CATEGORY: LitJournalPoetry

S&R Poetry: “For Amien, Who Asks If I Still Write Poetry,” by Sarah Jordan Stout

I was at the bar,
worried my hair looked like Frankenstien’s bride,
admiring your tan arms.

My hands wiped air like napkins
I don’t know what I expected them to say—
didn’t know they were wilted sheets,
surrender flags.

When we watched the Bollywood movie,
I wanted to be that girl who unfurled
in a thousand layers of red,
the chirpy hip and finger, who twirled like a metaphor.
I don’t know yet if she is who I was one time,
or who we all cannot ever reach—

Sometimes I wake up like a dazed drinker
an untucked drunk, flat off the stool
derelict and drooling. I turn 85 every ten years or so.
hair grows out my ears like clover, I’m embarrassed to admit.

This time when I wake, you and the dancing girl are gone.
I spread my wrinkled hands wide like slow lava
say How did I get here? Over and over to my husband,
asleep beside me. I shake him but he does not wake up.
I stumble on the floor, away from him and the bed.
Someone’s left armoirs out like landmines
so I must crawl and feel for table legs.

I suspect I need someone, Amien,
but my eyesight’s not too good
on account of cataracts, and my car won’t start,
and my shoes won’t walk, and the coffee tastes like soap.

Fruit flies overtook my kitchen, I let them have it.

These days, I spend hours with the girl in red,
a florid nightlight on my gray temple,
and I still don’t know what she means.

_____

Sarah Jordan Stout is an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee. In addition to her poetry, she’s also an actress building an interdisciplinary degree in playwriting. 

CATEGORY: LitJournalNonFiction

S&R Nonfiction: “Irony,” by Michail Mulvey

“Can anyone give me an example of irony in Oedipus the King?”

Silence.

In the back, where he thinks I can’t see him, the P.E. major in ripped jeans and a t-shirt touting some brand of Tequila texts his girlfriend. The girl to his left checks her iPhone for messages. The kid to her left studies the label on his bottle of Coke Zero.

“OK . . . Can anyone list the types of irony?”

Silence.

Blank stares. John, the tanned stud-muffin in the third row searches his Facebook page on his laptop. He thinks he’s fooled me into believing he’s taking notes. His buddy rests his head on one arm and doodles in his notebook. The girl behind him sits, cross legged, with arms defiantly across her chest. She glares with a look that says, “Like, I don’t want to be here.”

“Can anyone give me a definition of irony?”

Silence, if you don’t count the sound coming from the mouth of Tattoo-girl—I think her name is Ashleigh—as she chews gum while picking at her LA-style fingernails.

“Anyone?”

Silence.

The student-athlete in the third row dozes. Suddenly his head snaps back, his eyes open momentarily, he looks around to see if anyone caught him, then shifts to a more comfortable position and nods off again. Student-athlete, that’s an example of an oxymoron boys and girls. Like jumbo shrimp, congressional ethics, country music, cafeteria food, living wage, and happily married. That last one’s a hoot, ain’t it? But I’d like a definition of irony. Anyone. Anyone at all.

“OK, can anybody give me an example of irony?”

Silence.

“OK, let me give you a hint. How about . . . at a ceremony celebrating the rehabilitation of seals after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, at an average cost of $80,000 per seal, two seals were released back into the wild only to be eaten within a minute by a killer whale?”

“Ew, that’s sick,” says Tattoo-girl.

Finally a hand goes up. The sophomore psychology major—Joseph is it? Or Jordan? Something with a ‘J’—sitting over by the window:

“Yes,” I say with a hint of enthusiasm in my voice and a glimmer of hope in my heart.

“Like, when a fire station like burns down,” he says, smiling.

Very funny. You better hope your little brother doesn’t play with matches.

“Like, when a cardiologist suffers a heart attack,” says the biology major in the third row.

Like, when you were in the tenth grade and didn’t know the difference between a dangling preposition and a dangling testicle.

“OK. That’s a start. That works. Any other examples of irony?” I ask, hoping to somehow guide the discussion back to Oedipus.

Silence. Blank stares.

Another hand goes up. The business major in the back corner:

“Like, Bill Gates never graduated from college but, like, he’s worth fifty billion dollars.”

