Faculty Picks: Reed

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Justin Taylor-- Generally speaking, I always advocate for more poetry in the prose writer's reading diet. It is a great way to learn the weight of words, the value of lines. Even relatively expansive or dense poetry still has the virtue of concision, and most important of all it reminds us that there are other forms of logic and progression than simply, What happens next? Lately, I've been reading Indecency, Justin Phillip Reed's debut collection, which is about to be brand-new from Coffee House Press. In the words of Dawn Lundy Martin, "Reed's deft craft is so rare, so precise, and driven by language whose surface is texture like teeth, that it seems like freed speech into the ache of repressive histories, white gazes, and uninvited invasions." I find myself very drawn to this idea of "freed speech": how can we liberate our language from the bondage of cliched usage, lazy thinking, and harmful or retrograde presumptions--and aren't these really three ways of saying the same thing? Reed's poems are fierce and fast-moving. They are searching and raw. "what question / does the self ask at the body's behest / that time won't wring from the body itself?" he asks in "Performing a Warped Masculinity en Route to the Metro.” 

In "A Statement from No One, Incorporated," the poem's epigraph is granted unusual placement: above its title. The line is: "what is it when a death is ruled a homicide but no one is responsible for it" and it was written by the essayist Hanif Abdurraqib in response to the risible Kafkan determination by Baltimore officials that Freddie Gray, who died of injuries sustained on a so-called "rough ride" in a police van, was the victim of a homicide, but that no particular person was responsible for committing it. This is, of course, both a legal and moral impossibility. In the poem, the responsible non-entity is “incorporated”, i.e. made real, though still not human, since--despite dubious claims to the contrary--corporations are not people. Reed’s corporate entity, then, is an infernal creation—embodied but having no particular body, and therefore no locus of humanity, since whatever else we are, we are our bodies first and finally. The thing speaks in a bloodless collective voice; whining, "We are not responsible. We have not / the capacity to respond, cannot take / your call, are not obliged." Later, it ponderously intones that "We need to have a deeper dialogue / about the need for deeper dialogue[.]" 

But it would be a mistake, in heeding Reed's outrage and his sense of urgency (and heed it we should) to hurry past the beauty in these poems, of which there is plenty to be found: potent word play, intricate rhyme, and stray lines like "a smeared sweet on his cheek in the parenthesis of a grin" or "the dense streets clapped into a quick-descended stillness." Kadijah Queen says rightly of Reed's work that, "there is no separation of sound from the language it travels in, from the body that produces it, from the experience that evokes it." Indecency includes many poems in traditional structure, right alongside radical formal innovations. There are brief prose poems floating in oceans white space--"(in which all this white is my gaze)" he writes wryly--and work that extends the tradition of concrete poetry. "Portrait with Stiff Upper Lip", which I've taken a picture of and have included below, simply cannot be read "normally." The sculptural design forces our eye to move in directions to which we are unaccustomed to moving over the printed page: up instead of down, for example, or back and forth instead of one and done. You have to "read" it the way you would a piece of visual art, which, as Reed’s title makes clear, is part of his point. Whether you're looking to discover a new writer, some wild new approaches to style, or you just want to get more poetry into your reading life, I recommend Indecency

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The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

by Danielle Service

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When I was ten I made friends with two grey mice living in the cockpit of the well-weathered 1972 Sunfish Sailboat my parents stored under their camp in Millsfield, New Hampshire, thirty miles from the Canadian border. The camp had no electricity and stood on log poles. I stumbled on said mice by accident, while hiding from my brothers’ squabbling and roughhousing. The whoomp-whoomp of the boys’ footsteps echoed above my head as I whispered “hello mice”. They were my buddies.

Three days of consecutive visits and we reached an understanding. Then my dad pulled out the blue-and-yellow Sunfish sail and caught me whispering to vermin amid the spiderwebs.

“They’ll infect the camp,” he said. “You could get sick.” I protested. Cried. Ran into the woods as Dad pulled my mice by their tails from the cockpit. I turned back once and saw Dad fling them into Millsfield Pond. Horrified, I watched them sail through the air in perfect arcs toward the water. As my sobs caught up to my legs running away, my youngest stepbrother called out: “That’s life, Danielle!”

The thing I have never been able to reconcile about this story is that everyone in it is right.

My father was right: the mice were vermin.

I was right: the mice were my friends.

My stepbrother was right: Death is life. We kill to live. And – though mice aren’t food – we kill to eat. But I have not made easy terms with this.

