Mike Land (Philadelphia, USA): "Drank"

His deep-set eyes fell on so many businessmen and students rushing through the crowded sidewalk to arrive at just another meeting or classroom, any space cooler than the sweat drenched concrete of a Philadelphia summer. The blistering sun was getting to Garrett, even as he sat in the air-conditioned café. The tepid musk floating inside those walls was reminder enough.
His hours spent amidst the tan walls and hipster do-nothing regulars were meant to normalize him. To keep him distant from the knowledge he was doing nothing with his life. None of them could understand the funk their armpits and unwashed clothes could bring on Garrett. He looked back to the unforgiving pavement, and the remorseless feet that stomped along it. They were all the same, he thought. None of them could change, and none of them had any idea they weren’t going to.
Garrett climbed from the table to leave with a last look through the dried film on the window. He saw the father first. A man, who at twenty, looked as though he’d already seen a thousand different kinds of pain, and each one he brought upon himself. He wore tattoos like they were clothes, his arms and neck covered in the different color dye, deflecting a shame he knew was his. His painted hand held the tiny palm of a girl’s not older than ten.
She struggled to keep up. His hurry barely noticed when her beaten up Reebok caught a crack in the sidewalk, and she had to use that uninterested, decorated hand to keep her balance. A balance the man did his best to forget. One that was hers to make behind him. She found it entering Sami's swinging door.
Garrett watched as the pair made their way to the counter. He tried to remain discreet as he watched them, opening the book he carried in for appearances. The man couldn’t have cared less, didn’t notice Garrett was alive. The girl though, in the midst of being dragged, witnessed Garrett’s interest. Her hand in someone else's, she would have waved had it been free.
“Do you want something?” The man asked looking down.
She nodded her head and smiled a grin free from understanding. Garrett wondered if it was intrisic. If she, like her father, had the inclination toward deluding self-destruction. If she had the type of numbing narcissism her father most obviously had. He guessed that she did; it was a symptom of the cafe.
“Peach, please,” she said, motioning toward the house of iced-teas behind the counter. He fished two crumpled dollars from his dirty jeans and handed them to the Mohawk-clad cashier, braless and pierced like a pin-cushion.
“Look, I need to make a call.” He said to the cashier. “Could you watch her while I use the payphone?”
She shrugged and turned to replace a dirty pot of coffee with a clean one.
The man made his way downstairs without a word to the girl. She had a seat at the empty table next to Garrett’s. Content with her iced-tea, she shook it up and twisted the cap until its seal popped. She took a casual sip, blending in well with the patrons around her.
Garrett suddenly remembered that children made him very uncomfortable. He didn’t know what to do around them, never had, even as a child himself. He figured it best to ignore them, to focus on anything but their tactless manner of dealing with others. But this girl didn’t seem anything like that. She couldn’t have been younger than Garrett’s impression of ‘child’ but about her there was nothing insulting. She seemed sincere, and she gazed out the filmy window just like Garrett had when he spotted her.
He kept himself from glancing at the girl, requiring every bit of restraint within him. Had she been the normal fare inside of Sami’s, he would have been content saying nothing. To the little girl’s credit, she could very well have been. A bit taller, with hips and breasts wider, Garrett could have assumed her rent was late, that she’d called out of work because of a hangover, and somewhere on her body a tattoo was waiting to be revealed after a six pack of Pabst and as many shots of Jameson. She had the mentality, it was waiting for cultivation. This was what drove the compulsion for Garrett to tell her to try business school; this life she’s so well suited for is one of circles. How he wanted to tell her the distant, uncaring man she came in with was a result of this life - of drug-addled insignificance and fantasy indulgences without real intent or substance. Then again, Garrett guessed this girl loved him unconditionally, and no amount of truthful observation could change her mind. He only wanted to tell her the iced-tea would be better enjoyed on a picnic with another lawyer, anywhere but within those deaf, unsympathetic walls.
Instead, he kept his nose in the book and read the same sentence for the fifth time.
‘Let be what cannot go undecided.’
The man she’d entered with leapt up the stairs leading from the bathrooms and payphone. He’d grown squirrelly in the past five minutes and hurried toward the little girl. Squatting to put her at eye-level, he smiled and took her hands in his own.
“Listen, baby-girl.” He said. “I’ve gotta go for a little bit, but I’ll be back. Daddy needs some help right now. Just wait here.”
She did her best to keep a wrinkled frown at bay, but there it was below a shaking lip.
“How long?”
“I promise not long. Just wait here.”
The man rose to his feet. He caught the glare Garrett leveled from the corner of his eye. He snarled at the sympath and strode from the café. Garrett watched through the window as the man hailed a cab quickly, jumped in, and peeled off down the street.
The little girl’s happy fixation on the window had evaporated. Now she looked only at the bottle in front of her, and the stained mosaic table that supported it. She was trying to keep the emotions inside, the unbelievable feeling of abandonment, the terror he might never come back.
Garrett could smell the shame on her shoulders. Through the funk of armpits and unwashed clothes, he didn’t need to look to see her emotion.

© Mike Land 2005

Adam Fieled (editor, Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania): PICC (A Poet in Center City) #48

The map of John Rind’s brain: as I’ve said, complicated. As I got to know John, I sifted through the history he gave me. If I couldn’t figure him out completely, I could at least give it the old college try. Raised, with Kyra and Ari, in an itinerant way, by a card-shark father and a therapist mother. At a certain point, the Rinds were settled in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, right outside State College. They were there, it turns out, part of the time I was in State College, too. John never forgot seeing me around with Jena Strayner, while that was going on. The Rind kids received little conventional schooling. What they did receive was a thorough grounding in the rigors of psychology, psychoanalysis, and the therapeutic process. That was on one side. But the other side, which was also internalized, encompassed casino rackets, betting circles, fantasy sports hi-jinx, and what it meant to keep lines running in all directions. So, as he stood at the end of the long, winding way which led to the Highwire’s entrance, John himself was introspective about his complete immersion in outward reality. That inward sense of separation, of being yanked violently in two different directions at once, gave him a physiological quirk of feeling compelled to express himself from a deeper place than most, even in the middle of so many lines running that P.F.S. briefly towered over Atlantic City: “Um, can we end what’s going on in the factory space, please?” “Are the Temple kids done?” “Just about. By the way, thanks, seriously, for taking care of the coat room thing. I got sick of answering questions. After the next two acts, we can fly free for the rest of the night, right?” “Yup. I’ll take care of the Temple kids.” “I’m lobbying for a fifteen minute break.” “Go right ahead.” “No, I’ll wait for you, dude. I’ve got a roach. Tonight’s one to celebrate.” We were both lanky, me at dead-even, zero-sum-game 5’9, John up there at 6’3. “Right on.” Yet that John edge, of meaning it, in a general sense, more than most, had just a hint of desperation in it. At moments like this, I never forgot that John’s earlier life scored an 8 out of 10 on the trauma meter. Not many years before he joined up with us, John was forced to endure the murder of Ari Rind, on the college campus of the school Ari was attending. Ari’s murder, by all accounts, was an act of the most senseless violence. He was brutally beaten to death, for the sin of standing up to a group of thugs picking on a younger kid. When John was panicked, both strands of his personality— the introspective devotee of all forms of analysis, and the burgeoning card-shark following in the footsteps of his father, who, as is crucial, also died, this time from a heart attack, at around the same time as Ari, leaving an equal, irremediable gash— collapsed into one basic stance before the world. John saw himself as a fireball, a dynamo. He was going into the world to do everything he wanted, all at once, and he would brook no interference. With the corpses of his brother and his father behind him, he’d make one bold lunge at eternal life, and, as for the rest, que sera sera. I caught up with John on the Gilbert Building steps. Cherry Street at night tended to be free of cops. “You got that roach?” “Yup.” “We made money tonight. We can count it up and divide it with Jim when we go in. Did you see Lena?” “Yeah. She did an Oompa Loompa routine with me, but we’re going out some time this week.” “You having fun?” “Yeah. But remember— you get to go home soon. I don’t.” “Is Adelphia House locking you out?” He smiled and shook his head. It was always like that with John. Despite being several years younger than me, there was worldly business sense, of the dark variety or stripe, in John’s brain, which put John ahead of me slightly in the race-to-understand-the-world. Penn be damned. I knew that then, too. And did my own introspective routine about tragedy burning real, tactile understanding into the human brain. Roach done, up we went.

