Volume 38, Number 1 & 2
Cover art by Chris Robb. Front cover: Untitled I. Back cover: Peninsula
The Pennsylvania Turnpike, my carotid, ferried me between heart and head. Every Friday, two other co-eds and I left our studies at West Chester University and drove the one-hundred-and-seventy-mile journey to Penn State to lie down with our lovers. We took the Turnpike west over the rolling green of southern Pennsylvania to Harrisburg, then swung northwest on Route 322, cranking the gears lower and lower as the highway tilted steeper and steeper. Trees got taller, mountains rockier, and farms and houses scarce. The main artery narrowed until we reached the cliffs called Seven Mountains. The cliffs were the work of men. Men had drilled down into the rock, dropped dynamite into the holes, and blown off the sides of the mountains. You could still see the gouges, like claw marks made by a giant grizzly as she fell. We gripped our seats, held our breath, and hurtled between the stone faces and the free fall. Ours was pretend fear. Amusement park fear. Movie fear. Years later, one of my students died on Seven Mountains. He fell asleep at the wheel, clipped a stone face, and pitched his car spinning airborne, like a football.
Whenever Kim, Ann, and I passed through Seven Mountains without stalling, crashing, or plummeting, we sang along with cassette tapes. The Mountains got bad radio reception, and we needed to sing. Soon we’d roll into Happy Valley—mossy hills guarded by the benevolent green rump of Mount Nittany, narrow streets sheltered under the laced fingers of ancient elms, quaint houses secured by brick and stone, sidewalks perfumed by honeysuckle vines—a safe place where we’d sleep on our lovers’ broad chests.
Back then, in the mid-eighties, before the Paterno statue even went up, Penn State was the biggest party school in Pennsylvania. Weekends it drained the life out of smaller schools like ours. The Turnpike swept us alongside carloads of other co-eds headed west. Kim liked to stop halfway on 322, on the rocky rim of a river gully, at a bar called The Spider’s Web. We’d hatch from the car like radiant damselflies from another world. Beautiful, deathless, and insecure, we’d stretch our legs, use the bathroom, and buy a six-pack. Even when it was bright outside, inside The Spider’s Web was dark. Round men hunched against the bar, straining the backs of their camouflage jackets. They’d swivel on their stools to watch us stride by. Kim had silvery blonde hair and a full bosom; she caught their attention first. I was tall and willowy, with legs a mile long, so men noticed me next. Ann had a mass of thick, brown curls,......
I found out I was pregnant with my third baby in 2007, one month after Brandon’s father had died. When I was sixteen weeks along, I went to the ultrasound alone—Brandon was in the middle of his physician’s residency program and was always working—and told the sonographer I wanted to know the sex. I lay down on the bed, crinkling the paper cover beneath me, and she spread the cool gel on the hill of my belly and swished the wand around. A movie appeared on the screen above my head, the baby’s body a landscape of grey valleys and mountains. As she slid the wand below my belly button, the baby suddenly stretched its legs; she paused the video, drew an arrow onscreen pointing to a small upside down tree, and said, “Well, there’s no doubt about this one.”
Brandon wanted his first name to be Johannes, so I grabbed the baby book we’d used to find our daughters’ names off the shelf and handed it to him. Ethan was his next choice, but I favored Clark. I’d had a thing for Superman ever since I was thirteen, but I convinced Brandon that I just liked the name for its vintage quality and monosyllabic quickness. So we agreed on Clark and our first son’s given name was settled in a matter of hours.
It was his middle name that, for months, we argued over.
Brandon: hill covered with broom, a prolific weed. Irish.
Brandon’s middle name was given to him by his father, Larry. It was the same middle name that Larry had given his other sons: David, in honor of the great king of Israel.
Brandon’s first name was given to him by his mother, Sheryl, who found it in a romance novel. Brandon was the hero: the lover and the loved. I’m not sure if she knew the meaning of the name, that broom is a prolific weed that spreads wildly over dry rangelands. A small, two-foot tall bush, broom sprouts fifteen to twenty tiny yellow flowers on each of its many stems. A hill covered in broom is a floral sunrise, an arc of yellow in the middle of the desert West......
