A Good Husband

Melinda was fine, better than my ex-girlfriends who were ugly, desperate things clinging to some idea they’d pinned me to. No, Melinda was fine, not the greatest-looking thing, but average. If one were to walk through a mall or some crowded space and happened to go by Melinda, nothing of her would enter and linger in memory. But I held her—she was my Melinda. We rarely argued and when we did the bickering was never indicative of a deeply-seated malice toward the other. We were good partners, married for seven wholesome years.

Melinda was a decent cook, and whenever I made a terrible joke or remark she always managed to smile for my sake. Good Melinda. She wanted a family; I told her I would make a terrible father and about the ills of overpopulation. She understood. But if there were any flaw in this immaculate system it would be that she loved me. I disliked the way she looked at me when everything surrounding was silent. I hated her looking because I was never able to truly replicate it to her benefit, even when her life was dissolving away. There were days when I believed that she knew that the feeling wasn’t mutual and this would always sink some guilt into me. Poor Melinda; I didn’t love her.

It was when she was in the hospital that I tried to heighten the illusion, but there was always an undercurrent of doubt which rendered my attempts visibly facile to me, and as a result I couldn’t help but feel she perceived my performance. But I remember her face, a small smile rising from the white. Her contentment and lack of fear made me feel better, but it also made me want to make her truly believe that some other loved her. So I tried being there for her, telling her how much I loved her (maybe I told her too often,) but the more I tried the more gaudy and ineffectual it all felt.

Then, of course, she died. I was out when it occurred. At first, I hoped Melinda believed, but I was also touched by guilt; she spent the last nine years of her life under a deception. I soon returned to our room and sat on the bed. I started thinking about how she should’ve spent her life with someone else, one who could have done more than paint a fabricated spark. But she never had anybody, not even me. Pathetic Melinda.

But the new wife is good; she’s a better cook than Melinda. But I’ll never tell her about my previous wife, I mean, I’ve said things of her, of course, but I never told her about Melinda and the things she represented to me because I need to retain the wife’s safety and faith in me. I also need to move on—we’re going to have a family it turns out. I’m fine with this outcome, though I wouldn’t mind having a son over a daughter. I hear taking care of girls is a troubling endeavor; boys are simply easier. And plus, I don’t want a daughter to become one of those women who sit alone in crowded places, groping for my eyes.

The Fat Man

It was nine o’clock at night at the fast food joint; Jeremy’s head pointed down at the hamburger on his tray while his father watched—they hadn’t spoken to one another in years. The moments alternated between silence and eating; occasionally, Jeremy’s father would ask his son a question about school or girls to which Jeremy would answer promptly, then everything would return to silence.

Jeremy wasn’t mad at his father for leaving or for the things he’d done. He looked up and saw a desperation within his face. “So, what’s it like living on your own?” Jeremy nodded. “Good.” “Yeah,” his father said, “I think it’s a good experience to have.” A moment, then Jeremy returned to the burger, barely a chunk left.

The both of them wished that they could make their meeting mean something more, but Jeremy had nothing to say to his father and his father had nothing to say to his son. Jeremy didn’t mention how he was in a bad place because he didn’t want to burden his father with such things, not now.

However, minutes later, they were both pulled by an image that entered their peripherals—an overweight man in a gray wife-beater shuffling toward the condiment trays. His fat head turned and looked down at the trays; Jeremy and his father both watched. The fat man observed the empty tray for an entire minute then scratched his chin. “No more mustard,” he muttered to himself before making the trudge back to his booth. Jeremy turned and noticed his father still watching the fat man.

It wasn’t until the grotesque sat down at his booth when his father’s eyes quickly fixed themselves back to Jeremy. Suddenly, he leaned over. “Did you see that?” Jeremy laughed at this. His father shook his head. “God. You know, I read somewhere that airplanes need extra fuel now because everyone’s gotten so fucking fat.” “Really?” “Yeah!” They looked over at the pathetic fat man stuffing fries into his burger and then taking a bite. “So that’s why flying is so expensive.” Jeremy and his father laughed together at this and then nodded. A few minutes later they walked outside. In the parking lot Jeremy’s father squeezed Jeremy’s shoulder and told him how proud he was, then he was gone. And so was Jeremy.

