Posts Tagged ‘Public Letter’

Public Letter: Laura Walker

This week, THERMOS will run a feature of Laura Walker’s poetry, assembled by Cassie Donish. It begins today with a public letter — or, a series of public letters — addressed to Cassie. Please check back throughout the week for poems, new and old, and an interview.



dear cassie,


i can’t write and mean it at the same time.


it’s an old problem, a recurring dream where the characters happily shift places with each other. intent becomes a brisk snow becomes a wide-eyed betrayal. sleep turns visible, perception moves among its various guises, the dream of a steady gaze. i envy people who write what they know.






dear cassie,


my first ghost story was the one about the woman with the blue ribbon around her neck. do you know it? she tells her husband she can’t take the ribbon off. when he finally does, late at night while she sleeps, her head falls onto the floor.


was she already a ghost or always about-to-be-one? and which was more alluring to me, eight years old and unable to sleep? the silkiest of betrayals. what’s known and what’s believed; who positions whom. sketching the dark because you’re awake anyway.






dear cassie,


the first ghost i ever saw i didn’t actually see. i was driven by a dark house in a dark night and something shuddered. it seemed like a new way of knowing, the way things touch you in the dark.


containment and the precarious: waiting for someone to grow tired of waiting. watching your fingers twitch in the night.


that year we moved into a blue house and i saw a ghost on the stairs. swept skirts, hair done up. not looking at me; me not looking at her. we had, i guess, other things on our mind.


what do you see when you look away from what you see? a helpless envy.






dear cassie,


like the girl who switched places with her dead twin, an episode of the incredible hulk we watched with my first stepfather in a blue and humid night: a ghost differently. i dreamed about her for years, re-enacting her sister’s body, the bent of her head. meticulous. resemblances, semblances, assembly. what can’t be even though it’s exactly the same; a container aware of itself. holding becomes another beast entirely.


clear and steady.


a ribbon, a twin’s body, a dead house.


something to hover and move through.






dear cassie,


my mother read us the little matchgirl from the front seat on long car rides, hoping we’d fall asleep.


we never fell asleep.


when the matchgirl stands outside the pulsing windows, watching them eat in the light, what is the ghost? glass, candles, a tree. they shimmer and merge and become rivers through the floor. the matches burned our fingers. when her grandmother arrives, ribbons and arms, who is the ghost then, asleep in the snow? the boys who chased her across the street and made her lose her slipper. the pavement stones. something about the air.


a fading in the first clear light.


Public Letter: Daniel Khalastchi

Dear Reader:


I.


When I was 16, I was in an accident. My mother had given me the keys to the first brand-new car she’d ever bought—a two-toned, maroon and tan Eddie Bauer Edition Ford Explorer—and she waved as I reversed down the driveway, watching me pause at a stop sign near the end of our street to push a cassette tape into the in-dash player, hands swarming away from the steering wheel in an attempt to locate the volume control.



II.


When I was 16, I was in a band. Our name was Heatherwood—the same name of the street I was driving to that afternoon, the street where our drummer, Phil, lived with his cigarettes, his long hair, his empty basement that we furnished with macramé owls and other pieces of 70s kitsch paraphernalia that we bought at Goodwill one afternoon after we learned the word ambiance in our English class. There were amplifiers in Phil’s basement. Guitars. Small relief windows we covered with paper; a rust-colored pole that sent light electric pulses down through our All-Stars if we touched it while someone upstairs was watching the television. There was also a microphone hanging from the rafters, its dead-black cord snaking the length of the bare cement floor until it rose in a slow arc, connecting to the back of a battery-powered tape recorder.



III.


When I was 16, I had a plan. I was sad and unattractive and I had trouble reading. I didn’t do well in school, couldn’t stand in a crowd without breathing in fits, and I was experiencing increased myopia but refused to wear glasses. The world was to me unfocused, unconcerned with misdirection, and I had to meet a doctor twice a month to talk about my sleeping problem. During one of those sessions, a receptionist asked me why I never smiled. When I got home that night, I told my mother before dinner that I wanted a guitar and I promised to be happy.



IV.


When I was 16, my friend Sean—the singer in our band—stole $110 that was hidden inside a lamp in his parents’ living room so he could buy The Velvet Underground’s boxed set, Peel Slowly and See. We listened to those songs after school. In my bedroom. While we drove around the streets of our Midwestern suburban sprawl-scape. We listened on the weekends while our friends played sports. We listened at work. In the parking lot outside the Quick-Trip on High Street just west of downtown. We listened while we walked the sidewalked blocks surrounding Heatherwood, dressed like idiots, some of us with sideburns drenched in mascara so they would finally look full. We listened to those songs and we felt unsettled, and we stood in a circle and screamed out light.



V.


When I was 16, I learned to play three songs on the guitar: “Sweet Jane” and “Run Run Run” by The Velvet Underground, and a song by the band Cake from an album called Motorcade of Generosity. I practiced those songs whenever I could and wherever I shouldn’t. The first time I played them for my sister, she asked me who Jane was. The first time I played them on the floor of the Synagogue, the rabbi asked me if I was tall enough to take out his hearing aids without him having to bend over. The first time I played them in front of Phil—his left foot lightly throttling the pedal of his bass drum, his hands cracking rim shots as he fumbled for a beat—I got a menacing erection and buried myself for an hour upstairs in his bathroom with a hair-dryer.



VI.


When I was 16, I recorded my band playing The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” on grey Maxwell high-bias cassette tapes that I purchased with my mother at a membership warehouse store called PACE. In Phil’s basement, our amplifiers faced each other. The sound moved like weather, untuned and annoyingly significant. We repeated and repeated and repeated that song, the words a loose dialogue between our ignorant bodies and our spirited teenage angst: you know, children are the only ones who blush/ and life is just to die. Hours of this, recorded week after week, the song giving us something to say and those tapes proving we said it.



VII.


When I was 16, I wanted to be heard. The audience was small—a few friends in a basement—but at the time, it felt like a metropolis.



VIII.


When I was 16, I was in an accident. I had a tape of my band and I was dressed like an idiot and I was in a new car and that car was my mother’s and I was driving my friends and we were going downtown and I had the stereo blaring and I wanted more volume and it was us in the speakers there in October and the traffic was restless and I saw a yellow light and I entered an intersection and pointed to a billboard and looked down for the equalizer but I couldn’t find it and when I looked up we were hit by a semi.



IX.


When I was 16, I stood outside a gas station and called my father collect from a payphone to tell him that I was alive but he needed to pick me up. My mother’s car was compacted, the windows shattered out and sparkling like the aftermath of a perverse and frightening party. When my father arrived, I watched him smoke a cigarette for the first time in my life. My friends wanted tacos but we were driven straight home. I went in my room, found another tape worn hard in my walkman and pressed play.



X.


When I was 16, I wanted an outlet. I was anxious and naive and I fell asleep most nights giddy with a dark-hot irrational belief in possibility. Though it was always my first love, perhaps it’s no surprise that I stopped playing music. Band relationships became difficult to manage, I didn’t know how to find my way into the “industry,” and I never had much talent for writing a pop song. After high school and college I stopped gigging with bands in favor of spending more time alone in various apartments across the Midwest reading stories and poems and calling myself a writer. I was accepted to a masters program. I received a fellowship. I wrote a book, helped start a publishing company, became a professor, got a very stable job, became very single, panicked and wondered if it had all been a mistake. I stopped generating work I liked, and I stopped liking what I heard from others. The noise was too loud, so I went inside. I lived in that silence. I felt no release.



XI.


When I was 16, I was in an accident. Now, at 33, I try my best to avoid them. As a “professional” writer, I am depressively aware of the ways in which I am playing things safe. I am too concerned with how my writing is supposed to sound, and I think too much about who will actually read it. I spend large portions of my day devastated by contest results, worrying about which judges know which authors, preparing for rejection, and constantly reminding myself to get better at self promotion. I am thinking so frequently about jobs and popularity, am so paralyzed by the small but at times competitively toxic world associated with the art I’ve chosen to make such a large part of my life, that I rarely take the chance to simply drive head-on into the proverbial traffic of literature with the type of reckless energy I had when I was young. It seems now that I’m afraid of wreckage.



