Thanksgiving greetings from the NAR staff & contributors Bill Graeser and Susan Kort


Have a safe and wonderful Thanksgiving Holiday from the staff here at the North American Review.

And thanks to Bill Graeser for his poem, “Thanksgiving”, from issue 294.6, Nov. – Dec. 2009 and many thanks to Susan Kort for her poem, “Over the River & Through the Woods”, from issue 292.6, Nov. – Dec. 2007, as well.


He’s thankful for SUVs
high enough to hide
like the night in the parking
lot when the cops came.

Thankful for what memories
he has of his father, that his
mother believed in
remaining strong, that his
kid sister is off the street,
that at least one of his
brothers will come up for
parole, and thankful that he
is not dead—what with
the ’Hood he grew up in
and two tours in Iraq.

He is thankful for rap,
for the Chicago Bulls,
for snow on filthy sidewalks,
and here at this table,
thankful that ketchup is
almost the color of
cranberry sauce, that french
fries mush in the mouth like
stuffing, thankful that he is
not an animal bred to be
dinner (though there’ve
been times he’s felt he was)
and thankful that he is not
the only one eating alone in
Burger King
on Thanksgiving.

Bill GraeserBill Graeser, a Long Island native, has worked as dairy farmer, carpenter, teacher of Transcendental Meditation and is currently the Locksmith at Maharishi University of Management, Fairfield, Iowa. Winner of Iowa Poetry Association’s 2012 Norman Thomas Memorial Award.

“Over the River & Through the Woods”

To the left went the diapason
of forks, to the right
the spoons & knives in sterling, & in between came plates

that were appropriate, sequentially –
those were repasts she regaled us with, nothing less
than sumptuous, tureens & sauces & jellies & relishes: équipages

for butter & cream, grapish
épergnes in the center: her dining room
table: equinoctal feasts she counted on

familial esurience, it made her life
a thing of beauty, now & then, seeing all of us
in places she’d decreed were in right ones (on cards,

I mean, handletter’d, itsy violets & such, she had a lot of time) ;
& everything seemly. She hailed Mary
there’d be none of those gratuitous shenanigans

born of the vine, no espiritous implosions our kin were given to,
to her chagrin, no son’s head
laid to rest on her lineny cloth like my Daddy’s

every single year, impeding the serving
of the pumpkin or mince or Key lime:
Pièce de résistance

Susanne Kort is a psychotherapist practicing in Jalisco, Mexico. In the U.S., her poetry has appeared in the North American Review, Notre Dame Review, Grand Street, Green Mountains Review, Indiana Review, Seneca Review, Prairie Schooner, Sonora Review, The Laurel Review, and other journals. Her work has also been published in journals in Ireland, England and Canada.

Commentary of “Taps” by Jeff Knorr from issue 295.2

Jeff Knorr’s poem, “Taps” won 3rd place in the 2010 James Hearst Poetry Prize. The poem appears in issue 295.2 of the North American Review.


When I was at Chico State in Northern California in the 80’s the poet George Kiethley asked us to write a poem about someone from our childhood. I was young and went straight for the usual suspects—my grandfather who I was close to but had died when I was young, my older brother, my mother, a loving woman whom I treasured, my father. I thought about a few others, including this man who lived in the court at the end of our street. But I hadn’t a clue how to write about him. Just over twenty years later, the poem finally came. As these people do from our childhoods, this man had stayed with me—there was no getting rid of him. He had precisely tapped his way down the sidewalk in the early morning hours of almost every day, even dark winter mornings, to Poor Joe’s bar, and he stumbled back down the street regularly in the evening. He and his wife had careened down our street in their blue Cadillac and, in fact, one afternoon they ripped the open driver’s door right off Burt Amaral’s Mustang. The door exploded off the hinges as Burt leaned in across the front seats, the Caddy swerving past the door as it skidded along the street, a group of us adolescent boys on the porch of my house whooping about what we’d just witnessed.

Journey by Moonlight

Despite the entertainment and mystery this man provided all of us on our street, I knew at a pretty young age there was a fair amount of tragedy tangled up in his life. I knew he was a veteran. I knew he drank a lot. I knew he seemed exceptionally unhappy. I knew his sunglasses kept hidden some deep sadness I’d never ever see in his eyes. And even at a young age I knew he must be capable of something, of some kind of love with his wife and how they kept a house in what was a reasonably nice middle class neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay Area. I know now there may not have been a lot of love in the house, but back then I suspected there was.

