Random Review 1: Clay, by Cathy Cullis

Cathy Cullis


If you sit still long enough
you will understand we’re never really stopping.
Everything inside me churns and escalates,
makes a pattern of tight blanket stitches.

Even if the light takes my angles
and makes them sweeter than porcelain
no-one is really fooled,
they turn their own head because they can.

I know a woman who breathes too much
and one day she will die, holding herself.
Her mouth is better than mine
but lacks the will to shut up.

I can sing anything in my head,
so long as fingers are pressed into me.
I do not need more than these simple things:
a shape of almost human, a dampened smile.


Random Review:

Cullis is about the moment; she explores now beautifully, carved from the inevitable future

The tactile fabric of clay and cloth become the intangible material that is time, and the inverse

The artificial becomes real; the real is art

What can art accomplish?  Is creation a simulacra of life? Is life (and therefore ultimately death) a side-effect of creation?

In creating, do we kill ourselves little by little as we live little by little? How careful must we be?

Short Story: The Enlightment of Emmanuel Cruz

The door to his punishment cell became outlined with light from the hall outside, the only light he’d seen for over a month. Forty days, he reckoned. He’d lost count.

The light, dull as it was, barely shone around the edges of the door and a few inches into the darkness of his cell, a hole, really — a hole carved into the damp stone of a fortress 400 years older than he was. He could lay down, but both his head and feet touched stone; if he kept his feet to the right, he could avoid the metal pan that was his toilet. He could not spread his arms all the way out or up.

The cell was dark and small, but it sheltered him and kept him safe up to a point: they had to open the door to get to him, which gave him plenty of warning. He also had the luxury of moving out of the fetal position on the thin mattress between his body and the cold stone below when he became cramped; when he became cold, he curled up into himself again. Some punishment tanks he’d been in had less room. A coffin had less room.

Steps echoed on the hall and stopped. A pause. A quick rap on the metal door by a hand used to such things.

“Prisoner 09141966045, your death sentence has been signed by Commander Guevara. You will be executed at seven in the morning, tomorrow.”

The words were meant to be, and were delivered as, a punch to the solar plexus. He responded accordingly.

“You can shoot me now and get it over with.” (His exact words: “Me fusilan ahora y ya terminamos con esto”).

Silence. Steps echoed away from him.

His heart was beating faster. He felt pressure on his temples, as though his head were in a vise. He thought this was coming, knew this was coming, had convinced himself this was coming, but now it had.

His breathing became labored, as if someone were standing on his chest. The cell was collapsing on him. After all this time, after keeping away the panic of being swallowed by his cell, he could feel his mind giving. His fear: there would be a fire and no one would come to get him out. He would burn to death, trapped. And now his fear had exploded into something else, and he could no longer keep it at bay.

What was different now from the way things were fifteen seconds ago?

What did he know now that he didn’t know then?

He tried controlling his breath. Hold it. Out slowly. In. Hold it. Out slowly.

He saw himself standing by the execution wall. He saw the firing squad soldiers, one or two trying to suppress yawns in the early light, waiting to kill. He saw himself breaking down, the horror pummeling at his stomach: his dead body oozing blood, the soldiers returning to the barracks, some to crawl into their beds again, some to clean their weapons, one or two to try and call their families in the provinces to ask whether the package had arrived, and the world going on, baseball, weddings, baptisms … all going on, and him dead, soon to be a pile of rotting excrement.

He saw himself breaking down before the firing squad, the finality of his death bludgeoning his stubborn refusal to see reality for what it was. He saw himself on his knees, sobbing.

In. Hold it. Out slow.

What was different now from the way things were a minute ago?

What did he know now that he didn’t know then?

He lay face down on the mattress, his arms folded under him. The sheer terror of breaking down had hit him like a high-pressure hose. He knew what that felt like. That was no metaphor to him. He’d been hosed down several times now, a force so strong that it just took him off his feet, laid him on his side, and slid him down the floor as though he was a scrap of paper. He knew what it was like to be nothing before an overwhelming force, when all resistance was futile and all defiance but a gesture.

In. Hold it. Out slowly.

As Juanito Bautista had taught him, he forced himself to think of water — water in a lake, water flowing slowly past smooth stones, water in a vase holding flowers. He had to stop the fear. He had to. He had no option.

He forced himself to see his execution. He made himself stand tall. He said nothing. All that had to be said had been. He made himself refuse the blindfold. A romantic thought. He remembered he’d heard they no longer offered blindfolds. He waited for the end — he’d never hear the guns, so he’d never know it was over. He would not die because he would not know he was dying. There was nothing to fear. Death would happen before he even knew it.

He liked there would be no blindfold: he’d watch the whole thing. At any rate, nothing remained for him to see that had not happened already in his mind hundreds of times. His thoughts drifted to a phrase by Borges, “Whoever should undertake some atrocious enterprise should act as if it were already accomplished, should impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.” Juanito Bautista had given him that book to read, had said such a thought worked as well for those upon whom an atrocious enterprise were to be committed. It was done. It’d already been done. One only had to live through it.

My whole life has already happened, he told himself, my death has already happened. I just have to catch up to it.

