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This poem touches on both loneliness and at the same time the connection between both the living and the dead and the living and the estranged. The tone of the poem is conversational, and the speaker quickly jumps from one subject to another. It reads almost as a telephone conversation because the lines are so short. The speaker directly address her ancestors, and while some of the statements are profound — for example “the mad blue terror of dying” — others are more lighthearted, like “I secretly hope someone rings the doorbell so they cannot recognize me.” The poem then shifts after that line to an image of what I believe to be an immigrant with only a valise. It shows the interconnected nature of herself and her ancestors because the image begins with her face mask and the speaker imagining what it might have looked like to leave everything behind. This is later followed by the line “Thank you for that,” my favorite line in the poem. The speaker is thanking her ancestors for their sacrifices so she could have a better life.

This is a poem about childhood. The subjects she uses in the poem, such as Mickey Mouse, the puppy, and even Jesus as a kid, are symbols for childhood (Mickey Mouse) and even the loss of innocence (Jesus pricking his finger). This poem allows readers to analyze the lines and try to discover what Ruefle is trying to say in the deeper meaning of things. For example, when Ruefle writes “added gloves so his hands/wouldn’t terrify us,” she speaks to children, who might see Mickey’s bare hands as grotesque. It gives an indication that somewhere within Mickey Mouse, his creators have to hide the naked hands because they think they are unsuitable for children to see. When Jesus as a child plays with the nail and gets pricked by it, we encounter an allusion to his future crucifixion but also a symbol of growing up and losing innocence via blood. Ruefle presents the puppy in the next scene as another symbol for the innocence that Jesus has as a child. In reality, most of these things are presented as something that shouldn’t bother us as adults, but as children, we might be bothered. Ruefle downplays the foreshadowing of Jesus’s crucifixion by talking about his finger getting pricked and then him seeing the puppy to bring back that innocence.

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Mary Ruefle’s collection of poems has shown an underlying focus on heartbreak, confidence, words, and language. In her poem “The Art of Happiness,” she explores these central thematic ideas once more. She specifically utilizes craft of repetition and symbolism throughout the poem to emphasize on the impact of the need for happiness.

Ruefle takes repetition of “the art of happiness” as a tool to portray a cycle. Throughout the poem, she is setting the art of happiness to be comparable with that of water. This symbolism of water allows the reader to understand the art of happiness as a necessity. The poem also has a quickness when reading it because of the repetition that is being used. This repetition not only allows the reader to see a reflection of the cycle of moving water as a cycle of happiness, but also allowing for the reader to physically return to a repeated phrase, just how water travels, again returning to the beginning of the cycle.

As the poem nears its end, Ruefle takes a shift to heartbreak in the poem. The shift occurs in line 21, where she states “As you can see I am dying of happiness.” This is not simply a shift in the poem associated with mood or tone, but also a shift in perspective. From the start of the poem, Ruefle is speaking of struggling to put words to a feeling, so she writes. The poem then incorporates the parallel of a glass of water and the art of happiness to express this desire for happiness that she has.  However, when the shift occurs by line 21, the perspective moves to a more ominous position to the audience – “What’s a glass of water to you?”

There is something much more heartbreaking and intimate about this poem with the use of shift, repetition, and symbolism. Ruefle gives the reader a simple symbol of water to take the reader to a place of understanding the symbolism as both necessary and damaging. Instead of tackling the idea of the art of happiness as a concept to understand, she is giving the reader a path to follow toward understanding the necessity, but not the purpose or answer of what the art of happiness is.

Mary Ruefle’s personification of the bunny in this poem works very well for creating a different sort of projection or point of view from the majority of her poems in Trances of the Blast, while still managing to implement some of the reoccurring themes of her poetry. More often than not, we see Ruefle focusing on the internal, or projecting thoughts or ideas on to other people, whether they are still living or not. This is of particular interest because so much of Ruefle’s poetry in this particular book focuses on ideas of mortality and time on Earth; she seems to contemplate these ideas as they apply to humans and human relationships, or to a speaker’s own internalized thoughts. In projecting this idea of observing the limitedness of human mortality on to the bunny, Ruefle emphasizes that mortality matters to more than just the humans connected to the dying or the deceased, that certainly all living creatures must contemplate mortality and it’s significance. The rabbit itself is an especially crucial symbolic choice, as the animal is generally associated with new life, and the process of reproduction, as Ruefle mentions in the poem. In the poem, the symbol of beginning and newness is making a habit of considering the end.

