In the Mental Architecture of the Deceased

In the Mental Architecture of the Deceased

By Chase Dimock

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Five years ago, my father, grandfather, and I remodeled the bathroom in our family cabin. This was no luxury ski chalet or time share condo masquerading as a cabin. My great-grandfather built it himself in the 30s with the help of his five daughters and the boy scout troop he lead. Great-grandpa was not a master carpenter or plumber, so as we tore away the rotting drywall and jackhammered the cracked cement floor, we discovered an unexpected and unconventional layout of pipes. It was a map of kludges, improvisations, and applications of sheer brute force.

The more Dad and Grandpa studied how the pipes were fashioned and connected, the more it became clear that the success of the remodeling job became dependent on interpreting Great-Grandpa’s plumbing choices, and then predicting where the pipes would take us. They had to think like Great-Grandpa, and in the process, his cognition and imagination became reanimated. The pipes were a network of thought like the neural pathway of synapses in his mind. Debates between Dad and Grandpa over the next step in the project evolved into nostalgic appreciations of Great-Grandpa’s resourcefulness. They were once again enveloped in the creative vision of a man who built his own carnival rides and managed to keep a citrus grove thriving during the severe rationing of WWII.

If you clicked over here from Facebook or Twitter, you are probably wondering why I am beginning a remembrance of Okla Elliott with an anecdote about plumbing. My Great-Grandpa died well before I was born, so the experience of a man’s resurrection through exploring his handiwork was only secondhand. I could see it in Dad’s and Grandpa’s faces, but I could not feel it directly. Last August, when I took over As It Ought To Be following Okla’s untimely passing, I finally experienced this phenomena first hand.

As the new Managing Editor, I have been combing through nearly a decade of articles on As It Ought To Be. This has meant figuring out formatting, style, and organization as Okla had established them, and charting how he evolved in these ways. I’ve read through all of the posts Okla authored from the beginning of the site to his final article about Lent and its political and social possibilities posted just weeks before he unexpectedly passed. Just as the plumbing revived the spirit of Great-Grandpa for my father and grandfather, so too has editing and organizing As It Ought To Be kept Okla’s voice as a writer and thinker perpetually resonant in my mind.

Although I have known Okla since right around the founding of As It Ought To Be, one tends to forget how people were when you first knew them. You don’t always remember them as they ended either. Rather, you remember people for their established role in your life and you preserve them in that stance. You build a home for them in the structure of your existence, and when they die, that’s where they stay, beautifully enshrined in your memory as a witness and an ally. This would be the Okla of 2010-2014, when we were grad students drinking Bushmills, debating Sartre, and geeking out over the genius of Professor Cary Nelson. Like so many published here on As It Ought To Be and in many of his other creative endeavors, he encouraged me to expand my mind, amplify my voice, and apply my sense of reason and empathy toward engaging with the world’s social issues and political problems. Continue reading

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SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: HALA ALYAN

IN JERUSALEM
By Hala Alyan

Forgetting something doesn’t change it.
In Jerusalem a man blocked the door in front of a hostel

to tell me to unpin my hair. I did,
but then kept the story from anyone for years.

There are times I can see the bus stops clear as day,
the jasmine soap I bought from the Armenian quarter,

how I rewatched an episode of The Wire in bed
the first night, afraid if I left my room I would lose it.

That summer I was lousy with photographs—
church pews, skinny trees. A single one

of myself, peeking into a mirror. My hair over one eye.
Sometimes I wonder if the man even asked,

if I am misremembering, whether I am the culprit
of my own fear. But then I remember the two pairs of shoes

I wore through the soles that trip, how I finally walked barefoot
down the Mount of Olives until a cab stopped for me,

speaking in English first, then Arabic,
asking if I’d like to see photographs of his granddaughter,

telling me to write a story about him. The city was all men.
But he was kind and eager and me ka’ak

to eat, calling me asfoura when I picked it apart
with my fingers. Bird. You eat like one.

What should I name you in the story, I asked.
Land remembers like a body does. A city full of men

still has a mother. I told myself I disliked Jerusalem
but that was code for couldn’t shake it. I was capable of too much.

I cursed the heat and cried on the way to the airport.
There never was another story. When I got back home,

I cut my hair, then dreamt I buried my grandmother
under Al-Aqsa mosque, but she hadn’t even died yet.


Today’s poem first appeared in Thrush Poetry Journal and appears here today with permission from the poet.

Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American writer and clinical psychologist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Guernica and elsewhere. Her poetry collections have won the Arab American Book Award and the Crab Orchard Series. Her debut novel, SALT HOUSES, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017, and was longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize.

