Love in the Time of Bacteria

BacteriaLast week, I walked up Dale Street from the train station. It’s a perilous walk owing to the lack of shoulder and the speed at which people drive, a recklessness passed off to people living in poor neighborhoods. Shattered green glass, no trees to bar the bright spring sun, bits of fluttering paper garbage—anonymous love notes maybe—caught in the fence separating Interstate 94 from St. Paul’s steep hills. The Islamic Center sprawls in a field across from the freeway, looking nondescript and like a poorly advertised Walmart; sometimes you have to hide your love notes to live in peace.

In the past several years of walking almost everywhere I need to go, I’ve become accustomed to nearly being killed by drivers. Usually it’s mistake or distraction, but occasionally I see “Die, bitch” on someone’s face, and I’ve known what that looked like since I was a kid.

But, still, I take long ambling walks when I’m processing a project in which suffering from disease becomes apparent in the data.

People say you become what you study, but they rarely talk about falling in love with what you see, love from a habit acquired or a gradual taking in of information. Maybe it’s because we’re always deriding people for what they love, restricting love to direct object rather than pathway.

Someone recently told me it was terrible to love microbes when they cause so much suffering, but how can I study them or know anything about them without falling? [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “The Grackles”

Poetry Friday Grackles Poem BigHere is a poem that silently enacts a conversion.  The poem starts off with a string of scornful terms for the speaker’s new neighbors, culminating in the almost mean pun on their child’s “grin” as “grim.” But right after this, the speaker begins to soften her terms: she notices a “warmth” in this noisy, dirty, low-class family. Then by the start of the fourth stanza, a switch in point of view has occurred: the speaker sees herself through their eyes. So when the poem’s title image enters (in the inner-rhymed “racket grackles”), the poet intentionally leaves ambiguous whether it’s the speaker or the previously demeaned family who are the bullying grackles. Whoever they are becomes irrelevant, though, in the poem’s closing lines, which focus on the birds themselves. As the sunlight strikes them, the speaker’s previously negative terms for them turn glowingly positive: “they’ve got the spectrum’s full iridescent gleam.” The poem is ultimately suggesting here that whomever or whatever we demean will—when seen in a new light— shine with this richly full gleam.

—Peggy Rosenthal


The Grackles by Betsy Sholl

Down the block, our new neighbors, not unlike
the old, could be named the Grackles, given
the way everything they have is loud: cars,
children, stereos, parties. It all spills out
into the street—broken bikes, pizza boxes,
a nasty looking dog with nothing to restrain it

but the owner’s curse. Giving the mutt wide berth,
stepping around a rusty bike rim, I glance
at the weary-looking man, the angry woman,
sullen teen, younger girl with a smudged grin.
Grim, it seems. But there’s a warmth here, too,
the father teaching his son to make the car

loud by tweaking something on the exhaust,
as the mother spit-washes the baby’s face,
laughs through smoke and sunken eyes
at her barefoot daughter’s new skip rope trick.
When the son grabs the dog’s collar—sorry
the stupid pooch frightened me—I watch him

slowly size up my jog-reddened face,
amused disdain on his for the type I am,
flitting around the block in ragged sweats
as if life’s a matter of tips from slick
magazines. Such a racket grackles make,
like castanets, scolding the song birds

they’ve chased up into the trees, giving them
flack for not even trying to bully back. Now
the sun flashes on them its brightest beam,
so it’s clear from light’s point of view,
however drab they may look in the shade
they’ve got the spectrum’s full iridescent gleam.

 

Betsy Sholl’s most recent book of poems is Otherwise Unseeable (Wisconsin). She teaches in the MFA program of Vermont College of Fine Arts and was poet laureate of Maine from 2006 to 2011.

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Changing Positions: A Meditation for Campaign Season

Mount Ranier photo(With help from Donovan, D. T. Suzuki, Qingyuan Weixin, Wallace Stevens, democracy, REM, Bonnie Raitt, David Bowie, Stanley Kunitz, neuroscience, Torah, Ben Bag Bag, The Rabbis, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, you.)

