Thoughts on Cows

When I was growing up in the 70s, cows were the last thing on my mind. Even though we lived in a suburb of Dallas, and I went to a rodeo or two, I never considered the cow itself. I saw cows getting roped, or maybe it was calves, and cowboys riding wild bulls. It was the cowboys I noticed, who wore jeans so tight, you could tell if they hung right or left.

The creature I recall from childhood is the crawdad. After sheets of hard rain swept across the Texas plains, rivers would crest in the concrete gutters along our street, rivers full of crawdads flooded from their dirt hole homes, scores of crawdads waving their little claws as if to say, Help me, please, save me! Poor little crawdads. Their pinchy claws scared me. Who wanted to save a vicious little crustacean, even if it was drowning?

Cows, unlike crawdads, were merely part of the landscape we drove through on our way to Town East mall in Dallas. The mall was my dream destination, my teenage Shangri-La. I daydreamed about pet rocks and Kiss posters, Famolare sandals and denim stitched with rainbows. My parents hardly ever took us to the mall, even though it was only thirty miles away. The mall was reserved for special adult-approved missions, like shopping for school clothes or during holidays.

When we traveled to the mall, we drove past field after field of cows, I’m positive. I mean, I don’t remember a particular field of cows, just a generic version of a field of cows that’s repeated over and over in my head: fence, field, cows, fence, field, cows, fence, field, cows, like a Warhol painting of a northeast Texas interstate.

Cows became personal when I had my first experience in a field. In the meantime, without being conscious of cows, I encountered their products every day: milk, cheese, beef, and leather. I admit I’ve never really liked milk. I was given it as a child and told to drink it because it would grow strong bones and healthy teeth. Maybe I’m of above average height because my parents made me drink so much milk, or maybe it’s genetic because my parents were tall, or maybe they seemed tall because I was a child and they could tell me what to do.

I don’t drink milk now, though it’s a necessary ingredient when making a béchamel or pudding. A béchamel is basically milk gravy, what my mother made with sausage to pour over biscuits. Cow milk, to me, is a bodily fluid produced naturally to feed calves. Although a man once called me a heifer, I’ve never liked drinking milk.

Cheese, on the other hand, is delicious. My current are asiago and gouda. My memories of cheese are of processed American slices, which my mother turned into creamy grilled cheese for lunch, or macaroni and cheese, or maybe bologna and cheese on white bread with mayonnaise. When I was in kindergarten and first grade, I was allowed to walk home all by myself for lunch. The school was three blocks from our home, though the street passed by a dark, scary woods. No one worried that I’d be kidnapped. No one worried that I’d get lost. Bologna and cheese sandwiches were my reward for making the lonely journey, and they’re still one of my comfort foods. When I was a young girl, I was required to wear dresses to school. At least some things have changed.

While my mother knew how to cook with cheese, she was terrible at beef and all meats. She never really liked cooking. She once told me that her ideal house didn’t have a kitchen in it. Dinner generally consisted of a protein, a carb, and a canned vegetable. I never particularly enjoyed dinner, but I didn’t know enough to complain. I thought everyone’s evening meal consisted of fried meat, boiled potato chunks, and soggy corn seasoned with salt and margarine.

Only later, even decades later, did I experience real butter, which caused me to question everything I had been fed as a child. There were people in the world who actually enjoyed cooking, who considered it an art. There were fragrant spices and fresh ingredients. People ate different kinds of things, foods like sushi and hummus and bagels.

And cows, beef, what exactly is the attraction? I never particularly liked hamburgers or the sirloins my mother fried on top of the stove. In time I discovered that cows were sacred and unavailable for consumption in India due to Hindu belief. I began to think that we might save the planet if the cow became sacred to Christians. Cows require an inordinate amount of grain and water and are raised in medieval cow cities sustained by antibiotics; they expel excessive methane gas and manure, and their meat isn’t even healthy, though, in the end, it’s the environmental costs that kill me. I’m not even a Christian, but if we made the cow sacred and stop eating beef, we would be doing the planet a favor.

Cows have always been political, from Gilgamesh to Texas. My first personal experience with cows involved breaking the law. I was dating the son of a veterinarian, a young man who happened to own a jeep. He picked me up at dusk, and we drove into the night, deep into the country. He picked a field and turned into it, straining the barbed wire fence with his massive jeep bumper until the wires snapped. Then we drove into the field and parked under the open sky where we were surrounded by a herd of cows. We drank Southern Comfort while the cows serenaded us. They mooed and lowed as we kissed and made out, trespassing and drinking underage. We didn’t care, and neither did the cows. I appreciated their disinterest.

