Professor Wyckhuis

Professor Wyckhuis would stand at the front of the classroom and lecture, his gaunt face tilted to the podium, his bare scalp growing red with fervor. He’d occasionally whirl toward the board behind him and scribble out etymologies, the chalk popping and splintering in his hand.


After class I’d join him for coffee in the Union. He would smoke cigarettes and touch his stout mustache and gently answer my questions about the Platonists and the Church Fathers, or describe his own scholarly projects: translations of commentaries by obscure saints and monks and mystics.


I once confessed to him that I was given to daydreaming, to making stories, and he, in a typically tender gesture, proposed that I might think of it as prayer and submit gratefully to it. We were walking beneath the trees of the quad, and he explained that the imagination might be exercised to understand our fears, and delight in the works of God, and grieve for our sins.


“Then,” he said, “if our devotion is deepened, and our minds not scattered, we may be called to the contemplative life.” He bowed his head and briefly closed his eyes to recite the words of—he later told me—a French parish priest, speaking so softly that I had to lean toward him. “The interior life is like a sea of love, in which the soul is plunged, and is drowned in love.” And then he opened his eyes and looked at me. “Just as a mother holds her child’s face in her hands to cover it with kisses, so does God hold the devout man.”


The story was that he’d left the priesthood in order to marry, his eyes still wetting with emotion whenever he’d speak of his wife, an elementary school teacher from Missouri, who’d passed from this earth twenty years before.


And there was also a competing and more dramatic story, that his wife had been a French girl, whom he’d impregnated when she was still at the lycée. It was then that he’d left the Church and married, and it was shortly afterwards that she and the baby died, the new bride hemorrhaging during childbirth, the infant’s neck bound with the umbilical cord.


If true, did he blame himself for the deaths of the schoolteacher or the French girl and the innocent child for whom he’d given up God, and whom God, in a show of spite and bile, cast to dust?


A reckless undergraduate was said to have mentioned the rumors to him, and he was reported to have smiled and said, “Charming,” and then, touching the student’s sleeve, “It is of course always easier to love the dead than the living.”


He once admitted to me that he’d stopped on the way home from campus the night before to buy a copy of Playboy. “I was angry,” he said, nodding his head. “I was very angry with God.” He crushed out his cigarette in the ashtray upon the cafeteria table. “So then,” he said, his jaw thrust forward, and he shook his fist in the air.


Once, late at night, Greta and I were leaving a party at a house just off campus, and we saw him walking slowly along the dim sidewalk across the street, in the direction of his own house, two or three blocks away. Twice he stumbled, the second time falling to his knees.


“Oh, Joe,” Greta said, and we started toward him, but one of the hosts of the party, a graduate student, who was standing on the lawn and talking to some girls, said, “I’ll get him,” and trotted across the street, helped him up, and then, his arm around the old professor’s shoulder, escorted him home.


There was a small memorial service for Professor Wyckhuis in January of my senior year. His body had already been flown to Antwerp, where a lone surviving brother was to bury him. As Greta and I stood in the dim chapel near campus, I felt thin and frightened, as if I’d been scooped out.


“Joe?” I could hear Greta’s whisper at my shoulder, feel her hand on my arm.


Later, outside in the glare of the winter sun, she told me that I’d begun to whine, a sound so slight and high pitched that she at first become aware of it only at the breaking of her own breath.


When he heard I was engaged, Professor Wyckhuis told me not to enter into marriage easily. He said that only those who’ve never been married or are destined for divorce think that they’ll not tolerate woundings or pain. I could smell tobacco on his sweater as he sat near me, clenching his hands. “It is like faith,” he said. “Some do not understand the necessary agony of the relationship with God, and so their faith . . . ,” and he suddenly splayed his fingers, like an object scattering.


His brother had directed that his personal property be given away or destroyed. And so in rounds—faculty colleagues, graduate students, and then undergraduates—we strolled through his house—polite shoppers at an abandoned flea market—bending to examine books, peering into dark closets, smoky with old sweaters, glancing at the chipped china in the kitchen, looking for something to take with us.


Everyone stepped softly past the bathroom. Devil’s madness.


The walls in the living room and bedroom were yellowed and bare, the dresser and table tops white with dust. I stood before his narrow bed and picked up from the pillow his glasses, the gold spindly frames, the lenses smudged, the nose pads mossy with oil and skin.


And then my face began to ache, as if I’d been struck, and I left his house without taking anything.


During the time that I knew him, Professor Wyckhuis battled insomnia. We rarely spoke about it, but I’d sometimes notice a weary edginess as we had coffee, as he answered my questions, sometimes struggling to recall a name or find a word.


“Have you seen a doctor?” I would ask.


“Yes, yes,“ he would say, nodding, and he’d shrug. “But it is the cigarettes, I think.” Or he’d simply smile and recall the words of some medieval monk. “Suffering is short pain and long joy,” he’d say.


Once, during the fall of my senior year, he stopped me on the quad and gave me a copy of his latest book, a translation of The Cloud of Unknowing. He offered it to me and then bowed. “A gift,” he said.


On the title page he had written, in his small, cramped hand, “To Joseph, Thank you for your spiritual help in the past. I wish you the best always: Deus providebit.”


When Greta became pregnant, she and I would walk the small Kansas town to which we’d moved, out to a graveyard on its north edge, five flat acres in a pocket of mulberry trees. It was there that we decided upon the name Hannah. We’d been taken with the tall and graceful headstone of a woman named Hannah Jane Flax, who was born in 1859 and died in 1947, and who was surrounded by family members, some—a husband, two children, and a grandchild—preceding her there, all now lying peacefully beneath blizzards and droughts, removed from the welter of the world. Greta saw her in those terms—a life lived deeply and then the serene and slow re-absorption into the earth. I tried to reckon the anger and the grief of those left living, that which had been loosed over the years on these few acres, the weight of accumulated mourning, still, surely, in the air, the damp of it on our skin.


I labor at forgiveness, thinking of Professor Wyckhuis’s instruction, his quoting of Francis of Paola, that the recollection of injury adds to our anger and nurtures our sin. “It is,” he said, touching his breast, “a rusty arrow and poison for the soul.”


He once told me that Qoheleth, delivering one of most brutally honest books in the Bible, revealed that traditional wisdom has failed, that we can’t know God, that we lack control, and that life is short and death certain. “However,” he said, crouching, bending close to the surface of the cafeteria table, his fingers poised as if to pluck from it a crumb of bread, “joy can still come to us in small portions.” And he looked up at me and smiled. “We need to be attentive.”


The story was that Professor Wyckhuis’s landlady found him dead in his bathtub, three days after Christmas. In the wastebasket were, supposedly, empty bottles of lorazepam and Tylenol and a spent blister pack of Sudafed. On the bath mat was a half-full three liter bottle of Rosso di Montalcino. His wine glass wavered on the bottom of the tub, between his legs, beneath the skin of cold water.


The story was that at the beginning of his last final exam in December, he wrote upon the board, Faith is the agent of things un-hoped for, as the thief proved. And the students laughed, and he winked and wished them luck, and left the room, and the building, a graduate student arriving to proctor and pick up papers. And no one on campus ever saw him again.



All year I avoided the square where Sam got knocked down. But that winter I found myself making pilgrimages to the shrine someone made up. The ghost bike was painted white and chained to a pole.


It was the winter I started to start early. I got pretty good at riding drunk. Pavement glittered and winked at me, sick with black ice. I ate sweet exhaust, crushed dinosaur bones. Nothing could touch me on these salt roads. Grit and ice clung to my face. I looked like any street I was rolling on.


One day under that carbon atmosphere I finished a delivery—five stars, no tip—and went to Sam’s bike. I was feeling good. Earlier I got IDed at Liquor Planet though it was my third time there today. It made me feel faceless.


There used to be a sign and there used to be flowers, but the world had a way of taking things away. These days, people were always leaving trash on Sam’s shrine. Sam would have found it funny—people littering on the shrine memorializing where he was run over by a garbage truck. He loved all the weird little circles of the world. But it made me sick.


There was no litter on his ghost bike that day. But there was a young man in the saddle. He looked familiar. Sam, I thought, but of course it wasn’t. The young man wore a vintage army jacket and pretended to peddle while someone filmed.


I rolled the red light. A cab stopped short, horn blaring.


“Look, I’m Lance Armstrong,” the man in the vintage army jacket said, laughing with his friends.


Even I barely saw me coming. I hauled him off Sam’s bike, and we fell into the black crust of gutter snow. An elbow filled my mouth with the hot taste of copper. I was punching anything I could lay hands on. A blow to the helmet, felt it crack. Stars and little birds flying around. It was all happening so fast, and then it was over.


Armstrong’s friends peeled me off him. They pushed me away, calling me an asshole, calling me a drunk, calling me a psychopath, calling out “WorldStar.” My head echoed. I couldn’t think of anything to call them back.


