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

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES REMEMBERS OKLA ELLIOT WITH JOHN GUZLOWSKI

By John Guzlowski:


LISTENING TO DEATH

How do we listen to death?

We listen to the sound of death
The way we listen to the sound of the sea
To the message the waves pound against the shore
Their soft rush of foam upon the sand

We hear the things we forgot to tell the dead
The questions we forgot to ask them
The enigmatic dreams they will never explain
The useless arguments we will neither win nor lose
The mutual misunderstandings
That will never be clarified
The lies for which we forgot to ask forgiveness
The problems death defers
The unresolved quarrels with the dead

And what can we do in the face of death?

We can leave this house
And keep going
Never to return

We will not even take
The things that have meant
The most to us, our books
The plants we have nursed
The children we have raised
Punished and praised
The clothes (the dark
Blue ties, the tweed jackets
The rakish wool caps)
That make us look
More the man
More the woman
More the hero
More the young lover
Searching for love

We can leave this house
And keep going
Never to return

And what is death?

It is the hand of God
The meal prepared with love
Flowers from the pierced breast
Of the Blessed Virgin
The shore that smells of widows
Studying the foam

And should we fear death?

No, we shouldn’t fear death
We should fear the loud man’s coming

The pain of cancer
That does this or that
To the body

That pain that is longer than sorrow
Stronger than love

The tumor that grows like
A child who then learns
To hate you

A child who will not take
The love and joy you give her

What is as difficult as death?

Nothing

Nothing

Nothing



POET’S NOTE: I met Okla on Facebook.

One day maybe 7 years ago, I got a friend request from him. I didn’t know a thing about him. He was just another fellow asking to be my friend. I said sure.

I’ve never been sorry I did.

Reading Okla’s posts, his status updates, his responses to other people has always been inspiring. What he wrote was smart and funny and engaging. Sometimes he sounded like Jean Paul Sartre, and sometimes he sounded like a kid in love with literature and life and friendship and thinking and dreaming. Both Oklas were wonderful.

And even more wonderful was the Okla I discovered when I started reading his poems and his essays and his fiction.

Okla was the real thing.

He was all the writers I ever admired, and he was right there with me on Facebook.

When I heard he was dead, I couldn’t believe it. He was too filled with life, too good, too dreaming, to be dead.

But he was dead.

But I will not let go of him.

Here [above] is a poem for Okla.



ONLINE MEMORIALS AND TRIBUTES
As It Ought To Be Mourns the Loss of Our Founder
“Some testimonies to Okla Elliott, 1 May 1977 – 19 March 2017” – Days and Memory
“Requiescat in pace: poet, novelist, translator Okla Elliott, 1977-2017” – Book Haven
“Go Read Okla Elliott’s Stuff, Please. (A Remembrance)” – Great Writers Steal
“Remembering Okla Elliott” – Mildred Barya’s House of Life


REMEMBER OKLA WITH AS IT OUGHT TO BE
As It Ought To Be welcomes art and writing in Okla’s memory. Please email sivan.sf [at] gmail [dot] com with your submissions.


REMEMBERING OKLA ELLIOT WITH MICHAEL YOUNG

By Michael Young:

Okla Elliott died in his sleep last night. I still haven’t fully comprehended this reality. His absence hasn’t filled the days to make me believe it. But the news is everywhere echoed through FB.

There are a few people on FB that I know almost exclusively through FB or met only a few times and yet I consider them friends and not just acquaintances. There is a kindship of mind and conscience that binds us. Okla was such a person. There was a mutual admiration and respect for …each other’s work. He was always welcoming of my work for As It Ought To Be and encouraging of my writing. And I had the pleasure of interviewing him and reviewing his collection The Cartographer’s Ink. The diversity, quantity, and quality of his literary output was amazing. I was so looking forward to reading his next poetry collection, which will now, sadly, not be coming. I enjoyed just hearing what he was teaching his classes. It was a pleasure to hear him take such joy in teaching, sparking conversation among his students, or just rhapsodize about the deliciousness of tacos. He was a brilliant and kind person. In online conversations, he strove always for fairness and inclusion that never compromised intellectual honesty. He seemed to face setback with determination and optimism. I saw this most clearly in the recent election outcome, always advising people to focus on state and local elections, and clear actions to take, rather than falling into doubt and bitterness. His intelligence and voice will be terribly missed. The silence it leaves will fill the coming days with something embodied in certain winter landscapes, a kind of waiting that isn’t answered but fades like an echo. But if you haven’t read any of his work, buy some: his poetry, his translation, the novel he co-authored with his good friend, Raul Clement.



