On Bluebirds and Bluebirds

by Gary Dop

Last summer, I spent two weeks with a group of talented high school writers in Nebraska. They gave me a small bluebird figurine as a parting gift. It sits, pleasant and bright, in a hanging planter on my porch.

Bluebird.

I have a special relationship with bluebird. That statement could be nature driven, but it is not. My bluebirdian impulse is not toward the beasts that flitter about in the yard or the fake one in my planter—nor is it the image of a bird removed from nature and reassembled in words. It’s not even the lovely sound of the word: Bluebird.

Sorry, this is all getting a bit confusing.

I do like the bright blue feathers and the alliterative pop of the plosive b’s in bluebird. Bluebird. But I confess, that’s just me showing off the word plosive, which makes me feel smart, but I had to look it up a moment ago to be sure of myself. Sad, I know.

What I really love—here comes the real confession—is Charles Bukowski reading his poem “Bluebird.”  You probably know the poem. If not, you should.

I’m not much of a Bukowski fan—I constantly want to help him edit his poems. I’m sure this reflects a deep problem with my inner bluebird, but that’s precisely what Bukowski would like. His whole poem is the artist grappling with his interior world—his soul, his spirit, his essence—his bluebird.

When I hear Bukowski reading the poem, I can’t help but process my own insecurities and fears. For me, hearing him read “Bluebird” is the literary equivalent of heroin…but a kind of heroin that’s heathly and life giving. Forgive me, that’s confusing, as well.

Somewhere in YouTubeland, the zeroes and ones can prove that I have listened to Bukowski read “Bluebird” more than any other video, just ahead of my second most subscribed video, the Squatty Potty commercial, which I have no business mentioning here, but if we have progressed anywhere in the 21st century, it’s in allowing each other our unexplained obsessions.

My Bukowski bluebird obsession is the stuff of the literary life. These inspired moments in art lift us out of our humdrum stroll and into our lives, which long for flight, for song.

That’s a tad melodramatic, I know, but it’s better than what I wanted to write: “I am often a bluebird critical of his own song.” See, I knew you’d think it was too much, at least that’s what my wife said you would think when she read an earlier draft.

When you hear the audio of Bukowski, who has the opposite of a birdlike voice, you’re sure that he reads the poem too quickly. So it seems at first, but after the tenth or two-hundredth time, you feel his croaky cadence, and when the poem arrives at its last few lines, he slows down. It’s that final utterance, where the poem turns suddenly outward, away from Bukowski and his tragic bluebird: “…it’s nice enough to / make a man / weep. But I don’t / weep, do you?”

I do. I weep, but I don’t weep enough. I’m not Charles Bukowski—thank God—but I know that in my own difficulties, the bluebird makes sense to me.

Bluebird.

I have my better moments when I am able to create and consume that which sustains my own uneven, lovely song. For this reason, I return regularly to Bukowski’s recitation. It’s still inspiring, and I need inspiration.

The writer knows to dig, to push, to press, to explore, to hunt, and to rest and run in it all. When something heightens my senses, I push myself off its cliff, seeing what new crevice of earth I can crash upon.

This afternoon, a few minutes after listening to “Bluebird” and googling “bluebirds,” I followed an impulse: I called the North American Bluebird Society Hotline. Yes, that’s a thing.

Fittingly, when I tried their number, which I was so sure would help connect me with my inner bluebird, I discovered that the number had been disconnected.

This seems symbolic, I know.

Pardon me while I mix metaphors: when you jump off the bluebird cliff, you don’t stop when the number has been disconnected.

I kept flying or falling—whatever.

Soon enough, I found the number for a representative of the Virginia Bluebird Society—also a thing.

I wanted to open my call to Anne Little, a longtime advocate for bluebirds, by reading the poem:

Anne, in her friendly voice, would say, “Hello?”

And I’d do my best burly Bukowski: “There’s a bluebird in my heart and it wants to get out.”

Unfortunately, I lacked the pluckiness for that opener. Instead, I begin with my fallback, a Midwestern apologetic tone:

Anne said, “Hello?”

I said, “Hi, my name’s Gary Dop. I’m a professor up the road at Randolph College. I have a bit of a strange question for you.”

Anne and I had a lovely conversation about Bukowski’s poem and the work of the Virginia Bluebird Society. She told me that the purpose of the Society, which has 500 members, is “more practical and educational” than the North American Bluebird Society.

