Two Poems from a Dream of Anna Akhmatova by Jacqueline Marcus

6-4.1Sort of a strange experience on the writing of these two poems. I was an avid reader of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, but it’s been years since I’ve read her work. The other night I had a dream about her: I was in a dark café—probably the Stray Dog, a name that always stuck with me in the biography, where Russian poets would meet and read their poems. Akhmatova stood up on the stage. I was trying desperately to make out the words of the poem, but I couldn’t hear her. The only thing I could hear was the sound, the tone of her voice that was like a very sad cello. And her eyes, I remember her eyes—those huge, mournful eyes. I could vaguely remember the dream when I woke up at 4 am And then I sat down and wrote these two poems. Both were written in less than ten minutes. I didn’t touch a word.

Abandonment

Bent on the weather of distraction,
I watched the blackbirds from the large framed window
make their way to the northern sea for the last time.
I don’t know why I was feeling the need to go with them,
or why the rain spelled the music of elsewhere,
or if the moon signaled its lost joy, like a child’s drawing
that had been left in a box of memories. All I know
is that the time had come for the end of summer.
A cold sun pressed its palm against the pane of glass
as if my heart would shatter—
so many pieces of impossible nights, a splash of leaves, perhaps,
in a field of elegant trees…

There was no point.

There was only the sound of a lifetime,
diminished. It drifts across the sea and a million stars.

It has no destination.

You come to me, dear soul, in the middle of this winter,
stubborn as a fierce storm.

What exactly do you expect from me night after night?
You follow me like an abandoned dog.

Crimes against Humanity

In the awkward moment of farewells,
small talk, coffee, the clatter of silverware at the café,
we left our signatures beneath the prose of endearments.
The train muttered the sound of towns with its gray whistle and scarves,
a cold wind embraced the warmth of the fire.
No one could have guessed by now how the country had changed.
We were strangers passing through centuries of farms,
cobblestone streets and mothers hurrying with their children,
bargaining prices for fish, cabbage and flour for bread…
The train sang through fields of wheat. Each time
it entered the tunnel of years,
it was a new dawn.
I got off, and stepped down to the platform.

I could tell you what I saw through the steamy windows:
the faces of the young, the faces of the old—

and the long, dolorous smoke of what we’ve done to one another.


Jacqueline Marcus is the editor of Forpoetry.com and EnvironmentalPress.com.  She is a contributing guest writer for Buzzflash at Truthout.org.  She is the author of Close to the Shore by Michigan State University Press. Her e-book, Man Cannot Live on Oil, Alone: Time to end our dependency on oil before it ends us, is available at Kindle Books. She taught philosophy for twenty years at Cuesta College, San Luis Obispo, California. Her essays, “The Beauty of Sadness: An Essential Human Emotion Exiled in a War Society”, “Neruda”, and “How Nazism Shaped US War Policies: Thousands of SS War Criminals Recruited to the U.S. by CIA-Pentagon after WWII” appeared in the North American Review blog. Her new collection of poems, Summer Rains, has been accepted for publication at Iris Press.  


Illustration by Eric Piatkowski. Eric was raised in Arizona, and after a few years of working in theater, he switched gears and studied illustration at the Pratt Institute. Now in Des Moines, he splits his time between drawing, drawing, and more drawing. Give him a call, he just might be the perfect man for the job. Prints of artwork are available through Etsy at Eric Piatkowski Art. The illustration above is titled “Adrift” for a story in issue 299.2, Spring 2014.

A Teaching Moment by Paul Crenshaw

artwork 5.27

The assignment is this: explicate your favorite song as we have been explicating poetry for the last several weeks in Introduction to Literature. I get mostly the usual: Britney Spears or Kelly Clarkson from the sorority girls; some Dylan from the over-achievers who want to impress me with their dedication to the assignment; Grateful Dead from the long-haired kids; Jack Johnson or John Mayer from the girls with bare midriffs and navel rings. I want them to understand literature through lyrics, to assess the world through words, but they’ve mostly cut-and-pasted, clinging to cliché and settling on summary instead of searching for any meaning in the song.  