I grew up in a family of hunters who respected animal life enough to pursue them in their natural habitat on honest terms. People at school wrinkled their noses at the dead deer hanging in our garage, then went home to eat thick bloody steaks they’d purchased at the store so as not to have that blood on their own hands.

And as an adult, I ignored the ethical implications of eating meat for years. I taught in the suburbs and bought my food at the supermarket. The concept was too inaccessible, until I started practicing yoga in 2009. As my practice grew I learned of the yogic precept of Ahimsa, or non-violence – first toward ourselves, and then against all beings.

In the summer of 2015 I was washing a chicken in my sink and as my hands caressed dead skin I thought really? this died? so that I could eat?

And I pushed that thought down, uneasily, over and over again until I started teaching yoga in earnest this November. Hungry one night after class, I thought “Burger King would be good.” My mind flashed one image: a cow screaming as a knife whistled through its neck.

Fuck this, I thought. It’s not worth it anymore. I’m becoming a vegetarian. And I did.

I was a vegetarian at Thanksgiving when I didn’t eat the turkey. I was a vegetarian through the holidays, checking labels, refusing anything with gelatin. I ate more vegetables and cheese and I tried Tofurkey and sofritas. I was no longer consuming the pain and fear of an animal. I felt such relief. Some yogis believe one is not practicing yoga unless they are vegetarian. Silently, I agreed. I felt an odd self-righteousness that I tried not to convey and yet, in January, two months post decision, I could not deny that I felt odd. I was lightheaded and eating too much sugar. I dreamed about meat. I considered borrowing a rifle so I could go shoot an animal, skin and smoke it myself, and have the honest transparency of the hunt. But instead I found myself ordering a tuna sandwich at school. The dam burst. I went to Chipotle that night, ate chicken. The next day I bought turkey. My teeth gnawed the flesh I’d fought so desperately to evade for Ahimsa’s sake. The worst part was that I didn’t feel nearly as bad about it as I thought I would.

How many animals have died so that I can live? On a cellular level my body craves flesh. Perhaps this is merely a matter of acceptance. Maybe it’s different than wantonly slaying two inedible mice living peacefully in a sailboat. Perhaps I didn’t do vegetarianism right, or there’s a hybrid method of local sourcing and ethical slaying that honors a yogic philosophy. What I do know is that our current systems disconnect us from each other’s lives, mark us for failure, though the point is connection in universal synergy.

Those mice were my friends. But they are gone.


Danielle Service is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. She currently teaches seventh grade Language Arts and yoga in New Hampshire. 

Current and Future Questions

by Eddie Dzialo

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I am worried about the day my daughter will ask me if I’ve killed someone. No one has ever asked. Not even my closest friends who swam through Jameson with me when I first got home from my deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. She’ll ask around the time she’s old enough to be curious, but young enough to have no filter. Of course, then, I’ll tell her that I didn’t and that I love her. But some of that will be a lie, because I don’t know if I’ve ever killed anyone. Nothing about the type of combat being fought in Afghanistan is that definitive.

The Taliban wore the same clothes as the people we wanted to protect. Sometimes pregnant women were a means to hide explosives; dead dogs on the side of the road were packed with nails and ball bearings. Things weren’t as absolute as the Shoot/No Shoot drills that we’d rehearsed in training, and no one had promised that they would be.

During the first month I was in Afghanistan, we were in a firefight for four hours, and I never once saw a single person who had been shooting at us. We moved, they moved, and then at some point, they dropped their weapons and blended back into the huts. On another day, my buddy’s platoon—a kid from the south shore of Massachusetts—got attacked, and my platoon helped corner the attackers into a section of the city. We fired rockets, detonated walls with C4, had helicopters flying overhead, giving us additional viewpoints. But like the four-hour firefight that preceded it, the attackers eventually dropped their weapons, and they likely stood next to innocent civilians who were trying to get away from both sides.  

Throughout all this, I never saw a dead body. When we were being attacked, I saw bullets kicking up dirt around Marines who were too brave to run away; I heard rockets and mortars landing, but I never saw if anyone had been impacted by the things we did. It would be easy for me to say that because I didn’t see anything then it didn’t happen. No one got hurt. They fought; they ran. But I’d been told that the people who were attacking us often took the dead with them before fleeing. Another friend of mine, from another platoon, went into a room after a firefight, and there had been fresh, ungodly amounts of blood on the walls and floor, but no weapons, clothes, or people.

Once, on the morning after we were attacked, a man approached my company. He’d been pushing a wheelbarrow, and in that wheelbarrow, was another man who was badly mangled, barely alive. The man told us that his friend had been mauled by a tractor and was asking for help. The only thing we could offer him were prayers. But was he telling the truth? Had he gotten hurt by a tractor or had it been from artillery rounds? Honestly, I don’t know.