© Adam Fieled 2023

Becky Hilliker (Boston, USA): "Catch"

The wind turns the water into an animal
& the boat rides the back of swells,
bucking wetly.
My legs absorb the push & pull,
thinking only of the fish,
sleek & dripping on the line,
neon green parachute ballooning
from its mouth.

I arch my back
& the rod dives.
The fish lifts, slimy as an egg,
spinning like a ballerina
on a silver thread,
its marble eye mute,
fixed on white.

How many times have you watched this world,
blinded, terrified?
There are hands on you
& pliers in your mouth,
metallic, blood-washed.
How many times have you waited
for the water
while everything lurches around you,
brilliant white, like the inside
of a hospital, like the underbelly
of a dream, gasping
to break the surface
toward that cold & sudden light?

© Becky Hilliker 2005

Noah Eli Gordon (Colorado, USA): "Sonnet with a Question & Answer"

Is it possible to make a poem
By elucidating another poet’s method?
Say Eric Baus’ new prose piece
“The Scarlet Phoneme,”
Which is, itself, an echo
Of his poem “The Scarlet Phone.”
For the former of the two
He’s been connecting bits of e-mail spam
That escape his filtering program
By including text from novels within
The public domain & reworking
The syntax & nouns as to resemble
His interest in a heightened pictorial gesture.
The answer is yes.

© Noah Eli Gordon 2005

Mike Land (Philadelphia, USA): "Step: Ronnie"

For all intents and purpose, Ronnie had been a bum his entire life. He was a man without the shyest of wants or needs. A man that could go for days without food or a clean crap and still thank those unfeeling city-dwellers that snarled at his proposition for unwarranted help. He was a happy guy, Ronald was; despite cutting off his nose to save his face. He knew a level of freedom no one can understand lest they’ve ever looked at the homeless with a scrap of envy. That freedom though, wasn’t what made for his happy demeanor; it was something far simpler.
The trick to living homeless, he told me once, was to find any passing joy and hang on to it with every thread of dignity one can muster. His certification of life came from the ease in which he derived pleasure from eating only semi-moldy garbage. If the lettuce hadn’t gone entirely tawny, Ronnie would become the happiest of campers. And that’s how he got through his days. That’s how he could so easily refuse the amenities that make up a life as a part of society. As a result, Ronnie was able to make up his own society, full with standards and borders, a world dictated by only a few but steadfast rules. One such rule - the most important rule - was force your glee at every turn.
It’s not to say this was always easy for good Ronnie. A bum is still a bum, regardless of proposed demeanor; and most generally, a bum is pretty corrupt with revulsion by nature. Still, Ronnie found his grace when he looked for it. Those that he considered friendly were the ones to point out his shoes were what made his search for temporary satiation plausible. He’d had them for ten years and there was barely a scratch on them. The train yard bums called them magic and respected Ronnie for wearing them. Those more cynical homeless believed he’d been trading them up for months. The black leather was as deep and robust as the day he first held them in his hands.
A man with white hair and brown skin stopped in front of the then newly dispossessed Ronnie and asked if he had the skill enough to shine a pair of shoes. Ronnie nodded without a word. The brown man looked down at Ronnie, who at the time was wearing bundles of newspapers for footwear and asked if he needed them. Ronnie denied the offer, claiming since his fall, he needed nothing. The brown man smiled and left his shoes in the hands of the given up. Maybe there was magic in them, perhaps it was a karmic redistribution, but those shoes to Ronnie made his search for any chance of truth in life worth continuing.
It was when those shoes were stolen from his feet that Ronnie’s search for dispensation took on a different ideal entirely. A group of those more unsavory homeless types had banded together for the sole purpose of removing Ronnie’s grace. And after they were taken, he slowly collapsed into the man he was before his fall; he became needy, desperate for the absolution that had come so easily with the knowledge of an overall unimportance. Without the ace in his shoes, unimportance turned into anguish and his positive world view had steadily crumbled. He was left with the truth of his part in a meaningless society.
So he wandered. Shoeless and adrift, he pursued what could not be captured any longer. His heart was enamored with what was passing, yet he realized what passed by was something he could never truly possess. As each chance for renewal escaped his grasp he’d become more and more aware of his own lack of having. He was made aware of what a bum he’d become.
Ronnie lived on, somehow. On Fridays he’d beg for Fifty cents to empty the Inquirer’s Twenty-Second Street point. If a good movie was opening that weekend, Ronnie could earn quarters enough for a real meal; as real as Wendy’s or McDonald’s, anyway. But he hadn’t in weeks. He wouldn’t sell the papers lifted from the corner anymore; just wrap them around his feet, swollen from the chilly air. He didn’t think much about the fact he was stealing them from their distributor, or that he could have used the Citypaper for free. He took what he did for his wants and regarded nothing else with importance. Change within him had occurred; now there were unbreakable standards to which he had no chance of avoiding. Before, Ronnie knew purposelessness, now he was a waste. Even as a bum, Ronnie was faced with those exchangeable alternatives that crush a man’s spirit, and cause for starvation’s reminder.
He hadn’t eaten in a week and by then, a week was a month. All that came to pass as truth for Ronnie was that the hungrier he got, the less likely it became that he would eat. Falling deeper and deeper into his hunger was all he could do, besides decay. He’d try sometimes to read the news on his feet, but he’d almost forgotten how, or was just too hungry to do so. He thought of his hunger. It was consuming him, bit by bit. He began thinking about how to rob the man walking down the street wearing glasses and a Nancy scarf in March. There was no strength left in Ronnie to pull him into an alleyway; or even to swing a lead pipe. Maybe he could manage the ten-year old girl walking home from Grade school. Then again, he doubted if she had anything on her to begin with.
If you’re hungry enough, you’ll do just about anything to eat. You find the push to get up for food. Without energy, Ronnie gathered his final ounces of strength to sell one last stack of papers before what otherwise would surely have been death. He would settle for anything, a bag of peanuts, a hot dog, something to chew and swallow. He trekked the ten blocks to Twenty-Second where he often made his pickup, fingering the two quarters in his pocket. Pushing himself to the point, he thought, was just the beginning. It would be a while still of carrying the papers before any profit could be turned, and that ache made him walk faster.
As he approached the corner he saw a woman with dark sunglasses holding a long stick. At first her look was lost, but it became clear she was waiting for something. She blocked Ronnie’s access to the papers. “Would you buy a paper?” He asked, swallowing his words as he spoke them. “How did you know?” The woman asked. “I need change for my dollar.” She rubbed her cane against his paper shoes. “Could you help me?” She pointed her head upward toward the sky, focused in her darkness. “Please,” she said and held out a Ten dollar bill. Ronnie took into account her helpless and trusting place. His stomach made him take a paper from the machine and hand it to the woman. “Keep the fifty cents,” she said. “A paper’s worth a dollar any day.” Ronnie looked at her a moment, and looked at the Ten she was holding out, mistaken for a single. “Are you blind, Ma’am?” “No, I carry this stick for fashion; it’s the latest trend from Italy. Take a guess, smart guy.” And carrying the paper under her arm, she walked away. Ronnie looked at the ten dollar bill he had just taken and was able to think of only one thing.
For a man with newspaper footwear to walk into the Arch St. McDonald’s is not entirely uncommon; the place had seen its fair share of scum in front and behind the registers. Ronnie though, was one of the few to walk in with money in his pocket, albeit appropriated money. He strode to the counter with the truth of life within his reach. Here he remembered what it was like to be content with what was occurring. No longer minding the sores around his feet, the ache in his belly, the hardship on his mind, he ordered food like a man with an honest intent and responsible plea. He asked for two Double Quarter Pounder meals. He was given a pound of beef next to three potato’s fries and a gallon of Coke, not the healthiest way to break a fast.
He inhaled the meal. Tasting nothing but the long-awaited sustenance, he smiled at others in the restaurant as he ate. People avoided his looks. They glanced over at the bundles he would walk on, but made sure the bum could not ruin their meal. It didn’t bother Ronnie. His anger had receded and he was left to enjoy how the day was turning out. He recalled the blind woman, and the off-chance timing of catching a free ten dollar bill. Maybe it was greed, he thought, maybe one should feel bad. But he didn’t. He didn’t feel anything except for the meat, sliding down his throat, half-chewed and overcooked.
When done, he sat on the hard plastic of an upstairs dining room chair at McDonalds, shifting for a more comfortable position. He told himself he wasn’t going anywhere, not until that food had been digested, but there were troubles. Remembering back to the night when his shoes were stolen, he began to tremble with anxiety. Those faces that belonged to the arms holding him down, the smiling mouths of remorseless thieves, it stuck out it in his head like never before. Unable to shake their malice he began to tremble, grappling with the shooting pains bursting in his belly. Something was coming, and Ronnie knew not how to deal with it. All his life it was his lot to abstain from finding an answer to a problem. Never needing a solution was his key to avoiding any hindrance. But now, his stomach insisted on showing him solutions are inevitable. It showed him what it’s like to be folded on top of itself so many times its density could pop. And pop Ronnie did, all over the floor of the upstairs dining room at the McDonald’s on Arch. He tried popping in the bag his food came in, but failed after focusing on the chunks. He could see the onion and the mustard, the pickle and the ketchup, it kept coming and coming; not barely a quarter digested. He lurched as little as possible but landed face up on the floor dry heaving out of the side of his mouth what was left to be expelled. His knotty hair smeared the reddish remains of a stolen meal into the linoleum floor as he cried out loud, begging for something he never wanted in the first place. Finally, he had adapted the thief’s mindset and aided in the proof of that single societal truth; nobody’s different at zero.

