Archive for January, 2009

Donald Dunbar

You have pretty eyes; your face is the
rust on the side of a lost freighter
and the first mate is jumping overboard.
You’ve got your sealegs now, your bedlegs I mean
know the roll and splash of waterbeds
but regular beds too, even futons
like discount Korean yachts.  This air always
does this to me, the salt wind anchors
in my throat and the peach lights
above the sidewalks moan as we leave the bar,
hum, I mean, like the day janitor
tomorrow who’ll mop the drinks
you’ve spilled; who’ll nuzzle the lipstick
you’ve smeared all over the payphone.


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At Sea

Laura Didyk

My lover naps below
while I sun on the stern
in my sundress and dream

myself a woman born
for building ships.  In the
cushion of sleep I build

this one as I tarry on our
Alaskan island more than a century ago.
My lover is taken at sea

by a striking pirate 
who is, underneath it all,
kind and soft and has

adorned my berth
in silk and jewels from the hold.
He touches me evenly

with kid gloves (twenty-two days at sea
and my thighs are much fleshier stories).
The blue woman and the red woman

etched on his forearms steer
the small of my back.  This dreamed
vessel, its handsome

mate, immaculate sails,
the worldly character of the sun looming above,
are all my doing.  I make myself

the only woman aboard
my bandit gets to win—a bottle 
of port at my hip.  What I pity most is the untravelled

stationary woman who at night 
falls into blank sleep, and awake,
veers from the world’s distant climes


and men.  The breast is a solemn
and familiar place, frightened of setting out—
but the bones, dearheart, the bones want motion.

Map the body’s route then the love you plan
to steal and hoard.  If nothing else
stay shoreless.  The land

husbands your power.
O serious traveler, ready yourself
to dream, to snatch the sable yawl

from the hulled body of the harbored boat
and row. In your berth with your pirate
when the aged ship rocks

fore and aft, there is no other region
you’ll want more than this.  Nothing
as delicious as this old salt in your bed.

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Patrick Carrington

I skitter across the heat of lonely towns 
like a drop on a skillet, stopping only 
to smooth myself out in bars 
with strings of women 
who don’t tie themselves 
to lives like mine. There was a time

when the prophecy of dust clouds rising 
from a young woman’s broom 
made me wonder 
where you hide glass slippers 
in a place this shattered. And when 
she slipped the brass rail on her foot

to swallow the medicine of sour mash 
like a sword, I’d wait for midnight 
and give myself to her as wholly 
as her hundred proof misery. I don’t 
stare anymore at the ripped wallpaper

of upstairs rooms or look to windows 
with the circular reasoning of denial 
and wait for some magic
as her arms flutter above me,

due north. It takes no chimes to roll me, 
no wind to send me limping 
over the world, to the next town 
where no one will welcome me home.

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Vote for the best bumper stickers

I went a little crazy designing bumper stickers this week. Proof positive of my love and adoration for PBQ! Remember: any of these can be changed and/or redesigned. So have fun discussing the possibilities…


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Cover, Issue #78

Cover, Issue #78

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Susan Briante

 Bearded prophet poets, working-class rock star heroes, and philosophizing mobsters—think of the most eloquent spokespersons for the American character and you’ll end up thinking about New Jersey. From Walt Whitman’s reflections on the Camden docks to Tony Soprano’s view from a car exiting the Holland Tunnel, New Jersey offers a glimpse into our working-class, immigrant, urban and—often masculine—psyche. Our strip-malls and swamp lands, superfund sites and subdivisions, beaches and pine barrens remain a source of unending national interest—equal parts fascination and morbid curiosity—that has earned New Jersey a special place in the American imaginary. Massachusetts can have its Robert Frosts and Robert Lowells, New Jersey lays claim to poets such as William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Amiri Baraka.
            Two recently published first books of poetry, Betsy Andrews’ New Jersey(University of Wisconsin Press, $14.95) and John Hennessy’s Bridge and Tunnel(Turning Point Press, $17.00), offer a next generation’s startlingly surreal and surprising poignant perspectives on New Jersey lives and landscapes. With unflinching vision and generosity, they remind us how much we still have to learn from New Jersey.

