Monday, January 15, 2018

Poems for Peace

Philip Metres

In May 2009, in a backyard in Portland, Oregon, a few poets and artists found themselves possessed by what appeared to be a simple question: if we were to suggest that bookstores have a “peace shelf” of books, what should it carry? We were in Portland for “Another World Instead: William Stafford Peace Symposium,” and Kim Stafford, the poet’s son, posed the question.

I began scribbling furiously as Kim and Jeff Gundy, Fred Marchant, Paul Merchant, Haydn Reiss, and I widened the imagined shelf until it was a whole bookcase, and then it seemed that we’d need a whole store; as dusk fell, and later on e-mail (when Sarah Gridley joined the conversation for our panel at Split This Rock 2010), we probed a concept that teeters between immensely practical and dangerously amorphous: how to canonize a list of books and other resources that would envision a more just and peaceful world—for bookstores, for teachers, for interested readers—without turning it into Jorge Luis Borges’s famous “Library of Babel,” which contains every book ever written?

And how to overcome—in ourselves, in the poetry world, and in all the wider communities in which we situate ourselves—our own resistances to an engaged poetry that stakes specific claims about the world, a poetry that could be partisan and provocative and even utopian? After all, many of us feel as John Keats did, despite his friendship with the partisan poet Leigh Hunt: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.”

And if the poetry that presses “palpable design upon us” were not challenge enough, then what to do about poetry that proposes something about peace, the very word of which veers into a kind of New Age ganja haze and evades the pungency of real life; or, to let Keats muse on the subject, “for axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses.” Ezra Pound’s Imagiste manifesto similarly exhorted poets to avoid fuzzy abstractions: “Don’t use such an expression as ‘dim lands of peace.’ It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.”

Yet we Americans live in the most powerful country in the world, whose adaptably postmodern empire is marked by what William James calls Pure War, a state in which the real war is the constant preparation for war. Though our poetry has ably represented the traumatic and unmaking operations of war—from the rage of Achilles on to our present day—it has also often unwittingly glorified and perpetuated a culture of war. We have yet to give adequate attention to how our poetry also contains the seeds of other ways of dealing with conflict, oppression, and injustice, and how it may advance our thinking into what a future without war might look like.

How to imagine peace, how to make peace? In our conversations on the Peace Shelf, three general subcategories emerged, though these were full of overlap and contradiction: Sorrows, Resistance, and Alternative Visions. It’s simple enough: we need to witness and chronicle the horrors of war, we need to resist and find models of resistance, and we need to imagine and build another world. Even if modern poetry has been marked by a resistance to the glorification of war, vividly shown by the World War I soldier poets and many others, the important work of poetic dissent has been, too often, via negativa—resistance to the dominant narrative, rather than offering another way.

Even Denise Levertov—one of the self-consciously anti-war poets on any Peace Shelf—found herself at a loss for words at a panel in the 1980s, when Virginia Satir called upon Levertov and other poets to “present to the world images of peace, not only of war; everyone needed to be able to imagine peace if we were going to achieve it.” In her response, “Poetry and Peace: Some Broader Dimensions” (1989), Levertov argues that “peace as a positive condition of society, not merely as an interim between wars, is something so unknown that it casts no images on the mind’s screen.” But she does proceed further: “if a poetry of peace is ever to be written, there must first be this stage we are just entering—the poetry of preparation for peace, a poetry of protest, of lament, of praise for the living earth; a poetry that demands justice, renounces violence, reveres mystery.” That Levertov lays out succinctly what we ourselves, the Peace Shelf collective, took some weeks to arrive at, illuminates the challenge of the peace movement and of the literature that engages it; our conversations, our living history and past, are scattered, marginal, unfunded, and all too easily forgotten.

