A Response to Carlson, Dessen, and Puchner

Here are links to the three discussed short stories for any readers of this post who may not be in my creative writing class:
Ron Carlson’s Milk
Sarah Dessen’s Infinity
Eric Puchner’s Essay #3: Leda and the Swan

I read the three stories in alphabetical order of author last name, one after another during the late hours of last night and, technically, this morning. Upon finishing “Milk,” I was certain that it would be the one I’d write my response on; I really liked its simplicity. I decided to finish the readings first though, before making my decision. Not surprisingly, I left “Infinity” sure my response would be about its relatability. Because so many others had already begun posting responses and had chosen Puchner’s story, I told myself I would not choose to respond to “Leda and the Swan.” Once I got through that one, however, I felt an obligation to talk about it. Thus, I cannot help but say a few words about all three of these lovely stories – and I truly did enjoy each one.

In his story “Milk,” Ron Carlson did a superb job allowing the reader to step into the narrator’s place; I, an eighteen-year-old female, was able to relate to an adult male – a father and husband. I think the simplicity of the title really works – clearly the story is not about milk, but about what the pictures of missing children on the back of milk cartons represent: the narrator’s fears and worries. I particularly enjoyed Jim and Annie’s relationship; though there is conflict, they are very loving toward one another, and I really believed in that love and the success of their marriage. I also found Jim’s descriptions of his boys quite intriguing in that he seems to be slightly fonder of Lee than of Bobby – this could just be how I read it, but he seemed to appreciate Lee’s subtle traits more than Bobby’s strong ones, perhaps because he feels he can relate more to Lee? I cannot be sure, but this was something I kept picking up on when he described the twins, though he undoubtedly adores them both. I think the fact that Jim cannot justify to himself the rationality of his refusal to let his sons be fingerprinted is simply great; as a reader, I completely understood both his stubbornness about his decision and his uncertainty about why it mattered to him. Though nothing really happened – no catastrophes, no extraordinary plot – I thought this story was a wonderful look into a young father’s mind. The ending, with him nearly kidnapping his own children but ultimately returning to the safety and comfort of his home, his life, really worked.

As for Sarah Dessen’s “Infinty,” I was completely able to relate, being a teenage girl like the narrator. Everyone goes through young romance and the stress of learning to drive. I thought Dessen did a great job connecting the two experiences – two rites of passage for young adults, if you will. The narrator practiced pushing out of her comfort zone little by little both in driving around the rotary and in her backseat endeavors with her boyfriend, and she felt fear and anxiety about both. Of course, in addition to her own nervousness about the rotary, she feels confined by her mother’s fears and obligated to stand by her refusal to take the shortest route. This story is really about the narrator growing up and overcoming her own personal obstacles; it is about her struggles and self-discovery. She’s realizing some of life’s truths: that love, such as with Anthony, isn’t always love in the sense she wants it to be, that some people have ulterior motives or become distracted and consumed by particular desires, and that people will hurt her. What I really liked though, was her behavior after losing Anthony. Though he storms off and leaves her because she isn’t ready to have sex with him, she doesn’t chase after him or allow her resolve to falter; instead, she focuses her frustration about him, and about her own indecisiveness, on conquering the rotary. She turns what some would allow to be pain and heartbreak (or even guilt at not giving in) into determination and accomplishment.