One afternoon I came home from school and at the end of the street there was a silver van parked in the driveway of the man’s house. After I had been home a while, my mother told me that he had died. Later there were some of us boys playing football in the street and when his body was finally wheeled out to the van we all stopped and had a moment of shock that in fact he really was dead. As the van came down the street we stepped aside, held the football, and felt a sense of loss in the neighborhood. To this day I do not know his name. But his presence on the block was huge, legendary. And right then we knew something had just been changed. And while nobody said it, it was clear to us that he’d drank himself to death.

Horror vacui

When the poem finally came out of me, I wanted it to be a tribute of sorts. I wanted to capture that here was this guy that so many people in our neighborhood, especially the adults, had judgments about. But for the boys on the street who saw him, often at his worst, he had become for us something of an icon of our street, an icon of a time, and even a guy we admired. We indeed admired that he was a veteran and we thought his taps were the coolest things ever. And yet, we watched his life unravel and felt the tragedy of it when he died. From this, the poem is both born and offered.


The drunk down the street
wore taps on his black boots,
and each afternoon tapped
a rhythmic slide-and-click step
cool like he was Gene Kelly.
Aviator glasses, pressed blue jeans,
VFW cap creased at the crown
the bill curved with the horizon’s
slight arc, like at the bay of Da Nang
where he must have hoped
a hundred times to head home.
How many ghosts did he put away
each day down at Poor Joe’s?
How many missions did he fly
into the haze of gin?
Rumor had it he was a door gunner
and we boys all made cracks,
doorbell ditched his house
leaping bushes, scattering invisible
when he barked like a stray dog.
Mostly we were scared of him,
his mumbling at us as he stumbled along
the sidewalk while we played
two-hand touch, our glory still ahead of us,
in the air alive as rain.
But the day the silver mortician’s van
parked in his driveway, we all hoped
it was his wife. Finally, when the sheeted body
was gurnied out, the van left us
huddled in the street in silence
as if church had just finished.
We stood, all of us making plans,
listening to her wailing, the cries
drifting into the street, then yelling,
then plates smashing until it was dark
and a jet passed over us.
Dark except for a streetlight,
and quiet except for my brother
tacking flattened bottle caps to the toes of his Keds.

Jeff Knorr is the author of the three books of poetry, The Third Body (Cherry Grove Collections), Keeper (Mammoth Books), and Standing Up to the Day (Pecan Grove Press).  His other works include Mooring Against the Tide: Writing Poetry and Fiction (Prentice Hall); the anthology, A Writer’s Country (Prentice Hall); and The River Sings: An Introduction to Poetry (Prentice Hall).  His poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies including Chelsea, Connecticut Review, The Journal, North American Review, Red Rock Review, Barrow Street, and Like Thunder: Poets Respond to Violence in America (University of Iowa). Jeff lives in Sacramento, California and is Professor of literature and creative writing at Sacramento City College.


Jeff is currently the Poet Laureate for the city and county of Sacramento.  He has edited, judged, and been a visiting writer for various conferences and festivals.  He was the founding co-editor and poetry editor of the Clackamas Literary Review.  He has also been an invited judge for contests such as the DeNovo First Book Contest, the Willamette Award in Poetry and the Red Rock Poetry Award.   He has appeared as a visiting writer at such venues and festivals as Wordstock, University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writer’s House, The Des Moines Festival of Literary Arts, and CSU Sacramento’s Summer Writers Conference.  He currently directs the River City Writer’s Series at Sacramento City College.  Jeff has been the Chair of the English department at Sacramento City College and he has also served on the Sacramento County Office of Education Arts Advisory Board. You can see more at

Illustrations by  Clay Rodery, an illustrator who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. ch Clay’s illustrations have been featured in the North American Review, most recently in issue 299.4, Fall 2014.

Tradition and the Individual Magazine by J.D. Schraffenberger


For the past few months, I’ve busied myself with preparations for the North American Review’s upcoming bicentennial creative writing and literature conference, which takes place June 11-13, 2015 here on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The conference will look back at the NAR’s long and storied past while also looking to the future of the literary world as we bring together a wide range of writers, critics, artists, and teachers from around the country to share their work. You’re invited, by the way. I hope you’ll join us this summer for what promises to be a grand celebration! (You can find the general call for papers here. Here’s one focused on Mark Twain in particular, and this one focuses on contemporary historical fiction.)