“We should call the cops,” one said, stammering. He dropped his phone as he took it out of his pocket. “Bet he escaped from the mental hospital.”


“Or the zoo,” another guy said. He frantically rubbed white sneakers. Blood was streaking.


“That’s not what tonight is about,” Armstrong said. “Goddammit. We’re supposed to be getting trashed, not cleaning up the city. Let’s get out of here.”


I shucked off the bloody tube scarf and watched them go, shaking. That’s when it clicked—Armstrong was a regular, one of the college guys that always got Chipotle delivered to the row of old brick houses on Seminary Hill.


I stomped around Sam’s bike, feeling deflated. I felt I had to explain myself, explain how the world was. But he knew. Probably better than me. I adjusted how the bike leaned against the pole. Tried to make it seem like a real memorial, not one more abandoned thing in a city full of them. There were several ghost bikes around town, appearing overnight after a messenger was killed. I didn’t notice them until I started riding. Then I started seeing them everywhere.


The old-school messengers said there was a ghost bike for everyone.


I rolled around, but I couldn’t bring myself to take another delivery. I couldn’t show up at a customer’s door with a mouth full of blood.


The cold wind blew through me. Winter was a preservative. I went back to Liquor Planet. I asked if they had free refills. Big laugh, small shake of the head. Five stars, no tip, I was thinking.



Stuck on standby. Algorithmic detention for not accepting enough deliveries the day before. I held a white van and let it move me through the falling light. Cars were honking to each other, saying hello, swapping stories. I was the car whisperer, I knew. The van slowed. I let go, filtering through traffic. I hoped someone would hit me so I could get up swinging. I thought about the time Sam U-locked someone’s mirror after they almost doored him. I laughed and my chest hurt. Like someone U-locked my ribs.


I had nowhere else to go so I went to the plaza where messengers drank away standby. When I arrived, messengers were doing track stands, motionless on their bikes.


A messenger tilted wildly and a yell rose from the crowd. The messenger recovered, but soon overbalanced. Maria was the last one upright. She sat easy in the saddle.


“Did we start yet? I could do this all night,” Maria said, shielding her eyes as she caught sight of me. “And out of the dusk, a challenger.”


My hands were trembling, from cold or something else entirely. I shook my head and leaned my bike against a tree bundled against the winter.


“Nah, my man’s too old,” a messenger said.


“You’ve never ridden a penny-farthing,” Maria said.


I sat on a cold bench. The plaza overlooked a brown field where yellow machines ate the city. The sun was between buildings. Maria rolled over, held out a beer.


“You used to come around more. Now when you show, it’s like you’re someplace else,” she said.


Maria was the closest thing I had to a friend among messengers, now that Sam was gone. Like me, she was older than most other messengers in the plaza. Unlike me, she worked for the courier collective—not an algorithm. The radio strapped to her shoulder crackled as if it heard me thinking about how she got regular hours. She leaned her bike against mine, sat beside.


“How long are you on standby for?”


“They change the rules every day,” I said, shrugged. “Could be all night, could be five minutes.”


“You should come to the office tonight after delivery hours are over. I’ll put in a good word for you. Turnover is so high, nobody remembers why they fired you. You can drop the foodie gigs for real shifts.”


“I can’t take Sam’s old job,” I said.


“It’s not,” Maria said. “It was Greta’s, then Ulysses’s. And they both left, same as everyone. Look around. It’s all new faces all the time. They’re not long for it anyway. Not like us dinosaurs.”


“The dinosaurs weren’t long for it either,” I said.


Below, machines with tires the size of people moved earth around. It was hard to wrap my head around the scale of it all.


“What about you,” I said. “When are you leaving?”


“I’ll never leave. Those trucks will have to pave me over,” Maria said.


When I laughed she tossed me the beer. It twisted in the air, and I had to catch it.


Another messenger clicked over the brick plaza. She asked Maria if she was signing up for the race this weekend, and handed over a clipboard. Maria signed her name and passed it to me. I looked at the names, recognizing only a handful.


“I’m rusty,” I said and shook my head.


“Steel is real,” Maria said. She patted her bike frame.


A light snow was beginning to fall. I thought about telling her about Sam’s bike, the drunks, the guy in the vintage army jacket. But I didn’t want to drag her down with me. I was only just keeping above water myself.



My phone woke me. I was off standby. Back online. Jacking in, I thought. The app promised a bonus if I completed ten deliveries during the blizzard. I unlocked my apartment door and walked through the dark basement. The world was a void beyond the glass lobby door. I didn’t know the storm was approaching, and now it was here. I never checked the weather. Whatever happens happens, I figured. I stowed a fifth in my jacket, rolled airplane bottles into my socks, feeling like an operator suiting up.


Outside, snow whispered against snow. The wind gusted up, the snow rushing like someone shook the world. But it always settled. I felt I was cycling through empty rooms. There was no sound beside the low crush of tires against the piste of the road.


There were bikes left out in the blizzard. Now every bike was a ghost bike. Every house and streetlight was its ghost, too. You only really knew a place when you saw ghosts everywhere.


A snowplow emerged from behind a snowbank. I stopped short, skidding. The wall of air hit me and held me. The pan of its yellow lights splashed across the white world. Salt leaped down the hill after it.


I brought coffee to a snowbound office. “Cold out there, huh?” the man said as I brushed snow out of jacket creases. Five stars, no tip.


Each delivery was a window into a life being lived. Doors opened and showed me a sliver of a world that I knew nothing about. Once, I had an order for a bunch of balloons. When I tied them to my handlebars, I pictured them pulling me into the sky.


The cold bit the tip of my nose. Wind like knives through my jacket. I had my lights on but could only see a few feet ahead.


I grinded through the morning. Before long, I only needed one more drop before I made the bonus. The slush, salt, and sand alchemized into a thick paste. I had to kick my tires free.


Eventually they seized entirely. I locked my bike to a pole. Figured I’d walk.


Then I remembered Sam’s ghost bike. It wasn’t far. The big, meat-eating tires, the heavy frame only a little twisted from the collision. When he built it, he wanted to make sure he could go anywhere. He wouldn’t mind, I told myself.


At the square where Sam died, I picked some garbage out of the front rack. I brushed snow off the seat. The cheap cable lock was brittle with cold, snapped without a fight. I promised Sam a real chain when I was done.


I cranked through the storm, slush rooster-tailing behind me. It snowed like it was the end of the world. I felt good, leaning into skids and turns, falling into snowbanks. I finished the airplane bottles and spiked them into the ghost of a trashcan.


While I picked up the order at the restaurant, the customer messaged me. They asked if I could pick up Advil on the way to their place on the hill behind the university. Chipotle and ibuprofen. Breakfast of champions. They said they’d tip extra.


I wound through snowy streets and bridges over empty highways. People sculpted cars out of snowbanks. Beach chairs, cathode-ray televisions, sawhorses stood in empty spaces.


I fought up the hill. I leaned Sam’s bike against a snowbank, hiked over it to the brick triple-decker. When the door opened, I knew him immediately. He was wearing a sweatshirt, but it was Armstrong. The man in the vintage green army jacket.


I thought about going for his throat and wondered why he didn’t do the same. Didn’t he recognize me?


The tube scarf, I remembered.


“Morning,” he said, stepping into the threshold, winced, held his forehead.


His eyes were glassy, and there was a video game controller in his hand. Behind him was a living room that looked like the scene of a bombing. Cans of beer stood like soldiers on every surface, guarding against the world. It seemed familiar, didn’t seem worth it. Everyone was their own little tragedies. All standing on top each other and wearing a trench coat, walking around and trying to blend in. I handed over the delivery, turned to crunch back down the steps.


“Wait,” he said.


Here it comes, I thought.


“Oh, you got the ibuprofen. Thanks,” he said. He flashed me a smile and a thumbs up. “Had a few too many last night. You’re a lifesaver.”


I showed him a thumbs up with my thick glove.


I got on the ghost bike as the door crashed shut behind me. I looked around at the big snowy world and shivered. Five stars, no tip.


A plow went by, salting the land. It sounded like rain falling softly. The streets were empty, woolly with snow. The city seemed like it was under glass.


Maybe I had a shot at the race this weekend, I was thinking. None of the rookie messengers could ride like this in the snow.


I coasted down the hill. The plow turned a corner and the wind died down and the world was quiet. The falling snow streaked past, and I felt I was at the bridge of a spaceship, jumping to hyperspace.



My father dies in the morning

& a candy jar


in the middle of the house

wants also to be empty


objects in our living room

float like hot flies,

blue couches clutch the ceiling

& the coffee table whispers into the wall


The people, the fallen people,

the loved ones, my loved ones

sitting in the patio

we still laugh at the joke

about the giraffe.