Come Together: Imagine Peace  provides a foretaste of the larger feast, which could begin with the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna’s laments against war, with Sappho’s erotic lyrics, or with Archilochus’s anti-heroic epigrams. Yet this feast isn’t mere sweetness and light. “Peace” is no mere cloud-bound dream, but a dynamic of living amid conflict, oppression, and hatred without either resigning ourselves to violence or seizing into our own violent response; peace poems vividly and demonstrably articulate and embody such a way. At their best, peace poems, as John Milton did in “Aereopagitica,” argue against “a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary.” If, in Milton’s words, “that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary,” then peace poetry must also interrogate the easy pieties of the peace movement and its own ideological blind spots. And indeed, Michael True’s exploration of nonviolent literature confirms that “although writings in [the nonviolent] tradition resemble conventional proclamations recommending peace reform, their tone and attitude tend to be provocative, even disputatious, rather than conciliatory.”

Perhaps peace poetry is not quite a tradition but a tendency, a thematic undertow, within poetry, and within culture. Yet it has been with us as long as we have been writing. Peace poetry, such as it may be—like the peace movement that it anticipates, reflects, and argues with—is part of a larger human conversation about the possibility of a more just and pacific system of social and ecological relations.

This article has been slightly modified for the sake of coherency.  The full article can be found here: Poetry Foundation

Friday, January 12, 2018

Book of the Times

John Leonard

IN his last novel, “Slapstick” (1976), Kurt Vonnegut told us that he believed in the Bill of Rights, Robert's Rules of Order and the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. In his new novel, “Jailbird” — his best, in my opinion, since “Mother Night” (1961) and “Cat's Cradle” (1963) — he adds another sacred document. It is the Sermon on the Mount.

Walter F. Starbuck is asked by Richard M. Nixon at a Congressional hearing in 1949 why, “as the son of immigrants who have been treated so well by Americans, as a man who had been treated like a son and been sent to Harvard by an American capitalist,” he had been so ungrateful to the American economic system as to join the Communist Party. Starbuck replies: “Why? The Sermon on the Mount, sir.”

Harvard and Mr. Nixon, the Holocaust and Watergate, Sacco and Vanzetti, Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers, trade unionism and conglomerate capitalism, not to mention Roy M. Cohn — these are the obsessions of “Jailbird,” a fable of evil and inadvertence. Strong stuff, Starbuck would say, because strong stuff is the latest in a long line of Vonnegut semaphores, verbal kiss‐offs: so it goes, hum, I had to laugh, small world, strong stuff.

What has this stuff to do with Starbuck or the Sermon on the Mount? Starbuck is the son of a millionaire's chauffeur. Because he plays chess with the millionaire, the millionaire sends him to Harvard, where he has an affair with a radical young Irishwoman and joins the Communist Party. He is off, then, to join Roosevelt's New Deal. He quits the party on the occasion of the Nazi-Stalin pact. In Germany during and after World War II he meets and marries a death‐camp survivor and has dealings at Nuremberg.

He returns to Washington to betray, by accident, a friend. Years of joblessness follow until Mr. Nixon makes him his special adviser on “youth affairs.” Some of the Watergate money is stashed in his windowless office, and so he goes to jail with the big boys. Let out in 1977, he arrives in New York and falls into the clutches of a conglomerate that seems to own most of the world.

Starbuck is clearly one of those characters to whom history is always happening like an accident. His old girlfriend tells him: “You can't help it but you were born without a heart. At least you tried to believe what the people with hearts believed — so you were a good man just the same.” As good as most of us, anyway, and soon to be back in jail.

Not once in “Jailbird” does Mr. Mr. Vonnegut nod off, go vague. His people bite into their lives. Kindnesses, as inexplicable as history, are collected, like saving remnants. New York, with catacombs under Grand Central Terminal and harps on top of the Chrysler Building, is wonderfully evoked. The prose has sinew. Mr. Nixon's “unhappy little smile,” for instance “looked to me like a rosebud that had just been smashed by a hammer.” Or: “There was a withered old man . . . hunched over his food, hiding it with his arms. Sarah whispered that he ate as though his meal were a royal flush.”

