Why Mark Twain's Judgments Work

By Ryan Latini

I recently came across an 1889 edition of The Prince and the Pauper while perusing a flea market in southern New Jersey.  The binding was tattered and it was not a terribly rare edition, but I bought it because I love Mark Twain, not because it was a valuable artifact.  It was a treasure of nostalgia for me. 

As a teenager, I would have dismissed obvious social commentary as boring and, frankly, easy (I still do today).  But lull me into the fictive dream with incredible storytelling, and I’m all ears.  When I held that book at the flea market, I remembered the first time in my life when reading became a joyful trip rather than a tedious task—going beyond Tom and Huck in my late teens into Pudd’nhead Wilson, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and The Prince and the Pauper.

I think that if Twain had not spun these tales in what Robert Regan referred to in “Marking Mark Twain’s Centenary,” first published in the SVJ’s Fall 2010 issue, as “the clarity and freshness of his language and his uncanny narrative genius,” the pure vitriol that became more obvious in Twain’s later years would have kept me out of the world of fiction.  Twain could weave in the reality of how things were (are) without ever waking the reader from the fictive dream. 

Is that why we still revere the man—because he moved his pen so seamlessly between the waking dawn of reality, so uncomfortable to groggy eyes, and the sweet sleep of tales?  Is that why, when the Editor-in-Chief asked for something on Twain, I jumped (much like a certain famous leap frog) at the task?  Is that why it felt serendipitous that just a week before I was asked to write this, I had held a copy of a book that existed at the same time as its creator and copyright holder, S.L. Clemens?

Who knows?  What I do know is that back in our Fall 2010 issue, during the centenary for Twain’s death, SVJ published a few wonderful pieces on Twain: Robert Regan’s “Marking Mark Twain’s Centenary” and John Timpane’s “I Confess to Being a Twainiac.”  We’ve dusted off Timpane’s piece in the hopes that other Twainiac’s will join in our readership.

So why is the white-haired, white-suited, cigar-chomping teller of Americana still so pertinent?  Well, you only need to look as far as your television: presidential campaigns, 24 hour-commentary on global atrocities, the ham-fisted handling of (non)issues by our politicians, and the layman’s constant quest for affirmation on social media—the quest for being understood rather than for understanding.  We need only to look as far as our critical, typing fingers to see Twain’s relevance. 

Or, just look as far as Timpane’s SVJ article "I Confess to Being a Twainiac,” specifically, when Timpane provides a list that shows why Twain’s social judgments were much more nuanced and human than today’s onslaught of constant and obvious social critique that does nothing but fuel our modern quandaries:

“(a) he’s so much like us; (b) he includes himself in the judgment (he’s one of the most self-deprecating writers in history, and holds himself up as an example of many of the failings he decries in American life); (c) ultimately, he is caring and humane (which is why his humor is often so sweet); and (d) he asks the right questions, lancing our racism, materialism, hypocrisy, and nauseating pieties.”  

After reflecting on Timpane’s words, and after holding that old copy of The Prince and the Pauper, my takeaway is that to get to the crux of our reality, the only route might be down a twisting, fictive path.  Perhaps the tallest tales Twain told enable us to be more honest.  Twain’s use of the theme of identity and trading places was perhaps one of his sharpest narrative tools, and perhaps the best lens through which we can honestly look at ourselves.  We’ll let Twain hold up the mirror because, as Timpane states, Twain’s judgments include Twain—it’s up to us to look into that mirror and not ignore our own reflection.

I Confess to Being a Twainiac

By John Timpane


Mark Twain constantly reinvented himself and his art. He was an early master of using what we’d now call modern marketing methods to establish a brand and a public persona. His mane, his moustache, his cheap cigars, all were part of that brand. He first wore his famed white suit, for example, at a 1906 speech at the Library of Congress, and wore it exclusively when he went out from then on.