When I first started “Essay #3: Leda and the Swan” by Eric Puchner, I was sure I had saved the wrong PDF. I thought it might be an essay about the short story I was meant to read. As soon as I actually started reading it though, I became completely engrossed. Parts of it made me laugh out loud – the way the narrator criticized her sister’s appearance and talked of stealing her boyfriend so casually and matter-of-factly, for example. Puchner did a brilliant job writing from the point of view of a member of the opposite gender much younger (and less intelligent, perhaps) than himself. The run-on sentences and casual diction were not a distraction; I really liked all the footnotes and how Natalie’s story was actually supposed to be an essay for a class. I kept waiting for the story to somehow tie back to those perverted swans, but eventually I was satisfied just by reading her narrative. I agree with some of the other students’ responses that it is both comical and sad. What’s sad, to me, is the poor decisions Natalie makes (“intercoursing” with Collin even after discovering him in her sister’s room, for example) that she will surely regret when she’s older. Of course, it is sad that she simultaneously misses her sister and Collin and feels the sting of betrayal caused by their relationship and the possibility that they ran away together. Still, she made the decision to lose her virginity to Collin and was naive enough to believe in “the Gift.” I think the “sad” part is that she doesn’t seem to learn anything. I cannot help but pity her and criticize her at the same time. This was one story about adolescence not ending with the narrator maturing and learning some profound truth, but I think that’s precisely what makes it so good; it is realistic.

Intoxicated By You

Why is this happening to me right now?
I didn’t ask for it,
But now I spend every second
Thinking of you, and if I had a second
Chance I’d make a move.
“You have to give off good vibes.”
That’s something I didn’t do.
I thought I did – I mean, I tried
But I didn’t want to hide behind the
Peach-vodka-tinted confidence
Or the coconut rum shots after that.
I wanted it to be real,
Not something you feel because of the haze
That the Jäger puts you in,
And I wanted you to see who I really am,
Not just the alcohol disguise.
“Go talk to him. Go make a move.”
But is that something I’d normally do?
I let myself stay a little shy instead
Of letting my lowered inhibitions take over
With a guy I’d just met.
And you tried, but I think I ruined it
When I let so many opportunities slip away
To respond to your hand on my knee
Or your arm around my waist.
I couldn’t just say what I felt,
Even if I thought it was mutual, even when I knew,
Because you weren’t nearly drunk enough,
Or I wasn’t sufficiently sober.
But then it was over and we were leaving,
No more time for the drunken deceiving
That I didn’t allow myself to do
Because it was you, and I tried to be me,
To act the way I would during the day
If the circumstances weren’t the same,
Because I didn’t want to mess it up.
“Maybe he didn’t think you were into him.”
I guess I should’ve realized you’d understand
That girls get a little bit more flirty
After a drink or two, and that
It wouldn’t have hurt for me to use my
State of mind as an excuse.
So now I wonder,
If I would have just let loose and done something,
Would I still be sitting here desperate
For a reason to talk to you
With every corner of my mind occupied
By this want, this craving?
And I know I should be saving this
For the next party, the next chance,
But if I don’t write it down I’ll go crazy.
Romance has never been my strong suit;
I just hope the same thing is happening to you.

My trip to a literary event…

Brace yourself; this is a little long.

Yesterday evening, I planned on going to a poetry and fiction reading at the Museum of Art at seven. I already had plans for the night with my friend Molly, so I asked her if she wanted to join me. She is in a different creative writing section, and her GSI had told the class they should attend this event if they could make it – so, it worked out perfectly… Almost.

Living on north campus, I don’t have the luxury of hopping out of bed ten minutes before class and walking there. Whenever I want to go somewhere, I have to leave almost a half hour early – any freshmen on north, I know you share my pain. Because I had plans later that night, I wanted to shower and get my stuff ready so I could bring it with me to the literary event and just go to Molly’s from there. I ended up running late and, of course, had to wait around ten minutes for a bus at the Bursley stop (in the freezing cold).

By the time I got to central campus and was walking through the diag, it was about seven-thirty or so. I called Molly to let her know I was almost there, but she wasn’t answering. I ended up going into the Museum of Art by myself, and what I thought was the literary event was still going on right where I walked in. Then I noticed I was the only white person there, which was pretty odd, and I didn’t know if I was in the right place. The performers were reciting poetry though, so I sat down eventually.