I said, “You Virginia folks also have a way cooler website.” She didn’t respond to that.

Instead, she told me about the society’s work installing bluebird boxes—yep, a thing, a highly symbolic thing. Anne Little of Fredricksburg, VA, said she especially enjoys fitting bluebird boxes with cameras so people can watch the birds.

I held back my first thoughts: “Anne, do you really think people want to watch bluebirds in a box? I understand Pandas and Eagles, but bluebirds? C’mon, Anne.”

The bluebird boxes are sometimes installed near schools and the students can watch on their computers whenever they like or the principal can get on the intercom and announce that the bluebirds are hatching. Anne said, “Sometimes the whole school will stop what they are doing to watch the bluebirds hatch.” This image makes sense to me. I think of my daughters smiling at their screens, watching bluebirds hatch. I can’t escape linking Bukowski’s symbolic fledgling bluebird with the literal bluebirds hatching in Anne Little’s camera and the metaphoric bluebirds thriving in the elementary kids of Fredericksburg.

Bluebird.

The mind keeps connecting pieces when Anne explains that the boxes must be properly installed so snakes or the invasive house sparrow won’t take over. I don’t tell her that I know some writers who have a bluebird box with a snake inside. Instead, I wonder if my own bluebird is sometimes a house sparrow. I don’t really know what that means, but it worries me.

At this point, I’m fully aware that I’m destroying the purpose and potency of the “Bluebird.”  Somewhere, Bukowski’s having a celestial whiskey and quite proud of me.

When Anne first moved, many years ago, from downtown San Francisco, she was surprised to see a bluebird in her backyard. She says that she remembers thinking, “Wow. I want that bird to hang around.” Together with the over 500 members of the Virginia Bluebird Society, Anne and friends placed over 10,000 bluebird boxes in Virginia.

10,000! I wanted to ask Anne if she thought it was time that the society moved on to help some other bird, but I know very little about these things.

She asked me if she could publish Bukowski’s poem, which she hadn’t yet heard, in her newsletter, and I said, “You’ll have to get permission from whoever owns the rights to “Bluebird,” which seemed so ugly to say. I told her she could probably put a link to the poem, but that seemed even uglier. I think Bukowski would be happy to have Anne publish the poem in the Virginia Bluebird Society newsletter, but maybe it’s best not to confuse the 500 members with Bukowski’s commentary on his own bluebird—“I haven’t quite let him / die…”—which might not seem like bird advocacy.

I like to search for what I write, to let it find me as I pass through an idea or an image. I push the image, the idea, the moment—I called Anne Little because I believed I could encounter something of value in the inquiry. Anne, graciously, proved me right.

In the middle of writing this essay, just after I got off the phone with Anne, our college president, Brad Bateman, walked into my office, which isn’t a daily occurrence, as you can imagine. President Bateman’s a nice guy, don’t get me wrong, but I wasn’t expecting him. My untenured bluebird fluttered about, wondering if I’d unknowingly killed a student or worse, posted something offensive on twitter. It turns out, Bateman had a few questions about an unrelated concern, but when he asked what I was working on, I stumbled through an answer: “I’m writing an essay on art and Charles Bukowski’s “Bluebird” poem—or his reading of it—and I just called Anne Little of the Virginia Bluebird Society.”

He smiled. President Bateman’s an economist. I was hoping his smile wasn’t a calculation of my cost to the college.

Bluebird.

Bateman, who arrived at the college the same year I did, said, “You know, one of the first things I bought when I moved into the President’s house was a bluebird box for the backyard.”

Apparently the whole world loves bluebirds.

Sitting in my office, in the world’s most embarrassingly squeaky chair, our college president then added that earlier in the day he had authorized the college to purchase 14 bluebird boxes.

I was suddenly certain that I was part of some elaborate prank that involved the FBI reading my internet activity and my essay drafts.

We talked about the poem and bluebirds. Bateman said that when his son was young the two of them had spent several years as active birders. His son had loved birds so much that he had taught himself to read with the Audubon bird guide. Studying the pictures of the birds and the words below, the boy would eventually say, “Bluebird. Dad, is b-l-u-e blue?”

