Foreword: Facing It
An old friend of mine called me in early May to tell me that he was alive, after all. He had caught covid-19 and been on a ventilator, his survival unlikely for several days. After three weeks in a hospital bed, he told me, “You don’t want to get this, Morgan.” Another friend, a writer and recently retired emergency-room doctor, sent me an e-mail summarizing the basics that he had learned about the virus from reading medical articles. He asked, too, if I remembered that in 1969, I had had a gun pulled on me by a revolutionary housemate. I didn’t, oddly enough, although I do remember this housemate repeatedly yelling at me for not being purely and totally revolutionary enough, and I do remember inhaling plenty of tear gas at demonstrations.
The events starting in Minneapolis and quickly spreading throughout the rest of the nation over the murder of George Floyd are indeed reminiscent of that year. Protests and less-than-peaceful demands for justice seem called for now, as they also did then, after Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, along with what seemed like the endless dragging out of the Vietnam War. “So it goes,” as Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim says after the latest disaster in the endless series of disasters in his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Pandemics and racism and riots and the lack of national leadership make us think, “So it continues to go–and when will it stop?”
This issue of TMR reminds me of the basic ideas of Stoicism, a philosophy that arose long ago as an approach to dealing with the seeming harshness and unfairness of life. Stoicism in different manifestations has been one of the more resilient philosophies in Western thought. It began with the teachings of Zeno in the marketplace of ancient Athens, and it lasted through six centuries of Greek and Roman thinkers, including Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. It influenced the epistles of the Christian Paul and many later classics of European literature. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy begins with an epigraph from Epictetus—“Not things, but opinions about things trouble men”—ironic in this case, since Sterne’s antihero is so overloaded with bookish doubts and opinions that he does well to get out of bed in the morning.
On Hearing/On Listening
I play the tenor sax, and at sixty-five, I’m usually the youngest in this band. We play the oldest of old standards—very little from after the War, plus novelty tunes, blues. The most senior player is a trumpeter who, even if you ask him, won’t give his age. I don’t ask.
The trumpet is a very physical instrument, and Sam confessed to me once that he never practiced. The band leader introduces him as having “that fat New Orleans sound,” which, I think, is likely a result of him being as old as he is, and never practicing on the most unforgiving of horns. It all depends on what you mean by “fat.”
In Noise, Feeling
Poems: Nicholas Yingling
The Early Symptoms
Storm and understory. How a body learns
between the thin years and wet season
to take the burning ring in, to keep growing.
(Some change in light may be necessary.)
These are febrile days. The world and I off
by a couple degrees. Today we broke
charcoal from coprolite, anthrax from rein-
deer in the permafrost and on the drive
to the coast I could barely grip the wheel,
that after-hours feeling in my hands
like a network signing off or snow falling
in abandoned malls. (What use is weather-
stripping when you live in a golden state?)
Unlace these for me. The drift glass is soft
under our feet, in our blood. The waves
break, and no matter how hard you hold me
the sea will never repeat itself.
Poems: Kay Cosgrove
Like the Middle Ages
Hell is being stuck in perpetua next door to genius.
Like the Middle Ages, whose art and people feel like
first drafts of Renaissance greatness. To be close—but—
a hair shy. To be gone before the Internet, or a drug
that could have saved your life had you made it through
one more night. Like two ships. The twenty-first century feels like neither
the right nor wrong place at neither the right nor wrong time.
You feel me? Cimabue got it right, his Madonna just sitting there
as the baby paws her face. It was a dark age, wasn’t it?
And anyway, she could be imagining how hot it was
the day a regular guy walked on water, the sun
scorching the crowd gathered to lick it all up.
They felt the world break open, to be sure, but
misremembered who first spoke the word m-i-r-a-c-l-e.
Poems: Allison Pitinii Davis
The Neighborhood Girls Catch Lordstown Syndrome
but if you want our version, you’ll pay
in installments. You’ll neigh in a stall
until we come out and free you. We hear you,
we hear you over the factories and over
the wildcats, the slowdowns, the one of many
slanted atop another. All marked down
for condemnation, demolition—baby, do you parse
this diction? Merciful, our kind of telling. Its sheen:
our boyfriends’ sweat rolling off the car plant.
We caught their syndrome—a tragic case—
spreading at the conveyor’s pace,
but we’re no fodder for your headlines.
Our picket line is understood:
another day in the neighborhood.
Wait for Me
Every day, I stepped off the school bus on Flat Run Road, and every day, on the other side of the fence, Judy Puckett sat astride a four-wheeler, gunning the engine. “Sarvis Morton, you’re dumber than a dummy!” she’d shout, then tear into the pasture, over the hill and through the coal chute. We lived in Pentress, seventeen miles from Morgantown, and even with the sock factory and a post office with Wi-Fi, Pentress was easy to miss. But Judy never missed the sad exhale of the school bus, or me, abandoned along the roadside after it wheeled away.
It was harder than she expected. Some of the patients at the women’s clinic refused to give Intisar their full medical history, as though it were gossip she might turn loose around the refugee camp. They only reported their immediate ailment or injury, scoffing at her clipboard. It’s only a headache—just give me something for the pain.
On the Western Bride
I’d been pinheading on a fishing boat called the Western Bride—scrubbing and prepping so I could fish for free—and that winter I’d made deckhand. This was when I was living in a cousin’s apartment on Adams in Huntington Beach, sleeping in the front room on the understanding that I went out and did my business and didn’t bother anybody with my problems.
The King of Oklahoma
I would never have answered the phone if I’d known it was going to be Buckwalter on the other end, wheezing through his polyps, wanting to know if I was free to stop by for a visit. I usually did my best to ignore these calls, but this was not always possible, as Buckwalter liked to call on my landline, and his number came up unlisted. He was breathing hard and seemed worked up about something. I could hear the air laboring past his ruined septum. Whatever it was, I didn’t want anything to do with it.