He tried never to do the same thing twice. True, he wrote a great deal of the Mississippi and life along its banks – but the memoir/travelogue Life on the Mississippi is different from the nostalgic tale of Tom Sawyer, again far different from the dark, mordant Huck Finn. As I write, the University of California Press is about to start publishing the entire Autobiography of Mark Twain. The big news there: he considered the work finished as of 1909, deciding it should be what we’d now call stream of consciousness – a hybrid of diary, autobiography, and dictated whatever-the-hell. No one had ever written anything like it before. Right down to the end, he was inventing new styles, new approaches, new selves.

Which is one of the many reasons U.S. culture celebrates him so. Freelancer, entrepreneur, he’s a self-made man, rising from humble circumstances to world fame – although, let’s face it, he married into money and made the most of it. He’s rooted to our past (born in the slave state of Missouri) and rootless (Mississippi steamboat pilot, failed miner in Nevada, newspaper guy out West, landed Connecticut gentry, world hobo in a global lecture tour to pay off crushing debt, even a couple of years as a gruff resident of Greenwich Village, before dying beneath Halley’s Comet in 1910). Technology mesmerized him, from steamboats to trains to telegraphs to (disastrously) moving type to motion pictures (there are a couple of early, jerky, grainy film sequences of him, but alas, no scratchy Edison rolls graven with his voice). A travel addict, he may have been the most-traveled, best-known person in the United States in his lifetime.

At this writing (2010), the entire country is falling over itself to celebrate Twain from coast to coast. What a summer it has been for Twain fans. Much of this is just good fun. Some of it is our national failing for kitsch, treacle, and cloy. Some is an attempt to display, conspicuously, that we know kultchur. And some is an attempt to put Twain on a pedestal – where we won’t have to think about him.

As I wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer after my spring visits, he is a strange, not altogether comfortable figure for us to lionize as our great national literary icon. H.L. Mencken wasn’t too far wrong when he said that much of his work was “unintelligible” to the “millions.” There’s a side to him that is not polite, not acceptable. He makes us laugh and invents unforgettable, resonant characters and tales – but he is a stern judge. Take this 1907 note, for a bracing example: “The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.” As Americans, we hate being judged. But as Shelly Fisher Fishkin, a professor of literature at Stanford, tells me, we let him judge us because (a) he’s so much like us (see above); (b) he includes himself in the judgment (he’s one of the most self-deprecating writers in history, and holds himself up as an example of many of the failings he decries in American life); (b) ultimately, he is caring and humane (which is why his humor is often so sweet); and (c) he asks the right questions, lancing our racism, materialism, hypocrisy, and nauseating pieties.

And so, all cigars in the humidor, our celebration of Twain’s life and work, no matter how uninformed or sentimental it may sometimes be, is a good thing – because it constantly makes us face his astringent and healthy challenge to our facile, self-serving two-facedness.

I confess to being a Twainiac. I’ve hit Twain spots in San Francisco, and in Carson City and Virginia City, Nevada. He was a journalist in San Francisco, indeed, the entire reporting staff of the San Francisco Daily Morning Call, and his daily, on-the-fly, often bald-facedly made-up newspaper stories are among his funniest work. What’s fascinating is that he did not collect it, and many Twain entries may still exist in somebody’s attic or hope chest. Every once in a while, new articles, essays, and speeches turn up.

I’ve visited Mono Lake, California, the site of a miserable visit in Roughing It (“Mono Lake lies in a lifeless, treeless, hideous desert . . .” ). My acquaintance Steve Courtney, publicist and publications editor for the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, says of Mono Lake: “He’s right — it’s a horrible place, all salt and flies.”

I’ve had (and recommend) pancakes at Gold-Rush-era Murphys Hotel in Murphys, California, where he (and, at another time, Ulysses S. Grant!) signed the register. Maybe he had pancakes there, too. (Personal snapshot: my friends and I sat around the table at Murphys and started to reminisce about the lives of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Friends Nancy Marks and Maureen Grady burst into tears: “They were so beautiful!” It was like a scene out of Sleepless in Seattle.)