“OK. Good.” Bill Gates was born with intelligence, had a keen business sense, taught himself computer programming, and had a work ethic that allowed him to beat out his competitors. He didn’t need a college education. You’ll probably need a college education and a father as rich as Bill Gates to succeed.

“Any other examples of irony?” I ask. Besides the fact that this university accepted most of you.

“Like, when an English professor misspells a word he’s written on the whiteboard,” says the communication major, smiling.

Smirks and smiles from the groundlings. OK, I deserved that. I tried to explain that faux pas away by claiming that I can’t write, lecture and spell ‘accommodation’ all at the same time. Too many ‘C’s and ‘M’s to keep track of this late on a Friday afternoon. Relax. Take a deep breath. Smile. Do the math. This is a sophomore-level English class. Thirty students with one reason for being here. Three credits. Except for the girl in the front row, these are not English majors. It’s late April, Spring is in the air, three weeks left in the semester. They’d rather be somewhere hot and noisy with a cold beer in one hand and a warm body in the other.

“Yes, the height of irony,” I confess. And inexcusable. I smile.

Another hand goes up. The history major over by the door:

“John.”

“James.”

“Sorry. Yes, James.”

“Like, when John Hinckley shoots at Ronald Regan, misses and hits the bullet-proof window of his limo. The bullet ricochets and hits the president in the chest.”

“That’s an example of poetic justice,” says the other history major in the class. Slight titters, then a slow slide back into their individual academic comas. Several blank faces suggest that they don’t know who Ronald Regan was.

“Any other examples of irony,”

Silence.

I give up.

“OK. Let me list a few types of irony on the board,” and hope I don’t misspell any words. I turn and write:

Verbal irony – a gap between what is stated and what is really meant, which often has the opposite meaning. For example using “his humble abode” to describe a millionaire’s mansion. Also called sarcasm.

Dramatic irony – when the audience is aware of facts that the characters are not. When the reader understands more about what is happening in a story than the character who is telling the story does. For example, Shakespeare’s Othello trusts Iago, but the audience knows better.

Situational irony – a discrepancy between what actually happens and what readers expect will happen.

For example, like the discrepancy between the grade you actually receive in this class and the grade you expect to get.

“Now, can anyone give an example of dramatic or situational irony in Oedipus?”

Silence.

The elementary education majors in the front row all dutifully take notes but say nothing.

I sigh.

“There are other types of irony, for example, historical irony. What we now refer to as ‘World War I’ was originally called ‘The War to End All Wars,’ or ‘The Great War’.”

Silence.

“And then there are ironic similes.”

Silence.

“Clear as mud,” I say as half a dozen stare out into the spring afternoon. The elementary ed major by the window smiles and waves to the squirrel sitting on a branch outside the window.

Clear as mud, like this lecture.

I look out the window and see students tossing a football around the quad. Laughter and hoots waft in. Music blares from car radios in the student parking lot across the street.

Silence. I sigh. Once more …

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

“When Oedipus was first performed circa 428 B.C.E., Greek audiences knew the myth of Oedipus, the myth upon which the play is based. The audience knew what Oedipus didn’t, that he had killed his father and married his mother. Based on the definitions I’ve written on the board, can anyone tell me what type of irony this is, that is, the audience knows but Oedipus doesn’t?”

Silence.

I glance at the clock. Twenty minutes left.

One more try.

“How about another example. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when King Duncan sees Inverness, the home and castle belonging to Macbeth, he says, ‘This castle has a pleasant seat’— meaning site. Banquo adds, ‘The air is delicate.’ Knowing what happens later that night, what type of irony would you say these remarks are examples of?”

Silence.

“The irony here is that Duncan is unwittingly entering his death chamber.”

Silence.

“What kind of irony is this? Anyone? Anyone at all.”

Silence.

I sigh, take off my glasses, plant my skinny old ass on the desk, glance out the window then turn back to the class. “OK, let’s try again. Another definition of irony is the discrepancy between appearance and reality. Like, this appears to be a college class but in reality . . . “The discrepancy between ignorance and knowledge,” I add.

Silence.