I imagine Bateman in a suit and bowtie standing in the middle of a field in Iowa holding his son on his shoulders as the boy holds the field guide atop Bateman’s head and points out a swooping hawk in the sky. In the excitement of it all, Bateman’s son brushes his muddy shoes on the President’s suit. This image makes me smile, but I’m pulled back as Bateman adds that their birding together all happened in the years before his son got cancer.

Bluebird.

In a few days, the board of the Virginia Bluebird Society will gather in Charlottesville, VA, and I like to think that during a coffee break between their serious meetings about, well, bluebird stuff, Anne will remember our conversation. Maybe she’ll laugh with her pals about the bizarre guy who called to tell her about a poem, and maybe, just maybe, a few of the birders she tells will get back to their hotel rooms that night and look up the poem, listening to a familiar song sung anew.

President Bateman, who left my squeaky office chair a few hours ago, sent me this email just now: “The Bukowski poem is beautiful. I’ve listened to it three times! I have to stop before my bluebird gets out.”

The students in Nebraska who gave me the little bluebird have no way of knowing how much joy I got in walking around the room and saying, over and over again, “There’s a bluebird in my heart and it wants to get out.” They may not know, but their bluebird knows.

On my front porch, the fake bluebird peeks out from behind pink flowers.

I’m thinking of adding a bluebird box to my office so I can mention it in my tenure file.

Bluebird.

Writers are afforded the luxury of taking all things in at once: my bright, devoted students, the passion of Anne Little, a son learning to read birds, Bukowski’s pied beauty, 10,000 bluebird boxes, and my porch’s fake bluebird. It’s all Bluebird.

Maybe it never becomes a poem or a short story, but the search itself, it seems to me, is the stuff of a good life.

Bluebird!

My fake bluebird may not fly or sing, but I do. When I’m feeling small, I take it all in, and I fly.  I sing. That’s what I do.

“Do you?”

 

On Letters from Jail, Particular Museums, and How I Like to Remember My Brother

by Michael Torres

I’ve been considering the word museum, because it interests me, because of its history, which seems fitting.

When I was born my brother was fourteen. My earliest memories of him are pleasant ones—how nice an adult with his own life could be to a kid, I think now. There were the places he took me: the park to play soccer, the movie theater. I remember how the light from passing ads on the movie screen gathered on the funny faces we made at each, each of us trying to get the other to laugh. I can still see the scrunched up look of his eyes, nose and mouth.

Museum has Latin origins meaning “place of study” and a Greek origin in mouseion, which is “a seat or shrine of the Muses.”

I have a muse tattooed on my left arm. Of all the siblings I chose Erato, the muse of lyric and love poetry. Her kithara rests atop my ulna. But I never finished her. I didn’t have the money or the time. I forget which. Her left hand is only sketched. She fades as time passes. Sinking into my skin, becoming less herself, more me.

My brother, at some point, saw himself a writer. I was young, maybe a pre-teen. Busy with trying to fit in at school, I remember only bits of this storyline of his. He’d taken a creative writing class. Community college. A story about an elderly woman who receives a bomb in the mail. His professor encouraging him to “send it out.” My brother didn’t. I think there was a fear of rejection, which now, I understand. For a long time I didn’t see any of his writing and he never talked about it until I became interested in writing poetry. Once, he’d mentioned poems of mine he read on our family computers. By this time he didn’t live at home anymore and was asked by our parents not come over if he’d been drinking. I thanked him for the compliment but wanted privacy. That day I saved those poems on another file and wiped them away from the desktop.

Go further and search muse. As a verb it means “to reflect, to be absorbed with light.”

My mind wanders. I like to say everything I do is a meditation. It’s at least true when the task at hand is a monotonous one. I take long washing dishes. My girlfriend has to ask for the good frying pan at least twice. It’s the slow motion of my scrubbing the plates and pots with the towel. It’s the warm soap-water that allows me to leave a moment, think back.

I think mostly about home. When I say home I really mean childhood. Or adolescence. I think about the high cuff my mom folded for all my jeans, jeans I walked with into that theater with my brother to see Super Mario Bros. and A Goofy Movie. I think of the jalapeños and peanut M&Ms my brother mixed into his popcorn. His laughter beginning small before erupting into near-shrill.