I’ve always felt that my editorial work at the NAR was a contribution to something much bigger than myself, something historic, something important. Directing this conference has compelled me to think even more deeply about my work as an editor at such a venerable and culturally significant institution. I’ve been mulling over what it means nowadays to be an editor, what it can mean, what it should mean.

We editors of literary magazines are a curious breed. We enjoy wielding what little bit of power and authority we have, and people might take us a little more seriously because we represent at least some sliver of the literary establishment. In some ways, our job is to think highly of ourselves and our aesthetic judgment, our literary taste—even if we can’t always precisely articulate what it is about a poem or story or essay that makes it worth publishing. But we still believe we’re right, and each issue we produce is a testament to this belief, an argument that here is what literature should look like, here is what it can do. It takes arrogance, doesn’t it? But editors must also be selfless and giving and generous with their time and energy. How many hours do we spend with other people’s words when we might be attending to our own words, our own personal literary visions, rather than presenting and promoting someone else’s.

So yes, editors are a curious breed. And I say breed because it seems likely (or at least plausible) that editors (true editors) are born not made. They’re born with this dual disposition of arrogance and generosity, of self-confidence and self-effacement. I might go so far as to say that even the word “edit” itself has embedded within it this doubleness. “Edit” literally means “to put forth.” It’s a statement, a speaking out. A case is being made. There’s a kind of assertive boldness to editing, but the root of the word “edit” is the Latin verb dare, which means “to give, to offer.” It has a sacred ring to my ears. So when we edit, we are also participating in this sacred economy of gift giving. The spirit of editing a literary magazine, then, must be one of both bold statement and humble gift.


On top of my usual editorial responsibilities, as the associate editor of a magazine about to celebrate its bicentennial, I feel the added burden (daunting but thrilling) of living up to the magazine’s long and illustrious publication history. I sympathize with Henry Adams, the NAR’s eleventh editor, when he says in a letter in 1875, “My terror is lest it should die on my hands.” When I choose to print something in the pages of the NAR, for instance, I’m placing it in the same historical record as the work of Emerson, Whitman, Twain—or more recently Carver, Atwood, Oates; we’ve published twelve presidents and fourteen poet laureates. We’ve published Tolstoy, Conrad, Yeats. The list of literary luminaries goes on.

When I mention how old and venerable the NAR is, when I seem to be boasting about all the great writers and important people whose writing we’ve published over the years, I don’t mean to inflate my own importance. In fact, I find editing such a magazine to be a deeply humbling experience. I think about my work as a public service to the literary community, as both a concrete and intangible way of promoting the writing life. It’s easy enough to describe how the magazine offers a literal venue for writers to present their work, but it’s the intangible part that I’m interested in. I’ve come to believe that when it’s done well, when pursued with the same conviction and attention we usually reserve for the writing of our own poems and stories and essays, editing a magazine feels like giving the perfect gift to someone you love. But it’s not just the reader you love, or even the writer, it’s the tradition.

Tradition is a stiff and stuffy word. It suggests a certain level of conservatism, a hostility to the new. In fact, this was a common complaint about the North American Review in the Boston years. Early on it earned the nickname “Old North,” with an emphasis on the “old.” In The Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne makes reference to “the conservatives, the writers of the North American Review, the merchants, the politicians, the Cambridge men, and all those respectable old blockheads.” It was called by one critic “the torpid and respectable North American Review,” by another critic “that singular fossil, the North American Review,” and Thoreau, who boasted never to have written for the magazine, said “What venerable cobweb is that which has hitherto escaped the broom, whose spider is invisible, but the North American Review?”


I want to loosen up the idea of tradition a little bit today. I want to make a case for heeding, or at least attending to, a flexible tradition, one that moves and changes as we move and change. I’m in the not unpleasant position at the NAR of facing what seems to be the entire history of American letters. It’s a position that we all face as writers to some degree, a position of being between the past and our own desires for the future. The question is how we navigate these two pressures.

Bloom’s anxiety of influence comes to mind, of course, suggesting that as an editor I feel a psychological need to clear space for myself and my own vision for the magazine I work for. It’s a competitive need, an Oedipal need. But this model feels self-absorbed and needy. There are other ways to think about tradition.