And when you think about it, the Sermon on ,the Mount is a radical document, promising that the meek shall inherit the earth. Shall they, indeed? Mr. Vonnegut has his doubts. It is the fashion these days for young academics, fresh from bravely grappling with the archetypes of modernism at a graduate seminar, to dismiss Mr. Vonnegut as simplistic. He is insufficiently obscure; he is not loud enough about the ambiguities. Well, as he would say, listen. The simple — courtesy and decency—is hardest.

In “The Sirens of Titan,” the problem was how to cause “less rather than more pain,” how to “love whoever is around to be loved.” The message in “Mother Night” was “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” asked, “How to love people who have no use?” Laurel and Hardy were admired in “Slapstick” because, although they were not “really very good at life,” at least they “never failed to bargain in good faith with their destinies.”

To be sure, his characters are given to dreaming of an escape hatch out of history, a secret village, a tropical island, a neutral zone, an alternative reality. But he doesn't let them get away with it. Everything isn't beautiful, and many things hurt, and neither technology nor organized religion is much help, nor “granfalloons” like the Communist Party and the Daughters of the American Revolution. Even play, as in “Cat's Cradle,” can be monstrous, and art itself is a lie. Billy Pilgrim in “Slaughterhouse‐Five” overhears Eliot Rosewater say to his psychiatrist, “I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren't going to want to go on living.”

Simple? Mr. Vonnegut brought all his characters along for Billy Pilgrim's ride in “Slaughterhouse.” In “Breakfast of Champions,” he cut them loose, set them free. One returns in “Jailbird,” a man who writes science fiction novels under the name of, naturally, Kilgore Trout, who is in jail, naturally, for treason. These days, the Sermon on the Mount is treason. Mr. Vonnegut has exactly what Constant pined for in “Sirens”: “a single message that was sufficiently dignified and important to merit his carrying it between two points.” We read his novels the way that Mary Kathleen reads Starbuck's college books: “the way a young cannibal might eat the hearts of brave old enemies. Their magic would become hers.” Ours.

Credits:  This article was originally published in 1979 in The New York Times.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Interview with poet and artist LaWanda Walters

TLY: We welcome poet LaWanda Walters, author of Light Is the Odalisque, a beauty of a collection, and one we at the blog enjoyed immeasurably. LaWanda is originally from Mississippi and North Carolina. Her poetry has been widely published, and one of her poems, “Goodness in Mississippi,” was chosen by Sherman Alexie for Best American Poetry 2015. LaWanda is also an accomplished painter.

LaWanda, to what extent does the city inform your poetry? How does it inspire you?

LaWanda: I think that “place” is important in poetry, but I have moved around a lot in my life and was in my 30’s when I came, with my late husband, David Weinberg, to Cincinnati. So my style and interests were pretty much formed when I arrived. Because my children were born in Cincinnati and their dad died, from complications of a brain tumor, in Cincinnati, my greatest joys and most painful days have happened here.  I do have a few poems that are set in the city. “Demeter’s Escape” is rooted in local places—Johnny’s Toys, Good Samaritan hospital, the original La Rosa’s restaurant, and a doctor’s office.

TLY: In an interview with Brian Brodeur—when asked about your readers—you responded, “I write for people who, like myself, find both order and honesty in poems in this chaotic world.” Would you share with us a bit more about the importance of order and honesty in poetry?

LaWanda: By “order” and “honesty” I do not mean that a poem should be about expressing an idea straightforwardly. The new dislike of “sincerity” and the interest in “elliptical” poetry seems to be a reaction against much great poetry in the interest of pushing forth just another style. Poetry is made of signifiers, and to avoid all significance is to discard the raw material of the art. Ideas, in poetry, are put to a kind of test—the test of music, of expression, of being a part of what has been called a “machine.” We know when we get to the end of Larkin’s “High Windows” that something has happened in the poem. The speaker of the poem (ostensibly not Larkin, although this is the voice he uses in his poems—cynical, ready to paint the sordid truth) becomes different, transformed in the making of the poem and during the reading of it.