But sometimes I interview former versions of myself. Selves I’ve been: one bike-riding me who failed to kiss Lorena Moreno the entire month we dated after 8th grade; another me sitting passenger while my brother blasted LL Cool J on the way to my soccer practice. I imagine memory constructed of endless rooms where stories and images from a time I am no longer a part of are kept for me to see.

My brother tells stories he writes to me. I receive his letters from jail. How it isn’t that bad. Every day counts for two. Always jokes of an escape. Always a Haha that I overthink. (Legitimate humor or a just-so-you-think-I-really-am-doing-fine Haha?) Always, he loves me. And how am I doing and what have I been up to? Will I stay in Minnesota longer than he’ll be away? Always his signature—the most recognizable aspect of the brother I know, there.

A history professor friend of mine tells me there is no way to get back what has already happened. We sit at a coffee shop, catching up. He with his tea, me scraping up muffin crumbs from a plate. He says every bit of evidence—from artifacts to newspapers, anything that might be found inside a museum—is only a signature. In my head, I can name an event and its image shrinks, descends, only to be surrounded by more and more nothingness. Like falling down a well.

A museum is for remembering. In its noun form muse has Prot-Indo-European roots men, which is “to think, to remember.” The time before we watch from behind thick glass.

A museum is memory. A place past you can look back at but not touch for yourself.

I place the envelopes to my brother’s letters between pages of books I read. I can’t hide them in a drawer. I won’t. But as makeshift bookmarks, I don’t have to stare at them on my counter. Sometimes though they each stick out and become neighbors peeking over a fence wondering if I’m home.

Someone, I don’t remember who, once said, “There’s only so much truth you can have in a day,” or something close to that.

In the Scientific American article “What Happens in the Brain When We Misremember,” researchers say, “we construct memories using a blend of remembered experiences and knowledge about the world.” We misremember because our minds make the best guess approximating. A gist memory they call it.

The most interesting part of the article believed people used memories to deal with new situations—the mind acting as a defense mechanism. This is how false memories come to be. We mix together what we know of the world and what we keep from an event in our life to protect ourselves.

It’s not that I forget he’s in jail, but when I think of my brother behind bars or a thick piece of glass, holding a phone receiver to face that’s grown thinner, it surprises me. And as if a small voice calls into my ear from some dark, far void, I hear, Oh yes, that’s right, he’s there, I’m here.

If my mind is a museum I shouldn’t completely trust, it’s made of rooms built without blueprints; new rooms being built for every day that passes; rooms I ‘ve forgotten about. In one room I am a boy pedaling a bicycle. In every room I am, in some way, a boy. Even if he’s only a signature of me. If misremembrance is product of my meditation and self-preservation, this museum is open every day of the week, and whenever I walk through its doors I am always about to enter a place I’ve both never been to and will never quite be again, though I don’t know it. If my mind is a museum for the misremembered, my brother hasn’t gone to jail. He has new ideas for stories jotted on a napkin he folded into his pocket for later. He still works for the County of San Bernardino and has hurried home because soccer practice begins in half an hour.

Starving the Dark

by Traci Brimhall

We were too drunk to go to the movies like we’d planned, so my friend and I stayed at the bar and pretended to be wiser than we were, more in love with the world, more humble than we felt. “We are all creatures of want,” he said to me, and I was glad we were side-by-side and not looking at each other when he said it. He was an actor. He wanted to convince me of something. I didn’t believe him, not because I didn’t want to, but because I felt like I was always outrunning something rather than reaching for something. Fear, we are creatures of fear, I wanted to say back but didn’t. I knew better and stayed quiet. I give away my secrets so easily, but that’s one I kept.

*

The first time I saw Ugolino and His Sons at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I felt that terror I knew so well rise up in me and press against my ribs until I had to lean in and look harder. I didn’t know the story then. I only saw how Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux had carved the fingers of Ugolino’s sons so that they dug at his marble flesh, their bodies circling him, their bald eyes hungry. Ugolino stared out, perched above me, his own hands tugging at his cheeks and the corners of his mouth. The toes of one foot flexed and scraping at the other foot. His whole body tense. A solid nerve. Nearly alive. I didn’t know what his sons were offering him, but his anguish was clear, and in my own fear I wanted to commit the unthinkable and break my teeth on the meat of his calf.