XII.


When I was 16, I knew that if I wanted to be heard I had to play the music—even if those willing to listen were just a small group of friends gathered in a basement. Though it certainly isn’t easy, for the last few years I’ve tried returning to this model. With my most recent manuscript—a collection of poems called Homewrecker—I forced myself to move away from such heavy consideration of what is currently trending in the world of contemporary poetry. My goal with this book was to write poems I wanted to read, and poems I was excited to share, and now some of these pieces will appear on this wonderful site. I am sincerely thankful to the editors of THERMOS (and to Andy Stallings specifically) for giving these new accidents a home. I am also thankful to you, reader, for taking a moment to listen to what music can be made in the crash.


Public Letter: Caryl Pagel

Dear Reader,


When I attempt to inhabit again my initial fascination with the Society for Psychical Research (and the tangled mess of tales I was introduced to through this trail of research and reading), I am always reminded of the year I spent in Iowa City, post graduate school, working for a writing program and attempting to compose a series of gothic, spooky sonnets. It was a particularly eerie year; at each turn—in a small city that by then I knew quite well—I would catch in the periphery of my vision the slippery shadows and familiar figures of friends, most of whom had left town the previous summer, and many of whom I knew I would not see again for quite some time. As part of a university fellowship I had been installed in a bleak and gorgeous A-shaped Tudor that was settled amid widening pines on the elbow of Church Street and which has since become the refuge of some other academy project. It was there that I was to dwell in a massive and cavernous space that was dark enough, bare enough, and echoic enough to create the sensation of a haunted house. The lines of the interior walls scrawled looping nooks and crannies, disclosed dreary windows, and wrote a spiral of circular pathways that drew one ever further from the center. In this house there were handsome earth black built-in bookshelves lining the walls of the library, a soot-speckled hearth, and everywhere medieval arches. At night I would startle to the creak and boom of floorboards as strangers (ghosts or guests of a roommate) stomped around the house, absent again by morning, and some evenings I perceived quick liquid shapes scurrying across the stairs or felt the heavy presence of some sinister force reach toward me through the hollows of the warped walls. At work, too, my mind was burdened with the imperceptible energies I was sure lurked around each border. The building where my office was located, Seashore Hall, was situated in a particularly difficult-to-find wing of the second floor toward which one had to aim from a specific entrance or else suffer the fate, so said A. on my first day, of endless rotation within a mostly vacant maze of corridors; I was told that our suite was—and had been for quite some time—condemned. I never knew quite what that meant but the rooms seemed to manifest themselves as a sizeable and spacious secret from which our daily proceedings were hidden from the remaining population, the irony being that the structure emerged in such a trafficked and familiar location as to stand almost invisible in the center of downtown. It was during this year that I obsessively and for the first time read Shirley Jackson’s fiction; I raced through her stories and followed with We Have Always Lived In The Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. In The Haunting of Hill House Dr. John Montague remarks (after the residents sense an apparition) that there is no actual material threat in what one cannot see. “No physical danger exists,” Montague assures us, “No ghost in all the long history of ghosts has ever hurt anyone physically… One cannot even say that the ghost attacks the mind, because the mind, the conscious, thinking mind, is invulnerable… the menace of the supernatural is that it attacks where modern minds are weakest, where we have abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defense.” An account of a ghost is merely that, Jackson suggests: a transformative story. Seashore Hall stands seven stories tall with yellow brick walls and a human-sized rust stripe edging the base like a blood-colored flood line. In describing the building (from within its walls, years later, back in town for the same job) I find myself staring at a Googled still-shot taken by a stranger. Each morning I endeavor to recall exactly what it is I see as I enter the building but my focus fades, my mind blurs, and somehow this picture—in distance, traveling toward me from the past through backlit ether—makes the fact of the place where I sit even clearer. Seashore is nowhere near a seashore, it resides in the lowlands of Iowa. Further research leads me to a series of photographs from the university’s online archives. One particularly captivating image depicts the old operating theater that still exists in the building and I observe in the black and white picture, taken in 1905, an audience of formal, sober young male scientists who are presumably waiting to witness an instructive medical performance. The table, settled in the center of the photo, rests empty. There are tools for slicing, a sink to wash, and a clock hovering just above with vague, unreadable hands. The stage looks blank, foreground stark, and one notices that the room is tense with the stress of a procedure that has yet to occur, or, I realize, squinting—envisioning myself in the room—perhaps what we see are the remains of an experiment recently completed, possibly the patient was saved in surgery and we can all amble home or instead the poor soul has actually absented itself from its corporeal cage and is right now—this instant—occupying the atmosphere, aimlessly adrift among the very air that—a century later and in the same space—I can’t help but inhale. The spirit that escaped this photo could be searching for a door, a hole in the floor, or some other certain release from the labyrinth that is Seashore. Here, the entrances are wide enough for