© Mike Land 2005

Adam Fieled (editor, Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania): "Chimes #49"

The weekend nights we went ice skating at the Old York Road Ice Skating Rink, semi-adjacent to Elkins Park Square, also on Old York Road, weren’t much for Ted and I: just something to do. Neither of us could ice skate that much. But there was a DJ playing good music over the PA, and taking requests, and a lot of Cheltenham kids hung out at the rink on weekends, so it was a chance to see and be seen. One uneventful ice skating night, I tumbled onto my ass as usual, and rose to see a girl, sitting in a clump of kids, on the bleachers, staring fixedly at me. My next pass, I got in a good look at her, and saw the spell was holding: she was still staring. She was a dirty blonde, thick-set build, with very full lips, a wide mouth, and wearing a dark green winter hat. I made up my mind: my next pass, I was going to stare as fixedly at her as she was at me. Ted was floating in the environs somewhere, and didn’t know what was going on. So, here I came, looking at the girl in the green winter hat I’d never seen before, who seemed to want a piece of my action. I was close enough to make my presence known to her; we locked eyes; and what I saw in the delicate blue eyes was a sense of being startled, shocked into awareness somehow. Only, there was something so raw, so frank in them that I had to look away. My next, and final pass for the time being, the same thing happened. My eyes were startled, in an animal way, by how startled, how riveted her own eyes were, and I found myself unable to prolong contact. As Ted and I hung in the changing room, which had picnic tables and benches in it and doubled as a hang out space, I relayed to Ted, not without pride, what had happened. Ted was a reasonable, rather than a jealous type, but shy. So, the mysterious dirty blonde sat with her friends still, unmolested by us. Edward, our close acquaintance, a year older than us but kind, and conversant with almost everyone at the rink, was someone I could consult, so I did. I pointed her out, and he said, “Oh, that’s Nicole. Do you know her?” “No, I was just curious. Thanks, Eddie.” He chuckled, and left us alone, close acquaintanceship not guaranteeing me any more than that. I had wild hopes that Nicole would burst dramatically into the hang-out room with her friends, and perhaps propose marriage to me. When the gaggle of kids including Nicole, who had all been bleacher-hounding, left, they walked past us, down the steps and out. Nicole did not venture a final glance. For several months after that, I hoped Ted and I would see Nicole at the rink, but we did not. It was a lesson in the live-wire nature of desire, as it lives between people— how flames both begin to burn and are extinguished, out of nowhere, at the behest of forces no one really understands. Ted, that night, did his rounds, building a solid structure which would enable him to become a popular kid at CHS. I lit somebody on fire, but in such a way that all that could come from it was subsumed beneath implacable surfaces. Somewhere, I felt instinctively, was the key to the mystery I was looking for. Even if finding that key meant riding confusing, misleading, and/or agonizing waves.

© Adam Fieled 2023

Andrew Lundwall (Rockford, Illinois, USA): Three Prose Poems

hey. i'm going all metal dark fingers. since the colour of want speaking. everything hurts. be treated like have affairs laughing hysterically. signs of it's time like chronic between heels. these mysteries. things aren't perfect are inflatable. it doesn't matter i missed you mouth confesses. images creak with strange eyes with strange energy. chronic proportions who love use me. have someplace going midnight like crusades. messed in take a breather. a strange girlfriend is eager. & you have a song is addictive. equals yes. to be crystal with three-fourths it's told. everything worry when the way it means avoid the vertigos. chances are still need the spiritual heartaches. palace of mouth to hers. to hers makes phantoms. finds skin she's in. harbored & how. technicolor fingers. a strange position yes with gin. stained. laughing. she's all like slow down time together. you opened herself. images all insane with want. with a power. give thanks. parted sweet. lips are hurts. are her lips everything wants sin.

tongue-sprawling shadows. funky as sin. is addictive. makes like scattered yes. toxins. disorganized sweet words. planet things non-stop. get eyes. know. we crazy bitter submitted. magic triad. tourism of fantasized edges. raptures. mysteries accumulate. fetishistic refreshments. more vertigo. voice transformation through inflatable static. want me. despair have someplace. moves so noise towards breath. being shards sighs. to occur exposed the spiritual proportion. trances prosthetic. desensitized whatever. loved three-fourths abstraction. are understand instincts. sky creaks with it loaded apprehensive. paralytic leap-frog. chronic between heels. being strange ministry. being unfathomable. beautiful energy bulges. the metal dark is wolves. descending like repercussions.

tone of vertiginous surprise. gave X away. phantom eyes cloudy with gin. stained. fingers. be better guilty palace of presence. static between medusas. U remember anything is blind with moonbeams. where should equals yes. heartaches toy together. direction of finds skin. nakedness of tragic minds played out. X hurled enchantments etc. transmitters of. because. another shadow. like so many X'd wondered. fingers. intimate doses. thoughtoil. people in arms is. instant communion. it's not like that. sitting beside X's opinion. can't sleep knows. not there. fantasized. who love U situation. halfway between what's doing & whims. serves sly look. it's speaking. everything hurts. satellites hover. holy circumstances. klepto circus. latex U's eating. blond teeth made strangers. wobbly severe backdrop. costumes of. of guess what. pyramid green. X pours out look here. vertigo is. open windows of midnight like crusades. in sleepwalker circles. navels of doubt splashing into someplace. call it country. betrothals of U are decadent messed in.

© Andrew Lundwall 2009-2023

Susan Wallack (Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, USA): "Dune Rose"

It's the name of a lipstick I wear
most days, proving
poetry's indomitable, ingrained, like the Namer

herself, wrestling thousands of new
untitled tubes- scarlets,
magentas, blue-reds, browns- but none

a gash, none a wound, no blood,
nothing wilted.
Stumbling cylinder to cylinder,

knowing full well what these balms
mean to a woman
dogging beauty.

Then at night, alone, aged skin
phosphorescent & furrowed
as a moon, she tends garden.