Of course I’d read Dante’s Inferno before I encountered Ugolino and His Sons, but who can remember the catalogue of suffering? Who can name all those poor, condemned Italians in Dante’s tour of hell? I only learned later what Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux was showing me, why my terror grew so ravenous in me that I almost violated that sculpture with my mouth. Those boys circling, those sons reaching and crying out and pulling at their father’s flesh were trying to give themselves to their father. Condemned in a tower to death by starvation, his sweet children offered him the flesh that he’d given to them, to let their deaths help give him life for at least awhile longer, and that grimaced face, those tortured feet, that desire so plain for his love to be stronger than his hunger.

How unnatural, I thought, for a child to give their life for the parent. It’s meant to go the other way. A parent should die for a child. Besides, how could a parent live with the grief of a child gone? Could a father tear the muscle from the bone with his teeth and praise that sacrifice? Could he want what life was left to him?

*

Another man on another night brought me to the Met on a date and said, “Take me to the piece in here that you love most.” I don’t know what he expected. I don’t know if he, too, meant to talk to me about want, but I showed him Ugolino and His Sons. I don’t remember what he said, but he probably he expounded on history, corrected the myth and said that when the bodies were tested later it was proven that there was no cannibalism in the tower. Ugolino and his sons died of starvation as they were meant to, but the blood in my ears doesn’t believe it. The Ugolino before me knows it’s only a matter of minutes before he picks up the fainted boy at his feet and starts to chew.

*

But sometimes I think my friend in that bar was right. We are creatures of want. We want to drink more than we want to go to the movies. We want to pretend we are wise about desire. We want to show our first dates our terror and say: See? See what we are asked to sacrifice? We want them not to run from us in the middle of a crowded museum when we talk about a sculpture’s magnificent toes.

I want to think transubstantiation could work both ways, that a boy’s blood could become wine in his father’s mouth, that his body could become warm bread as he says: Take. Eat. Do this in remembrance of me. I want to think I could die for my father like a god, like a gift.

*

I came around to want when I saw Peter Paul Rubens’ Cimon and Pero. Like so many images, it arrived without its story. An old man with his hands behind his back. A young woman in a sumptuous dress, her breasts exposed. The setting grim, a cell, two Roman guards in the window. And that old man’s face hidden in the young woman’s breast as he sucks the milk from her body. The story is an old one. Done and redone since Roman times when it was emblematic of charity, of filial piety, of a daughter offering herself to her father.

It wasn’t fear I felt when I saw that painting. No, not terror knocking against my ribs, but want. The weight I carried high in my breasts fell, and I knew I needed to find my son so I could relieve us both. A thousand miles away my mother was dying, and I could offer nothing but a phone call and a Mother’s Day present sent early enough to reach her when she could still speak and say Thank you, and How beautiful.

In the painting by Rubens, the father condemned to starvation has a paunch that makes me suspicious. As if he’s not yet desperate. Or perhaps Rubens meant the sacrificing daughter fed her father so well that he’s become more like an infant, fat and happily rotund. In the window, those soldiers. In other versions of this image, the daughter stares lovingly at her father’s balding head. In some, she seems to be looking out the window in fear. In Rubens, I see a pleading, perhaps her own fear, believing she’s been caught. But in the story, it is only by being caught that the father is given mercy. The soldiers see an act of charity they had never fathomed before and let the father live.

I saw that painting, and I wanted more than anything to cross the merciless distance and at least offer, at least hope God had some pardon for my mother. Not blood on the lintel, but milk, and the angel of death might pass over.

*

Now I kiss my son’s bruises and offer ice and Star Wars band-aids. We are healthy, uncondemned. One night after we mix our ingredients and bake, and the cookies are cooling on the counter, my son stares into the dark window of the oven and asks: Can you turn that light on so we can not see that nothing? I think of Ugolino’s pupil-less stare, what he must’ve felt as his children clung to him, the nothing he feared, the nothing he wanted, the nothing gnawing holes in his teeth. The room smells so sweet. I am full and hungry at once. Yes, I tell him. Not because I’m afraid, but because I want. I want to not see the nothing. He keeps his face against the window, and I turn on the light.

The Languages I Speak

by Jenny Yang Cropp

I grew up in a small city in the southwestern corner of Oklahoma, not too far from the Texas border. I say things like “yall” and “fixing to,” and, when I’m not thinking too much about it, I have a fairly pronounced accent. After my parents’ divorce, I was raised by my dad and his family, Oklahomans by way of Colorado and then Texas, with a mixed heritage of mostly Irish, English, and German.

