Wordsworth at Passover

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Guest post by Alicia Jo Rabins

One of the fantastic things about the Torah as a literary work is how it combines impossibly broad swaths of narrative (the world is created, a flood destroys it, etc.) with precise details (Rachel, having stolen her father’s idols and hidden them in a camel saddle, sits on the saddle, pretending she has her period and can’t get up, as her father tears apart the tent looking for his idols).

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Giambattista Tiepolo, Rachel Hides the Idols, 1726.
For observant Jews, these details are more than merely literary delights; they have real- life ramifications. As I type this, Jews across the world are preparing to replace our beloved bagels, pita, Cheerios, and chocolate chip cookies with matzah for eight days as a result of the commandments to avoid leavening on Passover. And why? All as the result of one of those details: the children of Israel had to leave Egypt so fast they didn’t have time to let their dough rise. They ran through the parted sea with the dough on their backs, baking in the sun, and ate it on the other side: voila, matzah.
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Now, when you take a step back, the idea of eating a giant cracker to memorialize a key event in a people’s cultural-spiritual history is kind of funny. But ritual often looks a little funny from a distance. This one seems particularly illogical, though: the original matzah was the result of extreme haste, an absolute lack of preparation, and the point of eating matzah year after year is to re-enact that hasty departure from Egypt*… So is the best way to re-enact that panic and desperation really by munching on mass-produced matzah? In fact, one could ask that question of the entire seder ritual. Seder means order: how can a step-by-step ritualized meal, planned centuries in advance, enable us to access the experience of people undergoing an utterly unexpected, radical transformation?

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Marc J. Straus, Winter 2009-10 Contributor

Picture 2.jpgOur final Contributor’s Annex for the Tony Hoagland issue! Thanks to all our Contributors for their insight and support.

Marc J. Straus has three collections of poems from TriQuarterly Books-Northwestern University Press: One Word (1994), Symmetry (2000), and Not God (2006), the latter, a play in verse that had its premier stage production at Luna Stage in Montclair, NJ, April – May 2009. He practices medical oncology.

Straus’ poem “Mrs. Abernathy” appears in the Winter 2009-10 edition of Ploughshares, guest edited by Tony Hoagland. View the Winter 2009-10 issue.


An excerpt from “Mrs. Abernathy”:

“Soft trees against blue sky.” That is how
Mrs. Abernathy described it
before she died. “A small barn bent further
than my arthritic spine…

After the jump, Straus talks about his poetic experiences with patients, including the one remarkable woman who inspired this piece.

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Shall I Compare Thee to a Taco Bell?: Pop in Poetry

Hyland Blog OK copy.jpgGuest post by Peter B. Hyland

In 1877, Joseph Ray, M.D.–”late professor in Woodward College”–published Ray’s New Practical Arithmetic. I own a copy for some reason, part of a small collection of nineteenth-century books that my father-in-law gave me, containing everything from an abridged version of Livingstone and Stanley to The Early Poems of John Greenleaf Whittier. They’re beautiful artifacts, each disintegrating at its own pace.

Hyland pop 1.JPGRay’s Arithmetic is especially cool. A name, “G.J. Burgess,” has been penciled onto the flyleaf, flanked by two poorly drawn hands pointing toward the script. Mr. (or Ms.?) Burgess really wanted to brush up on the practical math. The book is saturated with human presence. A foldout of meticulous, elegant handwritten notes on thin wax paper has been pasted inside the front and back covers. Math problems have been worked all over the rear flyleaf, as well as on a blank stock certificate for shares of National Steel Plate Engraving Company ($10 each!), folded neatly and stuck within the pages. A number-scribbled bookmark peeks its little head out from the bound leaves, an appropriated business tag from Lexington Cycle Works, owned by G.M. Cox, “Successor to W. B. Blanton.”

Hyland pop 2.JPGBoth the stock certificate and the bookmark are from the early twentieth century. The former has an empty date field reading “190_”. By Googling “Lexington Cycle Works,” I found a link to the Kentuckiana Digital Library, which holds a scanned page from the March 8, 1906 edition of Clay City Times that refers to G. M. Cox, who apparently sold “all kinds of talking machines” (click on “Page [3]” under “Contents”; the reference is in the far left column, a little more than halfway down). If you’re not yet convinced of our technological acceleration, consider that it took me five minutes, on the PC in my den, to find scanned source material referencing an obscure business which sold “talking machines” just over a hundred years ago.

All this futzing around with history got me thinking about the things that poets choose to include in their work. There was a time, conceivably, when I could have written a poem that mentions talking machines, the National Steel Plate Engraving Company, and Lexington Cycle Works, and they would have been as familiar then as iPhones, Microsoft, and Britney Spears are to readers today. Poets are notorious hoarders. We gather up the world, dropping any and every available object, person, place, or idea into a poem to make it spark.

