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QUIET LIGHTNING IS

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a monthly submission-based reading series
with 2 stipulations:
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2. you only get up to 8 minutes
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55
© 2014 Quiet Lightning
artwork © Tanya Hollis
tanyahollis.com
“Sun Bear”, “Aubergine,” “How Do You Like the Underworld,” “To
Sergio Franchi,” “Poem for Lu Chi” and “Poem for Jack Spicer”
by Matthew Zapruder from Sun Bear (Copper Canyon, 2014)
Yiyun Li from Kinder than Solitude (Random House, 2014)
Peter Orner’s “Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge” and “Shhhhhh,
Arthur’s Studying” from Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge
(Little Brown and Company, 2013)
“Imaginations law hits frames,” “Bird of Paradise,” “Riptide,”
“: Method,” “at some point, or at gunpoint,” “From Spinoza in Her
Youth,” “Portuguese rose, winter’s rose,” “Suppose the moon blind,”
“Sarabande,” and “Like Fires” by Norma Cole can be found in
Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems 1988- 2008 (City Lights
Spotlight Series No.1, 2009)
“Duck Lake” and “we’re all guests of experience” are forthcoming
in Actualities (Litmus Press), a collaboration between Norma Cole
and artist Marina Adams
book design by j. brandon loberg
set in Absara
Promotional rights only.
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without permission from individual authors.
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Your support is crucial and appreciated.
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submit@qui et l i ght ni ng. org
CONTENTS
curated by
Evan Karp
featured artist Tanya Hollis
PETER BULLEN Upside 1
SARAH GRIFFIN Things People Say to Me
in the Street... 7
LAUREN TRAETTO daughter 11
indo-european sacrifice
rituals and blind dates 13
MATTHEW ZAPRUDER Sun Bear 15
Aubergine 17
How Do You Like the
Underworld 25
To Sergio Franchi 30
Poem for Lu Chi 33
Poem for Jack Spicer 36
YIYUN LI from Kinder than Solitude 41
MONETA GOLDSMITH Diary of a Superfluous Man 49
KATIE CROUCH Astrology 59
PETER ORNER Last Car Over the
Sagamore Bridge 67
Shhhhhh, Arthur’s Studying 73
NORMA COLE [Imaginations law hits frames...] 79
Bird of Paradise 80
Riptide 81
:Method 82
for Barbara Guest 83
from “Spinoza in Her Youth” 84
Portuguese rose, winter’s rose 85
[Suppose the moon-blind...] 86
Sarabande 87
Like fires 88
Duck Lake 89
“we’re all guests of experience” 90
PETER BULLEN Poetry 91
Q
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ING IS SP
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l a g u n i t a s . c o m
QUIET LIGHTNING
A 501(c)3, the primary objective and purpose of Quiet
Lightning is to foster a community based on literary
expression and to provide an arena for said expression. QL
produces a monthly, submission-based reading series on
the first Monday of every month, of which these books
(sparkle + blink) are verbatim transcripts.
Formed as a nonprofit in July 2011, the board of QL is
currently:
Evan Karp founder + president
Chris Cole managing director
Josey Lee public relations
Meghan Thornton treasurer
Kristen Kramer chair
Sarah Ciston director of books
Katie Wheeler-Dubin director of films
Kelsey Schimmelman acting secretary
Sidney Stretz and Laura Cerón Melo
art directors
Lisa Miller, Rose Linke, and RJ Ingram
outreach directors
Sarah Maria Griffin and Ceri Bevan
directors of special operations
If you live in the Bay Area and are interested in
helping—on any level—please send us a line:
evan@qui etl i ghtni ng. or g
- SET 1 -
1
P
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U
PSIDE
from The Indecipherable Motivations Of The Great Explorers
Sandra walks in, wearing backless dress. Her native
costume, she’s always in one. As it happens, style of
dress lends itself perfectly to risky request I’ve been
thinking about making.
“Sandra,” I say. “Yes,” she says, sounding bored, but
stuck with habit of saying something after I say
Sandra. “I want to ask favor. Very personal.” “Favors
usually are,” she says. Sandra’s witty in slash and
burn way. “If I find me a mad scientist who’s master
of his craft, and I ask him to shrink me down really,
really small, small as toy soldier, will you let me do
something with you?” “Like what, go to a movie?” she
says. See what I mean about that wit.
Confession: I’m taken with Sandra’s backbone. All
thoughts I have lead me there. Her backbone sticks
out like toy ladder. I want to climb it. Obviously I
can’t do that at my regular height of five feet ten
inches. Sandra’s dresses are really low. They start
smidgen above her bottom. It’s like she’s always
going to the Oscars, or to an Oscars party, but she
never does either one. What she does is come over
2
to my place and order take-out, Thai food mostly.
It takes strong nerve to ask woman if she’ll let you
clamber up her backbone, from top of butt to base of
neck. I’m insecure person so I don’t launch into risky
request right away. I wait to see what will come out
of silence.
“What the fuck is it?” she says. Sounds impatient, but
not impatient as in irritated, more like impatient as
in really wants to know. Having her impatient like
that gives me great feeling. Only hitch, I still have
to answer, which might produce whole new feeling,
right in the middle of enjoying this one. Life can be
fucking complicated mess. But my intention, keep
reaching for stars, dream impossible dream etc.
“Well, let’s say things go according to plan with mad
scientist, and he or she is able to shrink me down real
small, will you let me climb up your backbone, and
plant my flag in your beautiful hair, when I reach the
top?” My heart beating mile a minute. Asking Sandra
that question, biggest risk I’ve ever taken. “What’s
going to be on the flag?” she says. “I’m not sure,” I
say, stunned by question, surprised that it centers on
design of flag. I was expecting her to say: “Shit Justin,
are you some kind of nut?”
Sandra sits down on my only chair, begins swinging
right leg up and down—something I would never in
whole lifetime get tired of watching. I have to get
thinking about flag design right quick. I guess I need
PETER BULLEN 3
two important new people in my life, mad scientist,
and graphic artist. I figure too much to hope for both
in one person. I’m not delusional.
“Sandra, can I ask you something?”
“Shoot,” she says. She’s not one for long winded
sentence.
“Do you think I should find mad scientist first, and
then graphic artist for flag, or other way around?”
“Mad scientist first,” she says. Such clarity, I’m
thinking.
I realize I’m not sure where I’m going to find mad
scientist. Start to worry. Start biting nails.
“Get your fucking hand out of your mouth,” Sandra
says. Her rage-filled outbursts are always useful and
instructive. I take finger out of mouth double-quick.
“I guess I’m worried about finding mad scientist.
Sometimes I put cart before horse.”
“Just go on the dang internet, you dope,” she says,
casting me affectionate smile. “And,” she adds, “don’t
go hiring no mad scientist who don’t have his picture
posted. On that dang internet, you’ll find one in a
jiffy.” I bet you could go around world ten times,
never come across woman who delivers expression
4
as seductive and beautiful as ‘in a jiffy’ like Sandra
does. I want to pinch myself and count my lucky stars,
which are multiplying like crazy. But there’s one
challenge.
“Thing is Sandra, I don’t own a computer.” Maybe if
Sandra cut back a bit on the Thai take-out, I could
save up for one.
“Don’t you know nothin’? Ain’t you ever heard of
those internet cafes?”
I had heard, but never seen, had impression they’d
come and gone. But I believe Sandra is person who
knows of what they speak, so I feel solution is in
sight. Pretty soon I’ll be a lot smaller, and taking first
steps up Sandra’s backbone, something I’ve been
dreaming of my whole life, at least whole of life since
I met Sandra, and got eyeful of her backless dresses.
“Let’s go out and track us down some internet,”
Sandra says with authority you expect from natural
born leader. “Okay,” I say. Out in street I see
everything but internet cafes. I see dry cleaners. I see
thrift store. I see bakery with depressed looking man
behind counter. I’m sad about man in bakery not
looking happy. To me, contentment is natural feeling
to accompany baked goods. I see shoe repair, which
reminds me of hole in my left shoe. I wear ‘Oxfords’
because then I feel like I’m going somewhere in this
world, but ‘Oxfords’ with hole runs counter to that
PETER BULLEN 5
aspiration. I hate irony, and believe I’m true aspirant.
Doesn’t what I’m planning to do on Sandra’s back
prove I’m one of those? I see massage parlor with
very pink sign. I’m person who comes unglued when
confronted with very pink sign. I feel like I have to
enter any place with sign like that, my breath gets
short, my heart races, for those reasons, I never do
get all the way into places with very pink signs. I’m
sure it has deep meaning I could explore with mental
health professional. I never have enough money for
one. Maybe if there was mental health professional
with a very pink sign, I’d be motivated to get better
job, but right now I think you’d agree, I have enough
on plate.
7
S
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P
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E SAY TO M
E
IN
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H
E