I’ve seen Jackass Hill near Columbia, California, where Twain is said to have heard for the first time about the goldminers’ practice of wagering on jumping frogs. That planted the seedling of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and began his career as a nationally known writer.

And yes, I’ve journeyed to Angels Camp, California, and jumped a frog at the festival. I was a terrible frog-jockey; only a single fat, algae-backed bullfrog of mine ever bested ten feet (absolutely pathetic), most of them choosing to ignore my bootless hooting and waving, as the crowd bellowed in laughter. The first year I went, 1975, we entered Angels Camp at around midnight, Hell’s Angels motorcycles lining one side of the street and flashing police cars lining the other. We read “The Celebrated Jumping Frog” aloud at the foot of the Mark Twain statue in Utica park, a ritual repeated in coming years.

And I work at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where Twain was a graveyard-shift typesetter for a few months in 1853-1854, writing amusing letters to his family about how much more he liked Philadelphia than New York, and how drunken much of the Inquirer staff was.

Haven’t gotten to Hannibal yet. But when I drove into Elmira, New York, in the spring of 2010, I saw the Mark Twain Hotel, the Clemens Center Parkway, and Twain himself in an art montage at the entrance to the town. I visited Elmira College, home of the Center for Mark Twain Studies. On campus is Twain’s famous study, octagonal, windows on all sides; his sister-in-law, Susan Langdon Crane, is said to have built it to recall the pilot house of a steamboat. It wasn’t originally there, but a couple of miles away, up in the hills, at the Cranes’ house, Quarry Farm. Susan and husband Theodore, who were childless, invited Twain, wife Olivia, and family to summer there, and they did, from 1874 into the 1890s. Twain enjoyed a steak breakfast, we’re told, then took the short walk to his study, built away from the house, lore has it, because Susan hated the smell of his cheap cigars. 

So I got a chance to stand in the structure in which Twain spent summers drafting tales of Huck and Tom.

Later, I stood on the porch of Quarry Hill, where of an evening Twain read aloud to the family and staff from what he’d drafted that day.

On the same trip, I visited his massive house in Hartford, a temple to conspicuous consumption, to view his beloved billiard table, built on the top floor, as he wanted it … and a modest little table in the corner, where he did his writing (instead of in his office, which his wife Olivia had designed for him).

My conclusion: A huge effort goes on every day, across this country, to keep this man and his vibrant, true work alive. We’re not going to let him go.

A Note About the Author: JOHN TIMPANE is Books and Fine Arts Writer/Editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer. His poetry has appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, Per Contra, Wild River Review, and elsewhere. His books include (with Nancy H. Packer) Writing Worth Reading (NY: St. Martin, 1994); It Could Be Verse (Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed, 1995); (with Maureen Watts and the Poetry Center of San Francisco State University) Poetry for Dummies (NY: Hungry Minds, 2000); and (with Roland Reisley) Usonia, N.Y.: Building a Community with Frank Lloyd Wright (NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000) and a book of poetry, Burning Bush (Ontario, Canada: Judith Fitzgerald/Cranberry Tree, 2010).


Under Your Boot Soles: Happy Birthday Walt Whitman

By Ryan Latini

Walt Whitman will be 197 years young on May 31.  SVJ will celebrate his birthday month by revisiting Cynthia McGroarty’s 2005 piece “Walt Whitman: Walking in Transcendental Footsteps”.

While I write this intro at my home in Mount Ephraim, NJ, Walt Whitman’s bones lay just 4 miles away in Camden’s Harleigh Cemetery.  Whitman spent the last years of his life (from 1884 to his death in 1892) in Camden, NJ.  I’ve always felt a nostalgia and a spark of the uncanny when I read Whitman.  During college, I worked at a bridge named after him and was born at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center, which is just a hundred or so yards from his tomb in Harleigh Cemetery.

Whitman was no stranger to similar feelings of kindred spirit and nostalgia of place.  Even a city as troubled as Camden has reason to celebrate a man like Whitman.  Sure, the city cradles his bones, but can it ever cradle his ideals?