ONLINE MEMORIALS AND TRIBUTES
As It Ought To Be Mourns the Loss of Our Founder
“Some testimonies to Okla Elliott, 1 May 1977 – 19 March 2017” – Days and Memory
“Requiescat in pace: poet, novelist, translator Okla Elliott, 1977-2017” – Book Haven
“Go Read Okla Elliott’s Stuff, Please. (A Remembrance)” – Great Writers Steal
“Remembering Okla Elliott” – Mildred Barya’s House of Life


REMEMBER OKLA WITH AS IT OUGHT TO BE
As It Ought To Be welcomes art and writing in Okla’s memory. Please email sivan.sf [at] gmail [dot] com with your submissions.


Things to Worry About

Norah Vawter Parents

The author with her parents, Skip and Denise, 1985.

Things to Worry About

by Norah Buckley Vawter

Dear Mothers,

Things to worry about:

  • Worry about the planet.
  • Worry about your children’s welfare.
  • Worry about your family and friends.
  • Worry about not wasting your life.
  • Worry about kindness and love.

Things not to worry about:

  • Don’t worry about conversations you had yesterday.
  • Don’t worry about what other people think of you.
  • Don’t worry about what other people think, period.
  • Don’t worry about jogging strollers.
  • Don’t worry about jumperoos vs. exersaucers.
  • Don’t worry about getting a fancy anything unless you really want it.
  • Don’t worry about worrying.
  • When holding a newborn, don’t worry that he is so tiny and fragile you might break him just by holding him. If babies were that fragile, we wouldn’t have a human race.
  • If you had great parents, don’t worry about living up to impossible expectations of what parenting should be like. Your parents surely, surely had days when they made mistakes, maybe even huge ones.
  • If your parents were awful, don’t worry about doing everything differently to create some magical world full of goodness and light for your own child. Just do your best. There will probably be plenty of magic and goodness and light.
  • Absolutely don’t cry yourself to sleep thinking you are the world’s worst mother. You’re probably doing better than you think. In fact I bet you are strong and beautiful. I feel certain that you deserve happiness and love.
  • Don’t worry about the dark circles under your eyes from lack of sleep and lack of makeup and just being plain tired and wrung out every day.
  • Don’t worry about the fact that Mom X gives her kids all organic food when you don’t.
  • Don’t worry about what Mom X must think when you pull out a bag of Honey-Nut Cheerios and food-dye-ridden Goldfish crackers for your toddler, while she feeds her kid homemade flaxseed bread and homemade yogurt with a smattering of wheat germ.
  • Don’t worry about anything anyone posts on Facebook. Ever.
  • Don’t worry about haters in general.
  • If you had your heart set on nursing, don’t worry if you can’t.
  • And don’t you dare let any parent bottle-shame you. When you are sitting at the park with your baby in your lap, and you pull that bottle of formula out of your bag – hold your head high because you are feeding your baby.
  • If your own parents are gone like mine are, don’t worry that your kid will grow up never knowing them. They’re around – somewhere. They’re inside of you. They’re inside of your kid. They’re in photo albums and in the books they read to you, the ones you now read to him.
  • Don’t worry about how you will eventually have to explain what death is, and where Granny Denise and Grampa Skip are.
  • When your kid starts to point out “Nise” and “Skip” in the family photos on the wall, because you’ve been doing that, don’t worry if you cry in front of him. When he says, “Mama sad” – don’t worry about what to say. Something will come. And then he’ll probably want to hug you, and it will be the best hug in the world. Ever. And then you can say, “Mama happy,” and mean it.
  • Don’t worry about being the perfect mother.
  • Don’t worry about perfection, period. It doesn’t exist, and if it did, life would be a hell of a lot less interesting.

Things to think about:

  • How can I be a mother and still be a human being in my own right?
  • If I’m not happy, how can I get there? If I’m not happy with how I fit into my world, how can I fix that?
  • Am I doing my best, as a parent, as a human being, in general, etc.?
  • What tangible, specific things can I do to make my life better, or others’ lives better, and maybe even make my world a better place to live?
  • If I want to make my mark on the world, how can I do that?

Love always,

Norah Buckley Vawter

Things to Worry About Parenting

The author with her son, 2015.