S
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T
(
T
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A
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I

T
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IN
K ABOUT AF
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W
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S
)
for Nate Waggoner
1. Sugar Tits
There is a galaxy of crystals erupting from my chest
and there has been since some adrenal release
triggered the gun of my child body into new woman.
How they grew as I turned adult and tall like cane
in the fields. I wake in the morning in a valley of
raw candy and the morning sun refracts through my
breasts and they are a billion tiny prisms.
Think how many stars are in the sky now, think of
how many grains of sugar in a cup. In a D cup. I spill
flavor across the bedroom floor but then holster
myself into lace things that keep the sugar, the
endless sugar, from spilling onto the kitchen counter,
the bus floor, my desk in the office.
What a terrible mess they would make and I could
hate them but for the bounty they are, the infinity,
the constantly changing delicious shining sand of
8
them, I am a fountain of sweetness, how much would
you like for your coffee, just say when, just say one
lump – just say one lump, or two –
2. Sweet Cheeks
The first time I saw a hummingbird it was -this- close
to my face. A blur of wings and a needle-hook beak –
I think it was turquoise, blue green feathers all over it.
A tiny thing.
I didn’t move. Stood stock still. I let it hum nearer
and nearer until it placed the invisible point of its
beak against my cheek and began, from what I could
tell, to drink. This was proof. You’re so sweet, they
always said. Sweet cheeks. Honeybee. So sweet that
once these tiny sugar birds discovered the pockets
of sucrose in my freckles they came and drank from
the swell of my face every day – they gathered in the
morning and in the evening and kissed me with their
tiny mouths, and drank, and were sustained. I have a
veritable harem of creatures that come to me by day,
by night, and eat.
Hummingbirds are much smaller than nature
documentaries would have you believe. Thumb sized,
give or take, but starving. Hearts beating almost a
thousand times a minute, can you believe that? Those
tiny hearts that can move so fast. They don’t always
make it past three years of age.
SARAH GRI FFI N 9
Here’s the thing about the Bay Area. The average
blow-in stays two years. You’re lucky if you make it
to three. Doesn’t that sound, and feel, about right?
There’s something in the breeze here that gets under
people’s skin after a while: you’re either weird
enough, or tech enough to fit in. Or you’re not.
There’s not a whole lot of space for in-between.  
Here’s a thing about America. You guys have no real
sugar in your food. You can organic, farm to table,
locally sourced and ethically produce as much food
as you want but somewhere down that line you’re
faking sweetness with corn syrup. I mean, it does
the job. But it doesn’t feel right. Doesn’t sit right. It’s
rare that you come across something made with a bag
of crystallized sugar, cane sugar, grew out the earth
tall and fresh sugar. That’s why people go so wild for
Mexican Coke. Real sugar in glass bottles, I know you
love that shit.
Where I come from the sugar is real. Your chocolate
still tastes weird to me, even though I push it into
my mouth competitively, in volume. Your Coke
tastes chalky, even though I still nurse from it with
addiction, with problems, with my poor God damn
teeth what am I going to do about them in the end.
Every so often though, you find a sweet thing in this
town, in this coast, that tastes just right. It’s glazed or
honeyed, sugared up with something from the earth,
something raw. The hummingbirds know. They told
10
me. They whispered soft, through their pin-mouths
as they fed from my faraway sugar, as they drank
my freckles, they said sad girl, go where the real
sweetness is, we’ll show you.
And in a murmuration they pointed and highlighted
the people they’d seen who they knew to be sweet.
They people they’d drink from, the people who in this
candied landscape were raw and earthen and terrible
and worth the cavities they’d carve out in you.
I listened to the hum of the tiny birds but here’s the
thing: they live for two years, we stay for two years:
there’s intersection. There’s a ticking clock. How long
can you hang on to the people who have that deep
sweetness before the hand strikes twelve and the
plane takes off and somebody is in flight again and
you just have to grit your candied teeth and say into
somebody’s shoulder, see you later buddy – and let
them fly away – and mean it.
11
L
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E
N T R
A
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T
T
O
D
A
UGHTE
R
i made a daughter out of things i had lying around.
she wriggled, ran off, her frame bigger with each
bound. soon her shoulders were at tree level, then
her hips, then her dimpled knees, now as big as
trees themselves. when the treeline reached mid-calf
and the clouds were swirling at her shoulders, she
grinned a grin like a ship’s hull. what did you eat? i
asked. everywhere she stepped a crater. the moon
was near one of her barrettes. her hair indigo in the
sky; her baby nose loomed grotesque above me and i
was afraid of her the way you fear the first newborn
you ever hold. she whirled around, felling trees with
the wind from her skirts. she laughed, she swallowed
birds. a plane crashed into her ear and burst into
a mushroom cloud. a panther bounded out of the
smoke, landed on her shoulder, then climbed cat-
backwards down her dress and down her massive
legs, leaving pin-lines of blood with his claws. he
lept over the green wreckage of her footprints and
bounded past me, trailing reeking deer intestines
from his mouth. i hurled a rock behind him. i begged
the witchbaby to come down. she walked into
the ocean, tried to scoop the moon out of it with
her plump hands, surfaced holding an ecosystem
of jellyfish and hammerheads. she dropped them
12
back into the devastated ocean. the bodies split open,
battered, floating, picked upon by swirling sea life.
she waded further, unearthing crusty carcasses of
ships, following the moon’s orbit farther and farther
out to sea. soon she was shoulder-deep. the panther
stalked up shadowy, bounded down the mountain
from which i watched her, seemed to fly in all his
stench and fearsomeness. i can save her, i insisted. i
can save her, he whispered back in my tiny voice. he
dropped into the ocean, paddled in circles around her,
still trailing those dead deer parts. the sharks came.
they nipped at her legs. she cried for me, splashing
out of the water. an entire city was washed into the
ocean. she came toward me, an entire iceberg in her
hand, and as she approached the mountain, she began
to shrink with every step. she would not make it up
to me. when the trees came to her ankles, she released
the iceberg, water flushed all the way up to the clouds,
the sea floor was dry below, and my soaked crying
daughter in front of it. her braids drooping, she
stared at the dry coral below, where she had snagged
a sock on the frame of a whale picked clean by deep
sea things. she came toward me, shrinking, and i fell
down the mountain toward her. the trees came up to
her knees, to her hips, to her shoulders, and finally
above her head. she smiled and those fat cheeks grew,
the normal way a child’s cheeks grow when they
smile, and i took her hand. from a distance, i could see
the stinking panther trying to follow behind us. don’t
even think about it, i said. he bit out her throat.
LAUREN TRAETTO 13
INDO-EUROPEAN SACRIFICE
RITUALS AND BLIND DATES
in irish horse sacrifices
it’s the king who fucks the mare
not some four wives touching labia
to a dead horse’s dick.
strangulation in some mammals—
such as horses and humans—
ends in ejaculation
a horse whose
eyes bulge before they saw
through the massive neck.
female ejaculation:
still unattested.
if you have ever seen
two horses fuck
you understand
fear
if
you have
ever seen
a horse murdered,
you understand
sex.