We may cry in our fluorescent rooms,

when no one is looking.


We may be strong, we may, we may

but first we will tear our own

skin from our own skin

first can we go find

the other side where he went

find that place is not empty too.


What It Means to Be Alive

Dragonfly Notes: On Distance and Loss, by Anne Panning

Stillhouse Press, 2018
243 pages, paperback, $16.00


Cover of Anne Panning's Dragonfly Notes


Grief takes many shapes and can change as we live through it. For author Anne Panning, grief takes the shape of a discarded Better Homes and Gardens Sewing Book, found on a neighborhood street, evoking the memory of her mother. This is where Panning’s new memoir, Dragonfly Notes: On Distance and Loss, begins. “Grief is so private that it’s hard to take it out into the world,” Panning observes as she mourns her mother’s death. The recipient of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for her collection Super America and a Best American Essays Notable nonfiction writer five times over, Panning can capture the essence of human experience. Panning’s essays are known for being fine-tuned and attenuated to the intensity of a moment, built out of vivid and uncomfortable truths. In Dragonfly Notes, Panning collects and uses these vignettes to craft a longer story about family, regret, and the loss of her mother.


Growing up poor in Arlington, Minnesota, the oldest daughter in a family of four siblings, with an addicted father and a loving mother, Panning manages to capture what it is to question where home is and what it means to leave one’s place of origin for good. Panning faces her own family criticism, quoting her brother: “‘Everything has to be such a drama for you,’” he expresses, “‘Isn’t anything just normal, or whatever for you?’” In this moment, Panning addresses a central aim of this book, which is to probe her family history in order to understand the loss of her mother. Her memoir answers her brother’s question easily, adeptly: No.


There is a symbolic mechanism that brings the memoir together, the “segmentation” of its structure, as Panning may call it, or the quilting together of titled sections that form the larger whole. Sections are not in chronological order, revealing Panning’s ability to shift into new time and geographical place naturally, as though she is having a conversation with us. Panning, like her mother, collects things throughout the memoir, and it is notable that the book, like her mother’s acts of accumulating fabric for making Panning’s childhood wardrobe, is carefully sewn from its sections.


Early on, in a section called “Good Girl,” Panning wonders what made her mother stay with Panning’s father. Barb met Lowell when she was in high school, and, as Panning notes, he was already an alcoholic then. Panning lets herself ask questions to her mother that she will never get answers to. This series of questions starts to open the door to what the memoir investigates: How does abuse happen in a family, and how do we get out of it? What does it mean to stay, and what does it mean to leave?


There is a dynamic relationship between Panning’s unflinching approach to her past and her lyricism in describing her parents’ home. Of the distressed Victorian her parents owned, she describes “the upstairs bathroom that our mother had made cozy by wallpapering the sloped wall over the tub in a tiny floral print, painting the vanity and chair a soft, strawberry pink, and glazing flower patterns on the side of the claw-foot tub. It still smelled like her Caress soap.”


Then, in a section titled “Hijacked,” Panning’s anger appears. After Panning introduces her family to her fiancé, whom she identifies as the healthiest relationship she has ever had, her mother asks her to reconsider the wedding. Panning remembers her mother saying through the phone line, “‘I mean, it’s not like he abuses you or anything, but he seems to sort of dictate how thing go in an abusive way.’” Panning, fierce as ever, responds with vehemence in the exchange, telling her mother, “‘You wouldn’t know a good relationship if it hit you in the face!’” And she goes on. What makes these moments so real is how vulnerable and honest Panning is.


The memoir finds its center in a Minnesota hospital with all of Panning’s siblings, waiting after the last of a series of incomplete and failed surgeries her mother has endured. With her mother on life support, Panning circles scenes with humor (eating Harry Potter Jelly Belly jelly beans with her siblings) and ends them with emotional heft (her father’s inability to stop the alarm going off on his wristwatch while getting very bad news). Throughout this section, the strengths of Panning’s writing are revealed: We can hear the potato chip bag crinkle under the weight of her father’s mindless snacking, we can see Panning trying to sing to her vacant mother in her hospital bed.


As the memoir ends, Panning must face her ordinary life. It’s almost as if she doesn’t want to let go, because doing so fades the memories of her mother. In mourning, Panning puts her energy into the writing workshop she’s teaching at SUNY Brockport, where I myself took classes with her (not the one she recounts). In a nonfiction class I took with her, she guided us to figure out the point of an essay by asking “So what?” At the end of her memoir, she asks, “I have parasailed in Malaysia—so what?” Her memoir easily answers the so-what question, and, in fact, there are many answers to that question in this powerful, necessary nonfiction work. Because this memoir will help readers feel hope if they are in abusive relationships. Because this memoir will help people grieve. Because this memoir will teach readers that it’s okay to be as raw and as vulnerable as you can be, as long as you are being honest. This memoir gives to its readers a sense of what forgiveness, grief, and living fully, all at once, can mean to a person. This memoir needs to be read as a vital voice in nonfiction, a voice that empowers, challenges, and gives comfort to those experiencing what it means to be alive.


Stretched between Sunshine and Shadow

The Authenticity Experiment: Lessons from the Best and Worst Year of My Life, by Kate Carroll de Gutes
Two Sylvias Press, 2017
200 pages, paper, $17.00


Cover of Kate Caroll de Gutes's book The Authenticity Experiement


Kate Carroll de Gutes’s debut memoir, Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear, won the 2016 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction, as well as the Lambda Literary Award for Memoir, and she has written another noteworthy book. Her new memoir, The Authenticity Experiment: Lessons from the Best and Worst Year of My Life, has already won an IPPY (Independent Publishers Book Award) and will speak to many readers who share the struggle between our public personas and private feelings. The book was sparked by a thought-provoking question that poet Fleda Brown posed to her online community about resisting the tendency to present life on social media as perfection, depicting beautiful children, beautiful friends, beautiful houses, even beautiful food—all of the time.


De Gutes set out to see whether or not she could intentionally share what she calls “the duality—the both/and, the light/dark—of life” for thirty consecutive days on her blog. She examines the way social media is used to “connect” with friends and acquaintances in the very moment we have a thought or a photo to share. In her work, she considers the questions: Has the immediacy of social media made us more isolated than in the days of neighbors chatting over the fence, mailing handwritten letters, and making phone calls? Has shaping a public persona overshadowed engagement in authentic human relationships?


She could not have predicted just how much her life would be stretched between the extremes of sunshine and shadow across the time-span of her experiment. Things took a dramatic shift when shortly into the #LightAndDark blog project, her mother experienced a series of strokes. Less than a month after her father died, De Gutes remembers taking her mother to a play. Her mother was having trouble keeping names and plot points straight:


I didn’t think it was Alzheimer’s then. I thought it was grief that kept her from tracking. . . who would think it was anything more than the grief of losing a spouse of forty-six years?


As the play began, my mother reached over and patted and squeezed my right hand, then let her hand linger there. Looking at this now, I see she was apologizing and thanking me in the same move. But all I felt was discomfort. My mother’s hand on mine, me standing in as spouse like I had done so many times before. I never wanted this role. Now here I was starring in it. I withdrew into myself. My mother felt it and pulled her hand away.


Then her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and eventually moved into a care facility near De Gutes. After the strokes, De Gutes and her sisters moved their mother again—from the care facility to adult foster care—in order to get the hospice care she needed. Just ten days later, she died. De Gutes made her mother’s funeral arrangements, delivered her eulogy, and closed her estate.


Within ten months, De Gutes became the primary caretaker of her close friend Steph. When cancer took her friend, De Gutes closed her estate. Then her close friend, editor Judith Kitchen of Ovenbird Press, died of cancer two days after completing the final edit on Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear. Grief shook the bedrock of De Gutes’ world, and multiple aftershocks continued to leave her feeling ungrounded. At the same time, she was busy giving public readings to promote her debut memoir, winning awards and giving speeches.


Under these circumstances, De Gutes still carried on The Authenticity Experiment, trying to render an honest depiction of her day-to-day reality. Some days her post went up only minutes before midnight, but she wrote something every day for the full thirty days. This chapter, just one short paragraph, titled NEGRONI (PRN) illustrates the swiftness of change in her life and the weight of the decisions that fell on her shoulders.


I’m not sure which is harder: moving my mom to an adult foster home on the down-low so she wouldn’t continually be retraumatized when we had to keep telling her about it, or leaving her there. Which is why tonight I’m sitting at my new favorite restaurant and drinking a Negroni. I ate here two weeks ago tonight with my mom. I feel like I’ve been in one of those Progressive Insurance “Life Comes at You Fast” commercials. Was it really only two weeks ago that I had this same drink at this same table with my mom?