gurneys and there are peeling cracks in the window frames. One time I recall, in the midst of a summer storm, my co-worker’s ceiling started dripping. S.’s office was located near mine and in order to investigate the source of the leak he requested that a janitor lead him into the locked rooms right above us. When the door was opened, S. later reported, the room exposed a long and narrow, untouched and ancient space crammed with furniture from the turn of the century; there were decrepit wooden desks, crooked bookshelves, and in one corner a gorgeous rotten, damp and forgotten baby grand piano. It was here, during the year that I stuck around town, that one day while waiting out bad weather (I had misplaced my umbrella) I stumbled into the Psychology Library that was at that time concealed just around the corner from my office. When I first lifted a volume of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research off a high and grimy shelf I only rested my eyes inside its pages out of boredom. I can tell you now that I was transformed then. The text’s antiquated tone was mesmerizing; I was enchanted by the attention to indiscernible worlds as well as an urgent desire by its authors for a thorough investigation of the unknown. I was also in awe of the objects these ideas resided in; my hands refused to let the books go. The tomes implied another time through parched pages, ancient fonts, faded marginalia, and finger stains; each leaf was as cracked and fragile as the skin of a taxidermied animal, each turn a whispered message from the long dead. When I checked out every journal I could carry (later returning for the remaining), the librarian laughed as the faded crimson stamps revealed the fact that several of the volumes had not been on loan since 1931. At home I spent hours studying the lengthy and curious intros, the collections of first-hand testimonies, and the complex analyses indicating each author’s struggle to report relevant evidence. There were chapters on coincidence and hypnotism, telepathy, clairvoyants, copies of automatic writing, transcriptions of conversations with apparitions, and published confirmation of the scientists’ reservations. The journals existed in some extraordinary space between rationalism (through process, procedure) and chaos (of results, human testimony), between poetry (metaphor, connection) and fiction (character, narrative). As a result I found myself more frequently considering perceptions that occur outside of experience—beyond the senses—and how they relate to the language we employ to explain them. For example, my friend V. offered, the instant where one is sitting alone in a coffee shop, expecting no one, and feels the graze of the gaze of a stranger behind them. Or when one senses out of nowhere a friend in danger or their beloved’s trouble. In the midst of reading the Proceedings (which have taken several years to get through) curiosity has repeatedly recalled me to the work of William James—an integral member of the SPR—who, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, described the sensation of something existing that does not exist or episodes that refuse understanding by established methods: “It is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of which we may call ‘something there,’ more deep and more general than any of the special and particular ‘senses’ by which the current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed.” For this reason James included multiple case studies in his various publications as indication of mental discernment. These informal but organized narratives read as the sort of twice told tales performed around a campfire, or, in the town in which I lived, in a crowded booth at George’s. There, on so many summer evenings we would discuss and dissect our own premonitions, sightings, and forecasts, hallucinations or insight. I now long for the sort of evidence that might have been compiled had I transcribed the conversations that occurred spontaneously in this common space, but as it is nothing remains of those ominous and instructive anecdotes but our collaboratively straining memories. I do still recall that once M. illustrated a particularly unusual nightmare predicting the man she was to marry and V. famously witnessed a family of phantoms while driving cross-country on a road trip. When he turned back, V. said, to confirm their presence, the apparitions had vanished but his passenger attests that he saw the same thing. James writes, “The unreasoned and immediate assurance is the deep thing in us… the reasoned argument is but a surface exhibition.” Explanations mutate during delivery but the SPR demonstrated that although no single story serves as absolute proof there is reality in the totality of the tellings. That year I convinced K. to explore the mute corners of Seashore with me and we rode up a trembling elevator, losing ourselves in peach and pale blue hallways that refused connection. Most rooms were closed off, whole floors were dark, and others looked like the setting of ‘70s obedience experiments. When we returned to the office R. relayed a rumor indicating the existence of underground tunnels beneath the city, one of which purportedly connects the basement of Seashore to the lower levels of the town’s old capitol. I pictured the lot of us—me and A. and S. and J. and K.—borrowing an ancient key to burrow below the building. We would descend the until-then unnoticed stairs some sunny winter morning only to approach the secret tunnel in an anxious single file. In ten steps, or maybe twelve, we would stand under Van Allen. In another half a block we’d cross beneath Biology. The tunnels—pitch black and damp—would grow difficult to breath in and after a while our flashlights would die forcing us to guess at the remains of the route in supreme bewilderment. Eventually craggy halls would slim and constrict around our bodies, their circular frame like an overworked vein in trauma. Soil walls would close in and one by one we’d sink to our knees in order to continue crawling; we’d pass through circuits of the earth, faces flushed and frozen as strangers strolling the street above shuddered at the sound of distant voices improbably gossiping underground.