I continue: “The incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.” I expected a class of students eager to learn. Silly me. How long have I been at this? How many decades? Maybe it’s time to retire. Maybe it’s me. “I’d write that on the board but I don’t know how to spell ‘incongruity.’” Smiles. Even the texting P.E. major looks up and smirks.

I sigh, look down at the floor, run my fingers through my gray hair, look out the window at the squirrel sitting on the tree branch looking in; What do you think, my furry-assed little friend? I find it ironic that you seemed more interested in this discussion than my students. What do you say we call it a day and retire to my favorite watering hole next town over? I’m buying. What’ll you have? A Pink Squirrel? Ha, ha ha! But I digress.

“OK, let me give you another example of irony, the difference between what might be expected and what actually happens.”

Stud-muffin chuckles softly at something in Facebook.

“When young men go off to war, what is one expectation?” I ask.

“Like, someone might get killed or messed up,” says the math major by the window.

“Yes,” I reply, “That would be a reasonable expectation based on history. In war people die.”

I’ve got stud-muffin’s attention. Tattoo-girl wonders, What’s this have to do with Oedipus?

“What if I told you I once advised a good friend to go off to war in order to save his life? Would that be an example of irony? Going off to war to save your life?”

“Like, that would be fucked up,” says stud-muffin, frowning.

“Why would you, like, do that?” asks the history major.

I smile. Now I have their attention, or at least most of them. The student-athlete continues to nap and nod. This may not have a lot to do with Oedipus, but maybe I can bridge that gap between ignorance and knowledge. Maybe not.

“I have a good friend who’s in the Army Reserve. We were in the Regular Army once, stationed together in some shithole Army base down south. He was a platoon leader in my company. We’ve known each other for over twenty years now and have followed each other’s lives for all that time. He lives in another state so we only get together every other year or so, but we keep in touch. We both have wives and families and jobs. We’re both in education. He’s a school administrator and I’m . . . here.” I smile.

“To put it simply, I married well, he didn’t. After fifteen years of marriage he discovered his wife was having an affair with her boss. Had been for some time. He was devastated. Unlike some people, he believed that marriage was for life and he trusted his wife to keep her marriage vows. In Othello, the audience knows that Desdemona has been faithful but Othello thinks she’s strayed. That’s an example of what kind of irony?”

Silence.

“Like I said, when he found out, he was devastated to the point that one night he drank a quart of Scotch and downed a bottle of pills. He recovered physically but not emotionally.”

Stud-muffin closes his laptop.

“His wife threw him out of their house, the home they’d lived in for almost fifteen years and raised three children. He began to drink heavily and it affected his work. His boss took him aside and said he understood what he’d been going through but that he had to pull himself together. My friend began to see a change in his three children. They were angry and began to ask questions. They told him they thought this breakup was his fault. He despaired, drank even more, missed work, contemplated suicide again. I know all this because we talked and emailed each other back and forth.”

The P.E. major stops texting.

“One day he emails me that he’s thinking of volunteering for duty in Iraq. He asks me if he should go. I ask myself, does he want to commit suicide by war? What should I tell this friend of mine? ‘No, stay home? You have children to think of. Stay home, you’re not in your right head now?’ I wanted to ask him, ‘How will you function in the state you’re in? Will you cause the deaths of fellow soldiers because your head’s not in the game?’”

The student athlete wakes up.

“He’s a Lieutenant Colonel in military intelligence—an oxymoron if there ever was one—so he wouldn’t be kicking in any doors. He wouldn’t be driving a Hummer down the Baghdad to Basra highway hunting for IEDs. He told me the position would be with an MI unit that collects, collates, and interprets intelligence and then briefs units that move around the countryside searching for insurgents or guarding convoys. Still . . .”

The math major shifts in his chair.

“He told me the unit would be stationed at Balad, a former Iraqi Air Force base now used as a headquarters for coalition forces. I thought about it for awhile and wondered what to say to this friend of mine, a junior officer who once served under me and who occasionally still looked to me for guidance. I thought back to my tour in a war zone in a previous century, in another part of the world. I was only nineteen at the time, no wife or children, thought it was all a game, this war, a big adventure, at least until the green tracers started cracking over my head, my vehicle hit a mine, my friends started dying. There were others, many others, who sat fat and happy—safe, they thought—behind the wire in basecamp, who died during mortar and rocket attacks. Others died in accidents. What do I say to him, I asked myself? Young men die in war. Some suffer horrible wounds. Some suffer life-long damage that can’t be readily seen but comes back to haunt these young men years afterward. What do I tell my friend?”