Guest Editor’s Note: Hala Alyan’s “In Jerusalem” begins with a maxim: “Forgetting something doesn’t change it,” laying the groundwork for what is to come. In this poem of place, the poet sets out assured that she knows where she is going, and in the cascade of couplets, following her steps through her narrative seems natural and the conclusions the speaker draws instinctive. Cultural conflicts filled with contradiction arise in “A city full of men,” in which the traveler wonders “whether I am the culprit/of my own fear,” creating a distinctive turn and shift to a slight difference in tone and purpose for the reader and the speaker, ending with a dream of an act of preservation that could leave evidence that she had been there and remembered things as they really happened. She tells us that “Land remembers like a body does,” and her wish to bury her grandmother under the Al-Aqsa mosque is her way of wanting to add to the land’s memory what she knows to be true, that “A city full of men/ still has a mother.” Sensory imagery contributes to the veracity of the speaker’s recollections and to an understanding of her conclusions drawn from the experiences that, like most human experiences, are filled with conflict and uncertainty, ripe for introspection.

Want to read more by and about Hala Alyan?
Hala Alyan’s Official Website


Guest Editor Anne Graue is the author of Fig Tree in Winter (Dancing Girl Press, 2017), and has published poems in literary journals and anthologies, including The Book of Donuts (Terrapin Books), the Plath Poetry Project, One Sentence Poems, and Rivet Journal.

A NOTE FROM THE MANAGING EDITOR:

After nearly ten years as Contributing Editor of this series, the time has come for change. I am thrilled to expand my role to Managing Editor and provide the opportunity for fresh voices to contribute to this ongoing dialogue. It is an honor and a unique opportunity to share this series with a number of guest editors, including the editor featured here today.

Viva la poesia!
Sivan, Managing Editor
Saturday Poetry Series, AIOTB


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The Social and Spiritual Possibilities of Lent

The Social and Spiritual Possibilities of Lent

by Okla Elliott

Editor’s Note: Our late Managing Editor, Okla Elliott, originally posted this article one year ago. It was his final post before he passed away. We are republishing this article in his memory. In the final year of his life, Okla took a deep interest in exploring spirituality, theology, and Catholic teachings. This article is a prime example of his great ability to investigate new ideas and understand their capacity for better expressing and illuminating his core values and principles.

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We do not generally conceive of Lent as a political or social matter. Its central purpose is a personal and spiritual one, but as the well-worn phrase instructs us, the personal is political. I therefore want to invite us all to think of how we might combine the personal and spiritual aspects of Lent with potential social gains.

According to a 2016 article in The Independent, the three most common things given up for Lent are chocolate, social media, and alcohol—in that order. And a 2015 TIME article offers similar findings. These are all personal sacrifices that do not have much of a social or political dimension. Giving up certain popular items such as meat does have a notable social impact. The environmental gains of giving up meat are significant, since the factory-farming livestock industry has several negative impacts on the environment, from inefficiency of food production to detrimental waste products.

I offer here a list of five options for what we might give up for Lent that can merge spiritual growth and social betterment.

1) I would strongly suggest the aforementioned meat option, since it has such a prominent place in tradition and can have such a positive social impact.

2) If possible, give up driving and use public transit instead. This will have a positive environmental impact, obviously, but it will also allow you to see the people of your city whom you might otherwise never encounter. Of course, this is perhaps an option only for those who live in certain areas, but you might be surprised how elaborate your city’s public transit is if you’ve never looked into it.

3) Give up eating out. At first this might not seem social at all, or even the opposite of a social option, but if you conceive of Lent as not only a negative notion of giving up, but also a positive notion of doing something good with what you gain by giving up things, then you will see that the several hundred dollars you save by not eating out can be used in myriad ways for social good. I would suggest donating to non-profits or your church’s efforts to help the poor. You could also use the money saved to do nice things for friends and family, which will strengthen your social community at the closest level.

4) Give up the convenience of plastic bags. Make the extra effort to bring a canvas bag with you when you shop, or if you’ve only purchased one or two items, don’t ask for a plastic bag. With an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic entering our oceans every year, to say nothing of the millions of tons in our landfills, reducing unnecessary use of plastic is of paramount importance.

5) Give up self-reinforcing thought. This one is a bit more abstract, but it is no less important. What I mean here is that if you’re a staunch Democrat, make yourself read several issues of a conservative magazine not with an eye for criticism but rather an urge to understand and empathize. And do the same if you’re a diehard Republican. Read some classics of liberal thought and really try to hear the concerns mentioned. The point is to bridge divides and to prevent hatreds between humans. If we can force ourselves to develop the habits of mind that reduce prejudice and living in our echo chambers, we have a much better chance of curing the ills of the world.