Another one of Ruefle’s reoccurring poetic themes is the use of word choice and the interpretation of certain bits of language. She usually meditates on this sort of thing using the speaker’s internality, but again here projects a certainty of language on to the rabbit. Not only is the rabbit depicted as “mouthing the words,” but also as being asked “to write their love letters,” as if his chosen silence, despite his ability to profoundly comment on the observations of mortality, give him in upper hand in communicating with those who have already faced it and are now relegated to silence themselves, except in the expression of words on the page, as those words can transmit beyond just the basic nature of less permanent verbal communication.

Mary Ruefle’s strong suit in her poetry is her use of astonishing imagery. She is comparable to writers of fantastic fiction in the ways in which she makes use of fantastic imagery as a metaphor for something deeper, an experience. “When a Seagull picks up a French fry and becomes human” in “Faster Love Is All There Is,” the poem turns towards the concrete, something we can more readily understand than “There is nothing faster than more faster love.” The image of a seagull picking up a french fry is familiar to us, and the idea that it could make the seagull human is something we can accept. Her poetry makes readers feel like they are being asked to understand some kind of mystery beneath the things they already know. In the same way, “When April has forty-six days after which it can go on floating on the mattress so it rises so we can see the flowers it was once upon and a few strands of brownish hair” makes us wonder about what we already know. April does not have 46 days; it has 30. And so this image is harder to grapple with than a seagull becoming human, but we can recognize the human element in “April.” Even though April is referred to as “It,” it is made into a “She/He” by leaving behind strands of hair and the use of a mattress. The poem continues with more every-day imagery, which is easier to picture. The experience of being a human person is a focus of this poem from early on , and later in the poem Ruefle moves towards something that may explain the need for “faster love.” When we arrive at “When we never went snorkeling but nevertheless sensed people are more capable of floating by than any other creature,” we get the sense that Reufle has been deepening our perception of every-day moments only to tell us that those moments are meaningless in the sense that they are nothing more than “amazing and distressful turns.” Though Ruefle never gives us a sense of what love is in the poem, it is portrayed as the escape from these mundane experiences, a “faster” experience than the rest.

The unsettling short story is filled with vivid details about the “poor” county of Anthem in New Jersey. We learn a lot about the boys and also about those they come in contact with such as Ms. Kauder and also the protagonist need to be told he was indeed good(231). We are made to feel sympathy for these boys because we learn about them as a group of friends and also bullies. Their violent acts and the motivations behind them are not simple. As we read we also slowly come to understand why they single out Eric and that the protagonist also is unsure of his motivations. It paints a both unsettling and sad picture. The use of parentheses to surround thoughts the protagonist had much later about the unfolding of events are effective. They are used sparingly and tell us more about his friends and their families that their macho speech doesn’t.

This story is about dreams and imagination, two figments of our brain crucial to us as children. Perhaps, this is why Saunders chooses a child as our main protagonist. At the same time, Saunders also shows us that imagination can still be rich in adults as well, hence why he includes a 53-year-old man named Don Eber. The point of imagination and dreams is that it is supposed to feel like a part of us and of our reality. To prove that, Saunders makes sure there is a seamless transition between reality and dream – thus forcing us readers to realize too late that the transition has happened. The transition also gives the story its fantastical genre, because of how down-to-earth it is as if the imaginations are part of the real world. “Tenth of December” is told from the point of view of Robin, and we get certain sentences that indicate his own particular voice in the story. One example on page 221 reads “like an Auschwitz dude or sad confused grandpa” when Robin is describing Don. This is a good portrayal of a child, as children are typically ignorant to tragic events like this. The lack of quotations can be seen as something that adds more fuel to the dream-like quality in the story. Saunders makes the dialogues look less significant than what is being done by the characters. At the same time, it could simply be a mere superficial choice. But, the story is written in the past tense so it will make the dialogue look insignificant if they are told in the past rather than in the present. The writing itself seems erratic and strange, but certainly not rare for a Saunders story. This further emphasizes the strangeness of the story and to remind us that the events are not all facts.

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ALS-BRIGITTE-LACOMBE-1186This week, Hilton Also was named the recipient of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. You can read the New Yorker’s announcement of Als’ award here.

 

 

This poem is about the fictional character Emma Bovary who appears in the novel Madame Bovary. Ann Fisher-Wirth narrates her tale through a 5-section poem detailing the important events Emma face. There is an omnipotent quality about this poem since it details everything from the beginning of Emma’s life to her death and to could have happened after her death. That omnipotence is especially strong in the last section where the speaker tells Emma of what will happen after her death. An experienced reader would realize that the chronology is out of order. But to those who never read Madame Bovary, it will not change their experience. The subject and the theme will still be the same: the lamentations for a tragic female. The stanzas in section 2 give us a first-person perspective seemingly from the speaker’s point of view, or it could be from the viewpoint of Emma.

