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From confirmation hearings for Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress Kay Ryan before the United States Senate Committee on Interstate Commerce, Recreation, and Poetry, Patrick Leahy, D-VT, Chair.  The excerpted testimony comes from the third afternoon of the nine-day hearings in early July of 2008, in which Senator Orrin Hatch, R-UT, requested that Ryan explain her poetic philosophy underlying “He Lit A Fire With Icicles,” her elegy for German writer W. G. Sebald.  Many later recalled this relatively heated exchange as one of the most memorable of the hearings in part because of Ryan’s coinage, “The Enjambed States of America.”  The slogan “UnbreaKAYble,” which appeared on bumper stickers, T-Shirts and at the end of television and radio ads purchased by the 527 group Citizens To Confirm Kay Ryan, has been compared to the “I Believe Anita” slogan that was publicized similarly during and following the Senate confirmation hearings for then-nominee to the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas.

Senator Orrin Hatch: And Ms. Ryan, do you recall your use of enjambed line breaks to break up a rhyming couplet of iambic hexameter at the poem’s conclusion?

Kay Ryan: Senator, I—It has been some time since I wrote that poem.  I’m not sure that—

SOH: The poem’s sixteenth line ends with the word stay.  And the poem’s twentieth, its final line, ends with the word away.  Isn’t that correct, Ms. Ryan?

KR: Yes, Senator, that does, that sounds correct, to the best of my recollection.

SOH: Then do you also recall that the final four lines, and I’ll read them, “When he could feel his feet he had to back away,” do you also recall that this single sentence, six iamb feet lined up like ducks in a row dah-dum, dah-dum, dah-dum, that it is in fact four lines, at least according to your poem as published?  It is four lines, isn’t it?

KR: Yes, Senator, I believe that is correct.

SOH: I’ll get back to the issue at hand then, Ms. Ryan.  I’m sure you won’t be surprised, and I’m sure the other members of the committee and the members of the public here today won’t be surprised to hear that I’m curious about how you came to the decision to break apart that single thought.  I say single thought, of course, since that is the traditional, and, well, agreed upon definition of a sentence.  A single thought.

KR: Senator, I think what you’re—

SOH: And I consider enjambment, the breaking up of that single thought, a serious matter.  I think all Americans do whether they agree with my position, which I know is a matter of deep personal, moral feeling, whether you agree with me or not.  I’m sure that my constituents from the great state of Utah agree that it’s a serious matter.  But frankly, Ms. Ryan, based on the record that myself and others here today have tried to bring to light, I’m not sure I am yet convinced that you treat this matter with, really, the gravity it deserves.  And that concerns me.  It does.  It concerns the American people.  So I would hope that the other members of this committee would give pause before simply rubber stamping a Poet Laureate who went out and enjambed single, inviolable thoughts, thoughts contained in rightfully codified, systematic meter, went out and enjambed them willy-nilly.  The, really, the question before you, Ms. Ryan, is whether or not there was a legitimate reason, a poetical basis if you will, for your dissection of the poem’s closing thought in the manner you did, in fact, dissect it.  And I give you the opportunity to explain yourself, if you can, here today.