Pruning, shaping, watering
roots she planted in sand,
watering the sand.

originally published in New Zoo Poetry Review Volume 5

Vlad Pogorelov (Rocklin, California, USA): "No. 28"

No. 28

The dirty whore
Taking a bath
Sounds of water
Smells like
Something is burning
I guess its crack
“What the heck”
Its only crack
The time is passing
Drinking tea
Smoking third cigarette
Slowly transforming
Into somebody new
Completely unrecognized
During the passage of time
While the dirty whore
Taking a bath
Smoking crack
Singing songs from
Time to time
Shaving legs

The sounds of water
As an addition
To the picture
To this little kitchen
Where this situation
Of self-mutilation
Is taking place
Cutting oneself open
With a calligraphy pen
Letting the contents free
And suturing up with spaghetti
While the dirty whore
Taking a bath
Smoking crack
Singing songs from
Time to time
Shaving legs

Lifting the new man up
From the chair
Getting a hairdryer ready
So she can dry her hair
Making more tea
Having another cigarette
Laying down on the bed
While the dirty whore
Taking a bath
Smoking crack
Singing songs from
Time to time
Shaving legs

Picking up the book
All about New York
From a long time ago
Looking at a picture of a child
Trying to imagine him to be a grown-up
While the dirty whore
Taking a bath
Smoking crack
Singing songs from
Time to time
Shaving legs

Making the new man stand up
Walking towards the bathrooom
Slowly opening the door
Silently looking
At the dirty whore
While she is taking a bath
Smoking crack
Singing songs from
Time to time
Shaving legs
And smiling

Poems from the 1997 Repossessed Head chapbook Derelict were written while Vlad Pogorelov was living in Philadelphia, and the poetry editor of Siren’s Silence.

Waxing Hot, a poetics dialogue: Andrew Duncan (Nottingham, UK), Adam Fieled (Philadelphia, USA)

By e-mail exchange, Autumn 2005

Adam Fieled: Formally, the paratactic quality of your lines could align you with the Language poetry movement. Nevertheless, the narrative element in your poems is strong enough that one feels moved from "A" straight through to "Z" by them. Are you conscious of a dichotomy here between narrative movement and paratactic "zig-zags," or is this an unconscious process?
Andrew Duncan: I did quite a lot of work on parataxis at one stage of my life. The basic information I found was that it has strong associations with working-class speech, and that dialect writing has very infrequent parataxis. This was asserted of Vulgar Latin, 2000 years ago, so it is quite a deep distinction. I find this difficult to square with its presence in LANGUAGE poetry, written by people presumably of high educational levels. I would say that its presence in my writing correlates with listening to rock music and folk song a great deal. There is probably a link between parataxis and lines which are complete in themselves, without enjambement— like all song and all early poetry. I don’t think the decision about movement through a poem is conscious, although it is part of the process of composing every line. MAK Halliday coined the term “cohesion” to cover the area which includes decisions about parataxis, syntaxis, and hypotaxis, which probably has a lot to do with the question “is this a null and stupid line break or a good one.” This is a large topic!
Basil Bernstein used parataxis as a key component in his theory of language and class. Bernstein was trying to answer the question “why do children from income groups D and E do incredibly badly in anonymous written State exams” in terms of a gap between their language and the language of the classroom and exams. Other linguists misheard the message as “lower-class speech is poor in information,” got upset, and threw away the key question about academic success and social mobility. Science failed here because emotions became too violent. If you get a room of British people talking about these issues, they will very rapidly split into two groups who don’t want to listen to each other!
Where science fails, older and darker subsystems come into play. There was a stage (say 1968-75?) when sociology, and socio-linguistics, seemed able to provide the solutions to the problems tormenting society. A lot of people got involved with them as a means of carrying out political commitments. The instrument seems to have broken under the pressure. The crisis of British Marxism may have inspired the most revolutionary stage of modern British poetry— and brought it to an end.This isn’t directly part of my problem in tuning cohesion in my poems. But if we take the thesis “we will promote social mobility by dumbing-down poetry and withholding information from the lower classes,” I don’t buy it! Not at all!
Writing a line is like designing something on Auto-CAD— I just keep on producing variations and looking at them from every direction until I find something that works. I am not conscious of why a variant does not “work,” or of where the variations come from. So, where do intuitive decisions come from? They may embody conscious activity— with its products which “sink” down and are drawn on, years later, when making intuitive decisions. This may have been unsuccessful conscious activity— an intellectual crisis faced with parts of a conceptual field which was never resolved. So theory played a role— including the theory I learnt from other people.
The superiority of the hypotactic style supposedly has to do with making the implicit explicit, whereas folk songs make everything clear without ever saying it. Although I do have a book called Text and Context, I feel that science has not reached this area (and the book is too difficult to actually read!) This area is of course where poetry has problems crossing the Atlantic
The most attractive thing in verse movement is the sense of boundless freedom. I am aware that I deviate from this— my verse often circles round, is frozen like a snake in a glass box which keeps pushing its head against the glass and can’t move on. The I-subject is not simply enjoying glorious freedom— he is thwarted, blocked, and moving into a social structure which is arrayed against him. The ‘glass box’ ends motion but forces on us a qualitative shift— into thinking, into imagining the social order. If the snake could see itself in the glass, it would become a mammal.
You are probably aware that one of the key splits in the English poetry scene is between the London school (with great reliance on parataxis) and the Cambridge school (with insistence on complex syntax and argument structures.) I don’t have any stylistic affinity with either school.
I don’t know anything about LANGUAGE poetry, I admit. A crude view is that this is a label which is supposed to reduce several thousands of disparate cultural complexes to a single category— which we can then, supposedly, understand. But in fact they are several thousand different things, and that informational complexity is what sustains a cultural life (which might just burn out after a couple of years).
AF: The sexuality in your poems is raw and vital but seems un/de-politicized. One never gets the sense that you are flaunting it or grandstanding with it to get attention. How do you factor sexuality into your poems? Do sexual politics hold any interest for you?
AD: I don’t think they’re in the poems. I can’t write about personal experience in terms of conscious knowledge and the beautiful civic ideals proposed to us. This is like making love while you are being projected onto a screen 100 feet high— the same gestures acquire a second meaning which is visibly wrong.
Talking about l’amour is a good way of annoying people. My poems have a strong flavor; but the expectation that people will be attracted to your poems about love is no more likely than the expectation that they will be attracted to your person. I wouldn’t want to argue with anyone who disliked my love poems.
Let me quote from one of my favourite records, a song by doo-wop group The Dubs called “Where do we go from here? It took a lot of mistakes to ever get this far. But I want to know, I really want to know, where do we go from here?”
I used to have this experience with someone incredibly well-informed who would lecture me, late at night, about a hormone oxytocin, linked to trustfulness, suckling, orgasm, and internal pressure control and the release of fluids. I think she may have been making a point about how untrustworthy I was; but how much I might have learnt if I’d been able to stay awake. I always got confused and called it “oxytoxin.” Oxytocin is the messenger which makes fish release roe, or spawn, vascular pressure displacing the ocean. So we’re talking about a blissful regression in which we immerse and become weightless, the inner and outer waters flow together, and the ocean itself becomes a sexual medium, in which spates of precious fluids form spirals and constellations, sight is replaced by ripples flowing along the skin, personal identity and the time sense disappear. I can never remember this clearly. Sandor Ferenczi wrote a book Thalassa which says that we turn into fish during coupling. I thought it was nonsense. Fish? In Chinese poetry, love is symbolized by ducks. If I was devising a goddess of love, I might well make her a Mouse. Mice are addicted to Lurve, as we know. He was a very persuasive man.
My grandmother was told she would have to give up her job as a teacher if she got married. The State obliged her to become a housewife. This was a gross abridgement of her civil rights. I could cite a hundred such stories, and it would be idiotic not to be a feminist. I accept that property, in our society, is used as the site for a fantasy of domination, and that property is used as a metaphor for the status and obligations of women. It would be inconsistent then to write books in which women don’t suffer and where they are perfectly autonomous. Idealization of the situation also idealizes the male protagonist, something highlighted by feminists. I was most impressed by writers who questioned the monologue of male poets about women. The poem is my property, but I don’t own someone else’s experience. The gap between sex and love, between illusion and experience, between fusion of identity and domination, between me and you, is not an invention. If you stop idealizing the male figure, you can go on writing love poems. I realized that I could stay on air by writing about someone who wasn’t unusually sensitive, who wasn’t sophisticated, who missed his part in the music and made terrible mistakes. I could get away from writing reflexively by never rising above the immediate situation. I’ve always felt that if you present people with comfort and harmony, they don’t engage, whereas if you present them with characters in a terrible fix, they will think it through carefully to try and find out where do we go from here. So you show Love going wrong, basically. The poem takes place at a point on the curve well before knowledge arrives, where ignorance and conflict and uncertainty are at their height. It’s trapped at that point, where all the loose energy is. Then I cut to the next scene of conflict and improvisation.
The insights in my poems are drawn from people who were much more perceptive than I, who knew much more than I did, who saw the patterns and were generally my superior. These were the women I fell in love with. They explained things to me, often slowly and several times. This does raise the question of who owns the poem.
AF: The big debate among poets now seems to be about internet vs. print publishing. How do you feel about it? Do you prefer one to the other?
AD: From some point, before I was nine years old, I used to go to Loughborough market on Saturday mornings and buy American comics, Spiderman and things like that. And on Saturday mornings, still, I go to a library, a record shop, or a second hand bookshop. It’s one of those physical things like, do you write from 8 till 12 mid-day or from midnight till 4. It’s a habit which has scored itself deeper over 40 years, which gives me withdrawal problems if I don’t do it. And I do prefer shopping for books to scanning the Internet.
The issues raised by the Internet are fascinating. Evidently people outside the zones of dense cultural activity, the capitals, got into it much more quickly. It was much more useful to Susan Schultz, in Honolulu, than to someone living in London. It was a leveler. There is an issue here about proximity—
What does literature deliver? How does it transmit a personality? Or is that Stone Age egoism?
What is the anatomy of group feeling? how does it decay as radius increases? What is the “inside”?
Identification (is this the same as “group feeling”?) is a Stone Age thing, fundamental to everything else yet resistant to theorizing— where attempts are of great interest, but really tentative and conjectural. It’s much deeper than literature, and literature could presumably be replaced by a new way of carrying out the archaic functions. Is there a connection between open and closed groups, and open and closed (impenetrable) texts? Should we talk about the design of the social network, rather than the design of the text?
I have just been looking at a vast anthology (Neofitsial’naya poeziya), all on the Internet, of 288 Russian samizdat poets. It was so hard getting samizdat books and magazines in the 1980s, now you can get thousands of pages of old samizdat poetry for the cost of your printer consumables. And, Russians are not interested in the era pre-1989 any more. This project is not commercially possible in print. I’ve also just spent loads of kronor on Swedish poetry of the 1940s, also bought via the I-net. Fantastic! Who was Sven Alfons?
I’m wondering how much small press poetry has to do with the daily intimacy of tiny in-groups. The stifling warmth of their mutual knowledge and rivalry. And the specialist shopping for magazines that are on sale, once, for a few hours, in one room. The ‘rich warm mud of Bohemian life.’ Going to a poetry weekend in Cambridge where two groups hung out in two pubs and refused any contact with each other, & you had to choose which one to be allied with. I propose the poem to a reader as a place they are in the center of—fearing they will see it as a margin to their own moving center.
I love shopping & am trying to write a poem “The History of Shopping” which starts with the Goths making the trip to Rome, seen as the inventors of tourism. Byzantine historians described the steppe peoples as insatiably acquisitive. It’s a sort of Imelda Marcos travelogue.