I have trouble with Larkin because of how he was as a person. He was probably pretty racist, and I have half-Jewish children, about whom I am a tiger mother. But I have come around to admitting that how I saw “High Windows” first (while working on the circulation desk at the Emory Library) is how I still experience it now. I read the most amazing essay in The New Yorker by Stephen Greenblatt, “Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia,” explaining how he was able to love certain novels and art regardless of the meanness or sickness or anti-Semitism of the maker of that art.

I believe there’s a harmony that can be achieved in spite of gritty, unfair, Pinball-machine life. I was influenced, early on, by John Donne’s poetry with its metaphysical or “strained” conceit, with the struggle inherent in his poems between doubt and faith, body and soul. I read Suzanne Langer’s “Feeling and Form” and Frank Kermode’s “The Sense of an Ending,” which helped me love Wallace Stevens’s poetry. “The nicer knowledge of / Belief, that what one believes is not true” became a meaning in life for me. Art’s artifice is “the necessary angel” in times of great chaos. For me the only way to talk about my pain and love is often through a traditional form—in the case of “Demeter’s Escape,” the pantoum. Telling the story of how a diagnosis changed our lives into chaos required a music to express not just the misery but also my soul’s journey. The repetitions in the form walked me through it.

What gives a poem its force and its longevity is its own tangling with its ideas, its finding a way to put the ideas in a way that is neither self-conscious nor political—of working until the unconscious “better angel,” perhaps, starts working along with the conscious writer. Writing poems is a mysterious process in which language becomes not simply a statement but a thing made, fired like a pot in a kiln. The political, the significant, and the desired dance with each other. This seems to come from the combination of intent and the practice of art—a practice that makes intent or “sincerity” an element of the poem, not the point of it. Art is a little miracle, a little machine of the mind. Examples of amazing transcendence, for me, include Anthony Hecht’s sestina, “The Book of Yolek,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” Philip Larkin’s “High Windows,” and Rita Dove’s “The Great Palaces of Versailles.”

TLY: Music figures widely in your poems. “Mysterious Barricades,” for example, is a tribute to François Couperin’s piece for harpsichord, Les Barricades Mystérieuses. Could you tell us about the poem and how it aligns itself with Couperin?

LaWanda: I love Bach and many classical composers as much as I love any art. Couperin, in that piece, makes you feel so balanced. There is a momentum he achieves in which you can hear the moving from one place to another like a bicycle ride. At the same time there is a counter-melody which is exquisitely part of the forward movement. I got this natural high from listening to it one day, and so I wrote that little poem. And my poem is one of many. There is a website dedicated to works of art inspired by Couperin’s mysterious and transcendent “Mysterious Barricades.” My friend, Simon Evnine, put together a kind of online anthology of works about that piece of music: Magritte has a painting with that title—clearly based on the mystery of why we are drawn to music, to twilight, to what we do not know.

TLY: You write with a lot candor about girls and what becomes of them as they age into women. Readers might be inclined to politicize this aspect of your work. Would you?

LaWanda: In the sense that political comes from the word “polis,” which has to do with people, yes. I often write poems because I have been touched by someone’s act of love or courage, or in which I have been horrified by how people treat each other. My poems are a way to put those subjects in a context which is bearable. Adrienne Rich’s “asbestos gloves” image is not just for using traditional forms. The act of writing a poem which works (which speaks with as little vanity as possible and with as much force as possible) is my aim.

TLY: You have a poem dedicated to Flannery O’Connor called “Piano Legs” and which begins: “Her plots were engineered by God./So naturally she wrote like hell.” The choice of “hell” could be taken in a number of ways. What are your thoughts?