Az Got volt gelebt oif der erd, volt men im alleh fenster oisgeshlogen.
If God lived on earth, all his windows would be broken.
The old man stands at the bedside, hands cupped, steam braiding up from the bowl like ascending phantoms. Rails of light peel through the window slats, score tense wires of gold on the walls. She is writhing beneath the duvet, clutching her pillow, screaming . . . a high terrible wail, mournful, undulating, like the struggle of train brakes.
“Take some soup,” he says. He dips his spoon, offers it to her lips, but she swipes it away, sends it clattering to the tiles.
It was the same scream in Stryj, metallic, rhythmic, with the dirty water pouring out of her and the doctor refusing to look him in the eyes. For two nights she screamed, her skin shedding heat, while he pressed cold towels to her head, and for two nights the fever did not break and the baby would not come, and the doctor could not once look him in the eyes. On the morning of the third day he left her to go visit a friend, a druggist on Kilinskiego Street who sold bloodsuckers.
Hat cocked low, his coat frayed at the bottom, he tramped through the market square. The weight of the evil eyes like a clinching pressure around the yellow band on his arm. At the corner, he felt the solid bite of a nightstick on his woodsman’s shoulders, but he did not flinch, did not break pace......
Unpacking the groceries after his weekly drive to the Hungry Bear, Jerry realizes he forgot the one thing he can’t do without: cigarettes.
“I smoke now,” he’d told the nosy cashier after the funeral.
“Oh,” she said mildly, as if he’d taken up golf.
He knows he has no business taking up smoking at his age. He doesn’t like the bitter taste and resents the additional expense. But he finds the tight chemical burn in his chest a useful way to focus the pain that still reverberates a year after Bonnie’s death.
He glances out the window at the fading sky. Closing time is soon. He grabs his keys. Two town trips in one day are a waste of time, money, and gas; the kind of wastefulness that’s like a disease in modern society and which he especially hates in the city people who drive up for long weekends in their SUVs, clogging the rivers with their guided drift boats.
He stomps across the muddy yard to his old pickup and remembers Bonnie’s words: Don’t mind the pennies, Jer. They’ll all come out in the wash. What does she care about pennies anymore? What does she care about anything anymore?
Down in the boggy meadow, two sandhill cranes ululate to each other. It’s spring and, in their ancient rituals, the birds are calling for their mates.
Bad knee aching, Jerry climbs into the truck, grabs the steering wheel, and bears down on the lump in his throat. Honestly, he thought he’d be getting better by now. Time heals all etc. etc. But the cigarettes give only partial relief from the steady combustion of anger and sadness that still rumbles through his core. And there is no end in sight. No end but his own.
They started coming here many years ago for summer vacations. Seeking relief from the heat in Pocatello, they packed up the truck and drove north to the high caldera called Last Chance where the Snake River, flush with native trout, winds through sage brush and lodgepole pines. Back then, mornings on the river were perfect. By six o’clock, Jerry and Bonnie would be in their waders, lucky vests and sweat-stained hats, passing back and forth a bag of sunflower seeds, and snagging fat, sassy rainbows from the riffles.
Or, almost perfect. “No thanks,” their son Bryan would say every time Jerry exhorted him to put down his Erector Set, get off the blanket, grab a rod, and join them in the river. “No thanks.” As if Jerry were offering the kid a soggy sandwich.
You plant rocks to grow
nothing, and, like Sylvia,
patron saint of not
a bloody thing, never
wash any part of you save
your fingertips where
the touch of holy
blessing burns you clean of sin
No one kills the poets
because no one really has
to, except when they
do, a smattering,
Stalin’s baker’s dozen
shot all together
like a choir, the
or Chechen murdered
for mattering. You
long to not belong, you long
for secret things and
mirrors full of breath
and brevity and the names
of artifice scrawled
There is the house of my life
and the house of the woods.
There is selection, the waiting
rooms of manufactured nests
and the rooms of passerines,
full song. There are hinged doors
to other doors and thresholds
to sudden meadows, clearings
full of Indian blankets burning.