Adam Fieled (editor, Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, USA): "Chimes #31"

I liked the festive aspect of celebrations, and the little adventures one could set loose at a party: running wild, smashing things, drinking forbidden alcohol. Driven by a delirious continuance, I put my hands all over girls’ bodies. I prodded, pinched, teased, respectful yet prolonging the experience any way I could. My will dovetailed with a wonted continuance and I was precocious: jacket off, tie loosened, a little wolf. I learned how to ride a high and how to direct cohesive energy into a palpable magnetic force. At a festivity on the top of a Center City skyscraper in April ’89, on an immense rectangular outdoor porch bordered by chest-high railings, I looked down to see, a great distance beneath me, an empty street, what I would later know as Sansom Street. I was talking to a momentary companion about my philosophy of life as not a game of chance but a game of daring. “Look,” I told her, “watch.” I took a wineglass I’d stolen while the adults in the indoor festivity area adjacent were not watching, and heaved it over the railing. She rolled her eyes, but, as I could not help but notice, I got away with it. Wherever the glass had crashed, and the resultant shards, were invisible to my eyes. Nothing happened. I wouldn’t be henceforth carted off to reform school. I had been daring, riding on my luck, and I succeeded. Just as, at a birthday party at the Greenwood Grille, I snuck another wineglass out of the restaurant into the tunnel connecting one side of the Jenkintown Septa station to the other, and smashed it down in some kind of compactor unit. But on the top of the skyscraper, looking out over the baroque, well-balanced Philly sky-line, a seed had been planted which I hadn’t noticed. What the city was, in contrast to the suburbs, was as invisible to me as the rogue glass-shards then. I was destined to learn that a spirit of adventure was one thing in the ‘burbs, but could be pushed out and developed much further in the city, where crowds of interesting people could always mean interesting action. As we turned back into the main festivity area to shake off the April evening chill, I had a calm sense of being in tune with the cosmos. I picked up a spare Kahlua, and drank it.

Vladlen Pogorelov (Rocklin, California, USA): "No. 34"

Experiencing her body 
Next to mine 
It felt warm and very close 
It had the smell of alcohol 
She was laughing like crazy 
And talking 
And swinging 
Looking at me 
From time to time 
I was drinking too 
And smoking 
An easy way to deal with life 
Old easy way 
And I was so happy 
Happy just because of her presence 
Beside me 
With her soft hair 
Flying around my neck 
I didn’t wanna bother to 
Ask her name 
Instead, I asked for a cigarette 
And she gave me her last one 
I bet she would have given me 
All of her 
If I’d asked her 
But I was happy with things 
As they were 
So I just kept drinking, 
Smoking and writing on 
The napkin of very poor quality 
Finally, she asked me, 
“What are you writing?” 
“I’m writing shit… 
I’m writing nothing… 
I’m writing a letter to my wife… 
Any more questions?” 
She didn’t hear me 
It was too noisy in the bar. 

All published poems on P.F.S. Post by Vlad Pogorelov taken from the 1997 print chapbook Derelict, published in Philadelphia by Repossessed Head Press.

Susan Wallack (Philadelphia, USA): "Tahiti"

Death's young, lush, smooth skinned, canny,
posed au naturel, cocoa belly
down on an improvised divan, eyes

rolled back to study Gauguin (who
flatters himself she's scared of him). Slapping
liverish paint to a faux

background, fantasy blooms
where the native truth would be: an endless
queue of stunted men,

shuffling forward, shifting dumbly
outside thatched huts infested with fleas.
Inside Death squirms, ever horny, flexing

moist pink lips as if he were a child,
slow to see where to fix his bristling
prick, bury Art, take his pleasure now.

originally published in the G.W. Review, spring 1999

Post-Avant: A Meta-Narrative

Some time during the summer of 2009, I initiated a discourse on my blog, Stoning the Devil. The object of this discourse was to give the term “post-avant” concrete significations. “Post-avant” is a term with a mysterious history and an unknown etymology. Up until the discourse, no one had demonstrated the initiative to fix the term in place. That it signified, in some sense, contemporary experimental poetry, was well known; what, specifically, made post-avant poetry post-avant (rather than, say, Language poetry or Flarf) was not known. Prior to the composition of this discourse (which was very much interactive, in a “blog,” virtual context) I had devised a definition of post-avant; I called it “the diasporic movement of Language poetry towards a new synthesis with narrative and erotic elements.” I still find this to be, on some levels, a viable definition, but a little top-heavy and academic to use in a blog context (where the patience of deliberate reading habits is only slowly becoming common, both for readers and writers.) The wedge I used into this discourse was something more like a sound-bite in the American press; I defined post-avant as “anything with an edge.” I feel ambivalent about this move now— if “diasporic movement” was top-heavy and academic, “edge” was vague and too catch-all. But I forged ahead with “edge,” and the discourse took off. Largely through links placed on a number of blogs, the discourse gained hundreds of readers, but generated mostly critical comments. What I would like to do in this essay is explore some pieces of the discourse that still seem interesting, in a context (print anthology) that encourages patient reading and serious, formalized commentary. In the end, I believe that the post-avant discourse is more intriguing for bits and pieces it generated than for what it told its audience about this amorphous entity, “post-avant,” which has still yet to generate currency or a strong foot-hold among a wide number of poets. 
One primary issue that got addressed in passing, and that I find interesting, is the issue of movement-titles: specifically, whether they are ciphers or not. Here is how I chose to address the issue in the blog discourse: 

Many people continue to complain that “post-avant,” as a phrase, is meaningless, a cipher. I would not necessarily disagree that “post-avant,” in and of itself, is a cipher, but I do not find this to be a problem…what does “post-modern,” in and of itself, mean? Whatever comes after Modernism, whatever that happens to be? What about “Romanticism” or “Symbolism”? 