I’d like to suggest two metaphors for our relationship to tradition. Let me quote one of my intellectual and literary heroes, Barry Lopez, who was a frequent contributor to the NAR from the mid-70s to the early-90s and who is still a contributing editor. In a catalog essay for an exhibit of collages by the artist Alan Magee, Lopez argues:

if art is merely decorative or entertaining, or even just aesthetically brilliant, if it does not elicit hope or a sense of the sacred, if it does not speak to our fear and confusion, or to the capacities for memory and passion that imbue us with our humanity, then the artist has only sent us a letter that requires no answer.

Lopez is calling here for art to do something important, not just dazzle us with its surfaces. He’s also introducing a metaphor I’ve since embraced as central to my own poetics and my own editorial vision: the work of art as a letter, and the truly good work of art as a letter that does require an answer. Our work, then, as artists, as editors, as letter writers is part of a centuries-long conversation or correspondence we have with tradition. (I’m not talking about tradition as “The Tradition,” that is, the canon, whatever that means anymore. Any number of voices not recognized as “important” are—or at least can be—part of tradition as I imagine it.)

Nevertheless, this connection to tradition is exactly why it is so important for young writers not only to write but to read as well, paying attention to who and what has come before them, and fashioning a response of their own. Otherwise, art uninformed by (or at least ignorant of) tradition risks naiveté, obliviousness, or worse cliché. My job as an editor is to offer the artist a way in to this conversation, so each issue of the NAR becomes an invitation.

Here’s another possible model for our relationship with tradition as editors, one that need not be derived from the anxiety of influence nor rely on the ideologically slippery progress narrative as a way to move into the future.


I lived for a time as a graduate student in Binghamton, that beautifully unkempt upstate New York town situated on the periphery of the Rust Belt and at the confluence of two rivers, the modest Chenango and the mighty Susquehanna. Confluences in nature are places of great tension and turbulence as each river tries to assert its own energetic path. The convening waters form a great diagonal wave that never crests but continues roiling and churning, until finally beyond the point of contact the rivers seem to settle, the two becoming one. But a confluence is not a singular event; it is an incorporation in a constant process of becoming. On our maps the Chenango ends abruptly at the confluence, subsumed by the Susquehanna, which continues its westerly course, but (metaphysically) it must be a different river. It contains different waters now, its substance has been changed, it is reborn. The confluence is the site of this rebirth.

If tradition informs us and changes us, then, and requires us to respond in some meaningful way, perhaps confluence is a more fitting model than influence because it insists on a dynamic process of becoming rather than a singular, contained site of change. Influence comes from outside of the self; confluence contains both the self and other. Influence emphasizes the main current; confluence emphasizes togetherness. None of which is necessarily to deny Bloom, but a model of confluence at least tempers if not completely reconciles anxiety. Confluence, then, is but another name for the waters of tradition we all contribute to as artists and editors; we’re all of us tributaries.

Schraffenberger Photo (1)

J.D. Schraffenberger is the associate editor of the North American Review and an associate professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He is the author of two collections of poetry, Saint Joe’s Passion (Etruscan) and The Waxen Poor (Twelve Winters), and his other work appears in  B O D Y, Best Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Notre Dame Review, Paper DartsPoetry East, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.


Top three illustrations by Justin Perkins. Justin graduated from College for Creative Studies. A freelance illustrator and designer, he teaches art in Detroit. Justin’s first illustration for the North American Review appeared in issue 298.4, Fall 2013.

Image of the confluence of two rivers.

Throwback Thursday featuring Joan Colby with “The Lunar Year” from issue 295.2

Joan Colby’s poem “The Lunar Year” was a finalist in the 2010 James Hearst Poetry Prize. The poem appears in issue 295.2 of the North American Review.


A note from the author: “The Lunar Year” was inspired by reading a list of names for the moon in the various months. I chose the names that I found most intriguing and spun off from there. Many of the moon names were of Native American origin. To this day, some farmers schedule tasks according to the moon’s phase and I know of horse breeders who wean or castrate according to the “Sign” (a particular moon or phase of the moon). Continue reading

Write What You Don’t Know by Leila Christine Nadir

How did your parents meet? I remember when my friends in grade school compared notes about the first romantic meetings of their moms and dads—my parents went out in high school, mine met on a blind date, mine at the movie theater—and they’d turn to me with an extra charge of curiosity, a more purposeful focus: How about mine?