He had re-discovered reading in prison, back when he had a cell with light. He had read some philosophy. Nietzsche bored him. Kierkegaard was too much of a Christian. He liked fiction most of all: Borges, Camus, Gallegos, Guiraldes. All of these books Juanito gave him, and two books on Buddhism. That was the closest to religion he’d ever come. But he could not believe in reincarnation. It was too much like the Christian heaven he was fleeing. One life, one death. He could not divorce himself from such a basic precept. He could not let go of the inherent knowledge of a farm boy –pigs die and dogs die and horses die and humans die, and death is the end for pigs and dogs and horses and humans.

He had accepted he’d never be enlightened in the Buddhist way, as he understood he could not be saved in the Christian way. There was much wisdom in Christianity and Buddhism, but he could not go beyond the here and now, what was and wasn’t, one life, one death. The denial of death was the source of all lies. Juanito said that. Juanito was executed, and he died like a man and like all men. “Tell Fidel,” Juanito said to his executioners (or so the story went), “he can suck my cock.”

He could feel his body against the mattress, and it felt good just to feel. He thought of his mother, who was long dead. She would not feel pain for his death. She’dnever known him. He’d never known his father either. He’d been raised at the Revuelta orphanage, and he doubted any of the nuns or the other children there would remember him. Some people he’d known since would mourn him a few weeks, but they would go on on to their bread lines and meat lines and shoe lines. He had no wife, no children. He had some old girlfriends, but their lives would take care of them. His death would touch no one particularly hard. He was glad for that.

But those bastards with their rifles, ready to shoot, and the guards who would take him to the execution, knowing all the time he was good as dead, probably with a hard-on as they savored their power over him, and Che, signing the death warrant. The son of a bitch wasn’t even Cuban. And Fidel and his bullshit, and all the other assholes who’d carry on after the .30-06 bullets tore his chest into ground beef. Those sons of bitches could do this to him. They would. They were going to. They were going to do it in the morning. They had already done it. It was inexorable. Sons of bitches.

What he wouldn’t give to hang i just a few days, or weeks, months at the most. Just long enough for Fidel to get what was coming. Imagine that — the Americans would come in and get rid of Fidel one day too late. Wouldn’t that just be the thing to happen. The Cuban Revolution: 1959 to 1964, one day after his execution. But the Americans had nothing to gain by rushing things. They wanted Cuba to be an example. They’d just sit it out and wait. Time was on their side. Sons of bitches.

And he was a son of a bitch, a dumb son of a bitch to be in this mess instead of being home, drinking dark rum, smoking a good cigar, watching the rain come over the bay and shut down the sky, and the dark, wet tree trunks with their lucent, grass-green leaves, and the cool rain breeze blowing in from the north. Dumb son of a bitch stuck in a rock grave waiting for some other dumb sons of bitches to shoot him in the morning. Son of a bitch.

Just watch the rain. Just listen to it. It’s in your memory. It is for ever. It is as real as this cell.

He was strangely peaceful now. His heartbeat and breathing were back to normal, more or less. He knew now he’d be able to face his execution. That was all that mattered. He’d seen it in his head dozens of times. He had already died dozens of times. The real thing, he wouldn’t even know it was happening. All he had to do was get to the edge and wait, let them do it for him. And he wouldn’t know about it. In a sense, he would not die. He could only die now, dozens of times, while he was still alive. Try to figure that one out. But he didn’t have enough time to understand the world. No time to be enlightened. No time to discover wisdom to pass on to anybody like the books he’d read.

But the unfairness of the whole thing still gnawed at him. Alive right now, dead tomorrow, and everybody else alive to do what they did: eat, drink, fuck, swim, dance. It was unfair. He didn’t think there was justice or fairness in the world, but that didn’t make it any easier.

He opened his eyes. The hall light was gone now and his cell was pitch black. If he were dead, he wouldn’t know how black it was. He wouldn’t know how cramped it was. If he were dead, he would not know he was a prisoner. If he were dead, he’d be free. But he wouldn’t know it.

And it was not fair.

He thought of a boy running across a street and getting killed by a car. He’d seen that in Santa Clara, years ago. He’d been unable to do anything to stop the Buick from slamming into the child, sending him a few feet up in the air, then down into the pavement, then under the wheels of the car, brakes squealing as the driver tried to stop. Had that been fair?

He was breathing steadily now. The panic was gone. His head was clear.

What was fair about a plane crashing and killing fathers and mothers and children with their full lives still ahead of them? Or how was it fair for a young mother to die in childbirth leaving an orphan behind, as his mother had? And how was his own death any less fair than any other death?

He thought this over, and a steadiness came over him.

At that moment, he understood that his death was just one of a billion deaths, and it was no more or less fair than the rest. He understood this with his body – he was calm, at peace, he felt almost euphoric. The understanding came into him like the cliched light burst of novels, as though time had suddenly stood still and he was crawling out of a dark maze into blinding sunlight.

He understood that his death sentence and execution were just a way for the inevitable to manifest itself, no more or less fair than any other way.

And then, he was enlightened.

In Defense of the MFA

Self-evidently, I have an MFA.

In poetry.


Now that you’re done laughing, an anecdote:

During my first semester at the University of Florida’s MFA program, an older student asked me what my goals were. I said, “To be in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.”

He said, “That’s a young man’s dream.”

Instead of “Duh,” I said, “Why would anyone shoot for anything less?”