McGroarty’s article takes a look at Whitman’s embrace of transcendentalism ideals; specifically Emersonian thought—the unity of the “common heart”, “Over-soul”, as well as the “celebration of the autonomous individual.”  But McGroarty demonstrates that Whitman did not merely borrow thought from popular thinkers of his time; rather, he spun this “celebration” of mankind through free verse, especially in “Song of Myself”, and through a unique take on narrative aspect, he began “positioning his narrator as both individual and encompassing soul: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”  For McGroarty, Whitman “administers some metaphoric steroids to the Emersonian vision” and “bursts forth like machine gun fire to hit every possible target” unlike Thoreau at Walden, who had a more individualized, cloistered reflective period. 

So if we owe Whitman’s perception to the transcendentalist, to what do we owe the intense heat which still radiates from his words written well over 100 years ago?  His revolutionizing free verse?  His perspective in narration that was a blend of universal omnipotence and near superhuman empathy, which all the while celebrated the autonomous man?

As McGroarty notes, Whitman embraced the “Emersonian vision of the “transparent eyeball”—the nothing that sees all.”  A section of “Song of Myself” that McGroarty focuses on reaffirms not only the overarching perspective and inclusivity that Whitman brought to transcendental thought, but also reaffirms my statement from earlier: that a city as troubled as Camden has something to celebrate in a man like Whitman:

“I see all the menials of the earth, laboring, / I see all the prisoners in the prisons, / I see the defective human bodies of the earth, / […] I see ranks, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, I go among them, I mix / indiscriminately, / And I salute all the inhabitants of the earth.”

It was a paralytic stroke that brought Whitman to spend his remaining years under the care of family and friends in Camden; but it is death that keeps him here as a part of the city, as a monument to American poetry in a city with very few monuments. 

In Leave of Grass, Whitman wrote, “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under you boot-soles.”  So, readers, keep looking under your boot-soles for the lost and forgotten.  As you celebrate Whitman’s birthday this month, don’t forget to celebrate, as McGroaty notes, “the unity of the “common heart”—or more simply, compassion.  As you’ll see in McGroaty’s piece, Whitman had no shortage of compassion.

April is the Cruelest Month: A Poem by Darcy Cummings "Insect Song for a Fortieth Anniversary"

By Ryan Latini

Let’s finish T.S. Eliot’s opening lines of The Wasteland:  “April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.”  For the speaker in Eliot’s poem, there is cruelty in the hope of spring—the hope in a spring rain that will quench the dry and rattling wasteland. 

Why is hope cruel?  Are we just trying to be brooding in hip rebellion against the beautiful and beatified rebirth of spring?  Hope, for Eliot, seems to be cruel if it goes on unrequited by our fellows and unanswered by…by whatever, whoever—who knows?  The thunder and lightning in the end of The Wasteland seem to articulate the need for rain, but is the light and noise a promise of quenching rain, or “aethereal rumours”?  Is the season talking the talk, or will it walk the walk?

This month’s archival revisit looks at Darcy Cummings’ poem, “Insect Song for a Fortieth Anniversary.”  Cummings opens with, “What hums in you sounds / the ground note of our connection.” 

The humming of life—it’s coming.  That timpani roll of crickets, locusts, and buzzing gnats that swells in the late spring and summer twilights.  But there is a stronger buzz that exists between us, and Darcy Cummings captures it in her poem.

If we believe, like Darwin, that everything which exists has evolved out of its usefulness, then what is that humming between us—that humming we feel when we connect with someone: is it love, empathy, humanity?

Upon first reading, Cummings’ poem could be misconstrued as a love poem.  There is, however, a more universal beat and a more cosmic question beyond love: the hum of life.

She ends with a thirteen line hypothetical (called modus tollens in propositional logic—if p, then q): 

The premise:  “And if that same C, the one note / obbligato, plucks our tendons, / like a mosquito whining in the eye, / or like the grind and groaning of desire.” 

The implication: […] then, / when our empty jaws are filled with sand, / that infinite electrical note shall / still sound between us, / […] what hums in us.” 