There are plate glass panes
and the eye in the canopy,
mote light spilling down, down.
Dimly, then face to face,
everywhere holds a mirror,
inside and without. Veins, rivulets
distill what we bless or don’t.
My roommates at the summer sublease were two or three years older than I was, except Lana, who was my age, but she hadn’t dropped out of school at Christmas. When she asked why I had and came back so soon, I tried out answers. “I needed to save to buy a car, so I can drive to a job and still attend class.” Lana frowned. “I felt guilty getting an education without first understanding the lives of the proletariat.” Lana looked stunned. “My sister was in a car accident.” Lana’s facial expression recast itself as sympathy.
All explanations were true.
But Lana believed the last. So, for a summer, in the company of Lana, I was pitiable, and she was kind. Besides, there was no one else for her to spend time with when her boyfriend was busy. Her real friends wouldn’t return until fall. We walked up and down the drag, buying food, stopping to look at records, or visiting a boutique to try on clothes that she could afford and I’d study. I was broke, but creativity and ambition had converged as an impulse toward self-presentation that probably seemed less like style than performance art—still unknown in the upper Midwest. Besides jeans and leotards, I bought clothes at thrift stores: spangled vests, bolero jackets, men’s suit coats. I bought curtains and sewed them into dresses. I was trying to look good. Yet, except for a Swedish art professor who taught Watercolor II and praised my outfits, the attention I got was startled. That’s what I want, I told myself, when Lana took me to parties at her boyfriend’s and his friends looked surprised when I walked in. Everyone said hello, then ignored me as music got loud. Besides beer, there’d be bong hits. I’d end up silent, an especially florid wallflower I thought, studying my dress’s fern-and-blossom fabric. Then summer ended, and I needed a new place, a habitat where I’d be surrounded by my kind......
It begins with the flies. Noisy, black flies. Bomber pilots, my husband calls them, as they dip and swirl, circling the room, buzzing from the refrigerator to the lamp to the table in a manic frenzy before zeroing in on a salad plate, a curtain, the rim of a glass. I’ve never seen flies so big, so furry, as if they’re not flies at all, but miniature airborne cats.
That first night, a Wednesday, I’m sitting at my desk, reading a grad student’s thesis, trying to concentrate though I’m tired and lethargic and feeling sorry for myself because I still have scholarship files to review. I yawn just as a fly swoops past my head and lands on the white window blinds above my desk, restlessly flitting about before settling in like a landlord inspecting the premises. I watch as the fly does its vibratory dance on that tiny patch of real estate, the fourteenth blind up (I count), near the braided ladder cords. Of course, I’m distracted. I’m easily distracted these days (bring on the flies!), but eventually, irritated, I get up for the flyswatter, an old tattered thing that lies between the stove and the dishwasher, always thrown haphazardly onto the floor. With one quick swat, I kill the fly and feel such pleasure in doing so I close my eyes. There!
I don’t tell my husband about the flies that night. We’re still creeping around each other, caught in a circling frenzy of our own.
I wait until the next night when I’m home from the university after teaching my graduate class, hungry and wired from too much Diet Coke. I rush upstairs to the bathroom to pee. He’s in his studio working, but his door is open so I’m half-heartedly telling him about the class discussion on literary artifice, how artifice can distance the reader because of that subtle line between stylishness and intimacy and “blah, blah, blah,” I say—all the while I’m unbuttoning, then unzipping my pants. As if they’ve been signaled, the flies begin circling, two, no three, whizzing full speed across the room, flying right at me stranded on the toilet, then back to the mirror to the door to the window, chasing each other in some strategic game of tag. I scream.
“What?” he calls.
“Com’ere. Please. Hurry.”I’ve pulled up my pants and I’m standing by the toilet, crouching, but still watching the air show when he appears. “Look at them.” By now, they’re doing......