Meeting Joe

Let’s look at Joe.

A low darkness has taken the place of his home. We enter through the window, approach a door; it opens. A light hums here, revealing Joe standing over a sink. There is no mirror so we don’t know what he looks like–we just know the back of his head and neck. Where is your face, Joe?

Morning enters, Joe disappears. His world is no longer concealed; his apartment is small. There are things on the walls. Trophies have fallen from their mantle. Plates on the floor and the table is hidden underneath papers and magazines. What do you read, Joe?

He returns. There’s his face, but he has no TV. Joe opens his computer and plays his guitar for it. Another song from Joe. He has written thousands, none good enough for ears. But we can hear this song. It’s a good song, Joe.

Joe looks out the window, watching the cars. There is no phone. We watch Joe walk around, we watch Joe eat, we watch Joe. There’s nothing there, we think. Joe sits down and his eyes are fixed in our direction. He isn’t looking at us. He can’t see us. What are you thinking about, Joe?

Night fills everything once again. Joe is hidden from us. No lights are on tonight.

Poetry, A Serious Business

In a prose-poem book I’m reading called Migritude (which I may review in the future) for a class one of the sections is introduced through a quote from poet Adrienne Rich:

The impulse to create begins–often terribly and fearfully–in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence, and the first question we might ask any poem is, what kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?

A giant theme in Migritude is silence, thus the reason why the author, Shailja Patel, chose this quote, and even though the quote seems to make sense on the surface it actually represents a lot of what is wrong with the arts, particularly literature. For one thing there’s the idea that the creative impulse emerges from a tunnel of silence. This is wholly wrong. Personally, my impulse to create often comes when I have read a good poem or story. I started writing poetry when I was first introduced to the poetry of Wallace Stevens; had I never read a single line of poetry it seems unlikely that I would have ever picked-up the pen to write my own. So no, the impulse to create often does not come from silence, but rather being surrounded by communication and art, meaning that not only is Rich wrong, but that the exact inverse is correct. (One might be able to argue the weakness of my refutation citing that it’s purely anecdotal, but my experience is probably shared with most artists.)

Rich then states that every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence. I place an emphasis on real because that is how I read it. What she is implying is that only “real poetry” breaks silence; this means that “real poems” are somehow a breaking of some sort of silence, meaning that “real poems” do important things. As for the rest of the sentiment one can take this at face-value and say “duh, of course it breaks silence, poetry is a form of communication, the opposite of silence,” however what’s truly problematic about the quote is what is implied. From the tone of the quote it is clear that what Rich is really arguing is how “important” poetry is because poetry, after all, breaks silence (and isn’t it ironic that Adrienne Rich’s quote talks about breaking silence, you know, because she’s dead?) Here is the problem with how people regard the arts: They take it way too seriously. What this quote represents is an idea that art is “serious business” where no fun is allowed. But this idea circumvents reality for art, in essence, is really just entertainment, albeit a higher form. This is not to say that art is incapable of breaking political, ideological or cultural “silences,” but by saying that”real poems” are not entertainment, but perform important societal and spiritual functions one places an unwarranted importance on art. This is why there are so many books and poems around that are snore-inducing, because the creators believe that art’s primary function isn’t to interest the reader, but rather to give a lecture or augment society for the better. Again, not saying that artists and writers shouldn’t try to be political or deal with important issues, but a true artist shouldn’t forget that he is an artist first and a political commentator second; if the artist forgets this then his work is more likely to suffer. For example, here’s a poem from Patel’s book, a poem called “First Dates in Utopia”:

In this room, for one hour
let’s be easy in our skins
observe ourselves
with gentle curiosity
proffer and accept
selected morsels of our lives.