My conclusion: we are not the players; rather, we are instruments.  Nature plucks us—mere vehicles for the notes.  If this conclusion robs the scientists too much of free will, or if you think I am playing to the theists in metaphor, then what of string theory—what of the vibrating membrane of space, time, and the quantum world?  What of the hum of atoms and the charged exchanges of subatomic particles?  What of the sinoatrial node in the right atrium of our hearts that uses our body’s electricity to control the beat of our hearts?

I am not here to argue the identity of the player, just urging you to appreciate the humming around you and inside you this coming spring.  Think of it as music appreciation.  Think of Cummings’ poem as the syllabus.

Unlike T.S. Eliot who leaves us hanging in The Wasteland with the potential for unfulfilled hope, Cummings tells us not to fret, gives us comfort in the “constant regeneration” of “maggot, / to chrysid, to jewel-scaled moth”, and the fact that the beat goes on.

The hope for Cummings’, I believe, is that we are plucked for a time and when the instrument warps, breaks a string, or is smashed onstage by the Musician, our notes echo on.  That is the hope.

So let’s view Cummings’ humming hope in Darwinian terms: it has evolved out of usefulness.  Why?  So when faced with unreciprocated hope, as in Eliot’s Wasteland, we persevere because, as Cummings’ says, “when our empty jaws are filled with sand, / that infinite electrical note shall / still sound between us.”

This “electrical note”, to use Cumming’s words, is “obbligato”—the notes must be played exactly as written or molecular bonds fall apart, the world as we know it crumbles, the sinoatrial node stops pumping blood, you lose focus on your computer screen as it flies apart across the cosmos, and everything fades to black.

"Saving Mona Lisa" In Like A Lion

By Ryan Latini

Happy March from the SVJ archives.  In like a lion, out like a lamb—that is the old adage.  It holds true for the narrative of Monalisa Greenleaf in Marilyn Brock’s 2011 short story, Saving Mona Lisa, our showcase archival piece for March.

Monalisa is a lioness in the opening paragraphs of the story, but Brock leaves us with a lamb of a woman by the end.  The tale is immediate and fast paced, like Monalisa rounding the jogging track—the diligent housewife keeping fit.  A staccato is provided by the punctuation in the initial paragraphs.  Something is looming.  Dissatisfaction?

“The cold is like my husband’s breath, always like he’s been chewing on ice.”  

Or is it something more sinister?  

“[…] the darkness is too thick to be brush behind those birches and that darkness just keeps…moving.”  

You’ll have to read it to find out!

You’ll see that Monalisa is a survivor, but to what end—for what end?  Is it worth enduring just to live on in resentment? 

“You’d think you’d be happy, having survived […] convalescing in a beautiful home, married to one of life’s winners.”

This short story is worth the read if only for the evolution of what fuels the narrative—the narrative degenerates just as much as its protagonist: fast-paced action gives way to passive observation, which, in turn, devolves into musings and potentials.  

We are left musing too: Is Monalisa likable?  After all, nothing changes if nothing changes.  Pontification, although a verb, is not truly an action.

Here we are, entering the season change.  Will Monalisa take the steps necessary to change, or will she keep on rounding the same bends of the jogging track, stuck on the loop, running simultaneously away and toward the selfsame thing?

Saving Mona Lisa

By Marilyn Brock

I’m running. It’s cold out and the air feels hard and unforgiving. Underneath the cold my skin is slick and sticky wet against my sweatpants; my legs break into speed around the last turn—well, maybe one more, if I can. My breathing: it’s getting stronger; fog is freezing in my chest, but my metabolism needs this blast. I’m imagining the pizza melting off my hips: burn, baby, burn. My legs churn faster; I’m on the last lap. Well, maybe one more.

I speed toward the River Birch on my left. The track looks barren, the trees all shorn, the cold having stripped their colors, leaving them dry. I’m happy to run past them, Nikes hard on the soft, red dirt. The track is littered with my footsteps, after years and years of running here. The cold is like my husband’s breath, always like he’s been chewing on ice.

