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The Hamburg Sisters in Nebraska

Sylvie Baumgartel

The Hamburg Sisters in Nebraska

We don’t talk about that.
We make fruitcakes.
We love our husbands like cardboard.
We keep our nails trimmed close.
The skin under our eyes is like
Drowned moons.
The skin between our eyes is
Gathered like skirt pleats.
We hide our purple nipples.
We forget our language.
You can’t speak it anymore anyway.
We crochet dresses from bakery string.
We stink of candy grease.
We collect dolls with soft cloth
Bodies & hard limbs.
At church they say to us:
You stink of doughnuts, poor idiots.
The folks who eat our
Doughnuts call us “hamburgers.”
They think it’s funny.
Moving from South Dakota to Nebraska.
To Iowa. Back to Nebraska.
Town to town after the bakery fails.
The children stink of bakery grease.
We can’t wash off that smell
Even when bathed in kerosene.
We press violets in dictionaries.
We starve in the basement
During a tornado.

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Works

Rebel

Sylvie Baumgartel

Rebel

Savonarola was hanged & burned
With two others in the same
Square where he had called for the
Mass burning of paintings,

Mirrors, books & makeup.
A giant bonfire of all that
Takes us away from
Pure joy, he said.
Savonarola condemned
Corrupt papal power.

The Florentine children
Danced & laughed
& threw stones at the
Dangling, burning men.

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Works

Piedra de Sol

Lawrence O’Dwyer

Piedra de Sol

The workshop is a cluttered, busy space. There are clamps and drills, chisels and burins; the tools might be those of a cobbler or a stonemason. Drawers are stuffed with wires and molds. A cast-iron disc is lost in a blur of speed. There is a microscope on a bench behind me. A middle-aged man in a white coat is talking excitedly. Between index finger and thumb he’s holding a blood-red stone as he tells me that it’s the high percentage of chromium that makes it burn so brightly. The man I’m talking to is a master craftsman, a main d’or. It’s a ruby that he’s holding in his hand.
The technique that he’s explaining is the mystery setting, the serti mysterieux. It involves setting precious stones side by side in such a way that the underlying metal cannot be seen. For a bracelet of rubies, the result is a corona of light that has a lustrous, velvet shine. Patented in 1933, the mystery setting is a secret that’s passed on from master to apprentice in the workshop of Van Cleef & Arpels. The work begins with sketches and drawings, followed by models and mock-ups that establish volume. The the “rails” are prepared, thin wires made of gold or platinum that hold the stones in place.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, a wooden lapidary stick tipped with heated wax was used to hold the stones against the rotating disc. Today, the stick is made of acrylic resin, but little else has changed. Tools are handed down from master to apprentice; hammers are engraved with the names of mains d’or who are no longer alive though their tools are still in use.
Having worked all his life with precious stones, he has a fine appreciation of chemistry and mineralogy, but what he’s trying to achieve is a psychological effect, and his most important tool is a cast-iron disc. Sprinkled with water and diamond dust thickened with oil, it spins at 3,600 revolutions per minute. The noise a stone makes when laid on the grinding wheel gives him a sense of position and inclination; coordinates are aural as well as visual and tactile. Each stone has a different feel—sapphires are softer than rubies; diamonds are harder but more brittle than rubies. Each gem is carefully selected. Only stones classified at the top end of the scale of the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) are used; stones with a grade of D or E—the scale extends all the way to Z. A ranking of flawlessness is also used. He may work with stones that are designated IF (internally flawless). Rarer still but not unknown in this workshop are stones that are free from both internal and external blemishes, which are designated FL—perfectly flawless stones.
After cutting and faceting, tracks are carved into the gem that are used to slide it into the gold bezel. The secret within the secret is “the door,” a removable part through which the cutter inserts the stones; it is then closed and soldered shut. The door is the key to the architecture of the entire piece.
I am asked to praise the jewels but see the hands instead—the dirt under the fingernails. The craftsman has dedicated his life to the serti mysterieux, and it is this obsessiveness that delights the mind as much as the eye. The workshop is just a few blocks from the flagship boutique of Van Cleef & Arpels, on the Place Vendôme. We are in the center of Paris.

The French take jewelry seriously. To begin with, they have two words where English has one: bijouterie, for precious metals; joaillerie, for stones with a minimum of metalwork. But the history of the maison—it is not a company—begins in the lowlands with two Jewish families, one from Amsterdam, the other from Ghent. In 1864, Léon Salomon Arpels moves to Paris, where he becomes a jewelry merchant. He is joined in 1867 by Salomon Van Cleef, a specialist in the art of cutting stones. His son, Alfred, is apprenticed for six years to the lapidist David & Grosgogeat before he establishes himself as a maker of precious stones. In 1897, Alfred marries his cousin Estelle Arpels.
If the folktale of Van Cleef & Arpels is a love story, its language is Dutch. A seagoing nation with a kingdom as small as a ship in a bottle, not fond of loose or ragged talk, the Dutch do not say “I love you”; instead they say “Ik hou van jou,” literally “I hold to you”—a maritime expression full of anchors and stays. A curious blend—the French and their extravagant poets; the Dutch and their sober merchants. It is that mortar and pestle of high and low—the dirt under the fingernails, the fire of the ruby—that’s at the heart of the workshop. Amid the garage-like clutter, with his microscope and cast-iron disc, the main d’or reminds me of a scientist. The workshop looks very much like a lab I used to work in—a patch- clamp lab.

Patch clamping is a technique that revolutionized neuroscience. With a glass pipette pressed gently against the membrane of a neuron, it lets you listen to the fine Morse code of the brain. The technique earned its inventors, Neher and Sakmann, a Nobel Prize in 1991. A long apprenticeship is needed before you can record the microscopic currents that flow through the brain. It is an art as much as a science; from the “pulling” of glass pipettes to the building of a patch-clamp rig, everything is artisanal.
I worked in a lab in the Department of Physiology at Trinity College Dublin, where shafts of sunlight struggled to pass through the great bay windows; the glass was grimed with the fumes of the city. On the shelves were tinctures and chipped cups, brushes and boxes, jars of bolts and screws. The rig was attached to an inner wall, an outer wall being more susceptible to vibration. It sat on an anti-vibration table. Every aspect of the work was sensitive to movement.
I would peer through a microscope, inspecting a slice of brain that was resting inside a little Perspex bath that was perfused with a constant flow of bubbling liquid. The slice was the size of the nail on your little finger. Lowering the pipette was like lowering a needle onto a record, only the needle was made of glass.
The rig was enclosed inside a Faraday cage—a wire-mesh box, open on one side, to allow access to the slice. Without the cage, the recording would be drowned in fifty hertz noise—the frequency of the mains supply. I used to disconnect the wires that earthed the rig just to watch fifty hertz waves rolling across the screen  of an oscilloscope. The green crests looked quite beautiful.
The stimulating electrode was made of Stablohm wire, an alloy of chromium and copper. The recording pipette I made myself. I would place a thin glass straw about ten centimeters long between the grooves of two metal clamps insider a “puller.” After I closed the lid and started the laser, a beam would focus light onto the middle of the pipette until it glowed red. The clamps pulled the glass apart, slowly teasing out the strands, before the final gunshot bang. Opening the lid: two perfect little spears of glass.
When I first arrived at the lab, there was a rig left over, but I was advised to take it apart and put it back together before starting any experiments. It wasn’t really advice, more an unspoken rule. It was the only way to learn how each part worked. After I’d built and rebuilt the rig, I had to learn how to prepare brain slices. The dissection took months to learn. The best handiwork with a scalpel I ever saw was that of Jianqun, a former surgeon, who asked me once to guess his fastest time removing an appendix. I can’t remember his record time, but the grace of his work was a joy to watch. The dissection needed to be fast— the tissue would die if it wasn’t transferred to a recovery bath in less than two minutes.

A delicate slice, a precious stone: as the main d’or showed me the ruby, he dropped it on the floor. I took a deep breath, somehow thinking that I was responsible for a mishap with serious consequences, that my presence was the cause of this lapse in concentration, but the way he got down on his hands and knees reminded me of how many times I’d dropped a slice of brain on the bench of the lab. After rummaging about, he got back on his feet with the ruby in his hand. He carried on, unperturbed. A brain slice is similarly robust; as long as it is wet and perfused with oxygen, it can handle a little tumble.
Another similarity between the two places was their unusual relationship with the digital world. Although patch clamping and stonecutting are manual skills, computers nevertheless contribute to the work. The electrodes in the patch clamp were connected in series, first to an analog-to-digital converter, then to an oscilloscope, and finally to a computer, where the voltages of neurons were transformed into peaks and troughs on a screen before being stored on the spinning disc of a hard drive.
After my tour of the workshop, I was brought to another room, where four designers were working on new prototypes. No garage-like clutter here, no lapidary sticks or melting wax. As I leaned over the shoulder of one designer to look at a rendering of a bracelet on a screen, he reminded me in a perfunctory yet polite tone that I should be aware of the secrecy of this work. Jewelry is a hermetic world. It is also competitive. We were just a few blocks from the Place Vendôme, the epicenter of the rarefied world of high jewelry. It is not by accident that Van Cleef & Arpels opened its doors here in 1906. By then two of the most exclusive hotels in Paris, Le Meurice and the Ritz, were already established on the Place Vendôme. Other neighbors included the rival houses of Boucheron and Lalique. Chaumet followed in 1907. Mauboussin arrived after the First World War. Just for color, Franz Mesmer and Frédéric Chopin lived there in the nineteenth century. Around the corner, on the rue de la Paix, you’ll find Cartier. With celebrity comes its corollary, secrecy. In that room full of computers, intellectual property was precious. In computer terminology, the operating system was closed.

Anyone who does four years of research ends up knowing at least one or two things about science. For my part, I know that the last page is always the first, and that neither would ever be written without the help of others.
Those were the opening words of my thesis. Research is a collaborative affair. Every thesis is a log of an apprenticeship. What I’d really learned was how to go about the art of science. There are a few simple rules that you assimilate, ethics that enter your soma. If you don’t know something, always say so. Read as much as you can. Share your knowledge. Even when you think you know something, be assured: you know almost nothing.
I studied the wiring of the brain, how memories are formed and stored. Along with memory I learned an architecture with many secret doors—orphan receptors, magnesium- gated channels, phosphorylated chains. After three years of research, I learned something else: I’d had enough of slaughtering animals. At the end of each day I would bring a bucket full of rat heads to a freezer in the basement. I wanted to work with humans, not rats, so I turned to a new technique after my thesis had been accepted: MRI, magnetic resonance imaging.

The first medical scanner I used was manufactured by Siemens. In 1857, Wilhelm Siemens invented the regenerative furnace, which led to a boom in the production of cheap glass. Until then, glass had been handblown, mostly green and brown, and quite expensive. The sudden availability of cheap glass had many consequences, but one that historians rarely mention is the boom in the art of the ship in a bottle. The first recorded date of this art is 1810; naturally enough, it comes from the seagoing nation of the Netherlands. Before the arrival of the Siemens furnace, glass would have been too valuable to be used for such a frivolous art. But a ship in a bottle is a beautiful thing. On days of shore leave, sailors made them from the leftovers of drinking sessions—matches and plug for mast and hull, a torn shirt for a sail—and then traded them for cigarettes and beer. Whenever I see a patient being reversed into the bore of a magnet, I can’t help thinking of a ship in a bottle.
Scanners have two main modes of operation. Functional MRI (fMRI) studies the activation of neurons—a kind of oceanography of the storms and currents inside the brain. I was more interested in structural MRI—the mapping of the hemispheres, simple cartography, the discovery of New Spain.
My first postdoctoral work after the patch-clamp lab was in Frankfurt. Alois Alzheimer’s grave was a short walk from the psychiatric hospital where I worked, and my first job was to analyze 1,054 scans from a study of Alzheimer’s disease. It was my introduction to “big data.”
To begin with, the scans needed tidying up. The way a photographer might crop a frame or equalize tint and tone, I corrected for motion and cropped the skull from each frame. Then the serious work began: alignment with nonlinear algebra. I had to find a template, a reference brain that would be the most representative of the entire sample. All brains would then be warped onto the globe of that reference for comparison. In short, more nonlinear algebra than a single computer could handle. I needed a supercomputer. I needed to learn how to code.

The Linux operating system is open-source, free. Almost without exception, it is the system of choice for every academic supercomputer. The reason is simple: for complex parallel computing, no other system is as powerful or as stable. Linux was conceived at the end of the twentieth century when Linus Torvalds, a student at the University of Helsinki, posted a message to the internet asking for some suggestions as to what people might like to see in a new operating system that he was hoping to build. He received useful feedback, as well as offers of help. Two months later, the first version of Linux was released, together with its source code—the program’s DNA. Without the source code, a program cannot be altered or developed by a third party. Linux was characterized from the beginning by its openness.
The kinship between Linux and the academic community is not accidental. The first computer scientists came from a small group of programmers who called themselves hackers. Today there are many kinds of hacks and hackers—good and bad—but the term originally referred to a small group of scientists working in MIT in the late 1960s, people who were passionate about writing code. It was only in the 1980s that journalists started to use the term loosely to denote those who specialized in writing computer viruses. The difference between black-hat and white-hat hackers is much like the difference between a chemist who is interested in making crystal meth and one who is interested in making insulin or quinine.
In his book The Hacker Ethic, the Finnish computer scientist Pekka Himanen describes an enthusiastic attitude to work that he pits against the idea of work as an obligation, even a moral imperative, an idea espoused by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In Weber’s treatise, work is primarily a drudge, more often than not devoid of passion. By contrast, hackers are driven by a desire to create, often within teams that form spontaneously, as was the case when Torvalds and a small group of friends came together around the idea of creating a new operating system. Most of all, there is a commitment to share one’s skills. Individual breakthroughs are handed back to the community for the advancement of the project. Share early, share often is the hacker’s mantra. With many eyeballs, all bugs are shallow. This was the community that I was about to get to know.

A friend of a friend gave me the email address of a physicist who specialized in MRI at a research institute in France. I wrote to him. Despite the fact that he knew very little about me, he invited me to his lab. I gave a vague explanation to my supervisor and booked a flight. I had no idea what was going to happen.
The man I met on that cold December morning in Normandy seemed quick and sparrow-like. He was informally dressed, in his mid-forties, with short black hair and glasses; his words were fast and clipped. He seemed interested in the “project”—my code word for a big problem that I had no clue how to solve.
Only later did I learn how fortuitous my timing had been. Franck had been managing the supercomputer at his institute for many years. He was also running his own experiments—almost on the side, though it was supposed to be the other way around. A smoothly running supercomputer (which doesn’t exist) depends on a team of dedicated computer scientists working round the clock to keep a very complex machine purring over. Hundreds of emails needed answering every week—regarding software bugs, hardware upgrades, and the allocation of computing time, which gave his job a quasi-political tone, as research groups are always in competition when it comes to using a valuable resource like a supercomputer. The week before I showed up, he had handed over all that oily, dirty work to a colleague. I caught him in the transition phase: he was still enjoying the luxury of not having a hundred bugs to fix before the end of the week.
Curious, then, that his first meeting was with a stranger. As he settled into his desk, I noticed that his screen was filled with lines of green code—a command-line interface. No GUIs—graphical user interfaces. If you work on a laptop, you know what GUIs are: the windows and tabs that we click on every day when we use Facebook or Zoom or Instagram. In computing there is a clear distinction between the front end and the back end. Veteran programmers are notorious for building dated-looking home pages. What counts is the code; it is almost a point of principle for those who spend their lives working at the garage end of things to spend as little time as possible with something as frivolous as a GUI or a home page.
It didn’t take Franck long to realize that he was looking at a very “heterogeneous” data set—another code word, meaning a mess. As he called up images on the screen, lines of code started to flow. He asked me what I wanted from the “pipeline.” Maybe a T1-weighted analysis? What about tractography? Yes, tractography was what I was after—a technique I was attracted to primarily for its beauty. Tractographic maps trace the vast arboretum of white-matter pathways in the brain; the images this technique creates are the equal of any serti mysterieux and a good deal more complex: color-coded labyrinths of tangled trees and roots, a botany of forking paths that no one will ever fully understand. The timeworn analogy of the brain as a computer is lazy and incorrect. As an organic structure, its complexity is far closer to that of a jungle than a computer.
As the hours went by, some semblance of understanding began to form, but it was more feeling than understanding. I was beginning to see what the back end looked like. Ultimately, I wanted the “pipeline” to crop and turn, to warp and calculate every kind of analysis we could think of. Each scan consisted of three-dimensional pixels called voxels. Each voxel represented about a cubic millimeter of brain. Once we’d made a tractographic map for a single subject, each voxel in the map had to be projected into the coordinate space of the reference brain. These transformations with nonlinear algebra needed to be performed on each and every voxel. The total number of voxels in the data set was roughly equivalent to 1 followed by enough zeroes to fill a hundred pages. Neuroscience is a form of jealous counting.
On my second morning, I got to the lab at about nine thirty. We had worked for ten hours the day before. By the third day, even if I couldn’t keep up, I was familiar with the speed of Franck’s thought. In the manner of a chess player, he was always projecting three or four moves ahead, scanning the horizon for openings. The code itself was engraved with his own peculiar touch: he called the pipeline “Bushmills”; for debugging, he often named his variables “Moo.” But what I remember most from that first week is the way he would pause after he’d reached a confluence or a barrier in the code. I could see him working out the solution, but before he veered down any new line of attack he would always say, “I propose.” He made it sound as though I might have an alternative point of view; as though I might be able to point to something that he’d overlooked. But it was indicative of his way of thinking—a reflex and a style at once. Never presumptuous, that pause before the lines of code would start to flow again. Always “I propose.” For Franck, problems were adversaries to be outwitted. But there was an etiquette to his attack. On my last day I gave him a present of a black belt.