“No Vow,” much like the other works of Ann Fisher-Wirth, is rich in description and playful and musical in terms of linguistic sound. In the first stanza, phrases like “painted saint” or “wooden shrine presides over the hillside,” make use of the stringing together of similar sounds to create a interesting diction and noticeable musicality. This sort of construction of sound is less present in the second stanza; this presents a slight shift in structure that accompanies the slight shift in tone of the second stanza from the first. These differences are interesting as both stanzas begin with the same pair of words, so there is an intentionally established connection between the two. The first stanza seems to focus more on what the “you” of the poem is feeling in regards to the surrounding environment. The second stanza furthers the comparison, stating that even if the feelings of the subject of the poem were warranted, there is not much to be actively done in terms of the subject’s current situation.

This poem differs in a notable way from the majority of the other works we have read by Fisher-Wirth in the sense that it lacks a direct first-person point-of-view, and also is less directed towards an externally expressed sense of intimate family love. The slight ambiguity of the speaker and the subject and this poem leaves these sort of things up to an interpretation, a kind of open-endedness the other poems do not seem to have.

In Ann Fisher-Wirth’s poem “Daughters” the line “My house is full of…” is repeated until the last two stanzas. This has the effect of slowing down the overall rhythm of the poem. “Daughters” is a intimate poem by both its content and by the close relationship described of mother and daughter. “My house is full of blood” can be read as both the literal blood connection between family and menses. The image she uses in this first stanza is one of a sea and a fish to represent menses. The line “drags her pretty belly on the ground” illustrates this experience of development as a loss. The next stanza evokes a more literal images of her walking pass her developing daughters breast and her daughter bathing herself. In the poem there is a slight shift when the speaker corrects themselves by stating “I mean they are my daughters’ in the bathtub,” referring to their breast. In both the first and second stanza there is a reflection on how their lives once were such as “…so cleanly cleft, so simple,” and “they who suckled me now outdo me.” While there is a sense of loss that they are now growing, there also seem to be a sense of shame of gazing when the speaker states: “And though I do not stare, my house is full of fur.” There is a conflict between bodily autonomy and the acceptance that these developing bodies are one in the same with the daughters the speaker has raised. The tone shifts to one of worry and tenderness with the image “I stroke her arm so gently, cherishing the vine-fine skin, and swore no one would ever hurt her.”

In Ann Fisher-Wirth’s poem “Vicksburg National Military Park,” she utilizes memory to emphasize the shift to the present. This shift that is created between lines 7 and 8 allows for a shift from speaking in memory to the present, resulting in a major turn emotionally. Wirth is utilizing the memory to create a moment of sentiment and tenderness. This then creates a startling shift to the present. When Fisher-Wirth shifts to the present in describing what can be seen now in the Vicksburg National Military Park with a cemetery, the tone shifts dramatically.

The poem began in a place where there was sentiment created from a memory of a mother, or some larger presence, tucking children away to bed. This first stanza grounds the reader in a place of delicacy, comfort, and tenderness. Instantly, the shift occurs to a change to the present with the speaker describing the “gingko leaves” that create “golden blankets around the tombstone(s).” This shift from the naive to the heartbreaking aftermath of Vicksburg allows for a genuine understanding of the tragic and often forgotten personal backstory of each tombstone in the Vicksburg battlefield cemetery.

Russell is often found utilizing the strange and bizarre world’s that are created from the start of her short stories to comment on a larger issue worth discussing. Karen Russell’s short story, “The Barn at the End of Our Term” takes the idea of strange writing to the next level. She writes with the intent that the strange is the typical for the story. What I mean by this is that she immediately  addresses what is strange for the reader from the beginning, hiding nothing from the reader. In this short story, the narrative is from a horse. This begins in a persona that is not commonly spoken for, secondly the horses that are in the story are reincarnated American presidents.  The short story is divided up in sections that speak different stories: the first about the girl, second about the barn, third about Rutherford’s wife – “The First Lady”, lastly, “Dirt Memoirs” – attempting to record life in the dirt.

Russell’s use of strange storylines are often not too far fetched from some sort of a real life connection. This short story is not the first, and is not the last, of strange qualities. However, in each story the strange quality of the story is pointing to a bigger, more realistic, problem. For example, in previous stories from  this collection, Russell uses “Reeling for the Empire” to create this similar idea. In “Reeling for the Empire,” the women are creating silk with their own bodies and eventually make a plan to overcome the powerful leader. This strange storyline leads to a commentary on exploitation of workers for value. In her short story “The Barn at the End of Our Term”, the strange narrative of Rutherford, a reincarnated American President as a horse, is juggling with the idea of life, death, and somewhere inbetween.