The trees line grand old Cincinnati houses built a hundred years ago. They’ve withstood winter after winter; they stand stoic, wind-whipped, and peeling, filled with families that are never as happy as they aspire to be. I guess I know this, but I don’t know how.

When I was young I wanted to live here, and our house down the street is so close to my dream; only a few blocks from the track, those rich, autumn-glazed birches. But the falls have been growing shorter due to global warming, and though you’d think that means more heat, it’s the winters that have been settling in, barren and unforgiving.

A shadow hovering near the old barn-style house starts to scare me. It’s up fifty feet ahead, just past the bend of the track, a gray-like mass of darkness, slowly, fluidly moving hither. I’m gaining fast on it. There’s no need to worry: the police station is just next door, the air is too cold to invite mean strangers out to stroll…but the darkness is too thick to be brush behind those birches and that darkness just keeps…moving.

I pant my mantra. I will always win. Victory. One more round.

I’m breathing hard, my skin under my bra straps sting. I think, must be the elastic. Tears collect at the corners of my eye. The shadow grows closer, bigger, more shapeless. It moves: like one step out, and I see a head emerging from a hooded shawl. Oh my God, he’s out to hurt me.

Huge, plastic-masked face—male—with shoulders so fierce.

He lunges at me with a switchblade and I can feel it before it hits me because he’s already grabbed me and I can’t move away, but I’m so afraid, there’s no hurt, just fight.

I will win. I’m bleeding, but I believe this anyway. I won’t die. I won’t die. I will live.

Hard shoulders are hurting my hands when I try to hit them, and my knuckles collapse against his black sweater. It’s raining cold, not wet, just cold. I slam my fist harder; my hair is caught in his vicious grip. God, it hurts to have it pulled so much, but I’ll have it ripped all out of my head before I give in.

“Fuck you!” I scream involuntarily, it just happens, and, “Fuck you!” The screams invigorate my body and I’m screaming fuck you and kicking, scratching. My hairs are all over his sweater, but we’re still upright, he hasn’t gotten me to the ground yet. I feel the muscle in my left side compromised and a side-ache from running. Oh, but it hurts much more than that. When I notice it, I get so dizzy. God, this rush of pain is fierce.

And yet I’m cold and the cold makes me stronger.

Fuck you, I will win.

He’s trying to find something, like he is grasping around me, because we are fighting so close, but I can’t tell what or why. I will win. I will win. I will win. I will kick his ass.

And then I fall flat down on my back and he lands hard beside me. Without thinking, I roll sideways and kick his stomach. He screams and after one more useless grasp at my chest, he jumps up and takes off across the parking lot. Now I hear sirens as my perceptual horizon narrows into a fuzzy little hole, like I’m alive but the world around me is half asleep.

As the sirens near, I turn my frozen head and faintly see the outline of a little boy in a nearby yard. He’s at the barn-house. Lives there, I believe. With his big, black dog, they’ve watched me run daily. The house that is never happy. It is not my house. Grant and I, we do not have children. And then the hole closes.

In my coma I had memories of date night in our patio Jacuzzi. Carmilla and Tim were there, just walked over from next door in bathing suits, Carmilla carrying the champagne, Tim the cigarettes, and we were soon all in the spa. Foam filled the center of the tub, detergent from our bathing suits, I was thinking, feeling beautiful in the humid summer air while resting against flowing water jets. Carmilla ruined her cigarette while sucking on it, and laughed, so drunk. “It broke. My lips are wet,” she said.

“Would you like another?” Grant asked, climbing out of the tub, and scratching my leg in the process by accident. So ironic—my husband, the obstetrician, fetching cigarettes for the neighborhood swinger; I thought of his anti-smoking posters and our kissing pre-marriage.

“Yes, take it away.” Carmilla flung her free hand, lightly splashing me. Tim’s hand rubbed up my leg. I tried to enjoy the feeling, but I could only concentrate on hating Grant. Who invited them here?