The student with the bottle of Coke Zero, no longer staring at the label, shifts in his chair.

“Well, and this is where the irony comes in, I told my friend he should volunteer for the tour of duty in Iraq. You may be wondering how I, someone who has seen war first hand, could advise my friend to go off to war? A moral dilemma some might call it. And ironic.”

I shift position on the desk.

“It’s true, men die in war. Or at least there’s a chance of dying. But I was sure that if my friend didn’t go to Iraq he would die here, at home. He would die of grief at not being with his three children. He would die in an automobile crash after a night of drinking, or suffer irreparable damage to his internal organs from long-term alcohol abuse. Or he would get a DUI and be fired from his job. Or he would try to do himself in again. He was inconsolable. I knew it was only a matter of time. He was a weightlifter, a former football player, and in many ways, a strong man, but he was unable to deal with this breakup of his marriage and the possible estrangement from his children. He cried when he told me how much he missed seeing them off to bed at night and off to school in the morning. I was sure he would die one way or another if he stayed home, so I told him he should go to Iraq. I did the math and came to the conclusion that his odds at surviving were better in a war zone.”

Questioning looks from some. A shifting in chairs. Nobody’s staring out the window now. Nobody’s checking emails or texting.

“Can you see the irony in advising someone, a friend, to go off to war in order to save his life?”

“What if he dies?” asks the girl with the iPhone.

“Well, nobody wants to die, but we’re all going to die someday. If given a choice—and this question went through my mind at the time—how would I want to die? By my own hand? In a car crash? A drunk, unemployed, hated by my children, alone? Or in uniform, given a hero’s welcome back home, mourned by all, remembered by co-workers, maybe even a building or road named after me.”

“What difference does that make? Dead is dead,” says psych major.

“You’re right, but I advised my friend to go off to war because I thought he had a better chance of surviving in a war zone. Can you understand my choice, but more importantly—and this is the point to the story—can you appreciate the irony?”

Silence. A shifting in seats.

“Did you see The Hurt Locker?” asks one of the history majors.

“Yes, but my friend isn’t in EOD, he’s in MI and would be working in a fortified bunker,” I replied.

“Running away from your problems to solve them. That’s counter-intuitive,” says one of the education majors in the front row.

“And ironic,” I say, trying to work the discussion back to Oedipus.

“What happened to him?” asks the girl who had been glaring at me in defiance.

I smile. “He survived.”

Smiles from several others.

“He survived and after twelve months in Iraq came home healthy, sober, clear-headed, and with a medal for a job well done. While he was there he worked twelve-hour days, lifted weights, and dried out. More importantly, he got away from his wife. He kept in touch with his children via cell phone, letters, and two R&R trips back home. He and his kids—with the help of counseling—came to an understanding. He stopped feeling sorry for himself and got his life together.”

Smiles.

“And his ex-wife was dumped by her boyfriend and fired from her job,” I add.

“That’s called irony,” says stud-muffin.

“No that’s called payback. That bitch got what she deserved,” says Tattoo-girl.

“In short, the war saved his life. That ladies and gents, is irony,” I say. “Now, can anyone give me an example of irony in Oedipus the King?”

Silence.

CATEGORY: ArtsWeek

ArtsWeek: Dinosaurs, dodo birds, books and novelists

CATEGORY: ArtsWeekAfter my first novel was published, I was invited to be on a panel at writing convention. In response to a question, I said that books and novels were endangered species. I was about to say the very act of reading might be as well, but I didn’t get to, because at that point the professor who’d organized the conference jumped to her feet, ran down the aisle, snatched the microphone from my hand and explained that I hadn’t really meant what I’d said and people would always want the smell of a new book and the tactile experience, blah, blah blah. She then pointedly handed the microphone to Robert Greer, who sat next to me.

This was seven or eight years before Kindle, so I’m sure my predictions seemed pretty outlandish at the time. But they’re not so outlandish now. Let’s take a look.

Prediction: Paper books will become obsolete.