Why I enrolled in an MFA program

I started writing poems at 11 or 12. My father wrote poetry. He dedicated a few poems to me. It seemed natural for me to write poetry too. My father was not impressed with my poems. One in particular, about a prince in love, he found infantile (I was 13).

Quickly, my poems turned into song lyrics. If I couldn’t charm my father with poetry, I’d piss him off with anthems of angst and hornyness. I got my first guitar at 14 and learned to play it by learning the chords to songs I liked. The first song I could play the whole way through was House of the Rising Sun (the F chord was a pain in the ass). After that, I found the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. Punk rock, baby. All through high school, I wrote songs nobody ever heard. Nobody, that is, but a girl at church for whom I made tapes of my songs. While trying to hand her my third such tape, she said “Another one?”

After high school, I got into my first band, aptly named Oedipus Complex. A few other bands followed, with me contributing most of the songwriting. But, eventually, I realized I didn’t have the talent to make it as a singer/songwriter. Mostly, my singing voice was not up to par. I could have tried anyway, but my pessimist, zero-self-esteem inner voice said it was no use.

Instead, i decided to finish college. I had gotten some good results with my poetry while going to Florida Community College in Jacksonville (now Florida State College, Jacksonville) and after enrolling at the University of Florida. I loved my poetry teachers, and they encouraged me in my work: Marilyn De Simone and Kevin Bezner at FCCJ; Joan New, Debora Greger, and William Logan at UF.

With a semester or two to go before finishing my bachelor’s, I knew I wanted to write poetry, I knew I wanted to teach at the college level, I knew I wanted to publish at least one book of poetry, and I knew I would kill to one day be named amongst the great poets. I didn’t see any other way to further those goals but to enroll in an MFA program. Mainly, an MFA would allow me to earn a living teaching as an adjunct college professor while the rest of my plans took shape.

The plan

I would get an MFA. During and after it, I’d try to get published in magazines, win a national contest or two, and get to know editors I respected. With my MFA in hand, I would get a job as an adjunct professor at a community college. Eventually, I would get a book deal. After publishing my book, I would get a job as an instructor at an MFA program. Whatever else, I would keep writing.

And if I was really, really, really, really lucky, I would be one of the few to make the top of the poetry pyramid, a poet like my own teachers, Debora Greger, William Logan, and Michael Hofmann, or one of the poets I loved: Elizabeth Bishop, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Amy Clampitt, Donald Justice, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney, Carolyn Forché, Paul Muldoon.

A lofty dream, but what’s the point of dreaming low? Besides, if truth be told, I knew it was just a dream. I knew it would never happen. Ever. My pessimist, zero-self-esteem self was particularly sure of that. But at least with an MFA I’d be able to teach and make a living, and maybe even get a book or two published before I killed myself (at 24, I was pretty sure I’d end up killing myself before I got around to writing this piece).

How it all worked out

I enjoyed my MFA time. With the exception of one severely damaged student who sexually harassed a friend, all my classmates were talented, earnest, good people. I tend to be a loner, but I don’t recall much friction between the students (friction between the instructors and some of the students was something else altogether).

I enjoyed learning from my instructors. At the same time, I could see plain as the name tags on their office doors that I was nowhere near as talented as they were. Debora Greger in particular filled me with the dread primitive people must have felt faced with their first full solar eclipse. Her talent was just so … out there. Hers were the poems I wish I could write. And those were the poems I wasn’t writing.

Mostly, we did exercises: write a ten line poem where each line ends with a color, a shape, or a fictional dog. Or whatever. You get the picture. Two years of it. I felt my craft was improving, but my ear told me that after all the revisions mandated by workshops, my poems were clumsy, non-poetic dabblings instead of finished works of … something.

While in the MFA program, I did not get published a single time despite heavy submission. Other than with fellow students, I didn’t make a single contact with a poet or editor that could translate into being published, though a few of my fellow students did. This failure was mostly my fault because I am, as I’ve said, a loner. If anything, my work during the MFA convinced me more than ever that my dream of poetic brilliance was just that. And after two years and a mediocre thesis, it was over. What could I say.

After the MFA

I finished my MFA in May, 1993. By August of that year (after working at a Hungry Howie’s Pizza to make ends meet), I landed a job teaching as an adjunct instructor at Santa Fe Community College and at UF’s Writing Lab. As an adjunct, my classes fluctuated from semester to semester, with no guarantee I’d have a job the next time around. I had no benefits (no health insurance, no vacation time) and minimal pay, but my MFA did get me part-time teaching work at the college level.

Despite continued and heavy submission, I had no luck getting published or winning a book contest. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I did get a few poems published, but only because a friend saw promise in my work and published me in a magazine he was co-editing at the time.

(My friend, C. Dale Young, is one of only two poets of my MFA crop to publish a book of poetry. But the guy is amazing. After finishing his MFA, he went through medical school. Today, he practices medicine, has been widely published in the best poetry journals, has been featured on the Best American Poetry series, has not one but three poetry books out, and teaches part-time at an MFA program. He is by far the most successful student to come out of our class and probably out of UF’s poetry MFA program in the last 20 years.

After living on under $16,000 per year as an adjunct and having no success in publishing my work, I decided to try a different career while I still had time. Four years later, I stopped teaching and went into a sensible, high-paying job.

I wouldn’t write a poem again for nearly 11 years.

What do I make of my MFA?