It was miserable, waking up in the hospital; my limbs felt loose and gummy and numb. The pain in my side was the focus of my consciousness for the first few days, even beyond the inevitable deliberations about the identity of my attacker—the pain was so pure and striking, like a muscle ripped clean in two. I spent much of my recovery alone and finally had to stop wondering who had attacked me, because it was impossible to figure out and only painful to imagine. I was in a thin cotton gown and wrapped in gauze about the waist. My head ached though a pillow was soft beneath my neck; Grant had put it there. My sight was marred by a faint black speck in my right eye, and I had the sense that I was in another person’s body. I remembered everything about what had happened, and told the police as much as I could: the dark mask, the big shoulders, a glinty knife, the barn-house, and the little boy who saw.

Back home, wrapped in a soft, pink acrylic blanket that smelled like Downy, I watched TV a lot. Quickly I discovered I was a little news sensation. Not too many joggers attacked in Cincinnati, not in our neighborhood, not on our birch-lined running track, not on our snowy, winter streets. One bit I saw on myself, on channel nine, showed this awful picture: I looked at least ten pounds overweight. I couldn’t imagine how they’d settled on that one. I tried to call for Grant, picturing him sitting in our colonial living room, amid all the blues and golds and tans, or his nautical office — he was always at work — to see if he knew how they’d gotten a hold of that picture, which I thought was from a Rotary meeting three years ago, and the blue shift I was in, was just one step from a muumuu. Grant did not answer; he was out of earshot. I could hear his sports radio playing in the next room, then the phone ringing. He’d be off to deliver. All the crying babies he must hear.

Funny what comes to mind when you are unable to leave your house, watching naked trees through the windows, from inside your warm cocoon. I used to think that love conquered all. I had boyfriends that I once loved, before marriage, relationships that for a time put me into that “Nothing can harm me” phase, like I was securely padded in some emotional layer of protection from the world. Leonardo was my lover in Florence, when I lived abroad for a semester, and I spent most of my afternoons learning Italian, firsthand, in the basement of a villa half-covered in grapevines. I never thought to dream that spring; the present was full enough to blanket any thoughts of the future or past. Now, in recovery, I found it hard to invest those memories with any sense of the real. You’d think you’d be happy, having survived someone trying to kill you, convalescing in a beautiful home, married to one of life’s winners. You have media coverage of your philanthropy; you have sympathy flowers swelling up in your hall- ways, steeped in deep vases, covering your dressers, scenting all your rooms. Yet the heater was too strong, and the pink blanket needed to be washed after so many days in the bed, as did my hair, which had definite bald spots I had not even touched. And I was alone and could not run. Believe it or not, I still wanted to run, and the pain in my side was incisive.

And Grant was as busy as ever, his radio going in the other room, outside or at work, taking care of me but hardly speaking. There’s a strange caged loneliness to marriage, when you are tied to someone who doesn’t love you, yet whom you live for. If you have children, you can flounder in their dependence, drowning your needs in the martyrdom of motherhood, complain of too much work to do, too many diapers to change, too many dishes to wash, complain of a bad paint job on the living room walls, your husband’s inconsideration.

But without the distractions, there is only you, the chatter in your head, and your husband’s inconsideration. The loneliness is a glaring bulb without a lampshade, illuminating the bad paint job on your living room walls. Then there are only the walls. And the paint is everything. Fresh, ugly paint.

Funny that when he first got through medical school, and his success was my self-esteem, I used to sleep with the radio in my arms when he spent nights at the hospital. I used to fall asleep to the running sports commentary, dreaming about touchdowns and home runs. I used to dream about our sons being track stars, our daughters being princesses. I thought we had the money, the neighborhood, the house. I thought the children down the block were auguries of our own. I’d keep in shape, our house would stay painted, and our love and money would be enough.