I am lying awake in an unfamiliar bed, thinking about success. It is not a king-size bed, nor a queen-size bed, but a double I share with my husband in a two-room cottage of four hundred square feet. I am lying here, thinking about success, because I have left my home and driven across the country to take up a semester’s residence as the Mary Routt Chair in Writing at Scripps College, one of the Claremont Colleges. It is the bottom hour of the night, and ahead lie the long hours of ascent toward morning.
The cottage I call the Hut sits a few blocks north of another one of the Claremont Colleges, Pomona, where thirty years ago I was an undergraduate. Much has changed in Claremont since then, yet much remains the same. Old halls have been torn down, replaced by modern structures, yet the streets still carry the thick smell of eucalyptus. Once I earned my degree at Pomona, I moved on to a working life, to commutes on subway and bus, to corporate work and housecleaning, to graduate school, marriage and children, teaching and writing. I didn’t envision coming back. And yet this return has felt necessary, even preordained, as if the time for a reckoning has come...
Poor Wendell Beane had been on the toilet when his neighbor Sarah Mimms called, a moment so unnerving to him, so base and humiliating, that even now, an hour later, at almost a quarter to noon, he still felt anxious and worried to answer the question he knew she would ask: Wendell, where were you? “In the bathroom reading the newspaper” was not the answer he wanted to give, but he had no choice; it was the truth. He was sitting on the toilet with his pants in a heap around his ankles and the B-section spread wide across his lap when his telephone started ringing. Sarah’s voice, recorded on his answering machine, filled up and echoed in his kitchen. She said, “Hello Wendell, this is Sarah. I was just wondering: are you going over for soup today, even with this storm and wind? Call me if you are. Or better yet, just come on over. Beep!” Wendell felt suddenly rapt with indignity for bearing this situation—so much so, that afterward, for a bulk of the hour, he paced throughout the small rooms of his house, looking for a chair to sit in or a clock to set. An account of his whereabouts was crude to explain, not to mention discomforting. He thought he might say he’d been taking a shower, but that even sent him reeling. Such a reference, albeit indirectly, to his own nakedness, to his own flaccid skin hanging loose on his frame, to his male parts hunkered and sagging, might make her picture him in her mind. This terrified Wendell. So he settled on saying, “I was feeding the cats,” though he knew she wouldn’t believe it. “You feed your cats in the morning,” she’d say. But he practiced saying it anyway, over and over—“I was feeding the cats, I was feeding the cats”—as he paced throughout his small living room, and soon he grew so absorbed with his lie that when his telephone did ring again, he answered it, saying, “I was feeding the cats,” instead of saying hello.
A silence hummed on the other line, then a cough and a distant rumple. “Excuse me, um,” a voice finally said. “Is this Wendell Beane?”
It was Noah.
“I mean,” Wendell said, “I wasn’t actually feeding the cats. Not now anyway. I was earlier. When someone else called.”
“Dad?” Noah asked......
Alison Francis was having an affair with Cole. It had come to Lorelei when she saw them talking on the street. She knew the way a dog knows when you’re taking it to the vet: not by any big obvious thing—the pet carrier gotten out—but by a trifling nuance in behavior. It was the slight oddness in the way the other woman (who had just been speaking intimately to Cole on the busy corner in front of the bank), had waved to him in parting. A hand lifted to her shoulder, wiggly fingers, elbow held tight to her body. A wave trying to be seen but not to be noticed at the same time.
Then Alison had spied Lorelei, and Lorelei saw her expression. And now the well-to-do Mrs. Francis was deliberately looking away, toward the arched, triple windows of City Hall. Cole’s new “girlfriend” (but she wasn’t a girl; Lorelei’s day care children were girls—half of them were) was all in black: black, sleeveless V-neck; sleek, black, strapped, high-heeled sandals; and a clingy, black miniskirt that made her horse hips look smooth and undulant. Today Lorelei wore her usual straight-legged jeans, a cotton crew sweater, and blue running shoes. She wasn’t in style, and normally she wouldn’t have cared. But there was Alison, in a skin-tight black ensemble many years too young for her, proclaiming it in the way she avoided Lorelei’s eyes: I’m sleeping with Cole Hartley.