Jeannie Phan - IllustrationsThey didn’t say it but they were asking, How did my conservative Afghan father, with his thick accent, grumpy demeanor, and the inability to get along with the good Christian folks of our small town, end up with my pretty, blond, high-heeled, publicly pleasant Catholic-Slovak-American mother? To add to the mystery, my family had spells of involvement with foster care, family court, the local police, and the county jail. At the start of new school years, teachers raised their eyebrows skeptically when they saw my name on their student roster. Ah, another Nadir. Continue reading

Douglas County Jail Blues by Brian Daldorph

Thirteen years since I started teaching my Creative Writing class at Douglas County Jail just outside Lawrence, Kansas.  Thirteen years, hundreds of classes, thousands of inmates in my class over the years.

I’ve taught for over twenty years at the University of Kansas.  I’ve taught in France, Senegal, Zambia, Japan and England.  But there’s no doubt at all that my writing class at Douglas County Jail has been the best teaching experience of my life.

I was there again on Thursday, same time, same place, in the classroom with tiny windows of a facility that’s been described as looking more like a corporate headquarters than a county jail (or “correctional facility,” to give its proper name).

Here are some of the voices we heard in this week’s class:

In the echoed word misheard, spoken

from lips unseen, I hear your name.


blue-beard-finalwebRoom after room—they all seem filled with gloom

Not enough time outside to blossom and bloom

Slowly he starts to realize he’s stuck in a tomb


I used to act my age

Then I got stuck in this cage

which put me in this rage

I can’t seem to turn the page

  Continue reading

On writing “No One Dances” by William Stratton

Though I strive in large part to maintain a state of non-fiction in my poetry, there are times when I am unable to retain my grasp on the actual. I’ve found this happens most often when in pursuit of a portrait of some sort, or when writing about something for which the difficulty of the subject matter exceeds my ability as a non-fictional poet. I don’t mean I consider this a failure, even though on a personal level it can be intimidating, humbling and frustrating. These poems, when they come, I recognize as  an important part of how I am able to continue writing without becoming bored with hearing myself, or having lost touch with the myriad of different things writing means to me (and with the nearly overwhelming knowledge that it means so much else to so many others).

11-13 blog Brianne Burnell

Continue reading

Trader Joe is a Buddhist by Laurie Frankel

[NOTE: click on the hyperlinks for added fun]

Hello, my name is Laurie and I am attached to outcome.

Everyone: Hello, Laurie!

Watering GirlIt all started when I was born. I came out with a list of goals I wanted to accomplish, and I don’t mean to brag, but by the time I was eighteen months I achieved them all. I could focus, roll over, crawl, walk, talk, and win at scrabble (except for the winning-at-scrabble part which happened just last week). Achieved goals flew past. I thought this life thing is e-z! And it was, until I wanted to be a published writer and then, well . . .

I am not good at letting go. I am like a dog that way. The desire to be heard through my writing (i.e. publishing) is deeply rooted in my soul. I know this about myself. It is one of my five crosses to bear (the third being my “ethnic” hair. Let’s just say had hair mousse been invented in the 70s I would have had a social life. In other words, I coulda been a contenda . . . for Math Club President. Just sayin’).

A quick note about my world view: I do not believe in fate. I do not believe things happen for a reason. I do believe life offers up endless opportunities to learn and it is my job to make meaning from the things that do happen so that, going forward, I can do better. Otherwise, I feel I am little more than a circus idiot (no offense to members of The National Circus Idiots Coalition who I know hone their idiot craft for years before taking it on the  road).

In light of this self-awareness, I have sought ways to tame my rabid attachment to publishing through yoga, meditation, and, of course, shopping at Trader Joe’s.

No offense 5,000 plus-year-old yoga, but everything I learned about writing in the face of rejection I learned from shopping at Trader Joe’s. For those who have long suspected, yes, Joe the Trader is the original Buddhist of commerce who started his store as a means of teaching non-attachment to outcome. How? By selling high quality, super tasty treats at reasonable prices and then, as soon as you’re hooked like a meth addict on morning glory, yanking them from the shelves.

Why Joe, why?!

Joe: To decrease suffering in the world by teaching non-attachment to outcome just like you said in the above paragraph.

Me: I was kidding.

Joe: I wasn’t. Seems someone hasn’t read their latest Fearless Flyer.

Me: I’m busy. I work. And if you haven’t read this blog post, I’m trying to get published, which takes an awful lot of time because first you have to write something worthy of being published and then hope some blowhard, I mean editor, deems you worthy . . . of being published.

