powder gone from the dining room table. He assumed that his wife had come to her senses and had made good use of the gift. Image credit: Thomas Hawk on Flickr
Lynn Levin teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. Her poetry, prose, and translations have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Boulevard, Ploughshares, Hopkins Review, and Cleaver. She is the author of four collections of poems, most recently Miss Plastique (Ragged Sky Press, 2013), and with Valerie Fox co-author of the craft-of-poetry textbook Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2013). She lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
MISS PLASTIQUE by Lynn Levin Ragged Sky Press, 68 pages
reviewed by Michelle Reale
I should have know from the cover of Lynn Levin’s book that I would be able to connect with the poems inside on a very visceral level: that blond doll, with the thick cat eye eyeliner, all blonde and coiffed, with head tipped—yeah, I get it. When I played with my Barbie dolls, they broke rules, they were well-dressed rebels, and they smiled in your face, but plotted their escape behind your back.
Lynn Levin writes of a generation here—my generation, her generation, our generation, but her themes are universal, though some of the particulars, some details give a throb to the heart because, well, recognition in any form is a powerful thing. She slips in details you think you may have forgotten about your young life long past, but realize they’ve only been coiled tight inside, waiting to be recalled. Levin writes with a ferocious tenacity, all arterial memory, lust, found power, and raw regret like you imagine a Miss Plastique would be if she were real.
The illusion of the “gentle” days of Leave it to Beaver, lettermen, Wally and Eddie Haskell are in the collective memory of those of a certain age and a curious throwback to those not even close to that age. But she turns that squeaky clean image on its head, shows us the underbelly of what we were fed a daily diet of, making us a nation of neurotics searching for happiness. Do I extrapolate too much? Maybe, but this is what Levin’s poetry demand: reader participation. She dares you, she teases:
Sometimes I wished my parents were like June and Ward
but I always laughed when Eddie Haskell messed with Beaver.
Yeah, we all liked that, actually. Eddie was subversive—a rare attribute in the land of three-channel television milquetoast. The bad boys had prominence and admiration in our eyes. Other obsessions were hair. In “Dippity-Do” hair is the object of scorn, especially if it was not poker straight, all the rage on Carnaby Street. Dippity-Do’d up with rollers helped to straighten things out.
I hated my hair and wished it were straight
so that I could wear it
in a swing or the London Look.
But like everything else, that quotidian desire gets knocked on its head, but first something else gets knocked:
Also I wished my father
didn’t get mad almost every night.
Once he knocked
all the rollers from my head.
The few bobby pins left
dangled like snot
from the wild curls I’d finally caught
with just enough Dippity-do.
There is a triumphant rise in so many poems, just like the ending of this one:
I think that that set took me an hour.
After that, I let my hair go free.
The straight kids thought I was a head.
You look like Janis Joplin, the hippies said.
And hey, that was good enough for me.
But in the end these poems are realizations of a life lived, what has become of opportunities lost and found, and disasters averted. But oh the honesty, a hallmark of Levin’s writing that makes me savor her words on the page.
Oh, to rise from my nervousness like a carp
from a dark pool or eat half portions when I crave
the whole poison. What soap can wash away
my foolishness or deep years wake me?
Here is a life not without regrets, but one lived, on every level. What remains is that ever-present bedrock of truth.
–May 24, 2013
Michelle Reale is an academic librarian on faculty at Arcadia University in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Her fiction and poetry have been published in a variety of online and print publications. She is the author of 3 chapbooks of fiction and poetry and another forthcoming in 2013. She has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She blogs on immigration, migration and social justice in the Sicilian context atwww.sempresicilia.wordpress.com.
POEMS FOR THE WRITING Prompts for Poets by Valerie Fox and Lynn Levin Texture Press, 154 pages
reviewed by Shinelle L. Espaillat
PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS In the poetry workshop, we encourage writers to explore their individual potentials, to experiment, and to eschew valuations of “good” in exchange for measures of success as achieving authorial vision. The instructor must speak to a wide spectrum of skill. Valerie Fox’s and Lynn Levin’s new book, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets, supplies a toolbox for doing just that. The range of prompts makes the creation of art a more accessible act to a wider audience. Ultimately, this works as a text for how to teach poetry.
The book intermixes the prompts with respect to levels of difficulty and formal elements of the resulting poems. The first prompt, the paraclausithyron, may appeal to an old world sense of “The Poet,” but introductory workshop students might find both the name and the task somewhat daunting, and are less likely to want to write like Horace, at first. Indeed, Fox and Levin actually suggest starting workshops with what they call the “get-to-know-you cinquain.” This serves the dual purpose of getting students writing, right away, and introducing formalism to a generation raised on free verse. As Fox and Levin indicate, the simpler structures for syllabic poetry make the cinquain more accessible to new poets, and are a good way to open a dialogue about the need for concise, precise language in poetry.
It might be helpful to then move to The Rules poem. This could work on Day One as a collaborative exercise, having each pair of students create a workshop rule, and then deciding as a class whether to impose meter or structure. Though some students may not believe in the artistic value of a list as a poem, the example Fox and Levin provide within the prompt, “1915 Rules for Female Teachers,” sheds light on truths about tone and timing in poetry, thus encouraging students to think beyond the basic “thou shalt hand in thy poems on time,” to reflect more on what they hope to receive from and how they want to shape the workshop experience.