***

Inspired by Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Scottie, dated August 8, 1933

Norah Vawter wishes time travel were possible so she could party with Scott Fitzgerald and then talk literature. She earned an MFA in fiction from George Mason University and  has work published or forthcoming in Extract(s), The Nassau Review, and Agave. Currently she stays at home with her toddler while at work on her first novel.

A Review of Simi Linton’s My Body Politic

A Review of Simi Linton’s My Body Politic

by Kate Grisim

 

Simi Linton’s My Body Politic takes readers through the aftermath of a road trip as a young adult to join a protest demonstration against the then-current war in Vietnam. The setting is a spring day in 1971; three youngsters (the protagonist, her husband, and her best friend) innocently stick their thumbs out to hitch a ride. They were en route to support a cause all three of them believed in, but by the end of the day, Linton’s life was derailed in a way she hadn’t conceived possible. Her story, however, only starts here.

The deaths of John (Linton’s first husband) and Carol (her best friend), seemingly the most traumatic situation that a person could imagine, take a back seat in Linton’s story to the trauma she endured in becoming a woman disabled by society and circumstance. This transition from loss to gain is the essential arc of Linton’s story. She does not soften her situation with flowery epithets of hope but instead mourns the life she once had as she “reconstructs […] the life I grew into.” Linton does not do this arrogantly, portraying herself as a rather naive, passive shell of a person in the first half of her memoir. For example, Linton is forced to take on the role of the “good patient” in the hospital, where ironically “[i]t wasn’t until the third or fourth week that a doctor came to tell me that my legs were paralyzed [….] I must have known it on some level, but kept the thought at bay.” Her further encounters with both medical professionals and friends and family members only add to this affect, even to the extent of having her sister travel to Linton’s late husband’s funeral to absorb the shock for her.

This is not merely circumstantial; it is clear that Linton sets up her dependency on people within the pages of her memoir in order to achieve a harsh portrayal of herself and the state of her body both before and after the accident. Perhaps the most harrowing image, one that has stayed with me well after finishing Linton’s story, is the description of a flashback to a photo shoot for a New York underground newspaper, in which Linton is posed under the headline “SLUM GODDESS:”

…had it been just a couple of years before [the accident] that I had stood tall on the roof of my apartment building in the East Village, with the New York City skyline rising up behind me? [I was] dressed in John’s black v-neck sweater and tattered jeans, [….] costumed as an ethereal symbol of the counterculture. I stood in profile, my face tilted upward, my long wavy hair blowing out behind me.

Although Linton describes instances in which she attempts to distance herself from the passivity her condition seems to require by demanding her newly disabled body be taken seriously (especially by an “unassuming” salesman trying to take advantage of fitting her for a prosthesis), it is not until one hundred pages in that readers might begin to get the feeling Linton is finally approaching the real crux of her story. This is not to say that the text before this point is trite or inconsequential; on the contrary, as after her hospital stay she writes about exposing herself to a new world where she is a curious entity, moving to California to attend college only to find they have already discovered “the disability movement” and she does not quite fit into their image of it just yet, and situating the disabled body against “normative” notions such as travel, dance, sex, intimacy, and celebrity. It is precisely in this section’s substantiality that Linton is at last able to reach a crucial narrative point, revealing a poignant and pivotal moment in her life’s bumpy journey.

At the beginning of chapter nine, Linton writes, “I have become a disabled woman over time.” In that one sentence, she recognizes the importance of not being “made invisible by the label [of disability]” but instead by embracing it not only as an individual but also through forcing herself to recognize her position within a community. This is where the title of her memoir, My Body Politic, really hits the mark, as readers are let into the realization that her story is not just a personal one but is also a political one as well. Linton describes this argument in a circumstance where she relates her experiences to someone who “doesn’t seem so much rude as misinformed [….] the man will nod and commiserate and act as if now he knows what is important about disability – its genesis.” She continues, describing how she found the act of writing a political “release” as well:

I did not have the precise language to describe the other parts of the disability experience – the kinds of obstacles or the intrusive people I encountered every day – nor had I found a way to talk about my new situation as a natural state, my wheelchair as a convenience, or my experiences in ways that would be interesting to anyone besides myself and a few like-minded people.