The academic model is far from perfect, and my circumstances in Frankfurt should make it clear that I am not naive about science. I lived on Weberstrasse, and the drudgery of the Protestant work ethic that Himanen had railed against was alive and well in Germany. I was based in a psychiatric hospital where patients danced and screamed in the garden beyond my office window. I might have even been working on the scans of some of those patients who were dancing in the garden. This hospital was the most hierarchical environment I have ever known. The director was a well-known autocrat and bully. He parked his Mercedes-Benz by the front door, where he insisted on having a space marked with his initials. A psychiatrist once mentioned in passing that he knew where the score would fall if he could ever get the director to complete a questionnaire measuring clinical psychopathy. The atmosphere was one of fear; the director’s strategy was to pit researchers against one another. Dozens of doctors left the department. The board of the hospital made an unprecedented effort to dismiss him.
I was immune from these politics, mostly because I’d found a way of working absolutely alone. It was made clear to me that if I didn’t produce a paper, I would be out of a job, but I was the only one automating MRI in the lab: they needed my code, or rather Franck’s code. It was an old-fashioned place; my colleagues were expected to squeeze a few drops of research out of the nanometer gaps in their clinical schedules. They had no time to learn new techniques. I was not a clinician, so I spent all hours of the day and night logged on to the supercomputer in France. Once or twice a week, Franck would also log on and we’d work together on the command line. I felt an acute sense of having to be on my toes for those joint sessions. I was slow, but how far I’d progressed can be noted by the simple fact that I had not coded before. Franck saw that I was learning. He must have also seen that my learning was a direct result of his teaching. That kind of feedback loop can go a long way.

Competition is integral to all work, and the open-source model of Linux uses competition to develop its operating system in an innovative way. Different versions are made by competing groups, and then Torvalds and a few principal developers decide which versions will be incorporated in updated releases of the software. If there is disagreement with Torvalds, any individual or group within the community is free to develop the project in whatever direction they choose by releasing their own version of Linux.
That sense of constructive competition was entirely absent in Frankfurt. Despite repeated threats from the director, conveniently conveyed by a middleman, I did exactly as I pleased. I felt no loyalty to anyone in that lab, but I did have a loyalty to Franck. I wanted to make use of the work he’d done. In the hacker model, work always begins with a problem that the hacker finds personally interesting. I enjoyed that sense of combat that I’d learned from Franck. I could feel how satisfying it is to write good code. Working with an inert mass of zeroes and ones, I tried to get light to pass through my code.

In the week that I sat alongside Franck, there was one ritual that took him away from the pipeline. He called it his “technology watch”—the half hour or so that he set aside every day for reading the online forum of the MRI software we were using. It was a program developed at the University of Oxford, also open-source. Beginners, professors, postdocs—everyone could be found there. The questions were often as useful as the answers—they pointed to new analyses that needed tweaks and hacks that might take the code in unexpected directions.
As I got used to asking questions on that forum, I was struck by the informality of the community. The only protocol was that you should read the documents provided by the group in Oxford; if you couldn’t find your answer there, then you should look for your question in the threads of previous discussions. If you still couldn’t find your answer, you were guaranteed to get help from the community. I was surprised when one of the original creators of the software answered a question that I posted. No “Herr Professor,” as was the case in Frankfurt. It was Steve, plain and simple. Another feature of the back end: titles were irrelevant.

I wish I’d known about Prince Boris when I worked in Frankfurt. I only learned about him before I visited Van Cleef & Arpels. Aside from his assertion that he came from a noble family of White Russians, not much is known about Boris’s life before he pitched up in Andorra in 1934 with the idea of becoming the monarch of that tiny principality. We do know that he arrived in England after fleeing the Russian Revolution without even a passport to his name. His flair for languages landed him a job with the British Foreign Office. After that, he claims to have spent time at the Dutch royal household, whence the further supposition that Queen Wilhelmina had granted him the title “Count of Orange” even though the title “Van Oranje” is a privilege of the royal family that cannot be given to a commoner. It is true that he became a Dutch citizen; the Dutch consulate at Dijon issued him a passport in 1923. His given name in that document is “Monsieur le Baron Skossyreff.” A year later, he appears on a list of “prominent foreign revolutionaries” compiled by the Dutch Central Intelligence Service. More succinctly, they call him  “an international swindler.”
On his brightest adventure, Boris was accompanied by an American millionairess, Florence Marmon, the ex-wife of Howard C. Marmon, owner of the Marmon Motor Car Company of Indianapolis. Using a generous allowance from her ex-husband, she provided the financial backing for Boris’s “reasoned presentation of his claim to the throne of Andorra.” The quotation is from a confidential dispatch preserved in the archive of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK. Some days later, the Council of the Valleys of Andorra, essentially the Andorran government, expelled Boris along with Marmon, who was acting as his secretary. When he decamped to the Hotel Mundial, in La Seu d’Urgell, three miles down the road, he was, according to contemporary accounts, sporting a monocle and generally affecting the airs of a prince.
While in “exile” he printed ten thousand copies of the constitution of his prospective kingdom, which more than irritated the bishop of Urgell—who was, and still is, the de facto co-prince of Andorra, together with the president of France. Remarkably, on July 8, the Council of the Valleys met at the manor house of the Casa de la Vall, the parliament of the principality, to discuss the matter further. With its wooden benches and rustic dais, the chamber of the Casa de la Vall is more like the banquet hall of a medieval fiefdom than a seat of government. At that meeting, the attorney general affirmed that the “dynamic outsider” was committed to making Andorra one of the most important business centers in the world. The vote of the chamber was 23 to 1 in favor of installing Boris as the new monarch. We should note that the mayor of Encamp refused to support the motion. The council met once more, on July 10. Another vote was taken—23 to 1. The mayor of Encamp would not be swayed, though it hardly mattered, as the new monarchy had been declared on the previous day and Boris was already busy outlining to journalists his plans for the kingdom: “protection for the needy, education for all and sport, a lot of sport.”
Sadly, the new sporting paradise was not to be. On July 12, he issued a proclamation declaring war on the bishop of Urgell, and the following week the Spanish Civil Guard sent three constables and a sergeant to apprehend him. His “subjects” watched as he was handcuffed and packed off, first to Barcelona, then to Madrid, where he was interviewed at the central police station by a number of journalists, to whom he displayed a fine knowledge of the Andorran dynasty from medieval times to the last incumbent of the throne, the Duke of Guise. When asked if he himself descended from the duke, Boris clarified, after some hesitation, that his claim was based not on historic rights but rather on “principles of chivalry.”

“Well, I could tell you that I’m Prince Boris, and if I was going to buy that watch over there, you’d have to say, ‘Thank you very much, Prince Boris.’”
I was talking to the manager of Van Cleef & Arpels’ boutique at the Place Vendôme. Leafing through an old ledger, my eyes had rested on the name of a princess who had bought a necklace in the 1940s. Her name contained the z’s and y’s beloved of the Polish language. The watch I was pointing to had a price tag of 126,000 euros. From Boris’s pre-Andorran days, I’d read a newspaper article about an attempted swindle of a gold watch.
Earlier, I’d asked the young man about the Alhambra, a line of jewelry based on the motif of the four-leaf clover and inspired by a recurring pattern in the sultan’s palace in Granada. It is one of Van Cleef & Arpels’ most recognizable motifs. Although my guide had an impressive knowledge of the titles of his clientele, his knowledge of the Alhambra was less formidable. The work on display was the same as what I’d seen in the workshop—near perfect, technically flawless—but if the workshops breathed an air of obdurate craftsmanship that elevated the work, the showroom had the opposite effect. The Queen of Persia, the Princess of Monaco, the Prince of Wales: the price tags were discreet, but titles were everywhere.
A monarch’s desire for precious stones is natural enough—all rare and beautiful objects are signs of power—but it goes a little deeper than that; probably it goes back to water. Glittering stones remind us of light shimmering on the surface of flowing water. Our innate reverence for gems as simulacra of flowing water has been coded into our DNA.
We can exist for only a few days without water. Stagnant water is more likely to be contaminated with bacteria. Early nomadic humans were more likely to survive where they were able to find fresh water, especially clear and flowing water.
After I put the old ledger back into the glass cabinet, I was brought to an inner chamber. An automatic door opened and closed behind me. I was in a space like an egg, with a velvet lining; the young man informed me that only a select few of the maison’s clientele were welcomed into that egg. A panel on the wall opened to reveal a floor-to-ceiling mirror in which a princess might admire a diamond necklace. But it was a minaudière that I was shown next, a rectangular box made of gold and lacquer. Conceived by Charles Arpels in 1933, the first minaudière was designed to replace a lady’s vanity case. Although its function is largely redundant, it still retains an air of exclusivity, possibly because it is now a purely ornamental object. The interior and exterior of every minaudière provides ample opportunities for the designer to show off his skill. The store manager showed me a hidden watch that could be looked at discreetly when raised from the surface of the box.
“It would be rude for a princess to be seen looking at the time,” he added. Almost on cue, his mobile phone went off. Turning aside with the tick of a smile that reminded me of a grasshopper, he took the call.

Authenticity is difficult to define, but we know when we are in its presence. True works of art are almost always discreet and unobtrusive. What is purely ostentatious is no more than fashion, and fashion is based on novelty—the mother of death, as Leopardi noted. In a letter to a friend, John Keats described how we dislike poetry that “has a palpable design on us,” poetry that tries to catch our attention by grabbing us by the scruff of the neck. How the flowers would lose their beauty, he said, if they called out, “Admire me, I am a violet, dote on me, I am a primrose.”
The most perfect gem I know is not a stone; it is a song of thirst and water. I’m thinking of “Piedra de Sol,” a poem by Octavio Paz that begins with a river and flows for 584 lines before turning back to its source. The first six lines are the last six lines. There is a line for every day of Venus’s journey around the sun. The eleven-syllable—hendecasyllabic—lines are as finely carved as the facets of a ruby in the mystery setting. As a work of art, Paz created a song that shimmers like a sunstone: it is light-in-a-word. As the main d’or works with rubies and Franck with code, Octavio Paz carves words. Looking through a microscope at Van Cleef & Arpels at a ruby that had failed quality control, I could see a crack at the tip of a facet. We feel the same errors in poetry when a line is broken by ugly enjambment, the turning point where a phrase is folded over two lines. The finest work should flow in such a way that the river feels inevitable. We say that it must be so—it could be no other way. Or at least, the work gives us the illusion that we know in advance what comes next because there is no alternative; what is flowing is something that we have always felt, even if we have never experienced the current before. Few works of art reach this plane, but those that do surpass their creators.

Working on code and working on poetry are not as dissimilar as you might think. For a start, both almost always begin with too many lines. The first pass is full of bugs. Algorithms and poetry throw error messages in similar ways—stumbling rhyme, a lost quotation mark, a stranded dollar sign—blemishes that take a long time to find and fix. Another rule of code that applies to poetry: If five lines can do the job of fifty, the shorter code always wins. This isn’t only a question of computational resources, or the possibility of sending a program into a tailspin, although both are important considerations; it is primarily a question of style. Poets might call it something else, but they would certainly recognize what computer scientists call syntactic sugar: well-written, elegant code. In 1913, Ezra Pound published his Imagist poem “In a Station of the Metro” in the magazine Poetry. The first draft was thirty lines long. The final poem is two lines long. William Carlos Williams was rebuked for calling his poems machines, but I think he was correct when he said that prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship, while poetry is the machine that drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. “As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.”
But before I get too carried away, I should add that poets are very earthly creatures. Williams called his rival T. S. Eliot “that bastard” and went so far as to say that the most influential poem of the early twentieth century, The Waste Land, set him back twenty years. Make no mistake, competition is also an integral part  of poetry. The high and the low, the mortar and pestle—we seek to lose ourselves in work, to be consumed and absorbed by it, but the mulch and juice of our lives  is never far away,  even if the goal is to live for just an instant beyond the fray of  the world.

After months of writing code, I had a working “pipeline” that was built over endless hours of sharing scripts back and forth with Franck. There is nothing  more satisfying than submitting a “job” to a supercomputer, pressing the return key and, wonder of wonders, no error message is thrown. By the magic of parallel computing, I see that my single “job” has exploded into 1,054 sub-jobs. The code is working, and all engines are whirring. For comparing a patient group with control, MRI analysis often uses something called permutation testing. It’s a bit like playing a fruit machine five thousand times and logging the results of each spin. There is no greater pleasure than programming a machine to automate that kind of drudgery. Millions of calculations would still be running when I left the office on a Friday night. They would run through the weekend. They would be waiting for me when I logged on to the supercomputer on Monday morning. Some calculations whirred for more than a week before they came to a halt. Something complex and pleasing had spun out from the simple base pairs of our collaboration. Just over a year after my journey to France, our first paper was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. I sent Franck a bottle of Bushmills.

The atelier of the jeweler, the lab of the patch clamp, the command line of the hacker, the white page of the poet—at the back end, the work is much the same. In all four cases, Gaudi’s dictum holds: love, then technique. It is only at the front end that differences emerge.
When I read the word poem inside a poem, almost always it is a sign that something has gone badly wrong. In my mind, an error message is thrown. When we call attention to the work at hand in such an obvious way, we are usually in the realm of the secondhand car salesman, the first cousin of Prince Boris. If there is poverty in a language in which there is only one word where two would be preferable, the opposite is also true. “Piedra de Sol” has been described as a surrealist masterpiece. I call it, plain and simple, beautiful. In the boutique on the Place Vendôme, I heard the word poetry so often that it reminded me that I once counted the number of times I heard the words “mi corazón” blaring from the stereo of a chicken bus that was taking me over the Andes. The scenery was sublime, the pop music less so.
The other tension between the back end and the front end is economic. Poetry has almost zero economic impact on the world, and that is, partly, its strength. As the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert said, the problem of commercially exploiting genuine tears is a real headache for technologists. “Piedra de Sol” is not an expensive or an exclusive work of art. It is not a $126,000 poem. Likewise, a main d’or does not earn enough money to be able to buy the bracelet he has created. Yet he possesses it in a way that is more profound than the Polish princess who wears it on her wrist.

Back end, front end; open, closed. We have an obsession with dichotomies that really don’t exist. Everything sits on a spectrum. It is true that there are differences between left and right brain functions, but they are more subtle than the usual clichés would suggest. We create a belief system about ourselves and the world around us by merging information from the senses with our memories. This belief system is constructed to a large degree by the left hemisphere. If there is anomalous information that doesn’t fit into this schema, the right hemisphere may smooth over the discrepancy in order to preserve the image we have of ourselves. All of this is inevitable and to a certain extent useful. A degree of optimism is necessary for all tasks beyond the trivial, especially for work that may consume us for many years. The architect of any dream needs a breezy indifference to the enormity of the task ahead. We must focus on the day-to-day details while keeping the final goal just a little bit blurred. Too near a focus and the problem overwhelms us; too soft a focus and discipline dissolves.
If our optimism—or our delusions—have their uses, there is also a limit, and we cross the threshold of that limit when we fabricate information to such an extent that we end up sounding like Prince Boris. But even Boris deserves our sympathy—a man who lost everything in the Russian Revolution, a man who arrived in England like thousands of other émigrés, looking desperately for a way to survive. The newspaper accounts of his life are always black-and-white: the swindler-thief in a land of gullible peasants, the operatic prince seducing the craven millionairess.
We are all fractured creatures striving to reconcile our contradictory natures. The profoundest experience that life can offer us, said Octavio Paz, is the possibility to discover reality as a oneness in which opposites agree. Gems also have a divided soul; it is difficult to reconcile a glittering ruby with the mine from which it came.
Mineralogy is a dirty business; it needs arsenic as well as little railway tracks that go deep down into Hades. Soot and dust fill the lungs of miners. Outside the town of Potosí, Bolivia, are the mines of Cerro Rico. Half a millennium after they were first opened, they were still in operation when I visited them at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It is impossible to know how many people died in   those mines. A reasonable estimate might be five million souls, although there’s nothing reasonable about the history of mineralogy or mining. Descending into a shaft with head bent low, I came to a shrine for El Tío, the devil-god, the lord of the underworld. The miners still offer him cigarettes, dynamite, vodka, beer. He has a large erection. It is his union with Pachamama, the earth goddess, that created the bulging veins of Cerro Rico. El Tío has an insatiable appetite for souls. The miners try to appease him every day.
In the boutique at the Place Vendôme, a lady in a blue dress walked past me on a carpet that was as deep as snow. She bore a tray with little distillations of black: espressos for two sheikhs I’d seen at a desk looking at diamonds. Perhaps those two cups were an offering, a libation poured for El Tío.