15
M
A
T
T
H
E
W Z A
P
R
U
D
E
R
SU
N BEAR
yesterday at the Oakland zoo 
I was walking alone for a moment
past the enclosure holding the sun bear
also known as beruang madu
it looked at me without interest
it has powerful jaws and truly loves honey
it sleeps in a high hammock
its claws look made out of wood
and if it dreams at all it is of Malaysia
home of its enemy the clouded leopard
a gorgeous arboreal 
hunting and eating machine
whose coat resembles a python
now it is night and the zoo is closed
some animals are sleeping
the nocturnals moving in their cages
getting ready to hunt nothing
I don’t know why but I feel sure 
something has woken the sun bear
it is awake in the dark
maybe it is my spirit animal
I am reading about the early snow
that has fallen on the northeast
all the power shutting down
the weather going insane
16
the animals cannot help us
they go on moving without love 
though we look into their eyes and feel 
sure we see it there and maybe 
we are right nothing 
can replace animal love
not even complicated human love
we sometimes choose to allow
ourselves to be chosen by 
despite what everyone knows
the problem is
in order to love anything
but an animal you cannot allow
yourself to believe in those things
that are if we don’t stop them
going to destroy us
MATTHEW ZAPRUDER 17
AUBERGINE
I lie in bed
staring at the ceiling
last night before
I fell asleep
I put the book
on the floor
looking down
I see its spine
with the golden
simple name
of the old
poet who might
already be dead
somehow he used
ancient magic
everyone says
we don’t need anymore
to place inside
me that perfect
sadness
at last
after all the formal
words of love
I could really imagine
how terrible
18
some day
not for fifty
years or so
but still
for one of us
to say goodbye
it will be
again fear
that is almost
seasickness and also
MATTHEW ZAPRUDER 19
surely irrational
hope by that time
I will in some
way feel “ready”
through me
moves and then
asleep again
I am wearing
a dead rich
man’s black
20
luxurious overcoat
gold buttons
it is snowing
in a vast
wooden hallway
I am not cold
someone laughing
says just watch
them learn the same
lessons he means
my children I don’t
have yet
I touch the head
of a very important
black goat
and wake up again
the clock radio
says a small
tremor shook
some part
of the desert
no one lives in
tiny drones
we are flown
by what we do
not know into
blue election
season
inevitable spells
are cast
by warlocks
MATTHEW ZAPRUDER 21
they move
their hands
and factories
rise or stadiums
into dust
22
collapse
8:10 am December
San Francisco
rainy season
you pull on
your boots
I call them purple
the label says
aubergine
you leave
MATTHEW ZAPRUDER 23
for work
and by a jolt
of atavistic
sadness electrified
I move
once again
to the impassive
black desk
to clock
in for my eternal
internship
at the venerable
multinational
not for profit
Lucid & Dreaming
24
HOW DO YOU LIKE THE
UNDERWORLD
The completely to me magical screen
sits in the middle of this black desk,
the one I put together with such trouble,
following the instructions, muttering
its nonsensical Swedish name like a spell.
The screen is a dark window.
It can be made slowly light
by pushing a single button. It nobly rises,
a monument to a process begun
some years ago in a completely
dust free facility thousands of miles
from Oakland where the free sun
beats gently down on the heads
of my neighbors. I hear them
now for two sunlit moments pause
to converse as their dogs touch noses.
Meanwhile in the factory the workers
wear white dust proof suits.
The boss watches from a catwalk above.
To be troubled only abstractly
by the thought the thought in me
of those totally pure white clad
very real workers makes me
a kind of boss
MATTHEW ZAPRUDER 25
though I wish I were not
is the ultimate white person problem.
To solve it I would like to ask
an ancient philosopher, preferably one in a cave.
But they are extinct. The humans
who are not robots at all
are right now robotically putting together
insanely precise atomic components
that make what we do go.
Thus I can watch and interact
with people I call followers or friends.
26
Or rather the words they have put together.
Down the screen they scroll.
It makes me so dizzy.
For a while I watched and thought,
how interesting. Then sad
thinking animals. Without a thought
to make them close
MATTHEW ZAPRUDER 27
I closed my eyes and saw
a monk reading a book in the garden.
The book was about music others
left for us long ago and departed.
What can you learn
from a book about music?
Some say to settle for winter.
But they have read way too much Rilke,
he is very dead, and his problems
though cosmic did not include
the round earth becoming hotter.
I heard somewhere in Africa
they have found a glittering valley
an asteroid crashed into millions of years ago
and filled with useful silicate.
The frustules i.e. shells of single cell
diatoms make a white earth
you can pack into tiny packets
to keep things dry on their journeys
to our stores. I bought some
at Grand Lake Ace Hardware to combat
the tiny harmless ants that plagued me.
They plague me no more.
It’s time for the patriots to move forward.
Let’s go live now to that lake.
The smooth black totally ichthyic
divers plunge. To watch them
and wonder is like donning
the ceremonial oven mitts and trying
to grab a black coin in a darkened basement.
Beautiful pre middle aged people,
28
right now in the uncountable moments
interposed between us and lunch
together we sleepwalk
in the best interest of claws.
We have broken the future of thunder.
MATTHEW ZAPRUDER 29
Is it interesting or sad? There is no difference.
All children’s books are now about death.
30
TO SERGIO FRANCHI
Listening to you sing Stella by Starlight I am
thinking of the hummingbird
I actually see almost every morning hovering in the
garden
I think it has a green chest but it moves too fast to
really be sure
It seems to particularly love those purple flowers 
Whose names no matter how many times I am told I
cannot remember
Sergio Franchi I am giving in to spending a long slow
hour
Holding a book closed in my lap and reading about
your life
As a youth you studied both music and engineering
I imagine in those days you were not entirely happy
It makes sense later you would be so fearless
Staring into the very hot lights on the stage of the Ed
Sullivan show
With effortless force pushing the air
MATTHEW ZAPRUDER 31
That made the sound so beautiful and rending
My heart and I for once agree
At that moment not unlike a laundromat at night
Your light is so artificial it truly seems too real
And with a little sweat forming on your very sculp-
tural forehead it is clear
Even you know you could never prepare us for even
one long terrible afternoon
Yesterday I was walking down Stockton avoiding the
many pedestrians
Crowded around the Chinese groceries with their
marvelous enigmatic produce
I was feeling a little rage and also some happiness
when a small grey cat
Who might or might not have been lost came up to
me and with his forehead bumped my shin
Great singer, forgive me
Being myself has been a welcome unconscious chore
32
Today when I pass a person on the street I promise to
think
You there, you could be a beautiful singer
I have carried several problems here and would like to
leave them
But then who would I be
MATTHEW ZAPRUDER 33
POEM FOR LU CHI
All day it has wanted to rain. 
A constant breeze 
from the north where shadows live 
in ancient government 
among the old huge trees
carries a little scent of wood 
into the city. It ruffles 
some waxy green leaves 
outside my window
in this office building. 
The window is very solid, 
my hair is completely still. 
Lu Chi in the 3
rd
century
you wrote your treatise 
to discover the difference 
between good and bad writing. 
But you already knew
the leaves fall in autumn
and each artist has
a particular way 
to magic and sadness. 
I know my beloved 
is very close, she works 
down the street 
in a modern building
made of orange neon and steel,
I don’t have to dream of her, 
she is very far away from heaven, 
34
there are no actual mountains 
between us. Soon we will 
have lunch together. 
Then maybe I will write 
a letter and drop it 
into a blue box. Some rivers 
go underground, I know
one here in the city 
MATTHEW ZAPRUDER 35
beneath the armory
flows, many times 
I have walked above it
and felt a peace I am happy 
I will never be able to explain.
36
POEM FOR JACK SPICER
It’s the start of baseball season,
and I am thinking again
as I do every year
in early April now
that I live in California
where afternoon is a blue
span to languidly cross
of those long ones
you used to sort of sleep
through getting drunk
on many beers, lying
next to your radio
on a little square of grass
in the sun, listening
half to the game and half
to the Pacific water gently
slapping the concrete
barrier of the man-made cove.
I have heard it and it sounds
like conversations among
not there people I can’t
quite hear. But you could.
And later you would try
to remember what they said
and transcribe it on your
MATTHEW ZAPRUDER 37
black typewriter
in your sad, horrible room.
When I read your poems
about suicide and psychoanalysis
I feel very lucky and ashamed
to be alive at all. Everyone
has been talking lately
about radiation, iodine,
and wind, and you are in
your grave, far from the water.
38
I know I don’t care about you
at all but when I look
at your photograph,
your round head tilted up
so you are staring down
at everyone, I remember
how much you hated your body.
Today I will go down by the water
MATTHEW ZAPRUDER 39
where you used to sit and think
I do not hate my body
even though I often do.
When I die please write he tried
on whatever stone you choose.
- SET 2 -
41
Y
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THAN SO
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The topics at dinner were his sister’s American-born
twins, the real estate prices in Beijing and in a coastal
city where his parents were pondering purchasing
a waterfront condo, and the inefficiency of their
newly hired housekeeper. Only when his mother
had cleaned away the dishes did she ask, as though
grasping a passing thought, if Boyang had heard of
Shaoai’s death. By then, his father had gone into his
study.
That he had kept in touch with Shaoai’s parents and
had acted as a caretaker when illnesses and deaths had
beset their family—this Boyang had seen no reason
to share with his parents. If they had suspected
any connection, they had preferred not to know.
The key to success, in his parents’ opinion, was the
capacity to selectively live one’s life, to forget what
one ought not to remember, to untangle oneself
from lesser and irrelevant others, and to recognize
the unnecessariness of human emotions. Fame and
material gain are secondary though unsurprising, if
one is able to select the portion of one’s life to live
with impersonal wisdom. For this belief they had,