Workshop leaders should find most of the other prompts accessible to the developing skill level in an introductory workshop. There is sufficient variety to avoid stagnancy, to nurture growth and to expand students’ understanding of how poetry is born. The Fibonacci prompt is a good example of such an exercise, as it works well on multiple levels; the rules of the prompt encourage veteran writers to experiment with form and the mathematical sequencing appeals to the left-brained among us. Fox and Levin provide a simple explanation (for those who never saw The DaVinci Code) of what the Fibonacci sequence is, and for how to use the rules of the sequence to craft a poem.
Some of the prompts lend themselves more to the advanced workshop than the introductory workshop, and might prove frustrating for beginning poets. For example, the Bibliomancy prompt, with its somewhat complex backstory and numbered directions, including the need to more or less go antiquing for a source book, speaks more to the dedicated poet and seeker of knowledge than to the student who just wants to play around with words. The Fake Translation exercise could also be problematic for an introductory workshop. Though Fox and Levin suggest that instructors “refrain from overly or overtly explaining” the exercise, fledgling poets could easily get lost in the task and not make it to the art.
Introductory poetry workshops are Hydras that instructors need to train rather than slay. These classes often contain poets who are thrilled to find academic space for exploring and honing their skill, students who like to write but don’t consider themselves poets, and students who have heard that these classes are easy ways to fulfill a writing requirement. Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets can help show new writers how to jumpstart the creation of art and can urge more experienced writers to delve deeper into their craft.
–May 16, 2013
Shinelle L. Espaillat writes, lives and teaches in Westchester County, NY. She earned her M.A. in Creative Writing at Temple University. Her work has appeared in Midway Journal.
The TSA lady at Newark Airport had a nice touch, and Josie enjoyed the pat down. The blue gloves slid under her arms, along her sides, down one leg, then the other. They searched, discerned. They pleased with just the right amount of pressure. Josie thanked the TSA lady, who nodded back with very professional brown eyes.
In bed last night in Robert’s apartment, it was their sixth time together, Josie had attempted the “ask sandwich,” something she’d read about in a woman’s magazine. First she told him how nice his cologne smelled and trailed her fingers playfully down his arm. That was the first slice of bread. Then she said she’d really love it if he rubbed her back. That was the sandwich filling. She would have praised him and reciprocated generously, which would have been the other slice of bread.
Instead he said, “You’re really bossy, aren’t you?”
Sheesh. She’d only done what the magazine had instructed. Josie curled away from Robert, then on his hard mattress, she recovered a little backbone. “I don’t consider that so bossy.”
“Well, I do.” The atmosphere in the room wadded up like paper.
Pulling her carry-on bag, striding in beige pumps, Josie made her way to her gate. She tried to wall off the Robert fiasco and focus on the nursing conference in Atlanta. She was looking forward to presenting her paper on pressure sores but hoped her seatmate would not inquire about her work. She’d about had it with folks who squinted and scrunched their faces when she told them about her field. Oh, you mean bedsores, they’d say using the old term. Didn’t know they were that important. Well, they can be fatal, she’d retort. She would educate them a little about patients who were stuck in bed, about reduced blood supply, friction, cell death, complications. And that pretty much ended the conversation.
At first, she’d seen a future with Robert. They agreed on politics and comedians, hated remakes of classic films and pork pie hats.
Maybe she should try being old school, passive. What was she anyway, a thirty-three-year-old sensualist who only thought of touch? And she wasn’t exactly a winner in the dating game—one six-month relationship and a lot of first dates with few follow-ups. Was it her or Match.com?
On the way to her gate, Josie passed a Hudson News. An array of cover girls beckoned her, fringed by come-on headlines: Drive him wild tonight. Ten types of sex to try at least once. Better orgasms now. Did everything have to be about the sack? Well, she would like to have some great sex before she died. Addicted to the promises on the cover, she bought a copy of Cosmopolitan.
Josie’s seatmate was a fortyish man in a blue short-sleeved shirt and Phillies baseball cap who said his name was Solly.
Josie said her name was Mimi.
Solly smelled freshly showered and had a dimple in his chin. They chatted about the weather and airplane coffee. When he asked her what she did for a living, she told him she booked models for fashion ads. With a light heart, she fibbed her way through a conversation about beauty, dieting, and divas. She’d met the famous Kate Upton. Yes, Karlie Kloss really was that skinny.
Solly said he didn’t know who those women were, but he complimented Josie on her big career.
“Sometimes those girls are so beautiful and sexy they’re unreal,” said Josie.
“I like the real type,” said Solly with a playful grin. “Real gals, like you.” As he sipped his airplane coffee, Josie spied no wedding ring. The two laughed a lot. Each time she said something he found fetching, he touched her shoulder. He had a big paw, but his touch was gentle and warm. It would have been nice to get to know him better. When it turned out they were both from central Jersey, Solly asked if he could have her phone number. Could he call her sometime?
This Josie now desperately wanted, but her wardrobe of lies made it impossible. She gulped and rubbed her nose. She almost knocked her coffee off the little depression in her tray table. “I guess with your schedule that would be hard to arrange,” he said.
“I do travel a lot.” Solly opened his laptop and began to study some documents. Josie paged through her Cosmo. Her head felt hot. She was very cross with herself, whoever she was.
Lynn Levin teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. Her most recent books are a textbook, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (with Valerie Fox), Texture Press, 2013, and a full-length collection of poems, Miss Plastique, Ragged Sky Press, 2013. She lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.