Linton uses her memoir’s final pages to further describe situations in which she and others take a political stance by using their personal lives as impetus for change or response. For example, there is little room to argue with a political statement describing how friends of Linton’s were denied the ability to get married because it would drastically decrease their allowances for life-saving medical equipment, only to then have a mere two years together once their request was finally approved. Writes Linton of this tragedy: “That this nation made it so hard for them to marry and live comfortably in the time they had is the shame of this nation.” At this point, readers should truly appreciate how Linton’s narrative and personal stance have changed and evolved in order to use such circumstances to point out damning political paradigms that prevent disabled persons from living the lives they clearly deserve.

However, such a reading within a disability framework is not necessary for Linton’s story to effectively reach her audience, and perhaps this is where the true beauty of her story lies. Linton’s talent on the page enables her to have written a compelling narrative evoking important questions about humanity, including whether and why one deserves to undergo such emotional turmoil at the same time they must experience intense physical turmoil as well.

 

Simi Linton, My Body Politic. The University of Michigan Press, 2006: $30.95 (hardcover), $21.95 (paperback)

***

Kate Grisim is currently a second-year Master’s student in the interdisciplinary field of disability studies at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. She is a recent convert to the blogosphere at mylittlecrippledheart.wordpress.com and is currently halfway through a writer-in-residency position at a not-for-profit arts organization. 

A Review of Heather Cousins’s Something in the Potato Room

Cousins Potato Room

A Review of Heather Cousins’s Something in the Potato Room

by Jennifer Dane Clements

Something in the Potato Room, the book-length poem that won Heather Cousins the Kore Press First Book Award, is an unexpected ars poetica. It is about many things, but ultimately about moments that surprise and redefine us. The constraints that birth new freedoms.

These constraints stripe each page: lines or coffins or boundaries, asking the reader to look beyond. Boredom. Routine. Depression. Sometimes—adulthood. Stillness is a rope, solitude a tether. We enter this book with an unnamed character bound by each of these things, exhausted by the details of her own routine:

“A pot of
paperwhites. A green
mug. A bottle of ibuprofen
and a sheet of Sudafed, the
little red gems sealed in foil.”

It is a dead boy, emerging from the basement earth, that breaks from his own hiding place and ultimately pulls the unnamed character from hers. Sometimes you are the skeleton buried in the basement of a newly purchased home. Sometimes you are the homeowner buried in the minutia of a tedious job and a solitary life. The unexpected makes you feel suddenly “pink/and full of skin.”

Sometimes a poem is a constraint. Sometimes a book. Mutual exclusivity can have that feeling too—the entrapment of either/or. We feel it for the unnamed character, and for Cousins too—for her poem that won’t be tucked in to notions of brevity, for her anthropologist’s eye for charts and medical illustrations and the things they only suggest.

We see the tidy boxes, squares and rectangles of text on the page, holding in what needs to be suppressed.

And we see the things that emerge from constraint. A discovery, an adventure. An excuse not to dress and go to work. A skeleton in the basement of a house. Death reimagined into life—and this doesn’t just mean the skeleton. The book, too, emerges from the brevity and smallness expected from the word poem. The book is a poem, the poem is a book, and the bones of a dead boy swim through layers of basement dirt to the surface to insist these constraints are all imagined.

“It seemed as if it hurt—
the coming-back-to-life.
Like frozen toes in hot
water. The ache and
shiver of blood breaking
from its sluggish sleep.”

The skeleton is dead, then reborn through imagined story. The unnamed character is alive without playing a part in her own existence. That thing that we expect, that very simple fulfillment of definition, is shut down and broken apart.

“Life
doesn’t stay still, and
death doesn’t stay still ei-
ther”

And here, still, are the things that can be made whole from the dirt, from the seeming emptiness of an unsatisfying routine. Here is a poem that was made a book, the skeleton made flesh through Cousins’s imagining.

Heather Cousins, Something in the Potato Room, Kore Press, 2009: $12.99.

***

Jennifer Dane Clements received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language & Art. A writer of prose and plays, she has been published in WordRiot, Nerve, and Psychopomp (forthcoming) and has had plays produced by Capital Repertory Theatre (Albany, NY), Creative Cauldron (Falls Church, VA), and others. Clements currently works at a theatre-service organization and serves as a prose editor for ink&coda. jennifer-dane-clements.com.