KR: I thank you, Senator Hatch, for that opportunity.  Before I answer though, I believe some clarification may have—may be, rather, in order.  I think what you’re calling a rhyming couplet of iambic hexameter is perhaps, if you’ll excuse me, not entirely accurate.  It is true that those final four lines can be considered six iambs, and that the second iamb of the first and third of those lines is enjambed.  But it might also be said that each of those four lines is a trisyllabic foot unto itself, a Cretic or amphimacer foot.  These are matters left up to interpretation, and intended to be left to interpretation, by the American people, as established in the precedent of 15 Poet Laureates and many, many Consultants in Poetry for the, to the Library of Congress before me.  I feel I should also note that the poem’s previous lines do not follow this structure, whatever we choose to call it, and that the couplet itself, is in question even if undoubtedly this poem does contain some rhyme.  A digression, perhaps, that I hope this committee will forgive.  The larger issue, however, if I take your meaning correctly, Senator, is a question of my loyalty to integrity and, I believe, by implication, clarity.  The suggestion has been made today and in the previous weeks, before I was able to speak for myself, that my use of enjambment is confirmation of a not-so-secret belief that some parts of thoughts, some words, and therefore some citizens of this great nation are more important than others.  In other words, my critics would have it that I have a tendency toward prejudicial emphasis.  I want to assure you, Senator Hatch, as well as the other members of this committee and all of the American people that this great deliberative body represents, I want to assure you that nothing is farther from the truth.  And I think if you go back and look at the context in which these, well, these line breaks occur, that is in the whole poem and the author it was trying to honor, I think you’ll see that I had intended to show exactly the opposite.  It is my belief that the integrity of a single thought is unbreakable, just as this nation has proven it is unbreakable, following our bloody second birth in the Civil War.  What the poem suggests about Mr. Sebald, who is, for the record, a man I greatly admire for his unwillingness to insert even a single paragraph break into his narratives.  The poem suggests that we must notice the juxtapostion, the natural pauses for mutual regard, for perspective, the stopping and restarting that takes place within integrity.  And again, I would suggest that this notion is confirmed in our history and in our character as a nation, a nation that is united because it is enjambed, the Enjambed States of America, if you will.  We are joined by our integrity as a culture, as a nation, as individuals.  But we are set apart, as states, as people, set next to each other, enriched by our relation to each other.  We comprise a more powerful whole because of our undeniable separations.  We are enjambed as a nation and within ourselves and it is the fact of this enjambment, the acknowledgement of it, that makes us so great.  It is what makes us unbreakable.  That’s not exactly that that poem is about, but that is, was rather the basis of my use of the, I want to re-emphasize, rather narrow usage of the technique.

SOH: Ms. Ryan, are seriously suggesting–

Senator Patrick Leahy: Senator Hatch, your time has expired.   We must—

SOH: Mr. Chairman, I retract, I—One more question, please, Chairman.  I will be brief.

SPL: I don’t think I need to remind you, Senator, that we would all like to ask the nominee a lot of questions that—

SOH: I do apologize, Chairman Leahy, I simply want to know if Ms. Ryan is aware that W. G. Sebald, the subject of her poem, was a German citizen who wrote extensively about the so-called atrocities committed by the American army liberating Germany in WWII.

SPL: Senator Hatch, your time has expired.  I will thank you to respect—

KR: Mr. Chairman, excuse me.  Excuse me.  If the chairmen permits, I’ll answer the Senator’s question.

SPL: Very well, Senator Hatch, you may ask your final question.

SOH: Are you, Ms. Ryan, aware of Sebald’s writings on the so-called fire-bombing of Dresden?

KR: I am.  I am well aware of Mr. Sebald’s sympathies.  I would ask, request that you judge me, however, on my own work, and not by supposed association with the sentiments of anyone else.   My tenure as Poet Laureate would be loyal to the best interests of the American people and nothing else.

SOH: Thank you, Ms. Ryan, for your testimony, and thank you Chairman Lahey, for your consideration.

SPL: I prefer, for future reference, keeping to the schedule to being thanked, but I thank you both for your brevity once consideration was granted.  We will, uh, will take a ten-minute, a flexible, ten-minute break now.  This hearing is now in recess.

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1.  We first noticed him in the park.  As S and I followed the dog into the clovery meadow between groping oaks, he was off to the right in the shade, bent 90 degrees at the waist, agitating his torso like a washing machine, outstretched fists churning a blurred menace in the 90-degree air.  Was this preparatory exercise for capoeira?  What else explained the juxtaposition of these movements with his odd get-up: forest green cargo pants, a black T-shirt and thick-soled boots?  His close cut hair, a uniform length all around his skull, made him look both militant and outside any organization.  The dog chased his tennis ball and did circles around us in the sun, finally flopping onto his side while still in motion so that he slid to a rest on his back, panting beside us.  When we looked up the man was gone.