When had middle-aged wives started dressing like this? What had happened to cotton-poly sweatshirts with cute appliqués? How had Lorelei missed this cultural shift from matron to skanky? I must have been asleep, she thought, not to see it happening.
But no, she hadn’t been sleeping. She’d been too busy taking care of other people’s children to worry about style, which is why she hadn’t seen. Operating her own nonprofit child care had been her life’s work. It took compassion and sacrifice to help poor people who wouldn’t or couldn’t help themselves—and a lot of patience. The world just wasn’t set up for it......
On Monday morning they put me on a commercial job with Shiflett and Wheat. The client was a department store. The data sheet seemed incomplete. Boxes: N/A. Furniture: N/A. “Typical Frank Peach bullshit,” said Shiflett.
“Franky the Fruit,” said Wheat. “Look, there’s his sign.”
It was the last week of a warm October. A rain shower had passed overnight, and a faint rainbow hovered over Hiawatha Avenue.
“Who’s Frank Peach?” I asked.
Wheat was bald and baby-faced. In his early thirties, I thought. A year or two older than me, maybe the same age. Maybe younger.
“Fucking FNG,” he said, then turned and walked across the lot toward the truck.
“Peach is a sales rep,” said Shiflett. “He always lowballs the estimate and fucks us out of tips.” Shiflett had served in Iraq. He was definitely younger than me. “And don’t let Wheat fuck with you,” he said. “He’s just happy to have someone lower on the shit hill than him.” Across the lot, Wheat’s head flushed pink, but he didn’t break stride. “You want to make it here?” said Shiflett. “Remember this. Movers are angry people.” Then he pretended to hit me in the face.
Like everyone at Trusted Movers, my last name was up on the big board behind the dispatcher’s desk. On my first day, I saw it up there with a truck number and thought it meant I’d already been put on a crew. Then I realized the other names on that truck were guys I’d trained with, and the truck was the one with four flat tires we’d used to practice unloading and loading. We were extras. We had to show up at seven on days we were scheduled, just like everyone else, but instead of getting a data sheet from Dispatch and going out on a job, we sat around until he was sure all the crews were full. Then he sent us home without pay. Jill was usually still in bed when I got back. I’d strip off my work clothes, put my shorts back on, and get in bed beside her. Half asleep, she’d wrap her arms around me. Mmmm, she’d say, snuggling tight, You feel good.
Ed Ochester’s most recent books are Unreconstructed: Poems Selected and New, The Republic of Lies, and American Poetry Now. He is the editor of the Pitt Poetry Series and is a member of the core faculty of the Bennington MFA Writing Seminars. He is completing a new collection of poetry, Sugar Run Road. Chard deNiord is the author of four books of poetry, most recently, The Double Truth and Night Mowing. He recently published Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, a book of essays and interviews with seven senior American poets: Galway Kinnell, Ruth Stone, Lucille Clifton, Donald Hall, Robert Bly, Jack Gilbert, and Maxine Kumin. He is a professor of English at Providence College and lives in Putney, Vermont. They conducted the conversation that follows in Bennington, Vermont.
Chard deNiord: Throughout your career you have often assumed a self-effacing speaker in your poems who has testified to human folly. Your candor and compassion for the underdog resonate in a rich mixture of erudition, plain speaking, and Martial-like wit for what you have called, “American dumb fuckism.” Could you talk about your discovery of this voice? Did you find it in a breakthrough poem or perhaps group of poems that spoke back to you as you?
Ed Ochester: I don’t think there is a specific breakthrough poem. What I can tell you, my understanding of it, is that when I was very young—I’d just graduated from college—I ran across by happy accident the poems of Ed Field. Ed had just published Stand Up, Friend, With Me. I decided then, that Ed Field was probably, arguably, the first widely published postmodern poet in America. I loved his use of colloquial diction, the simple diction, the pop-cultural materials, which seemed to me a worthwhile thing, the clear desire not to mystify the material, or the composition process. Also, one of the things I really admired about Ed was that he was one of the first widely published poets to talk openly and freely and unashamedly about his gayness, and all of those things combined, it seemed to me, were remarkable......