E– brings in a song by Rascal Flatts in which a high school girl has cancer. During her chemotherapy treatments she loses her hair. She is worried about, among many other things, how she will look for her prom, but on prom night her boyfriend shows up with his head shaved in hopes of allaying her fears. The song, E– tells us, is based on a true story.

5-27 nurse

She also tells us that she has recently been diagnosed with cervical cancer. She flies home every weekend for chemotherapy treatments. She leaves my class at 4pm Thursday and boards an airplane for home, where she will be hooked to a machine that pumps poison through her veins and drains all her energy and sends her spinning to the restroom every few hours to kneel on the tiled floor and empty herself of everything. On Monday she flies back and attends her classes. She is afraid of, among many other things, losing her hair.

My class claps quietly after she has finished speaking. We sit stunned through the Dixie Chicks, Billy Joel, Don Henley. In the hallway outside the classroom E– is waiting for me. She is smiling. She is young, twenty perhaps. She apologizes to me for failing the assignment. She says she couldn’t remember everything she wanted to say, so she only summarized the song. She missed the bigger meaning, she says.   

I hold out the part of her presentation she handed in, and that I read biting the inside of my mouth hard enough to bring blood while the rest of my students were struggling through their songs. “You had it all written down.”

5-27

She is twenty, young, perhaps dying. I am thirty-one. I drink too much on the weekends and worry about my job, whether I am accomplishing anything in the classroom. I worry if my wife and I are eating right and exercising enough, if we are putting enough money away for our children’s college funds, if we can afford to fly home this summer, where I can buy a new CD with lyrics I haven’t listened to.

“I didn’t present it right,” she says. “I guess I was afraid.”

Looking at her I am thinking about fear: the fear of losing your hair, losing weight, losing your life. About drugs that run rampant through your body, changing moods and balances and outlooks. About cells that multiply and mutate and take over. About being twenty years old and flying home every weekend to sit in a cancer ward while trying to find the greater significance in some stupid assignment an adjunct literature professor has given you, yet still being scared of standing in front of a class and explaining what a few words might mean beyond the surface of a page or the lyrics of a song.

But I don’t say any of that. Like my students, I cling to cliché. I settle for summary.

“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “You’re doing fine.”


17280_101299296569300_100000676896999_34104_6171129_n

Paul Crenshaw’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Essays, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Glimmer Train, Ecotone, North American Reviewand Brevity, among others. He lives in Greensboro, NC with his wife and two daughters.


Illustrations by: Anthony Tremmaglia, an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly. Anthony is featured in issues 299.1, Winter 2014 & 299.4, Fall 2014 and his most recent work (top illustration featured above) will be in upcoming 300.3, Summer 2015. Find more of Anthony’s work at http://www.tremmaglia.ca/

Can Books Fly? by John Smolens

truckAs a kid, I had a recurring dream that now seems Dali-esque. What I recall is images, grossly out of shape, out of proportion, and in odd relation to one another. There was always the truck, an eighteen-wheeler. One moment I was inside the dark, cavernous trailer, while the next moment I was outside the truck and it was small, like my own toy trucks. The only “human” image I recall in this dream was a thumb. (Freudians just shut up and go away.) And there were other images, things gleaned from childhood, a life of being small, a life of crawling and toddling on the floor, a life of looking up: a chair, a coffee table, curtains that extended from the floor to an incredibly high ceiling. But the most vivid image in this dream was the book. Periodically, it would fly overhead, spine skyward, pages flapping in the languid fashion of a bird with a substantial wing span. We are defined by questions, I suspect, and as a result of this dream a question that has been central to my existence all these years is Can books fly?

flying-books

Sometimes we say, when sales are brisk, books “fly off the shelf,” but with the demise of brick and mortar book stores, the simple, pleasurable act of entering a book store, perusing its shelves, not in search of a specific title necessarily, but just looking, has all but disappeared. Used to be that when visiting a new town or city, you’d keep your eye out for book stores. A good book store in an unfamiliar town was a haven of contemplative quiet which smelled of paper, the quality stuff in a new hardback, mingling with the brittle, yellowed pulpy stuff you’d find in used paperbacks with cracked spines. Very often the pleasure of being in a book store was not knowing what you were looking for, but hoping that, because you were in a book store, the exact right book would reveal itself to you and leap—or fly—off the shelf into your waiting hands. Call it a leap of faith.