In the heat of the moment, I neglected to mention poetry movements to which relevant appellations have been affixed, like Objectivism and Surrealism. Many people who commented had specific complaints about the term “post-avant”; that it is logically absurd, because it is impossible to be “post” whatever “avant” is. A more thoughtful take than the one I presented on my blog (or the responses my detractors offered) might walk a middle ground between these two responses; that literary appellations used to designate movements have a so-so success ratio, when measured in terms of their resonant power. It would be nice if self-conscious literary creators could aim for the upwards target, name their movements with a certain amount of caution and deliberation; but the lesson here may be that naming movements is generally a haphazard venture. Not everything that sticks, name-wise, sticks for a reason; the arbitrary nature of the signifier is applicant even in situations when (poets think) it should not be. Other issues that came up in the context of the discourse have even more rich complications, which will move us farther from post-avant and closer, I hope, to issues with more permanent relevance. 
Here is a basic issue that came up repeatedly: to be an artist (rather than merely a poet) using poetry as a means of expression, how wide does one’s frame of reference need to be; to put it in another (perhaps more positive) light, what is the maximum range potential for poets (by range, I mean diversified knowledge of the arts, as arts)? I brought this up online, and I bring it up again here, because I believe that poets over the last forty years have lost something. I specifically designate fifty years because fifty years roughly corresponds to the advent of post-modernism which, despite the cipher status of its common name, has revolutionized the world of the visual arts (including film) while poetry has (arguably, at least in its mainstream manifestations) remained virtually untouched. What have been the manifestations of post-modernism in the visual arts? In large measure, straightforward painting has been marginalized, in favor of videos, installations, and conceptual pieces. In this case, it is not so much the forms but the import of the forms that matters— in these works, visual artists have made strides towards new definitions of space, bodies, sexuality, language, history, and the contentious relationship of art and politics. The only major poetry movement of the past fifty years that can make similar claims is Language poetry— however, I have seen little acknowledgement among Language poets of what these visual artists have achieved. This is important because the visual artists (from Warhol to Nauman) were mining this terrain for 15-20 years before the Language poets emerged in cohesive form in the 1980s. Moreover, visual artists like Warhol, Nauman, and more contemporary artists like Mike Kelley, Jeff Koons, and Paul McCarthy have conquered the museums, galleries, and art-markets, while Language poetry remains barely acknowledged by mainstream poetry publishers, journals, and academies. In other words, the Language poets have been considerably less successful than the visual artists in disseminating their version of post-modernism, and were beat to the punch into the bargain. All this combines to give experimental poetry the look of a lag-behind. There are good reasons to support the notion that art-forms should not compete with each other. Nevertheless, the demarcations have become so pronounced that visual artists rarely even mention contemporary poetry. I (unabashedly) believe that this is a problem. It certainly cannot be rectified by one article, but it is an issue that deserves as much attention as any nascent poetry movement. 
I am proud that the discourse touched on levels more fundamental than “frames of reference” and “maximum range potentials.” I made the argument that two essential constituent elements of artistic process have a preponderant quality, which much experimental poetry has denied them: subjectivity and representation. Often, an emphasis has been placed on non-representational poetry, and the stance that manifestly subjective poetry imposes a kind of closure on poems-as-constructs. There is undoubtedly some truth to these positions, especially as regards mainstream verse, which tends to lean heavily on the subjectivity of poets as a perceived wellspring of universal wisdom. Representation becomes the tool by which this wisdom is revealed to the world. Dealing with poems that I called “post-avant” or “edgy” allowed me to open up the possibility that perhaps experimental poets have thrown out too much. Poets in this milieu tend to defend their aesthetic decisions by falling back on the tenets of Deconstructionism— that words, though arbitrary, are tactile and sensuous, capable of carrying the weight of poems, series of poems, and books, in and of themselves. I find this problematic, on several levels— firstly, because I do not enjoy engaging texts that preserve what I perceive to be myths about language (that the tactility of words is sufficient to justify a thematically, narratively, and affectively impoverished text); secondly, because contemporary experimental poets have failed to win a significant number of converts, either among the general public or among wide numbers of poets; thirdly, because new generations are rising up, that are looking for fresh perspectives and novel directions; as such, I would hope that rehashing the textual ethos of an earlier movement would not seem particularly interesting. Roland Barthes discusses the necessity of bits of narrative, bits of representation; as he says, “the text needs its shadow” (32)— the novels of Robbe-Grillet demonstrate how this can be done. There are few post-modern poetry texts that raise possibilities of intermittent subjectivity and representation to the apotheosis that a text like Jealousy does, and all too often these texts are simply evacuated of any traces of humanity. They tend to be hermetic, and exceedingly prudish. There is a definite perversity to denying the preponderance of subjectivity and representation, and not necessarily an endearing perversity. The truth is straightforward: words not charged with at least traces of subjectivity and representational import, words which are merely tactile, generally hold little pleasure for most audiences. 
Once it is acknowledged that subjectivity and representation are, in some senses, preponderant, questions arise as to what should be represented and who should be representing it. Much of the poetry I was writing about is both overtly narrative and explicitly sexual— thus, I argued for post-avant as a movement with “sex at the center.” Central inclusion of sexuality in an art-movement seems so obvious in so many ways (sex having been at the center of most art-forms for the length of recorded history) that it may seem strange that I felt the need to argue for sex’s centrality. However, I feel that the new generation of experimental poets has been, in many senses, sanitized into frigidity by their teachers. So, like arguing that blinks should follow a poke in the eye, I argued for sex at the center of post-avant. The texts I used to posit this argument were ones like Brooklyn Copeland’s chapbook Borrowed House, which uses sex as one component part of a mosaic woven of desire, dark imagery, need for intimacy and impulses to confess (which never quite shade into the melodramatic bathos of Confessionalism.) The rag and bone shop of the heart that Yeats wrote of has all the durability and permanence (not to mention tactility) of words, with the added bonus that affect, sexuality, and their representations are not arbitrary. They are born out of lived experience, which is (willy-nilly) as preponderant as subjectivity and representation. “Write what you know” is a pretty hoary cliché— nevertheless, like most clichés, there is a grain of truth to it. Writing what you know does not necessitate the impartation of universal wisdom, or even an attempt to do so— we can know disjuncture, ellipse, torqued forms of narrativity— but it does presuppose the preponderance of subjectivity, that I continue to argue for. Hard as it is to believe, all these home-truths (some of which border, admittedly, on platitudes) have not been spoken in an experimental poetry context in decades. In earlier contexts, they would have all the surprise of a tautology or axiom; in 2010, I hope they may be relevant, even revelatory. All these are the what; as to the who, it is my conviction that any poet (male or female) should be able to write as much about sex as they wish. The only ideology that is useful for an artist is one of complete freedom. Special interest groups want political correctness; artists (and I do not mean to romanticize the status of artists) know that there is no “correctness” in politics or anywhere else. Correctness is relative, and “correct” for an artist is whatever forms conform to the myriad shapes of subjectivities that can be manifested in text. 
The problem, as I see it, is that most poets currently writing in the English language approach poetry in a way consonant with what I call minor artist strategies. They let their texts be dictated by little rule books and primers they carry around; everything must be defined, everything must be spelled out. Approaches to representation and its sword-carrier, narrative, are decided beforehand; and those that do away with narrative do away with thematics into the bargain. Who wants to read poetry with no themes? Those who willfully obfuscate away from narrative build little but obsolescence into their poems. Likewise, those who take a hackneyed approach to narrative guarantee that their poems can be of no continuing interest, as invention is effaced from their discipline. That rare middle ground, where narrative approaches are concerned, in which invention is met by discipline, and old themes are endlessly refreshed, is only accessible to those who approach poetry like the major high art form it is. “Post-avant,” as I have defined it, is an ideal; it occupies the space wherein that rare middle ground approach to representation can be occupied and reoccupied. These issues may be pertinent to anyone who feels that the second half of century XX saw too much taken away too fast from English language poetry; and who want to see vistas open up that can lead our poetry back to the safety of danger, the middle ground of extremes, and the timeliness of permanence.