Public Letter: Gregory Lawless

My son was born nine months ago. Back then he was an un-interpretable lump, surly and noisy, and I didn’t know what to make of him. Whenever I tried to talk to him, he would scream or puke.

 

He is something very different today. He’s a person, hounded by sharper degrees of self all the time, which I alternately cheer and grieve.

 

And he is a great consumer! He eats beautiful foods, fruits ground into bright mush, dripping yogurts, boiled oats—a satyr raiding a rich village in the Cyclades 2,000 years ago would have faired no better.

 

But he eats more than food. He eats memory, too. My wife will sometimes remind me of past sleepless nights, tantrums that blackened a few squares on the calendar, then were gone. And it takes some effort to remember them, even though they walked me so far down the plank of psychosis.

 

I’m not a person of character, capable of bearing great hardship or mustering much in the way of sacrifice. But, at least, with my son in the picture, I tend to think more about the next thing I have to do, and less about what I did, or was.

 

So, I have a hard time remembering this book, written in the prehistory of 2011 and 2012. No matter. I enjoy its growing strangeness. I don’t see myself very clearly in the work anymore, but I see the work okay. In general, I think it’s a permissible book, full of omens and weeds. I like all the junk and hay fever. It reminds me of home.

 

But it doesn’t remind me of me. I hope there’s another kind of poem to write in the future when I have a little more time to spend on these things. I would hate to have to imitate the person who wrote Foreclosure. These poems are scabs and eyesores, broken together by a kind of strain and rage that doesn’t make much sense to me now.

 

Now I feel like a great forgetter. I have to work hard to think backwards, and I don’t know if art has any room for dispositions like that, but we’ll see. In the meantime, here’s the book. The book, like its author, is from Northeast Pennsylvania, where difficult things (fracking, stagnation, and the like) are happening. Check it out, if you like reading about difficult things.

Public Letter: Mary Margaret Alvarado

Hello dear Melissa, Andy, Jay, and Zach, by which I mean “Dear Editors”:

 

This is my “public letter about putting together my book, and [the] attendant feelings.” I feel so much, so much. Like this: I feel that I would like to eat dinner with you, and call it supper. And then, the very next day, I feel that I would like to eat lunch with you, and call it dinner. After that, we could have Blancmange, a cornstarch pudding, cooked from a recipe Atoo1 left me, with these notes: “This is the dessert that Jo of ‘Little Women’ often carried to Laurie, her frail neighbor.” She found it, she says, so romantic.

I find paper mobiles romantic, and Prosecco, and the Texas two-step, and very dark soil.