But there’s something transient about attachment that can slip away into darkness, a moving darkness that haunts, and attacks out of nowhere. My shadow self, the one blocked by the identity I keep with Grant, keeps gnawing and kicking at an inner drive to fear it and to fight it because I want to stay Monalisa Greenleaf, who I used to love being. She is the only self I can trust will survive. Becoming this new thing—a jealous plague, a scratched-out oil painting filled in with sketch…there’s so much misery to spread with your emptied-out self. I smoothed my hair with dry hands and knew I was becoming someone else; that Mrs. Greenleaf was already far removed, maybe for years already, lost somewhere in Italy, slumbering on a warm evening.

Best Guess at Love: A Poem By Paula Marafino Bernett

By Ryan Latini

It’s February and the SVJ archive has a Valentine’s Day gift for you!

Snuggle up with your special someone, and enjoy Paula Marafino Bernett’s, “Double Negative Prayer”.

Did we give you the gift of a love poem, or the frustration of a riddle—a conundrum disguised as a prayer?  Why can’t Paula Marafino Bernett say simply what it is that she wants?

A double negative does one of two things—it provides a roundabout affirmation, or it amplifies the negative.  In cinema, “Don’t say nothin’!” is often the threat of a gangster or villain.  Pink Floyd, in “Another Brick in the Wall”, tell us that they, “don’t need no education.”  Despite the double negative, we know what they mean.

What does the double negative offer us in the language of love? 

When spoken, the language of love—an ideal, an intangible, an inkling, a best guess—is just as muddled without the double negative, often expressed in metaphor.  It seems that’s all we have.

Given the titular clues, it appears as if Bernett is praying to love, wanting to love, but simply cannot—for whatever reason.  The double negative seems only to affirm the negative.  But why call the poem a prayer?  The “not not” refrain makes the poem appear as a song—psalm-like?  There is a lament in the first half.  It is the “knot of not wanting” that is squeezing the poem’s teller.  The teller seems to want a different state.  In the state of “not”—not not wanting, not not knocking, not not touching—the opposite is desired.

At the poem’s turn, the “not not loses its cachet” and the double negative begins to affirm something positively.  Love, perhaps? 

So, look at that special someone, maybe as you read this poem, and revel in the riddle.  Stop solving.  Enjoy the mystery.  Bernett’s poem, in its last two lines, lets us know that love is not about thinking.  Take a look—and Happy Valentine’s Day.

Love is…hmm?  Grab some Shakespeare, Neruda, or some original verse and let us know on Twitter @sjvlit or @RyanRLatini

There Will Be Time: Poetry By Jacqueline Garlitos and Dennis Saleh

By Ryan R. Latini

During this time of toasts and toddies, you may have noticed two ways that your fellows entered the New Year: triumphantly or despondently.  Whether trudging or staggering, both approaches are indulgent and intoxicating depending on the mood.

Pulled from the SVJ archives, we explore exuberance and despondence by two of our past writers.

With Dennis Saleh’s 2006 poem, Déjà Vu, you can swaddle yourself against the cold in the warm, melancholic blanket of the same-old.  Saleh’s poem begins with a lament: “It is January.  It is January.  / Month of déjà vu.”  Are the calendar’s pages blank slates, or proof of eternal recurrence?

Jacqueline Garlitos, in her 2005 poem The Window Washer, describes a character breaking through into a new world, and despite having her flesh shredded to ribbons, she is able to sing in triumphant rebellion at the shattering of her perceived enclosure.

So, is the New Year just a hopeless reverberation of Déjà Vu where, “Even the air is an echo?”

Or, like The Window Washer, will you push through at all costs and, “Drink the air, taste all it holds?” 

There is time enough for both—time enough…until there isn’t.

Page 30, Fall 2006, Vol. 23

Page 22, Fall 2005, Vol. 21

A Note About The Author: Ryan R. Latini received his MA from the Writing Studies program at Saint Joseph’s University.  He graduated from Saint Joseph’s University with a BA in English in 2008.  He is on the editorial staff of The Avenue, has been published in The Avenue, and has contributed to SJU’s Writing Studies blog.  He has worked as a freelance writer, a tutor for Literacy New Jersey (Gloucester County), and is currently working on his first novel. You can follow him on Twitter @RyanRLatini