When the thirty-day experiment reached its conclusion, some of De Gutes’ readers didn’t want it to end. She decided to continue to write under the #DarkAndLight hash tag, posting longer essays a couple of times a week. The result is a compelling collection of skillfully written essays, which with honesty and vulnerability celebrate the resilience of the human spirit. They read like letters from a dear friend. The thread tying them together is her understanding that life is never all good, or all bad. Life is messy. Joy mingles with heartbreak:

We live in the great mess, the humus, or soil, of life—which has for its root, the same prefix as human . . . Life should be dirty, tumbling around in all the organic components that make up our lives, our living, ashes to ashes, and all that beautiful fertileness that makes us who we are.


In The Authenticity Experiment, readers are invited to bear witness as the author navigates her way through profound grief, all the while doing her best to fully experience the good things happening for her as well. De Gutes takes her readers along with her to public places, delivering acceptance speeches at award ceremonies, delivering eulogies, and into the most personal spaces, while navigating the legal system to close two estates and being engulfed by crushing emotions in unexpected places.  On each step of this journey, she bids readers to consider what she learned from that impossible year—what she calls the “both/and” of our lives. How do we give ourselves permission to experience joy in the midst of grief? Where can we find enough strength to be vulnerable and stay fully engaged with our families, friends, and communities? She asks, “Everything is always both/and, isn’t it? We are alive, and we are dying. We are there, and we are here. We are confused, and in our confusion we are finally able to see clearly and sing out in our full range.”


De Gutes doesn’t offer a road map. She’s not in the business of giving advice. Still, her story teaches by example that it’s possible to pay attention and appreciate the glimmers of light that brighten even our darkest days. Sometimes it requires conscious intention.


Please also see Heidi Sell’s interview with Kate Carroll de Gutes.


Mournful Meditation

Letters to My Father by Bänoo Zan

Piquant Press, 2017

Paperback, $18.50


Cover of Banoo Zan's Letters to My Father


A mournful meditation, Bänoo Zan’s Letters to My Father is a collection of forty-one poems, each charged with the turmoil that’s birthed in the meeting of grief and memory. If taken in one long gulp, its power will sear through you. A few sips of Bänoo Zan’s poetry will disperse deep into your soul, relieve your aches, and balm your losses. Its collective experience is disarming.


Zan dedicates her second poetry collection to her father, Parviz Ghanbaralizadeh, who passed away in 2012 in Iran, while she was striving to build a new life in Canada. When news reached Zan, she chose not to visit the funeral or memorial services held in her father’s honor. Removed from the scenes of bereavement taking place in her hometown, Zan turned her pen to a flowing, emotional outpouring of verses that expressed what was left unsaid and explored their complex relationship.


The painful reality that strikes out possibilities to reconcile or reconnect with the one who has passed on is central to this collection. The persona’s anguish makes her wish for death and doom, in hopes that it’ll bring her the reconnection she desires, a reconnection that wouldn’t be possible in life:


If you ever loved me

wish me a death so final

it would rescue the heart

from separation

If you are still somewhere

waiting for me—

prophesy my doom


There’s an evocative quality to Zan’s uncluttered and orderly writing style. Stripped down to their ultimate simplicity, the poems aren’t titled, just numbered, focused on the central vision of the poems. The emotions and situations that she probes are accessible to the reader, though laced with deeper complexities, as in poem number 41:


The river

mourns the ocean

every time


proves shallow


The brief and bare sentences tie up with clear and distinctive imagery to offer a profound view of some of the most disquieting situations in life.


There’s an intimacy that seeps into the imaginings of Zan’s poetry, creating a soulful and transcendent narrative. With grief as a catalyst, Zan explores the posthumous reconciliation of a father and daughter, and couples it with a spiritually charged, introspective layer.


Throughout the collection, the persona tries to connect life with death, both functioning as depictions of herself and her father. She traverses the realities of what death represents, linking everything back to herself. Her father’s death becomes a mirror that reflects the turmoil within her. The collection’s opening poem evokes a sense of longing that sets the tone:


I want you back

from the red of brown

to the blue of green

back from the phallus of death

to the womb of life

from unknown harmony

to known horrors


The poem circles back to the verse, “Leave me with you / as death with life,” an idea that the persona often reconstructs to portray an attachment that exists beyond death. She tries to search for her own emotional equilibrium in her father’s absence and recognizes in herself the reverberations of the bond they shared while he was alive. She tends to look for a rendering of herself in what existed of him. In poem 11, she writes:


You were

a ghazal

meeting qasidas


your blood-land

I am your epitaph


She sees herself as a final remnant of his beloved existence. In the consecutive poem, the persona confesses her regret, “I wish I had / shared you / with me.”


With its emotional depth comes a universal appeal; at a core level, people form connections and experience loss similarly. We’re all made up of stories, and in Zan’s poetry the essence of the story is in moments of being and existing. These moments are powerful enough to resonate with the reader, regardless what their personal worldview may be.


One thing that adds to the universal appeal and strength of Zan’s poetry is her alignment of Islamic and Arabian traditions and prophetic stories with the symbolism in western myths. In her poetry she invokes Narcissus, Agamemnon, and Ophelia with the same ease with which she imagines herself as her father’s prayer rug. In poem 30, Zan writes:


If I were your prayer rug

I would water

your desert hands

with golab


Religious and cultural notions become instrumental in her attempts to understand death.


Bänoo Zan’s previous poetry collection, Songs of Exile, was the first to be published in English (Guernica, 2016). Songs of Exile touched upon themes that erupt from becoming an immigrant and also addressed socio-political issues related to gender, ethnicity, and colonization. In comparison, Letters To My Father is a deeply personal poetry collection, one that must have required bravery on Zan’s part to share with the world. Zan’s poetry is a reminder that the discord caused by shifting ideologies does not have to license the irreparable rupture of our blood bonds. In this, Letters To My Father becomes a persona’s cathartic attempt to reconcile with another in death, through poetry infused with life.


Language as Remembrance, Witness, Companion

In June the Labyrinth, by Cynthia Hogue
Red Hen Press, 2017
76 pages, paper, $17.95



Cynthia Hogue’s latest collection from Red Hen Press unfolds around a journey to the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral undertaken as an elegiac pilgrimage. On this journey, Hogue maps a poetic space connecting grief and immortality, presence and immanence, love and loss. These connections demonstrate the power of language as remembrance, witness, and, ultimately, companion.


In June the Labyrinth begins following the death of Hogue’s mother and is dedicated to four of the poet’s friends who died in the subsequent two years of the book’s writing. As the poet begins the journey through the cathedral labyrinth, she transports the reader to an inner labyrinth of voices:


The difference between finding a way

and finding the way


is like that between not knowing

and having forgotten.


The spiraling movement of the labyrinth walk is layered with voices, primarily those of the I-speaker and the figure of the dying Elle, a strong female presence determinedly writing her “book of wisdom” until “she cannot hold her pen.” When Elle calls and a demon answers, Elle knows she is on her own:


This is the crux of her belief:

No one here to fall

back on but herself, she the wild,

and true blue, the only starry night.


Elle walks the labyrinth “meekly above ground / (there is a clearing in her heart).   A crunching sound / like wheels on gravel, a whirring / as of flight. A lifetime’s surrender.” The I-speaker, on the other hand, walks the labyrinth casting intuitive petals in the four cardinal directions as if to ward off the inevitability of Elle’s death. In the face of this loss, the speaker’s ritual creates poetically an opening of time into a space layered and timeless where self and other arrive as companions already loved, a place of healing.


With a generosity of spirit, an imaginative embodying of others within a self, and an inclusive carrying of lost beloveds within the human heart, Hogue’s poems demonstrate how language may transmute the experience of grief as habitation; they evidence the way a poem may become a form of visitation, embodiment, and possession which C. D. Wright called being “one with others.”


Hogue’s honed and spare language embraces innovative play with words misread, crossed out, called out, and sounded, giving the collection a vibrant texture. The poem “(“dehors et dedans”),” for example, begins with a fruitful misreading and then carves words out of themselves, a creative strategy that suggests, in this context, how “real” life remains “sliced from unreal” even as “life’s excluding” Elle and the speaker “cannot harbor / her.”


Outside is inside,

I misread Bachelard’s French

imagining Elle belonging when


life’s excluding her.

She will message me,

I think. But I cannot harbor


her. She is inside herself,

sliced from unreal, real,

as no from not.


A hope in the face of devastating loss is that Elle will “message me, I think.” The message is not a sure thing, yet if the speaker puts her mind to it, if she can imagine it, she may hear it. The power of memory and imagination connects the living and the dead. Embodied through Hogue’s language, it becomes a witness to the emotional and spiritual complexity of the grieving process:


being close enough to touch

differed from her distant love,

safely abstracted from presence.

Elle’s goodness found in her forgiveness.