This piece originally appeared in the Penned in the Margins print anthology Stress Fractures in 2010. 

Contextualists and Dissidents: Talking Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons

The world of literary critical discourse is governed by one central imperative: to expound. Every point must be developed, every quote “parsed”, every nuance and inflection (whether of tone, dialect, or syntax) “unpacked” to find a maximum density of critical material. This is an industry that thrives on complexity, with the assumed premise that (usually) great works of literary art (though “greatness” or “privilege” are now much debated, and do not hold the currency they once did) are “complex organisms”, in need of a specialist’s expert appraisal. Whether it is a Deconstructionist or a Formalist reading, we can generally expect complex reactions and complex schematizations, and essential simplicity and simplistic reactions to be avoided like the plague. 
How strange, then, to hear Paul Padgette make the following remark about Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons in the New York Review of Books: “You either get it or you don’t.” The breathtakingly blunt simplicity of this statement cuts right to the central critical crux that runs through the bulk of what has been written about TB; can it be criticized (as in, expounded upon) or can it not? Those that do engage in criticism of TB almost always do so within some contextual framework: Stein-as-Cubist, Stein-as- feminist, Stein-as-language manipulator. Others, like Padgette, are reduced by the extreme opacity of Stein’s text to a bare assertion that the text is too hermetic to be “parsed” in the normal way. It is interesting to note that the “dissidents” (as opposed to the “contextualists”) are often great fans of TB (as Padgette is), but evidently believe that the work either holds some “ineffable essence” or else must be read, first-hand, to be appreciated. That Stein’s fans (literary critics, no less), would lobby against critical discourse is a tribute both to the power and the singularity of her work. 
The contextualists have a problem, too. Because TB is determinedly non- referential, any attempt at contextualization must also be rooted in an acknowledgment that the work is beyond a single contextual interpretation. As Christopher Knight noted in a 1991 article, “One can locate it in the long history of nonsense literature…in the French Cubist movement…in the Anglo-American tradition of literary modernism…and in that relatively new artistic order— the post-modern.” What is so baffling to literary critics is that, more often than not, one cannot “turn to the text” in order to verify these kinds of assertions. TB’s sense (or non-sense) is determined largely by who happens to be reading it; it is extreme enough to stymie but not as extreme as, say, Finnegan’s Wake, which by general consensus need only be touched by Joyce specialists. Simply put, there is enough sense in TB to make an attempt at locating it, but not enough so that any stated “location” could be feasible to large numbers of critics or readers. Thus, to this day, the pattern holds; dissidents argue against interpretation (and for first-hand experience), contextualists argue (with foreknowledge of “defeat”, in the sense that no contextual argument about TB in almost a century has seemed to “stick”) for a specialized interpretation. As Christopher Knight concludes, TB “embodies all…traditions even as it can be said never to be completely defined by any of them”. 
The most influential writing about TB seeks to straddle the line between dissension and contextualization. Richard Bridgman’s Gertrude Stein In Pieces, more frequently cited than most Stein critical tomes, adopts something of a centrist stance. Bridgman makes clear that the ineffable quality of TB is not lost to him; the book is “all but impossible to transform adequately into normal exposition”(127) and “unusually resistant to interpretation”(125). Bridgman’s use of the word “transform” in this context is very relevant. Just as Stein’s language experiments transform conventional vernacular usage, so “normal exposition” would have to transform Stein’s language back into something resembling a normal vernacular. Bridgman’s work also points out the central critical dilemma surrounding TB; it is “all but impossible” to expound upon, but the “ineffable essence” that makes it so compelling also becomes a goad to try and expound nonetheless. “Adequately” also points to the manner in which TB turns literary critics back on themselves; critics are forced to confront the limitations of their own methodologies, criticize themselves and their own competence. Stein makes critics feel “inadequate”, and it seems likely that, were she here to see the bulk of TB criticism, this would have pleased her. 
Of those brave enough to “jump into the ring” with Stein, none does so with more panache than Marjorie Perloff. Perloff’s attack on the “locked semantic gates” of TB is multi-tiered and determinedly contextual. In “Of Objects and Ready-mades: Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp”, Perloff posits a space for Stein’s experiment alongside Dada-ists Duchamp and Jean Arp, while also granting its unique nature and inscrutable texture. Though this texture seems interpretation-proof, when Stein, for instance, talks about a carafe (“A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange…”(3)), Perloff claims that “Stein’s verbal dissection(s) give us the very essence of what we might call carafe-ness.” For Perloff, Stein is not talking “around” objects, but using language to “dissect” them, in much the same way that Picasso and Braque dissected objects, using Cubist techniques to put them back together. Or, in the same manner Arp and Duchamp “dissected” the nature of works of art by presenting “ready-mades”. 
It would seem that Perloff’s use of the word “dissection” would make a Cubist analogy more apropos than a Dada one. TB, however, is so much like a Rorschach blot that almost anything can be made to “fit”, and the more perceptive contextualists, like Bridgman, realize this and foreground their assertions with a central disavowal. Perloff goes on to say, “to use words responsibly, Stein implies, is to become aware that no two words, no two morphemes or phonemes for that matter, are ever exactly the same.” It could be stated, without too much hyperbole, that a discussion of literary “responsibility”, as regards TB, is an extreme stretch. This leads to the major problem contextualists have in dealing with TB; no two of them seem able to agree about even the most general framework. Thus, reading contextual criticism about TB is like looking at snowflakes; no two contextual critics say the same thing, which makes “grouping” a problem and talking of a “majority” an impossibility. 
Perloff saves her most provocative card for last; she says, “long before Derrida defined difference as both difference and deferral of meaning, Stein had expressed this profound recognition.” This is a plausible interpretation, and it would seem likely that others might come to similar conclusions. However, this is not the case. Virgil Thomson takes the more centrist tack that “if (Stein’s) simplifications occasionally approached incomprehensibility, this aim was less urgent…than opening up reality…for getting an inside view.” Between Thomson and Perloff, we get opposite ends of the contextualist stance, as presented in criticism. From Perloff, we get definite, authoritatively presented analogies (Duchamp, Arp, Derrida) that seek to situate Stein and her work in a specific literary and aesthetic context. In fact, Perloff’s approach is both more definite and more authoritative than the vast majority of approaches that have been made to TB. From Thomson, we get a very anti-authoritative sentiment, which leans towards an abject- seeming generality; Thomson talks of getting an “inside view” of reality, but he cannot commit to a single or singular definition of what this reality is. He does not join in with the dissidents who argue against critical interpretation and/or the ineffable quality of this text, and in fact somewhat boldly claims to surmise Stein’s “aim”; yet, though the “why” is accounted for in his interpretation, the “what” is lightly brushed aside in a platitude. Considering that Thomson is writing, like Paul Padgette, in the prestigious New York Review of Books, it is remarkable that a platitudinous statement in this context seems par for the course. Few knew what to do with Stein and her work during her lifetime; it appears that little has changed. 
Platitudes and arguments against critical discourse are both anomalies and rebellions against critical orthodoxy. Marianne DeKoven takes this one step further. As a fan of TB, she asserts that “We needn’t plough through it all. We need pay attention only as long as the thrill lasts, the tantalizing pleasure of the flood of meaning of which we cannot quite make sense.” This statement breaks important critical rules, and seems to relegate TB to the status of a sort of meta-literary “freak show”, even though DeKoven (like most who write about TB) is clearly a Stein supporter. By suggesting that TB need not be read in full, DeKoven shows that it is a work which flouts normal, thorough critical reading patterns, forcing critics into compromising positions that aren’t “natural” for them. By speaking for an assumed “we”, DeKoven awkwardly posits her own words as panacea for a “problem-text”, for which she has a solution. However, the “snowflake” scenario previously mentioned applies here too. All attempts at an authoritative judgment of TB thus far have failed, just as the “flood” has yet to be fully levied or dammed. There is a condescension to DeKoven’s stance, a tone of smug complacency-within-dissension. Rather than even try to grapple with Stein’s conundrums (in the form of a contextualist reading or only a centrist one), she creates a half-baked “we” that can safely and without fear disavow literary responsibility (like a full reading, or an honest interpretive attempt) toward TB. Thus, by deferring responsibility, DeKoven’s problem is solved. 
The flip side to this kind of responsibility-deferral is the centrist approach of honest, long-suffering bewilderment. In this scenario (which has also not achieved hegemony in TB criticism), a critic takes a long, hard stare at the entire text, then throws up his or her hands, owning up, honestly and without condescension towards Stein, to “total defeat”. This is how Mena Mitron chooses to approach analysis of TB. She writes, “Perhaps more than any other text of the same period, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons remains impermeable to any interpretive operation aimed at thematic synthesis”. This is a more balanced approach than that used by DeKoven, but we do get an “authoritative” statement (“Perhaps more…”), which asserts a comprehensive knowledge of the Modernist era. Mitron sticks to critical terminology to make the point that the text is “impermeable”, but also leaves room for other methodologies; she does not say that “contextual” approaches cannot work, or that the text is somehow “closed” by its impermeability. It is all a matter, as with Virgil Thomson’s approach, of “aim”; if a critic is “aiming” for a conventional victory in closing a conventional hermeneutic circle, the attempt will probably fail; but Mitron is careful enough with her wording to suggest that approaches “aimed” at something other than thematic synthesis, such as contextual approaches that focus on language alone, might work. Mitron further emphasizes the unique place TB holds in Stein’s oeuvre, its “intransigence” and “uncompromising linguistic surface”. 
Marjorie Perloff sought to situate TB contextually via a discussion of Dada and Derrida. Her bold, assertive, authoritative style is doubled by Lisa Ruddick, who nonetheless makes a somewhat different claim: “I find what amounts to a set of powerful feminist reflections in this text. Tender Buttons represents Stein’s fully developed vision of the making and unmaking of patriarchy.”(191) As we have seen, TB is a text that seems to force extreme reactions; critics throw up their hands, generalize, become pedantic or didactic, lose the kind of disinterested balance that criticism often aims for. Here, we have a case being made for an interpretation so definite that it obviously and demonstrably belies the quality of the text it is glossing. A “fully developed vision” of patriarchy overthrown seems an unlikely designation for a text whose subtitle is “Objects, Food, Rooms.” Moreover, Ruddick’s assertion stands more or less alone; she is somewhat seconded by Franziska Gygax, who more moderately claims to hear in TB “a definite female voice speak(ing) about things female.”(21) Again, we see how a text that is both provocative and opaque can become a Rorschach blot, in which anyone can claim to see anything. 
It would be disingenuous, however, not to admit the close tie that has developed between Stein and feminists. Stein has become a symbol of the emancipated female artist, blazing trails and covering new ground whilst not sparing any of her power to the male superstructures that dominated society in her era, and persist today. Stein never volunteered for this role; it was foisted upon her. So, when Lisa Ruddick continues her argument with “once one sees male dominance as dependent on sacrifice, one is in a position to undo sacrifice and to transcend patriarchal thinking”(191), it is easy to wonder whether the essential nature of TB is being lost so that a critic may pursue a specific, specialized agenda. A close look at Ruddick’s statement confirms this; it is suggested that in TB, male dominance is both visible and visibly dependent on “sacrifice”. However, this begs the question; how could such a complex issue (the inner structure of male societal instinct and domination) be adequately and authoritatively addressed (as Ruddick is claiming) in a work completely devoid of a narrative, or even of conventional sense? Ruddick’s claim postulates a TB that works in a conventional fashion towards a conventional aim (to challenge “society”, in a broad sense, when it is understood that society is patriarchal). She is trying to transform TB into “normal exposition”, which, as Richard Bridgman said, is “all but impossible”. 
Yet perhaps Ruddick deserves points for going out on a limb, trying something different, however specious it may seem. This contextual interpretation, Stein-as- feminist, at least has the virtue of lending TB a social utility is might not otherwise have. When modified down into a less shrill key, it could even approach plausibility, as when Franziska Gygax claims to hear in TB “a female speaker address(ing) another female person in a very intimate and private tone.”(13) Even in a modified, toned-down setting, the contextual reading of Stein-as-feminist forces critics to “stretch”; the “intimate and private tone” Gygax speaks of could well be apparent, but it is by no means apparent in TB that anyone is being addressed. Pick up TB; you may find “If lilies are lily white if they exhaust noise and distance”(6) or “Asparagus in a lean in a lean to hot”(33), but nowhere will you find an “I” and a “you” looped together in such a way that one could see something epistolary happening here. Gygax, like Ruddick, is coming to this text with a very specific hermeneutic agenda; but the text makes it difficult for her to make a convincing case for her assertions. 
One thing that this text does encourage is “close reading.” There is a certain irony here, in that “close reading” as we know it was created by the New Critical generation, who had no time for Stein and her potently weird experiments. Nevertheless, when Randa Dubnick, in The Structure of Obscurity, takes this tack with TB, the results seem both more satisfying and more feasible than other contextual approaches. Dubnick writes, “Tender Buttons has a less abstract vocabulary in that it contains many more concrete nouns, sensual adjectives, and action verbs than does her earlier style.”(31) Dubnick’s “attack” is two-pronged; she is both applying “close reading” skills to TB and attempting to situate it in Stein’s imposing and inscrutable oeuvre. What distinguishes TB as a text is its “concrete”, “sensual”, and “active” language, which seems counterintuitive, in that a “concrete” text is usually more accessible than an abstract one. As usual, Stein proves anomalous, and rules that apply to most literary works do not seem to apply as readily to hers. 
Dubnick, unlike other contextual interpreters (who seek to impose a structured schema on an unstable and destabilized text), always seeks to understand what Stein, herself, was trying to achieve. She notes that “the new interest in the world itself…was what Stein considered the essence of poetry.”(36) “New interest in the world” is both general (“world” being a broad term) and specific (“new interest” in this context suggesting the process by which Stein recreated both literature and physical objects in TB), and fits with Stein’s own attitude toward art. Dubnick also nods to the contextual trope of Stein-as-Cubist, asserting that the formal style of TB is “a flat and opaque rather than a deep and transparent style.”(44) In forging an analysis of TB that draws from all the various contextual camps (Stein-as-language-transformer, Stein-as-visual artist, etc.), Dubnick seems to be on to something. It would seem that the most balanced approach to TB would have to be a “various” or “eclectic” one, rather than one that would be situated and singular. 
Dubnick seems to understand both the “Rorschach” quality of the text and the “snowflake effect” that it gave birth to. By trying to see the text from all angles, she gives us the most complete possible picture of TB criticism. In a strange way, the uneven, contradictory, haphazard quality of the criticism mirrors the text itself; one could almost say that, in interpreting TB, critics are forced to enact a mimesis of Stein’s own skewered aesthetic. It is remarkable that a text almost a hundred years old could remain so confounding to so many trained, seasoned critical minds. It is likely that the body of criticism about TB will continue to expand, and it also seems probable that few consensuses will be reached. 
                                                WORKS CITED 
Bridgman, Richard. Gertrude Stein in Pieces. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. 
DeKoven, Marianne. A Different Language: Gertrude Stein’s Experimental Writing. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983. http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003.          

