To the girl at the supermarket

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I said hello and smiled through you

And you eagerly smiled back before

Mine melted away

Into your molten scarred unrecognizable face

An innocent smile instantly replaced with sadness since

I could not hide my horror, then my shame

I peered up and down aisle after aisle

Slowly filling my cart while searching and

Wondering—how could I?

And if and how could I correct my transgression?

Should I apologize or simply start over and try again?

Offer up a joke or a note about the weather?

I wanted…

I needed another chance to prove I’m not that person

To you

To me

To the guy cleaning up in aisle three

But neither of us knows me evidently

Or even well enough to know I’d react that way

Or that I’d care this much about a complete stranger

Or that I’d obsess over you and then somehow forget you

Before suddenly spotting you again

In the last aisle

My last chance

But face to face I froze again before making amends

I was immersed in fear again

I smiled that same stupid smile again

This time sincerely hoping it might hide

My insincerity, my regret and my fear

But it didn’t.

I wanted to tell you I didn’t mean to hurt you

But my pathetic face failed us both

And you let me know I missed my chance to make it up

To you—oh who am I kidding?

To me!

This time, you didn’t smile back

This time, you looked through me

And I deserved it

I had my chance to be a better me

And I blew it

I’m so sorry.

For the Birds

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Iowa is great for bird watching!

In fact, though I’ve always loved birds (especially ducks — they’re my all-time favorite animal), I had no idea how much I loved them until we moved here.

Birds are amazing. I love to watch them fly and land, peck, hop, run and more than anything I love to listen to them sing. It’s so beautiful waking up to their joyful song amidst the morning breeze and rustling of the trees.

My husband and I have really embraced our new aviary friends and even purchased a bird feeder (then another soon after) so that we can appreciate the birds even more. Now we get to watch them from our front window! And since spring has sprung, it seems we have become a bird haven. It’s awesome.

I even started appreciating some more than others. I love this one particular red bird best who visits us. Jason says it’s a cardinal. I don’t really care what he is; I just know I love him. He’s a brilliant reddish orange. And I adore this group of small black birds who fly by every day and land in the field across the street. They’re not just black; they look like they’re wearing black, red and yellow striped tuxedo jackets — so stylish! And when they extend their wings, it’s majestic. I also love these cute little bright yellow finches. They are so cute and happy. Jason really likes these cool looking blue ones, though I forget what he called them. And orioles… we’ve seen a lot of those and he and I both like those, too.

Anyway, we’ve been getting curious about which birds have been visiting us most and in learning more about them. So we started researching. In doing so, we’ve learned a lot of neat local bird factoids.

But of everything I’ve learned on the topic, the names have to be my favorite. Some seem pretty standard and I’ve certainly heard, if not seen, most of them before. But others… well, others are FAR more interesting. And by “interesting” I mean hilarious.

Seriously, whoever came up with these names was either high at the time, had their minds in the gutter or simply had a sick sense of humor.

Either way, I appreciate the outcome.

Here’s a list of my favorite funny bird names, some new and others newly appreciated now that I’m thinking about it:

  • Dickcissel
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Swallow
  • Chickadee
  • Killdeer
  • Ruddy Duck
  • Loon
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • Coot
  • Magpie
  • Wood Thrush
  • Red Faced Booby
  • Grosbeak
  • Zitting Cisticola
  • Scrub Jay
  • Clark’s Nutcracker
  • Northern Screamer
  • Brown Trembler
  • Fluffy Backed Tit Babbler
  • Cuckoo
  • Shag
  • Thicknees
  • Agile Tit-tyrant
  • Morepork
  • Wild Turkey
  • Turdus
  • Cock-of-the-rock
  • Penduline Tits
  • Wrentit

Seriously. Who comes up with this stuff?!?!

“Facts” by Philip Levine (Poem Analysis)

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When I first read this poem, it seemed so simple and straightforward. It’s just a bunch of random facts, right? Instinctually, I felt there was more to it. So I tried my best to break it down…

In each stanza of this poem, Levine uses the first two lines to state what seems like a random fact and then he uses the last two lines to add a sort of sarcastic, snarky or even just funny or interesting attitude or note about the fact previously stated. Most of the words he selects are either one or two syllables. This makes it feel simple as if he wants us to think these are just simple, separate facts and yet when read together they don’t seem so simple. I felt like I had been fed a bunch of facts and, yet, I was missing the point. Maybe that was the point. Maybe he wants us to question the facts.