A few days later we saw him in the park again.  While the dog yanked me toward some urgent odor, the man ran past us a few dozen yards away.  He was dressed in the same clothes as before.  All around us, joggers, bikers, rollerbladers and walkers wore activity-appropriate outfits, often clumped in chattering pairs or groups, smiling at each other and proud of their dedication to their own fitness.  Next to them, this man, all alone and stone-faced, overdressed in street clothes with skin-head overtones, seemed more than out of place. He looked dangerous, or at the very least crazy.  Over the next weeks we saw him a few more times, always identically dressed, always running or performing combative exercise with the air.  When we saw him together, S or I would point him out, careful not to look like we were looking.  “There’s your friend,” I would say.  “He’s your friend,” she would say.  “Go ask him where you can get some of those pants.”  Pulling up to the apartment building in the last light of another hot day we caught the finale of his routine.  He was galloping sideways down the sidewalk across the street like an overgrown child.  He stopped at the corner and calmly walked away from us down the block.  As if this all was all perfectly normal.  As if he had done what he had had to do, preparation for some great physical undertaking yet to come, and for now it was time to go back to the sorts of things the rest of us all did, blending in to bide time until that inevitable confrontation.

Yesterday evening, S and I brought the worn-out dog home from the park, and crossing to our block with the sun in our eyes, we saw the man walking toward us.  There he was, in his makeshift fatigues, enlarging himself in my vision with every steady step.   My muscles tensed and my mind raced.  Had he heard us snickering at him, noticing us gaping at him in the park?  I looked down at the dog as if he needed my surveillance.  Just as the man came past me, I looked up and met his eye.  I was shocked by what I saw before he shyly looked away: the sweet dark eyes of a tentatively curious young man, much younger than I had seen, much more gentle than I ever would have suspected.  “He’s foreign, right?” said S when we were safely down the block.  I agreed.  Something in that facial stucture suggested he was seeing the strange details of everything, everyone around him with a kind of reverence.  As if he saw the rest of us just as amusingly inexplicable as we saw him.  But more generously, with much more hope and kindness.

2. I got up yesterday and made my way out into cyberspace.  On a site probably best known for its porn clips and jokes in horrible taste (they also always have a few things that are pretty amazing that few others have publicized yet, and the porn is pretty easy to avoid, so, yeah, I’m a regular) I saw an image of two men crouching in the street beside someone who appeared to be bloody and struggling, with the caption, “Woman standing aside with her father watching the protests was shot by a Basij.”  At first I paused to marvel that the webmaster of this apolitical site thought the name of Iran’s now-not-so-secret police was well-known enough that his visitors would understand this description.  Then I began to study the image.  These people could be anyone.  Nothing in the image made it look like Tehran.  I considered the possibility that this was a joke/snuff clip, ridiculing the violence on the other side of the world while turning it into a Tom and Jerry-like spectacle.  The site had done this before.  I had accidentally watched motorcyclists crushed by tractor-trailers and other caught-on-video deaths, tricked by a caption or an image that didn’t give away the grisly scenes.   The possibility that this Basij video was a snuff clip from Tehran piqued my curiosity though.  A scene from that conflagration that would make it to this site was just too strange a cultural crossroads to refuse.  What scene from this struggle was so spectacular?

In the video, the woman is in the arms of a few shouting men as the person holding the camera shakily circles the scene.  Suddenly her eyes loll to the side and the shouting increases in rate and volume.  Something blossoms at her mouth, and then across the rest of her face like a dark ribbon.  Even though I knew what I was watching, it took me a moment that I was seeing blood seeping out of her mouth, nose and eyes.  That’s what I remember seeing.  I could only watch it once, and now recalling it in detail, I don’t want to see it again.   In the last few seconds of footage, the sound drops away and the mourning, frantic crowd scrambles silently around the body of this woman whose life has disappeared right before them and now us.