An MFA can provide an intensive time to hone your craft surrounded by like-minded people. It can allow you to make contacts in the publishing world. It can also get you into serious debt.

In my case, nobody promised me anything other than a chance to get better at writing poetry, and my program covered most of my expenses between fellowships and teaching stipends. What little debt I incurred (under $3,000 if I recall correctly) I paid off rather quickly.

Needless to say, having an MFA doesn’t make you an artist. But what does? It doesn’t mean you will be published in journals either. I know a supremely talented graduate of the Iowa MFA (perhaps the most prestigious poetry MFA in the country) who has not been able to get her poems accepted by the better journals. And it’s certainly not a guarantee that you will get a book published. On the other hand, I know many, many MFA graduates who have gone on to publish in the most prestigious journals, including Poetry and The Paris Review, and who have published books.

In a time when there is a glut of MFAs out there (just like there’s a glut of English MAs and PhDs), having an MFA is not a ticket to a full-time teaching job. But it can get you part-time adjunct work, which is better than Hungry Howie’s Pizza, though perhaps not by much: adjuncts earn an average $19,200 a year with a master’s degree ($22,400 with a PhD). And only 25% of all faculty is on tenure track these days.

As to my own experience, I see a pattern. After being rebuffed by my father, I stopped writing poetry and concentrated on music. Later, when it became clear that I did not have the talent required to be a great singer/songwriter, and encouraged by my poetry professors, I pursued poetry again. And, again, once I accepted that I did not have the talent required to be a great poet, or more to the point, when editors failed to embrace me, I abandoned poetry in search of something at which I could excel.

But I couldn’t fully walk away from poetry. After my father died in 2003 of Hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver (there is a full story right there), I had to deal with a lot of things from my past, from addiction to abuse. Without noticing it, I began to write a poem, just scribbles in my journal at first, then collected lines that turned into stanzas. Whatever it was, it grew into the longest poem I had ever written. But it was not poetry; it was therapy. I showed this pseudo-poem to but a handful of people. One of them was William Logan, my MFA thesis director. William was always kind and straightforward with me, the furthest thing from my father any man could be, but I felt that sharing the poem with him was a sort of exorcism.

As the first time around, I went from poetry to music and back to poetry again. In late 2006, 16 years after “leaving my music behind,” I began to write and record songs again, this time with no hope of ever “making it” in the music business. Then, about a year after I started writing songs again, I allowed myself to write another poem, “The Book of Water” — not as a compulsive act to deal with my past but as a conscious act to write something meaningful for an audience. I think the theme of death with dignity is a bit grandiose, but it captured how I felt about my poetry as I finished my MFA:

The Book of Water

Books cover the carpet, leaves
on damp earth — fairies and demons,
goblins and sisters, some holy pages too —
storm debris, shells with past lives

cracked open, left to rot, ink
bleeding from notebooks
as if from an octopus washed on shore
trying to fend the air itself:

this September day
never to be relived, the sea
heaving with waves, boiling
over disappearing sand,

the houses of men, the worlds
therein, no different
than a dune no longer there,
so many other words now born

unto death a second time. No matter.
No one would have heeded them,
their wisdom once irresistible now spent,
or, reading, suffer loss

deeper than the first.
Less cruel to let a life drown,
as drown it must, than let it gasp
for breath, fighting the inevitable descent,

page after page, word after slow word,
until the end comes
as it will come, unseen,
under cover of water.

I have no hope of ever publishing, though I am now writing at full speed and submitting again. This time around, I don’t really have any expectations. Anything good that happens will be a bonus. Having a conventional book of poetry published is a quaint, forlorn hope, but one I still cling to. Ever making it into the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry was a stillborn dream I should have kept to myself. I would have, had I been wiser at the time. But to paraphrase Carolyn Forché, I have no right to feel hopeless — better poets than me have been hopeless.

An MFA doesn’t guarantee anything. But what does?

Has the MFA system hurt poetry?

The most common criticism leveled at the MFA system is that it has created a homogeneous, academic, safe, predictable, trite, self-perpetuating wasteland of mediocre, workshop-proof poetry. I’m not so sure.

Most of the poetry created in any given age is average. Heck, even good. Good poetry is not in short supply, and it has never been. Great poetry, on the other hand, is exceedingly rare. That’s just the way it is. For every Emily Dickinson and W.H. Auden there are thousands of contemporaries giving it their best who will never get there. It’s the harsh reality of greatness.

[For now, let us not parse what “greatness” really means. I use the term to mean poetry which the literary establishment considers important enough to anthologize widely.]

The MFA is the democratic (if you can afford it) counterpart to greatness: it takes in the masses (if you have a bachelor’s degree, good GRE scores, and can make it past the admissions panel) and trains them, in the good programs, to do the best they can with what they have. And no more.

The best part of my MFA experience was teaching undergraduate poetry workshops and being able to shape the work of emerging poets. But thinking that I am responsible for the results of those students’ work would be preposterous and vainglorious in the extreme. Thinking that I could shape their work in any but the most minimal ways is absurd.

I remember a student, Nicole, whose work I encouraged and tried to foster to the best of my ability, even though her avant-garde, pseudo-concrete poems were nothing like what I wrote. A few years after she was in my class, I received a package from her: her first book of poetry, published by a commercial press. She had dedicated the book to me, among others. I photocopied that dedication and put it up on my office door for the world to see. I was (am) proud of Nicole, but I recognize that my influence on her and my share of her success were infinitesimal. Many other factors play a role in success other than the classes you take and the degrees you get.