Let’s regard each other
with eyes that smile
with faces that engage,
savor without urgency
the strangeness of being human.

This poem is terrible (especially the lines, “eyes that smile / with faces that engage”) because Patel is more interested in expounding a particular message (and a banal one as well) than engaging the reader with intriguing connections, imagery, wordplay or music. This is because art isn’t supposed to be fun, but supposed to be “educational” and “important;” the gravest sin one could ever committ is to have fun with his verse goshdarnit! What’s also confounding is that no one realizes that writing a poem held together by things like imagery and wordplay actually does the message a greater service for it’s provided a greater and more impacting vessel to transport itself to the reader. The sentiment expressed in Patel’s poem is similar to that of many Whitman poems, yet I can read a poem by Whitman and be more compelled by the sentiment because of the way it’s communicated and this is because Whitman was a poet first, and a “serious commentator” and “silence-decimater” second–reading Patel’s poem I feel nothing.

Patel’s book contains poems of similar ilk, yet Migritude is highly praised for it deals with serious issues, and artistic worth is now synonymous with “societal import.” What’s troubling about this is that generic poems and art earns undeserved accolades while good art is largely ignored. And if a good piece of art manages to get positive attention it is for the wrong reasons.

This all goes back to Rich’s quote for it represents this idea, that art that aspires to be “real” has to break some sort of silence, has to be important because art is super serious business. Life is defined by suffering and so is our art, goddamnit! But ultimately, what emerges from this idea is bad art made by pretentious people. The great critic and poet Dan Schneider on his website, Cosmoetica, argues that art is just a manifestation of fun. This doesn’t mean that art can’t be serious, but it’s a creative form of expression first, spurred by a desire to do something enjoyable. People, like Rich, who think that the creative impulse results (terribly and fearfully no less) from some deeply-rooted, existential or spiritual need to fill some void, have a warped sense as to what art is; this results in people championing rather dull and polemic verse, thus one of the major issues with the arts today.

A Smile for Greg

Greg once did an extraordinary thing. Just as he was leaving one of his classes one of the girls smiled at him in the hallway. She was a pretty girl, not the hottest he had ever seen, but she was certainly good-looking. But instead of smiling back, Greg walked right past her and pushed down the hallway. As he was walking he anticipated the girl’s reaction, her confident face deforming into something of utter confusion and dejection. This image, without his noticing, allowed a grin to emerge on Greg’s own face. A girl as pretty as she had never been so promptly rejected, Greg thought as he exited the building, walking into the clear, spring day. He felt as if he had unearthed a certain power that had been resting within him. He started walking toward the dorm building, a grin still plastered to his acne-scarred face.

In his room, his fingers busied themselves on the keyboard, conjuring monsters on the computer screen to raid an enemy’s fortress. He pressed a couple of buttons and the minions overtook the walls. Fireballs ruptured through the sky and pummeled the top of the fortress, inching its life-bar closer to the red. Eventually, the lair became gutted and black with its once lofty towers disappearing into nice plumes of smoke. Greg’s hand slammed a couple of cheese-coated crackers into his mouth as he watched his minions gather the innards of the fortress for his virtual kingdom.

Greg sunk a couple of more hours into the game. There was satisfaction here, until Greg started thinking about the girl again. Greg’s fingers stopped moving and his eyes turned away from the computer screen. The girl had no interest in him. No, of course not, at least not as a potential boyfriend, but rather as some sort of lowly freak to toy with. He looked back at his computer and started playing his game again. He tried to erase the girl’s smile from the pockets of his memory, but its meaning lingered.