The video had been posted in the morning.  By midday the Times was reporting that a funeral for the woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, had been broken up by the Basij, and that the video of her death had become a sensation over the weekend in Iran.  Now Iranian state television is saying that her death was staged.  The opposition describe her as a martyr.  She is beautiful in the photo that accompanies the article on the Times website.  “Is everyone in Iran really good looking?” S asked me last night as we watched a lame Daily Show report from Iran.  It’s hard, looking at the photographs from Tehran each day, not to suspect they all are.  I suspect part of the attraction is how full of life the faces of the protesters appear.  These people who flaunt death, who put their lives in the street to demand better ones, they look nothing like us but appear exactly as we hope we would in such circumstances.  No wonder the Republicans identify with their oppression.  No wonder they look beautiful to all of us.  In a connection world, everything is a mirror.  And maybe that’s why this footage is so moving: it doesn’t really allow identification.  In the video of Neda’s death – everyone just calls her Neda now – she is beautiful, and her expiration is not exactly ugly.  But watching that video one is overcome not so much with the tragedy of a life cut short in its prime, but by the terror of how much is unknown and undocumented by the amateur photographer.  Seeing those black ribbons suddenly appear on her face you are horrified by how little you understand what is going on.  How was she shot?   Where did the bullet enter her body?  What was this life that you have seen ended?  What would it have been?  Why are you the one watching it disappear instead of the one lying there in the street, unable to hear all those people silently wailing all around you?

3.  These days I avoid writing my novel by reading a draft of one my friend has finally finished writing and by doting on the small dog with whom I live.  It is surprisingly comforting to read page after page of this story, the making of which I have been witness to for six years, a story that is so much better put together than it was in pieces that reencountering each previously read scene is like being reunited with a presumed-dead loved one.  It is unfathomably gratifying to speak to a creature who hangs on every word I say, cocking his head for better comprehension, a look of such eager love on his face that I find myself speaking to him all day long.  Together, the dog, the pages and I, help each other believe we understand each other and ourselves.

Reading E’s book I begin to see again how I will be able to write my own.  I recall conversations we had in which he described wrestling with passages, and then I see them there on the page, mostly wrestled through.  I think of my own comments over the years about particular moments or habits of the structure, and then I see them accounted for or rightfully ignored.  He has created a whole thing, 550 pages of a story that needs reading.  The lively insights of his characters, the purity of their voices, the places where I see the mechanics of the plot reflect the tenderness of E’s own mind – all of these are not just impressive.  They are beacons of hope.  Sitting down to read these pages that few others have seen, and I believe many will love, I am buoyed by the people I see in the scenes and the person I can detect behind them.  My friend and his characters are better than I had previously suspected.

Walking the dog, I am aware of the eyes of others upon me.  A couple weeks ago, when my sister was visiting, she overheard a woman say, “Look at that man walking his Chihuahua.”   I’m not sure if I was more disconcerted at being perceived as the kind of man who walks a Chihuahua or as a man at all, since the feeling adulthood always seems to elude me.  Besides, he’s only half Chihuahua.  Half rat terrier.  S tells me that I have stolen his heart away from her, and for now perhaps that is true.  He sleeps by me, sits on my lap when he can and stares me in the eye when he wants to know what is happening next.   I am in love with this little dog, because he is smart and adorable and good natured and obedient, but also because he so clearly is a person underneath that little fur tuxedo, because you can see, as you can with a great character in a novel, the way his mind works, how he considers his position in a room, why his particular life happens to belong to him.  And every day I love him more because my heart breaks that he can’t tell any of it to me.

If I notice, I am always caught in the tidal awareness of what I do and do not know about others.  I concoct back stories and conduct possible conversations in my head.  I ache for details of the lives out of my grasp.  I revel in their unwillingness to be my own.

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PLUS, another great poem by Painted Bride Quarterly contributor Arlene Ang:

What Happens to the Postwoman When She Stops Delivering the Mail

~@~

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Dear Heat Rash,

I’ll just come out and say it: what gives, Ms. Rash?  I thought we understood each other.  As our days together now add up to a full week, however, I feel it necessary to write to you in an effort to clear the air, as it were.  My understanding, before making your acquaintance, was that you were looking for kind of a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am thing.  If you’re hoping for something more long term—and I think it’s pretty clear you do—I’m going to need some more information.  Like just what the hell you want from me, for instance.