What makes the above choices good ideas is that the social impact in no way reduces the spiritual impact. Giving up driving to work in favor of taking the bus, for example, is a personal sacrifice just as much as giving up social media would be, yet it helps society more broadly in addition to the spiritual gains associated with the sacrifice.

And there is no need to limit yourself to the five options I offer here. Get creative and make your own list that suits your personal and social concerns. There are many ways to improve ourselves and the world around us, and doing one does not preclude doing the other.

[This piece originally appeared at PennLive.com and was syndicated to several other venues in 2017.]

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The Very Southern Pronunciation Still Rings In My Ears: A Conversation With Poet Mike James

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The Very Southern Pronunciation Still Rings In My Ears:

A Conversation With Poet Mike James

By Chase Dimock

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Keats had his nightingale, Shelley had his skylark, Poe had his raven, Stevens had 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, and Mike James has a jukebox full of crows. While fans of poems about birds will not be disappointed, Crows in the Jukebox is just as much about the jukebox as it is about the crows. James’s book reads like the playlist of an old jukebox in a roadside, greasy spoon diner. There are folk songs that retell old family lore, slow ballads that honestly and sweetly pay tribute to his love, and melancholic memories of a self-destructive father on par with any country tune sung by Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette. You can hear the drawl in his words, but James is not constrained by the clichés or expectations of his background in the Carolinas. His poetry is, as the crow flies, direct in its route and positioned with a vision that can muse on the specific while connecting it to a wider, areal view.

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Chase Dimock: Crows pop up as the subject of several poems in your book, Crows in the Jukebox. In “The Crows,” you write that you “love those damned birds for what they aren’t” and in “Poem” you declare that “crows are good at waiting, much better than we are with our alphabet of needs.” What is it about crows that makes them such a fertile subject for poems? How does your interest in crows connect with some of the other ideas and themes in your work?

 

Mike James:  I’ve always loved crows. They are, with pigeons, my favorite birds.  Part of what I like about them is their intelligence, but I also love the fact that they exist at the margins. No one goes to the zoo to see crows. They are always around, watching and plotting survival. Many people have a real aversion to them. That marginality probably interests me as much as anything since I think the best writing comes from working against dominant culture, of getting by at the margins. So many of “the great dead” I admire worked actively outside of the mainstream.  (I’m thinking of poets like Stephen Jonas, Bill Knott, Jack Spicer, Lorine Niedecker, and Mbembe Milton Smith.) I don’t make a conscious decision to work around any specific themes; however, I have a real love for the decayed, the failing, and the decrepit. In so many ways I am in love with ruination. Give me the choice between walking through a mansion and walking through a closed factory and I will choose the factory on every occasion.

 

Chase Dimock: Let’s talk more about your interest in marginality and resisting the dominant culture. I feel that one way writers cultivate a unique voice and resist the dominant culture in their work is through identifying with the unique region and culture in which they live and write. Steinbeck had Monterrey Bay and Faulkner had rural Mississippi. You were born in the Carolinas, and you currently live in Chapel Hill. A number of your poems make references to places in the South, including a town in the poem “Off Interstate 95” where “people hope for jury duty ’cause it’s a job.” How does living in this region inform your poetry and influence your feeling of marginality?

 

Mike James: It’s easy for a southerner to relate to marginalized cultures because the south has always been either looked down upon or romanticized in an unhealthy and non-useful way.  Coming from a blue collar background, as I do, presents two choices:  Either accept the dominant culture imposed by wealth and commercialism and forget your origins or stand slightly outside the mainstream and question basic assumptions. Good writing, for me, is all about questioning assumptions.

I’ve been very determined to never lose my, fairly thick, southern accent.  My voice identifies my birth region.  So many people have negative views of southerners.  Once, at a training seminar for my job, the instructor, who I had not spoken with, mentioned her hatred for southern accents because, she said, southerners do not sound educated.  When I questioned her, she asked, “Honestly, don’t you ever think you sound like a hillbilly?” I replied, “No.  I think I sound like William Faulkner and Reynolds Price and Tennessee Williams.”

One way the south definitely influenced me was through the orality of the culture I grew up in.  During my childhood, my relatives gathered on an almost nightly basis and told stories. Even though I’m not a narrative poet, that spoken tradition still informs my work. And the very southern pronunciation still rings in my ears. It’s only in the south that tired and hard can come off like off-rhymes. (You can hear that rhyme in Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”)

All that being said, I really don’t consider myself a southern writer. James Dickey and Everette Maddox are, probably, the only two southern poets I can definitely say have influenced me and those are two wildly disparate voices.  Most of the poets I read and relate to are from places outside of the south.