I remember another student, Shelbey, whose work was far beyond her years. She currently teaches literature and has continued to share some of her poems with me. I am always impressed by her exactitude (is that a word?) and discipline with words, something with which I struggle. Again, my influence on her was, at best, limited, and while I take pride in what part I played in her development as a poet and teacher, I recognize that it was but a sliver of the forces pushing her to become what she is today.

If teachers encourage and editors publish only what they consider worthy, there is nothing new to that. And if the MFA system shapes what teachers and editors consider worthy, something else would in its absence.

Would poetry today improve considerably if all MFA programs were wiped out of existence? It would change, of course, as a different aesthetic is bound to replace the dreaded “MFA aesthetic,” but would the poetry that ensues be any better? I suspect most of it would be average to good. A few pieces would be great. Ad only a handful would be poems worth anthologizing.

I used to think that if you wrote amazing, soul-to-the-wall poetry that grabbed someone by the throat and wouldn’t let go, you would get somewhere. I hoped that there were editors out there waiting for just that sort of poem, that it was not their fault such poems didn’t get written or didn’t get written more often.

I am not so sure now. My experience in writing and trying to publish tells me that networking and making connections with those who have the power to publish your poetry are paramount. There’s a lot of talent out there, and who gets published has much to do with, in addition to talent, how to make the necessary connections with the right people. Who you know translates into whether you publish and where. I know too many talented poets who have not been able to publish to believe that talent alone is enough. These days, there’s a lot of poets fighting for a little room at the top. It’s not enough to be talented. You have to do a lot of legwork and networking. And, sometimes, it just comes down to luck.

But i’m pretty sure it’s always been that way.

As in the past, we would-be poets still set out to impress our elders (read teachers and editors) with our work, and to hopefully have them find something of value in what we write, something worth nurturing, publishing, and anthologizing. Whether those elders are narcissistic, self-absorbed, self-serving enemies or self-aware, fully-engaged, generous mentors has less to do with whether an MFA system is in place than with the nature and quality of those elders. And as always, it’s up to the student to find the master; it’s up to the poet to find the reader. No one owes your poem a read. You have to go out there and get people to read it. And that means, as it has always meant, making contact with those who can get your poems published.

If anything, the internet has made things worse: blogs and self-published e-books mean that today more than ever you can get lost in the oceans of average poetry out there. Today more than ever, being published by the right journal, wining the right poetry prize, getting a book deal with a reputable press, can make all the difference between success (by the standards of the poetry market) and anonymity.

If an MFA program can allow you to start making contacts and networking, it would be money well spent.

Does an MFA hurt you as an artist?

That’s the big question, isn’t it. Does an MFA teach you to write like a zombie, mindlessly copying acceptable (and therefore compromised) models of writing, or does it help you become a better, more honest, more true-to-the-world writer?

This is how i answer the question: of all the thousands of people going into MFA programs, only a few, a mere handful, have what it takes to become great, truly great, artists. These people will accomplish what they will accomplish with or without an MFA. As for the rest, an MFA is what we make of it. A wise person can learn from anything.

As far as writing goes, it’s hard to beat an intense period of workshopping your poems with other dedicated writers. Use your MFA time to network and make contacts. This is paramount. Good programs should ensure you have the opportunity to do this by having editors and writers visit and conduct workshops and readings. But if you expect an MFA to guarantee a successful literary career, nothing can. Sorry.

In my case, my MFA time killed what little self-esteem I had regarding my poetry. It was not the fault of my instructors or co-students. It had more to do with my expectations (always great) and my sense of what I could accomplish (always very little, as my pessimist, zero-self-esteem inner voice was all too happy to inform me). But I can say I am better at my craft now than I was then, and my MFA time taught me a great deal of what I know about poetry.

All these years later, I believe the craft I learned in my MFA has made me a better poet. Not a great poet, no. Just a better poet than I would be right now had I employed those two years working at Hungry Howie’s Pizza and writing at night. And the only poems I ever managed to publish in a reputable journal came as a result of a contact made at my MFA program.

For others, the answer will no doubt be different. But for all of us, my friends, we’ll just have to carry on.

Seamus Heaney

Recently, Seamus Heaney won the Forward Prize. This turn of events is not a surprise, Heaney being a Nobel laureate (1995) and winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize (2006). In a selfish way, though, the news reminded me of how often I think of Heaney.

I think Heaney is the finest poet writing in English today, the greatest poet of his generation, and certainly the most popular (his books make up two thirds of the sales of living poets in the UK). As an undergraduate, I fell in love with “Limbo,” and that poem led me to discover Heaney’s amazing body of work:


Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning.

A small one thrown back
To the waters. But I’m sure
As she stood in the shallows
Ducking him tenderly

Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.

She waded in under
The sign of her cross.
He was hauled in with the fish.
Now limbo will be

A cold glitter of souls
Through some far briny zone.
Even Christ’s palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there.

