195 #1

I kept getting lost trying to select pieces for this, our first issue of 195. Initially I started with  a theme.  But each time I’d begin reading one of our back issues, I’d always wind up looking at a piece and go, “wow, that’s a great piece of writing.  Too bad it doesn’t fit into my theme…”  So instead I pulled three pieces that just gave me pleasure reading them, and I’ll try to say a little about why.

From issue six, Christine Hamm’s poem “People: A Survey.”  There’s this rhythm in the poem, some people this, some people that, back and forth.  Then there’s this line at the end “some people live in constant fear, some people live in Newark.” What’s so calming about Newark? It pretzels the mind.

So then I thought, oho, let’s go for funny, and I went to issue eight and pulled up the excerpt we ran of Josh Kornbluth’s Citizen Josh.  And it is funny, but then it turns when Kornbluth moves from the rapture of the political theory class he took at Princeton with its arguments about democracy to a story about his youngest brother, “Sammy Joe from Kokomo,” born premature and weighing one pound ten ounces.  Kornbluth writes:

One day the experts came out and they said to us, “Look, we’re going to be totally open with you guys:  We’ve tried everything we know.  Nothing works.  It’s bad.”

And as you can imagine, we were very careful who we invited over to our place in those days — just people we felt very, very close to and comfortable with.  Like my dad’s old friend Marv Stern, from Brooklyn.

Marv was over for dinner one night, and he’s trying to cheer us up by telling us his typically raucous stories of growing up in Brooklyn as a young ne’er-do-well — at first throwing rotten eggs at the Commies, and then becoming a Commie and throwing rotten eggs at the Trotskyites, and then on and on, till at some point he became an anarchist and he just started cooking for people (it was by far the nicest stage). …

We’re all trying to smile a bit.  Except for my dad — he’s totally preoccupied.  Till in one moment my father slams the table with his fist: “That’s it!!  He needs to be held!  A child needs to be touched!  The experts have allowed him to survive, but they don’t hold him, they don’t sing to him!”

And Dad announced what he was going to do:  He was going to take the whole next week off from work — even though, as it was pointed out to him, he had not accumulated those hours in sick leave or vacation time.  And he was going to spend that week just hanging out in the premie ward with Sammy — even though, as it was also pointed out to him, they had very strict rules about visitation hours, even for parents; I think it was at maximum an hour per day.  Somehow, though, Dad was going to live there for a week.

Marv turned to my father.  He said, “Paul, I understand where you’re coming from ‑‑ I mean, I’m a parent, too.  But Paul, you do know, what you’re planning here, it’s quixotic!”

My father said, “FUCK YOU!!!”  Stormed out.  Wouldn’t talk to Marv for years after that — these are old, dear friends.

I sat there trembling, thinking, “What set my dad off like that?”  I mean, there were words that would trigger my dad in those days.  But they tended to be words like “Nixon.”  Or “Mom.”

But “quixotic”!  What a strange word!  What does it even mean?

I guess it means you’re acting like Don Quixote, right?  You’re a crazy guy.  You think you’re a knight errant on a noble quest.  You put a bowl on your head, thinking it’s your helmet.  And you wrap yourself in this flimsy thing, thinking it’s your armor.  And you take your lance and go tilting at windmills, believing them to be giants.

If you’re quixotic, that means you’re deluded, right?  It means you’re a fool.

And I have to admit to you guys:  As I stood there that Monday morning, outside the glass of the premie ward …  I remember our fingerprint smudges all over that glass.  We’re looking in at the one of us inside there: my dad, looking so out of place in there, wearing his ill-fitting blue scrubs.  Mask covering his bushy beard.  The nurses are glaring at him — he’s not supposed to be there. …  Dad takes Sammy out of the incubator.  Holds him.  Rocks him.  Sings to him. …  I have to confess, I did wonder: Are we quixotic?  Are we fools?

You’ll have to read the rest of the piece to find out.

As an editor, I think I’m drawn to pieces that turn, part of which has to include that willingness to be seen as foolish. In Moyshe Nadir’s “My Pedigree,” from issue 10, there’s a series of perverse ancestral boasts, but the heart of the poem is the wily narrator, both likeable and more than a little crude. A riff on Jewish identity, a mocking one at that. The poem, translated from Yiddish by Zackary Sholem Berger, ends with the most stereotyped part of the Jewish anatomy — the nose:

My nose is long — and knows the smell
of a hundred dollars or more.
It has its own concept of women and love.
To it, the whole world of Art is insignificant
compared to the tuft of hair
in my lover’s underarm.

The opposite of freedom is to be told to keep your nose out of it, whatever or wherever it might be. The poem is serious and light.  Presenting snapshots from the centuries of tradition and struggle, at the end our narrator can proudly tell us where he likes to stick his nose.

Previous post:

Next post: