Teaching Art to Scientists

Paul Christensen

For years I taught at a technical university, where all the real money for teaching and faculty recruitment went to the sciences, the engineering schools, the agricultural program, and then, like Oliver Twist’s bowl of gruel, a little bit for the humanities. The school was Texas A&M University, a fine house of learning with many excellent teachers and devoted students. I had no quarrel with its reputation or its massive federal grants for research in all manner of needed solutions to our lives. I once made the observation to some colleagues that our school was uniquely dedicated to deal with hunger, wild fires, epidemics, animal diseases, and pets. We had one of the best veterinary schools in the country; we had Norman Borlaug, the inventor of semi-dwarf wheat that saved India from starvation, and continues to feed arid countries in Africa. That was A&M, a fortress armed against the disasters of nature.

When asked at a cocktail party or a public lecture what I did on the campus, I always faced the same look of disappointment or confusion. “I’m an English Professor,” I would say. How English could possibly contribute to the stern rules of nature was beyond almost everyone. You measured, you weighed, you whirled things on the cyclotron, or hung them up on wires to watch how metabolism worked in a cockroach. I played jazz with a bass saxophonist who specialized in cockroach digestion. He was wonderful, British born, with twenty postdocs following him around his suite of labs like so many ducklings. He was short-listed for the Nobel in chemistry, but I haven’t heard if he ever received it.

On my first day of class, I would tell my students we were starting on a journey into the imagination, into the murky, secret corridors of human feeling, and the even more arcane depths of myth and symbol. The groans were audible; the boys especially seemed nervous and looked around at the girls, who were clearly in the majority. The girls were happy, and were already writing stuff down into their notebooks. The boys were going to stonewall me; they felt threatened, intimidated, disenfranchised by the subject matter, which had so little to do with logic and its myriad integers and connections. That was their pride, their source of strength, their armor against a world that might deceive them with tricks and intuition. I was used to their grim faces at first.

The weeks went by and the poems and stories they wrote were, for the most part, adamantly literal. They had no idea how to access this organ called the imagination. They might have applauded vigorously Hugh Kenner’s assertion that imagination was essentially empirical, and that art was based almost exclusively on experience! Modernism was the temple of empirical art, and everyone was a realist, a critic, a satirist of the actual world. When the postmodernists came along, dreams and fantasies were included in their esthetic, which made the new poetry and fiction seem almost impenetrable as forms of communication.

But I believed in dreams and myths, in the power of mind to combine the real and imaginary in a single work. So on we plunged toward boundaries of awareness, and each student struggled to justify a use of language that did not “prove” anything, except to say that other realities existed. I couldn’t convert everyone to my premise that language was a house of many worlds, but curiously, science fiction was very popular and I could use it as a reference to some of my most rigid engineers. Little by little, something else occurred in class—students began to enjoy this other mode of consciousness. It was like discovering a path in the woods that led nowhere but deeper into the trees. To make things up was liberating; it wasn’t like lying, which had a specific purpose. It was lying to amuse, to entertain, to drift out of the mundane world into miracles. Even if they couldn’t let themselves go fully, they saw the freedom of beginning a poem by saying, “I died, and rose out of my bed/ in the dark of night,/ and floated among the stars.” Others would sit and think about the language, whether it was wordy, or not vivid enough. Not whether such a statement was fact. It wasn’t.

We read Borges, and Neruda, Donald Barthelme, and snippets of Homer, Dante, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut, Emily Dickinson, Gogol, Kafka, Plath and Sexton. The more we talked, the more we seemed willing to believe in the world constructed out of such prose. There was a vast library of alternative realities out there, which most had never discovered before my class. They came to writing with high standards of accuracy and verifiability, but it turned into something different, a carefully constructed and plausible non-reality.

It made the facts of their other classes all the more curious and wonderful. A professor would lean over a lab bench and say that the solution was too rich or lean, or that the weight scale was off by a fraction of a gram. A math problem had slipped a cog deep in the intricacies of an equation, which made the whole argument false. A history professor dismissed an exam response of one of my students by calling it a willing fabrication of actual events. But it was only the date that was off, by a hundred years. In other words, students discovered that reality was a surface, an exact plane of calculations and facts, any of which broke the surface and revealed an ocean of oddities and wonders underneath.

Of course, they went back to the real world again after having me for a semester and left me alone with my alembics and coned hat sewn with stars. My robes trailed the ground of the classroom where I pondered strange mysteries and paradoxes. But some who had known me for such a brief time decided to become writers, to enter that secret garden of errant realities for good. My colleagues in creative writing were a kind of Hogwarts tucked in among the Lockean temples of absolute truth. We offered Piranesi’s staircases in place of Euclid’s ladders. And they restored the echoing past of the 17th century to the mind of the 21st.