I enjoyed the rhythm. It felt like he was rambling on (much like I’m doing now) and reminded me of all the times I’ve gotten stuck sitting beside a seemingly crazy person on an airplane. But as I continued reading, he seemed less crazy and more interesting much like most of my experiences with inflight insanity. Similarly, just when the poem started making sense, the plane landed. I found this both frustrating and addictive.

The way Levine switches back and forth between past, present and future tense struck me as pleasant somehow. It felt so natural and conversational and not at all stuffy or formal. He also shifts between first, second and third person. Depending on whether he started a line or thought with “I” or “We” or “You” or an ambiguous he/she/it felt important. When he separated “—if you’re scared—” from everything else using dashes, it felt like he was talking to me specifically and I found myself paying closer attention, wanting to prove I wasn’t scared to tackle this.

Levine uses inflection and rhythm masterfully. He repeats certain words and phrases for emphasis, like Cleveland and Rolls Royce for examples, bringing attention to their importance. He states facts about places and things and by repeating them or by illuminating their rhythms through alliteration or consonance (“perfect grill for a Rolls Royce” or “the coldest I’ve ever been is in Cleveland” or “the citizens of Cleveland passed me sullenly”) they start to feel connected like memories along a journey. The Rolls Royce might signify the car industry which could connect all the other places he mentions back to Detroit, his home town and first spot on his journey. He also mentions several types of transportation (Rolls, Dinky, bus, train, walking) and that along with the cities is making me think all of it is symbolic of this journey being a major theme.

The poem is made up of eleven stanzas, each with four lines. Fact about me: eleven and four are my lucky numbers—I was born 11/11 and my brother was born 4/4. But just like the facts in this poem, I don’t think this matters to you as much as it matters to me. Similarly, I think the facts in this poem mattered to Levine because they belong to him. But he shares them in such a beautiful, unique and rhythmic way that we can’t help but feel connected. The way he separates his thoughts makes each fact seem separate but of equal importance. This, along with his rhythmic choices, makes it feel so fluid when Levine draws our attention to something or when he refers back and forth between stanzas (i.e., “there are two lies in the previous stanza”) like he’s trying to get us to see the bigger picture.

I keep thinking that if I figure out how to connect the dots, I will eventually have a complete story but doing so “strikes me as an exercise in futility” much like Levine describes living “in Cleveland” or “saving your pennies to buy a Rolls Royce.”

This poem started to drive me crazy. I’ve read it over and over again, and still haven’t figured it out. I went so far as to Google Levine to learn more about him and one thing I found interesting was this quote by him during an NPR interview: “The real challenge is when language, instincts, technique and practice come together. You have to follow where the poem leads. And it will surprise you. It will say things you didn’t expect it to say. And you look at the poem and you realize, ‘That is truly what I felt.’ That is truly what I saw.”

I admit I’m no poet (at least not yet) but I was surprised by how strongly I felt about this poem. In trying to dissect it, I found myself getting more and more confused by the facts while my emotional connection to them became stronger and crisper. I fell in love with this one.

“Last Night in Montreal”

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Project: Choose any section of dialogue from the novel “Last Night in Montreal” and discuss why it works.

Pages 67-68

At this point in the novel we get a glimpse of who Christopher is, or who we think he is anyway, through a conversation with Peter.

Peter comes across as a “good guy,” the one who has been trying to find the lost girl. So, by association and from the faith Peter exhibits for Christopher in this conversation, we believe Christopher must also be a “good guy.” Peter likes Christopher and nothing seems odd or out of order about him at this point, so we like him too. We get the feeling he might even be the eventual hero who could potentially save the day.

By having Christopher point out that Lilia is “the same age as” his own daughter, Michaela, we can’t help but assume that similarity would make him feel even more connected to the case. Looking back, who would have guessed that his connection would turn into obsession and cause him to eventually ignore and abandon his own child?

While we might wonder why Peter needs Christopher’s help, Christopher does not. If the case is “solvable” as Peter put it, why has he not yet been able to solve it? In hindsight, his dialogue may have been a clue about the tension and conflict to come and maybe even a sign that Peter, too, had been obsessed with the case. His words and his tone lead to this conclusion. He sounded physically and emotionally exhausted, like he’d tried everything. That would explain why Peter sought out Christopher’s help. Peter mentioned in this conversation that his own wife, Anya, had recently left him. Was that possibly due to his obsession with the case? Was this foreshadowing for what would eventually happen to Christopher?