I am well acquainted, having neglected to wash my cross-country ski socks and underwear for my entire sophomore junior varsity season, with your cousin Fungal Infection.  Fun, as I called him for short, stayed with me somewhat longer than I would have liked, frankly.  But we got on well enough after the initial friction.  Once I did what he wanted, he was pretty content.  And, after a short time, Fun seemed to grow bored of our relationship.  I guess that’s the nature of any sadomasochistic fling; you make a habit of something kinky—like rubbing all sorts of humiliating creams on humiliating parts of your body several times a day—and eventually your partner wearies of what once enflamed him.  If we’re being perfectly honest, I wasn’t that sorry to see him go.

I mention ol’ Fun because you often get compared to him and from everything I’d heard, you are supposedly the “milder” of the cousins.  This is what I get for depending on public reputation, I suppose.  I can’t help but feel that some of the deception is your fault though.  When we first met you were mild.  Your little love bites weren’t exactly my cup of tea, but they weren’t a big problem either.

A week later, there are parts of my body I wouldn’t show in public for money.

Since Fun liked the creams, I tried that.  How was I to know this would enrage you?  Look, I get that I did the wrong thing, but the way you treated me after that was nothing short of abuse.

Next, and I’m not proud of this next bit, I did a bit of cyber-stalking to find out what you do like.  (BTW, those pictures really don’t do you justice.)  So, yeah, that’s how I came up with the soapy washcloth and the fan-drying.  And you seemed to like that.  For like a day.  But even devoting myself first thing in the morning, last thing at night and even in the middle of the day, to you, solely to you, doesn’t seem to be enough now.  Just what the fuck is going to satisfy you?!

Here’s the thing.  I don’t see how this can last, and I don’t think you’re accomplishing anything by dragging the situation out.  I really think it’s best if you just tell me what I need to do so we can end on the best terms possible and go our separate ways.

Sincerely,
N
______

Dear Al,

You are the best.  I know we haven’t been spending as much time together as you would like.  Believe me.  The feeling is mutual.  I would tell you I’ve been busy, but honestly, I haven’t been busy at all.  Most of my time these days is eaten up here at this desk where I’m writing to you.  I try, not hard enough mind you, to get words on the page.  Yeah, yeah, I’m back to the novel.  And, I realize this is an activity you have long suggested we could do together.  I know, know.  You have done this sort of thing with plenty of friends.  And yeah, I get it, a lot of them are famous.  (Actually, Al, I think the name-dropping is getting a little old.  And really, have you read any of Bukowski’s poems lately?  Not sure you should keep going around bragging about that.)  The thing is, I need to do this by myself.  I know you think you’d be a big help, but every time we’ve tried to work together it just hasn’t gone very well.  We seem to be best for each other in festive situations.  Okay, you’re right.  You have been very comforting in some of the hard times too.

All of which is neither hear nor there.  I’m writing for a few reasons.  First and foremost, I wanted to invite you to dinner tomorrow night.  My sister is coming to town and we’re going to go out.  I know you guys don’t get along all that well these days, but I’d really like you to be there.  Even if we have to keep you on opposite ends of the table, I think the meal will be a lot more fun with you there.

Second, I want to apologize for last weekend.  I know we’d planned to stay out all night on Friday, but I was just exhausted from the week.  I’m not exactly sure why I’m apologizing since you and the whole rest of that goddamn frat bar seemed to have formed a mutual admiration society.  But a broken promise is a broken promise, so I apologize.  You really could have come home with us like I suggested though.

Finally, I think we may have to mainly hang out on the weekends from now on.  Staying up with you is great, but I kind of hate myself in the morning every time.  And then my whole day is wrecked.  No offense.

Okay, I have to go meet up with Smoothie now.  Do you guys know each other?   I feel like you could be the best of friends.

All my love to Mrs. Cohol and little Zima, Boont, and Vanilla Extract,
N

______

Dear NOLA

I think I love you.

Normally, I wouldn’t be so forward, but sometimes I get the sense you don’t even realize I exist.  I feel like if you took the time to really get to know me you’d see how much we have to offer each other.  You get a lot of attention from people like me, and I’m sure that you’re really looking for someone who will stick around and make a real difference in your life.  I get that.  I do.  But I can’t help that I have to go back to New York at the end of the summer.  And unlike a lot of those other people, I care about every part of you.  I bet a lot of people tell you they think your Garden District is beautiful and your jazz scene is totally unique.  They are right.  But I am even more entranced by your rusting riverside cranes, your ripped-apart crawfish shells littered everywhere, and the way you smell just before the sun goes down.