AGNI Monkey

IMG_0200Paul Christensen has published eight collections of poems, most recently The Human Condition (Wings Press) and The Jack of Diamonds Is a Hard Card to Play (Lamar University Press). He was a NEA fellow in poetry, and is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters. He lives in Vermont and spends his summers in southern France. See what he’s published in AGNI here.



A Nursery Rehearsal of Emigration

by Svetlana Lavochkina

On a Sunday in late sleety March, 1984, my clan was celebrating Grandmother’s seventieth anniversary. We lived in Zaporozhye, a failed industrial giant in the south-east of Ukraine. There was a deluge of toasts, vodka, champagne, red caviar, and homemade poems.

The toasts and the poems were all pompous nonsense, the caviar too salty. My cousin Shurik and I were exiled to the nursery because we had crawled under the dinner table, moving the white linen cloth dangerously while taking off the guests’ shoes. We were ordered to occupy ourselves with quiet games until they called us in for tea and cake. In the nursery, Shurik and I had exhausted both classic Scrabble and table football; then the less Orthodox, self-invented “Beat the Lazy Fool” and “Husband and Wife Are Looking for a Treasure under the Bed.” Still, there was no news of the dessert, and we were getting bored yet again. So I took a sketch book and some felt tips and drew a jagged oval in the middle of the page.

I told Shurik, “This is the Island of Poovia in the Souporific Ocean.”

“Is it mine?” Shurik asked. “Only half of it, but you are President,” I said, generously giving the younger sibling priority and ascribing myself the post of the Chancellor.

While the President was draining the blue felt tip to color the Souporific Ocean, the Chancellor distributed the remaining political power on Poovia among the members of the family. We knew no one else who we could command to fulfill state duties and practice the pronunciation of their new names, far too convoluted even for Ukrainian tongues.

Thus, in 1984, behind the Iron Curtain, we suddenly had a whole island to ourselves, and it was a most tropical one. Tangerines that we could only eat on the New Year’s Eve in real life, were served to the President first thing every morning. Many a felt tip was spent depicting the President’s palace, beaches, palm groves, and on designing the gorgeous Chancellor’s dresses.

The only goal of Poovarian politics was fostering a huge, harmless, and humorous cult of the President’s personality—oh that girl who had had an operation to engrave his name on her ventricle; oh that funny fat man who had stolen the President’s night pot.

For me, the beauty of Poovia was in creating a new language. I compiled a dictionary of Poovarian, about two hundred splendid words—verbs, nouns, adjectives, idioms that existed, I could swear, in no other language (for example, to compliment a beautiful woman, one would have to say, “What bald teeth you have!”) The grammar of Poovarian resembled Russian, with a tinge, as I discovered only not long ago, of French and Turkish. I wrote the National Poovarian Anthem, some songs for pop-stars, and many articles for the quality newspapers and tabloids—all that at the expense of homework.

With the help of a primitive cassette recorder, we broadcast important balls and receptions. Poovia thrived for three years, five cassettes and fifteen sketch books. Then Shurik and I were blown away from the island, estranged from each other by puberty.

Now I see Poovia as a nursery presentiment of emigration: a dress rehearsal a decade in advance; an intuition, naïve but not entirely wrong, of western life as we perceived it later. For me, it was also a dress rehearsal of writing in a language not my own.

Shurik and I still remember each other’s birthdays. “Are your teeth still bald?” he always asks me instead of congratulating.

Little did we know then that Shurik would become one of the first high school graduates in the ex-USSR to go to study abroad, first in Switzerland, then in England, and end up working in a renowned London bank. The floor of his living-room is the size of a football field and wears a snow-white carpet.

I was very happy to escape the 1990s chaos and corruption of the post-Soviet Ukraine—nothing would ever change and I didn’t feel responsible for improving things at the cost of my personal goals. I entered the period of a decade-long denial of my motherland, busy building a new life from scratch. Leipzig, Germany became my new home. To my parents, my carpetless living-room seems the size of a tennis court. When they visit me, I tell them that when we go to Cyprus in March, ripe tangerines fall down from the trees, and no one cares to pick them.

It was in 2014 that Ukraine pulled me back into its courageous, fiery orbit of the Maidan and the War of Independence with its terrible toll. I scarcely believed my ears and eyes when the world news uttered the name of Donetsk, my alma mater city in the east, and its adjacent towns, and showed those tranquil, drowsy places in fire and chaos. I could do little about it, apart from feeling acute empathy and shame. The only thing that made up for my denial was translating wonderful, inimitable contemporary Ukrainian poetry into English for publication in American and British literary magazines and anthologies.

Last year, I broke my self-imposed moratorium and flew to Kiev. I met my old college mates who’d had to flee the war-afflicted territories where they had enjoyed well-established lives. The airplane was landing, and I looked down from the window in impatient, torn anticipation. The blue Dnieper River sparkled in the light of the setting sun and in its middle, it wasn’t the ancient capital of Kiev I saw. It was my Island of Poovia that stretched under the plane wings in all its 1984 splendor.