First there is a mountain then there is no mountain then there is. Donovan, are you flip-flopping? Or is it you, mountain?

It was snowing / And it was going to snow. Which is it, Mr. Stevens, the actual weather or the forecast? You want it both ways?

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It’s primary season in America. I don’t know who to fear more, Trump or his supporters.

All the chest-pounding, bullying, demonizing, dissembling, threats: they’re going to pay for it; I’d like to punch that protester in the face.

Do you disavow?

And the crowds cheer, how they cheer.

§

That’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion. Choosing my confession.

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A long time in the spotlight.

Someone stands on a stage in a field, a hall, an arena and feeds a crowd what they hunger for.

Someone’s been too long at the fair. Eating data. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Meditation on the Evangelista”

Meditation on the EvangelistaWhat if God turned up at your door in the form of a brush salesman? That’s the premise that Karen An-Hwei Lee’s prose-poem plays with. Mystery and comedy merge in this delightful meditation. First, an unnamed “He” does not do certain everyday things, like shampooing your carpet. Then “God” slips into the poem as the essence of love. Soon the brush salesman is speaking in tongues and the poem’s speaker is wafted heavenward. Although “without a psalmist,” the speaker utters some words of a psalm. In closing, she implores the God who is love to “brush me,” as if she were the salesman’s carpet—a final play on the wild sudden entrance of the divine into our most ordinary doings.

—Peggy Rosenthal


Meditation on the Evangelista

He does not shampoo your carpet or show you how to brush it clean.
He does not shower you with roses for Sunday’s wedding or funeral.
He does not put his hand in your hair or ask if your spouse is at home.
He only opens a book of words in two columns, one in your language.
He is the salesman with a suitcase of brushes—no gospel tracts.
No, not uncertain whether God loves you from one moment to the next—
your being is love, moves in love, as God does. Man with a case of brushes
shows up at the door. Leans on the frame, whispers a word, evangelista.
Soon he speaks in tongues, but you do not know where this utterance
will go. Upstairs to heaven or sideways, as though sleeping in holiness
on the man’s sleeved arms. You never see the sky open, a ladder of angels
ascending and descending. Instead, a book closes, and the glory-cloud
engulfs you. Without a psalmist, you say—O God, you touch my heart
with love. If I find shelter in the shadow of your wings—brush me.

 

Karen An-Hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of JoyArdor (both from Tupelo), and In Medias Res (Sarabande), winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her work has appeared in The American Poet, PoetryKenyon ReviewJournal of Feminist Studies and ReligionGulf Coast, and Columbia Poetry Review.

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Finding My Inner Calamity Jane

Calamity JaneCalamity Jane lumbered around Deadwood in fringed buckskins, spitting, cursing, and waving her whiskey flask in the shadows of the Black Hills. And I want to be more like her.

Guns scare me, of course. Animal skins give me the willies, and more than a sip of hard liquor gets me coughing. Deadwood’s very existence on Sioux land, let alone its rampant gambling, prostitution and murder, screamed lawlessness. But crazy Jane loved. Not with a quiet, corseted, motherly love, but a fierce, table-flipping passion that even she didn’t seem aware of. Which, of course, makes it the best love of all.

It’s hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the Old West because often the fiction was the fact. Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West, a show he refused to call a show, celebrated the “legend” of the West in real time with sharp shooting, staged robberies, and cowboy/Indian attacks. Calamity Jane joined the production later in life as a storyteller, exaggerating her tales with each performance.

Most historians say it’s hard to know what parts of her autobiographical pamphlet, The Life and Times of Calamity Jane, are true. But there is a general consensus that regardless of whom she shot or saved and when, and if, and whom she married and birthed, she wrestled gender expectations to the ground with her adventurous activities and attire and fought alcoholism to the grave. [Read more…]


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