Dubnick, Randa. The Structure of Obscurity: Gertrude Stein, Language, and Cubism. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984. 
Gygax, Franziska. Gender and Genre in Gertrude Stein. London: Greenwood Press, 1998. 
Knight, Christopher. “Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, and the Premises of Classicalism.” Modern Language Studies, 21-3 (1991): 35-47. http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003

Mitrone, Mena. “Linguistic Exoticism and Literary Alienation: Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.” Modern Language Studies, 28-2 (1994): 87-102. http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003 
Perloff, Marjorie. “Of Objects and Readymades: Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp.” Forum for Modern Language Studies, 23-2 (1996): 137-154. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/finnegan/English%20256/tender_buttons.htm
Padgette, Paul. “Tender Buttons.” New York Review of Books, 16-12 (1971). http://www.nybooks.com/articles/10510. 
Ruddick, Lisa. Reading Gertrude Stein. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990. 
Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons. New York: Dover Publications, 1997. 
Thomson, Virgil. “A Very Difficult Author.” New York Review of Books, 16-6 (1971). http://www.nybooks.com/articles/10510
Presented as a seminar paper at Temple University by Adam Fieled in 2006. 
Re-published first by Cordite Poetry Review in December 2011, then by Michael Blackburn’s Plunder and Salvage site, 2-18-12.