Continue reading

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SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: LITTLE CLIMATES

From Little Climates
By L. A. Johnson:


EPISTEMOLOGY

I never had quiet times in the kitchen
making an icebox cake.
I never inspected the back of the box,
folded wafers up with cream.

In the morning, you fix whatever
needs fixing. You make eggs
with toast. And in the afternoon, I walk
out far past the end of the acre.

Only then do the strays come
to the porch, looking for a dish of milk,
a can of fish left open. No arguing
or crying can be heard nearby.

In the evening, the walls confine
the regular angers. We listen
to the kettle sing on the stove
that nobody bothers to stop.

In the freezer, always, only the notion
of an icebox cake—its layers
softening to be like the real thing.
The icing, milk and smooth.

Stranger, if only things had been
a little different, I could be
old-fashioned in my happiness,
blushing and easy to love.



SPLIT-LEVEL

Today the six of us perform a funeral for a home—
we wreathe the doorway with lilies, carry
our possessions above our heads like caskets.

We scatter the enviable parts of our lives
across the lawn: a radio, ceramic bowls, a sweater

that never fit. Strangers stop by to look
at all our things, each one dressed in black.

Then with hammers, we begin the destruction.
Afternoon sun exposes the fine particles
of wool and fiberglass that kept us warm.

Behind the medicine cabinet, we find razor blades
rusted in a wall-hollow. In the vacant lot next door,

a ravine appears that no stray dog will cross.
We know in some towns, this demolition is modest

or even ordinary. A bulldozer loiters elsewhere.
In a future, this house will become honeycomb
and bees will make clear honey out of all our mistakes.



“Epistemology” previously appeared in the Antioch Review and “Split-Level” previously appeared in the Indiana Review. Both peoms are from the collection Little Climates (Bull City Press, 2017; copyright L. A. Johnson) and appear here today with permission from the poet.

Little Climates: The lyric poems of Little Climates address the divisions between the self and the world, the self and the lover, and self with the self. In her debut collection, L. A. Johnson examines of the disparate spaces humans occupy in relationships: together and separately, alone and as unit. Each partner’s past, how they’ve changed, how they dream of the present—these are the little climates.

L. A. Johnson is the author of the chapbook Little Climates (Bull City Press). She received her MFA from Columbia University and is currently pursuing her PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Southern California, where she is a Provost’s Fellow. She’s received scholarships and fellowships from Vermont Studio Center and Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, Antioch Review, The Iowa Review, Narrative Magazine, The Southern Review, and elsewhere.

Guest Editor’s Note: I first heard L. A. Johnson’s poems at a reading the poet gave in Los Angeles. When I read Little Climates a few weeks later, I realized that her imagery is so acute and vivid that it had stayed with me. Johnson is an expert at creating poignant landscapes and visceral environments. At times, they are intensely familiar: “the notion/of an icebox cake—it’s layers/softening to be like the real thing,” but the poet also deftly moves in directions the reader might never have imagined; “In the evening, / the walls confine the regular angers.” The detailed, sensory world the poet creates builds into unforgettable landscapes that stay with the reader long after the pages of Little Climates have been closed.

Want to read more by and about L. A. Johnson?
L. A. Johnson’s Official Website
Buy Little Climates from Bull City Press
Buy Little Climates from Amazon
Read more poems via At Length
Read more poems via The Account


Guest Editor Alan Toltzis is the author of The Last Commandment. Recent work has appeared in print and online publications including Hummingbird, Right Hand Pointing, IthacaLit, r.k.v.r.y. Quarterly, and Cold Noon. Find him online at alantoltzis.com.

A NOTE FROM THE MANAGING EDITOR:

After nearly ten years as Contributing Editor of this series, the time has come for change. I am thrilled to expand my role to Managing Editor and provide the opportunity for fresh voices to contribute to this ongoing dialogue. Today and in the coming weeks, please help me welcome a series of guest editors to the newest incarnation of the Saturday Poetry Series.

Viva la poesia!
Sivan, Managing Editor
Saturday Poetry Series, AIOTB


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From a Tree Limb

From a Tree Limb

By Sean Karns

Outside my house, a gutted buck dangles
from a tree limb.  Two men pull the buck’s hide
like tugging on a bell rope in a tower.
Their children swing on the swing set.
I’ve never seen a deer slaughtered,
never seen many things slaughtered.