Even though I’ve never made personal friends with a cow, their musical grazing is soothing. When cows die a natural death, is it okay to turn them into leather? The longer a cow lives, the larger is grows, and the more skin its carcass will yield, thus the more boots, the more purses, the more belts. Maybe if leather were the point, we would let cows live out their life expectancy, roughly twenty years. We could make the cow sacred and have more nice shoes. I think it’s a win/win.

Putin, You’re Such a Beefcake

 

putin

Bare-chested roofer

         posed by a Siberian river with your fishing rod

                  next to cliffs majestic as crumbling pyramids.

 Make us scream, make lovers scream

          we want you, Vladimir, like ivy

          wants to smother mausoleums.

          Sweep us off our feet with your sweeping side kick,

          squat in camouflage pants for crotch shots,

          let us chew the skin off your creamy KGB boots,

          know we’ll swallow no matter what, even unto arsenic—

 we’ll do it, boyfriend. Raise the vodka and Kool-Aid

          to toast your strapping chesticles

                   illuminated in August on a gallant stallion.

          Please strip off your shirt again in September.

 We need your sexy Bolshevism on our pin-up calendar.      

With regards to the Post Office

Two hundred copies of Issue 35, Kestrel, Spring 2016, arrived at Fairmont State University to the temporary home of the Language and Literature Department on Friday, July 22. On Monday, editor-in-chief Donna Long and I met to begin processing the mailing. We ran into some obstacles, including the wrong size labels, and desperately missed our intern, Velicia, who was out of town visiting family. We finally succeeded in mailing contributor copies. We agreed that on Wednesday we would meet again to send out subscriber copies and copies to Kestrel supporters.

The subscriber labels list was even trickier to format and print, so Donna worked on that while I did the hands-on business: stuff the envelopes, write “Book Rate” in permanent marker on each envelope (we need a stamp, it’s on the office shopping list), and then slap on return address labels.

I must admit, it felt time-consuming to spend hours processing a mass mailing. It’s repetitive labor. I had to stand and stretch now and then to ease my poor posture from bending over envelopes. It made me ponder my purpose in life, and how proud I was of our recent issue, including an essay by West Virginia writer Jorn Earl Otte that introduced me to the Drake Equation, a mathematical formula that proves that life on other planets is possible. It was amazing, like reading A Brief History of Time and realizing the power of narrative.

Donna finally managed to print the stinking labels just as I finished the envelopes. As we affixed the subscriber labels, it was a welcome surprise to recognize every name, and to think of the people behind the names who read Kestrel and attend Celebrations, who care about literature and poetry and art. Processing a mass mailing of a literary journal is more than tedious labor; it’s a thread in the connection that makes a community of thinkers and readers separated by distance but close in mind. Therein, the pleasure lies.

“Because the Night”: A Tribute to the Songs & Poetry of Patti Smith

A poetry friend from New York posted an event on fb that caught my eye. It was a tribute concert for the songs and poetry of Patti Smith, to take place in Brooklyn on April 29 at Union Hall in Park Slope, with tickets costing only $10.

I shared the event with my dear friend Maggie. Maggie is a lifelong admirer of Smith and also of New York City, where she wandered the streets as an adolescent in the 90s while visiting her aunts who were working professionals with apartments. Maggie introduced me to Smith’s memoirs, Just Kids and M Train, narratives I fell in love with for their motifs and structures, and for Smith’s commitment to the art of everyday life and living.

We decided we had to attend the Tribute. We got a room at the Union Hotel, a renovated space modern, comfortable, and close to the venue, a good thing since the weather was terrible, a wicked wind, intermittent rain, and barely 50 degrees. The best part was that it’s only six hours to drive from Fairmont, WV to Brooklyn, and that street parking there is FREE. We had parking luck, snagging a spot right in front of our lodgings.

The night of the Tribute, we arrived early at Union Hall, a renovated warehouse with fireplaces, a library, two indoor bocce courts, outdoor garden seating, and a downstairs bar where the event took place. The Tribute was produced by Heather Eatman, a friend of Smith’s, as were many of the performers. It was standing room only in the downstairs bar, with a lineup of musicians and poets that made tired feet worthwhile.

Tammy Faye Starlight, a blonde stage performer who appeared in the movie Pootie Tang (2001), opened with a raucous chorus of “Gloria.” At one point, she came into the audience and singled Maggie out to dance with.  All of the performers were excellent, including my poet friend, Puma Perl, whose reading of the poem “Wave” made me forget I had a body. Queen Esther’s minimalist approach to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was both a tribute to Smith and purely original. When Benjamin Cartel sang “Because the Night,” I had to dance to the rhythm. The final song, “People Have the Power,” was enjoined by all the performers gathered onstage. There were other poems, other songs, the event lasting almost three hours.

Released afterward into the night, we ran into Puma and her friend, Joe Sztabnik, at a food truck that served coffee on the corner. It made me happy that she remembered me from a poetry reading in Soho in October, 2010. She and Joe asked what we thought of the Tribute. We both assured her we loved it, though I complained about the weather and said, “We have to get to the hotel before it rains again.”