AGNI Monkey

AGNI SLSvetlana Lavochkina is a Ukrainian-born novelist, poet and translator, now residing in Germany. In 2013, her novella Dam Duchess was chosen runner-up in the Paris Literary Prize. Her debut novel, Zap, was shortlisted for Tibor & Jones’ Pageturner Prize 2015 and published in September 2017 by a NYC press, Whisk(e)y Tit. Svetlana’s work has appeared in AGNI, New Humanist, Words for War, Eclectica, POEM, Witness, Straylight, Circumference, Superstition Review, Sixfold, Drunken Boat and elsewhere. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

Mine Own Neruda

by William Archila

I was ten and my father was gone, already living here in the States, when my mother woke me up in the middle of the night to listen to a strange voice coming out of the transistor radio. It was Pablo Neruda reciting his love poems while violins and guitars played in the background. For two years I fell asleep to the voice of Neruda rising and falling like waves in the distance, like seagulls swooping down, my head filling with poetry.

The broadcast was interrupted in November, 1980, when I fled El Salvador and the war that was tearing my country apart. I was twelve years old. I arrived in Los Angeles, California, with many questions unanswered, conversations unfinished and years of my young life unfulfilled. I gave up much of my national culture and Spanish language to learn a new culture and language. My English was full of street vernacular and strong raw accents—my words squashed, shredded, forced to dance a Shakespearian rag. I became part of the growing immigrant community, speaking ghetto Spanish. “Go back to your country” echoed throughout these years. Ahead a long road stretched into darkness.

In high school I began writing long before I read any poetry that excited me. My writings were fragments—verses and scribbles not meant to be taken seriously or shared. I pursued this calling in secret, writing only for myself. In college I tried to read the masters of the English language: Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, but none of them spoke to me—or maybe I wasn’t ready to listen. It wasn’t until I read Ginsberg’s “Howl” that I was amazed to discover I was not the only young man who saw the best minds of his generation destroyed.

In 1992, after a peace treaty was signed, I returned to El Salvador hoping to find a home, but instead found a war-torn country full of poverty, death, illiteracy, and crime. All my friends and family members were gone, especially those who were capable of changing a society. I was searching for something that no longer existed—a quality remembered from childhood, a sense of belonging to a country and a language. But these had changed. And I had changed. I found myself a stranger in a strange land.

I returned to California and bounced between LA and San Francisco, feeling rootless and without home. Yet that yearning for a sense of home—for union with my country, my family, for other Central American immigrants—grew deep inside me. To cope with these feelings of exile, I needed to write what I could not voice. That’s when I consciously began to write poems.

Within a year of discovering Ginsberg, I rediscovered Pablo Neruda. From poems such as “Walking Alone,” I learned to take the pencil and run across the pages, like a horse galloping across Latin America. I could remember the tree outside my childhood window, the fragile eggs boxed in my mother’s store, the lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, and the moon bending over the neighborhood. I could go outside, feel the cracks of the street and remember my small country of El Salvador.

Neruda demanded more breadth, more precision, more memory of home in my reading and writing. I became interested in writers who sense home as a source of identity more than as a refuge: Pessoa’s Portugal, Neruda’s Chile, Rushdie’s India, Levine’s Detroit, Whitman’s American soil, and Roethke’s North America.

Neruda’s “Residence on Earth” helped me understand that the identity of the exile writer is homelessness and its attendant loneliness. As an exile writer you try to recreate your home in your work. Of course, you never can. You create fictions instead. But in this trajectory, in this country, I never travel alone. I travel with Neruda.

AGNI Monkey

W.ArchilaWilliam Archila earned his MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon. His first collection of poetry, The Art of Exile (Bilingual Review Press, 2009) won an International Latino Book Award in 2010. His Second book, The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (Red Hen Press), won the 2013 Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize. He has been published in American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, AGNl, and Los Angeles Review of Books, and the anthologies Theatre Under My Skin: Contemporary Salvadoran Poetry, and The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States. He also has poems forthcoming in Prairie Schooner and Tin House. See what he’s published in AGNI here.


Fostered Alike By Beauty and By Fear: Montale, Wordsworth and the Landscapes of Childhood


by Ralph Sneeden

When you love a place and lose your foothold in it through self-exile, or the inevitable economics that annihilate real estate across a family’s generations, or simply because it has changed, what you write about it risks whiny longing, the tang of sour grapes. A whiff of elegy, however, seems OK, as long as it doesn’t idealize. Years ago, I wrote a poem about the Little Peconic Bay, and I’m pretty certain the path I took back to it changed my writing for the better.