When I was in high school in the early 1990s, the option to choose “two or more races” did not exist on any form I had ever filled out. I often had to alternate between white, like my dad, and Korean, like my mom, though back then it probably said Oriental or some such nonsense.

I don’t speak Korean. I’m not sure if I ever did. My mother left when I was two, and by the time I realized what I was missing, when I could finally ask her to teach me, she said it was too hard and too late. There weren’t a lot of Korean language classes in Oklahoma, either, so I had to let it go. There are many things I have learned and will learn, but Korean won’t be one of them. I know that about myself.

It has been, however, a sticking point for other people, a litmus test for how Korean I was or wasn’t. There’s this false assumption that I had a choice and that I rejected my mother’s language, but I had about as much control over that as I have over how people judge me for it. Still, it’s hard not to be ashamed, not to hold my mother’s language in my mouth and feel as if my tongue was not made for it, as if her words do not belong to me.

Things have changed considerably since I was in high school. The 2000 Census gave me a new box to mark. There’s a growing field of scholarship, with books and conferences, even an academic journal about multiracial identity and experience. Every week there are new articles to scroll through on my Facebook feed, most recently an NPR piece about the terms we use to describe ourselves. A conversation is happening, and it’s affirming and exciting.

But when I needed it the most, it didn’t really exist. The few books or articles never entered my tiny, pre-internet bubble of life in Oklahoma. Believe me when I say I was looking. I was the kid who checked out 14 novels each time we went to the public library, one for each day until we’d return. My dad once accused me of being on drugs because I stayed up all night, night after night, preferring to read than to function. I was driven, and I was trying to find something.

Although now I see reading as a way into other people’s perspectives, back then I wanted mainly to see myself in someone else’s words. That would have been proof that my experience was valid, that there was a word for this thing I was living through but couldn’t articulate for myself. I might not need that much validation these days, but that’s still how I process my life. I need it in a story or a poem to wrap my head around it.

I was thirty-two when I found Jon Pineda’s Birthmark, a collection of poems about multiracial identity, about loss of language, about a distant parent, and for the first time I saw my own ambivalence laid bare. I’ve read a lot of other things since then that explore the same ideas, but this was the first and most powerful. It’s the one that I return to each time something happens to remind me that progress is glacier-like, and there are still things I struggle to say about my own experiences.

The collection opens with “Matamis.” The speaker is on a beach with his father, sharing an orange, and thinking about the word “sweet” in English and “matamis” in Tagalog:

I remember thinking, in Tagalog,
the word matamis is sweet in English,
though I did not say it for fear
of mispronouncing the language.

What I love is the ambiguity of meaning here. The speaker could be thinking that the Tagalog word matamis means the same as the word sweet in English, and what he fears is to mispronounce the word matamis in front of his father. Simultaneously, you can reinterpret the syntax to mean that the speaker is thinking in the language of Tagalog, and perhaps it is the word sweet he is unsure of and afraid to say aloud. Maybe it is English he’s uncomfortable with. The syntactical blurring in those lines raises questions that are answered in the last stanza with silence, with the speaker’s choice to instead say nothing:

Instead, I finished the fruit & offered
nothing except my silence, & my father,
who pried apart another piece, breaking
the globe in two, offered me half.
Meaning everything.

He refuses, in that moment, to choose one language (and, arguably, one identity) over the other, and this is contrasted with a moment of bonding between father and son. The orange becomes a “globe,” symbolic of the space they inhabit, and it is split in half by the father. This gesture, the handing of half an orange to the son, resonates on multiple levels, suggesting issues of racial, cultural, familial, and emotional inheritance. The final line, “Meaning everything,” is separated from the previous sentence by both a period and a line break. It is also a fragment. What means everything? The gesture, the silence, the symbolic orange, or its halving? All of it. They can’t be untwined. Language and love and identity are all wrapped up in this moment.

The summer before eighth grade, I went to visit my mother in Queens. She lived in a Korean enclave where the signs were in Hangul and the kids working at the frozen yogurt shop laughed my brother and me out of the store when we tried to order in English. It was also one of the few times that my mother’s mother was around, so I was confronted with my inability to speak Korean both inside and outside the home.