What else am I feeling, you ask? I feel grateful for Eric Gill, that problematic man, who painted the lettering for a bookstore’s sign, and later carved it, beginning with the H and the O. I have loved Gill Sans Serif for a long time. It is as quiet as dots. Edwardian Script2 is new in my life, and its flounciness makes me feel like I’ve had three champagne mimosas and a standard poodle just walked into the room, where the napkins are folded into swans, and all-you-can-eat cantaloupe is on the house, and it’s spring and no one is dying.

Have you seen the ceiling of Union Terminal in Cincinnati? I would like for you to see it. The colors are an unexpected, 70s-ish/celestial marriage of avocado and silver and yarrow and a host of oranges; it’s rather like a pagan sun, or The Good as Plato describes it, and also it is circles, and circles give such peace. Union Terminal is Art Deco; it was a train station; it is a half dome; by way of pen and appropriation, it is D.C. Comics’ Hall of Justice; and the outside looks like a radio with arms. Its ceiling is the loveliest ceiling of all ceilings.3 The fact that it was made as a public work, in a public space, for public transportation, makes me love America, and 1933, and 1980, and you.

Sometimes, when I read The Showings4 I thought, “Man: that girl needs to get out and get some air!” Other times, like when the anchoress describes how “the purse” of our bodies is opened and shut, I thought: oh my, huh, wow, and wow. Epigraphs are tricky, and at some point I had, like, twelve. I think I was writing a page-a-day calendar. This one is a good one: “We have scarcely broken into our hoard.”5 And I like this too: “Small, lofty, straggling, thick, that is as to foliage, dark, light, russet, branched at the top; some directed towards the eye, some downwards; with white stems; this transparent in the air, that not; some standing close together, some scattered.”6 That’s about trees.

Trees do not make a notable appearance in this book, but there are other living eloquences that help us breathe. For instance: mushy waves, and ruby stalks, and a snowcube caked in pitch, and a harlequin mantis shrimp. There are some feral pumpkins on page 13. On page 40, there is moon balm, moon meringue, moon droppings and moon bones. The caliche, when it appears, is cracked.

These poems were written primarily in pen on yellow legal pads. After several pages were filled, I’d make checkmarks next to what might have merit; those places became the first drafts of most lines. The book starts with the chick speaker as a failed hermit, who happens to look like the flying woman in Marc Chagall’s “Over the Town,” and is praying to a god named Frank, and recollecting certain parties, and longing for hot dinner rolls, and working on getting more singular, which is what paying attention demands. From there I tried to figure out the key, and move to its cadenza. Or I’d slur in the musical sense. Or I’d see how a particular texture or thing needed to announce itself again. The movement between desolation and consolation. The arc of a mixtape that means to mess you up. Several series and three parts, in the middle of which7 the via positiva hinges to the via negativa, which is, I think, the better way. The first part is the loudest, the second is the quietest, the last ends with the animals overtaking the city, which is a comic ending in the Greek sense, and is a resurrection by natural means, and makes reference to the artist renamed Prince.8

It is a first book, and I like that about it. It is a book on paper, and there are no electronic copies, and I like that very much too. I feel grateful that my book of poems is home9 and done. I feel grateful that this creates a strong disincentive to revise. Sometimes something happens and I’m like: Holy shit! You’re alive! And I’m alive! And the dead are with us! And there are all these COLORS. This book reminds me of that.

Now a marching band is invading our street, and they’ve got drums and whistles10. The baby’s gonna wake, with her sweet smashed cheeks.

Thank you and so long!

Mia

 

1 Hey Folly is dedicated to my grandmother, Atoo.

2 The book’s text is set in Gil Sans Serif; its title is in Edwardian Script.

3 A photograph of the ceiling of Cincinnati’s Union Terminal is on the cover.

4 The epigraph is from The Showings by Julian of Norwich.

5 Repeated throughout Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.

6 Leonardo daVinci, Notebooks, “Trees.”

7 Pgs. 44-45.

8 Purple rain!

9 With the loveliest, loveliest human being of an editor.

10 They do this often: cf. pg. 6.