But as I said, my reasons for thinking of him are selfish. When I was an MFA student at the University of Florida (Gainesville), Heaney came to conduct a poetry workshop and reading. Another MFA student, Ralph Savarese, had corresponded with Heaney for a few years, and he spoke highly of the man’s integrity and kindness. I don’t recall the exact details, but Ralph had won a poetry contest judged by Heaney, and Heaney had continued to correspond with Ralph despite the obvious difference in standing between them.

On the day of the workshop (held in a conference room on the fourth floor of Turlington Hall), my poem happened to be the first on the packet Heaney was to comment upon. He read my poem out loud — I do not, unfortunately, remember which poem that was — but I do know it was nothing special. Heaney smiled, shifted on his seat after he was done. He smiled some more. “Ah, yes,” he said. “Here’s something.” He compared the poet (he did not know it was me, sitting a few feet away, looking at him without letting on so much depended on his judgment) to a boy going out into the woods and trying out owl calls. Apparently boys go out in the woods and try out owl calls where Heaney came from; it was news to me. He said that you have to try and make the owl call convincing, so that eventually you can get an owl to respond and come to you. He said the poet (that is to say, me) was trying out his owl calls. And he added, “We feel safe in this poet’s hands.”

He didn’t say that the owl call wasn’t quite there yet. He didn’t have to. I imagine this was not a metaphor he used exclusively on this occasion. When you travel and lecture as much as Heaney does, you are bound to repeat yourself. I do not, in other words, consider this experience unique.

No. What strikes me about it is that I can’t remember anyone ever saying that my poetry wasn’t quite there yet as gracefully and with so much compassion as Heaney did that afternoon. His smile, his open body language, the fully engaged look in his eyes: you can’t fake that. It’s as though he walked through past the words on the page to some kind of existential mode of being in which owl calls were a goal in and of themselves and getting them perfect wasn’t as important as trying. And as far as I could tell, he felt I wasn’t done trying.

I agreed with him. I had suspected throughout my MFA that my poetry wasn’t there yet. I also suspected that it would probably never be. What I wanted Heaney to say was something like “F**K!! This is the best f***ing poem I’ve ever f***ing read. F***king genius!!” Only much, much later, did it occur to me it’s not a bad thing that Seamus Heaney thinks you’re not done trying.

At his reading that night, I remember his use of the word “Sausalito” in a poem. To me, the word was commonplace Spanish, a place-name in California lost on English speakers who do not know it means “a small willow grove,” (a “sauzal” is a place were willows grow; the ending “ito” denotes a small one; the “z” has been Anglicized to an “s”). I remember my ears pricking up at the word. I remember thinking, here’s a throwaway word which a poet has picked up on and imbued with significance. What words do I know, I asked myself, that set in the right light could be poetry? I hadn’t quite thought of things that way until that moment. And I think it had to do with the owl-call anecdote and its ramifications.

And then, Heaney went on to read a poem about boys thinking words traveled along telephone lines like drops of rain, boys who could find nothing of worth in their imaginative, unique, mind-blowing view of the world:

The Railway Children

When we climbed the slopes of the cutting
We were eye-level with the white cups
Of the telegraph poles and the sizzling wires.

Like lovely freehand they curved for miles
East and miles west beyond us, sagging
Under their burden of swallows.

We were small and thought we knew nothing
Worth knowing. We thought words travelled the wires
In the shiny pouches of raindrops,

Each one seeded full with the light
Of the sky, the gleam of the lines, and ourselves
So infinitesimally scaled

We could stream through the eye of a needle.


And of course, it is harder for a rich man (or a grown up) to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, and Jesus did say to let the children come to him, for theirs is the Kingdom.

That poem crystallized what Heaney taught me during his visit. I wondered, in my status as a poet-child, what do I know that is worth knowing? Surely, we all have secret knowledge, a secret place in the forest, a secret owl call, a secret visitation upon which we can draw for poetry. At least I wanted to believe it after Heaney had told me so.

But here is the selfish reason why I think of Heaney so often (and herein lies the reason for this piece). Later that night after the reading, at the reception at the English Department chair’s house, I came upon Seamus Heaney standing in the living room. A circle of people had formed of which Heaney was a link, all come to pay homage or to bask. And on the edge of his peripheral vision, Heaney saw me and recognized me from the earlier workshop, and he stepped to the side and made room for me in the circle of people, and he smiled, and said, “Ah, here’s a poet.”

Here’s a poet. An MFA student. Moreover, an MFA student with no magazine credits, no books published, nothing but attempted owl calls to his credit. And Heaney said, “Ah, here’s a poet.”

That, to me, speaks more of his humanity than of anything having to do with me. I do hope he was right. And I sure think of him and his kindness and generosity often.

Short Story: Wakan Tanka

The wind was merciless, my hands cold as the steel of my Henry rifle, if such a thing were possible. At any rate, I could not feel them anymore: they were someone else’s hands. My wool coat felt like a thin shirt soaked in ice water.

The Sioux Indian opened the flap to his tepee with the resignation of a man admitting fate into his life.

For a long moment we faced each other by his door, such as it was, which itself faced east. I remember noting that detail specifically, checking my bearings against Polaris as if this tidbit were of great import.

The tepee’s buffalo skins, practically translucent, allowed a great deal of light to bleed through. Four or five dogs had barked in the dark as we approached; now I saw them moving in and out of the shadows. I smelled horses nearby. I had heard their low nickering as the Indian led me to the teepee glowing blue in the distance.