I knew from stories that she had carried me on her back the first year of my life, but I didn’t remember her. She wouldn’t let your feet touch the ground, my other grandmother liked to say, chuckling both at the tenderness and the cultural difference. That story made me feel deeply connected to this woman whose words I could hear but not understand. She spoke, instead, in the universal language of grandmothers. She held my hand a lot, or she touched my head, smoothing the same hair that she used to fluff when I was a baby so no one would think I was a boy. She even slipped me money when my mother wasn’t looking.

Pineda’s poems often deal with childhood memories: a fight with a group of boys, a swimming lesson, a boxing match attended by father and son. Whatever the context, there is a longing for connection. The boy he beats looks as if he could be the speaker’s brother. The lost language and lost father are the edges of the pool towards which he swims. Even the boxing match, a metaphor for the father/son relationship, is an opportunity to highlight a shared moment of enjoyment between rounds. When so much of identity is rooted in belonging, the desire to connect is everything.

The title poem, “Birthmark,” is a prose poem in third-person. The speaker is in bed with his lover, and he focuses on and touches several small birthmarks on her thigh which remind him of the Philippines in terms of their shape and pattern. This provides a metaphor for the speaker’s sense of identity as a connection to a “place he has never been” and “a family he wants to touch, though something about it all is untouchable, like love, balanced between desire & longing.” In the same way that you can never fully know or understand someone else’s experiences and never completely merge with another human being in the sentimental “two become one” notion of romance, the speaker can never fully access the experience of a Filipino identity. Despite this recognition, however, his desire to access that experience brings him close enough to it, as close as he can get “to this place that seems so foreign, so much a part of him that for a moment, he cannot help it, he feels whole.” Part of his sense of identity, then, lies in his alienation or separation from the Filipino community. He also evokes the incompleteness that accompanies this experience. Here, in this moment of trying to connect, he has a feeling of wholeness or completeness, but it’s a passing feeling, and one that “he cannot help,” as if he is reluctant to let himself feel that way.

My favorite line in the book, from the poem “In the Romance of Grief,” is this: “Perhaps this world survives its losses/through its forgetting.” That letting go, that willingness to be silent, to forget, could be seen as the easy answer, but it’s not. It’s the hardest thing we can do. Rather than attempt to recover what has been lost, the speaker strives toward acceptance of that loss and incorporates it into his sense of identity.

At a job interview last year, a woman interrogated me for what felt like an awkward eternity. She wanted to know why my bio said Korean American, and why not just American, because her nieces are half Korean, the mother is Korean, but they just think of themselves as American, and well, do I speak the language? Her disappointment in me was palpable, and since my face betrays every emotion, I’m pretty sure I involuntarily cringed.

I gave my usual reply, that I have learned how to say hello and thank you and enough foods to order from a menu. I didn’t tell her about that summer with my grandmother, though, when I learned the only two Korean words that I don’t have to look up just to reassure myself I got them right. Because we often had to be buzzed into the building, she taught us to answer her yoboseyo with yoboseyo halmoni so she would know it was us. She went back to Korea not too long after that, and I didn’t see her again for sixteen years. When I did see her, she pointed to herself and said halmoni so I would remember, and then she hugged me and held my hand and fed me. I never had to say a word.

Duende

by Justin Eells

I first encountered the word “duende” in The Gilded Tongue, a purple faux-velvet-covered book of “Overly Eloquent Words for Everyday Things.” Sometime in my early twenties, I started accumulating books like these, in order to amass a gigantic vocabulary that would one day cause gigantic tomes to spew from my head. This particular book, by Ron L. Evans, displays its title in gold lettering on the front cover. Inside the cover is a spot for the owner to write their name: “This book belongs to ­­­________ a pysmatic logomaniac.” I never wrote my name on that line, but I did circle a number of words in the book.

Page 33 features a picture of a sloth to illustrate COSTIVE. I don’t have exact figures, but I’ve noticed a prevalence of nouns and adjectives in the book, with an occasional verb, like HUMBICATE as an overly eloquent alternative for “to lie still, as if in prayer,” thrown in for good measure.