Without questioning any of this, Christopher seems confident that he will have no problem getting to the bottom of it. With the clue (the torn Bible page on which Lilia had scribbled the note) in hand, Christopher says “Good lord. I could find her in ten minutes with something like this.” He boasts that it’ll be easy to find Lilia. Maybe he’s being overly confident or maybe he simply doesn’t get it at that point. What’s interesting to me is that Peter doesn’t try to defend why it’s taken him so long or why he still hasn’t solved the case. Shouldn’t Christopher’s comment have caused a reaction in Peter? I would have thought so but Peter just lets the comment slide by which seems unusual. I couldn’t help but think he held his tongue because he was ready to move on, to be done with it already. He wanted his life back and he recognized Christopher as his only hope.

Of course, even at this early point in the novel, we know it’s not going to be easy for Christopher. It can’t possibly be as easy as he thinks it’ll be or what would the book be about? Still we are instantly interested in seeing the story unfold, getting to know Christopher better and experiencing the challenges he’s bound to face along the way. We want him to succeed if it means he’ll be helping Lilia but we also want him to grow and teach us a thing or two along the way.

In two brief pages of dialogue, we learn so much about Peter and Christopher. We get critical information to look back at later and we know that Christopher is going to be an important character. Of course, at this point in the story, we have no way of predicting how much searching for Lilia will change Christopher and/or our feelings about him, how obsessed he will eventually become or how his mission to “save” Lilia, who as it turns out in the end had already been saved by her brother and father, will so negatively impact his life, his health and his family.

“Last Night in Montreal”

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My first MFA course is winding down so I thought this would be as good a time as any to start sharing projects. Here’s one from a novel I really enjoyed reading…

Project: Select a character from the novel “Last Night in Montreal” and discuss whether or not that character is compelling. Explain why or why not.

Private Investigator Christopher Grayden’s daughter, Michaela, has such a profound purpose in the novel Last Night in Montreal. I found her compelling in large part because of her many parallels and juxtaposition to Lilia and because of the level and sincerity of her pain throughout the story.

As we read, we cannot help but be drawn to Lilia. She is the main character and all eyes are on her and, just like every other character in the book, we, too, can’t help but feel that she needs our help. She’s just a little girl, fragile and helpless but throughout the course of the novel, we see her grow into a woman. We get to experience her strength, resolve, intelligence and we understand how much she is truly loved.

After a while, we learn that there is really no reason to worry about Lilia. What we may have missed though along the way, as the other characters seem to have missed too, is how much Michaela needs help. She is just a little girl, too, just like Lilia, when she gets abandoned by not one but both of her parents. While Lilia has her father guiding, providing and loving her, Michaela has no one. She is left to fend for herself while everyone focuses on Lilia.

While everyone searches for a lost Lilia, paying close attention to her, sniffing out and following clues along the way, Michaela is being ignored as she cries out for help. She begs for attention, in a positive way at first, by getting good grades and even showing an interest in the circus, something her mother and father were once interested in. When positive doesn’t work, she shifts to more desperate measures and starts acting out like any kid in her position would do. Michaela is dropping clues of her own left and right, begging for help, but she is being ignored. She is desperate for anyone to love her and pay attention to her, but she never gets that. In the story, she starts to show us signs that she is jealous of Lilia and who could blame her? While this may cause the reader to dislike her (or even fear more for Lilia as we can’t help but wonder if Michaela’s jealousy will lead to an act of violence against Lilia) at first, once we start to understand Michaela better and see how fragile and shattered she is, then we begin to truly understand her and want to save her, too. But just like the characters in the story, specifically Michaela’s own father and Eli, by the time we realize she needs our help, it’s too late. 

Michaela’s climactic death took my breath away and changed my whole focus as well as what I’d previously resolved in my mind as the purpose, plot and path of the novel. In addition to how she affects us as readers, we also get to see and experience how she affects the other characters in the novel. While some characters grow because of her existence causing us to perhaps like them more, like Eli for example, other characters show weaker, uglier sides of themselves. When Michaela is speaking to her father and says “You’ve been chasing her since we were both eleven years old” it’s like she is spelling out what’s wrong with this picture. I personally wanted to shake Christopher and scream, “Can’t you see what you’re doing to your own daughter?”

While everyone, including the reader, is focused on and busy feeling one thing or another for Lilia (whether it be the feelings of unconditional love and concern from her own father, fear and hope from her brother, jealousy from Michaela and her mother, love and infatuation from Eli, or an addictive competitive desire to save her from Christopher), Michaela is ignored and lost in the shuffle.

Lilia is able to eventually grow up and find herself perhaps because she has people loving, helping and guiding her along the way, while Michaela is on a lonely one way path toward destruction. While all eyes are on Lilia, Michaela is the one left truly abandoned, alone, broken and lost along the way.