I know we don’t actually know each other very well, and it’s probably too soon to be saying so, but it seems like you’re maybe trying to shut me out.  If you just let me into your heart, you’d see how well I could get along with the others in your life.  And eventually, I think I could, truly, become important to you too.  If we only ever hang out by ourselves though, I don’t see how this can go anywhere.  I’m not trying to pressure you.  Really.  I’m simply saying that you and I could be so much more.

This isn’t an ultimatum.  I’m going to stick around for a while no matter how you feel about all this.  However, few things would make me happier than some sign that you love me too.  I’ll see you in Audubon Park, at dusk.  If you fee like it, put on all that Spanish Moss.  I love the way you look with your hair down like that.

Love, really,
N

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Kazim Ali’s recent American Poetry Review columns have been stunning. His most recent is a bad-assed belletristic constellation of texts (where he makes a common cadre in media studies—Paul Virilio, Jean Baudrillard, Slavoj Zizek, and The Matrix—meet up with Melville & Dickinson), and it transcends the boundary of a “column” to become an essay.

Ali thus reminds me that 1) poetry magazines are indeed the ideal venue for aesthetically gorgeous and intellectually rigorous essays; and 2) the term “belles lettres” has unfortunately come to be used as a derisive moniker for essays that rely on “long, spooling, New Yorker style stuff” (as the fictional Charlie Kaufman says of Susan Orlean’s work in the film Adaptation). The art of the relevant tangent makes some readers—and teachers of college composition—roll their eyes.

But what if the effect of the artful essay could be similar to the most stunning poems? Or, to twist this line of thought to include the work of Kathleen Graber (check out http://pbq.drexel.edu/issue78/content/prose/1.html ), Ciaran Berry (http://www.siuc.edu/~siupress/berrythesphereofbirds.html ), and Gregory Pardlo  (http://www.aprweb.org/bookprize/pardlo.shtml): what if some of the best poems could be described as essayistic?

All of which brings me back to Kazim Ali’s recent APR column, “Write on My Wall.”

When he uses a riot of texts to ponder the body and its boundary(less)(ness) he makes me wonder about the “boundaries” of literary magazines. Does PBQ reinforce or blur its boundaries when, say, I link to APR?

http://www.aprweb.org/

To Henry Israeli at Saturnalia Books?

http://www.saturnaliabooks.com/

Or the Crab Orchard Review?

http://craborchard.siuc.edu/

(All of whom have published my essayistic trifecta above—Pardlo, Graber, Berry).

Online, are PBQ’s boundaries rigid or porous? On one hand we engage in a mutually constitutive game: we reinforce the cred of the sites and sources we link to, and by linking to them we reinforce our own. But we also soften our own edges. Building links into this blog I feel like Whitman’s noiseless patient spider; sending out filaments I conjure a web of ideal works, call our aesthetic into view.  But spider webs are virtually invisible things; you’ve got to cock your head to see them.

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I have a major intellectual-aesthetic-poetry crush on Gregory Pardlo and Teresa Leo.

Poet Lore has a crush on Greg too. Cornelius Eady selected Greg as this month’s featured poet. Be sure to check out the stunning “Problema” poems included there–  http://www.poetlore.com/issues.php (Actually, APR had a crush on him first, awarding him the Honickman Prize for his stunning collection Totem—available on Amazon. But my crush is longer still, tracing back to his early poems, his Serengeti years, his Rutgers days).

And Elixir Press has a big crush on Teresa Leo’s Halo Rule. http://www.teresaleo.com/

Each time I read Teresa’s poems I’m stunned by the way she masterfully combines rigor, heart and wit. And you MUST check out “Arc: A Quest,” the essay she penned for APR. Basketball, a broken tooth, artist colonies, and the art of crafting a poetry collection: the wild range of material coheres via the magnetic pull of her thought process. Cool indeed:  http://www.aprweb.org/issues/july07/leo.html

And the attendees at the New Jersey Poetry Festival now have a crush on them too.