Joe: Hey, Sisyphus! Ha, ha, just kidding. In the meantime, why not take it down a notch with some of my Candy Cane Joe-Joe’s.


Me: You mean the mind-numbingly good holiday cookies that only show up for one month and leave me crying my eyes out for the remaining eleven?

Joe: Yes, those same ones.

Me: Been there, done that, Joe. Think I’ll pass.

Joe: Sounds like someone needs to work on their non-attachment.

Me: Tell me something I don’t know.

Joe: The universe is expanding and therefore has no center?

Me: Very funny, Joe. Don’t quit your day job.

Joe: Good advice. Keep shopping, Laurie. And good luck with that writing thing.

Author, short-story writer, and humorist Laurie Frankel knows pain is the root of all comedy and is thrilled her life is so damn funny. Her books include “I Wore a Thong for This?!” and“There’s a Pattern Here & It Ain’t Glen Plaid” about which Kirkus Reviews has this to say: “…laugh-out-loud funny…great practical suggestions…A quirky, earnest guide to regaining self-esteem for the modern woman.” Frankel’s literary work has appeared in Shenandoah, The Literary Review, North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review and The Pedestal Magazine. This former east coast gal, now residing on Planet OC, can be found saving the human race one love question at a time. Join the fun and visit her at LauriesLoveLogic.

Illustrations by Vlad Alvarez: Vlad was born and raised in El Salvador, Central America. In 1992, he came to the U.S. and lived in Los Angeles before moving to Pennsylvania. He attended Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and graduated in 2005 with a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration.

Dan O’Brien, Jude Brancheau, and Martin Ott: A tribute to veterans

In this post we feature three poets, Dan O’Brien, Jude Brancheau, and Martin Ott. Thank you to all of the men, women, and their families who have sacrificed.

Dan O’Brien

The War Reporter Paul Watson Hears the Voice

We ask them, Have you seen the American
soldier? Someone says he saw him tied up
in a wheelbarrow. I take a picture
of some kids bouncing on the rotor blade
in the smoldering wreck of that downed Black Hawk.
Has anyone seen the dead American
soldier? The mob parts around me. I look
down in the street. And I meet the man. When
you take a picture the camera covers
your face, you shut the rest of the world out.
Everything goes dim. And I hear a voice
both in my head and out: If you do this,
I will own you forever. I’m sorry
but I have to. If you do this, I will
own you. I’m so sorry, I don’t want to
desecrate your memory. If you do this
I will own you forever. I took his
picture. While they were beating his body
and cheering. Some spitting. Some kid wearing
a chopper crewman’s goggles, face screwed up
in rapturous glee while giving the dead man
the finger. An old man’s raising his cane
like a club and thudding it down against
the dead flesh. Men holding the ropes that bind
the dead man’s wrists are stretching his arms out
over his head, rolling him back and forth
in the hammering morning light. I’m standing
beside myself. I’m watching someone else
take these pictures, wondering, You poor man.
Who are you?

Jude Brancheau

On Duty

—For Captain John H. Brancheau (1939-1989)

When work followed you home, there were boot tracks,
and if I found you before your ash
eclipsed the bath, you were a shadow thrown
from a kid with matches or from a fuming hankie
as it bloomed. If you talked at all, you were just eyes
feeling up and down the wall as you’d swear
about the arsonous full moon.
You so quickly became the untouched
Zippo on the mantel, a pack of Luckies in a breast pocket,
the uniforms still marching in line in the closet. Then, emptying out
your chest, the marshmallow boy,
as black as his bed and his toys, his skin a part of his covers,
where he thought he’d be safe or could hide, his head
still turned from the heat’s unrepeatable points.
I remembered how you’d say,
“When you think no one’s left inside, sometimes you have to let it burn.”

Martin Ott

Battlefield Typewriter

When I read that J. D. Salinger interrogated
POWs in Germany, and knocked back stiff
ones with Hemingway, it explained everything
and nothing. The ashes of Dachau cascaded
off the moptops of his dead-eyed youngsters,
bone-dry dandruff, hidden but omnipresent.
Confessions filled his battlefield typewriter
and keys clacked like gold fillings against
wet pavement, his fingertips callused from
the impossible gravity. He fell apart once
and forever disdained to explain the lost
ones, the tracks a distant killer makes
before disappearing onto a folded page.