42
as an example, Boyang’s sister, who was a prominent
physicist in America.
“So I heard,” Boyang said.
His mother returned from the kitchen with two
cups of tea and passed one to him. He cringed at her
nudging the conversation beyond the comfortable
repertoire of their usual dinner topics. He showed up
whenever she summoned him; the best way to stay
distanced, he believed, was to satisfy her every need.
“What do you think, then?” his mother said.
“Think of what?”
“The whole thing,” she said. “One must acknowledge
the waste, no?”
“What waste?” he asked.
“Shaoai’s life, obviously,” his mother said, adjusting a
single calla lily in a crystal vase on the dinner table.
“But even if you take her out of the equation, others’
lives have been affected.”
What others, Boyang wanted to say to his mother,
would be worth of a moment of her thought? The
chemical found in Shaoai’s blood had been taken
from his mother’s laboratory; whether it had been an
attempted murder, an unsuccessful suicide, or a freak
YI YUN LI 43
accident had never been determined. Within the
family, they did not talk about the case, but Boyang
knew that his mother had never let go of her grudge.
“Do you mean your career went to waste?” Boyang
asked. After the incident, the university had taken
disciplinary action against his mother for her
mismanagement of chemicals. It would have been an
unpleasant incident, a small glitch in her otherwise
stellar academic career, but she insisted on disputing
the charge: every laboratory in the department was
run according to the outdated regulations, with
chemicals available to all graduate students. It
was a misfortune that a life had been damaged,
she admitted; she was willing to be punished for
allowing three teenage children to be in her lab
unsupervised—a mismanagement of human beings
rather than chemicals.
“If you want to look at my career, sure—that’s gone to
waste for no reason.”
“But things have turned out all right for you,” Boyang
said. “Better, you have to admit.” His mother had left
the university and joined a pharmaceutical company,
which was later purchased by an American company.
With her flawless English, which she’d learned at a
Catholic school, and several patents to her name, she
earned an income three times what she would have
made as a professor.
44
“But did I say I was speaking of myself?” she said.
“Your assumption that I have only myself to think of is
only a hypothesis, not a proven fact.”
“I don’t see anyone else worthy of your thought.”
“Not even you?”
“What do you mean?” The weakest comeback, Boyang
thought: people only ask a question like that because
they already know the answer.
“You don’t feel your life has been affected by Shaoai’s
poisoning?”
What answer did she want to hear? “You get used to
something like that,” he said. On second thought, he
added, “No, I wouldn’t say her case has affected me in
any substantial way.”
“Who wanted her to die?”
“Excuse me?”
“You heard me right. Who wanted to kill her back
then? She didn’t look like the kind who would commit
suicide, though certainly one of your little girlfriends,
I can’t remember which one, hinted at that.”
In rehearsing scenarios of Shaoai’s death Boyang
had never included his mother—but when does
YI YUN LI 45
any parent hold a position in a child’s fantasy? Still,
that his mother had paid attention, and that he had
underestimated her awareness of the case annoyed
him. “I’m sure you understand that if, in all honesty,
you tell me that you were the one who poisoned
her, I wouldn’t say or do anything,” she said. “This
conversation is purely for my curiosity.”
They were abiding the same code, of maintaining the
coexistence between two strangers, an intimacy—if
their arrangement could be called that—cultivated
with disciplined indifference. He rather liked his
mother this way, and knew that in a sense he had
never been her child; nor would she, in growing old,
allow herself to become his charge. “I didn’t poison
her,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“Why sorry?”
“You’d be much happier to have an answer. I’d be
happier, too, if I could tell you for sure who poisoned
her.”
“Well then, there are only two other possibilities. So
do you think it was Moran or Ruyu?”
He had asked himself the question over the years. He
looked at his mother with a smile, careful that his
face would not betray him. “What do you think?”
“I didn’t know either of them.”
46
“There was no reason for you to know them,” Boyang
said. “Or, for that matter, anyone.”
His mother, as he knew, was not the kind to dwell
upon sarcasm. “I never really met Ruyu,” she said.
“Moran of course I saw around, but I don’t remember
her well. I don’t recall her being brilliant, am I right?”
“I doubt there is anyone brilliant enough for you.”
“Your sister is,” Boyang’s mother said. “But don’t
distract me. You used to know them both well, so you
must have an idea.”
“I don’t,” Boyang said.
His mother looked at him, rearranging, he imagined,
his and the other people’s positions in her head as she
would do with chemical molecules. He remembered
taking his parents to America to celebrate their
fortieth wedding anniversary. At the airport in San
Francisco, they’d seen an exhibition of duck decoys.
Despite the fourteen-hour flight, his mother had
studied each of the wooden ducks. The colors and
shapes of the different decoy products fascinated her,
and she read the old 1920s posters advertising 20-cent
duck decoys, using her knowledge of inflation rates
over the years to calculate how much each duck
would cost today. Always so curious, Boyang thought,
so impersonally curious.
YI YUN LI 47
“Did you ever ask them?” she said now.
“Whether one of them tried to murder someone?”
Boyang said. “No.”
“Why not?”
“I think you’re overestimating your son’s ability.”
“But do you not want to know? Why not ask them?”
“When? Back then, or now?”
“Why not ask now? They may be honest with you now
that Shaoai is dead.”
For one thing, Boyang thought, neither Moran
nor Ruyu would reply to his email. “If you’re
not overestimating my ability, you are certainly
overestimating people’s desire for honesty,” he said.
“But has it occurred to you it might’ve only been an
accident? Would that be too dull for you?”
His mother looked into her tea. “If I put too many
tea leaves in the teapot, that could be considered a
mistake. No one puts poison into another person’s
teacup by accident. Or do you mean that Moran or
Ruyu was the real target, and poor Shaoai happened
to take the wrong tea? To think, it could’ve been you!”
“My drinking the poison by accident?”
48
“No. What I’m asking is: what do you think of the
possibility of someone trying to murder you?”
The single calla lily—his mother’s favorite flower—
looked menacing, unreal with its flawless curve.
She blew lightly over her tea, not looking at him,
though he knew that was part of her scrutiny. Was
she distorting the past to humor herself, or was
she revealing her doubt—or was the line between
distorting and revealing so fine that one could not
happen without the other? For all Boyang knew, he
had lived in her selective unawareness, but perhaps
this was only an illusion. One ought not to have the
last word about one’s own mother.
He admitted that the thought had never occurred to
him. “It’s a possibility, you know,” she said.
“But why would anyone have wanted to kill me?”
“Why would anyone want to kill anyone?” she said,
and right away Boyang knew that he had spoken too
carelessly. “If someone steals poison from a lab, that
person intends to do harm to another person or to
herself. For all I know, the harm was already done the
moment that chemical was stolen. And I’m not asking
you why. Why anyone does anything is beyond my
understanding or interest. All I would like to know is
who was trying to kill whom, but unfortunately you
don’t have an answer. And sadly, you don’t seem to
share my curiosity.”
49
M
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Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem heroic again,
& interesting, & modern.
Frank O’Hara, “Mayakovsky”
Talk turned one evening to the topic of ‘heroism’ in
the modern age. It was put forward that any world
that allowed Toddlers & Tiaras & High Speed Sushi on
prime time television could categorically not allow
for heroism on the scale of the ancients.
“Ours is a century of movement & enforced travel,”
said Ivy. “A century of high speed sushi, advanced
microwaves & extreme data-sharing—all things that
make for terrific ulcers & snacks & extraordinarily
forgettable entertainment. But not heroes, I’m afraid.”
Ivy—my sometimes editor, sometimes girlfriend—
also happens to be a lush who is sometimes prone to
bold, sweeping claims & a shaky logic that I can
more-than-sometimes not understand at all. On
the topic of heroism, for instance, Ivy cited her
own “somewhat controversial” theory of physics—
which held that particles were set in motion a long
time ago but it was now too late to do anything about
it except to eat lots & lots of raw fish.
Naturally, I disagreed with Ivy. “It’s true that to be
heroic today is to sit through an entire Youtube clip,”
I said. “But that doesn’t change the fact that individu-
als are capable, have always been capable, of rising
above the limitations of their environment.”
By way of an example, I told Ivy how Victor Hugo,
whenever he wished to write a book, instructed his
valet to lock him up in his boiler room for eight
days & nights so that he could “commune with the
cosmos”—without so much as the clothes on his back.
“The cosmos in eight days!” said Ivy. “Ha! Nonsense!
Any day now it will turn out that one man’s cosmos
was no more than another man’s indigestion. & that
what Archimedes called his vision of the earth from
space was no more than a bad case of appendicitis.”
“Cosmos or not,” I said. “Anyone who makes it that
long today without a working Wifi signal deserves
my deepest admiration.”
Here I very carefully failed to mention to Ivy how
Mr. Hugo fared in his heroic undertakings. For all I
know, he emerged from his boiler room with a diary
of doodles & a comprehensive report on the leaks in
his pipes.
MONETA GOLDSMI TH 51
Later on, hoping to change the subject, I made the
mistake of telling Ivy about a show I was invited
to read at in San Francisco—a big show, in fact, for
which I had nothing to say. (This last point I kept to
myself, of course.)
“That’s alright,” said Ivy, barely interested any longer.
“When’s the deadline?”
I checked the calendar on my phone, then hesitated...
“Eight days,” I said.
Ivy’s eyes lit up with all the delight of a piranha that
has just sensed fresh blood, & the next thing I knew I
was handing over to Ivy—one by one—my laptop, my
bus pass, my phone, the keys to my apartment, along
with practically anything else that might distract me
from our little wager with the cosmos, my so-called
“inner adventure”.