I had never been to an event like this before – hearing poetry aloud is completely different from reading it on a page, and watching it be performed live is a whole different experience than watching a YouTube video. These writers presented their works in such a rhythmic way, causing the audience to notice those carefully placed rhymes that aren’t necessarily at the end of a line. The poems all flowed really well, and the emotion in the speakers’ voices made them so much more powerful. Also, when a particular part of a piece would get really intense or emotional, the audience would repeatedly snap, rather than clap, during the performance, which added to the build up. Hearing and seeing these poets recite their poems made me realize how much a poem can change when it’s read the way the author intends it to be read.

Towards the end, after all the planned performers had finished, walk-ons were able to recite their work as well. This one girl – I don’t remember her name – volunteered to go. She was a short, tomboyish white girl with short hair and skinny jeans, and she got on the stage kind of nervously, paper in hand. When she started her poem, I was almost embarrassed for her, because the audience seemed to find it amusing. She started off with, “He was just a guy.” I thought, Oh great, she’s reading a poem about a crush when everyone else has been talking about shootings, proving disappointed mothers wrong, and the emotional scars of a breakup. She continued, describing his appearance and his habits – “He had a goatee,” “he took his shoes off at the front door,” and “he was tall” – because “he was just a guy.”

Then, as the poem continued, we started to pick up that something was off about this guy. He took her to his house and they watched Boondock Saints. He put his arm around her halfway through the movie, and he tried to kiss her; she wanted to leave. He corners her in the kitchen and tries to kiss her again; then he takes her to his room, where “his bed was made.” She then tells us, “he was just a guy” and she “was just a girl.” He pinned her down, since “he was tall” with little effort. She didn’t use any gruesome descriptions; she simply said she “remembered two moments.” The first was when she “thought she still had a choice,” and the second was when she “realized [she] didn’t” – and after that, it was all a blur, all “the same.” She went on, mentioning putting her pants and shoes back on. She also mentioned that “his bed didn’t stay made.” All the while, she repeated that “he was just a guy.”

In reciting this, she started out very timid and casual, but as the poem went on, she was shouting, and her voice was full of emotion. When she finished, the audience went nuts with their applause. I had tears brimming in my eyes. She had actually evoked that much emotion in me to make me tear up – and let me tell you, I do not cry easily. Her lack of description of the actual rape, the way the poem built up to the unexpected, and her repetition of “he was just a guy” made her poem very effective. While, she wasn’t as rhythmic or fluid as the other performers, her presentation was emotionally powerful. As she read it, I felt like I was “just a girl” and that it was happening to me.

A couple more poets recited their work after her, a couple reading from their cell phones or a piece of paper like she had. What amazed me, though, is that most of them were not reading from anything. They had these long poems memorized completely, and they performed them perfectly. I thought that made it even more impressive. Still, the girl’s poem about being “just a girl” who met “just a guy” was my favorite by far.

Then, as the event was starting to wind down, Molly called me. I went out to the entryway to talk to her. I had been texting her the whole time with no response, and I had called her when I got to central campus, but she didn’t answer. On the phone, I said I was in the entryway, and she said she was in the entryway. When we eventually found each other, we discovered we had been at different events completely, and she hadn’t had signal in the auditorium. She had gone to the poetry and fiction recitation, while I had mistakenly attended “Tribute to Dr. MLK Jr.: Bringing the Dream to Life.” Apparently it was hosted by Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. – Epsilon Chapter and the U-Club Poetry Slam and sponsored by Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs.

Molly had arrived before me, and they noticed she was out of place, asking her if she was there for the creative writing event and pointing her in the correct direction. I, too, felt very out of place when I first got there but was intrigued nonetheless. While I missed the literary event I intended to go to, I thoroughly enjoyed myself at the one I watched instead. Needless to say, I had quite an interesting night.

– Rachel.

The Box

The revised version as of February 21, 2012.