As a kid, I’d spent a lot of time on the South Fork of Long Island; the setting had been a wellspring in my earlier work, but with the poem “Peconic” arrived a new impulse that seemed governed by memories that were more eerie, their descriptors’ tone shaped by desolation, danger, and death. Abandoned fishing nets, the viscera of fish in a kitchen sink, severed deer feet in the dunes, terrifying myths about horseshoe crabs, the competing shame and relief of being land-bound while others embark on a menacing sea. Settling on these particular moments was an important aesthetic juncture; wherever this project seemed to lead, each increment tended to veer from nostalgia into more mysterious, unexplainable realms. As I approached the closure of the sequence (ten seven-line, numbered cantos in trimeter), I realized that I was reclaiming while trying to say goodbye to a beloved and evocative landscape by conjuring its most haunting moments. Beauty was now accompanied by a sketchy sidekick.

The challenge of writing “Peconic,” however, wasn’t in deciding over which images to hang spotlights; rather, it was in mustering the faith—as I felt my way along—that they might reveal some unintended cargo in being reconjured. Though a writer’s receptiveness to new or dormant emotions that memories might broach sounds pretty boiler-plate, shaping their nuanced spiritual freight in ways that are neither saccharine nor too gothic needs mentoring. At certain junctures in my development as a writer, I admired, absorbed, and parroted poems that evoked in the settings of their childhood narratives some proximity to general creepiness, horrors embedded in the everyday. Poems in Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist, Yusef Komunyakaa’s Magic City, and Dave Smith’s The Roundhouse Voices provided gritty inspiration propelled by contemporary voices that I could emulate, poets who were neither sentimental nor interested in beating themselves up, wallowing in angst. To be sure, the Peconic Bay in the late 1960’s-early 70’s was my favorite place on earth. It was paradise, and that was the problem. Especially when it came to writing about it.

During the last decade, however, it was William Wordsworth and Eugenio Montale who nudged me closer to a way of remembering Long Island that was neither unrealistically dark nor selectively euphoric. As an adult trying to dial in the perceptions of a self long gone, my return to mine the aesthetic discord of childhood (via those two poets) also taught me about the roots of aspiration, how these muses—these homes—shape the future.

Wordsworth and Montale shared the blessing of growing up in spectacular natural environments. For Wordsworth, it was the peaks and vales of the Lake District in the northwestern portion of England known as Cumbria; and for Montale, the Ligurian coast of Italy’s northwest extremity, the string of towns known as the Cinque Terre. Reverberating through the work of both was the echo of that parental binary Wordsworth describes three-hundred lines into his great poem, that he, “…grew up / Fostered alike by beauty and by fear.”

Translator William Arrowsmith said that although Montale’s decision to leave his childhood home in Monterosso for the urban literary bustle and intellectual cafés of Florence was deliberate, the poems in Ossi di Seppia (Cuttlefish Bones) prove that, “Liguria is not, could not, be abandoned.” Though it wasn’t exactly beauty he had exhausted, Dave Smith says in “Cumberland Station,” his poem about returning to the ancestral railyards in his native Cumberland County, Virginia: “I hope I never have to go through this place again.” Even though we are looking over his shoulder as he grimly, compellingly writes his way back there as if in a dream.

Arguably, the anchor of Wordsworth’s investigation of memory and one of the most frequently cited segments of The Prelude is the “spots of time” sequence. What makes it so provocative is its foundational scene of the thirteen-year-old Wordsworth waiting on a desolate hillside above Hawkshead for his brothers to bring him home from school for Christmas vacation. It is a landscape and climate cinched to his memory by three sensory bolts: a stonewall, a sheep, and a hawthorn tree, which he characterizes as “companions.” The trinity of images is explicit enough, but the auditory experience seems just as formative. The blasted tree “whistles,” the wall has its own “bleak music,” and we can only imagine the implicit bleating of the sheep on the windy fell, the only other warm-blooded agent in the scene. By its end, we learn that a few days after Wordsworth arrived home to Cockermouth, his forty-two year old father died, and the three brothers “followed his body to the grave.” The aesthetic miracle of this memory and its details is that they have become, despite their origins, a healing force in later years, a mysterious “beneficent influence.”

Montale’s and Wordsworth’s poems from Ossi and sections of The Prelude share the plaintive refrains of debt, where any attempt to evoke is buttressed by the poets’ doubting their worthiness as the recipients of such gifts, no matter how terrifying some of them should have been (see Wordsworth’s narratives about watching the authorities drag a corpse from the lake or his being hounded by the shadow of a mountain after he stole a boat). The persuasive rawness of thought in each convinces me that the poets are deciding within the construction of the line, despite frustration, what they need to do with their art, and what these places have done for it. Montale writes,

If only I could force
some fragment of your ecstasy
into this clumsy music of mine;
had I the talent to match your voices
with my stammering speech—
I who once dreamed of acquiring
those salt sea words of yours
where nature fuses with art—
and with your vast language proclaim the sadness
of an aging boy who shouldn’t have learned how to think.