[What follows is a true, uncensored account of that
adventure—& how it went so disastrously wrong.]
Day 1
Agonizing boredom. I take my temperature hourly,
hoping I’ve died of social withdrawal, or at least need
an ambulance. Outside, the sinister church bells
underscore how peaceful this town can be—a peace
that can strike terror at any instant in the hearts of
men. 
52
I am tired of the cosmos. Give me a cell phone & I’ll
spend the rest of my life on Twitter. Anything is
better than this… this horror.
Afternoon. Preparing for my ‘staycation in the
cosmos’, Ivy drops off some supplies—all the proper
ointments, medicines, snacks, etc. Treatment (mostly)
for my hump—a condition I’d rather not go into
here…

“My hero,” says Ivy, laughing. My keys firmly, sinis-
terly, in hand as she backs out of the driveway. “Only
seven & a half days left. All you have to do is survive!”
Day 2
Morning, illness. I am gratified to learn that I am
developing a slight fever. This pleases me because
it means this diary was not undertaken in vain: it’s
never a healthy man who creates art after all, but
an unhealthy one. Proust, swaddled in the folds of
his mother’s skirt, surrounded by medicine bottles,
wheezing from asthma…
& this hump on my back, which I have never spoken
of publicly—how to describe it? The happy child
of socially hygienic circumstances, cannot possibly
imagine… the suffering, the pustules, the abscesses…
& this solitude of mine—which feels as though I
were squeezing myself into a constricting corset—
MONETA GOLDSMI TH 53
how to justify this? Proust, Proust! All that Proust!
Was he not the unhealthiest man of them all!?
Day 3
Afternoon. Ivy stops by to check on me. I tell her I’ve
decided to turn down the reading in San Francisco, &
have given up this ludicrous wager over heroic ideals.

“So soon?” says Ivy. “& what led to that conclusion
exactly, may I ask?”

“I’ve decided that the artist today should go below
ground unencumbered by time or by commerce, or by
the endless demands of the public. The artist must go
deep under the earth! Hundreds of feet below… like a
fig tree spreading its energy in every direction.”

“I will not be bullied by ideals,” I went on. “Even
heroic ones! Besides, I don’t care for readings… all that
clapping aggravates me. All anyone will do is stare at
my hump!”
1
…It occurs to me I have been speaking now for
several minutes to myself, & that Ivy has left. I check
whether she has locked the door on her way out. She
has.

1
This entry of the diary, which deals with the criticism of ‘poetry readings,’
goes on for several pages; it has been excised here in the interest of space &
posterity. Editor’s note.
54
Day 4
I’ve just found my old iPod in a drawer, which seems
to connect fine to the neighbor’s Wifi. I’m officially
back online! Today I feel as healthy as ever! Nothing
further to report.
Day 4.5
Evening. I dropped my iPod in the toilet, on accident.
I take back all that I said before: there is a God, she
just HATES ME.

All of us are no more than pointless neutrons &
protons hurtling, inexorably, through space. & all
anyone ever does is head toward death.
Day 5
No sign of life, inner or outer. No lines to show for
myself, not for me or for Ivy. I miss Ivy.
Day 5.5
Evening. Ivy arrives at last; she whispers from
outside my window (perhaps mocking me), “Did
you commune with yourself today, darling?”

I don’t answer, pretending not to be home. Ivy
knows better. “How many lines have you written
MONETA GOLDSMI TH 55
today, darling?”

I tell Ivy, from my blue pajamas, how someone once
asked Socrates what a man under thirty should do
with his time, & Socrates replied: “Nothing in excess”
(which is true).

Ivy says: “& how many lines did Socrates write...
darling?”
Day 6??
(what day is this??)
I confirm a crisis of universalism in myself. This
diary is pointless, the cosmos are pointless. I am sick
of people who tell me to concern myself with the
cosmos—I haven’t seen the cosmos, I don’t know the
cosmos, I haven’t been there!
I’m ready to leap through the open window & not
look back—to ride my bike to the sea.
Day 7
The sea! They say that on the 7th day, man stood
still, God smote man down, tested him by driving
him from his home. Not this man! This man walked
out on his own two feet. I’ve escaped to the sea!  As
someone wiser than me once said (the Taoists, I think,
in regards to the cosmos): “Learn when to wash your
56
nets & when to leave them out to dry”. Or (regarding
diaries): “Abandon all diaries, especially this one.”

& if the Taoists never said that, they should have.
Day 7.5
Dusk. From the hilltop where I sit now, the splendor
& beauty of the sun is almost chemical, toxic. I
wonder what percentage of us watches the sunset
with this kind of intensity. A young man around my
age dozes off & absentmindedly scribbles in his Mole-
skin—a Moleskin, that can only mean one thing: he
is not a proper writer. I watch him get up from his
lawn-chair—perhaps to escape—& wade out into the
ocean, all of his clothes still on his back.
I stay until I can’t stay any longer. (Suddenly, I feel
ashamed to feel so cold.) As I get ready to leave, I
hover above the young man’s open notebook, & begin
to read:

Wednesday, 8:15pm. Dear diary. There is a funny-looking
“indie” kid with some kind of odd physical deformity—
a hump? a back-pack?—who sits nearby. He looks like an
old man with that silly oversized legal pad under his arm.
If he didn’t keep looking over here, I might actually be
moved to feel sorry for him… He mumbles to himself like an
imbecile & tries & fails to feed the turtles when he thinks
no one is looking. His legal pad looks empty; he is not a
proper writer.
MONETA GOLDSMI TH 57
Day 8 (Epilogue)
At home with Ivy, I tell her I’ve confirmed that
heroism is indeed not possible in our age, & that
whatever heroic activity occurs does not occur in
people but between people. It is for this reason & this
reason alone, I say, that I have decided to do the show
in San Francisco…
59
K
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The other day, while I was driving in San Francisco,
a man pulled up next to me. His face was red and
he seemed to be shouting. His hands flailed in the
air. It took a moment to parse out that the subject
of his anger was me. After all, aside from his facial
contortions, he looked like a nice person. He was
about forty and had messy, curly hair. He drove one
of those old Mercedes you can power with corn oil,
and he had an empty kid’s seat in the back. I know I
shouldn’t judge from appearances and objects; there
are plenty of assholes who use biodiesel. Still, from
where I sat, he seemed like someone I would probably
get along with, aside from the fact that—oh, I could
hear him now!—he was currently calling me a cunt.
Before I go further, let me tell you that I am a
notoriously bad driver. A few years ago, I almost
killed a friend and myself by blindly taking a U-turn
into another car. For this reason, I drive very, very
slowly, which was probably what this man was yelling
about. I get it. You don’t want to be behind me if you
are in a hurry. Actually, if you see me in a car, give
yourself some space, period. If I had been able to
talk to this man, I would have sympathized with
him. It’s too bad slow drivers like myself have to
60
clog the streets. I wish there were a bus that went
from Bumblefuck, where I live, to the doctor’s office,
where I was going. And probably, if we had been, say,
on bicycles, where I could hear him and he could hear
me, he wouldn’t have said anything. In his car, he felt
invisible. As if his actions would have no personal
consequence.
For a long time, I have clung to the analogy that
when we rate a book online, we feel we have the same
protection and anonymity that one has in a car. There
might be a little picture of you, but most people don’t
use their real names. As an author, I gave up looking
at the ratings of my own books long ago. It’s not
that I don’t find them relevant. I’m flattered anyone
bothers to have an opinion about what I write. Also,
the ability to broadcast what we think about books
has changed the way I read. Twelve years ago I had to
rely on a biased review in the Times, or even, I’ll admit
it, Oprah, to figure out what books to buy. I use
Goodreads to make lists, to note what I want to read
next. And a lot of the reviews are really, really useful.
But not all of them. I’d use my own reviews to
demonstrate this point, but screw it. It’s too painful.
And don’t go telling me what they say. (My mother’s
favorite trick.) Let’s look instead at the infallible
Donna Tartt. Her book The Goldfinch, is pretty much
universally thought to be really good. I read it and
loved it, and it was nominated for a gazillion awards,
and won the Pulitzer Prize, and remains one of the
KATI E CROUCH 61
top selling books of the year. Say what you will, these
are all fairly good indicators of a solid novel.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t hard to find shitty reviews. I’m
sticking with Goodreads, because Amazon can really
get out there, people complaining about the texture
of the paper and things. Here are some examples:
Audible. OH MY GAWD! Who ARE you people giving this
5 star raves? I’m not even half way yet and I’m wondering
if I will be able to weather this ridiculously long book
that keeps getting sidetracked by just about every teenage
pothole you can think of.
*
Oh. My. Gosh. I just finished. The ending does not
disappoint. What a diaphanous extravaganza of words. Of
lists. Of never-ending stream of consciousness pompoonery.
Yes. I made that word up. It’s the merging of pompous and
tom-foolery. Is Tartt serious? Can she really be seriously
presenting up this book with a straight face?
*
By the end of the novel, it becomes a nightmarish mash-up
of (more) Gossip Girl meets Quentin Tarrantino. Except
that there are no black people.
*
The novel’s main character is a whiny dumbass. At one
point he pouts about feeling hungry when he turned down
62
food at a party the night before and breakfast with his
friend. Shut the fuck up, idiot.
There is that very famous David Eggers quote about
judging the work of others: “Do not be critics, you
people, I beg you,” he wrote. “Do not dismiss a book
until you have written one, and do not dismiss a
movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a
person until you have met them.”
While I like the idea, in practice it’s not very realistic,
is it? And it’s also a teensy bit narrow-minded.
Because of the laws this country is based on, anyone
has the right to judge anything, and thank God for
it. Also, may the same God forbid that all of the book
raters on the Internet become novelists. What the
world needs are more readers. Good, smart, vocal
readers who know what they like and don’t and can
intelligently say why.
Most smart writers I know don’t read reviews. When
it was just newspapers, it was easy. Now there are
thousands of people speaking on record about whether
or not they like our books. I’m not discouraging
reviewing. Please! Review! But just… think about what
you are writing. Try and take as much care with words
as have the writers you are judging. Remember the
Malcolm Gladwell adage saying you need to write for
10,000 hours to be proficient? He’s not kidding. I’d bet
you good money more than 10,000 hours went into
the Goldfinch. And so…
KATI E CROUCH 63
Shut the fuck up, idiot?
I do think that in the end, the Goodreads star
system actually works. My first book, Girls in
Trucks, currently has a total of three stars. At first
I thought that was shitty. But if a five star novel is,
say, Lolita, and a one star book is, maybe, a smudge
of mayonnaise on a page, then I guess three stars for
Girls in Trucks is pretty accurate. It was my first book.
Let’s say, a 4,000 hour book. Earnest, wonky in some
places, endearing in others. I can do better now, so I
don’t feel so badly. In the world of novels, I’ll take a
three. It’s like the Goodreads algorithm managed to
spit out my book’s ultimate objective worth.
That’s not to say I haven’t lost sleep over it. What the
hell? Three stars?
It’s hard to remember that every single thing we do
affects someone else. You might brush away a gnat,
which then lodges into the eye of a child, who then
screams for two hours, exhausting her parents, who
then skip sex that night they would have conceived
the country’s eighty-first president. Or maybe you
will smile at an old man tomorrow. You won’t even
think about it or remember it again, but this man,
he will turn the corner, go home, lie down and have
a stroke. It won’t be your fault. It was happening
anyway. But he’ll die happy treasuring the thought of
your lost face.
64
We can’t know what we do to people. Except in
this new place. The Internet. Everything you write,
email, rate, all of those words go out into the ether
forever. They will outlive you, these words. When
your grandchildren are poking around to find out
something about you, they will read what you’ve
written. I am not certain Shut the fuck up idiot about
a work of art is what we’ll want them to find. Or
maybe it is. But why not give them something
better? There are smart ways to pan a book. Kind
ways, even. This writer does not want less reviews. I
am not asking for you to say nothing if you can’t say
anything nice. I am saying, review, review, review
smarter. These writers, and singers, and actors, and
people you are judging, they have put their lives into
this. Picture us next to you, listening, when reviewing
our work. Roll down the window. Talk to us.
I’ve used the word God a few times in this piece, but
I’m sad to say, it was only figuratively. So far, with the
data I’ve been given, I have not come across a reason
to believe in a higher power. This also means I don’t
believe in an afterlife. I think that when we die, we
die. But the Internet won’t die. So these words you
write, they are your afterlife. Writers know that, but
I’m not sure other people do. Well, it’s true: Our stars
will outlive us. All of us. And the thing is, I might be
wrong about this afterlife idea. I’m wrong a lot. The
Greeks and Romans were pretty sure about it all. I
mean the River Styx, and the Charons. But instead
of Charons, Muses will be there. Artists, writers,
KATI E CROUCH 65
and musicians you have judged. They will have the
information and the words you have written. They
will be waiting, patiently, for their chance to put a
star rating on your life.
67
P