Hogue achieves the flow and syncopation of the book’s startling music through her finesse with line, space, punctuation, and variations of form from tercets, quatrains, sestets and septets, to a hyphenated list, field composition, and prose. A subtle chiming rings through the book’s outer and inner worlds, which connect through sound and Hogue’s own aliveness as a poet.


One feels her urgency in seeking to understand and to reckon with the power of loss and death, particularly a daughter’s loss of her mother. Elle becomes the speaker’s familiar, an inner witness on the journey through a life learning to accept death through forgiveness:


Forgiveness is a labyrinth, a way,


going in this direction and not that,


the ethical route and heart’s root,


the core, of course, riddle of how


to cure the poison of the demon,


that bitterness which


bent her like a bell


until at last she sounded




Cynthia Hogue’s In June the Labyrinth is a stunning and unforgettable book. It is a letting in of grief rather than a letting go. Hogue’s poems demonstrate how one does not recover but rather uncovers and discovers truths about the other’s being in relation to oneself. Ultimately, these truths come to rest in language itself, in the poem embodied as a form of conscious companion.




Interview: Robert Pinsky

Photo by Eric Antoniou.



Robert Pinsky’s works of poetry include Sadness and Happiness (Princeton University Press, 1975), The Want Bone, (Ecco Press, 1990), The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996 (Farrar, Straus, 1996), and Gulf Music: Poems (Farrar, Straus 2007). He has also published prose, including the books Poetry and the World (Ecco Press, 1988), The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide (Farrar, Straus ,1998), Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry (Princeton University Press, 2002) and The Life of David (Schoken, 2005). He has edited many anthologies, among them Americans’ Favorite Poems: The Favorite Poem Project Anthology (Norton, 2000), co-edited with Maggie Dietz, which grew out of the project he directed as US Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000. This project invited Americans from all walks of life to name their favorite poems and to both record those poems for the audio archives of the Library of Congress and to capture their own reflections on why a particular poem called to them. Few contemporary poets have had as visible a presence as Robert Pinsky—he has appeared on both The Colbert Report and on an episode of The Simpsons. Yet, though his work and presence in popular culture have often had exalted status, his most recent book of poetry, At the Foundling Hospital, manages to delicately balance the universal and the personal, taking the reader from civilization’s battles to the side of a friend’s hospital bed. The poems reach out and take in both humanity’s sweep and what it means to be, simply, an individual human. Please also see our review of At the Foundling Hospital.




Danielle Kessinger for The Florida Review:
One of the things that struck me on reading At the Foundling Hospital is how often you took elements that didn’t have obvious links and connected them. For example, in your poem “Cunning and Greed,” you have David Copperfield and the collapse of bee colonies. Do you find these combinations come to you organically or do you find yourself gathering them together before you put pen to paper?


Robert Pinsky:
One of the nicest compliments I ever received from my wife was about something I made with my hands. She said, “I love your patshke imagination.”  Patshke is a Yiddish word that sort of means patting something together. I’ve never been good at learning everything about anything. I don’t have a scholarly mind, but I do have a kind of oddball mind. I enjoy finding similarities in things that aren’t similar. For me poetry, compared to a long, naturalistic novel, is very good at making lightning moves. I sometimes say prose is like wading. You move through the medium slowly. You see things down at your toes. Poetry is like ice skating. So, you can move through a lot of territory very quickly. I get bored very, very easily, much more easily than most people, which is why I like poetry.


You’ve also presented your poetry in non-traditional ways beyond simply on the page or read aloud. You often perform with musicians.


I love working with jazz musicians, yes.


When you’ve worked with jazz musicians, were you usually choosing the poem you wanted to read based on the piece of music or was the piece of music pared with the poem as the starting point?


None of the above. We improvise, and it’s based on sound. I hope it’s not me reciting to music. I try to make my voice like a horn. The pianist I’ve done a couple CDs with, Laurence Hobgood keeps the poem text on the desk of the piano and looks at it like you’d look at a musical score, and I try hard to listen to him, and he listens to me. Sometimes we might have a rough plan, a set of chord changes. I started out as a musician. I don’t speak musician fluently, but I know enough of it to be able to discuss with Lawrence what we’re doing. It isn’t basing music on the words. It’s not songwriting. It isn’t basing songs on words, or words on music. It’s making music together.


How do you find the audience reacts to that collaboration?


It works so much in our favor because people are assuming they’re going to be embarrassed or bored. They are thinking, This guy is going to say poetry with music, and you can almost see the nervous panic in their faces. [Laughs.]


As US Poet Laurette when you were working on the Favorite Poem Project [see web links below]—which invited Americans to name and record their favorite poem—you found readers that represented a diverse group of Americans. What did you find that was common among the readers, even if what they picked was unexpected?


It was really the readers that were unexpected. It is very important to go to and to see that there are no poets, no literary critics, and no professors of poetry. You see a construction worker read lines of Walt Whitman and then talk about those lines very cogently. You see a Cambodian-American high school student in San Jose read a Langston Hughes poem, and she doesn’t mention that Langston Hughes was a black man. She relates the Langston Hughes poem to the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s regime. A US Marine with a Hispanic surname recites [William Butler] Yeats’ “Politics.”


It’s the only website I know that is actually about poetry in the sense that it’s not about poets, or smart things people say about poems. It’s about poetry in people’s lives.


How do you think poetry is important to people’s lives, not just the act of writing it, but the act of reading and reciting it?


It’s like answering the same question about cuisine as distinct from nutrition or lovemaking as distinct from procreation. I don’t know what the importance is. I don’t know why people like these things, but we seem to be an art-consuming animal. We don’t just walk around, we also dance. We don’t just talk, we also like to recite. If you have a tiny child, when you cradle it, it likes to be sung to. I’ve discovered an infant curls up in exactly the same way when you recite poetry as when you sing. It’s fundamental. It’s there. It’s a very basic part of human nature.


Having published your first book of poetry in 1975 and your most recent book of poetry in 2016, do you think that your approach to assembling your pieces into a larger work has changed over time?


Each book demands waiting for the physical materials to tell you what each poem is about and what the book is about. In the course of writing that book, At the Foundling Hospital, I had two or three friends die. That affected the subject of the foundling and culture. The foundling is taken into a culture it doesn’t particularly choose. It’s told you’re going to be a woman, you’re going to be Korean, you’re going to speak English, you’re going to be gay, you’re going to be subject to these diseases and have these immunities. The little child is just a squirmy little thing. It doesn’t know all that.


One of my friends was in a coma before he died. People sing to you when you are in a coma, they read, tell stories, tell jokes, and I found myself in the poem “In a Coma” trying to assemble the music, the news stories, the sports teams that he and I experienced when we were young. The sort of funerary or memorial aspect of the poem changed and was changed by the book’s project of talking about the foundling hospital and the infant foundlings and their growing up.


Identity is not the kind of fixed category that political discourse sometimes tries to make out of it. Culture is always mixed and fluid.


Favorite Poem Project Links:


Enough Sealant to Pool the Concavity

March 12th

Most evenings I go for a short walk around the neighborhood, my route always the same. I take a right on 1st, another right on S Street, uphill three blocks to where it Ts with 4th, east two blocks on 4th along the Calvary Cemetery, then back to 1st via U Street. Last night was my first walk since Bree’s death, and I wondered: why such a cemetery-centric route? My route could just as easily rectangle or staircase south towards Reservoir Park, where students from the U play Frisbee and parents admire their kids from playground benches.


Here’s how Wikipedia describes the grid I call home: “First surveyed in the 1850s, the Avenues became Salt Lake City’s first neighborhood. Today, the Avenues neighborhood is generally considered younger, more progressive, and somewhat ‘artsy’ when compared to other neighborhoods. Many young professionals choose to live there due to the culture and easy commute to downtown. It is also one of the most important strongholds of the Democratic political party in Utah.”


I used to think about death constantly—that was during my religious teens… I was going to insert a quotation from the Bible here, something along the lines of “Always keep in mind your last days, and you will never sin,” but those memories are so distant and the internet is so choked with sin and warnings about sin that even Google’s divine algorithm is powerless to help me find the verse. I saw my classmates doing what teenagers do, and I couldn’t believe they could just ignore the punishment in store. Even if they didn’t believe—wouldn’t they at least be wise enough to acknowledge the chance that the fire was real and gamble on the side of avoiding it? As those fears gradually then suddenly receded, as I realized that disbelief could be active rather than passive, I experienced an unexpected side effect: my new certainty that everything would go black when I died alleviated my fear of death rather than intensifying it. There was nothing I could do about its inevitability, so it wasn’t worth thinking about. And at least there was no punishment in store.