“Mediterraneo” is a sequence of almost epistolary dramatic monologues, addressed to the paternal sea, the recipient of Montale’s churning thoughts and images. Wordsworth turns to the River Derwent, which ran, as the poem explains, in back of his childhood house at Cockermouth. What is unmistakable in the lyric prayers of both poets is a cathartic energy that both describes while it addresses; evoking and invoking these bodies of water and their surroundings in memory ultimately brings the poets closer to themselves, their ambitions for their art. In his poem “End of Childhood” Montale seems less satisfied with the ambiguities and acknowledges the chore of remembering (which, in “The Prelude” seems so facile, so fluent). Of being a child-denizen of the Ligurian coast, he writes,

We rarely crossed the nearest ridges
of those peaks; even now our memory, exhausted,
lacks the courage to cross them…

…But we came back home from those mountain paths.
For us they became a flickering
alternation of strange realities,
but governed by an elusive rhythm.
Each instant, burning
into future instants, left no trace.
Just being alive was adventure, fresh, too fresh,
hour by hour, and the heart racing, always faster.
There were no rules,
no measure, no sure way
of dividing joy from sadness.

Reconciling or appreciating in our memories the tensions between “beauty and fear” or “joy and sadness” are as difficult as contending with those skirmishes between confession and complaint, elegy and anthem, or grief and grievance (a paring I steal happily from Dave Smith). Especially when it comes to physical environments, and even more so when we’re thinking about a time when time didn’t matter. Montale’s longing for oblivion, escape, or passage to another plane of being is more elusive than Wordsworth’s faith in the paradoxically restorative value of fear or trauma and how they are transformed in imagination over time (the fulcrum of all of his great works). Though both poets suggest that memories are not immune to the ravages of subsequent experiences, something in their essence—simultaneously melancholic and ecstatic—endures to enhance their aspirations as artists. As I committed myself to “Peconic,” I remember being seduced by the glimmer of this redemption in one of Montale’s earliest poems, “Seacoasts” (“Riviere”), with which he chose to conclude Cuttlefish Bones:

Today I come home to you
a stronger man (or I deceive myself), although
my heart almost melts in memories, happy
but also bitter. Sad soul of my past,
and you, fresh purpose summoning me now.

AGNI Monkey

SteveLewisPhoto@gmail.comRalph Sneeden’s poems and essays have appeared most recently in The Adroit Journal, The Common,  Ecotone, Southwest Review, and The Surfer’s Journal. The title poem of his book, Evidence of the Journey, received the Friends of Literature Prize from Poetry magazine. He lives and teaches in New Hampshire. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Writers Are Citizens of the World

by Nancy Kassell

We are writers. We protect our time and our psyches and just now it’s especially hard. Terrorist attacks, hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, threats to constitutional government, and oh yes, do I still have a job sap our writing attention. Writers and other artists have always been the ones to try to reckon with the terrors and anxieties of human experience. Tag: we’re IT.

I’m thinking about Adrienne Rich’s phrase “the dream of a common language” (the title of her 1978 book of poetry). The phrase suggests a vision of a community of goals and values, aspirations and hopes which may have the power to transcend boundaries: national, linguistic, cultural, social, maybe even religious and political. A work of literature is universal, we say. In this divided and divisive time in the United States, it seems more important than ever to think and write globally, and with awareness of justice, fairness, kindness, and at times, rage.

And we are working against gross misuses of languages. And disrespect for language. Ignorance, and proud of it. We have a president who commands few words and uses them to deliver threats, warnings, insults, and apocalyptic decrees. Who has no sense of nuances of meaning or the common practices of social communication. Who seems to exist in a vacuum and doesn’t know or care about social, political, or cultural traditions or history. Who embodies American anti-intellectualism, described by Richard Hofstedter in his 1963 book of that title. The president’s ethos is a grave threat to American culture and society.

Thucydides’ description of changes that occurred in the Hellenic world during the Peloponnesian War resonates with our moment in history:

“To fit in with the change in events, words, too had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; the ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted to action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man . . .”

This passage has often been cited in times of crisis or uncertainty, and unfortunately it is often applicable. What does it mean for writers today? It has always been an artist’s responsibility to tell the truth. The telling must be precise and eloquent. Loud and expressed often. Truth is complex, of course, but it is definitely not lies, half-truths, fake news, evasions, or silence. Journalism and other media are the most relevant here, but a writer is also a citizen, and citizenship carries responsibilities. In a broader sense, too, a writer is a citizen of the world.

The New America values wealth over people. It values wealth over language and culture. This is a country of, by, and for the rich; a democratic republic trending toward plutocracy, autocracy, and oligarchy. Writers and other artists, along with many, many others, will likely suffer the consequences of fundamental changes now in progress.