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E
In the unquiet of his shoe-box study, amid the noises
of his house, Walt Kaplan tries to read. Furniture
salesman, husband, father, daydreamer, reader. It is
1947, a year no one will much remember. After the
war but before anybody got used to the war being
over. A hold your breath and hope sort of year. He
gives up? How could anybody read in this asylum?
And the peck of the clock nicks away my flesh. No
matter how much I eat, he thinks, it makes no
difference. I’m a fat husk. Meanwhile, Sarah’s on
the phone in the kitchen. Such fathomless yappery.
Why why must she bark? It’s like being married to
General Patton. Is everyone who dials up this house
in need of orders? And there is the thump of Miriam’s
battering up and down the stairs. Eight years old and
already the kid sounds like a mob. And he aches for
her. He always has. So that somehow hearing her is
the same as not hearing her is the same as her gone.
I am a morbid man, not a bad man, simply a morbid,
lazy sloucher. He shouts, “Knock it off, Orangutan!
You got a father in here thinking.” The kid doesn’t
answer. So he talks to Sarah without talking to
Sarah, which is one of the great advantages of
68
being married too long. Time cuts down on the need
for superfluous conversation. He talks to the idea of
her. She talks on the phone.
I’m talking fundamentals, Sarah, follow me?
Essentialities. As in you make something in this
world, take, yes, a child, and then? Then? Do you hear
what I’m trying to say?
Walt, we’ve got cocktails at the Dolinsky’s at eight.
Dolinsky’s? Again? What could we possibly say to
them that hasn’t already been said?
I ironed you a shirt.
Conversation? You think it staves anything off?
Silence, it’s all over the place, don’t you—
It’s hanging on the bathroom knob.
So much for mine wife’s wise counsel. Not that I
don’t enjoy a sniff of Scotch as much as the next
shlump. Nobody can say Walt Kaplan’s not a sociable
man. I tell the kid, Knock it off, Orangutan, you got
a father in here thinking, and if the kid heard, which
even if she did, she didn’t—she might have stopped at
my study door and spoken through the keyhole and
said, Thinking about what, Daddy? And I might have
said, I’m remembering things, which is hard work.
You think remembering is a peanut, Peanut?
PETER ORNER 69
Remembering what?
Things, monumental things. For instance during the
hurricane of ’38 when I your father—
Her little mouth breathing through the keyhole. Five
hundred times that same story.
Five hundred and one, five hundred and two, five
hundred and three. Your mother is home here in Fall
River and you and I, Orangutan, are out on the Cape
at Horace’s place in Yarmouth. A little father and
daughter vacation, a day away from the dragon, and
the dragon calling up and squawking, Didn’t you hear
the weather? Get in the car and drive! You’ll get swept to—
China, the kid would say, we’re always getting swept
to China in this family—
Precisely, The People’s Republic! And Walt Kaplan
knows who’s boss. The man takes good orders, and he
blankets you up. You weren’t two years old and your
feet were like a short fat man’s thumbs. I ever tell
you that? That your feet were like a short fat man’s
thumbs?
No.
There’s the aplomb, see? You always got to add
something new when you tell something again. And
your father, great and fearless father, carries his
70
daughter to the mainland in his Chrysler Imperial
steed. Last car over the Sagamore before the state
police closed it off and the hurricane of ’38 blew half
the Cape into the Atlantic. They called it the Long
Island Express. New Yorkers got to have their nose
in everything. They even take our disasters. Half of
Rhode Island blew away, too. What’s half of Rhode
Island anyway? Is your mother never wrong? No—she
hasn’t got the time. She’s got Louise Greenbaum on
the line. Paging Sarah Kaplan. Sarah Kaplan. Louise
Greenbaum on line 1. So, yes, hail the Sultana! But
salute the infantrymen too. Walt Kaplan, hero of the
Sagamore Bridge. Write him down as a footnote in
the annals, hearty scribes!
And so Walt sits in the unstillness of his shoebox
study and thinks about fundamentals.
You make a kid and the wind comes and tries to air
mail it to Asia. The insurance companies call it an
Act of God. Act of God? State Farm’s going to send
me a new kid? That only happens in Job. Last car,
Walt Kaplan, dodges the terrible wrath of wraths,
but how many more to come? How many acts has
this so-called God got left? What on earth compares
with the shame of not being able to protect your
daughter, your only only? Let a father weep in
peace, Orangutan. That fuckin’ thumping. Hellion
child. The devil’s spawn. Sarah my yappery yapperer.
Not the clock that dooms us but the us of us. The
thumping will not echo. It only booms in the brain,
PETER ORNER 71
in the silence, which is nowhere. A grave has more
hold than the noise of this house. Miriam’s feet
tromp up and down the stairs. You say I don’t get
out enough, that I waste my life’s blood couped up
here being morbid, being stupid. Sarah? Sarah? You
hearing me?
The kid’s gonna die, Walt. I’m gonna die. You’re
gonna die. Tell me something else, you genius.
Don’t laugh at me woman.
You want me to start weeping now? This minute? We
got cocktails at Dolinsky’s at—
That’s it. I’m asking you, I’m really asking you. How
is it possible that we aren’t in a permanent state of
mourning? My child limp? You think I enjoy this?
There are certain things nobody should imagine and
yet if we didn’t—who would we be if we didn’t?
I ironed you a shirt. It’s on the bathroom knob.
Would my head were a head of lettuce. I drove the
last car over the Sagamore Bridge before the state
police closed it off. The Cape Cod Canal in tempest
beneath us. No cars coming, no cars going. The
bridge cables flapping like rubber bands. You think
in certain circumstances 1700 feet of bridge isn’t a
thousand miles? The hurricane wiped out Yarmouth.
Horace thanked God for insurance. I saved our little
72
girl. You want me to say Hurrah! Hurrah! but I can’t,
I won’t, because to save her once isn’t to save her,
and still she thumps as if the world was something
thumpable. As if it wasn’t silence on a fundamental
level. Yap on, wife, yap on. Thump, daughter, thump.
Louder, Orangutan, louder. I can’t hear you.
PETER ORNER 73
SHHHHHH, ARTHUR’S STUDYING
roman upheaval topic
of a book by dr. kaplan
Can Cataline be cleared? The reputation of the Roman
conspirator assigned to infamy in the polemics of
Cicero has been reclaimed
Fall River Herald News
September 25, 1968
Walt’s brother Arthur was a quiet boy who grew into
a quiet man. When they were boys it was always,
Shhhhhh, Arthur’s studying. There’s got to be at least
one yeshiva bucher in every family and a yeshiva
bucher’s got to have quiet. Go play outside, Walt,
your brother’s studying. And so Walt went to work
in their father’s furniture store and Arthur went to
college, first to Brown and then to Columbia for his
PhD in classics. Arthur’s face was pale. He always
looked as though he’d been dusted with flour. This
added to his gravitas and Walt, like the rest of the
family, was proud that Arthur looked the part of a
scholar ghost.
Arthur’s first book, and only book, appeared in 1968.
For a man who lived such a quiet life (he’d married
a wane, squirrelly-looking girl and they lived in
Brooklyn without children) the book turned out
74
to be a little scandalous. The title was innocuous
enough: Cataline and His Role In the Roman Revolution.
Yet the book was a surprisingly spirited, and graphic,
defense of Cataline. The man made a lot of trouble
two thousand years ago and here he is wreaking
havoc once again via the pen of meek little Arthur
Kaplan, a man who came out of the womb speaking
Latin. They called him a villainous fiend, murderer,
corrupter of youth and donkeys, venial proprietor, traitor,
drunken debauchee, temple robber… Plutarch himself
topped it off with the accusation that Cataline deflowered
his own daughter.
And all this in the prologue.
What? The family gasped. What? What? Don’t get
us wrong. An author is an author is author, and our
Arthur is an author. His name’s right there on the
cover. But incest? Donkeys? Maybe he should have
been out in the street playing stickball with Walt.
“Maybe nobody will read it.”
“Ah yes. Of course, that’s it. Nobody will read it.”
“But we’ll put it on the shelf.”
“Yes, absolutely. Put it on the shelf.”
Upon Arthur’s triumphant return to Fall River, he
gave a short speech at his alma mater, BMC Durfee
PETER ORNER 75
High School, noting that the destruction of Cataline’s
reputation was the result of the same sort of
mudslinging that characterizes the politics of today.
“And if you think the Romans were violent? Maybe
we ought to look at ourselves in this year, 1968. It is
not the great man who is heard, but his detractors.
Detractors always shout louder and use more colorful
language. Elections bring out the poet in politicians,
don’t they? Take for instance the consular elections
of 64 B.C. when Cicero called Piso (father of Caesar’s
last wife Calpurnia) among other things, brute,
plague, butcher, linkboy of Cataline, lump of carrion,
drunken fool, inhuman lunatic, feces, epicurean pig,
assassin, temple robber, plunderer of Macedonia,