It’s those situations that will make things difficult on the day when my daughter will inevitably ask me if I ever killed anyone overseas. When she’s young, I will tell her that I didn’t and that I love her. And when she’s older, I’ll probably tell her the same things that I’ve written here and that I still love her. As for me, I will likely leave this world not knowing if I ever took someone else’s life. Maybe then I’ll know for sure.


Student Picks: Johnson, July

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Eddie Dzialo-- To read Denis Johnson is to embed yourself in someone else’s struggle. In Johnson’s final book, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, I couldn’t help but feeling that I was getting implanted into the author’s own acceptance of mortality and death. The stories in this collection focus on addicts, divorced men, convicts, men on their deathbeds; Johnson himself had been married three times, had been sober since the early eighties, and was in the later stages of his life.

In the title story, the protagonist says, “...I’ve lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future. I have more to remember than I have to look forward to.” Sadly, this was also true for Johnson. Because some of the people in this book are writers or poets, it’s easy to imagine Johnson as being a character in these stories, reflecting on his past. And he does so with humor, honesty, and a command of language that makes this collection something surreal, something eternal. 

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Shawna-Lee Perrin-- When I think of Miranda July, I think of the kinds of films that I put on my watch list, and after months, decide I should watch it, start it, decide I’m not in the mood yet, and turn it off. Yet, still, there’s something magnetic about her.

So when I found out she was also a novelist, I was intrigued. The First Bad Man describes a neurotic, 43-year-old woman named Cheryl living on her own, pining after an older, self-obsessed man, and looking for a kindred spirit in the faces of strangers’ infants. Her life is thrown into chaos when her bosses’ twenty-something-year-old daughter moves in and displays total disregard, even hostility, for Cheryl and her strange little life, which unravels quickly.

July commits completely to her narrator’s voice, which follows some truly bizarre streams of consciousness that I found myself reading multiple times because I couldn’t believe the crazy things I just read. Cheryl follows her own internal logic, which only makes sense to her, and probably not many others. That July can pull readers along with this is a testament to her enviable skill as a writer. This is the Miranda July I signed up for.

Passing By: Thirty-seven words and eight entries

by Garrett Zecker

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I teach a workshop with mainly seventeen and eighteen-year-old writers. I recently assigned a short task: write your name and age at the top of the page, then write a piece about yourself using only the exact number of words of your age. I completed the task along with them. While I had twice as many words to work with, when I listened to them share their work I realized that I had little more insight than they did. Below, I have reproduced my activity and interspersed each line with an excerpt from a journal entry. These dated excerpts interlineate an experience from the ensuing years since I was my student's age. 


I keep journals 

April 5, 2000 (18) – I made an appointment to see a counselor. I will tell him about the last time I saw a counselor and that none of it really helped. It was all about talking about how the world treats me...but it didn't stop the world. 

I record an imperfect life 

November 29, 2006 (25) – Every day it seems I am looking at the work I am doing, the work to come, the payoff and potential rewards, and I think how I am twenty-five and do not want to be stuck with some of this or have to settle. 

Days, joy and torment, all words 

January 19, 2010 (28) – The clinic was at a library – a nice one – and I waited inside. 

Imagine, a manual 

August 30, 2011 (30) – I cried on stage in front of hundreds of people. It was a pure sorrow. A sorrow arisen from the show being over and so much of my life having passed and at joy. The joy of having had something so wonderful and amazing I helped create. Something beautiful and true with so many amazing people. 

"How To Be A Man" 

June 17, 2013 (32) – I am scared. I am an impulse. I am darting back and forth in a cage like a tiger. I am dying and I have never been happy. How much time do I have left? I'm a terminal case. What is the struggle for? What? 

Words fail often as my heart 

August 6, 2013 (32) - I remain frustrated, feeling like I am doing all the work, and thinking how resentful I am in ways that go all the way back to the beginning. The apartment. The jealousy of my friends. No need fulfilled unless I take care of it. Money. My brain starts despairing, thinking of ways of being satiated... 

My audience my mirror 

November 9, 2016 (35) – It's Carl Sagan's birthday and I really miss my friend. 

Books buried beneath the earth 

14 November 2017 (36) - I've needed to simplify. A lot. And I am trying and trying not to mess everything up, even at the expense of things I really, really want and need. And then I also want my heart to be quiet and still. To not be so anxious and mean and irritated at absolutely every last thing.