I should add that I, too, ended up at the shiny end of science. After Frankfurt, I moved to Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, where I became the coordinator of what was at the time the largest clinical study of autism in the world. Front-end, jazz-hands kind of work. I thought I could continue to collaborate with Franck just as I had before, but the circumstances were very different. It wasn’t just me and Franck anymore. It was me and the Dutch Research Council, the ethical committee, Hoffmann-La Roche in Basel, EEG recordings in London, the translation of clinical questionnaires into five languages, PhD candidates to interview from Monday to Wednesday. I had time left over to code with Frank for a half hour in Thursday mornings. Each time I called him, I was unprepared. I felt terrible. I was relieved when I decided to call a halt to that scrappy coding after three short weeks, though I carried on with my jazz hands for another three years before I’d had enough.

On a bright morning in May, I left my apartment on Van Spaenstraat, in Nijmegen, headed for the Pyrenees—by bicycle. On my way to the mountains I called on Franck, who had moved to a lab in Lyon. He welcomed me into his home. In a peculiar way, that journey reminded me of my work in Frankfurt. I was free again to do whatever I wanted. Just as I was consumed by Bushmills, I was obsessed now with a single goal: I wanted to complete a hundred-mile trail run over the peaks of Andorra. I didn’t know it at the time, but that project would take me four years. There are quicker ways to get to the Pyrenees but there was no rush. Once arrived, I would have weeks by myself in the mountains to prepare for that trail race. I’m sure Franck understood that obsessiveness. Whatever I was going to do, I definitely couldn’t contort myself into a managerial post. The shiny surface, the Jesus bug walking on water; all that fla-fla, as Franck would say.
It was good to be at the back end again. The first six hundred miles had taken its toll. Franck was in the garden tinkering with the gears of my bike. He had the right tools for the job; he said that his grandfather had been a bicycle mechanic, that he’d grown up with chains and gears and oil. While he worked on the bike, I put my dirty clothes into the washing machine in the basement. I had a day of rest
before I would hit the road.

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Uncategorized, Works

I’m Hungry if You Are

Natanya Biskar

I’m Hungry if You Are

 

The call comes from a number in Todos Santos, Mexico, and at first I do not register what that means. One student has just left and I have ten minutes to clean, breathe, return emails, collect myself, finish paperwork, use the bathroom, drink three glasses of water, be a different person, and wipe down the yoga ball before my next student arrives. I let the call go to voicemail.
The office for my occupational therapy practice is a trailer parked near the edge of the school’s property line. My job is to take jittery, brickled children and send them back to their classrooms calm. Or take low-tone, gloopy children and send them back full of verve. To accomplish this, I have an office that looks like the props room for a failing circus. I have a slackline, acres of Velcro, and a pillowcase full of stress balls. I have sequin cloth made for petting—one way and the sequins flash silver, the other way purple, and the children never seem to tire of this predictable transformation. They are amazed every time.
My school is not private, I correct people, it is independent—as if it’s just learned how to do its own laundry. It’s mostly white, though you wouldn’t know that from the website, where photos flash in rotation on the homepage. Two Asian American girls pose with their apple dolls. A Black boy angles a magnifying glass over a bug. The one Latina teacher writes an algebraic equation on a smartboard. The school has money, and so they have me.
On Tuesdays, the diffuser gurgles tea tree oil.
“Tuesday smells terrible,” Neve says when she bangs through the trailer door.
She is a loud, rumpled child, constantly tugging at her clothes as if they’re trying to kill her. She wears dresses that look like they were stitched by an embittered grandmother who believed in the reforming possibilities of high necks, lace collars, and lines of tiny buttons, as hard as experience. Neve’s fingernails are long, with black crescents of dirt. Once, I showed her how to scoop the grime out with a toothpick; the sensation made her twitch and writhe, even when she tried to do it herself. She is the kind of white child whose paleness appears bluish from her veins, the kind of girl whose hair has a constant snarl left from sleep. Every day, Neve comes to me like a newborn foal. She walks as if the ground is pudding, her legs nothing but knees.
“I’m in the red,” Neve says, as always.
She points to the top of the Feelings Thermometer on the wall. Is she sure? Not the green, or the yellow, or the orange? Her whole body shakes, thrashing like a severed wire. Red is angry, scared, out of control. Red means the weighted blanket or, in Neve’s case, her beloved tub of dried beans. The tub is deep enough for Neve to submerge her hands up to her wrists. Her favorite thing is to bring her hands out slowly and level, her palms down, carrying a layer of beans on top. Before the beans, I make Neve run through the exercises she likes less, starting with infinity breathing, her finger tracing a lopsided figure eight in the air. Next, I tell her to hold plank position while she lists the classmates she likes from least to best, because that’s more interesting than counting. Her bare legs shake. Her mussed braids sag onto the floor. She likes everyone the best.
Imagine living all day for fifteen minutes with a tub of beans. Neve plunges her hands in and sighs. As she curls and uncurls her fingers, the beans shift and click, though these aren’t the sounds that catch my attention. Hee, hoo, haa. I turn, expecting to see my mother, because those are the precise noises she makes whenever she enters a body of water. Like breathy laughter slowed down. Hee, hoo, haa. I see her so clearly—she walks into the pool in her condo building, her face cast in orange from her visor. The chemical clarity of the air. Her shirt ballooning around her hips.
Hee, hoo, haa. The phone call from Todos Santos. Where my mother lives. And I think, Something has happened. And I think, When was the last time I sanitized these beans?
“Sausage roll?” Hank asks later when I tell him I’m worried.
Hank is the teacher I’m not married to. He is half Chinese and often featured on the website kneeling next to his students in his khakis, which ride up his legs to reveal wacky socks.
“Sausage roll,” I answer.
Nodding, Hank arranges the weighted blanket flat across the scratchy carpet. I stretch myself along the edge, and he rolls me up. I’ve asked Hank to join me before, but he always says no. He’s too fragile for infidelity. Still, it would be nice to be in the roll of blanket with his body, his erection nudging me in the butt, that funny way the penis has of advocating for itself.
“I thought the two of you don’t get along,” Hank says, meaning me and my mother. The layers of blanket between us muffle his voice.
“Is that a reminder?”
“I guess it’s a question.”
Inside the tight roll of blanket I struggle, enjoying the feeling of confinement, the idea that Hank could do whatever he wants to me.
“Silence,” Hank says.
My trapped breath spreads back over my face, a warm, stale fog, a cheesy smell.
“Did you listen to the message?” Hank asks. “If you’re worried, why don’t you call back? I guess I don’t get why you’re worried.”
I tell him about the sounds, the hee-hoo-haa, and, Hank being Hank, he understands that is enough.

At home in our kitchen, Pat doesn’t understand. Pat is the doctor I am married to. Eight months ago, I found his texts with a colleague named Yvette. I imagined her tidy, pink vagina, like a tasteful seashell. If her vulva were a living room, it would have white curtains and neatly stacked piles of Good Housekeeping.
What did I expect, marrying a man? This from my mother on the phone when I told her. We really did talk on the phone sometimes. We did.
Pat wipes the cast iron with its special rag, then anoints the pan with oil. He tells me I cannot know my mother is dead from imagined sounds. “Auditory hallucination,” he says, “is very common. Unbelievably common. Ask me how many times I have patients who come in because they heard the voice of their grandfather or their boss. Ask me.”
I don’t ask him.
Maybe Yvette would like to ask him.
“Please, let’s not bring Yvette into this.”
But she is, always, into this. She is the kind of woman whose hands are like a purse made of veal. She probably didn’t even use lube when she jerked my husband off in the medical supply closet. The worst part? I always begged Pat to play doctor. He never, ever would.
Actually, that isn’t the worst part. Couples counseling has been the worst part. Now that Pat’s working through his own issues with his father, it seems that my opening to leave him has narrowed. Who leaves a man mid-breakthrough? So great that he’s working on himself, my friends say. They can’t stop saying how great it is. But he crashed the goddamn car! He crashed the car and now he gets credit for the repairs.
Pat smears the oil around the cast iron with a paper towel, and I try to not feel jealous of the tenderness he shows to our kitchenware. When the second call comes from the same Todos Santos number, I’m not ready, and I back away from the phone. Pat takes it. His Spanish is better than mine. As he speaks, I dedicate myself to picking bits of food from the sink’s mesh guard. In this moment, I would convert to a religion that required the cleaning of mesh guards. Egg, it looks like, congealed over the mesh in a gummy paste. I scrape at it with steel wool.
“Hey.” Pat’s hand rests between my shoulder blades. “Hey, hey.” I scrape harder, strands of the steel wool unraveling. “Look,” Pat says. “Something has happened.”
I drew a cartoon once of a steel-wool ranch where shiny sheep looked sadly at regular sheep. Can’t remember what was supposed to be funny about it. No, Pat doesn’t know where that cartoon might be now. Nor does he think I missed an opportunity to have a career as an illustrator.
Don’t I have anything to say?
Only one thing.
“Told you so.”

In the morning I find Pat on step seven or eight of the process he believes is the only correct and civilized way to make coffee. Much equipment is involved, beakers and a silver scale and a thermometer with coarse wires. It is both tiring and comforting to watch him, this specific person who, for reasons I cannot remember this morning, is in my house, making coffee. White-robed like he’s in a hotel. Gray chest hairs. He still has a beautiful neck. The skin has started to loosen, but this only makes his neck seem more vulnerable—so exposed and hairless—and often, I have the urge to wrap it up with a scarf, or with my hands.
“I thought you were going to take the day off,” he says, smoothing the thermometer’s wires.
“Why would you think that?”
His neck skin creases when he looks up to the ceiling, beseeching God, maybe, to grant him patience. Years ago, before our relationship crossed the boundary between having fun to something serious, Pat told me that he liked that I was complicated, as if I were a tricky crossword puzzle, or a trade deal. But it gave me permission and a role to play. I suppose the trouble is that Pat expected to solve me eventually, that I would loosen like a plied knot. I sense that he hates me a little because I am not solved or loose, and I hate him a little, too, for wanting me to be different.
“Why do they call it a wake?” I ask.
“Your mother wasn’t Catholic,” Pat says, as if I forgot.
“You know what they should call a wake? They should call it ‘Remains to be seen.’”
Pat looks at me in a way that feels like he’s trying to figure out what stage of grief this is, the cracking-jokes phase. I’m aware that I should feel sad, or something more profound than sad—but I don’t. I feel like I’ve misplaced something vital. Where is my mother? Surely she’s in her condo in Todos Santos, just waking up, dissolving pellets of instant coffee in a mug. Pat says that we can talk tonight, because we should really discuss arrangements.
Ah, arrangements. The prospect of complicated logistics—it comforts Pat. Now this is a project.
“You’re in shock,” Pat says. “That’s normal.”
Never happier than when he’s diagnosing someone. Here is your problem, see? Right here. Your mother is dead.
Sometimes I need to escape Pat when we’re in the same room, so I travel back to yesterday, when Neve’s eyes went wide as I plunged my hands into the beans next to hers.
“Grown-ups need beans, too?” she had asked.
Shocking to feel, in a bucket of dried beans, the warm aliveness of one of Neve’s knuckles.
To Neve, I answered, “Not all grown-ups.”

This early, the school is dark, the copy room empty. In the teachers’ lounge, I flick on lights and press a new filter into the coffeepot. I check my mail cubby in case someone has, overnight, decided to give me a raise, or an award. My cubby holds only catalogs, thick publications featuring children whose smiles suggest coercion, that a nefarious someone is forcing them to be thrilled by mini-whiteboards, plastic counting bears, bags full of foam shapes.
The copy room is an open nook off the teachers’ lounge that feels more private than it is. I like the smells and the warmth, the reams of copy paper still wrapped. The sense of organization—letter size over here, the card stock over there. This morning, I feel odd affection for the sign someone typed and printed, its repetition soothing: Cardstock is ONLY for VERY special projects ONLY.
Strange how marvelous it is, a death. At least in part, at least this morning—how free I feel from all the little tasks I had been using to tack together my life. These papers I need to copy, I don’t really need to copy them. And the students on my schedule today, they will be fine.
“Knock, knock.” Hank lifts his arms, hooks his fingers onto the upper door frame, and leans forward, his chest out. He always arrives early because he’s dedicated, the kind of teacher who remembers, even years later, all of his students’ names. I’d like to wrap my legs around him. Grind against his hips until I turn his bones to gravel.
“Did you call your mom?” he asks.
And I realize that other people don’t know. It’s unfair. It’s dumb. That I must tell them and make it true all over again.
Hank holds me. Through his shirt I can feel the nubs of his back moles.
“It’s OK,” I tell him, because he seems to need to hear it. “We weren’t that close.”
But Hank only squeezes me tighter. He is so ready to be the person who allows me to cry, and who am I to not let him be that person? But I do not cry. Hank talks into my scalp, and I imagine his words seeping through my skull, sliding into the, my brain that does not understand yet what is happening. My brain where my mother is still unquestionably alive, shelling peanuts, flicking her cigarette ash, saying she is bloated, insisting that she is not asleep when she clearly is. She is asleep in the orange recliner, our macaroni dinner burning on the stove.

At ten, I go to Hank’s classroom to shadow Neve. He leads the class in song. Hank’s eyes follow me as I make my way to the rug, and it is impressive how, though he stares, he does not break the rhythm: “Hi! My name is Joe! And I work in a button factory.” The song has movements—“I push the button like this! I turn the knob like this!”—and Neve cannot keep them straight. She yanks the button, punches the knob. Kids nearby give her a wide berth.
In the copy room, Hank had asked me, “Should you be here?”
I suppose no one wants to be around the newly bereaved. We might as well be corpses ourselves, flailing about, our skin rotting off, trailing a slick of internal juices, pointing to others at random to remind them that they will die.
When it is time to sit in a circle, Neve tents her oversize T-shirt across her knees, her arms disappearing inside, the sleeves flappy. She rocks back and forth, and I whisper, “Whole-body squeeze.” She compresses into a ball, holds, then releases. From across the room, Snakey Wonder seems to want my attention. The snake waves her head behind the glass, looking like a puppet.
“Are you my mother?” I ask the snake, in a whisper, from the rug.
“Pardon?” Hank asks.
Twenty-one pairs of eyes fix on me. Hank looks concerned. He has, for a reason I have missed, a sock puppet of a fox on his hand. The sock puppet also looks concerned.
“Sorry,” I say. “I thought the snake was someone I know.”
Candace wrinkles her nose. Wise Julian nods with understanding. Several children sit up on their knees, craning to check if Snakey Wonder is someone they know, too. Hank regains their attention with a singing bowl, then carries on with his lesson. The fox wants to play with the duck, the squirrel, and the mouse, but they do not want the fox to play with them, I assume because the fox is a predator.
But no. Hank asks for suggestions from the crowd. Why do we exclude?
“The fox has shoes that don’t match,” says Candace. She is the kind of child who looks like she could give me unflinching advice about my marriage.
“The fox had tuna fish for lunch,” says a boy. “And tuna makes your breath stinky.”
“That isn’t nice,” Julian says.
The tuna fish boy shrugs. “Sucks to suck.”
Neve is about to blow. She quivers. She has started to hum under her breath. Candace tells her to shush. I tell Candace to shush. Hank is very involved in making the fox puppet cry. Now he wants solutions. What can be done to solve this problem?
“The fox should go play with someone else,” Candace says. “It’s obvious they don’t like her.”
Candace looks pointedly at Neve, who does not seem to notice because she is struggling to extricate one arm from her T-shirt tent while holding her other hand over her mouth to prevent herself from speaking out of turn. I pinch the back of her shirt to hold it in place. Her arm flies free and smacks Candace in the face. Hank sets his puppets down. “Peace Place,” Candace says. Hank nods. His eyes ask me to help and also question whether this is a good idea.
The Peace Place is a table covered with a batik cloth; sitting on the table are a snow globe and a lavender sachet. The snow globe contains a surly-looking dragon and features a banner with the words GREETINGS FROM EPCOT. Candace shakes the snow globe while taking deep breaths, taking her time to choose her “I” statement from a list: I feel … hurt, confused, angry, upset, worried, excluded, sad.
“I felt hurt when you punched me,” Candace says.
“It was an accident,” I say.
Neve looks up at me, sucking on the end of her braid.
“She’s supposed to echo,” Candace tells me.
“But it was an accident,” I repeat.
“It doesn’t matter,” Candace says. “Hank says only feelings matter.”
Of course. Such a Hank thing to say. I had argued that I should be allowed to sleep with Hank as a “freebie.” Pat and our counselor disagreed. Hank himself also disagreed. Perhaps that is why I chose him. Always, always, this urge to destroy. Hi! My name is Joe! And most of the time I feel dead inside!
“So, you felt hurt when I punched you in the ear,” Neve echoes, hopeful.
“Like you mean it,” Candace says.
Quickly, I imagine killing Candace.
Neve echoes Candace’s words again, pressing her hands on the table and pushing off in little leaps. Now they are to shake hands. Candace holds out limp fingers.
Neve skips away. She thinks this has gone great. With a clatter, she knocks over a wooden display of the solar system, and planets roll across the rug. Candace looks at me over the rim of glasses she will one day wear.
“Are you, like, Neve’s mom or something?” Candace asks.
Candace knows who I am. All the children do. I stare Candace down.
“Her mother died,” I say, the lie coming easily. “So you better be nicer to her.”
A flicker of confusion crosses Candace’s face, and a satisfying amount of worry. When I turn, Julian is there, holding out his hand. Mars, Jupiter, and tiny Neptune.
“It’s OK,” Julian says, setting the planets onto my palm. “Neve does that every day.”