He stood still, holding the door flap open, a bent old man waiting for me. I thought of my father, so many miles away, hopefully in peaceful sleep. I felt deathly tired. Finally, I stepped inside with the necessary bow.

The tepee was much larger than it looked. A fire burned at its center. Two women about as wrecked as the old man sat on either side of the entrance. One wore light robes, the other dark. I could not make out the colors — yellow and red, perhaps. Both women lowered their heads in greeting, I supposed, but their eyes were on me as I came in. Only much later did I learn it was impolite for Sioux women to look at strangers as these women were looking at me. Perhaps impolite is not the word.

The old man touched my back lightly at the center of my shoulder blades, ushering me to the far side of the tepee, past the woman in the light robes, who motioned to a spot across from the entrance. The old man sat to my right. The woman wearing the dark robes threw something on the fire and the flames leapt to the very top of the conical roof where the tepee poles formed an opening for the smoke to escape. By her feet, I could see buffalo chips to be used as fuel. She was wearing leather high shoes. The fire had no smell I could detect.

We sat on cotton blankets and animal skins. Around us, boxes and bundles made a backrest of sorts. I knew it took the skins of 15 to 20 buffalo to make a tepee, that cows were preferred, that women would bleach the skins with buffalo brains and urine to clean and soften them. I knew much about the Indians, but I had never been inside a tepee before. The smoke and flickering light, the odd colors of the robes and blankets, the faces of the three Sioux weathered as leather, all of it — everything — was a world new to me.

The woman in the light robes offered me a metal cup. She made a showing of sprinkling a white powder in it. Unsure, I took the cup, careful not to let my numb hands drop it. Despite the fire, I was still cold to the bone. Remembering my manners, I bowed my head in thanks. The cup was almost full of a dark liquid I could not smell. I drank slowly. It had no taste I could detect. I was so cold I didn’t even feel the drink going down my throat, though the cup was steaming. I admit the thought the drink might be poisoned crossed my mind, but only after I had drank a good deal of it. I reassured myself these people killed you in battle or, if they captured you, tortured you to death on the spot. Being taken alive by Indians was not a pleasant prospect. But poisoning was not their way.

“Listen. We have buffalo meat,” the woman in the light robes said in English, startling me. “We have coffee. We have sugar. We have tobacco. Welcome.”

She said this looking at the fire, her face away from me. She sat to my right, between the old man and the door flap. She spoke very good English, though slowly and carefully. I could understand her every word.

“You speak English,” I said. She did not respond. I tried to settle into my buttocks, but felt nothing underneath them.

I pressed my point: “Where did you learn to speak English?”

“I do not know English,” she said, in English.

“You are speaking English to me,” I said. “The language of my people, the language of the Mniaskan.”

“I can not speak the language of the Mniaskan,” she said, still staring at the fire. “And if I could, I would not.”

Throughout this exchange, the old man had been loading a pipe. He then lit it with a small twig dipped into the fire. After a few inhalations, he passed the pipe to me. The tobacco must have been very mild — I couldn’t taste or smell it.

“We are Sihasapa of the Lakota,” the woman in the light robes said, still not looking at me. “Long ago, we lived to the east of here. The fathers of the fathers of our fathers fought the Sotaeoo and the Tsitsistas for these lands. We drove them west and north. We were many and strong then. We followed the path of the Wakan Tanka. Now the Mniaskan are here, following after us. They kill the buffalo. They kill the land. They do not know the Wakan Tanka, yet they are strong.”

She spoke deliberately, haltingly. I was not sure what she expected of me. I was a lieutenant in the 18th Infantry, United States Army. I was a Mniaskan, an enemy of her people. Suddenly, fright took me: I knew I was safe in their tepee — they had invited me in and had offered me hospitality. But come morning, I could hardly stay with them. And then I would be in a precarious position, separated from my command, amongst hostiles, miles from the nearest help. Another thought struck me roughly at this time: I had noticed their tepee stood by itself, away from the rest of the Indian camp, which I had not even glimpsed — their fires would have been visible from a long way away. I had no idea where I was or how many warriors were in the immediate area.

“Listen,” the woman in the dark robes said. She had not spoken before, but somehow I was not surprised she too spoke English. She was sitting to my left. “Listen. In the Moon of Red Cherries, two winters ago, I camped with one of my brothers, his two wives, and his five children by the Wapisica. Without warning, your people came across the river. My brother rode off to defend the camp. Only a few warriors came back, bloodied and beaten. They said my brother was dead. Then your people rode in and burned our tepees. The soldiers shot children and old men as they ran here and there trying to hide. I saw women thrown to the ground and taken and killed. I heard babies wailing for their mothers. I ran through the trees, crying.”

There was a long pause. The fire crackled.

“I cried for days. I have not seen my brother’s wives or children since. I do not know what has become of them, but certainly they are dead. I know they are dead. In my heart I know they are dead.”

The last phrases had been uttered as a sort of wail, rising in pitch until the sound became painful. Silence followed her words, broken only by the popping of the fire and the sudden risings of the flames. I deliberated whether to speak. I did not know what I would say. Slowly, a great weight built upon my chest, as if I were being commanded by a force greater than reason. And then something more pressing than my fear took hold, and I found myself speaking, head lowered, in the tone one uses to adress the inevitable.