“The Turnpike made place replacing places,” writes Betsy Andrews early in her book-length poem, New Jersey, winner of the University of Wisconsin’s 2007 Brittingham Prize in Poetry. Andrews takes readers on a dark, funny, lyrical drive along the New Jersey Turnpike, a roadway that acts for Andrews as the spine of the tragicomic beast we call America at the inauspicious turn of the 21st century:

            behind the sonic barricades
            cordoning off the casualty roll call from
            Pennsville, Westville, Groveville, Yardville
            Robbinsville, Belleville, Bernardsville, Somerville
            a moment of happiness in a heap in the road
            a calendar year where 10 days go missing
            “This stuff doesn’t happen in New Jersey.”

In lieu of narrative, this ride gains velocity from repetitions—recurring quotes from US soldiers in Iraq, “unnamed intelligence officers,” and commanders at Guantánamo Bay; an intermittent first-person; moments in New Jersey’s past and recent history—all of which stream by like mile-markers. The poem moves like the road itself:  “the Turnpike, a constant snapping apart/ a constant pounding together new relationships between scattered forms.”
            A deft and incisive creator of lists, Andrews inventories the crops grown in New Jersey (soybeans, peaches, eggplants, onions) and the toxins in its air (arsenic, mercury, cyanide, zinc), as well as Turnpike exits and names of towns. It is a move that recalls Whitman, who provides the book’s epigraph and gets a mention in a recurring list of rest-stops named for famous New Jersey inhabitants, including accomplishments as well as rest stop amenities (“Walt Whitman: Oh Capt My Capt, Calamus, Cinnabon and an ATM”).
            Andrews has Whitman’s ear for litanies of nouns and modifiers, but she also shares Ginsberg capacity for apocalyptic vision. And that’s where much of the poem’s strength resides. She manages to create drama from stark juxtaposition and astute observations: 
            the flatbed tipping up like a sexpot
            road crew in orange hard hats taking instruction from a little machine
            flyover ramp, bypass, hazard warning, speed limit sign, closed-circuit TV
            are no guarantee against the metallic taste of the sauce break
            in a mixing bowl of divergent intent
            “We don’t give our cops nightsticks
            for ornaments,” says Jersey City’s boss
            the swamp drops its trashy eyelid
            sucks the highway supports like cock

Throughout the book, perhaps Andrews’ greatest accomplishment comes in reminding us that our landscape is not innocent—the war is everywhere: implicit in highway sensors and military convoys, in every mile over which we travel and gallon of gas we consume. In Andrews’ hands, the Turnpike becomes a place of transport and transaction as well as a litmus strip for national greed, paranoia, and stupidity.

If Andrew’s New Jersey is part Whitman, part Ginsberg, John Hennessy’s Bridge and Tunnel evokes the New Jersey of CKWilliams and Robert Pinsky. With a clear view to New Jersey’s city dwellers and the industrial landscapes through which they move, Hennessy forges his poetry from chimneys and causeways, cranes and overpasses.
            The book’s first section consists mostly of personae poems devoted to working-class figures—milkmen, paperboys, washerwomen—, family and friends. Hennessy has an almost Gerard Manley Hopkins-like love for the strong stresses of compound words and dizzying internal rhyme, as can be seen in this example from the poem “Irish Washerwomen in the New World:”

            Take Great-grandmother Dolan, with her pocket full
            of husbands and several spare names, her salt-spit
            and snakebite, poker-face, terrier bitch, Donegal
            wit, dog-track bag and four-pronged walking stick