In our weekly counseling session, Pat says I do not give him the right kind of affection. That I colonize our relationship with my anxieties. I imagine tiny me planting tiny flags of worries. I claim this hour for plane crashes and house fires and earthquakes!
Our counselor clears her petite throat. She owns the same sweater in several different shades of oxblood. It is a wrappy, drapey affair, and it makes her look like an abstract painting of a human heart.
She writes something in her notebook.
“What’s the score?” I ask her.
The point of her pencil hovers. She wants to know what I mean.
“What I mean,” I say, “is who’s ahead?”
“That’s not what we do here,” she says.
I rise from the couch and lie on my back on the floor. The ceiling is made of those speckled panels, the kind you can push out of their frames.
“So would you say that I am now losing?” I ask. “Because of that question?”
I can feel Pat and the counselor look at each other over my body. Near my face, the counselor’s feet are crossed primly, one ankle over the other. Under her chair are dust bunnies and the anguished cage of a dead spider’s upturned legs. Pat would like me to please get up now.
I could. I could get up. Sit back on the couch beside my husband. But if I did, I might slap him, and then I would truly lose points with the counselor, whose right foot turns in small circles like it is telling time. I could get up from the floor. Or Pat, he could join me.
I should, apparently, not be ridiculous.
But. A shuffling of wool. The setting down of a pencil on a hard cover. Our counselor’s body is unbelievable, even when it lies next to mine. I can feel her breath in the way her arm draws close, then retreats.
“It is healthy,” she says, “to change perspectives from time to time.”
What does Pat think? Impossible to tell. He is on his best marriage counseling behavior. He does not join us. His leg does that jiggy bounce that all men’s legs do when men are forced to sit still and have a conversation. Our counselor does not want this gamble to be a failure. She hates to insist, but Pat ought to try. So he sighs, and rises, and stretches flat, managing it all without touching even one part of me. The three of us splay on the carpet, waiting for one of the others to do it, to be the first to change.
Our counselor, inspired by her own quirkiness, says we both ought to say something we have never said aloud before. Because I am understanding and good and easy, I let Pat go first.
“Sometimes I think the reason I cheated on you is because you deserved it.”
The speckles on the ceiling panels are manufactured to look chancy. Planned randomness. Because you deserved it. The counselor says nothing. She thinks I deserved it, too. Now it is my turn to share something I have never said aloud.
“Someone ought to vacuum under your chair,” I say.
The counselor turns on her side to face me, and her posture feels so intimate, my eyes bristle.
“Do you want to change?” she asks, her head propped on her hand. “Most people, they would rather die than change.”
The counselor’s lipstick is two shades darker than her sweater.
“All right,” I say, “but are those my only options?”

Friday, again. Eucalyptus. On lunch break, Hank stretches an elastic band in my office, rolling his shoulders. He straddles the exercise ball. Bounce, bounce. Next week is Thanksgiving.
“Who’s taking care of Snakey Wonder over the break?” I ask.
“Julian.”
“Makes sense. Not a burner.”
When Hank bounces, the flaps on his jacket pockets lift.
The first time we spoke, I caught him returning office supplies that he had borrowed. He was crouched in the closet with all the sticky labels, paper clips, and whatever toner is, the back of his pants pulled into a V to reveal his boxers: purple, with little white dots. A rip in the waist, elastic bulging. I told him he could keep the whiteboard markers and no one would mind. He said he would mind. There is something frightening about his sincerity. But he would also be the first man to break my string of partners who have names that are also commands: Bob, Neil, Phil, Pat. And he has a sense of humor about working with children. Some days, we play Burner-Not-a-Burner during recess duty, where we decide which children will one day attend Burning Man.
I had told my mother about the pattern with names: Bob, Neil, Phil, Pat.
“You always liked to be told what to do,” she said.
Of course, there were other men. Scott. Two Jeremys. But I told my mother only Bob, Neil, Phil, Pat. Because I thought it was funny. And unique. And because I knew she would make a quip of it, or a barb. Of most of my life, she made so very little.
“Let me take the snake.”
Hank, finally, has stopped bouncing. “Julian will be disappointed,” he says. I can see him arguing with himself: Disappoint a child, or disappoint this woman who frightens me?
Am I sure? Also, isn’t Pat afraid of snakes?
Why yes. Yes, he is.

But Pat is in Todos Santos for the holiday. Retrieving my mother’s body. Closing up her condo. Immersing himself in his beloved logistics and working up an appetite from the strenuous effort of not sleeping with other women. He’d bought two tickets, but then I discovered my passport had expired. Pat was annoyed but also pleased: my lapsed passport confirmed my flakiness, my hopelessness with life’s fundamentals. It was just as well, because I couldn’t face my mother’s last house, the bed where they found her. I’d have to imagine her slack mouth, her blue lips slid back and away from her teeth. Her body. The stubborn, sad fact of it. “Stroke,” they said. “No pain,” Pat said. Best-case scenario.
Taking care of a snake, it turns out, is not a good way to fill time. Every day, I check Snakey Wonder for signs that she is my mother. In a leather miniskirt and silk camisole, I ask the snake what she thinks of my outfit. Does her snake tongue flicker in judgment? I don’t know. She’s a fucking snake.
Leave it to my mother to not bother to haunt me. The day I left for college, she said, “Having kids, it’s just preparation for death.”
Another thing my mother said: “Life’s motto is don’t get too attached.”
So she practiced. From when I was little, she kept her distance. Summers, we watched her soap operas all day. What else can I say about her? She always smoked outside, never in the house. We lived together for eighteen years like two sovereign nations with equally catastrophic arsenals. Peace through stalemate. You can’t destroy me if I destroy you first. But she was my mother. The only one I had.
I open the school’s website and bide my time through the rotation of homepage photos until I see Hank. I try to take a screenshot, but the transition is too fast and I end up with a copy of a Black girl’s flying braids as she runs full tilt. So I wait. I know it is sad and a little ridiculous, that the only comfort I can find is the sight of Hank’s socks—green with pink arrows pointing this way, that way, this way—and imagining him sheathing his bare feet in the privacy of his mornings.
Pat calls from Mexico. Says if they cremate her there, it will be cheaper, easier. All right? All right.
“I kind of miss you,” he says.
I weigh the benefits and drawbacks of saying it back. I say it back.
“Quickie?” he asks. He sounds like a little boy, but I am achingly horny. It becomes apparent that the woman Pat is imagining sucking his penis, making coy eye contact—she is not me. But it is OK, because the man eating me out, he is not Pat. He is not Hank, either. He is no one I know, and he is every man I have ever fucked, and he is me, watching, as my husband’s voice encourages me—gently, with a kind of love—to come. We stay on the phone breathing.
“Leave it to your mother to fix our dry spell,” Pat says.
I still hate him, but I laugh.
“She never liked you,” I say.
I want him to say, She never liked you, either. I want something unforgivable, a clear door to walk through. This is over. But Pat cannot say that. Because I am in grief, he has to be patient and understanding with me.
“How’s the snake?” he asks.
“Withholding. Mercurial. Bit of a cunt.”
“So. Just what you like.”

Thanksgiving. I order takeout Thai and eat rice and green curry and pad see ew in one big heap from the last clean plate. “And what are you grateful for?” I ask Snakey Wonder. She is small and beautiful. Cream-colored, with thick orange stripes and thin yellow stripes and red eyes. The frozen mouse I left for her thaws near the water bowl. This is promising. My mother also had a strained relationship with food. When I was old enough to cook, she left meal planning to me. For a time, I treated it as an opportunity to please her. Spaghetti? Garlic bread? Omelet? Are you hungry?
Even when my mother wasn’t smoking, she exhaled as if she were.
“I’m hungry if you are,” she said.
It’s a terrible thing, to be a child in charge of an adult.
The internet tells me how to trick a snake into eating an already dead thing. Warmer than room temperature, the internet says, so I microwave the mouse. When I open the door, its fur steams. I tie a string around its gummy tail and “walk” it around Snakey Wonder’s enclosure. The mouse rakes moss and sawdust and snake shit with its limp paws.
Inside her hollow half log, Snakey Wonder’s coils tighten. I leave the mouse tied to its string. The mesh cover of the tank, along with the rock that secures it in place—I leave those on the floor.

The next morning, the mouse is gone. Also gone is Snakey Wonder. Part of me is impressed that the snake, who had shown so little interest in anything, would muster the energy to escape. But then I think of Hank. Why do other people occur to me too late?
The internet is too cavalier about my situation. A video says: “Your Snake is Loose! Now What?” Make sure no windows or doors are open. If they aren’t, your snake is in the house, and he could be hiding just about anywhere. Look in warm, cozy places, along baseboards, behind books and knickknacks.
In this way, I discover that Pat and I have no knickknacks. What have we been doing? Perhaps this is the source of our problems: a lack of evidence of our years together, our time served. Couples who tchotchke together stay together. Because they realize what a fucking hassle divorce would be, divvying up commemorative shot glasses, salt and pepper shakers shaped like the Pietà.
Think like a snake, not a human.
This stumps me. I can think like a snake as much as I can think like my mother. Still, for Hank, I try. No snake behind the liquor bottles, or in the tub, or in the bed. Just in case the snake is somehow harboring my mother’s wayward soul, I turn on daytime television, hoping a soap opera will tempt her from her hiding place. On the show, little has changed since I was a child. The living rooms full of tropical plants, the light striping through the blinds against the walls, the long conversations that include at least two moments when a man grabs a woman by the arm and spins her to face him. There is much brooding, punctuated by sudden outrage. My mother’s favorite was General Hospital. She had been a high school math teacher, so summers we were stuck together, time sliced into blocks of programming. The morning talk shows until eleven, then Jerry Springer, then the soaps through the sleepy afternoons, then Jerry Springer again. She pointed out things about Springer’s guests: “Look at all those piercings!” “That man couldn’t possibly be the father, look at how tight his pants are, he’s probably sterile.” Many of the women on the show dressed like teenagers or little girls, in cutoff overalls over Mickey Mouse T-shirts, their wrists strung with those thin plastic bracelets that everyone had in the nineties. Something terrible had happened to them. The women were stuck and stunted, slouching in their chairs as they told Jerry about their troubles. In one episode, “My Mom Stole My Man,” a white girl with cornrows chewed the insides of her cheeks. When Jerry introduced her mother, the audience booed. The mother carried a small purse that she clutched with both hands in front of her belly. When she sat, she set the purse in her lap. She stared at an anonymous spot on the floor in front of her feet, which were small and clad in plain white sneakers. As the daughter told of how her mother had tried to seduce her boyfriend, the audience jeered, and the mother stared at the spot she had chosen until, swiftly, she swung her purse and whacked her daughter across the face. The daughter fell and screamed, and the audience rose to their feet, and Jerry shook his head. The mother stayed in her seat. The daughter pointed and fumed and cried. The mother crossed one ankle over the other.
“See?” my own mother said at the commercial break. “I could be worse.”

On Saturday, Pat returns with an infuriating tan. He bends to kiss me and at the last moment I offer my cheek, which flummoxes him. His kiss lands on my ear. Pat sets something heavy and pale on the coffee table. A box. White cardboard. Its edges neatly taped.
“She’s smaller than I thought she’d be,” I say.
“It’s pretty big,” Pat says.
My ear is still wet from his mouth.
Pat sighs, says I would not believe the paperwork. The number of times he had to initial. His hand practically fell off from filling out forms. “Good thing you didn’t try to handle it yourself. Very complicated. Anyway, how was your time at home?
And why is there a blanket over the snake’s tank?”
For you, my dear idiot husband. For you.

The weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break all move toward one anticipation: Revels, the annual all-school holiday performance. In my office, Neve tells me about Wee Willie Winkie with her hands in the beans. The second grade always does “Wee Willie Winkie” and she really wants to be chosen as Wee Willie Winkie, and she might be, because the music teacher says she is doing better in class since she started seeing me and do I think she will be? Chosen?
“I have no idea.”
The selection process for Wee Willie Winkie is both secretive and utterly predictable. A quiet, pliable, coordinated second grader, not the most popular or powerful, but someone everyone likes, the child equivalent of Dolly Parton. With her wayward limbs and cement-shoed feet, Neve does not stand a chance.
Later, I carry Snakey Wonder II in her tank to Hank’s room. Outside, the children’s recess games proceed as usual, in continuous near disaster. I check the snake, curled inside her hollow faux log. Not bad for a replacement, if a bit smaller than the first Snakey Wonder.
From behind me comes a small voice. Neve is lying on her belly in the Reading Corner, singing a little jumbled song. I tell her she ought to be at recess.
“Hank lets me sharpen the pencils,” Neve says, log-rolling across the circular rug. She joins me and Snakey Wonder II, pressing her nose to the glass.
“I don’t like recess anyway.”
All the typical responses flash through my brain: fresh air, exercise, “I bet you’d like it if …” If you could run without tripping over your own legs. If you had the right clothes. If you didn’t wear dresses that looked like haunted nightgowns.
The warmth from the heat lamp makes my skin feel tighter. I ask Neve if she wants to practice for Wee Willie Winkie.
I have seen the dance every year for the past three years. As pairs of kids link arms, turn right, turn left, then patty-cake, Wee Willie Winkie flits between them, holding an old-timey lantern. When the pairs lift their linked arms, Wee Willie Winkie passes beneath the bridges. Then the children fall asleep, slowly melting down to the stage.
Between the tables, Neve does not flit. She skips, trips, rises, and resumes her jerky cantor, like a drunk horse with a limp. She spins with her arms straight out, making the posters on the walls lift at their corners. Inevitably, she crashes dizzily into a chair. “Ouch,” she says, and keeps dancing. In no way does she follow the steps, but what she does is better, weirder; she is a chaotic Wee Willie Winkie, a delirious spirit, the embodiment of frenzy. I cannot take my eyes off her. When I tell her to go under the bridges, she drops to her knees and crawls under the tables, twisting and writhing over the carpet. Army-crawling, she collapses at my feet, breathing hard. Her face when she looks at me is red and beaming.

Hank conducts a Class Meeting. He reads from the notebook of Community Problems where children have written down what they have noticed. Sam has noticed how kids are still hiding pencils in their cubbies. Marla has noticed that the class is leaving crumbs and wrappers after snack. Hank leads the class in earnest discussion about the problems, and there is something hopeful about it, even when Liona, wearing what appears to be a leather shirt, suggests that children who hide pencils in their cubbies should no longer be allowed to use pencils and should have to dictate all of their work to other students and skip lunch.
Hank dismisses the students for snack in groups. First, everyone wearing blue shoes, then everyone wearing stripes, then everyone wearing fancy socks. He leaves it up to the children to determine whether or not their socks are fancy. Neve’s socks have a scalloped trim, and even though they also have several brown stains at the edges, I assure her that they are, in fact, quite fancy.
Hank turns on the audiobook the class listens to during snack. I have missed the beginning. There is dramatic music and the sounds of a storm. A woman speaks in a squeaky voice that sounds like an impersonation of a mouse on amphetamine. The children munch and slurp. Neve still hasn’t returned.
I find her sitting on the floor in the hallway. When I ask what’s happened to her snack, she shrugs. In the depths of her backpack, which is full of crumpled papers and hair bands woolly with strands of her tangled hair, I find her lunchbox, the plastic filmy with age, on the front a faded image of princesses, or so I assume, in dresses the color of tongues.
“Here it is,” I say. “What’s the problem?”
Inside the lunchbox is the problem. I drop the lunchbox and it lands, gaping, on the floor. Inside is an ancient-looking sandwich in a cloudy bag. An apple core. A sticky thermos. All of it crawling with ants.
“My parents never remember,” Neve says.
I kick the lunchbox closed and tell her to follow me.