LaWanda: Writing “like hell” means writing brilliantly, as in Gould’s playing of the piano, but it’s also a pun. Because of her absolute belief in the Catholic framework (St. Augustine and Teilhard de Chardin), Flannery O’Connor had her plots pre-designed by that doctrine. She could use her brilliant talent for puncturing detail, for comically drawn characters. But the plot—the inevitable exposure and destruction of those unenlightened, prideful people—is a pre-ordained going to hell. The death of the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is, without knowing about her absolute belief that “grace” could befall a person without that person’s inner change of character, nothing but pure violence. In her view the grandmother is changed. In mine she just got confused because the misfit had her son’s shirt on. But this kind of “magic” was how O’Connor was able to describe her characters with such gusto and have them end up dead but comic. Her art is great in a way, but it is dependent on the eternal schema which she believes in. I am not convinced, reading that story, that the grandmother has changed into a good woman. It seems mechanical to me. And I am reminded of the brilliant pianist, Glenn Gould, who could pour his meaning in life into interpreting Bach. Both O’Connor and Gould exhibit an astonishing technique and a sense of life because, for one, there is God, and for the other there is Bach.

TLY: “Goodness in Mississippi,” a poem that has been widely read, is ostensibly about anorexia. There is also the experience of “we white girls,” as you put it in the poem. What is the connection of one to the other?

LaWanda: The word “machine” is helpful in explaining how this poem seems to mean one thing but is about something more tragic, huger than even the death of my friend. I think of it as a two-part invention, helped by the form Terrance Hayes invented after Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem, “We Real Cool.” By using Brooks’s end-words as a kind of knitting frame, I could tell the story of my friend’s dangerous perfectionism and at the same time, because of the deeper story of racism that is in Brooks’s poem and is expressed through Hayes’s invention of the form in “The Golden Shovel,” I felt able to weave my story of two girls.

The connection, for me, is the overriding tragedy of a place where “goodness” is dangerous. My friend’s “goodness,” while based partly on the norms of being a good girl in our blanked-out, all-white landscape (like the segregated landscape of the film, Steel Magnolias), was also a kind of asceticism, her resistance to that landscape. She really did try to be the best person she could be. She fit the profile (see my interview in The Georgia Review) of the kind of girl who was susceptible to anorexia nervosa at the time. I find the parallels between her life and the life of Karen Carpenter amazing, even down to a beloved brother, in each case, who teased his sister about being “plump.” So she tried to be perfect, just as Karen Carpenter did. It was deadly.

When I was a kid, the license plates said, “Home of the Miss Americas.” The conceit of likening my friend’s position (trying to be good in a place so trite, limited, and callous) to the civil rights hero, Vernon Dahmer, is as stretched, perhaps, as John Donne’s metaphysical conceits. But Vernon Dahmer tried his best to proceed as though the world were fair. So talented and brilliant and hard-working that he owned a lumber business and a general store in the “black” section of Hattiesburg (known as “Ellisville”), he was also a farmer who had a much fancier tractor than my grandfather could have ever have afforded on his little farm.

Vernon Dahmer was in a position to get his clients and friends to vote. If you saw the film Selma, in which Oprah plays the part of a woman who has to face the registrar to be able to vote, it was this scene that Dahmer tried to bypass for his clients by bringing one of the registry books to his store. He spoke on the radio to get people to come to his store and register to vote.  The day after that radio show he was dead. He died shooting back at the cars throwing lit bottles of gasoline into his family’s house so that his family could escape through a window in back to the barn.

The equation I came up with was that being good (in Dahmer’s case, a hero—there is now a statue of him in Hattiesburg—and in my friend’s case, by starving herself and also by taking on too much as the oldest sister after her mother was killed by a drunk driver) is more dangerous in some places than in others. Mississippi was lethal if you were a person of color. It was not a great place, though, even for white girls who wanted to be very, very good and not to cause harm.

The poem is really a double elegy for my friend and for Vernon Dahmer.

TLY: The title of your collection, Light is the Odalisque, is striking. It makes one think (at least this reader) of a levitating woman. How did the title come to you?