infuriated pirate egged on by desire for booty and
rapine… And yet, it must be said, that compared to
Piso, Cataline was a red pepper.”
This was followed by an expectant pause. Arthur
leaned over the podium, gaped at his audience, and
waited.
Someone whispered loudly—it may have been Aunt
Haddy—Does he have to keep making those awful lists?
Arthur said it again: “Cataline was a red pepper!”
Arthur’s sad, pasty face, his eyes imploring. Sarah
nudged Walt, what’s he talking about?
Shhhhhhhhhh.
76
Walt dug his mouth in his wife’s ear. Claude Pepper,
the pinko senator. He’s making a joke. And so it was
Walt who finally, out of mercy, rescued his brother by
laughing. Everybody else followed his lead. Ah, Red
Pepper! Cataline was a Red Pepper! Ha, ha.
Ha.
Are you finished with this speech, Arthur?
One night, about a month or so later, it was Walt who
after dinner took the book off the shelf in the living
room where Sarah had safely stored it for posterity.
He carried it upstairs to his study in the flat of his
hand like a waiter carrying a tray. Then he locked
the door and went to Rome. Night was thinning into
morning by the time Cataline uttered the last of his
famous last words. But if fortune frowns on your bravery,
take care not to die unavenged. Do not be captured and
slaughtered like cattle, but fighting like heroes leave the
enemy a bloody and tearful victory.
Walt hears trumpets. If fortune frowns! Viva
Cataline! Viva the traitor!
Furthermore, as my brother so cogently argues, no
self-respecting republic should be without a little
healthy rebellion. It keeps everybody honest, and
with a blowhard like Cicero around, somebody had
to draw a line across the Forum with his sword. Walt
slides off his chair and on to the carpet. He stares
PETER ORNER 77
at the ceiling. His study has always been a box that
envelopes him, protects him. There are days he
mourns this room, wonders how it will go on without
him when he’s gone. Right now, the distance between
himself on the floor and the ceiling is intolerable.
I’m lying in a grave on my own carpet. To think there
are people who believe that when it’s all over the
angels sing and we float up higher and higher. They
don’t doubt. They believe. Before I put on my other
sock, I’ve doubted an entire day. And my brother
writes: “The great revolutionist was found far in
advance of his slain foeman, still breathing lightly,
and showing on Cataline’s face the indomitable spirit
that had animated him when alive.”
The Roman Army carried his severed head back to the
Eternal City in a basket.
Once, outside this very room, a jay rammed into the
window. Then he backed up and flew into it again.
Again. Again. Again, until he finally dropped into the
dirt. They say only man is valiant enough to die for
lost causes.
In the blue gray light, Walt Kaplan thinks, My people
sleep. My own brother, a man who has faith enough—
believes enough—to devote his life to raising an
ancient debaucher from the dead, sleeps in leafy
Brooklyn beside his squirrely wife. My Sarah and my
daughter sleep across the hall. In sleep, they breathe.
78
The dawn sun claws upward. I sink into carpet. I
dream of home when I’m home, of love when I love.
How can I shout farewell from the mountaintop if I
never leave the house? How can I rise to protect my
people if I don’t even own a sword?
79
N
O
R
M
A C
O
L
E
P
OEMS
Imaginations law hits frames
times air delivers to few an aside
so and so also
to speak of these footsteps is
to fear is to be able
80
BIRD OF PARADISE
calling out very quietly
moving forward
must be her ears
generalizing
left
swept and go behind
to map and to provide
look home
and then
to go.
NORMA COLE 81
RIPTIDE
There’s a shadow over the city
the light, as usual, framing and erasing
Just say you
dream fires each
night smoothing each
collapsing page from
the throat talking
in a series
of measure in
the high desert
the perfect life
in a series
of measured gestures
an invitation to
see the world
from a bridge
that burns in
the next night
82
: METHOD
“A word is coming up on the screen…”
Michael Palmer, Baudelaire Series
a story traced between two points
beneath which a line was drawn
sitting in the place of words
Dropping stitches
Night by night
A measure
Where the sky is striped
Learning to read: moving proof
of its fictional space: first it reads
laterally: things are the
consequence of names: do not
inquire into the meaning
of speech: you like it
clearly: addressing it while
speaking it: the implications
woven from what it encounters:
still in the heat or greeting
impulse: dressed between
two pages: things we see
in our sleep
NORMA COLE 83
for Barbara Guest
at some point, or at gunpoint
human is to wander
the light is not the usual light
the birds are
84
from “SPINOZA IN HER YOUTH”
^^^
Today I went to visit the
ancient world, a world
of glass constructed once
then unconstructed, it
bypassed quality, so I came
home and read music what
a woman carries a tune for
instance decentralization
is centrally planned and
can be revoked at any time
it’s noon. The moon
is out, I’ll meet you
by the pyramid
^^^
NORMA COLE 85
PORTUGUESE ROSE, WINTER’S ROSE
I want a heart-shaped coffin, said
the song, a guitar shape how it
happens a person comes to the door
and says work makes the space where
we live a contraction of time
not to be seen is to be dead. Light
on a hand waving light on a
face is our witness at
moments unable to look directly
at a single word to see or say
what things are broth
spilled on the table or
the truth of winter not to be
seen is to be dead.
86
Suppose the moon-blind
divers compose little
shows for you in the light
in the street our blind
moon absorbing smoke
reflecting orange night
for Robert Creeley, Together, 1996
NORMA COLE 87
SARABANDE
“and then looks at
the stars” from the
bed in the ambulance
looks up at boughs of
trees shifting quickly
lit in blackness
blackening soft, deep
siren’s song—she died
several times that night
and only in the weeks
to come started and
started to come back
then forward which is
real life
88
LIKE FIRES
Like wasps’ nests
where we were
like many fires buildings
crumpling in flames in a
forest of trucks rushing
past in the night, headlights
blazing
To see, hand
covering her eyes, hand
brushing back his hair, the sounds
of forest days and night
sounds sun comes up or is
obscured by clouds or it is
raining or blazing light is it
late, too late for me to
come back to your place
NORMA COLE 89
DUCK LAKE
for Asger Jorn
That beautiful lamp
the way it comes into focus, a
narrowing, tightening
this moment of recognition
and I saw
a few times
what some thought
they saw
the dream world is for dreamers
90
“WE’RE ALL GUESTS OF
EXPERIENCE”
says Pasternak. Step away when the song is about to
fall into the air. Everything gets
short like those old etchings. Complete in your mind
the balcony of history. Her white
blouse untucked in this heat, car keys glittering in his
hand as he walks away. A man falls
onto the deck, hit but not sunk. He sits on the chair,
looking over at the other chair. When
we consider history—be quiet! Redeemable, we will
get you a new dream. My memories,
I leave them to you.
91
P
E
T
E
R B U
L
L
E
N
P
OETRY
My wife’s at her laptop looking at that ‘Poem of the
Day’ business. A picture of the poet sits beside the
poem. “She’s sexy,” I say, thinking that later I’d like
to get to the bottom of perceptions like this. “I knew
you’d think that,” my wife says, “she’s one of those
petite types you go for, nothing like me.” The poet’s
blonde hair appears to be blowing around in a desert
wind. My wife says she lives in Joshua Tree, like she
has her address, like she has the address of all petite,
wind-blown poets posing for pictures in desolate,
rock-strewn landscapes. I tell my wife my eyes are not
so good anymore, and that I didn’t notice anything
petite about her. “You should go off with them,” my
wife says. “Them?” I say. “The desert poets,” she says.
I begin picturing the poets, each in a little adobe hut,
at their writing desk, just a cactus or two down from
their neighbor. They become dear to me. I know now
that I must make the journey, being after all, a pilgrim
in the way of words. I’ll tell them my wife sent me. An
authentic statement is naturally endearing. It won’t
be long before I’m comforted by a stanza or two,
stimulated by a rollicking sestina.
I will confess the depth of my appreciation for
their writing implement. I will gather flowers for
their table.
92
Why I’d never thought of making such a tour before
is beyond me. You can live decade after decade
oblivious to your true calling. I start to pack and my
wife asks me where I think I’m going. “To visit the
desert poets,” I say. I don’t think she cares for my
answer, which is probably what has her threaten to
kill me. I take my wife seriously, so I put off my trip.
The poem-of-the-day no longer prints a picture off
to the side. If one scrolls down, a habit that requires
either an innate optimism or puritan work ethic, one
sees the poet, but by that time despair has set in, and
I’ve lost all longing for human contact.
The poem itself dominates, a lonely tyranny of text,
hovering below a mild-mannered blue graphic.
I suppose it’s safer that way.
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