I once saw my father gut a squirrel.
Doesn’t smell right, he said.  He put the squirrel
an inch away from my face.
Sniff it, he said. I smelled it, sucked in the odor
like my last breath and shrugged my shoulders
not knowing what I was sniffing for.
He dug a hole in the yard.
You got to dig the hole deep enough,
he said. So the dogs can’t smell it and dig it up.

I wonder where the heart is,
where the spleen is,
if the men will leave the buck
disemboweled in two locations.

I press my face to the screen door.
A child pets the hide splayed over
the laundry line, the other watches
the hacking off of hooves.

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“From a Tree Limb” first appeared in Pleiades and is in Jar of Pennies. 

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About the Author: Sean Karns has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Illinois and a BA from The Ohio State University. He is the author of a collection of poetry, Jar of Pennies, and his poetry has appeared in the Birmingham Poetry Review, Hobart, Rattle, Pleiades, Los Angeles Review, Cold Mountain Review, Folio, and elsewhere; and his poetry has been anthologized in New Poetry from the Midwest. He is currently the poetry editor at Mayday Magazine.

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SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: PATRICE BOYER CLAEYS

By Patrice Boyer Claeys:


Favorite Color
after Ruth Stone’s “White on White”

A yellow flag iris,
a lick of flame,
glass of Sauternes.

Blinking lights at intersections,
the bills of mallards, old knotty pine
paneling, sticky to the touch.

Lemon meringue pie,
spent elm leaves, the fish brought home
from the fair in its water-filled bag.

Caution tape to mark the murder scene,
the road to Oz,
a wobbling flan, chicken fat.

The burning hydrogen of Arcturus,
broken brooms,
xenophobic dread.

A cheesy joke, wheezy phlegm,
the running rheumy eyes and shaded
teeth of jaundiced men.

Mustard, pus and broken yolks.
The nicotine-stained fingers
of Johnny Cash and Vonnegut.

Slimy bile, old bruises, the pulsing
membrane on the poisonous gland.
The dusty, bitter sex of crocus throat.


Today’s poem first appeared in Volume 5, Issue 1 of Bird’s Thumb and appears here today with permission from the poet.

Patrice Boyer Claeys enjoys the freedom of the empty nest. She thanks her writing group, Plumb Line Poets, for keeping her chiseling away. Her work has appeared in Mom Egg Review, Found Poetry Review, Blue Heron, Avocet, ARDOR, the Aurorean, Beech Street Review and Bird’s Thumb, and is forthcoming in Nassau Review. She was featured in Light, a Journal of Photography and Poetry. She was nominated for Best of the Net.

Guest Editor’s Note: On the surface, the literal and the metaphorical are given equal weight in this poem by Patrice Boyer Claeys. Each item anticipates the next, and the effect is a list of things that are yellow that might or might not be favorable in spite of the title “Favorite Color.” The poet references Ruth Stone’s “White on White” to give some direction for reading, which feels like an excavation, a mining for truth in the scrutiny of the color, its denotation and connotations.

Each line of the poem seems innocuous until the fifth stanza which ends with “xenophobic dread.” This metaphor stops the speaker’s examination of the more benign imagery that includes mallard bills, knotty pine, and “Lemon meringue pie,” and illuminates the “blinking lights of intersections” that has become a portent of imminent threats.

The final three stanzas do not disappoint in providing perilous symbols of imminent dangers, both familiar and unfamiliar. The depictions of disease—the “wheezy phlegm,” the “rheumy eyes,” the “old bruises”—succeed in changing the tone and in producing a mood of ominous expectation. The speaker observes instances of yellow and presents those that are the most necessary to the theme which seems to be a warning and a lesson in keen observation and meaning in context.

Want to read more by and about Patrice Boyer Claeys?
RHINO Poetry
Blue Heron Review
Beech Street Review


Guest Editor Anne Graue is the author of Fig Tree in Winter (Dancing Girl Press, 2017), and has published poems in literary journals and anthologies, including The Book of Donuts (Terrapin Books), the Plath Poetry Project, One Sentence Poems, and Rivet Journal.

A NOTE FROM THE MANAGING EDITOR:

After nearly ten years as Contributing Editor of this series, the time has come for change. I am thrilled to expand my role to Managing Editor and provide the opportunity for fresh voices to contribute to this ongoing dialogue. Today and in the coming weeks, please help me welcome a series of guest editors to the newest incarnation of the Saturday Poetry Series.

Viva la poesia!
Sivan, Managing Editor
Saturday Poetry Series, AIOTB


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