Even these brief thoughts risk flashbacks I’d rather avoid—I admit I wouldn’t be recording them if not for my employer-prescribed grief therapist’s insistence. Or that neglecting to do so would suggest that I’ve inadequately grieved my daughter’s death. I keep myself very busy, and I’m not sure that time off work is really going to be beneficial. I haven’t had time just to sit and think in years—and that has suited me fine.


During my walk yesterday evening, I noticed for the first time the abundance of crack sealant on 4th. The other roads in the Aves are not so heavily sealed (I had to check), making me wonder if 4th is more heavily or less heavily trafficked, better kept up or worse. I took these pictures today.


Some metaphor was nagging my mind, the sealant as intestinal or labyrinthine, but it escaped my articulation until I passed by T street and saw painted on the asphalt what I momentarily mistook for graffiti. Since I couldn’t read it, I found myself tilting my head, then walking around the graffiti so that it would be north of me, thus, said my logic, legible. Strange logic since the Aves reads bottom to top, 1st being the southernmost street, a grid radiating outward from Temple Square.

What appeared to be ornate black writing highlighted in white turned out simply to be the coincidental crossing of street sealant with the strip of white paint notifying drivers where to stop for the stop sign.


Writing, it occurred to me. The street sealant is just like a type of writing.


I mean, the white line is certainly a type of writing. Although I don’t think I’d ever consciously acknowledged this feature of roads’ communication with drivers, it says “Stop here” just the same as the white letters on the red octagon. I looked at the black sealant lines more closely.

The beginning was a mess, a snarl of capital Rs and As and Ys. Then a sort of W or M, a cursive R and the number one. A zero with a slash through it (Greek phi or theta), a T, an A, a P. Trailing off into maybe a Z at the end.


No, these marks are meaningless flukes. It’s not much like writing. Not like the actual graffiti I discovered on my fence returning home.

MOST timid tagger in the city. I think I’ll leave it there.


I think my anxiety over starting this journal, of writing something for the first time since a college creative writing class, something that doesn’t have to do with projecting city water supply, must just be causing me to see writing everywhere. Not just the names on tombstones, which—for the first time in all my walks—were those of human beings, not just those dashed dates that were the most different of all the days McNeil or Duddshuh or VanWaggoner called their lives, not just the giant U on the side of the hill that here could stand for University or Utah or Utes… The power lines themselves seemed to sag and crackle with communication that only my dimness kept me from deciphering.


Today I got a few strange looks for photographing the asphalt, particularly because I have a dumbphone and the only camera I own is a video camera that also takes stills.


March 13th

Last night, my route was disrupted by the presence of a stranger headed north on U Street. My feet just started following him. Along the eastern edge of the cemetery, I tried to stay far enough back that I wouldn’t arouse suspicion, but close enough that I might get a look at his face when he passed under the streetlights. I wanted a face to paste on my absurd fantasy. There was no reason for my heart to be pounding so hard, for me to feel the thrill of the hunt. He entered a house and was greeted, I saw through the window, by a kitchen-full of twentysomethings holding cans of beer. Hanging back, I wondered what the reaction would be if I knocked on the door, asked if it was an open party. I had never visited this section of the Aves by foot.


March 14th

I set out again last night searching the dark streets for Bree’s lover. It’s crude to think this way—my daughter’s death as a liaison—but my mind ignores all pleas of decency.


I know that my chances of encountering Bree’s lover are slim, but it wouldn’t be the most remarkable coincidence this month. I brought along my camera even though I’m not sure if it would work in the dark or what I’d do if it did. My ears were even more alert than my eyes, filtering the night’s noise for a sound that’s familiar even though I can’t remember ever having heard it. Suctionless unstoppering. Metal that’s heavy.


As I walked by the cemetery on 4th, I noticed a little neon light that someone had used to decorate a loved one’s headstone. It was a meager flare in the night: red to purple to blue to green to yellow to red to purple to green to yellow to red to purple to… A depressing sort of vigil, and I found myself thinking: if I’m to be remembered thus, I’d rather be forgotten. Regarding my cremated remains, my instructions will be Dump wherever. I’ve always liked Zion National Park and could see my ashes borne from the peak of Angel’s Landing. But it’s such a popular destination that there’d be people all around who’d get bummed out. Also—I thought before realizing the thought’s absurdity—I’m afraid of heights.


Above the cemetery, the letter U luminescent on a hillside, blinking: red red red red red red red… My mind transformed it into “you.” Zoom out even a miniscule distance (proportional to the cosmos)—the grave’s little light and the bombastic U would be equally invisible.


March 15th

I told Rich in our session today that boredom is not helping with the grieving process, and he suggested that I take up a hobby or two. We decided on Nintendo and piano, both of which have been sitting inactive in the house since Bree’s death. I used to play piano, but I never really got into video games. Also, whereas the musical instrument is unchanged since the last time I’d played it (and for two centuries or so before that), the new WiiU system Bree’d brought into the house had evolved into something radically different than the gray console on which I’d last chased a one-up mushroom down a bottomless pit, much to my young daughter’s delight. The hulking controller alone threatened to overwhelm me. It had its own screen, and everywhere I looked there was another button or joystick. The first game I fired up was called ZombiU, not quite the type of therapy Rich would approve of, I’d imagine. It took me hours to get past the game’s intro, a weaponless character fleeing zombies through a subway to get to the “safehouse,” following the instructions of voice that identified itself as “Prepper.”


The safehouse contains 1) a metal locker where you can stow weapons and ammo and health packs that you pick up on your missions across embattled London, 2) a work table where you can add modifications to your weapons, 3) a computer system that provides you with surveillance of the game’s various districts, 4) a generator you have to refill with fuel every so often, 5) a bed where you regenerate as a new character when you die—I find it’s best not to get too attached to any single character, and 6) a manhole cover you lift off to reveal the entrance to the sewers. ZombiU inverts the sewer system into a place of speed and safety, allowing you to warp at loading-speed between the safehouse, Buckingham Palace, Brick Lane Markets, etc. The surface overrun with verminous versions of homo sapiens, the previously proximal space between civilization and its subconscious has become a haven for what traces of humanity remain.



March 16th

The presence on Bree’s desk of this vintage toy:

The goal is to negotiate a ball bearing from the START alcove around a maze of plastic partitions without allowing the ball bearing to fall through holes in the surface that represent a variety of hazards: Haunted Mountains, Black Mountains, Blood Lake, Man Eating Plants, Poison Desert, Tiger Valley, Sargasso Sea, and so on. I spent twenty-three minutes playing it before finally reaching the FINISH. Tucked within that right angle, the ball bearing is away from hazards but doesn’t know what to do with itself. It rests in an infinity of safety and boredom.


March 17th

Today Rich asked how my grief documentation is going, and I told him that I have nothing to write about.


He told me there’s always nothing to write about. I’m not sure how clever he was intending to be.


I’m auguring snarls of tar sealant, I told him. I’m stringing Bree’s status updates on telephone lines. I’m reading everything I can find about the Well of Souls.

Not a natural cave per se, but a chamber beneath the Foundation Stone, where Abraham purportedly attempted to sacrifice Isaac and/or Ishmael. But cave-like—but inside–a chamber further interiorized by the Dome of the Rock. Pierced Stone. Wikipedia: “Jewish tradition views it as the spiritual junction of heaven and earth.” I tried curling into a ball in the deepest corner of my unfinished basement, but it isn’t the same.


March 18th

In an effort to learn how to better use the controller’s touchpad to navigate post-apocalyptic London, I stumbled across a ZombiU promo video online that demonstrates the various functions of the touchpad. The hands holding the controller get increasingly twitchy as the three-and-a-half-minute video progresses. The viewer is not sure why. At the video’s conclusion, the arms’ veins and arteries blacken, its flesh molders, and—if that isn’t enough—an off-camera screech testifies the game’s ability to infect those who would dare play it. It’s a clever marketing scheme—and accurate in different ways than I think its creators foresaw.


March 19th

Bree’s birthday. I don’t drink very much except tonight. Made the mistake of going on her Facebook page and scrolling through the birthday wishes and her last posts. In my current disbelief system, the continued persistence of her Facebook and Twitter and Instragram and Pinterest pages are the best approximations of a soul and the afterlife that we can attest to. The first step in the science fiction scenario of being able to upload our consciousnesses and live forever.


I unfriended the friends who wished Bree a happy birthday without realizing that she’d plummeted to a lonely death. Now only 21 people like her “suicide” post, down from the initial 42. Police and logic eventually ruled that her death was not suicide. It was an unlucky night, and sometimes you just happen to vague-book right before you die of incredibly natural causes: Wikipedia is heaven when you don’t want to remember anymore.


Lo, Google informs me I’ve been quoting Bree quoting Nick Cave. Sweep me away for an hour or five, Wikipedia, you means of discovery and forgetting to which I return again and again. Give me discography, give me Murder Ballads, by God give me personal life.