The annihilation of strictures on the use of “low” culture has been one of the most valuable breakthroughs in modern poetry. Now, absolutely anything can go into a poem, and we’re better off for it. One can knock out a poem that includes Payless ShoeSource* or Daffy Duck** and still be artful, dignified, and legitimate. And why not? Pop culture expresses our collective desires, attitudes, perfections, and defects during a given historical moment. If we banish it from poetry, we banish part of ourselves. Unbridled prejudice against pop culture is really a kind of neurosis.

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Travel, Tor House, and Negative Capability

James Blog Final.jpgGuest post by James Arthur

During the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to have some opportunities to travel, and not surprisingly, the places I’ve visited have begun showing up in my poems. In fact, these days when I sit down to write, I usually begin by flipping through my journals, which are full of notes like this one, made on a recent trip to Indonesia:

To reach the pinnacle of Mt. Bromo, we walk 3 km across “The Sea of Sands,” and then up the slope of the cone. Volcanic sand is blowing everywhere, stinging our eyes; we swallow it. The pattern of blown sand: streams of quickly moving particles being lifted into the air, and underneath, smaller grains rolling along the ground, like soldiers.

Arthur travel 1.JPGBut as much as travel–no, let’s call it what it is: tourism–nourishes my writing, I think I’d bristle if anyone referred to me as a “travel poet.”

I suppose that a tourist is often thought of, unfavorably, as a dilettante who admires unfamiliar places and cultures mainly for their alienness, without trying to understand what it would mean to be a citizen of that unfamiliar place.

And I can understand the criticism. There’s a lack of rigor in the willingness to glide through the world, asking only to be dazzled, and no doubt it’s presumptuous to write about things you don’t really understand… but is it a poet’s job to understand? Doesn’t a poet need unknowingness to find that literary state of grace that Keats called “negative capability”: “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”?

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Sneak Preview of our Spring 2010 Issue

Rliz strout.jpgeaders and writers need to know what’s happening–Where are the new poets, how are the established poets, what is fiction really up to these days? It is the chance at variety that remains essential.

Elizabeth Strout on guest editing Ploughshares

True to her word, Strout assembled a “variety” of poems and stories–familiar and newer voices sitting down to dinner, traveling across continents and years, through relationships living and dead.

Many stories and poems in Strout’s issue center around family. In Richard Bausch‘s “We Belong Together,” Mary and Frank are late for lunch. Reuniting with their old friend, Frank can’t help but confess everything: Mary’s ultimatum that morning, and his feelings from years back. Meanwhile, Amy Hempel introduces us to the vivacious libertine Mrs. Greed, her affection for her husband only surpassed by her dalliance with other men. In Marjorie Kemper‘s “A Memo from Your Temp,” a cubicle worker sinks into NPR and repetitive tasks to forget the daughter who won’t call, the family she once had–and the new identity she’s fabricated. Mark Kraushaar watches the cow jump over the moon with a mother restless for change.

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Spiritual Twins, Poetry Chavrutas

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Guest post by Alicia Jo Rabins

There’s nothing like those years when you don’t yet have what you are working for. There’s a lot of freedom because there’s so much possibility. You need friends who are working for something, too…Everything starts with an all-night conversation. Find a spiritual twin to walk the city streets with, to waken the dawn with, to construct a world with. — Anna Deveare Smith, Letters to a Young Artist

Find yourself a teacher, and get yourself a friend. — Pirkei Avot (the Mishna)
We think of writers as solitary laborers of the mind. Yes, there are communities and trends and movements and friendships, but ultimately we imagine a writer hunched over a desk, alone.
This assumption interests me, because along with my life as a poet, I’ve been involved for years in another form of obsessive, passionate relation with words and meaning–that is, Torah study.
In Torah study, the accepted basic unit of study is the pair. You rarely sit down to study without your partner, or chavruta, from the Aramaic word for “friend” (if you know Hebrew, you’ll recognize the cognate chaver in there).
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“Find yourself a teacher, and get yourself a friend.” A teacher or mentor is someone with whom you resonate deeply, who is further along the path, and can therefore help you access your own potential. A chavruta (also pronounced chavrusa), on the other hand, is a peer: the relationship is built not on directional respect, but on the equality that provides for a good fight. Anna Deveare Smith’s “spiritual twin.”

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Kathryn Starbuck, Winter 2009-10 Contributor

ks official 2.jpgKathryn Starbuck is the author of Griefmania, from Sheep Meadow Press, 2006. (Read “Thinking of John Clare” from Griefmania here.) Her poems appear in The Best American Poems 2008, The New Republic, The Gettysburg Review, The New Yorker, Poetry, AGNI Online, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She edited two volumes of George Starbuck’s poems.