LaWanda: The title comes from my poem about John Singer Sargent’s painting of his bedroom. Clearly, although Sargent painted people and scenes, his real subject was light. The idea of light—as in enlightenment, which we need more of now, or as in painters like Sargent and Hopper—is a muse of mine. To me, Matisse’s “Pink Nude” and Hockney’s nude men are possible because of light, both in terms of color and northern-facing windows and because of the love of the enlightenment that art can bring.

TLY: LaWanda, this has been a true joy for us. Your poetry is tremendous, and you have all our respect.  Thank you so much.

About the Author

LaWanda Walters earned her M.F.A. from Indiana University, where she won the Academy of American Poets Prize. Her first book of poems, Light Is the Odalisque, was published in 2016 by Press 53 in its Silver Concho Poetry Series. Her poems have appeared in Alligator JuniperAntioch Review, Cincinnati Review, Georgia Review, Laurel Review, North American Review, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, Southern Poetry Review, and several anthologies, including Obsession: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century and Best American Poetry 2015. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband, poet John Philip Drury.


“Mississippi Daze,” a backstory about “Goodness in Mississippi,” originally published on The Georgia Review Online (April 4, 2014), downloadable text in DOCX:

“How a Poem Can Staunch a Wound” and LaWanda’s interview about her poem in Brian Brodeur’s How A Poem Happens: Contemporary Poets Discuss the Making of Poems: (Friday, September 8, 2017):

“Her Art” in Rebecca Foust’s Women’s Voices for Change (July 24, 2016):

for purchase Light is the Odalisque

Friday, January 5, 2018

One Kind Word

Kathryn A. Kopple


There is a Japanese saying that goes:  “One kind word can warm three winter months.”  As with many Westerners, I am typical in my love of Japanese culture:  Basho and Issa, bonsai and Zen, sushi and sticky rice, wasabi and Saki.  Recently, I discovered Mirin and now I splash it on everything from salad to fish to saltines.  Japanese food is one of life’s great joys.  When I was a grad student in New York, poor as the church mice (well, rats really) that took refuge at the bizarre and beautiful cathedral of St. John the Divine, I could afford just one meal a day.  I sustained myself by eating a giant bowl of Udon noodle soup, along with a steaming cup of green tea.  I was never hungry.  When kind words are in short supply, a bowl of Udon goes a long way.

I smell winter in the air come November 1st.  I suppose I am a feral creature to a certain extent, but I know winter is coming because the air changes—cold has a smell, a snap, almost like peppermint.  It makes my nostrils tingle.  And then, after the trees have been stripped bare, the heavy boots come on, the puffy coat, the hat and scarf—and then, at last, bundled to the hilt, the season of trudging and shoveling and opaque skies begins in earnest.

Philadelphia, where I abide, is a gray place in winter.  In 2003, over 80 straight gray days were counted.  After about twenty of those bleak days, you begin to go a bit pub blind.  We do suffer here from a lack of sun—but those of us who are lucky have our cozy houses, festivals of lights, and snow angels.  It’s a gentle sort of suffering—far removed from chaos, deprivation, devastation.  There are fires to be built, and eggnog to be drunk (heavily laced with cognac, of course), and marathon Scrabble games to be played.  In our house, we take our Scrabble very seriously.  It’s blood sport. 

So much art has been dedicated to winter—so many Nutcracker Suites.  All those jingle bells.  I am infatuated with that scene, from Les enfants terrible, where Cocteau writes:  “Gleaming with soft effulgence of a luminous dial, the snow’s incandescence, self-engendered, reached inward to probe the very soul of luxury and draw it forth through stone till it was visible, till it was that fabric magically upholstering the Cite, shrinking it and transforming into a phantom drawing room.”  Here Conteau allows us a moment to be wonder-struck children once more.  He also reminds us that snow season can be a cruel master.  The poetry above is followed in the book by the immortal snowball fight, when poor Dargelos is knocked unconscious.