When books aren’t being bought and sold, they’re often given away. (Or purloined, if you heeded Abbie Hoffman’s advice regarding his book entitled Steal This Book.) Books are loaned, lent, thrust into your hands by a fanatic with Rasputin eyes, proclaiming, You must read this!” A few days ago I was on Plum Island, which is north of Boston, and I stopped at an establishment that had a sign in the window which read Beer Wine Help Wanted (no ordinary sign, this might be, for some, a philosophy, or a mantra). I discovered that though the establishment was closed someone had put a cardboard box outside the door with Free Books writ large on the side in black Marks-a-Lot. I sorted, I sifted: lots of Clive Cussler; several romance novels, which from the cover art might be classified as Bodice Ripper Lite. But then I found it—or them. Toward the bottom of the carton were two copies of The Great Gatsby. Both paperbacks in excellent condition; both sporting the famous original cover art featuring the sad yellow eyes (the pupils gimleting naked nubile women) peering out from the tear-stained deep blue field above what might be a carnival or city lights. Though over the years I have had several copies of Fitzgerald’s novel, I took one copy from the carton, because you can never have enough copies of Gatsby; you can never read it enough times. It’s a book from which one can’t help selecting sentences that resonate far beyond Gatsby and the world of East and West Egg:

“Conduct may be founded on hard rock or the wet marshes but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on.”

“To a certain temperament the situation might have seemed intriguing—my own instinct was to telephone immediately for the police.”

“Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart.”

And though the novel’s concluding sentence is justifiably one of the most memorable in our literature, it is the first line that sets Nick Carraway’s narrative in motion with such grace and conviction:

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

Like the book I found in that carton, his father’s advice, offered in the next paragraph, was free.

NY-viewwebsite_533

Books are often associated with freedom; a book that is given, whether it’s a gift or is left in a box marked Free Books, is a unique expression of freedom. When they’re banned, when they’re burned, our sense of a just freedom is not only compromised but threatened. In recent years, there has been a tendency for people to place what are often called Little Free Libraries outside their homes. According to Conor Friedersdorf, who wrote about this phenomenon in The Atlantic, these “Give one, take one” Little Free Libraries began in Wisconsin in 2009, when a man established one outside his house in honor of his deceased mother, an avid reader, and the notion has since spread throughout the country. Some Little Free Libraries are compact architectural gems, sporting shingled roofs and handsome glass doors, which make it easier to peruse titles without exposing the books to inclement weather. Leaving books outside of one’s house is a matter of freedom of expression, yet there are people who, in the thrall of civic-minded idiocy, take exception to such exchanges. In many communities they have registered complaints with the local constabulary, citing building code violations and zoning laws. Friedersdorf continues that there’s a certain type of American who is determined to regulate every last aspect of community life. Due to selection bias, they are overrepresented among local politicians and bureaucrats. And so they have power, despite their small-mindedness, inflexibility, and lack of common sense so extreme that they’ve taken to cracking down on Little Free Libraries, of all things.

5-26

Somewhere inside every avid reader resides an unremitting, unrepentant dreamer, one who knows that books can fly, one who knows that the fate of free books will not be determined by impassioned letters to the editor or incensed diatribes at community zoning board meetings. Such dreamers know that the solution is in the air. Rather than stacking volumes in a cardboard box or some weekender’s building project, we need only to stand in the front yard and hurl books skyward, allowing them to glide and wheel and circle overhead, always just within reach of innocent, unsuspecting passersby.


John Smolens short story “The End of the World” appeared in the North American Review (Winter 2013). His new novel Wolf’s Mouth will be published spring 2016.


First Illustration Link
Second Illustration Link

Third and fourth illustration by: Gigi Rose Gray, an illustrator born and raised in New York City where she received her BFA in illustration from Parsons New School for Design. She now resides in sunny Los Angeles. Her works are inspired by the grace and elegance of women, mid-century design, french renaissance interiors, the colors olive green and mustard yellow, dreams, cypress trees, Greco-Roman art, and nostalgia.