For myself, a poet, I find that I need to bring more of my concerns about our culture and my country into my work. I am trying to write more, and more precisely, about what is happening today, traditions of the past as I know them, and how these are connected—and not.

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author photoNancy Kassell was a founding and long-time member of the Writers’ Room of Boston. She is the author of two books of poetry, Text(isles) (2013) and the chapbook Be(longing) (2016), both published by Dos Madres Press. Her translation from the Polish (with Anita Safran) of “Non omnis moriar” by Zuzanna Ginczanka, the first English translation of the poem, appeared on AGNIOnline. She lives in Brookline, MA.

The Damage Done

by Greg Bottoms

I knocked on my grandmother’s tattered screen door. This was in Hampton, Virginia, in 2002. She had asked me to visit.

The door spring was broken, and the hook was undone, so the door whapped against the scarred, paint-chipped frame after each knuckle rap. There were small holes in the lower part of her screen, as if a child had poked through it with a pencil, or someone had held the cherry of a cigarette against it.

I didn’t know my grandmother very well. This was my dead father’s mother. I saw her once, maybe twice a year once I was a teenager and after, and then usually only for an hour or so around Christmas or Easter. My father had grown up at the edge of poverty. His parents fought. His mother drank. His father was a schemer, later depressed, later dead of a heart attack or stroke (no autopsy) and left to rot for a couple of days in this small, brick house while his mother and father had been briefly separated. My father found his father’s body, dealt with the ambulance, the police, the coroner, the funeral home, the grave, the headstone, his mother’s grief, his own. But he never talked about it. He was like that. A product of dysfunction, distrust, precariousness. He turned this all into a tough-guy veneer. “John Wayne,” my mother called him. The Marlboro Man. Tragedy, strain, and painful memories had partially, in an unspoken way, estranged my father from his mother, even though we lived barely ten miles away. He loved her but he had no faith in her. He became the parent and she became the child.

So I had never had a serious or intimate conversation with my grandmother as an adult. I was nervous about her invitation.

I called out hello, looking into the crosshatched, dark gray of the house, seeing the ghostly outlines of her worn furniture.

I stepped away from the door, turned and looked around, scanning the neighborhood. Small ranch houses, brick or vinyl-sided, lined the street as far as I could see in one direction and to a stop sign and a busy thoroughfare in the other. It was spring, new leaves on all the tall, front-yard trees. Two young teenage boys and a girl with the hood of her sweatshirt pulled over her head were skateboarding off a steep curb over and over again, trying some trick, something new they couldn’t figure out. I thought about how I had been a decent skateboarder, spending hours and hours in a halfpipe, my head filled with the magnified, throaty roar of wheels on wood. The kids’ skateboard made a loud crack noise every time the deck hit the weathered asphalt, and my eyelids involuntarily blinked like doors slamming.

“Hello,” my grandmother called from behind me. I turned, and there she was materializing out of the dark like a figure in a Polaroid to open the screen door. I stepped inside, smiling.

She was in her seventies then, but she looked older. Her face was puffy, as if she’d been crying only minutes ago, eyelids red and tumescent, though she was smiling wide now. She had newly dyed hair—a deep black. She wore a teal leisure suit. She had already told me earlier on the phone that this was her bingo night, that she’d only have a couple of hours to talk.

She stepped to me suddenly in the small foyer, a gesture that belied her fragile appearance, reaching up and putting a hand on each of my shoulders, staring for a long moment at my face. She pulled me to her and held me as if I had risen from the dead, as if I was not myself but my dad, without the killing cancer, the mouth ulcers, the skeletal frame.

I had written a story in the late 90s about my father, which was about 80% true, if you can quantify truth in that way (or in any way), or really it was a stylized essay, with heavy narrative elements and a fragmented structure and time jumps (I was overly interested in artistic form then). In this story I recounted an anecdote about my father having to go help out with his mother when she was found drunk and barely conscious in a neighbor’s front yard one night. She was an alcoholic, recovering and relapsing throughout her life, but significantly better and stable during the time of this visit. And she had been, decades before her summons to me, twice temporarily committed to Eastern State Hospital—“the asylum,” as everyone I knew called it—for life-threatening substance abuse and odd and erratic behavior.

In my story—which included my own aestheticized version of a real moment in an old woman’s life—I aired all this dirty laundry like an eager would-be author fiddling with material. And, for effect, for some kind of symbolic resonance, I included a true but devastating story about how she once killed my father’s favorite pet and fed it to him. Then I published it in a well-regarded but probably little-read literary journal. It was not directly about my grandmother insofar as she was not the main subject; it was an elegy of sorts for my father and his tough, hard, sometimes tragic, and too-short life, ended by lung cancer at the age of 52.

I knew few people would see it, fewer still would read it start to finish. But I had needed to write it. So I was happy when I heard the piece would be listed in a “best of” anthology and even happier when I was informed it would be reprinted in another. Still, I thought it would be ignored, even anthologized and in wider circulation.