March 21st

One infuriating aspect of the ZombiU is that, when your character dies and you regenerate as another character with another name and former occupation at the safehouse, you lose all of the resources that were in possession of the character who died. That zombified character’s location is marked with a skull on the sewer map, and if you want your weapons and ammo and health packs back, you have to go to that location—now armed only with a cricket paddle, a handgun with six rounds, and whatever you were wise enough to stow in the safehouse’s locker—and kill the character you’d been trying so hard to keep alive. If you die again before doing so, all those supplies are gone.


Discomforting, what comforts us.


Not only does my bedtime get pushed back further and further each night by my urge to meet just one more of the game’s objectives. Just one more, just one more… But the game’s content, graphics, and geography are corrupting my daily perception. I begin grafting the face of Arthur, my daughter’s lover, onto the zombies I clobber or shoot or incinerate. I bring a crowbar on my patrol one night. I imagine access to a sonar map of the Avenues in which I am the locus of radiating pings and my daughter’s boyfriend is an elusive red dot. Manholes, too, are marked.

I begin expecting the infected to pop out at me, and I scout for escape routes. I see a section of the fence around the graveyard that has been displaced, and I gauge whether or not it’s enough space for my character to fit through.


I love how the post topples in segments, in super slow motion. The way wrought iron gives way to chain link. The mysterious symbol on the third block from the bottom.


In ZombiU, I would scan this symbol with my gamepad and it would provide me with a clue to a clue to a clue that would lead me to Arthur, my daughter’s lover.


March 22nd

We are infected—piano has taught me that. Twenty years ago I taught my hands a Chopin mazurka, and these past two weeks my hands have taught it back to me. It’s so strange how much knowledge lives on in us unacknowledged, atavistic/instinctual or just part of our daily ballet. I reached a level in ZombiU called “Ron Freedman’s Flat,” which includes a room where you have to pick off zombies that have been lulled to the nepenthe of throbbing bass and black lights. Even though they’re not technically alive anymore, their bodies remember actions they performed during life and respond automatically to stimuli.


I put my wallet in the toaster today.


Trying to memorize the Chopin, my brain will alert me to a difficult series of upcoming measures. I’ll be fine now, fine now, but I’ll feel the approach of chord or ornamental figure that I know will trip me up. And it will trip me up, and I will go back to one of my bookmarked measures and start again. But that chord or figuration is not content to simply remain resistant and rotten; it will spread its clumsy amnesia backward to meet my oncoming fingers. I will greet the dementia a measure earlier than before, rewind again, get tripped up two measures before the first time. More and more of the piece will fall into darkness until I end up admitting forfeit and bringing the sheet music back out so the whole mazurka isn’t engulfed.


I worry that all memory works this way. For example, I’m confident in my general memory of our “therapeutic” family trip to Zion the year before the divorce, or Bree’s reluctance to move back in with me when she didn’t get accepted anywhere but the U. But then I try to recall something specific from those scenes—the words of a conversation, what we ate for dinner—and my inability to do so taints the whole year of life with such unreliability that I’m left wondering if it ever really happened.


March 23rd

This morning I awoke to find the city workers applying sealant to the section of 1st right in front of my house. Behind their truck they pulled a giant orange tank streaked with tar and dirt, and I wondered about the similarity in temperature and consistency of this sealant compared to the tar used in the defense of castles in the Middle Ages. Google: tar or pitch, along with stones, hot sand, molten lead, and boiling water were dropped on enemy soldiers from “Murder Holes,” holes in castle ceilings, barbicans, or passageways. Google: tar is more or less fluid, depending upon its origin and the temperature to which it is exposed. Pitch tends to be more solid.


My mind moved to treasure seekers combing the beach sand with metal detectors as I observed the workers trace their wands over the asphalt in cryptic glyphs. Wikipedia: “The simplest form of a metal detector consists of an oscillator producing an alternating current that passes through a coil producing an alternating magnetic field. If a piece of electrically conductive metal is close to the coil, eddy currents will be induced in the metal, and this produces a magnetic field of its own.” No, the discs at the end of the wands were more like the spongy proboscis of houseflies, trailing a line of black blood instead of lapping it up. Google: labella.


The workers chatted about an overly affectionate cat that had disrupted their workday, about the prospect of giving it a black stripe of sealant, about an episode of Pepé le Pew remembered from childhood. For half an hour they discussed where they’d eat lunch. One of them was in favor of Whole Foods, the other Wendy’s. After they’d moved on, I stepped outside to examine their work. The newly laid sealant was a blacker black than old sealant but glistened gold in the sun, veining the dull asphalt with light.

In places, the sealant pooled in shallow potholes like miniature versions of the tar pits that trapped dinosaurs and preserved their bones. Wikipedia: “Most tar pits are not deep enough to actually drown an animal. The cause of death is usually starvation, exhaustion from trying to escape, or exposure to the sun’s heat.” Wikipedia: “Over one million fossils have been found in tar pits around the globe.” Wikipedia: “‘The La Brea Tar Pits’ literally means the the tar tar pits.” I was bothered by places where the workers had not dispensed enough sealant to fully pool the concavity. It seemed like they’d missed an opportunity to clear a wound of dirt.

No, I realized, not clear the dirt. I wanted infection. Containment of today’s irritants, a burying again of the meager portion of planet that sees light and feels the wind. Perfect infection. It seemed unfortunate to me that tire tracks already dirtied the tar in places, an irrevocable and inevitable tarnishing given the tar’s consistency. Wiktionary: “tar” and “tarnish” do not share an etymology. Even if they did, tar can be tarnished—and the more dust that sticks to it, the more it’s pressed down by tires, the more that it’s weathered by sun and snow, the less likely you are to notice it. Unlike the usual tarnishing that stands out as a defect—like a stain on a shirt or a crack in a dish—tar is tarnished into invisibility.


HOT CRACK SEAL diamond-shaped signs warned drivers, and I had the urge to test the substance. I found it quite cool and pliable.

My fingerprint held its shape for longer than I cared to watch.


(Stepping back out an hour later, I was relieved the divot was gone.) As there were many more cracks in the asphalt than the workers could possibly have filigreed, I wondered what their system was for determining that this crack was fine for now while this other needed attention. Rich, what’s yours?


It’s true: at Whole Foods you can accidentally spend like fifteen dollars on a salad.


March 24th  

The cemetery by my house was brought up as an option when Bree’s death forced Gail and me into conversation. She suggested it might be difficult for me to live in such close proximity to Bree’s grave. I thought it was a hilarious suggestion, but I didn’t laugh.

March 26th

It’s one month since Bree’s death, and I could tell at our session this morning that one month is Rich’s milestone for tiptoeing the concept of forgiveness into the conversation. A difficult homily to a man who walks the streets for hours every night looking for blood. I didn’t respond well at the session, but now I have a moment to consider what makes forgiveness so difficult in this situation. I’ve tried to imagine him (I’ve imagined him a him) generously, someone beaten down by society, someone sick and poor who met the wrong prophets at the wrong time. I imagine him ignorant of his actions’ consequences—or, knowing, bereft. A story of the Aves and the Ave-Nots. I imagine him as Arthur, a tenant I evicted from my Liberty Park rental a few years ago. I’ve had to evict tenants before when they’ve fallen behind on payments, promised they would pay me back if I could just give them more time—but Arthur was the only one who I believed and evicted anyway. It’s a stupid, impossible fantasy, just my attempt to imagine some kind of scenario in which I deserve this misfortune. (I never attempt to fit Bree into this equation of who deserved what.) Once I imagined Arthur’s face on the shadows I screened for, it was locked there and I couldn’t shake it. Recalling his last name, Stenger, I imaged him the timid tagger MOST, signing his name on the wreckage of my household as an elaborate work of revenge art.


When I imagine forgiveness, I imagine someone kneeling before the one he or she has wronged, a benevolent hand eventually placed on the shoulder or head of the wrongdoer. Rays of sunlight. But forgiveness is especially noxious in my situation because he might not even know he’s wronged me, wronged Bree. He might have experienced none of the setbacks in life that I’ve imagined. Forgiving someone who has not asked—does not even know they require forgiveness—someone who might right now be continuing to enact the potential need for forgiveness from any number of strangers… Perhaps the person and the guilt we’re forgiving is always a projection, but in this case what I’d be forgiving would not be an actual human, but something in myself. And, currently: no.


March 27th

This heart on a telephone pole in my neighborhood:

What’s the first thought this cheery decoration inspires? The violence of a screw through the heart’s heart. My mind these days.


March 28th

I haven’t sat down at the computer in my home office for a while, but today I was feeling particularly anxious about Kenneth’s ability to deal with my work responsibilities in addition to his own. Taped above my computer, I saw and remembered, is a printout of the fake email I wrote under a pseudonym that got me in so much trouble, the leaking of which—coinciding with Bree’s death—led to my mandatory leave.