On one wall of the teachers’ lounge is the graph of Our Strengths, an activity from the August retreat. According to the quiz, my top three strengths are Thinker, Ruminator, and Individualist. Every teacher’s name except mine is listed under Nurturer. Even Brenda, the vice principal with her scary suits and dead tooth, is a Nurturer.
The teachers’ lounge is reliable as a source of coffee and free food. Around the holidays, the table fills with boxes of chocolates and homemade cookies and Toblerone bars. Today the table has all that, plus a pink box of donuts, grease darkening the paper. I gesture to Neve to take what she wants. I feel bountiful, generous, as if any of this feast were mine to give. Neve selects a donut with frighteningly pink frosting and brown sprinkles. Like a predator with a kill, she crawls under the table.
“You don’t want to go back and hear the story?” I ask, folding myself to fit under the table.
Already, Neve’s mouth is stained magenta. She shakes her head and I understand. Based on what I heard, I wouldn’t want to listen to the story, either.
“Do teachers get to eat donuts every day?”
“Yes. We don’t need to drink water, did you know that? We only drink hot chocolate.”
“That’s not true. My mom drinks tomato juice.”
I think: I’m pretty sure that’s not just tomato juice.
“How come you never write in the Community Problems Journal?” I ask.
“About not liking recess.”
“It never helps,” Neve says.
She holds the last bite of donut in both hands. She tries to make the frosting last, darting her tongue to lick it off in tiny specks.
“Do you want another one?”
I know that sugar is the last thing this kid needs. Her body, on a normal day, is already gripped by a tremendous and savage energy. But that is a problem for later.
For now, there is no sugar crash. Now there is only airy dough and pliant frosting.
Secret fillings of jam. And sometimes we need exactly what we don’t need.
At least that is what I tell Hank later in my office when he describes Neve’s sugar-crash afternoon. Two breakdowns, he says. She couldn’t complete any of her work. I have a hard time accepting donuts as the cause. But it’s not just about the donuts. Candace told Hank that Neve’s mother died.
“Why’d you lie?” Hank asks. He is unusually still.
I tell him the truth, ridiculous as it sounds.
“I thought it might help Neve. Get her some … sympathy from other kids.”
Hank nods.
“You see other students,” Hank says, as a suggestion.
It is the meanest thing he has ever said to me.
“Sausage roll?” I ask.
“No sausage roll.”
Whatever was not happening between us, it has just ended.
At the trailer door, Hank says, “Julian’s gonna be Willie Winkie.” As if I didn’t know.

I run low on ways to tell Pat without telling him that I have no interest in touching him. In one week, I have suffered five headaches and two bouts of probably-just allergies.
In counseling, Pat says he feels I’m not supporting his self-actualization.
Our counselor looks at me from the coils of her oxblood wrap.
“But I do support that,” I say.
“You see what I mean?” Pat asks the counselor.
The counselor snuggles down into her sweater.
“I do see what you mean.” She turns to me. “Do you see what he means?”
“It’s triggering,” Pat says. “My dad, you know, I never felt supported by him, either.”
Then Pat is crying, and our counselor is thrilled, handing him a flurry of congratulatory tissues. All I get are side scowls that indicate I have failed at counseling. No points for second place.
I do not feel the right feelings. I am supposed to be sad about my mother, but the greater sadness came years ago, when it became clear that she was not interested in making up for lost time. I visited her in Todos Santos, thinking maybe Mexico had loosened her in that vague, romantic way foreign places are supposed to stretch you at the seams, make you think of your life in America as unbearably >small and too full of parking lots and cheeseburgers and class envy. My mother’s condo building resisted the town’s charms. No bougainvillea. No phallic cacti in artisanal pots. Inside her condo, we could have been anywhere. We watched television with the blinds drawn, ate microwaved meals. We walked by the ocean and swam at Punta Lobos beach. We did not talk more than we had before, which is to say, we talked very little. My mother was happy to have me so long as I could fit into her version of time—a silent shadow, a temporary guest. The visit was sad and confusing. I looked at her in her recliner, rocking, content. And I thought: Why don’t you want more? Why are you happy?
Lack of recognition, though, travels both ways. She could not understand why I wanted to marry Pat when there were hundreds of thousands of men left to screw.
“What a waste of the good skin I gave you,” she said. “And great hair!”
On that trip, I felt so enlightened, so superior. But what did I know? My mother knew what she loved—ocean swimming, convenience store Chardonnay, talk shows with surprise paternity tests—and she loved it without apology.
“Nice visit,” my mother said at the bus that would take me back to Cabo. It broke my heart that she meant it.
“I know she loved you a lot,” Hank had told me.
Maybe. But she loved her freedom more.
And I—I can understand that.

The weekends become long stretches of freeway Pat and I must drive straight through. Saturday night, I call Pat from the laundry room. He is on the couch.
“Tell me what you’re wearing,” I say, even though I know what he’s wearing: sweatpants and a button-down.
Something clanks in the dryer. A zipper maybe. Loose change. I can’t dip into the image of myself watching as I eat myself out. Clank goes the thing. I stop and kneel to tug warm, damp clothes from the dryer. The clothes are streaked with something pink and oily. I find it, the clanky thing, a tube of my own lipstick, the pink leaking out from the seam. Why this, of all things, should make me cry is not clear. Pat must think my sounds are ones of pleasure, because his breath quickens as I bury my face into the pile of ruined clothes, melted lipstick smearing into my hair as I rend the strands. And there is something thrilling about that, about my body knowing what to do, and it is not so different from sex, in that one way. I rend and rend.
The heat has left the clothes by the time Pat nears the big finish. When I get up, I will gather what I need. What do I need? Only the snake, who I had seen earlier in the living room near the heating vent behind the sofa. When I reached to grab her, she slinked away, and I thought, All right.
“Oh,” my husband says, “oh my, oh my.” Pat gasps, grunts, sighs. I love that moment, with all men, how tender they are, how in those seconds you can tell exactly what they looked like as scared little boys. What do I need? I have no idea, but I do know exactly why I keep the phone on speaker. How rare it is, clarity. Better than happiness, because I don’t need to share it with anyone, not with my husband. I leave him on speaker because I know his sounds—this sound, and that one—are part of the last time.

Neve and I practice the steps for Revels. Left, right. Arms up, arms down. Link arms, turn, link arms, turn. Patty-cake, arms up, then fall asleep. Neve wants to fall asleep all at once, as if she’s been shot. “Slow,” I tell her. Together, we fall to the ground like melting candles.

“Where have you been staying?” Pat wants to know on the phone. “Hotel,” I tell him, though really, I have been sleeping in my office. It gets cold at night, but there is a nice view, and I can leave the diffuser on as long as I want, pouring every oil into the tank until the smell feels like someone yelling right into my nostrils.
“You can come by and get your things,” Pat says, “whatever you need.”
He cannot believe how generous he is being. How well he is handling this.
“Don’t need to,” I say.
I have toiletries, a sleeping bag, and my mother, tucked in the cupboard under
the sink where I now wash my underpants. “There is,” Pat says, “one more thing. Yvette and I, we’ve been spending some time together.”
“Right.”
“It’s been very hard on me, this whole thing. It hasn’t been easy, you know.”
This whole thing.
On the wall, the Feelings Thermometer tells me I should be in the red, but I am not. I am in the green—calm, content, in control—when I tell Pat he should have the house. Outside my windows, the woods do nothing. Nothing falls or snaps or bends in a breeze. Everything stands still as if suspended in gelatin.
Pat can have the house? With Yvette? Am I sure?
Oh yes.
I hope it happens while they are making love. All that human warmth. Snakey Wonder will not be able to resist. Sensing the heat on the tip of her papery tongue, the snake candy-canes up the bedpost, slithers under the sheets. Silently, I cheer her on, that future snake. Not there, Snakey Wonder, don’t stop—go further, toward the warmest, wettest place you can find. Go.

The night of Revels, the parents arrive with their children. What is it about children in Christmas clothes? I do not hate it. The preponderance of small red sweater vests and gingham dresses with full skirts is festive in a recognizable way, the way a commercial is festive. In head-to-toe velvet, including an odd red velvet hat, the music teacher is stressed and loving it, darting between parents, bending low to give children last-minute reminders. “Come in with the violin on the eight, remember? The eight!”
I expect Neve’s dress to be tragic, but it’s surprisingly modern and fashionable, a purple tube slick with sequins. Someone in her household has sense: the dress is short. One less thing for Neve to become tangled in. She wears the same old tennis shoes as always, shoes that were probably white once. When I reach her through the lobby crowd, I tell her she looks nice.
She shoots glances this way, that way, her nervous system overloaded with sound. As she brushes and brushes the sequins of her dress, several fall off and flicker to the carpet.
“You can always do a whole-body squeeze,” I tell her. “No one will notice.”
Neve drops, right there, and hugs her knees into her chest, her eyelids wrinkling with effort. When she releases, she sighs massively and stretches over my feet like a cat.
“Where are your parents?”
“Not here,” Neve says from the floor. Nearby, a boy turns and stares. When his mother catches where he’s gazing—at Neve splayed across the floor—she does that mother-arm-shoulder thing and draws him back, protective, as if Neve were dangerous.
“What?” I say, too loudly, to the woman’s back.
can tell the woman hears me, because her shoulders tighten beneath her glossy bolero, the color a sickly-looking silver, the shade of paper money.
“Do you have something to say?” I ask.
She turns, her arm still wrapped around the shoulders of her son. She looks at me, then down at Neve, then back to me.
“A shame,” she says. Mock pity.
“Sucks to suck,” I tell her.
Now she has both hands on her son’s shoulders. He wriggles underneath her grasp, trying to shake free. Then the lights flicker and save us all, and the woman strides away, or strides as best as she can manage while also trying to steer her flailing son. Neve leaps up. “I have to go,” she says, and dashes away.
Inside the theater, the stage is ringed with fake wreaths and electric candles. From the dark, the piano starts with a slow “Deck the Halls” as fifth graders file onto the stage with bells on their ankles. They dance, followed by fourth graders in formal wear, boys and girls struggling not to giggle as they link arms. Half the third grade wears reindeer antlers, the other half bejeweled clogs. They jig and lift their arms and the audience claps asynchronously, and it all feels like being inside someone’s addled mind. Lights down, lights up. Second graders flitter onto the stage, now dressed in matching plaid pajamas and nightgowns. They sing, high-pitched and haunting:

Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town
Upstairs and downstairs in his nightgown
Tapping at the window, crying at the lock
“Are the children in their bed, for now it’s ten o’clock?”

Neve and her partner spiral left, spiral right. Arms up, arms down. Link arms, turn, link arms, turn. Patty-cake, arms up. Julian brandishes his lantern and weaves under the arm bridges, his old-fashioned nightcap flying behind him. Then they do it all again, singing, and Neve only becomes confused once, when she turns the wrong way. Patty-cake, arms up. Neve falls asleep. Beautifully. Just as we practiced, and better. She falls slowly, fake-yawning, stretching. She is the slowest, the last child to lie on the stage. The crowd makes a collective “Aww” and there is
the silence that happens just before applause.
Neve sits straight up. The rest of the children are still asleep, as they should be, eyes closed. Go back to sleep, I plead silently. She smiles out to the crowd. She stands. The piano player, courageously, plays through the last bars again. And Neve. She takes a breath. Lifts her arms. Cartwheels. Bows, then falls asleep again.
And I am on my feet. It doesn’t matter that when she goes over, her nightgown slides up and shows her baggy underpants. It doesn’t matter that I have no fucking idea how a child who cannot cross one foot over the other figured out how to cartwheel. It doesn’t matter that her classmates stay asleep, that they don’t know why the applause has come three notes before the actual end.
In the lobby rush, I try to spot Neve, to tell her how great she was. The crowd is hard for me to see, though, because I am thinking about my mother again. How she came to my performances, all of them. Sat in the back with her purse in her lap, the strap held together with staples. Did I ever thank her?
Through the lobby windows, I see Neve skipping. Beside her, a white-haired man, her grandfather, I assume. He wears one of those thin khaki jackets that are issued to all men when they reach a certain age. He nods his head at Neve’s endless monologue. He holds her hand while she leaps and hops, yanking his arm. It must be uncomfortable. But he doesn’t let go.

After, I return to my office, unroll my sleeping bag. The trick is to stay and help clean up after school functions. People cannot help but offer you bottles of opened wine, platters of picked-over food. I bounce on the yoga ball, and eat pepper jack and honeydew and salami. I drink a third of a bottle of table white, then half a red.
When I turn off the lights, the woods out the windows undarken a little, and the Douglas firs lace over one another. Neve’s grandfather’s car probably has one of those pine air fresheners dangling from the rearview. Is he mad at Neve? No. He is amazed by her. What guts! What gusto! Just like him. Who said that children are our way of casting ourselves into the future? They might be, but they do just as much casting themselves, sending us back into the past. Neve’s grandfather played Sky Masterson in high school, I imagine. He sang “My Time of Day” like Marlon Brando, with wounded longing. That’s what Neve reminded him of, I think—himself, young again, feeling like Marlon Brando.
And what did I remind my mother of? I can easily make up a whole life for Neve’s grandfather, but for my own mother—impossible. Like a dream you know you’ve had but can’t remember.
I lay out the weighted blanket, stretch, and sausage roll.

Just when we thought it would never come, it arrives, the last day before break. Like any other day, except with an exhausted kind of anticipation in everyone’s tone. It is also, as it happens, my last night in my trailer. I have found an apartment, a secondfloor studio in a part of town too young and hip for me. I will miss the hours at the school when no one else was around, when I could wander the dim halls, through the patchy glow of red exit signs.
I have gathered my belongings back into my suitcase. My mother, I feel, I cannot pack, so I set her on the kid-size table. I use child-safe scissors to cut through the tape. Inside is a plastic bag. The ash looks dusty, like it would stick to my hands, and it does, I find, after I open the bag and plunge my hands down in.
The trailer door bangs, and I withdraw my hands quickly, sending some ash into the air. Wearing huge rain boots under her dress, Neve clobbers over, unsteady as ever, dear as ever, and kneels and puts her hands in the ashes. Part of me wants to yell—yes, it does—but that part is small and mean and I don’t have to listen, because as her hands work under the surface, Neve settles. Her body relents and releases her.
“What do you think?” I ask.
“It’s weird,” she says, “but also nice.”
I put my hands back in. Sometimes I feel Neve’s fingers and sometimes I don’t. The ash is soft, speckled with harder bits that I know are my mother’s bones. We don’t talk. We stay like that for a long time.