I was young, and prose was an art and craft I approached with religious zeal, much more seriously than I do now, since I am older, make my living teaching, and have a realistic understanding of how little what I write has any impact on the world. I have become more minimalist in style as I have become more minimalist in ego, in life (I don’t mean this as a defeatist statement; I find it all quite relieving, a quasi-Buddhist peace with what is).

Anyway, my grandmother had an eighth-grade education, was a recovering and relapsing and recovering alcoholic, as I said, and lived in a world a million miles away from literature and writing and the English degrees I had pursued. Or so I thought. It didn’t occur to me, not even for a second, that she could have read my story when I sat down on her couch. I had used her, turned her into a character, which alters the truth of a person for some more singular narrative purpose. The ethical thicket of the way I represented her burbled beneath my mental surface, if you will, but it didn’t occur to me that I would have to face it.

She wanted to talk about my father. She wanted to talk about being a mother—the joy, the pain, the pressure. She sat down in a blue, plush chair across from me—so frail, so wrinkled—leaning forward, her leisure suit almost blending into the upholstery. There was a clear effort to be as close to me as possible, as if to emphasize what she wanted to say, our connection, I don’t know.

“He loved that little duck,” she said—no set up, no prelude. “I think your dad was ten or eleven. Called the duck Pete. Pete the duck. He found him one day at the pond with a broken wing and brought him home. Had a little pen out back that I helped him make with chicken wire I had for keeping rabbits out of my vegetable garden.” She paused, looked me in the eye, waited to see if I would say anything. My heart was beating a little faster, and I could feel my face was blushing. I said nothing.

She went on (and of course this is remembered, recreated, and fictionalized dialogue). “Well, I drank back then, and I know you know that.” A pause, a long look. My incrimination. “Anyway, my husband, John, your granddaddy, dead long before you were born, of course, got on me about not having any Sunday dinner. He was real country, you know, and he expected a Sunday dinner in the early afternoon and he could be mean. We didn’t have a good marriage, I’m sorry to say. Fought all the time. I was angry, fed up, and I got to drinking, and I went out back and got your daddy’s little Pete out of the pen. I snapped his neck like I used to with the chickens back on the farm when I was a girl. Your daddy ate Pete that afternoon none the wiser. He had a great Sunday dinner with his father grimacing at the head of the table, not saying one word. Then I told him what he was eating. He went right into a crying fit, right over his plate, weeping and carrying on. I swear that boy cried for three days.”

I sat very still, attentively listening, holding my expression as blank as possible, as if this was a story I was hearing for the first time.

She waited to see if I would say something now about an incident I had turned into a scene and which she had obviously read. It would have been natural to ask a question. One would expect a question, some comment, offered here. I didn’t. My silence told the story of my guilt. Then she said, “I’ve always felt real bad about that. I loved your daddy and I’m ashamed I did that. I’m ashamed of a lot of things. If I could take it back, take that day away, not hurt him, I would. I certainly would. I was his mother and I loved him. I want you to know that. That’s what I wanted to tell you, and I needed to say it to you in person. I needed to look at you.”

For months after this meeting, I was haunted by shame to the point of depression and mental paralysis, her words—and even more her red, wet eyes—on an excoriating tape loop through my thoughts.

A few years later, after she died suddenly of undiagnosed late-stage colon cancer, and after two of my cousins, clearly also readers of my work, refused to even look at me at her funeral, I started a new story meant to redeem her. The first line was: “I knocked on my grandmother’s tattered screen door.” But the damage was done. I never finished it.

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AGNI GBGreg Bottoms is the author of seven books, including the memoir Angelhead and the travel book The Colorful Apocalypse: Journeys in Outsider Art, both published by the University of Chicago Press. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

We Can Talk About This

by Oleh Lysheha
(translated from the Ukrainian by James Brasfield, with Oksana Tatsyak)

Already the ducks have flown away. Still, there are white herons and black storks. I saw dozens of them in the woods. We can even talk about this.

The sense of wildness is also a large, intellectual notion for me. I’ve never equated the idea of wildness with barbarism.

Put simply, my hand can be kindred to moss or bark, but it can never be kin to the hand covered with blood—the hand covered with the blood of a victim.

But the distance between my blood and my hand should have no mediator. My only mediator is

a pencil. It alone can express something or I can make something with my hands.


I can make a jar or a pot or an image of a man from clay. I want to give birth with my hands and not kill. I want to give birth to some form.

In this sense, my poems very much resemble pottery. Poetry for me is a kind of sculpture that brings the clay upwards, gives it a form. I treat words the way I treat clay. I don’t have a literary or linguistic approach—but words are something . . . I know that I can create from clay. . . .


The white walls, the murals in Kyiv, taught me the concept of fresco. And what is fresco? It is changeable, always fresh, fresh chalk, and eternal. It’s always near and at the same time distant, diametrically opposed. But at a certain moment, everything falls into place.