 

The narration of the story is first person singular, but sometimes it changes to second person indicating that the speaker is talking to the reader. Thus, it becomes less of a narrative story but more of an ‘informational’ story; even the voice of this story is written in a casual and informal way. Nevertheless, Russell offers us tidbits of information that indicates what we are reading is a story, such as the narrator telling us about their wife and the story of the dead child, which are smaller narratives by themselves. The theme and plot of this story center on its strangeness and surreality, in the sense that the narrator could be talking about both animals and humans. Russell uses terms such as “us Krills” and in one part of the story she even writes “show those whale fans that even though their players weigh tons to our players’ o.38 grams, we krill supporters are the bigger people.” This really throws me off because at that moment I thought the narrator and everyone else mentioned is literal krills. Yet, we get enough information to tell us that they are not crustaceans, but actually humans (Russell might have exaggerated the weight difference to throw us off). In this sense, Russell is showing us the dedication of the Team Krill supporters that they would compare the description of a krill to their own self. Indeed, the way the team and team supporters are portrayed comes off as analogous to the animal in which they are based on. The usage of the word ‘tailgating’ is muddled, as it means both racing and socializing, which are two events portrayed in the story but it doesn’t seem to be really concrete as to which one is more important – we see them do both.

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Discussion

1.In “Dougbert Shaklenton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating,” there is one neatly interwoven subplot, that being the end of a marriage by the wife leaving him for “a millionaire motel-owning douchebag fan of Team Whale.” What does the use of a framing device of a guidebook that is also lightly a judgement of the ex-wife accomplish?
2. In “The Barn at the End of Our Term” many questions are left unanswered, such as why there are so many gaps in president horses. Why it is or isn’t important that we don’t know the answers to these questions.
3. How would the story change if another former president were the protagonist?
4. While reading the aforementioned story, I noticed a shift from each italicized subheading being followed by a definition up to “the barn” to subheadings that are more akin to chapter titles. Did you also notice this shift?

“The Barn at the End of Our Term” does a good job of introducing the element of strangeness early on. Some of the horses are actually dead presidents. This is presented as fact. There is only a small window at the beginning of the story in which the reader wonders, is this a mentally ill horse who somehow believes himself to be president? (at least that’s what I wondered). The story is broken up into small labelled sections which take the reader through the aspects of these horses’ lives in a very clear and organized manner. “The Girl” was followed by an introduction of the girl, “The Barn” followed by a section on life in their barns, “The First Lady” followed by Rutherford’s search for his wife, “Dirt Memoirs” by their attempts to literally record their lives in writing in the dirt with their hooves, and so on in this nice straight-forward manner despite the strangeness of the actual content. The story left me wondering if there was a metaphor or a moral to it all; if there was, I don’t think it came across entirely. The idea seemed to be that to get to greener grasses you first need to let go of the idea of there being greener grasses, but I think this could have been better expressed by the horses remaining in their pastures and finding the pleasures in their new lives rather than leaping a fence and disappearing into oblivion.

Karen Russell writes “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” without the use of a linear narrative. In constructing the story as a guidebook written by the fictional speaker, Russell can regulate the amount of exposition given in the story in a unique way. The “Food Chain Games” require quite a bit of exposition, and while Russell’s decision to write in a guidebook style lends itself to that exposition, she also leaves out just enough detail for there to be some grey area in the mind of the reader about what exactly the games are, and why the speaker and so many around him are obsessed with this ritual of travel and watching. This sort of intentional ambiguity is similar to what we had previously discussed with George Saunders’ “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” in that the main questions the reader would like to see answered more fully and completely, are never directly addressed. In the case of both stories, this device is effective in allowing the reader to realize what the main characters’ accept as a part of their operative realities. It is interesting as well that both Saunders and Russell chose a personal first-person sort of writing as another approach to most effectively use the device of direct exposition without total omniscience.

Saunders uses the diary form to move the reader from place to place but also to see the life of this family through the somewhat disordered mind of the divorced father. The form easily lends to empathy because we are implanted inside the  stream of his jumbled thoughts . The terse sentences are like a stream of consciousness that move us from one vivid scene to another and allows us little time to focus on one singular thought or scene or emotion. The father is financially strapped but loves his children dearly.  The sentence structure mirrors the quick pace of his life and the many worries he has about the state of the home and how the children will grow into adulthood after being without in childhood. The use of exclamation points(!) and equal(=) and plus signs(+) provide a map for his thoughts but also shows the reader the formulaic way the protagonist things and perhaps shows some the emotional distance.

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