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Works

1900

Jennifer Moxley

1900

An old cuss in a MAGA mask
limps past me, going against
the taped arrows on the aisle
floor. I get a close-up view
of his milky eyes trying to
focus under the fluorescents,
one arthritic hand cupping
a gallon of boxed ice cream.
Before his about-face, I had felt
the need to avert my eyes
from the pink chapped skin
and butt crack visible above
the failing strap of chestnut leather
as I awaited my turn in the
cooler. Even from six feet away.
        “At least he was wearing a mask,”
says Steve, admiring the human capacity
for ideological paradox, when I recount
the run-in. As I move through
the grocery store I attempt,
beneath my social timidity, to project
exasperation solely with my eyes. Like a child
who has learned that smoking is bad
and can’t help finger-wagging
at the adults. A docile New England
citizen, I usually settle for a
Horton Hears a Who! harrumph
upon reaching the safety
of the Subaru. My internalized State
is deep, good, and fair, and I cannot
bear to part with it.
        Running this market gamut weekly
we enter prepared, geared up
for a surgical strike, strategy in hand.
“Generalísimo Moxley,” Steve calls me
as I grip the four-by-six grocery list
and lay out the plan of action.
We enter through the touchless doors
to face the rows of sanitized carts.
The greeter stands before a table
of masks wielding a gun of cheap
disinfectant. He’s young and deserves
to live, I think. Someone with
his same job was just shot dead
in a Michigan Dollar Store
by a man who proclaimed before
his quivering family that he
“thought this was a free country.”
        My ugly “Covid clogs,”
consigned to outings but disallowed
in the house, have acquired a piece
of parking-lot grit, a test of my
“Princess and the Pea” proclivities.
        But we’re more relaxed
than two months ago, since we
became less worried about “fomite
transmission.” And more people are wearing
masks. Even the old cuss, though
loyal to Trump, follows the Hannaford rules.
Then there’s the super-tan couple—
probably from away, as they call
out-of-staters in Maine. The man
is erratic and defiant, moving illogically
through the sections, crowding the space.
His mask drifts off his face
while his girlfriend negotiates
her discomfort. She gives me a
what can you do, he’s a man
smile with her eyes. Mine is two
aisles away, in the pet section,
negotiating a forty-pound box of Clump
& Seal litter, with “ultra odor
blasters.” I think of that scene in
Can You Ever Forgive Me? when the
heroine’s drinking buddy discovers
the stores of cat poop under her bed
and I experience a shiver of disgust.
A needed “aesthetic category,”
according to a celebrated scholar,
who once poured me a large glass
of wine in a plastic Star Trek cup.
Ah! the good old days of grad school,
when we had to chat up strangers
in video stores and used bookstores
in our quest to find an audience
for our cultural savoir faire.
        There are still no Oscar Mayer
Selects beef franks. And no
braunschweiger, “not even for ready
money,” as my mom liked to say,
quoting Oscar Wilde. “It’s not even
available to order,” I learn from the lifer
in the meat department. That’s
the standard response these days.
There’s a full shelf of Goya products,
due to the boycott, but the Campbell’s
canned soup has been decimated.
“At least we know there’s plenty
of soup, just no cans,” says Steve,
as he heard someone say recently
on the radio news. It’s unappetizing,
I think, to eat canned soup in
the heat of summer, the slightly gummy
gelatinous warmth of too soft vegetables
in salty broth. A few tiny cubes
of chewy chicken.
        What did mass-produced canned
food taste like to the women of 1900?
That’s the year my mother’s mother,
Leola Isabel Warnock Freeman,
was born. I am ashamed to admit
that until I googled and found
a photo of her tombstone on
FindAGrave.com, I had no
idea of the day or month of her birth.
March 21. It says it right there on
the flat slate grave marker,
beneath her name and death date,
August 21, 1989, seven months
before her youngest child,
my mother, would die at home
of breast cancer. To the right
of my grandmother’s name
hangs a decorative rosary in relief.
As I zoom in to get a closer look,
an ad pops up. Three photo-booth-style
images of the same Kim Kardashian
look-alike wearing a mask
with a clear window to allow
her glossy nude lip to be admired
in full pout mode. $5.99.
        “The internet knows more
about my grandmother than I do,”
I tell Steve at lunch. “That’s your
first line,” he quips, as if aware I’ve started
this poem. Too late; that slot is taken.
I find a painting by her on eBay
of naked nymphs in a green arcadia.
By a “Texas Impressionist,” the seller
states, though I know she made her living
primarily doing portraits. It was smack
in the middle of the influenza epidemic,
when she left El Paso, Texas,
in order to study painting
in Philadelphia.
        As a Texan, I suppose my grandmother
might have opened a can of Campbell’s
tomato soup to take the chill off
the Philadelphia winter. In 1900, Campbell’s
won a medal for “product excellence”
at the Paris Olympic Games and International Exposition.
It was the science of condensing that gave them
the edge. Perhaps this is the secret origin
of Pound’s mandate: condensare. The soup
that changed American poetry. I never
noticed the medal on the label before.
Perhaps because I buy their
Healthy Request line, which lacks
the familiar gold disk depicting
a sensuous art nouveau Victory,
flying horizontally, laurel in hand.
A male athlete, holding a torch, sits
heavily on her back, seemingly unaware
that his weight is being supported by
a goddess in diaphanous dress.
        Opening plastic produce bags
without wetting one finger with your tongue
is challenging. Steve follows behind me,
preparing several bags in advance.
I hold up a bunch of green leaf lettuce,
draining the water accumulated
from the produce sprinklers
before stuffing it, curls first, into
the bag. My effort will prove ineffectual.
By the time we get home the bag
will have accumulated enough liquid
to house a goldfish. I know I’m
not supposed to overtouch produce,
but I cheat a little. When has the first peach
you reach for ever been “the one”?
        In a 1961 article in the El Paso
Herald-Post profiling the Artist of the Month,
the town’s “premier portrait painter”
is described as a “slight gray-haired
grandmother.” In ’61 my grandmother
was only, well, sixty-one, just five years older
than I am now. The article makes her seem
like a sweet old lady who thinks she’s
a painter. And the title, “Worked Eight
Hours a Day Teaching Self to Paint,”
erases her formal training. That’s her
doing, according to the writer: “She
considers herself self-taught.” “People
in the West have to be self-taught
in order to be taken seriously,” says Steve.
What was my grandmother pulling? I think.
But then again, I’d never say, “I was trained
how to write poetry in school,” though
there is some truth to it.
        Was my grandmother called to paint,
just as Helen Gahagan knew she was
destined for the stage? The actress,
singer, and politician was born the same
year as my grandmother, 1900, right around
the Thanksgiving holiday. By the time
of the flu pandemic she had fled
Barnard for Broadway, never to look back.
My grandmother was studying at the
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
when Gahagan opened at Philly’s
National Theatre in the role
of the “simple bookkeeper Paula,”
who is kind to a beleaguered haberdasher,
in the tepidly reviewed Fashions for Men.
Perhaps Lloyd Freeman, my grandmother’s
painting teacher and soon-to-be husband,
invited the pretty young Texan out to see
the new sensation, the beautiful, earnest
Helen Gahagan, and they went in spite
of the pandemic. Twenty-six years
her senior, he held her slight waist lightly,
guiding her out of the stuffy theater into
the chilly night air.
        While in Philadelphia, Helen
Gahagan was also pursued by an older
man. The famous conductor Leopold
Stokowski sent her tickets to hear
his orchestra and invited her out to lunch.
She had been warned to avoid
him if she valued her reputation.
Did she value “her reputation”?
Did my grandmother value hers? A good
Catholic away from her parents
among the bohemians in a big
eastern city …
        The only liquid hand soap
left is one sad bottle of Method
in “Sea Minerals” scent.
The plastic bleachers designed
to hold the hand soaps are as empty
as the nation’s performing arts venues.
Apparently I’m not the only one
who dislikes Sea Minerals.
What is a sea mineral anyway?
Salt? Except in the kitchen
I prefer bar soap, though not
the melty frozen-orange-juice-colored
Dial I grew up with, but triple-milled
hard soaps that smell like goats.
        My mother had a pet
goat named Gwendolyn whom
she spoke of with far more fondness
than she ever did of her mother.
        What kind of child doesn’t love
her mother? “Such a child wouldn’t
be a child at all, but a monster.” This
is the conclusion the young
Nathalie Sarraute arrives at
in her memoir of childhood,
Enfance. First there’s the betrayal:
She finds a doll in a shop window
more beautiful than her mother.
Then there’s the naivete: She
tells her mother of the aesthetic
judgment. Instead of understanding,
the mother abstracts the young Nathalie
with a quip: “A child who loves
her mother finds no one more
beautiful than she.” I’m just a child,
among others, Nathalie thinks, a real
child loves her mother …
        Sarraute, who lived to be ninety-nine,
was born in Russia in 1900, though
she sometimes fibbed and gave the date
as 1902. While influenza was raging,
she attended three universities,
the Sorbonne, Oxford, and the
University of Berlin. She studied
English, history, and philosophy
before becoming a lawyer and
then one of the most celebrated
writers of the nouveau roman.
Though they shared a birth year
and a century, I doubt my grandmother
ever read Sarraute. But she did like to read,
or so I surmise from a lost-world
tidbit my own mother shared in a 1989 letter.
She had just bought a copy of
Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club
at Price Club and offered to send
it to Providence after she was finished
reading it, if it was good (it was):
“My mother and I used to mail books
back and forth,” she wrote, “book rate,
which at that time was about 68¢
a pound and consequently
cheaper than buying the books on
both coasts.” Sarraute’s legendary
first book, Tropismes, was published
in France in 1939 but wouldn’t
be available in English until 1963,
translated by Maria Jolas and
published by John Calder. My
grandmother could speak Spanish,
but I don’t think she ever knew
French.
        What magical time
was my mother referring to when
she was on such good terms with
my grandmother that they shared
bestsellers through the U.S. mail?
What “coasts” did she mean to
evoke, given that my grandmother
lived in El Paso, deserts away
from any ocean?
        Three years after publishing
her first novel, Sarraute, who was
Jewish, refused to wear the yellow
felt star she was issued. She went
to the countryside and pretended
to be the governess of her own
children. According to the
Jewish Women’s Archive, although
Sarraute’s writing “deals neither
with the matter of being Jewish,
nor with antisemitism,” in its impulse
it counters “every sort of racism,
terrorism and tyranny.”
        “She makes no apologies for
practicing a branch of art some artists
depreciate,” wrote the journalist about
my grandmother. According to her,
portrait painters “must be able to project
… into the personality of the sitter,
thinking and feeling as the sitter thinks
and feels.” A devout Catholic, my
grandmother spent many of her
later years living itinerantly. She
volunteered in orphanages
in Mexico. How do I know this?
After I was about eleven years old
I was never allowed to see
my grandmother, because
during one of her rare visits
she made the mistake of trying
to take me and my brothers to
Mass and was banned from
our house for good.
        I feel so much trepidation
as I approach the popcorn section
in the snack aisle and see
a gaping hole. On bended knee
I peer into the void. To my relief,
there in the shadows I spy
a last remaining jar of Orville
Redenbacher’s Original yellow.
I feel a sense of triumph mixed
with a slight twinge of petulant
selfishness. During the first
few months of the pandemic,
this sort of last-one-on-the-shelf
experience made me panicky.
But I had to admit, when I
looked around, that though
some things were sold out,
the supermarket was still
full of food.
        Saved from Leopold Stokowski’s
seduction, Helen Gahagan met
her husband, the future Hollywood
leading man Melvyn Douglas,
when they costarred in the play
Tonight or Never in 1930, the year
Lloyd Freeman, my grandfather,
succumbed to double pneumonia,
leaving Leola a widow with
four little kids. He died
twenty-nine days after his wife’s
thirtieth birthday, six months after
the stock market crash and the birth
of my mother, his last child.
Following his funeral my grandmother
was forced to return to El Paso to live
with her aging parents.
        Marrying Melvyn Douglas
sounded the death knell of Helen
Gahagan’s Broadway career. But
she continued to train as an opera
singer. After a smashing tour
of Europe, she was signed
to sing Tosca in the 1938 season
of the Vienna Opera Company.
A dream of a lifetime, which
abruptly ended when an English
music critic took her into
his confidence: “Aryans such as we
have a duty to defend the superior
race against Jews,” he said. Helen
ripped up her contract and returned
to Los Angeles. Soon after, the
thirty-eight-year-old became
pregnant with her and Melvyn’s
second child.
        There are no wipes of any kind
to be found on the shelves at Hannaford.
“Our entire childhood,” I say to Steve,
“we managed to live without any form
of disinfecting wipe.” The year
the women born in 1900 turned
thirty-one, the Scott Paper Company
introduced the paper towel roll,
expressly for the kitchen. It is doubtful
my newly widowed grandmother
paid any attention. Housewives,
I read on another website,
“had a hard time grasping
the concept of towels you
don’t have to wash.”
The subject line in the email
from eBay reads: “Leola Freeman Texas …
still of interest?” Yes, I think,
filled with regret. Why did I accept
without question my mother’s moratorium
on this woman? My childhood, like that
of many white Californians,
was blissfully free of extended
family. On my left hand I wear
a ring engraved with the initials
w. j .w. to j. c. s.: William Joseph
Warnock to Josephine Cecilia Sheley.
These, I can reconstruct from the
record, were the parents of my
grandmother.
        I assume that Josephine Cecilia,
called “Mama Jo” by my mother,
helped her widowed daughter
to raise her four kids. I picture
my grandmother’s relationship
with my mother as being almost that
of an older and a younger sister.
In the mid-forties Helen Gahagan Douglas
enrolled her children in boarding school
and threw herself into politics,
mentored by Eleanor Roosevelt.
        There’s not one single box
of Uncle Ben’s Long Grain &
Wild Rice Original Recipe
on the shelf. No rice of any kind.
I’ve eaten Uncle Ben’s since I
was a child without much thinking
about the way “Uncle Ben” echoes
Uncle Tom from Beecher Stowe’s
novel, which is why the company
has since changed the name to
just plain “Ben’s.” Sarraute knew
Stowe’s book in a children’s edition
when she was growing up in Russia
and Paris as La Case de l’oncle Tom.
Her copy, she tells us in
Enfance, was soaked through
with tears. I’m baffled by the
hoarding of rice. I thought potatoes
were the American carbohydrate
of choice. But rice is cheap
and lasts forever.
        As a congresswoman,
Helen Gahagan Douglas represented
the fourteenth district in Los Angeles,
with a large African American
population. “I just love the
Negro people!” she once said
ham-fistedly at a Black church
while on the campaign trail.
This was the “love” that Richard Nixon
would use to destroy her career.
When he ran against her for the
California Senate seat in 1950,
his campaign mail-bombed the
white suburbs with a flyer
claiming to be from the
“Communist League
of Negro Women” in support
of her candidacy. That there
was no such organization
made no difference once
he’d stoked white fears.
        There’s no Land O’Lakes
white American cheese in the
cooler, only Kraft, which is
thinner and more plasticky.
And “Mia,” the Native woman
on Land O’Lakes products, is
also MIA, removed out of
cultural sensitivity, though
she had been redrawn in 1954
by Ojibwe artist Patrick DesJarlait.
I grab some Philadelphia Cream
Cheese and a block of jalepeño jack.
Strangely, there’s no shortage of
cheese, but the buttermilk
is gutted. It must have something
to do with the mania for baking
that has overtaken the nation,
the comfort of pancakes
and warm dough.
        Was my grandmother
domestic? There are no recipes
of hers among those in my mother’s
cookbook. In photos she’s thin
and elegant, posing behind a camera
or in front of an easel. In the fifties
she built a beautiful adobe studio
on South Concepcion Avenue in El Paso.
The inside was spare and neatly
kept. A pigskin chair, the torso
of a woman, a Mexican blanket
and water pitcher. By this time
she’d remarried, to a watercolorist
named McElroy whom my mother
rarely mentioned. Was my
grandmother sexually satisfied?
The last forty years of Helen
Gahagan Douglas’s marriage
were sexless. Melvyn wanted
to stay together but continue
to have affairs. It’s rumored
that Helen had some sort of
dalliance with LBJ. Nathalie
Sarraute outlived her slightly
younger husband, whom she’d
met in law school, by fourteen years.
I no longer need to frequent
either the Family Planning
or Feminine Hygiene sections
of the supermarket. Who came
up with these euphemisms?
        After moving obediently from
one Twister-like red floor sticker
to the next, Steve and I finally
make it to the checkout. The
small woman with buck teeth
and a mustache who has worked
at Hannaford for as long as I can
remember looks like a welder
behind her face shield. She can’t
hear a word we say. Out of habit
she reaches around the plexiglass barrier
and hands me the paper receipt.
        It is the year 2020
in the time of Covid. Nobody born
in 1900 is still alive. Helen Gahagan
Douglas died of breast cancer
in 1980, my grandmother of
Alzheimer’s in 1989. An African American
woman named Denilla cared
for her in her final years.
My mother, on a rare trip to visit,
had come to know this caregiver.
“Mother loved hearing Denilla’s voice,”
she wrote to me. “At times I
felt that it was the one thing
anchoring her mind to reality.”
        Nathalie Sarraute
would live until two months
before the start of this century,
writing her memoir of childhood
in her eighties and publishing
up to the end.
        I want to live to be
as old as my grandmother,
I think to myself, and stay as lucid
as Nathalie Sarraute. I remove
my mask once we’re safely
back inside the car. I wonder
how many hours the women
of 1900 spent on trains?
I wipe the soil, made by the fog
of my trapped breath, off
my fragile glasses. Steve helps
himself to a healthy pump
of Purell, takes a deep breath,
and starts up the car.

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Interviews, New Interviews

Jennifer Moxley

Jennifer Moxley

Interviewed by Jason Gordy Walker

Your poem “1900” opens with “[a]n old cuss in a MAGA mask.” As the poem progresses, you touch upon the speaker’s personal history, which seems at odds with the political climate(s) it references. I also found the grandmother’s history to be especially moving. During your drafting process, did you consciously know that you wanted to cover so much ground? Did you set out to write a sweeping political poem, or did the poem lead you to, well, itself?

My poem “1900” just showed up. While shopping at our local supermarket chain, Hannaford, on July 29, a Tuesday, the opening line “an old cuss in a Trump mask” started to repeat in my mind. (The word “Trump” would be revised to “MAGA” during the Suptropics editorial process.) By August 6 the poem was done. Here’s how I described the experience in my journal: “I finished ‘1900’ yesterday afternoon…it arrived in one big swoop—a poem engine that after few lines took on its own logic. It was actually fun to write, and I felt so grateful to be given such a poem after so long of a dry spell.”

Though my poems are threaded through with my experience, thoughts, and feelings (and why wouldn’t they be, I am the one writing them down!) I do consider myself in the tradition which places the source of the poem outsideof the poet’s ego. Thus writing a poem feels very much akin to—as both Rilke and Jack Spicer called it—dictation. When the poem arrived I was spending a lot of time with the three women, all born in 1900, that are referred to throughout. I was reading Natalie Sarraute’s memoir Enfance (Childhood) in the mornings. I was working on a libretto about Helen Gahagan Douglas. And my grandmother, well, I had been having these haunting waking visions of the house my mother grew up in (which I’d only seen in photographs). I would move throughout the house and see my grandmother, but only obliquely. She’d be slipping up a stairwell, or through a door, almost as if she were Lewis Carroll’s white rabbit daring me to follow her. I felt that she wanted something, but what? So, that was, as Spicer would say, the “furniture in the room” when my Muse showed up with that first line and started to rearrange it.