Greg and Teresa read for PBQ yesterday at Diane Lockward’s New Jersey Poetry Festival in West Caldwell, NJ. http://www.dianelockward.com/fest.html.

Lockward runs an warm, welcoming, amazingly efficient day of readings–  4 hours, 12 journals, 24 poets, AND the Mayor showed up and dubbed her West Caldwell’s Poet Laureate. Huzzah.

So, fine, everybody loves them now.  But PBQ loved you first; we’ve loved you longest. And we’ll keep on loving you as your stars continue to rise. Cue REO Speedwagon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-mw1HGJjdA

Do I sound desperate? Fear not. I’ve decided to expand the range of objects of my affection.

Helloooo, New York Quarterlyhttp://www.nyquarterly.org/support.html

Come here often, Now Culture?:  http://www.nyquarterly.org/support.html

How you doin’, The Literary Review: http://www.theliteraryreview.org/

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Ever pulled the plug on your hair dryer and blown a fuse? I knew someone who did that, then soon realized the power was out in her whole building, indeed the whole Eastern Seaboard. The blackout of 2003 had many of us feeling that undeniable feeling of “ooops.”

‘Fess up. Maybe you’ve felt it too, that odd mixture of culpability and confusion. The brain seeks closure, causality. My hand + that switch + lights out East Coast= shit.

What is that emotion? A twinge of guilt, a whiff of ego? It’s funny the way technology brings out the magical thinkers in us. This adult feeling has a darker twin in the way children sometimes feel at the loss of a loved one– that somehow, in some deep, undeniable way, the child is at fault.

But I’m starting to think that funky combo of narcissism and culpability at the heart of “breaking” the power grid, for example, is inversely proportional to a new emotional relationship I’ve developed with my Blackberry: I’m addicted. And I’m clueless.

Picture me thus: whaling away with both thumbs, texting and e-mailing; wild-eyed with the velocity of information. But do I know why I can’t save a photo file? Have I a clue where the photo-taking button actually is? Am I constantly/inadvertently taking pictures of my knee caps? At least I’ve stopped “butt-dialing” random folks in my address book. And what’s with all those icons? An “app” used to mean chicken fingers back in the day.

I’m so old I “learned the computer” back in the basement of Armitage Hall at Rutgers University in Camden. I learned COBOL; I programmed in BASIC. I actually developed a program for a video store cash register and got a B+ in the class. Not bad for a diehard English major. But even then, when computers were new, the lot of us in the basement often looked up from our monitors, blanched, convinced that we’d somehow made the wrong keystroke and broken the hard drive.

Do kids weaned on X-Box ever feel like they might break the machine? Bring down the grid?  Or is this generational angst, borne of a moment when old technologies were new?

Still, I dusted off my skills in late 1999, when Y2K was a looming crisis and only those who knew the old languages could save the day. C’est moi.

So imagine my chagrin at thumbing my Blackberry like the worst cliché of an octogenarian learning e-mail. AS IF I SHOULD WRITE THE REST OF THIS BLOG IN ALL CAPS.

I don’t think this dual capacity to relish new communication technologies while simultaneously owning my “unsophisticated user” status is unique to Web 2.0 culture.

Take, for example, driving a car. In a snow storm. You’re in a skid. The dreaded fishtail. And you recall what Driver’s Ed. taught you to do: don’t hit the gas! Don’t jam the brakes! Spin the steering wheel into the direction of the skid, lad, spin it into the skid. But me? I assume “crash positions” a la Airplane. Hands and feet off the wheel, off the pedals, whooping whoops until the car comes to a stop.

I was reminded of all this when I saw a graffitied NYC MTA subway map recently. (Go here: http://www.mta.info/nyct/maps/submap.htm ). Some wiseacre had tagged it, specifically in the wide open expanse of blue to the upper right of what can only be described as the technicolored spaghetti of the subway grid. In the spot where the waters of the East River turn towards Rikers, where the Sound is a promise the map makes, someone wrote “There Be Dragons Here.”

We fill the limits of what we know with magic. We are all cartographers at heart. Drive on.

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