Or consider ochre. It’s a whole world. I would not have believed I could give up everything for a bit of pigment. The professional artist doesn’t consider this red pigment a proper material. For me, it is a great world. The white wall and the red pigment.

Look how everything has grown silent while we’ve been talking. We must have been talking quite a while. Several centuries have passed. . . .

What interests me? A literature that understands these things. One that already has released those creaturely things and then talks to them, inviting them back for a visit. One that speaks to them as if they were guests or relatives—such is an authentic notion.

. . . I would like my words to become simply red ochre. And that my words (it’s hard for me even to think about this) be rather pale without beautiful figures or weighty metaphors that have many layers beneath them, the so-called baroque . . . After all, everyone understands baroque differently. And this is the very thing I didn’t want . . . I wanted my words to be very transparent so they would be easily erased. Rain may erase grains of ochre. Nevertheless, they lasted for thousands of years on clay and bone. Ochre’s penetration is ghostly (I don’t know of course if it’s ghostly). Or maybe it penetrated memory. It’s hard to talk about this. . . .


. . . This notion of wildness is very important to me. It contains the sense of wildness as antithesis to domestication. On the other hand, wildness is concealment, invisibility, noiselessness, fragility, and a refinement. One can come up with many epithets if one compares a wild bird with a chicken. The little bird is the real bird for me. The domesticated one tells me more about the human than the bird. Sometimes it happens that both features are combined and then a crow has found the chickens. Even that happens. Nothing is absolute. But this notion of the untamed is far removed from fabrications of wildness, from rudeness, from mannerisms. I can come up with a string of words which can be attributed to high art, such as rarefied or exquisite. But they have an unpleasant coloring for me.


. . . This is only an understanding about poetry, because poetry is something archaic. It’s something behind us, something around us. Such is the generosity of the wild bird that fluttered here, just now . . . Poetry, or at least a path to poetry, leads through such matters. Along a very ancient path somewhere flowers were blooming in front of your eyes—something fluttered, a frog jumped, some girl rushed somewhere and hid. A butterfly. All of it is a mystery along that imaginary path, but that path cannot be covered with asphalt. Because mushrooms do not grow through asphalt . . . But a lot of other things get through it. After all, we get through it. We cannot call this present world uninteresting, can we?


These [my] poems . . . It is important for me that they be a fragment of an epic canvas and, at the same time, remain present and alive. It is important for me to have a wide perspective that aims to incorporate the immenseness of what is ancient with current, everyday life.

They must have a background, middle ground, and foreground. This is very important.

If there is no background, everything seems flat. Without a middle ground, there is no air. Without a foreground, nothing seems plausible.

I look for different genres to express all of it.

One can’t exploit the same form all the time. Maybe it worked before, but it can’t be exploited over and over again. It becomes a cliché. One must find a new form. In fact, it should take a form of its own. One doesn’t need to look for it specifically.

It may take the form of a parable. Some kind of parable. Perhaps poems are already parables to a certain degree, but they are not one-dimensional. In parables, all that is unnecessary is removed and smoothed out. Yet it is important to me to have all these seemingly small details, all these little things, because they are very important. I don’t use the hierarchy of fable or parable—some things set up the tone, others sing in tune. Everything is important to me.


I can title my poems one way or another. For example, I called one of them “Turtle,” but I could have just as well called it “Palm.” It would change little. For example, “Crow” was initially called “Woods.” But these proximities, this polysemy, began to hinder me. It stops me and I don’t know how to go on. I have some canonical poems. The canon keeps me disciplined. And I understand this need. . . .


. . . It’s important for me to preserve at least a bit of the prototype of a poem. Despite my own use of abstraction, something must remain there. I would like to leave my reader with a bit of clay from which I built my imagery, so that one must complete it or emend it a little. This is my ideal of authenticity. . . .

The most important thing is to preserve the fragrance, color and texture of things. I can’t transform them completely into words, but the remnants of the invisible and mysterious material world should be present along with the words as an equivalence of it, along with the poem.

. . . Invisible, but it should be present. And this is a great possibility, if you don’t chase the words, but the character.

It’s sad that I can’t fully explain it. But if you explain it completely, you cannot do it again. . . .

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AGNI LyshehaOleh Lysheha (1949-2014), exiled to Buryatia by Soviets and whose work was banned from publication for sixteen years, became one of Ukraine’s finest poets, invited to numerous international festivals, including the Cúirt International Festival of Literature, Harbourfront International Festival of Authors, and the Miłosz Festival, and was a Fulbright Scholar to the United States.

BrasfieldJames Brasfield has published two collections of poems from LSU Press—Ledger of Crossroads (2009) and Infinite Altars (2016)—and received fellowships in poetry from the NEA and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. See what he’s published in AGNI here.