As an artist I’ve never been comfortable with the mandate that one must address contemporary issues in order to be relevant. But I live in the present, and cannot be of any other time. Except through books. When we first went into lockdown, I couldn’t write. So I joined an online book group—curated by the novelist Yiyun Li via A Public Space—to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It was the perfect book to read at that moment. I’m certain Tolstoy’s narrative, which validates the inner life of individuals while chronicling the seemingly irrational forces of history, helped my Muse see a way forward.

I appreciate how openly you speak about your Muse and how you work “in the tradition which places the source of the poem outside of the poet’s ego.” Considering the current landscape of American poetry—where ego takes the place of craft in so many cases—what advice would you give to poets looking to get in touch with a Muse? I’m intrigued by your idiosyncratic sense of humor, too, which often feels well-timed and well-placed, despite its riskiness. The speaker-poet tells her partner that “‘The internet knows more / about my grandmother than I do,” a sad statement that charms with its absurdity. Steve replies that it should be the poem’s first line, but the speaker says it’s “[t]oo late”—of course, the reader already knows the poem’s real first line. This is just one example among many of sharp humor at work in your poem. How do you manage to balance laughter with such serious subject matter?

How to get in touch with your muse…hmm, this is a difficult question, insofar as this may be a very personal thing that is different for every writer. So, I will answer for myself, and anecdotally about others. My muse does not like assignments or mandates, and needs space. My muse is Orphic insofar as they (my muse sometimes feels female, other times male) are often in conversation with the dead; this may be through memories or reading. Reading is key. As is enough boredom and silence so that the interior life may listen for cues. I believe that inspiration most often yields great art when a carefully cultivated ground is prepared for its arrival. In other words, if the muse shows up and you haven’t been doing the work of deep reading, contemplating, considering, and psychological self-examination, what will there be to work with? I’ve gone through a series of intense passions for the work of certain writers which inevitably provoke a feeling that they are speaking to me from beyond the grave. This is also a form of muse-inspired creation.

Some years ago I started to notice that many of my poetry students would report having begun writing their poems while driving or in the shower. It occurred to me that these are two places that one can’t easily be on a computer or phone (which is really just a little computer). Perhaps when the mind can wander, when questions can linger (without immediately googling them), when friends can be thought of without immediately contacting them, the poem has a chance to begin forming…this is what I mean by silence and boredom. I remember how, as a kid, I spent so many hours just staring out of car windows imaging other lives, so many hours staring up at the sky. I believe that my youthful wallowing or loafing (as Whitman called it) was a passive invitation to creative inspiration.

As for my “idiosyncratic sense of humor,” well, first of all, thank you, I take that as a compliment! Humor is connected to form for me. This is not original. Poetry in the west has had a long tradition of associating comic tones with certain forms or meters. For example, in Latin poetry, the iambic strophe is often reserved for “low” or comic themes. Epigrams are a form that’s often funny and cutting. Mostly I write free-verse lyrics which either gesture toward traditional English prosody or are heavily indebted to the poetic rhythms of the New American poetry. When I write in those forms, my poems are more likely to be serious or melancholy in tone. I believe that the first time I started to realize that I had the ability to be funny was in writing my memoir, The Middle Room. Something about working in prose and especially narrative allowed this to happen. Since “1900” is a narrative poem, the humor came out. The form of “1900” and its rambling digressive narrative owes much to the poet James Schuyler. I love his long chatty poems such as “The Morning of the Poem” and “A Few Days.” He is a genius at mixing humor with pathos against the backdrop of banal quotidian existence. It also occurs to me that the address in my long narrative poems is often more akin to the address one might adopt in a personal letter: funny, gossipy, exasperated. This is so unlike the personal lyric’s intimate triangulated address, where we often feel the quietness surrounding the poem as we listen in.

“1900” is quite a long poem, stretching across several pages, but it has a strong sense of momentum. The lines, short as they are, have integrity and musicality. Can you talk more about how writing sentences in prose helps you compose lines of poetry?

Reading your fascinating question I found myself curious about that oh-so-very-Latinate word “momentum.” So I did a little sleuthing. This is the OED definition I found most helpful: “The effect of inertia in the continuance of motion after the force has ceased; impetus gained by movement.” The passage cited is from the Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, a book that happens to be a favorite of mine: “If the bird wished to descend, the wings were for a moment collapsed; and then when again expanded with an altered inclination, the momentum gained by the rapid descent seemed to urge the bird upwards.” The noun momentum in Latin can mean both “movement” and “a brief space of time.” It’s almost as if when “moments” pile one atop the other but never turn into an “expanse” we get momentum. Which might help understand the dialectic between grammatical sentence and poetic line. The line breaks the expanse of the sentence into “moments,” which take up less space, as you observe (“the lines, short as they are”). We would not tolerate a person breaking up their sentences as they spoke, but in the poem we don’t have to wait for the next bit, our eyes move down the page with ease. We do not process the poetic line as a break (even though we call them line breaks!).

As for how writing prose helped me write poetic lines, I would say not a bit! Rather, writing prose helped me with sentences, upon which I then grafted my very comfortable and happy relationship to the poetic line. My memoir was a painful apprenticeship to the sentence, during which I tried out all kinds of them. Sometimes they become so very long and digressive I had to prune them back. Other times I essayed a brief formula such as “The days and weeks went by.” But without recourse to the line, I did feel very at sea. Precisely, I now suspect, because I didn’t as yet know how to create momentum without a line break. Of course, many poems have sentences in them (yes, I’m afraid it’s true). A narrative poem that dispenses with the traditional sonic and rhythmic devices of the poetic line (end rhyme, meter, etc.), must create momentum through syntax and line break alone. The poet must collapse her wings for a moment, descend, then expand them in another direction to urge the poem upward. Perhaps my poem’s swoops down into memory and shifts from the contemporary setting to the past, as well as its full-stop mid-poem questionings, may be creating that sense of momentum…But of course, that’s just a conjecture.

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Laurence O’Dwyer

Laurence O’Dwyer

Interviewed by Janice Whang

One of the primary pleasures of this essay was how it obsessed over and revered the “back-end” processes and tools of creating, challenging notions of labor and treasure. This essay is a polished “front-end” product that the reader gets to enjoy. Could you speak on one of the mundane, industrial, dirty yet exquisite steps of creating this essay? 

I think of its ending—leaving the lab, which is also a workshop, a garage—cycling from the door of my old home in the Netherlands down to the Mediterranean, stopping by the house of my collaborator along the way. That journey was a useful counterweight to the thousands of hours we spent staring at code on a screen. I arrived at my friend’s house, tired and dirty, but mostly happy. There were apocalyptic floods through the north of France. Engineers were worried about bridges over the Seine. I had been cycling, in theory at least, by the Saône—the road often disappeared under water. I too disappeared into wind and rain and mud. Once I reached the valley of the Rhône, it felt like the beginning of the Roman empire: vineyards, yellow houses, columns of sunlight. The rains had passed. I saw a lizard and thought: I am now in the south. None of this is ordered or polished—it is the opposite of what I was trying to achieve in the essay—but I think it has something to do with the garage-end, the wires and gears of any story or adventure.

The structure of this essay reminded me of holding a precious stone in my hand and slowly turning it to see how different facets caught the light, the way it methodically explored the manifestations of single patterns in different settings—the jewelry atelier, patch-clamp lab, computer programming lab, etc.. The poem which this essay is named after, “Piedra de Sol,” also has an interesting structure. Could you speak on how the architecture of the poem “Piedra de Sol” and this essay relate to each other? 

“Piedra de Sol” is a poem of 584 lines; this number corresponds with the synodic period of Venus. The first six lines are repeated in the last six lines, so it wheels back to the beginning, creating an infinite loop. I was unaware of its structure when I first listened to Octavio Paz reading it. The poem simply seduced me; the words are sensual, almost corrupt in their beauty—listening to it you can feel yourself drowning in sunlight. The pleasure of the poem is not dependent on any knowledge of its structure. Likewise, you don’t need to know anything about the art of diamond cutting to appreciate a precious stone. Looking at the craftsmanship of the poem after repeated reading and listening, the hendecasyllabic—eleven syllable—lines, which give “Piedra de Sol” its current and flow, seemed comparable to the jewels that I had seen in the workshop that I have tried to describe in the essay. Each line in the poem is a jewel with eleven facets. Remembering the tools in the  workshop—the burin, the chisel, the cast-iron disc—I wonder how Octavio Paz labored over this poem. How did he distil his experiences into such a tightly controlled dream? The dream gives no hint of a blueprint; it is simply light-in-a-word—a thing to behold, floating and shimmering in the heat. The essay tries to tease out the links between this effortless flow and the discipline that is needed to hammer out works of art that appear to be perfect and flawless.

Related to this, the way certain principles and patterns reappeared throughout gave me the sense that these tactile tools and repetitive tasks were connected to something vast and universal. What first prompted your desire to blur the lines between surfaces and depths? 

Biology. Butterflies often use dishonest signals, called Batesian mimicry, whereby a species that is not poisonous mimics a poisonous species, without having to invest in making the toxins that the “honest” butterfly makes. Depth and surface are a serious business. Butterflies are engaged in chemical warfare. Even for one who has studied these things very carefully, for example a bird, it can be very difficult to distinguish between these honest and dishonest signals.

I was also very happy when I found some evolutionary papers that point to the possible origin of our preference for glittering objects. Precious stones remind us of light shimmering on the surface of flowing water and flowing water is more likely to be free of bacteria and pathogens than stagnant water. So our innate attraction to precious stones may stem, in part, from our origins as sweaty, thirsty animals, keen to find a water source that will not give us diarrhea or dysentery.

The base-pairs of DNA offer yet more keys and open still more trapdoors to windings stairs that descend to who knows what depths. Those base-pairs also bring to mind the even simpler binary code of the internet.

I was admiring how quiet, soothing, and marveling the tone of this essay was when I came across the line “True works of art are almost always discreet and unobtrusive” in a section describing Prince Boris as “an international swindler.” How would you describe the relationship between tone and authenticity in this piece? 

Boris is ostentatious; he is employing a form of Batesian mimicry—his signaling is dishonest. Is this innate? Would he have been a swindler without the chaos of the Russian revolution? As a chancer he knows that anything can happen; chance is capricious and unsystematic, but that not very profound insight also leads him to test the hypothesis (perhaps not unreasonable) that if he clicks his fingers he can become Prince Boris I of Andorra. He likes playing at this roulette wheel. Conversely, most of the artisans and scientists that I deal with have little interest in deception. They are like children playing a game. They rarely cheat because they take the game very seriously. You can see it in their eyes; they are genuinely immersed in their work. They study openings and endings exhaustively. They usually abide by the rules. Ultimately, a game played in this way is more beautiful and also more fun.

I would love to have a drink with Boris. Would he be a funny character or a bore? I like to think that he would be entertaining. At the end of his life, after many incredible adventures (it is impossible to know how many were invented) he found himself in the remarkably quiet and peaceful village of Boppard on the banks of the Rhine. After I finished the essay, I found a note in which he calls himself at this last stage of his life a “100% petit rentier”—i.e., someone who lives on an income derived from property and investments; no doubt, imaginary property, imaginary investments. I like to think that this is one last wink before he disappears.

Reading about your different professional experiences makes me wonder how else your career outside of writing has influenced your art. What is the importance of the non-artistic pressures, challenges, and joys in a writer’s life?  

A writer can invent any world; he or she can simply make it all up. Unfortunately I don’t have the imaginative power to invent the world of neuroscience, which can sometimes be unbelievable. The world of mountaineering and alpinism is equally fantastic. Neither of these worlds is often called artistic, but I consider certain alpinists and neuroscientists to be artists of the first rank. I think of Bruno Brunod who set a speed record on the Matterhorn in 1995. On a summer day, he climbed to the summit of that mountain as though it was an Escher diagram. Going up looked like going down. He seemed to be utilizing an impossible geometry. An analogue of this kind of geometry can be found in music when a scale climbs continuously and is complete at the point when it begins to descend. Any mistake would have been potentially fatal. He was functioning at an absolute limit of physiology, physics and geometry. I’m not an alpinist but I’ve spent enough time in the mountains to have learned something about this tribe.

There is an echo of this gravity and grace in the best neuroscience, though obviously the consequences of failure are less severe. The pressure of the scientific method can create unusually beautiful results, results that often stray into the hinterland of art and poetry. Almost in a comical way, this can happen despite every effort on the part of the scientist to make the work as dry and desolate as possible. Conversely, I’ve listened on occasion to licensed poets discussing their experiments, and have had the urge to say: Herr Professor! Frau Professor! Look here; there seems to be a crack in your theory. Your discussion bears little resemblance to the results you have shown me. Scientists are wary of making a holy show of themselves, and are distressed when they see others doing so. Alpinists with a tendency towards extravagance or hyperbole usually don’t live to tell the tale. As I see it, the weakness of artists is that they can say things that can’t be proven. Clearly, this is also a strength. Experience in the lab and the mountains underlines the fact that this freedom is a privilege that should be treated with respect.

You also have four poems in this issue of Subtropics! How would you describe the conversation between your poems and this essay? 

Two of the poems are straightforward efforts at lyric poetry. One of them might have been an essay. The odd one out is a scrawny fellow that might be a failed short story. In the prologue to In Praise of Darkness, Jorge Luis Borges says that prose and poetry can coexist without discord. He goes further, saying that the differences between prose and poetry are minimal. I agree with him, but only in so far as the prose pieces in that collection never extend much beyond a page. At that length there is still the possibility of concision; the lines can withstand the pressure needed to turn them into poetry. That doesn’t work beyond five or so pages. Perhaps the poems, or at least the lyric poems, are attempts to describe singular experiences that are distilled under pressure, whereas the essay contains all the averaging, error-bars and regression lines that are common and even obligatory for a scientific paper. There may be thousands of points in a scatter plot and I have to carefully choose a statistical model that will draw an idealized—fictional— line through all those points. This brings to mind a funny story. After reading a miniature report that I’d written which attempted to describe my first undergraduate experiments with the (admittedly difficult) patch-clamp technique, a professor asked me why there were no error-bars or standard deviations in any of my graphs. The reason was embarrassingly simple: I had only managed one successful recording. Statistics were impossible because n was equal to one. There was a single datum—I couldn’t even use the word data. I improved a little over the years but it makes me think that a singular experience is not very useful for an essay. After all the word essay is related to a test or a trial. We can generally only trust trials that have a good number of experiments averaged out with the right models. Longitudinal studies are even better and usually more complex. A singular experience is probably only of use for a poem.

I hope that common to both the prose and the poetry there is no intention to convince or persuade. I am not a merchant trying to sell you something. My Argentine friend says that our opinions are the least interesting things about us. I agree but again with a qualification. I’m troubled by the obvious fact that he seems to have formulated an interesting opinion.

A trusted mentor gave me honest advice about where I might draw the line between poetry and prose. He told me that I had stories to tell and that I needed to make decisions about narrative tales and lyric poetry. His advice was useful, and also a little ominous. I don’t think I should outline it here.

After a long journey, I find myself on an island, working by lamplight—so he seems to have been correct. Technique may be everything—“one dies for stress, not from it”—but what I remember now is a moment (neither poetry nor prose) when I was waiting for a lift by the side of a road. The sun was blazing like a hydrogen bomb. I don’t think I had a single professional thought in my head. That moment must have been perfect.

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Natanya Biskar

Natanya Biskar

Interviewed by Payal Nagpal

You write about the independent school your narrator works at with a great deal of fondness and a touch of cynicism. I was wondering how your own experience working at independent schools influences your writing—your experiences have obviously served as fodder for some great content, but beyond that, has working with children influenced your use of language?

That is such an interesting idea, and the short answer is that I don’t know if working with children has influenced my prose. I do know that children tend to show up in my stories, whether those stories are set at a school or not. I enjoy writing about children, not in a kids-say-the-darndest-things way, but rather because I think kids bring out interesting vulnerabilities in adults. For one, kids are often excellent adult observers, and their perception can be unsteadying. They also have an unfiltered, self-serving logic that is so rational it circles all the way back around to being absurd. Their logic is also revelatory: it can locate the seams in all the little rationalizations we grown-ups use every day so we don’t burst into tears. Most of all, I think what draws me to write about kids is how powerless they are, how they have little say about most of the things that happen to them. In the real world, adults tend to forget the powerlessness of kids. We forget what it is like to have other people in charge of our decisions.

When I used to go to teacher conferences, I’d be exhausted by the end of the day because I was so unused to having my minutes and hours regimented by someone else. It made me cranky! Kids exist with very little control, so of course they’re going to grab it where they can. They are going to squirrel away pencils and wear the same rain boots five days in a row and lie about strange things. I think my grown-up characters relate to kids through that shared sense of powerlessness, whether they realize it or not. Before I began my MFA program, I had the privilege of working for two wonderful independent schools. All of the fondness that you perceived in how I write about the fictional school in this story comes directly from my experiences as a teacher at those organizations. The cynicism is just my natural state.