Puma said, “I’ll tell you. People don’t come to New York for the weather.” I realized she was right.

“Love Lets Us Down” named Foreword Reviews’ 2015 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards Finalist

Today, All Nations Press is pleased to announce Love Lets Us Down has been recognized as a finalist in the 18th annual Foreword Reviews’ INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards. Here is the complete list:

https://indiefab.forewordreviews.com/finalists/2015/

Love Lets Us Down is a finalist in Adult Literary Fiction.

Each year, Foreword Reviews shines a light on a select group of indie publishers, university presses, and self-published authors whose work stands out from the crowd. In the next three months, a panel of more than 100 volunteer librarians and booksellers will determine the winners in 63 categories based on their experience with readers and patrons.

“The 2015 INDIEFAB finalist selection process is as inspiring as it is rigorous,” said Victoria Sutherland, publisher of Foreword Reviews. “The strength of this list of finalists is further proof that small, independent publishers are taking their rightful place as the new driving force of the entire publishing industry.”

Foreword Reviews will celebrate the winners during a program at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida in June. We will also name the Editor’s Choice Prize 2015 for Fiction, Nonfiction and Foreword Reviews’ 2015 INDIEFAB Publisher of the Year Award during the presentation.

Death bed wishes and “As I Lay Dying”

 

When I first read As I Lay Dying, I fell in love with its unusual structure and semiotics, which made the novel puzzling in the best possible way. The story is told by fifteen different voices, an agonistics of expression that creates some characters as reprehensible, some as sympathetic, others as enigmas or pitiable, some as pious, some as hard-hearted, and all of them as self-serving.

The plot itself is simple enough: Addie Bundren is dying and wants to be buried in her hometown, Jefferson. Each family member has a motive for honoring or resisting the request; ultimately, the journey is made, though not without extravagant hardship and suffering.

Anse Bundren, Addie’s husband, is one of the more reprehensible characters in the novel, maybe in all of literature. Addie’s death bed wish is honored by her husband, Anse, because he wants new false teeth and a new wife, and he knows he can acquire them in Jefferson. He appears without grief at his wife’s passing. Her death seems mere currency for Anse to trade for sympathy in his WASP agrarian community, one that indulges in funeral gatherings and ritual mourning.

I wonder if Addie’s loss ever catches up to Anse. Is there a moment in the future, beyond the novel, when he will remember Addie and miss her with a pang of grief so sharp he cries out or drops to his knees? What if Anse feels compelled to visit her grave? How often will he make the journey to Jefferson?

In Love Lets Us Down, the character of Horace Benford has honored his wife’s death bed request to be buried near Indianapolis in her extended family’s plot, which is two hundred miles away from where he lives outside Chicago. Horace is eighty-two years old. Due to his own health issues, he has previously been unable to make the drive to Indianapolis to visit his wife’s grave with flowers. He finally makes the trip as he reflects on their marriage. He believes he was a good husband even though he was a serial cheater, that he couldn’t have “loved Dorothy more.” But was he a good husband, the best he could be in all possible worlds? Dorothy stayed with him until the end, just like Addie stayed with Anse.

Me and Emily Dickinson

So many writers have responded to the poems and person of Emily Dickinson that it seems extravagant, even self-indulgent, to add a word. And yet her poems have touched me as a reader, writer, and thinker, enhancing my understanding of the world in ways permanent and profound. One thing she made clear to me is the transparent dialectic that imagines life after death.

My favorite afterlife poem is #479, an eternal carriage ride around the earth with a civil coachman driving the horses (there are worst versions of what happens when we die). One joy for me is the poetic turn between the 3rd and 4th stanzas. The speaker has observed from the carriage window the stages of life: childhood and its rules of play, an adulthood like attentive grain, and old age like the setting sun.

But the relationship between the sun and the carriage is revised immediately in the first line of the 4th stanza: “Or rather—He passed Us—.” The carriage moves slower than earth’s rotation that hides and reveals the sun. Perhaps the carriage barely moves at all, an inch, a centimeter, a day. What does time matter in eternity anyway? Nature continues its cycles relentlessly, while time is set free.

A similar understanding of eternity is essential in the opening chapter of Love Lets Us Down. When newlyweds Dorissa and Don Millard die tragically on their honeymoon night, their remains take forty years to travel three-quarters of a mile to the Meridian Inn, where they had a reservation. The speed they establish, twenty-three-thousandths of an inch per minute, approximately three-and-a-quarter inches a day, is the same length as the average flaccid penis. At least that’s what a friend told me.

Other Dickinson poems that are part of the afterlife dialectic include #445, #519, and #591, and are worth taking a look at.