I started with A—the first word I circled was ABDOMINOUS—and made it through H—the last was HYPERGAMY—but I know myself well enough to say that had I made it to M, I would have circled MISONEISTIC, meaning “hatred or intolerance of what is new or changed.” What drew me to the words I circled, many of which are not recognized by spellcheck, was some combination of coolness (which is in the eye of the beholder and impossible to define in any useful way), eloquence, and usefulness. MISONEISTIC doesn’t have any better synonyms, and it describes a great many people and political movements of the past and present (and future). Why have I never seen it outside the velvet covers of this book?

Less readily useful are QUATOPYGIA (“the shaking of the buttocks in walking, a word especially applied to an erotic feminine walk”) and CATHOLICONTHOL (“a universal remedy; a panacea”). I’m hard-pressed to find a non-ridiculous way of using either of those words.

Among the several dozen I circled, there’s only one word in the book that maintains much hold on me:

DUENDE (doo-EN-day): n. from Spanish dialectical (charm), from Spanish (ghost): the ability to attract others through personal magnetism and charm.

This definition is very close to “charisma,” but I don’t think they’re the same. The word “duende,” to me, has more magnetism and charm than “charisma,” which sounds like the kind of personal magnetism that lures angry souls to political rallies. “Charisma” evokes cult leaders, demagogues, reality TV stars. Whereas “duende” sounds romantic, graceful, cool—more like Lady Gaga than Boris Johnson.

Like many of the words in The Gilded Tongue, “duende” is not recognized by MS Word’s spellcheck, which, to some, might mean it should be italicized, being foreign and all, but I don’t think so. English has a long history of subsuming foreign words, and “duende” has been with us, in various forms, for centuries.

DUENDE has two definitions in the OED. The older of the two is a type of supernatural creature, “resembling a pixie or an imp.” The second definition is closer to The Gilded Tongue’s definition:

Passion or inspiration in (esp. artistic or musical) performance, esp. that which is regarded as having the power to possess the performer and is of such a level or quality as to captivate and move an audience.

This form of “duende,” according to the OED, first appeared in the 2 November 1956 edition of the Times Literary Supplement, which claimed Lorca’s “strength lay principally in his possession of the traditional duende, or magic.”

The fact that the first modern English usage of “duende” was in reference to Lorca, and equated with magic, makes the designation higher that charisma. Its meaning doesn’t allow it to apply to demagogic blatherskites; it is reserved for artistic performances that move us.

I think of duende as an aura that surrounds a work of art and induces awe. The experience of duende is probably more like a religious experience than an intellectual one. It’s that transcendent experience that certain books offer, keeping us coming back for more. The adjective form, as it applies to books, might be UNPUTDOWNABLE.

I most recently experienced duende while reading The Ghost Network by Catie Disabado, a novel that archives the disappearance of a charismatic (there’s not yet an adjective form of “duende” as it applies to pop stars, unfortunately) pop star named Molly Metropolis. There’s intrigue in the plot and in the form. It’s faux-nonfiction, a piece of journalism with layers of meta.

For some reason, I’m almost always drawn to stories that take the form of something else, whether it’s Jedediah Berry’s story on a deck of cards or Cloud Atlas’s novel in the form of six novellas, each of which take a different form. Jess Walter wrote a poignant and funny essay about his hometown in the form of a statistical abstract. When a writer pulls something like that off—conveying something deeply human through a medium in the deeply human does not belong—it’s thrilling.

Part of what kept me hooked on The Ghost Network was the way Disabato used the form to complicate the story, to make it about more than just a missing pop star. It takes the form of an investigative report that the editor, who shares a name with Catie Disabato, has inherited from its missing author, who wrote the report based primarily on the notes of a journalist—also MIA—investigating the disappearance of Molly Metropolis. Each of the sources—editor, author, reporter—is a character in the story, a lens through which the events are filtered; and each brings another complicating layer to the story. In fact, those characters mattered more to me that the pop star at the center of the story.

I don’t know about other art forms, but for reading material, complexity and complication have a kind of allure. In life, we typically seek to simplify, but in reading we seek the opposite. We want something to get lost in. Life is always complicated, no matter how hard we try to simplify. Maybe getting lost in other—made-up or real—people’s complicated lives is a more feasible remedy than simplifying our own. I think duende, as it applies to books, is the power to keep drawing us back, night after night, to inhabit these other worlds and other minds, the power to make us less alone.