Starbuck’s poem “Often Things Went Wrong” appeared in the Winter 2009-10 edition of Ploughshares, guest edited by Tony Hoagland. View the Winter 2009-10 issue.

An excerpt from “Often Things Went Wrong”:

Can we retire
from sex just
as naturally
as we retire
from a job?

After the jump, Starbuck reveals how Graham Greene inspired her (or did he?), as well as her most significant revision.

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Broken Plank & Immortal Veil

Hyland Blog OK copy.jpg4175102506_fda658ff0a.jpgGuest post by Peter B. Hyland

In book five of The Odyssey, the sea goddess Ino comes to the aid of a storm-tossed Odysseus. She emerges from the waves and loans him her veil, a talisman that ensures he will arrive in one piece on the island of Scheria, his last stop before returning home to Ithaca.

Ino was once human, nurse to the young Dionysus in one prominent rendering from Greek mythology. Judging from all the stories our Greco-Roman friends have left us, her family life bore characteristics typical for the period–filicide, madness, frenzied escape into the sea and subsequent transformation into a divinity.

Despite Ino’s good intentions, Odysseus is suspicious. She urges him to jump overboard and swim for it, promising that the veil will protect him. But he decides to stay in his boat. He’s already been jerked around by the gods a few too many times. In Robert Fagles’ translation, Odysseus says:

No, here’s what I’ll do, it’s what seems best to me.

As long as the timbers cling and joints stand fast,

I’ll hold out aboard her and take a whipping–

once the breakers smash my craft to pieces,

then I’ll swim–no better plan for now.

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Extreme Isolation

James Blog Final.jpgGuest post by James Arthur

Several years ago, I had a brief, obsessive relationship with Winged Migration, a 98-minute documentary about birds, and I went to see it three times in theaters around Seattle.

To my outrage, every time I saw the movie, there were people in the audience who seemed to talk through all 98 minutes: not whisper, or murmur, but talk, at a volume far exceeding that of the ordinary movie-theater hubbub that annoys people like me, but which I guess is part of the experience of watching a movie in a public place. During my second excursion, I cranked around in my seat, stared into the faces of the chatty couple sitting behind me, and said something unforgivably abusive.

It only recently occurred to me that they were talking because the movie doesn’t have any dialogue: talking because they didn’t think they were interrupting anything.

headphones Arthur.jpgI don’t know when I started feeling so oppressed by the absence of silence that I began buying earplugs, but I now get them in packs of twenty, and the window ledge in my study is a graveyard of dirty coffee mugs and the violet-colored earplugs that remind me, every time I see them, that middle age is just around the corner. One of these days, as soon as I can bring myself to cough up the money, I’m going to buy a set of noise-canceling headphones, like the beauties shown here, the Direct Sound EX25 Extreme Isolation Headphones.

This evening, I took out my earplugs and listened. I made an inventory of everything I could hear from my study, added a few sounds that I’d heard on other nights, and, like a god, separated the sounds into two species.

BENIGN SOUNDS: rain, distant traffic, the rumblings and mumblings of the refrigerator, the voice of my wife, birds;

NOISE: motorcycles, dogs, conversations on the street, buskers on Delmar Avenue, the drum circle in the park, any sound whatsoever from the downstairs apartment, and, above all, band practices by the students living across the alley who play Led Zeppelin covers almost every night: definitely noise, even though Led Zeppelin was my favorite band, too, when I was in college.

Comparing my two lists, I can see clearly that most of the sounds in the second category–the noises–are the sounds of other people.

The Direct Sound EX25 Extreme Isolation Headphones retail for $59.95, have a nine-foot cord, weigh slightly more than half a pound, and block 25 decibels of sound. According to the manufacturer’s website, they’re perfect for musicians, students, gun buffs, or anyone who requires silence, but, the manufacturer warns, there are simply no headphones that can block all noise: not for any price, anywhere.

This is James’ third post for Get Behind the Plough.

Lisa Russ Spaar, Winter 2009-10 Contributor

spaar.photo.jpgLisa Russ Spaar‘s most recent poetry collection is Satin Cash (read “The Geese,” or other excerpts here). She edited Acquainted with the Night: Insomnia Poems and All That Mighty Heart: London Poems, and appears in Best American Poetry 2008. Her prizes include a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Rona Jaffe Award. She teaches at the University of Virginia. Her work appeared in the Winter 1996-97 Ploughshares, as well.

Spaar’s poems “Goldfinches” and “Whether” appeared in the Winter 2009-10 edition of Ploughshares, guest edited by Tony Hoagland. View the Winter 2009-10 issue.

After the jump, Spaar recalls the inception of these poems during her Lenten writing rituals, and shares passages from her work.

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