Neve is described as lamb-like in your story, and the narrator’s mother is represented through a snake. What sort of animal do you think your narrator would be?

I love this question! I think she believes herself to be a moray eel. She would like others to think of her as something mysterious and self-possessed, like an albatross or a giant squid. Her true animal self, though, is a possum. She is clever and misunderstood, protective and resourceful. She can be vicious, but only as a mask for her vulnerability. Did you know that possums cannot control when they play dead? I just learned this about possums. Playing dead is their automatic, reflexive response to stress, which seems to me like a pretty great metaphor for the narrator’s defense mechanisms. Are we all secretly possums? I suppose the fact that I am wondering this is pretty revealing, so I’ll stop there.

I’ve always found the phrase “I’m hungry if you are” fascinating—it embodies both passivity and unexpected empathy, something that seems to be characteristic of your narrator’s relationship with her mother. I was wondering if you could talk more about your choice of title?

Passivity and empathy—that’s it, exactly! Years ago, a good friend told me that whenever she offered her mother food, her mother would respond, “I’m hungry if you are.” The anecdote stuck with me, and it showed up in this piece, not by design. The phrase is fascinating to me, too. It has back-seat-driver energy. Again, I think it goes back to power, which is something I am interested in. (Sidebar: I heard somewhere that every conflict in fiction can be reduced to one of two questions: Who’s in charge? How much do you love me? I think my stories veer towards the former question, though obviously there is overlap.) To say “I’m hungry if you are” as a parent to a child is especially fraught. The parent who says “I’m hungry if you are” is pretending to be easy, but really they are saying, “Take care of me, please.” They are saying, “Tell me your needs so I don’t have to share mine.” So there is also a self-protective aspect to it, a deflection of vulnerability, while at the same time the subtext points to the speaker’s buried desire for care.

If you had to choose any artist—living or dead—to illustrate your story, who would you pick and why?

It would have to be someone who is good at illustrating kids, so my initial instinct is Edward Gorey, who draws children wonderfully. I also love the work of Amy Cutler, though I think this story isn’t fabulist enough to warrant her talents (I want Amy Cutler to illustrate the stories of Kelly Link or Helen Oyeyemi or Amelia Gray). The energy and humor of Yuko Shimizu’s work would be fun to see as an interpretation. I feel like she would do great things with the scene with the dryer lipstick. And the intimate strangeness of Nicole Wargon’s women would be fabulous, too. She also has several illustrations of women with snakes already.

What are you working on right now?

I have several short stories in various states of hot-messiness. (Now I feel bad, like I am talking about my stories behind their back.) I am also in the very early stages of a novel about sound art, oysters, and female friendship.

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Sylvie Baumgartel

Sylvie Baumgartel

Interviewed by Olivia Ivings

Something I noticed about your poems that are appearing in Subtropics is that they explore the relationship between religion, colonialism, culture, and violence. These ideas seem to be particularly noticeable in “The Mission Bell” when the speaker guides the reader through an account of a Christian church plopped on a “Native settlement” that eventually becomes a place where deaf children are sexually abused. I found these themes useful in understanding how the poems are somewhat tethered together and how the narrators might view these institutions. What are your thoughts on the connections between these ideas, and does your work ever focus on one of them, or is recognizing the overlap necessary?

I believe all of those themes are intricately connected and often you can’t have one without the other or others. Violence is intrinsic in both religion and colonialism. And every beautiful, historic building has some dark underbelly (like the San Miguel Mission): whether built by slaves, or by very low-paid labor—power and injustice are always at play. Especially with religion and religious architecture. And even more so in colonies or former colonies. New Mexico, as all of the US, is full of histories and cultures overlapping—sometimes peacefully, but more often than not with overt and covert violence.

There seem to be two kinds of religious exploration in your poems. One is scrutinizing how religion treats those inside the institution, and another is observing how people on the outside are exploited and brutalized. How do you think these different perspectives operate in the poems?

I don’t know how to answer this. So I will instead tell you about my relationship to religion. I grew up with atheist parents and we never went to church and I went to secular schools. But since I was in preschool, I have been fascinated by religion, especially Christianity— but that’s what I did have some access to— as it’s the dominant religion in our culture. Power, the divine, control, eternity, devotion, worship, beauty, philosophy, myth, meaning, purpose— these are all things I am interested in and religion is a great source of all of them. I am not at all religious— just intrigued by it, interested in it, appalled by it, affected by it.

What kind of role do death and terror play in your work? These themes are often present, but I wonder to what extent you build your work around them. I’m especially interested in the effective way these poems end in concrete examples of violence or death.

I think about death and terror a lot. Not in a dark way, or at least not entirely so, but out of interest, fascination. I believe that having one’s death constantly present in mind is incredibly powerful for living a rich life. Death gives life meaning. Though it’s the only certainty, I believe that we are eternal beings (not in a religious sense) so actually fear of death is unnecessary. But I still have it.

When I was little, my mother said to me that life is about two things: sex and death. That stuck with me.

 Something that seems evident in these poems is how carefully the speaker establishes scenes. While the details create the space in which the poem takes place, for me as a reader, they don’t make me feel as though I must feel a specific way. What was the motivation for this?

I don’t want to make you feel one way or another. Or is that true? I sometimes want people to feel uncomfortable. And I like it when art makes me feel uncomfortable. There are a lot of difficult subjects in the world that are pushed away, denied, ignored, and I do want to shine a light on difficult, neglected and forgotten things. On the shadows. To have my poems be witnesses.  

Despite your work’s historical settings and philosophical implications, it resonates for readers in a contemporary age. How do you confront issues and ideas in the past while maintaining a foothold in the modern reader’s mind?

Perhaps only because that is life—part history, part present.

What are you reading this spring? Are there any current writing projects you’d like to share with us?

On my bedside table are: Dante’s Inferno, Songs of Mihyar the Damascene by Adonis, Sappho, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, St. Mawr by D. H Lawrence, The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, The Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa, Origin by Dan Brown, Me & Other Writing by Marguerite Duras, The Complete Works of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Jack Spicer’s Book of Magazine Verse, and Calvin and Hobbes. I am homeschooling my son this year, and some of these books are ones we are reading together.

I am working on two things right now: one is a long poem—eleven-thousand words or so—about love and death in Italy. The other is a collection of poetic essays about Santa Fe. I’ve never been able to write about Santa Fe before. “The Mission Bell” was the first poem I wrote about my hometown. I was supposed to be in Italy this year on poetry fellowships, but Covid has kept me here, and I felt like this is a good opportunity to look at right where I am. I have a complex relationship with Santa Fe and it has never inspired me before. But being stuck here like this has forced me to look at it and find ways to write about it. Luckily there’s a lot of violence, colonialism, death and art for me here to use as inspiration. J

Though much of what I write is difficult and dark, I find much joy in my life and in my work.

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Matthew Buckley Smith

Matthew Buckley Smith

Interviewed by Ashley Kim

“The Octonauts” and “The Quick” both have fairly short lines that reminded me of imagistic William Carlos Williams lines. Each line carries the right amount of weight. When writing, how do you go about striking that balance on a line level?

Both of those poems were originally written in fairly straightforward, metrically regular lines. In the ear, “The Octonauts” is a sonnet, and “The Quick” is two quatrains. But something I’ve done a little bit—Josh Mehigan started doing it several years ago, Maryann Corbett and Stephen Kampa talked about it—is taking a finished poem and then rebreaking the lines. Just after finishing up at Hopkins— I wrote almost exclusively free verse before going there, and I was so stubborn it took me another year or two before I started really writing in form. It’s been fun returning to what sort of function as free-verse lines, although the words themselves hold to a pretty rigorous metrical contract. The lines are very strictly prescribed, and then in terms of the typography on the page, I play with them from draft to draft and just see how it feels. Often, the ends of the lines will still be the ends of these shorter lines, but sometimes I bury them a little bit. I try not to fight against the original form but let it get a little bit submerged in the new rhythm. My inclination is to think of the typographical appearance of a poem as being sort of whimsical, like an artifact of our particular moment’s style or type of presentation. The poem itself really is an object of sound, so I don’t feel bad about adulterating the form by playing with how it appears on the page, because that is less important, finally, than how it sounds. That’s my prejudice I guess.

That’s an interesting point that you mentioned sound. I was just reading something on sense over sound, and the argument was that poetry did start as an oral tradition, but over the years, with the invention of the printing press and typed books and text, sense is beginning to have, or maybe hold, more importance. What are your thoughts on that?

Especially when I think about teaching, I often divide my understanding of poems into two major categories, basically, the translatable and the untranslatable. I find that it’s a lot easier to teach the parts of poetry that are translatable. I taught a class for a while, where the only textbook was the Odes of Horace, the wonderful David Ferry translation. He has a great ear, but the sound has very little relationship to the original. Yet the order of the images and the argument make for a pretty powerful formula. It comes across, even if we don’t get to hear all of the peculiarities of Latin sound or syntax. There’s a whole lot of poetry that is translatable, and that is really powerful, but I think that if you take sense over sound entirely you lose not just music or rhyme but you miss all of the weird, blurry alchemy that comes out of language.

I read a couple of your poems that I could find online and the line that stuck with me in “Swan Song“ is the line, “honest love is not lost ardor.” It’s one of those sentences that I love, partly because I said, “Oh yeah that’s true,” even though it’s still hard for me to unpack quite what it means, but it sounds exactly right because of the assonance. It’s the alternation between these very similar but slightly different vowel sounds, and you get a little bit of consonance with “honest” and “lost.” It sounds perfectly true, and it is a simple and direct and emotionally poignant statement that we need at that moment of the poem because, otherwise, the feet begin to lift off the ground. I think about Donne’s “Batter my heart,” and he has this dense, thorny, thematically but also grammatically challenging poem. Then in the middle of it, he says, “yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain.” It’s an extremely simple, straightforward statement that you couldn’t put at the beginning of the poem because it would be boring and wouldn’t have any impact, but at that moment it’s not as simple. The music of it is nice. It’s also the simplicity of the sound, the directness, the familiarity of it. To take sense over sound is fine, but if you need a tidy definition of prose, that’s it. That’s one of the wonderful things about prose; you can translate it.

I wanted to comment on the formal aspects in some of these poems. “Survey of Love” is in the more expected sonnet form, and very fittingly so. “Chez Bovary” alternates between trimeter and hexameter and also employs a fairly intricate rhyme scheme. It reminds me of Erica Dawson and the New Formalism movement and less directly, Greg Williamson’s double exposure form—the line lengths were so different that I felt like I could almost read every other line and get a different kind of reading from that as well. Was that poem an invented form and, if so, how did you decide what that structure should be?

You bring up Erica Dawson and Greg, and I’ve spent a lot of time reading both of them and admire them a lot. I’m definitely very familiar with Greg’s double exposures, and even when he’s not doing strict double exposure, he plays with the superimposition of meaning. It’s a particular kind of irony that’s hard for me to quite identify because it’s not strictly verbal irony. Like in his poem “The River Merchant’s Wife, a Letter,” which is obviously a sort of pseudo- translation of Ezra Pound—there’s a country girl from Tennessee who’s giving the same argument as the speaker in Pound’s poem. By being a sort of copy it ends up presenting itself, and then the opposite of itself. His New Year’s poem—it’s the very last poem in the fifth edition of the Norton—doesn’t contrast opposites, but by sort of taking a screen print and flipping it over, you end up getting something else: “We were all there. At the start…” “We were all there at the start.” That’s certainly in my head when I write. I’m definitely not doing anything as clever there [in “Chez Bovary”].

I have an ongoing slow-motion project I do sometimes. In the best poems, sound and sense or form and content begin to be inextricable from each other. In trying to confront the problem of making the form of a poem perfectly suited to its content, I came to the conclusion that I’m not usually very good at planning it all ahead of time. A device I’ve used is choosing a form or shape and just writing as quickly as I can, 30 poems in that form. I throw away almost all of them, but in a few, the form and the content seem to match up. The more I write the same form, the easier it begins to feel working with it. I’ve done it a number of times with sonnets, blank verse monologues, most recently, and then with these little Sapphic-shaped songs: ABAB, with a very short fourth line, a 5-5-5-2. I figured that next I should do 3-6-3-6-3-6, so that was where that particular shape came from. And then I just try to come up with a rhyme scheme that feels novel or fun.

A follow up question to that is, more generally, what is your relationship to form and meter, and who are some of your formal influences?

My relationship to form is I like it, I enjoy it. I’m not very good at having what people tend to mean when they talk about a poetics or a philosophy of poetry, but mostly my philosophy is I like things that sound beautiful to me and ring true and move me or make me laugh, make me feel something. That’s really all I try to write: things that sound good and that might make me feel something if I were a stranger. That’s about as sophisticated as it gets, and form suits my purposes because it both sounds good and, as plenty of other people have observed, it maybe requires less invention. It’s funny because I think there’s an expectation that formal poems are more staid or conservative or uncreative, which is true in one respect in that the lines are less spontaneous. But being forced to fill out a line in a certain way or to find a certain rhyme is a way of aerating my word hoard. It cross indexes my vocabulary; words are linked to each other that wouldn’t be otherwise, and I end up pulling in associations that I would never come up with on my own in free verse. If you truly have a more generative mind, then it may be that you don’t need that, but I find it very helpful. As far as influences, I have very boring taste. There’s obviously all the old guys and gals that everybody reads. I have a special fondness for Horace—though I don’t really know Latin so that’s not a formal influence. I think he has a wonderful sense of rhetorical form. I don’t know—I love Yeats, Wyatt, Larkin, Housman, Justice.

“The Quick” deftly conflates multiple meanings of the word in both its noun form, as in the living, and as the adjective, as it’s describing the lives of these people as quick, and the poem itself is very short. The noun form is most commonly known in the phrase, “quick and the dead,” from the Christian Apostles’ Creed. “Survey of Love” also mentioned a couple of other faith traditions and weaves them all together. How does religion play into these poems or into your poetry as a whole?

I was raised in a pretty devout Irish Catholic family and community. Most of my family, which was very big, all lived in the same place, so I was surrounded by that. I went to Catholic school and everybody I knew was Catholic for a long time. I don’t go to church and I don’t believe in God now, but it’s pretty obvious it’s cooked in as a way of thinking and looking at the world, spending so many years listening to sermons and thinking about everything in terms of the many-layered nature of reality, where everything has a correspondence to something abstract or something spiritual. Most of my Jewish friends are atheists, but they also deeply identify with their tradition. Being Irish Catholic is in my blood, and I can’t change that nor would I. That’s certainly a big part of it.

As far as the “Survey of Love,” a lot of it was reading stories and trying to retell stories to my daughters. We got a wonderful set of the D’Aulaires’ myths. One of them is a collection of Greek myths, a lot of which are borrowed from Ovid, and the other one is a collection of Norse myths which are just a retelling of the Edda and they’re wild. We’re not raising our daughters religious, but I also I went to high school with a lot of kids who were raised with no religion and didn’t know who Adam and Eve were. They were completely uprooted from a tradition that I want my daughters to have some understanding of. I try to just flood them with gods so that they are very aware of a multitude of meanings and deities and stories and traditions. We’re talking about all these different traditions, and when we hear thunder, maybe that’s just Thor or, actually, maybe it’s Hephaestus and the Cyclopes. [“Survey of Love”] was probably a byproduct of reading a lot of this stuff to my daughters.

All four poems are very invested in philosophical questions of life and death and love. Young children and girls also appear in a couple of these, and you mentioned your daughters—how has this impacted, or perhaps changed, your outlook on these types of matters?

Before having kids, I would have found it easier to speculate about whether one should bring children into this world and how things are going to look once they’re here. Now, it’s more like, well do we have enough diapers to get through the night, did we run out of toaster waffles, or did we remember to brush our teeth, and it’s just humbling on a daily basis. It’s a physically and emotionally demanding job. Days last a really long time but years fly by. It’s strange to introduce my seven-year-old daughter [to you tonight, because] I’m like, “Oh shit, I had a daughter seven years ago.” If anything, I think a lot less about philosophy than I used to. [Having kids] has made it harder to invest deeply in purely abstract questions, but my daughter asks a lot of questions about life and death and meaning. I think it’s pretty common. It was easier for me to think about those questions before, probably more rigorously in some ways, but also less responsibly, because I could just think about them as sort of mathematical objects I was manipulating in my mind; whereas with my daughters, the questions have an emotional value that’s really immediate. I think of the Larkin poem “Talking in Bed”— I think that’s my general rule with them is that I try to find things to say that are not untrue and not unkind. Beyond that it’s hard for me to think very deep thoughts about big questions I guess. It’s a mess and it’s exhausting, but it’s also just a total wonder and a joy.

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