“Morning Glories Sensing Noon Or: When Your Student Dies During the Semester” By Angie Mazakis

 

Morning Glories Sensing Noon

Or: When Your Student Dies During the Semester

By Angie Mazakis

 

Before class, already you know that you are going to teach how the complications of humor and death in this story—the writer’s careful balance of these disparate emotional territories—make good writing, and you want to point out the specific piercing details too, you will go through and point out every metaphor (“they are all drawing their mouths in, bluish and tight—morning glories sensing noon,” the rhythm of “morning glories sensing noon”—three trochees—sang in your head all weekend), and then right before class, you’re in the bathroom three minutes before, and a student comes in and says, “I had to find you,” and you laugh because, it’s three minutes before class, and you were just in your office for three-and-a-half hours, and Couldn’t you have just waited until I got there is what your laugh is saying, but it’s also forgiving, because either way questions in the bathroom are funny, and you like every student in this class, you already know it is one of those classes you will remember—your one laugh is saying all that, and she laughs a tiny nervous laugh in response, and says, “You know A           in our class, who sits by me? He died.” And you cover your mouth in shock, because your student, a student in the class you are going to teach in three, now two, minutes died and will not be sitting at his desk, and she starts to cry, and says, “I just had to find you and tell you, because I couldn’t bear to hear you call out his name.” Couldn’t bear is what she said, and you’ve never heard anything more fragile, perforating right through you, from a student in any of your classes ever, not even in writing, let alone out loud to you in the bathroom in her sweet voice and tears, and you precipitously cry for her, with her, for just a minute, because it’s time for class, and all crying should now stop, and the short walk to class with her gives you time to feel transiently embarrassed about how facilely and involuntarily your tears materialize, and you go teach the Lorrie Moore story that is really in the end about death, but saturated with humor, and you meant to defend that humor, because in the other classes students thought that the humor was inappropriate in a story about children and death, but that’s “how I would respond as well” with that same dark wit in the face of death, you know (think) you would, at least ostensibly (you think later), and also you had already planned to read this passage, so you read it very slowly, because your voice could break at any one of the words, even though you didn’t even really know this kid, it’s only been three weeks, you barely knew him, but you had already planned to read it, particularly for how devastating, and therefore beautiful it is, but now with devastating being a reality in the room, the beautiful doesn’t seem as beautiful or beauty actually doesn’t seem relevant at all, or seems kind of very beside the point, but still, you read to them, “…he begins to cry, but cry silently, without motion or noise. She has never seen a baby cry without motion or noise. It is the crying of an old person; silent, beyond opinion, shattered.” You can barely get out the word “shattered,” which seemed to fall apart on its own. But you do. And then after class, the female student who stopped you in the bathroom is the last one after everyone has left, and you say, “This wasn’t the easiest story to talk about today,” and she says, “Actually, it helped,” and you are profoundly puzzled, one, that anything could help so immediately in class and not years from now when an image or a line comes to a student arbitrarily at the grocery store or while picking up their kids from school, but also that this story is so darkly humorous, and most students don’t seem to embrace its complications even when those complications seem eclipsed by the unequivocalness of  a death that just happened, but she says, “because there’s the part where the narrator is talking to the ‘manager’ and he says (and she quotes it exactly without looking at it, here in the third week of class; she’s brilliant), ‘To know the narrative in advance is to turn yourself into a machine.’” And then you frantically look for that portion of the story, because you just taught it—three times today—but you didn’t go over that part in class, and you don’t even remember that part, and you read what continues, “What makes humans human is precisely that they do not know the future. …There might be things people get away with. And not just motel towels. There might be great illicit loves, enduring joy, faith-shaking accidents with farm machinery. But you have to not know in order to see what stories your life’s efforts bring you. The mystery is all.” And you can’t believe you have a student so smart that she can apply the very literature we are reading today in class so instantaneously to the very consequential event that has so spontaneously happened, and has literature ever been so functional? You don’t think it has, and she should probably teach this class instead of you. And all you know about teaching is how you’ve been taught to teach or what you’ve learned from what others teach, and this kid who died, of course he is the kid who stayed after the first class to ask you more questions about yourself, of course, and was looking right at you eagerly or smiling every time you looked up in the few classes you’ve had so far this semester, and of course no one ever said, “When your student dies during the semester…” or explained how to maybe wait one more week (you’d already waited two weeks for all the drops and adds) to write their names into the grade book in ink, because now you’ll have to mark the absence forever.

 

About the Author: Angie Mazakis’s poems have appeared in The New Republic, Boston Review, Narrative Magazine, Best New Poets 2008, Drunken BoatNew Ohio Review, Everyday Genius, and other journals. She has received a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize and prizes from New Letters, New Ohio Review, and Smartish Pace.