Dan O’Brien‘s poem, “The War Reporter Paul Watson Hears the Voice” originally appeared in issue 297.2. Jude Brancheau’s peom, “On Duty” appeared in 298.4. Martin Ott‘s poem, “Battlefield Typewriter” appeared in issue 299.1.

Reading for Otherness by Eric Torgersen

Ann and I were staying at a VRBO apartment on the edge of Austin, visiting our daughter, when I picked from the bookshelf there, mildly curious, a paperback copy of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore; I remembered having read a review when it first appeared. The title had caught my attention, and kept it even after I realized that there was no direct relation (but a powerful indirect one) to the author of The Trial. Kafka is the chosen alias of the fifteen-year-old Japanese runaway central character, to hide his identity, and also the name of a figure in a picture painted before he was born. But the world of the novel is one in which a man might well turn into a man-sized beetle—or, as in Murakami’s storySamsa in Love,” vice-versa.

blog 10-13

I don’t normally read in long sessions; my eyes tire from an old muscle imbalance, surgically corrected long ago, but returning as I age. I had only a few days—active ones, with visits to Barton Springs or excursions in the Hill Country planned—to read Kafka on the Shore unless I meant to just take it, or find a copy at home to finish with. But I couldn’t put it down. And I had no idea why. I had gone off science fiction and fantasy, cold turkey, in high school, after James Agee’s A Death in the Family changed my reading life, and in Kafka on the Shore there was a man (or creature) with the name and appearance of Johnnie Walker (of whiskey fame), who must gather and kill cats, cut out their hearts, and eat them, still beating, in order to make of their souls some kind of flute, which would give him enormous power to do evil. Got that? Murakami, often touted for the Nobel, is internationally famous, but I knew nothing about him. I knew I wasn’t reading genre fantasy or sci-fi, but what the hell was I reading? I had, and still have, no category for it. But I was determined to finish the book before we left, and with the help of some indulgence from Ann and Elizabeth, I did.

When I got home, I went looking for more, and read it just as eagerly. I’ve read all the Murakami novels in the university library with an intense absorption that I don’t experience anywhere else. Since childhood, no book has ever had me so on edge, so desperately concerned for the fate of the central characters, so relieved by their survival, as 1Q84, his latest at this writing. Re-reading Kafka on the Shore three or four years later, for this essay, I’ve found that I could remember almost nothing of it, and read it even more hungrily than the first time, eager to find out (again) what happens. There is some pleasure in this, and probably some escape in the sense that all reading takes us out of the moment and the place in which we’re reading, but neither pleasure nor escape names the experience. And though I still read mostly what I hope will serve my writing, Murakami is as far from it as any reading I can imagine.

And this, I’ve concluded, is the point: that I turn to Murakami for his sheer and utter otherness. I don’t mean the otherness of Japanese culture, of which I’m ignorant; Murakami and his characters have international and urban sensibilities, and the novels, though they take place in Japan among Japanese characters, are studded with European and American referents. What has drawn me in is a literary otherness particular to Murakami: He is the one writer of whom I can say that I have really no idea what he thinks he’s doing, or why, and I like it that way. If there is some genre I’m unaware of that puts him into a context, links him to other writers or makes ordinary sense of him, I don’t want to know. In Kafka’s strange fate there’s an explicit parallel to the fate of Oedipus, but going down that path would only lead me to familiar territory, and that’s the last thing I want.

It may be that for those of us who write—especially if we teach literature or writing and risk talking them to death—only something so completely other that we wouldn’t think of putting it to work on the syllabus or in our reading minds could free us to immerse ourselves in it and be there—in the book—now. Perhaps it’s a special kind of meditation, emptying the reading mind of its ulterior motives. It won’t give us ideas for the next story or novel we try to write, but I’m convinced that it’s good for the self that does the writing. Maybe it returns us to what we felt as kids reading books like Treasure Island, when our worlds were still very small, and everything we read for pleasure was rich and strange.

Eric Torgersen has published six books and chapbooks of poetry, two of fiction, and a full-length study of Rainer Maria Rilke and Paula Modersohn-Becker. He also translates German poetry, especially that of Rainer Maria Rilke and Nicolas Born. He has a BA in German Literature from Cornell University; after two years in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, he earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Iowa. He retired in the spring of 2008 after 38 years of teaching writing at Central Michigan University. He lives in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan with his wife, the quilt artist Ann Kowaleski. He’s available for workshops and readings. Eric is featured in issue 294.3-4, May-August 2009.

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