How good does that prediction look today? Very probable.

Reasoning: Look around you in any airport at the number of people using electronic rather than paper media. Everyone, it seems, has a Kindle. Will paper books disappear completely? Maybe not. We forget that paper is pretty handy stuff and paper books handy things. They’re cheap, relatively portable, and can be reused over and over again. They resist impact and moisture which would destroy an electronic device. Having said that, while paper is good, it’s not really better than e-books, so unless The Today Show says that e-books cause boils to pop up on your forehead, I think this one is a lock. I suspect a generation from now, someone reading a paper book in an airport will be as much of an oddity as someone reading a scroll.

Prediction: Novels will become obsolete.

How does that prediction look today? Probable.

Reasoning: There is a trend away from reading and toward watching. Movies and TV shows are quickly taking share from novels. Nor are they the only alternative crowding out books. There’s also gaming, which will grow even more as characters, plots and graphics become more sophisticated. There will probably continue to be some novels written, but that will likely be for niche markets like listening-while-driving. When the Google driverless car takes off, even that will go away. Maybe novels will survive in the same way other forms of obsolete entertainment survive, like kabuki and opera, as niche interests more used to show off erudition than to actually entertain.

Update to original prediction: Even if novels survive, novelists won’t.

Reasoning: All the growing forms of entertainment, movies, games, audio books and indeed even some forms of the novel, like graphic novels or those series of books that are branded by author (James Patterson) or character (James Bond), are collaborative efforts. Teams of people write and create movies, games, audio books, graphic novels and Patterson books. Over time, all forms of entertainment will become team endeavors. There will still be writers, but they will be Hollywood-style five-guys-around-a-table writers. The one-to-one days, where a solo writer working in isolation writes a novel and a solo reader sitting in isolation reads it, will no longer exist. As a novelist, I don’t much like this prediction.

Prediction: The act of reading itself will become obsolete.

How does that prediction look today? Too early to tell.

Reasoning: Just as well the professor grabbed the mike before I managed to get this prediction out, because this probably would have made her head explode. Look. Step back and think about it: Why do humans read? Basically, because we can’t draw fast enough. Our ancestors started communicating by drawing pictures on cave walls, which in turn evolved into hieroglyphics and pictographs, which eventually became alphabets, which lead to reading and writing. And what a phenomenal advance of civilization that was. The problem is, reading is a really hard skill to pick up. It takes at least five years of almost constant study to get any facility at all, from ten to fifteen years to become adept, and some people never get very good at (as measured by speed and comprehension.)

But now we don’t need reading because we can draw fast enough, more or less, because of programs that facilitate drawing, like Powerpoint. Even better, we can clip art and cut and paste to create visual representations of what we mean without drawing. Even better than that, we don’t have to draw at all because we can take a picture and ship it instantly because of improvements in technology such as smartphones and broadband.

We are now seeing the first signs of that. What used to be a fifty page prose report is now a fifty slide Powerpoint presentation. What used to be five hundred word letters describing that summer vacation is now a photo album with a handful of captions. What used to be a how to manual is now a link to a YouTube video. Handwriting has already bitten the dust. Some of us grew up when penmanship was an integral part of the school day. It’s barely taught anymore. Writing (in the non-mechanical sense) is also disappearing as schools replace term papers with video projects. Even those don’t use scripts, but rather storyboards. Grammar and spelling are on the way out, replaced by phonetic abbreviations.

It’s just a matter of time for reading. If reading survives at all, it will be in the same way computer languages exist today, as something experts learn.

Of course, as I learned when I was on the corporate speaking circuit talking about trends, it’s not particularly hard to predict a trend. What’s hard is to predict the timing. One day life on earth will be wiped out by an asteroid, but it makes a big difference if that occurs in ten millennia or next Thursday. People were predicting smartphones (they called them UPC’s then) in the mid-eighties, but multiple companies including Apple (Newton) and Palm lost a fortune because they were too early, and some of the current crop of wannabe’s (Samsung? Nokia?) will surely be too late.

So when will all this occur? Hard to say. There’s a lot of institutional momentum that will have to grind to a halt first—the publishing industry, schools, etc, and a lot of habits to be broken. And of course, a lot of us old book-reading dinosaurs will have to die out.