Through these characters, the reader realizes that the bridge and tunnel of the book’s title represent more than routes over which many New Jersey natives travel to jobs, lovers, or family in New York City or Philadelphia. These bridges and tunnels also represent life transitions that form the thematic center of this collection. The character Dog-Star, with his love for killing birds, embodies the rage and confusion of adolescence. A father suffers a transient, restless adulthood. In one of the book’s most poignant poems, the speaker recalls the worried but joyous passage into parenthood. Occasionally these anecdotes seem too familiar, and often there’s a kind of neatness in their telling that I want complicated. Still, the characters rendered in Bridge and Tunnel reach beyond autobiographical testimony to demonstrate how the industrial landscape works its dark and powerful influence upon them: “sun half an hour high over Merck, the morning/ divided by smokestack.”
             Another series of poems features mythic figures, including Urban, Persephone, Salome, and Pan, who find their tales recast in the Garden State. One of the most successful of these sets the story of Job in the industrial corridor of North Jersey. In his response to Job, an angry God schools Job on the complex system of Northern New Jersey’s industrial spaces.
            Have you kept watch beyond the skyline of blue fires
            rippling from steel towers, squat brick chimneys
            belching jetties of yellow smoke, the networks
            of PVC pipe and signal lights, train tracks
            and bridges, tug-boat docks and loading cranes.

Here is Hennessy at his best: rendering the strange beauty of a world familiar to anyone who has flown into Newark Airport or exited from the Holland Tunnel. Hennessy’s understanding of that landscape comes from his own experience growing up in New Jersey. But it’s no accident that not a single city is named in the book, while the Exxon refinery and Merck chemical plant serve as place markers and spiritual centers (whose “single gleaming green” became “our Northern Lights”). Hennessy shows us how both city and community become shadowed by industry—although the odd bonds of family and friendship remain.

In 2003, The New York Times ran an article, “A School of Literature That’s Called New Jersey,” in which writer Gregory Jordan quoted editors and academics who extolled a New Jersey literary tradition rivaling that of the South. Jordan explained that the New Jersey School “passes the most crucial test of what constitutes a literary region: many of the writers seem to be engaging in an extended conversation with one another” while at the same time these writers knew how to link New Jersey symbols and circumstance to “larger American dilemmas and myths.”
            Andrews and Hennessy support a case for such claims, extending a poetic conversation begun by the likes of Whitman and Williams—and one that continues in the work of emerging poets such as Greg Pardlo, Nancy Kuhl, and Rosa Alcalá. It’s not an idealized version of our national or regional myths. Chances are the New Jersey represented by these writers won’t be replicated in tourist brochures. In fact one of the most compelling claims both Andrews and Hennessy make is that commerce and corporation threaten our sense of place. It’s hard not to worry about the time when the endless repetition of Target—Wal Mart—Best Buy shopping centers will render identical every American highway and city. Still, in the short term, we can be assured that even after Tony Soprano has uttered his last accented proclamation, we have not yet heard the last word from New Jersey.

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Pirate Story

Michael Agresta

(Singapore, 1785)

The royal ships form a line across the mouth of the harbor, blocking access in and out.  The old hotelkeeper, whose only customers are travelers and sailors, shakes his head at the horror of these pirates.  Even the whores can squeeze a living out of the local menfolk for as long as this blockade continues, he complains, but his hotel is nearly ruined.  The whores smooth his hair and tell him it will pass.

There is talk of the crown founding another port twenty miles down the island, where a high promontory offers more protection against the pirates.  But no one really believes that the pirates can be headed off so easily—a few raised cannons would offer little advantage against their fearsome fleets.  When the pirates come for us, he hears a young man saying in his bar, we can do nothing but surrender.  Still, days pass and no black flags appear on the horizon.

To the hotelkeeper, the pirates seem capable of anything.  There are rumors of pirates masquerading for months as legitimate deckhands before murdering their captains and commandeering the cargo.  One guest tells him of a port on the Bay of Bengal where a pirate posed for years as a mild hotelkeeper, until one night, without warning, he slit the neck of a sleeping diamond-merchant and took his treasure out to a secret island refuge.  At the end of this story, the hotelkeeper notices a strange light in his guest’s eyes, a crookedness of his smile and a whiff of sea-grime to his hair.  Just to be sure, he double-locks the door leading to his quarters before he goes to sleep.  If these pirates really have infiltrated everywhere, then better not to take chances.