Free speech has its limitations; the most frequently cited example is yelling drought in a desert. Shortage during a shortage. Double sacrifice, career and daughter of Senior Analyst, to mountain gods appeased. It’s barely stopped raining since the funeral.

March 30th

With nothing else to do, I drove two hours today and visited the Spiral Jetty for the first time in my life. Surrogate brain: “The sculpture becomes submerged whenever the level of the Great Salt Lake rises above an elevation of 4,195 feet (1,279 m). At the time of Spiral Jetty’s construction, the water level of the lake was unusually low due to drought. Within a few years, the water level returned to a normal level, submerging the jetty for the next three decades. In 2002, the area experienced another drought, lowering the water level in the lake and revealing the jetty for a second time. The jetty remained completely exposed for almost a year. During the spring of 2005, the lake level rose again due to a near-record-setting snowpack in the surrounding mountains, partially submerging the sculpture. In spring 2010, lake levels receded and the sculpture was again walkable and visible. Current conditions fluctuate.” That’s either from Wikipedia or the ether, but I searched current conditions fluctuate moments after copying, pasting, navigating back—and the phrase was cut from the entry, edited away by a stranger. Current conditions do not fluctuate, apparently. It’s our confident knowledge that’s suffering a constant erosion.


I walked the length of the Jetty to the center, my sneakers collaborating with its entropy. Back to my car, however, was a straight line.


A young couple Bree’s age pulled into the parking lot with a kayak on top of their car, apparently failing to anticipate how far the lake had receded from its usual shoreline. I call this washed-out photo “The End of a Relationship.”

It was very sunny.


A couple hundred yards south of the Jetty are the lithic remains of an oilrig from the 1950s.

Oil seeps from the lakebed where the petrified forest of old dock posts juts skyward.


Texture-wise it reminded me of a tree on 1st Avenue, the barky carapace of slow spillover where the trunk takes root at the corner of lifting sidewalk slabs.


The oil, you can play with it.


And, like tree bark, it eats irritants at glacial pace.


March 31st

Today I added a paragraph to my fake, all-too-real e-mail to SLC residents:


April 1st

Today I started learning a piano piece just because I like the name, Debussy’s prelude La cathédrale engloutie (The sunken cathedral). I’m starting to remember why I had to finally give up trying to relearn the piano years ago. I always told myself starting back in that my life would be enhanced if I could just play, say, that one Chopin mazurka I love so much. But then my usual human affinity with the number three would make me want to learn two more pieces, perhaps become a Chopin expert of sorts. No, I would learn one piece—or three pieces—from all the major movements in old music: baroque, classical, romantic, modern. Pretty soon, one hour of practice a day would become two, three, and I’d again recall that I seem unable to just dabble in piano.


Wikipedia: “This piece is based on an ancient Breton myth in which a cathedral, submerged underwater off the coast of the Island of Ys, rises up from the sea on clear mornings when the water is transparent. Sounds can be heard of priests chanting, bells chiming, and the organ playing, from across the sea.”


I’m also remembering that the more you try to channel passion or sadness or joy from your real life into your performance, the more you tend to botch it. Your mind must be like the driver on a highway whose exit is coming up pretty soon.


April 2nd

At night I’ve made it a habit of walking on the street rather than on the sidewalk, mainly because so many of my neighbors have motion sensor lamps with the wattage of a prison guard tower spotlight—and/or hyper dogs who don’t know they live in the Avenues. These streets are quiet at the hours I walk, but I’m always alert for cars, especially since I’ve been dressing in darker and darker clothing in anticipation of meeting Arthur. Tonight—I guess it’s last night technically—I heard the sound of a car approaching me from behind. I stepped aside, but something was different than usual. Then I realized: the car didn’t have its headlights on. Then it did—its red and blue strobes as well. Even as my heart quickened, I reasoned that it probably had nothing to do with me, and I waited for it to pass.


But a cop got out of the car and began to approach me. Backlit, her features were indiscernible to me even as I was blasted with light for her.


“Sir, may I speak with you for a moment?”


“Is there a problem, officer?” I delivered my line.


“Can I ask if you have any weapons on you?”


I told her that I had a crowbar, if that counted as a weapon, and I set it down on the pavement. Yes, that is my only weapon. This bag contains a camera. I handed her my camera bag. She unzipped it and gave it a fleeting inspection.


“What are you doing out here tonight?”


“I’m just out for a walk.”


“Why are you carrying a camera and a crowbar?”


I didn’t reply.


She continued, “There have been reports of a suspicious man walking around the neighborhood, filming. And we’ve had a problem with theft of sewer covers in Salt Lake City recently, including in this neighborhood. Would you know anything about this?”


Again, I was in possession of such exact answers to her questions that I struggled to articulate them. She seemed to interpret my silence as resistance.


“Do you live in this neighborhood?”


“Yes,” I said, “I live on 1st Avenue. The man with the camera is probably me, but I haven’t been shooting video, just taking stills for this project I’m working on.”




“The theft of manholes is why I’m out here. Like the neighborhood watch.”


“It seems that the neighborhood watch is worried about the neighborhood watch.”

The sign was disconcerting to me as a kid; I thought the watching-eyed black figure was the neighborhood watch, rather than a caricature of the type of man the watch wanted to scare off. (I’d imagined him a man.) I never liked the straight line from the tip of his hat to the small of his back. I never liked how the forbidding red bar obscures any tapering of his midsection, as if his gumshoe hat is the peak of a crooked mountain. His hat spins like a top when he’s excited; I’m not sure why, but it does. I still can’t figure out the slice in the side of his head. If it’s a leering grin, then the letch has an eye at his ear region or a mouth on his cheek. Is that the collar of its trench coat or the jut of a bottom jaw? I guess maybe he’s talking out of the side of his mouth? Psssst…

“Why do you have a crowbar with you?”


“Why hasn’t the city installed locking manhole covers?”


“I’d like you to come down to the station with me just so we can clear a few things up. Are the photographs you’ve taken still on this camera?”


I didn’t want to get taken down to the station or even sit in the back of her car while she sorted things out.


So I told her.


April 3rd, 2015



Venn overlap of tragedy and comedy. Our cities are pocked with holes—but as we drive through the rainy night, we trust that the covers will be in place. Rather, we don’t even think about it. Maybe tomorrow, but no hole will open in my life today or today or today.

April 5th

Rich asked me at my session this morning if I think I’m making any progress. I wanted to tell him that the question is stupid and canned. I’m not sure if progress would look like grieving less or grieving more.


But I realized today that I am making progress. Just one month ago I was asking road sealant to form the letters of the Latin alphabet. While I continue to be suspicious that all things visible and invisible are a form of writing, I’m beginning to understand that they speak to us each in their own distinct languages, and that any attempt at augury—inevitably biased and imperfect—requires transcription. Maybe this is what separates artists from the rest of us.


Desperate our clinging to this crust. Fragile our traction. How utterly dictated by coincidence is all life on this planet, even more so the circumstances that impossibly collided to make me this creature here and now rather than someone else some other time, some worm, or continued nothingness—all the possibilities of existence and non-existence in the infinite combinatory of life. So maybe I can stop holding court against one tragic coincidence, zoom out and count the heap of flukes that endow me with the love and sorrow and language to name them. Maybe I can start a new grief journal that grieves my lost daughter instead of myself.


Two dots in time and space wretchedly intersected. That is all.


And when we’re gone, if we’ve failed at our mission to eradicate life on planet Earth, how long before there are no traces we were ever here? Cosmic time, proportional to our brief tenure.


In my dream I must have gotten a job as a city utilities worker, because I’d taken the liberty of bringing home some equipment. The tar tank had a pull cord and started like an outboard engine. My first line of black tar was reserved for her laptop. I coated the keys, the screen, the speakers, the mouse, the hinge where it closes. I sealed the line between her mattress and headboard, headboard and wall, all along her pillow. You’d need a knife to open her closet and chest of drawers after I’d finished with them. Her alarm clock was no good anymore.


Internet: the Jewish tradition of covering mirrors during the ritual of Shiva is of uncertain origin, one theory being that—since humans are created in the image of God, and since a human’s demise represents a rupture between living human and living God—the image of the Creator itself shrinks with the death of its creatures.


I covered the mirror in Bree’s bedroom—then all the mirrors in the house. The task of containment felt incomplete, and I applied a line of sealant all around her doorframe, my dream-physics causing it to stay put and not drizzle down the face of the door. Following some alterations, my upright piano featured 36 black keys and 52 black keys. My cell phone and camera were encased where they sat. Let the windows be shut upon them.


Still dissatisfied that some therapist or third dot might disturb our hard-fought solitude, I applied a gag and blindfold—so that, should I ever make it back, I would never be able to betray the route to friends or enemies.