I am also infatuated with another scene, also lyrical but in a very different spirit.  It’s a print of a boy seated in the crook of a Japanese willow, with a water bucket at his side.  For reasons that may be personal—or entirely and intentionally universal—that scene is inextricably linked to winter for me.  We never see the boy’s face (his back is turned to the viewer), although he is obviously transfixed, suspended in the air, meditating on a mountain in the distance.  It’s Hokusai’s Boy Viewing Mt. Fuji.  The boy seems to be at perfect rest, or is he?  The path before him is rutted, the only verdant color is the green of the willow and parts of sky.   It’s a subdued green, gray in tone, as is the entire composition.  Above Mt. Fuji swirls the blackest of clouds.  Contrasts of this sort are so typical of Hokusai, whose fantastically simple lines seem to have no beginning or end, where everything meets up with everything else.  I find myself returning again and again to that print—a lonely image that never makes me lonely.  Only happy to be alive—yes, even in winter.

It is my great hope that you, dear readers, will find something to sustain you through the winter—even if, as they say in Japan, it may be simply a kind word.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Five Transitional Spaces: A Journey Through Time

Ed Coonce

Chicago, 1921

     It was October, the beginning of the Années Folles. They met at the Art Institute Gallery while viewing the Hiroshige print collection. He stared forever at the Great Wave, imagining it as a symbol of humanity and culture crashing into our existential oceans, with nothing to stop it.

     Her attention moved from the print to his face.

      “I love this,” she said, watching his eyes. He noticed her then, for the first time. She wore a flower in her hair. They talked about art, the beginning of that crazy year, and the new car he had just purchased. 

     He offered her a ride. “It’s Syncopation Week at the Balaban and Katz,” he told her. They went, and danced till dawn, kissed, and walked to the car. The light of the universe surrounding them flickered, then darkened. 
Paris, 1966

     They were the only two patrons at the Cafe du Dôme. It was late and summer had heated the streets well into the night. The bustle outside had settled down. He decided it wasn’t really right to eat alone. He asked her gently, “Is this seat taken?”

     She looked up from her writing, lips parted, and whispered “No.” 

     “Are you a writer?” he inquired. “Your familiar.” 

     “Yes,” was the reply. “Oh. May I introduce myself?” 

     “Are you a surrealist?” she asked, upon learning of his art.

     “Yes, in the style of Yves Tanguy. But...this is the end of Surrealism.”

     “What comes next?” she asked.

     The food arrived, their glasses clinked, and reality shifted. 

Edmond, Oklahoma, 1932

     “Sorry, missy, we’re out o’ produce. Got some canned peaches. Damned drought’s eatin’ up all the farms around Oklahoma County.” He dried his hands on his shopworn apron.

     “How much are the peaches?” she asked.

     “Eighty cents a can,” was the reply.

     “That’s more than I have.”

     She broke down then, crying. The whole county was shut down, choked by dry dust, the farm her father had left her was nothing but barren dirt fields.

     “I can’t afford to stay no more,” she sobbed.

      He thought a minute.

     “Look, missy, my cousin up in Osage County is packin’ up and leavin’ for California Sunday morning. I’ll see if he’ll let you ride along. Here, this can’s on me.”

     The yellow Buick pulled up in front of the old farmhouse. The driver came to the front door, removing his hat on the way. She answered his knock and he introduced himself.

     “Goin to California, eh?” He had soft eyes and a workman’s hands. He loaded up her two suitcases, while she, with a heavy heart, opened the gates to the pasture. Those few cows left would have to fend for themselves somehow. 

     “We’re goin’ Route 66,” he told her. “You got kin in California?”

     “No, she replied, and the tears came once again.
     “Don’t worry about it then,” he told her, then wrapped his strong arms around her. “Somehow I have the impression we met somewhere before. Did we?”

     She said she wasn’t sure. At the end of the driveway, when the Buick pulled out onto the main road, the storm hit. They stopped, and held hands as the earth and sky turned inside out.