One day, a messenger comes in from the guardian ships in the harbor to announce that the people of the port must send a tribute of food out to their royal protectors.  A week later, the tribute is expanded to include women.  The whores are furious, but the townspeople relent when they come to understand that pirate elements now control the guardian fleet—that instead of protecting the town from enemy invasions, the harbor ships now serve to prevent the townspeople’s escape.  Without battle, the port falls to the pirates.  At dawn, the ships raise the skull and crossbone standard. 

The hotelkeeper brings his daughters out to the docks, and he is surprised to see himself among only a handful of townspeople obeying the pirates’ directives.  Could they be plotting a rebellion, holding out hope of actually defeating the pirates in open combat?  No, he soon learns:  those not obeying have some other dealings with the pirates whereby less tribute is required of them.  After the shock of the silent conquest is over, these townspeople begin to wear long bandannas and steal from the market on whim, explaining to him with spitting disgust that they, “always was a pirate all the time.”

He would complain to the governor, but the governor is among those in league with the pirates.  He visits the hotelkeeper’s lunch hall each afternoon with a parrot on his shoulder, and each day he reports the news of another pirate conquest—Auckland, Manila, Cape Town.  There are no more pillagings, just shifts in administrative policy as the pirate viceroys take over.

The hotelkeeper keeps his faith in the power of the crown to beat back the pirate advances and restore tranquil order to the empire.  One day, however, the governor pays for his lunch (an act surprising enough in itself) with a newly minted coin.  On its face is an engraving of the king, same as before but with a large hoop earring and goatee.  The hotelkeeper reads it in the papers: always was a pirate, switched at birth by pirate conspirators, allied with pirates against all other powers of the world until pirates alone control the open seas.

The hotelkeeper takes the coin and buries it with his other profits, drawing himself a cryptic map and marking an “x” where his treasure lies.  Then he takes on the uniform of a pirate and goes out onto the seas, seeking a land without piracy where he can die in peace.

He never discovers such a land, but he does find camaraderie among his crewmates on the pirate ship Black Dagger.  In the chaos before they board a merchant ship, sword clenched in his mouth, his fellow pirate, a man named Shoemaker, admits he has never really considered himself a pirate.  He just took to acting like one, he explains, so as to stay on the right side of history, “to keep an eye on me and mine.”  Only one eye—the other is hidden behind a black eye-patch, which, as Shoemaker now reveals, is unnecessary, a hoax.  The old hotelkeeper-turned-pirate soon begins to notice other inconsistencies in the behavior of his crewmates—ungrowled r’s, aversion to adventure, unexpected acts of kindness and charity.  One evening, during an emotional group conversation about fathers and sons, it comes out that no one on board was born a pirate; all assumed the identity only once it seemed to be the only option left. 

They vote unanimously to pull down their Jolly Roger, turn the ship around, and head for terra incognito, where they might found a colony outside all influence of piracy.  They stop for provisions at the port the hotelkeeper once called home, and they are immediately arrested.  The hotelkeeper is shocked to see the townspeople in conservative, un-ragged attire.  “Never was a pirate,” one tells the hotelkeeper, straightening his cravat, “’Twas only putting on for show.”  While in prison, the ex-pirates learn the good news:  the king was not a pirate after all; he was merely impersonating one to draw the pirates closer to his trust, thereby giving him a chance to attack them on even footing.  The pirates have been vanquished for now.  Long live the king.

The hotelkeeper is eventually released, judged harmless on account of his old age.  The governor, who has seized the hotel, gives him a job and a cot to sleep on in the back of the laundry room.  The hotelkeeper never returns for his buried treasure, having lost the map in the course of his travels.  Poverty does not bother him; his daughters are gone, and he has grown too old for whores.  He still imagines, though, as he sits on the silent harbor dock at night, that the treasure map will come floating back to him some day.  In his mind, the map arrives rolled tight inside an empty bottle of rum, carried by the ever-changing currents from one pair of hands, covered with battle-scars and silver rings, to the soft, wrinkled hands of an old hotelkeeper, now folded in his lap.

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