He soon recalled how, a couple of days before, she had complimented his hat, incorrectly referring to it as a fedora. He told her that it was actually a porkpie and then she smiled. But it was the sardonic tone that he had found within her voice that now held him. Of course, he thought, no girls are interested in him—they’re all just phonies who like to smile for the sake of smiling or to practice their certain power over others. His mind then turned toward himself. He thought about how stupid it was to even consider that someone as good-looking as she would be interested in a pale, noodle-armed loser like him. His face started turning warm and red. He tried getting back into his game; it was the only thing that he could do.

During the weekend he tried ignoring that face in the hallway, but his mind would drift back towards it. Sometimes, he would be eating something and the smile would appear to him in a flash. It was especially rough on Saturday when Greg was sitting innocently in his dorm room, gazing at the back of an empty bag of chips. He saw that one of the ingredients was aged-cheese powder and, for whatever reason, this triggered the smile’s return. He tried pulling his mind back by focusing on the different varieties of potato chips, but the attempt was futile. That wretched, toothy grin glowed before him, enveloping everything. Soon, his mind floated past that image and into darker things. He started thinking about how, at nineteen, he was still a virgin and how he’s never even had at and that the only smiles he has ever received were from girls that had no intention of sleeping with him, and fatties.

Greg wasn’t a jerk like most guys were, he thought to himself. Yet, when he was in high school, all the girls were averse to him and favored the boring rich guy with the haircut that looked nice regardless of the weather. Greg was the outsider, but he considered himself “above” most, including the more popular and likeable students. He was, after all, a genius. But people were more interested in how far you can throw a football, not in how well you can maintain your resources in an online game. People favored superficial things, rather than intelligence, and Greg always thought that this was the reason why he was labelled a “loser” in high school and why he was never laid.

But now, certainty slipped from him. Greg rose from his chair, letting the empty bag escape his hand and onto the floor. He looked out the window—it was getting dark. Greg, without thinking, left his room and went outside. He wandered around the campus and felt silly doing so, but he continued anyway, circling around the campus and eventually coming back to the front of the dorm building. Instead of going back in, however, he turned and sat at a bench. From there he looked up at the building. It was three stories high. The lights were coming on and soon every other window turned to a yellow. He started feeling silly again, silly for being outside in the cold and not back in his own room playing his game. Why did he let that girl get to him? Why did she matter at all? He stared at the windows of the dorms and imagined what each student was doing and how most of them had average hopes and average ambitions. They, like that girl, were held by society’s game, Greg thought, and insecure and hopeless, destined to live barely-human and mediocre lives. Greg got up and headed back to the door. As he turned the handle he thought about how he was above all that.

Grabbing the Hawks

Bernard was eighty and lived in a small room. He was given food and played cards, but he wasn’t content like the others who smiled when somebody they knew came by and acknowledged them. Every day, Bernard overheard their chatterings; they talked about the weather and what was on TV. They were content; death didn’t linger there.

He knew that the others did not give-up, but were mostly satisfied. They all probably thought that they lived a “good” life and, as a result, were unburdened by death’s nearing. But Bernard felt pathetic, embittered with himself that he too cannot succumb to relaxing, allowing his skin to warm underneath the sun.

And this was all because Bernard was an artist. He was never financially successful, but well-respected. He knew well of other people’s admiration, but wasn’t able to turn to his own works and see what they saw. No matter how much he was praised he felt the truth, that he was merely a mediocrity. Bernard, throughout his life, felt that he was on the cusp of greatness. On the cusp. But then Bernard became tired and old and unmotivated. He was placed in a retirement facility; they gave him food and he played cards.

But on one warm Saturday morning, Bernard left his room and went outside to sit on the grass and watch the gathering of ducks. There was nothing special about these birds except, by circumstance, they gave Bernard comfort. When he was a kid he was fascinated by the hawks that would fly above the buildings and trees. The ducks didn’t share the same essence as the hawks that hovered within his memory, but they allowed him to feel like a child, when he was allowed to marvel at the hawks that were beyond him and everything. Bernard sat there and closed his eyes, and somehow, felt that the hawks were now closer to him.