“My people are many,” I said. “To the west, we hold lands a thousand times larger then your hunting grounds. We raise crops. We work metal. We make guns and sabers. We breed horses uncountable as grains of dirt on the plain. To the east of here, across the Mississippi River, my people hold even more land. Beyond those lands, there are other rivers, and beyond those rivers we hold even more lands, the size of which you can not imagine.”

“To the East, further on, on the shores of the Great Sea, we have enormous villages and we sail the waters and hunt for giant fish the size of forty or fifty buffalo.”

“Our people number in the thousands, in the hundreds of thousands, in the millions: not one or two million but ten, twenty, thirty million. And we all, all of us Mniaskan, we are all one people. We are sworn to obey the Great Chief in Washington. When he commands, we obey. And our Great Chief commands us to take this land and help you learn the ways of civilization so that you may prosper as we have. You can not stop the Mniaskan. Brave as you are, you are a handful of stones and we an endless chain of mountains. Your salvation lies in learning our ways and coming under our protection.”

When I was done, the old man tried to hand me the pipe again. In truth, I could not smoke from it this time, now that I had more of my wits about me. I understood the pipe to be offered in peace, and I knew too well that I could not smoke it with a clear conscience. I refused it, politely, I hoped. The old man simply nodded and took to smoking.

I was still shivering, cold even after being by the fire for so long. The woman in the dark robes again threw something in the fire, and the flames leapt up the full length of the tepee illuminating everything as if lightning had struck. I could see the three old people, their shadows flickering against the tepee skins. I could see, for the first time, a line tied from one pole to another from which clothes were hanging, empty as ghosts. The flames subsided, and the relative gloom returned.

“My people do not understand,” the old man said, emotionless after I had refused his pipe, his face sharp as rock against the flickering fire. I was not surprised he too spoke English. “My people do not understand the way of the Wakan Tanka, and so they do not understand the way of this new world. But the Wakan Tanka have spoken to me. I have seen them in dreams. I have understood their words. I have tried to tell my people what the Wakan Tanka have said to me, but they close their ears. The youn will listen to no one now. The old never listened.”

“Many winters ago, our people learned the way of the horse from the Sotaeoo and the Tsitsistas, who had learned it from you, the Mniaskan. We learned the way of the rifle too. We used that knowledge to drive the Sotaeoo and the Tsitstas and the Arapaho from these lands. We were many then. We carried our strength before us.

“We thought we were clever, taking the things of the Mniaskan to make ourselves strong. But this was against the will of the Wakan Tanka. Now the Sotaeoo and the Tsitstas and the Arapaho join us in fighting you, who are many and sweep our people aside. We fight you with your own weapons, yet we can not win, for we have gone against the will of the Wakan Tanka. In going against their will we poisoned ourselves with your things, though we did not know it.”

“Great sickness took my people with the coming of the Mniaskan. Very many died, so many they could not be counted. My people thought the Mniaskan were poisoning the waters and the land and the air. But we ourselves were doing our own poisoning. We turned our backs on the true way of the Wakan Tanka, and when ruin came upon us, we chose not to understand. Some chose to think life made no sense, that it was a passing riddle of the world. Some chose to believe the Wakan Tanka would give us victory in the end. No one dared say the Wakan Tanka had turned their backs on us because we had turned our backs on them first. No. It is not that they did not dare say it. It was that they could not conceive of it. There is no protection for us in the things of the Mniaskan. And here is no protection for us in your promises.”

The old man was nodding, as if fighting off sleep. His voice had dropped to just above a whisper. I had to strain to hear him. He then held silent, staring at the fire. The two women stared at the fire too. I fancied they looked within it at something visible to them but not to me.

“We are not afraid,” the old man said at last in a low voice. “The wind blows in one direction in the morning and then turns and blows back in the afternoon. Your pride will not allow you to look to the Wakan Tanka, as our pride has led us to disobey them. My people will stop dying long before yours do. When I see my dead lying in scaffolds, it is your dead I see.”

As he spoke, I became aware of a fire burning at the small of my back, the first sensation I’d had for hours. I felt, or became aware I felt, dizzy, perhaps from the smoke in such a confined space. With a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach, I realized the world was slipping from me: I was losing consciousness, inexorably. I stared at the old man as a fish stares through water at a shadow on the surface it does not recognize. His face was grim, unmoved.

“You can go,” he said. “You know all we know.”


I came to on my back, face up. The sky was deep blue and so bright it burned my eyes to tears and I had to close them again. My left side and back seemed to be on fire. Squinting, I could see a figure looming above me, no more than a shadow. I could make out a trooper’s blue coat. I blinked a few times and tried to focus my vision. The figure bent over me. I couldn’t focus on his face in all the glare, but he had a bean-pole frame. He said something, but I couldn’t hear him, though I saw his lips move.

Someone’s shadow was now blocking the sun from my eyes and I could see a little better. Other figures gathered around. Two more, then three. They were clearly troopers, though I did not recognize them. I am not sure how long I laid there while they leaned over me, talking, gesturing. Then I began to hear words.

“I don’t see any wounds,” one of the voices said.

“Give him some room. Let him breathe,” another one said.

“Is he ill with something?” the first voice asked.

“Don’t be stupid, Madson,” the one to my left said. “He was just knocked unconscious, likely.”

“By God,” a new voice to my left said. “Lucky son of a gun.”