Los Angeles, 1998

     The bus stop at East Pico and Maple was a good place to get a little money, she thought. When you’ve lost everything you ever had or loved or worked for because of this insidious addiction, this is where you ended up, not that nice house in the suburbs, not that condo in the Fashion District. You end up nowhere, that’s where. She could hardly keep her balance, her grip was weakening. Too much. Too much.

     She wished she could wash her hair, that’s all. Maybe, just maybe, today would be that day. She dragged her small suitcase up to the bench and sat down, exhausted. A million “ifs” crowded her brain, all at once. “No wonder they think I’m crazy,” she thought.

      The bus came to the stop and a young man got off, briefcase in hand, suit and tie. She held up her sign.

      “Can you help?” she asked, voice trembling. He looked her way, then walked away. A brief moment later, he turned around, and came to where she sat, a look of recognition on his face. He removed his sunglasses. 

     “Don’t I know you?” he asked her. 

     She looked at him then, his eyes especially. It was the eyes. She had fleeting glimpses of a long ago party night. The kid’s parents were out of town. The drugs were served up like candy. He didn’t seem interested in anything but her then, while she was there to get high. Her hands shook

     “Yeah,” she answered. “Did you go to San Gabriel High School?”


     She couldn’t answer, she nodded and looked away, ashamed of what she had become. He sat on the bench with her for awhile, silent. There was so much to say and no way to say it all.

     “I want to help you,” he finally told her. “I know a place where you’ll be safe. Will you let me?” 

     She struggled to find words, just got up off the bench, clutching her suitcase. He gently took it from her. “Let’s go.” He held her hand as they walked. Was she dreaming? she asked herself. Maybe, just maybe there was hope. A second chance. Maybe.

     As they rounded the corner onto Maple, the landscape dissolved around them. Or perhaps, she later thought, it was just the end and beginning of new dreams.

 Portland 2021 

     The young couple sat among moving boxes and general clutter. The tiny apartment had suddenly become smaller, with the arrival of their firstborn, and they had found a new place. She was introduced to the world a bit early and her parents had to hold on and just pray for a couple of weeks. She grew stronger. When she whimpered, whomever was nearest picked her up and comforted her. She was ravenous all day long, and growing. Daddy held his infant and talked to her. She was only three months old, and he was certain she understood every word. 

     “You’re my little angel, my little angel girl,” he whispered.

     Mommy came then, hair wet from the shower and took the infant. “I’ll take over now,” she told Daddy. "Time for lunch.” 

     Daddy had to continue packing, they had to be moved out in three days. Daddy was doing it all himself, he never asked anyone for help unless he absolutely had to. He was funny that way. He’d load up the old pickup and drive the twenty-some miles by himself, unload, then hurry back to his precious angels. Mommy suckled their child and Daddy held her tight, marveling at it all, them, the baby, the new job.

     “She’s got that red hair and such blue eyes. I think she’s going to look just like her namesake, your Aunt Karen,” he told Mommy.

     “I believe so,” she said.  Funny how kids picked up these family traits. It seemed to be completely random, like the universe was picking and choosing. She wondered aloud how Aunt Karen was doing these days.

     “After we get settled in, we’ll go visit her,” Daddy replied.

About the Author

Ed Coonce is an artist, actor, poet, and writer living in Encinitas, California. He studied fine art at Indiana University after serving two tours as a Marine in Vietnam, and transferred to the Coronado School of Fine Art, studying printmaking and painting under Monty Lewis, a Depression Era muralist who participated in the New Deal’s Public Works Art Project. Ed writes short satire and humor, and his current art frequently reflects the topical nature of his stories. Hie is a past board member of the Oceanside Cultural Arts Foundation, where he worked on annual events such as the Oceanside International Film Festival, The Art Festival, And Write On, Oceanside, an annual literary event. He hosts East Hell Writers and Phantom Poets, and is the creative director for Theatre Arts West. He is currently acting, singing, and dancing in a new musical comedy and writing the screenplay for two others.

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