A cool summer night she lay down to rest,
But was unable to drift off to sleep.
Her eyes fell upon the sacred gold chest
That had been trustingly placed in her keep.
A silver lock kept its secrets sealed tight;
The box whispered of its hidden contents.
Its polished surface reflected the light,
Promised an illustrious quintessence.
Thoughts dancing around what must be inside,
She contemplated the risk she would take.
Her curiosity would not subside;
She did not know what was truly at stake.
Her twisting key freed a ghastly aura:
Savage mayhem triggered by Pandora.

Click to see the original draft.

Boreas 1903

Boreas 1903 by John William Waterhouse
Boreas 1903 – an oil painting by John William Waterhouse

Boreas 1903

Oh, fair maiden in misery,
Sweet damsel in distress,
Reveal the source of your heartache.

Fabric cannot conceal your despair
For it is written on your face;
Your eyes give you away.

Gusts of wind may mask your panting,
But the flush of your cheeks
Claims a swift and bothered journey.

Troubled lady in lavender,
Clandestine and hushed,
Do you venture this way oft?

Shame for the daffodils,
The newly blooming trees,
Your beauty surpasses nature.

Blossoms of butter and coral
Envy the tone of your skin;
Your lips could embarrass a rose.

Such captivating womanly splendor
Should never act in accordance
With a woeful symphony of sighs.

Discussing ‘The Perfect Heart’ by Shara McCallum

The Perfect Heart
by Shara McCallum

I am alone in the garden, separated
from my class. This is what comes
of trying to make the perfect heart.

Scissors: silvery cold and slipping
through my four-year-old fingers.
I did not know and took the harder route,

tried to carve a mirrored mountain top
from each center of the page
after page of red construction paper.

Now, I am counting the frangipani
in bloom. Teacher’s words still shriller
than a mockingbird’s. My cheeks

wet and hot from more than heat.
If I had been taught, if
once I had been shown the way,

I would have obeyed – not been
a spoiled, rude, wasteful little girl.
Folding the paper in two,
I would have cut away the crescent moon.

——————————————————————

Thoughts and Comments

Something I noticed right away when reading this poem was the subtle inclusion of rhymes. For example, “words” and “mockingbird’s” in the fourth stanza, “cheeks” and “heat” in the fourth and fifth stanzas, “way” and “obeyed” in the fifth and sixth stanzas, and “two” and “moon” in the last stanza. Because these rhymes do not necessarily occur at the end of the lines, the poem has rhythm without sounding cheesy, which could have been the case since this poem is about a young child. Another example of effective word choice is “still shriller” in the fourth stanza; not only do the bases of these words rhyme, they form an alliteration.

In the third stanza, I really like “from each center of the page / after page of red construction paper.” The line break after the first “page” and the wording draws the reader’s attention to this part – “center of the page” makes sense, and so does “page after page,” but “center of the page after page” is a bit odd with that “the” included.

While the last line of this stanza is the only time the word “red” is directly used, the color itself appears throughout the poem. First of all, the word “heart” itself alludes to red: anatomically correct hearts are made of red tissues and pump red blood, and the well-known heart shape is typically colored in red. After the actual use of the word, the image of “frangipani” (a type of flower) comes up, which – although not always – can be red. And then, of course, we have the narrators “cheeks” that are “hot from more than heat.” Emotion and temperature both contribute to rosy cheeks.

In the very last stanza, the use of italics for “spoiled, rude, wasteful little girl” conveys the emotion much more effectively than quotations would, I think. This stanza also has four lines while the rest have three, but there isn’t necessarily a reason for this. Overall, the organization into (usually) three-lined stanzas and the capitalization of letters at the beginning of each new sentence allow the reader to easily follow along.

While the title isn’t necessary to provide information to the poem, the use a phrase from the poem itself works out nicely. Though the poem is about a young girl who’s frustrated, crying, and isolated, it is still playful overall.

– Rachel.

Here is a short author bio from Poets.org.
Click to view an interview with Shara McCallum on the process of writing poetry.